Today’s not his birthday, but hats off anyway to Frederick Vernon Coville, commercializer of blueberries.

Posted in Agriculture, Botany, Happy Birthday
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Wild! Life!

Brandon Keim explores vacant lots and bits of waste ground in New York, and likes what he sees (even the non-natives), ruderal plants bursting with life.

… verdancy is not the result of careful management, but life’s inexorable course, present wherever we don’t suffocate it.

Posted in Biodiversity and Species Preservation
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Rude good wood rued

I like poetry that rhymes and doesn’t rhyme, like today’s offering, Rebecca Foust’s “Dream of the Rood.”

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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.

Posted in Fun, Television
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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.

Posted in Biodiversity and Species Preservation, Birds and Birding, Botany
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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.

Posted in Citizen Science, Natural Sciences
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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.

Posted in Biodiversity and Species Preservation
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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.

Posted in In the Field, Local News and Views
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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.

Posted in In Memoriam
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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.

Posted in In the Field
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