Saturday, December 27, 2008

New on Penelopedia's Bookshelf... and a yummy snack

This Christmas Dave and I received two beautiful books from my daughters which I am delighted to add to that special bookcase where I keep books about nature, gardening, cooking, and eating locally... the bookcase that, in the end, was really the inspiration for the Penelopedia blog.

I'm not a WCCO listener, but those who are will, I understand, probably be familiar with Jim Gilbert, who hosts a weekly call-in show called Nature Notes. (You can subscribe to podcasts here -- look for Nature Notes about two-thirds of the way down the page -- and I plan to do that.)

Gilbert has taken years of his observations and those shared by his regular contributors and put together a substantial and beautifully illustrated paperback guide to Minnesota phenology called Jim Gilbert's Minnesota Nature Notes: what to look for, week by week throughout the year, with respect to birds, animals, flowers, foliage, crops, precipitation, temperatures, ice-out dates on the lakes, and much more. I love the little downward-tilting nuthatch perching on the "M" of Minnesota on the cover. I look forward to reading this book straight through and then returning to it again and again for reminders of what can be observed around us if we just take the time to notice.

The Farm to Table Cookbook: The Art of Eating Locally, by Ivy Manning, is a gorgeous hardcover that would look wonderful sitting on a coffee table. Organized seasonally, the book is intended to help those who buy what is fresh and in season and are looking for new and delicious ways to serve those early spring greens, wild mushrooms, orchard fruits or winter squash. As a winter meal, how about Twice Baked Irish Potatoes with Stout [as in Guinness] Onions & Kale?

Yet another treat on Christmas day was a snack I bought on a whim at Just Food co-op during its recent anniversary open house: Sing Buri Cashews with dried pineapple, peanuts, lemongrass and Chinese chili, from Sahale Snacks. To tell the truth, I had just about OD'd on nuts this holiday season, and my waistline shows it, but these brought a tangy, zingy, sweet, chewy new quality to rich but heart-healthy nuts, and the pouch is not so big that anyone will go too far overboard on them. Definitely recommended.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Real Minnesota Winter?

This is an unusual amount of snow to be piled up by our mailbox in December; we probably haven't had this much snow over the course of a whole winter in some recent years. Of course, this heap is somewhat misleading, since we live on a circle. The plow has to clear the whole circle, so it deposits far more snow at the curb than it does when just going along a normal road. This morning's inch or so of snow turned into about eight inches in the driveway.
Posted by Picasa

Sunday, December 21, 2008


Detail from for conditions about 15 minutes ago. A good day to stay close to home.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Harvest" Sculpture During Snowfall

This was Ray Jacobson's "Harvest" sculpture at the riverfront pedestrian plaza, more formally known as the Sesquicentennial Legacy Plaza, this evening as snow fell and my camera's flash turned the snowflakes into orbs of light. The dark river behind the sculpture adds to a feeling that the night sky descends to an unusually low horizon, as if we are standing atop a steep hill. I love the contrast of black, white, and glowing bronze and lights.

Posted by Picasa

Sunday, December 14, 2008

On the Periphery of a Blizzard

Here in southeastern Minnesota we are expected to remain on the periphery of the blizzard hitting North Dakota and northern and central Minnesota today. Even the periphery is experiencing an extreme change in conditions. When I woke up this morning I could hear water dripping from the eaves, and as I drove 50 minutes north to St. Paul at midday it was still 39 or 40 degrees F. as I came into the metro area, according to my car's external temperature gauge. Less than an hour later as I headed back south it read 28, then steadily dropped until 20 minutes later it was down to 15 degrees. The roads that had been wet with mist as I headed northward had been scoured dry by rising winds and cold -- freeze-dried, more or less. I thought of the five-day blizzards described in Laura Ingalls Wilder's books and felt myself lucky to have reliable transportation and a safe warm house to return to, and to be only on the periphery of this storm.

Addendum: At 7 p.m. it is now down to 3 degrees F., with a wind chill of -17, according to That's a 36-degree drop so far, and the night is young.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Fascinating Tundra Swan Migration Project

One recent evening, while idly browsing the internet, we discovered the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Alaska Science Center project that has been tracking 50 tundra swans from several populations in Alaska, following their fall migration. In Google Earth, linked from the website, you can see where each swan, fitted with a satellite transmitter, was on a particular date, and when individual geese passed through the upper Mississippi. There are two very different migration patterns. Swans from the Arctic coast of Alaska headed southeast through central Canada and the upper Midwest, and most of this so-called Eastern population of swans are now in the Chesapeake Bay area of the east coast. The Western populations based in western Alaska came through the western states to northern California. To be able to follow individual birds as they cross a continent is truly a fascinating use of satellite technology.

A fact sheet about the tundra swans that pass through the upper Mississippi is available from the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center of the USGS in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Golden Eagles in Minnesota & Wisconsin

Photo of Don, resident golden
eagle at the National Eagle Center,
by Ecobirder.

Winter is a good time for bald-eagle-watching on the upper Mississippi. Ecobirder recently posted a piece about the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota, where the river tends to stay open all winter because of the turbulent influx of the Chippewa River from Wisconsin.

I was fascinated to learn that in addition to a large winter bald eagle population, this region supports a significant winter population of golden eagles. On Golden Eagle Survey Day last January, 37 golden eagles were tallied in the greater region, mostly in Wisconsin. Having grown up in California, where the golden eagle is the state bird, I (and my resident birding expert as well) had mistakenly thought of goldens as exclusively western birds, but as the distribution map at All About Birds shows, their wintering grounds can include most of the eastern half of the United States (probably primarily for the far northern population?), though the site also describes them as "rare in the east."

A day trip to the National Eagle Center and the surrounding region is a nice winter outing. I recommend it.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Goose Tracks

This afternoon I was amused to see these goose (and perhaps some duck) footprints in the snow-on-ice at the edge of the river, disappearing (of course) into the water.

Posted by Picasa

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Brown Season: November in the Arb

The Carleton arboretum was raucous with crows but otherwise peaceful in the early afternoon on this partly cloudy but relatively mild November day. The crows were congregating near the river. Several flew from the far side of the river to treetops above us as we walked. I happened to catch one just about to land on a branch in the shot below. As the path we were following curved away from the river, we left their constant cawing behind us.

While the sky was mostly blue overhead and to the north, looking south toward Carleton's Skinner Chapel (visible in the photo below) there was quite an accumulation of pearl gray cloud. With the sun quite low in the southern sky three weeks from the winter solstice, even when we had clear sky above us we were never in direct sun.

A burst milkweed pod displayed its silky contents as we approached the savanna restoration area.
The sign below describes the oak savanna ecosystem that was prevalent in the area until settlers interfered with the normal pattern of natural burning that is necessary to keep the floor of the savanna clear. Invasive, non-native buckthorn is now one of the principal plants interfering with the restoration of the savanna. (Click on the photo to read the information on savanna restoration.)

An area of restored savanna is below.

The path rejoined the river at a sharp bend; below is the view looking back to the south, with a skim of ice at the water's edge holding some of the recent snow dusting that did not last long on the ground.

Despite some light snows earlier in the month, we are still in the brown season, before the arrival of the snow cover that typically lasts two or three months or more in southern Minnesota, providing plant roots a protective mulch against the bitter subzero cold that usually visits us at some point each winter. When we first moved here in 1990, we were told that there was typically snow on the ground from Thanksgiving until March. Our winters have tended to be shorter and less snowy more recently, with white Christmases less certain.

This Thanksgiving I am thankful to live so near to places like this, where in a matter of moments town life fades away and a quiet trail beckons onward.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Glimpsing Eagles

Twice today, through windows on different sides of my office building, I caught sight of a bald eagle (the same one?--who knows) soaring by, quite low. Both times I disrupted the conversation and work at hand to exclaim, "An eagle!!!!"

I love working by the side of a river in small-town Minnesota.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Patterns in Ice and Stone

This week's cold led to a speedy icing-over of the Cannon River downtown. Getting up close revealed interesting swirls of white and clear ice around the stones at the water's edge.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Bird Tracks in the Snow

We awoke to see that a light snow had fallen overnight, and when I stepped outside to pick up our newspaper, I found a delicate, curving line of bird tracks under our feeders.

Posted by Picasa

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Canada Geese - Large and Lesser

We braved a cold wind to take a walk around the Superior Drive pond this morning and found it teeming with Canada geese. On closer examination through the binoculars we could also see a number of mallards, a pair of green-winged teals, and a northern pintail, easily identifiable by its white bib.

As we walked, we came to realize that many of the geese were noticeably smaller than the Canada geese we usually see--some seemed not much larger than the mallards, in fact--though otherwise indistinguishable from the other geese. There are several subspecies of Canada goose, varying considerably in size and length of neck and bill. The Cornell Ornithology Lab's All About Birds site notes:
At least 11 subspecies of Canada Goose have been recognized, although only a couple are distinctive. In general, the geese get smaller as you move northward, and darker as you go westward. The four smallest forms are now considered a different species: the Cackling Goose.
David Allan Sibley offers a further guide to distinguishing the various subspecies here. The Giant subspecies is the kind we usually see, having become common in recent years after having once been thought extinct, and is the largest goose in the world, sometimes weighing more than 20 pounds.

Below, in a cropped version of part of the photo shown above, you can see a pretty clear difference between the longer-necked birds at the left and center rear and the smaller-bodied, shorter-necked birds elsewhere in the scene. I don't know which subspecies were in this flock, but it was fascinating to see so many smaller geese, whichever kind they may have been. My resident bird expert says he has not ever been aware of having seen these smaller subspecies before in his 15 years of birdwatching in Minnesota, so although they were "only" Canada geese, this was rather an exciting "spot."

Note, 11/10/2008: I have replaced the original photo below with one that I've marked to more easily point out the contrast between examples of the larger (in blue) and lesser (in red) subspecies.

Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

First Hard Frost

The temperature dipped into the 20s yesterday morning and left swaths of frost across the Bald Spot at Carleton College. The cold triggered leaf-drop for many trees that had been holding onto their brilliant foliage for what seemed like longer than usual this fall; golden leaves were falling like rain all around town.

Posted by Picasa

Impressionist Scene

The ruffled reflection of fall leaves provided a colorful backdrop for geese and a pair of mallards on the Cannon River yesterday morning.

Posted by Picasa

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Little Front-Window Birdwatching

Two birdfeeders hang by my front door and are visible through a porthole-shaped window. Chickadees have been frequent visitors, and this weekend we noticed a house finch or two and a whole gang of dark-eyed juncos, the first we've noticed this season. I didn't get any good photos of the juncos this time around but will be on the lookout in the days ahead and will hope for better luck.

Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mallards and Geese Party in the Sun

At the end of the week we had some lovely sunny weather, and it seemed every mallard and Canada goose in the area had chosen the stretch of river between Fourth and Fifth Streets to hold a convention. The photo above shows less than half of the birds on this stretch of the river. There was so much quacking going on (not to mention displaying, like the goose just to the right of the tree trunk near the top of the photo) that I couldn't resist taking a little video to capture it.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Bald Eagle Over the Cannon

This morning I was just getting ready to take some photos of the river and the bridge, since the light was so lovely, when I saw something huge land in the tree at the left (west) end of the bridge. A few moments later, a bald eagle took off again and flapped away downriver. You can see it toward the right side of this photo. (Click on the photo for better detail.)
Posted by Picasa