Archived Story

The trumpter swan is the largest waterfowl in North America

Published 6:09am Sunday, December 16, 2012

Column: Nature’s World, by Al Batt

My neighbor Crandall stops by.

“How are you doing?” I ask.

“Everything is nearly copacetic. As of yesterday, I’m not getting any younger. I caught a cold, so I’ve been eating a lot of soup. Eating hot soup while I have a runny nose makes me say, ‘Uffda!’ The cold is keeping me from patching the holes in my house. That’s OK. I hate not taking in my share of the neighborhood mice.”

“You must have a big day planned. It looks like you’ve ironed your sweatpants,” I say.

“I do. I’ve been burning plenty of calories using the TV remote and being in the fantasy deer-hunting league, but I’m thinking of hitting the gym. I suppose I could stop using the golf cart to play horseshoes, but I haven’t had a spring in my step since I stepped on that Slinky. The last time I hit the gym was with a Buick. That was a good thing. That car didn’t get mileage, it got footage. I saw you at Pop’s garage sale. It didn’t go well.”

“That bin of used underwear might have been a bad idea,” I add, “but I do think it’s sweet the way your mother always calls your father, ‘honey bunch.’”

“There’s nothing sweet about that. She hasn’t been able to remember Pop’s real name for more than 15 years.”


Flying with the wrong crowd

I tend to walk the same paths. When a fellow does that, it’s easy to notice change. I stopped to listen — a contemplative approach to nature observation. I heard them long before I saw them — the French hornlike calls of trumpeter swans. I feasted upon the sounds. I waited, hoping they’d fly directly overhead. They did. There were 15 trumpeter swans flying in a V-formation including a similar number of Canada geese. It was a case of waterfowl pooling. The swans looked enormous compared to the geese. The trumpeter swan is the largest North American waterfowl. The swans were 54 to 62 inches long, while the geese stretched 29 to 43 inches.

I walked the Blazing Star Trail in Albert Lea. I saw cedar waxwings. I checked each one out through my binoculars on the chance that one might be a bohemian waxwing. Cedar waxwings appear slimmer and longer-tailed than bohemians. The cedar waxwing’s head looks large in relation to its body, the bulky bohemian’s is relatively smaller. The bohemian waxwing is gray overall; cedars have gray on the wings and tail, but show strong brown and yellow tones on the backs and stomachs. Cedar waxwings have white undertails, while bohemians have rufous ones and cedars have white on their foreheads, while bohemians usually don’t. The folded wings of a bohemian waxwing shows white or yellow blotches against black borders.


Q and A

“What are my chances of hitting a deer while driving?” They’re much better than winning the lottery. According to State Farm Insurance, your greatest chance of bumping into Bambi is if you live in West Virginia — 1 in 40 during the year. South Dakota drivers are second at 1 in 68, Iowa third — 1 in 71.9, Michigan fourth — 1 in 72.4, and Pennsylvania fifth at 1 in 76. Wisconsin ranked seventh at 1 in 79 and Minnesota was eighth with a 1 in 80 chance of hitting a deer with a vehicle.

Al Batt took this photo of a tractor feeding gulls.

The kids at Head Start in Albert Lea asked why bats hang upside down. Bats swoop through the air at night, catching flying insects. During the day, they pass the time hanging upside down in a secluded spot, such as the cave’s ceiling, under a bridge or in a tree hollow. Roosting this way puts it in an ideal position for takeoff. Its wings don’t produce enough lift to fly from a standstill and its legs are unable to build necessary takeoff speed. Bats fall into flight from a high point. By sleeping upside down, they are set to launch if they need to escape from the roost. Bats congregate where few predators would look or be able to reach. There’s little competition for these roosting spots. Bats have a physiological adaptation that allows them to hang this way without exerting energy. To get its feet to grab a perch, the bat simply lets its body relax. The weight of the upper body pulls down on the tendons connected to the feet, causing them to clench and lock into position. It exerts energy only to release this grip.

“Do any birds hibernate?” The common poorwill slows its metabolic rate and drops its body temperature, going into a hibernation-like state known as torpor. In periods of cold weather, a poorwill may stay in torpor for several weeks, which allows the bird to go long periods without food when insect prey is unavailable.

Omer Hamer of Clarks Grove told me that he’d watched a blue jay swallow 18 kernels of corn during one quick visit to a feeding station and wondered how it could do that. A blue jay carries food in its throat and upper esophagus — in an area called a gular pouch. It’s capable of storing two or three acorns in that pouch, placing another in its mouth, and carrying one more acorn in its bill. In this manner, it could haul five acorns (or 18 kernels of corn) at a time to store for feeding later.

Cindy Martin of Albert Lea asks what gulls are the ones that follow tractors in the field. A small, black-headed gull of the prairies, the Franklin’s gull, is a common sight behind the tractor as the implement exposes worms, insects and mice. When I was a boy, I called them “prairie doves.” Another common gull that feeds on the invertebrates freed by the plow is the ring-billed gull. It is larger than a Franklin’s and has a ring around its yellow bill.


Christmas Bird Count

Field and feeder counters needed on Dec. 29. Call 845-2836 or email for more information.


Thanks for stopping by

“A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.” — Ayn Rand

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” — Francis Bacon




Al Batt of Hartland is a member of the Albert Lea Audubon Society. Email him at