Saturday, April 12, 2014

Day of the Ducks!

I hadn't intended to visit the park today. I spent the morning preparing my taxes only days before the deadline. But only minutes after I finished filing them, I got a call from my good birder friend Ron. He was heading to the east side of Palmer Lake Park as another friend of ours (Larry) was there and seeing a variety of Waterfowl including Northern Shovelers, Green-winged Teal and Redhead to name a few! Since I've never positively seen a Redhead before, I quickly changed and hopped in the car to head over. Wouldn't you know it, the Redheads took off before I got there! From the granite bench overlooking the water on the east side we could see a few other Ducks, though they were quite a ways away. Ron was getting some decent photos as his lens can reach the moon. I snapped this photo of some Northern Shovelers that flew over us, but for the most part I wasn't getting any good photos with my mere 300mm lens and I knew I would need to get closer. So after walking a bit and eventually parting ways, I decided to drive over the west side and hike over to what I call the "Duck Pond" on the southwest corner of the park. Right off the bat I spotted a pair of male Buffleheads and this is a species I've only seen one other time at PLP! I decided I would hike in on the woodchip trail as it would be quieter, and then find a place along the water to sit and wait for them to come closer. And boy did they ever! It took quite a while but eventually the pair came close enough for me to catch some fantastic photos. Buffleheads are small diving ducks and when they would come back up to the surface they would have beads of water clinging to their backs. Though I've seen Buffleheads before in other places, this may have been the closest I'd ever been to them. I had not before fully appreciated what beautiful birds they are! Their head reminds me of a "pie-chart" with 1/4th of the pie colored pure white. But amazingly the other 3/4ths have an iridescent quality and can appear blue, purple and green in the right light. I had a lot of fun watching these two guys. Then, to my surprise another small pair of ducks caught my eye along the shoreline. I couldn't believe it but they were Green-winged Teal. Though I'd seen one through my binoculars earlier with Ron and Larry, this pair were most definitely in range of a photo! This is a species I've not previously witnessed at Palmer Lake so it was quite special to see them up closely. I spent nearly 2 hours watching the pair and hiking back and forth to opposite ends of the Duck Pond attempting to get better photos. Finally after a long time I had secured a spot only feet from the water's edge while the pair were behind some tall weeds off to my right. They came right out in front of me a few different times and I will tell you the male is one beautiful bird! Numerous times I also got to hear the male vocalize which was a series of "peeps" that alternated between a lower and higher tone. I thought it sounded much more like a songbird than any kind of duck. When making this sound his head generally appeared more puffed up or "tufted" than his usual "slick-backed" look. Once or twice I could see his head feathers appear to sort of drape off the back of his head. As for the female, she was drastically different and drab in comparison. I really only identified her by her behavior of hanging out with the male the entire time. And if not for her much smaller size, she would have appeared pretty similar to a hen Mallard. The only other things I noticed was that she appeared to have a wide neck at the base, and possibly a darker bill. Teal are "Dabbling Ducks" which mean they don't dive for their food and spend a lot of time with their heads lowered and bills in the water. It was hard to catch a photo of them when not in this position! Oh I forgot, but earlier with Ron and Larry, I also saw my first Blue-winged Teals of the season as well. I caught only this one photo but at least I saw them. It was quite a good day and here is a total list of birds we saw (including a few other "firsts of the season!"): Redhead, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Canada Goose, Mallard, Ring-billed Gull, American Coot, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, Wood Duck, Tree Swallow (first of season), Northern Flicker (first of season), Hairy Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Junco, Bald Eagle, American Crow, Red-winged Blackbird, Song Sparrow, Osprey (first of season), American Robin, Cedar Waxwing, Pied-billed Grebe and Great Blue Heron.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

First Red-winged Blackbirds of 2014

Though I've seen that other people have been spotting Red-winged Blackbirds already (further south), I have not seen any yet this year at Palmer. But with the sun out today and temps finally staying above freezing now, I pretty much new that this Saturday I would have a good chance. And before I'd even walked very far the parking space at 73rd Avenue, I heard a loud squeaking that wasn't very familiar. This was not the long, scratchy call that is more common so I had to follow the direction of the sound. Sure enough, high up in the trees on the north side was a RWB -the first of the year for me. Over the last few years I've come to measure the true beginning of spring more by this event than by the calendar itself –and boy was it a welcome sight and sound this year! The photo here is not of the first one I spotted but one of many more as I made my way around the trail. Soon their numbers will increase dramatically enough to nearly drown out the sounds of other birds. The males are always the first to arrive and it is also noteworthy to record when I first spot any females. On the northwest corner I spotted this bright red Cardinal who seemed OK with me inching closer and closer for a photograph. Up until this past winter I was never satisfied with any of my Cardinal shots but this is probably one of the better –if not the best– I've taken so far. I've always wanted to capture one against a white background with snow falling but I am totally fine with waiting another year for that!!! Shortly after the cardinal I spotted a raptor zooming overhead so I tried to catch a photo. I could see with my naked eye that it's tail was longer which points to a Cooper's Hawk (or maybe a Sharp-shinned) but either way it was NOT a Red-tailed which are somewhat more common. This photo is cropped way in but I think it's kind of a neat photo and you can see some detail here of what I'm pretty certain is a Cooper's Hawk. The banding on the tail is quite distinct. I recently learned one tip to distinguish a Cooper's from a Sharp-shinned whey they are soaring overhead. A Cooper's will flap it's wings slower and make larger sized circles while the SS will flap a little faster and turn in noticeably smaller circles.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Good Sightings with a Good Friend!

Today I hiked around the park with a friend of mine. Pretty sure this was the first time in a long while that I've visited the park both Saturday and Sunday. The temperature was slightly warmer than yesterday and in the mid-twenties. We started from the northeast side of the park near 73rd Ave. N. and made our way around the entire park. Along Shingle Creek on the north side we spotted a group of 6 to 7 deer in the back of the townhomes there. The snow has been melting ever-so-slowly this spring due to the colder than usual temps but in places where the grass was exposed we noticed "Snow-mold" coating the ground. I'm not really sure what this stuff is but it looks almost like fine spider webs. Later we ran into someone who said they just saw an Owl fly overhead. So we took one of the woodchip trails looking for it but never did spot it. Instead though we spotted a Northern Shrike! This is a bird I've not seen since early February making it a fun sighting. It flew in and perched high above and was kind of in the sun and I had to try a bunch of different angles to get a photo. On the south side of the park my friend shouted to look up and there soaring not too far away was a very large Raptor. We both thought it was a juvenile Bald Eagle and I steadied my camera on it as it came soaring past us one more time. I guess I don't have a very good eye for Hawks because after I got home and looked more closely it was clearly a Hawk. But what kind? It was clearly not a Red-tailed as evident by the prominent dark patches referred to as "wrist patches" near the outer wings. Because of the rich, rusty red coloring I was guessing a Red-shouldered Hawk. My friend suggested a Rough-legged Hawk and upon looking through my new Stokes field guide, I found a photo that looked almost identical! I fell in love with this field guide upon first seeing it in stores but it is quickly proving itself to be the most useful guide I've owned so far. Not only does it have unbelievably detailed photos but there are anywhere from 4 to 8 photos showing juvenile and adult of both male and female! The field guide even helped me ID this bird as a female "light morph." One clue that I will try to remember now is that the Rough-legged has just one dark band across it's tail –different from both a Red-shouldered as well as other similar looking Hawks. This is only my second ever sighting of one. Near the end of our walk we spotted this White-breasted Nuthatch on a large cottonwood tree just inside the paved trail. In my opinion any bird that holds still and give me a good opportunity is worth a photograph. I find it very helpful to study the photo afterward and I often pick up on small details that you will rarely notice in the field. I think this is one of the better Nuthatch photos I've gotten!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Day 3 of Spring and Back to the Cold

The official first day of Spring was this past Thursday. And since my last post on the blog here we have had some very nice days with temps in the upper 40's. But last night another cold front moved in and temperatures were in the single digits when I woke up this morning! By the time I arrived at PLP it had warmed up to somewhere around 12 to 15 degrees. And with a very strong wind, I had to wear all my warmest clothes –some of which I have put away and had to take back out multiple times already. In fact the duck pond was even frozen over today! It seems that all the Mallards that usually hang out here must have moved on to other open water. Here there were two Canada Geese walking on top of the ice and the ice was so thin that you could hear it squeezing and cracking under their weight. For my visit to the park today I was joined by 2 friends of mine who are very experienced birders. Despite the frigid temps we enjoyed spotting various sights at the park. One sight I really wanted to see today was a second Great Horned Owl nest that yet another birder had recently shared with me. When we found it I was overjoyed to learn that this was the very same nest I had played a part in restoring! You can read the full story here but in July of 2012 a Cooper's Hawk was using the same portion of this tree to nest in. I was walking underneath it that July and spotted two Hawk chicks whom had fallen out of the nest. On a friends suggestion we reached out the Raptor Center at the University of MN and a experienced tree climber came out and rebuilt the nest. He essentially cleared away what was left of the tattered nest and installed a wire mesh which he fashioned into a bowl shape before adding twigs and grasses back. Now nearly 2 years later the work that was done that day is helping provide a completely different species of bird with a suitable place to nest and rear young! How cool is that? I made me think about how our interactions with nature –be it positive or negative– can have effects that last for many years later. Not too much later, Ron from our group thought he saw a Great Blue Heron up ahead behind some thick bushes. I honestly didn't believe him and thought it was another Goose. But as we got closer, we all saw that indeed there were a pair of Great Blue Herons! Apparently it is common for them to arrive back in March but until now I can't say that I've spotted them this early in the year. I usually use Red-winged Blackbirds as my "natural calendar" for the start of Spring but a GBH is even better! Here and there I was also noticing Pussy Willow catkins poking out which is also another good sign of Spring. Later in our walk we stopped to check out the other Great Horned Owl nest –the one I had found on my own on the first day of this March. The mother was quite obvious in the nest this time and just below and to the right, we thought we could see a little white fluff that could be an Owlet. This particular nest has us a little worried because there are no good branches jutting out horizontally from the nest. If the Owlets survive to leave the nest it could a bit perilous for them to not have any branches available to perch on and learn to use their wings. I'm hoping for the best but time will tell.