Monday, February 2, 2015

Official 2015 Twin Cities Groundhog's Day Report

Posted by Kirk Mona
The 2015 Report:

What a difference a year makes!


On Groundhog's Day 2014 we'd just pulled though yet another "Polar Vortex" and there were high snowdrifts everywhere. Here we are today and solid snow cover is hard to find anywhere in the Twin Cities.

Last year I took a new job at Lowry Nature Center in the west metro after a 12 year stint at Warner Nature Center in the east metro. This means that last year I missed out on seeing my old pal "Stuff Stanley" the groundhog of record for many of the Official Twin Cities Groundhog reports over the years. I decided this year to pay an early morning visit to Stanley to see if he saw his shadow. Did he? You'll have to watch the video to find out!






The official Twin Cities Groundhog Prediction:
Just like last year, the groundhog DID see his shadow in the Twin Cities so we have six more weeks of winter to look forward to. That's the story anyhow. Last year we had a huge warm-up right after Groundhog's day that saw us flirting with 50 degrees before plunging down again at the end of the month. This year could be a bit of the same. While the forecast calls for a few days near zero this week the longer range forecasts are looking at us going up near 40 degrees again. 


Personally I'm going to have to predict against the groundhog this year. We have very little snowfall and a warm spell in the 40s could melt what we do have away. Once the ground is exposed, the longer days and more direct sunlight we're getting are going to help warm up the ground and create  more warm days than cold days all things being the same. 

That's my personal prediction, we'll see who's right, me or a stuffed groundhog.

Background: 

What's the connection between Groundhogs, shadows and the seasons?

The connection is tenuous at best. Further south than Minnesota, male groundhogs do come out of hibernation early to scope out and check on their breeding territory. In Minnesota, February 2nd is usually too early for this to happen. Seeing the first groundhogs checking out their territory is surely a sign of spring though. Okay, but what does seeing a shadow have to do with it? The connection to shadows has to do with prevailing weather patterns. We often associate sunny days with warmth and the coming spring but sunny days in the winter aren't always warm. Clear winter days are often the result of cold Canadian air that has settled over the state. A shadow in the winter often means we're in a pattern of cold air flowing south. It can take many weeks to break that pattern and warm the area. All of the snow we have will also keep us cold longer.

Celestially, February 2nd is an important day. According to the solar calendar, it should mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

Forty-two days ago was the winter solstice, the day of the year when we have the least sunlight. From that day on, the amount of daylight increases until the day when there are equal amounts of night and day. We call this day the equinox and it falls around March 21st. February 2nd falls half way between the solstice and the equinox so in theory it should mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring.

Has anyone seen any crocus flowers blooming?

Obviously the winter solstice is not really mid-winter. Why do we call the solstice mid-winter if it is really more like the day winter begins? This has long been a puzzle and even caused a few arguments between astronomers and meteorologists. The answer is something we call the lag of the seasons and it affects Groundhog’s day as well. Yes, it is true that Groundhog’s day technically marks the beginning of spring from a celestial point of view but our experience tells us otherwise. Our seasons lag behind what the sun tells us in the sky.

Saying spring starts on Groundhog’s day is a little like saying a frozen dinner is ready to eat as soon as it is pulled out of the freezer. The northern hemisphere has been cooling down for months by the time the solstice arrives. Forty-two days with just less than a minute more sunlight each day is not enough to thaw out the frozen landscape into a lush vernal garden.

The established pattern of cold weather continues for many weeks after the beginning of the increase in daylight. This lag makes it seem like mid-winter actually falls on Groundhog’s day rather than the solstice. Rest assured though that on Groundhog’s day, even if it feels like the middle of winter, we are getting an hour and seven minutes more daylight today than we did just forty-two days earlier.

Groundhog’s Day may marks the beginning of spring according to the sun but it will be about forty-two more days until we feel the change enough to call it spring. It may seem like winter has a grip on the land but the sun has been working hard to reverse the trend for over a month and we’ll soon start to see those effects.

Incidentally, the legend tells us that if the groundhog sees its shadow it will be scared back into the den and we’ll have six more weeks of winter. Why six weeks? How many days are there in six weeks? Forty-two. Six weeks takes us exactly to the spring equinox.
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Friday, January 30, 2015

Can you guess what this is?

Posted by Kirk Mona

Image: Erbe, Pooley: USDA, ARS, EMU

This image showed up in my news feed this week. Can you guess what it is? My initial thought is that it appears to be rather crudely made of plaster. A bad sculpt of a tie fighter perhaps? The truth is far stranger. 

Keen eyed observers may note the white scale bar and label in the lower left hand corner. This object is only about 600  µm across. That's 600 micrometers or about half a millimeter. The image was taken with an electron microscope and is magnified 50,000 times. 

This is an object every reader has seen, most have touched and many have eaten though you should take care to avoid colored versions. 

This is a snowflake. 

Perhaps "flake" is a bit of a misnomer. Falling snow comes in several varieties. As we often teach school kids in my job, snow comes in stellar dendrites (those are the ones you usually think of) as well as needles, columns and more. 

The odd snowflake in the photo is a peculiar variety of capped column. I recognized it right away as we have a cardboard capped column on display at work right now. 



The bumps on the side are rime ice that formed on the surface. I find it fascinating that the columnar snow structure the rime ice is growing on is so imperfect. I think we get this impression that snowflakes, essentially just crystals of water should be more perfect. Of course, almost no crystals in nature are ever perfect. I blame Snowflake Bentley. 



Wilson Bentley is in part responsible for our distorted image that all snowflakes are perfect and beautiful. He was one of the first to capture snowflakes on film and they showed for the first time via amazing detail that snowflakes were highly complex and beautiful. Let's be clear though, Mr. Bentley knew that many if not most of the snowflakes that fall are not perfect. He had to sift though many poorly formed snowflakes to find the truly spectacular ones. He looked at so many he knew they were not all perfect. The public only saw the most beautiful ones and since they were the only ones we had seen it distorted our perception of them. 

The close up photo of the capped column snowflake at the top of the page is beautiful as well but not because of the perfection it displays. It is beautiful because it is imperfect, strange and fills us with wonder. 


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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Petrichor explained

Posted by Kirk Mona
If you're a doctor who fan like I am you know the word Petrichor. Author Neil Gaiman snuck the word into the episode The Doctor's Wife. The word was part of a telepathic passcode to open the hidden backup control room in the TARDIS. "Oh course," you say. "We are nerds, we know this!" You may also remember that Idris defined it as "the smell of dust after rain."

The word wasn't a fabrication of Gaiman, it was coined in 1964 by Australian researchers Bear and Thomas in the journal Nature. The posited that an oil extruded by plants in dry periods is somehow put into the air by the rain. The oil actually helps prevent other plants from germinating and thus helps the plants avoid competition. I would think this would also prevent their own seeds from germinating but perhaps that is discussed deeper in the research. To be fair to rain smells, Geosmin is also responsible for the smell of the earth after rain but until Gaiman works that into a Doctor Who episode I'm afraid that word will also remain obscure.

Deeply nerdy and linguistically savvy Doctor Who fans and biologists alike were excited when researchers from MIT recently presented evidence on how the compounds that comprise petrichor get into the air. They dropped raindrops on 28 different soil types hundreds of times and filmed the results with high speed cameras. You can see tiny particles become aerosolized and swept up in air currents as the result of the drops. The high speed footage has been released online and it is fascinating to see the particles launched into the air. It is fun to think of hundreds of trillions of raindrops hitting the earth in a storm, each releasing tiny particles into the air that we smell as fresh petrichor.




(If you are viewing this via email you will not be able to see the embedded video. Click here to view online.
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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Snowy Owls Across the Northland

Posted by Kirk Mona
Once again snowy owls are being seen across the north land. 2014–2015 is turning out to be a pretty good season if you want to see a snowy owl. There probably have not been as many owls seen as were last winter, however, there still good opportunities to get out and see one of these magnificent birds if you're interested.

Mike Hendrickson has complied a map showing all reported locations of Snowy Owls here in the capital of the North. 

You can also get up to the minute information by running a species report in eBird

Snowy owls seem to end up in some interesting places. Many of them do not seem particularly concerned about humans. One of the more popular and easily seen snowy owls around the Twin Cities has been hanging out at the Shoppes of Arbor Lakes shopping area in Maple Grove. The owl alternates sitting on top of the potbelly Sandwich shop, the AMC movie theater, and a beauty supply store. It may not be the most glamorous place to see if they snowy owl but it is certainly an easy place to see one. The photo at the top of this post is likely an immature female snowy owl and this is the one currently being seen at Arbor Lakes.

Good luck, be safe, be respectful and enjoy the birds.
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Monday, November 10, 2014

Rio Grande Valley Day 7: Go West

Posted by Kirk Mona
This is part seven of a series of posts on the 2013 Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

It has officially been one year since I was in the Rio Grande Valley. I better hurry up and post this. All my social media feeds are full of amazing photos of amazing birds and wonderful friends who were lucky enough to be able to go back this year. I will return some day until then...Day Seven. 

We woke up up before the sun on our last full day of birding with the intention of heading West. We'd seen pretty much all the birds there were to see in the Rio Grande Valley near our home base in San Benito. Short of something insane like an Amazon Kingfisher showing up, we needed new territory. Our host Claire told us she had actually seen an Amazon Kingfisher once in a resaca near her house. She was a new birder at the time and even though she had photos and other people saw it, the records committee had never approved her sighting. "Prove me right boys!" She'd say as we headed out birding each day. We weren't about to spend our day searching resacas for a bird that had only officially been reported in Texas once in recorded history. Our plan was to head to Salineno and then on to Falcon State Park to pick up birds in a dryer, more western habitat. 

We grabbed some breakfast tacos at the gas station and drove about two hours west in hopes to be in Salineno by daybreak. A few wrong turns and some construction meant we got there a hair later than we had hoped. We failed to see any Red-billed Pigeons or Muscovy ducks flying on the river and so we were starting the day off with two misses. We did see a flock of Pyrrhuloxia on the road down to the river and ran into some other birders so at least that seemed like a good start.



Things got even better the more we settled in and searched. There is a little nature preserve there right on the river where a wife and husband keep feeders well stocked. We chatted with them as they put out seed, peanut butter and oranges. They told us the best place to wait so I sat down and didn't move. In just a few minutes, a Hooded Oriole showed up. What a beautiful bird. It was the first time I had ever seen one so I was pretty excited. They are beautiful. 

The woman who maintains the feeding station pointed out that she could hear a single note from an Audubon's Oriole as well so we patiently waited. Soon I could hear it too as it got closer and closer. Before too long a male announced his arrival at the fence just 10 feet in front of me and started to chow down on peanut butter. This is an incredible bird. Gorgeous! Who knew orioles like peanut better so much? We usually stick to grape jelly and oranges up in Minnesota.


While waiting for these two to show up, my first Plain Chachalaca's showed up as well. Three lifers in a matter of minutes! I was thinking we had made a good choice on coming west. We then went back to the river and soon got wonderful full scope views of a Ringed Kingfisher, also a lifer and of course new for the trip. 

It wasn't until months later that I got around to reading the book, A Supremely Bad Idea by Luke Dempsey in which he tells the tale of being confronted and threatened by drug runners at the exact spot where we were scoping the kingfisher. I'm grateful our visit didn't involve drug runners or someone trying to take my camera. We felt like we'd seen everything we could see in Salineno, including a roosting Screech Owl so it was time to leave.

We had plans to head to Falcon State Park as well for other species. I'd turned off my mobile phone when we got to Salineno because we were so close to Mexico that I could not get a US carrier, only a Mexican one, and didn't want to incur any roaming fees. 

When we got back up to the highway I turned my phone back on and suddenly received a flurry of text messages from pretty much everyone I had met at the festival.

They all looked something like this (albeit with much more colorful language)




At this point I recall a lot of swearing in the car. Here we were 2+ hours west of Harlingen tracking down western species and one of the rarest birds possible shows up back where we had left from. We still had species to pick up out west and it was only lunch time. Given the intel we had on the bird we hedged our bets and went to Falcon State Park for an hour. We were gambling the kingfisher would still be there in the afternoon. At the park we fairly quickly saw Roadrunner and Couch's Kingbirds, both lifers for me. We didn't see any Scaled quail or Ash-throated flycatcher and decided we needed to leave, we just couldn't risk missing the kingfisher. All the while we were getting texts every 15 minutes from people at the conference..."Kingfisher still here."

Before we could get to the kingfisher spot though, we needed lunch and that brings us of course to demons. Bear with me.

We've all heard stories of Jesus appearing in food. I haven't found any historical records to show when this phenomenon first occurred but I'd sure like to believe it was at the last supper. Wouldn't that be a classy move? Judas is slicing the bread and hey, check it out every one. Jesus gives a wry smile as his face appears in a nice slice of challah. People are constantly seeing this guy in food. There's holy grilled cheese, a crucified jesus in a orange and even a nasty gooey looking christ at the bottom of a marmite jar. (I'll let you google those on your own.)
These are all cases of pareidolia. The animal brain is a constantly running pattern recognition machine. It is an incredible evolutionary tool that has allowed us to survive. It errs on the side of caution and often sees patterns where they do not exist. When it comes to recognizing a tiger in the jungle it is better to err on the side of caution more often than not. We are the descendants of the paranoid survivors.
When we see seemingly familiar patterns in food or clouds or wood grain you have a choice. You either believe in the wonderful, awe-inspiring millions of years long evolutionary story of the human brain or, perhaps the grandeur of that isn't enough for you and you choose to invoke paranormal explanations that these random patterns are the handiwork of God. Though, I have to warn you, if you believe the latter than we have to assume God really is flipping us the bird in this deep space photo taken by NASA.


Photo courtesy of NASA. A small cloud in the Carina Nebula.

Our final full day of birding we were present at a truly awe inspiring sign from the birding gods (or, you know, pareidolia). First though, we have to address gas station tacos. Two days previous we'd been out birding with Kelly and she'd suggested we go looking for hawks at Anzulduas Park.

It was a crappy cold day and the hawks knew it. We didn't see hardly anything. Cold and hungry, we loaded back into the car and made lunch plans. We wanted Mexican food and so it was our smart phones to the rescue. Curt pulled out his phone and informed us there was a highly rated restaurant just 5.3 miles away. Perfect.

We followed the directions only to discover the restaurant kept getting further and further away. Next time we asked it was 6.8 miles, soon, it was 15 miles. We checked and we were headed the right way but this mysterious restaurant defied the laws of physics and kept getting further. We eventually made it to the 5.3 mile away restaurant after about 25 minutes. Curt's phone was new and I suspect the miles he kept reading were the miles to the next turn instead of the miles to the final destination.

We got there and after the meal Kelly told us that it was okay but that we'd paid too much. "Oh really?"

"Yes," she told us. "The best tacos you can get are way cheaper."

Kelly then went on to tell us that the best tacos are the ones at the gas station. You have got to be freaking kidding me. Minnesota gas stations pretty much have one hot food item and that is shriveled up hotdogs on a roller grill. This is Texas though, what do I know? Maybe the cheap tacos at the gas station really are great. The price is right, you get your food fast and if they taste great then so be it.

We'd learned that if you doctored them up with enough fixings then they did, indeed, taste pretty good.

So, we ate a lot of gas station tacos and we figured we'd stop on the way to the Amazon Kingfisher. We needed food so we pressed our luck and stopped to grab some quick chow. As one of the workers was heating up the tortilla shells she let out an exclaim of surprise. Wow, just wow. Check out this tortilla. 


That's a human skull wearing a top hat right?

Filled with tasty demon-approved tacos and armed with directions to the spot with the kingfisher we tore back east and made it there by 4:30 pm. There was still a large crowd though not as many as earlier in the day. Still, the police were out directing traffic to make sure no one got killed as they ran around on the side of the road. Apparently the sheriff had told the officers, "Keep everyone safe and make sure they have a good time." How's THAT for hospitality? It doesn't hurt that everyone here knows birders do a lot for the economy.

As soon as I got out of the car people eagerly had us look through their scopes. The bird was very far away and at that distance you kind of had to take their word that you were looking at the right bird. Here's what the view looked like zoomed as far as possible though my 400mm camera lens. 




Can you see the bird? 

If I crop it in you can make it out...kind of.


It wasn't that great a look. We waited, and luckily the bird eventually flew closer and I got the shot below. If it had hung around longer I could have played with the camera setting to get a better shot but, wow, what a cool bird. Look at that honkin' huge beak!




It was our last day of birding in Texas and I was happy to have added 8 more lifers. I never thought I would cap it off with an Amazon Kingfisher.

In the final tally I saw 155 species of birds in 7 days of birding.  Forty-eight of them were lifer species I'd never seen before. It was a fabulous trip and I can't wait to go back.




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Monday, October 13, 2014

Rio Grande Valley Day Six: Sabal Palm Sanctuary

Posted by Kirk Mona 2 Comments
This is part six of a series of posts on the 2013 Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

I haven't posted much lately but realizing I am coming up on the one year anniversary of my trip to Texas made me get on here to finish this series up. Let's pick up where we left off.

Day Six:

I had a goal for Day Six. As we chatted about the day and wondered where to go I was sure we should hit up Sable Palm Sanctuary.

People had recommended we hit up Sabal Palm Sanctuary and the descriptions of habitat and species looked good. Sabal Palms Sanctuary is home to a large stand of old growth Sabal Palms. Locals had warned us that the birding here just wasn't as good as it used to be after the building of "The Wall." In our xenophobia we've been busy building a giant wall between parts of Mexico and Texas. It doesn't actually keep anyone out since it isn't a complete wall that covers the whole border. All it does is makes people cross somewhere else, or, you know, buy a ladder. We visited plenty of other sites along the Rio Grande where crossing the border would take nothing more than a quick short swim.

The Wall
We were greeted by a pair of Chichuanan ravens as soon as we drove in. This was a good sign and we were happy to see them since they are no longer hanging out at the Brownsville dump.


Excited about ravens before we even hit the parking lot, we hit up the feeding station at the small visitor's center. The birds were plentiful. I also realized as I sat there watching the emending parade of birds that I had seen this feeder set-up before. The Sabal Palm Sanctuary has a web-cam set up on the feeders and I had watched this webcam months earlier. Seeing all these amazing birds on the webcam on a cold boring day in Minnesota was one of the things that had encouraged me to visit the Rio Grande Valley. Here's the live feed right now:


Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

While we did see new birds, one of the great things was to get better looks at birds we had already seen.

Clay-colored Thrush (a.k.a. Clay-colored Robin)

We had previously gotten a not very good look at a Clay-colored Thrush while chasing another bird earlier in the week. It was wonderful to get such a better look. We also got a better look at the Black-crested Titmouse and White-tipped Dove.


Black-crested Titmouse


White-tipped Dove

We also got a good look at a bathing Olive Sparrow. We had tried to find one earlier in the week at Estero with no luck. 

Olive Sparrow taking a bath


The highlight for me was this Yellow-throated Warbler. I was a lifer and beautiful!

Breathtaking Yellow-throated Warbler.

At some point, all of the birds disappeared from the feeders when this Red-shouldered Hawk showed up. 

Red-whouldered Hawk

We yet again failed to see a chachalaca though I had seen one at Sabal Palm on the webcam back in Minnesota. Oh we'll. Sabal Palm wasn't just a feeder stake out. We also explored and hiked around the site. I even happened upon a beautiful and endangered Texas Indigo Snake.

There are a number of blinds set up at Sabal Palm. We didn't see a lot of species from them but I imagine at times they are great spots for seeing birds. Here, Erik is checking out the Resaca Blind. Erik was so taken with Texas that he moved down there to take a job with Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center.

Erik in his native habitat

We were able to see these incredibly adorable grebe chicks from the blind.


We also got good views of this Green Kingfisher from the Resaca blind.



Here are the new birds for the trip I added at Sabal Palms Sanctuary.

Red-Shouldered Hawk
Sandhill Crane
White-eyed Vireo
Chihuahuan Raven
Carolina Wren
Yellow-throated Warbler
Olive Sparrow

All told, we saw 35 species at Sabal Palms including the White-eyed Vireo. Everyone else on the trip had seen several of them and it was starting to be a bit of a nemesis bird for me. I kept missing them, including at a gas station while I was loading up on treats inside.

There were lots of other birders at Sabal Palms on official field trips for the festival. I'm not a birding by bus kind of guy and while I'm sure the tour leaders were great and I'm sure they saw tons of birds, I much prefer to bird in a small quiet group at my own pace.

We finished off Sabal Palms Sanctuary by noon and I was feeling pretty good.

At this point in the week, seven new species for the trip by noon was a great accomplishment. Four of them had been lifers for me so I was even more elated.

We hit up our first gas station tacos for lunch informing Kelly that her reputation was on the line since she had raved about them. They were not bad though without adding on loads of extras they were completely devoid of flavor or spice. We should not have taken advice from the one and only Texan who cannot stand spicy food. Still, you cannot argue with the speed and price. We were in,  out, fed, and back on the road with a half day of birding ahead of us.

Where to next? There were rumors of a Prairie Falcon hanging out north of Harlingen. Another new species anyone? It would be our sixth species of falcon for the trip and a lifer. We'd already seen Crested Caracara, American Kestrel, Merlin, Aplomado and Peregrine. What were we waiting for?

We hit the roads and headed north following directions on the BirdsEye app. We saw lots of birds on the wires but no Prairie falcon. Kelly had caught wind that we were headed for the falcon so she drove out to intercept us and try to see it too.

After a little driving around we decided to try a side road and sure enough, there was a raptor perched on the power lines.

We slowly crept up and then scoped it from a safe distance. Sure enough, Prairie Falcon.

Prairie Falcon


What a cool bird to see. Kelly ended up pulling up behind us right as we found it and she got a look too. We found 13 other species while looking for the falcon but none of them were new for the trip. The prairie Falcon was our 145 species of bird for the trip.

It had been a great day of birding but there was a problem. I'd been birding with a pair of Vortex binoculars and the hinge had developed a crack while down in Texas. It wasn't from being treated rough, it had to be a manufacturing defect. I knew of one other pair from the same batch that had developed the same crack. Since I was at the festival and knew that Vortex/Eagle Optics had a booth there I decided to swing by to see what they could do. I showed them to the rep on hand and he looked at them with interest. He had heard of this happening to a few pairs before. He flexed them back and forth a few times and then proceeded to snap them in half. He said something like, "Well, can't be using these can you?" He then reached under the table and pulled out a box with the brand new version of my binoculars and handed them over no questions asked. This is what a lifetime warranty looks like folks. I'm very happy with my binoculars and I know they will be backed up for years to come.

Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion of the series. We ended with one of the greatest days of the trip.
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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Amazing Heron Video

Posted by Kirk Mona 4 Comments
Those of you who follow the Twin Cities Naturalist page on Facebook may have already seen the video below I shared it there yesterday. If you are not already following on Facebook you can follow this link and click on "like."

This video was taken by Jessie Garza out in Washington state. It has been shared over 1,000 times so far as it is truly amazing. Great Blue Herons are opportunistic feeders and will take food where they can get it. Be sure to watch the whole video!


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