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