Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hartley frogs, revisted

As nice as my last trip to Hartley to monitor the frogs was, even nicer is going on a similar hike with a friend who is smarter and more observant than me, because that way I see things like a spotted sandpiper on the rocks by the big pond and an osprey fishing overhead (okay, I probably would have noticed the osprey on my own). She was also able to identify that the flutey hooting noise that I heard last time and that we heard again tonight as a snipe, plus she ID'ed by song several warblers in the woods earlier in the evening (yellow, yellowthroat, ovenbird and redstart) and later, outside the park in a rich people neighborhood, a barred owl.

Being a writer is kind of a curious occupation, because readers sometimes assume that you are an expert in whatever has been published with your name attached to it. For instance, I've had some people read the content dreck that I've written for quick cash and assume that I know a lot more about gardening or nutrition than I actually do, and the same goes for naturey stuff (which I do take more seriously than content dreck). But really, I am a rank amateur naturalist, I am a nerd with field guides, and almost everything I know I learned from books or from my friend C.

Starflower, trilliums and bunchberries all flowering now, and the wild apple trees are strewing petals in the trail. Right at dusk, we saw two bats snatching bugs overhead--the first bats either of us have seen in along time. And, once again, the frogs did not disappoint. Upon entering the marsh, we spoke in hushed tones, walked slowly and stopped often, listening to the peepers and tree frogs, but once we were in the thick of it we had to raise our voices just to be heard and we had to keep moving because the frog decibels were literally painful (I am not exaggerating when I say that my ears were actually ringing slightly when we got back into the woods). And all the while the frogs kept on singing and singing and singing, seemingly oblivious to the lumbering mammals shuffling over the boardwalks.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

house finch update

The baby house finches, meanwhile, are getting really big, really fast. I only noticed the babies for sure a week ago on the 9th (there was some activity on Friday the 7th, but I couldn't clearly see what; that was also the day of the freak blizzard). And then today suddenly they are big enough that one of them accidentally fledged. The babies hadn't previously been bothered by me using the back door, so I was putting some plants outside, and one of the babies was sitting up and looking at me, so I stood there a while and looked at it. I finished up with my plants, but then when I opened up the back door again the baby got scared and sort of jumped/fluttered to the ground. The official protocol is that if a baby bird can fly, even just a little bit, that you're supposed to leave him be and the parents will keep taking care of it, but I felt bad for being the one to scare him off, so I put on gloves, caught him (once on the ground he could only flutter away a few inches at a time) and dropped him off back on the rafter.

I'm kind of surprised that the babies made it this far, since the parents don't seem to be particularly attentive. The mom was on the nest almost constantly when she was incubating, but then after the babies hatched she's barely been on the nest at all--she flies in a couple times an hour to bring in a mouthful of grub for the little ones, and then flies off again. And before yesterday, I hadn't seen the dad at all during all of incubation and baby-rearing, and today and yesterday he's only dropped by a handful of times. Once he flew in just as the female was about to feed the babies, and she instead handed off the food to him, and he fed them; then another time I witnessed the exact opposite, the male fed the female who then fed the babies.
But most of the time the babies are on their own. As far as I'm aware, there were four when they hatched and there's still four now. And then the poor robins--who actually co-operate and co-parent effectively and are on the nest almost constantly--they're the ones getting harassed by predators.

Friday, May 14, 2010

more predator drama

I was fixing breakfast for the cats when there was suddenly a ruckus outside, a flock of robins attacking some predator near the nest (from the angle of the kitchen window, I cannot see the nest or the predator). This was more than just the nesting pair, this was at least eight robins all swooping and squawking. Soon, a crow flies off with what I am assuming is one of the baby robins in his mouth, and an army of adult robins go off after him.

Back at the homestead, I can hear a robin still sounding an alarm call either from the nest or the roof right above it, and there are several robin sentries posted on fences, sheds and wires around the yard. After a few minutes, the crow tries coming back, but before he even gets within a block of my house, four or five robins are on his tail and they chase him back down the hill.

Sentry robins continue to patrol the yard, and a couple of time a robin flies in to check on the nest, but things seem to be calming down, so I leave the kitchen for a minute to go get the newspaper. When I come back, there are robins and grackles sounding the alarm in the big spruce in my yard, and eventually they flush out a crow, and this time it's the grackles that chase him down the block. (Maybe the grackles have a nest in the spruce? Maybe the grackles just like a fight.)

A few minutes later, two crows fly in and perch on the wire across the alley, but neither of them must be the nest snatcher, because nobody pays them any mind and a few minutes later they fly off on their own.

Half an hour after this all started, the robins are pleasantly singing again, and I see one fly into the nest with a large earthworm. But I'm afraid the robin family is facing an uphill battle now; about an hour after the first incident I was upstairs and heard distressed robins, so I went to look out the window, and there's the crow again, being mobbed by half a dozen robins. Me approaching the window must've spooked him, because he took off again and the robins chased after him. A hour after that I went outside, and there is a robin hunkered down on the nest, and the nest itself looks undamaged. The only time I got a clear view of the babies, I saw two little heads with gaping maws, although there could have been more. There's one less now.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

hikes not spent alone

I took my friend C. out to the Antenna Farm today, and at her encouragement we walked down an ATV trail that I hadn't previously explored, which went through a very pretty birch woods with several small hills and valleys. At the pond, C. heard a pied-billed grebe (something I certainly wouldn't have been able to recognize by sound alone) and later saw a swamp sparrow. In the woods, there were many trilliums in bud (none blooming yet) and many blooming strawberries and yellow violets; a few anemones were flowering, and we saw one stalk of sessile bellwort. But look what else C. found:
Bloodroot! There were about 10 or 15 leaves, but no evidence of flowers or fruit, so either it hasn't flowered yet this year, or it's still too young to flower. C. says she's only seen bloodroot in the wild out by Spirit Mountain, and I've only seen it before in private gardens. (I'm told it's in Jay Cooke, too. Everything is in Jay Cooke--except easy access to public transportation.) Some of the Antenna Farm bloodroot is growing literally mere inches away from a muddy, rutted ATV trail.

The more time I spend in the Antenna Farm, the more protective I feel about it. If the radio towers must remain, I want the land around them to have some kind of official status, if not as parkland then at least as hiking/multipurpose trails. The Antenna Farm is just a big blank spot in the map, and being located as it is in the middle of the city between several busy roads, it's a prime spot for so-called "development." It makes me worry about who owns this land and what might happen to it in the future.

Saturday, May 8, 2010


I needn't have worried about the snow. Most of it was melted by 2 or 3 p.m., and according to my thermometer the high temp today was 52 F. My peas, spinach and peonies all pulled through with flying colors (I probably didn't need to cover them, but then when I uncovered them this morning, the robins appreciated the suddenly snow-free ground and immediately began pulling up worms), and one of the volunteer tulips even started to open its flower bud in the afternoon.

Later today, I went down to Park Point with some friends, and the stellata was just starting to bloom, and blueberry flowers lined the trail out near the end of the Point. Clintonia is on its way to flowering, and sarsaparilla is starting to open up its leaves. My hiking companions got at least seven wood ticks between them (I was hoping the snow would have killed off some of the ticks). There were children walking barefoot on the shore, and driving back there was a surfer crossing the street near the playground. If I'd slept through all of yesterday and this morning, I wouldn't have suspected that it ever snowed at all, unless I happened to look in the shadows on the side of my house.

Friday, May 7, 2010

a brisk spring day in Duluth

The last official snowfall in Duluth this year was on February 25, which meant that we were well on our way to having the first snow-less spring in recorded history. And then today happened.

As of this writing, there's about an inch of wet, heavy snow on the ground, and it's continuing to fall, although it is starting to taper off now. The temperature's been hovering right around freezing, and the wind has been wicked all day (and lucky me, I got to walk to the co-op and then back with 40 pounds of groceries on my shoulders).

When I checked this morning, my peas and spinach (which were planted on April 18 and were all sprouting nicely) looked a little shocked, and my poor peonies (which were putting out flower buds already) looked rather peaked. I covered them all up with tarps, plastic bags or old sheets, and it's supposed to warm up a little bit tomorrow, so we'll see what pulls through. The dandelions are all closed up, and even the creeping charlie looks a little withered. I have some volunteer tulips coming up in my yard, but they're still in bud, so they might be okay. A neighbor's tulips that were already blooming don't really look so hot any more.

The lilacs (also putting out flower buds) were looking a little droopy, but I think they'll pull through. Most fruit trees haven't flowered yet--both wild and domestic apples and cherries are still in bud--so they should all be fine. My neighbor's plum tree, however, was in full, perfect, spectacular bloom; it's positioned so that it's protected from the wind, at least, so I'm crossing my fingers for it on my neighbor's behalf.

The serviceberries just started blooming this past week, and since this is my first spring in the Central Hillside, I'm only noticing now how many of them there are in my neighborhood. Of all the flowering plants currently in bloom, the serviceberries seem to be the only ones taking the snowfall in stride.

It would be interesting to go kicking around the woods this weekend to see how the other native plants are doing. They are, I imagine, by and large well-adapted to a late spring snowfall, but it still worries me, and I'm worried about all the warblers and butterflies that are already out, and all the birds on the nest, and everything else. I can replant my peas and spinach if I need to, and anyway I'm not depending on them for my survival. Hopefully the birds and bugs and flowers are all as tough as serviceberries.

Monday, May 3, 2010

life and death in the Central Hillside

The merlins eventually decided against my spruce, but they are definitely nesting in the neighborhood, I think in a little grove of conifers about four blocks (as the merlin flies) from my house. A few weeks ago on a neighborhood walk I saw one perched at the very tippy-top of one of the trees, and the other flew out from the interior of that tree to another tree, and they seemed to be calling back and forth to each other.

In my yard, a pair of house finches have commandeered an old nest on one of the beams on my back porch, and a robin built a nest on the bat house I put up above my kitchen window. (That was not the intended effect of the bat house, but I guess wildlife is wildlife.) (I actually haven't seen a live bat in a long time, not this year yet and I don't recall seeing one last year, either.)

Today I was coming back from the dentist, and decided to cut through the alley and into the backyard so that I could check on my recently planted fruit trees. Just as I turned the corner into my yard, I saw one of the merlins fly up from my garden, not far from where I planted my spinach, with a dark bird not much smaller than him in his talons. I couldn't see any details of the victim, just a splay of black-grey feathers as the merlin flew off. There was a deeply distressed robin calling from my neighbor's chokecherry, and grackles and starlings making a ruckus in my spruce. I checked the garden, but there were no clues, not one feather or a drop of blood. But I'm guessing it was a robin, since they like to pick around the compost in my garden for grubs.

Ten minutes after I went inside, the backyard was quiet and idyllic again, pigeons and grackles at the birdfeeders, a robin singing and the house finch chirping to her mate. Forty five minutes later I went back outside, and there was a robin back on the bat house nest. So if it was a robin that got killed, it might not have been one of "mine." If I hadn't witnessed the merlin fly off with his prey, I would have had no idea that it had happened. I wonder how often the merlins are hunting in my yard.