image of the boardwalk at Dundery Brook Trail

John C. Whitehead Preserve – Dundery Brook Trail System, Little Compton, RI

A walk revisiting the original and newer section of the Dundery Brook Trail — Dick Fisher & John Berg
WildfloraRI, Spring 2021

image of the boardwalk at Dundery Brook Trail

Boardwalk at Dundery Trail, photo JDetz

The John C. Whitehead Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy, was formed by combining the Bumble Bee Preserve with contiguous land to the west. The combined area preserves 130 acres of pristine freshwater wetlands, which drains via Dundery Brook into Briggs Marsh on its way to the ocean. The trail system is composed of three arms, each about 0.6 miles long, which meet in the middle forming a star shaped pattern.

Located in Little Compton, the area can be accessed by two trailheads. The newest is located along West Main Road (Route 177) 1.3 miles south of Peckham Road (Google Driving Directions), and a second, the original trailhead, is behind the tennis courts in the Little Compton Commons (Google Driving Directions). The trailheads are marked and parking is available at both.

In the Winter 2011 issue of WildFlora available on the RIWPS website, the ‘Dundery Brook Trail’ article describes the original two trail sections—Dundery Brook Trail and Blanche’s Path. The new trail system combines the two sections described in that article and adds Hope’s Path, which opened in 2019. The trails traverse hardwood forest wetlands with interspersed lowland meadows. The area is flat and the wetland portions of the trails are elevated to allow year-round comfortable access.

The Dundery Brook arm is built entirely on an elevated boardwalk set on steel posts and is wheelchair accessible. There are benches for sitting along this stretch. The newest arm, Hope’s Path, wanders by a collection of ponds initially and then enters the wetland forest where informal board bridges provide dry walking. This trail is wide and well-marked but not as disability friendly as the Dundery portion.

The third arm of the star, Blanche’s Path, begins where the boardwalk ends and extends through low meadowland as it skirts around Bumble Bee Pond and into the meadow beyond. This portion is historic farmland which is grown over with succession vegetation. Bumble Bee Pond was created as a water source for grazing but now contains a vigorous colony of cattails (Typha latifolia) and is a resource area for bird and aquatic life.

Asclepius Incantata. photo GGarnder

Entering through the new west entrance one encounters a flurry of typical invasive species, but these soon wane, as the trail meanders through open meadows weaving around about a half dozen ponds. In early fall of a very dry year, 2020, the water levels were low in most ponds, but the lily pads (Nymphaea odorata) were blooming and the frogs and dragonflies abundant. The pond margins attract the invasive common reed (Phragmites australis) and cattails (Typha latifolia), but there is plenty of open water and cleared space to reach the water’s edge.

The meadow areas contain the usual fall blooming meadow species such as spotted Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), boneset (Eupatorium ssp), several species of goldenrod (Solidago ssp), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), and numerous aster species.

Lobelia cardinalis (cardinal-flower), photo GGardner

As the meadows end, the trail dips into the wet woodlands and is enclosed by abundant understory plants as well as the taller hardwoods. Ferns line this section along with sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), willows (Salix ssp), and scattered fall-blooming wildflowers such as cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and wood aster (Eurybia divaricata).

The trail crosses Dundery Brook on an historic granite slab bridge, then meanders through several open bog areas filled with grasses and sedges as the route gradually climbs slightly to meet the Dundery Brook boardwalk portion of the trail. This area is slightly dryer with a more open understory covered with dwarf raspberry (Rubus pubescens) and flat-branched tree-clubmoss (Dendrolycopodium obscurum).

From this central point, the Dundery Brook Trail to the south (right) on the boardwalk leads to the trailhead at the Commons. It winds through a wetland hardwood forest crossing streams and shrub meadows. From the intersection of Hope’s Path and the Dundery Brook Trail, Blanche’s Path proceeds to the north (left) remaining on the boardwalk for one hundred feet or so. It then becomes a grassy trail around Bumble Bee Pond and open meadow beyond.

The plants here are dominant species that define the habitat of the coastal oak-holly forest and wetlands. But many more are present. An inventory completed a few years ago documented more than 350 plant species in the Preserve, and undoubtedly more exist. The special access that the elevated trails provide allows a close look at this wetland plant community. The Dundery Brook Trail system is also a unique place for quiet reflection.

picture of the cover of the book Summer Wildflowers of the Northeast

Book Review: Summer Wildflowers of Northeast by Carol Gracie

—This review by Marnie Lacouture first appeared in our WildfloraRI, Spring 2021

Carol Gracie’s Summer Wildflowers of the Northeast is not a field guide but rather a natural history—an in-depth look at thirty-five wildflowers alongpicture of the cover of the book Summer Wildflowers of the Northeast with some of their close relatives. Gracie has organized the entries alphabetically by common name with the Latin name and family following each entry. As she says in the preface, she wants the general public to feel comfortable reading her book while learning to enjoy wildflowers without being intimidated by their Latin names. She does, however, explain to us how plants are named in Latin and why that is important. Gracie also provides a sizable glossary of botanical terms with a few insect-related definitions as well. Her references are extensive.

The wildflowers of summer, she says, often take a backseat to the spring bloomers which capture early-season enthusiasm, but this book makes us eager to explore the summer ones as well. She reminds us that a bonus in the summer months is the greater number of insects that visit the plants. Included in the book are plants from a variety of families and a variety of habitats. Some are familiar such as cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), the goldenrods (Solidago ssp.) and the asters (various genera: Symphyotrichum, Oclemena, Sericocarpus, Doellingeria, Ionactis, and Eurybia). But I quickly found that they are not to be taken for granted and that there is much to be learned about them.

Some of the entries, however, are new to me and several are not native wildflowers but were introduced to the area and have naturalized, like Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) and the lovely blue chicory (Cichorium intybus) that bloom along roadways. Some, finding hospitable conditions, have even become invasive, such as American lotus (Nelumbo lutea), a beauty which often is planted as an ornamental in small ponds or lakes, and broad-leaved helleborine, (Epipactis helleborine) an orchid that has made itself at home in the northeast and has become a pest in parts of the Midwest.

Every page of the book is filled with color photographs inspired by several decades of Gracie’s interest in photography together with her passion for wild plants. The close-ups of the buds, the flowers, the leaves, the seeds, and the insects that frequent each plant are fascinating as well as stunning.

We learn how each wildflower was used throughout history, perhaps for medicine, as food or drink, for dyeing textiles or in other ways. There is poetry — I was surprised that Emily Dickinson wrote a poem about Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) and that Robert Frost penned one about the rose pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides). There is captivating history such as a story of how British soldiers stationed in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1676 gathered the abundant early greens of jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) — the name is most likely a distortion of Jamestown-weed— to make a stew which, after eating it, left them out of their minds for eleven days. In present-day Jamestown, the only jimsonweed that Gracie and her husband could find on a visit to the historic site was growing in a pile of dirt where the seeds had been unearthed during an archeological dig. And there are also entertaining stories like an amusing account of how in the 19th century Asa Gray had great difficulty, practically to the point of hopelessness he wrote to fellow botanists, in sorting out the asters for his Flora of North America. That frustration continues for some of us today as the asters have been reclassified and renamed.

Summer Wildflowers of the Northeast does not need to be read from cover to cover but may be enjoyed by opening it to any of the entries. I began near the end by reading the chapter on wild lupine (Lupinus perennis). Our property is suitable for this disappearing wildflower because the soil is sandy, dry, and poor and the woods include pitch pine and oak, just the habitat that it likes. Gracie tells us that the Latin word lupus for wolf was used to name lupine’s genus, Lupinus, because it was believed that lupine stole or “wolfed” nutrients from the soil. Today we know that lupine, which is included in the bean family, can fix nitrogen and actually improve the soil. Years ago, I read the book Miss Rumphius, based on a real historical figure in Maine, to my children. I didn’t realize at the time that this female Johnny Appleseed of lupine was actually planting the seeds of the western species (Lupinus polyphyllus) which, although stately and beautiful, has naturalized and become quite invasive in Maine and other places where it has escaped cultivation. Sadly, Lupinus perennis is most likely gone from the wild in Maine and is rare in Rhode Island.

Gracie’s first chapter on a variety of alpine wildflowers is so alluring that I’m eager to head for a New Hampshire mountaintop this summer to see these hardy miniatures. Her descriptions of many of the wetland plants inspire me to want to suit up and tread, lightly of course, into some swamps and bogs when the time is right. I am certain that other readers will be encouraged to explore these wildflowers in their natural habitats this summer as well and to return to the pages of this beautiful, informative book again and again.

 

Doug Tallamy – 2 programs

Doug Tallamy, has spent years studying the relationship between plants and the insects they support. He is passionate about how to create biodiverse habitats in as many places as possible, including ones own landscape.

Enhancing Delaware Highways: Lessons from the Roadside

Dr. Susan Barton discusses how the lessons learned in planting and editing roadsides can be applied to a variety of landscapes and illustrate strategies for managing landscapes sustainably and provide guidelines for promoting native plants and combating invasive plants in public and private spaces.

Book Review – Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

— This review by Anne Raver first appeared in WildfloraRI, Spring 2019

Robin Law Kimmerer begins Braiding Sweetgrass with the story of Skywoman, who falls from a hole in the Skyworld, clutching a bundle of branches with many fruits and seeds. She hurtles downward, in a shaft of light, where there was only darkness before, toward the murky water below. Many eyes in the sea are watching, and geese rise up to break her fall, holding her in their soft feathers. A great turtle offers his back for her to step upon, a muskrat dives deep into the water to bring a handful of mud from the depths below. Skywoman spreads the mud on the turtle’s shell, scatters the seeds in her hand, and dances the world from brown to green.

Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizens Potawatomi Nation, combines science and the knowledge of her indigenous ancestors to contemplate the devastation that we humans, particularly descendants of the first white settlers, have wrought since first setting foot in the so-called New World (which, as Kimmerer points out, was only new to Europeans and other immigrants; to native inhabitants, it was as ancient as the creation story).

Kimmerer is a distinguished professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY, where she also founded and directs the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. The center works with tribal partners and students to integrate traditional ecological knowledge with scientific research for restoration and sustainability projects.

Kimmerer also is a poet and a storyteller, and Braiding Sweetgrass weaves together many threads– stories of her childhood, of her own children, of her graduate students, of desecrated lands and healed ones—with the page-turning power of a beautifully written novel. At the same time, her mind, sharpened by both science and the observational skills of her tribal elders, is constantly analyzing the particulars of any given situation, be it the near extinction of wild salmon in the Northwest, or the chemical toxins that Allied Chemical poured into Onondaga Lake, or the day her daughter refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school. (Kimmerer recalls her own childhood participation in the puzzling ritual, with its reference to God and the republic: “And you didn’t have to be an eight-year-old Indian to know that ‘liberty and justice for all’ was a questionable premise.”)

As a Potawatomi, Kimmerer considers plants and animals her teachers; she was listening to the trees long before scientists discovered how they communicate through pheromones in the air and mycorrhizae, a vast symbiosis of fungi and roots beneath the forest floor. Sweetgrass, or “wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth,” was one of the plants that Skywoman clutched in her hand, the day she fell out of that hole in the sky. It was a gift, just like all the other plants, just like the land itself, to be passed from hand to hand shared but never sold. A metaphor for sharing and reciprocity, rather than taking from the earth and others, Sweetgrass calls for a radical shift in consciousness.

As a teacher and activist, Kimmerer offers many examples of people working together to restore balance to the earth—to bring back salmon to their spawning grounds, to restore polluted lakes and salt marshes, to simply learn to listen to the plants and animals.

 

 

 

 

‘Canary in the Mine’ for the Salt Marsh

— This article by Deidre Robinson, Wenley Ferguson and Steve Reinert first appeared in WildforaRI, Spring 2019

If you’ve never experienced the sunrise over a salt marsh, inhaling the distinctive fragrance of hydrogen sulfide given off by decomposing smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) and hearing the dawn chorus of marsh birds, you might want to explore one sooner rather than later. The marshes are disappearing at an alarming rate.

The saltmarsh sparrow is an obligate salt marsh specialist, living only in the marshes along the east coast of the United States. Rhode Island provides critical habitat for several small pockets of this threatened species, whose population has plummeted by 75 percent since the 1990s. With accelerating sea level rises, tidal marsh losses of 0.5 to 1.5 percent annually are predicted, likely dooming this bird to extinction by 2040.

We first spotted this sparrow at Jacob’s Point Salt Marsh in Warren on a steamy July day in 2016 while conducting a survey of breeding birds for the Rhode Island Bird Atlas. She was stealthily returning to her nest to incubate four small eggs. Rather than fly directly to the nest and possibly reveal its location to a predator, she lands in a patch of salt meadow several meters from the nest, then zigzags through the grasses running much like a mouse, a strategy that has worked well for it for millennia.

Locating an active nest of this threatened species is always cause for celebration, but we had discovered a bird that had been previously banded–an extraordinary bonus. Contacting the Bird Banding Laboratory at the US Geological Survey in Laurel, MD, we learned that she had been banded in Florida in the fall of 2015. She had likely hatched at Jacob’s Point that spring, over-wintered in Florida, and returned to breed in Rhode Island the following summer. Weighing the equivalent of just three nickels, she made the arduous round-trip of 1440 miles and now holds the record for the longest migration distance for her species.

This discovery launched the Saltmarsh Sparrow Research Initiative (SSRI), a local citizen-science project to document the breeding ecology of this vulnerable bird. With permission from the Warren Land Conservation Trust (WLCT) to access its marsh property, we began a five-year comprehensive study of the sparrow, including documenting changes in the marsh flora and measuring the elevation of nests, which are increasingly vulnerable to flooding. (Read much more about our research on www.SALSri.org.)

During the first two years of our study, we banded 88 adult saltmarsh sparrows and found 101 nestlings. We also documented the elevation and surrounding vegetation for each of the 56 nests we located. We found that nests are increasingly subject to flooding, a finding consistent with other studies that report rising tides as the major threat to this species, which cannot survive in any other habitat.

This obligate species thrives in a healthy salt meadow community of Spartina for nesting, intermixed with saltgrass (Distichlis spicata), saltmarsh rush (Juncus gerardii) and maritime marsh- elder (Iva frutescens). Its breeding strategy is one of promiscuity, with males often perching on the marsh-elder to scan for females. (Typically, nests contain eggs fertilized by two to three different males.) The male is simply the sperm donor, who copulates with as many females as possible; the female is responsible for nest-building and feeding her young. She removes their fecal sacs and hunts for invertebrates in the grasses and water pools within close range of her nest. Nestlings must grow rapidly to develop from naked hatchlings to fully- feathered young birds, strong enough to climb out of the nest to higher ground or perhaps onto a marsh-elder before the flooding tides occur.

Nests have a domed canopy, which does help keep eggs from flooding out of the nest at high tides. The birds need about 26 days from nest construction until fledging, and lunar flood tides happen at least once every 28 days; this leaves very little margin for survival. Increasingly, marshes are also flooding before the peak high tides and again at mid-cycle, which dooms many nests. By measuring the elevation of all the nests, we hope to determine how high above sea level they must be for eggs and nestlings to survive.

The ebb and flow of the tides are vital to the health of the salt marsh and thus the survival of the sparrows. At the southern end of Jacobs Point, tidal flow was greatly restricted by old stone culverts that had collapsed under an elevated roadbed built in the 1930s. Without the flushing of salt water, Phragmites australis, a highly invasive common reed, had spread into the marsh. Increasingly, marshes are also flooding before the peak high tides and again at mid-cycle, which dooms many nests.

Working with the Land Trust, Wenley Ferguson of Save The Bay acquired funding in 2009 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Coastal Resource Management Council to oversee the design and installation of three new culverts. These arched culverts have increased tidal flow and created saltier water and less suitable conditions for Phragmites by flushing out the nutrient-rich runoff it thrives in. The culverts also drained standing water from the southern high marsh, where the saltmarsh sparrow nests. However, standing water in the high marsh to the north was still killing off marsh grass and degrading the peat, thus destroying still more of the saltmarsh sparrow’s habitat.

Save The Bay documented similarly degraded high marsh in a region-wide assessment of salt marshes in 2012 to 2013. This widespread degradation is largely attributed to accelerated sea level rise. To deal with standing water in the salt marsh to the north, shallow creeks, called runnels, were dug by hand and with a low-ground- pressure excavator. The runnels now drain surface water off the marsh, and high marsh vegetation is recolonizing the bare areas. The Land Trust and Save The Bay obtained funds for this project from the Coastal Resource Management Council and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Another goal of this ongoing restoration effort is to protect a stand of native common reed, Phragmites americanus, from a highly aggressive stand of non- native Phragmites australis, which has expanded in the last two decades due to runoff from streets and development. Both Save The Bay and the Land Trust are meeting with property owners along Jacob’s Point to discuss better ways to keep storm water runoff from roofs and parking lots from reaching the marsh. Reducing runoff and restoring more of the high marsh habitat would give the saltmarsh sparrow a leg up in its race against sea rise.

In the first nesting cycle of 2017, only one nestling was strong enough to climb out of her nest before it flooded. After the Rhode Island state motto, we nicknamed her Hope. Her name also recalls the title of Emily Dickinson’s poem, which begins, “Hope is the thing with feathers…”

Authors Steve Reinert and Deirdre Robinson hold master’s degrees in Wildlife Sciences and Biology, respectively, from the University of Rhode Island. Both have spent decades studying birds on salt marshes in southeastern New England. At Jacob’s Point, Robinson and Reinert have worked with Wenley Ferguson, the Director of Habitat Restoration for Save The Bay, to help improve the ebb and flow of the tides through the salt marsh since the late 1990s.

Outdoor Learning: RIWPS Education Grant

A few years ago Charlestown Elementary School chose Outdoor Learning as a focus. The site was to include a short existing trail that ran through the woods, a large sand area and the parking lot.

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Winter Book Discussion: The Brothers Gardeners

During the afternoon of February 9,  eleven RIWPS members gathered in the comfortable living room of the Pilson house around a roaring fire. As if on cue a few snow flakes fluttered past the windows. Elaine Trench lead the discussion of “The Brother Gardeners” by Andrea Wulf.