Still Ready for Snow

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Today it was cold. It was 9 degrees when I rose this morning. But the sky was clear. It was so cold because the sky was clear. I would have liked to see some snow.

The photo above was taken a couple of days ago. I wanted to capture how little snow we have. Then it rained. I could share a photo of the same spot, snowless, now, but that would sting too much.

Plenty of people complain about snow. I guess part of what makes a culture is complaining about some aspect of the weather. Those people are missing out. Snow is amazing.

Just the fact of snow is amazing. Snowflake Bentley had it right. He really looked at snowflakes. Have you done that? They are beautiful. They are all different. I know you know the cliche about no two snowflakes being alike, but have you checked them out? Seriously, they are all intricately unique. Mind blowing. For real.

But I’m not just talking about flakes. I am talking about that big storm that lasts for two days and dumps feet of snow. The kind of snow you have to wade through. The kind of snow you work up a sweat to shovel it out of the way. The kind of snow you can just fall back into. Heavenly, deep, lovely, cold, fluffy oodles of snow. I miss that.

We have not had a storm like that in years now. We had a couple of inches not too long ago, but I want a storm. We used to have this thing called the January Thaw. Maybe you have heard of it? That quaint idea that it would warm up, temperatures rising above freezing, for a few days in January, and then it would get back to proper winter temperatures? Now we get these January freezes, where it gets cold for a day or two and then gets back up above freezing. It was 50+ degrees the other day! Shameful.

I guess I need to get used to this. It isn’t going to get any colder. We might have a winter or two that gets cold again, sure, but I am afraid this is the new normal. So you get what I’m taking about, even if you don’t get what I’m taking about, here is one to remember from March, 1999; shoveling the driveway. That was some snow.

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Ice and Rain

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My son and I took a hike up Mount Philo yesterday. It was a mild day, just above freezing, some sun, some clouds. A good day for a short hike. I was afraid it might be muddy on the trail. Instead we found ice.

There is a paved road that leads to the summit where a campground operates seasonally. The trail is much nicer than the road, however. In most places the trail was frozen and passable, but we had to do some navigating at times to avoid slipping. In more than one spot a slip on the ice would have meant a good trip downhill. It was a fine adventure on a Sunday afternoon.

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The view, as it is most days, was stellar. We looked at places we had been and might one day go. We watched a raven soar in and drop to land on the cliffs below us, croaking as it did so. We watched clouds creep in over the Adirondacks to bring us rain for today. We lingered a little while and then headed down.

We started to follow the road, then decided to take the trail when it crossed that road, but just as we turned off a large and loud group turned off as well. We decided to take the road. The walking was easier and we chatted as we descended. I noticed a couple of hemlocks that looked in trouble. Some of the tallest trees around, they had only brown needles and were full of cones. I wondered if they had been killed by the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, an introduced pest that can decimate these trees. Eastern hemlock just might be my favorite tree, so if the adelgid is here, my heart sinks.

Now, early morning, it rains. It taps the porch roof. Again, the air is warm, and it blows over the fields, tossing last year’s leaves about and howling through the bare branches of the maples. Yesterday I heard Red-Winged Blackbirds singing. It was the earliest I have seen them here. The sky is gray. The fields and woods are brown. The red stripe on the blackbird’s wing is a harbinger of spring color. Next month, blackbirds will be flashing those red stripes as the field grows green and mud, by then, will replace the ice we encountered yesterday.

Mountain Birdwatch Survey on the Skyline Trail 2015

IMG_0466Pictured here is most of the stuff I carried up to the Skyline Trail for my Mountain Birdwatch survey up there this year. I have participated in this citizen science initiative to monitor high elevation songbirds for 16 years now. This was my fourth year on this route, which requires a solid hike in. Not pictured above are the clothes I wore (including hiking boots), a small bag of food (I pretty much snacked the whole time as cooking requires a stove I did not want to carry) and an iPhone (for emergencies and to use as a stopwatch for the survey).

Back in 2000, the first year of the survey, I rose early and walked about my door to hike up to my survey route. I lived in Bolton, at over 2,000 feet elevation, and the route was only a short hike away. The survey’s methods were also different then, with fewer birds to monitor and less time required. I could rise at 5:00 to start by 6:00. This route is different as is the survey. Now I drive an hour, hike three hours, and I need to start about 4:00. When I first adopted this new route, I did the math to figure out what time I would need to get started if I did not spend the night up there. Including prep time and longer hiking time in the dark, I figured starting at 10:00 pm would do the trick. So spending the night just made sense.

Let me tell you, that hike is a beast. It seems like it shouldn’t be that hard. It is only about three miles. A 5K is about three miles, and my 10-year old kid can do that in 45 minutes or less. This, however, is no 5K. The route starts off easy enough, on a well-traveled trail up to the Stowe Pinnacle. Yesterday, as usual on a sunny June day, there were scores of people hiking up and down. I always feel a little odd hiking past people who are wearing running shoes and white T-shirts with my full pack (especially on the way back down when I am covered in mud and sweat and smashed black flies).

The beginning of my hike--easy going on a blue bird day.

The beginning of my hike–easy going on a blue bird day.

After a mile I peel off onto a trail leading up to the ridge. That trail is steep and rocky and covered in roots and slippery and downright tough. Few people go up there but I always seem to see those few, usually when I am talking aloud to myself and they are suddenly upon me. Despite my embarrassment I keep plodding and make it to the ridge. This time I did not take a break until I hit the Skyline Trail. I needed a break at that point.

Pack off at the Skyline Trail junction.

Pack off at the Skyline Trail junction.

At this point I only have to hike along the ridge to Point One, near where I will camp for the night. This is a mere mile, so no problem. At least I think that every time. But that mile takes another hour, with steep up and down (there is a ladder at one point) on a slippery narrow trail. I need to stop to fill water bottles along this stretch, as there is only one water source up there. Eventually I get to my spot and set up camp. Then I take a longer break.

But I’m not done yet. Part of the survey is counting cones. When there is a mast year (a year where there is an abundance of cones) the squirrel population booms. Lots of cones means lots of seeds inside for squirrels to snack upon so lots of them survive that year. But then all those cones are not there the next year and the squirrels are. One substitute food source for them is bird eggs. So there is a connection between cones and nesting birds. Once I set up my tent, I traveled the survey route and followed the protocols to count the cones. And let me tell you there are lots of cones this year. This counting took quite a while so by the time I got back to my tent I was ready to rest.

Compounding the usual challenge of this route were all the fir tops. An ice storm this winter did lots of damage on I wondered as I hiked up (among many many things) if there would be any damage up high. There was. The top sections of fir trees were snapped off and lying all over the place. Many of these, of course, were lying across the trail. Some were small (think mini Christmas trees) and some were like full trees themselves. That slowed me down a bit (plus needles stuck inside my boots and down my shirt as I climbed over or around or through). I stopped at one point and counted them–I could see 18 from that spot.

Tree tops everywhere!

Tree tops everywhere!

In the end, the survey was successful. I heard Bicknell’s Thrush, the main target species, several times. Plus I heard Blackpol Warblers, Swainson’s Thrushes and Yellow-Bellied Flycatchers all for the first time this year. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful place. I was tuckered when I got back to the car. I stopped for a couple pizza slices on the drive home and called it good work.

I took on a second route this year as well but that one does not require such a tough hike. It will feel like a cake walk. This route, however, has pretty high rewards. Lots of people can run a 5K but most wouldn’t do this hike to get up at 4:00 am and not have a view. Apparently, I would.

Pretending to be Responsible

Ok, I pretend to be responsible all the time. I sometimes feel that, although I am supposed to be an adult, I, like many others who are supposed to be adults, am just winging it. I guess I manage to pay my bills and buy life insurance and take the kids to the birthday party, but I don’t really know what I’m doing. I get the responsible thing done, in the end, but don’t tell anyone that the seat of my pants is really what flies the plane around here.

When it comes to businesses who advertise and sell things and affect lots of people, I feel like a different attitude should hold sway, however. I mean, you can’t just say or even infer that your product or your company is one thing when really you are pretending. Exaggeration shouldn’t be allowed when lots of dollars or lots of people are involved. I saw an example of such hyperbole today, on a paper towel dispenser in a restroom at a conference I attended.

IMG_2108It is this last line with which I have an issue. “Closed loop” to me means a cycle. In this case I am led to believe that paper gets used, recycled, turned into paper, recycled, and so on. The “loop” gets “closed.” A loop keeps going. It doesn’t stop. Otherwise it is not a loop. In this case, however, there are three things, but they are not in a loop.

To sum up the “Power of Three” here: the paper company collects paper, uses it to create further paper, then sells it, possibly to some of the same people who provided the paper they collected. This is a good thing. It means that at least some paper gets made from recycled paper, rather than from trees. But this isn’t a loop.

The original paper comes from trees. The recycled paper gets turned into lower grade paper–it is downcycled. Eventually it cannot be turned into paper any more, as it is too degraded. There may be some back and forth here but it is definitely not a closed loop.

What wrapped up the whole thing into a tidy little ironic package was the waste basket below the paper dispenser. The paper in that dispenser may have come from paper, but the paper being dispensed ended up in a plastic bag in a landfill.  The top of that plastic trash bin makes a closed loop, but I am guessing that is not the one to which the paper company was referring.

Before I left that little room I realized I had a closed loop of my own. I had picked up my water bottle, I had processed the water, and then I provided a product to be taken away. That product would get recycled and perhaps one day return to me when I filled my water bottle again. Sounds like I might know what I am doing after all but let’s be honest, I’m still just winging it.

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Mowing and Meadowlarks

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This is the time of year when we get around to mowing our field. We have ten acres of meadow. When we moved here it had not been cut in several years and it was starting to get scrubby. Cattails grew in a wide swath. Ash trees were sprouting and willows were standing out among the grasses and wildflowers. Actually, the grasses were pretty limited. The field had long passed the point of being suitable for haying. We wanted to turn that around.

One reason we wanted to turn it around was Bobolinks. There were Bobolinks nearby, in adjacent fields and up the road, but none in our field. It was just too overgrown. They like to nest in grasslands and our meadow was quickly reverting to woodland. We borrowed a tractor with a brush hog and cut it, cattails and all. We did the same thing the next year. We were not, however, especially deliberate about it. We cut it when we had access to a tractor and it worked. Grasses started to grow and it looked good.

I have learned a bit about this small habitat of ours since those early years. First, we have three invasive plants (more I am sure but three major ones): wild parsnip, purple loosestrife and reed canary grass. The purple loosestrife was the worst at first and those early cuttings really made a difference. We still have it but it hardly dominates like it did. It has beautiful flowers which get visited by butterflies and hummingbirds, so it is hard to hate it, but I would rather it did not take over.

The reed canary grass I started learning about recently, even though it was pointed out a few years ago. It, too, is a beautiful plant, which is why it and purple loosestrife are both used as ornamentals. It grows in thick mats and apparently can be hard to eradicate. This grass isn’t too bad yet–we have a few patches but it has not taken over.

The real villain is the wild parsnip. When we first encountered this plant we thought it might be wild dill. It is tall with yellow large-headed flowers. I looked it up and learned that the roots are edible, hence the name. It is, however, not a pleasant smelling herb or a ready food source. It is a menace.

There are fields where wild parsnip has simply taken over. The plants can get to be super tall–eight feet sometimes–and they will push out native plants. I have seen fields where it is the only plant visible. If those fields eventually grow up into woods the wild parsnip will disappear, but in sunny fields it is a bully. Moreover, the plant is toxic. The oil from the plant can rub off and, when exposed to sunlight, can cause chemical burns. Photoreactive is the word. In short, we wanted to make sure it does not live in our field.

The solution would be to simply cut the field several times a year to keep invasive plants from growing and to let native grasses grow up. So simple. The problem is that birds nest on the ground. Bobolinks have started to nest in our field since we started cutting. Also nesting on the ground: Red-Winged Blackbirds, Savannah Sparrows and, most recently, Eastern Meadowlarks. The biggest enemy of these birds is the mower, so cutting when the birds are nesting is bad juju.

Now we try to be deliberate about when we mow. The trick is to wait long enough for chicks to have fledged but to get to it before the wild parsnip has gone to seed. That would be right about now. Pretty much. Red-Winged Blackbirds and Bobolinks are hardly around at this point, so I am not worried about them. The Meadowlarks, however, are still chattering away and flying all over. They may be on egg clutch number two, and there are at least two pairs.

This year the compromise was clear–cut the front part of the field where the parsnip is the worst and leave the back part of the field, where the birds are nesting, to be cut in a couple of weeks. Yesterday, after mechanical issues that finally got solved, I got on that. It was like scratching an itch. Mowing down those wild parsnip plants, several of which were taller than me, felt good. I was relieved that, unlike last year when I cut it, none of it had gone to seed yet. Phew.

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Brush hog doing its work

There is still more of the field to cut, of course, and wild parsnip is in there. Hopefully, however, because so much of it is newer growth, it won’t be too bad. I may look to do a second cutting in October or November. That would help with the canary grass, and the birds will be heading south by then. I thought I might do that last year and never got to it, however, so I’m making no promises.

As I write this Meadowlarks are calling and Savannah Sparrows are singing. Leaving the most grassy part of the field for now is clearly the right choice, but I will look forward to seeing those yellow wild parsnip heads get shredded when I finish the job.

Upper field cut

Upper field cut with a couple of small trees left for birds to perch

Too Hot

I love how there are still scientists out there who will not commit to saying that climate change is at least part of the cause of our recent severe weather. July was the hottest on record of any month since such records have been kept, and the last 12 months were the warmest such stretch. This isn’t a new thing here people. How many times do we get to hear “last month was the warmest on record” before enough of us wise up to the problem. The New York times reported this today, interviewing Jake Crouch, “a climatologist at the agency’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.” They wrote “Asked whether the July heat record was linked to rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, Mr. Crouch said he could not draw that conclusion.” I get the impression that scientists are afraid to draw the obvious conclusion not because they are scientists but because they are afraid.

At least three scientists, James Hanson, Makiko Sato and Reto Reudy, have been willing to state that climate change is making a difference is out weather. In their report, Perception of Climate Change, they write:

“Climate dice,” describing the chance of unusually warm or cool seasons, have become more and more “loaded” in the past 30 y, coincident with rapid global warming. The distribution of seasonal mean temperature anomalies has shifted toward higher temperatures and the range of anomalies has increased. An important change is the emergence of a category of summertime extremely hot outliers, more than three standard deviations (3σ) warmer than the climatology of the 1951–1980 base period. This hot extreme, which covered much less than 1% of Earth’s surface during the base period, now typically covers about 10% of the land area. It follows that we can state, with a high degree of confidence, that extreme anomalies such as those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small. 

Note the last sentence. They took some heat for this. There are plenty of people who, mysteriously, continue to look (or not look) at the science and fail to see the problem for what it is. I am a bit mystified by what anyone has to gain by perpetuating the “hoax” of global warming. What scientist wants to be wrong? Why claim something isn’t true? In the science community a falsehood will get found out eventually. It’s not like this is a good thing. That is why it is a problem. Sure, you can call global warming a theory and say it isn’t proven. You wouldn’t be wrong. But you can say gravity is a theory, too. Go ahead and tell people that isn’t real.

Anyway, it has been to hot around here this summer. When we get rain, we get a big storm blasting through. Eighty degrees is now a normal daily temperature. That used to be hot, and plenty uncommon for me. We now use an air conditioner at night too often. What gives with that here? It is not just because we are getting older and can’t stand the same old heat. It ain’t the same old heat. Somebody needs to put in a lake at our house.

Call it controversial. Call it a theory. Call it a debate. Heck, call it Fred. It is not going away. It is hot and the weather is crazy. At some point human caused climate change will be a matter of general knowledge in the United States. We’ll catch up to the rest of the world eventually. In the meantime I am going to go make some cool drinks.

 

UPDATE: Here is another Times article that offers some perspective on the “new normal” with this gem: “it is increasingly clear that we already live in the era of human-induced climate change, with a growing frequency of weather and climate extremes like heat waves, droughts, floods and fires.” That cool drink is going to come in handy.

More Wild Parsnip

I wrote about the wild parsnip growing at our place a few days ago. I have certainly been aware of it all along but since then I have been hyper aware, even more than I had been. And let me tell you, that stuff is everywhere. Any open field that hasn’t been cut recently is just covered. It is so tall that it drowns out everything else. When I look out over a field that has been taken over, I can’t see much of anything else–no grass, no flowers, no milkweed, no nothin’.

I drove today on the back roads from Hinesburg to Charlotte (which means, well, almost any road from Hinesburg to Charlotte) and there was a clear distinction between hayed fields and those that have been let lie. I saw a couple of fields where large patches had been left uncut. There was a rock or a wet area or some other obstruction to the mower. These were deep in wild parsnip. I mean, invasive species can be pretty aggressive. This one hits home for me. I mean, it really does hit home.

The problem is that the fields become a danger zone. Forget poison ivy. This is worse. Sure ticks are out there, but they are not nearly as likely to be an issue as wild parsnip. I am afraid to send my children out in the field because I do not want them to have chemical burns. Ouch. It is just a plant for chimney’s sake, but it is a ubiquitous and menacing plant.

This stuff has been around for many years, maybe even for over 400 years. It may have been brought here on purpose, as a food source, but no one really knows how it came to North America from Eurasia. It has certainly made itself at home, however. I see tons of it all over the place and, frankly, it creeps me out. Aside from the fact that I am in awe of how any species can be so adaptable and can just make it over other species, I am in awe of its bully-ness and unhappy about it. I guess I need to do what I can to control it in our part of the world and hope conditions for it deteriorate at some point so its presence lessens in the future.

For more good information about this plant you can check out the Eastern Forest Environmental Threat Assessment Center’s page, or the US Forest Services “Weed of the Week” page on it.