tackling invasives, flora/fauna sightings, and other miscellany

I hope you are enjoying the final days of spring! The weather has been fantastic, providing plenty of opportunities to check up on things outside.

I recently biked past Plymouth’s downtown pollinator garden, the brainchild of the Marshall County Soil & Water office. It’s looking very colorful!

Sr. Mary and I have been keeping an eye out for this nesting Killdeer, which nests on gravel and bare ground. Since she set up shop, this gravel drive has been temporarily closed to allow for social distancing! 🙂 Good thing we are used to that now. They have four eggs they’ve been guarding, all throughout this extreme sun and heat. That’s some dedication.

Ancilla College Director of Library Services, Cassaundra Bash wrote about the Unexpected Cycnia in a guest post back in 2018, and I saw them for the first time about a week later. I don’t recall if I spotted them last year, but they are back! I saw 6 caterpillars on this Butterfly Weed plant, which is a native milkweed species. They look pretty similar to the orange blooms of the plant.

Dodder is back! Dodder is ” an annual seed-bearing parasitic vine in the dodder family… Its thin, thread-like, yellow or orange stems grow rapidly entwining and covering their host plants.” We saw it on this hill previously, so apparently it’s happy. It’s an interesting plant indeed. Turns out they can even “sniff” out their prey and direct their growth towards their preferred host!

I went to check on the status of our 2018 solar installation, where the pollinator mix between the panels is in its 2nd year of growth.

A Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly nectars on a coreopsis flower growing between the panels.

While I was checking things out, a Song Sparrow perched on the cattle-excluding fence and sang a song:

Ahhhh… where was I? Oh yes! The point of this post.

Last week and this, Kurt and I have been teaming up to tackle some of our worst invasive species, the shrubs Bush Honeysuckle and Autumn Olive, and trees like Tree of Heaven and White Mulberry. As a reminder, the majority of non-native species are rather harmless. We only categorized a species as “invasive” if it is both 1) not native, and 2) causes ecological and/or environmental harm. Dandelions, for example, aren’t native, but they don’t cause ecological or environmental harm, so they aren’t invasive and no ecologist bothers messing with them (in fact, the early spring pollen is kind of nice for pollinators).

Invasive shrubs and trees are a serious threat to the ecological health of Indiana forests, savannas, and prairies. Left unchecked, they can greatly alter the nutrients and light available at the ground level. There are not yet enough pathogens and insects adapted to these species to control their populations, like happens with native species.

See if you can figure out our process:

We recently got a GreenWorks electric chainsaw. It is mostly a great improvement over the gas variety, for three reasons: 1) much less vibration (stress on hands/arms), 2) so much less noise! a team of two can actually communicate with each other! Between cuts you can hear the sounds of the woods, 3) no emissions! no more huffing clouds of carbon monoxide.

The battery life was sufficient for us to work for ~90 minutes. At that point, we should probably take a break anyway. Swap out a battery and you’re back at it. There are some differences with how the torque is applied with electric power vs gasoline, but by and large it’s a great one-to-one replacement for a standard chainsaw. One caution is that the lack of noise and stench may cause the 2nd person to become a little complacent, one has to mentally maintain vigilance and give the sawyer plenty of space, even if the saw isn’t “running.”

Immediately after the cut, the 2nd person dabs the stump with an herbicide stick applicator. We “The Makatu”, designed and sold by The Prairie Enthusiasts of Wisconsin. What a great tool! You can tell that this is field-tested and went through a couple re-designs. It is basically a long tube with a sponge on the bottom and a valve to turn on/off the flow of chemical.

There are several reasons I like this method vs. other approaches, such as spraying leaves with a mist of herbicide (foliar application). This is a lot cleaner and targeted, with essentially no “oversprayer” that occurs to some extent even with careful foliar applications. The shrubs are immediately cut down, so you can see and celebrate your progress, physically. The leaves wilt and more sunlight is immediately available to native species underneath. There is also a little more flexibility in terms of when this method can be used.

If the tree is too large to be safely felled, we will instead girdle it with a continuous cut around the outside, cutting through the living rings on the outside edge, interrupting the flow of nutrients. The Makatu isn’t exactly designed to apply herbicide for this cut, but I managed to sneak get some herbicide into the cut to increase the odds that this Tree of Heaven is eliminated.

But sometimes there is ample space to fell a tree safely. It immediately opens up the canopy for native species. And it’s oddly satisfying…

We try to learn and adapt as we go. We saw that this particular Tree of Heaven was very tall, but struggling. The bark appeared to have some sort of fungus or pathogen on it. It was unclear whether the tree died from other causes, or whether this was a cause. We figured that if it was a pathogen, we want it around! So we left this one be.

We also run into some great stuff in the woods. This chick didn’t seem to have a single feather and must have just hatched. An American Robin, maybe?

Kurt and I continued the woody removal alongside the ditch that runs through the property, where bush honeysuckle and oriental bittersweet were colonizing. It was getting pretty thick!

Apologies if the photos are all topsy-turvy. They downloaded fine on my desktop, but when I upload them into the blog, many (but not all) are turned sideways. Would you mind leaving a note saying whether the photos are right side up, and what device you are reading on? Thanks.

Indiana Solar Grant Program Announcement

I came across this via IndianaDG. Check their post for more info!

… … …

This a solar grant opportunity for organizations serving the low income and vulnerable population in Indiana   It is called SUN FOR ALL Solar Empowerment Grants.  Here is some information:

  • The application for organizations will be released on 6/15 with responses due by 7/10. NOTE: applicants must gather 12 months of detailed electricity bills to provide as an appendix to the forthcoming application, and some other information that hopefully won’t be too tough to collect or put together.
  • Solar project funding totaling approximately $450,000 will be available for the installations of projects that are less than 0.5 MW for community, educational, religious, and non-profit organizations who primarily serve low income and vulnerable populations in Indiana.
  • We will want applicants to show us how (1) they’ve done energy efficiency at the project sites or will do energy efficiency at the project sites, (2) these bill savings from the solar panels will translate into increased budget/services for low income folks, and (3) they can use this as an educational and community engagement opportunity.
  • A preference will be given for projects in the Indiana Michigan (“I&M”) Power Company’s electric service territory in Indiana, but organizations in any electric service territory in Indiana may apply.
  • The grant may award up to 100% of the cost of the solar installation, although preferred applicants will provide some funds or in-kind donations to help pay for and support the proposed project.

COVID-19 update in Marshall County

I think in Excel sheets. For whatever reasons of neural wiring, my mind doesn’t mind a floor covered with litter, but I can’t understand something until I can put it in a spreadsheet. Rather than fighting this strangeness, I’ve learned to embrace it 😉

And so I’ve been following the rise of cases in the novel coronavirus / COVID-19. Like many people, I tried to take a crash course in all things exponential. It is helpful to remember that a little information can sometimes be more dangerous than none. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

So, humility is in order. Experts and officials continue to be surprised by the unfolding of events. We are dealing with an ecological-viral-social-economic storm of global proportions. But all this is not to say that we know nothing. We have no choice but to lay the facts bare, discern the best path forward, consider our values, and act (then repeat).

Positivity Rates

Statewide, things have been slowly improving. New cases have been slowly declining, and medical infrastructure has not been overwhelmed. We are one of 18 states who are still not testing enough people, but our positivity rate (the % of tests that come back positive) has been steadily declining. If this gets too high, we risk not tracking how fast the virus is truly spreading through the community. For Indiana stands at 6.3%, just above the World Health Organization goal of <5%.

Hard to say it like this, but for a state that consistently ranks near the bottom of the U.S. for most environmental and health metrics, it could be worse.

from ISDH (Indiana State Department of Health)

As you’ve probably read, the virus is hitting non-white and Hispanic/Latino populations in Indiana harder (and nationally). Black Hoosiers represent 10% of the population, but 13% of the cases; for Hispanic/Latino Hoosiers it is 7% and 12%, respectively.

There is so much that could be said about this, especially in light of the last few weeks, but all I can do today is mourn.

So, what about Marshall County and District 2 (Marshall + the surrounding 6 counties)? From Indiana’s experience with HIV, there remains concern that rural communities are vulnerable to public health threats.

Unfortunately, the trends are in the opposite direction as the state.

ISDH data, 7 day moving averages, computed by me

Note that there are two different Y-axis, necessarily so you can see the relative movement of the two variables: total tests vs. daily new cases (positive tests). Dividing the later into the former, you compute the positivity rate. We need to do this because it is not just enough to know that there are more official cases; that could be explained by increased testing. “A high positivity rate can be a sign that a state is only testing its sickest patients and failing to cast a net wide enough to accurately capture community transmission, according to Johns Hopkins University.” That appears to be the situation we are in.

The population centers of St. Joseph and Elkhart comprise the bulk of this 7-county area. The common explanation is that factories have been reopening and bringing more people together. The availability and use of personal protective equipment (PPE) is… spotty. I know from second-hand accounts that people are being asked to perform unsafe work, and they don’t have the economic or political clout to push back.

What about Marshall County? Unfortunately, the numbers appear even worse.

Testing had increased through the end of May. The big surge in cases came from June 3rd, when 31 new cases were logged. The positivity rate has jumped to alarming levels during the last few 7-day-averages (confirmed also by this county-by-county snapshot by the New York Times)

the most recent datum is a positivity rate of 20% for the 7 days of June 2-8 (105 positives of 525 tests)

For reference, our positivity rate is over 3 times higher than the state and 4 times higher than the WHO guideline. The state with the highest positivity rate currently is Arizona at 14%.

Those are the best data we have available to us. It suggests that the risk locally is higher than it has been yet, and we would need to increase testing in order to capture the extent of the spread.

Remember also that in late April, we found through a randomized study that the true rate of infection in Indiana was 11 times the official count. That multiple is too old to be relevant now, but we will see more updated results from Phase 2 of the study in a few weeks.

Local Testing

According to ISDH, we have three testing sites in the county: a corporate contractor (OptumServe) at Menominee Elementary (Plymouth) who is contracted with the State of Indiana; a site run by Saint Joseph Health System at the Lifeplex (Plymouth); and the Bremen Hospital.

I have been staying in touch with local Latino/a leaders around the issue of COVID-19. I hesitate to comment on the issue, because I have been hearing anti-immigrant and racist comments regarding disease transmission in non-white populations (U.S. history shows that this attitude has always been thus). But the truth is that our Hispanic neighbors are getting hit harder than the rest. Anecdotally, at one testing site a worker told me recently that around 75% of those getting tested were Latino/a.

Frustratingly, OptumServe did not have translation services at the testing center. When I visited the site, I found no posted information translated into Spanish. As you might expect, every additional point of friction in the provision of healthcare adds confusion and decreases health outcomes. There are some truly great community members who are trying to fill these gaps, translating documents on the fly and accompanying people to test sites.

Additionally, we’ve seen that test results are getting delayed because of lack of in-state lab capacity. This further hampers the ability of individuals to quarantine, contact trace, and reduce the spread. The contractors were from out of state and from my experience did not appear to be coordinating well with the local community. On the plus side, the site was open 12 hours a day, 5 days a week, critical for those who don’t have the privilege of flexible work arrangements. Scheduling was done easily online, in English and Spanish.

Given the increasing positivity rate, I decided today to go get tested. I was not knowingly in contact with anyone who tested positive; I’ve worn masks indoors, tried to maintain physical distancing, etc. But I have been running some errands and meeting with people (almost always outside).

The testing process was fast, efficient, and with some very strict safety protocols on-site. Unfortunately, I learned that today was the last day of testing and that the site would be demobilized. The contract with the State of Indiana is up. Right as we are seeing a surge in the positivity rate, this site is being shut down. Maybe there is some greater plan that I’m not aware of, but this gives me great concern for our situation locally.

There is a headline today – “Indiana Aims To Double COVID-19 Testing Capacity Through New Lab Network” – that requires a closer look. If I’m understanding it correction, this is referencing lab capacity (which could help turn-around times) but not testing sites that actually administer tests. Reading further, it appears this won’t be operational until early July at the earliest.

The coronavirus pandemic has again underscored the importance of local resiliency, a topic of frequent interested by our co-conspirators over at AIRE. Some state and federal systems are simply not responding to the needs of the time. Local leaders often have to work on a shoestring, bootstrapping and improvising. Sadly, local public servants are even becoming targets of enraged citizens. So those playing official (and unofficial) roles in serving the public should have all our support in this time.

So… what will be affecting local spread? Distancing, masks, and social activity.

The evidence keeps accumulating that masks work to reduce the spread (including this recent study from Germany). However, masks are not mandated locally or statewide, and anecdotally we are seeing much less mask wearing in Marshall County than we did weeks ago when the risk was lower. As I’ve talked with folks in town, I get the sense that people have become so worn down that we’ve just given up trying, having accepted that increased spread will be the price we have to pay.

Cancellations of events and programs continue as we move through summer. No 4-H fair, no public pool or summer programs. However, the State of Indiana is today (two days early) moving into Stage 4 of the “Back on Track” reopening, pushing forward toward the full re-opening on July 4th. Gatherings of 250 people are permitted, and retail shops have no restrictions.


To conclude, I will try to strip away opinions or predictions and look directly at our situation locally, based on the best available information:

*the prevalence of virus locally has been increasing and is higher than is has been so far; it is also increasing regionally

*the virus is disproportionately hitting people of color, locally, statewide, and nationally

*masks reduce the spread, but are being worn less

*we will lose a testing site after today (and probably testing capability, unless other sites scale up), as well as reduced hours

*the State of Indiana is moving to stage 4 of re-opening today; all things equal, increased interactions increase the opportunities for spread

Hoping everyone can find time to get outside, enjoy the sunshine and cool temps, birdsong and wildflowers. Stay safe and take care of each other.

I’ll end the post and head into the weekend with the only way I know how: photos of things lively and crawling. First, of my friend Michael, who helped catch a swarm of bees that landed on my grapevine. If it turns out that we successfully captured the queen, we’ll have a new hive.

Second, of an Ichneumonid wasp, a parasitic wasp with a big long wood drill on her rear end. She landed on this cut wood stump within 2 minutes after I struck it with an axe. Somehow she located an insect larva deep inside the wood, drilled in, and laid an egg on that larva. Smarter than me! (Don’t fear, it can’t physically sting you).

an urgent note from one of America’s top restoration ecologists

UPDATE to add: The Society for Ecological Restoration has released a statement, ” SER stands united with those demonstrating peacefully to speak out against racism and injustice wherever they occur. Ecological restoration cannot be implemented without inclusion…” (full statement here).

Please read this latest brief reflection by Steve Glass, an ecological restoration practitioner and researcher in Wisconsin: “America In Crisis–It’s Worse Than You Think: What Can Ecological Restoration Do About It?”

Steve is a colleague whom I’ve interacted with for several years at conferences. By design, our discipline is values-based. So professional bonds are strong.

I consider Steve a friend and ally in our fight for a habitable planet, an a mentor in our discipline. He’s smart, gracious, and his writing is on-point. His reflections recently have cut through the layers of careful, hesitant words that most of us use in the day-to-day. Let’s be honest… we have jobs we want to protect, and institutions, and key relationships. Social mores are a function of all human societies, but they can often stand in the way of justice.

Steve’s growing urgency comes from years of accumulated experience & insight, and (I speculate) his tiring of having to watch the world suffer from wound after wound as we all dither, placating calls for justice with empty symbolism.

Without racial justice, social justice, and environmental justice, attempts at ecological restoration are meaningless, irrelevant, and futile…”

The idea that we can play safely off to the side without respect to political movements is a happy thought, but one that originates in privilege. We can ignore it (for a time), but our neighbors have the boot on their neck. And ultimately, it is an illusion. We drink from the same aquifer, we breathe the same air. We will only flourish or perish together.

I can think of no better imagery of this synthesis than that spoken by the prophet Amos: “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”


I started working on a post that assembled a lot of birding observations from this spring. Lots of fun & beautiful stuff, but I’ll save it for another time.

In this time of social upheaval, I don’t want to be tone deaf by posting what may be received as trivialities. I watched a friend with Black children practically begging friends and family on social media today to respect the right of her children to exist in this world. While I am also concerned for my own children, the differences here are obvious. And it is a serious time.

The only thing I can think to share at the moment is #BlackBirdersWeek:
The campaign was sparked by the viral video in which a white woman threatened a Black birder in New York’s Central Park, announcing that she was calling the police “to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life[organizers] hope to boost visibility of Black nature enthusiasts, highlight the value of racial diversity and promote dialogue within the larger (and largely white) birding community. ” (more about #BlackBirdersWeek here)

I have been following the work of an amazing young biologist named Corina Newsome (@hood_naturalist) since I first saw her on Twitter. See her announcing #BlackBirdersWeek in this short video.

Follow #BlackBirdersWeek to see what people are posting.

Don’t know that I have much to add now, other than this nest a co-worker found today in a wetland, followed by some links.

Birding While Black: J. Drew Lanham on race, belonging, and a love of nature

9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher by J. Drew Landam (satire)

Diversifying Conservation (The Prairie Ecologist)