A blog about a first-time house owner learning to maintain his backyard, and thoughts about nature, science, history, and life.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Measuring Snow

I did a little post-Christmas shopping on Friday to pick up some things that I've badly needed.  The big acquisition was a camera...now I can stop taking crappy pictures with my iPhone, use a real zoom feature, and even take pictures at night.  I know how to press the shutter, adjust the zoom, and turn on the flash.  As far as I'm concerned, that's all I need to do.  The photos from this post are the first ones from the camera to make it onto the blog.  I also picked up a little threshold rug so that I can trample in and out of the back door without tracking snow all over the place, and I picked up a cheap white foam board so that I can measure the snowfall regularly.

A path to the snowboard.

The stick marks the spot.

I have a spot marked in the backyard where I keep the snowboard.  It's in the middle of the yard to avoid drifting near the house and under-accumulation near the trees.  I've shoveled myself a little path to get out to it, and it's marked by a stick that's now just barely sticking out over top of the snow that's been piling up.

Take a few menasurements.

When I measure the snow, I take a few measurements on the board and average them.  Even within the space of a few inches, the snow depth can vary by up to half an inch.  After I'm satisfied that I have a representative measurement, I reach down and pull up the board.  I clear it off, smooth out the snow where the board sits, and plop it back down, ready to receive more snow.  Now that the snow has piled up over a few days, I'm also measuring the total depth of the snow on the grass - not just the new snowfall.  For the record, we had 6.3" of new snow on Wednesday, an even 4.0" Friday into yesterday, and another 2.7" of lake effect on top of that last night into today.  We're in a weather pattern where we're looking at the potential for some light accumulations due to lake effect (likely less than an inch) through mid-week.

Pick up the snowboard and smooth out the snow.

Plop the snowboard back down, and it's ready for new snow.

Lazy or smart?

My house sits back from the road, so I have a pretty long driveway.  Rather than shovel the whole thing, I just dig out a path to the end of the driveway and keep the car parked by the road.  It works for now, but I might have to re-think this strategy if I have house-guests.  At least it works for now...  So...am I lazy or smart?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Why Did the Deer Cross the Road?

I saw an article yesterday mentioned in the Cornell University Facebook feed, and it happens to be great fodder for the blog.  The article interviewed a Cornell faculty member, Paul Curtis of the Natural Resources department, about the habits of deer, particularly with respect to their tendencies toward vehicular accidents.  I'll share some highlights from the article here and link to the whole thing below.

Deer accidents are most common in late fall and early winter - October, November, and December - because this is the breeding season.  Males tend to be a bit more concerned with chasing a mate than with looking both ways.  It also doesn't help that due to daylight savings time, later sunrises, and earlier sunsets, rush hour moves closer to dawn and dusk (when deer are most active) during these months.

There's also three weeks from late May through early June when accidents peak again, as females prepare to give birth and send their older fawns packing.  These yearlings are on their own for the first time, and they're likely exploring unfamiliar ground on top of that, as they have to establish their own territory.  Females tend to stay close to home - within 5 to 10 miles of their mother's range - but males can stray as far as 50 miles.  Around here, females would tend to stay in the county, while males could end up in the Syracuse or Binghamton areas!

The most surprising tidbit from the article was his advice for what to do if you are headed for a deer in the middle of the road and don't have time to brake.  "The best thing to do is to just hit the deer and keep driving as straight as possible and slow down as quickly as you can. Most people are injured in deer accidents when they try to swerve to avoid a deer. I tell motorists that the deer is the softest thing you’re likely to hit. The most serious human injuries incur when you hit a guardrail or tree."  Somehow, I don't think he's advising you to hit the accelerator.

He also blames the preponderance of deer accidents, at least in part, on the over-use of deer crossing signs.  Deer tend to follow the same paths (I've noticed this in my yard, and it's only become more obvious in the snow), so in theory, marking the most common trails with signs should reduce accidents  But the signs have been so common - and often say "Next 2 miles" rather than specifying a crossing - so that due to this over-saturation, we tend to ignore them.

There's more good stuff in the article; check it out!


Thursday, December 27, 2012

White Christmas in Freeville

First of all, apologies for the extended break from posting over the last couple of weeks.  After a long absence, snow has returned to Freeville.  Yes, we had a couple of nights with a dusting of snow earlier in December, but the snow machine didn't start in earnest until the past few days.  We had almost 3" of snow on the ground by the time I headed out of town this past Saturday morning, and there were still a couple of inches on the ground when I returned on Tuesday night.  So, yes, Freeville had a white Christmas this year.  Historically, we have about a 50% chance that there will be snow on the ground for Christmas.  A much larger snowstorm came through last night, with some heavy accumulations at times.  In all, we wound up with 6.3" of new snow in the backyard, bringing the total snow cover up to about 8".  In the photo above, you can probably make out my footprints into the middle of the backyard, where I have a makeshift snowboard set up.  We're looking at potentially another inch or two tonight as some lake effect snow kicks in - this often happens on the back side of big storms - and snow is in the forecast as at least a reasonable possibility for most of the next week.  Such is life in central New York.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Water, water everywhere...

If you've followed this blog for a while, you'll notice that something's missing in the picture above.  We've had nearly an inch and a half of rain in the past couple of days, and the creek has swollen to a level that I haven't seen before.  The dock is covered by about six inches of water, and rising.

The creek rose to within an inch or two of the lowest step on the dock.

I knew last night that the dock was in trouble.  I heard a steady rain coming down on the roof, and the radar showed a solid area of steady to heavy rainfall moving across the area.  The creek was still higher than normal from the inch-plus of rain that fell last weekend, and the ground was relatively moist as well.  This pretty much ensured that most of the rain that was falling would find its way, relatively soon, into the creek.

You can see the steel cable penetrating the water, where it is maintaining a firm hold on the dock.

A little Flash Flood 101 for you...  When rain lands on the grass, it usually percolates into the soil.  This process is known as infiltration.  But as more rain falls, the pores and interstices in the soil fill with water, and the soil becomes saturated.  There are two processes whereby rain will remain on the surface, slowly finding its way to ditches where it becomes ponded or to channels and rivulets where it is slowly (or sometimes quickly, if the surface is sloped) transported into a larger channel - a creek. 

The creek has covered much of the grass on the opposite bank.

The first of these processes is infiltration excess, which you can think of as a rate excess.  The rain is falling faster than the soil can absorb it.  This process requires relatively high rainfall rates - probably higher than the ones we experienced during all but the heaviest rains last night - and dominates particularly in arid areas, like the American Southwest.  The second process is known as saturation excess, and it occurs when the soil has become saturated, such that it cannot absorb more rainfall...there is simply no more room for water in the soil, so it collects on the surface.  My research group has found that saturation excess tends to be more common in the Northeast, particularly in parts of the Catskill Mountains where they have performed extensive studies.  Given the soil conditions and rainfall rates last night, it's likely that saturation excess dominated.

Plants that used to be comfortably on the bank are being swallowed up by the swollen waters.

We haven't had a steady, constant rain for the past 24 hours, and we haven't experienced any downpours with these precipitation systems comparable to the downpours that fell during thunderstorms in the late summer and early fall, but it's rained long and hard enough to be the most rain that we've experienced since I moved here.  Concerned about rain during the day and potentially below-freezing temperatures at night last week, I removed my rain gauge from the backyard so it wouldn't crack.  I neglected to put it back yesterday, so I have to rely on other reports to estimate the rainfall.  The weather station at Cornell, a few miles away and in an area that was on the fringe of the heaviest rains last night, reported 1.10" of rain through 8 am this morning.  Some of the hourly rainfall reports are missing from the Ithaca airport's observations in the early morning hours, so I can't rely on those.  I would guess, though, that we had a bit more rain than at Cornell, in the ballpark of 1.25", overnight.  But it has continued to rain today, and the rains picked up late this afternoon.  The Cornell station has reported an additional 0.19" of rain since 8 am, with most of it falling between 1 pm and now.  The Ithaca airport's report for the same timeframe is roughly the same.

The creek takes up the whole channel as it approaches the dock.

Every storm, for me, has been a new discovery of how the creek will respond.  And today, I was shocked to see how high it had risen.  Prior to today, the highest I'd seen the creek was early last week, when it had reached within a couple of inches of the top of the dock.  I was prepared to see the water perhaps lapping over the dock, but not to see it submerged by several inches of water.  It was also flowing faster than I've seen it. 

The creek is also carrying debris.  About 50 yards downstream of the dock, a fallen tree is collecting debris behind it,

I saw something floating on the water, and I strained to see what it was.  At first I thought that it was a log, but as it rotated I saw that it wasn't cylindrical in shape like a log, but rather appeared to have wings, like a bird.  If it was a bird, though, it was a relatively large bird.  Its body was brownish, and its head appeared to be white....it looked rather like a bald eagle.  But by the time I had come to this conclusion, it had floated too far downstream to capture a respectable picture of it.  The mystery of the floating bird will have to remain.

By late this afternoon, the creek was about to completely submerge the lowest step leading to the dock.  In the water beyond it, you may be able to make out the faint shadow of the dock itself.

In the meantime, it's still raining, and the creek is still rising.  When I checked on the creek upon arriving home in the waning daylight, it had come up another inch or two, and was now lapping onto the lowest step leading to the dock.  Seeing that it was safe, I ventured down there to make sure that the dock was still hanging in there under the surface.  I took a photo, and the lighter wood of the dock showed up more clearly than it was visible to my naked eye.  I think, despite the tremendous force of all that water, that the dock will hold its ground and still be there after the water recedes in another day or two. 

Looking into the water from the bottom step, you can see the lighter wood of the dock sitting a few inches below the surface.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

I decided to take five minutes out of my Christmas shopping hustle and bustle this weekend to stop at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for a quick five minutes to take a few pictures for the blog.  The lab is a few miles away from campus, and right across the highway from the Ithaca airport.  In the photo below, taken from one of the lab's parking lots, you can see a truck on the highway (towards the right) and in the background, you can see the fence that rings the airport and the terminal and a plane in the distance.

For being a haven to birds, both seasonal and migratory, the ornithology lab is located is a rather peculiar place.  As I said above, it's not far at all from a busy highway and a local airport.  Even closer to the lab, though, sit high-voltage power lines, looming over the parking lots and easily within eyesight of the visitor center.  And just down the street is a small neighborhood...far from the secluded setting one might expect.

An old barn sits in this general area, as well. 

But in the immediate surroundings of the lab itself, the natural setting quickly dominates.  Nestled into a wooded (and somewhat swampy) area, and backed by a scenic pond, the visitor center welcomes guests and also contains the lab itself, where the research is done.

A wooden trail leads from the outer parking lot to the lab, and this is where I'll leave the tour until the weather turns a bit warmer and less windy.  Hope you enjoyed a quick look at one of the many natural treasures that lie not far from Freeville.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Deer Fencing

One step I haven't taken in the yard is to protect my younger plants - especially the shrub that I planted in late October -  from hungry deer.  The shrub is supposed to be quite deer-resistant, so I'm expecting that now that's it's lost its leaves for the winter, it will be unappetizing to the deer.  But all around, I see plenty of people who have protected young trees and other plants from the hungry ungulates.  Come springtime, when I look to add more plants, shrubs, and trees to the yard, I may have to take that step.  I'll certainly look into it over the winter.  The photos in this post, by the way, were taken on the Cornell University campus near the man-made Beebe Lake, which is along Fall Creek several miles downstream from my house.

On a deer-related note,  I recently saw a road-kill deer about a mile down the road from my house, not far outside of the village limits.  I haven't seen the three deer who frequent my yard lately, but I hope it wasn't one of them.  The county has a deer overpopulation problem, it's true, but I haven't seen more than this family of three right in Freeville.

The Cornell campus and vicinity has a much larger deer problem.  I heard a few years ago that the deer population on campus was about 80, and I doubt that it's changed much since then.  The village of Cayuga Heights, which adjoins Cornell to the north, has recently decided to take action by sterilizing deer caught in its limits.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Freeville Tour: "Mid-town" Freeville

Freeville's not very big - the village has an area just over one square mile - but right in the middle of it lies the civic heart of town.  During the day it can be bustling - as bustling as a small rural town can be, anyway.

The Freeville elementary school, built in 1936, educates some of the youngest members of the community.  Older students travel a few miles down the road to Dryden for middle and high school.  When the school was built, according to a old newspaper clipping cited on Freeville's town website, it was “the finest one-story school in the State for design and construction.”  So far, the school has resisted any attempts to close it and consolidate with the other Dryden elementary school.

 Behind the school, on property owned by either the school or the church next door (I'm not sure which), sits a playground that the students use for recess (making an awful lot of noise while they're out there, I might add) and a small picnic pavilion. 

The Freeville United Methodist Church is one of two churches in town, but the only one in the heart of Freeville.  Founded in 1848 and re-organized in 1874, the church was moved to its present site in 1891 from its old location down the road.  It has apparently been expanded since then, and the social area around the back is used for all sorts of events, including town dinners and meetings, in addition to religious meetings.  Living right around the church, I've learned that the lights being on outside the rear entrance means that something is going on inside.

The church hosts monthly chicken barbecues during the warmer months; the last one was in November, and they'll resume next March, I believe.  The barbeque pit is located across the street from the church, along Groton Avenue.

Across from the elementary school, and next to the barbeque pit, sits the Freeville post office.  Built...well, sometime after 1936...it sits on the former site of the old Freeville high school.  The post office is the busiest place in town for six days a week, and I've noticed the headlights of cars dropping off their mail in the mailbox out front at all hours of the night.  As the village historian pointed out to me in her letter, some remnants of the old high school remain on the grounds.  Can you see it in the photo below?

Ok, it's a little hard to see, so here's another shot from a different angle:

Yup, it's the walkway that led from the sidewalk (or street) to the front of the school.

The Union School, as it was called, was closed in 1936 as the Freeville and Dryden high schools consolidated, and the building was torn down sometime after that.

Finally, in front of the barbeque pit stands the town's bus stop, which connects Freeville with the Cornell campus and Ithaca.  A relic from what is now an old era hides behind the bus shelter - a payphone.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Feed the Birds...

Before I get to the topic of today's post, a quick update on the weather and the creek.  We've had the rainiest week since I moved here, and as a consequence, the creek is also the highest it's been in that time and running faster than I've seen it.  The dock is within a couple of inches of being completely submerged, but it's holding strong.  I think, having watched it withstand relatively high levels of water before, that it would take something like a flood wave to displace it.

One of the interesting things about my yard is that I never know what I'll find in it.  In the letter that I recently received from the village's unofficial historian, she mentioned that one of the previous owners of the property next door, which was carved out of my property, ran a car garage repair shop and "didn't keep things very neat, so you might find most anything out back."  And I certainly have.

But this post starts with something that I found out front.  In the photo above, you probably don't see anything out of the ordinary.  And in my first three months of living here, neither did I.  But this weekend I happened to look at the ground near the base of the tree, and I found an artifact from a former homeowner who apparently loved birds.  Some time ago, I posted about a suet feeder that's nailed to one of the trees in the backyard.  In the frontyard, they kept a more conventional bird feeder.

When I examined the feeder up close, I found that the birds hadn't completely emptied it before it fell to the ground.  It appeared to be full of some strange combination of birdseed, mud, and mold.

This was an ironic find, because earlier in the afternoon, I had taken a quick survey of the natural food sources for the birds that are going to tough out the winter here around my yard.  They seem to spend most of their time in the nature preserve on the other side of the creek, but I've seen them invade my yard in numbers on a feeding spree before, and I expect as they get hungry they'll do so again.  Right now, it's still relatively warm, and we haven't had too many cold nights, so there are still some prey - of the insect variety - around.  Yes, that's a rather large mosquito silhouetted against the clouds in the photo below (only a few inches above the camera), not a bird flying high.

Most of the birds that I've seen invade my yard, though, have been small seed-eaters like sparrows.  There's still plenty of seed there for the taking.  There are the smaller trees that I haven't identified yet (though I do have a tree identification book now) that have clusters of purplish seeds high on their branches.  The birds seemed to enjoy these quite a bit, and the branches offer a sturdy spot from which to peck at them.

And then, closer to the ground, there are smaller clusters of seeds (the brighter patches in the photo below) on the top of the many goldenrod plants that are scattered in the wildflower patch beneath those trees.  These may harder for the birds to get at, because the goldenrod stalks are too narrow and fragile to support a bird's weight.  I did see some smaller birds feasting on goldenrod seeds from the comfort of a fallen tree branch, though, and over time I expect that the goldenrod stalks will continue to bend over, bringing the seeds closer to the ground.

And finally, for the berry-eaters out there, though the raspberries are long gone from the black raspberry plants, the other thorny plants in the yard (which I haven't yet identified) sprouted small red berries late in the summer or early in the fall, and these - I assume they're edible - remain there for the picking.  It would seem that even if I don't clean the bird feeder and keep it filled or provide suet in the suet feeder, there's still plenty of food to keep the birds coming back to the yard this winter.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Sunrise, Sunset...

Below is a post that I've shamelessly copied from the Mount Holly, NJ (Philadelphia area) National Weather Service office's Facebook page.  I somehow didn't realize that sunrise/sunset times don't exactly coincide with the longest and shortest days of the year....and here's why...

"The sun does not set any earlier than it does now. Below is an explanation as to why it does not coincide with the solstices either on the first days of winter or summer.

If you follow sunrise and sunset times, you’ll notice that on D
ecember 11th rounded to the nearest minute, the sun starts setting later in Philadelphia (436 pm) than it does today (435 pm). With the winter solstice still 12 days away how can this occur around the same time every year?

There are two reasons. One is that a solar day (defined as the time it takes to sun to return to your meridian (or longitude) is not the same throughout the year even though our clock days are always 24 hours. It takes the earth 23 hours and 56 minutes to make one complete rotation, but the earth is not stationary, its also revolving. On average it takes an extra four minutes for the sun to return to the same point in the sky because of the combination of rotation and revolution and is defined as a solar day.

This time of year, the earth is nearing its perihelion (closest distance to the sun) which will occur on January 2, 2013. This shows that the earth’s tilt is more important than its distance from the sun in causing our seasons. When the earth is closer to the sun, it is also revolving faster. Thus a solar day is longer than 24 hours. That extra time needed for the sun to return to the same meridian not only “causes” the sun to set later, but will also “causes” later sunrises into early January. The opposite, although not as pronounced, effect occurs around the start of summer. The reduced difference then has to do with reason number two. The sun starts rising later before the summer solstice and the latest sunsets are in very late June.

The second and larger reason is the earth’s tilt itself, called the obliquity of the axis. This one is more difficult to explain and astronomical web sites will give you better explanations than we can. In summary, the earth’s tilt causes the length of solar days to be at their longest around the solstices and shortest around the equinoxes. If you notice, the greatest gains and losses of daylight occur around the time of the equinoxes. Both factors combine to make this effect greater around the winter solstice, but offset each other somewhat around the summer solstice.

A bit of local Philadelphia area trivia as the chart shows: the sun will always set earlier on Thanksgiving Day than it does on Christmas Day even though Christmas is nearly at the winter solstice. Enjoy the later sunsets that are about to start!"

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Drifting Away

When I strolled down to the dock yesterday, I noticed something stuck against the edge of the dock, and my curiosity persuaded me to reach down and pick it up.  It was a small piece of driftwood, completely stripped of its bark.  I plopped it back in the water and took a picture of it, which you can see above.  Then, curiosity goaded me into taking a series of picture to see where the creek took it.

It started to drift past the dock, and at the same time, the piece of wood started to slowly rotate.

It was pushed toward the near bank, slowly rotating all the while.

I had to take pictures every 30 seconds or so to capture the rotation.  Even though the creek was running relatively high, it wasn't running all that fast...faster than normal, but no faster than I can walk.

Though the wood was approaching the bank, it didn't appear to be in any danger of being "beached".

Its course followed the line of the bank, maybe 3 feet or so from the bank's edge.  All the while, the stick continued to rotate.

In the above picture, it almost seems to get lost amid the branches from the tree in the foreground.

As the bank curved near the tree that bends over the creek, the piece of wood was guided calmly along the bend.

By this time, it was pretty clear that the wood's journey would be a short one today.  As it passed over the reflection of the tree, it became obvious that it was headed straight for a patch of what appeared to be brush growing right in the creek.  I could see other small pieces of driftwood that had been caught, soon to be joined by another.

I had to add a little circle to this picture to show you my piece of wood barreling straight for the "brush".

And finally, the wood has blended right in with the other trapped detritus.  I guess it will have to wait and see if the plants die off this winter, unless we happen to get a vigorous rainstorm that gets the creek moving enough to set it free.  Altogether, this took maybe five minutes to happen.