Blue Ridge forests

readysimply redOur first class field trip, examining forest ecosystems of the mid-Atlantic, visited three spots in Shenandoah National Park. Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) (left) was in fruit in Buck Hollow, on the flank of the Blue Ridge. And up top, we found Mountain Holly (Ilex montana) (right) likewise offering red yummies; the holly’s fruits have four seeds each.

Katydids were singing at mid-day, clearly understanding that “last call” was imminent. On the Stony Man Nature Trail (which I last walked in May), Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) was blooming like crazy. We also made the acquaintance of Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata), a milkweed of the woods, and Mountain Maple (Acer spicata), which looks like Striped Maple without the stripy bark.

I scooped up a American Carrion Beetle (Necrophila americana) for everyone to admire. And Stephanie identified a trio of Table Mountain Pine trees (Pinus pungens) across Skyline Drive from the Stony Man Overlook parking area. I’d like to make a map of everywhere P. pungens can be found in the Park.

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And a honorable mention for looping

Tommy, you had me from the awful magenta-on-blue script neon logo. Ben Yakas is a lucky man.

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Ellanor C. Lawrence Park project: 1

StonyBoxieMy class field work assignment this fall consists of studying a forest locale over multiple visits. Even though I love to hang out at Huntley Meadows Park, I chose the eastern tract of Ellanor C. Lawrence Park: it’s a little bit closer to Reston, a little wilder, and just generally a place I don’t know well. Today’s trip was a getting-to-know-you walk for me. I found the lovely ruins of this stone wall, which marks the boundary between the park and the residential subdivision. And I came upon this very handsome Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) taking its time going down the trail.

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I heard it through the grapevine

Verifiable knowledge makes its way slowly, and only under cultivation, but fable has burrs and feet and claws and wings and an indestructible sheath like weed-seed, and can be carried almost anywhere and take root without benefit of soil or water.

—Wallace Stegner, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1954), II.4., p. 134
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Mixed effects

A recent paper by Jason M. Gleditsch and Tomás A. Carlo explores the impact on nesting success of Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) breeding in Pennsylvania landscapes dominated by invasive Asian honeysuckles (Lonicera sp.). It turns out that they found little evidence to support the claim that honeysuckle represents an “ecological trap” of increased predation risk and poor nutritive value from fruits, contrary to the results of other researchers. Adult birds may have made more trips to the nest, bearing what some have called “junk food,” but body mass measurements of the nestlings, in this study, show that they grow up just fine.

Our results show that relationships between introduced fleshy-fruited plants and native birds are complex and not easily characterized as purely harmful or beneficial because they can include negative, neutral, or positive outcomes.

Sometimes, in the authors’ view, using an alien species is the best the birds can do, under the circumstances.

… the traditional and widespread categorical approach to invasive species management should be revised to prevent harming certain communities and ecosystems, especially areas in a process of self-recovery from heavy human disturbances.

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The Shoplifters

The Shoplifters is a quick, entertaining comedy set in an overstuffed back store room of a contemporary big box store. From the first scene, our sympathies are torn between the world-weary, savvy-enough Alma (confident Jane Houdyshell) and the idealistic apprentice security guard Dom (overwound Adi Stein) who has detained her for stealing a ribeye steak. Swimming in a uniform two sizes too big for him and suffering from a nut allergy, Stein’s frantic attempt to assert his authority is fun to watch.

Alma and Dom are mirrored in their respective pragmatism and frenzy by the dour Otto (Michael Russotto filling in for Delaney Williams), a senior security guard who’s just had a “you can’t fire me, I quit” conversation, and the leporine Phyllis (skittish Jenna Sokolowski), who has been recruited by Alma into her bit of Robin Hood larceny. Newly-hatched thief Phyllis finds a surprising number of places to conceal heisted baking ingredients on her slender frame.

We’re asked to consider “Who stole the American dream?” and the piece does give us something to chew on in that respect, inviting us to join the 99%; as a counterbalance, the play touches on the depersonalization of all economic transactions. Is it OK to steal if and only if you don’t see the person you’re stealing from?

At its heart, the work is an updating of that fine series of Looney Tunes featuring the sheepdog chasing the wolf all day and punching out when the whistle blows at the end of the shift.

Unfortunately, the script calls for a series of choppy scenes, all set in that store room and separated from one another by only a moment or two. And a momentum-breaking intermission is needed largely to do a little cleanup and to precisely position a key prop.

  • The Shoplifters, written and directed by Morris Panych, Arena Stage Kreeger Theater, Washington
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Into the spotlight

Citizen science has an important role to play in research in a wide range of biological disciplines, as Caren B. Cooper et al. write in a recently-published paper in PLOS ONE:

… the quality of data collected by volunteers, on a project-by-project basis, has generally been found as reliable as the data collected by professionals in community-based research and contributory projects across a wide variety of subjects, including lady beetles, moths, wolves, trees, air pollution, light pollution, plants, pikas, invasive plants, and bees.

However, volunteer data collection is largely “invisible:” in the reports that Cooper et al. examined, citizen science participation was recognized in a paper’s acknowledgements section, if at all. The authors make the case that volunteer data collection should be more widely appreciated for its scientific value. Furthermore, as Cooper says in a supporting blog post by Hugh Powell, participants should self-identify as citizen scientists, not merely as, say, birders or volunteer water quality monitors.

“…people who have been doing a hobby for years have tons of expertise, and they can make a very real contribution.”

The research paper also reinforces the point that volunteer data collection can go where full-time professionals can’t, into spatiotemporal domains spanning decades and land masses. And often, data collected for one area of study can be repurposed to examine some other phenomenon, as we see with various phenology datasets being used to understand climate change.

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She Kills Monsters

Qui Nguyen’s comedy of coming-out, She Kills Monsters, blurbs as a run-of-the-mill satire about geeky teenagers and their barely out of adolescence high school teachers, but it is uplifted by some exceptional stagecraft. Agnes, a milquetoast English instructor (the resourceful Maggie Irwin1), comes across a Dungeons and Dragons scenario written by her younger sister Tilly (the commanding Rebecca Hausman), who has died too young in a car crash. To discover the withdrawn sister she never really knew, Agnes tumbles into the role-playing world of D&D, and much of the early comedy flows from this fish-out-of-water situation: when asked her affiliation alignment,2 Agnes offers, “Well, I’m a Democrat.” On her quest for the lost soul of Athens (well, Ohio), Tilly’s characters appear in live action, dragging Agnes along with them.

It’s the outstanding fight choreography, designed by Casey Kaleba, that transforms this play. Working on a multi-level set by Ethan Sinnott inspired by Avalon Hill’s hexes, and in a in-the-round seating configuration in the Atlas’s Sprenger black box (with its sometimes unforgiving acoustics), Kaleba and stage director Randy Baker deliver lots of multiple simultaneous fights, good sight lines, a variety of weapons, and safety for all.

The play’s a hilarious smashup of pop culture references from the 1990s and places you can see from there. (Did Louis E. Davis’s evil, rams-horned Orcus just riff on Quantum Leap?) Naturally, in this estrogen-powered adventure (Orcus is the token guy on the quest), delicate fairies like Farrah (gymnastically executed by Emma Lou Hébert) turn out to be wicked badasses. And the final set piece, a dance-off between Agnes’s crew and a band of evil cheerleaders that escalates from Wham! (“Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”) through the Spice Girls into En Vogue territory (“My Lovin’ [You're Never Gonna Get It]“), is quite wonderful and fizzy fun.

  • She Kills Monsters, by Qui Nguyen, directed by Randy Baker, fight choreography by Casey Kaleba, Rorschach Theatre, Atlas Performing Arts Center Paul Sprenger Theatre, Washington

And “Volcano Girls” for the curtain call!

1 Thanks, Leta!
2 Thanks, Brett!

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Marginal utility

Richard Conniff is tired of apologizing for protecting wildlife because it’s economically valuable:

Wildlife is and should be useless in the same way art, music, poetry and even sports are useless. They are useless in the sense that they do nothing more than raise our spirits, make us laugh or cry, frighten, disturb and delight us. They connect us not just to what’s weird, different, other, but to a world where we humans do not matter nearly as much as we like to think.

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Invasive Asian freshwater snails

We made the acquaintance of mystery snails Cipangopaludina chinensis and C. japonica a couple of years ago. At the time, Dave Lawlor expressed the doubt that the two species were distinct.

Michelle Ryan, a doctoral student at George Mason, is trying to settle that question, as reported on page 8 of the current Marsh Wren from Friends of Dyke Marsh. She calls the genus Bellamya, but it’s the same critter. She’s recruiting volunteers to take measurements of snails found in the field.

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Signing off

Bruce Morton, my favorite reporter on CBS in the Vietnam-to-Watergate days, back when I had time for TV news, has passed away. Morton had an edge to his on-air work that hinted that he had a firm grasp of how absurd the whole situation was. You can hear him in a couple of tiny clips in Wolf Blitzer’s remembrance.

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At the park: 70

new vernal poolHow do you keep a wildflower meadow as a meadow? Well, it’s a matter of controlling successional plants. There’s a nice patch of meadow at Huntley Meadows Park, accessible by the new access road that extends from the hike-bike trail. (There’s even a vernal pool that has formed in a new low spot next to the built-up road.) Park management chose not to use fire or a bush hog to keep down the shrubby trees that want to grow into this meadow (which would ultimately reclaim it for forest). We love Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and it’s a native, but the trees will eventually shade out the grasses and flowers; we’re not so wild about the invasive Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) that is also growing here. Both of them were our targets.

cutting remarksInstead, the Park sent in the volunteers, equipped with limb loppers and pruning saws. I’ve seen dense stands of Sweetgum before, but I didn’t realize that many of those trees were sprouts from a common stem. In the photo, by the pruning saw, you can see three small stems that we clipped off, all growing from a common root, as well as the three-inch trunk that I cut through.

I also helped Karla and Gwen pull collect Autumn Olive fruits, lest they lead to germination. The berries are not bad, kinda tart like cranberries. Just resist the temptation to spit out the seeds.

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Sunday in the Park with George

Strong ensemble work in this somewhat vexing musical of art and perception by Stephen Sondheim: individual voices, well blended, especially in “Putting It Together.” The comic breaks are effective, particular Paul Scanlan’s salty Boatman in the first act and George’s (Claybourne Elder) “duet” of the two dogs in the park.

There’s a thoughtful conversation about permanence in the scene between George and his mother, Old Lady (Donna Migliaccio): what is merely “pretty” is subject to alteration; the perceiving eye is necessary to transform something, anything into being beautiful, and hence into something that lasts.

Nothing in Act 2 can match the majestic finale of the first (“Sunday”), and so the second half feels like a few comments on the first. But the vocal pianissimos, always harder to execute well than they seem, are well done.

  • Sunday in the Park with George, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine, directed by Matthew Gardiner, Signature Theatre, Arlington

OTC and I both liked the nice touch of giving Jon Kalbfleisch’s orchestra its call via photographs projected with George’s chromolume screens.

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South River Falls loop

For my Labor Day hike, I pushed a little longer and harder than I have done of late. My notebooks say that the last time I did the long circuit loop hike to South River Falls in Shenandoah NP was in 1999, back when my legs were fresher. It was a muggy day, but almost all of the walking was under the canopy, so the heat wasn’t oppressive. It’s post-breeding dispersal time, so almost all of the birds I detected were heard-only (Common Ravens croaking). I did see a few butterflies: some fritillaries, a few swallowtails.

fallsThe destination for this hike is the falls, and the falls (dropping 83 feet, including the upper and lower cascades) are worth the hike down and the long climb back to the car. I was astonished that, on a holiday weekend, I had the falls all to myself for a good ten minutes.

MeadowsI also stopped at the South River cemetery, located off the Pocosin Trail near the Park boundary. Unfortunately for the Taylors and Meadowses resting there, the place is not being maintained.

The PATC rates the 10-mile long circuit as Moderate, and that’s a fair assessment, save for the long 950-foot climb back from the bottom of the falls to the parking areas. There’s also a 600-foot gradual climb of Bareface Mountain in this circuit that sneaks up on you. I made the circuit in 6:45, not much more than PATC’s par of 5:45 when you consider that I missed a turn and came back on the fire road rather than the dedicated trail. Trail or fire road, both are generously sized: lots of room for walkers who need to overtake or take a breather.

At the beginning of this loop, I came across a couple of long-distance hikers on the AT, and one of them gave me a trail name. I’m not sure whether I’m going to own up to it.

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Cinclus mexicanus

This isn’t exactly a lifelook, in the sense that Frank Izaguirre is promoting. But it was my first sighting of this species, it was a good look, and it’s been one of the most personally significant. When people ask me, “what is the best bird you’ve seen?” this is usually the story I tell.

In December 1996 I was visiting family in Sacramento and doing some of my first birding in California. I was fortunate in that the rains that had been pounding wine country let up just before I arrived, so I had some good birds in the Central Valley—my first Sandhill Cranes, for instance. But the lowland rains meant substantial snow cover in the mountains. U.S. 50 was closed, preventing me from getting out to explore at elevation.

Finally, on the morning of Christmas Day, the roads were opened, and I made a dash to the Eldorado National Forest to see some birds before rejoining family for the holiday. I was pretty much limited to finding a parking place on the side of the road, clumping through someone else’s tracks in the snow (three to five feet of it on the ground) for a hundred yards or so, then returning to the car.

Looking at my checklist for the day, I see that I didn’t record much: some juncos, nuthatches, maybe a kinglet. The White-headed Woodpecker was a lifer for me. But it’s when I stopped on a footbridge over a little creek that the Look happened.

I was watching the meltwater rushing downstream, and I noticed a burbling, roiling something under the surface of the water. Just water over the rocks, right?—but then the roiling moved. What, a tiny mammal? I thought. The disturbance continued moving upstream, and then the dark head of a bird broke the surface. The rest of the bird emerged, the size of a thrush or smaller. It was an American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus), a/k/a Water Ouzel, doing what it does best, foraging in fast-moving mountain streams. The bird worked the stream a bit more, then took flight, settled in a tree, and sang its whistling, trilling song.

And thus, #227 on my life list.

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