Monday, January 30, 2017

Christmas Bird Count 2016: Porcupines, Pileated Peckers, Peanut Brittle, Patchouli, and Poetry

[You can read about my previous experiences with the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count here (2015), here (2014), and here (2013).]

On December 30, 2016, I participated in my fourth Christmas Bird Count, organized by the National Audubon Society. It's an event I look forward to each year. Even though I'm not a good birder, I enjoy meandering through Carlton County with my more experienced companions. 
The sun comes up through "pink venetian blinds" as we begin

It was only 12F at 8:32 am when we started on Friday, December 30, 2016. There was a lovely sunrise, which Ms Hermes said reminded her of "pink venetian blinds." 

View from the River Inn on the morning of December 30, 2016
By the time we reached Carlton County, the sun was a tad higher in the sky, and it was attempting, largely unsuccessfully, to burn its way through the clouds. 

This year, of course, was the first of my CBC experiences without Ms Ball, who is now retired and living in Hawaii (more about Ms Ball below). But 2016 was also what I hope is only the first year of many with Nancy Nelson
Nancy talking about the Oldenburg Memorial stone,
with its missing plaque

Nancy used to teach geology at the college level, and she is often known as Duluth's "Tree Lady," for her work in saving the Spirit Mountain old-growth forest from development. She also ran for city council once and was the Ripsaw's Person of the Year in 2002. She is a very accomplished writer of local history, with a book coming out soon on the history of Duluth's park system. She was one of the founding members of Duluth's famed but semi-secret Zenith City Chicken Liberation Front, who, along with former City Councilor Sharla Gardner, got the Duluth Chicken Ordinance passed. 
Close up of the granite rock, full of minerals
like quartz.

Anyway, as Ms Hermes says, we traded a Grouse Walker for a Rock Talker(See last year's post for a video of Ms Ball doing the "grouse walk." You won't regret it) And we did talk about rocks: we always stop to count birds at Oldenburg point, where there's a short trail and a nice big overlook above the St Louis River. We stopped to take a look at the Oldenburg Memorial stone and Nancy started talking about the rock--it's a big piece of pink granite, which is not common here. She asked if we knew the difference between minerals and rocks, and since we didn't, she explained it. I recorded her as she spoke. I had never even thought about this before, and I thought her explanation was very clear. You can listen to what she said here: Part 1 and Part 2. 

We have no idea what happened to the plaque, by the way. 

Inspired by all the geology terminology, Ms Hermes invented and performed a brief rap song about this big stone, but I wasn't quick enough with my phone to capture her inimitable skills as a spontaneous rapper.
Nelson & Hermes (in Ball's
hat) checking another part
of the river for waterfowl
Hermes (in Ball's hat) looking for waterfowl

At some point, as we were driving through the tiny community of Thomson, I asked Nancy to explain the geology of the Thomson Formation, and she wrote some very detailed, if simplified, notes on the subject.  
Some of Nancy's simplified explanation of the Thomson

If you've been to this area, you've probably noticed the striking rock out-croppings, and of course, the river ravine is very impressive. So we talked a lot about time, pressure, clay, and metamorphosing. 
More of Nancy's notes, simplified for the

The other highlight of our stop at Oldenburg was spotting a porcupine up in a tree. It was a pretty cold day, but the porcupine seemed not be bothered by the cold, or us, or anything, really. Porcupines are pretty secure critters; they know that their quills provide a near-perfect defense against all predators.
The Oldenburg porcupine

Since the Bird Count, I've encountered one other porcupine, along the Munger Trail. I managed to get a bit of video as it started climbing down a tree. It waddled very slowly, backwards, down the tree and headed deeper into the woods. I was impressed by its lack of concern for the cold (the quills must provide some insulation) and the thinness of the branch it was perched on.

As for actual birds, we accumulated a pretty typical listing, with lots of chickadees, blue jays, crows, and some woodpeckers, including a nice big pileated pecker which I was able to photograph at the State Park interpretive center. Although I managed to get pretty close, I still couldn't get a really clear shot with my iPhone. A day later, my brother caught a good view of a pileated and sent me this shot, taken with a "real" camera (see below). We discussed whether the word "pileated" should be pronounced "PILL-ee-ay-ted" or "PY-lee-ay-ted" and decided since Duluth's most famous birder, Laura Erickson, says it the latter way, the long "i" sound is probably correct. 
The pileated pecker, eating suet at the Jay Cooke State Park
River Inn Interpretive Center
My brother's photo, taken December 31, 2016

As we wandered through Carlton County, we stopped occasionally to look and listen for birds. It was a very cold, cloudy, and quiet day. In one spot, I got a bit distracted by the lichen--I focus on lichen in the winter months--it's often the only source of color in the winter landscape. 
Some golden lichen on a branch

I take way too many lichen photos each winter--I'm sure people get sick of seeing them on Facebook and Flickr, but it's a way to keep my photography skills sharp during the flowerless months...
Lichen on stump, along the St Louis River.

After making most of our regular stops, we ended up at the Interpretive Center to eat our lunch. As usual, we had way too much food. Because Ms Ball used to make a sprouted lentil salad, I decided I would make my own version in honor of her. Sprouting lentils is very easy to do; it only takes a couple days.
sprouted lentils

You soak them for 24 hours in plenty of water, and then you just rinse and drain them a few times each day until they sprout. They can then be eaten without any pre-cooking--they are pleasantly crunchy and full of nutrients! I added celery, parsley, cooked wild rice, dried cranberries, pecans, and a orange-ginger dressing that I made. 

I also added a bunch of pickled peppers for some zing, but I don't think I added enough. I also brought a panettone, and Ms Hermes brought some bread, cheese, spicy olives, pickled red peppers, peanut brittle (more about this later), and Italian cookies. Nancy brought some cheese, apples, and chocolate-covered peanut clusters. Overall, we had far more than we needed.
Nancy's fire
The whole spread, including San Pellegrino in two flavors!

Nancy built a rip-roaring fire while we laid out the food. Ms Hermes brought plates with chickadees on them. I can't remember the story behind those plates, but they certainly were appropriate. 

The chickadee plates
The peanut brittle, from Gannucci's Italian Market, was particularly evocative, as we had felt all day as if we were walking on peanut brittle: there was a thin ice crust on all the snow, and we kept falling through it as we walked. We also compared this experience to walking on crème brûlée, falling through the burnt-sugar crust into the soft custard below.

After lunch, we called Ms Ball and FaceTimed with her--it was good to hear her laughter! I took some screenshots during the session. We talked about the birds that she was seeing in Hawaii, and she showed us one of her new bird books. We made sure that she noticed that Ms Hermes was wearing Ms Ball's old birding hat (yes, it smells of patchouli). 
Hermes showing Ball the hat.
Ball showing Hermes the book

After that, we walked through the Jay Cooke campground, and it started snowing. We noticed that the red squirrels had been building food caches under the ice-crust. They were busy lining those spaces with cedar branches. I wanted to get some good photos of them but my phone battery died because of the cold. I only got a couple shots. 
One of the red squirrels, busily stashing food
beneath the ice crust.
Another shot of the squirrels

At some point during the day, we started counting Nativity scenes in people's yards, and we noticed the irony of some of the street names. There were no birds singing along "Serenity Way," for example, which seemed very sad to me. 

It has been Ms Ball's habit to write a poem each year, based on her bird count experience. She wrote a poem again this year, about her own personal Hawaii bird count (she hasn't been able to connect with an Audubon group there yet). I've included a photo of it below. 
Ms Ball's poem
Ms Ball sent me a photo of the Falij pheasant she mentions in the poem--it looks like a beautiful bird. 
The Falij pheasant

Nancy Nelson and Ms Hermes say it'll be my task next year to write the official bird count poem. We'll see...

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