Monday, July 24, 2023

A Dragonfly Walk with Mark Manning

This summer, we pitched the idea of a dragonfly walk to Mark Manning, a Hopewell science teacher with broad and deep knowledge of nature, with a particular passion for amphibians and dragonflies. Mark's first choice for a location was Rogers Refuge, the wonderful wetland just down from the Institute Woods. In 2021, he and his sons had compiled an impressive list of 36 Odonata species (dragonflies and damselflies) there. But logistical difficulties shifted the walk to Herrontown Woods. 

Having not yet seen any dragonflies this year, I was wondering whether the walk would acquire the same existential feel we had some years back when a mushroom walk we hosted coincided with a prolonged drought. I cut a path down to a pond on preserved pasture land near Veblen House, but the pond was dry.

As with the mushroom walk with very few mushrooms, however, our July 1 phantom dragonfly walk proved satisfying nonetheless. Mark talked about the relatedness of milkweed and dogbane in the Botanical Art Garden, 
and told the story of how the toxin Tremetol in white snakeroot caused thousands of deaths in the Midwest when settlers drank milk from cows that had eaten the plant. 

A couple of Mark's former students who came along were not squeamish about picking up frogs to show us close up. 

And we did in fact see a couple dragonflies: an Eastern Pondhawk in the pasture, and two Common Whitetails where the red trail crosses the gas pipeline right of way. 

One added benefit of the walk was that it got us thinking about how we might better cater to the needs of dragonflies at Herrontown Woods. That dry pond in the pasture may be dry because the outlet needs repair. And might it be possible to build another little pond, of the sort we witnessed during a recent visit to Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve? 

Thanks to Mark for leading the walk, and for his work in inventorying Princeton's Odonata and getting us thinking about their habitat needs.

Our Pair of Black Vultures Lost Their Progeny

For as long as I can remember, a pair of black vultures has arrived at Herrontown Woods each spring to raise their young in the corncrib next to this little red barn. We'd see them perched on the chimney of the derelict Veblen Cottage, and think them a bad omen. But in 2017, one of their two chicks was slow to develop, and we watched as the parents patiently tended to it until it could join them up on the Veblen Cottage roof. The word online is that black vultures mate for life and are devoted parents. As we watched the immature vulture gain strength and ultimately join its parents on top of the chimney, our uneasiness about vultures turned to affection. They do, after all, perform considerable custodial work in nature, cleaning up messes that the rest of us steer clear of. 

If one thinks about it, our initiative at Herrontown Woods involves a great deal of scavenging, that is, finding promise in what the rest of the world has forsaken. The boarded up house and cottage, overgrown trails and a derelict pine grove filled with invasive species--these scenes of long time abandonment have been for us prize finds.

The past couple years, I've only seen one black vulture hanging out near the barn. Though I generally stay away from the corncrib, not wanting to disturb them, I have checked a couple times and found it empty. The story I told myself was that the male had lost its mate, and now returns as a bereft spouse each spring to linger and grieve. 

On June 20 this year, when friend and hiker Georgette texted me that she had found a dead black vulture lying on the ground along the red trail that runs past the Cottage, I thought we were witnessing the end of an era. 

It was a surprise, then, to come across the carcass and find not the last adult vulture but instead a bird that was clearly immature, with baby fuzz on the wings. The pair of vultures had been there after all, secretly raising their young. 

As I took a close look at the fallen bird, one of the parents looked down from the ridge of the barn. What sort of grief does a vulture feel? It's not clear how the young bird died. There was no clear sign of damage on its body. 

Having not seen the adult vulture, or vultures, since that day, I now tell myself the story that the pair have headed off for another year of scavenging, to return again next spring, to make another go of raising young. We'll see if my story proves true this time.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

The Joys of Midsummer Music in the Woods

This is the third year that the Friends of Herrontown Woods has collaborated with actor Vivia Font and the Princeton Public Library to stage a mix of music and poetry on the tranquil grounds next to Veblen House. 

July 15 arrived, however, with ever-shifting predictions of rain that in turn finally prompted a shift of venue to the library's Community Room.

Despite the move indoors, the program proved a delight, and nature was not to be denied participation.


Vivia read some of her favorite poems on nature, including The Rose That Grew From Concrete, Who Has Seen the Wind, Morning Love Song, and Arbole, Arbole, which she read in both english and spanish. 

The energy generated on stage by the Ragtime Relics was channeled into dance (a friend told me the sophisticated dance was called a Balboa). 

And nature managed to participate through an open doorway, when a couple of our younger friends of Herrontown Woods decided it would be great fun to race across Hinds Plaza and back, just as the rain was reaching full tilt. Returning with their joy, they fed us as we were being fed by the music and poetry. 
(photo: Dottie Westgate)

Thanks to Vivia Font, the library's Janie Hermann, and FOHW's Inge Regan for organizing a midsummer event of such beauty and spirit.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

What's Bloomin' in the Barden in Early July

During our Sunday morning volunteer sessions at the Botanical Art Garden in Herrontown Woods, we've been doing lots of editing of nature's tremendous creativity. While we're weeding out low creepers like cinquefoil and vetch, limiting the prickly blackberries and wineberries, and pulling out vines like oriental bittersweet and Japanese honeysuckle, the native wildflowers have been cheering us on.

Here's the classic purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) blooming in the circle of labeled wildflowers around the gazebo.
Competing in the white spire category are bottlebrush buckeye,
Culver's Root,

Black Cohosh,
and Spanish Bayonet (Yucca filamentosa). Of these four spire-shaped flowers, only the black cohosh can be encountered along the trails. The others are native but not commonly seen growing in the wilds of Princeton.

There are still some clouds of Tall Meadow Rue blooming, 
and some beebalm poking through here and there.

This pokeweed was lucky to sprout in a spot large enough to accommodate its gracefully gangly growth. 

And I was surprised to find Enchanter's Nightshade looking so enchanting, on an embankment overlooking a stream next to the parking lot. 

One of my favorites, and a favorite of the pollinators, is Shrubby St. Johnswort. Walking by a six foot stand of it the other day, I was surprised by the intensity of the pollinators, and was reminded of a phrase in a poem close to my heart: "the bee-loud glade," from Yeats' The Lake Isle of Innisfree. To keep the paths clear, we're potting up this small shrub's many seedlings to sell to visitors to plant in their own yards.

Meanwhile, in the raingarden that protects Veblen House from runoff, a buttonbush is blooming near a bluebird house.