Owls and “Mouseterious” Happenings

Guest Blogger, Sue Fehsinger of New Hampshire

Mice got into the hybrid system of my Prius and destroyed it. They also got into our greenhouse and ate some important seeds my husband  Bob was growing. These critters are a common problem, but we have always used live traps; after all, they were here first and are just doing what they need to do to survive. That is until they crossed the line and, reluctantly, we declared war and the snap traps and peanut butter came out.

Once a nature lover, always a nature lover, though, and hoping that some good can result, Bob puts the dead mice out in places where they will be found by “someone” looking for an easy meal.

Yesterday he had an amazing experience. He had caught a couple of mice and put them out but yesterday afternoon no one had taken them, so he moved them to a more open place. As he was crouching down, he felt something soft. An owl swooped down and took the mouse while Bob still had the tail in his hand. The owl remained still in a nearby tree, for the rest of the afternoon while the second mouse stayed on the ground and we waited to see what would happen next, but nothing happened before dark. This morning both are gone.

We have hosted at least one pair of Barred Owls for many years. We rarely see them, so yesterday was a real treat, but we regularly hear them (“Who cooks for you?”) Since mice are the secondary host for deer ticks (those are the ticks that carry Lyme disease) these owls and the yearly expanding family of hawks which also lives here are very welcome.

Be sure to take in the International Owl Center in Houston, MN, this winter. Their Owl Festival is scheduled for March 1-3, 2019. Whooo’s up for it?

Keeping Binoculars Handy

We celebrated the first day of 2019 with a drive in the country. An inch of crusty snow had fallen a few nights earlier, and the countryside looked wintry. Wildlife seemed tucked in on this frosty morning, but as we rounded a gravel road’s bend, we spotted 20 huge white birds in the stubble of a picked corn field.

They were too far away to identify. Were they snow geese or swans? Fortunately, our binoculars were at the ready and we were soon delighted to watch trumpeter swans feeding on corn missed by the combine.  

In previous years we would have had to rummage through coats, mini shovel, rope, and other debris stowed behind the pickup’s seat to find our binoculars. Too many times the birds we wanted to see departed before we found the optics. Not this time.

We recently received a Bino Dock device. It fits securely in a car or truck cup holder, making it easy to grab our binoculars quickly. Roof prism binoculars fit snugly into the Dock, reducing the odds of damage caused when optics are stored loosely under or behind a seat. More important they’re instantly available should we spot an unusual animal or even vintage airplane we want to observe more closely.

We found only one downside to the Bino Docks. Because they hold optics at the ready, they are visible from outside the vehicle. This could make them a target of thieves who are able to quietly and quickly break a side window and be off with valuables. We solved this problem by simply putting a dark colored baseball or stocking cap over the binoculars when we are away from the car. Remember it’s never wise to leave anything that appears to be valuable visible within a parked car. Stow them in the truck, under the seat, or cover them.

For information on Bino Docks see www.binodock.com

  Please note:   We were not paid to review Bino Docks.     

Glacier Advances to Winding Pathways

Dump truck and rocks

Glacial rocks arrive at Winding Pathways.

A modern glacier visited Winding Pathways in October.

Our area of Iowa doesn’t have much rock. There’s limestone bedrock in some places. Over the top is a thick layer of subsoil and topsoil with one exception. Glacial erratics.

Thousands of years ago the Upper Midwest was a cold world. Summers were so frigid that the previous winter’s snow didn’t melt. It packed down on top of previous winter’s snow and formed ice. Thick ice is fluid. It moves. Slowly. But it moves. Up in today’s Minnesota, glaciers scooped up granite and other rocks and gave each one a grand, if pokey, ride. As the ice inched forward, often southward, it carried rocks. Often they churned along the bottom of the ice, gradually rounding off like pebbles in the ocean surf do.

Fifteen or twenty thousand years ago the climate warmed. Ancient climate change. Instead of expanding, glaciers shrank, leaving their stone cargo in place, often hundreds of miles from where they were scooped from the ground.

Glacial erratic

This massive erratic is the centerpiece of a new Marion, IA, park.

 

It’s complicated because there were several glacial periods of warming and cooling. Sometimes a new glacier picked up and moved rocks left by earlier ice sheets thousands of years earlier. The last glacier to visit Iowa melted about 12,000 years ago, leaving erratics here and there in the prairie that was converted to farm fields. Two of the most renowned glacial erratics in Eastern Iowa are Waldo’s Rock in Marion, and Bever Park’s boulder that generations of kids have climbed.

At Winding Pathways, we needed a retaining wall and first considered using manufactured concrete blocks. Then, we met Cody Rossman of Hardscapes. His business crafts glacial erratics into retaining walls. It’s not easy. Those hunks of rounded granite are heavy.

Cody’s crew brought truckloads of erratics to our yard from where the last glacier abandoned them near Troy Mills, Iowa. It took a husky truck about 45 minutes to bring the rocks 24 miles. That’s nearly 30 miles an hour.

It’s not certain how fast glaciers moved rocks, but it was slow. It could have taken years, decades, or even centuries for ice to move our rocks 24 miles. A speedy glacier might move a rock a mile a decade. Maybe a mile a century. Cody’s method was faster.

The wall’s in place. Every time we look at the rocks we wonder about their travel. Probably they originated in Minnesota hundreds of thousands of years ago to end up preventing erosion in our yard. What stories they could tell? Winding Pathways will find out in a few weeks when retired geologist, Ray Anderson visits and inspects the rocks and shares their stories.

Our wildlife also loves the rocks. A chpmunk popped up between two rocks as soon as the work crews left for the day. The uneven rock surfaces and the nooks and crannies between them provide safe living spaces for our chipmunks and garter snakes.

 

Monarchs On Their Way South

Monarch Butterfly

Butterfly on plant

This past summer we enjoyed watching many monarch butterflies flutter over our prairie labyrinth. Numbers were way up from last year.

These intrepid insects are now en route to wintering grounds in Mexico. We look forward to their return next year.

Monarchs suffered huge population declines due to varied stresses on their lives. In farm country, most fencerows, waterways, and pastures that once harbored milkweed and wildflowers that provided both caterpillars and adults with food have disappeared. Today’s farmland is a pesticide-laced monoculture of just a few crops.

In town, manicured and sprayed lawns are as devoid of diversity as a cornfield and can’t sustain beautiful wildlife like butterflies.

The news would be more distressing had people not responded with enthusiasm to the monarchs’ decline. This summer we were delighted to see dozens of homeowners in Cedar Rapids and other towns let their lawns grow taller. Many planted pollinator patches in even tiny yards that include a diversity of native plants, including milkweeds.   We took joy in seeing a small patch of milkweeds nurtured by the staff of a convenience store in a tiny patch of dirt near the gas pumps.

Lawn with milkweed on it.

Grow a wild patch on your lawn to encourage butterflies.

Every pollinator patch, even if tiny, adds beauty and diversity to our world. We urge everyone to assist wildlife by creating natural plantings, even in urban areas.

Many Iowans have been inspired by the Monarch Zones Project. Founded by Clark McLeod, the Project provides workshops, encouragement, equipment, and seeds to help people assist this beautiful insect and hundreds of other beneficial species that add richness to our lives and health to the environment.

Next spring’s planting season isn’t far off. Now’s a fine time to plan to expand or create a pollinator patch in the yard. For help contact Monarch Research Project. Let’s continue to work together to create wondrous yards.

Bon voyage, Monarchs!

 

Hearing Aids Help Enjoy Wildlife

A tiny migrating warbler changed my life.  As I sat on my back deck a few springs ago a tiny bird landed on a twig about ten feet in front of me. I could see it singing but couldn’t hear a thing.

Military Training and Hearing Loss

My hearing loss probably started as an Army trainee in the late ‘60s guiding 50 caliber shells into a machine gun. Every time the gun spit a bullet downrange a massive blast of noise and pressure hit my skull. In later years I spent hours running chainsaws, vacuum cleaners, and lawn mowers. All to the detriment of my hearing.

Hearing loss is an insidious stealthy condition. It crept up on me so slowly and gradually that I never noticed it. My wife certainly knew something was going on as I increasingly asked her, and everyone else, to repeat sentences. Conversation in restaurants became challenging and tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, became my constant companion. Night and day my ears never stop buzzing.

Call to Action

Dr. Jennifer Reekers

Fitting hearing aids is a process and building a relationship

Seeing, but not hearing, the warbler spurred me to call Dr. Jennifer Reekers at Heartland Hearing Center in Hiawatha, Iowa. Soon I was sitting opposite her in a hearing test booth that confirmed what I already Low-frequency sounds were easy to distinguish but my ability to detect other sounds dropped as high frequency increased.  Dr. Reekers shared good news. Thanks to modern technology she could improve my ability to hear and reduce the pesky tinnitus.

Shortly after receiving my new hearing aids I hiked a six-mile trail to Hanging Rock overlook at Effigy Mounds National Monument. Along the trail, I was serenaded by warblers and Orioles. In a moist trailside valley nature’s most beautiful sound brought me joy.  It was the first time I’d heard a wood thrush since my hearing declined.

Everyday Sources of Hearing Loss

Millions of Americans suffer hearing loss, often caused by loud noise exposure.   Although most people realize that gunshots and fireworks can cause hearing problems, few recognize that exposure to common everyday lower intensity noise causes gradual hearing loss.  Vacuum cleaners, blenders, coffee grinders, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and the dreadfully loud hand dryers in public restrooms can contribute to a permanent hearing loss.   Damage is cumulative.

Prevention!

Solutions exist! The best, by far, is to prevent hearing loss by protecting the ears from loud noise. Inexpensive muffs and plugs mute the scream of vacuum cleaners and power tools. I keep a pair by every noisy machine and always put them on before pushing the start button. Rather than allowing a restroom hand dryer I keep a clean handkerchief in my pocket and use it to dry my hands. Parents should be especially careful to protect their children’s hearing by choosing quiet toys over shrill ones and making sure kids wear muffs when exposed to noise.

Ironically enjoying music can contribute to hearing loss. Many concerts are at such a high decibel level that even short exposure can lead to lifelong hearing problems.   Fortunately, devices are available from audiologists that reduce the volume of noise entering the ear while retaining sound quality. They enable enjoyable safe listening.

Technology to the Rescue

By the time I recognized my hearing loss, it was too late to prevent it, but the hearing aids restored my ability to distinguish sounds. I will probably always have tinnitus, but technology has diminished its impact. These days I’m careful to muffle loud noise to avoid further damaging my hearing.

Thanks to Dr. Reekers my hearing aids help me enjoy conversation, birds, music, and more of life’s delightful sounds. I encourage everyone to protect their hearing from loud noise and to seek the help of an audiologist to improve their ability to distinguish sounds.

Man with binoculars

Birding again is a joy with hearing aids, thanks to Heartland Hearing

FIREFLIES RETURN TO DELIGHT FAMILY

“It was amazing! Gorgeous!  Fireflies danced over our prairie most of the summer, and they weren’t here when it was a mowed lawn,” said Katie Hill with much enthusiasm

She and her husband Tim are restoring an island of ecological health just three miles from downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa. First Avenue is one of the busiest urban streets in Iowa, constantly filled with cars, motorcycles, and trucks. A bald eagle flying over the road would look down at an urbanized landscape – except for five acres of verdant beauty just a few feet east of the Avenue. The oasis is nestled between suburban developments, a high-rise condominium, and a senior residence complex.

Katie and Tim bought three and a half acres and a home about 15 years ago. It was convenient to his work at a law office a stone’s throw from their land. “We did the standard expected landscaping of mowing and spraying for about a decade,” she said.

Creating Habitat

Although the yard was large it lacked plant diversity and wildlife. Then came the change.

“We stopped spraying and I took delight when creeping Charlie and dandelions took hold. Many people don’t like them, but creeping Charlie has a gorgeous flower that bumblebees love, and it smells nice. Dandelions are beautiful, and bees love them,” she said. Then she broadcast prairie seed on a low area that had been lawn. After a couple of years big bluestem, Indian grass, and many native flowers appeared. Encouraged by their first prairie the Hill’s planted new ones in formerly mowed and sprayed lawns.   They’ve been helped by David Novak, owner of a small company that helps people restore natural areas.

“We were delighted when lightning bugs appeared over the prairie. They don’t like mowed lawn but love taller plants.  We watch them dance on summer evenings. These beautiful insects completely avoid the mowed lawns of our neighbors,” Tim and Katie remarked.

Early in 2018, the Hills bought about an acre and a half of land adjoining their property   Years before several houses stood on the property but it had been purchased by a developer who planned to build two condominium towers. He razed the houses and built one condo tower but abandoned plans to build the second.

Restoring the Land

As we walked through the area Katie showed us her new prairie plantings in what had once been a lawn while Tim pointed out where the houses had stood. As the years go by the residents of the existing condominium tower will gaze downward during the day on wildflowers dancing in the breeze and butterflies sipping nectar from prairie blooms. As twilight approaches, they’ll enjoy fireflies blinking their tiny lights.

In addition to creating beauty and feeling the joy of making the earth healthier, the Hills are benefiting the community beyond their property. Prairie grasses absorb stormwater that once sheeted off their land and into storm sewers and eventually Cedar Lake. Their land nurtures wildlife as its beauty increases and diversifies.

“We feel good about what we are doing. We are helping nature restore itself in the heart of the city, but it also does one other thing. When we were mowing and spraying it was costing us about $600 a month to maintain the property. Now that’s dropped to about 90 bucks, so we’re saving money,” the Hills explained.

In the process of restoring their land, Tim and Katie Hill are also getting a fulfilling ecological education.

Win!  Win! Win!

“It’s a win, win, win,” smiled Katie. “It’s a win for us saving money. It’s a win for us to have the time to be entertained by the wildlife diversity. And, most importantly, it’s a win for Mother Nature.”