Monday, June 28, 2010

Raising monarchs

Another post to mull the natural world and enjoy urban nature.

I'm raising monarch butterflies again. There is quite a bit of common milkweed in my front yard, and some swamp milkweed in the backyard. I think the common variety just showed up uninvited, but I'm thrilled to have it because I love to have monarchs flitting through the yard, and milkweed is the only plant where the female will lay eggs, and they only plant the caterpillars will eat. The swamp milkweed works too, but the common milkweed is larger, sturdier, and I can pick the leaves and stems without significantly reducing the overall plant population. And the caterpillars eat a lot when they get big.

Friday, June 25, 2010

FAQ on intercity rail - Madison 2001

Hey, lookee here, I found an FAQ page on intercity rail between Madison and Milwaukee - with possible extension to the Twin Cities dating back to January/February, 2001! Looks like many of the same questions were asked, studies, and someone attempted to answer them when the city and state were applying for federal funding nine years ago.

For more studies about the current project, see the Wisconsin DOT web site, where they have finally linked everything on one page. OK, the DOT is not all that great about getting information up on their web site. I've complained to them about this before with regard to the Verona Rd project. But at least we have a place to go to see some of the previous information, so we can see that yes, someone actually tried to answer questions before last year.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wild visitors to the Walnut St greenhouses

Among of the wonderful things about bicycling are the things you see at slow speed and the ability to stop and enjoy them. It is difficult to stop on a busy street to greet a friend when you are driving,  but it's pretty easy on a bike. You can see the funny, sad, beautiful, and weird things that exist in your community, but are often missed as we rush about encased in our metal boxes.

Biking home along the campus Lakeshore Path I have had many of these special experiences, although they usually involve wildlife of view of the lake instead of other humans. I have seen migrating tundra swans, otters (or some large, weasel-shaped animal that ran in front of me), and nesting great-horned owls. I've been dive-bombed by angry redwing blackbirds, heard those owls calling to their young in the dark, watched the willows sway and bend as a storm rolls in, and laughed at the gulls lined up in rows on the deck of a boat moored in University Bay. The color of the lake and sky just after sunset as I bike west is an entrancing mix of blue, pink, purple, and indigo that paint could never capture. That color draws me in every time, and seems impossibly rich.

But last night my joyous moment happened a bit away from the lake. As I headed south on Walnut, past the greenhouses, I noticed a couple of visitors headed east on Observatory. They strolled along the grass and then peered into the greenhouse windows, walking between the low brick wall and the glass building. One stayed on the grass, and was harassed by a pair of redwing blackbirds that were likely nesting nearby. They seemed much more bothered by the other birds than by me, as I followed them on my bike at a discreet distance.

Aldo Leopold, while a professor here in Madison, on seeing a sandhill crane flying overhead once told a graduate student, "Take a good look at that crane, because you may never see one again." He wrote about the dwindling crane population in Marshland Elegy
Someday, perhaps in the very process of our benefactions, perhaps in the fullness of geologic time, the last crane will trumpet his farewell and spiral skyward from the great marsh. High out of the clouds will fall the sound of hunting horns, the bang of the phantom pack, the tinkle of little bells, and then a silence never to be broken - unless perchance in some far pasture of the Milky Way. 
Fortunately, we stopped many of the practices that were dooming the cranes, and now they are so common that they wander our urban parks and even mowed lawns on the UW campus. We stopped draining the wetlands and marshes, became more careful about the chemicals we put into the environment, and stopped hunting threatened species. But we are still harming the natural world in ways that will doom more species. 

Finally, the visitors left the greenhouses and paused on the grass near the parking lot for a bit. The light was fading, and they seemed perfectly at home wandering the campus, so I went on my way with another memory of the little moments made possible by quiet, clean, healthy, human-powered transportation.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Bird feeder observations

Nothing profound today, just some musings on what I see at my bird feeder while I work on the porch.nice

Working at home and setting my own schedule definitely has some advantages, although it has some drawbacks as well. I draw energy and ideas from talking to people face-to-face, and get some of my best inspiration from random encounters while I'm out in the world.  Being able to wake up and open my laptop doesn't force me to get out and interact with people. But watching birds, butterflies, kids on bikes, and neighbors walk from the front porch is as well.

I have two bird feeders hanging from the gutters of my porch. This allows me to watch the birds while I'm working, and also keeps the squirrels at bay. (Although the squirrels have tried jumping from the railing of the porch and crawling across the screens to reach the feeders, they can't make the transition.)

One of the feeders is filled with sunflower seeds, which is usually touted as the standard "everyone loves it" option. The other is filled with a "woodpecker mix," which has lots of peanuts, corn, dried fruit, as well as shelled sunflower seeds and a few other bits and pieces. The woodpecker feeder is a course mesh so that the larger pieces can be extracted.

So which feeder and mix do the birds prefer? The woodpecker mix/peanuts. They are eating that stuff like nobody's business and more of less ignoring the sunflower seed feeder right next to it.

Here's what has visited my feeder this year:

  • Lots and lots of sparrows. 
  • House finches
  • Chickadees. I love these cute, friendly, social birds.
  • Nuthatches. I think I've had a pair nesting in the tree out front for a couple years now. What is great about nuthatches is the way they hang upside down while feeding. That's a nuthatch in the photo at top.
  • Cardinals.
  • Goldfinches, although I feel bad that I don't have their favorite thistle feeder up and full. 
  • Red wing blackbirds. This seems strange, as they usually are next to water. This is the first year I've had this bird visit my feeder, and he's come a few times. Maybe he's confused.
  • And yes, I also have had a couple of woodpeckers. I think they are downy woodpeckers, although I'm never sure, because hairy woodpeckers look very much like them.

Also visiting in the past were many grackles and starlings. They are bullies and eat too much. I'd rather they didn't visit the feeder, but I can't stop them.

I have lots of other birds in my yard that don't visit the feeders:

  • House wrens. This tiny bird nests in a horizontal pole in my backyard, and you wouldn't believe how loud and persistent he is in singing to find a mate. Unfortunately, he's singing at dawn and right outside my bedroom window. And I'm not a morning person, so his search for a mate feels like the middle of the night to me.
  • Robins. Of course.
  • Cat birds. They really do sound like a little kitten mewing.
  • Baltimore orioles. I think.
  • Cedar waxwings. They come through in big bunches and all hang out in the same tree, then move to another. They usually show up when a tree or bush is in fruit.
  • Crows. Another early morning noisemaker, but far less sweet and friendly as the wren. I have actually closed my window a few times when they get worked up over something. I think they are hanging out in the pine trees a few doors down.
  • And some sort of hawk lives across the street. It's not a red-tail, but either a Cooper's or sharp-shinned hawk, which are found in forests, instead of fields, like a red-tail. These hawks can make sharp 90 degree turns and fly in dense woods. They've picked off a few birds from my neighbors' feeders across the street.

I'm sure I've forgotten a few birds, and don't know what else is calling in the trees and brush in my back yard. I didn't even try to figure out what comes through during migration. I have lots of different habitat in my tiny urban yard. Open grass, vegetable garden, fruiting trees and shrubs (mulberries, wild grapes, rasberries, and currants), perennial beds that seed, and a whole lot of trees and shrubs that I don't trim in the back. Lots of places to hide, nest, feed, and hang out.

If you would like to look up any birds, or figure out what call you are hearing in the morning, I suggest a great web page by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology.  It's got as much information as you could possibly want, plus sound files of the various calls, songs, an other noises birds make.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Residential parking - contradictions abound

Yet again, my neighborhood is having a discussion about parking in a newly proposed residential building. People seem to want parking to be included in the rent (or purchase price) of each unit. This is because they think that if parking is not included with the rent, the residents will park on the already crowded streets. Living in a pre-WII neighborhood, close to the UW campus and hospitals, with a high school up the street, and lots of apartments, it is sometimes it can be a challenge to find parking. So people don't want more people parking in the same crowded area.

At the same time, people don't want lots of extra traffic on their streets and in the neighborhood. What they fail to realize is that, if you include parking in the rent, you will only attract residents that have cars. And people with cars tend to drive them. Trust me, I am one of those people, despite trying to drive as little as possible.

If you sell parking separately, the apartments become financially attractive for people that don't won cars, or only own one car for two people. That means less cars, less traffic, and less parking problems for everyone.

The same type of contradiction comes up when the UW is building on campus, or a new office or apartment is proposed. Half the people in my neighborhood argue for less parking on campus, or keeping the number of spots the same, because they don't want more people driving through the neighborhood to get to that parking. The other half ask for more parking on campus, so people won't park in the neighborhood. I swear, sometimes the same people say different things on different days.

My neighborhood only allows two hours of parking during the day unless you have a residential permit. These permits are only available to people that live in the area, and many apartments dwellers are not allowed to get them anyway.

People who complain about the parking in the area are generally homeowners. They chose to buy a house without enough parking for their needs. Whose fault is that? For the record, I did not own a car myself when I bought my house, and now own one car. I also have one off-street parking spot, so my parking demand exactly matches what I own. If you own more cars than you have space to park them off-street, not on ly shouldn't you be complaining, you are part of the problem.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

PGA-only interchange on I-43 - your money at work

When people complain about things like bike and pedestrian facilities, or the cost of building or maintaining transit systems - including local and intercity rail - I shake my head. These people rarely have any idea how much of their tax dollars are spent to build and maintain the roads they drive on every day.

Even worse are people who say, "I'll never use that [path, bus line, train, station, etc.], so I shouldn't have to pay for it."

Well, here's something I can guarantee you I will never use, and yet my tax dollars are paying for it. The PGA tournament and Whistling Straits course in Kohler apparently has enough political pull to get their own private interchange, open only a few weeks of the year, and only every five year. Seriously?! This is what the Wisconsin DOT has as a priority? The Zoo Interchange is falling apart, the bridge between MN and WI at Winona has new cracks [although that's MNDOT's problem], Mike Sheridan wants a bigger I-39/90 to Beloit, and they are building an interchange for the golf fans?

Cost, shared by the Kohler Co. and you, the Wisconsin taxpayer: $671,000. How much is your share?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The assumption of driving everywhere

Boy, I hate being up at 8:00 AM. I am not a morning person, and now I don't feel so bad about it. A recent study found that there really are “morning people” and “night people.” And the same study found out that night people were alert and productive more hours of the day, regardless of what time they actually got up and started working. So there. I may sleep late every day, but I'm getting plenty of work done.

Why am I bringing up this gripe about being up early? Because I am at a conference on campus at 8:00 AM this morning, and it's making me grumpy. But this conference is the lead-in to my topic today: Even groups that promote physical activity as an important part of preventing obesity and its accompanying health problems assume everyone will be driving everywhere.

For a number of years, I have been working with a statewide group on overweight and obesity issues. The Wisconsin Partnership on Activity and Nutrition (WIPAN) is a CDC-funded effort to address these issues. Today this coalition is meeting on campus with a UW group with a similar mission, WIPOD.

For the first few years I felt like my role in WIPAN was to show up and say, "How you construct your community affects physical activity!" Most of the people initially involved were public health professional and health researchers. They all knew that increased physical activity can prevent all sorts of health problems, but few seemed to connect our transportation choices and built environment with whether people were getting the recommended amount of physical activity. At the national level, the CDC and Surgeon General were just beginning to talk about the role of the built environment in facilitating or deterring physical activity.

I clearly remember the first time I heard a CDC researcher say that we needed to make our communities more walking and bicycling-friendly. It was at a national conference on walking and bicycling, and I wanted to shout, "Hallelujah!" During the Q&A period, I urged the speaker to take this message to policy makers, because, as I said at the time, "We can say that we need better walking and biking environments, but policy makers think, 'Oh, that's those lycra-clad, environmental, tree-hugging, freaks that want people to drive less.' Which is true, that's who we are, but it doesn't mean we are wrong. But when a respected public health professional or researcher says the same thing, more people are likely to listen."

Eventually, this message got through at both the national and state level, and because I had been pushing for the inclusion of this aspect of policy, they made me the Chair of the Community Design and Physical Activity Committee for WIPAN. We've worked on writing walking points and briefing papers for the local coalitions around the state on such issues as:

  • What is an MPO, and why should you care what they are doing?
  • How's your local MPO doing with regard to policies to improve physical activity?
  • How can you get involved with Safe Routes to School?
  • What is Complete Streets, and how do you get your local community to adopt this policy?
  • etc.

So, today I was asked to attend this conference to represent WIPAN in a breakout session on the built environment. Because I registered late, the woman who confirmed my registration emailed me to say that, "All the parking permits have been issued, so you'll have to find parking on your own." I emailed back that not only was I not worried about finding a place to park my bike, but I lived within 1/2 mile of the conference site.

I suppose that my answer was unnecessarily snarky - she didn't know that transportation within the campus area really isn't an issue for me - but what struck me was that there is an assumption that everyone at this conference will be arriving car. Here I was about to talk about getting people to be more physically active via walking, biking, and transit, and there is no thought at all about giving participants information on getting to the conference without driving.

Yes, obviously, many people were coming from out of town, so I don't expect them to bike from Green Bay or Milwaukee, but there was NO information for anyone about alternatives to driving to campus. There could have been information on parking off-site and taking the many buses that pass within 1/4 mile of the site. Or even how to walk from the recommended hotel - which is also a short walk from the conference.

This lack of any "directions," except driving directions, to destinations is unbelievably common. On a number of occasions I have asked for transit or biking directions to a destination, both in Madison and other cities, and been met with a blank stare or dead silence.

This is not just a health issue, but also a social and economic justice issue, because people without cars may be trying to access destinations, events, and resources. I hope that more organizers, business owners, and convention and visitors bureaus will make an effort to provide transportation information for people not driving to the destination.