Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Brown Season: November in the Arb

The Carleton arboretum was raucous with crows but otherwise peaceful in the early afternoon on this partly cloudy but relatively mild November day. The crows were congregating near the river. Several flew from the far side of the river to treetops above us as we walked. I happened to catch one just about to land on a branch in the shot below. As the path we were following curved away from the river, we left their constant cawing behind us.

While the sky was mostly blue overhead and to the north, looking south toward Carleton's Skinner Chapel (visible in the photo below) there was quite an accumulation of pearl gray cloud. With the sun quite low in the southern sky three weeks from the winter solstice, even when we had clear sky above us we were never in direct sun.

A burst milkweed pod displayed its silky contents as we approached the savanna restoration area.
The sign below describes the oak savanna ecosystem that was prevalent in the area until settlers interfered with the normal pattern of natural burning that is necessary to keep the floor of the savanna clear. Invasive, non-native buckthorn is now one of the principal plants interfering with the restoration of the savanna. (Click on the photo to read the information on savanna restoration.)

An area of restored savanna is below.

The path rejoined the river at a sharp bend; below is the view looking back to the south, with a skim of ice at the water's edge holding some of the recent snow dusting that did not last long on the ground.

Despite some light snows earlier in the month, we are still in the brown season, before the arrival of the snow cover that typically lasts two or three months or more in southern Minnesota, providing plant roots a protective mulch against the bitter subzero cold that usually visits us at some point each winter. When we first moved here in 1990, we were told that there was typically snow on the ground from Thanksgiving until March. Our winters have tended to be shorter and less snowy more recently, with white Christmases less certain.

This Thanksgiving I am thankful to live so near to places like this, where in a matter of moments town life fades away and a quiet trail beckons onward.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Glimpsing Eagles

Twice today, through windows on different sides of my office building, I caught sight of a bald eagle (the same one?--who knows) soaring by, quite low. Both times I disrupted the conversation and work at hand to exclaim, "An eagle!!!!"

I love working by the side of a river in small-town Minnesota.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Patterns in Ice and Stone

This week's cold led to a speedy icing-over of the Cannon River downtown. Getting up close revealed interesting swirls of white and clear ice around the stones at the water's edge.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Bird Tracks in the Snow

We awoke to see that a light snow had fallen overnight, and when I stepped outside to pick up our newspaper, I found a delicate, curving line of bird tracks under our feeders.

Posted by Picasa

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Canada Geese - Large and Lesser

We braved a cold wind to take a walk around the Superior Drive pond this morning and found it teeming with Canada geese. On closer examination through the binoculars we could also see a number of mallards, a pair of green-winged teals, and a northern pintail, easily identifiable by its white bib.

As we walked, we came to realize that many of the geese were noticeably smaller than the Canada geese we usually see--some seemed not much larger than the mallards, in fact--though otherwise indistinguishable from the other geese. There are several subspecies of Canada goose, varying considerably in size and length of neck and bill. The Cornell Ornithology Lab's All About Birds site notes:
At least 11 subspecies of Canada Goose have been recognized, although only a couple are distinctive. In general, the geese get smaller as you move northward, and darker as you go westward. The four smallest forms are now considered a different species: the Cackling Goose.
David Allan Sibley offers a further guide to distinguishing the various subspecies here. The Giant subspecies is the kind we usually see, having become common in recent years after having once been thought extinct, and is the largest goose in the world, sometimes weighing more than 20 pounds.

Below, in a cropped version of part of the photo shown above, you can see a pretty clear difference between the longer-necked birds at the left and center rear and the smaller-bodied, shorter-necked birds elsewhere in the scene. I don't know which subspecies were in this flock, but it was fascinating to see so many smaller geese, whichever kind they may have been. My resident bird expert says he has not ever been aware of having seen these smaller subspecies before in his 15 years of birdwatching in Minnesota, so although they were "only" Canada geese, this was rather an exciting "spot."

Note, 11/10/2008: I have replaced the original photo below with one that I've marked to more easily point out the contrast between examples of the larger (in blue) and lesser (in red) subspecies.

Posted by Picasa