The Wonderful World Of Harbingers

Moments after posting about this owl, an email promoting a course about owls appeared in my inbox. Owls have been considered harbingers in different folk and mythic traditions, none of which I subscribe to. A harbinger event on the computer is now most likely an algorithmic event, where one thing triggered another on purpose. Normally I find those intrusive, at best. But, I get emails from the Lab of Ornithology frequently and this one came a few days after the news of the owl in Central Park. Did they put together this course and promo after seeing the publicity that the Central Park owl was getting? If so, bravo. Quick reaction. Well communicated. Watch the brief video that came in the email and tell me you have no interest:

As creatures of the night, owls can seem mysterious and kind of spooky. Some people think of them as bad omens, harbingers of death. But they can also be symbols of knowledge and wisdom.

Owls have fascinated people for millennia. Everyone knows what an owl is, even if you haven’t actually seen one in real life. They’re instantly recognizable, with their large, round heads, flat faces, and forward staring eyes. We seem to be drawn to them because they resemble people. They’re definitely birds, but they also kind of look like us…

Some people are interested in learning more about birds, others are not, but this lesson plan sounds like a good one for starters: Continue reading

Winged Victory Of Central Park

Barry’s fans, in the North Woods of Central Park. Dave Sanders for The New York Times

Two years ago when a mandarin duck caught the attention of New Yorkers, and others with avian interests, I was struck by the diversionary value. Now, even more than then, winged diversion is welcome. This one provided me a diversion within a diversion. A sculpture dedicated on a Greek island more than two thousand years ago honored a victory, and the sculptor chose the goddess of victory to represent that honor. At that time, the goddess was always depicted with wings. If victory has been on your mind lately, you might see this owl as a harbinger.

Barry the Barred Owl is New York City’s bird of the moment. Dave Sanders for The New York Times

That’s up to you. Even without thinking of victory, a good owl photo is always a welcome diversion. The photograph by Joshua Kristal (click the image below to go to his Instagram feed) is particularly well composed. My thanks to Lisa M. Collins for this story:

‘I Had to See That Owl’: Central Park’s New Celebrity Bird

New Yorkers are so obsessed with Barry the barred owl that some are concerned he could be scared away. So far, he seems to like the attention.

Joshua Kristal finally got to see (and photograph) Barry during a Birding Bob night tour through Central Park earlier this month. Joshua Kristal

It was late afternoon in the North Woods of Central Park, and the sun was setting fast. Joshua Kristal, a photographer with a penchant for birds, was starting to feel despondent as he searched along the creek, looking for any movement. This was the third time he’d traveled more than an hour from Brooklyn to see Manhattan’s newest celebrity bird: an ethereal and majestic barred owl.

Currently known as Barry, the owl has intense black eyes and elegant poufs of white feathers streaked with brown and gray. He looks like a perfect stuffed animal from a high-end toy store. But Barry is also unusual. Though owls are typically nocturnal, he makes regular daytime appearances, and has become something of a performer. Practically vogueing, he stares, preens and swoops into the shallow stream to wash and flick his feathers. Barry will turn his head 270 degrees right and left and up above to check for his archenemy, the hawk. He plucks chipmunks with his talons and devours them, seemingly unfazed by adoring fans and the paparazzi, many of whom have already made him Instagram-famous. Continue reading

Major Marine Sanctuary, An Unexpected Gift Of 2020

The marine sanctuary off Tristan da Cunha will be the fourth largest in the world. Photograph: Andy Schofield/RSPB/PA

The Guardian shares some welcome conservation news from a lesser-known bit of land surrounded by plenty water-based wildlife:

Tiny Atlantic island takes giant leap towards protecting world’s oceans

UK overseas territory Tristan da Cunha’s new marine protected area will be fourth largest sanctuary of its kind

Rockhopper penguins on Tristan da Cunha will be among a wealth of marine life to benefit. Photograph: Trevor Glass/RSPB/PA

A community of 250 people on one of the most remote inhabited islands on Earth has made a significant contribution to marine wildlife conservation by banning bottom-trawling fishing, deep-sea mining and other harmful activities from its waters.

The government of Tristan da Cunha, a volcanic archipelago in the south Atlantic and part of the UK’s overseas territories, has announced that almost 700,000 sq km of its waters will become a marine protected area (MPA), the fourth largest such sanctuary in the world. Continue reading

Changing Seasons In Escazu, Changing Climate All Around

The plant in the photo above, called Rosa de Jamaica, which looks like hibiscus but is not, grew from a small cutting gifted by friends on the other side of the mountain where we live. After a few weeks in the ground it is doing well. In the photo below you can see one of the poro saplings we also planted a couple week ago, already home to what counts as charismatic wildlife in our family.

When we started to prep the land in order to restore an abandoned portion of an old coffee farm, seeds were just then falling from the poro trees that are essential to the plan. It is heartening to see how quickly the animal kingdom responded. The dry season normally starts this month, but we are expecting more rain from yet another Greek-named hurricane hitting the isthmus this week. Seasonal change, meet climate change.

Hornet Hunters of Paris

Urban beekeeping has exploded in Paris, and the honeybees have become an easy target for invasive wasps.

We recently published some good news about a similar invasive insect in Washington State, but it’s important to note that the species on the prowl in Paris is related, but not the same.  Although far less dangerous (tell that to the honeybee prey…) they still are a menace to other insects, especially honeybees. The good news here is that the hornets have been in France for well over a decade, and the human wasp controllers have the skills and tools to combat them, protecting the thriving businesses of urban apiculture.

The Murder Hornet Hunters of Paris

And other tales of hives and honeybees in the City of Light.

“The queen is dead?” a preschool administrator in suburban Paris asked Matthieu Bize, a wasp controller who had come to rid the schoolyard of Asian hornets.

On the ground, a nest was in tatters. Twenty minutes earlier, it had been high up in an ivy-choked tree, where it looked like a jumbo gray-brown balloon. Mr. Bize, 32, had sent a telescopic pole through the canopy, injected a paralyzing white powder into the hornets’ home, and knocked it down. The colony’s larvae, future queens among them, were strewn about. “Nearly finished here,” he said.

In English, the Bize family name is pronounced “bees”; in French, it is “bise” (short for kisses). Dozens of times a day, when Mr. Bize answers his cellphone — “C’est Monsieur Bize” — this gentle phrasing sweetens an otherwise sting-y situation.

For Mr. Bize doesn’t hunt just any pest. One-third of the nests to which he responds belong to a species of dreaded “murder hornet,” a type of wasp that beheads and feeds to its larvae an insect that is very important to, and symbolic of, France: the honeybee.

Beyond the fact that Napoleon chose the honeybee for his logo in the early 19th century (the emperor favored the insect for its tenacity), France is the European Union’s largest agricultural producer, and generally known for pollinator-friendly policies. It is also one of Europe’s major honey trade hubs.

Continue reading

The Language We Use To Know About Plants

Like Magnolia, Begonia, Iris and a few others, the genus name Camellia has been assimilated into English, rather than having a common name assigned to it. “A handful of iconic garden plants have names that are easy to pronounce and spell, and are so widely used that they’re devoid of dread,” said Ross Bayton, the author of “The Gardener’s Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names.” Drawing from “The Gardener’s Botanical.”

Thanks to Margaret Roach for this review, whose subtitle–Latin might seem like an obscure, inscrutable language for naming plants. But it can open up the botanical world in ways you can’t imagine–is its central recommendation. Things I can’t imagine, maybe especially when I need to make a Plan B for planting, are a welcome resource these days. As always, if you decide to acquire this book and can do so from an independent bookseller you will be doing the world a favor:

Simply knowing a plant’s genus, such as Hydrangea, doesn’t tell you the whole story. The second word in the botanical Latin binomial — the species name or specific epithet modifying the genus — offers further clues, perhaps describing the plant’s place of origin or its appearance. In the case of Hydrangea macrophylla, it means big leaf. Drawing from “The Gardener’s Botanical.”

The plants are trying to tell us something — if only we’d learn their official language, botanical Latin.

“I am the Allium with just one leaf,” says Allium unifolium. (Get it?)

“I am the juniper that carpets the ground,” says Juniperus horizontalis (whose alternate name, Juniperus prostrata, nails its appearance, too).

And Aster alpinus chimes in: “My ancestors hailed from above the timber line — you know, like, the Alps. I won’t appreciate some sodden, clayey spot in your garden.”

Not all plant names offer such easy clues about traits like appearance, preferred conditions or place of origin. Continue reading

Character & Entrepreneurial Conservation

A diadem sifaka, a type of lemur, in northern Madagascar. Erik Vance/The New York Times

Erik Vance, whose work I have not seen in more than three years, caught my attention again this week. Then it was in National Geographic and from my perch in Belize his story had an obvious connection to my location. This story, in the New York Times, is read from a perch in Costa Rica. My perspective, as ever, is influenced by the search for examples of entrepreneurial conservation. I am happy to read about this one full of interesting characters, in a country I have yet to visit, where there is resonance with some of my experience in Costa Rica. Creative people, knowing that the country’s public conservation commitments have their limits, achieve remarkable conservation goals through private reserves that add to the public good. The section describing a small park with big potential could have also been written about Seth’s workplace last year:

In Madagascar, Endangered Lemurs Find a Private Refuge

Climate change is shifting the habitats of endangered species and requiring conservation scientists to think outside traditional park boundaries.

Sambava, Madagascar — Madagascar has always been one of the best places on Earth to study the natural world. Continue reading

Intimate Ecological Ethos

A view of the Cherry Esplanade from the top of the Robert W. Wilson Overlook at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. George Etheredge for The New York Times

Beyond books and other published material, New Yorkers have plenty of places to see natural spectacles, places where nature can be better understood in an otherwise concrete jungle. Ecological ethos describes the new feel of the intimate 52 acres in one of those places:

Brooklyn Botanic Garden Turns Over a New Leaf

A wild meadow and woodland ‘ruin’ are now on exuberant display. The new, ecologically minded garden boasts shaggy clouds of vegetation.

Lavender asters burst through ground-hugging meadow species at the overlook. George Etheredge for The New York Times

Only a skeleton staff at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden witnessed the blizzard of cherry blossoms scattered by spring breezes during the pandemic shutdown. Delicate blooms of wisteria tumbled over pergolas and plump roses unfurled with no appreciative fans to say “Oooh.”

The garden reopened in August for a limited daily number of socially distanced visitors. Now, as fall’s vibrant, showy display begins, meadow and woodland gardens completed at last winter’s onset are finally coming into their own. They are the culmination of a yearslong evolution, as the garden turns over a new leaf with the selection in September of Adrian Benepe, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, as the new president and chief executive. Continue reading

Can There Be Murder Hornet Good News?

Hornets with radio trackers attached led entomologists to the nest. Washington State Department of Agriculture

If you noted the danger five months ago, and find this topic newsworthy, you know how important it was to find the nest. Finally, after an exhaustive search, they found it and it seems we should count this as good news, especially in a year like 2020:

Murder Hornet Nest, First in U.S., Is Found in Washington State

Officials said they planned to destroy the nest in Blaine, Wash., on Saturday before the voracious Asian giant hornets could multiply and lay waste to bees.

Like detectives closing in on a fugitive hide-out deep in the woods, officials in Washington State announced on Friday that they had located the first murder hornet nest in the United States, tucked in a tree hollow near the Canadian border.

The officials said they planned to destroy the nest in Blaine, Wash., on Saturday before the voracious Asian giant hornets could multiply and begin laying waste to bees that are vital to the survival of the region’s raspberries, blueberries and other crops. Continue reading

Marine Ecosystem Restoration Success Stories

Seagrass beds off Virginia’s Eastern Shore went from barren sediment to abundant meadows in 20 years in the world’s largest restoration project. credit: JAY FLEMING

Thanks for Science News for this wonderful example of successful ecosystem restoration.

How planting 70 million eelgrass seeds led to an ecosystem’s rapid recovery

The study is a blueprint for capitalizing on this habitat’s capacity to store carbon

In the world’s largest seagrass restoration project, scientists have observed an ecosystem from birth to full flowering.

As part of a 20-plus-years project, researchers and volunteers spread more than 70 million eelgrass seeds over plots covering more than 200 hectares, just beyond the wide expanses of salt marsh off the southern end of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Long-term monitoring of the restored seagrass beds reveals a remarkably hardy ecosystem that is trapping carbon and nitrogen that would otherwise contribute to global warming and pollution, the team reports October 7 in Science Advances. That success provides a glimmer of hope for the climate and for ecosystems, the researchers say.

The project, led by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and The Nature Conservancy, has now grown to cover 3,612 hectares — and counting — in new seagrass beds. By comparison, the largest such project in Australia aims to restore 10 hectares of seagrass.

The results are “a game changer,” says Carlos Duarte. Continue reading

A Few Attenborough Minutes

When he first appeared in these pages, and each of the dozens of times since then that David Attenborough has returned, it is worth at least a few minutes of attention. Click above to go to the video or below to go to the transcript:

Amid planet’s crisis, filmmaker Sir David Attenborough’s ‘vision for the future’

Filmmaker Sir David Attenborough has been documenting the natural world since the 1950s. In his latest book and film, “A Life on Our Planet,” he offers a grave and alarming assessment about the climate crisis Earth is facing. The 94-year-old Attenborough spoke with William Brangham recently as part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas. Continue reading

Hidden Camera, Tiger Tree Hug, Award

Sergey Gorshkov’s image of an Amur tiger, which won him the 2020 wildlife photographer of the year award.

Thanks to Mark Brown, Arts correspondent at the Guardian, for this:

Image of tiger hugging tree wins 2020 wildlife photographer award

Sergey Gorshkov left a hidden camera in a Russian forest for 11 months to capture the big cat

An image of a clearly ecstatic tigress hugging an ancient Manchurian fir tree in a remote Siberian forest has won one of the world’s most prestigious photography prizes.

It took Russian photographer Sergey Gorshkov 11 months to capture the moment using hidden cameras. His patience led to him being named 2020 wildlife photographer of the year by the Duchess of Cambridge at a ceremony at London’s Natural History Museum.

The image was selected from more than 49,000, with Roz Kidman Cox, the chair of the judging panel, calling the photograph “a unique glimpse of an intimate moment deep in a magical forest”. Continue reading

Know GEF Through Its New Leader

Mongabay‘s Rhett A. Butler offers an engaging conversation with the new leader of GEF, who we have confidence will lead this institution to the planet’s benefit. His realization at a young age about seasonal differences in bird abundance is a good example of why programs like Celebrate Urban Birds in places where migratory birds come and go are so important. It has been too long since we last sourced from Mongabay, but today we correct that with this recorded interview (click above) and the printed version (click below):

The post-COVID opportunity for the environment: An interview with the GEF’s Carlos Manuel Rodriguez

Tropical forests in places like Costa Rica (pictured) can be an important source of livelihoods by attracting nature-oriented tourists. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay: Congratulations on the new role at the Global Environment Facility.

Rodriguez: Well, I’m very pleased and honored. I’ve been working half my professional life in government and half within the civil society in Costa Rica. I have worked very close to the GEF, including in the early days of the GEF. I was a negotiator for CBD for the Rio convention and also had the fortune to work with the government of Costa Rica in the first implementation of GEF funding in Costa Rica. Those were very interesting times, the mid-1990s.

I’m really delighted that 25 plus years after that, I’m leading this very prestigious organization. I never thought I would have that opportunity, particularly for coming from a developing country, a recipient country. Continue reading

Arborists & Urban Futures

Xuebing Du

An article by Clive Thompson we linked to in 2016 makes me wonder why today is the first time we are sharing his work since then. I remember reading a review of his book last year but did not see a fit with the themes we tend to focus on here. Urban trees,  for one example, feature in our pages frequently. And trees more broadly speaking have probably been featured more than any other topic due to our mission. So our appreciation to the Atlantic for publishing this, and an added thanks for the excellent photographic accompaniments:

Trees Are Time Machines

Arborists are planting trees today that must survive decades of global warming. The health, comfort, and happiness of city dwellers hang in the balance.

City trees lead difficult lives. A lot of things are trying to kill them, particularly the trees planted on sidewalks: Tightly compacted soil with high alkaline content makes it harder for them to absorb nutrients. Tiny plots of land admit very little rainwater. They’ve got dogs peeing on them, people dropping cigarette butts nearby, and cars belching pollution.

Xuebing Du

“We’re talking about trees that are very vulnerable,” says Navé Strauss, the head of street-tree planting for New York City. His team manages the planting of new trees on streets and public rights of way; there are more than 666,000 street trees in the city, and the team plants about 16,000 new ones annually. For decades, New York arborists have tended to prefer “tough,” hardy species that thrive well against adversity—such as the London planetree, which sports grayish bark and big, maple-like leaves that offer sidewalks tons of shade.

But lately, Strauss has been looking for trees that can handle an even tougher challenge: climate change.

Xuebing Du

In the past century, the United States has heated up as much as 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit. Continue reading

Common Octopus, Uncommon Story

My Octopus Teacher is available on Netflix

I was not avoiding it, exactly, but by night time my attention span diminishes. From a reluctant start at 7:30pm yesterday, assuming I would fall asleep less than half way through, my absorption became total from the first minute and remained so until the end. It was a compelling conclusion to a very long day. Film reviews rarely appear here, but New Scientist gives me good reason to share more than my own opinion:

My Octopus Teacher review: The strange lives of cephalopods up close

In many ways, the octopus is a tough proposition: a soft-bodied mollusc that carries the bulk of its brain in its arms, that can render itself solid without a skeleton or liquid despite its beak, that evolved separately from nearly every other organism on Earth. That otherness is at the heart of our fascination with octopuses: can we even aspire to understand something so foreign? A new Netflix documentary, My Octopus Teacher, follows one man’s attempt. Continue reading

Cambium Carbon’s Reforestation Hubs

When we started this platform for sharing news and experiences related to innovative approaches to conservation, Seth was in Nicaragua and wrote multiple posts on Simplemente Madera  It is odd not to find a more recent post about their One Tree initiative because in early 2019 while sourcing for Authentica we sought out products that supported tree-planting. Today I am reminded of all that from a link I followed to Cambium Carbon in this story:

Courtesy of Cambium Carbon. Cambium Carbon aims to turn cut or fallen urban trees into wood products that can be sold to fund tree-planting efforts. Currently, most trees removed from cities are either chipped for low-grade application or hauled to a landfill at a significant cost.

Reforestation Hubs, ‘Coming Soon’ to a City Near You

Cambium Carbon, an initiative founded by YSE students to combat climate change and revitalize urban communities by reimagining the urban tree lifecycle, has earned a $200,000 Natural Climate Solution Accelerator Grant from The Nature Conservancy, in partnership with The Arbor Day Foundation. Continue reading

Acacia Trees & Anti-Desertification

Credit: Getty

Thanks to the BBC for this:

The ancient trade holding back the Sahara Desert

For millennia, the gum of the acacia tree has been prized for its unusual culinary and medical uses. Now, the trees are part of a continent-wide effort to hold back the Sahara Desert.

In the Malian bush, a scattering of acacia trees grow through the wild grass and shrubs that spread for miles across the semi-arid scrub. Herders graze cattle nearby and local people fetch firewood. The acacias are among the taller and faster-growing trees of this habitat, with old individuals reaching high above the surrounding scrub.

Gum arabic spills out naturally from wounds in the acacia tree, but it can also be extracted by making deliberate incisions into the bark (Credit: Reuters)

This is the Sahel, a savannah that stretches across six countries in mainland West Africa. This dry strip of land between the tropical rainforests to the south, and the Sahara to the north, sees just three months of rain a year. It’s a region that is changing quickly. Climate change has seen the Sahara Desert grow around 100km (62 miles) southward since 1950, and is expected to continue the same trend in the coming decades. Continue reading

Some Of Nature’s Miniature Pharmaceutical Factories Are Also Culinary Powerhouses

Photograph by Mari Maeda and Yuji Oboshi. Styled by Suzy Kim

I have not done a count, but I would guess the New York Times has been the source of as many stories we link to as any other publication. Mostly that would be due to the excellence, and relevance to our goals, of the Science section. The New York Times Style Magazine is not normally a source for us. I cannot find a single link to that publication on this platform in 9+ years and among 4,000+ posts. We feature plenty of shiny pretty things but only those that offer insight relevant to this platform. On occasion the trendy and/or the fashionable intersect well with the stories we favor, and we have no problem pointing those out.

A selection of herbal and mushroom powders from Apothékary. Sarah Gurrity

So it goes with fungi. There are many fungi-focused posts on this platform, few of which would be seen as glamorizing. Surely we are trying to validate the topic by shining an attractive light on it. But we favor knowledge over visual stimulation. Aesthetics are not lost on us, nor is the intent to get more people interested in a topic we care about, so:

Are Mushrooms the Future of Wellness?

Long thought to have medicinal benefits, fungi including reishi, lion’s mane and chaga are gaining popularity in the wellness world.

Even before the onset of the pandemic, which has increased the demand for all manner of so-called organic immunity elixirs, wellness-minded Americans were warming to mushrooms. To be clear, mushrooms don’t cure Covid-19, but they are thought to provide a host of other benefits, from serving as an aphrodisiac to bolstering one’s defenses to toxins…

Not one, but two articles in the same issue, both with fabulous photography. The first, by Arden Fanning Andrews, deals with the health benefits of fungi; the second, by Ligaya Mishan, focuses on the culinary:

A duo of royal trumpet mushrooms alongside ladybugs, lichen and wild ferns.Credit…Mari Maeda and Yuji Oboshi

Mushrooms, the Last Survivors

Neither plant nor animal, mushrooms have confounded humans since ancient times. Now, they’re a reminder of our tenuous place in an uncertain world.

The mushrooms sit on high, behind glass, above bottles of Armagnac and mezcal in a bar at the Standard hotel in Manhattan’s East Village. They are barely recognizable at first, just eerie silhouettes resembling coral growths in an aquarium, blooming in laboratory-teal light: tightly branched clusters of oyster mushrooms in hot pink, yolk yellow and bruise blue, alongside lion’s mane mushrooms, shaggy white globes with spines like trailing hair…

Think Twice About Whatever It Takes For Honeybees

A honey bee visits a blooming catmint plant in New Mexico. ROBERT ALEXANDER/GETTY IMAGES

Since Milo’s 2011 post on this topic we have paid attention to the plight of honey bees and their human keepers, and might have had a “whatever it takes” perspective on letting those human keepers find solutions to keep their colonies alive. Jennifer Oldham’s article in Yale e360 has us thinking twice:

Will Putting Honey Bees on Public Lands Threaten Native Bees?

As suitable sites become scarce, commercial beekeepers are increasingly moving their hives to U.S. public lands. But scientists warn that the millions of introduced honey bees pose a risk to native species, outcompeting them for pollen and altering fragile plant communities.

Beekeeper Dennis Cox checks his hives in Strawberry Valley, Utah in July. JENNIFER OLDHAM / YALE E360

Honey bees heavy with pollen and nectar foraged from wildflowers on Utah’s Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest collide with tall grass and tumble to the ground. They are attempting to land alongside a hive, and I watch as they struggle to stand, fly into the box, and disgorge nectar to be made into honey.

The pollinators belong to a 96-hive apiary, trucked here to Logan Canyon for the summer to rest and rebuild their population, replenishing bees lost to disease and pesticides after months pollinating California’s almond groves. By Labor Day, the yard could house 5 million domesticated pollinators. Continue reading