Getting the Drop on Pitch Pine

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.
(Our apologies for the delayed publication.)

Photos and text by Erik Baard

Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) is a hardy little tree that’s native to the eastern US and coastal from the Chesapeake Bay to Acadia National Park, Maine. They thrive in a variety of harsh conditions from poor alpine scratch to low swamps. They protect dunes, stabilize shores, and feed birds and insects. These crooked and twisted trees are rarely used for lumber, but as you can imagine, they were in great demand for the resin pitch.

Physicists are fascinated by how a drop of room temperature pitch can be shattered by a hammer blow yet is experimentally shown to be a liquid (unlike ice, which is a true crystalline solid). The hardness and consistency of pitch, which is also malleable when heated, makes it extremely useful for preserving and waterproofing ships, railroad ties, and mine shaft supports. It’s also used to flavor wine, and sometimes medicinally. Outdoor enthusiasts often use pitch for lamps and torches, glue and wound binding, or even to make natural plastic widgets! Now research labs are following suit.

These trees are very well protected against fire by their specialized bark. In a worst case scenario, even a stump can spring to life with new branches. Their cones also pop open when exposed to intense heat, so they not only endure the flames but help regenerate the ecosystem.

In our region, you can enjoy pitch pine forests in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, Fire Island, and Long Island’s East End. But NYC parks have stands of them too,  including Hunters Point South Park just blocks away from HarborLAB. We’ll grow seeds gathered there at the HarborLAB GreenLaunch!

HarborLAB makes pitch pine seedballs to benefit our entire harbor. We’ve gathered cones with students and volunteers with Baruch College, New Jersey Institute of Technology, National Iranian-American Council, and Hunters Point Parks Conservancy. We learned our seed ball making technique from Seedball NYC, and how to get seeds from pine cones (by baking them) from the Greenbelt Native Plant Center of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s Natural Resources Group.

Pine seed. Photo and labeling by University of Miami: http://www.bio.miami.edu/dana/dox/altgen.html

Pine seed. Photo and labeling by University of Miami: http://www.bio.miami.edu/dana/dox/altgen.html

UN Women’s Day and Water

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.

water12

by Erik Baard

Today is the United Nations designated International Women’s Day. Let’s take this opportunity to recognize that where governments have failed their citizens, obtaining and protecting water is women’s work.

The Women for Science section of the Inter-American Network of Academies of Science maintains an excellent Gender and Water page, providing links to relevant women’s professional networks, data, issues and case studies, training manuals, and other practical resources. Another great resource for women seeking to enter water science and engineering is the Association of Women in Water, Energy, and the Environment.

Men still dominate the engineering agencies and companies that make clean and convenient water a fact of daily life in wealthier nations, but it’s women who fetch and defend water for billions of others, especially in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. This work demands immense strength and daily determination for the many who must trek long distances in the search for water free or pathogens and chemical contaminants, and resourcefulness for those who must clean their water to safeguard their children from illness.

Some international agencies and nonprofits are promoting innovative ideas like micro-finance “water credits” through female community leaders and individual mothers.

In many regions the right to water for life is threatened by the taking of water for profit, for resale or use in development. industrial processes, mining, energy extraction, and agribusiness. This is especially true when those struggling for drinking and sanitation water are poor or from marginalized indigenous communities. There women must demonstrate great physical courage to confront those powerful interests.

The struggle isn’t only a rural one. The world is rapidly urbanizing, straining municipal water systems and creating sprawling fringe shantytowns where no waterworks exist. Even in established cities in wealthier nations neglect and disastrous decisions have dangerously fouled water for some, especially in lower-income communities of color. The women of Flint, Michigan joined the Women’s March in Washington to demand clean water. The DeLoitte Review recently took on the topic in an academic article called, “Thirsty for Change: The untapped potential of women in urban water management.”

Water justice will be achieved only when women’s voices are heard inside board rooms and planning meetings. Women in water sciences are certainly making gains, and in industry and at the UN there’s a growing awareness that achievers should be honored. HarborLAB encourages young women to enter these disciplines and to apply for scholarships that might help them realize their goals, this Women’s Day and all days.

 

 

March 5: Habitat Planning to Honor UN World Wildlife Day!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Today, March 3, is UN World Wildlife Day and what better way to honor it this weekend than by helping create thriving habitat areas along a polluted waterway? Just yesterday HarborLAB’s GreenLaunch on the Newtown Creek was designated by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Wildlife Habitat in recognition of our efforts to provide edible native plants for birds, milkweed for Monarch butterflies, clean water, shelter, and other support for native species. We also generate organic compost to enrich our poor soil.

This Sunday, March 5, from noon to 3PM turn sentiment into action by joining HarborLAB for an orientation at our Newtown Creek GreenLaunch (53-21 Vernon Blvd, LIC, NY 11101) and then walking over to Bricktown Bagel Cafe to plan our 2017 plantings, water systems, constructed habitat (mason bee and bat boxes to start), seedball activities, environmental monitoring lab, and more!

Details here: https://www.facebook.com/events/133044087217291/

 

 

The Gracefully Gooney Woodcock

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.
This week’s entry by Erik Baard, Courtesy of Nature Calendar.

American Woodcock in Propsect Park by Steve Nanz.

By Erik Baard

In coming weeks keen-eyed birders will spot the quiet and nearly invisible migratory returns, solitary or in very small flocks, of one of New York City’s quirkiest birds.

While some birds, like redtail hawks and peregrine falcons, have attracted groupies through intelligence and fierce dignity, today we present a species that’s won the hearts of hardened New Yorkers through its ostentatious goofiness, the American Woodcock.

If you manage to spot one despite its exquisite cinnamon, gray, beige, and pale orange camouflage in the leaf litter, you’ll note its extraordinarily gawky four-inch bill, more than a quarter the length of its seemingly no-necked, stout body. Then it’s on to the high-crested, buggy eyes set behind its ear holes. To make that odd arrangement of features work, its brain is uniquely positioned: upside down, with the cerebellum resting above the spinal column.

No one name can quite frame the whimsical asymmetry of this species. Its alternate names sound a bit like cocktail drinks: timberdoodle, bog sucker, mud bat, mud snipe, and Labrador twister.

That latter name, however, hints at why their devotees are now clearing their schedules of after work commitments and redirecting their morning jogs to mucky corners of parks. The woodcock’s spiraling mating display, an aerial dance at dusk and dawn, is a signature of Spring that delights the eyes and ears.

“Some of these birds who wintered in southern states are passing through,” said NYC Audubon past President Peter Mott, referring to New York City’s place on the eastern seaboard’s migratory flyway. “Those that are staying are setting up their courtship territories. In just a week from now they should be starting their courtship flights.”

You’ll need to visit a wooded area edging a fresh water body and a small clearing. Two places Mott recommends are the Ramble in Central Park (a section called “The Oven,” near the boathouse), and the East Pond of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is also a favorite spot for the tireless Brooklyn Bird Club. Other places known for woodcocks include Pelham Bay Park and Givans Creek Woods Park in the Bronx, the Staten Island Greenbelt,  and Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where the photo above was taken by Steve Nanz (click to enlarge).

Where males have formed a loose gathering, called a lek, individuals bob and rotate on the ground in twilight hours, making a peent sound before suddenly jumping into flight. They ascend steeply in a spiral up well over 100 feet, “making a chirping sound with their wings. Then they’ll plummet to earth and hope a female was watching.”

While the males’ ground call is utterly prosaic, the twittering sound made by air passing through specialized feathers of their fast-beating, rounded wings is soothing. The downward glide is accompanied by a vocalization that naturalist Aldo Leopold called a “soft liquid warble.” Marj Rines has audio samples on her great website.

Still, overall it’s a pattern familiar to anyone who’s ever observed a “Sk8ter Boi”: call attention, perform a trick, hope it was witnessed by a pretty girl.

Such acrobatic displays demonstrate vigor, and to produce pleasing wing song a woodcock must be ideally formed with a span fringed with three very fine feathers – a sonic flaunting of symmetry – that advertises genetic viability for robust offspring. A strong start is critical for hatchlings that are nearly independent soon after emergence, reaching adult form in weeks.

The woodcock’s odd face is no less a product of ruthless natural selection than a lion’s fangs. Those oddly set eyes provide nearly 360-degree vision. The woodcock beak is not only long, but articulated and sensitive toward the tip, so that it can probe the mud more effectively for worms and other invertebrates; they can eat their weight, about 10 ounces, daily. Put those two features together and you have a bird that can watch for predators above while simultaneously feasting on what’s below.

The transitional forest ecosystems for which the woodcock has evolved are equally refined, but have been challenged in recent decades. Most conservationists believe this is what accounts for the species’ 55% drop in population since 1960. Poorly-conceived development is a huge problem, of course, but another factor might surprise you. Our attentive forest managers have prevented many forest fires, blights, and other natural means of tree felling, denying the woodcock clearings for mating displays. Clearings also allow for new growth like meadow, understory plants, and a dense covering of saplings to provide resting protection from owls.

When Mott was asked which of these unique characteristics made him so fond of the woodcock, he said his pleasure was in the sharing. “I enjoy taking people to see them,” he said. Funny how a bird that leads a relatively solitary life can bring us together.

EPA Clean Water Rule Rollback

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.

 

cwr_long_draft1-6

President Trump issued an executive order yesterday to roll back the Clean Water Rule issued by President Obama to extend 1972 Clean Water Act protections to smaller streams and wetlands that feed rivers, lakes, and estuaries. President Trump stated that this reversal reflected his emphasis on economic activity and states rights. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is leading a coalition to litigate against President Trump’s order. The New York Times published a useful article about this debate.

 

 

 

The Wonders of Pokeweed

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

by Erik Baard

Imagine a common wild berry that not only feeds and protects wildlife but is potentially the next big thing in solar energy. Ah, the wonders of American pokeweed!

American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), flowers in summer and its purple berries are ripe in autumn. So why write about it now? HarborLAB harvests pokeberries in late February when they’re dry and less messy, and birds have had a chance to subsist on them through the winter. Besides, few native plants have given us a better weekend song than “Polk Salad Annie.”   🙂

 

The song name derives from the traditional dish, “poke sallet.” The lyrics offer a great description of pokeweed, except that composer Tony Joe White mistakes the species for being specific to the South. This hardy perennial grows at forest edges and in sandy beaches across all but eight of the 48 contiguous states. It thrives even in eastern Canada, far from White’s home state of Louisiana. HarborLAB grows it at our GreenLaunch on the Newtown Creek, and we’ve encountered it on shores from Staten Island to South Brother Island. We make pokeweed seed balls and distribute them in areas where city, state, and federal park ecologists determine 8′ high bush’s deep tap root can stabilize shorelines and dunes, and protect the interior from storm surge.

As a central part of our GreenLaunch habitat area, the white flowers are a favorite of beneficial insects like our favorite pollinators, bees and butterflies. The leopard moth feeds on the plant during its larval stage. Northern mockingbirds, gray catbirds, northern cardinals, mourning doves, cedar waxwings, brown thrushers, and other birds eat the berries. Our resident raccoon can enjoy noshing on a bit of pokeweed too. Few mammals are so lucky, and for some the plant is deadly. Humans must strip young stems and leaves and boil them three times and toss the water after each cycle. After boiling removes the toxins, many fry the soft greens. “Poke salad” remains part of African American and Appalachian cultures of the South, taught earlier by American Indians, who also used the plant for herbal medicine.

Pokeweed, especially its berries, should be handled with care because it causes rashes on some people, and the poison can be absorbed through skin or open cuts. Never eat the berries and roots, which cause severe vomiting and even, in rare cases, death. Infants are especially vulnerable. Crushed seeds release the greatest toxic loads. Longer-term concerns like mutations and cancer are suspected, according to the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.

On the bright side, literally, Wake Forest University Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials Director David Carroll was inspired to test pokeberry juice as an “agrisolar dye.” Purple pokeberry ink would replace the silicon normally sandwiched between the plates of a photovoltaic panel. Carroll envisions this as a cheap way for developing nations to produce solar energy hardware locally, even in poor soil. That’s a prescription for either growing a solar revolution or unleashing an invasive organism.

 

 

 

Temperance Fountains

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.

16707580_10155016564664878_2491644248891252906_o

Tompkins Square Park. Photo by Erik Baard. 

by Erik Baard

I was recently wandering through the slush of Tompkins Square Park for a vegan cherry pie when I chanced upon a fountain west of the dog run. It was topped by post and lintels, four austere friezes each bearing what I immediately recognized as Victorian Era feminine virtues: Hope. Faith. Charity. Temperance.

Temperance? That tipped me off. This fountain was a bit of gentle 19th century civic persuasion to not surrender to the animal spirits loosed by alcohol. Let cool, clean waters heal you.

This Temperance Fountain stands at the heart of what was once the “Little Germany” neighborhood. Stereotypes about the “idleness, imposture, [and] crime” of 19th century Irish and German immigrants panicked the upper crust of New York City society, who associated the immigrants’ supposed failings with drunkenness. A repugnant Nativism and religious bigotry arose, often linked to suspicions that Catholics were loyal to the Papacy and not America. Legislative measures to encourage teetotalism infamously culminated in Prohibition’s gang wars. A few sympathetic (albeit perhaps equally prejudiced) Progressive clerics and women of means strove to uplift the new, alien masses by providing an alternative to booze: reliable drinking water.

Generations of New Yorkers since Dutch colonization of Manahatta had fouled the potable springs and ponds at their feet with garbage and sewage, and so instead drank cider, beer, and hard liquor mixed with water. Immigrants participated in this pollution, and the loss of fresh, local water was a living memory for established New Yorkers in the mid-19th century.

Temperance societies — often affiliated with enlightened causes like Women’s Suffrage — grew through the latter part of that century. The activist women and philanthropists like Henry D. Cogswell (dentist to the California Gold Rush) funded Temperance Fountains, often topped with statues depicting Charity. Today few remain,  though another is in nearby Union Square Park. Another, in Washington, DC, bears the same inscription of virtues as the one in Tompkins Square Park. According to the Washington Post, a California Senator once derided the fountain as that city’s “ugliest statue.”

But in a sense, you drink from a Temperance Faucet at home every day. The temperance movement, alongside disastrous fires and a cholera epidemic, was instrumental in the creation of NYC’s world renowned waterworks. The completion of the Croton Reservoir Aqueduct in 1842 made the our city’s first such fountains possible, and continued lobbying by temperance groups helped NYC stretch its water projects into upstate mountains.Maybe the teetotalers  had a point, if not a pint: the Catskill town of Neversink, where HarborLAB’s reservoir paddling program is located, just ended Prohibition in 2015.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Raccoons’ Amazing Use of Water

 

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

by Erik Baard

HarborLAB volunteers (including a little one, Lily) recently spotted snow tracks at the GreenLaunch. Not our usual guard cat prints. The fingers weren’t webbed. At first we thought we might have fresh evidence of our resident muskrat. The tracks led up and down our growing native habitat slope from the water to the uplands, so that made sense. Ah, but there was no tail line. That leaves us with raccoon!

raccoonmusk

Similar animal tracks. Credit: Lawrence Wade, The Old Naturalist

 

hand

Raccoon forepaw. Credit: Gaby Muler via Wikimedia Commons. 

The lack of webbing is very unusual for mammals in the order carnivora. What makes raccoon paws absolutely unique, however, is their sensitivity. More than 60% of the sensory perception areas of the raccoon’s cerebral cortex is given to touch. A raccoon’s dexterous fore paws are covered in tiny sensory spikes. The density raccoon pressure sensitive cells (called mechanoreceptor cells) is quintuple that of most mammals, matched only by primates like humans.

The primacy of their fore paws is reflected in the species’ names, including proto-Algonquin via Powhatan ahrah-koon-em (“one who scratches or rubs with its hands”) and part of the Latin one given by Carl Linnaeus (lotor or “washer”). The myth that raccoons wash their hands or food is rooted in amateur observations of their actual use of water: when submerged the sensory micro-bristles soften and become even more sensitive. A raccoon dips objects in water, fully submerging its paws, to even more acutely feel its surfaces. This video of a raccoon accidentally dissolving his treat of cotton candy is for only the most stone-hearted.

Even prolonged time in cold water doesn’t seem to diminish this sensitivity. Naturally this helps them to find small creatures, eggs, and some plants to eat in aquatic or muddy environments. Their fur is also well adapted to repel water.

racoon_in_nisqually_national_wildlife_refuge

Once raccoons have learned of food sources, they won’t soon forget. In laboratory tests they remembered complex tasks for years afterward. Their ability to recall, problem solve, and think abstractly ranks them with Rhesus monkeys in evaluations of animal intelligence. So, say hello to our smart new neighbor! Maybe a furry new volunteer?

Worrying Dawn of the Blue Era

Water Wonk Wednesdays

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.

11001930_10153121062184878_7287259178375158797_n

Erik Baard at Hallets Cove in 2015. Photo by NYCDEP for HarborLAB. 

by Erik Baard

The East River has so far rolled through this winter unadorned by a white speckling of sea ice (photos here are from 2015). On the Hudson River, bald eagles and seals have no ice floes to ride from the foot of the Palisades to the skyline. HarborLAB volunteer Thomas Dieter, director of CUNY Start at LaGuardia Community College, relays his observations from his home in Hunters Point South:

“We haven’t spotted ice yet this winter, and at this point I’m guessing we won’t. From our apartment at Hunters Point South Park, we can see that the inlets and coves just north of Newtown Creek haven’t iced over. In the past, the inlet where the ferry docks and the cove south of the fishing pier iced over at some point–but no such luck so far this year that we could see…The water in these areas doesn’t move as quickly as the river, and it’s far shallower, so I expected ice to collect there again this January and February.”

Our local disappointment echoes the vanishing polar sea ice aspect of the global climate change crisis, though some seek to take advantage of it for undersea fuel extraction, military maneuvers, and shipping. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card on sea ice, glaciers, snow cover, temperatures, indigenous cultures, and animal health is profoundly grim. A special concern is ocean acidification in the Arctic, which is undermining the regional ecosystem’s less diverse food chain.
A
A
Scientific American/Climate Central report that winter sea ice at both poles has retreated to record lows. This is a sharp reversal from a record Antarctic peak last year, but a continuation of a trend of historic lows in the Arctic. Ice sheets ashore — notably in Greenland — are shrinking and thinning too. Winter heat waves are lashing the Arctic as warm air pushes north.
2_6_17_brian_warmairforecast
froze1

Gantry Plaza State Park in 2015. Photo by Mark Christie, Hunters Point Parks Conservancy. 

Wind, Current, Love.

 

vlad-n-johna-7-copyright-larson-harley

Vlad and Johna. Photo by Larson Harley.

HarborLAB incorporated in September 2012. In October Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. The communities and shores we were freshly chartered to serve and steward were devastated. We didn’t have a single boat in our fleet or a home launch, but we had a core of wonderful volunteers ready to help when a call went out from battered Far Rockaway.

The first and largest donors to HarborLAB’s relief work were founding science adviser Vladimir Brezina, his partner Johna Till Johnson, and their colleagues. They pooled thousands for a generator, food, water, sanitary supplies, blankets, and more that HarborLAB volunteers delivered and distributed.

Today we salute their love, and year of marriage, that began on the water. We also salute the generous spirit and fecund mind of Vlad, who passed in December after a years-long struggle with cancer. It’s fitting that Vlad turned to the sea for his neuroscience research. He studied marine invertebrates to blaze trails toward a better understanding of how animals like humans move through, respond, and learn from their environments. For a fuller appreciation of Vlad, the most moving tribute is Johna’s In Memoriam post.

Johna and Vlad’s first day together started with a handshake at Pier 40 in Manhattan. They paddled from Manhattan to Sandy Hook, NJ. Their lunch chatter on the beach was a debate over the relative impacts of the world wars on American culture. “We never did agree,” Johna says, much like their ongoing discussion about the happiness of ducks. But they did agree to more voyages.

“After a while I noticed I was always happier around him than not. After a further while I figured out why, and told him I loved him. Things progressed rather rapidly thereafter,” Johna recalls.

Spreading love across the harbor is something Vlad and Johna did well together. Despite Vlad’s struggle with cancer, they provided HarborLAB with a trip planning workshop (to be published online soon) and they shared their adventures, knowledge, and Vlad’s beautiful photographs through their blog, Wind Against Current: Thoughts on Kayaking, Science, and Life. We’re happy to say Johna is continuing the blog.

Below is one of Vlad’s recent lectures, delivered when he was already deep in his chemotherapy. Still full of energy, and still sharing. No energy is lost. No ideas vanish.

As we salute Vlad, we also solute all scientists and the scientific method, humanity’s surest philosophical approach to material truth and means of equipping ourselves with solutions to the challenges ahead. We HarborLAB volunteers thank you and hope to inspire young people to join your ranks. We love your pursuit of knowledge in service to humanity and ecology.