Monday, October 31, 2011

Psychobilly Outdoors - Zombie Ecology 101

YES! We're finally here! The part with the zombies! There are 10 million webpages about zombies, and the zombipacolypse, and all the different ways it could happen, yada yada.  A very few of them are even biologically possible - we'll discuss them here.

But the very interesting thing to me is that zombies, like human beings with souls and free will,  would not live in isolation of their surroundings or the natural environment.   A zombie could probably be kept in its  60% alive zombie state for quite awhile in controlled laboratory conditions - given safety from predators, drugs to control illnesses that have afflicted and killed humans for thousands of years, and a steady supply of food that would also not kill them.  Out in the post-zombipacolyptic world, absolutely NONE of those things are a given.  But wait - the psychobilly music!!

Part I.  Zombie Biology.
As many of you have doubtless read, seen, or heard, there are several ways that a zombie - or something very close to it - can be created from a human......for real. A few examples? Let's start off in Haiti, where banana plantation owners colluded with witch doctors to poison workers into a mindless, memory-free state of compliance (long hours and no pay for years and years).  Yeah, that happened. The Un-Zombie part?  if you stop giving the "zombie" the poison, then they gradually get better.  Oh, and they are totally nonaggressive and don't eat brains.

Then there's Creutzfeldt-Jakob (or Mad Cow) disease - a ridiculous disease of our own sloth and laziness as a species (eating beef cut from cows so sick with brain disease that they could not walk straight or see).  Then, combine sloppy slaughterhouse practices (infected brain matter getting into ground beef) and you have a limited outbreak of a zombifying disease on your hands.  In people, the disease destroys a person's memory, and then their personality, and finally their ability to reason.   The Un-Zombie part? Any potential zombies have to eat the infected meat, and Mad Cow (unless it evolves into something else) results in stupified, dying people - not aggro, brain eating, sprinting zombies. Also, as far as I know, the disease particle (prions) lives specifically in the infected brain - so being bitten by a zombie would probably result in a nasty staph infection some stitches, and psychotherapy, but not your own zombification.

So back to Zombie Ecology.  To understand the fascinating (though I suspect fascinatingly brief) role that zombies could play in our ecosystem, we need to understand where they fit in the food web.

Part I.  Zombie Prey
Here's where the mythology of zombies starts to fall apart.  As a species, our (humans, not zombies) strongest attributes are the ability to reason, the ability to organize into complex social groups, and the ability to devise, manufacture, and use complex weapons (metal shovels, spears with metal or stone tips) for growing food, hunting, and defense.  But based on what we know about potential "zombie-like" illnesses, groups of zombies would be highly unlikely to organize together, manufacture weapons, or certain, plan strategically or militarily against living human beings.

That means that the media depictions of "roaming zombie hordes" is actually pretty accurate.  It's accurate because unorganized groups of zombies would be forced into the lifestyle of "hunter gatherer" since they could not maintain food stocks, crops, or any material goods to trade for food.  To find examples of a lifestyle so primitive that things like stone spear tips and fishing nets (tools zombies could not use or repair) are not involved, we have to go back about 100,000 years.  That's right. About 75,000 years before humans ever entered North America.  And much older than the "paleolithic diet."  Bear with me.

The diet of mobile hunters is based on the selective intake of meats (preferably, but not always cooked) and whatever fruits, vegetables, and root crops may possibly be ripe at the time that the tribe - or horde - moves through.  Due to zombies' inability to organize, plan, or reason, we'll assume that they are on a meat-only diet.

So what could zombies (even Aggro-Zombies) catch as prey?  Perhaps anything unexpecting, however, let's remember that they lack tools and also lack any ability to "stealthily" approach prey - particularly with weapons they do not have or use.  While they could theoretically (and accidentally) mob an area and overwhelm pockets of human or animal prey, it's hard to believe that this would generate sufficient food for the group of hunters involved.   Also recall that animals that could be favored by zombies for food (deer, rabbits, geese) are all sufficiently aware that human beings are predators, and while they might be stupid enough to keep inside the range of effective hunting weapons, the zombies will have no weapons.

In the end, I believe that zombie food intake would be limited to the flesh of other zombies, human victims that are overwhelmed by zombie hordes (or caught surprised and unable to escape), and the scavenging of newly dead birds, fish, and mammals.   All of these food sources, from an ecological perspective, would establish a negative sliding (reducing) "zombie carrying capacity" for any given land area within a matter of weeks.

Part II.   Zombie morbidity (disease)
Time for more real talk.  The earth is a tough place.  Survival is hard.  Even for humans with all of our science, and weapons, and agriculture, and medicine. Zombies will lack all of those things.   And while I called this "morbidity," the correct term is really "co-morbidity," because these folks already have the freaking zombie disease, which at some point, I guess, is terminal anyway.

In the meantime, though,  there's fresh, clean water.  Even zombies will need fresh water.  Meat does not contain enough moisture to sustain our electrolyte balance.  I would expect the first great zombie die-off to commence about 4 days after the Great Zombie Disease Breakout, when fluid-starved zombies start succumbing directly to dehydration.  This will occur even faster in hot areas, or if it happens in the summer.

And for the clean part, if our sewage systems fail, probably 80% of the human species (and the zombies that arise in those regions) will be subjected to water that is chock full of deadly bacteria and viruses.  Humans will know to use filters.  Zombies won't.   The zombies will get sick with cholera, e. coli, and tons of other bugs.  They will crap their frying brains out.  Within days, I suspect they'll terminate due to dehydration caused by epic diarrhea.

What about the food? Yeah, zombies are not real picky.  And don't cook their food.  And might eat raw, dead meat.   I would anticipate a steady and relatively high mortality in zombies to E. coli (untreated mortality rate 25%), Listeria (60%), Staphylococcus (80%), and Salmonella (75%) infections.  Those odds ain't good if you're a hungry zombie and unwittingly tap into some brain tissue or a "gut line."

On morbidity, what are some common, zombie-ending occupational hazards?  I didn't know where to look for this, so, given the random, uncoordinated flailing nature of zombies,  I found a lawyer's page listing "most common accidents for the elderly."  Here they are, and how I'd expect them to impact zombies:

1.  Maltreatment - failure to attend to a medical issue.  This will absolutely happen to zombies, as no one will be there to say, "Bro, you should get that cut checked out, it's been bleeding green for 8 days."  This is why significant numbers of zombies will die (really die) from treatable illnesses, from melanoma to infected cuts (hello....maggots!!!), to bronchitis.

2. Trips and falls.  Same thing.  Let's get real.  Once a zombie has broken a few ribs, an ankle, a knee, or a hip, it will not be able to compete for food in a zombified world. It will starve and really die, permanently.

3. Driving.  Doesn't apply.
4. Suicide.  Oh, we wish.
5. Sexual abuse.  Eww.
6.  Fire injuries.  Mehh.

7. Traumatic brain injuries.  What with being half-dead and on the move 24 hours a day, with no water to drink, you can expect #2, "trips and falls" to routinely lead to #7, TBI.   As any zombie hunter knows, once you turn off that light's done.

Bottom line: if we look at things rationally, zombies have a whole lot of things going against the microbe world alone!

Part III.  Zombie mortality (predators)
According to National Geographic, early humans were just as often prey as they were hunters.  Largely, we can expect the same of zombies.  Modern humans don't experience significant predation because of the things I mentioned above - complex weapons, complex social arrangements (i.e. guard duty), and the strategy of defense.

I'm pretty confident that lions, tigers, bears, and mountain lions are going to eat some damn zombies.  Although, disappointingly, I doubt the casualties will even be in the same order of magnitude as the number of zombies killed by drinking foul water.

However, I'm overlooking another predator.  That would be us - the living.  Keeping in consideration the rapidity with which borders are closed and large groups of people are dispersed when an ANY type of outbreak occurs in the developed world, I can't imagine the kind of landscape present in Zombieland or The Walking Dead - where the living number just a few.  And as Cracked Magazine wrote in their article, "7 Scientific Reasons A Zombie Outbreak Would Fail - Quickly", " 'In Harm's Way' is about 4,875 feet away from this:"

This gun is used worldwide

If we were to consider the zombie as its own species, it would be an ill-fated one.  Zombies would most likely have every biological sensitivity of primitive humans, no advantage of modern humans (weapons, medicine), and every disadvantage of modern earth (unsafe drinking water, globally present disease, rats, etc).   Zombie skin (as human skin) would deteriorate quickly in either continued heat or continued cold, and of course...our skin holds our muscles together.  Or at least prevents them from being eaten by maggots.

If we can assume that an epidemic of a zombifying disease were to occur, that it would be locally or regionally severe, we can assume that large pockets of humanity would remain uninfected, or relatively so.  While a cure for such an illness may not exist, prevention would likely be possible once the "vector" is identified - food, water, human touch, breathing on others, etc.  This would probably take a few days.   I can imagine that order would be restored in a matter of weeks - and not without severe consequences to humanity.

But I'd expect the reign of zombies to succumb to the following:
50% - Dehydration and/or Exposure (2 weeks)
20% - Traumatic injury resulting in lethal secondary infection, or just death by dehydration/starvation (2 months)
10% - Traumatic injury directly resulting in death, i.e. stumbling off a pier in the dark (2 months)
10% - Foodbourne or waterbourne illness (death by dehydration) (1.5 months)
5% - Other treatable illnesses, resulting in fatal infections of the blood, organs, etc. (6 months)
3% - Predation (killed by humans) (6 months)
2% - Predation (killed by animals) (2 months)

Thanks again for tuning into this year's Psychobilly Outdoors.  Hope you've enjoyed it.

I'll let Zombie Ghost Train take us out.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Psychobilly Outdoors - A Deadly Breather

If you've tuned in this week for the Psychobilly Outdoors Roundup, thanks a lot - monday (Halloween, of course) will be the last post in the series for this year.

2011's Psychobilly Outdoor Roundup has covered the following ghoulish topics brought forth by the ghosts of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and others:

The Zombie Virus (10/31)

So, thanks for reading, and on this foggy October morning, enjoy two wonderful psychobilly tunes that have very little to do with the outdoors.  These are two of my favorites.  I think you'll love them both.


Friday, October 28, 2011

Psychobilly Outdoors - Black Flowers

So, we've already chatted a bit about black roses.  Namely, how black roses are a figment of comic book fiction for a variety of reasons.  But pointing to just one species - even as ubiquitous as a rose - and claiming that "black flowers are impossible" - is not really scientific.

According to an extremely dubious internet reference, black and nearly-black flowers are extremely rare in nature, occuring in about two tenths of one percent of flowering genera.   And it's generally understand that the most common flower colors in nature are probably green, followed by brown, white, and pink.
Not exciting.   So let's listen to some music - here's Two Hearts Down by Knoxville's The Black Lilies:

Yeah, yeah, I know it's not technically psychobilly but bear with me here.  Why wouldn't black flowers be more common in nature?  Maybe it's impossible for plants to synthesize "black" pigment - although I certainly can't find anyone to scientifically state it.  Well, if you look at natural features as "nutritional choices" made by organisms, it's hard to see what a black flower gets you.  For wind-pollinated plants, producing a black flower would be a total waste, unless the color black scared away predators of the plant.  What about insect-pollinated plants?

Here's where it gets interesting - insect pollinators want to know where they are supposed to go to get the pollen.   The best pollinator plants are those that can visually guide bees in and literally provide a landing pad.  Here's a few examples of highly effective insect pollinated flowers:

Right. So we can quickly see that bee- and butterfly-pollinated flowers are not going to be black. What else pollinates flowers?

That's right - flies! But most species of flies aren't looking for pretty flowers. They're looking for this:

Roadkill.  So as it turns out, a fly-pollinated flower doesn't have to look like any particular thing, as long as its color doesn't make it appetizing to herbivores who might eat it.  Nope. Fly-pollinated flowers just have to stink. A lot.   And while this doesn't actively (genetically) promote black flowers, it means that for many species, the color just doesn't matter - which means that black flowers won't automatically be eliminated from the gene pool.  And there's our 0.2% of flowers.  "Not eliminated from the gene pool." Can you feel the love? Well, since you're here, you may as well meet a few of them!

The Kamchatka Lily - a Frittilaria

The Black Lily or "Stink Lily"

The Black Calla Lily

The Black Tulip

And of course......a psychobilly send-off from Belgrade (of all places).........see you soon!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Psychobilly Outdoors - The Dead Moon

Moon passing out of  Dark ("Dead") phase
In this Halloween week series, we've covered cemeteries and the blue moon already.  So what to make of the Dead- or Dark - Moon?

This one's pretty simple.  The Dead Moon is an especially dark new moon - a lunar surface that is reflecting no visible solar radiation whatsoever.   When it shows up, it usually hangs around for a few days until a crescent.

In popular (read: rockabilly and psychobilly) culture, a "dead moon" can be a description for a new moon that's barely visible....especially one that's red.

German psychobilly band Mad Sin wrote a song about the Dead Moon.  And here it is.....

Easy big fella!

Astrology type people have some interesting and deep thoughts about the Dead Moon, but I'm sure I'd probably interpret it wrong, and then somebody would put a hex on me, like some dude walking up to me and brushing my hair aside (weird, since I have none), only to say, "THEENERRRRRRR! Ha ha ha!!!!" (90s movie reference) or perhaps, under a different hex, I would just walk off the top of the nearest tall building for no apparent reason (2000s movie reference).

So if you want to find out more about "dead moon astrology," you can either look it up yourself or alternately, Call Meh Now!

Thanks for stopping by another episode of Psychobilly Outdoors!

Psychobilly Zombie Invasion.  A bit much, no?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Psychobilly Outdoors - What Lives in The Graveyard Tree

Photo by Brian Lee -
Every self-respecting psychobilly band has a song, or at least sings a song, about a tree in a graveyard.  It's Psychobilly 101.  And it's actually an awesome study, because some amazing things in nature tend to be found in graveyards.  Things that should make graveyards even more special to human beings than they already are. But first, the music. We'll start with Detroit's Koffin Kats and their Graveyard Tree....

Over the last 20 years, a whole slew of studies have been published that document how valuable graveyards biodiversity.   One of the first I ever read, back in 1996, was a press release from the Australian government entitled, "Biodiversity lives where the dead people go."  A little salacious for scientific work, but it highlighted a survey of cemeteries that displayed, among other things, plant species long thought extinct, often growing in cracks in the concrete.  Soon after, I read a scientific paper (that I can't find now, of course) documenting how Boston's greatest diversity in bird species could be found not in its coastal marshes, not in its nearby forests, or its many parks......but in its old cemeteries.

Last year, the BBC published a piece entitled "Urban biodiversity beyond the grave." As the cryptkeeper in the video (highly recommended, unembeddable) says, "If you didn't have the graveyard, this would be a smoky factory." Even the National Wildlife Federation got in on the action in their 2008 web post, "Peaceful Islands of Biodiversity."

So what's actually going on here?  Biodiversity is a function of the number of species present in a place, compared to the number of individuals present for each species.   So, why cemeteries?  Let's look at it visually.

Notice that it's mowed, there is some vertical structure (tombstones to perch on, sarcophogi to bury under), and it doesn't appear to be overgrown.  That, my friends, is what we call an "early successional habitat," which are generally known to be the most biodiverse habitats on the planet (with the exception of some rain forests and a few types of forested wetlands).  In fact, to a bird or small mammal, the above image doesn't look much different than this:

Alpine bald on Mount Rogers, VA; courtesy of Northstar Cycles Blog

Or this - an alpine creek bed, from Scott Ranger's Alaska Blog:

So, you get my point.  Cemeteries are also a refuge from human activities like burning, hunting, fishing and spraying herbicides, so it makes cemeteries very welcoming to urban wildlife!

So the next time you have the somber task of visiting a cemetery - look around you.  Look at what trees and flowers are growing there.  Which birds are singing.  Whether chipmunks or other critters are scurrying about.   It's hard to think of these places as "the outdoors," but to so many urban species, they represent a great hope for decent habitat.   And who knows what lives where the moss slowly grows?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Psychobilly Outdoors - The Blue Moon

You've heard the phrase "once in a blue moon."  Well, as it turns out, a "blue" moon" is fairly rare, and an actual blue moon is very rare indeed.

The "blue moon" has been a recurring theme in bluegrass and country music as well as sci-fi / fantasy writing, so there are quite a few people willing to chip in their interpretation of what "blue moon" really means.  What's even harder is finding a picture of a "blue moon" that has not been photoshopped to royal blue.  Oooooooh so creative, yet so mysterious.

We have a couple of rockabilly and psychobilly selections on the "blue moon" so let's get down to that  first.

We'll start with possibly the most recent and absolutely most haunting version of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," by Australia's Zombie Ghost Train.

Let's work with two reasonable, non-ninja types of blue moons.  First is the astronomical blue moon.  At some point, the writers of the Farmers Almanac made the assertion that in the case of a season (spring, summer, fall, winter) with four full moons (three is typical), then the third one should be called a blue moon.  Well.  That's not very exciting.

Let's go back to Bill Monroe, who penned the song in 1946.  Here he is performing the tune on the Johnny Cash show (God bless America!!!):

That brings us to the "Visible Blue Moon."  This is the rare one.  Turns out that a massive mobilization of huge amounts of small particles into the atmosphere - like from volcanoes and giant fires - that just happen to be larger than the wavelength of red light (thanks, Wikipedia!) - can allow blue light to shine through.  However, it's much more common for those same polluting events to mobilize very small particles, resulting in a red moon.

Bill Monroe wrote "Blue Moon of Kentucky" in 1946 - also the year that Sky and Telescope (mistakenly) published that the second full moon in any month is a "blue moon."  Maybe that accounts for the song.  Or maybe, just maybe, something else was happening in 1946 that could make a man write a song about a blue moon.

In March, 1946, the victorious Dutch Pacific army arrived at Badung, Indonesia, a city of 750,000.  Indonesian freedom fighters had held the town since the Japanese surrender, and the Dutch now required that the freedom fighters surrender the town, disarm, and go home.  Rather than capitulate to Europeans again, the Indonesians burned half of Badung to the ground, in what became known as the "Badung Sea of Fire." I don't know how much ash was mobilized, or whether it was 8 micrometers (blue) or 6.9 micrometers (red) in size.  I wonder how far the ash cloud reached?

Perhaps that's what Bill Monroe saw in that 1946 Blue Moon of Kentucky.

To send you off, here's a very rare Dave Day track - his 1957 EP "Blue Moon Baby."

Monday, October 24, 2011

Psychobilly Outdoors - How to Grow Black Roses

Image from
Psychobilly Nature is a short feature I'm running on River Mud between now and Halloween just for fun.  I hope you all enjoy it! 

We'll start out with the ubiquitous black rose.  While the black rose has been a fairly common metaphor for bad luck and hateful wishes in American music for a hundred years or so, in American film for 61 years, and in politics for at least 30 years, this dark symbol has found a legion of fans within the horror film and horror music communities over the last 20 years. Zombies, coffins, and black roses.  I think that sums it up.  Here's a song on the flower by Canada's The Matadors....

So, that's pretty cool (extra points for the coffin bass), but how many of you have actually seen a real black rose (one not dipped, painted, etc)?  The number is zero.  For a variety of reasons that I'll lay out later this week (linked to a song by the Black Lilies), true black flowers are very rare in nature, and as it turns out, pretty difficult to engineer...and impossible to engineer in roses.  The closest variety to black is called "Black Magic," and here's what it looks like:

Beautiful? Yes.  Dark? Very.  Black? Not even close.  According to Gardening Central, Black Magic was created by hybridizing the Dallas Rose with the Red Velvet rose, and the result is pretty amazing but scentless....and of course...not black. 

But back to our story.  In searching around the web to write this post, I found one option for making your own Frankensteined black roses.

First, on WikiHow, I found instructions on how to grow a "wonderfully deathly rose."  Sign me up!  You should visit the page and read the directions, but basically it says to make a 0.1% solution of black food coloring and use it to water the rosebush for an extended period of time (I assume it means as buds are starting to form).  Intriguing.   While this seems somewhat reasonable in theory (remember that experiment you did in middle school science with celery and food coloring?), I checked a few other random sources on the internet and it at least seems semi-plausible that you could achieve a near-black rose by starting with a dark variety of rose, very sandy soil, and black food coloring.  Here's a link on a home experiment with cut flowers and food coloring - not mind-blowing...but they got some color.  The Planting Science website shows an experiment with rooted plants that found food coloring up into the stems, but not leaves or flowers, after a week of obviously we're talking about a much longer commitment to get anything that even comes close to even a "black and red."

So now you know there is no black rose.  But in case you're in dire need of another psychobilly song about this tragic flower, here's a different song by almost the same name, sung by California's Rezurex!

Hunting for Rockfish...Clutching at Straws

Too much rain. Too much wind. Too little time.  But we went fishing anyway, in J's 19' Mako on Maryland's South River.  In most years, the anglers here call the month "Rocktober" for the ridiculous amount of school-size (12-18") rockfish, or striped bass, feeding in schools of baitfish or up against structure.  Not this year.

A serious of whallops from hurricanes and tropical storms has left the upper Chesapeake Bay's water cloudly, cool, and fresh - which is not a good thing if you are essentially a saltwater fish. Salinity is so low in some Maryland rivers that a high level of oyster mortality is predicted for this winter.

But we fished anyway.  We threw Calcuttas and Storms.  White bucktails and chartreuse bucktails. Sassy shads and Super shads.  No fish. Nobody's catching any fish.  There are tales of anglers right across the bay - safely away from these flood flows of fresh water - who are catching rockfish, speckled trout, and more.

But for now, we're left to enjoy the beautiful scenery, and to keep talking about the mammoth task of better managing stormwater and pollution in next Rocktober can be a good one!


Friday, October 21, 2011

Solemn Southwest Virginia

Southwest Virginia is kind of its own state. Once you leave the friendly atmosphere of Harrisonburg in the northern Shenandoah, or the - whatever that smell is - in Charlottesville, you eventually enter the Roanoke Valley, which gives way to the New River Valley.

There are counties here who begged to be added to the TVA-defined "Appalachia," as well as counties who begged to be deleted off of that same list.  Most people who have come through this valley over the last 300 years have been proud and poor.  Some, mostly the mine owners and the railroad barons, led a priveleged life.  They are all gone now.

 Eventually, most roads lead to Roanoke, once a significant rail town of the South.  You can start to understand what makes up Roanoke when you learn that this rail town hasn't had any rail service in nearly 40 years.

Roanoke has the nation's largest operating farmer's market (1886)'s too bad nobody goes. This photo was taken on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon.

The 1910 Shenandoah Hotel building tells no tales, but is at least somewhat protected by its newest tenant, the History Museum of Southwest Virginia.

As you wind through the valley, away from Roanoke and the old Norfolk & Western railroad, a new ethos appears.  A lot of shiny new pickup trucks, maroon ribbons, and turkey mascots are in the offerings.

This is Blacksburg.  But it, too, can be solemn.

Virginia Tech is one of six federally-designated senior military  colleges (The Citadel and Texas A&M are others).  While being federally administered in its early years (the 1870s), the  original leadership was strongly composed of brass from the Confederate Army.   Over time, the cadets have been awarded 7 Medals of Honor and 19 Distinguished Crosses.

Over 400 have died fighting for the United States, and their names are engraved on the pylons of Virginia Tech's War Memorial.

Construction on the Memorial began in 1951, and was financed by Virginia Tech alumni.   Each pylon is dedicated to one of the school's core values: Brotherhood, Duty, Honor, Leadership, Loyalty, Service, Sacrifice, and Ut Prosim (the school's motto- That I May Serve).

On our trip, the cadets were headed across town en masse.

Where they were heading is incredibly less solemn.  They deserve an afternoon off!

More soon!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Get Your Blue Zombie Pumpkins!

So, I was at one of the many obligatory Mid-Atlantic-Fall Harvest-Pumpkin-Apple-Hayride-Corn maze events in northern Maryland recently, and I came across these crazy blue pumpkins!

And because I am a freak, the kind of guy who thinks Begotten is coming-of-age journey-of-the-heart,  I immediately thought, "what an interesting decorative pumpkin in an unusual fall color!" "Those things totally look like blue zombie heads!"  And before you say, "Zombies aren't blue," shut up, yes they are.

Alright, so we've settled that. Back to the pumpkins.  The cucurbit of interest is Jarrahdale Blue, a hybrid of American Blue Hubbard with the French Rouge vif D'Etampes.   That took a few minutes to figure out.  Thank you, Wikigooglepedia.  So now you have a 15lb blue pumpkin.  Go, you!  How have other disturbed people zombified their Jarrahdale Blues?  Well, I'm glad you asked.



Now go get your blue pumpkin and do your worst!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Big rain, little fish at Prettyboy Reservoir

A whole day off.  That rarest of birds.  It had rained - really rained - the entire day before, so I really wasn't motivated to bow hunt in even more rain.  So the decision to go fishing was pretty easy.  But alas, marred by setbacks.

I woke up at 4:30am unable to breathe - tonsillitis.  I started the day - the big day off - by dropping off Hank at day care and then going to  the doctor, only to have them tell me, "Take ibuprofen, it's viral.  Bye." Then I needed some coffee.  And then it was time to go fishing.

The last seven weeks of nearly constant rain has provided an interesting, if lackluster, display of fall colors here in the Mid-Atlantic.  A lot of leaves are falling off, still green.  But there's been an impressive array of oranges and yellows that we don't typically get to see, other than in shrub species like shadbush, witchhazel, and spicebush.   Despite the fall colors, I could hear the treetops moving, which I suspected might mean that more rain was on the way.  I was right.

The springs were running pretty hard, and the water was green but cloudy (it's often green and clear here.  I had come here because my first visit to this spot turned out to be a great one, and I thought I could replicate the results.  I changed lures more in the first 20 minutes than I often do in an entire day, looking for just one big fish to chase a lure to shore, or at least short strike it near the surface.  Nothing.  I scaled back the size of my lures and that's when they appeared.  The green sunfish. 

Having recently been anointed "The Greenie Whisperer" by one of my buddies, I wasn't really excited to see them here, at a spot I believed was strongly dominated by bluegill and largemouth.  Oh well.  Of course, the greenies move in when water quality and habitat conditions deterioriate, but that left me asking, "Where are the bigger fish, then?'  I sized back up to bigger lures but the greenies kept biting.  Just great.  And then the serious rain started.

I hiked around a new section of the watershed property, knowing that I wouldn't be catching any big fish today.  It was a bit of a letdown - but it's October, and these things happen. Fall is really here.  When it's not raining, it's absolutely beautiful outside.  And it's time to go hunting.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Build a Better Vernal Pool - Top 5 Reasons for Failed Projects

Natural vernal pool - photo from
Every year, I work with landowners, agencies, communities, and schools on wetland projects that they describe as "Our Vernal Pool Project."  What they envision is very typical of the Mid-Atlantic's historic landscape - spring ("vernus") flooded wetlands that dry out every summer, and are refilled in the winter by snowmelt or rain.  Biologists and environmental educators have spoken loud and proud about the importance of these habitats to migrating wetland birds and to a long list of amphibian species who are losing habitat up and down the east coast.  As a wetland restoration ecologist, I love that! 

These tadpoles will probably run out of water and
die before having the chance to metamorph
into adult toads - photo from
However, the results over the years have been pretty disappointing.  Simply put, the projects aren't working the way vernal pools should. And if they are supposed to have "educational value," there are some additonal problems based on the fact that these wetland projects just aren't working, and in some cases, are having a negative impact on certain amphibian populations. Poorly designed or constructed habitats of any type can be a population "sink" rather than a "source," as reproducing adults have offspring in the low quality habitat.

Top Five Reasons that Vernal Pool Projects Fail
5.  Failed long term maintenance of  project site
4.  Incoherent or impossible project goals
3.  Habitat has poor structure
2.  Improper soil
1.  Improper hydrology

What does it take to make vernal pools really work?

1. Sufficient hydrology - For a vernal pool to be functional as amphibian habitat, it needs to provide habitat for the entire larval period of amphibians, plus provide habitat for prey items of the amphibian larvae.  The single biggest error in vernal pool design and construction is to build pools that are not sufficiently deep (or are too well drained) to stay flooded into late June, when the last amphibian larvae, notably toad and tree frog tadpoles, transform and move into drier habitats.  

During typical east coast winters and early springs, many areas appear to amphibians (and humans) to be wet enough to serve as wetland habitat.  The problem is that these pools often dry up before the majority of larvae can survive on land.  Even before the pool has dried up, smaller volumes of water mean high densities of amphibian larvae - which mean great hunting for raccoons and birds.  

While this is a natural phenomenon in existing low-lying areas and seasonal wetlands, it is unacceptable to "not be sure" if a project you're designing will be too shallow or evaporate/drain too quickly to  perform many of the critical functions of vernal pools.  Successfully designed vernal pools have deeper areas called "refugia" that will remain flooded (and free of fish) into the summer.
A successful vernal pool may look like this in July.  A failed (built) or false (natural) vernal pool may look like this in May.  The difference between the two is site selection, good design, and proper construction method.
False vernal pool in winter, courtesy of
2. The right soil type.  The highest functioning vernal pools are usually located on the most poorly drained soils.  High clay content (drainage class C and D soils) means that the pool will work as an isolated system, both hydrologically and microbiologically. It also gives the pool the greatest possible chance of remaining wet and functioning well into the growing season. If soils are well drained, some biologists will use a plastic liner or a clay "pan" to mimic the poor drainage.  Whether this is worthwhile depends on what the goals (and expected lifespan) of your project are.  Like most things in restoration ecology, you're best served by investigating existing (natural) vernal pools in the area and see how their soil stacks up (clay content, nutrients, acidity, carbon content).  If you're lucky, you can model to that benchmark and design toward it.
Nice vernal pool, photo courtesy of
3. Habitat with real physical structure.  A vernal pool isn't just the wet hole in the ground.  It's the connection to groundwater, the connection to surface runoff, and the interaction between soil, plants, and water. A "vernal pool" built in the middle of a mowed grass yard or manicured school ground is not going to be good for amphibian populations.  The same project built along a timber road under tall trees, with tree roots dangling into the vernal pool and tall wetland vegetation growing along the sides, could be great for amphibians.
Created vernal pool with significant habitat structure.  Photo: Tom Biebighauser, USFS
4. Project goals that make sense and reflect the project site and budget - This is an idea that I try to spread far and wide - that you must begin with the end in mind - any earthmoving project should have discrete, reasonable goals before the first shovel of dirt has been moved.  Small wetland projects most often cannot be truly great habitat AND provide great pollution reduction AND provide high quality outdoor recreation for people.  And that's why it disturbs me when I read project descriptions that say, "this vernal pool will reduce 90% of nitrogen pollution and provide habitat for endangered salamanders, in a place where 6,000 students will visit on school trips twice a year to learn about wetlands."  Sorry......that's not going to happen. 

Sediment entering a restored wetland from this
pipe may eventually convert the wetland to an
upland if the sediment is not periodically
removed by volunteers or maintenance crews
(photo: Cacapon Institute)
5. Sustainability through maintenance and stewardship - this has been a dirty secret of the habitat "industry" for the last 20 or more years.  Sure, a restored or created wetland looks great when it is 1 or 2 years old.  What happens after 5 years? Or 30 years? Is it still there? Did somebody fill it in?  The working assumption of habitat ecologists has been that wetland restoration projects are "self maintaining."

Hint: It's not true.  The wetland you've designed and created is an ecological snapshot.  If you'd like it to remain the same, that "snapshot" will have to be maintained.  The physical components of the wetland - soil, hydrology, and vegetation - will have to be managed by someone.

Otherwise, nature will take its course.....remember - wetlands come and go over time.  Is a long term conversion of your wetland to an upland a positive outcome for your project? If not, consider long term maintenance.  Here's two ways to do that:

1. Engaging volunteers throughout the project
As the designer or ecologist, you won't want to do this.  You don't even have to tell me. It's complicated.  And it's difficult. But maximizing the number of people involved in the project is one of the best ways to make sure it gets taken care of (and not totally forgotten) over the long run.  Reality: the average job in the environmental field is between 2.9 and 5.2 years, depending on which study you believe.  You will move on, and when you do, you will probably leave your vernal pool projects behind.  Volunteers will remember it and occasionally check on it, though. And they may just hold somebody accountable!

2. Engaging the maintenance staff of the property throughout the project.
Gosh, this is a big one too.   It's great that a refuge manager or a school principal tells you, "Sure, we'll take care of those vernal pools you're building!"  But you need to talk to the men and ladies with the lawnmowers, backpack sprayers, and weedeaters.  Will they leave the project in place? Watch over it? Your project will be well-served if you take the time to educate maintenance staff about how the vernal pool is supposed to look, and what they (staff) are supposed to do to take care of it (or leave it alone).

Yes, O Mighty Wetland Designer, these guys will be in charge of your project
after you kill the budget and wrap up the project.
Better be nice to them and tell them how to take care of it!
I hope this gives you something to think about as you are planning to build a vernal pool on your property or someone else's.  Vernal pools are amazing projects that can be restored or created without tens of thousands of dollars of work, and so I hope no one finds this post discouraging.  Just proceed forward consciously (not even cautiously) and be very aware and open about what your project goals and limitations really are.  Good luck!
Creating a small vernal pool in Maryland. Photo: Wayne Davis, EPA

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