Saturday, January 31, 2009

Camera Critters: Eastern Bluebird

There are some birds that are pretty common here in Minnesota during the summertime that people are surprised to see during the winter. The eastern bluebird is a perfect example.
Perhaps people do not expect to see eastern bluebirds in Minnesota during the winter because that is what many of the field guides and experts tell them. Audubon, Sibley and Cornell all do not include Minnesota in the winter range of the eastern bluebird.
Cornell does state that in mild winters eastern bluebirds may be found further north but I do not know of many people who would consider this winter mild, it has been the worse we have seen in many years, and yet I photographed these bluebirds in Redwing, Minnesota on January 5th, 2009.
This is not an isolated incident either. I have participated in Christmas Bird Counts over the past couple of years and pretty much every count that I have worked on in the southeast suburbs of the Twin Cities we have had recorded eastern bluebirds. So I guess it is true that everyone makes mistakes, which is fortunate for those of us living in Minnesota who catch a glimpse of these colorful songbirds during the drab days of winter.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Sandrock Cliff on the St Croix

Photographing nature can be very unpredictable. Most of the time when I go out I have an idea of where I want to go and what I expect to see but sometimes mother nature throws you a bit of a curve. Back in August (8-16) I made a trip up to Crex Meadows. It was high summer so there was not a lot to photograph so I decided to take a bit of a side trip.
As you cross the St Croix River, on the way to Crex, there are signs for the Sandrock Cliff Campground. Since the campground is on the St Croix River I decided to go and check it out. I was hoping to find one of the rare clubtail type dragonflies that are typically only found around the St Croix River and its tributaries. As soon as I started down a trail leading to the river I found a dragon but unfortunately it was just a female common whitetail.
Undaunted I pressed on until I came across a clubtail dragon. I was pretty excited, as I was able to get in close enough to get some good shots. I identified it as a black-shouldered snipeylegs, which is a fairly common clubtail.
You can tell that it is a black-shouldered spineylegs by the numerous spines on the hind legs, which are clearly visible on the first pic. The spines are used by the dragon to catch and hold its prey. Encouraged by adding a new dragon to my life list I pressed on down the path in search of a rare clubtail.
And that is when I got a big surprise. As I walked down the path I heard a loud hissing coming from in front of me. I followed the sound and found a six foot bull snake in the brush next to the path in front of me.
Growing up in Minnesota I do not have much experience with snakes, other then garter snakes, so when I saw this very large and very thick snake hissing on the ground in front of me I decided that it was time to turn around, not before getting a couple of pics of course. When I got home I took a look at the pics and was able to identify it as a bull snake. According to the Wisconsin DNR, the bull snakes are the largest snake in the upper Midwest. It likes to live in sandy locations usually adjacent to limestone cliffs. It eats rodents, primarily mice, rats, and gophers, which it kills by constriction. The bull snake is a protected wild animal in Wisconsin.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sky Watch Friday: Snow Geese

Thousands of geese spend each winter down at the Bosque del Apache in New Mexico. While they are at the Bosque they spend their nights on the shallow pools that dot the refuge. These pools provide some safety from many of the land based predators.
Each morning the geese fly out in large groups, as the sun rises, to search the nearby fields for any remaining grains or seeds. This pic was taken in January of 2007.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Two Bees, or More Then Two Bees

Here are a few more bee pictures to go with the one that I posted early this morning for Wordless Wednesday.
These pics were taken in the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge potion of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge back in September.
The term bumble bee refers to social bees that are a member of the Bombus genus. There are over 250 different species of bees that are part of that genus living in North America.
Like honey bees, bumble bees help to complete the circle of life by pollinating flowers, while they gather nectar to eat and pollen to feed to their young. They use a long tongue called a glossa to extract the nectar and they gather pollen into their corbiculae, or pollen basket, which is located on their hind leg.

Wordless Wednesday: Bee-utiful

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Watery Wednesday: Eagles at Alma

On my way back from Whitewater State Park on Sunday I decided to take the scenic route and follow the Mississippi River north back up to the Twin Cities. This is a route that I know well as I have spent a lot of time over the past ten years or so photographing the eagles along the river during the winter time. This area, and the congregation of eagles during the winter, was probably my biggest inspiration when I began to go out and take pictures of nature. I used to spend most of the morning of at least one day, if not both, each weekend down at the river photographing the eagles during the winter.
I still love to photograph eagles and even though I do not go down to the river as much as I used to the eagles are still one of the best wildlife subjects to photograph in southern Minnesota during the winter. So I stopped at the best locations to spot eagles, Reeds Landing and Colville Park in Red Wing, and as with other trips this year I spotted eagles but not nearly as many as I have seen in past years.
I am wondering if the harsh winter has pushed them further south this year. Most of the other years that I have been photographing them the weather has been milder, which probably made food more plentiful. If food becomes scarce the eagles will continue to move south until they find a place where they can find sufficient food. It will be interesting to see how many show up when they begin migrating back north again. These pictures where taken back on December 13th, 2008. They were taken at Alma, WI, where around approximately 20 eagles gathered around opening in the ice in the river below the lock and dam at that time.

Monday, January 26, 2009

My World: Whitewater State Park

Last Saturday I participated in the annual golden eagle survey that takes place in Southern Minnesota, Wisconsin as well as Northern Iowa. The survey is sponsored by the National eagle Center which is located in Wabasha, MN. Since I did not have a route of my own I was given the option of joining a group at the National Eagle Center or meeting the group that was going to be searching out at Whitewater State Park.
Since Whitewater is known the be one of the best places in Minnesota to see golden eagles, the only place that is better would be Hawk Ridge during migration, I decided to head down there. The weather was pretty poor that day with a lot of blowing snow and the roads were slick so it took me longer to get down there then I had planned but I arrived right in time to join the group. We went out for a few hours but we did not see any birds that we could confirm as a golden eagle.
Since I did not have very good luck with the weather on my first try out to whitewater I decided to make another trip down there on the 25th. This time the sun was shinning, although the temps were still below zero, and there was a lot more to look at.
Like this opossum that I found sunny itself on the side of the road.
The habitat were we are looking for golden eagles are called goat hills. They are hills that are facing to the southwest. Because they are facing southwest they get more sun which means less moisture and less vegetation. This leaves gaps for the eagles to hunt in. You can see the openings in the picture of the goat hill above.
I did not see any golden eagles on my second trip to Whitewater either, 88 eagles were counted during the survey on the 17th or in the week following, but I did see a few bald eagles.
There were also at least three bald eagle nests which were visible from the road.
Since I was striking out on the golden eagles I decided to head over to check out the visitors center.
Behind the visitors center they had some feeders that were attracting quite a few birds.
They had some larger birds such as blue jays, cardinals, hairy and downy woodpeckers.
There were a lot of smaller song birds also such as dark-eyed juncos, house finch and purple finch.
It was also fun to see goldfinch who had begun to molt back into their breeding plumage. This is a positive sign that winter will end and before we know it spring will be here.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Today's Flowers: Lupine

Wild lupine is a perennial plant in the pea family. It grows in dry sandy soil in open sunlight to partial shade and flowers in a variety of colors from pink to blue.
This plant is native to Minnesota and blooms in the spring. The seeds of the wild lupine are piousness.
Wild lupine is currently threatened or no longer present in much of its original habitat. One main reason for the decline in wild lupine is habitat destruction. Man has ripped up many of the fields where the lupine used to grow for agriculture use or urban sprawl.
Another reason for the decline is because of man made fire suppression. Fields that are destroyed by fire are cleared of most of their brush. This allows perennials like lupine to reestablish itself. If the fields are not regularly cleared, because man extinguishes wild fires, then other more evasive plants and shrubs will take over and eventually the lupine will die because it will not receive enough sunlight.
Wild lupine is an early source of food for many different insects. Chief among these is the Karner blue butterfly. The karner blue larva will only eat wild lupine. This dependence on this declining plant has endangered this butterfly, who's numbers have declined by 99 percent.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Camera Critters: Sharp-shinned Hawk

The sharp-shinned hawk is the smallest member of the genus accipiter found in North America. Accipiters have rounded wings, like the est of the hawk family, but they have relatively shorter wing and a longer tail.
Accipiters use these adaptations to help them maneuver in flight, particularly while they are hunting small birds. The other members of the genus accipiter that can be found in North America are the Cooper's hawk and the northern goshawk.
Each year many sharp-shinned hawks migrate south from Canada and can be seen at hawk watches in the US such as Hawk Ridge in Duluth, MN, where all of these sharpies where caught and banded. Not all sharpies migrate south however, since the number of people who have put up feeders has increased so has the number of sharpies that have stayed further north.
Since the sharpies are mainly eating birds, feeders attracting song birds in the winter become a convenient feeding ground for sharpies, and Cooper's hawks as well.
You can tell the ages of the birds pictured above by the color of their eyes. The first bird pictured is a hatch year bird. When sharpies first hatch they have yellow eyes which darken with age. So the bird in the second and third pictures would be a second year bird, since its eyes have changed from yellow to orange. The bird in the final pic is at least a third year bird. As you can see the eyes have become completely red. Once they reach this point the eyes will no longer change, so it is pretty much impossible to tell a sharpies age, once they reach adulthood, just by looking at the eyes.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sax-Zim Bog: Boreal Chickadees

Its funny how sometimes when you make plans to go out birding you find very little happening, but when you go out the next day, on a whim, you have a good day. That is what I found this week. After a very cloudy and disappointing holiday weekend I was pretty pumped up to see that the weather forecast was calling for sun and warmer temps this week. So I planned a trip, on Thursday, over to Prescott, WI to look for the harlequin duck that has been wintering there and then a side trip to Carpenter Nature Center to look for white-winged crossbills, which have been spotted recently. When I arrived, after leaving work, I found the area covered in fog. So I went home and ate some food and returned later. By that time the fog had lifted but unfortunately the harlequin was not to be found. I went to Carpenter, where I did see a lot of birds, but no crossbills.

So Today when I got off of work it was sunny, although the windchill temps were well below zero, so I decided to run back to CNC to give the crossbills another chance, but I never even made it. I stopped over at Prescott first and there in the middle of the river was the harlequin. While i watched the bird swam up and down the river near the railroad bridge and even came close to shore on a couple of occasions. I stayed there watching, and photographing until almost sunset and then headed home very happy.

I am hoping that my luck will hold out for this weekend. It is supposed to be cold and sunny for much of the weekend and I am hoping to make another foray up to the Sax-Zim Bog Wildlife Management Area.
On my last trip on January 10th I had some really good luck with some of the special winter migrants like the boreal chickadees.
Boreal chickadees spend most of their lives in the northern boreal forests of Alaska and Canada. They are one of the few types of songbirds that do not leave the frozen north during the winter time.
They survive through the winter months by caching food in the summer and fall. Their typical fair consists mainly of insects and spiders, including larva and eggs, as well as seeds, particularly spruce seeds.
Some birds will migrate a short distance south, typically the reason for this is because of a shortage of food. These birds, that come south in search of food, typically only come as far south as northern Minnesota. That is why the Sax-Zim bog is a great place to look for these typically elusive migrants.
These pictures were taken on Admiral Avenue near where some local birders have hung portions of a deer carcass. The boreals, as well as many of the woodpeckers, are drawn to the protein of the deer meat. If you would like the chance to see boreal chickadees, as well as redpolls, gray jays, black-backed woodpeckers, three-toed woodpeckers, northern hawk owls, great gray owls, boreal owls and snowy owls then you may want to take a trip to the bog. The Sax-Zim Bog Winter Birding Festival is coming up February 13th through the 15th. Registrations are accepted until January 31st, although the festival is limited to 150 registrants and I am not sure how many spots are still left. For more information you can check out the festival website Here. For more information on the bog you can check out the bog website or Mike Hendricks blog Colder By the Lake where Mike has documented most of the winter owl sightings in the state.

Photo Friday Challenge: Iconic

This weeks Photo Friday Challenge is Iconic. The bald eagle is an icon of the US and a symbol of freedom.
This photo was taken at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, MN in October of 2007.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Skywatch Friday

I took this shot at the Sax-Zim Bog Wildlife Management Area on January 10, 2009.This was my first trip up to Sax-Zim this winter. I try to get up there at least a couple of times each winter because it is probably the best place in Minnesota to see some unique birds that come down from up north during the winter. This year there have been more reports of owls then there have been in the last few years, at least since the big invasion of 2005-2005, so I have been excited to get up there but unfortunately the weather has not been so cooperative, at least not with my work schedule. The week before the tenth I kept looking at the weather forecast and things were not looking good so I figured that I would probably spend that Saturday birding close to home. When I got up that morning I got onto the Internet and checked out the weather maps and it looked like the Sax-Zim area might be clear so I decided to take a chance. My chance paid off as the weather was clear most of the day, there were some clouds that moved in the evening, and I was able to get some great pics of boreal chickadees, redpolls, gray jays and more. As I was about to call to a day, and start the two and a half hour drive home, I noticed the moon in the eastern horizon. So I stopped to take this picture. About 10 minutes later, as I was driving down highway 7 on my way out of the bog, I spotted a great gray owl perched on a power pole on the side of the road. It was a good day.