Tuesday, March 31, 2009


It started snowing this morning at 7:20.  Our forecast for the arrowhead is for heavy snow, high winds and gale warnings for the Big Lake... a Nor'easter to be sure.

Mary made a great breakfast of bacon, eggs and hash browns.  After breakfast I topped off the redpoll feeder with crushed sunflower seeds and filled the suet feeder.  When I closed the patio door, a large bird cruised over the house.  I thought for a moment that it was Sammy our Herring Gull that stops by each day for his snack.  The bird circled the house and when I looked out our east window I saw that it was a Bald Eagle.  He landed in a dead birch next to another immature Bald Eagle and about twenty ravens.  I knew immediately there was a deer kill in the area. 

Our east window looks out over the wildflower garden that is still knee deep snow; apparently,  about to get deeper.  At the far edge of the garden, almost into the white cedars, was a long red swath of blood.  It was at least forty yards long reaching part way down the ridge into the moose maple.  I could now see a large flock of the Ravens sitting on a deer carcass.  I told Mary that I needed to go and check to see if it was one of the four local deer that we feed.

This was the second deer kill by wolves I have seen in the last ten days, which is pretty much on schedule.  Each winter, especially in the months of February and March, I find a deer carcass about every seven days.  This one was still warm and barely consumed, mostly by the crows and ravens.  It is always a relief to find that the victim was not one of my deer.  I decided to drag the deer back through the garden, so we could watch the ravens and crows.  The deer was not that large, probably 120-130 pounds; but it was tough going through the crusted snow.  I left it under a spruce tree, so the impending snow storm would not completely inundate the carcass.  

The snow became heavier and the crows and ravens began flying to the deer carcass.  We counted sixteen ravens at one time, plus many crows that have arrived in the last couple of weeks.  It is interesting to watch the "pecking order" of the ravens.  They squawk, posture and at times wrestle each other for turns at the deer buffet.  During this noisy period, a beautiful mature Bald Eagle flew in and landed on the carcass.  I got to observe first hand that the crows back off from the ravens and the ravens from the eagles.  Although there was no confrontation amongst the three species, the eagle went about his dining in peace but not quiet.  The crows sat off to one side and the ravens hopped around the carcass, stealing whatever small tidbits they could find.  The eagle sat on the carcass and ripped off chunks of meat and intestines, the power of their beak is quite impressive.

The snow kept getting heavier and the northeast wind was blowing 20-30 miles an hour.  I was trying to take photos through the window, but with the heavy snow hitting the window it was next to impossible.  I was sitting with a perfect wildlife photo op and the weather was screwing it up.  I decided to take off the screen and open the window six inches, just wide enough to fit my telephoto lens.  The other problem was the strong wind and horizontal snowfall, which was getting worse each hour.

I managed to get some photos of the eagle and ravens, but it was difficult to shoot in blizzard conditions.  I took a break and at 1:00, I called in our snow totals to the National Weather Service in Duluth.  I have been a snow spotter for them for the last two years, so each snowfall gets reported until the bitter end.  So with six more inches recorded, we now sit at 91 inches of snow for the season... with more to come.

A hour and half after measuring the snow depth, Mary told me to get the camera ready because two wolves were coming up the ridge from the south valley.  I went to the east window and opened it again and set my camera in position to take their photos.  The culprits were returning to the scene of the crime.  One of the wolves was smaller and had a bit of the mange.  The second wolf was a beautiful animal, I had seen both of them before, but never together.  The big one was in our cedars one afternoon and I was fortunate to get some decent photos of him.  Now the weather was so rotten, I figured the whole photo episode would be a wash.

The big wolf bit into the rear leg of the deer carcass and pulled it ten yards like it was a rag doll.  I knew the power of the wolf after seeing the aftermath of various deer kills, but seeing it first hand is a whole other thing.  I shot many photos while the small wolf ate, the large wolf was uneasy in the setting close to our buildings.  He watched while the smaller wolf ate, sometimes walking in a loop and returning to quickly eat.  They stayed about five minutes and left in the same direction, south into the valley below our ridge. 


The ravens continued eating until nightfall and the eagle returned one more time.  The two immature eagles that first landed in the morning, never came back.  I told Mary, it will be interesting to see if the carcass gets moved during the night, or if the wolves return in the morning.  We discussed the fact that few places exist where you can observe such a wondrous cycle of life out your bedroom window.  

I am far from a wolf expert, but two things about them I know... First, in our forest the wolf goes to lengths to avoid man and second, he has no other enemy.     

"Wolves are not our brothers; they are not our subordinates, either.  They are another nation, caught up just like us in the complex web of time and life." ~ Henry Beston

Saturday, March 28, 2009


                                                                March Ice Storm

The spring season perhaps best exemplifies the fickleness of Mother Nature.  Most years at this time, I recall sublime weather here on Cedar Ridge.  Hikes in the woods, enjoying warm 4o and 5o degree temperatures.  The advent of the first Mourning Cloak or Compton's Tortoiseshell Butterfly from their frozen hibernations.  The first sighting of the Eastern Chipmunk.  This year, Mother Nature seems to have forgotten about the warm breezes and substituted them with wind chill.  Since January she has dished out 2009 weather with a vengeance. 

This past week we had an ice storm which could have been much worse.  I say much worse for us, because our neighbors to the south in Lake County are still without electricity... since Tuesday.  I saw images on television of vast devastation of trees; some areas literally looked like they had been bombed.  

Mary and I watched as the layers of ice grew on the tree branches and wires of our bird feeders.  The icicles grew on the finch feeder, almost closing off the landing area and blocking the seed outlets.  Branches on all the trees began drooping little by little as the ice began encasing them.  

We filled containers with water and charged up our cellphones in preparation of a power outage.  We don't have a backup for heat since we have an all electric home.  Our secondary heat source is a wood pellet stove and it's blower and auger also relies on electricity.  At 11:40 p.m. the lights blinked once and that was it....

The next morning when I looked out the window, the first glimpse entertained thoughts of future "electric" despair.  It looked grim as ice covered and encased each twig and branches of all the trees.  In our yard, the white cedars looked in the worst shape.  The thick boughs looked like frozen waterfalls and the paper birch were bent so bad, some of the tops were frozen to the ground.  

I chipped the ice off the bird feeders and threw some seeds on the ground for the Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins.  I made a suet post for the woodpeckers a while back, by drilling out 1 1/2 inch holes.   We mix up cornmeal, lard and peanut butter and fill the holes.  The northeast side of the post was solid ice, so the woodpeckers had to work on the leeward side.

I took my camera and carefully walked out on the expansive, never ending skating rink.  It was a sight to behold.  I have seen one other bad ice storm in my life and this one had all the earmarks of topping it.  I gingerly crossed the driveway and made it to the trail that leads into the Superior National Forest.  The crust on the snow was covered with a half inch of solid ice; the red squirrels were literally skating on top of the snow from tree to tree.
The trail was buried with ice covered and arched trees.  I had to walk along side the trail, through the alders, crashing through the icy crust, up to my knees in snow.  I could see my trail feeder ahead, it was still hanging in a white cedar.  I whistled for my chickadees and they immediately flew down the trail to meet me.  Right behind them was my Common Redpoll friend and Norris my itinerant Red-breasted Nuthatch.  It was good to see the whole "crew" that feed out of my hand.  I fed them for sometime until all the usual suspects showed up and were accounted for. 

I began taking photos of the glistening, ice covered trees.  The most bizarre sight was a forty foot  paper birch, completely bowed and the heavy top frozen to the ground.  I began taking photos of the "catkins" encased in ice.  The chickadees and nuthatches follow me everywhere in the woods and had to get into the act.  I captured some interesting shots of them perched on the branches of the icy birch.  

Resilience is maybe not the proper word, but the trees of the forest are indeed tough.  I was amazed that their damage was not greater... although I was careful to stand in open areas to avoid a "major league" concussion from falling ice and branches.  It sounded like a war echoing throughout the forest with the crashing tree branches and falling ice. 


I returned home and the electricity came on after a 9 1/2 hours outage.  The freezing rain continued and the new forecast sounded dire.  The ice storm warning was extended through the evening into the coming day, we were to receive another 1/4  to 1/2  inch of ice.  As nightfall approached, we fired up the wood pellet stove to get the house warmer for an impending power outage.  At 9:40 the lights went out and the candles were lit.

The temperature at this time was 33.4 degrees and the heavens had opened up with pouring rain. I called the electric company and found out it was a transmission line problem and the entire county was out of power.  That gave me hope that this outage would be fixed soon because of the one location.  At 1:20 a.m. the power came on along with our front yard motion light.  I went to the patio window and looked out... I couldn't believe my eyes.  In a little over three hours of pouring down rain, the entire ice coatings had been removed from the trees.  There was no ice anywhere to be seen.  The 33 degree temperature had saved our trees and power lines.  It was like a small miracle, because a 2-4 degree difference in temperature, meant  the difference between "preservation or destruction."

Morning light showed that all was well up the trail.  The birds were at the feeder, the ice was gone and everything was back to some semblance of order.  I suspect when the trees begin to bud and leaf, their scars will heal and eventually be hidden.

"For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver." ~ Martin Luther  

Saturday, March 14, 2009


This year Cedar Ridge and by the reports, most of Minnesota  has been invaded by huge numbers of Pine Siskins and the Common Redpolls.  We started seeing them on December 29, 2008, when a few arrived at our bird feeders.  Each day the numbers of the Common Redpolls have been increasing.  March 9th, we were visiting friends at Tait Lake and we witnessed hundreds of Common Redpolls feeding in their yard.  There were so many, it looked like an out of control ant hill.


In a previous post, I mentioned hanging a bird feeder on my trail in the Superior National Forest.  In the last few weeks, I have had a Common Redpoll meet me on the trail to the feeder.  When he sees me coming, he lands in a moose maple and waits for the chickadees to "break the ice".  The chickadees immediately land in my hand for a seed and "Red", the Common Redpoll, follows suit.  Unlike the chickadees who land, grab a seed and take off.  "Red" sits in my hand and rotates the hulled sunflower seed in his beak until it is pulverized.  Defending his territory with loud chirping when the chickadees attempt to land.  He is feisty to be sure, but when "Norris" my Red-breasted Nuthatch friend arrives on the scene, he quickly departs to a nearby branch.  None of the "small" birds mess with the crazed nuthatch who is certainly, "King of the Big Cedars."

The Common Redpoll is a tiny finch, he measures 5-6 inches in length.  He has a conical bill with a black chin and a red "dollop" on his forehead.  The male has a pink chest and the female is without pink and is heavily streaked in shades of brown and tan.  The male's pink shading varies from a very light pink to a glowing red.  They are striking little birds, especially when perched on newly fallen snow.

Common Redpolls are interesting to observe because of their erratic behavior.  They really follow the leader when it comes to their ravenous eating habits.  One redpoll will fly in to the food source and immediately the whole flock will descend to the feeding area.  They will eat for sometime if they are undisturbed.  When they have picked over the area, they will fly to a protected tree, like a white cedar or spruce.  There, they will eat and swallow the seeds they stored in throat pouches.  This way, on cold winter days, they can stay warm and enjoy their meal in relative safety.

                                                                                                 Hoary Redpoll

An unique "off shoot" of the Common Redpoll is the Hoary Redpoll.  He is a long range visitor of the high Arctic and is an uncommon visitor to northern, North America.  They breed in the tundra and there are two subspecies; the southern and the Greenland.  We were fortunate to see one of the subspecies of the Hoary at Tait Lake.  It was not too difficult to distinguish him from the Common Redpoll, because of his frosty, white feathers.  He has a white rump and is white under tail; plus he is a tad larger.  The one we observed almost glowed amongst the hundreds of Common Redpolls we watched feeding.

Being an "observer" and not a bird expert, I have read accounts on the Pine Siskin and Common Redpoll invasions from New Brunswick, Canada to northern Illinois.  Why?  I am not sure, but when the bird counts and wrap ups are done in the spring, I am sure we will have a variety of opinions from the bird experts.  Until then, we on Cedar Ridge will enjoy the color and brightness they bring to us each day.  


"In all things of nature
there is something of the 
 marvelous." ~ Aristotle