Urban Riverwalks Out West

It seems everywhere we go, towns and cities are turning back towards their waterways. New or re-energized walkways/bikeways are popping up along rivers, lakes or other water features. In our travels out West we had an opportunity to visit several, some of which were quite a surprise.

Idaho Falls, along the Snake River, has a very neat walkway near their downtown, showcasing their namesake waterfall. Below is a view from one of the bridges.

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The waterfall is a bit odd, consisting of a dam that diverts water to pour over a long ledge. It is altered from its natural state, but is still quite pretty.

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The benches are unique and artistically designed.

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There were a LOT of people enjoying the walk on a warm summer evening. The only thing it seemed to lack was access to local businesses. There were a couple of restaurants in the area, but otherwise the link to any centralized downtown area was limited. I’m not sure what Idaho Falls has in the way of a downtown, so perhaps that was it. It was definitely worth an evening walk in any event.

After experiencing an amazing trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton, we ended up in the Red Desert region of Wyoming. The tiny town of Green River had a surprisingly large and pleasant river walkway along its namesake river.

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Nearby Rock Springs is an energy industry town with a small usually dry waterway called Bitter Creek (pronounced ‘crick’) passing through it. Bitter Creek does not have a walkway, but there was discussion in town on working on restoring the little ‘crick’ and possibly putting a path in at some point. The spring the town was named after is apparently now dry, due to modifications in hydrology associated with nearby coal mining. We did, though find a little park with a rain garden/bioswale type setup right next to a shopping complex. The area had just had several unusually heavy bouts of summer rain, so there was plenty of water here. Oddly, there was what appeared to be a muskrat hanging out in the water. It wasn’t easy to see how it found its way there since there wasn’t clear connectivity to other waterways that would support muskrats. I suppose nature finds a way – maybe it crawled up the culvert from Bitter Creek.

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Telluride is a mining-turned-ski town in a beautiful Colorado setting. With the tourism industry making up the majority of the economy, it’s no surprise there was plenty in the way of parks and places to enjoy the San Miguel River and its tributaries. They aren’t as urban as some of the others I’ve mentioned, but nor are they wilderness. All seemed to be abundantly enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.

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Of course, there were notable omissions too. The town of Mesquite, Nevada is along the Virgin River but there was no apparent way to see the river, as the town was more focused on gambling and golf. More glaring and disappointing of course is southern California. We spent some time in Torrance, my ‘home’ town, since many family and friends are in the area. The waterway nearest my home is now called the Dominguez Channel. Its previous name was that of a racial slur I will not repeat here – an example of hatred towards people and the waterway both. Here’s what that disappointment now looks like, photo courtesy of LA County Department of Public Works: with more photos here. There are few places to even see it, and my spot where I used to peer into the channel as a child is now fenced off and smothered in sickly oleanders. I’m guessing even if it did have some sort of walkway it wouldn’t be much of a hit, as simply exists as one of the world’s largest gutters. Restoration of any sort seems unlikely. It is treated as trash and as such isn’t even really considered as a place to spend time. In Torrance there is no way to escape the concrete and lawns. There is a tiny 40 acre marsh – Madrona Marsh – but the gate is locked much of the time, and unlike my teenage senf I am no more inclined to jump the large fence. I suppose the walkway along the beach counts for something, but it runs between a solid like of multi million dollar houses and the sand which is literally combed and sifted to make sure it is manicured (and free of litter, I suppose). One would be hard pressed to find a native plant there, too. I remember at one point some were planted to help feed a declining endangered butterfly species, and the rich people nearby whined and cried because they didn’t like the vegetation looking different than their beloved lawns and iceplant. The native plants, and with them the butterfly, are probably gone now. Perhaps I’m wrong and someone reconsidered, but I doubt it. Unlike the hardscrable mining towns of Wyoming, the wealthy ‘environmentalists’ of Torrance and Manhattan Beach can’t be bothered to tend their own backyards. They’re too busy fussing over what people in Wyoming are doing, I suppose. And it shows. I passed through some of the natural gas and oil fields while in the Red Desert, and while I do feel strongly that we need to stop using fossil fuels as soon as possible, the ‘ruined’ desert around them is a heck of a lot better off than the South Bay region of LA. In fact I’d take a day in the oil field over a day on Torrance Beach Boardwalk without a second thought.

Water Down the Gutter

So after our wedding and our travels out West, followed by being part of our friends’ wedding, things are finally settling down. While out west we traveled from California through Nevada and Idaho to Yellowstone and then south through Wyoming, Colorado and Utah and back through southern Nevada to California. As expected, the transition from wet Vermont to the dry West was a dramatic one… but what was not expected was that our first leg of the trip took place under a strong monsoon surge. The weather ended up not unlike Vermont’s weather, albeit not quite as humid… periods of light rain and cool weather, afternoon thunderstorms including some very heavy downpours, and even a dusting of snow and/or hail on the very top of White Mountain (the one in California).

I’ll most likely have a few posts to share about our travels… but what seems most immediate is a short observation on California’s drought. In light of reading this blog post about LA killing off the Lone Pine of Lone Pine (or at least its latest incarnation)… the use of water in southern California comes to mind. Apparently water use has actually increased in light of the recent drought, although at heast the state has clamped down on the supreme stupidity of fining people for letting their lawns dry up.

When passing through my less-than-favorite ‘home’ town of Torrance, I did notice that a lot of the lawns were actually being allowed to dry out.

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Still, others still were watering their lawns or even more ridiculously dumping water directly into the gutter. IMG_0980

We were also surprised to observe a lush lawn around the facility of a nearby Church of Latter Day Saints. Kind of odd, considering when we drove through Utah there were all kinds of water conservation measures in effect even though the drought is less severe there. One would think a religious figure would have passed the word down. Say what you like about the Mormons, they aren’t a group of people known for being wasteful. I was honestly a bit surprised by their emerald green LA lawn.

The drought in California stretches on. There is a chance some sort of tropical system will affect the area in the next week or two. Beyond that, there is hope of a wet winter, but it’s far from a guarantee. It could end up being just as dry as this year. Even if it is reasonably wet the drought could continue, too.

Meanwhile, we returned to Vermont to find an overgrown garden full of summer squash, a thriving rain garden, and three and a half inches of rain in the rain gauge from the last two weeks. Since that time another inch and a half has fallen.

Home

So I’ve been away for a while, because we were getting married. I won’t turn this into a wedding blog post, but suffice to say, everything went wonderfully.

In addition to celebrating our love and marriage, our ceremony celebrated home – found in our friends and family, our community, our state, and of course our house and little plot of land.

A week or two before the wedding, some tiny flowers popped up in the wetland garden I’d started planting. The plant looked special, so I figured out what it was with some help on iNaturalist… and turns out it is an uncommon native orchid!

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These usually grow in rich fens or along rivershores with mineral-rich seepage. I have no idea if the plant came in on a load of rock from a river, or jumped in from a fen, or how else it could have found its way here. I also wonder if it was hiding in the lawn and somehow missed my lawn purge of the area. Either way, it seemed like a small miracle that such an uncommon and beautiful plant would pop up the second I gave the native wetland species some space.

Of course, where there are native plants there are usually native animals. I’d left some rotting wood in the wetland garden, and when I turned one piece over, I found a little red eft.

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Not sure where it came from. Perhaps the creek down the street… but these creatures generally need a pond to complete their life cycle. Maybe the creek is sufficient I hope this little eft eventually finds its way to a spot where it can continue its life and transform to an adult eastern newt.

The fireflies have been spectacular in our field. I tried out the LongExpo app and created these time lapse photos. They don’t do it justice of course, but do give you an idea.

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My mother, brother, and sister-in-law had never seen fireflies before coming to Vermont for our wedding… they aren’t present in California, at least not that I’ve ever seen. Sharing our firefly hill was one of the little surprising highlights of our time with family.

It’s hard to say if more native creatures are using this land than before, as we’ve only been here for about a year. But considering the fact that we’ve converted lots of lawn areas to field and planted lots of native plants, it seems a distinct possibility. Part of what makes ‘home’ for us is watching these changes over time.

The weather has mostly been mild, with a few downpours, thunderstorms, and one heat wave thrown in.

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(lightning photos also using LongExpo).

Our period of calm appears to be ending, at least briefly. As I type we are under a severe thunderstorm watch. A line of storms is raging in from New York State and should be here within the hour. The air is hot, humid, and restless, and with the darkening sky I expect more lightning will be visible soon. Our silver maple lost a limb in a relatively mild thunderstorm last week, and I’m hoping this storm spares our trees.

Heavy Weather Slams the Northeast

Spring was slow to build in, and summer hasn’t been particularly fast in coming either. We haven’t yet had a long stretch of hot weather like we sometimes get in May. We have, however, been hit with some severe weather in the second half of may as is often the case. (Last year we did not have that many severe storms but the start of a very wet period was beginning).

Around the middle of the month, a cold front came through. I heard the rain and wind overnight, but little did I realize that just a little ways to my north there was a tornado warning! No tornado touched down as far as anyone knows, but there was a microburst. If you have a telephone pole embedded in your roof you probably don’t care which it was that injected communication infrastructure inside your shed, and to the turkey hunter who had the terrifying experience of hearing the freight-train noise as it came through (apparently microbursts make that sound as well as tornados?)

In a sense, a microburst is a tornado in reverse, except that it doesn’t spin. A tornado is basically a very intense localized thunderstorm updraft that becomes more and more intense as it spins tighter and tighter, and then reaches the ground and causes havoc. A microburst is an intense localized thunderstorm downdraft, which can be as strong as all but the nastiest tornadoes, but consists of falling instead of rising air. A microburst blows debris outward where a tornado in practice sucks it inward, but in reality tosses it everywhere in a spiral pattern. Microbursts are often associated with heavy rain, and tornadoes don’t have rain falling right in them, though it may wrap around them. After all, something powerful enough to toss a tractor trailer into the air isn’t going to have any problem keeping raindrops from falling in that spot.

Yesterday an even more intense storm wreaked havoc in the Rutland Vermont area. Most discrete severe thunderstorms (as opposed to lines of storms) take the form of mesocyclones or supercells, storms in which the entire thunderstorm rotates. You can see a video of a very impressive supercell rotaing across wyoming here. Supercells often take the form of a hook on radar due to their rotation moving the rain around.

Here’s a radar image of a massive supercell containing an extremely strong tornado, from Wikipedia’s Hook Echo stock image:

and here’s a radar image from the storm yesterday in Vermont, from the Radarscope app:

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The storm looked to be heading straight for Brandon, but took a jog to the south and made a run at Rutland instead. Apparently very severe storms sometimes take right turns in that manner. In Rutland the hook became less prominent but the radar reflectivity became even more intense. Very intense radar reflections like that often mean hail.

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Rutland was indeed hit with large golf-ball sized hail, big enough to hurt people who were caught in it and to damage cars. Wind damage in the storm caused building damage and blew down trees. The National Weather Service did another survey and did not find any evidence a tornado touched down, but there was evidence of winds up to 85 miles per hour. Perhaps a microburst, or some other sort of thunderstorm wind, but whatever it was, it was enough to do a lot of damage. It’s possible a tornado touched down in a farm field or remote forest where it wasn’t detected, but we will never know for sure.

Tornados may be rare in this region, but even if these storms didn’t create one, a storm near Albany just across the border in New York did probably have a tornado, and it destroyed a home. This storm also had a very impressive hook echo.

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and the tornado that was near the Denver Airport recently created an even more impressive signature on radar as it moved straight for the radar tower.

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The Denver airport seems to be a magnet for tornadoes, microbursts, and other severe weather. Apparently whoever chose the site wasn’t familiar with the local climate, unless of course the climate has changed since they built the airport in a way that is making more storms hit the area. I’m not sure which is more likely.

Our location did not have any severe weather, and in fact not even much in the way of thunder. We did have some dramatic cloud formations move through, however. The sky always looks so much more impressive in person than on photos, so I’ve experimented with upping the contrast and vibrancy of these photos. Some of them ended up with weird color artifacts (and one with reflections from a window) but they give you an idea about what late spring in Vermont can look like.

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Severe weather season is just starting here, so it’s likely there will be more thunderstorms over the first part of summer.

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Buried in Spring

I haven’t posted anything here in a while because, well, we’ve been buried. After a long, hard winter, spring means suddenly being busy, especially when settling into a new place. Over the last month, we’ve planted five fruit trees, seven berry bushes, a bunch of native plants, and some onions… set up a plastic greenhouse we obtained, planted some things in there… I also added a third tier to the rain garden, since the first two occasionally fill up and overflow. Below, the rain garden overflows with an incomplete third layer, after a night of heavy spring rain.

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In addition, I created a ‘wetland garden’ in an area of the yard that is always wet due to being in seepy soil. Here it is in progress, without much in it yet…

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The field season hasn’t really started at work yet, but I did get out to check some vernal pools. Untitled

I’ve also been active on iNaturalist, as usual. There has been lots to see this spring.

And… on top of all of this, we’re planning for a wedding. And I’m ripping a bunch of boards out of the attic as part of a winterizing project.

So while this is all good stuff, I’m exhausted. I really can’t wait until things settle down a bit as we move into the hot slow days of summer. The cycle of life in Vermont seems to have two busy spots – spring and fall. Summer is a time of plenty and winter is a time of rest.

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Buckthorn Bash: A Demo of My New Silly 3d Ecology Simulator Computer Game

Long time followers of this blog (if there are any) and my friends may remember that several years ago I made a silly little computer game called ‘buckthorn bash’. You played as a tiny little intern, frantically trying to kill buckthorn so maples could survive. The game was buggy and crude, and most frustratingly the area in which the game took place was very small – only a few maples could fit.

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the old buckthorn bash.

Well, Buckthorn Bash is back, this time in a 3-d Unity environment with much more going on. The game spawned from frustration with the passiveness of settings and environments in most computer games. At best they are to be exploited, and at worst they are no more than a cardboard set to look at as you run about. Here, while the game itself is very primitive, you may notice some interesting emergent behavior in the plants.

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You are a rabbit on a small island in Lake Champlain. The island has spruce, hemlock, cherry, and maple trees… and common buckthorn, an invasive species. The plants all grow, produce seeds, and die. each seed is produced randomly, so the plants won’t always act the same way. The idea is that the spreading buckthorn, left unchecked, would crowd out the other trees and take over. However, before it gets to this point, the current form of buckthorn slows down the game enough to make it unplayable. So your goal: manage the buckthorn such that it doesn’t slow down your computer too much.

How do you do this? Easy! You aren’t any ordinary rabbit. You are a rabbit whose poop kills buckthorn instead of fertilizing it! Move the rabbit with the W, A, and D keys, and press space to shoot rabbit poop. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what the buckthorn looks like and how to damage it, if you choose to at all. Or, you can try to maintain the diversity of native trees by shooting or pushing their seeds to new areas so they spread. In the current form, if the native trees are left alone hemlock tends to take over after a while. You can also just quit the game if it gets too slow, by closing the window or if really slowing down press control-alt-delete and closing the game. There isn’t really a goal – do what you want.

The magical rabbit can’t swim. In theory, if it falls in the water it is reincarnated elsewhere, but sometimes, due to another bug, the rabbit dies and ends up just laying there while trees and buckthorn grow around over its head. Not fun at that point, so you’ll probably want to restart.

This is just a demo. After fixing the bugs I plan to add a lot more – more species, more invasives, more thing the rabbit can do, different islands, you name it. If you have ideas let me know!

Try the new buckthorn bash demo at https://github.com/naturalistcharlie/BuckthornBash/releases ! There are PC and Mac versions, scroll down to see the Mac version.

Let me know if you play it and like it (or don’t like it) because I’ll probably be doing more with this soon.

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(you can’t get to this island right now).

Try My Trees of Vermont Field Guide!

It’s been a long winter. The January-March period in Montpelier was the second coldest since records began being recorded in the 1940s, and March was the coldest March on record. Many other places in Vermont with records that go back further also had record or near-record cold, especially in March.

The winter was so long that I’ve run out of things to say about winter. It’s cold. We’ve been boiling maple sap… a fun, time consuming, but very straightforward process that results in delicious maple syrup. Mostly, over the last few weeks, I’ve been anticipating spring. Spring is finally here.

The trees won’t leaf out for another month or so, but the snow in the forests is thinning, the air is getting warmer, and it’s becoming easier to roam the woods. For those reasons, I wanted to announce one of my projects from last Fall and Winter – a field guide to all tree species known to occur in Vermont’s natural areas.

The tree guide, which was created using the Guides feature on iNaturalist, includes all native tree species that are known or believed to occur in the state, as well as non-native species that are able to survive and reproduce on their own in forests. Each tree has several associations tagged to it, including its temperature and moisture preference and the types of leaves it has (for the latter you will need to wait for May except for conifers). By using these tags to filter the tree types, you can easily get photos of a few trees to choose from. It should be a pretty effective guide.

The online version is here. You can also put the guide on your smartphone. Just download the iNaturalist iPhone app (I think it works on the iNaturalist android app also but I’m not sure) and go to ‘guides’. You can download the guide to your phone so it still works when you are out of cell phone service. If you want to add observations to iNaturalist you can do so directly from the guide!

I wrote Vermont-specific descriptions for some of the species, but others have generic descriptions from Wikipedia. If people decide they like this guide and would like me to write more Vermont-specific descriptions, I could possibly be convinced to do so. Maybe some day I will make guides for other groups of plants too. The guides template on iNaturalist makes it very easy to do so.

Check it out, and let me know what you think! It should work anywhere in New England, really, but won’t have some of the oaks or hickories that occur down in Connecticut. Michigan and upstate New York, southern Quebec, and the Maritimes have mostly the same trees as well. If you live in a different region, or are interested in other species, check the Guides on iNaturalist to see if someone made one relevant to your interests.