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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Upgrades Planned for the Tualco Valley Speedway…

Bridge 155As Gladys and I approached Riley Slough Bridge # 155 a couple mornings ago, I remembered a conversation I’d had with Kevin Olson at Fred Meyer’s the other day. After we exchanged a few routine pleasantries, Kevin blurted out the question: “Say, do you know where the County Sheriff’s office is located?” I didn’t. Such a strange question…right out of the blue. Kevin told me the office had moved to some other location. On these hot days, Kevin told me, kids are swimming at High Bridge and when they return, some do so at a high rate of speed, racing even, on the straight stretch approaching the bridge.R.S. Bridge approach N Kevin lives on the northwest side of Bridge 155 and cars speeding across the bridge and past his doorstep puts his safety in jeopardy. He told me during one trip to the mail box his wife had to scramble out of the way of one of the racing vehicles, no easy thing to do since she’s nursing a sore knee. Kevin thought he’d drop by the sheriff’s office, let them know about the problem to urge law enforcement to do a little extra patrolling out in the Valley. I shared with him my incident on the Lower Loop bridge when a birder and I had to hug the rail to avoid being struck by a vehicle driven by a young male. He and his passenger breezed by us at fifty mph plus as if we weren’t even there. Yes: The Tualco Valley Speedway (TVS) where the posted thirty-five mph speed limit is not just a suggestion; it’s a joke…as is the fact there’s little or no enforcement of it.

That’s not likely to change. In fact it appears the County is trending more towards making the TVS less a Le Mans type course—one with fewer turns--and more an oval track configuration. “Want to hear a good story?” Kevin asked.  I nodded because there’s nothing The Ripple likes better than a good story. Kevin moved a step closer and shared some news that in the telling set his handlebar mustache a’ quiver.

Sometime in April Kevin noticed a couple County workers milling around Bridge 155. They were toting official-looking clipboards (Kevin didn’t say, but aren’t they always?). Now a government official carrying a clipboard can mean only one thing: change is in the wind. (I remember a few years back when I spied a couple clipboard toting WASDOT workers defacing our driveway with day-glo pink arrows, precursor to a turn lane project that disrupted our lives for six months). Kevin out went to investigate, to see which way the wind was about to blow, so to speak. “The County is going to replace the bridge,” Kevin exclaimed, “They plan to straighten out the blind corner and make the bridge approach a straight shot. You know what that means, don’t you? (I could see the static electricity building in that moustache.) I had hardly come to terms with Kevin’s news when he continued, “They’ll have to take the house and the outbuildings. That’s the only way they could do it!” I had to agree: the jog elbows east. To eliminate the curve, the County would have construct its replacement on the west side of the current bridge. I asked Kevin if the County would purchase the property at fair market value or impose imminent domain. Kevin didn’t know and said the County had yet to contact his landlord.

Kevin has lived in that rustic little cottage through three landlord changes. He survived the flood of 1990 when the slough lapped at his doorstep. In other words he has a history with the property and a new bridge would certainly rearrange his life for him. According to the County engineers the average daily traffic that crosses the bridge is 700 vehicles, a statistic that Kevin finds incredulous. As do I; the Frohnings don’t go for coffee that often. And even with me jumping up and down on that rubber snake across the road to make the little black box clickety–click wouldn’t account for much of an increase. During the ten minutes’ time it took me to take the attached photos only three vehicles crossed the bridge, one of them a farm ATV. “They’re going to spend 4.2 million of our dollars just to accommodate farm equipment and dairy cows?” By this time that moustache was sparking. “If seven hundred vehicles cross that bridge every day…well, they can…they can just…,” he spluttered and went on to suggest the County engineers do something I’m sure isn’t written in their job description. “And besides, the Slough is salmon habitat. What about that?”salmon habitat We both wondered how the County could have sidestepped that issue. I left Kevin fuming somewhere between the bananas and soft fruit sections and finished my shopping.

The Ripple decided to look into the County’s bold plans for Bridge 155. I found the entire project overview on line and will share some of the highlights from the twenty-nine pages of project application (search “Riley Slough Bridge Project” for specifics of the entire project). Timeline: preliminary study 4/’15 (Kevin’s County clipboard personnel); right-of way work starts 7/’16; bridge construction proper begins 8/’18; new bridge opens to traffic 11/’19. The replacement bridge will be a “3-span concrete girder structure on driven piles” (and all this in salmon habitat, mind). The length will stay at 200’ but an additional two feet will be added to the width (28’ to 30’). According to the overview the total cost of the project is 4.4 million, a figure that will no doubt budge taxpayers’ property taxes (and, fellow citizens, don’t forget you’ll soon be funding a new County Courthouse). The County expects bridge crossings to double in the future, from an average of 528 vehicles per day (10 % truck traffic) to over a 1,000. Where those projections come from, I have no idea. Given the jog in the bridge approach thus a blind corner, one might think safety could be a factor in replacing the bridge; however, according to the project stats there has been only one “collision” in the vicinity of the bridge since 2007. The solitary incident happened in  March 30, 2010…and 240’ south of the bridge. A vehicle struck a “tree or stump.” In broad daylight, too. No injuries reported.Bridge 155 S. approach

Consider the TVS for a moment. If the kink in the road is straightened, Valley racers will have an extra quarter mile north of the bridge added to the straight stretch that begins at the intersection of the Upper and Lower Loop roads…a full half mile to “see what this baby’ll do.” County engineers cite their reason for adding an additional two feet to the bridge width as a consideration for “pedestrian safety.” In all the years Gladys and I have pedaled across Bridge 155 we have yet to see a single pedestrian hoofing his way across. However, if you unkink it, maybe they will come…from far and wide…to watch the races.R.S. Bridge approach N

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

What is Rarer Than a Day in June?…

D. plexippus 2015The answer? A monarch butterfly here in the Valley. The other day with hardly a flutter of wings, like an orange silk scarf loosed in the wind, one floated in on the afternoon breeze, glided about the garden, drifted from one patch of flowers to another. Choosing our aptly named “butterfly bush” (buddleia), it settled briefly to nectar… just long enough for me to snap a digital record of this highly unusual event. In forty years I’ve seen only one other monarch butterfly in the Valley and that was over twenty years ago.

There is no more iconic  North American butterfly than the monarch (Danaus plexippus). When people who can name or identify no other butterfly (even the cabbage white) hear the word “monarch,” the word “butterfly” immediately comes to mind. But for most laymen, that’s where the knowledge trail ends. From that point any large, colorful butterfly must be a “monarch.” Years ago a small local periodical—The Sky Valley News—or something to that effect printed its summer issue. The cover page featured a full page black and white photo of a “large” butterfly. Beneath its banner ran this headline: “You know it’s summer when the Sky Valley Monarchs are on the wing.” The featured butterfly is a harbinger of summer in the Sky Valley. True. But a monarch? Far from it. The cover page featured instead a western tiger swallowtail (Papilio rutulus), a large yellow butterfly with distinct black tiger stripes and a tail on the trailing end of each hind wing. western tiger swallowtailThe headline made me chuckle, and I’ve often shared the paper’s error with others more in tune with the natural world. They chuckle, too. Although the monarch is much in the news these days, most folks are not able to distinguish one large butterfly from another. Oftentimes when I’m afield with my insect net and meet hikers or passersby curious about my activity, once I tell them I’m questing for butterflies, they are quick to inform me they “saw a monarch the other day.” I politely inform them, no, what they most likely saw was an in season western tiger swallowtail.

The monarch’s markings are distinct: orange (not yellow) with black venation (not stripes), its thorax salted with white dots. The monarch is more a glider, a drifter than a flutterer (like the western tiger swallowtail); it uses air currents to good purpose, a trait that enables this unique butterfly to migrate great distances. One of the most memorable experiences in this butterfly fancier’s life was a warm September afternoon spent on my sister’s lawn in Omaha where the monarchs were on the wing. They slalomed through the trees, drifted with the breeze, and costumed in orange and black, they performed an aerial ballet. I was spellbound.A True Valley Monarch

The backyard monarch magic I witnessed was just a small number of a great swarm of insects en route to the oyamel forests of Michoacan, Mexico. The true renown of the monarch is its annual trans-continent migration. The monarchs that entertained me in Omaha that September aftenoon would pass through countless backyards before they arrived at their mountain destination in Mexico where by the thousands they will cling to the mountain firs. There, draped from the branches like autumn leaves, they’ll winter. Come spring, the return trip--unlike spawning salmon—no monarch will complete. But their offspring and their offspring’s offspring will, as far north as—and some beyond—the Canadian border where they’ll summer until their genomic trigger sends them winging southward again.

North America has two populations of monarchs: those east of the Rocky Mountain Divide and the enclave west of the Rockies. The latter population migrates to the eucalyptus groves of coastal California, Pacific Grove, Monterey County. Both eastern and western populations journey thousands of miles annually to reach their respective wintering grounds. Monarchs belong to subfamily Danidae or milkweed butterflies. As the larvae feed on their milkweed host plant, they extract toxins which are stored in their tissues and render them as adults unpalatable to avian predators (unlike the western tiger whose wings by season’s end are shredded by bird strikes).

Monarch populations are dwindling in North America. The biggest cause is habitat destruction. As agriculture, industry and housing projects increase, stands of milkweed disappear. Pesticides and herbicides used to control roadside vegetation kill both monarch larvae and their host plant. Because of extensive logging of the oyamel forests, monarchs’ wintering grounds have been reduced to mere acres. West coast populations are imperiled by the same factors. Monarch conservationists have mounted extensive campaigns to educate Americans to the plight of this truly American icon. Dr. Chip Taylor of Kansas University has founded The Monarch Watch project, a program to study monarch migration patterns and behaviors and educate people on the natural history of this beautiful but imperiled butterfly. Taylor and volunteers tag monarchs and release them in hopes whoever finds them will respond to the contact information on the tags and provide valuable data to help better understand and sustain the species. Tagged monarch the Monarch ProjectSome mid-west farmers are setting aside acreage to allow milkweed to flourish and backyard gardeners are encouraged to add milkweed to their landscaping—and avoid pesticide applications. In fact if it weren’t for our backyard butterfly bush, the rare appearance of our monarch here in the Valley may well have gone unnoticed.

(An added note on this topic. From time to time around town I see the van of a local pest control company. The rig is painted a tasteful green but plastered across the rear panels of the van where one might expect to see a giant mosquito, wasp, or whiskered rat with its ropey tail curling across the back doors is painted instead a large, beautiful monarch butterfly as if to say: “One call and your monarch problems are over.”)

Hinchliffe’s A Butterfly Atlas of Washington State gives only one Snohomish County record for Danaus plexippus. The site is near the border of Snohomish and Skagit Counties. In my collection of Washington State butterflies I have only one monarch from the state, a male I collected in 1989 in Douglas County (a county record according to Hinchliffe’s 1996 Atlas). As for our backyard beauty, “she” has appeared six times in the last two weeks. Day before yesterday she bullied a western tiger from the buddleia; yesterday afternoon she was unwilling to share the bush with an American Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). If she returns—and I hope she does, I have no intention of including her in my collection. Not only did she lift my spirits, she was gracious enough to allow me three photos and gift me with a special memory. Besides, I’ve been to Pacific Grove and Monterey, loved both places. And though her journey will be long, in no way would I deprive her of the experience.Monarch 2015