Cambridge Outdoors

playing, learning, and being outdoors in Cambridge, Mass.

Animals Unleashed at Magazine Beach

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Image © Bimal Nepal, BimalPhoto.com.

Several animal celebrities of the Cambridge Wildlife Puppetry Project (CWPP), whose activities are supported by the Cambridge Arts Council and the Massachusetts Cultural Council this year, visited picnicking families and others at Magazine Beach Park Friday for a Walk/Ride Day celebration. Stay tuned for the CWPP’s four-day Fly, Buzz, and Honk! wildlife festival, August 7–10, 2017, every day from 10:00 to 12:00 in Riverside Press Park. Art and games and performances at the festival highlight the species that live in our city.


Five Questions for Cambridge’s Monarch Nannies

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A family checks out the monarch butterflies still in their nursery boxes shortly before helping to escort them to the meadow for release on August 7.  Kim Ahern/Cambridge Water Department Photo.

Why are Monarch butterflies so special? We recently asked five questions of Martine Wong, Fresh Pond Reservation (FPR) Outreach & Volunteer Coordinator, and her Cambridge Mayor’s  Summer Youth Employment Program (MSYEP) intern, Shewit.  On August 6th and 7th, amidst some fanfare—kids and puppets—Martine, Shewit and other staff and volunteers released most of the butterflies that they had helped raise, under the auspices of the Water Department of the City of Cambridge, over the course of the summer.

1. Why is FPR raising butterflies for release?

Shewit: We raise Monarch butterflies every year to educate people about and show the life cycle of the butterflies and to teach the importance of milkweed to Cambridge residents so they might plant milkweed in their gardens. Milkweed is the only plant [Monarchs] lay their eggs on and eat when they are caterpillars. The Monarch butterfly is now in decline because of milkweed plants’ reduction by pesticides and because of using land for other purposes such as for pavement and farming.

Martine Wong, left, with volunteer Lisa and MSYEP intern Shewit, at the Monarch Release event at Lusitania Meadow, Fresh Pond Reservation.

Cambridge Water Dept. staffer Martine Wong (left) with volunteer Lisa Recolta (middle) and MSYEP intern Shewit Yitbarek (right), at the Monarch Release at Lusitania Meadow, Fresh Pond Reservation.Kim Ahern/Cambridge Water Department Photo.

Martine: There are several reasons we’re raising Monarch butterflies for release at Fresh Pond! We hope to teach people about the connection between shrinking butterfly populations and the importance of protecting wildlife habitat. We also want to show people that there are action steps they can take to protect them—you can plant milkweed and other native pollinator-friendly plants, and help to remove invasive plants such as Black Swallow-wort. Also, they are exquisitely beautiful and a joy to behold.

2. Once you received the larvae in the mail, up until this moment of releasing the full grown butterflies, what surprised you most about them?

Shewit: They eat a lot of milkweed leaves and they grow so fast.

3. If we want to help Monarchs live in our city as a whole, what can kids (and just anyone, for that matter) do to make it a welcoming place for them?

pupating and hatching of Monarchs at Fresh Pond

Visitors to Fresh Pond Reservation this summer could view Monarchs at the Ranger Station, in various stages of their life cycle.

Shewit: To make a welcoming place for the Monarch butterfly is to plant enough milkweed plants in the garden, without pesticides. Once the butterfly lays her eggs, the caterpillar continues living upon the plant until it becomes a butterfly—there is no need to change things or worry about it. OR, If the person does not have garden they can raise them in the cage.

Martine: Monarch butterfly caterpillars exclusively eat milkweed – they truly depend on this plant for their survival. A sea of pesticide/herbicide-free milkweed plants for adults to lay eggs on and for caterpillars to eat would be a great welcome, along with planting native pollinator plants that can provide nectar for adult butterflies.

4. What did you learn from other Monarch projects in the United States?

Shewit: I learned some interesting facts, such as monarchs do not have eyelids and they can see UV lights. If the monarchs are in a cage, they need clean space and food because their waste is too much.

The adult Monarch in its new habitat at Lusitania Meadow, Cambridge

An adult Monarch butterfly raised in captivity by the Cambridge Water Department gets accustomed to its new surroundings. Kim Ahern/Cambridge Water Department Photo.

5. If we see a Monarch butterfly at Fresh Pond, will we know it’s one of the ones raised in captivity?

Martine: There’s no way of knowing if it’s one of ours! There are tagging programs for the purposes of learning more about their migration and biology. Perhaps we will try that out next year!

Monarchs are released from captivity by Cambridge's Monarch Nannies


The butterflies are released! Kim Ahern/Cambridge Water Dept. Photo

More:

  • Find other resources about Monarch butterflies in general, and the Cambridge Water Department program in particular, on the Water Department’s Monarch Watch Page.
  • Read the Boston Globe’s coverage of the Cambridge Water Department Monarch Release on August 7, 2016.
  • Find out more about the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which partnered with more than 125 community organizations and city departments this year. Opportunities include many in sustainability and environmental fields, in addition to the internship offered at Fresh Pond Reservation and Alewife Reservation.

    Giant puppets of monarch and other butterflies (and a few moths) were part of the festivities and parade that escorted the butterflies to Lusitania Meadow at Fresh Pond Reservation, where they were released. Kim Ahern/Cambridge Water Department Photo.

    Giant puppets of monarch and other butterflies (and a moth or two) were part of the parade that escorted the Monarch butterflies to Lusitania Meadow at Fresh Pond Reservation, where they were released. The puppets were made by community members through the Cambridge Wildlife Puppetry ProjectKim Ahern/Cambridge Water Department Photo.

Information about the Secret Life of White Oaks walkabout at Fresh Pond Reservation


A Single Species: An End-of-January Investigation

There is sometimes too much, or too little, simplification that goes on when “environmental education” takes hold. Starting with a single species, as Fresh Pond Reservation staff in Cambridge, Mass., will do on January 31st with “The Secret Life of White Oaks,” can make a path for kids, families, anyone, to start small and grow curious from there.

White oaks are the ones with rounded lobes on their leaves; and oaks, in general are trees that keep their leaves well into the winter.

Information about the Secret Life of White Oaks walkabout at Fresh Pond Reservation

What’s your single favorite or familiar species—the one that drew you in to a fascination with nature more broadly, or that you still hold in your mind’s eye, or that’s a talisman in everyday life? Flora or fauna notwithstanding, a single species is a direct line from the human to the natural world.


Airport Owls, Hooting Toddlers: A Feathered Friend in Cambridge

Owls visited our fair city last weekend and kids were there in droves to see them.

Licensed wildlife rehab maven and Massachusetts resident Patricia Bade (given the punchy name “Owl Woman” by her Penobscot elders before she could say “boo”) brought her un-releasable saw-whet owl and screech owl to Maynard Ecology Center for a family program on Sunday, February 9, 2014. The venerable Friends of Fresh Pond Reservation and the Cambridge Water Department sponsored the visit. Much hootin’ (the three- to seven-year-olds) and hollerin’ (the babes in arms) resounded through the halls of the center, housed in the basement of Neville Place, an assisted living community within spitting distance of Fresh Pond.

Compared to the snowy owl, these species are diminutive. Bade spread her arms to illustrate a snowy’s wingspan—five feet. She’d gotten up close and personal to an injured snowy owl brought to her recently, though it had expired upon arriving her doorstep. “She was magnificent,” reports Bade, who examined the owl afterward.

Snowy owls such as the one Bade examined have appeared in large numbers this year in Greater Boston.

The first consideration in an upswing sightings of any predator (such as the foxes seen in residential areas of North and West Cambridge earlier in the fall) must be the status of their prey population. There are multiple factors, however,  behind the snapshot of  what’s plentiful and what’s not in a “food web” (think food chains, intersecting) at any given time.

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology reported that by late November 2013,

the first wave of owls was making headlines (literally: see this article in the NYT and this article) in even the greatest metropolitan areas of the Northeast. Numerous visuals show the distribution of these movements, and one project has sought to take advantage of this unique opportunity to track the movements of these birds (check out Project SNOWStorm). It appears that a combination of factors may be responsible for this season’s invasion, but the jury is still out as to what is causing this influx. Are these movements the results of an overabundance of rodent prey items in portions of eastern Canada yielding a bumper crop of young Snowy Owls that are dispersing en masse?

Climate is also the elephant in the room.

The Cornell Lab continues,

Or is the movement we are seeing part of a much larger set of changes occurring in the Arctic related to rapidly changing climate?

via Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Brief Notes on Some Late 2013 and Early 2014 Movements.

Whether the elephant is merely in the room examining its cuticles rather than causing tremors we may not know. Science doesn’t allow for leapfrogging, but it does allow for educated guesses, labelled as such.

In her response to an adult asking why so many snowys showed up at Logan Airport this winter, Bade said the landscape there resembled their home turf—the tundra. There’s a little more to the story, however. These tundra mammal-predators, during the period December through April, apparently travel to openings in the Arctic sea-ice to feed on waterfowl, who are in turn using that type of environment because they can feed there. The 2013-2014 “irruption” of Hedwig and her crew at places like Logan, Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports may represent a signal departure from that practice, perhaps by necessity rather than by choice.

Put yourself in Hedwig’s shoes, and wonder whether, like the itinerant snowy owls, increasing numbers of humans will need to seek something that “looks like home.” Wonder whether humans will need to take refuge from our coastal cities or our failed fields of plenty. Wonder whether, in the coming decades, human migration by necessity rather than by choice, will be on the upswing. Even if that possibility seems like something you can’t swallow—dystopia doesn’t, admittedly, go down well—keep those snows in the mind’s eye. That complexity, incorporating vast flocks of many species, the worldwide bird migration patterns interdependent on food webs; the operation of those food webs in cities, towns, rural areas—whether in airport, marshland, watershed, or suburb, it behooves adults to try to grasp a piece of this puzzle, and to get our children hootin’ and hollerin’ like owls and coyotes and slithering like snakes in the meantime.


Butterflies and Caterpillars: Notes from Downeast Maine

I’ve got butterflies and moths on the brain this week, what with the numbers I’m seeing here in Hancock County, Maine, the book I happen to be reading (Bernd Heinrich, Summer World, especially on insects of summer), and the  project I’ll be tackling next week, involving mapping out phenology study for Kindergarteners and younger.

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To top it all off, in one of my rare wired moments this morning, I surfed over to the Mass Audubon site and found this:

You may have seen the story in the Boston Globe on August 13 about how monarch butterflies have been hard to find at Mass Audubon’s Boston Nature Center. Monarchs may be our most popular and well-known insects, and this is the time of year when we should be seeing their familiar orange and black wings over gardens. But observers all across the state say they’re spotting very few of them.

Is this a sign that monarchs everywhere are in trouble? And if so, why? The answers to these questions aren’t as simple as you may think.

A Closer Look at Monarch Numbers
The number of monarch butterflies in Massachusetts fluctuates from year to year, and when the insects are scant here, they may be numerous elsewhere. We have to be careful about using our local sightings to talk about the overall health of the species.

However, we do know that observers in nearby areas, such as eastern Canada, Vermont, and New Jersey, are also reporting low monarch numbers this year—what we’re observing here may be part of a larger pattern.

Perhaps most alarmingly, the monarch population hit a record low at its overwintering sites in Mexico, down 59 percent from the previous year’s December count—and researchers have documented declines there in six out of the past seven years.

I’ve sighted no monarchs here, yet. Rather, an abundance of red admirals, white admirals, and what could be a silver spangled fritillary.

In our tidepool explorations, we also found a floating caterpillar.IMG_5874


Fungi at Fresh Pond Reservation

Milk-white Toothed Polypore

Behind Neville Place, built in the early 1920s as a hospital for the aged, there’s a mixed forest of beeches, oaks, a few birches, maples, on relatively flat ground. The old folks’ home is still a home to quite a few old folks, whom Ranger Jean has been galvanizing into tree study. The posters on the ground floor identifying “parts of a tree,” and “what makes a maple a maple,” are, in all their construction-paper glory, an ode to rootedness in nature surviving even the bastions of institutional living. Besides, 80 is the new 50.

I’ve been on mycology walks here several times before with Larry Millman, author of Fascinating Fungi of New England, a man who “keeps a post office box” here in Cambridge

Oyster Mushroom, Lusitania Meadow

and wears one of those vests with many pockets. It’s a dizzying experience. One here!—quick, another there!—lovely, tooth-tingling latinate names mingling with farcical and fanciful amateur nicknames for the citizens of the fungal kingdom—and here a disambiguation, there a new discovery.

Artist’s Conk, alternate view

Over 200 species of fungi reside at Fresh Pond. Mr. Millman seems to be on first names with many, though he says that anyone, including himself, professing more than a seventy-percent identification rate should be hauled aside and tempted to ease off on high-falutin’ mycological nomenclature mania.

Birch Polypore, Piptoporus betulina.

There were a few kids at the gathering, but not enough. We found a sleepy hornet queen, enormous; excavations made by woodpeckers (vectors for fungal spores), a slime mold named for its resemblance to insect eggs, and other ephemera, amusements, and the erstwhile camaraderie of strangers outdoors.

False Turkey Tail