Interesting article out of Edinburgh, Scotland — the BBC reports that a deal has been struck between the Edinburgh City Council and the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh to plant endangered trees in the city’s public parks. The twist is that the trees will be from all over the world — Edinburgh’s climate makes it possible for trees from Japan, North America, other parts of Europe, and even North Africa to thrive — making Edinburgh’s parks into a sort of zoo for endangered trees from around the world.
Although only a few parks will be early participants in this program, David Jamieson, the parks and greenspace manager at the City Council, said that they’re hoping to plant trees in all of the city’s parks over time. The goal is to both increase biodiversity within the city while at the same time helping to ensure the conservation of these trees.
The first trees planted will be Serbian spruces in the Princes Street Gardens (seen here) this week. Should be an interesting experiment to follow over the years!
Last week, Metro Connection, DC’s NPR affiliate’s excellent show that weaves regional stories together, had a piece on our urban forest, prompted by a symposium that Casey Trees (a great local organization whose mission is to increase our urban tree canopy) sponsored recently. Metro Connection spoke with Richard Olsen, a plant geneticist at the National Arboretum (a local treasure, if you’ve never been there).
Olsen discussed some factors that urban foresters need to consider when deciding what trees to plant. In the past, we often relied on monocultures of trees, based in large part on what we thought was attractive. American elms are a prime example here, and were the cause of a hard lesson learned when Dutch elm disease wiped out large parts of city canopies in the US. These days, we’re also contending with pests such as the emerald ash borer, which is hitting ash trees hard.
At the same time, you need species that are able to survive — and even thrive — with the unique stressors facing them in an urban environment. Olsen used the example of the salt and other substances we lay down on roads every time it snows (or even when snow is forecasted — we’ve certainly all seen salt laid down only to have a storm turn out to be a bust). Unless rains washes the salt away relatively quickly, it’s going to end up seeping into the ground and will ultimately hit trees’ roots.
Aesthetics also play a role — we want trees that look good, according to our sensibilities. We also don’t want trees that bear lots of fruit (that then needs to be cleaned up when it falls on the ground), or trees that are extra hard for those with allergies to cope with.
At the same time, he points out, we have a new concern for how trees play into the larger urban environment — will they support urban biodiversity? Olsen describes this as a changing aesthetic, which is an interesting way of thinking about it: “We’ve gone from purely ornament, a design feature in the landscape, an aesthetic, to this new aesthetic, which is wouldn’t it be great and wonderful if it supported all sorts of wildlife.”
However, there are barriers to a diverse urban canopy — for example, as Olsen explains, “you can only plant what’s available in the nursery industry…[and] the nursery industry is only going to produce what they can sell.” So perhaps one question we need to ask is: can we encourage nurseries to grow a more diverse set of species? This applies not only to trees, but also other plants — and also begs the question of whether or not we can encourage nurseries to stop selling invasive ornamental species.
This reminds me of a discussion we had in the class I’m teaching this semester last week, although in class we weren’t specifically talking about nurseries and plants. Can you create consumer demand for environmentally-low impact products (in this case, plants and trees) through the products that a business chooses to sell? Or do you need to create consumer demand to get businesses to sell those trees and plants in the first place? In other words, can a top-down approach (business influencing consumers) work? Or is a bottom-up approach (consumers influencing business) more realistic? In a world where time and resources are limited, which approach is more efficient?
Well, it’s been getting pretty close to 60 degrees here in DC, with plenty of rain to boot (and more forecast for tomorrow). Needless to say, our snow supply is dwindling fast. Here’s a shot from our backyard before the big melt started. I’m missing winter already, but I have to say it does feel good to walk outside without a coat! That’s the joy of living someplace with distinct seasons — there’s always something new and exciting to look forward to.
This video of a BBC broadcast from last fall shows a fox making full use of a golf course in Switzerland — not only as habitat (many animals find golf courses to be excellent places to hang out), but also as a source of amusement, by nabbing the balls hit by golfers and hiding them in the bushes. All of which begs this question.
This has been a great winter for winter-lovers. I love a real winter, complete with cold (i.e., in the 30′s or lower as high temperatures — and lower is fine) and snow (as much of it as possible). I know many of you out there are probably sick of it, and it’s true that here in DC we’ve skirted most of the really big storms (much to my chagrin), but it’s still been quite enjoyable (some travel to winter wonderlands such as Chicago, Michigan, and Utah didn’t hurt!). Earlier this week I got excited because there was the prospect of a good old nor’easter that would have dumped a ton of snow on us here in DC, but it sounds like that’s going to be a bust. But hope springs eternal — there’s the potential for another storm mid-week, so I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed.
In the meantime, I thought I’d compile a rather random collection of winter-related thoughts I’ve been having. File this under “Miscellaneous,” for sure.
Right after New Years I was walking across the Duke Ellington Bridge here in DC, and came across this display. I have no idea what it is, but I loved it — so many paper mache animals, and a lovely view over Rock Creek Park (thoughts of biophilic cities ran through my head).
The Washington Post had a couple of interesting tidbits about winter weather this past week. First, an interesting story about icicles, and more specifically the ripples you find on the sides of them. Turns out that there’s always the same distance between peaks of the ripples, no matter the size of the icicle. Stephen Morris at University of Toronto has been studying the physics of icicles and, along with his graduate students, has discovered that the ripples have to do with salt and impurities in the water. There’s more, so take a look at the article.
The Post’s Ashley Halsey III and Dana Hedgpeth take on the question of why I-95 seems to be a sort of demarcation line between snow and ice and no (or at least a lot less) snow and ice in the DMV (DC-Maryland-Virginia, for those of you outside of the area). The interstate actually more or less follows the geological boundary between the Piedmont and hills part of the region and the coastal plain. So, elevation plays a role, and it’s likely that proximity to the Bay and the urban heat island effect are also behind this.
Also, an update on our snowy owl, who seems to be doing better. She’s (it was confirmed via a blood test that she is indeed a she) seems to be over her head injury, and although she has a broken toe and is anemic (perhaps because the rats she was eating her poisoned), she seems to have recovered her spirits, turning from being easily handled (not normal for an owl!) to demonstrating that she’s not happy to be in close proximity to humans. The Post article then goes on to describe the good work City Wildlife does and the needs they’re going to have this spring, once the onslaught of animals needing care goes into full swing. For example, an x-ray machine would have made examining the snowy owl much easier (she had to be sent out instead). She’s a long way from being released, but so far so good.
And have I mentioned how much I love a good snow storm? My dogs do, too — here’s a shot of one of them with a crazy snow face while playing fetch
Snowy owls lately have been seen as far south as Florida, which is obviously not the norm for these cold-climate loving birds. We’ve also had a few of them show up in DC and the surrounding suburbs, including one who took up temporary residence in downtown K Street earlier this month, before she moved to nearby McPherson Square. We’ve also had sightings at National Airport (just across the river) and BWI (up near Baltimore). Snowy owls often end up in airports because the open nature of the terrain of airports is more similar to the owls’ natural habitat (tundra) than the forested and built-up areas often found around airports on the East Coast. Owls have run into trouble in airports — earlier this winter, the New York Port Authority came under heavy criticism when it was discovered that they were killing snowy owls (out of concerns over plane safety). In the wake of this criticism, the Port Authority is now trapping and relocating any owls that they find on airport grounds, following the lead of Boston’s Logan Airport, which is more used to dealing with these usually northern residents.
Snowy owls are not your typical urban resident, and they don’t necessarily adjust well to the unique challenges cities pose. Early this morning (around 2am), police officers found a snowy owl near McPherson Square and transported her to the National Zoo; she was apparently hit by a bus. One expert, Ellen Paul, the executive director of the Ornithological Council, was quoted in an ABC News article as saying she was not surprised by this turn of events: ”I was pretty sure this bird was going to end up being hit by a vehicle because what happens when they focus on prey, they literally lock on it like a heat seeking missile,” she said. “And they’re going to go diving directly onto it and not even notice what else is around them.”
So what happens now? The bird was released to City Wildlife, DC’s wildlife rehabilitation center, and is being evaluated for injuries. It looks like she has a head injury, but nothing else is apparent as of yet. The goal will be to release her into the wild as soon as possible, so here’s hoping she makes a speedy recovery.
And why are these owls roaming so far from home? eBird, a joint venture between Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says that this “invasion” is likely the result of an increase in the eastern Arctic snowy owl population, perhaps due to an overabundance of one of their favorite prey items, lemmings (lemmings, as all remember from high school, typically breed in “boom and bust” cycles). When the eating is good, snowy owls will hatch more eggs (up to nine a season), resulting in an increased number of owls growing up in that area. When prey populations go back to normal or take a dive, there are a lot of owls left without a good place to grab a meal, and so they hit the road (so to speak) in search of prey, often flying south or even over water (one owl has been spotted in Bermuda this year!). Be sure to read eBirds excellent article for more information on the invasion, and on snowy owls in general. Also, check out the links to the DCist and Washington Post articles for pictures of the McPherson Square owl.
A few days ago we spent some time in Matsumoto, Japan, known as “The Gateway to the Japanese Alps.” It’s a great little mountain city, and actually reminds me of many other mountain cities and towns — they all seem to have a common feeling to them.
We saw many “biophilic” features while in Matsumoto. I wrote about the idea of biophilic cities a while ago, and it’s something that’s stayed in my mind ever since. It’s not necessarily about urban wildlife, but it is about bringing nature in one form or another to the forefront of city life. Matsumoto was full of such features, albeit in a highly managed, typical Japanese way (no “unkempt” fields of wild flowers here!). Beautiful!