Of Woodchucks (and Lawns)

Lawns.  I am not a big fan of them.  I love meadows, or even lightly tended fields.

Summer rain over a Vermont field full of buttercups (Ranunculus spp.)

I prefer to have a yard rather than a lawn, that flat expanse of close trimmed grass we call a lawn has never been all that appealing to me.  A “yard” does not carry the implication of maintenance that a “lawn” implies.  Lawns are an integral part of American life though, and are found even in places completely unsuited to their presence.  In some areas neighborhood associations mandate how your lawn must look, what you can and can’t have on it, and, in extreme cases, what shade of green it must be and how many inches tall it must be.

There are many theories behind why lawns exist, some people claim that it is a relict of animal husbandry, particularly sheep and how a grazed landscape looks.  Others claim that it taps into some deep species memory of living on a savanna, that the flat, open land is visually soothing and  provides a sense of safety and removal from danger and the unknown.  Some claim that lawns are a symbol of our control over nature, our own private, manufactured landscapes.

The most interesting idea I’ve heard for the prevalence of lawns in the US is in Charles C. Mann’s excellent book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  He suggests that wide, expansive lawns may have been an anti-malaria survival strategy.  A house on a rise on the landscape with cleared land around it would catch the breeze and prevent malaria carrying mosquitoes from getting into the house.  Lawns became embedded in the social consciousness of the emerging United States and spread with the population, as symbolic as the flag or fireworks, though more subtle and having greater practical value.  It is an interesting idea and makes as much, or more, sense as any other idea concerning lawns that I have read.

What bothers me about lawns is that they tend to be uniform monocrops with little three-dimensional texture.  This lack of diversity limits what wildlife visits a lawn, and I, as an ecologist and someone who is always investigating things, love diversity.  My yard here in Vermont is diverse, but my landlord likes a short lawn and cuts it down to an inch or two in height.  Every time he does so all the insects, birds, and mammals flee, taking weeks to return.  I like all those mobile visitors.

Dew covered Funnel-Web or Grass Spider webs (Agelenopsis spp.)

One of the visitors to my lawn is a plump woodchuck (Marmota monax).  It only crosses the road to my lawn when the vegetation reaches 6-8 inches, then it visits nearly every evening and some mornings a well.  This rotund fellow is wary and alert, standing up and peering about at the slightest out of place sound.

Woodchuck (Marmota monax) alert for danger

The name Woodchuck is actually a derivative of a Native American name wuchak, and has nothing to do with either wood or chucking, despite generations of woodchuck chucking wood tongue-twisters.

Woodchucks, also known as Groundhogs, Land-Beavers, and, my favorite, Whistle-Pigs are marmots, large rodents related to ground squirrels.  Most of the marmot family are alpine dwellers, commonly found in high grassy places from Europe to Asia and through North America, but the woodchuck is a lowland species wide-spread in the northeastern and central United States, and through Canada up to Alaska.  Like other marmots woodchucks have a piercing alarm call, a sharp whistle that carries far, sometimes with a bit of a burbling quality to it.

Woodchuck from the rear

Most often a woodchuck will appear as a furry lump on the grass, something like a cross of a loaf of bread, a caterpillar, and a fat otter pretending to be a cat.  Many people have a particular dislike for woodchucks because they eat garden vegetables and ornamental plants.  A good friend of mine has been driven to distraction by one that is eating her hydrangeas.  The one that visits my lawn (but only when it has not been cut for a while) eats the dandelions and fleabane, basically weeding the yard for me.

Woodchuck eating weeds from my yard

During the spring, summer, and fall woodchucks pile on as much fat as they can, much like small bears.  Come winter they retreat to a specially dug winter burrow to hibernate.  Marmots are some of the few animals that enter true hibernation.  They radically slow all their metabolic processes and remain oblivious to the world until mating time, often beginning in February or March, possibly later the further north they live.

Woodchucks have marvelously thick and soft fur, as do other marmots.  I have a hat I bought in western China with a marmot fur ruff that is too warm for me to wear in nearly any weather.  Despite putting on a tremendous amount of fat their flesh is lean, most of the fat is in a subcutaneous layer, just beneath the skin, with the rest stored in the body cavity between the internal organs.

Woodchucks are the most solitary of marmots and are said to be aggressive.  They can be hand raised to be cuddly, but it takes a great deal of effort to overcome their feisty nature.

Surprisingly, woodchucks are reputed to be agile climbers in an emergency, though I have yet to see one scale a tree.  Most often what I see is one popping up to look about:

Wary woodchuck watches for danger

Followed by a rapid retreat if I am not careful, quiet, and slow moving:

Just too dangerous around here…

I like this occasional visitor to my yard, and, given the option, do not mow my lawn as if I do it will not come by to visit.

Mainly because it is silly – if the animation is not working, click the image

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A note:  my posts may become a bit erratic for a few months, I am in the midst of finishing one job, moving (maybe twice), and will hopefully be beginning a new job in a different country.  Eventually this will provide great material for the ongoing exploration of nature, but the route there may be a little irregular and unpredictable.  Bear with it, I will not abandon my writing and photography.

Tools for the Modern Primate – Apps for Field-Work

I love nature, but as a terrestrial primate, I have a love of tools as well.  A simple knife is usually enough for me, with that I can make nearly anything else, given enough time, but I like other tools as well; rope, cameras, and computers to name a few.

I am often teased for the tools I carry (I have full pockets), but the teasing is usually good natured as I use all the tools I carry on a regular basis and others often benefit from my tool use.  One of the tools I carry is a smartphone, an iPhone to be specific.  What I like best about it is not the phone aspect, but the computer aspect.  It is a surprisingly versatile  field science and reference tool, even setting aside the ability to go online from the field.

People often ask me what apps I use, so I finally went through my phone and selected a list of the ones I think are best for field-work, at least for the sort of field-work I find myself doing.

ScreenCapture from the Theodolite app

An important note about these apps.  They are only ones I have on my phone, ones I have used, and, for the most part, are inexpensive ones.  There are a bunch more great apps out there, and I’d love to hear about them, but as I don’t have them and have never used them I can’t really make any statements about them.  I welcome any comments, statements, or recommendations that you might make in the comments section though.  Some of these apps have Android based counterparts, others may not.  I only know of the Apple ones.

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Mapping is a fundamental piece of pretty much all field science and I am a map geek, accordingly I have a bunch of mapping and location based software.

  Measure Map:  This is a fantastically useful little app that lets you draw polygons on a hybrid Google map (satellite with names) and both save the polygons and export them in a variety of formats, including KML, CSV, PNG, MMP (proprietary format), and PDF.  It auto-links with Dropbox, sends emails, and can print as well.

As you draw the polygon the area and perimeter are tabulated for you.  If you’re walking and mapping as you go just tap and hold the screen to drop a pin where you are and move on to the next point, otherwise tap the screen to place a pin wherever you have dragged the crosshairs

It’s a paid app comes in three prices Free, mid-range at $2 and the expensive version up around $34.  Obviously, the more you pay, the more functionality you get.  I have the mid range version which allows me to keep one polygon on the screen at a time.  The expensive version lets you keep multiple ones the screen.  In either case the polygons can be saved to the phone and loaded as needed.

Theodolite:  This is a sort of do-everything app and one of my very favorites.  It uses the phone sensors to turn the iPhone into a basic surveying tool and mapping tool.  It uses the camera to generate a heads-up display, indicating bearing, angle, azmuth, and elevation.  If you know the distance to an object you can use this app to calculate height, and if you know the height it will calculate the distance for you .  I’ve used it to measure tree heights and found it to be pretty accurate, though it may take a couple of tries to lock in the upper and lower readings.  Another great feature is the triangulation function, though it only uses two points, so it’s more of biangulation.  Two bearing readings taken some distance apart will be plotted on the map and the point where they intersect plotted.  In the map function the map can be static or move with you, and all units can be switched.

In addition, you can email location information including a KML file, a Google Maps link, a screen capture or a simple photo, and location information in the body of the email.

The app costs about $4 and is worth every penny.

SoilWeb: This is an excellent free app that taps into the National Soil Survey.  It uses the phone’s location information and provides a soil profile for your location.  The profile can be explored for detailed information for each soil class and expected plants as well.

It is not as detailed as the soil explorer on the website, but still very good.  This app only provides information for where the phone is, you cannot check soil information for remote locations.

The app is also available for Android devices.

Google Earth & KMZ Loader:  I’m lumping these two apps together as KMZ Loader’s main function is to import KMZ files into Google Earth.

Google Earth needs little introduction, most people are familiar with it from desktop applications.  On the iPhone (and Android systems) it is a bit more limited than it is on a desktop, but it does have some interesting features.

Some of the limitations are that you cannot measure distances or areas, there is no scale, you can only drop one pin at a time, and the historical imagery function is not available.

An interesting feature, that can be turned off, is an augmented reality function that tilts the view as you tilt the phone.  With some practice this allows the phone to be used as a sort of viewfinder to overlay Google Earth on the real world.

A problem with the Google Earth app is that KMZ and KML files cannot be directly imported to it.  There are several ways to work-around this issue, of which KMZ Loader is one.  KMZ Loader does just what it says, although results can be spotty at times.  A second work-around is to load your KMZ or KML file into your personal Google Maps account online, then import the Google Maps file into the Google Earth app.  You can only load one file in at a time and nothing too complicated, but it works decently well.

ArcGIS:  Whatever your personal opinions about ESRI’s ArcGIS system, it is the industry standard and an extremely powerful software suite.  The iPhone app allows you to tap into the online maps ESRI provides, once you set up a free ESRI account.  In addition you can load files from your computer or from online hosts.  I have not tried the latter functions, but this flexibility allows for a virtually unlimited range of data that can be displayed.

In addition, areas and perimeters can be drawn within the app.

UTMConvert:  Converting between UTM designations and degrees is a pain.  This app takes the sting out of it.  The only limitation is that you can only make one conversion at a time rather than a batch conversion of multiple points.

There are some excellent online converters for batch conversion and a downloadable Excel spreadsheet to do large scale batch conversion on your computer provided by the University of Wisconsin that I have used many times with good results.

MultiConvert:  On the subject of conversions, there is no better program than the free MultiConvert app.  An enormous range of conversion categories are available.  The standard Length, Area, Volume, Weight options are covered along with Luminance, Quadratic Equation Solvers, Radioactivity, Thermal Conductivity, Fuel Consumption, Catalytic Activity, Data Storage, and many, many more.  The Currency converter function updates to stay current.

I use this app a lot.

SketchBookX:  A drawing app is useful.  Some people can create some amazing works of art on an iPhone or iPad.  I am not one of these people, but I have found the drawing apps to be extremely useful in the field, especially when teaching or leading a group of people.  An example was for a forest stand mapping project I was leading.  I used the Google Maps/Google Earth trick outlined above, and took a screen capture of the forest stand with the shape polygon overlaid on it.  From there I opened the file in the drawing app and was able to demonstrate various surveying methods graphically in the field by drawing directly on the map of the region.

I use the free version of SketchBook.  It has a good array of colors, brushes, and zoom functions.  In addition it has a layer function so you can draw on a different layer than the original image.  The paid version has more options, but I’ve never felt the need to get it.

USGSSeismic:  Earthquakes and other similar events interest me and I like to know when and where they occur.  The free USGS Seismic app taps into the online database the USGS keeps of earthquakes, providing standard information such as magnitude, date, and location.  Additionally, it will open the location on the iPhone maps app or on the USGS earthquake maps page.  The Quakes app also works well.

Perhaps it’s a product of growing up on the San Andreas fault and feeling earthquakes for much of my life, but I find them interesting.

iSeismometer:  On the subject of quakes, this app uses the iPhone motion sensors to turn the device into a surprisingly sensitive 3-axis seismometer.  It has an alarm that will go off if motion exceeds a predetermined rate, options to report earthquakes, and a certain degree of adjustability in sensitivity.

I think it’s probably too sensitive to be useful for earthquakes, but it is pretty interesting to see how much seemingly stable objects move.  Perhaps a good test for coffee intake.

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SmartPhones are excellent for storing field expedient reference materials, of which the range and diversity is immense.  Some of my science-based favorites follow.

iBirdPro:  This probably needs no introduction.  It is far and away the best United States bird identification app on the market, despite the cost.  Often there are sales, especially around holidays that substantially lower the price, so keep your eyes open.

Searching for species with this app can be a bit awkward at times.  I find it is best to narrow the field down to a handful of potential birds and scroll through them.  Each entry has several call recordings, drawings, maps, photos, and links to Flickr pages of the birds as well.

The next four I’m going to lump together.

If you’re anything like me, remembering the different geologic eras is a pain.  Geotimescale provides a simple geologic timescale to help you remember.  It also has information points along the line to highlight significant events.

TimeTree is an interesting app for tracking species divergence.  Entering two species provides a branching date determined by molecular time estimates that the app plots against a geologic timeline.  More information is available on the TimeTree website, including their reference sources.

Taxonomy is a searchable species database, providing basic cladistic information.  It’s nice if you’ve forgotten what taxon a species belongs in, or are just curious and want to poke around, looking at which species are related to each other.  Each species page includes links to outside sources with more detailed information.

TCT Lite is a periodic table with a variety of display options including Mass, Density, Electronegativity, Atomic Radius, and more.

There are a bunch more good reference apps, including ones for searching academic papers and the like, but I’ll leave the reference section with what is listed above.

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The final subject is citizen science.  A number of apps are available that all try to do pretty much the same thing, some well, some very poorly.

iNaturalist is the citizen science app I find to be the best.

At its most basic this is a geolocated recording app to mark species locations in the field and upload an associated image.  There is quite a bit of flexibility built into the system, expanding the potential tremendously.  Users can set up specific projects, establishing networks of observers, and I believe the data can be downloaded as well, allowing users to more easily utilize and collate field data.

The best examples of this app would be to look at the prolific observation record of one of my friends in Vermont: http://www.inaturalist.org/observations/charlie.

Clearly, there are many, many more useful apps that I have not listed, some I even have on my phone as well, but these are some of the ones I use most often.
I hope this is of some use.

(For more good apps take a look at the list Bruna Labs put together)

The Frontenac Arch a Critical Linkage

(this is an article I wrote for the summer 2012 newsletter of A2A – Algonquin To Adirondacks Conservation Association – a bi-national conservation association I am an adviser for – I wanted to wait until it was included in the newsletter before posting it here as well)

Between the Algonquin and the St. Lawrence a finger of the Canadian Shield, called the Frontenac Arch, reaches down from the north.  The Canadian Shield is an ancient formation of rock, heavily weathered, marked with meteor craters, and bearing the polishing scars of the ebb and flow of glaciers miles deep. Soils are shallow on the Shield, in many places nonexistent.  Nutrients are hard to come by and wetlands abound.

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

The bedrock to the east and west of the Frontenac Arch is old seafloor with thicker soils that are rich in minerals and nutrients. Groundwater flows through breaks in the flat bedding planes and does not become trapped in pockets as easily as it does on the Canadian Shield.

When we look at a landscape we often look at the plants growing on the surface and leave our thoughts on the surface with them.  Plants grow where they do because of the chemistry of bedrock, soil, water, and temperature.

On the Frontenac Arch the chemistry of the northern and the southern Canadian forests mix.  This mix shows in the wide and unusual range of plants growing in and around the Frontenac Arch.  The diversity of plants attracts a corresponding diversity in animals. All these plant communities are separated and connected by the dense wetlands, and many animals are drawn to the wetlands.  Frogs, fish, ospreys, turtles, feeding moose, waterfowl of all sorts, beavers, blackbirds, otters, sparrows, loons, and many more.

Male Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)

Healthy wetlands are rich in species, both in number and diversity; plant, animal, insect, and bird.  Wetlands are the kidneys of the planet; they filter water and keep it clean.  They slowly recharge aquifers with cool, pure water, they keep rivers and streams clear, they trap sediment, and they eventually fill in, becoming rich, complex soils full of nutrients.

Oddly, perhaps counter intuitively, all this life, more specifically all this diversity, of living things in wetlands is what keeps the water clean.  The water is strained at a molecular level for nutrients by all those living organisms.  Each looks for different things and uses them differently.  Toxins and chemicals are swept up and broken down by this process, but only as long as the diversity of life is present.

When that fabric of diversity is broken the health of the land suffers.  A healthy environment is like good glass, so clear you don’t see it and tough enough to withstand storms.

A large male Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and feral biologists

The Frontenac Arch is one of the gems of the region and is critical in connecting the northern and southern forests.

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For those who are interested the Algonquin to Adirondacks Conservation Association website is here, and a map is below:

Algonquin to Adirondacks Conservation Association map of the Frontenac Arch