Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Assabet River Rail Trail - Jan 2017

February 8, 2017: New bridge being lifted (and lowered) into place.
The bridged is fenced at both ends until the approaches are completed.
New photos on status of Assabet River Rail Trail, Maynard and Acton, Massachusetts, as of late January 2017. There has been a tremendous amount of work done in Maynard, much less in Acton. In Maynard, all parts widened and railroad ties removed. Two-thirds of the Trail has received preliminary paving (there will be another layer added later this year). Traffic control signs are mostly installed. 

February 8th saw the replacement footbridge in Maynard lowered into place by a crane. Next steps are installing lighting and construction of the approaches. 

In Acton, the focus has been on the boardwalks over wetlands in front of and to the north side of The Paper Store building, on Route 27. Farther north, the old Acton bridge, over Fort Pond Brook, has been removed. Grading and filling ongoing. Nothing paved yet.  

Other sets of construction photos posted in November, October and December. The overall schedule calls for the complete 3.4 miles from near Acton train station to Maynard:Stow border to be completed by fall 2017, with landscaping (tree planting, etc.) wrapped up in early 2018.

Click on any photo to enlarge:

January 27: The frame of the replacement footbridge over the Assabet River
was assembled in the parking lot behind Gruber Bros Furniture.

Pilings being installed just south of the SAAB dealership (upper left), on
Route 27, in Acton, will support a boardwalk crossing 100 yards of wetlands.

The trestle bridge over Fort Pond Brook, Acton, has been removed, and
preparations are underway to install a new bridge. Timing: Summer 2017.

Januay 27, 2017: Absence of snow and above freezing temperatures
made for fast work as scores of ARRT-related signs installed in Maynard.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Home Delivery Then And Now

A reader's email reached the Beacon-Villager with a suggestion to write about the old days of home delivery: "Back in the 30's and 40's when few people had cars it was necessary for a litany of service people to come regularly to your home. From my recall..."

A few observations here that differentiate home delivery of decades ago with now. First, men worked and women were at home. People might have had cars, but more and more had phones. Delivery could be on a schedule (milk, eggs, mail) or ordered (ice, coal, heating oil, groceries). Ice delivery by J.L. Comeau continued into the 1960s. Hans Eriksen started milk processing and delivery in 1902. The family stayed in the milk business until 1965 before deciding to focus only on its ice cream business. This April, Erikson's Ice Cream will open for its 80th year. 

In addition to delivery, there were goods and services that are now only faint history. The knife and scissors sharpener came around. Kids delivering newspapers. Doctors making house calls. Farmers selling vegetables from a horse-drawn wagon or an open-backed truck, calling out "I got STRAW-berries, I got PEACHES." (Now we go to a farmers' market.) The ragman would come around to buy old clothes. The life insurance man knocked on doors to sell policies, but also came around monthly to collect money owed on the policy. Many houses had a cast-iron lidded, concrete-lined pit by the back door, for kitchen organic waste. Inside was a large metal bucket. Every so often a collector for a local pig farm would come by to take away the pigswill. The lid of ours reads "F.B. JONES. SOMERVILLE MASS.

Cast iron lid for kitchen organic waste - to be collected by pig farmer
If you had horses or cows you would know to arrange for the knacker to haul away any animal that sickened and died. The carcasses went to Taylor's mink farm, on Concord Street.  

Now that we are well into the 21st century, delivery has taken on entirely new methods. The issue is still what is referred to as the "last mile problem." Planes, ships, trains and trucks can move items in bulk, but businesses and people want delivery to their door. This last leg of the supply process can be up to 28 percent of the total cost of moving goods from manufacturing site to customer. General purpose delivery is handled by the Post Office, FedEx, UPS, DHL. In cities, bicycle couriers do the small stuff. Amazon is growing its own delivery system (trucks, maybe drones?!?). Walmart will deliver prescription drugs ordered via their pharmacy. Car dealers will deliver a new car. Medical marijuana can be delivered, too (including in Massachusetts).

Security has become an important issue now that valuable items are being left by front doors. Especially around the December holidays, deliveries are being stolen by  'porch pirates.' Some delivery services are experimenting with electronically coded lockers at convenient locations. The customer orders. The item is delivered. The customer gets a text with the location and a one-time-use code to open the locker. This works well for people in apartments, or who want a delivery convenient to where they work.    

Home delivery of food is an explosively growing niche, with plenty of innovative ideas. Restaurants have their own delivery people, or you can go through a centralized service such as GrubHub. GH allows you to look at a menu on your smart phone, text your order, and pay, so no more phone call frustrations or fumbling for cash for the delivery person. Other types of food delivery can be groceries, food prepared for specific meals, or Meals-On-Wheels for the elderly and infirm. One company is experimenting with PiePal. The idea is you push a big round button installed on a wall, hold your phone up to it for your credit or debit number, and it orders pizza. Perfect for college dormitories. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Cedar Waxwings Visit Massachusetts

Last week a flock of fifty or so cedar waxwings descended on our garden border and consumed almost all of the winterberries and multiflora rose hips, In past years flocks of overwintering robins got to the winterberries, but this year the waxwings got here first.    

Cedar Waxwing, courtesy of Glenn Bartley, Audubon.org
Cedar waxwings are larger than sparrows and smaller than robins. This species breeds in Canada, migrates south to here and farther south in winter. Males and females are similar in appearance: subtle crest, warm tan to slate grey on back, ivory white to faint yellow on front, with a dark mask across the eyes and dark under chin. The back edge of the wing has some white, so when the bird is seen at rest, from the back, the white appears as two parallel lines. Tail feather tips are bright yellow.

The courting ritual is interesting. When perched side by side in a branch, a male will present a female with a berry or insect. She will make one hop away, one hop back, then return the treat to him. He does the same. This can repeat several times before she consumes the offering. They stay a couple through the season, the male feeding the mate on the nest, and both participating in bringing insects and berries to the young.

There are two other waxwing species. The Bohemian waxwing is larger, with a reddish hue to the underside of tail feathers. The Japanese waxwing, very rarely seen here, has more red on the wings and lacks the tail tip color.

All this about identifying birds by color begs the question of how do birds grow colored feathers in the first place. As it turns out, there are two major paths to looking bright as a peacock - pigments and feather micro-structure. Pigments are actual colors incorporated into feathers. One large family of chemical compounds is the carotenoids. These plant-synthesized compounds cover a wide spectrum of palest yellows to purple-toned reds. Birds either eat berries and fruits, or consume insects that ate berries and fruits. The carotenoids are absorbed.

The red of male cardinals, the softer red of robins - all from what the birds ate. As long as flamingos have access to the cartenoid-rich algae and algae-consuming small crustaceans their feathers will be pinkish-orange. Same can happen to us humans - drink too much carrot juice and beta-carotene will accumulate in our skin - resembling an orange-hued tan. This harmless, reversible condition is called carotenosis or carotenoderma.

As to why we - and birds - do not turn blue after eating blueberries, bilberries or huckleberries, those colors are due to chemical compounds known as polyphenols. These are poorly absorbed, and what is absorbed quickly metabolized (unlike the fat-soluble carotenoids), and so are not retained as pigments.

Melanin, a self-synthesized compound that colors human skin darker after exposure to ultraviolet light, is also expressed in birds' skin and feathers. The tans to browns to blacks seen in so much of bird coloration are due to melanins. Interestingly, melanin not only colors feathers as dark as black - it makes them stronger. Seabirds often have white bodies complemented by grey or black wings.

Lastly, there are what are known as structural colors - think blue or iridescent. The blues of blue jays and bluebirds are there because all the other colors of sunlight are absorbed, leaving feathers reflecting back only blue. Feathers can also have a microscopic prismatic structure which splits light into its component colors. As the bird (or the viewer) moves the mix of colors reaching our eyes has an iridescent quality. Think glorious peacock feathers, or the subtle sheen of color on grackles and pigeons.

Which brings us back to pigments and cedar waxwings. An important distinguishing characteristic for this species is that the last quarter inch of tail feathers is a bright yellow - Except when it isn't. Berries from plant species introduced to North America provide different carotenoids, so nowadays a waxwing's tail feathers may sport orange feather tips instead of yellow.  

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Delaney Complex, Stow, MA

Sunrise at Delaney Pond, Stow, MA (frozen) looking north, January 2017
The Delaney Complex, also referred to as the Delaney Project, applies to two earthen dams in Stow and Bolton that provide flood control on Great Brook and Elizabeth Brook. These were completed in 1971. The larger dam is in the northwest corner of Stow. It creates a permanent pond with a surface area of 163 acres. It times of heavy rain the water-covered area expands to surrounding marsh and lowlands to cover as much as 397 acres. Surrounding the pond is a wildlife conservation area. The whole encompasses 580 acres in Stow, Harvard, Bolton and a wee bit in Boxborough.  

The Delaney Complex serves three functions: flood control, wildlife preserve, and recreational use for boating, fishing, hunting and hiking. There are many rules applying to the Delaney - a state Wildlife Management Area - including no alcoholic beverages, no fires, no overnight camping, etc. Example, "Any person aboard a canoe or kayak between September 15 and May 15 shall wear at all times a Type I, II or III Coast Guard approved personal flotation device."

Dog rules for Delaney Complex
 Dogs are allowed (unlike in the federal Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge), but one rule that irks many people is the 2008 Stow decision that all dogs must be leashed and owners required to pick up after their dogs, enforced by a $50 fine. The rationale for this was that dog owners were using the grassy area and main path leading from the boat launch parking lot as a dog park, to the annoyance of people who pass through to get to the hiking trails.

Flood control areas (marked "Fc" on maps) are designed to either retain a permanent pool of water, such as at Delaney and Nichols (the headwaters of the Assabet River) or to be dry except in times of heavy rainfall or snowmelt, such as at Tyler Dam, also on the Assabet. All told, the Assabet River and its tributaries have ten flood control dams - the two in Delaney and eight others. Collectively, these dams can hold back up to four billion gallons of water, and by doing so, reduce downstream flood damage by millions of dollars.

In 2015 the federal National Resources Conservation Service evaluated all dams on the Assabet and tributaries and decided that six needed work (Nichols had work done in 2012). This included $2.9 million to modify the auxiliary spillway of the Delaney Dam and to raise the height of the East Bolton Dam by 3.5 feet. These projects will increase flood holdback capacity of the Delaney Complex. 

Stow Conservation Trust has descriptions of trails, with maps, posted at http://www.stowconservationtrust.org/trails.php. The listings include two trail walk guides for the Delaney area. However, parking for both is supposed to be at Finn Road, Harvard. The area in question is a bit west of the Stow:Harvard border sign. It is very small, currently iced over and presumably soon to be snowed over. Come spring thaw, a good guess is that it is a morass of mud. This leaves as the only realistic parking the lot at the boat launch site, next to Harvard Road, in Stow. From there, the south set of trails can be accessed by walking to the end of the dam, and then north.

There are unknowns to this column that internet searching could not solve, but may have answers in the Stow Historical Society records. Or the memories of people from Stow. For example, is the area so-named the Delaney Complex/Project because it is near Delaney Street? Was the street named for a landowner? If so, who? And was there a Delaney Farm before it became Delaney Pond? There do not appear to be Delaney family members buried in any of Stow's cemeteries, so no clues there. 

Flood control structure referred to as a riser. Water enters lower openings,
which are protected by the sets of bars called trash racks. Except in times
of drought this allows some flow into Elizabeth Brook. Only after water level
rises about six feet would it enter the larger opening protected by the top
set of bars, resulting in faster outflow. Click on any photo to enlarge. 
The aforementioned walking guides show the network of trails as twisty and criss-crossy, so even an experienced woods hiker should have a compass or a cell phone with a compass app. Worst case - the latter will allow you to call for help, and for rescue to find you. Police reports in the newspaper have on occasion been about darkness and foul weather descending on people lost in Delaney.

Odds are this pond is quite shallow, given its man-made nature. By comparison, Walden Pond, formed by glaciers, covers only 61 acres but has a maximum depth of 102 feet.