Friday, February 29, 2008

Sax Zim Winter Birding Fest Northern Hawk Owl and More

There were several other types of birds that I spotted at the Sax Zim Winter birding Festival. On the day that I arrived I spotted a black-billed magpie on Sax road near the intersection with Cranberry. I later found out that there was a dear carcass there that some of the magpie, as well as some other members of the Corvidae family, were scavenging from. The American black-billed magpie is more closely related to the yellow-billed magpie then it is the European black-billed magpie. The black-billed magpie range across the western US, however there is a small population now living in the Sax Zim Bog area which makes it the farthest east extent of their range.
On the Friday which I arrived I also spotted a rough grouse in the middle of Blue Spruce Road. After I took a couple of pics a truck came by and spooked the bird off of the road.
It did not go far. A few seconds after the noisy truck was gone the grouse came back out of the brush and began eating the tiny buds on the bushes lining the road. We did see more grouse on each of the field trips but it was early on both days and still a bit dark.
We did see one of the northern owls that make the Sax Zim Bog well known for its winter birding opportunities. A fairly reliable northern hawk owl has been hanging out on highway 7 near the Zim Sod Farm. The first time we spotted him he was on a short pole in the middle of a field. When a second bus arrived he moved to a higher vantage point in a spruce tree behind a building across from the sod farm. It was cloudy that morning and we were a ways away so the pictures were not really turning out very well.
Sunday after the convention I drove over by the sod farm and located the owl in the same group of spruce. When I pulled of the road to park the owl moved from the top of the tree to a less conspicuous position on a branch about 4' from the top. I set up my camera and was waiting for the clouds to clear and give me some better light. While I waited the owl moved back to the top of the tree and when the clouds finally parted I was able to get a much better shot then I was able to take the day before.
I also spotted a bald eagle on Sunday. When I first saw his large form through the trees as I was driving I thought that he might be one of the larger owns, possibly a great gray, so I pulled over and walked back along the road until I got to an advantage point where I could see around the trees. Fortunately for me he chose that moment to fly across the street and perch on a snag, which was located near the road, on my side of the street, and in perfect light. A lot of birding is a matter of luck.

This is the last of my posts on the Sax Zim Winter Birding Festival, at least for this year. The festival was a great success, thanks in large part to Mike Hendrickson, and I had a great time. I may try to get up to the Sax Zim area again one more time while the winter residents are still around, but I will need to hurry because we are starting to see some of the early signs of spring.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sax Zim Winter Birding Fest Jay and Shrike

One of these birds is not like the other, one of these birds just doesn't belong. Remember this song from Sesame Street? Usually there were 4 different objects and you had to pick the one that did not fit. In this case I have two different birds that are similar is size, shape and color. If you only got a quick glance it would be very easy for an average birder, like myself, to mistake one for the other. But these two birds are very different.
This first bird is a gray jay. They are members of the Corvidae family which includes the crows and jays. They live in boreal forests where they typically stay year round. They are able to avoid migration by storing food (berries, insects, rodents, carrion) in hidden caches. They use their sticky saliva to glue this stored food in bark crevices, typically in black or white spruce or lodgepole or jack pine. This bird and its mate, gray jays live in pairs, were spotted feeding on some carrion which had been attached to one of the trees on Admiral Road.
This second bird is a northern shrike. The northern shrike breeds in the far north, up on the tundra or taiga. It migrates south to Canada and the northern US during the winter. Like the gray jay the northern shrike also has been known to store extra food for future use but unlike the gray jay the northern shrike is a predator. The northern shrike feeds on small songbirds, mammals and insects. It stores its extra food by impaling the prey on tree branches, spines, or barbed wire fences.

This year has been a good year for spotting northern shrikes. There seem to be a lot more in our area then usual. I saw 5 northern shrikes during the 3 days that I was up north for the festival. We spotted this shrike up on the Hedbom Logging Road. We were looking for woodpeckers but instead found this shrike who seemed to continue to move closer to where we were standing on the road. Maybe he just wanted to get a better view of the crazy birders.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sax Zim Winter Bird Fest Chickadees

Another bird that I was hoping to get a picture of during the Sax Zim Winter Birding Fest was the boreal chickadee. While I have plenty of pictures of black capped chickadee I did not have any of the boreal chickadee.
That was until the festival. On our Saturday field trip we made a few stops along roads that bordered boreal habitat and looked for some of the elusive chickadees. We heard a call and caught a glimpse of one but it did not stay long enough for me to get a good look, let alone a photo, so we moved on. Later that day we ended up heading down McDavitt Road. Originally the plan was to head down Admiral Road and check out the suet and deer carcass that Mike Hendricks had attached to the trees for the birds but another bus had headed down Admiral so we went down McDavitt instead. We made a couple stops along the road, getting off the bus and listening for woodpeckers. At one of these stops one of our group leaders, Pastor Al, heard a boreal chickadee call. We looked around and found another deer carcass that Mike or one of the local people had attached to a tree. On the ground next to this tree was a boreal chickadee.
It did not take him long to move up to the carcass and start to feed. Boreal chickadees are omnivores but tend to prefer protein such as carrion and suet. Protein is a good source of energy and probably helps to keep them warm during harsh winter conditions.
Like the black-capped, boreal chickadees store food to eat later when times are lean, which is often necessary living in the northern regions.
Boreal chickadees usually spend all year in their northern boreal forest homes and don't migrate south unless there is a shortage of food. That is why there are very few places to see these birds in the US.
Later that day we did spot another boreal chickadee down at the Morse feeding station, but it was further away and did not really come into the open long enough to get any good pics.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Big News

I just received a call from Kelly Scott, my shift lead at the raptor center, and it appears that the eagle that I rescued last August, on my birthday, is ready to be released. For those of you who may not have been reading the bog then, my wife and I found an injured immature bald eagle while out birding at Crex Meadows, in Wisconsin. It was a Sunday and there was no one around to help, so we went to the nearest town and picked up a pet cage and a pair of garden gloves and we rescued the eagle and transported him down to The Raptor Center. It was quite an ordeal. I found out later, when I joined The Raptor Center transport crew, that they have a special crew to rescue eagles because of their size and the difficulty. If you would like to read the whole story and see the pics my wife took of the rescue here is the link.

Since we were already on the list to release a bird, due to some of our large donations in the past, I asked if we could release the eagle that we rescued if it recovered. Well it appears that the release day will be later this week. They want to release the bird down in Redwing, MN either Thursday or Friday late afternoon. Michelle is going to try and get time off so that she can be there and maybe snap some pics. If you live in the Twin Cities area and would like to come watch let me know and I will give you details once I find out more info.

Sax Zim Winter Birding Fest redpoll

Beside grosebeaks there were also a lot of redpolls at the Morse feeder station on Blue Spruce Road.
Redpolls are a small passerine that breed in the Boreal and Tiaga regions.
Their preferred habitat is open coniferous forests and birch thickets. During the winter, if food is scarce, they will migrate south into southern Canada and the northern United States.
Redpolls are seed eaters. They have poaches in their throats where they can temporarily store seeds so that they can eat them later when they are in a more secure and warm location.
It is funny that right now, up north, it is kind of a rare sighting if the spot a dark-eyed junco but redpolls are quite common
While 150 miles south in the Twin Cities we have loads of juncos and people would be flocking to see any redpoll that might show up.
There are two types of redpolls that have been visiting this feeder station the common redpoll, as pictured above and the hoary redpoll, which is much more rare this far south.The hoary redpoll is distinguished from the common by it frosty pale appearance. Hoary redpolls also less or no streaking on their undertail coverts. Can you pick out the hoary in the pictures above and below?
I found it pretty hard to tell the difference between the hoary and common. Often how the light was hitting the bird would make you think that it was a hoary when it was really a common. I know that the bird pictured above was a hoary because it was pointed out be Kim Eckert, who is much better at bird identification then I am.
I have also heard that sometimes hoary and common will crossbreed. I am wondering if the bird above may be a hoary, or at least a partial hoary, male.
He appears to be very frosty, extending back all the way through the tail. He also has more white on the secondaries and even though he does have some streaking on the undertail coverts it is minimal and appears to fit what Sibley has defined for a possible hoary. But like I said I have not been very good at telling them apart. So why don't you let me know what you think? Is this a common, hoary or partial redpoll.
If you are like me and need a bit of help deciding here are a couple of posts on hoary identification from David Sibley's blog and from Mike Hendrickson's blog Colder by the Lake.

John Mikes, over at Weekend Shooter, also has some great shots of redpolls that he took this weekend while I sat home with the flue. You should check them out they are very nice.

Golden Eagle Award

Sometimes the blogging world is tough. You work hard to try and put together the best blog possible, and you are proud of the job that you have done. Then you begin to wonder if there is anyone out there visiting your blog. You look each day for comments but when you don't find any you begin to wonder if it is worth all the hard work.

Most of us have felt this way at some time during our blogging life. Well my friend Ocean over at Island Rambles knows this feeling. She is a relatively new blogger with a very cool site. She has definitely put in a lot of time making her site look very professional but she has been having some doubts lately as she has been waiting for her readership to grow.

Instead of giving in to the doubts and folding up her tents Ocean has gone the opposite way. She has decided that she will try to help other bloggers who might be feeling the same way as she is. So she has decided to begin giving out Golden Eagle Awards to give recognition to her fellow bird and nature bloggers.
I am honored to have received one of these awards. I would like to thank Ocean and I think that what she is trying to do to help others shows the kind of person that she is. So when you get a chance please visit Island Rambles and say hi to Ocean. She has a lot of great eagle and scenery pics of Vancouver Island as well as some poetry and a very good sense of humor. Who knows if you play your cards right you might just get an award.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Sax Zim Winter Birding Fest Grosbeak

One of the highlights of the Sax Zim Winter Birding Festival was the feeding station on Blue Spruce Road. This feeder station, which was set up and maintained by local meadowlands resident Derek Morse, had at least 8 different feeders and always had a lot of birds around to photograph. The best day that I had here was on Friday the day that I arrived. It was sunny and cold that day and there were not many other people around.
There were a lot of pine grosbeak around that morning.
Like many types of birds grosbeaks are sexually dimorphic. According to Wikipedia the definition for sexual dimorphism is, "the systematic difference in form between individuals of different sex in the same species".
In pine grosbeaks there is an obvious color difference. The female, pictured at the top, is mostly drab gray with a bit of mustard color on the head and upper body.
The male is much more colorful with the reddish pink head, chest and back as well as darker more distinct black and white striping on the wings.
One of the reasons for the color difference may be to prevent aggression towards females by males defending territory. Many passerines are highly territorial especially during mating and nesting season. Since females typically appear closer in color to juveniles they will not usually provoke aggression.
There were also some evening grosbeak that visited the feeding station.
The differences in color between male and female evening grosbeak is not as obvious as it is with pine grosbeak but it is still apparent. Both male and female are primarily yellow with a darker head and wings but the female, pictured above is more of a dull yellow.
The male is much more vibrant yellow which is contrasted by a darker head. Males also tend to have more white on the secondary feathers of the wing and a bright yellow supercilium, or eye brow.

Friday, February 22, 2008

More trumpeter swans at Monticello, MN

At the end of January I took a trip up to Monticello, MN to see the 1000+ trumpeter swans that have been hanging out on the river there. Since there are so many swans it is easy to get a lot of pics pretty quickly. I picked out about 8 or 9 shots that I liked and posted them. One of my readers, CAS, decided to go up and take a gander, omg that was bad, with some directions from me and got some very nice pics, which you can see here.

I still had a few more shots too. This shot is just to kind of give you an idea of the quantity of swans that are in the area. This is only a small portion of the over all number that you can see.
Getting shots of the the swans in flight can be tricky but when you get a good one it is very rewarding.
It was a little bit easier to get the shot as they skidded to a landing across the water.
The swans are very frisky at this time of year, with all the males trying to prove themselves to eligible females.
They prove themselves by displaying
and participating in twister contests
and sometimes even under the wing limbo, aren't you glad you use Dial?
Some of the males are not very good losers.
While some of the winners are quite the prima donna.
Sometimes it does not matter because the girls are just not impressed.
If you are in Minnesota and would like to check out the swans in Monticello it is very easy to get to. Just take US94 heading west of the Twin Cities towards St Cloud. In Monticello take the Fenning Ave / Riverview Drive exit and head north. When Riverview Dr begins to turn east along the river look for Mississippi Drive on the left. Take a left on Mississippi Dr, which is a dead end, and you will find the spot a block or so down on the right. When you get close you will see, and hear, the swans in the river so it is hard to miss.

Sax Zim Winter Birding Festival Woodpeckers

This past weekend I headed up to Meadowlands, MN for the Sax Zim Winter Birding Festival. I was pretty excited because the Sax Zim Bog, in North East Minnesota, is well known, by many birders, for its rare winter migrants. This was the first year of the festival, which was organized by Mike Hendrickson, and it was a huge success. There were over 150 people who registered for the convention from 19 different states, which was twice the number that the organizers expected for the inaugural year. Mike, who I birded with at the Duluth and Two Harbors CBC and is a great bird guild if you ever need someone to take you around northeast Minnesota, did a great job planning and organizing the festival.

The main targets, for many of the birders who venture up to the Sax Zim area, are the winter owl species. I have made quite a few trips up there, over the years, searching for great grey, northern hawk, and boreal owls. Most years there are a few resident owls to find but every 4 or 5 years there is an irruption/invasion and the numbers go up. The best known example of an owl irruption/invasion was in 2004/2005 when over 5000 great gray owls were counted in the state as well as significant numbers of northern hawk and boreal owls. Even when there is not an owl irruption/invasion there are other unique species of birds. This year was not a great owl or winter finch year but it was a very good year for woodpeckers. I have read a lot of reports, on the list servers, about people spotting black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers and I have even made several trips to the Duluth and Two Harbors area to try and get some pics but so far I had not had any luck. All that I had been able to find were downy and hairy woodpeckers.
So I left early Friday morning and pulled into the Sax Zim area around 9am. The skies where clear and blue, which in Minnesota during the winter time usually means that it is pretty cold. Since the festival registration did not begin until 4pm I had about 7 hours to do some birding on my own. So I went and checked out the feeding stations that some of the local residents had set up in order to encourage birds, and thus birders, to visit. Then I headed off to the bog to check out some of the better birding spots that I have found in past years. I took a lot of pictures of many cool birds but the only woodpeckers that I found were downies or hairies.
I was not worried though because I still had a couple of days of birding left and there were still quite a few sightings in the area. The next morning I was on a bus with about 30 people touring the bog in search of cool birds. That morning I got quite a few more pictures but I still had not seen a black-backed or three-toed. In the afternoon our group leaders decided to head out to the Hedbom Logging Road after talking with Kim Eckert who had lead a trip there in the morning and had spotted both types of woodpeckers. When we got out to Hedbom we got off the bus and followed a trail through the snow into the woods, I was really glad that I had decided to change into my Sorels. We went back a little ways looking for trees that had been stripped of their bark. This is the best sign that there are black-backed or three-toed woodpeckers around. After a few minutes we spotted a female black-backed wood pecker in the trees.
I took a couple of pics and then was heartbroken when I found that my CF card was full. I had shot through my whole 8gb card between Friday and Saturday. I deleted a couple of files that I decided that I could do with out so that I could get a couple more pics. When we got back to the bus I exchanged cards and put my spares in my pocket so that I would be ready the next time we saw a woodpecker but it was getting late and so we headed back to the community center for dinner. I decided to turn in early that night because I needed to get up early for my field trip the next morning and my hotel was 45 minutes away. The field trip on Sunday we had even better luck finding northern woodpeckers. First we found this female black back down the road from the main feeding station in the meadowlands. She was really close to the road and did not seem to care that we were there.
The black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers peel the bark off of the trees looking for insects which are good yummy protein. In the picture above you can see her tongue darting under the bark to collect her prey. I was happy because I got to add the black-backed woodpecker to my list but I was still hoping to see a three-toed also. After leaving Blue Spruce Road our filed trip moved back into the bog and our leaders decided to drive down Admiral Road. Mike, and several other residents, had hung suet feeders and parts of deer carcasses on some of the trees along Admiral. There were also quite a few trees that had their bark peeled lining the road. We stopped the bus near a group of these peeled trees and it did not take very long for our guides to locate a male three-toed woodpecker.
It took a while but I finally got both the clouds and woodpecker to cooperate and got a nice pic in descent light. I was very happy because in the 3 days of the festival I saw both of the northern woodpeckers that had eluded me. I also photographed quite a few other birds, 18gb worth, but instead of one really really long post I am going to break it up into a few smaller ones. So if you want to see more from the Sax Zim Winter Birding Festival, including redpolls, grosbeak, jays, chickadees, eagles, owls and more, then come back and visit again during the next few days.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Lunar Eclipse

Here are some pictures that I shot of last night's lunar eclipse. They are not bird pics but still very cool. Fortunately last night we had clear skies so I was able to set up my tripod right outside my door and then run out every 15 minutes or so and take a couple of shots. It took a while to find an aperture that worked well, especially in the later pictures where the Sun's light begins to reflect off of a portion of the moon while the rest is still covered by the shadow of the earth.

The next full lunar eclipse is not until December of 2010 so I hope you got a chance to see it for yourself or if not I hope that you enjoy my view.