Wednesday, July 30, 2008

More Miscellaneous

I'm kind of getting into this "miscellaneous" theme and since I've recently purchased more memory for photos, I'm going to take advantage of it! Here are some more "miscellaneous" sights from my backyard......I'm amazed at what I've started noticing when there's a camera around my neck!

Juvenile Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (out on its own already)

Hedge-Nettle (Stachys tenuifolia)

Wild Monarch Butterfly (male)

Twelve-Spotted Skimmers (male)

Cedar Waxwing in Mulberry Tree

Cooper's Hawk feather

Sophie on the loose

Monday, July 28, 2008

Miscellaneous Monday

I have quite a few pictures stored on my Compact Flash card and since I didn't have any other ideas for a post tonight, I decided to clean out the memory and share some of these pictures with you.

I'll start with a few photos from about a month ago--over at the little stormwater retention pond I've been visiting frequently this summer. I finally got a good picture of one of the little frogs before it leapt into the water (leopard frog? I think). This guy was really tiny but you can't tell it from this picture......

How about now? Same frog with an oak leaf for better size definition.

I also got this nice picture of an Eastern Comma Butterfly (summer form). This butterfly was loving the moist mud at the edge of the pond.It's hard to get pictures of them as they sit and continually flap their wings--I just keep snapping away and eventually I'm lucky enough to get the shot when its wings are open all the way.

One night last week while doing the dishes, I glanced out the window and there was the Cooper's Hawk--sitting right on the edge of the ground feeding tray (this is the same tray my night-time deer eat corn from). Occasionally I'll see the Cooper's Hawk swoop through the yard and sometimes even find little piles of feathers from a bird it has killed, but I was really delighted to see this one land and sit still long enough for me to snap some (less than ideal) pictures through the window screen. Judging by the color of the breast feathers and dark orange-appearing eye, I'm calling this bird an adult.

My, what big ears you have!!
We saw this little fawn last Saturday night in a hayfield in Fillmore County.

I've started saving water from the air conditioner that I've always previously let run down the drain. I get from 3-4 of these jugs every day and with 8 birdbaths around the yard, this really saves on running water from the tap, plus it's much easier to carry a couple of jugs than the big bucket of water I used to fill from the outside faucet.

When I got home from work this afternoon, I noticed something with black wings flying around in the Swallowtail Ranch jar. "Hmmm, that seems odd, those wings are too small for a swallowtail," I thought to myself.
Upon closer inspection, I realized it wasn't a butterfly at all, but a wasp! How disappointing. This is one of the parasitic wasps (Trogus species). When I found this swallowtail caterpillar and put it in the "ranch" it was almost completely full grown. Here's what my Kaufman Field Guide to insects says about these wasps: "All are internal parasites of caterpillars but emerge as adult wasps from the pupa of the host." Yuck!! The field guide even shows a picture of one of these wasps emerging from the pupa of a swallowtail butterfly. The other swallowtail caterpillar I found was much smaller (the green cocoon you can see in the picture). I hope that one didn't become a victim of one of these wasps too, but I'll find out for sure if (and when) the butterfly emerges from this green cocoon.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

"The Cruise"

Today we participated in "The Cruise" a motorcycle rally to raise funds for the Ronald McDonald House here in Rochester. There was a 40% chance for rain and after an early morning shower, a check on the weather radar showed that other storms out in South Dakota were heading southeast and probably wouldn't affect us, so we decided to take part in this motorcycle event.

When we arrived at the registration site around 9:45, we found there were already quite a few other bikers there. This event gets bigger and better organized every year and this is the first time we've ridden by ourselves--not as part of a much larger group. We did see some familiar faces of people we knew from work out on the ride, so it wasn't like we were riding with a bunch of people we didn't know.

This year's route went through Fillmore, Winona and Olmsted counties--about 132 miles total. It was nice to travel some familiar roads and also ride down some new ones we've never been on before.

Our best reception was in Fountain, Minnesota--a small town in Fillmore County about 6 miles from where I grew up. The good folks of Fountain actually had their main street blocked off so bikers could park right on the main drag.
We also had a stop in Rushford, Minnesota--a town hit by a devastating flood only a year ago. It was strange to sit at the Kwik Trip and eat our lunch remembering last year's pictures of the same Kwik Trip store almost completely covered by flood waters.

My odometer turned over to 10,000 miles just outside of Rushford!

There is a large Amish community in Winona County near St. Charles, Minnesota and my best memory of today's trip was riding past the residence where the Amish families were having their Sunday worship and fellowship......seeing all those buggies parked along the driveway and waving to the little Amish boys in their white shirts and dark vests and trousers waving back at us!

By the time we got back to Rochester, the sky had completely clouded over and there were even a few sprinkles falling. We decided it would probably be best to head for home ASAP, but by the time we got halfway there, the sprinkles were getting more frequent and heavier. About 4 miles from home it was pretty much pouring and had been for a while as the pavement was pretty wet. In addition to the discomfort of wet clothes, rain spotted eyeglasses and windshields, the greater danger is losing control on slippery pavement when only on 2 wheels. Fortunately, we made it home without any mishaps.

We just heard on the local news that there were about 1200 bikers on this fund-raising trip, but no mention of how many dollars were raised for Ronald McDonald house. I will post that amount tomorrow as soon as the information becomes available.

Monday Update: Here are the results of yesterday's ride (an excerpt from today's local newspaper)
• 1,200 riders raised a record $104,392 this year.
• Rider participation has nearly quadrupled since the first official Cruise in 2001, when 340 riders raised more than $14,000.
• In eight years, the event has raised more than $500,000.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Butterfly Ranching

A few weeks ago, I chanced upon the first monarch butterfly caterpillar for "Monarch Ranch 2008." It finally hatched last Wednesday (the day I left work early).
It was a pretty female and I released her on the lantana flower blooming on the deck. I like the way her colors coordinate with the blossoms, don't you?
I also have a couple of swallowtail cocoons in a large jar on the kitchen counter. These butterflies take longer than monarchs, but I'm hoping maybe one day this week they will hatch. I think they're probably going to be Black Swallowtails because I found the caterpillars on some wild parsnip I was cutting down.

I like the way their chrysalis is color-camouflaged to match the object it's attached to.
I'm guessing this one is green because that's the generic color? (if it was attached to a plant stem instead of a clear jar)
While I was off on Wednesday afternoon, I took advantage of the time to search for monarch caterpillars and eggs to re-populate the monarch ranch. My personal choice is to start with eggs or very tiny caterpillars because there's less worry about parasitic wasps or flies laying their eggs in the caterpillar.
Here are some eggs (you should almost always find the eggs on the underside of common milkweed leaves).
Here are some more common milkweed leaves with tiny caterpillars and an egg. This gives you an idea of how small these are--you have to look really carefully when scanning underneath the leaves.
Once I bring the leaves in the house, those with caterpillars on them can go directly to the "ranch." The leaves with eggs I put in a separate dish--this guarantees that the eggs don't accidentally get eaten when the larger caterpillars are munching on the milkweed leaves. I monitor the eggs and when they're almost ready to hatch, I cut off the portion of the leaf (with the egg still attached) and place it in the ranch on a fresh milkweed leaf.

I can hear you asking......"but how do you know when the egg's ready to hatch?" and here's a picture to show you:I'm still working on my close-up photography skills, but I think you can tell the egg on the left has gotten really dark on the tip--that's the little caterpillar's head! The egg on the right is still completely white. When they hatch, they're about the size of this letter "I"--soooo tiny! But they grow fast and in a couple of days they've doubled in size.

I'm fortunate to have lots of common milkweed growing in several places in the backyard and if I was a good planner, I would pick a bunch of milkweed leaves and keep them in a baggie in the fridge, but I usually have enough time to pick fresh leaves every morning. I transfer the caterpillars to their new leaves and yesterday's old, dried-out leave goes in the compost bucket.

Once they hatch into monarch butterflies, I release them in the backyard where there are plenty of purple coneflowers blooming for them.
Compared to last year's records, my first monarch (also a female) was released on July 30th, so I'm actually a week ahead this year! I grew and released a total of 19 monarch butterflies last year and right now I have 6 eggs and 3 caterpillars for the ranch. My goal for 2008 is to beat last year's total by 5 (an increase of 25%). I also ordered my monarch tagging kit and a butterfly net from MonarchWatch. Last year I tagged 10 monarchs that I raised and also some wild ones I caught in the backyard (but I can't find that record sheet right now). Watch for future Monarch Ranch updates in the coming weeks.

While I was searching the milkweed patches, I also came upon this little spider in a really lovely web. Does anyone know what kind of spider this is? It was very long and skinny.

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I would also like to wish a "Happy Birthday" to my Sissy, who's enjoying an excellent time in Ely, Minnesota, shopping at the Blueberry Arts Festival and feeding fish guts to bald eagles on beautiful Snowbank Lake. Hopefully she'll bring back some good photos to share on my blog.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Perfect Summer Day

Today was one of those rare perfect summer days we get here in Minnesota--hardly any wind or humidity and temps in mid 70's. It's actually the second time this week we had a day like this and I just couldn't bear the thought of wasting the entire day inside at work, so when Mr. Johnson decided to take a half-day off, I jumped right on that bandwagon! Fortunately, I was able to opt-out of a 9 AM meeting and had no other pressing duties to worry about. We drove out of the parking lot at 9:35 and with only one stop on the way, were home by 10:00!

I knew it would be a perfect day to do some birding--especially trying to find some new sparrows. So after a little lunch, I loaded all my gear into the car, and in my best "GPS voice," instructed Mr. Johnson when to turn right and left to get us to the optimum birding areas. Our first stop was a little pond where we found a snapping turtle a couple weeks ago. I got out and started focusing my binocs around the edges of the pond, hoping to see something, but never expecting to see this......A juvenile Green Heron! WOW!! Lifer!! It was way over on the other side of the pond so this isn't the best picture, but based on the size of the bird (as big as a crow), I'm checking Green Heron off my list.

As we continued, we saw this small herd of cattle relaxing in a pasture right next to the road.....not birds, but pretty darn cute nevertheless. I call them Ebony & Ivory!

My GPS voice then directed Mr. Johnson over to "Prairie Woodlands," an upscale housing subdivision in rural SW Rochester. This is a very cool bird area as there are large, undisturbed grasslands (I think they're lots for homes, but the lot prices are so high that most of them haven't been sold or developed yet). We heard several Clay-Colored Sparrows out here, and also saw flocks of Bobolinks--males and females, and possibly juveniles.

As we were leaving this area, I spotted this Sedge Wren singing loudly from the road ditch.

I saw one of the these little wrens on my trip to North Dakota in June, but I've never seen one here in Minnesota. What a great little singer this bird was and there were several more in the grassy field beyond.

We took one more familiar backroad on our homeward journey--still seeking sparrows and once again discovering the unexpected......can you tell what it is?

How about now?

Earlier this spring, we discovered there was a new vineyard and winery out here in the country: Salem Glen Vineyard and Winery. They have all kinds of different grapes growing here and also huge patches of rhubarb used for their wine. I wonder if they know about the fawns wandering through their vineyard in the middle of the day? It looked as though these little deer were feasting on clover or grass on the ground and didn't appear to be munching on the grape plants.

What a great afternoon! Even though I didn't see any new sparrows to check off my Minnesota list, we did see lots of other neat things and enjoyed a fun afternoon together. The trip lasted about 2 hours and consumed 1 gallon of gas (approximately 25 miles).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Field Guide Review

A few weeks ago, I received a nice e-mail from Anne Staszalek, Marketing Coordinator for The Book Report Network. She was writing "on behalf of Collins to see if you would like to receive a copy of SMITHSONIAN FIELD GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA to review on your website." Well, I don't mind telling you that I was a little flabbergasted at first and had all kinds of questions: what's this all about? Is there some sort of catch? Why does she think anything I have to say would be beneficial to this publisher? Would they just send me this really nice book and all I have to do to keep it is write a review? (you see......I'm such a skeptic!)

So I finally sent her a note back saying I would be willing to do this, but also asked how she came up with me as a reviewer and here's her response: "Basically the publisher and author asked if I could find people who might be interested in the book. I know asking people I do not know can be considered intrusive. I hate spam myself, so when I get a new title, I try to find active blogs where the author seems really into the topic they post about, and if I can find contact information, I send as short, yet descriptive an email as I can. I figure that if I was sent an email that offered me a book about something I like to read, it would annoy me a bit less. I really hope you didn’t mind getting the email, by the way."

Well, gosh, how nice is that? So I sent Anne my home address and a few days later this great book arrived in my mailbox and I've been using it here at home for several weeks in preparation for my review.

Now as the proud owner of at least 23 field guides (13 of them just for birds!), I definitely already have a good selection. So will the "Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America" become a useful field guide in my collection? You Bet! And here's why........

First of all, the picture of birds are photographs and I'm one of those people who just prefers photos over an artist's rendering. The Smithsonian Field Guide has excellent photographs of the birds with many of them showing both adult and juvenile plumage; also photos of hawks flying (as seen from below) and many other birds in flight.

There's a lot of good general information about birds in the "Introduction" section of this book including parts of the different birds, habitat, plumage (with seasonal & age differences), and even tips on identifying birds.

The birds are presented in a taxonomic order (as are many field guides) beginning with waterfowl and ending finally with finches.

Each bird listing gives you the length, weight and wingspan (even on songbirds--not just raptors). When there is a size difference between male and female, that's also noted. Each listing also includes information on molt & plumage differences plus variations in size of plumage related to its range. The general description of each bird also indicates the habitat where you would most likely find the bird, what kind of foods it prefers, nesting habitat, a seasonal range map and a description of the bird's call or vocalization.

The book also includes a DVD with downloadable bird songs for your MP3 player. I don't have an MP3 player, but the disk works just fine on my computer. These bird songs are nice because there are several different variations of bird sounds you might hear in addition to the typical calls (alarm calls, courtship calls, & woodpecker drumming sounds).

I like this book because it includes both eastern and western birds--that way if my brother calls from California needing help in a bird ID, I can grab this one field guide for reference and also find out if it's a bird I might be able to see here in the eastern region.

This field guide lists a price of $24.95 on the back cover. I think that's pretty reasonable for all the information contained inside plus the birdsong DVD.

For me, about the only disadvantage of this field guide is the size.Although it's not as large as my Sibley Guide to Birds, it's definitely larger and heavier than the Kaufman field guide I usually carry along on birding trips. However, I see this Smithsonian Field Guide as a good book to have out on my desk or dining room table for everyday use and I think it would be a really great book to take to work or any other gatherings where people might have questions for me about birds or bird calls they need help identifying.

One more note: Ted Floyd (the author of this field guide) and Lang Elliott (who recorded the bird songs on the DVD) are two of "North America's Top Birders" as I found it in the "Good Birders Don't Wear White" book I'm currently reading, so you know you're getting good information from the "experts!"

Thanks Anne for allowing me to review this book and I hope the information I've presented here will be helpful for other birders who are interested in adding another great field guide to their's never too early to start dropping hints for Christmas!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Weekend Update

Gosh, I can't believe it's been over a week since my last post and we're over halfway through July now! Although it's been pretty warm during the days, it cools down quite nicely in the evenings and I can't even bring myself to come inside once it gets close to dark because there are fireflies everywhere in my backyard and I just love watching them winking all around me. So the consequences to that are no time for doing a post or reading other blogs either. I really thought I could get back into regular posts, but I was so wrong....... I've even got a couple saved and awaiting completion, so the intentions are there, but the willpower is not. Anyway, I'll make up for it today by showing you some random images from the past weekend.

I mowed the lawn on Saturday and that's a good time to see a lot of different things in the backyard. Here's the most unusual thing I saw on the underside of some milkweed leaves: I've never seen anything like this before in my life. Does anyone know what these things are?

We're approaching peak bloom in the wildfower garden.
I forgot I had planted this Bee Balm several years ago. I love the gorgeous magenta color.
I saw a Great Spangled Fritillary land on one of the coneflowers while I was mowing, but when I came back later with the camera, of course, it was gone. However, I did spot this cool little spider on a Queen Anne's Lace blossom. Can you see it?
Here's a look from a different angle--you can see its legs on either side of the flower. I consulted my Kaufman Field Guide to Insects and found out that this is a Flower Crab Spider. "Females can change color from white to yellow to match the flowers where they wait in ambush for flies, bees, and other pollinators." How cool is that? In fact, when I checked the Queen Anne's Lace blossoms this afternoon, I spotted one of these spiders with a little fly in her jaws.

I found another wren nest. I like this little wren house because it opens from the top and you can actually see their nest. There are 6 eggs in here.
We had a little rain Saturday evening and Sunday morning dawned bright and cool. While Mr. Johnson was out on the deck enjoying a cup of coffee, he alerted me to a bunny rabbit in the garden. Here's a picture I took from the deck......
And when I got a little closer, I could see this naughty bunny parked right in the middle of the carrots! Know how he gets in? Right through the fence! I DISAPPROVE! The adult bunnies can't get through the fence....just these teen-age bunnies.

Check out this beautiful lady who showed up at the backyard birdfeeder around 10 AM.
I've never seen a deer in the backyard during the daytime! It makes me wonder how often they're here during the day while we're at work? She hung around for quite a while and we were hoping maybe some fawns would show up, but they never did and when I went around the house to try and get a better picture, she spotted me and ran away.

Here's a little red squirrel I caught inside the "squirrel proof" cage on my birdfeeder.

Know how he gets in? Through the top! Can you sense his desperation as he tries to squeeze back through while I was a few feet away taking this picture? I can see a trip to my Wild Birds Unlimited store in the near future to purchase a guard to put over the top of the squirrel proof cage.

While weeding the garden, I harvested a few of the "Cylindra" beets. This is my first attempt at growing beets and I'm curious to see how they cook up and taste.

I'll try to get caught up on those couple of posts I've got saved......I've got a good story and pictures on the development of my backyard wildlife habitat and also a book review on the Smithsonian Field Guide to Birds, not to mention more pictures on the camera that are just waiting to hit the blogosphere. So check back again and thanks for your faithful visits and comments.