The harsh climate takes its toll on life on mountain slopes at 68 degrees north latitude. Above the treeline, there is a lot of exposed rock, covered in places with lichen. A miniature forest about I inch high clings to rock crevices where moisture is greater, and what flowers are present, are tiny miniature copies of lusher vegetation down below.
The Bielowieza forest is surrounded on the Polish side by farmland, much of which is hayed for dairy cattle. Polish farmers seem to prefer haying their meadows of grasses and forbs, rather than planting monocultures of alfalfa. As a result, forest visitors (the human variety) are treated to a colorful scene of perennial blooms, very similar to that we see in Minnesota prairies, only with a lot more color.
We were amazed to find a number of the same species present in Polish prairies as we might find along roadsides in the U.S. Of course we call these weeds, and perhaps they are in Poland, too. Or perhaps they really are part of the natural prairie mixture.
Back when we had sunny days a couple of weeks ago, I found a lone Pelican resting at the edge of the Grass Lake marsh. What was it doing here, all by itself? Why was it so sedentary, just sitting for hours on the dead cattails? I guess I’ll never know, but the bird has since disappeared. Other visitors speculated that it was sitting on a nest — nope, I verified that when it stood up. Some thought it might be injured and couldn’t fly away. That’s possible, since it was so sedentary, and it did look like one wing was sort of droopy.
White Pelicans, once rare here, now choose the shallow prairie pothole lakes in western and southwestern Minnesota to breed. They have rebounded dramatically from a complete absence of nesting birds over the period from 1878 to 1968 to over 20,000 nesting pairs in Minnesota currently, largely due to the conservation and management efforts of the non-game wildlife staff in the MN Department of Natural Resources.
White Pelicans typically migrate from their winter headquarters in the gulf to Minnesota lakes in early spring (March). It’s a welcome sight to see them in formation overhead, white bodies and wings outlined with black wing tips soaring overhead.
Pelicans are highly social and nest in large aggregations. They live and hunt communally, using teamwork to scare up and harvest fish from the surface of the water. A single Pelican foraging for itself, like the one I found at Grass Lake, might be far less effective in gathering food. I hope it recovered and flew off to join its friends somewhere on a distant lake.
Two words that are usually said together: bird song, or better yet songbirds, those usually small birds in your garden that produce the wonderful, lilting, sometimes piercing, often warbling, unique collection of notes that identifies each species.
But not all songbirds sing, or sing exclusively — some of them have adopted a buzz as part or all of their song. In fact, their soft buzzes or wheezes are remarkably similar and difficult to pinpoint when looking for that buzzing bird that you’re not really sure isn’t some sort of insect. Why would male birds want to buzz instead of sing?
Take the Blue-winged Warbler for example; wouldn’t you assume from its name that its song would be a melodious warble, rather than a two-note “bee-buzz“?
Just 20 feet away, a Clay-colored Sparrow is buzzing away, with a very similar, low frequency, raspy buzz call.
Buzzing seems to be a common characteristic of “song” in grassland birds, like Grasshopper Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows. So, one wonders if these birds are trying to avoid detection in prairie habitat by mimicking insects when they “sing”, or whether female birds just find buzzing particularly enticing?
It turns out that buzzing sound made with the bird equivalent of a larynx (called a syrinx), is actually quite physically challenging, and therefore could be an indicator to females of the quality of a potential mate. German researchers* found that larger, more robust male Nightingales incorporated more buzzes in their song, and enjoyed greater attention from females than their less robust or younger competitors.
Another possible explanation for buzzing birds found in grassland habitats is that low frequency buzzing notes apparently carry long distances, and can be heard throughout and beyond the male’s territory. Banded Wrens incorporated more buzzing notes in their early morning song that was directed toward other males in the nearby vicinity, at times before females were present.**
*Citation: Weiss M, Kiefer S, Kipper S (2012) Buzzwords in Females’ Ears? The Use of Buzz Songs in the Communication of Nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos). PLoS ONE 7(9): e45057. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0045057
**Citation: P.L. Trillo and S.L. Vehrenkamp. Anim Behav. Song types and their structural features are associated with specific contexts in the Banded Wren. 2005 Oct; 70(4): 921–935. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2005.02.004
Tromping around Weaver Dunes, south of Wabasha MN, for 8 hours trying to identify every bird we could find was exhausting but rewarding, and what an absolutely beautiful day to participate in The Nature Conservancy’s bird blitz on May 12.
The spring migration was running a little behind schedule, but we managed to find (and identify) 58 species (which admittedly doesn’t sound like a lot for 8 hours of work). We explored a variety of habitats, but the best places to look were edges between shrub and forest, or prairie and forest.
Our efforts were added to those of the birders walking other TNC properties throughout the tri-state region of MN, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Together all observers on May 12 found over 200 different bird species, or approximately 50% of those known to reside or pass through MN on migration in May. Not bad…it’s a nationwide competition, so we’ll see how MN bird numbers stack up with those elsewhere in the U.S.
Considering that our American birds have to navigate and survive stormy weather and drastic climate changes, glass windows and glass-covered buildings, marked habitat alterations, and depleted food supplies from all the pesticide and herbicide applications, it’s a wonder that we see the diversity that we do.
Quite by accident, while I was out in the Grass Lake marshes looking for the ospreys that should have been near their platform nest (the one usurped by a Canada Goose), a lone Common Loon popped up right in front of me.
During the breeding season, both male and female loons have brilliant red eyes, which might well be an indicator of their readiness to mate. But loons are fiercely territorial and protective of their chicks, driving off other loons or intruders (like Canada Geese) far larger than they are, and it has been suggested that their red eyes are a threat advertisement of their presence.
The Common Loon, or Great Northern Diver, as it is known throughout its range in Eurasia, has some unusual anatomical adaptations for its underwater life:
- solid, instead of the hollow bones that characterize most birds, decrease the bird’s buoyancy in water and allow it to sink quickly during a dive
- legs are placed so far to the rear of its body, loons can’t stand up on land, but must push themselves forward on their belly
- rather short wings decrease drag as the bird propels itself through the water, but the trade-off is that reduced lift provided by the wings requires a long space for taking off into the air
But how does a bird that depends on its eyes for hunting underwater see both in air and in water? Some have suggested that the birds’ third eyelid (nictatating membrane) which usually has a protective function, is more transparent in loons and other diving birds, and acts like a pair of goggles to preserve an air space between the pupil and the water. Check out the video below for a good illustration of the underwater swimming activity of these unusual birds.
Yes, Mother Goose did it, at least I’m going to believe she did. Mother Goose was gone from the osprey nest platform, but there were some brand new goslings in the pond at the base of the tower at Grass Lake. Somehow four little fluffy ducklings, looking recently hatched, may the ones that survived the plunge down to the pond and are now happily swimming around with their parents.
For the past several years, a pair of ospreys have raised 2-3 chicks each year at the local marsh that surrounds Grass Lake, using a high nest platform erected specifically to entice them to breed there..
But this year, they must have arrived a little later than usual, because an interloper arrived first to claim the 50 foot high platform for her own nest.
What is peculiar about this is that Canada Geese usually nest on land surrounded by or near the water on an elevated mound — but not this elevated!
Mother Goose usually sits tight on the nest, incubating her clutch of 6-8 eggs for most of a month or so, but Father Goose will take over at times so that the hen can stretch her legs and get a bit of food for herself. Knowing how much space Canada Geese need to land on water or land, I have to wonder how good they are at making a touch down in the limited space of this nest platform.
Once the ducklings hatch, they usually move immediately into the water with their parents.
Being nothing more than downy balls of fluff, they certainly can’t fly yet, so what will happen to the ducklings raised on an osprey platform?
Chickadees are one of the most endearing birds, with their perky spirit. Although I probably have hundreds of photos of these birds, I couldn’t resist a few shots of one that was peering into the porch window at me as I was drinking my very early morning coffee.
I remember my kids giving me this look when they were teen-agers.