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A Tree Swallow Looks Out From HIs Nesting Box

The morning was beautiful, with a bright blue sky, comfortably warm – perfect for a hike, birding, and a bit of nature study. I decided to head for the High Ridge Wildlife Management Area in Westminster. Entering from Westminster, the access road climbs up a short hill to the administration building. The area is run by the Mass. Div. Fisheries and Wildlife.

Every once in a while the state does something right.

There has been a bluebird restoration project going on there for a number of years. The acres of open fields are lined with nest boxes. In the past, it’s always been a reliable spot to see some.

Not so this year, at least, not in the area that I went to.

The nesting boxes at the top of the hill are now populated by tree swallows (Tachycinera bicolor). Not a problem. They’re fun to watch as they zig and zag over the fields, catching insects.

I’m wondering if they’ve already got nestlings. As I approached one box to try to get a picture, two of the birds came and try to buzz me away.

It was a wonderful morning in any case, bluebirds or no bluebirds. High Ridge was once the site of a state mental hospital, long since gone. There was a large active farm, residence buildings, acres of carefully landscaped lawns and orchards.

Now it’s a perfect place to watch nature gradually reclaim the land. The carefully manicured lawns have gone wild. Old access roads are crumbling. It’s not unusual to run into a forgotten fire hydrant in the middle of the woods, with maybe just the outline of a cellar hole nearby.

It’s great for nature study, whether wildflowers, insects, birds, trees – anything. For a nature-lover, it puts me on sensory overload.

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A few weeks ago, the Dalai Lama said he would join a U.S. Green Party if there were one. This was at about the same time that much of the media was focused on the latest stop on the Tea Party bus tour.

The Greens, by now, have been around for a number of years. Several cities have Green Party Mayors; several states have Green Party candidates running governor and other state offices. They have a platform, with real positions on real issues, things like open government, social justice, environmental protection, and education.

There is a certain attraction to the “throw the bums out” rallying cry of the Tea Party people, but that’s pretty much where it ends. Ask any of them what their positions are on major issues and the response tends to come out in clichés and sound-bites, and not especially accurate ones at that.

And while the media tends to call the Tea Party movement a “groundswell” it’s really something less. Take the rally on the Boston Common. Various accounts put participants in “the thousands”. The fact is, there were only a few hundred, at most. While there were maybe a few thousand people on the common, most of them were onlookers, spending a pleasant afternoon watching the Sarah Palin freak show.

So why the difference in coverage?

For starters, the Tea Party “movement” is largely a creation of a few Fox New commentators. That gives them instant coverage. And secondly, the kinds of reform the Green Party would bring about generally doesn’t sit well with the corporate executives who own and run the major media outlets.

A little while back, I read with interest that the U.S. ambassador to Finland, Bruce Oreck and his wife decided to set up beekeeping at the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki. It turns out that they both have experience with beekeeping, and when they heard there was a shortage of beekeepers in the urban areas in Finland, they decided to help out.

Even better, they’re going to try to help bring back an endangered species, the European Dark Bee. A story in the Helsingin Sanomat explained that they are also concerned about maintaining biodiversity.

This is welcome news, and heartening to find people in high places who are willing to do more than pay the perfunctory lip service to environmental issues.

As if we don’t already have enough trouble with the woolly adelgid, the asian longhorn beetle and their ilk. Be on the lookout for the Emerald Ash Borer.

First found in Detroit in 2002, it had made its way from Asia to North America somehow, though no one is quite sure how.

While the adults munch on the leaves of ash trees and so don’t do much harm, their larvae bore into the inner bark, blocking the flow of water and nutrients. A hundred percent of the infected trees die. Millions of ash trees in the Midwest have been destroyed. The beetles have been found in New York State and parts of Canada. Vermont officials have set out traps, hoping to catch the invasion early.

It will mean destroying thousands of trees, just as in the fight against the asian longhorn beetle.

The late President Ronald Reagan is viewed in two distinctly different ways. On the one side, those with conservative Republican leanings see him as one of the great presidents in American history. There’s even a Reagan Legacy Project, a group of admirers who want to see a monument to the late president in every state.

There is an opposing view, which I unabashedly hold. I don’t want to launch into a diatribe here. Let’s just say his presidency is better forgotten than remembered.

Now comes news of an effort to rename one of the peaks in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains as Mount Reagan. It’s one of the lesser peaks, now known as Mount Clay, named after the “Great Compromiser” of the 19th century.

The New Hampshire legislature approved the change some years ago. But the National Park Service has the last say, and they’re giving it a thumbs down. Changing names, they say, would cause a lot of confusion, since there are a lot of maps out there that would have the old name on it. They say the reason is no reflection on his career or accomplishments.

Trees cause pollution, remember? He appointed James Watt as Secretary of the Interior. The Reagan years were an environmental disaster. I say keep his name out of the White Mountains.

There’s another effort in California to name a small mountain after him. That one is currently named Mount Diablo … meaning “The Devil” in Spanish. I could get behind that. But the people out there don’t want the name changed – and he was their governor at one time.

Good news out of Vermont. The Burlington Free Press is reporting that Pete the Moose is getting a new lease on life. It took a year of wrangling and an act of the legislature, but Pete – who quickly became the state’s best-known and most beloved animal – will not have to be put down.

Pete had been raised by a man who rescued him after his mother and siblings were attacked by dogs. Not only did the gentleman not have any kind of proper permit to do so, but Pete was being kept in a compound with farm-raised elk.

The threat here is the potential spread of chronic wasting disease and other contagious diseases. Either the elk would have to go, or Pete and some other wild animals kept in the compound would have to go, according to the state Fish and Wildlife agency.

But a last-minute act by the state legislature designated the compound a “special herd” and now Pete can stay where he is, albeit with very strict supervision, regular testing, and separation from any other wild animals.

So now we know that the agency in charge of inspecting coal mines had nice friendly relations with the mine owners, and so they didn’t work too hard to enforce safety violations. And then of course there’s the BP spill when the agency charged with oversight of the offshore rigs took the company’s word for it that everything was fine and besides, what could go wrong?

This week the Brattleboro Reformer reported the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released its report on the tritium leak at Vermont Yankee. This is the one where company officials first claimed they could not possibly be responsible. Then it took six weeks to find and stop the radioactive leak. Basically the parent company, Entergy drew up the document, claiming that they had investigated themselves thoroughly and surprise, surprise, found nothing wrong.

The NRC took the report, put their stamp on it, and declared it a job well done. I’m sure we all feel better now.

Some weeks ago, I went to a known Great Blue Heron rookery hoping to see some, along with other water fowl. It wasn’t a bad afternoon, watching the wildlife in this particular marsh. But no herons. It was too early for them.

From time to time on my walks, I’ve kept an eye out for them, picking their way long a river bank, maybe flying overhead. But no luck, not until yesterday at a place I hadn’t expected – Coolidge Park in Fitchburg.

This is a city park, with a walking trail around the perimeter. There were soccer games going on, softball games, deck hockey. Lots of people, lots of commotion. Baker Brook runs alongside one end, which is where I was, when I was startled by a heron gliding just past my head. The tree canopy is fairly thick just there, yet somehow it managed to negotiate its way just under them.

There was an eerie prehistoric quality to the bird and its flight. It reminded of a ime some years ago when I was leading a canoe trip. One youngster spotted a heron and yelled out – Look! It’s a dinosaur!.

Sometimes it feels like the bad news just keeps coming.

A Nature Conservancy report details the effects of global climate change on Lake Champlain. We can expect to see higher water levels and eroding shorelines; higher mercury content in fish caught there; more frequent and extensive algae blooms. The list goes on.

The Harvard Forest has issued a report detailing the decline in New England forest. After the extensive cutting of forests of the 19th century, forests generally enjoyed a resurgence throughout the 20th century.

Now we seem to be losing them again.
Of the 33 million acres of forest land in New England, only 3 percent are permanently protected. As we learn more about global climate change, the more important we reaize that our forests are in collecting carbon.

It’s one thing to read about melting icebergs in Greenland, or lizards dying off in Mexico, but these problems are right here.

The Massachusetts House will be taking up a bill that will spell out regulations for siting wind turbines. It’s already been passed by the state Senate, and hopefully can become law before too long.

The problem, as so often happens, is that the technology is out ahead of the regulations. All over the state, people are looking to put up wind turbines on both a small scale – in their neighborhoods, or in scale developments. Local officials, charged with seeing that building and zoning regulations are followed, find themselves trying to interpret archaic regulations to the merging technology.

I know of two instances in the towns in my area where applications by individuals who wanted to erect turbines on their property were turned down, in large part because local officials didn’t know which regulations should apply.

Let’s hope the Massachusetts House sees fit to act.

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