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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.

Second Winter

It had been a rather cold Vermont winter, at least by normal standards. Temperatures dropped below zero again and again, especially in January. February was slightly warmer, but came with two big snowstorms. With a foot of snow on the ground and everyone’s wood pile looking meager, it was welcome when temperatures started moderating a bit in late February.

But then they stopped. They turned around and went the other direction. This March we have been experiencing what some jokingly have called Second Winter (of course a reference to ‘second breakfast’ of Hobbit fame).

First, temperatures plunged well below zero at the beginning of March. Then they moderated a bit… followed by the biggest snowstorm of the year, dropping a foot and a half or more in much of Vermont, along with very heavy winds. After that temperatures plunged below zero again. Two mornings ago it was -14, and two records were set that night – one just before midnight and the other just as the sun rose (two different days…). It was the coldest Saint Patrick’s Day on record for much of Vermont.

This is to be expected in January or February, but at this point we are in the second half of March. The sun angle is high, and at this moment it eked above freezing and water is dripping off of the roof. It will be back in the single digits tonight, though. After that we can expect a few storms with a mix of rain, sleet, and snow to move through… but probably mostly snow. At this point there is two feet of snow on the ground and it’s not likely to melt much in the next 10 days, at least when you consider what will fall in that time as well.

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The cold is remarkable, and we will almost certainly experience one of the coldest Marches on record if not the coldest. But what is even more remarkable is that two years ago at this time it was literally pushing 80 degrees. Many plants were leafing out and flowering! The MAPLES were flowering, which meant the end of the maple tapping season. This year there has been barely any sap flow at all. Last year’s March was relatively normal, but it is bracketed between two truly strange springs… one that skipped to summer and the other that failed to arrive – or at least was quite late.

CLimatewise, the warm spring was more odd than the cold spring, but both are probably related to the same factor. If any so called ‘global warming denialists’ find this post, they may be tempted to post that ‘second winter’ is evidence that the climate is not warming. But.. California, Alaska, and many other areas are in fact experiencing record warmth. While it’s hard to say for sure, it may all be related to the same jet stream pattern I’ve been blabbering on about for years.

I love winter, don’t get me wrong. but being late March and all, I am ready to see some crocuses and spring beauty blooming. At this point… well for all I know they ARE blooming, because I can’t see them. I can’t see the ground under the two foot deep, heavy icy snowpack. If we move straight to summer, ice jam and snowmelt floods are likely. All we can do is hope that April stays a bit cooler than usual, and relatively dry.

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California Flows, Vermont Freezes

This weekend, for the first time in a long time, the canyons of southern California roared with high water. At the same time, the shores of lakes and most rivers and streams in Vermont were oddly still.

The creeks in California were fed by a miracle of sorts. Not of the magnitude of the Miracle March of 1991, which marked the end of a seven year drought, but a miracle nonetheless. The deluge dropped several inches on LA and over 10 inches in the wetter parts of the Transverse Range above Ventura and Santa Barbara. These rains were similar in magnitude to the rains associated with Tropical Storm Irene in Vermont, but instead of a disaster they brought relief. (In addition to VERY dry preceding conditions, extreme rains of 10+ inches are more common in California’s mountains than in Vermont).

At least four feet of snow fell in parts of the Sierras. There has been nearly no snow before this point, and those mountains often have 10, 15, or even 20 feet of snow in early March… so the drought is not over. But four feet of snow is a heck of a lot better than four inches, which is about what we were working with before. Meanwhile, the sometimes incredible Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve picked up almost four inches of rain. Desert flowers like those that occur on this edge of the Mojave Desert are experts at taking advantage of sporadic extreme rainfall events, so there may be a poppy display this year after all. (It probably won’t be a banner year, but may be worth seeing. A full poppy bloom is one of the most vibrant plant displays I have ever seen, its only rival I know of is Vermont’s maple forest in a good fall foliage year).

Of course, in the long run, one storm doesn’t end a drought. Especially one storm with torrential rains – much of the water probably rushed down creeks into the ocean, or worse, into gutters and thus into the ocean along with oil anyod garbage. If you have a rainwater collection system set up, even a massive cistern would now be full, but otherwise much of the water has returned to the sea. It’s still not a small thing. Despite the drought, for at least a few days the canyons will sing with the roar of creeks and seasonal arroyos filled to the brim. Life moves on, with what it is given to work with.

So why are the rivers of Vermont mostly silent? Has the drought spread across the continent? Nope… but the cold of winter has settled in to March with no sign of leaving. A bit over a week ago there was a brief thaw, and it rained on our copious snowpack. This did not melt all the snow, but mashed it down to a crusty foot or so. Then the weather got cold. The forecast is for around -15 here tonight. The March sun has been working on evaporating way some of the snow on steep south-facing slopes, but most of the snow is hanging tight or even deepening with a few quick snow showers. (Most of the big storms on the news are missing us to the south, since we are firmly on the cold side of the jet stream). Lake Champlain is frozen across from shore to shore, which means any other lake in Vermont is frozen also. Nearly all of the rivers are frozen over or close to it. The North Branch in Montpelier at the little mill dam is about as frozen as it can get.

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Of course, areas of fast-moving water are still open… or at least some of them. I saw one river in Barre where one of the thaws had lifted up the ice on a fast flowing section of river, and the lower water is now hidden completely under the ice. It sure wouldn’t be safe to walk on, but it’s frozen over.

During the brief thaw last week, I got the chance to visit an ‘ice cave’ in an old quarry.
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Despite the thaw that had melted soe of the snow and ice outside the quarry, this sheltered east-facing cave showed no signs of melting of any sort. Icicle stalactites hung from the roof and walls.
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I’m always very reluctant to walk or skate on ice unless I am certain it is safe. After all, despite the cold winter, there had been a thaw at least outside of the quarry. But it turned out there was no cause for concern here, and it didn’t take an ice auger to test the thickness of the ice. Because no snow and very little wind affects the little pool in the ice cave, the ice that forms here is perfectly clear. It was possible to see the thickness of the ice because it was filled with surreal bubbles trapped within.

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The ice was well over a foot thick… probably much thicker… throughout the entire pool. In theory the ice would be able to support a large truck, though thankfully there was no way to get one in there.

Despite knowing the ice was thick, there was something a bit scary about skating on clear ice speckled with bubbles. It felt a bit like levitating over an ocean full of jellyfish.

The ice on the rivers and ponds is not going anywhere any time soon. There may be brief dips above freezing this Friday and Saturday, but no significant thaws look likely for the first half of the month. As for California, unfortunately no other storms are on the horizon. It may end up being a year of just one miracle.