Saturday, March 29, 2014

First Red-winged Blackbirds of 2014

Though I've seen that other people have been spotting Red-winged Blackbirds already (further south), I have not seen any yet this year at Palmer. But with the sun out today and temps finally staying above freezing now, I pretty much new that this Saturday I would have a good chance. And before I'd even walked very far the parking space at 73rd Avenue, I heard a loud squeaking that wasn't very familiar. This was not the long, scratchy call that is more common so I had to follow the direction of the sound. Sure enough, high up in the trees on the north side was a RWB -the first of the year for me. Over the last few years I've come to measure the true beginning of spring more by this event than by the calendar itself –and boy was it a welcome sight and sound this year! The photo here is not of the first one I spotted but one of many more as I made my way around the trail. Soon their numbers will increase dramatically enough to nearly drown out the sounds of other birds. The males are always the first to arrive and it is also noteworthy to record when I first spot any females. On the northwest corner I spotted this bright red Cardinal who seemed OK with me inching closer and closer for a photograph. Up until this past winter I was never satisfied with any of my Cardinal shots but this is probably one of the better –if not the best– I've taken so far. I've always wanted to capture one against a white background with snow falling but I am totally fine with waiting another year for that!!! Shortly after the cardinal I spotted a raptor zooming overhead so I tried to catch a photo. I could see with my naked eye that it's tail was longer which points to a Cooper's Hawk (or maybe a Sharp-shinned) but either way it was NOT a Red-tailed which are somewhat more common. This photo is cropped way in but I think it's kind of a neat photo and you can see some detail here of what I'm pretty certain is a Cooper's Hawk. The banding on the tail is quite distinct. I recently learned one tip to distinguish a Cooper's from a Sharp-shinned whey they are soaring overhead. A Cooper's will flap it's wings slower and make larger sized circles while the SS will flap a little faster and turn in noticeably smaller circles.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Good Sightings with a Good Friend!

Today I hiked around the park with a friend of mine. Pretty sure this was the first time in a long while that I've visited the park both Saturday and Sunday. The temperature was slightly warmer than yesterday and in the mid-twenties. We started from the northeast side of the park near 73rd Ave. N. and made our way around the entire park. Along Shingle Creek on the north side we spotted a group of 6 to 7 deer in the back of the townhomes there. The snow has been melting ever-so-slowly this spring due to the colder than usual temps but in places where the grass was exposed we noticed "Snow-mold" coating the ground. I'm not really sure what this stuff is but it looks almost like fine spider webs. Later we ran into someone who said they just saw an Owl fly overhead. So we took one of the woodchip trails looking for it but never did spot it. Instead though we spotted a Northern Shrike! This is a bird I've not seen since early February making it a fun sighting. It flew in and perched high above and was kind of in the sun and I had to try a bunch of different angles to get a photo. On the south side of the park my friend shouted to look up and there soaring not too far away was a very large Raptor. We both thought it was a juvenile Bald Eagle and I steadied my camera on it as it came soaring past us one more time. I guess I don't have a very good eye for Hawks because after I got home and looked more closely it was clearly a Hawk. But what kind? It was clearly not a Red-tailed as evident by the prominent dark patches referred to as "wrist patches" near the outer wings. Because of the rich, rusty red coloring I was guessing a Red-shouldered Hawk. My friend suggested a Rough-legged Hawk and upon looking through my new Stokes field guide, I found a photo that looked almost identical! I fell in love with this field guide upon first seeing it in stores but it is quickly proving itself to be the most useful guide I've owned so far. Not only does it have unbelievably detailed photos but there are anywhere from 4 to 8 photos showing juvenile and adult of both male and female! The field guide even helped me ID this bird as a female "light morph." One clue that I will try to remember now is that the Rough-legged has just one dark band across it's tail –different from both a Red-shouldered as well as other similar looking Hawks. This is only my second ever sighting of one. Near the end of our walk we spotted this White-breasted Nuthatch on a large cottonwood tree just inside the paved trail. In my opinion any bird that holds still and give me a good opportunity is worth a photograph. I find it very helpful to study the photo afterward and I often pick up on small details that you will rarely notice in the field. I think this is one of the better Nuthatch photos I've gotten!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Day 3 of Spring and Back to the Cold

The official first day of Spring was this past Thursday. And since my last post on the blog here we have had some very nice days with temps in the upper 40's. But last night another cold front moved in and temperatures were in the single digits when I woke up this morning! By the time I arrived at PLP it had warmed up to somewhere around 12 to 15 degrees. And with a very strong wind, I had to wear all my warmest clothes –some of which I have put away and had to take back out multiple times already. In fact the duck pond was even frozen over today! It seems that all the Mallards that usually hang out here must have moved on to other open water. Here there were two Canada Geese walking on top of the ice and the ice was so thin that you could hear it squeezing and cracking under their weight. For my visit to the park today I was joined by 2 friends of mine who are very experienced birders. Despite the frigid temps we enjoyed spotting various sights at the park. One sight I really wanted to see today was a second Great Horned Owl nest that yet another birder had recently shared with me. When we found it I was overjoyed to learn that this was the very same nest I had played a part in restoring! You can read the full story here but in July of 2012 a Cooper's Hawk was using the same portion of this tree to nest in. I was walking underneath it that July and spotted two Hawk chicks whom had fallen out of the nest. On a friends suggestion we reached out the Raptor Center at the University of MN and a experienced tree climber came out and rebuilt the nest. He essentially cleared away what was left of the tattered nest and installed a wire mesh which he fashioned into a bowl shape before adding twigs and grasses back. Now nearly 2 years later the work that was done that day is helping provide a completely different species of bird with a suitable place to nest and rear young! How cool is that? I made me think about how our interactions with nature –be it positive or negative– can have effects that last for many years later. Not too much later, Ron from our group thought he saw a Great Blue Heron up ahead behind some thick bushes. I honestly didn't believe him and thought it was another Goose. But as we got closer, we all saw that indeed there were a pair of Great Blue Herons! Apparently it is common for them to arrive back in March but until now I can't say that I've spotted them this early in the year. I usually use Red-winged Blackbirds as my "natural calendar" for the start of Spring but a GBH is even better! Here and there I was also noticing Pussy Willow catkins poking out which is also another good sign of Spring. Later in our walk we stopped to check out the other Great Horned Owl nest –the one I had found on my own on the first day of this March. The mother was quite obvious in the nest this time and just below and to the right, we thought we could see a little white fluff that could be an Owlet. This particular nest has us a little worried because there are no good branches jutting out horizontally from the nest. If the Owlets survive to leave the nest it could a bit perilous for them to not have any branches available to perch on and learn to use their wings. I'm hoping for the best but time will tell.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Beautiful Day in March

This Sunday was just an absolutely gorgeous day to be outside. The high temperature for the day reached 43 degrees and it was sunny with no wind! I decided to meet a friend for a walk around the park and we lazily took our time going around. We saw a few birds including Cardinals, Juncos and Cedar Waxwings but I didn't get many photos. About the only thing I really stopped to take a photo of was this young Deer. There were a few of them again just north of the footbridge over Shingle Creek on the north side of the park. For whatever reason this seems to be the hot-spot where White-tailed Deer congregate every early Spring. After our walk my friend and I sat and gabbed in the parking lot until the sun went down. It was just such a nice day!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

March 1st, -2 Degrees, -20 Degree Wind Chill!

Well here we are, the first day of March and this relentlessly cold winter just wont let up. Our weather is pretty much the main topic of all the news that I hear or read lately. Yesterday I heard that our temps are a good 30 degrees below average for this time of year. Meaning that we'd typically be hovering around the freezing mark of 32 degrees, yet we are still dealing with temperatures near 0 or lower! Predictions for our next chance at even 30º are another 5 days away. As I hiked around the park today the temp was -2º below zero and a moderate wind made it feel like -20º below zero! But to my surprise I ended up seeing a fair amount of good wildlife today. In fact I'd say it was one of the best visits I've had in months. One of the first birds I spotted was this male Northern Cardinal. He was perched in a Buckthorn tree not too far off the trail. Cardinals are kind of easily spook-able in my experience –unless they're busy eating something. But this one let me walk right up to him. I wondered if maybe he just didn't want to exert the energy to fly away due to the cold temperature. One thing I noticed today was that a few Cardinals were singing loudly. And the song was so distinctly out of place on a day like today. I realized it was something I'm more used to hearing in the springtime which made me think that even the birds are longing for a warm up! Not long after, I had a good shot at this Hairy Woodpecker also not far off the paved trail. I also spotted a Downy Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadees and a small group of Cedar Waxwings today. The Waxwing were eating from a clump of snow that was clinging to the branches. This is a common behavior for them which I've witness multiple times before. Later on when I came to the foot bridge over Shingle Creek I noticed some movement upstream. There was a group of four Deer walking straight down the creek towards me. I got excited at the good photo opportunity but as they came closer the lead Deer sensed my presence though I was holding perfectly still. Eventually the group turned back around and climbed up the creek bank. I sat on a park bench and watched for a while. More Deer joined them from across the field near the town homes. Then even more. Another hiker coming down the trail along the creek must have scared the entire group and they all high tailed it back across the creek. There were 10 in that group, followed shortly by another 4. Add that to one I spotted earlier makes 15 Deer I spotted today! I think that is more than I've seen in the past 4 months combined. As I was heading back to my vehicle, I heard a deep "whoo whoo" coming from behind me. It sounded not too far away and I decided to follow it as best I could. It continued just long enough for me to get into the general area and then it stopped. With my binoculars I scanned the trees looking at any kind of dark clump. In only the second clump I looked at, I noticed a pair of dark, pointy vertical shapes. The view was difficult and blocked by a lot of branches but I knew right away that it was Great Horned Owl on her nest! This is only the second time I've ever seen one in a nest and again I'm shocked by how small and crude of a nest they use. The reason is that Great Horned Owl's don't build their own nest. Instead they re-use one –typically built by Squirrels! As in my last encounter, the mother was right up next to the tree trunk with her tail poking over the side. I stayed a fair distance away as to not disturb her too much and risk endangering the productivity of the nest.