Saturday, December 26, 2009
We dug out the very heavy wet snow from the driveway last night -- not much in inches, but a lot in weight -- but our muscles are becoming somewhat accustomed to this shoveling business lately and didn't complain too badly. (I asked my son, age 10, to help with the shoveling, but he had tossed his shovel down somewhere in the snow a couple of days ago and it was covered up and no longer to be found.) This morning, judging from the sounds made by the dog's feet when she went outside, everything has hardened to a crunchy crispness, so I'm glad we got the shoveling done.
Speaking of animals walking in the snow, on Thursday morning I found these tracks by our front door. Although I wish they were something wild and exotic, I must conclude* that they are tracks of a domestic cat. Ah well.
*Here is the animal track chart I've referred to before, provided by the Ohio DNR.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Some CBC participants stay home and keep track of the birds they see in their yards; some walk through neighborhoods or through parks or nature trails; others, like us, cover a larger outlying area by car, getting out from time to time at promising spots like open water, thickets of trees, and so on. We drove quite slowly where it was safe to do so, pulling over from time to time to peer into fields or trees and to listen for birdcalls.
The countryside is divided into official CBC record-keeping circles. Northfield is on the northern edge of the circle that includes Faribault on the southern edge and is called the Faribault circle. The top slice of the circle, including Northfield, is Area 8. Dave and I were assigned the two outer curved wings of that slice, with the town of Northfield itself and the nature areas of the two colleges being covered by plenty of other volunteers.
I took the photo below early in the outing, showing the division between two farm fields looking north from a road east of Northfield. The temperature was around 20 F. with quite a brisk wind blowing from the north. In terrain like this in the east section of our territory we saw several roadside flocks of dark-eyed juncoes and house sparrows, a dozen ring-necked pheasants gleaning corn from a harvested field, and -- almost invisible out in a field blending in with the clods of soil, and only spotted because we saw movement -- four horned larks, America's only true native lark (meadowlarks are actually in the same family as New World blackbirds and orioles) . I think this was a "life bird" (first time spotted) for me.
To the west of Northfield, we covered the area along Highway 1 to a point just west of I-35, but mostly east of the interstate and north of 1 but south of Highway 19. Here we found a greater variety of habitat, including some wooded and marshy areas. We saw a kestrel on a wire overhead, a bald eagle soaring close enough that we could hear its distinctive, high-pitched cry, and a flock of common redpolls -- these actually a life bird for Dave despite his many years of birdwatching; we are near the southern limit of their winter grounds, and they don't appear here consistently, though I remember having them at my feeder in Northfield a number of years ago. He had not known them to visit his feeders when he lived in Minneapolis.
The magnificent old oak tree below was just off a winding section of one of the north-south roads on the west side, across the road from more oaks and conifers where several downy woodpeckers were active and easily visible.
Here we were actually witnesses to a minor collision, as a local resident backed his pickup truck out of his driveway into the front bumper of an oncoming vehicle, which had stopped as it saw the truck coming and was even blowing its horn. They seemed to know each other and were quickly laughing about it, so we went on our way. By that time the morning was nearly over and we were starting to get stiff necks from craning to spot birds while driving, and tired eyes from a lot of binocular use.
We were invited back to the circle coordinator, Gene Bauer's, house for lunch, where we enjoyed some soup, compared notes with other volunteers, whom we had met at breakfast before we all set out, and filled in our official reporting forms. These included counts of each species identified, the miles driven or walked, and the time spent observing. Tracking the latter two items helps with the interpretation of data -- if walkers spent four hours covering two miles on foot through a residential neighborhood, their count numbers will have a different interpretation than ours, where we spent about four hours covering 33 miles of mostly open countryside by car and clearly couldn't look with detail into every tree and field we passed.
Other birds we recorded seeing or hearing during the morning included crows, pigeons, blue jays, cardinals, goldfinches in drab winter plumage, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted and one red-breasted nuthatch, a hairy and a red-bellied woodpecker, and two red-tailed hawks. No wild turkeys, which surprised me a little, and only the one group of pheasants.
We enjoyed the morning's birdwatching, meeting some birdwatchers we hadn't known before, and the feeling that we were contributing to a useful body of data. I imagine this will be a new Christmas-season tradition for us.
Merry Christmas, and a joyous new year to all.
Friday, December 11, 2009
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
South-facing window with snow piled up -- note also several inches of snow accumulation in the caged birdfeeder.
Snow blown under the back door of the three-season porch from the north and/or east -- door faces north but is sheltered from the west.
This last photo would indicate the wind blowing strongly from the west or east (probably east, looking at the snow patterns), scouring tracks on our deck. Kitten Orion's reflection made it into the photo; he is of course very curious about all of this.
I took a brief video showing the wind blowing the birdfeeders around a couple of hours ago, but You Tube still hasn't finished processing it (yesterday I uploaded the video of Orion climbing the laundry drying rack and they had it ready in about three minutes -- it's hard to figure why the difference). I'll post it here when it's ready.
Addendum: here is the brief video. Nothing too exciting -- but if you expand the view to fill your screen you'll see the snow as well as the swaying birdfeeders.
Monday, December 7, 2009
Here is our new little guy, Orion, on the right, sleeping soundly with his head on our new little girl Amber's side. Being slender and not very thick-haired, he isn't as well insulated as the other cats in the household and loves to sleep next to one or another of them. Even the senior cat of the house, Jeeves (photo at left), has taken to him and allows himself to be licked and snuggled next to. Jeeves, who is 11 or 12, unfortunately is noticeably "not himself" this week, clearly uncomfortable and depressed. A visit to the vet ruled some things out but didn't come up with a decisive diagnosis. So we're worried about that and hope the big guy perks up again soon.
Below is a short video of Orion scrambling up the rungs of the indoor laundry rack, a spot he recently discovered he likes.
Monday, November 23, 2009
A little more than a year ago, a lovely midlife wedding resulted in the addition of a new husband and stepfather, along with his two mature cats, to our household.
And a couple of weeks ago, a fairly spur-of-the-moment decision resulted in the addition of two much younger cats to our family.
Foolish; yes indeed. A rare act of heedless spontaneity, love and goodwill. The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.
As a partial defense I will point out that I seem somewhat less sensitive to cat dander than I used to be, it's quite a big house so it doesn't get too concentrated, and we take reasonable steps to reduce the allergen load.
We keep the cats out of our bedroom; the door stays closed all the time. The whole lowest level of the house, including a family room where I can retreat to watch DVDs or read, is cat-free (though there is some air exchange between the levels, so certainly some dander is making its way down there, as well as into the bedroom). I limit my direct contact with the cats, and wash my hands and even change my clothes if necessary after I handle them. We keep sheets over the living room furniture and launder them regularly.
I am entering new arenas of house-cleaning. I am now going over the hard floors on the main level with a microfiber floor cleaning pad and/or damp mop almost daily. The grit and dust bunnies that once lurked in every corner of the den with the hardwood floor are gone. Dave vacuums the carpeting in the living and dining rooms every few days when I am out of the house. I take loratadine (generic Claritin) and use Flonase nasal spray daily. It's all an improvement, and following this regimen I almost never get sneezy or congested -- but Dave and I are both still finding that we are wheezing a bit at the end of the day.
So we are researching vacuum cleaners. We have an inexpensive bagless Eureka that has a HEPA filter and does a pretty decent job of picking up dirt, but vacuuming seems to make things worse before it makes them better - the stirred-up particles have to have several hours to settle back down again before the air quality is actually better than it was before vacuuming.
So, though I rarely buy big-ticket items, I'm now looking at high-end vacuum cleaners as an important investment in our health. Lots of people love Dyson, or Hoover, or Kirby, but many of the reviews I'm reading aimed at allergy-sufferers seem to really come down in favor of the German brand Miele for durability, power, and a really effective interior seal which means that all exhaust goes through the filter and no measurable particulates are being expelled back out into the air.
I know I've got quite a few readers who like animals, at least in the wild. I assume many of you are also pet owners. And I'm guessing that some of you, like me, are pet owners despite allergies.
So if you've got any experiences to share on great vacuum cleaners that are easy to use, reliable, and really leave the air cleaner during and immediately after use, I'd love to hear them. Thank you!
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Tuesday was "Give to the Max Day" in Minnesota -- a work of marketing genius and the dawn of a new day in philanthropy.
In 24 hours, inspired by a pool of matching funds from several area foundations and by a flurry of media attention and appeals from nonprofits to their audiences and mailing lists, nearly 39,000 people donated more than $14 million to Minnesota nonprofits via a new site, GiveMN.org. (GiveMN is powered by Razoo in partnership with Network for Good. A distinctive feature of the site is that foundation support pays for all credit-card transaction costs, meaning that the charities recieve 100% of the funds donated, rather than losing a percentage to fees.)
$14 million! That's an average of over $350 per donor!
I've been aware of online charitable giving sites like Network for Good and JustGive.org that act as a one-stop donation portal to registered nonprofit organizations. The GiveMN model is the big next step in simplified, motivated giving because of synergy created by:
- A designated, highly publicized donation day in which funds would be matched
- A $500,000 pool of matching funds -- which in this case, because of the huge outpouring of donations, ended up only amounting to pennies on the dollar. The limits of the matching fund were not always well-communicated, with many people (charities and donors) evidently believing that a full or substantial match would be made for all donations. I'm sure this has led to some disappointment, and probably the donation level would not have been as high if everyone had known the situation -- so the match was lower than expected, but the donations greatly exceeded expectations. But donor matches are a highly successful tactic and in most cases as a practical matter do have to be limited.
- Coordination with social media: if you chose, you could post a comment about your donation(s) that would not only appear on the individual giving page of the charity/ies involved but also, again if you chose, appear on your Facebook or Twitter feeds.
- Individual giving pages on the site that allow you to see who else is at least following, if not supporting, the particular cause and, if the nonprofit chooses, to also see how much has been raised so far.
The outpouring of generosity in Minnesota was far greater than anticipated. The truth is, once people get used to the idea of giving they usually enjoy it, and people don't always need to feel they have excess funds before they are willing to give something. I came to a realization several years ago (fostered by having worked for seven years at a listener-supported radio station) that if I value something I should support it to the extent I can, and that even if I feel quite pinched financially I would be ashamed of myself to give nothing to at least a few causes I feel are important when I am so much better off than much of the world.
I don't mean to sound sanctimonious or preachy or self-satisfied. I hope I am none of those things. But it was a breakthrough to me when I realized that I could fit some modest giving into my life on a regular basis; all I had to do was make it a priority. My shoes are old, my wardrobe is adequate but limited, I don't go out to eat much, I don't buy luxury items -- but I can give $25 here and $50 there to certain causes I believe in.
Philanthropy becomes a habit, and anything that makes it easier and more fun, as Give to the Max Day did, is all to the good in getting more people hooked. I hope that public celebrations of charitable giving like Give to the Max Day become a recurring feature of our lives.
Friday, November 13, 2009
This isn't really within the usual scope of Penelopedia, but I can't resist posting this photo of our new kitten Orion, taken on his first afternoon with us. He is on my son's desk, looking across the room at the goldfish in a tank on the dresser, and doing an admirable imitation of a meerkat. He's a skinny, nonstop-action little guy who weighs less than four pounds and is already earning nicknames like Trouble and Monkey. He is having some residual tummy troubles which we hope clear up soon.
And because she's so pretty I also can't resist posting this photo of our other new kitten, Amber. She is six months old, to his three, and looks huge next to him but is still a small cat. She is so lovable we couldn't not take her from the shelter, too, when my son picked the little guy as his kitten.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
As we stood there, several geese flew from behind us and came in for a landing near this group of geese in the distance (barely visible in the top photo). Here you can see the white stripe across their rears which we don't that often get the chance to observe. (Click on the photo for a larger view.)
It was in the lower 50s but a beautifully sunny day. After our disappointing October weather, it seemed a perfectly good day to be outside for a while before heading back to the office for the rest of the afternoon. When I came out again, at about 5:45, it was nearly dark.
Sunday, November 1, 2009
Saturday, October 31, 2009
But this year we've had one of the rainiest, coldest, snowiest Octobers on record. We seemed to pass from our lovely warm September directly into raw November/December, and it seems we've had only a small handful of sunny days all month. Yesterday, Thursday's heavy rains started to move out of the area pushed by gusty, turbulent winds that left me gasping as I arrived at work. Our office lobby opens directly to the street, and I blew through the door like Mary Poppins, accompanied by a swirl of leaves and my hair on end. (Of course, despite the winds that blew her in, prim Mary actually arrived sedately, with not a hair out of place.)
So we didn't go birdwatching this October. We didn't go for leisurely strolls in the Carleton Arboretum or hike to the hilltops in the Cannon River Wilderness Area or drive down to Red Wing or Lake City. We didn't install the net for the badminton set my son got for his early-October birthday. Most of the photos I took this month were taken through windows.
If we don't get some pleasant weather in November, this is going to end up seeming like one of the longest indoor seasons ever.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Above is a goldfinch in winter plumage - not gold at all, as you can see:
Adult males in spring and early summer are bright yellow with black forehead, black wings with white markings, and white patches both above and beneath the tail. Adult females are duller yellow beneath, olive above. Winter birds are drab, unstreaked brown, with blackish wings and two pale wingbars.
-All About Birds - Cornell Lab of Ornithology
It took a while for the goldfinches to find our thistle-seed feeder after we put it up in late summer, but they are regular visitors now. Our other regulars include plenty of chickadees and some house finches.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Friday, October 16, 2009
Thursday, October 15, 2009
I believe in science. Not because "scientists are right" but because science is self-correcting over time. And because the whole point of science lies in approaching issues based on available evidence and with an openness to being proven wrong by additional evidence.
Scientists know that weather fluctuates, that true climate change is generally measured in geological time, not human-scale time, and that 140 years of weather records do not constitute geological evidence.
When scientists know those things but find convincing evidence to come to a strong consensus that human activity is affecting climate now, and rapidly, I think we should listen.
When they make a reasoned case that catastrophic atmospheric tipping points are fast approaching, I think we should listen.
When I was studying negligence in law school, we learned about the standard of reasonable care. In one influential approach to determining whether conduct constitutes the reasonable care required of us to avoid being considered legally negligent, factors to be considered include:
- the foreseeable likelihood that harm will result
- the foreseeable severity of the harm that may ensue
- the cost of taking precautions that eliminate or reduce the possibility of harm.
Thus, for example, it is not reasonable to dangle your baby over a balcony even though you are strong and coordinated and you think it is very unlikely you will drop the child, because in the unlikely event that you do drop the child, the harm will be catastrophic. Similarly, people are required to carry liability insurance to protect people they may injure in a car crash, even though it's not all that likely they will cause a crash, and even though they would rather not pay the insurance premiums, because if they do have a crash the injuries that may occur are likely to be serious. The cost of insurance is a reasonable one in light of the risk of uncompensated injuries. Even more important, we need to drive carefully.
Bringing this back to climate change, if the risk to current and future life, health, communities, ecosystems and whole ways of life is potentially severe, we need to act. Better we do what we can to prevent catastrophic changes to our environment and perhaps discover it was unnecessary, than not act and run the risk of discovering that it was necessary -- and that it is now too late.
In climate terms, the weight of scientific opinion is that the harm we risk by not changing our behavior is potentially severe, and that the probability of harm is high. So we need to "drive" carefully. We need to have "insurance." We need to pull that "baby" back in and not let him or her dangle. We need to take reasonable care. Because a planet is a terrible thing to waste.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Click on the photo to step into the scene - you'll feel like Lucy in the snowy forest in Narnia before she meets the faun. The evergreens in the background have fully-leafed cottonwood trees behind them.
When we got a coating of snow on Saturday morning (Oct. 10) and even more snowfall yesterday (Oct. 12), my impression was that it was very rare to have snowfall that early. Flurries once in a while, maybe, but even that would be uncommon.
It was certainly an odd sight yesterday to see snow all over trees and shrubs that were still in full leaf, like my Burning Bush (above) -- and in many cases still green.
Even by the end of the month snow is not common. Our Halloweens here in southern Minnesota are mixed: usually a coat or a warm layer under the Halloween costume is appreciated, but sometimes it's not necessary and rarely is it colder than the 40s. My younger daughter was born on October 23 and I remember we were having something of a heat wave -- the Asian beetles were living it up on my living room ceiling (I remember it well because I spent several nights in the recliner looking ceilingward, coping with early labor pains) and I wore shorts to the park the day before she was born. Of course, we did also have the notorious Halloween blizzard (see link in the quoted section below) the year before that.
I found a nice history of October snowfall in a weather blog that meteorologist Paul Douglas now writes for the St. Cloud Times:
Douglas includes a chart showing the eight dates mentioned, only one of which occurred since I've lived in Minnesota (nearly 20 years now). Oddly, that year was 1992, the very same year we were having the late-October heat wave I mentioned above. I don't remember this, but apparently .3 inches of snow fell on October 15 that year. That's Minnesota weather for ya!
How rare is measurable snow this early in the season? In recent years it has been uncommon to see measurable snow in October in the Twin Cities. The last time there was measurable snow in October in the Twin Cities was .2 (two tenths) of an inch on October 20 and .4 (four tenths) of an inch on October 21, 2002. The most snow for the month of October is (of course) the 1991 Halloween Blizzard with 8.2 inches, which all fell on October 31.
What is more unusual is having measurable snow fall in the first half of the month. This has happened only eight times in the last 60 years, with the most snow being 2.5 inches on October 10, 1977....
The earliest measurable snow on record for the Twin Cities is .4 inches on September 24, 1985 which fell during the afternoon and surprised many people.