Our backyard plantings making year ’round Minnesotans of some robins

An American Robin enjoys a crab apple treat during the recent winter storm.

An American Robin enjoys a crab apple treat during the recent winter storm.

It’s truly amazing how wildlife have adapted to the harsh conditions of winter.

Also amazing is the fact that some wildlife endure it when they have the wings to take them south.

That’s the case for the American robins.  It is no longer unusual to spot them during the winter.

Still, this writer was surprised on the recent Monday when we were nicked by a winter storm that caused blizzard conditions in locations east and south of here. There in a tree full of small, crab apples were robins and cedar waxwings.

Check out the blog of Sharon Stiteler, birdchick.com, and you will learn that robins will often hang around with flocks of cedar waxwings in the winter.

She also points out that robins are able to withstand blizzards, ice storms, sub-zero temperatures and all the rest of it. They keep a warm body temperature thanks to the super insulation provided by their thick, down feathers, and their ability to shiver as needed.

Robins often hang around with cedar waxwings when over-wintering in Minnesota.

Robins often hang around with cedar waxwings when over-wintering in Minnesota.

We checked with John Loegering, wildlife and ecology specialist with the University of Minnesota, and learned that it’s okay to be somewhat surprised when spotting robins. American Robins over wintering in Minnesota is a somewhat recent phenomena, he informed us.

They used to migrate south, but people have now planted enough fruit-bearing trees and shrubs in Minnesota to provide sufficient food for them to survive even the coldest of winters.

Most of the robins still migrate, but not all. “One key is that people have planted all these fruit-bearing shrubs and trees, such as crab apples, that feed the birds that hang around. Without the people, the birds would still be migrating south,’’ he wrote in an email.

Robins usually do not visit feeders in the winter. They are used to finding food in trees and shrubs, and that’s where they search. They can be enticed to bird feeders by putting out meal worms, however.

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Let’s Go Fishing ready to build partnerships for sustainable future

Let's Go Fishing volunteer Dick Lessman and angler Ernie Carlson hold a sunfish pulled from Green Lake.

Let’s Go Fishing volunteer Dick Lessman and angler Ernie Carlson hold a sunfish pulled from Green Lake.

SPICER – Linda Dilley knows how to make life fun for the residents of Bethesda Pleasant View in Willmar, where she is the activities assistant.

But she will admit that residents enjoy some of their best times outside the comfort of their Pleasant View home. By all measures, one of their favorite activities is Let’s Go Fishing outings on the waters of Green Lake. The excitement and good vibes continue when they return and tell others of their adventures, according to Dilley.

She will admit this, too. “Sometimes I’m just as giddy when I take them out and see the joy on their faces,’’ said Dilley. “To me,’’ she said of Let’s Go Fishing, “it’s the best organization around.’’

Let’s Go Fishing will continue to get around and touch lives on the water in more places than ever as it enters its 15th year, according to Joe Holm, its founder and executive director. Holm said the Spicer-based, nonprofit has continued to see steady growth since its start.

Last year it helped touch the lives of over 25,000 people. Its 26 chapters in Minnesota and western Wisconsin are aiming to host 30,000 in the coming year.

Some 2,240 volunteers make it possible, said Holm.

Making sure that Let’s Go Fishing remains the best thing around for those it serves well into the future is very much on Holm’s mind these days.

Holm said the organization is working to develop a sustainable business model to continue its activities.  Its goal is to partner with the many healthcare organizations now benefiting from their relationship with Let’s Go Fishing.

Joe Holm

Joe Holm

The therapeutic and other benefits of the recreational outings for residents are well recognized by the organizations, he said. They have responded favorably to becoming partners with Let’s Go Fishing, he said.

Let’s Go Fishing worked with two different consultant organizations that recommended partnering with the health care organizations to assure a sustainable model going forward. Let’s Go Fishing has received some state funds during portions of its 14 year history, but relies mainly on fundraising by its chapters and generosity from the many individuals, organizations and businesses who appreciate its value to people and the communities it serves.

Let’s Go Fishing was launched with the goal of giving back to seniors. Its also serves veterans and youth. It will continue to offer outings at no charge for the people it serves, said Holm.

He’s confident that the organization can see continued growth ahead. This April, the Spicer headquarters will be hosting a conference for chapter leaders. The gathering will include representatives from groups in Nebraska, Kansas, Arizona and Wisconsin looking to develop chapters.

Many are looking to bring the value added, quality of life benefits that Let’s Go Fishing offers those it serves to their communities, he pointed out.

Holm said there is another factor working in favor of Let’s Go Fishing and its growth. Many of its volunteers are active, older adults.  They want to reach out to those seniors who cannot be as active as they once were, or who have lost spouses and friends with whom they once enjoyed outdoor activities. These volunteers appreciate the opportunity to impact other people’s lives that Let’s Go Fishing provides, he explained.

The opportunities to become a part of Let’s Go Fishing are always there. Holm encourages interested in supporting Let’s Go Fishing or learning more to contact him at: Let’s Go Fishing, 174 Lake Avenue North, P.O. Box 271, Spicer Mn 56288 Office 320-796-5555 or joe@lgfws.com. or website www.lgfws.com

Let's Go Fishing volunter Clarence Theessen prepares to launch a pontoon on Green Lake in this Tribune file photo.

Let’s Go Fishing volunter Clarence Theessen prepares to launch a pontoon on Green Lake in this Tribune file photo.

Front row seat in Paris helps him see western Minnesota’s role in slowing climate change

Professor Arne Kildegaard saw first hand the debate and discussion, and the street theater, surrounding the United Nations Conference on Climate Change.

Professor Arne Kildegaard saw first hand the debate and discussion, and the street theater, surrounding the United Nations Conference on Climate Change.

MORRIS – There were plenty of dire forecasts of what could lie ahead if climate change continues at its present rate.

Scientists already believe the world’s glaciers will be gone by the middle of the century. What does that mean for those who rely on their seasonal melt to irrigate crops?

Many also warn that rising sea levels could displace tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of people around the globe in the not too distant future. And if the ice cap on Greenland disappears, so too will the Florida peninsula.

These are among the discussions Professor Arne Kildegaard, University of Minnesota, Morris, heard as he spent 10 days an official observer at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris from November 30- December 12, 2015.

Kildegaard is the chair of the social science department at UM-Morris.  His work focuses on the economics of natural resources and renewable energy.

We asked him his thoughts on what lies ahead for western Minnesota if the United States implements its pledge to reduce greenhouse emissions by 28 percent by 2025, based on our 2005 output.

Professor Arne Kildegaard

Professor Arne Kildegaard

This region’s agricultural base, wide open spaces, and wind and solar resources could all play major roles in our ability to prevent the worst from happening, as well as adapt to the changes already in motion. “ I think we’re as well situated as anyone, and better than the vast majority,’’ said Kildegaard.

He anticipates that on a national level, we will see more done to electrify our transportation system. There will be more electric vehicles on our roads.

And, we will find ways to be more energy efficient in our homes and businesses. Our buildings will be better insulated, and we will turn increasingly to LED lighting and other technology to reduce energy usage.

Some of the biggest changes will occur in electrical production.  We will have to find more ways to leave fossil fuels in the ground by replacing them with renewables. That’s where we are fortunate in this region, according to Kildegaard.

“We have a surprisingly good solar resource here,’’ said Kildegaard. Advances in technology have helped improve the economics of solar, more so than anyone had ever expected, he added.

His role as an official observer gave Professor Kildegaard a front row seat on the discussions in Paris.

His role as an official observer gave Professor Kildegaard a front row seat on the discussions in Paris.

Economics should continue to drive growth in wind power in the region too. “A lot of people got interested in wind in the first place not because they were eager to save the environment, but because they wanted a piece of the action and they could see a technology that is really coming along,’’ he said.

The economic and technological challenges for biomass are greater, but Kildegaard believes we may see growth here too. Sweden has seen success by blending biomass with coal to reduce the carbon output of its power plants, he pointed out.

Our farm economy will see changes. Kildegaard said he anticipates that the U.S. will look at ways agriculture can keep more carbon in the soil. Tillage techniques that open fields to make a longer growing season possible also release large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. There will need to be incentives so farmers will want to adapt tillage techniques that work instead to hold the carbon, he said.

Agriculture will also experience the challenges that greater vagaries and extremes in weather associated with climate change cause. And as the production of certain crops march northward, we will have to invest in the infrastructure to adapt to the changes in each area, he explained.

We have already “baked in’’ many climate changes that we cannot reverse anytime soon, said Kildegaard.

The climate accord aims to limit the rise of global temperature to two degrees celsius (3.6 degrees F) by the end of the century. Most believe that it will soon become evident that pledges made in Paris cannot achieve that goal, and we will need to further tighten our standards going forward, he said.

Kildegaard said there can be no talking of winners and losers when it comes to climate change. The fact that 196 countries could come to any sort of agreement was truly a feat of diplomacy, he said. “Now every country that signed on has to go home and figure out how to do it,’’ he said.

A pedal-powered vehicle makes it way on a Paris street during the conference.

A pedal-powered vehicle makes it way on a Paris street during the conference.

 

 

 

 

 

Wildlife cope with the cold in ways outdoor enthusiasts can only envy

Park naturalist Kurt Nelson photographed this ermine with the squirrel it hunted in Tettegouche State Park.

Park naturalist Kurt Nelson photographed this ermine with the squirrel it hunted in Tettegouche State Park.

The weather forecast warns of temperatures plunging to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit this weekend, far colder than what Viking fans endured one week ago in the Seattle game.

How do wildlife manage in the bitter cold? Surprisingly well, we discovered by asking the right people. Kelsey Olson, naturalist with Sibley State Park, Kory Klebe, environmental education leader at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, Curt Vacek, area wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and John Loegering, certified wildlife biologist and wildlife extension specialist with the University of Minnesota, are among those who offered their observations on how wildlife do it.

For starters, the hardiest of the wildlife are like the true Viking fans at the game. They bundle up. White-tailed deer have already donned their dark-colored, winter coats. What’s most remarkable about their winter coat is that the fur consists of hollow hair, rather than the solid hair of summer. “Like a big, fluffy coat,’’ said Olson of the insulating value the hollow hairs provide.

Layers help too. Underneath the hollow hair are fine hairs that the deer can stand and fluff.

The coats are so efficient at trapping air and consequently body heat, it’s not unusual to see white-tailed deer with snow on their backs. There’s not enough heat escaping to melt it.

Park naturalist Kelsey Olson caught this image of an otter, one of two that were using holes in the ice to find food under the ice of a small wetland in Sibley State Park in December.

Park naturalist Kelsey Olson caught this image of an otter, one of two that were using holes in the ice to find food under the ice of a small wetland in Sibley State Park in December.

Beaver and muskrats also grow guard or hollow hair for winter, and take advantage of its insulating qualities, noted Klebe.

Thanks to weather forecasts, Viking fans had plenty of warning about the cold that was coming and how to prepare for it.

Wildlife benefit from advance warning too, according to Klebe. Most species of wildlife are sensitive to changes in barometric pressure, and consequently can anticipate the weather changes coming. The old saying about “bees never get caught out in the rain’’ has truth to it, he said.

When cold weather is approaching, animals such as squirrels will get more active and gather more of their stored cache in preparation for the cold. During the worst of it, they can huddle in their nests.

Other members of the squirrel family make inactivity their strategy all winter long. Olson pointed out that two cousins in the squirrel family tree, thirteen-lined squirrels and groundhogs, are true hibernators. Groundhogs (aka woodchucks) slow their breathing to one breath every six minutes. The heart rate drops from 75 per minute in the active season to four beats per minute.

A thirteen-lined squirrel rolls itself into a tight, sleepy ball in its hibernation chamber and remains inactive until warm weather arrives. Thirteen-lined squirrels will burn up fat reserves during hibernation, but do not lose any muscle mass. When spring comes, they are as fresh and ready to get into action as are the Viking reserves waiting on heated benches for the coach’s call to get in the game.

Fans who may have thinned their blood with alcohol at the Viking game only increased their susceptibility to the cold, but there are wildlife species who do use blood chemistry to their advantage. Wood frogs have an anti-freeze like blood that allows them to freeze overwinter and then thaw in the spring, reported Professor Loegering. They find refuge in the leaf litter above the soil, he noted.

Many insects survive freezing. Some do it the easy way with aquatic larvae that overwinter at the bottom of lakes and rivers, where the temperature never gets below 39 degrees, he explained.

Park naturalist Kelsey Olson took this photo of an eagle circling the small wetland in Sibley State Park where two otters were hauling the food they caught on to the ice. The eagle made a few dives hoping to nab some of the food.

Park naturalist Kelsey Olson took this photo of an eagle circling the small wetland in Sibley State Park where two otters were hauling the food they caught on to the ice. The eagle made a few dives hoping to nab some of the food.

There are some wildlife species that embrace the challenge of cold weather, perhaps none better than the black capped chickadee. Olson calls them the ‘’rock star’’ of winter. Although they weigh no more than a paper clip, they are active through the winter, singing loudly and when needed, collecting the seeds they’ve stashed and hidden away for cold, snow covered days.

When night arrives, these fast-paced birds do an about face. They go into a regulated hypothermia, said Olson. Their body temperatures drops by 12 to 15 degrees and they slow way down. It saves 25 percent of the energy they would otherwise need for those bitter cold nights.

We all know about the snowshoe hares and their ability to don white-colored fur to become invisible to predators. Weasels know this trick too, turning from brown to snow white as the days shorten and winter approaches.

Many smaller species of wildlife rely on mother nature and a coating of snow to insulate them and help them hide from predators during the winter. Mice burrow deep into the snow and move about in snow tunnels, said Klebe.

Minnesota’s three species of voles- the Southern Red-backed vole, Meadow vole and prairie vole- become subnivean. They live in tunnels under the snow, said Olson. They feed on fungi, roots and shoots.

If there is a deep snowpack, voles are well protected from the owls that prey on them.

One of Minnesota’s best wildlife success stories is the re-introduction of wild turkeys. Vacek participated in some of the early research at the Madelia research station that proved these hardy birds are indeed Minnesota natives.

Researchers wondered whether the cold would limit their range in the state. Researchers had a freezer capable of chilling down to minus 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Turkeys would be placed in the freezer overnight. Their metabolism would slow way down, but they always came back to life when researchers pulled them out in the morning. As they warmed, they’d shake the frost off and start moving about “like nothing ever happened,’’ said Vacek. It was obvious that cold would not be a limiting factor in their range.

Our winter scenery may seem quiet and inactive, but many species of wildlife remain very active through the worst of the cold. Park naturalist Kelsey Olson took this photograph earlier this winter in Sibley State Park.

Our winter scenery may seem quiet and inactive, but many species of wildlife remain very active through the worst of the cold. Park naturalist Kelsey Olson took this photograph earlier this winter in Sibley State Park.

Even some of the area’s non-native species, such as the ring-necked pheasant, are able to cope with the cold of winter. Winter pheasant mortality is usually the result of suffocation from snow and ice during harsh, late winter storms or snowpacks that make it difficult for them to reach their food sources. If there’s food, they can endure numbing cold.

So far, this winter has been a relatively mild one from the perspective of most wildlife. There is not much of snowpack to keep them from food, and we experienced a very long and warmer than average autumn, noted Jeff Miller, assistant wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in New London.

Miller said wildlife populations in the region entered this winter in good shape, thanks to a stretch of favorable weather that dates through last winter. While every winter’s blast of bitter cold will bring calls to the wildlife office inquiring whether to set out feed for pheasants, his advice at this point is “no.’’ It can do more harm than good, and once started, feeding must be maintained through the entire winter.

Unlike football games, there is no knowing when it’s over. There could be a long winter still ahead.

Many insects survive freezing the easy way with aquatic larvae that overwinter at the bottom of lakes and rivers, where temperatures never get below 39 degrees F.

Many insects survive freezing the easy way with aquatic larvae that overwinter at the bottom of lakes and rivers, where temperatures never get below 39 degrees F.

Citizen scientists rewarded by spotting many feathered procrastinators

Just before freeze up and the first snows, nature photographer John White captured this image of Canada geese in a Big Stone County field.

Just before freeze up and the first snows, nature photographer John White captured this image of Canada geese in a Big Stone County field.

WILLMAR – Volunteer, citizen scientists were rewarded for maintaining a 54-year-long tradition in the Willmar area by taking to the field on a cold, December day.

With their effort, the participants in the 2015 National Audubon Society, Willmar Area Christmas Bird Count identified 56 species of birds on December 19, the second highest species count for the Willmar endeavor in its 54-year history. It brings to 108 the historical total of species observed through these years, according to organizers Joel Halbritter and Joel Schmidt.

The organizers reported that three new species were observed this year: a Black-crowned Night-Heron, Trumpeter Swan, and Brown-headed Cowbird.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

There were 33 participants in this year’s bird count, with 21 taking to the field and 12 watching at feeders. Those in the field walked 13 miles and put on 453 miles by vehicle. The annual count occurs in a specified area, and serves science by recording bird migration patterns and trends over time.

The count followed one of the warmest autumns on record. Area lakes set records for remaining ice free into December.

The 36 hours prior to the count saw cold and calm weather and a return to normal. The volunteers woke up to find ice on most area lakes, the organizers pointed out in a letter to participants.

Brown-headed Cowbird

Brown-headed Cowbird

“We knew we would have to look close for those last areas of open water to see what the count day might bring,’’ they stated. They were not disappointed, they noted, since they recorded more than the average number of species.

Each year, the volunteers count anywhere from 2,000 to over 4,000 individual birds.

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan