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: