Friday, May 30, 2008

No Birds--Just Knitting

Back in February, I showed you the new shawl project I had just started knitting with some beautiful silk and alpaca yarn, and I've finally finished it. This afternoon I gave it a little bath and pinned it out on the bed to dry.

As soon as I laid it out, I immediately noticed something was wrong....can you see it? Towards the upper left edge? Here's a closer look at the huge freakin' hole!
Curses! I must have dropped a stitch in one of the last rows before I started knitting on the lace edging. I'll have to wait for it to finish drying and see if I can get this straightened out, because this is the shawl I'm planning to donate to the Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival next week for their silent auction.

I've also been working on some hats. Here are a couple of the completed ones for Kristy's Hat Quest.
In the picture below, the striped one on the right is going for Kristy's Hat Quest too. For the light green one with cables (left), I'm using a fabulous yarn that is 70% baby alpaca and 30% cashmere. I just love knitting with this yarn! I keep having to stop and fondle the hat or hold it up against my face because it's just so soft. I hope the special friend I'm knitting this for isn't allergic to these fibers......
I bought this alpaca/cashmere yarn on a clearance sale and only purchased 4 balls. I wish now I had gotten bunches of it. I'm pretty sure I'm going to keep the last 3 balls all for myself!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Birding & Hiking with my Sissy

Last week my Sissy invited me to come down to her place early on Saturday morning for birding and hiking. Even though she lives in town, she gets great birds in her yard.

Here's a little bird feasting on the grape jelly in her oriole feeder. Sissy says she's had these little ones coming for a couple of weeks, but the numbers have started to decline this week as migration continues.
She was calling them Ruby-Crowned Kinglets and that's kind of what I thought also, just because they were so tiny. But as I was posting these pictures to my blog tonight, and looking a little bit closer at this photo--
I don't think it's a kinglet at all--especially because of that white eyebrow, darker eye stripe and lack of any wingbars. So what is it? Anybody have any thoughts? I'm leaning towards Tennessee Warbler. I think the size and color are about right.

After enjoying the backyard birds for a while, Sissy and I headed off to the walking trails of nearby Bear Cave Park. As we were crossing the footbridge, I spotted this little bird fly over to a rock in the middle of the river. I'm even worse at shorebird ID than I am at warblers, but based on size, actions of the bird, and description from my Kaufmann Field Guide, I'm going with Spotted Sandpiper on this one.
Of course, the picture was taken into the sun and the bird was a distance away, so good field marks can't be seen, but I was still excited to see this bird--we just don't get many shorebirds in this area. If anyone else has any thoughts on this bird also, I'd appreciate your input.

Our walk through the woods didn't reveal as many warblers and other birds as we thought we'd see, but the scenery was quite beautiful.
We did hear and see the Red-Eyed Vireo and Cedar Waxwings, along with the usual wrens, robins, and crows.

As we followed the trail out of the woods, we came to an area that has been restored to native prairie. Sissy and I marveled at this as we didn't even know this area existed! We headed over to the viewing platform in the middle of this prairie and were treated to the sights of Tree Swallows, Eastern Bluebirds, and Indigo Buntings. In the farm fields beyond this prairie area, we heard and saw Eastern Wild Turkeys and the Ring-Necked Pheasant.

Soon it was time to head for home as Sissy had to get ready for work. But what a fun trip. I know Sissy and I will definitely bird these areas again since gas prices are keeping us all closer to home this summer.

I'll leave you with this picture of Mrs. Red-Bellied Woodpecker enjoying a suet treat from the log hanging in my Sissy's backyard.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Purple Martins

I was sitting on the couch tonight watching the 6:00 news and knitting on a hat. The windows were open and all of a sudden I heard it--a purple martin chirping outside! Now here's where I'm going to give a true confession: no matter where I am or what I'm doing, part of my concentration will be on listening for birds--whether it's on TV, or I'm near an open window or especially when I'm outside. This tends to drive people crazy -- especially people who spend any time with me outdoors (right Sissy?) because they might be in the middle of a story and I'll just stop them and say something like, "Did you hear that Indigo Bunting over there?" It's not that I'm deliberately trying to be rude, I'm just obsessed with birds.

OK, where was I? Oh yeah, back to the purple martins.....I jumped up and dashed to the patio door to look outside and sure enough, there they were! One was sitting on top of the pole while the other one was inside one of the gourds looking out. I grabbed my binocs and camera and headed out to the yard. The nice thing about martins is that they aren't fearful of humans, so I was able to get really close for this little video where you can hear him chirping.

It was so coincidental because I had just let the gourd rack down earlier this afternoon to take out some of the doorstops (put in earlier this spring to keep sparrows, starlings and tree swallows out till the martins arrived). I just had kind of a feeling that martins might be arriving soon, but I expected it would be the sub-adult martins. The pair that visited tonight were adults (the male was completely dark purple).

Adult Male Purple Martin
(when you see a real martin, you wonder how they could possibly be fooled by my decoy attached to this perch!)

I'm not sure where this pair came from, but I hope they come back (they departed shortly after I took these pictures).

Rural Birding & More!

This post is going backwards in time a few days to last Friday evening when Mr. Johnson offered to take me out for a birding drive after supper. We ended up driving around the area where we turkey and deer hunt, so I know this trip wasn't just for my benefit!

It's actually been pretty dry here for the last week, so many of the farmers have gotten their crops in the field and some of the corn and oats are already coming up. Here's what it looks like around here--lots of flat fields and and the clumps of trees you see are either farmsteads or sinkholes. The arrow is pointing to a tractor--but you can only see the cloud of dust from the planter or whatever he's pulling behind. The majority of these fields are probably planted in corn, so by the middle of summer it will be a "sea of green."

Here's what hungry deer can do to an arbor vitae hedge during a long snowy winter. I think it's a funny picture, but I'm sure the homeowner who lives here doesn't!
As we were trying to figure out what was planted in the field near our deer hunting area, I noticed a large dark shape in the middle of the field. Binocular review showed me that it was a juvenile bald eagle.
The crows weren't happy about this eagle sitting in their field......
.....and after a few fly-bys, the eagle finally got tired of the harassment and flew away.
Our drive continued up the road and as we came over a rise we saw all the huge, dark birds in a field ahead. "Look at all those turkeys!" said Mr. Johnson. I grabbed the binocs again for a better look.
"Drive closer," I said, "those aren't turkeys, they're turkey vultures!"
I have never seen this many vultures together and on the ground--there wasn't even anything dead there! Here's a close-up for my friend Lynne.
They're not the prettiest bird in the world, but you have to admit they're magnificent in flight.
Continuing on our journey, we turned down another back road that used to be a good "parking" road for us back in the 70's (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). The road has been redone, so there aren't any isolated spots anymore, plus there are many more people who live out this way. One of the farms there had these magnificent animals in their field. Holy cow indeed!

I have never seen horns like these. I don't know my bovine species very well, does anyone else have any idea what kind of cattle these are? Those horns were massive.

UPDATE: After googling "texas longhorn cattle," I sent an e-mail to Mike Crawford at Red Peak Ranch in Mills County, TX asking if he could ID these cattle, since my pictures didn't look like the Texas Longhorns on Mike's website. I got a note back from Mike today and here's what he said, "It looks like they are a cross between a Watusi and Texas Longhorn. When their horns are thick and twist up they are Watusi which it appears 2 of the cows horns in your photos do this. The younger one where her horns are more lateral has some longhorn blood."
I'd heard of Watusi cattle (native to Africa), so I googled "watusi cattle" also. If you're interested, learn more about Watusi cattle at this
Wikipedia link.

It was starting to get closer to dark, so Mr. Johnson drove me past the old trout farm where he had seen an eagle nest earlier in the year. The eagle nest was obscured by leaves now, but we did see one of the adult eagles sitting nearby. There were lots of geese on the trout farm ponds and I spotted Mom & Pop Goose with some fuzzy young 'uns.

I asked Mr. Johnson to take one more detour on our way home to see if the Western Meadowlark I have seen previous years was still in the same area. We finally spotted this meadowlark in a small tree, but it never sang, so I can't confirm whether it was Eastern or Western. Any guesses from this picture?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Happy Birthday Dad!

This afternoon we celebrated Dad's 75th Birthday with a family get-together at the Pizza Ranch (we love Pizza Ranch--they have an awesome buffet with something yummy for everyone).

Here's Dad with his 75th birthday cake.

Dad has the special distinction of being a great-grampy. Here's the 4 Generation photo featuring my sissy, her daughter, and Dad with Ethan on his lap.

Great-Grampy and Ethan share a moment of mutual admiration for each other's hair styles!

Happy Birthday Dad and I hope you have many more!! Thanks for inviting us to your party!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Can This Garden Be Salvaged? (A Dirt Rant)

The vegetable seeds I planted a couple weeks ago are starting to sprout, so I decided that I'd better get my other raised bed put together so I can get the last of my garden planted this coming Memorial Day Weekend. This newest raised bed is where I'm going to put out the individual plants: squash, zucchini, tomatoes, etc. and by Memorial weekend, our danger of frost is (usually) past.

So Mr. Johnson helped me assemble the boards on Tuesday and I called to order my dirt for delivery on Wednesday. Here's where the disaster begins. I had 3 choices of places to get black dirt, mixed with compost and delivered, but because I had a budget, I went with the cheapest place (black dirt = $19 per yard and I needed 4 yards). When I called the garden place and gave my order to Wendy, she asked me what I planned to use the dirt for and when I said a vegetable garden, Wendy said the black dirt I was ordering did have some chunks in it and she would advise that I use the pulverized dirt instead (at $11 more per yard). I told her it just wasn't in my budget and I could probably break the chunks up (because I assumed they would just be chunks of black dirt) and that was pretty much the end of that discussion.

So the dump truck finally came about 6 PM on Wednesday and what he dropped on my driveway was awful. The chunks were HUGE! (we used Penny as a comparison with one of the chunks here--since she's a pretty full-figured kitty, I think you can get an idea of how big this chunk is, and there were many chunks larger than this!)

I tried breaking a chunk with a rake--couldn't be done. Then I tried it with my hands and this is what was inside:
A solid clay core!

Well, I'll tell you what.....I was SO disappointed I could have cried. Mr. Johnson helped me by loading the wheelbarrow and trying to pick out as many of the big lumps as he could. As he dumped it into the raised bed, I continued trying to break up chunks so I would have something usable to plant in. Finally after 2 hours, I was satisfied with the amount of dirt we had in there. I added a couple blocks of peat moss to the bed and started trying to till it and break things up more. Here is the final result.
Still quite a few lumps but I think it will work for the planting. I don't think the way this is now would work for planting any seeds in row crops, would it? Any advice from the garden bloggers? Would adding some sand and trying to till it into this mix help me at all? What about compost? Or am I just screwed?

I called Wendy back the next day to express my disappointment and she pretty much said I'm just stuck with what I've got. She said she told me on the phone that their black dirt had chunks in it -- which I heard her say and acknowledged that I would just try to break up the bigger chunks (I had no idea the chunks would be the size of a small schnauzer!) She said she tried to emphasize to me that this dirt had a lot of clay mixed in with it and that it would be hard to use for a garden and that it was more suited for filling holes. I never heard her say that during our phone call and told her that, so it becomes a matter of "she said -- she said." She told me we could bring the big chunks back some time if we were headed out their way and I said I would be happier if they would just come and take back what was left since I was going to have to throw the rest away into the ditch. She apologized again that I didn't fully understand what kind of dirt I was getting and the reason she hadn't been more forceful in trying to discourage me from getting this dirt was that she was trying to be polite and didn't want to make me mad (so mad after the delivery and not before is a better thing??) I advised her that if this situation ever came up with another customer she definitely should be more forceful in telling the customer that this dirt should only be used for filling holes!

This whole situation makes me so mad (mostly at myself) I could just cry. Mostly because I wasted over $200 on this crappy dirt and because I made a mistake. Mr. Johnson and I spent another 2 hours yesterday afternoon loading up the remainder of this dirt from the driveway and dumping it out in the nether regions of our yard. I'm telling you this whole pathetic story not to make you feel sorry for me, but for two reasons: 1) if anyone has any solutions to help me fix up the dirt in this garden, I would really appreciate the help, and 2) to get this "off my chest" and get on with my life--I don't want to put any more bad mojo on my new garden this year!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Saturday Morning Nature Hike-Part 2

The first thing I noticed after crossing into the woods was the amount of plants now growing. The trillium flowers were almost done blooming, but they had been replaced by lots of violets (both purple and yellow), May apples, and the Jack-in-the-Pulpits. I kept my eyes peeled for some Lady Slippers, but never saw any.
I also saw plenty of ferns, Solomon's Seal, and lots of gooseberry bushes with plenty of little berries just starting.
I walked around the perimeter fenceline just because I wanted to keep watching for warblers at the forest edge. I was lucky enough to spot a Common Yellowthroat skulking around in some shrubs low to the ground. I was also watching the forest floor also, just in case there might be a little deer fawn hiding somewhere. No fawns spotted, but I did spot this remnant of a deer jaw lying under a fence.

At the east edge of the forest, it opens up into a big pasture, with a couple different groves of trees. This is the pasture where the cattle spend the summer. I didn't see any cattle this morning, but saw plenty of fresh "cowpies," so I had to watch my step out here.

While I was walking in the pasture, I heard this bird singing from the trees, and there was another one singing from farther back in the pasture. I was never able to get a visual on this bird. Can any of you identify this bird by its song? Could it be a Baltimore Oriole?

I headed back into the woods to start for home. As I got into the woods, I startled a big fat raccoon. I was pretty surprised to see him scurrying away--they're usually asleep at this time of day.

I also had the pleasure of spotting several busy little American Redstarts flitting about in the high branches. I managed to capture a few seconds of video of one of these Redstarts. Isn't it neat the way they flare their tails so you can see those bright orange patches?

I was still hearing plenty of birds singing, including the Gray Catbird, House Wren, and Great Crested Flycatcher. As I headed out on the road to home, I spotted this bird across the way. I couldn't get a very good picture, but I'm pretty sure it's the Great Crested Flycatcher.

I was disappointed that I never saw any Wild Turkeys......there used to be a small flock in our neighborhood that has disappeared without explanation. The only evidence I saw of a turkey was this feather ground into the dirt of the road being constructed.

Well, that's the end of my hike. I'm sure glad you were all able to take this virtual hike with me. I especially want to dedicate this post to my mom and all the other folks with physical limitations that make a hike like this difficult or even impossible. As I was hiking, I realized how truly fortunate I am to have the opportunity to just go out and walk without any difficulty, and also to never take my physical abilities for granted.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Saturday Morning Nature Hike-Part 1

Since warblers are still migrating and gas went up to $3.69 last week, I decided to try birding within walking distance of my home (no danger of speeding tickets either!) My neighbor Jack (who lives up at the end of our subdivision) still owns at least 40 acres of property--a lot of which is wooded. I called him on the phone last night to get permission to cross his fence and do some birding, and of course, he graciously said yes. When Mr. Johnson was out for his morning walk, he met up with Jack and they talked a little bit out Jack's wooded acres and a few things Jack wanted Mr. Johnson to tell me to keep an eye open for: a pair of red-headed woodpeckers, a pair of pileated woodpeckers and possibly a wolf! Wow, is that possible? Apparently the DNR has documented the presence of a couple of wolves in that area. On my morning hike today, I saw only 1 pileated woodpecker and no evidence of anything that looked like wolf tracks, but that will be something to keep my eyes open for next time.

So anyway, I didn't get started until about 8:45 and my first destination was the little pond I've shown you in a couple of earlier posts. The developer has resumed road construction activities that will eventually turn this wooded area into another housing subdivision, so the dynamics of this natural area will be changing over the next couple years, but for now, it's still fairly wild--especially down at the end adjoining Jack's wooded acreage.

This little pond is for stormwater runoff. I didn't see any wildlife as I approached the pond, but there were frogs singing and jumping into the water as I approached.

Once I got close to the water, I could see there were millions of tadpoles swimming around in there. See all the black stuff in the water on this picture? Those are tadpoles! I've never seen so many in my life!

Unlike the frogs, the tadpoles weren't bothered by my presence and I managed to capture this little video of them.

We had a little rain shower late last night, so the dirt around the pond edge was still nice and soft and I could see lots of footprints from previous visitors. Here's a perfect little raccoon "handprint."

I also saw this very tiny deer hoofprint. I asked Mr. Johnson if baby deer were being born yet and he didn't think so, he said this tiny hoofprint was probably from one of last year's does (a yearling who was still pretty small).

A couple of cautious frogs allowed me to snap a picture of them.

While I was walking around the pond, I saw lots of little birds flying around the edge of the woods and in the tall weed stems around the pond. These birds included House Wren, Yellow Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, American Goldfinch, American Redstart, Eastern Phoebe and Indigo Bunting.

I finally moved on from the pond and over to the gate that would let me into the woods. Tune in next time as I take you down this wooded trail for Part 2 of the Saturday Morning Nature Hike.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Colors of Spring

It was another beautiful spring day here in SE Minnesota. For the second day in a row, Mr. Johnson and I were able to eat our lunch together outside! It was one of those days when I found it extremely difficult to head back indoors for more work.

I'm sitting here preparing this post and all of my windows are open--outside I'm hearing the songs of many birds including Baltimore Oriole, Chipping Sparrow and Cardinal--what a treat. But the pleasure just isn't for my are some pictures I've taken in the last couple of days to share with you all the beautiful colors of spring in my backyard.

Baltimore Oriole (sings from the Swamp White Oak that's finally getting some leaves!)

Not one but two Indigo Buntings (a poor picture taken through the window screen, but there's no question about the identity of these birds!)

American Goldfinches (I've had lots of these in my yard for the past several days and they're all singing like crazy too)

Mrs. Rose Breasted Grosbeak

Chubby Cheeked Chipmunk

Finally got the cola-colored water and a wheelbarrow full of leaves out of my little goldfish pond. The grackles will probably drop dozens of fecal sacs in it tomorrow (sigh). I'll let the water warm up for a couple days and then release my goldfish back outside for the summer.

Crabapple blossoms are just starting to open.

This tree is covered with buds--it should be FABULOUS by Sunday!

Thanks to all of you, my faithful readers for checking in and commenting--especially when I haven't had the time to post regularly or check in with many of you on your blogs either. I can't remember how I managed to get so many posts done last year at this time and still have time for my other activities. I guess my time management skills have declined over the past year. I just want you to know that I'm not deliberately ignoring you, but I've actually been pretty busy at work and when I get home---> the backyard beckons. I guess I need to look into getting a wireless laptop so I can post from the hammock or lawn chair. I'll try to get caught up on the next rainy day!!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mother's Day 2008

Happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there!

Turn up the volume and enjoy this Mother's Day concert by the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak.....go ahead and listen even if you're not a mom! :-D

He's been singing in my crabapple tree for most of the morning. I think he enjoys harmonizing with the windchime!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Gardening & Other Stuff

Wow, I can't believe I haven't posted anything since last Monday! Where did this past week go??

I got my first garden planted this afternoon. It's a 12 x 12 foot raised bed that I divide into 9 sections. I'm planning to add another raised bed just like it (hopefully sometime in the next couple weeks).
I added a couple blocks of peat moss and the contents of one compost bin to this raised bed and then tilled everything together with the neat little tiller Mr. Johnson bought for me a couple years ago. It was gray and cloudy with rain in the forecast, but I managed to get everything planted before the raindrops arrived. Shown below is the chart of what's planted where (this chart corresponds with the photo above).

I planted one section of sunflowers because I hope to raise them for birdseed, now that sunflower seeds have gotten so expensive. I also planted some of the mammoth striped sunflowers below my deck. I've never grown these before, so I'll be curious to see if they actually get up to 12 feet!

I was able to pick a few spears of asparagus from my little patch. I haven't been very successful with asparagus, but even these few will taste good and I noticed while I was picking there were more coming up.

More good news on the gardening front: my "garbage can potatoes" are finally sprouting! I think it's been almost 3 weeks since I planted them and I had just about given up hope. It's amazing what a couple of sunny days this past week did for growing things!
While I was working in the garden, I spotted this little bunny. What a cutie! Mr. Johnson first spotted him earlier in the week.
This little bunny is living under our storage shed and sure enjoys the tender new grass. (Oh yeah, I did pick up some fencing today to put around the garden....they can eat all the grass and dandelions they want, but the garden will definitely be off-limits to bunnies!)

Here's a little movie of the baby bunny eating (sorry it's a little bit shaky).