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What Changes Does Autumn Trigger in Nature?
— by Jody V. Sackett
Although the calendar would deny it, fall seems like the beginning of a new year. There’s so much new stuff happening for us, especially Back to School. Autumn is like the start of a new year for wildlife too, with migrations beginning for birds and marine creatures, daylight shrinking, and trees changing colors in the cooler weather. We know what fall means for people – but let’s dig in here to see what autumn means in nature.
Fall is Time to Fly South. Believe it or not, September is launching time for many birds; ducks, geese, and of course our beloved coastal bird, the osprey. Their babies are now grown, flying, and trained to hunt, so it’s time for them to head south to Florida or Central/South America. Although monogamous for life, the female osprey leaves the nest first at the end of September, followed by the male about a month later. Both overwinter in different places but will return to mate in the same northern nest. About 75% of North American birds migrate, and since we are fortunate to live along the coastal Atlantic Flyway, we have a front row seat to view many migrating birds. Fun Stuff: Snap a photo or keep a list of the birds you see around your neighborhood or near waterways, and you’ll discover how transient our local feathered friends truly are. You may want to be a Citizen Scientist and share your info on iNaturalist or eBird. Don’t forget to get winter birdfeeders ready for our resident birds though.
Autumn is Time to Swim South. Leatherback sea turtles and whale pods are legendary for their long ocean migrations. But local anglers know fall is time to fish for those big striped bass or bluefish that are now migrating towards the Chesapeake and Virginia. Sometimes nicknamed the Migratory Blueway, stripers and bluefish love this migration path along the Atlantic Coast, as they swim from cooler to warmer waters, feeding on pods of baitfish along the way.
Fall is Cocooning Time. While not all butterflies migrate, the most famous is undoubtedly the astounding Monarch. Fat caterpillars, who grew from tiny whitish eggs laid on milkweed, pupate in their chrysalis and emerge in late summer as gorgeous butterflies, ready by fall to fly 2500 miles south to central Mexico or to California. Late September or October is peak migration season, so look for dozens of them resting on seaside goldenrod along our coast, enjoying the nectar of the yellow flowers. Fun Stuff: Create your own Butterfly Farm, using an inexpensive plastic lidded aquarium (the 2 or 3 gallon size) for the “farm.” In September, search for common yellow and black striped Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, who love to eat garden parsley, dill, carrot tops, and Queen Anne’s Lace. Put the caterpillars and plenty of the plants they’re eating in your “farm,” along with some longer twigs. Replace the food every other day, and sprinkle a tad of water over it. When the larvae get big, they’ll crawl to a twig and form a “J” shape, attached by a thin thread; this means they are about to pupate. Watch them make their cocoon, which will change from bright green to “twig brown” when it’s finished. The caterpillars basically dissolve into a nutrient soup inside the cocoon, and after a few weeks the butterflies will emerge, ready to fly. You can safely release them now. If the caterpillars pupate late in the chilly fall, they will go dormant until spring. Put your “farm” with the dormant cocoons in your cold garage over the winter, so they can safely emerge as butterflies in the warm springtime.
Autumn is Leaf Coloring time. Local plants, from trees to marsh grasses, begin to show off their fall colors as chlorophyll production declines because of decreased daylight and cooler temperatures. Lucky for us, it’s easier to spot pesky poison ivy now as the leaves become a brilliant red in autumn. Since wildlife always need food, leave some dead leaves on the ground for insects to eat, and this will attract hungry birds and small mammals too. Fun Stuff: Adopt a tree (or three) in your yard, and take one photo of it every two weeks or so until next summer, to really see how your adopted darling changes with the seasons.
Bye Bye, Daylight. During autumn, the tilt of the Earth means the sun’s light hits the Earth lower on the horizon, resulting in a longer, weaker ray of light. We’ll have less daylight, longer shadows, and more night sky. The Earth’s position changes as it orbits the sun, so the constellations in the autumn night sky will also change, with new ones appearing now. Fun Stuff: Using a stargazing app, find the planets and stars, and see how many zodiac shapes you can find in autumn that weren’t there in summertime.
3 Ways to be Sustainable this Autumn.
- School. Back to school doesn’t have to mean purchasing new supplies; check your household inventory to see what you have before buying things you might not actually need, and be sure to choose eco-friendly supplies. Recycle the old stuff with TerraCycle. A reusable water bottle replaces endless plastic waste, and bottle-filling stations are popping up everywhere now. Use brown paper bags for lunch, or even better is a more sustainable insulated lunch bag. Ditch the plastic sandwich bags for a reusable container.
- Plogging Along. In Sweden, hikers routinely “plog” or pick up trash as they travel. Plastic is deadly to wildlife, who get caught in it or consume it by mistake. Whenever you are walking around, pick up two discarded plastic items you see on the ground. That’s two less pieces of plastic that could have harmed wildlife or polluted the waterways. If you did this every day, in just one year you’ve vastly improved the Earth by cleaning up 730 bits of icky plastic with minimal effort. Imagine if you got your friends to help too!
- Less Light Aids Migration. Most birds migrate during the longer autumn nights, so leaving our suburban outdoor night lights on hurts them by causing migration disorientation and collisions. We don’t need outdoor lights when we’re in bed, so let’s turn them off – or at least use timers or motion detector lights instead.
Why Do we Need to Protect Our Butterflies?
— by Jody V. Sackett
We all love seeing those delicate butterflies flutter around our yards. Not just eye candy, they are also phenomenal pollinators and essential to the ecosystem. There are over 160,000 species of butterflies and moths, in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the giant Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing butterflies with one-foot wingspans to the tiny Western Pygmy Blue that’s barely visible with its half-inch wingspan.
Our own local butterflies include the Monarch and common black swallowtail butterfly, which is the NJ state butterfly. Most active during the day, they enhance our gardens by flying around drinking flower nectar and pollinating the plants. Alas, both species are declining due to pesticide and herbicide use, habitat loss, and climate change. Just this year, Monarch butterflies were declared an endangered species. But we can help the little butterflies, and here’s a few simple ways to protect them.
Water please! Butterflies need water, and we can easily provide it for them. While butterflies like birdbath water, they don’t want to be gobbled up by a bird while they’re there. A better idea is to give them their own water source by simply placing a large saucer on the ground, and putting a few stones or a floating piece of wood in it. That provides a platform for the butterflies to rest on when they come for a drink. Misting from lawn sprinklers is good too. You can also make them a “waterless pond” by simply digging a small shallow hole and lining it with plastic, then filling the lined hole with rocks. The morning dew will collect on the rocks, which is enough for the butterflies to drink.
Migration Season’s Here. While not all butterflies migrate, the most famous is undoubtedly the astounding Monarch. Fat caterpillars, who grew from tiny whitish eggs laid on milkweed, emerge from their cocoons in late summer as gorgeous butterflies, ready by fall to start flying 2500 miles south to central Mexico or California. Autumn is peak migration season, so look for dozens of them flying through our coastal Migration Corridor, perhaps enjoying seaside goldenrod nectar. Keep an eye out for them again in spring when the Monarchs (descendants of the original migrants) will make their spectacular return to our shores.
Create a Butterfly Waystation. Migration is a long road, so why not help the butterflies a bit. By planting native trees, shrubs, and flowers in your yard or even just patio pots, you’ll create a “waystation” or rest stop for the migrants and also attract local butterflies too. The flowers provide nectar to hungry butterflies who pause for a rest and snack along their route. It’s also a safe habitat, and native plants like butterfly weed not only produce delightful orange flowers but also provide an ideal spot for Monarchs to lay their eggs. Visit www.rumsonnj.gov/env/native-plants.html to learn more and see photos of beautiful native flowers. You can also build butterfly boxes as shelter for our flapping friends in your waystation. These are similar to a birdhouse but have slits where butterflies can tuck in for protection. No matter the size, have your butterfly waystation officially designated as a Certified Wildlife Habitat at https://www.nwf.org/certify.
No Bug Sprays or Bug Zappers, Please. Pesticides kill insects, and what do you think a butterfly is? Chemicals kill targeted bugs but also non-target ones like our butterfly friends, so instead of chemically killing them, use organic pest controls like eucalyptus and citrus essential oils, and plant natural deterrents like marigold. Bug Zappers are not effective in killing mosquitoes but are great at killing other useful flying bugs and pollinators, so please turn them off and protect our butterfly friends. It doesn’t take much effort to help protect our local butterflies, but it’s well worth it - and the widespread benefits will last a long time.
Why Scoop the Pet Poop?
— by Jody V. Sackett
While dog owners adore their dogs, frankly none of them like to pick up dog poop. While this can’t come as a surprise, it is a responsibility that needs to be done to protect the precious waterways surrounding our beautiful peninsula. If left behind, stormwater runoff will wash dog feces into our local rivers and the ocean, causing degraded water quality. The result is health risks to humans and fish, increased algae and weed growth from nutrient pollution, and unsafe drinking, fishing, and swimming water.
Doggie waste is a significant source of bacteria, viruses, and parasites, which can leach into groundwater or be washed into local storm drains and waterways by the rain. An average dog poop contains 3 billion fecal coliform bacteria. Diseases such as campylobacteriosis, salmonellosis, and toxocarisis, which are harmful to humans, can be spread. Many parasites require days or weeks to reach the infective stage, so the waste becomes more hazardous to your health the longer it sits. Roundworms can remain alive in the soil for years. And dog waste attracts rats, who feed on the feces.
Poop also contains organic matter and nutrients, including excess phosphorous and nitrogen. When this is washed into the waterways by rain or lawn sprinklers, the organic matter decays and uses up aquatic oxygen as well as releases ammonia. A lack of oxygen and increased ammonia levels are leading causes of fish kills.
While one poop seems like a miniscule impact, consider that there are an estimated 5 million dogs in NJ. The average dog produces about ¾ pound of feces each day (okay, maybe we’re not looking at you, Teacup Yorkies). Multiply daily dog waste production by five million dogs, and it’s a lot of waste washing into our state’s waterways. Plus, it takes about two months for dog feces to decompose, which is a long time for it to be hanging around causing a ruckus. Thus, not picking up dog waste cumulatively creates a huge problem. Luckily, it’s a source of pollution that be easily managed with just a bit of effort, and there are simple solutions.
Bag It. Simply picking up the poop in a plastic or biodegradable bag is the easiest. While you can purchase such bags, you can also just reuse your old plastic grocery store produce bags or newspaper delivery bags, accomplishing two environmental goals in one fell swoop. Just toss the whole caboodle into the trash when the waste is picked up. Often public parks offer not only dog baggies but also trash can receptacles too.
Flush It. This is probably the best environmental option if you can handle it, and you’re connected to the local sewage treatment system instead of a septic system. The waste will be properly treated and disposed of through the sewer system, instead of being added to a landfill. You can pick up the poop with a plastic baggie and simply empty the contents right into your toilet bowl and flush. Don’t flush the bag too, or you’ll have clogged pipes; dispose of the bag in the trash. Some folks just use a trowel or fancy Pooper-Scooper instead of a plastic bag to pick up backyard dog waste and flush it away, saving the bag for another time.
Digest It. Don’t just throw the poop in your composter, as it contains pathogens. There are dog waste digesters and composting systems designed just to deal with the poop. However, since there’s a risk of potential pathogens, before you purchase a digester, make sure you can install the system far away from well water and gardens.
Hire a Poop Pick-up Service. When all else fails, call someone else to come and pick up the waste. There are several local dog waste management services you can hire to come on a regular basis. Use these services and protect our waterways.
It’s Time to Procrastinate
— by Jody V. Sackett
Falling leaves strike fear into the hearts of homeowners, who know they’ll have to spend their Sunday raking or blowing those leaves. But the same dead leaves spark joy for Mother Nature, who wants you to put your feet up instead of getting rid of the brush stuff. Yes it’s true –while manicured lawns look great in magazines, they can be wildlife deserts. We usually prefer to create backyard havens instead, as we install bird feeders, baths, and houses to ensure feathered company all winter long. The secret’s out now…you can make your backyard wildlife happy by simply by not cleaning up the yard until springtime. Too good to be true? Well, here’s how it works.
Leaf Litter 101. Falling leaves may look pretty dead, but they still contain lots of nutrients. As they break up and decay over time, the rotting detritus provides food and shelter. You can just let the leaves lie on your lawn where they fell, and the magic will happen all by itself; you won’t kill your grass, since the leaves will decompose and naturally fertilize your lawn. Or you can speed things up a bit by running over the dried leaves with your lawnmower, which breaks them into small mulch pieces that will decay faster. Oak leaves take a bit longer to decompose than other tree leaves, so mulching might work better for them.
Dead Leaves = Habitat. While the piles of dead leaves and small branches are slowly decomposing over the winter, they are providing hiding spaces for insects to hibernate, insulating shelter from winter cold, and rotting detritus for food. Who’s hiding there? Although you probably won’t see them, lots of insects love living here, including pollinators like butterflies. Some butterflies overwinter as adults under tree bark, under rocks, or in leaf litter; and others as chrysalises attached to stems, tucked into soil, or hidden in fallen leaves. Some species even overwinter as eggs or caterpillars, rolled inside a dead leaf or hiding in a seed pod. They are happy you left your leaf piles for them, as are ladybugs, fireflies, beetles, spider eggs, bees, and a host of other beneficial insects that overwinter there as well. You can also create a simple sheltered winter habitat for our little mammal friends by putting together small piles of branches and leaves in a corner of your yard; it won’t take long for critters to find it and call it home.
Dead Leaves = Food for Birds. Birds are happy you purposely procrastinated with your autumn yard cleanup. Insect-eating birds are great for controlling pests and mosquitoes. But they need to eat bugs year-round. So where will they find food in January? There will be plenty in your leaf litter. Birds know to poke around in leaf litter or peeled bark or cracked rocks to find a tasty bug dinner. Hungry little chickadees and wrens can pick out hibernating insects from your leaf litter, so the more leaf piles around, the bigger the buffet for them and the less annoying bugs for you.
Dead Flower Stalks = Food and Shelter. The flowers were gorgeous but now they’re dead, so what to do? Leave them! They are a fabulous source of food and shelter right in your dead garden, whether it’s potted flowers, a big garden, or even just shrubs around the house. Don’t cut down the flower stems please, as hollow stems are great places for insects to hide. There are 3500 species of native bees in North America, and many are tiny solitary bee species that don’t live in hives. These essential pollinators need a place to overwinter that’s protected from predators and the cold. A perfect place for them is the hollow stem of your dead flowers or grasses. They may hide there as adults, larvae, or eggs. Not just hollow stems but the dead seed heads are valuable to wildlife. Birds and small mammals will love feasting on these seeds over the winter, so why not just leave them standing there to feed backyard wildlife during the cold months.
Dead Leaves = Hassle-Free Lawn Fertilizer. Finally, while we are feeding the birds and bugs and mammals, why not also feed your lawn and plants? Leaving the leaf litter on the grass restores nutrients for spring growth. Leaves still contain 50%-80% of the nutrients plants extracted from the soil while alive, so why not just tap into this rich free source to feed your lawn? It saves you time and money from having to fertilize in the spring, without the concern for chemicals washing off lawns into our waterways. And leaving leaves on the ground helps maintain moisture and reduce stormwater runoff, which helps your lawn and our beloved rivers.
Procrastination Now = Happy Spring Garden. By putting your feet up now, you have just made your life easier come springtime. Your lawn and garden will have been fed wonderful nutrients over the winter so they’re ready to pop. And the predatory insects like ladybugs, beetles, spiders, and more who hibernated all winter in your leaf litter are now already living in your yard, thanks to your leaf habitat, so they’ll be ready to roll and control and those early-emerging pesky insects for you when warm weather arrives. No pesticides required.
So what are you waiting for? Grab a nice hot cup of tea, put your feet up, and tell Mother Nature you’re on it.
How to Get on the “Nice List” with a Sustainable Holiday
— by Jody V. Sackett
The Holiday Season can be the Clash of the Titans, with so many contrasting expectations. But whether you prefer elaborate traditions or modern streamlining, sustainability is the popular new buzzword for the holidays. Sustainability improves the quality of our lives, protects our planet, and preserves natural resources for future generations. Recognizing that our lifestyle choices impact our environment, it makes sense to strive for a sustainable holiday season. Here’s how.
So Much Trash. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, household waste increases by over 25%, as gift wrap, Christmas trees, excess packaging, and food waste contribute over a million tons to our landfills. This seems crazy for holidays born from modest roots, but a few simple ideas can reduce this impact. Even if you only implement just one idea here, you’re still helping the planet.
Basic Sustainability Principles: Evaluate your needs before even starting to shop, to avoid unnecessary and impulsive purchases. Buy local to support your community and reduce carbon emissions. Buy durable so there’s less waste. Buy products made of recycled materials, with sustainable design and energy efficiency. Avoid needless packaging which takes up landfill space for decades. Batteries end up as environmental hazards, so look for non-battery gifts. Reduce your carbon footprint and gas costs by online window shopping and purchases.
Buy Less Stuff. Assess whether you really need to give a gift in the first place. Studies show over half of recipients get gifts they don’t even want, and Millennials especially prefer experiences over stuff. Reduce your gift list by using the Secret Santa approach to limit whom you need to buy for. Avoid gifting pressure by purchasing utterly unique intangible experiences to give the gift of learning and adventure, reduce clutter, and eliminate waste. You’ll also be supporting important local facilities. Consider buying fun experiences like Broadway or local theatre tickets, cooking lessons at community colleges, interior design gift cards, zoo or aquarium admissions, digital streaming subscriptions, gym passes, music lessons online or from a local teacher, Escape Room gift cards, camping or park passes, fortune-telling sessions, CSA pre-loaded gift cards, train tickets and restaurant gift card packages, kayaking trips, or microbrewery event tickets.
Alternative Gift ideas: Make a date to share a meal, a drink, or movie together instead of purchasing a physical present. Don’t underestimate the value of your company - you wouldn’t be friends if you didn’t enjoy spending time together. Donate to a favorite charity like the SPCA, or perhaps an interactive non-profit. KIVA gift cards for curated micro-loans allow the recipient to decide which borrowers they want to support, in what country, for how much money, and for which purposes (from education to business-building). Heifer International gifts enable the recipient to give a flock of chickens, a cow, or even a drinking well to a needy international family. DIY gifts like flavored liqueurs, a homemade ornament, holiday cookies or nuts, dog biscuits, homemade cereals or snack mixes in glass canning jars, or even a framed letter explaining why you love and admire the recipient, are always appreciated. Colorful beeswax candles are simple to make by just rolling up sheets of it around a wick, and it’s perfect for Hannukah.
Re-Gift. It’s not a crime or a sin to share a new present you received but won’t use, with someone who would like it – it’s more sustainable that way. If you are hesitant, host a fun ReGifting party that requires guests to bring only nice unwanted new presents that they won’t be using. Presto! You’re done with your Book Club or tennis group gift list.
Gift Wrapping: If you need an excuse to simplify your gift wrapping, here it is. A Yale study found that nicely-wrapped packages raised expectations for the gift inside and increased the risk of the recipient being disappointed, like giving a Walmart gift card in a Tiffany box. Gift wrap and bags add four tons of landfill waste each year, and gift wrap often can’t be recycled because it is made of low-fiber paper, laminated and shiny, has foil, or has dyes and other unrecyclable designs. Instead, make it easy on yourself by using eco-friendly and recycled materials such as old maps, newspaper comics, or leftover blueprints from your local planning board. Decorate plain brown craft paper and bags with your kids or host a cocktail party (maybe Skype with distant friends) while creating holiday wrap and personalized gift bags together. Furoshiki, the Japanese art of cloth gift-wrapping, uses just squares of cloth to cleverly wrap everything from boxes to wine bottles. By using upcycled materials like pretty scarves, leftover fabric, dishtowels, old tablecloths or Goodwill shirts in Furoshiki, you’ve hit the environmental and artistic jackpot here. Use Seed Paper, which contains embedded plantable seeds, for gift tags.
Decorating. Use LED instead of incandescent lights, and you’ll use 95% less energy (more savings with solar). Timers will automatically turn off your lights at night, which is cheaper, better for the environment, and honestly, who needs lights at 3 am. Make your own centerpieces and decorations with pinecones or greens found in your yard. Homemade tree ornaments crafted with photos (maybe glued to a seashell and tied on with a ribbon) preserve memories and will be cherished for years. Avoid plastics, which take decades or centuries to decompose. Host a group decorating party by collecting and using natural stuff scavenged from your yard, such as pine branches and pinecones, sprigs of boxwood, branches with holly berries, and tiny alder cones. NO glitter – it’s often made from PET plastic and takes a century to degrade either in landfills or in our precious rivers when it’s washed down the drain. No need for artificial room scenters when you can simply poke fragrant clove buds into sweet Clementines, as it gives off a holiday scent while it dries.
Start New Family Traditions. Now is the perfect time to create sustainable family traditions to emphasize your eco-values. It can be as simple as constructing a Grateful Tree with a branch from your yard; guests write what they are thankful for on construction paper leaves and hang them on the tree, to help us realize how much we already have. Stretch your legs and go for a birding walk together, using apps like iNaturalist or Merlin to identify birds you hear and see. Even little ones love making simple pinecone-and-birdseed peanut butter bird feeders to hang in your trees, as winter gifts to your backyard wildlife. Bad weather? Have a family jam session using the Garage Band app on their own devices, so everyone can participate regardless of talent.
Live vs. Artificial Plastic Christmas trees. This debate is really up to you. Artificial trees come primarily from China and are made from plastics, although lead-stabilized PVC content has been reduced. They cannot be recycled, take literally centuries to degrade, and the manufacturing and distribution process creates harmful petrochemical and carbon emissions. However, fake trees are good because they’re reusable year after year, which means fewer real trees need to be trucked to us. A 2007 study found an artificial tree would have to be used for at least 20 years before its carbon impact fell below that of a live tree, so be prepared if you choose this option. Real trees provide oxygen, air filtering, soil protection, wildlife habitat, carbon storage, can be recycled, and ideally, sustainable farming plants more trees than are cut down each year. However, it takes a lot of fuel to cut them and bring them to you, accelerating carbon emissions.
Hanukkah: For your Menorah, use vegan or eco-friendly candles, which contain natural ingredients instead of the petroleum-based paraffin ones with synthetic chemical ingredients for color and scent that can be released when burned. Beeswax, canola, or coconut wax are organic and clean-burning. Use a Menorah made of recycled materials or hand-crafted by a local artisan. Buy healthy and environmentally sound organic latke ingredients like potatoes, onions, oil or sour cream, and make your own applesauce from organic apples. Finally, use the eight days of Hanukkah to implement eight Days of Action. As part of the menorah lighting each night, commit to being more environmentally sustainable by having all family members identify at least one way to achieve that. Perhaps Instead of giving chocolate gelt, have the family choose a charity they’d like to support with real money.
Sustainable New Year’s Resolutions: When the packages are opened and guests gone home, put your feet up, and heartily congratulate yourself on reducing waste and having created an admirable sustainable holiday. But why stop now? Muse over these eco-friendly New Year resolutions to start off 2023 right; even if you only swap in just one or two ideas, you’ll have already improved your community’s environment. Remember, the mantra is always reuse, recycle, repurpose, and reduce. Sustainable household ideas include composting leftover food; using eco-friendly cleaning agents to avoid washing harmful chemicals into our rivers; carefully assessing purchases to reduce impulse buying that results in unused excess or spoiled food; recycling everything you can, even if it means bringing plastic bags or incorrigible Styrofoam to specific collection centers; substitute reusable cloth napkins or cleaning rags for paper towels; and avoiding disposable items like plastic utensils or cups. Try buying reusable products like old-fashioned razors and metal straws so you aren’t constantly throwing away plastic ones. Reuse whatever you can before buying a new item – you’ll be surprised how clever you (and your family) can be, like giving homemade cookies in decorated coffee cans or using glass jars for gift vases. Pursue organic food, which is healthier for you and eco-friendly especially when bought from nearby farmer’s markets or local stores. Cultivate native plants and rain gardens to help local insects and wildlife, and reduce the contaminated stormwater runoff entering our waterways. Join your town’s Environmental Commission or Green Team, or at least participate in community cleanups. Go plogging while hiking, and pick up a few pieces of trash wherever you go. Finally, use your power as a constituent and citizen to let your environmentally-aware voice be heard at local, state, and federal governmental levels – it only takes 10 minutes and a simple email to make a difference.