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.


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