Monthly Archives: April 2014

Blank Frames: Camera traps capture much but see little.

Week Four on the Nocturnal Life team has largely confirmed rising suspicions amongst the team. Seven days of traps set up on a trail at the beginning of Poplar Ridge and the Hereford Community Garden brought a single photo of what could have been a grouse, although the photos are blurred to the point of illegibility, which has been cherished along with our blurred deer and running opossum photos as a real catch.

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Note the smudge in the bottom left corner. It is most likely an animal.

One of the hypotheses raised last week was that rabbits frequented the Hereford Community Garden. It was shocking, then, going through all two thousand photos that were saved on the camera’s memory card one by one and watching the lengthy endeavors of the Hereford students as they planted the garden for spring.

Here, I thought, filled with nutrients and freshly sown, everything will begin to come. It was heartbreaking to find how few did, but there was one who made up for the absences of the others.

This creature was so loyal to the place that she would never fail to pass by at least once every fifteen minutes or so, although she appeared to rest elsewhere during the early hours of the morning, undocumented. The Northline never let anyone down, and especially not this garden.

The team was unable to determine the results of the other cameras this week, but conclusions are not expected to differ. However, more evidence is necessary to further the thesis.

One of the many resources that Professor Beatley has shared with us over the course of the class involved the negative correlation between diversity of grasshopper species and level of human development in an area. The findings from the Nocturnal Life team seem to echo the sentiment of that study. The Grounds of the University of Virginia is highly human intensive environment. Excepting “pest” species like squirrels and raccoons, it cannot be expected that there would be animals in a place that has effectively designed them out of the area.

Post by John Sylvester, First-Year, Anthropology

Green Rooftops: lobby-worthy or common sense?

Last week our group visited several green rooftops around Grounds: Nau/Gibson Hall, Garrett Hall, the Commerce School, and the hospital (including the site for the hospital’s next green rooftop construction project). As we begin to study the ecology of these unique architectural features, we cannot help but wonder what incentivizes them in the first place. In an ideal world, every building would be LEED Gold certified and topped with lush greenery. Yet cost, convenience, and simple consideration seem to impede this goal. In addition to learning about these roofs on the micro-level, it is important for us to consider what incentives spark the implementation of green rooftops.

Upon speaking with the Facilities Management Staff of the UVa hospital, we were able to gain a different perspective on the rooftops. John Rainey led us through the air duct room of the hospital and onto the hospital’s next green rooftop site. On a rainy Friday morning, it was easy to see one of the roof’s main concerns: water. Mr. Rainey explained to us the challenge of storm water management on flat rooftops, noting that even though architects implemented patterned drainage measures under the impermeable plastic-like roofing material, it was to little avail. Even in a light drizzle, puddles dotted the rooftop. After mentioning the water retention issues, Mr. Rainey gestured across the street, mentioning plans for a completely new building fitted with a green rooftop. This building’s roof aims to simulate a natural landscape, complete with rolling “hills” and varying flora. He mentioned that as the roof we were standing on had low visibility to patient rooms, the new building would provide calming views to a much larger proportion of the hospital’s residents.

What made the hospital consider installing a green rooftop on the low-visibility roof? Was it motivated by the storm water problem, benefits to the few patients who could see it, future cost considerations, or a combination? What about the new building? Was it assumed that a new building would implement green technology or did it require lobbying? While the advantages are obvious to the environmentally-minded students of Cities+Nature, how much consideration does the general public give them?

The answers to these questions likely vary across different projects; evident by the diversity in the projects themselves. Some projects may be implemented for necessity (storm water retention on the hospital), some for aesthetic appeal (Garrett Hall’s green “rooftop” sits above the basement and doubles as a patio), and the list goes on. The key here, however, is using policy to effectively encompass these reasons and incentivize them. Federal legislation under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 provides tax credit for green rooftops of up to $1.80, LEED Gold certification is necessary for all new federal building construction projects, and the EPA has proposed storm water regulations that encourage green roof design. City governments offer market incentives (subsidies, tax credits, etc.) and regulatory measures (permits, building ordinances, etc.) to encourage lush building tops.

The study of green rooftops doesn’t limit itself to bee bowls or malaise traps. Throughout our documentation of the roofs around Grounds, it is important to remember that someone lobbied for their implementation. Whether Facilities Management can better manage the roof’s drainage, energy bills decrease, or the environmental sciences department can sleep well at night, green rooftops include a host of stakeholders. Effective policymaking will highlight the benefits and mitigate the costs of these features to increase their prevalence.

Post by Mary Kathryn Fisher, Second-Year, Urban and Environmental Planning

Edible Weeds

My name is Lane Rylander and I am a 3rd year Architectural History major.  For my Biogrounds Edible Plants project blog post, I will address the unplanted edibles that can be found on the grounds at the University of Virginia.

Jefferson’s design of the University of Virginia includes multitudes of planted edibles in the gardens and throughout the grounds. Though there are numerous ways to get a snack through the various kitchen gardens, there are still a couple of unusual plants that make up much of the University of Virginia’s natural garden. As an experiment, I journeyed around our area to find both the unplanted edibles and researched ways to enjoy our most recognizable edibles around grounds.

Unfortunately, most of UVa has been trimmed into submission but there were many more weeds and grasses to munch on than I had previously thought!

Here are a few of the edible weeds I found around UVa:

GRASSES:

Though most grass is not edible, most lawn grasses have edible parts! The roots of grasses such as Quackgrass (dried roots) and the seeds of Crabgrass (toasted) can be ground into flour and used to make muffins and cakes. These methods are a little time consuming but the grasses can be found on and around the lawn in bulk. Who knew we could think of the lawn as a food source?!

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CHICKWEED:

Chickweed is one of the most common edibles around town. I found this Chickweed next to the daffodils on the University Ave. side of the Rotunda. It can be prepared Raw, boiled, and fried. It has ten white delicate petals and blooms right now during the spring.

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DANDELIONS:

Dandelions are hard to find on UVa grounds but easy to find all around the area in the open fields of house lawns and median strips. This plant is extremely eatable, especially when it’s young. More mature plants become bitter and the flowers become only good for wish-making.  I was surprised to see that Dandelion blossom soda is actually sold by Fentimens with Burdock. Dandelion tea, fried dandelion flowers,  and salads made with Dandelion greens are also widely accepted.

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GROUND IVY:

Found in many lawns around UVa as well, Ground Ivy is one of those plants that is easy to overlook.  Young ground Ivy has a strong minty flavor and can be used in soups and salads. Older Ground Ivy can be dried for tea and used to help ferment and clarify home-brewed beer.  The flowers are a light purple and the leaves are scalloped and heart-shaped.

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ONION GRASS:

My friends and I growing up used to eat Onion Grass, which is like a wild chive, on the playground. At some point we all forgot about the weed and let it grow rampant in the schoolyard. This plant is a little bit more tough and stringy than the chives bought at a supermarket. However, they hold a similar taste and appearance. They can be used to make broth, chopped up raw, and used in soups, salads, and sandwiches. The stems are smooth and waxy to the touch and have a strong onion smell. I found this particular clump of Onion Grass next to the first Range dorm across the road from Alderman Library.

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PERIWINKLE:

Periwinkle plants are not quite as tasty as many other ground weeds but they do have many medicinal uses! Periwinkles are useful in treating wasp stings, anemia, bleeding, and memory loss. Adding a teaspoon of the dried plant to boiling water and infusing for 10 minutes may make a good, healing, tea. I found these periwinkle plants in the shade of an exterior garden wall off the lawn.

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There are many more wild edible plants out there, but these are a few that can easily be spotted around UVa! Remember, before eating these plants it is important to carefully compare the plant in person to the description in a plant manual, there are many look-alikes out there! The first website in the sources www.eattheweeds.com has a massive index of wild edibles complete with recipes and descriptions that are very helpful when identifying wild plants.

SOURCES:

Eat The Weeds

www.eattheweeds.com

West Virginia Department of Agriculture

http://www.wvagriculture.org/images/Literature/Edible_Wild_Plants.pdf

Lifestyle Lounge: Benefits of Periwinkle

http://lifestyle.iloveindia.com/lounge/benefits-of-periwinkle-8497.html

Discovery News: Guide to Common Edible Plants:

http://news.discovery.com/adventure/survival/guide-to-common-edible-wild-plants.htm

Post by Lane Rylander, Third-Year, Architectural History

Aquatic Life Update

Hello, my name is Robert D’Agostino and I am a third year Urban and Environmental Planning Major at the University of Virginia.  For our BioGrounds project, we are studying the Aquatic Life in and around Charlottesville.  As Henry mentioned in the previous blog, the weather over the past month has restricted us in thoroughly examining and studying the aquatic areas that we chose at the beginning of the semester.  Philip Todd and I have decided to study the aquatic life of the Schuyler County Quarry.  This Quarry is an attractive spot for locals and is frequently visited during the summer months for recreational purposes.

The Alberene Soapstone Company originally owned the Schuyler County Quarry, which to this day is one of the United States largest soapstone selling companies.  Digging took place from the 1930s until 1963, when there was no more soapstone to dig for.  After shutting down, the quarries were filled with water from a natural spring in the area.  This constant flow of natural spring water keeps the water in the quarries fairly fresh.  The quarries are now used for recreational purposes; there are two quarries where people can jump from heights ranging from 10 to 80 feet.   Philip and I are interested in this body of water because we want to see if the intrusive digging that occurred over 50 years ago has had any affect on the aquatic life in this area.  We are also very interested to see these quarries have become home to any new species.

On our site visit, we plan on making several observations about the quarries and the surrounding areas to get a greater understanding of all life that inhabits this area.  We plan on observing the several different plant, tree, and animal species that inhabit this area in order to gauge the biodiversity of this region.  Since this body of water is man made, we do not expect to find large species in the actual quarry, unless some species migrated through the natural spring.  We are very interested in seeing how different plant species have grown in this region, and how these species are affected by the presence of humans during the spring and summer months.

After last meeting we have decided to not only make observations about the aquatic life and surrounding area, but we also have interest in testing the water with a green low cost water monitoring kit.  This kit would help us test for several different factors; for example, pH levels, temperature, Nitrate levels, Phosphate, and Coliform bacteria.  These samples can provide us with information about any possible pollution in these waters, and can help us explain some of the observations we make.

Post by Robert D’Agostino, Third-Year, Urban and Environmental Planning

Tree Replacement on Grounds

Without much knowledge, construction around grounds would appear to have had a positive effect on our community. Older buildings are refurnished providing students with adequate locations to learn and study and classrooms are updated with the latest technology. Because of the aesthetic improvements, consideration of other, negative elements are overlooked. Construction adds to noise pollution on grounds, disrupts the logical flow of walking paths on grounds, and perhaps most importantly affects our trees on grounds.

According to the University’s Landscape Superintendent Richard Hopkins, construction is currently the largest threat to the University’s trees. He says, “New buildings need new water supplies, electrical data, steam, chilled water, and sewer.” These are all underground elements that go into the planning and construction of a new building. Yet, with all the many buildings existing on grounds, there is a decreasing amount of space for new construction and utility installations. As Hopkins states, the declining space is “pushing these activities closer to our older trees putting them at higher risk for damage.” During construction we witness the replacement and removal of trees on ground, each of which has its own set of procedures and systems that are followed by the involved University Landscape Architects, Landscape Superintendent, Arborists, and other hired Landscape Architects on the job.

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Construction on New Cabel Impedes Tree Growth.

Encroaching on the natural space once belonging to the trees calls leads to the replacement program the University has in place as part of the construction of new facilities. The replacement program involves the installation of new trees as part of construction or landscape redesign on grounds. Depending on the budget and year-to-year construction, this replacement program typically installs 100 or more trees per year, this number is separate from the usual 100 to 250 trees that are replaced year to year. During the replacement process, several factors are discussed: the number of trees lost in the year before or previous years, the budget, and scheduling factors.

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Construction on grounds leads to the planting of new trees.

Special procedures are also taken with the maintenance and removal of trees on grounds. The two certified Arborists on grounds preform the routine maintenance of the trees as well as the removal of the trees. Routine maintenance includes leveling of limbs, corrective pruning, fertilization, inspection, and approval for removing trees. Trees are typically removed on grounds for one of two reasons. Either the tree is presenting a hazard to the community in some way or there is a special request for removal (typically construction). The University’s Arboretum and Landscape Committee reviews all requests for removal of trees on grounds. They look at plans for removal of hazardous trees, which are typically effective immediately, as well as new landscape installation plans for all construction projects. This process is fairly systematic.

As we continue expanding buildings on grounds, we must move past the aesthetics of each building and seriously consider the impact of construction on grounds on our University’s trees. To check out more of Richard Hopkins current ideas and projects please visit: https://news.virginia.edu/content/landscapers-thin-out-university-s-tree-population.

Post by Jackie Michnoff, Second-Year, McIntire School of Commerce

Night Flight Calls and Migrations over UVA

Our group has been working and coordinating efforts to record bird calls at night over Grounds.  This information will give us an insight into bird migrations at night and what birds are flying over the University of Virginia.

This device is the Song Meter SM3 that I used to record the sounds/calls of birds at night.  It is a reliable solution for the periodic, seasonal, or ongoing long-term acoustic monitoring of birds, frogs, and other wildlife in any field conditions.  You can program the device to record when you want and as long as you need.

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Photo by Justin Midkiff

The Song Meter SM3 has the battery life and memory capacity to record for hundreds of hours and can be used outdoors for extended durations.  The owner’s manual even says that it is the most technologically advanced bioacoustics recorder on the market!  I found the device relatively easy to use as well and it even recorded the sounds and calls of birds that I could not even hear myself!  It makes the unknown and mysterious sky visible! All you have to do is insert an SD memory card into the storage compartment and on the main screen you click (Programs>Load Program) and then you pick whether to record for 30 minutes, 24 hours, 3 hours after Dusk, or 3 hours after Dawn.  Then after you have loaded the program and chosen your calibration, hit the PROGRAM START button!  When you are done hit PROGRAM STOP and then click the EXPORT PROGRAM button in order to retrieve the data onto the memory card.

My Research:

I began using the Song Meter SM3 to monitor birds from the night of Friday, April 4, 2014 to the night of Monday, April 7, 2014.  I decided to set the recording acoustics to 3 hours after dusk and record for a few hours.  Not only did I hear many bird calls myself, but the Song Meter SM3 was able to record bird calls that I was unable to hear.  I conducted my recordings within the vicinity of Brandon Avenue via Gibson Hall and Bice Apartments.  After the recordings and exporting the program onto my memory card, all I had to do was insert the memory card into my PC and view and hear the recordings on Windows Media Player.

Whose Call Was That?

The two most frequent calls that I heard through these nights came from a flock of migratory birds such as the Canadian Geese and Palm Warblers.  To verify my findings and what I heard I used various sites that played the recordings and sounds of these two bird species. Below is the link to the Palm Warbler:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phYRUm12Uk8

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Photo from allaboutbirds.org.

The Palm Warbler is a small, song migratory bird that has a brownish back, chestnut cap, a bright yellow under-tail who constantly wags its tail.  Its underparts are a yellowish coloring.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology via “All About Birds” gives information about the identification, life history, sounds, and geographic range and migration patterns and maps about the Palm Warbler found at:

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/palm_warbler/id

In order to verify that this was the culprit that I heard I found the Virginia Bird Migration Data and website very helpful.  The following table was found at http://www.birdnature.com/spvi.html

Virginia Spring Migration

County

City

Approximate
Arrival Date

Approximate
Departure Date

Common Name

Scientific Name

Albermarle

Charlottesville April 22 American Redstart Setophaga ruticilla
May 28 Bay-breasted Warbler Dendroica castanea
May 22 Black-throated Blue Warbler Dendroica caerulescens
May 28 Blackburnian Warbler Dendroica fusca
May 3 Canada Warbler Wilsonia canadensis
April 13 Cerulean Warbler Dendroica cerulea
May 23 Chestnut-sided Warbler Dendroica pensylvanica
May 1 Lark Sparrow Chondestes grammacus
March 27 May 31 Palm Warbler Dendroica palmarum
May 4 Wilson’s Warbler Wilsonia pusilla

Based on this data, I was in the “prime time” of hearing the Palm Warbler.

The other calls that I heard came from a flock of migratory, waterfowls such as the Canadian Geese.  Canadian geese are big water birds that have a long neck, a large body, large webbed feet and a wide, flat bill.  They have a black head with white cheeks and chinstrap, black necks, and a tan breast.  They are often seen in flight moving in pairs or flocks and can be seen forming a V-formation.  They are found just about anywhere in the country.  The sounds of these birds can be heard at the following site:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkQOzyjjRwU

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Photo from Google.

There is also interesting information about UVA’s local bird watchers such as the Monticello Bird Club that has a “Birder’s Guide to Charlottesville, Virginia and Vicinity” pamphlet found at:

http://www.monticellobirdclub.org/A%20Birder%27s%20Gude%20to%20Charlottesvile%20&%20Vicinity_rev%20June%202009.pdf

Post by Justin D. Midkiff, Third-Year, American Politics

PLEASE DON’T REMOVE – ANT RESEARCH IN PROGRESS

It was Tuesday April 8. Holding a bug aspirator in one hand and four Pecan Sandies cookies in the other, I headed towards Old Dorms.

Aspirator
Aspirator

A fellow group member had recalled seeing a plethora of said creatures by the McCormick Bus Stop when she was a First Year and I was ready to explore. I placed each cookie on an index card and placed the cards in a square with two in the grass and two on the brick wall, as displayed below. The index cards read “PLEASE DON’T TOUCH ANT RESEARCH IN PROGRESS,” in order to ensure no confusion and/or tampering by passersby.

As soon as I placed the cards down I attracted the attention of a large red ant. He emerged from the grass and danced across a Pecan Sandie as I scrambled to pull the ant aspirator from my backpack. In order to use this high tech ant capturing I had to such air through a tube-essentially creating a vacuum that pulled the ants into a glass chamber. Unfortunately the red ant was too quick for me and scuttled off into the grass as I was about to use the aspirator. I also saw a large black ant and similarly tried to vacuum him up but his speed also prevailed. I then left the area hoping to find an abundance of ants upon my return.

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After around thirty minutes I came back to the bus stop and was happy to find a plethora of tiny black ants. The diagram below shows which note card had the most ants and the surface upon which the card rested, 1 being the most popular spot and 4 as the least.
1                             3
Grass                    Grass
2                             4
Brick                     Brick

ant 1

There seemed to be only one type of ant leading me to wonder if differing kinds of cookies would lead to different results. Fortunately, these tiny ants were less quick than the ones I had previous spotted and I was able to collect a sample via ant aspirator. Further, the popularity of the left-most and grass cards led me to hypothesize that the ants were travelling from places like the trash can-located to the left of the research area.
Overall, I considered this collection of ant research to be both productive and led me to pose further ant research questions.

Post by E. Dana Sparks, Fourth-Year, Art History

Edibles and the larger movement toward local foods

“Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1781

As described in our previous two blog posts, Thomas Jefferson was deeply committed to integrating horticulture and agriculture into the core foundation of the University of Virginia. His agrarian ideals were achieved through the construction of ten pavilion gardens adjacent to the Lawn. These gardens, and their rich plant and animal life, were intended to be “a place in which to study and a subject of study themselves;” and, with at least 40 edible species of plants in the gardens to-date, it is safe to say that the gardens are certainly a viable subject of study.1 While they are a wonderful example of Jefferson’s original agrarian principles in action, the gardens are unfortunately not a source of large-scale harvestable food for the University.

Although the UVA and greater Charlottesville community cannot produce all the food it needs in its own backyards, gardens, etc. (as Jefferson would have originally wanted), an incredibly strong local food movement has formed in recent years. In the past decade a whole new generation of young farmers and entrepreneurs have steadily changed the way we grow, purchase, and think about our food. The general trend is toward organic, humanly raised, and fairly traded food, which perfectly aligns with Jefferson’s veneration of the yeomen farmer. A food is considered ‘local’ if it comes from within a 250-mile radius, as opposed to the average 1,500 miles food travels to get from farm to plate.2 The Local Food Hub [LFH] in Charlottesville was established in 2008 to “improve small farm viability and increase community access to local food.”3 Today the LFH services many restaurants, schools, and businesses in the Albemarle region.

This sweeping movement has impacted the University as well. 25% of UVA Dining’s total purchases are now ‘sustainable,’ a feat that was accomplished through a partnership with the LFH. Students have joined the movement too, this year the group Greens to Grounds was established, with the sole aim of providing students with local, seasonal produce on a regular basis.4 The organization operates like a community supported agriculture (CSA); students place an order for a basket of produce and receive whatever food is available from farms that week.

UVA dining hosts one of many meals that features locally sourced produce. Photo from: UVA Dining.
UVA dining hosts one of many meals that features locally sourced produce. Photo from: UVA Dining.

The push for locally and sustainably sourced foods has already sparked significant changes at UVA, so what lies ahead? Rather than looking to external farms and businesses for food, we could likely see an increase in the amount of harvestable foods on-grounds, or in UVA affiliated areas. The Morven Kitchen Garden (owned by UVA, and located approximately 15 miles from central grounds) already supplies UVA dining with some of its produce.5 The vital and most difficult transition will be increasing these operations on-grounds. Perhaps the UVA student gardens will expand in size, or dormitories will each establish their own edible gardens. Whatever direction the student body and administration decide to go, edibles will only continue to grow at The University of Virginia.

Students explore the Morven Kitchen Garden, which is often used as an outdoor classroom. Photo from: http://uvagreendining.blogspot.com/2012/01/morven-summer-institute-2012.html.
Students explore the Morven Kitchen Garden, which is often used as an outdoor classroom. Photo from: http://uvagreendining.blogspot.com/2012/01/morven-summer-institute-2012.html.

1 http://www.virginia.edu/uvatours/gardens/

2 http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2008/09/whats_in_a_number.html

3 http://localfoodhub.org/about/mission/

4 http://greenstogrounds.org/

5 http://morvenkitchengarden.wordpress.com/

Post by Vanessa Ehrenpreis, Second-Year, Environmental Science and Environmental Thought & Practice

Observing the Robin on Grounds

The way we organized the blog posts in the Birds Group is that each member writes a post on a bird that specifically resonated with the individual around grounds. I was very intrigued by the American robin. Over the past few months, as the snow began to melt and the temperatures began to rise, I frequently sighted the robin at different locations on grounds. American robins tend to be some of the most typical “early-birds”, meaning that they come out right when winter starts to turn in to spring. Even though the robin is also around during the winter, they tend to remain in their nests, consequently attracting less attention than when they are hopping around under trees and on fields. The American robin has an orange chest and sings a very high-pitched, jovial song. While the American robin generally tends to reside in Virginia and the majority of the US all year long, some spend their summers in Canada and their winters in Mexico.

The Robin is the One

The robin is the one
That interrupts the morn
With hurried, few, express reports
When March is scarcely on.

The robin is the one
That overflows the noon
With her cherubic quantity,
An April but begun

The robin is the one
That speechless from her nest
Submits that home and certainty
And sanctity are best.

—Emily Dickinson

In this poem by Emily Dickinson, it is clear that the robin is the messenger of spring, since it begins to appear “when March is scarcely on”. This line by Emily Dickinson, confirms my observations, because I also only started noticing the presence of the robin in the past few months. Also, the robin seems to have a very delightful quality, or as Dickinson puts it, “cherubic.” I similarly noticed this quality about the robin, which is why I was so intrigued and always took a moment to observe and enjoy whenever encountering one.

During my sightings of the robin, I have seen it all alone and have also observed it in a group of over a hundred individuals. Therefore there does not seem to be any pattern as to any group size it likes to travel in. The robin feels comfortable in large groups, but also enjoys wandering off on its own.

Here is an American robin that I observed roaming the grounds alone:

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Here are two pictures of American robins in large groups:

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In conclusion I would like to encourage people to pay attention to and observe the robins on grounds. They spread an infectious feeling of joy, both with their quick playful movements and with their cheery song. 

Post by Martin Howell, Third-Year, Environmental Thought and Practice

Sampling the Dynamic Soil Layer

The interface between soil and the atmosphere is extremely dynamic as it represents the marriage of the physical and biological worlds contained within an ecosystem. The physical environment of the leaf litter and topsoil combined has a tremendous effect on the type and diversity of organisms able to survive there. Human interactions with the soil layer can vastly change the life present. Buildings, construction, pollution and many others have the power to change the landscape.

There are multiple ways to uncover this hidden world of smaller organisms through sampling of soil. Luckily for our group, the grounds of the University provide a plethora of diverse sites for soil sampling. From the natural settings of the Dell Pond and the trails of Observatory Hill to the heavily traveled areas of the Lawn and Nameless Field, the grounds present different habitats, each with varying degrees of human interaction. Having these numerous locations all in one place lends itself to increasing the amount of biodiversity present here.

When looking at the life in soils, it is important first to characterize the physical environment of the soil because it has such an impact of the type and diversity of species able to live there. Soil can be sandy, made of mostly clay, silty, or a any mix of these together. The make up of the soil can be tested using the ribbon finger test where a small amount of the soil in question is doused with a couple drops of water then rolled between fingers to form a ribbon (Figure 1). The length of the ribbon produced gives information about the type of soil. Another important factor is the depth of the organic matter layer. The O layer and the connection to plants were described in our first soil blog post but it is crucial for the habitat and livelihood of microorganisms living in the soil. Finally, another parameter commonly measured in soil testing is the bulk volume of the sample. This is a measure of the volume of dry soil in a total volume of soil, which provides information on the amount of pore space available for creatures to survive in and how easy it is for the roots of plants to penetrate the soil.

However varied the soil types are around the world, the diversity of organisms living in these habitats are even more diverse. Biota commonly found in soils can range from the microorganism scale such as bacteria and fungi to the macro organism scale represented by earthworms and small insects in the organic layer. The most common sampling method for looking at the biotic facet of the soil is by using Berlese funnels (Figure 2). This set up requires that a small amount of alcohol is set up in a graduated cylinder with a funnel full of a soil sample is placed at the top. A light is then shown directly on the soil sample for usually a day. As the arthropods are sensitive to light, they travel down into the funnel tube and eventually fall into the alcohol. Once there, they can be classified and recorded.

The invisible life in soils is often times disregarded as unimportant and forgotten in the midst of conserving large mammals or keystone species. However, these mighty microbes contribute hugely to the biogeochemical cycling of the earth, recycling organic material for reuse, and convert nitrogen into the available form for plant growth. I think this section of the underground world would benefit greatly from increased research and appreciation.

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Figure 1. The Finger Ribbon method of soil texture sampling. As water is added to a sample, it is then rolled between fingers to form a ribbon of varying lengths. Photo from: http://onpasture.com/2013/05/13/smooshing-soil-like-an-expert/.
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Figure 2. Traditional set up of a Berlese funnel experiment with a strong light shining down on a soil sample leading to a pool of alcohol at the bottom. Photo from: http://ecoplexity.org/professional_developers.

Post by Emily Blanton, Third-Year, Environmental Science, Minor in Urban and Environmental Planning