Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sky Watch Friday: Great Blue Herons

One of my favorite signs of spring are when the great blue herons come back into the area and begin to nest. I am lucky because there is a small heron rookery located on an island in the North Mississippi Regional Park, which is not that far from where I work.
I began watching the heron rookery in about mid March this year and I have made several trips there since. On my first trip to the park in March I was able to stand on parts of the river, along the shore, that were still frozen. By the end of March all of the ice had melted and the Mississippi river had flooded its banks. This made it more difficult to get good pics because many of the locations that had the best view of the rookery were flooded out.
On my last visit, which was April 9th, the Mississippi had resided quite a bit and I was able to get some better pics. At this point most of the herons were paired up and going through the nesting rituals. Both of these pics are of male herons, who's job it is to go out and find sticks to bring back to the nest. He will then present them to the female, who stays at the nest, and she will use the sticks to remodel the nest.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Watery Wednesday: Blue-winged Teal

It has been hard to go out and get pics lately. I have been trying to put in as much time at The Raptor Center as possible while still maintaining my full work schedule and many of the days when I have had time the weather has not been very cooperative.
I was able to get out for a bit last Thursday and Friday, after work and training, and I was hoping that I would spot my first warblers of the year. I was able to spend a few hours birding at the old Cedar Avenue Bridge area on Friday but unfortunately I did not find any warblers. I did find this very cooperative blue-winged teal however.
These ducks are fairly common through out most of the northern portions of North America during the summer. They are usually found in shallow ponds and wetlands where they forage for aquatic plants seeds and invertebrates by dabbling. Dabbling is when the duck keeps most of its body on the surface of the water but lowers its head under the water to look for food. Seeing blue-winged teal is actually not a great sign if you are a birder in the Twin Cities this year. Blue-winged teal are one of the last ducks to migrate in the spring which means that if they are around then the waterfowl migration is pretty much over. This is very unfortunate since there really was not much of a waterfowl migration to speak of this year.

Monday, April 27, 2009

My World:Marjorie McNeely Conservatory

Last week I decided to buy another camera. Prior to this we only had two digital cameras, my 4oD and my wife's Rebel XT. Often when I go out shooting during the summer I take two cameras, one with my 300mm 2.8 and a doubler for photographing birds and animals and the other with my 100-400mm with an extension tube which I use to photograph insects. So I was tired of always borrowing the XT, which I do not like, and worried about what would happen if my 40D malfunctioned so that is what prompted me to but another camera.
I decided not to spend too much money, I am hoping that Canon comes out with the 60D soon and that it will come with the HD video feature that they are including with most new models, so I found a refurbished 40D at B&H Photo for a good price. It arrived at the end of the week and since it was refurbished I wanted to go out and test it right away. Since I still had to work and then had to go in for training at The Raptor Center I needed some place that was quick and easy to get to to test out the new gear. I ended up at the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory in St Paul.
The conservatory is a part of the Como Zoo complex and is comprised of seven indoor areas and three outdoor gardens. The outdoor gardens, which consists of the Japanese Garden, Water Lilies, and the Enchanted or Butterfly Garden are not up this early in the year but there was still plenty of work for the new camera inside. In the center of the facility I found the Palm Dome, where different types of palm trees stretched up to touch the dome high above.
The fern room was misty and humid which is a perfect climate for ferns but not so nice for me.
One of the most popular gardens is the Sunken Garden. Many people have made arrangements to have prom or wedding photos taken here.
The tropical encounters are was cool with many exotic plants that we do not usually see in Minnesota, like the oblong-fruited chamaedorea palmae pictured above. I will need to go back again to get some more flower pics, especially when the outside gardens are up and running, but for now I tested out my new camera and got a few nice pics.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Today's Flowers: Spiral Ginger

This weeks flower is not a native of Minnesota. This is spiral ginger. It is named for the spiral shape that the leaves take near the flower. The 6 lighter cylinders are actually the flowers of the plant however right now it is not in bloom.
These plants are native to the tropic areas of South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. This particular variation is from South America however I took the picture at the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory which is a part of the Como Zoo in St Paul, MN.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Camera Critters: Life of a Great Horned Owl

I have been fortunate, over the past few years, to have the opportunity to observe the day to day behavior of great horned owls. Since they are crepuscular, meaning that they are most active at dusk and dawn, they re often difficult to find in the wild, even though they are quite common through out most of North America.

great horned owl in nestThe best time to see great horned owls is during the nesting season. Mating usually begins in January or February. Courtship usually begins with an intimate conversation between prospective mates that can often be heard from a great distance. This is followed by a little foreplay, the birds rub their beaks together and preen each other, and then it is time to find a nest. Great horned owls do not build their own nest they borrow someone else's, usually a hawk, crow, heron or squirrels. Once the eggs are laid the female stays on the nest night and day and incubates them.

great horned owl While the female great horned owl sits on the nest incubating her clutch of 1 to 5 eggs the male spends his days perched near by. When perched the pattern of the feathers on the stomach and chest help it to blend in and camouflage itself next to a tree trunk. This is helpful because any hawks that spotted the owl resting during the day would most likely attack it. Crows also pose a problem during the day. The owls have very little to fear physically from the crows but if spotted the crows will usually mob the owl. This means that they will dive and squawk at the owls which will alert any prey or other predators in the area. Crows are the best way to find owls when it is not nesting season, just follow their racket.

great horned owl The males job is to bring home the bacon, or in this case mouse, rat, squirrel, rabbit, skunk, bird or other prey species, of which there are at least 250 different types identified. They are ambush hunters, meaning that they perch on a branch or snag until they see or hear some prey below then they swoop down silently killing the prey with their talons.

great horned owlLike all raptors, great horned owls swallow their food, it's tough to chew if you don't have teeth. If the prey is small enough they will eat it whole but if it is larger, the preferred food of great horns is rabbit, then the owl will use its talons to hold the food and grab it with its curved beak, pulling back with its strong neck muscles to rip the meat into bite size pieces. They will usually eat everything, even though they can not digest bones, fur or feathers. Six to ten hours after eating the owl will regurgitate the indigestible material in the form of an owl pellet.

great horned owl chicks in nest After 26 to 35 days the eggs finally hatch. The young owl chicks are covered in white down feathers. At this point the female may leave the nest for a short period of time however she stays close so that she can protect the helpless chicks and help to keep them warm, especially in Minnesota where the eggs can hatch in February when the temps are often below zero.

great horned owl chicks in nestEach night or morning the adults deposit food that they have caught into the nest. As the chicks have gotten larger mom spends less time at the nest. She still comes back to feed the young ones who do not yet have the strength to rip prey into bite size pieces.

great horned owl chicks in nest As they get older the chicks down feathers are replaced by adult feathers and they begin to more closely resemble great horned owls and look less like Ewoks. As they get larger and take up more room in the nest mom spends more time away from home, often stopping by only for meals. At 6 to 7 weeks the young owls get antsy and begin to leave the nest to climb and explore neighboring branches. At this point they are referred to as branchers, however they still will not be able to fly for a few more weeks, at about 9 to 10 weeks. Once they are able to fly the adults will continue to feed them for a few more weeks while they learn to hunt on their own. Once they have been weaned off of relying on mom and dad for food the young owls will continue to stay around the nesting territory for the remainder of the summer then come fall they will set off on their own.

great horned owl chicks in nestAll of these pictures were taken at a nest in Lakeville, MN this year. I first photographed the female on the nest on January 31st. While she was on the nest I was frequently able to find the male, who is featured in the second, third and fourth pics, in the woods nearby. The first picture of the chicks was taken on March 28th. They were probably born near the beginning of March but since the nest is fairly deep they could not be seen until they got a little bigger. The last three pics were taken on April 23rd. You can see that much of their down is gone. If they are not already branching, they did not on my last visit, then they will be soon. You can tell that one of the chicks looks a little bit larger and more developed. This chick is more likely the older of the two.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Crex Meadows

The last couple of days have been really nice. With temps in the 70s and 80s it has begun to feel like summer. Too bad I could not get today off, one of our crew had to go to Baltimore this week so the rest of us had to stick around, or I might have made my first run of the year up to Crex Meadows. Crex is a Wildlife Management Area located on the Minnesota and Wisconsin border on the Wisconsin side. It is one of the places where I like to spend a lot of time at during the warmer months but since it takes about an hour and a half to get there I usually only go on weekends or when I have a day off. My last trip to Crex was last October, 10-25 to be exact. It was one of those nice Indian summer days that we had right before it got cold. It was a pretty good day for birding also. This was the first northern shrike that I saw last fall.
A population of sandhill cranes lives in Crex through out the summer. On a few occasions we have even been lucky enough to see a sandhill pair out with its new colt, that is what baby sandhills are called.
In the fall the sandhill poulation grows as birds from all around the area converge on Crex and use it as a staging area for the fall migration. Soon after these pictures where taken these sandhills were on their way to some where warm like the New Mexico, south Texas or Florida.
Another visitor to the refuge during the fall are rough legged hawks. These birds nest up on the northern tundra of Alaska and Canada. Most spend their winter down in the lower 48 states. This one may have spent the winter at Crex or he might have just been stopping off to look for some lunch on his way further south.
One of the most common raptors found at Crex is the bald eagle. The abundance of water on the refuge and fish that are found in the water provide for numerous nesting pair in and around the park. During the winter these eagles will head south in search of open water and may end up a couple of hours south at Reeds Landing in southern Minnesota.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sky Watch Friday: Raptor Release

Following up from yesterday's B-Earthday post here is a picture of me releasing a sharp-shinned hawk that I adopted up at Hawk Ridge last October.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy B-Earthday

Today is a very important day. Each year we set aside April 22 as Earth Day, a day in which we celebrate nature and our environment. Earthday was founded by US Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin back in 1970. His purpose was to bring the growing environmental problems facing the country and the world to the national stage. Although the initial Earthday was a huge success, approximately 20 million Americans participated, and future Earthdays were even larger, in 1990 over 200 million people in 141 countries participated, many of the environmental issues still exist today and some have even become larger and more urgent. So please take some time today and think about what each of us can do every day to help bring these issues under control so that we can save this planet, our home, for the future.

Earthday also has another meaning for me. April 22, 2007 was the day that the Ecobirder blog was born so today is Ecobirders 2nd B-Earthday. Last year for our B-Earthday I posted my top 10 favorite posts of year one. I thought about doing it again, except for year 2, today but then I got to thinking that since it is my B-Earthday I should get to take it easy for the day. So I have decided to put together this post using only pictures that other people took. Some you may recognize, since they may have been posted before, but many of these pictures have never made it on to the blog.

These first two pictures appeared back in February of 2008. The picture above was taken by my wife Michelle at Colville Park in Redwing, MN. The immature eagle that I am holding was one that Michelle and I rescued from Crex Meadows on August 12, my birthday, 2007. When we found him he had a broken wing and he could not fly so I wrestled him into a cage and we brought him in to The Raptor Center.Six months after we brought him in he was rehabilitated and ready to be released back into the wild. Fortunately I was already on The Raptor Center's list to release a bird so I requested to release this particular eagle. On a snowy February 28th, 2008 I released the bird at Colville Park in Redwing. John Mikes, who blogs at Weekend Shooter, decided to come down and help us celebrate the release and he took the awesome picture above as the eagle took wing.
This next series of pics appeared in a post a little over a month ago, March 8th, 2009. The Bird that I am holding is a northern goshawk. I adopted this bird up at Hawk Ridge on October 4th, 2008. During the fall migration there are several stations around the ridge where raptors are captured and then banded.
Often the banders will take the banded raptors up to the ridge where they can be adopted. The person who adopts the bird gets the privilege of releasing it back into the wild. This is one of the ways that the Hawk Ridge Observatory raises money to help pay for their public outreach programs which educate people about raptors. The photo with me holding the goshawk as well as the one above with me releasing the bird were taken by Debbie Waters, who is the Education Director at the Hawk Ridge Observatory.
On Saturday October 18th I took my 3rd trip of the fall up to Hawk Ridge and while I was there I adopted and released two more raptors. The first was this feisty little merlin falcon, pictured above.
The second bird that I adopted that afternoon was a sharp-shinned hawk. This sharpy, like most Accipiters, was very vocal and let me know in no uncertain terms that it was not in a good mood. Both of the last two pictures where taken by Eric Bruhnke who was a count interpreter at Hawk Ridge during the fall.
Here are a couple more pictures that have not yet appeared on the blog. Back in March the World Bird Sanctuary, out of St Louis, MO, held a couple of programs at the Carpenter Nature Center. They brought several owls with them that are not native to North America.
Since I help out a bit at CNC I volunteered to come in and help out and take some pictures of the event. I also took the opportunity to become a contributor to the Friends of CNC, like a lot of charitable organizations they have been severely affected by the countries economic troubles and I knew that they could make good use of my donation. Because of my donation I received the privilege of having my picture taken with the World Bird Sanctuaries tawny owl.
These last couple of pics are from the past couple of weeks. They were taken by Kelly Scott, a member of The Raptor Center staff and my Wednesday Crew leader. This picture I posted a couple of days ago.

Here is another one that Kelly took that I have not posted yet. This is me with Artemis, one of The Raptor Center peregrine falcons that I am working with in my handler training. Even though my initial training is almost over with, I just have a few days left, I will continue to work with Arte as well as beginning to work with some of the other education birds.

Well I hope that you enjoyed this years B-Earthday, I think that I prefer to be behind the camera but it is really hard to hold a bird and take a photo at the same time. I hope that you all find the Ecobirder blog fun, interesting and inspiring and that you continue to visit over the next year.

Happy Wordless Earthday: Red-tailed Hawk