also in the backyard this week…

How do ducks know that the lakes and ponds have just defrosted in the past week?  They time their arrival back to Minnesota’s open water with such precision.

Here is the state of the pond in the wetland beyond the back yard five days ago.

The weeping willow is changing color on schedule, but trees aren’t even showing buds of leaves or flowers yet, and the pond is still mostly ice covered.  On a lovely 50 F day — this ice can’t last.

Sure enough, yesterday when I photographed the Pileated Woodpecker digging out his nest, the pond was completely open (ice out), and Wood Ducks were flying overhead.  Creeping quietly toward a shaded, shallow stream that feeds the pond in the wetlands beyond, I discovered a male Wood Duck preening with his lady friend.

Mr. Woody was quacking something to his mate, who was hidden behind a tree.

Color me beautiful! There are so many colors to choose from.

The coloration of the male is exquisite, and it’s nice to find them out of water to appreciate their coloration hidden below the usual waterline.

After scratching in all the right places, he deigned to look my way, and decided the photo session was over and flew off.

Welcome back, Woody. The backyard is yours.

wood chips and nest holes

Walking along the muddy path the deer have made through the wetlands behind our house, I spied a load of wood chips beneath one tree.  That can only mean one thing…

Lots of white, flaky wood chips on the forest floor — what made these?

And looking up I found a series of holes in this standing dead tree, at the top of which was the creator of the wood chips.

Each dip of the Pileated Woodpecker’s head into the hole brought up big chunks of wood, which the bird launched into the air to add to the pile at the base of the tree.  You can see each of his chisel strikes at the side of the hole.  Eventually, the nest chamber will be 10-24 inches deep.  I can’t imagine how long that takes — extracting just a few chunks of wood at a time.

To read more about this process in Pileated Woodpeckers, click on this link to read a post from six years ago about nest building in these amazing wood chippers.

A little further down the trail in the wetland/cottonwood forest, I found a second hole high in a live tree.  Actually, a series of holes near the top of the trunk made it look like there might have been some false starts.

Pileated Woodpecker holes tend to be sort of oval in shape. This one is very round, and is in a tree that still has a lot of dense bark, rather than a dead snag. Who could have made this fairly sizeable excavation?

I’ve yet to see the creator of that particular nest hole (above), but judging from the size it’s a fairly large-sized woodpecker. I hope it’s a Red-bellied Woodpecker, like the one whose nest hole I discovered at a nearby park.

Although our lives are very different these days in many ways — one of the advantages of “staying home” is that I’ve started to pay more attention to what’s going on in my backyard instead of looking for more exotic landscapes and creatures to photograph.

a lovely spring day

Unseasonable warmth of 60-ish degrees F and bright sun got everyone outdoors today.  It was impossible to avoid people, but we tried to keep our distance.  On a short hike through the Rice Creek watershed in Shoreview, we saw the usual winter residents, a few returning Robins, and the first Red-winged Blackbirds (for me) of 2020 — noisy males setting up their territories in the the marshes.

Yellow of dried marsh grass goes well with deep blue skies. Not a shred of green anywhere, but the mild temperatures made the scene delightful.

Some people really get into celebrating spring — one person brought a hammock to sit in by the creek.

“Konk-ka-ree” is the male Red-winged Blackbird’s call, loud and persistent.

He was doing a lot of chirping intead of calling — not sure what that means.

You can always count on Red-winged Blackbirds as one of the first of the spring migrants to arrive in the Northland.  They can’t wait to get a jump on the best places to set up breeding territories to attract later-arriving females.  I wonder what there is for them to eat at this time of year.

the shy competitor

A new tom turkey appeared in the backyard this morning, advertising his presence with a lot of gobbling and displaying.  I don’t think it was the bird I discussed in the last post — the evidence for that is presented below.

He looks like an older, mature male (i.e., long beard with a black tip) and unlike the Tom from the previous post, this one is in full breeding coloration: red caruncles on his neck, blue face, and white forehead.

He stood on the edge of the hill in the backyard that goes down into wetlands below and gobbled for about 15 minutes, but never came any closer. Finally he gave up this location and moved on to another hilltop two houses away.  Where are those hens, anyway?

His beard doesn’t appear to be long as the Tom’s from the previous post (very subjective), and in addition, his “snood”, the little appendage that overhangs his beak, is quite elongated, compared to the nub the other Tom had.

Here’s a better side by side comparison:

Tom #2 photographed today, compared with a Tom #1 photographed two days ago.

Now, you might think that a lot could change in two days at this time of year, under the influence of reproductive hormones.  The snood could elongate (although that’s a lot of growth in just two days), the face could change color from lavender to bright blue, the color of the caruncles is mainly due to blood flow, so how do I know these are not the same bird?  Well, Tom #1 has an “antler” growing out of the left side of his head (behind his eye), which Tom #2 does not have.  It was still there yesterday morning when I photographed Tom #1 in the snow.

A strange fibrous or horn-like structure is growing out of the left side of this turkey’s head.  (Click on the image to select it and then click again to enlarge to full screen.)  In addition to the strange growth present on this bird, his tail feathers are not quite as nice as the complete fan of Tom #2.

It will be interesting to see which of these studly males gets breeding rights to the hens in the backyard.  I wonder if there will be any head-to-head or spur-to-spur competition.

How old is my turkey?

It’s that time again, when tom Turkeys begin to strut their stuff in the backyard.  The other day, a FB friend/fellow wildlife photographer posted a shot of a tom turkey ( that looked quite a bit different than the one I have been seeing in my backyard.  I thought it looked younger, but I wondered how one can tell the age of male wild Turkey.  So, I googled that thought, and it turns out it’s not a hard thing to do (assuming you can judge lengths somewhat accurately).

The key things to look for are the length of the beard (the hair-like structures — which are modified feathers) hanging down from its breast,  the color of the tip of the beard, and the length of the spurs on the back of the lower-most part of its leg next to the foot (the tarsometatarsus to be exact).

It’s still early in a turkey’s breeding season here in MN, so this bird, although well-feathered and robust looking, has a pale head lacking in the vivid red, white, and blue colors of a bird in peak breeding condition.  That’s quite a beard this bird sports, so it’s probably an older bird, but how old?.

In contrast, the bird photographed by FB friend Mike Powell has just a nub of beard developing. Its head coloration has started to develop, but the Spring season in Virginia is much further along than here in MN.  I zoomed in on Mike’s photo and determined that the spur was a bare nub, hardly noticeable.

Here are some data that are useful to tell what age a tom turkey might be:

Beard Length = Age of Turkey
3-5 inches = 1 year
6-9 inches with amber tip = 2 years
10+ inches with black tip = 3+ years

Spur Length = Age of Turkey
1/2 inch or less = 1 year (jake)
1/2-7/8 inch and blunt = 2 years
7/8-1 inch = 2+ years
1+ inch and sharp = 3+ years
1 ¼ + = 4 years

Based on these age characteristics, how old might these two turkeys in the above photos be?

Measured against the tree trunk, the tom turkey’s beard is at least 10 inches or longer. The tip is clearly black, not amber.

I erased some of the vegetation behind the bird’s leg so the spur was more obvious. If the turkey’s tarsometatarsus is 10-12 inches in length (on average), then the spur is at least an inch and maybe more. It also looks sharply pointed.

Mr. Long-beard is clearly a mature adult, probably 3+ and maybe four years old.  The fact that a bird this old is still hanging around the backyard (and surroundings) with all the dogs, foxes, and coyotes that might injure or kill him, and has survived Minnesota’s worst weather for that many years, is a good indication that he is an excellent genetic partner.  I hope he sticks around so I can photograph him in his full breeding “beauty”, perhaps with a bevy of hens admiring him.

I would guess that the tom turkey photographed by Mike Powell is a first-year bird (jake) that probably will not breed this year, if discerning hens pay attention to things like beard length.

What age tom turkeys do you see in your backyard?

Spring beauties

It will be a while before Spring graces us with her presence in MN, but meantime, I can look back at all the beautiful flowers I saw while I was in northern California two weeks ago.  Bright colors gladden the heart, even in the midst of a plague.

Evening primrose with a touch of dew.

Red hibiscus, with its velvety dark red stigma sticking far above the anthers to exclude their pollen.

Orchid sprays decorate the window.

Bewick’s Wren and Common Bushtit in a Redbud tree brightly blooming with its pink-purple flowers.

And spring color is not complete without my favorite California Poppies

The poppy bloom was just beginning in early March in northern California.

The characteristic finely dissected blue-green foliage and bright orange-yellow disc-shaped flowers — what could be more colorful?

One more time…

Most of the Trumpeter Swans have moved on from their winter “watering hole” at the St. Paul reservoir, but I found some images I shot in mid-February this year that are reminders of the daily action I saw there.  After much honking and neck bobbing, a pair of Trumpeter Swans take-off — shots from pre-launch posture to full flight.

Bent neck, opening wings, leaning forward…

Leaning forward, running on snow or on water, deep wing flaps that generate power for lift…

Full extension of the wing upward and powerful downstroke generates a lot of lift for this heavy-bodied bird, feet still pushing hard to generate speed for take-off…

And finally, lift-off, feet tucked behind the body, still utilizing full wing extension up and down to generate lift, snow falling away from the feet.

And now, it’s time to move on to scenes of Spring!

From one day to the next

Puerto Vallarta beach

One day we’re walking on the beach at Puerto Vallarta, soaking up the sun, admiring the Frigatebirds diving for fish…

And the next day, we’ve flown 2300 miles north, to be greeted with this scene in the backyard the next morning.

This is when you learn to appreciate each day as it comes along, because the next one might be very different.  (Fortunately, those snowflakes didn’t stick around.)

The reason for the abrupt switch in scenery was that our early spring cruise down the west coast of Central American and through the Panama Canal was terminated at our first stop in Puerto Vallarta, when the Corona virus crisis closed most ports to cruise ship traffic. So, I’ll be staying home this year to appreciate the slow progression to spring in my own backyard.  Bring it on!

Birding in Puerto Vallarta

Goodbye, San Diego, hello (two days later) to Puerta Vallarta, an upscale commercial and tourist port on Mexico’s scenic west coast.

Leaving the port of San Diego CA on the M/S Rotterdam
Lovely mountains ring part of the city and frame a beautiful sandy beach where we sat and watched Frigate birds dive for food thrown out by fishermen.
Magnificent Frigatebirds diving for scraps
Then a long walk to an estuary reserve near the pier, where we could have seen much more if we had taken a boat ride instead of walking around a mangrove forest.
Lots of iguanas were basking in the mangrove bushes
And Yellow-crowned Night Herons had staked out places in the mangroves to hunt for fish, crabs, etc.
What stealthy (and extremely slow) stalkers they are
Black, White, and Red mangroves grow in a dense tangle in this estuary (Estero el Salado), just 1/2 mile from the ship dock! Mangroves drop aerial roots to the substrate to strengthen their position and to advance the zone the mangroves occupy. These plants are vital as a buffer for storm surge during tropical deluges.

On the beach

In between rain showers, we ventured out to the beach in Carlsbad, CA north of San Diego to see what we could find. It was a gloomy, misty day with very few people or animals out “enjoying” the weather.

Brown Pelicans
Brown Pelicans soared down the beach without a flap, gliding on the wind.
Eroding hillside, Carlsbad beach park, CA
Erosion is taking away much of the cliffside at the Carlsbad state beach. It won’t be long before erosion will undermine the parking area.
Herring Gulls came down to a stream of rain water running off the highway above the beach to bathe and drink.
California (formerly Beechey) Ground Squirrels scampered around the cliffs, coming up to us to beg for food scraps.