Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pelicans and Wing-spreading Posture

This morning there were several groups of American white pelicans resting on or near sandbars near the west end of Lake Byllesby, near Randolph, Minn. They were far enough out that we needed the spotting scope or a strong camera zoom to really see what was going on.

What appeared at first glance to be one large bird (above) turned out to be two (below).

An American white pelican's enormous wings, with a span of  roughly 8 to 9 feet, are one of the most beautiful sights in birddom. A couple of the birds today were holding their wings outspread in the behavior we've also seen in vultures and cormorants. It may be done to dry feathers; it may be to absorb warmth (thermoregulation); or perhaps other reasons. See, e.g., Whatever the reason, we saw a nice demonstration of it today. This is a gorgeous display of the black tips on the otherwise white wings of an American white pelican.

There is a good overview of American white pelicans and both their historical and recent presence in Minnesota, where it is a "species of special concern," here.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Ring-necked Duck vs. Scaup

In a recent post I showed a rather indistinct photo of what we concluded was a ring-necked duck (or two). Here is a better shot I got yesterday that provides a nice comparison between the ring-necked duck and a scaup, which appear quite similar at a glance, with dark heads, breasts, and tails, lighter flanks, and bluish/grayish bills.

The duck in the foreground is the ring-necked duck. According to Sibley (Field Guide to Eastern Birds, 2003), the black back and the white "spur" on the side (just behind the base of the neck) are distinctive, as is the white outline on the bill. As I mentioned in the earlier post, the sharp angle to the head is also diagnostic. As Sibley puts it, this duck is "best identified by tall head with sharp peak on rear crown." (The white marking on the bill also tempts one to call this a "ring-billed" duck -- a good sign that actually it is a ring-necked duck. Go figure.)

The duck to the rear is a scaup. It lacks the field marks of the ring-necked duck that I noted above, and has white flanks and a gray back, in contrast to the ring-necked duck's gray flanks and black back. The greater and lesser scaup are very similar. I'm guessing this is a lesser scaup, based on the fairly tall head, which is the main way of distinguishing it from the greater scaup, which has a larger, more rounded head. However, from this angle it's difficult to say for sure. The lesser scaup is also the more likely species to be found here, as they winter all across the southern tier of the U.S. as well as on the coasts, while the greater scaup is said to prefer salt water and winters mainly on the coasts, as well as some smaller inland areas in the south, from eastern Texas through Arkansas. See the comparative range maps: lesser scaup vs. greater scaup. This is also borne out in Minnesota eBird records for the two: lesser scaup vs. greater scaup.

Today we saw our first northern shovelers of the season (boldly colored ducks with enormous bills), and a belted kingfisher. I am keeping a 2014 bird list (also available from the page links at the top of the blog). We've often kept records of what we've seen, but this is the first time in a while we've started a numbered list early in the season, and I'm hoping to keep it going throughout the year. We're up to 34 species so far, and with spring migration really getting started, that should keep going up pretty steadily.

Happy birding!

Friday, April 4, 2014

More Hooded Mergansers

I can't get enough of these diving ducks. They are so striking-looking, yet somehow comical in the intensity of the yellow eye, the sharpness of the bill, and the startling, quasi-alien appearance of their crests, which they can raise and lower.

Below is a cluster of hoodies from the larger group of 30-40 that has been hanging around on the Superior Drive pond. Note a mallard taking off at left. (Click on the photo to see it much larger.)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Ducks are Here

On Sunday morning the pond south of Superior Drive in Northfield was still largely ice-covered. Later that day and the next, the temperatures reached well into the 50s, and at some point the ice went out. We heard reports of swans there on Tuesday and headed over there after work. No swans were to be seen, but there were 14 common mergansers, two dozen hooded mergansers (plus another four on the north pond), some short-necked Canada geese, a few mallards and a gull. There was also another pair of ducks we couldn't quite be sure of through the binoculars, but after the fact, based on my photos, we were able to be fairly sure they were ring-necked ducks.

Male Common Merganser - so handsome; larger than a Mallard

Female Common Merganser

Hooded Mergansers

Probably these are Ring-necked Ducks (note sharp slope of head)

This is one of my favorite times in the birding year, enjoying the great variety of migrating ducks that appear as soon as the ponds open up. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Spring and Ice at River Bend

On this nicest weekend day we've seen in months, with highs close to 60 F., Dave and I headed down to River bend Nature Center for a walk. Our first destination was the waterfall that's just off the west side of the main drive, which I understand is fairly dry much of the year, but is cascading most attractively during the spring melt. Actually, even the main drive itself has a lot of water flowing over it in spots. River Bend is a wonderfully wet place right now, as a severe winter's worth of snow melts and brings the land back to life.

After enjoying the waterfall, we headed down towards the river, which the waterfall's stream feeds into. On the way down, we saw four cedar waxwings in the tops of several nearby trees. I could barely tell what I was seeing as I took this photo (which has been cropped but is otherwise unedited), so I was pleased at how clearly it came out.

From a bench at this point, we looked down upon the river, which at River Bend is the Straight River, not the Cannon. We could see two young ladies playing around, and eventually we realized they were walking on and around huge slabs of broken-up ice that had come off the river.

We were soon to encounter many of these ourselves as we walked the Trout Lily trail around the east tip of the big bend in the river that gives the nature center its name.

There's my foot for size reference. These blocks were thick -- some of them as high as my knee.

I've seen ice breaking up in the Cannon River before, but never big slabs that had beached themselves like these. I was fascinated to see ice crystals seemingly calving off the big blocks like icebergs off glaciers. The crystals, or ice shards, ran vertically through the ice, rather than being in horizontal layers.

So on this lovely warm day, our focus ended up being on ice -- the paradox of a Minnesota spring.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Late Winter Catch-up

It's been a brutal winter, and here it is the fourth week of March and we're still getting snow and well-below-normal temperatures. Here are a few of the photos I've taken from inside my house recently. The squirrels have been showing great gymnastic ability. The deep snow makes the squirrel baffles less effective, but I don't begrudge them the sustenance. They still work pretty hard for it.

I love it when the light hits the red spot on the back of a male downy or hairy woodpecker's head. This is a downy on our suet log -- note the tiny, pencil-point beak. So cute.

I like this final shot of a female cardinal, which shows how they turn seeds into an up-and-down orientation to crack the shells. And I rarely get this nice a few of a bird's eye. As always, click on the photo for a larger view.

Spring is getting here, even though it doesn't feel very springy. Recent phenology notes:

  • We started seeing a robin on our (snow-covered) lawn about two weeks ago. A few nights ago, friends on social media were reporting large flocks of them in treetops and on the ground. Some robins do stay year-round, but they suddenly seem to be more prominent.
  • Red-winged blackbirds were trilling in the trees by the Cannon River yesterday.
  • My friend Mary of the My Northern Garden blog reported seeing a great blue heron in flight near the wetlands off the east end of Jefferson Parkway.
  • A few days ago I saw a crow on Woodley Street with nesting material in its beak
  • Birder Dave Bartkey of Faribault reported an osprey flying overhead, north of Faribault, which he said was by far his earliest date for this species.
There is hope! Hang in there. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Red-bellied Woodpecker Again

The feeders were very busy the last couple of days, primarily with many house finches (I counted as many as 22), but also with occasional nuthatches, goldfinches, chickadees, juncos and woodpeckers. This handsome fellow, a red-bellied woodpecker, has been coming by fairly often. I posted some photos of what is probably the same bird in December, but I can't get enough of his beautiful red-orange cap and dashing black tail feathers, that bold round eye and that formidable beak. He is quick to fly away if he senses movement from inside the house, so I always move slowly when I see him, trying not to spook him.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Victim of the Cold?

What effects of the recent extreme cold have you seen where you are? Since we emerged from the bitter cold snap of the week before last (though we're now in another, not quite as severe, wave of the same), I am sad to note that we haven't seen any red-breasted nuthatches, which are among my favorite small birds and which we previously saw frequently at our peanut feeder. I'm not sure if it was a single individual or a pair that visited us so regularly, but whichever it was, I fear it, or they, did not survive the arctic cold. I salute and remember them. And I'll let you know if, happily, we see them again.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Dragonfly at McKnight Prairie - Summer

How about a little respite from winter? I just found this draft post, which I'd started last summer. I was fascinated by the clear wings on this dragonfly that we spotted at the McKnight Prairie, and I spent time trying to identify it but never arrived at an answer. The dragonfly identification site I found didn't give an option for a clear-winged insect with a brown, tan or reddish abdomen, so I was at a loss. All ye odonata enthusiasts, feel free to chime in!