Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Agassiz Valley Weather Station

Mark Ewens, National Weather Service

When I toured Beltrami Island State Park several months ago,  I noticed they had an an official National Weather Service (NWS) weather station on-site.  I asked Gretchen Mehmel, how do you get one of those?  You have to join the "Cooperative Weather Observer Program," she said.  And she gave me the name and phone number.

I called and talked with Mark Ewens, the program manager.  I recognized his name from WDAZ-TV news.  When there's severe weather, he's one of the NWS spokespersons.  Mark said he'd have to do some paperwork and he'd get back to me once he got the required approval.

It took awhile, but he finally came out today to install the equipment:  a maximum-minimum thermometer and 8" diameter rain gauge.

I had no idea what to expect.  Mark knew exactly what to do. 

First he took a walk around the site, now known as Agassiz Valley weather station #80 in Minnesota.  He found a perfect location for the rain gauge and pounded the base into the ground.  The thermometer would take more time and effort.

trenching and burying the cable

installing a pole for the thermometer

connecting the cable

Bringing the cable indoors

Cables connected - we have temperature!

Before he left, Mark showed us how to collect the data and uplink it.  Nation-wide, more than 11,000 volunteers take observations on farms, in urban and suburban areas, National Parks, seashores, and mountaintops. The data are truly representative of where people live, work and play.

The Cooperative Observer Website

Over the years, there have been only two observers in Warren, Minnesota:   John Pearson and Dr. Wally Lamb.  Collecting weather observations has a long history in the United States.  The first network of cooperative stations was set up as a result of an act of Congress in 1890 that established the Weather Bureau, but many COOP stations began operation long before that time.

The earliest known observations in the United States date back to 1644.  Collecting weather data was a popular "citizen-science" project.  Many people, including George Washington Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson recorded weather observations.  Jefferson maintained an almost unbroken record of weather observations between 1776 and 1816, and Washington took his last observation just a few days before he died.

These days,  data are used by the NWS to define the climate of the United States, to help measure long-term climate changes, and to provide observations in near real-time to support forecast, warning and other public service programs of the NWS.  

Agassiz Audubon plans look at weather data in relation to local phenology observations.

Stay tuned....

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Banding Kestrel Chicks

American Kestrel nestling ©HvHughes

Last March, PKM Electric Co-operative helped us put 10 kestrel nest boxes on retired utility poles and then installed them around the Agassiz Valley Water Resources Project impoundment and Agassiz Audubon property.

Ben Pahlen, Chris Derosier, Dane Hanson and Joe Marcotte

When the kestrels returned this spring, we had high hopes that they'd nest in our boxes.

American Kestrel on a power line © HvHughes
Aaron Wall and Ben Gubrud check nest boxes

We did our first nest check on June 5th:   5 eggs in one of our boxes!  Another had one egg.

Female with 5 eggs ©Ben Gubrud

On June 18th we checked again.  The box with one egg was a disappointment.  We could smell it before we opened the box.  The egg had been abandoned - and it was stinky rotten.

Abandoned kestrel egg ©HvHughes

The box with the five eggs was in good shape:   Five chicks!

Female Kestrel on 5 chicks ©Aaron Wall

Today we invited the news media and WAO school students to help Tim Driscoll, a raptor researcher from Grand Forks and John Loegering from the University of Minnesota, Crookston install leg bands on each of the chicks.   If these chicks return to nest here next spring, banding is the only way we can identify individual birds.

WDAZ reporter Lezlie Johnson tapes the action
Julie holds a kestrel chick while Tim puts on the band
WAO teacher, Marlys Swanson holds a kestrel chick

WAO students and teachers - and two of the reporters who came to cover the story got up-close and personal looks at the chicks before the birds were returned to their nest box, unscathed.

Katie Davidson, Crookston Times

Check out the story Lezlie Johnson filed... click here.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Feed The Birds This Summer

Baltimore Oriole at Grape Jelly   © Hv Hughes

Now's the best time to feed wild birds.


Most songbirds feed insects to their nestlings.  When we get a couple of rainy days in a row, birds can have a tough time finding enough food.  Supplemental feeding helps.

There's more to see in the summer.  Their plumage is at its best.  Species diversity is high.  Wait long enough and they'll bring their fledglings to the feeders.

What’s best for summer feeding?  That depends who you want to see.

          Goldfinches:  sunflower (chips/hulled or black oil)
          Siskins:  Nyjer thistle
          Orioles:  grape jelly and sugar water (4 parts water to one part sugar)
          Hummingbirds:   sugar water (4 parts water to one part sugar)
          Woodpeckers:  peanut butter suet
          Bluebirds and other thrushes:  mealworms

Summer is a great time to attract wild birds – but be careful how you do it.  Food can spoil and birds can get sick if you don’t keep your feeders and bird baths clean.  If you don't have the time to keep it clean - just plant trees, shrubs and flowers.  Don't use pesticides and herbicides.  And keep your cats indoors.

Agassiz Audubon is selling bird seed, feeders and poles this summer.  Stop by and take a look at who's been visiting our feeders... and pick up a bag of seed.

Have we got a deal for you:  A 50-pound bag of locally-grown hulled sunflower for only $30!

Email or call first to make sure our seed sales person is on-site ... 218-745-5663.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Audubon Prairies Go Up in Flames

Lighting the fire on the south perimeter

It was a perfect day for a fire.  Wind speed was low and rain was in the forecast.

Fish & Wildlife Service fire crews from Rydell and Agassiz National Wildlife Refuges arrived at the Audubon Center around 10:30am on April 17th.  They unloaded and checked their fire vehicles and gear, then gathered around crew leader Darrin Franco as he reviewed the detailed burn plan and safety precautions.

When the briefing was over, the 10 members of the burn crew headed to the prairie on the southwest side of the Audubon Center.  They put up the road barriers, reviewed the plan a second time and checked their radios.   The wind speed kicked up a little, but by 11:30 they were ready to light the perimeter fires. 

Smoke and Flames
Burn Crew Chief Darrin Franco

Four hours later, what would be a “text book perfect” prescribed burn was over. 
Hosing the grasses
Looking north - a goose-eye's view   photo © Chris Anderson

Lots of smoke.  Lots of flames.   Nobody hurt.  Not even a wood fence post was damaged.  Over a hundred acres of grassland were left blackened and smoldering - ready to be soaked by the rain that would come overnight.

The Agassiz Audubon Society prescribed burn was funded by the federal Fish & Wildlife Partners program - which is designed to help private landowners maintain healthy habitat for birds and other wildlife.   

Friday, March 23, 2012

Early Swan Fall

Hundreds of Tundra Swans in Warren

"Hey, have you seen all the swans in the fields down 190th Street?" Randy Trudell asked me when he stopped by to give me an estimate on a tree removal job at the Audubon Center.

"When?" I asked.

"I saw them just now when I drove up here,"  Randy said.

No, I hadn't.

Soon as we were finished looking at the trees, I got in my car and drove west on 190th Street towards US 75.  I didn't get more than a mile when my eye caught a half dozen big birds flying, like moths attracted to a street light - around in a circle over the CRP.

The sky was overcast.  It had been raining all morning.  So the light was not so good for photos.  I got out of the car and took a picture anyway.

One of a half-dozen Short-eared Owls

Short-eared Owl on 190th Street

I wondered when we'd start seeing Short-eared Owls again, but I didn't expect it soon - and so early in the day.

Seeing them reminded me of an unforgettable experience I'd had years ago - watching these birds do their breeding display - barking like dogs and "wing-clapping" at dusk.  Maybe we'll get lucky and see the "show" here in Warren this spring.

After the owls flew out of view, I got back in the car and continued down 190th looking for the field full of swans.

I didn't have much further to go.  I could see hundreds of them in the farm field off to the north at the intersection of 190th and 300th Ave.

But they were skiddish - taking off even though I was driving ever-so-slowly.

I've seen (and heard) hundreds of Tundra Swans whistling on the Mississippi River near Nelson, Wisconsin - but never did I expect to see them in Warren, Minnesota.

They're here thanks the Middle-Snake-Tarmarac Rivers Watershed District's new Agassiz Valley Water Resources impoundment just east of Warren on Minnesota Hwy 1. 

Tundra Swan in a muddy field

The best time to see them (and the thousands of other waterfowl at the impoundment) is dawn or dusk... and if you're lucky - midday in the fields south of Warren.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Visiting Bear Dens

UM-C Student Chris Anderson

Agassiz Audubon volunteers got an invitation to join University of Minnesota scientist Mark Ditmer and DNR bear biologists Karen Noyce and Dave Garshelis on their annual winter bear den check in northwestern Minnesota.

Black bears are slowly pushing westward into the agricultural landscape of northwestern Minnesota – the western fringe of this animal’s Minnesota range.  The DNR-University of Minnesota research team has been studying why - and how these bears are adapting to their new habitat. 
UM-Crookston student Chris Anderson at a bear den near Strathcona, MN

How do they locate the dens? 

They use high-tech GPS collars that relay movements of bears to the researchers in near-real time. 
When they get to the dens, scientists sedate the bears and then check their general health and their heart monitors – tiny subcutaneous implants that provide data for scientists from Medtronic and the University of Minnesota’s Visible Heart Lab who are studying the physiology of hibernation.   The researchers also collect hair samples to take back to the lab to analyze - to how much corn is in the bears' diet. 

500+ pound boar sleeping in his cozy den near Strathcona

Chris Anderson, a UM-Crookston student, was one of several volunteers who took turns keeping the cubs warm, while the scientists checked out a sow.   “It was awesome to get this close to these bears,” said Anderson. “This was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in northwestern Minnesota.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Bird Talk in downtown Warren Minnesota

I made a stop at Dale's Supermarket in downtown Warren today, and was pleasantly surprised that the conversation at the check-out line was all about birds. 

"Are you still looking for Snowy Owls?" asked the woman in front of me.  "Yes," I said.   "Seen any lately?"

Why yes, she said, just the other day.  She told me her story about the huge owl she spotted over by Carpenter's Corner (east of Warren on MN Highway 1). 

Call me if you see another one, I said as she grabbed her bags and headed out the door. 

Then my groceries started to move forward on the belt, the woman at the check out counter told me about her close encounter with an adult Bald Eagle along the highway.  The bird was dining on a deer carcass.

Seeing our National Bird eating roadkill didn't seem to bother her at all.

She went on to share another memorable eagle-along-the-road experience.  She was on a bus when an eagle started to fly at eye-level, right outside her window.  The bird kept up with the bus, for what seemed like miles.  Way cool!

On my way home, as I drove past the Agassiz Valley Flood Control impoundment, I picked up a bird story of my own - one that I shared at the watershed district meeting early this evening.

I spotted a pair of grouse up a tree in the snow.  Nothing unusual about that - except they weren't the usual tree grouse - the Sharp-tailed.  They were Prairie Chickens!

The first time I've seen them near the Audubon Center - and the first time I've ever seen them in trees.   It looked like they were eating buds - everything else was encased in snow and ice.

Prairie Chickens up a tree

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Foggy Winter Surprise

I wasn't looking for birds this afternoon.  But I brought my cameras along - just in case I came across a Snowy Owl or that elusive Short-eared Owl down the road by the impoundment.  Other than the frozen fog, which I've only experienced once before, there wasn't much to see.

Or so I thought.

I was out looking for places to put utility poles for our Community Nest Watch program when I noticed a bird along the shoulder of the road.  At first glance, the "giss" (pronunciation: "jizz") screamed "thrush."  Could it be a west coast robin - a Varied Thrush?

I backed up - and, of course, the thrush flew off.  I waited.  It returned.

American Robin

Not a Varied Thrush - it was an American Robin.

No, it's not the first sign of spring - the day after Ground Hog's Day.

It's not that unusual to see them in the Upper Midwest during the winter.  But what was it doing on the side of the road?

I sat and patiently watched as this thrush lifted leaves and pulled at grasses.  I've seen them act like Cedar Waxwings and eat fruits and berries this time of year, but there aren't any berries under the leaves along the roadside in Marshall County Minnesota in February.

It could be that the unseasonably warm weather the past couple days has awaken some invertebrates along the roadside.  Maybe there were insects under those leaves.  Whatever it was, that bird wasn't about to leave it.

But I had get going...

Not a great day to look birds.  But there's always something to see in this neck of the woods - despite the weather.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Community Nest Watch Project

Female Eastern Bluebird © HvHughes

The idea for the Community Nest Watch Project was sparked when when I met with Nathan Wozniak last September.  I was looking for ways to connect students to the Audubon Center, and I needed to fix or replace our seed shed (the doors had started to rot).  Nathan was looking for community service projects for his Tech Ed students at Warren-Alvarado-Oslo High School.

Nathan came out to the Audubon Center to take a look at the shed and we talked about that and other projects.   I mentioned that we also had a housing problem.  Most of the houses at the Audubon Center are in need of repair.  After decades of heavy use, they needed to be renovated - and in many cases, replaced. 

“This is a perfect project for our 8th graders,” Wozniak said.  “We can start in November.”

Agassiz Audubon obtained funding for the building supplies from Northwest Minnesota Foundation and Audubon Minnesota.   Argyle Building Center delivered the lumber (western red cedar) and adhesives to the school.  I supplied the schematics.

Nathan called it a lesson in mass production.

I called it a citizen-science conservation project.

Sadie Scherber and Jake Steer put together the walls

The fifteen Tech Ed students had another name for it:  FUN!

Their first challenge:  how to assemble 50 houses for Eastern Bluebirds.  
Their solution:   create an assembly line - and fabricate the tools and templates for mass production.

Taylor Mortimer attaches the back and walls
Paige Peterson glues the floors
Chase Salmon attaches a roof
Brice Miller fits a nest box into a template

Angela Spindahl attaches the front panel
Max Sundby adds finishing touches with the sander

Connor Swope sands a finished nest box

The class will have the boxes finished by the end of the week.  

Front (l-r): Samantha Ortiz, Angela Spidahl, Max Sundby, Trevor Matelski, Ethan Woinarowicz
Second Row: Paige Peterson, Taylor Mortimer, Sadie Scherber, Chase Salmon, Brice Miller, Jake Steer
Third Row: Mr. Wozniak, Connor Swope
Not pictured: Rabekah Nelson, Sydney Moug, Esmi Ortiz

In April, we'll be looking for volunteers to help install the nest boxes - in downtown Warren, at the Audubon Center, along the flood control diversion east of Warren and at the Agassiz Valley flood control impoundment southeast of Warren.

Want to help?

Eastern Bluebird Fledgling © HvHughes

You don't need to know anything about birds.  I'll show you what you need to do.  And I'll be presenting programs on nesting birds at the Northwest Regional Libraries, at Senior Centers, at Scout and 4-H meetings and at schools.  Click here to look at the schedule

It's a great project for families, kids and adults.

If you’d like to help install and monitor the boxes, call Agassiz Audubon Society 218-745-5663 or send me an email:

If you’d like to sponsor a nest box, a donation of $10 or more will help us cover the cost of the project.  Please send donations to Agassiz Audubon (27391 190th Street NW,  Warren  MN  56762) or donate on line at