Fall Migration

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Morning at Mariner Park 1 by Protopian Pickle Jar, (2015) CC BY-SA 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/ykM8Cj

Last night around sunset, we noticed a steady stream of gulls flying south against the pinkish-purple sky. Every time we thought the flock was done, for a few heartbeats of open sky, the procession started again with a new wave of gulls. “They’re going south for the winter,” Toby observed.

I didn’t get a picture through the window blinds, but today went searching for some potential identities for these Laridae migrants.

Per the MSU Extension, possibilities include the Ring Billed Gull(Larus delawarensis)and Bonaparte’s Gull(Larus philadelphia).

While both Ring-Billed Gulls and Bonaparte’s Gulls migrate through southeast Michigan, open water and abundant landfills may provide incentive for some populations to stay here through the winter.

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Gulls on Detroit River, Mariner Park by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015), CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/ykVTL2

So how do the gulls know where they’re going? Ring-billed gulls have a built-in sensitivity to magnetic fields that can help them navigate. Even 2 day old “chicks showed a preference for magnetic bearings that would take them in the appropriate direction for their fall migration. The gulls also rely on landmarks and high-altitude winds to provide directional cues.”

In my work as an environmental educator, we’ve been teaching our PreK students about animal survival strategies for the winter: Migrate, Hibernate and Stay Active. One adorable 4 year old, when asked about the word that describes birds flying south for the winter, shot up his hand.

“They retire to Florida!” he announced proudly.

Makes sense to me!

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Time lapse


Over the summer, I diligently more-or-less managed to water my garden and to document its growth on my camera phone.  Even though I have worked with gardens and growing things for awhile, it is still really exciting to be able to see the changes over the course of the season. I also know that annual plants are supposed to produce seeds, wither and die at the end of their life cycle. But it’s still always a little sad to witness the green garden I nurtured turning brown and crumbly.

My contract with the community garden stipulated that I had to vacate my plot by October 15th. I finally got around to pulling out the dead plants two weeks later, and putting their considerable biomass into the dumpster at the park. In an act of minor rebellion, I left my sage (which was still abundant and green) and the still-blooming sweet alyssum (which had grown huge and floofy.)

The days here in Michigan are turning colder and rainier, which gives me the opportunity to upload and organize all those summer garden photos. I was trying to use Flickr to arrange photos taken of the same of angle of the garden in chronological order, to show the planting, growth and decline of each section. I’m ambivalent about the results, but readers are welcome to check them out here.

I think it may be better to just showcase specific plants in their various life stages. Even the dried-out sunflowers make me pretty happy (I used to see goldfinches eating the seeds, but my camera skills are not strong enough to get a good picture of the birds).

 

Protopian Portulaca Propagation: Michigan Edition

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Heart of the Portulaca blossom by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

Readers of my adventures with Beanstalk Children’s Garden in Kansas City, MO may remember my stint with the Portulaca Witness Protection Program. I was deeply invested in transplanting volunteer Portulaca grandiflora (moss rose) seedlings from the cracks between the garden path bricks into new homes at the base of our raised beds. The relocated plants turned out to be pretty successful at thriving at the new sites!

I also eventually figured out how to propagate portulaca plants from cuttings, though these ended up in flower pots on my deck rather than back in the Beanstalk Garden.

Here in Michigan, I’ve decided to put some of that portulaca cloning to work in my summer garden plot at the community garden. I started with a few portulaca seedlings that I purchased in flats at local nurseries. I planted these in the gaps between the bricks of my raised bed.

 

 

After the initial stress of being transplanted, the portulaca plants recovered and began producing new sprays of fleshy leaves.  I broke off some of the smaller tufts of new growth to produce cuttings for propagation.  From the cutting itself, I also removed the leaves  from the stem portion that would be covered by the rooting medium.

 

 

In an old aluminum foil baking pan, I mixed vermiculite and coir (coconut fiber) with water to create a rooting medium. (Kind of looks like brownies!)  I tucked the cuttings into this substrate, kept it moist and out of direct sunlight until they developed some roots.

 

 

After about 2 weeks, the cuttings’ roots had grown large enough for me to attempt transplantation back into the garden.

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Cutting with roots ready for transplant! by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

Portulaca are hardy plants with succulent leaves/stems that do well in sandy/well-drained soil, as well as tight places like cracks between bricks. In my experience, it’s easier to transplant a small portulaca seedling (volunteer or cutting with developed roots) into a gap than smoosh a whole plant (i.e. from nursery flat) into a larger space.

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Rooting seedlings transplanted to their new homes. PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

If the portulaca seedlings take to their new homes, the growing plants will spread out across the bricks, creating a beautiful “carpet” effect, as well as providing nectar to insects. I never keep track of the flower color of the parent from which I take the cuttings, so it will be a surprise to see what colors combinations emerge.

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At Beanstalk Children’s Garden. Portulaca blanket by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015) on Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/QR7jXb

I haven’t had much luck making a cutting and immediately sticking it directly into the soil. The cuttings always seem to dry out too quickly and wither, unless they have a set of well-developed roots. Even with roots, the transplants must be watered frequently for the first few days.

Putting in the baby portulaca seedlings only managed to feed my vision of portulaca carpeting the outside of the brick raised-bed.  So I made some more cuttings from the original parent plants. Still didn’t keep track of colors.

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Round two of portulaca cuttings! PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

End of Season Update: November 9, 2017
A large proportion of my baby portulaca cuttings failed to root. However, the ones that did managed to bring a lot of color to the bricks of the raised beds. Towards of the end of the summer, I discovered many of the portulaca plants ripped out of the cracks by the roots, with the green parts nibbled away. My guess is that deer visiting the garden decided that these were tasty, or at least worth some nibble attention.

Goat Gatorade

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As Slow as Molasses by Marshall (2009) CC BY 2.0 via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/64f7NE

I have been working on a post about neonicotinoid pesticide toxicity to bees, but have decided to back burner that piece to bring you a post inspired by summer camp (and goats!)

This summer, I’m running around with elementary-age kiddos at a science & nature day camp in Ann Arbor, MI. We just finished our first week of camp with campers, included a few very hot days. To help me stay hydrated, I made my own rehydration solution (aka “Goat gatorade”) from a glug (1-2 tsp) of blackstrap molasses dissolved in 16 oz of water. At a muddy dark brown, goat gatorade not as colorful as the panoply of commercially available sports beverages, but there are significant nutritional and dehydration-prevention benefits to this unusual beverage.

Blackstrap molasses is produced from the third boiling of sugar cane (or sugar beets) in the sugar-making process, concentrating minerals such as Iron, Manganese, Magnesium, Copper and Potassium. It is also a great source of B-vitamins.

I first learned about “goat gatorade” when I worked helped with spring kidding (birthing of baby goats) at Adamah in March 2013. After a mama goat had given birth, we gave her a solution of blackstrap molasses dissolved in water to replace fluids, electrolytes and minerals lost during labor. The mama goats also really seemed to like the taste!

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Some cute pictures of newborn goats with their mama. Momma’s Boy by Sara (2007) CC By-NC 2.0 via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/3ipNQC

When I found myself getting dehydrated during field work at Adamah, despite what I thought was copious water consumption, our farm manager suggested I try drinking the blackstrap molasses rehydration mixture. I discovered I also liked the taste of the solution(sort of a slightly bitter burned sweetness), so I drank more of it than plain water. The solution also seemed to help ward off dreaded dehydration-triggered migraine headaches. I started mentally (then verbally) calling the beverage “goat gatorade” in a nod to the mama goats.

As an apologetic hipster, I have to admit that I’ve been enjoying my unsulphured blackstrap molasses glugs mixed with ground ginger powder, a dash of kosher salt and a pint of tap water shaken vigorously in a repurposed glass pickle jar. If you’re letting it sit overnight in fridge, you can even up your hipster points by adding 1 tsp of chia seeds for an interesting globby texture.

While I like the storage capacity of glass jars (pickle/mason/etc.) I learned that I may want to reconsider using them to transport beverages at camp. I hid my goat gatorade jar under a bench to keep it from getting knocked over during a camp activity. Little did I realize that the top of the jar was in exact place where a 6-year-old’s heels might hit if he or she was swinging them nonchalantly while sitting on the bench. Thank goodness the only casualties in the incident were a broken glass jar, a puddle of chia molasses liquid and my ego (after an embarrassed radio call to my camp director asking for help in cleaning up the puddle/broken glass prevent anyone from getting hurt.)

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It’s not goat gatorade, but you get the idea. Chunky Zilla by Mark Turnauckas (2012) CC By 2.0, on Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/bCv6wb

While the health and wellness blogosphere loves blackstrap molasses for its nutrition content, not everyone loves the taste or consistency. Some cooks warn not to use blackstrap molasses when a recipe calls for regular molasses, especially in baking recipes, because it will change the texture of the final baked good.

A quick search of Google Scholar and the NCBI database has not revealed much published research on blackstrap molasses solution for human rehydration on hot days. I mostly found information on blackstrap molasses as livestock food additive (because goats!), a feedstock for fermentation and other chemical processes, and as a plant-based dietary source of iron in nutrition journal articles.

Molasses seems to come in both sulphured and unsulphured varieties – the sulfur dioxide is added during the process as a preservative to keep the sugar cane fresh. I’ve try to avoid sulfur dioxide (I suspect it can trigger headaches), so I’ve been sticking with the unsulphured variety. (I also am not sure what causes the spelling changes from “f” in the chemical sulfur dioxide to the “ph” in “unsulphured” food product description.)

Fancier version of goat gatorade have been around for years in the form of switchel or haymaker’s punch. In The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder even describes a version of “ginger water” made with sugar, ginger and vinegar, that Laura and Pa drink while bringing in the hay harvest.

Dirt Rental

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I am Protopian Pickle Jar! Look upon my works, ye buzzy ones, and pollinate! (With apologies to Percy Bysshe Shelley) by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

My newest adventure this spring has been my adoption of a raised bed in the local community garden. While I have extensive garden experience, my labor has always been in the service of an organization’s particular vision and purpose (i.e. education, food pantry, CSA). This season is the first time I decided to plant a garden for myself.

It all started over the winter, when I saw a notice in the Parks & Rec brochure that community garden plots were available for rental by township residents. Some years ago, an Eagle Scout worked with the township to create a collection of raised beds located at the local park. These were designed for apartment dwellers (like me!) to plant their own vegetable gardens.

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The frozen winter garden as of March 1, 2017. PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

As I read the notice, daydreams of tomatoes and herbs danced in my winter scarf-ed and be-hatted head. “Yes,” I might have whispered to my vegetal fancies. “You shall be mine!” I made a note on the calendar to reserve a plot with Parks & Rec on March 1st, and slipped back into my winter routine.

Then in January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Rusty patched bumblebee as an endangered species. My social media feeds were inundated with articles and information about the dire plight of native bees and other pollinators. I was very worried. Without bees, there wouldn’t be any tomatoes. Without bees … I didn’t even want to think about it.

I decided that I was going to research and create a pollinator-friendly garden. Yes, the bumbles needed me! I was going to have the happiest darn visiting pollinators in Wayne County, Michigan.

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My target audience. Photo by Protopian Pickle Jar (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

(Tangent: Turns out that the abandoned homes and vacant lots in Detroit increased habitat for the benefit of native bumblebee populations. )

“It’s okay to plant flowers, not just vegetables?” I asked the Parks & Rec staff member, when I paid my garden rental fee for my reserved spots.* “Sure!” she said. “Just as long as you don’t plant any noxious weeds!” (*The city allowed each family to rent up to 2 beds. I took them up on it.)

As the Michigan spring gradually warmed, I was eagerly anticipating May 15th: The first day residents could work their raised garden beds. I watched enviously on social media as friends in warmer climates shared pictures of newly weeded, tilled and planted gardens. I checked out library books on gardening and pollinators and native plants. I bought a kit of garden hand tools from the grocery store seasonal aisle. I still only had the vaguest notion of what I was doing.

Since the Parks Dept has already tilled the soil, I only had to pull out a few weeds to make my beds ready for planting.

Filling my bed with seedlings was an entire process unto itself. Since I live in an apartment and have limited space for starting seeds indoors, I decided that purchasing transplants was the best way to go. I was trying to source plants not treated with neonicotinoid pesticides (systemic pesticides that get taken up into the plants’ tissues) to protect my pollinators from getting stoned by sublethal doses. (This adventure will be the topic of another post, as it proved more complicated and challenging that I expected.)

Eventually,  I did manage to buy  mixed flats of transplants (veggies, herbs and flowering plants) to put into the beds. The garden plot also was the beneficiary of some friend-donated Yukon Gold and Purple seed potatoes.

After my training at the Beanstalk Children’s Garden, I knew that a good layer of mulch would help maintain soil moisture and keep down weeds. At the garden, we had used cotton burr compost, which was a great mulch/soil amendment, but was often unpleasantly stinky.

I wasn’t able to locate cotton burr compost locally, but another gardener suggested cocoa hull mulch, made from the discarded outsides of of cacao beans. Unlike the composted cotton burrs, it smells wonderful (sun-warmed mulch redolent of chocolate!) However, because it is made from chocolate by-products, may be toxic for doggos who like to eat mulch. (I hope dog-adjacent humans visiting the park don’t let their canine buddies wander into the garden for this and other reasons.)

The garden (like all gardens) is a continuous work-in-progress. I keep squeezing new and interesting plants that appeal to me, creating a melange of edible herbs & veggies, pollinator-attractors, yummy smells, textures, and brightly colored flowers.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been spending a lot all of my free time working at the garden, watering the garden, admiring the garden, acquiring plants and supplies for the garden, and when I’m not doing those things, thinking about the garden. It increases my physical activity, improves my mood tremendously and fuels a strange sense of accomplishment.

I love checking in at the garden every day to see what changes are occurring, as well as the various visible visiting creatures. Once camp starts next week, my available brainpower for garden-related activities decreases, but I am looking forward to keeping the blog updated with garden developments.

Edited July 3, 2017: You can keep up with the growing garden in photos via my Dirt Rental Flickr Album.

Lurking in the Laundry: Part 1

Or my love affair with synthetic fabric and shed microplastic fibers.

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Clothesline by Protopian Pickle Jar (2013) CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/xh4Qz3

It’s a laundry day again (an occasion usually determined by running out of clean socks and/or underwear). I dutifully sort out my pile of dirty garments into hot, warm and cold washes. Bras and fine fabrics on delicate cycle. Add some bleach to my gunk-stained kitchen towels.

Here is a cute picture of a toddler captivated by a washing machine:

Little boy looking at laundry spinning in front loading machine
Jasper And The Washing Machine by Henry Burrows, (2011) CC BY-SA 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/9HEw5k

Normally, my focus is on whether or not the washing machine in my apartment building is being used by another resident. (It’s not – Check!) But today, I’m thinking about washing machine waste water, specifically the laundry fuzz in the water that shakes loose during the washing cycle, and where it ultimately ends up.

This is not the first time I have been concerned about the issue of wastewater treatment.

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Where Does it Go? by PPJ (2015) CC BY-SA 2.0

This is the cover of my 7th grade research paper on wastewater treatment, circa 1994. Found while cleaning out  my childhood bedroom.  The colored things are supposed to be pipes.

Back to laundry. So from my particular washing machine usage, the waste water (which often contains little fuzzy bits of lint that come off of synthetic fabric in the wash) goes to the Downriver Wastewater Treatment Plant, which discharges treated effluent into the Detroit River. The Detroit River continues flowing into Lake Erie, and then Lake Erie water continues to flow throughout the Great Lakes.

That water flowing from my washing machine to River to Great Lakes still contains tiny, tiny particles of plastic fibers shed from the fuzz of my polyester fleece sweaters and other synthetic fabrics. Hoffman & Hittinger model this flow of microplastics into the Great Lakes in the December 2016 Marine Pollution Bulletin. (Note: Not all the microplastics come from washing machine discharge.)

These microscopic plastic fibers might look something like this:

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Microplastic fibers identified in the marine environment By M.Danny25 (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASnap-40.jpg

The problem with these synthetic microscopic fibers is that they’re … plastic. They’re really, really small, so they are impossible to remove from the water after the fact. They don’t biodegrade in the water (though they might break down into even smaller particles.) These fibers can absorb (and concentrate) other pollutants that are present in the water. And then these plastic fibers get eaten by plankton, and then work their way up the food chain into the bodies of fish and other wildlife, including humans.

The folks at Patagonia determined that fleece microplastic fiber shedding happened in the washing machine no matter how lovingly crafted from recycled-PET soda bottles the fleece was.  However higher quality fabric shed fibers at a lower rate.

As an environmental educator, most of my “outdoor” clothing (i.e. Teva Pants, long underwear, and outer layers, including socks) contain synthetic fibers. Every time I come out of the garden or woods to wash my mud-caked clothes, I’m contributing to this pollution problem.

To be continued…

 

Bad-Ass Librarians

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Timbuktu manuscript by Leslie Lewis, (2011) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/9hv7Lq

I just started reading the book The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer. It chronicles the adventures of a group of determined librarians who rescued centuries-old handwritten Islamic manuscripts in North Africa. First, going house to house in small villages to collect and preserve ancient works from the depredations of dust, moisture and termites. Then later, pulling off a massive rescue to keep the assembled libraries of texts from deliberate destruction at the hands of Al Qaeda extremists.

I am lucky to have encountered many Bad-Ass librarians (including archivists, information scientists and Wiki-enthusiasts) in my adventures. I hope that some number among my readership. Their efforts at preserving and disseminating information have enriched my education and work life, as well as to satisfy my personal curiosity. I also continue to benefit from the easy accessibility of reliable information ensured by these data warriors.

Some vintage Bad-Ass Librarians:

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Library confusion, 23/12/1952, by Sam Hood, State Library of New South Wales on Flickr Commons https://flic.kr/p/9KZPGt

 
I remember in 6th grade, I had an assignment to create a graph for a social studies project. My mom and I went to the main branch of the Johnson County Public Library. A reference librarian helped us locate and photocopy a table of data from a US Government publication that I could use to create my line graph. Later, in my undergraduate climate lab, we downloaded NASA satellite temperature data to analyze differences over land and oceans. I use Wikipedia daily, to explore unfamiliar topics or confirm knowledge only dimly remembered.

However, information is only as good as the paper it’s printed on, or as solid as the computer servers where it is stored. A careless (or deliberate) hand with a shredder or unplugged computer can reduce public access to data sets, effectively eradicating years of accumulated work. A few weeks ago, I heard that a group of volunteers in Toronto & Philadelphia were rushing to preserve scientific data now freely available on the internet, lest policy changes by the incoming US administration decide to remove those data sets from public view.

Data Rescue events organized by scientists and librarians were popping all over the place, including one in Ann Arbor, MI. When they put out a call for volunteers (all you needed was a laptop and charger, no tech experience needed), I signed up.

We had a list of federal government scientific data websites which were parceled out to teams of volunteers. A lot of the process was figuring out whether data was stored on “crawlable” or “uncrawlable” websites. Crawlable sites could be tagged with a special tool that would automatically upload a copy to the Internet Archive. Uncrawlable sites required figuring out other ways of downloading data (accomplished by more technically adept teams). One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to check off “completed” sites from the list (many of the websites were circular and labyrinthine), and how to communicate that information to the other groups so that we didn’t duplicate efforts.

That morning, I sat down with a group of students, librarians and community members I had never met before, got some bagels and coffee, and got to work. When I stood up 5 hours later, it felt like only a few minutes had passed, but we had logged hundreds of web pages.

Michigan Radio reported on the event, which logged 19,000 links to the Internet Archive’s End-of-Term project, and preserved more than 1.5TB of data from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It was satisfying to be part of a grassroots event that protected public data for continuing use by researchers, students and citizens, even if the Federal agencies make the decision not to host the information anymore on their servers. In a political landscape filled with rancor and uncertainty, it felt good to be able to actively contribute to a small act of resistance.

However, there is much more work to be done. For example, the USDA removed a database of information regarding animal welfare complaints from its website last Friday, drawing attention from animal welfare advocates. The work of the “guerrilla archivists” and Data Rescue volunteers has brought greater scrutiny to how government agencies under new political leadership limit access to previously public information.

For more news coverage of Data Rescue events, check out this list of publications.