I've been fortunate enough to befriend a few wild animals in my life. Or, more likely, they befriended me. There have been a few raccoons, an eastern chipmunk, a gray squirrel, a black-billed magpie, and even a wild-caught pigeon. In all cases, these creatures enriched the carefree days of boyhood beyond my "wildest" dreams. With my wild animal companions, I felt like Sam Gribley in the adventure novel My Side of the Mountain.
Bald eagles are beginning to lay eggs inside their gigantic stick-nests once again all across Minnesota. And these days eagles nest in virtually every corner of the state — from the far northwestern-most counties, up and down the Red River valley, east to Lake Superior, and nearly everywhere south. Minnesota provides some of the best habitat for nesting bald eagles anywhere. Save for Canada, Alaska, and Florida, nowhere else are there more nesting pairs of bald eagles in North America than in Minnesota.
Taking a "break" from the confines of my fish house while passing the time listening to the radio and spear fishing for northern pike recently, I decided to strap on the snowshoes and take a walk around the lake. I was soon on my way. Striking off across the lake, the subzero temperature stinging my nostrils as I breathed, I listened to the hard-pack snow squeaking with each step as snowshoes and crampons dug in. It didn't take me long to reach the far shore.
The American dipper is classified as a songbird. A stocky little species at about 7.5 inches long, this short-tailed bird is rather ordinary looking in many respects, save for the bird's very unordinary, un-songbird-like behavior. After all, its common name, "dipper", is for a very good reason. Of the Minnesota records that I've been able to uncover through quick Internet searches, verified, documented observations of this unusual bird have been recorded along the North Shore within the fast flowing, cold water streams and rivers flowing into Lake Superior.
He's a tall and slim man. His hair, nearly shoulder length, is thick and dark with strands of gray bespeaking his middle age. He wears an untrimmed sandy colored mustache that droops along the corners of his mouth to his chin and he looks every bit a cowboy. One can easily imagine him riding a horse on some Montana ranch. Come to think of it, he does. And the ranch he roams is called Yellowstone.
Years ago, when I was much younger and learning tricks to better identify birds in the field, I remember learning about "diagnostic" traits to key in on when identifying wild birds flitting about in the underbrush or canopies, flying overhead or at eye level, or perched on limb or line. Two special birds readily come to mind — the hairy woodpecker and the downy woodpecker.
I've always been drawn to tiny creatures. Maybe it's because I'm not very tall myself. For example, while sitting in my fish house this winter spearing northern pike, I've noticed that the water is full of tiny copepods or daphnia, which are tiny crustaceans — zooplankton — that swim about like fleas.
A few days ago, I enjoyed observing a diverse array of different species of birds at my backyard feeding station. The collection of species reminded me of the terms I learned many years ago in my university studies about biology and wildlife management — species diversity versus species richness.
Beavers are the largest native rodents found in North America. Adults average 35 pounds with some individuals reaching as much as 65 pounds. Specimens of 90 pounds have also been recorded. Beavers can reach four to five feet in length from nose to the tip of their tail. Even more amazing is that prehistoric beavers were almost as large as modern-day bears. Can you imagine the dams and lodges animals of that size would construct, if in fact they shared similar behaviors as modern beavers? One can easily imagine lakes, not ponds, being created by such creatures.
So far this early winter, my backyard birdfeeders have been active, but by not that many different species of birds. I've had the usual abundance of black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, and blue jays, but no evening grosbeaks or pine grosbeaks yet this year. I've also enjoyed an ever increasing cottontail rabbit population. Every morning when I approach the feeder to fill it with fresh black-oil sunflower seed, the three to six cottontails that are normally gathered below it and cleaning up residual seed scatter in all directions, only to return a short time later.