Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

I am not going out tonight. Not that I had anywhere to go, but my cold is still making me feel very curmudgeonly and unsociable. The kids are all away, at least for a couple hours, but my celebration instinct is not kicking in. I just want to crawl under the covers with Bloof the cat. But I have to pick kids 2 and 3 up at the end of the driveway when our pastor neighbors bring them home from the church celebration.

Despite all that, I still think New Year's Day is one of my favorite holidays. Kind of laid back, no big family get togethers planned, just a day off to reflect on the old year and make plans for the new. And a lot of planning I have to do! I want to grow more food than ever before, landscape the new house yard for perfect bird refuge and feeders, and get my running back on track to lose 20 more pounds and feel even better than I do now. That was my greatest accomplishment of 2008: running. Well, that and moving into the new house, but I feel like a new person.

So tomorrow I think I will take some time and go driving where they saw the snowy owl and boreal chickadee in the Christmas bird count. I may not end up seeing anything, but I may see something priceless. Life is kind of that way. You just never know, and you always have to be ready.

Happy New Year, everyone. I am so thankful for the friends I have made through this blog, and yes that means the ones I have not yet met. You all are special to me!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bird count results, and armchair birding

The sky was a dazzling blue, the weather windy and cold (high around 20 F) and the gravel roads slick with ice. Typical conditions for a Christmas bird count in northern Minnesota. I spent the day working the northwest quarter of our count circle with Jim and Steve; this was our third year doing the count together and they were great company as usual.

The day started off slowly, with only three species seen during the first hour. I think the wind kept most birds from moving around much. But things picked up, and by sunset we had tallied 24 species. Highlights included northern shrike, American tree sparrow, mourning dove (unusual in winter here), purple finch, ruffed grouse, snow bunting, and one bald eagle soaring high in the sky. Since we were not doing the area near my house, as we had in the last two years, I got to see some back roads and beautiful country that I hadn't been to before.

But strangely enough, the highlight for me was not a bird sighting, but a sheep sighting. That's right, sheep. We pulled into a farmstead where Steve had remembered counting English (house) sparrows a few years back. I normally don't go out of my way to see house sparrows, but anything to add another species to the list! As we drove up the drive, I saw a few cows and a pen of sheep, a couple white ones and a few brown ones with thick winter wool coats. Then something clicked in my head...the brown sheep reminded me of the ones we used to have...the name at the front of the driveway, a common surname, which was the name of the Lutheran pastor in town...who adopted our sheep last year...HEY, SOME OF THESE ARE MY OLD SHEEP! I recognized one we used to call Cotton Top, a brown sheep with a white patch on top of her head.

The pastor/farmer was not home, unfortunately. I would have liked to talk with him, thank him for taking care of our sheep, and talk gardening. There were vegetables everywhere in the porch of the old farmhouse. It looked like an interesting place.

By the way, we did count several English sparrows there.

I was suffering from a mild cold that day, just a slight annoyance if anything. But as soon as I arrived home, misery set in. Chills, aches, and a nose that would not quit. I think being out in the cold wind may have done it. So today I took a sick day from work, which is good because it is snowing hard and I'm sure the roads are bad. It's a good day to curl up in a rocking chair in front of the wood stove. And a great day for feeder watching; so far I have seen black capped chickadees, goldfinches, red breasted and white breasted nuthatches, and a hairy woodpecker.

That's just at the feeder. I had to go outside for something, and I heard a large flock of birds calling as they landed in the tops of the pines. Crossbills! We were hoping to see crossbills yesterday, but no luck, and now here they are! I didn't get a good look at them, nor am I experienced at distinguishing their calls, but as I learned yesterday, red crossbills are more likely to land in pines; white winged crossbills prefer spruces. So they are probably red crossbills.

As if that weren't enough, a northern shrike was perched in the birch tree above my feeders for a few minutes. I had never seen one so close!

I'm headed back to the hearth and feeders. There are still a few hours of daylight left.

UPDATE- I just saw the totals for the whole Pine County count. 34 total species, including one snowy owl and one boreal chickadee!

And, The Hermit saw a raptor flying over the swamp behind the house. I barely got a look, thought it might be a rough legged hawk, but he said it was flying like an owl....Hmmmm...I guess if I hear a great horned owl tonight, like I have recently, it would still count. And I saw one lonely pine siskin hanging out with the goldfinches.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

It's CBC time again!

Tomorrow I am taking the day off of work to again participate in the Pine County Christmas Bird Count. This will be my third year, and if all goes well I will be spending the day with some old birding friends. I haven't seen many birds this winter; no pine or evening grosbeaks, and only one rough legged hawk so far. But anything can happen with a bunch of devoted birders scouring the area, and I have still been seeing robins lately. :) I did see a bald eagle perched atop a tamarack today, I suppose technically that would count. It was magnificent. I also had dreams about golden eagles; they probably would not count except maybe as a sign?

And in other unrelated news, I checked my standings on Nature Blog Network and was surprised to see this blog at number 84! I am surprised I am even in the top 100. Thanks, whoever stops in here!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

passive solar

Here is my favorite place to roost: a rocking chair in front of the wood stove, on the slate floor.

When we designed this place from a description we saw in a book from the library, one of our first considerations was alignment with the sun. We wanted to take full advantage of that low horizon sunlight that sometimes appears on a winter's day, for both light and heat. We also wanted to place the wood stove, the main source of heat, as close to the center of the house as possible, not backed up against some wall somewhere, so it would heat most of the house evenly.

We have now had the opportunity to put our design to the test of subzero weather, and overall things are functioning quite well. I admit there have been some times when some parts of the house were chilly, and the wood stove has barely kept up. We bought two stand alone radiator-type electric heaters for the family room and Calvin's bedroom, and they have helped (although I'm scared to check out my latest electric bill online!) But then again, we don't have the extra insulation of flooring and drywall in many areas of the house yet, nor is the skirting around the base of the house complete. I think these elements could make a difference.

So many houses around here appear to be just dropped on a piece of land without any basic consideration for how they blend in, nor how heating and cooling could be augmented naturally. I can feel the difference a sunny day makes in the house, and Bloof the cat seems to appreciate it as well.

Actually, this photo was taken a week or so ago. Today we have not seen the sun, but the temperature is hovering around 30 degrees, relatively mild.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas greetings

Wishing you all the best of the season and happiness in the new year.
(hey, isn't that Jim?)

We're enjoying our first Christmas in the new house. This is our biggest tree ever, as usual an evergreen cut from the large selection of trees on our land. The Hermit thought this white pine looked a bit Charlie Brown-ish, but I think it looks magnificent with the lights. And he can just go out there in 0 degree weather and 2 foot deep snow and find a better one if he wants! :)

Speaking of Charlie Brown, I bought myself a couple of Christmas presents on iTunes. I got the soundtrack from "A Charlie Brown Christmas". It's "gotta have" Christmas music around here. I also got Bela Fleck and the Flecktones' "Jingle All The Way". It is fast becoming my favorite Christmas album. Their version of "Twelve Days of Christmas" is pure genius; only the Flecktones would have thought of playing each of the twelve verses in a different key, time signature, and musical style. The whole album is pure musical joy.

And, this just happens to be my 1000th post!

Monday, December 22, 2008


We have made it through the longest night of the year; it will be a while before the increasing day length will be even noticeable. Until then, I think hibernation is a good idea; why is it not more socially acceptable in these northern climes?

Friday, December 19, 2008

The new seed catalogs are in!

And if you have never been a customer of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, I suggest you order their catalog. It's vegetable porn for a Minnesota gardener in midwinter! They have expanded to a wide, 124 page format which includes gorgeous full page color photos of selected varieties. No centerfolds, though. ;)

I really admire Baker Creek's owner and founder, Jeremiath Gettle. At the age of 28, he has established a seed company that is willing to take on the Goliaths of the industry. He openly opposes genetically modified seeds, searches the world for traditional (but unique to many Americans) vegetable varieties, and hosts educational events at the company's headquarters near Mansfield, Missouri. I hope to make it there for one of their festivals some day.

But if you're not into full color vegetable porn and prefer to just read about things, I suggest Fedco Seeds. They are another company that has pledged to not buy from companies that offer genetically modified seeds. Their catalog is in plain black and white, a few lovely illustrations but no glossy photos, and if you're my age or higher you may need to invest in reading glasses to read the small type. But they offer excellent seed varieties along with some witty commentary.

ho ho the mistletoe want to kiss me under THAT?!

That is mistletoe as we see it here in The Frozen State. Mistletoe is a small, nondescript parasitic plant that makes the branches of its host grow all funny. Like this tamarack.

I stayed home today, having endured the previous night with a stomach bug that also made me ache and gave me the chills. Fun. I was under every wool blanket in the house and still shivering at one point. I am feeling better now. I went for a drive this afternoon, hoping to see some great gray owls or something. Of course, when you go looking for them, they're not there. I did see and hear the robins that are STILL hanging around our woods.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

We may have a northern owl irruption here

The Hermit: Guess what I saw today?

Me: Umm, what?

The Hermit: I saw a flock of about twenty turkeys, about a mile from home. And guess what else?

Me: Oh please, don't tell me you saw a snowy owl. (I would have had homicidal thoughts)

The Hermit: No, I saw THREE great gray owls! They were being mobbed by crows.

Me: (trying to cover up for even more intense homicidal thoughts) No, really? Where?

The Hermit: Between Bruno and Willow River (on County Road 43 in Pine County).

Me: Grrr...(insanely jealous, but overjoyed)

I don't question his ID; he and I saw plenty of them together during the Great Irruption of '05, so he obviously knows his owls.

And, looking at the Minnesota Ornithologist's Union website, I am confused. I no longer know how to post sightings to the listserv. Help, anyone?

Of course this means the Pine County Christmas Bird Count, less than two weeks from today, could be interesting.

Cold snap

Our snowfall, which totaled about a foot or so, was glazed over by a light layer of freezing rain, then the temperatures dropped quickly so the high temperature yesterday was below zero. The temperature on my car thermometer read -21 this morning, so our more pessimistic outdoor thermometer was probably closer to -25. I missed driving the kids out to the school bus because, despite the car's warming up for ten minutes, the back doors were still frozen shut.

Despite the cold, the first bird I heard calling from the woods this morning was an American robin!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

School is closed!

Due to the blizzard, school in the East Central District has been canceled tomorrow. I will be taking the day off work to be with the kids.

YEE-HAW! I love school closings! :)

the Bloof

Blue Flame (aka Bloof, Boofy...poor confused thing is never called by the same name twice) has been enjoying the luxury of being our house kitty for a while now. Long time readers may recall when Bloof was just a kitten. His eyes are still that blue.

This is Bloof's favorite chair; close enough to the heat source, soft, and allowing a view of the great outdoors. He is camped out there today as we endure a blizzard and 8-10" of snow thus far.

Bloof's favorite activity is making sure I do not sleep in too late on weekends.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Chick pix

It is relatively mild here today, around 30 degrees and cloudy. Of course, mild and cloudy means snow is on the way. We're under a winter storm warning. But I was able to get some outdoor chores done, and we brought the younger kids into town (Calvin was away playing basketball) to see Santa and go for the annual horse drawn wagon ride through town. Yes, the town is so small and quiet that you can take a wagon load of kids around without traffic issues.

One of the chores I did was to put up the suet feeder, finally. We get as much suet as we want from the local farmer who raised the beef that is in our freezer. It's not neatly rendered into little squares, but it is cheap and the chickadees like it. They were on it right away. I hope the woodpeckers hear the word and come around soon.

By the way, in the top picture, that is perhaps the only picture I have ever posted of the cabin we lived in before this summer.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

mostly wordless

I'm recycling this photo from around this time last year. More snow then maybe, but otherwise it's the same, the dark days of December. The part of my brain that puts words together coherently seems to be hibernating...

Saturday, December 06, 2008

room reclamation

You don't want to see a "before" picture. Believe me. And I don't know what those mystery circles are on the picture. My camera lens cover does not close any more. Maybe that has something to do with it.

This is the someday master bedroom of the new house. Ever since we have had some semblance of a roof on this place, this room has been the unofficial tool room, cluttered with all kinds of construction debris. That was fine when we didn't actually live in the house, but lately it has been annoying, at least to me. I kept seeing all the junk on the floor, and I think every time I did it jangled my nerves a little bit. Something had to be done, and the time was now.

After I spent half an hour in the quonset quasi garage digging out the Christmas decorations this morning, I decided to tackle the mess head on. By 2:00 or so, I could see the floor, everything was in its place, and it was looking nice! I moved two plastic shelving units out from the cabin, one for tools and stuff and one for clothes. It's amazing how reclaiming a few square yards of floor space can adjust your entire perception of space in the house. I think I might even do yoga in there, since it's too darn cold and windy to even think about running, and we have a couple inches of snow.

Just picture this room with a finished pine floor, some calming color of paint on the walls, and a cozy bed. Maybe next year. Right now I'll settle for a workable drain to our graywater septic tank.

In other news, Stan (Musial) the cardinal is still around, usually showing up early in the morning. I don't think he likes our feeder though; the bottom tray broke off and he doesn't like sitting at one of the perches picking seeds out. I'll have to find some way to replace the bottom tray.

Otherwise, I'm in the December dark days blogging blahs. I still have to figure out how to configure the laptop so I can blog in the new house; otherwise I have to come out to the "office" in the chilly cabin.

Monday, December 01, 2008

drive carefully, everyone

This morning on my way to work, about a mile from my exit on the brief stretch of freeway I drive, I noticed flashing lights up ahead. I slowed down and pulled into the left lane, wondering if I would be able to get on to my exit.

Before I even saw anything, I knew it wasn't good. The sheer number of emergency vehicles, the lane closure, and even a couple snowplows (not plowing snow, I think they were there just for traffic control) suggested tragedy. When I saw the two vehicles involved, my heart sank. A small pickup, front end obliterated. A compact car, wrecked.

All morning I kept checking online news reports. About half an hour ago I found the first report: two dead. Head on collision. Young woman lost control of the car, crossed the median and struck the pickup truck, killing the 50 year old male driver. It happened about 45 minutes before I drove by. The freeway was in good driving condition.

Sometimes it seems like my daily commute is an automatic act. I forget what an incredible land speed 70 mph actually is. Humans were not meant to travel so fast. I may think I'm in control, but my life is in the hands of every other driver out be careful.