Wednesday, November 28, 2012

[Updated] Canada Geese at Sunset

Correction: This post has been amended to delete the erroneous identification of some of these geese as cackling geese, a smaller, shorter-necked, smaller-billed relative of the Canada goose. I am informed by one of my local birding mentors, Gene Bauer, that these are in fact simply shorter-necked Canada geese. The cackling goose is noticeably smaller in body, closer to the size of a mallard, and has a smaller, more pointed bill, and Gene tells me it would be highly unusual for us to see them in such large numbers as shown here.

I'd recently heard that hundreds of Canada geese have been gathering on the Superior Drive pond. Having taken a vacation day today, I was free to wander over that way as the sun was setting about an hour ago to see for myself.

Here's a view (above) of the east end of the pond, covered with geese and a few mallards. While I was there, many birds took to the air. Click on the photo below for a larger view of many dozens of geese in the air while dozens remain in the west end of the pond.

I noticed that many of the geese were actually cackling geese, which are smaller and have shorter necks than the Canada goose.  [See correction at top of this post.]

Here's a closer view (above). You can see both Canada geese (front right and left rear) and cackling geese (center) for easy comparison. Click on the photo to see it larger.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says of the cackling goose:
Formerly considered the smallest subspecies of one variable species [i.e., the Canada goose], recent work on genetic differences found the four smallest forms to be very different. These four races are now recognized as a full species: the Cackling Goose. It breeds farther northward and westward than does the Canada Goose.

There was a lovely milky sunset against which the skeins of airborne geese could be seen in silhouette. My camera battery was running low, so I turned for home.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

24 Pine Siskins!

This weekend Project Feederwatch got started for the season (it runs November to April), and there has been plenty to see. A cold, wet front came through last night, taking us from a record-breaking high of 69 F (official Twin Cities temperature; several sources showed it to be even warmer than that here in Northfield) yesterday afternoon to the upper 50s at midnight to the upper 20s currently. Perhaps as a result of this change in the weather, there was a great deal of activity at our feeders today -- but actually we've had plenty of activity anyway, recently.

However, today there was one noteworthy appearance. In addition to house finches, chickadees, a downy woodpecker, blue jays, dark eyed juncos, and both white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, we've had quite an invasion of pine siskins. These are small, streaky finches that are cold-season-only birds for us here in southern Minnesota when they are here at all -- depending on the availability of their preferred seed crops, they may be present in large numbers one winter and barely seen another winter. 

We'd been seeing a couple occasionally for several weeks and then a few days ago Dave counted 14 while I was at work. Today we had at least 24 at the house. I saw many, many in the big maple tree out front (the staging area from which many of our visiting birds approach our feeders), then went over to the small window from which I can take a close look at the feeders they prefer, and at that point (no longer being able to see if some were still in the tree) I counted a dozen on the ground, seven in the caged feeder and five on the sock feeder.

In the photo below, one goldfinch in winter plumage keeps company with four pine siskins. Goldfinches and pine siskins are very similar in size and body style, with small, sharp beaks, but the goldfinches have a clear breast (nicely displayed below) while the siskins are heavily streaked all over.

Goldfinch (center left) and pine siskins

In our four years of feeding birds at this location, and two prior years of keeping nearly weekly count of what we see during Project Feederwatch, this was by far the largest number of one species we've seen at a single time. I think 14 house finches was the highest count we've had before.

Seven (visible) pine siskins

It's been many weeks since my last post here. As I was looking back to see what photos I had taken since the end of summer, I came across this shot of goldfinches at the sock feeder in mid-September. These males were looking a little patchy as they were changing from their brilliant lemon-yellow summer plumage to their more sedate winter plumage (as seen in the top photo above).

Moulting goldfinches in mid-September

Our summer birds have mostly left us by now, and I wonder what kind of winter we have ahead of us. We've had nearly nine months of no winter, since our amazing early warm spell last March (nine months of no winter may be normal many places, but not in Minnesota!), and the winter that came before that was exceptionally mild. I feel ready for the "indoor season" to begin. But I know it's not indoor season for the birds that stay, and they've got hardships ahead. We'll keep our feeders full to help them see it through.