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Getting to Know the Whales
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Imbolc, Candlemas or Groundhog’s day has always been one of my favorites because the light returns in the seasonal cycles that earth travels in. It is the hope of springtime and warmth. A time to begin planning and planting and growing things. It is a time of renewal. People, way back before calendars, found ways to celebrate and mark the changes in weather, light and the length of their days that happens because the earth is tilted in it’s rotation around the sun.
Imbolc or Imbolg, also called (Saint) Brigid’s Day, is a Gaelic traditional festival marking the beginning of spring. Most commonly it is held on 1 February, or about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In pre-Christian times, it was the festival of light or candlemas. This ancient festival marked the mid point of winter, half way between the winter solstice (shortest day) and the spring equinox. Some people lit candles to scare away evil spirits on the dark winter nights. People believed that Candlemas predicted the weather for the rest of the winter just as, in the United States we have the groundhog that sees it’s shadow.
The Twin Cities has almost 10 hours of sunlight; one hour and 15 minutes more sun than on the winter solstice. We are gaining three minutes of sunlight each day. The sun angle is higher, and hope is creeping into the dark places of my soul.
It was a couple of weeks ago during the deep freeze and I had some days to spend with my 14-year-old daughter during holiday break. She said, “How about you help me bake cookies and then we’ll go out walking on Lake Calhoun?”
There we were late in the afternoon, with a temp of 1 degree and windy, walking across Lake Calhoun, and enjoying every minute. We spent lots of time looking at the depth of the ice, the frozen bubbles, the cracks with new crystals forming, the way the wind forms the snow cover like waves, running and skating across the glare ice; just some great father/daughter time in extreme winter weather. I’m so proud she chose to do that on that particular winter day. And that simple hike with my daughter, who obviously has my love for the great outdoors, was certainly a highlight of my winter.
Snow Diamonds – Linda Jensen
Walking a dog in the suburbs,
with city-ish trappings,
the quiet of snow,
silence of falling flakes.
The fencing of space
but not air.
The snow makes a frosted sculpture
of everything in sight.
A temporary magic
if you are still – long enough to see
the contrast of light and grey,
the white-out that is not white.
It’s peaceful. It’s snow,
crystalized water and light.
Fence Post Henge – Dean Hansen
I have five acres of land just into WI from where I live in Stillwater, MN. On the top of a hill I have a set of steel fence posts–a standard (gnomon) post and then three posts, each about 30 feet away. I line up the top of the standard post with the top of a post to the SW; the latter is placed so that the setting sun perches on the top of this post as it hits the horizon on Dec. 21, as seen from the top of the gnomon post. Ditto for a post marking where the sun hits the horizon at sunset on March 21 and September 21, and finally for the summer solstice, June 21. Observations are through the filter from an arc welders helmet.
Horticulture Therapy – Dale Antonson
As a lifelong Minnesotan, I have cultivated some ways to keep myself connected with nature year round. I often refer to my hobby as ‘Horticulture Therapy’. I enjoy renewing the soil ‘under my fingernails’ during the winter by caring for plants at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, municipal buildings in Minnetonka and throughout my light filled home. I created an LED light stand with an automatic timer and heating mats for my normally 60℉ basement.
I’m able to propagate new plants by taking stem cuttings, including colorful aglaonemas and succulents, nurse back ailing plants and germinate seeds. This is a fun way for me to stay connected to ‘the garden that we live in’, even during the coldest of months.
Eagle Visions – Jim Gregory
I find the opportunity to express myself about nature through painting to be especially rewarding. When I connect through the artwork, there is a feeling that I am a part of nature and my painting confirms that relationship. It takes courage to face the challenge, but always pays off when I do.
My dog Bravo and I get out twice each day, NO MATTER WHAT! There’s something about the air, the sounds, the lack of other sounds, the light, the snow laden branches, the critter tracks in the snow and the beckoning woods – it makes it all worthwhile for a farm girl at heart and her frisky British Lab.
I have never actually seen a river otter on Minnehaha Creek, but otter slides, plunge holes, scat and chewed up fish heads are joyous sights to behold.
The Sax Zim Bog is “actually about 300 square miles of not only bog, but aspen uplands, rivers, lakes, meadows, farms and even a couple towns! It is not just a giant bog, but rather a “magic mix” of habitats that boreal birds love” (saxzim.org).
The bog is located about an 1 hour north of Duluth, MN on Highway 53.
“We were driving and saw two animals in the road. We weren’t sure what they were, maybe wolves, but they looked too small. Perhaps pine martens, but these animals were larger than a marten. The two animals ran across the road and into the trees. Then all of a sudden, from the left side of the road, out popped this bobcat. It was still pretty far away, but stayed long enough for a few snapshots.” Pam Starr
Great Grey Owls are residents of the Sax Zim bog (In fact, there is a nest that is visible from Admiral Rd). Bogs and swampy boreal forests are ideal habitat for Great Greys. They hunt mice at night and in the dusk and at dawn and will eat up to 7 mice a day.
Great Grays are very hard to spot if they’re sitting among the trees. As you can see, they are very well camouflaged.
The Great Grey is the largest owl in North America, with a wing span of 60 inches. However, they only weigh about 2 lbs. The facial disk of the great gray acts as a sound receptor.The feathers in the facial disk direct the sound to its ears. It can hear even the slightest movement of a mouse under the snow or in the leaves.
It was 7:20 in the morning and still dark. In the distance, I saw what appeared to be cars silhouetted from the headlight of an oncoming train. As I got closer, these 3 huge moose were blocking the entire road. I pulled over probably 200 feet short of them and tried to take some pictures. One knelt to the ground and my first thought was it might be injured. Then all 3 started licking the road, probably because of the salt. The craziest thing is they all bolted across the railroad tracks not 3 seconds in front of that train. I thought for sure I was going to see at least one of them get hit. Thankfully they all made it across.
The Northern Hawk Owl is a resident of Sax Zim. They are non migratory owls who hunts during the day and usually sits high on top of the trees. This smaller owl does not have typical owl traits. They do not have silent flight like most owls. They do not have a keen sense of hearing that would allow them to locate prey at night.
Hawk Owls have excellent eye sight. Researchers could routinely attract hawk owls perched a mile away using a fake mouse attached to fishing line. Even if a hawk owl is not hungry, it will continue to hunt and then stash its prey for later when food is scarce.
Researchers have observed that the Northern Hawk Owl diet varies as prey populations fluctuate. Their primary food is voles (meadow mice). However, if the vole population was down, hawk owls would kill squirrels and young snowshoe hares. Researchers even observed them killing adult snowshoe hares (possibly 4 times heavier than a Hawk Owl).
“I drove around a corner and this beautiful Coyote was standing nearly in the middle of the road. I first shot through my window thinking he was going to flee but he did not. So I got out and shot in the crack of the door. He stayed for about 30 seconds, went to the right and then came back to the same spot in the road and stared in my direction. It was like he wanted something on the other side of the road and maybe I interrupted his plan. He finally dashed off the road but gave me a few more seconds of shooting while on the side. I was exhilarated to see him as I never expected to run across anything at the Bog except birds. I made sure to put my camera down for a moment to just admire him. I have seen coyotes from a distance but never up this close or for this long. That moment lasted me all day long. So exciting!”
Many neighbors of the Sax Zim Bog have winter feeding stations set up for visiting birdwatchers. One of the favorite stops is at Loretta’s.
Pine Grosbeaks migrate south from northern Canada to spend the winter at Sax Zim.
They are named “grosbeak” for their thick beak which it used to break seeds. One of the oldest observation records of Evening Grosbeak is from 1825, when an Ojibwa boy shot one and called it “Paushkundamo”, an Ojibwa word meaning “berry-breaker.” One observer watching an Evening Grosbeak eating wild cherries could hear the “pop” of a breaking pit 100 feet away!
The porcupine was in a tree on McDavitt road. It’s little buddy was walking around at the base of the tree. I really wanted a picture of the porcupine on the ground but it was camera shy. Pam Starr
Gray jays are year round residents of the Sax Zim Bog. They are very curious and may take a peanut from your hand. Gray Jays are also called “whiskey jacks”. The name was taken from “Wiskedijak” an Algonquian word referring to a “mischievous spirit who likes to play tricks on people.”
Redpolls breed in Northern Alaska and Canada, migrate down for the winter months when food is scarce.
- Thanks to Vivian Mueller for generously sharing her photos. To see more of her work go to: www.facebook.com/VivM.Mueller/?ref=bookmarksText
- Floyd Luomanen – Moose photo and text
- Celeste Rouse – Coyote and Pine Grosbeak photo/text and editing support
Pam Starr – Bobcat and porcupine photo and text
1. Sax Zim Bog Blog (http://saxzim.org)
2. Northern Hawk Owl www.naturalhistorymag.com/htmlsite/master.html?http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/htmlsite/0603/0603_feature2.html
3. Cornell Lab of Ornithology www.allaboutbirds.org
4. Gray Jay – http://www.hww.ca/en/wildlife/birds/gray-jay.html
Last month, I had the honor to visit the taller (workshop) of Jacobo and María Ángeles, from San Martin Tilcajete a pueblo near the city of Oaxaca, Mexico.
They are artists who carve and paint alebrijes, magical wooden creatures. To the artists, who spend so much time creating the pieces, the creatures have a spirit inside them.
The taller of Jacobo and María Ángeles is dedicated to keeping their Zapotec culture alive. The designs reflect the artists’ spiritual connection to their Zapotec roots. Zapotec culture dates back 2500 years, where they were warriors, farmers, builders of pyramids and artists.
According to Zapotec legends, some of their ancestors emerged from caves, and others came from trees or jaguars. Still others are believed to be descended from supernatural beings who lived in the clouds. That is why they are called “Be’ena’Za’a” – “The cloud people.”
The sacred dog of the Zapotecs, Xoloitzcuintli was hairless. “Xolo” symbolizes the importance of family, positive leadership and spiritual power.
Jacobo and María employ over a hundred artists and administrators. In addition, they have a school where they train interns that live in the community.
The Zapotec symbol for the caracol or snail represents the value of contributing to the community. This symbol is used in Alebrije designs and it is the emblem for Jacobo and Mária’s workshop. Other animals honored in Alebrije designs are:
Ants (hardworking) and fish (respect).
Many of the carved creatures are based upon the sacred Zapotec calendar. This is the artist’s way of keeping their culture alive and honoring nature. Jacobo says, “Our identity is deep from our origins.”
Most of the Alebrijes are carved from the sacred Copal tree. Before starting to work, they burn the resin of the Copal to help cleanse their energy and connect to their ancestors. Mária Ángeles is the woman on the right. The woman on the left has caracol designs on her arm.
“Carvers need to study the woodblocks to find the hidden “nahual” or spirit, using their imagination and skill at using a machete. The “nahuals” are waiting patiently inside the trees for the artist to discover them by using their senses.”
Elias had been painting alebrijes for 25 years. He and other artists only use natural pigments: copal bark (black), cochineal bugs (red), the skin of the pomegranate (yellow), flowers and other materials.
Elias and other artists paint the designs without following a pattern, using their innate creativity. Elias said that painting the Zapotec symbols all day long can be a meditative experience.
Unfortunately, the Copal tree has been over harvested. To honor this sacred tree, and ensure its survival, Jacobo and María’s community began a reforestation project over 10 years ago. They grow the plants in a nursery for two years and then plant 2,500 Copal seedlings in the mountains annually.
The trees will be harvested after 40 years. At that time the trunk will be a meter in diameter.
All photos and text by Alex Munoz
Editor’s note: I am proud to say that Alex Munoz was raised in my home town of Fillmore California. He grew up at the base of Mt San Cayetano and spent a lot of time around that mountain as a boy. I went to school with his younger brother, Raul. Alex currently lives in Prescott Valley, Arizona.
The Granite Dells, is a geological feature north of Prescott, AZ. The Dells, consist of exposed bedrock and large boulders of granite. I am not from Arizona and these granite boulders still blow me away. I’ll spend hours taking close-ups of the veins in the rocks.
The next four photos were taken in each season of the year. I’ll revisit places several times to try to photograph something different.
The peaks in the background of the photo below are the San Francisco Peaks, the tallest mountains in Arizona. At the base of the peaks is the city of Flagstaff, Arizona.
I’ve spent a lot of hours out there in the early in the morning and evening because the light is better for photography.
Ten years ago, I joined the local photography club and developed a passion for what has become a gift at my age and a wonderful hobby as well.
In Sedona, this fall, it was a steep hike up to Devils Bridge. However, it was well worth the hike, as you can see from the next two photos .
I feel a very strong connection to the land. That is why I am always getting outside.
In the next two photos, you can see the light changing in the afternoon, as we made our way back to the trail head from the Devil’s Bridge.
Whatever light I had at any given moment was the light I needed to work with.
The next three photos show our approach to Cathedral Rock in Sedona, 2016.
The cloud patterns in Northern Arizona are very unusual.
I’m not a professional photographer, but I am a person practicing a profession that I enjoy very much.
If you live in a suburban area, white tail deer can be pests eating the hostas and the vegetables in your garden; destroying a young tree by making it a rubbing post during the rutting (mating) season.
But white tails are the largest wild mammal in our neighborhoods, and are incredibly beautiful and sleek. There is something special about taking a morning hike and watching doe and yearling bound away with their tails “flagging” in the air.
Below are some stories about white-tail encounters:
- On an October morning, I walked out to get my mail, it was during the rutting season, and a buck was trying to mount a doe in the street, not 50 feet from me (Hormones can be overwhelming for all mammals sometimes). Larry Wade
- My wife and I were hiking and our dog, Hug, was barking wildly ahead of us. She had recently weaned her pups. We rushed up to see a wobbly newborn fawn nursing from Hug’s teats. The dog was standing with a bewildered look on her face, not sure if she should try to take bite out of the fawn or lick it. Time slowed down to one frame per second. My wife, picked the fawn up and cradled it. Then we both realized what she has done and she laid the fawn down in the weeds. We continued down the trail, wondering if the whole event had even happened.
- I had the good fortune to have a free hour to spend before our worship service last Sunday, so I ventured over to Lake Ann in Chanhassen for a hike in the beautiful forest there. I was alone, so I prefer to move through the woods carefully and quietly. I was pleased to come upon a pair of deer. I paused and took some of the photos for this posting. Look carefully in the photo above and you can see the doe who blends so well into the background. As I began to walk away from them, the buck began to follow after me, which made me a little nervous. Thankfully, I was able to move up a hillside and lose his sight line.
story by Dale Antonson
- Many years ago, I was working with a group of 6 graders at a nature center. We were doing a deer study near a deer feeding station. I was showing the students how you could tell the age of the deer by looking at the scat (poop). I was getting less than 10 % interest from the group. So, having a few milk duds in my pocket, I reached down pretending to pick up some deer scat. I said to the group, “You don’t need to be so freaked out, because deer scat tastes pretty good”. Then I popped the milk dud into my mouth. I’ll never forget the look on those kid’s faces. Their jaws dropped and eyes bugged out, as they tried to fathom what had just happened.
If you have a favorite white tail story post in the comments section.
Deer Population Study
Do you have a deer herd in your neighborhood? What is the population make-up the herd? By recording some simple field observations, you can get a good idea what age groups of deer live there. Below are three tools for studying deer populations including: scat analysis; measuring the size of deer beds; and analyzing hoof size.
What to do: Go out into woods looking for deer signs: including scat, tracks, and beds. You will need a tape measure to determine the deer bed size. When it comes to analyzing scat, count individual clumps. Make a tally for each of the signs that you find. The number of tallies that you make for each age class, will give a good idea what the population structure is in your neighborhood.
Gatewood Elementary is becoming known as an environmental school in the west suburbs of Minneapolis. 4th grade teachers, Jeremy Hahn and Amanda Van Wye have incorporated environmental studies into their regular science curriculum. For many years, they have brought their students to Lone Lake Park for a fall environmental camp. This is an all day outdoor learning event.
On the nature hike, Mr. Hahn gave the students some “solo” time in the woods. They took notes, and or wrote poetry.
In the cold, Fall space I share
Beautiful long trees surround me with air
Fear not, I hear the bear stands here
Singing songs of joy that he hears.
Up in the trees with the beautiful colors
such as rose red stand right there.
Look down from every branch,
Getting darker by the time is near
After that, “Bye” I say to the calm and cold Fall air.
Mrs Van Wye taught the macro and micro invertebrate class, using pond water from the lake. For the micro invertebrates, students used 30x microscopes. Students had to identify, draw and describe the behavior of the aquatic creatures.
Tree identification was the 3rd class that was taught. Students had to make leaf rubbings from leaves collected from trees in the park, identify them and write a note about them.
The art work below was created by using plant pigments, dirt and Buckthorn berries.
Every Friday, Mr. Hahn and Mrs Van Wye take their students out for environmental studies. Below is some of their work that was completed during the peak of fall color.
The untouched areas of the Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan provided inspiration and learning for our group of nature seekers.
The songs of the forest felt alive in my cells. Never have I felt the natural life and death within a forest with such intensity. In this wilderness, death feeds life and life feeds death in a constant celebration.
When I walked or swam in the natural world, I used to try to have no impact. I wanted the life I experienced to go on living as it would if I were not there. I wanted to blend in, to be invisible. I realize now that I am not a visitor to Nature. I am part of it. Now, I hike down the trail and fin over the coral with no particular ego. I am myself, part of everything, no better or worse than anything else, just another life form incorporated into the big picture of Nature.
Everywhere we walked the life of the forest filled the air with its own breath. My challenge was to experience something so alive without expectation. How do I learn to breathe with the forest as a leaf, individual yet all?
It was easy to give yourself up to this untouched wilderness. At times, I felt like there was no separation between what was around me and how I felt inside of myself. In this trance-like state, the land shimmered like a constantly moving mirage.
Going into the Porcupines, the first thing I noticed were the Hemlocks. The last time I saw a Hemlock forest was in New York where the large trees were about thirty feet high. Here there are seventy feet plus trees that have been around for up to 550 years( yes those were babies in 1470). Hemlocks are very selective about where they grow and I could feel that this was home for them.
Walking under these old growth giants was a spiritual experience of wonder and awe at their size and beauty and sensing there was a lot of communication going on between them. Being there felt like enjoying old friends who I had not seen in a very long time and I wanted to lie down on the forest floor and look up at the canopy.
The trees each had a different configuration of limbs and trunks. Interspersed here and there were the seedling hemlocks with their feathery needles. I knew that it would be many, many years before these seedlings reached the forest canopy as hemlocks are very slow growing. My hope is that we take care of our home so that in another 550 years, all can enjoy seeing this magnificent forest.
Minnehaha Creek flows out of Lake Minnetonka and lot of fish go over the dam during the spring runoff. I love to snorkel here until the creek gets too polluted by all the human activity on the lake. Winter is blessing for Lake Minnetonka because it is able to heal from the summer boating season.
Brown bullheads are bottom dwellers and they usually skitter away when danger approaches. True, most people do not like bullheads. But when you are swimming in their element, it is easy to appreciate their uniqueness.
Eye to eye with a largemouth bass.
One of the little surprises that continually occur while snorkeling in the creek.
Crappies are like angels with fins instead of wings.
They are so gentle and have a quiet beauty.
This young northern pike allowed me to get within a few feet of it. The beautiful camouflage pattern made it difficult to see.
Walleye are so mysterious. They lurk in the shadows.
Male bluegill in breeding colors. I have not seen bluegill nests in the creek. Probably because the river’s current would wash them out.
Primitive, creepy and beautiful. Bottom feeder.
I only saw one bowfin this year. This photo is from 2016 when there were dozens of them.
The creativity of nature continually amazes me.
The subtle pattern of a smallmouth bass is food for the soul.
In this photo you get a hint of how the light dances off the fish and the plants.
Nothing like seeing a large pike to make your heart stop.
Would you pay $50 to go out on a ship, possibly get seasick, stand in the cold and get soaked for 3 hours, just to get a glimpse of a whale? It turns out there are millions of people a year who did precisely that (13 million in 119 countries around the world – (data from 2008)). Not only that, whale watching brought over 2 billion dollars into local economies (world wide).
“Whales watches are exciting because you never know what you are going to see. Seeing a blue or a fin whale you realize the immense size of these creatures. With humpbacks they have so many different types of behavior like bubble feeding and breaching, so every time you go it’s a chance to see something different. Living in New York we are never immersed in nature but when you are out in the ocean it is so vast and the whales are so big, it really helps you let go of all your stress and just experience something totally different.
Sarah Sable, Brooklyn, New York.
Whale watchers live to see a whale surface right off the bow. You hear the sound of the “blow” as the whale surfaces. You hear screams of joy and the permanent smiles on people’s faces. The “people watching” is almost as much fun as watching the whales.
What unique creatures whales are:
They are up to 3 school buses in length.
They have baleen which helps them filter small creatures (zooplankton)
Their flukes (tail) propel them in the water.
Whales are like something you read about, but never get to see.
I have been hooked on whales for over 40 years. The first blue whale I ever saw was in 1973. I was working with a group of whale researcher in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The whale surfaced right in front of us. It was dead quiet until someone whispered, “It’s a blue”. Then we started jumping up and down, like little kids, and screaming with pure joy.
“It’s exciting, it’s fun. You get to go out to the open seas like people of yore and you get to see these amazing large creatures that you couldn’t see otherwise.” Justin Thomson, Brooklyn, New York
The shearwaters and terns feed on the same prey as the whales. Many of these birds circumnavigate the Atlantic Ocean each year. The Great Shearwater nests on Tristan da Cunha Islands deep in the South Atlantic. While the Sooty Shearwater nests at the southern tip of South America (Tierra Del Fuego).
“I like to see the whales spouting in our face” Emeline Thomson-Sable ( 3 ½ years old)
There has been a world wide ban on whaling for over 40 years. Sadly, Norway, Iceland and Japan still murder whales. Once you have seen a whale in the ocean, it is unimaginable to think of killing one.
For the most part, whale populations world-wide are increasing. However, ship strikes are the leading cause of whale deaths. Other threats include, water pollution, and entanglement in fishing gear. This summer (2017)there have been 13 endangered North Atlantic Right Whales killed by ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear.