Saturday, March 31, 2007

Rainy Saturday

Apologies to my faithful readers for not posting anything yesterday. We got up at 3 AM to be to work by 4:30 AM because it's the end of the quarter for IBM. Since Manpower is not allowing me to work overtime, I went in early to try and get the returned parts list to my suppliers in Czech Republic and Italy (because they're 6 hours ahead of us). It was a crazy day, but I got almost everything done and we left for home about 1 PM. I was too tired to figure out what to put on my blog, and I finally went to bed about 8:10.

This morning it was raining, and it sounds like it's going to be raining for most of the rest of the weekend.

There's lost of activity in the yard. The robins seem pretty happy because this rain is really bringing out the night crawlers. There's a whole lot of chirpin' going on.

The rain doesn't seem to cause any problems for birds getting their seed at the feeders, although I don't think they look happy with their bedraggled, wet feathers.

The cardinal showed up in the crabapple tree and tried really hard to pull one of the dried up apples off for a snack, but those old stems just aren't letting go. He flew away disappointed.

The bunny even showed up to try and find some corn for munching. It's sort of unusual to see the bunny out in the middle of the day and so close to the house. They're usually hiding out somewhere until later in the afternoon and into the evening. I saw this big bunny come hopping out from under the brush pile.

The squirrel put in its appearance for the day too. This squirrel is becoming a pretty regular visitor now. This squirrel is distinctive because when you see it from behind, its ears are really light (almost white). It's a very fat squirrel and has beautiful, soft-looking fur. I love the way it sits in the tray feeder and uses its tail as an umbrella.
The goldfinches are really starting to get their yellow feathers back. I'm still only seeing 1 or 2 at a time, but hopefully there will be more showing up soon.

I got this forged iron corn cob feeder at the Renaissance Festival many years ago. The bluejays eat corn from it all winter and today I discovered the grackles have figured out how to use it also.

The National Weather Service predicted about 2" of rain for us during this weekend. I think this is close enough for now. I'll be mowing lawn in a couple of weeks because everything's really starting to green up with the spring rains.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Living With Grackles

The grackles were some of my first spring migrants to return. They will be in my yard now until sometime in September. The majority of them are here from now till about the first part of July. After they've finished nesting and the babies have fledged, they will begin moving on to greener pastures -- mainly farm fields in the area.

Grackles are not one of my favorite birds, but over the years I have learned to tolerate them. (Unlike European starlings and house sparrows, they're a native species, so it's illegal to kill them!) They really like my yard because it's the perfect habitat for them to nest in -- lots of evergreen trees. I like the evergreen trees because they grow pretty fast and they provide lots of shelter and nesting spots for other birds too. In addition to the grackles, I have had robins, mourning doves, cardinals, and brown thrashers nesting in them. (Unlike starlings and house sparrows, the grackles also never compete with my cavity nesting birds for nesting sites.)

Grackles tend to dominate the bird feeders. I think this is partly because there are so many of them, plus they are a somewhat pushy bird. A few summers ago I watched a grackle peck a house sparrow to death. I had never seen that before and I've never seen it since. Both birds were eating on the ground, and for whatever reason when that house sparrow got close to the grackle, something just made that grackle attack and kill the house sparrow. I wasn't too upset because I like house sparrows even less than grackles. It was just shocking because it was so unexpected.

I have the advantage of having a big yard and am able to put designated "grackle feeders" farther away from the house, so they're less likely to come and eat from the feeders where I want to see the "nice" birds. Grackles are somewhat lazy and will go to where it's easiest for them to find food.

For my grackles feeders, I rely heavily on the open tray feeders and fly-thru feeders. In these feeders I put a blend that attracts the grackles: black oil sunflower, cracked corn, and some white proso millet. The advantage is these seeds are less expensive and in addition to the grackles, many other birds will also eat it, including mourning doves, cardinals, bluejays, and sparrows.

The other thing I do to keep grackles away from feeders where I don't want them is to put guards on my tube feeders. Then I can put out the good seed for my little birds who can get through the guard: chickadees, house finches, chipping sparrows, and even the downy woodpecker. The only disadvantage to these guards is that it restricts the larger birds. For the tube feeder closest to my dining room window, I'm going to switch to straight safflower seed instead of putting it inside the guard. Grackles don't really care for the safflower seed -- the shell is too hard for them to make the effort to crack and eat the seed inside. This should work out well, because cardinals and rose-breasted grosbeaks will readily eat safflower seed. That way I can still see those birds up close.

So, spring is here and with it grackles. I guess it's something I'm just going to have to live with as a backyard bird feeder. While they don't have a pretty song or even very pretty feathers, they do eat lots of insects in my yard, and for this reason alone, I will tolerate them for a few months each summer.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

101 Ways to Help Birds

Last night at the Zumbro Valley Audubon Society meeting, our featured speaker was Laura Erickson. Laura is well-known in the birding world and she came to our meeting to speak about her book, "101 Ways to Help Birds." This is a very good (though sometimes frightening) book that highlights many things all of us can do to help birds in our backyards and beyond. It was a pretty good turnout, but not outstanding. I sometimes get the feeling that a lot of people just aren't ready or willing to make changes in their lives that benefit birds, wildlife, or nature, even when many of those changes ultimately benefit us as humans also.

Wild Birds Unlimited had Laura as a special guest for a book signing on Monday afternoon. Here's how she inscribed my book.

After reading this book, I found that there were quite a things I was already doing, but here are some additional changes I'm planning to institute this year, following the "ways" from Laura's book.

#4 - Compost as much kitchen waste as possible

#11 - Recycle thermometers, button batteries, fluorescent bulbs, and other mercury-containing objects

#14 - Conserve electricity

#19 - Identify and keep track of my backyard birds

#21 - Grow an assortment of trees, shrubs, and other plants to provide food and cover for a variety of birds

#32 - Use weed killers and fungicides only as a last resort

#33 - Eliminate or minimize the use of lawn and garden insecticides

I'm also planning to mow 1 acre less than I have in previous years. I think this may help attract more of the open grassland birds, plus it will cut almost an hour off my mowing time and now that gas is up to $2.59 a gallon, we will be conserving gas and money also.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

More Signs of Spring

Yesterday our high temp was 81 degrees -- a record breaker for March 27th. Today was not quite as warm, but still afternoon highs in the mid 60's. You have to look really hard to find snow left anywhere . . . we've found it only in the most shadiest, sheltered spots and there's not much left even there.

Signs of spring are all around. I found these 3 little white crocus blooming in my flower bed today.

Also some of my perennials are starting to sprout in the butterfly/hummingbird perennial flower bed on the southeast side of the house.


Tall Blue Phlox


And out in the yard, my daffodils have started coming up too.

Warm spring weather also means spring storms. Here are some storm clouds I photographed yesterday evening. They were far to the east of us -- we didn't even get a sprinkle, but they certainly looked impressive with the last of the evening sun shining on them.

While walking out in the yard with Sophie this afternoon, I came upon these tracks in the soft ground. I was wondering how many bunnies we had now because they seemed to be eating an awful lot of corn every night. Now I know why all that corn is disappearing so fast . . . the deer are coming back. We haven't seen them yet, but they're definitely leaving their marks.

And last, but not least, Mr. Ring-Neck is still in the neighborhood. I saw him out in the yard from the supper table. He made a big tour of the yard and finally remembered where he had gotten his vittles during the snow.

What a treat to still see him around.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Adventures in Knitting

Well now that winter is over, my knitting is going to slow down because I'll be spending more time outside. Unlike some people, I actually look forward to winter because of all the time spent indoors -- this gives me much more time for knitting. I have knitting projects stashed all over the place: in the bedroom closet, under the living room couch, inside a hassock, downstairs next to the couch. This doesn't even cover all the yarn for future projects that still resides in cupboards and bins downstairs. Unfortunately, I start many more projects than I finish, but at least I'm never at a loss for something to do.

Here's a new project I started last week. For years I've wondered why I couldn't take a child's sweater pattern and turn it into an adult sweater by using larger needles and a heavier weight of yarn. Well, I'm doing that right now.

So far the sleeves are done and the fronts are about halfway done (I always knit both sleeves at the same time so I don't have to remember where I put the increases and then when 1 sleeve is done, they're both done!) The yarn is a 100% wool dark brown but with some dark green, red, and blue fibers woven in. It's from a company in Canada and wasn't too expensive and there's lot of yards on a ball, so I should be able to get the entire sweater out of 5 balls.

In February and March I taught some knitting classes. We had 2 sessions of two-colored (stranded) knitting; there was a lot of interest in this class so I had to do it twice because I won't have more than 4 students at a time. The pattern we learned was for this headband. It's also a good exercise in circular knitting.

The other colored knitting class I taught was intarsia. I'm not a fan of intarsia because it's a totally different (i.e., more difficult) process than stranded knitting. I have never been pleased with how any of my intarsia projects turned out. However, one of my knitting friends told me about a wonderful little booklet on intarsia that gives step-by-step information on all techniques and how to make your finished project look great by doing things correctly.

In all instances, my students left with their projects almost finished and with a greater understanding of the techniques I was teaching them. It's very gratifying to me when people really want to learn something new, even when it's a difficult technique to master. I love it when they're knitting along and someone will say, "wow, this looks really cool and I'm really enjoying it."

I also made a couple of little shawls this winter. The blue variegated one was from my page-a-day knitting calendar. The yarn was a lovely, soft wool/angora blend with a little bit of nylon. It's so soft and warm and I have to remember not to leave it lying around or Penny will claim it as her own.

The black "swallowtail" shawl is made from 100% alpaca. Someone I know from work has an alpaca farm and he sold me 2 skeins of this yarn. It's really warm and knitted up really nice, however I've never knitted with black in a lace project before and I found out that it was something I could only work on in a sunny window, during the day, in order to see the stitches. There was a lot of yardage on the skeins and I think I have enough yarn left over to make a pair of gloves.

Here are some of the hats I made this winter. The earflap hats in camouflage are for me and Rick. The pink and white one will either be for sale at the yarn store next winter or end up as a donation for a silent auction fundraiser somewhere next fall. Someday, I would like to knit up a bunch of different hats from some of the funkier patterns I have and donate them all for a special silent auction fundraiser somewhere. Maybe this summer I will see what I can create from my yarn stash . . .

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Project FeederWatch

Today is my last day for Project FeederWatch. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology sponsors this project which is a "survey of feeder birds during winter." People from all over the U.S. and Canada participate in this project. Since this was the first winter in a long time when I knew I wasn't going to have to work on the weekends, I decided to try it again.

Bluejay selects a peanut from the window feeder -- this feeder is only out in the winter.

The nice thing is that you can do the whole project on-line if you have internet access (there's also a mail-in option for people who don't have a home computer). My first weekend began November 11-12, 2006. We had received 10.5" of snow just the day before, so there were lots of birds at my feeders that weekend.

The more acrobatic bluejays can choose a peanut from the wreath feeder hanging in the tree.

The numbers of birds fluctuated throughout the season and I was amazed at the numbers and variety of birds appearing in my yard when I actually took the time to sit and watch them. Some of the more notable results were 13 cardinals seen in February, a northern shrike that appeared one weekend in November, a white-breasted nuthatch that visited me until the 23rd of January (I'm guessing Cooper's Hawk got him), and the rare winter visitor -- a clay-colored sparrow that was at my feeders from the middle of January to the middle of February.

Male house finch enjoys a bath in the heated bird spa.

It's been a fun season and I would encourage anyone who watches the birds at their feeder to participate. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology tabulates this data to determine increases or declines in the songbird populations and if weather or some other factor contributes to these trends. There is a small cost ($15) to participate, but I think it was worth it for what I found out about birds in my yard. It will be interesting to see how things change next year.

Plain suet out now to discourage starlings. The woodpeckers love this tree because the bark is really rough and they spend lots of time pecking around behind the loose pieces of bark.

To participate or find out more information, go to

Friday, March 23, 2007

Time for More Trees

Well, I did it, I ordered some more trees and shrubs today. I didn't tell Rick, so he won't find out till he reads this blog tomorrow morning at work. I can just imagine he'll sigh, shake his head and say to himself, "where in the heck is she going to put more trees?" I think we counted one time and I've planted over 400 trees and shrubs since we started landscaping in 1988.

The original goal was to block out views of the highway and maybe cut out some of the highway noise. We were successful on one point -- the view of the highway is almost completely blocked now. Or I should say, was blocked until last year.

That's when the semi-truck dealer north of us had to move their dealership in order for the rock quarry to expand. And, wouldn't you know the place that had been for sale south of us for years has become their new location. I never even knew it was zoned commercial.

So here are the "before" and "after" pictures. Before it was a pretty little 5-acre homestead, similar to ours with all these wonderful, huge, old oak trees. The red-tailed hawks nested there for years. And the trees shielded us from the view of the busy northbound exit for the airport road.

During the winter of 2005, they started cutting the trees down, and cut, and cut, and cut, until there was nothing left by spring. Then they moved the house and shed away, and most of last summer was spent grading out all of the grass and bringing in truckloads of fill so they could establish the site for the truck dealership. Of course it had to be huge because they have bunches of those big semi tractors and also a huge showroom/office/shop building where all the other work has to be done.

So now looking out our dining room window and sitting on the deck, all's we see is this barren wasteland of dirt where someday soon will be asphalt, trucks, and most likely annoying, 50-foot high halogen lights illuminating the entire dealership. Won't that be nice? NOT!!

So, today, I called up my friends at the Musser Forest Company in Pennsylvania. I've gotten trees and shrubs from them before and had pretty good luck with them. I ordered 5 of their fast growing Hybrid Poplars (may grow 4-8 feet per year!) and a fast growing Green Ash. In the center of the picture above is the drainfield for our septic system, but just beyond that is where I plan to put in the new trees. Hopefully, I can space them out well enough to screen out most of this view in the next several years.

And then just for good measure, I'll visit one of my local nurseries this spring and pick out a new weeping willow to put on the hillside. I love the huge weeping willow I have now and don't even mind picking up all the sticks too much, because it's the largest tree in my yard and grew so fast and huge and really blocks out the highway -- even in winter when there are no leaves on it. Hmmm . . . maybe I should also look for a cottonless cottonwood, cuz' they grow pretty fast too, right?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Happy Thursday

We received the predicted thunderstorm with lots of lightning, thunder, and heavy rain last night around 10:30. It cleaned things up nicely and today turned out to be sunny and mild with highs in the 50's. Just what we needed to get spring started off on the right foot. We were able to do the rest of the dog poop and corncob removal out in the yard. Still too wet to start raking up birdseed, but tomorrow is supposed to be even nicer than today, so I'm guessing things should start drying up pretty fast. We have to work 6 hours on Saturday to cover IBM's end-of-quarter work demands, but we'll get off at 11:00 a.m., so the afternoon should be free for outside tasks.

Rick got the motorcycles started this afternoon -- the first time since he stored them away last November. Maybe if it's really nice this weekend, we'll be able to go out for a little ride.

I saw my first song sparrow this evening and also a couple of cedar waxwings flying around while I was making supper. Rick thought he had seen a bluebird earlier in the day, but I can't confirm that.

The downy woodpeckers are really starting to chase each other around to establish their territorial rights. The starlings have eaten all of the nutty suet I had out for the woodpeckers, so now that the suet feeders are empty, I'll be filling them with plain suet. Starlings really don't care for that, so maybe they won't be hanging around so much.
I have a couple of windows cracked open till the sun sets, and I'm really enjoying listening to the red-winged blackbirds and cardinals singing their happy spring songs.

I'm getting a pretty bad case of spring fever -- I even got a couple of my windchimes out of storage. Now that we'll be spending more time outside again, I can enjoy listening to them.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

What's Going On Here?

OK science geeks and nature nerds . . . I need your help here. Over the weekend I noticed something strange going on in my yard. All these little holes are appearing once the snow has melted and I don't know what they are.

They aren't everywhere in the yard, but when I find some, they're usually in a concentrated area. At first I thought maybe it was some kind of a worm hole or something, but I think the ground is still frozen. The only possibility I've been able to come up with is that maybe the starlings are doing it. I watched them on Sunday and there were little groups of them walking around on the yard and sticking their beaks in the ground, looking for insects or whatever it is that starlings do (besides annoy me!)

I knelt down and took an even closer look at a couple of these holes this afternoon. The hole goes all the way through the grass to the soil. I stuck my finger in the hole, but it didn't feel as though there was a hole in the soil.

The weatherman has predicted rain and thunderstorms for tonight, so I'll be curious to see if the wet weather has any effect on these holes. For Thursday and Friday, the weather prediction is calling for sunny skies and highs in the 50's and 60's. That will make the grass green up quick and maybe these holes will disappear.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Junco Heaven

We've had huge flocks of juncos hanging around the yard for a couple of weeks. Since the snow started melting, they've really been showing up, sitting on the ground scratching around and eating all the seed that was revealed by the disappearance of the snow. I love hearing their little twittering calls and watching them enforce the pecking order. They're kind of a scrappy little bird and you can notice their hierarchy when certain birds are chased away from the feeding area. They're most comfortable feeding on the ground or in a tray feeder, but I've occasionally seen them in a seed catcher tray on a tube feeder and even sometimes even on a perch on the nyjer thistle feeder. Their favorite seed is white proso millet. They also eat many weed seeds from the lawn. Many times I'll see little flocks of them sitting out in the middle of the yard.

All the little dark spots in this picture are juncos feeding on the ground and in the tray feeder. The bright yellow objects are partially eaten corn cobs which are enjoyed by bunnies, bluejays, grackles, and crows. I have a friend who still picks corn on the ear and he sells me 50 lb. bags of ear corn for cheap. Once the deer start coming back, they will start eating this ear corn also.

They're one of our most common winter birds in Minnesota. We should be seeing them for several more weeks before they depart for their summer migration to nesting grounds in Canada and Alaska. I'll miss them when they're gone, but then I'll have the spring and summer birds as consolation.

Gotta' love them "snowbirds!"

Monday, March 19, 2007

Whose Chair Is It?

Daisy loves our living room recliner. It's close to the patio door so she can watch outside and a it's in a good spot to soak up the afternoon sun. She just fits in the chair when she's all curled up. The problem is it's right by the lamp where Rick likes to read his newspaper and hunting magazines--plus it's right in front of the TV (and "Deal or No Deal"). If someone is in the chair and Daisy wants to use it, she will sit in front of you and stare at you until you either move or she gives up and goes to the couch instead. Here is the sequence of events showing Daisy's acquisition of "the best seat in the house."

"Excuse me Dad, but I'd really like to sit in that chair now if you don't mind."

"Now, a few turns to find the perfect spot for sleeping."

"Aaahh, just right! Please wake me when it's time for the walk."

Do we have the most spoiled dogs in the world? No probably not, just the most spoiled dogs in the neighborhood. On April 11th, Daisy will be 14 years old. Now that she's in her "golden years" we let her get away with more stuff than she used to because we don't know how many more years we'll have her around and even though she's spoiled, she's not bratty (like Sophie!)