Wednesday, March 19, 2014

It isn’t easy to get people to agree about most things. Usually someone can be counted on to disagree for one strange reason or another. But I am willing to bet that at this point in time (almost) everyone can agree on the following.  At the end of this long and miserable winter, we are all glad to see the snow gone from our streets, parks and sidewalks.  (Yes or No?).  And the second point is that we are all looking forward to summer and all of us would like to see cleaner water in Alley Creek and Little Neck Bay.  (Yes or No?). 
It is hard to disagree with either of these ideas even if you are the essence of disagreeableness.

Well these two ideas are not unrelated.  As the last of the snow disappears,  it leaves behind a substantial residue of plowed up litter, organics, sediment and anything else that may have been buried beneath the snow. The snow is finally gone but the residue remains and much of it is concentrated right on curbside.  The spring rains are not far away and these residues are headed down the street, into the sewers and out in the ‘first flush” to our local waterways.  In this valley, storm water discharges are as important or in some cases more important than other kinds of discharges.  Where we have storm sewers (and that is almost everywhere) what is on the streets soon finds its way into our waterways. 

But here is a simple solution.  Act quickly.  Don’t let this just happen.  Now is the very best time for a community to take a quick action step. 

Very simply put:     Clean streets now = Clean waters later. 

(Anyone want to disagree with that logic?)

Every pound, every ounce, every speck of dirt that we pick up from our streets now is that much less washing into our waterways.  It is so simple and so easy. If every homeowner, school, business, dog walker, property owner – every person- would just clean their little section of street we would ALL share in the improvement of water quality this coming summer.   

I noticed how dirty the streets looked as soon as the snow melted on my corner.  A broom, a shovel and a garbage can were all I needed to do this easy job. Didn’t cost me anything and I enjoyed what I was doing. It only took me about 15 minutes to prevent about 50 lbs of ‘stuff’ from washing down the drain. 

These two pictures tell the story. 

The only thing I underestimated is that I needed two bags instead of one but that’s OK. 
Better to have clean street and litter in two bags, than having all of this winter residue washing out to Little Neck Bay.

Thursday, November 1, 2012



Hurricane Sandy will go down as now of the most expensive natural disasters of all time. Damage estimates now are multi-billion dollars and are sure to rise as they always do. I believe that part of this is related to long term sea level rise coupled with higher than normal sea surface temperatures – both of which are ultimately caused by climate change. We have been warned.
The infra-structure of New York, New Jersey and especially the shore front communities took the brunt of the damage in ways that it is hard to even imagine. Our understanding of flood zone, coastal flood plains and storm surges is sharper today that it was last week but at what a cost. Even someone like myself, who has looked at these cases over the many years, cannot help but be surprised by some of the specifics. It does look like we are living in a new era under a new set of rules. We have entered a greenhouse world.

How did the preserve fare in the wake of Hurricane Sandy? Our wetland preserve sits in a low lying coastal valley partially flooded by the shallow waters of Little Neck Bay. Tidal range is always high (6’-7’) and goes even higher (8.4’) on every new moon and full moon. I’ve seen storms add another 1, 2 and even 3 feet with a degree of regularity and have even seen it add 5 to 6 feet on two separate occasions. This brings the water up and over the banks of Alley Creek lifting it towards the APEC building. This is exactly what happened on the evening of Oct 29 as the storm surge of Sandy made its way down the length of Long Island Sound on the night of the full moon. Surprisingly it did not go any higher than it did. It entered the APEC parking lot and reached the Northern Blvd sidewalk but came no higher. I suspect that it has something to do with timing and maybe the narrowness of the creek itself under the LIRR bridge which will allow for only so much water to pass into the wetlands in a given time interval. In any case it came no higher than it has come before in other very large storms. We were very lucky.
Wind damages are another story. The winds gusting out of the east across the expanse of the valley hit the tree tops on the west bank with tremendous force. Everything that fell toppled to the west and trees laid themselves out like giant dominos. We lost mostly giants willows (3), some pussy willows (2), but also some locust (1+) at least one tulip and one of our most prized pin oaks. That was a real loss because it had some personal, sentimental value. It had been planted as a special honor to Frank Padavan and his family when we were first starting out. It was one of the loveliest trees that anyone could imagine and it was the first tree that everyone walked by on the way to the trail.

We sustained no other great losses to the building and grounds and have to consider ourselves extremely lucky when considering what so many other communities are going through. On Wednesday and Thursday after the storm we assessed the damage and began to clear away the downed trees from parking lot and trails. About 20 volunteers on Halloween Wednesday and 9 students and myself on All Saints Thursday cleared the nearby grounds and distant trails. Every spoke about what they had gone through two nights but the hard work helped put that all behind us.

Is it possible to find a truly positive outcome in all of this?   I think there is.

As we finished up on Thursday afternoon I asked each of the students to pick out a freshly cut willow log. “Pick out something that is green and alive and bursting with life” I told them. I had each of the students walk them to a wet spot and bury it in the wet mucky soil. As with all willows, some of these logs will sprout next year. They have plenty of life and will send down their roots and send up shoots that in a few years will become our next generation of trees. Maybe we will lose these too, to some future storm of unknown name, but even if we do, we will be blessed by their vitality, their summer shade and their beauty for many years to come. I think that is what I will remember about Hurricane Sandy many years from now.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Renewed effort

I've been away from blogging for the last 6 months.  Last post was Feb. 2012.  This doesn't mean that nothing is happening in the preserve.  On the contrary there is a great deal of progress to report and much to consider.  During this time instead of blogging I was practicing a new role - "grandfathering".  I had my first grandchild Benjamin Martin Nieter on Jan 23, 2012 - born to my son Robert and his lovely wife Connie.  My grandfather role is a very special joy. 

Now that August is drawing to a close I turn my thoughts to the start of a new semester and a new field season.  I'll have to see if I can balance field work, academics, administration and  family and do each of them well.  I may need to sleep a bit less and blog in the middle of the night but if I can I'd like to continue this chronolog.

Since I brought Benjamin into the picture in this post here is one of many pictures of our new addition.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Latest Wildlife Sighting

A few weeks ago I received two separate reports from neighbors who live on the high cliffs above the preserve.  Their home looks down on the wetlands and have splendid views of the expanse of the preserve and directly below, the far trails that wind up the eastern flank.  The reports are of two separate sightings of Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) trotting along the trail around 7 AM.  The first report was of a single fox carrying what might be a rabbit in its jaws.   The second report a few days later was of a pair of foxes casually traveling more or less the same path.  This is one of the mildest winters ever so that may be one encouragement for this pair to stay out and stay more active.  Just after sunrise would be the most likely time to actually see this kind of activity.

I know for a fact that fox once inhabited this area because I’ve seen at least one or two.  Their prints and droppings were also common years ago. But my sightings were more than 20 years ago.  We also have one specimen in the center that was struck and killed on Northern Blvd many years ago.  We haven’t seen any evidence of them in any recent years.   They could have easily died out or migrated away if their habitat requirements were not satisfied.  It would seem that they are back and again are an important brush stroke of the ecological picture. 

A little research into the expected Red Fox behavior makes me think that their return is entirely likely.  I take this as an incredibly good sign of the ecological health and well being of the preserve.  The red fox is a small omnivore but it is typically very shy even secretive.   It avoids humans and doesn’t wander out into the neighborhoods like raccoons and opossums which are some common in our neighborhoods and yards.    They forage in brush and overgrown areas (and we have plenty of that to offer them) and will catch birds and rabbits and small rodents and probably have a vegetable diet as well.  Since the second sighting  indicates a pair it would seem likely that it could be a male-female pair and that they may be setting up a den.  Our steep, heavily vegetated, eastern valley wall would be well-drained, a factor that might be encourage this behavior.

Within the boundaries of preserve fox would have no likely natural predators.  We are lacking the larger mammals and the largest eagles that might conceivable prey on a smaller fox.  The one thing that could upset their well-being would probably be intrusive humans and of course, with humans sometimes come ‘man’s best friend’.  Foxes are very alert and reclusive so they could avoid most humans but a dog could easily pick up their scent and track them to their den.  Even if it didn’t end in a direct confrontation this would be threatening enough that it might disturb the reproductive behavior forcing them to leave.      

The expression 'man’s best friend’ refers to our truly ancient, loving relationship with dogs, who in almost all societies, are valued for their strength, loyalty, intelligence, alertness, affection and playfulness.  Dogs are pan important part of my life and a part of human life – even in a city.  But there are plenty of places for dogs – to socialize and to run free - without harming the natural world.  In researching this short essay I came across some reports (see the two links below) that claim that the fox may also have once been a domesticated partner of humans in parts of the world.  There is some good recent evidence for an older, caring and kinder relationship between our species.  This is fascinating stuff.  

Welcome back Br'er fox.  I am truly happy to report that our old companion, the red fox, is making a comeback in our preserve.   

Monday, November 21, 2011

Coneflowers, Switchgrass, Walnut trees and other friends

The field season is in high gear and we are approaching the Thanksgiving Day week-end. October and November were kind with mild weather and warm days. The surprise of the season was a damaging snowstorm which hit areas north and west of the city very hard but left Queens County and the wetland preserve relatively untouched.
On one of our major field days there was an NRG planting crew putting in maybe a thousand small potted plants and shrubs on the newly restored areas near the boardwalk. This is obviously part of the overall restoration contract and includes a selection of conservation plantings, both trees and shrubs that will add greatly to the plant diversity. With a fully outfitted work crew, a professional planting plan and a tremendous number of container shrubs and trees this day probably costs at least several thousand dollars. This is a wonderful finish to the boardwalk restoration project and should show some excellent results next spring.

In a similar but much less costly fashion my students have been accomplishing their own planting plans. In our travels we located a couple of mature Walnut trees ripe with large husk covered nuts. They varied in size from lemons to small oranges and they were so abundant that we collected a couple of bags. Along the trail, we punched planting holes at 50 to 100 foot intervals just deep enough into the trailside brush that saplings would avoid the seasonal mower. I know that not all of them will make it but I am quite sure that some of them will. As we walked and planted and walked some more I asked the group what they thought these future trees might be like 30 or 40 years from now? Someday, when these “20 somethings” turn “60 something” and they take their grandchildren for a little walk in the preserve I’m willing to bet that those yet unnamed children will discover a wealth of walnuts and families of eastern grey squirrels that love the nuts as much as I do.

On another day walking through another section of the park I came across a particularly attractive flower covered in butterflies and bees. I recognized it as a flower I had seen on the campus at St. Johns and found out that it was the Purple Coneflower. Although it was in full flower in October (and still has late bloomers even this week) the plants on campus had already completed their full cycle and offered up their enlarged seed heads. Planted along with the coneflowers were equally attractive stands of Black-eyed Susans with their smaller, denser and tighter seed heads. It only took a couple of willing student volunteers 20 minutes or so to ‘dead-head’ (isn’t that a great word!) the stalks and to brown bag their collection. These came out to the preserve at the next opportunity and found their way into the trailsides and side brush where they will bloom next summer.

Finally, while walking through a newly restored area of a nearby park I discovered a couple of great stands of tall, wispy, seed-ladened grasses – Perennial Ryegrass and Switchgrass. These grasses are famous for their excellent wildlife and conservation values. They produce ‘free’ bird seed and produce a root system that holds and enriches soils. I was happy to collect a couple of small bags of seeds and gave them to the students to spread their wealth into the preserve.

Native grasses, flowers, trees and shrubs are all around us. Sometimes they are less common than they use to be but that makes them all the more important. They are still an important part of the landscape. This seasonal planting activity didn’t cost thousands of dollars. It didn’t cost ANY dollars! All it cost was a little bit of time and energy and attention to what is all around us.

Actually handling plants, collecting seeds, putting them into the ground is such a human activity. It is delicate, creative, peaceful and thoughtful. Next growing season is going to be exciting seeing if these no-cost collecting efforts begin to pay real dividends

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Field Work Season Fall 2011

The field work season is in full swing and I haven’t taken enough time to get all of this recorded. No excuses. I should be doing this regularly but so much is happening that it is sometimes hard to take time to record it completely. Last post was near the start of the term on Sept. 5 so maybe I should try to put this in some sort of chronological order.

Since the last post my colleagues and I organized and completed a major orientation day on Sept. 24 in conjunction with National Estuary Day at the center. We had almost 70 of the first year students attending and getting their first taste of the site. I had the assistance of three other STJ professors and we had a great turnout on a fabulous weather day.

One week later October 2 the board hosted a ribbon cutting on the new boardwalk –“Brunch on the Boardwalk” and we had a wonderful turnout of political leaders, friends, family and the general public. I led a short walk along the boardwalk heading to Alley Creek and when we made it to the end, on a wind-swept and crystal clear day, there were the egrets to greet us as if to say good-bye before they make their long journey to the south. It seems so natural that this board walk is so popular with both families and with wildlife.

(Pictures of the event are in another location and may be posted later)

That set the stage for a follow-up orientation at the University the next week where I turned some of our field photos and “before and after” photos into a classroom orientation to the field site. I don’t know if it is possible to post the entire product here because it is a large file but I’ll give it a try and see if it works. (File also located in another location and may be posted at later date).

Then there are the senior students. I have a wonderful group of senior leaders who wanted to implement some of their own projects and plans in the preserve. I organized them into a small “band of 5”. They all work on their own schedule but when they are at the site they provide the on-site supervision to beginning student as well as work on some of their own activities. I’d like to write more about each of them and what they are doing, but as a group they are GREAT; I couldn’t be more pleased with their work.

This brings us to today.-November 1. This is an official school holiday -All Saints Day- and since there are no classes it became the day that most of the AS-L students this year selected to do some of their field work. These students are from my own classes and from other classes all with the common interest of working in the outdoors on natural resource and park projects. We had two sessions across the day, one from 9 to 12 and another from 1 to 4, dividing the work accordingly. In the morning we worked close in and accomplished a great deal of planting and seeding near the boardwalk and in the afternoon we took the long trail (wet, muddy and messy to say the least) and did two tasks that had been neglected for far too long. Pictures from today may be a better way to show what we did but I am very please with the results.

This has been a wonderful field season and it is not even close to being finished. We have some momentum right now and I’ll see what we can make of this in the remaining time before winter sets in.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Today is Monday, September 5, 2011, Labor Day. It is the unofficial end of the summer season although nature’s calendar doesn’t bring the equinox for another 16 days. There is plenty of summer season left but schools and colleges all around the country started up last week and this week and there is that distinct psychic shift from summer pastimes to a full schedule of school and work.

I returned to full work schedule several weeks ago and with the first classes this last week I met dozens of new students in my classes and around the college. I also did a great deal of planning and organizing for the coming field work season so I will have much more to write about in the coming months.

Two key meetings took place this last week - one with the faculty members who want to share in the work this term and the other with a special set of students who will become my field supervisors this semester. The faculty are organized into a group called a departmental learning community and we will run at least four events over the course of Sept. to Dec. The first event is our orientation event to introduce all of our students to the field site and the kind of work that they can engage in for their Academic Service- Learning requirements. We plan to host this event in conjunction with National Estuary Day which is the large public event on Saturday Sept. 24 at the center. As we get closer to the date I will try to post all of our plans and activities.

The other meeting at the start of the field season was with a set of students who have come through the field season in previous years and who came to me asking what else could they do. They are organized into a leadership team and will be at the field site on their own schedule and will become my site supervisors on a daily basis. If they can keep the work flowing smoothly and make sure that everyone works safely and productively they will be a tremendous asset to the field work. Besides working with the new students each member of the team is going to select and design something of their own creation. Then each of them will take the lead in getting that element of the project accomplished between now and the end of the term. I can also write much more about their activities after this coming Friday when we are planning a group trip to the preserve to reacclimatize them to the project and to look at some of the possibilities.