This month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (I.U.C.N.) added the Migratory Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus plexippus) to its “Red List of Threatened Species”, classifying it as endangered. Perhaps there is no better time than the present to have a look at the virtues of replacing areas of mowed and manicured grass with a wildflower garden or meadow that provides essential breeding and feeding habitat for Monarchs and hundreds of other species of animals.
If you’re not quite sure about finally breaking the ties that bind you to the cult of lawn manicuring, then compare the attributes of a parcel maintained as mowed grass with those of a space planted as a wildflower garden or meadow. In our example we’ve mixed native warm season grasses with the wildflowers and thrown in a couple of Eastern Red Cedars to create a more authentic early successional habitat.
Still not ready to take the leap. Think about this: once established, the wildflower planting can be maintained without the use of herbicides or insecticides. There’ll be no pesticide residues leaching into the soil or running off during downpours. Yes friends, it doesn’t matter whether you’re using a private well or a community system, a wildflower meadow is an asset to your water supply. Not only is it free of man-made chemicals, but it also provides stormwater retention to recharge the aquifer by holding precipitation on site and guiding it into the ground. Mowed grass on the other hand, particularly when situated on steep slopes or when the ground is frozen or dry, does little to stop or slow the sheet runoff that floods and pollutes streams during heavy rains.
What if I told you that for less than fifty bucks, you could start a wildflower garden covering 1,000 square feet of space? That’s a nice plot 25′ x 40′ or a strip 10′ wide and 100′ long along a driveway, field margin, roadside, property line, swale, or stream. All you need to do is cast seed evenly across bare soil in a sunny location and you’ll soon have a spectacular wildflower garden. Here at the susquehannawildllife.net headquarters we don’t have that much space, so we just cast the seed along the margins of the driveway and around established trees and shrubs. Look what we get for pennies a plant…
Here’s a closer look…
All this and best of all, we never need to mow.
Around the garden, we’ve used a northeast wildflower mix from American Meadows. It’s a blend of annuals and perennials that’s easy to grow. On their website, you’ll find seeds for individual species as well as mixes and instructions for planting and maintaining your wildflower garden. They even have a mix specifically formulated for hummingbirds and butterflies.
Nothing does more to promote the spread and abundance of non-native plants, including invasive species, than repetitive mowing. One of the big advantages of planting a wildflower garden or meadow is the opportunity to promote the growth of a community of diverse native plants on your property. A single mowing is done only during the dormant season to reseed annuals and to maintain the meadow in an early successional stage—preventing reversion to forest.
For wildflower mixes containing native species, including ecotypes from locations in and near the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed, nobody beats Ernst Conservation Seeds of Meadville, Pennsylvania. Their selection of grass and wildflower seed mixes could keep you planting new projects for a lifetime. They craft blends for specific regions, states, physiographic provinces, habitats, soils, and uses. Check out these examples of some of the scores of mixes offered at Ernst Conservation Seeds…
- Pipeline Mixes
- Pasture, Grazing, and Hay Mixes
- Cover Crops
- Pondside Mixes
- Warm-season Grass Mixes
- Retention Basin Mixes
- Wildlife Mixes
- Pollinator Mixes
- Wetland Mixes
- Floodplain and Riparian Buffer Mixes
- Rain Garden Mixes
- Steep Slope Mixes
- Solar Farm Mixes
- Strip Mine Reclamation Mixes
We’ve used their “Showy Northeast Native Wildflower and Grass Mix” on streambank renewal projects with great success. For Monarchs, we really recommend the “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix”. It includes many of the species pictured above plus “Fort Indiantown Gap” Little Bluestem, a warm-season grass native to Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, and milkweeds (Asclepias), which are not included in their northeast native wildflower blends. More than a dozen of the flowers and grasses currently included in this mix are derived from Pennsylvania ecotypes, so you can expect them to thrive in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.
In addition to the milkweeds, you’ll find these attractive plants included in Ernst Conservation Seed’s “Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden Mix”, as well as in some of their other blends.
Why not give the Monarchs and other wildlife living around you a little help? Plant a wildflower garden or meadow. It’s so easy, a child can do it.
On these hot and steamy days of summer, I get to thinking about how great it would be to have a swimming pool. Maybe I would take a little dip, you know, just to cool down. But when I really get to thinking about it, I just might do what the professor has done with his pool.
Rising prices, an exhausted workforce, political polarization, and pandemic fatigue—times are tough. Product shortages have the consumer culture in a near panic. Some say the future just isn’t what it used to be.
Well, Uncle Tyler Dyer reminds us that things could be worse. He shares with us this observation, “Man, as long as people are spending money poisoning the weeds on their lawns instead of eating them, things aren’t that bad.”
Uncle Ty is particularly fond of the Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), “Check it out. Roasted dandelion roots can make a coffee substitute, the blossoms a wine, and the leaves used to create my favorites, nutrient-dense salads or green vegetable dishes.”
So have a homegrown salad and remember, maybe things aren’t that bad after all.
After nearly a full week of record-breaking cold, including two nights with a widespread freeze, warm weather has returned. Today, for the first time this year, the temperature was above eighty degrees Fahrenheit throughout the lower Susquehanna region. Not only can the growing season now resume, but the northward movement of Neotropical birds can again take flight—much to our delight.
A rainy day on Friday, May 8, preceded the arrival of a cold arctic air mass in the eastern United States. It initiated a sustained layover for many migrating birds.
Freeze warnings were issued for five of the next six mornings. The nocturnal flights of migrating birds, most of them consisting of Neotropical species by now, appeared to be impacted. Even on clear moonlit nights, these birds wisely remained grounded. Unlike the more hardy species that moved north during the preceding weeks, Neotropical birds rely heavily on insects as a food source. For them, burning excessive energy by flying through cold air into areas that may be void of food upon arrival could be a death sentence. So they wait.
Today throughout the lower Susquehanna region, bird songs again fill the air and it seems to be mid-May as we remember it. The flights have resumed.
It’s a hot summer weekend with a sun so bright that creosote is dripping from utility poles onto the sidewalks. Dodging these sticky little puddles of tar can cause one to reminisce about sultry days-gone-by.
Sometime in July or August each year, about half a century ago, we would cram all the gear for seven days of living into the car and head for the beaches of Delmarva or New Jersey. It was family vacation time, that one week a year when the working class fantasizes that they don’t have it so bad during the other fifty-one weeks of the year.
The trip to the coast from the Susquehanna valley was a day-long journey. Back then, four-lane highways were few beyond the cities of the northeast corridor and traffic jams stretched for miles. Cars frequently overheated and steam rolled from beneath the hoods of those stopped to cool down. There were even 55-gallon drums of non-potable water positioned at known choke points along some of the state roads so that motorists could top off their radiators and proceed on. Within these back-ups there were many Volkswagen Beetles pausing along the side of the road with the rear hood propped up. Their air-cooled engines would overheat on a hot day if the car wasn’t kept moving. But, despite the setbacks, all were motivated to continue. In time, with perseverance, the smell of saltmarsh air was soon rolling in the windows. Our destination was near.
At the shore, priority one was to spend plenty of time at the beach. Sunbathers lathered up with various concoctions of oils and moisturizers, including my personal favorite, cocoa butter, then they broiled themselves in the raging rays of the fusion-reaction furnace located just eight light-minutes away. Reflected from the white sand and ocean surf, the flaming orb’s blinding light did a thorough job of cooking all the thousands of oil-basted sun worshippers packing the tidal zone for miles and miles. You could smell the hot cocoa butter in the summer air as they burned. Well, maybe not, but you could smell something there.
By now, you’re probably saying, “Hey, why weren’t you idiots wearing protection from the sun’s harmful U.V. rays?”
Good question. Uncle Tyler Dyer reminds me that back in the sixties, a sunscreen was a shade hung to cover a window. He continued, “Man, the only sun block we had was a beach ball that happened to pass between us and the sun.”
During several of our summertime beach visits in the early 1970s, we got a different sort of oil treatment—tar balls. We never noticed the things until we got out of the water. Playing around at the tide line and taking a tumble in the surf from time to time, we must have picked them up when we rolled in the sand.
Uncle Ty wasn’t happy, “Man, they’re sticking all over our legs and feet, and look at your swim trunks, they’re ruined. And look in the sand, they’re everywhere.” The event was one of the seeds that would in time grow into Uncle Ty’s fundamental distrust of corporate culture.
Looking around, tar balls were all over everyone who happened to be near the water. Rumor on the beach was that they came from ships that passed by offshore earlier in the day. The probable source was the many oil spills that had occurred in the Mid-Atlantic region in those years. During the first six months of 1973 alone, there were over 800 oil spills there. Three hundred of those spills occurred in the waters surrounding New York City. The largest, almost half a million gallons, occurred in New York Harbor when a cargo ship collided with the tanker “Esso Brussels”. Forty percent of that spill burned in the fire that followed the mishap, the remainder entered the environment.
When it was time to clean up, we slowly removed the tar from our legs and feet by rubbing it away with a rag soaked in charcoal lighter fluid or gasoline. Needless to say, our skin turned redder than it had already been from sunburn.
After a full day in the surf, we’d be on our way back to our “home base” for summer vacation, a campground nestled somewhere in the pines on the mainland side of the tidal marshes behind our beach’s barrier island. There, we’d shake the sand out of our trunks and savor the feeling of dry clothing. As the sun set, the smoke, flicker, and crackle of dozens of campfires filled the spaces between the tents and camping trailers. Colored lights strung around awnings dazzled sun-weary eyes as night descended across the landscape. We’d commence the process of incinerating some marshmallows soon after. Then, sometime while we were roasting our weenies and warming our buns, we’d hear it.
His device didn’t have a very good muffler. It sounded like a rusty old lawn mower running on the back of a rusty old truck that didn’t sound much better. And you could see the cloud rising above the campsites around the corner as he approached. It was the mosquito man, come to rid the place of pesky nocturnal biting insects. Behind him, always, were young boys on bicycles riding in and out of the fog of insecticide that rolled from the back of the truck.
One was wise to quickly eat your campfire food and put the rest away before the fog rolled in. You had just minutes to choke down that burned up hot dog. Then the sense of urgency was gone. Everyone just sat around at picnic tables and on lawn chairs bathing in the airborne cloud. A thin layer of insecticide rubbed into the skin along with the liberal doses of Noxzema being applied to soothe sunburn pain will get you through the night just fine.
Perhaps the most memorable event to occur during our summer vacations happened at the moment of this writing, fifty years ago.
We were vacationing in a campground in southern New Jersey. Our family and the family of my dad’s co-worker gathered in a mosquito-mesh tent surrounding a small black-and-white television. An extension cord was strung to a receptacle on a nearby post, and the cathode ray tube produced the familiar picture of glowing blue tones to illuminate the otherwise dark scene. There was constant experimentation with the whip antenna to try to get a visible signal. There were no local UHF broadcasters and the closest VHF television stations were in Philadelphia, so the picture constantly had “snow” diminishing its already poor clarity. But we could see it, and I’ll never forget it.
Andelman, David A. “Oil Spills Here Total 300 in ’73”. The New York Times. August 8, 1973. p.41.
Cortright, Edgar M. (Editor). 1975. Apollo Expeditions to the Moon. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Washington, DC.
It was a routine occurrence in many communities along tributaries of the lower Susquehanna River during the most recent two months. The rain falls like it’s never going to stop—inches an hour. Soon there is flash flooding along creeks and streams. Roads are quickly inundated. Inevitably, there are motorists caught in the rising waters and emergency crews are summoned to retrieve the victims. When the action settles, sets of saw horses are brought to the scene to barricade the road until waters recede. At certain flood-prone locations, these events are repeated time and again. The police, fire, and Emergency Medical Services crews seem to visit them during every torrential storm—rain, rescue, rinse, and repeat.
We treat our local streams and creeks like open sewers. Think about it. We don’t want rainwater accumulating on our properties. We pipe it away and grade the field, lawn, and pavement to roll it into the neighbor’s lot or into the street—or directly into the waterway. It drops upon us as pure water and we instantly pollute it. It’s a method of diluting all the junk we’ve spread out in its path since the last time it rained. A thunderstorm is the big flush. We don’t seem too concerned about the litter, fertilizer, pesticides, motor fluids, and other consumer waste it takes along with it. Out of sight, out of mind.
Perhaps our lack of respect for streams and creeks is the source of our complete ignorance of the function of floodplains.
Floodplains are formed over time as hydraulic forces erode bedrock and soils surrounding a stream to create adequate space to pass flood waters. As floodplains mature they become large enough to reduce flood water velocity and erosion energy. They then function to retain, infiltrate, and evaporate the surplus water from flood events. Microorganisms, plants, and other life forms found in floodplain wetlands, forests, and grasslands purify the water and break down naturally-occurring organic matter. Floodplains are the shock-absorber between us and our waterways. And they’re our largest water treatment facilities.
Why is it then, that whenever a floodplain floods, we seem motivated to do something to fix this error of nature? Man can’t help himself. He has a compulsion to fill the floodplain with any contrivance he can come up with. We dump, pile, fill, pave, pour, form, and build, then build some more. At some point, someone notices a stream in the midst of our new creation. Now it’s polluted and whenever it storms, the darn thing floods into our stuff—worse than ever before. So the project is crowned by another round of dumping, forming, pouring, and building to channelize the stream. Done! Now let’s move all our stuff into our new habitable space.
The majority of the towns in the lower Susquehanna valley with streams passing through them have impaired floodplains. In many, the older sections of the town are built on filled floodplain. Some new subdivisions highlight streamside lawns as a sales feature—plenty of room for stockpiling your accoutrements of suburban life. And yes, some new homes are still being built in floodplains.
When high water comes, it drags tons of debris with it. The limbs, leaves, twigs, and trees are broken down by natural processes over time. Nature has mechanisms to quickly cope with these organics. Man’s consumer rubbish is another matter. As the plant material decays, the embedded man-made items, particularly metals, treated lumber, plastics, Styrofoam, and glass, become more evident as an ever-accumulating “garbage soil” in the natural floodplains downstream of these impaired areas. With each storm, some of this mess floats away again to move ever closer to Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic. Are you following me? That’s our junk from the curb, lawn, highway, or parking lot bobbing around in the world’s oceans.
Beginning in 1968, participating municipalities, in exchange for having coverage provided to their qualified residents under the National Flood Insurance Program, were required to adopt and enforce a floodplain management ordinance. The program was intended to reduce flood damage and provide flood assistance funded with premiums paid by potential victims. The program now operates with a debt incurred during severe hurricanes. Occurrences of repetitive damage claims and accusations that the program provides an incentive for rebuilding in floodplains have made the National Flood Insurance Program controversial.
In the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed there are municipalities that still permit new construction in floodplains. Others are quite proactive at eliminating new construction in flood-prone zones, and some are working to have buildings removed that are subjected to repeated flooding.
It’s sprayed with herbicides. It’s mowed and mangled. It’s ground to shreds with noisy weed-trimmers. It’s scorned and maligned. It’s been targeted for elimination by some governments because it’s undesirable and “noxious”. And it has that four letter word in its name which dooms the fate of any plant that possesses it. It’s the Common Milkweed, and it’s the center of activity in my garden at this time of year. Yep, I said milk-WEED.
Now, you need to understand that my garden is small—less than 2,500 square feet. There is no lawn, and there will be no lawn. I’ll have nothing to do with the lawn nonsense. Those of you who know me, know that the lawn, or anything that looks like lawn, and I are through.
Anyway, most of the plants in the garden are native species. There are trees, numerous shrubs, some water features with aquatic plants, and filling the sunny margins is a mix of native grassland plants including Common Milkweed. The unusually wet growing season in 2018 has been very kind to these plants. They are still very green and lush. And the animals that rely on them are having a banner year. Have a look…
I’ve planted a variety of native grassland species to help support the milkweed structurally and to provide a more complete habitat for Monarch butterflies and other native insects. This year, these plants are exceptionally colorful for late-August due to the abundance of rain. The warm season grasses shown below are the four primary species found in the American tall-grass prairies and elsewhere.
There was Monarch activity in the garden today like I’ve never seen before—and it revolved around milkweed and the companion plants.
Eaton, Eric R., and Kenn Kaufman. 2007. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York.
It seems as though the birds have grown impatient for typical spring weather to arrive. The increase in hours of daylight has signaled them that breeding time is here. No further delays can be entertained. They’ve got a schedule to keep.
Thursday, March 29: Winds began blowing from the southwest, breaking a cold spell which had persisted since last week’s snowfall. Birds were on the move ahead of an approaching rainy cold front.
Friday, March 30: Temperatures reached 60 degrees at last. Birds were again moving north through the day, despite rain showers and a change in wind direction—from the northwest and cooler following the passage of the front in the late morning.
Saturday, March 31: It was cooler, but birds were still on the wing headed north.
Sunday, April 1: The morning was pleasant, but conditions became cooler and breezy in the afternoon. Migratory and resident birds began feeding ahead of another storm.
Monday, April 2: Snow fell again, overnight and through the morning—a couple of inches. Most of the snow had melted away by late afternoon.
She ate only toaster pastries…that’s it…nothing else. Every now and then, on special occasions, when a big dinner was served, she’d have a small helping of mashed potatoes, no gravy, just plain, thank you. She received all her nutrition from several meals a week of macaroni and cheese assembled from processed ingredients found in a cardboard box. It contains eight essential vitamins and minerals, don’t you know? You remember her, don’t you?
Adult female butterflies must lay their eggs where the hatched larvae will promptly find the precise food needed to fuel their growth. These caterpillars are fussy eaters, with some able to feed upon only one particular species or genus of plant to grow through the five stages, the instars, of larval life. The energy for their fifth molt into a pupa, known as a chrysalis, and metamorphosis into an adult butterfly requires mass consumption of the required plant matter. Their life cycle causes most butterflies to be very habitat specific. These splendid insects may visit the urban or suburban garden as adults to feed on nectar plants, however, successful reproduction relies upon environs which include suitable, thriving, pesticide-free host plants for the caterpillars. Their survival depends upon more than the vegetation surrounding the typical lawn will provide.
The Monarch (Danaus plexippus), a butterfly familiar in North America for its conspicuous autumn migrations to forests in Mexico, uses the milkweeds (Asclepias) almost exclusively as a host plant. Here at Conewago Falls, wetlands with Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and unsprayed clearings with Common Milkweed (A. syriaca) are essential to the successful reproduction of the species. Human disturbance, including liberal use of herbicides, and invasive plant species can diminish the biomass of the Monarch’s favored nourishment, thus reducing significantly the abundance of the migratory late-season generation.
Butterflies are good indicators of the ecological health of a given environment. A diversity of butterfly species in a given area requires a wide array of mostly indigenous plants to provide food for reproduction. Let’s have a look at some of the species seen around Conewago Falls this week…
The spectacularly colorful butterflies are a real treat on a hot summer day. Their affinity for showy plants doubles the pleasure.
By the way, I’m certain by now you’ve recalled that fussy eater…and how beautiful she grew up to be.
Brock, Jim P., and Kaufman, Kenn. 2003. Butterflies of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York, NY.
They can be a pesky nuisance. The annoying high-frequency buzzing is bad enough, but it’s the quiet ones that get you. While you were swatting at the noisy one, the silent gender sticks you and begins to feed. Maybe you know it, or maybe you don’t. She could make you itch and scratch. If she’s carrying a blood-borne pathogen, you could get sick and possibly die.
To humans, mosquitos are the most dangerous animal in the world (though not in the United States where man himself and the domestic dog are more of a threat). Globally, the Anopheles mosquitos that spread Malaria have been responsible for millions and millions of human deaths. Some areas of Africa are void of human habitation due to the prevalence of Malaria-spreading Anopheles mosquitos. In the northeastern United States, the Northern House Mosquito (Culex pipiens), as the carrier of West Nile Virus, is the species of greatest concern. Around human habitations, standing water in tires, gutters, and debris are favorite breeding areas. Dumping stagnant water helps prevent the rapid reproduction of this mosquito.
In recent years, the global distribution of these mosquito-borne illnesses has been one of man’s inadvertent accomplishments. An infected human is the source of pathogens which the feeding mosquito transmits to another unsuspecting victim. Infectious humans, traveling the globe, have spread some of these diseases to new areas or reintroduced them to sectors of the world where they were thought to have been eliminated. Additionally, where the specific mosquito carrier of a disease is absent, the mobility of man and his cargos has found a way to transport them there. Aedes aegypti, the “Yellow Fever Mosquito”, carrier of its namesake and the Zeka Virus, has found passage to much of the world including the southern United States. Unlike other species, Aedes aegypti dwells inside human habitations, thus transmitting disease rapidly from person to person. Another non-native species, the Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus), vector of Dengue Fever in the tropics, arrived in Houston in 1985 in shipments of used tires from Japan and in Los Angeles in 2001 in wet containers of “lucky bamboo” from Taiwan…some luck.
Poor mosquito, despite the death, suffering, and misery it has brought to Homo sapiens and other species around the planet, it will never be the most destructive animal on earth. You, my bloodthirsty friends, will place second at best. You see, mosquitos get no respect, even if they do create great wildlife sanctuaries by scaring people away.
The winner knows how to wipe out other species and environs not only to ensure its own survival, but, in many of its populations, to provide leisure, luxury, gluttony, and amusement. This species possesses the cognitive ability to think and reason. It can contemplate its own existence and the concepts of time. It is aware of its history, the present, and its future, though its optimism about the latter may be its greatest delusion. Despite possessing intellect and a capacity to empathize, it is devious, sinister, and selfish in its treatment of nearly every other living thing around it. Its numbers expand and its consumption increases. It travels the world carrying pest and disease to all its corners. It pollutes the water, land, and air. It has developed language, culture, and social hierarchies which create myths and superstitions to subdue the free will of its masses. Ignoring the gift of insight to evaluate the future, it continues to reproduce without regard for a means of sustenance. It is the ultimate organism, however, its numbers will overwhelm its resources. The crowning distinction will be the extinction.
Homo sapiens will be the first animal to cause a mass extinction of life on earth. The forces of nature and the cosmos need to wait their turn; man will take care of the species annihilation this time around. The plants, animals, and clean environment necessary for a prosperous healthy life will cease to exist. In the end, humans will degenerate, live in anguish, and leave no progeny. Fate will do to man what he has done to his co-inhabitants of the planet.
To substitute any other beast would be folly. Man, the human, Homo sapiens, the winner and champion, will repeatedly avail himself as the antagonist during our examination of the wonders of wildlife. He is the villain. The tragedy of his self-proclaimed dominion over the living things of the world will wash across these pages like muddy water topping a dam. There’s nothing I can do about it, aside from fabricating a bad novel with a fictional characterization of man. So let’s get on with it and take a look at “A Natural History of Conewago Falls”. Let’s discover the protagonist, the heroic underdog of our story, “Life in the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed.”
Avery, Dennis T. 1995. Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic: The Environmental Triumph of High-Yield Farming. Hudson Institute. Indianapolis, Indiana.
Eaton, Eric R., and Kenn Kaufman. 2007. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Houghton Mifflin Co. New York.
Newman, L.H. 1965. Man and Insects. The Natural History Press. Garden City, New York.