Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Answers to Hidden Pictures

Below are closer crops of the photos from my Hidden Pictures post, showing the hidden birds.

We thought the bird above was a downy woodpecker, but it may have been a hairy woodpecker, as participant Richard suggested. The two are difficult to distinguish from a distance.

Honestly, we don't remember what we thought the bird above was at the time -- it is quite nuthatch-like, but at this point you're free to tell ME what it is. The photo was taken looking directly overhead, catching the underside of whatever it was.

This was a very difficult one, and if I hadn't remembered where the downy (or hairy) woodpecker was from when I snapped the shot, I doubt I would ever have found it in the photo. If you still can't quite make it out, the light-colored breast is framed on the left by the darker wing color. The breast extends up above where the branch divides, and there is a hint of head and dark beak above that.

Thanks to all who played the game! Jim H. said he didn't know if it was fun... or torture. What do you think?
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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hidden Pictures

Trying to photograph smallish birds in trees leads mostly to photographs that will never win awards or even be considered to be examples of bird photography. Making the best of a bad situation, I offer up to bored souls out there these three photos as "Hidden Pictures" such as you may have enjoyed in your youth. Find the bird in each scene - click on the photo for a larger view if you want the easier version (or clearer confirmation of your guesses). I believe I have put them in order of difficulty. Good luck!

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Juvenile Grebe?

I wonder where this little guy came from - suddenly late last week there was a small, almost-duckling on the Cannon River near all the usual growing families of mallards and Canada geese. But this is not a duckling - its beak is noticeably sharper, and it's not nearly as fuzzy as a duckling of this size would be. The backlighting doesn't help much with the identification, but our best guess is that it is a young eared grebe. I like the two-headed effect of the reflection.
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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Skyful of Pelicans

Wheeling joyously on Saturday morning over this pond between Lonsdale and New Prague, Minn., were dozens of American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) -- about 50 are visible in this photo (I recommend you click on the photo to see the larger version), with hints of more in the distance. These are enormous birds, with a nine-foot wingspan. Although the heavy orange bills aren't very visible here, their black-edged wings are easy to recognize in the air; the link above has a photo that shows the wings clearly.

While some may think of pelicans as coastal birds, white pelicans breed on freshwater lakes and ponds in the interior of the continent. They eat fish while swimming and do not dive from the air.

It was an inspiring sight to see this flock in the sky, their white bodies and wings glinting in the early morning light.
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Rose-breasted Grosbeak Through the Binoculars

On the second leg of our birdwatching walk near Henderson yesterday, we saw this rose-breasted grosbeak fly to the top of a nearby tree. This was only the second RBG I'd ever seen, so I was quite excited. The paltry zoom on my camera didn't do it justice, but I remembered having read about "binscoping" - putting the camera lens up to one side of one's binoculars. I've dabbled in "digiscoping," which involves the same idea but using a spotting scope, but we hadn't brought the scope on this outing. The photo above taken through my binoculars worked out pretty well, I thought. It is of course more of a challenge to get a steady image than it is when using a spotting scope on a tripod, but the larger opening of the binocular eyepiece made it easy to put the camera lens to it without have problems with "vignetting" - the dark circumference that can interfere with a good image.

I was sorry that the brilliant blue sky of an hour or so earlier had been taken over by clouds; this would have been really nice with some color behind it.
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Zucchini Flower with Native Bee

Here are the first of my zucchinis - I'll probably pick the larger one in the next day or so.

When leaning in to take a photo looking into an open squash blossom, I found it was occupied. This looks like something other than a honeybee; native bees can also be very useful pollinators. In doing a little research just now, I learned from the U.S. Forest Service's Celebrating Wildflowers website that there is in fact a specialist bee for squash: "native solitary bees of two genera, Peponapis and Xenoglossa, the so-called 'squash bees." From the photos shown there, it looks rather likely that the bee inside my squash flower is indeed a squash bee.
Squash bees have been shown to be excellent pollinators of zucchini and butternut squashes, among others. If numerous, they thoroughly pollinate all available flowers, rendering later visits of honeybees superfluous. Before Europeans brought honeybees to the New World, squash bees were busy aiding the adoption, domestication, spread, and production of squashes and gourds by indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. [quote is from the USFS site linked above]

Here's a crop of the same photo that shows the fuzzy texture inside the flower and gives a better look at the creature within. Click on the photo for even more detail.
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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Family of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers & Henderson, MN

There were as many as four juvenile (or mostly juvenile) yellow-bellied sapsuckers in this tree on the edge of a ravine in rural Sibley County near Henderson, Minn., this morning. My best shot caught three of them visible and showing their profiles (click on the photo for a larger view). The bird on the left shows the reddish chin which helped us identity these members of the woodpecker family; the others show prominent white wingpatches, which are another identifying mark.

We were near Henderson looking in a needle-in-haystack sort of way for the lazuli bunting that was reported in the area recently, a very rare sighting of this beautiful bird that is not usually seen much east of the Black Hills . The directions we had were rather vague and we took two longish walks without ever finding the spot described. But it was a beautiful day to be out and about. For me, birdwatching is rarely very goal-oriented; I love the excuse to be walking about in natural surroundings, getting some exercise, breathing clean air, and appreciating the moments of beauty that present themselves.

I liked the town of Henderson, pop. approx. 900, which is located roughly an hour west of Northfield on Hwy 19. Its downtown is made up of historic brick buildings of strikingly similar hue, many housing nice little businesses, including a cafe where we happened to meet the teacher whose students at the Minnesota New Country School found the deformed frogs that raised an environmental alarm in 1995. And I've gotta like a town that has birdwatching prominently on its official website. The town, located on the Minnesota River, has found its summer ruby-throated hummingbird population growing to notable size in recent years. As many as 87 hummingbirds have been counted at one time in a single location, and the amount of sugar water consumed suggests that the numbers visiting that particular site may be considerably higher. Henderson Feathers, the birding center of the Minnesota Valley, in partnership with Audubon Minnesota, celebrates Henderson Hummingbird Hurrah, with birding-related events culminating the final weekend in August (schedule of events available here).

I'm sure we'll be back in Henderson before too long.

Addendum: I am making this post, which features three sky views taken last Saturday, a Skywatch Friday post for July 31. I hope you like the yellow-belled sapsuckers (I understand some people think that's a made-up name, but I assure you it's not!) and the picturesque town of Henderson, Minnesota.

Click on the Skywatch badge to see other sky photos from around the world.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dramatic Sky

The sky was aboil with layers of towering clouds after this morning's heavy rains had passed through.
Click on the Skywatch badge to see other sky photos from around the world.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Cannon River Wilderness Area

We made a quick outing to the west branch of the Cannon River Wilderness Area late this afternoon. I love this old bridge that arches high over the Cannon.

It is almost literally a bridge to nowhere. There is a lone camping site on the far side, and the established trail seems to peter out into, at best, thin paths through the greenery to who knows where. I guess this is why they call it a wilderness area.

The view above is from the bridge looking upstream (southwest-ish at this point, I believe). Last time we were here, probably 2-3 years ago, we saw a magnificent great blue heron fishing from the right side of the river here. Today we were on the lookout for herons and kingfishers, but saw neither. (On the wooded path away from the river, we did see and hear an eastern wood-pewee and a white-breasted nuthatch, and near the parking area we saw a great crested flycatcher, with its yellow belly and rusty tail, flitting about.)

This is the more closed-in view facing downstream. It was very quiet and peaceful as we stood and leaned on the wooden railing. We heard an occasional crow cawing or insect buzzing, but very little else.

Looking straight down, the water was light brown but clear, and we were commenting on the lack of visible fish when this quite large (10-14"?) specimen swam into view, traveling downstream. I've enhanced the contrast on this photo and am quite pleased with the effect. I don't know what kind of fish it was, but it had a noticeably reddish tail.
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Ducklings Down the Drain

The St. Paul Pioneer Press ran a story on Friday about Shawn Schmidt in Eagan, Minn., who saw a distraught female mallard by the side of a road and discovered that 15 ducklings had gone down 3 nearby storm drains. See the full account of his successful rescue effort here. The story concludes:

Soon, the bucket was full with 15 baby ducks, and Schmidt was filthy.

"We had three people at all three sewer holes listening for more quacking to make sure there were no more down there," he said.

Schmidt brought the bucket to a grassy area near one of the ponds, about 30 feet from the crowd, and left it resting on its side, so the tiny birds could enter and leave at will.

Suddenly, a mallard appeared. It made a call, and out from the bucket marched about five ducklings. The family waddled away, mom at the helm.

Before long, a second mallard appeared, squawked, and out marched another five ducklings. They walked off together, too.

A third mallard arrived and retrieved the last of the young.

Satisfied, Schmidt jumped back in his car and drove home to take a steaming shower and congratulate himself on his good deed of the day.

I too congratulate Mr. Schmidt - way to go, sir!

It turns out that this is not an isolated occurrence. While searching to locate the online version of the article I discovered several similar accounts just in the past few week:

I'm sure there are plenty more; this is where I stopped following the Google links. Here is a video on YouTube (look in the Related Videos list for lots more).

The Ogden article notes how common reports of down-the-drain ducklings are:

The Ogden City Animal Shelter gets calls about ducks in storm drains all of the time, especially during the freak rainstorms this summer, said spokeswoman Casy Beesly. But she acknowledged that there are policy differences between domestic animals and wildlife. Puppies and kittens are a higher priority.

"We're short-staffed," Beesly said.

I expect plenty of such incidents go undiscovered, which is sad, but it's nice to know that people's kind instincts kick in when they see babies in trouble, whether human or avian.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Adolescent Mallards - An Awkward Phase

The many young mallards spending time on the river by Ames Park these days are undergoing "the change." Look at the young males, above, who are beginning to get the handsome green heads, lighter body feathers, and well-defined tails of the male in the center of the photo, but are in an awkwardly transitional stage. They look rather like a female in the middle but like a male at bow and stern.

At the rear of this larger group of mallards and Canada geese you can see the mystery duck I wrote about the other day (Odd Duck - Help Identify!). I still haven't had anyone weigh in with an opinion of this dark brown, mallard-sized duck hanging out with a bunch of juvenile mallards. Is it a genetic fluke? Is it a mallard x pintail cross? Or something else? I wish I knew. None of the photos I've found of mallard x pintail crosses look much like this duck, but I don't know what besides a pintail has that dark brown coloring. Of course, this duck is quite possibly undergoing its own adolescent transition, and may look rather different in a few days or weeks.

Here's a closer view of the mystery duck again.

And what could be cuter than a little red-haired girl watching and probably feeding, or hoping to feed, or wishing she could feed, the ducks? Perhaps it would be a whole family of little red-haired children doing the same, which indeed there was, but they didn't all fit into my photo.
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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Raspberry Season

It seemed everyone was blogging or Facebooking about all the black raspberries they'd picked in the Arb this weekend, so this evening Dave and I went for a stroll to see if there were any left for us. There were! In a leisurely 30 minutes in the lower Arb we picked this small bowlful of beautiful, sturdy black berries (there are a few here that probably shouldn't be, as they are still red). They are much smaller than the commercial raspberries from Silkey Farms I bought at the co-op yesterday, and much less fragile. We will eat them with ice cream. Yum.

By the way, this photo is pretty cool if you click on it to see the large version. The close-up view of the dark, shiny berries and the white bowl is striking.

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

July Garden

I'll start with herbs. The truth? I like them for their color and scent in the garden and am usually happy to just let them flower and go to seed. I will pick and slice some basil leaves onto a pizza or pasta dish occasionally, but otherwise, I never really grow enough of anything to do much with, such as make pesto. I do have a perennial sage plant, which we have picked and dried at the end of the season; in fact I still have most of last year's harvest. Above is a cilantro plant going wildly into flower. It's lacy and pretty and I imagine the bees and butterflies like it. Good enough.

This purple basil has been a very pretty and hardy addition this year. Note the tiny volunteer tomato plant in front of it; these are springing up everywhere from the seeds of last year's fruits left to drop and rot in the garden. We had a lot of split tomatoes last year, resulting in fewer eaten and more left to reseed themselves. I pull most of the volunteers up, but occasionally I let one see what it can make of itself.

Above is a low-growing lemon thyme, which I almost lost track of when I put down the straw mulch. A few days later I remembered it and had to dig around to find it again. I don't know that I've ever used fresh thyme in anything; I'll have to look for recipes.

Above: Wall o' tomato plants in the background, herbs and perennial, grow-like-a-weed daisies in front. I don't like to mow them, so they just pop up out of the lawn; we often also have yarrow doing the same as summer goes on. June's slow start was followed by a burst of growth at the end of the month, as a week of heat and humidity gave the tomatoes exactly what they had been waiting for. The plants seemed to grow an inch a day, if not more, and the two-foot-tall plants of June 23 are now well over four feet tall and lush with foliage, flowers, and at least on some plants, small green tomatoes.

Above: Sungold cherry tomatoes developing. This plant is the most advanced of my nine tomato plants (seven varieties) in terms of fruit production; it probably gets the best early-day sun of any of them, being on the east end of the row. One on the far western end barely seems even to have any flowers yet, though the plant is big and bushy. I think the cherry varieties do tend to be earlier producers than the large-fruit types.

Above: a kneeling view looking up at the tomatoes for Dramatic Effect; in the foreground are two kale plants (out of four originally) that survived early rabbit depredation to come back with some vigor. I haven't grown kale before, but I suspect I should harvest it fairly soon.

Above: the kale plants again.

Above: tomato flower (neighbor's garden with bean plants peeking through beyond my tomatoes).

Above: A couple of squash plants gaining some size, but no flowers yet. I forget if these are the zucchini or the yellow squash. I also have some cucumbers that I should provide supports for - they have always grown well for me when trained up a tomato tower or other staking/trellising system. The cucumbers hang down which helps them say straight and avoid picking up insects or rot from contact with the ground.

So, it's getting to the really fun time of year, where soon I will be able to go out and pick dinner. Or at least bits of dinner. Can't wait to be eating cherry tomatoes like candy!
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Friday, July 10, 2009

Odd Duck - Help identify!

This afternoon as I left work I saw a group of what I took to be young mallards (the juveniles all look like females until the males acquire their adult plumage) on the ground near the river's edge. These are very pretty in a subdued sort of way - note the soft buffy coloring, the bluish-purple splash of the speculum, and the dark streak that passes through the eye and tapers toward the back of the head. But I soon noticed that one stood out as looking quite different.

The duck centered, above, was considerably darker and less obviously variegated than the others, had darker legs, and bore a blotchy white section on the front of its neck as well as some white at the top of its bill.

After some consultation with my resident bird expert, a field guide, and some internet searching, our best guess is that this might be a juvenile male northern pintail in the process of acquiring his adult plumage. Adult mail northern pintails have a striking brown head and white neck, and are also known for the long, elegant tail feathers that give it its name. Or could it be a mallard x pintail cross? Why else would it be in the middle of a flock of mallards? Or is it something else entirely? I welcome your thoughts/guesses/educated opinions!

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