Saturday, March 28, 2015

Great Blue Heron, Mink and the Grey Ghost

Our weather for the end of March has been unseasonably nice. I decided this afternoon to sit along the edge of Shingle Creek and hopefully see a Wood Duck or Northern Shoveler. Technically some of the migrating ducks have returned, but it's still probably a bit early for them to be congregating on the creek. Regardless, the weather was so nice that I decided to try anyway. On my hike from 73rd Avenue out to the bridge on the north side, I spied my first Great Blue Heron for the park this year! Myself and some others had seen our first one of the year just yesterday at the Coon Rapids Dam. This one today at Palmer was standing in the drainage ditch on the north side that was re-dredged out a couple of years ago. It spooked and flew off shortly after taking this photo. Within minutes of finding a decent spot to plant myself along the creek, I noticed a mink hop up onto the creek bank opposite me. He hopped a little ways, paused and turned to look downstream. It was a perfect picture moment, and my camera failed to turn on! Once in a while I have problems with the contacts or something and I have to turn it off and on once or twice to get it to power up. The mink hopped further downstream and out of view as I swore at my camera. But sure enough a second mink came out of the grass and walked along the edge of the water. This time I was ready for him and was able to snag just one focused image. They are interesting and curious critters and always fun to watch. There were no waterfowl on the water yet, not even downstream and I was getting discouraged. I heard one or two Wood Ducks fly overhead but none stopped on the creek at all. After waiting for probably over an hour, I noticed something else flying very low over the cattails. A friend told me just yesterday that he'd seen FOUR Northern Harriers at the park on Friday in the rain. Indeed this is what I was seeing as Northern Harriers (also known as Marsh Hawks) hunt their prey by gliding very low to the ground, and or hovering in one place while they look downward. This hunting habit is probably the most reliable method of identifying a Harrier, however they also will show an obvious, white "rump patch" when they turn their backside toward you. Both of these signs were visible to me right away, but what I didn't realize at the time is that the male Northern Harrier is very grey in color compared to the female who is more brown in color. Because of this, the male is nicknamed "The Grey Ghost." He was a long ways away and my photos here are very cropped but there is still some detail. If you ever get the chance to see one close up, like at the Raptor Center of Minnesota, you'll see that Harriers have a roundish "face disc" sort of like Owls do. They are fascinating raptors and it has been some time since I've seen them at the park so I was quite happy to forgo any waterfowl for this sighting! Later I ended up hiking the rest of the way around the park and spotted; American Robin, Song Sparrow, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal and lots of Red-winged Blackbirds. Near sunset I ran into the same aforementioned friend and we hiked out into the field near 73rd Avenue. We didn't really see anything else but enjoyed a nice sunset.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Return of the Red-wings and other FOY Birds!

Each year as I hike around Palmer Lake Park, I've come to learn there's nothing quite like the return of Red-winged Blackbirds to the park. Though they're not the first migrant bird to return, their presence and familiar sound are more of an "official kickoff" to Spring and quite an exciting thing to a bird watcher! This year my first sighting comes exactly one day after the first day of Spring. I always forget though that they're not as easy to photograph when they first return, as they have a habit of perching high in the treetops the first week or two and then seem to move down into the cattails as time passes. I caught this one relatively lower to the ground on the east side of the park near the little pond. After stopping at the Duck Pond and watching the Mallards for a bit, I found myself in the woods on the North side of the park watching a couple of Black-capped Chickadees flitting about. In watching and photographing birds over the years, I've learned that Chickadees are one of the toughest by far to photograph well. Like other small birds they are constantly moving but Chickadees present a unique challenge in that their dark eye is surrounded by the black feathers on their head. So even if I'm lucky enough to get a non-blurry shot, the eye(s) are usually barely visible. Thus I've put Chickadees on a list of birds that I often avoid wasting my time trying to photograph. But all that changed in just a minute or two today after not giving up on this little guy! I knew I had maybe one or two keepers in there but I was nicely surprised to see how well this one came out once I viewed the photos at home later. There was truly a LOT to see today at the park including Deer and even other FOY (First of Year) birds. One bird I had seen weeks earlier but missed photos of was a Pileated Woodpecker. Today I heard one drumming loudly on a dead tree and followed the sound to the bird. A handsome male stayed perched here in the same place for over 10 minutes while I tried to manage a photograph that didn't look like I took it from underneath. No such luck on that part but at least I did get a focused photo. There were plenty of Robins out today as well and though such a common bird, they can really show personality if you watch them long enough. This one stayed right above my head picking off Buckhtorn berries one after another. I snapped a few shots but didn't even realize I'd caught this moment until later when reviewing my photos. I really like the photo but wish it had been a bit more sunny at that moment. I was really taking my time walking around the park today and it kind of turned into an epic journey of many hours. I would end up spending a huge chunk of time on the east side near the pond that was attracting not only Red-winged Blackbirds but also Common Grackles! The Grackle is also in the Blackbird family and tend to arrive around the same time or earlier than the RWB's. This was also a first of year sighting for me and I was intent on capturing some good images of them because I really think they are a beautiful bird. This bird has some degree of iridescent plumage over most if not all of it's body, but it's head is the really special part, distinctly emblazoned with coloring that can look black, blue or purple depending on the light and angle. After sitting for some time I was able to spy a couple close to the ground perching above the open water of the pond. I'm really happy with how this one turned out and I think it really shows how uncommonly beautiful the Common Grackle really is!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

More Daylight!

Today is the first day of Daylight Savings Time which is something I often forget about over the long dreary winter. This day used to not mean much to me other than trying to remember to readjust every clock in the house. But now the first thing that comes to mind regarding DST is that very soon I will be able to sneak in a hike around the park after work! Though yesterday was the first day in a long time above freezing, much of the duck pond on the southwest corner of the park is still frozen over. It was fully sunny today with barely a cloud in the sky and so having a look at the Mallards is always fun. There were slightly more of them today in the water and on top of the ice but there was one drake that really stood out. No matter which direction he was facing, his head looked blue instead of the normal green! I thought for sure it had to be the angle but as I watched him, he really looked different from the others. Had there not been others around it might not have been so obvious but when he was side by side with the other drakes it was pretty apparent. I've never seen such a pretty Mallard before. And the hens seemed to know it too. I like that this photo kind of implies that he was being favored over the other "green heads" in the background. I'll have to keep an eye out for this guy in the future and see if he sticks around. I took quite a few photos later on but it wasn't until I was until the northwest side that I saw something of real interest. I heard a fairly loud chattering above me in the trees and when I looked up, a little face was peering out of a hole in the tree. It was a Flying Squirrel! I've only seen these at night before up in northern Minnesota, and never before in Palmer Lake Park! Right in front of me in broad daylight, the little Flying Squirrel came out of the hole and was immediately followed by a second one!I could hardly believe it. The first one proceeded to launch himself to the next tree over, about 6 or 7 feet away. I was surprised that he barely seemed to lose any altitude and almost appeared to be on a string. Their gliding abilities are truly amazing. He continued to leap from tree to tree, followed by the other one behind him. I hadn't really anticipated that behavior and I wasn't that fast on the draw with my camera. I did get a couple of bad photos of one crawling up one of the other trees but by now they were further away. I kind of chuckled to myself that maybe Daylight Savings Time had confused the Flying Squirrels as to what time it was seeing as how they're mostly nocturnal mammals. I'm assuming they're both living in the hole in the tree and it might be neat to see them nest here and have babies in the future. Not long after this I had two Red-tailed Hawks come soaring over the fields near 73rd Avenue. I positioned myself as steady as I could and snapped a bunch of shots because I have such a hard time getting birds in flight. Luckily they weren't moving all that fast but rather just kind of hovering and at least one photo turned out. It's rare when I can get a good look at Red-tailed Hawks so I was quite happy with this shot. Other birds spotted today included; Dark-eyed Junco, Great Horned Owl, Red-bellied Woopecker, Downy Woodpecker and House Finch.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Finally Above Freezing!

I heard on the news yesterday that March 6th, was our first day above freezing in 25 days! This winter has run it's course for most by now and I like many people, have rampant Spring Fever. It was already 31 or 32ยบ by early morning but I decided to wait for things to warm up even more before going to the park. A friend of mine wanted to come walking with me today so we met around 10:30am. I knew we would probably spend more time talking and less time bird watching but I brought my camera just in case. You could hardly pay me not to take it along with me to an area where I might see birds. It was sunny with blue skies, but the strong wind actually made it feel much cooler. We did see a number of birds on our hike around the park and the ones seen most often were Black-capped Chickadees. This one posed ever so briefly for a photo against the clear blue sky. We also noticed a good amount of Northern Cardinals, an occasional Dark-eyed Junco and lots of Mallards flying overhead. The duck pond was virtually empty when we got there, making me think they all took off for the river instead. Near the bridge over Shingle Creek on the north side, a White-breasted Nuthatch paused for quite a while on the side of a large tree. I watched him look upward and blink a few times but other than that he appeared glued to the tree. This was one of about 5 WBNH's we saw today. Later we paused briefly to gaze at a nesting Great Horned Owl who was swaying back and forth in the strong wind. I took a few quick photos and when I got home to process them, I noticed something else in the nest with her. A second set of ears were there, only these were not Owl ears. It was in fact a rabbit that the male had likely brought in as a meal. There was no sign yet of any Owlets but it can be hard to tell sometimes until they are larger and crowding the nest. I hope it's not so breezy tomorrow.