Friday, November 30, 2007

Swans, Swans everywhere there's Swans

On Friday the 23rd of November I decided I better get out and do some birding to work off the turkey that I ate the day before. Michelle had to work so I decided to take a day trip. Originally I had planned to go up and check out the raptors up at Crex Meadows but as I was leaving the house in the early morning I noticed the sky was filled with clouds., not the weather that the Internet weather nerds promised.So I went back into the house to see if there was a change to the forecast from the night before. There was no change but when I looked at the cloud radar I could see things were pretty socked in, both at home and up by Crex. Fortunately the sky looked somewhat clearer to the south so I changed my plans. I had read on the MOU list server that there was a large group of tundra swans that were migrating through south Minnesota near Brownsville so I decided to head down that way.

The skies were pretty cloudy until I got down close to Winona, Minnesota but then the sky opened up and the sun was shinning. When I arrived at the new over look, just south of Brownsville, I was in awe. There in the Mississippi River were thousands of tundra swans.
Tundra swans are one of three types of swans that typically inhabit North America. The other two types of swans are the mute swan and the trumpeter swan. The mute swan was brought to North America by European settlers and can be easily identified by its orange bill and the black bump at the base of the bill.

The trumpeter and tundra swans are more difficult to tell apart if you are at a distance. First off the tundra swan is smaller with a 6 to 7 foot wingspan and weighing around 13 to 20 pounds.
The trumpeter swan is the largest waterfowl native to North America with a wingspan over 7 feet long and weighing 21 to 30 pounds. However it is hard for me to tell which type a bird using size unless both types are together for a reference, which I have never seen. Fortunately tundra swans have an identify mark that trumpeters do not. Tundra swans have a yellow tear drop on the base of their bills under their eyes.
From a distance it is sometimes hard to see the yellow mark so then you have to ID the bird by the shape of the beak which is wider at the base on the tundra swan. Usually the beak shape is the only way to tell with an immature bird, called a cygnet.
Both tundra and trumpeter cygnets start out grey with a pink beak. As they mature they turn white and the beak becomes black. Tundra swans breed up on the northern coast of Alaska, Canada and Russia. They create nests by piling up sticks, grasses and other vegetation on the tundra not too far from a lake or pond. The clutch usually runs from 3 to 8 eggs which take about 32 days to incubate. During this time the female swan, called a pen, will incubate the eggs while the male, called a cob, will defend the nest. Tundra swans will defend their nest against smaller predators such as jaegers, weasels and foxes but when larger predators, such as wolves bears or people, are involved the swans will leave the nest so that they do not draw the predator to it.
Cygnets are able to feed themselves shortly after they hatch. They usually fledge with in 9 to 10 weeks and will stay with their parents for about a year.

During the breeding season tundra swans are solitary and very territorial. During the rest of the year they gather in large flocks like the ones that I saw south of Brownsville. They first gather in flocks on larger lakes, which take longer to freeze, in the breeding area. When the bigger lakes freeze up they migrate south in large flocks to winter mostly on the east or west coast of the United States.

The swans where not alone during their stop over near Brownsville, I noticed a few raptors in the area also. Several eagles flew over the river at different times while I was watching, like this immature eagle.

The swans where not bothered by the passing eagles. An eagle might kill an injured swan and would most certainly eat any dead swans that it could find but typically a wan would be too large and too much work for an eagle to kill. The eages where there looking for fish in the open waters of the river.I also spotted quite a few red-tailed hawks sitting perched along the highway. This is a normal scene through out Minnesota at this time of the year. The red tails like to hunt rodents in the grass next to roads and highways because it is usually cut short by the DOT.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Two special gifts.

Sometimes when you go out birding, nature will hand you an unexpected gift. This weekend I was extremely lucky and I got a couple. I started my weekend early, on Friday morning, because of the Thanksgiving holiday. As I was driving out on Friday morning the sky turned a bright pink with the rising sun. I pulled over and started taking some pics on the side of the road. It was prolly not the best place to take sunrise pics but the color was so fascinating that I had to get it on film.
On the other end of the weekend, I was heading home, from birding down in Iowa on Sunday, the sun had just slipped below the horizon and it lit the nearly full moon with an yellowy orangish glow. I found a good spot, a few blocks from home, that had a clear view and not too many distracting lights and took a few pics.
These two bookends, that nature provided for me, framed a pretty good weekend of birding and adventure but you will need to stay tuned if you want to hear about the thousands of tundra swans, eagles in the nest, rough legged hawks on the prowl, little kestrels everywhere or a special visitor from Asia.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Other wildlife at Vadnais Lake

I did see some other birds and wildlife at Vadnais Lake other then the waterfowl. One day as I was shooting the ducks a bald eagle flew over head.
In the woods north of the lake I spotted a golden-crowned kinglet. I wanted to get some better pics but it flew up a trail. Unfortunately the trails in the woods by the lake can only be used for cross country skying. This seems like such a waste to me especially during the summer. It is really strange that they do not even allow hikers on the trails. Each visit I usually spot a muskrat swimming along near the shoreline.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Common goldeneye and hooded merganser hybrid at Vadnais Lake

One of the more interesting birds that was swimming around Vadnais Lake appears to be a common goldeneye and hooded merganser hybrid.
This bird was pretty confusing at first.
But I did a bit of research on the web and found that others have seen this mix and there are pictures here and there and all pretty much look the same.
It was swimming around with a group common goldeneye.In a different group of goldeneye I did spot a hooded merganser female. She seemed to be hanging out with the goldeneye.So it seems that the two species do socialize.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Common goldeneye at Vadnais Lake

Another duck that has been visiting Vadnais Lake is the common goldeneye.
Common goldeneye are diving ducks and forage mostly underwater. They typically feed on aquatic insects, mollusks, crustaceans, and fish.
They breed in northern boreal forests worldwide. They like small lakes and ponds, preferably with out fish that compete for food, in Canada, the northern United States, Scandinavia, and Russia.

The common goldeneye is a cavity nester. They will usually nest in large cavities made by broken tree limbs or pileated woodpeckers. They will also use nesting boxes. Female goldeneyes typically lay 7 to 10 eggs which they incubate for 28 to 32 days. Sometimes they will lay their eggs in the nests of other females. They have even been known to lay eggs in the nest of another type of duck.

The young goldeneye leave the nest a day or two after hatching. The mother leads them to the water where they are already able to feed themselves. They take 8 to 9 weeks to fledge but the mother typically abandons them before they can fly. Some times when a mother abandons her brood too early or there is a territorial dispute chicks will join another females brood. These large mixed broods are called a creche.

Male common goldeneye usually leave the females a week or two into the incubation of the eggs and begins a molt migration. They typically head north to larger lakes, rivers and bays. The winter migration usually begins later then most of the other types of ducks. They do not typically migrate far south, often they stay as far north as they can find open water.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Other waterfowl at Vadnais Lake

I found some other water fowl at Vadnais Lake like an redhead duck. We do not usually do not see many redhead ducks here in the Twin Cities except during migration. Typically their summer range is more westerly and they winter further to the south. Due to loss of breeding habitat, marshes and prairie potholes, their numbers have been declining. Redheads usually mate with a new partner each year. After mating the males molt which leaves them flightless for almost a month.There were also some American coot swimming around.

Although many people think of coots as ducks they are actually a member of the rail family. The main difference between coots and ducks is that coots do not have webbed feet like ducks instead they have scalloped toes as you can see in the picture below.It is funny watching coots take off from the water. They usually have to run across the water while flapping their wings until they are airborne. Once in the air they are strong fliers. There are records of coots that have crossed the Atlantic Ocean into Western Europe.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ring-necked ducks at Vadnais Lake

Another type of duck that I was shooting at Lake Vadnais was the ring-necked duck.
The ring-necked duck gets its name from the chestnut collar that they have on the back of their necks. Unfortunately this is only visible when you have the bird in hand. This duck was named in the era when most identification was done by hunters after the duck was dead.
The ring-necked duck is a diving duck meaning that it feeds by diving under water where it eats aquatic plants, snails, insects and small fish. Other diving ducks include scaups, redhead ducks, tufted ducks, canvasbacks and others.

Ring-necked ducks breed in wooded lakes or ponds in the northern United States and Canada. In the winter they migrate to the southern part of the US although some individuals have been found in western Europe as well as Central America.Since ring-necked ducks do not typically form large flocks they are not typically hunted.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Northern pintail at Vadnais Lake

Over the past few weeks it has been pretty grey and overcast here in Minnesota, which is pretty typical for the winter months here. On the few occasions that we have seen some sun I have taken advantage of the opportunity and gone out and done some birding. One of the locations that I have been birding at quite a bit recently is Vadnais Lake. Vadnais Lake is on the north east side of the Twin Cities and is not very far from where I work. The lake is split into two halves with a one way road running through the middle. The road is controlled by St Paul Water Management and is used for fishing, hiking, cycling, and birding.

The first few weeks in November the lake was also a staging area for ducks and other waterfowl migrating south to stop, eat and rest up for the remained of their journey. This presented Twin Cities birders with good close up looks at birds who tended to stay near the shoreline of the road.

One of the ducks that I got to see was the northern pintail.

Northern Pintails typically nest in Alaska, Canada, and the central United States as well as northern Europe and Asia. They build a nest on the ground made of grass, leaves and down. The nest is hidden by tall grass or brush and is typically not near the water. The clutch consists of 3 to 12 greenish eggs.

In the winter the Northern Pintail migrate south to the southern US, Central America and the very north edge of South America, southern Europe, Asia and Northern Africa on the Eurasia side.

When I visited the Bosque del Apache, back in February, there were pintails all over but at lake Vadnais there was only one pintail. He was grouped in with a small flock of mallards.

This makes some sense since both mallards and pintails are dabbling ducks. This means that they usually eat plants off the bottom of the lake, river, stream, pond or pool by tipping their tails up into the air and submerging their necks and heads. Other dabblers include wigeons, shovelers, gadwall, and true teals. Swans and geese also typically feed in the dabbling style.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Snowy Owl at Tamarack Nature Center

The weather has been quite depressing for the last couple of weeks. Yesterday was no different. Since the forecast called for grey skies, all day, and since I had to work my second job that evening I decided not to bring my camera with me to work. I had some projects that I needed to work on so I brought my notebook instead. Of course when ever I don't have my camera with me some cool photo opportunity has to pop up.

This opportunity came in the form of an e-mail from the MOU list server that reported that a snowy owl had been spotted perched at Tamarack Nature Center. I had never been to Tamarack Nature Center before so I looked up directions and as soon as I finished work I ran home grabbed my gear and headed off to White Bear Lake. When I arrived there where already quite a few photographers there taking pictures of the bird. The light was terrible and the bird was not very cooperative but I was happy just to have a chance to get some snowy owl pics. It is a pretty good bet that this bird was a female, although it is possible that this was an immature male. Male snowy owls start out barred and lose the barring becoming more white as they age.
snowy owlFemale snowies remain barred through out their lifetime. Although it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between immature males and both immature or mature females the immature male can often be identified by a white bib and white on the back of their head.
snowy owl
Snowy owls have gained some notoriety over the past few years thanks JK Rowling and the Harry Potter movies. In the Harry Potter series Harry has a snowy owl named Hedwig. In the movies Hedwig is played by a male snowy owl even though Hedwig is a female, coincidentally my late grandmothers name was Hedwig.
snowy owl

Snowy owls spend their summers up on the Arctic tundra. They nest on the ground and will fiercely defend the nest. During the winter they may or may not migrate south depending on the food source which is mainly lemmings and other rodents. When they migrate snowy owls will typically migrate into Canada, northern Europe, northern Asia, and the northern US. When their food sources are scarce they may irrupt even further south, snowies have been reported as far south as Texas.
snowy owl

There have been predictions, earlier this year, that because of extreme draught conditions in Canada this past summer that the seed crop will be low. This may effect the rodent population, which count on seeds as a primary food source. A decline in the rodent population may force owls to migrate south and trigger an owl irruption in some of the northern states of the US. The last irruption in Minnesota was in 2004-2005 when we saw great grey owls in the thousands. Seeing a snowy this far south this early in the winter might be a fluke then again it might be a portent of what we might see this winter.

While I was shooting the snowy owl I noticed a flock of cedar waxwing in the tree above me. Since I think that waxwings look cool I decided to turn my camera on them for a few minutes while the owl was being uncooperative.I think that they were waiting for me to get out of the way because I was standing next to some small bushes on the side of the visitors center that were loaded with orange berries. Cedar waxwings are native to North America and are predominately berry eaters. So during the winter they will migrate where ever they can find a good cache of berries.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Signs of winter in Minnesota

Well winter is just around the corner here in Minnesota. The butterfly and dragonfly are long gone as are the warblers and most other passerines. It seems, this week, as though the sun has left with them. The thing I dislike most about winter in Minnesota is the number of grey cloudy bleak days that we get. What we have left for birding, at least around the Twin Cities, are ducks, which are now passing through on their way south, eagles, red-tails, robins, chickadees and woodpeckers. Not a lot of variety.
Another sign that winter is coming was the opening of the eagle observation deck in Wabasha which occurred on November 3rd and 4th. I decided to go down to Wabasha, and do my first eagle run of the winter, on the 4th. It was a great day to go eagle watching. It was cool and crisp with bright blue skies. Typically the eagles gather down around the Reeds Landing and Wabasha area because the Mississippi River does not usually freeze up there. The river does not freeze in that location because the swift flowing Chippewa River, which dumps into the Mississippi just south of lake Pepin on the Wisconsin side, churns the waters. Bald eagles are not that effected by cold but do require on open water source to survive.
Since it has not gotten real cold yet, and most of the lakes and rivers still are open, many of the eagles have not yet moved into the area, however there is always a small population around to view year round.
I arrived down in Lake City, on the shores of Lake Pepin, just in time to catch the sun coming up over the lake.
Lake City, which is about 15 miles north of Wabasha, is a great place to watch eagles until Lake Pepin freezes up. So I made my first stop at the Hok-Si-La park in Lake City. Hok-Si-La is a 252 acre park located on the shore of Lake Pepin. Most of the park is wooded with trails leading through it. There was plenty of wildlife to see including woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadee, and black, grey and red squirrels.
Even though I never spotted any there were plenty of signs that there are beavers living inside the park.
Walking down one of the nature trails I spotted an eagle perched high in the trees above. I was kind of surprised because usually they are in the trees on the shore looking out over the water instead of looking out over a nature trail.
Later on while exploring the park I located an eagles nest.
It is a little too early for eggs but I did see that there was a pair that was occupying the nest.

Eagles tend to mate for life. However the mating seems to be less attached to the individuals then it does the nesting territory. Eagles will mate, work on their nest, raise young and then go their separate ways. When mating season comes again the eagles will return to the mating territory. If both eagles make it back then they will mate again, if one does not make it back then the other will find a new mate.

After spending a couple hours wondering Hok-Si-La I decided to go down by the Lake City Marina where there are a few large trees that the eagles sometimes use to scan the lake. There were no eagles there yet but I did get a nice shot of a European starling.

A lot of people do not like starling very much because they tend to bully other birds at feeders. I kind of like them, even though they are an introduced species. I think that they look really cool when the sun hits them right, they kind of almost shimmer. Since there were not any eagles down by the marina I decided to continue south to Wabasha. Since It was still early I decided that I would cross the river at Wabasha and head down to Alma, WI before I made a visit to the National Eagle Center. Alma is about 15 miles south on the Wisconsin side of the river and is sometimes a good place to observe swans during migration. While I was crossing over the river, which is a part of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, I spotted an eagle on a snag.

Unfortunately he did not seem to like the idea that I had stopped and he quickly took off.I continued on to Alma bu there was not much there except for a few ducks that where quite a ways out. I think most of the swans where further south on the river, near Brownsville, MN. So I headed back to Wabasha and visited the National Eagle Center. I sat in on another program and then went out and spent some time on the observation deck. It was getting late and I was getting hungry so I decided to start back home. On the way past Hok-Si-La I spotted a red-tailed hawk perched on the side of the road. I turned around and then pulled over on to the side of the road to see if I could locate him to get a picture. Just as I stopped the car I saw the hawk fly from its perch about 25 feet in front of me and land on a branch right above my head.I missed the flight shot but got some good pics any way. The rest of the trip home was pretty uneventful but I could not complain because it had been a great day.