running on water

Watching ducks and swans take off from the mostly unfrozen lakes the other day, I was impressed with how important those big, webbed feet are in keeping the birds’ bodies up near the surface of the water.  For example, a light-bodied, male Hooded Merganser “ran” on the water less than 50 feet before it was air-borne.

male hooded merganser running on water

The merganser’s feet barely touched the water surface as its rapid wingbeats lifted it into the air.

These small diving ducks weigh only 1-2 lb, so getting air-borne from the water surface is less of an impressive achievement.  However, Trumpeter Swans, the heaviest bird in North America, weigh 20-30 lb, and lifting those big bodies into the air requires the combined effort of both feet and wings.

trumpeter swans running on water

Initially, it looks like a lot of splashing without much lift taking place.

trumpeter swan running on water

Their bodies are so close to the water on take-off, they can’t utilize their powerful wing down-stroke for lift, so the large surface area of the feet really is essential in pushing the bird up.

trumpeter swan running on water

Even as the bird begins to lift above the water surface, it still can’t use the down-stroke for lift;  the feet continue to propel the bird upward.

And those are some really big feet aiding the launching effort.  Swans rarely show off those big appendages that are so useful in water take-offs, as well as digging up the bottom sediment while they forage.

trumpeter swan landing-

Coming in for landing with webbed feet fully extended to brace for impact…

The birds with probably the longest required take-off pathway from water are the loons.  With relatively short wings and legs placed far to the rear, loons need two to three times the distance for take-off that ducks do, and as they take-off, they too appear to be skipping along the water surface — or even hydroplaning.

loon running on

A Common Loon (or Northern Diver) in mid-take-off (photo by

The true masters of “running on water”, however, have to be the Western Grebes, whose courtship dance is a synchronized ballet of movement across the water, all performed without a single wingbeat, paddling with just their feet in completely upright posture.  A clip from David Attenborough’s Life of Birds shows this incredible feat the best.

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.

morning at the marsh

It’s amazing how much you can see early in the morning before the cyclists and hikers have hit the trails around the local marsh.  And it always amazes me to find such a diversity of wildlife inhabiting a small wild oasis in the urban landscape! I’m sure if I had spent more time on this hot, humid morning, I would have seen even more.

floating island-

Dense mats of cattails float around the marsh propelled by the prevailing water flow.  They attract a wide variety of wildlife that may hunt from their edges, nest in their stalks, and hide within small crevices from the peeping eyes of photographers.

great blue heron-

Great Blue Herons are often found along the shoreline, usually obscured by the vegetation.

great blue heron-

Another heron was making its way down toward the shoreline — perhaps the mate of the other one?

great egret-

I can always count on seeing a Great Egret or two foraging near the edge of the marsh.

green heron-

What else is hiding here in this vegetation near the shore? A Green Heron pops up to see if I’m a dangerous predator.

green heron-

A less nervous juvenile Green Heron hunted in the shallows.

common loon-

Out in the water, a Common Loon swam by.

double crested cormorant-

Nearby, a double-crested Cormorant surfaced from its dive, and took a look around.

I spotted something white way out in the middle of the marsh, swimming quickly away from me, and grabbed a quick shot of a Trumpeter Swan family with their two, seemingly newly hatched, cygnets.

trumpeter swan family-

It’s a bit late to find these newly hatched chicks; perhaps the first nesting failed and these are result of a second nesting attempt. The chicks have a lot of growing to do before they reach the body size of the adults which can weigh more than 20 lb.

trumpeter swan family-

Photos I wish I had taken

I met a fellow nature photographer (Jim Radford) quite by accident at a marsh near both of our homes, and he has graciously shared some of his amazing photos with me.  I asked him if I could share some of them with my blog readers because they illustrate the subject of my last blog post (“red-necked swans“) so nicely.

trumpeter swan-Jim Radford

Trumpeter Swans showing the rusty head and neck from iron staining are quite common among the thousands of swans overwintering at Monticello, MN. Photo by Jim Radford

trumpeter swan--Jim Radford

Close-up of the iron staining on head feathers of a Trumpeter Swan.  This stain does not leach out, but will only disappear when the head feathers are molted.  Photo by Jim Radford

trumpeter swan--Jim Radford

A good view of the many colors of Trumpeter Swan plumage. Juvenile birds (hatch year) have gray plumage, which gradually turns into pure white by the spring of the next year after hatch. A few birds in this shot show light patches of rusty-colored feathers from iron staining.  Pristine white swan heads may be from birds with newly molted feathers, or birds may not have fed in streams or lakes with high iron-content water.  Photo by Jim Radford

trumpeter swan--Jim Radford

Is there anything more beautiful than the white on white of Trumpeter Swans flying overhead? Photo by Jim Radford

red-necked Swans

No, there is no such species as a Red-necked Swan, and no, they aren’t from rural hilltops in Appalachia — these are Trumpeter Swans that apparently have been feeding in water rich in iron salts which have become deposited in their white head and neck feathers.

trumpeter swans-

Although I was forced to shoot directly into the sun, which caused deep shadows on the birds, nevertheless the swans’ heads and necks are much darker than their bodies.

trumpeter swans-

Closer view shows up their rusty-colored heads and necks, with minor staining of their body behind the wings.

Way back in 1955, E.O. Hohn reported this discoloration of white feathers in a variety of waterfowl (e.g., Snow Geese, another all-white bird).  He was curious whether this was some aberrant pigmentation so he leached the feathers with a mild acid, which removed the color entirely.  He then tested the leaching solution for iron, which proved positive.

And there you have it — rusty-colored Trumpeter Swans marked by where they have been spending their winter in high iron-content water.

trumpeter swans-

You can see the rusty color better on the head of the bird who is preening, as the sun lights up its head.

NOTE added after posting:  Based on the amount of reddish-brown staining of neck feathers all the way down to the breast, I might speculate even further that these particular birds were feeding in deep, iron-rich waters, where they had to “tip-up” to feed (as shown below).

trumpeter swan tipping up

Alone again…un-naturally

trumpeter swan-reflection-

A lone swan resting on the ice in the early morning in a vast landscape of white looks forlorn by itself.

trumpeter swan-reflection-

I was able to stand directly across the inlet from the swan, and the bird seemed unperturbed by my presence, resting on its one leg.

Trumpeter Swans most often pair for life, but not until they are about 5-7 years old. Perhaps this is a young bird, or perhaps its mate has died — in any case, this lonely swan has been hanging out at the inlet to Sucker Lake in the Vadnais Heights reservoir system for the past couple of weeks. Pairs of Trumpeters come and go there, but there is always one lonely bird, perhaps this same one.

trumpeter swan-

On another day, a lone swan swam in the inlet with a few Mallards for company.


Too bad Lonely Swan doesn’t know there is a party going on about 50 miles up the Mississippi River at Monticello, where the Trumpeter Swans feast on corn handed out to them daily. 

For those music lovers in the crowd, the reference in the title of the post is to a hit song from the 70s — Alone Again, Naturally (by Gilbert O’Sullivan).

Trumpeter take-off

More scenes of flying birds from our Crex Meadows field trip last week-end: Trumpeter Swans on the move.

Crex Meadows-flowage

A typical scene at Crex Meadows wildlife refuge, near Grantsburg, Wisconsin — Trumpeter Swans on the far distant shore.

Crex Meadows is a 30,000 acre network of marshes, lakes, wet meadows, and intermittent oak forest, part of which is set aside as a refuge for waterfowl breeding in and migrating through the area.  It is a remnant of old Glacial Lake Grantsburg that covered this area more than 10,000 years ago.  A variety of bird species use it as a staging area for migration south, like the Sandhill Cranes featured in yesterday’s post.  Trumpeter Swans are usually in great abundance here as well, although we only saw about a dozen of them.

Trumpeter Swans-Crex Meadows-

Swans were feeding and preening themselves quietly in the shallows of the larger lakes. 

Trumpeter Swans-Crex Meadows

These birds seemed quite a bit more skittish than the swans that overwinter in areas of open water near the Twin Cities. But there were hunters in the nearby area shooting at ducks (hopefully not swans), so they might have been leery of human presence.

By size alone, Trumpeter Swans are the largest living species of waterfowl.  They are also one of the heaviest birds capable of flight, with big males weighing up to 30 pounds (14 kg).  Even with large wingspans of 6-8 ft (~ 2 meters), taking off from a horizontal surface takes some effort.  Consequently, swans typically flap their wings to lift their bodies out of the water and then propel themselves forward pushing their large webbed feet along the surface water — launching themselves into the air with a running take-off.

Trumpeter Swans-Crex Meadows-

Slow, deep wing flaps keep their heavy body airborne until they can cruise with the aid of wind.

Trumpeter Swans-Crex Meadows-

Swans fly with their necks outstretched, unlike the more streamlined profile of herons and egrets that tuck their long necks back in a S-curve.

Trumpeter Swans-Crex Meadows

It seems when a couple of swans get jumpy, the whole crew takes off. Not quite the classic V-formation but perhaps they were just hopping over to the next lake — away from us.

Fall scenery

The weather has been spectacular lately.  In fact, too nice for the trees to develop their maximum fall foliage color.  Warm days AND nights mean the color is less intense, develops very slowly and out of synchrony with other trees, and then leaves fall before the whole tree has even completed its color change.  Oh well, the scenery is still something to marvel at, as we slowly approach the dreaded winter deep freeze.

fall color reflections

Early morning light on this shallow bay created a picturesque reflection.

fall color

Green and orange-gold go well together in the fall.

hoverfly on heath aster

Late blooming asters continue to attract a few insects.

pink-edged sulfur butterfly on heath aster

Warm days bring out the bumblebees and the few remaining sulfur butterflies.

trumpeter swans

Trumpeter Swans are on the move; soon the ducks will be too.


It’s real name is Duckweed – that scummy stuff that coats the surfaces of ponds and marshes and even the critters swimming around there.

mallards and wood ducks on a duckweed pond-

A mixed flock of Mallards and Wood Ducks floating on a pond of duckweed.

duckweed - Lemna species

From a distance, it just looks like scum covering the water surface.

duckweed - Lemna species-

Up close, it is only slightly more interesting. The “scum” is actually leaves of one or more species of Duckweed that float on the surface, attached to each other by slender threadlike filaments.

But it seems that Duckweed is highly nutritious and is even promoted as a supplementary feed for livestock.  Gram for gram it contains more protein than soybeans, and it grows incredibly fast — in fact, it is one of those species that exhibits exponential growth, doubling every so many hours.  With its high protein content (35-43%), low fat (5% poly-unsaturated fat), and low fiber content (5-15%), it is highly digestible, yielding more calories with less work.  Although it is regularly consumed in some cultures in southeast Asia, Duckweed is high in oxalates, which makes it potentially toxic to your kidneys, so it’s not high on my list of edibles.


From Off the Grid News: Feed your livestock AND your family with prolific, fast-growing Duckweed!  Use it instead of spinach in your salads…

Instead of eating it, Duckweed may prove valuable as a source of biofuels because it grows so fast, has so little fiber, and contains 5-6 times the amount of starch that corn does.

Duckweed is a primary food source for lots of wildlife, including Mallards, Wood Ducks, Canada Geese, Painted and Snapping Turtles (I thought they were carnivorous!), even Beaver. I’m going to add Trumpeter Swans to this list, because I saw them gobbling it up the other day.

Trumpeter Swans eating duckweed

A pair of Trumpeter Swans dabbling for duckweed on nearby Sucker Lake.

Trumpeter Swans eating duckweed

Strings of Duckweed dangle from their mouths as they gobble up their highly nutritious, protein-packed meal.

All in all, it seems that “Uck-weed” has a lot going for it, as a food source and a potential fuel source.  I’ll stop denigrating pond scum now.

the best of the rest (in 2014)

Landscapes — I wish I took more photos of the vastness of the beautiful landscapes I see. Sometimes they are so vast, I am at a loss as to quite how to best capture them. We spent a lot of time exploring prairies out in central Minnesota this past year, and so the top ten landscapes are mostly prairie shots.  But Minnesota is a transition zone between tall grass prairie and broadleaf forest, so there are a couple of forest shots as well.  The photos are arranged in chronological sequence of season (sort of), so this is a seasonal Minnesota perspective.

trumpeter swans at Monticello, MN

Sunrise on the frozen Mississippi River in Monticello, MN last February. The temperature was a balmy -22 F (-30 C). Water vapor from the open water rises like steam in this intensely cold air.

minnehaha falls, Minneapolis

The extreme cold of the 2014 polar vortex created some spectacular waterfalls, like this one on Minnehaha Creek in Minneapolis taken in March.

I couldn’t leave the next photo out, even though it’s not Minnesota.

Northern California foothills in April

We escaped the polar vortex with a short trip to northern California in April. The light at sunset created a beautiful pattern of green and deep gold.

old MN farm house-HDR-black-white

My favorite farm scene out in central Minnesota, taken with HDR and then converted to black and white.  Taken in May.

mississippi river in flood - downtown Minneapolis

Torrential rain in May and June caused flooding along the Mississippi and raised the water level flowing under the Stone Arch Bridge through Minneapolis.

glacial lakes state park, MN

All that rain in May and June filled the prairie potholes and created an intensely green prairie landscape in June and July.

butterflyweed on the MN prairie

Orange highlights from blooming Butterflyweed dotted the green prairie landscape in July.

northern minnesota mixed forest

We traveled up to the Northwoods in July to see the northern bogs and mixed forests there.

northern minnesota farm

Typical northern Minnesota landscape, flat with lots of puffy clouds, grain silos, and acres and acres of crops.

After a month of travel in Southern Africa, we came back to a spectacular show of fall color.

fall color on the mississippi

I could look at this scene all year.

And now it’s back to the monotonous colors of winter in the backyard.


Happy New Year from the Minnesota Backyard.