Thursday, January 31, 2008

Red-Shouldered Hawk

After I left Carpenter Nature Center last Thursday my plan was to head over to the MPS airport and check for the snowy owl which has continued to allude me. I was driving up highway 10, coming from Wisconsin, and heading to highway 61 when I spotted a raptor on the telephone wires. I only got a quick glance at his back, he was facing away from me, as I drove by. My first thought was that it was another red-tailed hawk, since we have a lot of red-tails in the area at this time of year, but something just did not seem right. So I made a u-turn, as soon as traffic would let me, and headed back to take a closer look.

I got back to where the hawk was perched and pulled off the road on the opposite side of the street. It was still facing the other way but when I was able to look at it with out worrying about swerving into opposing traffic I was sure that it was not a red-tail. Then it turned its head and I knew exactly what it was.

There have been a lot of reports lately of red-shouldered hawk sightings. This is strange because most of the population migrates to warmer climates during the winter months.
Fortunately this red-shoulder was very cooperative. He took off from the wire and landed on a fence that was about eye level to me as I sat in my truck.

Red-shouldered hawks range almost exclusevily in North America. There are 5 different subspecies, one in the southwest US, mostly California, three in the southeast US and Mexico, and one in the northeast US. The red-shoulders that live in Minnesota would be from the northeastern subspecies, buteo lineatus lineatus, which are larger in size and the only group that is migratory.
The red-shoulders hawks prefered habitat is deciduous or mixed deciduous-conifer forests and swamps. They prefer having dead trees around on which ti perch so that they can get an unobstructed view as they scan the forest floor for prey. Their prey consists mostly of rodents, squirrels, rabbits, snakes, lizards and frogs.Red-shoulders are monogamous and territorial. Breeding accures between April and July with the same nest often reused from year to year, although they may refurbish it in the spring.Red-shouldered hawks live an average of only about 2 years in the wild. Even though they have very few predators, great horned owls and raccoons are a threat to the eggs, chicks and incubating adult, collisions with cars, buildings and other man mad objects as well as habbitat loss are contributing factors to their short life expectency.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Carpenter Nature Center

Thursday the sky was clear and blue. I had Friday off and they were scheduled to do some winter banding at Carpenter Nature Center, so I decided to check things out after work to see what I might get to see during banding. There were a lot of passerines around the feeders, mostly juncos, tree sparrows, white breasted nuthatch and woodpeckers. I took a few pics but nothing outstanding.

So I decided to head over to my favorite spot at Carpenter. In back of the buildings is this wonderful crag that sticks out from an evergreen bush. When I first saw this bush I thought that it had blown over, because the crag sticking out looks a lot like it could be the roots of the bush, but I was mistaken. The crag gets good evening light and is a natural perching location for a lot of birds.

The birds that I see in this location typically are nothing unique but even common birds perched out in the open and bathed in the early evening light can make a mighty pretty picture. On this occasion my subjects were a white-breasted nuthatch and a red-bellied woodpecker.

It was still light out so I decided to leave Carpenter and try to make another run at finding the snowy owl that has been hanging out at the MSP Airport.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Whisper in the Dark

Last Wednesday evening I finished my formal training at The Raptor Center. When I first began volunteering at The Raptor Center I joined the transport crew. The transport crew is a group of on call volunteers who are sent out to pick up injured raptors that people find but can not bring in themselves. I really wanted to do education but I was not sure if I could fit it into my work schedule. Since I had already rescued an immature bald eagle on my own, I decided that transport would be a good place to start as a volunteer. However I was not satisfied with just doing transport. I wanted to be more involved then just being an on call volunteer waiting for a phone call so that I could help out, so I asked if I could come in during my on call hours and help out. So I ended up as the lobby assistant on Wednesday afternoons greeting people and helping out. However I still wanted to do more. I really enjoy working with the public to educate them about raptors so I asked about moving to the education crew. It took a while but they finally set up an official volunteer training.

The training made for a couple of really long days, work 8 hours, then off to volunteer for about 4 hours, grab a quick bite to eat and then back for about 3 hours of training. It was long but fun and I am very excited to be starting on the education crew. Since Emily had taken over the lobby assistant duties I asked to shadow a tour that Adam was giving. Adam is one of the staff so it was really interesting and informative tagging along on the tour. His back ground is in environmental education and it really showed. This particular tour was for a donor who was adopting our educational barn owl named Whisper. So after the tour Adam gave the donor the special treatment and brought Whisper out so that the group could get a closer look. This gave me the opportunity to get some nice pics.
We don't really have barn owls in Minnesota except for occasional sightings. The winters here are just typically too cold for their liking and there is a lack of old barns to roost in.
Although they are not commonly found in Minnesota the barn owl is found on every continent around the world except Antarctica. There are up to 46 different varieties with the North American version being the largest.
Barn owls are rare in the bird world because the female is actually more colorful then the male. Females typically have more red in the chest area and are more heavily spotted. It is believed that the number of spots indicate the quality of the female to a potential mate.

Barn owls have superb hearing. They have the ability to find their prey better in complete darkness then any other animal tested.Barn owls have a high metabolism and are very efficient at controlling the populations of mice and other rodents. It has been calculated that an average barn owl living 10 years could catch and eat as many as 11,000 mice in its lifetime.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Accipiters and Buteos at Minnesota Valley NWR

On Tuesday the 22nd I had my usual couple of hours free time between my full time job and my part time job so I decided to forgo a nap and headed over to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge visitors center in Bloomington, MN. I have had several opportunities, in the past, to photograph a sharp-shinned hawk who has been hanging around the feeder station and spicing up my bird watching. When I arrived on Tuesday the sharpie was not around but while I was setting up the birds all scattered and I knew that I would get more sharpie pics.
The sharpie came flying in over the visitors center and perched on a branch above the feeders.
All of the smaller birds had already vacated the area but the sharpie decided he wanted to take a closer look so he moved down to stand on the feeder itself.
Sharpies are members of the genus accipiter. Accipiters have shorter wings and longer tails then other hawks, who are members of the genus buteo. The compact wings help these forest dwelling hawks to navigate through the trees. The long tail acts as a rudder helping to provide the hawks with extra maneuverability. This maneuverability is important since a main part of their diet comes from smaller birds.Sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper's hawks, and goshawks are all members of the accipiter family that live in North America. All other North American hawks belong to the genus buteo. Buteos have longer wings. They use their long broad wings to soar over open fields where they hunt mainly for rodents, rabbits and squirrels. While I was at the Minnesota Valley NWR that afternoon I also spotted a buteo. Red-tailed hawks have proved to be very adaptable to living around man. While other species have declined, as their habitat has been destroyed by a continually growing society, the red-tailed hawk has thrived. You can often see them perched on poles on the side of the road. The roadsides are a haven for rodents, who feed off of the garbage thrown from cars. These rodents are a favorite prey of the red-tail. Some red-tails have adapted so well to mankind that they now look at the world in a different way.After all who needs binocular raptor vision when you can have closed circuit TV vision instead. LOL

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Florida Gator

Florida Alligator Everglades NWR Shark Valley Unit
Florida 2006

Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Red-tailed Hawk and its Nictitating Membrane

On Sunday the 20th I decided not to go any place specific, instead I would just drive around and see what I could find. This usually works out pretty well in the warmer months, particularly in spring and fall during the migrations, but it is kind of risky when the temps are below zero. Birds tend to congregate during the winter in Minnesota. Eagles and water fowl congregate at the few open water spots that they can find. Passerines and Accipiters congregate where there are well stocked feeders. In the Twin Cities area the only birds that you can regularly find away from open water and feeders during winter are woodpeckers, crows and red-tailed hawks.
Fortunately on this day I found a cooperative red-tail that was perched close to the road. Red-tailed hawks are usually pretty easy to find but they are usually perched higher up and can be skittish. This red tail was at about eye level if I was standing and did not flush when I pulled the car to the side of the road and began shooting through the open passenger window.

Hawks, like most animals, will show you signs that tell whether they are stressed or not. Bending down into a take of position, head bobbing, and wing flapping are some of the signs that a bird may be stressed. Bill clacking and dive bombing are signs of extreme stress and usually mean that you are probably too close to a nest or young. Other actions, like standing on one foot and warming the other one with their body or preening typically mean that the bird is calm. I figured that since this bird began to preen that he was not concerned with the presence of my vehicle. I included this picture of the bird preening because he had his nictitating membrane closed. The Nictitating membrane is like a third eye lid that many birds have as well as some lizards, sharks and mammals. Here is a little closer view of the nictitating membrane.The nictitating membrane is transparent eye lid that closes horizontally across the eye instead of vertically like a normal eye lid. It is used to protect the eye and to help keep it moist while maintaining the birds sight. I have seen many birds who have using their nictitating membrane lately. I am guessing that the reason is either they need to moisten their eyes more often during the winter when the air is very dry or as protection from the cold subzero wind. Humans have the remnants of a nictitating membrane, it is the small pink flesh in the corner of our eyes.

Craig of Craigs Birds has a nice picture of a sandhill crane with its nictitating membrane closed. It is pretty cool you can check it out at He has a great blogsite and even had barred owls nesting in his yard last year. I was so jealous. The only thing that was living in my yard last year was a chipmunk.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret Ding Darling NWR Florida 2006

Harlequin Duck

After participating in the Golden Eagle Survey, through the National Eagle Center, and then stopping at Colvill Park in Redwing, MN to shoot some pics of the eagles there I decided to head over to Prescot, Wisconsin to check and see if I could find the Barrow's goldeneye or harlequin duck that have been hanging out around that area this winter. The recent cold snap, the high temp that day was 0 degrees, had frozen up a lot more of the river then on my last trip there. All of Douglas Point was frozen and there was no open water until you got south of the bridges. So I went over to parking spot on the river in Prescott which is just north of the big marina. There were several groups of goldeneye out near the middle of the river, with mallards and Canadian geese closer to shore. I began scanning through the goldeneye from the car but did not see the target birds. I did notice a single duck that was at the edge of the shore. I could not tell what it was because I was facing into the west and the sun was beginning to get low in the sky, so it was pretty much just a silhouette. I knew that it was a duck because of its size compared to the geese around but since it was close to shore I thought that it was probably just a mallard. I got out of the car so that I could get a better angle to look at it with less sun behind it. At that point the duck dived under the water, which was a good indication that it was no a mallard since mallards are dabbling ducks and not diving ducks. I found it in the camera view finder as I started to move out further into the river and as soon as I got a good look I knew that it was the harlequin duck.
It was difficult to take pictures, with the sun, that was low in the sky behind the duck, the steam, that was rising off the river because the air was colder then the water, and my fingers, getting frost bitten in the 30 below wind chills. While the harlequin was identifiable in all the pics the shine of the setting sun on the mist was playing hell with my exposure.I think that this one was the one that turned out the best. I managed to move further up river to get a better angle on this one and because he was turned into the sun I did manage to capture some of the detail of its face. Even though a lot of the pictures were not as good as I hoped I think that this picture was worth the 45 minutes that I stood out in the cold.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Beautiful Eagles Circling Over Colvill Park

This past weekend I participated in a golden eagle survey in southeastern Minnesota. Unfortunately my group did not find any golden eagles in our area but I did get some opportunities to take some pictures. It was pretty cold that morning, the bank thermometers read -13 degrees as I was driving to the National Eagle Center where we were meeting. That does not take into the account the wind chill factor which was probably around 30 below. I had a little extra time so I made a little side trip to Colvill Park in Red Wing, MN on my way to Wabasha.

Colvill Park is a little city park on the southern outskirts of Red Wing. It has a lot of the things that parks in most cities do, like a swimming pool, playground, picnic area, and ball fields. It also is a good place to do a little bird watching, since it is on the Mississippi River. It is a really good place to do bird watching during the winter months, particularly if you want to see bald eagles. Colvill Park is directly down stream from an Excel Energy plant. The steam plant keeps the surrounding water warm so that it does not freeze, which means that it is a gathering place for bald eagles during the winter. Since it was so cold that morning there were many eagles gathered around, about 40 total.
I took a few pics but since I had to be down in Wabasha soon I could not stay. After I finished the golden eagle survey. I left at lunch time since we had already covered our area pretty well and we had not spotted any, I stopped back at Colvill Park. By this time the eagles had left their perches and I was able to get some great flight shots as the circled overhead on the thermals.
There were quite a few adults but what really caught my eye were these very beautiful mottled immature birds.Immature eagles appear much different then adults do. They usually have brown feathers, brown eyes, and black beaks. At the age of around 4 or 5 they begin to change to the adult coloration that most people easily recognize. When they are in the middle of this process, as these birds are, they can have unique and striking coloration.You can see that the heads are turning white but still have a mix of black feathers. The same with the tail. The beak is partially yellow but still has some black in it. Since the head on the eagle in this last picture has a lot more white feathers then the others it is probably a year older.

Eagles where not the only bird in Colvill Park that afternoon. There was a small group of mallards in the water as well as a female common merganser. In the trees on the side of the river there were a couple of downy woodpeckers playing with a red-bellied wood pecker.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Carpenter Nature Center

On Tuesday January 15th I made a quick stop at Carpenter Nature Center between jobs to check out the feeders. I didn't have a lot of time, since I still had to get ready for my entertainment gig. There was a nice assortment of winter passerines visiting the feeders. The most exciting bird of the afternoon was the red-breasted nuthatch.
We seem to have more red-breasted nuthatches around this year then normal. There have been lots of people who have seen them at their feeders this winter but I have not been able to get many good shots of them so getting these pics made it worth skipping my nap, its a long day working 8 1/2 hours and then going out and working another 3 hours so usually I rest in between. Usually when I am out all that I find to take pictures of are the white-breasted nuthatch. There were plenty of those around too.
There were also the typical chickadees, juncos, tree sparrows, and northern cardinals.I also found a pair of house finches hanging out.Unfortunately I did not have enough time to check out the river for the harlequin duck or Barrow's goldeneye that have been hanging around. Guess that will have to wait for a future trip.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Black Dog eagles and swans

On January 14th I made another stop by Black Dog Lake after work. I saw a lot of the usual suspects that have been hanging out there all winter long like Canadian geese and trumpeter swans.
They were pretty close to shore when I arrived but started to move away as I started walking up the trail to the lake. It actually worked out well because this pair of swans moved to a part of the lake where the light was perfect and they gave me a really nice pose.
The eagles were also out but they did not look quite as serene.
It is funny because eagles always look so serious.Maybe it has something to do with their life style, always on the look out for food while trying to conserve energy.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Great Egret

Great Egret Venice Rookery

Holy Hummers Batman

Coming this February those of us who live up in the frozen north will have an opportunity to do some exotic bird watching while it is 20 below or colder out. The World Land Trust, partnering with Jocotoco and Puro, is in the process of setting up a webcam from the tropical forest of the Buenaventura Preserve in Ecuador. The camera will run with live feed on the World Land Trust's Wildlife Focus website for 12 hours a day, 11am to 11pm GMT, and then replay the footage at night. The webcam is expected to catch a lot of the avian biodiversity from the region including two species of toucans, over 10 species of hummingbirds, flycatchers and tanagers.

The webcam is scheduled to go live February 1st but in the meantime they have some recorded footage that you can try out. So on Minnesota days, like today, when you don't feel like running around in 13 degrees below with 30 below windchills you can sit back and enjoy the tropical view from the magical window of your computer screen. Make sure and check out the site at for more information.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Spring Lake Park

On Sunday the 13th of January I ran over to Spring Lake Park in Dakota County to play a little with the new snow shoes that I got for Christmas. I have never been on snow shoes before but after ending up in waist deep snow while photographing owls up north a few years ago I started asking for a pair each year for Christmas. It took a while but I finally convinced Michelle to get me a pair. So I went to the park to try and get used to putting them on and did a little walking. On my way home I spotted a pair of red-tailed hawks perched in a tree on a hill over looking the road. One of the hawks took off and was kind enough to soar on some thermals overhead while I shot some pics. The other hawk must have taken off while I was shooting because it was gone when I turned back around. I also spotted a lot of turkeys on my way home.
There were several groups in the fields and on the side of the road. I learned last weekend that wild turkey are fox squirrels are the main prey of the golden eagles that are wintering in south east Minnesota and south western Wisconsin.With the large numbers of wild turkeys that we have in southern Minnesota it would appear that the eagles may be celebrating Thanksgiving frequently over the winter.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Black Dog Lake

After making a quick stop at the Minnesota Nalley NWR Visitors Center on the 10th I decided to run down to the Black Dog Unit and see if there was anything on the open water that would be interesting to photograph. I was hoping to get some eagles fishing or at least down on the ice but there were not any eagles around. The trumpeter swans that have been on the lake all winter were still there so I walked out the trail around the lake and took a couple of pics.
While I was walking back a double-crested cormorant landed on the channel that runs between the lake and the Minnesota River. While it moved down the channel it held its wings up in the air in order to dry them. Unlike most water birds the cormorants feathers are not water proof and so they often need to dry them out before they can fly.

It was unusual to find a cormorant still in the area in January. Cormorants typically migrate to a winter range in the south gulf states, Mexico, or California.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

New Visitors to the Minnesota Valley NWR

After work on January 10th I stopped in at the Minnesota Valley NWR visitors center to check out their feeder stations. I do not usually like to photograph birds at feeders, I prefer to shoot them in their natural habitat, but in Minnesota in the middle of January it is really hard to find birds any where else. Besides there is a sharp-shinned hawk that has been frequently hunting at the feeder station through out the winter. While the feeders may not be the sharpies natural woodland habitat there is certainly no one at the refuge that is filling a feeder with juncos and downies to try and attract sharpies.

On this trip the sharpie was not around while I was there. Most of the usual southern Minnesota winter birds were around. I saw juncos, cardinals, tree sparrows, white-breasted nuthatch, plus downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers.
There were also a couple of new arrivals that I have not seen in my visits over the past month or so. There was a large flock of European starlings. Starlings were fairly common in the fall but have been somewhat scarce lately. On most of the CBCs that I participated in this year there were always quite a few less starlings then I expected.Starlings are an introduced species in North America and are very competitive with native cavity nesting birds for nest sites. Because of this fierce competition many birders believe that starlings have contributed to the decline of these native species. This has caused many birders to feel some animosity towards starlings. However the other new arrival to the refuge feeder usually inspires even more animosity then the starlings.
The brown-headed cowbird is the only nest parasite that is common across North America. Cowbirds do not make any nest of their own. Instead the female lays her eggs in the nests of other birds who often end up raising the young cowbird. The female cowbird will often remove an egg from the nest before laying her own which reduces the number of offspring that the host bird will produce. The cowbird eggs typically incubate more quickly, 11 to 12 days compared to 12 to 17 days for the host bird, so the cowbird eggs hatch earlier giving the fledgling cowbird an advantage over the other birds in the nest. The cowbirds are usually larger then the host bird which also gives the cowbird fledgling an advantage. If the host bird discovers the cowbirds deception and removes the cowbird egg the cowbird will some times return and destroy the nest as well as any of the host birds eggs or chicks.

Many people consider both starlings and cowbirds pests however I do not agree. I do not consider these birds pest I consider them sharpie food. Hopefully I will get a chance to see the local sharpie do his part to control the population of both of these species.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Golden Eagles

This past weekend I ran down to the National Eagle Center to attend an informal class on golden eagles. The purpose of the class was to prepare people for the 4th Annual Golden Eagle Survey which will be held in south eastern Minnesota this coming weekend. There is a small population of golden eagles which winter in the Mississippi River Valley in south eastern Minnesota and south western Wisconsin. It is believed that this population of golden eagles has a summer range up in Ontario, Canada. At least 118 of golden eagles migrated past Duluth, MN in the fall of 2007, according to counts taken at Hawk Ridge, but not many of these birds are seen at raptor survey points directly south of Minnesota. So it is possible that there may be up to 100 birds or so wintering in the Mississippi River Valley. Last year 41 eagles were spotted on the survey day and a total of 51 were spotted for the week.

The training was done by Scott Mehus who is an employee of the National Eagle Center. Scott began the survey on his own and has been gaining more help and support each year so that we can try and get accurate information on the goldens wintering here. During the training we did take a road trip out to golden eagle habitat but unfortunately we did not spot any. We did however get a quick peak at the golden eagle that just arrived at the National Eagle Center.
I am hoping to get out on the survey this weekend and help out, despite the weather which they are forecasting to only reach -5 for a high on Saturday.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Anhinga Chicks

Hungry anhinga chicks at the Shark Valley Unit of the Everglades National Park.