Bitter Cold Yields More of Nature’s Surprises

Submitted by Art & Barb Straub

The week of February 7th through 14th has been frenetic for Frances the usually serene Ford Focus. The blue auto has not only had black ice, packed snow, blowing winds and freezing temps to cope with, but getting her wards to and from bird feeding stations has kept her especially fretful. One must consider her age of course, 204,873 grueling birding miles, with no major surgery, however, frequent interruptions send her into a tizzy.

For instance: While snuggly parked in her peaceful pasture early in the week, she was startled by the sudden appearance of two unfamiliar bearded chaps in bulky apparel popping out of a truck and carrying an aquarium. “Yoicks” and “Bleep” we heard her exclaim, as she beheld a sight in the fish tank she’d never experienced before! The lads were carrying two foot-long oxygenated creatures with red feathery protrusions growing from their chins. Tiny feet with four toes peeked from underneath the monsters’ shins, a gorgeous slimy opaque tail, tiny eye-slits gave the appearance of monsters from the deep or ET’s from above. While fishing the Minnesota River for saugers, (sand pike) and walleyes under the LeSueur bridge, two mud puppies decided they’d like to see the ‘outside-the-ice-world,’ and boldly hooked their upper lips to the bait offered. Instead of throwing the beasts upon the ice, (against the law by the way,) the fisherguys thought the weird creatures might be gist for educational study, as most people have never had the opportunity to encounter mudpuppies. Minnesota’ only fully aquatic salamander is the state’s largest salamander species.

In that the beauty is considered a species of concern, the creatures were returned to the Minnesota River unharmed. This is not the first-time mudpuppies have been caught in the frigid waters in January and February, as in the past they have been caught under the aforementioned bridge where they come to mate and eventually disperse their eggs. According to the MNDNR, this entirely aquatic creature may be considered threatened, as its enemies are many. Although nocturnal, fish, birds, mammals, snakes and humans are at the top of the list of dangers, and of course, chemicals can be deadly. Add to that, ‘silting’ during floods, pollution, habitat loss… no wonder few people have the opportunity of ever catching a glimpse of this natural treasure, the mud puppy. Again, mudpuppies spend every stage of their life cycle under water.

Due to the intense cold, Frances has been reluctant but not bucky about tending to the eight bird feeding stations in the woodland, but, concerned for the safety of those she cares for, with dogged determination she faithfully fetches her wards to the countryside. White-tailed deer are gathering in larger numbers, the better to fend off coyotes, safety in numbers. Having consumed much of the acorn (mast) crop, wild turkeys are taking more chances at exploring further from the safety of woodlands, as they make use of stored fat; while eagles hover above, eying the young and infirm. Monday, February 15th concludes the four-day Great Backyard Bird Count celebrated across the nation, and the results for Minnesota will be much greater than the count taken on December 19th, the Ney Christmas Bird Count , due to the snowy landscape and bitter cold.

Consider American robins for example. Beginning with Valentine’s Day and working backward through the month of February, the robin roost in LeSueur yielded: February 14th, 153; then 244; 96; 131; 133; 121; 98; 75; 258; 127; with 30 robins on the first day February. Temperatures ranged from +25 on February 1st, to minus seven at 5:00, February 14th. Note how variable it all is. Sometimes, just a couple of orange breasts before this article was written, a flock of 40, all spread out, flew through, and within five minutes, a RAPTOR, either Cooper or Sharp-shinned hawk, darted by. THAT, caused a bit of an uproar! Frances took it all in, purring warmly.

Flowering crab apple trees (18) behind the LeSueur Community Center are practically stripped, gleaned, with few applets remaining. Starlings are responsible for that carnage. The crab tree in front of the Henderson Community Building is barely touched. Has the Nyger bird feed in your hanging feeders been disappearing at an astonishing rate? Please don’t blame the goldfinches. The birds responsible are Pine Siskins. A shortage of pine-cone seeds to the north has forced the wee birds southward…it’s termed an invasion or irruption, a pine siskin takeover! Gentle birds toward humans, rascally little fighters with their own kind when famished. DO yourselves and the birds a FAVOR, keep those feeders full for at least three more weeks.