Monday, January 31, 2011

Here Comes the Wood Bride,

Probably the most colorful duck in North America is the wood duck. Its scientific name, Aix sponsa, is made up of the Greek word Aix, meaning waterbird, and the Latin word sponsa, which means bride or betrothed. Together it translates roughly as "water bird in wedding dress" which is a reference to its marvelous plumage. The common name "wood duck" refers to its preferred habitat of wooded marsh land.

There's Gold In Them There Hills

Over the past few years I have spent the second Saturday in January driving around southern Minnesota participating in the annual golden eagle survey that is sponsored by the National Eagle Center located in Wabasha, MN. This January I had to decide whether to help in the golden eagle survey again this year or participate in the first ever Brrrrdathon in northern Minnesota, since both were held on the same weekend. It was a tough choice. Both events are great events for the naturalist and photographer in me and both support a worth while goal.
I finally decided on heading up north to the Brrrrdathon since it was the inaugural year for that event, if you missed last weeks Brrrdathon post you can see it here. Fortunately the National Eagle Center offers several afternoon seminars on how to spot and identify golden eagles prior to the survey. So I decided to head down to join the final seminar on January 8th.
The seminar consists of about an hour of classroom training on identifying golden eagles, which was redundant for me since I have been to the seminar two times in previous years, and then a couple hours out in the field looking for the eagles. The seminar is led by Scott Mehus from the NEC who runs the annual survey and has watched and studied these birds for years. Scott knows these golden eagles very well and your best chance to get a good look at these birds, at least in southern Minnesota and Wisconsin, is when you are out with him.
We headed out from Wabasha over the Mississippi and into Wisconsin. We continued east, away from the river, and into the interior hilly areas. We were looking for goat hills, like the ones pictured above. Goat hills are south west facing hills that get more sun; which evaporates more of the moisture leaving less for trees, bushes and other vegetation. The eagles use these goat hills to hunt, squirrels, rabbits and wild turkey. We made our way through the countryside looking at goat hills and we saw several golden eagles perched far away in the distance. I was a little discouraged because they were much to far away to get a good picture.
As it was getting close to 4:00 Scott headed our caravan to a special spot where he had recently had good luck getting close views of the eagles. With the sun getting low in the sky we pulled over next to a small hill on a county road in the middle of rural Wisconsin. We got out of the cars, out into the cold winter air, and waited. After about 10 minutes some people decided to leave but those of us who road with Scott wanted to stay just a little bit longer. About 5 minutes later an adult golden eagle came floating over the hill. We watched as she soared over head and then across the valley to the hills on the other side. We were then amazed and ecstatic as she came back across the valley and flew over head again this time carrying a stick in her beak. Scott told us that he had witnessed this behavior before and he thought that it may be some sort of mating ritual that prepares them for nesting. Golden eagles do not nest in this area but there do seem to winter here in pairs.
I headed home that day with some of the best golden eagle pics that I have ever taken, including the first two eagle pics. Two weeks later, on a beautiful sunny Sunday, I decided to spend my day heading down the river. After photographing common mergansers and other ducks in Redwing, MN and a beautiful pair of bald eagles in Lake City, MN I decided to head over to Wisconsin. I located the spot where we had seen the golden eagles during the seminar and I waited. After waiting about an hour and a half a golden eagle finally came flying over the hill, this time even closer then before, and I took even better eagle pics, like the bottom two. It was just about 4:00 pm again, which proved Scott's point that these golden eagles were very much creatures of habit. I waited around a little while after the eagle disappeared over the hill, hoping that it would fly over again but with the sun going down I decided to head hope happy with the great shots that I had.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Pandora Sphinx Moth Caterpillar

Sometimes when you are out walking in the park you get lucky and find a nice surprise to photograph. That was what happened one summer day when I found this pandora sphinx moth caterpillar in the Minnesota Valley NWR. The pandora sphinx moth is a large moth that is native to the eastern half of the United States. Here in Minnesota we are on the western and northern edge of the range so they are all that common.Since the moths are usually not active until dusk you are much more likely to find them in their larval form. Eggs are laid singly on the leaves of the host plant, which includes grape vine and Virginia creeper. The eggs usually take about a week to incubate and the young caterpillar then begins to eat. They can be either red, like this one, or green in color.

As they grow the pandora sphinx moth caterpillar will shed its out grown outer skin. They have 5 different stages of growth, called instars, as a caterpillar. I believe that this caterpillar was in one of the later instar because the anal horn, that they usually have in their early stages was not visible. Soon this caterpillar will makes its way down to the ground where it will dig itself an underground chamber where it will pupate. When I got close to the caterpillar to get a close macro it demonstrated its defense mechanism and withdrew its head and first two thorax segments into the enlarged third section of the thorax, sort of like a turtle hiding in its shell, so I took a couple of shots and then left it to its business.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


One of the wild flowers that we have around here with a funny name is Helenium autumnale or sneezeweed. I am not exactly sure how it got the name sneezeweed, since it does not seem to make people sneeze any more then any other flower.
Maybe it is do to the way that the center of the flower looks. Although I believe that if it would have been named in more recent times then perhaps it would have been called a kooshweed. I photographed this sneezeweed during the summer as there are not many plants that grow in the Minnesota winter.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Northern Water Snake

Minnesota is not a place that has a lot of snakes, but over the past couple years,as I have been expanding my repertoire, I have been fortunate enough to find snakes to photograph on occasion. This little beauty is a northern water snake which I found and photographed in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife refuge in the summer.
The northern water snake is usually found near water, in this case the Minnesota River as well as numerous ponds are in the area. When I found this snake it was on the dirt path probably trying to sun itself. Since snakes are cold blooded they rely on the sun to help regulate their body temperature. The northern water snake is found in the south east portion of Minnesota. It is not venomous but is similar in size and color to the massasauga, which is venomous and also found in the southeast portion of the state. It is pretty easy to tell the difference between the two snakes though since the northern water snake does not have a rattle.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Skeletons Of Summer by Ernestine Northover

Branches naked against skies of blue,
Skeletons all, with summer gone,
Stark and rigid, in morbid hue,
Oh, so sad now, to look upon.
Festive trees no longer seen,
Nothing softening to the eye,
Only memories of what has been,
Now the leaves have said 'goodbye'.
But once the spring comes into view,
These skeletons will live and thrive,
Those spreading arms will be clothed anew,
And once again become alive.
New buds will sprout from boughs so bare,
And will in time, exposed limbs, disguise,
Then a glorious show, nothing will compare,
With this vision of green, against clear blue skies.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cedar Waxwing

Ice Fishing

As a child I was taught that birds fly south for the winter, at least here in the northern hemisphere. I always thought that the reason was to get away from the cold, after all who could blame them. As an adult I found out that the real reason that birds fly south is to find food.
In Minnesota we have a large population of nesting eagles, Alaska is the only state in the US that has more, so it is not difficult to find eagles through out the year. In winter though, many of the eagles that nest through out Minnesota as well as many from the neighboring states and Canada head south in search of open water where they can find food.
One of the spots where the eagles usually find open water is on the Mississippi River at Redwing, MN. The Excel Energy power plant at Redwing pumps warm water into the river which keeps the water open in this area. This provides an area where the bald eagles can fish and so they often gather here in large numbers, which is great if you are into nature photography and raptors.

Monday, January 24, 2011

1st Annual Brrrrdathon

Last weekend I headed up north for the first annual Brrrrdathon. This event was sponsored by the newly created organization The Friends of Sax Zim, formerly Bird Nation, to raise money for an eventual visitors center in the Sax Zim Bog. Like any outdoor event held in Minnesota in January weather played a major role. Shortly after I arrived in Duluth on Friday the snow began to fall, which made photographing wildlife, not to mention driving, very difficult.
As I sat in my hotel room Friday night I was worried that the trip would be a waste of time due to the weather but when I woke up Saturday morning the skies where clear and blue. After digging my car out of the snow I headed out slowly to the bog. The city plows were already out working but the road conditions were still not very good, especially when I got to the back roads in the bog.
Despite my concern over the roads I was excited about the number of birds that I spotted as I travelled to the bog. The end of the storm seemed to bring the birds to life and many of them fluttered from tree to tree looking for food. As I entered the bog area a bald eagle soared from his perch to greet me.
The first place in the bog that I headed to was a feeding station that had been set up on Admiral Ave. Admiral had not been plowed at all but I was able to make it through travelling down the tracks of others who had already made their way down the road. A feeding station has been set up in this location for years and it has always been good for attracting northern species including boreal chickadees. When I arrived at the feeder there was already a pair of boreal chickadees there as well as black-capped chickadees, pine grosbeaks, red-breasted nuthatch, and downy and hairy woodpeckers.
After shooting at the Admiral feeder for about an hour I headed over to McDavitt RD, which is another location that many of the northern species have been seen. About half way down McDavitt I found a path in the snow that went back to a small feeding station that was located in the woods. I decided that I could use a little exercise so I through on my winter gear and headed out down the path. It did not take long before I located a pair of black-backed woodpeckers. I was excited because black-back and three-toed woodpecker sightings have not been as common this year as they have in the past. Unfortunately to get the angle I needed to get decent shots of the bird I did have to wade through waist deep snow. It was worth it though, don't you think?
The main attraction at Sax Zim are the northern owls. The Sax Zim Bog is a mix of state, county and private lands, which includes the Cloquet Valley State Forest, Whiteface River State Forest and the Sax and Zim Wildlife Management Areas. The habitat consists mainly of conifer bog, spruce, tamarack and white cedar. This particular habitat is very attractive to northern owls that come down from Canada in the winter in search of food. The most common type of owl seen during the winter is the northern hawk owl. I found this northern hawk owl perched in a tree not far off of Mcdavitt. Since northern hawk owls are mostly diurnal, active during the day, they are one of the easiest owl to photograph.
As the sun went down on Saturday night many birders began their search for the most prized bird in the bog, the great grey owl. Great grey owls have not been seen with any regularity in the bog since 2005, when there was an irruption of thousands of birds which came down from Canada. This season there have been more sightings then in the past few years but it still seems to be hit and miss. The fact that they are crepuscular, hunt at dusk and dawn, also does not help, especially if you are looking for pictures. Fortunately around 4:30pm I found some people who had spotted a pair of these owls on McDavitt Road. I got a few pictures in the low light and then just watched them hunt until the sun went down.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Blue Dasher

The blue dasher is one of our fairly common skimmers. They are usually found around lakes, ponds or slow moving rivers and streams. These blue dashers were photographed at the William O'brien State Park where the St Croix Rivers overflows into Lake Alice.
These are photos of mature blue dashers. Immature blue dashers are yellowish in color with brown stripes on the thorax. As they age they produce pruinose, a powdery substance, which covers the abdomen and give them their blue color.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tropical Waterlily- Lotus

Taken at the Como Zoo water garden over the summer.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Burrowing Owls

When most people think of owls they usually picture a silent bird floating through the night sky, but not all owls are nocturnal. There are some owls that are active during the day, called diurnal. In Minnesota we have two species of diurnal owls that visit from time to time, the northern hawk owl, that come down from Canada, and the burrowing owl, that are occasionally found in the western parts of the state.
Burrowing owls do not nest in trees as most other owls do but instead nest in under ground burrows such as this. Burrowing owls do not dig their own burrows, except for the small subspecies which lives in Florida, instead they typically use burrows that were created by mammals such as prairie dogs or ground squirrels. This burrow, which I photographed in Idaho, was a hole that was dug by a badger looking for prey.
Burrowing owls begin mating in late spring. After courtship they will begin to lay from 2 to 12 eggs each one day apart. The eggs will be incubated from 28 to 30 days by the female while the male does all of the hunting for the pair. When the eggs hatch the young burrowing owls chicks are covered with white down feathers. Their eyes are still closed and they rely totally on their parents for warmth, food and safety.
As the young owls begin to get their feathers and are able to thermal regulate on their own, usually around two weeks after they hatch, both parents will leave the nest to find food for the hungry youngster. At this time the young owls will often roost near the entrance of the burrowing waiting for the adults to return with food. If a predator enters the burrow the chicks will begin to make a hissing noise that sounds similar to a rattle snake to scare the predator away. After around 45 days the chicks will leave the burrow and begin to forage for food on their own, under their parents supervision.
The young owls will eat mainly insects, which they catch on the ground. Burrows are usually lined with mammal dung which attracts dung beetles which are a good source of food for the young and adults alike. Burrowing owls will eat a variety of prey depending on the habitat in which they are found. Prey includes insects, mainly beetles and grasshoppers, mice, rats, ground squirrels, lizards, reptiles, amphibians and small birds.