And now it’s HERE!

April 10th, 2014

Begone, lingering snow!

After the l-o-n-g winter, it would be easy to get discouraged when you still see drifts of snow in farm groves in early April.

But think positive!

If the Canada goose is on her nest, spring must be here. As you canoe past her island for a closer look, the protective goose flattens her body defensively over her unseen eggs. The gander keeps his distance, but protests noisily.

Canada goose nest

Around the edge of the pond, a cacophony of chorus frogs confirms the verdict that winter has been vanquished. You look in vain for the source of the loud, shrill call – but the tiny songsters stay hidden in the grassy shallows. A larger, but lethargic cousin – a leopard frog – groggily hops across toward the water. Luckily, only a few great blue herons have returned. When the long-legged birds come north en masse, frogs will be high on their list of prey needed to refuel from the rigors of migration.

Lethargic leopard frog

The pair of bluebirds has been fussing and discussing over where they should set up housekeeping. The low house on the edge of the prairie? The higher but smaller one nearer the yard? The slot box out by the garden? Their chortling conversation and flits among the choices provide entertainment for the human landlords.

Indecisive bluebird

Another bird house IS occupied – although not by the tenant you’d expected! A fox squirrel scampers up the pole and tries to disappear into the kestrel box – but carelessly leaves its tail dangling from the entrance. Squirrels breed early, so it’s likely there’s a litter of young competing for space in the cozy nursery.

Squirrel tail

Down a neighbor’s lane, a pair of rooster pheasants cackle and cuss and flap as they battle over a favorite patch of real estate from which to crow their territorial claims.

Rival roosters

At dusk, you listen in vain for the woodcocks. Perhaps they’re lingering in southern Iowa, leery of a late, northern Iowa cold snap?

But the resident coyotes are celebrating one of the first balmy evenings of April. A twilight chorus rings out from over the ridge toward the river. Then another pack chimes in from the east. And a third family of song-dogs yips and yipes their approval from the southern creek valley.

The turkey gobblers, already on the roost, respond with a sleepy, grumpy, rattling “gobble-gobble-obble-obble.” The old Toms need their rest to prepare for tomorrow’s pre-dawn strutting and courtship.

The male red-winged blackbirds have been staking out roadside territories for a couple of weeks, singing and displaying half-heartedly as they wait for the females to join them. When prospective mates arrive, however, the frenzied courtship will begin in earnest.

Motley goldfinches

April is a transition month, so you shouldn’t be surprised to see lingering juncos at your feeder – or perhaps even a wandering purple finch. They compete with a swarm of green-yellow-grey goldfinches, whose motley plumage is still transitioning from winter to spring.

The phoebes have judged their travels to coincide with the first insect flights, which means they’ll have a few morsels to feed on. They’ll probably await nesting just a bit longer, and thus be assured of an even more bountiful food supply for hungry babies.

Despite the cool nights and frosty mornings, the pesky brome and bluegrass invaders have started to sprout in your prairie. Time for a fire to singe the pesky, cool-season grasses in hopes of giving the prairie species a little advantage.

Prairie fire

Also time for a walk through the dry litter of the dormant woods. And – wa-lah! – another unmistakable sign that there’s no turning back the calendar on the spring rush. Hepatica! Poking up on hairy stems through the dead oak leaves, the white-blue-lavendar blossoms dot the expanse of otherwise brown duff. When you kneel for a closer look, you find even tinier hints of the pending floral array: miniature leaves and buds of spring beauty hug close to the black soil. A delicate frond of Dutchman’s breeches leaves adds a hint of green.


Our patience has been rewarded! It’s finally, really, SPRING!


In search of spring . . .

March 8th, 2014

ski trail

As I set off along our ski trail in the face of a March snowstorm, it suddenly hit me that my inner self probably was searching for spring.

It’s been a great winter for skiing, with fresh, powdery snow several times each week. There seldom was a worry of getting over-heated, because temperatures struggled to get above zero.

But we’d begun to yearn for the cardinal’s “cheer, cheer” to signal the lengthening days that mean winter is on the wane. And the river’s usual happy gurgle had been locked under a solid tomb of ice for weeks.

snowy cardinal

Then I pondered a couple of positives, starting with that long-awaited cardinal’s whistle. The Decorah bald eagles, who’ve become online celebrities, have laid three eggs! And a pair of coyotes frolicking on the distant hill in mid-afternoon suggested that love is in the air. I realized that I didn’t have to search as far as I thought for a taste of spring.

ridgetop deer

The deer herded atop the hills just before sunset probably were hungry – but the snow on the ridges had settled enough that they were able to paw down to find a few nibbles of alfalfa or kernels of corn. Their coats still looked gray and healthy – although many of the whitetails have no doubt been burning up their fat reserves on 20-below nights.

On one sunny afternoon, the river magically reappeared to trace braided channels through the ice and snow. (Winter obviously viewed this artistry with disdain, however, and quickly produced another sub-zero blast and several inches of snow.)

magical river

Still, winter is no match for the March sun. Within a day or two, the latest drifts had turned sticky and begun to settle. Soon, you could almost see over the roadside piles – rather than feeling like you were driving through a tunnel.

The white-shrouded landscape hardly looked “springy.” But I knew from the moisture-laden curtain of white haze that the snow really was melting.

snowscape and haze

The relative warmth – perhaps combined with day length – lured a variety of critters from their winter beds. The dead skunk alongside the road may have been too groggy to watch for traffic. A scrawny raccoon risked cold feet to visit the base of the bird feeder in search of a few spilled sunflower seeds. An equally-scrawny opossum foraged beside the ‘coon.

hungry coon

cold-footed 'possum

Wild turkeys, which should begin their spring gobbling almost any day, ventured boldly close to a farmstead – perhaps desperate for some high-energy grain to supplement their dwindling supplies of buried acorns.

time to gobble?

A bald eagle opportunistically picked chunks of meat from a small, road-killed deer, almost oblivious to passing traffic on the secluded gravel road.

road-kill feast

When the afternoon temperature finally topped 40 degrees for what seemed like the first time in weeks, a flock of robins swooped into the flowering crab for a feast of tiny, shriveled apples. Will there be plenty of berries to tide the birds over until the ground thaws enough to bring the worms to the surface?

robin and crab apples

The wintering juncos and rough-legged hawks haven’t left Iowa, our northeast Iowa hills are still white, and I’ve still got a warm fire in the wood stove. But take heart! It’s March – and the worst (we hope!) is behind us.



January 27th, 2014

Wind-whipped snow

Life-threatening wind chills.

Near record low temperatures.


Schools closed.

Travel not recommended.

Towing bans.

And a propane shortage/price hike to boot!

To add insult to injury, your friend posts a “selfie” from a beach in Mexico.

And another friend suggests you really ought to take a quick trip to Florida.

And miss out on the beauty of an Iowa January?

Sun dogs

At dawn, the sun dogs leap into the sky, forming a half-circle around the sun as it peeks above the horizon.

You’re surprised to see a lone car fading in and out of the blowing snow as it tests the road atop a distant hill.

Warm & sunny bed

In the shelter of the woods below the barn, a lone doe finds a sunny spot and tucks her nose into her warm coat for a long nap.

Goldfinches, juncos, tree sparrows, downy woodpeckers, and other hardy birds devour sunflower hearts non-stop – barely pausing to move a few feet away as you fill the feeder for the umpteenth time. Even the littlest birds seem fat, with their feathers puffed up for better insulation.

Puffed-up tree sparrow

Will that make them easier targets for the marauding sharp-shinned hawk, who arrives out of nowhere to perch in the tree and wait for an unwitting nuthatch or chickadee to come to the feeder?

Hungry sharpie

Eventually, as the afternoon temperature tops out at 2 below, you strap on your skis for a quick test of yesterday’s powdery snow.

Breaking a new trail through the five inches of fluff will keep you warm.

Ski trail

And the squeak of your skis on the frigid flakes almost drowns out the groaning of the wind in the woods.

Deer tracks zig-zagging along the path prove that the deer don’t spend the entire day bedded down in the sun.

Black shapes against the bright-white hillside erupt into four wild turkeys, whose foraging you interrupted. You wish the birds well as they soar over the treetops and head down into the creek valley for an out-of-the-wind roost.

Ah, that wind . . .

Your cheeks burn as you turn into the icy breeze.

Time to head back to the house, put another log on the fire, and email your snowbird friends a photo to show them what they’re missing!

Travel not advised!



December 31st, 2013

Sunrise warning

Soooo quietly, the snowflakes drifted down around and over us, frosting the trees and our parkas.

What better term to describe the woods than “winter wonderland?”

Turkey River Valley

The weather website has prepared us, forecasting several inches of the white stuff during the day. The red sunrise also foretold the coming storm. (“Red sun in morning, sailors take warning . . .”)

We’d bundled against the single-digit temperatures for an afternoon hike – and never regretted our frigid outing. The fluffy snow squeaked under our boots, and the flakes spotted our glasses. If we listened intently, we could hear a slight hiss as the flakes floated through the dead oak leaves and twigs above us.

Frigid Hike

The day’s flurries had mostly covered the tracks in last week’s snow, but we could still deer trails, and the paths left by the grandkids trying out their sleds and Christmas snowboard. Old tire tracks down the woods road had packed into ice, which turned slippery with the new snow layer on top.

Snowed in

We watched intently for the track-makers – but the best we could do was a lone red-headed woodpecker, which chattered impatiently as it probed a dead snag in search of a grub for a bedtime snack.

Back at our warm house, our resident pair of bluebirds shared sunflower hearts with the nuthatches and juncos. Several goldfinches discovered the luxury of a steam bath, as they took turns perching on a warm rock in the middle of our heated birdbath.

Hardy, hungry bluebirds

Dusk came early to our neighborhood, with no let-up in the snow predicted until later in the evening. The silent, wintery night swallowed up farms and woods and roads. What a privilege to live in a wonderland . . .

Happy New Year!

Motor Mill: Timeless


Who needs a reason?

December 8th, 2013

Wintry magic

The critters knew.

Breakfast walnut

At dawn, the gray squirrels and fox squirrels already were busily rummaging in the dry leaves for a breakfast of walnuts to fuel up against the coming snow.

Red-headed woodpecker

The young red-headed woodpecker chattered incessantly as it poked and pounded on the dead elm in search of high-energy grubs and insects.

Brown creeper

A tiny brown creeper scooted up tree after tree, using its sharp, curved beak to dig little morsels out of crevasses in the bark.

Hungry little buck

And a little buck deer probed its nose deep into the thatch of Reed canarygrass, gobbling mouthfuls of green shoots that had not yet turned brown and dry.

Goldfinches galora

At the bird feeder by the house, flocks of goldfinches crowded in to stuff themselves with sunflower chips. The titmouse hopped back and forth between the bird bath and feeder, apparently needing frequent drinks to wash down the dry seeds.

Thirsty titmouse

A damp, chilly east wind whipped up the valley, foretelling the arrival of the snow. Soon, on cue, specks of white drifted through the gray-brown woods.

The little buck, temporarily satiated, bedded down in the grass, warmed by his full stomach and thick coat of insulating hair.

The fine, powdery snow dusted the oaks leaves, stuck to east side of the trees, and dropped a veil over the forest. The silence was broken only by the barely perceptible hiss of flakes on twigs and leaves.

More sensible folks probably stayed inside by the fire, smugly sipping hot chocolate as they watched the weather through the window. But I had the privilege of feeling the sting of flakes in my cheeks, hearing the squeak of the snow under by boots, and seeing the magical black-white-gray of the December woods.

Sometimes, deer hunting can be just an excuse to connect with Nature.

Empty deer bed . . .


Yes, it IS winter!

November 28th, 2013

Motor Mill on the Turkey River

(Nov. 30 addendum to all you winter haters: You’re welcome! My earlier declaration that winter is here must have prompted today’s heat wave. I’ll take credit. But I reserve the right to say “I told you so” when the Arctic blast hits before next week is over!)


Not according to the calendar – but this November seems to have caught people and critters by surprise.

Our resident chipmunks, which normally don’t like cold feet, are still foraging under the bird feeder in a fresh blanket of snow. Guess they’re trying to fatten up on spilled sunflower seeds to get ready for hibernation. But they’d better not delay much longer. The TV weather guy is calling for below normal temps well into December.

Stoking up on sunflower seeds

Opossums typically try to sleep away the cold, too. But its tracks in the snow prove that at least one ‘possum remains out and about after this week’s storm and chill winds.

The fresh snow is littered with basswood and maple seeds, and the oaks are still clinging desperately to many of their leaves. The trees weren’t ready for the wintery blast, either.

Basswood seeds

We had tried to prepare for the season change by picking the last broccoli and kale and Brussels sprouts before we rolled up the electric deer fence. It didn’t take the deer very long to inspect our work, however. When the hungry whitetails realized the fence was gone, they quickly pruned every remaining leaf right down to the woody stems.

To wash down the meal, the deer returned to the bird bath, where they stood nosing the ice and looking toward the house in disgust. You’d think the human who lives there would have the charity to provide heated water!

Hey in there! I'm thirsty!

Our Amish neighbors still have a few shocks of corn standing in the field – and even the conventional farmers haven’t fully completed the harvest. You can bet the turkeys and deer have got those fields spotted for winter foraging.

Snowy shocks

Ice is creeping out from the banks of the river, and little crystalline rafts clink and swish as they’re swept along by the current and over the riffles.

Icy river

Let’s face it:

Iowa winter has started.

Don’t wait for the solstice to make it “official.”

Instead of grumbling about the cold and snow, why not feed the birds, try on your skis, or photograph the winter wonderland? It’s less than four months until spring!

How long until spring?


Costa Rica: Wow!

November 10th, 2013

Scarlet Macaws

Quetzals. Crocodiles. Volcanoes. Macaws. Iguanas. Rain forests. Monkeys. Waterfalls. Ants. Agoutis.

Diversity only starts to describe Costa Rica. A recent visit there left us in awe at the array of life in this wonderful world.

Retired animal ecology professor Jim Pease led our little band of 10 Iowa curiosity-seekers on a trip similar to those he’s hosted for ISU students for two decades. Although we weren’t tested on his teachings and didn’t get academic credit, we relished the continuing education.

Catarate Waterfall

Surrounded by towering trees on a rain forest trail, we glanced down to see a fascinating line of green leaf fragments that seemed to flow across the path. On hands and knees, we marveled at the parade of leaf cutter ants carrying bits of leaves larger than the insects themselves. Overhead, the perforated tree leaves betrayed the ants’ harvest site. But the ants don’t eat the leaves; rather they “farm” them by storing them at their nests, then feasting on the fungi that grow on the leaf pieces they gather.


The number of life forms of the forest is almost unfathomable. Some biologists estimate that each tree may host another 100 species of plant life, ranging from vines to mosses, lichens, and epiphytes (plants that use a host plant for support, but receive their nourishment from the air or other surroundings.)

Birds – hundreds of species and uncountable individuals – flitting through the jungle are often unseen in the dense vegetation. In 10 days, our group tallied nearly 200 bird species, from drab big-footed finches to the absolutely spectacular scarlet macaws. For those who kept such lists, most of the birds were “lifers.” But it’s not enough to just check off another name when you see an emerald-green resplendent quetzal, a turquoise green honeycreeper, or a bulky-beaked boat-billed heron. You first must catch your breath, blink your eyes, and wonder at the evolutionary chain that has led to these avian phenomena.

green honeycreeper

Costa Rica boasts more than its share of marvelous plants and animals – in part because it lies at the crossroads of north and south, east and west. A mere three million years ago, the land pushed up to separate the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. And that land became a corridor for the mixing of flora and fauna from the continents to the north and south. Add the elevation differences – from sea level to more than 12,000 feet – and Costa Rica can claim 12 different life zones providing habitats for countless unique species. By some estimates, the country and its Central American neighbors may contain up to 50% of the planet’s biodiversity.

Mt. Arenal

We visited a tropical dry forest, tropical moist forest, premontane moist forest, montaine rain forest, and sub-alpine paramo. Our heads spun at the mind-boggling variety of plants we encountered from the ocean shores, to the cloud forests, to the mountain valleys and ridges. Equally diverse bird communities thrived in these regions, as well.

Many Costa Ricans have recognized the attraction of these resources to tourists and biologists from throughout the world. Eco-tourism has become big business. The country also claims to have protected from 12 to 24% of its land in forests and national parks – although “protection” may be left to private individuals who still own the land.

Comfy crocodile

At Savegre Mountain Lodge, a 400-hectare mountain valley hide-away owned by the Chacon Zuniga family, we explored a tropical cloud forest. Several waterfalls interrupted a creek that tumbled through the canyon. Some of the trail network required rope hand-holds to stay on the steep paths. Other paved walkways wound through meticulously groomed gardens with flowers, shrubs, and feeders to attract hummingbirds, woodcreepers, tanagers, and dozens of other birds.

We Iowans sweat profusely in the heat and humidity, huffed and puffed as we hiked the winding mountain trails, and became acutely aware of being outsiders in a country where the main language is Spanish. Looking across a valley at a towering volcano emitting a wisp of steam, we knew we’d left the land of the tallgrass prairie.

Howler monkey

The grunts and growls of howler monkeys rolled down from the treetops at several sites, and iguanas more than three feet long seemed oblivious to people’s stares. Our sharp-eyed guides also spotted several species of tiny poison-dart frogs and lizards.

We also found some familiar “faces” among the unusual surroundings. Plants we keep in our homes – philodendrons, bird of paradise, begonia – grow throughout the forest. Along with the scores of new birds, we saw green herons, great blue herons, snowy egrets, Wilson’s warblers, black-and-white warblers, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, and other birds that visit Iowa. The coatimundi scrounging for scraps under a bird feeder reminded us of our pesky raccoons. And oaks dominated some parts of the mountain forests.

We’re accustomed to Iowa roads, most of which follow mile-square grids, with relatively gentle hills. In Costa Rica, many roads are cut into mountainsides. Randall, our bus driver, seemed unfazed by the winding, narrow gravel, lack of guard rails, playing “chicken” with big trucks, dodging motorcycles, and avoiding pedestrians.

Urban scenery . . .

In San Jose and a couple of other cities, Randall expertly maneuvered the bus through narrow streets, which were jammed with people, taxis, and parked cars. Iron bars, fences, and razor wire guarded businesses and residences – perhaps as much because of custom as for protection. For better or worse, Americanized businesses – McDonald’s, Burger King, Wal-Mart, automobile dealers – were scattered among the local shops.

Out in the countryside, coffee plantations, banana groves, and fields of pineapple reminded us that we were in the tropics. Brahman cattle grazed in pastures. Many gardeners raise tropical plants for the greenhouse trade.

Ocean sunset

A spectacular trip, to be sure. But we savored another northeast Iowa autumn – with yellow walnuts and maples, red Virginia creepers and sumac, purple asters and gentians, the bronze-purples of maturing prairie grasses, and the spectacle of migrating raptors and tundra swans – I feel at home.


Hightower and Friends Protest World Food Prize

November 10th, 2013

Jim Hightower

A week of speeches and symposia, concluding with trumpet fanfares and appearances by world leaders, could not overshadow the controversy surrounding the awarding of the 2013 World Food Prize in Des Moines on October 17.

Activists organized the simultaneous Occupy the World Food Prize event to protest the World Food Prize being given to three researchers who pioneered techniques that have led to the development of genetically engineered crops. The work of Mary-Dell Chilton of Syngenta, Robert T. Fraley of Monsanto, and Marc Van Montagu, founder of two biotechnology companies, allowed production of corn and other plants that are resistant to glyphosate herbicide, and to a host of other genetically modified organisms (GMOs) now widely used in agriculture.

But former Texas Agriculture Commissioner, populist, and political commentator Jim Hightower blasted the alleged take-over of agriculture by such corporate endeavors. He said corporations have “hijacked our food policy.”

“Food is life, it is culture, it is community – not just a commodity to be manipulated for the selfish gain,” Hightower said.

Iowa activist Frank Cordaro, who organized the Occupy the World Food Prize event, and who was one of two protesters arrested at the World Food Prize ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol, decried the “problem with wealth in this country – the 1% vs. the 99%.”

Like past Occupy Wall Street protests, “Occupy the World Food Prize is following the money line,” Cordaro said. World Food Prize officials “are glorifying corporate agriculture. The prize isn’t the problem. Corporates are the problem – the global corporate system.”

Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, spoke both at an Occupy the World Food Prize event and at the World Food Prize ceremonies. He urged “conversation and dialogue” between groups that seem to be poles apart.

Catholics believe that the Earth “is a gift offered by the creator to the human community,” Turkson said, so it is legitimate for humans “to intervene in nature and make modifications.” But humans should be stewards of the world over which they have custody, and should be guided by ethical considerations, Turkson said. They must “have the correct attitude” and “respect for the order, beauty, and usefulness of other individual living beings and their function in the ecosystem.”

That philosophy extends to the Church’s support of using science and biotechnology to end hunger, Turkson continued. But he said efforts to increase food production should be guided by ethics – fairness, justice, and the worth of human beings – and not only by profit motives. That means making improved food plants accessible to poor people as well as to wealthy farmers and agribusinesses. Businesses should be able to recover their research investments, Turkson said, but he warned against “excessive financialization of the fruits of research.”

At the World Food Prize ceremonies, Turkson called for labeling of GMOs. “Transparency” is essential to give people a choice, he said. Although a number of countries require labeling of products that contain GMOs, most U. S. corporations have steadfastly opposed the idea.

Turkson, who once considered a career in science rather than the priesthood, also urged researchers to use caution to avoid unforeseen consequences of GMOs. Genetic engineering must not cause the loss of natural species, he warned. We must protect our biodiversity.

Other speakers at the Occupy the World Food Prize event welcomed Turkson’s cautions about GMOs – but many obviously believed that the Church’s position is much too permissive.

“Agribusiness insults the Earth that God has made and exacerbates the problem of hunger,” said Julius Calvin Trimble, Iowa Bishop of he United Methodist Church.

“Occupy” speakers applauded an alternative to the World Food Prize. The U. S. Food Sovereignty Alliance awarded the Food Sovereignty Prize to The Group of 4 (a coalition of small farmers in Haiti) and to the South American Dessalines Brigade. Both grassroots groups have worked to preserve heirloom seeds and to assist small-scale farmers.

“The Food Sovereignty Prize is awarded to social movements, peasant organizations and community groups working to democratize – rather than monopolize – our food system,” the Alliance explained.

Hightower scoffed at the argument that corporate farming and GMOs are needed to “feed the world.”

“This is not a ‘feed the world’ movement. It’s a feed our profit movement,” he declared.

“We have massive production of food commodities in the world right now,” he argued. “But we don’t have a distribution system.” To get quality food to those who need it most, we need to “work with people themselves in their countries to have sustainable small farms.” Only minor technology inputs – such as improved irrigation systems – are needed, he asserted.

Hightower praised the activists and their goal to reduce the influence of corporate agriculture on food production.

Reconnecting people with the land and food production will take perseverance and patience – and reaching out to others to build their trust, Hightower said. Avoid bombarding people with facts and figures, he advised. The “hard sell” may not be the best approach.

“Martin Luther King did not say ‘I have a position paper,’” he quipped. “We’ve got to learn to tell stories, and have music, and poems.”

“The biggest, fastest-growing, most promising development in world agriculture is the good food movement, which is what you represent,” Hightower concluded.

“It is a movement that is reunifying producers with eaters, rural with urban, economics with environment, pragmatism with idealism, value with values.”


Summer’s Swan Song

August 30th, 2013

August sunset

Ah, the quiet (?) of a late-summer night – if you don’t consider the chatter of the katydids, the trill of the crickets, the yips of the coyote pups, the whirr of tree frogs, or the pattering baby raccoon feet on the deck as the little banditos make a midnight raid of the bird feeder.


Tree frog

So many sounds-sights-smells to savor in an Iowa summer . . .

OK, and a few things NOT to enjoy, too, such as temps in the high 90s and dew points in the 70s. But this too shall pass . . .

Swallowtail & thistle

How about the pretty pink of the blossoms that lure the yellow swallowtail? No matter that the pretty pink sits atop a bushy field thistle. The butterflies and bumblebees and hummingbirds and goldfinches relish the plant that most of us consider a weed. Indeed, the goldfinches even delay their breeding until late summer to assure a supply of soft thistle down to line their nests.

Merritt Woods

In the deep woods, nettles may stand waist high, deterring the careless hiker. If you should brush against the tiny, syringe-like stickers on the nettles, look quickly for a patch of jewelweed, whose plant juices may ease the nettles’ sting. The jewelweed flowers – some yellow, some orangish, depending on the species – make the healing plant easier to find as the season wanes.

Sulfur shelf fungus

The not-so-subtle orange/yellow of the sulfur shelf fungus clinging to the oak stump practically glows against the background of the shady forest floor. “Edible when young,” the book says. Sure enough, an unknown critter has sampled a few bites.

Blue cohosh

Blue cohosh berries may look inviting, if you can find the little clusters among the green leaves. But don’t eat them! Although sometimes dried for use as a coffee substitute, the raw berries are irritating at best – and poisonous to some people.

Fallen monarch

Other colors also portend the changing of the season. The walnuts’ first yellow leaves appeared in early August. By the end of the month, garlands of red Virginia creepers accent the dead elms along the fencerow. The cottonwoods and boxelders are losing their dark-green hue, fading into a yellowish tint.

Viceroy on Joe Pye weed

In the prairie, the goldenrods are bursting into bloom, as if to show the trees the REAL meaning of golden. A few patches of rough blazing-star add their dash of purple. The prairie grasses – big and little bluestem, Indiangrass, side-oats gramma – are turning color, too, in their own pastel way. Their dusky purples and blues and auburn will grow richer as autumn arrives.

In the late afternoon, a squadron of dragonflies swarms over the prairie – perhaps in pursuit of mosquitoes. Tree swallows and barn swallows join the aerial circus, darting and twisting after meals of unknown insects.

At dusk, the velvet-antlered little white-tail ventures out to browse at the edges of the woods. Migrating nighthawks swoop gracefully over the fields. And the katydid concert begins anew.

Velvet buck



August 3rd, 2013

Swamp milkweed - Sharon Cline

In the eye of the beholder . . .

What do a half-dozen outdoor photographers have in common?
Not so much, judging from the images they’re likely to create.

Tiger lily - Dave Entriken

Tiger lily - Sharon Cline

Not much, that is, except a shared satisfaction in using their imaginations (well, the cameras play a little part!) to tell stories about the natural world and people’s connections to it.

In memory - Jan Essig

It was my privilege to teach – and learn from – five fellow photographers during a recent 3-day outdoor photography class through the Legacy Learning Center at the Hamilton County Conservation Board’s Briggs Wood Park near Webster City.

Carrion flower - Nancy Kayser

We set out to trade ideas on choosing a subject, composition, lighting, equipment, and other photography tips. And what better way to learn than by doing?

The first lesson was that nobody looks at the same subject in the same way. Our variety of images were a quick reminder that even a minor difference in the camera angle, center of interest, foreground, background, lighting, or choice of lens, aperture, ISO, or shutter speed, can create an entirely different effect.

Rapids - Rebecca Kauten

Willow bark - Jan Essig

Queen Anne's lace - Sharon Cline

We briefly discussed a few rules of thumb:

Don’t just TAKE a photo, but spend the time to MAKE an image;

For the best quality, set your camera to take fewer digital photos, meaning each photo is a larger file with more information;

Watch the background, which often is half of the photo;

Avoid the “eye-level syndrome” by getting above or below your subject;

Include active people to give an image more life and animation;

Soft light and cloudy days may produce the richest colors, while mid-day sun yields harsh shadows;

Rules of thumb are made to be broken!

Roadside management - Rebecca Kauten

Monarch - Dave Entriken

The photographer’s previous experience, along with the intended use of the photos, also shape the images we create. One student loved to shoot auto racing, but wanted to branch out. Two sought illustrations to use in a calendar or nature trail guide. Several were keeping records of growing grandkids. Others used photos as tools for history and genealogy research. One was always searching for new approaches to teaching photography to young people.

Hummingbird & cardinal flower - Nancy Kayser

Our lively critique sessions reinforced the “eye of the beholder” theme. We usually could agree about out-of-focus or improperly exposed photos – but opinions frequently differed on what was the most pleasing or useful composition.

The beauty of ragweed - Jan Essig

Horizontal or vertical? Close-up or scenic?

But we shared one conclusion: it takes imagination to create the best image.

Rail fence - Nancy Kayser

Dizzy! - Dave Entriken

Compassplant - Rebecca Kauten