Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Alternative Thanksgiving

"Ice Agate" photo by A. McKamey
There’s no denying it. The holiday season is upon us.  There’s a light dusting of new snow, our outdoor lights are hung (thanks to a wonderfully warm day this past weekend), and our Thanksgiving dinner grocery list is growing longer by the minute.
Thinking of Thanksgiving reminds me of a Thanksgiving ten years ago when my husband and I decided to break with tradition and take the kids to Arizona – not to Glitzy Phoenix with its terrific restaurants and shopping malls, but to the Grand Canyon and Sedona.  The red rocks area around Sedona is achingly beautiful.  The views are incredible. The hiking is hard to beat. 

Ask our kids and they’ll tell you that trip was their favorite Thanksgiving ever.  Thanksgiving morning, we stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon in mittens, hats, and lots of layers (yes, it was that cold!) watching the condors soar on the updrafts.  We took turns stretching our arms far out to our sides.  None of us could match the wingspan of those giant birds. 

We joined a few other hearty souls at the trailhead and began our hike down into the canyon.  The path was rocky and dusty and, at times, very narrow, which made things a little tricky when the mule riders came through! The mules have the right of way on the canyon trails and hikers have to clear out of the way when the mules come through.

It was a beautiful blue sky day and the deeper into the canyon we went, the warmer it got.  Around each turn, the view changed and the light hit the canyon walls in a different way.  Breathtaking! We hiked all the way down the Bright Angel trail.
When it was time to hike back up and out, our younger daughter led the way, setting a pace that made her parents’ thighs burn.  (We joke now that she was getting back at us for all the hiking we made her do as a 4 year old in Yellowstone!) When finally we reached the canyon rim, we were famished – and there was a 2 hour wait for the restaurant serving turkey dinner with all the trimmings.

So our favorite Thanksgiving was a Thanksgiving without turkey.  We were too tired and hungry to wait for 2 hours.  We opted instead for the cafeteria, where we feasted on steaming bowls of chili with cornbread on the side.  It was delicious! Later that night, at our hotel, we wrapped up our Thanksgiving shooting pool with the kids and eating “bar food.”  No one cared that we’d missed out on a bigger, fancier meal.  We’d spent the day as we intended and loved it.  And we reveled in the fact that we had several more days of hiking, birding, and photography ahead of us.
All of which makes me nostalgic. We’ll have a wonderful Thanksgiving with family and friends this year, I know. But thinking of that trip makes me want to plan another Thanksgiving nature getaway.  Think of the possibilities - we could go hiking on Black Friday and spend Cyber Monday birding. 

Now that sounds like the way to kick off the holidays!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Filling the Feeders

The dip in temperatures this past weekend prompted us to ready the bird feeders for the winter.  We loaded up all of the suet feeders, which I’d only stocked infrequently over the summer, and moved two of our larger seed feeders up onto the back deck. Yes, seed will spill, and squirrels will gather below prompting endless barking by our dogs.  But moving these feeders closer to my office window and the back door ensures two things: wonderful winter bird viewing and easier access to the feeders when they need filling.  Come January, when it’s below freezing and the snow is thigh deep in the back yard those feeders will be much easier to fill if I can just dash out the back door.

We keep a few feeders further out in the yard, too, of course.  The smaller birds – the chickadees, nuthatches, finches, sparrows and downy woodpeckers – aren’t shy at all about coming up close to the house. But some of the other birds are wary.   Our back feeders draw the blue jays, hairy woodpeckers, and red-bellied woodpeckers, as well as the cardinal pairs who take turns feeding while their mates stand guard.  Refilling those feeders requires serious winter gear, though – no sprinting out the door in my slippers! 

Yesterday’s work has already paid off.  The smaller birds have adjusted to their feeder’s new location and a large hairy woodpecker was just out on the back suet feeder enjoying a meal.  I am keeping an eye out for the pileated woodpecker I saw last week while walking the dogs.  We’ve never had a pileated at our feeders, but maybe this one will pay a neighborly visit or two now that we’ve put out the welcome mat.

The colder temps are inevitable, as is the snow they’re forecasting for later this week. Lucky for me, visits from hungry winter birds are inevitable, too. As long as I keep the feeders full, that is.

Who wouldn’t!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Late to Migrate

Yesterday was a blustery day.  Autumn winds have blown many of the brightly colored leaves from the trees, covering the grass and walking paths (and tennis court fences, as seen here).

It was a day for hats and gloves and warm wool socks.
On our walk, we saw groups of ducks, grebes, and coots gathered on the lake, a familiar sight this time of year.  The lakes will ice over soon, so these birds need to fly south to open water.  They seem to do so begrudgingly each year, though, as they are always the last to go.
Well, almost always.
The surprise on yesterday’s walk was this blue heron.
“Shouldn’t he be long gone by now?” we wondered.

Not according to the Windstar Wildlife Institute.  
Apparently, although most blue herons favor warmer climates in the winter (like a lot of retired Minnesotans I know!), a few hearty birds winter as far north as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.  They can survive well in cold weather, especially if there is open water and they have access to fish. Some even stay on after streams freeze over, moving to meadows where they dine on voles and other small mammals.

But Minnesota?
Yesterday’s bird, undoubtedly, will move on soon.  He may outlast the ducks, grebes, and coots, but not for long. Everything will freeze over quite solidly here in the next month or so.  The meadow mice and voles will take shelter in below-the-snow tunnels.  

So he’ll have to go – no question.  We’ll look forward to his return next spring.
He may be late to migrate. Or maybe he’s just like the rest of us - stubbornly clinging to what’s left of the warm weather. 

It’s a familiar quandary for all of us who live this far north – not just yesterday’s heron.

Monday, October 20, 2014

When Fall Colors Pique Your Interest

This past weekend was a fall foliage delight.  The colors were at their peak, the skies were a gorgeous blue, and weekend temperatures were in that perfect “no jacket required” range (although a sweatshirt was recommended).  It was impossible to stay inside.  Long walks through a city neighborhood and a local park yielded these photos.  

The walks also made me wonder why the colors are so vivid this year.  Some years, the colors are so washed out.  But this year, even the oaks whose leaves are generally brown, old, and worn, are wearing red.

The United States National Arboretum provides an excellent explanation of the science of color in Autumn leaves on its website.

Do you have younger readers at your house amazed by this year’s stunning fall colors, too? If so, here’s a great list of “Fall Books for Kids” from the Books Kids Love website (including 2 beautiful ones by the amazing Lois Ehlert and 1 by a favorite Minnesota author, Linda Glaser).

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Mum's the word

We haven’t had a hard freeze yet, so it seems a shame to empty out all the pots of annual flowers that graced my front and back decks this summer. It’s time, though.  Daytime temps aren’t even climbing into the 60’s anymore. 
Most of my neighbors have already swapped out their annuals with potted mums of gold, orange, and cranberry red.  Cornstalks and pumpkins adorn other porches.  One neighbor has transformed his front yard into a Halloween “graveyard” with fake headstones, skeletons, spider webs and an honest to goodness hearse. (I don’t want to ask where he got that.)

The sun is lower in the sky. Shadows are longer. The down comforter is back on the bed.  And my basket of hats, gloves, and scarves stands at the ready in my entryway.

It’s time.
So I’ll empty the pots and scrub them clean.  I’ll store them in the garden shed with the patio furniture, hoses, sprinklers, and all the crazy pieces of garden art I’ve collected over the years.  I’ll sweep off the decks; mulch and rake the leaves. I’ll wrap my rhododendrons to protect them from winter hungry rabbits.

This weekend, I promise. I’ll take on all these autumn chores.
But first, I think I’ll go get some mums.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Changing of the guard

I finally took down the hummingbird feeders today.  I suspect the last of those tiny birds migrated through a while ago, but I always worry that one or two may have been waylaid, so the feeders stay up until October.  It wasn't really necessary to flip the calendar over to the new month this week to know that autumn had arrived and settled in.  This weekend's temperatures were almost 30 degrees colder than last weekend and the gray clouds crowding the horizon are the same clouds that will soon deliver snow. 

So I filled the seed feeders with plenty of black oil sunflower seed and hung a suet cake for my cold weather feathered friends: the chickadees and nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, cardinals and juncos. I look forward to the coming months with them. For ours is a reciprocal relationship. I put out a little seed and they, in turn, feed my soul all winter long.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Winter is Coming, Ned Stark

I live in a place where cold, snowy winters are a given. In fact, that’s what appeals to so many of my neighbors and friends. They ski, snowshoe, ice fish, ice skate. Winter is in their blood.
Even the heartiest of these winter loving souls was taken aback last winter, though. We shattered all kinds of cold weather records, including the longest consecutive stretch of winter days where the high temperature was still below zero. What’s worse is the Old Farmer’s Almanac is predicting more of the same for the coming winter. I expect a mass exodus of my snow loving friends to Arizona, Florida, and a whole host of tropical islands come January.

But let’s not look too far ahead. Today is one of those gorgeous autumn days that makes the upper Midwest a photographer’s paradise. The sky is blue, the leaves are turning, the air has just the right amount of bite in it that you need to keep a sweatshirt handy.

Autumn is my favorite time of year.
And winter? Well, we’ll deal with that when the time comes – we always do!