Today is two months after the winter solstice (Dec 21), and we now have two more hours of daylight each day (almost 11 hours). More importantly, the sun rises each day 13 degrees higher than it did on the winter solstice (35 vs 22 degrees above the horizon), and it is now more than half way to its maximum altitude in our summer sky on June 21 (68 degrees).
What does this mean for us winter-weary Minnesotans — spring is ever near! Cardinals and Chickadees are singing up a storm on sunny mornings when the radiant heat of the sun can actually be felt through the chilly (20 F) air. The polar vortex is history, and it’s time to get out and enjoy the end of winter, — like taking a morning walk along the Sucker Lake creek.
We have been in the grip of a prolonged vortex of cold air from our northern neighbors since February 4 with daytime highs in the negative digits (F) and nighttime lows dipping well below -10 F (e.g. last night was -21 F). Just for something to inspire me mentally (?), I added up the last 10 nights of low temperatures and came up with a grand total sum of -95 degrees. Now that’s arctic! Needless to say it’s difficult for my fingers to work camera buttons at these temperatures, let alone get outdoors for a walk in the backyard.
But, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day and to commemorate a time when I was braver about venturing out in -15F weather, here are a few photos of the Trumpeter Swans on the Mississippi River at Monticello, MN, engaging in courtship displays to cement their pair bond — love is in the air for these swans, most of which mate for life.
Thinking of warmer days ahead, I wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day, 2021.
Preparations for the Christmas holiday delayed my final post of the November-December journey to the west coast and back. But in moving photos from one computer to another, I rediscovered our final wildlife encounter of the trip back to Minnesota at Bosque del Apache in south-central New Mexico. From there it was an arduous two-day long drive back home, so this was a final chance to get out and enjoy the spectacular wildlife and scenery.
Tall cottonwood trees line the banks of the river channels, providing cover for a variety of songbirds that migrate through this area. It is this riparian forest that gives the area its name, “forest of the Apaches”, a site where the local Apache Indians gathered to hunt the wildlife during peak times of migration. However, the area was initially settled more than 700 years ago by Pueblo-building Piro Indians that farmed the fertile, flooded regions around the Rio Grande. They were eventually driven out of the area by Apache raiding parties and Spanish explorers/colonists.
We have seen many more Sandhill Cranes here in mid-January, so perhaps the bulk of the migrants from northern-most parts of North America have not arrived yet, or perhaps some cranes that might stop here prefer to overwinter further south in Mexico. (Click here to see a video of the cranes coming in to roost on the river at Bosque del Apache in January.)
The Cranes probably won’t stop here on their way north again in the spring, but will congregate in huge numbers in March and April in Grand Island, Nebraska on the Platte River — and that is a sight to behold!
Collective nouns for groups of animals are sometimes descriptive (herd of deer, flock of birds, colony of bats, pack of wolves, or school of fish), or sometimes pertinent to particular behaviors of animals, like a crash of rhinos, swarm of bees, caravan of camels, tower of giraffes, or pandemonium of parrots. But often the terms for a particular animal group are just fanciful, like dazzle of zebra, implausibility of gnus, charm of hummingbirds, or a siege of herons. It’s important, you know, to recognize these groups of wildlife by their proper title.
Walking around the sloughs at Don Edwards SF Bay National wildlife refuge the other day, I came across the following scene:
Like so many other collective nouns for animals, the term for a bunch of Kildeer seems to have no relationship to the bird itself — they are called a “season” of Kildeer. Which makes me wonder if we only see an assemblage (congregation) of this many Kildeer at certain times (season) of the year.
You might wonder how this practice of naming groups of animals got started? It turns out that these collective nouns are part of a hunting language that included terms for humans as well as animals, developed in England and France in the 1400s. They were compiled into The Book of St. Albans, published in 1486, and apparently the terms have stuck with us today, especially those describing groups of various bird and mammal species.
At the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, there are some beautiful ducks swimming around in the various small pools. The birds here seem to be so accustomed to people walking the paths near the pools, they don’t move away from you, at least not quickly.
We visited the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge which occupies most of he south end of the San Francisco bay in Alviso, north of San Jose. And what a bonanza of birds were to be found there on a spectacular sunny day. Some of my favorites were the birds caught admiring their reflections in the still water.
The winged phase of termites were swarming last week in several places we hiked. And the local insectivorous birds were cashing in on some easy meals. One particular termite feast featured more than a dozen Little Bushtits, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, a Hermit Thrush, California Towhees, and a rare Townsend’s Warbler, all flitting about catching termites in the air or just emerging from a ground nest.
But another bird was completely unperturbed by our presence, and amazingly, hopped right in front of us to grab termites off the ground.
It’s rare (for me) to get long looks at raptors, but a pair of White-tailed Kites hunting in a grassy marsh at San Leandro reservoir were very cooperative photography subjects as they “kited” over the marsh looking for mice.
“Kiting” is a good description of what these birds do as they hover/soar 60-80 feet over an area with wings outstretched and catching just the right breeze to enable them to stay in one spot for long periods. Could there be a better subject for flight photography?
White-tailed Kites are mouse specialists, although they might also prey on birds, lizards, or even large insects. They are more common in South America than North America, and their numbers dwindled to near extinction in the1940s due to hunting and egg collection. Even now they are only found in grassy or marshy fields along the coast and some inland Central Valley locations in California and a few areas in Texas and Mexico.
One (positive) thing about restricted travel in the Age of Covid is finding new places to hike/bird watch within a few miles of places you have visited many times before. And so it happened that a new friend took us on a drive to the San Leandro reservoir part of the East Bay watershed, just 20 minutes from my daughter’s house. And now I have a new favorite hunting ground for bird photography!
The landscapes definitely held my interest, but that’s not why we were here either. It was for the birds, of course, and they didn’t disappoint.
Here’s a teaser, and I’ll post more on the bird life of Valle Vista Staging Area next time.