Thursday, March 31, 2011

California Birding

Dave and I spent the past week visiting my family in Berkeley, Calif. While there we found a good spot for shorebirds in the crowded, industrial Oakland/Alameda bayshore, and also had a couple of terrific outings  in Marin County. Here are a few shots from the trip.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Double-crested cormorants

American Avocet, Black-bellied Plover

Western Grebes
Surf Scoters (females)

Northern Mockingbird (gorgeous singing - we don't get them in Minn.)

Black-necked Stilt (a first for me - such a cool bird!)

Black Turnstone

Snowy Egret

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Greater White-fronted Geese and a Wealth of Ducks

Click on photos to see larger view

The large, spring-fed pond south of Superior Drive is now ice-free and teeming with ducks and geese. The scenes above and below convey the numbers and variety to be seen earlier this morning. In addition to the ducks and geese (including coots, which aren't really ducks but are members of the rail family), we saw our first-of-the-year great blue herons, heard but did not see a killdeer, and saw numerous robins. In terms of birdage, I think we can say that spring has arrived.

Dave got quite excited when he spotted these orange-billed, light-brown geese (we eventually counted at least nine), seen here between two Canada geese (or they might be the smaller, related cackling goose -- it's hard to tell when their necks are tucked like this, but we did see a number of the smaller ones today and these necks don't look too long). The orange-billed geese are greater white-fronted geese, which spend their summers extremely far north, in the Canadian tundra. In migration they are common only west of the Mississippi. Janssen's Birds in Minnesota (1987 edition) describes this goose as an "uncommon spring and rare to casual fall migrant in the western regions [of Minnesota]" and "rare to casual in the spring and accidental in the fall in the central and eastern regions. Dave had not seen any for ten or more years, and I had never heard of them before.

Ring-necked Ducks (female in foreground)

Redheads on right; Gadwall on left


More gadwalls (female in foreground)

Ring-necked Ducks (female in foreground)
 The ring-necked duck has a distinctive head shape, clearly seen here, with the back almost vertical rather than rounded.

This is one of my favorite times of the year for birdwatching. Ducks at least are largish and don't flit about like warblers, so they are easy to study and relatively easy to photograph. Within a few weeks, most of these ducks will have moved on north to their summer breeding grounds. It's exciting to see them while we can.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

More Scaup Photos

Today at lunchtime the lesser scaup I saw yesterday was snoozing on the near side of the river, head tucked in on the edge of the ice with a female mallard for company. (The female scaup has blocks of color arranged similarly to those of the male, but with a brown head instead of black and without the bright white of the male's lower body.)

Then I think it became aware of my presence and seemed more bothered by it than the mallards typically do (in fact, they often come toward me in hopes of being fed), so it started to swim away. Despite the almost impenetrable glare of the sunlight on my LCD screen, I managed to capture a couple of pretty decent photos.

Yesterday I hadn't been aware of the yellow eye, which is quite dramatic in the dark head. Also, I didn't mention that the scaups are diving ducks, not dabblers.

This is really a beautiful duck, isn't it?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Different Ducks

Now that the ice is mostly out along the stretch of the Cannon River I keep my eye on, mallards have moved in. Today they were clustered on both sides of the river, facing the sun for the most part, soaking up the rays on this slightly warmer day that's supposed to lead into some even warmer days to come.

Mallards on the east bank

Mallards on the west bank -- but what's that on the right?

At this time of year we start to see less-common kinds of ducks stopping on on their way north to their summer breeding grounds. Near one group of mallards (above), I noticed a lone, smaller, whiter duck.

This duck had a bluish bill, a dark head, a very noticeable white lower body, a pale gray back, and a dark tail.

There are two ducks fitting this description: the male greater scaup and the male lesser scaup. Because the lesser scaup winters all across the southern tier of states, as close to us as southern Missouri, while the greater scaup does not (my Sibley guide shows it wintering along the east and west coasts, while the range map on the link above doesn't even show a winter range in the U.S.), chances are very good this was a lesser scaup. I wonder why he seemed to be alone today; I hope he finds his fellow scaups again.

I'll be watching with interest to see if other less-common ducks make an appearance on the river this spring. In early April three years ago, I saw and photographed a couple of pied-billed grebes on the river. In the second week of April two years ago, I noted I had been seeing a pair of hooded mergansers all week. When the ponds in southeastern Northfield lose their ice, we've had great luck seeing a wide variety of ducks for a few weeks, even including loons. We'll be checking that area out later this week, I'm sure, as the ice and snow melt away and daylight savings time opens up the evenings for birdwatching walks.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Streaky Underside of the Pine Siskin

A while back I got some shots of a pine siskin at the thistle seed feeder, taken from inside the house. The angle is a bit unusual but lets you see the marked streakiness of the siskin's underside.

In the photo below you can see a hint of the yellowish streak on the wing. As I've noted before, the pine siskin is one of the "irruptive winter finches," meaning that in a given area some years it may be present in large numbers but other years not at all.

While these birds usually breed to our north, and most of the northward migration (if birds are present that year) takes place in April, Robert B. Janssen's Birds in Minnesota (we have the 1987 edition) notes it has been confirmed as breeding in Rice County. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes:
Following a large irruptive winter flight, some individuals may stay near a dependable food source and breed far south of the normal breeding range.
 It looks as if we're going to lose much of our snow cover in the next week, with daytime temperatures in the 40s and 50s and nighttime lows staying above freezing. As the snow retreats it'll be interesting to see how soon we start to lose our winter birds like the pine siskins, dark-eyed juncos and red-breasted nuthatches that have brought us so much viewing pleasure this winter..

Thursday, March 10, 2011

River's Edge in March Snow; Ice Going Out

Without a lot of narration, here are some shots of the Cannon River above the dam during yesterday morning's wet snow. The ice was definitely on its way out, and in the final photo, taken today, there is a broad swath of open water at last. This is almost exactly the date the ice went out last year: see this March 10 post and this one on the 11th, and this one with video of a huge ice sheet going over the dam on March 13. In 2008 I noted the ice was out on March 18.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Pine Siskins on Seedheads

I've been very glad I left our purple coneflower seedheads uncut for proverbial "winter interest" this year. Not only have they provided a welcome visual variation from the snow-covered ground, but birds that like narrow seeds, including the goldfinch and the pine siskin (the bird shown below), have taken advantage of them from time to time throughout the winter, even though only a few feet away there is a mesh sock-style feeder full of Nyger thistle seed that's surely easier to cling to than these swaying stems.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Winter Landscape, Low Clouds

Click on the photo to step into the scene.

This was the view near the Iowa/Minnesota border late in the afternoon on February 12, as we returned from a visit to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa -- home also of Seed Savers Exchange, which is well worth a visit. Its farm and visitor center are now open March-December.