an unexpected visitor

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 Pelican-

Just sitting, enjoying the early morning sun

White Pelican-

Yawning, stretching, and finding a new sitting position. No nest under its body, and I wouldn’t think the Pelican would try to nest out in the open like this all by itself.

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.

white-pelicans flying-

white-pelican-flying

white-pelicans-flying-

White Pelicans at Pelican Lake, Minnesota photographed in April 2014.

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.

on the edge

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.

Cape May Warbler-

First bird of the day — Cape May Warbler, high in a leafy tree (bane of photographers — the tree, not the bird)

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.

Yellowrump Warbler-

Yellow-rumped Warblers outnumbered other warbler species, and thankfully posed at much lower elevations in the trees.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak-

We only saw one Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and he was quite shy about coming out in the open to show off his raspberry bib.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrows were more common than the warblers, flashing their white outer tail feathers as they flew. True to their name, their song is much more of a warble than a buzz — i.e., lark-like.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrows typically nest in shrubs and forage in grassy areas removed from the nest. They have the unusual habit of walking, instead of hopping.

Northern Waterthrush-

Down at the edge of a small pond, a Northern Waterthrush hunted for insects.

Northern Waterthrush-

A distinctive eyestripe and wagging tail made this large warbler easy to identify.

Brown Thrasher-

A Brown Thasher was very uncooperative about posing, and remained hidden in the dense foliage of trees in the grassy savannah.

Baltimore Oriole-

Orioles foraged high in leafy treetops, but were easy to find by listening for their characteristic song.

Gray-cheeked Thrush-

Another edge-lover found skulking among the low vegetation in the woods surrounding a pond was the Gray-cheeked Thrush, with its characteristic white eyering.

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.

the underwater hunter

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.

Common Loon-

The morning had the perfect kind of filtered sunlight to bring out all the “color” in this black and white bird. For example, I’ve never noticed before how just the right angle of light turns the usually dark feathers below its white necklace into a turquoise band.  The loon’s head feathers are actually faintly iridescent.

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.

Common Loon-viewing fish underwater

The loon frequently dipped its head below the water while paddling around.  It looks like a snorkeler checking out underwater life.

Common Loon-

Several times, following a bit of snorkeling, the loon would quickly dive below the surface, never making a sound or a splash.  I never saw it bring up a fish to swallow, but loons often swallow their smaller prey while underwater.

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.

Common Loon-

She did it!

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.Canada Goose family-

Canada Goose family-

Canada Goose family-

Father Goose watches protectively as a rather hungry hen munches on grass and the goslings explore dirt and possibly eat some bugs.

Canada Goose family-

Canada Goose family-

See you later…

an unusual sighting

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..

osprey-pair

The pair of Ospreys on their nest platform in June, 2016.

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.

canada goose-on osprey nest

It looks like Mother Goose tidied up the stick nest, before adding her own downy breast feathers to the nest cup.  Although her nest is well protected from danger of flooding on the osprey platform, it is exposed to aerial predators like Bald Eagles that might fly over.  

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!

great blue heron-and-canada geese-

While the hen incubates her eggs on her mounded nest, the gander runs protective interference and wards off potential predators or nosy herons.

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.

canada-goose-and-ducklings-1

It’s safer to be in the water because ducklings are vulnerable to a wide variety of predators on land.

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?

Transformations

Marked transformations of the landscape and its inhabitants occur daily now in the upper Midwestern U.S., as the weather is warming up.  I took an early morning walk around the settlement ponds beyond the backyard and found quite a few changes since the week before.

backyard pond

early morning reflection in one of the ponds

The trees have leafed out, the grass is greening up nicely, and wildlife has again taken up residence there.

canada geese-

A pair of geese claimed one end of the pond as theirs — encouraging another pair to move away.

great egret-

A Great Egret fished along the shore…this is the first one I’ve seen so far this year.

great egret-

They seem to love dining on miniscule fish fry they find on the edges of the pond. The bird caught three in quick succession.

male wood duck-

Only male Wood Ducks patrolled the pond’s edges; perhaps the females are all sitting on eggs somewhere.

And of course, a symphony of Chorus Frogs added their music to the landscape.

western chorus-frog-calling

Indvidual tiny Boreal Chorus Frogs emit incredibly loud calls, and together with the other 100s in the pond, their “symphony” is deafening.

Each day brings new surprises — stay tuned for next week’s report on the pond.

another muskrat morning

It’s rare (for me) to see a muskrat out and about in the morning, but this one was not at all shy about foraging in a shallow pond right next to the road.  So, lazy me, I just sat in the car and took photos out the window.  What a set-up for nature photography!

muskrat swimming-

munching on tender new shoots

nothing like a good scratch after swimming around in stagnant water…

muskrat swimming-

the way I usually see muskrats — without heads or tails

Muskrats are excellent swimmers, with two layers of fur to protect them from getting chilled, as well as terrific lung capacity that allows them to swim underwater for 15-20 minutes at a time.  They sort of resemble a cross between a beaver and a rat, but the naked (scaly) tail is compressed side to side (vertically) rather than top to bottom (horizontally) like the beaver’s.

Despite having webbed hind feet, muskrats use their tails for propulsion while swimming, and happily chug along at 3 mph or so through their marshy homes. Presumably, the tail is also used as a rudder for steering while swimming, but then you see actions like this.

muskrat swimming-

Muskrats may swim with their tail snaking behind them, but can carry it up above their bodies as well.  Is this for leverage, while the muskrat chews on submerged vegetation?

muskrat swimming-

Swimming along, with its tail in the air.  It did this repeatedly while swimming around this small pond.

So, why does the muskrat elevate its tail while swimming — is it marking its territory, signalling other muskrats, or just waving it in the breeze??

almost forgotten

I completely forgot about photos taken at Zion National Park on the evening we arrived because they were on a different camera card than all the other photos from the trip. The ladies at the campsite next to ours were enjoying the sunset hour sitting by the creek watching a small flock of Avocets wade in the swiftly moving water.  The birds were motionless for a long period of time until a hiker on the opposite side of the creek started moving upstream toward them, and they took off.

Avocets, Springdale, Utah

Just stopping by in southern Utah on their way to breeding grounds further north…

Avocets, Springdale, Utah

The rusty brown head color is a signal that these birds are ready to breed. Non-breeding birds are entirely black and white. Differences in the intensity of the brown color is most likely a result of the extent of the spring molt in the head and neck feathers.

Avocets, Springdale, Utah

They weren’t ready to move on quite yet, because as soon as the hiker passed by, the birds settled back down on the creek.

American Avocets are one of four species in the world, all of which are easily recognized by their slender, upturned bill which they use to seine back and forth in shallow water for small invertebrates. The rushing creek was most likely a resting spot, not suitable for foraging.

Waiting…

We’re in a holding pattern here in the upper midwestern U.S., waiting for spring to burst upon us.  Buds are swollen on the tips of branches, needing that extra bit of rain and warm weather to make them swell and open.  The sap is running, judging from the gallons of flow I see in the buckets hanging on maple trees up the street.  Cardinals and chickadees sing lustily every morning, and a few of the Woodpeckers are drumming on anything that resonates.  I’ve even seen Mr. Tom Turkey strutting his finest feather display in the backyard.  Robins and Juncos frequent the birdbath, which I can now safely fill with fresh water since nights are generally above freezing.

But the color of the landscape remains stubbornly brown, gray, and tan.  Everything is just waiting…

Mirror reflection on a pond

The lakes and ponds are finally ice free, and still water makes wonderful mirrors.

Back to winter

We returned from wet, but very green California, to a very dry brown and gray Twin Cities landscape, but then immediately drove 100+ miles north to spend a long weekend in the Gull Lake area north of Brainerd for a return to a snowy winter landscape.

New snow, breezy point, MN

There is something especially attractive about freshly fallen snow clumped on tall pines, with beautiful blue sky and white clouds above.

New snow, breezy point, MN

I never thought I would say that I miss winter, but it’s true this year — during the winter that wasn’t.  Our weather columnist reports that “Twin Cities winters are now 5.4 degrees warmer than in 1970”.  True fact:  Minnesota’s climate is warming, making it more like Missouri than the Minnesota of 50 years ago.  True fact:  “February 2017 has set over 9800 records for warmth across the U.S., compared to just 250 new records for cold”.  (Star Tribune weather, Feb. 27, 2017))

new-snow-breezy-point-mn

Without snow cover and with record warm days, the ice is melting on MN lakes sooner now.

Last week, our newspaper reported that 500-1000 small pan fish (crappies) had succumbed when lake ice melted and near-shore water warmed, leaving the fish without adequate oxygen.   Great for local Bald Eagles, not so great for the fish populations in warming lakes.

As climates change, animals and plants get out of sync with their normal cycle; e.g., birds begin migrating and breeding before prey populations are present to support their offspring and plants bloom before or after their pollinators are present.  Climate changes are a challenge for all of us.

black-capped-chickadee-

Lots of singing going on in the backyard this week…seems a little early to me for the Chickadees, but maybe I’ve just been paying more attention to that lately.

More on this subject in an interesting article on Vox today:  “these maps show how early spring is arriving in your state”.