Thursday, December 31, 2009

There's a "Blewe" (Blue) Moon Tonight

© Molson Coors  

 I don't need an astronomer to tell me the moon has been "brighter" the past couple of nights.  It's been so bright, I've had trouble sleeping.   Yah, I know - I could install window shades.   But I like to wake up the "natural" way with sunlight streaming through my windows. 

This morning the moon was so bright, it woke me up at 4am.   Rather than fight it, I got up, made myself a latte and went to my trusty MacBook Pro to find out what's going on.

I was relieved to find out it wasn't just me.  According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, the moon really is brighter. 

An astronomer at the Adler Planetarium explained what's up with the moon:

1.   There's one day each year when Earth is closest to the sun - which makes the reflection of the sun on the moon brighter.  In 2010, it's Jan 2nd.

2.  There's one day each month when the moon is closest to Earth, which makes the moon appear to be 7% larger.  In 2010, it's Jan 1st.

3.  When the moon is full, it rises to a point nearly opposite the sun.   Because the sun is low on the horizon during the winter, the full moon rises particularly high.

More reflection + bigger appearance + higher in the sky = brighter moon.  Makes sense to me.

But wait, there's more "moon" news today:  there's a "blue moon" tonight.

No, the moon doesn't actually turn blue (unless there's a major dust or smoke event - a fire or volcanic eruption).  It has to do with an old ecclesiastical calendar (click here for the somewhat complicated explanation).

Here's the simple explanation:  a "blue moon" is the second full-moon in a calendar month.   It occurs on New Year's Eve every 19 years.  Thus the adage referring to a rare event as "once in a blue moon."

The use of the word "blue" in association with this calendar event may have its origins in the Old English word "belewe" or "blewe" which means "to betray."  Perhaps a reference to "betraying" the usual perception of one full Moon per calendar month.

So I have something new to celebrate tonight.   In addition to New Year's Eve and my wedding anniversary, there's a rare and, some say, auspicious calendar event:  a Blue Moon.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Customer Service


I shipped my camera equipment off to be cleaned the day after Thanksgiving.  I sent it to an authorized repair shop I found on the internet.  I made my decision based on customer reviews and the promise on their website:  a 24 hour turn-around.  Still, I was reluctant to be without my Canon.

A week later, I checked the "repair status" page on their website.   They received my camera and two lenses on December 3rd.  I figured - give it 24 hours and 5 days shipping - I should have the equipment back by the 11th.  It didn't happen.

So I sent them an email, asking:   what's up?  Is there a problem?  When will I get my equipment back?

The answer from Jennifer, the customer service representative:  "The technician is finishing up the cleanings.  I apologize for the delay in the cleaning.  The technician stated that the cleaning is very complex due to the fact that he needs to take the lens apart."

I checked again a week later, highlighting their 24 hour turn-around promise.  I got the same answer - word for word.

A week later I called.  Still the same answer.

Now I'm getting suspicious ... and angry.   I'm beginning to think I'll never see my equipment again.  I "google" the Illinois Attorney General's office - just in case.

I called again on the 28th.  "It's a complex process, but we'll be shipping your equipment back to you tomorrow."

The next day, at 2pm, I get a call from Jennifer.  Turns out, there is a "problem."  The camera body is ready to go.  They can't fix my 100-300 lens.   And they have to send my 100-400 lens to Canon for a calibration.

I am not happy.  Not that they can't fix my lens - or that they have to send the other lens to Canon.  I'm not happy that they didn't just say:  we're backed up and we won't get to your camera until 28 December.

I suspect I've been had - for $295.   JUST SEND MY EQUIPMENT BACK!  I said.

After I hung up and cooled off, I realized that wasn't such a good idea.  So I called back and asked to speak to the customer service manager.  I got put on hold and had to listen to this message:  "Thank you for giving us the chance to provide exceptional service for years to come..."

Turns out they were backed up.  Yes, she admitted their technician didn't get to my equipment until December 28th.

Why couldn't customer service tell me they were 4 weeks behind - when I contacted them back in November?

Did I really need to hear the challenges of dealing with Canon and how their customer service and their website editors were two different departments?

The manager agreed to over-night my camera body and my un-fixable lens.

UPS delivered this afternoon - in a snowstorm.

I connected my "un-fixable" lens to my camera body and snapped this photo of a downy woodpecker at my suet feeder (in the snow, in very bad light, though a window).  I have no complaints about the quality of their repairs.   Their technician did a great job.

But they have a way to go with customer service.

I wouldn't have been angry at all, had they told me - when I first contacted them in mid-November - that they were 4 weeks behind.    Instead, their lack of candor led me to think the worst.
The status of my 100-400 lens?
I might see it in 4-6 weeks, if I'm lucky.

Monday, December 28, 2009

2010 Toyota Prius Brakes

I've read reports that there's a problem with the brakes on the 2010 Prius.

I purchased my new Prius in August, 2009.  I drove it out to Wyoming and back (highway speeds) and I drive it in city traffic (stop and go).  I've put nearly 10,000 miles on it.

I don't have snow tires, so I've been reluctant to drive it in the snow.  But when I do, I haven't had any problems.  In fact, I haven't had any problems in snow, ice, rain or traffic.  And I get 50-60 mpg regularly.

I keep my eye on the dashboard graphs - and I drive in the ECO range - conservatively.

My only complaint is the low undercarriage clearance (I've hit more than my share of potholes on the roads out here in rural Wisconsin).

I do, however, plan to watch out for the brakes, until I hear otherwise...

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Feeding Wild Birds - Bread

Stale, moldy wheat bread under my neighbor's feeder

I don't know where the notion that's okay to "feed bread to wild birds" originated.  (I do however, recall seeing something about stringing stale donuts and holiday pastries in an old Audubon brochure).

I learned it from my parents.  I remember them taking us kiddies down to the local duck pond and pulling out a bag of stale "wonder" bread.  We'd tear the bread into pieces, toss it at the birds and watch the ensuing commotion - the quacking, flying feathers and bill pecking. 

I can only assume my grandparents took my parents to the duck pond when they were little kids too.

I remember the next level of recycling table scraps into wild bird food:  making birdseed suet.   My mother would pickup beef kidney fat from the butcher.  (It was free back then).  We'd boil it up (render it), add some bird seed mix, let it cool in a rectangular pyrex pan, then cut it up into little squares to fit in wire mesh suet cages.

I'll bet my parents did the "rolling pine cones in peanut butter and birdseed" project when they were youngsters too.

I never thought much about whether any of this was "good" for the birds.  It was just something we did - and the adults always seemed to enjoy doing it with us.

I do however, remember my embarrassment when I learned how "bad" these seemingly innocuous activities can be for birds. 

First, the obvious:  despite the fact that birds will eat baked goods, they're not part of their natural diet.  Processed foods provide little or no nutritional value and may actually contribute to wing deformities and starvation. 

Bread is actually like junk food for waterfowl,” says Michele Goodman of the Webbed Foot Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic in Connecticut. “Handouts such as whole slices of bread, pizza crusts and bagels can actually cause birds to choke to death.”

Moldy bread is another story.  Birds are especially susceptible to Aspergillus mold pathogens, which can cause a respiratory disease known as Aspergillosis.  For more information, click on this link.

What's wrong with adding a mix of seeds to suet?

Birds that eat suet may eat peanuts, but millet, oats and milo are not high on their list of favorites.  Those seeds end up on the ground below the feeder - where they sit in a froth of feces, spilled seeds and food debris.

And rolling pine cones in peanut butter and seeds?  Again, it's safer for the birds to eat peanut butter from a sanitized plastic feeder - without the mix of seeds.

Remember:  for the best results - for birds and your pocketbook - offer separate seeds (fruits or mealworms) in separate feeders.

Just say "NO" to breads and pastries!

Friday, December 18, 2009

A New Chickadee Feeder

Buffalo County was one of the last strongholds for bison in western Wisconsin.  These days my neighborhood is over-run with white-tailed deer, making driving after dark a challenge.

Last month, a 4-point buck got hit right in front of my house.

I pulled it off the road to keep the birds feeding on the road-kill from becoming road-kill too.  I had planned to pull it all the way to my front yard and watch the birds and coyotes devour it.  But it was so heavy, I was only able to pull it into the ditch along side the road.

By the time I got back outdoors with a wheelbarrow, the dead deer was gone.  The County roadkill removal contractor is very efficient.

Then I thought - maybe I could get him to drop off a deer down the road at the Maxville Alternative High School, so the students could observe winter scavengers

A couple of months ago, I talked with teachers at the Maxville Alternative High School about using the Lower Chippewa Natural Area - the largest intact floodplain forest in the upper midwest - as the integrating context for learning.  It's right outside their back door - and across the street from my house.

I set up a bird feeding station (sunflower, nyjer and suet) outside their classroom window a couple of weeks ago, and asked DNR Biologist Kris Johansen, if he could help us get a deer carcass.  He said he'd try.


While I was out of town on Thursday, DNR Warden Bill Wrasse delivered a skinned deer and the students strung it up from the swings.

I stopped by today to check it out.

I was amazed to see the chickadees were all over it - juncos too!

It will be interesting to see who else stops by. 

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Wasp's Pot

We were on the road to the wetlands atop Ruffner Mountain in Birmingham, Alabama this afternoon, when Peter Van Zandt pointed out a tiny mud pot attached to the stem of a dried plant.

Who "threw" this pot?

My first thought:  maybe a relative of the mud dauber wasp.

It wasn't until I got home and searched that I found similar images.   This pot was constructed by one of the 8 species of "Potter" wasps in the genus Eumenes, relatives of the Yellowjacket, Paper Wasp and Hornet.

The most common species in the east is Eumenes fraternus.  Take a look at this webpage to see photos of what goes on inside inside the pot.

The female of these solitary wasps constructs the pots, one at a time, by mixing mud and hair.  She'll often construct several of them, along a branch or stem.

Then she "provisions" them.   She captures, anesthetizes and stuffs a couple of small caterpillars, usually cankerworms or sawfly larvae, into the pot.  Then she lays a single egg in her pot and seals it with a mud plug.   When the egg hatches, the larvae feed on the "provisions."  The adult wasp escapes by chewing its way out through the mud wall.

There are two generations of this wasp each year - late spring to early fall.  They over-winter in the pot and emerge as adults in the spring.

I've noticed wasps at my hummingbird feeders in the fall.  Next year, I will pay closer attention.   How many eggs does she lay?  How long does it take her to "throw" a pot?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Chickadees and the Shrike

This time of year, the weather provides an easy excuse for me to stay indoors.   I have the time and motivation to pay closer attention to the more common birds - the chickadees, nuthatches, house finches, tree sparrows and juncos outside my window.  

The chickadees caught my attention the other day.   I couldn't help but wonder:  How do those little creatures survive when the temperature drops way below freezing?

To find an answer, I did a google "scholar" search and re-read my copy of  the Birds of North America (BNA) monograph number 39 - Black-capped Chickadees by Susan Smith.

Tipping the scale at a third of an ounce (the weight of 2-25¢ coins), chickadees need to eat all day long this time of year.   During mild winters, they need a caloric input comparable to about 150 sunflower seeds a day.  When the thermometer drops below zero, that number goes up to approximately 250 seeds. 

Despite what I see at my feeders, chickadees eat more than sunflower, suet and peanuts.  Scientists who’ve studied them say the Black-capped Chickadee’s winter diet is 50% animal and 50% plant material. 

This time of year, their wild” diet is comprised of seeds and insects they’ve cached in autumn, insect eggs and pupae, spider eggs, animal fat from carrion (dead deer, skunks and even fish), seeds (goldenrod, ragweed and hemlocks) and fruits (including poison ivy). 

Although chickadees depend primarily on natural food sources, birdfeeders provide an important supplement to their winter diet. According to a University of Wisconsin study, Black-capped Chickadees get only 14-29 percent of their daily energy requirement at backyard birdfeeders.   This may explain why chickadees are more likely to visit feeders at dusk than at dawn.

In addition to caching food and adding more plant materials to their diet, Black-capped Chickadees have other adaptations that help them get through winter.

   - Chickadees have very warm coats.  Their dense winter feathers are incredibly efficient insulation.  The difference between a chickadee’s body temperature (108-degrees Fahrenheit) and the ambient air an inch away can be more than 120 degrees!  

   - Chickadees have a remarkable ability to remember where they've cached food during the fall.  What happens inside their brain to facilitate this is simply amazing.  According to Colin Saldanha, assistant professor of biological sciences at Lehigh University, in the fall, the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for spatial organization and memory, expands in volume by approximately 30 percent by adding new nerve cells. And in the spring when food is more readily available, the chickadee's hippocampus shrinks back to its normal size.  

   - Chickadees have the ability to metabolize food quickly.  They can put on up to 8% of their body weight in a day (that would be 12 pounds a day for a 150 pound man).  That’s all the fuel they have to get them through the night - along with an amazing ability to turn down their internal thermostat 12 to 15 degrees.  This regulated hypothermia conserves energy.  If they make it through the night, chickadees get to face another day of eating - to replenish their fat stores.

And if dealing with the weather wasn’t daunting enough, chickadees have to be alert to predators.  At night, chickadees are prey for Screech and Northern Saw-whet Owls.  During the day, it’s Sharp-shinned Hawks and Northern Shrikes.

As I watched one of the chickadees bounce like a ping-pong ball from the sunflower feeder to the Blue Spruce and back, I marveled at its high energy. 

Then all of a sudden, all the birds bolted.   

I stood up to get a better look at what caused the "evacuation."  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I spotted it.  Just ten yards from my window, sitting on top of my double-arm pole, was a bird that looked like a mockingbird on steroids.   

It was a Northern Shrike - a.k.a. the butcher bird - a predatory songbird, a winter visitor from the tundra.  This amazing creature can make a meal of any of the birds that visit my feeding station - including birds as large as a Mourning Dove and Blue Jay.  

This was only the second shrike I'd seen at my feeders in the past 10 years.  

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Camera Dust

I have a Canon EOS camera and an array of lenses.  I seldom go outside without them.  I never know when I’m going to see something that I just have to photograph, and my little “point and shoot” Sony Cybershot just won’t do.

I know I should have a second camera body, but I'd been saving up for a Prius and a new laptop - a MacBook Pro.  A new camera body didn't float to the top of my list until I started having a problem with dust.

Digital cameras are susceptible to dust.   They have a little sensor that needs to be cleaned at least once a year.  That’s been a problem for me.  There’s never a “good” time to send my EOS off for a cleaning.   
I got to the point where I was no longer willing to spend time in Photoshop, sharpening and removing the dust from my images.   So, I went to the Internet, and shopped on-line for camera repair services.  

After reviewing several estimates, I settled on United Camera.   They're a factory authorized shop, and their website promised a quick turn-around.
Still, I hesitated to part with my camera.  
After the second-warmest November on record, the temperatures finally dropped below freezing.  I was increasingly less enthusiastic about going for a walk outdoors.   What appeared to be the “right” time to part with my camera had come. 
I packed it up and shipped it out on “black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving.  
It's been a couple of weeks now.  Their website promised 48 hour turn around.  
Time to take action....

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Blizzard & The Birds

It was "gray" and unusually quiet when I woke up this morning.  No noise from the state highway outside my bedroom window.  Then I heard it - the wind whistling through the branches in the trees.

I looked out the window.  It didn't look like much of a storm - at first.

It wasn't until I put on my boots, jacket, gloves and hat and headed outside to fill the bird feeders that I realized just how much of a storm it was.

The wind bit through my jacket and gloves.  I could feel the burn on my face.  One of my feeders, blown off its pole, sat upside down in a snow drift by my garage door. 

My outdoor thermometer read 15-degrees.  The morning TV weathercaster reported wind gusts to 30mph.  According to the chart on the internet, that creates a windchill of  -5 degrees F.

How do those little feathered creatures survive?

It's amazing to see the American Goldfinches and Black-capped Chickadees come in for a landing at the feeders, get blown off course in mid-air, flap like crazy, land on the perch and hunker down as they try to hold on and grab a seed, before they get blown away.

From the west, there's nothing to block the wind from my feeding station.  No trees, no buildings.

I went out and shoveled a north-south path through the snow,  an attempt to create a little "feeding tunnel," creating piles of snow to protect the birds from the wind.   I dusted the path with millet and black-oil sunflower - and ran back into the house.

First to arrive?

The most intelligent, the Blue Jays.  Four of them, crests flat against their heads.

As I watched them fill their faces with sunflower seed (they literally vacuum up as many seeds as they can hold in their mouths and fly off to cache them), I tried to recall the "word" for a group of jays.  I had to look it up.  Turns out there's more than one:  a 'band,' a 'cast,' a 'party,' and a 'scold' of jays. 

Today they behaved more like "cold" of jays.  They were all business.  And the business today was finding food and conserving energy.

I turned to look out the window just now and spotted an unexpected visitor - a Northern Shrike!   The 2nd sighting of this predatory songbird at our feeding station in a decade.   The other songbirds took off (how do they "know" this one is a predator?   It looks like a mockingbird on steroids.)

Weather like this makes me marvel at how tough these little critters are - finding food and avoiding becoming dinner for accipiters and shrikes.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Winter Weather Watch

The Weather Channel predicts "the storm in the Central U.S. will bring blizzard conditions to the Midwest."  Their map shows the track of heavy snow, high winds and rain in all shades of green, gray and purple.  West-central Wisconsin, where I live, is the color purple (translation:  snow = 6-12").

my driveway and State Rd 25
the view from my kitchen window

It's been snowing all day - that kind of light, nearly invisible, but steady, mist-like snow.  Not much accumulation yet.  Hardly an inch.  The forecast:  a foot or more over night, then blizzard conditions all day tomorrow.  Perhaps the biggest accumulation in years - with winds gusting over 30mph, white-outs and a windchill of -20F.

The storm will pack a wallop - worse, newscasters have been saying all day, than the storm that brought down the Lake Superior freighter "Edmund Fitzgerald" on November 10, 1975.

Across the river, MN/DOT has actually issued a "no travel" advisory.   They announced they're not sure they can keep the plows on the road in southeastern Minnesota tonight.

I'm not going anywhere.  My Prius will stay in the garage until the sun comes out (over the weekend).  

The birds at my backyard seem to sense what's coming.

The ground, perches, poles and trees were full, all day long.  Black-capped chickadees alternated between the sunflower tubes and suet cages, sharing them with the woodpeckers (Downy, Hairy and Red-bellieds).

American Goldfinches in their winter drab plumage were ubiquitous, reluctantly sharing the tube feeders with the Purple Finches.  House Finches?  I spotted only one all day - a big bright red male.  The others must have hunkered down at our neighbors farm. 

Dark-eyed Juncos spent the day digging though the light dusting to get to their millet.  A lone gray squirrel and Mourning Dove hung out under the sunflower feeder.   The Blue Spruce tree in my front yard will be full of birds tonight.

I plan to go outside tomorrow - only to fill the feeders.  My boots, jacket and snow shovel are lined up by the back door.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Satellite Radio

My 2010 Prius came equipped with an integrated satellite radio and a 3-month free trial subscription to XM radio.  

I have to admit, I got hooked on listening to Pops and the BBC on our trip out west.   I dreaded the day I'd have to make a subscription decision.

That day came this week.

When the notice from XM that "your satellite radio trial is about to expire" arrived a few weeks ago, I was tempted to sign on the dotted line.   If I commuted to work, maybe.  But I just don't sit in my car enough to justify a $12.95 monthly fee.  

I'm okay with the Prius JBL 8-speaker sound system.  I get good AM-FM reception.   It holds 6 CDs and I can play my iPod (BirdJam) through the the speakers.

If I change my mind, I can always re-activate.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Swan Song for Tundras in Alma

There were a half dozen Tundra Swans in the ever-shrinking circle of ice-free water at Rieck's Lake Park in Alma, Wisconsin on Thursday afternoon (December 3).   Just up the road, there were 2,000 or more close to shore at Cedar Ridge Resort near Nelson.

With the temperatures hovering around 24-degrees Farenheit, it would be just a matter of days before the inevitable - the shallows will be covered by ice and the waterfowl will have to leave.

The inevitable happened today at Rieck's Lake Park.  The Buffalo River shallows are iced-over and covered with a light dusting of snow.

Up the road at Cedar Ridge Resort, the open water in the Mississippi backwaters had diminished significantly, concentrating several thousand waterfowl - ducks, geese and swans.  With snow in the forecast for early this week, this may be the last weekend for waterfowl in Pool 4.

The Tundras will head east to the Chesapeake Bay and Outer Banks of North Carolina.  The ducks and geese will push south.

The next spectacle is waiting in the wings - the over-wintering congregation of Bald Eagles along the Mississippi River from Lake City and Pepin south to the lock and dam in Alma. 

Let the "chittering" begin!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Woolly Bear and the Newscaster

I woke up early this morning to our first serious snow of this winter season.

I turned on the TV to get the forecast (up to 2" maybe, temps in the mid-20s) and an unexpected report on what the woolly bear caterpillars predict for the upcoming season.

Woolly Bear Caterpillar in September

The newscaster had in her hands the breaking news report direct from the Farmer's Almanac:  "the predominance of orange on this two-toned insect forecasts a mild winter..." That was followed by some bantering back and forth with the morning weather anchor. 

I had to laugh (and send an email to the newscaster).

Fact:  The amount of orange is actually an indicator of how mild the weather has been this November.  (I was surprised to spot a woolly bear this week - December 1st.  It was out and about, crossing the trail, soaking up the last heat of the fall.)

Woolly Bears over winter as caterpillars, and the "older" the caterpillar, the more orange. 

Curious about the details of the breaking report, I googled the Farmer's Almanac website and was surprised to see their story - and the image they used - a spotted tussock moth.  

I went back to the "google" report and noticed a link to a "woollybear festival" in Vermillion, Ohio.  I couldn't resist.  One click and I was there...  Take a look.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


More on this - when I figure out which moth it belongs to

Monday, November 30, 2009

American Hazelnut

I thought the squirrels had eaten all of them.

Today I found a lone American hazelnut Corylus americana clinging to a twig, along with several catkins. 

I'll have to wait until spring to see the tiny flowers, which according to the UW-Green Bay herbarium web page, resemble a leaf bud - near the end of the twigs.

After some googling, I learned that the American hazelnut is a dominent (or co-dominent) shrub of the maple-basswood forests of Wisconsin.   The leaves, twigs and catkins are browsed by deer (and moose), the nuts by small mammals, Ruffed Grouse and deer, and the bark by beaver.

American hazelnut is a common understory associate of smooth sumac, chokecherry, arrowwood, dogwood, raspberry, eastern hophornbeam and shagbark hickory.

If you like your coffee flavored, the hazelnut syrup comes from the European cousin - filberts, the commercially cultivated nuts which are also used as fillers in cans of mixed nuts.

Hazelnut can reproduce sexually (the nuts) and asexually (from woody rhizomes just below the surface).  Underground roots and rhizomes can survive fire when the humus is moist.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Identity Theft

I bought a "serious" insect "sweep net" a couple of years ago.  I use it to catch butterflies and other insects so I can identify and photograph them.

I went on line and found the net I wanted at BioQuip Products, an entomology equipment supplier I found on the Entomological Society of America's website.  Everything was fine until last Friday.   The bad news came in the mail.

I almost tossed the letter without opening it.   It looked like "junk" mail.  But my curiosity got the better of me.  Good thing it did.

The letter, dated October 19 was addressed:  Dear BioQuip Customer.

Re: Compromise of Credit Card Information.

(Yikes!  And to think, I almost tossed it.)

"We are contacting you about a recent incident at BioQuip.  We have learned that our computer web server, which contains records of customer purchases, was breached by someone outside the United States, on or about September 14, 2009... as a result, the person... gained access to your name address, phone number, email address, credit card number ... and credit card expiration date...  Upon discovering the breach, BioQuip immediately implemented additional security measures..."

This happened two months ago (and probably explains all the junk emails I've been getting in Russian).

The rest of the letter explained what BioQuip is doing, and what I should do (call my card issuer and add a 90-day fraud alert to my credit files at Experian, Equifax and TransUnion - then check my credit reports regularly).

I guess I've been lucky - so far.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Don't eat the blue fruits, unless you're certain

I am amazed at how many trailside plants I'd missed earlier in the year.  They were there, but I just didn't notice them.

Now that most of the leaves are down, you can't miss their bright fruits.

This time of the year, most of the fruits are blue or black, with the exception of the rose hips (edible), and the white poison ivy and gray dogwood berries (both great for birds, but not for humans).

As a general rule - if you don't know for certain, don't eat wild fruits, especially the white and red.  
Poison Ivy  Toxicodendron radicans

Gray Dogwood  Cornus racemosa

Be careful with the blue fruits too.  This time of year they can be mistaken for wild grapes.   

 Canada Moonseed (Menispermum canadense) 

The Canada Moonseed fruits really fooled me.   I thought they were grapes and popped on into my mouth, and spit it right out (they are toxic) after I realized the seed wasn't grape-like.

Under the skin of the Canada Moonseed was a single crescent-shaped seed which looks like someone took a bite out of the moon.  Thus the name.

Moonseed is classified as a drupe, a fruit with a single hard stone which encloses the seed.  Peaches, cherries, olives and coffee are edibe drupes.

Botanically speaking, the fruits of the grape are berries - with 2-6 seeds.  These fleshy fruits are formed as the entire ovary wall ripens into an edible pericarp.  Tomatoes and eggplants are also classified as "berries."  

I remember the Moonseed flowers and leaves from early summer.  The leaves resemble grapes - but they are smooth, not toothed along the margins.

The leaf attachments are different too.  Unlike most vines, the stem of the Moonseed leaf attaches on the underside.

Moonseed also has a different way of attaching to their "supports."  They climb by twining around.  Unlike grapes, they have no tendrils to help them hold on.

 Smooth Carrion Flower (Smilax herbacea)

Smooth Carrion Flower is another fruit that seems to be every where these days.  One of a half-dozen or so "briers" found in Wisconsin, the fruits of the smilax are edible, but before you bite, consider its common name.  The flowers produce an unpleasant "carrion-like" odor to attract fly pollinators.

Virginia Creeper  Parthenocissus quinquefolia

Virginia Creeper vines are easy to identify before they drop their 5 palmately compound, toothed leaves.  But now that their leaves are gone, they can be mistaken for a grape.  Be careful, creeper fruits contain oxalic acid, which can be fatal to mammals (including humans) when eaten.  Good news:  the berries taste bad, a clue to their toxicity.  If you accidentally eat one, spit it out!

Common Buckthorn  Rhamnus cathartia

Don't be tempted by Buckthorn either.  This invasive shrub that's filling the understory and crowding out our native species, is another blue-fruit-to-avoid.  The glossy, almost black fruits growing out from the leaf axils are toxic to humans.  The bitter-tasting fruits were used by early Anglo-Saxons as a laxative.   From what I've read, eating one is not likely to make you feel "better."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Saturday Fog

The TV weather forecasters promised warm and sunny for Saturday, cool and cloudy Sunday, and rain for Thanksgiving week.

We got up early Saturday, and in the darkness, headed down River to get yet another dose of Tundra Swans.  I didn't expect the fog.  The River was socked in from Nelson to La Crosse and south.  According to the thermometer in my Prius, the outside temperature was just above freezing.

We could hear the cacophony of thousands of swans, ducks and geese, and the chittering of dozens of Bald Eagles.  But we only see a few birds through the fog.   Lesson learned:  check the weather before leaving the house.

The fog didn't lift until mid-afternoon.

We headed home on the Wisconsin side of the River and stopped at Rieck's Lake Park in Alma.  There were more birdwatchers than swans, one White Pelican, Mallards, Canada Geese and a very friendly muskrat at the deck.  A pair of Bald Eagles at the pond by Tell.  The highlight of our ride home was a Rough-legged Hawk hunting the newly harvested cornfields at the intersection of County Roads I and D. 

Friday, November 20, 2009

Insects for Birds

I had a bucket of mealworms (larvae of the tenebrio molitar beetle) taking up space in my mud room recently.   They were leftovers from my bluebird project.  I didn't want to just toss them.  

So, I decided now is the time for my backyard birds to learn to eat them.  I'd tried before, but got no takers.

When I put the mealworms in a dish feeder with sunflower seeds, the goldfinches tossed them out to get to the black seeds.  When I put them in a dish of suet, the Downy Woodpeckers ate around them.  Then this morning, I noticed a Black-capped Chickadee tossing the oatmeal bedding and flying off with an insect.  Success!

Apparently the other birds were watching too.  I've caught the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers and the White-breasted Nuthatch picking at the oatmeal and scarfing down a mealworm.

I haven't been quick enough to get my camera up and focused.  The best I'd been able to get (and I've had to sort through several blurry images) is this fanny view of the chickadee with a mealworm in its mouth.

With a little luck, I will get a beak-view soon.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Turkeys Eagles and Swans

A recent message on the Minnesota Ornithological Union's listserv motivated me to put my husband in the Prius and take another drive down-river.  

According to the report, the Tundra Swan count at Pool #8 overlook at the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge in Brownsville, MN is up to a spectacular (and noisy) 12,000 birds - along with a couple of dozen White Pelicans, herons, ducks and lots of Bald Eagles.  I could hear their "chittering" calls in my head, as we headed south in the Prius.

Along the way, we caught good looks at a "rafter" of Wild Turkeys along State Road 25 near Nelson, Wisconsin.

We arrived at the swan-viewing overlook at 1pm.   The early afternoon light was perfect.  There were lines of swans as far as the eye could see.  The air was full of swan calls.  They were "woo woo wooing" up a storm.

Kudos to the  ish and Wildlife Service and Army Corps of Engineers.  They've done a great job creating the viewing area infrastructure - and managing the river so that it provides a stop-over that's rich with waterfowl food.  We spent an hour enjoying the spectacle!

Bald Eagles harassed the swans, ducks and other eagles.  The swans pulled up vegetation, preened and bickered, as dozens of visitors watched and marvelled.  I practiced my duck identification skills - looking at goldeneyes, teal, Gadwalls, wigeons and pintails.

On the way back we stopped at one of several roadside apple stands in La Crescent.  I bought a dozen apples and a gallon of cider.

Bauer Market apple consultant Sue Bott, offered samples.

And yes, I ended my day by baking an apple pie - from scratch (with my favorite buttermilk crust - from the Moosewood cookbook).

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Grouse (and a big surprise) in the Coulees

I'll never forget the morning I spotted a Ruffed Grouse drumming.

I was on my way to a hawk banding site on the Appalachian Trail in northwestern New Jersey on a crisp, fall morning.  Although I'd never seen or heard a grouse "drumming" before, I recognized it immediately.   (Think "muffled lawnmower.")  

I looked up the path, and there he was.   A sliver of sunlight breaking through the trees spotlighted the lone male Ruffed Grouse, sitting upright on a log, chest puffed out, flapping his wings against the air.  

Late this summer, I saw another Ruffed Grouse, standing right in the middle of Dorwin's Mill Road just east of Durand, Wisconsin.   I pulled off the road immediately.  While I fumbled to get my camera, the bird calmly walked off into the woods and disappeared.

I went back to Dorwin's Mill Road late this afternoon, with my camera ready, hoping for better luck.  Nothing.   Disappointed, I decided to take the long way home, through the coulees.  (In west-central Wisconsin, a "coulee" is a valley with steep hills on either side.)

As we followed CR AA into Buffalo County, I noticed a very large bird gliding effortlessly along the ridge.  I wouldn't have stopped for a closer look had I not seen the story on WCCO-TV last night about the increasing number of Golden Eagles spotted in west-central Wisconsin the past couple of winters.

I pulled off to the side of the road and watched as several crows came out of the trees along the ridge to mob the eagle.  It wasn't until the big bird banked and turned that I thought maybe it's not just another sub-adult Bald Eagle.    I willed it to land in a tree across the valley, and pulled out my spotting scope.  No mistaking the color of its head - a Golden Eagle! 

We watched until the light was gone, then took Stai Coulee Road back to Highway 25.  I was practicing better gas mileage by not accelerating downhill (it's a Prius thing), when I spotted a dove sitting right in the middle of the road in front of us.  As we rolled closer, I realized it wasn't a dove.  It was a Ruffed Grouse!   Too dark to photograph, but not too dark to enjoy.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Nien Cheng

I was stunned when I saw the photo of Nien Cheng (and the obituary beneath it) on the "Milestones" page in Time magazine today.  She died on November 2.

Our paths crossed at the Miami Airport years ago.  

I was sitting at the departure gate for a flight to Washington, DC.   The airline representative announced a gate change.  I picked up my bag and followed the other passengers to the new gate.  Minutes later, a disembodied voice announced another gate change.  Everyone got up and walked over to the new gate.  Then I heard our flight number again, followed by the words:  has been cancelled due to a snowstorm in DC.

It was Sunday, October 4.  How could it be snowing in DC?

As the other passengers headed towards the ticketing area, I stayed behind to consider my options.  That's when I noticed her:  an elderly Asian woman, sitting alone in the now-empty gate area.

I recognized her, but couldn't remember why.  Then it came to me: it was a story on 60-minutes.  

I walked over and asked Nien Cheng - do you have a plan?

No.  She said she was on her way home - to Washington, DC - after doing a one-day book signing in Miami.  

I told her my plan:   I was going to try to catch a flight to NYC and then take the train to DC.  Trains run in the snow, don't they?

Nien asked, "May I travel with you?"

By 5pm, we were in the air on our way to LaGuardia.  This frail-yet-resilient 72 year old woman sat next to me, and shared her personal story of Mao's Cultural Revolution - the Red Guards, her 6.5 years in solitary confinement, the torture, the beatings and the murder of her only child, Mei Ping.

As we approached New York, the pilot gave us the weather update.   Not good news.

We were stacked up over La Guardia, waiting for the green light to land.  The snowstorm hit New York, Boston and points north.  Planes were re-routed and delayed.  Our pilot promised we would land in New York, sometime before midnight. 

He kept his word.

Then there we were, Nien Cheng and I, dressed for the tropics, walking around La Guardia airport.  Forget the train - I said.  I'll rent a car.

By the time we got to the auto rental desks, they were out of vehicles.

Desperate, I approached a well-dressed businessman who was finishing his rental paperwork.

"Where are you headed?"  I asked.


"Want company?"  I asked. 

"Sure," he said.  "But you'll have to navigate and talk to me - to keep me alert and awake."

"We can do that," I said, waving my hand at Nien.

We followed David Kennedy outside to his rental (a limo) and hopped in.  Nien shared her stories.  I navigated.

We stopped once - for hot dogs and sauerkraut in Delaware.  Five hours later, we arrived in Washington.  The snow had disappeared.  The sun was creeping up over the horizon.  

On my way to work that morning, I stopped and bought a copy of her memoir, "Life and Death in Shanghai."  

"I've always been a fighter. When I'm confronted with a difficult situation, my first reaction is not to get frightened, it's 'Oh, wonderful, here's a situation that really calls on me to do something." 

"To see what is right, and not to do it, is want of courage or of principle."

Zhang Jiuling
A lonely swan from the sea flies,
To alight on puddles it does not deign.
Nesting in the poplar of pearls
It spies and questions green birds twain:
"Don't you fear the threat of slings,
Perched on top of branches so high?
Nice clothes invite pointing fingers,
High climbers god's good will defy.
Bird-hunters will crave me in vain,
For I roam the limitless sky."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Tundra Swans, Again

I can't seem to get enough of these birds.

They don't do much while they're here.  They swim, fly around, vocalize, eat, preen, sleep and bicker.

Yes, they bicker.

It's hard not to be anthropomorphic.  One swan swims too close, lands too close, does a "woo-woo-woo" in a tone that only a Tundra Swan might find offensive.  Then feathers fly, breasts puff out, necks stiffen, wings flap and the bickering starts.

I have no idea what the problem is, but the aggressive display is easy to recognize.  It continues until one of them backs down.  Then, as if a light is switched on - all is tranquil again.

I used to be one of those birdwatchers who delighted in spotting and identifying my quarry. Then I'd move on to the next identification challenge.

Today, I came to see white swans in Alma - again.  They're relatively easy to identify.  Three choices:  Mute, Trumpeter or Tundra.  Go to the ID book.  It's a Tundra Swan (I go by the call and by the "u" shaped border of the eye and bill on the swan's forehead - click on this link to look at Sibley's illustration). 

These days, I find myself more patient, or maybe more curious.  I spend more time watching, waiting for birds to "do" something.  

Today, we watched several groups of swans tip their white feathered fannies in the air as their their long necks disappeared under water.   Seconds later they bobbed back up, bills full of vegetation, their white feathers soiled with the black muck lining the shallows of the Buffalo River.

It was noon - lunch time for swans too.    

We stayed in the car, on the shoulder of CR II - windows down, binoculars up (the temperature was an unseasonably mild 54-degrees).  The birds ignored us.  Suddenly, hundreds of Green-winged Teal and Mallards exploded into the sky.  Only the swans and Canada Geese remained.

What spooked them? 

We looked up in the air and spotted a Bald Eagle, apparently looking for lunch too, flying low over the open water - scaring up the ducks.  Unfortunately for us (and the eagle), we did not get to see the drama of a raptor at lunch today.

We checked the view from Badland Rd and then drove up to Cedar Ridge Resort, expecting to see the backwaters empty of swans.  As I pulled on to the shoulder of the Great River Road and rolled down the car window, I heard the familiar "woo-woo-woo."  Wrong!

Thousands of swans formed a thick line along the backwaters - way across the river where the swans had been feeding last week.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Nelson Swans Head Down River

I got a call from Wes at Cedar Ridge Resort this afternoon. 

The Tundra Swans just outside Nelson, took off en masse this morning.  One of the guests at the Resort caught the spectacle - thousands of white birds filled the sky - woo woo wooing.

Wes missed it.  So did I.

Wes had a question for me:  why'd they go - all at once?

Cleaned the backwaters of their favorite food?  Harassed by boaters?  Just time to go? 

I could only guess.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

More Swans and Warm Weather

The temperature today:  68-degrees!   The River:  full of waterfowl.  
Fifteen Tundra Swans were in front of the Rieck's Lake Park observation deck in Alma at noon.  (We haven't seen any Swan Watch volunteer guides at the deck this fall, so you're on your own.)
Over 100 swans are in the backwaters of the Buffalo River off Badland Road (County I).

Looking towards Minnesota from Cedar Ridge Resort (south of Nelson), there are close to 1,000.   The riverfront here is private property, so stop in at the Resort Offices and ask for Wes Stensland.   He'll give you access directions and permission.

A hundred or so are at Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge.   The Refuge Vistor Center was open Saturday until 4pm.

Easily a thousand are at Weaver Bottoms, several close to the road (US 61).

Don't miss the special event at the Brownsville (MN) swan observation area on 14 November 10am-2pm.  And, if you're a bat fan and you're in the neighborhood, don't miss the Wisconsin Bat programs at the new Myrick Hixon EcoPark in La Crosse, Saturday afternoon, November 14th.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Tiny Moth on an Unseasonably Warm Day

I spotted a very small (about an inch long) whitish insect - a flitting along the Chippewa River State Trail today.   A butterfly, or moth?

Every time it stopped, I would hurry over with my little Sony CyberShot, bend down, and ...  off it would fly again.  I was about ready to give up, when it flew down and landed on a plant.

If I could take a photo, I might be able to figure out what it is.  I snapped one photo, and off it flew.  In the camera, it looked much darker - but maybe good enough for an identification.

After I got home and downloaded it, I went to my favorite web page, The Bug Guide.  I thought I had it figured out - a dogbane saucroboyts, but I wasn't quite sure.  So I sent an email off to Phil Pelliteri at the University of Wisconsin.  He suggested a late season inchworm, a geometrid.

I went back to the bug guide, and uploaded my photo.  Charlie Eiseman responded with Bruce Spanworm.  Looks right to me.

The caterpillars of this species feed on the leaves of hardwood trees.  Sugar Maples and Aspens are among their favorites.  By the end of June they pupate on the ground and emerge as adults in October or November.  The wingless females lay their pale green eggs singly, in the crevices of tree bark.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Another Day - Another Gall

I noticed these little bullet-like growths on the twigs the Bur Oak earlier this year, but I my curiosity didn't get the better of me until today.  I saw them again, took a photo and vowed to figure out what they are.

I've been on a "gall" kick lately.  A little voice in the back of my head has been telling me:   Learn Your Galls!

I listened to the little voice, and took a stab at identifying it.  It was surprisingly easy.

I googled "bur oak," "twig" and "gall."  The search engine gave me 10 pages of links.  I found it at the Forestry Images webpage.  It's an oak rough bullet gall, made by a wasp known as Disholcaspis quercusmamm.   Bullet galls are found on three oaks:  the bur, overcup and swamp white oak.

The wasp lays an egg in the twig, causing the twig to grow the gall.  As the plant cells grow, the galls are green or bright red, then brown or dark red.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Crunch, Crunch: Hackberry Galls

It was the noise that drew my attention to these odd corn-shaped growths on the downed leaves along the side of the Chippewa River State Trail this afternoon.  The crunch, crunch, crunch.  I had to stop to see what the crunch was all about.

There were literally thousands of them attached to the dried up and brown leaves that littered the macadam.  What were they?  Not maple, ash, elm or cottonwood.

I looked around at the naked trees.  Only the oaks were still holding on to their leaves.  Botanists have a word for this:  marcescent (leaves that wither but don't fall off).   Definitely not an oak.  But what?

Then I noticed that tree with the odd bark.  I looked up at the branches, and there it was:  a lone, brown leaf with the dried "corns," spinning in the breeze.   A Hackberry tree.

What was the crunchy corn stuff?

I guessed it was a "gall."  I googled "Hackberry" and "leaf gall."  The internet coughed up several pages of links.   

I went to the "Rutgers - the State University of NJ - Agricultural Extension" web page and there it was:  the Hackberry Nipple Gall, one of 10 types of gall-making insects that attack Hackberry foliage.   

Curious, I went to one of the US Forest Service pages and learned that parasites of the insects that make these galls actually eat the galls after they eat the insects that originally created the galls.  The insects, called "psyllids," look like miniature cicadias (4mm or 1/8 inch).  

They emerge as adults in September, and over-winter in the cracks and crevices of tree bark.  The adults have an interesting nickname:  jumping plant lice.  They're considered a nuisance when they emerge in huge numbers.  (They get on cars, in buildings, etc.)  

I don't have any Hackberries nearby - but I know the feeling, the nuisance, annoyance, etc of  Asian ladybug beetles and box elder bugs.

Most of the Extension experts concur - if the Hackberry in your yard is "infested" with nipple galls, there's no need to spray.  These psyllids may look bad, but they do not damage trees.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Alma Swans

Tundra Swans have arrived near Riecks Lake Park.

According to the message on the swan hotline, they arrived on Halloween.  But don't expect to see them from the observation deck yet. 

The first 14 swans to hit the Buffalo River wetlands are 3.7 miles east on State Rd 37 (turn left just south of Reicks Lake, then start looking for them past the dairy farm - in the Lake at Tell (before the left turn to County Road II).  They're way out there (see below - a photo of the two swans at the top of this page taken with a "normal" 50mm lens).

Every fall, fewer and fewer swans stop-over in Alma.   Ducks and geese are still using the wetlands, but if you want to see the spectacle - thousands of swans and their noise - you'll have to head down the Mississippi River.   Last week there were hundreds at Weaver Bottoms and further down the River at Pool 8 south of Brownsville (MN).  

Brownsville is the "hot spot" - where the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Geological Survey, Wisconsin and Minnesota DNRs, Minnesota Pollution control Agency and Army Corps of Engineers have been working together  to construct new islands to maintain and re-establish aquatic plant beds (swan food) and the deepwater habitat they need for resting.

If you drive down - look for the big parking area on the river side of the Great River Road (Highway 26).

When weather permits, the Fish & Wildlife Service conducts a weekly flyover of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge,  starting at Lake Pepin, then south including Pools 2-14 and Trempealeau NWR.  They post a list of what they've spotted at the Refuge website.

If you head over to the observation deck at Riecks Lake park, you will get close looks at ducks, geese and coots; but swans - not yet.  Also absent at the deck - the local volunteers who in past years have cheerfully pointed out the birds and answered questions. 

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Nest Box Surprise

I can't help it.

When I see a bluebird nest box along the road, I have to stop and take a look inside.  This time of year, if they're full of nesting materials, I clean them out (to make them more attractive to the birds that hang around during the winter.  Bluebirds often roost in them to get out of the cold).

When I spotted this weathered box on Great River Road near the Alma cemetery, I stopped to take a peek.  It was full of nesting materials.  Maybe there'd be a surprise inside, something with an exoskeleton or fur.  

I popped the top.

 It was packed with fur, cattail "fluff," grasses and and other plant materials.  Eight pairs of beady little eyes looked back at me.  The creatures attached to them were frozen in panic.  Four of them bounced right out of the box - making me take a step back.  Three dug deeper into the soft bedding.

The last one just sat there, cringing as I watched in awe.  Peromyscus - Mice!  I couldn't determine which species:  either white-footed or their cousins, deer mice.

Eventually, all of them took the great leap, but the last one just couldn't get his body through knot hole.  After a few minutes, he backed out and bolted from the "official" entrance in the front of the nest box.


I think mice are cute.   But, in a bluebird box, they're trouble.

In fact, according to bluebird conservationists, if mice are a in the boxes during the off season, bluebirds won't be safe during the nesting season.   So - I put on my gloves, donned my filter mask, stood up-wind and emptied out the box.  (Don't be cavalier, protect yourself when cleaning out nest boxes.  Mouse nests can be dangerous to your heath).

For more tips about fall bluebird box maintenance, go to the NABS and BRAW websites.