I spotted these pretty petunias in the yard of my neighbor, Paula, who has a splendid green thumb. Even in the sizzling heat of July these petunias looked fresh and vital. Her secret? You guessed it: she waters her entire garden daily.

The right half of this photograph contained several blooms that had been chomped by a rabbit. (How did I know? I recognized the distinctive teethmarks.) I had no choice but to cut away a large part of the photo. As a rule, I try to avoid such big crops, because they often result in a stilted image. But I was lucky this time, and achieved a graceful, cascading composition. Sharp focus top to bottom adds to the dazzling effect, as does the gradual increase in size of the descending blossoms.

The photo was taken July 21, 2013 at 6:18 pm, in the sizzling heat. Click the image to view it full screen, and click the back arrow to return.
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Related: Jackie’s Blooms.

 

Rarely have I captured a Great Blue Heron poised to strike, as this one is. It had not been fishing here, one of its favored spots, for the past few days. It looked a mite hungry.
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There had been a good many boats on the water during that time; they almost certainly kept the big bird away. That isn’t a knock on boaters, just a reflection of how shy this great bird is. I’ve only to open a window, and it’ll fly off. Just a single boat in sight will keep it away. This was one of those hot, humid days in July that kept boaters at home. Of course, I’m reporting only what I see here in the southern end of the pond. The boat ramp is at the southern tip, leading me to think there may be more boats down here, and fewer in the far northern end, where the Great Blues are also seen, and where they may seek refuge when boats are present here.

In the past, I often saw three or more Great Blues on the pond at one time. The photo of four friends, just below, I took on January 12, 2007 with my very first digital camera, a little point-and-shoot. In years past, I saw even greater numbers of Double-crested Cormorants. I captured a small flock of them in the water on May 20, 2011, swimming partly submerged, as they are wont to do. The photo is near the bottom of the post.

The virtual disappearance of the Great Blues and many other regulars — gulls, cormorants, and Green Herons — is almost certainly due to the mass die-off in March 2012 of Bluegills. These small sunfish were a basic food source. Their loss has been devastating. The gulls used to congregate here by the dozens, their plaintive calls carried by the currents, a reassuring reminder of their graceful presence. Now, I’m lucky to see a single gull, cormorant or Great Blue Heron on any one day. It’s a bleak prospect out there beyond my window.

I’ve seen no Green Herons so far this year, but I did photograph several last year. The waterfowl are still with us, of course — the elegant Mute Swan pair, the honking, cantankerous Canada Geese, and about a dozen, peaceable Mallards, all thriving, of course, on a vegetarian diet. None of them seem to be bothered by the boats, unless of course, they have young’uns in tow.

There’s been a sharp uptick in boating since the new boat ramp was built last year. The Great Blues, as I said, are shy of the boats, but the cormorants and gulls don’t seem to take offense. One can never be sure, though. A few boats in normal times may be harmless enough, but many boats, and coming after the loss of a major food source, may further stress the birds, hastening their departure. I’m not picking on the boats; they’re just a visible form of human intervention. Other examples are rampant.

The larger point is that such impacts can be cumulative; weakness resulting from one can increase vulnerability to others, with stresses on the system mounting. A pond’s ecosystem by its nature is a delicate one; it does not have unlimited capacity to take everything we can throw at it. If we wish to preserve the pond near to its natural state, we must be aware of, and allow for its limitations.

Such impacts are not only cumulative, but can be linked in a chain of causality. A case in point is the pond’s silted outlet channel. It had been partly silted for decades, but was further filled in by the great floods of March 2010. Such a blockage, it’s not unreasonable to assume, may slow natural flushing of the pond’s water, furthering the build-up of 1) toxins, or 2) decaying organic matter that depletes dissolved oxygen. Either scenario could explain the mass fish die-off of 2012. Last, but not least, destructive floods are now far more likely, with the outlet so heavily silted. The pond is like a bathtub with a stopper in the drain.

The good news is that the Mayor has asked the Consolidated Public Works Department to look into the cleaning and repairing of the outlet channel — but she has yet to commit funds for it. I do believe our elected officials understand the critical importance of this project, with its dual benefits for flood control and the pond’s ecosystem. It’s simply a matter of priorities. If enough people speak to their city councilors, or to the mayor, herself, it will in time rise to the level of action.

A final note on the vanished water birds: Over time, Purple Loosestrife, an invasive species, has crowded out native plants in several areas along the shore, and almost entirely in the great northwestern marsh. The vast loosestrife monoculture of the marsh deprives many birds of the feeding and nesting areas on which they depend. Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Purple Loosestrife infestations result in dramatic disruption in water flow in rivers and canals, and a sharp decline in biological diversity as native food and cover plant species, notably cattails, are completely crowded out, and the life cycles of organisms from waterfowl to amphibians to algae are affected.

Biocontrol of loosestrife is the only method that has proven effective, using beetles that attack the plant. Sadly, a state program supporting such efforts has ended. For individuals or organizations wishing to mount a beetle control program of their own, the state now provides limited technical advice. A beetle program, we’re told, can be a good classroom project, one that’s not costly to run.

The pond is valued as a place where residents commune with nature. It’s also home to many diverse creatures, from tiny, single-celled organisms to insects, fish, frogs, turtles, mollusks, birds, muskrats, and countless plant species. Therein lies its appeal, but also its challenge: Can we strike a balance between our use of the pond for recreation, and the health of its complex ecosystem?

Past, strenuous efforts have succeeded in saving the pond, but husbandry, like housework, never ends. Its now time to renew our stewardship. If we fail to act, we may diminish the very things about the pond that we value, and that draw us to it. Some day, the heron we see on the pond could be the last. The silted outlet and the loosestrife are the low-hanging fruit; they are the places to start.

Summing up: The principle that wildlife populations fluctuate with food supply is widely recognized. The real issue is why the food supply — in this case, the Bluegill sunfish — died off in the first place. Fish kills due to natural oxygen depletion (anoxia), though common other times of year, are almost unheard of in the spring, according to MassWildlife. When large die-offs do occur in the spring some human complicity is assumed. I’ve posited stagnant water from a silted outlet channel, but I freely acknowledge there could be other causes, either alternate or contributory. Adding to the mystery is why the birds began to come back a few months after the March 2012 die-off, only to disappear again. In the past, fish stocks have recovered after mass die-offs. Can we always take it for granted? In time, perhaps, the City’s new water testing program will shed some light on these questions.
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Related: The Last Heron II*, Testing the Water*, Purple Loosestrife, Mono Lake*, Dead Fish*, Snatching Gulls*, and
The Great Flood.

 

Bee and We

What does the bee see
In this lovely flower?
Does it see what we see,
Or feel as we feel? A
Beauty transcendent,
Instilling reverence?
If not, whence beauty?
What role does it play
In the grand scheme?
Did it evolve for the bee
With its tiny brain, or
For us with intellect?
What did Darwin say?

Ron Cohen © 2013
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Shaded from the worst of July’s wilting heat by an over-arching leafy canopy, the little, dwarf checkerbloom (or dwarf checkermallow) that I featured in a recent post, continued to bloom. This photo was taken on July 21, 2013 at 5:39 pm, shortly after a brief rain. The sky was a bright overcast. It was the first rain after several sweltering weeks, all too short, a mere foretaste.

Once again, the actual blossoms were much smaller than the photo suggests: less than 1-1/2 inches in diameter. There were still more buds on the single, three-foot stalk. Hopefully, they will all bloom, allowing the plant to spread its seeds, and expand its presence in our garden next summer.

In reading about the checkerbloom, I wondered how it could reseed itself when there are no other plants of its kind in the garden to supply pollen. Digging deeper, I learned that many flowering plants are self-fertile, and can pollenize themselves — with the aid of a bee or other pollinator, or the wind — when pollen from other plants is not available. The checkerbloom employs this survival tactic.

Click the image to see it in exquisite detail, and click the back arrow to return. Notice that the partly hidden blossom in the back has released all of its pollen, while the front one still retains its original pollen cluster.
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Related: Small Wildflower*

 

July Fourth was celebrated on the pond this year by a rare natural effect, one that occurs when the low evening sun reflects off windows on the opposite, eastern shore, and thence onto the water, producing a fabulous, glittering display.

Remembering my high school physics, I realized that I can see this effect only when the angle of incidence and the angle of reflection happen to favor my point of observation, a rare occurrence.

Every time I’ve seen this, it has been from my window, which is just high enough, apparently, to let me catch the angle of reflection off the water.

This entire event lasted just three minutes, before the setting sun fell below a low rise behind me.

The first time I witnessed this dazzling effect was the most impressive and thrilling. My sense of wonder was barely disguised in reporting it.

The second time I saw it, I impulsively ran out in the yard to get a closer shot, only to realize when I got there, that I had lost the critical angle of reflection. By the time I dashed back in to the window, the effect was almost gone.

I chose this photo from thirteen that I took in rapid sequence at about 7:52 pm on Independence Day. Click the image to view it full screen, and click the back arrow to return. Cursor over for its description. Enjoy!
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Related: Glitter III, Glitter II, Glitter*

 

Wildflower

Wildflower so correct,
You move us to reflect:
Whose heart and senses
Were you meant to please,
Whose brain to tease?
The bee who gives thee life,
Or we, who’d pluck it away?
What would Darwin say?

Ron Cohen © 2011
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This delicate wildflower recently appeared in our garden. The close-up photo belies its small size. The open blossom was only 1¼ inches across by ¾ inches high. The low evening sun, hovering above the rise of land to our west, backlit these diaphanous blooms, setting them softly aglow.

You’ll notice that the pollen is fully dispersed from the open blossom. You can get an idea of the original payload by looking closely at the newer, partly opened bloom behind it, with its pollen cluster still intact. The photo was taken on July 4, 2013 at 6:18 pm. Click the image to see it in exquisite detail, and the back arrow to return. Cursor over for its description.

I thought I knew the name of this flower, but like so many other things, I’ve forgotten. Does anyone know? It grows on a three foot stalk.

Update, July 13, 2013: A reader emailed me to say she has the same flower growing in her garden. She identified it as Sidalcea malviflora, with the common names of “dwarf checkerbloom,” “dwarf checkermallow,” “prairie mallow,” or “false mallow.” According to Wikipedia, it is native to the west coast of the United States, and “is somewhat variable in appearance and there are many subspecies.” I have since learned there are also many cultivars*.
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Related: Small Wildflower II*.

*Question: What is the difference between subspecies and cultivars? Here’s my answer, distilled from my reading:

“Subspecies” are naturally occurring, geographically distinct populations, with observable differences, but capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring.

“Cultivars” are botanical varieties that originate under cultivation, or occasionally by natural variation among plants growing in the wild. Some cultivars are infertile and must be propagated by subdivision, grafting, or other forms of human intervention; others will reproduce by seed and retain their distinguishing characteristics. Wikipedia offers this definition:

A cultivar is an assemblage of plants that (a) has been selected for a particular character or combination of characters, (b) is distinct, uniform and stable in those characters, and (c) when propagated by appropriate means, retains those characters.

By international agreement, the cultivar name follows the italicized, Latin botanical name, and is enclosed in single quotation marks — for example, Sidalcea malviflora ‘Elsie Heugh.’

This is is a complex subject; for more detailed information, see the Wikipedia pages for Subspecies and Cultivar.

 

Here are two “outtakes” I salvaged from the cutting room floor, to use a movie-making metaphor. I almost deleted these two images, before reflecting on the responsibilities of a chronicler. They weren’t artful, I had earlier felt in one of my self-critical moods, then later decided that the contrast between two types of boats – working and pleasure – might be of interest to readers after all.

The prop boat had been dispensing herbicide to control several invasive plant species that in the past clogged the pond. To remove them required weeks of noisy, costly, mechanical “harvesting.” The herbicide is state-certified as environmentally safe, we’re told, remaining in the water long enough to do its job, then breaking down.

The “his” and “hers” kayaks are a perfect metaphor for our times. In an earlier era, there would have been just one boat, with the man doing the rowing.

The photos were taken two days apart in June 2013, on the 19th and 21st, respectively. Click the image to view it full screen, and click the back arrow to return. Click a second time to get a closer view. Enjoy.
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Related: Easy Fishin’, Sport Fishing, Sailboat II, Sailboat.