Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bold Rabbits

This bold or at least inquiring rabbit appeared on our deck on Saturday. Perhaps it has done so before when we were not at home. We were surprised it would come so close to the house. It didn't seem to notice me inside, taking several photos of it through the sliding door, even though I forgot to turn off the flash the first time.

After a bit it hopped away -- lippety, lippety, not very fast* -- and then it was joined by another!

*Recognize the literary reference?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Shorebirds at Lake Byllesby

On Friday, the day we saw an osprey, we found our way to a secluded beach on the northwest side of Lake Byllesby in search of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Dunlins, and whatever other shorebirds might present themselves, with particular hopes to see some American Avocets, which had been reported at the lake. This side of the lake is shallow and protected; we found later on when we went around to the south side that it was wind-whipped to the point of being downright inhospitable, and we quickly retreated. However, from this sheltered area there were dozens and dozens - probably at least a couple of hundred - of shorebirds to be seen.

Most were either Greater or Lesser Yellowlegs - it can be hard to tell the greater from the lesser, but they both generally give an impression of a speckled gray on top and a pale breast and underside - and, of course, they have yellow legs. The photo above makes me laugh: look at the bird on the right.

I like this one of two companionable yellowlegs, though the movement of their heads resulted in a little blurring.

Here one looks as if it is scratching itself, and perhaps it is. I am informed by my resident bird expert that what looks like a bent elbow on the bird on the left is actually its wrist; the elbow is higher up, as can be seen on the bird on the right.

This one has a fuzzy-headed appearance that I found endearing.

As I noted in my earlier post about the osprey, we never did see an avocet; they are rare indeed in this part of Minnesota. The shorebirds we did see are in migration and will be gone again within the next two or three weeks. The killdeer is the only bird of this type hangs around here for several months.

We did see a line of white pelicans on a sandbar far out across the lake, looking almost like a line of breaking waves, but they were too far away to get any decent shots, even through the spotting scope.

Friday Night's Amazing Clouds

Friday night we came out of El Tequila after a good dinner (I recommend the Pollo en Salsa Verde) and stopped dead at the sight of the immense, towering thunderclouds in the eastern sky, which were brightly lit by the setting sun. When we first saw them they were brilliant, brilliant white with highlights of golden pink, but by the time we zipped the dozen blocks home and I pulled out my camera at the eastern end of Woodley Street, much of the brilliant white had already faded but the pinks and purple shadows were still vivid. Rarely, if ever, have I seen such spectacular clouds.

Get a much more visceral sense for the power of these clouds by clicking on the photos to see larger versions.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Osprey at Lake Byllesby

Friday afternoon we heard an alert that American Avocets (one of my favorite birds since our recent California trip where we saw quite a few, but rarely seen in eastern Minnesota) had been seen at Lake Byllesby. Since it was a beautiful warm day but rain was predicted for later, we left work a bit early, grabbed our birding gear, and headed over to this reservoir and county park on the border between Dakota and Goodhue counties.

We stopped first by the Hwy 56 bridge at the county line, where the Cannon River flows into the west end of the lake. This is a good area for shorebirds, as the water is shallow and there are mudflats and sandbars from which such birds can forage. As we looked east, our eyes were focused on an area beyond the tree in the foreground, where we could see shorebirds ("peeps") aplenty. Suddenly Dave gasped. He had finally noticed, at the top of the tree we'd been looking past, a bold, large spot of black and white that could only mean an osprey. If you click on the photo above, you'll be able to see it as we first noticed it.

We got the spotting scope pointed in the right direction (cars whizzing by at 55 mph just a few feet behind our backs), and I was able to get some decent-enough shots through the scope to capture the magnificence of this beautiful bird of prey.

Here in southeastern Minnesota we are at the edge of the osprey's summer breeding area and would generally see them in migration rather than nesting. A few years ago we drove up to the football field at Irondale High School in New Brighton, where ospreys were nesting on a lightpole. That was the first time I had seen ospreys, and they made quite an impression on me.

Look at the heft of the beak of this raptor, which eats fish almost exclusively. The wingspan can range from 59 to 71 inches (150-180 cm). It is an enormous bird, and its coloring is so unmistakeable. In flight, seen from below, both black and white show on the wings, which are held in a crooked, slightly arched position.

After a few minutes this osprey launched itself from the tree and disappeared toward the main body of the lake. We went on to see a lot of shorebirds on this outing, though no avocets, but this was an unexpected and fantastic start to the expedition.

Addendum: For some wonderful shots of an osprey fishing, visit the Birding in Maine blog.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Trees, Clouds, Wind & Sky

The first thunderstorm of the year rolled in somewhat unexpectedly this morning, bearing strong winds that persisted all day while the temperatures rose into the lower 80s. After the rain had stopped I battled the relentless wind to take several photos from the corner on which my office building stands in downtown Northfield. In the third week of April in southern Minnesota, the trees have not yet leafed out, though some are just starting to show signs of it. I am fascinated by both of the bare trees shown here against the scudding clouds. I encourage you to click on the photos to step more deeply into these scenes; the full-size versions are quite large.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

New Growth

The shiny, clean, new green of these vinca, or periwinkle, leaves and the soft purple of the flowers appear among last year's dead leaves and stems. Soon the new growth will cover the old.

While doing a little research on this plant, which is an attractive and useful vining ground cover, I came across this etymological tidbit on a page from a University of Vermont class on garden flowers:
...names from the Latin vincio meaning to bind, and later Middle English per wynke meaning same, referring to use in making wreaths which in Middle Ages were placed on heads of criminals on their way to execution; in Italy it was known as Fiore de morte being placed on bodies of dead infants; later and still occasionally today it is known as "Joy of the Ground."
So there you have it.

I noticed my first bees of the season today - about eight small ones, hovering and zipping about, not by these periwinkles or the nearby daffodils, but over earth and grass.
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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Winter Burn - A Lesson Too Late

Today we bid a sad goodbye to a pointy-topped little ornamental evergreen in our south-facing front flower bed. I'm not even sure what it was, as it was already in place when we bought this house eight years ago. It was a victim of winter burn, and had turned brown over about 70% of its foliage. If it could ever recover to the point of looking good again, which I doubted, it was going to be unsightly for a good long while, and right in front of the house wasn't a good place to try to nurse it back through a recovery period. So, alas, we removed it.

Here, from, is a good description of winter burn and how to prevent it, which I wish I had read and absorbed in time to save this little tree. Sufficient watering in the fall and protection from drying winds and high sun while the ground was still frozen would have helped considerably. I've seen burlapped shrubs in local yards from time to time; now I know why.
This winter damage to evergreens is caused by a combination of winter sun and persistent cold, drying winds, which both draw upon the reserves of moisture in the needles. If the ground is still frozen and the plant cannot replenish this lost moisture, the result is death of the green tissues, and loss of the needles.

Winterburn doesn’t occur on the coldest days of winter, but rather in early spring, when the sun is already high in the sky, but the ground is still frozen. It tends to be most severe in years when snow lingers into March and April, reflecting the light of the sun up into the branches. The problem is made much worse when evergreens are planted along the south or west side of a white house, which reflects the sunlight onto the back of these plants, burning them from both sides.

There are a number of ways to prevent winterburn damage to evergreens. First, be sure to choose evergreens that are resistant to windburn and are adequately hardy for your area. Secondly, never plant evergreens right along side the south or west wall of a white house, unless you are in a really warm part of the North. Thirdly, plant tender evergreens in a location with some protection from winter winds. Finally, be sure to give your evergreens a good watering just before freeze-up in fall, to boost their moisture reserves. Other than these practices, a protective burlap shield supported on the south and west side of the evergreen by wooden or metal posts will block both the sun and the wind, and increase the plant’s chances of successfully making it through the early spring.

The photo above and other examples of winter burn can be found at the Purdue Plant & Pest Diagnostic Laboratory's website.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Let There Be Blossoms

The warmth of the last couple of days took the daffodils in my south-facing front flower bed from just starting to show flower buds last weekend to open blooms this afternoon (the photo on the left was taken just a day or two ago). As I drove about town this afternoon I also noticed that suddenly many lawns, just starting to green up, are painted blue with naturalized Scilla siberica (Siberian squill).

In another flower bed the first of my species tulips had opened up completely, though I hadn't even noticed that flowers were forming. Smaller than this cropped photo might suggest, species tulips are low-growing, hardy bulbs with a flower that is more star-shaped than cup-shaped. They make good addition to rock gardens, though mine are just in a normal bed near our front door.

We're expecting some much-needed rain in the next couple of days and cooler temperatures than the high 60s and low 70s we've been enjoying this week.
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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Watery Wednesday: Through the Looking Glass

A solitary Canada goose glides through the reflection of the historic Ames Mill on the Cannon River, Northfield, Minnesota.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Camouflage Quiz

Can you see what was in this garden Sunday afternoon?

Can you find it in the photo below, which was taken first? It's there, and I can guess where it is, but I certainly can't say for sure.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Assorted Ducks, Superior Drive Pond

We've been visiting the Superior Drive pond on the southeast edge of town frequently lately to see the ducks that are passing through southern Minnesota on their spring migration. This must be quite a deep pond, as diving ducks are commonly seen here. Last spring there were even loons on the pond for a period of time.

There have been several pairs of northern shovelers, easily recognizable even at a distance by their uniquely heavy bills and the big areas of green, white and rust on the male. The shot above isn't great, but it's the best I could get through the scope today since the ducks kept moving.

Here is a male hooded merganser -- again, not a perfect shot, but clearly showing the distinguishing features, including the very thin bill, the big white spot on the large black head, and the striking black and white stripes on the tawny body. I have been seeing a pair of these on the Cannon River in downtown Northfield all week, but this was the first time I'd managed a passable shot through the scope.

This was an unexpected shot. I'd been focused on this charming little pair of buffleheads when a shoveler splashed in for a landing right behind them. What a difference in size there is between them; the shoveler looks like a moose in comparison!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Blue Sky and Chickadee

Couldn't wait for another Skywatch Friday to post this photo of a chickadee in the budding maple tree in front of our house today. I had startled it away from its lunch at our feeders when I drove up (I was home to eat lunch myself). The blue sky, the bare branches and the bird (affectionately known as dee-dees around our house: chickadee-dee-dee) came together well, I thought.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Pearly Skies

This was the western sky a few nights ago as we took an early evening walk around a local pond, here in southeastern Minnesota.

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Grackle Trying to Be a Feeder Bird

I was startled a couple of days ago to look out of my birdfeeder-watching window and see a common grackle -- those large, irridescent blackbirds usually seen on lawns -- having a go at my caged feeder, the one designed to keep larger birds out and let the little guys have an undisturbed place to feed. You can see, in the photo above, the feeder tipping under the bird's weight. The next moment it was flying away (below).

Monday, April 6, 2009

Sandpipers en Masse

Large groups of animals moving rapidly in unison are amazing to watch, whether they are bats, fish, or birds. How do they coordinate their movements so well? Perhaps all it takes is each creature being aware of the two or three immediately around it, but the overall effect of synchronized motion can be breathtaking. These photos capture a large flock of sandpipers, quite possibly including western sandpipers and slightly larger dunlins, on the Pacific coast near Arcata, CA, in February. The photo above shows them on the beach, where they made us laugh by running back and forth as the waves moved in and out.

The photos below show the flock in flight over the waves. Click on the photos for better detail.

Shorebirds like these winter along the coasts and in the far southern U.S. and Mexico, breed in far northern Canada and Alaska, and can be seen in migration through the Midwest (though only a few types in southeastern Minnesota).

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