This past week saw a little more snow as evidenced by my standing outside raking snow off my roof. We're in the top ten snowiest winters in MN history so far and there's plenty of time to make a run for the top spot (though we'd need several more feet to get there.)
As a testament to the growing power of the sun, the snow depth has already fallen four inches from the high spot of 15 inch snow pack last week.
I was thinking I should have seen Horned Larks by now and then this morning on the way to work I spotted a few on the side of the road. I just got a report yesterday of Red-winged Blackbirds in Michigan so we'll have to keep our eyes open here in Minnesota soon for this sometimes over eager species.
If you're up for a little daylight astronomy watch for the planet Venus near the moon in the morning sky on Tuesday. If you can brave the cold, there's a new moon on the 4th which means if the sky is clear it should be a nice dark night for astronomy. If you're up for a real challenge, Mercury is visible this coming weekend. Look just to the left of the crescent moon about 20 minutes after sunset. It will have to be very clear out and you'll need a clean view of the horizon as well as a good pair of binoculars.
Study skins are different than taxidermy in that it is quicker and the animal is prepared to collect and preserve scientific data rather than make a lifelike replica of the animal. This Scarlet Tanager is in a plumage most people never see. In the summer, the bird is an incredible red that makes Northern Cardinals look shabby. This bird died in the fall and has molted nearly all of the red feathers. It will be a valuable teaching tool to show molting and discuss how male birds use color to attract mates.
The above graph from the Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Center really impresses me. Then again, I'm a geeky kind of guy who is impressed by such things. This chart represents the latest flood prediction for Downtown St. Paul. The blue line is the average probability of reaching a given water height between 2/22/2011 and 5/23/2011. River height is on the left.
If you look at the furthest blue dot on the left you can see there is about a 98.3% chance of the river reaching 3.3 feet on an average year. Now look at the furthest black triangle to the left. The black triangles are predictions for this spring. You can see the prediction calls for about a 98% chance of the river reaching around 15 and half feet. That's 12 feet above average. Flood stage (represented by anything above the yellow line) is considered 14 feet and above so the odds of flooding in St. Paul this year is really good.
The highest the water got last spring was 18.38 ft on 03/24/2010 which was enough for the water to start to cover Harriet Island. That was the 8th highest historic crest in St. Paul. There's about an 92% chance Harriet Island will go under water again this year.
There's about a 25% chance of the river reaching a whopping 25 feet which would be outrageous and tie for the second highest crest in recorded history. This would still be just below the top of the South St. Paul right bank levy which is 26.38 feet high.
What a wild week. We started with a warm up last weekend that stretched all the way through Thursday. There were six days above freezing and it reached an incredible 52° F in the twin cities on Wednesday. The heat put a considerable dent in the snow pack. Officially, we went from 14 inches on Feb 1st to just two inches on Friday. That means we lost a foot of snow. We lost an incredible 5 inches Monday which seems odd as it wasn't the warmest day. Remember how windy it was? The wind kept the warm air mixing with the cool layer of air that usually sits on top of the snow and this facilitated especially rapid melting. Keep in mid though that these are the official numbers and the actual snow pack varies greatly. Deep in the woods at work we still had a foot or more of snow pack on Saturday.
The sunshine and heat felt marvelous but the chill that set in at the end of the week made it seem like a cruel joke. By the end of the day Thursday there was a real bite in the air and talk of another snowmageddon or perhaps a snowpocalypse. Seriously people, we're Minnesotans. It shouldn't even be a big deal unless we're talking snow in the two foot range. Even then. we all need to calm down. We should expect snow.
The snow failed to show up at midnight on Saturday/Sunday and I was beginning to regret canceling our public snowshoe on Sunday. It didn't seem to really start to snow until around 4:00 on Sunday but when it came it really piled up fast. This morning (monday) there was fresh snow on the ground and it continued to fall throughout the day. The reason this report is going out this evening instead of this morning was that I was waiting for some snow totals. It looks like depending on where you are in the metro we received anywhere from 9 to 20 inches of snow. Here in St. Paul we had 13+ inches of snow. I added the plus in there because I think it will end up being a little higher by the end of the night. Minneapolis declared the eighth snow emergency of the year which sets a new record. We're currently at the 11th snowiest winter on record and we have half of February and all of March to go.
Today, sunrise in the Twin Cities was at 7:04 AM and sunset was at 5:49 PM. I didn't see sunrise as I was blissfully asleep enjoying the holiday. I can personally attest to the sunset time as I was out snow blowing all evening. The snow the snowplow threw up onto the sidewalk was the hardest snow I have ever tried to move in my life. As of tomorrow, Tuesday, we will have gained a full extra hour of sunlight since the first of the month. That means we're getting more heat energy each day and the sun is also at a much more intense angle so when we get a warm-up on Wednesday it will be interesting to see what it does to this snow.
Watch for increasingly visible yellow on male American Goldfinches this week. It is really becoming noticeable. I've seen more reports of horned larks in southern Minnesota. My records show that they showed up in northern Washington county on Feb 22nd last year so we'll see if that holds true. I thought I caught a glimpse of one on Saturday but didn't get a good enough look. I filled my feeders before the storm and there was a pair of Northern Cardinals as well as ten house sparrows keeping themselves busy gorging on the seeds as the snow began to fall. Great Horned Owls are mating this week and people have reported hearing Northern Saw-whet Owls calling as well.
The 83% illuminated waxing gibbous moon rises this afternoon at 1:31 pm. The planet Jupiter is still visible in the western sky at sunset though it quickly drops below the horizon by about 8:30 pm. Even with a pair of binoculars you can make out the four moons Io, Europe, Ganymede and Callisto as four bright dots of light all in a row next to Jupiter.
The deep cold cycle started to break this weekend when we pulled above freezing. Sunday in the Twin Cities we got up to an incredible 47° F. The warm weather melted our snow pack down from about 14 inches to 11 or 10. The warm stretch this week should reduce that even further.
When will the snow disappear? Last year wasn't particularly snowy but we held what snow we did have all the way into March. Officially, we lost our winter snow pack on March 11th last year. We had about a foot of snow at the beginning of March and it took two weeks of above freezing temperatures to melt it all away. This warm up is only supposed to last until Saturday so I don't think we'll lose all our snow.
I mentioned last week that the buds were becoming more obvious on the maple trees. Watch closely at the end of the week as the combination of freezing at night and thawing during the day will begin the process of moving water in the trees and we should really start to see swelling buds.
Over the course of the last week, woodpecker drumming really picked up in the woods and I found fresh wood shavings on the snow which could be an indication of nest cavity building.
If you look out in the woods you'll notice some of the trees still have their leaves from autumn. These are the white oaks. They hold their leaves all winter long and drop them early spring instead of in the fall.
Enjoy this warm week. Spring is on the way.
I love this poster from Mike Rosulek.
Here's to a very old school naturalist who inspires continued scientific research to this day. Charles Darwin would have turned 203 years old this today.
Count Birds February 18-21
The 14th annual Great Backyard Bird Count is coming up February 18–21, 2011. People of all ages and skill levels are needed to count birds in their yards, neighborhoods, or other locations across the United States and Canada. Simply tally birds for at least 15 minutes on any day of the count, then go to www.birdcount.org and enter the highest number of each species seen at any one time.
Coordinated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Audubon, and Bird Studies Canada, the count provides an instantaneous snapshot of birdlife across the continent for all to see. Anyone can watch as the tallies come in at www.birdcount.org. Organizers hope to receive more than 100,000 checklists during the event, with tallies of more than 600 bird species in all.
Last year’s participants reported more than 1.8 million American Robins, as well as rarities such as the first Red-billed Tropicbird in the count’s history.
“Whether people observe birds in backyards, parks, or wilderness areas, the Great Backyard Bird Count is an opportunity to share their results at www.birdcount.org ,” said Judy Braus, Audubon’s vice president of Education and Centers. “It’s fun and rewarding for people of all ages and skill levels--and it gets people outside!”
“When thousands of people all tell us what they’re seeing, we can detect changes in birds’ numbers and locations from year to year,” said Dr. Janis Dickinson, director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“While this is the depths of winter in most of Canada and only the hardiest birds brave the cold, understanding of trends in the distribution and abundance at this time of year is important as well,” said Dr. George Finney, president of Bird Studies Canada.
Data from the Great Backyard Bird Count can provide an early signal of changes in bird populations. Past counts showed a drop in reports of American Crows after outbreaks of West Nile virus in 2003, a finding consistent with studies showing crow populations declined by 50–75% in some states. Maps from the count have also captured the paths of migrating Sandhill Cranes and recorded the dramatic spread Eurasian Collared-Doves. Introduced to the Bahamas in the 1970s, the species was reported in just 8 states during the 1999 GBBC. A decade later, it was reported in 39 states and Canadian provinces.
“I have joined the Great Backyard Bird Count for the past three years and am really looking forward to doing it again,” said participant Kathy Bucher of Exira, Iowa. “I really enjoy nature and bird watching. My mother and I share updates on the birds we see. It’s a fun hobby to share with a loved one!”
For more information, including bird-ID tips, instructions, and past results, visit www.birdcount.org. The count also includes a photo contest and a prize drawing for participants who enter their bird checklists online.
Many birders put high value on bird-watching and bird surveying in areas like Bunker Hills Regional Park, Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, Helen Allison Savanna SNA and, when we can, the AHATS site in Arden Hills. That’s because these all lie on the Anoka Sand Plain, whose unusual ecology attracts distinctive birds and other wildlife.
Lark sparrows are reliably found on the sand plain, as are sandhill cranes, eastern towhees, brown thrashers and many others. A 65-minute film produced by Walter Breckenridge in the 1960s, while he was director of the Bell Museum of Natural History, tells the engaging story of the sand plain’s natural history.
Escape winter’s chill by traveling via film to the sand plain to learn more about this fascinating area. Everyone is invited to this free Saint Paul Audubon program on Thursday, February 10 at 7:00 p.m. at Fairview Community Center, 1910 West County Road B in Roseville, just west of Fairview Avenue. The event is open to the public, with free parking. A social time with refreshments begins at 6:45.
The moon is currently waxing crescent and should be a lovely sight in the sky if it is clear out. Speaking of astronomy, we were almost hit by an asteroid this week. On February 4th, Asteroid 2011 CQ1 passed just 0.03 Lunar distances from Earth. In other words, it missed hitting the Earth by about 7,000 miles.
On Thursday, the temperature reached 34 degrees which broke our below freezing streak. It had been below freezing in the twin cities since December 31st! If January seemed cold you were right, we never made it above freezing. We haven't had a streak that long since 1984. The longest on record was a 66 day below freezing streak back in the winter of 1978.
There are signs of spring everywhere outside. Great Horned Owls are on their nest already. The first yellow feathers are showing up on male goldfinches and the buds are becoming very noticeable on the maple trees. In addition to these, I've also heard more and more territorial woodpecker drumming in the woods this past week. I've also seen Bald Eagles tending to their nest on Judd Street in Marine on St. Croix.
Let me know what you're seeing near your home!
Today, Wednesday February 2nd is Groundhog's Day, here's your official Twin Cities Groundhog Report.
At 9:00 this morning, it was -0.8 °F and there was a very light breeze from the North Northwest. A real groundhog would never wake up in such cold weather lest it risk sure death so our stand-in groundhog Stuffed Stanley is the official groundhog of record.
We took Stanley outside and he did indeed cast a shadow as the sun rose above the tree tops in a cloudless sky.
According to legend, the sudden appearance of the shadow scares the groundhog back into hiding and we will have six more weeks of winter. Thus, the official prognostication issuing from the Twin Cities Naturalist office is that winter will end in the Twin Cities on March 16th.
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. Traditionally, December 21st has been known as mid-winter just as June 21st is known as mid-summer. February 2nd falls half way between mid-winter 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 also the day we say 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 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 mark the beginning of spring according to the sun but it will be about forty-two more days until we feel the change. 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. How many days are there in six weeks? Forty-two.