Tuesday, March 30, 2010

merlins in the hood

Last Thursday morning, the day after I had the merlin fly-by, I got to actually see the merlin. He flew into the confer in my yard, called a while, flew out, flew by in again, and repeated that for about half an hour. I've heard him every day since but haven't gotten to see him again before today, when I learned that it is not just a single merlin, but a pair. I was just heading out for a tiny neighborhood walk when I heard one close by, and I looked up in time to see it fly into my confer. He called out the high-pitched, slightly ascending whinny I've been hearing, then in the distance another one answered him. There are several tall conifers in the neighborhood, and for almost my entire walk I could hear one of the merlins, and a couple times got to see one fly by. The way they move, it doesn't look like it should be physically possible to stay aloft. They're either soaring or, if they're flapping at all, it looks like they're only moving the very ends of their wings, like a human trying to fly by flapping his wrists. But they are, to their credit, flapping very fast.

These merlins seem to be a mated pair looking for a nest site. It would be pretty cool if they nested in the neighborhood, although they can choose a tree that is not mine, so that they don't eat all the smaller birds that come to my feeders.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

spring and philosophy come to the Antenna Farm

I rode my bike around the Antenna Farm today, and the endless ruts and potholes and the small but numerous inclines convinced me that the Antenna Farm is better for walking than biking (or driving, for that matter). The ice is almost completely out on the pond now, and today there was one red-winged blackbird proclaiming his might. A bit further down the road I saw a pileated drumming on a phone pole again, on the opposite end of the woods as the last one I saw, although it could be the same bird. (I managed to shoot some shaky, dizzy-making video this time, but I will not inflict that on you all.)

Elsewhere, there were two separate snowshoe hares merrily gamboling down the dirt road and nibbling on greenery in the woods, offering me excellent views of their limited-time-only piebald coat, brown on top and white underneath. They both scattered when I reached for my camera. Before this year I can't remember the last time I saw a for-sure snowshoe hare (not a regular cottontail rabbit) here in town, and now I've seen three in the Antenna Farm woods. Today I also nearly ran into a cluster of five deer, a mix of adult does and yearlings, and finally saw my first chipmunk of spring.

A lot of land off of the road is impassably flooded now, quite a bit of a contrast from other wild places I've been recently, which are mostly much drier than they should be. If there was a place in town to find skunk cabbage, the Antenna Farm would be it. (Although I've heard from several reliable sources now that there is none in Duluth to be found, but that kind of makes me want to find some even more, to have my own private, special patch of skunk cabbage.) But I'll be interested to see what other wildflowers there are up there, and unless radio signals do something funky to amphibians, it should be frog central up there in a few weeks.

The area around the Antenna Farm--and possibly that pond in particular--is the headwaters for Brewery Creek, a poor neglected urban creek that has mostly been shoved underground. It's above ground briefly just downhill of the Coppertop Church, then again just above 10th Street, once more behind the Co-op, then it empties into the lake by Fitger's Brewery. That little pond may also be what's left of the "ancient lake" mentioned in this DNT article. (I haven't explored Duluth Heights enough to know if there's another lake or pond further to the east; there's certainly wetlands.) The pond could also be the headwaters for Buckingham Creek, and according to that DNT article, Brewery and Buckingham once both flowed from the same source (and were once trout streams! can you imagine?).

At any rate, the Antenna Farm woods is an example of what that part of town looked like before it was all mall and sprawl. One of the things that fascinates me most about natural history is just that--the history of natural places. What did the land beneath me right now look like before 1886 when my house was built? What did downtown look like before it was buried under concrete? What did the mall look like before it was the mall? The towers on the Antenna Farm do uglify the area, and radio tower cause havoc with bird migration, but at the same time building radio antennas has saved the land from even worse development, like dredging and filling and franchise building. Even with the radio interference, nature is trying to find a way to make do anyway, and the woods around the Antenna Farm offer a rare view of what this portion of Duluth used to be before white people came in and tore it all up.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

raptor day

Today must be Raptor Day in the Central Hillside. Around noon I stepped outside briefly and saw at least five (and probably more, it was hard to keep track) bald eagles circling overhead, coming over the hill and drifting slowly up the shore. Two of them flew directly over my house, so I can now legitimately add "bald eagle" to my yard list. There was also one red tailed hawk, although he did not come close enough to my property to count for the list.

Later, I was working on the computer when I heard a high-pitched whinny outside, which tickled at the back of my brain: "I know that, that's a Good Bird." But it took hearing it a second time, and seeing a fast-moving shadow flash by my window to recognize it as a merlin. I had a merlin very briefly in the yard last November, but haven't seen one since. I got off the computer and went outside with my binoculars, but although I could hear him in the neighborhood, I couldn't see him.

Monday, March 22, 2010

sparrow season

Today under my feeders there were three, possibly four juncos poking around for seeds and squabbling over prime patches of grass. They were all dark, dark gray, so probably all males. The boys and girls spend the winter apart, and the boys are the first to move back up north to stake out their territories. Some juncos stick around all winter in Duluth, but I haven't had any in the yard since December, and these are my first sparrows of spring. My yard is kind of bare right now, and over the winter all I've gotten at the feeder are chickadees and the occasional nuthatch, so the start of sparrow season is a cause for celebration.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


There's an old bird nest on one of the beams of my back porch, and today a house finch couple was thinking about taking it over. The boy flew into the nest to investigate and occasionally chipped to the girl finch, who was perched in a nearby lilac and seemed to be calling out instructions to him. They've been singing in the yard for the past two or three days.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


I probably shouldn't be confessing my erosion-causing sins on a public forum, but: today I went walking on the muddy trails in an around Lester Park. In fact, I chose that area specifically because it has some swampy spots, and I wanted to see if there was any skunk cabbage. Greentangle saw skunk cabbage last week in New England, which is not all that climatically different than Duluth, but I did not have any such luck. It has been a weirdly warm spring, but it might still be too early here. The shallower vernal pools are completely thawed, but the deeper ones are still icy. There's still ice in the smaller, shadier creeks, too, although both Lester River and Amity Creek are both churning, muddy and dangerous.

Strawberries, marsh marigolds and other forbs, plus a few ferns, are starting to green up, and the tree buds are swelling, but the landscape is still mostly brown. Temps have been in the 40s or 50s for two weeks (hitting 60, a record high, earlier this week) and the snow is almost completely gone now except for a few gritty drifts that look out of place.

In the woods, I saw one robin around for grub, and of course there was the usual crowds of chickadees and nuthatches. I heard a woodpecker drumming in the distance once, and a few hours later heard a pileated call. Waxwings were briefly heard but not seen. Three bald eagles (two adult and one juvenile) were cruising over the main branch of Amity, and I flushed a grouse while walking through the birch and hemlock woods at the far northern reaches of the ski trails in Lester. When I was at Northland I kicked up grouse at least semi-regularly, but I rarely get to see them here in Duluth. It's always a thrill to be jolted out of your own thought by that explosion of wings in the trees.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Thunder, lightning, hail and rain today, temps in the upper 30s. After spending most of the day staring at a screen, I had to go outside and see what Lake Superior was up to. Even though it's only a few blocks, I could still feel the wind noticeably pick up the closer I got to the water. Ice is pushed up into the corner of the lake, and all you can see at the shoreline is mildly pulsing slush. A little further up the shore, ice chunks noisily clatter against each other, and further up the shore yet the open water is churning up seven foot waves and lots of smaller white caps. The spray on the rocks is building up into thick, opaque ice formations, and the gusts are at times almost strong enough that I can lean all my weight into the wind.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

state of the pussy willows

Pussy willows are currently adorably fuzzy, like little bunny tails all in a row.

Also adorable today: chickadees drinking from the puddle of snowmelt underneath my lilacs. Chickadees in general are singing their "spring" song now (fee-bee, fee-bee), but you have to take that with a grain of salt, because they'll actually do that all year round.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

stick a fork in it

The snow is quickly melting after a week of temperatures in the 30s and 40s (and today it nearly got to 50). In exposed, south-facing spots in my yard, dandelions, plantain, clover and other lawn herbs (we'll call them that rather than weeds) are coming up. Another week of weather like this and I can pick myself a salad.

My compost pile has melted enough that I can turn it for the first time this year. (I started it in November, so it didn't have time to heat up before winter came and it froze solid.) And the compost is beautiful, despite the fact that I've done nothing to it all winter except dump kitchen waste in. All this warm weather makes me want to go work in the garden, but it'll be another month or two before I can start doing anything outside.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


I like to lean on the railing on Skyline Drive and look into the steep, wide ravine of Chester Park pierced with tall conifers and birch, and above it a wide expanse of blue sky. Behind me, cars zip along Skyline, presumably "taking in the view" at 30+ miles per hour, and joggers and power walkers pump along the sidewalk for their daily exercise. After they pass me, half of them glance over their shoulder trying to figure out what I'm looking at, probably expecting to see something extraordinary--moose gamboling in the woods or a bald eagle plucking a trout out of the creek--as if the park itself isn't enough.