Mornings along the creek

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.

This creek connection between Vadnais and Sucker lakes is a popular spot for mallards and Trumpeter Swans because the water is open and flowing all year. Unfortunately, there is nothing at all for the waterfowl to eat here because it has been picked clean over the previous months.
A Trumpeter Swan swimming through the ice chandeliers on the creek…
A pair of mallards takes off right in front of me.
At the north end of Sucker Lake, over 100 Trumpeter Swans swim in a small pool of open water near the inlet.
A mixture of adults and juveniles (brown heads) have been congregating here throughout the winter, spending nights and mornings on the water before flying off to forage in agricultural fields. Toward the end of the winter, swans and other wildlife (e.g., deer) spend more time resting and less time actively foraging, since there is very little left to feed on and whatever is there is probably well-covered by snow. By resting more, they expend less energy and conserve their energy reserves.
Morning nap time…
Last year’s offspring (swans with gray-brown heads and necks) remain with their parents through the winter, and perhaps pick up a few good tips on where to find food during this period.
Mom or Dad Swan tried a new place to look for submergent vegetation, and the youngster follows.
Long necks are definitely good for reaching into tight spaces, and this adult must have been finding something because it kept at it for several minutes.
Taking a break from all the morning’s activities…

What’s up with this weather?

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.

Even in the warmth of a beautiful sunrise, this landscape looks unforgivingly cold. And it was about -12F on February 9, 2014,
Trumpeter Swans pair up about the age of 3 or 4 years. Each year, there is a lot of “conversation” between members of the pair as they go about their ritual of preparing for the next breeding season.
Head bowing is an important part of the ritual — always done in synchrony.
The iconic heart-shape formed by the arches of their necks as they face each other during a part of the courtship ritual. This shot is always a popular Valentine’s Day image.
The swan pair stay together all year long. In the winter they spend the night on the water, then fly off together in the morning to forage in fields where there might be some left over grain. They will remain together, rearing a clutch of 2-5 or even 6 goslings each year, until one or both of them die — some as long as 25 years.
Some males that have lost their mates never find another female to form a new pair bond with and remain bachelors the rest of their lives. Hiking along a creek on a cold February day in 2016, I found one lone swan accompanied only by Mallards.

Thinking of warmer days ahead, I wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day, 2021.

Woods of the Apache

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.

This wetland formed from intermingling streams of the Rio Grande river is one of the premier stop-overs for migratory waterfowl as well as songbirds in both spring and fall. The river channels are wide and shallow, making it attractive to thousands of Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, and several duck species that congregate there at night for a couple of months in the late fall-early winter.

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.

Two one-way loop roads (north and south) branch off from the main road into the Bosque del Apache national wildlife refuge. We made frequent pull-overs and stops to see what might be hiding in the water.
Pintail (with brown and white necks) and Widgeon ducks were plentiful along the roadside, swimming in the narrow channels between sections of the river.
But these were the birds we had come here to see, the majestic and prehistoric-sounding Sandhill Cranes. We found a small flock of birds hiding in a backwater channel. Most were foraging intensively but a few were calling, strutting, and showing off.
Hundreds of cranes and Canada Geese were spread out along the shallow channel, beaks deep in the mud, foraging for something.
Parent and a mostly fully grown chick (no red on the top of its head)foraged together just a few yards away, while dozens of other cranes foraged on the other side of the channel.

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!

Sandhill Cranes taking off right at sunrise on the Platte River in Nebraska, March 18, 2015. They fly to nearby corn fields to forage and then return each night to the river. This is a major refueling point for Cranes that will migrate up to northern Canada and Alaska to breed.

A Season of Kildeer

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.

A “dazzle” of Zebra (do they dazzle you?)

Walking around the sloughs at Don Edwards SF Bay National wildlife refuge the other day, I came across the following scene:

There are a LOT of Kildeer in this muddy patch. How many do you see?
Slightly to the left of the previous bunch, there are a bunch more. This might be more Kildeer in one place than I have seen in total over many years of looking for birds. They blend into the background so well, I’ve lightened each of them up to make them more visible. Are there more Kildeer in this photo than in the previous one?

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.

Normally we see Kildeer individually or in pairs, not in gangs of 10-20.

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.

Down at the bay

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.

Wading shorebirds and ducks mingle in the shallow water of what used to be salt-production pools. This vast area (900 acres) of salt water pools was the first urban wildlife refuge established in the U.S. in 1974.
A variety of ducks, like this Green-winged Teal, and shorebirds stop off here to replenish their fuel for migration.
A brilliant green stripe on his cinnamon head makes this little duck distinctive. It is one of the smallest dabbling ducks, dipping its bill into the water to sieve out tiny invertebrates through the narrow grooves in its bill.
Equally handsome in their all-cinnamon coats are the Cinnamon Teal, another dabbling duck that sieves plant and animal matter with its slightly larger bill from the water.
Female Cinnamon Teal are remarkably similar to a variety of other female dabblers, making them easier to ID if they are with the males.
One of the largest dabbling ducks is the Northern Shoveler, which looks somewhat similar to a Mallard in coloration and size, but is easily recognized by its oversized bill with fine grooves along its edge that help filter the plant and animal matter out of the water. Shovelers feed by moving their heads side to side in a sweeping motion while they swim along.
A lone Northern Shoveler male swimming along one of the canals between pools at Don Edwards refuge.
what a beautiful place to spend an afternoon!
just another panoramic view of the marshes at Don Edwards refuge…I can’t wait to go back!

Birds in the mirror

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.

Long-billed Dowitchers were either foraging intensively with their beaks buried in the water or sleeping with their beaks tucked under their wings. Finally I caught a few of them, standing like statues, to show off their long beaks used for probing for crustaceans, worm, mollusks, etc. in the mud.
Black-necked Stilts were abundant, wading in the shallow water which mirrored their bodies so perfectly. They are well-named with those stilt-like long pink legs.
Lesser Yellowlegs, another well-named bird for its brightly colored legs, is another marsh wader that probes the mud for invertebrate prey.
A lone male Shoveler duck glided so slowly through the water that even the ripples didn’t disturb its reflection.
A Snowy Egret swished its toes around in the water to attract prey and made a few stabs at something swimming there, but came up empty-beaked.

the termite feast

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.

Winged phase termites emerging for their mating flight might get gobbled up by insectivores perched nearby. They emerge in swarms, but are rather clumsy, slow fliers, so they are easy to pick up.
A Chestnut-backed Chickadee was watching from a tree while Bushtits darted out from the bushes below it.
One of many Common Bushtits foraging on the termites. They flew right up to us, close enough to touch as they grabbed termites flying around us. The white iris means this is a female.
Adult male (or juvenile) on the left and female bushtit posed together briefly before darting out to catch termites flying by. Bushtits are highly gregarious even when foraging, and will line up on a branch sitting right next to each other when they are roosting. They only weigh about 5 grams, less than half of a chickadee’s weight, so their little bodies cool off quickly. Even on a warm day, they puff up their feathers so they look like little puff-balls.
A Hermit Thrush peeked out from the underbrush but wasn’t brave enough to approach the source of the termite emergence near where we were standing.

But another bird was completely unperturbed by our presence, and amazingly, hopped right in front of us to grab termites off the ground.

If it had not been for the termite explosion in the Bay Area the past couple of weeks, I’m not sure we would ever have seen this handsome Townsend’s Warbler, which normally hangs out in the tops of coniferous trees in coastal forests. I don’t think ground feeding is something it does often.
But when you’re hungry and on migration from the northwestern U.S. and western Canada to southern coastal and central Mexico montane forests, you capitalize on easy prey when it is available. This little male moved around on the ground right in front of us, grabbing bites of termites as they emerged from a hole in the ground.
Completely out of its usual habitat of cool coniferous forests, Townsend’s Warbler brief appearance in the scrub vegetation in an urban creek area was a real treat for us.

Another beautiful fall day

We should be having rain in California now, but I am grateful for a succession of warm, sunny days and walks along one of the several creeks that run through the city of San Jose.

The trail that runs along the Los Alamitos creek in the Almaden valley is lined with sycamores that glow yellow-orange in the late afternoon light.
Fall color is at its peak in the city, with boulevard trees showing various hues of red, orange, and yellow and riparian vegetation dominated by the yellow-orange hues of the giant sycamores that line the banks of the creek.
The Los Alamitos creek trail runs about 5 miles along this creek, with an asphalt walking/biking path on both sides, and numerous foot/horse trails nearer the creek.

How fortunate local residents are to have this scenic natural area to explore as often as they wish, especially during this delightful fall weather.

The white-tailed mouse hunter

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?

If the wind is just right, these long-winged raptors barely have to flap to stay in position. They are striking birds, with their white head and body, gray-black shoulder patches, and orange eyes.
Typically, the kites hovered or soared over a spot until they spotted something moving below and then dove down on it, feet extended and wings up.
We didn’t see a successful capture on this particular day, but we did see several attempts, with bird pulling up at the last moment to continue its search.

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.

White-tailed Kites maintain a breeding territory and defend it from other kites or potential predators. They tend to roost or nest in the same spot, and I spotted this pair in the same tree on two successive days, so maybe this was a favorite hang-out for them in their territory.
The kites were clearly upset by a pair of Red-tailed Hawks circling over a grassy hillside nearby and flew over to the hawks to dive-bomb them a couple of times.
My new favorite bird, — the White-tailed Kite.

New favorites

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!

Hillsides of oak savanna and chaparral surround the long arm of the reservoir. The shallow water at one end is a perfect place to find ducks and shorebirds.
Several species of ducks, herons, egrets, Kildeer, and even a couple of Snipe were working the shoreline of the reservoir as we walked past.
A trail winds in and out of contours in the hillside along the reservoir.
A forest of valley oak lead downhill to the water.
At points along the trail, a hiker may be inundated with the wonderful aroma of California Bay trees.

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.

My new favorite bird, the White-tailed Kite!

When I see a new bird, I have to take a couple hundred photos of it, just to make sure I get one that is decent. This particular kite was hovering over a field looking for mice or frogs or something, and stayed in one spot, hovering and riding the wind, making it very easy to get lots of good photos.