Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Haven for Critters

First it was a bird feeder. Then another. And you know, gold finches like special food...

And that doesn't take into account the domesticated critters... our two cats... and we have in the past also had gold fish and parakeets.

But last night, it was particularly funny... no sooner had Annie managed to shoo out the possum yet again (we forgot to close the door), when I glanced down at our dish rack in the kitchen... to find a young Praying Mantis perched on a canning jar! Take a look there to the left.

He was safely escorted outside and released back into the wild. We wouldn't have it any other way.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Motorists and Cyclists, ch. 3

In which Our Hero is on the receiving end of a motorist's rude behavior, and foolishly responds in kind...

Yep, I'm a flawed human being... I let my anger get the best of me in a car/bike interaction yesterday, and it was dumb and pointless.

I was riding along that same stretch of road I keep writing about, in the morning, and by the time I got to my turn I had two or three cars behind me and no break in oncoming traffic to allow them to pass safely. And I was in the lane a) to keep someone from trying to squeeze by unsafely and b) prepare for my left turn. A minivan was right behind me, patiently waiting for me to navigate the situation and make my turn, but a car behind them started honking. Without taking the time to think or take a "yoga breath" I took my outstretched (for signaling) left arm and raised it high overhead in the proverbial one finger salute. I then completed my turn, and as traffic proceeded on the main road again, the same driver honked one more time in annoyance.

So, what did my gesture accomplish? Did is solve the immediate problem? Nah. And what do you think the honking motorist's response to it was... "Gosh, how rude of me to honk my horn at that cyclist... I must have upset him, because he's giving me the finger. I must never be so inconsiderate again!" Of course not... all my gesture probably did was make that driver think "That #$%^ing cyclist not only got in my way, but now he's flipping me off! They should be banned from the road!" And what of the innocent folk in the van behind me, or any other driver who saw it all, what do you think the odds are that I gained any sympathy for cyclists?

Sigh. Sometimes you have to stop and think, you know? Letting the other driver know he pissed me off might have given me a brief moment of satisfaction, but in the long run it probably did more harm than good.

Note to self... THINK... and take a deep breath. I've heard of some cyclist's responding to such situations with a friendly wave... maybe I'll try that next time. If I don't let adrenaline and testosterone get the best of me.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

More Yard Wildlife

Or... "Living With Squirrels"!

Thanks in large part to our generous feeding of the local bird population (including, indirectly, the feeding of the local hawk population, as noted in earlier posts), our yard is visited by a prodigious number of squirrels. It's not unusual to look out and see 4, 5, or even 6 (or more) squirrels cavorting about the yard, feasting on the birdseed that spills on the ground. And as the photo to the right shows, sometimes the birdseed in the feeders!

Now, lots of folks object strenuously to such activity, but Annie and I just can't seem to be bothered by it. The way I figure it, what makes birds more worthy of feeding than squirrels? I'm not going to start setting up feeders specifically for them, mind you... it's just that I can't see going to the extreme lengths some people go to to rid their yards of squirrels. And honestly, do any of the things people do really work? Squirrels are so industrious and clever (and stubborn) that they seem to find ways around everything.

What brought them to mind tonight though, is a pair of squirrel incidents that happened today. This morning, I happened to glance out the window and saw a squirrel on his hind legs, reaching up to grab at the head of a sunflower that has started to arch over toward the ground. He's reach up, grab a seed, and let it go while he munched on his snack.. then reach up and repeat the whole process. I'd never seen one do that before, and it was pretty funny.

Even funier was the sight Annie was treated to a little while later. She saw a squirrel bounding across the lawn with something rather large and odd-looking in his mouth. It took her a moment to realize that it was the entire head of a giant sunflower! Apparently, in addition to the trick I witnessed, the squirrels have figured out how to pull the heads down and sever them from the stalk! Which explains why several of our sunflowers appear to have been decapitated. Not a big deal... most of the sunflowers in our yard are "volunteers" (see earlier post and photo) that sprung up thanks to the birdseed. But it does show you to what lengths a squirrel will go for food.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Determined Critter

Well, one of my readers warned me about the persistance of possums.... and he was right!

We've been closing the door at dusk generally, but the other night we forgot. When Annie went out to the back room to shut it, look what she found... our little furry visitor perched on the edge of the big container of cat food! We're not always good at screwing the lid down tight, and she figured that out. Once she realized she was spotted, she hunkered down under a shelf unit, and it took a lot of time and some judicious use of the broom again to get her out.

We're a lot better about closing the door in the evening now!

Stubborn little critter, huh?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Motorists and Cyclists, ch. 2

Wow! I thought it would be a while before my next installment, but no... Another driver today made one of those choices I just don't understand.

Same stretch of road.. which isn't a surprise, as it's the only non-residential road I travel most days. Morning again... it seems most of my negative encounters happen in the morning, oddly enough. Maybe it's because I ride home late enough in the evening to avoid the worst of people hurrying.

Anyway, on my 1/2 mile stretch of less-than-ideal road, there's a blind curve... a gentle curve to the right, with trees at the side, making it impossible to see oncoming traffic. Today, I was rolling along, having waited, as usual, for a longish gap in traffic, to reduce my interaction with the cars, rounding that curve, out in the lane. As I said in my earlier post, the traffic lane is so narrow that a bike and a car CANNOT safely occupy the lane at the same time... a classic example of when it is both legal and appropriate and safest for a cyclist to "take the lane". Basically, it forces the motorists to see me, then think about how best to safely get around me, rather than just zoom on by without thought, passing me dangerously closely or even hitting me.

Well, most of the time it works out just fine... drivers see me, recognize that sight lines are limited, and wait until they are sure it's clear before they pull into the opposite lane to pass me. Today, one driver just couldn't wait... he pulled into the opposing lane while still in the blind part of the curve... only to discover an oncoming minivan. He ducked in just in front of me (of course, he wouldn't slow back down and tuck in behind me until it was safe... but truthfully he might not have seen the van in time to do that), but the minivan had to brake to avoid a collision, and rightfully honked their horn.

Aside from the potential of an ugly accident barely avoided, what bothers me about such situations is that I'm pretty sure one or both of the drivers thought "that damned cyclist, look what he nearly caused." The fact of the matter is, it was the overtaking driver's fault, as it was THEIR responsibility to make sure it was safe and clear to pass me. I was where I was supposed to be, and am legally allowed to be, riding as I am supposed to. Yet dollars to donuts, somebody in one of those cars saw it all as my fault.

So folks... when you drive, THINK before you pass a slower vehicle.. whether it's another car or a bicycle or an Amish buggy or a tractor. Is it really safe to pass? Can I see oncoming traffic? Should I wait the 10 seconds, 15 seconds, even 30 seconds, just to make sure no one gets hurt? Seriously... the driver today could have waited about 10 seconds to get where sight lines were clear, and avoided the whole thing. If things had gone a tiny bit differently, they could have ended up with a wrecked car, and a number of injured folks, if not an outright fatality (most likely me). Is it worth the 10 seconds? I humbly submit that it's not.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Motorists and Cyclists, ch. 1

Readers in the DC area no doubt have heard of the recent death of a young woman in the city, who was hit and killed by a garbage truck while riding in a marked bike lane. The story has gotten a lot of attention online, and there are a variety of places you can go to look at and discuss it:

These are just a couple of pages from the Washington Post website. There are others if you search around a bit.

I can only imagine what her family and friends must be going through. To have someone with such promise and such a good spirit taken so young is awful. I only hope that her death helps further dialogue and action to prevent future deaths on our roads.

It certainly has inspired dialogue, at least online. What I find shocking is the amount of anti-cyclist venom that has bubbled up in some of the forums I've read. A number of writers imply, or even state outright, that she got what was coming to her. I can't imagine how someone can see it that way, even if it were known that the crash was her fault (fault has yet to be determined). To be fair, there are some pro-cycling folks making some asinine comments as well, but none seem as awful as the anti-cycling comments. Of course, I'm biased.

That being said, I've decided I want to start writing about the interaction of motorists and cyclists, from my own point of view, with some reference to other sources now and then. I will do my best to be fair and even-handed, but I am a cyclist first and foremost, so that will no doubt skew the discussion somewhat.

To start with, in thinking about the topic, I realized it was important to make it about "motorists" and "cyclists"... not "cars" and "bikes". The latter dehumanizes the whole issue, and it is ultimately a human issue. It's a person... somebody's child, somebody's parent, somebody's sibling, somebody's friend... who makes the decisions and who suffers the consequences. We all need to remember that.

So, to start with, I want to relate an incident that happened to me on Sunday morning. My six mile commute is split roughly half and half between a multi use path and roads, mostly residential streets. There is one stretch of about a half mile where I'm on a road with no shoulder and 35mph speed limit. I cover that stretch in something like 2 minutes or less, and make a point of only entering the road when I've got a healthy gap between me and any car that's going to be overtaking me. Most mornings, I time it so there is no car in sight for several hundred yards, which means they don't approach me until I'm about to turn off the road anyway, so if I slow them down at all, it's for a few seconds at most.

Sunday morning, I timed it pretty well. One car was approaching me from behind as I neared my turn, which is a left hand turn. Obeying the traffic laws, I was in the travel lane, to the right of center, but far enough into the lane that any passing vehicle would have to enter the opposing lane to pass. This prevents someone from attempting to pass me dangerously closely when there's oncoming traffic, and is absolutely allowed by law. As I neared the turn, I signaled with my left arm out, clearly indicating my intention to turn left. At the same time, I moved further into the lane to reinforce my intentions and to discourage anyone tempted to pass on my left. A moment before I actually started my turn, the car behind me, who had been behind me long enough to have seen my turn signal, pulled around me on the left. Had I started my turn a second sooner, he probably would have hit me!

Now, let's look at this... I was riding legally, signaling a left turn as required by law. The car behind me would have "lost" perhaps 10 seconds, tops, if he had simply waited while I made my turn. And if I had been in a MOTOR vehicle doing the exact same thing, I'm sure they would have waited... but because I was on a bicycle, for whatever reason he or she assumed the laws didn't apply and passing me on the left while I was making a left turn was acceptable. The kicker is, after passing me, he made a right turn into a side street perhaps 20 yards further on... so any time he "saved" by going around me was utterly pointless. And could have gotten me killed or severely injured.

The amazing thing is, it's not the first time this has happened to me, at this spot as well as others. The law is absolutely clear on this... a cyclist making a left turn from a roadway is allowed to and SHOULD get out into the lane, preferably near the centerline of the road, to make their left turn JUST LIKE A CAR. It's all part of the Uniform Vehicle Code, adopted to some degree by pretty much every state, which mandates that bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as motorists, with certain specific exceptions... none of which make it okay to pass me in the situation described above.

So those of you out there in your cars... think about what you're doing before you do it, and even if it is "just a bicycle" remember that they have the same right to the road that you have, and require the same accommodations. In fact, here's a summary of the rules of the road for the Greater DC area, from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association:

Now, to be fair, I will say that there are a lot of bicyclists out there who do not obey the laws themselves or behave in a responsible and predictable manner. I take issue however with the sentiment expressed by many motorists that "all bicyclists flaunt the law"... don't condemn every cyclist for the bad behavior of some. And I won't condemn all motorists for the behavior of some of them. I will however periodically use this blog to describe incidents that I encounter out there on the road, in an attempt to further better relations and understanding among road users.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Playin' (with) Possum

So, it's after midnight and I should be asleep by now, since I was up entirely too late last night... which was in part due to spending a good chunk of time in the wee hours trying to figure out just how to get the possum out of our breakfast nook. Yes, possum. Or opossum, to some folks. And the reason I'm up later than I should be is so I can write about it.

We first saw her in a neighbor's yard a week or so ago, just trundling across the yard in the way that only a possum can. Then, on Tuesday night she appeared in our back room... you see, we leave the back door open much of the time so our cats have easy transit in and out... and there she was, munching away on dry cat food. She scurried out the door as soon as she realized she was being watched, but reappeared the next night, and seemed much less impressed with our presence. After that, I moved the cat dishes out of the back room, figuring that a possum would never brave the journey from our deck, through the back room, through the kitchen, into the breakfast nook, deep inside our house. Well, I was wrong, cuz there she was last night, chowing down on cat food, with Annie's cat Tomas lying across the room, just observing her. Tomas is more anthropologist than hunter, apparently, preferring to watch and study rather than stalk.

(That's her trying to hide behind the cat carrier in our breakfast nook. And yes, we keep a bicycle in our breakfast nook... and seven in our spare room... and five or six in the shed... and there are a couple at work.. oh, never mind, you get the picture...)

Anyway, after trying the "leave her alone and she'll find her way out" theory for quite a long while, I finally grabbed a broom and a spray bottle of water and scooted her out and shut the door. I was concerned about shutting the door, since the cats were both still out, but when I went to open it about a half an hour later, there was Ms. Possum, crawling up the back steps to see if the coast was clear. I'm not sure who was more startled.. she quickly scurried off into the dark, and I went inside and shut the door. And the cats stayed out all night. I figured that was better than having a wild animal wandering about the house.

Tonight we managed to get the cats in at a reasonable hour (okay, reasonable to us, not to them) and shut the door, so no marsupial incursions tonight. It was a near thing though... after I confidently stated earlier today "possums only come out after dark", imagine my surprise at walking out to the deck to call in the cats... and seeing a little grey head pop up over the top step and stare at me with beady little eyes. I'd apparently made some impression on the little critter last night though.. she turned and raced (well, raced at possum-speed) down the steps, under the fence and across the neighbor's yard to a stand of trees. Needless to say, I'm learning not to make assumptions about possum behavior.

Now, if we can silence the whining of the cats...