Peter Alden Opens Conservators Lecture Series with Talk on Newton Biodiversity

Well-known naturalist and author Peter Alden was the inaugural speaker for the new Newton Conservators lecture series on March 21, 2001. The meeting was cosponsored by the Newton Free Library and was held at Druker Auditorium before a crowd of about 80 on a rain swept evening near the time of the vernal equinox. Some of our members enjoyed dinner with Mr. Alden at a nearby restaurant prior to the lecture. Past president of the Conservators, Bud Elliott, provided some background on the history and mission of the Conservators before the lecture began.

Mr. Alden is the author of over a dozen nature field guides including the groundbreaking “National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England” (Knopf, 1998). His books were available for signing before and after the lecture with the profits, thanks to Mr. Alden, going to the Newton Conservators and the Newton Free Library. As intended, the lecture series served as an introduction to the work of the Conservators for many people and we gained a number of new members at the event, including Mr. Alden himself. Perhaps 10% of the audience were from outside Newton with about half the audience already members of the Conservators.

Peter Alden’s talk, entitled “The Birds and the Bees, the Flowers and the Trees – Biodiversity in Newton,” was primarily slide based and very entertaining. Having traveled all over the world leading eco-tours, Peter Alden is uniquely qualified to speak on the topic of biodiversity, a term used by scientists to measure the variety of different kinds of organisms found in a certain place.

Peter gave a little history of the world’s first Biodiversity Day in Concord on the July 4th weekend in 1998 with a team of experts identifying over 1900 species in one day. Up to that point, no one had ever seen 1000 species in a day. Many experts were invited to participate with about 100 people in 42 groups involved in trying to go and find as many species as possible over that period. It was interesting to get the specialists in different areas together. He noted that one of the expert botanists was unfamiliar with a scarlet tanager that was seen.

In later speaking with Bob Durand, the state environmental affairs secretary, he got a commitment to do a count of the species in Massachusetts, noting that most environmentalists don’t know a lot about nature. There was no state with a checklist of all species present there. The focus is often only on rare and endangered species, but not on the things that one would actually be likely to find. As a result of this, last June, he spearheaded the first ever statewide Biodiversity Days, in which citizen naturalists in 92 Massachusetts towns went out into the field to do a species census. This count, while focused on Bristol and Plymouth counties, provided a valuable and interesting snapshot of common and unusual species present both here in Newton and across the state of Massachusetts.

In a biodiversity count, the interest in not in counting the absolute numbers of mosquitoes for instance, just the number of species of mosquitoes. Unlike in a bird count, evidence of the presence of a species is sufficient. Thus the smell of a skunk (or even roadkill) would count as much as seeing a live species representative. The state is developing a computerized recording system for observations which will provide a year to year and geographical by town record of species trends. Eventually with such counts, range maps of species within the state may be possible for the first time

There was the question of what time of year was best to do such a count. In February for instance, there would be animal tracks to look for in the snow. There would be trees and weeds to count and insects might be able to be melted out of the frost. However, in total, one might end up being able to only count several hundred species.

The early June date for last year’s Biodiversity Day was partially chosen in order to allow school groups to be involved in the count. In June, it might be possible to get as many as 3000 species. In June, many of the migrating birds have passed one but the advantage is that you get to count a much larger number of insects. The actual peak time for a count may be in August, where the numbers would be bolstered by other things as mushrooms. Peter believes that it may indeed be possible to find 2000 species right here in Newton.

Peter Alden gave a slide rundown of some of the species that might be expected here in Newton and elsewhere. In his opinion, the most dangerous mammal was the white-tailed deer, since it has such a huge impact on biodiversity. For instance, it wipes out wildflowers and thus the butterflies that depend on them. Outdoor cats are also a big threat to biodiversity, each year killing somewhere between 500 million to 2 billion songbirds.

He touched on a variety of our local wild neighbors, including coyotes, wood ducks (a strikingly handsome bird), turkeys (where they even chase our postal workers), great horned owls, the oven bird (previously better named the teacher bird after its sound), and the golden-winged warbler (which might be lost soon). It was surprising to learn that, by DNA measures, bats and shrews are actually very close cousins of humankind. And who knew there are rattlesnakes in nearby Weston? June is a good time to find snapping turtles, painted turtles, bullfrogs, wood frogs, and newts. Newton has some vernal pools where spotted salamanders may be found.

Those who get binoculars these days should make sure they can focus to 4 or 5 feet in order to observe such invertebrates as dragonflies and butterflies (150 species in MA.). Other things to count include bumblebees (a dozen species), daddy long legs, ants (perhaps 200 species), grasshoppers, beetles (3000 in New England), mosquitoes (44 species in MA), moths, spiders (600 in MA), mites, centipedes, millipedes, and pillbugs.

In the plant kingdom, one of the big issues is the variety of English names that plants go by. Some of the troublemaker plants are poison ivy, purple loosestrife, japanese knotweed, and oriental bittersweet (the kudzu of New England – horrible and spreading, very prevalent along the Green Line). It is important to teach people about these plants and how to get rid of them. Of course trees (single trunk) and shrubs (multi-trunked) are counted. Mr. Alden is an advocate of the pattern system (Peterson like) of plant identification rather than the “key” system. June is a good time to see such interesting plants as lady slippers, jack-in-the-pulpit, skunk cabbage. We have perhaps 2000 flowering plants, grasses, and relatives. Other items to inventory include ferns (perhaps 20 in Newton, 60 in MA), club mosses (the expert in these is a plumber in Middleboro), lichens, and mushrooms.

Showing someone a scarlet tanager is one sure way to get someone interested in nature. Peter noted that there are anywhere between 100,000 to 65 million birders but perhaps only about three people who really know lichens. We probably don’t need any more bird guides but we do need some good guides to other types of species. The point is that there are a lot more interesting living things out there besides birds, mammals and flowers and it would be great if people learned more about them. Kids today know more about dinosaurs than they do about what is present in their own neighborhood. The bottom line of Biodiversity Days is to create more naturalists, both young and old.

Biodiversity Days will be repeated this year on the same June weekend, with the goal to get participation by 300 towns in Massachusetts this year. There will be outside observers from other states and countries. Even the UN is sending someone. Thanks to Peter Alden for a very educational opening lecture in our series. Special thanks also to the many Conservator volunteers who helped to put on this wonderful event. We look forward to our next lecture this fall with Newton Conservator and E.O. Wilson collaborator, Dan Perlman.