Tuesday, February 17, 2009

All things must end

It is with a little sadness that I write this post. This is, I believe, the last post for the Phenomenological Visions blog. I started this blog 8 years ago more as a personal online journal and it has morphed into something else, something more public. That's great but while the name Phenomenological Visions meant something to me back in college it isn't as meaningful to me now and it is utterly unmemorable let alone spellable or pronounceable to most people.

All hope is not lost though. I already have a new blog. From now on I will be blogging on my new blog, The Twin Cities Naturalist. This is the companion blog to the podcast I hope to start producing shortly, The Twin Cities Naturalist Podcast.

Thank you to everyone who read this blog. I hope you enjoy my new blog even more. If nothing else, the name is a whole lot easier to remember! See you on the new site.

~Kirk

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Silent Love

This is my February Au Naturel column for the magazine Stillwater Living

Silence. This is the sound of love in the woods in February. It is a dark evening in a frozen landscape with the moon hidden behind a winter blanket of clouds. My snowshoes crunch through the bare woods of maple and oak. The sound doesn't seem to travel far. The porous snow absorbs and deadens sound. When I stop, it is silent. There is no wind tonight, there are no animal calls, there is nothing and it is this absence of sound that tells me something is happening.

Back in the first week of December, Ron Lawrenz, our Director at the Lee and Rose Warner Nature Center excitedly shouted "owl!" from his office. His corner office view of the hardwood forest gives him a constant reminder of the reason we do what we do. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted movement in the woods. He looked up just in time to see a barred owl alight on a small tree about 125 feet away.


He struggled to point it out to us as we huddled at the windows but it was difficult to discern, the owl is a master of camouflage. Finally, it moved and we watched it fly closer. It landed on the edge of the woodland clearing the building sits in. The tree it chose was the same tree we had seen a barred owl in last February. Could this be the same owl?

Over the following months, the owl moved about the forest searching for a nesting site and calling out for its mate. We could hear the owls in the woods, their voices threading through the bare branches like auditory shadows. They sang as we walked to our cars in the evening surrounded by the early darkness of winter. The barred owl calls out "Who hoo hoo hoo, Who hoo hoo HOOoo." The call is commonly described as the questions "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?" Sometimes, our female captive barred owl calls back but she's injured and not allowed to fly around the woods with the other owls, nor is she free to find a mate. That doesn’t stop the occasional confused male from perching near her enclosure and hooting to impress her.

As I stand in the woods this February evening though, there are no hoots. There's only the sound of snow crunching lightly under my shifting feet and the quiet rhythm of my labored breathing. The silence speaks. What I am tempted to say is that barred owls are clever, that they fall silent in February with purpose and careful thought but this is ascribing too much human thinking to an evolutionary adaptation. They are silent in February because there is an evolutionary advantage to doing so. They have already mated and they do not hoot because they are incubating eggs. Now, around Valentines Day, is the time for silence. They do not want to give away the location of their precious young-to-be.

It seems funny that we have a day devoted to love in February and the origins of tying romantic love to the pre-existing day celebrating Saint Valentine are far from clear. What I do know is that February is a time of deep cold. Perhaps that's why we feel the need for a day devoted to something that warms us. It reminds me of the ancient rituals of bonfire lighting on the solstice. Create that which is missing. Kids give out cards with hearts and cherubs, or these days, Sponge Bob Squarepants and Hannah Montana but what do these things have to do with love and the season and bringing warmth? We need valentine's cards with owls on them. Owls pair bond for life. They choose one mate and stick with it. It is in this cold dark month of February that they mate and work their hardest to bring forth new life. That seems like a wonderful symbol of love to me. But why February?

Owls nest and mate long before other animals who wait for spring. In doing this, they get a jumpstart on their food source. The female owl will incubate the eggs for a month and by the time the young owls are ready to leave the nest six weeks after hatching, the rest of the animal world has mated in the more traditional spring and there is an abundance of small critters to eat. Young owls are well fed on the bounty of spring.

I stand in the cold silence knowing that there are small white eggs silently being kept warm in a nest somewhere nearby. Snow begins to fall and the collected sound of all those millions of flakes touching down on the ground is a barely auditory whisper. I whisper, "good luck" to the owls and head home through the snow to rejoin my love and celebrate warmth on a cold winter's night.

Sunday, February 08, 2009


Over the last week we've been having a fox squirrel at our feeders at the nature center. We don't see them very often as they are more solitary than grey squirrels. They are slightly larger and you can see the belly is reddish like a fox instead of white like a grey squirrel. Interestingly, the habits of gray squirrels and red squirrels are reversed here in Minnesota and more southern cities. Several people I have spoken with who used to live in states south of Minnesota say that it is fox squirrels who frequent the feeders and gray squirrels are only seen in the woods. I wonder why that might be? The range of the fox squirrel does extend further to the west than the gray squirrel so it is possible these people lived on the very western edge of the gray squirrel range and as such they were fewer in number which allowed the better adapted fox squirrels to increase in number. More fox squirrels would mean that more would be found at feeders. This does not explain why gray squirrels would be less frequest visitors to feeders. I would think feedres woud allow them to survive better outside or at the fringes of their range.

The number of redpolls under the feeders at the nature center has increased over the last week as well. We're now seeing a flock of about 21 birds every day though with the warm spell we're seeing I wonder if they may start heading back north. They seem to prefer feeding off the ground rather than the feeders and as Birdchick pointed out when I talked to her about it she said, "Well ya, they've never seen a bird feeder before." Good point!

On my yearly bird tally I've added four new species, two of them lifers! I saw a Purple Finch at work on the last day of January and then a Northern Cardinal on the feeder at home. I'm slowly making our open wasteland of a yard more bird friendly and the fly-through feeder is a favorite addition for the birds.

Today, Sunday February 9th I had the opportunity to sneak away for a little birding as my inlaws were in town and watching Camden. There was a report of a rare bird just down the street from my house so I had to go. I didn't realize until I got there that the bird was hanging out about 3 houses away from the house of someone I know. That was pretty fun. There were a lot of people there and the neighbors were wondering why on earth there street was full of people with binoculars, spotting scopes and huge camera lenses as long as my arm. The bird in question was a Varied Thrush which is related to the American Robin and usually only found in the Pacific Northwest. A lone male has been hanging out with a flock of robins and eating crabapples. After waiting abot half an hour it finally showed up but only briefly. I managed to get a photo from a long way off. This was through a 480 mm lens and then cropped in. Unfortunately, the focus is on the berries in front of the bird but you can see it clearly and tell what it is. This is from over 200 feet away so it was a bit hard to judge focus and bird flew off just seconds after I snapped this.


While I was waiting for the Varied Thrush to arrive I noticed some movement at the top of a very tall spruce tree and I turned my binoculars on the cones at the top. My hope panned out. There was a beautful male and female white-winged crossbill. People have been seeing them like crazy this year but I had yet to come across any. I'd never seen one before so that was a lifer bird as well. Not bad to get two new life list birds in the span of 30 minutes on a Sunday afternoon in February.


2008 Running Bird Tally
27. Purple Finch
28. Northern Cardinal
29. White-winged Crossbill
30. Varied Thrush

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Final Birds of January

I have two more birds to add to my year list and I have only my own absentmindedness to thank. I worked today, the last day of January, and only had a morning group. I finished up and headed into the kitchen at the nature center to have a late lunch only to discover I didn't have anything to eat in the fridge. I decided to head down to Stillwater for lunch and spend the afternoon working from a coffee shop. Near the intersection of Co. Rd. 7 and where Norell continues South, I spotted a flock of birds on the shoulder of the road. I pulled over and was delighted to see they were all American Tree Sparrows. I would have preferred some lapland longspurs or horned larks but I'll take what I can get. Half-way to Stillwater I saw a lone Mourning Dove on a telephone line. That's two new birds for the year. Chelsey thinks she saw a purple finch mixed in with the house finches at home so I need to watch out for that as well.

2008 Running Bird Tally
25. American Tree Sparrow
26. Mourning Dove

Thursday, January 29, 2009

More Redpolls

Three common redpolls showed up at the feeders yesterday at work. They were a little far away to get a great photo but fun to see none the less. I also saw a swan on the way home flying East over Hwy 36. It was flying pretty high so I have no idea which species it was. Today at home I saw a pair of house finches at my bird feeders. I think I might have seen them earlier as well and it didn't really click that it was a new species for the year list. Now where are those siskins and crossbills?

24. House Finch

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Barred Owl on the Hunt

A nice surprise today, bird number 23 for the year appeared like a striped ghost in the woods. After hearing them a couple of times, I finally saw a Barred Owl in 2009. I guess it isn't fair to say finally when we're only 22 days into the year. I walked past the windows at work and saw something large fly through the woods. I figured it was an owl right away. It took a while to locate where it had gone. The camouflage was incredible.

I finally saw him dive toward the ground out of a tree, undoubtedly going for a little mouse under the snow. He was about 150-200 feet away. I happened to have a camera with me so I snapped some photos. At that distance, shooting through the trees the auto-focus had trouble. I wish I had my camera with me which has manual focus.

I also shot some video to give you an idea for how far away he was and how hard he was to see and find. It starts out close with the owl in the middle and then zooms out.

video

I went out to see if I could find where he had landed on the ground, I was hoping to find the classic wing prints on the snow. I did find where he landed but he must have landed without his wings touching the ground much. I think what you see here are tail marks on the right hand side, feet made the big hole in the middle and then the extension of the hole on the left could have been from his head as he poked around for the mouse. Other interpretations are entirely possible. It isn't very clear.
2009 Running Bird Tally
23. Barred Owl

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Redpolls, a coyote and Eagles

Yesterday a pair of common redpolls showed up at the bird feeders at work. I tried to get the camera but was working on a project and couldn't get back to the feeders for 30 minutes or so. They were gone by then and didn't show up today. Today was our volunteer training so I had the chance to take a group of volunteers out on the trails. We found a lot of mouse tracks and trails. We also came upon some coyote tracks. I tried to take a picture and accidentally shot some video. The video is cool though because it gives you some perspective.

video

On the way home I spotted the Bald Eagles at their nest on Keller for the first time this year. Most of their nest blew down last year so it will be interesting to watch them rebuild it.

2009 Running Bird Tally

21. Common Redpoll
22. Bald Eagle

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Good Riddens


Took this at lunch today. The countdown finally reached zero!

Unfortunately I had to teach so I missed the inauguration. :(

I guess I'll just have to actually go to DC in 2012. Consider that fair warning to my friends in DC.

~Kirk

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bird Vacation

It is crazy cold outside so our captive raptors are taking a little vacation inside. The American Kestrel's heater broke so he's especially happy to be inside. Here's his cozy tropical crate.


The Red-tailed Hawk is just hanging out inside.


~Kirk

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

First 20 Birds of 2009

Sometwhere around Thursday of last week I finally got a good look at Dark-eyed Juncos (that would be slate-colored juncos for all you bird-banders, splitters or old-schoolers) on the side of the road and also a lone bird under the feeders at work. Monday the 12th of January I had my first school outreach of the year which is where I pick-up a lof of my birds. I get to drive the work van to a lot of schools and I take mostly country roads. I have a great high vantage point to see a lot of roadside birds. If I'm lucky I get to see Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, Northern Shrikes, and more. Of course, I haven't seen any of these yet. I also have my fingers crossed to come upon some Lapland Longspurs this year which would be a lifer. True to form, I did add one new species for the year on my first outing to a school. Right after leaving the center I saw a pair of female Ring-necker Pheasants in a corn field. That makes 20 birds in 12 days. I beat last year by one day.

2009 Running Bird Tally
19. Junco
20. Ring-necked Pheasant

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Starting Fresh

Welcome to 2009.

2009 started off painfully slow for birding. Not a single bird came to my feeders on January 1st. The only thing that stopped me from being totally skunked was a flock of pigeons I saw in the distance. On the drive to my parents house for out annual fondue dinner there were no crows, no red-tailed hawks, nada. It was very strange. At their house there were no birds at the feeders as well.

Friday the 2nd, I didn't see any birds either but the seeds in my fly-though feeder had been moved around so something had been in there while I wasn't looking. Driving to work on Saturday, the birds started to show themselves. There were some crows in the trees. Finally, birds.

As I walked up the sidewalk to work I saw blue jays and nuthatches and black-capped chickadees.

When I came inside I swung past the windows overlooking the feeders and was delighted to also see two wild turkeys, downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, a red-bellied woodpecker and a flock of American goldfinches.

I did hear a pileated as well as a barred owl hooting in the woods but I only count birds I see so those will have to wait.

Sunday the 4th of January I finally discovered who was eating the seeds out of the fly-through feeder. There are a pair of House Sparrows that swing by every so often.

Monday the 5th of January I didn't think I was going to see anything new but while putting things away in the lower classroom I noticed a couple of birds "frozen" on the feeders as though there was a predator in the area. I took a look out the windows but couldn't see any hawks or shrikes. What I did see was my first Pileated Woodpecker of the year.

Tuesday the 6th I finally saw a Red-tailed hawk on my drive to work.

On Wednesday the 7th we went on a planning retreat to the St. Croix Watershed Research Station. They have some fantastic springs that stay open all winter and attract wildlife. I saw a few species I had seen already such a white breasted nuthatch, downy woodpeckers and black-capped chickadee. I did see some new ones for the year. First up was mallard ducks. There were also lots of American Robins around the stream that goes into the St. Croix River. There was one sneaky European Starling mixed in the group. I stepped out on a break and spotted a few Cedar Waxwings which was good timing as I didn't see them again all day. On a hike I also saw a brown creeper which was fun because I haven't been seeing them around the feeders yet this winter. There were two disappointing misses. I didn't see a bald eagle that was apparently there and someone just ahead of me flushed a Wilson's snipe out of a spring area. I'll have to go back some time this winter to see the snipe as apparently it is almost always there.

What I haven't seen (but expect to shortly) are juncos, purple finches, northern cardinals, pine siskins, pheasant, bald eagle, and starlings.

I'd like to see 20 birds in January and I'm pretty close in just he first 7 days.

2009 Running Tally
1. Rock Pigeon
2. American Crow
3. Blue Jay
4. White-breasted Nuthatch
5. Wild Turkey
6. Black-capped Chickadee
7. Downy Woodpecker
8. Hairy Woodpecker
9. Red-bellied Woodpecker
10. American Goldfinch
11. House Sparrow
12. Pileated Woodpecker
13. Red-tailed Hawk
14. Mallard Duck
15. Cedar Waxwing
16. American Robin
17. European Starling
18. Brown Creeper

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Birds of 2008

I finally had some time to compile my species list for 2008. Not a bad year for me. I'm probably forgetting something but I count it up as 131 species of birds. I had the tally at 129 but realized I didn't have down the Eastern Towhee, or Ring-billed Gull. In 2007, my final tally was 137 birds. Considering I was taking care of a baby at home and Chelsey and I had virtually no free time I think this is a pretty respectable number. Also, in 2007 I went to both Arizona and North Dakota and saw about 28 species that aren't even found in Minnesota so also considering I didn't leave the state I'm feeling even better about this number! I'm excited to see what 2009 brings.

2008 Final Tally
1. House sparrow
2. American crow
3. Hairy woodpecker
4. White-breasted nuthatch
5. Downy woodpecker
6. Black capped chickadee
7. Brown creeper
8. Red bellied woodpecker
9. Red-breasted nuthatch
10. American goldfinch
11. Pileated Woodpecker
12. Red-tailed hawk
13. Rock pigeon
14. Wild turkey
15. Pheasant
16. Bald eagle
17. Northern Shrike
18. European Starling
19. Barred Owl
20. Mallard duck
21 Slate-colored dark-eyed junco
22 Townsend's Solitaire
23 American Tree Sparrow
24 Blue Jay
25 Canada Goose
26 Mourning Doves
27 American Robin
28 Northern Cardinal
29 Common Redpoll
30 Common Merganser
31 Snow Bunting
32 Horned Lark
33 Great-horned Owl
34 Red-shouldered Hawk
35 American Kestrel
36 Red-winged Blackbird
37 Sandhill Crane
38 Purple Finch
39 Cooper's Hawk
40 Fox Sparrow
41 Great Blue Heron
42 Turkey Vulture
43 Common Grackle
44 Eastern Phoebe
45 Eastern Bluebird
46 Pine Siskin
47 Song Sparrow
48 Tree Swallow
49 Lesser Scaup
50 Trumpeter Swan
51 Ring-necked Duck
52 Wood duck
53 Hooded Merganser
54 Bufflehead
55 Great Egret
56 Hermit Thrush
57 Northern Waterthrush
58 Yellow Rumped Warbler (myrtle)
79 Black-throated Green Warbler
80 Barn Swallow
81 Horned Grebe
82 Red-headed Woodpecker
83 Palm Warbler
84 Yellow Warbler
85 Cliff Swallow
86 White-Crowned Sparrow,
87 Northern Flicker
88 Rose-breasted Grosbeak
89 Baltimore Oriole
90 Blue-headed Vireo
91 Clay Colored Sparrow
92 Orange-crowned Warbler
93 Ruby-throated Hummingbird
94 House Finch
95 Chimney Swift
96 Tennessee Warbler
97 Indigo Bunting
98 Common yellow-throat
99 Gray Catbird
100 Least Flycatcher
101 Great-crested Flycatcher
102 Swainson's thrush
103 Yellow-throated vireo
104 American Redstart
105 Cape May Warbler
106 Northern Rough-winged Swallow
107 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
108 Blue-winged Warbler
109 Chestnut-sided Warbler
110 Wood Thrush
111 Wilson's Warbler
112 Eastern Kingbird
113 Scarlet Tanager
114 Red-eyed Vireo
115 Warbling Vireo
116 Swamp Sparrow
117 House Wren
118 Tufted Titmouse
119 Blackpoll Warbler
120 Mourning Warbler
121 Eastern Wood-pewee
122 Blackburnian Warbler
123 Canada Warbler
124 Ovenbird
125 Winter Wren
126 Olive-sided flycatcher
127 Belted Kingfisher
128 Spotted Sandpiper
129 Red-necked Grebe
130 Eastern Towhee
131 Ring-billed Gull