Saturday, January 24, 2015

43ยบ and Sunny and Birdy

This Saturday's visit to the park was a fun one. First off the weather was unbelievable with a high of 43 degrees and completely sunny to boot. Secondly I was able to catch some neat photos which always makes my day! The very first bird I spotted was a Dark-eyed Junco and I'm kind of obsessed with them though they're a pretty common winter bird in our parts. They're difficult to photograph because they're little, move quickly and have a dark head against a dark eye. For that reason they're similarly difficult to shooting a Chickadee. This one cooperated with me though there's some shadows on it's face that I could have done without. My next stop was at the duck pond on the southeast corner. The warm weather seemed to please the Mallards and the large group was very active. I witnessed some courting behavior and some fighting between the boys as well. I really love how their green heads just glow in the sun and I've come to appreciate Mallards as an easy and reliable photo subject. After seeing a few Chickadees and Cardinals and other common birds, I spotted not one but two Great Horned Owls high up in a tree. They were both quite far away with lots of woods between so I decided not to go in any closer. It wont be long now before one of these pair will be sitting on a nest somewhere. Great Horned Owls are our earliest nesting birds in the state, starting as early as mid to late January. When this happens we birders need to take extra precaution not to approach the nesting sight or disturb them in any manner that could be a detriment to the success of their nest. Having seen two Owls already today, I nearly fell over when I ran smack dab into a third, this time a Barred Owl! A Barred is likely our second-most common Owl around central Minnesota, but they can be as tough as any of the other Owl species to find. This one however decided to perch barely 10 feet off the paved trail and at a height of only 6 or 7 feet! I was stunned to have been so close to it. I stopped dead in my tracks and cautiously brought my camera up to my eye. Thankfully the Owl appeared a bit sleepy and was taking advantage of the warm sun and really didn't mind me being there –at least for now. I couldn't take my eyes –or my camera– off this beautiful bird and of course I started to draw attention from other park goes. The first one stopped to inquire about my camera and lens. Interesting she never asked me what I was taking a photo of and thus I decided not to even bring it up! The next pair of walkers were more curious and so I pointed out the Owl to them. They were quite happy and surprised to see it as well. As we talked however the Owl did move, though it only went a few feet over and higher up in another tree. I was kind of bummed and wish I had whispered to them instead. Nonetheless the Owl was still very close to the trail and I took a few more photos before it decided to move further back into the woods. I believe this was my third Barred Owl sighting this season which is a good sign. Previous to these recent encounters, my last Barred sighting was in May of 2013. The last avian subject I decided to focus on today were Robins. These Robins are not coming back to Minnesota due to the warm temps, but rather have "over wintered" here at the park. Not all Robins migrate south and quite a few will stay here all winter long. This number appears to be increasing based on other things I've read. There apparently are enough food sources and shelter to see them through event the coldest of winters. Though this winter has been a little light in regards to snow depths and I believe this would also be to the Robin's benefit. I enjoy photographing them in the winter, though I rarely pay attention to them the rest of the year! Other birds I spotted today included; Downy, Hairy & Red-bellied Woodpecker, Cedar Waxwing and a pair of Red-tailed Hawks.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Looong Hike with Larry

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day and thus an extra day off work for me. As I pulled into my parking space today who should pull in right beside me but another birder friend of mine Larry. He has grown up around the park and hiked (and watched birds) here at Palmer Lake Park since he was a kid. Thus he is one of the most skilled birders I know and can tell you of some pretty amazing sightings at the park. Some of them being birds that are just not seen at the park anymore and would cause a state-wide phenomenon if they were spotted anywhere near the park today. We decided to hike together up the frozen creek heading towards the north side. As we did the sun made it's first unexpected appearance for the day and cast an eerie glow against the dark sky in the north. We likely did more talking than looking but to be honest there has just not been much to see this entire weekend. It's just that time of year when a Chickadee or Woodpecker is an exciting spot. Larry would of course prove me wrong though as we went around the north side when he pointed out a Barred Owl. It could be seen from the trail but was behind such thick brush and against the sun too, for a pretty crummy view. Niether of us wanted to bump him so we watched from the trail for a bit before moving on. On the west side I noticed a Downy Woodpecker at almost eye level on a Willow tree. He was more interested in poking his tongue into the crevices so I followed him around the tree clicking photos. I kind of like how this one turned out. We had been hiking since 9:00am today and my legs were actually starting to hurt. I knew lunchtime had come and gone but I wasn't quite sure how much time had gone by because I forgot my phone at home. Upon getting home to find it was 2:30pm I then realized I'd been hiking for 5 and a half hours! Holy crap, no wonder my legs hurt! One last bird I stopped to photograph for they day was this American Tree Sparrow. Opposite of some of the birds Larry used to see in the area as a kid, he pointed out that Tree Sparrows used to be a very rare sighting when he was young. A few other species we saw today included Mallards, a mature Bald Eagle, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, American Crow and Northern Cardinal.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

January Thaw

After a long and brutal cold snap, we are finally above freezing again and even the sun came out this morning! It was a great day to be at the park hiking around and seeing what could be seen. It was so nice I inadvertently did the southwest side of the park twice. On the first round I noticed a few little birds hopping about in front of me in the shade. Upon closer inspection they were Goldfinch in their winter plumage. I think there were only 2 or 3 at the most but I like to see them in the winter time. Shortly afterward I stopped at the duck pond and noticed a group of a dozen or so Cedar Waxwings bathing in the open water along the bank. This was on the other side from me so I walked around to get closer and scared them off. But after a bit they started to come back one by one and were putting on quite a show. I wished I could have got even closer but it was so thick here. While watching the Waxwings I heard all the Mallards in the duck pond making noise all at once and move quickly in a large group. When I looked up I noticed a Hawk had just swooped over the group of ducks and perched on the opposite side of the pond. It looked to be a Cooper's Hawk but was in the dark shade. I wanted to get a closer look and immediately headed around to the other side, trying not to bump the raptor. To my surprise it stayed put, perched nearly at eye level with me. As I snuck around the back side I finally got into better light and could see bright yellow eyes –indicating a juvenile bird. A mature adult would have bright red eyes. I took quite a few photos from this angle assuming it was a Cooper's Hawk but upon processing the photo I am starting to think it might actually be a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Sharp-shinned Hawks are nearly identical in plumage but tend to have a smaller head, more square-ish looking tail, and be somewhat smaller in size. Though the larger female Sharp-shinned can be nearly the same size as the smaller male Cooper's Hawk, adding yet another layer of complexity to identification. Only last year I learned how to differentiate a Cooper's from a Sharp-shinned in flight, but perched is another story. I generally err on the side of Cooper's since they are apparently far more common to find perched among the woods. But this one really made me look more than once. I am posting to the Minnesota Birding facebook page for some help and should have a positive ID soon. If indeed it turns out to be a Sharp-shinned, it would be my first ever photo ID of one! Upon walking the woodchip trail away from the duck pond, I scared up a Great Horned Owl almost right above me! I stopped in my tracks and said a few choice words to myself as I would have likely gotten a great look at it in the full morning sunlight. The bird flew a fair distance but basically traveled in a straight line away from me. I could kind of make out where it perched and followed behind, trying not to look up toward it too often. I've noticed from experience that they tend to bump again quickly if you stare them down as opposed to just looking at the ground. In fact I've come much closer to Owls when I wasn't looking for them and just happened to look up to find one right above me. As I headed closer it moved yet again and was followed by a second Owl close behind. The pair chose a familiar roost I've seen them at before. The pair is likely scoping out a possible nest as Great Horned Owls will begin nesting somewhere between late January through February.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Don't Bump the Lump

After a long hike around MAC Park near the Crystal Airport this morning, I somehow found enough energy yet to visit Palmer Lake Park. I didn't arrive until after 3:00pm and with our short daylight hours I knew I only had roughly an hour. Therefore I parked on the south side and hiked only along the south and west edges of the park. Here I found Robins a plenty. I often see them come down to the open water between the duck pond and the adjacent body of water where the culvert connects them underneath the trail. The water here stays open all year long and provides a good place for all birds to drink from. This particular Robin had already taken his drink and backed up a little on the ice. I really like the way the blue ice contrasted with the orange breast of the bird. Along the paved trail on the far west side I ran into a small group of American Tree Sparrows and this one sat still long enough for me to get in closer for a photo. This photo turned out to show a good representation of all of the characteristics that would help you identify the bird as an American Tree Sparrow. First you have a noticeable rusty-colored crown butted up to a rather gray colored face. Then there's the tell-tale –but not always obvious– dark spot in the middle of the white breast. And lastly, what I find to be the most definitive characteristic is the two-toned bill (dark upper bill and lighter/yellow lower bill). On my way back I noticed a large, dark "lump" up in a tall Cottonwood tree that didn't seem like part of the tree. It's hard to spot Owls but to be honest that is what I look for –unusual looking "lumps" high up in the trees. By now it was getting dark and I know how terrible it can be to get a photo at this time of day –especially looking upward into the white sky. So I cranked up the ISO settings as well as adjusted the exposure compensation before even attempting to walk closer to the "lump." I was glad I did though as I was fortunate that the lump did not "bump" which is bird-geek talk for flying away. I thanked the Great Horned Owl and walked slowly back to where I came from which is somewhat of a rare occurrence as they do tend to fly away more often than not once they realize you are watching them.