Saturday, November 30, 2013

More Mink!

Today was the last day of November and again I'd planned only to walk from 73rd Avenue to the bridge and back. But surprisingly when I got to the bridge, I noticed a Mink heading straight down the frozen creek towards me. I hadn't even had a chance to adjust my camera settings yet and here the Mink kept coming closer and closer. I froze there in my tracks on the bridge and shot a bunch of photos on burst mode, but with the wrong focus mode I learned later. To my amazement the Mink continued hopping towards me. He paused one time to eye me up but then continued on right underneath the bridge I was standing on! Then I spotted him hop up underneath the new wooden bridge footings. He popped his head out quickly, I think to look at me and then went back underneath. I quickly backed off the bridge towards my side and jumped down underneath to find him sitting right there on the other end. I went to pull up my camera and he turned back the other way, now going back the exact same way he came down the creek. I shot more photos on burst mode, catching some neat photos of him in mid air, that were still unfortunately not quite focused well. Only minutes behind me on the trail was my friend and fellow birder Ron whom I quickly approached to tell of the Mink I'd just seen. Together we spotted the Mink again from the bridge and even a second one appear from an area of open water further down the creek. We decided to hike in for a closer look and ended up sitting on the grassy creek bank just like I'd done last week. We spotted them a few more times but didn't get such a good photo opportunity as I did when I first stepped onto the bridge. A few times we could see one making it's way along the edge of the creek, weaving in and out of the tall grass. Then all of a sudden without warning it would launch out across the ice and run for the other side. This was when they were in plain view but also running the fastest. At one point we noticed a big Crow fly in it and kind of "dive bombed" the Mink. We watched with binoculars and it appeared that the Mink was watching for the Crow to come back. As we inspected some of the area around the open water I noticed that there were obvious blood stains on the ice likely where the Mink have been eating fish. Then later as Ron and I hiked back, we spotted scat that had fish scales in it. The Mink sure have been active along the creek in recent weeks! Oh and as if this weren't fun enough, we also scared up a Great-horned Owl as we were first hiking down the creek to get closer to the Mink. This is the first Owl I've seen this season and it was a real treat to see on such a nice sunny day. After perching for just a short time the Owl took off again and flew almost right over where we'd seen the Mink. We wondered if he had been watching them too!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Cold, Windy and Short

After battling increasingly painful lower back pain for more than a year, I am fairly convinced that my long walks at PLP are detrimental to my condition. I was told only yesterday by my newest care provider to limit my walking to 30 minutes or less. So today I decided I would hike out only as far as the bridge from 73rd Ave. N. and maybe just sit for a while. In order to do so I had to dress extremely warm with the temps somewhere in the teens coupled with a nasty wind. Shingle Creek had only just barely frozen over as of yesterday –kind of a "flash freeze" due to the sudden drop in temperature on Saturday. It was as smooth as a skating rink but only maybe half an inch thick, trapping leaves and seeds in their place which reflected in the sun. I sat the base of a large Cottonwood tree on the sunny side which was also the windward side and watched out over the creek. I wondered if I might see a Mink, or even better the River Otter that had been reported by a friend of mine. After a long while of not seeing anything I decided to hike back along the creek bank. Almost as soon as I'd turned around I saw something brown and furry scurry across the ice quickly – a Mink! I waited for another long while and eventually it came back across to my side again. I was really far for a photo so I hiked up a bit further and waited again. Sure enough I saw him one more time but by the time I pulled my camera up I was sure I missed him. When I got home and looked closely I can just barely make out his rear end and tail poking out of the weeds, as indicated by the pink arrow. After giving it another long while and not seeing him again I decided to call it and hike back. I'd honestly not seen more than maybe 1 bird by this time and was thinking I wouldn't have any photos to post today. But on the very short hike back to my car I did end up seeing a few Robins, Chickadees and Juncos. One of the Juncos held very still for me long enough to get in close and I was pleasantly surprised with the photo I got. I was really happy to get such a nice shot of any bird today in the short distance I hiked. This one bird and photo meant the world to me today.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

5 to 10 Degrees with a Chance of Woodpeckers

After another brief dusting of snow on Friday afternoon, a wave of cold air has moved in. This morning it was brutally cold at just 5º above zero! To make things worse it was breezy and today was the first time I had to wear my camouflage hood that I can pull up over my face. I'm sure it was our coldest day since February but I was determined to get in a walk and hopefully see some birds. To my surprise I did see a few interesting things. First were a pair of Trumpeter Swans that flew right over me shortly after I left my vehicle. It's been a long time since I've seen Swans anywhere near the park. I thought they might land somewhere but since every last body of water was frozen solid this morning, they kept going on past. Not much longer I heard a Woodpecker call and guessed that it might be a Pileated. Then I wondered if it was a Flicker instead. But there high up in a tree was indeed a Pileated Woodpecker, the first one I've seen in some time. I went for a photo and sure enough it flew all the way across the baseball fields to the other side of the park. But as luck would have it I happened upon another (maybe the same) on the north side. This time it was right down near the ground at the base of a tree and I had an unobstructed view. It was fun to see this largest species of Woodpecker again. This was a female as indicated by the black stripe or "mustache" that runs parallel to the throat. On a male this stripe would be red, just like the red crown both sexes have. Some other birds I spotted today included; Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, Dark-eyed Junco, Black-capped Chickadee, Canada Goose, American Robin, American Tree Sparrow, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, American Crow and also a couple of House Finches. The male Finch stayed put longer than the female as he was picking some dried seeds off the ends of the branches. These are such colorful birds, especially in the winter but I've yet to get a good photo of one. They're usually way up above me and my photo is from underneath just like this one. When I was only just yards from returning to my vehicle, I noticed another Downy Woodpecker in a tree but even lower than eye level. Sometimes when Woodpeckers are taking a keen interest in searching for food they will let you get quite close and boy did this one ever! As he hammered away on what looked like a grape vine branch, I crept closer and closer until I was literally just feet from him. Now I just had to get an unobstructed view which came a little harder. Eventually though I had many many photo opportunities and I clicked away with my camera on "continuous" shutter mode. One thing I noticed as I watched was that he would get the tip of his bill into a crevice and then twist his head left or right to sort of "bore" out the hole larger. I'm not sure but I think I even noticed a little worm or something that he fished out and quickly swallowed. In one of my many shots I was able to catch the split second where his tongue was either coming out or going in. I believe almost all Woodpeckers have extraordinarily long tongues to help them retrieve their food.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Little Colder and Lot More Windy

The weather today was not much better than yesterday, but at least it wasn't raining anymore! I didn't head out for a walk until just after 2pm. Our temp was only a few degrees cooler but the wind has really picked up and could even be heard howling through the trees. I figured I wouldn't see much of anything today (at least for birds anyway) and that assumption was pretty accurate. It was one of those days where I knew I might have to veer off the main trail in order to find anything interesting. I did just that on the far north end where I discovered these bright orange fungi sprouting from a large dead tree without any bark left. Birds were scarce today and I even had a hard time hearing any due to the wind. Some that I saw were; Ring-billed Gull, Red-bellied Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal, Black-capped Chickadee, American Robin and Dark-eyed Junco. I had some success in attracting the Junco's in closer by playing a recording of their sounds. During the latter half of my walk, the sky had begun to break up and show patches of blue here and there. By the time I was at my vehicle the sun was beaming down through these breaks and the sky was changing constantly. I took a few photos but none of them did justice to how neat the sky really looked.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Gloomy Day with Friendly Faces

I was able to arrive at the park this Saturday morning before 9am. I was glad I did, as the weather only got worse as the day went on. It was a typical overcast and gloomy November day with not a hint of blue sky in sight. Even before I got to the south side I'd spotted a juvenile Bald Eagle soaring over the middle of the park. I watched him land in a tree on the south side but when I got there he was gone. Only 5 minutes after passing the area, I looked back and there he was again. But when I got right underneath and looked up I realized this was a different Eagle, a mature adult with a white head. It's too bad this was the only decent photo I got. In another quick shot I noticed that the Eagle was banded around it's right leg but I could not make out the number. Aside from the 2 Bald Eagles I saw only a handful of other birds including Northern Cardinal, Dark-eyed Junco, Black-capped Chickadee and LOTS of American Tree Sparrows. The latter was the only bird I could seem to get close to today. All throughout my walk today I was running into people I know left and right. These are all folks I know from walking at the park and many of them hike here just as often as I do. Some have become good friends over the past couple years and others I know only by their first name. And then there's a handful of people whom I only know by their dog's name - ha ha! I'm usually not one to stop people and engage them in conversation so it may take me longer to learn everyone. But I guess it works both ways because now that I think about it, there's a couple who call me "camera guy!" One person who I see all the time has been walking his dog "Tucker" around Palmer Lake Park for years. The dog was quite an older Golden or Yellow Lab and one day not too long ago I actually stopped him to ask how old his dog was. I forget now exactly the age he told me but it was in the teens or more. He also told me that this might be Tucker's last walk around the park. Sadly, it was indeed his last walk, and his owner has recently put a little memorial plaque on the foot bridge over Shingle Creek nicknamed for the place Tucker would receive a biscuit treat.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Still Some Color

This Sunday morning I got a later start than usual and did not arrive at the park until after 10:30am. It was a mostly sunny day with just wispy, thin clouds floating by. There's barely a trace of snow left from our first snow on Wednesday and with a lot of vegetation still remaining green, it was hard to imagine that it even happened. One plant in particular I was noticing as very green is Garlic Mustard. The leaves look exactly the same as the do in the spring, maybe only a little larger. In an earlier post I mentioned that I hadn't paid particular attention to when Song Sparrows leave for the season. I believe this was a Song Sparrow I saw today. I detect a bit of yellow coloring around the neck area which isn't something I associate with a Song Sparrow, but that could also just be the lighting. Everything else fits with a Song Sparrow so it is interesting to note still seeing one this late in the season. They are definitely hearty enough to come back in the spring while snow is still on the ground so November certainly wouldn't be out of the question. Looking at all that green in the background, you might not guess November. On the southwest side I walked along the wood chip trail that follows the edge of the Duck Pond hoping to see anything out of the normal. But all I saw were Mallards. A couple pairs of them were sleeping so still along the shore that I almost stepped on them before noticing them. Like a lot of animals I don't think Ducks ever really sleep deeply or for long periods as it would be too risky. I got the feeling from this female that maybe they sleep with one eye open –figuratively and literally. Besides these two birds today, I spotted Northern Cardinal, Red-tailed Hawk, Dark-eyed Junco and Black-capped Chickadee. Oh, and I even spotted a Wooly-bear Caterpillar today out trying to cross the paved trail. Another hearty creature indeed. This last photo here is of the only two remaining crab apples still clinging to a tree somewhere on the north side, just off the trail. At the height they were at (above the small and still green Buckthorn), the red color really stood out and caught my attention. Though I estimate Buckthorn makes up more than 70% of all the trees at PLP, you'd be surprised at how many other tree species are out there. The problem is that there are so few of them. And in time, if the invasive Buckthorn is not addressed, the other species have a harder and harder time populating. Generally, any fruit-bearing tree is good for wildlife –including birds. Buckthorn does produce berries, and wildlife will eat them, but this particular berry is toxic and will produce diarrhea in birds and other animals –including humans!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

After the First Snow and "Bird Bumping"

Three days earlier, on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning we received our first snowfall of the season. It actually accumulated to about an inch of heavy, wet and sticky snow. It was kind of an odd thing because many of the trees have been late to turn color this year. So we had some brilliant looking Maple Trees looking almost out of place against the white covered ground. But as expected it all melted within about a day and a half. The snow was followed by much colder temps and this was like the final blow to the trees that had still been holding their leaves. This photo here shows the same Maple Tree along 69th Avenue on November 3rd on the left, and today November 9th on the right. This same thing happened all over the place and there is no denying now that winter is lurking just around the corner. Only about half way into my walk I ran into a good friend of mine who was also out in search of birds. So we paired up and walked together for the remaining half of the loop. We went off the main trail many times hoping to see better sights and we finally did come upon a Northern Shrike! It was perched in a large shrub out into the cattails a ways. As we've both learned to do, we approached it only 4 to 5 steps at a time, took photos, then repeated the process. It's actually quite a good method for photographing birds or any other wildlife. You never know exactly at what point you're going to "bump" the bird (or other subject) so you take 1 or 2 photos at intervals while you continue to advance closer. But with the Shrike I didn't quite make it as close as I'd hoped. I expect I will have many more opportunities though this winter season. Near the end of our walk we went off-road one more time and flushed up a group of Mourning Doves. I quickly pulled up my lens and snapped this shot before the bird flew off a second time. I was really happy to see how well it turned out. I always joke that I'll take photos of any bird that is very close to me. But the thing is, even with very common birds like Mourning Doves, Robins or Chickadees, we don't often get to see them so closely. A good close proximity photo can really make you appreciate just about any bird. I previously wouldn't have guessed that Mourning Doves have such a beautiful blue, almost turquoise eye-ring.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Warm November Sun

Like so many recent Autumns, our weather has continued to be mild, or even above average temperature-wise. This Sunday was a particularly nice and sunny day to walk around the park. I have noticed a sharp decline in the variety of birds though as the month of October has passed. From here on out, "birding" can be a bit more tedious. However, as in every season there are still things to look forward to. One thing that come to mind is, soon it will simply be much easier to spot birds due to the lack of leaves. Another is raptors. I tend to spot many more raptors such as Eagles, Hawks and Owls in the late Fall and Winter months than in other times of the year. One bird that seems to be more active than normal this time of year are Black-capped Chickadees. Though so common in our area, they are still fun to watch and photograph. This one landed in a tree right above my head as I was making a squeaking whistle call. They are quite curious birds indeed. Aside from Chickadees I really didn't see a lot of other birds today. But it was just warm enough yet to find a live Grasshopper out on the paved path. I was kind of surprised to see this and figured most of them had frozen by now. But I touched him and he hopped away. I imagine this might be the last Grasshopper I see for the year. I think it was somewhere on the south end of the park that I noticed these bright orange mushrooms peeking out of a knot at the base of a tree. I've really not studied mushrooms/fungi so I have no idea what they are called but I do they are fairly common whatever they are. It looked like one had been eaten on just a bit by something. Whatever it was must not have liked them too much as the others were untouched.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Northern Shrike Season

Since last year I've been paying particular attention to the Northern Shrike and even started to document each date that I see one. So being that my first sighting last year was on October 27th, I've been on the lookout recently. Though I did finally spot one today, I've heard from other reliable sources that the Shrike had been seen at the park close to 2 weeks ago already. But today was my first, so I'll probably make a new date tracker that you can view in the green column on the right side of my blog. I didn't get a good photo by any means, but it gives you the idea of what to look for if you are trying to spot a Shrike. Wherever they are they typically choose the highest available perch they can find, even if it's a very skinny twig. And from a very long distance if all you can make out is a "Robin-sized" bird perched high like this, it's likely to be a Northern Shrike. Of course, the time of year is the main factor. Last year my sightings ranged from late October to late the following March. My walk around PLP today was with a friend of mine, and although we did a fair amount of talking, we were able to spot a few more birds besides the Shrike. These were; Northern Cardinal, American Tree Sparrow, Mallard, Downy Woodpecker, Canada Goose, Black-capped Chickadee and Ring-billed Gulls. Not a very long list but that's pretty common when two people end up talking more than observing. The only bird I was able to catch a decent photo of was this female Cardinal who was about to eat whatever she'd just caught. It looks almost like a worm of some kind but that seems unlikely given how late in the season it is. As we hiked around the south side we started hearing and seeing Garter Snakes on the sunny side of the trail. I think we saw 3 of them within just 10 feet or so. They were obviously trying to warm up and probably creeping closer to the dark colored paved path. I tried to get a photo but some of them were so small I lost them quickly in the tall grass. Later near the north end I spotted this Gray Squirrel with a mouth full of maple seeds. At least he stayed still for me while I took his photo.