Saturday, July 28, 2012

Green heron shapes

Green Heron, Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
A pair of green herons at the top of a CRP tree this morning. One of them climbed to the highest point and called and called. "Sqwonk!" (or something like that).

As for me, I was entranced by their shapes in the fog.

The last two should really be an animated GIF.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Powisset Bobolink Update

Male and Female Bobolink in Powisset Barnyard
My last bobolink check at Powisset (soon there will be hay mowing).  From all appearances, the children have fledged, though they are still hiding in the long grass for safety. They flush to the tall trees as you walk by.
Other Powisset observations: HUGE flocks of chipping sparrows. And the pleasant barnyard presence of a bluebird male.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

NSTAR and the CRP: Some hypotheticals

Flowering cherry tree right under the transmission wires
I popped by the Charles River Peninsula to take account of what might be removed if NSTAR brings its brontosauri through Needham under its current vegetation management policy. My conclusions are strictly hypothetical. At this point we don't know what NSTAR's Needham policy will be and I don't know if the Trustees have already had discussions with NSTAR about its right-of-way on this property.

The current NSTAR policy appears to be removal of anything taller than 3 feet directly under the wires and removal of anything that is over 15 feet tall, or has the potential of growing over 15 feet tall, to the sides of the transmission wires. They need low vegetation underneath so their repair trucks have a path/adequate footing and are trying to minimize the risk of tree falls onto the wires.

The Charles River Peninsula is an unusual context because it is already largely devoid of trees. Indeed, woody growth is considered an enemy and TTOR's ecologists are constantly waging war on sumac and the like. Nevertheless there are some particular trees at risk under the current policy that I would be sad to lose. For example, the cherry tree above, which is full of birds and blossoms in early May, is directly under the wires and is definitely taller than 3 feet.

Likewise this cherry tree, which is over 15 ft tall and right along the lines (robins like to nest in it).
And this shag-bark hickory, which is getting tall enough to pose a potential risk. (It is a favorite, wouldn't you know, of our local blue-winged warblers.)

My largest concern is for the tall oaks that line the property along the railroad track. These trees are probably already tall enough to pose a risk. Their removal would substantially change the character of the area and eliminate some favorite nesting spots for Baltimore orioles.
When I look across the river at the situation in Dover  I must admit understanding a little of NSTAR's concern.  There used to be a cut under the wires but it is rapidly disappearing. It will be interesting to see what will happen there, particularly as Dover (from my understanding) has a pretty restrictive tree removal policy.

As for the Charles River Peninsula, I'm dreading what's coming down the road. I hope NSTAR will do a better job of balancing the needs for public safety and aesthetics/ecology than it has so far.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The blue-winged warbler and the brontosaurus

from Northeast Utilities website
Northeast Utilities (NSTAR's new owner) would like you to believe that its utility corridor clear-cuts are friendly to the natural environment. And to some extent they are right. Over the last century we've reforested New England but without beavers and fires to control the spread of trees other sorts of habitats have become more scarce. As long as there are hay fields there will be grassland habitats but so-called "shrublands," the midsuccession habitats favored by some bird species, are rare outside of the right-of-ways (ROWs) maintained by companies such as Northeast Utilities.

The blue-winged warbler is one of the bird species that thrives in shrublands. Thus it has become a symbol of the environmental good accomplished by NU's approach to vegetation management. The blue-winged warbler is a charming bird, pretty to look at and fun to hear.  (Its recent success has also caused the decline of the golden-winged warbler, but that's another story...) NU uses it on its website (above) and it makes an appearance on a long piece of video propaganda explaining the ROW construction process. (Direct link here).

Another creature inhabiting shrubland? The brontosaurus.

from John Brown & Sons website
Technically, the brontosaurus is just the mower attachment, the excavator's grinding maw. It destroys brush and small trees with brutal efficiency and may be swapped out for a chainsaw when necessary. This is the machine that people see leveling vegetation behind their homes, on their playgrounds, and sometimes in their yards.

It is not built for subtlety or discretion, but for swift and thorough desolation. It doesn't care whether there are birds nesting in the branches it takes down (even if those birds are blue-winged warblers, which tend to nest in the tall trees at the edges of clearings). It doesn't care whether the tree it's just demolished was beloved by children, perfect for climbing. It has a job and its job is the only thing. And so we have NSTAR, pursuing a single -minded policy relentlessly with no regard for the contexts of time (THE NESTING SEASON!) or location.

The shrubland argument works when there is a forest on either side of the ROW, but you don't create real shrublands in the suburbs, particularly when you are removing the edge trees birds need for nesting. When NSTAR/NU clear-cuts vegetation underneath and to the sides of transmission lines in the suburbs, it is really just making a path for a giant boom repair truck (shall we call it an "apatosaurus"?) Thus it is ultimately about the utility company's operational effectiveness, not any genuine environmental good. I wish they would leave the birds out of it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

NSTAR's "Scorched Earth" approach to vegetation management heads toward Needham

So there I was in Tokyo trying to document local efforts to save beloved neighborhood trees from destruction in the name of public safety. Little did I know that when I came home I would find Needham locked in a similar conflict.

Instead of destroying trees in order to save neighborhoods from putative floods, NSTAR will be destroying trees in order to save neighborhoods from putative power outages. But both projects worsen the general quality of life in a community in exchange for preventing highly unlikely but highly destructive-if-they-happen catastrophes.

Part of me wants to take a distanced scholarly approach, comparing the way communities in Futakotamagawa and Needham respond to these environmental dilemmas. But I must say right now that I'm feeling like advising Needhamites to wrap their trees in banners shaming NSTAR... [UPDATE: Here's a Framingham response]

More to come as I learn more. I'm deeply concerned how this will impact trees around the power-lines at the Charles River Peninsula (see the easement map below).

Trees are, of course, not necessarily the be-all-and-end-all of a "natural" environment. The Charles River Peninsula would not be the grassland environment it is without substantial tree removal. Easements do often provide oases of shrub-land in otherwise heavily wooded areas. As in Futakotamagawa, the problem seems to be one of proportion--surely proper management does not require clear-cutting all trees within the 100 ft buffer NSTAR invokes. Unfortunately, reports from towns that have already experienced NSTAR's vegetation management are pretty grim

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Milkweed and Monarchs

Monarch Butterfly on Milkweed Bloom
Milkweed's a-bloom at the Charles River Peninsula and the Monarch Butterflies are on it.
Monarch Butterfly on Milkweed Blook
The largest number I've seen at the CRP in some time, fluttering all around
fighting each other and... not fighting each other.
Matin' Monarchs
In other news...

Eastern Cottontail
A rabbit taking a dust bath!

And on the home front, the first wintergreen bloom I can remember in our front yard.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Youngsters at the Charles River Peninsula

Charles River Peninsula, Needham, MA
Ah summer.
Tree swallows
All the tree swallows have fledged, the last three boxes on the same morning [UPDATE: report too hasty. Still two boxes to go]. What a delight to watch swallows discovering their wings. Flapping and gliding, flapping and gliding. Their parents discouraged me from watching too long. [UPDATE: I seem to have been mistaken about the identity of the fledglings. These guys are from a different box and are just causing trouble. When I checked on Tuesday, this box and box 5 still had nestlings]
Young orchard oriole
Meanwhile, there are oriole children everywhere.
Young male orchard oriole
Here's one of the children of the Baltimore oriole, Oriole G. (See 2012 Oriole Project Page)
Young Baltimore oriole
And it would appear there will be yet more orchard orioles to bless the CRP with their sunny faces.
If you look very closely there is a nest. Both parents were delivering food this morning.