February 16, 2017
By Liz Clift
I grew up in an amorphous place: the unincorporated county that became incorporated by a major city. In my childhood, there was a former cow pond that teemed with fish and turtles, with copperheads, with tadpoles and pollywogs that grew into frogs and toads, with leaches and crawdads and who knows what other invertebrates.
In no small part because food was abundant, the pond was frequented by Canada geese (Branta canadensis), mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), red-breasted mergansers (Mergus serrator), great blue herons (Ardea Herodias), belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon), snowy egrets (Egretta thula), coots (Fulica americana), green herons (Butorides virescens), and red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis)—and that’s to say nothing of the occasional visitors who blew in on hurricanes or appeared as part of migratory patterns, or the birds that were just generally common to the region.
Perhaps this is why my mom liked to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, which takes place every year (this year it lasts from tomorrow, Friday, February 17 – Monday, February 20; this is the 20th anniversary). The Great Backyard Bird Count asks that people observe the birds near them for as little as 15 minutes on one or more of the four days, and then report their sightings at birdcount.org. This is a citizen-scientist project that helps researchers at the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology learn more about birds, how we can protect them, and what we can do to maintain or improve the environment we share.
You don’t have to be an expert to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC, if you like cool acronyms or are looking for it on social media). You just have to register with your name and an email address, and report your findings for each time and/or place that you spend time bird-watching. If you’re not an expert at identifying birds, birdcount.org suggests several online databases to help you ID the birds you see (or hear). Even if you can’t identify the bird, you can probably get close (a hawk, for instance, doesn’t look especially like any non-raptor, and the folks who are coordinating this information understand how tricky the Accipiter genus is), and that’s perfectly fine.
The Great Backyard Bird Count can be done with your family, your co-workers, your BFFs, before or after brunch, or on your own on a hike—those are just a few suggestions. You’re also invited to take pictures, and submit them as part of the bird count; if you’re inclined to take pictures, like I am, I imagine this could make the time even more enjoyable. The picture below is a northern cardinal, photographed by Priscilla Morris of Tennessee, which was one of the honorable mentions in the bird behavior category last year.
The Great Backyard Bird Count is also an opportunity to take a few minutes to slow down and appreciate the world around you—regardless of whether that’s the middle of a city, in the countryside, at a wildlife refuge, or somewhere else entirely. You can participate from anywhere in the world!
If you decide to participate, we would love to hear about your experience or see your photos on Facebook!Leave a comment
February 14, 2017
By Liz Clift
Last year, I wrote about bonobos, and The Bonobo Project. Bonobos, unlike the other great apes (humans included) have never been known to kill each other in the wild, which can make them especially interesting to people who study the behaviors of humans compared to other great apes.
Bonobos are endangered—estimates for wild populations are as low as 5,000, in part because of habitat destruction and habitat encroachment—which was made even worse by a civil war. They naturally only live in one part of the world—the Congo Basin of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And, unfortunately, not enough people know about them. A lack of awareness about a species can mean a lack of money going toward research and conservation efforts.
The Bonobo Project, however, seeks to change this. February 14th is World Bonobo Day (because bonobos are most definitely lovers—people who study and work with bonobos talk about “the bonobo handshake” in reference to how bonobos use sexual contact as a means of building bonds and settling disagreements) and by sharing information about bonobos, you can help more people learn about bonobos.
Here are some articles where you can learn even more about bonobos—which will make you an absolute treat to be around this Valentine’s Day and beyond (we’re sure of it!):
Bonobos will need researchers, conservationists, and lots of regular folks helping raise awareness about their plight if they are to continue to survive and thrive.
Want to spread even more bonobo-love? Share one of these articles and use the hashtags #WorldBonoboDay or #IBonoboYou.Leave a comment
February 9, 2017
By Agustina Tierno, Fellow from Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, Uruguay
Editor’s Note: Agustina worked with Great Ecology for several weeks in the 4th quarter of 2016. This was part of an initiative launched by Barack Obama, called the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI), a program designed to empower entrepreneurs and innovative civil society leaders to strengthen their capacity to advance their entrepreneurial ideas and effectively contribute to social and economic development in their communities. In early October 2016, 250 fellows (of 4,800 potential fellows) from Central and Latin America traveled to the United States for 40 days, where they developed their projects, were mentored by companies related to their fields, and participated in work and training. The program culminated in Washington D.C. where they had the opportunity to share their work with the whole group of entrepreneurs, from multiple countries, and authorities in the US. Agustina was one of the five Uruguayans who participated in YLAI. She was mentored by Great Ecology. Read about her experience below.
October the 11th, 2016, I arrived in Great Ecology. I was received by Jessa Spainhower and we talked about our backgrounds, expectations, and possibilities of cooperation.
I must say this first day was a bit strange. I came to the USA after 40 days in Finland developing another project regarding education and arrived to work in a very important firm because of a new program (YLAI) launched by Barack Obama, with no time in between to process the experience; therefore, I felt a bit lost, not knowing what was it all going to be about.
It didn’t take me long to feel absolutely grateful to have been matched with this amazing firm.
My friend and colleague, Fiorella Bellora, and I are the co-founders of Bio-Observatories, an interdisciplinary design office specializing in sustainable architectural design solutions for natural landscapes. Working in Great Ecology for a month provided a unique opportunity to get to know, from the inside, how one of the most recognized firms specializing in habitat restoration works.
The first week, I had the chance to meet everyone at the office, not only the San Diego team, but also the New York and Denver teams. I was also invited to participate in the weekly meeting in which everyone shares the advances of the projects they are involved with. All this allowed me to confirm the professionalism of the office, as well as the competence of each one of the professionals working there, regardless their specific field of expertise.
In the following weeks, I was invited to different internal presentations, and to monitoring in-situ some ongoing projects. All those instances were formative for me. I got to learn a lot about different techniques, procedures, and aspects to consider when operating in natural areas. I also got to learn about American norms in this field and possible responses on regulations. I got to see how professionally, efficiently, and well an ecosystem restoration could occur.
I was surprised when visiting a wetland restoration, a project Great Ecology started some months before my visit; it seemed work started at least a year earlier considering the significant restoration work that had been performed.
In my last days, I had to make a presentation about Bio-Observatories for a pitch competition involving the YLAI fellows. For this presentation I was inspired and supported by Great Ecology’s team. They were all willing to share their knowledge and followed the development of my work until the final day; I even had the opportunity to present to them and received useful feedback.
I couldn’t be more happy to have had the opportunity to work in such an extraordinary company, with experienced and competent professionals, led by an inspiring entrepreneur, Mark Laska, PhD, committed to such an important cause, and with a pleasant atmosphere in which everyone helps each other and evolves together.
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February 7, 2017
By Liz Clift
Growing up, I visited East and Gulf Cost beaches frequently. There, I’d find shells from Donax variabilis, aka coquina. I loved coquina because their shells looked like sunrises and sunsets—and because these tiny bivalves, a type of clam, would wash up on the surf and then hurriedly dig beneath the wet sand. Coquina are small—you can easily scoop dozens into your hand if you find a colony.
Coquina live in an ecotone (a place where two different environmental conditions meet), the intertidal zone. Ecotones tend to have an abundance of life, because they hold characteristics of the two types of ecosystems. To get an idea of what this means—especially if you aren’t familiar with the term ecotone, I think it’s helpful to consider Rachel Carson’s description of the intertidal zone. In The Edge of the Sea, she described the shoreline as having “a dual nature, changing with the swing of the tides, belonging now to the land, now to the sea…only the most hardy and adaptable can survive in a region so mutable, yet the area between the tide lines is crowded with plants and animals.”
Indeed, for anyone whose spent any amount of time at the beach, you know that the places where the waves wash ashore can be quite a violent place—and that depending on the weather and the season, high tides can be extremely high and low tides extremely low.
Coquina are fairly hardy, and like other bivalves, are filter feeders. Filter feeders provide a valuable ecosystem service by cleaning the water. They can live several years in the wild, but will only last a couple of days in still water. They feed on unicellular algae, plankton, and detritus, using one of the two valves that protrudes from their shell. The other valve is used to get rid of waste.
They are consumed fish, shorebirds, humans, and some predatory snails. They use their muscular foot to burrow into the sand, which allows them to escape predation and keeps them from being swept away in retreating waves—although there’s evidence that they rely on waves to move them along a shoreline, rather than remaining sedentary like oysters or mussels.
This movement, and burrowing, is part of what I loved about them. As a child, I would wait for them to wash in on the tide, and then plunge my hand into the loose wet sand. I loved the sensation of them burrowing against my hand. It was in this way that I also first learned about the mole crabs (Emerita talpoida), a small crab without pinchers that also burrows into the sand and are frequently found on the same sandy beaches as coquina. I’d use what I had (a Frisbee, a bucket, just my hands) to scoop coquina, and sometimes mole crabs, into my hands, to marvel at the particulars of their evolution.
Part of what I loved about coquina was their place in the beauty of the world. Their brightly colored shells added beauty to the beach—especially beaches with a lot of bleached shells—and I remember walking along the coast a few days after a major storm, and how sometimes hundreds of empty coquina shells would roll in the edge of the surf, and how they gently clicked against each other.
However, while still quite common and not a species of concern, coquina do face environmental pressures. Sea-level rise, increasing ocean acidification, and beach erosion can all impact these little invertebrates. They may be especially at risk where damming of rivers has led to a decrease in fresh sand deposition or where beach re-nourishment projects, which add sand back to beaches, occur because they can get buried under tons of sand. Given their role in the ecosystem as filter feeder and as a food source, it may be important to monitor their presence (or absence) on a beach, especially one that is experiencing beach erosion.
Donax appears around the world, in places where there is sandy surface, and are generally an indicator of good beach health (although since they live in colonies, the absence of a visible Donax community isn’t necessarily an indicator of poor beach health—just the absence of a colony where you happen to be searching).
I’ve never eaten coquina, but I’ve heard they make a delicious green broth. If you’ve tried that, we’d love to hear from you on Facebook!Leave a comment
February 6, 2017
The last quarter of 2016, Great Ecology attended a number of conferences. Were you there and did we connect with you?
February 2, 2017
By Liz Clift
World Wetlands Day marks the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands, on February 2, 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar. This day of awareness was adopted in 1997, and each year has focused on a theme, including “Sustainable Livelihoods” (2016); “Fish for Tomorrow?” (2007); and “No wetlands – no water” (2003). This year, the theme is “Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction,” which focuses on how healthy wetlands help people cope with extreme weather events.
As though the fact that wetlands generally make our lives better isn’t reason enough to celebrate, the World Wetlands Day website has a map that shows a variety of events going on around the world that celebrate wetlands. In addition, youth ages 18-25, can participate in a photo contest from February 2 – March 2, 2017; the winner receives a free flight to a visit a Wetland of International Importance.
Great Ecology has worked on many wetland projects, perhaps most notably Woodbridge Waterfront Park. Woodbridge Waterfront Park is a 185-acre brownfield that is being restored through an intricate mitigation strategy. This project included performing multiple wetland functional analyses, designing more than 100 acres of wetland enhancement and creation, and filing comprehensive state and federal wetland and land use permits, among other tasks. Other wetland projects Great Ecology has worked on include: a wetlands assessment in Louisiana; creation of wetland habitats along a Toronto waterfront; several wetland mitigation bank habitat studies; saltmarsh restoration; vernal pool habitat planning and restoration; and intertidal wetland design.
Although we may often think of wetlands as coastal, they also occur inland (as evidenced by some of the projects I’ve linked to in the previous paragraph). Even inland wetland areas can act as buffers against storms and other extreme weather events, because these areas are meant to absorb and retain large amounts of water—and can be used to treat stormwater runoff, or other forms of polluted water, an ecosystem service.
Wetlands also provide valuable habitat area for many types of plants and animals, and series of wetlands can be critical for the migratory patterns of animals due to this diversity—which can provide food, shelter, water, nesting, and resting grounds. In the Midwest, for instance, prairie potholes—small wetland areas within the context of larger grasslands—are crucial for the Midwestern flyway. Inland swamps, such as the Sudd along the Nile River in Sudan, may also be frequented by migratory and water-loving animals—including shoebills (Balaeniceps rex), black crowned cranes (Balearica pavonina), Nile lechwe (Kobus megaceros), Kob (Kobus kob), and crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus).
Of course, there are many types of wetlands, of which I’ll only cover a few other non-tidal versions: Vernal pools, which are seasonal, depressional wetland areas, provide habitat for endemic species such as certain varieties of fairy shrimp. Playa lakes are found on the southern high plains of the US and, like vernal pools, are ephemeral existing only at certain points of the year (generally after spring rainstorms). Fens, which are peat-forming wetlands, are less acidic than bogs (another type of wetland) and have higher nutrient levels, and occur in the northeastern US, the Great Lakes region, the Rocky Mountains, and Canada.
If you’d like to learn more about wetlands, their functionality, and how wetlands are governed, visit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website.Leave a comment
January 23, 2017
There’s a marine clam so large that it can’t stuff itself in its shell. You might imagine that leaves it vulnerable to predators because its tender parts are so readily exposed (tender parts that are, apparently, lightly sweet and crispy).
But that clam also buries itself.
It’s the Pacific geoduck (pronounced gooey duck; Panopea generosa) clam, which has been reported to live more than 125 years. Like other bivalves, the geoduck filter feeds—which means it likely has some impact on water quality, although there don’t appear to be published studies on how much water an adult geoduck can filter a day or the degree to which it cleans the water relative to other bivalves.
Geoducks, like other bivalves spend the first weeks of their life in a larval state, floating around on ocean currents. When they begin to settle onto the substrate, they start to bury themselves, as deep as their siphons will allow. As they grow, they can bury themselves deeper, which provides additional protection from animals—including people—that might enjoy a tasty geoduck snack. Additionally, the pressure from the sand helps them keep their bivalve closed (the muscles which do this in other bivalves, like oysters, are not strong enough in geoducks to do this naturally). If you see one on the beach, in the wild, most likely you’ll notice it because it spurts a little fountain of water out occasionally, from its siphon. If you’re diving, you might only see the siphon, which resembles certain types of sea sponge (such as Alpysina archeri).
Like oysters, and many other mollusks, geoducks are a facet of the aquaculture/mariculture industry. Geoduck farms may look like a bunch of pipes plunged into a beach, which at low tide, may be exposed. Each pipe is seeded with a couple juvenile geoducks, which will remain in those pipes for a few years until they reach maturity (the exact timing of this depends on a number of factors, including water temperature). At that point, the geoducks are harvested by essentially super-saturating the surrounding sand with water and then extracting the geoduck by reaching one’s arm down into the pipe. The goal is to grab geoducks by their shell (so as not to damage the siphon) and then quickly wrap a rubber band around them to keep their shell closed.
There have been some concerns, however, from environmentalists and property owners about the impacts of these geoduck farms on coastal ecology. One study showed no net negative ecological impacts of geoduck (although there has been a shift of species in areas with geoduck farms—for instance, halibut and flounder, which prefer uninterrupted bottom areas are scarcer, but other animals that like to congregate (and hide) around structures have increased in population). In fact, there’s evidence that geoduck farming may even work to recruit* eelgrass, an endangered species. However, another study, completed in 2015, showed that the particular practices of farming geoducks may have a negative impact on species, such as birds, since the netting used to protect geoducks also serves to protect the prey those birds might otherwise forage, such as small crabs.
Like many things, it seems to be, in part, a matter of scale. Double or triple the amount of geoducks farmed in the Puget Sound area, and we might see more impacts from geoducks themselves. As of right now, the primary impacts seem to be the methods of farming, and perhaps changes to these methods, in a move to become more sustainable for impacted species (predator species, such as salmon, great blue heron, and others), is to come. After all, one of the largest shellfish farms in the region claims to have a vested interest in maintaining geoduck health as a means of sustaining their business.
*Unfortunately, if netting is used to cover the geoducks, to prevent easy predation, the removal and replacement of the netting can cause eelgrass to die back.Leave a comment
January 19, 2017
People who know me well know that I listen to a lot of podcasts. It helps pass the time while I’m commuting by bike or walking my dog or going on lengthy summer rides. Every so often, some strike me as especially appropriate for the community of restoration specialists, conservationists, biologists, ecologists, regulators, educators, and others we know read our blog. Here are seven episodes that we think our readers might especially enjoy:
As a note: The Story Collider is a podcast specifically about how “science changes people’s lives.” This podcast isn’t explicitly nature-focused, but the fact I’ve been listening for years, and the specific science focus definitely skewed the results here.
The Story Collider’s “The Sea Urchin Massacre” as told by Adam Foote, talks about the difficulties obtaining sea urchins for research while in a landlocked city, in the middle of a polar vortex. Time: 22:12
The Story Collider’s “A Taste of Nature” as told by Deborah Blum, tells a story about a dinner party when she was seven years old, when she asked a question that led to E.O. Wilson investigating a toxic exposure. Time: 14:22
The Story Collider’s “The Mountain Lion Book” as told by Darcy Burke, who talks about how a single book about mountain lions, given to her a child, influenced her career as a science writer. Time: 13.25
Surprisingly Awesome’s “Pigeons,” which investigates the relationship between pigeons and humans (and how much we used to love them). Time: 34:26
The Moth’s “The Call of the Wild,” a story told by Bokara Legendre, who talks about growing up on safaris and how she learned about alternatives to safaris that ended with filming animals instead of hunting them. Time: 16:30
Good Job Brain, a trivia podcast, has an episode called “The Great Outdoors” which examines what you should do when a shark is circling you, how to survive an attack of killer bees, and the life of the deer tick (among other things). Time: 57:35
Stuff You Should Know has an episode about sea jellies, which asks: “Jellyfish: Even Cooler than Octopi?” Time: 54:24
We want to know: what are some of your favorite science/nature/environmental podcasts? Let us know on Facebook!Leave a comment
January 13, 2017
By Liz Clift
What does it mean for a giant to fall?
That seems to be what many people were thinking about last weekend when heavy rainfall resulted in the felling of Pioneer Cabin Tree, one of California’s iconic sequoias. Pioneer Cabin Tree was believed to be more than 1,000 years old—and is the subject of many tourist photos.
Pioneer Cabin Tree, however, is only one of several drive-through trees that were created as a means of encouraging tourism (what!? a tree you can drive through?! Let’s hop in the Model-T and go!) and the use of toll roads and railways. The tunnel was carved from an old fire scar–which speaks to the durability of sequoias. In our lexicon of a disposable culture, these trees are built to last, and to form new growth around old scars.
Last weekend, my social media was flooded with people posting pictures of Pioneer Cabin Tree, and other tunnel trees. The effect was to create a story of how we are pulled to the things that are bigger than us, to the mystery of the natural world, to the way earth will show us its history and ours.
I think it’s easy for us to become complacent—to assume that things that iconic and/or much older than us (or even more than we’re capable of imagining) will always be there. It speaks to the limits of our imaginations. It speaks to the limits of what we can know and predict about the world.
As restoration professionals, we must think about not only what a landscape might look like in six months or a year, but in a decade, in a century, in five centuries and beyond. Of course, we cannot know these things. We can make guesses based on what we know about forest management or hundred-year floods or predicted sea-level rise. We make guesses based on what we know about succession, what we know about the land’s status as protected (or not). We model and forecast. We look for trends in the past to predict future trends.
If we think about Pioneer Cabin Tree—and what was happening 1,200 to 1,000 years ago—our inability to forecast the far future is even more evident. In 817, King Louis the Pious (son of Charlemagne) was still the newly crowned Holy Roman Emperor. By 1017, the classic Pueblo period of the Anasazi culture (cliff dwellings) were (likely) barely established and the world’s first novel (The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu) had been completed a mere nine years earlier. To the best of our knowledge, at some point in this period, Pioneer Cabin Tree was a sapling.
It was still alive when it fell.
Pioneer Cabin Tree is far from the first of the giants to fall. Other tunnel trees have gone before it. But this tree fell during a period when more of our tallest and biggest trees are dying, as the California drought stretches on (despite recent rains, including the rains that were falling when Pioneer Cabin Tree toppled).
For me, what makes Pioneer Cabin Tree different is the age of social media. We get to document when our beloveds and our icons die—and certainly for many, the tunnel made this tree iconic. We get to mourn and share in collective grief or sadness or disbelief in an unprecedented way. We also get to share our stories and memories—such a critical part of our human culture—and partake in the stories and memories of others.
The most memorable image that came through my social media feed of Pioneer Cabin Tree was a friend I’ve known for nearly a decade, re-posting a picture from 2008. At the time, his daughter was still in elementary school. He was then about the age I am now. The photo itself was unremarkable: the family in the foreground, the tree in the background. What was notable to me was how social media allowed him to document this (and dredge it back up). The photo, perhaps taken by a fellow tourist, captured the most fleeing of moments.
Our histories are short. Our stories sometimes last longer. What stories will you tell?Leave a comment
January 13, 2017
Great Ecology is pleased to announce that Wired Magazine listed the Croton Water Filtration Plant in New York as one of “25 Masterpieces that Prove 2016 was an Incredible Year for Architecture.” The water filtration plant is built underground and includes a 9-acre green roof that features a golf course. The innovative design was created by Grimshaw, to whom Great Ecology acted as the ecological consultant. Great Ecology planned and designed constructed wetlands for the site. The wetlands, whose construction is set to begin this spring, will capture and store storm and waste water from the site, process and improve the quality of this water, and then recycle it for reuse onsite. Additionally, Great Ecology helped designed the bioswales in the plaza.Leave a comment