Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Movie Recommendation

By now, you've probably figured out that I'm a little bit odd and I like to read different books and watch different movies than what might be considered "mainstream." I usually find these books and movies through "recommendations" at my Amazon and Netflix accounts. Here's a great documentary I watched on Monday that I found at Netflix.

"Pucker Up"
From a New Jersey poultry guy to a nerdy corporate exec, the folks profiled here have one thing in common: they're serious about whistling. Kate Davis and David Heilbroner traveled to Louisburg, NC -- site of the International Whistling Competition -- to make this joyful movie about the no-nonsense business of competitive whistling. Presenting a year in the lives of several competitors, the film culminates with the event's nail-biting finale.

Are you a whistler? Or maybe you know somebody who likes to whistle? My mom is a really good whistler, but we used to tease her about it when we were kids, so I haven't heard her whistle for many years. Anyway, this is a really fun movie and there are plenty of references to birds in it too. (and it made me wonder, how do birds whistle without lips??)

The whistling is phenomenal and since the movie's only 76 minutes long, you're not stuck in front of the TV being bored for hours. It's definitely a family-friendly movie and I think people of all ages would enjoy watching it. And if the whistled version of the Star-Spangled Banner doesn't bring a tear or two to your eyes, then you have a heart of stone.

If you're a Netflix subscriber, add this one to your queue or check with your local public library to see if you can borrow a copy of this DVD from them.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Baltimore Oriole Nest

Remember last December when I showed you pictures of an oriole nest hanging from the branches in my weeping willow? (if you don't, click here to see that post). Anyway, we've had some horrific winds again this winter and I found that beautiful little oriole nest on the ground in the backyard this morning. This is the first time I've ever gotten the chance to hold or see an oriole nest up close and I thought you might enjoy taking a closer look at it too.

Remember it was so easy to spot because of all the blue threads from a plastic tarp? Isn't this amazing how the tarp threads are completely incorporated into the outside structure of this nest? I think that little stick on the left side is one of the small branches the oriole used to help hold this nest in the tree.

Here's a look at the inside. It's mostly long pieces of fine grass (2-3 inches long) and some other material I couldn't identify (it actually looks like needles from a white pine, but I pulled a piece out and it was just too fine for that). I could just barely see that there had probably been some kind of light-colored and fluffy material in the bottom too. There was no dried poop that I could see, so Mrs. Oriole was a conscientious mom (just like Mrs. Bluebird) about keeping her home neat and cleaning up after her babies.

To me this nest seemed really small--I couldn't even fit my entire hand inside of it. I really wondered how Mrs. Oriole and 4 babies managed to fit inside of here!

Here's the bottom side of the nest. If you click on the picture to enlarge it, you may be able to see the little pieces of light-colored, fluffy fibers incorporated with all the plant materials.
I turned this nest round and round in my hands, marveling at how a bird is able to create such a perfect little home using only it's beak. I've woven baskets before, but there's no way I would be able to create an oriole nest like this--even using 2 hands!

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Despite the fact that the weather forecasters are telling us to expect several more days of wintery weather, the weather this morning was quite lovely when Sophie and I took our walk and I was happy to hear the song of an Eastern Phoebe in the woods up the street.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Weekend Wrap-Up

Even though it doesn't feel much like spring here yet with our below freezing nights and a windchill of 9 degrees this morning when we took Sophie for a walk, there are plenty of spring birds in the backyard, looking for food and doing lots of singing and pairing up.

You've always heard that robins don't eat birdseed, right? Look at this goofy robin who's been hanging out in the tray feeder on my deck. I watch him and he's definitely eating something from this tray, but I can never see what sort of seed he's got in his beak.
When I worked at Wild Birds Unlimited, we learned from one of our customers that his robins really chowed down on whole sunflower hearts when they got back in the spring. The seed blend I put in this tray feeder contains whole sunflower hearts, so I'm guessing that's what this robin is picking out. Watching this robin brings a big smile to my face!

This is a short post tonight and I'll leave you with this little video I shot out the dining room window yesterday afternoon.

Have a good week everyone!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Birdie Friday

So, I'm happy to report that I started back to work this week. It's only part-time (Tuesdays and Thursdays), but that's OK because the State of Minnesota also finally got my unemployment problems worked out and I got my first deposit yesterday--almost 1 month after I got laid off. So, with money in the checking account finally, it was time to head over to Fleet Farm to re-stock my critter food inventories: corn for the deer, dog food for the possums and foxes, dog food and treats for Sophie, and some safflower seed to discourage grackles at my birdfeeders. It was a nice morning (a little cold with a definite windchill in the air), so I bundled up and did a little birding on my way to Fleet Farm. My first stop was the Willow Creek Reservoir because I've heard that people are starting to see migrating waterfowl in the area. There wasn't a lot of activity at the reservoir (aside from the usual Canada Geese), but I did see Common and Hooded Mergansers, Pied Billed Grebes, Lesser Scaup, Herring Gulls, and one Canvasback. I was hoping maybe for some Tundra Swans and/or White Pelicans, but maybe later on next week.

I stopped to check on the Bald Eagle nest that's just up the road from our house. Mr. and Mrs. Bald Eagle were both present, so I got this nice shot from the truck window. You can just barely see Mrs. Eagle's head over the left edge of the nest. It's so neat to have these birds nesting nearby!

Here's my backyard lawn aeration team in action. This is a mixed group of "blackbirds"--mostly starlings, with a few grackles and cowbirds mixed in. Since the snow has all melted, there have been huge flocks of starlings roaming around and pecking on the ground. I don't know if they're finding seeds on the ground or actually pecking deep enough into the ground to find some insects or grubs.
Anyway, I've been letting them roam around and here's what they're doing--aerating the lawn! Can you see all the little round holes in the photo below? As much as I don't like starlings, I really appreciate them aerating my lawn and they can eat as many bugs and grubs as their little tummies can hold.

The Downy Woodpeckers must be getting ready to start their families soon too--this is the first time I've seen a male and female sharing the suet log. Normally only one woodpecker is allowed there at a time.

And just for size comparison, here's a female Hairy Woodpecker enjoying the suet log too. The downies can get to the suet log by going through the wire, but the hairies are too big and they have to fly in from the bottom. (you can just see the head of a male Downy in the background waiting outside for Mrs. Hairy to depart)

Here's a pair of House Finches. I've been waiting for this feeder to go empty so I can fill it with safflower seed to discourage starlings and grackles.
This is the feeder that hangs right outside the dining room window and I still want to attract the bigger birds like cardinals and rose-breasted grosbeaks (once they come back), so I don't put a cage over it and switch over to straight safflower seed in the spring.

I hope you all have a chance to get out and enjoy some birding this weekend.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

King of the Forest

In the fall, our white-tailed deer bucks with their beautiful antlers are the undisputed kings of the forest.

But in spring, the bucks have lost their antlers and a new king reigns supreme in the forests of southeastern Minnesota -- the Eastern Wild Turkey!
The colors in this photo haven't been edited--his head really was that blue!

We went on an early morning turkey scouting adventure today and arrived as this big tom was just waking up and gobbling his turkey head off before flying down from roost. After he landed on the ground, we spent close to 30 minutes watching him parade around in full strut, trying to attract a hen. I was wishing for one of those nice long lenses for my camera as this is the best I could photograph from about 200 yards away.

In Minnesota, the turkey hunting licenses are chosen on a lottery system. For shotgun hunting, there are 8 different 5-day seasons that you choose in December for the zone you want to hunt in. If you're lucky, you will get chosen for the season you pick, or if you don't get chosen, shotgun hunters then have the option to choose any leftover zones or seasons. We didn't get chosen for the shotgun season we applied for, but fortunately there is also a bowhunting option that doesn't depend on the lottery system. So this year, for the first time, we will be trying to get our turkeys in the bowhunting season which starts May 15th and lasts 10 days. There are several advantages of bowhunting the last 2 seasons: by the middle of May the weather should be pretty decent, we can hunt in any zone (so hopefully we'll be able to find a hunting spot closer to home), and that late in the season a lot of the hens are already sitting on eggs, so we might have a better chance of calling in a big tom to one of our hen decoys. Neither of us have ever shot a turkey with a bow and arrow before, so we're really looking forward to this. Mr. Johnson has been shooting at the turkey target since January and I pulled out my bow this morning to practice shooting for the first time since last November. It felt good to shoot that bow again and I did pretty good hitting the targets even after 4 months.

The picture below shows a flying turkey Mr. Johnson shot a few years ago. (He had it "stuffed" and it now hangs on one of our living room walls.) This should give you somewhat of an idea of what a turkey would look like when it's flying. I think the tail is probably flared out a little bit more than usual (for display purposes). The wingspan on this huge tom is about 5 feet and if I remember correctly, this guy weighed around 22 lbs (27 lbs! Mr. Johnson set me straight on this!).....a pretty huge bird!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bluebird House Makeover

Most of the bluebird houses in my backyard are the Peterson houses. I like this style of bluebird houses and so do my bluebirds. There's only one thing about these houses I really don't like and that's the fact that the sheltered area underneath the nesting platform is the perfect spot for wasps to build their nests (see blue arrow in photo below).
A couple of years ago at a Bluebird Recovery Program conference, I learned about a modification to the Peterson houses that the folks at Bluebirds Across Nebraska were having some good success with eliminating wasp nests on these houses. The ideal thing, of course, would be to build your bluebird houses using this modified plan, but you can also make over your old style houses with just a few cuts of the jigsaw. In the picture below, you can see where I've cut away a triangular shape at the bottom of the house.
This eliminates that dark, sheltered area where wasps loved putting their nests (the orange-ish colored wood on each side shows where the sidewalls were cut away.

I also had to cut a couple inches off the bottom of the door to complete this makeover (pink arrow below shows how much of the door was cut off). This makeover is purely cosmetic and affects only the outside of the house. There is no reduction to the nesting area inside the box.
It was beautiful outside this afternoon and a perfect day for working on this task, however it takes a lot longer than I thought it would and I only managed to complete makeovers on four of my bluebird houses. But I did get those completed houses put back up and while I was putting the houses on the poles where the bluebirds nested last year, I could hear Mr. Bluebird singing over in the neighbor's backyard, so I'm hoping I got these houses ready in time for him to find a mate and start moving in.

Check out these beautiful California strawberries we found at the grocery store today--super sale priced at $1.48 a pound. These were the two biggest ones in the container, and boy were they yummy!

Some Cool Podcast and Blog Stuff

I got an e-mail from Larry at the Brownstone Birding blog this morning letting me know that he and I had gotten a mention on one of Steve Moore's BirdwatchRadio podcasts. Steve also mentioned talking to Dawn and Jeff (of Dawn's Bloggy Blog) at the recent Space Coast Birding Festival. You can listen to the podcast at this link: http://www.birdwatchradio.com/podcast.htm
If you're an iTunes subscriber, you can listen and subscribe to all of Steve's BirdWatchRadio podcasts, or listen on-line at his website (posted on my sidebar links under "Podcasts I Enjoy"). Steve always has interesting and fun programs and you never know when he's going to interview a birder or blogger you might know!

Several weeks ago Jennifer Schlick invited me to contribute a blog post on white-tailed deer for her "Animals of Western New York" blog (I think it's a pretty sure bet that white-tailed deer in western New York look and behave the same as our Minnesota deer!) This week I finally got my pictures and story ideas together and sent everything off to her. Here's the link to my post on Jennifer's blog. Thanks Jennifer for giving me this opportunity to contribute to your blog!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Miscellaneous Thursday

Signs of spring are becoming more frequent here in SE Minnesota. I'm happy to report that I saw and heard the first Eastern Bluebird in my backyard yesterday morning.....he was truly the "bluebird of happiness!"

I saw that the Common Grackles and Red-Winged Blackbirds had arrived last Monday when I got back from California. Those grackles are pigs and will become more annoying once all the babies have fledged, but I only have to tolerate them until July sometime. I could take my feeders down, but I don't want to deprive all the other backyard birds, so this is the first and last time you'll hear me complain about grackles (for this year anyway).

I saw this different looking grackle the other day. I desperately wanted it to be something like a Brewer's Blackbird or Rusty Blackbird, so I took this picture to check it against my field guides. Alas, I believe it's only a juvenile common grackle (sigh). I will keep checking these flocks of blackbirds in the hopes that I might see something unusual one day though.

Bluejays do not have good "clinging" skillz!

Crows love possum food!

Here's a picture of a couple hats I knitted this week.

My Master Naturalist class started last night. I think it will be a fun course and the students are a pretty diverse group of people. One of the young guys at my table is retired from the Army--after 2 tours in Iraq. We also have an electrical engineer, a ski instructor, a chemist, and a guy who readily admitted to the whole group "that he loves his dog too much." Oh yeah, I think he's going to be my favorite classmate!

On another positive note, official testing sources have confirmed that I am neither a criminal nor a drug addict, so I will be starting my new (part-time) job next Tuesday! And not a moment too soon as I still have not seen a single dime from the Minnesota Unemployment Insurance. I could launch into a good rant here, but will spare all of you dear readers with the sorry details. Back to the job.......it's going to be very similar to what I did in my previous job, only in a different area. The other good thing is that I'll be working with most of the same people I worked with before, so I'm happy that I'll be working with people I already know and like. For now it's only 2 days a week, but with a pay increase over my previous position, hopefully I'll be able to cover the majority of my expenses. It will be nice to be working but also have days off for gardening, lawn mowing, and other fun spring and summer activities.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Female Superpowers Revealed

I had a little money left over after my vacation, so the other day I bought a can of paint to finish the (long overdue) kitchen painting job. Since Mr. Johnson was already at work this morning and I was anxious to get the project started, I had to call upon my "female super powers" to pull this refrigerator out of the corner. My female super powers generally involve quite a bit of grunting with a few choice curse words thrown in, so I normally choose to use these super powers only when I'm working by myself. As you can see, things were going pretty well this morning.
How about the rest of you, my faithful followers.....anyone care to share a "female super power" story? Some project you've amazed yourself by completing all alone? Or something that caused your friends, a sibling or spouse to look at you in awe and say, "holy crap, I can't believe you did that all by yourself?"

And don't feel left out guys -- please share a "female super power" story about an amazing female in your life.

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In my previous post I mentioned putting out some "more appropriate" food for the possums and foxes visiting my backyard and here it is.......cheap dog food.

Not only do the possums like it, so do crows and bluejays. Plus it's cheaper and less messier than birdseed.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Nocturnal Backyard Visitors

Remember those fox tracks I've been watching in the snow all winter? Tonight we actually got to see the foxes -- and yes, there were two! One ran away shortly after Mr. Johnson turned on the backyard light, but this braver one stayed around for quite a while eating seed under the bird feeder.
It didn't even seem to mind sharing the dining area with this big ol' possum.
And here's one more bad close-up picture.
I definitely need to do some seed clean-up in the backyard once it warms up this weekend, so while I'm out there, I'll try figure out a way to put out a feeder with "more appropriate" fox and possum food and maybe a little closer to the house for better viewing and photo ops.

By the way, my backyard possum population is increasing too -- just a few minutes ago, I saw a total of four of them out there!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

What I'm Reading

Since I've had a little extra time on my hands lately, I've been able to do some recreational reading. Here are some reviews of three books that I've enjoyed.

Knitting the Threads of Time by Nora Murphy
Here's an excerpt from an e-mail I received a few weeks ago from the Publicity Director for New World Library (who published this book): "As a fellow knitter, I am thrilled to be publicizing Nora Murphy's new book, KNITTING THE THREADS OF TIME: Casting Back to the Heart of Our Craft. I am wondering if you would be interested in receiving a review copy of this new book. I'd love to send you one in the hopes you will share it with your online knitting community."

Interested? You Bet!! I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone who's a knitter, and especially a new knitter or a old-time knitter like me. I learned so much history about knitting, but more importantly, Nora Murphy's words really helped me realize why knitting is so special to me (and so many other people). I have this phrase highlighted in her Prologue chapter:

"Inside a stitch, just a single knitted stitch, lies the paradox of the ordinary, everyday textile hero. Her simple stitch helps keep the story of humanity alive; her work casts on stitches for the next generation."

Wow! Even though this book tells the story of Nora as a beginning knitter making a sweater for her son, it helped me relive the joy (and anguish) of knitting my first sweater so many years ago. In addition to giving me a greater appreciation of my knitting craft, this book made me proud to know that I am a part of the sisterhood of knitters from ancient times to the present -- and beyond, because who knows how many years all those things that I've knitted will continue to keep people warm?

And as long as I've got you here reading this, let me tell you a quick story of what happened to me in the Salt Lake City airport on my way to California last week. I was seated at the departure gate and knitting on sock (4 double-point bamboo needles, size 1). I noticed a woman walk over and stand in front of me, so I looked up at her and asked if she was a knitter. She immediately sat down in the empty chair next to me and told me her knitting story. She was from India (Kashmir region) and learned to knit when she was a little girl. She told me that she was part of an extended family of about 50 that all lived together in the same house (a large house!). She said every year starting in September, all of the women in the family would get together and beginning knitting socks, gloves, hats, etc. to keep the family warm during the cold Kashmir winter. She said she never learned to read a pattern as all of the patterns were just passed down verbally from the older women in the family. She was fascinated with my tiny bamboo needles and I think amazed to see that someone was actually knitting socks. For me that's a really cool thing about knitting--we all have stories we can share and the knitting needles and yarn are the things that bind us all together.

Brother Wolf by Jim Brandenburg
This book was recommended to my by a friend who knew that I was interested in wolves. I'm about halfway through this book, but it's a neat story of wolves, from prehistoric days to the present. The present day story is drawn from Jim's own experiences with wolves around his Ravenwood home near Ely, Minnesota and also his trips to Ellesmere Island. And even if you don't want to read the story, you should check out this book from your library just to see the amazing photographs Jim has in this book (like this one shown below).

Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy
Any Maeve Binchy fans out there? I love her books and have read every single one. I saw in my book club notice that Heart and Soul was a new one coming out, so I immediately went to the library website to see if I could reserve a spot in the queue for these enormously popular books. I was happy to find out in a phone call last week that they had the book for me (#1 in the queue). This is a great book, I love reading about all the characters and situations they're involved in. Also, some of the characters from Maeve's previous books make cameo appearances in this one, so you may remember some of them as you're reading along. Every time I read one of her books, I wish I could plan a trip to Dublin. It would be interesting to find out if that city and its people are anything like a Maeve Binchy novel!

That's all for now!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

California Memories

As I sit here in my dining room listening to the 35 mph, sub-zero winds rattling the windows, it's hard to believe that just 4 days ago I was hanging out in sunny California, but here are the pictures to prove it. Boy, am I glad I got the chance to enjoy a few days of warm, sunny weather in the middle of our lingering Minnesota winter.

Here's a picture from our lunch at Castagnola's fine restaurant in San Franciso where we met the West Coast bloggers: Mary C (Mary's Corner of the World) and Heidi (aka Red - MMATM). The fun thing about meeting fellow bloggers is that you already feel like you know them and there's not that awkward (for me anyway) "getting to know you" stage. We just all sat down and started yakking like we had known each other for ages (well, at least a year anyway!)

Back row: Brother Phil, Brother Dave, Me and Dave (Mary's spousal unit & Heidi's dad)
Front row: Mary and Heidi

After a delicious dinner, we headed down to Pier 39 to check out all of the usual San Francisco sights. It was a lovely Saturday afternoon and there were thousands of tourists also enjoying the day. (don't forget you can enlarge any of these pictures just by clicking on them)

Can't miss the sea lions -- what a life!

A larger container ship. I don't know if it was heading in to unload or out to sea, but I was amazed to see something like this. It was HUGE! And some of those containers were stacked 7 high. Wow!!

I'm sure you all recognize Alcatraz Island. I like the seagull on the left. :-)

Here's the TransAmerica Tower. If anyone knows what the building is right behind it, be sure to let me know in the comments. We never did find out.

Here's another view from the pier area. We drove in to the city on this bridge.

This was my third visit to San Francisco and I finally got the chance to walk around Chinatown. I didn't have my camera along, so here's a scene from nice postcard that I bought.

Someday I would like to have at least 4 days to spend in San Francisco. There are so many neat things to see and do. And I still haven't had the chance to ride a cable car, so there's another reason to go back.

Brother Phil had a birthday during our California visit, so we were able to celebrate with him when we got back from San Francisco on Saturday night. Here's Phil with his son Charlie. (We got back pretty late, so it was way past Charlie's bedtime, but he made it through the presents, cake and ice cream.)

Phil has a great yard with lots of different plants and trees. He had these beautiful camellias blooming at one end of his house. This was the red one (covered with blossoms and many more buds)

The pink camellia was also blooming. There weren't as many blossoms, but they were certainly just as beautiful.

There were daffodils blooming in the backyard.

He also has a pool and hot tub in the backyard. And how about those palm trees? That's certainly a backyard sight we'd never see here in Minnesota!

Sunset over the Tisdale Bypass
(of all the pictures I took on this trip, I think this one is my favorite! Aren't those colors amazing?)

Thanks again Phil for your hospitality and for driving us around to see all the birds and California tourist spots. It was a trip I'll never forget.

Monday, March 9, 2009

California Birds

I'm glad my brother lives in California because it's a birder's paradise! With only 1 day available for birding, we spent most of our birding time in Sutter, Yolo, and Colusa counties which is the area closest to where my brother lives. This area is part of the agricultural region of the Central Valley, so a lot of it is quite rural and there are also plenty of wetlands.

The highlight of our afternoon was a visit to Colusa National Wildlife Refuge. Lots of ponds, both deep and shallow, so the area was attractive to shorebirds and waterfowl alike. Here are a few photos I took Friday afternoon. It was a perfect day for birding!

Snow Geese, Northern Pintails, Mallards, and Greater White-Fronted Geese

A closer look at the Greater White-Fronted Geese
At Colusa NWR, we also saw the White-Tailed Kite, a Bald Eagle, a Black Phoebe, lots of White-Faced Ibis, Marsh Wrens, and several sparrows and hawks that I didn't have the expertise to identify.

On our way to San Francisco on Saturday, my brother took us over to Travis AFB to see if we could get a look at the Burrowing Owls he's seen there on previous occasions. Fortunately, the owls were cooperative that day. Here's a cute pair just minding their own business and sunbathing outside their burrow.

I couldn't resist pulling out my birdJam and playing a little burrowing owl call out the car window. Mrs. Owl wasn't impressed, but Mr. Owl didn't like hearing that other owl one bit, Nosirree!! Here's a picture of his "I'm gonna kick some owl butt!" reaction. We could even hear him calling back.
We didn't stay there very long, my brother was worried the MPs would come by and move us along, so we left after about 5 minutes, but it was fun to see these little owls.

Loggerhead Shrike

Black Crowned Night Heron
This handsome guy was perched right outside the restaurant where we had lunch on Saturday in San Francisco. I really dig his pretty dark red eyes and those long jazzy plumes hanging down from the back of his head.

Snowy Egret
This bird was standing at the edge of the water right outside our restaurant in San Francisco. Every so often one of us would spot him catching a little fish. Isn't his plumage beautiful? And don't you just love those crazy yellow feet? What a cool bird!

Here's a juvenile Double-Crested Cormorant atop a utility pole along one of the canals running next to Robbins where my brother lives. He said the cormorants like to congregate in this area every morning.

I have no complaints about my trip to California except for one thing--it was TOO SHORT!! There are so many neat places and things to see here! We didn't even get to do any coastal or mountain birding, so those opportunities will have to wait till another time. This was a perfect time of year to go--the daytime temps were in the 60's each and there was almost no wind. Lots of blooming flowers and blossoming trees, plus green grass and palm trees everywhere--just the thing to perk up winter-weary Minnesotans!

I will have more pictures and stories from California in my next post, so stay tuned!