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I am a freelance, nonfiction writer who cares about the environment, individuality, creative expression, and simplicity. I'm glad you've found my blog, and I hope you'll join in the conversation by leaving a comment. Disagreements are allowed, even encouraged, but cruelty, vulgarity, and slander is not.

How to turn a sighting into science

May 9th, 2014

I think data is boring. Give me a table filled with numbers and Latin names and you might as well have given me a pillow.

Torn from the website, Nature's Notebook.

Yet, when I want to know the facts, that file is crucial. It is the back story to the environmental novel. It is the tool the dedicated scientists need to find patterns, pinpoint benchmarks, and prove theories. In the right hands, each piece of datum will add up to a picture, one that looks to the past to envision the future.

Thus, collecting statistics is part of every conservation effort. How do you know what has been lost or gained if you never measure the inventory? When do you sound an alarm for a species if you can't say how few individuals remain? Yet, field researchers cannot be in all places at all times, making it seemingly impossible to accomplish such counting goals. Satellite imagery may be fantastic today, but they must still rely on actual face-to-subject sightings. This is where you and I can help. Any casual observer who spends recreational time outside can make a real difference by sharing an observation and becoming a "citizen scientist."

A Simple Start

For instance, say you notice an unusual beetle. Its wings glow with a metallic green color so brilliant you can't forget the sighting. Acting on curiosity, you look it up online to see if you can identify the creature. Your bug matches the photo on the emerald ash borer fact sheet, the one that describes it as a seriously problematic pest. Bummer.

What you do next is where the difference comes in. Sure, it's great that you were captivated enough to look it up. There's something about identifying the creatures we see in the environment that better connects us to it. But in order to turn the sighting into ever-important data, you must take the next step. You need to report it.

Too Much Information?

Of course, you don't want to report every red robin or black ant you find. That would consume your time and flood the scientists with too much information. Like the emerald ash borer, you want to report what they are requesting. For instance, in a community near me, conservationists are looking for migration data related to a defined list of species. The timing of sightings will tell researchers how early the subjects are moving in spring and fall, which will be useful to prove the theory that climate change is impacting their habits.

Whatever the initiative, most often all that's needed from us is a few more minutes spent online, usually at the same site that was used for identification in the first place, especially if it was biology, ecology, or education focused. When I wanted to know what kind of frog was living in my basement, I used PaHerps.com. While further investigating the habits of a Pickerel frog, I noticed that scientists there were asking Pennsylvania residents to report their sightings to the Pennsylvania Amphibian & Reptile Survey. So I did. And there was the juncture of my amateur observation and a greater effort, one that aims to protect the creature I found.

Why it Matters

According to the amphibian survey site, the program goal is to, "determine the distribution and status of all amphibians and reptiles throughout Pennsylvania." Even if my interest in amphibians is small, it feels good to have shared my froggy encounter with those whose is great.

You and I might make decisions based on emotion and inner instinct, but authorities do not. They want facts. They want to know a table exists as the basis for a scientific summary of findings, the ones that they read before going into legislative session. It wasn't enough that the bald eagle was our majestic national symbol; their protection became federal law only after people tallied their dwindling numbers. And they kept counting. Today, the eagle numbers have soared, adding a chapter about success to the conservation story.

Opposite the eagle or a Pickerel frog, the presence of an emerald ash borer is not a good thing. In fact, it is cause for alarm. Serious efforts are underway to understand the beetle so that we can combat the damage it aims to do to every ash tree in its path. And serious efforts are underway to understand the impact of climate change. These are two giant issues that start with tiny observations, ones in which every pair of human eyes on the ground matter.

Always take the next step and add your sighting to the list when asked. Include a photo if you're not confident about your identification skills. Most citizen science sites are designed to be easy to understand and you're rarely subjected to boring tables or charts. And if you're serious about broadening the reach of your regular observations, consider signing up for an ongoing citizen scientist project such as Nature's Notebook. Because, like Smokey Bear says about forest fires, only you can save nature's treasures. Now that's exciting stuff.

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How to stay safe outdoors this season

May 3rd, 2014

Following up to last week's post, I encourage you to read the article I wrote for Lehigh Valley Marketplace, which was published in the May issue and is accessible via the link below. The piece was focused on the region of northeastern Pennsylvania, but the problem of Lyme disease is spreading across the country. It pays to be informed.

Click here to read the feature:
Nature's Tiny KillJoy

(If you want to see the entire publication, follow the "in this issue" links at LehighValleyMarketplace.com and read the ezine online. My article begins on Page 70.)

Don't hesitate to spend time outside; just know how to keep Lyme disease away.

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Survived the Freeze

April 11th, 2014

Folks around here are beginning to look on the bright side. After a particularly harsh winter, they're enjoying flashes of color. Purple crocuses, yellow daffodils, and swelling tree buds promise that the winter has ended and the deep freeze is over.

Yet, coupled with all the goodness are pesky creatures we'd like to forget: mosquitoes and ticks. (I'll spare you those pictures.) Biting insects will damper anyone's mood, especially those of us who like to spend time in a natural environment.

And they're more than just irritating. West Nile virus, Lyme disease, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever are three examples of serious concerns.

Although one would hope that the frigid temperatures killed some of the problem, it's best that you abandon such thought. In other words, keep your guard up. Even if Old Man Winter did help us out in this regard -- something entomologists won't know until the data comes in -- survival is a trait built into all species, including the tiny annoying ones.

Ticks are especially problematic if you become a host to the blacklegged variety (also known as the deer tick). Most of you know its reputation for transmitting Lyme disease to humans. You know how important it is to prevent being bitten through the use of repellents and other methods. However, if you are not fond of dousing yourself with DEET, consider these two alternatives. The first is permethrin*, although it's only good for treating your gear and clothes. The other, for your skin, is picardin.

Also, be sure to check the facts by visiting the About Lyme page at the Lyme Disease Association's (www.lymediseaseassociation.org) Website. Learn how to properly remove a tick if one does get on you. Understand the signs that warn of the presence of the disease. And know that the story you heard, the one in which a person became crippled by Lyme Disease, is likely related to late diagnosis or misdiagnosis. Early detection is key to a cure.

The above-mentioned repellents work for mosquitoes as well, but I still say nothing keeps them away better than wind (click here for a previous post). Campfires work nicely, too. Also, proactive actions such as eliminating standing, stagnant water on your property keeps mosquitoes from being born in the first place. And the creation of habitat for bats and other mosquito-eaters works better than any bug zapper on the market today.

Don't let this post tarnish the color of spring. Let the prospect of a summer-of-fun continue to excite you. Never hold back from engaging in the outdoor activities you love.

Yes, there are threats out there, but they are ones that can be reduced with knowledge and proactive action. Then you can continue to let the warm season wash over you. Because it really is getting brighter and more colorful every day.

*Please note: I have not confirmed every statement made at the permathrin link, but many reliable sources recommend it for ticks. It is the product I use. Try Sawyer.com if you need help finding a repellent. And for more comparison information about DEET, permathrin and picaridin, click here.

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Released

April 4th, 2014

Last week I told you about our resident frog we called Brad Pitt. This week I am following up to the story.

My husband is the one who had named Brad. In doing so he brought humor to the problematic story of a Pickerel frog overwintering inside our house. While Brad was able to hide there, his pit had no food in it, and after we moved in to the once-vacant house, his quiet hibernation retreat had become a noisy, disruptive place. Plus, from the human perspective, there's simply something socially unacceptable about allowing frogs to live in one's basement.

I was never quite sure how many frogs were there. It turns out, the number was at least three. I know because I caught two and a good friend caught one.

Yup, you read it right, the weather finally warmed and the frogs have been caught and released.

They went from living here....

...to living here.

One by one I found them outside the hole, making them accessible to catch. Nervously I carried them up the stairs, through the kitchen and dining room, and out the door.

I captured two on camera before they disappeared into the landscape.

Brad, the smallest one, was first.

Within 24 hours, two bigger frogs followed.

Look closely and you can see bits of pink insulation stuck to him, the same material that can be seen floating in the second shot. One time I saw Brad trying to eat the stuff; the human space is no place for Pickerel frogs to live. The three are hungry and tired, and I'll never know if they'll survive, but at least they now they are back in frog habitat.

While my human footprint might be huge, I will leave the wooded space around my house for them and many other species. Sure, I could fill in the wet spots, plant lots of grass, and develop a "proper" yard, but a frog couldn't have a good life in that kind of landscape any more than in a basement drain. Leaving a place for them is the only fair thing to do.

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Brad in the Pitt: A story about (not) living together

March 28th, 2014

We moved in, so now he must leave. How typical? The human arrives to the detriment of another species.

It doesn't matter that he was here first. It doesn't matter that his impact didn't extend beyond the square-foot-sized, watery, below-grade space in which he lived. It only mattered that we -- the new rulers of every inch of this place -- wanted him gone.

I did ask nicely at first. "Crawl up the pipe now," I urged. I thought it was worth a try, even though I knew there was no way he was going to vacate the 65-degree warmth to enter the 20-degree winter. He stayed put.

For a while we simply accepted him into the family. I'd say hello and ask him how he was whenever I was down there doing laundry or retrieving a new light bulb from the shelf. He never answered.

Then, the morning after a heavy rain, I found the basement floor covered in an inch or two of water. Descending the steps to investigate, I saw another resident in the middle of it all. This one was bigger than the one we called Brad (who lives in the) Pitt. He was stretching his legs like a prisoner who had earned a few minutes of lap time in the recreational pool. "You can't be here unless you stay in the pit!" I stressed. "Please get back in the pit," I begged.

After I got the pipe open and draining again, after the pool had disappeared into a wet floor, he defiantly went everywhere else but where I wanted him to go: under the washer, into the overturned trashcan, around the dark perimeter of the basement. I gave up. I left the lights on, went back upstairs, took off my boots, and fretted about our newly found flooding problem. And I wondered, where had Brad been in all this? Had he to deal with this over-sized companion in his little hole this entire time?

Days later, utility pump in hand, it was time to drain the pit. With one hose out the window and another in the hole, my husband and I watched the water level fall as the murky silt stirred. Soon two eyes appeared near the bottom, so we switched off the pump and left. We had extracted enough water for the test we were doing. All we could do then was wait to see if the groundwater would recharge the hole, and the little bit we left for Brad and his friend wouldn't impact the results.

When I next saw Brad he was laying outside his hole, looking peaked and weak. I could have caught him, but I didn't try. To avoid messing with our experiment, I left fresh water by his side in a tray instead of pouring it into his hole, just in case it would help him. He eventually dropped into the thick murk as he usually did, and I decided to leave him alone.

What kind of frog was he? I wondered. This time he answered with a mating call. Walking past the basement door, I heard a low, guttural snore, the likes of which would come from a swamp. His call gave him away; he was a Pickerel Frog, and with the onset of spring I suddenly had bigger worries. If he and his friend got along so well and his friend was actually female, that little hole could soon become a thousand-bed nursery. "Brad, you've really got to go now," I yelled.

Pickerel frogs hibernate under the silt at the bottom of puddles and don't emerge until after the weather warms. The temperature outside at the time was 18 degrees. What would I have done if I had caught him? I couldn't just toss him outside. And how many frogs would soon be in basement if I didn't?

The fate of the frog pair in the drain is still unknown. Will they die of starvation or hibernation interruption? Or will they hop out the same pipe through which they came in? All I know for sure is that we are the humans, so they are the ones who must go. We are a kink in the natural system, and frankly it just isn't fair.

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