Monday, May 31, 2010

Edinburg Scenic Wetlands

After spending about half a day at Bentsen State Park we headed up to Edinburg to stay the night. Edinburg is basically a suburb of McAllen, Texas and was near to the park where we had planned to spend our Thursday. Edinburg also had a small park that was a part of the World Birding Center, The Edinburg Scenic Wetlands.
The Edinburg Scenic Wetlands was the first World Birding Center location to officially open back in 2003. It is a forty acre park set in the middle of residential Edinburg. The majority of the park consists of two roughly rectangular holding ponds. Trails and viewing blinds are situated around the ponds.
These ponds draw all sorts of birds to the park. We saw numerous different types of shorebirds, such as spotted sandpipers, willet and black-necked stilts, as pictured above.
There was also plenty of waterfowl like northern shovelers, cinnamon teal, and least grebe. The least grebe is a south Texas specialty, the only place in the US that you can find these birds. We had seen them at a couple of other locations earlier in the trip but we got our best looks at Edinburg. This was a life bird for us.
In between the two ponds they have a large butterfly garden and a dragonfly pool. I was eager to check out the dragonfly pool unfortunately it was not dragonfly season while we were down in Texas.
They also had a beautiful state of the art visitors center. Inside they had a gift shop, exhibits, learning areas, and plenty of windows to look out at the park. I noticed that the windows were not very reflective and they had wires and other objects placed over them to help keep birds from flying into them.
They also had several hummingbird feeders at the visitors center which attracted another south Texas specialty the buff-bellied hummingbird. This was another life bird for us.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hackberry Emperor

The hackberry emperor is a member of the brushfoot family of butterflies. They are found mainly in the eastern portions of North America with central Minnesota being on the northern edge of their range. Their range is limited by the range of the hackberry trees for which they get their name.
The leaves of the hackberry tree are the larval food for the hackberry emperor. Adults lay clusters of eggs on the leaves so that when the larva hatch they can begin to communally feed. Typically there are two broods per summer. The second brood will over winter as caterpillars, wrapping themselves in dead leaves.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Bittersweet Nightshade

I found this Solanum dulcamara, bittersweet nightshade, at Dodge Nature Center. Bittersweet nightshade is an evasive species that originated in Eurasia. It is a fitting plant to see in Minnesota, since the Vikings colors are purple and gold. Bittersweet Nighthade is not deadly, however if you eat a quantity of the berries that are produced by the plant it will make you sick. This is a coincidence because watching too many Vikings games can also make you sick.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Snapping Turtle

The largest turtle that we see here in Minnesota is the common snapping turtle. The common snapper can reach weights of around 50 pounds. The only turtle in North America that is larger, not counting sea turtles of course, is its cousin the alligator snapping turtle.
Snappers are a highly aquatic species. They can be found in almost any types of habitat where there is a permanent water sources, such as ponds, lakes, and slow moving rivers or streams. They are omnivores eating a variety of plants as well as fish, amphibians, invertebrates, aquatic insects and carrion. They are ambush hunters who sit motionless in the water waiting for unsuspecting prey to swim by. They eat while they are submerged under water this allows the water pressure to aid them in swallowing.
Snappers are crepuscular, which means that they are most active at dusk and down. In the water they are usually shy and will retreat from any danger, although they have very few predators in the wild. Approximately each June female snappers leave the water in search of a place to lay her eggs. This is one of the few times that you can find snappers on land. When they are out of the water snappers are very foul tempered and can be quite dangerous. Since they can not retreat back into their shell, the way that many other turtles do, they defend themselves by lunging forward and biting with their very powerful jaws. Although they are slow while on land they can still strike very quickly their neck stretching out around half of the distance of their shell.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

We Have Some Large Birds Here in Minnesota.

A couple of the parks that I frequent are very close the MSP International Airport. While I am out birding at Fort Snelling State Park or the Minnesota Valley NWR planes are always flying over head on their landing approach. I often wonder on what the long term affect of these planes are on the wildlife. The first thing that I would guess might have an affect is the noise. The noise is deafening as the planes pass over, often shaking the ground itself. The noise bothers me but does it affect the wildlife? I am sure that it has some affect but in many cases it appears that the wildlife can get used to the noise so that it does not phase them. I have seen snowy owls, which have sensitive hearing, sitting next to airport runways as planes are taking off. The owls can leave if they want but they chose to stay at the airport, it reminds them of the arctic with a lot of open space and prey.

Planes also emit pollutants. The burning of jet fuel produces several greenhouse gasses. Most of the exhaust is carbon dioxide, about 70%. The remainder of the exhaust is water, nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions that are produced from the sulphur that is in most jet fuels. None of these emissions are good, however airplanes contribute only around 3% of the total environmental pollution. Since they are really a form of mass transit they may actually help to reduce pollution. Imagine the amount of pollution of a jet going from MSP to Dallas with 100 passengers compared to the pollution of those 100 people driving in 80 different cars the same distance. Still there are better forms of mass transit. In places in Europe and Asia, where they do not have crazy tea baggers, they have high speed rail. Since HSR typically uses electricity instead of burning hydro carbons it is cleaner. Maybe some day we will get to the point here in the US where doing what is right will be more important then doing things because you get money or power.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Brown Thrasher

Great Blue Heron

The largest member of the heron family in North America is the great blue heron. These prehistoric looking birds have a wingspan of over six feet and weigh up to eight pounds. They can be found in or near fresh or salt water from northern Canada to northern South America.
Great blue herons are carnivorous. They hunt by stalking through the shallow water on their long legs, when they spot prey they lung forward and attempt to catch the prey with their bill. Prey consists mostly of fish but they will also eat reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates as well as small mammals and birds. Because they do not have the ability to tear their food apart the way that raptors do herons have been known on occasion to choke to death while trying to swallow large prey.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Bentson-Rio Grande Valley State Park

No birding trip to south Texas would be complete with out a visit to the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Bentsen is comprised of 760 acres of wetland, scrub brush, riparian and woodland habitat. It is surrounded by 1900 acres of protected native habitat, 1700 acres of which are Federal Refuge lands.
Bentsen is located on the Rio Grande River. Centuries worth of Rio Grande River flooding has made the soil more hospitable, making it possible for large tracks of floodplain forest to flourish in the park, especially near the river. Some of the border markers, that fix the official border between the US and Mexico, are no longer very close to the Rio Grande demonstrating how the path of the river has changed over time.
Bentsen is also the headquarters for the World Bird Center. The World Birding Center is an organization that promotes conservation and ecotourism, centered primarily around birds, in the Rio Grande Valley. The WBC had many blinds and feeders set up in Benson to attract birds like this golden-fronted woodpecker.
Due to large tracks of different types of habitat Bentsen is a magnet for many of the different south Texas and northern Mexican specialty birds such as the Altamira Oriole.
The Rio Grande Valley is one of the best spots in the United States to go birding. The reason is because of the variety of birds. Many birds either spend the winter in the area or pass through while they migrate south, or back north. Besides the spectacular variety that you see during migration the Rio Grande is also the northern edge of the range of many different tropical birds. These birds are usually very colorful like this great kiskadee.
Bentsen is not only about the birds though. Javelina's take advantage of seeds that spill from the many feeders in the park. Even though they may look like it Javelina are not pics. Javelina are peccaries. Peccaries are native to North, South and Central America and have several differences from pigs originated from Europe, Asia and Africa.
Around the visitors center the staff has planted many native flowering plants in order to help attract humming birds and butterflies. Small ponds and pools in the park provide excellent habitat for dragonfly larva, some of which emerge as colorful adults like this red saddlebags.
If you are very lucky you may get a peek at one of the secretive cats that live in and around the park. Bobcats, like this young one that was crossing the road with its mother, are the most common wild cat in North America. Their smaller size, stealthy movement and the fact that they are crepuscular, active mostly at dusk and dawn, help keep them hidden from most people. This is the first wild cat that I have ever seen or photographed, a lifer. Michelle was not there to see them but she got her chance to see her first wild cat later in the trip.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

King of the Dragons

The top dragonfly predator in North America would have to be the dragonhunter. These dragons are found through out the eastern United States and southeastern Canada. I photographed this black dragon, as they are sometimes called, on the shores of the Snake River where it meets the St Croix River.
The only member of the genius Hagenius, they are the largest of the North American dragonflies, averaging 3.3 inches long. They are fairly easy to identify due to their large size and their habit of flying with their abdomen curled under in a sort of "J" shape.
The dragonhunter is legendary for their ferociousness. They have been known to eat large butterflies and dragonflies, this includes other large dragons such as darners, clubtails and even other dragonhunters. They are immune to some types of wasp poisons and to the toxins that build up in monarch butterflies due to their milkweed diet. Typically when hunting they ambush from above, dropping down on their prey like the river jewelwing damselfly that this dragonhunter is eating.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Mimulus Ringens

Mimulus ringens, more commonly known as the Allegheny monkeyflower, is a wild flower native to eastern and central portions of North America. It is a member of the genus Mimiulus which includes a variety of different monkeyflowers and muskflowers. Mimulus ringens is found in a variety of different wetland habitats. I photographed this flower on the banks of the Snake River where it meets the St Croix River.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Red-headed Woodpecker

One of the most aggressive members of the woodpecker family is the read-headed woodpecker. They are usually found in woodlands with a lot of dead trees in the eastern half of the United States. Due to the clearing of dead and dying trees by private land owners and government agencies the red-headed woodpecker is in decline over most of its breeding range due to habitat lose. These pictures were taken at Necedah NWR in Wisconsin.
The red-headed woodpecker relies on habitat with dead and dying trees for a couple of reasons. First of they are cavity nesters, they typically nest in dead trees that have little bark left on them. They are very territorial when breeding and will often destroy the nests and eggs of other birds, especially other cavity nesters. Red-heads are also one of only four types of woodpecker that are known to cache food. They usually cache food, (seeds, acorns, or insects) in cracks and crevices in the dead wood. Unlike the other woodpeckers that cache food the red-head will sometimes cover their cache with bark. So it is important to leave enough dead trees in the forest because by removing all of them we may inadvertently remove another species of birds from our planet such as the red-headed woodpecker.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Red-tailed Hawk Flying Free in the Open Sky

The red-tailed hawk is the most common hawk found in North America. They are found in almost every type of habitat, except for unbroken forests and the extreme north. They eat a wide variety of different types of prey which is one reason why they have been so successful.
It is common to see red-tailed hawks perched on light poles and signs on the sides of roads and highways. They can often be seen on the same perch day after day. This is because the red-tail is an ambush hunter. They conserve energy by perching and waiting for their prey to show itself. Road sides are good habitat for this style of hunting. Garbage thrown from passing cars bring rodents down to the road and the cut grass and open space that you typically find around roads helps the hawk to locate and pounce on its prey. Unfortunately this exposes the red-tail to its primary predator which would be us. At The Raptor Center they get quite a few red-tails that have been hit by cars down in the clinic. Fortunately this red-tail was flying in the opens skies above Crex Meadows when I took this pic.