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