Search for a Snowy Owl {in Iowa}

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Coralee, June, & I traveled over a hundred miles north Tuesday morning to Howard County in order to locate a Snowy Owl. In Iowa. This is the second winter in a row that Snowy Owls have been on an irruptive streak in the upper Midwest, traveling far south of their arctic tundra homelands. The bulk of the sightings in our “area” have been along Lake Michigan in eastern WI.  We had been planning a trip to Wisconsin this month to visit family & to hopefully see a Snowy, but our schedule just hasn’t cooperated.  Thanks to the awesome email discussion list operated by the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union, I was aware there was one, possibly two, Snowy Owls making their presence known in northern Iowa since the New Year.  The listserv Monday night contained a fantastic description of where a confirmed Snowy had been spotted earlier in the day, so I told Coralee to be ready Tuesday morning. We were going to hit the road & hope for the best.

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Late Tuesday morning we arrived in Howard County & drove around a section of bare agricultural fields for about 45 minutes searching for the Snowy without any luck. Saw a lot of Horned Larks. We parked along the side of Iris Avenue on a ridge overlooking the exact field on which the owl was sighted yesterday and began to scan again. I noticed a car parked on the road perpendicular to ours (70th St) with someone sticking out the moon/sun roof with a pair of binoculars. They had to be birders. We slowly made our way down the road & off the ridge, all the while Coralee was scanning the field for the owl with her binoculars. Eventually we parked near the other car; the occupants motioned us to drive up, windows rolled down, & the kind birders (I swear, birders in Iowa are some of the nicest people anywhere) told us the owl was out in the field–between two dirt clods. We pulled off to the side of the road and started looking. Took about a minute to find. No words. It was just so cool.  In the photo above you can see one of the dirt clods & the Snowy on the far right.

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We are fairly confident that this Snowy is a juvenile male. Definitely a male. And not quite full grown due to the presence of some black barring on its back & chest. Adult males are almost or completely pure white. White as snow.  Females have a lot more barring all over.  He sat in the snow the entire time we watched him.  Constantly turning his head back and forth, sweeping the fields.  A Horned Lark landed very close to him, possibly three feet away; he watched the lark for awhile, but made no movement toward it.  He looked at our cars a lot.  I’d estimate he was about 30-40 yards out, south of 70th Street.  My “good” camera remains in limbo–needs a new battery, a new memory card, and the lenses need to be re-fitted.  Coralee was so.very.mad I did not take care of all that before we left.  I honestly did not think we would find the owl!  Oh me of little faith!

Snowy Owl in an agricultural field; Howard County, Iowa

Snowy Owl in an agricultural field; Howard County, Iowa

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And so Coralee was forced to resort to digiscoping photos, again.  The girl is getting really good at this.

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June was less than impressed after about 45 minutes of this crazy ‘birdwatching from cars’ that all her family members seem to enjoy so much.  It was time to go.  We needed to head back south anyway in order pick Merritt up from the bus on time.  Plus the weather went from magnificent….
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…to blizzard-like in under a minute. It was crazy!  Our owl disappeared behind sheets of blowing snow.
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Coralee was particularly proud of this photo she digiscoped, so I’ve used it in the post twice.  Coralee & I both added ‘Snowy Owl’ to our Life Lists today.  Someday June can, too, if she takes up birding (poor kid if she doesn’t–she’s been on so many trips already!).  If you are interested in finding a birding listserv in your state, click here.  Some of these links are dead (like the Iowa one), but I’m sure most are not.  We also saw a Northern Saw-whet Owl over the weekend in Iowa.  February is quickly becoming one of my favorite months.  For birding.  It’s been gosh darn COLD otherwise! :)

friends in fiber {yarn along}

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Northern Flicker, Yellow-shafted male

Northern Flicker, Yellow-shafted male

A dear friend of mine who moved away a couple years ago to NE Iowa (one of my favorite places!) sent Coralee & I a pair of Lenticular Mitts.  The package arrived over the weekend & the mitts fit both of us perfectly…so there has been a friendly tug-of-war going on here over who gets to wear the mitts & when. :)  Coralee has been wearing the set every day, all day in the house.  The windchill this morning is registering at -20’F.  Even with a fire, our house is cold.  Thank you so much, my dear friend, for this lovely gift!  It is truly tragic that we did not realize our shared love of fiber (& birds & steel-cut oats) until after you moved away!  I’m sure our friendship sprung up anyway because of fiber love–knitting minds just think alike. xx

I continue to stitch away on my pattern for Mountain Girl Yarns.  Watching the colors of Sierra Madre knit up in the round is fascinating.  So many different color brews, but each seems to compliment the whole perfectly.  How do dyers do it? Another treasured friend in fiber across the miles.

Not reading anything new at the moment.  We saw our first Northern Flicker at the yard feeders yesterday afternoon.  It is a very common woodpecker here in Iowa & there is a large population living in a stand of hickory trees about 300 yards west of our house, but they seldom visit our feeders.  They often fly across the drive in front of my car as I’m coming up the hill.  I catch a flashing glimpse of the brilliant gold-yellow underside to their wings.  Such an intricately-patterned bird.  I like to think that both of my friends mentioned in this post would appreciate a Northern Flicker sighting as much as I.

Joining in with Ginny.

Playing with color

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Common Merganser, female

Common Merganser, female

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IMG_4601[1]Coralee &I have been experimenting with color as of late.  She’s been hard at work on her latest edition of “A Prairie Girl’s Notebook,” writing about the owl we spotted over a week ago.  She also labored for countless hours on her entry for this year’s Junior Duck Stamp Contest.  I think the duck species she chose–the Common Merganser–is just beautiful.  I was flipping through her sketchbook & found the rough sketches to be just as engaging as the final copies.

Camilla (at Mountain Girl Yarns) & I are collaborating on a pattern this spring.  I spent most of Sunday afternoon playing with two of her splendid new skeins.  I am so excited to partner with her again–fingers crossed I can come up with something worthy of her superior dyeing skills!  She’s currently giving 15% off all yarns in her shop using the coupon code VAL2015.  One skein is perfect for a soft, lovely newborn baby vest, I’ve found.  A gift any new mother would treasure. xx

As I sat & stitched yesterday afternoon, June played on the back porch with her kitties (instead of helping her daddy stack wood).  Pepper sure loves the attention from her colorful little friend.  Winter in the Midwest is biting back hard this month after lying dormant for so long.  Time to drench your soul in color.

February finds us…

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Trying desperately to ski.

The huge snow we were blessed with this month has become an unwieldy, wet mess that is decidedly NOT optimal (or even so-so) for cross-country skiing. My skis are waxless, which is not helping. I tried very VERY hard to make skiing work over the weekend. I just wound up frustrated.

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Venturing to Faulkes Heritage Woods in search of a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers.

No luck. A very nice couple was out plowing their driveway next to the woods & told us they’ve seen the woodpeckers a few times at their yard feeders this year.  We’ll be back.

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Toasty.

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Building outdoor bonfires & cooking polish for dinner under the moonlight.

Saturday evening was such a great night.

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Chasing more rare gulls.

We got word of several rare gulls at Cedar Lake (a pathetic excuse for a lake, owned by the local power company & leased to the city; it is actually “a river slough that was modified around 1890 to become a cooling lake for the Sixth Street power generating station” according to the city’s website).  We raced over after Merritt got off school, not realizing the gulls are gone during the day & only return to the lake to roost at night.  The rare gulls we spotted (a Greater Black-backed, a Lesser Black-backed, & a Glaucous) flew in well after 6pm.  It was nearly dark.  We were freezing.  I could barely hold my binoculars steady.  My legs had basically froze off an hour before.  But it was so worth it.  While we waited, we observed some local gluttonous Canada Geese eating corn off the top of a train car parked nearby.  The older kids found it crazy.

I promise that is a Glaucous Gull (right).  Could this photo be any worse???

I promise that is a Glaucous Gull (right). Could this photo be any worse???

This is a terrible photo taken with a crappy cell phone through a scope in the waning light. This Glaucous Gull is a juvenile.  A HUGE gull.  There were at least six or seven local, experienced bird watchers/birders also at the lake that night (Monday).  They were extremely helpful individuals.  I don’t think we would have located all three rarities without their knowledge & assistance.  The birding world is such an awesome place.  I did manage to spot the Lesser Black-backed Gull (an adult) by myself as it flew in before anyone else.  That felt good. :)

How does February find you?

Spotted: Eastern Screech-Owl (red morph)

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The girls & I raced out to our local nature center on Wednesday this week around noon in order to {hopefully} catch a glimpse of the Eastern Screech-Owl that has taken up {temporary?} residence in a maple tree mere feet from the Director’s office window. When we arrived, the winds were howling & snow was drifting on the roads. We first tried to view the owl from outside with our binoculars & could just barely make out its left ear tuft, s/he was snuggled down deep in the cavity. We went inside & chatted with the lead naturalist & the director for about a half-hour, hoping the owl would move to the front of the tree cavity again. Coralee’s Band class time was nearing, so we asked if we could play a recorded call to coax the owl out a bit? The naturalist opened the window a crack & played the Eastern Screech-Owl’s trilling/whinnying call.  Magic!  It slowly crept forward into the bright sunlight.  What a magnificent sight!  Its rufous coloring was striking.  A common owl throughout its range & found anywhere there are woodlands, but particularly near water.  There is a stream flowing directly behind the nature center.  This owl has been sunning itself in the cavity opening for several days running now.  The naturalist is hoping s/he is able to locate a mate in the area & nest right where it is–smack dab in front of her boss’s window.  What a divine happenstance that would be!

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Coralee took all these photos with her scope & iPod from atop the director’s desk.  They were so kind to allow us to intrude into their private office space for almost a half-hour!  Most people only ever hear the Eastern Screech-Owl, it’s quite uncommon to see one.  This species has two main color variations–grey (more common) & this red or rufous.  It was quite a treat to observe, Iapologizeforthis, this ADORABLE bird.  Number 29 on my bird list for 2015!

Have you ever located owls in the daylight?  This is literally the first wild one I have ever seen in broad daylight.

Baby Jesus is Saved from a T-rex Attack

I am quite certain it’s a sign the holiday decorations have been up much much too long when your three-year-old turns the manger scene into a dog-pile because a certain toy T-rex tried to attack the Baby Jesus & the three Wise Men stepped in to handle the situation! In my own defense, however, this is one of the last decorations left up in my house–the rest were put away shortly after New Year’s Day.  When I asked June about this “T-rex in the Manger” scene, she laughed uproariously & promptly ran away from me…I think it’s awesome when kids reach an age at which the deranged clever things they do tickle their own funny bones. :)

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This photo is just because…our view on the drive into town this morning. The moon was absolutely showing off.
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The Sixth Extinction in my backyard {yarn along}

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I finished reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History over the weekend. I also basically neglected my knitting & have been doing so for a couple weeks. I started a baby vest for another childhood friend’s baby (due in June) using a skein of Camilla’s baby-soft Merino in Toasted Almond, but haven’t gotten much further into the pattern than the back cast-on plus a few rows. I’ve got time.

The Sixth Extinction is such an exceptional book I truly do not know how to properly write a review, a review worthy of the book. Kolbert is a gifted writer. She has the ability to make very complicated scientific principles, theories, & concepts completely understandable to the general public & she does so with beauty.  Her writing is beautiful.  The book was exciting, interesting, informative, and also just plain sad.  It is a long-view of extinction in a mere thirteen chapters, each chapter focusing mostly on a particular species or group (either a species currently battling the forces of extinction or one from the past).  The book explores Panamanian golden frogs, Mastodons, the Great Auk, ammonites, graptolites, coral reefs, ocean acidification, invasive species, the Sumatran Rhino, Neanderthals, Hawaiian crows, while also giving extensive background on the five mass extinctions that have already taken place on Earth.

My main take-away from the book is that human beings are special.  We are so very special.  And this Earth upon which we have trod for thousands of years is our responsibility.  Being the curious, inventive, beautiful beings that we are, we have placed ourselves at the summit of Earth’s fate, whether we like it or not.  We’ve rearranged the Earth in a blindingly quick amount of time.  The diversity of our world is astounding & the number of species that have either disappeared forever or are on the brink gives you whiplash.

The final chapter addresses the Hawaiian crow.  I think I did shed a tear or two, but I’m probably more emotionally-fragile than the average person.  I can cry easily.  But I also feel deeply.  Kolbert writes, “Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.  No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy.”  Whether you agree or not with Kolbert (& most scientists) that we are the puppetmasters in a “sixth extinction” or “Holocene extinction” or “Anthropocene extinction,” it is a mass extinction nonetheless.  An extinction that is riding across all life forms–no group is being spared.

I did a little birding from my window on Tuesday while still contemplating the book.  There is a group of Mourning Doves that lives in our Pileated Woods & they often visit our feeders.  One dove lingered at the feeder far longer than her dule.  Males & females look the same, but I called this particular dove Martha in my head, probably after the last Passenger Pigeon to die in captivity.  Coralee & I recently presented an activity at our local nature center about Martha & it’s still on my mind, I guess.

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I never realized that Mourning Doves have beautiful pink-red feet & blue eye shadow! ;)  Such a pretty bird.  Common throughout its range & one of the most widely-hunted birds in North America.  I’ve never paid this species much thought.  My family likes to add birds to our “Life Lists” and “Big Year Lists” & of course that’s always exciting, but we also try to appreciate  the birds that inhabit our woods & yard day-in & day-out.

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Male House Sparrow second from left, facing camera.

The Sixth Extinction got me thinking about what more than likely lies ahead for our backyards. If we stay on our present track, the Earth’s diversity will eventually homogenize & contain just under 50% of our present bird species (Kolbert 213). So invasive species are here to stay & I need to rethink my disgust for the House Sparrow! The House Sparrow was introduced to the U.S. in the mid-1800s. It’s now found everywhere. Diversity needs to be appreciated for diversity sake…& soon…I don’t want my great-grandchildren to only see House Sparrows, but I also recognize House Sparrows are part of the web of diversity as well. And many of the birds, & grasses, & flowers, & animals we appreciate here in Iowa as being “native” are more than likely a nuisance somewhere else–an invasive species. And that’s on us. These animals didn’t just up & move all on their own. Such a complicated book, but one I feel is important to us as humans.  I don’t expect everyone to latch on to the idea of a sixth extinction, but extinction facts are extinction facts.  Kolbert doesn’t fudge the numbers.

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I felt like Martha was looking right at me…I know she wasn’t, but still…

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Then she fluffed up against the cold & seemed to take a nap.
A nap constantly interrupted by the House Sparrows flitting in the snow all around her.

And I, being the curious species that I am, sat appreciating this little bird.

Joining in with Ginny.