Friday, September 26, 2008

UP Challenger No. 3985

We interrupt this birding and nature blog to bring you............a train! But not just any old train, this is Union Pacific's Challenger No. 3985 Steam Locomotive, "the only operating engine of its class in the world today – the largest and most powerful operating steam locomotive."

This train was originally scheduled to be in Minnesota during the Republican National Convention, and I had been anticipating that event since I first heard about it in April. Then in late August, we heard the train had been cancelled. About 3 weeks ago, Mike (my train buddy at work) told me this train was re-scheduled to return to Minnesota at the end of September, and as luck would have it, I didn't have to work today and was able to see the train up close and personal!

(I had another really great video that I wanted to insert here but Blogger absolutely refuses to let me upload it. I tried at least 8 times, even tried resaving the video in Windows Movie Maker but nothing's working. UPDATE: I finally got this video uploaded, but in a separate post......please click on this link or just go down to the previous post and you can view the video there.)

There was a wide variety of people in Owatonna to see this train, but mostly older folks. I spotted this lady with curlers in her hair as I was making my way through the multitude of "train enthusiasts," but didn't realize till I got home and processed my photos that she appeared in my photo too. I'm always amazed when I see ladies who still wear curlers!

OK, back to the train.

I think these are tender cars that carry the fuel to run the train. Although the engine is still powered by steam, that power is now generated by diesel fuel and not coal like years ago.

Here are some of the other cars that make up the train. Each car has a name on it. I didn't notice that until I spoke to Brother Phil in California (who works for Union Pacific).

This is a huge engine. I think I read on the UP Website (link is above) that this engine and tender together weigh 1 Million Pounds!
This plaque was on the side of the engine. She looks pretty darn good for 65 years old, don't you think?
Here's another photo of me with the Challenger engine in the background.

And here's a similar photo of my Brother Phil and Nephew Charlie with the same Challenger engine in California.

This train is going to be in St. Paul, Minnesota for the rest of the weekend at the South St. Paul Union Pacific Station (a link to the schedule is here). If you're going to be in that area and don't have any other plans, take time to go over and see this magnificent steam engine. Or better yet, take the morning off Tuesday and go over and see the train leave the station. There's nothing quite as exciting as being able to see and hear a train like this in person!

Here's a video I shot of the train departing Owatonna on its way to St. Paul.

UP Challenger 3985 Steam Locomotive Video

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Old Dog Learns a New Trick

Remember a couple weeks ago when I was so frustrated with my inability to upload videos to my blog? I asked for help in my comments and Larry from The Brownstone Birding Blog mentioned that he was having good luck using Windows Movie Maker. So this afternoon, after searching my hard drive and finding out that I do indeed have this program on my computer, I did a little bit of experimenting. Results are shown below:

Now hopefully I'll remember what I did for next time!

Thanks Larry!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Necedah National Wildlife Refuge

I'm getting so far behind in my blogging activities, so I need to show you the highlights of last Saturday afternoon spent at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NNWR) so I can move on to the other great stories and pictures I have to post for this week.

I hope you all get the chance to visit NNWR some day. I would love to see them offer a 3-4 day birding & nature workshop where participants could go out with the naturalists and study all the diverse habitats, plants, animals, and birds. The 90 minutes spent on the bus in the morning and several hours I had in the afternoon gave me only a small sampling of what this >43,000 acre refuge has to offer. They're currently in the process of building a large new visitors center, with a projected completion sometime in 2010. Maybe we should start planning now for a bloggers get-together that summer. They will arrange special field trips for birding groups......


At my first stop in the refuge, I was treated to a fly-by from this squadron of sandhill cranes.

Here's another look at a pair of Sandhill Cranes. We have them in Minnesota too, but usually closer to the Mississippi and I don't get down that way very often.

Here's a look at one of the juvenile Red-Headed Woodpeckers I saw. You can see from the back there's a lot of white on its wings. When they're flying, there's also a large white spot on their back, just above their tail. It's quite distinctive and makes them really easy to spot and identify when they're flying.

Here's an even worse picture of the adult woodpecker that the juvenile shown above was hanging around with. I'm guessing this was one of the parents. I know I said it in the previous post, but it was just fantastic to see so many Red-Headed Woodpeckers in one afternoon. I bet I saw at least 20 all over the refuge. The habitat (with its many dead or dying trees) was ideal for these birds. They're on the Audubon WatchList as records show this bird has seen a 50% decline in overall population since 1966.

Here's a story about Whooping Crane restoration near one of the viewing platforms in the refuge.

This was a little road to another viewing platform. It was in a native prairie area and I was trying to give you an idea of how tall the native grasses were growing right along the road. I was in Mr. Johnson's Tahoe and the grass was 4-5 feet tall. I also saw lots of Monarch butterflies all over in the refuge.

There was quite a bit of fall color starting to appear. I like the way the colorful maples, oak and sumac contrast with the dark colors of the evergreens.

Just another fall color shot with native prairie grasses in the foreground.

There was just one blemish on an otherwise lovely afternoon...... For whatever reason, there are certain roads in the refuge that are open to ATV traffic, and this was one of the groups I encountered. I could go into a huge ATV rant here, but I won't because Mr. Johnson owns one and he reads this blog. Suffice it to say that I do think ATVs have a purpose--on the farm or for work-related hauling and chores, etc. However, there's no way anyone's going to convince me that the folks in this picture above were out on their ATVs to enjoy nature because #1-they were going too fast to see much of anything; #2-you can see how dusty it was--after the third rider, the rest of the riders weren't able to see anything; and #3-any wildlife you might have been able to see would be scared off by the sounds of these ATVs coming up the road. OK, 'nuff said (deep cleansing breath and back to nature)

As I was crossing one of the roads, I happened to notice a large black chunk of something down the road to my right. It kind of looked like a blown-out tire, but as I watched, it started moving. I quickly changed course and headed up the road to investigate. By the time I got there the "black chunk" was in the grass next to the road. Getting out of the truck for a closer look revealed the HUGEST snapping turtle I have ever seen. Isn't this guy a monster? There was a drainage ditch from one of the lakes that ran under this road and this large snapper must have just crawled out of there. I felt really privileged to see such a creature.

Here's a pair of Trumpeter Swans. Caitlyn told us on the morning tour that there were several pairs in the refuge. (Lifebird #224 for me!)

Great Blue Heron (juvenile)

Belted Kingfisher

Goodbye for now......thanks for the memories......please come again!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Whooping Crane Festival

I pulled out of the driveway at 5:30 this morning on my way to Necedah, Wisconsin for the 8th Annual Whooping Crane and Wildlife Festival. I got down to LaCrosse, Wisconsin around 6:30 and had the chance to capture this DWOO (driving while otherwise occupied) shot--out my speeding car window--of pre-sunrise over the Mississippi.

I arrived at the festival shortly before 8 AM.
Uh-oh, looks like there's already a pretty good crowd!

As I was walking to the entrance gate, I noticed that there was a variety of license plates (in addition to the Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois visitors you would expect).

I was able to hop aboard the 8:00 tour bus. Our trip leader was Caitlyn, who's been working at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (NNWR) as an intern this summer. She's also been leading lots of other groups this year and was really knowledgeable about the whooping cranes and everything that goes into raising them here at NNWR, not to mention all the additional information she shared with us regarding the other plants and animals within the NNWR.

Hey, what's that bird over there?
That's no's one of the ultralight aircraft that Operation Migration uses to help the whooping cranes make their migration trip to Florida. The pilots were just finishing up their early morning flight training sessions. If I had gotten an earlier start and made it on the 7:30 bus, I might have been able to see the whooping cranes flying along with this aircraft.
Could you imagine flying all the way to Florida in one of these? Caitlyn told us that the program will continue until approximately 100 whooping cranes have been raised and followed the ultralight aircraft during fall migration. She said they're currently at just over 60 whooping cranes that have been taught to migrate this way.

Here's one of the enclosures where the young whooping cranes are being raised this summer. It's in an area of the refuge where the general public isn't allowed to go, so this bus tour gave us a chance to see it when normally you wouldn't be able to. You can learn more about the whooping crane project by clicking on this link for the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership.

I did manage to catch a fleeting glimpse of one whooping crane flying. They are a striking white color--especially when you compare them to the sandhill cranes which are quite common and in some fairly large flocks within the NNWR.

This is just another view within the refuge. On our bus tour through the refuge we were treated to the sight of many red-headed woodpeckers. I've never seen so many red-headed woodpeckers in one place!

The festival had several speakers lined up throughout the morning and afternoon, but since I was anxious to get back out to the NNWR, I only stayed to listen to Keith Kennedy give a talk about nature photography. I picked up a few pointers but came away with a longing for a new camera and longer lens (yes, size does matter!)

I then visited the big tent featuring informational booths on whooping cranes and also vendors selling a variety of goods. I resisted the urge to purchase another t-shirt or sweatshirt, but couldn't resist some new whooping crane "bling" for my binocular straps and my earlobes.

It was a fun day for me, but I realized after I got to the festival that it wasn't quite what I expected. It was a festival celebrating the whooping crane and I went expecting it to be more of a birding festival. I believe I was the only person there with a spotting scope and must have looked like a total dork walking around toting all my birding gear! Caitlyn did mention that NNWR has field trips geared more towards birders where we would actually be able to visit viewing blinds and see the cranes, so next time, I'll have to check out that possibility if I want more of a "birding" experience.

Stay tuned for my next post where I'll be taking you through the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge and sharing some of the amazing things I saw there on my own.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Jayne's Meme

I've been an uninspired blogger this week, but I'm saved today by Jayne who posted this fun little random meme on her blog and invited anyone who was interested to participate.

1. How many songs are on your iPod? iPod for me yet, but I hope to rectify that before the end of the year.
2. What music would you want played at your funeral? Something soothing with bird and nature sounds in the background.
3. What magazines do you have subscriptions to? BirdWatcher's Digest (of course), Wild Bird, Peterson's Bowhunting, and I also get the Audubon and National Wildlife Federation magazines with my memberships
4. What is your favorite scent? It's hard to pick just one for me, but my two most favorite scents are "Goddess Rising" from Ravenwood Spa and also "Frankincense and Myrrh" from Indigo Wild.
5. If you had a million dollars that you could only spend on yourself, what would you do with it? Quit work and travel to places (Ireland and Scotland come to mind first!) where I could spend all my leisure time knitting and birding
6. What is your theme song? hmmmmmm........I have no idea
7. Do you trust easily? no, I'm naturally skeptical
8. Do you generally think before you act, or act before you think? Usually try to think first, because I've learned some valuable lessons from my "act first" days (older = wiser).
9. Is there anything that has made you unhappy these days? Besides the economy, environment and disgusting political ads, I saw a horrifying news article yesterday about abuse of some pigs at a hog farm in Iowa. Of course, the fact that I'm currently reading "The Compassionate Carnivore" made reading that story even worse.
10. Do you have a good body-image? Nope, definitely not
11. Is being tagged fun? Yes, I think it's fun, but not as much fun as reading the responses from other.
12. If you had more hours in the day, how would you spend that time? Reading, knitting, birding, napping with Sophie.
13. What have you been seriously addicted to lately? besides knitting? nothing else comes to mind
14. What kind of person do you think the person who tagged you is? I think Jayne is a very sweet and caring person, patient and understanding. I can't wait to meet her next spring.
15. What’s the last song that got stuck in your head? I listen to internet radio (KOOL 108) at work. Yesterday morning they played Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen (is there anyone who doesn't love that song?)
16. What’s your favorite item of clothing? I have really neat black shirt with butterflies and sparkles on it.
17. Do you think Rice Crispies are yummy? I'm with Jayne on this one--only if they are made into Rice Crispy treats (Little Debbie's are as good as homemade--I eat one every day!)
18. If you had $100 to give away, who would you give it to? The International Fund for Animal Welfare working to help animal victims of Hurricane Ike.
19. What items could you not go without during the day? Snacks, lip balm, knitting, playing with Sophie
20. What should you be doing right now? Paying my bills that are probably overdue.

If you're reading this, please consider yourself tagged. It will be fun to read your responses tomorrow.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

No Siskins Allowed!

I got up from the chair and glanced out the window and was surprised to see a Pine Siskin on one of the Nyjer feeders right on the deck. I grabbed the camera, but before I could get it focused, Ms. Goldfinch With An Attitude decided that feeder wasn't big enough for the both of them. Silly goldfinches--there's more than enough food out there for everyone! No wonder I never see those Pine Siskins!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Some Bird Sightings

I haven't done any posts about birds lately, so here are some pictures and bird stories from the past week. When we were down checking the trail camera the other day, there was this nice Turkey Vulture soaring overhead. I always have difficulty trying to catch those soaring birds in my viewfinder, but I got lucky this time.
This one's for you, Lynne!

I left work early on Friday and while I was sitting at the dining room table sharing my McDonald's french fries with Sophie, I happened to spot this little Eastern Wood Peewee sitting on the branch I have attached to my birdfeeding station in the backyard. I've been hearing it singing in the backyard all summer, but this is the first time I've actually seen the little guy.
We've got an abundance of American Goldfinches in the backyard. I'm going through almost 10 lbs of Nyjer seed a week now. There are both adults and juveniles and I'm starting to notice the males are losing their bright yellow feathers too. I'm keeping an eye out for Pine Siskins mixed in with my goldfinches too, but haven't seen any yet.
The archery deer season opened today and we went out this morning. It was quite foggy and damp. I took a couple of videos that I wanted to share with you but Blogger isn't allowing me to download either of them. (Have any of the rest of you had problems trying to download videos lately? This is the second time this week I've tried and had problems.) I didn't see any deer, but it was a great morning for birding. Here's my list of birds for this morning (a few of them I only heard, but it's still pretty good for not quite 3 hours).
Ruby-Crowned Kinglet
Black & White Warbler
American Goldfinch
Song Sparrow
House Wren
Hermit Thrush
Swainson's Thrush
Mourning Warbler
Orange Crowned Warbler
Belted Kingfisher
Screech Owl
Great Horned Owl
Cedar Waxwing

Hope you're enjoying a weekend with birds and nature too!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Are you sick of trail cam pics yet?

I'm running a little bit late tonight because I just finished hot water processing 5 pints of spaghetti sauce from the 6 lbs of ripe tomatoes that were sitting on my counter. I took a little taste as I was pouring it into the jars and it was so yummy! I have another bunch of tomatoes still ripening on the counter, and when those are ready, they're going to be turned into salsa. We're coming to the end of the season in the garden, but I have tons of apples getting ripe on the trees, so my canning and preserving is just beginning. It will be nice to have some homemade treats to give as Christmas gifts this year.

Back to the trail cameras....... We checked on both of them yesterday afternoon when we were down putting up the last tree stand. No photos of that legendary 12-point buck, but there were a couple surprises. Can you tell what this is? (click to enlarge -- that might help)
I had to magnify the picture to almost 120% in Photoshop and get Mr. Johnson over to help me identify this coonhound. He's kind of turned funny and looking off to his right. Note the time on the bottom of the photo and this will help you figure out what he's looking at when you see the next picture below.......
A big doe coming towards the coonhound. I'm glad this hound wasn't a deer chaser.

Here's a nice shot of a pair of camo-clad lunatics looking for evidence of deer tracks. Isn't it amazing what some people do for fun??

On our other camera we captured this group of juvenile delinquents out eating soybeans in the middle of the night. I was amazed to see these little guys are still pretty spotty.
Turns out they're not delinquents after all because it looks like Mom wasn't very far away.

I love this picture! That deer looks fake doesn't it? Like maybe someone took a deer head that had been mounted by a taxidermist and just held it in front of the camera (if you click to enlarge, it almost looks like she's smiling!)

But just to show she's not a fake deer, we also got this nice, full body shot. Don't you just love their ears?

That's it for now. Headed off to knit a couple rows and then it's lights out!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Time's Running Out!

Only a few hours left for you to place your bid on my hand-knitted Foliage Hat being auctioned off to help Kristy defray the costs of delivering over 800 hand-knitted hats to orphans in the Ukraine. The bid was raised to $27.50 just this afternoon by Cindie in Ohio (a brand new visitor to my blog!) Welcome to my blog Cindie and thanks for your bid.

Mr. Johnson and I are heading out to the woods this afternoon to put up one more deerstand and check the trail camera to see if we got any pictures of a legendary "12-point buck" that's being seen in the area where our bowhunting season opens this Saturday.

I'll be checking in later this evening to see who I'm going to be sending the Foliage Hat to in tomorrow's mail.

8:14 PM - The Foliage Hat goes to Cindie in Ohio with her winning bid of $27.50. Thanks Cindie and to everyone else who participated in the first "knitting for a cause" fund-raising auction on my blog. (Cindie, I already have your address and will get the hat sent out to you tomorrow.)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Mostly Insects

If you don't like bugs much, you'll want to skip today's post, but for everyone else, I've got a good variety of some insects to share with you that I've seen in the last few days. (Remember, you can click on any of these pictures to get a super-sized look at them!)

Last Thursday, we went out to the woods again to check and move the trail cameras. During our hike through the woods, I almost stepped into this 'foot-sized' hole filled with yellowjackets. YIKES! I was following Mr. Johnson and he must have walked right past it. Of course, I had to stop and try to figure out what these insects were doing. Because I didn't want to get too close, I counted on my zoom for a better look. It appeared that all of these yellowjackets were swarming on something, but I couldn't tell what (poop? a small dead animal?) My insect field guide says that the Eastern Yellowjacket (common in Minnesota) nests underground (usually in abandoned rodent burrows).
I had a short video clip to download also, but Blogger is feeling contrary tonight and I'll have to try that another time.

On our way back to the car, I almost stepped on this spider web right next to the crushed rock road. My insect field guide only has one page of spiders, but I'm guessing this is some sort of garden spider. It was quite large!
The web is quite visible due to the fact that it's coated with dust from all the car traffic kicking up dust on the road.

We went down again yesterday morning to check the cameras and I spotted this Eastern Comma Butterfly basking in the sun on a soybean plant.
Fortunately my patience paid off and I was able to get a wonderful picture of this butterfly with its wings open. I found out from my field guide that this is the "winter form" of coloring for the Eastern Comma. In the summer, their hindwing is almost entirely black.

Mr. Johnson brought me something special from his afternoon walk today. I had Sophie out in the backyard for a walk and I saw him go up on the deck and holler into the house for me. "I'm over here," I yelled back at him from the yard and I could see he had something in his hand. "C'mere, look at what I found for you," he said. I was thinking maybe a toad or something, but he was clutching a handful of leaves with this creature crawling on top.
Know what it is? I didn't but it was pretty huge and gross looking, so I figured maybe it was a caterpillar for a large butterfly or moth. I googled "caterpillar identification" and found the "what's this caterpillar" site that showed pictures of a similar caterpillar for the Pandora Sphinx Moth. Then I googled that name and found out more about the Pandora Sphinx Moth on Wikipedia.
I gotta tell ya, Mr. Johnson never ceases to amaze me......nothin' says "Love" like bringing a giant caterpillar home, does it?

And just to confirm what a swell guy he is, take a look at this early birthday present he got for me. I have one of those awful birthdays ending in a "ZERO" coming up in a few weeks and he wanted to get me something special that would keep my mind off the actual birthday by distracting me with something I would really enjoy. I didn't even have to hint very much for this.....

Thanks Honey Bunny! You are THE MAN!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

And for all of you who have placed a bid on my hat for auction (or are still thinking about placing a bid), please click on this link for Kristy's blog and look at all the hats she's received--820!! What a tremendous response.