Thursday, December 31, 2015

Christmas Bird Count 2015: Pterodactyls & Werewolves & Larvets! Oh My!

[You can read about my previous experiences with the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count here and here.]

St Louis River: no visible waterfowl.
On the 20th of December, 2015, I accompanied Ms Ball and (former Marshall Biology teacher) Ms Hermes on their annual Christmas Bird Count adventure. This was my third Count (Ball and Hermes have been doing it since 1997). It's one of my favorite events of the year--I get to spend some time out in the woods with some of my favorite people.

We drove all around Carlton County, making stops here and there to look and listen for birds, Ms Ball keeping a careful record all the while. She passes our data on to (former Marshall science teacher) Larry Weber who coordinates this count. She also uses her notes from the day as inspiration for a Holiday poem that she sends to friends and family. I have included quotations from her 2015 poem throughout this post and a photo of the entire poem at the very end.  

From Ms Ball's poem:
"we are escorted from Widdes Feeds by a security cat
who leads us from the hay barn to the exit drive" 
We always stop along the St Louis River to check for waterfowl, but we didn't see any. We also typically stop to count pigeons at the Widdes Feed & Farm Supply in Esko. This year, we encountered a couple of very friendly barn cats there. At one point, one of them ran under my idling car, and Ms Ball had to get out and lure it back into the barn. It only stayed there a few minutes, and then Ms Hermes had to get out and do some cat-herding, too.

Ms Hermes herding cats--reminiscent
of teaching? Note the pile of deer pelts.
In Thomson and Carlton, we stopped at several houses where folks have bird feeders, but we didn't really see that many birds at the feeders this year. Some feeders were empty of seed, and there were no deer pelts hanging from the trees at a house where we usually see birds feeding off them. We wondered if some of the hard-core bird-feeding folks had moved away or gone South for the winter. 

The kind of bird we saw most often throughout the day was the Blue Jay, but the highlight of the day was a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers, whom we eventually named Woody and Wanda. We saw them in Thomson near a homestead that Ms Ball always refers to as "the Refuge for Fake Animals," which reminds me of the "Island of Misfit Toys" from the old Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special. This spot features a stream lined with old trees, and the Pileateds were drilling into them for insects. I was shooting photos from inside the car, so my shots are not great, but maybe you can spot the Woodpecker in the photo below.
Real Pileated Woodpecker among Fake Animals: Bear, Wolf, Owl. Makes me think
of Marianne Moore's "imaginary gardens with real toads in them."

Throughout the morning, we kept coming back to the "Refuge for Fake Animals" to see if the Woodpeckers were still there. They did not disappoint. They clearly felt at home in this spot. 

While we watched the Pileateds cavorting amongst their false friends, I shot some video. In the video below, Ms Hermes pretends to be the great David Attenborough, narrator of many a nature program. 

I think she does a great imitation! Her accent and phrasing are excellent. If you look closely in the video, you'll see the Woodpecker at the base of the tree directly ahead of us. And the Pileated Peckers do, in fact, resemble little Pterodactyls.
In our travels, we also spotted a horned and long-haired goat who stared ominously at us as we passed his home. At one point, we turned onto Kangas Road, and Ms Ball and I both thought we saw a wolf cross the road behind us. His body was very dark, leaner and longer than most dogs... Mr Weber says it was quite possibly a wolf. We even doubled back to see if we could glimpse it again, but no such luck.
One more shot of the "Refuge for Fake Animals." From Ms Ball's poem:
"back to the refuge for fake animals who live in eternal disproportion
black bears and cubs smaller than the bald eagle with few feathers
huge plastic frogs and a faithful crossing guard"
This incident caused us to imagine a possible reality-TV show--The Werewolves of Carlton County--It also made me think of the gytrash from Jane Eyre. When we arrived at the Jay Cooke State Park Interpretive Center for brunch, I compared our sighting to the stuffed wolf on display there. Ours looked very similar, in color especially. In the days after the Count, I searched for some information about wolves and how important they are to an ecosystem. I came across this really interesting video. I highly recommend it.
From Ms Ball's poem:
as fast as only the side of our eyes can see
we glimpse a long black wolf crossing Kangas Road"
As usual, we had packed up a ton of food for our brunch at Jay Cooke State Park. Ms Ball changed up her usual routine this year: instead of her traditional focaccia, she made some lovely cinnamon bread as well as a big batch of Spanakopita, the famous Greek spinach and cheese pastry. It's usually made with feta cheese, but Ms Ball forgot to buy any, so she made it with cottage cheese. It was just as good this way. 
Lots of food, as usual. Note the batch of Spanakopita in the foreground.

The obligatory "playing with our food" shot.
In addition to forgetting the feta, Ms Ball forgot to bring coffee cups, cream, and sugar for her thermos of coffee. And no one remembered to bring garlic-stuffed olives, either, but Ms Hermes brought some especially tasty Kalamata olives, along with some roasted red peppers, sliced Mozzarella, fancy crackers, peanut brittle, and a lovely assortment of Italian cookies. I provided a wild rice salad, cranberry sauce, walnut Brie, and some jam for the bread. 
Cranberry sauce in the making

After our meal, we walked around the Park a bit; up at Oldenburg Point, we had great view of the river, and down at the Campground, we checked for grouse. We had seen several grouse there last year, but this year, the only grouse I saw was a spontaneous imitation of one by the one-and-only Ms Ball. 

On our way out of the Park, Ms Ball and Ms Hermes did a little Holiday shopping in the Park Headquarters. Ms Ball purchased several packets of spicy Larvets for her family. Whenever I come across any mention of eating insects, I always think of a former student, Marina Mednik-Vaksman from the class of 2001, and her work on the future of sustainable food systems. I think I'll stick to Spanakopita and cranberry sauce, for now, at least!
The Larvets come in three flavors: BBQ, Mexican Spice, and Cheddar Cheese. YUM!
All in all, it was another great Bird Count, full of real and imaginary adventures through the darkest part of the year. Once again, I invited Ms Ball and Ms Hermes to come orchid-hunting with me in the spring. So far, I've taken Ms Ball into the bog once, but not during blooming season. Maybe 2016 will be the year when they both come with me on an orchid adventure...

I'll end this post with a view of the St Louis River and a photo of Ms Ball's poem.
View of the River from Oldenburg,
Ms Ball's poem, in its entirety.
Here's wishing us all a Happy New Year! May 2016 be bright, happy, and healthy.