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Almanac Archive for September 8, 2014

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Save the Date

Living Local
Harvest Festival
Saturday, Oct. 4
Fun for all ages! Local food, animals, live music, educational demos, and harvest fest games and activities. For more info, see poster.
Quotes of the Week

Wildlife on TV: Point/Counterpoint
“If we can teach people about wildlife, they will be touched. . . . humans want to save things that they love.”
--Steve Irwin, wildlife expert and TV personality
"Audiences see personalities on shows interacting with wild animals as if they were not dangerous or, at the other extreme, provoking them to give viewers an adrenaline rush. Mostly, the animals just want to be left alone."
--Chris Palmer, film producer, author of Shooting in the Wild
Conservation Calendar

Ecological Landscaping for the Home

Saturday, Sept. 13, 1:00 to 2:00 pm, West Tisbury.
Polly Hill hosts Michael Talbot of Talbot Ecological Land Care for "Vineyard-'scaping: Bringing Nature to the Home Environment." Learn how to transform your outdoor living spaces into reflections of the natural world, while attracting birds, butterflies and other wildlife. $5 (free for PHA members), call 508-693-9426 or see website for more info.

West Tisbury Farmers' Market

Saturdays, 9:00 to noon, West Tisbury.
Fresh picked produce from local farms, flowers, delicious baked goods and prepared foods from Island kitchens and more. Outside of the Grange Hall in West Tisbury. For more info, see website.

Guided Birding Tours
Saturdays, 9:00 to 11:30 am, starting at MV Reg. High School.
Visit birding hot spots with your guide Robert Culbert. Carpool will depart from the high school faculty parking lot at 9:00. Cost is $30 per adult, $15 for under 18. For more details, call 508-693-4908.

FARM Institute Fall Programs

Saturdays, Katama Farm, Edg.
Weekly Saturday programs at the FARM Institute begin in September. Wee Farmers (age 2-5) from 9:30 to 11:00, $15 per session, must be accompanied by adult. For older kids, it's "Farmer for a Day" from 1:00 to 3:00, $35, may be accompanied or not. For more info, call 508-627-7007.
In Season Recipe

Oven Roasted Tomatoes

September's Harvest of the Month from Island Grown Schools won't come as a big surprise. Rather than giving us what we might want, they're giving us what we need: a new way to appreciate tomatoes! In 2012, chef Chris Fischer shared his recipe for oven-roasted tomatoes, along with some serving suggestions (try spreading them on fresh toasted bread).

  • 6 large ripe tomatoes, cut into thick slices
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp minced garlic
  • 2 cups of loosely packed fresh basil


  • Preheat oven to 350 F.
  • Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and toss well.
  • Lay out the tomatoes on a baking sheet or foil-lined tray.
  • Bake on middle rack for 1 hour, rotating halfway through.
  • Let stand for 10 minutes after removing from oven.

Monday, September 8, 2014
Local News

Got Snakes? New Study of Black Racers Seeks Community Input

Wanted: Black racer sighting information
(Photo from New Hampshire Fish & Game Dept.)

Have you seen a large black snake recently? Black racers (Coluber constrictor) are important predators in a wide range of ecological communities, including the grasslands, shrublands, and forest edges that are such distinctive parts of the Vineyard landscape. They are harmless to humans but help control rodent populations, including the white-footed mice that host deer ticks (and thus Lyme disease).
Once locally abundant, for some Islanders these snakes are now more a memory than a regular feature of the natural world. At six feet and three inches, one of the largest black racers ever seen in Massachusetts was caught by a young Gus Ben David in the heart of Oak Bluffs. But for Gus it’s a bittersweet memory, as it has been many years since he has seen another in his old neighborhood. Edo Potter remembers being startled often in her youth by the black racers hanging from tree branches as she rode horses on Chappaquiddick. Sadly, few people have experiences like Gus and Edo today. 
The Massachusetts Wildlife Action Plan ranks the black racer as common across the state, but it is declining in abundance everywhere. There are multiple possibilities for the cause of the decline. Many are killed by vehicles, as roads are attractive openings in shrub and forest habitats for basking in the sun. The proliferation of roads on the Vineyard (and the state in general) over the last 50 years has certainly increased this problem. In addition to road mortality, racers have lost habitat (old-fields, grasslands, and shrublands), and may experience high rates of predation from species associated with humans – raccoons, skunks, crows, and cats.
A common theme throughout the Mass. Wildlife Action Plan is the lack of baseline data for historical populations, and black racers are no exception. To help rectify this lack of information, BiodiversityWorks is undertaking a study of these snakes. They are seeking your help to create a database of black racer sightings, both recent and historic, to map their past and present abundance and distribution. If you have a black racer sighting to share, please contact BiodiversityWorks via email with any information, such as the location of the sighting, the date (or month and year), the number of times you saw it in that area, and any photos you may have of the snake.

(Many thanks to Luanne Johnson of BiodiversityWorks for this story)
Other News

Good News is No News

The California blue whales are back! That’s the news from the science section of seemingly every media outlet last week. Hunted nearly to extinction, the largest animal to ever swim, walk, or fly on Earth has recovered to near historical levels in the eastern North Pacific.
But, at the risk of ruining a wonderful story, let’s take a deeper look, beneath the big headlines. First, is this really “news” at all? While the headlines have proclaimed “Blue Whales Recover,” there has in fact been no meaningful increase in the number of these whales for nearly 20 years. The population bottomed out in the 1930s and gradually recovered until the 1990s, and has remained steady ever since. The actual news this week is that a new academic study of the historical population has come out yielding a new, lower, estimate for the original number of whales before hunting nearly wiped them out: a number that, if correct, would mean the population of the 1990s (and today) represents a 97% recovery.
To be clear, the recovery (after being nearly wiped out by hunting) of a huge, long-lived animal from 500-1,000 individuals to nearly 2,200 due to legal protection, careful management, and changes in public attitudes is an uplifting story and an important victory for wildlife conservation. But a downward revision in 2014 of the original number of whales, such that they actually recovered two decades ago? That does not have quite the same emotional impact.
In light of that, do these headlines from this week seem appropriate?
California blue whales bounce back from whaling (Washington Post)
U.S. Pacific blue whales seen rebounding close to historic levels (NPR)
Blue whales of California are back to historical levels, study finds (L.A. Times)
The Washington Post headline is just plain wrong, unless it was supposed to accompany a story from the 1990s. The article then opens with a repeat of the misleading statement, with a clarification buried in the last sentence of the third paragraph. The NPR headline is cagey enough to be technically accurate (“Seen” by whom? Not anyone out there counting whales, rather the people re-estimating the original population), but is still misleading. This not-incorrect-but-misleading pattern repeats in the first paragraph and is never corrected. The L.A. Times article, despite a similarly problematic headline, is by far the best at correcting its own headline, and provides a good synopsis of the whale recovery as well.
Another issue raised in the Times piece is that, given the historically small size of the California population, the global blue whale population remains a shadow of itself, regardless of the recovery in the Northeast Pacific. Currently, the Antarctic population is about as large as the California one – and about 1% of what it used to be. But this seems less like bad news than good news that just hasn’t happened yet. That population is growing about 10% a year, quite a remarkable feat indeed, even if it will take a very long time to return to historical numbers. Further, the recovery of the California population (even if the good news is really no news) gives us reason to believe that these gains can be sustained and built upon. In fact, this rapid rate of recovery of the Antarctic population - historically the largest - from near extinction may be the biggest, most encouraging news in any of these stories.
Submit your conservation news to: almanac@vineyardconservation.org

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Original content by Jeremy Houser unless otherwise noted.