Monday, January 9, 2017

Opossum Tracks

I was intrigued by these tracks in fresh snow on our driveway recently -- they had a hand-like quality, with a hint of a thumb on the side, and the pairs of tracks nestled up against each other in an distinctive pattern. They clearly weren't the usual squirrel or rabbit, and I wondered if they were raccoon. However, after some knowledgeable input from folks in the Minnesota Naturalists Facebook group, I came to the excited conclusion that an opossum was responsible for the tracks. 

I've rarely seen these secretive creatures, and more often seen them dead than alive, but I know they are around here -- in fact, one of my very early blog posts, nine years ago now, was about possums after I sighted one on the main street near my house: read it here

Apparently the range of the Virginia opossum has been expanding northward into the state, whether due to a warming climate or human development patterns, with roads, bridges and culverts making it easier for animals to move around. A Minnesota Public Radio story from 2011 notes that while possum have been known in southern Minnesota for 100 years, their appearance in the Twin Cities metro area and further north is a much more recent phenomenon.

You are welcome here, little buddy. Peace.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Christmas Bird Count 2016

I was worried about this year's Christmas Bird Count, which was held yesterday in our area (the "Faribault circle"), as the weather forecast was terrible: 6-9 inches of snow were predicted to fall by morning and then the temperature was expected to plummet, along with brisk winds and blowing snow causing more headaches as the day went on.

However, the snowfall wasn't as heavy as predicted; it had stopped by the time it was getting light, and Northfield-area snowplows did an excellent job of getting the roads clear enough for reasonable safety. So my frequent CBC companion Dan Kahl and I set out in his trusty Subaru (with emergency supplies in the back, just in case). Here's what it looked like on 110th Street southeast of town.

Kind of bleak, eh? You might not expect to see much bird life, but in fact we came back with a higher species count than I've recorded here in the past: 25 species (see full list at the bottom of this post).

On that very road, we saw two pairs each of three ground-feeding birds that I've not often seen, though they are not uncommon: lapland longspurs, snow buntings, and horned larks. Lapland longspurs and snow buntings breed in the Arctic and are only here in the winter, while horned larks can be found in most of the U.S. year-round. In the photos below you can see some corn kernels that no doubt attracted these seed-eaters to the side of the road.

Lapland Longspurs

Horned Lark

Here's another shot of the rural landscape. I love the patterns of bare hedgerow and grasses against the snow.

Though we had a slow start to winter this year, strong cold in the past week caused ponds and streams to ice up quickly. The large pond south of Superior Drive in Northfield had just a few open areas of water left, and in one of them we saw two Canada geese, a mallard, and two American coots. The coots were a surprise, as they don't generally winter here, but perhaps they were lulled by the extended fall we had until recently.

American Coots (rear and right) with Canada Geese

I was also excited to identify a rough-legged hawk -- another Arctic-breeding bird that winters in southern Canada and much of the U.S. The prominent black patches at the bend of the wings helped identify this rather pale hawk.

Here's our full list for the day:
  • Canada Goose - 19
  • Mallard - 100+ - seen all at once, criss-crossing the sky in many skeins, wings beating fast
  • Rock Pigeon 5
  • Mourning Dove 3
  • Bald Eagle 6  - including a group of 5 circling together, 3 adults and two juveniles
  • Red-tailed Hawk - 1
  • Rough-legged Hawk - 1 
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker - 4
  • Downy Woodpecker - 7
  • Blue Jay - 1
  • American Crow - 14
  • Horned Lark - 2
  • Black-capped Chickadee - 11
  • White-breasted Nuthatch - 4
  • American Robin - 1
  • Cedar Waxwing - 20
  • House Sparrow - 20
  • House Finch - 10 (I wonder if I captured them all -- it might have been a few more)
  • American Goldfinch - 2
  • Lapland Longspur - 2
  • Snow Bunting - 2
  • American Tree Sparrow - 4
  • Dark-eyed Junco 30
  • Northern Cardinal - 6
No starlings, pheasants or turkeys!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Mountain Bluebird - Rare in Minnesota

We had seen reports of a way-out-of-its-range male Mountain Bluebird at Schaar's Bluff near Hastings, Minnesota, and were fortunate to be able to get extended good views of it Monday evening after work. What a beauty!

The overcast sky, fading light and rather diffuse color of the bird when seen from the front created some photographic challenges. At one point it flew to a perch within 15 feet of where I was standing, but with a network of high-contrast tree branches in the background, I could not get my camera to focus on the bird. The photos show here were all taken from many yards away with high zoom, and then cropped.

The normal range of the mountain bluebird is primarily the western mountain and plains states and up the western part of Canada into Alaska in the summer breeding season. Winters are spent in the southern part of that range and well south into Mexico. Normally it would not be closer to us than the western edge of the Dakotas.

For comparison, here (below) is the male eastern bluebird, which is the bluebird we normally see in this part of the country.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Spring Birding Begins! - Ducks and Geese

With temperatures heading high into the 50s today, we headed down to the Wells Lake causeway west of Faribault and saw hundreds of greater white-fronted geese as well as many common mergansers and some redheads and coots (in addition to gulls and oodles of mallards and Canada geese). The large lake has already opened up enough that all of these were hundreds of yards away and a strain to see, even through binoculars and spotting scope, so there may have been other species that we couldn't identify.

In contrast, at the Superior Drive pond in Northfield, which now has a lot of open water as well, we got some lovely views of several lesser scaup, a diving duck that is usually one of the first migrating ducks I've recorded over the past few springs (here are other posts I've written about scaup -- in the exceptionally warm spring of 2012, on March 7 the ice was almost completely out on that pond and I counted 42 scaup). Lesser scaup moving through our area are on their way to summer breeding grounds in the northern plains of Canada after wintering in the southern states, along the Gulf Coast, or maybe in Mexico.

Look at that beautiful blue beak, golden eye, and dark head shining purple in the sun.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Dark Water in Winter

I'm endlessly fascinated by the relatively rare (in Minnesota) sight of unfrozen water in wintertime. The contrast to the snow on the banks makes the water look so dark and mysterious, and the bare trees are beautiful when reflected. My friend Adele and I went for a walk on Saturday and I captured these scenes.

In the first photo, you may be able to see a group of mallards at the back.

As my friend Adele and I looked down at this next bit of the creek on Saturday, it almost looked like a summertime scene where skimming insects leave constant dimples and ripples on the water -- but this was late January, so insects weren't a possibility. We soon realized that there was very fine drizzle, which we hadn't noticed until then, making the drop marks on the water.

This next one is a crop of the photo above. Click the photo to see the larger version showing the many overlapping ripple marks.