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Now is a great time to enjoy a walk on a still-frozen lake to soak up the warm sunshine!(2/8)

As we round out February and dive into March, it is hard not to think of warm, sunny skies and flowers blooming in our gardens. But not so quick! This is the time of the year with the most unpredictable weather. It could be -40° with a bitter wind reminding us that winter is hanging on, or it could be 50º with bright rays of sunshine delivering what feels like the arrival of spring. We could see blizzards or rainstorms, or (as this season is going) no precipitation at all. One thing is for sure though. Despite the variation in temperature, the days are getting longer and the sun is higher in the sky, allowing us to feel its warmth for the first time in months. Even if the temperature doesn't rise past the teens, that bright sun is hard at work, melting snow from pavement, sidewalks, and rooftops. Now is the time where we begin to get our first sneak peeks of spring. I won't go as far as to say it has arrived... but there are definitely hints that it is on its way.

So where do we look to catch a glimpse of those signs? To the flora and fauna, of course! People think of birds, particularly the American robin, as the first sign of spring. However, we won't see large numbers of robins for a few weeks still. The horned lark (left) is typically the first songbird to return in the spring, and the first sightings in this region have already occurred! Some of our bald eagles and trumpeter swans have stayed here all winter in proximity to open water. The birds of those species that did travel a bit farther south are already on their way back, increasing our chances of seeing them. Early nesters like the great horned owl, barred owl, and bald eagle may already be sitting on eggs, while other birds like mourning doves, ring-necked pheasants, wild turkeys, ravens, and woodpeckers are still calling for mates. Some birds, like the American goldfinch, will develop brighter colors as their breeding plumage comes in order to attract a mate.

The MN DNR is streaming a live feed of an eagle nest! First chick hatched 2/25/15. Watch as Mom & Dad raise the young!

We know spring is approaching by watching the mammals as well. Due to the freeze/thaw cycles, the snow tends to get a hard crust on top. In fact, the Ojibwe name for this month's full moon is Onaabani-giizis, meaning "Hard Crust on the Snow Moon". This can make tunneling difficult for the small mammals that have been living in the subnivean world and drive them to the walk upon the surface instead (right). Keep your eyes peeled for small critters scurrying along! We are in the midst of breeding season for most mammals, which means many are more active and/or more territorial, again increasing our chances of a sighting. Wolves, coyotes, beavers, red fox and gray squirrels are wrapping up their breeding season, while many more like skunks, red squirrels, fishers, snowshoe hares and more are just getting started! Although the red squirrel may be small, it is fiercely territorial and can cause quite a ruckus when you make an unwanted approach. Be on the lookout for them "yelling" at you from a nearby perch up in a conifer. Bear cubs have already been born and are growing quickly inside their winter den as mom continues to sleep. Deer are about halfway through their gestational period, with fawns due to arrive in May. 


 As many mammals increase activity levels, their tracks may be more commonplace. Get out on the lakes while they are still frozen to find signs of otter belly-slides (left) or to see where wolves have been crossing (right)! (2/8)

Red squirrel on defense! Watch for increased territorial displays in the upcoming weeks! (2/22)

On warmer days, look for insects and/or spiders crawling around on the snow surface in search of mates and food. Springtails, or snow fleas (not actually a flea), are a very common sighting during this time of year. They are very small and most noticeable when in large groups, causing them to appear as a black dust covering the snow.


Springtails get their name from the furca (appendage in red) which folds beneath them like a loaded spring and launches them into the air! Watch for them "springing" on snowy surfaces all through February & March!

While you are down looking at our thin layer of snow for springtails, be checking for the first spring plants! Skunk cabbage is typically the first plant to bloom, sometimes as early as February! It grows in wet soil types and generates its own heat to melt the snow around it. Dandelions are usually the first to appear in the first snow-free areas of our yard and near buildings, starting in March. Watercress has been thriving in clear streams and creeks all winter, but with the additional February sunlight, it is really starting to grow! Although edible (and quite delicious on salads) this is an invasive species, so now is a good time to look for it on your property and eradicate it! Bloodroot and the American Pasqueflower are also known for appearing in March, even with snow on the ground!


Skunk cabbage (left) is typically the first to appear in late Feb./early Mar. followed by the American Pasqueflower (right).

The trees are showing signs of spring as well. The additional February sun has brought intense color to some species of trees, like the golden-yellow twigs of willows and the bright red twigs of redosier dogwood. Oak trees are dropping the last of their marcescent brown leaves that have been hanging on since fall as new growth below begins to push out. Buds are slowly enlarging, preparing for spring. You can see the fuzzy, hair-covered buds of pussy willows, and soon aspen will have buds to match. The dark color of tree bark absorbs more sunlight, which radiates heat out to its surroundings. This causes the snow near tree trunks and roots to melt first (right), so be looking for signs of spring at their base!

While we are not yet deep into the "full rush" of the phenological happenings that are born on the wings of spring, we are tiptoeing closer. Get out and explore the subtle changes that are occurring around us! Feel that long-missed sunshine warm your face. Revel in what mother nature will bring us in the next few weeks. As always, enjoy!

"To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind then to be hopelessly in love with spring."

- George Santayana



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Valentine's Day is this weekend, my friends. If you're still looking for something to give your loved one, something that tells them that the fire is still burning strong, something that you hope they'll be unable to live without, just as much as you would die without them, I've got you covered. However, let's not go back to the stale and overused gifts that will be met with eye-rolls and forced, cold hugs. (I'm looking at you, box of heart shaped candies!) Take a look at these ideas and if you think outside the heart-shaped box, you just may succeed in showing your SO how much they mean to you.

1) CARDS - Everyone has done it. We've pulled out countless cards out of their envelopes only to be slightly amused for a few b2ap3_thumbnail_Valentines.jpgseconds and then perhaps pressured into buying something to show our affection in return. So, how about not buying anything at all?

A handwritten letter on recycled paper is more meaningful than a cookie-cutter card from the grocery store, yet if you're still high on the idea of cards, there are plenty of alternatives.

Cards for Causes (http://www.cardsforcauses.com/) creates cards out of recylced paper, made from wind generated energy (how cool!) and then donates to a charity of your choice.

Another awesome alternative is a plant-able card. Giving a plant and watching it grow is one of the most romantic gestures that you could give. What a way to represent your love! Bloomin cards (http://www.bloomin.com/) creates biodegradable paper embedded with seeds that can be directly deposited into the ground. (Maybe not until spring, around there, though.)

2) BIODYNAMIC WINE - Another romantic sustainable gift idea is buying organic wine. However, a vineyard that utilizes a b2ap3_thumbnail_valentine-wine-3.jpg"biodynamic" approach, is focused beyond simple organic practices. They see their vineyard (or farm) as a complete organism, with something close to spirituality. They take an ethical, spiritual, and sometimes even a "mystical" approach A great list of biodynamic wines can be found here. (http://www.forkandbottle.com/wine/biodynamic_producers.htm). For more information on "biodynamic" agriculture, you can check out the wiki.


3) FREE TRADE CHOCOLATE -Look, you can't get around it. Chocolate and Valentine's Day are inherently the intertwined. You can NOT have VD without chocolate. However, you can do what you can to minimize the sour effects of poorly harvested chocolate. You can avoid this b2ap3_thumbnail_Salon-du-Chocolat-Tokyo-2010-b-004.jpgnegative aspect by purchasing fair trade chocolates, which requires that the workers are paid well, have access to housing and healthcare, and are overall treated like human beings. Plus, it helps boost economies in developing countries, so that's nice, and will definitely give you bonus points from your significant other.

Shop local first, and utilize local resources, but if you can't find some of these locally, remember that it takes several days to ship, and Valentine's Day is coming soon!

What ideas do you have for your loved one?

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There has always been something about winter that reminds me of owls. Here in Minnesota, you can find owls all year round, but for some reason it's just not the same during the summer as it is in winter. Perhaps it's because they are easier to spot roosting in trees without leaves to obscure them. Or maybe it's their silent shadow soaring over sparkling snow in the light of the moon. And don't forget their alluring hooting calls that seem to resonate beautifully in the silence of winter, especially on a crisp, clear night. In the last blog post, I mentioned how this mild winter is likely benefiting our owl populations. Rodents are easier to catch without a deep subnivean layer. If you are ever lucky enough to catch sight of them mid-hunt you will be awe-struck, as they are well equipped for the task at hand (or should I say wing)! Owls are raptors, which are predatory birds that share certain characteristics. Minnesota raptors include hawks, eagles, owls, falcons, and osprey. Raptors are identified by the first three characteristics below, but owls have an additional two that aid them in their superior hunting capabilities.


1. All raptors have a sharp, hooked beak used for tearing food into smaller pieces. The bald eagle (left) has the most impressive beak of all the raptors. Beaks differ from species to species, specialized depending on their type of prey. Owls have smaller beaks than other raptors because they typically swallow their prey whole, eliminating the need for a large tool to help tear it into smaller pieces.



2. All raptors also have very strong and very sharp talons, aiding them in catching prey. Raptors have a unique locking system in their feet, allowing them to tightly grip their prey or a tree branch without continually contracting their muscles. This means they don't have to worry about getting tired and letting go! Owls, like ospreys, have two toes facing forward, one toe facing backwards, and one that can swivel back and forth (right). This allows them to have incredible gripping strength in their feet, often squeezing their prey to death. Owls, unlike other raptors, have feather-covered feet which are thought to help retain heat and protect their feet from the bites/scratches of feisty prey.


3. All raptors have incredible eyesight. In fact, eagles are said to have the best eyesight in the animal kingdom. Raptors, except owls, hunt for their prey from high up in the air, requiring the ability to see very small prey from very large distances. Owls typically hunt for their prey from the branch of a tree, so they do not need to see as far. Many of them, however, are nocturnal and need to catchy prey in the dark! So owls have magnificent night vision. In proportion to the size of their head, owls have very large eyes. If our eyes were the same proportion, they would be the size of softballs! Large eyes = large pupils = more light entering the eye. They use light very efficiently due to the high ratio of rods to cones. Rods are specialized cells that aid in the ability to see in black and white (night) and cones in color (day). If you lit a single candle in the use-to-be Metrodome, an owl would be able to clearly see a mouse scampering about on the field. Incredible, right!? One other thing: owls' eyes are fixed in their sockets by a boney sclerotic ring (above left), meaning they can't look from side to side without moving their entire head. To make up for that, they can rotate their heads much further than ours, an incredible 270°! (Not 360°, a common misconception).


4. Now on to what really makes owls unique. They have the capability of silent flight! All feathers have a central shaft, which has many barbs coming off of it. Each barb has many more barbules, and each barbule has hooks on it that essentially work like Velcro. They hook together, allowing you to "zip" up a feather with your fingers. Owl feathers are different in that towards the edge of their feathers, they have fewer barbules and hooks than the feathers of other birds, so they don't lock together as tightly. This allows air to move through the feather and causes less resistance in flight. With less resistance, their wings make less noise, allowing them to sneak up on prey!





5. The last, awesome thing about owls is their sensational hearing. Owls have asymmetrical ear placement, meaning one of their ears is located higher on their head than the other. This gives owls the capability of hearing sounds at different volumes and angles, allowing them to pinpoint where sounds are coming from! In addition, owls' big, round faces act as a satellite dish (like our external ear) helping to catch sound and funnel it in towards the owls' ears. They can hear so well, that they can hear mice moving around underneath deep snow! Watch this Great Gray owl use sound to catch a lemming!

So who are the prey they are hunting? For most owls, 90% of their diet consists of mice, voles, squirrels and other small mammals. Depending on the species, they may also eat insects, frogs, fish, crayfish, larger mammals and rodents, birds, and even other owls! But owls cannot digest fur, bones, scales, claws, teeth, or feathers so these parts of their prey are regurgitated in the form of a pellet. You can find these pellets under the owls' favorite roosting locations in the woods around your house. They're a good reminder of the nocturnal battles that occur while we sleep. Below is a pellet from a barred owl I've seen around the HUG Campus. Inside we found four skulls! Proof our owls aren't going hungry this winter!

So whooooo should you be on the lookout for in our woods?

Barred Owls are the most commonly seen type of owl around here. They are the only owls with dark eyes (all others have yellow eyes) and can be identified by the vertical stripes (bars) on their chest. They are best known for their "who cooks for you, who cooks for you all" call heard around dusk and later in the night.

Great Horned Owls can be found all over our state. They are known by their large size and ear tufts, and are nicknamed the "tiger with wings". Great horned owls have been known to eat animals as large as skunks, other owls (like the barred owl), and consume an estimated 4,000 mice every year! Talk about pest control! They are the earliest nesters of owl species, nesting in late January and early February, so now is the perfect time to hear their loud, booming call. You can watch a mom sit on her eggs on this owl cam!

Northern Saw-Whet Owls are also common in this area, but this tiny owl can be hard to find! It is only 7-8" tall and is found in conifer forests and cedar swamps, where it can be difficult to locate among the dense evergreens. Some of these owls migrate, but many stay in Minnesota all winter. 

This year, you may be lucky enough to see a Snowy Owl. This is what they call an irruption year, which means that overpopulation, a scarcity of food, or poor hunting conditions have caused many snowy owls to venture south past their normal ranges. You can track sightings of these birds on this website if you are looking to add it to your life list. The owl below has been seen numerous times around the Brainerd fairgrounds/industrial park area. Quick! Find one before they head north for breeding season!

Minnesota is home to 8 other species of owls, but unfortunately, they are not commonly seen in our area. January is a fantastic month to get outdoors for a night hike! Bring your kids! Check out the book Owl Moon by Jane Yolen (a childhood favorite of mine) to get them excited! Allow the light of a full moon to guide you through the glistening winter woods, and keep your ears pricked for the soft, hooting call of our nocturnal warriors. As always, enjoy!

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Gifford Pinchot is considered the father of modern Forestry. French trained and from a wealthy family, he, along with his brother James, endowed the Yale School of Forestry in 1900, home of the oldest graduate forestry program in the United States. In 1905 he became the first Chief of the newly established US Forest Service. Pinchot was an advocate for sustainable forest management and one of the first to espouse a conservation ethic. Conservation of our forests have been a battle ever since. Advocates for both unrestricted use or our forest lands and those who believe in complete preservation of our forests have been at both ends of the spectrum for decades. And still our forests grow.

"Conservation - The wise use and management of natural resources"


an active involvement in sustaining, maintaining and improving an ecosystem. Conservation often involves replacing or removing plant and animal species in order to create a healthy ecosystem.

Read more : http://www.ehow.com/facts_6371284_preservation-vs_-conservation-ecosystem.html
Conservation is an active involvement in sustaining, maintaining and improving an ecosystem. Conservation often involves replacing or removing plant and animal species in order to create a healthy ecosystem.

Read more : http://www.ehow.com/facts_6371284_preservation-vs_-conservation-ecosystem.html
Conservation is an active involvement in sustaining, maintaining and improving an ecosystem. Conservation often involves replacing or removing plant and animal species in order to create a healthy ecosystem.

Read more : http://www.ehow.com/facts_6371284_preservation-vs_-conservation-ecosystem.html


What has changed is our understanding of how a forest works. We have long recognized forests as a place of wildness and diversity. But what has been less clear until recently is that forests are communities with countless interdependent parts. John Muir once said that any one thing is "hitched to everything in the universe." So how can we, as woodland owners and managers, decide if cutting down an oak tree is better for our forest than harvesting a bigtooth aspen? Or if a clearcut is more beneficial to the forest and it's inhabitants then a select thinning? Ecological Classification can help us to better understand how our forests function and not get mired down in the intricacies of how nature works. Where once foresters classified forests by the timber that grew on them, they now look at the geology, soils, vegetation, hydrology, and topography to determine their ecological makeup, or Native Plant Communities(NPC).






"ECS Provinces (photo to left) are units of land defined using major climate zones, native vegetation, and biomes such as prairies, deciduous forests, or boreal forests."





I served my college internship with the Aitkin County Land Department in 1998 when they were first beginning to adopt an ecological classification system. Aitkin County was one of two counties in the US to be selected under the Smartwood certification pilot program. Smartwood is kind of an “organic” label for wood that ensures that forests are managed sustainably, workers are treated fairly, and that products from the forest support local communities. One of the conditions of the program is that management is conducted using an ecological classification system. The utilization of classification models that use soil, vegetation, and physio graphic variables are not new. Ecologically based, natural classification systems, such as habitat types (Daubenmire 1952) and plant community types (Hall 1973) have been used in US Forest Service Regions for years. The MN DNR has conducted silviculture activities using an Ecological Classification System(ECS) on state managed lands since 2000. These management systems look deeper than the trees. They look at the forest floor. All forests have natural succession processes, from pioneer tree species that are the first to recover from a disturbance to old growth forests that develop over decades or centuries. Though the species of trees that grow in a specific NPC changes throughout the succession process, the forest floor doesn't. The forbs, grasses and shrubs stay the same. This is a huge mindset shift in forest management. By looking at the forest floor, not the trees, we can better understand the forest community and what impact our actions will have, before we harvest the trees. As a nontraditional student with an AAS degree from the local community college, working in a field that typically requires a much higher level of training, I feel very fortunate to have landed in Aitkin County at the right time in history.



 "Preservation - Action taken to protect from human influence"





I first learned of Gifford Pinchot during college. What I didn't learn at the time was his falling out with John Muir. See, Muir was a preservationist and Pinchot was a conservationist. Friends early in life, they ended as adversaries, with opposing views of how our wild areas should be treated. The ironic part was that powers much more harmful to our forests took over the political landscape soon after Pinchot's tenure as US Forest Service Chief. William Greeley was soon to follow, with a massive fire prevention program and wholesale giveaways to large-scale timber industry. A look back at history shows that both complete wildfire suppression and unrestricted logging were bad management choices. Pinchot had always preached of a "working forest" for working people and small-scale logging at the edge, preservation at the core. I feel both he and Muir would be excited to see the adoption of forest management based on ecology.


For more information on Ecological Classification Systems go to:  MN DNR ECS


DNR Photo of a typical FDc34 - Central Dry-Mesic Pine-Hardwood Forest
Dry-mesic pine, hardwood, or pine-hardwood forests on hummocky glacial
moraines, often adjacent to outwash plains. Crown fires and mild surface
fires were common historically. This is the main NPC found on the Hunt Utilities Campus.

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I'm not sure if you've heard, but I have a ton of kids at home. As the proud father of six children (4 girls, 2 boys), I find it difficult to keep the chaos at bay. Getting pulled in six different locations; one direction towards the dance studio, another towards drivers training, and yet another towards T-ball practice, sometimes an episode of Pokemon is just what the doctor ordered. You know, a moment to just exhale. So, I see nothing wrong with a little digital time now and then. However, there are many children that spend more and more hours in front of a screen with less and less time under the sun. 

I'm sure you've seen it in your own experiences. A child with a hand held game device, a teenager texting to her friend across the room, or maybe even this abomination. Yes, there seems to be a lot of evidence, at least anecdotal evidence that children are spending more and more time with their screens. However! I had a chance to ask someone who can validate what we are seeing with our own eyes: The more time a child spends in nature (away from screens, video games, and smartphones), the "happier, healthier and smarter" they can be.

b2ap3_thumbnail_cathyjordan.jpgCathy Jordan, associate professor of pediatrics and extension and workshop presenter at this year's Back to Basics, has actual scientific proof that shows more time outdoors has beneficial consequences.

"Humans have an innate attraction to nature. This attraction has been termed 'biophilia.'" Jordan says, "There is burgeoning emerging research literature...that suggests that time spent in nature has measurable physical and mental health benefits, educational benefits, benefits to social/emotional and personal development, as well as the development of a conservation ethic."

She claims that children are being exposed less and less to the option to play outside. This is hitting them on all sides. They are choosing to spend more time indoors, away from nature. They are being guided through school curriculum that is more test-focused and with less emphasis on physical education or even recess. And with the advent of many varieties of smart devices, schools are utilizing screens more and more to deliver education.

"Technology can be a great learning tool. However it is not a magic bullet. When b2ap3_thumbnail_ecocamporientiering.jpgused to excess, or in place of giving children 'real experiences'...such as reading about or watching a video about the bog...rather than experience the bog, first hand...it can further promote the children-nature disconnect....Many children are spending 40 to 65 hours or more a week connected with electronic media according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. That's a full-time job!"

When asked what kind of reconciliation between tech and natural play can occur, however, Jordan seemed optimistic. "There are ways to make use of technology in ways that enrich learning and play. In free play, technology might be used by children to identify things they are seeing or hearing in nature, or map their location, to [go] geo-caching."

b2ap3_thumbnail_noraipadsmall.jpgEven on our own campus, we've been able to find a nice balance between tech and nature. Take a look at our Eco Camps. This last year, we introduced the use of iPads (awesomely borrowed from the PR-B school system) into the curriculum.

HDT Program Specialist, Nora Woodworth, described the kids' use of tech during the Eco Camp sessions as well integrated into a mostly outdoors curriculum. "We used the apps and devices to enrich what we're showing the kids. For example, we've used the cameras to to take pictures of leaves which helps the children identify which tree they're standing in front of."

Woodworth expresses the frustration of actually getting the kids to step outside. "There's an inertia that we need to overcome. Kids are becoming more comfortable with tech, but once they're outdoors and breathing the air, they truly enjoy themselves," commented Woodworth.

It seems that there can be a good balance between nature and tech. However, the key word seems to be balance. Computers, tablets, and smart phones are not going away anytime soon, so we need to find a way to integrate them both. Maybe we'll find an answer at Back to Basics...

Cathy Jordan's Back to Basics workshop is titled How Can We Help Children Connect to the Natural World? You can reserve your spot and see the many other workshops by registering here.


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