Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Great Backyard Bird Count is Coming

The 12th annual Great Backyard Bird Count will take place over four days the weekend after next, February 13-16. The event's official press release notes:

"A joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, this event is an opportunity for families, students, and people of all ages to discover the wonders of nature in backyards, schoolyards, and local parks, and, at the same time, make an important contribution to conservation. Participants count birds and report their sightings online at ...

"Anyone can take part, from novice bird watchers to experts, by counting birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the event and reporting their sightings online at Participants can also explore what birds others are finding in their backyards—whether in their own neighborhood or thousands of miles away. Additional online resources include tips to help identify birds, a photo gallery, and special materials for educators.

"The data these “citizen scientists” collect helps researchers understand bird population trends, information that is critical for effective conservation. Their efforts enable everyone to see what would otherwise be impossible: a comprehensive picture of where birds are in late winter and how their numbers and distribution compare with previous years. In 2008, participants submitted more than 85,000 checklists."

Here's how to participate:

1. Plan to count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, February 13–16, 2009. You can count for longer than that if you wish. Count birds in as many places and on as many days as you like—one day, two days, or all four days. Submit a separate checklist for each new day. You can also submit more than one checklist per day if you count in other locations on that day.

2. Count the greatest number of individuals of each species that you see together at any one time. You may find it helpful to print out your regional bird checklist to get an idea of the kinds of birds you're likely to see in your area in February. You could take note of the highest number or each species you see on this checklist.

3. When you're finished, enter your results online. You'll see a button marked "Enter Your Checklists!" on the GBBC home page beginning on the first day of the count (February 13, 2009). It will remain active until the deadline for data submission on March 1, 2009.

The GBBC site offers ample opportunitoes to explore previous years' results, such as a map room, state tallies, and detailed reports of birds spotted in previous counts, including historical results for Northfield. A Top Birds page with photos and sound clips for the 10 most frequently spotted birds in last year's count, as well as the most numerous birds. These two lists overlap by only two species (that's because the most frequently-seen birds don't, in most cases, travel in large flocks).

I certainly hope to participate (it will be my first time), and I encourage you to, too!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Winter Sunset

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I took this photo last Thursday shortly before 6 p.m., looking southwest past the Sibley Elementary School playground. The fiery golden pink color and the streaky cloud wisps across the darkening sky were compelling, but there was so little light that I had trouble holding my camera still enough to avoid completely blurring the shot; this was the only usable shot of the several I took.

Animal Tracks in Snow

This morning I tried to identify some of the tracks in the snow just outside my front door near my bird feeders and a small sheltering evergreen. If you have any experience in this area, please consider this a request for your expertise.

The narrow trail at the left suggests perhaps a mouse -- a snaking trail with little indentations within it.

Below, you can see a couple of these trails and some much larger prints that mystify me at present. These larger prints -- 6-8 inches long -- contain a sharp double point like an "M" or cat ears at one end, a rounded but clawed-appearing other end, and deep indentations inside.

They mostly proceed in a straight line, not staggered, so I presume they reveal the hopping progress of a smallish animal rather than the giant tracks of a fearsome bear-deer.

I have consulted some track-identification guides like the one below from the Ohio DNR, but they haven't really helped.

Any insights?

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Co-op Offers Vegetable Gardening and Wind Power Classes

Joey Robison of Just Food Co-op asked if I would help spread the word about these upcoming free classes at the Co-op (the first is tomorrow evening!). I am happy to do so. If you are thinking of starting a garden this year for the first time, or increasing the size or scope of your garden, or are wondering about the feasibility of adding a small wind turbine to your property, these sound as if they will be quite helpful. I heard Ben Doherty of Open Hands Farm speak a few weeks ago, and am sure that he will give an informative, accessible presentation.

Co-op Class: Gardening, Part 1- Plan your Garden

Thursday, Jan 22 2009 - 5:00pm - 7:00pm
Now's the time to begin planning your garden! Laura Frerichs, co-owner of Loon Organics, will discuss soil preparation, which plants can be direct seeded and which ones need to be transplanted, and how to schedule plantings throughout the season to maximize production. Held in the Just Food Event Space. Class is free, but preregistration is required at Just Food or by calling 507-650-0106.

Co-op Class: Small Wind Power
Monday, Jan 26 2009 - 7:00pm - 8:00pm
Ever wonder what it would take to power your home, business or farm with a wind turbine? Join instructor Dan Borek as he answers your questions about small wind power possibilities. Held in the Just Food Event Space, please preregister for this free class while you are at Just Food or by calling 507-650-0106.

Co-op Class: Gardening, Part 2- What to Plant?
Thursday, Jan 29 2009 - 5:00pm - 7:00pm
Erin Johnson and Ben Doherty of Open Hands Farm will lead a discussion on the different varieties available, what's new, and which varieties work well in our area and which don't. Held in the Just Food Event Space. This class is free, but please preregister at the front of the store or by calling 507-650-0106.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Most Satisfying Seed Catalogs

I've lived and gardened in Northfield for almost 19 years, and many seed purveyors had me on their mailing lists. Then, due to shall we say "fluctuations" in marital status, I moved three times in three years. I'm now, at least for the present, back at the house where I lived from 2001 to early 2006, but the poor seed merchants have yet to catch up with me. Since Christmas I think I've received only a Gurney's, a Gardens Alive! (which sells environmentally responsible gardening products), and most recently a Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog.

The Baker Creek catalog, which I requested after reading my blog friend Deb at Sand Creek Almanac describe it as "vegetable porn for a Minnesota gardener in midwinter," has to be in the running for the most beautiful seed catalog ever. The website is no comparison. Being in the communications business myself, I know this large glossy color catalog has got to be one expensive publication to produce and mail. The photography and presentation are simply gorgeous; occasionally a whole page is devoted to a single photograph that's so lovely you might want to carefully remove it from the catalog and frame it.

But beauty alone isn't my standard for an excellent seed catalog. What makes Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds particularly beautiful in my eyes is its mission of preserving and bringing back to popularity many time-tested, non-GMO, non-hybrid, untreated, unpatented varieties of fruits and vegetables in an age where much of the market pressure has been in the opposite direction. (It shares this mission with the Seed Savers Exchange, whose Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, I have visited, and numerous catalogs also feature at least some heirloom varieties these days.) The Baker Creek folks also offer Heirloom Gardener magazine, now in its seventh year, which I'll have to look into.

My longtime favorite catalog is from Johnny's Selected Seeds. Heavy on untreated, organic and heirloom varieties, Johnny's is also a premier source of practical planting information, and since Johnny's is based in Maine it is a reliable source of advice for northern gardeners. Their mission is "to provide superior product, research, technical information, and service to critical home gardeners and specialty and small commercial growers," and they do an excellent job. They have a nice virtual catalog on their site, which allows you to browse their catalog pages as you would with a printed copy. I'll confess to still liking to have a printed version to pore over, so I've requested one to make sure I get back on their mailing list at my current location.

Renee's Garden Seeds, which offers "the finest seeds of heirloom and cottage garden flowers, aromatic herbs, and gourmet vegetables from around the world," has been another favorite of mine, and it's the only catalog I got around to ordering from last winter.

Chime in with your own favorites! Please! I'd love to hear which catalogs rate highly with fellow gardeners.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Birds Flock to Feeders

My resident bird expert called me at work today at about noon (he was at home with a car that wouldn't start because of the cold) to let me know that droves of birds were appearing at our feeders, which as of last weekend finally include a suet feeder to supplement our two seed feeders. We haven't seen a lot of action at the feeders recently, despite the cold, and the seed levels have hardly budged. Today, after our frigidly cold night reported by as -24 F., birds were clearly looking for the calories needed to sustain life.

Dave excitedly reported seeing a downy woodpecker, the first bird either of us had noted at the suet feeder since putting it up on Sunday, as well as chickadees and a combined flock of American goldfinches and pine siskins (closely related birds, but easily distinguishable by the streaky breasts of the siskins) .

I arrived home for lunch shortly thereafter, and we were almost immediately treated to the arrival of a red-bellied woodpecker at the suet feeder (below).

These are gorgeous birds, much bigger than anything else that has visited the feeders, and I have never seen one nearly so close before. It was truly a breath-taking sight. (Red-bellied woodpeckers would doubtless be known as red-headed woodpeckers were it not for the complete red hood of the bird that already bears that name.)

Below, a chickadee digs for a seed in the cage feeder, designed to protect smaller birds while feeding.

Below, a male goldfinch in winter plumage is seen with a seed in its bill.

I had never seen goldfinches in winter before; I just learned last spring that goldfinches can be seen year-round in this region, but the bird I saw last spring was already in its bright lemon-yellow breeding plumage. Here, you can see the handsome black and white flight feathers that remain year-round against a soft- gray-fading-to-tawny back and breast, with a yellow patch faintly visible under the chin.

Below, a bright red male house finch has joined what I believe are a male and female goldfinch, with the male on the left showing the distinct yellow chin-patch and slightly more marked color contrasts than his more subtly colored mate.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cannon River at 20 Below Zero

This is the scene I endured cold knees to capture this morning: Ames Mill and the Cannon River steaming over the falls, as seen from the east bank and the Fourth Street Bridge.

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Cold As All Get-Out

My desktop weather icon reads -21 degrees, at 8:40 a.m. When I arrived at the Water Street parking lot this morning and parked across from my office, I decided to walk the half-block over to the Fourth Street bridge to photograph the steaming falls of the Cannon River at the Ames Mill dam. By the time I'd taken a quick five or six shots, my cheeks, legs (especially my knees, relatively more exposed where my knee-length coat and skirt met my warm boots), and gloved fingers were starting to hurt. I pulled my coat hood up and adjusted my scarf around my face; my glasses instantly started to fog up. Walking the half-block back to the office, I was acutely aware of how uncomfortable I was. I opened the front door to the office and the warm interior air finished the fogging job on my glasses. My cheeks were red and the shoes I'd been carrying were so cold I had to let them sit a few minutes before I could bear to put my feet into them.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Thinking About Photography

I'm signed up to take Dan Iverson's nature photography seminar through the Northfield Public Schools' Community Services Division (and featured on the cover of their latest brochure) on January 24. I am looking forward to it, despite the fact that according to Jim Gilbert's Minnesota Nature Notes January 24 is only a day away from what is statistically the coldest day of the year. I'll hope for a day that pulls the mean up a notch or two. I just went to look up the course description online, but was briefly distracted by seeing that Brent Kivell and Karen Madsen are teaching a series of one-night classes on light-saber duelling, for ages 8 and up. What a truly brilliant idea. I know a 9-year-old who will think he has died and gone to heaven when he hears about this. Brent and Karen, you rock. (I already knew that, knowing both Brent and Karen in musical contexts and Brent in a professional one).

Back, after this brief digression, to nature photography. The session is described thus:
See the winter world through the photographer’s lens. Professional photographer Dan Iverson will teach participants fundamentals of nature photography and immerse them in photographic field survey of St. Olaf College’s natural lands. Discover the overlooked beauty in a chilly world blanketed in snow. Participants will reconvene to warm up over hot chocolate and discuss topics like ISOs and f/stops. Bring camera and dress for the weather.
My dad taught me a bit about photography. He took some lovely black and white photos. I don't have many at this point; these are two from our time in Kenya, where I was born, showing my laughing young mother in one and my bespectacled 4-or-5-year-old self looking out of our Peugeot in the other.

An e-mail from today alerted me to a new camera soon to be released by Olympus that has me salivating over a piece of equipment for practically the first time ever. The SP-590 Ultra Zoom is a 12-megapixel point-and-shoot with a 26x wide angle zoom lens, dual image stabilization, high-speed sequential shooting, and pre-capture: "As soon as the focus is locked, Pre-Capture automatically archives ten frames (3MP) before fully pressing the button to capture the perfect shot."

Now that sounds like the perfect camera for a budding nature blogger. Remember those too-far-away, indistinct ducks I kept trying to capture last spring with my nice little camera that is good for many purposes but unfortunately only has a 3x zoom? Wow, could I do things with something like the SP-590. Maybe if I'm very good I can manage it as a combined late Christmas present and an early birthday present to myself. It's not due out until March - but that will be just in time for our spring waterfowl migration. I'm hoping.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

It's January: Start Thinking Garden!

Now that the holidays are behind us, Mary of My Northern Garden is marking the new year and looking ahead to the 2009 growing season with a reflection on Garden Resolutions. The Green Grower blog at the Daily Green offers a good perspective on what's important as you get ready for spring gardening with a post on Seven Habits of Great Gardeners (hint: they pretty much boil down to "feed the soil, not the plants"). The seed catalogs are trickling in -- in fact, if you're on a lot of lists, they may be flooding in.

January is the gardener's time to dream and plan and make lists: new varieties to try, new garden beds to prepare, new garden layouts for those mindful of the benefits of rotating crops to different areas of the garden. Soon it will be time to order seeds and to start seedlings for some crops indoors.

For people who are cutting back on their discretionary spending, a fairly modest investment in seeds and some basic gardening supplies can translate into both a satisfying pastime and fresh, edible results that can save on your grocery bills from spring into fall and beyond.

If you don't have your own garden space, or need more, the Greenvale Park Community Garden is offering full and half plots on a first-come first-served basis for 2009. The cost of a full plot is only $25, and water is provided. Applications will be accepted beginning February 2 and can be downloaded from the website or picked up at Greenvale Park Elementary School, the Community Services Office, Northfield Public Library, or the Community Action Center.

Happy gardening in 2009!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Icy New Year

Freezing drizzle, instead of several inches of predicted snow, coated vehicles and roads in southern Minnesota yesterday. I saw a car being driven this afternoon with only the driver's side of the windshield scraped clear of ice and all passenger-side windows still coated. Not a smart thing to do.

Despite the frigid cold that followed the warm spell (pouring in from the north with gusty winds overnight that woke me at 3:30 as I tried to figure out what was banging against the house), the ice and the light sprinkling of snow that covered it melted rapidly on our dark, south-facing roof and water trickled steadily down icicles that had formed on this ill-fitting gutter and downspout. The resulting puddles at the top of the driveway froze solid, creating slicks of ice that would have been smooth enough to skate on, were we the size of squirrels and so inclined.
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