Sunday, November 06, 2011

Land of the Jaguar

Enter a Google search at your own risk. You may emerge from it hours later, bleary eyed and stiff jointed, when your body demands food and a bathroom break.
I had this experience recently while doing a translation from Spanish to English about the jaguar in Argentina. There are between 200 and 300 of these magnificent animals left in this country and the numbers keep dwindling. A few very dedicated lovers of the jaguar are doing their best to save it from extinction in Argentina. They call themselves "Red Yaguarete" (Jaguar Network). As part of their efforts they raise public awareness through publications so I help them periodically with translations to English.
Recently, they focused their interest on a large ranch in northern Argentina and the possibility of turning it into a national park. The group is trying to convince the government and the public of the benefits of such action. The ranch "Estancia La Fidelidad" is a large property. At 618,000 acres it is similar in size to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park (521,000 acres) and the Petrified Forest National Park (93,500 acres) combined. Located in the Dry Chaco in northern Argentina, it is crossed through the middle by the Bermejo River, one of the larger rivers of the area. Dry Chaco is a harsh land, hot and dry, with low human population and still relatively rich wildlife. A few rivers carrying water from the eternal snows of the Andes Mountains cross the region. The land is so flat that they spread widely in some areas creating wetlands rich in wildlife. It is in these places that the jaguar finds abundant prey and prospers.
Recently, as part of their efforts, "Red Yaguarete" surveyed the native flora and fauna of the ranch by jeep and by canoe, subsidized by their own funds. This is the report I am translating.
Google proved extremely useful. Through searches I learned that the "carpintero de los cardones" is called "White-fronted Woodpecker" and that the "oso hormiguero bandera" is the "giant anteater". But then, I wanted to know more about the reasons why this large ranch had become available. What had happened to the owners? Google obliged by giving me more than 62,000 entries, practically all of them in Spanish, for "Estancia La Fidelidad" including maps and videos.
A recent newspaper article caught my attention. The owner of the property and his widowed sister-in-law, who lived with him, were brutally assassinated last January by unknown people. Manuel Roseo was an older Italian immigrant, who lived in a very modest residence, although his huge property was valued at 200 million dollars. In the months preceding his death he discovered that somebody was using false papers and selling some of his land. He started investigating this matter and it is possible that this led to his murder. The story has all the makings of a mystery novel. It would be incomplete without some illegitimate children who could claim the inheritance. Not surprisingly there is a woman who says that her teenage daughter and eight year old son are Roseo's children.
So many questions! How did a poor Italian immigrant come to own this valuable land? Why did he continue to live like a day laborer? What was his relationship with his sister-in-law? What about the other woman and the possible heirs? And, who was selling his property behind his back? By adding the word "asesinato" (assassination) I could locate more than a thousand entries about the subject; not that they provided any clear answers to the mystery. I had to stop.
The next day I resumed my translation. Soon I needed to search another word in Google. This time my quest led me to a book published in the 1850s, an early survey of the Argentinean and Paraguayan Chaco, including descriptions of the land, flora and fauna and the peoples of that time. Thomas Jefferson Page, grandson of the American president was a ship captain commissioned by the United States to do a survey of the land north of La Plata River. He traveled the main rivers up north, all the way to Paraguay in his ship the "Water Witch" during the years 1853 to 1856 making maps and taking detailed notes, including some diplomatic activities along the way. The entire text of his book is available as an e-book and quite enjoyable and easy to read.
Thomas J. Page described some of the plants and animals and the lay of the land of a large part of the Dry Chaco. All this was useful for my purposes. It also covered many other matters, which I couldn't stop reading. He befriended the Argentinean president, general Urquiza, and gave him a ride up the La Plata River in his ship.
He attended a dance of the little angel ("Fiesta del angelito"). This is a peculiar tradition of several South American countries. When a child dies, the little body is dressed in the finest clothing and sat on a small chair, high in an altar decorated with candles and flowers. The parents and guests dance merrily all night and may even lend the little angel to other friends and relatives for subsequent celebrations until decay puts an end to this. The thinking is that heaven rejoices at the arrival of such a pure soul and that the family should be grateful that the baby went straight to heaven without enduring the trials and tribulations that the rest of us cannot escape. Needless to say, Google provided abundant entries to the search "Fiesta del angelito" that could take hours to read.
Thomas J. Page went so far north that his ship entered a region where the national borders had not been settled yet and Paraguay considered as part of their country. He was taken prisoner and released few days later; his maps were confiscated.
It was time to put this reading aside and to get back to my translation. One final tidbit, though: Thomas Jefferson Page went back home to Virginia; soon the Civil War broke up and he joined the Confederate navy. I had so many questions: Did he own slaves? Did he pass his genes to some of them the way his grandfather did? What did he think of Argentina, where slavery had been abolished the year of his arrival and where mixed race marriages were not uncommon?
More Google searches were in order. But, I really had to go now.

List of articles

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Utilities right-of-way. Native plants

Horsham Trail. Utilities right-of-way. Too much lawn, perhaps

Why don’t we turn all the utilities right-of-way lands into oases for wildlife? Am I a dreamer? I hope not. Near my home, a several miles long trail runs under high-voltage wires. When I walk there I see joggers and bikers, mothers pushing baby carriages, and walkers, just like me. The surroundings are pleasant, just a tad artificial, not quite a nature area; although closer to a nature area than busy noisy streets.

A corn field next to the utilities right-of-way
Horsham Trail

How much work and investment would it take to turn such areas into natural or semi-natural ecosystems? Perhaps, with careful planning, they would be easier and cheaper to maintain if they were allowed to become more natural.

Restored native grasses at Pennypack Restoration Trust
An example of what can be done

For instance, most of the lawns near the trail could be turned into wildflower meadows. The lawn closer to the trails could be allowed to support many broad leaved plants; accepting them as grass companions rather than treating them as weeds. It would be helpful to replace the non-native trees already planted with native ones, which are considerably better at supporting wildlife.

"Unkempt" lawn with wildflowers which attract butterflies.
Horsham trail

Some of these measures may be expensive at first but, ultimately, they would save money and upkeep time because native vegetation has evolved in that particular kind of soil and climate and is best suited for it. It also has co-evolved with the other members of the community. Native plants support more wildlife, including butterflies and birds, thus beautifying the land, in addition to improving the ecological balance. All and all it is a win-win situation.

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Invasive species

I do not hate invasive species

This article expresses my opinion on introduced species that become invasive. The species themselves are fine; what is problematic is our intentional and unintentional carrying plants and other organisms to other lands. This has given rise to an incredible large number of transplanted species that continue to alter ecosystems beyond anything that we could have imagined. The impact of introduced species on ecosystems continue to have all sorts of unintended consequences.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Wildlife Food and Non-native Plants

Queen Anne's lace and many visitors. What is it replacing?

I worry sometimes when people insist on seeing the merits of some introduced plant and claim that it is good for wildlife. We are all familiar with butterfly bush attracting butterflies and with the berries and rose hips of several alien plants which feed the birds. I have also seen Queen Anne’s lace blossoms covered with flower visitors. Another example is this blog article about English ivy and pollinators: Pollinators aplenty: English Ivy mixed blessings. The author tells us that the English ivy in his property is attracting numerous pollinators at a time when there aren’t any native flowers. He suggests that we “should step back and view non-natives with less disdain until we understand better what roles they now play in their adopted habitats.”

I think that this philosophy shows a lack of understanding of ecosystems and of what is missing in those that have been altered by humans. We tend to think that habitat loss is something far away, clear-cutting in the Amazon, for instance. We seem to forget that the urbanization and suburbanization of the areas where most of us live are representatives of a huge amount of habitat loss.

When pollinators and birds resort to non-native flowers and berries, it is because the habitat has been severely disturbed and the native plants that were supposed to sustain them are lacking. A healthy habitat is an assemblage of co-evolved and synchronized plants and the wildlife that feed on them. The absence of such plants is a very sad indication that the ecosystem has been dramatically disrupted.

Calling non-native plants beneficial to wildlife is ludicrous. They are merely acting as prosthesis. If I had a leg amputated, I too would sing the praises of a high quality prosthesis, no matter how alien to my body it was. But, I would prefer my own, native and co-evolved with my body, original leg.

Butterfly bush provides nectar to butterflies but very little else, unlike many native plants
Let us not be seduced by the fact that some introduced plants are used by wildlife. Normally, the natives do that job a lot better, plus they provide countless other services to the ecosystem. We are barely beginning to understand the very complex interactions between all the members of a living community. It is becoming apparent that most of them are missing when we mix organisms from all sorts of places.

More on the subject: I do not hate invasive species

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Viburnum leaf beetle, an introduced pest

The viburnum leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta viburni) was introduced accidentally along with non-native ornamental viburnums from Europe and Asia. It took perhaps a hundred years for it to become settled and to start multiplying in noticeable numbers. By then it had found out that native viburnums, such as arrowwood, were good to eat and lacked defenses against them. The consequences were, perhaps, unavoidable; the beetle is spreading across North America ravaging native viburnums.
Adult viburnum leaf beetles © Beatriz Moisset

Read the whole article:
Viburnum under siege
Viburnum under siege. Part 2

Leaf damage caused by the larvae on arrowwood viburnum  
© Beatriz Moisset

Larva and leaf damage. © Beatriz Moisset

Egg cases © Beatriz Moisset
Egg cases © Beatriz Moisset

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Ladybugs, good and not so good

Polished ladybug, a native one

We all love ladybugs. Some children’s books tell charming little stories about them. Even schoolchildren know that ladybugs eat bad insects. Five states, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio and Tennessee, have chosen these handsome little beetles as their official state insects. Most ladybugs or ladybeetles deserve our esteem. They eat countless numbers of insects that damage our plants, so we are grateful.

Beetles, just like butterflies, go through a complicated life cycle. When they are growing up they look completely different from the cute little round buttons we are most familiar with. They start as larvae or, if you prefer, as grubs. Ladybug larvae are so ugly that you would want to squash them in disgust if you found them on your plants. Please, don’t! Remember that they clean up your garden from pests.

How can I describe them? They look like tiny alligators, longish, usually dark and with six stumpy little legs. They grow bigger and eventually, they curl up, become rounder, go to sleep and emerge from this stage as shiny new ladybugs. Both adults and larvae devour aphids or other little bugs with gusto.

What could be bad about ladybugs, or about some of them? It turns out that not all are worthy of our unconditional applause. Some have been brought to this country or to Europe, with the best of intentions, to fight unwanted pests. While they are quite good at this job, sometimes they wear out their welcome.

The first ladybug introduced in North America was the “vedalia” beetle. It was brought from Australia to combat the cottony cushion scale, a nasty insect that was decimating orange groves in California by sucking the plants vital juices. It was a stunning success; the beetle brought the pest under control to the great relief of citrus growers. This species of ladybeetle specializes on cottony cushion scale, which in turn specializes only on plants of the citrus family. So it never became a problem by not going beyond its boundaries. This is not the case with many other introduced insects.

Asian ladybeetle
After such success several other imported ladybugs joined the ranks of pest fighters. The most common and better know is the Asian ladybeetle or multicolored ladybug. It has spread so widely throughout North America that it is the ladybug you are most likely to see nowadays. It is not a picky eater, so its diet includes many kinds of aphids as well as other small soft bodied insects.

Infestation of Asian ladybugs in winter

And this is part of the problem; it is quite capable of eating other ladybugs or to out-compete them by its proficiency. As a result it may be driving some native ladybugs toward extinction. It also can become a nuisance to us because of its inclination to search for warm, comfortable places to spend the winter.

Convergent ladybeetle, a native one

It often finds shelter in garages, outbuildings or even our homes. Entire hordes of shelter seeking multicolored ladybeetles may invade our residences much to our annoyance. It seems that the crowds keep getting bigger each year.

Spotted ladybug, a native one

We still can’t appreciate the impact of this ladybug on some of the native species and on the ecosystems. But it doesn’t sound good. We continue to observe the development of events rather helplessly. In Europe the multicolored Asian ladybug has been declared a pest. It is too late for that here.

Asian ladybeetle
Good bugs gone bad
Beginners Guide to Pollinators and Other Flower Visitors

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Sunday, May 22, 2011

“Locavore” Birds. Grow your own Birdseed

Are we being a bit unrealistic about this business of buying bird seed? I don’t quite understand all this farmland devoted to growing bird seed. I assume that the farmer has to prevent birds from ruining his crop. So, all and all, I don’t think that we are truly helping the birds this way. Instead, we are bringing them to our yard for our own selfish pleasure and depriving them of habitat somewhere else.
If we really wanted to feed birds in our backyards we should grow our own birdseed, rather than buying it from other sources.
I know that bird seed has become a big business in recent years. It was a very good idea at the beginning and feeding the birds continues to be an educational tool that helps people appreciate wildlife. But perhaps it has gone too far. What we really need right now is to start growing plants beneficial to birds in our own backyards: the ultimate in “eating locally”.

I began to ask myself these questions and soon realized that I am not the first one. I simply googled “grow bird seed” and found out people who grow gardens from bird seed. I also found those who despair because spilled seed keeps growing where it isn’t wanted. They seem to miss the irony on feeding the birds and fighting against growing bird seed. “Buy only shelled seed”, “nuke it in the microwave oven” they say.
Fortunately the ones that choose to grow bird seed have a lot of good advice, from discussing the benefits of growing only native seeds to the money saving aspects of such gardening. I am sure that a little planning would be very helpful. Not all the bird seed that you buy will grow in your area and not all would look pretty in your garden, but there are some that can really enhance the beauty of your garden, plus being beneficial to pollinators as well as birds.

Yes, let us grow our own bird seed! Let our visiting birds become locavores!

Feed the birds with native plants

Seed-Bearing Flowers for Birds

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A river of birds

I keep an old National Geographic map posted on my wall. It is a map of the Americas with the flyways of migratory birds, long undulating arrows, some stretching from Canada and Alaska all the way to the southern tip of South America.

I was stunned the first time I saw that map and became instantly a bird watcher. I wanted to know more about this amazing phenomenon. Every autumn, these tiny feathered creatures develop the urge to move south. Some are veterans that have done the journey several times before; others are novices, with no knowledge of where they are going.

They know nothing beyond the nest where they were born just a couple of months before and the piece of land surrounding that nest. Now they are taken by this uncontrollable need to move. Are they following their parents or some ancestral instinct imprinted in their genetic material? In either case, they are inexorably pushed forward grueling hour after grueling hour, day after day. Most fly by night and choose higher altitudes to avoid being cooked alive by the heat of exertion and, perhaps, to escape predators.

So, they fly over meadows and forests, valleys and mountains and, most remarkably, over open ocean. An early Spanish explorer sailing through the Caribbean described a river of birds passing overhead.

Many know that they have arrived when they see the verdant forests of the Amazon and settle there for a few months, until the urge to move again brings them back to northern latitudes. Others keep going, on and on, five thousand miles and more, all the way to the Argentinean Pampas and to Patagonia. Only then they rest.

The roster of these long distance travelers is impressive. Starting with the most famous one, the peregrine falcon, the list goes on to smaller fliers: plovers, sandpipers, gulls, swallows, even a nighthawk and the tiny red eyed vireo. They all leave Canada and the United States in the late summer or fall, cross the equator and reach the Pampas at the start of the southern summer. There, they rest and wait until it is time again to start moving north in their quest to raise a family.

What captured my imagination the first time I saw that National Geographic map was the realization that the same bird I saw here in Pennsylvania in the summer may be arriving a couple of months later at my home town in Cordoba, Argentina. I told my family: If you see a bobolink, a swallow or a sandpiper, say hello to them. They are carrying my greetings from here.

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Friday, May 06, 2011

In praise of bare spots in the garden

Eastern tailed blue butterfly on clover
Some gardeners consider any exposed earth as a blemish in need of a cure, be it mulching or reseeding the lawn and watering. But in a well balanced ecosystem even bare spots have a place, and a very important one at that.
How so? Because they provide habitat and housing for an array of unappreciated garden helpers. We should know more about them. The list is long, so I will not try to cover them all, just illustrate a few interesting ones.

Butterflies. We all love butterflies and associate them with flowers and nectar drinking, but the fact is that after they fill up their tummies with nectar; they still need other nutrients, salts. One way of getting the needed salts is to take them from moist soil. It is not uncommon to see a group of butterflies, either all of the same species or several species amiable mixed together, basking in the sun while sticking their long tongues on the wet soil to extract some minerals or drink some water. Many gardeners attract butterflies by providing flowers for nectaring and plants for feeding their young. It helps to go a step further and provide them with some much needed bare ground.

Clustering of bee nests next to a parking lot

Bees. Bees are the most important pollinators, not just honey bees but the countless species of solitary bees. Most species of bees don’t make hives like honey bees. Instead they lead solitary lives, each one tending her own brood. Some nest in hollow twigs or similar holes, but the great majority nest in tunnels underground. Sometimes they cluster their nests near each other creating veritable towns; other times they take advantage of any small patch of bare soil and build their nests there. In general they prefer sunny and well drained spots.

Square headed wasp at her nest

Solitary wasps. Just like bees there are numerous species of solitary wasps that nest in the ground. Many wasps visit flowers for nectar and perform some pollination. But, perhaps more importantly, they hunt for insects to feed their young. A healthy population of solitary wasps would cut down the need for pesticides significantly. Solitary wasps, as well as solitary bees, are not likely to sting and even if they do so when molested their sting is very mild.

Tiger beetle stalking its prey
Tiger beetles. Another form of pest control is the very colorful metallic green tiger beetle. Tiger beetles belong to a group called ground beetles for obvious reasons. They spend most of the time on or in the ground. Tiger beetles are ferocious hunters of insects. If you provide them with some bare soil you can count on them for keeping pest populations down.

In summary, bare spots contribute to the balance of the garden ecosystem. They provide food or habitat for a number of garden helpers, namely pollinators and pest controls. When you consider all their benefits you wonder why we are so unwilling to tolerate them. Shouldn’t we look at them as an integral part of the garden? There are some gardeners that intentionally make some sand piles and make sure that no pesticides get to them.

Beginners Guide to Pollinators and Other Flower Visitors

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