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Q & A with Adam Regn Arvidson, author of Wild and Rare: Tracking Endangered Species in the Upper Midwest

Posted byAlison Aten on 08 Mar 2018 | Tagged as: Authors, Interview, MHS press, Nature/Enviroment

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Join us next Wednesday, March 14, at 7:00 pm at Magers & Quinn Bookstore to celebrate the publication of Wild and Rare: Tracking Endangered Species in the Upper Midwest by Adam Regn Arvidson. Here he tells us what inspired him to write the book and the adventures he went on and the interesting people he met while researching it.

What is your connection to Minnesota and its landscapes?

I’m originally from the Chicago area, but I’ve lived here now for twenty years. What I loved right away when I moved here—and what I still love about Minnesota—is the incredible variety of landscapes. We are the only state in the US that has three major biomes (prairie, deciduous forest, and mixed conifer forest) without significant elevation change. Those three biomes are as different from each other as jungles, deserts, and coral reefs are. And they all exist right here, within a couple hours’ drive of the Twin Cities.

As someone who grew up ranging far afield from suburban Chicago for outdoor adventures, that landscape diversity is exciting. As a landscape architect who has worked on and written about projects all over the country, I find the Minnesota landscape to be an ever-stimulating source of ideas and inspiration. Edward Abbey writes about how everyone has their ideal home landscape, even if it wasn’t the one they were born into. I feel that way about Minnesota and the upper Midwest. I feel equally at home in the grasslands, the oak woods, and the northern forests. I also love being able to move freely—and quickly—between them.

Wild and Rare is both very focused on our region and also wide-ranging in terms of the species you cover. What made you want to tackle your subject this way?

I am a great lover of lists. I am most definitely a National Parks and State Parks Passport holder. The origin of the book goes way back to around nine years ago, when I visited the International Wolf Center and heard wolves howl for the first time. That moment—which appears in the introduction to the book—was followed by a trip to an Ely food-and-drink establishment, where I wrote the first draft of the description of the howling. But more importantly, I got curious about what other plants and animals might be on the endangered species list. With smartphone in one hand and Minnesota brew in the other, I learned of the (then) twelve listed species. I saw one I recognized and had a deep affinity for—the dwarf trout lily—and many I didn’t. I realized right away that, put together, that list described every landscape in Minnesota, almost every type of living thing, and covered the entire geography of the state.

My goal has always been to describe the beauty and complexity of this state and its neighbors. The species are a gateway to that. The endangered species list, seen item by item, shows off the whole. And along the way I learned more about my adopted home place than I ever thought possible.

You have been out in the field a lot with scientists in researching this book. What are some of your favorite stories from those trips?

Perhaps the most unexpected trip was when I joined Joel Olfelt and his Leedy’s roseroot research team. I met them in a farm field in southeastern Minnesota, and Joel unpacked an aluminum extension ladder. A ladder to catalog plants? We descended steeply (carrying the ladder) into a river gorge with sheer cliffs on both sides and propped the ladder against the rock. Climbing the ladder was a surreal and memorable experience. It was hard to imagine this was a Minnesota landscape. The cliff was dripping with moisture and the river rushed below me. And there on the cliffside were these little plants, each with a metal tag. Joel has spent around two decades following the life stories of these plants—and I was wondering how anyone ever found them in the first place.

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Another memorable story is when I tracked lynx with Dan Ryan of the US Forest Service. I really didn’t know what I was in for, and I spent a lot of time foundering in the deep snow. I sometimes fancy myself a rugged outdoorsman, but Dan is the real deal. He let me follow tracks, but I had to keep asking him to verify what I was seeing. He cruised through the thickets, while I repeatedly fell in the snow and got tangled in the brush. I can’t imagine doing this work in twenty-below weather or even deeper snow—both of which Dan regularly experiences. He, like pretty much every scientist I worked with on this book, was patient and generous. He may have been chuckling at this city kid under his breath, but he didn’t show it.

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How do you turn all that research into chapters that both educate and entertain?

One of my former teachers called me a “binge writer.” I can’t start writing a chapter until all my research is done. By the time I sit down to write, I have already been in the field multiple times, scoured the online Federal Register documents, read books, and done phone interviews. Then I sit down and write a chapter, usually in about two days of solid, nose-to-the-grindstone hunting-and-pecking, most often in coffee shops (I suppose I should have credited my regular haunts in the book’s acknowledgments).

Once the draft is done, I print it out, cut it apart, and start rearranging the sections to make them flow better. I’ve most often done this while holed up for a weekend in a Minnesota State Park camper cabin, papers strewn across the floor, three chapters a day: morning, afternoon, evening. Once I have an order I like, I go back to my tablet and re-arrange the digital version, polishing transitions as I go. This task often reveals where I have research gaps, so I do another round of calls, searches, and readings.

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The great writer Barry Lopez, in a writing class I was once lucky enough to take, talked about the “genius of the first draft.” He is extremely careful about the editing he does, and will often work on an essay for months or years without changing much. In my case, the re-arrangement significantly changes how the chapter flows, but the base text doesn’t change much from that first binge-writing session.

Lopez also talked about the positions of the writer and the reader relative to the story. He feels many writers put themselves up front, potentially in the way of the reader. He prefers to begin beside the reader, and then gradually move the writer into the background behind the reader. This way, the reader has a full view of the story, with the writer sort of whispering in the reader’s ear. I can’t guarantee my book does this, but it’s what I strive for.

What are the main threats facing endangered species in the Midwest?

Of course it varies by species. But if I had to boil it down, I think there is a very simple big three: water quality, habitat loss, and climate change. Poor water quality and increased storm runoff has significantly hurt freshwater mussels, and is likely affecting the dwarf trout lily and the Topeka shiner. Habitat loss is a major one. Without prairie—of which we have lost more than 99 percent in this country—there will be no prairie fringed orchids, no bush clover, likely no Topekas, and definitely no prairie butterflies. Loss of forest habitat affects the wolf and lynx. Beachfront development gets the plover.

Climate change is a little more esoteric. It’s definitely happening, and in some cases the effects are becoming well known. But exactly how it will affect different landscapes is still an open question. And it could be argued that species like the lynx will simply migrate north and be perfectly happy in Canada. But even if plants could gradually migrate north, they likely can’t do it quickly enough and there might not be suitable soils and moisture in their new temperature range.

One message in all this is hopeful. The Clean Water Act of 1972 fundamentally changed the way we treat urban and rural waterways. There is still work to do (especially with agricultural runoff and road salt), but rivers and lakes, overall, are cleaner than they were before that act. That’s why Mike Davis is reintroducing mussels to the Mississippi.

How has the writing of this book, over the course of nine years, changed you?

For starters it made me into a birder. I didn’t know the difference between a red-tailed hawk and a Cooper’s hawk. But then I went to Texas and started trying to identify shorebirds and it opened a whole new world for me. And my kids got all wrapped up in it, too (sorry, boys). We all have eBird accounts and carry binoculars when we hike. I also started cross-country skiing, after trying it in the amazing snow when I was up north tracking lynx with Dan Ryan. Now it’s one of my favorite things.

I suppose the main change has been that I enjoy this state even more. I itch to get outside, no matter the weather. I look at maps and pick out the parks I want to visit (a list-maker’s hobby).

I also find myself plagued or blessed (depending on my perspective that day) with a constant mix of fear and hope over the fate of our fellow travelers on this globe. Every species I tracked in this book has a rather horrible story of either deliberate or collateral persecution by we humans. Every one also has an uplifting story of resilience and potential—often because of the care and passion of humans. Sometimes both stories exist at the same moment in time.

For instance, I have come to believe (regardless of what the “settled science” says) that pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids, are killing bees and butterflies. Right now. Every day. But at the same time, scientists at the Minnesota Zoo are raising and releasing endangered butterflies into the wild. Will they meet the same fate as their forebears? Will they thrive and repopulate the prairies? I don’t know. And I both worry about that and get excited about that. I love this upper midwestern landscape deeply. I believe it will last forever, and I also fear it won’t.

Winter Sowing Seeds

Posted byAlison Aten on 04 Jan 2018 | Tagged as: Book Excerpt, Nature/Enviroment

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At Farmer Seed and Nursery in Faribault, Minnesota, workers were surrounded by seeds for farm and garden customers.

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Mary Lahr Schier is the editor of Northern Gardener, the bimonthly magazine of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society, and the author of the new book The Northern Gardener: From Apples to Zinnias, 150 Years of Garden Wisdom. The book features tips and tricks for the northern gardener collected from 150 years of Minnesota State Horticultural Society publications. In the excerpt from the “Seeds” chapter below, Mary explains “Winter Sowing Seeds.”

A catalogue is a stimulus. It’s like an oyster cocktail before dinner, a Scotch highball before the banquet, the singing before the sermon.
Gertrude Ellis Skinner, co-editor, Austin (MN) Herald, 1916

The arrival of seed catalogs, usually just after New Year’s Day, is more exciting than any holiday gifts for many gardeners. Page upon page of enticing photographs and charming descriptions are enough to make gardeners want to settle down with a Scotch highball (or whatever their preferred beverage) and spend the rest of the winter planning the garden and shopping for seeds. But after the rush of the catalog season, the seeds arrive and the challenge of getting those seeds into the ground and growing the garden begins.

Starting seeds is not difficult, but it does require different strategies for northern gardeners compared to our southern friends. Many plants cannot be grown from seeds planted directly in the garden. Our growing season is simply not long enough. So, if you want to grow tomatoes, peppers, or other longer-season crops, you have two choices: buy the plants as transplants, or start seeds indoors.

In many cases, buying transplants makes sense. If you are growing just a few plants, starting seeds indoors may not be worth the time and expense. In that case, wait until mid- to late May and buy plants from a reputable nursery or the farmers’ market or get them from a friend who starts seeds indoors. Then you can plant them directly in the garden or a container and wait for the magic to happen. However, growing plants from seeds means you will have a larger selection—most nurseries offer only a dozen or two varieties of tomatoes, for example, compared to the hundreds of varieties available as seed. Growing your plants from seeds also gives you control over how the seeds are raised. You decide what goes into the planting mix, how much light they get, when they go outside for hardening off. Plus, it’s life affirming to watch those little seeds send out a green tendril that breaks through the soil and becomes a viable plant.

. . .

For northern gardeners, there are three main ways to start seeds: outdoors, indoors, and through the winter-sowing method.

. . .

Winter Sowing Seeds

What if you could start seeds without lights? For many gardeners, winter sowing has become an easier way to grow plants—especially perennials—with little care and no lights. Winter sowing became popular in the past ten years as an easier way to start plants from seed. Essentially, you plant the seeds in a mini-greenhouse and set them outside during the winter. As the weather warms up, the seeds germinate, and eventually you have plants ready for transplanting in the garden. Winter sowing does not work for all plants. And if you plan to start vegetables in winter sowing containers, you need to wait until March or early April.

Here’s how it works. Gather your seeds and clear containers, at least four to six inches deep. Clear gallon milk jugs work especially well, but some gardeners use large lettuce or spinach containers or two-liter soda pop jugs. You’ll also need potting soil. It does not have to be a seed-starting mix, but it should be sterile. Garden soil may harbor weeds or bacteria. To set up the mini-greenhouses, first wash the jugs and dip them briefly in a 10 percent bleach solution to sanitize them. Then, poke holes in the bottom of the jugs for drainage and a few in the top to allow snow or rain to drip in. I use a soldering iron for this job, but a sharp scissors or awl will work, too.

Next, cut around the jug about four to five inches from the bottom, leaving the handle in place, so it functions like a hinge. You want to be able to push it back to add the seeds and soil. Dampen the potting mix as you would for indoor seed starting, and fill the jugs to a depth of about three inches. Plant the seeds as deep as the package says. Before closing up the jugs, place a label inside so you know what kind of seeds you planted. Since the mini-greenhouses will be outdoors in all kinds of winter weather, any writing on the outside of the jug will be worn away by spring. (Trust me on this one—put the label inside!) A good way to make labels is to cut up plastic mini-blinds and write the name of the plant with permanent marker or a laundry pen.

Once the containers have been thoroughly marked, seal them up with duct tape. Some gardeners leave the caps on the jugs, some don’t. Then, set the containers outside in a sunny spot and wait. As spring arrives, you will need to check the containers regularly to make sure they have enough moisture. When plants start to grow, gradually make the air holes on top larger and eventually cut the tops off the containers. Do not rush to put the plants in the ground. When your seedlings are strong and the weather has warmed up, plant them in the garden and enjoy.

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For winter sowing, gardeners plant seeds in mini-greenhouses that are set outside. As the weather warms, the seeds will germinate and be ready for the garden come spring.

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Seeds chosen for winter sowing can handle the snow and cold.

Best Plants for Winter Sowing

Native plants, hardy perennials,
cool-season vegetables, and annuals
that reseed readily do best in winter
sowing containers. Winter sowing
works especially well for perennials
that need stratification—going
through a freeze/thaw cycle to crack
the seed coat.

Here are a few plants to consider
for winter sowing:

Perennials. Anise hyssop, asters,
black-eyed Susan, blanketflower
(Gaillardia), blazing star (Liatris),
catmint (Nepeta), coneflower, coreopsis,
hollyhock, lupine, milkweed,
penstemon, perennial sunflower
(Helianthus).

Hardy annuals. Ageratum, calendula,
cosmos, marigold, morning
glory, petunia hybrids, poppy, salvia,
snapdragon, sweet alyssum, annual
sunflower, zinnia.

Vegetables and herbs. Beets,
broccoli, cilantro, dill, kale, lettuce,
parsley, radish, spinach.

For a mid-April start, try tomatoes.

Q & A with Cheri Register, author of The Big Marsh

Posted byAlison Aten on 21 Apr 2016 | Tagged as: Authors, Event, Interview, Nature/Enviroment

The Big Marsh

Cheri Register’s newest book, The Big Marsh: The Story of a Lost Landscape, recounts how a rural community is changed forever when moneyed interests conspire to transform a treasured wetland. As Sue Leaf, author of Potato City and The Bullhead Queen, notes:

The Big Marsh describes the glorious dreams, the grandiose schemes, the lies, the deception, the ignorance, the avarice, and the unheeded pleas of those who saw beauty where others saw a wasteland. Minnesota has lost more than 50 percent of its pre-settlement wetlands. In lyrical prose, Cheri Register tells us how this happened.”

We asked Cheri to tell us more about how and why she came to write The Big Marsh.

The Big Marsh is set in your home territory and even involves your family. Did you grow up with this story?

No, I didn’t. I knew only the final piece—the Hollandale story—about how a lake was drained in the early 1920s and Dutch people were brought in to farm vegetables in the peat soil. I didn’t know that there was a long, contentious backstory that pitted local farmers against outside real estate developers. I didn’t know that the “lake” was actually 18,000 acres of wetland. That earlier history has been lost. My first inkling of it was an essay written in 1935 that I found by happenstance. The headline grabbed me: “Connivings of Dishonest Men Cheat Nature as Well as Fellow Beings, Writer Avers.” The writer turned out to be my great-grandfather! With that fairly cryptic article as my starting point, I had to piece together the story—or watch it take shape—from county records, newspaper mentions, family memorabilia, and revealing entries in a young, enterprising lawyer’s archived diary. It took years of research.

Agricultural drainage is hardly a sexy, or even literary topic. What kept you at it?

I’ve got both a practical answer and a spooky answer to that question. Drainage is an essential theme in Midwestern history. We can’t fully understand rural life or the flourishing of the “heartland” or “breadbasket” of the United States without acknowledging the radical transformation of the landscape that drainage brought about. My daughters used to come home from elementary school upset over what was happening to the Amazon rainforest, and I’d think, what about the loss of Minnesota’s forests and prairies and savannas and wetlands? I’ve talked to intelligent, educated Midwesterners who have no idea that we live atop a network of buried drainage tiles, miles and miles of plumbing. The history of drainage needs to be told, and I felt lucky to be able to contribute one small story. My spooky answer is that my great-grandfather would not let me go. He followed me everywhere, dropping hints, drawing unexpected connections, reminding me of my obligation. I never saw his ghost, but I sure did feel his moral conscience bearing down on mine.

So is this an environmentalist book?

I’m not making an argument or proposing solutions. What I have written is history and family memoir, with an emphasis on landscape and the meaning of place. I am, however, a lover of wetlands, having grown up among the remnants of them, and I’m happy to show that wetlands were not universally dismissed as wasteland but in fact had value to those who lived around them. I do hope my story of how this one drainage happened will serve some purpose in our current public discussion of the unintended consequences of drainage: flooding, soil depletion, water pollution, loss of wildlife, etc.

Your memoir, Packinghouse Daughter, was quite successful. This is a very different book, isn’t it?

Not really. It may not have the immediacy of a memoir that draws on firsthand experience, but I do make clear my personal stake in the story, and I use family memoir throughout. I am pursuing, once again, the central question that motivates all of my writing, even my books about chronic illness and international adoption: What can we learn from the intersection of personal experience with larger, public events? As for the specific subject matter of The Big Marsh, I think of it as a prequel to Packinghouse Daughter. Ultimately it’s about the industrialization of agriculture, and it helps explain how the offspring of family farmers ended up working in the food processing industry, including meatpacking plants.

The structure of this book may surprise and even puzzle readers, because it doesn’t just relate the facts of the drainage. It seems to go off on tangents and even change styles at times. Why did you do that?

When I write, I’m propelled forward by the sounds of words and the rhythm of sentences, even as I’m committed to precision and clarity of meaning. I want to share my pleasure in the writing with the reader. Sometimes, when I’m conveying complex information, a simple, straight narrative is the best course. But at other times, say, when I want the reader to experience the sensation of being by the marsh, I can be more lyrical, or even fanciful. I like a little whimsy now and then. Also, the story isn’t just about the drainage of the marsh; it’s about the life of the marsh and of wetlands in general. So it’s not a tangent to write about Native life on the marshy landscape, or dairy cows grazing in the wet meadow, or binder twine, which is made of marsh reeds. The context of the drainage story is long and wide and deep. I chose to explore it the way an essayist does, by approaching it from many angles, “wheeling and diving like a hawk,” as Phillip Lopate says. A hawk even shows up in the story.

Upcoming author events:
Book Launch Celebration: Magers & Quinn, Thursday, May 12 at 7pm
Book Talk and Signing: Subtext, Tuesday, May 24 at 7 pm
Book Talk and Signing: Prairie Lights, Thursday, June 9 at 7 pm

Urban Coyotes

Posted byAlison Aten on 22 Apr 2015 | Tagged as: Authors, Children, Nature/Enviroment

http://discussions.mnhs.org/10000books/hungry-coyote/

Coyotes are smart, curious, and adaptable. They live on prairies, in forests, and on farmland. They even live in cities such as Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York. City coyotes might make their homes in parks or in nature preserves or on golf courses—all places where they can find plenty of food and shelter. Sometimes they live in small family groups, and sometimes they live alone.

Hungry Coyote by Cheryl Blackford with illustrations by Laurie Caple offers kids a glimpse into the life of an urban coyote as he struggles to feed himself and his famished family.

We asked Cheryl and Laurie to share some of their inspiration for the book.

From Cheryl: cherylblackford

“The idea for this picture book came to me as I watched a lone coyote trot across a frozen lake one January morning. He turned his head to look at me, decided I was no threat, and continued on his way. Although we don’t often see the coyotes themselves, just signs of their presence such as scat on the trails, I saw him twice more. I wondered what he ate and how he lived. I did some research and became interested in urban coyotes and their success at living beside humans in many American cities. While many people are suspicious of coyotes (probably based upon their reputation as ‘tricksters’), or think of them as vermin, I admire the intelligence and adaptability of these animals. They thrive in many different natural habitats ranging from desert to lush grasslands, and now they’re also thriving in our cities. How could you not admire such a smart, successful creature?”

caple-with-coyote-pup_smallFrom Laurie:

“A fondness for nature provides the inspiration behind my artwork. I had the fascinating opportunity to spend time with one of only two known domesticated coyotes in the United States.  ’Wiley’ lives with Rick Hanestad and his family in western Wisconsin, about an hour’s drive from St. Paul. A National Geographic film crew recently spent a number of hours documenting his behavior.

“Wiley is very tame and handles well on a leash, just like a friendly pup.  He has never shown any type of aggressive behavior to humans and sleeps on a favorite recliner in the Hanestads’ living room!”

Cheryl and Laurie hope Hungry Coyote encourages readers to look at our own surroundings with fresh eyes and develop curiosity and respect for wildlife in our cities. They recommend the following links about urban coyotes:

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources: Urban Coyotes

Project Coyote

Urban Coyote Research

The Humane Society

Bug Buzz

Posted byAlison Aten on 12 Apr 2013 | Tagged as: Authors, Children, Event, Interview, Nature/Enviroment

Bruce GiebinkBill JohnsonMinnesota Bug Hunt

It may be snowing in Minnesota, but bugs will be crawling out soon. Today we chat with Bruce “the Bug Guy” Giebink and photographer Bill Johnson, collaborators on Minnesota Bug Hunt, a new children’s book about insects big and small, fierce and friendly.

Find out why they are both fascinated by the Mantisfly.

How did you become interested in bugs?

Bruce:

Although I’ve had naturalist tendencies since I was a kid, I wasn’t especially fascinated with insects as a group until I took an introductory entomology course in college. I had no idea of the incredible diversity that exists in the insects. They come in a nearly endless variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, and more species continue to be discovered on a daily basis.  Many truly do look like mini alien creatures! Once I began to study them more closely, I started to appreciate their amazing ability to survive and adapt to their environment.  As a group, they interact with each other and the environment in some truly amazing ways. One area I find particularly fascinating is how insects interact with each other and plants on a chemical  level. Although many insects live in a visual world, even more exist within an amazing world of smells.

Bill:

One of my earliest memories is from around age three or four and I was looking at some hollyhock flowers and saw something fly into one. Being very curious, I walked up to the flower and for some reason stuck my finger in it. Well, the flower bit back. That was a big surprise for me! After a few seconds, I realized that it wasn’t the flower that bit me, but some large insect that quickly flew out of the flower. Later I determined that it was a large bumblebee that had stung me, only because I had just poked it. Because of that, I made it a point to find out what did that and why it did that.  To this day, happily, that investigation continues.

If you were a bug, what bug would you be?

Bruce:

I’d want to be a praying mantis. Mantids are very active and alert predators with excellent vision. They have a very good idea of what’s going on around them. Within the bug world, they are a top predator, so there aren’t many other bugs you’d have to worry about eating you–except perhaps a larger, hungrier mantis! Most can fly, so you’d be able to fly around, just for the sheer joy of flying or to escape danger or to check out different habitats. For an insect, they also live a fairly long time (2.5–4.5 months).

How do you get such detailed images?

Bill:

With the right equipment, patience, and practice, it’s really not that hard to do. The best lenses to use are referred to as “macro lenses,” specifically made for close-up photography. When working at such a small scale and subject matter, depth of field is almost nonexistent, so the addition of a flash or multiple flash units is required to achieve sharp detail.

What is your favorite cool fact in the book?

Bruce:

The crazy life cycle of the Mantisfly. By appearance alone, the Mantisfly definitely qualifies as a bizarre bug! It’s got grabbing front legs (like a praying mantis), a really long neck (about the only other bug I know with a long neck is the Giraffe Beetle, another bizarre bug!), and beautifully patterned wings (like a lacewing). The life cycle of the Mantisfly is so unusual and detailed that I had a very difficult time keeping the description as short as it is. I wanted to say a LOT more! The world of bugs is truly full of weird and wacky characters. The more you look, the more you find. If I had been a part of creating the movie A Bug’s Life you would have seen some REALLY WEIRD and CRAZY bugs, some behaving in a truly WEIRD manner!

Bill:

I like the Mantisfly life cycle story. In the insect world, it’s eat or be eaten, and you do what you can to be successful in one and try to avoid the other. To do that sometimes requires being really sneaky or devious as well as being able to show off bright colors, startling patterns, and weird body shapes.

What do you hope readers will get out of this book?

Bruce:

When readers (or even those just looking at the pictures) pick up this book, I hope they’ll appreciate the incredibly detailed pictures and want to know more about what they’re looking at. When they read about a particular insect, I hope they’ll say, “Cool!  I didn’t know they did that!”

After seeing all the different sizes, shapes, and colors of the insects in this small book, I hope they’ll appreciate the incredible variety or diversity that exists in the world of insects, even in a temperate location like Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. I hope this tiny glimpse into the hidden and mysterious world of insects will pique their interest enough to want to explore their own backyards, woods, and ponds to find their own bugs. Once they find them, I hope they’ll want to learn more about them, such as what they are, what they eat, how they protect themselves, etc.

More than anything, I hope they develop an appreciation for all the many important jobs that insects do and begin to realize how important they are to the natural world. In many respects they truly are “the little things that run the (natural) world.”

Meet Bruce, Bill, and some bugs tomorrow at Red Balloon in St. Paul at 10:30 a.m. Click on the hyperlink for the title, above, for more events with the authors.

Tasteful Taxidermy

Posted byAlison Aten on 27 Nov 2012 | Tagged as: Interview, Nature/Enviroment, Videos

“DIY Death Rituals,” “Sing Like a Voyageur,” “Field Dress a Deer,” “Crop Art 101,” “Detasseling Corn: The Hows and Whys,” and “Tasteful Taxidermy” are just a few of the chapter titles in The Minnesota Books of Skills: Your Guide to Smoking Whitefish, Sauna Etiquette, Tick Extraction, and More by Chris Niskanen.

Chris is no stranger to the art of taxidermy. In his book he profiles Marv and Betty Gaston of Taxidermy Unlimited, but for today’s blog post he wrote up the story of Francis, below:

I was driving home from Best Buy in Woodbury when I saw a badger lying on the shoulder of a two-lane highway. It appeared to be perfectly intact after getting hit by a car. It was August.

Another SUV had stopped in front of me, and a woman with several older children were inside. About the time I pulled over to investigate, a teenage boy jumped out of the SUV, and soon the two of us were standing over the dead badger. He couldn’t believe what he was looking at. I was surprised, too, to find a badger in Woodbury. We discussed the matter with his mother, and while she was intrigued by the idea of bringing it home (they had stopped first, so had dibs), she understood that on such a warm day she needed to get it either in a freezer quickly or to the taxidermist. I volunteered to take it because I knew a taxidermist who could do the job immediately. When I brought it home, my five-year-old daughter was fascinated by the story and the face of this young badger, struck down in the prime of its life.

The taxidermist did a marvelous job, and later that winter (taxidermy takes a while to complete) the entire family went to pick it up. My daughter was now in love with the adorable young male badger mounted tastefully on a board, looking like he was peering through grass. She insisted on putting it in her room, and ever since, Francis (named after the children’s book character, also a badger) has been adorned in pearls, earrings, and doll clothes. Up close, Francis is an amazing animal, with his flat head, powerful shoulders, and long, sharp claws, but he doesn’t appear menacing.

He’s been a great way to talk about wildlife and science with our kids, plus he’s a swell conversation piece. My wife, bless her heart, has always embraced the idea of having Francis in the house, which is key if you ever plan to do something like this (warning to any spouses who see roadkill and fancy having it mounted for display in the home). The other lesson learned here is that taxidermy isn’t what is used to be. Francis is like a museum piece, and because we enjoy nature so much and have designed our home around the nature that surrounds us, he fits pretty well into our decor.

*****

For a glimpse at more of the Niskanen taxidermy decor, watch Fox 9’s M.A. Rosko as she sharpens her Minnesota skills with Chris in his home.

Chris will be on KARE 11 Sunrise tomorrow (11/28/12) around 6 a.m., and listen for him on Minnesota Public Radio soon too. (We’ll update links here.) Please click on the book title link, above, for upcoming signings with Chris.

“Paddle! Paddle! The rocks!”

Posted byAlison Aten on 15 Nov 2012 | Tagged as: Book Excerpt, Nature/Enviroment

Canoeing with the Cree Collector\'s Edition Canoeing with the Cree Collector\'s Edition

Just in time for the holidays, this limited edition of the classic Canoeing with the Cree by Eric Sevareid is the perfect gift for nature lovers and outdoor adventurers. In 1930, Sevareid and Walter C. Port set out on an ambitious summer-long journey from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay–a 2,500-mile voyage through a vast and remote land. This handsome set includes a newly designed book with the retro, iconic cover packaged in a multipurpose storage tin, with a colorful art-quality map annotated by Ann Raiho–suitable for framing! Raiho and Natalie Warren were the first women to replicate Sevareid and Port’s route, in 2011.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“We headed in a northwesterly direction, mostly out to sea as I endeavored to get beyond the boundary of the rocks, which lay just below the surface. The breakers were nearly six feet high now, and we were taking water over the gunwales steadily. We dared not take our eyes from the kicking spray ahead of us, where, we knew, lay the end of the reef.

“‘I’m out far enough,’ I thought, ‘and here we go north,’ and I swung the nose of the canoe. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the coming waves, which lifted us up and down, each time throwing us farther ahead. Paddling was very hard and trying to steer in that wind and water was tiring on the muscles of my arms and stomach.

“Now we were beside the rocks, I judged. At that moment, a great wall of water lifted the stern high into the air and as it ran along the bottom of the canoe, spray pouring in, Walt yelled, ‘Paddle! Paddle! The rocks!’”

Great Backyard Bird Count, February 17-20

Posted byAlison Aten on 16 Feb 2012 | Tagged as: Nature/Enviroment

Great Gray Owl by Bill Marchel

The Great Backyard Bird Count begins tomorrow. Check out the website for more information on how to participate and where to submit your results.

Need some help identifying birds? Adele Porter and Bill Marchel’s children’s book, Birds in Our Backyard, introduces birds season by season with stunning photographs.

Photographer Bill Marchel recently won the 2011 Nikonians Wildlife Forum Challenge for the image shown here. A similar view of the Great Gray Owl is in the book .

Newly updated iPhone App for Family Fun in the Twin Cities

Posted byAlison Aten on 20 Dec 2011 | Tagged as: Authors, Children, MHS press, Nature/Enviroment, Travel

Dad's Eye View iPhone app Home ScreenDad's Eye View Activities iPhone App Page

Twin Cities iPhone App

 After the presents have all been opened, the cookies are gone, and the tree needles start to fall, what are you going to do with the kids for the whole week?!

Check out our newly updated iPhone app, Dad’s Eye View: 52 Family Adventures in the Twin Cities.

Twin Cities digital dad Michael Hartford added twenty-four new family venues to the app this month. This past May we released the print edition of the book Dad’s Eye View with an accompanying free iPhone app that allows readers and users to discover the most affordable, educational, and, yes, fun things to do and see throughout the year in the Twin Cities.

Some of the updated venues for kids with cabin fever include Edinborough Park, Maple Maze, Memory Lanes, The Landing, and Elm Creek Park Reserve.

The app has a number of convenient features for busy dads and caregivers, giving users a fun new way to explore and share your experiences:

* Search all locations by season, venue (indoor/outdoor), and price
* Read a short description of this digital dad’s experience at the location
* Contact any location with the touch of a finger
* Locate your destination on a map
* Rate and share your outing on Facebook and Twitter or on the Dad’s Eye View Facebook page and @Dads_Eye_View!

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!

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