Thursday, February 26, 2009


Tuesday was a beautiful winter day, boasting a gorgeous blue sky... second to none.  Mary and I hopped in the Jeep and headed for Grand Marais.

                                                                     Cedar Waxwing

We meandered up the Gunflint Trail a few miles and turned down the Trout Lake road.  I thought with some good luck, we might be fortunate to see a moose or Canada Lynx.  We drove a number of miles, but never saw one track crossing or along side the road.  So, when all else fails, have lunch.

Entering Grand Marais, we hit a birding bonanza.  In the mountain ash trees, we saw dozens of Cedar Waxwings feeding on the over ripe berries.  The birds, framed against the azure blue sky and red, mountain ash berries, were spectacular.  I took photos for more than an hour and was fortunate to get the best Cedar Waxwing photos to date.

We went to the "Crooked Spoon" restaurant for lunch.  It is a marvelous restaurant, featuring gourmet sandwiches and specials that would "top off" a starving logger.
Later, we returned to the mountain ash trees, but the Cedar Waxwings had left.  We drove to the Grand Marais Municipal Campground to look for the waxwings.  In the park, we not only found the waxwings, but a small flock of female Pine Grosbeaks.  They proved to be more docile and approachable than the waxwings, so I ended up with a few, flawless Pine Grosbeak shots.

                                                                 Female Pine Grosbeak

The next day I returned to Grand Marias, to search once more for the waxwings.  I found them and a few male Pine Grosbeaks on my first attempt.  I stayed there for over a hour, snapping more than a hundred photos and enjoying the pristine, winter day.  When all the birds disappeared, I left to check out the mountain ash trees in town.  In a previous post, I mentioned that Grand Marais, for it's size, must have the most mountain ash trees in America.  It is a birders paradise in the fall, winter and spring... at least while the berries are hanging on.  This winter, the berries are still thick on the trees, but are starting to fall off with the changes in the weather.  The snow below the trees is stained red by the fallen fruit.

                                                       American Robin  Jan. 22, 2009

Making my way through town, street by street, I passed the Art Colony building.  Earlier, on January 22, I had taken an American Robin photo in the hawthorn tree by the building.  As I turned the corner, I noticed a few Cedar Waxwings flying out of the hawthorn tree.  I parked the car, took my camera and walked over to the hawthorn tree.

The Cedar Waxwings flew out of a pine tree, returning to the hawthorn tree.  When they attempted to land, a rust colored missile, flew chirping out of a pine, directly behind the hawthorn tree.  It was the  same robin I photographed in January; he was guarding his waning treasure of  hawthorn fruit.

                                                                          "On Guard"

I stayed there and took photos of his relentless "strafing" of the Cedar Waxwings.  The waxwings would perch in the nearby pines and any attempt to land was thwarted by the "mad bomber."  It was hilarious to watch and photograph.  Finally, after nearly thirty minutes of chasing waxwings away from his tree, he pursued the remainder down the street... and didn't return. 
I suspected he would be back at dusk for his evening meal and taking up his post as the 'Sentinel and Guardian of the Hawthorn Tree.'

"Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher." ~ William Wordsworth 

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


                                                                             Gray Fox
Few animals on Cedar Ridge have provided us with more entertainment and beauty than the Gray Fox.

                                                                          Gray Fox

We first saw the Gray Fox one evening during the early winter of 2005.  It was just a glimpse, after they set off our motion light in our front yard .  The 2005-06 winter was particularly snowy, with a total of about  1oo inches of snow. I had seen a Gray Fox once before, in our back yard when we lived in Aitkin County.  That sighting was also in the winter, at night, during a light snow fall.  The two fox begin returning sporadically, checking out the scraps we had been putting out for our Pine Martens and Fishers.  The fox got used to the motion light, but when I opened the front door, they would run down into the cedars.  I told Mary if it was possible to assemble a fantasy animal baseball team, the Gray Fox would probably play shortstop.  When they are frightened, the first 30 yard sprint is an actual blur.  If you could zap them with a radar gun, it has to be an incredible speed in such a short distance. 
                                                                             Gray Fox

Each night the fox  would stay for longer periods of time.  Sadly, we could see they both were rather emaciated.  The deep snow had provided a difficult barrier for the hunting of mice,voles and hares.  We started putting out more scraps and finally some dry and canned dog food, which by morning had disappeared. 

Gray Fox breed in the winter from January - March, there is a 51-53 gestation period.  It is widely know in fox literature, that the Gray Fox has the ability to climb trees.  I have never seen this happen, but I once had a pet Red Fox that I watched climb a spruce tree like walking up stairs... and back down with adept dexterity and grace. 
At times, we were treated to strange sounds emitting from the deep cedars.   When we opened a door the male fox would bark, making a rasping, piercing sound, much like a large cat in a jungle movie.  If you were camping and didn't know what this racket was, you would probably  sleep with one eye open... it is that erie a sound.  I believe these male fox antics vary from being territorial, to a mating ritual... or possibly both.
Both fox came through the winter in great shape and became evening sentinels along our forest edge.  We would see them each night after their dining, sitting, preening and cleaning each other's fur.  The female fox gradually spent time on our lawn when the snow melted.  She would curl up in a ball and sleep for a period of time, obviously in complete trust of her surroundings.  The male would stay in the forest and not be as visible, but he was always on guard for signs of danger.
The Gray Fox is a nocturnal animal, so we seldom would see them during the day.  As the days grew longer, they would come at their regular time, but we now could see them more clearly and appreciate their beauty.  The Gray Fox is a stunning animal and I jokingly refer that their face and nose looks "pin stripped", like a sports car.  The body of the fox is salt and pepper gray, with a rufus red neck and shoulders.  Their tail is a beautiful thick, rust to gray with a black stripe from the back to the very tip.  When they sit, their tail will lay out on the grass, proudly displayed.  In the winter they use it as a "blanket" for warmth, wrapped around their feet.

In a previous post, I eluded that the Gray Fox hates wind, heavy snow and coyotes, "not necessarily in that order."  I have observed the first two and know that if we have a wind storm or heavy snow, the fox are on hiatus.  Sometimes after heavy snow, disappearing for a couple of weeks.  If we have a wild wind and rain, they will take the night off and hole up in their den.  Their den can be a crevice in our ledge rock, a log, or under the floor of a dog kennel.  Yes, I said dog kennel.  Not having a dog, I built a kennel for our son and daughter in law's dogs.  The kennel was attached to the east end of our garage, a tall chain link fence on a wood floor.  In the twilight hours, I would see the female Gray Fox walk around our wild flower bed below our house.  She would disappear behind the dog kennel and garage.  One morning I sneaked around the garage and found that she had dug out the soil from the corner of the kennel.  She was living under the floor in relative splendor compared to other Gray Fox. 
The male fox became a lone entity at dinner, we watched as he carried food away into the forest.  This kept up for many weeks, as each evening he would dutifully carry food away.  We didn't see the female fox for quite sometime until one May evening, she showed up to eat on her own.  She ate her fill and walked up on our lawn, curled up and fell asleep.  Later the male fox would come and eat, then sit by her on the lawn until she woke up and they both disappeared into the forest.  This went on for a few weeks until July 25th in 2006, we had a pleasant surprise. Early in the evening, two fox appeared on the little hill  above our cedar forest.  I didn't pay much attention to the two because I took it for granted it was ma and pa fox coming for dinner.
                                                    Original Mother Gray Fox & Kit

To our delight, it was mother fox with a miniature version of herself.  The kit was absolutely perfect, there wasn't a hair out of place and she was a "spitting image" of mother fox.  We were thrilled to see the kit, because now we knew why the male had been carrying off food for those many weeks.  Our speculation was that the female had kits sometime in April and now we were witnessing the arrival of their first offspring.  We knew that the Gray Fox could have up to seven kits, but we had no idea how and when the adult fox debuted their kits.

July Gray Fox Kit

                                                                  August Gray Fox Kit

Mother fox would bring the single kit each night. At the end of August we ended up with a total of five Gray Fox kits, all lined up on the edge of the forest brush, close to the front lawn.  The two adults would show up with the kits at different times. The male would usually have three with him and the mother fox would have two.  The mother would come up on the lawn to get the food and bring it to the kits, while the male would sit in the forest and watch.  Only when all the kits were fed, he would come up and eat what was left... a model husband to be sure. 
The kits stayed with the adults through fall and early into the next winter.  About the time the breeding season started in late January, the female fox dispersed the family.  The lone kit that remained, was the first one that the mother fox brought to our lawn.  The male fox ended up disappearing, never to return.  We felt something had happened to him in the late winter.  It is thought that the Gray Fox mates for life, but I am not so sure of that because of happenings later in this post.
Late in March of 2007, the original, female kit, brought another male fox to our ridge.  He obviously didn't know the drill, because she would now come up to our patio.  The mother fox and her, would sit on our front lawn and I would feed them anything from the dreaded "white" hot dogs to dog food, and chicken scraps. The original mother stayed here on Cedar Ridge with her kit and new mate.  Like all good mother in laws, she kept her distance as the new pair started their life together. 
On May 31, 2007, I was sitting at the computer and from our east window, I noticed a movement by the dog kennel.  The kit from last year had taken up residence under the dog kennel, so I assumed it was her.  I thought it was strange she would be out there, because it was later in the morning.  To my surprise it was two, tiny Gray Fox kits, taking in the warm morning sunshine.  I watched them play with each other, chewing on dead grass as a house cat would do and attacking any insect they could find. 

                                                               Enjoying the Sunshine 

This kept up for a couple of days and then they disappeared.  We found out that the mother had moved them, for they were not under the kennel anymore. 
The new father would come each night and run the same drill as his predecessor last summer.  We could always identify him because he was the largest Gray Fox on the ridge.  He also had a little notch out of his right ear, so he was easy to recognize.  As summer turned to fall, we ended up helping raise four more kits, the two adults and the original female fox we affectionately called "Granny".

                                                                     "Granny Fox"

Through the  winter of 2007 and 2008, the family stayed together until after the mating season when it again became dispersal time.  The kits left one by one, until it was just the male and female, plus "Granny."  The 29th of May, the new kits appeared at the same location outside the kennel.  The new mother had let her kits appear, two days before her mother sent her out into the sunshine of Cedar Ridge... exactly a year later.
What transpired after the first kit sighting is pure speculation.  We never again saw "Granny" fox or the new mother.  One cold, rainy night I heard this whimpering and crying in our front yard.  I turned on the motion light and went outside and found a Gray Fox kit crying in the pouring down rain. When he saw me he wobbled as fast as he could along the side the house to the kennel.  I got him back to the dog kennel and I went back to the house.  The next morning I came out the side door and found a wet pile of fur lying on the lawn.  It was a dead kit.  I picked him up and brought him over past the kennel and buried him in the forest.  I was upset for the fact that there was no sign of trauma, and for certain, any predator would have  carried him away.

                                                                      Gray Fox Kit 

                                                          Daughter in law Blythe & Kit

                                                                         Gray Fox Kit

The next few days were very sad for us, we ended up losing all the kits but two.  We now knew that the mother fox was dead and probably "Granny"; we hadn't seen either of them for days.  I put on leather gloves and was able to catch the last two kits.  My daughter in law Blythe took one home, but the kit was too weak and died the next day.  She and I drove the last remaining kit to "Wild and Free Rehabilitation Center" in Garrison, Mn.  We left the kit in their care and hoped that they could save the last remaining Gray Fox on Cedar Ridge.
I called the rehabilitation center every few days to find out the kits condition, but after about a week the last one died. Dr. Deb, the veterinarian, told me the stress, loneliness and other problems probably led to his death. 

The male gray returned one afternoon and we observed him digging around the kennel.  He knew something was wrong and could not find his family.  Father fox returned for the next few days, trying to dig around the kennel to no avail.  He left the ridge in early June and we never saw him again that summer. 
In the fall, on October 8, 2008, father fox returned.  His unmistakeable size and the notch in his right ear, positively identified him.  At his side was a small, beautiful female Gray Fox, checking out her new surroundings.  The male Gray Fox had found a new mate... thus dispelling the 'mate for life' theory.  Now, at the height of the mating season, we hope to see another litter of Gray Fox kits romping in the spring sunshine.  
It is a joy, to have the Gray Fox back home on Cedar Ridge. 
 "The fate of animals is of greater importance to me than the fear of appearing ridiculous; it is indissolubly connected with the fate of men." ~ Emile Zola

Check out these friends of wildlife...

Support the "Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Program"
Wild & Free ~ Wildlife Rehabilitation Program
P.O. Box 241
Garrison, MN  56450

Sunday, February 8, 2009


The Gray Wolf has different color morphs and I have observed most of them; white or very light gray, black, dark gray and mottled.  They run in packs from 2- 12 or more, which cover hundreds of square miles.  On our ridge I have never seen more than two together, but one night we were serenaded by at least 4-8 wolves. It was a cold, quiet, moonlit night, Mary and I were awakened by the "coral group" who were about thirty yards behind our house.  I looked out the window and the full moon had the classic wisps of clouds, forming  shadows across the yard and trees.  Each wolf seemed as it was howling in harmony, producing tones from  mellow basses to rich Irish tenors.
The fall of 2003 when Mary and I were building our house, we lived in our garage.  There were many September and October nights when we heard wolf packs howling on the next higher ridge.    An unforgettable sound... once you hear it, you never forget it.   
All the wolves I have seen on our ridge have varied in size.  Books tell you their weight varies from 50 - 145 lbs.  The largest I have seen made a paw print about the size of my hand and his back would reach the height of the bottom of a car window.  You don't realize how tall the wolf is until you meet one eyeball to eyeball on a forest trail.

                                                                            Wolf Track
This week marks the one year anniversary of my most interesting wolf encounters.  The first one was on a Sunday morning when the wind chill was off the charts, -45 to -52 below zero.  The saying I most agree with is, "There is no bad weather in Minnesota, just bad clothing."  So, donning my Thinsulate predator gear, I ventured up my trail to check on my buddies the Red-breasted Nuthatches and chickadees.  I took up my post below the huge white pine on the corner of our property and the Superior National Forest.  The wind was roaring and sounded like a constant moving train; according to the new wind chill charts, it was between -45 and -52 below zero.  I stood there with my back to the wind, waiting for any birds to drop out of the trees to my seed filled hand.  In a few minutes, my feathered friend Norris landed in my hand.  He perched in my hand for many seconds, devouring hulled seeds, sheltered  from the wind by my body.  
I was startled by three deer bolting by me in different directions.  One ran directly at me, stopped and stared down the trail I just walked up.  It was a doe and she was standing in that locked, danger position, with her ears cupped forward, intently looking down the ridge.  I knew something other than the fierce wind had spooked her and the other deer.  I looked down the ridge and in the brush I saw a brown movement, for a split second I thought it might be another deer.  I didn't bring my binoculars with me because of the intense cold, plus I wasn't about to do my usual 3-6 hour stint in the forest.
To my surprise, it was a timber wolf standing on the trail I just walked up minutes ago.  His head would go down and most of his body disappeared behind a fallen tree.  There was so much brush between me and the wolf, it made it difficult to see what was going on.  When his head went down, I would step closer to the trail.  Finally I got back on the trail so I could see what he was doing.  I could tell he was off the trail struggling with something quite large.  I got my camera out of my parka and adjusted the telephoto lens and modes on the move.  It was difficult to photograph in the wind chill but I finally got in position to snap a photo of his head peering above a fallen tree.  The wolf gave a lurch behind the downed tree and pulled a deer out from behind it; he had killed a small doe right on my trail.

                                                                            Timber Wolf
I kept taking photos as long as I could stand having my gloves off.  I decided to try to get closer, since I had taken photos of what I could see in this position.  I knew he couldn't see me, hear me or get my scent because of the roaring cross wind.  I moved slowly and finally knelt to take some closer shots.  The wolf must of sensed my presence, because he moved out of the area in a slow trot.  He made a large semi circle below me and checked me out, finally leaving via the protection of the giant white cedars.

                                                                              Wolf Kill
Standing above the deer, it was hard to believe what one wolf could do in that short period of time.  I have seen the results of many deer kills, but never first hand and I had no idea how fast they could kill and eat a deer.
My hands were very cold, so I took a few photos of the carcass and went home to download the photos.  I didn't have a clue how they would turn out because of the conditions in which they were taken.
To my amazement, after downloading the photos, I saw the wolf had a collar.  Mary and I decided it was a radio transmitter collar attached to a live trapped wolf.  I immediately sent an email to the International Wolf Center in Ely, MN, telling them the story of my findings.
The next morning I went back to check on the carcass and found that it was completely devoured.  It looked like a herd of cattle had been tramping down the area.  The wolf or wolves had dragged the deer about twenty yards further east and dined at that spot.  The raven tracks were thick, I saw mice activity, fox and smaller bird tracks... probably the Canada Jays.
I paced off from where I had originally stood and it was 86 yards to where the wolf had killed the deer.  I walked back to the cedars to feed my bird friends.  When I was standing in almost the exact same spot as yesterday, I heard a bleating like a sheep... it was chilling.  I finally located the sound and with my binoculars, spotted a movement through the big cedars up the ridge.  A deer was struggling to get up out of the snow and was making the bleating sound.  It was quite unnerving and not a pretty sight.  The doe got up and started running, I could see the red blood over her hind quarter as she ran at an angle through the cedars.
Thirty seconds or so, two wolves came streaking out of the same area, a big gray and a smaller black morf... hot on the deer's trail.  
I knew it was not the wolf with the collar, because I recognized these two from earlier observations.  I checked my watch and slowly walked over to where I could pick up the blood trail.  I carry a .38 service revolver with me at all times, for the very purpose of having to put a deer out of it's misery. 
I found the tracks of the chase, but no blood.  I literally got down on my hands and knees, looking for minute spots of blood.  The subzero weather had coagulated the blood so fast the blood sign was tiny pin head spots of blood.  It took me one hour and eight minutes to find the deer.  In that time, the two wolves had eaten one whole side, plus the rib cage and took the head and neck with them.  It was still steaming when I found it and looked like a bomb had gone off.  I took a few photos and as I was leaving, two Canada Jays flew in and sat on a branch above the deer.  Nature had provided them with another food source for a long period of time.
It was hard to believe what two wolves had done to the deer in a little over one hour.  Plus carry away the neck and head for their future cashe.  I walked in a 50 yard circle and could not find a spot of blood or a "drag" trail of the neck and head.  If you have butchered a deer before, you know how heavy that scenario is.  One of them literally carried the remains away, without leaving so much of a hint of the load.  The big gray was indeed a formable specimen. 

                                           One hour and eight minutes after the kill  
The next day my pet buck was standing in our front yard, so I put on my jacket to feed him his corn treat.  I opened the door and he had disappeared; which was odd since he eats out of my hand.  Standing below our front yard was the big gray wolf and his black wolf companion was running west out of the valley.  Surprise is not the proper terminology  as I watched him turn and jauntily trot off after his mate.
                                                                       Wolf Hunting
I went into the house, cursing the fact I didn't have my camera hanging from my neck, and the phone rings.  It was a Dr. Michael Nelson from the Wolf Project (Kawishiwi Field Laboratory) Ely, MN calling.  the International Wolf Center had sent my email to him and he had questions about the wolf with the collar.  We talked for quite sometime about my wolf episodes and I sent him a photo of the collared wolf.  He called back a couple of more times and he told me they were missing a GPS collared wolf and he couldn't be sure if this one was it.  He thought it might be one they live trapped at Silver Island Lake in 2006, but he didn't know for sure.  He told me he would make some calls to other agencies that transmitted wolves.
I never found out if he was the Silver Island wolf, but Dr. Nelson provided some interesting dialogue and wolf knowledge.  He told me my wolf adventures are something not many people get a chance to observe. 
Later that day, I went up the ridge and saw one of the wolves above the second kill, it was a glimpse and that was it.  The kill area was completely void, only the stomach plant matter was left, which the wolves don't eat.  Not a bone, piece of hide visible anywhere... just a coating of blown hair drifting over the snow.

"Wolf is the Grand Teacher.  Wolf is the sage, who after many winters upon the sacred path and seeking the ways of wisdom, returns to share new knowledge with the tribe.  Wolf is both the radical and the traditional in the same breath.  When the Wolf walks by you - you will remember." ~ Robert Ghost Wolf

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Friday, Mary and I drove to my hometown to attend the funeral of my aunt.  She was a gracious and loving lady who lived a long and full life to 96 years. It was not only a celebration of her full life, but a time to share memories with relatives and friends I had not seen for years. 
Like most kids growing up in the 1940s, I was a "Jack of all Trades"... and possibly to most of my employers, "A master of None"... but I can't be sure.  I mowed lawns in elementary school and graduated to working on a turkey farm for three summers.  My longest tenured job was working as a telephone lineman for the local telephone company.  Not dial phone service, but a phone company that was one of the last "crank" phone operations in the state of Minnesota. Complete with a "central" office that housed a telephone operator twenty four hours a day.  I worked for the telephone company for six summers, becoming a formable "climber" and repairer of phone lines.  My aunt, whose funeral we attended, was one of those operators ... along with a second dear aunt, from my other side of the family.

What was unique about that telephone company was the "service".  When I was in college and called home, I would get the central office's familiar voices and phrase, "number please".  My home phone number was 4-2, which was not always immediately rung.  Many times, if one of my aunts was the operator, I would have to tell them how I was doing at school or other pertinent information to my well being.  Better yet, if my mother was not at home, I would get a "play by play" account on where she was and what time she would be home.
I also worked at a local grocery store and meat market, an interim between the turkey farm and telephone employment.  At the funeral luncheon, I had a chance to renew acquaintance with Les and his wife Ruby who owned the local meat market. We exchanged a few humorous stories and how I learned to make Norwegian Polse.  

Polse was a beef/pork sausage, stuffed into a natural casing with "secret formula" spices.  As a kid, I sat in the back room at the sausage grinder with a bucket of spices and beef and pork chunks.  We recounted how people would journey many miles and cross state lines to purchase this wonderful Norwegian sausage.  The  meat market is no longer in operation, but Les and Ruby formulate it each year and give it as Christmas gifts to their children and grand children.
Our conversation turned to his parents who started the meat market in the early 1900s.  Les is now 86 years old and his mother and father passed away years ago.  I told him how much his mom and dad meant to my mom and dad who were the best of friends.  Ultimately, when you bring Les's dad into a conversation, you bring back the topic of "polse" making... plus, red meat in my immediate family was and still is like a burnt offering or some sacred rite.  I told Les that I still try to emulate his dad's "polse" recipe each Christmas season, but it is never the same.  Les said that his first lesson in the meat market was this... "My dad always said when it comes to meat and making 'polse', you 'First start with the good stuff and go on from there".  Meaning, the quality of the ingredients were more important than the price.  I paused for a moment and told him, "I believe It is the same way in life".  With a tear in my eye, I gave him a hug and told him how much I appreciated what he and his dad did for me.  
I am fortunate to have lived in that marvelous period of time; if any of you have watched and pondered the movie "A Christmas Story", you have an idea of what I mean.  These old friends and mentors were truly "The Greatest Generation".
                                                                         "Line Up" 

Flying Squirrel

Gray Fox 

When we returned to Cedar Ridge around 10:00 p.m. after the 620 mile round trip, my son Brett had fed the deer, Flying Squirrel and Gray Fox.  It was a good day..........