Thursday, May 31, 2007

Birding Mille Lacs

Mille Lacs (pronounced muh-LAX), lying near the geographic center of the state, is Minnesota's second largest lake, with an area of 132,000 acres, or about 200 square miles. It is probably the best-known fishing destination in Minnesota, and could probably earn the title of "Walleye Capital of the World". Walleyes are king here in MN.

To get to my meetings yesterday and today, I could not help but drive around the shores of this lake that touches the horizon. And, when my meeting was over at noon today, I wasn't in a great hurry to get back to the office. So I grabbed a chicken caesar wrap and unsweetened iced tea from a convenience store, and headed for the lake. I was not after walleyes; my lunch hour was dedicated to birds. I found the perfect wayside rest, where I could park under a tree next to the lake and watch gulls on the dock pictured above.

The gulls looked all the same to me at first, typical ring billed gulls, but after a while I began to notice other mostly white birds among the flock. There were the Forster's terns, hanging out on the end of the dock in their own group. Then there was this guy.

I don't know, I think it's an immature Bonaparte's gull, which would be likely around here, but frankly, my shorebird expertise is quite limited due to lack of experience. It's a smallish gull, with gray patches behind its eyes, and some grayish and even brownish feathers on the wings and rump. Legs were light, I think pinkish, but I'm not sure. I didn't have my good binoculars.

What the picture does not show, however, is that this particular gull had a green fishing jig stuck in its bill. I often wonder just how much lost fishing tackle is out there, and what effect it has on water birds. I heard of one case last fall where loons died of lead poisoning on one lake, from ingesting lead shot and/or fishing lures. Fishing tackle manufacturers, and anglers, seem reluctant to try non-lead alternatives, but I think this is a problem that needs much more attention. This gull seemed healthy, and I hope the problem will resolve itself.

Then my attention was captured by shorebirds. My lack of expertise at gull identification is second only to my lack of expertise at shorebirds. However, this one was distinctive enough for me to positively ID it as a ruddy turnstone. A lifer for me!!! There were a few other little brown peeps among the turnstones, which I have no clue about, other than they were not spotted sandpipers.

I finally reluctantly ended my lunch break. I had two choices in my route to the office: I could go around the south and west sides of the lake, past the condos and casino with all its traffic, or I could go around the north end, with its quaint cabins and older resorts, a slightly longer route. Guess which one I chose.

I stopped at a little beach, which is a publicly-owned Aquatic Management Area. I couldn't help myself. Even though I had exceeded my allotted half hour lunch break, there were more birds to be found. Like Caspian terns, the largest, most flamboyant terns, and the flock of long billed birds pictured above. Yes, like all of my bird pictures taken at 14x digital zoom, it's not too good. It actually looks better at less than full size.

I looked and debated for a full twenty minutes between long billed and short billed dowitchers and marbled godwits, before I finally looked at the legs (dark), size (fairly large), and general gut feeling. Marbled godwits. Ding-ding, another lifer!

I'm so glad I took the time to look at shorebirds instead of speeding by to get back to the office and sit indoors. Nobody was even there to miss me.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

the last couple of days...

Yesterday I called in sick to work. I had this cold bug that had gone so far as to keep me awake the night before, so when the dogs woke me up at the usual hour (between 5:30 and 6) I was really cranky and tired, not to mention dripping sinuses. I spent the day mostly in bed; in the morning I read a story to Mr. Attitude, which was really a great time for both of us, then I alternately napped and read Michael Pollan's latest book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. If you care at all about where that meal on your plate came from, you must read that book. It answered my long time question, held since I spent time in southern Minnesota and noticed all the corn fields: "What do they do with all that corn?" The answers might surprise you.

Today I had a meeting about 90 miles away from here. It will go on tomorrow, and I will drive over for it, but with kids...I'm lucky if I can justify one meeting a year. It was about a new project that will monitor a sample of Minnesota's 10,000+ lakes to see the long term effects of watershed land use, climate change, etc. Interesting, but too much statistical boring stuff. I left town at 4:30, and had to pull over for one cloudburst that had pea sized hail pounding down on my car.

It was nice that a lot of the road between the meeting and home was deserted by traffic, pretty much devoid of habitation. It is such a strange, deserted area of the state, not good for agriculture but not having much desirable vacation property either.

I like to try to do career-oriented things, but sometimes I think what I do at home matters the most of all.

Monday, May 28, 2007

New "heard but not seen" yard bird

(photo by Cindy Mead at Woodsong)

I had long suspected that black billed cuckoos were a part of the local avian fauna, but they aren't the kind of bird to present themselves in full view too often, as in Cindy's excellent photo. I've been using the audio clips at Cornell's All About Birds web site a lot to try and make sense of all the unfamiliar chirps and twitters I've been hearing lately, and I have played the black billed cuckoo's call a few times to try and commit it to memory.

This morning I heard a bird call in the woods that was vaguely familiar. I ran inside to the computer and got on the Cornell site only to find that I didn't have the required downloads to play audio clips here on the home computer. I could hear the "kuk-kuk-kuk" call outside as I waited patiently for the download and setup to complete. Finally, after setting preferences and accepting user agreements, I was able to play the call of the black-billed cuckoo. That was IT! It's amazing, this high-tech, real time birding.

Cuckoos are good to have around; they help to keep the caterpillar numbers in check. But caterpillar eaters or not, I am always thrilled to realize there is way more to the biodiversity of this place than I ever imagined.

Gotta run. I just saw an olive-backed, warbler-looking thing out the window!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Living in the moment

There's piles of work to be done around here. So much work you wonder how it ever will get done.

It will, or it won't. Today I surveyed all the garden beds I weeded and prepared yesterday, then planted carrots in one bed. I could have planted much more stuff, but the forecast calls for "scattered frost" which means for sure we'll get it in the geographical anomaly we have here. One day won't matter the least to a seed, but it might chill the soil enough to retard germination. What's up with frost at the end of May anyway?

I woke up today in kind of a funk, wondering if the life I wanted would ever happen. I decided, no matter what, I would get a few weeds pulled and see what happened. Things worked themselves out, thanks to a little road trip and a late afternoon spent watching the dogs playing "Who's got the bone!" I got my outlook back. Sometimes you have to just kick back and forget about what needs to be done. For a while.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Things learned about birds today

1. Yellowthroats don't always say "Witchety-witchety-witchety". Sometimes their songs are more complex, and may fool a birder like myself. But the males are striking with their black masks.

2. A goshawk is always an amazing sight. Particularly when it perches in a tree about fifty feet away from the car you have stopped in the middle of the road in amazement. Luckily we don't get much traffic.

3. Hermit thrushes only sing for a short time in the evening, but wow. When they sing!

4. Veeries and woodcock keep on into the last lingering light.

5. Wow, it's 9:30 and the western sky isn't totally dark. The light will start coming at 4:30 or earlier. Birds start singing at the first sign of light. I had to tie birds into this somehow.

6. I have a full day of gardening ahead of me tomorrow, and I will probably be serenaded by the chattering call of sedge wrens while I prepare garden beds and plant. I think I'll hold back with tomatoes and other fragile stuff, however. We had frost last night. Sigh.

7. I have never actually seen a sedge wren. I'll keep my binoculars handy in the garden, but they like to hide in the willows!

8. Oh, one more thing. I saw my first nighthawk of the year today.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Watch out for Mr. Calvin the Saxophonist.

Really, he did pretty well for his first informal night with the instrument. The Hermit was telling me that now we're even for him bringing Maggie and Hopi into the house without my consent, but I don't know. Saxophones don't leap out of their cases at 4 AM and leave deposits on the floor. Saxophones don't sniff your butt whenever you come in the door. Saxophones kind of leave you alone, until you take them out of their case.

He could be the next Charlie Parker, Branford Marsalis, John Coltrane, or David Sanborn. You never know.

the morel of the story is...

Always take the time to go out in the woods the morning after a rainy spring evening.

And, take Mr. Attitude with you. He found 'em.

The Hermit and Mr. Attitude went for a drive this morning, mostly because our Internet server was down and TH could not access his work emails, etc. Amazing how much work depends on the Internet these days. I even spent a good part of my day doing e-correspondence.

The story goes, they drove back roads over to the Wisconsin border, then headed south a ways, checking out some forest roads, and made their way back west. They stopped at a small lake, actually a flowage on a creek created by a century old logging dam. There is a public access on the lake, and they got out to explore and walk a trail alongside the lake.

Mr. Attitude was obviously looking down, noticing things. He went up to The Hermit and said "Look at these neat mushrooms!" Then, a moment later, "Why are you getting so excited, Dad?" Then, "We'll find more. Just look down!"

I have not had morels with dinner in seven years. What a treat!

There's gotta be more out there. Just look down.

Bird song ID help needed!

The windows are open here at work today, and I am being taunted by a bird song I'm not familiar with. It's a loud, clear whistle, with a definite six note musical phrase that rises and falls. I wish I had a way to write it out in musical notation, because the rhythm and notes are so definite. I'll attempt to explain it in words:

D (eighth note)\ *eighth rest*\ G (eighth note) \*eighth rest*\G(dotted eighth) slurred to B (sixteenth)\B (sixteenth) slurred to D (dotted eighth). Moderate tempo.

At first I thought it might be a variation of a Baltimore oriole song, but the whistle sounds a bit different and orioles usually don't have such a strict rhythm. I mean, this bird's got syncopation!

Anyone have any ideas for me?

Monday, May 21, 2007

stalking birdsong

If you can't find me, that's where I'll likely be this time of year. Enjoying the song, trying to get a brief glimpse of the singer. It's addictive.

Saturday morning it was a brown thrasher. Although I never got a glimpse of the bird, I heard its repetitive, mocking call and decided it definitely was not a catbird. Brown thrashers are better imitators, although they could not hold a candle to a mockingbird. But since mockingbirds are rare in these parts, I'll take a brown thrasher.

Today I went on my usual noontime walk at work. I walk across the river and around one of our fish rearing ponds, a distance probably a little over a mile. It's a good way to get some fresh air and recharge my senses for the afternoon. As I was walking between the pond and the river today, I heard a familiar call. Robin like phrasing, but more shrill and rough, like the robin had a sore throat. Something in me remembered: scarlet tanager. Why did I decide I did not need binoculars or camera for this walk? I looked and listened, trying to hone in on the location of the singer. I finally caught a glimpse of him, a breathtaking vision of scarlet illuminated by sunlight. I was able to watch him for a couple minutes, the sunlight accenting the scarlet of his feathers. All I could say was "Thank you". I was entirely grateful for that moment.

This was my first scarlet tanager in a long time!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A different kind of starflower update

It seems a bit early for them!

springtime in Minnesota

Last Monday we had a high temperature near 90 degrees.

Wednesday night we had frost, with a low of 24.

Yesterday (Saturday) the high was probably around 75, but it felt much hotter in the city where we went to visit my dad. He and The Hermit tried unsuccessfully to get his mini RV started. The kids were finding all kinds of treasures in the attic, stuff my dad was more than happy to get rid of, like an old Pong video game, various books, doll furniture, and a skateboard (uh-oh, more broken limb stories in the future?) Then a quick visit to Trader Joe's, and we were headed home with the air conditioning on in the van. The sky grew cloudier the further north we went. I had to stop at the grocery store in Sandstone for ice, and when I stepped out of the van an icy blast of northeast wind hit me. The thermometer at home read 32.

The high temperature today is supposed to be 55, with a strong northeast wind all day. I guess gardening will wait until next weekend.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Starflower update

Yup, it was broken. Not badly, which is why we didn't make a big deal and run to the ER, but after a couple days the parental "maybe something is wrong" instinct kicked in, so The Hermit brought her to the doctor today. Her young bones are still flexible enough that, while the radius and ulna didn't break outright, they did bend a bit. Enough to put her in a cast for 4 weeks.

A little history: Monday evening, she and Calvin were riding their bikes home from their friends' house 3/4 mile up the road. This is a road that sees very little traffic, so I have no qualms about letting them ride that far. There is a bit of a hill on the way back, and apparently Starflower lost control and wiped out. I was in the cook shed when she came in with skinned knees and swelling wrist. I fixed the knees, The Hermit and I looked at the wrist, decided there was no obvious fracture or immense pain, so we decided to wait and see. Parental medical triage is something they don't tell you about when you have kids, and you never quite master it.

I was really hoping nothing was broken, because this girl likes to swim, and the swimming season is just beginning around here. But there should be plenty of swimming left in mid June, when hopefully it comes off. Piano recital is definitely out, however.

She's taking it pretty well. She's had us sign it already, and she did some more decorating. But there's already the itching. Any ideas/hints?

In other news, Calvin informed me he's decided to play saxophone in band next year. The only decision left is tenor or alto. I'm all for whichever he chooses! Being a former band geek myself, I am happy he has an interest! Now to design a soundproof practice area...

Thursday, May 17, 2007

preschool graduation

This is my youngest child, who graduated "with honors" from preschool today. They had a very nice program and ceremony, with lunch afterwards.

It didn't sink in until later. I no longer have a baby, or a toddler, or a preschooler. All of my children are "school age". Waaaahhh!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

okay, we need a garden update

Saturday was a good gardening day; it was sunny but a cool breeze from the northeast kept the temperature bearable. My goal was to plant out the remaining bundle of onion sets I'd had in the refrigerator for two weeks, and to finally get sugar snap peas and Swiss chard planted. I was also hoping to get a few more of the beds weeded and prepared for planting. I got the onions and a couple of beds done Saturday, with a few distractions, and did the sugar snap peas and a few more beds on Sunday.
While most of my garden weeds are the usual quack grass, lambs quarters and sorrel, I found that ferns are spreading their rhizomes through my garden beds and unfurling little fronds everywhere! I love ferns, and I appreciate the abundance of them here, some day I may even get around to identifying them all, BUT can't they just stay out of my garden? I removed probably twenty or more feet of fern rhizomes from one 4 x 8 bed. If I was the enterprising type I would have divided them and sold them for garden ornamentals! But I seem to lack that type of motivation.

My garlic is doing very well. I planted two whole beds of it this year, and I know we'll use all of it, although I'm hoping to save a few good bulbs for next year's crop.

I love the soft greens and reds in this lettuce mixture. It should be ready for harvest in a week or so.

And, we have potatoes.

I'm sorry if this wide format blog layout looks really screwy. It's so hard to get text where you want it in the Blogger compose box, and I've noticed it lays out differently on different size screens, and on different browsers. I'm doing what I can, but I'm almost ready to switch to the usual Blogger narrow column template. UPDATE- Back to narrow format. It will make some posts look strange, but it is far easier for a semi computer literate like me to deal with.

Forget Blogger, I'm having a bad day to begin with. Our carpenter is turning out to be a real jerk. And, Mr. Attitude was complaining about a toothache last night, and when I looked today there were cavities the size of the Grand Canyon in two of his top molars. I feel like such a bad mom. And I dread going to the dentist, I want to find one who will guarantee they won't lecture me for being such a bad mom to let this happen. Not to mention both Calvin and Starflower have had major bike wipeouts this week, and I've been watching Starflower's wrist, wondering if I shouldn't have taken her in for an X ray. I don't think it's broken, and she says it's better today, but I'm no doctor. Please, no more this week. This is all this mom can handle!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

the frog stalker

Today I had the opportunity to take what I think is one of my best blogging photos yet--thanks to Calvin.

He came up to me while I was taking a break from gardening--it was a great day for it--and asked if I wanted to see some cool frogs. At first I said "Well, I'm kind of busy gardening..." But then I thought there is nothing in the garden that could justify my not taking a break and engaging in some discovery time with my son.

So I grabbed my camera and walked out to the ditch that is the outflow channel for the pond. This ditch has always been a low spot on the land, and before we had the driveway and culvert, very troublesome to get across. The pond excavation uncovered a few springs that I think made this a more or less perennial spring fed stream. It flows even when there is no outflow from the pond culvert.

The above is my older son, caught in one of the true acts of Being A Kid: frog catching. He caught a nice green frog (that's the actual species name, and very descriptive) here the other day. So he led me out here, but at first we didn't see any frogs, which is because this little spring fed outflow has some great hiding characteristics for frogs and minnows. You might notice that the water in the stream is very red. Groundwater in this area typically has a high iron content, and when this groundwater meets the surface, some chemical reaction occurs that causes the iron to flocculate and settle out of the water, causing a reddish fluffy stuff that is great for frogs to hide in. I remember the term "flocculate" from some chemistry class and from taking water samples in grad school; the dissolved oxygen test we did caused "flocculation".

Anyway, I told Calvin if we kept still for a few minutes, a frog might poke its head out of the...err...flocculation. So we waited, I turned my camera on, and...

I was ready, and there it was.

Amazing they can live in that stuff.

Thank you, Calvin, for showing Mom there is always time for frogs.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

so where have I been?

-at work wasting time while Spring happens.

-out experiencing that brief time between bud and green leaf, that quick time of spring flower, that we call Spring here in Minnesota.

-counting the new spring migrants that appear on a daily basis, and realizing we're in the thick of Spring. Realizing I am not seeing as many warblers as I should be, and missing waterfowl.

-worrying about the Gunflint Trail forest fire, since I have spent many good times at Gunflint Lodge, which I guess is safe due to outdoor sprinkler systems. I feel for the many people who have lost cabins and even whole lodges there. It is/was such a beautiful place, but Nature will prevail.

-tending kids and dogs at home while The Hermit was at a wildlife banquet, which comes with the territory. But he told me, last night after the banquet was over, he was in the hotel bar/restaurant getting something to eat, when suddenly a young woman in her twenties came up and gave him a hug. It turned out to be his daughter, my stepdaughter, who happened to be in her old college town visiting friends. You couldn't write a movie plot like that if you tried.

-getting engulfed in the amphibian rhapsody, which tonight includes wood frogs, Western chorus frogs, gray tree frogs, and, for the first time tonight, toads. Wonderful.

-Taking Mr. Attitude out for the first spring swim in the pond.

-feeling unexpectedly, and unwelcomely, in a fog. It's all I can do to raise my head and write this before crashing into bed. I went out to the pond tonight with Mr. Attitude, and all I could do was sit in a lounge chair. With my feet up. I'm researching and taking all kinds of supplements, but it is frustrating. Since the last two or three months I had been feeling better than ever!

- looking for batteries for my camera. We suddenly are experiencing a deficit of double A's, and I haven't been able to sneak any from any other device.

So that explains it, more or less. I have Spring Adjustment Disorder.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The moral of the story: always carry extra batteries

It was The Hermit's birthday on Sunday. He claimed he was 42, I claimed that, while he was only as old as he looked, which is about 42, chronology still never lies. :)

We celebrated by meeting his daughter, son, and future daughter in law at a restaurant in Duluth. The place is an old warehouse converted into sports bar, complete with lots of video and arcade games to keep the youngsters busy. I was kept busy going up to the bar to get more quarters.

I had brought my trusty digital camera along, thinking I should get some pictures of the family. However, when I turned it on to show the stepkids pictures of Maggie, I got the dreaded LOW BATTERY screen.

It would not have been so bad if we'd just left the restaurant and went straight home. But The Hermit felt like exploring parts of Duluth we hadn't been to in years, and I was feeling adventurous myself. We drove through East Duluth, where large, classic, well-kept houses prevail. Then we found a couple of trails by streams. The city of Duluth is built on a big basalt upheaval, resulting in a lot of vertical distance between lake level, 602 feet, and the hills above. The streams flow fast and furious over the bedrock, and, when you park on a place called Hawk Ridge, overlooking the neighborhoods hundreds of feet below, and the vast blue expanse of Lake Superior herself, well, things start feeling a little holy. And photogenic. Darn batteries. The views I could share with all of you!

But we had a good time with the kids, who wanted to do even more exploring than our ever-aging parents bodies felt like at the time. There will be other times, we promised, with more time for exploring, and I intend to keep that promise.

I saw a few birds, including my first of season green heron. Warblers have returned, the listservs say, and I have enjoyed the calls of ovenbirds here in my woods once again.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

hermit thrush

Tonight, as I was moving between house and cook shed, a new voice caught my ear. I listened, narrowed it down to the thrush family, because of their amazing vocal capabilities, looked it up in Sibley's, and determined it to be a hermit thrush. Beautiful music.

We don't get a lot of thrushes around here; I think they prefer more mature hardwoods than what my coniferous woods has to offer. We do get Veeries, thank God! Their song is as ethereal as a bird song can get. But they won't be singing for a week or two.

The name "hermit thrush" is almost too descriptive. On some level I identify with a hermit-bird, one that shyly gives a beautiful song once in a while.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


It could be a time of dark despair. All the news of tainted food, global warming, corporate crime, sanctioned environmental destruction, and widespread human indifference to anything but worship of the almighty dollar, can certainly drive the most devout optimist into a funk.

But I'm not going to go there. I really really believe, or want to believe, that our human assault on the environment has reached a critical point, one in which we finally understand that this stuff is for real, and enough people may have come to that conclusion to make a difference.

But I can't speak for humanity. All I can speak of is my own viewpoint, and for some strange reason I feel very optimistic on this cool breezy spring day. I see the marsh marigolds, pictured above, give their vote of confidence, I see all the trees flowering again, I see the return of the migrant birds. They have not given up hope. And neither will I.

Spring is a time for renewal. The plants renew their age old rites, the birds renew their migration and return to nesting grounds. I renew my faith in humanity, for a time, however illogical that may seem, and I renew my vow to do nothing but good on this earth. And I break that vow, a lot, but the spirit of renewal makes me think I still can redeem myself.

In the words of Wendell Berry, "Practice resurrection."