Saturday, January 28, 2012

January Morning at the Feeders (Video)

Here is a little video I made of some of the action at our feeders this morning, with a blue jay, a downy woodpecker and some house finches.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Owl City

My life owl score:
  • May 1959 to December 2011: no owls seen in the wild. Not a one, as far as I am aware.
  • January 2012: Three owls (individuals and species) seen so far.

Go figure.

One trick is: go where the owls are, when the owls are. Hmmmm. Very smart.

Three weekends ago we went to the airport in search of a snowy owl that had been reported there. And there it was, with a group of birders with binoculars and spotting scopes all pointing at it. (I forgot to take my camera. Rats.)

Two weekends ago on one of those nice mild days, we went for a walk near the pine plantation in the Carleton arboretum, hoping to see a great horned owl that a couple of people had spotted there in the day or two previously, and one flew out of the trees right over our heads. (I had my camera, but didn't have time to do anything with it as the owl suddenly appeared.)

This evening, an "owl hearing walk" led by two of the arboretum student naturalists was publicized, and about 22 people showed up for it, mostly students. They told us they couldn't promise any owls, but they would take us to some likely areas. Before setting off they played sound clips of the calls of the owls we had some chance of hearing, and we were shown photos of the owls as well.

 Well, off we marched, in two straight lines just like the little girls in the book Madeline, because we were staying clear of the groomed cross-country ski trails down the the middle of the path.

Our guides took us to the floodplain alongside the Cannon River, where some of the larger and older trees in the arb are found. And there, before long, we came abruptly to a halt, because there was a barred owl 20 or 30 feet off the ground in a tree right next to the trail.

 Back at the orientation talk before we set out, we learned that a quick way to tell whether you are looking at a barred owl is to look for very dark eyes (it's the only owl around here with dark eyes) and a yellowish beak. Yep, a barred owl is what it was.

And there you have it. Owl species #3 for the month, and the year, and my life. And the very first owl I have photographed. It posed nicely, didn't it?

After a short time it flew to a tree a few dozen yards further from the trail, and we stood and watched it as best we could for a while. We didn't see or hear any other owls on the walk, but that one great sighting was well worth the rather vigorous outing -- except for that one long pause and a couple of brief ones, we walked very briskly indeed over variable terrain in increasing darkness for considerably more than an hour. Thanks to Carleton senior Emma, who kept me company as I straggled at the end of the line for the last 20 minutes or so of the walk.

Then I went home and fixed myself some nice hot mulled wine.

Thanks, Jared and Owen, for leading the outing and teaching us some things about owls. Here is some more good information about looking for owls in this area, from the Carleton naturalists.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Hundreds of Mallards at Sunset

Just east of Northfield, returning from a walk in the northern leg of the Arb (where we had hoped with luck to spot a great horned owl, and in fact one flew over our heads without warning), we saw a large, swirling flock of birds over a field. They proved to be mallards. They landed in the corn stubble, but soon took to the air again. Soon afterward, skein after skein of geese flew eastward away from a stunning sunset behind them. Who knew there were so many geese and ducks spending the winter here?

Mallards over fields at sunset

Mallards - close to 150 in this crop alone
Carleton College Chapel with geese
Carleton College at sunset

Red-breasted Nuthatch

The colder temperatures lately have increased the activity at some of our feeders, and yesterday as light snow fell I was happy to see this red-breasted nuthatch make a number of visits to the peanut and sunflower seed feeders. I haven't seen one too often this winter. So cute.

I wrote three posts about nuthatches (red-breasted and white-breasted) at around this time last year: January 2, January 18, and January 23.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Year in Birds: 2011 (Part 2)

After I posted birding highlights of 2011 yesterday, of course some more occurred to us. Perhaps foremost among these was our January sighting of a northern shrike going after prey in open farmland east of Northfield.

We also had two most unexpected yard birds (species seen in or from our yard) in 2011:
  • In the spring my son and husband saw a ring-necked pheasant in our front yard, under a young evergreen that often provides cover for the birds who visit our feeders. We are not far from the eastern edge of town, and pheasants are a fairly common sight in the farm fields just down the road, but we'd never seen a pheasant within the city limits before, let alone on our property -- and so far, never have again.
  • Also in the extremely wet spring, when a medium-sized marsh had developed in low-lying land just to the east of our property, we joked about the prospects of attracting shorebirds and were utterly dumbfounded to actually have several visits from a migrating solitary sandpiper. I took some photos through the spotting scope from our three-season porch, just to be able to say I'd photographed a sandpiper from our house.This is a bird I was even more surprised to find within the city limits than the pheasant mentioned above.

  • 2011 was also a year of many firsts for my son, who really caught the birding bug last December and was eager to add to his list. One amusing episode concerned his first red-winged blackbirds. These of course are very common birds once they arrive in the spring, but on this day we had not yet seen any for the season. We were near the ponds on the southeast end of town, where the cattails provide prime RWB habitat. At long last we saw a lone blackbird, and a bit later another, so he was quite pleased and gratified -- and then a flock of about 300 of them flew overhead. I think we actually burst out laughing.
  • Those ponds, particularly the deep, spring-fed pond south of Superior Drive, provide us much pleasure in the spring. The Superior Drive pond is usually ice-free before any other water in the area and so it attracts a really spectacular mix of migrating ducks and geese and even loons in early spring. In 2011, the year of the early but cool, wet spring, the ice was out and the pond full of ducks by mid-March.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Year in Birds: 2011

See also The Year in Birds: 2011 (Part 2).

I've just caught up with our official 2011 bird list, which I forgot to keep updated in the final months of the year. We have 137 birds on the list this year, including birds seen in California. That's up from only 95 last year, but we didn't have a western trip last year.

Our birding highlights of 2011 included:

  • My first sight of a large gathering of sandhill cranes at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in early November.
  • My first white-tailed kite, seen hovering over dunes in a Berkeley, CA, bayside park in August -- a beautiful, medium-sized white hawk that at first I took to be yet another gull but whose hovering behavior caught my eye as something very different. This is a coastal bird, in the U.S. generally only to be seen along the west coast, the southern Texas gulf coast and the tip of Florida.
  • My first scarlet tanagers, seen on the same mid-May day as 10 or so species of migrating spring warblers at the Cannon River Wilderness Area; the bay-breasted warbler became a new favorite for me the same day.

  • A March trip to California that included shorebird- and waterfowl-watching in fairly industrialized East Bay locations and a very enjoyable outing to the Las Gallinas Wildlife Ponds (a.k.a. sewage ponds) in Marin County. Birds included marbled godwit, black-necked stilt, dunlin, pectoral sandpiper, American avocet, willet, American wigeon, northern mockingbird, black-crowned night-heron, black-bellied plover, western grebe, surf scoter, black turnstone and snowy egret. (Addendum, Jan. 8: I've been reminded to add violet-green swallow and cinnamon teal to this trip report.)
  • An August trip to California with my then-almost-12-year-old son, where we saw the above-mentioned white-tailed kite and hiked up into the Sunol Wilderness Area in the southern East Bay hills to see golden eagles soaring around the hilltops. This was by our terms a substantial hike (about three hours fairly steeply uphill and down again, in very dry conditions), which challenged and rewarded both of us. I came away from it with an enhanced sense of power to push myself physically and an appreciation for my son's stamina. I'll close with this image of that trail: leading onward and upward to new discoveries about ourselves and the world. 

Wishing you adventures in 2012.