Thursday, April 29, 2010

Springtime Backyard

I mowed the lawn on Monday afternoon, so that gave me a good opportunity to see what kind of "nature" events were occuring in the backyard. First and foremost, I wanted to check on the progress of the bluebirds because there was only 1 egg in this nest when I checked previously on Saturday night. Wow! 4 eggs! That's exciting and hopefully there will be baby bluebirds hatched in this nextbox in about 2 weeks.

There are several pairs of tree swallows in the backyard this year. The thing I really like about tree swallows is they're not shy and will let me get really close for pictures before flying away. Right before I snapped this picture, the female flew out of this nest box, but when I checked it, there wasn't any evidence of nesting materials inside the box yet.

It's a different story in this super gourd though. I always put a layer of white pine needles in the bottom of these plastic gourds and when I checked inside, I could see that the swallows have hollowed out their nesting spot on the back wall of this gourd and started adding more grass. In fact, the orange arrow in this photo points out that Mrs. Swallow had another piece of grass in her beak to add to this nest.

I tried really hard to snap a picture of the swallow in the gourd doorway, but I'm just not fast enough! I thought this shot of her soaring towards the entrance was pretty neat though. I really enjoy watching these swallows flying around in the backyard for a few months each spring and summer. The backyard is definitely a much quieter place once these swallows and their new families depart at the end of July.

In the wild lower part of the backyard, I discovered some wild plums blooming. I didn't remember these from previous years, but the plants were pretty big, so obviously they've been growing here for a while. I just LOVE the scent of these blossoms and can't resist stopping to inhale deeply every time I pass one of these trees. Someday, I know I won't look close enough before sniffing and inhale a bee or bug......

These 13-lined ground squirrels are taking over the backyard. Cheeky little buggers sit right outside their holes and watch me on the lawnmower. They drive Sophie nuts too. They dive right into their holes when they see her coming and she will stand by the hole forever waiting for them to come back out. Of course, they never do..... (Well, sometimes they do, but I won't share any details of that story except that it involves Mr. Johnson and a 5-gallon bucket of water and a not-so-happy ending for the critter, but lots of satisfaction for Sophie and Mr. Johnson.)

This year, I also have another lovely crop of dandelions for the honeybees visiting from my neighbor's hives. He always shares a quart of golden, delicious honey with us each year and I'd like to think that the flowers in my backyard have contributed to that bounty.

Lots of wild strawberries blooming again this year too. As usual, I'm sure the brown thrasher and robins foraging on the ground will quickly eat any of these fruits before I have the chance to sample them.

Well, that's about it. It's been pretty dry here with more rain in the forecast for tonight and tomorrow, so hopefully there will be some new flowers blooming the next time I mow the lawn.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Terrestrial Animals of Minnesota

I'm taking another Minnesota Master Naturalist class this spring. We are studying the "Prairies & Potholes" biome of Minnesota this year. Our class session last week was about terrestrial animals of the Minnesota Prairie and we were fortunate to be able to take a field trip to Oxbow Park and see some of these terrestrial animals up close and personal.

Our first visit was to the White-Tailed Deer enclosure. The park currently has 4 deer: 1 buck, 1 doe, and a couple of yearling fawns. In the photo below are the yearlings and the buck (if you click to enlarge this picture, you will see that the antlers are just starting to grow on this buck -- he's on the left.)

The doe was quite tame and came right up to the fence for her favorite treat: apples! (My classmate Emma got the honors of breaking up an apple to feed this doe.)

Even when they're in smaller pieces, apples are still difficult for a deer to munch on!

Elk were once a part of the Minnesota prairie landscape too, although I believe they're long gone now except for a small population in the far northwest corner of the state. Oxbow Park also maintains a small herd of elk in their zoo. Three cows......

......and 1 bull elk (who is also just starting his new set of antlers for this year).

Oxbow Park is also the home to a small herd of American Bison. Here's what Stan Tekiela says about them in his Field Guide to Mammals of Minnesota, "A massive animal, hard to confuse with any other." In the photo below is the bull and 1 cow, and from this picture it's difficult to appreciate how huge and majestic these animals really are. Just standing next to the enclosure and listening to them breathe reminded me of standing next to a steam locomotive that's waiting to accelerate down the railroad track. Fortunately these animals seemed really docile. The park naturalist leading our group was quick to point out to our class that the large metal cable and fence seperating us from the bison would "only slow them down" if they actually did decide to charge.
As I was standing there looking at these animals and seeing them losing their winter coat, I was wishing I was a spinner so I could collect that fleece and spin it into some yarn. I've only knitted with buffalo yarn once -- it's quite expensive and I'm sure the logistics of collecting that fleece is one of the reasons why!

There was also one yearling buffalo calf with this herd. What a cutie, don't you think?

Another mammal still present in the rural Minnesota landscape is the American Badger. Oxbow Park's Zollman Zoo also had a badger for us to observe. I think these are really neat animals, but I know a lot of farmers don't like them because of the huge holes and mounds of dirt they leave in the fields. This one wasn't the least bit happy to see all of us humans standing around and staring at it. I think they're quite beautiful, but would definitely want to keep my distance if I ever encountered one in the wild.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Turkey Hunting

Back in December of last year, we had to send in our spring turkey hunting application. This year, Mr. Johnson decided to choose the early second season which started on Monday of this week. Since he's retired now, he's been able to go out hunting each day, but Wednesday was the only day I had off work, so I spent the morning in the turkey blind. I heard several turkeys gobbling all around me, but apparently they weren't interested in these attractive decoys set up outside my blind.Because I've done enough turkey hunting to know that the birds don't always cooperate, I brought along a book and some knitting, so the morning definitely wasn't wasted!

The only live bird that came close to my blind was this American Robin.

Shortly before it was time to leave, I left the blind and took a little stroll. I spotted this little sparrow who really didn't want to be photographed, so I'm not sure of its identity.....maybe a Chipping Sparrow? (Thanks to Hap from New Hope who ID'd this bird as a Swamp Sparrow.)

When we were setting up the blinds last Sunday, I spent quite a bit of time sitting at the edge of this little pond (a vernal pool?) watching the turtles and listening to frogs. Because I know turtles like basking on logs in a pond, I found a big branch and dragged it into the pond for the turtles and sure enough, when I walked over there Wednesday morning, I saw 2 turtles dive off the log when they saw me approaching.

When I visited this pond on Sunday, I could see that there were at least 4 turtles in the water, so I decided to step back away from the edge of the pond to see if the turtles would show themselves again. After a few minutes, turtle heads began popping out of the water. The first one I saw with this small Painted Turtle. I think these were the turtles that had been basking on the log. They're really pretty, aren't they?

I saw this big turtle at the edge of the other side of the pond. If there are any turtle experts reading this post, can you ID this turtle? I don't have any turtle field guides at home (I think I need to get one though!) but when I googled "turtle ID" I was thinking this one looks an awful lot like a Smooth Softshell Turtle.
Here's another look. It was big! I'm guessing the turtle's shell was at least 10 inches long. I think Smooth Softshelled Turtles are kind of rare in Minnesota, so it would be really neat if that's what this is.

Here's that Painted Turtle again, thinking about crawling back up onto the log.....

And here's another big turtle head that surfaced. I never saw any parts of its shell, but got 2 different looks at its head and I'm thinking this is probably a Common Snapping Turtle.
Here's the other look at this turtle's head.
Anybody have any thoughts on this turtle ID? Is it possible to have these 3 different kinds of turtles living together in the same small pond? And once this pond dries up in the hot days of summer, where will these turtles go? There's a small river nearby, but I think turtles like ponds better, don't they?

We're turkey hunting at a new farm this year and they have beef and dairy cattle here, with the added bonus of lots of cute little calves. This guy's pretty handsome, don't you think?

"Dude, wait for me! I got really short legs!"

These 2 were sound asleep in the sun.
I managed to get a few pets across the fence before they woke up enough to run away. Their fur is soft as a puppy when they're little like this.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Backyard Brown Thrasher

I have a Brown Thrasher in my backyard again this spring. I've been hearing him singing for at least a week, but it wasn't until a few minutes ago that I actually spotted him in the backyard. Isn't this a handsome bird?
I really like Brown Thrashers! A few years ago I had a nesting pair in one of the evergreens in the backyard. I wouldn't even have known it, but happened to catch them flying in and out of the tree one morning. When I walked over to investigate the activity, I found the nest right at eye level and snug up against the trunk of the evergreen. There were 4 almost-ready-to-fledge youngsters in the nest and they just sat there like little statues as I pushed the branches aside to get a closer look at them.

I guess since Brown Thrashers like to forage for food on the ground, it found the shelled peanuts and suet I have out in the starling trap particularly appealing.
At one point, the thrasher was actually sitting on top of the trap and eyeing those peanuts down inside. The last thing I wanted was an angry Brown Thrasher caught in this trap, so after I quickly snapped this photo, I went out and closed up the starling trap (whew! disaster averted!)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Backyard Blooms

Spring has definitely (finally!) arrived here in southeastern Minnesota. Although we could still use a little more rain, I'm not complaining because the temps have been so warm and all these sunny days have encouraged lots of new, green growth on plants aroung the yard, plus the appearance of flowers! Here are some looks at the flowers I found out in the backyard this past Wednesday afternoon..........

Dutchman's Breeches
I dug these wildflowers up from the woods many years ago and planted them underneath the deck. Every year they spread out a little bit farther and I love their beautiful foliage and cute blossoms.

I planted probably about 10 of these bulbs in the side yard at least 15 years ago with visions of them naturalizing and filling the entire area with blooms every spring. Several of them have died over the years, and I'm down to only 4 blooming clumps each spring, but this year I think each clump has the most flowers I've ever seen. I always think I should cut a few and bring them in the house, but they look so much prettier out in the backyard.

Nanking Cherry
I was surprised to see these Nanking Cherry shrubs covered with blossoms! A neighbor gave me these plants--they were some unclaimed leftovers from a Pheasants Forever wildlife plant giveaway. Even though these aren't native Minnesota plants, they've done pretty good in the crappy clay soil of my backyard (and when the bunnies don't get a chance to munch on the lower branches during the winter). I hope most of these blossoms turn into cherries because the birds absolutely LOVE them! Once the cherries ripen, the birds will completely strip the branches clean of fruit in less than a day.
The flowers are really pretty, but have no discernible fragrance (at least to my nose).

Little Blue Hyacinths
These pretty little blue flower are blooming in the perennial butterfly garden on the southeast side of my house. It's nice to see this spot of color in a garden where it will be several weeks before the rest of the flowers start blooming.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Project FeederWatch Season Concludes

April 9th marks the conclusion of the 2009-2010 Project FeederWatch season. I haven't been very faithful in my FeederWatch activities for the past few weeks, but decided since I was off work yesterday I would make an effort to watch for and document the birds visiting my backyard birdfeeders. I even filled the peanut feeder for my bluejays who rewarded me with their presence less than a minute after I'd hung the peanut wreath back outside. I know there are some people out there who like bluejays as much as I do, so enjoy these photos!

One of my fondest wishes would be to have a bluejay take peanuts from my hand, but my bluejays are much too shy for that. I even have to be careful to avoid any sudden movements near the window when I'm taking pictures from inside the house.

Although I'm not a fan of the Common Grackle, they find my backyard habitat and food offerings particularly appealing, so unless I stop filling my birdfeeders and cut down all the evergreen trees, I just try to tolerate them for a few months. If nothing else, they're interesting to watch.
And I'm always on the lookout for something unusual to show up, like a Rusty Blackbird or Brewer's Blackbird. The blackbird on the right side of this tray was a little bit different looking than the others on the feeder at the same time, but I think it was either a late juvenile or maybe a "bronzed" Common Grackle. And as much as I hate to admit it, the iridescence of their feathers is really quite beautiful.

Cardinals continue to visit the feeders throughout the day. I haven't noticed any males and females paired up yet and there still appears to be quite a lot of territorial battles taking place among the males. Fortunately (for me and my camera), this handsome male was able to enjoy a few minutes of peaceful dining at the feeder outside my dining room window.

I haven't had a chance to clean out my little backyard pond yet, but the leaves and debris still in the pond doesn't seem to bother the birds. I was delighted to see Mrs. Bluebird stop by for a visit to the pond (apparently she hasn't noticed the 6 other clean birdbaths strategically located throughout the backyard!)

The nice thing about the long FeederWatch season is that there is usually some overlapping between the winter and summer birdie visitors. I saw the little Red-Breasted Nuthatch at my feeder yesterday morning and still have a few Dark-Eyed Juncos hanging around too.

Red-Winged Blackbird is also a summer bird for us here in Minnesota. I previously recorded my first one for Project FeederWatch on March 10th. I usually think of them as grassland and wetland birds, so I'm always happy to have them come to the birdfeeders close to the house. I never get tired of hearing their pretty call and seeing that showy patch of color on the male's wings.

The Goldfinches are really starting to show their summer colors again now. He's especially beautiful in the sunshine, don't you think?

When I was editing the pictures for this post, I found this one I had taken last week when we were out looking for ducks at the reservoir. There was a Bald Eagle across the lake that had just caught and was eating this huge fish! We could see through the spotting scope that the fish was still alive and squirming around, so the eagle was really having to hold on tight to the fish and the branch at the same time. It was really neat to see this and the eagle managed to eat that entire fish in about 10 minutes.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Thanks for Your Vote!

Remember my little rant a couple weeks ago about the possibility of a Sandhill Crane hunt in Minnesota? (if you don't, click here to read it again). I also posted this item on my Facebook page and encouraged "birding friends" to cast their vote too.

When today's issue of the Minnesota Outdoor News arrived in the mailbox, Mr. Johnson immediately turned to the "Online Opinions" page to see if any results of this vote had been published yet and lo, and behold, they had. I scanned these items from the Outdoor News to share with you here.

I thank all of you, my "birding friends," who took the time to cast your vote on this issue. At least we got the attention of the folks at Outdoor News. You may remember also that this was only an opinion poll for the Outdoor News and the results would obviously have no bearing on the decision of the Minnesota was evidenced by this article which subsequently appeared on page 6 of today's issue of the Outdoor News. (One small step forward for the Minnesota DNR and one giant leap backwards for bird conservation.)

Sorry I wasn't able to include the entire article on my scanner, but I think you can pretty much determine the outcome from what I've managed to scan in this image.