Feeder Frenzy

No, not it’s not birds … it’s bunnies.

With the severe weather and deep snow cover, dropped seed from our bird feeders becomes a dependable source of good high energy food cottontails seek out. Most winters we only have one to two bunnies that consider our yard their “home” territory and that come regularly to harvest this bounty. Unusually, this year we have four: Young Grumps, Buns, Bouncer and Thadeus — Tad for short, as he’s just a little tad of a bunny.

Eastern cottontails are not the same critters as pet bunnies. Although they look quite similar, pet bunnies and cottontail bunnies are totally different species. When you look “under the hood,” you discover just how different: cottontails have 21 pairs of chromosomes, while domestic rabbits have 22. The two species have different habits and behaviors, and don’t interbreed.

Pet bunnies are descendants of rabbits that originally lived in Europe. They are happiest living in communities called warrens, seeking out each other’s company, and live in communal underground burrows they dig.

Cottontail bunnies, in contrast, only tolerate each other (to varying degrees). A cottontail will dig a small scrape into the ground, or snow, which it doesn’t share with other cottontails. Their life is mostly solitary, and above ground. When they do come into common areas (like under our feeders), they observe a bunny hierarchy that’s definitely a pecking order.

Young Grumps is the dominant rabbit. She feeds first, and the others move out of her way when she gives them a “bunny stare” that says “move!” Bouncer and Buns are, oddly for cottontails, buddies. They hang out together, usually as close as about three or four feet apart. Tad, a late-comer, is a bit smaller than the other bunnies, and keeps a respectful distance from the other three, fleeing from the others in any altercation.

With our extreme cold, and deep snow, our cottontails tolerate each other in closer proximity than they do other times of the year, even at the common “mess halls” (aka feeders). They’ll get as close as three or four feet apart without any apparent problem. Here’s a rather fuzzy photo (sorry–taken through a double pane window with drizzle outside!) of a typical pattern we see when the bunnies are in “winter formation.”

 Three cottontails--Young Grumps, Buns and Bouncer--lunching on sunflower seeds.

It isn’t a peaceful contented sharing — it’s more of a truce under extreme conditions. Woe to the less dominant bunny who pushes too close to a more dominant bunny! Then a chase ensues, with the dominant cottontail driving the other from the seed.

Less dominant cottontails usually flee, but not always. Then, like I watched happen yesterday, an elaborate dance ensues. Bouncer, (bottom right in the photo) who has a bit of an attitude, encroached beyond Young Grumps’ acceptable sharing zone. Young Grumps (bottom left) jumped in the air, sometimes jumping right over Bouncer, while kicking out with the hind legs. At this point Bouncer fled, with Young Grumps in pursuit. Buns (upper left) had already split, back when the altercation began. YG chased Bouncer across the entire yard before turning back. YG then hopped back under the feeder and finished lunch. Bouncer and Buns stayed away until Young Grumps hopped off to settle back in an established scrape, and digest in peace.

I’ve seen fights that become extreme, at times, where two cottontails get into a boxing scuffle, standing on their hind paws and sparring with each other until one finally turns and retreats, usually with the winner in pursuit. It looks cute, but it’s serious business if you’re a cottontail.

Lunch over, the bunnies all retreated to their own usual spots, hunkered down under various bushes. In this cold, they don’t look like rabbits. With their fur fluffed out to insulate better, and their paws all tucked underneath, they look like round furry basketballs with ears!

Arctic Blast

I was hoping for a mild winter.
Yeah. Right.
This is what greeted me from the Weather Service when I checked the NOAA website this morning:
21 Below Zero--what the ...?

“Another arctic blast is expected to move across the area late on Sunday … with the coldest temperatures expected Monday into Tuesday. At this time … it appears this arctic blast may be one of the most severe since the arctic outbreak of February 1996. The combination of the frigid air and persistent 10 to 20 mph winds will cause dangerously low wind chill readings in the 30 below to 50 below zero range at times Sunday night into Tuesday. Wind chill readings this low can cause frostbite within 15 minutes. Wind chill warnings will be likely needed Sunday night into Tuesday.”

The high — the high — on Monday will be -14F … fourteen degrees below zero … with a low of -21F.
That’s nuts.
The black bears that disappear into caves every autumn to snooze until spring have it right.
Winter is for hibernation.
Black Bears got it right--sleep through the winter!(Bear Photo by Greg Hume)

It was a dark and stormy night!

 Tree that was twisted off until it snapped by August 6, 2013 NE Wisconsin Tornadoes. Thousands of trees were destroyed like this in NE Wisconsin.

Six tornadoes struck our local communities in the wee hours of the morning on August 6th.

The radar lit up about midnight, with reports of hail. Our cars aren’t protected by a garage, so we took off to protect the cars from hail damage in a nearby hospital’s parking ramp. If there had been any suggestion of tornadoes, we never would have gone there. The cars would have had to take their chances and we would have gone into our basement. But we didn’t even have a thunderstorm watch, much less any warnings for severe weather.

I have never been through a thunderstorm like that one, wind-wise. The straight line winds were at 60 mph — then went up to 70 mph — then hit 100 mph. The well-built reinforced concrete parking ramp started shaking like crazy as the wind kept escalating … then the power went out everywhere. The hospital has huge generators which kicked in immediately, so we could see what was happening. It was unreal. I’ve never seen rain and hail fiercely blown like that, sideways yet rotating as it came through, and never been in a huge concrete structure shaking from the wind. The trees around the ramp — big trees — bent to the ground.

The lightning was incredible. There were spans where the lightning was so frequent that we heard a continuous stream of thunder claps.

It had taken 9 minutes to drive to the ramp. It took 38 minutes to drive home once it died down, creeping through streets to find paths through an area where travel was now almost impassible, and all done in a total blackout as there wasn’t any power. We had to find our way around downed trees, power lines that were snapped and dangling, power poles snapped right off, wires completely down across streets, and debris from houses. One street had big chunks of a roof that had been torn off strewn across it. The lanes in places were covered with broken glass, from recycling bins that had been blown into the streets, their contents dumped and smashed. Street lights and stop lights weren’t working until we got to a few blocks from our house. All the power in our immediate area was still up, but we were a little oasis surrounded by almost 100,000 businesses and households to our west, south, north and east that were without power.

The street on the north side of our town that runs east-west is a major corridor and it was impassable, in spots, as was a state highway to our east. At one point on that highway major power transmission poles, those huge metal towers that are built to withstand winds of 70 to 100 mph, were down, ripped entirely out of the ground.

Our street was blocked on one end with a huge downed tree branch, but we couldn’t see any other major damage. We were so relieved that we didn’t have any damage to our house, although there were lots of small branches down. Later we found that a neighbor down the street wasn’t so lucky, and had several large trees down.

Huge tree torn apart by August 6, 2013 NE Wisconsin Tornadoes. Chunks of the tree crashed into the house (not shown) to the left, while the house on the right remained undamaged.

A campground east of us was demolished. Large expensive RVs were flipped over and rolled, and one person badly injured, but no one was killed there, thank goodness.

The next morning local emergency management began flying over the area via helicopter to survey our three counties. The storms damaged or destroyed many buildings and homes. A big Lutheran church was destroyed, and farms had barns, outbuildings and silos ripped apart. The damage to our county alone is in the tens of millions of dollars. As we’re a mostly rural area, that number doesn’t begin to reflect how much was destroyed!

The National Weather service determined that six separate tornadoes formed and traveled through our communities. One of them cut a path about 3,000 feet — the length of only ten football fields — away from where we were in the parking ramp! The storm itself created 100 mile per hour straight line winds right on top of us, with an EF2 tornado barreling past in addition to that. It’s no wonder the building we were in was shaking like crazy!

The power grid was so badly damaged in places that power crews came in even from other states to help restore power. Many homes and businesses were without power for almost a week. The roads are all now open again, but when you travel down some streets in our area the debris from destroyed trees is piled six feet high continuously on either side of the road.

We talked to a friend of Michael’s whose house was ‘the’ starting point for one of the tornadoes. That tornado literally formed over their house, then traveled about 5 miles on the ground. Their house survived, but 5 huge trees in their backyard (85 foot tall trees; one was 6′ in diameter) were corkscrewed and snapped off and lifted from the backyard over his house. One of those trees smashed the power pole off of the front of his house as it came down and tore through the soffits. The tornado turned those trees into “cordword” sized pieces that are now all through his apple orchard.

One house nearby to him was picked up, moved 2 feet off the foundation, and the attached garage is gone. Other nearby neighbors lost roofs or had trees smashed into their homes. The front of another house had a 2×4 driven six feet through the front wall right above a picture window — but the picture window under it didn’t even crack. He said that everything you hear about it sounding like a freight train is exactly how to describe it — except it sounded like the world’s biggest freight training coming straight DOWN on them, which apparently was because it formed over the house.

He said we had to see it, and I finally did see it, a week after the storm. On the path the tornado took, all kinds of structures and trees are ripped apart. The pattern of how it touched down over their lots shows by the heights at which the trees snapped off, starting higher up then going from there sort of in an angle down to trees which were broken off at their base, or ripped roots and all from the ground. Some of the remaining tree trunks and stumps are twisted around like corkscrews! Some properties appear undamaged, others have badly damaged homes, flattened crops, and barns and outbuildings that were demolished. It’s absolutely indescribable to see in person the power of a storm like that.

Tree top shorn off by August 6, 2013 NE Wisconsin Tornadoes. Many of the trees on this street were badly damaged, as were homes and businesses.

I talked to another friend today, and his house and garage was damaged as were both of his cars (dents in the cars from flying debris, and the rear window shattered in one of his vehicles), but again, thankfully, as was true over most of the entire area, there were no injuries to him or his wife or children.

We had no warning. When NOAA says that a thunderstorm can produce tornadoes without warning — believe it. Our tornado sirens were never set off by our county emergency management, as the storms were on us and then past us so fast that the National Weather Service wasn’t able to even send out tornado warnings via the emergency broadcast system. The storm was quite unusual for any thunderstorm in the USA, much less Wisconsin, as the storm itself moved at 100 miles per hour — with embedded tornadoes and their incredibly destructive winds in addition to that.

If I never experience anything like that again in my lifetime, it’ll be fine with me.

Saint Francis and the … Chipmunk?

If you’re a saint, somewhere someone’s made a statue of you. If you’re Saint Francis, there are a whole lot of statues of you, mostly in gardens, often holding a bowl that gets filled with bird seed. We have an older statue of St. Frank given to us by relatives that was truly lovely in its youth. Sadly, it hasn’t weathered well, probably due to the harsh climate extremes we have here. Currently, its nestled next to an ancient heritage rose bush amidst some daylilies and we like it there.

Apparently, we aren’t the only ones who enjoy St. Frank’s presence. This summer a rather bold chipmunk (is there any other type?) has taken to roosting on St. Frank’s head. Every time I see it there, it makes me laugh. I think it’s because something about it strikes me as a mashup of Chip and Dale with a Disney Davy Crockett Coonskin Cap. Remember those Coonskin caps?

Behold: The St. Frank Chipmunk Cap. In “living” color.

St Frank Chipmunk Hat!

St Frank Chipmunk Hat!