Saturday, February 28, 2009

Camera Critters: American Goldfinch

One of the sure signs of spring each year is when the American goldfinch males begin to molt into their bright yellow breeding plumage. Even though we just got a mess of new snow and the temps this weekend are only up into the teens for highs I have already begun to notice that many of the males are beginning to change. Maybe each year people should go out and check goldfinch color instead of relying on a groundhog to tell how much winter is left.
Goldfinch go through two molts each year. In the fall the males molt to a drab yellow color and then in the spring they go through another complete molt into the bright yellow breeding plumage. They are the only member of the finch family that molts both in the spring and the fall.
These pictures were taken back in August when the goldfinch are still in full breeding plumage. They were taken at the Marshland Center which is a part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
Since goldfinch are late nesters, they usually nest at the end of June or beginning of July, August, when these shots were taken would probably still be part of their breeding season.
All of my best goldfinch pictures always are taken when one of the birds is picking through the thistle looking for seeds, as he is in these pics.
The American goldfinch is a year round resident, at least in the southern part of Minnesota, but because of the difference in color between their breeding and non-breeding plumage the average person on the street is not usually aware that they are still around in the winter.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Bird Banding at Carpenter Nature Center

Every Friday the folks over at Carpenter Nature Center catch and band birds. On the last Friday of the month they open up the banding to the public so that ordinary people can get a close up look at the birds and learn how and why people band birds. Birding has been a bit slow lately, on most trips I just keep seeing the same birds, and we just got a bunch of snow dumped on us so I figured that watching the banding would be a different change of pace. So today after I got of off work I stopped over to check things out. The snow seemed to bring the birds out, as quite a few birds were caught while I was there, even though the variety was not that unusual. Most of what was banded were juncos with a vicious female cardinal and a redpoll being the exceptions. Even though I did not really take any pictures I did have fun talking with people who have spent a lot of time looking at birds close up and in great detail.
This was not my first visit to see the banding, I try to go 5 or 6 times a year, so I do have some pics that I took back on September 26th. Each fall we are lucky to see both white-crowned and white-throated sparrows as the migrate from Canada down to the southern United States.
The field sparrow is a common resident in Minnesota, except during the winter, which is why they are frequently caught and banded.
White breasted nuthatch are year round residents but they are not caught as often during the winter. This is mainly because during the winter birds are trapped using ground cages which are less likely to catch birds like nuthatches. During the warmer months mist nets are used to catch the birds, and they are much more likely to snare a nuthatch as it flies between trees or to a feeder.
Late September is a fun time to check out the banding because there are many different types of birds that are migrating through the area at that time. When Nashville warblers migrate south most of the younger birds follow the east coast while many of the mature birds will take a more westerly route.
An unusual catch this day was a brown creeper. While creepers can sometimes be seen on the trees around the park they banders typically only catch a few each year.
While the banding is always very interesting I never like to spend too much time inside when I am at an amazing place like Carpenter Nature Center. So I took a short hike around the grounds during a lull in the banding. I did find a couple of interesting birds to photograph that were very unlikely to be captured for banding, like this northern flicker.

I also spotted a passing turkey vulture. Since Carpenter is situated on the bluffs of the St Croix River just north of where it joins the Mississippi it is common to see raptors flying over. They usually take advantage of the air currents caused by the river bluffs to fly using less energy.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sky Watch Friday: Yellowstone Snow

If you have spent any amount of time on this blog you have probably noticed that I mainly photograph birds and wildlife. Photographing the fauna is my passion, but every once in a while I come across a scene that just cries out to me that it needs to be photographed.
That was the case when I took this shot in Yellowstone in May of 2007. We woke up that morning to find a blanket of wet sloppy snow had covered most of the park. As the sun came up the temps climbed back up into the 40s and the snow was already beginning to melt. This is a pretty common occurrence when we go to Yellowstone in May

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Butterflies a Sign of Spring Longing

Today was a pretty nice day, at least as far as late February days in Minnesota go. The sun was shinning, the snow was melting and the temps probably got up close to 40 degrees. It felt good and made me think of the warmer days to come when there are plenty of things for me to go out and photograph with out having to travel half way across the state.
Things such as warblers, flycatchers, dragonflies and butterflies. Like this eastern tailed-blue that I photographed at the Carpenter Nature Center back on August 17th 2008.
Carpenter has some real nice fields which are full of natural plants and grasses as well as wild flowers.
Blooms, like the one on this thistle plant are very attractive to bees and butterflies who are looking for pollen, nectar, or both.
The monarch butterfly is most often associated with the milkweed plant. This is because milkweed is the host plant for the larval or caterpillar form of the monarch. The host plant is the plant, or plants, that the larva eats. The monarch caterpillar eats the milk weed, which is toxic, and thus becomes toxic itself which helps to discourage predators. Even though the monarch caterpillars host plant is milkweed the monarch butterfly drinks nectar from many different types of blooming flowers. Eventually it will return to the milkweed where it will lay its eggs on the underside of the milkweed leaves.

Wordless Wednesday: Green Bee

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Watery Wednesday: Eagles at Alma

Typically one of the main things that I photograph during the winter are eagles.

Since more eagles live in Minnesota than any other state other than Alaska they are usually not too difficult to find.
During winter they are even easier to photograph because they congregate where ever they can find open water.
Through most of the winter there are only a few locations to find open water, most are near power plants or where rivers join together, and this is where I have often spent many weekends over the past 10 years.
Colville Park in Redwing, MN usually has the largest number of wintering birds. The power plant, that is located just up river, helps keep the water from freezing up. It is not unusual to see close to a hundred eagles in the trees around the open water.
Unfortunately this year I have not seen many eagles around Redwing. The most that I have seen in the area during a single trip is only about a half dozen. On a trip down to Redwing this weekend I was really surprised to see that most of the channel where the eagles usually fish and roost was frozen over. This is very unusual and I wonder if the power company is doing some sort of work on the plant so that they are not currently pumping warm water into the river.
Another typical location that I like to visit is near the small town of Reeds Landing. The water stays open there because of the turbulence created by the Chippewa River joining into the Mississippi. I have seen a few eagles in this area of the river on my various trips but it seems as though there are quite a few less then I have seen in past years.
My best eagle experience so far this winter came back on December 13th. After striking out for the most part at all of my typical eagle haunts I decided to continue south on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River.
In the town of Alma, WI I found around 25 eagles on the ice below the damn. Most were sitting on the edge of holes in the ice looking for fish. Occasionally one would take off and scoop up a fish from the open water and take it back and eat it on the ice. All of the pictures in this post were taken at Alma on December 13th.
Since December I have made numerous trips down the river in search of eagles. I have stopped in Redwing, Reeds Landing, Alma, and Whitewater State Park, on each trip I have found eagles but not in the numbers that I have seen in past years. This may be a result the very colder than normal temps that we had in November, December and January this winter, which may have driven the eagle population further south this year then in the past.

Monday, February 23, 2009

My World: A Tragedy Remembered

Wednesday August 1st, 2007 was a lot like any other summer day. Since it was fairly sunny out I decided to go out and take some pics after work. When I got home shortly before dark Michelle, my wife called me upstairs right away to see what was on the television.
What I saw was unbelievable. A bridge had collapsed over the Mississippi. I asked Michelle where this had happened and I was shocked when she told me that it happened just a few minutes drive from where I work.
Construction on the interstate 35w bridge over the Mississippi between Minneapolis and St Paul began back in 1964. It was completed and opened in 1967.
Forty years later, at approximately 6:05 PM on August 1st, 2007, it came crashing down.
The central span of the bridge was the first to give way, followed by the adjoining spans. The center sections plunged around 100' down into the Mississippi River below. Over 100 cars and 18 construction workers fell along with the bridge. Thirteen people lost their life in the disaster and around 150 people were injured.
One of the north sections of the bridge fell down on to a railway yard that was below it squashing railroad cars like an empty soda can.
The reason that officials have given for the disaster is faulty gusset plates on the bridge, although some people also believe that construction that was currently being done on the bridge deck may also have contributed to the collapse.
I took these shots the following day. It was a very sobering experience to look down at the twisted bridge deck and the cars that were torn, tipped and smashed. The school bus in the first pictures became an important part of the national news story as the exploits of a man who heroically helped the kids out of the bus became a silver lining to this tragic story.
One of the guys who I work with came over the bridge every morning and evening and had gone over it shortly after 5pm that day on his way home. Now he travels over the new bridge which has one up in its place.
The new bridge was completed on September 18th, 2008 less then a year after construction began. I took this photo from out my window as I was getting on the freeway to cross over the bridge. This was the first time that I have driven over the new bridge and it was kind of strange thinking about what happened a year and a half earlier as I drove across. I have never liked traveling over high bridges, as a kid I had nightmares about it, but since 2007 the tragedy always crosses my mind when I head out over a bridge.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Today's Flowers: Buds and Bugs

For this weeks edition of Today's Flowers I have more combo pics of buds and bugs.
I am not sure what type of plant that this is. I tried to look it up but I was not able to identify it.
It was very popular with the monarch butterflies at the butterfly garden at Maplewood Nature Center. These pics were taken on September 6th.
It would be cool to find out what type of flower that this is, because if I would like to try and talk Michelle into letting me landscape our very small yard.
We live in a town house but we do have a small fenced it back yard area between the house and the garage. Right now 405 of the yard is a cement slab and the remainder is grass, just the same as it was on the day that we moved in, but since we don't use the yard for much I thought it would be fun to landscape for butterflies and birds.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Camera Critters: Burrowing Owl

I have spent quite a bit of time lately photographing owls. Winter is not always fun in Minnesota but there are some advantages. Winter in Minnesota is the time of the owls. In December I was out photographing snowy owls at the airport. Many have been removed but every now and again someone still sees one. Then in January I made several trips to northern Minnesota to photograph the great gray owls and northern hawk owls, which have come down from Canada. Now February has been the month for photographing nesting great horned owls.
All of those pictures will be posted soon but I still had a few shots of the burrowing owl that I photographed in South Dakota this summer that I wanted to post first.
When most people think of owls they think of a large bird that hides in the trees during the day and comes out to hunt at night. The burrowing owl is pretty much the opposite of that stereotypical image of the owl.
Although you can sometimes find them in trees they are more often found on the ground, or in this case on hay bails. That is because unlike most owls they nest underground, either digging a burrow of their own or commandeering one from a small mammal, such as prairie dog, armadillo or skunk.
Another thing that is different about burrowing owls is that they can often be seen hunting during the day, which would make them diurnal. This owl would come to the same field each afternoon, at least for the 3 days that I was there, where it would hunt for rodents and insects from its perch on top of the hay bails. It is impossible to tell if it was a male or female because, unlike other owls and raptors, both sexes of burrowing owls are the same size.