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The Observer, Aug. 13

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The Observer crew gathered at the boss' North Pulaski plantation near Otto over the weekend to eat what could be salvaged from his normally world-class crop of organically grown heirloom tomatoes. A groaning-board potluck and a couple of hundred pounds of pig meat slow-smoked to melting tender by David Koon offset our disappointment that succulent Brandywines and other favorites were MIA this year. Shriveled tomato plants (and fruitless bean plants) were mute testimony to a tough summer for farmers.

Arkansas is not alone in tomato sorrow this year.

The New York Times recently ran an article about the blight that has ravaged tomato crops in the Northeast as well. An uncommonly wet summer is part of the problem, as it is here. But another explanation sounds much more sinister.

Plant pathologists say the blight began with a widespread infiltration of the disease in tomato starter plants. Big box home improvement stores like Home Depot, Lowe's, Walmart and Kmart buy the plants from industrial farms in the South and then distribute them throughout the Northeast.

“Once those infected starter plants arrived at the stores,” the article reads, “they were purchased and planted, transferring their pathogens like tiny Trojan horses into backyard and community gardens.”

A rise in home gardening is said to have helped spread the nasty stuff. Call it the South's revenge.

It has come to our attention that the purple martins have left the neighborhood. That's because every year, before migrating to South America (a trip only half of them will make), the purple martin roosts, hunting food during the day and hunkering down during the night, in preparation for the voyage.

So where do they go to do all this roosting? Why, Bird Island of course. Bird Island is a small spit of land on Lake Ouachita. Mary Smith, director of education for Audubon Arkansas, says that so many purple martins roost on the island that when in flight, the birds, and the donut-shaped ring they create, can be seen on NEXRAD radar.

Smith has developed a program, in conjunction with Mountain Pine high school, to count the birds. If they can prove the site plays host to more than 10,000 birds, the site will then be known as an “important bird area,” which means Audubon will take efforts to protect the site and use it to educate people about the birds and their habitat.

The martins leave their trees in the morning and return from feeding around dusk. Smith says their swirling behavior creates a tornado effect that really is a sight to see.

Smith and the students of Mountain Pine have tried several different methods for counting the martins, including taking pictures and mapping the birds out on a grid. Finally, they decided to count all the birds in one tree. They counted at least 3,500. There are close to 50 trees on the island.

“We started doing some research and got some boats and went out there and the kids were just blown away by it,” Smith says. “These kids, they're coming every week. They've written grants. It really is an awesome deal.” The students are part of a program for disadvantaged kids.

The purple martin hideaway could become an eco-tourism boon for Mountain Pine, which has been devastated recently by plant closings. Also, she says, education efforts could help protect the birds.

“We need people to not intentionally bother them,” she says. “Sometime people use air horns to try to scare them up and it can really disrupt them. You don't want them to get discouraged and disperse.”

Ultimately, the goal is to raise money to buy geo-locators to attach to some of the birds. When it comes to studying purple martins, there are still so many unknowns, Smith says. “Humans take for granted that all these things are happening on the earth that we are just blissfully unaware of,” she says.

Indeed.

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