UD professors gear up for study on lawns, water quality and ecosystem services

October 6, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Taking a fresh look at water quality management, a University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) research team is studying how the replacement of urban lawns with more diverse vegetation can help protect the environment and make our landscapes more sustainable.

The researchers have been awarded a $595,000 grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and will be working at the Winterthur Gardens on their project.

Shreeram Inamdar, CANR associate professor of plant and soil sciences, is the principal investigator and the research team includes Doug Tallamy, chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology; Susan Barton, associate professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and a Cooperative Extension specialist; Jules Bruck, assistant professor of landscape horticulture and design; and Joshua Duke, professor in the Department of Food and Resource Economics.

One of the main goals of the three-year study, funded through the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) National Integrated Water Quality program, is to try to curb water pollution at its source — preventing pollution in the first place rather than waiting to treat contaminated water before it enters waterways.

“In the past, standard water quality management has focused on intercepting dirty water before it gets into water systems,” explained Tallamy. “We’re doing the opposite — we’re trying to keep the water clean from the start.”

The researchers believe this can be accomplished by shrinking the lawn and replacing it with more diverse vegetation, thus reducing fertilizer and herbicide inputs and enabling water filtration, which will lead to less storm water runoff and cleaner water.

Diverse vegetation also is expected to provide other natural ecosystem services — such as carbon sequestration, preserving biodiversity and natural pest control — that are associated with mixed vegetation landscapes.

Inamdar noted that the ability to look at both of these aspects is a unique opportunity for the researchers. “One of the great things on this proposal is that we get to look at water quality as well as ecosystem services,” he said. “Not many projects take that view, so I think that’s a very novel approach.”

To conduct the study, the group will be comparing watersheds with different vegetation types at Winterthur.

Barton explained that the group will look at runoff from different types of watersheds at Winterthur — one site will be a mown turf field that will be managed in the manner of a residential lawn and the other will be primarily forest and meadow.

By doing this, Barton explained, “We can directly compare these two streams, which are very close to each other, under the same weather conditions. One gets the residential lawn runoff and one gets the diverse landscape runoff.”

The team has also secured a local homeowner’s landscape for the research. Bruck said the property will be “used as a test garden, and will become a demonstration garden to show these different sustainable principles and practices.”

Barton noted that public tours of the sites will eventually be offered.

Planting will begin next spring and as soon as the team gathers enough information and data, it will provide educational courses at Winterthur to disseminate key information to the public.

Tallamy said that making this information readily available is an effort to “change the status symbol. Right now, the status symbol is a big lawn and we’re trying to make it more diverse.”

This is also one of the main focuses of the Center for Managed Ecosystems, of which Tallamy is the director.

Duke’s role will be to determine how much it would cost a homeowner to manage their property in a more diverse manner, as opposed to how much it costs to simply manage a big lawn. Said Duke, “We suspect that it might not be that lawn is actually the cheapest way to manage things. It may be that it’s cheaper for an owner to manage in a more sustainable manner; they might just not realize it because it’s not the status quo.”

Undergraduate and graduate students will be involved in many aspects of the research, from helping the group gather information on water quality, ecosystem services and the economic implications to helping in the design of the more sustainable garden.

Bruck explained that students in her Basic Landscape Design course will “work through the design process to come up with demonstration plans that will be presented to the University of Delaware Botanical Gardens (UDBG) and then we’ll post the plans on our website, for educational purposes for other homeowners.”

For now, the team is gearing up for the spring and ready to get the study under way, hoping to improve water quality and change the status quo from large lawns to diverse, more sustainable ecosystems.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Danielle Quigley

Graphic courtesy Jules Bruck

This article can also be viewed on UDaily > >

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Nature’s Fireworks

July 11, 2011 under CANR News

 Annelid worms do it. Certain species of centipedes and millipedes do it. Even a tropical land snail can do it.

But here in Delaware, fireflies and glow worms are the only terrestrial creatures that light up the night with their own built-in flashlights.

Bioluminescence results from a chemical reaction in which chemical energy is converted to light energy, according to Doug Tallamy, chair of the University of Delaware’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Fireflies (Lampyridae) aren’t actually flies and glow worms (Phengodidae) aren’t really worms. Both are considered to be beetles and are closely related species.

The fireflies’ glow adds beauty to a summer night but there are several pragmatic reasons for bioluminescence, too. Fireflies and glow worms light up to attract the opposite sex. Adult fireflies, both male and female, flash coded messages to attract prospective mates. Males fly about while they flash, females usually flash while hanging out in bushes. It’s all about “speed dating” not lengthy courtships — there’s no time to waste since adulthood only lasts for about two weeks.

There’s another reason why fireflies light up, at least in the case of juvenile larvae. Almost a decade ago, UD scientists led by Tallamy discovered that baby fireflies light up to keep predators at bay.

Previous studies had shown that mice and other would-be predators shun adult fireflies because of a compound in fireflies’ body that produced a bitter taste. The UD study demonstrated that baby fireflies flash to advertise that they also exhibit this bitter taste.

“A flashing neon sign may lure hungry humans to an all-night diner but the bioluminescence of firefly larvae sends a very different message to would-be predators,” says Tallamy.

Summer season

This summer is shaping up to be a good but not spectacular season for fireflies.

“Lightning bug populations at my house have been strong but not record-breaking,” says Tallamy. “In general, populations fluctuate from habitat availability more than from weather. However, if we get a bad drought during the summer and fall that does impact the population of lightening bugs the following summer.”

Fresh strawberries for a few short weeks around Memorial Day. Carnival rides at the State Fair for 10 days in July. Like other summertime pleasures, firefly season is short-lived.  “Nature’s fireworks” begin a few weeks before July 4th and are at their peak now. By the end of July they’re gone, save for a few stragglers.

Where to find different species

Several species of fireflies can call themselves native Delawareans. The beach region of Sussex is home to the coastal firefly, which prefers sandy, even salty, soil and generally stays close to the ground. Inland Sussex and Kent counties are home to yet another species. But the greatest diversity in firefly species is found north of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, says Tallamy.

“Fireflies are especially abundant in the Piedmont region, in the northernmost part of Delaware,” he says. “Most firefly species favor ‘old field habitat.’ In New Castle County, that type of habitat is most commonly found around the White Clay and Red Clay creeks and along the Brandywine River.”

At first glance, one species of firefly may not look much different from another. But pay close attention to fireflies as they begin to light up. “If you look closely, you’ll start to notice some distinct variations in their flash pattern,” says Tallamy.

There are three characteristics that differentiate firefly species:

  • Where the fireflies are located. Some species like to be close to the ground; others prefer shrubs and low trees.
  • The flight track, or style of flying, varies from species to species. Some fly in a “J” pattern then swoop down low, others take looping flights.
  • The pattern of the bug’s flashing. Think of the flashes like Morse Code — do they resemble a dash-dash-dash pattern or dash-dot-dash?

If your kids like to catch fireflies and put them in a jar, go for it, says Tallamy, as long as you punch some holes in the lid and release the fireflies after a few hours. Fireflies are beneficial insects; in their larval form they feed on garden and crop pests.

Article by Margo McDonough

The article can also be viewed online on UDaily.

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Tallamy awarded gold Eddie Award for article

February 8, 2011 under CANR News

Doug Tallamy, chairperson of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Delaware, has received the gold Eddie Award from Folio magazine for his article “A Call for Backyard Biodiversity,” first published in American Forests.

The Eddie Award is part of the Eddie and Ozzie Awards Gala in New York City, which has celebrated editorial and design excellence in the magazine industry for over 20 years.

The article deals with the dangers of the diminishing biodiversity in the American urban and suburban landscape and the need for suburban lawns to be populated with natural native plant species instead of unnatural plant species imported from across the globe.

It also focuses on the importance of functional landscaping, using plants that, in addition to their beauty, help support ecosystem development, instead of aesthetical landscaping, using plants which may look nice but serve little ecosystem function.

Tallamy was honored in the category for association/non-profit publication with circulation less than six times a year.

Article by Adam Thomas

This article can also be viewed online on UDaily by clicking here.

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Changing seasons provide varied birding opportunities

January 10, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

One of the things that Derek Stoner likes most about living in Delaware is that every season brings new things to see and enjoy outdoors. Birding is a great example of nature’s diversity throughout the year.

“Birding in January, when owls are breeding, is a lot different than birding in July, when shorebirds flock to the Delaware Bay during their southward migration,” notes Stoner, the past president of the Delmarva Ornithological Society.

Here are some of the avian highlights that each season brings. How many of these birds will you spot in 2011?

Winter

As the New Year begins, the woods come alive with the calls of owls. Delaware’s most-common woodland owl, the great-horned owl, begins nesting now. Listen for its territorial hooting calls at night. The Eastern screech owl is also active and makes a trilling call. So how do you identify all those trills and hoots? Before heading out, Stoner suggests listening to owl calls at this website.

In February, take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, a citizen science project throughout the U.S. and Canada. Last year’s count tallied more than 11 million birds of 602 species. Beyond the important scientific data that’s collected, the count generates excitement for birders, notes Chris Williams, UD assistant professor of wildlife ecology. Get involved by visiting this website.

Spring

In late April and the first half of May, birders flock to White Clay Creek State Park, where warblers, tanagers, orioles and other migrants are attracted to the large expanse of healthy woodlands. The best time to see lots of migrants, says Stoner, is after a night with steady winds from the south.

If you want to see red knots in the spring, there’s one place to go — Mispillion Harbor on the Delaware Bay, which attracts up to 90 percent of all the red knots in the world during this time period. Red knots fuels up on horseshoe crabs at the harbor. Check them out from the observation deck of the DuPont Nature Center. For a map and directions, visit the DuPont Nature Center website.

Summer

Summertime to Carrie Murphy means the return of the American goldfinch. This small finch is attracted to native perennials in her garden, including echinacea, black-eyed Susan and hardy ageratum. In its spring plumage, the brilliant yellow-and-black male looks like he belongs in a tropical rain forest instead of a Delaware backyard. Murphy, horticultural agent for New Castle County Cooperative Extension, says the goldfinch also likes annual sunflowers.

In July, look for blue grosbeaks, gorgeous blue birds with silvery bills. Doug Tallamy finds a pair nesting in his dogwood tree every July. “The male sings from May to September every morning for two hours,” says Tallamy, the chair of UD’s Department of Entomology and Applied Ecology.

Want to attract blue grosbeaks to your own yard? “Blue grosbeaks like to include snake skins in their nests, so if you hang a snake skin up on a fence, you’re more likely to get them,” notes Tallamy.

Late summer is prime time for migrating shorebirds all along the Delaware Bay. Visit the impoundments at Fowler Beach and Broadkill Road of Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge to see black-necked stilts, black-bellied plovers and many varieties of sandpipers.

Fall

“I like watching hawks fly out of trees to kill unsuspecting rodents during the fall,” says Brian Kunkel, an entomologist with UD Cooperative Extension. If the thought of watching hawks feasting on rodents makes you lose your lunch, just keep your eyes skyward. The northern tip of Delaware is the place to see hundreds of migrating broad-winged hawks on their way to South America. Check out the Ashland Hawk Watch page.

In November thousands of ducks, geese and swans funnel into the First State to take advantage of the abundant food and resting places. Places like Thousand Acre Marsh, Woodland Beach Wildlife Area and Silver Lake in Rehoboth offer great viewing.

Wrap up the year by taking part in the Christmas Bird Count, the world’s longest-running biological survey. Seven Christmas Bird Counts take place in Delaware. Learn more at the Delmarva Ornithological Society website.

Article by Margo McDonough

This article can also be viewed online on UDaily by clicking here.

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CANR researchers promote native plants for suburban lawns

October 4, 2010 under CANR News

University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy has been conducting research studies on the interaction between native plant species and native wildlife since 2000. Author of Bringing Nature Home, which met with critical acclaim in The New York Times and other publications, Tallamy is well aware that most suburban homeowners plant few shrubs and trees, preferring instead vast expanses of grass.

But his latest research, conducted this summer with Jules Bruck, assistant professor of landscape design in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, amazed even him. The duo analyzed the composition of 65 suburban yards in New Castle County and Chester County, Pa. They discovered that, on average, homeowners dedicated 92 percent of landscapable areas to lawn.

Read the full story on UDaily by clicking here.

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Fireflies light up the summer sky

July 7, 2010 under CANR News

Fireflies may not light up the sky as bright as Fourth of July displays but this season they’re putting on quite a show.

“This is a fantastic year for fireflies, probably because we got so much rain last summer,” says Doug Tallamy, chairperson of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. “As larvae, fireflies like moist leaf litter and things stayed moist last year.”

“Nature’s fireworks” continue long after July 4th — fireflies are at their peak now and stick around Delaware until the end of July.

Although most of us call them fireflies or lightning bugs, these luminescent creatures are more properly known as Lampyridae, which in Latin means “shining fire.” And they are actually beetles, not flies, says Brian Kunkel, an entomologist with UD Cooperative Extension.

Summer out West certainly has its pleasures, such as less humidity in most places than here in the Mid-Atlantic. But one thing you can’t enjoy in Beverly Hills or Boise is fireflies.

“Fireflies aren’t found west of the Rockies,” says Kunkel.

There are several species of fireflies native to Delaware. The beach region of Sussex County is home to the coastal firefly, which prefers sandy, even salty, soil and generally stays close to the ground. Inland Sussex and Kent counties are home to yet another species. But the greatest diversity in firefly species is found north of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, says Kunkel.

“Fireflies are especially abundant in the piedmont region, in the northernmost part of Delaware,” he says. “Most firefly species favor ‘old field habitat.’ In New Castle County, that type of habitat is most commonly found around the White Clay and Red Clay creeks and along the Brandywine River.”

At first glance, one species of firefly may not look much different from another. But pay close attention to fireflies as they begin to light up. “If you look closely, you’ll start to notice some distinct variations,” says Kunkel.

There are three characteristics that differentiate firefly species:

  • Where the fireflies are located. Some species like to be very close to the ground; others prefer shrubs and low trees.
  • The flight track, or style of flying, varies from species to species. Some fly in a “J” pattern then swoop down low, others take looping flights.
  • The pattern of the bug’s flashing. Think of the flashes like Morse Code — do they resemble a dash-dash-dash pattern or dash-dot-dash?

As for why fireflies light up, it’s for the same reason that tight clothing and flashy jewelry are a staple at nightclubs — to attract the opposite sex. Adult fireflies, both male and female, flash coded messages to attract prospective mates. Males fly about while they flash, females usually flash while hanging out in bushes. It’s all about “speed dating” not lengthy courtships — there’s no time to waste since adulthood lasts just two weeks.

There’s also another reason why fireflies light up, at least in the case of juvenile larvae. Almost a decade ago, UD scientists led by Tallamy discovered that baby fireflies light up to keep predators at bay.

Previous studies had shown that mice and other would-be predators shun adult fireflies because of a compound in fireflies’ body that produced a bitter taste. The UD study demonstrated that baby fireflies flash to advertise that they also exhibit this bitter taste.

“A flashing neon sign may lure hungry humans to an all-night diner but the bioluminescence of firefly larvae sends a very different message to would-be predators,” says Tallamy.

If your kids like to catch fireflies and put them in a jar, go for it, says Kunkel, as long as you punch some holes in the lid and release the fireflies after a few hours. Fireflies are beneficial insects because they may feed on insect pests in the garden so it’s important not to harm them.

Article by Margo McDonough

You can also see this article and accompanying photo on UDaily by clicking here.

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College converts cow pasture into thriving wetland

May 19, 2010 under CANR News

Several times a week, Chad Nelson begins his workday with a trek through a wetland near his Townsend Hall office on the University of Delaware’s Newark campus. With spring in full swing, he enjoys the sight of the butterflies, migratory songbirds, mallard ducks and their ducklings, frogs and tadpoles that make the wetland their warm-weather home.

Later this summer Nelson, an assistant professor of landscape design in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, will be on the look out for dragonflies. And even in winter, he says the wetland teems with life, with such species as glossy ibis and over-wintering songbirds.

Two years ago, about the only animal life this two-acre site supported were dairy cows and migrating Canada geese.

Jenny McDermott, facilities manager for the college, spearheaded the effort to convert a poorly draining cow pasture into a wetland.

Her go-to man on the project was Tom Barthelmeh, who is a wetlands restoration expert with the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC).

“This project had a lot of challenges and Tom’s help was integral,” says McDermott. “Our goal in creating this wetland was not only to provide wildlife habitat but to improve water quality in the White Clay watershed.”

Once it is fully operational, the wetland will reduce runoff to Cool Run, which is a tributary of White Clay Creek. And that’s just one of the ways it will help the watershed.

The University’s farm and main campus are where Cool Run starts, the headwaters of the stream, and thus are a critical area for influencing environmental quality.

“Wetlands, especially in this area, do a lot of good things for a watershed,” explains McDermott. “By taking the pressure off the rate and volume of water that flows into a stream, wetlands reduce problems caused by stormwater runoff downstream.”

From a wildlife habitat perspective, the wetland gets high marks from Doug Tallamy, chairperson of UD’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology.

“The new wetlands will raise the carrying capacity of the UD Farm for decades,” says Tallamy. “The wet areas churn out insects that develop on detritus. These support swifts, martins, swallows and bats. Wading birds eat the aquatic insects and frogs in the wet areas. The wetland also provides habitats for breeding birds. It’s very productive. And none of this was happening when it was a cow pasture.”

Barthelmeh says he enjoyed the project, especially because it gave him the opportunity to mentor students. UD undergraduate and graduate students were involved in every aspect of the project, from site design and installation to the two rounds of planting that occurred, most recently last October.

Nelson spearheaded plant design with plenty of assistance from his students. Almost 2,000 trees, shrubs and perennial seed plugs have been planted at the site, ranging from blue flag iris, which provides purple-blue spring blooms; buttonbush, which blooms in summer; bald cypress, with its brilliant rusty orange fall foliage; and winterberry holly, known for its red berries in winter.

A whopping 90 percent of the first year’s planting survived despite dry planting conditions and some damage by waterfowl.

“I was concerned last year because a lot of Canada geese were browsing the wetland but most of the damage wasn’t significant since it was confined to the stalks and not the roots,” says Nelson.

The wetland is one component of a comprehensive plan to make the UD Farm a model of sustainable, environmentally friendly agriculture.

McDermott is now busy overseeing other conservation projects. Additional channel and wetland restoration will take place along the entire length of the Cool Run tributary running through the farm. A stormwater retrofit will address building and parking lot runoff that flows into Cool Run.

“These restoration efforts wouldn’t be possible without a lot of partners within the university, from DNREC and from the New Castle Conservation District,” says McDermott. “Grant funding from several DNREC departments and from the University’s alumni-supported Sustainability Fund have been matched by funding from our college to not only implement environmental protection but to provide a teaching opportunity for students and a demonstration of watershed protection.”

The UD wetland has been utilized as an outdoor classroom by landscape design, landscape construction, ornithology, wildlife management and wildlife ecology students. And it serves a public education function, as well, especially now that it has become a part of the UD Botanic Gardens.

“We offered wetland tours on Earth Day and Ag Day and the public is welcome to take self-guided tours any day from dawn to dusk,” says McDermott. “Wetlands are sometimes seen as a ‘no man’s land.’ We want people to appreciate the positive impact they can have on water quality and the diversity of wildlife they support. Wetlands are incredibly important.”

To learn more, visitors can take a self-guided tour of the UD Botanic Gardens wetland from dawn to dusk daily. The wetland is located on UD’s Farm off Route 896 in Newark, near the Girl Scouts building.

Click here to see the article with photos online on UDaily.

Article by Margo McDonough
Photos by Danielle Quigley

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