Monday, August 31, 2009

Extreme Kitty Approval

Looks like Penny has given her kitty approval to the sweater project I'm currently working on.
I'm sure gray cat fur will definitely be a great accent to this design, don't you?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Amazing Hummingbird Video

I love hummingbirds and the activity around my feeders this weekend has been nothing short of amazing. Flying, buzzing, chirping and chasing has been going on non-stop since it got light this morning. The most I counted at one time was 6 hummers, and this is definitely the most hummingbird activity I've ever seen around my house.

After supper, I decided to try and see if I could get a video of hand-feeding them. I have 5 nectar feeders in various locations around the house, but 2 of those are located on the deck (for maximum viewing pleasure). In order to get them to come to the nectar I'm holding, I have to hide the 2 feeders on the deck. They can still go to another feeder, but since they're used to coming to the deck, that's where I have the best chance of getting pictures of them.

In this video, you will see a pot of purple flowers in the background--right above those purple flowers is where one of the nectar feeders usually hangs, so that's why there's a lot of concentrated hummingbird activity in this area. I watched and fed these hummingbirds for about 20 minutes, but then decided I'd better put their regular feeders back up. Temps are going to be in the low 40's tonight and I wanted to make sure these busy little hummers consumed enough nectar to keep their little bodies stoked for overnight.

Here in the north country, hummingbirds will be migrating soon and it seems like their activity is always greatest this time of year. If you haven't tried handfeeding hummingbirds yet, now would be the perfect time. If you have a nectar feeder, just start by sitting outside and holding the feeder in your hand -- the hummingbirds will come! It takes a little getting used to--especially when they buzz right close to your ears, but I guarantee this will be one of the funnest things you will ever get the chance to do!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Garden Makeover Completed & Monarch Question Answered

I finally finished the front garden makeover yesterday afternoon. We had to make another run for cypress mulch on Thursday evening, so that delayed the completion, but I still managed to get the job done in less than a week.


(Sophie likes it too!)

Here's how it looks if you're walking up to the front door.
That's a good job done! It's nice to get rid of the weeds and actually be able to see out of those windows again! If the plants all make it through the winter, this garden should look really nice next spring. If I want to add some flowers in pots for more color next spring and summer, there should be enough room between the plants for doing that too.

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In the comments on my post about monarch tagging, Danielle asked how I tell the males from the females and here are a couple pictures to show you what to look for.

This is a female

And this is a male -- notice the differences??
There are 2 main ones: the black wing veins on the male are thinner than those of the female and the male has those 2 little swollen pouch spots on his hindwings.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Front Yard Garden Makeover

Here's my deck thermometer last Saturday morning at 6:15! Mmmmmmmm, this is my kinda weather! And looks like it's going to be a perfect day to start that front yard garden makeover I've been planning in my mind for months now.

Is there anyone out there who doesn't think this garden is in need of a makeover??
It's become a neglected eyesore because I've been too lazy to work at keeping the weeds out. Since we're thinking about selling this place in the next few years, I need to spruce things up a little bit anyway. So why not re-do it now, and we'll get a chance to enjoy it also for our remaining years at this place?

So in my mind's eye, the plan is to expand the garden out several feet into a semicircle. I did the landscaping trick where you lay out the garden hose to mark the shape you're going to work with and then it was time to start the hardest part of the job--removing the sod.

I suppose I could've rented one of those sod-cutting machines but why deal with the hassle and expense when I can do it myself. And besides, there's no sense in letting my female super powers go to waste!

Good-bye ugly, worn-out, wooden dog-eared edging! Good-bye old and no-longer-working low voltage accent lights! You served your purpose well over the years, but it's time for something new and functional.

Well, here's the result of my Saturday afternoon's labors. Doesn't look like much yet, but it's a good start!

Monday after work, I got back to the landscaping project again. My nice neighbor Kevin sharpened my shovel for me and it was much quicker work removing the remaining sod!

Now it's time to start moving the plants. I had mostly hostas and Asiatic lilies in this north-east facing, fairly shady garden. I had purchased a couple of new hostas earlier this summer, but I'm going to just take the rest of the existing plants and replant them. They will be spread out and have more room to grow than they did at the foundation of the house. Some of these hostas are huge, so it will be nice to let them take over a larger space too.

After supper we made the run to Menards to pick up the edging blocks (113!) Now it's starting to look pretty good, don't you think?

Never underestimate the power of a woman with a shovel!!

Today we had intermittent rain showers for most of the day, so this garden project is on hold till the weather clears. Tomorrow is probably going to be a lawn mowing day, but hopefully I can get the garden makeover project completed on Thursday. I need to get the rest of the plants in the ground and then put down the cypress mulch. I talked Mr. Johnson into purchasing a couple sets of solar accent lights (on sale at Menards!) for the garden too. It's been a lot of hard work and sore muscles, but it's turning out exactly as I had envisioned, so it's all been worth it. Hopefully I can show you the final pictures of this project on Thursday.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ready to Tag a Monarch Butterfly?

This was a neat sight recently in my monarch ranch--the beginning of the cycle (caterpillar in the "J" position before turning into a chrysalis) and the completion of the cycle (monarch butterfly ready to hatch from the chrysalis). Isn't it amazing the butterfly can come out of that little chrysalis?

Here's another picture of a monarch shortly after emerging. They will hang from the empty chrysalis shell for quite a while as they dry out and pump fluids into their wings and gain strength.

And here's the monarch we're going to tag and release today. As I was reaching into the ranch to retrieve her, she fluttered down to the bottom and sat there for a short while. This was good because I was able to see very easily that she is a female.

Here's the tagging kit I purchased from Monarch Watch (cost = $15). It consists of 25 tags and a tracking sheet for recording the butterflies you tag this season. You record the tag number, date it was tagged, male or female, reared or wild, and the city, state and zip code where the butterfly was tagged. Unused tags and the completed data sheet must be returned to the Monarch Watch folks at the University of Kansas by December 1st.All of the monarchs that I tag from the ranch are recorded as reared. If I have any tags left over and capture some butterflies in the backyard for tagging, they are recorded as wild.

The tags are really small and super sticky. I shouldn't have cut my fingernails so short the other day because it's nice to have a little bit of nail to stick them on to hold -- otherwise they have a tendency to get stuck to my finger and that's not good!

Here are the instructions and illustrations showing exactly where to place the tag on the monarch's wing.

And here's what we're looking for on the "real" monarch.

As you can see from the above photo, she didn't like me holding just her wings--the legs are frantically scrambling for something to hold on to. So when I hold and tag them, I usually try to hold them so they can grab on to one of my fingers during the process. That seems to calm them down a little bit too and they're easier to hold then.

Here she is now with her tag stuck on. It's upside down, but I figured that really doesn't matter--you can still read the numbers, right?

After I finish tagging a butterfly, I take it out to the wildflower garden in my backyard and release them in a sheltered area on some of the flowers. That way they will have easy access to nectar right away too. Isn't she a beautiful sight?
They don't hang around very long and I've never spotted a butterfly with a tag on any subsequent days after releasing them in the backyard. I guess they instinctively know what they're supposed to do with their life.

So there you have it -- how to tag a monarch butterfly. Pretty simple actually. If you think you want to try it yourself, Monarch Watch has a beginner's kit that contains only 5 tags. You don't have to raise the monarchs from caterpillars either.......if you have a butterfly net and catch a monarch in your backyard, you can tag that one as a "wild" monarch.

This is my third year of monarch tagging and I've always purchased the set of 25 tags but never used them all. However, I'm optimistic that 2009 will be the year that I actually get to use all 25 tags.....especially judging by the looks of things in my monarch ranch!

This afternoon, right before supper, I had the rare opportunity to watch 2 caterpillars complete the process of transforming from a caterpillar to a chrysalis. It was the coolest thing ever! Their striped outside skin actually splits and the light green chrysalis emerges from what would have been the inside of the caterpillar. Needless to say, the supper preparations were a little bit delayed while I watched this miracle on my kitchen counter!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Let's Talk About Monarch Caterpillars

My next couple of posts are going to be devoted solely to talking about monarchs, so hopefully these will answer any questions you might have in case you're thinking about raising monarchs for yourself.

By now, you've probably heard or read the news that the monarch numbers (and butterflies in general) are all down this summer--perhaps due to the chillier and wetter than usual weather many of us have been experiencing this summer.

I've been finding quite a few monarch caterpillars in the backyard this week and here's a look at my re-populated monarch ranch.

Here are 4 large caterpillars I found on 2 plants the other night.
Monarch ranching is a really fun project that you might want to pursue with your kids or grandkids (or even on your own as I do!). So let's say you want to start a ranch, let me share some tips with you for going out and finding some caterpillars yourself.

First of all, you've got to find some Common Milkweed--the caterpillar's favorite food source. Hopefully you'll have some of this growing in your backyard or somewhere nearby. (And of course, you don't want to pick any that's been sprayed with chemicals.) The best thing to look for is a leaf that's been munched on. If you're lucky, the caterpillar will still be there and if you're really lucky, the caterpillar will be on top of the leaf!

Another clue to look for is poop (frass) on the leaves below where a caterpillar might be. The bigger the frass, the bigger the caterpillar you'll find.

Here's a lucky find--3 caterpillars on one plant, but notice that 2 are hiding underneath the leaves.

If you do find some caterpillars to populate your ranch, remember that you'll have to continue feeding them. I usually pick several leaves while I'm out there and store them in a baggie in the fridge. Once the caterpillars get bigger, they're eating machines, so you have to make sure you've got enough food to keep them fed until they turn into a chrysalis.

And speaking of chrysalis, take a look at what I also found yesterday........
A monarch chrysalis in the wild!! In all of my 50 years on this earth, it's the first time I've ever seen one! I was trimming back this huge milkweed patch next to the driveway because it had gotten too overgrown and was obstructing our view when backing out. The breeze just happened to blow this leaf back and I spotted the chrysalis. Thank goodness I didn't cut this stalk off before I saw the chrysalis.

Here's what it looked like when the leaf was just hanging--what amazing camouflage!

So I decided to remove this chrysalis from the leaf and add it to my ranch to see if it would hatch. Did you know you could do that? Let me show you how I did it. And before I go any further, I should tell you that I learned this from Dave, my monarch monitoring/bluebirding/master naturalist mentor.

Because this leaf would die before the butterfly hatched and the chrysalis has to hang in order for the butterfly to develop properly, I had to get it off the leaf.

See that little black "stem" at the top of the chrysalis? It's very stiff and hard, so this is what I'm going to attach a hanging thread to. That will allow me to tie the chrysalis to the roof of my monarch ranch. I put a needle at each end of the thread to make it easier to work with and just tied a good, tight square knot around the black stem.

Before the caterpillar turns into the chrysalis, it attaches itself to the underside of where the chrysalis will hang with a strong patch of silk. My next step was to carefully remove this silk patch from the leaf, so I pulled the handy-dandy Leatherman Micra from my pocket (you carry one of these with you at all times, right?) and gently loosened the silk patch from the leaf.

Once it's loosened, the entire patch was easily removed from the leaf.

Ta-Da!!! A monarch chrysalis ready to be attached to the ceiling of my monarch ranch.

In previous years, I've collected mostly eggs and raised them into caterpillars. This is the first year when the majority of my monarch butterflies will be hatched from larger caterpillars found in the backyard. There is a little bit more risk in hatching monarchs this way, mainly due to the chance of parasitic wasps or flies laying their eggs in the larva. There is no visible evidence when this occurs, but usually what happens is the butterfly is unable to develop due to the parasitic wasp or fly which develops instead inside the chrysalis. I've only had it happen a couple of times, but it's quite disappointing and something that you want to be aware of in case it happens in your monarch ranch.

Before I finish, here is an excellent website (just click on the link) if you're looking for more information on monarchs: Monarch Watch. I also really like "The Butterfly Book" by Don & Lillian Stokes as a reference guide. And I would be more than happy to try and answer any questions you have also. You can leave a comment or feel free to e-mail me (rjknits at msn dot com).

I hope you enjoyed learning more about collecting monarch caterpillars. Next time, I'm going to show you how to tag the monarch butterflies that you've raised in your ranch.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Birders Who Blog, Tweet & Chirp Event

Saturday, August 15th marked the first Minnesota gathering of Birders who Blog, Tweet and Chirp, and I was thrilled to be a part of this inaugural celebration of all things birdy. The event was attended by a good number of fellow Minnesota nature lovers and bloggers.....some who were new to me and some who were old friends

Here I am with my blogging friends Lynne (Hasty Brook) and Richard (At the Water). Lynne and I have been on previous birding adventures, but this was the first time I met Richard in person and I was really surprised and happy when I saw him in the parking lot because I didn't think he was going to be able to come.

We all met at the Carver Park Reserve near Victoria, Minnesota where Roger Everhart (Minnesota Bird Nerd) and his assistants were conducting a bird banding program at the Lowry Nature Center.
The birds weren't exactly cooperating, but Roger's enthusiasm and knowledge of birds was amazing and we enjoyed spending time with him even though there weren't any birds to band.

We also got to see a couple of raptors that are permanent residents at the Lowry Nature Center due to injuries they received in the wild. Here is a pretty little female Merlin.

And this is a female Barred Owl. Both of these birds are used for teaching purposes. The handler was taking them out for their daily weigh-in and feeding.

We finally got started down the woodsy trail to do some birding and were lucky enough to find this Northern Red-Bellied Snake on the trail. This was a reptile "lifer" for me. I never knew we had snakes this small in Minnesota.
Virginia (Bees in the City) caught and held the snake for me while I took this picture and then I got to hold the snake so she and others could take pictures. Honestly, I've seen night crawlers bigger than this snake. It was so neat!

We had a another surprise for this event when Hap from New Hope showed up to bird with us. Some of you are probably familiar with Hap if you're a regular reader of Lynne's Hasty Brook blog, and we were all thrilled to meet him in person, including Dawn and Jeff (Dawn's Bloggy Blog).

Before leaving Carver Park Reserve, we stopped to check out the Trumpeter Swans on the big pond. While not a life bird for me, this was the first time I'd seen them in Minnesota, so it was good to check them on my Minnesota list! (sorry, this is a crappy picture of a beautiful bird)

Of course, the Great Blue Heron is a pretty common bird, but I loved the way this picture turned out with the bird's reflection in the water.

After a stop for a delicious meal and fun conversation, it was time to head over to Hyland Lake Park Reserve and the Richardson Nature Center. After some discussion and study of the maps by Richard, Hap, Mike and Lizette (Mike & Lizette's Travel & Thoughts), we decided to head down the Prairie Trail for more birding.

We got as far as Wood Duck Pond where oddly enough, we spotted a large number of Wood Ducks perched in a dead tree that had fallen down in the pond. Jeff and Dave both brought their scopes so we all got good looks. I've never seen so many wood ducks altogether in one place!
Farthest to the right in the picture above are Penny (Penelopedia blog) and her husband Dave and just to the left of them (in the black shirt) is "Other Sharon" (aka Hellziggy).

While walking the Prairie Trail, we spotted this industrious male Goldfinch gathering thistledown for nesting material. (Another thing I've never seen before!)

Watching turtles and hooded mergansers from the observation dock.

All too soon, it was 4:00 -- time for me to brave the freeway traffic and construction detours and head back to Rochester with memories of a wonderful day spent birding with old and new friends. It's always fun when you get a chance to meet bloggers face-to-face and spend time with people who share your interests. The other great thing was that all of these folks (except for Dawn and Jeff) live only a couple hours from me, so there's every likelihood that we'll be able to get together in the future for more birding adventures like this. Thanks everyone for a fun day.....I really enjoyed meeting all of you!