Saturday, September 27, 2014

No Warblers but a Rare Bird Indeed!

Lately I've been spending a LOT of time at another park –Silverwood Park in St. Anthony. With the daylight hours dwindling rapidly this time of year, this park is close enough for me to get to quickly after work and allows me as much daylight as possible to watch and photograph birds. At this park I've been seeing tons of Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers, as well as a few Nashville and Tennessee Warblers. So this morning I was excited to go to Palmer Lake Park and maybe see more of the same. A couple of friends of mine had tallied 10 species of Warblers just days ago but alas I did not see a single one this morning. I wonder if maybe it's already too late in the year? I should note that it was exceptionally warm today in the 80's which may have played a factor. Nonetheless, I was keeping my eyes peeled and after a fairly uneventful walk, I finally stumbled across a bird that got me quite excited. It might be the second most rare bird I've seen in the park and I even submitted it to which is the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union website. The bird I found was a Red-headed Woodpecker, a bird that has been in decline in Minnesota for quite some time due to it's preference for a preference for a very particular habitat called an "Oak Savanna." An Oak Savanna is essentially a "lightly forested grassland where Oaks are the dominant trees." I've been to Oak Savannas before, some of them being found in our many Minnesota State Parks. In fact my one and only (previous) sighting of a Red-head Woodpecker was during a special trip to an area of Oak Savanna in East Bethel, MN. So needless to say, spotting this bird at Palmer Lake Park –a mostly wetland– was especially surprising. I first noticed the bird in a very tall, dead tree on the northwest side of the park, near the edge of the cattails. In fact I hadn't a clue what it was until I put my camera lens on it and spotted the bright red head. I almost couldn't believe my eyes. I quickly hiked through the tall grass, feeling the stinging nettles go right through my thin pants and worked my way closer to the tall tree. But as soon as I got into a good viewing area I looked up and the bird had gone. I waited for over 20 minutes and eventually saw another similarly colored bird creeping up the back side of one of the branches. I got excited again and had my camera ready but quickly found out that a Pileated Woodpecker had flown in and taken the Red-headed's place in the tree. Now a Pileated is still a fun treat to see anywhere but I was actually kinda bummed at this point. I really wanted to see that Red-headed again and get a better photo, but due to the rarity of this sighting to begin with, it was likely just moving through the area. Some of the other birds I spotted today were; White-throated Sparrows, Blue Jay, Gray Catbird, Black-capped Chickadee,  Downy Woodpecker, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Phoebe, Cooper's Hawk, Mallard, Wood Duck, Great Egret, American Crow, American Robin and Song Sparrow.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

My 2014 Nemesis Bird Captured!

This spring, I had the fortune of having some unexpected time off of work. I spent as much of this time as I could at the park searching for springtime migrants and I had done very well for the season, even picking up a couple brand new species. But there was one bird in particular that I never spotted all spring –a Scarlet Tanager. There were visits I made where I specifically went in search of this bird, parking on my stool sitting and waiting and waiting and waiting only to never see one. On May 22nd of last year (2013) I had an amazingly close encounter with a Scarlet Tanager who was on the ground. So of course I expected to have a similar encounter this year! Yeah right. Remembering that day made me appreciate it even more after the entire spring of 2014 had passed without even a glimpse of one. I had given up hopes that I would be able to log this species for 2014, which of course is generally when something tends to happen. On the south side wood chip trail today I noticed some movement in the thick Buckthorn trees above me. I saw some bright yellow, which is always a color that makes me look closer this time of year. But this was too large to be a warbler. It was mostly obscured by the thick foliage and I didn't even have my binoculars with me. But after a few mostly blurry photos through the trees, I noticed the bird had very dark wings. Ah ha, it was a Scarlet Tanager!!! I waited and watched as patiently as I ever have for this bird to come out into the open but it just wasn't happening. A few times I could catch a better glimpse through a small opening in the leaves but every time I did, the bird would move again. I decided to try and lure it out with some bird calls but for the most part it did not seem interested. Finally after tracking faint glimpses of it's movement back and forth, it began working it's way to the edge of the tree. I found a pile of logs to climb up on and precariously tried to put myself in a good position for when it came out fully. Finally after nearly 45 minutes the bird appeared in front of me, unobstructed and with a nice blue sky behind. I quickly snapped as many pics as I could and I'm glad I did because only seconds later the bird flew off again. I tracked it to it's new spot even higher now in a Boxelder tree. To my surprise a second Scarlet Tanager flew in to meet it! Then I got an even bigger surprise when this second bird opened it's gape wide to beg for food! Indeed this was a juvenile who had been following around the parent Tanager. Though nearly impossible to capture a photo of this moment, I felt fortunate to have witnessed such a sight –and with such a special bird for my year. Though not in it's typical bright red "scarlet" coloring, I believe the parent to be a male. I could certainly be wrong but according to my Stokes Field Guide, the male would still possess black wings even in it's "yellow" (fall/winter) phase, while the female would show dark –but not black wings. Oh, I forgot to mention but in the very same place, a male AND female Rose-breasted Grosbeak both landed. They were in a very shaded area and I was not able to get a decent photo. I was so happy after my Tanager sighting that I hardly paid much attention to other birds for the rest of my walk. I did however see other species including Yellow-rumped Warbler, Eastern Phoebe, Wood Duck, Mallard, Black-capped Chickadee, Common Yellowthroat and my first "fall" White-throated Sparrows. Further on the south side I was surprised to catch a Monarch Butterfly again. It has been so cold last week that one would have a hard time imagining that they are still hatching or making their way south to Mexico for the winter. But indeed they are still around. This one grabbed hold of a small yellow flower that I believe to be Tall Hedge Mustard –a non-native if I'm correct. This was my favorite shot with the bright blue as a backdrop. Later I found another butterfly, this time a Cabbage White Butterfly on the only thistle flower in the area. In fact I'd stopped to see what was so bright pink on the edge of the trail first, right before the butterfly landed on it. I've recently read that this species of butterfly which is so common to our area is declining in the state of Florida. I am not sure what the reason is.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Last Day of August 2014

I can't believe how fast the month of August has gone by. It's actually been a good month for bird watching though I typically think of August as slow and quiet –second only to maybe January. And having a new lens to capture things through has also helped motivate me to be out more too. I was not disappointed again this Sunday morning. The first thing I noticed right after parking was a trio of Hawks who appeared to be playing and practicing their aeronautic skills. I don't often see two together much less three, so I followed them around for a bit. They were young Cooper's Hawks and I'm guessing they were likely a family that were born in or near the park this year. At one point all three perched in the same dead tree but only two were close enough to get in one photo. Not much later I spotted a Green Heron again in the little pond near the south parking lot. I had a good look and photo opportunity but I'm not posting it here today as I saw a variety of other interesting things. When I got to the two dead Tamarack trees on the south wood chip trail, I could see there was a lot of bird activity in the area. One bird that caught my eye right away was this one with a white eye-ring which I believe to be a Nashville Warbler. This is a plentiful warbler in the spring but for some reason I've only spotted them at the park during fall migration. I thought it seemed a bit early but indeed Fall Migration has already begun for many birds near the 3rd week in August. The next Warbler presented itself in much better light in the same area but down near eye level. This Common Yellowthroat is clearly a male due to it's black mask but does not look quite like the others I've seen this summer. My Stokes Field Guide to Warblers indicates it as a "Fall immature male." I really love how this photo turned out except for the one little twig cutting in front of the bird. It otherwise would have been up there in my best photos of the year. And if a "Fall immature male" wasn't enough, I also spotted a Black-and-white Warbler today which very clearly means that birds are heading back south again. I had a tough time catching a photo of this one as it bounced crazily from one place to the next just as they do in the spring searching for caterpillars and insects. This one had quite a bit of white coloring versus black meaning that it could either be a female or possibly another immature male. Black-and-white's are one of my favorite Warblers as they are so distinct in color and behavior from other Warblers. Though they forage at a ferocious pace like others, they are the only Warbler to walk up and down –and often upside down– on a bare tree trunk, much like a Nuthatch does. Oh I almost forgot but on the north side of the park today I spotted a HUGE frog sunning himself right out on the paved trail. I haven't seen a frog this large in quite some time. It was about as big as my hand. Because of this I thought maybe it was a Bullfrog. But later I learned that Bullfrogs are found only in southeastern Minnesota in Winona and Houston counties. It took a fellow flickr user to point out that this was a "Green Frog" which is Minnesota's 2nd largest frog. The main distinguishing factor was that this frog had "lateral folds" of skin along it's back, which a Bullfrog does not have. And I also learned that a Green Frog is not always green in color as it's name implies. While taking photos, a biker came along and I wanted to make sure the frog didn't get run over. The biker stopped to have a look and the frog suddenly hopped right through the spokes in the rear wheel of the bicycle and into the grass. I wanted to share one last photo here of a Wood Duck on the east side. He was perched in a dead branch above the little pond there and I snuck my way into the woods just far enough to get a look without scaring him off. This year I've learned that what may look like a juvenile male could also be a mature male in what is called "eclipse plumage" which is a fancy name for non-breeding plumage. Meaning that after breeding age they start to lose some of their brilliant coloring. I'm no expert but after studying my Stokes Guide I would say that this duck is still a juvenile but quite far along. It still has indications of a light eyebrow or streaking behind the eye which should not be visible on an adult.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Have Lens Will Travel

Well, after having my new Tamron 600mm lens since July, I think I've finally found some settings I can rely on for decent images. It's been quite a learning curve since it arrived. With my old 300mm lens I typically shot everything in auto-mode. I know, I know, but I've honestly never had a single photography class and don't understand that much about photography. The reason I got into it at all was simply to record which birds I'd seen and to learn new ones. But with my new lens I was inadvertently thrust into the world of photography more than I'd ever planned. Dunno why and I have no explanation for it but auto-mode was just not giving me the quality of images I was used to getting. And so I had to start experimenting quickly with other settings. Today it felt like everything was finally going right for me and was able to capture some images that years ago would have blew my mind to imagine that I had taken myself! My first good photo opportunity I really had to make myself. I'd spotted both a Green Heron AND a Great Blue Heron in very close proximity to each other in the little pond near Oliver Avenue on the east side. I couldn't get an unobstructed view without having to crash my way through some young willow trees. And almost instantly the GB Heron took off. But luckily the Green Heron stayed and tolerated me getting even closer where I had some great views of him. I ended up crouching down to avoid some branches which gave this photo a nice and low vantage point. Later on the south wood chip trail, I heard and then spotted a Northern Cardinal. It was a beautiful female with her crest up which is something I don't see closely very often. Though she was in a darker area and in some tangled branches I got a couple of nice shots without changing my camera settings. I really like how the dark green background contrasts against her. Near the parking lot on the south side I stopped at a spot where I've been seeing Hummingbirds once or twice. Sure enough one buzzed over the tiny, orange Touch-me-not flowers and then disappeared. I waited for a while and then just as I was about to give up, it came back but perched this time in the dead tree standing in the middle of the area. I really had to bend down and contort my body while holding my heavy lens in order to get an unobstructed view. I took numerous shots, anticipating it was only seconds from flying away again. But the bird continued sitting still for me for just long enough for me to find the right angle. I'm really happy with how this one turned out. This is a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird –the only species of Hummingbird that are common in Minnesota. As usual in the bird world it's the male who has the more colorful "ruby" throat for which they are named. Along my way I saw a handful of other good birds including Gray Catbirds, American Golfinch and a couple of American Redstarts too. I did spot something of interest today that was not a bird. Right on the edge of the paved trail near the west side baseball fields was a tiny little rodent. At first it wasn't moving and I thought maybe I was looking at some part of a plant that broke off or something. But as I got closer I realized it was indeed a Meadow Vole. I generally see more of these in the winter time when they scurry across the white snow. However I've also seen more of them during very wet periods too. I wonder if too much moisture drives them out of their burrows and hiding places. He was casually dining on what looked to be a willow leaf and did not appear to realize I was only feet from him. In fact I got so close that I darn near touched him. I considered feeling his fur but didn't want to completely freak him out. This one was small in comparison to others that I've seen, so maybe it was young as well. On the north side near the bridge over Shingle Creek I decided to turn left and follow the creek for a while. I am glad that I did because here in the big grassy field I spotted a pair of Wild Turkeys. The were actually headed my way and continued walking closer to me. I got distracted by something and turned my attention away from them for a bit. When I turned back around they were poking along the edge of the field very close to me. Turkey can be tough subjects because their heads are always moving differently from their bodies. But when they stand still it's a bit easier. I tried hard to catch a few shots with both of them together and this one was my favorite.