Tuesday, June 14, 2011


I suppose I should be warned by the fact that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' website only describes the woodchuck (or groundhog, or marmot, or whistle pig), in the context of management of nuisance animals and doesn't bother to list it in its main Mammals section. But I can't help but get excited when I see a relatively unfamiliar animal in the back yard, even if I know it probably wants to eat (and eat, and eat) our garden vegetables. I've only seen these a couple of times before, though I've now seen this one (assuming it's the same one) two or three times in the past several days. So here's a more complete guide (pdf) to the ecology (and control) of the woodchuck from the University of Wisconsin Extension.

Woodchuck passing our rear neighbor's fenced vegetable garden

Pausing for a moment in our yard. I later saw it on our deck!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Recent Observations (mid-June Phenology)

In no particular order, here are some recent Northfield-area nature and garden notes. All of the photos have large originals that can be seen if you click on the small images.

We last saw a red-breasted nuthatch at our feeders on May 29. I noted about two weeks earlier that each time I saw one I expected it to be the last time for the season. We've not seen any pine siskins, also mentioned in the post of two weeks ago, for quite a while either.

We've seen fewer songbirds and hummingbirds at the feeders as hatching insects and blooming flowers have offered more nutritional variety. It's my understanding that even birds that prefer seeds or fruit at some times of the year tend to feed insects to their hatchlings, due to the higher protein content. The grackles are becoming our most common visitors, enjoying the sunflower seeds, grape jelly and peanuts we put out with other birds in mind.


One of the flowering shrubs that may be attracting the hummingbirds away from the feeder is our red Weigela bush, now in full flower. It's at a corner of the house that's not overlooked by any of our windows, so we don't have much opportunity to watch to see if the hummers are going there, but this bush is mentioned by a variety of sources as being very attractive to hummingbirds.

"Baby" crows are very comical -- as large as their parents and quite formidable-looking but bleating pitifully to be fed. We've heard them often and occasionally seen them near the house.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
I noticed my first purple coneflower in bloom yesterday. Last year I noted on June 27 that they had been blooming for the previous week or so, but I'm pretty sure I meant they had been widely in bloom for that period of time. The oxeye daisies have also started blooming, though most are not yet out.

Small acorns
The oak tree next to our house has formed lots of small, green acorns. I haven't paid much attention in the past to the timing of acorn production, so I can't tell you how this compares to the second week of June in other years.


 We all know it's been a mainly cool and rainy spring, slowing down both farmers and home gardeners from getting their planting done. We bought vegetable plants Mother's Day weekend and had them under lights inside until last weekend, when we finally got enough garden space cleared to put in seven tomato plants and some broccoli (we lost our pepper plants when the cats got at them), just in time for the dry, windy heat wave straight from Arizona that brought the temperature into the low 100s by some readings.

Sage in flower
We hadn't done a good job of hardening off our plants beforehand, and several of them look terribly stressed, even though the cool, damp weather returned quickly. The perennial herbs in the bed are doing fine, though. The chives are nearing the end of their bloom and the sage has just started blooming. We also have a much larger patch of lemon thyme this year, which I didn't realize would come back on its own.

Cottonwood seeds on deck
The cottonwood seed fluff has really picked up today and is drifting lazily down, occasionally swirling in the breeze, and sticking to the deck, which is wet from a light rain sprinkle. This is about a week later than I wrote a post on "cottonwood snow" in 2009.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tree Swallow, aka Bluebird's Neighbor

When people put up nesting boxes to help restore dwindling bluebird populations, they've learned to put up two fairly close together. That's because tree swallows, which also find the boxes desirable for nesting, are numerous, and when there is only one nest box in an area, tree swallows often preempt the bluebirds. When two nest boxes are adjacent, the tree swallows that claim one will not tolerate another tree swallow nearby but have no problem allowing a bluebird family to claim that second house. (Read about St. Olaf College's nest box program here.)

So, not surprisingly, when we saw bluebirds last weekend at the McKnight Prairie, we also saw tree swallows. The male tree swallow is a gorgeous bird, pure white below and an iridescent blue or blue-green above. I was standing watching a bluebird when I heard very close behind me what sounded like an intensely musical flow of water; I turned to find the male tree swallow vocalizing on a post just a few feet behind me. Later, we walked right past him on the driveway, again within a few feet of the little bird, and he didn't seem troubled at all by our presence. Learn more about tree swallows here.

Look at the length of those wings!