Getting to know you…

“getting to know all about you” — that’s what we often see in the synchronized displays of paired birds that mate for life.  It’s more commonly seen in the spring resurgence of pre-breeding behaviors, but often, mated pairs renew their bond in the fall before migrating to warmer climates with open water.

Trumpeter Swans pairs exhibited their neck bowing and chest-to-chest-wing flap and trumpet greetings with each other on Lake Vadnais yesterday with gusto.

Trumpeter Swan courtship behavior

Neck bowing behavior, up and down, from fully extended to completely bowed, repeated several times, both while swimming in parallel and while facing each other.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Because these birds often don’t breed until they are 4-6 years old, cementing their partnership early is integral to their eventual breeding success, in defending their nest territory as well as protecting their offspring, which single individuals cannot do alone.  Their synchronized neck bowing behaviors occasionally escalated to more vigorous displays of wing flapping and chest bumping (kind of remniscent of football players in the end zone after a touchdown).

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Muted trumeting accompanied the wing flap face-off between these partners.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

But then, one swan seemed to be trying out a couple of different partners as it first performed the neck bowing sequence with one individual and then took-off flying and pursued another individual, bowing and wing-flapping with it, and then eventually settling down to feed side by side.  I wonder if this is the equivalent of swan dating?

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Swan in the lead with partner #1, performing the head bowing behavior as they swim

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Suddenly the lead swan takes off, trumpeting, chasing another swan into flight. Huge webbed feet paddling against the surface of the water help these large-bodied birds get aloft.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Once landed in the same area, vigorous wing-flapping and trumpeting occurs for several seconds, following by neck bows, and finally feeding side by side.

I might have thought this was one male chasing another, except for the behavior that followed.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior trumpeter swan courtship behavior trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Just another day in the lives of the Trumpeter Swans, even if confusing to us human observers.

Just passing through

As I look back at previous years’ blog posts around this time of the year, I always find a few posts about duck migration.  And once again, right on schedule, huge rafts of Common Goldeneye and Ring-necked Ducks have taken up residence on Lake Vadnais in St. Paul, to fatten up before completing the rest of their migration south.

raft of ducks

The gigantic raft of floating ducks stretches down the center of the lake more than 100 yards.

This particular reservoir seems to be a favorite stop-over for these ducks, and they usually stay until the freezing weather causes the lake to ice up.

Ring-necked ducks

Ring-necked ducks mill around in circles, dabbling and diving.

ring-necked-duck-male

You rarely get to see why these ducks are so named — for the chestnut ring of feathers at the base of the neck.

ring-necked-ducks

Male Ring-necked ducks outnumber their females by a large margin; where do all the females go on migration?

common-goldeneye-male

Small flocks of Common Goldeneye, with their distinguishing white cheek patch and bright golden eyes float separately from the Ring-necked ducks.  Dark-headed males seem to outnumber brown-headed females 10 to 1.

Ring-necked ducks

Some small groups that break off of the long raft of ducks swim purposefully (somewhere) in V-formation.

Ring-necked ducks

And some just streak through mirror-calm water in a straight line.

canvasback duck

There’s always one that has to be different — a lone male Canvasback swam toward a distant group of Goldeneyes, but they ignored him.

Seven swans a-sleeping…

A scene from across Lake Vadnais in St. Paul called to me to get closer and try to photograph the group of Trumpeter Swans.

trumpeter swans

I haven’t seen any Trumpeter Swans up close since last winter, and here they were basking on the shore of one of the lakes that supply water to St. Paul.

So I hiked around the lake trying to figure out where on the trail they might be. However, it was bow season for deer that day, and so I couldn’t stray too far off the path into the woods.

By the time I found them, this is what I saw:  seven swans a-sleeping (well, one was alert).

trumpeter swans-2

It must have been a busy morning, and I’ve never seen them a bunch of swans so completely sacked out.

However, road noise woke a couple of them up, just for a few moments.

trumpeter swans

trumpeter swans

and then right back to napping.

I guess when you’re as big as an adult Trumpeter Swan, you don’t worry too much about photographers creeping up near by.  Even the Mallards were unperturbed.

colorful rivers

Well, not so much the color of the river per se, but it was the color along the river last week in Wisconsin and Michigan during the peak of the fall color show that was impressive.  Some examples, seen between rain showers:

wolf river, wisconsin-

Along the Wolf River on the way to Rhinelander, Wisconsin, the sumac is intensely red, and maples have turned a brilliant yellow, orange, or red.

Wolf River, Wisconsin

Places like this are where you wish you were in a canoe, drifting down a lazy part of the river, gazing at the glorious color along the shoreline.

wolf river, wisconsin-

Not a huge waterfall by Lake Superior north shore standards, but a pretty scene nonetheless.

We know that warm days and cool nights of fall stimulate plants to break down their chlorophyll, unmasking all the xanthophyll and carotene photo pigments in the leaves, and those changes in leaf metabolism produce the yellow, orange, and red colors.  I have written more about the chemistry of leaf color change earlier — (“you know it’s fall when…”).  But what accounts for the synchronous color changes of rural northern hardwood forests, compared to the more prolonged sequential color changes we see in urban landscapes?

Summit peak, Porcupine Mts, Michigan

Synchronous color change in mature beech-maple hardwood forest, Porcupine Mts., Michigan.  You don’t see sights like this in many urban areas.

Lots of factors might be responsible:  urban areas are generally warmer with a less homogeneous climate than surrounding open countryside; plants in a natural forest most likely respond to climatic changes in similar ways, whereas planted urban trees, often non-native, adapt to a mixture of environmental cues with different schedules for leaf fall.  Leaves might change color more slowly and stay on trees longer in the urban environment simply because temperature and moisture conditions there are so different from the surrounding countryside.

Ridges and Swales

It might sound like this is about a fashionable department store, but beach ridges and the shallow, watery swales between them are natural features of the Great Lakes shorelines. We hiked at one example of this complex ecosystem at the Ridges Sanctuary in Bailey’s Harbor on the eastern side of the Door peninsula.

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

The entrance walkway to the Sanctuary crossing over a swale, with the shoreline lighthouse at the end.

Ridges and swales are most likely to develop where coastal land is uplifted or where lake levels fall, which is probably what has been happening here in the past 10,000 years since the last glacial recession.  Sediments are deposited with gentle wave action against the shoreline in a protected harbor, leaving behind a low hill of sand and gravel in which hearty colonists establish themselves.

Map of The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

Map of the Ridges Sanctuary, showing the parallel rows of beach ridges separated by low-lying wet swales.  Black lines are the trails through the area.

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

The most recent beach ridge on the shoreline is being colonized by 3-foot tall conifers and grasses, which will slowly add humus to the sandy matrix, improving conditions for further growth.

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

Between each of the Ridges, is a low, wet area (the swale) where sedges thrive, and assorted moisture-loving plants, like orchids thrive.

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

Raised walkways guide hikers across the swales and provide views of wildlife and exotic plant species along the edges of the ridges.

The variation in environment from dry to wet, or coastal to inland makes this an extremely diverse ecosystem, home to more than 500 species of plants, 60 some species of birds, and more than a dozen mammals.

Fringed Gentian, Ridges Sanctuary, Door County , WI

Fringed Gentian is one of the 500+ plant species to be found in this diverse ecosystem.  Summer blooms include at least 25 species of native orchids, along with bog species like pitcher plant and sundew.

Fringed Gentian, Ridges Sanctuary, Door County , WI

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

The ridge furthest from the coast begins to look more like mature coniferous forest, with tall red pine, white cedar, and fir trees. The path here is spongey, needle duff rather than sandy gravel.

The Ridges Sanctuary was founded in 1937, becoming Wisconsin’s first land trust, designed to protect the state’s most biologically diverse ecosystem.

North Shore color

And so it begins, the slow march toward another winter.  But first we are gifted with the brilliant colors of fall.  We traveled to the north shore of Lake Superior to get our first glimpse of this year’s color show, and weren’t disappointed.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (2)

Arriving in the evening at Lutsen ski area, I wasn’t sure we would get any good views of the fall color on the hills.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (3)

But the weather cleared up for at least a couple of hours early the next morning.

And the hike around the trails on Oberg mountain was definitely rewarding.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (4)

Trails were muddy and slippery, but colorful.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (5)

View of Oberg Lake from the north side of the mountain trail, looking northwest where the color change was most evident.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (6)

Next to Oberg Lake was an enticing wetland area that should have had ducks, loons, or at least one moose.

ake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (9)

Lake Superior in the distance was overcast and gray instead of its usual brilliant blue which makes such a nice contrast with the orange and yellow of the hillsides.

With the recent rain just days before we arrived, the rivers and waterfalls were overflowing with rapidly rushing water.

Ray Bergland wayside park, Lutsen, MN-2

Even the smaller creeks had rapids. It’s easy to see how trees get swept downstream with high volumes of water flow that wash away the soil around their roots.

Cascade Falls, north shore drive, MN-4

Cascade Falls, south of Grand Marais always has impressive waterfalls, but their volume and noise level after recent rains was remarkable.  The water is coffee-colored from the leaching of leaf tannins in the wetlands upstream: the more extensive the drainage of wetlands, the darker the amber brown color of the water (and waterfall).

Cascade Falls, north shore drive, MN

One point in the waterfall trail gives you a view of three of the six or seven cascades in Cascade Waterfalls.

Cascade Falls, north shore drive, MN-2

Another view of the cascade with a slower shutter speed.

Mr. Not-so-beautiful

This is the time of year we see beautiful and dramatic color changes in the vegetation, but that is just one of many fall transformations.  Gaudy male ducks that shed those brilliant colors right after donating their sperm to the next generation last spring and became pale, cryptic versions of their previous selves have recently begun the transformation back to splendid technicolor.  It’s like a before and after makeover for Mallard Ducks at the local reservoir this week.

molting mallard ducks

In the summer, male Mallards look just like their females, with mottled brown plumage that blends in nicely with the dappled shade in which they spend the day.  The male of this pair (in the back) is just beginning to acquire the lustrous green feathers that will eventually cover his entire head.

Most ducks undergo two feather molts during the course of one year:  one in the spring/summer after breeding in which they replace all of their feathers, including flight feathers (resulting in the basic/female-type plumage); and one in the fall/winter in which they replace just the body feathers to regain the colors of the breeding (nuptial) plumage.

mallard plumage sequence-illustration by Patterson Clark

Mallard plumage sequence-illustration by Patterson Clark (Washington Post, Aug. 30, 2011).

This process of feather replacement ensures that birds acquire a new set of flight feathers before making short or long-distance migrations in fall or spring. More importantly, it ensures that gaudy male ducks, who would be conspicuous targets for aerial predators (like Bald Eagles) can protect themselves with better camouflage while they are flightless and molting a completely new set of wing feathers.

molting mallard ducks-

He’s sort of an ugly duckling at this stage of feather replacement, hence Mr. Not-so-beautiful…

Fueling this feather replacement not only demands additional energy intake per day, but a higher quality of protein in the diet, and so ducks will start feeding on more invertebrates and less pond scum, as they drop old feathers and grow in new ones.  It has been estimated that ducks need to ingest about 100 grams of protein to replace the 60+ grams of body feathers during a whole body feather molt.  That means they need to ingest more than 3 grams of protein per day over the 30 day molting period, and that translates to about 31,000 invertebrates eaten over the month!!!, according to the folks at Ducks Unlimited.

mallard-drakes-

Soon, the local ponds and lakes will have congregations of brightly colored males swimming around the few females (lower right corner) in attendance.

mallard-males-displaying-

And as spring rolls around again next year, the brightly colored male Mallards will begin to play “who’s the prettiest” again.

a beautiful riverside wildflower garden

What a surprise to find a lush wildflower garden growing in the damp soil at the edge of the St. Croix river at the Arcola Bluffs trail.  A trail along the river’s edge led me through dense clumps of Cardinal flower, Blue Lobelia, Obedient plant, and Prairie Ironweed.

cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis-

There were hundreds of individual Cardinal flower stems growing here in the semi shade and moist forest soil along the St. Croix river.

cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis-

With this many attractive red flowers, you would expect to see hummingbirds, and sure enough they showed up right as I began noticing the dense flower patch.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-on-cardinal-flower-1

Shot earlier in my backyard wildflower garden, but Ruby-throated Hummingbirds do love this plant.

white cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis

Among the hundreds of individual plants, there was one genetic mutant, a white form of the Cardinal flower.

White mutants of brightly colored animals or plants are usually genetic recessives, and are rare in the population. I imagine hummingbirds might skip over the nectar resources in this plant (wrong color to attract them), so it might not set much seed, which further contributes to its rarity.

Blue Lobelia - Lobelia siphilitica-

Another Lobelia species, the Blue Lobelia, was also growing in the riverside wildflower garden, although in much lower density.

Obedient plant - Physostegia virginiana-

I spotted just a few individuals of Obedient plant in this “garden”, although this plant is usually an aggresive colonist of open spaces in my backyard wildflower garden.

Prairie Ironweed - Veronia fasiculata-

Prairie Ironweed seems to like the wet river bottomland as well as it does the open prarie habitat. It’s large flowerheads were particularly attractive to honeybees.

Prairie Ironweed - Veronia fasiculata-

Has this lovely wildflower garden always been here? Did I just happen to hit it during its peak flowering? Other wildflower enthusiasts have reported lush blooms of cardinal flower along the backwaters of the Mississippi and St. Croix recently (late July-early August), so maybe I have just never discovered these little patches of colorful diversity along the rivers.

a different look

This is the time of year we begin to see birds migrating back to their southerly winter homes, but many of them look very different than they did when they arrived here in the spring ready to breed.  Most birds have two outfits in their wardrobe:  a non-breeding basic plumage that may be drab but serviceable for all-around activities, like migration and over-wintering; and a brightly colored (in the case of males) alternate plumage that is meant just to show off their stuff in the breeding season.  In some cases, bills, skin around the eyes, feet, etc. may also be brightly colored, only during the breeding season.

Here’s a look at how this works in a small diving “duck” (not really a duck) called the Pied-billed Grebe, whose basic, non-breeding plumage gives no trace of the pied bill.

pied-billed grebe-basic, non-breeding plumage

Pied-billed Grebes were diving among the lily pads looking for small fish or crayfish lurking there.

pied-billed grebe-basic, non-breeding plumage

No trace of that characteristic marker of the broad black stripe on the bill though.  The one at the bottom of the image still has the faint head stripes of juvenile plumage.

pied-billed grebe juvenile

Typical juvenile plumage in the Pied-billed Grebe

pied-billed-grebe-breeding adult

A few months earlier adults looked like this, with a more definite black stripe through the pale, silver bill.

Pied-billed_Grebe_and young-Audubon

Earlier in the breeding season, both adults and youngsters looked quite a bit different than they will during the non-breeding season. Photo from Audubon field guide.

Of course seasonal changes in the grebes are far more subtle than those in some of the warbler species that take on completely different colors and color combinations between basic and alternate (breeding) plumages.  For example, gorgeous red Scarlet Tanagers molt to a green-gold plumage in the non-breeding season, making them look like a completely different species.

scarlet tanager plumage molts

the not-so-secretive Sora

Soras are a type of marsh bird that I rarely see because they are usually tucked away deep in the vegetation, obscured by tall stems and leafy plumes.  But this morning, a couple of Soras ventured out into the open water on the edges of the Mississippi marshes to forage, seemingly oblivious of the much larger ducks and geese around them.

Sora

Soras are a type of rail related to coots, moorhens, and gallinules.  They have a distinctive triangular shape, yellow bill, black mask, red eyes, yellow green legs with long toes, and usually carry their short tail feathers straight up in the air.

Sora

Mottled, rich brown feathers on their back help them blend into the edge of the marsh where they forage and nest.

Soras typically grab insects or seeds from the top of the water, occasionally probe into soft mud, walking quickly through the water and vegetation.  The adventurous Soras I watched this morning walked right up to and around resting ducks, paying no attention to their greater bulk, as they searched for hidden food items.

Sora and molting Wood Duck

The molting male Wood Duck seemed wary of the Sora though.

Sora and molting Wood Duck

Sora

Sora, just passing through…ducks don’t care

Sora

Long toes, with webbing between them, help Soras cruise through muddy muck of the marsh.

During the breeding season, we often hear the high-pitched descending notes of the Sora’s whinny call, but rarely seen them.  They are busy producing a lot of little Soras in a nest that might hold as many as 18 eggs, stacked in rows on top of each other.  Since the Soras start incubating before all the eggs have been laid, they hatch asynchronously, and the first youngsters to hatch jump out of the nest join one of the parents while the other parent continues to incubate.

Rumble.com produced an excellent video of Sora and Virginia Rails in their native habitat: