Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Over the course of several springs, I have seen my fellow Northfielder Rob Hardy mention his delight in and expeditions in search of pasqueflowers, but until around this time last year, I had never seen them. It's a native plant, Anemone patens, also sometimes known as prairie crocus, windflower, and prairie smoke. I'm charmed to learn that it is South Dakota's state flower. It's one of the earliest flowers to bloom in the spring, appearing in low clumps here and there in dry or sandy soils. It's native to much of the north central and northwest United States.

Dave and I saw these pretty specimens last Saturday at a prairie remnant located a few miles northeast of Northfield.

I'm always interested in names and their origins. Pasque is an old word for Easter or Passover (think paschal lamb), which is a natural association because of the plant's blooming time, but apparently this was an adaptation of the earlier name for the European version of this flower, originally called passeflower, from passefleur, simply meaning pass/surpass + flower in Old French. (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pasqueflower).

You can read more about pasqueflowers in Minnesota on the Minnesota Wildflowers and Minnesota Seasons websites.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Pelicans and Wing-spreading Posture

This morning there were several groups of American white pelicans resting on or near sandbars near the west end of Lake Byllesby, near Randolph, Minn. They were far enough out that we needed the spotting scope or a strong camera zoom to really see what was going on.

What appeared at first glance to be one large bird (above) turned out to be two (below).

An American white pelican's enormous wings, with a span of  roughly 8 to 9 feet, are one of the most beautiful sights in birddom. A couple of the birds today were holding their wings outspread in the behavior we've also seen in vultures and cormorants. It may be done to dry feathers; it may be to absorb warmth (thermoregulation); or perhaps other reasons. See, e.g., https://www.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Spread-Wing_Postures.html. Whatever the reason, we saw a nice demonstration of it today. This is a gorgeous display of the black tips on the otherwise white wings of an American white pelican.

There is a good overview of American white pelicans and both their historical and recent presence in Minnesota, where it is a "species of special concern," here.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Ring-necked Duck vs. Scaup

In a recent post I showed a rather indistinct photo of what we concluded was a ring-necked duck (or two). Here is a better shot I got yesterday that provides a nice comparison between the ring-necked duck and a scaup, which appear quite similar at a glance, with dark heads, breasts, and tails, lighter flanks, and bluish/grayish bills.

The duck in the foreground is the ring-necked duck. According to Sibley (Field Guide to Eastern Birds, 2003), the black back and the white "spur" on the side (just behind the base of the neck) are distinctive, as is the white outline on the bill. As I mentioned in the earlier post, the sharp angle to the head is also diagnostic. As Sibley puts it, this duck is "best identified by tall head with sharp peak on rear crown." (The white marking on the bill also tempts one to call this a "ring-billed" duck -- a good sign that actually it is a ring-necked duck. Go figure.)

The duck to the rear is a scaup. It lacks the field marks of the ring-necked duck that I noted above, and has white flanks and a gray back, in contrast to the ring-necked duck's gray flanks and black back. The greater and lesser scaup are very similar. I'm guessing this is a lesser scaup, based on the fairly tall head, which is the main way of distinguishing it from the greater scaup, which has a larger, more rounded head. However, from this angle it's difficult to say for sure. The lesser scaup is also the more likely species to be found here, as they winter all across the southern tier of the U.S. as well as on the coasts, while the greater scaup is said to prefer salt water and winters mainly on the coasts, as well as some smaller inland areas in the south, from eastern Texas through Arkansas. See the comparative range maps: lesser scaup vs. greater scaup. This is also borne out in Minnesota eBird records for the two: lesser scaup vs. greater scaup.

Today we saw our first northern shovelers of the season (boldly colored ducks with enormous bills), and a belted kingfisher. I am keeping a 2014 bird list (also available from the page links at the top of the blog). We've often kept records of what we've seen, but this is the first time in a while we've started a numbered list early in the season, and I'm hoping to keep it going throughout the year. We're up to 34 species so far, and with spring migration really getting started, that should keep going up pretty steadily.

Happy birding!

Friday, April 4, 2014

More Hooded Mergansers

I can't get enough of these diving ducks. They are so striking-looking, yet somehow comical in the intensity of the yellow eye, the sharpness of the bill, and the startling, quasi-alien appearance of their crests, which they can raise and lower.

Below is a cluster of hoodies from the larger group of 30-40 that has been hanging around on the Superior Drive pond. Note a mallard taking off at left. (Click on the photo to see it much larger.)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Ducks are Here

On Sunday morning the pond south of Superior Drive in Northfield was still largely ice-covered. Later that day and the next, the temperatures reached well into the 50s, and at some point the ice went out. We heard reports of swans there on Tuesday and headed over there after work. No swans were to be seen, but there were 14 common mergansers, two dozen hooded mergansers (plus another four on the north pond), some short-necked Canada geese, a few mallards and a gull. There was also another pair of ducks we couldn't quite be sure of through the binoculars, but after the fact, based on my photos, we were able to be fairly sure they were ring-necked ducks.

Male Common Merganser - so handsome; larger than a Mallard

Female Common Merganser

Hooded Mergansers

Probably these are Ring-necked Ducks (note sharp slope of head)

This is one of my favorite times in the birding year, enjoying the great variety of migrating ducks that appear as soon as the ponds open up.