Where The Wild Things Are- When Life Returns

Could it be? Could it really be spring? Tuesdays snow/sleet/rain/sunshine made it hard to tell, but it looks better from now on. The Sandhills are calling, the Bluebirds flying. I took a trip, only an hour or so west of here, and witnessed huge flocks of Snowgeese and Trumpeter Swans, struggling against headwinds. Greater Whitefronted geese were waiting it out in a flooded field, I estimated over 400 birds in that field alone. Here the flocks are small and scattered. The lakes are still frozen. The flooding on the river provides open water, but the currents are strong and more than most travel weary birds want to fight with. But the Kingfisher has returned to fly up and down the river, staking his claim for the summer. 

The only green out there is a few leaves left from last fall. Some plants produce their first rosettes in the fall, and then, when spring comes, they take advantage of the early sunlight to get a start before others can shade them out. Round Lobed Hepatica are one of these. They will be blooming soon, just blossoms inches off the ground, later more leaves will form. Pasque flowers are blooming in southern Minnesota already. I haven't had a chance to check on the local ones, but maybe this weekend I will get out there. They are hard to spot, fuzzy brown bits, close to the ground.Then pale purple flowers, also hugging the ground. 

When I get out in the woods I will be checking for the leatherwood blooming. It's tiny yellow flowers are some of the first in the shadier areas. 

There was a woolly bear caterpillar crawling along the road as I walked this morning. A few minutes later I saw a small moth flitting around. Yep. I do believe that it is spring. Get out there and enjoy it while it lasts!

Where the Wild Things Are- The Sounds of Spring

Spring is slowly starting it's appearance, but the snow is deep and will take a while to disappear. So what can we look for now that will speak of spring? Blackbirds! The males should be showing up in our area shortly and their calls will be loud as they fight over the best nesting areas and establish territories. The females are a couple weeks behind them. 

The other sound to listen for would be the sandhill cranes. It is hard to believe that they will come here with snow on the ground, but they are already in southern Minnesota. Their loud calls will give them away before you see them stalking around the muddy fields. 

I have been hearing and seeing ravens. They will also be searching for territories to nest. I think they might have nested in the pines (or that area) by Susie's cabin. Pay attention to where you see them the most, and we might be able to close in on the nesting area! 

My favorite sound of spring is the sound of running water. Small trickles, slow drips. I equate it to the thawing of the world and the return of life. Just sitting on a convenient fairly dry rock, eyes closed, face to the sun. The sound of melting winter soft in my ears. Could there be a better spring tonic?

Where The Wild Things Are - Spring is Coming!

So here we are, in the lion that is March. Still cold, still snowing. It is hard to imagine that spring will ever come, much less in a couple weeks. That being said, there are signs that it is on it's way. 

The chickadees have changed their calls from their normal "chickadee dee dee" to theirs spring calls of "fee bee". This call is used only by the males. They use it to communicate to other males their dominance and territory. So while we use it as a sign that spring can't be far away, they are gearing up to spring mating and nesting. 

Other birdy signs include the woodpeckers drumming. We have many species of woodpeckers around here and in the spring you will here the drumming of the Hairy, Downy, and Pileated. The juncos will be leaving soon, off for cooler climates to raise their young, while other migrants are working their way north.

Ducks and geese will soon be around, crowding around any open water they can find. They seem to push back the very edge of winter in their hurry to get north. The ice fishing houses need to be off the lakes now, indicating that the water is moving under the ice and soon it will be visible along edges and narrows. Creeks and rivers will be flowing. It doesn't take long to break apart even many inches of ice, between winds and melting.runoff.

The owls have mated and nested, and soon the eggs will hatch and round bundles of feathers will appear. Baby owls are soon easy to see, as they rapidly outgrow the nest. In a month they will be walking out on branches. Before they can fly they usually have to figure out how to climb back up to the nest after miss stepping and falling to other branches, or even the forest floor. The parents are very protective, but can do little if a larger predator attacks. If you see a nest, keep a good distance and use binoculars to observe. If you spook the adults away, crows have a good chance of seeing them, and either chasing them or attacking and killing the young. 

As the snow melts and the forest floor opens up, there will be already green leaves showing. A few plants, like the Round Lobed Hepatica, put out leaves in the fall that will help them capture the first rays of sunshine to support their very early blossoms. So, listen for the calls, look for the dripping of water, and sit in the sunshine as much as possible.Spring will come.

Where The Wild Things Are- A Voice For The Wild Things

Sometimes we read headlines, and although we are sympathetic to a cause, it can be far removed from our area, or deal with things that we don't feel we can change. So I thought that a look at what we do, as humans, to the area around us, and how that affects the fellow beings who live hear would be more appropriate.

At Camphill Village, you are at the forefront of sustainable living and agriculture. I wouldn't begin to tell you how to do that. As a voice for the wild things, I might be able to share their points of view in a way you hadn't thought of before. So lets begin.

Roads. We take them for granted. We need them to travel safely. We maintain them for the safe travel of everyone that lives here. What is the downside? For some creatures they are impassable barricades. If they leave the edges, the long grasses, they risk being lunch for any waiting predator. Some cannot crawl across the gravel. Some can cross, but when they do, they are at risk from traffic. Many turtles, frogs and other amphibians find themselves needing to get to the other side. They winter on one side of a road, and live in a pond on the other side in the summer. We've all seen the results of bad timing. 

Fences. We need them to keep our livestock safe. To protect the crops. But the animals that move through that area to go to feeding and bedding areas, places to get to water, they can be bad news. Some are injured trying to go over or through them. Some get separated from others in their herd. Fences can force animals to go through spaces that are harmful to them, like roads. Young can get left behind when the adults move quickly to escape a predator and jump fences. 

"Cleaning up" woodlands, mowing yards. Lots of people like a nicely trimmed yard, or a woods that is park like, with trees for shade and no brush cluttering things up. This depletes the natural areas that are necessary for animals for eat, breed, raise their young and live their lives. Brush piles provide cover from predators. In most areas there is very little wild areas left. Most has been farmed (we need to eat!) and covered in houses, yards, and pavement. In my mind every square foot matters. 

Dead trees. They are such an important part of a natural ecosystem. So many animals use them for homes, or eat the insects that are busy recycling them. As they decay, they break down into nutrients that keep the forest alive.Discounting the actual soil, the dead trees have the most variety of life within them in the woods.

By looking at all of these parts of our world, we can slowly adjust our way of dealing with the fellow travelers on this planet. Small changes, in our own backyards, are just as important as other ways to protect our planet, maybe more, because we can do a little, everyday.

Where the Wild Things Are- Polar Vortex

What is there to talk about in January when we are having record setting cold? The weather of course! The polar vortex has come for a visit, making life more complicated for us. If you are like me you also wonder (and worry) about the animals out there. How do they survive through this bitter weather? Most just hunker down, finding shelter where ever they can, trying to be out of the wind. Food sources are what keep most going, burning lots of calories just to stay alive. Some will not make it, but that is the course of nature through the lives of most species. They, in turn, provide sustenance for others. 

While watching birds at my feeders (a perfect activity for cold weather) I was struck by how these tiny feathered creatures can thrive at thirty below. Why are they not just frozen lumps? They don't even huddle for warmth! So I went looking for answers...

First of all, their feet. Not a feather in sight! They stand on the snow, perch on cold metal. How do they do that? It turns out that they have a network of arteries called the rete mirabile (meaning wonderful net), that flows through their tiny bodies. The blood cools as it travels away from their hearts, not even trying to maintain heat in their feet. As it flows back to the heart, it is warmed again so that when it reaches the heart it is warm. Their arteries actually sink further into their bodies in the winter, providing extra protection from the cold. So why don't their feet just fall off? Because their lower feet and legs are designed to have almost no blood flow to them. They just don't need the blood to do much for the feet, so it doesn't matter if they are cold. Some species, such as water fowl, while sit with their feet tucked up under them. As long as well meaning humans don't make them move too much, they can maintain their warmth, even on ice. 

One species, that comes here for the winter from the north, uses their metabolism to stay alive Pine Siskins can increase their metabolism up to 40% higher than other birds their size. When in extreme cold (down to -70) they can accelerate up to 5x normal for several hours. Now that takes a lot of calories to burn. So how do they find that much food in the dead of winter? They have managed for centuries to survive. They feed on pine seeds, available in the deepest snows. But they will come to feeders and eat also. 

So now we come to feeding the birds. There are studies out there that show people feeding birds can be beneficial for them. It can increase their survival rates and promote better breeding in the spring. Other studies show that it can increase disease by bringing together many birds to one spot that would never normally be close to each other. 

Like most things in the world, you need to weigh your options. Keep your feeders clean. Watch for signs of disease and clean more often if anything appears. Spread out your feeders so there is less crowding. Feed high quality food. I think that seeing the birds outside my windows on cold winter days is beneficial to my health and mental well being. Hopefully it helps them too. From the flocks that come, they seem to appreciate it! 

Pileated Woodpecker, one of the bigger birds that stop by...

Pileated Woodpecker, one of the bigger birds that stop by...

Where the Wild Things Are- January Roller Coaster

Here we are, still on the January roller coaster! Sub zero to above freezing, a slick coating of ice. When most think of winter, they are usually thinking of the two most beautiful winter weather phenomenon that we have. There is the gentle snowfall, covering the ground and trees with a fluffy clean white layer, that Christmas card perfect scene. Then there is hoarfrost. That magical shiny coating that coats everything. It doesn't last long, being subject to either warming temps or winter winds, but it is a thing of dreams when it is there. 

But how does it form? Why is it only there once and a while? Why doesn't it last, like the snow? Hopefully I can answer some of these questions for you.

The temperatures have to be just right for hoarfrost. It has to drop from above freezing to below, with the surface temps already below freezing before the air temps get there. There also has to be a substantial amount of moisture in the air, so days following a thaw are needed to allow that to build up. Sometimes a south wind can bring in some warmer moist air, but the ground must not warm up too much, or no hoarfrost. So we have moisture in the air, fog is the best, and ground that is frozen (below 32 degrees). Then the magic can happen.

The water vapor in the air condenses on the frozen surfaces, creating crystalline deposits...hoarfrost. This builds up as long as there is moisture in the air that is not turning into freezing rain or sleet, or rain. It can build up inches thick on objects, making for great photo opportunities when the sun comes out. If there is a wind during the build up it can affect how it is built up, forming on the downwind side of objects. A wind after it is formed, when the air is cold will quickly knock the fragile crystals to the ground. 

The other nemesis would be warming temps. Sunshine warming it up just enough to turn them all to liquid again. So it is a combination of moisture, temperatures and wind. So take advantage of it when those rare times occur, especially when followed by sunshine, to try your hand at photography! It is hard to go wrong when there is magic in the air, or on the ground!


Where the Wild Things Are- Minnesota Weather Rollercoaster

As we welcome the New Year, we also welcomed the rollercoaster that is a Minnesota winter. Heavy snow cover last week after months of hardly any. Fifteen to twenty below zero. High winds. Overcast, and then blazing sun. And now the warmer temps we have all been waiting for. It is hard on us, with our central heating, well insulated houses and machines to dig out the roads and paths. It is even harder to understand how the wild ones can even survive, much less thrive in this weather!

With this deep snow, the game has changed for many. Smaller animals find places to make runways under logs and brush, giving them a protected space to hunt for seeds and other food. Mid-sized animals, foxes, mink, rabbits, are finding the going more challenging. It is such a fluffy snow that they sink down into it. If it develops a crust (if it melts in the next few days) they may find the going easier on top. Larger animals like deer and coyotes can push through the fluff, but it is hard work, burning more calories. The wind has created spots where the grasses are less covered so the deer can find browse, but as it builds up over the winter and forms harder crusts, the deer find it more challenging. Personally I am hoping for a crust so I can walk in my snowshoes. Currently they just sink in as far as my boots do. 

The snow helps insulate in the bitter cold, giving animals protection from the cold and wind. As long as the snow doesn't crust over, pheasants and grouse will be popping out of snowbanks, heading for the cedar trees for food and shelter. 

So after temps like we had over New Year, the question pops up "Where is global warming when we need it?" If you have lived around here for many years, you have seen the changes. It seems like there is an earlier winter, less snow, and then spring is all over the place, some years early, some years nonexistent. Climate change is a better term. Looking at the bigger picture, over years, not seasons, the changes are obvious for the planet. Around here, when we are twenty below, our windows frost over and it is harder to see it.

Where the Wild Things Are- Forest Bathing

I saw a brief glimpse of the sun, the other day. I can still recall the warmth on my face. But there is more to nature than just getting sunlight. In the depths of cold air and lack of growing things I spend less time in the woods, more in reading about the woods and scrolling through photos of the past spring, summer and fall. The latest book was called "The Nature Fix" by Florence Williams. It was all about why people feel better in general after spending time in nature. She didn't have to convince me! For those who don't think it makes a difference, you might be right also. Studies have shown (yes, there are actual studies) that about 15% of the population isn't affected by being out in nature. It doesn't do anything for them. 

But let's talk about the other 85%. You may have heard of forest bathing. It is what they call spending time in nature in Japan and other countries in that area. Other countries around the world are also studying what makes us healthier and happier. The book goes into great detail on how the studies are done and what exactly they prove. The only real question seems to be is how much is enough.

Just having a green space to look at through a window can help. It relieves stress and calms people down. Spending time walking through a green area is even better. The results last for hours, even days. What is a green area? Scientists are asking that same question. So they tested individuals in city areas, in city parks, and in less groomed, wilder places. For a lot of people the city parks improved their well being, but it did depend on how many other humans were in the park and the other things that were occurring. High noise levels from traffic and buildings made it less likely that people felt calmer. Crime rates were also a factor. It is hard to  mellow out when you are afraid of being mugged or worse! 

So quieter, wilder areas were mostly the preferred forest bathing venues. Unless you were talking to someone who was afraid of bugs, bears, and weather. So how long did they find you should be out there? That varied widely with the culture. A little as a 15 minute walk several times a week, to a whole week a couple times a year were discussed. Most agreed that the longer lasting benefits came from 30 or more minutes a couple of times a week. Any is better than none.

Time spend unplugged, away from stress is beneficial to everyone.In Camphill this is seen in the life style. There are still many stressors in any life, but the rural, connected to the earth, environment helps us cope. 

The thing we all should be concerned about is that (in another study) it was found that children are not spending time outdoors, just playing. Only 10% get outside to play. Most are using technology for hours a day. It is time for an intervention. Drag a kid outdoors with you. And don't forget to treat yourself to outdoor time without the kid...

Where The Wild Things Are- First Time Visitors

 Some times it feels like the best source of entertainment is my bird feeder. A little seed and suet and the circus comes to visit. Blue Jays come, eat all they can hold, and then leave. Juncos, Goldfinches and Chickadees are either constantly eating, or constantly being replaced by others of their sort. It is impossible to tell one from the other. Woodpeckers, usually Downy and Hairys squabble over the suet feeders, eating the sunflower seeds while waiting their turn to dart in and score some suet. The Pileated come in stealth mode, hiding behind tree trunks until he (she) deems it safe to come in. The slightest hint of danger and off they go again. 

There is always a debate in the bird world about the correct way to say pileated. Some say it is pie lated, others prefer pill e ated. It seems that if you know Latin, or have friends who do, that pil is the way to go. I have to wonder if using a dead language, that no one actually speaks, for basing a verbal pronunciation on is a good idea. I know that some people "speak" it now, in churches, and scientific communities, but as a society language I believe it only lived on in written form for a long time. So we are just guessing how they would of said it. Add in a midwestern American accent, and who knows? Maybe we should just name it the Pterodactyl Woodpecker. Another Latin word we can (or not) pronounce.

The other day I had a first time  visitor to my feeders. I looked out and there was nothing to be seen. This usually means a predator has come by, looking for it's own food buffet. Sometimes it is a hawk, sometimes a cat. That day it was a Northern Shrike. A Robin sized bird, with rather plain grey, white and black plummage, it doesn't seem that remarkable. But the little birds fear it just as much as the larger dangers. It swoops in fast and furious and grabs small birds and rodents. It doesn't just hunt when it is hungry, it stockpiles it's prey for later consumption by impaling it on thorns. Not the prettiest sight to see when out for a wintery stroll. There is another shrike, around in the summertime, that does the same thing, the Loggerhead Shrike. In all my time out walking I have never noticed any of these impaled bird kabobs. The Shrikes are not numerous, and like any predator, they have their territory which they don't like to share. This is only the third Shrike I have seen in my life. So if you see a robin sized bird, and find yourself thinking "That was a weird Blue Jay" you may have seen this elusive creature. Now to go out looking for bird or mouse kabobs....


Where The Wild Things Are- Vole in The House

Snow. Light and fluffy, it covers the ground. The slightest wind carries it aloft, dropping it softly once again. Another day and the sun has returned. Now the snow begins it's journey back into water. First, wherever a dark branch or stalk rises above the snow, the heat collects. A drop trickles down. The snow it touches wavers between frozen and thawed for a brief moment, then it too becomes a drop. Soon slush sits on the yet unfrozen ground. If the sun stays long enough and the temperature hovers above 32 degrees, it will soon be mostly gone. Always a few shaded, deeper areas of snow seem to resist. Maybe they will soften, but still be there when night falls along with the temperature.Tomorrow it may melt again. It seems the only beings who really care are the humans. 

The animals go about their business. Unless it is a deep snowfall that hinders the travels of the long legged deer, their lives go on. 

I had a vole in my house the other night. You would think with multiple cats and a dog in the house, that it didn't stand a chance. You would be wrong. It wandered down the hallway, into bedrooms, across the living room, stopped for a drink at the water dish, all followed by a cat or two. They took turns escorting this little visitor around. None would attack. They all knew that voles bite. The blind cat took the most interest. The sound of it moving around was enough for him to track it, occasionally batting at it with a paw. Everyone gradually lost interest and it wandered off. Then I read in one of my many books that voles can have up to 8 litters a year. Perhaps I have made a mistake in letting it wander in my house...