Thursday, April 30, 2015

Farewell, Old Spruce

Our observant readers probably noticed something unusual in the photo accompanying the last post. As is my custom after the first mowing, I included a photo of our yard that showed an empty spot where we used to have a spruce tree. I had to make the painful decision recently to remove that tree, and I hope my experience can help someone else avoid the loss we've endured.

About a year ago I noticed some brown spots on a few branches of the tree, but since they were high in the crown and limited in number I didn't give them much thought. The brown sections grew in size and number over the next few weeks, prompting me to investigate more closely. Although the image below was taken this spring, the general appearance of the tree approximates what I observed early last summer.
On closer observation I found small clusters of dead needles hanging from the defoliated branches. The needles were held together by silky thread surrounding a small, black worm that would actually navigate a tree branch collecting needles for its cocoon. One could detach these worms from the tree with a slight pull near the base of the cocoon, so I spent most of one afternoon pulling worms off my tree. Unfortunately, many branches had already been defoliated, and although I removed hundreds of worms, there were still hundreds (if not thousands) of worms remaining, destroying more needles every day.

A little online research identified the pests as a bagworm that feeds on both evergreens and deciduous trees, but since spruce trees don't regenerate their needles, the damage to conifers is more noticeable than when these pests attack deciduous trees. My only consolation was the fact that the worms finished stripping branches by mid summer. The males emerge from the cocoons in a few weeks as a moth to fertilize the females that remain in their cocoons, and the fertilized eggs remain in the cocoon until late spring the next year.

This image from a few weeks ago shows several cocoons that had remained intact through the winter, some of which may have contained eggs ready to hatch into thousands of worms this spring. I removed a few hundred of these nests before I gave up. The tree was already badly damaged, especially in the crown, and if only one nest remained unpicked, I would have hundreds of worms to deal with by early summer. Since I have another spruce about 50 feet from this one from which I've already removed a handful of cocoons, I decided to destroy the damaged tree in an attempt to arrest the spread of the bagworms.

Even though I felt my options were severely limited, the decision was still hard. I considered the tree an exemplary specimen of its genus, and enjoyed watching it grow larger each year. The image above from December 2013 shows the beauty of both the tree and the snow, in my opinion. Ironically, there were obviously bagworm cocoons in the tree when this picture was taken, since the worms showed up just a few months later. That winter was also the coldest we've had here in recent memory, which doesn't offer much hope that cold weather might kill off the bagworms.

I vaguely recall seeing a few cocoons on this tree in 2013, but they didn't excite enough curiosity in me to cause me to investigate. Now that I recognize bagworm cocoons, I won't delay in acting in the future. Hopefully others will learn from my experience and will save their trees before it's too late.

Monday, April 20, 2015

First mowing of 2015

Spring growth was pretty minimal this year until about a week ago. Suddenly, trees are flowering, budding, or leafing out, and the grass is not only green, but long enough to cut. Although the yard could have waited a few more days for the first cutting, the weather on April 18 was well suited to mowing. It was evidently well suited to farming also as farmer neighbors in the two fields adjacent to our property were both out working, one planting corn in the field to the north, and the other performing a second fine tilling operation in preparation for planting in the field to the west. Although I'd seen tilling in other fields in the area earlier in the season, I hadn't noticed much planting until the 18th.

Time will tell how many more times we'll mow before the season is over, and I'm sure I'll tire of the experience at least once before next winter, but for now I'm glad to see green growth again!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Central Illinois Winter Temperature Summary, 2014-2015

Now that winter is officially finished, we can look back at the temperature data and compare reality to what we remembered. I think everyone here in Central Illinois perceived our latest winter to be warmer than the one before it, but prolonged cold (and warm) spells have a way of making comparisons difficult from year to year. The data is presented again this year in the form of combined bar and line charts. The blue bars represent the deviation of the daily mean temperature from the historical average where each bar represents one day. The red curve represents the cumulative deviation from the historical average, and indicates whether the season as a whole was colder or warmer than what we'd typically expect.

The first observation I'd like to bring to your attention is the value of the red curve at the right side of the chart. Including data from March 20, the cumulative deviation from average was -3 degrees. That's almost as close to "normal" as one can get. That means, on average, the daily mean temperature was about 0.03°F colder than the historical average each day. That's a temperature difference most of us can't perceive. It's also probably a smaller number than the error in the measuring equipment at the National Weather Service in Peoria, not to mention the fact that the daily mean temperatures I use are reported as integers that have already been rounded a fraction of a degree each day.

It's also interesting to note that the winter as a whole was warmer than normal until the last week of February, indicated by the red curve crossing the x-axis into negative territory on February 26. February 27 added momentum to that move by recording the largest deviation from average of 28 degrees F below the historical mean. The deviation of 23 degrees F above normal on March 23 recorded the largest deviation on the warm side.

By comparison, we can look again at the data from the winter of 2013-2014 and notice that the cumulative temperature that winter was above normal only a few days all season. I think most of us are happy not to repeat those temperatures this year.

To illustrate just how unusual our temperatures were last winter, I've plotted the cumulative deviation curves for both winters on the same scale on this chart. In both cases, February contributed the largest cumulative degrees below normal, but this year a significant warming trend began on March 7 that carried through the end of the season. Another significant difference this winter was the 18 consecutive days of warmer than normal temperatures beginning on January 15. Those days averaged 10.5 degrees above normal and contributed greatly to counteracting the colder than normal periods.

Since our historical mean temperatures are still low enough to expect heating degree days this time of year, we are technically still in our heating season. We'll continue to compile data to see whether this heating season as a whole was warmer or colder than average.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Maple Sap Harvesting

Our neighbors had good success last winter harvesting maple sap and converting that to syrup, so we all anticipated the products of this year's harvest. Even though the trees were tapped a week earlier than last year, the weather this year has not been as ideal for producing lots of sap.

The sap flows best when nighttime temperatures are well below freezing, and daytime temps are well above freezing, preferably with some sunshine thrown in. Prior to March 6, the temperatures tended to be too cold, but the forecast for that day and those following looked promising enough to put Philip and his sidekick Josh into action. I didn't see Josh helping with the tapping last year, so I presume he was in training when they stopped by our house this year. In this shot it appears I distracted Josh from his responsibilities.

With all three of our trees tapped, the guys were ready to move on to the next target.

Unfortunately, the weather has tended to be too warm most of the nights over the last two weeks, so the sap hasn't been flowing as well as it did last year. This picture shows the first 24 hours of production on one of our trees that had two taps running into this container. The low temperature that first night was 29°F while the high the next day was 51°F. There appears to be a little less than a gallon in this jug since I think the container holds about 5 gallons when full.

After 48 hours the container appears to be over half full. The low hit 27°F the night before, and 51°F again during the day, so conditions were sufficient to keep a decent flow of sap moving.

We've had a few good days since, but more poor days than good ones so far. It appears that the sap production may be lower than last year's harvest, which means the syrup may be in shorter supply. Our neighbors have boiled down a couple of batches of sap in the last two weeks, producing about 9 gallons of syrup which is a far cry from last year's total.  Although the near term forecast doesn't look ideal, the maple syrup season may not be done yet!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Happy Pi Day 2015!

Once every century our calendar and clocks order themselves in such a way to duplicate more than just a few digits of pi (the number representing the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter). Using American dating format, today's date is 3-14-15 which is the first four digits (not including the 3 on the left side of the decimal), and only occurs every 100 years. If one includes the time of day, we could represent 9:26:53 which would give us another 5 digits.  Since seconds can be represented with fractional parts, we could technically represent an infinite number of pi digits: 3-14-15 9:26:53.589793238462643383... I think you get the idea.  We'll stop at nine digits today and be happy with that.

To celebrate, we ate three pies for supper this evening as shown in the photos below. 

The overview of the table before we began this evening.  Not visible in this view is the bunting that crossed the room five times. It added an air of festivity to the celebration, but alas, it wasn't directly related to the number pi.

Our first course was this Chile Chicken Potato Pi decorated with the first 15 digits of pi on little banners around the rim of the pedestal supporting the pi. This was our first try for this recipe, which received thumbs up from the family and will be repeated again some day!

The first dessert course was this Chocoroon Pi that is a family favorite.

Costco provided the second dessert course with their jumbo Apple Pi. We had one of these a few months ago, and found it to be one of the best apple pies we've ever tasted, hence it's appearance on our table again tonight. At 75 ounces, this monster would challenge any contestant at a pie eating contest!

As I'm writing this, it occurs to me that there was one moment in history when the date and time matched pi even better than today: March 14, 1592, at 6:53:58. I guess we'll have to content ourselves with the second most significant celebration of Pi Day.

I'm also aware that some guides to the Greek language suggest pi should be pronounced "pee." When considering celebrating this important number, I'd rather trust the common modern pronunciation than spend more than a few seconds contemplating celebrating per the other pronunciation.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Colonial Williamsburg at Christmas: A Beautiful Saturday

Our first full day in town on this trip included delightful weather which was about 15 degrees F warmer than average for December 27, and gloriously sunny.  Not surprising then that the crowds in the Historic District were the largest we've ever seen here any time of year.  Combine beautiful weather with the weekend between Christmas and New Years and festive decorations around Colonial Williamsburg, and it's not difficult to understand why others would want to be there with us.

 The decorations around CW are different at each building (as far as we could tell), and usually consisted of a wreath or similar arrangement of natural materials, often including food. Here's an example on one door whose peacock feathers caught our eyes.

Although Bassett Hall is a modest home from the Rockefeller's perspective, I think the main entrance has some elegance and is enhanced by these holiday decorations.

A closer view of one of the arrangements next to the door...

... and a closer shot of the wreath above the door.

This arrangement graced the entrance to one of the taverns.  Apples seemed common to many of the decorations, and often included apples of different colors like in this example.

Finally, lest you doubt the beauty of the weather, I include this shot of the girls approaching Bassett Hall -- beautiful enough to almost make you wish you lived there.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Colonial Williamsburg at Christmas: "Twelfth Night" Performance

We've attended several wonderful concerts in the Ballroom at the Governor's Palace, but we've never seen one of Shakespeare's plays performed there -- until now.  Although there's no record of any theatrical event taking place at the Governor's Palace in the 18th century, this adaptation of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" was our first opportunity to see Shakespeare performed in a colonial era setting with 18th century costumes.  I'm glad we went.

Although the play was performed ten times in December, we were unaware of its existence until about a week before we were scheduled to begin our trip.  Karen saw a Colonial Williamsburg blog post that offered two free tickets through a random drawing, and decided to enter.  To her surprise, she won!  The only problem was that we won tickets for a sold-out performance scheduled for the day BEFORE we planned to arrive in Virginia.  Fortunately, our schedule was flexible, so we were able to leave home a day earlier than planned, and made it to town a few hours before show time!

The performance was not a disappointment.  The actors were all very talented, and presented Shakespeare's 16th century language in a way that was relatively easy to follow.  The costumes were nicely executed, and the actors even made some references to the room in which the play was performed.  The fact that we got to visit with most of the cast after the show was simply icing on the cake.  In the photo above, Karen and I are in the middle surrounded by eight members of the cast, and Ralph and Dotty on the right, who also won tickets to the play.

The moral of the story: if you see a contest, enter it!  Especially if entering is free, and the prize is something fun you can't do every day!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Basement Remodel Project: Angled Board Cuts

Some aspects of this remodel project have been intimidating since they involve skills I don't have, or techniques I've either never tried, or seldom get to use.  Even worse when the results will be prominently displayed when the project is finished.  The wainscoting on the stairwell presented one of those challenges.

My goal was to continue the spacing of the vertical stiles (visible on the left side of the photo above) up the the angled section of wall next to the stairs.  A couple of simple angled cuts on each end of each board was all that was involved, but I didn't have a tool to help me transfer the angle to the boards, so I left this project until I had a clear idea of how to tackle it.  I took special care to make the angled upper rail board parallel to the stringer trim board next to the steps based on the geometric principle that the angle would then be the same at the top and bottom of the boards.

This handy little tool proved to be the key that made this project a lot easier.  I've seen simple wood and steel angle finders used by others, but never had one for my tool box.  This Harbor Freight Multipurpose Angle Finder isn't terribly accurate due to its size, but since it is based on a four-bar linkage, it's actually pretty versatile beyond the simple application I employed it for.  In my case I placed the tool in the angle between the stringer and vertical stile at the bottom of the staircase since that was the angle I wanted to duplicate on the other stiles.  I checked the stile for plumb and was reassured that it was true enough to ensure the other stiles parallel to it would also be plumb.

The angle finder was then used to set the angle on my miter saw table.  After making one cut on one end of a board, I fit the stile to the stringer and checked for plumb.  I had to make a couple slight adjustments to the angle of the table before I was happy that the saw matched the angle on the staircase, but eventually was confident the stiles would fit as desired.

Four stiles later, I'm pretty pleased with the results.  The distortion caused by the camera lens makes the spacing seem to decrease up the staircase, but in reality it's uniform with the rest of the wall.  After a short confidence-building exercise like this I find myself wishing I had more opportunities to practice my new-found technique, but life seldom works that way for me.  In the mean time, I've got another tool that should reduce anxiety in the future.

Monday, November 24, 2014


Farmer Wagenbach informed me recently that the corn harvest in the field behind our house was larger this year than ever before.  The yield averaged 258 bushels per acre, which is exceptional no matter where the field is located!  Growing conditions were good this summer, but it's obvious that God has blessed Farmer Wagenbach with a good bit of knowledge and skill when it comes to growing corn!