Thursday, 29 December 2016 00:00

I have been writing about cool season plants lately, and next in the series is winterfat or winter sage, an important winter forage native to western North America. It is scientifically known as Krascheninnikovia lanata, Ceratoides lanata, or Eurotia lanata, and belongs to the family Chenopodiaceae. Those living in the Intermontane West will find this plant growing in arid plant communities like a salt desert scrub, pinyon juniper woodland, or sagebrush scrub. In the Southwest, it can be seen growing in Joshua tree habitats. The plant thrives in a wide variety of soil types, but is intolerant of acidic and flooded soils.

Winterfat is a low-growing shrub that at first glance can be easily mistaken for sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata); however, unlike sagebrush, the leaves of winterfat do not emit fragrance. The stems and leaves of this plant are densely covered in fine hairs, giving it a woolly, silvery-white appearance. The plant is remarkably tenacious in arid conditions, and has an extensive root system to withstand drought. It is cold-tolerant, and produces seeds that remain viable even after exposure to sub-zero temperatures.

This compact shrub is a protein powerhouse. which explains why it is preferentially grazed by livestock and wild animals alike. Besides being a superior winter browse, the plant helps in soil stabilization, and thus prevents soil erosion. It is an established pioneer species that can also be used for reclamation of disturbed or poorly-developed soils.

Identification Characteristics:

  • Habit: Perennial shrub. Erect to spreading, and approximately 3 feet tall.
  • Roots: Fibrous roots present near the surface along with a deep taproot that grows three times the length of the shoot.
  • Stems: Erect, and emerge from a 4-inch-tall woody base. The central stem is woody, whereas secondary stems are generally herbaceous. Hairy and grey-brown in color.
  • Leaves: Alternate, simple, linear, or lanceolate, 3/8 to 1 inch long, and with a prominent midrib. Margins are revolute (i.e., rolled back),l and the surface is hairy. The leaves appear grey-green in color. They persist during winters, and are replaced with new leaves in the spring.
  • Inflorescence: Axillary spike.
  • Flowers: White, inconspicuous, lack petals and sepals. Male and female flowers present on the same plant (monoecious), but on different spikes. Staminate flowers placed above the pistillate flowers, female flowers, have long hairy bracts. Blooms appear in mid-spring, and last till summer.
  • Fruit: Utricle. Seeds are flat, tear-shaped, hairy, and enclosed by two bracts at maturity. The seeds mature by mid- to late fall. Seeds are wind-dispersed.
  • Plant Propagation: Through seeds and buds that sprout at the base when the herbage gets damaged or grazed.

Credit: Stan Shebs


Credit: Stan Shebs



Photo Credit:

Thursday, 09 March 2017 00:00

Greetings, readers! If you’re like me, then you’re probably very interested in nature. One of the things I enjoy doing in my spare time is observing wildlife and learning something new. Owls are an animal I’ve rarely had the pleasure to see in person. Truth be told, I think I’ve seen one only once, and this happens to be what I’m writing about today. I want to share some interesting facts about the great horned owl.

They regularly eat skunks.
This was definitely a head-scratcher for me, considering I didn’t even think skunks had any predators to worry about. Yet it’s true—on top of eating rabbits, mice, rats, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, falcons, and even other owls, they also eat skunks.

Some of their calls are ventriloquial.
Another astonishing feat I was completely unaware of is that great horned owls can throw their own voices. Whether this is to distract potential predators away from their nest or simply to throw some nasty crows or blue jays off their tails, I’m not sure.

They can fly up to 40 mph.
Although these owls are ideal for slow and maneuverable flying, they can fly as fast as local traffic! It’s a good thing great horned owls aren’t normally aggressive towards humans; just stay away from their nests!

They’re every crow’s nightmare, and are often harassed for it.
I’ve witnessed flocks of bluejays harassing red-tailed hawks before, so I can imagine it’s exactly the same thing when crows harass great horned owls. Besides eating a large variety of mammals, reptiles, invertebrates, and other birds of prey, great horned owls are notorious for hunting crows. So the next time you hear a large flock of incessant cawing, it might not hurt to investigate.

Their eyes would be the equivalent of oranges if they were human-sized.
On top of having a keen sense of hearing, capable of hearing a mouse squeak 900 feet away, great horned owls have freakishly huge eyes! With binocular-like vision, and a neck capable of turning at 270 degrees, great horned owls can see practically anything at night.

There you have it! I hope you have all found these fun facts interesting, and that they might even inspire you to do the same and learn something new. Nature truly is amazing.




Thursday, 26 January 2017 00:00

My previous blog posts have all mentioned green things you can do at the convenience of your own home, but what about what’s beyond your home? I think it’s safe to say that anyone who takes the pledge to be an eco-steward is aware of what threatens our environment, and who cares to do something about it. Today I’m talking about bumblebees—or, sadly, endangered bumblebees.

I once heard at a symposium that worms were more important than people, and I understood exactly what he meant. You can’t have a functioning global ecosystem without its foundation, which in this case would be worms. But I’m talking about bumblebees, another insect that for us is just as important.

A quick lecture for you: unlike honey bees, bumblebees don’t produce honey, but they are just as important as, if not more than, pollinators. According to the Honeybee Conservancy, bumblebees can pollinate 400 times faster than honey bees. "Buzz pollination" is when a bumblebee dislodges pollen by vibrating its wing muscles, producing that buzzing sound you usually hear. Crops like tomatoes, peppers, cranberries, and blueberries all benefit from buzz pollination. Bumblebees also make for great pollinators because they are capable of flying in cooler temperatures and at lower light levels. In fact, for me, one of the best indicators of spring is seeing the bumblebees out, bright and early, pollinating the daffodils and other early spring flowers.

A little silver lining before we jump right into the bad news: there are some bumblebee species for which considerable conservation efforts are in effect, but sadly, not all endangered bumblebees are protected. There are several factors that endanger bumblebees, including pesticides, loss of habitat, climate change, and transmitted diseases from commercial bumblebees. The good news is that there is a considerable amount you can do to help the bumblebees.

From early spring to late fall, bumblebees rely on a variety of nectar and pollen. So the first thing you can do, especially if you’re a gardener, is to plant plenty of native or indigenous plants. Fostering a native landscape is something I emphasize, not just for the sake of bumblebees, but for all wildlife and biodiversity, as the wildlife that surrounds your home lives best off what natively grows there. In this case, bumblebees rely especially on native plants because they have coevolved with indigenous bumblebees. You can even turn your yard into a certified wildlife habitat.

It’s common for bumblebees to nest underground using holes dug up by larger animals, but bumblebees are very resourceful, and can use anything from empty bird nests to hollow logs, compost piles, and even empty birdhouses. With this in mind, be conscious that bumblebees might be nesting in something that looks abandoned to you. If you really want to make your yard a bumblebee haven, you can make a bumblebee nest for them.

Queen bumblebees hibernate over winter in small holes, or underground, just below the surface. According to the National Wildlife Federation, you should avoid raking, tilling, or mowing your lawn until April–May. If you need to mow your lawn, set your blade to the highest safe level, and it wouldn’t hurt to do it a little less frequently.

Eliminate all use of pesticides. Insecticides, herbicides, and especially systemic pesticides like neonicotinoids, should be avoided. Neonicotinoids are taken up by the vascular systems of plants, and therefore bees and other pollinators are exposed to the poison long after the product has been applied when feeding on the plant’s nectar and pollen.

You can also help scientists continue to study bumblebees, whether you’re helping to identify new species through Bumble Bee Watch, or volunteering with the Entomological Society of America. If you want to be even more active, you can always speak with your local government about agricultural policies, or even share this information with a friend or someone who might not even be aware that there are bumblebee species on the endangered list.

There’s a lot you CAN do, and it’s only a matter of getting started. Good luck, fellow eco-stewards; our fuzzy friends and crops depend on us.



Saturday, 19 March 2016 00:00

Alewife are a type of river herring that live in the salt water of the ocean most of their lives, then swim up rivers and streams to inland ponds for spawning. Throughout the history of civilization, the freshwater habitats of these fish, who aren’t great hunters, have been blocked by dams and culverts. The dams stop them from progressing further inland to spawn. With the fish stopped, the wildlife in the area that feed on them also stop, affecting many types of birds of prey, who are restricted to certain areas in order to feed. Alewife populations have seen big declines throughout much of their range, which has caused the US National Marine Fisheries Service to classify them as a “Species of Concern.

This is the mouth of Woodhull Dam. Beyond it is a placid lake, which would be an ideal habitat for spawning if the alewife could reach it.

Here in Long Island, New York, where I am located, the Volunteer Alewife Survey is conducted every year by the Seatuck Environmental Association, which is working to restore habitats for local populations of these ecologically important fish. Concerned citizen volunteers, Seatuck staff and partners survey the many different streams and tributaries around the island, checking and rechecking for signs of these fish. As part of this conservation effort, authorities have even installed Fish Ladders to help the fish cross the man-made barriers. 

Volunteers are recruited to survey different designated streams and tributaries along Long Island and search for alewife in the water. Seatuck-affiliated workers will sometimes go to sites and sample the fish. The picture below shows a list of samples divided by males and females. The first size is the nose-to-butt measurement of the fish, and the second is the tip to the end of the tail fin. Each measurement is taken in millimeters.

The survey runs from mid-March to mid-May, and the 2016 survey has just begun. If you live on Long Island and would like to volunteer, please contact . If you live inland in New York, contact your local Fish and Wildlife Department to see if there are ways for you to volunteer or help! 

Tuesday, 28 February 2017 00:00

What I love about a sustainable culture are innovative designs and lifestyles that solve difficult problems, especially big issues like climate change. Architecture showcases just how much mankind is capable of, as well as the size of its impact. I wanted to find something good and green in the world, man-made and with a real wow factor. What I found were literal forest cities.

Architect Stefano Boeri plans to build a city in China that’s densely covered with forests. The Forest City of Shijiazhuang, a work in progress, will be a city for 100,000 new inhabitants. Shijiazhuang unfortunately has the highest rate of air pollution in China. With this forest city in the process of being built, there’s hope that the dense woods can mitigate a significant amount of the smog and soot that pollute the air.

Similar to his Vertical Forest in Milan, Boeri’s forest city will consist of several buildings of various sizes, each covered with planters of trees, shrubs, and flowering plants on the façades. As the buildings are designed to "bring new life to a small corner of China’s polluted urban sprawl," Boeri believes they could suck 25 tons of carbon dioxide each year, as well as produce 60 kg. of oxygen each day!

His plan is for sustainable mini-cities that hopefully provide a green roadmap for the rest of urban China. Personally, I hope this is something that catches on worldwide. While I think the forest city concept is something all cities should implement, I can understand why in some cases (especially really old cities), that’s easier said than done. However, if people can build sustainable cities in one of the most densely populated countries on earth (if not the most), I don’t see why other countries couldn’t do the same.

Sources: e tion-sot tefano-boeri

Tuesday, 22 November 2016 00:00

I first learned about manta rays as an undergrad student while watching a BBC documentary called Land of the Tiger. That particular episode was about India’s coastline and its rich marine habitats. Every minute of that episode (and all other episodes of that series) was packed with information, and was a visual treat. However, the image that will always remain in my mind’s eye is that of the manta ray whose elegant and serene gliding movement reminded me of a bird in flight underwater, all in slow motion. I’ve lost count of how many times I hit the rewind button to watch that clip over and over again.

Manta rays are cartilaginous fish, and are close relatives of sharks and other rays. They have large triangular pectoral fins (or wings) that measure 5 to 7 m across. This explains the name "manta," which means "cloak" or "blanket" in Spanish. Mantas feed on plankton, and live in warm waters in the tropical, sub-tropical and temperate regions of the world. They have been sighted along the coastline, in coral reefs, as well as in the deep sea.

Two different species of manta rays exist, and they vary in size, habitat preference, and distribution. The reef manta rays (Manta alfredi) are smaller in size, and prefer shallow waters and reefs in tropical and sub-tropical waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. There have been sightings of the species in the Atlantic Ocean, as well. In comparison, the giant manta rays (Manta birostris) have a wide distribution in the tropical and temperate waters of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. The life span of mantas is estimated to be over 25 years.

Despite their worldwide distribution, manta rays have been classified as vulnerable by the IUCN1 due to targeted fishing (their gill plates are used in traditional Chinese medicine) and accidental by-catch. Adding to their vulnerability status is the fact that mantas have a long gestation period of 12 months,2 and usually give birth to only one pup at a time. Tourism-related industries may also have a negative impact on the species and its habitat. Total population numbers are unknown, but subpopulations of mantas are small (giant mantas have 100–1000 members; reef mantas have 100–2000 members), and experts suspect a global decline of 30% in the manta population.

Steps are being taken to protect the species, as seen in Indonesia and Peru, both of which have imposed a ban on manta fishing. As of early 2016, 13 countries had imposed regulations, providing varying degrees of manta ray protection. On an international level, mantas were listed on CMS3 Appendices I and II in 2011, and as a result, harvesting of these species is no longer permitted (with exceptions for traditional subsistence users). In 2014, mantas were included in Appendix II of CITES  to “ensure that international commercial trade is strictly regulated to ensure its sustainability, legality, and traceability for the long-term survival of the species in the wild.” There are recommendations for trade moratoriums (for import and sale of gill rakers), consumer education (regarding unproven claims regarding benefits of gill raker tonic), responsible ecotourism initiatives, and regular monitoring and enforcement of protective measures. As individuals, we can contribute by raising awareness within our circle of influence, volunteering, or making donations to organizations such as the Manta Trust, the Manta Pacific Research Foundation, or those that focus on conserving the marine ecosystem itself such as the Marine Conservation Society.

I do hope that these multiple conservation efforts help the mantas to thrive, and that we continue to learn more about these gentle giants.


1International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

2This is the information available for reef manta rays. The gestation period for giant manta rays is unknown as per the IUCN. Some sources suggest the gestation period is 13 months.

3Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals

4Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora



1. Marshall, A., Bennett, M.B., Kodja, G., Hinojosa-Alvarez, S., Galvan-Magana, F., Harding, M., Stevens, G. & Kashiwagi, T. 2011. Manta birostris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2011: e.T198921A9108067. ( (Accessed: 14/11/16)
2. Marshall, A., Kashiwagi, T., Bennett, M.B., Deakos, M., Stevens, G., McGregor, F., Clark, T., Ishihara, H. & Sato, K. 2011. Manta alfredi. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2011: e.T195459A8969079. ( (Accessed: 14/11/16)
3. Manta Trust ( (Accessed: 01/11/16)
4. Heinrichs, Shawn, O’Malley, Mary, Medd, Hannah and Hilton, Paul (2011). The Global Threat to Manta and Mobula rays. Manta Ray of Hope ( (Accessed: 10/11/16)
5. Neme, Laurel (2016). “New Protections For World's Largest Population of Giant Manta Rays”. National Geographic ( (Accessed: 14/11/16)
6. Mantaray-World ( (Accessed: 11/11/16)
7. Shuraleff II, G. 2000. "Manta birostris" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. ( (Accessed: 10/11/16)
8. CITES Press Release (2014). Stronger protection for five shark species and all manta rays. ( (Accessed: 14/11/16)
9. CMS (2012). COP10 Outcome: Migratory Manta Ray under CMS Protection ( (Accessed: 14/11/16)

Wednesday, 14 September 2016 00:00

Recently, as I was scrolling through my LinkedIn feed, I ran across an article on solar energy. The article set the tone of optimism from the beginning, with some amazing and very hopeful statistics about solar energy. I learned that in just 112 hours (less than five days), 36 zettajoules (ZJ) of energy are generated by the sun. To gain perspective, I searched for “zettajoules” on the internet in order to understand how much energy that amounts to. I learned that the annual consumption of energy by humans is around 0.5 ZJ for the entire globe! Learn more: All about Joules - Wikipedia

The image accompanying the article showed the power of solar energy delivering a very small but important daily basic need: a meal being heated by the sun while the chef stood by patiently. This cooker was so large as to be impractical to most people, and prompted me to cast out a few searches on solar cooking devices available, and the limitations, if any. I was amazed to find significantly smaller, more portable and practical cookers available for outdoor recreationalists, and also larger ones that looked very simple to set up in your backyard, including several resembling a cabinet with a clear lid. The principles for solar cooking are basic: solar power is converted to heat energy (infrared) that is retained for heating the food.

Here are some flexible aspects of solar cookers:

  • Some solar cookers take the season and latitude into consideration, and give options for winter and summer cooking as the angle of the sun changes.
  • Portable cookers can be small enough to fit into a backpack. Some of these are just big enough to cook two hotdogs in a cylinder, but people have claimed to cook anything from oatmeal to potatoes using these types of portables.
  • Some cookers are a large, parabolic (this basically means designed mathematically to the right shape to collect heat, waves, etc., for maximum efficiency) silver bowl large enough for a human to curl up inside. Temperatures can reach as high as 550 Fahrenheit, and everything from main dishes to desserts can be prepared.
  • One of the best features of solar cookers is they will still perform on cloudy days.

Not only are solar cookers hugely valuable to those areas of the planet whose people survive each day by cooking their meals over an outdoor fire, as this eliminates the need to spend precious money on firewood, but it also saves lungs and prevents burning fossil fuels and overharvesting trees. It can also benefit outdoor recreational users and the environment by reducing the risk of fire in forests, and gives the freedom to cook in environmentally sensitive areas and even on small boats. As one article pointed out, you can keep these outside in the summer, and prevent the house from heating up and the air conditioner from running.

Learn more:

Solar cookers around the world

Mother Earth News


Monday, 29 June 2015 00:00

Of all substances on Earth, water is the most common.
Water is also the only substance on Earth that exists in all three states: solid, liquid and gas. The totality of these three states – all the earthly bodies of gas, liquid and solid – is known as the hydrosphere. The hydrosphere comprises the oceans, lakes, rivers, underground aquifers and groundwater, along with the North Pole and South Pole and all forms of ice and snow therein, plus gaseous water vapor found in the atmosphere.

There are numerous substances on Earth that dissolve easily into water.
Oceans, lakes, rivers, ice and other forms of water dissolve chemicals. One such chemical is table salt, which is composed of chlorine and sodium, and abbreviated NaCl. When table salt is added to water, the positive parts of the water molecule embrace the chlorine and the negative parts embrace the sodium. As a result, the salt molecule disappears and is dissolved. The opposite process – removing the water molecules from the salt – is known as desalination. In nature, this happens naturally when seawater evaporates, becomes clouds in the atmosphere and the salt remains behind in its molecular form. People use a similar means to make saltwater drinkable by boiling it to remove the salt crystals, then collecting the steam.

Almost all (approximately 97%) of the water in the hydrosphere is saltwater.
As mentioned above, the process of removing the salt from saltwater is known as desalination. One of the oldest means of making drinkable water involves evaporating saltwater and then collecting the steam, which condenses to form droplets of water. This process is called solar distillation, since it requires the sun to evaporate the water. From around 400 A.D. forward, the process evolved – from passive solar heating to actually boiling the water and using sponges to sop up the freshwater from the air above the pot.

The word “freshwater” means water that is less salty than the oceans.
There are two kinds of freshwater. One is moving water (e.g. rivers) and the other is stationary (e.g. lakes). Stationary freshwater bodies change dynamically over the seasons, influencing the lives of their plants and animals. In spring, after the ice has melted, water from the bottom of the lake warms and moves upward to mix with water at the surface, which is then made available to surface-dwelling plants such as phytoplankton. Toward summer, the phytoplankton is also supported by the lake’s decomposers, like fungi and bacteria, which begin breaking down the lake’s dead animals to provide more nutrients. Toward fall, daylight decreases, the lake cools off and plant life grows slower. In winter, the lake continues to cool, but the ice forming on the surface forms a kind of insulation for plant and animal life in the lower regions of the lake.

Water activity changes dramatically over the seasons for people.
Even frozen bodies of water attract fun seekers in winter – in the form of skating, skiing and ice fishing, to name a few. In ice fishing, the surface ice is cut to make a hole through which a fishing line is dangled below the ice. In warmer seasons, other fishing takes over. Fly fishing is popular on rivers and streams, wherein the fishing line is flicked back and forth across the river in an almost hypnotic manner both for the fisherperson and the fish. Spin fishing, often done from boats or other watercraft, involves attaching to the line weights that draw the hook and lure down deep into the water. Rowboats, sailboats and kayaks are propelled through the water by oars or sails that use wind energy to push them across the water. Speedboats travel across the water at high velocity due to the power of their motors. Another form of aquatic recreation is the enjoyment of thermal springs, which are created by the natural flow of groundwater that is heated geothermally – literally, by the natural warmth of the Earth. Also, shallow volcanoes can heat groundwater to make hot springs hot. One country famous for its hot volcanic springs is, ironically, Iceland.

Sunday, 17 January 2016 00:00

My friend teases me about my fascination with Mount Hood, a rather larger-than-life character of the Pacific Northwest that is visible from many locations in and around Portland.

From my early visits to Oregon, long before moving to the state, I always enjoyed the sudden surprise I’d get when I’d spot the snowcapped mountain from far away, driving across a bridge or into Portland after visiting family outside the city, or heading to the airport for a flight home to Southern California. Its majestic beauty never failed to brighten my day.

Photo by Victoria Serorian
During my first year of living in the state, I took two friends visiting from Southern California on a scenic day trip to Multnomah Falls, another well-known landmark that is an easy day trip outside the city. The falls are a natural wonder that are spectacular to experience up close, and my two friends and I enjoyed a lovely afternoon of nature appreciation.


“Which way is Mount Hood?” asked my friends innocently as we headed back toward the city. I wasn’t sure, but was too embarrassed to admit it. What kind of tour guide would that make me? But what I did know from my own experience is that if they saw it, if only from afar, they, too, would be awestruck. So, with me behind the wheel, we exited the highway here, and then there, and then way over there, laughing often about our unplanned hunt for Mount Hood.

Finally we found it. Eureka!

My friend jumped View from Timberline Lodge by Victoria Serorianout of the car, excitedly grabbed her iPhone, and snapped pictures of Mount Hood. A few minutes later, we learned from a young man at the drive-through where we stopped for coffee that she had actually photographed Mount Adam, in neighboring Washington State.

As the highest elevation point in all of Oregon, Mount Hood, which rises approximately 11,200 feet above sea level, reigns supreme in the state’s culture. You will find its familiar pointy, jagged profile etched on t-shirts, ball caps and businesses that link their identities to the recognizable mountaintop.

Now that I live in Oregon, my enjoyment and awareness of the mountain vista continues to bloom. Initially, there were times when I forgot it was there, off in the horizon, blinded by life’s everyday distractions that can make us overlook a beautiful rose blossoming right in front of us. In fact, I lived in the city for a couple of months before one day, when I pulled back my kitchen window curtain and realized I had a view of the fabulous Mount Hood.

I absolutely love the mountain as a metaphor. From afar, I see strength in its broad shoulders, and feel inspired by its lofty elevation. In life, we climb and stumble, get back up, continue. When we make it to the top, it’s then that we can take a precious moment, twirl around, survey our progress, and ask ourselves, "Was it worth the effort?"

Late last year, two of my sisters, a nephew and I headed up to Mount Hood to celebrate the season’s first big snowfall. We had a blast. Savored the views. Played in the snow. Shivered.

Photo by Victoria Serorian
And we snapped away with our camera phones. My big sister loves to photograph nature. and most of the shots included in this article were taken by her from various viewpoints at Timberline Lodge, a National Historic Landmark on the south side of the mountain with an elevation of about 6,000 feet.

I’m happy to say that the next time my SoCal friends return for another visit, I feel confident that I can show them the real, the one and only, Mount Hood.

View from Timberline Lodge, Mount Hood by Victoria Serorian

Above four photos by Victoria Serorian

Sunday, 19 March 2017 00:00

I delight in seeing the first flowers of spring. I love to see to garden flowers, native flowers, and even the flowers that would be considered weeds, spring to life.