Friday, February 26, 2010

Sharpshinned Hawk at the Birdfeeder, Again

I could tell something was up again this morning.  No sign of birds at the feeder, or anywhere else in my yard.  I looked up at the Red Maple and there she was - the Sharp-shinned Hawk.   She's become a regular this week.  I suspect I'll be seeing her off and on until it's time to migrate.  

As I watched, she flew from the tree to the feeder pole.


How do I know this is an adult female?    While both sexes are similar in plumage, females are considerably bigger than males.  Adults have red eyes.  Immatures have brown to yellow eyes.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Golden Eagles Redux

There was no action at my bird feeders this morning.   Not a bird in sight.  Okay, I thought, maybe the shrike is back, or there's an accipiter on the roof.  

I'd promised to make French toast for breakfast, so I turned my focus to the empty frying pan on the stove.  Eggs, toast and cinnamon, then the coffee grinder.  As I brought breakfast to the table, Tom whispered - stop!  stand still!  look at the feeders!

I stopped and looked at the window, then slowly, very slowly, grabbed my camera.  Yep... this Sharp-shinned Hawk was at my birdfeeders.

He took off and perched in the maple west of the house.  I tip-toed out the back door and circled around the house, hoping to come up behind him.  No such luck.   He saw me coming and flew off to the trees down by Misha Mokwa Creek. 

I took this as an omen.  I had to go out and look for a Golden Eagle.  Tom agreed.  So off we went.

I had stopped to look at one of several flocks of Horned Larks along the roadside.  When I got to the point where I violated their interpersonal distance, they flew.  Then I looked up.  There it was - soaring just above the hills to the east.  When it banked and zoomed towards us, its slightly dihedral wings made me pause.  

I grabbed my binoculars, noted the white patches on the wings and tail.  No doubt about it - a Golden Eagle.   I hopped out of the Prius and aimed my camera.  Snap.  In seconds it was gone, heading towards the Maxville School on State Road 25 - just a mile north of my house.

I got back in car and we continued looking for Bald Eagles and deer carcasses.  We didn't find any. However, we did get an unusually close look at a Black-capped Chickadee.  It was sitting in the middle of County V.  How close could we get in the stealth Prius?


I pulled up right next to it, got out of the car and walked right over to it, bird-whispering all the way.  Eyes closed, it seemed the bird was sitting on the road, sunbathing, soaking-up the rays.  But it was odd.  As I knelt down to pick it up, it let out a startled "chick-a-dee-dee-dee," and flew away.  

That's when I realized what was wrong with this picture.  The chickadee left behind a relatively large pile of guano - unnaturally pink and watery.  It might have been hit by a car - or maybe it picked up salmonella at the feeders just down the road (they looked as if they hadn't been cleaned in years). 

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Red-bellied Woodpeckers

Years ago, the first time I spotted a Red-bellied Woodpecker, there was no confusing its call, the churrr rattle.  But I just didn't see the red belly.   What was he thinking -  the ornithologist who named this bird?

Then I got to thinking about how those early bird men "saw" them - in the hand, not through binoculars.  In the hand - the red belly is striking.  This winter, it's been easy to see it on the male in whose territory my feeding station resides.  While he prefers the peanut butter suet feeder right outside my kitchen window, I've also seen him on corn.

This afternoon, I took the Prius out to look for Ruffed Grouse, and wouldn't ya know, the first bird we spotted along County Rd V by the cornfield up the road, was a red-bellied pecking away on the ground along the roadside, along with a dozen Horned Larks and a surprise pair of Eastern Bluebirds.

As we headed up the snow-covered road to the top of the coulee, a Northern Flicker flew right in front of us.  We haven't seen one of those at our feeders - ever.   What's that all about?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Golden Eagles in Buffalo County WI

Last month, 60 Golden Eagles were spotted in Buffalo County during the 6th annual winter Golden Eagle count.  With the uncertainty of icy rural roads, snow and my Prius brakes, I'd been reluctant to go look for them.  Today I had great weather and no excuses.  I hopped in the Prius and headed over to State Road 88, near Gilmantown to look for Goldens.

The Coulees were full of Bald Eagles, perched in naked deciduous trees at the edge of farm fields.   We spotted several flocks of juncos, horned larks, tree sparrows and crows apparently feeding on weed seeds recently uncovered along the roadsides by the county snow plows.  Wild Turkeys foraged in the cornfields full of stunted stalks left unharvested after last summer's drought.

But despite my stealth Prius, the birds took off before I could open the car window. 

We spotted lots of raptors in Praag Valley between Gilmantown and Czechville.

Red-tailed Hawks.  

A dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk tipping his tail then lightening his load (note the white mute) before take-off.

But no Golden Eagles.

Our consolation prize?  Five Ring-necked Pheasants, close-to-the-road.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

2010 Toyota Prius - The 20 Minute Brake Fix

Yesterday was the day.  I took my 2010 Prius to Markquart Toyota for the brake fix.

I also had an oil change, tire rotation and overall check-up.  (why not?)

There were about a half dozen customers in the waiting area.  A small group had corralled a sales consultant.  They were quizzing her about the trade-in value of the car they recently purchased.

I didn't want to hear it.  So I got up and walked around the showroom.  It was full of new vehicles, as was the lot.  I counted a dozen shiny new Priuses - quite a contrast from six months ago when I went out on a test drive.

My sales consultant was in her office.  I hesitated, then went over to say hello.    We talked about the recalls.

I am not unhappy with the Prius or the dealer.  I explained my disappointment with Mr. Toyoda and the staff at the corporate HQ.

Then she said something that made me pause - prior to the recall announcements, statistically, which manufacturer has had the best safety rating and how many Toyota cars are on the road today?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Horned Larks

We were on our way to Eau Claire this morning when I first spotted them - a small flock.  They were along the side of the road picking at seeds and grit.  Without binoculars, they could have been any sparrow.

Tom's guess:   just another flock of roadside juncos.

But I wasn't feeling the junco jizz.   So I pulled the Prius to the side of County Road O in Meridean and snapped this photo.  A Horned Lark!

The only larks native to North America, these birds can be found year-round in Wisconsin.

For me, seeing flocks of Horned Larks along roadsides is a confirmation that spring is just around the corner.

According to the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Wisconsin,  Horned Larks begin to migrate north as early as January, often congregating along snow-plowed roadsides.  A common grassland breeding species in Wisconsin, these birds have been known to start their reproductive cycle as early as March.

                                       Horned Lark - Christmas Bird Count - relative abundance map

                                   Horned Lark - Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bald Eagles @ Reads Landing

Can you spot the three Bald Eagles roosting in trees, one on the ice, 
looking west towards the Wisconsin bluffs along the Upper Mississippi River
in Reads Landing, Minnesota

It was a warm and sunny 34ยบ today.  Warm enough to melt the ice on the highways, and sunny enough to make me drop everything and hop into my Prius.   I headed over to Reads Landing to look for the Trumpeter Swans.  They were gone.

But the eagles were still around, growing in numbers.  Flying up and down the river, floating on thermals along the bluffs, fishing and "stealing" fish from others, loafing and perching.

They're here because the river is open, and the fishing (gizzard shad) is good.

If you've got a couple of hours between 10 am and 3pm, now's the time to head to Reads Landing to enjoy the show.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Red-tailed Hawks

Winter is a great time to spot hawks (and eagles) along rural roads in west-central Wisconsin. 

The other day, I averaged one Red-tailed Hawk per mile as I headed north towards Durand on State Rd 25 (and a lone Pileated Woodpecker).  It was the same heading south towards Nelson.

Unless I see an obvious "orange" tail, identification isn't automatic for me.  I have to stop and think.  There are so many differences between juveniles and adults, color morphs and races.  Plumage variation is the rule with Buteo jamaicensis.

 Red-tailed Hawk

Despite the whitish tail, this one was "easy" for me (note the diagnostic dark belly band and patagial marks).

Over the past few months, I've gotten to know 4 red-tails (and one rough-legged) pretty well.  I can actually predict which trees in which they're are likely to be perched - morning and afternoon.
I don't, however, leave home without a copy of Wheeler and Clark's Photographic Guide to North American Raptors in my car.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Blue Book Value of My Prius - My Loss

I continue to drive my 2010 Prius, albeit cautiously.  And wouldn't ya know, yesterday, for the first time, I experienced the momentary "acceleration" when the braking systems switch.  I was watching for birds and photographing hoar frost on my favorite rural road when it happened. 

Toyota says they have a simple computer "fix" for the brake problem.  But now, according to a report on MSNBC, Toyota and I have another problem:  my investment has dropped in value - and there's talk about Toyota owners (and stockholders) filing a class action suit. 

Okay, I'll be the first to agree that Toyota corporate big-wigs weren't thinking about their customers when they didn't respond to the "complaints" quickly.  But I don't see how class actions like this can "fix" the situation.  

When I look back at my first blog, written on the day I bought my first new car in a decade, I'm amazed ... who'd-a-thunk I'd be feeling buyer's regret 5 months later?  

Now I cringe every time I see the word "Toyota" in the news.

And I'm still waiting for a personal communication, a recall letter... or email... from Mr. Toyoda's company.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Hoar Frost Again

 Hoar frost on the coulee outside my front door in Nelson, Wisconsin

The forecasters predicted hoar frost this morning.  I got up early (for a Saturday) just in case they got it right.  They did.

Unlike January 19 - this time I was ready with my camera.

I headed north on my favorite "scenic" byway (known in Wisconsin as a "rural road") through the farm and bottom lands of the Lower Chippewa River to Eau Claire.  I thought I was in a race with the sun (melting the hoar frost).  It wasn't the sun, it was the wind.  The roadside was littered with piles ice crystals, sparkling in the sun. 

Other than a Rough-legged Hawk on County Road M and a Red-tailed Hawk at the edge of a snow covered cornfield, not too many birds.

But the hoar frost - wow!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Rough-legged Hawk in the Snow

The sun broke through the clouds again this morning.   So I threw caution to the wind and took my Prius for a spin.

I didn't get far before I had to pull over onto the shoulder.  No, it wasn't a Prius challenge.  It was the very big black and white bird sitting atop the tree in my neighbor's yard.

Note the legs - feathered all the way to the toes

I grabbed my camera, rolled down the window and took a quick shot

When I opened the door to get out of my car, the bird took off.

I knew what it is.   Look at the distinctive black marks on its wrists...

...and the broad black band and white at the base of the tail.  Another distinguishing characteristic - that I didn't see - is hovering (like a kestrel) over a prey item (usually a rodent, but occasionally a bird).

It's a light morph Rough-legged Hawk, the second I've seen in the neighborhood since October.

These birds breed in the arctic and sub-arctic regions.  They migrate south, and over-winter in Canada and the US near airports and in agricultural areas where rodents are plentiful.  That's a good description of my neighborhood.  In addition to the corn and soybean fields, there's a very small private airport 2 miles up the road.

Rough-legs are known for hunting from perches in the winter - and my neighbor's tree provides a great view of surrounding cornfields.  They're often seen scavenging at roadkills.

                                                   Rough-legged Hawk Christmas Bird Count data

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bald Eagles @Lake Pepin, Reads Landing and Colvill Park

Bald Eagle north of Reads Landing, Minnesota

After two days of howling wind and snow squalls, I welcomed today's blue sky and sunshine.

I headed up the road to the Maxville Alternative High School to check out the deer carcass strung up in their yard.  The chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers were still working on it.  Juncos shared the thistle feeder with the goldfinches, and the little Red-breasted Nuthatch "owned" the peanut suet feeder.

After an hour of bird whispering and watching, I headed home for lunch.  Driving out of the school parking lot, I looked to the left and spotted a Bald Eagle a dozen yards away - flying west, parallel to my car.  I looked at her, thinking - can I pull over and get my camera focused fast enough?  Not a chance.

As she flew, she turned her head and looked me, looking at her.  It was as if she was challenging me to a race.  Then I thought, okay... forget the camera, I'll clock you.  She flew about half a mile, before cutting in front of me and heading north to the Chippewa River Bottoms.  My Prius computer had her going an effortless 35 mph.

As I pulled into my driveway minutes later, I knew what I'd be doing the rest of the day:  eagle-watching.

Nothing at the Wabasha waterfront, but there were plenty of Bald Eagles at Reads Landing.  And the    Trumpeter Swans hadn't left.  A dozen were feeding in the bottoms.

Eagles and Trumpeter Swans at Reads Landing

I hit the jackpot at the overlook between Reads Landing and Camp Lacupolis.  There were lots of eagles - fishing, flying and perched - all along the open channel.

The last stop was Colvill Park on the south side of Red Wing, MN.  I was surprised to see the River channel open - and the cooling lagoon by the power plant (where, in the past, I've seen trees literally full of roosting raptors) frozen over.  Nothing happening there.

I crossed the Mississippi at Red Wing, and drove home on the Wisconsin side at sunset.

 Looking south at the Wisconsin bluffs and ice houses 
on the Upper Mississippi River north of Lake Pepin

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Prius Recall

Today's headlines:

"Last week Toyota admitted they had corrected problems with the antilock brake system in the new Prius models sold since late last month (January 2010).

But the company said it was still deciding what steps to take to fix the problem in Prius cars sold in Japan and overseas before late January."
Today Toyota took a step.

The Japanese manufacturer announced through the news media that Toyota will contact Prius owners next week.  Dealers will be ready to make a 40-minute fix - a new computer program that will make the new 3rd Generation Prius safe.

I was disappointed on so many levels.

I expected to hear the news directly from Toyota.  I know they have my email address because they me sent the following message on Sun, Feb 7, 2010 at 10:12 PM:

          For more than 50 years, Toyota has produced safe, reliable, quality vehicles and provided
            first-rate service.  Because your safety and confidence in Toyota is of the utmost 
            importance to us, we want to ensure that we are providing you with the latest recall 
            information. To get further details, please visit

           Additionally, Jim Lentz, President and COO of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., will be 

           interviewed live on Digg Dialogg on Monday, February 8, at 2 p.m. PST to answer the top 
           questions as voted on by the Digg community. Watch the interview here.

          Your safety is important to us, and we will continue to do everything we can to keep you 


Monday, February 8, 2010

A Junco at the Deer Carcass

I went over to check out the birds at the deer carcass birdfeeder at the Maxville Alternative High School.  I was hoping to get a photo of a Dark-eyed Junco eating suet.  This time the birds cooperated.

I also documented the juncos eating thistle.

A Red-breasted Nuthatch at the upside-down suet feeder.


And this "mystery" bird.  With the black head, my first thought was:  Rose-breasted Grosbeak?
Too small.    
Here's another view:


It's a very dark male purple finch!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Prius Recall?

I saw an Toyota ad this morning on MSNBC - a contrite "we want you to know we care about safety and we care about our customers" commitment ad.


Curious, I checked Google News and found this headline:   TOYOTA PLANNING RECALL OF PRIUS.

"The brake problem is thought to affect about 270,000 Priuses that were sold in the US and Japan starting last May. Toyota blames a software glitch and says it has already fixed vehicles sold this year."

"The person familiar with Toyota's plans said the company would likely "take action early this week to fix the Priuses."

Do I have mixed feelings?  If this report is true:  yes.

1.  Not happy  -  Toyota recognized the brake problem months ago.  They had a fix.   They applied the fix to vehicles on the assembly line first.  It appears they waited until pressed - to offer the same fix for the car I bought in August 2009.

2.  Relieved - Toyota may announce a recall and fix the brakes on my Prius.

Last week I wondered about the challenges of maintaining today's complex computer-controlled automobiles.

This week I'm wondering about the integrity of a car manufacturer I once admired.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A New Squirrel-Proof Suet Feeder

Late yesterday, UPS delivered a new upside-down squirrel-proof bird feeder.  Before the sun disappeared over the bluffs, I filled it with a peanut butter suet cake and hung it from from the pole outside my kitchen window.

When I got up this morning, it was snowing.  Birds were everywhere.

Everywhere but on my new feeder.

Okay.  I'm impatient.  I admit it.

Eventually a downy woodpecker will find it.  Before I could finish that thought, it became a reality.  Just like that - a female downy woodpecker gave it a try.

I like this feeder.  It's easy to fill and easy to clean (it fits in my dishwasher).  The big birds can access it and it's easy on the eyes.  It does a great job protecting the suet from dust, dirt and bird droppings.

While I don't have a squirrel challenge, I know what they can do.   I can't see squirrels getting to this one.

Want to see more feeders like this?  Check out the ERVA products catalog.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

2010 Toyota Prius Brakes

I caught a video clip of Toyota USA President Jim Lentz as he left his "Today Show" interview Monday.  As he was leaving, he was ambushed by journalists armed with microphones and cameras.  He was hesitant - with good reason.  What could he add to what he ever-so-cautiously said to Matt Lauer?

The story is personal for me.  I invested in a new 2010 3rd Generation Toyota Prius 5 months ago.   I remember attending the dealer's "new" car-owner "class" last fall.  That night, one of the new Prius owners said something about the brakes "grabbing" - I think it was when the car was in "reverse."  ("Ding, ding, ding." I can hear the backup warning system).

At the time, I chalked it up to the new and different feel of driving a Prius.  The 2010 model uses regenerative braking as part of its hybrid system.  The brakes react a little differently from traditional car brakes.  It didn't bother me at the time because I pay attention to speed and I'm not heavy on the brakes.  (My Honda CRV has nearly 200,000 miles on it - with the original brakes).

This morning's news was a little more disconcerting.

There have been reports involving braking on bumpy or frozen surfaces.  Instead of stopping, some drivers say their cars lurched forward.  As you can see from the photo above, I drive on bumpy, dusty and recently, frozen surfaces - all the time.  I have not had any problems - yet.

But it made me wonder about how car computers deal with bumps and dust.

Then I thought:  Maybe it's time for a visit to the carwash.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Groundhog Day

The ground is frozen here in cheese-head country.   I don't expect any groundhog will be up looking for his shadow.  Not in my neighborhood.

We got 3-inches of snow overnight - not enough to interfere with the Groundhog Day festivities down the road in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. 

from this year's Sun Prairie, Wisconsin
Groundhog Day festivities website

The results came in this morning.
Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow.  Sun Prairie's Jimmy did not.

 Mayor Bloomberg does the honors in Staten Island (note the gloves) - NYC woodchucks bite
photo courtesy of the Mayor's Office

And in New York City, Staten Island's Chuck had the good sense to agree with midwestern wisdom.

Phil's accuracy rate - 39%.  Jimmy's - 80%.  Chuck's - 76%.

I'll go with Jimmy.

Keep in mind, February 2nd is always 6 weeks from the first day of spring.  
Regardless of whether Phil, Jimmy and Chuck see their shadows, technically we're in for 6 more weeks of winter. 

If you want to learn more about the history of this quaint celebration, click here

While I'm not likely to see any of Phil or Jimmy's cousins anytime soon, I have seen an unusual number of mammal visitors at my birdfeeding station lately:  a gray squirrel, a fox squirrel, an opossum and two cottontails.

Only six more weeks of winter.  I'm counting the days.