Gulls follow a tractor as it chisel plows, bringing worms, insects and mice to the surface.
Gulls follow a tractor as it chisel plows, bringing worms, insects and mice to the surface.
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.

Echoes from Loafers' Club

"I'm giving you running shoes for Christmas."

"I haven't run since I missed the bus in the third grade."

"Don't worry, I'm giving you the receipt, too."

I've learned

1. Growing up, the only chef I could name was Chef Boyardee. I still can't name any others, but now I know they exist.

2. There's no need to pretend to water my fake plants.

3. Listening is an art most often practiced near a TV.

The news from Hartland

Winemaker stomps maple tree in a failed effort to produce maple syrup.

City holds 2.6-block marathon for underachievers.

Leaning Tower of Pizza promises delivery within a week or the pizza is free.

Did you know?

Chickens refer to death as "crossing the road."

Cough syrup comes from sick maple trees.

Age isn't just a number. It's a word, too.

How to survive a blizzard

1. Buy four days worth of food.

2. Fill your car with gas.

3. Put the food in the car and drive to Arizona.

Ask Al

"Why do snakes shed their skins?"

So their younger siblings can wear the hand-me-downs.

"What did you want to be when you got out of high school?"

Under 30 years of age.

"Why is your lawn covered with welcome mats?"

So the boxelder bugs can wipe their feet before coming into the house.

The funny papers

When I was a small boy, I walked to the mailbox early in the morning to get the Sunday paper, which was gigantic in those days. I carried it into the barn where my father was milking cows.

Dad read the comics section to me. I marveled at the exploits of Pogo, Peanuts, Little Iodine, Beetle Bailey, Dennis the Menace, Dick Tracy, Li'l Abner, Bringing up Father (Maggie and Jiggs), Dondi, Steve Canyon, Gasoline Alley, and the others.

Comics are so important that Ronald Reagan read them before he read the news. I've written for cartoonists for umpteen years and I think that's because of my father's sharing. I love the comics.

Ringing the bells

I ring the bells for the Salvation Army each year. I cannot bring about world peace, but I can provide tintinnabulation. Volunteering is the method I use to give myself away.

My wife and I womanned and manned the kettle for eight hours - from noon until 8 p.m. It was two bells for eight bells. We rang until the cat had pigs.

As I watched a parade of Carhartt, Cabela's and Columbia coats go by, I was impressed by the kindness and generosity of people. I noticed that some folks take to shopping as if it were the nine circles of hell. Why does one person growl at a day that tickles others?

Each day is a mirror. Everyone who looks into it sees a different face, but the mirror never changes.

Memories of shopping with father

"Dad, can I have..."


Customer comments

I asked Gene Johnson of Albert Lea if he ate lutefisk. Gene shook his head and said, "No, I'm smarter than I look."

Rod Searle of Waseca upgraded to a cell phone with a camera. Rod told me that he hopes he doesn't run out of film.

Cheryl McRoberts of Haines, Alaska, was married for 21 years when her husband went looking for greener pastures. He still hasn't found them. Cheryl has found greener pastures in her second husband, Bill.

Ruth Searle of Waseca puts butter, brown sugar and cream on her oatmeal. My wife, Gail, assured Ruth, "That's good. If the oatmeal is going to clean you out, it needs something to clean out."

Karen Daniels of Williamsport, Penn., told me, "I have an answer for everyone's problems except my own."

Nature notes

"Do birds get rabies?"

No. Birds, fish, insects, lizards, snakes, and turtles don't get rabies.

"What are the birds that fly up in front of my car on blustery winter days?"

They are horned larks, Lapland longspurs or snow buntings. The snow bunting is the easiest to recognize due to large amounts of white flashed in flight. They nest in the far north. The Lapland longspur is an arctic nester that resembles a large, dark sparrow. The female is streaked and the male has a chestnut-colored patch on the back of its head. Their darker overall color and smaller size distinguishes them within a mixed flock. Some horned larks nest here, others in the arctic. Horned larks have tawny backs, light undersides, black tails, black bibs and cheek patches, yellow throats, and tiny "horns" (feather tufts) on their heads.

Q and A

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.

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.

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

Meeting adjourned

Dale Heilman of Albert Lea said, "It's nice to be nice to the nice." Be kind.


©Al Batt 2012