Saturday, October 31, 2009

Lost October

Usually October is one of my favorite months of the year. After a hot, humid, buggy summer the relief of fall's arrival is tremendous, and it's a wonderful time to get outside: finally cool enough for vigorous hikes, made more pleasurable by clear blue skies and brilliant foliage. Fall bird migration provides more reasons to head out.

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

Golden Carpet

The yellow-in-autumn maple tree in front of our house finally started dropping its leaves a couple of days ago. Usually, I believe, it has finished its fall changes before the oak on the side of the house changes color, but this past week the oak was transitioning through a pink-tan phase on its way to rust brown at the same time the maple was in full golden glory.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Feeder Birds, Late October

A pair of cardinals were trying to get at the seed on the floor of the caged feeder a few days ago. Cardinals want their seed served on a flat surface, not from a hanging feeder. We're going to look into some kind of platform feeder, perhaps placed right outside the living room window. Above is the male, resting on top of the caged feeder.

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

Swarms of Box Elder Bugs

Last year I showed you even thicker swarms of box elder bugs, but this year I have close-ups! And video! Note that last year's photos were taken in the first week of October. Having had several unseasonably early weeks of cool or cold, wet, overcast days, last weekend was the first real opportunity this fall for these guys to seek out warm, sunny, south-facing, light-colored walls. It seems they swarm on sunny days after the first cold weather of the season, looking for a place to overwinter. I don't know where they all end up -- a few end up inside the house, but not many.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Squirrel on a Pedestal

Saw this squirrel in perfect profile through the blinds of my bathroom window this morning and had to run and get the camera. I love how the tail follows the curve of the squirrel's body as it sits atop the fence nibbling something... perhaps an acorn.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day: Climate Change

For Blog Action Day -- thousands of bloggers around the world writing about a single topic, climate change, on a single day.

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.
This analysis suggests that when the foreseeable harm is very great, it is more reasonable to expect people to take steps to avoid that harm, even if the probability that the harm will actually occur is not terribly high.

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

So, how rare IS measurable snow this early?

Snow on Burning Bush (Euonymus alata), October 12, 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:

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.

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!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Early Snow

Woke up to a dusting of snow this morning. It's October 10, for crying out loud. It won't last too long, but there is more in the forecast for Monday.

We may have had earlier snow since I've lived in the upper Midwest (27 years now), but if so I don't remember when.

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Skywatch: Mackerel Sky

Amazing sky late this afternoon - ranks upon ranks of pearly, striated altocumulus clouds. A sky like this is known sometimes as a mackerel sky, apparently resembling the scales on the fish of that name. I have no personal acquaintance with the mackerel, so I will take that on faith.

From the quick reading I've done I believe this type of cloud formation often signals the imminent arrival of a cold front, and indeed it is supposed to get cold tonight and over the next few days, with frost and freeze warnings out for much if not all of Minnesota.

Click on any of these photos to "step into the scene" with a much larger photo.

And if you like skies, you can visit skies around the world at Skywatch Friday.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Downtown Heron

Click on the photo for a much larger, though not perfectly focused, view.

A couple of days ago I noticed a great blue heron hunkered down at the west bank of the Cannon River here in Northfield, across from where I work. I've seen one on this downtown stretch of river only once before, though I know they are commonly seen just a few blocks to the north, where the town-tamed river becomes relatively wild again as it wends its way through the Carleton Arboretum and onward toward Cannon Falls and eventually the Mississippi.

Usually when I photograph the river I try to avoid any intrusion of the traffic and fast food signs on the far side, but contrasts and unexpected juxtapositions interest me, and in this case the sighting of the rather reclusive heron and its small-town-urban setting seemed to call for a different view.