Monday, December 19, 2011

Pine Grosbeaks

Nothing empties a sunflower feeder faster than a flock of grosbeaks. (here's a video on YouTube showing why.)

Pine Grosbeaks are a bit smaller than jays but for their size have an incredibly soft whistling voice. It always amazes me that these large birds make such a soft sound.

In fact, overall they just seem like a "soft" bird. Even with their sharp, bright markings, they have a plump look to them due to the thin grey edging on the feathers and their large chests. They are incredibly graceful fliers and land much more gently than even the tiny chickadees. And, while initially timid, they quickly grow accustomed to us and don't mind being at the feeder while we fill ones nearby.

Males are bright red, and since we don't have cardinals in Hovland, they're the brightest bird at the feeder at this time of year. Females are a dusky gray with a wash that varies from orange to yellow in the sunlight. Immature males look nearly identical to females, maybe a tad bit more red to their orange coloration. They don't develop their bright red color until their second year:

They're with us for nearly nine months every year, flying north for the short summer breeding season. And, while they're regular winter visitors, they are classified as an "irruptive" species meaning that there are some years of mass migrations south. We've never had more than 30 in the yard; I can't imagine how beautiful an irruptive year must be!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Stiff Club Moss

A forest of miniature pines pokes its way through the snow covered bog. These tiny evergreens are stiff club moss (Lycopodium annotinum) one of several club mosses native to boreal forests.

A favorite treat for moose, stiff club moss was used by Native Americans to aid clotting and the highly flammable spores were an ingredient in the original flash powder used by early photographers.

The stiff club moss spreads through surface rhizomes, but also produces spores on the top (as opposed to the shiny club moss that looks similar but has spores on the sides of the plant). Cool fact: not only are the spores highly flammable, they are water repellent. Brush your finger through a bunch of stiff club moss spores and dip it in water: your finger is completely dry!

All club mosses are highly fragile and don't transplant easily or survive heavy foot traffic. They are found throughout much of the U.S. and northern Europe, and often grow in white or black spruce forests along with cloudberry, mooseberry and twinflower. (US Forest Service)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Ice Circles

Winter crop circles? Signs of alien life? Nope, just tiny ruptures along a lead in the ice. When the water slowly swells through them, it distributes at an equal distance from the fracture point (as long as there are no obstructions), forming perfect circles on the early ice. (Brainerd, Minn.)

Snowy Seed Heads

Last night's gentle snowfall left a wonderland for exploration this morning. With no wind, the snow formed amazing sculptures on the tiniest of platforms: seed heads.

Wild Columbine:



 This meadow weed left behind a tiny knotted seed head, size of my pinkie nail:

And, a natural santa's cap on a coneflower:

Thursday, October 27, 2011

First Pine Siskin of the Fall

A brightly colored Pine Siskin showed up at our feeders today. First one I've seen here this fall!

There's been an irruption of redpolls and siskins in Alaska, and a Common Redpoll has been reported here in the Twin Cities metro area. Looks like it might be a great year for winter finches!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Reporting a Banded Bird

Back in September I walked into my office and found this waiting for me:

What do you do with a note, two packets of wings and a teeny metal band? Visit the Bird Banding Laboratory's site!

The BBL's site asks for a lot of information, but don't be intimidated by it: just complete the information you have. The bander will be grateful for any report that is returned.

For those who haven't worked with bird bands, their tiny size make the teeny, teeny numbers that are stamped into the metal incredibly hard to read. There are two sets of numbers: the prefix (usually consisting of four numbers) and the suffix (which is nearly always five numbers).

After one incorrect stab at reading the numbers I finally got it right and submitted it. Then the waiting began.

Eight days later I was excited to have an email waiting for me from the BBL. Turns out that the bander hadn't yet reported the band as used, which meant the BBL didn't have it on file. More waiting.

Six weeks later I broke down and emailed a bander in the Hastings, Minn., area where the bird was recovered to see if it was his. After going through his records he got back to me: he banded the bird this past summer right before it fledged. The bird was an Eastern Bluebird and met with an early demise.

The most amazing part of all this? Not that the bird was recovered so early, not that I was finally able to decipher the band (must purchase a magnifying glass arm for use), but that a citizen took the time to stop on her daily walk, salvage the bird's wings and band, and mail them to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center so we could report it.

Thanks to the woman's keen observation skills (not to mention her willingness to salvage wings off a "badly decomposed bird's body" as she referred to it), we have yet one more piece of data on birds.

(Note that anyone can report a band, even though the BBL's site doesn't give you an option to select "citizen." Here's the site for future reference:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

White-throated Sparrows

Just a week ago I was worrying because we only had a smattering of White-throated Sparrows in the yard. Normally, our yard is completely filled with them rustling through the oak and maple leaves.

They arrived en masse over the past weekend. There must be 80-100 of them flitting, scratching and enthusiastically bathing in our many bird baths.

With the drought, the baths have been incredibly popular: flocks of more than 50 yellow-rumpeds and robins joining the sparrows in the evening and morning. What a great fall for backyard birdwatching!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Golden-Crowned Kinglets

Well, I didin't think it was possible to find birds more difficult to photograph than warblers, but the tiny kinglets sure seem to be. I was completely surrounded by both Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned for five full days. What do I have to show for that? This:

Maybe I should stick with moths... (any ideas on species?)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Swan Banding

I spent a chilly, wet day yesterday banding Trumpeter Swan cygnets in Wisconsin. What a fabulous way to spend a crisp September day!

We band cygnets at this time of year because they're large enough to be correctly fitted with the bands, but cannot fly yet, allowing a "round-up" to take place using kayaks.

Basically, the banding crew drives to the different sites, the DNR pilot flies overhead to give everyone an idea of where the swans are, then he directs the entire process from hundreds of feet above. This cannot be an easy task. He was amazing and thanks to him all three sites went smoothly and fairly quickly.

Cygnets are gray their first year, turning white the following fall. They'll migrate and stay together as a family throughout the winter, returning to the same breeding area before the young leave to find their own territories and mates.

Once the cygnets are in hand, they are fitted with three different bands: two yellow bands from the Wisconsin DNR swan program (a neck band and a leg band) and a metal leg band from the USFWS. The large neck band makes tracking the swans easy, especially throughout the winter.

 The swans are then carefully bundled into a mesh net

and suspended from a scale. The cygnet's weight is recorded and filed along with its band numbers. Most of the swans we banded weighed in the neighborhood of 9.4 kg.

All 15 cygnets were on private land and banding would not have been possible without the cooperation of the land owners. It's wonderful to see great support of the WI-DNR's swan program.

Our final banding site was a former cranberry bog. Here's the owner getting ready to release one of the cygnets. Vet Leslie from WRC and I were amazed at how docile the swans were (they're actually pretty exhausted by this point). I know it looks odd, but this is the correct way to hold and support a calm swan. If we attempted to carry swans at WRC this way, they'd peck us to death!

As each swan is banded, it's carried to the water's edge and set on the ground with the volunteer straddling the swan to hold it in place. Once all the cygnets in that family are banded and ready to go, they're released as a group.  Pat, from the DNR, explained that they do this because a couple of times in the past cygnets became separated from one another in the tall grasses. While they'll eventually reunite, the cygnets are already stressed from being handled and if left alone are in a vulnerable position.

Many, many thanks to Mary and Pat for the invitation to join them on this fabulous adventure!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Banded Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Today is International Rock Flipping Day. Seriously. If it's been years since you've gone out and flipped rocks over just to see what's living underneath them, it's a fabulous way to bring back the wonders of childhood. Go out and give it a try.

It's the brainchild of Susannah, the creator of the fascinating Wanderin' Weeta blog.  Check out what other people have found via the links on her site and by following the Twitter hastag #rockflip. And, if you have your own finds, write them up and send her a link to your blog!

Here in Minnesota, I think it's been a bit too dry lately. Most of the usual rock critters seem to have dug down deeper into the moist soil. I came up with nothing but a single millipede under one of our garden rocks.

But, I did find this amazing creature while picking plums today. It's a Banded Tussock Moth caterpillar.

Plums are a stone fruit, right? Stones and rocks... yep, I'm counting this as a rock flip find!

Its face reminds me of an African antelope with a beard and horns.  Here's a closer look:

International Rock Flipping Day was a great success! Check out these fascinating posts of what people found:
A Roving I will Go
Outside my Window
Rebecca in the Woods
Fertanish Chatter
Bug Safari
Growing with Science Blog
Wild About Ants
Powell River Books Blog
Meandering Washington
Cicero Sings
Via Negativa
Mainly Mongoose
Chicken Spaghetti
Wanderin' Weeta
Rock, Paper, Lizard
Cabin Girl
At Rattan Creek
More photos available on the Flickr group page.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Juvenile Pileated with Mom

We've always had pileateds around and knew they nested if not on the property, nearby, but this year is the first time I've had the chance to watch the female feed a juvenile at our feeders.

Once he figured out which feeder had the good stuff, the young male moved to it and spent a good 20 minutes on it. While watching  him, I noticed he has white wing tips. Not sure how common that is. Any input?

Here's a video of them at the feeder. Very quietly in the background you can hear him making his odd, wheezy, grunting sounds. The first time I heard them I thought it was an upset squirrel. Turns out they're the begging sounds he makes when he's around Mom.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Tennessee Warblers Return

On the way north this spring, dozens of Tennessee Warblers flocked our wild plum trees. It was the first I'd heard of them sipping nectar. (original post)

Now, they're migrating back south and with the wild plums done, they're flocking to my fuschias hanging right outside the dining room windows. How fun to watch!  (must clean windows...)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Dragonfly Weekend

I love late summer up north. The biting bugs are down (usually, although mosquitoes have been especially fierce this year), nights are in the 40s and days are in the low 80s. Pretty much perfect weather!

Dragonflies are also moving about in large numbers and, maybe due to this year's bumper crop of skeeters, there seem to be more than usual this season.

I just returned from five glorious days of being off the grid. Lots of time to fish, observe critters and catch up on reading.

There were Meadowhawks all around. Researching Meadowhawks is enough to give one a migraine, unless you simply go with the flow of: They're nearly impossible to tell apart unless they're in hand and you have a magnifying glass. So, in favor of that approach (and 2 hours of research later) here are a couple favorite photos:

I'm guessing this one (above) is a male White-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum) based on the amber base at the wings, its stark white face and the white mark on its thorax.

This one, which could amazingly be the same species, I think might actually be a Cherry-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum internum) based on the amber veins in the leading edge of the wings.

My last two favorite dragonflies were buggers to get photos of, but the most graceful fliers I've seen. I've learned by looking at other people's photos that they're both in the Darner family. The bright green and magenta one was a Common Green Darner (absolutely beautiful) and I'm pretty sure this one is a Variable Darner (Aeshna interrupta):

I've no idea what it's holding in its front legs, but it looks like a snowball to me  :-)   (maybe a spider egg sack?)  Both the Green Darner and the Variable Darner of one of the few migratory dragonflies.

If anyone has insights on the species IDs, please let me know!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Cooper's Hawk

With the feral cats and this regular visitor, it's amazing we have any birds. A sub-adult Cooper's Hawk has been hunting our yard since March. I'm not sure how long it takes for the white spots on their back to grow out, so maybe this is a different one than the March visitor, but he/she is here on a daily basis.

It has learned the yard and developed an amazing hunting strategy. It sits in the large white pine just to the north of the house, with the feeding station in between. It then swoops from the tree toward the house scaring the birds into the house and windows, picking them off while they're stunned.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Red-spotted Purple

A couple days ago I blogged about finally getting a chance to see a White Admiral up close. Well, yesterday here at home I had a chance to observe a Red-spotted Purple.

The tie you might ask? They're considered the same species (Limenitis arthemis). Yep. They look completely different but you have to delve deep into their teeny-tiny mitochondrial DNA to find any genetic variation.

Because they do hybridize, there are considered a polytypic species with two subspecies: the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax), found throughout most of the United States (I love the reddish tips on the antennae!):

and the White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis arthemis), found in the northern United States and Canada:

Some references list a third form, the Western White Admiral, found west of the Rockies, that looks the same as the White Admiral, but with the addition of red spots on the hindwings. My purely unscientific mind says to listen to the various scientific sources and stick with two distinct subspecies with hybrids occurring between the two. Dan Tallman's blog has a nice photo of such an intergrade.

Of interest, the Red-spotted Purple is a Batesian mimic of the Black Pipevine Swallowtail. It has developed color mimicry to help deter predators (the Black Pipevine Swallowtail is poisonous and birds have learned to avoid it, and anything resembling it).

So cool to see these two back-to-back!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Northern Escape

Last weekend we escaped up north to explore 40 acres of newly purchased land. We spent the weekend with friends near Tom Lake and had a great time walking along the bubbling trout creek that runs through our property.

I was thrilled to find Ebony Jewelwings all along the creek. I'd never seen one before in the wild and was fascinated the first time I ever saw photos of one. (Check out Dan Tallman's blog for really nice photos of jewelwings.)

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately since I did end up sitting in the creek, I didn't bring my telephoto lens. I'm actually amazed that the photos turned out!

Some of the northern wildflowers are still blooming, like this delicate Shinleaf that reminds me a bit of Lily of the Valley.

Shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica) contains a property similar to aspirin and its crushed leaves were applied to bruises to reduce swelling and pain. It's a member of the wintergreen family, but doesn't have a minty smell or flavor.

While a common plant, its diminutive nature and propensity to grow in heavily shaded decidious forests, makes this flower often overlooked.

I also had the opportunity to finally see a White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis arthemis) up close. Easily recognized by the white band on black, White Admirals are found in deciduous forests throughout Canada and the northern United States.

The underside of their wings are a deep rusty red. The intricacies of marginal rows of blue and a submarginal row of red dots are stunning. This one was enjoying the nectar of Jon and Terri's mock orange.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Hidden Surprise

While dead-heading the front roses today, something jumped and landed on one of the roses. Just assumed it was a grasshopper, until I started thinking that it's too early for them.

I'm glad I took a closer look, I found this little guy peering out at me:

I'm not good at ID'ing Cope's Gray Tree Frogs vs. Gray Tree Frogs (we have both in Minnesota), but based on the fact that it's skin is fairly smooth, and that it's close to the ground, I'm going to guess a Cope's. (would love input on this!)

He emerged after a few minutes for a better view:

One of the fascinating things with both Cope's Gray Tree Frog and Gray Tree Frogs is that their skin color changes based on time of year. During the summer when it's warm and vegetation is green, both frogs' skin is green. During cooler weather and after foliage begins to die (or in the spring before it "greens up"), their skin is a mottled gray.

The other fascinating item about both frogs? They freeze in the winter! They produce glycerol that's converted to glucose that they pump through their blood system as temps begin to drop. This fills and encases their organs, preventing them from freezing, but the rest of the body freezes up when temps plummet. Their hearts even stop! They burrow into dirt for added insulation: in fact many people have them emerge from potted plants that they're overwintering.

The two frogs have very unique calls, which makes ID'ing them at night easy. Here's a link to the Cope's call; and a link to the Gray Tree Frog's.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Red Fox Release (and a small rant)

My Mom lives in Florida and one of our favorite games to play on the phone is "Guess what's in the car?" This is a result of me transporting various critters of all species and sizes around the state for rehab, release or placement.

Mom guessed yesterday's quiz after only two questions. Way to go Mom! The answer was four Red Fox kits on their way back to the wild.

The view from my rearview mirror yesterday was priceless: A large kennel cab with three pairs of pointy ears as three of the four young red fox kits I was transporting peered out the back window, much to the utter delight of my surrounding commuters. (have to admit that it took me a bit to figure out what all the people, especially kids, were smiling and pointing to as they went by...)

Fortunately for those commuters, I did not take a photo from that angle, but here's one from the rear of the car with the tailgate open. I can only imagine how cute they looked standing on their rear legs against the gated door looking out the window.

For those of you who have been involved in a wild animal release, you know that they are highly unpredictable. They are, after all, WILD animals.

Yesterday's release was no exception. We opened the large kennel door first and one of the three immediately bolted and disappeared north into the forest. The single one came out next and kind of hung around while the second fox from the large kennel braved a mad dash into the woods. We had to tilt and pretty much force the third fox kit out of the kennel, at which point it wandered off after the first two, while the single kit headed west.

After making sure they weren't going to re-appear, we packed up the kennel and drove away. Not five minutes later the single kit appeared trotting down the gravel road, heading south onto our neighbor's property. Best laid plans, right?

We stopped to make sure it wouldn't return to the road and our neighbor took the opportunity to approach us and ask if it was a fox he'd just seen. That conversation then evolved into a discussion on releasing fox near his land because he has chickens. (good for the fox, bad for the neighbor, I'm rooting for the fox)

After explaining that this is prime habitat for fox: hundreds of acres of open farmland mixed with large stands of hardwoods, and that there already are fox and coyote in the area, he proceeded to tell us that his neighbor's dogs had killed two of his chickens last week. And he's worried about a fox kit.

Isn't part of having free-range chickens in a rural, farm setting acknowledging that you'll have predation loss? How do you move to one of the few rural farm communities still within the Metro area, and not realize the environment into which you're moving?

I'd rather see a fox or coyote, part of the natural predation cycle, take chickens that a neighbor's dog.

Personal rants aside, the release was fun to watch and it's a lifetime experience to see these beautiful animals return to their native habitat.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Crazy Days of Summer

Working for a very seasonal non-profit has its pros and cons. Pros: intense stretches of learning new things, working closely with more than 150 species of wildlife, being fully caught up in the seasons and the ability to spend most of the winter off the grid in far Northeastern Minnesota. Cons: keeping a balanced life from May through August.

Keeping up with this blog is one of those challenges. (you don't want to see my poor weed-filled veggie garden!) 

Seems like every day I see something and think "how cool is that!" Sometimes I manage to snap a couple decent pictures, but alas they usually sit in my computer for days or weeks until I get time to write up a new post.

This week alone we admitted more than 500 patients at WRC. For every patient that comes in, there are phone calls, follow-ups, photos and other miscellaneous things to coordinate. I love my job, but it takes up a lot of time during our peak season.

Yesterday I drove to Duluth and back to release our first Avian Nursery patients of the season: two Hairy Woodpeckers (one of which is above) who had been orphaned as tiny, naked nestlings due to tree trimming. Here's my WRC blog post.

On the home front, once I've arrived home to the serenity of a rural acreage, I've been enjoying a fabulous blooming season for the gardens:

And watching the birds as they gather nesting materials and exhaust themselves flying back and forth from our feeders to their hungry nestlings:

And in between all this, I keep the brain cells going by keeping up with a fabulous group of intellectuals and nature lovers on Twitter. I love all the fascinating info people share about nature and science. Cheers to a great group of Tweeps!  Gotta love those Crazy Days of Summer...