Monthly Archives: April 2013

Bogs In A Jar

Bogs are special places. They form only where there is no nutrient input other than rainfall (and occasional moose poop). Even groundwater seeping in can add enough nutrients to tip the scales from a bog to a fen. Fens themselves are pretty neat too, and they are divided into different types based on the amount of nutrients present. Nutrient-poor fens are called Poor Fens while nutrient fens are called Rich Fens… leading to a wide range of silly comments and puns.

Both bogs and poor fens are inhabited by a very neat group of moss species known as Sphagnum moss. There are thousands of species of sphagnum moss, ranging wildly in color and in the amounts of nutrients they need.

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Sphagnum mosses actually increase the acidity of the areas around them, and between this and the lack of oxygen in saturated peatlands, they can form very thick mats and sometimes even raised bogs. Many feet of sphagnum can accumulate, which is one way carbon is removed from the atmosphere (as long as the bog is left alone). When sphagnum grows along the edge of a pond it can form floating mats, and in some cases if the pond’s level rises due to human or beaver behavior the mats can break off and form floating islands (kind of like in Life of Pi but no mongooses).

Below is an aerial photo of Chickering Fen (sometimes erroneously caused Chicerking Bog). The little pond is surrounded by a floating mat. The little white thing in the east is a boardwalk – you can go visit this little fen without trampling the plants, and get a great view of it from the boardwalk, including carnivorous plants.

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The carnivorous plants turned to eating insects, of course, because there are so few nutrients in this sort of fen.

A while back I was mapping some fens and bogs and took a few samples of Sphagnum to identify. After identifying them (with a lot of help – I’m not good with Sphagnums), I got some of the dried out stems wet to see what would happen and they puffed right up! I put these in a jar with a bit of rainwater and conifer needles. Over time this expanded to five jars and growing!

The sphagnum did fine that fall just sitting in a jar with a bit of rainwater at the bottom, but winter brought use of the heater, which dried the air inside and led to the little edges drying. So I stretched foil over them.

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They survived the winter just fine without freezing like their outdoor cousins, and in fact seem to be thriving. I can’t fertilize them, because it would probably kill them. I’m thinking over time I may toss a few more leaves in with them, or if feeling adventurous even a piece of moose poop (moose love bogs and poop all over in them and it doesn’t seem to do the Sphagnum much harm). If I can get them growing enough I may get an aquarium and try a terrarium of some sort. Maybe I can get some cottongrass growing too.

These little guys are jumping right up against the plastic wrap and want a bigger jar:

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These are yellow but don’t seem otherwise sick – I think they were one of the yellow species I collected. I also collected a red species, but it turned green without enough light.

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So, in short, it’s been a great success! You should try it yourself. But, before collecting any sphagnum, please check with land managers/park managers/etc and make sure it is OK to do so. Many endangered species live in bogs, and you don’t want to make a tiny indoor bog at the expense of a natural one! Believe it or not, overzealous plant collectors can lead to species being extirpated (it’s especially bad with orchids). However, if you ask around you may find a way to legally and sutainably collect a stem or two of sphagnum moss, it doesn’t take much to grow more of it. Just don’t forget – for most species you should only use rainwater or distilled water – and no fertilizer!

Floating Wetlands in Baltimore, Water Forests in Mexico

I haven’t been posting on the blog much lately, and much of this has been due to some unexpected but welcome travel. At the last minute I found out I would be able to attend the Biodiversity Without Boundaries conference in Baltimore.
There was a lot of good stuff at this conference, and I still haven’t taken it all in. (There were also some unsettling things that came up, and the choice of sponsors brought up a lot of conversation, but this is a subject for another time.) One of the talks I attended that really stuck with me was about the Bosque de Agua – the Water Forests of Mexico.
When I first saw this talk on the abstract, I expected a talk about wetlands, but this was not exactly the case. In fact, the Water Forests are an area of high mountain forests in the ranges surrounding Mexico City. These mountain forests occur on the watersheds that provide water for Mexico City/Ciudad de Mexico, one of the world’s largest cities. Unlike many cities, Mexico City is very high in elevation, so importing water from far away is nearly impossible. Instead the City must rely on runoff and aquifers from surrounding mountains.
The story in the Bosque de Agua is the same story heard all over the world. A vast urban population relies on an aquifer, and is overusing it, to the point that some areas have sunk several meters due to water withdrawals! (once this happens the aquifer can not ever again fully refill, because it has no mechanism to ‘float’ the ground back up). The mountains and their ecosystems are vital to providing water to the city, but are threatened by improper forest management, highways altering the flow of water, climate change shifting storm patterns, and destruction of wetlands and floodplains. In particular I was struck by one issue – many people are building trenches on hillsides to supposedly help water soak into the ground, but the practice has not been evaluated objectively, and cutting into and disturbing the soil may actually do more harm than good. Still, people feel the need to do ‘something’, so they keep doing it. Sounds all too much like the rush to dig gravel out of Vermont rivers to respond to Tropical Storm Irene. It sounded like a good idea – a simple solution to a very complicated problem – but actual evidence shows that it does more harm than good. But, maybe this isn’t the case for the trenches in Mexico. The important point is that one should figure out if a ‘solution’ does more good than harm before we implement it on a vast and expensive scale. The people giving the talk seemed well-equipped to do so, and I was encouraged to hear that the Water Forests have such well-spoken advocates, even though they face many threats as well.

One of the unexpected pleasant surprises at the conference was the extensive dialog about the use of citizen science and technology in conservation, and in particular my favorite technology-based nature website, www.inaturalist.org .

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Above: Squirrel Corn observation uploaded to iNaturalist…

iNaturalist is billed as a way for any person to document and crowdsource ID for things they find in nature. It fulfils this role, but in a time of shrinking resources and increasing adoption of technology, it turns out some of the biggest adopters of the site have been scientists, activists, and others who need a quick and efficient way to track what species they find. In particular, some of the people from Latin America, with very limited resources and the inability to afford ArcMap or other expensive database software, have the potential to collect and process massive amounts of data about their natural environment. Reducing costs helps conservation compete with the short-term economic motivations that cause so much long-term damage. Case in point – as part of the Vermont Atlas of Life project I have been able to document over 2800 occurrences of 545 species in Vermont… and this is nearly entirely on my own time because my workplace hasn’t adopted the software. If I were able to use it at work as well I’d easily have a few thousand more sightings. True, I am obsessive and not everyone would be so prolific, but I’m not the only one using the site in Vermont – there are already almost 8500 observations in the project. Some of the data may never be used – but plenty of it will, and some in ways we don’t yet even realize.

My time in Baltimore was short, and I didn’t get much chance to explore the city in the daytime. However, one evening we went for a walk by the harbor and found these little floating wetlands:
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Having just attended the talk about Mexico’s water forest, these immediately reminded me of the Chinampas – floating gardens created by the Aztecs in the very lake fed by these rain forests. I wondered if this was where the idea for the floating wetlands originated. It’s a unique way to make use of space, and I think it holds a lot of potential in a world where we will increasingly face fluctuation in water levels due to changes in precipitation and rising sea levels associated with global climate change. I’m not sure if floating wetlands would work on Lake Champlain, but it is an intriguing idea. Natural floating wetlands do exist in the form of fens elsewhere in Vermont.

There were also some native wetland plantings:

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I left the conference feeling that odd buzzed mix of hope and apprehension for the future that seems to permeate the conservation community. Things may not be going well in the world right now, but the potential for change and improvement is great… if we would only be smart about it.

A visit to California in a Dry Spring

I was in southern California last week, which is why I haven’t made a blog post in a while. I was excited to travel to this area in early April as it is the end of the rainy season and the best time to look at native plants and enjoy flowing water.

Unfortunately it has been a very dry winter, and the boom and bust ecology of southern California often means the plants skip flowering during the dry years. In the case of annuals and geophytes (such as bulbs), the plant may not sprout or flower at all. Those flowers that do bloom are often smaller than normal.

As such, this trip was an exercise in looking at little things. I took full advantage of the trick where one places a hand lens up against an iPhone camera:

California spring 2013
Chaparral Currant berry

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California Poppy with hiding bee.

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Blue-Eyed Grass (note: not actually a grass)

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Ceanothus (sometimes called “California Lilac but not actually a lilac).

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Some sort of popcorn flower – these are very hard to identify to species.

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Goldfields

Even with my hand lens handy, many of the flowers I saw were in native plant gardens/arboretums.

One might argue it is a bad year to be a native plant in California. But sometimes the dry years seem to be harder on the invasive plants than the wet years. California’s native plants have gone through much drier climate regimes than the current one.

I also enjoyed a rare visit with a majestic bird that loves water even more than I do:

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We even got to see it dive (unsuccessfully) for a fish, though it was not successful that time. I’m planning to try fishing in Vermont this year, but I’m sure I’ll never get as good at it as the eagles.

I miss the mountains of southern California even if I could do without the urban parts.

California spring 2013

California spring 2013

Lilacs, unlike Ceanothus (“California lilac” mentioned above), are not plants I often associate with southern California, as they are more often planted in Vermont. But I did get a chance to see some neat ones blooming:
California spring 2013
California spring 2013

I also visited the new visitor center of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and saw this neat rain garden:

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Unfortunately, it looks like the rainy season is over for southern California, and a long, dry summer lies ahead. Of course, back in Vermont is is raining, has been raining, and will continue raining through the rest of the week, along with a bit of snow. April weather is in full force, and the rivers are running high.