Friday, October 2, 2015

You Can Help Keep Wisconsin's Lakes Healthy - It All Starts In Your Yard

Nutrients and chemicals are ending up in our waters and it's causing major problems for the environment, recreation, and tourism. And you can do something about it; so read on to learn more.

In order to maintain a well manicured lawn on a typical lot which often has little of its original top soil remaining, homeowners typically end up feeling pressure to apply a variety of products to their yard including: nitrogen, phosphorous, herbicides, and insecticides. The nitrogen and phosphorous are things which can occur naturally and are things which encourage plant growth (fertilizer). The insecticides and herbicides are chemicals which are used to control pests (pesticides).

Fertilizers may come from a number of sources. Garden shops carry additives which can be added to water, plant food spikes, compounds to be applied by hand or machine, or even mixed in with your soil or sod. They also occur naturally and are found in organic matter like pet waste. Often times these supplements must be applied regularly because the soil itself isn't healthy enough and does not contain the necessary nutrients for the well manicured lawn to thrive.

Fertilizers however have a downstream affect. They rarely stay in your yard. Runoff from rain carries this material into our streams, ponds, and lakes. It then becomes fuel for algae and bacteria. This leads to algae blooms which can making swimming water unsafe, make water unfit for consumption, and depletes the oxygen in the water leading to dead zones and fish die offs. Just run a Google search on "Lake Erie Algae Blooms" and you'll find a supersized example of what fertilizers in run off can do.

Here's the good news. Things don't have to be this way. Instead of planting a monoculture of grass in your yard, you can plant native trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses, legumes (they put nitrogen back into the soil). Typically native plants don't need chemical maintenance to stay healthy. Many native plants have deep spreading root systems which not only to help them obtain their necessary nutrition, they also allow for greater water infiltration allowing the soil to collect nitrogen and phosphorous from the run off. (Also you should remember to clean up after your pet.)

Pesticides are chemicals used to prevent the growth of weeds or to suppress insect populations. Here's where our yard really stands out in the neighborhood. There are just a few houses in the neighborhood which do not pay for lawn treatments they are most obvious in May and June when the Violets, Creeping Charlie, and Dandelions are in bloom. Our yard is yellow and purple meadow while others have green lawns. These chemicals are potentially hazardous to your pets, children, and yourself (hence the flag that says stay out of the yard for 24 hours). These chemicals also end up in our water system and may suppress desirable plant and aquatic animal growth.

The use of these chemicals is a choice. In a future where they are not used, our lawns are more colorful and support a variety of wildflowers, bees, and butterflies. Birds and toads too need chemical free spaces for hunting grubs and insects, or for birds collecting dandelion fluff.

Keeping Wisconsin's waterways healthy is a major challenge. The UW Arboretum has a webpage dedicated to the challenges faced by the Lake Wingra watershed. The challenges highlighted are true of many bodies of water in the state. These waters are essential part of the states sporting, hunting, and fishing cultures, as well as being a source of tourism revenue.

If you think your yard doesn't matter or that your run-off is somehow not affected, consider this example. Each of us live in some watershed, and water is always seeking the lowest point. Many of our neighborhoods have retention ponds. The retention ponds in the Upper Sugar River Watershed eventually deposit water into the Sugar River. The Sugar River is dammed in Bellville to form Lake Belle View. Water leaving the lake runs back through the Sugar River to the Pecatonica, to the Rock River, and into the Mississippi. Eventually remaining chemicals and nutrients unnatural the water are dumped into the Gulf Mexico and creates one of the biggest coastal dead zones in the world.

If each of one of us changed how we treat our lawns, even just a little it could be make a major difference in the amount of nutrients and chemicals ending in these waterways.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Plant Your Corridor to Connect Remnant Habitat

There was a time when the gusto of Manifest Destiny, the promise homesteading, and the sheer lack of forethought led a nation to near ecological ruin. Species now extinct or extirpated; whole states had to be reforested, and eventually a conservation movement brought forth national parks and forests, and other such zones which create a patchwork of wilderness.

Remnant habit created by planting: Big and Little Blue Stem, Black Eyed Susan, Purple Coneflower, Butterfly Milkweed, Cardinal Flower, False Indigo, Lupine, Bee Balm, and Obedient Plant.

Today one can look at a map of Wisconsin and see this patchwork of green zones which largely dominates the northern portion of our state, and we are lucky. By comparison, our neighbors in Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois have no green spaces. The wilderness of these places is replaced by pavement or turned over by plow.

We live in a time where it has become clear that while these pockets of wilderness are beneficial, they are too sporadic and isolated to preserve the existing diversity of species over the long run. There's still some debate over the effectiveness of wildlife corridors ranging from wild success stories to dismal failure. While we consider the success and failure of modern efforts, we can take a moment to ponder these words:

The shrinkage in the flora is due to a combination of clean-farming, woodlot grazing, and good roads. Each of these necessary changes of course requires a larger reduction in the acreage available for wild plants, but none of them requires, or benefits by, the erasure of species from whole farms, townships, or counties. There are idle spots on every farm, and every highway is bordered by an idle strip as long as it is; keep cow, plow, and mower out of these idle spots, and the full native flora, plus dozens of interesting stowaways from foreign parts, could be part of the normal environment of every citizen. - Aldo Leopold

Wildlife corridors aren't and can't be specific zones and boundaries drawn on a map. Real corridors are created everywhere by leaving some of nature right where it was before we put in the road, plowed the field, or built our house.

If you look at a map of your municipality you may notice features that I noticed; things which Doug Tallamy points out in the The Living Landscape. Even on a smaller scale we isolate nature preserves and parks. There's a prairie on the east side of my town and a marsh on the southwest side, but in between are homes and roads and businesses and schools.

This is where we come in. One house, one yard providing remnant habitat is a start, one neighborhood is better. I started native planting as a project for myself. To see more birds. To test my green thumb. To do some basic green things like save on water and encourage biodiversity.

Immature Bluebirds back from somewhere, stopping by for a visit.

It's become a way of life and in a way an ethical code. In reading what those who came before me taught, I realized that my quarter of an acre was a small piece in a century of conservation efforts. Now when a Gray Catbird drops in, I wonder whether he is headed to or from the marsh. When the Bluebirds visit in the morning, I wonder whether they've come from the prairie this morning or from the wetlands. In my town, my yard is but a piece of a greater fabric; a piece of corridor.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Fall Migration - Catching Departures

WI DNR was on WPR last week talking fall migration and trying to make the most of the end of September in southern Wisconsin. I linked out this a little awhile ago in another post. This weekend I decided to take up the call and headed out to a nearby prairie.

A small segment of the prairie has a stand of trees, some birch, some maples, and some which I honestly can't readily identify. There are also some shrubs and a pond. The prairie itself is quite large, but I stayed in the area near the pond, probably no bigger than a block.

Northern Flicker in a birch.

The sheer mass of wildlife was amazing. Small birds moved through the wildflowers and grasses and then back into the shrubs, Nannyberry and Dogwood from their appearance. There were American Goldfinches, Black Capped Chickadees, Palm Warblers, Clay Colored Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Sedge Wrens, and Nashville Warblers.

Other larger birds were more raucous, chasing each other around. They darted up into trees, swooped down to the ground; they foraged in great number. Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, Northern Flickers, and Gray Catbirds.

Near the water, typical visitors: Canada Geese and Mallards, but also atypical visitors, 5 or more Eastern Phoebes dropping out of the trees to hawk for insects, and Eastern Bluebirds too.

Pensive Eastern Phoebe sat still long enough for a picture.

Through the end of the month is a good time to catch many of these smaller species, and some larger ones which stay nearer the water may be around for awhile, so you haven't missed the migration yet. Take the time to find a local park or wildlife sanctuary, grab your binoculars, and get out there. They will gone before you know it, and they won't be back until spring.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Visit to My Wisconsin Marsh

Early on Saturday or Sunday mornings, sometimes before there's truly light; I awake. I grab something small for breakfast, slink about the house quietly to not disturb my sleeping family. I sneak out of the house and trek out to the marsh. Upon exiting my car, I start down the path.

The trail runs through the wetland. Can you find the Cranes?

Through most of the summer the warm tunes of the Song Sparrow welcomed me. They often ventured near the trail just above head height and trilled loudly early morning. "Good morning, little sparrow," I'd say. I find myself talking to the more social birds some mornings. It's often early enough that they are the first beings to greet me, and I feel compelled to acknowledge their presence; it seems only polite.

There are a great number and variety of sparrows. The field marks and calls are handy, but it's difficult to keep track of Swamp, Clay, Field, Chipping, and Song Sparrows.

I wander by wildflowers and stop to pull out my camera. It's zoom is better than my binoculars, and it's proven to be a trusted ally in identifying the locals. On one occasion, I stood still beside some Bergamot and soon had Ruby Throated Hummingbird visitors. On my next of trips out, I made sure to stand near this Bee Balm cousin to ensure future encounters.

Genus Monarda is high in nectar and great for pollinators.

My visits never seem complete if I don't see the my original quarry. I first explored the area during the April Crane Count. Not all of the Sandhills I encountered that day stayed all summer, but two are regulars. I see them in nearly same spot each time I visit. They bugle and forage. They fly overhead and even stroll down the trail. They appear to have not been successful in producing a colt this year. I imagine nesting on the ground in the wetland must be difficult. I've seen mink here and muskrat. I assume there are a number of mammals lurking, waiting to snatch up an egg breakfast.

I thought they had chosen a good neighborhood but they seem to drive their neighbors to distraction.

As morning light grows bright, and I inevitably get hungry, I turn back to my car. Evening Primrose and other wildflowers grow near the gravel parking pad. By now others are here. They are on bikes or on foot on the trail. They've missed the trumpeting Cranes, and they won't stay still long enough to draw the ire of the House or Sedge Wrens. I'll catalog my sitings and plan to be back next weekend and witness how all things change over time.

Evening Primrose