A Few Notable Trees on Our Campus

This piece appeared in the Aug. 2020 edition of Ripples, our internal newsletter.

People have very emotional relationships with trees, and for good reasons. Trees bear witness to the decades and centuries. They create shade, water,
timber, and food from thin air; store carbon and culture; serve as history books for fires, insect outbreaks, and atmospheric composition. As we mortals pass through our own decades, we often find a tree to journey with, their seeming stability an anchor for our frenetic wanderings.

A couple years ago we watched a giant black oak begin cracking in front of the Motherhouse. After felling, we cut out a “tree cookie” and counted all 109 rings, dating back to 1909 or so. This predates the Motherhouse by more than a decade. The first European settlers born in Marshall County were only in their 60’s when it sprouted and might have passed by this tree. Some perhaps even remembered from childhood the removal of the Potawatomi in 1838.

Former Ancilla College student Sister Lucia Tran views the “tree cookie” from the felled black oak during Earth Week 2018.

Another giant of unknown age stands in the horseshoe drive. This Tulip Popular (Liriodendron tulipifera) is Indiana’s state tree and the tallest-growing hardwood species of the eastern U.S. Its leaves feed the caterpillar of the gorgeous Eastern Swallowtail butterfly. Sister Mary measures this tree at 3’6” at breast height. You may have seen a few parking spaces temporarily blocked off next to this Tulip. That’s the work of aphids, raining down sticky “honeydew” from their abdomens as they suck moisture from the leaves. The bounty produced a sugary windfall for all manner of hymenopterans (ants, wasps, and bees). The forest community evolved to handle this, and the aphids’ many predators and parasites will ensure that the Tulip species will persist. The ecological value produced by this single living being – whose life is interwoven with ours and so many others – far exceeds the trivial inconvenience of moving our motor vehicles.

You may have noticed the tree that was felled in the employee parking lot nearby. This was a Basswood or Linden Tree. It grew at a severe tilt to the ground, making it the best candidate to be transformed into beautiful woodwork of the new organ planned in Ancilla Domini Chapel. Even for trees, there is life after death!

Contractor James Harrell stands before the Linden Tree
that will be used in the pipe organ renovation in AD Chapel.

Lastly, there are three American Chestnuts hidden on the property, planted by Sister Mary. This species once comprised one in every five trees in Appalachia. A blight (fungus) was introduced from East Asia in 1904, leading to the loss of some 3-4 billion trees and near eradication of the species. Thanks to Sr. Mary’s diligence, foresight, and patient care, we are now stewards of the small genetic remnant that may be used to restore this species over the 21st and 22nd centuries.

Being stewards of these slow and patient beings requires that we not act out of ignorance. Ecologists call this the “precautionary principle.” If we don’t know what we are doing, we hold off on action until we gain wisdom. The fool in a hurry is likely to cause harm, damage that may take centuries to undo.

On this subject, Aldo Leopold wrote:

The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Beyond the Panel: Solar and Land Use webinar (recording & slides available)

Last week we had a great virtual webinar that was hosted by the Indiana chapter of the American Planning Association. The topic at hand was considering land use implications of large scale solar farms. Of particular interest was the concept of pollinator-friendly solar, something we are experimenting with here on two of our solar installations (and have blogged about previously).

Click here to see the slide deck for each of the presenters. A recording of the event is also available.

I shared our experience with pollinator-friendly solar for about 40 minutes, and the presentation starts at 1:49:25 on the recording.

Please share with any community leaders who are considering the impacts of large-scale solar farms in their regions.

Spring Sunshine Generating More Clean Electricity Across Marshall County

I realized recently that I had forgotten to share this great press release from MACOG (Michiana Area Council of Governments): “Spring Sunshine Generating More Clean Electricity Across Marshall County.”

It highlights several solar energy projects in the county. And there are more to come!

My hat is off to all the great professionals, installers, and volunteers that made these projects come to life.

This July 2020 photo shows the difference between flower resources inside the boundaries of the solar array vs. outside in the grazed pasture

3 year blog retrospective

Well, this blog has passed it’s 3rd birthday, clocking 166 posts, or about one a week. Let’s look at the numbers.

In total, we are at 7,394 views and 368 comments. Averaging about 5 views per day, though that has crept up to 10/day in 2020 (quarantine, anyone?).

81 subscribers, so it’s good that we saw some growth continuing after year 1, when we had 48.

a freshly-laid Monarch butterfly egg (small white dot with a slight shadow) dries on a Common Milkweed leaf

What were the top posts? This requires a little asterisk. Subscribers get an e-mail notification with the entire text of the post included, so I know some folks just read (or skim) in their e-mail, then delete. This is often what I do with other blogs I follow. If the post is something you want to read, I encourage you to click the title so it opens in a web browser. Sometimes the formatting isn’t right in the e-mail, or I’ve edited the post; additionally, you can’t see the videos I’ve embedded. The official page only count actual page visits from a browser, but should still serve as a relative barometer of what people are reading and sharing.

Year 1 (Jul 17 – July 18): ~53 posts

The top posts were a post on the latest research about the diversity of macrofungi in Indiana (237 views), my summary of what it was like to live with a used electric vehicle for a year (115 views), and our press release announcing our solar energy installation (81 views). We had 48 subscribers after the first 12 months.

Year 2: (July 18 – July 19), ~49 posts

No big hits this year. The top posts were “Integral Ecology comes to TCAD” (70 views); “a wee cold spell,” when we hit -18 deg F (54 views); and “birds!” which was just photos of birds from my Florida vacation (46 views).

Year 3: (July 19 – July 20), ~64 posts

Top posts were the announcement of my eco-ed video series (“Get Outside!”) for kids stuck at home during quarantine (206 views), “immigrants: the essential workers our food system can’t survive without” (154 views), and “do solar panels work in the winter?” (88 views)

I think I’ll keep going!

the wildflowers are really taking off during the 4th growing season of this prairie planting!

2020 avian encounters

Well, it is time for my periodic, irregular update with pictures of birds. Why knot?

Hang with me… it’s a drama in many acts!

Act I: A puzzler! This February Sr. Mary sent me this photo and we were wondering what the heck it was.

I submitted the photo to the iNaturalist community, and user “nsharp” quickly identified is as a leucistic version of the very common Dark-Eyed Junco. Well… I didn’t know what that was, so I looked it up: “Leucism is a condition in which there is partial loss of pigmentation in an animal—which causes white, pale, or patchy coloration of the skin, hair, feathers, scales or cuticles, but not the eyes. Unlike albinism, it can cause a reduction in many types of pigment, not just melanin.”

As you can see… birding is just how adults get away with playing scavenger hunt!

Act II: May 5th, Sr. Mary and I were walked through a field that was planted to trees in 2018. The growth of annual weeds has made for lots of nectar and pollen for pollinators, as well as grassy habitat for nesting birds. We flushed a Song Sparrow and walked over the area where it sprung up.

See what I mean? This is a view from ~5 ft elevation.
Look harder…

Ground-nesting birds always seem so vulnerable to me. And indeed, nest predation is high. If I recall, only 10-40% of Wild Turkey nests are typically considered successful. But then again, it’s not their first rodeo. Someone, they’ve managed to make it for many millennia with this strategy, so who am I to judge? The camouflage is certainly impressive.

Act III: We were happy to see Eastern Bluebirds nest in our backyard this spring. It’s like seeing old friends. Here they were on April 26:

With as much as we have going on in the spring, I’ll admit my monitoring is pretty haphazard. I checked in again on May 6:

And again on May 12:

Some days later, however, I saw that the nest hole was plugged up with sticks. Uh-oh. Upon inspection, I found a layer of sticks covering the body of the mother bluebird. I’m not sure what became of the chicks, but they were nearly fledged, so I’m hopefully. It is undoubtedly the work of their arch-nemesis: the House/English Sparrow, which competes for nest space & has a physical advantage in combat. I monitor bluebird nests and destroy House Sparrow nests if I find them. The good news is that the bluebirds tried again and appeared to have successfully raised a 2nd brood. The struggle continues.

Act IV: I was walking the roadsides recently, spraying invasive Poison Hemlock. It’s been greatly increasing in abundance throughout Indiana in recent years. I flushed a female Red-Winged Blackbird and made a bee-line to where I thought she emerged from:

Red-Winged Blackbirds are an extremely common site in the Midwest. We often worry if they are too common… but like Canada Geese, they have simply adapted to the habitat we have created, so we can’t really point the finger. And they certainly do play a role in the ecological landscape around us.

Of interest to me was the habitat where the nest was located (the star indicated the nest location).

How resilient! Even in the scraps of habitat we haven’t drained, plowed, mowed, or poisoned, there is something trying to make a living. As I was walking around, I was pleasantly surprised by the quantity and type of native plant species that I saw hanging on in the ditch (for now).

This is why ecologists get concerned with the widespread medical condition that flares up in Americans this time of year… Recreational Mowing Syndrome (check out this great Purdue Extension document that details the condition). RMS is characterized by “sudden urge many landowners get to ‘clean’ up their property by mowing the ideal fields, field borders, and road ditches around the farm during the summer months.” There is a legitimate need for roadside mowing in certain rural contexts, but we could certainly be much smarter about it (see Iowa).

A couple days after I took the above photos, the county came by and mowed half of the width of the grass pictured.

Act V: I was picking up eggs and maple syrup at a farmer friend west of Plymouth. As I was waiting outside, I heard a very exciting sound:

Yes, a Northern Bobwhite (quail)! Click on the link if you want to hear the sound clearer than my phone video caught it. Their populations have declined 85% since the 1960’s. Fencerows continue to be removed to this day, continuing to shrink their habitat. But there are a few yet scattered around. Not enough to hunt, but they are there.

Of course, I submitted the observation to eBird. This allows me to see the spectrogram of the call. Pretty cool! The signature is pretty clear for this bird which says it’s own name. “Bob [pause]… WHITE!”

More recently (late June/early July), I’ve also heard Bob White calling around Moontree Studios.

Act VI: While driving into the Moontree parking lot, I flushed a bird off the ground (sense a theme here?). I saw that an adult Killdeer was spooked. Cornell described their habitat like this:

Killdeer inhabit open areas such as sandbars, mudflats, and grazed fields. They are probably most familiar around towns, where they live on lawns, driveways, athletic fields, parking lots, airports, and golf courses. Generally the vegetation in fields inhabited by Killdeer is no taller than one inch. You can find Killdeer near water, but unlike many other shorebirds, they are also common in dry areas.

They frequently nest in gravel driveways. This is, to say the least, perilous, but… it keeps happening. I went back to where the momma flushed and looked down.

see it?

Here’s another angle. Got it?

Two eggs! Turns out my car tires perfectly straddled the nest. Close call! I let Sr. Mary know right away. By the next day or two, she observed an additional 2 eggs

Update June 26: the chicks have hatched and fledged! Onward marches the summer.

Act VII: Sandhill Cranes

Earlier this year, I wrote about the Sandhill Cranes painting themselves with mud behind Moontree Studios. What more can I say? These birds are amazing.

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.