Monday, May 25, 2015

From the Archives: Dandelion Clocks Aglow

This post was originally published June 6, 2008, when my son was eight. I've been noticing again how dandelion seedheads catch the light and have a magical appeal -- if you're open to it!

On a recent evening walk, I found the glow of dandelion seedheads, or "clocks," illuminated by the setting sun, quite magical. My son, like many children, loves to blow the dandelion clocks. Adults, on the other hand, tend to consider dandelion clocks an eyesore and shudder at the thought of those countless seed parachutes wafting over their lawns. I remember my mother teaching my brother and me to "tell the time" by counting the blows it took until the seeds were all blown away. There is still something compelling about those weightless, silky orbs, if we take the time to notice.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Bluebird in Soft Focus on a Gray Day

I sometimes forget what a difference good light makes to the clarity of a photo. But the flip side of that can be the tender, even painterly, softness to shots taken on an overcast day. Here is a male bluebird perching on a marker post in the Upper Arb at Carleton College, with a stand of leafing-out trees some distance behind.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

2015 Bluebird Trail

Dave and I are a month or so into our fourth year of monitoring blueboxes in the Northfield area. This year, in addition to the two trails we've been covering in previous years (one currently with 12 boxes along rural roads south of Northfield and the other with five boxes near Randolph), we've taken on (at least for this year) another existing trail in the Carleton Arboretum that has 9 pairs of boxes over about a two-mile walking trail.

This trail uses a different type of nestbox than we're used to -- the modified Gilwood rather than the Gilbertson PVC style -- so that's been a learning curve. (See a comparison of box styles.) Both are mounted on conduit poles for good predator deterrence. (Please don't mount bluebird boxes on wooden fence posts and other areas where cats, raccoons, snakes and other predators can easily access a buffet of eggs and nestlings. If you have older-style boxes mounted in that way, you'd be doing a good deed by replacing them with newer pole-mounted boxes. If you're in our area and would like help replacing older boxes, message me and I'll be glad to help make that happen.)

The Gilwood has a front-opening door which is probably less alarming to a bird that happens to be sitting on eggs during a box check than the action of detaching the PVC box from its roof as you do to check inside the Gilbertson boxes. However, Dave and I aren't very tall, and even after lowering most of the boxes we find we need to use a small mirror on a wand (available at auto supply stores) to see the contents of the nests. Photography of box contents would be difficult indeed.

As of this week we have quite a few bluebird eggs, more nests that don't have eggs yet, and also much nesting activity by tree swallows. This morning as we walked the new trail I was able to get some nice photos of both bluebirds and tree swallows -- sometimes in the same shot.

Click any of the photos to see them larger.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Sandhill Cranes, Platte River - with video

For millions of years, cranes have migrated through what is now south central Nebraska on their way to breeding grounds in the north. I was honored to witness the spectacle of sandhill cranes gathering on the Platte River in late March. At sunset the cranes fly in by the thousands from the fields to roost on the river overnight; at dawn they rise in groups both small and large, and disperse to glean grain from the late-winter fields. Some half a million cranes pass through there, in the vicinity of Kearney, Nebraska, from late February to early April each year. The sight and primordial sound of hundreds or thousands of cranes, with the backdrop of some of the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises I have ever seen, will long stay with me. So will the moment when a clamorous group we were watching, at some signal undetectable by us, went completely silent. A few breathless moments passed -- and then they lifted en masse into the sky.

Turn up the volume on the video to hear the cranes.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Why I'm a Birder: Loving the Places They've Brought Me

I've finally been reading The Big Year by Mark Obmascik. It's the story of three obsessive birders and their race to see the most species in North America in a year. The book inspired the Steve Martin/Jack Black/Owen Wilson film of the same name.

Early in the book the author describes one of the competitors, wealthy businessman Al Levantin, who kicks off his Big Year spotting mountain birds from skis in his home base of Aspen:
"That was the thing with Levantin: he loved the birds, but he really loved the places they brought him. When you spend your career in the confines of a gray suit, the pipits at dawn above timberline are even more wondrous. He lived to be in the field."
That rang so true for me that it practically leapt from the page, shimmering in gold.
~~~ He loved the birds, but he really loved the places they brought him. ~~~
I don't mean exotic new locations, though maybe someday birding will take me to some of those. I mean that my growing interest in birds has gently led me into the natural world, as well as into places that might also be described as states of mind: the wondrousness of the pipits at dawn.

What are some places birding has taken me?

Woods. Prairie. Trails. Ponds. Riverbanks.

The frozen Missisippi in winter, looking for bald eagles.
The first ice-free pond that hosts migrating ducks in the spring.
The Christmas Bird Count, spent driving slowly along rural roads looking for every single bird we can spot.

Barely leafed-out woods in May, looking and listening for warblers.
A driving trip up the Northern California coast: oystercatchers and thousands of marbled godwits.
A hilly hike in a Bay Area wilderness area, in search of golden eagles.
Sewage ponds. Yes, sewage ponds.

Good hiking shoes. Caps that shade the eyes. Quick-dry trousers with zip-off legs.
The idea that it's okay to invest modestly in some gear for what makes you happy.
Tentative experimentation with snowshoes.

A better camera.
A huge proportion of this blog.

The Carleton Arboretum and River Bend Nature Center in all seasons.
The Minnesota Master Naturalist Class.
The Pothole and Prairie Birding Festival in North Dakota.
Plans to witness the sandhill crane migration in Nebraska this spring.

Listening. Looking. Scanning the sky or a body of water. Intently gazing into trees or shrubs.
And, at last, a new comfort being alone in a natural area. A sense of freedom and empowerment.


Let me say more about that last thing, because it's one of the biggies.

I lived mostly in large cities until moving to Northfield almost 25 years ago. I knew people who went hiking and backpacking and camping, and in fact my high school was quite into such things, but I didn't ever get much experience with those activities outside of organized groups, and though I admired people who did them, they didn't really call to me.

Also, in the city or outside it, I was always aware that danger might lurk in the bushes. And, terribly, there were reports of murdered hikers reinforcing the point.

Even when I got to this safe small town, my city instincts followed me. Maybe I didn't still carry my keys pointing out between my fingers when walking to my car at night, but a woman (especially a small, not particularly athletic woman) alone in a park or the woods or on a hiking trail was vulnerable. You didn't put yourself into that situation. At least, that's how it continued to feel to me.

Until I had enough reason to want to. And that's what the birds gave me.

It's taken me a long time to realize what I'd missed -- that sense of freedom and empowerment that I mentioned above -- and birding is what finally got me there. But it's not all about the birds anymore. Being out in the natural world has become intrinsically rewarding in a way it really wasn't for me, before.

I still don't feel called to feats of solo distance hiking like Cheryl Strayed, or my sister-in-law Bethany who hiked the John Muir Trail solo in 2012. One of the things I've always said I like about birding is it gets you outside without having to be too strenuous about it.

But an early morning hour or so wandering by myself in the Arb, River Bend, or other natural areas nearby, entirely at my own pace, choosing my route, camera and binoculars ready for whatever I may discover ... bliss.

Thank you, birds.