St. Louis Zoo…

Well, I’ll get to the zoo in a minute. But, first the birds and garden update…

Birds….haven’t had a lot of time with the garden going in lately. However, I can tell you my goldfinches are coloring up with every day I look. Spring is coming.

And, I did see a brand new sighting for my list…..Cedar Waxwings!! I think they are only passing through, but don’t know. They are stripping the flowering leaf buds from my Hickory tree and from my Sweet Gums. They have been here for 3 days now. I don’t have any quality pictures of them because I can’t get them close obviously. But, there are about 50+ in the tree when they are feeding. They are pretty cool looking birds, too. They have yellow and red in their bodies along with that distinguishing black mask. I hope I see them every year.

The garden is growing now. I planted more squares of lettuce and carrot yesterday. Everything I do now is directly seeded in the garden. I am done with seed starting and experimenting….too close to my frost date to worry about it. Come April 1st, I will try and put an update pic or two up.

Now, to the zoo. We took the kids with some friends’ kids last week on spring break. They had a blast. We have such a great group of friends to pal around with. And, the best part, the kids really get along. Hopefully, it’s evidenced in the photos.

Of course, what’s a zoo series without animals, though? They are in there, too. This posting is inspired by a forum question from

I recommend you stop by if you are interested in learning more about the technique/concept. The question being asked right now is about composting. What do the Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, Starbucks, and the St. Louis Zoo all have in common? So, I had to post my zoo pics from the STL Zoo!! Enjoy…

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Sub-freezing Temps Catch the HH Off Guard!!

The scenario: Days upon days of cloudy, rainy weather. This allowed hardly any heating inside the hoops. I think my highest temp inside the HH the past four days was 50F. That ain’t gonna heat the water jugs up much. Yesterday was supposed to be about 45F for a high…..but it never happened. We touched 39 briefly. The clouds were so socked in that there was no sun getting through to provide much heat. The wind was a bit blustery and that likely whisked away anything the soils absorbed. So, when the clouds disappeared at midnight-ish, we sank like a rock. The radiational cooling effect was tremendous. I, personally, wondered why the meteorologists didn’t adjust their numbers based on the fact they missed the daytime high so badly, but they didn’t. No winds to speak of and crystal clear skies mean temps plummet. We were forecast to hit 29 or 30, but went all the way down to 26F. And, my HH suffered.

I woke up this morning to sunshine and got outside as quickly as I could to get the 2nd layer off and let some sun hit the plants. Good news… frost inside the hoops. But, the trade off was my temps finally went below freezing. Down to 30 underneath the 2nd layer of covers. I don’t think that did any damamge, and it wasn’t at 30 for long I’m sure. But, nonetheless, I went under 32 for the first time since putting plants in there a couple weeks ago.

This colder than usual end to winter is trying to get me it seems. But, I still think the chances of me taking a hard freeze inside the hoops is minimal. And, I have cold season plants in there anyway. No tomatoes or peppers yet. Those won’t go in until after our actual frost date of April 15th…..and even then, I have a 50/50 shot at taking frost.

Playing the gardening game is always a gamble. You win some, you lose some. But, that’s half the fun. And, with starting my own plants from seeds instead of buying transplants, I lose pennies when I gamble….not dollars. That makes things much easier to swallow. All I lose is time spent….and that’s no biggie when this is something I would be doing anyway. 😉

As for the birds, I will post the week’s best photos. In here you will see the usual suspects. But, you will see a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a brown bird I have yet to identify with confidence. I am torn between an immature Common Grackle, a Rusty Blackbird, and a Brewer’s Blackbird. It sure looks like a grackle to me, but I have never seen a brown one like this. And, the head with partial black feathers looks more like a Rusty to me. If it’s a grackle, I should see him/her year round, unless it’s fading back north along with some other migrants. But, if it’s a Rusty, I won’t see it again until next winter….if I even do then.

Anyway, enjoy the photos, and remember…….Keep Chuggin’!

Lots of Activity Today, too..

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Quick count for you since the morning was so crazy active…

725am-740am…32F…cloudy with a dusting of snow overnight….no new sightings.

10 American Goldfinches…these numbers are really shooting up; I haven’t seen this many at one time since we’ve moved in back in September; I can’t really explain it yet, but I love it; Hopefully, a sign to come this year.

1 Titmouse…where there is almost always 2

16 Eurasian Tree Sparrows…all over the ground since I put the cheap mix down yesterday; I expect Grackles and Cowbirds to clean up the mess soon.

5 Cardinals…yesterday I saw 5 males; today I saw 3 females; I just don’t seem to see them at the same time often, and when I do, there is obvious fighting amongst the males….unless the weather is bad, then they all get along nicely.

10 Dark-eyed Juncos….they come in with the finches, usually, but today came with the sparrows.

7 House Finches…these guys have been a bit timid lately; They tend to stay up in the treetops while all the chaos is going on; They come down once the heat dies down.

2 Black-capped Chickadees

8 Mourning Doves….sitting in the trees and dabbling on the ground.

8 European Starlings…came in and took over the feeders until they realized they can’t eat at them very well and quickly left.

2 Downy Woodpeckers…male and female.

1 Red-bellied Woodpecker….a regular

2 Purple Finches….the female is regular; the male is rather rare, but comes in with the house finches.

1 Robin….still hoping for worms

2 Song Sparrows….I am so happy to see these guys coming around more frequently. I just love the native sparrows. It gives me hope that the House Sparrows haven’t overtaken everything….yet.

1 Blue Jay….yesterday 3 of them hung in the trees; Today, one came into a feeder and chattered at me a bit; Typically, only the one comes to the feeders, but we have a lot of them in the area here.

And, for the HH, I didn’t use the 2nd layer of plastic last night because it was raining and I didn’t have anything to protect in there since I’m only running the experiment on holding temps. I didn’t get out early enough this morning to take a reading. However, the air temp got down to 32F, so I assume I got to 33 inside…..but when I checked, the max/min had just reset for the day and it was reading 42F with an air temp of 33F at about 10 am.

Keep Chuggin’!

Birds, Pictures, and Hoops..

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We are expecting some rain over the next few days. Temps are rather chilly after a nice 10 days of springlike days. The bird activity has been low. So, you know what that means? Yup, today was a good day at the feeders. Let’s do an official count…and watch the variety you can bring in if you diversify your feed and offer the basics (food, water, shelter, nesting sites).

830am…37F…overcast with showers in the area….no new sightings (but, a couple rare ones)

4 doves, 3 blue jays hopping in the trees rading squirrel nests of their nuts, 4 juncos, 3 downy woodpeckers, 6 goldfinches…two days in a row their numbers are way up, 1 red-belly, 3 cardinals…still chasing each other, 3 ETS, 1 house sparrow…they are rather rare at my house, 1 chickadee, 1 cooper’s hawk…flew over twice with a piece of food once and nesting material the second time, 1 robin, 1 flicker…these are rare for me, too, 3 starlings…nesting in a tree in my neighbor’s yard, 1 canadian goose….i hear them going crazy with the honking in the quarry behind my house and there are likely many more than 1, 4 house finches, and 1 brown creeper….i was dying to grab a shot of him but he flew away really quickly; they are pretty rare in my yard.

So, there is a nice diversity of 17 different species, of which I have some pictures to post today!

As for the hoophouse, I think I have things figured out. If I only use the single layer of plastic, I get about 1 degree of protection. If I use the second layer draped like a floating row cover over the milk jugs, I get about 6-8 degrees of protection. The next experiment I plan to run is in a separate bed with no hoops. I want to see if the floating row cover is all I need to be using. Granted, the hoops will help in the summer with taller plants and bird netting. But, we will deal with that when the time comes. My readings from overnight are 37/39.

I also planted some seeds yesterday. With hoop protection, I could have planted carrots, spinach, and peas directly in the garden a couple of weeks ago. With the cooloer temps, germination will take longer. But, who cares? I planted in my garden!

I plan to run another test, though. I want to sow some seeds inside and once they sprout, immediately move the seedlings outside to the garden. I am of the understanding this won’t kill them. So, I plan to try this today. Maybe tomorrow, you get pics of the process?

Keep Chuggin’!

Final Count Day and HH Update..

Final day of the GBBC and I didn’t get a very good one in. There just wasn’t much about other than my flock of House Finches. However, after my count, I did see a new one pop in… A Song Sparrow!! I had one at my old house, and he was a real favorite of mine. He would just sit and sing to me, and once I identified his song, I realized he sang A LOT! This guy was like a wren or chickadee…constantly singing. I missed him so much once we moved, but seeing this guy was a great sight.

However, this one is twice as big as my former buddy. He looked like a White-throated Sparrow, of which you’ve seen pictures from me. But, no white throat. My other SS was about the size of the chickadees. So, I was thrown off a bit when I saw him. The quick snaps are over on the right in my Flickr pages. I took a couple quickies and threw them on my photography forum for an ID. They confirmed him as a Song Sparrow.

As for the HoopHouse, I wrapped a second layer of plastic in there last night. Our temps were supposed to drop after midnight and all day. However, we have flat-lined at 42*. And, the HH is holding steady at 52. That is great. The second layer is really giving me some protection. I have laid that plastic over the top of the water jugs to trap as much of the water’s heat in as possible. I can’t wait to see what happens tonight, when we are supposed to drop to 25. If it can sustain above freezing temps tonight, I will be ready to transplant on Friday…the 25th…my original target date. And, the spring season will have officially begun here in my backyard.

I haven’t checked record lows in awhile for my area, but 25 this late in February is definitely possible, but not all that common. After March 1, it would be crazy to see temps drop into the teens. So, with that track record, I would be willing to gambooool with Mother Nature. Now, that I expressed my arrogance, watch her burn the crap out of me. But, I will just………Keep Chuggin’!

Wild Backyard Bird Count (2/19/11) and HH Update..

Big blog entry today!! 😉

Lots to talk about. First, the Great Backyard Bird Count is underway for a few days. You can find links, if you care to participate, by visiting either or This is a great way to contribute to those studying bird habits, habitats, breeding, and migrations among many other things bird related. Second, my hoop house went through it’s first night with the milk jugs in it, and I will report about that, too. So, kind of a double whammy of blog entries.

Ok, the birds. I haven’t done an official count in quite some time because I’ve been busy with other things, and nothing has really changed near the feeders. No new sightings, nothing really exciting to report. However, I have been looking forward to participating in the GBBC (Great Backyard Bird Count) for over a year because I missed last year’s count. The count runs this weekend for four days. Just go count birds for at least 15 minutes and submit a checklist. If you have a feeder in your yard, great. If you hike a trail, great. If you just sit on your deck, great. They really don’t care….they just want data for specific locations. The people in charge are trying to leverage volunteers to help them get an accurate idea of the bird population across the country and world. On either site I linked above, there are some cool things to play with to help you either identify birds or see where they live at different times of year. Set aside half an hour and poke around. You should be impressed. It is the main reason my kids are getting into birds with me. They play with the sounds and try to look up what they’ve just seen in the yard. It’s turned into very productive computer time. And, you know what that’s like today if you’re a parent of a younger kid. On to the count…

2/19/2011…8am…42F…cloudy…no new sightings

3 American Goldfinch, 6 House Finch, 1 White-breasted Nuthatch, 3 Dark-eyed Junco, 1 Downy Woodpecker, 5 Mourning Dove, 31 Canadian Geese (anything I see goes into the GBBC and these flew overhead as I have a quarry about a quarter mile from my house), 3 Common Grackle, 4 European Starling, 1 Cooper’s Hawk (carrying either a mouse or bird in it’s mouth flying overhead), 1 Red-bellied Woodpecker, 2 Northern Cardinal (both male and starting to get territorial again this week), 2 Black-capped Chickadee, 4 Eurasian Tree Sparrow, 1 Blue Jay, 1 Purple Finch (female).

Good turn out this morning. Katelyn will do the afternoon count today for the website. But, I bet I win…lol. The numbers are simply better in the mornings. And, she’s a sleeper these days. For example, here is yesterday afternoon’s count, too…..1 Downy, 1 Purple Finch, 2 Chickadees, 2 Doves, 1 Grackle, 4 Mallards flew over. That was it. 15 minutes and that was it. What a difference the mornings make!

As for the hoop house, I have really be struggling with frustration lately. I have no experience to base this on, but I thought it would hold heat better than it does. I had seen videos of people using them in the winter and such, and thought I could just pop one in and be virtually ready for planting because it would protect me from frosts. I felt that if it got to 85-100 degrees inside, surely it wouldn’t cool off to below freezing overnight. Well, the first two days I watched it immediately return to the air temperature once the sun went down. I starting wondering what the heck is the point of even doing this if I get it super hot and it just cools back down in a matter of minutes?

But, I did more research to rememdy the issue. I don’t have promising news, but I will go over the structure’s setup.

I used 10 foot PVC sections from a hardware store. I have placed them every two feet along my garden. I just placed one end in the ground against one side of my garden and doubled the pipe over so it formed an arch and stuck it in the ground opposite itself. I bracketed the pipe in place with metal bands I bought at the same store. I formed a ridge/spine by taking another of the 10 foot sections of PVC and lashed it into place with twine. It doesn’t have to be super tight…just enough to keep the spine from sliding. I, then, draped plastic sheeting/dropcloth over the hoops and it looks like a covered wagon. (Pics are on my Flickr to the side here and I believe have been posted in a recent blog update, too.) The plastic was 3.5mm thick, but it really didn’t hold heat. I read most people used 6mm plastic. I went out the next day and bought some. I did notice it held up in breezy conditions much better, but didn’t retain heat any better.

The next step was to add gallon milk jugs filled with water. The concept is the water jugs will absorb heat during the day and slowly give it off at night…keeping temps up under the plastic. Last night was the first test run. I was discouraged at sundown when the air temp and hoophouse temp were the same. However, this morning, I just went outside and the air was 42, but the hoophouse was 46. That ain’t bad! I may finally be getting somewhere. I spray painted the milk jugs black to help absorb more heat, too. Once I get a full day of sunshine, we should see what I have accomplished…if anything.

One other thing, I have been keeping the hoophouse covered during the day, no matter the temps, for testing purposes. If the air temps get above 50 degress with sunshine, I will likely have to open the house for the day. It can get really hot inside and my lettuce, spinach, and broccoli can’t handle that kind of heat. But, the trick is to spring-clamp the ends. All I will do is unclamp the ends and let the breeze blow right through. On hotter days, I will roll the sides up, too. After all danger of frost passes, around late April, I will take the plastic off for good and store it for autumn.

The result in keeping things covered throughout the day is my soil is heating up quickly. I was just breaking ice chunks in the dirt on Monday, and I measured 46 degrees at a depth of 6 inches yesterday afternoon. If I were more confident in the heat holding properties, I could feasibly put plants outside right now. How’s that for an early start to the gardening season?

Keep Chuggin’

1-11-11 backyard bird count..

What would this date in history be without a count? All ones (1/11/11)….aces wild!! What a great day, too. We started out with overnight snow so we know the feeders will be active. However, I was out plowing snow until 11am this morning and missed most of the morning show.

11am and again at 245pm…19F…cloudy with 3 inches new snow…new sighting: Cooper’s Hawk

Yes, you see it correctly. It is what we believe to be a Cooper’s Hawk. Cooper’s are mid-sized hawks that look, to me, like Red-tails and Red-shouldereds. So, I can’t tell them apart. My daughter immediately ID’d it, though, and ran to the computer to verify. I thinks she’s right. I am only waiting confirmation from my photography forum,….or close to that. I have it bookmarked and don’t remember the exact address, but if you google that, you will find it. It’s a great site, especially if you think MY bird shots are good. Look around there and you will see what real bird shots look like.

But, anyway, today I saw a ton of blackbirds. But, they were only eating the cheap mix and under the feeders. I don’t mind them so much when they do that. If you want to divert them from the expensive mixes, I am telling you to put out a tray of the cheap stuff and they won’t bother your feeders much going forward.

There were 36 Brown-headed cowbirds, 16 Eurasian Tree Sparrows, a couple finches, 5 Cardinals, a few Juncos, a few Doves, and 6 Starlings. I checked back later to find the hawk. Well, since I plowed overnight, I was awakened from a power nap by my wife, who spotted it. Mind you, this woman has about as much interest in birds as I have in watching Steel Magnolias, but she may be coming around. It went something like this…

“Holy cow, Chip, wake up. There is a big, huge bird by the feeders. What kind is it? It sort of looks like a hawk?! Seriously, get up and get your camera. I think you will want a picture of this.”

That hawk was sitting on one of my favorite perches for the little birds. He was so close to the window. However, by the time I got the camera set up and the longer lens on, he flew off into a tree top….where I had to stalk him. I got an “ok” shot of him. But, it would have been awesome to get a couple with him on that branch.

This is the solution to the pile-of-feathers mystery and blood in the birdbath we found the other day. I know what a pile of feathers means, but didn’t actually think we’d see him unless we were watching the murder take place. Today, he just hung out for 10 minutes, but I couldn’t get a better picture than this one.

Keep Chuggin’!

1-7-11 backyard bird count..

12pm…31F…snow…no new sightings.

11 Northern Cardinals (8 male, 3 female), 2 Black-capped Chickadees, 9 House Finches, 2 Downy Woodpeckers, 1 Red-bellied Woodpecker, 3 Eurasian Tree Sparrows.

Yes, you see that correctly. 11 cardinals around the feeders at the same time. I have never seen them in these numbers. I have heard others talk about pretty strong winter flocks, but I have always seen them in pairs. Maybe a second pair nearby, but they always seem to struggle for territory when I notice. Not today. They were all friends, and more….and more…..and more just kept showing up. It looked like my dogwood tree had Christmas bows in it.

I got the chance to take some pics today, too. Here you go.

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1-4-11 backyard bird count..

Good activity today in just five minutes of watching.

8am…28F…sunny…no new sightings.

Lots of “problem” birds around today, but none worth chasing off. They simply weren’t bothering anyone, myself included. The Grackle Gang was only 4 strong, but they brought 2 Brown-headed Cowbirds to the buffet with them. I don’t mind that too much because the grackles and cowbirds have been focusing on the millet almost exclusively. They just don’t get into the sunflower seeds much. This, adding cheap mix, has really started to change my thinking when it comes to these birds. It gives them a proper distraction so they don’t consume much of the sunflower seeds…leaving it for the songbirds.

A couple of European Starlings were poking through the grass, 5 of them. However, they weren’t fighting over the suet like I thought they might. I have replaced my suet with a new flavor, party mix, and I don’t seen anyone fighting over it. The Red-bellied Woodpecker and Downy I saw were after sunflower seeds today instead.

I had 6 Dark-eyed Juncos under the feeders scratching around near 10 Eurasian Tree Sparrows. Again, no problems with these guys….not that I ever have a problem here. 4 of my House Finches were causing the most noise, and they brought an American Goldfinch with them for breakfast. I saw three of my Northern Cardinals, two males and a female, and contrary to what I usually see, they weren’t fighting over territory.

Alson on the ground were up to 15 Mourning Doves in a nice flock. They will sometimes try to get up on a feeder, but usually stay to the ground. I have trimmed my nyjer feeder to a narrow enough ledge that they can’t get on it since they do have a fondness for nyjer seeds, and they can consume a lot of that expensive stuff. But, since I’ve done that, they haven’t been an issue, either. However, my strange sighting of the day goes to the American Robin I saw amidst all this. This guy just sat on the fence and watched….almost thankful he eats berries and worms and doesn’t have to put up with all this bull around the feeders.

I have also priced out my SFG (square foot garden), and created a materials list. Look for the next post, likely Thursday, to contain the details. I will be out of town tomorrow taking pictures from behind the scenes of something cool. For that, too, you will have to wait. But, I hope it’s worth it since it has nothing to do with birds. Worth it for you… will definitely be worth it for me.

Keep Chuggin’!

1-2-11 backyard bird count..

Happy New Year, everyone!!

915am…21F…sunny…no new sightings..

Woke up this morning and saw about 20 blackbirds scatter. I couldn’t tell the makeup of the flock, but there were Grackles in there I could hear. They quickly came back and I saw 2 Red-winged blackbirds mixed in. I would assume there were more, but I can’t be sure. Last time I saw a mixed flock, it had cowbirds in it. I also noticed my cardinal about to molt again…he is looking raggedy.

15 Starlings came through the yard, 4 finches – 1 purple, 4 ETSparrows, 1 Cardinal, 3 Donwys, 2 Juncos, 1 White-breasted Nuthatch, 1 Mourning Dove, and 1 Grackle….although I know there were more nearby.

I have noticed that by adding the cheap mix of seed, which I found for a steal at the local ACE Hardware store (60 lbs for $9!), I have really been saving on the sunflower seeds. Last I was out to fill sunflower seed was a week ago. My feeders have barely been touched. Granted, the activity has been pretty light, but still…. The cheap seed seems to be keeping the bigger birds, like Grackles, off the feeders and on the ground where they belong. They hop into my platform feeder, but that is what that feeder is for. So, I’m really pleased with my current set up. I may get out and grab a pic for you again. But, instead I leave you with these.

Also, worth mentioning, our area was hit by a round of New Year’s Eve thunderstorms. They dropped some tornadoes close by and we lost power for most of New Years Eve. Not a great way to go out, but we sure dodged a bullet. In this post are also some of the pics I took of the event. My small run as a photojournalist years ago can’t be contained in events like these.

Keep Chuggin’!