Think Globally, Act Locally: Reflections from Baja

This past summer I had the opportunity to travel to Baja California, Mexico for a graduate biology course with Miami University and Project Dragonfly’s Earth Expeditions program. I got to explore incredible plant diversity in the Vizcaíno Desert while staying at Rancho San Gregorio, and snorkel alongside whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez while at the Vermilion Sea Institute. During the course my peers and I learned from local experts, conducted our own research and engaged in discussions about current conservation issues. Throughout the entire experience I found myself reflecting on one central theme: impact. How had I been impacted? And how have I impacted the ecosystems I’ve been studying and exploring?

In terms of human impact, I was reminded of the lasting effects that our actions can have on ecosystems. On the drive up the east coast of Baja I got to see where the Colorado River empties into the Sea of Cortez…or at least where it used to empty. The same river I rafted on in the Rocky Mountains as a child historically made its way to Mexico where it sustained a vibrant delta ecosystem. Starting with the Hoover Dam in 1936 and many subsequent alterations and diversions, the flow of water has all but stopped (Mueller et al., 2017). Organizations in both countries are currently working on the complex issue of restoring the delta, but every drop of the Colorado River is already allocated or “owned” by people and organizations upstream. While this is a huge international issue, it also reminded me that small choices I make such as watering plants in my yard will impact people and habitats downstream.

It’s not a new issue; humans have been altering ecosystems for centuries. On an ethnobotany hike through the desert landscape near Rancho San Gregorio, we walked through a spring-fed oasis alive with birdsong. I noticed that both native fan palms and non-native date palm trees were growing side by side; date palms were introduced to Baja by Jesuit missionaries in the 1700s (De Grenade & Nabhan, 2013). Both species of palm fill the important keystone role of providing habitat for a ton of other native species, like birds and insects. While date palms take space away from fan palms, their impact on humans and other species can be positive; they provide habitat, building materials and a fruit crop of dates. Seeing the two tree species coexisting gave me hope; ecosystems can be very resilient, and many species continue to find new ways to thrive despite the stresses we put them through.

Desert Oasis

Fan Palm and Date Palm

Think Globally, Act Locally: The plants we select for our yards and parks, and the water we use to keep them flourishing, can impact other ecosystems near and far. By choosing native, drought-tolerant plants we can save water and create habitat for other species, though its not always that simple. My backyard vegetable garden is filled with water-thirsty, non-native plants, but locally grown food can have many other positive impacts in terms of health and sustainability. I sometimes find myself getting overwhelmed trying to make the best, most sustainable, eco-friendly choices. Is the chemical-free product better than the one in plastic-free packaging? Is organic/fair trade/locally grown in my budget this month? If I take public transportation instead of driving I have to wake up how early!? It can seem nearly impossible to do anything without impacting ecological systems in some way. But we can make informed choices, learn from mistakes and try to ensure that the benefits outweigh the negatives. We can multiply our impact by sharing our passion with others, advocating for conservation policies, and voting in elections.  

Ultimately my time in Baja reminded me to keep seeking out inspiration from nature and other nature-lovers. When I feel inspired I also feel more motivated and less consumed by the doom and gloom. I felt an overwhelming sense of awe while watching the sun rise over el Valle de los Cirios, and again when swimming alongside whale sharks. Remembering those feelings of wonder and amazement help to overshadow any doubts or guilt, and motivate me to inspire others. I feel lucky to get to work with students and share in their joy and curiosity; the looks on their faces remind me of the magic in watching a hawk gliding overhead, digging up an armful of potatoes, or looking skyward to see that all the cottonwood leaves have turned to gold.

What inspires you? Share below or get outside and find out!

Made it to the Sea of Cortez

References:

De Grenade, R., & Nabhan, G. P. (2013). Baja California Peninsula oases: An agro-biodiversityof isolation and integration. Applied geography, 41, 24-35.

Mueller, E. R., Schmidt, J. C., Topping, D. J., Shafroth, P. B., Rodríguez-Burgueño, J. E., Ramírez-Hernández, J., & Grams, P. E. (2017). Geomorphic change and sediment transport during a small artificial flood in a transformed post-dam delta: the Colorado River delta, United States and Mexico. Ecological Engineering, 106, 757-775.

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World Honey Bee Day

Happy World Honey Bee Day! A third of our food is dependent on pollination by bees and other insects, but in recent years honey bee populations have been declining around the world. Can you imagine a world without bees? Researchers at Wyss Institute have been developing RoboBees that could stand in for honey bees and other pollinators. Check out the info-graphic I made outlining some pros and cons of drone pollination…and have you seen that Black Mirror episode??

Bees and Drones

If you would rather not find out what the world would be like without bees, here are some actions you can take:

  1. Support local beekeepers – buy local honey! Check to see if your state or city has a beekeeper association; Colorado’s has lots of great information.
  2. Do not use chemical applications on your yard! Pesticides and herbicides can harm bees and lots of other beneficial insects. Look into IPM or use an alternative method like 20% vinegar to kill weeds.
  3. Plant a forage garden for pollinators that lasts all season. The Colorado Native Plant Society has a list of low water native plants that support pollinators, and the Colorado Beekeepers Association has a helpful guide for creating beneficial bee habitat.

Honey Bee

Interested in learning more about the use of drones in plant conservation? Check out my full info-graphic here: Drones the New Frontier.

Reference for info-graphic:

Savage, N. (2015). Aerodynamics: Vortices and robobees. Nature, 521(7552), S64-S65.

Battling Invasive Beetles

If you’ve started to notice the effects of Japanese beetles in your garden in the past few weeks, you are not alone. This invasive beetle has been making its way across the United States since the early 1900s when it was accidentally brought to the east coast in a shipment of iris bulbs from Japan. While the insects have natural predators that control them in Japan, newly established populations in the US are running rampant.

 

Shiny, jewel-like Japanese beetles may look pretty, but they can quickly strip the leaves of many vegetables and flowering plants like roses and hollyhocks.

 

There are a variety of methods used to deal with these beetles, but some can do more harm than good. Here are my recommendations:

  1. Do remove the beetles by hand from your plants and drop them into a tub of soapy water. The soap breaks the surface tension of the water so they drown quickly. During the summer this is an almost daily ritual in our flower garden.
  2. Do Not squish them, as the smell of a squashed Japanese beetle has been shown to attract more of them.
  3. Do create dry conditions in your turf lawn in June and July, as this can kill the larvae (which feed on grass roots) and lessen the overall population the following year.
  4. Do consider replacing turf lawn with xeric plants or another low water alternative like Dog Tuff grass. Without irrigated grass lawns, there will be fewer areas for adult beetles to lay eggs.
  5. Do Not put out Japanese Beetle Traps; these use pheromones to attract any nearby beetles to your yard but many beetles do not enter the traps, they simply enjoy eating all the plants around them.
  6. Do Not apply insecticides. While many products claim they are safe for other insects like bees, residues from all insecticides can accumulate in plants or water through runoff and harm wildlife. Milky spore has been touted as a natural alternative but there is little evidence that it actually controls Japanese beetle grubs.
  7. Do attract natural predators to your yard. While our native birds might not be on the lookout for these beetles, crows, meadowlarks, cardinals and more have been reported as important predators once they discover how tasty this invasive food source is. Also, if you’ve been considering a small flock of backyard chickens you could soon enjoy fresh eggs and beetle control, just ask this horticulturalist at the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Soapy Water

Catching Japanese beetles in a tub of soapy water

Are there any other ways you have found to effectively deal with invasive Japanese beetles?

Much Ado About Weeds

What makes a weed a weed? A dandelion by any other name would smell as sweet. Shakespeare references aside, the ways we deal with weeds can have big impacts on local wildlife.

Dandelions

Dandelions are food for pollinators

Apart from noxious weeds, it is our perception of a plant that determines if it is a weed or not. Any plant growing somewhere that it’s not wanted can be labeled a weed. Dandelions, for example, are often considered weeds when they pop up in turf lawns but they are also grown as a cash crop for their nutritious leaves and roots, and even for latexDandelions are an important food source for pollinators in early spring, so if you don’t mind having them in your yard the bees will be very grateful! I recommend you do not spray dandelions and other backyard weeds with pesticides, as this can be harmful to wildlife, pets and people. Simply remove the spent flower heads of these pollinator-friendly plants before they go to seed by hand pulling or using a mower and you can keep them in check.

bindweed

Alice in Bindweedland

Bindweed, on the other hand, can do more harm if left to its own devices. Invasive bindweed chokes out native plants and can decrease biodiversity, especially in already threatened habitats like wetlands. I took the photo “Alice in Bindweedland” as part of a portfolio on grassland conservation issues. Aggressive hand-pulling (make sure to dig up as much of the root as possible!) can help manage this weed in your yard. I’m also trying out a “green” herbicide mix on it that has worked well in our flagstone patio area on other weeds.

Green Herbicide Recipe
1 gallon white vinegar
1 cup salt
1 tablespoon liquid dish soap

Directions: Combine all ingredients in a spray bottle, shake to mix and spray generously on weeds. This mix is not great to use in a lawn because it will burn your grass. I am also going to experiment with adding lemon juice and will report back. Use this mixture on weeds during the middle of the day or a particularly sunny time to maximize results.

Weeding with Roo

Roo likes to “help” pull weeds around our patio area after we spray them

Welcome Spring with Citizen Science

Happy Spring Equinox! Here in Denver the last week of winter brought a few inches of snow as well as a myriad of colorful spring blooms such as daffodils and dwarf iris. A few species of bees have been taking notice of these early flowers as it is an important food source for them.

Bloom times are also important to scientists across the country, and you can help them collect data! If you have a smartphone and access to plants, all you need to do is create a Nature’s Notebook account and download their app. Become a phenology expert in no time by exploring their website and reading through the information under the Observe and Learn to Observe tabs.

Even if the term phenology seems a bit unfamiliar to you, I bet you have already observed a ton of phenological events. The return of certain birds to your backyard feeder, that smell when suddenly all of the neighborhood lilacs are in bloom, or even that week last fall when the front range was filled with migrating painted lady butterflies are all examples. Phenology is the study of the timing of seasonal  or cyclical events in nature, and data that has been collected on certain species (lilacs, for example) is helping us to better understand threats such as climate change. Follow this link to learn more about it from Project Bud Burst.

If you’re local and want to practice your observational skills at a site where all the plants have been identified for you, add Denver Botanic Gardens to your “Sites” on the app and come for a visit. You can also download and print Phenology Trail maps and other info from the DBG website. Plant species you can study at the gardens include lilacs, ponderosa pine, aspen, yucca, columbine and more. You can also set up a site for your own yard or the park across the street, adding species as you go. While my own focus is on researching plants, you can add animal species to your observation deck, too. This can also be a fun activity to do with kids especially if you spin it as a treasure hunt – I’ve found that they often notice things that I miss at first glance. Feel free to reach out with any questions or to share any cool observations with me. Cheers to spring!

21st Great Backyard Bird Count

 

In just under one month the 21st annual Great Backyard Bird Count will be underway! Starting on Friday February 16th and ending on Monday February 19th, the 2018 GBBC offers an easy and extremely important opportunity for any and all wildlife lovers to help collect valuable data on birds. Across the globe, birds of all types are often an indicator of the overall health of ecosystems and habitats, allowing scientists to quickly gauge if an area is successfully sustaining wildlife or if the species in that area may be in peril. All you have to do to participate as a citizen scientist is log in or create an account at the GBBC’s site and commit to just 15 minutes or more of bird watching.

The Great Backyard Bird Count will provide you with local bird guides and options to download the eBird app, making it easy to enter all the birds you see at your chosen spot. According to the Audubon Society of Denver, some winter birds you may see in the area include merlins, hairy woodpeckers, Bohemian waxwings, mountain chickadeees, and northern harrier hawks.

There are many awesome native trees and shrubs that can attract birds to your yard all year. Check out PlantTalk’s site for some suggestions, such as Rocky Mountain juniper, serviceberry, dogwood, and chokecherry. The Audubon Society also recommends xeric flowering plants such as coneflower, sunflower, and milkweed to provide food and other resources to native birds.

Leave the Leaves

As autumn turns to winter, you might be thinking that it’s high time to finish getting your yard ready for snow. If you’ve been putting off raking up and bagging all of the fall leaves that have accumulated under your trees, you are in luck! Rather than hurrying to clear these leaves out, it is beneficial for both wildlife and your lawn to leave the majority of them in place. According to the National Wildlife Federation and the Xerces Society, there are many nature-friendly reasons to leave the leaves in your yard alone.

There are lots of organisms that benefit from leaf litter in urban and suburban settings. Many species of butterflies, moths and bumble bees overwinter in piles of leaves, and other small mammals and reptiles benefit from this shelter as well. Leaf litter is also a source of free mulch! You can gently pile it around trees, shrubs and other plants to insulate them from cold temperatures and improve soil quality. A light layer of leaves over your turf grass can help reduce your need for fertilizer or other inputs next season, resulting in a naturally healthier lawn (make sure it’s a thin layer though, too much coverage can kill your grass). When the snow melts come spring, you can use piles of partially decomposed leaves as fertilizer for garden beds. Just make sure not to disturb the piles until later in the spring so that all of the critters who have benefited from them have time to move out! #leavetheleaves

Aspen grove

Fall Bulbs, Spring Blooms

Late September is the perfect time to plant bulbs for early spring blooms. Bulbs (a term that generally also includes corms, tubers and rhizomes) should be planted before the first hard freeze of the season in well draining soil. Check out the CSU Extension Fall-Planted Bulbs and Corms fact sheet for more information on how and when to plant.

While many of the bulbs available to gardeners are non-native, there are quite a few species of plants in the Iris and Lily families that are native to the Rocky Mountain region. There are about thirty species of irises native to North America, all of which are beardless varieties as opposed to the bigger and more commonly seen bearded iris. Native varieties such as Iris missouriensis , or mountain iris, and Erythronium grandiflorumor snow lily, can be found in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Even non-native bulbs in these plant families can provide important resources for our native wildlife. Early spring bloomers are especially important because they provide nectar and pollen to pollinators before many of their other food sources are available. Crocuses, hyacinths, fritillaria and kniphofia (or torch lily) are all beneficial for our local bees and other pollinators.

Summer Growth

After a few months of growth, the perennials we planted back in May have taken off! The hyssop, yarrow, blanket flower and penstemon have been blooming nearly all summer and many of them have more than quadrupled in size. Hummingbirds, butterflies and several species of bees have been regular visitors all season.

As a reminder, below is a photo of what the space looked like right before planting as well as a shot of a newly planted 4 inch tall yarrow plant.

The perennials in the above picture as well as the bed shown below are now watered by drip line, and another layer of mulch is currently being added. Once the flowers fade and the leaves begin to die back we will do a bit of pruning, though I like to leave some dried flower stalks and seed heads for winter interest and texture. In another area of the yard we spread a Rocky Mountain native wildflower seed mix that has also been very successful. The annual seeds sprouted this season, and the perennial ones will likely come up next year or the year after.

Pollinator Month

Did you know that June is national pollinator month? In Colorado alone there are over 950 species of bees and 250 types of butterflies, but pollinator populations across the globe are declining. With just a few days left to celebrate here are tips on creating pollinator friendly habitats that last year-round:

  • plant native flowers in your yard – look for a seed mix at your local garden center
  • make seed bombs with native seeds, like wild sunflower, and throw them into empty lots or barren stretches along roads
  • avoid using chemical pesticides and herbicides (neonicitinoids and glyphosates) that may harm friendly insects, birds and more
  • provide shelter and food for pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and bats – make a native bee hotel, hummingbird feeder, or butterfly puddler
  • visit the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife site for more inspiration!

If you enjoy having flowering plants and trees or eating fruits, veggies and honey, go thank a pollinator!