Looking back at 2021

Another year of Covid prohibitions on activities, but not such a bad year for seeing new places and new species. The highlights month by month look like this:

January: a trip to Sax-Zim bog in north central Minnesota, and an exciting afternoon shooting Great Gray Owls diving for mice in the snow.
Great Gray Owls blend in so well with the tree stumps they are sitting on, you might drive right by them on the forest roads in north central MN.
February: Yes, the most memorable highlight of February was winning the vaccine lottery and getting my first vaccine shot — after waiting in line for almost 2 hours with 1000 other anxious people.
March: hiking with adventurous grandkids at frozen (well, mostly frozen) Minnehaha Falls in downtown Minneapolis. Caves behind the falls are fun to explore when you’re steady on your feet.
Also in March — Great Horned Owlets are growing up fast and almost ready to leave their nest hole to perch on tree branches.
April: the great Road Trip of April and May netted us over 160 species (many new and never seen before), after visiting over 40 parks and driving over 6800 miles). Some of my favorites were the ever-amazing hummingbirds, like this composite of a Broad-billed Hummer coming into a feeder in southeastern Arizona.
We visited many beautiful places on our long April-May adventure, but we keep coming back to this place deep in the Chiricahua mountains of southeastern Arizona — Cave Creek ranch, where exotic birds and gorgeous scenery captivate.
May: On the way back to Minnesota in May, we stopped at Antelope Island in Salt Lake City, where grazing bison and antelope are abundant and the mountain landscapes behind the city are spectacular.
June: another Road Trip — this time with the grandkids camping across the western U.S. on our way to the mountain cabin near Lake Tahoe.
My favorite bird highlight from June was this Western Tanager male in all his bright breeding finery — the jewel of the Sierra.
July: with almost all the grandkids and missing one son-in-law (who had to work), the rest of us gathered for the 4th of July at the cabin near Lake Tahoe.
August: surreal landscapes in the back country of Desolation Valley in the CA Sierras on our backpacking trip, as the Caldor Fire literally burst upon us one morning.
September: fall migration began with the arrival of a dozen or more warbler species, along with assorted vireos, flycatchers, finches, blackbirds, etc. Mr. Magnolia Warbler was not quite as beautiful as he was in the Spring, but nevertheless, is a handsome bird.
October: a trip to Alabama to see the birds of Mobile Bay and Dauphin Island and its pristine white quartz sand.
Fall color was unusually bright and long-lasting in October this year. A pleasant surprise after a somewhat hot, dry summer.
November: foxes and turkeys passed through the backyard frequently, but there was little snowfall this month. Very unusual.
December: at last it looks like winter, but a warm-ish spell right before Christmas melted all this lovely stuff.

Reflections

It is snowing this morning, and the yucky weather here in southern Minnesota means the wildlife has deserted the backyard (temporarily, I hope). Even the chickadees are absent from the feeders this morning!

So, it’s a good time to reflect back on the adventures of the summer — to warmer times and prettier views. I found a lot of photos from Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge north of San Jose CA that I had never posted. That’s a good excuse to go back a couple of months to October and revisit the marshy pools in southern San Francisco bay

Shorebirds are abundant here in spring, fall, and winter. Even late summer is a good time to catch migrants moving through these shallow pools, which apparently provide enough sustenance to attract a great diversity and abundance of birds.
The reflections of these Dowitchers (type to be determined in later images) were mirrored perfectly in the still water.

Dowitchers are medium-sized chunky shorebirds that use their very long bills to probe deep into the mud of shallow pools to find insect and crustacean larvae and small molluscs, as well as seeds and even vegetation that is buried there. Extremely sensitive tactile receptors in the tips of those long bills help them discriminate what is animal, vegetable, and mineral. Their continuous up-and-down motion as they probe the mud has been likened to the action of a sewing machine needle moving through cloth.

Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers are common (often seen) to abundant (very numerous) in these pools during spring, fall, and winter. But how to tell which species this is? I am always confused by these birds and wanted to find some characteristic I could use to more easily identify them.

Unfortunately, despite their names, bill length is not a definitive characteristic! Long-billed Dowitchers are mostly found in fresh water, and the Short-billed species is mostly found in salt water, but the pools here are full of a mix of salt and fresh water depending on the tides in the bay. And in their drab, non-breeding plumage, all their distinctive coloration is missing, so one must rely on their different calls to determine the species. However, I have no memory of what they sounded like, so what else can I use to tell them apart?

Fortunately, “how to tell long-billed from short-billed dowitchers” is a frequently asked question on Google. And one website clued me in to differences in the black and white barring pattern in the tail feathers, which can be seen on the bird on the left. Long-billed Dowitchers have more black than white in their tail barring — that’s the answer. These are Long-billed Dowitchers.

Not all of the shorebirds are so difficult to identify. Two species of long-legged wading shorebirds stand out: avocets and stilts.

Avocets are easily recognized by their long, up-turned bills. It wasn’t particularly cool on this morning, but the birds seem to be conserving heat by standing on one long leg at a time. The long bill of this bird is used as a sieve rather than a deep probe. The birds swish their bill side-to-side in shallow water to filter out small prey suspended in the water.
Black-necked Stilts really are on stilts. They have the second longest legs in proportion to their body size — Flamingos having the longest stilts. As they wade through the muck, with water levels sometimes reaching up to their breast, they peck at and seize small crustaceans, amphibian larvae, snails, or even tiny fish swimming in the shallow water.
Such attractive birds with their stark black and white plumage, long pink legs, red eyes, and rounded forehead.

Still hanging on…

Not only are the leaves stubbornly clinging to the trees, but the lovely Fall weather just hasn’t given into Winter cold yet. And we are grateful because the last of the colorful, balmy (?) days are perfect for exploring outdoors.

The color in Reservoir Woods was somewhat dulled in past peak days, but was still spectacular to walk around in.
A big buck went dashing through these aspen right before I managed to get out my phone to take a photo.
The last of the maple leaves have almost all dropped off the trees now.

The progression of activity in the backyard in the Fall is somewhat predictable. This is the time of year the turkeys and deer visit the backyard more often, looking for the best edibles.

Does with and without fawns make themselves comfortable on the lawn while digesting the morning feast.
Hen turkeys gather in flocks in the Fall along with their offspring and parade through the neighborhood completely at ease with the car and people traffic on the roads.

The Gathering

Thousands of Sandhill Cranes are currently staging for a few weeks in the wet meadows of wildlife refuges in central Minnesota and Wisconsin –fattening up for migration and hanging out with each other in the beautiful fall colors of October.

They are a very social bunch at this time of year, crowding together at night in the more remote places of the refuge and flying off in large groups to feed in agricultural fields in the daytime where they consume what is left from the corn, wheat, sorghum or other crop harvests.

Sandhill Cranes pair for life, and the partners stick pretty close together when they are foraging, even though they may be part of a very large group of 100 or more birds feeding in a particular area. Although it doesn’t look like it in the photo, this is a wet meadow with some bare, marshy areas that might have the insects, snails, berries, or even small mammals they are looking to eat.

After a cold, dreary few hours of driving around Crex Meadows wildlife area looking for the wildlife (and finding scarcely any), the sun suddenly appeared in the late afternoon, and the cranes began flying into a wet meadow we had just happened to stop by to take in the view. From our overlook we saw several flights of dozens of cranes come right over us to land about 1/4 mile (or more) away.

It’s so helpful that they announce their presence with their eerie-sounding rattling trumpet call long before we see them, so we can get the cameras ready!
They flew in small groups…
or very large ones, always calling as they flew over.
Gradually, over the course of about half an hour, the meadow began to fill up with Cranes.
Incoming fights of cranes circled the group in a wide arc, gradually descending with legs down, heads and neck erect, as they kind of floated down to the ground.

I assume this might be where they will spend the night, and it might be where they congregate every night, until early morning when the most restless ones among them signal that it’s time to take off again and fly out to get breakfast. Don’t you wonder which birds are those early starters who set off all the others? Is it always the same ones? Inquiring minds want to know!

Cranes on the move

Each Fall, Sandhill Cranes make their way south from their breeding grounds in Alaska, Canada, and northern parts of the U.S. to southern wintering areas in Texas, New Mexico, Florida, and northern parts of Mexico. As they move south, they gather in “staging areas” that provide forage and protection — harvested agricultural fields to be picked over for grain or occasional invertebrates or small mammals and shallow lakes and river edges where they congregate at night. Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, about an hour north of the Twin Cities, is one of those staging areas, but the 10,000 cranes that may gather here are spread out over 30,000+ acres, so we find them in small groups on the refuge at this time of the Fall.

Cranes move around quite a bit during the daytime, looking for another harvested area to exploit for food.
Cranes in the backdrop of fall foliage was really scenic.
Soon the skies will be filled with long Vees of migrating Cranes as they move from one staging area to the next on their way south.
I love to hear their prehistoric sounding call as they fly — a rattling sort of trumpet that originates from the coils of their trachea deep down at the base of their neck.

The cranes that breed in and migrate through Minnesota are the largest of the 6 subspecies of Sandhills. Cranes are one of the most ancient bird species, and their fossilized remains have been found in Nebraska (one of the premier staging areas for the spring migration) more than 9 million years ago. They live dozens of years and mate for life, raising one or two chicks each breeding season.

Prime time

This past week has been prime time for Fall color in the Twin Cities area. Frosty overnight temps coupled with sunny, warmish days have really brought out the brilliant red and gold colors of the oak trees, in particular. For a more in-depth explanation of how these changes take place in plants at this time of year, please click here.

Quiet, still mornings created the best reflections of leaf color in the local lakes and ponds.
I wonder if the birds enjoy this colorful time of year as much as humans do…
The oak trees at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge an hour north of the Twin Cities were spectacular this weekend, displaying every possible hue of yellow, orange, and red. Aspens in the background were vivid gold as well.
Two lone White Pelicans swam in a small pond at the refuge, surrounded by gold and red colors of the fall leaves.

The colors of Fall

Another splendid and colorful Fall day in Minnesota! I walked by a beautiful scene at Reservoir Woods this afternoon, and had to stop and marvel at the colors of the leaves reflected in the lake.

It’s always a challenge to get as close as possible to the Wood Ducks before they fly or swim away. This time I was lucky to get the two males showing off their newly molted, colorful plumage to their girlfriends.

Early bird catches “worm”

A little Spotted Sandpiper had the entire beach of Vadnais reservoir to itself and moved slowly along the shoreline probing now and then in the mud and under leaves as I stood quietly and watched.

It’s a rather plain looking, medium-sized, chunky-bodied shorebird, missing the spots for which it is named in its winter or juvenile plumage (can’t tell which). But the bird is instantly recognizable as it bobs its tail up and down as it walks, earning it the nickname of “teeter-bob” or “teeter-peep”.
Here and there, the bird probes its bill part way into the mud testing for the presence of buried larvae.
I’m not sure what this behavior is — did the bird hear something, or see something and tilted its head to localize the cue? Spotted Sandpipers hunt primarily by sight, looking for insects or crustaceans in the debris along muddy shores, but they also probe likely looking nooks and crannies where invertebrates may be hiding.
The bird has found something here — it takes a couple of minutes of probing up and down to extract it.
It pulls some yellow and black-striped “worm” from the muddy substrate. The prey might be the larva of a large stone fly or caddisfly.
It looks tantalizing (to a sandpiper) — why not gobble it up?
Nope, have to wash it off — thoroughly! Two or three dunks and swishes should do it.
Now, it’s edible.

Spotted Sandpipers are likely the most widespread breeding sandpiper in North America, nesting from northern most Alaska to the mid-continental U.S. along rivers, lakes, and streams.

And their breeding system is particularly interesting because they exhibit a sex role reversal compared to most other bird species. Instead of the typical female role of incubation and hatchling care, Spotted Sandpiper females “collect” multiple males, laying a clutch of eggs in each male’s nest, which he will then incubate. After they hatch, the male is in charge of protecting and providing food for the chicks, while the female goes off to find another male to mate with.

Female Spotted Sandpipers arrive first on the breeding ground, establish their territory, and then compete with each other for males to mate with. Since females can store sperm from multiple matings for up to a month, the male may be incubating and tending to chicks that are not his offspring! This breeding strategy, called polyandry, is rare among birds but is found in several shorebird species, in Northern Jacanas, occasionally in Acorn Woodpeckers, and in Harris Hawks.

Fishing contest

I watched adult and juvenile Ring-billed Gulls fish for minnows in a shallow area of the Vadnais reservoir the other day. Their acrobatic flights over the water scoping out the potential fish prey was impressive, as was the success rate of their dives. Either the fish were numerous in this area or these gulls are much better dive predators than I appreciated before. During the time I watched them they were successful in grabbing a fish about 50% of the time.

Ring-billed Gulls have surprisingly long wings and are adept at gliding over a patch of water to scope out what might lurk beneath the surface.
Like terns, these gulls will suddenly fold their wings while cruising 50-100 feet over the water, drop quickly to the surface, and enter head first with their beak open to grab an unsuspecting fish. This particular attempt was a failure as the gull came up with nothing.
But this bird was successful, following a full immersion after its dive. The bird took several minutes to position the fish correctly before swallowing, and taking off again.
This youngster grabbed a smaller fish, but immediately flew off with it before swallowing. An adult was fishing nearby, so maybe it flew off to avoid getting robbed by another gull.
Fishing success may have been good here this morning, but the Ring-billed Gull diet usually consists of only about 30% fish, with the remainder made up of crayfish, worms, and a variety of insects from both marshy edges as well as land. Unfortunately, they have become all too used to humans and are frequent scavengers at garbage dumps.
Ring-billed Gulls are one of the most common gulls in the Great Lakes region, breeding in the lower Great Lakes north into mid-latitude Canadian lakes, and then returning to the coastal areas and the southern U.S. and Mexico to overwinter.

Fields of gold

Prairie parkland landscapes are at their peak golden color now. The fall landscape is transforming daily, and with the nice fall weather lately, it’s a glorious time to be out walking around. I’ve given up trying to find the migrating birds at this points and am just enjoying the golden colors everywhere.

The prairie at Tamarack park in White Bear Lake looks golden with stems drying Big Blue Stem and Indian grass, as well as a healthy crop of Showy Goldenrod. Leaves of a few of the maples and ashes have begun to change color also.
There is a similar scene in the restored prairie at Reservoir Woods in St. Paul where the low vegetation is a solid mass of several species of Goldenrod, with a few purple and blue asters and the stems of Indian Grass mixed in.
Bright yellow plumes of Showy Goldenrod rise above the rest of the vegetation in this landscape. And the flowers are a major attraction for honeybees and bumblebees by the dozens.
I don’t think I’ve seen this many honeybees in a native landscape for quite some time. Goldenrod and Asters are the late blooming plants in the fall that bees depend on to stock their larders with pollen over the winter.
Stiff Goldenrod with its erect, rigid stems and fat, almost succulent looking leaves is also in full flower not, but is not nearly as attractive to the bees as the Showy Goldenrod.
Stiff Goldenrod flowers seem larger and more attractive to my eyes, but not to the bees.
Canada Goldenrod has already bloomed and is putting out seeds that the migrating sparrows and finches will appreciate.
Earlier in the fall the American Goldfinches began harvesting the seedheads of the Meadow Blazingstar and led their newly fledged offspring over to the seedheads of the Canada Goldenrod.
What new things will I see on tomorrow’s walk?