Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Intelligence or Luck?

The wildlife on Cedar Ridge never ceases to amaze me.  When I recount my interactions with wildlife, I come up with a long list of marvelous personalities.  Each bringing back special memories from different seasons of the year.  The white tail deer are at the top of this list.
Firearm deer season ends the week before Thanksgiving; November and December pass, along with the bow and black powder deer seasons.  The white tails finally get a respite in the woodlands and I always wonder if any of our local deer will return. 


Most of the ridge returnees and survivors come back in January.  Cold, snow and predators, bring them from the deep inland forest to the ridges overlooking Lake Superior.  They gather in the white cedars and yard up in our area for the duration of the winter.

I think the most beautiful deer, was a three year returnee we called Spotty (original, at best).  We watched him grow from a six point buck into a majestic ten pointer.  He was not the largest buck in the forest, but when he walked up the ridge from the valley, he had a presence of royalty.  

Spotty had a series of three white spots above his nose and below his eyes. His markings and antlers were distinct, plus he exhibited a special personality.  He would spend time in our yard drinking out of the heated bird bath and licking the salt block in the front yard.  

This year we have three returnees.  One, two year veteran and two that have been coming back since 2005.  The two year buck came back in December and the other two this January.

                                                                                                   December Buck

The two most intriguing survivors returned in January.  One we call Black Buck and the other we named Blinky.  Black Buck was a twin fawn on the ridge in the winter of 2005, he stayed here until the end of March when I took in the salt block and heated bird bath.  At that time, I give them the "time to disappear deep into the forest speech".  In a few days as the weather warms and the snow disappears, the deer are gone for another year.  We seldom see them until October or after the deer hunting seasons end on December 31.  The Black Buck and Blinky returned in 2006, missed 2007, but they came back in 2008.  I was really surprised this year when on January 24, they both returned.  

                                                                                                       Black Buck

I was standing in the patio window, when the black one walked up through the two feet of snow on the front lawn.  His coloring, ears and markings are unmistakable.  I opened the door and called him, he walked up to the patio and stood looking at me in the window.  I put on my coat and went to the garage to get some corn.  When I came out the garage door, he immediately stuck his head in the corn bucket.  As he ate his corn, I scratched him behind the ears and petted his black forehead. 
The Black Buck is like an enigma.  He is skinny, his fur is short and not thick like the other bucks.  I humorously tell people that he must have returned from the Bahamas....... he does not look like a typical northeastern Minnesota white tail.  Last year he would meet me in the forest, way up on the ridge and follow me home for a handful of corn and a scratch behind the ears.  


This morning I walked up the ridge to fill the trail bird feeder.  I put this feeder up a few weeks ago at the height of the subzero outbreak.  When I got there, I turned and saw Blinky standing off to my side browsing in the alders and moose maple.  She followed me up the trail because she knows the sunflower seeds are littered around the bird feeder.  She won't let me feed her by hand or pet her, but she will browse within feet of me.  

The Black Buck will not come close to other people.  Mary tried to feed him one day when I was gone and he wouldn't come close to her.  I suspect that this has kept him alive through the past deer hunting seasons.  When the other big bucks are fighting for domination of the ridge, the Black Buck stands off in the distance.  His ears are usually cupped forward and he is watching down into the valley for any danger signs.  I suspect that he may have more "Intelligence and Luck" than many of his white tailed companions.

"To protect what is wild is to protect what is gentle.  Perhaps the wilderness we fear is the pause within our own heartbeats, the silent space that says we live only by grace.  Wilderness lives by this same grace."  Terry Tempest Williams

Thursday, January 22, 2009


                                                                       Lake Superior Sunrise

Yesterday, Mary and I awakened to a particularly beautiful Lake Superior sunrise from our bedroom window.  As we were admiring the colors of the sunrise, we heard a soft bump at our patio door.
One of our bucks was not as impressed with the short term beauty of the sunrise.  Poised at our patio door, he was patiently waiting for his morning ration of corn.  He wanders by at all times of the day, using his big, brown eyes as a tool for extracting human compassion... in the form of golden kernels of corn... which usually works.

After feeding the buck, who lost his antlers in mid December, we decided to take a run up the Gunflint Trail.  

The Gunflint runs north and northwest of Grand Marais, around 58 miles in length.  When I get a mile or so past Hedstrom's Saw Mill, it feels like I am driving into the old TV show "Northern Exposure".  It is always a drive of anticipation.  One never knows what wonder of nature will appear, for in each season it is always a "roll of the dice". 

We had not gone far up the trail when I spotted a flock of medium sized birds.  They flew out of the woods and landed in the alders close to the Trail.  Parking on the Trail is a premium, especially in the winter with more than 50 inches of snow on the ground.  We were fortunate to find a driveway and mailbox clearing to park our Jeep.  I got out and walked quietly, trying to get in the proper light for photos of what we identified as waxwings.
I thought at first that they were Bohemian Waxwings.  The reason being, that Grand Marais at times, is a host for flocks of Bohemian Waxwings... by the hundreds if not thousands.  It is quite a sight to see when they descend on the mountain ash and decorative crab apple trees.  I think if a count was made, Grand Marais would probably have the most mountain ash trees of any town it's size in America.  At any rate, when we got a close look, the flock of two dozen or more turned out to be their cousins the Cedar Waxwings.
Cedar Waxwings

It was difficult to photograph the waxwings because of the heavy traffic, which is in itself strange for winter on the the Trail.  I did get a few decent shots for identification purposes and it was good to see the Cedars again... I hadn't seen them since October on Oberg Mt., eight miles from our home.

We ended up at Trail Center which is a great restaurant, located as the name implies, half way up the Gunflint Trail.  We are never disappointed with the food, but we found that they were not feeding the birds this winter season.  Our window seats facing their deck was void of any bird life, so we enjoyed the wonderful chili and started homeward bound.

The bird list for the trip included the Cedar Waxwings, White-winged Crossbills, Redpolls, Ravens, Pine Grosbeaks and one lone robin.  For some strange reason, we have seen more robins this winter than we normally see here in the spring and summer.  Plus, they are not your metro lawn robins, they are "wilder than a March hare robins".  They are almost impossible to photograph in the wild, kind of like the elusive raven.... I ramble.

                                                                    Common Redpoll

When I returned home, I walked up the ridge into the national forest to check on my friend Norris and his band of itinerant chickadees.  All was well, and they met me with a hungry appetite for hulled sunflower seeds.  The hearts are their favorite food and they enjoy the fact that there is no "chiseling" involved when I show up.  They are spoiled, but they appreciate the "gourmet" seeds.

All in all it was a glorious winter day and I find each day, that happiness isn't always something you experience.  It is also what you anticipate, learn and remember.

Enjoy each day. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Snow can be a blessing or curse if you are a bird or animal enduring the harsh northeast Minnesota winters.  Cedar Ridge has received over 50 inches of snow since December 1 and some of our resident animals are having a difficult time.

The deer are close to belly deep in some areas where they browse.  It is difficult for them to ground feed in this snow, so they are browsing heavily in the moose maple and alder.  I haven't noticed any wolf kills so far this winter season, but it is early yet.  Last year I counted six wolf kills from January until March, quite a few for our immediate area.
                     Gray Fox
Gray fox seem to disappear from our ridge for lengthy times during heavy snow periods.  We have had gray fox families on our ridge for the 5 years we have lived here.  Mother gray fox raised a litter of kits a few years ago.  One of her kits stayed and raised two litters until her death last spring, a story in itself for a later post.  I don't know the exact order, but they hate wind, heavy snow and coyotes.  Our first year on the ridge, we had a 15 inch snowfall and the fox was gone for over two weeks.  Returning only after the snow had settled and they could follow the deer trails and my snowshoe trails.

Today was an exceptionally mild day, the temperature hit +18 so I strapped on the snowshoes and headed up the ridge.  After each modest snowfall, I have been breaking trail through the white cedars and the ridges of moose maple.  I do this to make the travel more easy for the animals.  Each day when I return, I find tracks of deer, fox and two days ago a timber wolf.  Today after I made a half mile circle, I found deer had followed my trail back down the ridge.

On a side note, I am never alone on my snowshoe trips.  A few chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches meet me as I approach the first clearing on the trail.  I whistled a few times and the whole flock flew towards me to dine on their favorite seeds.  I continued up to the end of our land where it adjoins the Superior National Forest.

                     Norris's Nemesis 
Invariably, when I reach our land boundary, a humorous confrontation results... like clockwork. Exactly at the land line, two other Red-breasted Nuthatches, are not at all enamored with my feathered entourage.  Nuthatches are very territorial and unlike chickadees, they do not appreciate the arrival of my two nuthatch friends.  The perimeter around the seeds in my hand becomes a noisy battleground of the two male and female nuthatches.  The two males are fluttering beak to beak like hummingbirds, noisily trying to out posture the other.  Each time this happens, I have to laugh out loud and I tell them like little children to "share".  While this confrontation is taking place, the chickadees get to dine in peace, but not quiet.
The border line between these four nuthatches reminds me of a canine invisible fence.  It really is incredible how they know the line of their territories.  I am not sure of the exact distance they venture in and out of their territory.  If you could find their home and stake out a line, I believe their territory would make a radius of around 500 yards.  There are times however; that a pair of nuthatches will follow me the entire time I am in the woods... which at times ranges from 3 to 8 hours.

It is always interesting to return to the forest the next day to see who has been traveling the snowshoe trails.

Monday, January 19, 2009


At 68, I haven't figured out "the true meaning of life", but I am getting close.
Five years ago, my wife Mary and I built a retirement home on a ridge overlooking Lake Superior.  We designed and built the house ourselves,  from September of '03 to July of '04.  It was a labor of love and it turned out, much to our delight, a cozy, energy efficient home in the wilderness of northeast Minnesota.

I fell in love with this area forty one years ago, hunting deer with my good friend Marland .  The area being homestead land of his dad and mom, Isak and Minnie.  Each fall for 41 years, I walked the deer trails not knowing that I would be virtually living on my old deer stand.
When construction ended, my old hobbies of birding, knife making and fishing took center stage.  In the ensuing months on our Cedar Ridge, the knife making and fishing suddenly "fell off the stage".  I found that hiking the ridge, observing the wildlife was taking up the majority of my time.  Birding was spectacular and the variety of animals was down right amazing. Observing the wildlife became the watchword of each day.  Some days Mary would accompany me up and down the ridge's trails, logging the sightings of the various flora and fauna.
The daily observations and sightings became increasingly difficult to remember.  I am not sure whose idea it was, but I decided to buy a digital camera to record the day's sightings.  The obsession began.

To this day, I never leave the house without my camera.  I am on the fourth camera and researching the fifth and hopefully last ultimate SLR and lenses.  Which leads me to the "Cast of Characters" that inhabit Cedar Ridge.

I have photographed at least 22 varieties of warblers, moose, deer, fishers, pine martens, bear, gray & red fox and too many other animals and birds to list.  In the upcoming posts, I will describe my interactions with some of the more precocious inhabitants of Cedar Ridge... past and present. 
 My trail into the Superior National Forest starts 50 feet from our house.  Each day I walk as far as a small clearing on the trail.  I stop and place kernels of sunflower hearts in the palm of my hand. In a matter of seconds, I see an undulating flock of birds flying down the trail.  By their flight it is not difficult to discern their identity as Black-capped Chickadees.  The leader of the flock is first to alight in my hand, with the rest perched in surrounding trees, ready to take their turn.  The polite chickadees take the seeds out of my hand and ready themselves for the arrival of the "King of Cedar Ridge".  

In a matter of seconds, two Red-breasted Nuthatches follow the same flight path as the chickadees.  The female is usually first, followed by the male.  I have named them Noreen and Norris, "King of Cedar Ridge".  They have entertained me for over two years and their escapades will be discussed in future postings.

When these little birds land in my hand each day, the first sentence of this post isn't necessarily all tongue-in-cheek.    When you look deep into their eyes, John Muir's quote rings true, "In God's wilderness lies the hope of the world".   

Until next time......