Saturday, August 29, 2009

Cedar Waxwings on a Septemberish Day

A fresh and breezy, almost chilly, but blue-skied and golden morning called us out of doors today. We hadn't been over to the St. Olaf College nature area for several months, so off we went around midmorning. The wind seemed to be keeping the birds out of sight for most of our walk, and although I was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved top I almost regretted leaving my jacket in the car . A few mallards on the pond, a hawk (probably a northern harrier) flying low over the prairie areas, and a crow or two were all we had seen until we were about three quarters of the way around and reached the south side of the pond-loop trail. Passing some wild plums (above), we were suddenly aware of birds ahead and soon saw that they were fruit-loving cedar waxwings.

The photo above shows two cedar waxwings in a tree -- one in sun with its back to the camera and one above it, shaded and in profile. (Click on the photo for a larger view.) You can see a hint of the red wingtips, like drops of red wax, on the wing feathers on the more-visible bird. These, of course, are what give the bird its common name.

We set up the spotting scope and although the birds kept moving one did land on an exposed bare branch not far away for a minute or so, long enough for me to get the shots above and below. I was very pleased with these; while certainly not perfect, they are some of my best digiscoping results ever. You can clearly see the bright yellow tips to the tail feathers, the lovely yellow-to-rosy buff blush of the breast transitioning to the head, and the flat crest and black bandit mask that are among the instantly distinguishing features of this gregarious bird.

It was a nice way to finish up the walk. Earlier we had appreciated the tall prairie grasses and wildflowers waving in the wind, and I'll have a post about them in a while.
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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bats (and Cats)

I have forgotten to tell you about the bat. I was reminded because this morning it was back again. Several weeks ago there was a bat outside the front door of our office. It wasn't bothering anyone, just hanging out. Eventually it was thought best to shoo it away. But this morning it, or another one, was back in the same area.

I don't mind bats, and I know that they are very helpful to have around to control the mosquito population, for one thing. But I've also read that if you see a bat under unusual conditions, it's got a considerably higher than normal chance of having rabies. The Centers for Disease Control web page about rabies notes, after commenting on all the reasons to be tolerant of bats:
However, any bat that is active by day, is found in a place where bats are not usually seen (for example, in a room in your home or on the lawn), or is unable to fly, is far more likely than others to be rabid. Such bats are often the most easily approached. Therefore, it is best never to handle any bat.

I don't care for bats when they are flying at me. In my first few months of living in Northfield, I once found myself shut into a basement laundry room with several bats circling me. I shut the door after the first bat I saw flew out into the larger basement. I thought I was now safe, only to find at least a couple more still inside with me. Eeek. After I got myself out of there, I called my mother in California to tell her, and she said, "But Pen, bats are so interesting! (See where I get it?)

Another time I was alone at work at my desk in an old building on a college campus. After I'd been there quite a while, an odd bit of color caught my eye, and it turned out that a small bat was quietly hanging on the short filing cabinet next to my desk. As in, about two feet away from my right arm. The poor thing was dead under an office chair the next day, and I carefully and discreetly buried it in a flower bed outside.

While looking just now for the photos I'd taken of the bat the first day we saw it, I came across this photo of our two cats, Callie and Jeeves, earlier this summer. They are undoubtedly watching either a bird or a squirrel, as they are looking so attentively through the screen toward the area right under our bird feeders. I like the similarity of their posture as they watch whatever it is. Hey, cats rhymes with bats. Good enough for me.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tomato Jungle

My late-summer garden is a tangle of tomato plants. I've been picking the cherry varieties for several weeks, but the big slicers, especially the heirloom varieties, are just ripening now. Below are some of the red grape variety, which are not as wonderful-tasting as the hybrid Sun Golds (some are visible at the back), but which have proved much more resistant to splitting after the heavy rains we've had lately. I've had to put dozens of the delicious Sun Golds into the compost pile, but I have also resolved to save some of their seeds since I have so many otherwise going to "waste" (not that contributing to compost can be considered a total waste). When I can tell that they have very recently split and still look fresh I still sometimes try to use them, but if the split has dried or the fruit looks as if it is starting to rot, I consign them to the pile.

I've never dried tomatoes before, but the sweet Sun Golds are so prolific and proved so wonderful on pizza recently that I think I will dry a freezer-bagful. To do this, you wash them and cut them in half, spread them cut-side up (some sources say cut-side down) on a baking sheet, and place in a very slow oven (200 F.) for several hours, until leathery but still pliable. Some recipes call for salting the tomatoes and/or seasoning with Italian herbs before drying them. When properly dried they can be kept in the cupboard in a glass jar, but since this is a judgment call probably best made after some trial and error, I will keep mine in the freezer to avoid any risk of mold that could grow if they are not sufficiently dry. I'd hate to lose any.

Above is a mammoth Striped German heirloom tomato. I picked a similar one already, wrestling it out from between the supports; it more than filled my entire hand and probably weighed more than a pound. Unfortunately, it was so tightly wedged against the tomato behind it and the metal cage wires that it emerged sadly bruised. These have a old-fashioned appearance and are rather ribbed from the outside; they are marvelous to look at when sliced, as their flesh is a lovely yellow with red streaks. I have grown these before, and I think their flavor and texture make them a decent rival for the classic "best-tasting" Brandywines.

Above are Tasty Evergreens, a new variety for me this year, which are also getting quite large. The tag says to pick these when green with a yellow tinge, so after taking this photo I picked the closer one, but I haven't sliced it yet.

And here is the Green Zebra variety, another kind I've not grown before. I couldn't find the planting tag and was wondering how to tell when to pick these, but Johnny's Selected Seeds says they are ripe just as the green fruit develops a yellow blush, as the closer fruit above is starting to do. The photo on Seed Savers Exchange (first link above) seems to show that the main portion of the skin will turn considerably yellower than this, with distinctive green stripes remaining. Either way, these are very attractive. Johnny's notes that these are "not technically an heirloom" but lists them with its other heirlooms.

I bought all my tomato plants at Just Food Co-op's Mother's Day plant sale this year; most of the large, vigorous seedlings were raised by the nice folks at Big Woods Farm.

I've done no fertilizing this year other than digging some purchased compost into the soil before planting. I put down straw mulch, and except where it wasn't thick enough, I've needed to do very little weeding. (Whether I've actually weeded where I needed to is a story better left untold.)

Happy tomato season, everyone.
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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Time Magazine Cover Story: Real Cost of Cheap Food

This week Time magazine gives cover-story prominence to an issue I feel strongly about: namely, that the industrial-scale cheap food we have become accustomed to comes at too high a price and is not sustainable. The article notes:
The U.S. agricultural industry can now produce unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals and humans.
Price subsidies for commodity crops result in price-per-calorie dysfunction like these examples provided in the article. One dollar can buy:
  • 1,200 calories of potato chips
  • 875 calories of soda
  • 250 calories of vegetables
  • 170 calories of fresh fruit
The fruit and vegetables are still the nutritional bargain here, but people get fuller faster (and fatter) eating the cheap calories.

When we enjoy a cheap hamburger from animals finished on grain in high-density feedlots, or bargain-price pork or chicken where thousands of animals are raised together in close proximity, we are getting that cheap meat at the cost of:
  • a horrendous (at the very least, a most unnatural and crowded) quality of life for the animals
  • routine antibiotic use to prevent control disease in such unnaturally large concentrations of animals
  • pollution from the huge quantities of waste produced in such concentrated areas
  • increased chances for food contamination from large, high-speed processing plants
  • increased use of petroleum-based fertilizers to grow the endless monocultures of cheap corn to feed the animals
  • our own health and enjoyment of the food (did you know, for example, that the fats in grass-fed beef and dairy products - such as humans have been eating for thousands of years until the last several decades - are considerably better for us than the fats from grain-fed cattle?)
Bon Appetit food services company (which manages the dining programs at both St. Olaf and Carleton colleges here in Northfield and relies heavily on local, sustainable producers), Niman Ranch beef, and Chipotle restaurants are highlighted as examples of how to take a different, healthier, more sustainable approach in large-scale food production. Our own nearby Thousand Hills Cattle Company is a premium source of grass-fed beef; you can find their meat at Just Food and other area co-ops, and I believe I even saw some at EconoFoods recently.

I encourage you to read the article, which concludes:
The industrial food system fills us up but leaves us empty — it's based on selective forgetting. But what we eat — how it's raised and how it gets to us — has consequences that can't be ignored any longer.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Checking in at the Feeder

Chickadees and house finches are the most common visitors to our seed feeders. These photos were taken through not-so-clear windows and the lighting isn't always ideal, but I like these views of our feeder friends.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Zucchini, Basil & Cherry Tomato Pizza

Behold an improvised homemade pizza with half-slices of zucchini, jewel-like slices of sweet Sun Gold tomatoes, and strips of green and purple basil, all from the garden. I brushed on a little olive oil over the top. I wasn't sure if the zucchini would release much moisture, so I didn't want to load it too thick, but it just roasted nicely in a 450 F. oven and wasn't too juicy at all. Next time I'll double the amount. It was awesome.
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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Summer's Bounty

We're halfway through the summer Eat Local Challenge, so in abbreviated form let me comment on some of my pleasures of the season:
  • A batch of "dilly beans" marinating in my fridge right now, made from string beans our backyard neighbor gave us from his garden, and dill from our own. I don't make enough to can these, but I follow Jane Brody's recipe for a batch big enough to enjoy as a side dish for several days.
  • Dinner tonight: 1000 Hills Cattle local, grass-fed beef hamburgers on bakery buns with slices of the first ripe slicing tomato from our garden, plus sweet, buttery corn on the cob from Grism's stand on Water Street
  • A dozen or so new Sun Gold cherry tomatoes ripen every day or so in the garden - extremely prolific, early to ripen, and utterly delicious
  • Enough zucchini from my two plants over the past two or three weeks that we have made zucchini-cheese bake, zucchini muffins, chocolate zucchini cake and oven-roasted zucchini "fries" (melt-in-your-mouth wonderful)
  • The ever-wonderful local tortilla chips (both yellow and blue corn varieties) from Whole Grain Milling Company in Welcome, Minn. A terrific addition to practically any occasion.
  • A mind-bogglingly enormous cabbage from a recent farmers' market made a nice big batch of Asian coleslaw, and we've still got some cabbage left over
  • Potato salad from local farmers' market potatoes
  • Cucumbers from my colleague's garden, plus some more of my own. I eat them many ways, but one favorite way is to chop them up and put them on top of a quesadilla that's first topped with good salsa, either homemade or Salsa Lisa (made in Minneapolis)
Things I still look forward to this summer: ripe cantaloupe (there's plenty around; I just haven't bought any yet); enough big ripe tomatoes to pile up on my kitchen counter and make lavish tomato sandwiches and fresh salsa with lime and cilantro; perhaps a blueberry-picking outing to the lovely Rush River Produce at Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, overlooking Lake Pepin (their website says that their midseason Nelson crop has failed, but they expect good picking from the Elliots in late August).

What are you enjoying eating this summer?

Birding Bloggers' Outing

On Saturday a group of birding and nature bloggers got together for a day of relaxed birdwatching and socializing. Wearing buttons that said "Birders who Blog, Tweet and Chirp," we spent the morning in the vicinity of Lowry Nature Center at Carver Park Reserve in Victoria, MN; lunched at Victoria House; spent the afternoon at Hyland Park Reserve in Bloomington; then met up with some other regular birding socializers for Birds and Beers at Merlin's Rest on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis.

The outing was inspired by the fact that Dawn and Jeff of Dawn's Bloggy Blog were traveling through the area. Dawn had been in on a couple of earlier "BwBTC" outings on the east coast, and our local bloggers were delighted to have an excuse to do the same. Lynne of Hasty Brook (in the foreground of the second photo) organized the day's schedule and locations, and brought coffee and treats to our morning rendezvous spot.

Other participants besides my husband Dave included Richard of At the Water, Mike and Lizette of Mike and Lizette's Travels and Thoughts, Virginia of Bees in the City (who tweeted the outing with hashtag #bbtc throughout the day), Ruthie of Nature Knitter, Sharon of Hellziggy (the bearer of the most massive camera lens I have ever seen), and birding-mentor-to-many Hap of New Hope (as he signs his insightful comments to our blogs). I've linked to these folks' blogs; several of them are also on Twitter and/or Chirptracker (a Twitter-like mini-blogging service for birdwatchers). This was the first time most of us had ever met in person.

Also, Roger of Minnesota Birdnerd (speaking at the center of the photo at left) was with us on and off throughout the day; he was doing bird banding at the Lowry Nature Center in the morning, told us great stories about banding and bird migration, popped in at lunch, and turned up again at Birds and Beers, where we had a interesting conversation about chimney swifts. The Birds and Beers group ended up splitting into two tables because of the size of the group, so we didn't get to interact too much with some of the regulars from that bunch.

These people were so nice! One of the best moments of the day was sitting around a picnic table before heading off to Birds and Beers, laughing about how nice it is to be with other people who get it - who don't bat an eye if you break off in the middle of a sentence because you just spotted something interesting; who find nature endlessly fascinating.

I didn't get any photos I'd consider really outstanding, but the bird photo on the left was a surprise. A volunteer from the Lowry Nature Center was holding a merlin outside under some trees. The lighting wasn't very good, but I tried taking some shots through the spotting scope. I forgot to turn off the flash (we were too far away for it to do any good), so the camera misgauged the lighting required and the initial photo was nearly black. I adjusted the fill light in Picasa and up came this extraordinary merlin head. It's not how you would expect a photo taken in daylight to look, but it's a keeper, in my book.

We spent about an hour along the edge of the pond shown in the photo with everyone on the dock. We saw families of wood ducks, hooded mergansers, and painted turtles, as well as a green heron, belted kingfishers, barn swallows, goldfinches in the thistles, a tiger swallowtail butterfly, black and white dragonflies (or something dragonfly-related), discarded dragonfly larvae exoskeletons, and more.

Further along a wooded trail, we saw a tiny green tree frog, which Virginia had no squeamishness about picking up. We noticed it seemed to have no right eye - there wasn't even a bulge there.

Click on any of the photos for a larger view, and visit my Picasa album for more photos of the day. I hope my photos aren't too out of alignment here; since there were so many I left-aligned them and tried to keep text running to the right, but my "preview" mode doesn't always match the final view on various browsers, so let me know if anything looks really out of whack.

It was great to meet everyone, and we agreed that this should become a regular event in our region. Let me know if you'd like to join us next time!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Surprise Lilies

Every year I forget about the surprise lilies, and every year up they pop and add a touch of unexpected grace to the jungle that is my garden by this point in the summer. Also known as naked ladies and spider lilies, they belong to the genus Lycoris; the most common version in our part of the country is Lycoris squamigera, which bears pink flowers.

They do have leaves: their strap-like foliage comes up in the spring, but it eventually withers and dies completely back, so that you forget that the plant was ever there.

Weeks later, usually around the beginning of August in southern Minnesota, the tall flower shoots emerge seemingly from nowhere. This year we even mowed the end of the bed where they are, so their leafless appearance is even more startling.

I took these photos on Saturday; all of the shoots seen above are now in full bloom. You can learn more about surprise lilies here.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Morning in the Garden After Rains

The harvest is really coming in well now. I have four good-sized zucchinis in my kitchen right now, including these two, and I picked my first cucumber today. I hadn't picked cherry tomatoes for a couple of days, and at least a pintful were ripe and ready for my helper and me this morning.

Yesterday morning's and last night's heavy rainfalls, much needed this year, caused about some of the ripest Sun Golds to split. The delicious Sun Golds have a thin skin, which probably accounts for it. I also have a red grape variety, which doesn't seem as susceptible. I'll wash the split ones well and use them quickly so they don't start to rot. (We're thinking of gazpacho.) The usual advice for avoiding split tomatoes is to water evenly, but some varieties are more vulnerable to splitting than others.

It didn't help that I set the basket down on the grass while examining the cucumbers, and then stepped backward onto it. Squelch! Only a couple got really squashed, though.

I haven't yet picked a yellow squash, but maybe tomorrow. What a profusion of blossoms.

We noticed a couple of bumblebees, an unidentified creature that gave the impression of a large bee with very long legs, an ant with wings (my son saw that one; I didn't), a Monarch butterfly on the joe-pye weed (above) , and a soldier beetle on my sage plant (below).

I looked up the soldier beetle in Rodale's Color Handbook of Garden Insects, as I didn't recognize it. It's also known as Pennsylvania leather-wing (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus). This beneficial garden insect feeds on grasshopper eggs, cucumber beetles, and various caterpillars. One writer in the New York Times said it "annoys me with its habit of mating and then dying in the flowers. It seems to prefer the everlastings, and I find its sere remains (the color holds beautifully) when I arrange the statice for winter bouquets."
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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Tall Grasses on a Perfect Evening

Tuesday night was a perfect evening here in southern Minnesota. We were walking around some local ponds looking for the green herons we'd photographed a couple of days earlier in dimmer light, hoping for a shot at some better pictures. The sun shone low and golden on the wildflowers and tall grasses. It was pleasantly warm, with a light breeze. Barn swallows were skimming the surface of the water and darting over the nearby rooftops. Goldfinches were flying here and there in their undulating way and pausing to snack in an area of tall thistles. An occasional killdeer was standing or running along the mudflats at the edge of the drought-lowered ponds. We saw what we think were a mother and juvenile wood duck in a grassy channel through a sea of cattails. A green heron flew into the cattails, but none made themselves available to photograph. Butterflies flitted. We heard the shouts and laughter of children playing. There were no mosquitoes. It was, simply, perfect.

To see more skies from around the world, visit Skywatch Friday.

Interested in Local Food/Sustainable Ag? See "Fresh" Aug. 7

Received from Just Food Co-op (Full disclosure: Just Food is currently a client in my professional life, which I usually keep separate from this blog. Regular readers of Penelopedia will know that my support for the co-op and issues surrounding local food and sustainable agriculture long pre-dates any professional relationship with Just Food.)

“Fresh” Showing for One Night Only in Northfield

Food has been in the news a lot lately, from problems with our food system to the struggles of farmers. A new film called FRESH celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are reinventing our food system. Forging healthier, sustainable alternatives, they offer a practical vision of our food and our planet’s future. FRESH addresses an ethos that has been sweeping the nation and is a call to action America has been waiting for.

Just Food Co-op, the Northfield Arts Guild, and the Cannon River Sustainable Farming Association Chapter will be showing the film “Fresh” at the Northfield Arts Guild Theater at 411 West 3rd Street in Northfield on Friday, August 7 at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m. Please purchase your tickets in advance at Just Food Co-op to guarantee a seat).

The film will be followed by a lively panel discussion, moderated by local CSA farmer John Ostgarden. Panelists are Atina Diffley (Consultant, Organic FarmingWorks, and former farmer and co-founder of Gardens of Eagan), Matthew Fogarty (Executive Chef for Bon Appetit at St Olaf College. His crew serves 32,000 meals per week while fulfilling Bon Appetit's mission to provide fresh food grown sustainably, and purchased locally whenever possible), and Erica Zweifel (Northfield City Council Member, Third Ward). Tickets are $10 and are available at Just Food Co-op (516 Water St S, Northfield) or online at Seating is limited, and we expect to sell out, so get your tickets early!

Producer Ana Joanes is a Swiss-born documentary filmmaker whose work addresses pressing social issues through character-driven narratives.

After traveling internationally to study the environmental and cultural impacts of globalization, she graduated from Columbia Law School in May 2000, awarded as a Stone Scholar and Human Rights Fellow. Thereafter, Ana created Reel Youth, a video production program for youth coming out of detention. In 2003, Ana and her friend Andrew Unger produced Generation Meds, a documentary exploring our fears and misgivings about mental illness and medication. FRESH is Ana’s second feature documentary.

Among several main characters, FRESH features:

Will Allen - 6ft 7” former professional basketball player Will Allen is now one of the most influential leaders of the food security & urban farming movement. His farm and not-for-profit, Growing Power, have trained and inspired people in every corner of the US to start growing food sustainably. This man and his organization go beyond growing food. They provide a platform for people to share knowledge and form relationships in order to develop alternatives to the industrial food system.
Joel Salatin- world-famous sustainable farmer and entrepreneur, made famous by Michael Pollan (also in the movie) - author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Joel Salatin writes in his website that he is “in the redemption business: healing the land, healing the food, healing the economy, and healing the culture.” By closely observing nature, Joel created a rotational grazing system that not only allows the land to heal but also allows the animals to behave the way the were meant to – as in expressing their “chicken-ness” or “pig-ness”, as Joel would say.
David Ball -supermarket owner, challenging our Wal-Mart dominated economy. With the rise of Wal-Mart and other big chains, David Ball saw his family-run supermarket dying, along with a once-thriving local farm community. So he reinvented his business, partnering with area farmers to sell locally-grown food and specialty food products at an affordable price. His plan has brought the local economy back to life.

FRESH empowers us to realize that our individual actions in fact do matter. Throughout the film we encounter the most inspiring people, ideas, and initiatives around the US. And thus, FRESH showcases real people first and foremost, connecting audiences not with facts and figures or apocalyptic policy analysis, but with personal stories of change.

Blog Milestone

As I did my usual morning check-in on my blog, I noticed that by chance my visit had triggered the hit-counter to register 25,000. This isn't an accurate count of visits to the site, as it records every page-view anywhere on the site, including my own. Still, because we have ten fingers and so tend to find multiples of ten compelling, 25,000 still seems a significant milestone. Thanks for all who have visited, and especially to my modest cadre of regular readers. Penelopedia has been one of the most enjoyable and meaningful things I've ever done. It's inspired and enabled me to learn a lot in the interest of being accurate here, and it's given me an ongoing reason to get out there and notice things. Because that's essentially what this blog is all about: the excitement to be found in noticing the world around us.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Young Barn Swallow

This young barn swallow sat for a few moments at the edge of a roof this afternoon. We were able to take some photos through the spotting scope from just a few yards away. I'm amazed at the texture of the downy feathers visible at this close range, as well as their lovely apricot color.

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Monday, August 3, 2009

Eat Local Anniversary Dinner

This delicious and colorful mixture of summer vegetables with shrimp, served over pasta, made up our mostly-local dinner last night. It was our wedding anniversary - one year ago Dave and I were married on the deck of our dear friends Sarah and Bob's house in the nearby countryside. Tonight I made a recipe from a book called Serving Up the Harvest, by Andrea Chesman, which I bought in Duluth while we were on our honeymoon, so that seems fitting. It's a sautée of zucchini and yellow squash (from my garden and the farmer's market), yellow and red tomatoes (from the co-op and farmer's market), a yellow Hungarian pepper (from the garden), white wine, saffron, garlic, and fresh basil (from the garden). Oh, and yes, some shrimp out of the back of the freezer, slightly freezer-burned. (My approach to Eat Local challenges is always: if it's in my house already, it counts as local!) Fresher shrimp would certainly have been better, but this was really good anyway! The photo shows the final view in the skillet before the sauce was tossed with pasta shells.
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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Green Herons

This green heron, along with two others we saw nearby this evening, was hanging about at the mudflats next to one of the marshy ponds east of the soccer fields in southeastern Northfield. We walked there last night and saw two of these herons; we came this evening with camera and spotting scope, but it was bit too late for optimal lighting. We'll have to try again during full daylight, but they may be shyer then.

Still, you can get a nice idea of the striking coloring and (in the top photo) the crest of this smaller (16-22") relative of the great blue heron we are more used to seeing. Green herons can be found throughout almost all of Minnesota during the summer, but their low profile and somewhat secretive habits tend not to make them an everyday sight. These birds we saw today and yesterday make up only about the third green heron sighting I've ever had.

Green herons are known to use bait to catch fish, dropping insects, twigs and other items onto the water to attract a nibble. Look at the size of that beak!

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