Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Song of the White-throated Sparrow

Addendum: Well, here I go issuing corrections again. It's been drawn to my attention that the top bird shown here is in fact a white-crowned sparrow, not a white-throated sparrow. I should have been tipped off by the pinkish beak (the white-throats' are gray) and the lack of the yellow lores, but when we saw them all together I guess our critical faculties went out the window. Thanks, blogger friend Lynne, for setting me straight. But I like this photo so much I don't want to jettison it.

Oops, a white-crowned sparrow, NOT a white-throated sparrow

For just a few days at this time of year, we can hear the "Old Sam Pea-ba-deee, Pea-ba-deee, Pea-ba-deee" (usually written as "Peabody" but for those unfamiliar with the song I wanted to give a truer feel for the rhythm) song of the white-throated sparrow. Some people interpret it as "Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada." These sparrows are on their way through to their summer breeding grounds, which span most of Canada but do also include northeastern Minnesota. Dave says he looks forward to the arrival of the white-throats each year more than any other bird except perhaps the bobolink.

This afternoon we heard the sweet call (the link is to a YouTube video), and soon saw about eight of the relatively large sparrows in our front yard. The head stripes can be either white (above -- correction, this photo is actually a white-crowned sparrow; see addendum at top of this post) or a light tan color (below).We had some of both morphs in our group today. In the photo below, although it's not in good focus, you may be able to see another distinctive mark of the white-throats, the yellow spots in the area between the beak and eyes, known as the lores.

We had to go to Minneapolis this morning and on our way back we stopped at the All Seasons Wild Bird Store in Bloomington. Because of the arrival of the white-throats after we got home, we were immediately glad we'd bought a supply of millet seed, the little round seeds that are welcomed by some of the ground-feeding birds in particular. Dave scattered some on the ground and soon had not only the white-throats but a couple of chipping sparrows and a pair of mourning doves enjoying the new treat. Normally our ground-feeders have to rely on spillage from our black oil sunflower feeders, but we'll try to cater a bit more to a wider variety of birds this year. Other purchases today included some golden safflower seed (enjoyed by a variety of songbirds but not by squirrels, grackles, or starlings), a garland-style whole-peanut feeder (whole peanuts in the shell are said to be much liked by the blue jay, one bird that though we hear them nearby we didn't see once at our feeders this whole winter) and a holes-in-a-log suet feeder.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Red-breasted Merganser

A female red-breasted merganser was one of the highlights of a quick early-evening trip to the ponds near Superior Drive today. According to Janssen's Birds in Minnesota, the only Minnesota breeding grounds of these diving ducks are along the north shore of Lake Superior -- which (at Grand Marais) is the only place I've seen one before. In the Cowling Arboretum bird list, it has been recorded rarely, and only in spring, and it does not appear at all on the River Bend Nature Center's bird list.

The red-breasted merganser winters further south (along the coasts and close to the Gulf of Mexico) than the other mergansers we see in this area, which helps explain why they would be passing through our area now. The common mergansers (which winter as close as Wisconsin and southern Iowa) started showing up here in late winter, and we started seeing  hooded mergansers (which winter throughout the Gulf states and southeast) more than a month ago.

This bird is distinctive for the white wing-patches and (like other mergansers) its very long, thin bill.

We also saw a spotted sandpiper and a lesser yellowlegs today, and a couple of greater yellowlegs northwest of Northfield on Saturday, so shorebird season is under way. To round out the evening's sightings: a great blue heron flew majestically by; we saw a couple of yellow-rumped warblers; red-winged blackbirds and robins seemed to be everywhere; and blue-winged teals and coots were easy to see on the ponds, as was a beaver muskrat an aquatic mammal of some kind [see comments regarding this change in identification].

Saturday, April 16, 2011

April Snow

The daffodils had been up and blooming for several days when we got a good three-plus inches of heavy, wet, spring snow last night. I took this photo at about 10 a.m. Much of it has melted by now.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Spring Migration - Recap of Recent Sightings

I keep a list of recent bird sightings in my sidebar, but it's not very prominent unless you scroll down pretty far. The dates indicate the first-of-the-season sighting, not the only sighting. Here's what it includes for the Northfield area, including Lake Byllesby on April 3 and Union Lake vicinity on April 9:
  • American Kestrel (4/9)
  • American White Pelican (4/3)
  • American Wigeon (4/3)
  • Belted Kingfisher (4/3)
  • Blue-winged Teal (4/9)
  • Common Loon (4/3)
  • Eastern Phoebe (4/3)
  • Great Egret (4/3)
  • Green-winged Teal (4/3)
  • Hooded Merganser (3/17)
  • Killdeer (3/19)
  • Pied-billed Grebe (4/3)
  • Redhead (3/19)
  • Ring-necked Duck (3/19)
  • Song Sparrow (4/3)
  • Tree Swallow (4/3)
  • Turkey Vulture (4/3)
  • Western Eastern Meadowlark (3/31) (correction noted 4/17)
  • Wood Duck (4/9)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Loon! And other first-of-the-year sightings

We've been checking the Superior Drive pond just about every day for new arrivals, and this afternoon we were rewarded by the majestic sight of a common loon (not so common here -- typically seen only briefly, in migration). I noted a loon at this location on April 5, 2008, and I know that they've been seen at around this time at the same pond in other recent springs. I also noted seeing one at Lake Byllesby last year on April 18.

It is hard for me to tear my eyes away from this magnificent bird -- so impressively large and low in the water, its head so absolutely black without any shine, its bill so powerful, its black-and-white markings so striking, including vertical stripes around the neck and the elaborate checks-and-spots pattern of its wings.

The eyes are a dark red, though they do not show up well in these photos.

The loon is a diving, fish-eating bird. It was challenging to get in the scope for these photos, because it tended not to stay above water for more than 10 or so seconds at a time. I'd just get everything lined up right and it would jackknife down again and reappear some seconds later many yards away.

Other newcomers at the pond today were several pied-billed grebes, the chicken-beaked diving bird that looks absolutely tiny in comparison to any other bird on the pond.

We also went to Lake Byllesby this morning. The water is far too high to be welcoming to shorebirds yet, but we saw a raft of many dozens, probably hundreds, of ducks -- mostly northern shovelers mixed with some mallards, first-of-the-season green-winged teals, and American wigeons. We also got a good look at our first-of-the-year American white pelicans and, on the way back, three great egrets and a belted kingfisher. Almost every bird mentioned here was a life bird for my son, so he was thrilled. It was a very good day of early spring birding!