Monday, February 27, 2017

Late February and First Red-winged Blackbirds!

I wasn't sure if I was going to make it to the park today or not. I had the day off of work but I have also been summoned for Jury Duty this week. After making my mid-day call, I learned I didn't need to report so I went for a long hike instead. Except for a few slightly cool (and average) days, today was another warmer-than-usual day for February. I believe we hit 48º or so and the sun was shining to boot. I wanted to check Shingle Creek on the north end of the park to see if any early waterfowl had returned yet, but all I found there was a lot of Mallards and a small group of Canada Geese. Shingle Creek has not been iced over for probably the entire month of February if not more, which is pretty unusual. There was also no sign of the Belted Kingfisher I spotted in the first week of this month. As I hiked around the south end of the park, I heard a familiar sound that I could not immediately place. It was a faint "chek" sound coming from my right. Then it hit me –a Red-winged Blackbird! The arrival of this bird (especially to the Palmer Lake area) each year has become an important observation as a sign of the coming Spring season. I swung around to my right, peering into the cattails and there he was! My first-of-year Red-winged Blackbird. I hiked in closer to the area in hopes of catching a better photo but it was not to be. In all of my previous years watching birds, my first RWBB's have always been spotted in March so to have seen them in February is a new record for me! As I continued on the south side I paused more than once to take in the golden light being cast over the cattails and tall grasses looking northward. This area is truly unique to find within such an urban area. In certain spots (like this one) you can forget that you are surrounded by urban sprawl on all sides. Today I was also carrying a new camera lens with me for the first time in over two years. I decided to give it a whirl on some of the Mallards in the "duck pond" on the southwest corner of the park. Both the light and the ducks were fairly cooperative so I got a few keepers. Surprisingly though I did not witness any mating behavior among them today. I guess they were too busy preening and soaking up the sun.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Long Walk on Superbowl Sunday

A number of years ago I remember hiking all the way to the little dam on Shingle Creek (in Brookdale Park) on Superbowl Sunday, so I decided to do it again today. After all it was a nice sunny day and the birds were fairly active. With more minutes of sunlight and warming temps the snow is melting quickly and Shingle Creek has been ice free for maybe two weeks or more. There is a drainage ditch on the northeast side of the park that generally smells horrible 90% of the year, but today there were small groups of Robins and Cedar Waxwings routinely coming to the open water for a drink. So I found a snow-free area along the ditch and just sat for a while enjoying the birds. Many Robins tend to "over-winter" here at Palmer Lake, so it's not unusual to see them this early. I caught a photo of this one right after it had a drink. Later on my hike I came to an area where Great Horned Owls nested (unsuccessfully) last year. I pulled up my binoculars and sure enough the female was using the same spot. I cannot divulge exactly where this is, as word about roosting or nesting owls spreads like wildfire and can attract photographers who might visit repeatedly and potentially stress the owl. In fact I wasn't even going to post this image, but I feel it tells an interesting phenology lesson, AND I want readers to be able to appreciate the park for the good habitat it offers some bird species. Great Horned Owls are the first birds to nest –as early as late January. Besides, the people who stalk owls likely already know about this location anyways :( Later as I was heading north, I heard the unmistakeable call of a Belted Kingfisher! I could hardly believe my ears, until I saw the bird fly over Shingle Creek to a new perch. Belted Kingfishers may also "over-winter" wherever they can find open water but this is the earliest by far I have ever spotted one in the area. Typically I wont see one here along the creek until late summer. I took a long distance photo for documentation and then attempted to get closer but was horribly unsuccessful. I could hear the bird periodically and it always sounded hundreds of feet ahead of me and eventually I lost track of it as I hiked the trail connecting to Brookdale Park. Here in Brookdale Park I spent some time watching the Mallards, and even saw a pair engaging in courting behavior of "head bobbing" as they faced each other. The pair eventually copulated which also surprised me to see so early in the year. Apparently Spring is on the way!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Searching for Otters

It's almost the end of January, yet Shingle Creek remains completely ice free! A friend and I decided to hike the length of the creek through the park today in hopes of seeing an Otter. There have been signs of them recently, but this is one mammal I've actually NEVER seen in the wild yet. It was a sunny day but there wasn't much to be seen in the way of mammals OR birds. I did catch this photo of a Black-capped Chickadee somewhere along the way but I don't remember where exactly. Later as we were nearing the middle of the park, I noticed this funny little ice formation clinging to a stick poking up out of the creek. This is how little ice there is right now –almost unprecedented for this time of year! After searching high and low, we never did see any Otters which was unfortunate. Later we found a small group of American Robins chowing down on buckthorn berries. These are "overwintering" birds that never left for the winter. Over the years I've learned that the Palmer Lake area must provide adequate shelter and food sources for Robins and I've encountered them here in winter pretty much every season.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

An Odd Duck

Despite our recent mid-winter thaw, we've not seen the sun all weekend. I hiked around the park today with a friend but I carried my camera and binoculars just in case. We didn't really see much but we heard some Red-bellied and Downy or Hairy Woodpeckers. But we did run into a surprise at the "duck pond" on the southwest corner of the park. There were a LOT of Mallards present and I was explaining to my friend how it's sometimes worth a shot to scan the entire flock as there can be other species sometimes mixed in. In a matter of seconds my friend said "you mean like that one?" as he pointed to a darker colored and unusual looking duck. At first glance I had no idea what it was. It wouldn't be out of the question to see an American Black Duck, but this didn't look like a Black Duck at all. It was slightly larger than the other Mallards and had a kind of "lankiness" to it's appearance –like it's neck stuck out further than the other ducks. I did give me the faintest reminder of the Muscovy Duck (a domestic breed) I'd found in this same exact location in October of 2014. So now I was leaning towards some type of domestic duck. As we walked around to the other path we got to see the bird from behind and I noticed some very beautiful iridescent purple feathers and a striking emerald wing patch or "speculum" as it's called. I couldn't help but think of how similar it's plumage was to a male Wood Duck! I'd never seen anything quite like this. I figured if I got some good enough photos that I could post online later and as for help in properly identifying the bird. I believe a couple of very good birders on the Minnesota Birding facebook page nailed it. A Mallard x Muscovy Hybrid! After viewing some additional photos of said combination, I feel pretty confident that is what this bird is. You just never know what's gonna show up in the Palmer Lake Duck Pond! We also saw a few Northern Cardinals, and a pair of Great Horned Owls that were being mobbed by Crows.