Friday, October 30, 2009

Streaming Eagles

I recently bought a dashboard navigation system.

I wanted something I could use in the Prius - and also take in the field (to keep track of our wildlife sightings).  I'd been taking my time, shopping around and trying out the Garmin and Magellan models at the Best Buy in Eau Claire.   I finally settled on a Garmin Nuvi 255W with a portable friction mount.

The weather team at WCCO promised no rain today (in this near record-setting wet month).  I decided to pop my Garmin into its little cradle and test it out on a trip down to Alma.  I also wanted to check on the Tundra Swans. 

I spent about 10 minutes in the driveway, reading the Garmin "quick start manual."  I turned on the device, and clicked "agree" at the bottom of the screen warning:  I will not "make adjustments while driving." (duh).

My first big surprise came when I typed in my "home" address.  No such number.   It's one of those things about rural living - my street address isn't in the modern gizmo record system.  The best it could give me was two houses away.   Okay, I'll take that.

Then I clicked on the "where to?" icon and scrolled down to "points of interest," then "attractions," "park/garden," and, since Rieck's Lake Park was not listed, I clicked on "Buena Vista Park" (erroneously listed as being on Bueno Vistard Road). 

The Nuvi was magic!  Imagine a front seat companion who, without prompting, voices directions 0.2 mile before you need to make a turn.  I can't get my husband to do that.

When I turned left at the sign for Rieck's Lake Park and disobeyed the disembodied voice, she didn't get huffy.  She patiently readjusted.

I parked at the deck, and took got out to take a look at the ducks, Canada Geese, coots, and the lone White Pelican (who didn't leave with the group we spotted 2 weeks ago).  No swans.  It was too dark and windy to enjoy the wildlife, so we got back in the car and headed up to Buena Vista Park - to watch migrating eagles.

It was 48-degrees, but the wind (from the west) was wicked.  Perfect for raptors.  All the way down the River, we spotted eagles and hawks along the bluffs.  We lasted only about 15 minutes at the overlook, but in that short time we spotted at least 30 eagles heading down River.  Most were way up high, some of them just specks in the sky.  If you're interested in learning how to identify those specks, visit the Hawk Migration Association of North America website and down load a copy of their free ID chart.

We caught not one, but two (!) pairs doing their locked talons, tumbling routine.

winds from the west = streaming eagles

Monday, October 26, 2009

Tundra Swans

I first heard the phrase "swan fall" over a decade ago, but I never expected to experience one.

Then it happened.

I was living on the prairie north of Weaver Bottoms along the Upper Mississippi River in Minnesota.  It was late October.  The moon was full.  I was awakened by the sound of whistling wings and the echoing "who-who-who" bugling calls.

I bolted upright, got out of bed and ran to the window.  I could see them - dozens of ghostly white swans, literally falling out of the sky, one after the other, landing in the river nearby.

That's a swan fall.

Later that morning, I drove down to the river.  It was dotted with rafts of white swans.  From a distance they looked like fallen snow.

The swan fall marks the beginning of the approximately 4 week stop-over of feasting swans - fueling up for the last leg of their migration to the coastal waters of the mid-Atlantic from New Jersey to North Carolina.  These big birds spend half of their lives migrating - from their breeding grounds along the Arctic Circle to their wintering grounds along the mid-Atlantic coast.

Today, ten seasons later, it felt like time for the Tundra Swans to be here - especially after the recent snowstorm.

Tom and I hopped into the Prius and went looking for swans.

We headed across the River to Minnesota, and down Highway 61 towards Winona.  We spotted the first rafts of white birds on the River at Weaver Bottoms.  I pulled off the road at the cemeteries and pulled out my scope.  White Pelicans or Tundra Swans?


Further down the River, just north of the I-90 bridge to La Crosse, we spotted more white birds - way out there.  Further down at the Brownsville overlooks, we spotted dozens of pelicans hauled out on the new constructed islands, and hundreds of swans sitting in the water.

On the way back, after stopping at Bauer's Market in La Crescent (for apples and a pie), we checked out the waterfowl situation at Rieck's Lake Park in Alma.  No swans.  One pelican and lots of Green-winged teals.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


Today was a sunny and warm (54-degrees) contrast to yesterday's snow.

We were surprised to spot a Mourning Cloak butterfly floating along the wooded edge of my favorite road  (RR 107).   We spotted a slider soaking up the sun, hauled out on a half-submerged log in the pond.  Red-tailed Hawks soared over the standing fields of corn.

We went on our weekly shopping expedition to Eau Claire (we also saw Ricky Gervais' film - the Invention of Lying - which was predictable but still funny).   Even though it was relatively early (4:30pm), I thought we might hear Barred Owls, so we took RR107 back to Durand.  The morning sun had disappeared, hidden behind one of those foreboding "it's going to snow soon" gray, overcast skies.

I stopped to look at the now leafless dogwood and sumac thickets.  I was curious to see if anyone had been feeding on the smilax fruits.  I heard first, then saw a tiny flash of a bird - too small to be a junco.  White eye ring.  Was it a warbler?  I looked for color - drab, faint wingbars.   Then I saw the slash of red on its crown.  A Ruby-crowned Kinglet!  Within a minute or so, the shrubs were full of tiny birds. 

In the winter, kinglets form mix-species flocks with chickadees, nuthatches, creepers and their cousins - the Golden-crowned Kinglet.  I haven't seen a golden-crowned in years.  I pulled out my binoculars.  I was rewarded with the best look I've ever had  - at both kinglets.  I'd forgotten about the striking yellow in golden's tail and wings. 

Friday, October 23, 2009



Snow before Halloween.  Just a dusting is magical. 

When I look past this early reminder of what's ahead, I cringe.   It's not the cold and wet I dread, it's the impact snow has on getting around.  The shoveling, the salt and sand, the black ice.

Yah gotta have a car out here in dairy land.  The closest grocery store is 8 miles north in the city of Durand, the "seat" of Wisconsin's smallest county.  The closest box store is further north in Memomonie (25 miles away). 

What can I say about Durand.

It's one of those rural cities that hasn't taken advantage of its natural capital.  Instead, it looks to the kind of economic development of the past - light industry and chain stores.

Durand has something most small towns would give their eye teeth for:  an awesome  location. 

The city sits in the middle of the largest intact floodplain forest in the upper mid-west:  the Lower Chippewa River.   The 40 miles of "natural" river to the north and south of the city are a treasure trove, a living museum of Wisconsin's natural heritage containing:
  1.  more rare species (125) than any area of comparable size in Wisconsin
  2.  more native prairie (25% of the state total) than any area of comparable size in Wisconsin
  3.  50% of Wisconsin's plant species
  4.  70% of Wisconsin's fish species
  5.  75% of Wisconsin's nesting bird species
  6.  the largest and best remaining floodplain savannas in Wisconsin

And it's all easily accessible -
  by foot and bike - from the Chippewa River State Trail
  by rail - Tiffany nature train
  by car - Rustic Road 107
  by boat - canoe and kayak

The river and nature tourism are the future for the Durand area.

There's plenty of opportunity for investors:  empty store fronts, an historic downtown (quaint, if only they'd remove the ugly 1960's aluminum siding), a new "small" chain motel, a McDonalds (a sign that someone recognizes the retail potential - not an endorsement) and a great reputation for quality deer and turkey hunting.

Durand is a diamond in the rough for nature-based businesses:  a campground, bike shop, canoe livery, nature and birding tour company, art gallery, bed and breakfasts and signature restaurants.  

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


While I know that bluebirds stick around in the winter, I'm always surprised to see them when most of the other thrushes are gone.    They've been hanging out in Tarrant Park eating berries.

These days I usually hear their soft call before I spot them in the grape vines and dogwoods.  They seem to let me get much closer than the Cedar Waxwings.  I'd like to attribute their "tameness" to the fact that I talk to them when I check the nest boxes the 4th graders (with the help of Kent Hall of the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin) installed in the park 2 years ago.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Pine Nuts

I was getting my gear out of the car when I heard a commotion in the two red pines near the parking area in Tarrant Park.  There must have been a dozen chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches attacking the pine cones.  What were they after:  bugs or seeds?

 I watched the birds hop from cone cluster to cone cluster.  I figured it out after I caught a glimpse of what was in the beak of this nuthatch.

Seeds.  They were picking at the pine nuts!

It looked like the cones had just burst open, exposing the seeds to these hungry birds.

The weather was just wonderful - 49 degrees and sunny.  So nice that hikers and cyclists actually stopped to share their enthusiasm.  Usually all I get is a polite:  seeing any birds?  Today it was that and more - laments that this great weather won't last long.  Warm but no mosquitoes.

All around us, birds, frogs and even the insects were enjoying what may be the last blast of warm weather we'll be seeing for some time.

Mourning Cloak butterflies floated along the trail.

A green frog (a female with a bright white throat), a dozen Woolly Bear caterpillars and a mystery yellow black and white caterpillar crossed our path.

Box Elder Bugs swarmed on a yellow traffic sign.  

Cedar Waxwings, American Robins and Blue Jays were hanging out at a spring in the marsh.   Purple Finches shared the bushes with Fox Sparrows, House Finches and White-throated Sparrows.   And Eastern Bluebirds shared the grape vines with a lone Least Flycatcher.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Murder of Crows

We were back on the Chippewa River State Trail by the Hurlburt farm on County M.

Although the forecasters promised 60-degrees, the thermometer in my Prius didn't get much past 45. It was around 3pm and the sky was ominous: full of big and mean, gray clouds with the sun trying to break through the silver linings.

I heard a faint "who cooks for you?" coming from the red pines on the hill.

Did you hear it?  I asked Tom.  He stopped to listen.  A duet started.  "Who cooks for you?" coming from the south, answered by another "who cooks for you" just up the trail.   It went back and forth for about 10 minutes.

Barred Owls.

While it's unusual to hear them during the day, it's not unheard of.  We've experienced barred owl calls  on cloudy days in the late afternoon.

I hooted back, but they weren't fooled.

Minutes later a murder of crows arrived.  We've heard crows "mob" owls many times, but this was the most raucous ever.  I don't know how the owls put up with them.   It really did sound like they were committing the most horrific murder.

I expected the owls to take off - just to get away     from all the noise.  And for a moment, I was fooled... who was it the crows were mobbing?
I spotted the shadow of a raptor flying over my head - a Red-tailed Hawk.

The crows continued with their screams, confirming it was the owls they were mobbing - not the hawk.

The crows were still at it when we left 30 minutes later.

Songbird sightings:  Ruby-crowned kinglets, Fox Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows and Downy Woodpeckers.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Don't Step on the Leaves

After the recent snow and rain, Tom and I couldn't resist going out for a walk on the Chippewa River trail.  We dodged puddles and watched for birds.  White-throated Sparrows, American Robins and flocks of very noisy Cedar Waxwings.

I was surprised by an unseen and unexpected bird that exploded out of the wetlands - a Wilson's Snipe. 

Further down the trail where I found that green frog a while ago, I got to thinking about how amazing it is - that reptiles and amphibians hibernate.  They just know where to go, when to dig and how to do it.  No free will.  They just do it.

I started to practice my tree identification skills, paying attention to the leaves still holding on the trees and shrubs.  I wasn't looking at the fallen leaves on the trail.  Then Tom shouted - watch out - don't step on it!


I stopped and looked down.  All I saw were leaves.

Then Tom pointed - and I finally saw it ...

A big whopper (about 3.5 inches) of a toad - an Eastern American Toad, Bufo americanus.

Would it wait for me to pull out my camera?

Yep.  I took a bunch of photos,  then picked him up (no insect repellent on my hands today).

These toads have two large glands behind their eyes that secrete bufotoxin which can irritate human skin.  If you handle a toad, don't rub your eyes or stick your hands in your mouth before you wash your hands.   The milky secretions can make small mammals sick if they try to eat one. 

American toads eat small invertebrates - crickets, ants, slugs and spiders.   One toad can eat an amazing number of insects - up to 1,000 a day.  A great reason to install a water garden to attract them.

Toads don't drink water, they absorb it through their skin. 

This guy was male (dark throat).  Females have a light throat.

While they're small and growing, these toads shed their skin a couple of times a month.   When they're mature, they shed their skin about 4 times a year - all in one piece.  Then they eat it.

They may live up to ten years in the wild, if they get past the tadpole stage.  Toad tadpoles also have the toxins.  Predators quickly learn to avoid them, with the notable exception of Hognose and Garter snakes.

In the spring, males set up breeding territories.  They are noted for their spring calls - a sustained high musical trill. 

Thursday, October 15, 2009

New Prius Owner "Class"

A couple of weeks ago, I got this card in the mail.  Markquart, my Toyota dealer, invited me to their "new owner's celebration."   They promised refreshments, tips on how to care for my new Prius - and a coupon for a free oil change.

I signed up.

My vehicle also had a message for me ...

So, I made an appointment to do the 5,000 mile oil maintenance service for the same day.

How'd it go?  Well...  here's what Service Manager, Jeff Webber had to say:

Prius Battery life:  Despite all the talk about Prius batteries, this dealership has not replaced a big battery yet.

Tires:  The original Bridgestone tires will probably last 30-35,000 miles, depending on tire care and driving.  (Toyota does not recommend nitrogen).  The tire pressure sensor is on the wheel, so be careful when you get new tires.  Pressure sensors can break (and they're expensive).  Use the tire pressure rating on the door panel, not on the tire itself.  Check the tire pressure "cold," and while you're at it, check the wear indicator (in the middle of the tread).

Oil:  Ya gotta use the synthetic oil @$8/qt. every 5,000 miles.  Tire rotation is $5/tire.

Gasoline:  Use 87 octane only.  But you can use a higher octane once in a blue moon to "clean the jets."

Filters:  Change the oil filter every 5,000 miles and check the cabin air and engine air filters.

Warning lights:  There are a lot of them.  If any of them stay on... the system indicated by the light is not working properly (but it will not shut down while you're actually driving).   The dreaded "check engine" light indicates a problem in the fuel system - something as simple as a loose gas cap, or as complicated - and expensive - as a mouse nest in the air system, a dirty air filter or major fuel system issue. (When the check engine light lit up in my Honda CRV, I ended up having to pay for a $2,000 valve job - 2 times).  The master warning light means there's a problem with the hybrid system.  That's a very big deal.

The paint:  Tree sap and bird droppings will EAT YOUR PAINT.  Clean them asap!  Clean your wheels often too.  Even if your car is black (like mine), dings will show up "white."  Polishing your car will help fix them - I'm not sure how.  But I did buy some heavy duty car cleaner after my trip out west left scratches on the underside of the fenders (due to a combination of the low clearance,
road construction and pot holes - hear the scraping?)

underside of the front bumper on my 2010 Prius
which I will clean and polish as soon as possible

Floor mat:  If you don't keep the driver side floor mat "clipped in" properly, it could be fatal!  (It can slide up and jam your accelerator).

Jump Starting:  Yes, you can jump start a Prius.   I don't quite understand how to do it (I rely on AAA), but I did hear this:  when you disconnect the jumper cables, be sure to take the black negative off first.

When in doubt... 
READ the owner's manual

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Willow Pine Cones

What's a pine cone doing on a willow?

It's not really a pine cone.

It's a gall, an abnormal cell growth caused by chemicals either injected or secreted by an insect or mite, a nematode or disease agent usually during a period of rapid plant growth (late spring).  These chemicals cause increased production of normal plant growth hormones which result in hypertrophy (increased cell size) and/or hyperplasia (an increased number of cells).  When the gallmaker is an insect, the gall provides food and shelter for the developing offspring.

Galls are unique to the plant and the gall-maker.

Several distinctive galls can be found on willows:  the willow blister gall, the fleshy willow leaf gall and the willow beaked gall.

In this case, the gall maker is a tiny dipteran - a midge known as Rhabdophaga strobiloides.  She lays a single egg in the terminal buds of willows.  When the egg hatches, the bud stops growing its typical leave.  Instead, the growth of flatten scales looks like a pine cone.  The larvae (maggot) over-winters in the gall and emerges as an adult in the spring.

An interesting aside about the entomologist who named this species,  Baron Karl Robert von Osten-Sacken.   A Russian diplomat living in the United States during the Civil War, Osten-Sacken published many papers on Diptera and was known for his work on insect galls.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Flu Shots

It was raining and snowing this morning.  Not a great day to watch birds in the woods.

I headed over to the Durand Community Library this morning to get my $30 seasonal flu shot.  Apparently I timed in right, there was only one man on line in front of me.

As I was filling out the paperwork, there was some back-and-forth among the nurses behind the sign-in desk.   Wazzup?

My friend and County Nurse, Antoinette Pinkowksi explained:

We're just about out of vaccine.  We ordered the same amount as last year (400 adult and 200 kid doses).  There are going to be some disappointed people this afternoon.

The clinic was scheduled to run until 8pm. 

Had the weather been different, I'd have been out of luck.  I had planed to stop by around 5pm.

As I waited in line to get the shot, I watched the computer "flu information" program strategically located at the front of the line.  I had to laugh at the clip art that illustrated:  "Protect your family with a seasonal flu shot."  A man, woman, 2 kids, a dog and a cat.

I couldn't help myself.  Straight-faced, I asked the nurse:  Do I need to get my pets vaccinated?

At our bird feeders:  Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-breasted Nuthatch, lots of Goldfinches and a few House Finches.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Three Caterpillar Day

The familiar woolly bear caterpillars were out and about today, crossing highways and walkways (squish) looking for safe places to hibernate.  Call me crazy, but I actually try to dodge them when I'm driving.

I assume their orange coloring and hairs are a message to predators that they are distasteful.
According to meteorology myth, the coloring on these creatures suggest the severity of winter - the larger the lighter band, the less severe the winter will be.  The abundance of the orange band is an indication of the age of the caterpillar rather than seasonal prognostications.

If you try to handle one, expect it to assume the defensive posture:  it will curl up into a ball.

While I'm not bothered by the bristly hairs, they have caused allergic reactions in some people.  If you start to itch, gently put it down.

The larvae of the creamy-colored Isabella Tiger Moths (Pyrrharctia isabella) feed on greens along roadsides - plantain, dandelions and grasses.  They over-winter as caterpillars, then pupate into a hairy cocoon in early spring.

If you find one and want to try to over-winter it, click here for information.

This Pale Tussock Moth, also known as Banded Tussock Moth, (Halysidota tessellaris) caterpillar was crawling up an elm tree at Buena Vista Park in Alma, Wisconsin.

While there is a wide range in the color of this caterpillar's bristles, the black head and elongated black and white hair "pencils" on the head and rear are diagnostic.  Look for a dark black stripe down the center of the back.

The larvae feed on several trees, including ash, birch, hickory, oak, poplar, tulip tree, walnut and willow.

The Pale Tussock Moth caterpillar reminded me of a caterpillar  I spotted several in September at Pictograph Cave State Park in Billings, MT, an American Dagger Moth.  This one was feeding on a huge Box Elder tree near the parking lot. 
This colorful, but hairless Zebra Caterpillar crossed my path later in the day, along the Chippewa River State Trail.  It's the larval form of the Zebra Caterpillar Moth.

I assume it was feeding on the alfalfa in the field along the trail.

The larvae also feed on cabbage, carrot, clover, dandelion, dock , pea, pigweed  strawberry, sweetfern, blackberry, blueberry, hazel, apple, birch, cherry, plum and willow.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Berries in the Rain

Every time I drive to Durand, I can't resist the left turn by the sewage treatment plant and the back road by river.  There's always a good chance we'll see something unexpected.

Today it was a Tufted Titmouse, hanging out with House Finches and Goldfinches at the Humane Society dog pens behind the tire factory.  While the titmouse is relatively common within its range (southern Wisconsin), we don't see them very often along the lower Chippewa.

When I opened my car window to take a photo, the titmouse flew off into a nearby tree.  I listened for its call, but the only sounds I heard were the sibilant calls of Cedar Waxwings.   We also spotted several Eastern Phoebes and Yellow-rumped Warblers.  Despite the temperature (54-degrees), insects - flies and midges - still out and about.

The last sunflower of the season
with an insect hiding on disk flowers

 On days like this I can't help but wonder how these birds find enough insects to eat.  Then I look around and see all the fruits...

Celastrus scandens - American bittersweet

Cornus racemosa - gray dogwood

Smilax lasioneura  -  Common Carrion Flower

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Herp Identity

I finally got an email from the Wisconsin DNR's Bureau of Endangered Species - a response to my bullsnake sighting report (and question about the identity of a frog that literally jumped out in front of me on the Chippewa State Trail).

Yes, it's a Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer), one of the largest (up to 6-feet long) non-venomous snakes in the upper midwest.  While it's known for its similarity to a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake and its confusing mimicry - hissing and rattling the vegetation with its tail, it's harmless.  Unless you're a rodent (large insect, ground nesting bird, lizard or baby snake), you have nothing to worry about.  Just stand still and you'll see this constrictor's most effective defense:  slithering away.
Bullsnake range

And the frog that jumped out in front of me the other day - it's a Green Frog (Rana clamitans).  At first I thought it might be a Mink Frog (named for a musty odor emitted through the skin - a signal to predators that they're not so tasty).  Another example of mimicry.  It sure confused me.

At the time, I had insect repellent on my hands, so I didn't pick it up to take a whiff.   The Green Frog also has characteristic dark cross-bands on the rear legs.  "Sit and wait" hunters, these amphibians feed on the small animals that cross their paths - flies, spiders, crayfish, caterpillars, snails, slugs, butterflies and moths.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Down the Mississippi

October blew in - bringing us one spectacular, sunny day.

We hopped in the car and headed down-river, on the Wisconsin side.  The bluffs were still more green than red and gold.  Hawks, eagles and vultures were floating on thermals.  Water levels were low, but deep enough to attract Blue-winged Teal, Coots and Great Egrets to the wetlands at Rieck's Lake Park in Alma.  Roadside stands advertised pumpkins, apples and raspberries.
Great Egret 
We headed to Myrick Park for a walk through the marsh and the new EcoPark building.

The beavers had been busy at the marsh - water levels were high.  Canada Geese, Pied-billed Grebes and teal paddled through the duckweed.  A bald eagle skimmed just over the surface of the water hunting fish and hassling muskrats.  Warblers were moving through, flitting from treetop to treetop.   

a view of the bluffs from Myrick-Hixon EcoPark

Myrick-Hixon EcoPark - new building