Archive for September, 2015

A Gnarly Winter Coming?


I’m going out on a limb. I’m forecasting a gnarly winter ahead of us.

No, I have not referenced the current Farmer’s Almanac, first published in 1818, and I have shunned the sophistication of doppler radars or fleets of orbiting weather satellites.

I am making my prognostication based on simple observation. In the first days of  September I have seen two birds whose out-of-season appearance have me wondering about the upcoming winter.

First, on a recent hot and humid day, we  bicycled around a curve in the road and a large bird swooped out just ahead of us. Upon first seeing it, I knew it was a raptor and in the next moment, its bulk and head shape told me it was an owl. The large owl  pitched low across the road and then swooped up and landed in a birch growing adjacent to the roadside ditch. I wondered, great horned owl?

As we passed it, I stopped  pedaling and looked into its wide yellow eyes and the large, unmistakeable facial disk of a great gray owl. This was weird. Here it was a sultry late summer day and I was witnessing a bird that I wouldn’t expect to see, and then only rarely, until winter.  Some years these large owls migrate from their boreal haunts to these more southerly parts in east central Minnesota when there are few rodents to hunt in their normal northerly home grounds.

I really want to believe that this wayward traveler has set up home in a nearby large tamarack swamp with another great gray of the opposite sex.

Two days following the owl sighting, Nancy and I were cooling off at the end of the day on our deck with a gin and tonic, when a northern goshawk shot by, not twenty feet from us and four feet off the ground. It looked like a feathered F-16 as it rocketed by and zig-zagged into the adjacent oak woods.

Typically the goshawk is another boreal dweller and a sometimes fall migrant but I typically wouldn’t spy one in these parts in the first days of September. What’s up?

Piqued, I went to the American Birding Association website. I was hoping that this up to the minute report of Minnesota birds might shed some light on my two puzzling observations.

I found nothing about an unseasonable movement of great gray owls. These huge owls are easy to spot since no owl in North America has a larger wingspan. But I did discover that on September 1 “there was a mass migration event that stunned the bird counters at Hawk Ridge in Duluth.” Even the hot and humid day on the shore of Lake Superior did not hold up over 91,000 birds of various species passing by, migrating south. This included, “28,054 Common Nighthawks, “12,842 Cedar Waxwings (represents a new state high count)” and “1,085 Blue Jays (seems early for a count of this magnitude).”

Note the tally for the blue jay count: “seems early for a count of this magnitude.” Hmmmm what do the birds know?? It almost seems like a flood of environmental refugees fleeing the threat of the inevitable unforgiving march of General Winter and his cold-hearted army.

Could it be that even the large,well-feathered great gray owl and and the fleet flying goshawk got an advance notice of a tough winter?

Reading weather, by noting birds and other wildlife and even how it affects how we, as humans,  feel, is officially know as the science of biometeorology. This is basically the same stuff old farmers have been doing for years. According to the International Society of Biometeorology, “The most important question that biometeorology answers is: How does weather and climate impact the well-being of all living creatures?”

For example, my Grandpa always could tell it was going to rain because he would feel his knee stiffen up. One theory the medical community  considers is the impact of barometric pressure on our bodies. Barometric pressure is the weight of the atmosphere that surrounds us. It could be that before a rain, when the barometric pressure is low,  the pressure pushes less against our bodies, allowing tissues surrounding our joints to expand and put pressure on the joint. Hence we might ache.

I recall that same Grandpa, upon hearing a common loon calling from a nearby lake, declare, “It’s going to rain.” He made no comment about the bird making a territorial call or appeal for a mate. No, it was simply going to rain. And you know Grandpa was always right, it did rain. Now I don’t recall if it rained in the next hour, day or even week, but it did rain.

There are hundreds of old weather proverbs that served as weather forecasters. Here is a summer forecasting proverb I can always depend on:

Birds flying low,

Expect rain and a blow.

Birds that feed on flying insects adjust their flight to where the insects are concentrated.  It turns out that just prior to rain, air pressure is low and insects are more comfortable flying near the ground.

I am fascinated with biometeorology and its role in animal movement.  I am feeling  a mysterious urge to fill the porch wood box. You can’t be too ready for a gnarly winter.

Back from the Dead


Four generations of my Anderson ancestors are buried less than a mile south of our 100+ year old farmhouse. While my great-great grandparents framed and sheathed the house out of old-growth white pine, the landscape surrounding them was oak savanna, where oaks grew interspersed with prairie. To farm it would require the clearing of acres of oaks and other trees.

My great grandfather, Johan Erick did just that.

He worked for years to clear the land for his successful potato growing.  His efforts earned him the money to buy the first car in the township, a 1915 Buick, and the first gas generator to provide electricity to their farmstead.

Johan Erick, known locally as Erick, used various means to clear his farm. He used Dynamite was for blasting out stumps. The dilapidated dynamite shack used to stand, isolated from other outbuildings, a couple hundred yards east of where our house now sits. He also used a horse-drawn scoop to dig ditches in his failed attempt to drain a 3 acre wetland. The same horses were hooked up to stump pullers to yank oak stumps out of the ground. And the oaks that his crosscut saw dropped eventually made their way into the large cellar furnace to heat the big farm house.

His tireless efforts rendered the shaggy savanna and wetlands into an orderly farmstead.

Fast forward to the 21st century and that farm no longer exists. Most of that 200 acres is now Anderson County Park. The fields that my great grandpa worked so hard to clear have been replanted to prairie grasses like big bluestem, Indian grass, Canada wild rye, and side-oats gramma grass. Prairie flowers like large flowered penstemon, black-eyed susans, yellow coneflowers, bush clover, goldenrods, and wild bergamot paint the grounds in a collage of summer and late summer colors.

The long range plan of the park is to transform the land back into an oak savanna.  Great grandpa Erick would roll in his grave.

Recently I noticed that the bur oak outside our house was dropping its prodigious crop of   acorns on our roof. No oak in North America is capable of bearing acorns so long into its life as a bur oak. Some trees that have tallied more than 400 years are still producing good crops of seeds.

I knew it was time to go visit the oak-shaded Lutheran cemetery down the road. I rode my bike to pay my respects and to collect a couple handfuls of bur oak acorns.


It was important that I collect the acorns from the big oak that shades my ancestors’ grave. I like to think that their long buried remains have nourished this tree. In essence, the acorns I gathered bear molecules of Great Grandpa Erick and his wife Ida. As I cycled back home past the big farmhouse they had built, I was glad to be on a mission to bring a bit of them back to the homeplace.



During the mid-1990s, my  former ecology professor at the University of Minnesota, Dr. John Tester, was speaking to our local Audubon chapter about his then-recently released book, Minnesota’s Natural Heritage. He was passionate about climate change models that the University was involved in. I vividly recall him say, “If I were to plant trees in my yard I would now be putting in bur oaks. These oaks will be able to withstand a drier and hotter future.” But he acknowledged that most folks don’t have the patience required to watch a bur oak grow and instead choose weaker trees, like silver maples, poplars or willow, that can offer quick shade but far less strength and resistance to storms and dry spells.

Returning from the cemetery with the distinctive shaggy-capped acorns bulging in my pocket, I put my bike away and strolled through our small woods to our grassy property edge where it meets the park’s prairie restoration. I tucked acorns every 20- 30 yards into the soil, no deeper than a squirrel might bury one. I also planted some on my aunt’s adjacent property. She grew up with Great Grandpa Erick living in the same house and I suspected she wouldn’t mind that I tuck a few acorns into her fallow field that is wide open, except for scattered red cedars.

With over six decades behind me, I will certainly not enjoy the shade of these slow-growing trees. I hope to see the emergence of some of them.

I planted acorns close to the prairie line, hoping that someday maybe some acorns from these pioneer trees will push Great Grandpa Erick’s essence further on to the land he once toiled to clear.

Two pioneering species, my great grandfather and an oak, each have left their mark on the land. Yet inevitably, the perseverance of oaks and the natural world will outlast our need to have things go our way.