Saturday, May 31, 2008

Medicine Lake NWR Passerines

Friday, May 15th, the day that we were out at Medicine Lake was kind of an anniversary for me. It was one year, from that date, that I was diagnosed with diabetes. I think that it was one of the reasons that our 2007 Yellowstone trip did not go as well as other Yellowstone trips. Taking insulin and trying to figure out what I could eat and what I couldn't and how much complicated things a bit. This year it was not a big deal at all. Probably because I pretty much have things under control. Since I was diagnosed a year ago I have lost 20 pounds, which is not bad considering that I was only a little over weight to begin with. When I was diagnosed my A1C, a test that measures the average of your blood sugar level over the past several months, was at 13.9. Since you are supposed to be under 7.0 mine was pretty high, which is why they put me on a 24 hour insulin as well as pills. On my last visit my A1C was 5.4. Along with the drugs I have altered my diet and I am getting more exercise by hiking through parks chasing after birds and other wildlife with my camera. That Friday we also saw quite a few birds in the fields that surround Medicine Lake.
I am not really great with my sparrow identification so someone please correct me if I get one of the sparrows wrong. I believe that the one above is a vesper sparrow.
I think that this one is a clay-colored sparrow. Sparrows are the hardest type of birds for me to ID. They are all small and mostly brown with very subtle differences. Maybe after shorebird class later this summer I can find a class to help me better ID sparrows.
We have horned lark here in MN but mostly I see them from a distance on the side of roads during the winter. This horned lark let me get some nice shots.
Brown thrashers are a bit more common in the eastern US. The 3 or 4 that we spotted at Medicine Lake were in the western part of their typical range.
Once in a while we will spot a yellow-headed blackbird mixed in with red-winged black birds in the eastern portion of Minnesota but they are more common in the western half of the state. Out in Montana there were more yellow-heads then there were redwings.
The western kingbird is the cousin of the eastern kingbird that we typically see in Minnesota. However the range of the western kingbird has been moving east and now includes parts of western Minnesota.
We saw, and heard, quite a few western meadowlarks in the park and most of the places which we traveled through in Montana. In eastern Minnesota we can see either the eastern or western meadowlark, but these days, with most of the large open field being devoured for development, I rarely see either type. It is too bad because it was really nice to hear them singing as we were driving down the road.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Medicine Lake NWR Shorebirds

Medicine Lake NWR is on the edge of what is commonly referred to as the Prairie Pothole Region. The Prairie Pothole Region is an area of grasslands that is filled with many small depressions, or potholes, which were left as the glaciers receded across North America 45 million years ago. In the spring these potholes form ponds and wetlands when they fill with run off from the melting winter snow. These shallow wetlands are perfect habitat for millions of dabbling ducks as well as shorebirds.

With the area being dryer this year, then it was last year, there were not only less waterfowl around to photograph, but we also saw less shorebirds then last year. We did find a few killdeer, both in the fields and on the shoreline of some of the lakes.
The killdeer is one of the most widespread and successful shorebirds around. This is probably due to its willingness to share habitat with man and nest close to people. The nest is typically just a scrape in the ground and the killdeer will often defend the nest from predators by faking a wing injury and luring the predator away from the nest.
There were also a good number of Wilson's and red-necked phalarope. It was fun to watch them fly together. The way that they seemed to move in unison, all changing direction together in what appeared as one motion, made the 50 to 100 birds appear almost like a single entity.
The Wilson's phalarope breeds across the west and central portions of North America and winters in South America. During migration between the wintering and breeding grounds they gather at staging areas like the Great Salt Lake and Mono Lake. Declining numbers at these staging areas, over the past 20 years have prompted the Audubon Society to put the species on their watch list.
There are basically 2 different populations of willets in North America. The eastern willet are smaller with stouter bills and are strictly coastal all year long. Western birds are larger. They breed in freshwater in the west central United States and southern Canada. During the winter months they will migrate to their wintering grounds on the east or west coast.
Long-billed dowitchers can often be seen in the western portions of the US during migration. They migrate from their wintering grounds in the southern coastal regions of the US and in Mexico to their breeding grounds in northern Canada and Alaska. At the breeding grounds it is the male, and not the female, who takes care of the chicks after they hatch. Now there is someone who really deserves a Father's Day card.
Marbled godwits breed in Montana, North and South Dakota and southern Canada. They spend their winters in the coastal US and Mexico.
Later this year, in August, I will return to the Prairie Pothole Region, this time South Dakota, to do an intense shorebird identification workshop. As always I will have a camera with me and hopefully I will bring back a lot more shorebird photos to share from that trip.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Medicine Lake NWR Waterfowl

Our adventure began on Thursday May 15th. We left the Twin Cities that morning and spent most of the day driving to Williston, ND. Williston is on the west side of North Dakota near the border with Montana. I chose Willistone because of it's close proximity to Medicine Lake NWR. The plan was to spend Friday and part of Saturday at Medicine Lake. We visited Medicine Lake on our way home from Yellowstone last year and had such good luck that we decided to leave a couple days early so that we could stop and spend some time on our way out. Medicine Lake is a great birding location for waterfowl and shorebirds but the main reason that we visit is to photograph eared grebe in breeding plumage. This year our luck was not nearly so good. Unbeknownst to us, at the time, Montana appears to be going through a bit of a drought. The drought did not effect the Medicine Lake so much, but many of the other lakes and bays that are near to the roads, and thus places where we got many of our pics last year, were dried up. We were still able to find some waterfowl though.
The most common of the waterfowl that we saw where either blue-winged teals
or northern shovelers.
We did find one pair of northern pintails in a small tributary that was still feeding into the lake.
We did find some eared grebe but they were on the big lake and too far to get any shots that compared with those that we got last year. We also did see a pair of western grebes out on the big lake. The western grebes were also pretty far out but since we do not already have close up shots of western grebes I decided to add another 1.4x converter and snap a couple of shots.
Another thing that Medicine Lake NWR is known for is that it is the location of one of the largest white pelican breeding colonies in the world.
We went out to the pelican over look to view one of the peninsulas that the pelican colony uses for nesting. The peninsula is blocked by an electric fence and gate. These protect the females and the young from predators like coyote, fox and raccoon. Unfortunately it also makes it difficult to get any good pics so we decided to just stop and have a picnic there and watch the pelicans fly out over the lake. Later on I did find these 3 white pelicans taking of near Gopher Point so I was able to get a couple of nice shots.
We also saw quite a few shorebirds as well as some passerines but since this post is getting long I will put them in my next post.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Day Before Vacation

Well I am back from vacation. It has been hard to get back to my normal life after spending 9 days shooting pictures for 10to 14 hours a day. I just began to make a small dent in going through the trip pics yesterday. With 120gb worth of pics it may take a while. I hope that you guys don't get sick of Yellowstone pics too quickly. I spent most of the day yesterday doing stuff around the house, like washing cloths, giving Misty kitten some much needed attention and then Michelle and I took in the new Narnia flick.

I do have one last group of photos that I shot the evening before we left on vacation. It was a Wednesday and it was supposed to be cloudy that day, since my new lens was already packed I brought my old lens with me to work and The Raptor Center and when it turned out to be sunny I could not help but stop off at Fort Snelling State Park on my way home.
I was really disappointed not to have my new lens, I have become spoiled very quickly, with so many warblers around. The AF with my old 100-400mm lens does not pick up small birds very well so I am often forced to use manual focus which does not work very well with small darting birds like warblers. So the pictures did not come out as well as they would have if I had brought the new lens. I followed this black and white warbler from tree to tree but was only able to get a few marginal pictures like the one above. I love how the black and white warblers act a lot like nuthatches, although I have not seen them walking down the tree like nuthatches like to do.
This magnolia warbler did not come out as well as I would have liked either.
The American redstart was a little more cooperative and gave me enough time to get a good focus.
Besides warblers there was also a few Baltimore orioles.
Although I am not sure who was watching who?
The fun part of shooting that night was the newly hatched goslings
I spotted 3 different pairs of Canadian geese with goslings. each had a clutch of 2 to 4.
When photographing something as cute as young goslings I guess it does not matter what type of lens that you use.
Too bad they have to grow up. The goslings are cute but adult geese can become a nuisance.
One of the adults decided that it did not want me taking any more photos of the babies and it started to hiss at me. It is all bluff and bluster, since there is not much that a goose can do to hurt a person, but I did not want to stress them so I headed home to pack. I guess that the goose did not want its little goslings to be stars but it was already too late. Anything that cute will always draw attention.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Birding in Fort Snelling State Park

Today we begin the trip home. I always get sad to leave here and go back to the real world, but we have a lot of great pictures. This is probably our most productive trip to Yellowstone. We saw almost everything that there was to see. We had 3 wolf sightings this year, which was great because we have never seen wolves in the park before. We got some pics of a prairie falcon, which was a life bird for me. We also got some good badger shots and golden eagle shots. We had seen both in the park on past trips but we were able to get better pics this time. Yesterdays weather actually cleared up quite a bit, despite what the weather people forecasted, and we were fortunate to see an elk calf that had been born only 30 minutes before we photographed it. We also got a lot of great bird pics including mountain bluebird, raven, white-crowned sparrow, common merganser, buffelhead, Barrow's goldeneye, eared grebe, kestrel, grouse and a few more.

We did not get back until late yesterday and we are trying to leave soon so I did not have time to get any more Yellowstone pics ready, but I do have some more passerines that I photographed at Fort Snelling State Park on May 12th.
song sparrow
white-throated sparrow
gray catbird
yellow-rumped warbler Myrtle variety
blackburnian warbler

I will have a lot of pics to share when I get home but I may not be able to post for the next couple of days while we are driving. If I am not able to post I hope that everyone has a happy Memorial Day.

Friday, May 23, 2008


Well today is our last full day in Yellowstone. Tomorrow we pack up and then make one last swing through the north end of the park on our way home. When we arrived Sunday the weather was beautiful, with plenty of sunshine and temps in the 70s.
This has been a great trip, much better then last year, and possibly our best outing in Yellowstone. We have seen all of the major mammals, that inhabit the park, except moose.
Michelle took the pic of the pronghorn antelope above and the black bear below. On Tuesday the weather began to turn. It started out sunny on Tuesday then began to cloud up as the day went on. By the time we were on the way back to our hotel it was raining. Wednesday the rain turned to snow and Thursday when we entered the park we were informed that a large portion of the park was closed due to the snow. It was so bad that even the geese went looking for high ground.
Despite the weather we still had a great day on Thursday. Today the weather still looks pretty poor but it seems that the bad weather brings out some of the more elusive animals so hopefully we will have another great day. I will have a lot to post when I get home so stay tuned.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Warblers and Friends from Fort Snelling

Before we left on vacation I was almost sad to be leaving. With the spring migration coming late this year, due to the extended winter weather, the warblers were all over at home. They seemed to be holding up waiting for the weather up north to get better, but I figure by the time that we get back they will have moved on. I can't complain though because we have had a great time shooting out in Yellowstone. Here are some more of the warblers, and orioles, that I was seeing before we left.
Baltimore oriole
Tennessee warbler

yellow warbler
orange-crowned warbler

blackburnian warbler

black-throated green warbler

Maybe I will get lucky and some of the stragglers will still be around when I get back but for now I am going to go out and enjoy nature where I am, even with the couple of inches of snow that fell last night.