Monday, December 24, 2012

Holiday Greetings

Merry Christmas and warmest wishes at this special time of year, when the light begins to return but months of cold still lie ahead for those of us in the northern realms. I so appreciate my readers, and I love getting your notes. Thank you for following Penelopedia and letting me share my observations with you.

May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Dark-eyed Junco

I write today to celebrate the junco. Dark-eyed juncos are members of the sparrow family that are seen only in the colder months here in southern Minnesota and in much of the middle part of the U.S. For this reason they are sometimes called snowbirds. They breed in Canada and Alaska, as well as in year-round territories in northern parts of the Great Lakes states (including northeastern Minnesota), the West and the Northeast.

The junco's pale pink beak is a key identifier, as is the strong contrast between the dark gray or brown top and the white belly. Males and females are similar, though the females' color is more muted. There are regional variations in coloration -- so much so that until the 1980s they were treated as several distinct species. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes:
A field guide is the best place to look for complete illustration of ranges and plumages, but in general there are two widespread forms of the Dark-eyed Junco: “slate-colored” junco of the eastern United States and most of Canada, which is smooth gray above; and “Oregon” junco, found across much of the western U.S., with a dark hood, warm brown back and rufous flanks.
Juncos eat seeds and insects and usually feed on the ground, as is typical for sparrows, and so they don't often come to our feeders, though they are often to be seen foraging underneath them. They are regular visitors to our yard, though typically not in large numbers.

Yesterday morning we got a few inches of new snow from the edge of the big storm that shut down Iowa and other midwestern states. The snow covered the typical seed litter under our feeders, and while I was at home at lunchtime, I saw a junco trying to get a peanut from our peanut feeder. That's not a sight I've ever seen before. So I swept away the snow from a section of our front walk and put out some seed on the ground for the juncos.

They are cute little birds, and we're always happy to see them.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Snow Snow Snow!

Wow! Biggest snow in a year and a half. We had about eight inches here in Northfield on Sunday, and a foot or more north of us in the Twin Cities and beyond. I'll just let the photos tell the story.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Red-bellied Woodpecker

We've been seeing a red-bellied woodpecker in the big maple in front of our house and sometimes at our peanut feeder in recent weeks -- several days in a row a few weeks ago, and occasionally since then. This photo is a bit grainy, but otherwise not a bad capture for a foggy morning, which it certainly was this morning. In fact, there was a freezing fog advisory - not a common occurrence.

It wasn't until uploading this photo just now that I realized that this is a female - her red cap sits more on the back of her head, rather than extend over the top of the head as it would with a male. Below is a photo of a male that visited one of our suet feeders one cold morning in 2011. You can see that his bright red cap comes all the way over the front of the head to the top of the beak.

I'm not sure if we have been seeing only a female in our recent sightings, or sometimes a male. I'll have to look more carefully from now on. We just noticed quite a large (maybe 3-4" in diameter), rather fresh-looking hole in a branch in the tree that's shown in the top photo, and are wondering whether this/these red-bellied woodpecker(s) is/are responsible. We'll keep an eye on it and give an update if we get additional clues.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

[Updated] Canada Geese at Sunset

Correction: This post has been amended to delete the erroneous identification of some of these geese as cackling geese, a smaller, shorter-necked, smaller-billed relative of the Canada goose. I am informed by one of my local birding mentors, Gene Bauer, that these are in fact simply shorter-necked Canada geese. The cackling goose is noticeably smaller in body, closer to the size of a mallard, and has a smaller, more pointed bill, and Gene tells me it would be highly unusual for us to see them in such large numbers as shown here.

I'd recently heard that hundreds of Canada geese have been gathering on the Superior Drive pond. Having taken a vacation day today, I was free to wander over that way as the sun was setting about an hour ago to see for myself.

Here's a view (above) of the east end of the pond, covered with geese and a few mallards. While I was there, many birds took to the air. Click on the photo below for a larger view of many dozens of geese in the air while dozens remain in the west end of the pond.

I noticed that many of the geese were actually cackling geese, which are smaller and have shorter necks than the Canada goose.  [See correction at top of this post.]

Here's a closer view (above). You can see both Canada geese (front right and left rear) and cackling geese (center) for easy comparison. Click on the photo to see it larger.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says of the cackling goose:
Formerly considered the smallest subspecies of one variable species [i.e., the Canada goose], recent work on genetic differences found the four smallest forms to be very different. These four races are now recognized as a full species: the Cackling Goose. It breeds farther northward and westward than does the Canada Goose.

There was a lovely milky sunset against which the skeins of airborne geese could be seen in silhouette. My camera battery was running low, so I turned for home.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

24 Pine Siskins!

This weekend Project Feederwatch got started for the season (it runs November to April), and there has been plenty to see. A cold, wet front came through last night, taking us from a record-breaking high of 69 F (official Twin Cities temperature; several sources showed it to be even warmer than that here in Northfield) yesterday afternoon to the upper 50s at midnight to the upper 20s currently. Perhaps as a result of this change in the weather, there was a great deal of activity at our feeders today -- but actually we've had plenty of activity anyway, recently.

However, today there was one noteworthy appearance. In addition to house finches, chickadees, a downy woodpecker, blue jays, dark eyed juncos, and both white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, we've had quite an invasion of pine siskins. These are small, streaky finches that are cold-season-only birds for us here in southern Minnesota when they are here at all -- depending on the availability of their preferred seed crops, they may be present in large numbers one winter and barely seen another winter. 

We'd been seeing a couple occasionally for several weeks and then a few days ago Dave counted 14 while I was at work. Today we had at least 24 at the house. I saw many, many in the big maple tree out front (the staging area from which many of our visiting birds approach our feeders), then went over to the small window from which I can take a close look at the feeders they prefer, and at that point (no longer being able to see if some were still in the tree) I counted a dozen on the ground, seven in the caged feeder and five on the sock feeder.

In the photo below, one goldfinch in winter plumage keeps company with four pine siskins. Goldfinches and pine siskins are very similar in size and body style, with small, sharp beaks, but the goldfinches have a clear breast (nicely displayed below) while the siskins are heavily streaked all over.

Goldfinch (center left) and pine siskins

In our four years of feeding birds at this location, and two prior years of keeping nearly weekly count of what we see during Project Feederwatch, this was by far the largest number of one species we've seen at a single time. I think 14 house finches was the highest count we've had before.

Seven (visible) pine siskins

It's been many weeks since my last post here. As I was looking back to see what photos I had taken since the end of summer, I came across this shot of goldfinches at the sock feeder in mid-September. These males were looking a little patchy as they were changing from their brilliant lemon-yellow summer plumage to their more sedate winter plumage (as seen in the top photo above).

Moulting goldfinches in mid-September

Our summer birds have mostly left us by now, and I wonder what kind of winter we have ahead of us. We've had nearly nine months of no winter, since our amazing early warm spell last March (nine months of no winter may be normal many places, but not in Minnesota!), and the winter that came before that was exceptionally mild. I feel ready for the "indoor season" to begin. But I know it's not indoor season for the birds that stay, and they've got hardships ahead. We'll keep our feeders full to help them see it through.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Grasshopper that Ate a Holstein

We were out for a drive in the Minnesota countryside when a grasshopper the size of a department store appeared in the sky. Terrified, we ducked into a nearby bush, but as it flew over I snapped this shot to document our final moments, if it came to that.

Mercifully for us, but unfortunately for the placid dairy cow, it turned its attention to a nearby Holstein. We covered our eyes.

Profoundly shaken, we made our way home.

So my warning for you is, be on the lookout. Keep your guard up. The wonders of nature are sometimes awful to contemplate.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Fall Shorebirds, Including American Golden-Plovers

We've made several trips lately to a wet and muddy field in Goodhue County near Stanton, where good numbers of shorebirds have been present in recent days. We've seen lesser yellowlegs, greater yellowlegs, least sandpipers, semi-palmated sandpipers, stilt sandpipers, semi-palmated plovers and yesterday a real treat: three American golden-plovers. These were a life bird for me, and it was only the second time in 20 years of birding that Dave has seen them.

Lesser Yellowlegs

The light was good to capture these lesser yellowlegs and their reflections.

Lesser Yellowlegs

The three golden-plovers weren't in such good light as the yellowlegs above, and were farther away.  One of the three birds was darker than the other, helping us quickly recognize that we were seeing golden-plovers. The dark bird did not seem as black as the breeding males shown in the field guides, so it may have been an adult female. The paler birds may be juveniles, as it may be a bit early for the adults to be in their paler non-breeding plumage. The dark spots on the underside of the pale bird below were quite distinctive.

American Golden-Plovers - juvenile and female?

American Golden-Plover - juvenile?

The American Golden-Plover breeds in the high Arctic and winters in central and southern South America, so it has one of the longest migrations of any shorebird.

Below is a wider view showing just one small section of this temporary wetland, filled with shorebirds.

A variety of shorebirds (click to see them better)

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Bluebird Trail: End-of-Season Recap

Peterson nestbox left open at end of season

The photo above is not one of the nestboxes we monitor. But I liked the symbolism of it for this end-of-season recap post. We saw several boxes like this one at the St. Olaf College natural lands this morning -- they've been cleaned out at the end of the bluebird breeding season and left open to discourage mice and house sparrows from using them over the winter. (See The boxes we monitor are all of the Gilbertson PVC pipe style, which don't have doors that open.

Here are our final bluebird trail numbers for the year:

Trail 1, Rice County, mostly south of Northfield: 7 pairs and 4 single nestboxes

  • 72 bluebird eggs were laid in 11 nestboxes
  • 57 bluebird eggs hatched
  • 46 bluebird chicks fledged
  • Tree swallows used 5 nestboxes and fledged 32 chicks
  • Chickadees started to use one nestbox but never laid eggs
  • House wrens used 4 nestboxes and fledged 22 chicks

Trail 2, Goodhue County, prairie habitat: 1 pair and 2 single nestboxes (we took on the monitoring of these boxes in late April)

  • 19 bluebird eggs were laid in four boxes
  • 18 bluebirds hatched
  • 18 bluebirds fledged
  • Tree swallows also used two of the boxes and fledged 12 chicks

Male bluebird on top of "sparrow spooker"

We did not successfully raise any birds in the pair of nestboxes we put up this year on our own property. That was where house sparrows killed a chickadee early in the season. In mid-season, we attracted both tree swallows and bluebirds. The tree swallows seemed to be building a nest, but did not lay eggs and eventually disappeared. The bluebirds nested and hatched a clutch of four eggs in a box where we had put up a wren guard, but when they were a few days old, the nestlings vanished from the nest. This was very distressing; we were alerted that something might be wrong when we could see the male calling repeatedly and flying to and from the box, and when we checked the box later that day we found the babies were gone without a trace, but the nest was intact. Our Rice County bluebird mentors said that most likely house wrens, but possibly sparrows, could have removed the chicks. We will see if we can find a better location next year -- one farther from the house and from large trees -- to see if we have better luck. We can't in good conscience keep trying to attract bluebirds, tree swallows or chickadees to locations where there is a recurring pattern of attacks.

Bluebirds raised two broods in quite a few of our boxes this year, but we did not have any bluebirds successfully raise three broods this summer, despite the early spring. The closest we came was in our earliest nesting location. There, we had a clutch of five successfully hatched and fledged by the second week of May. A second clutch of five was hatched in the same box in early June, but all five nestlings perished within a few days of hatching; we found them dead in the box. Soon afterward a new nest was started in the other of the paired nestboxes. Four out of the five eggs hatched and they fledged in late July. Since our theory about the dead nestlings was that their mother had been killed, the final clutch on that site may have involved the same male and a new female, or even a whole new pair, but we can't be sure.

It's been a fascinating season. We've had a lot of pleasure, a lot of learning as we went, some distress and heartache, and much wonderful outdoor time every week as we monitored the boxes. We have felt honored by this precious opportunity to observe the private lives of cavity-nesting songbirds and try to keep them safe. We look forward to next year!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Great Egret

The great egret is a fairly common sight in southern Minnesota from spring through September. We see enough of them that we can take them for granted, but they are simply spectacular birds: pure white, tall, long-necked, long-billed and long-legged, with a wingspan of more than four feet. They can usually be seen at the shallow edges of ponds or in wetlands, where they move slowly or stand very still and stab lightning-fast at fish with their long bills.

Here are two shots of the same bird, seen in western Minnesota in early August, showing how different they look depending on whether they coil or extend their necks.

When they fly, their black legs trail out behind them and they hold their necks deeply coiled, or tucked.

Egrets, herons and the more secretive bitterns are all part of the family Ardeidae. The Sibley Guide notes that the great egret's combination of long yellow bill and black legs is unique among the herons and egrets. 

The snowy egret, whose range overlaps a fair amount with the great egret's but is not often seen in Minnesota, is similar but smaller, with somewhat lacier plumage, black-billed and yellow-footed (they look as if they are wearing yellow rubber gloves). We saw one or two of these in northeastern South Dakota the same weekend we saw the great egret shown here.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Shorebird Workshop, August 3-5, 2012

Dave and I just got back from the Shorebird Workshop led by Doug Buri and Bob Janssen, based in Milbank, South Dakota but with field trips in both South Dakota and Minnesota. It's three days of just enough classroom time to get some basics, then as much field experience as possible, assisted by these two highly knowledgeable and nice-as-can-be instructors. You can study field marks from a book, but there's nothing like seeing the birds in real settings to improve your identification skills.

Workshop members get up close to the water

Here was a life bird for me: the Baird's sandpiper, found on the shore of Bitter Lake. I wasn't at all familiar with this bird before this weekend, but I know it now, because its wing primaries (long flight feathers) extend beyond the tail and it has smudgy brown markings on its breast. The other shorebird with wings this long in relation to its tail is the white-rumped sandpiper, which is grayer, rather than brown, and has clear, not smudged, dark streaks on its breast.

Baird's Sandpiper at Bitter Lake

Some shorebirds are very distinctive, but others require some practice to tell them apart. We focused on getting familiar with approximately eight shorebirds that are fairly common in South Dakota and western Minnesota during migration. If you know the common ones, something different will stand out when you do see it.

I loved the South Dakota and western Minnesota landscapes we visited, in picture-perfect weather, especially on Saturday and Sunday after a storm had cleared the air. On a large plateau west of Milbank known as the Coteau des Prairies, where Bitter Lake is, we learned that rising waters in natural basins that have no outlet for their water have overwhelmed farms and homes with no hope for respite. Here's a good article about this phenomenon. 

Bitter Lake near Waubay, SD

Bitter Lake has grown immensely in the past two decades -- from a slough only two feet in depth and 2,000 acres in size, it has grown to a lake of 3,500 acres and is South Dakota's largest natural body of water, according to this article on The article cited in the previous paragraph says it used to be a mile from the town of Waubay, but now it laps at the southern edge of town. We saw Western and Clark's grebes there, as well as egrets, a Caspian tern (a life bird for me), the Baird's sandpiper (see photo above), and a variety of other shorebirds.

Other highlights of the trip included several buff-breasted sandpipers, some marbled godwits, a Wilson's snipe, some dowitchers, and an osprey carrying a fish, seen on our way back from a quick side trip to Thielke Lake a few of us took at the end of the day Saturday.

Please take a look at a slideshow of photos from the weekend (below). I encourage anyone who is interested to sign up for any of Doug and Bob's excellent workshops. Besides the August shorebird workshop, they offer an early-October sparrow workshop and the Fort Pierre birding workshop, covering birds found on the mixed grass prairie and the Missouri River, in May. All come highly recommended, and we hope to attend these in the future.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Joe-Pye Weed with Bees

Because it's been so hot and humid lately I've not spent much time in the garden. The last couple of days have been much more tolerable, and this afternoon I wandered out with camera in hand to see what I would see.

My main backyard garden bed is a mix of vegetable space and perennial flowers, with a fair amount of weeds and grass in the mix.

Today I noticed that I have several tomato fruits developing, my peppers have pretty, bell-like flowers but no fruits yet, and my cucumber plants have been nibbled badly and are not faring well.

But mostly I noticed the flowers and the bees. On a mass of flowering thyme, tiny bees were in constant motion. Purple coneflowers are flowering in abundance, and the phlox is now in bloom. And on the giant Joe-Pye weed, standing well over five feet tall, there was a bee on almost every flower cluster. I saw one bumble bee, as well.

Joe-Pye weed (genus Eutrochium) is well known as a wonderful attractor for bees, butterflies and moths. It is native to the eastern United States. It's a pity that it has "weed" in its name (as quite a few valuable wildflowers do, including the milkweed so important to our monarch butterflies), as it may sound less appealing to add to gardens, but it's a terrific native plant for this area, supporting our pollinators. This page about gardening to support wildlife in Minnesota has a helpful list of other flowers, shrubs and trees that will encourage our native insects and birds.

I don't know whether any of the bees I saw today were standard European honeybees, whose mysterious declines we have read so much about, or whether they were all native bees. Whichever kinds they were, they were all busy with the vital work of pollination, and I thank them.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Five-year Blogiversary for Penelopedia

An earlier header image for Penelopedia

Five years ago today Penelopedia was born, with the inaugural post This Is My Garden. From its initial focus on the local food movement and vegetable gardening to the birds-and-nature blog it tends most often to be these days, this project has led me, more than anything else it has done, to learn about the things that I observe so that I can write about them.

Later header image

The blog has carried me through five pivotal years personally:
  • A stint as a single mother living with my young son in a rented duplex with a patio garden (the subject of that first post)
  • My eldest daughter leaving for college and emerging a beautiful, independent, competent young woman with a passion for art
  • Joining Facebook and greatly expanding the circle of people I feel connected or reconnected to
  • Getting married again and acquiring two cats along with my birdwatching, cat-loving husband, Dave
  • Moving back into my former house with said husband and son
  • My second daughter moving with her Dad to St. Paul so she could attend a performing arts high school there, then eventually graduating and going off to college herself to further develop her musical gifts, which were showing themselves by the time she was two
  • Deciding to adopt a kitten for my son and coming home from the shelter with not one but two young cats, for a crazy total of four, without whom life would be far duller
  • Saying goodbye soon afterward to my dear dog, Jennie
  • My son finishing elementary school, suddenly shooting up and developing a man's voice, and completing a year of middle school (and becoming quite a good birdwatcher along the way).

Current header image

Over the course of 618 blog posts, I have become a more knowledgeable birdwatcher myself, and a somewhat better photographer with my simple point-and-shoot compact camera. I've also made "blog friends" I've never or rarely met in person.

I have had the delight of people occasionally letting me know that they get pleasure from my blog, or learn from it, or both. I generally write without thinking too much of who may read my words or see my images, so it is beautiful to know that they do sometimes land where they are appreciated. Thank you for that.

The main point of this blog is to celebrate that which is all around us but apart from the human routine. Combat nature deficit disorder. Walk in the woods. Hear the dawn chorus. Hear an owl. Observe patterns. Stretch your legs. Put up a bird feeder and see who comes. Breathe clean air. Watch the ever-changing sky and feel the wind on your face. Marvel at the web of the garden spider and the migration of the birds. Smell the sweet meadow and the ozone of the rainstorm. Touch the rough bark and the smooth stone. Walk in the softly falling snow. Blow the dandelion fluff. Taste the ripe berry by the side of the trail.

Notice, and learn, and celebrate, and respect, and tread lightly. That's what I'm trying in my small way to do.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Bluebird Trail, Week 13 - Fledging Tree Swallows

Much of the action in the bluebird boxes lately has been from tree swallows. A couple of broods of house wrens have also fledged.

Sadly, about two weeks ago we lost the first brood of our second-round bluebird nestlings at just a few days of age. We had seen them as new hatchlings, but they were all dead in the nest when we returned the following week. We can only presume that something happened to the mother (possibly in the day of big storms that hit Northfield that week, though based on the nestlings' development we think it was probably a couple of days earlier) and the little ones perished without her. As we understand it, while the males help feed the babies, they do not enter the nest and brood them to keep them warm, which they need until their feathers come in and they can regulate their own body temperatures. So they really need their mothers for the first week or more. It was quite a shock -- our first bluebird casualties.

However, the tree swallows have given us much to observe, as the photos below reveal.

In the first photo are six tree swallow nestlings a few days from fledging. They are certainly crowded in the round Gilbertson nestbox, but all the tree swallow nestlings we've seen seem to figure out that heads pointing out is the best arrangement. We have not lost any tree swallow nestlings to overcrowding, though we understand that it can be an issue since they have larger broods than the bluebirds do.

Six tree swallow nestlings

In the next photo, tree swallow nestlings approaching fledging age were peeping out of their box, awaiting food.

Tree swallow nestlings looking out at the world

This past weekend we checked a box where we were pretty sure fledging would already have occurred, and we found two nestlings were still in the box. We must have caught them on fledge day -- or perhaps it took a day or two for all the birds to fledge. Dave checked again the next day, and they were gone.

Fledge day - two left

And here (below) is a shot showing the remarkable construction of the tree swallow nest, revealed when we cleaned out a nestbox after tree swallows (the ones peeping out in the earlier photo) had fledged. We found an unhatched egg in this nest -- in this one case, we'd never been able to get a final count of the eggs before hatching, so we were not aware until the end that one had not hatched. This was the location where I got the lovely photo of the mama incubating, surrounded by white feathers.

Tree swallow nest after fledging

Unlike bluebirds, which typically raise two or sometimes even three broods in a season, tree swallows are usually finished after one brood, though there are exceptions. (The tree swallow page on has more good information about tree swallow nesting and development.) So the nestboxes that are gradually being vacated by the fledging tree swallows will become available for bluebirds or other cavity nesters that are ready to lay again at this point in the summer, and the tree swallows will not compete for those nesting locations unless their first attempt has failed.

We try to clean the nestboxes out as soon as we confirm that fledging has occurred, to ensure a more sanitary and pest-free setting for the next nest (tree swallows leave pretty dirty nests by the time they're done), but it's been amazing how quickly a new tenant can move in. We recently came back to one nestbox intending to clean out a vacated tree swallow nest, only to find a complete new bluebird nest with an egg in it already, built right on top of the tree swallow nest.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cecropia Moth in Downtown Northfield

This enormous, strikingly patterned moth was hanging out amid the flowers and greenery in a concrete planter outside my workplace in downtown Northfield. It looks like a Cecropia moth, which is North America's largest native moth according to Wikipedia. My Golden Guide to Butterflies and Moths puts the wingspan at 4.0-6.3 inches.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Until this month, I'd never seen a dickcissel. What a beautiful little bird! Very like a meadowlark but considerably smaller (about 6 inches long), they are washed with yellow on the breast and in a streak over the eye, have chestnut wings and a bluish bill, and the mature male has a prominent black V on its chest (first-year males look more like females).

Male dickcissel

The yellow is more brilliant in the male, but the female has a lovely, soft yellow cast to her. The flash of yellow, the chestnut wings and the black markings on the male all help distinguish these birds from the varied sparrows that are also common in grassy areas. Meadowlarks are noticeably larger (7.5 to 10 inches long), have a longer, thinner bill, and the yellow extends all the way down their bellies.

Female dickcissel

Dickcissels are grassland, seed-eating birds that breed in the Midwest and congregate in huge groups in migration and their tropical wintering grounds, where they may be regarded as agricultural pests. They nest close to the ground in shrubs, saplings or grassy clumps. Learn more about dickcissels at the All About Birds site.

We've been seeing dickcissels since early June at the McKnight Prairie, northeast of Northfield in Goodhue County, and have heard they've also been seen recently at grassy areas in the Carleton Arboretum and other nearby locations. Wikipedia notes that they arrive fairly late at their breeding grounds, with most arriving only in early June. Given the date, then, the photo above is most likely a female rather than a first-year male. We have been going to McKnight regularly for several weeks, and the dickcissel's arrival was unmistakable on our June 3 visit, due to its loud, distinctive song that we certainly had not heard earlier. On June 3 we were only sure of one individual. On June 13 we saw and heard several; they seemed the most prominent bird of the day.

Male dickcissel

Male dickcissel singing

Here is a short clip of a dickcissel singing:

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Deluge in Northfield - Video

The big event of the week in Northfield and the nearby region was the six to eight inches of rain -- even more in some spots -- that came down on Thursday. Wave after wave of heavy rain passed through the area throughout the day and well into the evening. The Cannon River flooded in Cannon Falls, along with the Little Cannon, but did not (at least not to any significant extent) in Northfield. However, creeks overflowed, soccer fields turned into lakes, farms were underwater, several roads became impassable, and many people had wet basements.

I have a wet basement myself -- our sump pump failed at one corner of the finished portion of our basement, so water welled up in that area and spread throughout our family room. More water poured in under a door at the opposite, walk-out side of the basement, where there is a badly conceived exterior stairwell. We have a bedroom down there as well, which is also very wet; it seems to have received some water from both sources. We spent much of the night trying to keep up with it all, and quite a bit of time and hard work ever since, trying to get things dried out and assess what needs to be done next. Carpets, baseboards and the bottom of several walls were soaked. It's been quite upsetting, but I know that what we experienced was little compared to some others.

Friends at the small, diversified Seeds Farm and Laughing Loon Farm, just south of Northfield, were indundated. Much planted acreage and some chickens were washed away. Both farms are gratefully welcoming volunteers to help with the clean-up this week. Both have Facebook pages: and I've been following both farms' accounts of their spring plantings, and it's very sad to see so much hope simply drowned, though I'm sure they'll recover in time.

While watching one of the early downpours from the Neuger Communications Group office at the heart of downtown Northfield, I took this short video of water lapping over the curb in front of our building and gushing from a manhole across the street where the storm sewer became overwhelmed. It's funny to think, looking back, that this was only the beginning. At this point in the day, the planners of Taste of Northfield were still hoping to hold the event that evening, "rain or shine." In the end, of course, it had to be canceled.

A couple of local websites picked up this video (which, due to the magic of the smartphone, I had posted to YouTube and tweeted within a couple of minutes of recording it), and when I checked yesterday I was quite astounded to see it's had more than 800 views.

While coping with all the rain, we spared a thought for the close-to-fledging tree swallows in some of our bluebird boxes and hoped that they were staying dry and had not chosen that morning to leave the nest. And I hope our young bluebird fledglings, most of whom are only two or three weeks out of the nest, found shelter and are all right. We checked most of our nestboxes yesterday, and all those we checked seemed to have stayed dry. I'll be posting a bluebird trail report soon.

Update - June 18: We had another bout of heavy rain and hail overnight -- Weather Underground stations are reporting between one and four inches overnight in the Northfield and Cannon Falls areas (3.75 at Stanton airport).

Monday, May 28, 2012

Bluebird Trail, Week 8-9 - Tree Swallows & House Wrens

This week's update covers the last two weeks. We checked the Trail 1 boxes during a very light drizzle on May 20, which we found was good weather for catching birds on their nests. Dave saw three tree swallows on nests that day while I, still in the early days of recuperating after eye surgery on the 17th, rested in the car and just took notes. We weren't able to get to Trail 2 last week. This week I was feeling much stronger, and we visited both trails on the morning of May 27, which was a hot day with temperatures already well into the 80s.

Most of the nestbox activity right now is from the tree swallows, as most of our bluebirds have fledged their first broods and are working on their second nests and eggs.

Tree swallow in nestbox incubating eggs

This is my favorite photo of the week -- a female tree swallow who stayed on her nest when we checked this nestbox on Trail 2. The light was right to catch her beautiful coloring contrasting with the cloud of white feathers. We quietly and carefully put the box back.

Tree swallow eggs in nestbox

Here is another tree swallow nest with eggs, from one of the boxes on Trail 1. I can't get over how beautiful and comfortable-looking the tree swallow nests are, with all the feathers they use to line the nest. I try to imagine being a little naked nestling, and I would much rather be in a tree swallow nest than a bluebird nest, which is generally just dried grasses with no downy lining. However, I understand that bluebirds are more fastidious about removing the nestlings' fecal sacs from the nestbox, so from that perspective I guess I'd rather be a bluebird nestling.

Tree swallow atop sparrow spooker above nestbox

In the last couple of weeks we were excited to have a pair of tree swallows building a nest in one of the nestboxes at our house, where we've had a hard time getting any successful nests going. We set up the spotting scope in our living room so we could keep tabs on  the activity there. Above, a tree swallow perches atop a "sparrow spooker" that dangles orange construction ribbons over the top of the nestbox; this is thought to discourage house sparrows. The tree swallows found it to be a handy perch. Below, before we saw a house sparrow enter the box which led us to put up the sparrow spooker, the female is looking out of the nestbox while her mate watches from above. 

Tree swallows at nestbox

We have continued to be plagued with house sparrows at this location, but we have also been hearing house wrens quite a bit lately, and it was a house wren that eventually cleaned the tree swallow nest out and drove the pair away. From what we hear, this is typical wren territorial behavior -- they clean out other birds' nests and leave the box so pristine it's as if it was vacuumed out. House wrens will sometimes destroy other birds' eggs, as well. Because of this consistent difficulty with both house sparrows and house wrens, we decided to take down the two boxes at our house. Although they offer some good bluebird habitat, they are just too close to the house (encouraging house sparrows) and some large trees (encouraging wrens).  We loved watching the tree swallows from our living room, and for a couple of days we saw bluebirds at the other box as well, which was a real thrill, but the wrens cleaned that box out too. We feel it's not safe for the bluebirds, tree swallows and/or chickadees at this location, so we thought it was better to take these boxes down.

Tree swallow nestlings, approx. day 2

Above is the first set of tree swallow nestlings we've had. There are appear to be six nestlings that I am guessing are about two days old, based on our records of when the eggs were laid and this guide to tree swallow nestling development at the Tree Swallow Projects site. They are quite similar to bluebird nestlings at this age, but less hairy. The female was in the box when we approached but flew out, allowing us to quickly confirm that the nestlings had hatched. We left as quickly as we could so she could get back to the babies.

House wren eggs

House wrens, unlike the nonnative house sparrow, are federally protected native birds. Once they have an active nest -- not just twigs in a nestbox, but a nest cup and/or eggs -- it is illegal to disturb or remove the nest., the excellent bluebird site, has a good page about managing house wrens. The All About Birds site has useful breeding information: they lay 3-9 eggs, incubate them for 9-16 days and nestlings fledge in 15-17 days. We now have two active house wren nests on Trail 1, both in nestboxes that had seen very little activity all spring until the last week or two, when the wrens (which typically don't arrive in this area until May) got busy.

The full trail report follows. We have, to the best of our knowledge, fledged 30 bluebirds and have 5 new eggs this week. One nest of 3 eggs (box 18) seems to have failed, but as far as we can tell we had full success of all bluebird eggs in the other nests, as we saw no unhatched eggs or dead nestlings. We have 6 tree swallow nestlings and 5 more nests with tree swallow eggs. We have 2 house wren nests with eggs.

Follow our full bluebird trail adventures here.

Trail 1:

  1. After several days of tree swallow activity, a house wren cleaned out the nest and we had also seen a house sparrow enter the nestbox, so we have reluctantly taken this box down.
  2. (Paired with #1) After recent chickadee activity that didn't develop into a nest, a bluebird pair was seen at this box so we removed the guard that made the hole smaller for chickadeees. A house wren cleaned out the bluebirds' nesting material. We have now taken this box down.
  3. There were two house wren eggs here on May 20 and 7 house wren eggs on May 27. 
  4. (Paired with #3) Tree swallow nest with 5 eggs. Female was on nest May 20 and flew from the nest May 27. Probably now 8-10 days into incubation; we should see nestlings next week.
  5. 5 bluebirds fledged, probably close to a week ago (we observed an adult on top of the box on May 20 and knew they were close to fledging so we did not check the box that day). House wren twigs in box on May 27; we cleaned out the nestbox.
  6. (Paired with #5) Tree swallow nest -- did not check on May 20; 6 eggs on May 27.
  7. House wren nest with 7 eggs. This box had one egg on May 12 and 7 eggs on May 20. Assuming they lay an egg a day, these eggs are now about 10 days into incubation and may hatch at any time now.
  8. (Paired with #7) Tree swallow nest with no eggs on May 20 and 2 eggs on May 27.
  9. We cleaned this box out two weeks ago after fledging our first set of bluebirds. On May 20 there was a full new nest and on May 27 there were 5 bluebird eggs.
  10. (Paired with #9) On May 20 we removed the unused duplicate bluebird nest that had been there all along. On May 27 the box remained empty.
  11. Discontinued  
  12. Discontinued
  13. 5 bluebirds fledged, probably early last week. We did not check the box on the 20th, which was approx. day 13 since hatching. We cleaned out the empty nestbox on May 27.
  14. 5 bluebirds fledged between May 12 and May 20, when we cleaned out the empty nestbox. On May 27 there was a full new nest.
  15. 6 tree swallow nestlings, approximately day 2 on May 27. There were 6 eggs on May 12 and female remained on nest during check on May 20 so we could not count the eggs again. There might be a 7th, but photo (above) appears to show 6 nestlings.
  16. 5 bluebirds fledged close to May 12. We cleaned out the box on May 20. On May 27 there was a full new nest.
  17. This box earlier showed signs of a chickadee nest, but was emptied probably by house wren between May 5 and May 9 and still remains empty.
  18. (Paired with #17) Three pale pink bluebird eggs, cool. These eggs are well past the age when they should have hatched with consistent incubation (2 eggs were noted April 25 and there have been three eggs thereafter). Parents were always previously nearby and vigilant but were not observed on May 27.
  19. Tree swallow nest with approx 7 eggs.
  20. (Paired with #19) Complete bluebird nest with female present.
Trail 2:
  1. Nest with no eggs -- no change.
  2. (I previously reversed the description of #2 and 3 contents.) Tree swallow nest; 1 or 2 eggs on May 13; not checked May 20; female remained on nest May 27 so we could not count eggs. Assuming a clutch size of 6 or 7, incubation is probably 9-10 days along and we should see nestlings next week.
  3. (Paired with #2)  5 bluebird nestlings approx. day 5 on May 27 based on appearance and incubation history.
  4. 5 bluebirds fledged between May 13 (day 10 or 11) and May 20. We planned to clean out the nestbox on May 27, but it appeared that new nest material has been built over the old nest so we did not disturb it. Tree swallow was present on top of the box and there was a large white feather in the nest, so this may have become a tree swallow nest.