Sunday, May 3, 2015

First Visit in May

Since May is THE best month of the entire year for bird watching, I set a personal goal for myself to go out bird watching every day in May, all 31 days in a row. So far so good but this Sunday is actually my first visit to Palmer Lake Park for the month. The first half of my visit was by myself and I spent quite a good deal of time just meandering slowly around the east side of the park. Later I was joined by a good friend of mine for the remainder of the hike. But before that I'd already spotted a handful of good birds and I was seeing so many species that I tried to keep the list in my head. On one of the ponds on the east side I spotted both a male and female Wood Duck perched on a log. At least at Palmer Wood Ducks are easily spooked and of course the male jumped off the log the instant I pulled up my camera. But the female stayed put as I tried to get an angle through the cattails. The females can be equally as beautiful as the males in the right light and I was surprised just how much blue showed up on her feathers. Near the southeast side I was spotting good birds left and right, including a number of different Sparrows including White-throated, Swamp, Song and this White-crowned Sparrow! This is a bird I usually only see once or twice a year if that so I was thrilled to find one today. He wasn't quite cooperative for a photo and this is the best one I got after much chasing back and forth. In this same area I also found a more cooperative Brown Thrasher. I was closer at first but then it flew up a little higher and into even better light so I was really happy with how this photo turned out. They have such bright yellow eyes and if I'm able to capture just that I'm usually pretty happy. When I met up with my friend near the south parking lot, she noticed a small flock of a dozen or so shorebirds land out in the muddy waters of the lake. They were so small they were barely noticeable and we wouldn't have even known they were there had we not seen them fly in. I tried to get a picture but they were so small and blending in so well I still don't know what they were. For size comparison you can see the bottom of a can of pop off to the right. We had a good hike through the rest of the park and noticed lots of good plants too, such as newly emerging Jack-in-the-Pulpit, lots of Marsh Marigold and Blue Violets. All in all I counted a total of 33 species of birds. Some of the more notable ones were my First of Year Grey Catbird, FOY Baltimore Oriole and FOY Yellow Warbler! P.S. I believe a friend has helped me to positively ID the shorebirds at Pectoral Sandpipers. A brand new species for me at Palmer Lake Park!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Eastern Meadowlark!

Last night a friend who also hikes around Palmer Lake Park contacted me to let me know that she'd again spotted a very unusual bird for the park –an Eastern Meadowlark! I have only ever laid eyes on a Meadowlark just once when I was a kid out exploring the fields surrounding St. Cloud, MN on my BMX dirt bike. That was long, long before I was a birder but even back then I knew it was something I hadn't seen before. When I became a serious bird watcher in my late 30's I realized that this species has continued to become even more rare since then –at least to see anywhere near a metro area. Meadowlarks are "grassland birds" preferring wide open expanses of untouched grassland as their habitat. Like other grassland birds they nest on the ground, often concealed by the tall grass. Due to loss of proper habitat, Meadowlarks along with other species such as the Bobolink and Dickcissel are in steep decline. It is easy to understand why if you can remember back to when you were a kid and think about all the fields surrounding your hometown that are now fully developed into residential or commercial areas. It is a prime example of how our ever expanding population explosion is affecting our natural world. You may have asked yourself already, why would a grassland bird be found in the area of Palmer Lake? Well that's the same question I've pondered over since my friend first spotted one at the park last year! This making two years in a row one has been seen in the very same baseball field on the northwest side of the park, makes us wonder if in fact it is the same bird year to year. Also the time of year is near migration so it is very possible this bird makes a dedicated stop at Palmer to feed for a few days before moving further north or west to more suitable habitat. Whatever the case, it is quite a unique find for the area so when my friend notified me last night, I said "I'll be there in the morning!" We both arrived at 9:00am, parked in the lot nearest this baseball field, walked a hundred feet and there he was! Here in Minnesota we can get both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks and both birds look nearly identical save for one small stripe of color near the base of the bill. From a distance they look so similar that the best way to tell them apart is by song –which differs between the two species. This particular bird wasn't exactly cooperative in regards to a photograph however and I quickly found that it had a tendency to continually turn it's back towards us. This is likely a survival mechanism to conceal it's brightly colored yellow breast with distinct black "necklace" pattern, and instead show us his back side, mottled brown and white in order to blend in more easily. The bird stayed out in the open grasses of the baseball field, and it was VERY aware of our presence, continually flying off a hundred feet in the opposite direction every time we approached it. This was kind of a bummer as I was hoping to get better photos, but all in all I was more excited just to finally see and observe one –especially in the very park where I do the majority of my bird watching! After watching the bird for well over 90 minutes, we finally caught a few glimpses from the front and saw it's bright yellow and black pattern. This was the only bird I came to the park to see today but it was well worth it!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Some Very Good Bird Watching

Earlier this morning, myself and other members of Friends of Palmer Lake Park held our annual spring cleanup. Except for a couple of known problem areas, we were happy to see that the park was in better shape than usual in regards to garbage. But because you can't do much bird watching while picking up litter, I decided to come back after lunch for a long and slow hike around to see what I could find. I started counter clockwise from 73rd Avenue and noticed that a few trees had been marked for removal. Whenever I see this in the park I get truly upset as I feel there's usually not good reasons that specific trees get marked. Yes the ones shown here were somewhat dead or dying, but most of them were far enough off the trail as to not pose a safety risk. In fact the one seen on the far right with the hole about 5 feet up was home to a family of Grey Squirrels that I photographed years before. With the city continuing to cut into the woods, where will it stop? And I have yet ever to see a single invasive Buckthorn tree marked for removal. Instead they choose to remove native trees that are 100's of times more beneficial to wildlife. It gets me so angry that about all I can do is pretend not to see it. Moving on. Today was really good bird watching and I saw a lot of species I don't have room to share them all here. Some notable sights were many migrating waterfowl including Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, and Widgeon! Near the northwest corner I paused to watch a Black-capped Chickadee poking at a seeding out Cattail. It's not too early for them to be looking at nest cavities so I like to think thats what this one was doing with the soft material. Shortly after I noticed a Common Grackle who was much more interested in finding something to eat than with me. I snapped a couple of pics that I feel really capture their colors. I'd tried for years in the past to get shots like this and this year I've managed to get more than one. When you see them in this light they really are gorgeous looking birds. On the south side near the duck pond I spent a lot of time watching a Ruby-crowned Kinglet who was near the ground inside a thicket. Catching an unobstructed view however was quite another story. I decided to sit right on the wood chip trail and just watch and hope to get lucky. After quite some time and a lot of attempts I was able to catch a couple of good ones. I like this one as is shows a hint of the "Ruby crown" for which they are named. A little further along the wood chip trail now on the south side of the park I was rewarded with the most close views I've ever had of a Northern Cardinal. This female sat quietly about 4 feet off the ground to my left and must have thought she was hidden. For whatever reason she barely moved even as I inched closer. It was quite thrilling to be this close and for a minute I wondered if she was injured or stunned or something. I snapped hundreds of pics at a close proximity and after finally exhausting different angles and even different camera settings, I slowly walked away as she stood fast in the exact same spot. I've never encountered one that seemed so tolerant. The close photo here is barely cropped at all!

Monday, April 13, 2015

In Search of Teal

I was off of work this Monday, April 13th and I spent a lot of time –more than expected– at the park searching for birds. As I embarked I had one specific bird in mind that I wanted to photograph and that was a Green-winged Teal. I'd seen them at the park in previous years, as well as in other places and learned they can be camera shy. I hiked quickly to the duck pond on the southwest corner of the park and sure enough spotted both Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal there. As expected they were on the opposite side of the pond from me and would quickly move to the other side whenever I walked around towards them. After much back and forth I decided to slowly "lurk" closer over time, stopping here and there for 15-20 minutes before moving quietly closer. It was muddy along the shore and more than once my foot sunk completely underwater with foul smelling swamp muck. I stuck to stepping on visible tree roots after a while and eventually made my way to narrower section of the pond where the ducks would have no choice to be closer to me as long as they remained on the water. Even though I had a longer lens than this time last year it was still a struggle to get within range as Teal are just as "wild" and unapproachable as Wood Ducks –or maybe even more so. I find Blue-winged Teal are the slightly more approachable of the two which isn't saying much. But a male finally came within range. Though a little more plain looking, the male's head will show just a hint of iridescence in the right light. You can see just a little blend to violet on his head in this photo. While I sat and waited and waited and waited for the Green-winged, I heard then spotted a Ruby-crowned Kinglet bouncing around in the trees above me. Sometimes it is really nice to just sit in one place in the woods and watch things around you versus continually moving yourself. I was also rewarded with a nice view of a Cooper's Hawk that glided right over me, swooped upwards and then landed in a tree not far away. I spied his perch through my binoculars and he continued to stay there at least another 30 minutes. Finally some action from the Green-winged Teals came as not just one but two made their way along the shoreline closer to me. They are "dabbling" ducks not divers, meaning they often have their head poking under water looking for food. So even if you do see them they don't always present their best side to you. After waaaay more time and waaaay more photos than anticipated, I finally gleaned these two images of a male, though I wanted desperately to get even closer. These are unfortunately still cropped quite a bit but you can see why they are such a beautiful bird. In the right light, their rusty brown head is split with an emerald green swath of feathers from their eye and dipping down the neckline. Such a strikingly beautiful bird! Last spring I also learned their call which is a quiet little inconspicuous "peep" that repeats about 3 to 5 times. I heard this sound again today while watching them. After at least a couple of hours invested, I decided I just wasn't going to get any closer today so I finally gave in and decided to hike the rest of the way around the park. I eventually saw a few more Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Common Grackle, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Ring-billed Gull, and one Great Horned Owlet still in the nest on the north side. The only good image I got was this little Song Sparrow who posed nicely for me in the light at the base of a large tree. Oh, and I also saw a Mourning Cloak Butterfly!