Thursday, March 29, 2012

Starting Our Bluebird Trail

This year we're embarking on something new: bluebirds.

Female bluebird at McKnight Prairie in 2011

Eastern bluebirds have made a good recovery in recent decades, thanks to diligent and sustained efforts to help them successfully raise young by providing and monitoring nest boxes. Their numbers had previously diminished dramatically, owing to loss of habitat and nesting locations for these cavity nesters (birds that make their nests in old woodpecker holes and other tree cavities).

Male bluebird at McKnight Prairie in 2011

Recently Dave happened to make the acquaintance of Carroll Johnson, who is both a statewide coordinator and one of the Rice County coordinators of the Bluebird Recovery Project of Minnesota (BBRP). Carroll stopped by our house and agreed that our property, which is fortunately situated right next to some park-like private land on the far east side of Northfield, offers quite good bluebird habitat: an open, grassy area with occasional trees. So we've joined the BBRP, and Carroll brought us two PVC bluebird houses mounted on conduit over rebar. We put them up late last week while the ground was soft from the recent rains. Bluebirds are seasonal residents here and often arrive in March, though they may not start nesting immediately, so this is a good time to put up new houses.

Pair of nest boxes by our house

We have also asked if we can help monitor a few of the many bluebird houses being maintained in this area by Carroll and his fellow state/county coordinator, Keith Radel. (We're lucky that Rice County is the nerve center of the state bluebird organization!)  Carroll and Keith each assigned us a few of their sites, and last Saturday morning Keith took us around to eight sites we'll be taking on near Northfield -- four pairs and four single houses. A set of monitored bluebird nest boxes is referred to as a bluebird trail, so these eight sites plus the ones at our house make up our first bluebird trail.

Cleaning out nest boxes

Agreeing to monitor bluebird houses is a serious responsibility. If you want to help the bluebirds raise young, you don't just put up nest boxes and forget about them; if you do, you'll probably end up raising house sparrows.

It's important to choose your location thoughtfully, check the nest boxes weekly, and keep detailed records of any activity at each box, including nesting, eggs and young, as well as absence of birds, use by other species, insect problems, and losses, so that appropriate adjustments can be made to increase the likelihood of future success.

It's also important to deter and if necessary remove house sparrows, a nonnative, unprotected species that aggressively competes for nesting locations and will evict and injure bluebirds if given the chance. House wrens are also very aggressive and will destroy the eggs and young of other species in their territories, which is one reason to locate nest boxes at a distance from wooded areas that are prime wren habitat.

So one key to having a successful bluebird trail is to learn to distinguish bluebird nests, eggs and chicks from those of other species that are also drawn to the same types of houses: tree swallows, chickadees, house sparrows and house wrens. That way you can tell what you've got in your nest boxes. Bluebirds: great! Swallows and chickadees: fine. House sparrows and house wrens: not fine!

A wren filled this house with twigs last year

On Saturday we cleaned out signs of wren occupation and one old bluebird nest. Bluebirds don't reuse nests, so it's good to provide a clean nest box each year.

Taking out an old nest - grasses, twigs and a few feathers

There are several kinds of nest boxes that allow the contents to be easily checked and cleaned. The boxes on our trail are all the Gilbertson PVC style. They are lightweight and detach from the roof for easy viewing and cleaning.

House taken over by wrens - filled with twigs

While we were out and about on Saturday we saw bluebirds near most of our nest boxes, which was a great sign, and we were very pleased to discover one new nest and the beginnings of another.

New bluebird nest -- a neat cup made mostly of grasses

We'll be attending the annual Bluebird Expo in Byron, Minn., on April 14, where I'm sure we'll learn much more from knowledgeable speakers and will get to meet other bluebird enthusiasts. I'll be reporting here on the successes as well as the inevitable mishaps or disappointments of our bluebird trail, so stay tuned for that. I'm just learning all of this, so I'll probably make some mistakes. I welcome corrections and other advice from more experienced bluebird fans.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Spring Has Sprung, The Grass Is Riz

With the recent almost surreal heat  (80 F. last weekend at the end of a week of 60s and 70s), followed by some much needed rain and continued pleasant warmth, the first spring bulbs have come up and bloomed in one fell swoop: "boom and bloom," as my friend Mary over at My Northern Garden wrote. We've got daffodils, snowdrops, periwinkle and a lone crocus blooming at the same time at historically early dates, and forsythia is in bloom all over town. And the grass has turned beautifully green. All of these are extremely unusual for the third week or so of March. I took all of these photos on Friday.

Daffodils (Narcissus)

I thought I'd check my own records to see when these flowers have bloomed in previous years. So, here's a bit of spring flower phenology:

Last year on April 16 I noted that the daffodils had been blooming for several days when they got heavy, wet spring snow on them. In 2009 daffodil buds opened on April 17 and I noted that blue scilla were starting to show up in neighborhood lawns. I started noticing scilla today, March 23, looking as if they might have been blooming for at least a day or two already. In Jim Gilbert's book Minnesota Nature Notes (Nodin Press, 2008), which organizes nature observations by weeks of each month throughout the year, the section on daffodils and tulips is placed in the fourth week of April.

Snowdrops (Galanthus)

In 2008 I noted the first snowdrops (and a rainbow) on April 5. Snowdrops, as their name suggests, are often the first flower of spring, blooming as the snow retreats.

Periwinkle (Vinca)

In 2009 I described flowering periwinkles as "new growth" on April 22.

Crocus coming up through last year's maple leaves

I don't seem to have any previous posts mentioning crocuses -- probably because I don't remember noticing we even had one until perhaps last year. (When I took the photo above, I didn't notice the ant on the flower. Can you see it?) Jim Gilbert says crocuses usually start blooming by very early April, and he describes an early crocus blooming in a favorable microclimate despite snow on the ground on March 19, 2007 (Gilbert, p. 87).

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Great Horned Owl on Nest

Great horned owl - click photo for larger view

Today was a Top 10 Birding Moment -- seeing a great horned owl fly to her nest at Lake Byllesby, within range of our binoculars and spotting scope, and settle in, facing toward us. We watched her for about 20 minutes. She was panting quite visibly; we could see not only her open beak (visible above) but the movement of her throat. I tried to take video through the spotting scope to capture the panting, but I didn't get any usable results.

Great horned owls are year-round residents throughout almost all of North America. They are among the earliest nesters in our region, beginning in late January and February. They like to reuse the discarded nests of other large raptors, which certainly saves time and work. The prominent "ear tufts" that give the bird its name are actually neither ears nor horns.

Several crows were loudly harassing the owl, which helped draw our attention to her. Great horned owls are fierce predators and certainly eat crows, as well as other birds and mammals.

This was the first owl I've had a really good look at. (I wrote about my earlier owl encounters this year in January and February.) It was very exciting to have the luxury of watching this bird on her nest.

I've called this owl "her," but both the male and the female incubate the eggs, according to National Geographic, so this could have been a male.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Turkey Vultures on a Barn

While out and about this gray, misty morning on an adventure I'll tell you more about soon, we passed a derelict barn that had five huge birds on its roof. Four of them are shown here: turkey vultures, the first we've seen in or near Northfield this year. In season they are quite often seen in the air, with their characteristic V-shaped wing position and tilting-back-and-forth flight pattern as they ride the thermals, but we haven't often seen even one at rest, let alone hanging out with the gang on a Saturday morning.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Heron Hiding in the Reeds

After I'd spent the day in La Crosse, Wisconsin, on Saturday strategizing about optimizing the potential of cooperatives (I'm a board member at Just Food Co-op in Northfield, and this has been declared the United Nations International Year of the Cooperative), Dave met me there and we worked our way home up the Mississippi, spending Saturday night at a cute little B&B in Alma, Wisconsin.. 

In Reick's Lake Park in Alma, famed for being a migration hotspot for tundra swans in the fall, things were quiet except for a lone great blue heron standing in the water. Realizing I'd left my camera in the car, I was gone for a minute, and when I got back to the viewing area, where meanwhile Dave had been setting up our spotting scope, the heron had disappeared. Dave was sure it hadn't flown away, so we scanned the nearby reeds through the scope and there it was, beautifully camouflaged. I took this photo through the scope. Cool, eh?

I thought I'd show you three views of the same shot -- closely cropped at the top of this post (what a magnificent head!), a medium crop, and the uncropped view through the scope, below, showing just how well camouflaged the bird was. If we hadn't known approximately where to look, we probably would not have seen it.

Uncropped view - heron is well camouflaged

Monday, March 12, 2012

Hordes of Boxelder Bugs - Oh My! (Updated)

(See update at the end of this post.)

As I drove into the garage after work this evening, some dark areas under the picture window at the front of our house caught my eye. I couldn't think what they could be -- from a distance I wondered if some dark ivy was suddenly growing up the brickwork. When I approached, I could hardly believe what I was seeing: thousands, surely, thousands of boxelder bugs. Take a look.

We routinely do get clusters of boxelder bugs on our south-facing house, especially on sunny fall days following a cold spell. I've taken photos and written about them before: in October 2007 and in October 2009. I've never seen swarms anything like what I saw today, and certainly never such huge swarms in the spring. This is such an odd season -- today, a rainy day in the 50s, would normally be a warm day for the second week of March. Instead, it was a relatively cool day in a string of days in the 60s and projected to reach 70 later this week. No wonder the insects are behaving strangely.  Maybe we'll have frogs and locusts next.

Here's a short video clip of this extraordinary sight.

Update, March 14: At about 10:30 yesterday morning when I stopped at home briefly, the large clusters were still there, looking very much as they did above. However, the sun was shining fully on the bugs in the left-most clump and there was a lot of activity, with bugs crawling over each other predominantly in a downward direction toward the ground. The clusters that were still shaded were completely still. When I returned at around 5:00 the clusters had completely dispersed. There were still some bugs here and there on the front of the house, but there were no longer any clusters.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Swan on Northfield Pond

I stopped by the Superior Drive pond around midday today and was greeted by a fantastic new arrival: a lone swan, surrounded by ring-necked ducks. This was my first sighting of a swan on this pond.

Telling tundra swans from trumpeter swans is tricky, but based on guidance from the Sibley Guides website, I think this is a tundra swan. The narrow line of black connecting the black bill to the eye, and the U-shape of the line connecting one eye to the other, seem to confirm the identification; the connection is thicker and more V-shaped in the trumpeter swan.

I was pretty sure I'd been seeing a large group of lesser scaup at the pond during my previous visits, but certainly today they were ring-neckeds (the tall head with the strong angle at the back, and the very noticeable pale ring near the tip of the bill are key indicators).

Tundra swan with female ring-necked ducks

Ring-necked ducks (male)

We came back less than an hour later and saw the swan still there, but as I was pulling out my phone to alert a friend who lives nearby, it flew away. It's a good reminder that during migration (and really at any time) birds can come and go, so it doesn't hurt to check a good spot more than once a day if you have the chance. You never know what you might see.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Bald Eagle on Ice, 11 Herons and Many Ducks

We've been hearing amazing reports of ducks and geese at open water on Wells Lake, just west of Faribault, for the past week or two. Dave went down there on Thursday while I was at work, and estimates he saw 750 greater white-fronted geese, as well as many different kinds of ducks and some loons. So this morning we drove down there to see what we could see. There was a great deal more open water than there had been just two days earlier, so the waterfowl we saw were far more spread out and for the most part were many dozens of yards away from us.

Canvasbacks, scaup, redheads and pintails (click to see photo larger)

We saw a great variety of ducks, mostly of the diving category, and mostly at a considerable distance. We were able to get some shots through the spotting scope -- at least good enough to show the great variety present. I recommend either clicking on these photos or right-clicking to open them in a new tab in order to see the greatest detail:

  • Common mergansers
  • Hooded mergansers
  • Redheads
  • Canvasbacks
  • Northern pintails
  • Lesser scaup
  • Ring-necked ducks
  • Mallards
  • Gadwall (at least one)
  • Northern shovelers
  • American coots (not technically ducks)
  • Greater white-fronted geese flew overhead
  • Canada geese
Scaup and pintails, mostly

American coots

But wait! There's more! Dozens of the ducks suddenly took to the air in apparent alarm, and we saw a bald eagle glide down and land on the ice. It stayed there for an extended time, during which we did not see it do anything other than stand and look around. These shots through the spotting scope turned out pretty well. I just use a point-and-shoot camera, with no manual focus, so getting it to focus properly on distant birds without good contrast to give the automated functions some assistance can be a real challenge. The high contrast of the eagle against the ice, as well as its size, helped these photos turn out about as well as I could have hoped for.

There was a steady wind blowing, and I like how you can see the wind ruffling the eagle's feathers in this next shot.

So that was exciting -- but wait! There's more! While scanning an area of shore where there were quite a few Canada geese, we realized that behind the geese was by far the largest group of great blue herons I've ever seen. We counted 11; I've never seen more than two or three in fairly close proximity before. There are nine in the photo below -- I've added some arrows to help show the three that were particularly well camouflaged; you'll probably need to click on the photo to see them properly. Dan Tallman posted about seeing 27 great blue herons on the ice at the same location on Wednesday, with a great photo of nine of them. Unbelievable.

Most of the lakes in the region are still ice-covered, but the ones that open up first due to a current provide amazing birdwatching in the early spring as migrating ducks pass through on their way to breeding grounds in the far north. Today the temperature reached the mid-60s F. and several more days of most unseasonably warm temperatures are predicted. If you have a body of water near you that's starting to have open water, check it out!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Prairie Partners/Wild Ones - Landscaping for Biodiversity

In the spirit of my recent post about gardening for wildlife, I'd like to share some information a birding friend passed along to me about Wild Ones, a national not-for-profit environmental education and advocacy organization that promotes environmentally sound landscaping practices to preserve biodiversity through the preservation, restoration and establishment of native plant communities. This is such an important endeavor, and one I am happy to help publicize.

The Northfield Prairie Partners chapter holds monthly meetings, typically on the second Thursday of the month, at the Northfield Public Library. There is a meeting tomorrow evening, March 8, at 6:30:
Creating Pollinator Habitats - Danielle Waldschmidt
Danielle is a conservation technician at Rice Soil and Water Conservation District. She has a BS of Environmental Sciences from the University of Minnesota. Bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies and some beetles pollinate more than 70% of flowering plants. Danielle will show us how we can help provide habitat for them in our yards and neighborhoods.
Topics covered in future months include Frogs and Toads, Woodland Wildflowers, and Butterflies and Their Gardens. I am excited to learn of this group's existence, and plan to start attending their events when I can.

In Minnesota there are five other chapters in addition to the Northfield one. There are also chapters in ten other states.

Spring Ducks Arriving

My favorite spring duck-watching pond south of Superior Drive in the southeast corner of Northfield was close to ice-free today, and I spotted at least 42 scaup, probably lesser scaup, there about an hour ago, along with five hooded mergansers and some mallards and Canada geese.

The scaup are a week ahead of last year's first sightings (and last year's sightings felt early in comparison with preceding years). With the mild, dry winter we've had this year, though, it's no surprise to have open water this early. I have been hearing many reports of migrating ducks and white-fronted geese down at Wells Lake in Faribault in the past week or two, including this week's blog post by Dan Tallman. Last year we saw several white-fronted geese on March 19 at the Superior Drive pond.

I wasn't close enough to get decent photos today, but this photo of a lesser scaup (I believe it's a lesser, anyway) is one I took last year. It's a handsome duck, isn't it, with its blue bill, golden eye, and striking sections of black and white?

Today I also saw my first two American robins of the season, and yesterday my son spotted our first two red-winged blackbirds of the season.

Welcome, spring!