March 24, 2020

Birding for beginners

Image: Screenshot of (Cardinal photo by Bruce Jastrow/Unsplash)

A spot of good news: I've got a new story--a how to guide for beginning birders! It was published by Popular Science as How to start birding in any U.S. city. Thanks to DIY editors John Kennedy and Sandra Gutierrez. Let me know what you think about the bird watching guide. Be well.

March 3, 2020

Kindergarten Tree Walk

Not only is leaf litter an important resource for forest function, fallen leaves can also spark environmental learning experiences. One day, a kindergarten-aged boy was walking through Washington Square Park and saw a large leaf on the ground. He collected the leaf to bring to his kindergarten teacher. His class was studying trees. The teacher and the students identified the leaf as an oak but did not know if the lead belonged to a pin oak or a red oak. (Note: a pin oak is in the red oak group.) The teacher reached out to me because of my connection to the park. We agreed on a tree walk with a classroom tree lesson and an outdoor identification session. I visited with the class twice; I worked with one half of the class, about 10 students, on each visit.

I started off each visit asking the children to describe a tree. Their answers reminded me of the story of the blind men and the elephant. No child offered a complete definition, but the list of features they generated was comprehensive. On one of the days, the teacher had a debrief session and noted additional student observations on the board. All of the student responses where interesting but I particularly appreciated the following description: “big piece of wood standing up where animals can live.”

Our tree walk occurred on the south side of the block on which the school sits. I had walked both sides of the block before meeting with the students so was familiar with the species and the seasonal changes each tree was undergoing. I paired trees and compared and contrasted the species along the block to teach and illustrate basic tree identification. We talked about leaf arrangement (opposite versus alternate), flowers (showy versus inconspicuous), fruit, bark patterns, and new twig growth. The most appealing trees had showy flowers (the Callery pears on the street and the Kwanzan cherries in the small front yards). The students were also fascinated by the herbaceous plants in the tree beds, most of which were growing spontaneously, as well as the trash on the soil.

I would like to replicate this workshop for other early childhood education programs. The students were engaged indoors and outside, and the head teacher provided positive feedback. The tree walk was a valuable experience for me as I grow my outdoor educator skills.

Photos courtesy of the classroom teacher.

February 20, 2020

Family Field Trip - Pelham Bay Park

For our second family field trip of 2020, we visited Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. Our original itinerary was to spend time on Orchard Beach and to go to nearby City Island. We came for the beach and discovered woods and islands.

Related Link - Family Field Trip - Shirley Chisholm State Park

The sand at Orchard Beach is wide and deep. We collected shells, watched the gentle waves, and marveled at the calm gulls. After getting chilled on the beach, we went to City Island to warm up with food and drink. We thought we would be able to get down to the water on City Island but we did not find a way to do so. We returned to Ocean Beach to explore the woods we saw on the other side of the vast parking lot. The amount of space devoted to black top is shocking and seems wasteful, but my husband pointed out to me that it must be heavily used during beach season. Over the course of our day at Pelham Bay, we noticed many people using the parking lot in many different ways: boxing arena, kite flying, drag racing, and driving lessons. The gulls also rested on the parking lot.

Our woodland walk kicked off  on Hunter Island, a 166-ac peninsula, and former island. I blissed out on all the trees, though the stretch of canopy we walked under was not the old growth that the park is known for. The leaf litter was composed mostly of oaks. We saw a stand of pines early on, and fungi, too.

On Hunter Island we felt isolated from the bustling city, though the park is in a flight path. We heard and saw lots of airplanes. We saw four people while walking at a very slow pace, and our paths only briefly overlapped.

At a fork in the trail, we turned downhill observing more fungi and a spinney of spruce as we went.

The trail brought us alongside the shore where we saw geese, ducks, gulls, and other islands. We crossed a dilapidated causeway, walked on a marshy beach (aka Twin Island, an island at high tide only), and clambered up and around Two Tree Island. The view from Two Tree Island was spectacular! After the kiddos interacted with the various shells and pools of water, we descended Two Tree Island. We walked back across Twin Island, but instead of taking the causeway, we took the trail to Orchard Beach.

I highly recommend visiting Pelham Bay Park! There's more to discover than I shared here.

Sources further reading:
(1) Hunter Island (Bronx) - Wikipedia
(2) Bronx Islands: A Brief Guide - Welcome 2 The Bronx

January 28, 2020

Family Field Trip - Shirley Chisholm State Park

Last Sunday, my family and I visited Shirley Chisholm State Park in Brooklyn, NY. I've been wanting to visit this park since before it opened because...Shirley Chisholm: so many firsts as a Black woman politician. Read Chisholm's bio at the National Women's History Museum.

Before visiting the state park, I didn't know much beyond the park's namesake. Once there, we picked up a map which showed trails and provided the park's history. Formerly the Pennsylvania and Fountain landfills, which were decommissioned in 1983, the land is now a 407-acre public park! Approximately 1.2 million cubic yards of clean soil at a depth of four feet was used to cap the former landfills. The park peaks at 130 feet above sea level. The landscape is a mosaic of three ecosystems: coastal meadows, wetlands, and woodlands. The agencies involved in the landfill conversion to parkland are the City of New York, the National Park Service, and New York State Parks.

As soon as we picked up our map, I strapped on my binoculars, and opened the eBird and iNaturalist apps on my phone. My kiddos led the way. I stopped often to list birds and to photograph plants. I got some grousing about my stop-and-go pace.

We walked to Penn Pier where we ate a snack, and watched gulls and ducks. Gull and duck ID are not my strong suit but I still enjoyed watching these birds.

From Penn Pier, we walked along Hendrix Creek Road towards the Pennsylvania Entrance. On this leg, the children were the ones who dawdled! They stopped to collect worms, pill bugs, soil, and dew-covered grass. My daughter has been keeping a bug catcher in her coat. We saw a mockingbird, a Northern flicker, and 2 red-tails on this trail.

Unfortunately, we didn't know that the larger section of the park, on the other side of Hendrix Creek, was open. We would have loved to extend this family field trip. There will be more to explore on future visits to New York City's newest state park.

Tell me about your family field trips in the comments.

January 16, 2020

Eating Ginkgo biloba seeds

Ginkgo biloba is one of my favorite trees. The bi-lobed, fan shape leaves are pretty, its winter silhouette and straight bole are striking, and its has a very ancient pedigree. I have written about the ginkgo "fruit", ginkgo in art and culture, and a brief natural history of the ginkgo. In each of these previous posts, I have mentioned the Ginkgo biloba "fruit." The Ginkgo biloba "fruit" is not a botanical fruit. Ginkgo biloba is a gymnosperm meaning it has naked seeds. The tree's seeds are not enclosed in an ovary. (The fruits we eat are ripe ovaries, FYI.) The botanical term for the flesh that covers the ginkgo seed is sarcotesta. When this flesh is crushed underfoot, it releases an off-putting odor. The flesh can also irritate human skin.

Until last fall, I had not ginkgo seeds. My first experience eating ginkgo seeds was at a C.U.R.B. banquet held on Governor's Island in October 2019. The seeds were chewy and tasted nutty, similar in flavor to a pistachio. Yum! I vowed then to harvest fallen seeds and cook them. One day last November on a walk in my local park, I saw two women of Chinese descent collecting fallen seeds. I walked over to the tree and took out two plastic zip bags from my back pack. I noticed the women were only collecting the seeds that did not have much or any of the pulp so I did the same. The women were warm; they offered gloves and plastic bags and told me about other seed locations in the park. I did not collect many seeds. I picked up about a dozen or so which I thought would be the right amount for me and my family for a first tasting. I had read that the recommended daily amount to eat was a handful of nuts. When I returned home I stored the seeds in the refrigerator.

A few days later I found a straightforward roast recipe on the Kitchn. I washed the dirt and remaining pulp from the ginkgo seeds then dried them. I heated a tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet to which I added the seeds and salt. I cooked them until the seed coat split then turned off the heat. I transferred the seeds to a plate to cool then removed the nuts. The vibrant green nuts (the true color was not captured in the above photo) were beautiful and looked appetizing. Opinions varied on the flavor. I really liked the nuts. I found them chewy and nutty, and wish I had collected many more to make additional batches. One member of my family refused to try the nuts.

Ginkgo biloba lose their most of their leaves in a single leaf drop in the fall but the nuts can linger on the tree through the winter. There are still trees in fruit in my neighborhood. There have been recent fruit falls, too.

Have you cooked and/or eaten Ginkgo biloba nuts? Please share your experience in the comments.

December 2, 2019

Tree Walks

Tying a ribbon to a tree is part of Tibetan and Scottish wish making traditions.

I'm going to admit something: I drafted this post in September 2010! Why has it taken nine years to hit the publish button? I wrote it during a time when I finalizing a big writing project so it likely slipped my mind. Since then, it's just hung around in the draft section of my blog. I went through that section this past weekend because I wanted to come back to a post about bird-friendly trees in my local park. I found the bird tree post but also scrolled down the draft section. I deleted drafts I that were early versions of an already published post and drafts that were dead ends. I was happy to see this list of tree walk posts I had written up until that point. I published the first Tree Walk Wednesday post on September 5, 2007. That post was about a walnut tree on my block in Berkeley, CA. I renamed the series Tree Walk in 2008.

I was inspired by Jane Kirkland's Take a Tree Walk guide for children and Spacing's Tree Tuesday series. But, my Tree Walk series was also a natural outgrowth of my interest in trees. I've always been passionate about trees. Growing up I climbed them and ate their fruits. As a young adult, I planted them alongside folks greening their blocks and neighborhood. I managed a street tree planting program in a New England city. I've written about California urban forestry policy. Right now, I'm advocating for mature trees in my favorite park.

I've edited the original 2010 post. The "Tree Walk Wednesday" posts are listed below.

Tree Walk Wednesday
Tree Walk Wednesday: Not making shade
Tree Walk Wednesday: 2200 Block of Ward Street
Tree Walk Wednesday: Accoutrements of a new street tree
Tree Walk Wednesday: Observations of tree conditions
Tree Walk Wednesday: Self-guided tree walks
Tree Walk Wednesday: The liquid amber of sweetgums
Tree Walk Wednesday: the ultimate green gift

You can binge read all the Tree Walk posts. Or start with some of my favorites below.

Washington Square Park Self Guided Winter Tree Walk
Washington Square Park Self Guided Fall Foliage Walk
Tree Walk Montreal
Tree Walk: Infrastructure vs. street trees and tree planting sites
Tree Walk: Multi-use tree guards
Tree Walk: Three types of tree houses
Tree Walk: Urban forest and edible gardens at the SF Flower and Garden Show
Tree Walk: Urban tree lectures, Sarajevo's urban forest

I would love to know about your relationship with trees. Tell me about your favorite species or where you go to spend time with trees.

September 23, 2019

Local Ecological Knowledge in Cities

I have notebooks and Word documents filled with potential research projects. One of these projects would study local ecological knowledge in cities. I haven't made much headway with this project. One reason is time. Another reason is funding. But I don't want the idea to stay in the dark so I am sharing my outline here.

Local Ecological Knowledge in Cities (U-LEK)

Traditional ecological knowledge or TEK is usually studied in non-urban settings. A formal definition of TEK is: “TEK refers specifically to all types of knowledge about the environment derived from experience and traditions of a particular group of people” (Houde 2007 quoting Usher 2000). A more contemporary formulation is local ecological knowledge or LEK defined as place-based ecological knowledge but like TEK, LEK studies are often conducted in non-urban settings. However, people in cities have deep knowledge about the ecology of urban green spaces. In addition to species identification, “local ecologists” in urban areas know what birds use a space, which species have been observed in different parts of a greenspace, when plants will bloom and in what order, what used to grow where, etc. I touched on grassroots ecological knowledge in my presentation to the Next Epoch Seed Library: Weedy Salon.

Literature about ecological knowledge includes:
  • “Civic ecology” – community greening in cities in non-formal spaces (i.e. not a city park) where residents initiate, plan, and care for “socio-ecological systems”
    • Existing research has focused on learning and knowledge used for action and advocacy
    • Existing research has not explored explicitly what type of (nature) knowledge is learned, shared
  • Pro-environment behavior and/or ecological literacy - this literature assumes that cities are biodiversity poor at least on the richness scale and that impacts people’s environmental knowledge, i.e. people know introduced species but not native species (see Parker 2009, Turner et al 2004) and that urbanization separates humans from nature

Other relevant literature are:
  • Extinction of experience (Miller)
  • The “pigeon paradox” (Dunn et al. via Parker 2009 MA thesis)
  • The impact of outdoor experiences on environmental knowledge (McDaniel and Alley)
  • Place attachment (Halpenny 2010)

My research questions are descriptive and exploratory in nature.
  • Is there LEK in cities?
  • How is knowledge acquired/pathways to knowledge acquisitions?
    • Experiential
    • Purposeful (I choose pathway X because it’s supposed to be the best way to learn A)
    • Cultural (ex: seeking out and collecting ginkgo nuts)
    • Solitary versus collective
  • Why is knowledge developed?
    • Environmentally curious
    • Specific interest in plant or animal
    • Access to greenspace or "patch"
    • Knowledge for personal enjoyment
    • Knowledge to share with others
    • Part of professional work
  • Spatial dynamics
    • What role does proximity to public greenspace play (assuming most people don’t have private outdoor spaces)? For birders, what role does the presence of charismatic birds play?
    • What is the size of the patch of interest?
  • Is local ecological knowledge used for management/advocacy? When?
  • Is knowledge transmitted? How?
    • Birding, walkabout, and other similar activities with others and/or via spontaneous encounters
    • Via blogs, social media

My proposed methodology includes the following methods:
  • Qualitative, semi-structured interviews
  • Participant observation
  • Written records (blogs, social media, newspaper coverage, etc.)

Constructive feedback is welcome! I also have a list of potential interview participants. If you are interested in participating in this study and you live in NYC or in a transit-friendly part of NJ or CT, please reach out to me in the comments.