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By Bill Lawyer

If you ever find yourself complaining about walking into a spider web some evening or early morning, consider this: you’re not running into a swarm of angry fire ants, escaping from their flooded nests, as featured in a recent article in The New York Times.

During my summer evening neighborhood walks with my dog, my flashlight illuminated dozens of spider webs being constructed and utilized.

The spiders seemed determined to use any object at hand (at legs, actually) to catch unsuspecting flying insects. Along Oakland Beach Avenue a web was attached to a telephone pole, parked car, and shrub.

The night of Rye Town Park’s outdoor movie, as people were leaving, they discovered a huge web strung out at the Playland Pool parking lot — using two trees and a pile of branches.

Even on my backyard deck, I’ve had to do a sweep to remove the webs that get built every night between my house, the deck stair railing, and a deck chair.

But thanks to several generations of children brought up reading “Charlotte’s Web”, people are more likely to let the spiders do their thing.

And what they do is eat lots of insects.

How many, you ask? According to the Live Science website, scientists estimate that each year, about 27 million tons of spiders consume somewhere between 440 million and 880 million tons of insects, new research finds.

The new study, published in the journal The Science of Nature, finds that spiders’ food consumption is similar to the amount of food that all whale species (Cetacea) eat annually, biologist Martin Nyffeler of the University of Basel in Switzerland and ecologist Klaus Birkhofer of the Brandenburg University of Technology in Germany wrote in their paper.

Spiders that weave the typical roundish webs are known as orb-weavers. Even with everything we know about them, they’re still remarkable in how they combine planning and the use of various chemicals to design, build and maintain their webs.

And of course, even without non-suspecting people barging into the webs, spiders nearly always have to spin new webs each night, particularly after a heavy rain.

Orb weavers rarely bite anything other than insects, and then — only if they’re startled. And, their venom is mild.

Among the lessons we are learning about orb weavers is what is it about the webbing that makes it work so well.

This is one example of the research that’s known as biomimicry — how we can learn things from nature that can help solve human problems while protecting the environment.

Another attribute of orb weavers is how they are able to distinguish the difference between an inanimate objects such as a leaf fragment caught in their webs, rather than insects.

And these are just a few of lessons to be learned, if we look for them, as we take our evening walks around the neighborhood.

So let’s all do our part in letting the spiders do their part, right in our backyards.

By Bill Lawyer

Several years ago I wrote an article for this newspaper in which I described the ways that wildlife could help us deal with the threats of climate change. I focused in particular on the example of opossums. These fascinating and commonplace animals can indeed teach us many lessons.

Not by communicating directly with us, of course, but in the way they live their lives.

By Bill Lawyer

One of the pleasures of springtime in Rye is savoring the scent and color of our urban trees. Among the most lavish of these is a species of Locust, which shows off its legume-ish and multiple white flowers all over our fair city in mid-May. A few weeks later, in mid- to late June, the leaves of another species of legume-ish tree, the Northern Catalpa, open, and along with them come equally beautiful flowers, with perhaps even more fragrance.

While not native to the eastern U.S., for the past 50 years or so, Northern Catalpas have managed to hold their own in Rye. They have taken root along Playland Parkway near Milton Road and Boston Post Road across from the Jay Estate.

Their yellow-white flowers grow in clusters along multiple branches. Catalpas produce nectar from both the flowers and the leaves, and noted beekeeper Richard Underhill says, “The catalpa and the honey bee share a mutually beneficial relationship. The catalpa helps feed the honey bee, and the honey bee helps ensure reproduction of the catalpa.”

After flowering, 12- to 15-inch long pods form over the summer. They are filled with numerous seeds. Given enough room to spread out, Catalpas grow 50 to 90 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet in diameter.

There is also a Southern Catalpa tree, distinguished mainly by a slightly different floral structure.

So what’s this about a Magic Bean Tree? In part it was just a “hook” to get readers interested in this month’s column, but there is a connection.

When I was a boy, we used to find the seed pods of Catalpas all around in fall and winter — by which time they’d turned brown and dry. We had fun opening the pods and throwing the seeds around. We also discovered they made great, if primitive, percussive musical instruments.

As for the magic part, for nearly 300 years children have been delighted by some version of the English fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstalk”. Jack’s mother sends him to town to sell their cow for food, but instead a man trades him for some magic beans. When Jack gets back home, his mother berates him for making such a poor choice. She throws the beans out the window and they go to bed… Well, you know the rest.

The point is that I always associated that beanstalk and the magic seeds in the story with the pods and seeds of the Catalpa tree.

In a way, all beans are magical, because within their tiny seeds they possess the DNA needed to grow ten stories high — with help from their friends, sun, rain, and good soil.

The magic part in real life is the way the world of nature continues to provide us with seemingly magical lessons that we can learn to bring about sustainability. Living in harmony with nature means that we protect Rye’s trees and green spaces, so they can provide us with what we need to be healthy in the years to come — right in our backyard.

The flowers of a Northern Catalpa

Leafy Catalpa on Playland Parkway

By Bill Lawyer

My neighborhood, which I call “Halsted Hill,” has a large number of properties that include rock retaining walls and natural outcroppings. They provide delineation of different parts of the yard, as well as texture in their own right.

For those of us whose properties are along the slope of Halsted Hill, we have little choice but to divide it into terraces to provide level areas in back and front yards.

While the rocky terraces provide texture, the rocks themselves are the bare canvasses on which nature can create colorful, albeit somewhat abstract expressionistic, works of art.

We’re not talking about those chalk drawings your kids like to create in your driveway. We’re talking about the twin natural mixed media known as lichen and moss. One gardener refers to them as enhancing the walls with a “weathered, rustic appearance.”

While you have likely these two are, or how they got to where they are. Moss is a plant that does not produce flowers. Lichen, on the other hand, is not even a plant!

Lichens may superficially look like mosses, and have common names that include the word moss (e.g., “reindeer moss” or “iceland moss”), but they are not related to mosses, according to Irwin Brodo and Sylvia Sharnoff, co-authors of “Lichens of North America.”

Lichens are actually two or more organisms living together in what ecologists call a mutualistic relationship. They consist of an algae and a fungus, and in some cases even types of bacteria.

Most of the lichens that can be found in the rocks in Rye get their gray or green (or verdigris) from the color of the rocks themselves. Verdigris is the common name for the natural patina formed when copper, brass, or bronze in the rock is weathered and exposed to salt air or seawater over a period of time.

In fact, while the saltiness of seawater in Rye can cause serious damage to trees, it helps with nature’s artistic endeavor in coloring the rocks. A man-made version of this can be seen in the Statue of Liberty.

But along with verdigris around Rye, two other colors are commonly being produced in our rocky walls and outcropping — yellow and orange. Perhaps we don’t always notice these, as the brightness of the colors vary, depending on climate conditions and character of the rocks.

Wet weather enhances the brightness of the colors. According to research done at Michigan State University, photosynthetic chemicals — such as usnic acid — are responsible for red, orange, yellow, and brown.

Turning now to how mosses can provide color and texture to the landscape, we are immediately confronted by the fact that they are not plants, and they don’t use a vascular system to transport moisture and nutrients. So they don’t grow the same way as grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees.

Perhaps the most commonly known moss in use is sphagnum moss — peat. Like most mosses, peat can absorb up to 20 times its own weight in water. This provides a great medium for keeping new plants moist.

To get ideas of how to use moss artistically in a garden, visit one of the region’s famed botanical gardens, New York and Brooklyn. A little further afield, in Raleigh, North Carolina, is the Moss and Stone Garden, which is dedicated to the promotion and cultivation of moss as a beneficial and appreciated component in the landscape. In their unique gardens and containers, moss rules supreme.

As plants that like shade, mosses can bring a softness and tranquility to public and private landscapes.

A few years back, The New York Times published an article about a Bucks County man who changed his entire lawn into a moss garden. And since then, he no longer has had to water, fertilize, or mow his yard.

As you start thinking about what to plant in the months ahead, why not give the dynamic duo of moss and algae a try, right in your own backyard.

 

 

Stonewall along Rye Beach Avenue

A moss garden created by the Moss and Stone garden company

Right in Our Backyard

Fireflies and Climate Change

By Bill Lawyer

Ever since I started writing articles about nature and the environment, I’ve been getting questions about the fate of fireflies, vis-à-vis global climate change.

Fireflies (which are actually a type of beetle) have always symbolized to me the delicate beauty and amazing variety of the wildlife that we have all around us.

Yes, you can go to a place like Thailand or Bioluminescent Bay in Puerto Rico and see spectacular clusters of fireflies, but for many years all I had to do was go to one of the fields or meadows nearby (including my backyard).

I still see an occasional firefly, and enjoy watching neighborhood children trying to capture some for a close look (before returning them).

Inside their small bodies, fireflies have developed the chemical and biological attributes to produce light without producing heat.

Ironically, while scientists have come up with many ways to use their knowledge of bioluminescence, we keep destroying the open spaces that fireflies need to carry out their courtship and procreation rituals.

According to a recent issue of Science Magazine, scientists from universities in Michigan have been carrying on a survey of the firefly population for the past dozen years. During that time, they found that the population varies on a three-year cycle — increasing or decreasing. While they don’t have conclusive proof as to why this is happening, so far they’ve posited that fireflies need warm weather to function, but also sufficient rainfall.

Cornell University scientists have noted that as average temperatures rise, fireflies emerge earlier which may impact on the foods they eat (or what eats them).

Entomology Professor Michael Hoffman says that one possible reason for the seeming increase in numbers of fireflies in Michigan may be caused by wet springs, a trend that will occur with climate change in the Northeastern U.S.

Since we have just experienced a relatively wet spring and early summer, firefly populations in Rye should be growing. That’s because firefly larvae (glow worms) feed on snails, slugs, and other small invertebrates. With more moisture, the number of snails and slugs likely increase, providing more food for fireflies and insuring good populations of adults.

But many of the wetlands and meadows that would normally be providing those moist conditions are drying up or being paved over.

Other factors to consider here in Rye are the use of insecticides, and the conversion of streams into storm sewers. Increased artificial lighting has had an impact as well, making it harder for fireflies to find potential mates.

Overall, it seems as though there is no simple answer to the question of changing population numbers. Dr. Hoffman says that continued research is required, along with expanded coverage of firefly populations in other parts of the country.

My most recent close encounter with a firefly was when I was taking my dog out for a walk, and I found one on my kitchen counter. I have no idea how it got there. Luckily, I was able to get it out the door and it flew away.

As I’m writing this, at about 8:30 in the evening, I can see a couple of fireflies blinking outside my window. They don’t know about climate change, but let’s hope that they can adapt to the changing conditions. What would summer be without them?

With photo

By Bill Lawyer

A few of my “Right in Our Backyard” columns have somewhat stretched the definition of “backyard.”

Whelks, for example, can only be found in our backyard if it happens to be along the coast of Long Island Sound. Or someone placed it there as part of a shell collection.

But the subject of this column, the Eastern Towhee, was literally seen and heard on a recent spring afternoon in the bushes in my backyard about 20 feet from where I was sitting on the deck.

During these peak days of spring, there are so many birdsong serenades that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish one from another. I recognized cardinals, robins, woodpeckers, sparrows, wrens, and blue jays, to name a few.

But the one that caught my attention was the one sometimes referred to as the “drink your tea” bird. That’s because its most common, prominent call sounds like a mother bird insisting its young do so.

Just to confuse things, however, the bird’s name — towhee — comes from a different sound that it makes, which sounds sort of like “chu’wink” (accent on the second syllable).

We all know how colorful birds can be, particularly the males of the various species. This is certainly true of the towhees.

As the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes it, adults have rufous sides, a white belly, and a long dark tail with white edges. The eyes are red, white for birds in the Southeast. Males have a black head, upper body, and tail; these parts are brown in the female. For the edification of birding beginners, more experienced birders like to refer to the color that Benjamin Moore calls “rusty red” as rufous.

Of all the species of sparrows in North America, towhees are one of the largest and most colorful, according to ornithologists. They’re certainly the most colorful I have ever seen. The sharp contrast of red, white and black is quite striking.

Serious birders sort sparrow families into “Old World” or “New World” categories — with towhees in the the latter.

Until recently, the towhees now named Eastern Towhees and Spotted Towhees were considered one species, the Rufous-Sided Towhee.

While sitting on the deck there were lots of birds flitting around, mainly coming and going from my neighbor’s bird feeder. But the singing towhee stayed out of sight, in among the shrubs. None of the birds seemed intimidated by my presence, or my giving in to the irresistible urge to imitate the “drink your tea” admonition.

Towhees are one of many species that are more dependent upon shrub landscapes than forests. The berries of more than 30 species of shrubs are highly important for such birds’ diet, according to the National Audubon Society.

Towhees also find lots to eat on the shrub-dominated forest floor, where they can feed on many kinds of invertebrates. These include insects, spiders, millipedes, centipedes, and snails.

Unfortunately, it appears as though towhees are not known to eat ticks, which would have been a nice deterrent to the spread of Lyme disease.

In fact, according to the staff of the Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History in York, South Carolina, Eastern Towhees are one of the most common attractors of ticks.

So the take-away of all this is that Towhees can be appreciated for their colorful plumage and their place in the environment from afar — right in our backyards. But “hands off.”

 

Female and male Eastern Towhees

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