Friday, November 30, 2012

Pine Grosbeaks Visit the Cabin!

While at the family cabin in Lakeshore, Minn., over Thanksgiving we had some new feathered visitors: Pine Grosbeaks!

In the six winters I've been at the cabin, we've not had them in the yard, let alone lined up on the railing enjoying oilers:

They're regular visitors up at "The Shack," but it's exciting to see them this far south. The flock was all first-year birds or females, nor red males in the dozen or so birds. This one could be a male on his way to his second year molt when he'll develop his bright red feathers (note the coloring developing on its chest):

This is most likely an adult female:

The Pine Grosbeaks are just a tad larger than the Evening Grosbeaks, making them the largest of the winter finches. And, like other winter finches, they're irruptive meaning that there are years when the head south in mass numbers and this is one of those years. I'm hoping we'll have them at our Afton home, outside the Twin Cities, this winter, too!

For lovely shots of the colorful male Pine Grosbeak, check out Scott's recent blog post.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Juvenile E. Kingbird Hovering

Eastern Kingbirds catch their food on the wing and often hover while chasing prey and to glean bugs. Last August, this juvenile kingbird was doing a fairly good job of capturing insects. It would hover, dip into the tall grass, soar around, hover and dip back down into the grass. After watching it for awhile I think it was doing a combination of scaring up bugs to catch, by going into the grass, as well as gleaning bugs off the vegetation.

Monday, November 12, 2012

First Snow of Season

I awoke this morning to fluffy white flakes drifting by my bedroom window. Overall, maybe 1-2" of snow cover on the ground. Just enough to make it pretty outside.

Took a break from work this afternoon to enjoy the birds in snow. We have a couple White-throated Sparrows still hanging around. This one was tucked back in one of our brush piles  - could just barely see it through all the tall grass.

Juncos are plentiful and this one was munching away on seed heads from a wild aster right outside our living room window:

Throughout our acreage we leave several brush piles for the birds to use. They provide cover and roosting spots for the birds and are always busy places:

This junco has quite a bit of reddish brown on it. I got a better look while it took the time to scratch and preen:

So glad snow is here!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Hiking Baxter SP: Chimney Pond

During our trip out east in October, we spent several days exploring Baxter State Park in Maine. It's a stunning park and has an incredible story behind its founding: organized and bought by a private citizen for Maine residents to enjoy a truly wild place. ("Legacy of a Lifetime" is a great read about the founding of the park.)

We spent our first full day in the park hiking up to Chimney pond, a tarn set in a cirque with stunning Mt. Katahdin in the background (off to the right, summit not shown here).

First, let me say the grueling hike was well worth it. Second, let me say that the hike was grueling not because it was 3.3 miles "straight up" as the park officials kept touting. Nor that it's an elevation gain of more than 4,000 feet. It's because there was basically no trail. Or, Mainers have a different idea of the word "trail" than we've experienced in hiking Arizona, Colorada and our home state of Minnesota. I don't expect, or even want, a paved or groomed path, but some semblance of a path would be nice.

This is a standard section of Chimney Pond trail:

It's not a trail. It's hiking in a rock-strewn steambed. The worst part? If you're under 5'5" like I am, you're continually clambering over rocks that are taller than your knees. This does not make for a pleasant seven mile hike, nor for a fun descent.

The scenery was spectacular though and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Well, maybe two heartbeats...

It was an overcast day when we set out and about two-thirds of the way up the trail it began to snow. Our first snow of the season!

You think the above photo is of a stream? Ha. Guess again. That'd be the TRAIL. I can't imagine the trail is open in the spring, it must just gush water.

We did, however, cross over many beautiful streams and waterfalls en route:

There's a campground at Chimney Pond, right before you come to the lake. It's where I saw my first-ever wild Pine Marten. I did quite the happy dance once I got over my shock of coming face to face with one of these amazing creatures. And no, I didn't take the time to get my camera out of the backpack - some moments are just meant to be enjoyed with all your senses.

While having a snack in one of the Appalachian-style lean-tos that was vacant, we chatted with a couple from Ohio who had hit Baxter on a spur-of-the-moment road trip. When they asked if we would take a photo, Dean suggested walking over to the lake for it. They stared at us. "There's a lake up here?" Seriously. We all got a good laugh out of that.

Here's Dean at the lake:

On the way up, Lower Basin lake had been engulfed in a cloud so we kept going. On the way back down, the clouds had lifted a bit and we snapped this photo right before heavy snow began falling:

Before crossing the final footbridge into Chimney Pond campground, we left behind the first snowman of the year:

By the time we passed it on the way down, someone had added black eyes and a red piece of yarn for a smiling mouth. Gotta love your fellow hikers!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Northwoods Raven

Why is it that while I'm fond of crows, they don't come anywhere near to ravens in capturing my heart. Maybe it's because ravens are quieter. Or maybe it's because I associate ravens with my getaways up north. Whatever the reason, ravens fascinate me.

During the winter, when we can explore miles of woods on snowshoe that are simply inaccessible during the summer, we follow the ravens to winter kills. Talk about great nature viewing! The natural buffet attracts an amazing number of critters.

I love this raven photo: Poised on a forest snag. Pretty much where you find them, unless they're soaring overhead. Based on the brown tinge to its feathers and the reddish interior of its mouth, this is a first-year bird, born this spring. Speaking of feathers: I'm amazed at the color of the feathers in the photo, especially the purplish ones in its neck. I didn't see them while taking the pictures: I'd come around the corner on a trail and surprised the bird. I only was able to snap two quick photos before it lifted off. It's always nice when you find a fun surprise like this in your images!

For a really neat look at a raven's "ruff," visit Mia's On The Wing Photography site.  Of interest, it's not actually called a "ruff" on a raven. Other birds, like the Ruffed Grouse, have, well...ruffs, but this area of neck feathers is called "hackles" on a raven - like you'd find on a dog. Not sure how that difference in terminology developed, but it'll make good research this winter!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Last Dragonfly Image of the Season?

One of the largest dragonflies, the Lake Darner (Aeshna eremita) has a wingspan of nearly 6." This was one of the few photos I was able to snap of one during my fall camping trip. Unfortunately, I never saw it land on anything other than logs and trees, which don't make the greatest backgrounds. On the bright side, you can see how easily they blend into their surroundings!

Turns out they rarely land on vegetation and even then, it's usually the females while laying eggs. They also are continually on the move, searching for prey - they don't hover like many other types of dragonflies. Their preferred habitat is clear, open lakes and slow moving streams, along with bogs and fens.

One of the determining ID factors is the segmentation or notch in the lateral stripes on the thorax. This isn't the greatest angle to see them, but thanks to its clear wings, you can see the large indentation in the blue stripe here (right side, kind of in the "shoulder" area):

Lake Darners, like many other darners, are migratory dragonflies and are found throughout Canada, the Northern United States, down along the West Coast and into the Rockies. In my research I couldn't find anything that says where they actually migrate to, so if anyone has that information, please comment below.

Here's a really neat article on how scientists are studying dragonfly migration by The Dragonfly Woman (@DragonflyWoman2).

Monday, October 22, 2012

Great Black-backed Gull

While exploring the cliffy shoreline of Acadia National Park this October, we came across the large Great Black-backed Gulls.

Being from the Midwest, I'm used to Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls and all our more diminutive gulls. I was amazed at the size of the Great Black-backed gulls - one of the largest gulls in the world. They can weigh up to five pounds with an average wingspan of 60."  (Herring Gulls typically max out at under three pounds.)

The gull shown here is at least four years old. It takes that long for their adult plumage to develop.

Like other gulls, they eat a varied diet including fish, carrion, eggs, insects and the occasional McDonald's hamburger and fry.

They're primarily found along Eastern Seaboard and around the Eastern Great Lakes.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A Lucky Duck

The other evening I was surprised by a hissing black and white critter hiding in the tall grass around our mailbox. I assumed it was a feral kitten, got gloves and went to pick it up.

Imagine my disbelief when a male Ruddy Duck came hurtling out of the grass to snap at my ankles. Feisty little guy!

After chasing him down the road a bit and pulling in the assistance of Dean and our neighbor, we corralled him in Dean's sweatshirt and put him in a basket for safe keeping overnight until I could take him into WRC with me on Thursday. He had a bit of blood smear along a wing, but I didn't really look at him much, I didn't want to stress him out any further.

He's since been examined and treated by Vet Renee Schott at WRC. I wrote up a Case Study for him, you can read about it, see his admit exam video and photos of his x-rays here.

I still smile at comment made by a woman who was driving by, only to have to wait for us to herd the duck off the road before she could move on: She asked in a stunned voice "Are you chasing a DUCK down the road?"  I explained that yes, indeed I was, and that I worked at WRC so I'd take him in to get help. Her reply: "Well, that's one lucky duck!"

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Juvenile Hooded Merganser

This juvenile Hooded Merganser was quite curious and came over to the shore to check out me and my camera. Isn't it nice when Fortune smiles?

When it finally decided to leave, it gave me a great look at its white underwing:

Monday, October 8, 2012

Spotted Tussock Moth Caterpillar

I was walking along the creek and noticed this silhouette:

You have to see what it is, right? Turns out it's a cute little bumblebee-like caterpillar. Once I noticed them, I realized that they were all over our acreage. I mean, all over. We must've seen one every 10-15 feet.

They're the caterpillar of the Spotted Tussock Moth - Hodges #8214 (Lophocampa maculata), not to be confused with the "Yellow Wooly Bear."

The reason they were all over? Their main diet is willow, alder, birch, poplar and maple. Check. Check. Check. Check and check! Apparently we own the perfect breeding ground for them.

Other than the color there's another very noticeable thing about these cute caterpillars: They motor! I don't think I've ever seen a faster caterpillar.

They also seem to have a penchant for hanging off the end of leaves. This one has hanging a foot above the creek. I wonder how many accidentally drown...

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Forysthia and Finches

Our cold nights have brought a color change to our forsythia: leaves are turning a deep eggplant. There are always birds hanging out in it, because it's directly below one of our feeders, but today I noticed that nearly all the regular backyard visitors are there busily picking off the newly forming buds.

With them doing this now, and the juncos doing it in the late spring, it's amazing that we have any blooms at all on the poor plant!

I love all the colors in this photo. The pale stems and the eggplant leaves of the forsythia, the bits of bright yellow on the finch, the bright lime green of the disappearing young bud and the red of the maple behind it bleeding through.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Watering Your Birds

Birds are attracted to moving water. And, having a bird bath or two in your yard will attract as many birds as a new feeder. In fact, it'll attract birds that don't normally visit feeders, like towhees, thrashers, thrush, vireos (like the one above) and... warblers.

Here in the Twin Cities, we've been in a drought since late August. I was watering our oak and pine trees one day when I noticed there were nearly 100 robins congregating in the damp areas. So now, when I water our trees, I give them a good soak, then I set the hose to a light spray, angle it up slightly so it arcs to the lower tree trunk by other shrubs and watch the birds flock.

A couple weeks ago I counted a dozen different warbler species, in addition to ovenbirds, veerys, towhees and the usual backyard birds.

I had fun taking photos of the birds as they literally seemed to play in the water. Here are some of my favorite photos. While they're not what many would call great photos, I like the textures and the spontaneity of the bathing birds. Hope you enjoy!  (Note that the silver streaks throughout the photos are water)

Yellow-rumped Warbler:

The yellow-rumps, like all the other warblers that I noted, also leaned into the spray with their mouths open. I didn't notice this with the chickadees, cardinals or other yard birds - just the warblers.

This little goldfinch reminds me of those old Memorex ads with the guy sitting in the black leather chair getting blown away by the sound (yes, I realize I just dated myself...).

When I went through my photos this bird threw me for a loop at first. I had assumed it was a yellow-rumped when I took the photo, but in reviewing I noticed the white tail patches and the yellow just starting on its head. It's a juvenile American Redstart.

Here's an adult female American Redstart

The next week, waves of Nashvilles came through:

Looks like we'll be in a continued drought for a while longer. If  you're in Minnesota or other drought areas where migration is occurring, set up a water spray and enjoy the birds!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Eastern Red-backed Salamander

During my recent camping trip, I spent nearly a week on our acreage that has a trout stream running through it before moving to my regular lakeside site. "The land" (we're creative) is a fabulous spot for exploring - I never know what I'm going to find.

While cleaning pine needles out of the dogs' water dish one morning, I went to pick up a twig and realized it was alive. With a red stripe:

This very cute critter is an Eastern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus). One of just six salamanders found in Minnesota.

It has some fascinating qualities:
 - it's the only Minnesota salamander to not go through an aquatic life phase. It spends its life entirely on land (I felt very sorry for it being trapped in 2" of water for who knows how long after learning this).
 - it's a lungless variety of salamander (largest salamander family). It gets all its oxygen through mucous membrane and skin gaseous exchange (now I felt doubly-bad - they must be able to go without oxygen for awhile!)

It's also one of our smallest salamanders, measuring in at a max of 5."

When the young are born, they look exactly like the adults, just teensier: only 1" long! They do not go through a metamorphsis.

Speaking of being born: Eastern Red-backed Salamander sex is occurring right now, and will continue into the early winter months. Even though they mate now, the female won't lay her eggs in a damp hollow log or a rock crevice until next spring. The clutch size is amazingly small: 15 or fewer eggs, average size is 8. And she only reproduces every other year.

But, she's a great mom! Once she lays her eggs she'll curl up around them and guard them for the two months it takes the eggs to hatch. Of course, a few weeks after they hatch they're entirely on their own - but at least she protects the eggs and gives them a good start on life.

And, she remembers her offspring. Eastern Red-backeds mark their territory through scent glands. In times of drought, when food sources are scare, the female will allow offspring back into her territory to hunt until the scarcity eases. Just her offspring, others are chased off. That's pretty neat.

Their diet is all sorts of invertabrates, including spiders, mites, worms, beetles, snails and even ants.

Logging has a very negative impact on these terrestrial amphibians and even fragmentation of forests can affect their population. Some research has found that it can take 40-60 years for their population to rebound in areas of heavy logging. They do best in undisturbed deciduous forests or mixed conifer forests (which is what our land is) with plenty of woodsy material on the forest floor.

During winter, they'll burrow down and enter a state of torpor, they do not actually hibernate. In fact, some references cited seeing them above ground and active on mild winter days. Unlike many of our tree frogs, Eastern Red-backeds can't survive freezing, so scientists believe they remain somewhat active underground during the winter. Discovery of full stomachs found in winter samples also points to the fact that the salamanders will awaken and feed, moving around as needed.

There are two other forms of the Eastern Red-backed Salamander: The red phase (crythristic) and the gray phase (leadback).

Challenge: Do you like looking for worms after an evening rain? If you live in Minnesota keep your eyes open for the gray-backed form. It's never been documented in the state! (Amphibians and Reptiles of Minnesota, Barney Oldfield and John Moriarity) *note that in the book they also list the red phase as having not been documented, but it since has been. A new update of the book will be available a year from now.

Amphibians and Reptiles of Minnesota
Grizzly Run

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ruffed Grouse: Not the Brightest Bulbs

One of the more common sights on the graveled backroads of Northeastern Minnesota is the Ruffed Grouse. From a distance they look like a birch branch or a spruce branch has broken off and is sitting in the road.

Upon closer inspection, and you can get amazingly close to these birds, that branch end will puff itself up and slowly strut off the road. Note that if you don't slow down when approaching them you're likely to clip one with your front bumper.

I saw a fair number of them throughout my recent camping trip, but it wasn't until Friday the 14th that I saw dozens of them along the roadsides. And what was the 15th? Grouse season opener. They're really not the brightest bulbs in the bird world. Pretty (and tasty) bulbs, but not very bright.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Phoebe? Pe-wee? We'll Just Say "Flycatcher"

While I love this photo, it's a lesson in not being distracted while taking photos. My phone rang with a must-answer call, and when I looked back up the bird was gone.

I had no side or back views of the bird and hadn't observed it long enough to notice if it was doing the signature tail-bob of an Eastern Phoebe.

To be honest, I had just assumed it was a phoebe until I looked more closely at the shape of the head, overall color and the beak. Now I'm thinking it was probably an Eastern Wood-pewee.

Either way, it's one of my favorite photos due to the colors and the pose of the bird. It's a bit overexposed, but for pretty bright mid-day sun, I'm happy with it. And, it's a great reminder to be "in the moment" more often.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Northern Escape

I'm enjoying two weeks of bliss at my favorite camping spot way up in Northeastern Minnesota, off the Arrowhead Trail. Fortunately, Dean was able to join me for a long weekend before heading back to the Cities to work. Here he is with Panzer enjoying a gorgeous sunset.

Now it's just me and the dogs enjoying nature, catching up on my reading and doing lots of fishing.

Many thanks to all of you who have shared my blog posts while I'm gone via Twitter and G+. Looking forward to catching up with you when I return!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Warbler Camo (or how to hide an American Redstart)

I chose not to crop this photo because I'm amazed at how well this female American Redstart is camouflaged in our birch tree. Even her body silhouette is close to the shape of the leaves.

This tree is a favorite of the gnatcatchers and all warblers. During spring and fall migration it shivers nonstop in the morning and evening hours as dozens of warblers flit through it picking bugs. The best part? It's only 20' from my favorite stoop sitting spot!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Visiting Ovenbird

I don't know why, but I'm thrown for a loop every time I see an Ovenbird. I always expect them to be smaller than they are. So I see this large, striped-breast bird in the undergrowth and inevitably I'm reaching for my book to look up thrushes with a head stripe (because what thrush has a head stripe???) when I realize it's an Ovenbird. Every time. My "Ovenbird" synapses must have a fatal error in them.

This one showed up in our backyard the other day. Everything is so dry here, our multiple birdbaths are a huge attraction right now.

Here's a good look at its unique head striping from the back:

The Ovenbird gets its name from its unique nest construction: with its curved top and open side it looks like a Dutch oven. Bill Leaman has a neat photo on his site.

Many people assume Ovenbirds are in the same family as thrushes (told you they look like thrushes!), but they're actually warblers. The Louisiana Waterthrush and the Northern Waterthrush (contrary to their names) are also warblers.

This Ovenbird is starting its journey to its wintering grounds in Florida, the Caribbean or Central America.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Indigo Buntings

I thought our Indigo Buntings had left. It's probably been three weeks since I've seen them at our Nyjer seed feeders. Turns out that they've just moved to the field area of our property. They must like some of the wild grasses that are coming into seed.

The interesting thing about this? They leave our yard EVERY YEAR the first week of August. I went back through my phenology. Now I suspect that they hadn't actually left, they had just abandoned the seed in the feeders for the fresh, tasty new grass seed. So much for that phenology record! 

I'll have to check the field better next August. I tend to avoid walking through our field in the summer - I'm afraid of disturbing (or worse yet stepping) on nests.

According to Minnesota birder and author Bob Janssen, the majority of Indigo Buntings are on the move in early to mid-September here in Minnesota. (his book, "Birds of Minnesota" is a phenomenal resource)

When I took the photo below I thought it was a female Indigo Bunting. It was a slightly overcast day and the bird was a fairly good distance away (and of course, no binocs on me). When I went through the photos I was delighted to realize that it was a first-year male Indigo Bunting. Look how nicely his blue feathers are coming in. He reminds me a bit of a mini-bluebird fledgling. Might be one of the cuter juvenile birds that I've ever seen. And don't you just love the red thing sticking out of his head? Had to laugh when I saw how perfectly (or imperfectly depending on how you consider such things) the fruit was placed.

Indigo Buntings aren't picky eaters. They pretty much eat everything: seeds, berries, fruit, and all types of insects.

There are two really cool things about Indigo Buntings:
1) they migrate at night using the stars for navigation
2) they don't learn their calls or songs from their parents, but rather neighboring buntings, and almost always just the males

The species has been moving gradually north, probably in conjunction with warming average temperatures, and can even be found periodically in Europe. It didn't say, but I'm guessing that the European sightings are the result of escaped caged birds. Apparently they're popular as pets in Europe, probably due to their beautiful singing voice.

Here in the States, they're found nearly everywhere except the Rockies and westward. They're also moving into southeastern Canada.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Eastern Kingbirds

The Eastern Kingbird family down the road from my house has been a gracious subject on which to experiment with my new camera lens.

One of my favorite birds, kingbirds are gregarious and tolerant of humans. They often sit on fences along rural roadsides, easily spotted as the large dark birds with a white tail edging. Well, comparatively large when looking at other songbirds found in prairie areas.

Here in Afton, we have the Eastern Kingbird, although from time to time a grey and yellow Western Kingbird shows up at the state park.

Why are they called kingbirds? They have a crown that they lift when threatened! I've never seen one, but according to Cornell's Lab of Ornithology they're yellow or orange or red. Must be amazing to see.

While they're with us here in the States, they're insectivores, raising their young on a sole diet of insects. Then, as summer heads into fall and they gear up for their long migration, they begin consuming fruit. Once they've migrated to South America though they consume a diet mainly of fruit.

I love how fluffy these juvenile kingbirds look. They'll become much darker, nearly black, as adults. The low evening sun added to the soft, rosy glow:

note: I thought I had something on my lens when I first saw this image and couldn't figure out why it was just on this series. Turns out those weird-looking gray splotches on the bottom of the photo are what sprays of grass seed look like (the green ones, not the yellow spikes) when they get between you and your subject!