Journal archives for January 2017

January 02, 2017

Black-capped Chickadee

The congenial chickadee, certainly one of Minnesota's mainstay birds during the winter and a splendid way to start off the new year on iNaturalist. This bird has been one of my personal favorites since childhood. As evidence of this long-standing admiration, around thirty years ago, as a college student, I made a bookmark, which I still have and use, from a piece of birchbark, adding a simple ink drawing of a chickadee and this tiny, two-line poem by Henry David Thoreau (with his spelling).

The chicadee
Hops near to me.

Collected Poems of Henry Thoreau (The Johns Hopkins Press, 1965)

Posted on January 02, 2017 05:04 by scottking scottking | 1 observations | 2 comments | Leave a comment

January 03, 2017

I Went For A Walk In The River

With the temperature hovering right around freezing, it made sense to take advantage of the warm weather and do something ambitious. I decided to go for a walk in the river. In Northfield I see that the Cannon River is entirely frozen, but at successive crossings the river begins to open, black slices of rushing water divide iced-over expanses from the snow-covered banks. And when I park at the canoe landing some miles further upstream the river is nearly free of ice.

Clear, cold, flowing swiftly due to last weeks unusual winter rains, I hesitate to enter into the water. Once in, the force of moving water grabs my legs (and my attention!) and I quickly determine the boundaries beyond which I should not step.

I kick-net for half an hour. Using a net is one way to explore an otherwise unreachable reality. The surprise and immediacy of netting some unfamiliar animal is exhilarating, and almost as fantastical as being able to reach through the night sky and pull down a star or two for close observation. I peek into the net and examine each haul, then empty the contents onto the shore ice, picking through the catch. Though I'd come looking for dragonflies, I find instead a variety of other wonders: Blackside Darters, Midwest Salmonfly larvae, Watersnipe Fly maggots, crayfish, caddisflies, and scuds.

Here are the opening lines of a favorite long poem that sprang to mind today when I was "summoned" to the river:

I went for a walk by the river,
summoned by a drift or turn in the air,
unsure I didn't hear a flock
of ghostly birds disturb the trees.
Or perhaps it was the hollow whirls of water,
vortexes turning on emptiness,
that called me.

– Dale Jacobson, A Walk By The River (Red Dragonfly Press, 2004)

Posted on January 03, 2017 05:43 by scottking scottking | 9 observations | 1 comments | Leave a comment

January 04, 2017

Above The Snow

Tuesday, January 3, 1854—one hundred and sixty three years ago to the day—Henry David Thoreau had this to say about the winter in Concord, Massachusetts: "It is now fairly winter. We have passed the line, have put the autumn behind us, have forgotten what these withered herbs that rise above the snow here and there are, what flowers they ever bore." He overstates a little; just four days later he will describe in knowing detail the spidery seeds of the Gray Goldenrod as they spread across the snow, but I certainly understand how the memory of color begins to slip away at this time of year. It's mainly a black and white season, with the light-absorbing shadows and long dark nights predominating.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017—12 degrees F with winds over 20 mph, putting the windchill well below zero. So only a short hike in the St Olaf Natural Lands today, maybe twenty minutes out and back. The wind turbine overlooking the big pond emits a rather disagreeable noise, slicing the dense winter air, an intermittent whoosh as though a giant was jumping rope slowly. At the far end of the pond a college student (I assume!) has cleared a speed skating track and is skating laps in his lycra suit. He has to be cold! I follow the shore a short distance then cut into the woods to escape the wind. Ice from yesterday's freezing rain glistens on branches. Overnight, the rain changed to wet snow which had frozen solid by morning. Now the "withered herbs that rise above the snow" holds a burden of frost and spattered flakes, a beautiful rime decorates the remains of last years flowers. The red bark of the dogwood catches my eye as I pass. Then, just as I turn toward the parking lot, I notice the bare thorny branches of a hawthorn. Hidden some distance off trail, I look forward to revisiting this tree when it blooms this coming spring.

Posted on January 04, 2017 05:21 by scottking scottking | 2 observations | 2 comments | Leave a comment

January 05, 2017

Metaphors

Edwin Way Teale, increasingly forgotten and unread nowadays, wrote many wonderful books. In 1966, Wandering Through Winter, the fourth in a series of seasonal travelogues, won the Pulitzer Prize. Both naturalist and photographer, he was in many ways a brilliant predecessor to those of us involved with iNaturalist. For instance, his Circle of the Seasons: The Journal of a Naturalist's Year (1953) collects his written nature observations for each day of one entire year.

Interestingly, his entry for this day, January 4th, refers to the common image of the new year being a blank book yet to be written. He continues, "Nature's year is also a book to be written." From the perspective of midwinter, the year's entire story is yet to come. Extending that metaphor, the previous year has been printed and bound, and these sparse winter days stand equivalent to the blank pages between the end of the text and the back cover, a little quiet space for contemplation, a pause.

I like the idea that the end is past and that the beginning yet to come. Standing near the center of a frozen pond at the still point of the turning year, the temperature at mid day exactly zero degrees, I pause momentarily. Like a hand clutching many different sized rings together, this particular point in time arrives at a unique convergence of many natural cycles—diurnal cycles, seasonal cycles, climactic cycles caused by solar orbit wobbles, and so forth. I might even be standing at the cross that marks the very center of some great unregistered infinity sign. I move on. My attention drawn back from the music of the spheres to the surface of the pond, I follow a line of fox prints toward the shore. Whether it was a Red Fox or a Grey Fox can no longer be determined; its presence both recorded and erased.

A number of years later, Teale would improve upon the idea of the year being a circle, a simple lap to be run, when he published A Walk through the Year (1978). The metaphor becomes a little less abstract, richer in detail and surprise whether we envision a simple daily walk or an extended journey. Of course there are other metaphors we might consider. The year might be considered to be a labyrinth, where we enter get lost and, with any luck, find a way back to the start. Or the combination of circles and time that creates spiral- or helix-shaped years. Or the motion of waves—crest to trough to crest we might drift through the years. Take your pick.

Posted on January 05, 2017 04:46 by scottking scottking | 1 observations | 2 comments | Leave a comment

January 06, 2017

Embracing the Cold

According to E. C. Pielou, in After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America, the timing is such that we are nearing the end of the current interglacial period, that the earth should be due to enter into its next period of glaciation, that the continental ice sheets are scheduled to return. However, the change that humankind is effecting and will effect upon the climate may break those predictions, dramatically, even tragically. No longer must we consider time periods tens of thousands of years long, rapid climate change is occurring on a scale of centuries and decades. Based upon ice core data, "The baseline CO2 value for interglacials is approximately 290 parts per million. On 9th May 2013 the concentration of atmospheric CO2 exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time since the balmy conditions of the Pliocene when the sea level was more than 20 m higher than today." (quote from The Ice Age: A Very Short Introduction by Jamie Woodward)

Strangely serendipitous reading this morning led me to the following passage in The First Wash of Spring by Scottish writer George Mackay Brown, a comment upon on a series of mild winters in the Orkney Islands in January of 1993. "Let's hope it's only laziness or indifference, up there with the snow giants in North Greenland or Spitzbergen, and not something more sinister, like global warming or the greenhouse effect, that's pared their teeth or their claws, or curbed their ferocious gleefulness. For, however we dislike snow and blizzards, to be walking mouth deep in a tepid ever-rising sea is too hideous to think about."

This morning the temperature was -7 degrees F, nine degrees below average for this date. Granted the temperature on any given day doesn't mean much in the greater scheme of things, but it does cross my mind, during truly cold weather, that these cold days may become rarer, that I should embrace the cold and enjoy it while it lasts. An odd sentiment, to view these below zero days as a special occasion or gift, but I give it a go and bundle up—long underwear, snow pants, wool hat, layers, and heavy winter boots—for a midwinter hike at the local Arboretum. It's colder than yesterday's hike. Mallards huddle in what little open water remains. Wisps of frozen white vapor drift around them and above them. I follow a faint set of mink tracks to the entrance of a hole among the roots of a stream-side tree. I study the same large bird tracks I studied yesterday, either Bald Eagle or a Heron that didn't make it south. The sun drops below the horizon and snow turns blue before I leave. More than anything, I'm happy I didn't stay inside.

Posted on January 06, 2017 05:28 by scottking scottking | 2 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

January 07, 2017

A Few Recalcitrant Robins

The cold weather continues. And for the third day in a row I visit the Cowling Arboretum for a short afternoon hike. It's sunny and a few degrees above freezing at 3 pm. This morning, however, the temperature dipped to -10 degrees F and as a result there's even less open water than yesterday. The number of Mallards congregating in the flowing water of the creek has increased or it's the same number more concentrated. Jagged ice flows, jammed and jumbled at the confluence of two swift channels in the Cannon River, give the scene a truly arctic cast. And at one point amid slabs of frozen water tilted vertically forming white and blue fins a black branch juts up as though some explorer had planted it there. I take a second look half expecting to see a flag attached at the top.

Across the main channel, arrayed along the lip of ice edging the moving water, a flock of American Robins perches and drinks. I'm always a little surprised to see these birds midwinter. But then again I do see them most winters here in Northfied. According to The Birds of Minnesota (1932) by T. S. Roberts, Robins do winter in Minnesota "in limited numbers, chiefly in sheltered places, in the southern part of the state." So while the vast majority have moved on to warmer climes, a recalcitrant few tough it out here in the north.

Here are a few apt lines by Welsh poet Gillian Clarke from her winterish collection, Ice (2012), and the poem 'Winter':

The river froze, and broke, and froze,
its heart slowed in its cage,
the moon a stone
in its throat.

Posted on January 07, 2017 03:56 by scottking scottking | 2 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

January 08, 2017

The Prairie Loop

Lisa joined me on today's outing. After nearly nine hours of volleyball spectatoring and family, we took the dog and headed for a short hike around the big pond at the St Olaf Natural Lands. We've hiked this loop many times, out along the wooded south side of the pond then back through the wide open restored prairie. Today may well have been one of the colder visits, but the prairie colors in winter were rich and vibrant and worth the wind-bitten nose and cheeks.

As we walked out onto the prairie our dog ran some distance ahead then stopped. It appeared, at first, the two other big dogs were joining him. Only they weren't dogs. A pair of White-tailed Deer walked directly toward the dog and us, stopping at a distance of about thirty yards. The deer stretched their necks, raising their heads and focusing their ears until they suddenly realized what company they'd fallen in with. One bounded away and then the other, white-tailing it through the tallgrass prairie.

Driving home we crossed campus. And just as we were commenting that we'd seen not a single bird on this hike, Lisa spotted a Red-tailed Hawk. The hawk was perched low in a tree directly over a sidewalk. I took a few hurried photos out the car window, with the view cluttered by branches. Despite the obstructed, I was pleased and considered it a triumph since it was the first hawk I'd ever managed to photograph.

Posted on January 08, 2017 05:04 by scottking scottking | 3 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

January 09, 2017

What a Lichenist He Must Be!

Thoreau never had to journey via freeway, zipping place to place at seventy miles per hour. This thought crosses my mind today, while on our way to visit friends in a western suburb of Minneapolis, an eighty-five mile round trip from our home in Northfield. As a result of traveling and visiting, outdoor time was limited to an afternoon dog walk, joined by our friends and their dogs.

Unfortunately, it was one of those bare midwinter days when the world seems worn through and bereft of anything vibrant, reduced almost entirely to inanimate elements. And in the suburbs where we walked today those elements consisted of asphalt streets white and dusty from road salt, spills and spatters of coarse-grained sidewalk salt, silent slips of ice, snow, inanimate houses, dormant trees, and cars, lots of cars. Luckily, the company was good and the dogs were happy.

During our walk we get a glimpse of a woodpecker high in a tree. Then for a while a few of us did our best to name the winter trees along the way. At one point we stopped to examine several dead branches arching above the sidewalk, the undersides of the branches encrusted with Polypore fungi. Near the end of our walk a noisy throng of House Sparrows craftily flew and hopped inside the thicket of a yardside hedge.

That distant glimpse of a woodpecker would be as close as I'd come to matching Thoreau's observation for this same date:

"Stood within a rod of a downy woodpecker on an apple tree. How curious and exciting the blood-red spot on its hindhead! I ask why it is there, but no answer is rendered by these snow-clad fields. It is so close to the bark I do not see its feet. It looks behind as if it had on a black cassock open behind and showing a white undergarment between the shoulders and down the back. It is briskly and incessantly tapping all round the dead limbs, but rarely twice in a place, as if to sound the tree and so see if it has any worm in it, or perchance to start them. How much he deals with the bark of trees, all his life long tapping and inspecting it! He it is that scatters those fragments of bark and lichens about on the snow at the base of trees. What a lichenist he must be! Or rather, perhaps it is fungi makes his favorite study, for he deals most with dead limbs. How briskly he glides up or drops himself down a limb, creeping round and round, and hopping from limb to limb, and now flitting with a rippling sound of his wings to another tree!" – Henry David Thoreau, Journals (Sunday, January 8, 1854)

Posted on January 09, 2017 05:15 by scottking scottking | 3 observations | 2 comments | Leave a comment

January 10, 2017

The Shadow of a Smell

Today I walked for close to an hour at the St Olaf Natural Lands, enjoying the somewhat milder weather—the temperature near twenty above, the wind stiff but not piercing, the skies overcast and only just beginning to let loose tiny snowflakes (there'd be a lot more in the afternoon). I thought for sure I'd see a few birds today but I didn't, not a single bird. It might be the time of year. It might be that they're all hanging out near bird feeders in town. Or, suddenly aware of the sound of the wind turbine overhead, it might be that the noise and motion of the wind turbine blades makes the land in its immediate vicinity disagreeable. Looking up at the turbine I notice (with some amount of concern) a giant black mark that snakes from the hub of the turbine half-way down the length of one blade. How many gallons of oil does it take to make a mark that large!?

Most of my walk is through and around two cattail wetlands. The first wetland is choked with cattails. The second is more diverse with areas of other vegetation and more water and currently home to a thriving population of muskrats. There are at least a half-dozen push-ups of various size scattered around the wetland. Seeing the muskrat popups, I flashed back to the lethal young naturalist I was as a child. For several years I as a teenager I trapped muskrats, quite successfully.

I remember the red plastic snow sled I pulled for miles along various trap lines. In the sled, a hardwood pack basket held traps and stakes for making the sets. I also brought along a hatchet (which I still have), an ice chisel, and large black rubber gloves for reaching inside the muskrat houses and working in the water. Not a glamorous picture, probably. But I guarantee you I thought it was as exciting. And I logged an extraordinary number of hours outside.

I could go on. For this memory leads me to wonder what I did with all the bodies. I know that I did the work of skinning and stretching the trapped muskrats myself, but I can’t remember doing it. Though as I try to remember more, the shadow of a smell stirs and rolls over in its slumber, somewhere down deep in a back corner of my mind. So I think I’ll stop here before it wakes fully.

Posted on January 10, 2017 05:31 by scottking scottking | 3 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

January 11, 2017

Snowed In

Today it snowed, from the morning to early afternoon. And the time I'd allowed for a walk was needed for shoveling. So no outdoors photo for today. To make up for it, I decided to open up a goldenrod gall gathered from the prairie during a walk a few days ago. Inside I found a flaccid, unfreezable little blob. Not much to look at, and yet this nondescript larva is part of a remarkable life cycle. It weathers winter inside its vegetable capsule, not unlike us humans inside our wooden houses, except the gall fly larva doesn't have central heating. It survives by removing water from its body and by producing the antifreeze glycerol.

At some point, late winter or early spring, the larva will pupate and the adult fly will emerge a few weeks after, just as the goldenrod begins to grow in late spring.

Posted on January 11, 2017 04:44 by scottking scottking | 1 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment