Archive for January, 2010

HSR in Our Town

January 29, 2010

There’s some train tracks in our neighborhood. They’re not used very much. Just to haul coal or slag a few times a day. Every year around this time they seem to be doing some routine maintenance but this year they seemed to be doing a little more than usual.  Instead of just replacing a few scattered ties, they have been replacing sections.  And then the other day I saw that they were clearing brushy box elder trees that had grown up in the margin of the right-of-way, just inside the fence that separates the ROW from the neighborhood park.

Future Midwestern High Speed Rail Corridor

Well, this morning as I took my first sip of coffee, they announced on the radio that we were getting a high speed rail line.  Not just in my state, but 200ft from my front door.  Am I happy? Oh yeah.  I’ll probably reconsider walking the dog along the tracks when it is built but that’s a sacrifice I can make.

Ice Dams, Ho!

January 29, 2010

Because my eyes had been fixed on the ice block falling towards my head, I didn’t see my wife pull into the driveway to witness me knocking the block loose with a shovel and then jumping aside.  I did look up to see her sitting in her car with an astonished look on her face.  One that communicated something between “What an idiot!” and “What a jackass!” 

We have a one and a half story house that turns out to have some insulation problems in the roof. Specifically, in the area that spans between the kneewalls in the little upstairs bedrooms and above the soffits, where the roof comes down to meet the gutter.  This poor insulation created a warm roof that slowly melted the +2 feet of snow that fell on the roof in December. However, when it melted, it did not drain down the gutter; rather it pooled up and created a block of ice over a foot thick that sat on the gutter for the length of the house.  An ice dam completely tore off a gutter of one neighbor’s house. And another neighbor faced the worst case scenario where the gradually melting water gradually backed up under the shingles and gradually seeped down the insides of the walls of his house which abruptly cost him and his wife $7000.

Yesterday, I had a home energy efficiency expert, Mike, perform an audit on our house and it was a fascinating experience.  Mike started by asking me about the house, how long we planned to live here and what our goals for the house are.  Then he hooked up the blower door fan which blew air out of the house and pulled air into the house via cracks and holes.  It turns out the house is actually pretty well- sealed but there is definitely room for improvement in some odd places I never would have found like along the beam that bisects the kitchen ceiling.  See, half the kitchen was an addition and the beam covers the juncture where addition meets the old part of the house.  I guess they ran out of caulk.

While the blower door test finds the cracks, the infrared sensor allowed us to see the cold spots in the walls where the insulation was insufficient.  I was excited to learn that we don’t need to spend a couple grand on getting insulation blown in between all the studs in the house.  I was also disappointed to learn that the walls weren’t stuffed with long-forgotten cash from a former owner.

Mike did some other cool stuff and I should be getting a report in a few weeks that will prioritize some improvements based on performance and return-on-investment and provide some references of qualified contractors.  I think anybody with an older house could really benefit from getting one of these performed and it sounds like there’s going to be some federal incentives for folks to get these done. Go for it.  And then you won’t have to knock ice dams off your roof.

X-Mas trees, Voles, Owls, and Spruces

January 16, 2010

This was the first year that we decided to put up a Christmas tree so the four of us (wife, baby, dog and I) walked over to the neighborhood nursery and picked out a small Frasier fir. Small enough for me to carry home and small enough to not overwhelm our family room.  When it came time to dispose of the tree I decided to cut the limbs off and throw onto the pile of branches etc. behind the garage thinking this could provide some cover for some small mammal, some safe access to the sub-nivean space.  To the city’s credit, they have two collection periods and drive around chipping on-site which seems to make a lot of sense to me. Then all the chipped material goes back to the giant mulch piles which the city opens to the public throughout the growing season.

This morning while out with the dog I saw the neighbor’s had their tree out for collection and it reminded me of my pile of branches. I went back there hoping I might be able to make out some tracks but due to the recent warm-up, the tracks had faded. The good news is that there were a lot of tracks and a lot of different types of tracks. I’m looking forward to getting back there after a fresh snowfall so I can try to key them out as I’ve never been very good with small mammals.

The last few winters a barred owl has taken up residence in our neighborhood and has regularly used the nearest to my property of five evergreens that run along the back of my neighbor Lenny’s property.  Owl pellets, random feathers, and copious amounts of owl shit underneath and streaking down the tree made for pretty good evidence the barred owl was using the tree as a feeding station.  The base of this tree is about ten feet from the branch pile so who knows, maybe if the owl decides to return this winter I might have a hand in presenting it a meal.

As I was looking at the evergreens this morning, I realized that I wasn’t exactly sure which species they were.  It’s been many years since I did a lot of field work and many more since I did field work in conifer forests.  I got out the tree book and started looking. Spruces rang true but which one I wasn’t sure. I went back out, clipped a twig and a cone and found a simple key online. White spruce it is. Until I hear otherwise.

I had noticed that the spruces didn’t look terrific with yellowing of the needles. In fact, there used to be a sixth spruce on the next neighbor’s property but that one died and fell on her garage roof where parts still lay today.  White spruce has been a species impacted by “forest decline” across the U.S. and Europe. Where I live is at the southern end of their native range but accounts of spruce decline have been recorded in the National Forests a few hundred miles north.  I doubt there is much I can do to impact the health of these spruces but I should probably try and get a head start on planting some trees that are native well to the south of us as well. Perhaps some white pines. For my daughter’s owls.

Mid-January 2010

January 16, 2010

It’s mid-January and the cold snap has finally broken. This past Tuesday and Wedenesday (the 13th and 14th) were the first days we’ve gotten above 32۫ F since Christmas.  Ten years ago when I worked at Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge my boss told me that there was always a mid-January thaw. I don’t know how often that is the case but it has felt pretty nice the last couple of days.

Last weekend I went X-country skiing at a couple of local parks hoping to see some birds but there was very little out there on both days. Crows, chickadees, red-tailed hawks, blackbirds and a few juncoes. I checked the Christmas Bird Count data that was submitted for my area and there was quite a bit identified but that ran from December 14th to January 5th.  I also wasn’t near any open water. 

The seed catalogs have started rolling in.  I’ve been spending a bit of time going reviewing the Prairie Moon Nursery catalog, trying to figure out what to plant on the north side of my garage. When we first moved htat spot was home to a 10′ tall stand of japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum).  I had a co-worker create a custom herbicide mix and I spot sprayed small rings of herbicide the size of quarters on the leaves of the plant. I waited patiently for 2 weeks and then the whole stand dropped to the ground.  I cut the material and put it in its own pile to decompose. Every year the knotweed attempts to come back, and I am continually pulling it and occasionally spraying it. I thought it was gone until I found it had taken refuge behind the neighbors shed.  Lenny, my neighbor, also dumped 200ft of torn up sod into an old dog run on his property just to the north of where I am hoping to plant something.  That sod was quickly covered by creeping charlie which will be eager to colonize my property which is now just covered in bark chips.

The sensible thing for me to do would be to ask around to see if anyone will let me split off some of their hostas and ostrich ferns. Both of these would do well in this shady area and would further shade out any other weeds like the horsetail that tried to invade last year.  Ideally though, I’d like to get a nice mix of native woodland plants like I have on the north side of the house. Unfortunately, that took three years to really get established and it costs quite a bit more than digging up someone’s back yard. Probably the best route will be to order some basics like wild ginger and wild geranium, get those in the ground early and then keep my eye out for any freebies that I can transplant. I’ll keep you posted.