Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Winter Robin

We spotted this robin during the Christmas Bird Count last Saturday. This is my Solstice/Hannukah/Christmas photo for 2011: warmest wishes to everyone, and thanks for reading Penelopedia.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas Bird Count 2011

This was the view from the passenger seat at just after 8 o'clock this morning, as my little Christmas Bird Count group set off to spend the morning slowly driving the back roads southeast of Northfield, as well driving and walking the southeast section of town. We covered 29 miles by car and about half a mile on foot (mostly on the footpaths near Sibley Elementary School) in 3.5 hours. It was a pretty morning, with last night's dusting of snow still fresh on the fields and trees, but it was relatively slow morning for birding. While we had a few exciting moments, things were generally pretty quiet. We spotted or identified by sound approximately:
  • 80 European starlings in a single group
  • 51 house finches (about 40 in a single flock)
  • 50 mallards (flying overhead)
  • 26 American crows
  • 21 house sparrows
  • 17 black-capped chickadees
  • 9 mourning doves (7 in a small backyard tree visible from a footpath)
  • 7 blue jays 
  • 7 wild turkeys
  • 6 dark-eyed juncos
  • 5 American robins
  • 4 downy woodpeckers
  • 3 American goldfinches
  • 3 northern cardinals
  • 3 red-tailed hawks
  • 2 northern shrikes (one in town, near the ponds off Jefferson Parkway near Prairie St. -- an exciting "spot")
  • 1 red-bellied woodpecker
  • 1 white-breasted nuthatch
There were also a few pigeons, which are officially called rock pigeons these days. Numbers above are from memory and may be inexact, as we didn't keep our tally sheet after making our official report, but they are close.

Dan and Erika Tallman were the Northfield-area coordinators this year and hosted the pre-Count breakfast and the post-Count lunch. It's always fun to sit around the table with other bird-minded Northfielders, and some who come from elsewhere to participate because their home regions don't have a count.

We joined in the Christmas Bird Count the previous two years as well, and I blogged about both outings. In 2009 I saw my first horned larks and provided more general background about the Christmas Bird Count, and in 2010 I saw my first northern shrike and wrote about the frustration of unofficial turkeys -- turkeys that were on the wrong side of the road along our area boundary and so could not be officially counted.

The history and research value of the annual Christmas Bird Count (a project of the National Audubon Society and partners) were nicely described in an article that ran in the most recent Northfield News. Read it here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Squirrel Outside Looking In

At least one local squirrel that scavenges for seeds under our bird feeders has learned it can (apparently) be easier on the feet to run across the brick ledge outside our living room window than to hop through the snow. And it's learned to stop sometimes and take a look inside. I wonder what it thinks. I know more or less what our cats think: "Furry, pernicious, probably edible trespasser! High alert!" The squirrel seems remarkably unconcerned by their ready-to-pounce posture and frenzied tail-lashing.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Belly in Red-bellied Woodpecker

As I've noted before, and as others have certainly also observed, red-bellied woodpeckers would doubtless be called red-headed woodpeckers if not for the red-all-over head of the extremely handsome bird that actually bears that name.The eponymous red belly of the former is not very red and not very easy to see, so it's hardly a good field mark. It does show a little, however, in this shot of a red-bellied woodpecker in our front-yard maple tree this morning.

Earlier posts I've written about red-bellied woodpeckers can be found here. It hasn't been a common bird for us in the past, but we have seen one two or three times since we started tracking our observations for this Project FeederWatch season, which started about a month ago.

Next Saturday we'll be participating in the annual Christmas Bird Count for the third time. In the past two years we've been assigned to areas to the east of Northfield as well as some in town. I'm looking forward to it. One slight hope is that in a morning out and about in the countryside we might see a snowy owl. Many snowy owls have been sighted in the northern U.S. in the past several weeks, signalling a major "irruption" year. They come south in search of food when their usual sources are scarce, and unfortunately a number of the birds that have been reported have been emaciated and some have been found dead. A Google map showing rough locations of snowy owl sightings is available here.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

From Brown to White as December Arrives

Last weekend it was unseasonably mild and dry, as it had been through much of November this year, and the light snow cover of the previous week was gone. We went for a walk through the woods at the northern end of the Lower Arb (part of Carleton College's Cowling Arboretum). Signs alerted us that an archery hunt to manage the white-tailed deer population was in progress in the Arb and that other users should keep to the trails. That was slightly unnerving, but we saw no sign of hunting. Here's an Arb Talk article about the reasons for the annual archery hunt.

One section of the trail I mentally nicknamed Chickadee Woods for all the birds of that name we could hear and see around us, and further on there was a flock of American robins high in the bare trees. Though we usually think of robins as birds that go south for the winter, they will sometimes stay, often in large flocks, if food is available and snow cover not too heavy.

Dead tree stripped of most of its bark

This dead tree caught my eye, as it had lost its branches and most of its bark (above). When looking at the bare wood of the trunk, trails of insect larvae were visible (below).

Closeup of same tree with signs of insect activity

A cut section of fallen wood also captured our attention, as it was decorated with delicate layers of a pale fungus (below).

Log with fungi

Closer view - fungi look like oyster shells

Closer view

And even closer - how pretty and delicate

I don't know much about fungi. These appear to be a type of bracket, or shelf, fungus, a description which refers to the growth pattern but doesn't by itself closely identify the species. Judging by the shape and the concentric half-rings of varying color, these look as if they might have some relation to the so-called Turkey Tail Mushroom (Trametes versicolor). Perhaps someone more knowledgeable than I am will weigh in with an opinion.

By now, of course, they are covered by the 4.5 inches of fluffy snow we received yesterday -- the first substantial snowfall of the season here in the Northfield area. Below are a couple of photos of improbably tall caps of snow adhering to purple coneflower seedheads in our front flowerbed this morning.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Amazing Nature Photos

Some amazing photos -- winners of the 2011 National Wildlife Photo Competition. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

May we all have enough, and be able to find it when the snow comes.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Downy Woodpecker Chowing Down

Now that the weather has turned quite cold, we've put out suet in a couple of feeders. On Sunday we saw a female downy woodpecker in several locations -- moving up and down the tree out front, at the log-style suet feeder, and at the cage-style suet feeder. Females are all black-and-white; males have a red spot on the backs of their heads. In many bird species juveniles look like the females, but in this case the juvenile has its own distinctive look, with a red spot on the top (not the back) of the head.

Note the tongue showing in the photo below (click on the photo to see it larger). Have you ever seen a woodpecker's tongue before?

In this next sequence you can see the bird excavating a chunk of suet, using an open-beak approach rather than simply chiseling at the suet with a closed beak.

I don't think the first bird above is the same as the one at the log feeder. There are three dark spots showing on the white left outer tail feather immediately above, which is common but not universal for the downy woodpecker, and you can see a hint of a dark spot on its hard-to-see right outer tail feather. I'm pretty sure the bird in the top photo is also a downy, and I would have thought it was the same bird, but there are no spots on the right outer tail feather.

As Dan Tallman noted in a comment to my August 3 post about hairy woodpeckers, an all-white outer tail feather is a good indication of a hairy, rather than a downy, woodpecker. However, the bird in the top photo did not seem to be the larger size of a hairy, and its beak didn't seem to have the length and heft of a hairy's. So it seems more likely we have two female downy woodpeckers hanging around our feeders.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Pine Siskins and Snow - First of the Season

We had a wonderful turnout at the feeders today, after it sleeted and snowed much of the day yesterday -- the first snow that has "stuck" here in south-central Minnesota this season. During the lunch rush, I noticed some familiar figures I hadn't seen since May: three pine siskins. Last year we first noticed them on December 5.

Pine siskin (above) and white-breasted nuthatch

Similar in size and body style to an American goldfinch (and listed next to it in the various field guides), the pine siskin has a heavily streaked underside, a sharp, narrow beak, a notched tail, and a yellowish tinge to its wings.

Two pine siskins

The photos above and below, caught while I was using my camera's rapid-burst mode, crack me up -- it appears that this little guy does not need to use his or her wings to fly.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Good Advice on Birding (and Life) Skills

Deb at Sand Creek Almanac (who is a biologist who works for the DNR up towards Duluth) had a post I really liked the other day. She described first hearing and then spotting some birds she wanted to identify but couldn't see very well. She went through a sequence of steps, or birding skills, to narrow down what she was hearing and seeing, starting with these three:

  • Birding skill #1: Use your ears. 
  • Birding skill #2: Think habitat. 
  • Birding skill #3: Watch for behavioral cues.
I encourage you to read her post to learn how she applied these skills, and others, to the challenge at hand. She concluded:

Perhaps the best way to develop identification skills is not by being told what species is in front of you and then watching it, but by being presented with an unfamiliar species and figuring out what cues might distinguish it from other species.
In birding as in life, isn't this true? Figure something out for yourself and you've really "got" that bird, or that math problem, or the way to set up your computer or stereo system.

Deb identified the birds she saw that day, by the way, as white-winged crossbills, which I've never seen. We could see them here in the winter. Their crossed bills are nicely adapted for prying seeds out of the cones of pines and other coniferous trees.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cannon River in November Twilight

Cannon River from the Canada Avenue bridge - click to see larger version

Returning to Northfield from an appointment in Stillwater this afternoon, I cut over from Highway 47 onto Canada Avenue to come into town from the east side. Crossing the sturdy new bridge (right next to the historic Waterford Iron Bridge that was awarded $95,000 in the recent Partners in Preservation competition for restoration funds), I was struck by the beautiful late-afternoon light and the shirring on the water's surface from the breeze. I parked beyond the bridge and walked back to capture this view.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Project FeederWatch

This was the kickoff weekend for the 2011-2012 Project FeederWatch season. Project FeederWatch is a citizen science project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada that invites people to track the birds that visit their feeders from November to April (the nonbreeding season). Over a two-day period each week, you watch when you can and note the species seen, as well as the largest number of each species seen at once. It's not too late to sign up -- last year we didn't get going until at least January. I'm excited to track our visitors for the whole period this time.

Blue jay at wreath feeder
(photo taken last summer)
Having been hit by a bad cold at the end of the week, it was a perfect weekend to spend a lot of time in a living room chair with a book, looking out frequently between nose-blows to see if there was any action at the feeders. Yesterday was fairly quiet, but today we put out some additional food and we had a lot of visitors, by our standards:
  • American Goldfinch (3)
  • Black-capped Chickadee (3)
  • Blue Jay (4)
  • Dark-eyed Junco (5)
  • Downy Woodpecker (1)
  • House Finch (8)
  • Northern Cardinal (1)
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker (1)
  • White-breasted Nuthatch (1)
Red-bellied woodpecker
(photo taken last winter)
The blue jays put on a lovely show for us when I put out some whole (in-shell) peanuts for them. They cleaned out the four or five handfuls of peanuts in a couple of hours. We've learned not to fill our wreath-style peanut feeder, because they'll polish off the lot in less than a day, so we only fill it about a quarter full at a time, typically. 

The red-bellied woodpecker was an unexpected treat for the start of the season. I've written in the past about not seeing them often, and mainly in deep cold spells, though we did start to see one a bit more often last year.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sandhill Cranes at Sherburne NWR (Video)

I was itchin' to go birding somewhere today while the weather was still mild, and thanks to a couple of blogging friends who mentioned sandhill cranes recently (see Dan Tallman's Bird Blog and Nature Knitter), I'd heard that the cranes have been congregating in large numbers in places like Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in central Minnesota and at Crex Meadows in Wisconsin. We decided to head to the closer of these, Sherburne NWR, to see if we could spot some cranes. The refuge is north of Elk River and Zimmerman, to the northwest of the Twin Cities metro area, about 90 minutes' drive from Northfield.

I've seen sandhill cranes before -- here and there in fields in central Wisconsin last month, for example, while driving to visit our daughter at Lawrence University -- but only a few at a time. The idea of seeing them congregating in large numbers, staging for their upcoming migration south, was an exciting prospect.

The Sherburne NWR website has a nice guide to where to view sandhill cranes, and it was right on target. We started to see some in the air, and then came upon a field where many dozens were foraging, joined almost every minute by new groups of anywhere from three to eight or more gliding in from the east. At a conservative count there must have been at least 300 cranes there while we watched. Here is a short video of some of the cranes on the ground and others flying in. I love how their long legs dangle as they come in. Toward the end of the video you can hear their calls.


 Here are some photos as well.

We also saw a pair of swans fly by.

This was my first trip to Sherburne, and I look forward to exploring it further when it's not deer hunting season. We saw a lot of trucks pulled over and quite a bit of blaze orange hunting gear. We stayed in our car, needless to say.

We've talked about going to Nebraska's Platte River Valley flyway to witness the spring migration of half a million sandhill cranes, considered one of the most amazing experiences in birding anywhere. Dave's seen it, and I'd love to. Getting just a taste of it today has whetted my appetite for that trip even more.

Recent Observations (Late-fall Phenology)

Gray skies and brown ground. It's November.

We had a hard cold snap a couple of nights ago, and many trees that had been hanging onto their leaves dropped them within hours. On the whole, though, it's been a mild autumn. Today the forecast high is around 55 F., but with the recent leaf-drop we are really entering the drab brown period of late fall.

Many of our summer birds have moved on by now and a few of the birds that winter here have appeared. We started to see dark-eyed juncos on the ground under our evergreen tree and under the feeders a couple of weeks ago. And last weekend we noticed a red-breasted nuthatch for the first time in many weeks.

Crows have been congregating in large groups. Several days recently I've seen many of them in seemingly random swooping movements overhead in the late afternoon, and a couple of times (as seen in this recent video) a large, raucous group has gathered in the treetops behind our house and then flown away.

Boxelder bugs always swarm on the south face of our house in the fall, after the first cold snap. I will look forward to having them disappear soon as they find hiding places in the cracks and crevices to spend the winter.

We set our clocks back overnight, and I always picture some phenology-minded birds or animals noting, "Oh yes, at about this time of year, as if coordinating through some magic signal, or pheromones, the humans suddenly do everything a bit later in the day."

Enjoy the extra hour. My son and I are off on an expedition. If we're lucky, I'll have a good post to write in the next day or so.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Best Bird Photograph Ever?

This photo of an osprey diving for a fish near Cocoa Beach, Florida, taken by Mike Wulf, is featured in the December 2011 issue of Birdwatching magazine (formerly Birder's World). The symmetry, the balletic power, the squared-off angularity of those enormous folded wings, the reach of those talons all amaze me. (Definitely click on the photo to see a larger version!)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Crows at Dawn - video

Yesterday morning I was up early as usual and started to hear a tremendous, raucous cawing at the back of the house. I stepped onto the deck and could see in the early light what at first seemed to be dozens of crows at the tops of the neighbor's cottonwood trees but eventually proved to be a couple of hundred or more. Here's a look -- and a listen.

Friday, October 28, 2011

What Stealth!

Action here on Penelopedia has been so slow of late that people (at least, people named Dan) have started asking me if I'm okay. All is well, but the zoom on my camera is sticking and things have been busy. I hope to have a proper new post soon, but in the meantime, I will share this wonderful video by Clay Taylor, which I heard about from Birdchick (via Facebook), who called it Best Green Heron Video Ever. Very nicely captured, Clay!


Monday, September 19, 2011

Autumn Colors - Birds and Blooms

This is one of the reasons I love the tangled patch of purple coneflowers that gets thicker each year. A few weeks ago we were enjoying butterflies on the flowers, and now that the petals have withered and the seed heads are the main attraction, we have goldfinches all over them. Some may remember photos I posted late last winter, when pine siskins were clinging to the coneflower seed heads in the snow. Just as the flowers have lost the brilliant color of summer, so too the goldfinches are taking on their subdued winter (nonbreeding) plumage. Together they are an appealing autumn sight.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Young Birds in September (Video)

There's been a cluster of as many as 11 American goldfinches around our purple coneflower seed heads and our feeders in the last 2-3 days, and when we see them up close we notice some have a very fluffy look, not the sleek plumage that mature birds show. I'm not sure whether this is due to their routine late-summer molt in which they transition to winter plumage (at which time the males are no longer bright yellow, but look very similar to the more olive-colored females), or if this is just a normal phase of plumage development for very young goldfinches. Perhaps both! Goldfinches breed late in the season, perhaps bearing a close linkage to the life cycle of the thistle seeds that are a preferred food. Goldfinches are rare in their exclusive preference for a seed-based diet; most other seed eaters also eat some insects.

Also, I got a short video of a female northern cardinal with a juvenile by our front step last evening. Adult females and juveniles look similar, but the adults' beaks are red, while juveniles have dark beaks. In this clip, taken through a window, you'll see the mother feeding the juvie several times -- it looks as if she finds a seed, deftly shells it, spits out the shell, and then feeds the inner kernel to the juvenile. Given the time of year, this would most likely be offspring from a second brood of the season.

Speaking of juveniles, I recently learned that in the birding world the word is often spelled juvenal. Apparently that spelling used to be in general use and meant the same as juvenile, but that usage has become archaic. (However, when capitalized it refers to Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis, A.D. 60?-140?), a Roman satirist.)

I'd seen this spelling in ornithology blogs and wondered about it. My American Heritage dictionary gives this definition:
adj. Of or pertaining to a young bird having its first plumage of true feathers though often lacking the characteristics of its species: juvenal plumage
Being interested in words and usage issues, I looked further and found a discussion in the ornithology journal The Auk, contrasting the use of juvenal (traditionally used as an adjective only, though the writer recommended extending this use to noun status) to refer to a specific stage of plumage in young birds, versus juvenile, as either a noun or adjective, referring more generally to any immature bird. So there you have it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Whooping Cranes near Northfield

Two rare whooping cranes have been hanging out in a field and a nearby wetland on Old Dutch Road west of Northfield for several days -- I'm not sure whether they are still in the area. When we heard about them on Friday, they had been already spotted the previous two days as well. These photos were taken Friday; on Saturday we looked again in the late afternoon and saw only one. If you go looking for them, do not trespass into the field or wetland, and be careful not to disturb the cranes.

Information about this breeding pair of cranes, based on the visible bands in photos examined by a representative of the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin, is given in Dan Tallman's Bird Blog. They have been together for about three years and are part of a flock that breeds in Wisconsin and winters in Florida.

More background on these highly endangered birds appears in my post Whooping Cranes from last May. At that time two birds (I don't know if they were the same pair seen this week) were seen near Dennison, on the other side of Northfield.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Late Summer in the Arb

All of the photos get much bigger if you click on them.
A walk through the northern half of the Lower Arb (Carleton College's Cowling Arboretum) this morning revealed a variety of late-summer scenes. In the wooded areas, we were pestered by mosquitoes if we stopped for even a moment or two to listen to a bird or decide which branch in the path to take. In the open prairie areas, butterflies and dragonflies flitted through the tall grasses and wildflowers. In one shaded area we counted a cluster of at least nine monarch butterflies.I love this top photo -- I didn't realize when I took it what an interesting sky there was behind this tall, sturdy, yellow-flowered plant (I'm not sure what it is, but it looks as if it may be in the sunflower family.)

Butterflies seem to love this flower (see also below), which I believe is one of the species of blazing star (Liatris).

A mix of prairie plants. Many of the grasses were taller than me (I'm around 5'2").

Light filtered in a lovely way through a stand of tall, slender trees as we neared the northern end of the Long Loop trail, returning to the small parking area near the old iron bridge on Canada Avenue.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Seen Overhead

Tree swallows and one barn swallow on a line.All the tree swallows seem to be busy grooming themselves.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Another Dark Swallowtail

My son and I drove out to Union Lake, just west of the interstate, today to see what birds might be out and about. From there we went on through Lonsdale, about halfway to New Prague, and then circled up through Elko New Market and back via rural roads. We caught a great blue heron hanging out next to a lone white pelican (too far away to get a photo). We saw a double-crested cormorant and plenty of gulls and pigeons. We saw a large hawk on a line overhead, and lots and lots of tree swallows also on lines. A small number of killdeer, some Canada geese, and a few quick, darting songbirds here and there completed the picture.

Probably the most memorable spot of the day was not avian, but lepidopteral.I caught a glimpse of something black and ragged-looking fluttering among the roadside clovers and wildflowers and pulled over to take a closer look. I wasn't even quite sure whether it was a bird or a butterfly, it was so large, but it turned out to be a huge black butterfly with blue hind wings. The sun was shining on my LCD display so that I could hardly see whether I'd captured it in the photos or not, and as you'll see the focus isn't great.

As I first saw it - huge and very black. Those are large clover blossoms!
Here you can see the blue hindwings and a hint of the swallow-type tail
I was able to get quite close to take this photo
I thought this butterfly seemed much blacker and to have more blue on its tail than the female dark-form eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) I recently blogged about. The ragged-edged appearance of the wings from a distance proved to be due to the spots/checks that form the wing borders.

As I first researched other similar butterflies I thought it might be a spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) because of that larger blue area. But as I looked at more and more sources, I came to the conclusion that this is indeed another of the same. Features that convinced me included the orange spots at the base of the hind wings and where the hind wing meets the fore wing on each side, and the yellowish color of the spots at the edge of the hind wings, compared to a cooler almost blue tone to those spots in the P. troilus. Of course, then I compared the range maps and saw that it was much less likely to have been the P. troilus, which doesn't seem to extend past Wisconsin into Minnesota. So there you have it.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Recent Observations (Early August Phenology)

I haven't been keeping systematic records, so what follows is a fairly random set of observations about what's been going on lately. My last report of general observations was made in mid-June.
Red-breasted Nuthatch last winter
I commented then that we had last seen a red-breasted nuthatch on May 29. I don't think we saw any in June, but we have spotted one several times since mid-July. Based on maps of historical sightings available on, it looks as if June sightings of red-breasted nuthatches this far south in Minnesota are quite rare, while July and August sightings are somewhat more common. The red-breasteds mainly breed to our north, and not at all in the southwestern part of Minnesota.

Our 1987 edition of Robert Janssen's Birds in Minnesota shows the breeding range as extending no further south than the Twin Cities, with the fall migration period starting probably mid-August, and the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America shows the year-round range in Minnesota extending not much beyond the arrowhead region of northeastern Minnesota. The bird checklists from the Cowling Arboretum in Northfield and River Bend Nature Center in Faribault show the red-breasted nuthatch to be rarely reported in fall, winter, and spring, and not observed in summer. All these sources indicate that it is not historically common to find a red-breasted nuthatch in Rice County in the summer months, so we are excited to have done so.
Hairy Woodpecker

We haven't seen an oriole for several weeks. Common visitors to the bird feeders lately have included downy and (less often) hairy woodpeckers, blue jays, house finches, goldfinches, and chickadees. Mourning doves and chipping sparrows come for millet put out on our front walk. We have not been troubled by grackles or brown-headed cowbirds recently (in mid-June I reported grackles as our most common visitors). We don't often notice hummingbirds, though I did see one about a week ago. One day Dave saw six blue jays at the various feeders or in the nearby maple tree at the same time; usually we see only one or two.

On July 18 three baby raccoons appeared on our deck. One was seen again soon after on our front step. I haven't seen them since.

Baby raccoon
We have not been going out birding -- it's been so warm and humid that the idea has not been inviting. Summer isn't a peak time for our birding activities anyway, with the trees heavily leafed out, obscuring the view, but it can be fun to see turtles and families of young wood ducks in secluded ponds. After many humid days in the upper 80s and lower 90s, we are looking forward with relief to the coming week's forecast of a string of days with highs in the 70s and lows reaching down into the 50s.

Monarch and eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies have been common on our purple coneflowers the last several weeks. Joe-pye weed is also in bloom, and may be attracting them. Although I reported an early coneflower in mid-June (one that was closer to the house than most), most were not in full flower until July. 
Tiger Swallowtail

The last few days I have noticed that our garden phlox is flowering. I haven't kept records of that before.

Our half-hearted, late-started, much-neglected vegetable garden is in horrible condition. The six or so tomato plants look lush, but the swings between a cool June and extreme heat in the third week of July (up to 99 F. here, I believe, with outrageous dew points, putting the heat index well above 110) have limited the fruit production and certainly also limited my garden-upkeep efforts. I have picked a total of three cherry tomatoes (I think they are Super Sweet 100s); that plant has some more that are ripening, but nothing else is close to being ripe. I never got around to putting down a straw mulch, and the bed has been overtaken by tall grass. My attempt at bush beans succumbed to rabbits or other nibblers, and then got smothered by the grass. I have some cucumber plants that are growing well now, but not yet setting fruit. I have been cutting chives and basil for use in the kitchen, and we have a lot of lemon thyme and sage, but nothing else is producing.

I noticed my first flying geese of the season within the last week or two. There were some still-fuzzy half-grown goslings on the river not too long ago, suggesting a second hatching of the season.

    Saturday, August 6, 2011

    Yellow Swallowtail - Dark Morph

    A few days ago I posted photos of a female eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly. I learned that while the males are always yellow, the females can be either yellow with some distinctive blue markings, or very dark. A couple of days ago we saw one of the dark females. They have the same blue spots as the yellow-form females, and although they are indeed dark, the wings are translucent when the sun is behind them, creating an interesting effect.

    The swallowtails seem very attracted to the purple coneflowers that are growing in our front flowerbed. 

    Friday, August 5, 2011

    Gasping -- and Feeling Lucky (Still)

    Mourning Cloak: photo by Richard of "At the Water"
    A post about the mourning cloak butterfly on my friend Richard's At the Water blog today reminded me of one I'd written just about four years ago, in the early days of Penelopedia. It still sums up my views on noticing and appreciating the natural world around us, and my great pleasure that my 11-year-old son seems to share some of this appreciation, so I am re-posting it today (thanks, Richard!).

    Gasping -- and Feeling Lucky

    My quote of the week [I used to include a quote in my sidebar each week] is an excerpt from Barbara Kingsolver's 1995 collection of essays, High Tide in Tucson. Here it is:

    Someone in my childhood gave me the impression that fiddleheads [a type of fern] and mourning cloaks [a type of butterfly] were rare and precious. Now I realize they are fairly ordinary members of eastern woodland fauna and flora, but I still feel lucky and even virtuous -- a gifted observer -- when I see them. For that matter, they probably are rare, in the scope of human experience. A great many people will live out their days without ever seeing such sights, or if they do, never gasping. My parents taught me this -- to gasp, and feel lucky. They gave me the gift of making mountains out of nature's exquisite molehills. ... My heart stops for a second, even now..., as Camille and I wait for the butterfly to light and fold its purple, gold-bordered wings. "That's a mourning cloak," I tell her. "It's very rare."
    The gift Kingsolver was given and gives to her daughter in turn is one that I was also given by my mother. Not, perhaps, the gift exactly of gasping, but of being on the lookout -- noticing and appreciating the beauty and importance of a hawk circling high overhead, a heron at the edge of a pond, a purple Siberian iris, a pair of squirrels in a backyard tree. It was she who, after I'd had an unnerving encounter with bats in my first Northfield basement, said, "But Pen, bats are interesting!" It was she who, having lived for several years where I was born, near a game reserve outside Nairobi, Kenya, agonized over the threats to the survival of the great wild animals of Africa and the prospect that one day they might be no more.

    It is because of my mother that I scan the sky for raptors, pay attention to birds while I'm supposed to be paying attention to my tennis game, and at least now and then take my son (and my daughters in their day) to look for turtles and hawk feathers and creeks and footprints and berries in the woods. I hope, even though they may seem baffled by some of these passions (and perhaps more than a bit alarmed by my propensity for bird-watching at 70 mph on the interstate), I have planted seeds in them that will send down deepening roots and grow throughout their lives, enabling them to marvel at the beauties and complexities of nature and know that, no matter how seemingly commonplace their manifestations, they are very rare indeed.