Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Watery Wednesday: Pine Siskin taking a Bath

Anyone has spent any time watching birds or who has a birdbath in their yard can tell you that birds love the water. Not only do they need water for drinking but they also use water to bathe. Watching a bird bathing is like watching a bird at play, their splashing and frolicking is a treat to watch.
It does not matter what size the bird is, whether it is a golden eagle at The Raptor Center or a black-capped chickadee in a puddle on the side of a road, most birds will take advantage of the opportunity to bathe especially after a long winter.
On one of my frequent trips to White Water State Park I found a small of water that formed from the melting snow. Since the day was warm and sunny several small passerines decided to take advantage of this shallow trickle of water and take an impromptu bath.
Most of the birds bathing were pine siskins, although there was also a bashful dark-eyed junco that flew before I could take his pic. The pine siskin is a northern finch that usually spend their summers up in Canada, although there are populations that stay in the US year round up in the Rocky Mountains. During some winters, like the one that recently ended, the siskins will irrupt southward into the continental US if there is not sufficient food.

Monday, March 30, 2009

My World: North Mississippi Regional Park

In the northern part of Minneapolis, hidden between Interstate 94 and the Mississippi River, there is a small local park called the North Mississippi Regional Park.
This is not a park that you would imagine that you would find a lot of serious birders. After all the park is only about 50 yards wide in many spots and the sound of cars zooming down the freeway makes it difficult to hear any birds that might be singing.
The park does have a lot of good uses though. There are a lot of nice trails for people to bike, hike, jog or walk the dog. There is also a nice visitor's center.
Inside the visitors center they have a lot of displays giving information about the park and some of the wildlife that you might find. They also have classrooms for education, a kids area, and the all important modern facilities. So why would a nature freak like me be hanging out in this park?
The reason sits on a small island in the middle of the Mississippi River.
Each spring great blue herons return from their wintering grounds in the south to their rookery which is located on a small island in the North Mississippi Regional Park.
The males typically arrive first and, like most birds, they begin to look for a territory to claim. Since herons nest together in a rookery the territory that they claim will consist entirely of a nest.
Nests are very important to the male herons because this is the best way to attract a girl. So there is often squabbles and fighting going on at the rookery in early March.
When the females arrive it is their job to pick a mate. The males try and get their attention by screaming at them and showing of their breeding plumage and their wonderful nest. The females pick a new mate every year.
Once a pair has mated they will work together to repair the nest. The males job is to fly off and look for sticks, which he brings back to the female who uses it to remodel the nest. Sometimes they will take a break from working on the nest to consummate the pairing, but that only takes a few seconds. On my first trip to the park this year, in early March, there were only 3 that had paired up. This weekend when I visited I found that almost every nest was occupied by a pair of herons.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Today's Flowers: Monarchs on Thistle

This week's edition of Today's Flowers features 2 very common, at least where I live, yet very important components in the web of life.
Butterflies, along with bees, are important because they help to propagate vegetation on the planet by pollinating plants. While they are searching a flower for nectar, which is the food that butterflies and bees eat, pollen often gets stuck on a leg or a wing or some other part of the insect. When it goes of to the next flower in search of more food some of the pollen will often fall of which pollinates the flower there by allowing the plant to produce seeds. The monarch butterfly is probably one of the most common and by far the most recognizable butterfly in North America.
The plant is a thistle plant. There are several different types of thistle that grow in Minnesota. Although thistles are considered an invasive weed that often will crowd out other plants and flowers, they provide nectar for bees and butterflies and their seeds are an important food source for many small birds. On several occasions I have had the opportunity to photograph goldfinch opening up the thistle seed pods and pulling the seeds out by the thin white strands that are meant to carry the seeds in the wind.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Camera Critters: Boreal Chickadee

For many people, birding consists of putting up some feeders in the back yard and then watching to see what comes to visit. This is a great way to see a lot of birds with out having to venture too far. Up here in Minnesota common visitors to feeders include cardinals, juncos, sparrows and chickadees. The typical type of chickadee that we see here are the black capped, however if you want to get a bit more adventurous in your birding you can head up to northern Minnesota in the dead of winter in search of the boreal chickadee.
Boreal chickadees look similar to black capped, except that their cap is brown instead of black, which makes them a bit difficult to spot especially when they mix in with black caps.
Northern Minnesota is one of the few places in the continental US that you might have a chance to see these birds. They typically spend all of their time up in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska but during the winter, when their is less food available, they will cross into the most northern reaches of the US, which includes northern Minnesota. These pictures where all taken up in the Sax Zim Bog area back in January (1-10)
The problem is that a big part of their diet comes from insects, which are not very abundant during the winter time up in Canada and Alaska. They compensate for this lack of food during the winter by cache food during the warmer months. They supplement this cached food with pine cone seeds but in year where the pines produce less cones those birds that do not have enough food cached will head south in search of sustenance.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Killdeer and Semipalmated Plover in South Dakota

One of the most common shorebirds found in North America is the killdeer. When I went to South Dakota to participate in a shorebird workshop the killdeer was the first shorebird that I saw. I drove out to South Dakota the day before the workshop began and since I had some extra time I made a stop at Big Stone Lake, which is the headwaters for the Minnesota River. There in the grass around the lake I spotted about a half dozen killdeer foraging the field for insects, worms, snails and seeds.Like most shorebirds, killdeer can often be found in shallow water or mud puddles but killdeer are more versatile in their habitat then most other shore birds and they also are found in farm fields, pastures, golf courses, sports fields and gravel roads. There ability to coexist and adapt to man is the key reason why the killdeer have been so successful.
Another reason for the killdeers success is their acting ability. Since they are a ground nester they often have to worry about predators like felines, canines, raccoons and other mammals attacking their nest. When predators such as these get near the nest the adult killdeer will often pose as an injured bird and try to lure the predator away from the nest.
The killdeer was not the only member of the plover family that I saw at the shorebird workshop. The semipalmated plover looks very similar to the killdeer except that it is missing a second stripe across its chest.
Semipalmated plovers nest up in the arctic regions of Alaska and Canada. We typically only see them during migration when they travel to wintering grounds which are located in the southern coastal areas of North America as well as coastal regions in Mexico, Central and South America. During migration they often stop at shallow pools and mud flats across much of North America looking for food to sustain them on their long flight.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

SkyWatch Friday: Nest

In some cities they have a problem with nesting pigeons. People do not like them because the poop all over everything, but how would you like to live in this neighborhood. Here the birds might leave you presents like gutted fish and when they poop they project it like a high powered water hose.
This is an eagles nest that is located in the Twin Cities suburb of Richfield, MN. This very small park is bordered by a major freeway, a local bar, a residential area, yes there are houses just out of the picture on the left, and it is just blocks away from the international airport. When I was there I did not see the eagles so I do not know if the nest will be occupied this year or not. I have seen the eagles nesting there in past years and someone on the MOU listserve did report seeing an eagle in the area carrying nesting material so it is possible that this area may again have some unique and interesting neighbors.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Watery Wednesday: Semipalmated Sandpiper

Last August I traveled to South Dakota to participate in a three day shorebird workshop.
Small shorebirds are notoriously difficult to identify. Many have only subtle marking that distinguish them from other similar shorebirds.
The semipalmated sandpiper is one of the smaller sandpipers and it is often difficult to distinguish it from the least sandpiper, especially since they often can both be found in the same mixed flocks of shorebirds.
Both the least and semipalmated are approximately the same size, around 6", but the least usually appears darker in color, more of a brown hue compared with the semi which is lighter and more grey.
The easiest way to tell the difference is that the semipalmated has dark legs compared to the least which has yellow legs.
The semipalmated also has webbing between its toes, which the least does not. Palmated means webbed and that is where they get their common name. However it is not very often that you will get a good look at their toes since they are typically planted in the mud.
It is even more difficult to distinguish the semipalmated sandpiper from the western sandpiper. Both are approximately the same size, have dark legs and webbed feet but the western sandpiper is more of a reddish brown and has a longer bill. Fortunately there is not a lot of over lap in range between the semi and western sandpipers, but sporadic appearances by each type have been spotted in the other ones range.

Monday, March 23, 2009

My World: Whitewater State Park

Spring is here and the weather, at least here in Minnesota, has been cooperating so far this year. Many birds are beginning to migrate back in or through the area so on weekends, when the weather is nice, I have been heading south.
One location that I have been visiting frequently on my trips lately is Whitewater State Park. Since I first visited whitewater back in January, during the Golden Eagle Survey, I have been looking forward to birding the park once the ice on all of the pools and ponds melted. Much of the ice has melted and some waterfowl has made its way to the park, I saw shovelers and ring necked ducks for the first time this weekend, but it will still take a bit more time before everything is thawed out.
Even though many parts of the park are still frozen, I have always found a lot of activity up at the visitors center. With several feeders, a small pond and lots of cover the back of the visitors center attracts many birds.
There are several tube type of feeders that attract many different types of small passerines.
The American goldfinch is a common visitor to the feeders. Right now the males are in the middle of molting into their breeding plumage. You can see on this one how the head has begun to turn that bright yellow that they get during breeding but the belly is still pretty plain.
Another bird that I saw a lot of earlier in the year was the purple finch. Sometimes it was difficult to ID these birds because there were also some of the similar looking house finch at the feeders but unlike most locations that I have visited the purple finch actually always outnumbered the more common house finch down at Whitewater.
Another visitor that I was always happy to see was the pine siskin. This year was a good year for pine siskins but Whitewater always seemed to have more then its share. Even after the other northern species have headed north, there were still pine siskin down at Whitewater this weekend.
Not all the birds feed at tube feeders though. There are several platform feeders and excess seed on the ground for birds like dark eyed juncos.
Spilt seed also helps to feed some of the local mammals, such as deer, opossums, and grey and red squirrels.
If you are looking for a little more exercise, there are several trails around the visitors center that lead into the woods, down to the river, or over to the campgrounds.
While you are walking the trails keep your eyes, and ears, open for a variety of woodland birds that can be found in the trees around the path. Birds like American robin, northern cardinal, bluejays and a variety of woodpeckers can be found here.