The merlin is one of the smallest members of the falcon family that can be found in North America. Only the American kestrel is smaller with an approximate length of 9 inches and a wingspan of 22 inches compared to the merlin which is around 10 inches long with a 24 inch wingspan.
Like all members of the falcon family the merlin has pointed angular wings which help them to fly faster. They also have long thin toes which are helpful for grabbing prey that is in the air, and a tomial tooth, which is the small triangular shape that you can see midway up the beak in the picture below. The tomial tooth is used slice through the neck of a prey bird or animal and sever the spinal cord.
The merlin is sometimes called a pigeon hawk. This may have something to do with its hunting style. When on the hunt the merlin will often fly slowly behind its prey, giving the appearance that it is a pigeon or other slow bird, then when it is close it darts in and catches the unsuspecting prey. Most merlins travel up to Canada, Alaska or some of the northern states to breed each spring. They prefer to breed in open country. Instead of building a nest of their own the merlin will use the nest of another raptor, a crow or other larger nesting bird. When the breeding season is over each bird will go its separate way, choosing a new mate during the next breeding season. This merlin was captured last fall at one of the banding stations at Hawk Ridge. In the fall the merlin migrate to the southern and coastal regions of the US as well as Mexico, Central America and the northern portion of South America. I adopted this merlin which you can tell is probably a female because it is mostly brown in color. Males are more of a blue gray color.
Today at The Raptor Center we lost our education golden eagle named Andi. Earlier this morning she moved on to a better place. Now before you get too sad let me tell you that she did pass away, because I know that is what you were thinking. The truth is that Andi boarded a plane this morning on her way to her new home in New Mexico. Andi has been accepted as the newest bird at the Zuni Eagle Sanctuary.
Although we will all miss Andi everyone is happy for her because the change will be good for her. Andi has been at The Raptor Center for a while but she has been mostly a display bird since before I began to volunteer. Some birds just do not work very well as education birds and she had gotten to the point where we really could not use her for programs any more. That is why this change will be good for her. The Zuni Eagle Sanctuary is the only sanctuary for eagles in North America that is owned and run by Native Americans. The tribe cares for the birds in a large free loft enclosure and then collects feathers which molt off for religious ceremonies. Andi's new home will give her a more room and since she will only be basically a display bird she probably will not have to wear falconry equipment. So even though I will miss having a golden eagle to show and educate people with I am glad that Andi will be going to a place where she will be able to be happy.
As we were driving across North Dakota on our way to Yellowstone National Park we noticed that we were running low on gas. We had filled up earlier at Fargo but now we were on the western side of the state where there are not so many cities or filling stations.
We decided that it would be best to stop in the small town of Medora. The town is a little ways off of the interstate but we knew that they had a small gas station in town as we had stopped for gas once on a past trip to Yellowstone. Unfortunately we did not know that the road into town was under road construction. Since we had to wait for our turn to use single lane that now used to get into and out of town, I decided to get out of the car and take a couple of pics of the fluffy white clouds that were dancing across the sky. It was not long before we were on our way again. The time that we spent waiting was a nice little break on a very long road trip.
In past years I have pretty much concentratedsolely on photographing wildlife on our annual trips to Yellowstone National Park. This year I decided to try and expand my choices and try and work on photographing some of the beautiful scenery as well. Some of the more fascinating scenery in Yellowstone are all of the waterfalls. There are over 40 waterfalls located with in Yellowstone. Unfortunately due to time, location and availability to the falls we were only able to visit a few.
The pictures in this post are from Tower Fall. Tower Fall is the point where the Tower Creek ends by plunging 132 feet to join the Yellowstone River below. The falls were named by Samuel Hauser, who was a member of the Washburn expedition, back in 1870. He named them Tower Falls for the towers and spires that the river has cut into the rock at the top of the falls. Unfortunately the base of the falls was not accessible to us during our trip because the snow melt had caused the Yellowstone River to rise up and wash over the path so I could only shoot from the over look across from the falls.
Well Michelle and I have returned from our 7th trip to Yellowstone National Park that we have taken over the past 7 years. Our trip in 2008 was the best that we had ever had, with multiple sightings and pics of both wolves and grizzlies plus pics of golden eagles and prairie falcon, so I was a bit anxious about this years trip. This year we did not see everything that we did last year but we did see somethings that we missed last year and over all both Michelle and I thought that it was a very good trip.
All of our trips to Yellowstone, except two begin at the north entrance to the park. This is the location of the famed Roosevelt Arch. The arch was named for President Theodore Roosevelt who honorarily laid the corner stone for the arch while he was on vacation in Yellowstone on April 24th, 1903. The arch, which was completed on August 15, 1903, stands 50 feet tall and was the official gateway to Yellowstone. On the top of the arch it reads, " For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People".
Now days the arch stands more as a symbol of Yellowstone. A more practical gateway stand further down the road but each car still must travel through the arch which is a great symbol of the worlds first national park.
As you continue through the north entrance the road follows the raging waters of the Gardner River. The Gardner River joins into the Yellowstone River just north of the park entrance and flows with the Yellowstone across Montana ending in Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota. Lake Sakakawea is also the headwaters for the Missouri River.
Over many centuries the Gardner River has eaten away at the surrounding mountains forming the path which is used to access the park. Cliffs rise up next to the road and river which require driver to use caution as rocks often tumble down into the roadway.
Even the cliffs at the North Entrance into Yellowstone provide a suitable habitat for wildlife. A few years back a pair of golden eagles nested on these cliffs. It was really cool to see a golden eagle chick in the nest but unfortunately no eagles have nested there over the past couple of years so the nest sits empty.
There is other wildlife to watch though. Big horned sheep can often be seen nimbly walking on the tiny rock ledges high above the road. Their agility is amazing and a bit nerve racking, as I always expect to see one fall yet they never do.
On the way into the park you pass this sign marking the 45th Parallel. I always think that it is very fitting that Yellowstone sits about half way between the Equator and the North Pole because in Yellowstone the weather is very unpredictable and it can be hot with the sun shinning one minute and snowing the next. Fortunately this year we had pretty good weather and we took a ton of pics so stay tuned for a lot of posts with Yellowstone pics over the next month or so. I promise that they will not disappoint.
Here are some pics that I took back last August in the butterfly garden at the Maplewood Nature Center.
The blazing star at Maplewood really seemed to attract the monarchs. I am thinking about planting some in my yard if I ever get around to landscaping it. However I spoke with someone earlier today who told me that it was some what difficult to grow and it took a lot of attention. Which might not be so good for me since I already have so many other things going. I can not wait until we see monarchs fluttering around again but I think that we still have about another month or so.
Bubo virginianus, the great horned owl, is the most widely distributed owl in the Americas. It can be found in the tundra regions of Canada, cities and forests of the US, deserts of Mexico, tropical rain forests of Central and South America and almost any place in between. Although it is not the largest owl in size in America, both the great grey and snowy owl are larger, it is the largest in weight and ferocity. Commonly called the, "Tiger in the Sky" the great horned owl is the top aerial predator through out its range. But even though they are a fierce and formidable predator there is a softer side to the great horned owl, a side which many people do not see as a tender spouse and a loving and devoted parent.
GHO courtship begins around the beginning of the year, although it can begin earlier in warmer portions of their range. Young males, GHOs become sexually mature at around the age of two, go out and find a territory to claim. Once they have a territory they begin to advertise to available females by singing at dusk and dawn. While they sing they often puff out their chest, displaying the white patch of feathers beneath their chin, it is possible that this helps to signal his location to the female.
Interested females will respond to the males calls by perching close to him. The male will then try and impress her with a display of wing flaps, bill clacking, feather ruffling and short courtship flights around the female. The female will takes in the show and shows her interest by either watching the male or appearing to take no notice of him. The male will then approach the female slowly paying attention to her reactions. If she ruffles her feathers or seems disinterested he will begin the show again. If she appears receptive he will move in close and initiate mutual bill rubbing and preening. They may complete their bonding by flying off together.
Once the fun is over, and the pair has bonded, it is time to get to work. There is plenty for the new couple to do. Besides the day to day necessities, such as finding food, the pair will both defend their new territory. Most often they will avoid confrontations by singing territorial songs to warn off other owls. They will also need to find a nest. GHOs do not build their own nests so they need to borrow one or find another alternative. Usually they can find the nest of another large bird, such as a hawk, heron or crow, that is currently not in use, since they nest so early in the year most of these other birds are not around at this time. If a acceptable birds nest is not available then they will use alternatives such as hollow trees, squirrel nests, caves, or man made structures like towers or old barns. It is the males job to find potential nests and offer them to the female who will make the final decision.Once they have decided on a nest the couple will usually only do slight remodelling, lining the nest with feathers from the female of bits of fur from prey animals, before the females lays her eggs. The eggs are similar in size to chickens eggs, about 2.1 to 2.2 inches long and 1.8 to 1.9 inches long, and are dull to glossy white in color. The clutch can consist of one to six eggs, with two or three eggs being the most typical.
The eggs will take approximately 27 to 36 days to hatch. During that time they must be constantly incubated. If the eggs are left unattended for any period of time they may freeze and become addled and will never hatch. The female is the one who handles most of the incubation. The male will occasionally take over for her, particularly at dusk, so that she can go out and hunt but since male GHOs do not develop a brood patch it is likely that the male does very little of the incubation. A brood patch is a spot that some birds get when nesting where there are no feathers. Feathers provide birds with insulation that helps keep cold out and their own warmth in. So it is important for a bird that is incubating eggs to have a spot with no feathers, a brood patch, so that they can share their body warmth with their eggs. Typically the male perches in a tree nearby where he can keep an eye out and warn the female if danger approaches. When night approaches he will go out and find food for both himself and his hard working bride. When the eggs finally hatch the young owls chicks are completely helpless. They weigh around a half of a pound and are covered with white down feathers which help to keep them warm. At this point they are unable to open their eyes, stand or feed themselves. The remnants of the egg tooth and the yolk sac are usually still visible on the chick.
A few hours after hatching the owl chicks are able to hear and sense movement in the nest which mean the presence of an adult. At this point they are totally dependent on their parents for food, warmth and protection. When they hear or feel an adult arrive they instinctively move to the noise with their mouths open and emit a raspy chirp to signal to the adults that they are hungry. If food is placed in their mouth they reflexively swallow it. After a couple of days they will be able to partially open their eyes but they will not fully open until they are 9 to 10 days old. During their first two weeks of life mom will spend most of her time with the chicks in the nest. Most of this time is spent keeping the new chicks warm, especially in places like Minnesota where it still may get below zero after the chicks hatch. While mom is brooding over the chicks it is dad's job to keep the family fed.
After the first couple of weeks the female spends less time at the nest. The chicks now getting into their 3rd or 4th week begin to develop their brown juvenile feathers. They have grown quite a bit and their wing primaries are beginning to emerge and their facial disks and horns are beginning to develop. They are much more active now, moving around the nest and frequently changing their positions. They are also more alert, often responding to planes flying over head, loud noises, or left overs in the nest.
The adults are still close by keeping a watchful eye on the nest. They still need to bring food to the young and depending on the size of the food they may still have to help feed the chicks. Rabbits are a favorite with the GHOs in this area but it is difficult for the chicks to tear it into pieces that they can swallow. So an adult, typically the female, will visit the next several times a day to feed the chicks.
By around their sixth week the young owls are getting rambunctious. They no longer spend much of their time in the nest. Instead they begin to climb out among the branches surrounding the nest. Often while they are branching they will flap their wings in preparation for fledging which is not far off. The young owls will climb among the branches day and night usually returning to the nest only when an adult arrives with food.
Branching is a dangerous time for the young owls. All of the noise of the young owls branching could attract a predator such as a hawk that would enjoy making the young owls into a meal. Also while hopping and climbing among the branches it is possible for the young owls to fall. A fall from a tall tree could lead to injury. Even if it is not injured a young owl on the ground is vulnerable to many different land predators. Fortunately branching also helps the owls learn to climb, so owls that are not injured in a fall can usually climb back up into the tree. Since GHOs hatch asynchronously, at two to six day intervals, older siblings are often more developed and begin branching while younger siblings may still be in the nest.
A couple weeks after they begin branching they will attempt to make their first flight. Their first flight are often awkward and very comical to see, particularly the landings. Often times they miss their intended perch and end up on the ground, in which case they usually are forced to climb back up. By the end of their first day of flight they usually have flying down pretty well, although landings typically still need work. For the next couple of weeks the young owls will continue to prefect their flying and landing skills. They typically stay near the nest site. The adult are usually nearby keeping a watchful eye out, although they rarely perch in the same tree. Even though the adults are still feeding the young owls at this point they use the feedings to train the young ones lessons that they will need to survive. Often they will bring the food in live and watch as the young owls learn how to kill their prey. Sometimes they will even let prey go giving the young an opportunity to practice their hunting. A couple of weeks after the young fledge the adults quit bringing them food and the young are left to find food on their own. By about ten to twelve weeks the young owls are able to fly as well as the adults. They will stay with their parents for the rest of the summer and sometimes into the fall. Later in the fall the parents will eject the young from their territory. The young will often stay in the area and become floaters until they mature and find a territory of their own and then the process will begin again with a new generation.
Wild birding in Wild River State last August I came across this scarlet tanager who was in the process of molting into his winter plumage. Scarlet tanagers are found through out the eastern portion of the United States during the summer. At that time the males are a bright red color with black wings. As fall approaches the males begin to molt into an olive green color, which is similar to the color of many of the females. During the fall the birds will migrate down to the north west portions of South America where they will join in foraging flocks of other insect eating birds.