Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Maynard, Stow and Instagram

Posted at #maynardelifeoutdoors and #assabetriverrailtrail 
To cut to the chase, there are Instagram postings for #maynardlifeoutdoors (created by yours truly), #maynardma, #assabetriver, #stow ma #assabetriverrailtrail, and #lakeboon (and #lakeboone). For those not deeply into social media – a.k.a. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and so on, Instagram in its most basic form allows people to share pictures and videos to computers and mobile phones. The business with hashtags (#) means that if a person searches Instagram on that term, they can see all postings that people have posted with that term. This can be futile. A photo of a dog, with the hashtag #dog, becomes part of a list of 155 million dog photos. Hashtag #parrot yields more than two million photos. But hashtag #deadparrot yields only a thousand or so photos, some relating to the dead parrot sketch from the Monty Python television show.

Garter snake, posted to #maynardlifeoutdoors
Hashtag #maynardlifeoutdoors (again, me) currently has about 25 images and 10 followers. Hint: you can follow. Photos hashtagged there are also hashtagged to #assabetriver or #assabetriverrailtrail if appropriate.   

Followers: If you, as an Instagram user, decide to ‘Follow’ someone, that means anytime you go to Instagram you can check on the people you are following to see their most recent postings, then optionally ‘Like’ those postings, and/or leave a comment. (The creator of the account has the power to delete comments.) Current estimates are that Instagram has about 700 million registered users, with perhaps half that number visiting the site frequently. More than 50 billion images have been uploaded.  

Instagram especially appeals to people in the images business, examples including painting, drawing, costumes, tattoos, photography… It becomes an aspect of marketing their businesses, much as company websites complement brochures. Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012 (making the founders very rich), so people are able to post content to both sites simultaneously.

Here are two sides of a small stone, painted, and left in a public place as part of the Maynard Rocks public display. Hundreds of children - and artists - have placed these about town for others to find, photograph, move to new locations, perhaps even to keep (discouraged). Maynard Rocks has a Facebook page, and also, as of mid-September, an Instagram address: #maynardrocks

Locally, there are hundreds of images posted to #maynardma, #assabetriver and #lakeboon. One of the problems is that people tend to be liberal with their attachment of hashtags to their photos, so a search on #maynardma will yield not only images of things in Maynard, but scores upon scores of photos of people you do not know, who either live in Maynard, or just happened to be visiting Maynard when a photo was taken, or post photos of women’s hair (styled in Maynard?), or are of a performer name Conrad Maynard.

For reasons unclear to my neophyte understanding of Instagram, a search on #stow ma with a space between "stow" and "ma" is needed to get to the collection of 1,257 postings at #stowma. The order of appearance appears to be a handful of the most popular postings, followed by recent postings. For Stow, whoever has been posting is a big fan of photographs of flowers, and of tomatoes (!?).

Instagram has a downside. For teens especially, social media platforms are a measure of popularity. There is pressure to post really good photos of oneself, to the point that some people resort to professional make-up and hair preparation. A dearth of followers, and/or negative comments, can be disheartening. A survey conducted in England in 2017 reported that Instagram rated highest among social media platforms for teen problems with bullying, body image, anxiety, depression and loneliness.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Historic Hurricanes Massachusetts

Hurricane Irma, east of Puerto Rico, Sept 5, 2017
If any remnants of Hurricane Irma reach eastern Massachusetts, all we are likely to see are rainy days. But there are historical records of much, much stronger storms having a direct, catastrophic impact locally.

1635: The Great Colonial Hurricane made landfall at Narragansett Bay in late August as a fast-moving Category 3 hurricane. It crossed directly over the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Historians consider this "… probably the most intense hurricane in New England history.”

1938: The practice of naming Atlantic hurricanes with women’s names did not begin until 1947; or retiring names of major storms after 1955, or having men’s names rather than only women’s starting in 1979. Thus, the storm of 1938 came be known as the Great New England Hurricane, also the Long Island Express. Mistakes in interpreting weather data had led to a prediction that this storm would dissipate to gale force before making landfall. Instead, on September 21, 1938, it reached Long Island with hurricane force winds and a significant storm surge. More than 600 people died – mostly in Rhode Island. The oldest residents of Maynard and Stow remember vast numbers of trees being blown down, blocking streets and damaging buildings.   

The 1938 hurricane downed trees and telephone poles on Maple Street,
Maynard, MA. (courtesy Maynard Historical Society)  
1954: A double-header! Hurricane Carol also crossed the east end of Long Island, reaching landfall as a Category 2 storm. In Boston, high winds destroyed the steeple of the Old North Church. Hurricane Edna crossed Cape Cod as a Category 2 storm just ten days after Carol had tracked a bit farther west. Locally, rainfall of 5 to 10 inches on ground already saturated by the passage of Carol flooded basements and rivers. Combined, the storms destroyed much of the peach and apple crops just weeks before harvest time. 

1955: Hurricane Diane waltzed ashore in the Carolinas, wandered across New Jersey and southern New York, before heading eastward across much of Massachusetts. By this time it was weak wind-wise, but very, very wet. Much of southern Massachusetts, from its border with New York to the ocean, experienced flooding. Half of Worcester was under water. Locally, an estimated 15 inches of rain fell in four days. The Assabet River crested at 8.93 feet, the highest it had been since 1927 and the highest since. (The flood of 2010 crested at 7.1 feet.) Main Street flooded, as did the first floor of the mill building closest to the river. No bridges were lost.   

1991: Hurricane Bob!!! This storm of August skirted the coast before making landfall at Newport, Rhode Island as a Category 2 hurricane. Forecasting was good, so Rhode Island and Connecticut were able to declare of emergency before the storm hit. The storm crossed eastern Massachusetts fast and relatively dry, so most of the damage was due to high winds and storm surge along the coast. Provincetown reported sustained winds exceeding 100 miles per hour. Locally, downed trees and minor damage to buildings. The name “Bob” was permanently retired, joining Diane, Edna and Carol as other New England hurricane names we will never hear anew.

An explanation of ‘storm surge’: coastal flooding can be severe during hurricanes (and also northeasters). Storms are centers of low air pressure, meaning less weight of air on the water, causing water level to rise underneath storms, which have low barometric pressure. Of much greater importance, the push of wind across long distances of water for prolonged periods of time not only generates large waves, but pushes water. When this reaches shore at times of high tide, the water can be five, ten, fifteen, even twenty feet above normal high tide. The Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900 pushed a storm surge of 10 to 15 feet across a city that was mostly 10 feet above sea level, flattening the city and resulting in a loss of an estimated 10,000 lives, making it the deadliest natural disaster to every strike the United States. The Texas flooding from Hurricane Harvey was from rain, whereas the coastal flooding from Hurricane Irma was mostly storm surge (as when Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and New York).

One oddity - a storm tracking north along a west coast, much as Irma tracked north along the west side of Florida, will initially push water away from the shore, as wind direction on the north side of the storm is east to west. After the eye passes, the winds on the south side of the storm blow west to east, pushing all the water back.

All Irma delivered to eastern Massachusetts was scattered showers. Jose blessed Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket and the outer Cape with gale force winds and inches of rain, but much less west of Boston. Maria is too far away to guess what it will bring to New England.  

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Consider the Muskrat

Caltech mascot is a beaver
MIT mascot is a beaver. Officially,
"Tim the Beaver"
Consider the muskrat. A muskrat can be thought of as a low-rent version of a beaver – they toil but do not build, their tails make no signature slap upon the waters when startled, trapped, their fur is worth less, and no college (and only one high school – Algonac, MI) ever selected the muskrat as its mascot; this versus the beaver mascots for MIT, Caltech, Babson College, Oregon State University, University of Maine at Farmington, and others. For more than 125 years there was a Beaver College, originally located in the town of Beaver, PA, but later relocated across the state to near Philadelphia; from 1907 to 1972 it was Beaver College for Women, then co-ed, meaning that it was also Beaver College for men, but finally undertaking a name change in 2001 to Arcadia University. (Past graduates were able to get replacement diplomas with the new name.)  

Muskrats (about three pounds) are rarely far from water. (Internet download)
Enough with run-on sentences. The muskrat is small. Adults weight about three pounds (compared to 30 or more for a beaver). The muskrat is short-lived. Average lifespan in the wild is 3-4 years. The muskrat is prolific. Females reach sexual maturity at one year, and can have 2-3 litters per year, 6-8 kits per litter. The muskrat is omnivorous. While the roots and stems of aquatic plants are a diet mainstay, muskrats will eat insects, crayfish and dead fish. In turn, the muskrat is food for many predators, falling prey to mink, coyote, fox and raccoons on land, owls descending from the air, lastly snapping turtles, otters and large fish in the water.   

Muskrat swimming.  When startled, they can
dive, and stay under water several minutes.
Muskrats are covered with short, thick fur brown or black in color, with the belly a bit lighter. The fur has two layers, which helps protect them from the cold water. The tail is hairless, rat-like in appearance, and used for swimming. The tail drags on the ground when walking on land, and so leaves a distinctive trail when walking on mud or snow.

Muskrats spend much of their time in the water, typically the shallow water of marshlands, streams and small ponds. Muskrats will reside at beaver ponds, and may even move into an abandoned beaver lodge. Otherwise, muskrats create modest-sized mounds of soft vegetation (not sticks or branches) near the shore, with a living chamber inside and an underwater entrance, or else burrow into river banks and live in these tunnels. The combination of less vegetation (eaten or for habitat) and shoreline burrowing contributes to erosion and flood risk.    

A muskrat "push-up", in this instance using stems from marsh plants,
provides some shelter from weather and predators, but is not nearly
as large or as sturdy as a beaver family's branches and mud abode.
Muskrats are indigenous to North America. Because many people in many countries thought it would be a good idea, muskrats are an invasive species across much of northern Europe, across much of Siberia, and also in parts of South America. The animals were imported either for fur farms, and then escaped, or were released to the wild with the idea that local trappers would have one more species to trap. The consequences are the same ecological impacts seen in North America – erosion and flood risk – made worse by the absence of mink, the primary predator. (Mink is also an invasive species in parts of Europe, but that is another story.)   

In Massachusetts, shooting muskrats is against the law, but a license can be obtained for trapping. The season opens on November 1st and closes at the end of February. Muskrat fur does not have the same cachet as mink, but there is some demand for muskrat pelts, especially from Korea and China. Prices at auction are about $3-4/pelt. Wild mink brings about $10-12/pelt. Farmed mink, a larger animal with a higher quality fur, brings $50-80/pelt. The official winter hat of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is made with muskrat fur.    

Monday, August 28, 2017

Now on Instagram as #maynardlifeoutdoors

Photos relating to Maynard, MA, observations on nature, and the Assabet River Rail Trail will be posted on Instagram. Follow: #maynardlifeoutdoors or #assabetriverrailtrail or #assabetriver

Polyphemus moth, resting during daytime. Click on photo to enlarge.
Woodchuck smells the flowers, then eats them.

The 2017 river cleanup, Maynard team, 25 volunteers, collected close to one
ton of trash, including a bicycle, two vacuum cleaners, and a V8 engine block.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Painted Turtles, Massachusetts

The official reptile of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is the Garter snake. Of our New England neighbors, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut have not deigned to designate an official reptile. Vermont’s is the Eastern painted turtle. New York chose the Snapping turtle (“You got a problem with that?”).

Massachusetts could have as easily gone with the painted turtle, which is common on the Assabet River upstream of the Ben Smith Dam and also other calm water sites that do not go dry in summer. Painted turtles are native to much of North America. The species is divided into four sub-species (Eastern, Southern, Midland and Western), with full fertility among the subspecies, so that hybrids are common along the regional borders.

Eastern Painted Turtles sharing a fallen tree. Dark areas on surface
are blobs of algae and duckweed.
“Painted” comes from the color patterns on skin and shell. Head, neck and limbs are dark green with yellow/white stripes. For the Eastern, the top of the top shell is uniformly dark, but the underside of the top shell – around the edges – has an alternating pattern of dark and red/orange. Southern have a red strip down the middle of the top shell. Western have a colorful bottom shell. 

Eastern painted turtles, if they survive the first year, can expect to live 20 to 30 years; 50 years is not unheard of. The adult size of roughly six inches (shell length) is reached in the initial handful of years. The daily routine is wake up, bask in the sun to warm up, swim around eating plants and water insects, bask more, eat more, go to sleep. Once the sun sets, painted turtles snuggle down underwater, in the mud, and stay there to morning. There is some absorption of oxygen through the skin, but basically, their metabolic rate is so slowed that they are able to go through the night without breathing.   


The business of reproduction has some interesting quirks. Painted turtles reach sexual maturity in four to six years. Males court females in late spring, using their longer claws to stroke her neck and face. If she is receptive she will dive to the bottom, where he will join her to mate. Females store the sperm internally, so that one clutch of eggs may have several fathers. Eggs are laid on shore, buried a few inches below the surface in sandy/soft soil. The hatchlings, smaller than a quarter, emerge from the eggs in September. Interestingly, hatchlings have two entirely different emergence behaviors depending on location. In the south, hatchlings dig there way out and head toward water, while here and farther north, they will remain underground until the spring thaw.

Eastern Painted Turtles sharing a fallen tree, with water lilies about to bloom.
We dream of turtles, but do turtles dream? All mammals appear to dream, as indicated by periods of REM (rapid eye movement) and other brain activity. Birds also have REM sleep, albeit different rhythms from mammals. The evidence for reptiles is less clear, but for now, the answer appears to be “Probably not.”   

So, there it is. Life is long and simple. Wake, bask, eat, bask more, eat more, sleep, don’t dream. Hibernate all winter and mate in the spring. Child rearing consists of heading away from the water for one evening a year to lay eggs. Otherwise, more wake, bask, eat, sleep. Repeat for 10,000 days.