Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Storm Clouds From Hwy 19

I felt compelled to stop and pull out my camera while driving back to Northfield from an errand to the Twin Cities this afternoon, as the cloud mass I driven through a few minutes earlier loomed dramatically to the north. This sequence was taken from just south of the intersection of Hwy 19 and Baldwin Road looking north and northeast. I've boosted the contrast a tad here, but only to the point that the photos gave me the same visceral reaction that the reality had. Don't you love the lone tree shown in the final view? In checking my location on Google maps, since I hadn't noted the name of the cross street, I was able to confirm the correct location in part because I could see that tree in the satellite view.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Sounds of Humboldt Bay NWR

I took this short video clip mainly to capture the constant bird sounds we were hearing -- Canada and Cackling Geese (a smaller subspecies) in particular -- at the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex. It was a beautiful place. We saw many marbled godwits, gulls, herons, and a gorgeous northern harrier (aka marsh hawk) flying low over the saltmarsh. At a distance across a field away from the marshes, we also saw to our amazement something that we concluded must have been a bobcat.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

River Otter Eating a Fish

The photos below show a river otter eating a fish on a creekbank along the Shorebird Loop Trail at the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex south of Eureka, CA, at the end of February. The refuge is situated on an estuary, where freshwater streams meet ocean waters in a slough. We had hoped throughout our northern California trip to see an otter, and it was on our last day in the north that we were alerted to the presence of this one by a friendly wildlife biology student from Humboldt State. Alas, my camera battery was just about out of power, with the backup back at the car, so these were the best I was able to get in the few shots I had left. We followed the otter's bubbles as it swam underwater to a couple of other spots nearby, and were utterly delighted to have such an extended opportunity to observe this charming animal. For someone raised on The Wind in the Willows (which, in case you don't know, is about so much more than the adventures of Mr. Toad), it was an especially nice treat.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Skywatch Friday

I so love the photograph I took of the pearl-gray sky over the Cannon River in Northfield, Minnesota, earlier this week that I am reposting it for my first-ever offering for Skywatch Friday. This is the scene I see from the river's edge in front of the building where I work, and I have photographed this view numerous times in different seasons and different weather. I never tire of it.

The tall building is the historic Ames Mill, which produced prize-winning flour in the 19th century, not too long after the founding of Northfield. It is still in use today as part of the Malt-O-Meal cereal company's production plant. The golden dome visible just above the left (west) side of the bridge belongs to the State Bank Building, built in 1910 in the Egyptian Revival style and now home to a local law firm that has done much to restore it. In the violent hailstorm of August 2006 (another video here), the dome was damaged and remained covered with tarps for months, but it has now been restored to its golden glory. The not-so-lovely green plastic fencing visible at the lower right is a temporary part of a riverbank relandscaping project designed to encourage taller grasses and discourage Canada geese.

Northfield is best known for being home to two fine liberal arts colleges, Carleton College and St. Olaf College, and for being the site of the defeat of the Jesse James Gang when they tried to rob the First National Bank and were routed by stalwart citizens. The anniversary of the occasion is celebrated with a major community festival, the Defeat of Jesse James Days, each September.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Light Before and After the Rain

The opalescent, rain-threatening light drew my eyes to the river and sky this morning in downtown Northfield.

Some 11 hours later, after heavy rains had passed through in the afternoon, the treetops took on a warm glow from the setting sun.

Here is another view from the morning, focused more on the watered-silk river and less on the sky. I like the compositional balance of this one a little better, but my eyes continue to be drawn to the dramatic sky of the first.
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Monday, March 23, 2009

We Can't Afford NOT to Invest in Environmental Protection

Nice article by Bob Bendick on the Nature Conservancy's conservation blog today, responding to the question of "whether the United States can afford to spend money on environmental protection during a time of economic crisis."
It is, of course, entirely understandable that in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the beginning of the environmental movement in the early 1970s, people, when asked to choose between the environment and the economy, choose the economy. They are, with good reason, afraid — worried sick about whether they will have a job next week, will be able to pay their mortgage, their utility bill, their children’s tuition. The problem for the future of both Earth’s environment and its people is not with the answer, but with the question.

The media and pollsters thrive on exposing conflict, fault lines that produce drama in the headlines or in the executive summaries of the polls. The environment vs. economy choice is convenient but specious. If one asked the question differently – “which is more important, our ability to grow food to feed our families, to have safe air to breathe, enough clean water to drink, shelter from raging storms or the current level of the Dow Jones Industrial average?” — how many folks would choose the stock market? ...

The environment as a luxury? If the speculative bubble of our unsustainable use of Earth’s resources bursts, nature and people will suffer the collapse together.

Read the rest here.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Eagles and Swans on the Mississippi

We drove over to Red Wing and Lake City yesterday to look for open water and see what early migrating ducks might be showing up. Because it was such a beautiful day, the waterfronts were busy with walkers, birders and other sun-starved Minnesotans, and open areas of the river at Red Wing were teeming with fishing boats. Apparently KARE-11 had just aired a story on eagle-viewing at Red Wing's Colvill Park, so the number of birdwatchers was higher than usual.

We saw little duck life -- mostly mallards and a distant glimpse of mergansers far out in the river at Lake City -- but plenty of bald eagles and at Lake City a flock of 50 or more swans settled on the ice at the edge of the open channel of water, again quite far out from shore. Our view of these distant birds through the spotting scope was hampered by ripples of heat haze, which I wouldn't have thought would be an issue over ice, but apparently so on a warm, early-spring day (well into the 50s at that point and warmer as the day went on).

We saw quite a few eagles soaring, but probably more out on the ice, looking like this. It's a rather startling sight to scan the large, mostly frozen Lake Pepin and see so many scattered dark blobs with white tops that prove to be bald eagles -- perhaps just resting and enjoying the sun, as we were. As more of the area lakes open up, the eagles will disperse; right now they are still concentrated at areas of open water like that downstream of the power plant at Red Wing. All together, we probably saw between 30 and 40 eagles during the course of the outing -- a few juveniles, still bearing dark head feathers, but mostly the dramatically colored adults.

Because of the distances involved, here was the only halfway decent photo opp of the day, of an eagle perched on a snag across the river at Colville Park.

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Garble of Marbled Godwits

While we were at the Woodley Island marina near Eureka, CA, which I wrote about in my last post, we were awed to see a good-sized flock of Marbled Godwits. Little did we know that in the next couple of days it would become so commonplace to see these handsome shorebirds that we went from exclaiming over them to essentially saying, "Oh look, another 400 Marbled Godwits." Nearby Arcata, CA, home to the renowned Arcata Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary, celebrates them with an annual three-day festival called Godwit Days, which is held at the peak of spring migration for many species and offers small group field trips, lectures, workshops, boating excursions, and other activities. We're thinking we'll have to go, some year.

The long, slightly upturned bills of these birds are notable for being dark at the tip and pink for the rest of their length. They breed on the northern plains, including the Dakotas and even far western Minnesota, but they winter along the east and west coasts as far south as the tip of Mexico. My resident birding expert has seen them in Minnesota, but only in ones and twos, never in the flocks we saw in California, which ranged from several dozen to literally several hundred. The photo sequence below captures the first flock we saw as they transferred from one gathering spot to another right in front of us.

Look closely (click on the photos for more detail) and you'll see the group of birds that had come to rest on the grass at the water's edge.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Want to See Loons? Go to California.

Although the Common Loon is the state bird of Minnesota, here in southern Minnesota we generally see loons only in migration; a pair was spotted on a Northfield pond last spring. However, several species of loons winter along the Pacific coast, among other places. On our recent birdwatching trip in northern California, we saw loons (Common, Pacific, or Red-Throated) most days, in protected salt-water harbors and at Clear Lake.

The bird below is probably a Common Loon transitioning to its black-and-white breeding plumage. Its sturdy bill helps distinguish it from the very similar Pacific Loon. We spotted it in the harbor at Woodley Island, just north of Eureka, along with a number of grebes and a large group of Marbled Godwits. One of the tell-tale signs of a loon is its low position in the water.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sign of Spring: Laundry Drying in the Breeze

The 2009 spring season has launched. My car thermometer read 52 at 4 p.m., the sun is shining, ice is melting, it was CSA day at the co-op (which surely heralds the growing season), and I have my first load of laundry of the season hanging -- well, flapping almost horizontally -- on the line. And we are grilling chicken on the barbie for dinner. But I am probably happiest about the laundry. I had to walk over some snow to get to the laundry line, and my feet slipped in the melty, muddy ground where the snow has already disappeared, but it was worth it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Harbor Seals Basking in Adorableness

Harbor seals and cormorants were all over these rocks near Fort Bragg, CA. The photos below were taken through the spotting scope from the same vantage point, so you get the idea of how powerful the zoom is. Click on any of the photos for more detail.

What a beauty!

Note the tip of the tongue showing in the photo above. Have you ever seen a seal's tongue before?

Ah, asleep at last.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Birds on the Rocks

The rocky shoreline at MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg, CA, was rich in bird life during our visit almost two weeks ago; I suspect that is usually the case.

Not far from where we saw the Black Oystercatchers I wrote about the other day, cormorants were preening themselves on a large rock. We think these were Pelagic Cormorants, judging by the white patches visible under one tail and by the uniformly dark throats; these markers distinguish them from the larger Brandt's Cormorants.

This beauty with the "decurved" bill is a Whimbrel, about which the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says:
One of the most wide-ranging shorebirds in the world, the Whimbrel breeds in the Arctic in the eastern and western hemispheres, and migrates to South America, Africa, south Asia, and Australia. It uses its long, down-curved bill to probe deep in the sand of beaches for invertebrates, but also feeds on berries and insects. ... Some migrating Whimbrels make a nonstop flight of 4,000 km (2,500 miles) from southern Canada or New England to South America.
We spotted her (or him) picking her (or his) way through a tidepool on a large outcropping of rock.
On the much smaller rock above is a Black Turnstone, a mid-sized shorebird that winters all along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Baja. Its limited breeding ground in western Alaska puts it at serious risk from oil spills.
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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Flock of 34 Turkeys & More: Clear Lake State Park

On our recent trip to Northern California, we found ourselves at Clear Lake State Park on a drizzly afternoon. Clear Lake, in wine country north of the Bay Area, is the largest lake in California (Lake Tahoe is of course partly in Nevada, which allows Clear Lake to claim this title). The area looks quite European with surrounding mountains and plenty of orchards and vineyards, and there are lakeside towns named Nice and Lucerne, reflecting the origins of the Europeans who settled here.

Almost as soon as we entered the gates of the state park we encountered a large flock of wild turkeys crossing the road in front of us.

We counted 34 in this flock, which was crossing again in the other direction a few minutes later when we came back to the gate to pay our entry fee in the "honor system" box.

Around the next bend we saw several acorn woodpeckers in a grove of old oaks, but I was not able to get a good photo. These are the woodpeckers that chip away little alcoves in the bark of a designated "granary" tree and then neatly hammer acorns into them for storage; if you happen to have seen David Attenborough's "The Life of Birds," you will probably remember the wonderful footage of these birds in action. We also saw a handsome black-tailed deer on the hill by the side of the road.

Soon we parked at the edge of the lake, where we spotted three common mergansers swimming very close to shore. I like the shot below of the mergansers swimming past a lone male mallard.

The digiscoped photo below catches one of the mergansers back on land around a bit of a bend. My resident bird expert had never seen mergansers on land before, and I haven't seen many mergansers at all, so we enjoyed the view of these handsome diving ducks with their long bills and shaggy crests.

As we crossed a small bridge over a creek that flowed into the lake, we saw a group of what would become one of the signature birds of this trip, as we saw so many: the ruddy duck. This small diving duck is most easily recognizable by its stiff tail often held upright, white cheeks, and large flat bill that is blue during breeding season.

Below is a close-up of the bird at the left rear in the photo above - the only one holding its tail upright in proper ruddy-duck fashion.

We only spent an hour or two at this park before it started to get dark and we needed to head out to find a place to stay; the next day we headed to other locations on the lake and then back to the coast. It was a great start to our week of California bird-watching.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Black Oystercatchers

Click on photos for greater detail

Aren't these guys (or gals) quite wonderful? These are Black Oystercatchers, found only along the Pacific coast from Alaska to Baja California, but apparently quite common in rocky areas of that habitat. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the Black Oystercatcher as a "large, conspicuous, and noisy bird," and conspicuous they certainly are. This was a first-time spot for both Dave and me, and we got very excited to see these striking birds with their bright red-orange bills, pink legs, orange eye-rings and black plumage. This trio was on rocky cliffs overlooking the ocean at MacKerricher State Park, just north of Fort Bragg, California, where we also saw numerous other shorebirds as well as harbor seals.

Below is a collage of a sequence I took of a single bird. A little out-of-focus individually, together they convey a sense of movement which in real life culminated with the bird taking flight, as seen in the lower left corner. I find the top image rather haunting.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Anna's Hummingbird at Rest

I've been practicing my digiscoping, and on our recent California trip I managed to get some shots I'm quite pleased with. This is an Anna's hummingbird that we spotted from above on the northern California coast at Fort Brag. It was perching quite still for an extended time at the tip of a small tree at the edge of a pond. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes:
The Anna's Hummingbird makes itself conspicuous by its behavior as well as its choice of habitat. The male sings frequently from exposed perches, and makes elaborate dive displays at other hummingbirds and sometimes at people.
"Exposed perch" certainly describes the situation in which we found this handsome little bird, and I suppose we should be glad we were above and behind it, not below it to tempt it to dive at us.

The only hummingbird we get in Minnesota is the ruby-throated. I haven't seen too many of those, and one usually only spots them when they are hovering and darting about, so it was a treat to see the Anna's so clearly through the spotting scope. The face and throat seem black here through a trick of the light; normally they would appear a deep iridescent red in the adult male, which this appears to be. The Anna's is one of the larger hummingbirds, at 4", which led us not to quite believe our eyes when we started to realize that this small but not tiny bird was indeed a hummingbird, but the iridescent green back and the needle-like bill rapidly convinced us. They are described as common in urban areas of the far West; their range has expanded considerably northward from Baja and southern California, which was their main breeding location during the first half of the 20th century.
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This Friday: Local Farmer Panel Discussion

Imagine grocery shopping in February and being surrounded by a wealth of locally produced foods! We're getting there, especially if you shop at the co-op, but we do have a way to go. How can we build the local foodshed so that more Minnesota food is available year-round? To (mostly) quote from the Eat Local: Just Food blog:

Hear from three larger local producers - Kadejan (free-range chicken), Whole Grain Milling Company (grains and awesome tortilla chips), and Cedar Summit Farm (milk and other dairy products) - as they talk about the challenges and importance of large-scale local farming. The panel will be moderated by local farmer David Hougen-Eitzman of Big Woods Farm.

Everyone is invited to this important free event- but PLEASE PREREGISTER ASAP. Spread the word, join your neighbors, and bring your questions for the panelists! We’ll have local cheeses to snack on during the panel.

Friday, March 6, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the Just Food Co-op Event Space (516 Water St. South, Northfield). Space is limited- Please call or stop in to reserve your seat.

I've almost finished reading Bill McKibben's wonderful book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, and with the messages of that book fresh in my mind I certainly plan to be there on Friday. This is such an important and exciting issue! If you're thinking of coming, please call the co-op at 507-650-0106 to let them know you'll be there.

Monday, March 2, 2009

American Avocets

Click on photos for greater detail
My resident bird expert (also known as Dave) and I were on vacation in Northern California last week, and each saw quite a few "life birds" -- birds neither of us had seen or identified in the past. The American avocet was one such for me, and immediately became a favorite. What a lovely shorebird it is: long-legged, strikingly marked in black and white, and when in breeding plumage as the bird shown above is, bearing a lovely terracotta blush to its head, neck, and breast. Its long bill curves charmingly upward. Dave has seen avocets before, but in Minnesota they can only be seen in the extreme western counties in summer. They breed from the western Great Plains down to New Mexico and the Texas panhandle, as well as along the coast of California and in a few other spots.

We saw the lone bird above at the Berkeley marina in the San Francisco Bay Area; later, as we traveled as far north as Eureka, we saw many, many more. Below is a scene from a shell-studded sandbar at the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary, just north of Eureka. American avocets -- some transitioning to that beautiful breeding plumage and most others still in their more subdued nonbreeding plumage -- mix with a few marbled godwits (what a wonderful name), a plumper-bodied shorebird with speckled, cinnamon-colored plumage. More about them, and some of the other discoveries of our trip, to come.