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.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Growing Families of Birds

Bird watching can really slow down in August –at least at Palmer Lake anyway. So I'm kind of surprised to have 6 photos that I want to share from my visit this Saturday morning. The first is a Downy Woodpecker that I was able to get very close to. This male Downy (as evident by the red patch of feathers on his head) was busy looking for insects inside dried up cattail and other weed stalks. Compared to pounding into a tree I'm sure this was much easier! I saw him poke a hole into it and even saw his long tongue come out once. Maybe it's because I was close but I thought for sure that this was a Hairy Woodpecker which is about 3 inches larger than a Downy. But with my photo I was able to catch a small detail that helps a person distinguish between the two nearly identical species. Notice the small black dots near the tips of the white tail feathers –something a Hairy Woodpecker does not have! In the same general area were lots of Goldfinches coming and going and making plenty of noise too. I've been trying for weeks to get a nice photo of one and am coming to realize it's just not that easy. Here and there I could see one or two through the tall green grass and this was one that did not seem shy of me. To me it's brownish coloration reminded me of how the males will look in winter. But why did it look this way now in the middle of August?It puzzled me enough to ask other birders and it turns out I overlooked the most obvious answer. It is a juvenile! Whilst standing here watching, I finally spotted a bright yellow male but there was not a clear view of him through the tall grass. Eventually he worked his way upwards and grabbed a hold of a blade of grass to bend it over. At the time I didn't notice but in the photo now I can see there are little green aphids on the grass. I don't know for sure if that's what he was after or not. I didn't watch closely enough to see if that was the case. There was one more little yellow bird that I saw today further along the wood chip trail to the south. This was a female Common Yellowthroat who teased me with only a partial view from behind some cattails. I often forget that this species is a Warbler, seeing as how they are here in our area for almost the entire summer season and how easily they can be found through their constant and loud songs. Though I've heard plenty of them lately, I've seen only females in the past few weeks. Later on the north side I spotted a bird that I've not seen in some time now –possibly since spring. I first noticed a patch of bright red against white which usually means one thing, a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak. They are one of my favorite birds but every year I notice that the males in particular become very scarce in the summer. After trying for a while to coax it out of the thick buckthorn, I noticed movement which I followed to another tree. Finally it was out in the open where I could get a photo. But as I did I quickly realized it was not the same bird. This was in fact a juvenile and more obviously a juvenile male! This is something I've never seen before and was quite exciting. It still had many of the characteristics of an adult female –the striped brownish head and even the rusty orange breast with small speckles. But in the middle of that breast was the bright red patch of an adult male. This photo was lightened up considerable to show some of those details. Its great to know that this bird is possibly nesting in or near the Palmer Lake area! Finally, on the northeast side of the park I had spotted what looked like a Song Sparrow fly down from a perch and start following another bird very closely. When a bird shows this behavior of following another around and opening it's mouth for food it can only mean one thing –that it is a young bird or "fledgeling." Indeed this odd looking Song Sparrow with some yellowish coloring on it's face was being fed by the adult which was a neat sight. I took quite a few photos but hardly got any focused shots of the action of feeding that happened so quickly. After getting it's meal though, the young bird would still be very close to the adult giving me multiple good photo opportunities of the pair.

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.