Thursday, December 13, 2018

Norway Maple - Invasive Species

Norway maple as an urban and suburban tree is so well established that it feels counter-productive to proclaim that it is an invasive species. It is. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts prohibits the import, sale, trade or propagation of Norway maple trees. The ban dates to 2005, when the Massachusetts Invasive Plants Advisory Group proposed an initial list, last updated February 2017. From “The Massachusetts Prohibited Plant List prohibits the importation, sale, and trade of plants determined to be invasive in Massachusetts. This ban also covers the purchase and distribution of these plants and related activities, and includes all cultivars, varieties and hybrids of the species listed.” The rules do not affect existing Norway maples already within the landscape, only bringing in or creating (from seed) new trees.

Norway maple cultivars offered by garden supply businesses
include varieties that have 'copper' or purple leaves. In this
photograph, the dark leaf came from a sun-exposed part of
the tree while the green leaf was from deep shade.
Worldwide, there are more than 100 species of maple trees (genus: Acer). Most are native to Asia. Here in New England the native species we see are red silver and sugar maple. In leaf, there is a nice mnemonic to remember which is which: each leaf has three lobes if r-e-d or five lobes if s-u-g-a-r. Leaves on silver maples – also known as swamp or water maples - have five lobes, but this species thrive best near or in wetlands, and so differentiates from sugar maple. Norway maple leaves also have five lobes, but differences in the leaf stem and bark help us tell the difference. For sugar maple, a snapped stem seeps clear, whereas for Norway maple, white. Sugar maples also have a more shaggy bark. In the fall, the native species color up in the orange to red spectrum, while Norway maple leaves lean toward yellow/orange.   

Three differences make Norway maple a yard bane compared to red or sugar maple. Seed production is more prolific, meaning that all summer one will be pulling seedlings out of garden beds. Branches are more likely to break in storms – due to weaker wood – and so more time playing pick-up-sticks. Roots are very close to the surface, to the point of stunting or stopping any grass, weed or groundcover plants underneath. As roots extend sideways roughly as wide as the crown of the tree above ground, this can create a large area of bare earth under the tree.     

The winged seeds are called ‘samaras’. Why? I don’t know.  The term describes all tree seeds that are incorporated into a flattened, papery casing so that they are easily windblown. Much like oaks and beech trees, heavy maple seed production occurs every two to three years. Interestingly, for sugar maples good sap yield in early spring presages a strong seed year, but then sap production is reduced for the spring following that strong seed year, suggesting that the trees have only so much carbohydrate reserves to either create seeds or promote growth. Samaras tend to detach from their stems on windy days, which promotes better dispersal.   

Norway maples have a long history in North America. Credible reports date the introduction to the mid-1700s for New England, perhaps a century later for the west coast.  During the mid-twentieth century urban and suburban plantings of Norway maple trees were common, especially as a replacement for the loss of American elms from Dutch elm disease. With adequate sunlight, adult trees can be 40-50 feet tall and equally wide. The species is tolerant of poor soil and a range of water conditions from drought to wet soil, but fares poorly as a sidewalk installation tree as it prefers to establish a wide, shallow root bed. Lifespan is short compared to native species. Yard, park and cemetery plantings done 50-70 years ago show their age in increased loss of large branches from storms followed by slow replacement growth.

As to why designated invasive in Massachusetts, seeds from suburban plantings are wind-blown into bordering forests. There, due to its shade-tolerant nature as a seedling and sapling, Norway maples out-compete native species. The dense canopy it creates combined with its shallow root system means that forest diversity declines. The loss of understory plants cascades into a less hospitable environment for insects and the animal species that prey on them.

Conservation agents for Massachusetts cities and towns may consider establishing an anti-invasive plants program, but the reality is that killing mature Norway maple trees – the most effective way to stop seed production – is lower on the list than addressing faster-growing/spreading invasive species such as Oriental bittersweet and Japanese knotweed.

Previous plant winners of this column's "Invasive Species of the Year" are in a September 2012 item at Future candidates include Japanese barberry, purple loosestrife…

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Eastern Coyotes have Wolf Genes

One hundred years ago Massachusetts had no wolves - they had been hunted to local extinction. Coyotes were not here yet. Their natural territory was mostly west of the Mississippi River. During the middle of the last century coyotes started appearing in upstate New York, and as time went on spread to the New England states. Today, most town woods, parks and golf courses have coyotes in residence. Sightings are common within Boston city limits. Estimates are that there are 5,000 to 10,000 coyotes in Massachusetts. But are these western coyotes migrating east, or something else entirely?

Eastern coyote, Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA (internet download)
The answer – something else. Anyone who has visited the southwest knows the coyote as a 25-35 pound predator and scavenger more comfortable in open country than woodlands. What we have locally are coyotes, more on the order of 35-55 pounds. Their coats are thicker. Their jaws are wider and stronger. Typical coat color is a grizzled gray but can vary from creamy blonde to red or nearly solid black – the same color range seen in wolves. In the vacuum left by the absence of wolves, they are the apex predator. Although much of what they eat is still small game and fresh roadkill, they are successful hunters of deer.

Grey wolf, average adult weight 90 pounds (internet download)
As it turns out, our local coyotes are coyote-wolf hybrids. DNA analysis confirms that coyotes migrated from the mid-west northward into Ontario and Quebec 80-100 years ago, where they mated with remnant populations of red wolves. Small numbers of these coy-wolves crossed the St. Lawrence Seaway to New York, either during winter ice-over, or perhaps on bridges. This fast-spreading, east-spreading population has been referred to as a “hybrid swarm.” Purebred “western” coyotes also moved east across Ohio and western Pennsylvania, but more slowly, and without the size change. Earlier arguments that what we see in the east are coyote-dog hybrids does not stand up to examination. Genetically, the animals are about 30 percent wolf, perhaps with a trace of dog genes. Coyotes and wolves mate in late winter for spring litters, plus males actively partake in feeding and caring of pups – two traits not seen in dogs.

Western coyote, average weight 25-35 pounds (internet download)
What does it mean that wolves, in the form of these coy-wolves, are in New England?  Hunting pressure by coy-wolves is beginning to slow the runaway deer population. Ditto the Canada geese population, although purebred coyotes manage that just as well in the midwest. Pressure is also increased on the feral cat population, and probably wild turkey, rabbits, opossums, woodchucks, etc. In suburban and urban areas the culprit tipping over garbage cans is more likely to be coyotes than raccoons.

Being a good neighbor to your local coy-wolf means not putting food outside for your pets. Or for that matter, your pets. Letting a cat out for the night is bad odds for getting that cat back in the morning. Walk your dog on a leash, especially in the woods. At home, a five-foot fenced yard should be enough to protect your pets, chickens, and other animals. Coyotes and coy-wolves are less adverse to living near human habitat than pure wolves, but they still tend to be shy. Although preferred hunting time is late evening and early morning, a coyote hanging out in broad daylight is not necessarily a sick or rabid animal. Still, peace of mind recommends reporting to the police, who will forward the information to an animal control officer. A recent item in the Stow police blotter had an officer reporting to a daytime coyote sighting, and chasing it away by throwing snowballs.

Grey fox, average weight ~ 10 pounds
Note long tail relative to body size
Click on photos to enlarge
Winter coyote sightings will usually be of individual animals. In spring, coyotes pair up for mating, and then raising the pups. From mid-summer into fall sightings can include one or both parents with the pups along for hunting lessons. By fall the family unit can resemble a wolfpack, as the youngsters are nearly adult size. Dispersal occurs in late fall, with the now-adult animals wandering many miles to find a territory not already claimed by a mated pair, and then find a mate. More people hear the yipping of coyotes than ever see one.   

Jonathan G. Way has spent years studying coyotes in eastern Massachusetts and elsewhere. His book, Surburban Howls, is a great read. He is trying to establish a no-hunting, coy-wolf wildlife refuge on Cape Cod. He also operates as a very informative website. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Maynard Tear-Downs: History Lost or Good Riddance?

One of Maynard's two mill chimneys being removed in 1956.
At base, a hole on other side allowed workers to remove the
fallen bricks and mortar. Click on photo to enlarge.
Courtesy Maynard Historical Society.
Let’s start with a historic tear-down from October 1956. Prior to then, the mill complex had two tall chimneys of near-equal height, neither functional any more, one of yellow brick, on the north side of the windowless Building 9. Both chimneys dated to when coal-fueled steam engines powered the entire mill. Men climbed an iron-rung ladder affixed to the outside of the chimney. A ring of scaffolding was created at the top. The men used sledge hammers to knock bricks inward. At the bottom, a large hole had been made in one side, so the rubble could be wheel-barrow away and into trucks. The scaffolding was progressively lowered until the chimney was gone. The rubble was dumped into the mill pond to help create the parking lot used for the farmers’ market. At a later time the other chimney was shortened, capped, and had cell phone antennae added to the outside.

In 2016 Mill & Main removed Buildings 10 and 2A as part of a plan to open up the complex to Main Street, with intention to add retail and restaurant businesses. Extensive landscaping was completed in 2018, but for now, no retail. What was lost? Both buildings were of brick and timber construction, two stories tall, size roughly 15x40 yards, exterior walls incorporating roughly 100,000 bricks. Maynard Historical Society records tentatively date both ex-buildings to 1887, but the well-known aerial view image from 1879 shows what looks like Building 2A already in place. Taking the entire mill into account, the existing buildings range from 1859 to 1918 (clocktower 1892).

Brick wall from Building 2A.
Elsewhere in Manyard, there has been a series of commercial building tear-downs catalyzed by Jimmy MacDonald’s desire to meet rental demands by constructing brick three- or four-story apartment buildings. His efforts began at 60 Summer Street in 2004, continued at the corner of Waltham and Parker Streets, then to 10-12 Main Street. In all of these instances, empty or marginal wood-frame buildings were torn down. Were they historic? Perhaps. Salvageable? Unlikely.

MacDonald’s current plans involve the Gruber Bros Furniture building on Main Street and 42 Summer Street. Parts of Gruber Bros date to the late 1800s, but a major fire in 1934 and multiple remodelings since left little that could be considered historic. The yellow building at 42 Summer Street, originally a private dwelling, then the W.A. Twombly Funeral Home, most recently a consignment shop, is also heading for a resurrection as a brick box of apartments. On the other hand, MacDonald bought the run-down apartment building at 145 Main Street, originally the home of Amory Maynard in the 1860s, and did a make-over rather than a tear-down. He also did rehabs of several old but less historically significant woodframe buildings on Florida Street.

Nason Street parking garage (1964-2014), demolished because
pieces of concrete were falling on cars parked underneath.
The previous Maynard High School (1964-2013) is a memory, as is Memorial Gym, once upon a time adjacent to ArtSpace, gone in 2012. The school was replaced, the gym not. The two-level parking garage off Nason Street vanished in 2014 leaving behind a structure to hold the electric car charging apparatus. Removing any evidence of a railroad was a years long process. Passenger service from Maynard ended in 1958. The train station was demolished in 1960. Twenty years later the elevated berm behind The Outdoor Store was removed to create a parking lot, also removed at that time the railroad bridges over the Assabet River and Florida Street. The last vestiges of railroad track were removed for scrap steel in 2014, making way for the Assabet River Rail Trail.  

While Maynard’s business buildings at times disappeared with barely a whimper, private house tear-downs are a rarity. The main reason for this is small lots. Neighboring towns with higher value real estate often have modest, older houses, on sizable lots. Zoning may allow destruction of the existing house, to be replaced by a much larger house – possibly even to the maximum size zoning for that lot allows. Even if there are zoning restrictions to keeping the ‘footprint’ of the new house to the foundation of the old house, zoning boards can be lenient in granting exceptions. The reasoning behind this is that replacement with larger single-family dwelling is unlikely to add to the town’s infrastructure or school budgets, whereas an increase in property tax will apply.

Mansard-roof house next to ArtSpace, torn down 2018. The
sign at the corner of Summer and Concord Streets honors one
of the eight Maynard men who died in World War I.
There are exceptions. Earlier this year a mansard-roofed house in a state of disrepair, but dating to the 1870s, was torn down and replaced by a nondescript two-story house. The building in question was at 71 Summer Street, just west of ArtSpace. It was one of fewer than ten mansard-roofed homes in Maynard (a trio of which grace the south end of Maple Street).

Towns can establish historic districts in an effort to retain a commonality of ‘feel’ to neighborhoods and business districts, or else identify individual buildings as having historic value. The Maynard Historical Commission (MHC) has established a list of some 50 or so historically significant properties in Maynard. The list (available on the town’s website) includes a handful of houses that pre-date 1800 and many of the commercial buildings flanking Main, Nason and Summer Streets. Sometimes the original function is gone but the exterior remains, examples being St. George’s Episcopal Church on Summer Street, now condominium apartments, and Roosevelt School, now the Maynard Public Library.

From the MHC: “Maynard Historical Commission’s mission is to preserve, protect and develop the historic and archaeological assets of the community; ensure that the goals of historic preservation are considered in the planning and future development of the community. and future development of the community. The Commission also reviews and enforces the town’s Demolition Delay Bylaw in concert with the Building Inspector.”

The by-law was approved at a Town Meeting in January 2017. The bylaw’s purpose is to preserve and protect significant buildings or other structures within the Town of Maynard which constitute or reflect distinctive features of the architectural, cultural, economic, political or social history of the Town. Owners of what have been identified as buildings that should be preserved are encouraged to consider rehabilitation and restoration of the exteriors of buildings. Demolitions can be delayed for a period of time. Specifically, if a demolition permit is requested and the building is on the significant properties list, an addendum must be filed and then reviewed by the Historical Commission to determine if the building is still considered significant. Next, goes to a public hearing. If that favors preservation there is a delay of up to twelve months while MHC works with the applicant to see if there is an alternative to demolition. If yes, saved. If not, not, and demolition can proceed. Lastly, if a building owner ignores the demolition delay process and tears down the building, a two-year delay will be imposed on getting a building permit to build on that site.   

Maynard Historical Marker - Fine Arts Theater.
Prior to that, car dealership and service station, 
and before that horse livery (all same family).
The Commission also created a Historical Marker Program in 2012 to highlight important buildings and landmarks with permanent historical markers. Examples can be seen on the exterior of the Fine Arts Theater and The Outdoor Store. Residents throughout the town can also contact the MHC to have a thorough history review done on their own private property and celebrate their home with a plaque. The closest Maynard has to a historic district is Presidental Village, so-named due to the streets being named after presidents. The neighborhood has its own Wikipedia entry, but no official designation from the town.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

2018: A Wet, Warm Year

MAYNARD, MA: As 2018 draws to a close, there is a sense that this has been a rainy year, with a delayed start to winter weather. True or not? Trend or not?

True. Using Boston weather data, through November 7th there has already been 44 inches of precipitation for the year. That figure counts rain and melted snow. The yearly average is 43.8 inches, so the average was exceeded with nearly two months to go. Closing out the year, long-term data predicted an additional 6.8 inches of precipitation by the end of December. However, by the time you read this, Maynard may have already gotten an additional 2-3 inches of rain, and perhaps a bit of snow. And right now, the extended Thanksgiving weekend is looking to be wet. For those who cannot remember what the whole year was like, March and April were well above average, May through July was drought, then August through now have been well above average.

UPDATE: Through morning of December 7th, Boston reports 50.3 inches of precipitation. Locally, the 2018-2019 winter has had five inches of snow.

Left scale is Assabet River volume in cfs, indicated by the swooping
line. Horizontal lines are also inches of precipitation per month, amounts
indicated by rain drops or snow flakes. Summer is not a low precipitation
season, but because plants take up so much water, the river is low.
This is in stark contrast to the extended drought that had persisted from 2012 through 2017. As for long-term trends – wetter. Massachusetts records dating to before 1900 show that average annual precipitation was in range of 35 to 40 inches gradually but consistently increasing to 45 to 50 inches. There are always exceptional years. Those with long memories can tell about the severe drought of 1964-66. More recently, the flood year of 2010, with 15 inches of rain over late February into mid-March, pushed the year’s total to almost 65 inches. Going forward, it will be interesting to see if 2019 and beyond stay above the long-term average or revert to the recent drought years. Keep in mind that Maynard draws roughly 900,000 gallons per day from its well fields, discharging a similar amount into the Assabet River as processed wastewater, so is extremely important that our aquifers be recharged by adequate rainfall and snowmelt.  

Congregational Church, Maynard, MA, seen in a
snow storm. Click on photos to enlarge.
One not surprising consequence of the trend for wetter years had been more water in the Assabet River. Record keeping by the U.S. Geological Survey dates back to 1942, and shows that river water volume has increased from 160 to 225 cubic feet per second (cfs). As of this column being submitted on November 9th the river was at 709 cfs. This compared to an average of 90 cfs for mid-November. (A cubic foot equates to 7.48 gallons, so 709 cfs equals 19.1 million gallons per hour.) Rainwater and snowmelt run off far, far exceed Maynard's water needs, but the town has no reservoir to retain the surplus water.  

As for freezing temperatures and the white stuff, this year has been warmer than average. From pre-1900 to present the Massachusetts average annual temperature has gone up one degree – from 47.3 to 48.3. Even modest increases in temperature have consequences. Winter has become shorter. One indication is that peak lilac blooming time has shifted from late to early May. Warm air can hold a higher water content than cold air, so storms tend to be more intense, meaning wetter and also windier. Think back to March, when a series of tree-toppling storms crashed our area. Some of the woodland trails still have tree blockages that were too massive for volunteers to manage.  

Long-term averages are less than one inch of snow in November, and 12 inches for December. That’s for Boston. The snowier Worcester expects 18 inches in December. Us, being midway between, might expect 15 inches of snow before the end of 2018. One surprising consequence of warmer and wetter, is that while winter has been becoming shorter, it is also wetter, packing more snow into a shorter season. The winter of 2010-11 set an all-time record, and for Boston, of the ten snowiest winters dating back to 1890, five has been in the last 20 years. This is a good time to make sure the snowblower is winter-ready.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Rail Trail Safety

With the completion of the Assabet River Rail Trail in Maynard and Acton, many people are discovering the joys of not sharing their exercise space with cars and trucks. The downside is that trails - which exclude motor vehicles – still have their own safety concerns. The danger points are two: where the trail crosses roads, and interactions among people using the trail.

STOP sign for trail users and trail crossing signs for vehicle
drivers. Route 27 and Acton Street intersection.
Manyard, and also Hudson, differ from Acton and Marlborough – the other two places where the Assabet River Rail Trail exists – because of the many street crossings. In Acton, the 1.25 miles of trail crosses no streets. In Maynard, the 2.25 miles of trail crosses nine streets. Approaching these intersections on the trail there are large, white words “STOP AHEAD” painted on the trial itself and trail-size red-and-white STOP signs. These accomplish nothing if people on the trail do not actually stop. Often, bicyclists and runners approach the intersections, look as best they can in the direction of oncoming vehicle traffic, and then proceed without having come to a complete stop. This is especially dangerous at the Route 27 and Acton Street intersection, as the vehicles heading south on Route 27 barely slow down to make the right turn onto Acton Street. Bushes and small trees have been cleared about 40 yards back from the intersection to provide improved sight lines for trail users and drivers. Trail users are advised to come to a full stop and activate the strobe light system, which exists at this and four other locations in Maynard.     

The Assabet River Rail Trail, like many other rail trails, has posted Guidelines for Sharing the Path. Key point for all users: “KEEP TO THE RIGHT except to pass.” Key points for pedestrians: don’t walk more than two abreast, look before changing direction, and keep you dog on a leash (maximum 6 feet). Key points for bicyclists: bicyclists must yield to pedestrians, pass on the left and only when safe, maximum speed 15 MPH and give an audible warning before passing. The same guidelines should apply to any wheeled means of transportation, be it rollerblades, skateboards or scooters. Guideline signs are posted at the Acton end and Ice House Landing, in Maynard.

Trail users should understand that the most common type of accident is when pedestrians are approached from behind by people on faster moving wheeled vehicles, mostly meaning bicycles. The pedestrians – or their children, or their dogs – may veer from walking a straight line at the same time as being passed. The riders’ contribution to these accidents is not warning those about to be passed, either by ringing a bell or by loudly saying “On your left.” Even an audible may not suffice if the pedestrian is listening to music via earbuds. Or is a child. Or is a dog.

Rail Trail guidelines. Click on image to enlarge.
From one website: “Preventing these collisions can be a headache for authorities. In general, many bicycle/pedestrian accidents take place at crossings, junctions or on pavement - spots on the road or trail where things get congested. These situations can be tricky. If you are a pedestrian walking lawfully on the sidewalk and a bicyclist hit you due to their reckless nature, you can file a claim for your injuries. On the other hand, if a pedestrian is distracted and causes a law-abiding bicyclist to crash, the bicyclist could file a claim against the pedestrian.”

Usage of recreational trails by people on electric motor assist bicycles and scooters is a special case regulated by state law. While some states allow e-bikes on protected trails, Massachusetts presently does not. The exact wording of the law “…but shall be excluded from off-street recreational bicycle paths.” Even when being operated on roads, e-bike and e-scooter operators must have a Massachusetts driver’s license or learner’s permit, wear a helmet, and not exceed speeds over 25 mph.