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April 30, 2009 - Meanwhile, back at the creek...

Just time to post a few before I go into info overload...

I stopped at the "Mill Ruins" near the Stone Arch Bridge in downtown Minneapolis with the 10.5mm  fish-eye lens I had rented and shot a couple before turning it back in.

I love the female Wood Ducks! I think they're even prettier than the males. So subtle, yet dynamic somehow. They are always so skittish though. We are seeing a lot of them along the creek this year, seems like more than in past years. I hope it's due to our working with the Parks Department to install and maintain more boxes. They are so cool to watch.

And of course, Mr. Showboat, the male Wood Duck. Glitter rock-star that he is, what can you say. Sort of the Rick Derringer of his domain. Do you need batteries for that get-up...?

April 29, 2009 - Long Lake Photo Retreat - Spring 2009

It's been a crazy busy and emotional time around here lately. 
Our 20-year-old cat and best friend Pearl developed some issues last Thursday that made me realize it might be time to seriously consider her quality of life. After a short vet visit, she was put down. Things happen so fast and with such finality sometimes. It was a very sad and emotional time for us, but I'm glad I could be there with her at the end. She was a true friend to me since she was a week old, and to Sharon for over ten years.
The next day I left for Aitkin, MN to teach at the LLCC Photo Retreat, and between that, working evenings at Springbrook, and a million other things, it's been a time of catching up, sorting things out, sifting.
Here are some photos from the retreat, the weather defied all weather predictions and gave us everything we wanted. It's such a beautiful area and facility, it was a good place to both sit and think, and be with people that shared the same interests as I do.
The spring creatures are arriving, coming out, and waking up. 
The call of the loons was unforgettable.
I rented a couple lenses I had never shot before for the weekend; a 300mm/f 2.8 telephoto with a 2x teleconverter, and a very surreal 10.5mm/f2.8 fish-eye.
Here's some of the results.
More later.

April 15th, 2009 - More Signs of the Times

More signs of spring in the heartland. Red-breasted woodpecker sticking his tongue out to flypaper some tasty grub. I know it sounds ludicrous, but woodpeckers have incredibly long tongues that actually encircle their brainpan to act as a shock-absorber for all that hammering. This guy's is just barely starting to come out. I've seen the bird-bander at Springbrook blow people's minds by pulling their tongues out about three inches. Brings a new meaning to the term "tongue in cheek."

Nice puffy spring pussy-willows. Actually this sprig had about four phases of puffiness all on the same branch. The slightly green and spotty youthful ones, the just beginning to crack their hulls tight white Q-tip ones, the well-formed super puffs with the hulls breaking loose, and the already fuzzed-out Einstein hair ones that the hull had already dropped off. Metamorphosis.

Next we got to see a mother bald eagle camping out on the nest. She must have been protecting some eggs as she ducked down into the trenches as too much activity neared.

Geez, what a nest! Look at the size of that thing. Some eagles nests have weighed in around the 1500 lbs. range.  Somewhat like having a Volkswagen Beetle up in your tree.  Somehow they know to pick the right tree to park a Volkswagen Beetle in.

Song Sparrow, I think. So many sparrows. It was very happy on it's perch by the high water of the Minnesota River.

And what spring phenology list would be complete with our friend the Red-winged blackbird, a.k.a. 'RWBB.'  This gentleman was definitely protecting a nest near the base of the eagle nest tree, reading us the riot act for spending too much time in the neighborhood. His expression looks diplomatic enough. "I got nothin' a'gin ya, I'm jus tryin' ta prolong my species here." 

I can dig it. Happy Spring. Welcome back, Sir.

April 11, 2009 - Babes in the Woods, and Waters, and Cockroach boxes...

They say, (whoever "they" are) that Spring is a time for rebirth. It's also a time for just plain old birth! Look at this good looking little fellow! At Springbrook Nature Center the stork brought us a couple baskets of joy the other day. One was this soft-shelled turtle baby, which I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's a Spiny-softshelled turtle, although it could be a Common Softshell. 
The book (Amphibians and Reptiles of the North Woods) says the difference is that the Spiny has yellow stripes behind the eyes and mouth, and somewhat "C" shaped nostril holes, where the Common has round nostril holes. The "Spiny" comes from the females having a ridge of short spines on their upper shell (the carapace) behind the head. The males have more round or solid "spots", whereas the females generally have a mottled camouflage pattern of irregular shapes.
This turtle is so young it's hard to tell from both the nostrils and spiny edges. It definitely has the stripes. It was probably born within the last week or two at the very most. This seems pretty early for baby turtles of any type in Minnesota right now, we're just getting into the 50F's on a semi-regular basis, with near-freezing temps at night still.

Turtle doodle. The Softshells are so-called because of their soft shells (!), compared to the relatively hardshell helmets of almost all other turtles. As you can see from their bottom, the plastron (bottom shell piece) is VERY soft and very small, making it a vulnerable area for them. You don't often get this view of the softshells, they know it's a vulnerability and are protective of their bottoms. They don't have teeth, but the jaws themselves are pretty sharp and can clamp down with a lot of force. They also have sharp claws which mostly used for manipulating food and digging nests, but can do some damage when trying to pick them up. Note also the large webbed feet, which make them great swimmers. This is a good thing because they spend probably 80% of their time in the water. They also have specially adapted tissues near their cloaca (um, that is, their bum) and throat which allow them to absorb oxygen through their skin while underwater.
This gives them the ability to stay under water for very long periods of time, reaching into hours. 
They are surprisingly fast on land as well, as I think they feel safer in the water and beat ass to get back to their comfortable habitat as soon as they can. They usually lay their eggs very close to water. They will also bury themselves in the mud in the warm silty shallows of rivers and lakes deep enough so that their long necks will just barely allow their snorkel noses to break the surface of the water, so as not to give away the position of the entire animal. Kind of the stealthy "Navy-Seal" of the reptile world.

Note the large webbed feet, and these are the fronts, the rear ones are usually even bigger.
I think they look a lot more like sea turtles than any of our other Minnesota varieties.
We have an adult Spiny at Springbrook now, and she's lived there a long time, I think on the order of ten years or more. She has the reputation of being an aggressive bad-ass with the other naturalists, but so far her and I seem to have a mutual respect for one another. I've been in her tank with my hands for cleaning and she's checked me out, but doesn't seem threatened or interested unless I have food (worms or minnows). She doesn't like to be handled though either. She hasn't lashed out, but you can tell she's not comfortable with it. The best method I've come up with to move her into a temporary tank is to scoop her out with a long-handled spaghetti colander. The water runs out and she is immobilized for a short time without being able to thrash around too much. Then when I put her in the new tank, the water lifts her up and I just take the colander out from under her. Al Dente.
She has interesting skin, somewhat leathery, not at all slimy. They say the males have coarser skin with a texture like sandpaper. All in all a very interesting animal, one of my personal favorites.
We also had a baby snapping turtle "show up," of about the same size on the same day that we go the Softshell. Since we already have three of them of all sizes and had those eggs hatch in the park last year, I think we will have to find a new home for that little guy.

The shells of the Soft-shells are nearly round influencing many to call them "pancake" turtles. 
They sure look at home in the water, you can be looking at a silty river bottom not seeing anything but mud and all of a sudden they lift off of like a Manta ray, and can spin a 360 on a dime in the water. We have them in the Mississippi River and in some of our larger, warmer lakes.

Then, just as I was digesting the miracle of turtle life, I went to mist our new brood of Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches.  Lo & behold!  A female seemed to have an egg sac protruding from her posterior. These things (the bugs themselves) are about three to four inches long, and the egg sacs are about an inch to an inch and a half long. They look almost exactly like a wax worm coming out of the animal's butt.
The interesting thing (to me at least) is that these cockroaches incubate the eggs in the egg sac, and then give "live birth" out of the mother, with about 10 -15 offspring at a time...
So what is going on with this egg sac hanging out of her butt...?
Well, from what I gather, the female will at times protrude the egg sac to re-arrange the eggs from a horizontal position to a vertical one, so that she can creep through a small space, or perhaps just as part of the natural maternal process, or to control their temperature. She then withdraws the sac back into her abdomen for further incubation, or if the eggs are "duds," she casts off the sac and aborts the little resource hogs. 
I'm not sure if these female insects have the ability to lay infertile eggs as snakes do, that is, eggs which develop WITHOUT male fertilization, "just to keep the plumbing working" as it were. Ahh, with every answer there is a question. That's the great thing about nature, the universe, and everything.
Whether the saying, "they're all cute as babies" will apply to these babes if these hatch, remains to be seen.
I looked for the egg sac the next day, and it was nowhere to be found...

April 8th, 2009 - Spring Phenology Check-in

Hapdog and I ventured upstream towards the willows yesterday, and signs of spring abounded. The mallards were paired up (mostly) in every little alcove of the stream. We tend to take them for granted here I think because we see them so often, but they can be amazingly vivid in the bright sun and glistening with the water.
I had seen a mink swimming in the creek just down from here, but I couldn't get a clear shot through all the branches starting to bud out. We waited and waited, but he never surfaced again, so we walked on. I kept looking back, expecting him to pop up somewhere downstream, but he disappeared into his hidden underwater labyrinth.

Nice office space for a naturalist. Who needs a desk when you have a view like that, and a Weeping Willow as a curtain? Hold all my calls...

Another example of yoga behavior in animals. Maybe it's more of a Tai Chi thing with ducks.
Be in the moment, and you will find your inner duck.

This little guy was singing his heart out from the top of the tree. He had so many little trills and whistles and slurs, I'd hate to have to transcribe his sheet music. There was actually a large flock all singing back and forth along the creek, a veritable symphony of finches. Mother Nature conducting.

And how can the neighborhood skate kid NOT get out the board and the mini-ramp on a day like this. Putting' the body English on it. We've got gravity, we might not understand it, but why waste it...?
Spring Phenology check boxes.

April 6th, 2009 - Off-Kilter

Off -kilter
1. not in perfect balance, slightly askew.
2. eccentric, unconventional.

Yeah, that seems like it lately. Things are a bit askew. Not quite sure why or where it came from. Just like the origin of "off-kilter." In one book says it comes from "kelter" which meant "normal" and was in use around the 1640's & 50's. In another it says it didn't show up until circa 1941, but it doesn't cite why. Eh, why question chaos.

Haven't seen this angle of evening light for awhile. This one has fill-flash, but still there's something I like about this pic. Just a simple picture of a simple tree. Eking out a living in the city.

The dead kale. Stinky, rotten kale, fertilizing itself for next year. It looks like a picked over skeleton, as it should. It used to be a proud purple plant with frilly leaves. Entropy. Death and rebirth. Decay. It's all necessary.


A very miserable fungus. 
Change will come. Off-kilter is only defined by the perspective of the observer.