Monday, March 31, 2008

Ring-necked Duck FotY 2008

I saw my first ring-necked ducks of 2008 at Black Dog Lake in the Minnesota Valley NWR on March 24th.
I almost missed the ring-necked because they were mixed in with a bunch of scaup, which at first glance from a ways away look similar.
The most interesting thing about ring-necked ducks is that they do have a ring or collar of chestnut colored feathers on the back of their neck, however the only way to really view the ring is by having the bird in hand. This is one of the ducks that was no doubt named by hunters who could see the ring-neck after they retrieved the bird.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Busy feeders at the MN Valley NWR

There were a few birds other then redwinged blackbirds that I photographed on the 24th at the Minnesota Valley NWR visitors center. Most of these other birds are winter or year round residents.
Dark-eyed junco's are a winter resident here in southern Minnesota.
House sparrows are year round residents through out the United States
Red-bellied woodpeckers are year round residents
Gold finch are year round residents however many non-birders do not recognise them in winter since the males do not have the bright yellow plumage that they do in the summer time.
House finch are year round residents through out the entire US
Northern cardinals are year round residents in the southern half of Minnesota.
A more appropriate name for the northern cardinals would be eastern cardinal since they are not found very far north and are pretty rare in the western half of the US.
Blue jays are also a year round bird here and throughout the eastern half of the US. Like the northern cardinal they are pretty rare in the western half of the country.
It was a pretty busy day at the feeders. Spring was in the air and all the birds, and even a few non-birds, were out enjoying the nice spring weather.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

First Redwinged Blackbird of 2008

Another common bird that I have begun to see for the first time this year are redwinged blackbirds. The first one that I got a pic of this year was at the visitors center of the Minnesota Valley NWR on March 24th.
This was one of a small flock that was hanging around the feeding station.
Later in the week, March 27th, I visited Wood Lake Nature Center and there were quite a few staking out their territories.
Most of the water at Wood Lake is still frozen, even so it looks like the spring migration has begun there also.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Proud Great Horned Owl Parents

On March 20th I took half of a day off of work to do some birding. I started by checking out the MN Valley NWR visitors center. They have a great feeding station that has been great for attracting birds through out the winter but on this day it was strangely silent. I don't know if all the birds were out in the woods foraging because it was such a nice day, or what, but the usually very busy feeders had very little to look at. Next I headed down to the Black Dog Lake unit to see if the slightly warmer weather had brought in any migrating waterfowl. Unfortunately Black Lake was also pretty quiet. I was feeling kind of despondent, it was a beautiful day out and I had taken a half day of vacation but it appeared that the birds had taken the day off too. So I decided to continue down Cedar Avenue and check out the great horned owls nest that I have been watching since the beginning of February.

I arrived at the lot where the nest is located, changed into my boots, so that I could trudge through the snow and mud and headed off towards the nest. Before I got into range of the nest I picked up the call of a northern shrike.
There had been a shrike in the area the last time that I had been here so I assume that it was still the same bird. Shrikes are predators but since they only eat small birds or mammals I don't think that the owls would consider it competition for food. However if the shrike got to close to the nesting owl I am betting that he would become food.
Maybe food for the baby owl chick that has now hatched. The nest is big enough that there may be more chicks down inside the nest out of view but I only witnessed the one.
Great horned owls typically lay 1 to 5 eggs in a clutch with an average of 2. The eggs are incubated for 30 to 35 days. When they hatch the chicks are helpless and covered in white down feathers.
The female will typically stay at the nest brooding, protecting the chicks and keeping them warm, almost continually for a couple of weeks. Once the chicks have grown a bit and started to feather the adults will spend less time at the nest, typically coming in only to feed and protect the chick or possibly to keep it warm if the weather turns cold.
While I was going to get shots of the nest I inadvertently flushed the male. Once I know where he is I have been quit successful at getting close but when I do not see him until too late he will sometimes fly off to another part of the woods.
Fortunately he does not usually go very far. I kept an eye on which part of the woods that he had landed in and after I finished photographing the nest I carefully made my way into the woods to get some pictures of him.
Great horned owls blend in very well to their surroundings. It is quite easy to pass one with out ever seeing it. Since I had kept my eye on where he had landed I was able to find him pretty easy but while I was keeping an eye on him he was also keeping his eyes on me.
By approaching slowly and quietly and stopping frequently I let him get used to my presence. Soon he did not consider me a threat and he relaxed and went to sleep.
Normally I would have just taken my pics and left him in peace but before he started dozing off he coughed up a pellet and I decided to go collect it and take it to The Raptor Center. Since they do not have teeth owls have to swallow their food, any thing small is swallowed whole while larger prey is ripped apart and then swallowed. Things that can not be digested, mostly fur, bones, feathers and teeth, are compacted into a pellet in the owls gizzard. several hours after they eat the owl will cough up the pellet and spit it out. At The Raptor Center they collect, clean and then sell the pellets, mostly to schools and families, so that people who are interested can dissect the pellet and see what the owls has been eating. Many times you can put together the complete skeleton of a small mammal from the bones that you find inside an owl pellet. This owl was so comfortable with my presence that I was able to walk right underneath him and collect the pellet plus 3 others that he must of coughed up earlier. He did open his eyes to check on me once and a while but he was happy to sit there and sleep as I walked directly below him.
As I was leaving the female decided to leave the nest and join the male in the woods. As she flew over me I snapped 3 quick shots. Two of them did not capture the whole owl, but I was able to get her completely in frame for one shot. I thought about going back in to try and get some more pics of her but decided that I didn't want to stress her out or fight my way back into the woods, so I headed out. I checked out the nest on my way back to the truck and the chick was now hunkered down inside the nest and was no longer visible. I will have to go back soon and get some more pics. The chick will not be around too long. After about 6 weeks after they hatch the young owl will begin to branch. Branching is the phase that the young owl gets out of the nest and begins to hop around and climb on the nearby branches. A week or two after they begin to branch the chicks fledge and shortly after that they leave the nest and spend their time learning to hunt with in the parents territory. Once they leave the nest they are much harder to find so I need to get all the pics that I want before they go.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

First Robin of 2008

Well it looks like we may be finally catching up to spring here in Minnesota. Some of the snow has melted and it has gotten warm enough that I have been able to go out just wearing a light fleece jacket during the day. Of course there are many cities in the US that would close down if they had as much snow as we had left or the balmy low 40 degree highs that we have been enjoying. The birds have also begun to realize that it is spring and they have begun to migrate back over the past couple of weeks.
On March 20th I was able to get my first robin pic of the year at Wood Lake Nature Center. I had seen a few robins a week or two earlier but it was in my neighborhood as I was leaving for work so I could not get a pic.
I returned to Wood Lake on March 26th and found some more robins to photograph. It is funny how excited we get to see birds like robins in the spring. These same birds will soon become common place and we will, for the most part, ignore them as we look for the exciting birds, like the various types of warblers that will be moving through.
But for now I was so excited to get robin picks that I gave them their own post. I think that for a while, this spring, I will do a series of First for 2008 to highlight the first time that I am able to photograph a species that has returned to my area.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Spring Bald Eagles at Reeds Landing

Even though it still feels a lot like winter here in Minnesota, we are still getting snow and the high temps have barely hit the low 40s so far, I have started to see a few signs of spring. On March 15th, while I was checking out the Mississippi River south of the Twin Cities, I saw quite a bit of courting behavior between the eagles down by Reeds Landing where there is open water.

From their behavior this appeared to be a mating pair. This was very obvious when a train came by and they flushed from the tree together and then both returned together. Can you tell which is the female and which is the male.
If you guessed that the one on the left was the female then you were correct. In the raptor world the females are typically bigger then the males, this is called reverse sexual dimorphism. Earlier she had been feeding. She will need to bulk up before the nesting season.
It was interesting because last Wednesday when I was at The Raptor Center doing my volunteer shift they brought Maxime back from a program. Maxime is a female bald eagle and one of the largest birds that we have for education. They took her out of her crate and then one of the staff members took her on the glove to give her the rest of her food. Othello, a male bald eagle, was tethered in the same room so that he could have a chance to take a bath. During the winter, when the water outside is frozen, we bring the birds in for a day or two to give them the opportunity to have a bath if they choose. While we often tell people about how the female raptors are larger it was kind of startling to see the difference with the two birds so close together. Max weighs in at about 11 pounds and Othello is only about 7.
Back at the river the male was being very protective of his mate. He frequently let other males across the river know that the two were a couple and when one male approached the tree where the couple was perched he took off to run the interloper off. The immature above was no threat so it was allowed to share a branch.
Later on the immature found himself a fish to eat.
In the bald eagle world you have to be wary with your food and eat quickly. Since bald eagles are opportunistic eaters they will often try and steal a meal from another bird.
This young eagle had been around long enough to know the deal and so she gulped her meal down quickly. With all the white feathers that she has, it appeared by its size to be a female, I would guess that she was in her 5th-7th year. That would make her comparable to a human teenager eek. Eagles have all brown feathers when they are young and they do not begin to get their white head and tale until they are around 5 years old.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

My First Birding Trip to Rochester, MN

Here are some more pics from a time when the sun once shined on Minnesota, March 16th. Although by the time that I took these pics the clouds that we have seen most of the past week plus had already begun to role in.
These pictures were taken at Silver Lake Park in Rochester, MN. A lot of people feed the geese at Silver Lake so there were quite a few Canadian geese around.
There were also quite a few mallards. Mallards and Canadian geese are both pretty common year round in Minnesota.
One bird that I have not seen in Minnesota for a while is the American coot.
This was the first time that I had birded Rochester so I was not sure where else to go but since it is only about an hour drive from home I may have to do some research and make another visit.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Minnesota Valley NWR

Since the weather this weekend was not very cooperative, will winter ever end, I will have to post some more pics from the weekend before when it was at least sunny out. Here are a couple of pictures that I took at the Minnesota Valley NWR visitors center that Sunday. Since the visitors center is closed on weekends during the winter, except the first weekend of each month, I decided to walk around instead of photographing birds at the feeders. There were not a lot of birds around and nothing really special but I did get a couple of nice pics. The downy's are usually pretty cooperative.
This female cardinal was beautiful in the sunlight. She stayed there for quite a while and let me take her pic.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Birding Colville Park

Last weekend I also made a stop down at Colville Park in Red Wing, MN. There were still quite a few eagles around but they were all perched pretty far away. I did find a group of redhead ducks. This was the first redheads that I have seen since they closed the road at Vadnais Lake late last fall.
There were also some mallards, which are quite common and a ring-billed gull who was nibbling at what looked to be a winter kill fish on the shoreline.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Prescott Waterfowl and others

This last weekend I also paid another visit to Prescott, WI to see if I could get some more pics of the harlequin duck. On Friday, the day before I went it had been spotted close to shore so I was hoping that I would get some good pics in nice light but alas nature is unpredictable. The harlequin did not show up for the hour and a half I spent looking. I did find some wildlife to photograph though. From the Wisconsin side of the river I got some pics of one of the harlequin peregrine falcons which was perched up on one of the tresses of the railroad bridge. I posted those pictures on an earlier post.

On the Minnesota side of the river I found a few waterfowl at Douglas Point. Common goldeneye have been pretty common throughout most of the winter but this turned out to be a pretty nice shot with this goldeneye catching some breakfast.
I also spotted some new arrivals. This group of scaup, consisting of 3 males and 2 females, were searching the shallow waters of Douglas Point for a meal.
I am not sure if these are greater or lesser scaup. It is just really hard for me to tell by the shape of the head. Fortunately there are many great birders, who are much better at identification then I am, who occasionally drop by the blog. Hopefully one one of them will be so kind as to post in the comments below and let me know which type these are. On the way out I found a red-tailed hawk perched on the hill that leads up by Carpenter Nature Center.
A couple of people mentioned on my last post about how difficult it is to get a red-tail to sit still for a photo. The best way that I have found is to use your car as a blind. This is very easy around where I live because red-tails are very common and most of them hang out close to the road. It is best to pull over across the street from where the hawk is perched. If it is on the side of the road that I am on I will usually try and turn around and come at it from the opposite side.

There are two reasons for this, the first is because if you get too close you are likely to spook the hawk, even from inside a car. The other reason why it is best to be on the opposite side of the street is so that you can shoot out the drivers side window instead of shooting through the passenger window from across the car. I have twisted myself into some very interesting positions to try and get a shot that is on the opposite side of the car.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Welcome to Spring 2008

Today is officially the first day of spring, finally! It has been a long hard winter here in Minnesota and I, like a lot of people who live here, am looking forward to the change in the season. The weather has only recently begun to change. We finally have started to get highs in the low 40s in the past week or so and some of the snow has begun to melt. This last weekend the weather was pretty mild so I did a bit of birding around the area. I was hoping to see a good deal of spring migrants but I am afraid it is still a bit early for that here. I did see a couple of robins in our neighborhood but only as I was driving by with out my camera. On Friday, the 14th, I got out of work early and headed over to Carpenter Nature Center. I did not see any new spring migrants but I did witness what I believe was some unique spring behavior.
I found two downy woodpeckers that I believe were in the midst of courtship.
Although downy woodpeckers are pretty common here I am not all that familiar with there courtship and mating behaviour.
But for a good half an hour these two birds would continually face each other and bob their heads swaying slightly back and forth.
When one bird would take off and move to a new branch the other would quickly follow and land on the same branch or one near by.
Then they would start the bobbing and weaving again.
I believe that one was male and the other female but it was hard to tell because they would constantly change positions. It was fascinating and I watched them for about 30 to 45 minutes.
I did find a few other birds in the park. There were plenty of black-capped chickadees, at least one red-bellied woodpecker, and a couple of white-breasted nuthatch.
On my way home from the park I spotted a red-tailed hawk perched looking for prey. We still have a lot of red-tails hanging around.