Monday, May 31, 2010

Squirrel Antics

YouTube's smallest default embedding size is now too large for my main content area here, but oh well. Click on it again to watch it at the YouTube page. (Bonus: watch for two hummingbirds at the feeder early in the clip. I had no idea they were there until Dave noticed them when we were watching the video.)

Union Lake Outing

We tried an outing close to home late yesterday afternoon, heading just west of I-35 and south of Hwy 19 to Union Lake, a nice-size lake that has quite a few homes around it but in general remains fairly rustic in feel, with a lot of open country, both farmland and undeveloped land, around it.

Great Blue Herons were definitely the bird of the day. We saw a lot of white pelicans as well, but couldn't get close enough to get any decent photos. In the photo immediately below, two Great Blues perch on dead tree snags above the water. This was taken at considerable distance and cropped significantly, so the resolution isn't too great, but it was a nice opportunity to see two so close together.

Next, a heron in flight, also taken at quite a distance. Note how straight they align their legs and body for good flight aerodynamics. Herons tuck their necks back in flight, so if you see something that looks like this but its neck is sticking out as far in front as its legs are in back, it's probably a Sand Hill Crane.

Then we noticed a heron much closer to us, walking along a nearby dock.

Balancing on one leg...

We also saw some non-avian life forms, including this turtle by the side of the road...

...and this handsome and well-endowed horse, along with two others...

...and something like a woodchuck, which I didn't get a picture of.

But the highlight of the day for Dave was spotting one of his favorite birds, the Bobolink. We didn't capture a photo of this grassland-loving bird (grouped with the meadowlark and just before the blackbirds in the normal field-guide taxonomy), but the habitat shown below is just what it likes. It is a distinctive bird, the breeding male being black underneath and largely white above, with a pale yellow cap on its head. Its song is described as "a rolling, bubbling, jangling series of notes, given in flight."

Open grasslands are disappearing even faster than wetlands, especially with people now more sensitized to the issue of wetland preservation. While the Cornell Lab of Ornithology doesn't list the Bobolink as a bird whose conservation status is of grave concern, they do note that it is declining over much of its range, with earlier mowing of hay fields than in the past leading to loss of nests, and subject to being shot as an agricultural pest on its wintering grounds south of the equator.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Giving One Foot a Rest

A mallard by the east bank of the Cannon River this week ...
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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Difficulties in Photographing Diving Ducks

I was trying to capture images of two small diving ducks -- perhaps female hooded mergansers -- on the river this morning. Whoops, where did they go? Only a spreading whirlpool to show that something ducked under the water. (Hey, that prompts a quick etymological query, and sure enough it looks as if the verb duck is indeed related to the word for the bird. Or vice-versa, actually, as it appears that the origin is a word meaning "to dive.")

Oh, I know she was here a moment ago!

Hey, this time there are TWO little whirlpools showing where BOTH ducks were a second earlier!

Finally, there you are!
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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Goslings Close Up

I was experimenting with how close I can crop in on goslings with this new camera. With the higher zoom (up to 12x on the optical zoom, compared to my old 3x), so I can get closer in to start with, and a larger photo size than previously, I can crop in quite a bit and still end up with a decent photo.

Several of the photos here are further crops of photos in the previous post, which were themselves already cropped. The one below is about at the limit -- it's starting to lose resolution -- but for web use it's still not bad.

I particularly like the lighting and the downy texture on the somewhat larger goslings below.

Goose Daycare

This seems an inordinately large swarm of goslings (22, at least) for this pair of adults, but Canada geese are known for setting up "creches," where a small number of adults watch over goslings from more than one family. If you click on the images above or below and look more closely, you can see that they are not all the same age. Look for differences in neck and bill length, as well as overall size.

Somehow I missed this next one on the first round, so I've added it now. I think the caption on this one should be "Like Herding Cats!" -- You can just see by the snaky neck on that day-care lady (or day-care gent) that its singular thought is, "Now you pesky kids GET over there where you belong!"

Here (below) is a single family group with younger, yellower kiddos. How quickly they grow up.

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mystery Wildflower in Garden: Goat's Beard

A tall, unfamiliar, untidy, somewhat grass-like plant shot up quite suddenly on the edge of a small flower bed by our front door. I even wondered briefly if it could be corn, planted from a stray bit of birdseed. Then it formed a narrow flower pod that looked a bit like very small okra, and one day when I was home for lunch I noticed it had opened into a yellow flower rather like a largish, single-layer dandelion. The flower closed again in the afternoon, which seemed like odd behavior -- plenty of flowers close at night, but I hadn't seen one close not long after noon before. Now it has three or four flower heads, each on its own stalk branching from the main stem.

Well, all these clues and a scan of our Wildflowers of Wisconsin book (hey, close enough), quickly led to an identification: Goat's Beard, Tragopogon dubius (great name, especially if dubius means what it sounds like).
Sometimes called Yellow Goatsbeard, this European import looks like a large dandelion and is common along roads and in open fields. Its large yellow flower head, which turns to face the sun, opens only on sunny mornings and closes by noon, which has led to another common name, Johnny-go-to-bed-at-noon (several other plants share this moniker)... The seed head looks like a giant dandelion plume or like an old gray goat's beard..."

--Stan Tekiela, Wildflowers of Wisconsin field guide (Adventure Publications, 2000).
It sounds as if, if I let this one go to seed, we'll have more in the future. It wouldn't be an unattractive plant in a group near the back of a larger bed, but I don't think it's in the right place where it is now. But I have enjoyed the serendipity of it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

And Here's the Male (Goldfinch, That Is)

A couple of days ago I was able to get some shots of a female goldfinch at our thistle feeder, but the male ducked behind the feeder and I couldn't get good shots of him. This morning they were both there again, this time with the female at the tube-style feeder and the male in plain view at the thistle-seed sock. I like this sequence, which shows not only the bright yellow of the male's breeding plumage and the handsome black and white of the wing and tail feathers but also the pointy shape of the little black cap on his head.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Goldfinch at Thistle Feeder

This female goldfinch came to the feeder with her mate this morning. These were the first goldfinches I'd seen in their breeding plumage this spring; we saw them over the winter a few times in their much more subdued winter plumage. The male, of course, is the true bright yellow, but he ducked behind the feeder so I couldn't get a good shot of him through the window. This photo was a nice use of the powerful zoom on my new camera. When a small subject like this is not too far away, it seems to work well.

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Friday, May 14, 2010

At Last, Shorebirds (Wilson's Phalarope and More)

Dave came home yesterday excited about a report on the bird listserv about a rare sighting of a Western Sandpiper near Northfield, so off we went. The report area was on 320th St., northwest of Northfield and just east of I-35. We didn't end up seeing the rare-for-here Western (Dave reports being 0-for-19 on unusual-sighting stake-outs), but we finally got to see some little peeps and lots of other shorebirds in a spot other than Lake Byllesby.

In a farm field with a large rain puddle, we saw this large, pale gray shorebird, shown in the next three shots, which looks like a Willet. The smaller bird behind it in one shot is probably a Lesser Yellowlegs. Lesser Yellowlegs themselves are not small birds -- about 10.5" body length to the Willet's 15" (the Greater Yellowlegs is closer to the Willet in size). I've only seen a Willet once before, at the northern coast of California during late winter.

Below is a short video clip taken through the spotting scope of a diversity of shorebirds at a farm pond a bit further down the road. There are plenty of Yellowlegs (mostly Lessers?) and also a number of small peeps that we think were Least Sandpipers.

Next is a really fun clip of a Wilson's Phalarope (a new "life bird" for me) exhibiting phalaropes' characteristic feeding behavior: spinning in the water to create a vortex which brings up yummy edibles from below. It's not great video, but the subject is very cool. (I think that this new camera is not going to be a good fit for the photography I like to do. Even with the powerful zoom I can't really take good photos of small distant creatures, and I can't fit it to the lens of the spotting scope, so I always get vignetting around the edges.)

For both of these videos, you may want to click the "full screen" icon at the lower right.

Here's a startling fact about Wilson's Phalaropes from National Geographic's Complete Birds of North America: "Adult females are the earliest fall migrants, with the first arrivals [at their fall destinations, I presume] in early June." Shorebirds come north and inland to breed, and as soon as they are done, it is time for "Fall" migration! For most breeds, fall doesn't come quite so early, at least not for the females. Here is a longer explanation from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:
But what really sets phalaropes apart is the reversal of gender roles from the typical avian pattern. Before the males show up at the breeding grounds each spring, female Wilson's Phalaropes arrive at shallow freshwater marshes and wet meadows from southern Yukon Territory southward to central Nevada and eastward to the Great Lakes. ...

Females lay eggs in shallow depressions that they usually scrape within 100 yards of the shoreline. The males complete the nest lining and a concealing canopy of grasses after the eggs are laid. Then the males settle into caring for the nestlings until they fledge.

...Females leave the breeding territories first, from early June to early July, followed by the males and, lastly, immature birds
So this is a bird where the larger, more colorful female pretty much lays the eggs and takes off, leaving the rest of chick-rearing responsibilities to Daddy.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Bald Eagle Hanging Out With Pelicans

This was a not very successful attempt to shoot through the spotting scope with my new camera (the wider angle lens doesn't allow it to fit inside the scope's eyepiece, leaving substantial "vignetting" around the edges). But the subject was fascinating: we'd been watching some pelicans on a sandbar far out in Lake Byllesby, when the dark blob in front of them moved and we saw that it was a bald eagle, tearing at (presumably) a fish on the ground. The focus and lighting are not good, but if you click on the photo you'll see the eagle with its head down to eat. It flew away shortly thereafter.
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Trying Out New Camera

I picked out a new camera at National Camera Exchange yesterday for an early birthday present from Dave -- the zoom on the Nikon Coolpix has not worked in several months and it was only a 3x zoom anyway -- fine for family photos, but not so useful for close-up nature photography. I'm not sure yet if we'll keep the new arrival -- the Panasonic DMC-Z25 (NatCam has a nice 30-day return policy). It's got a 25mm wide-angle and a 12x optical zoom/16x "Intelligent zoom," both of which are amazing, and it has manual shutter speed and aperture controls, unlike my Coolpix, which will give more control in unusual lighting situations.

I took this series of scenes at Lake Byllesby in the late afternoon (between 6 and 7 p.m.) yesterday using the automatic setting. (The shot immediately above is a zoomed-in version of the same view as in the first photo.) The wide angle is great for this type of photo, and the clouds and reflections were really nice. Still, if you click through on the photos you see they have a slightly unreal, almost painted quality to them.

Its automatic setting knows how to do a lot of things, but it seems to leave a pixelated appearance on close-up view, at least in some circumstances.

For example, on the way back we passed several wild turkeys in a field. The photo above was a nice shot of two turkeys, both of them in full display. This was taken at full zoom, at about 7:15 p.m., so lighting was probably an issue, but if you click on this photo (which is a crop of the full photo) you'll see it doesn't look like a photo at all, but a digital distortion of a photo.

Today I am experimenting with the manual settings and so far I don't seem to be having the same issue, so maybe the lesson with this camera is if taking something you plan to crop in on, like distant shots of birds, it's essential to use the manual settings.

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Monday, May 3, 2010

Windy Birding Weekend

Dave and I headed west Saturday and Sunday, hoping to catch peeps and other shorebirds in areas like Salt Lake and the Big Stone Lake region of western Minnesota. It was insanely windy the whole time, and we were pretty much shut out for shorebirds. We saw a lone Snowy Plover (fairly rare in this area), a Spotted Sandpiper (much more common), and a few Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs (we can see plenty of them near to home, as we recently did at Lake Byllesby) ... and that was it. We did see all manner of ducks, cormorants, geese, and pelicans, however, as well as some Western and Red-necked grebes, and plenty of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, which I love (we rarely see them this far east in the state; the only time I've ever seen one in Northfield was right after I'd seen a lot of them on a trip to the Black Hills and Yellowstone about six years ago, but never again).

Here are some photos from the trip.

Flag in the wind at a county park near Canby, Minnesota. At the bottom of this post is a short video clip from which this photo is taken.

A female pintail showing her elegant long neck. I think that's her partner over on the left, suddenly grooming himself just when I took the photo.

Here's a fairly typical scene along the back roads of western Minnesota, where many small lakes and flooded fields were to be seen.

White pelicans in flight - click on the photo to see their black and white beauty. When they're at rest, you can't see the black on their wings, so it's startling to see the change when they are flying.
Pelicans at rest, Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

Yellow-headed blackbird in the foreground, and three pelicans and a Canada goose in the background, Thielke Lake, Big Stone County.

This large, handsome bird and his much lighter-colored mate, just hanging out by the side of a seldom-used road, had us saying "What on earth is that?!" and pulling out the field guides. Turns out it is an introduced game bird native to Africa that now has some wild populations in North America: the Helmeted Guineafowl, Numida meleagris.

We saw a couple of rainbows. This one was impressive for its width, despite its short stature as it spanned the narrow gap between a large white cloud and the ground. The startling flat-top mound to its right was a granite quarry, of which there were several in the area.

This is a raft of Franklin's Gulls, with their striking black heads.

This abandoned house or schoolhouse was too photogenic to be resisted. It was on a back road west of Canby, MN.

Here are two short videos showing the strong winds which were our constant companions this weekend.

Addendum, May 5: For our own records and for those who like to peruse lists, I have posted a full list of our bird sightings for the weekend here.