Saturday, December 26, 2009

Intrepid Squirrel

A brave squirrel came face-to-face with our cats today, albeit with a pane of glass between them. He spent several minutes looking through our front window, in between athletic feats that enabled him to snack for a while at both of our birdfeeders.

What had been a supposedly squirrel-proof feeder set-up proved no match for Stalwart Squirrel, now that we have more than a foot of snow on the ground and a handy ornamental deer for a launching pad. We had some amusing sights of him sliding down the pole and slipping off the squirrel-cone, but I expect it was no laughing matter for a hungry squirrel. I certainly don't mind sharing the bird food under these conditions.

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Christmas Snowstorm: Plop, drizzle, fizzle

Well, instead of another 8-10 inches of snow we got two or three inches of wet snow Thursday night and Friday morning, and a fair amount of drizzle and rain over the remainder of the day. The roads stayed mostly wet, though Dave did have a rather arduous drive on Highway 19 out to the interstate early yesterday morning to meet the rest of us at a family homestead in the south metro. We drove into St. Paul for delicious meals both Thursday evening and Friday afternoon and back home to Northfield in the early evening, the car thermometer reading between 37 and 34 degrees, with never a white-knuckle moment.

We dug out the very heavy wet snow from the driveway last night -- not much in inches, but a lot in weight -- but our muscles are becoming somewhat accustomed to this shoveling business lately and didn't complain too badly. (I asked my son, age 10, to help with the shoveling, but he had tossed his shovel down somewhere in the snow a couple of days ago and it was covered up and no longer to be found.) This morning, judging from the sounds made by the dog's feet when she went outside, everything has hardened to a crunchy crispness, so I'm glad we got the shoveling done.

Speaking of animals walking in the snow, on Thursday morning I found these tracks by our front door. Although I wish they were something wild and exotic, I must conclude* that they are tracks of a domestic cat. Ah well.

*Here is the animal track chart I've referred to before, provided by the Ohio DNR.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Snowstorm: Driveway Blues

A few more photos -- the pile at the end of the driveway after the first wave of snow. We worked for a couple of hours to get one side free of the heavy, packed snow (oh, our aching backs and elbows! -- and this was after someone had already cleared an opening several feet side on that side of the driveway for us early this morning) and get the mailbox clear enough for the mail truck to drive up to it. Then our neighbor who has a huge two-stage snowblower did the whole other side in about 10 minutes and promised to help with the next wave as well. We appreciate the neighborly kindness!

The snowplow heap was two to three feet deep. [Addendum: as you can perhaps see in this photo, the reason the piles are so high is because we live on a circle that gets completely cleared, so what ends up at the curb is generally much higher than you'd see on a straight road.]

The blade of the snow shovel is at least 10" high - maybe closer to 12". That's a heap o' snow!

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Christmas Snowstorm: First Wave

Here are some photos taken around 8 a.m. Thursday, Christmas Eve, after the first wave of heavy snow overnight. Things are pretty calm right now, but more heavy snow is expected later today and into Christmas Day. Judging from the "stick the snow shovel into the snow on the driveway and measure it" method, we already got a good 8" or more since our snow showers began mid-afternoon yesterday. I haven't noticed a single bird yet. Some kind soul seems to have removed the worst of the bottom-of-the-driveway snowplow pile for us; we are truly grateful!

Chairs on the deck that we never got around to bringing in. They had some snow on from before, of course.

Young evergreen in picture-postcard mode.

Birdfeeders with ornamental deer below almost buried. For comparison, see snow levels on Sunday, below.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

First Red-breasted Nuthatch at the Feeders

Red-breasted nuthatch is visible on tube feeder (click for larger view)

Today the first red-breasted nuthatch we've seen here showed up several times at our tube feeder. We quite often see the larger white-breasted nuthatch, which is a year-round resident in almost the entire eastern United States, but the adorable little red-breasted is an irregular winter-only resident in southern Minnesota and indeed most of the U.S. There is another nuthatch, the brown-headed, which lives in the southern U.S.

Cropped version of same photo

The red-breasted has a distinctive black and white stripe over the eyes and, yes, a ruddy-tan breast. The very short tail and the strong, woodpecker-like beak are other telltales signs you are looking at a nuthatch. Nuthatches can often been seen walking down branches or tree trunks head-first; if you see a bird doing this, chances are very good it's a nuthatch. I always enjoy seeing them.
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Christmas Bird Count

Yesterday Dave and I spent the morning driving the back roads east and west of Northfield, counting birds. We were participating in our first Christmas Bird Count (CBC) -- an annual Audubon Society event that dates back to 1900, in the early years of the conservation movement, when it was proposed as an alternative to a competitive Christmas hunting tradition. Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this longest-running wildlife census to assess the health and changing distributions of bird populations and to help guide conservation action.

Some CBC participants stay home and keep track of the birds they see in their yards; some walk through neighborhoods or through parks or nature trails; others, like us, cover a larger outlying area by car, getting out from time to time at promising spots like open water, thickets of trees, and so on. We drove quite slowly where it was safe to do so, pulling over from time to time to peer into fields or trees and to listen for birdcalls.

The countryside is divided into official
CBC record-keeping circles. Northfield is on the northern edge of the circle that includes Faribault on the southern edge and is called the Faribault circle. The top slice of the circle, including Northfield, is Area 8. Dave and I were assigned the two outer curved wings of that slice, with the town of Northfield itself and the nature areas of the two colleges being covered by plenty of other volunteers.

I took the photo below early in the outing, showing the division between two farm fields looking north from a road east of Northfield. The temperature was around 20 F. with quite a brisk wind blowing from the north. In terrain like this in the east section of our territory we saw several roadside flocks of dark-eyed juncoes and house sparrows, a dozen ring-necked pheasants gleaning corn from a harvested field, and -- almost invisible out in a field blending in with the clods of soil, and only spotted because we saw movement -- four horned larks, America's only true native lark (meadowlarks are actually in the same family as New World blackbirds and orioles) . I think this was a "life bird" (first time spotted) for me.

To the west of Northfield, we covered the area along Highway 1 to a point just west of I-35, but mostly east of the interstate and north of 1 but south of Highway 19. Here we found a greater variety of habitat, including some wooded and marshy areas. We saw a kestrel on a wire overhead, a bald eagle soaring close enough that we could hear its distinctive, high-pitched cry, and a flock of common redpolls -- these actually a life bird for Dave despite his many years of birdwatching; we are near the southern limit of their winter grounds, and they don't appear here consistently, though I remember having them at my feeder in Northfield a number of years ago. He had not known them to visit his feeders when he lived in Minneapolis.

The magnificent old oak tree below was just off a winding section of one of the north-south roads on the west side, across the road from more oaks and conifers where several downy woodpeckers were active and easily visible.

Here we were actually witnesses to a minor collision, as a local resident backed his pickup truck out of his driveway into the front bumper of an oncoming vehicle, which had stopped as it saw the truck coming and was even blowing its horn. They seemed to know each other and were quickly laughing about it, so we went on our way. By that time the morning was nearly over and we were starting to get stiff necks from craning to spot birds while driving, and tired eyes from a lot of binocular use.

We were invited back to the circle coordinator, Gene Bauer's, house for lunch, where we enjoyed some soup, compared notes with other volunteers, whom we had met at breakfast before we all set out, and filled in our official reporting forms. These included counts of each species identified, the miles driven or walked, and the time spent observing. Tracking the latter two items helps with the interpretation of data -- if walkers spent four hours covering two miles
on foot through a residential neighborhood, their count numbers will have a different interpretation than ours, where we spent about four hours covering 33 miles of mostly open countryside by car and clearly couldn't look with detail into every tree and field we passed.

Other birds we recorded seeing or hearing during the morning included crows, pigeons, blue jays, cardinals, goldfinches in drab winter plumage, black-capped chickadees, white-breasted and one red-breasted nuthatch, a hairy and a red-bellied woodpecker, and two red-tailed hawks. No wild turkeys, which surprised me a little, and only the one group of pheasants.

We enjoyed the morning's birdwatching, meeting some birdwatchers we hadn't known before, and the feeling that we were contributing to a useful body of data. I imagine this will be a new Christmas-season tradition for us.

Merry Christmas, and a joyous new year to all.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Blizzard Time-Lapse Video

Northfield folks may have already seen this time-lapse video of the December 8-9 blizzard set up by Adam Gurno and Tim Freeland, but it certainly deserves a wider audience. Looking out over our town square, the blizzard-cam captured two days and a night in which 9.5 inches of snow fell, high winds developed, the town Christmas tree blew over, streets were plowed and got snow-covered again, and eventually the window through which the camera was pointing frosted over as arctic cold blew in following the snowstorm.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Snow Day

We had eight inches or more of snow on the ground as of about 7 a.m., and more snow is coming down steadily. The winds seemingly have been coming from all directions -- I guess that's why they call it a blizzard. Snow piled up in the windows of both the north and south sides of the house, there was also evidence of a strong east-west movement, and snow was driven in under the somewhat sheltered north-facing porch door where the dog goes in and out (see photos below) .

South-facing window with snow piled up -- note also several inches of snow accumulation in the caged birdfeeder.

Snow blown under the back door of the three-season porch from the north and/or east -- door faces north but is sheltered from the west.

This last photo would indicate the wind blowing strongly from the west or east (probably east, looking at the snow patterns), scouring tracks on our deck. Kitten Orion's reflection made it into the photo; he is of course very curious about all of this.

I took a brief video showing the wind blowing the birdfeeders around a couple of hours ago, but You Tube still hasn't finished processing it (yesterday I uploaded the video of Orion climbing the laundry drying rack and they had it ready in about three minutes -- it's hard to figure why the difference). I'll post it here when it's ready.

Addendum: here is the brief video. Nothing too exciting -- but if you expand the view to fill your screen you'll see the snow as well as the swaying birdfeeders.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Kitten Bliss

Here is our new little guy, Orion, on the right, sleeping soundly with his head on our new little girl Amber's side. Being slender and not very thick-haired, he isn't as well insulated as the other cats in the household and loves to sleep next to one or another of them. Even the senior cat of the house, Jeeves (photo at left), has taken to him and allows himself to be licked and snuggled next to. Jeeves, who is 11 or 12, unfortunately is noticeably "not himself" this week, clearly uncomfortable and depressed. A visit to the vet ruled some things out but didn't come up with a decisive diagnosis. So we're worried about that and hope the big guy perks up again soon.

Below is a short video of Orion scrambling up the rungs of the indoor laundry rack, a spot he recently discovered he likes.