Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Robins and Hackberries

American Robins eating hackberries

It was about this time last year that I "discovered" Hackberry trees along the Lower Chippewa River.  They've always been there.  I just never noticed them.

What made me stop and look?  A flock of birds, perched in the leaf-less canopy, silhouetted against a mean gray sky.   Their movements caught my eye.

It didn't take much to identify the birds.  They were gluttonously feasting on a dark fruit the size of cherries.  Had to be Cedar Waxwings or American Robins.  A quick look through binoculars confirmed it:  Cedar Waxwings.

But what were those fruits?  And what was that tree?

I was clueless.  And I felt stupid.  Why didn't I "know" that tree?

Figuring it out required getting out of the Prius (brr) with my little Canon Powershot to get some reference pictures. 

Hackberry Bark

Lucky for me, I could get close enough to photograph the bark.  From there it was easy.  Common Hackberries are known for their "cork-like bark with wart-like protuberances."

Turns out, figuring out the identity of this one tree last fall opened my eyes to some of the other creatures related to it, animals I also spotted for the first time, this past year.

Hackberry Gall Psyllid
Hackberry Emperor butterfly
Hackberry Nipple Galls

Hackberry Petiole Gall (summer)

Hackberry Petiole Gall (winter)

Now that I can identify a Common Hackberry tree, I keep looking for "new" creatures associated with it.

Today it was the same fruits, same tree, same weather - but different birds.  Today's birds were American Robins.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Big Freeze on the Upper Mississippi

After a week of freezing weather, I was very surprised to see Tundra Swans at Rieck's Lake Park yesterday.   We spotted a dozen big white birds sitting on the ice in front of the observation deck.  They were sleeping when we arrived.  They woke up when a flock of Canada Geese honked as they flew by.

It's just a matter of time before the backwaters and main channel of the Upper Mississippi River ice-over.

Looking across Pool 4 from the Jay Hawk Ranch (Nelson, WI)

I went back for another look today.  The Upper Mississippi River at Pool 4 is iced over - covered with strings of resting waterfowl - ducks, geese and Tundra Swans.  This may be the last weekend to see large concentrations of waterfowl on the river.

Despite what the calendar says, when the backwaters are filled with people ice-fishing, winter is here.

The sunny skies have been full of Bald Eagles, soaring along the bluffs and coulees.  It's not unusual to spot them feeding on roadkill along the highways and in fields feeding on deer remains left behind by hunters.

 We spotted hawks on utility poles and along tree lines - lots of Red-tailed Hawks, a couple of Harriers and our first-of-the-season Rough-legged Hawks.

Red-tailed Hawk

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Eagles and Wildlife Art at the Mayo Clinic

My husband has had some health challenges recently, so we've been driving back and forth to the Mayo Clinic.  While he doesn't look forward to "going to the doctor," the hour-long ride to Rochester has a tranquilizing effect.  We watch for waterfowl and raptors as we drive across the Mississippi River, and as we drive up the bluffs and through the farmland.

Today it was "raptor alley" all the way.  Bald Eagles were everywhere, including a surprising number hanging out along the road between Kellogg, Plainview and Rochester.  Not just one or two, but groups of three and four - soaring and perched in trees at the edges of recently harvested cornfields.

We counted two dozen Bald Eagles, a half dozen Red-tailed Hawks and a lone American Kestrel.

If I had a choice about when to go to the Clinic - it would be spring and summer, when the Peregrine Falcons are nesting.   You can watch them on the falcon-cam at the subway level near the pharmacy.  It's like Discovery Channel meets "Brothers and Sisters."

Today I discovered there are more birds to watch at the Mayo Clinic - if you know where to look.

I had to park in the Graham Ramp because of construction across the street from the Gonda Building.  That took us on a new route through the Clinic's subway level.

That's when I saw the Orangutan, rhino and Bighorn Sheep.

Across the hallway, I spotted the Bald Eagle.

Who's the artist?

To find out, I had to read the text to the right of the bird.  "I never met an animal I didn't like," was the quote attributed to the artist.

The famous artist was born in Pittsburgh, son of Czech immigrants.   In these 10 screen prints depicting endangered species, he used his signature brilliant colors, photographic blow-ups and dramatic lines to create almost human-like expressions. 

Recognize him?

The Pop art icon:  Andy Warhol.

If you're interested in art, be sure to stop at the information desk in the Gonda Building (Lobby Level) and ask for a self-guided art tour map.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Another Bat in the House

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Armistice Day blizzard - one of the worst storms in the history of the mid-west. That day started out much like today, with unseasonably warm weather - in the 60s. It was a perfect day to go duck hunting on the Upper Mississippi River. Then, without warning, temperatures plummeted into the 30s, winds whipped up to 80 mph and more than 2-feet of snow fell. Nearly 50 people died in Minnesota - half of them duck hunters on the Upper Mississippi River.

I was thinking about that Blizzard today and the program Wings Over Alma Nature and Art Center is presenting on Sunday.

I was not thinking about bats today - although on warm days like this "close encounters of the bat kind" can happen. (Unseasonably warm days can disrupt hibernation - causing confused bats to crawl out of an attic - and fly around the house.)

No, I wasn't thinking about bats at all, when my phone rang at 9:30 pm.

The caller was a woman I'd met only a few times. She lives in northern Minnesota. And she was thinking about bats today.

She had a bat in her house and she thought I might be able to help her.

Yah, sure, I said, expecting to hear that she wasn't happy about her little furry visitor.

I was wrong. She likes bats.

She said she caught the little guy and fed him some mealworms. She wanted to know what to do next.

I cautioned her about Minnesota wildlife regulations and the health concerns associated with handling bats. Then I explained what the bat was doing in her house (following the vertical gradient of temperature - looking for a cooler place to roost/hibernate).

Like "Alice in Wonderland"... the bat went down the rabbit hole and ended up facing not one, but four Cheshire cats. (She has 4 indoor cats). Disoriented and dehydrated, all this little bat wants to do is get a drink, then get back to a cool roost and get on with the hibernation.

The woman said she put it in a little plastic cage with a dish of mealworms and gave it a spritz of water. Now what? She just couldn't put it outside now that it's freezing. She didn't want him to die.

Put him back up in your attic and he'll be fine, I said.

You may see him again, if it gets unseasonably warm. If you do - feed him and give him a drink, but don't put him in a "cage" with hard surfaces (plastic aquarium or gas jar). The hard surfaces can damage bat wings.

Consider buying a "reptarium" cloth mesh cage. Get your pre-exposure rabies vaccination. And if you want to know more about bats in captivity, take a look at this book: Bats in Captivity: Aspects of Rehabilitation.

Send me a photo, so I can confirm the ID.

She did: it's a Big Brown bat.

Would that all "bat emergency" calls have happy endings like this one:

 "I put him back in the small attic space after he ate 16 meal worms and had another drink. He crawled through the gap in the access panel. I heard him climb up the inside wall. Then he crawled back down and peeked out again. I told him he had to go back to bed, play time is over! He turned around and went back. I hope he makes it..."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ruffed Grouse in the Road

It never ceases to amaze me - what I've seen from the front seat of my Prius.

Today it was this Ruffed Grouse, foraging in the middle of the road (Rustic Road 107) in the mixed hardwoods near Xcel Energy's Tyrone property.

While these grouse are still relatively common in Wisconsin, I've only seen four in my life.  And I remember the "when and where" for every one of them.   Today's was the second-best view I've ever had.

My best happened on a sunny fall morning in New Jersey's Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.  I was hiking up to the hawk banding station when I heard, off in the distance, what sounded like a muffled motor.  I stopped and looked around.  There it was:  a grouse on a drumming log with his chest puffed out and wings a-whirring.

The wild chicken that crossed the road today was not so dramatic - cautiously pecking at acorns crushed by passing cars.

How close could I get in my stealth Prius?

We were about 30 yards away when the bird stopped, looked our way, then exploded into the sky and disappeared into the woods.

In pre-settlement days, three species of grouse were common in the lower Chippewa River valley:  Prairie Chickens, Sharp-tailed Grouse and Ruffed Grouse.  As brushlands and prairies succumbed to the plow, Sharp-tailed and Prairie Chicken populations began to decline.   Sharp-tails disappeared around 1900.  Prairie chickens started their decline in the 1930s.  In the fall of 1932, Buss and Mattison recalled seeing a flock of 150 Prairie Chickens in Meridean.   By the 1950s they were gone.

The Ruffed Grouse survived settlement.  The logging that followed created habitat that favored them:  early successional mixed hardwood forests - with oaks, aspen, birch, hazelnuts and dogwoods.

Ruffed Grouse populations are cyclical, with population peaks occurring every 10 years or so.   Oliver Gibbs wrote one of those peak years, 1869: 

           "...in the month of October, these grouse were so plentiful that while one of us was  
             starting up the fire in the morning, another might take his gun, step into the thickets 
             anywhere and return in 15 minutes with enough for breakfast.  In the evening, an hour 
             or so before sunset, we could hear a noise like distant thunder occasioned by their 
             flying down from the bluffs to feed upon the birch and alder buds along the bank of 
             the stream..."

Look for them this winter, foraging on the ground and in the trees, especially aspens.  They feed on aspen buds, hazelnut catkins and buds, willow, birch and maple.

And where the snow is powdery and more than 8" deep, look for them in what's called a "snow roost."  When conditions are right (no crust on the snow), Ruffed Grouse will dive head-first into the powder and continue to burrow until they find just the right place to spend the night - protected from both winter winds and predators.

And yes, Ruffed Grouse have been known to explode up and out of these snow roosts as hikers pass by...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Tundra Swans in Nelson, WI

Here's what it looked like this afternoon from Cedar Ridge Resort just south of Nelson, Wisconsin.  Wes Stensland said he first noticed them (their vocalizations) on Sunday.

Look up-river from the dock at Cedar Ridge.  They're pretty far off so you'll need a scope.

There's a handful of Tundra Swans in the Buffalo River near Tell (head east on State Road 37 towards Mondovi).

Just up-river from Rieck's Lake Park (take County Road I to Badland Road) we got great looks at dabbling ducks - Gadwalls, pintails, Green-winged Teal - and coots.