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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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We are excited to have permaculture farmer and teacher, Charlie Danielson as one of our workshop presenters for Back to Basics this year. Danielson is the brain behind the Up North Farm Bus project. His goal is to be able to get kids back in touch with food and farming through demonstrations and hands on fun. The Up North Farm Bus is a retired school bus that is converted into a mobile farm and greenhouse. Fit with an aquaponics system, educational beehives, and more, Danielson's creation seems to be the most unique way to reintroduce farming back to kids. And, it seems it's coming not a moment to soon.

b2ap3_thumbnail_10608480_10152555786408881_5454067912055712543_o.jpgThis is the first and now second generation that is forgetting what food is and what it looks like. Farmers are forgetting how to grow it without machines, oil, and poisons. I have met a 7 year old that did not know that the chicken he eats was once alive until he met one on our farm...I have talked with multiple people...that did not know muscle and meat were the same thing. With less that 1% of the population being farmers, less that 1% of them improving the soil that they borrow from the next generation...we [knew] we had to do something.

Using his experience learned from owning a 10 acre permaculture homestead just north of Duluth, MN, Danielson believes that the natural interaction between plants, animals, and humans, is something that should be expanded and reintegrated in modern agriculture.

With current agricultural systems using some of the most “back-breaking, sod-tilling, and environmentally harmful” farming techniques available, Danielson argues that working with nature and not against it is much more likely to work in the long term.

Over the last 60 years, our system has gotten so inefficient it takes 55 calories in fossil fuels to produce 1 calorie of many b2ap3_thumbnail_10448704_10152369562228881_4430984064932985654_o.jpgfoods eaten today...To continue to till and desertify our planet will make growing food harder and harder as “global weirding” gets worse. Bio-mimicry, biodiversity, and rotational grazing are a few of the tools that will make this next transition easier.

This is the motivation behind the creation of the Up North Farm Bus. Danielson is working on a change in the food production industry by laying the groundwork by meeting kids, teachers, and anyone who is interested in where there food comes from.

This bus lets us have some fun while talking about one of the most dire problems humanity has faced. Getting kids involved with growing their food has been a part of every human culture until now.

That's the hard part, it seems, resetting the connection between food and people. What's the old Aldo Leopold quote? "There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is that danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and that other that heat comes from the furnace." Danielson gets it. He sees that the danger is not necessarily that less people are farming, but in not recognizing that the current farming system is dangerous, that people are becoming complacent in what they are purchasing. Unless the current system changes and the next generation is reconnected with a more sustainable way of growing food, the future looks bleak.

Danielson's workshop is Creating a Mobile Sustainable Education Center. Registration for Back to Basics is online now, so give it a go!.

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A beautiful winter sunrise over frozen Wabedo Lake to start of the New Year!

I am sure as we head into the New Year you are probably thinking to yourself, "Its January. Its cold. I wish it were spring. Where is the sun? And why doesn't this girl just give up on wishing for snow this season!?" I won't. Every night, I go to bed thinking, "Maybe tomorrow". Maybe tomorrow will finally bring two feet of snow, allowing me to finally take my snowshoe hike I have been waiting for. Maybe tomorrow, I'll finally spend hours hopelessly following the tracks of winter's quiet residents. Maybe tomorrow, I will finally get to enjoy the beauty that winter has to offer. Looking at our weather forecast, the day that I dream of is not in our near future (and half of me is hoping that as I type this, I can somehow jinx myself and trick the weather into giving me what I want!).

2013-03-10-09.58.28.jpg  dogs-deep-snow.jpg

Okay, maybe we don't need as much snow as 2013, but some would be nice.

But besides my uncommon love of deep snow, what could possibly be the benefits of having two feet of the fluffy white stuff? There are quite a few, actually! Snow has a high albedo, meaning it reflects nearly all shortwave radiation, like the sun's rays. But what most people don't know, is that it absorbs nearly all longwave radiation, like the geothermal heat coming from within the earth. This causes snow to act as an insulation layer. Air is trapped in the tiny spaces in between snowflakes and, basically, is warmed by absorbing the dissipating heat from the earth. This makes the snow layers and the ground below it quite a bit warmer on a winter day than they would be without it. John Bates, a Midwest phenologist, discusses this phenomenon is his book A Northwoods Companion: Fall and Winter.  He notes a study that found on a winter day with an air temperature of 9°F, the temperature at the surface of the snow was 11°F, eight inches below the surface was 25°F, the soil surface was 34°F, and four inches into the soil was a balmy 38°F. This progressive temperature increase with depth is especially noticeable if snow falls (and stays) before the first extremely cold days, ensuring that more of that heat is trapped in the ground and slowly released throughout winter. Instead, this winter, we have had many days ringing in below zero before a significant snowfall, therefore allowing much of that heat to leave the ground.

The Subnivean World by Kristin Link

There are many benefits to this warmer zone, whether we typically notice them or not. In fact, there is an entire world that exists underneath the snow cover, referred to as the subnivean world ("nivean"=snow, "sub"=below). First, it is very critical to the plants in this northern environment. The insulating snow layer protects the roots of our vegetation from frost and the rest of the plant from dry winter winds. If you notice, many of our native wildflower and shrub species are relatively short, with the majority of their parts remaining below the year's typical snow accumulations. This is for the plant's protection. The thicker snow depths reduce the freeze/thaw fluctuations that occur with minimal snow cover (like we are experiencing this year), therefore also benefiting a wide variety of animals that are ill equipped to deal with such cycles. Many amphibians and insects, such as the gray tree frog (left) or the bumblebee, are "freeze tolerant", meaning that their bodies can partially freeze in the winter and thaw in spring without sustaining serious damage! These animals have a much better chance of surviving if they are not continuously freezing and thawing, or if they are not exposed to the extreme cold, like they would be without that snow layer. The snow keeps animals that hibernate under the snow or even in burrows under the ground much warmer than they would be with no cover. In addition, the snow even helps animals that are not freeze tolerant or hibernating, and not just by keeping them warm! Mice, shrews, and voles rely on the snow as a protective cover layer from their predators, like owls and fox. These tiny rodents create extensive tunnel systems underneath the snow, traveling from their denning sites to their feeding sites, and back again. These can be quite interesting to follow when you find them! In deeper snow, you can occasionally see where these rodents surface and walk along the top of the snow for a while before delving back into their subnivean lair (right). Larger animals, such as grouse, benefit from the snow as well. On cold winter nights, grouse will flutter into the air and dive head-first in the snow, creating an insulated chamber to overnight in. Snowshoe hares also gain from heavy snowfall, which weighs and bends down branches with food that would have previously been unavailable. In addition, as the snow pack accumulates throughout the winter, snowshoe hares can reach progressively higher locations to attain food. With no snow, they can reach food up to a foot off the ground. Snowshoe hares have large back feet allowing them to walk on top of the snow, so with a foot of snow, they can now reach up to two feet off the ground for food, and so on. The addition of food as winter deepens is a rather unique advantage. One last benefit of the snow? We can't forget about the spring melt. This is an important source of ground water regeneration for many cold climate areas.


Rodent tunnels are everywhere, once you start looking for them! The tunnels of these nocturnal critters were evident in our yard the

the morning after fresh snow, going from under the bird feeders to the lilac bush, 1/4/15.

So, I'm not completely crazy in wanting a lot of snow. It does have it's benefit to our environment and to many animals that call this area home. On the flip side, you may be thinking, "But surely a mild winter must be of some benefit to something or someone, besides me". Of course, you are right. The mild, dry winters benefit our larger mammals, who often have difficulty moving through deep snow to find food. Predators such as fox, pine martens, coyotes and wolves are able to conserve energy as they easily search for food in our current lack of snow. Deer are moving around with ease and more food is available to them, which is a welcomed change from their last two winters. Even the fish are happy! Minimal snow cover allows more sunlight to penetrate through the ice, stimulating photosynthesis and plant growth, which in turn increases the food supply and the dissolved oxygen concentration in the water. Owls, hawks and other predatory birds are having higher success rates in hunting, as their prey have fewer places to hide. (Although, fun fact, some species of voles actually don't come out of their hidey-holes on nights surrounding the time of the full moon. They seem to know the increase in moonlight, especially reflecting off the snow, leads to higher predation rates!) Even songbirds are enjoying the ease at which they can find seeds, buds, and nuts without a deep nivean layer.


As you can imagine, deep snow can make things difficult! The deer on the left are struggling through deep snow,

while the Great Gray Owl on the right has an easy time hunting prey above subnivean tunnels (photo: National Geographic).

So overall, which side has the advantage here? Neither. As many things in nature go, the severity of winter differs from year to year. Each year is an advantage to some, while at the same time, a disadvantage to others. I'm not totally ready to call this winter a loss just yet... but I am beginning to think this season may be the advantage all the snowbird-at-hearts were looking for, while I chalk it up as a disadvantage. I'll keep my snowshoes ready and my skis waxed just in case, but they may have to wait for next winter. In any case, if you are not a lover of the snow, then you have absolutely no excuse to stay inside - this is your winter! Get out and explore! Or if the upcoming "Alberta clipper" has you fearfully searching for inside activities, pick up a copy of Winter World by Bernd Heinrich to delve into the wonderfully jaw-dropping evolutionary innovations the animals around us have developed to survive the winter season. As always, enjoy!

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