The Birds Of Winter

I visited Sax Zim Bog (northern Minnesota) this weekend, looking for the winter birds that can be found especially here. Sax Zim is most famous for owls—both the great gray owl and the northern hawk owl are frequently sighted. While most (but not all) of my trips to Sax Zim have included owl sightings, that was not in the cards for this weekend.

A small disappointment, but still. Lots of other birds out there.

red_breasted_nuthatch_7I added more than a dozen birds to my year list. Northern Minnesota specialties included the pine grosbeak (several flocks in different locations), red-breasted nuthatch (at least 20), common raven (lots), northern shrike (at least four—most often seen at the very tippy top of trees), boreal chickadee (which was heard but not seen), common redpoll, gray jay (also called a whiskey jack), and black-billed magpie.

bald_eagle_adult2I also saw my first bald eagles of the year—four, I think. They are pretty common in Minnesota, but I never fail to find them beautiful and majestic. Also new to the 2017 list: pine siskin, purple finch, herring gull, common goldeneye (a duck), and broad-winged hawk.

Over the course of the day, we noticed a lot more diversity among birders than we usually see. Mostly the birders we encounter (in these areas that are specifically noted for birds) are white and middle- to rather old-aged. But on this Sax Zim visit, while we didn’t encounter very many people at all, two of them were East Indian (they told us about the marten that had been seen—not a bird, but still, how fun to see a marten, which I have never seen). They also told us of the great gray owl which they had seen at 7 that morning (when we were just leaving Minneapolis). One of the other rare birder sightings was an African American. Yay!

bb_magpie_mikewisnickiAnd especially encouraging to me was a group of young people—early 20s maybe—seriously birding the bog. There were six of them, traveling in two cars. On one stretch of road we hopscotched a bit, and kept tabs on each other. They pointed out the magpies. We pointed out the gray jays. We all appreciated the ravens.

These young people in the bog, so clearly enjoying themselves and loving this setting, not just on a lark, but clearly into the birds.

It fills me with hope.

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April Reprise

The rhubarb is ready to pick. The lilacs are starting to bloom. The catnip is a major personality in the herb garden, and the lemon balm is most decidedly coming back this year (last year was pretty iffy). Both sage plants are in full green and growing, and the raspberries seem intent on marching through the yard. I confess I cannot stop them. I will happily take a detour to allow the rampant raspberry.

Bookishly, I read 10 books in April. Another month heavy on nonfiction (5 of 10; 3 fiction; 2 poetry). The book I loved most was Plant Dreaming Deep, by May Sarton (memoir). I’ve read several of Sarton’s journals in higgledy-piggledy order, but this is a memoir and a prelude to the journals. I’m hoping to read all of them (in order) in the next year or so. Sometimes things call, and these books are calling to me.

My major reading accomplishment, though, was finishing The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Thank goodness I was reading this with a couple of friends, or I doubt I would have made it to the end. It’s about Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, as well as the journalists of the time (and most notably Ida Tarbell). I certainly learned a lot reading it, but I wasn’t as engaged as I have been with some of her earlier works (most notably Team of Rivals, featuring Abraham Lincoln). We all heaved a sigh of relief at our last discussion and decided to stay away from books with political themes for the foreseeable future.

One of the best things about April is the ongoing influx of migrating birds. I added 30 birds to my year list, including a variety of ducks, but also Eastern Bluebird, Golden Eagle, Pileated Woodpecker, Great-Horned Owl, and American Pelican. Of these, both the pileated and the pelican were seen from my yard, giving me a fairly respectable yard list this year. The pelicans were not new to my yard list, but this is the first time I have seen so many. They were kettling high in the sky—I only ran across them because I was scanning treetops with my binoculars and there they were. My other notable sighting for the month was a Belted Kingfisher. These are not uncommon in Minnesota, but I saw not a single one last year, so I was exceedingly pleased to see one a couple weeks ago, and not far from my house at that!

In the herb world, a few weeks ago my herbal friend in California sent me a hot rub that was so effective on the arthritis in my foot that I decided to have a go at making my own Minnesota version. It includes hops, chamomile, rosemary, cayenne, and turmeric. Half is macerating in grapeseed oil and half in canola oil. I am just starting to experiment with different carrier oils (up until now, I’ve used olive oil almost exclusively). It won’t be ready to decant for a couple of weeks, and in the meantime I decided to try another version, with minced ginger (along with chamomile, cayenne, and turmeric) and this went in olive oil. I will have much to compare and contrast in a month or so. Warning: If you make your own version of this, do wash your hands immediately after application and keep away from eyes and sensitive tissues. The cayenne can cause serious discomfort!

Cooking was not a high priority in April but I did have one quite excellent cooking experience. I was at a neighborhood restaurant and noticed orzo-tangelo-thyme salad on the menu. It looked delicious and I decided to try making it at home—it seemed so simple. And it was! Take some cooked orzo, add some zest from a tangelo (I couldn’t find a tangelo so I used a tangerine)—enough to add some pretty color but not to overwhelm. Add as much juice from the tangelo as you like to the salad, until it reaches a pleasing consistency. (I only used a cup of cooked orzo, and added the juice of half a tangerine—next time I will make a much larger batch!) Add fresh chopped thyme.

(Note: If chopping fresh herbs stymies you because the herbs always bend instead of getting cut by the knife, you probably need a sharper knife. I had completely given up on chopping fresh herbs with a knife and tore them up by hand for years, until a few months ago I invested in a fairly decent and small chef’s knife. The smaller knife fits better in my hand, and whether it’s the control or the sharpness of the knife, when I tried chopping the fresh thyme with this knife, it was like magic.)

Add enough thyme so the salad has a nice mix of orange and green. Taste, of course, and add more thyme as desired. Mix all together and serve with pretty much anything. It worked equally well with pork roast and sausages, and also makes a fine light lunch on a hot day.

My haiku postcard project continues. April highlights:

the nice sunny day
turns into a short blizzard
April’s lion side

not a house sparrow
skittering in the dogwoods
white-throated sparrow!

Plus the occasional tanka:

such a loud drumming
pileated woodpecker
I couldn’t find it
until it flew from the tree
so big yet so elusive

Happy reading, happy birding, happy spring. Is there a better time to be alive?

An Excellent Birding Day

I went out with my friend Eliot last Saturday morning to see what spring birds we might find. It was a good day to bird: I added 17 birds to my year list!

The highlight of the day was a Golden Eagle. I have had only one really good look at a Golden Eagle before, so I was thrilled to see another. At first we thought it was a Turkey Vulture (Minnesota’s most common huge bird of prey), but we were both wait, wait, something isn’t right. Eagle? But not a Bald Eagle (which are happily fairly common here). OMG a Golden Eagle! Yes! This in and of itself made the day. But, as mentioned we saw lots of other birds too.

Many were water birds, especially ducks. Northern Pintail (very fun—not a bird I see every year), Bufflehead, Common Merganser, Ring-Necked Duck, Redhead, Green-Winged Teal, and Lesser Scaup; also Pied-Billed Grebe, Trumpeter Swan, American Coot, and Cackling Goose.

I saw my first Eastern Bluebird of the year—always a happy sign. Also a Tree Swallow, Song Sparrow, and Northern Flicker.

And just before we called it quits, at our last stop of the day, we saw a Great Horned Owl. I don’t see these very often either, so I felt doubly gifted.

It wasn’t until the end of our birding, at this last stop, that I finally saw a Great Blue Heron. I love these huge and beautiful birds, fairly common in Minnesota, but no less stately for that. I reverberate with joy.

I need Auden to help me with the words here. This sense you get in nature where you just beat with the world. I’m not sure it’s reverence, but it’s close to reverence. And then there’s awe. Awe definitely comes into play.

But after awe there’s breakfast. The excellent day continues.

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.

Summer Birding

Spring migration has pretty much passed, and we’re now more into summer mode, which is to say, these are the birds that are going to stay. They hang around for the summer: We watch them build nests, defend their territory, and (hopefully) feed a family of gaping mouths.

barred_owl_granthickeyAfter a couple of weeks away from the field, it was good to get back out there again, even if the excitement of spring has passed. There are always new birds to see. Yesterday, I went out with my birding friend Eliot, starting at Fort Snelling State Park, where we saw a Barred Owl. A really good view—perhaps my best yet—only 15 feet or so away. It was awake, turned its head and looked at us for a while, seemed to register not one iota of concern, and looked away.

Yellow headedThat was certainly a highlight of the day. Owls are not often seen, and I always consider myself blessed when I see one. Yellow-headed blackbirds are generally more easily found, but they are uncommon enough that I am completely delighted every time I see them. The yellow-headed blackbird was the key bird that tipped me into birding. Maybe 30 years ago I was hanging out at Lake Nokomis and I saw this black bird with a bright yellow head. What in the world? God bless bookstores, I went to one and looked it up in a field guide. Shortly thereafter, I bought my own field guide (Petersons, which still remains a favorite; no relation). I have bought a few additional field guides since.

Dickcissel

Dickcissel

Other highlights of the day: a Loggerhead Shrike, my first Eastern Kingbird of the year, a Dickcissel (they always catch me by surprise; I don’t know why I have such a hard time remembering and identifying this bird!), Field and Grasshopper Sparrows, and at least two Eastern Meadowlarks. I added 12 birds to my year list.

Yes, I keep a list and count the birds. I started with a lifelist (all birds I’ve seen in my life—or at least since I started keeping the list), and then a yardlist (birds seen in or from my yard), and a few years ago I started keeping a year list. It’s fun to compare year to year, and I can also check to see what relatively common birds I still haven’t seen.Red headed woodpecker

That’s one of the things that makes birding fun. You just never know what you’ll see. Checking against last year’s list (and my memory), a few of the birds I hope to see yet this summer include Purple Finch, Purple Martin, Cedar Waxwing, Red-Breasted Merganser, Sora, Ovenbird, Olive-Sided Flycatcher, and Red-Headed Woodpecker.

Happy birding.

Birding Sax-Zim Bog

My friend Eliot and I went birding at Sax-Zim Bog on Groundhog Day, heading north before the sun rose. Here’s a list of the birds we saw:

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

  • American Crow
  • European Starling
  • Blue Jay
  • Bald Eagle
  • Black-Capped Chickadee
  • Common Raven*
  • Rock Dove
  • Red-Tailed Hawk
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • American Goldfinch*
  • Red-Breasted Nuthatch*
  • Pine Grosbeak*
  • Northern Hawk Owl*
  • Gray Jay*
  • Snowy Owl*
  • Snow Bunting*
  • Mallard
  • Wild Turkey*

* =  First sighting of the year.

Northern Hawk Owl

Northern Hawk Owl

The Snowy Owls were the most exciting. I’ve only seen Snowies once before in my life, so seeing three in one day, in different parts of the bog, was thrilling. All three were on the very tip-tops of trees, except one which started on a tree but then moved to the top of a telephone pole. Also on the very top of a tree was the Northern Hawk Owl, fairly common to the bog, but nonetheless beautiful to behold.

For years I despaired of ever seeing a grosbeak; for years I sought them in vain. Trips to Sax-Zim, where they are regularly seen, yielded nothing. But then in December 2012, I saw both Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Grosbeaks (in Sax Zim, naturally), and don’t you know—I see them all the time now. (A slight exaggeration, but several times since.) And while we didn’t see any Evening Grosbeaks on this trip, we saw maybe two dozen Pine Grosbeaks—beautiful birds I never get tired of watching, with extremely different plumage between the male and female. I can’t decide which I think more beautiful, but I tend towards the female. But then the wind blows and I change my mind. (No pictures because I can’t find a really fine picture of the female, representing the beauty of that glowing orange head; they look so drab in the photos. Here is a link to the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union photo gallery. Scroll down on the left to Pine Grosbeak, very near the bottom, for several photos. The MOU hosts a wonderful website with lots of information and photos, and is the source of all photos here; take some time to check it out if you have even a small interest in birds.)

They’ve added a couple of additional feeding stations in the bog as well as a tiny visitors’ center (still under construction, but with four walls, a roof, many viewing windows, and a hot stove, a very welcome place to take a break).

TurkeyWhen we got home around dinnertime, what should greet us in the streets of Minneapolis but a small flock of Wild Turkeys, the first I’ve seen this year. A wonderful birding day all around.