Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ducklings in a Reflected World

I was interested in this mother mallard and her young family when I took this photo, but when I saw it on-screen I was intrigued by the reflections I hadn't noticed at the time. Below, as they swim away from the camera, the textures in the calm water are really interesting (click on either photo to see it larger). These photos were taken last evening at the Superior Drive pond.

Below is a crop of the same photo. See how small the ducklings still are compared to their mother, but then look at how mature their heads look -- the one right behind her is easiest to see. These young birds still have quite a bit of growing to do before the males start getting their mature coloring -- the ones I see along the river seem almost as big as the adult females before their coloring starts to clearly separate the sexes.

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Cooking with Our CSA Produce

This summer we have a share in a local CSA, Open Hands Farm. Actually, we are sharing that share -- splitting it weekly with our friends Mary and Steve. It's been quite a few years since I tried a CSA. A half-share seems just right for us -- enough produce to feel like a bounty each week, but not so much that we really struggle to keep up with it.

In case you're not sure what a CSA is, it stands for Community Supported Agriculture. A local farm sells shares at the beginning of the growing season and then throughout the season the share-owners (members) get a weekly allotment of whatever is ready to be picked that week. This provides members with a steady stream of fresh-from-the-farm produce (in some cases going to the farm to pick it up, or even sometimes to pick some of it themselves in U-pick fashion; in other cases, picking it up at a convenient distribution point) and allows them to get know their farmers and where their food comes from. The arrangement, importantly, also gives farmers an upfront source of capital for the year and lets them spread out the risk of farming to some extent. If it's a typical year, members have paid a fair price for a steady supply of fresh, local produce. If it's a bumper year, the members benefit -- they get more than they paid for, so to speak. If production is down or crops ruined due to bad weather, disease, or other factors that affect how well plants produce, the members take home less than they'd hoped for, but the farmer doesn't bear the entire financial brunt of the losses, because they were paid upfront. It's still a huge amount of work, but the greater financial stability can make the difference for these relatively small-scale farmers.

The CSA helps keep me on my toes, nutritionally. I tend to get lazy about fixing what I think of as "real dinners," but with fresh produce in the house and the promise (threat?!) of more coming in a few days, I do get spurred on to make more salads and incorporate more produce into our meals. The growing season starts off mostly with greens -- tender lettuces, mixed salad greens, spinach and cooking greens like small bok choy. Early root vegetables like radishes and salad turnips have also been in the mix, and we've had modest quantities of small but sweet and intensely-flavored strawberries (this very rainy June hasn't been the best for strawberries). Now, near the end of June, more substantial foods like summer squash and broccoli are already coming in, along with sugar snap peas, green onions and beets, chard and kale. These are all wonderful, and hint at the glories of the peak of the CSA experience, when you're taking home bags of tomatoes, squash, corn, beans and cucumbers every week.

We've been having a lot of salads, needless to say, and I made a really good stir-fry a few days ago using about half a dozen CSA ingredients. Dave also made a big batch of tabbouli a few days ago, using green onions from the farm. A batch of tabbouli can get us through several days of lunches or dinners, served with pita bread, feta cheese and/or hummus. That first night he also made chicken kebabs on the grill, using a Turkish seasoning mix as a rub, which went great with the tabbouli (shown in the photo at right).

And then we fell in love with cooked greens. To accompany a meal of leftover chicken kebabs, cut into smaller chunks and sauteed briefly with mushrooms, I made lemon-spiked garlic greens, following a recipe in 1,001 Low-fat Vegetarian Recipes by Sue Spitler (Surrey Books, 1997). Having about six large kale leaves, I cut the leaves away from the central stems (discarding the stems) and coarsely chopped the leaves. I heated some olive oil in a saucepan and added some chopped green onions and a handful of finely diced leftover red bell pepper that I happened to have on hand (most of it was used with the kebabs). Then I added a good teaspoonful from a jar of garlic puree, but one could of course use diced fresh garlic, and stirred it all until fragrant. Then I threw in the chopped kale along with about a third of a cup of water, stirred it all up, turned down the heat a notch and put the lid on the pan so the greens would braise. When after a few minutes the greens were looking wilted but there was still quite a bit of moisture in the pan, I took the lid off and continued to stir-fry for a few more minutes until most of the moisture had evaporated, and then seasoned the mixture with a good squirt of lemon juice and some salt and pepper.

The result was intensely satisfying, with a bold but not bitter "greens" flavor and a fresh, not-overcooked texture that was a perfect accompaniment to the milder-tasting chicken and mushrooms, and with a lingering garlicky finish that we were still enjoying an hour later. I only wished we had had more kale so we could have had seconds. Can't wait for next week's delivery!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Busy Day at the Feeder

Yesterday we had lots of visitors to the feeders. I'm used to seeing one or two birds at a time there, but quite often yesterday we had three or more. Below, three House Finches are at the feeding stations while a Chipping Sparrow watches from above. At one point a slim young finch was feeding itself but then accepted food from a parent, gaping wide and flapping its wings excitedly.

Before long, the finches were gone and the chippie had the feeder to him or herself. We've been a little surprised to see Chipping Sparrows at the feeder, thinking of them as preferring to feed on the ground, but apparently it is not unusual for them to visit feeders. Chippies are our smallest commonly-seen sparrow and are readily recognized by the reddish-brown ("rufous") caps on their heads.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

What's Blooming

Every once in a while I like to use Picasa's collage feature, especially for flowers. I don't have an extensive or well-planned flower garden, but here's what's in bloom this week:
  • Asiatic lilies from a collection I remember being called Peaches and Cream (top right, upper right center, lower left) -- these opened up within the last week.
  • Purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea (top left and bottom right) -- these just started blooming in the past week or so.
  • Oxeye daisies (upper left center and lower right center)
  • Cranesbill geranium (hardy geranium -- a different group altogether from the popular potting plant known as garden geranium but actually members of the genus Pelargonium) (center) -- this has been in full bloom for several weeks and the blossoms are not as profuse as they were earlier in the season.
  • Penstemon ("beardtongue") (lower left center) -- this close-up makes it look larger than it is - -these are quite small flowers on perennial plants with nice foliage that comes in a dark purple at first and changes to green as the season progresses. The flowers are very attractive to bees. We've also read that hummingbirds like them, but I haven't happened to notice them among these blooms.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Female Northern Cardinal

I don't see our local pair of cardinals too often, and if I see one alone it's usually the male, but the female spent a little time at our feeder yesterday. Here she is maneuvering a seed in her broad beak. Her orange crest is lying flat -- I'm not sure why; perhaps it's a sign of nervousness at the feeder, but cardinals and other crested birds seem to be able to raise and lower them to communicate different moods or intentions.

My blog friend Richard of in Atwater, MN, has some nice photos of fledgling cardinals with awkwardly transitional, blotchy-colored feathers and beaks that are changing from dark to the red-orange of the mature birds. We haven't seen any juvenile cardinals at our house yet, but I'm hoping we will. We certainly have plenty of young grackles, house finches and squirrels.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Squirrel and Cat (Thank Goodness for Glass)

A curious young squirrel has been investigating our front window, in between clean-up-the-seeds stints under our bird feeders. The cats, of course, are driven mad by this behavior. Here is a very close encounter. Thank goodness for the intervening glass.
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Sage in Bloom

I have a good-sized clump of common (or garden) sage, Salvia officinalis, in my garden that flowered quite impressively recently. It's part of the same genus as ornamental salvia that you might buy at a garden center; the genus is part of the mint family and includes hundreds of species, which cover the spectrum from annual to biennial to perennial.

Common sage is a perennial, but I was surprised to discover other herbs well established in my garden recently, including parsley, cilantro and dill. I have not paid sufficient attention to my garden this year. We joined a CSA so I'm not growing much for our own eating pleasure, and it's been so very wet that I haven't done much working with the soil.

The surprise parsley (visible behind the sage flowers in this photo, and which was so thick and mature I think it must be last year's plant in the second year of its biennial cycle, protected by our heavy snow blanket this past year) and cilantro have already flowered. Herbs tend to be more coarse and bitter once they have flowered and gone to seed, so maybe I'll think of this overlooked patch as next year's plants in production.

I do also have a nice little clump of lemon thyme, which I imagine would work well with roast chicken but never really did anything with last year (I am notoriously bad at actually using the herbs I grow.). Does anyone else grow this and have suggestions for its use?

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hummingbird Again

Here is a female ruby-throated hummingbird (only the males have the ruby throat) in a nice side-view. This photo was taken by my 10-year-old son, who is developing quite an interest in photography.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Tree Swallows

The two swallows I see most often in Northfield are tree swallows and barn swallows. Tree swallows are recognizable by their white undersides and iridescent blue-green backs. Barn swallows have a reddish-brown underside with a steel-blue back. Both are beautiful birds that are a great pleasure to watch as they swoop through the air catching insects.

Tree swallows like to nest in bluebird nesting boxes, and often beat the bluebirds to it. That is why people often put up two boxes near each other. If there is only one box, the tree swallows get there first and the bluebirds are out of luck. If there are two boxes, there will be one left for the bluebirds because a tree swallow will tolerate a bluebird next door, but won't tolerate another tree swallow so close. 

These photos were taken at the St. Olaf College nature area. The bird above, sitting on a fence post at the edge of the path near two nesting boxes, let us get surprisingly close to take this photo. Below, two swallows out of a group of five or six are seen swooping around a different set of nesting boxes.

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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Green Heron

We walked the pond trail at the St. Olaf College nature area this evening and saw this Green Heron in a tree.

Green Herons are much smaller than the more commonly seen Great Blue Heron; they are similar in size to a crow.

 These shots were taken from quite a distance away -- maybe 70 yards or so -- through the spotting scope and represent my most successful digiscoping efforts so far with my new camera. It helps to be working with a bird the size of a crow (or green heron) rather than a tiny songbird.

This post is my submission for this week's Bird Photography Weekly.

Chickadee Mug Shots

Okay, Sir or Ma'am, face to the right.

Now face to the left. And show us a little tail, please.

And now look directly into the camera.

The officer will escort you to the holding cell now. Next!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Riverfront Scenes with Clouds and Geese

I was intrigued by the towering bank of cumulus cloud behind Ames Mill yesterday while the sun shone down from otherwise pure blue, storm-cleansed skies.

There was a feeding frenzy as adult and already-adolescent mallards and geese rushed to grab the food that was being tossed to them by the couple shown above. I never saw a single young mallard duckling this season -- they must have been on a different stretch of the river -- but now there are plenty of almost full-grown ones about, already showing hints of their adult coloring.

This teenage Canada goose born only a few weeks ago already has his adult chinstrap, but there's still some downy fuzz to be seen. (Click on the photo, or any of the others, for a closer view.)

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Hummingbird Series

I finally found the high-speed-burst setting on my new camera, which is great for freezing creatures in motion, like this hummingbird at our feeder this morning. The resulting photos are smaller, but it's a worthwhile trade-off when the subject is not too far away.

Red Squirrel Breaches Birdfeeder Perimeter

This intrepid little red squirrel got inside the caged feeder today and enjoyed the rewards of his/her efforts.
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Friday, June 18, 2010

Post-storm Maxfield Parrish Sky

After the storms blew through last night, closing down Taste of Northfield for the evening and triggering weather alerts of various kinds, I stepped out on my back porch for a view of the sky to the northwest. A little earlier there had been an amazing golden glow, but by this point it had faded to this peaceful scene of feathery blue-and-lavender cloud fragments.
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Monday, June 14, 2010

Goldfinches Again

Our local pair of goldfinches was at the thistle-seed feeder Sunday morning. In the top photo the male is the one in main view; thereafter we can admire his belly while watching his pretty mate more closely as she eats.

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Pelicans, Cows and Songbirds

We made another trip to Union Lake today via some back roads south of Hwy 19, where we heard and then located a Common Yellowthroat in full song at the top of a large dead tree. Dan Tallman did a blogpost on the Yellowthroat just the other day, which is well worth taking a look at for a better view of this black-masked, bright yellow warbler than the out-of-focus shot I was able to get at such a distance and for a description of its "witchity-witchity" song. [Addendum: Another Minnesota bird blogger/photographer, Richard of At The Water, also featured the Yellowthroat in a June 14 post. The bird is popping up everywhere!]

Nearby we saw a Song Sparrow throwing back its head and singing with all its heart. The spot on the chest is a good field mark for identifying this bird.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says:
[The Song Sparrow is] one of the first species you should suspect if you see a streaky sparrow in an open, shrubby, or wet area. If it perches on a low shrub, leans back, and sings a stuttering, clattering song, so much the better.
Soon after we'd left that area, as we drove west on Old Dutch Road, I saw a very small dark bird ahead of us on the road which turned out to be a life bird for me: an Indigo Bunting. They are not uncommon, I just haven't had the luck to see one before -- and I didn't see this one for long before it flew into the roadside shrubbery. Since the sky was overcast it didn't show the brilliant blue it is known for, but it was a solidly blue songbird -- good enough for the identification.

We saw dozens of pelicans on Union Lake. This formation flew close enough overhead that I could finally get a decent pelican photo.

After stopping for a Bobolink fix at our Bobolink-spotting place, we drove on and on a small, green-with-algae pond we saw a female Wood Duck with ducklings and some unaccompanied ducklings with a pair of Blue-winged Teals not far off that perhaps were overseeing from a distance. On the other side of the road, this group of cows was so photogenic I couldn't resist adding them to the day's photographic count.

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

New Design for Penelopedia(?)

Blogger has a new template design feature, and I have spent much of the evening playing around with it. Right now it won't let me upload my own background image, which I would prefer, but of the nature-themed options this seemed to suit me best. It gives me more width to work with, too, which is an improvement over my old style.

I saved the old template so I can revert to it, but change can be good.

What do you think?

Addendum: Since posting this, I've reconsidered and found a very different format that I think is easier on the eyes. Who knows, I may make more changes tomorrow. It's like trying on new clothes.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Bear in Rural Northfield

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine who lives west of Northfield in Bridgewater Township told me that while driving home from the Twin Cities a few nights earlier, she had seen and almost hit a black bear trying to dart onto Old Dutch Road near I-35.

Now the Northfield News has a story with video about a bear that has repeatedly visited the wooded property of a Bridgewater Township resident.

WCCO did a story about a month ago about the increasing number of bear sightings in the northern suburbs of the Twin Cities. Northfield, of course, is a good hour or more south of that area. Biologists hypothesize that the southward migration might be related to our very early spring this year -- bears may have awoken from hibernation early but their favored foods may not have developed similarly early, causing the animals to go in search of food.

Fascinating. I fear more cases of bears getting too close to humans and being shot, as happened recently when a black bear was shot by police after it strayed onto a White Bear Lake golf course.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Unfortunate Sparrow

This Chipping Sparrow, which we saw on the sidewalk on Sunday, appears to have lost an eye. Click on the photo for a larger view, then compare it to the photos on the All About Birds site. The whole area looks distorted -- instead of a nice neat black stripe through the eye, the white stripe above it swells out. I think the eye on the other side is there, but it's hard to tell for sure. There are avian diseases that can cause serious repercussions to the eyes. I certainly can't tell if this is congenital, disease-based or an injury, but it doesn't bode well for the bird's survival. This bird caught our attention because it was just sitting quietly on the sidewalk. It did flutter away when we got within a few feet of it, but it wasn't behaving like a normal active bird (though possibly like a young bird waiting for a parent).
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