Spring Fever

I’ve been so busy enjoying spring that I forgot to write on the Vernal Equinox! Now the days are longer than the nights and will continue lengthening until the Summer Solstice (June 21). The sun’s path also continues to get higher in the sky (which also peaks on the Summer Solstice).

Lock & DamI’ve been seeking out all things spring, with mixed luck. I’ve regularly been checking Minnehaha Park for bluebirds (this is usually the first place I see them each year) but no luck so far. Yesterday we went to Lock & Dam #1 and I saw my first Turkey Vulture of the year. I didn’t quite have that on my radar yet (I was looking for ducks) so I was pleased.

On the way to Cokato today I saw several Red-Winged Blackbirds, that quintessential harbinger of spring. Nothing says spring marsh so loudly as the conk-la-ree! call of the Red-Winged Blackbird. I had been checking the duck pond regularly for these early arrivals, but perhaps the urban variety are laggards.

Pied BilledBirding by car is not the most fruitful method, as there are only so many birds you can recognize at 60 miles an hour. Happily, Pied-Billed Grebes are one of those birds, and I saw two of them riding low in the water in one of the many large ponds marking the roadscape of Highway 12. Pied-Billeds are our most common grebe, and they are cute as a button. A happy-making bird.

The only other notable sighting on the road was a Red-Tailed Hawk and a singular goose. I tried really hard to make that singular goose into a Snow Goose or a Greater White-Fronted Goose. It was cloudy and gray, the lighting was bad. It didn’t look EXACTLY like a Canada Goose, so one always goes in search of a more interesting alternative. But in the end, I couldn’t really imagine that it was anything other than the ubiquitous Canada Goose.

I’m still checking for the bluebirds. Also expected in the next week or two: scaups and coots, Great Blue Herons, Double-Crested Cormorants, Sandhill Cranes, and lots of ducks.

chimmunkOutside of bird world: I saw my first chipmunk of the season a week or so ago. We have a couple of resident chipmunks (much to my dismay they are little vacuum cleaners on the bird trays and they are very agile with climbing) but I haven’t caught sight of either of them yet. Nor have I seen the vole (though I don’t usually expect to unless I am spending time outside paying attention but not paying attention). The lilacs have buds and the rhubarb is still emerging (and I keep piling the leaves back on top to keep it warm overnight). Some trees have buds.

The sun is higher in the sky.

March Nature Happenings

We have had unseasonably warm weather here over the last week, feeling very much like spring. My rhubarb has emerged from the ground! Just little nubbins, but for sure a sign of the beginning of the end of winter.

This is the time of year when I start to get really antsy. I want to go birding, I want to plant my garden, I want the warblers to migrate, but nature has its own timetable. I did a little research to find out what I might reasonably expect in March, and while warblers aren’t on the list, there are a number of things to enjoy as spring unfolds.

squirrelMost mammals are either mating, gestating, or giving birth in March. Gray squirrels have their first litter in March, and red foxes have kits in late March to early April. (I am hearing scritching in my walls again and fear the squirrels have returned just in time to have a litter. Arghhh!)

Male grouse begin drumming.

Chipmunks come out of hibernation, and the male sings at the den entrance hoping to entice a female mate.

RWBBRobins and redwing blackbirds return. (Most Minnesota robins migrate for the winter, though a small percentage overwinter. I was lucky enough to have an overwintering flock nearby, so saw robins throughout the winter this year.)

Trumpeter swans also return in March, as do wood ducks (I saw my first wood duck just a few days ago).

NorthernSaw-whetOwl-Vyn_081210_0001Saw-whet owls return and nest from mid-March through April. Sometimes you can hear their call at night—a somewhat monotonous toot-toot-toot-toot. (I’ve never heard this and I can’t imagine an owl sounding monotonous, but that is how it is described.) They stop calling in May, so this is the time to go for night walks with your ears on. You may also hear a great-horned owl or a barred owl. Each has its own distinctive call, and they are quite easy to tell apart.

You’ll also hear a lot more birdsong in the early morning. Not only are birds returning, the overwintering birds are also entering breeding season and singing their mating calls. The cardinals have been particularly vocal for the last couple weeks.

eaglesEagles begin their courtship flights in March. Keep your eye on the sky for pairs of eagles. If you’re lucky, you may see talon clasping: Usually in a territorial dispute, eagles in flight lock talons and tumble down, often parting barely before landfall. I have never seen talon clasping, though I have seen eagles doing some fancy courtship flying.

Blue jays are also courting, and you may see a male jay feeding a female. Jays aren’t the only birds to display this behavior. I’ve seen cardinals feeding each other as well.

Other birds returning that may be seen in March: chipping sparrow, killdeer, broad-winged hawk, osprey, blue bird, and mourning dove. Most years I hear the mourning dove before I see it, but this year, I saw a bird skulking under a tree, and there was my first mourning dove of the season.

mourning cloakHere is the potential March sighting that most surprised me: the mourning cloak butterfly. Apparently, these butterflies overwinter in their adult stage, hibernating in loose bark, hollow logs, and sometimes unheated buildings. If the temperature gets above 50℉., you might see them sunning with open wings and flying about looking for food. I have been on the lookout but have not spied one yet.

Maple sap is flowing and harvesters are tapping maple trees (including red squirrels!). This is also the time to go out hunting pussy willows if you are looking for a touch of spring to bring inside the house. If it’s a warm day, you may also see honeybees leaving their hives on short cleansing flights.

westernchorus2And at last, towards the end of the month, you may hear western chorus frogs calling. I’ve never seen one of these frogs, but they have very tiny bodies and very large voices.

Spring is a wonderful time to awaken the senses. You see the birds (though sometimes you only hear them). You hear the frogs and if you are lucky you will see one. The air starts to smell different, kind of like the inverse of fall. Every day, a new sensory experience. Every day a new sight. The gifts of spring!

Eastern Screech-Owl: New Life Bird

2easternscreechowlIt isn’t often you add a life bird to your list without leaving the house. It’s even rarer to add when you don’t even see it, but that’s what happened to me last night.

Around 4:00 in the morning we heard the loudest shrieky sound. Not a person. Not cats. I thought it was maybe a rabbit screaming (I have never heard a rabbit scream but I know they do and I know we have rabbits). It went on for quite a long time. We looked out the windows, but could see nothing. And as I thought about this long continuing screechy sound, I wondered if it might possibly be an Eastern Screech-Owl.

So I turned on the computer and went to allaboutbirds.com (Cornell Lab of Ornithology), to check out the call of the screech owl. The Cornell Lab has a great website, usually with a variety of examples of a given bird’s calls, songs, and (in this case) screeches. If you go to the link and listen to the calls of the screech owl, scroll down to the one labeled “Screech and chuckle rattle.”

Yes! Eastern Screech-Owl it was, my first!

This is the second owl I have on my yard list (the other being a Barred Owl which I also heard but didn’t see and identified by sound on the computer). Both owls stayed around a long time (as in maybe 15-20 minutes) or maybe time slows down when owls call. The screech owl was still screeching when I found the match at Cornell, so I quick put on boots and a coat, grabbed my binoculars, and went outside. I heard it, but it was now further away—maybe at the far end of the block. I thought of chasing after it—it was a beautiful temperate (for Minneapolis) night—but instead I stood and watched the moon for awhile, hoping the owl would come back.

But I heard nothing more.

And then I noticed a raccoon walking along the top of the fence. It froze when it saw me,raccoon right by the woodpecker tree. We stared at each other awhile and had a brief one-way conversation. I started looking around again—at the moon and all the other fine sights a night presents, and forgot about the raccoon. Such a beautiful night. Why don’t I always get up at 4:00 in the morning? Then the raccoon jumped to the tree and I was startled and let out my own small screech. I think we both surprised each other because the raccoon quickly scrambled up the tree to get further away from the likes of me.

What a lovely unexpected gift: a life bird in the middle of the night and a fine little outside adventure.

Reading by Number

xviThe reading theme for March is number. The first number book I finished was XVI by Julia Karr, a YA dystopian novel that I devoured in two days. While I had a quarrel or two with the logic in a couple of places, the morning after finishing it I wondered if there might be a sequel. There is, and I just picked it up from the library today. I’ll probably read it as soon as I finish The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain.

SartonI’m about halfway through At Seventy, by May Sarton. I’m loving it (and will be very surprised if it doesn’t end up in the top five for favorite books of the year). May Sarton makes me look forward to being old. She says, “This is the best time of my life. I love being old. . . . I am more myself than I have ever been. There is less conflict. I am happier, more balanced, and . . . better able to use my powers.” And a few pages later:

I am far better able to cope at seventy than I was at fifty. I think that is partly because I have learned to glide instead of to force myself at moments of tension. . .  I realize that seventy must seem extremely old to my young friends, but I actually feel much younger than I did when I wrote The House by the Sea six years ago. . . And that, as far as I can see, is because I live more completely in the moment these days, am not as anxious about the future.”

I love Sarton’s writing. Her words sing—beautiful descriptive prose so vivid you can see her flowers and fields of grass and nearly smell the marsh. She also brushes into politics and religion, and I like those bits especially much.

ChurchillAlso in the world of numbers, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill: A Brief Account of a Long Life, by Gretchen Rubin. I don’t know much about Winston Churchill, and what better way to learn than read a book written by someone who has read tons of Churchill biographies as well as his own books (Churchill himself was a quite prolific author). It’s a Churchill prism: Churchill the painter, Churchill as leader, Churchill’s desire for fame, Churchill as father, Churchill the drinker, Churchill in photographs, Churchill the imperialist, Churchill and Hitler. More and more. Fascinating.

I had so many number books on my poetry shelf that I decided to exclude number as adjective (e.g., first, second). There are a scad ofNew numbers poetry books with “one” in the title, so I set them off in their own little pile. I’ve just finished New Numbers by Josie Kearns. Next up, A Thousand Mornings, by Mary Oliver. (Other fun titles: Woman at Mile Zero, Seven-Star Bird, 19 Varieties of Gazelle, 48 Questions, Ninety-five Nights of Listening.)

Numbers. A rich reading area. It also occurs I could reread the book of Numbers in the Bible and I think I may do. It almost feels like an imperative.

February Reprise

snowFebruary was about books, cooking, and a bit of music. February was not about winter, as Minneapolis has had little snow to speak of this year. Many places have had more than their fair share of snow this year. I wish we could take some of it off their hands!

AckermanI read 19 books in February, almost evenly divided between poetry (7), fiction (6), and nonfiction (6). The standout book for the month was One Hundred Names for Love, by Diane Ackerman. It’s a memoir recounting the years following her partner’s (author Paul West) stroke—the slow but steady improvement; the challenges in being a caretaker (on many levels); and also the everyday joys and frustrations encountered when you find yourself all of a sudden in a completely different life. I learned so much about strokes and the potential for regaining lost skills and language from this book that I would recommend it to anyone who knows anyone that’s had a stroke. It is also a love story in the finest and truest sense.

Appropriately enough, the reading theme for February was love. It was a fine theme (particularly for fiction) and I found plenty of books on my shelves that fit the bill. The biggest reading disappointment of the month was Haruki Murakami’s The Strange strangeLibrary. I generally love Murakami’s fiction and was totally looking forward to this short, illustrated book. The anticipation was the best part. The book itself was done in 30 minutes (my reading of it, not the writing of it!) which is not a problem, except that my reflection upon completing the book was something along the lines of “well that’s 30 minutes that I’ll never get back.” In contrast, when I finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I wanted to turn back time so that I could read it all over again for the first time. Rereads are nice, but there’s nothing like reading a book that you truly love for the first time.

But by all means, give The Strange Library a go. (I wouldn’t start here if you’ve never read Murakami though.) I’d love to hear from someone who read it and loved it!

I did a ton of cooking in February and learned a lot about braising. So far I’ve done a beef brisket (good), Boston butt (pork shoulder, very good), and next up are turkey legs. There was a recent article in the Star Tribune about braising vegetables, so I might try that after the turkey. I am starting to have Dutch oven greed. I want to have two Dutch ovens so that I can braise two things at once!

I did a goodly bit of playing my clarinet in February too. After figuring out that I simply couldn’t remember all the notes, I realized I could check out instruction books from the library, so I’m working my way through Level 1. It’s a lot of fun, and I’ve learned enough notes that I can play several (short) songs now. Mostly they are silly songs and a large number of Christmas songs, but I’ve found a couple that I will continue to work on to improve my technique.

I’m having trouble with the fingering on the highest and lowest notes. I can’t figure out if I’m reading the chart wrong or if I’m just doing it wrong, or if there’s something wrong with my clarinet. I wish my memory would jog a little bit!

I’ve also continued with the haiku project which has now been running for well over a year. Here are a couple of my favorites from February:

sun shining on snowcardinals
eight cardinals in the dogwoods
winter sentinels

everything’s slippery
you are wet like a woman
such a naughty pear

And of course President Obama continues to receive his weekly missives—I sent him postcard #35 last week.

One other thing: We discovered a new television series (new to us) and have become rather obsessed with it: Last Tango in Halifax. I got the first two seasons from the library, and we stayed up until 3:00 in the morning watching episode after episode. They are currently filming Season 4 in England, but we’re still waiting on Season 3 here in the States. Anticipation!