Thursday, April 30, 2009

Master Naturalist Class #6

Now that I've got my new little pocket camera, there will be no reason not to post dorky pictures like this from my Master Naturalist class.......
Last night's class was about water in the landscape: ponds, streams, lakes and rivers. Part of the class was dedicated to learning about the different tests and indicators of pond health. In the photo above I'm holding on to a "thermometer on a stick" (no, you won't find that as a new food vendor item at next summer's state fair!) in an effort to determine whether the temperature of this pond is different at the surface vs. a depth of 60 centimeters (it wasn't, if you're curious).

As of last night, we have completed 6 Master Naturalist classes and have 3 more to go, plus the last class which includes graduation. May will be quite a busy class month as we have our regular Wednesday night sessions, plus 2 all-day Saturday field trips, and the Master Naturalist conference weekend event. AND, I still need to find some time in between Master Naturalist activities and working to get out and spot migrating warblers (finding a Cerulean Warbler is tops on my list this spring).

I wonder, what's the minimum number of hours of sleep I will need per night to still remain functional and do all the outdoor things I want to each day.......I think I'll be finding out in May!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Transplants, Sprouts & A New Camera

My veggie seeds are doing well since I transplanted them into their individual "pots" last Friday. Here I have 3 different kinds of tomatoes and some broccoli. I put them out on the deck a couple hours yesterday afternoon for a little fresh air and sunshine.

Penny sez, "I approve of these sprouts being grown for my noms!"

Here are some radishes just beginning to sprout in my garden. I checked when I got home from work today and there are some tiny lettuce sprouts just beginning to make their appearance also.

A few weeks ago, after reading Jennifer's post about her new camera and seeing the wonderful pictures it took, I decided to take the plunge and purchase one for myself.
I've been wanting a smaller, more portable and less expensive camera than my big Canon PowerShot and this seems to be the perfect little camera. In fact, the first 3 photos on this post were taken by my new camera. Now I have a nice little pocket-sized camera to carry along on walks, to my naturalist classes, in my bag to work, or wherever there's a chance I might have that perfect photo opportunity (as long as I don't forget it!)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Post #470 -- Purple Martins

When I logged in to Blogger this morning, it showed me that I have done 469 posts so far. Wow, I can't believe this is post #470 since my first appearance with the Nature Knitter blog on March 6, 2007. I have learned plenty of new things about Blogger and made some definite progress with my posts since then.

Yesterday, we had a little preview of summer here in southeastern Minnesota. It was a beautiful, sunny day and we reached a record high (for the day and the month!) of 92 degrees. It was a perfect day to get some more spring chores done outside and so I decided to get my purple martin gourds "furnished" and hung up on the gourd rack. The purple martins have arrived back in Minnesota and once again, I begin another season (Year 4!) of what is turning out to be the eternal quest to establish a purple martin colony in my backyard.

I have 12 gourds -- half are giant natural gourds and half are these plastic "Super Gourds." The plastic gourds are pretty much maintenance-free and will last for years, but I've found that the purple martins who do visit me and move into gourds definitely prefer the natural ones. Inside the bottom of the gourds, I put in a few handfuls of white pine needles that I've raked up from under my trees. This will give the martins a good base layer on which to build their nest and in addition to the drainage holes in the bottom of the gourds, will also help to keep their nests drier in the event of heavy rains.

Here are all the gourds in place. I've plugged the holes in the natural gourds and may have to do that with the plastic ones also if I notice that tree swallows, house sparrows or starlings are trying to take over the gourds before the martins arrive.
I hoisted the gourds to the top and we're all set for purple martins! These are in a nice, open, and very visible part of the yard. Hopefully any martins flying over in the next few weeks will notice these lovely gourds and stop by to take a look.

I really like using gourds for purple martin housing. They are so easy to care for and lightweight. If I was rich and had an established purple martin colony though, I would definitely get one of these Lonestar purple martin houses. They have huge nesting compartments with built-in predator guards inside each "apartment." I've visited a couple purple martin landlords who have these houses and they swear that it's the best martin house out there.

Most of you probably already know that purple martins in the eastern U.S. and Canada now depend entirely on humans to provide their housing. If you think you'd like to establish a purple martin colony in your backyard, or just learn more about purple martins, please visit the Purple Martin Conservation Association website here. There's lots of information at the website and also links to finding martin events and mentors in your area (scroll down the website home page to see all the links on the right side). I would also be more than happy to answer any questions you might have.

Being a purple martin landlord is fun and rewarding (and frustrating and challenging), but once you get "hooked" by these beautiful birds, you will do just about anything to keep them coming back from year to year. I know.......because I do it every year! And I won't stop with my "martin quest" until I get a colony established in my own backyard.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Brown Creeper Boo-Hoo

Well, dear blogging friends and followers, I'm sure you've noticed I've been a poor correspondent for the past couple of weeks. I had a feeling this was going to happen once spring arrived here in southeastern Minnesota and I'm now more eager to spend time outside than sitting inside the house at my computer. Also, my poor old Sophie has developed some "separation anxiety" issues now that I've gone back to work, and my employer has graciously agreed to a schedule change that will enable me to work half-days now in order to spend more time with Sophie. And factor in the Master Naturalist class schedule......well, I think you know where I'm heading here. So anyway, I wanted to let you know that I'm still around, but time for blog posts and commenting has become limited, so I hope you all understand.

Now, to get back to the title of this post.......
This afternoon, I headed down to my sissy's to dig a hole in her front yard so she can get her new purple martin house put up, because they've finally made it back to Minnesota from Brazil! It was fun listening to a few martins flying overhead for distraction while I was trying to dig a 26" deep hole through the limestone buried under her front lawn. While I was digging, my niece was keeping me company outside and she happened to find this little birdie in the flower bed--an apparent casualty of a collision with the front window. As soon as she handed it to me, I knew it was a Brown Creeper.

I was saddened to know that this poor little bird's life had ended, but at the same time, it was quite amazing to hold this tiny creature in my hand and examine it a bit more closely. They're so well-adapted for survival in the wild. Look at this skinny, curved beak--a perfect tool that enables them to search in deep crevices of tree bark to locate a tasty insect or grub for nourishment.

Look at this bird's incredible feet--especially the huge hind toe claw! Perfect for gripping bark and "creeping" up the trunk of a tree in search of food.

I wish you could have felt how stiff and bristly its tail feather were. These stiff tail feathers also help to hold the brown creeper in place as it finds and extracts its food from tree bark crevices.

Its feathers were quite beautiful--even for a little brown and white bird. Look at the lovely markings on its wing feathers. I've only seen a Brown Creeper flying once and it was so fast I didn't even get a chance to notice its wings.

I was sorry this little bird had to die and I hope you don't think I'm exploiting the situation by showing these pictures in my blog. Even though it was dead, I felt honored to be able to hold such a tiny creature in my hand and be able to see up close the physical adaptations that enable this bird to live in the wild.
R.I.P. Brown Creeper

My other plan for this summer will be to help my sissy get a bird deterrent window screen set-up installed so no more birdies will become a victim of her front window (following the excellent instructions presented by Julie Zickefoose in the March/April 2009 issue of Bird Watcher's Digest).

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Sunday Afternoon Drive

We were finally blessed with some much-needed moisture in the form of rain (not snow!) overnight and most of today. Because it wasn't really nice enough to do anything outside, Mr. Johnson took us for a turkey scouting/birding drive down to Fillmore County this afternoon. Here are some of the sights we experienced.

Because last week was quite nice, many of the farmers around here have started on their field work. We came across this old cemetery located some distance away from the road and in the middle of a cornfield. I don't remember ever seeing this cemetery before and once the corn gets tall, you would never be able to see it from the road.
I would have liked to walk over and look at some of the gravestones, but the ground was too muddy. I tried to find out more information on the internet, but this cemetery wasn't listed as one of the public cemeteries in Fillmore County. It looks very desolate on this dreary day, doesn't it?
(I was also extremely surprised these gravestones hadn't been vandalized and broken, as is so often the case of these old cemeteries in rural areas.)

We came upon an old dead tree that was a perfect roosting spot for some turkey vultures. Naturally they didn't sit still very long after we stopped the car for some pictures.
This was a lucky shot!

Fly away vultures!

We continued heading south and eventually ended up at Goethite WMA. On one of the ponds near the road, we spotted a large number of Blue-Winged Teals.
These pictures aren't the best, but the colors of their breeding plumage makes them easy to identify--especially the males with their large crescent-shaped white patch at the base of their bill.

While we were watching the ducks on this pond, I looked to my right and spotted another large flock of birds flying in the distance.
I quickly got my binocs on them and was thrilled to see it was a huge flock of white pelicans!
These were the first white pelicans I've seen this year. I haven't had a chance to travel down to the Mississippi yet this spring and I thought perhaps I might have missed the opportunity to see pelicans this year.
I love seeing these beautiful birds soaring in the sky. I only wish the skies had been clear today because the sight of these huge white birds with a blue sky in the background is breathtaking.

I like this picture because you can clearly see the "breeding horn" on the top side of their beak.
Did you know their wingspan is 9 feet? Here's the Wikipedia link if you want to read more about the American White Pelican.

Have a good week everyone!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Master Naturalist Class

My Minnesota Naturalist Class is going well. Last night was class #4 (there are a total of 9 classes). I thought I was pretty knowledgable about nature, but I'm finding out in this class that I really don't know very much at all! I felt a little smarter in yesterday's class: Creatures of the Big Woods. We had the opportunity to go outside and make a plaster cast of an animal footprint found along the edge of the pond. Here's how our group's turned out -- do you know what animal made this footprint?
If you guessed "hind foot of a raccoon" you would be correct!

So far we have learned about Minnesota's biomes (we are in the deciduous forest biome), glaciers and geology and what effect they had on the big woods, management and identification of terrestrial plants (trees and shrubs), and last night's class on wildlife. I'm enjoying these classes and especially all the new things I'm learning.

And now to totally change the subject, look at this picture I took yesterday morning......

Those dang starlings! It took them almost 3 months to figure out how to get to the suet log inside this cage. I don't know if it's just this one bird, but when I got home from work this afternoon, there was a starling all the way up inside--with one foot braced on the suet log and one on the cage. I was hoping they'd never figure this out, but this is one smart bird. Now I'm going to have to attach a pie plate to the bottom of the log and cut off that access. The only bad thing about that is the hairy woodpeckers will also lose their access to the suet log. Crap!!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Just Bluebirds

I heard the first bluebird singing in our yard this year on March 15th, but in just the last 10 days or so, I've have a pair hanging around pretty consistently and checking out the housing options. This morning when Sophie and I were on our walk, we noticed a pair checking out a woodpecker cavity in a birch tree at one of the neighbors up the street.

I was even more surprised when I got home to find that there was also a pair checking out a woodpecker cavity in the dead birch tree in my front yard! (The downy woodpeckers excavate these holes, but to the best of my knowledge, they have never used them for nesting.)

I had seen house sparrows going in and out of this hole earlier in the winter, so I hope the bluebirds can keep them away. It would be so amazing if they nested here because this dead tree is right outside the bedroom window and it would be extremely cool to wake up to the sound of bluebirds singing every morning!

Here's a nice shot of Mr. Bluebird.

Here's Mrs. Bluebird on a Gilbertson PVC house.

And here's Mrs. Bluebird waiting for Mr. Bluebird to come out of the tree cavity.

And here's one more short movie, because I just can't get enough of these birds!

And don't forget about the Minnesota Bluebird Recovery Program spring conference coming up this Saturday in Elk River, Minnesota. There's a link on my sidebar if you want more information or would like to attend.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A couple of backyard things

I hope everyone had a very happy Easter and had some fun times with friends and family. Mr. Johnson and I headed down to my parents for a family get-together and delicious Easter feast. Thanks again Mom & Dad for a nice afternoon.

We're still enjoying some pretty decent spring weather and although today was overcast and not quite as warm as yesterday, I decided to go out this afternoon and do some more yard clean-up chores. Last week I burned off part of the wildflower patch and since it wasn't very windy and fairly cool this afternoon, I decided to finish burning the rest of the patch. It's been quite a few years since I burned the entire patch, so it was way overdue.
I had the garden hose ready and watered down the grass around the trees and shrubs within the area to be burned so that none of these would get burned. In the center of both pictures you can probably make out my big ol' brushpile. The bunnies and possums live under it and the birds use it to escape from the Cooper's hawk, so I took special precautions to make sure that the brushpile didn't burn either.
I'm glad I got this project finished up today because I just heard on our local evening news that there's now a burning ban on for our area until Friday! Once we get some rain later in the week, this burned area will green up really fast. And I'm hoping that my wildflowers come back rejuvenated and with less weeds.

The other exciting thing in my backyard was revealed to me this afternoon when I came in the house to make supper. Out the kitchen window, I spotted this cute little Brown Creeper -- a first in my backyard! Can you spot the bird in this picture?

Here's a little bit better view.
If it weren't for the bird's white underside, it would be extremely difficult to spot them. They "creep" up the trunk of the tree, using their long, slightly curved beak to excavate beneath loose bark for insects.

Have a good week everybody!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Caption Contest #2 Winner

Thanks very much to everyone who contributed entries for my recent caption contest.

The winning caption for this cute house finch photo was submitted by Aleta. Congratulations Aleta! Please e-mail me (rjknits at msn dot com) your US Post Office address and I'll get your prize (1,029 Backyard Birding Secrets) mailed off next week.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Goethite WMA

I decided to take advantage of my part-time work schedule this Friday morning and go on a little birding trip. After reading several of Troutbirder's blog posts about Goethite Wildlife Management area in southern Fillmore County, I felt the need to check the area out for myself. Mr. Johnson and I used to pheasant hunt this area in the late 70's and early 80's, but I've never been down there specifically for birding.

Goethite WMA is south of Spring Valley, Minnesota (about 30 miles from my house). After I turned off the main highway, I traveled past several ponds close to the road, and managed to spot these Greater Yellowlegs at one of the ponds.

A couple more miles down the road brought me to my final destination. I didn't remember this area being so large!
(If you're interested in learning more about this area, Troutbirder did several posts in June of 2008 that you might want to look at. I'm feeling lazy tonight and since he's already done the research and written about it, I didn't see the need to duplicate the information and would rather send you over to his blog -- I hope he doesn't mind!)

Here's the first view I saw after parking and getting out of the car -- a big pond that was an open pit iron ore mine back in the 20th century. No waterfowl on this pond, I guess I must have missed most of the migrating ducks and geese that Troutbirder saw last week when he was down here.

Since I was wearing my boots that were made for walking, I took off down a fairly well traveled trail to see what kinds of birds and other cool stuff I could spot. While watching a pair of Eastern bluebirds, I happened to notice this sweet little goldfinch nest that had survived the winter. Isn't it neat how they can fit their nests into little trees like this?

Oh cool, what's this? It looks like a beaver dam on one of the ponds. You probably can't tell from this picture, but the dam is almost 5 feet high and if you click to enlarge it, you might be able to see just a little bit of the pond on the other side (right in the middle).
I could see that the pond on the other side was right to the top of this beaver dam and I wondered if I could get across this little stream by following the deer trail. That little stream isn't very wide and it doesn't look too deep either, does it? OK, let's try's too wide for me to jump across, but maybe just one quick step through the middle of the stream should be OK.

Shee-it! That water was WAY DEEPER than it looked -- and really COLD too! Oh well, I had my wool socks on, so at least my foot didn't get cold (and my pant leg was just about dry by the time I got home!)

So here's the beaver dam from the other side, with the pond right at the top edge. I didn't see evidence of any recent beaver activity, so I'm not sure if they're still present in this area, but it was nice to see that their sturdy dam is still intact.

I was glad I made the crossing to this area because while I was over there, I had the great fortune to spot two sandhill cranes walking around in the tall grass. I tried to sneak up on them to get some pictures, but had no luck with that. I did however, spot this large raptor (juvenile red-tailed or juvenile bald eagle?) with a red-winged blackbird monitor nearby.

I continued to wander around this area looking for birds and I hoped I was traveling in a big circle and would eventually find my way back to the road. After coming out of a little woods, I was relieved to spot the car right where I had parked it (of course, that huge pink arrow in the sky was a big help too!)

Now that I knew for sure where I was, I could continue with my explorations and not worry about being lost. I watched this Canada goose for awhile....I thought maybe it was injured or something because I've never seen a goose lay its head down in the water like this, have you?
After a few minutes, I walked a little bit closer and the goose finally perked up after seeing me and eventually flew away with no apparent injuries. I breathed a little sigh of relief seeing that.

Because Goethite WMA was once an iron mining area, you can still see chunks of iron ore while walking around here. Some are small, like this piece I found on the trail.....
and some are pretty huge, like this big chunk near the parking area......
(I would love to have this chunk of ore somewhere out in my backyard landscape!)

Here's something I've never seen before in the wild: Pussy willows! There were several large plants around the edge of the pond close to the parking area, so I cut a few sprigs to take home.
Some of the pussy willow shrubs had these really large growths that looked like buds on them. Does anyone know what these are? I tried "googling" pussywillows, but couldn't find any information on these large growths. Some of the plants had them but others didn't. I wondered if they were some sort of indicator of a male vs. female plant?
Update: I sent an e-mail to WinterWoman and she confirmed that this growth on the pussy willow plant is indeed a gall--a Willow Pine Cone Gall (Click here for the link she posted on insect galls to learn more about it). Thanks for your help Jennifer!

Back at the car, I watch a black-capped chickadee checking out a possible new home across the road.

Finally around noon, I decided it was probably time to head for home. I could easily have spent most of the day here at Goethite WMA, and I left knowing that what I didn't explore today will still be there next time I come down for a visit.

Here's a list of all the birds I saw (or heard) this morning:
Tree Swallow
Eastern Meadowlark
Common Merganser
Song Sparrow
Golden Crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Black-Capped Chickadee
Eastern Phoebe
Greater Yellowlegs
Belted Kingfisher
Red-Winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Canada Goose
Red-Tailed Hawk
White-Breasted Nuthatch
American Robin
Sharp-Shinned Hawk
Sandhill Crane
Ring-Necked Pheasant
American Goldfinch
American Crow
Eastern Wild Turkey