Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mid-July Warblers

Today was predicted to be hot and muggy so I wanted to get in a walk early in the morning. I arrived at the park around 6:45am and this was the earliest I've hiked in a long time. In addition, I had intended to make it all the way around today –another thing I've not done very often as of late. I had my new lens with today as well so I was bound and determined to get a few decent bird photos. There are still two species of Warblers that can be found –American Redstarts and Common Yellowthroats, and I figured I would be happy if I could get a good shot of either one. But before I had an opportunity at either of these birds, I was in for an even better surprise. From a distance I'd spotted what looked to be a female American Redstart, but it quickly moved up into the thick part of a Buckthorn tree. When I got closer, I looked up and into the area and saw a little bird with even more color than I expected. I thought "hey, that looks almost like a Chestnut-sided Warbler." As the bird came into an open area through the leaves, I realized it was indeed a Chestnut! The last CSW I've seen at Palmer Lake was in May. This is the time when the vast majority of them are heading even further north to their breeding grounds in northern Minnesota and Canada. But what was this one doing here? Well, for one thing it's color and pattern did not look quite fully formed, meaning that it's likely a juvenile. I didn't notice at the time, but it's tail is extremely short and stubby, another sign that the bird is not fully developed yet. So the big question now is this; is this an early migrant that fledged further north and is making it's way south? OR, is this possibly a bird that was born and fledged right here in Palmer Lake Park? Though I've not seen a single CSW in the Twin Cities area since May, it IS entirely possible that this bird fledged within or near Palmer Lake Park. The reason is that if you look at what's called a "range map" for a Chestnut-sided Warbler, the Twin Cities metro area is near the southern-most edge of their "summer range." Not too long after this exciting sighting, I ended up having my best chance at the bird I was most determined to capture today –a Common Yellowthroat. This was in a more open area where the wood chip trail runs along the cattails on the south side. There was a dead shrub sticking up out of the cattails and as my luck would have it, this beautiful male Yellowthroat decided to perch here for a brief moment. Earlier on my walk I actually saw a female Common Yellowthroat which for me this year has been much harder to find. I got an OK pic but not as good as this one of the male. But before my walk was over, I ended up having a much closer encounter with one more Warbler –the American Redstart. This particular bird (another male) came within very close proximity and actually stayed put! This is something Redstarts –and other Wablers for that matter– rarely do! The bird was in kind of a darker area shaded by the canopy of trees and I ended up not having my camera set very well to compensate. Thus these photos have been lightened up considerably. But despite this oversight, I was pleased to see how much detail came through on some of my shots! Even in person, this little guy appeared pretty mangy and beat up. Some of his tail feathers seemed to be broken off and he was just overall rough looking. But despite his appearance he sat there singing away. There have been times I have seen Redstarts sit still for a while and I would say it always seems to be later in the season, long after they've adjusted to their new surroundings after arriving in early Spring. This guy surely beat the record though for holding still and I shot 57 photos of him alone! Another thing that I liked about my view of this bird was that I could see some detail in his face and eye, which is something that doesn't always come across in a photo because they are just so black on the head. It's shabby appearance and uncommon cooperative behavior makes me wonder if this too was a juvenile bird! Oh and just a few other birds that were spotted today; Gray Catbird, Black-capped Chickadee, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, American Goldfinch, Rose-breasted Grosbeak (female) and Cedar Waxwing.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Gotcha! A New "Life Bird!"

After more than 5 years of hiking at Palmer Lake and watching birds, I've learned what kind of birds to expect and where and when. But I'm thrilled to report today that I saw and photographed a brand new species at the park! As with most sighting like this, there is a little "back story" that I'd like to share. About two weeks ago my friend Larry who also walks at the park, called to tell me that he'd heard a Black-billed Cuckoo calling from the trees near 73rd Avenue North. He said that he listened to it calling for over 30 minutes but never spotted it within the thick trees. When he told me that, I actually rushed over to the park right then and there. I poked around the area he mentioned but I never heard or saw anything. The mosquitoes were bad that day and it was hard to be still and listen. Anyway, I pretty much gave up on the bird since then. In fact I was much more interested in the Indigo Buntings today. I'd decided to walk counter-clockwise around the park today –which I rarely do. And when I came out into the sun on the north side where the trail is perfectly straight, I spotted a bird with a very long tail fly out from some low brush to my left. I am not very good at noticing tail or feather length, but this bird had an unusually long tail! 

The only other species I am familiar with that looked anything like this bird would have been a Brown Thrasher. But Brown Thrashers are much more rusty, reddish color and this bird was very dull. When it landed in a thick shrub, still at eye level, I could just barely see it's head. I looked through my binoculars and was stunned to see bright red coloring on the eye! Then I knew, this was no ordinary bird for me! I realized quickly it had to be the Black-billed Cuckoo that Larry had told me about. It continued on to another perch again but amazingly it stayed at eye level. Once or twice it landed in the lower part of a shrub that with less foliage where I got even better looks at it. It also had quite the long, downturned bill which is another reason it probably reminded me of the Brown Thrasher. 
The funniest thing about my sighting is that I've read that this bird is most often heard, before it it seen, or heard and never seen. My particular sighting was exactly the opposite, whereas I saw it first  but then never even heard it. I would have like to have heard it's call –a monotonous "cu cu cu cu" for which it is named. Though a rare sighting for me, this bird's summer range covers most of the midwest states including the entire state of Minnesota. I'm hoping this is not my last sighting of one! Before this entire escapade, I did spend quite a bit of time listening and watching for the Indigo Buntings that I've seen so much of this summer. It's my personal belief that it has been a good year for this bird as I've seen and photographed them countless times, not just at PLP but at many other places around the metro area.
 In years past I feel like I might see them between 1 and 3 times each season. But then again, I may just be looking harder than I used to! Here is my favorite photo of one today. Near the end of my walk I spotted one of those little white Butterflies that are also so common this time of year. They never seem to sit still for me but this one was interested in some like–colored white flowers. I learned today that the Butterfly is referred to as a "Cabbage White Butterfly" with the scientific name of Pieris rapae.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Colorful June Birds

It's amazing how much more you can do in a single day when there is as much daylight as there is now. After work this evening I decided to go over to Silverwood Park in St. Anthony and was there for about an hour. Then a friend of mine called me to tell me that he had heard a Black-billed Cuckoo bird calling for about half an hour at Palmer Lake Park near the northeast side. So I left Silverwood almost immediately, though I was seeing both the male and female Indigo Buntings there. I got to PLP at around 6:00pm and went to the spot where the Cuckoo had been heard but I never heard or saw it. It was a little buggy already and I was getting bit up by not moving quickly enough. So I headed to the north end of the park where I heard a Yellow Warbler calling. I followed the sound until I found the bird in the same general area where I've been seeing them lately. With full leaves out now it is getting tougher to see the birds at all much less get photos of them. Finally it moved to the top most part which is when I shot this photo. A little while later I could hear another bird that sounded similar but more scratchy. I wondered it if might be an American Redstart and indeed it was. The bird came down out of the treetops just long enough to check me out it seemed. It hopped around on a dead branch just long enough for me to take a few shots. Redstarts are notoriously hard to photograph because of their constant and quick movement, but I've found it is equally hard to take a photograph that captures the detail of their eyes and head. Since the males have a completely black head and black eye, it is somewhat rare to even be able to see their eyes. So this is one shot in my book that makes the cut! On my way along the north side I had been hearing not just one but up to three different Indigo Buntings calling from the treetops. If I would be lucky enough to see one tonight it would be the first IB's I've seen at the park this year. I decided to head back the way I came and on the way I did encounter one –a male. In fact, he gave me more than one decent photo opportunity as he busily sang out the same sweet, buzzy song over and over again. Like last year I witnessed him fly back and forth from one side of the trail to the next. After chasing him back and forth for quite a while I encountered him on a lower than usual perch and took this photo. It is lightened up quite a bit since it was getting darker already, but I really like how it turned out. I would not normally crop a photo so strangely, with all that space to the right but for some reason I think it works. I saw one more interesting thing as I was heading back to my vehicle and that was these two Butterflies back-to-back with wings intertwined. These are a very common Butterfly and I believe they may be called "Cabbage Butterlies" but I'm not 100% certain yet. The odd position I found them in leads me to believe they were possibly mating.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Summer Solstice 2014

Today is June 21st and the first day of Summer which is also the longest day of the entire year. I made a trip to St. Cloud in the morning with a very brief visit to Munsinger and Clemens Gardens near the river. But by 3:20 in the afternoon I arrived back in the Twin Cities for a nice and long 2+ hour hike at the park. The flurry of spring migrant birds has been over for some time now, but there are a lot of other interesting things to see this time of year. After parking at the culdesac on 73rd Avenue and heading south, I ran into flooded trails that were just too deep to walk through. In 5+ years of hiking around the park, I think this is maybe only the 2nd time I've ever had to detour down Oliver Avenue and all the way down to 69th Avenue just to be able to make my way around the entire loop. But when I got back on the trail, I noticed this big Dragonfly just waiting for me to take it's picture against a nice green background. I had learned in the past year or so to count the number of spots or patches on the wings. This one has 3 dark patches on each of it's 4 wings, making it a Twelve-spotted Skimmer. But what I didn't know is that you can tell it is a female. A male would also have white patches in between the dark patches. I think that is pretty neat! Shortly afterward I'd spotted a brief glimpse of a Green Heron who was perched quite low near the tiny little pond along 69th Avenue. I was bummed because he flew up from his spot right along the trail as I approached. But I saw where he landed and I decided to see if I could close again. He was hanging in the taller trees now on the other side of the pond and I was then able to kind of sneak up on him a little just because there were so many other trees and leaves in the way. Green Herons are a quite beautiful bird and can look slightly different each time I see them. This photo was taken right before he flew off again, but I really like that I caught his bright yellow eye in the sunlight! Probably the single most interesting sighting of my walk today came next as I spotted what first looked like a small snake in the bushes! It was mostly dark and with green stripes giving me the initial impression of a Garter Snake. But upon closer inspection it was quite a large Caterpillar. It was about 4 inches long with a bright orange head and also a sizeable orange spike on it's rear! I have never seen anything like it before. While it chowed down on a plant, I took quite a few photos hoping to ID it later on. And after someone pointed me in the right direction, I was able to narrow it down to a "White-lined Sphinx Moth" Caterpillar. There have been a lot of baby birds or "fledgelings" around the park lately. Some of these can be really tough to identify which species they are as they don't quite show the color or behavior that you're used to seeing in the adults. I saw quite a few young birds that I think were Common Grackles because they were surrounding an adult Grackle in a tree and begging for food. Then shortly later I spotted this one having a bath in the flooded trails on the west side. Adult Grackles have yellow eyes but this ones were grey. However you can kind of see hints of the iridescent purple/blue plumage already developing on it's head. The last item I want to share here today is actually a video, which I don't post that often. To my surprise, I again saw bird activity at the little tree stump on the south end of the park along one of the wood chip trails. I first noticed Black-capped Chickadees appearing to excavate an already existing hole in the very middle of this stump that was cut off at an angle. That was well over a month ago on May 5th! Today I could clearly hear young birds chirping inside the hole so I waited here for a bit. Sure enough a Chickadee came in with a mouthful of food and hopped down into the hole. videoSo I tried my best here to capture a quick video. For whatever reason, the adult appears to leave again with the food still in it's bill, making me wonder if the young ones rejected it for some reason. Still this is pretty neat and is the first confirmed Chickadee nest I have found in the park.