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A Great Gray Winter? (And a contest!)

Posted byAlison Aten on 13 Dec 2011 | Tagged as: Contest, Nature/Enviroment

Great Gray Owl photo by Bill MarchelToday’s blog post is by Adele Porter and Bill Marchel, author and photographer of Birds in Our Backyard: Say Hello to Minnesota’s Feathered Friends.

In Minnesota, we are hoping for a great gray winter.

How can winter be both great and gray?  It is if there is an “irruption” of Great Gray Owls moving southward out of Canada into Minnesota.

When conditions are just right, keep your eyes wide open for this large northern owl sitting on top of a roadside tree or pole, scanning and listening for movement of its favorite meal of meadow vole (Microtus pennsylanicus.)

All it takes is a very wet, very cold spring and summer in the Canadian peatlands, and the population of meadow voles plummets. This happens on the average of once every three to four years, sending Great Gray Owls further south in search of food. Nearly 80 percent of the Great Gray Owl’s carnivorous diet comes from meadow voles. That’s a big lean on just one food item.

Meadow voles live in moist, grassy areas. In the winter, they keep to the zone of deep snow that provides protection from the cold, wind, and some predators. But watch out below! Great Gray Owls have a keen sense of hearing and can locate a vole two feet under the snow. Never mind if the snow is deep and crusted: Great Gray Owls have adapted a hunting maneuver of diving through the snow with their head and sharp talons, called “snow plunging.”

“I remember a particular Great Gray Owl I photographed one cold and clear winter day a few years ago,” said wildlife photographer Bill Marchel. ”The snow was nearly waist-deep that year, and I wore snowshoes to help me get around in a tamarack bog. Over my shoulder I carried a tripod-mounted camera and a backpack full of photography gear.

“It was sunny but cold that day. My cheeks were rosy and fingertips numb.  It was nearly sunset when I spotted a Great Gray Owl perched on the tip-top of a small tamarack.

“The bird allowed a close approach–as they often do–and after snapping a few pictures, I relaxed while I studied the owl. Totally ignoring me, the owl swiveled its huge head left and right on what I figured must be a neck containing well-oiled ball bearings. But it was the bird’s yellow eyes that demanded the most attention. I thought for a minute.  Piercing?  Sort of.  Striking?  Maybe. Captivating, that’s it!  It’s those captivating yellow eyes. That’s what is so alluring about Great Gray Owls–those captivating yellow eyes. I snapped a few more photos.

“Peering through the camera’s viewfinder, I noticed the owl suddenly become alert.  Its attention was focused somewhere in the open bog beyond me. Then the bird took flight. It started out low and in my direction. My camera whirred as it advanced from frame to frame while the owl approached. The big raptor passed so close to me that I felt the wind from its giant spreading wings. But I heard not a sound. Its flight was totally silent.

“As the owl passed me it rose slightly in the air. As it did its wings abruptly became rigid. Then the bird went into a midair stall about twenty yards away. Next, without warning, the predator plunged downward into the snow with wings back and talons outstretched. The prey, a vole I assumed, was secure in the owl’s grasp nearly a foot under the snow.  After briefly glancing about, the Great Gray Owl downed its victim in one gulp. Once again it thrilled me by flying close while returning to its original perch to continue its hunt.”

What to Look For

The name Great Gray Owl is a clue that this gray owl indeed looks large. Take away the dense feather mass, however, and this owl is taller but lighter in weight than its northern cousin the Snowy Owl. Great Gray Owls can measure about 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall with a 4- to 5-foot wingspan (about 50 to 60 inches). They wear a white bow-tie with a black knot and have yellow eyes. Their two large feathered facial disks serve to funnel sound directly to their ears, which are under the feathers on the outer edge of each disc. The owl’s ears are positioned at different levels on each side of its head, which allows it to “triangulate” the sound and pinpoint the vole under the grass or snow cover.

When and Where to Look

To get a look at this large owl, take to the roadsides, fields, and open coniferous forest edges near a river, bog, or stream at dawn and dusk this winter. It dines most often in the low light of sunrise and sunset. If we are fortunate enough to see the wide wings of this predator ranging over the northern states in the next months, our hopes may have materialized into a great gray winter.

Win a copy of Birds in Our Backyard!

Visit photographer Bill Marchel’s website for the answers to these questions, and submit links to pictures of the birds from his website in the comments section of this blog. Deadline for submissions is Thursday, December 15, at noon. One winner will be randomly selected from correct submissions.

Clue # 1
This bird is orange and black and builds a hanging sock-like nest.  Icterus galbula

Clue #2
This bird is blue and white and has a crown atop its head, and is not a belted kingfisher. What is it?

Clue #3
The state bird of Minnesota.

Look for another chance to win a copy of the book on Thursday!

Meet Our Authors at the Minnesota State Fair

Posted byAlison Aten on 25 Aug 2011 | Tagged as: Authors, Contest, Cooking, Event, Fairs, History, MHS Author in the News, MHS press

Fabulous Fair AlphabetHave fun exploring the tastes, sights, and smells at the Minnesota State Fair with the Fabulous Fair Alphabet game inspired by the book by Debra Frasier.

From the website: “Pick up a Fabulous Fair Alphabet game card from any State Fair Information Booth or download one here.  Look for words in what you SEE, HEAR, READ, FEEL–and certainly in what you EAT–at the fair! Write these words on the card, recording two words for each letter of the alphabet. (For example: Write a word that begins with “A” beside the printed A. Remember that X’s are rare–simply look for words that contain an X.) Bring your completed card to the Alphabet Forest in Baldwin Park and win a blue ribbon!”

Minnesota's Hidden AlphabetOn Thursday, September 1, meet David LaRochelle, the Minnesota home-grown author for the day featured in Baldwin Park as part of the Fabulous Fair Alphabet festivities, sponsored by the Children’s Literature Network. David is the author of several children’s books, including Minnesota’s Hidden Alphabet with photos by Joe Rossi. Books will be available for purchase in Baldwin Park (across from the 4-H building) as well.

While you are strolling the fair looking for letters, check out the Minnesota State Fair History Walking Tour. You can also stop by the MHS booth on the main floor of the Grandstand for information on MHS programs and sites. (And fun goodies related to our forthcoming 1968 Exhibit: mood pens, anyone?)

Klecko, CEO of the Saint Agnes Baking Company in St. Paul, hosts the bakery’s daily cooking demonstrations in the Creative Activities Building. This year’s theme at the Saint Agnes demo kitchen is “At the Euro Table,” where  Klecko will be joined by some of Minnesota’s best chefs, bakers, and journalists. Guests include fellow MHS Press authors Lee Svitak Dean (Star Tribune Taste editor), Kim Ode (Star Tribune Taste), and novelist Nicole Mary Kelby. (For dates and times, enter “agnes” in the search box here.)

The breads of master baker Klecko have been served in some of the finest restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul. With decades of international culinary experience, Klecko has baked for presidents, rock stars, and professional athletes. But perhaps his most appreciative clients are dogs: he shares his favorite recipes in our book K-9 Nation: Baking for Your Best Friend.

And finally, on Sunday, September 4, celebrate Minnesota History Day in Carousel Park, sponsored by the Minnesota State Fair Foundation and the Minnesota Historical Society. We will feature entertainment, contests, crafts, and more.

See you at the fair!

Tales of the Road is on the move!

Posted byreyescarlosa on 09 Aug 2011 | Tagged as: Authors, Contest, MHS press

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Minnesota Public Radio Morning Edition host Cathy Wurzer, author of Tales of the Road: Highway 61, has worked hard to keep up to date with the digital age. From blog posts to Twitter feeds, she’s got all the bases covered. But nothing excites her more then the recent launch of her new website, the improved and inviting Tales of the Road.

In honor of the new website, we would like to hear from you. What is your favorite place to visit along Highway 61? Is it the North Shore’s Split Rock Lighthouse? Could it be the Aerial Lift Bridge in the picturesque city of Duluth? Or maybe the Apple Capitol of Minnesota, located in the quaint town of La Crescent, is more your style.

Whatever it may be, leave a comment telling us your favorite attraction located on Highway 61 and you will be entered to win your very own copy of Cathy Wurzer’s Tales of the Road: Highway 61. Entries will be accepted from today until Monday, August 15, with the winner announced on next Tuesday’s blog post. Good luck, and happy commenting!