Bitter Cold Yielded More Nature Surprises

Submitted by Art and Barb Straub,

The days of February 7th through 20th was frenetic for Frances, the usually serene Ford Focus. The hardy auto not only coped with treacherous black ice, packed snow, blowing winds and freezing temps, but getting her wards to and from bird feeding stations has kept her especially fretful. One must consider her age of course, ten years with 205,500 grueling birding miles, no major surgery, however, frequent interruptions send her into a tizzy.

For instance: While snuggly parked in her peaceful garage 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 yet powerful slimy opaque tail and 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 mudpuppies decided they’d like to see the ‘outside-the-ice-world,’ and boldly hooked their upper lips on the shiny minnow 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’s only fully aquatic salamander is the state’s largest salamander species.

In that the beauties are considered a species of concern; the creatures were returned soon thereafter to the Minnesota River unharmed except for aching upper lips. 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 mudpuppy. Again, mudpuppies spend every stage of their life cycle under water unlike their cousins, tiger salamanders, which we’ve written of in the past.

Due to the intense cold, Frances has been reluctant but not bucky about tending to her 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 each day. 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.
Polly Schneider of rural wooded LeSueur, who earlier had turkeys flying up into her flowering crab trees to steal fruits from the occasional robin and hungry cedar waxwings, was taken aback by the ungainly huge birds committing theft in broad daylight.

Let’s consider American robins from whom the turkeys are pilfering. February was a rollicking month for the over-wintering birds. Frances’s owners have been intrigued now for three years as to the orange-breasted numbers staying overnight in a grove of blue spruces in LeSueur. Just as the sun dissolves beneath the horizon, February has found many of the spring birds seeking room (not board) in the coniferous trees at ‘the roost.’ The greatest number to take refuge in the tree shelter has been 258 on one night, while counts exceeding 100 have been common. The roost is not impervious to danger, however, as on February 1st, just as the sun said “Goodnight, see you in the morning,” a Cooper’s hawk discovered the robin refuge. Writers might imagine what a too-doo THAT caused. Fortunately, the raptor was seeking a starling supper, thus the robins settled in for a good night’s rest, always with an eye to the sky and an ear to the earth.

As of March 1st, the flowering crab apple trees (18) behind the LeSueur Community Center are practically stripped, gleaned, with few applets remaining. Starlings are responsible for the carnage, while robins pick the leftovers from the earth. The crab tree in front of the Henderson Community Building is barely harvested. 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. The snow and wind overnight February 27th taught us to do ourselves and the birds a FAVOR, keep those feeders full for at least three more weeks.