Go places to go birding

Best kind of birding

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

My all-time favorite kind of birding is done on boats on oceans. I’ve taken several trips off the California coasts, but until a couple of days ago only one Atlantic trip, that out of North Carolina. Pelagic birding cannot match whale-watching for popularity, so one day last week Jude and I boarded a whale-watching vessel in the Gloucester, Mass., harbor, and hoped for birds. The chances were pretty good. The whalers go out as far as 35 miles, depending upon where the whales are feeding. That’s a lot of water. We saw five species of pelagic birds: Greater, Cory’s, and Sooty shearwaters, and Wilson’s and Leach’s storm-petrels. The shearwaters are bigger birds, their slender wings almost four feet tip to tip. The storm-petrels are the size of Purple Martins, but with longer wings. They’re all gorgeous
flyers, usually no more than a foot or two off the water, riding the air currents created by wave movement. Pelagic birding guides chum, tossing bits of fish overboard to attract gulls which in turn can bring the true ocean birds within viewing distance. Whale-watching captains don’t chum. You takes your chances. It turned out to be a good day. It would have been even better two days later when the storm named Bob blew by. It surely carried with it birds usually seen to the south. But no tourist boat filled with tank-topped adults photographing whales with their cell phones was going to do that. (There’s something odd about taking pictures of whales with cell phones.) The bird pictured is a Sooty Shearwater, one of two of our five pelagic species generous enough to sit beside the boat for a few moments. Usually, you’re doing your ID work from 300, 400, 500 feet away.


Taking the babies for a ride

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

Earlier this year I watched Western Grebes in their courtship dances at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge north of Aberdeen, South Dakota. Last week, in the same spot, I watched young grebes being fed atop a parent’s back. This pair of grebes had two young, both tucked beneath the wings of one of the parents. Sometimes you couldn’t see the small birds. Other times they had their heads and necks extended, mostly when food was offered. The non-carrying parent was fishing for minnows to feed them. What do you do with the babies when it’s your turn to fish? You just extend your wings and rise out of the water. The babies unceremoniously slide off, promptly climbing aboard the other parent. It didn’t look like the grebe chicks were ready for the change, and neither was I, my camera’s shutter speed not fast enough to capture a clear shot of the sliding chick. My favorite spot to watch these birds is the bridge where South Dakota Highway 10 crosses the Sand River in the northern part of the refuge. The river is wide here, lake-like, bordered by high reeds. The grebes fish in the water flowing beneath the bridge. They sometimes are as close to observers as 15 or 20 feet. Terns, gulls, pelicans, and cormorants also feed here.  west-grebe-family-low-rez-51491.jpgwest-grebe-feeds-low-rez-51431.jpg grebe-unloads-trib-5182.jpg  

Creepers building nest

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

A friend told me the location of a pair of Brown Creepers building a nest. I spent yesterday morning with them, in Frontenac State Park, south of Red Wing. Brown birds working on a brown/gray tree trunk in dim light filtered through a green canopy made good color difficult for me, but my subjects were cooperative. The pair of birds made a trip to the nesting cavity — beneath a piece of bark pulled loose by a break in the tree — about once every five to 10 minutes. They brought strands of grass and what looked like fluff from thistle plants. They were working at this Sunday as well as yesterday. They stuffed a lot of material into that hole. Here is one of the color shots, and two in black and white. I told someone last week that bird photos don’t work in b&w. Well, it depends. Frontenac, by the way, was very birdy. It’s an excellent birding location during migration.brown-creeper-nesting-7233.jpgcreeper-portrait-bw-4-7441.jpgcreeper-in-hole-7296.jpg 

A week of birding events

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

An urban bird festival begins Wednesday in Ramsey County. This is a free six-day celebration of springtime birds, timed perfectly to match songbird migration. The Urban Bird Festival of Ramsey County includes a dozen bird walks at various locations, observations of Osprey and Bald Eagle nests, displays, demonstrations, bird banding, and a dinner with speaker. This is a come-as-you-are when-you-can event taking advantage of the wonderful bird-watching opportunities in nearby neighborhoods. Take one bird walk, take one each day (Wednesday through Monday). For times, places, and other information go to http://www.co.ramsey.mn.us/parks/NaturalResources/urbanbirdfestival.htm.

The Green Heron shown here is a bird likely to be seen along lakeshores or in marshes and wetlands.


Mark your calendars now for a fun, free celebration of springtime birds, the Urban Bird Festival of Ramsey County, May 13-18, 2009. Everyone is invited to all or part of this six-day event, including kids and their families. Billed as “Where Birds and People Meet,” the festival welcomes everyone, from brand-new to experienced birders, to view the many interesting birds found in St. Paul and suburbs.

North Dakota

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

We’ve been birding near Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. From the looks of things, it’s been raining here since God was a boy. Can’t tell lake from land. There are some migrants. Ducks and coots are swimming right along the edges of US Highway 2 concrete. Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge was a destination, but we could not find open roads to take us there. Water covers everything. Here is a bird with wind problems. Can you identify it? Answer several clicks down.


American Coot

Feeding techniques

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

Hermit Thrushes are moving through the area now, among early migrants. This one was photographed at the Thomas Sadler Roberts Bird Sanctuary on the north side of Lake Harriet. It’s a fine place to bird, easy access, easy walking, good brushy habitat. Although I didn’t see it happen, these thrushes have a particular technique for finding the insects they eat. They’ll tap their feet in the leaf litter where they forage, hoping to drive insects into sight. Snowy Egrets do the same thing in shallow water, sticking their toes into tight places beneath log and rocks to flush hiding prey. You can see a neat video of an egret at http://web.mac.com/wingedthings hermit-thrush-4677.jpg 

Herons for lunch

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

Lola’s Lakehouse sits on the Waconia waterfront about 500 yards from an island home to dozens of nesting Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Double-crested Cormorants. The nests, in trees atop a high hill, are easily visible right now, the trees yet to break into green. You can sit at a window table, enjoy a reasonably priced and tasty lunch, and watch good birds. Binoculars are recommended for tables, spotting scopes (best) on the deck. If you want a closer look, just down the street the In Towne Marina rents pontoon boats.


Kids’ bird-watching fair

Friday, April 17th, 2009

A bird-watching fair for children will be held Saturday, May 9, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Rapids Lake Unit of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. This beautiful new NWR facility is located near Jordan. Kids 12 years of age and under will be admitted free. There will be live birds of prey, bird banding, videos, various classes and hands-on projects. Children and accompanying adults will receive lunch. The event is sponsored by the Minnesota River Valley Audubon Chapter and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For directions to the Jordan Unit go towww.fws.gov/midwest/minnesotavalley/visitor_center_rapids_lake

All three bluebird species

Friday, March 6th, 2009

The northwest corner of Nebraska and a bit of adjoining territory to the north in South Dakota are the only places on the continent were you have a chance to regularly see all three bluebird species — Eastern Bluebird, Western Bluebird, and Mountain Bluebird. The latter is what we are seeing the past two days in South Dakota’s Custer State Park. Pairs are establishing territories and choosing from the nest boxes set here on fence posts along the wildlife tour route. Below, a female Mountain Bluebird approaches a nest box. The male was foraging in the prairie grass nearby, where he found this grub. Eastern Bluebirds should be in Minnesota any minute now, if not already there. They are our nesting species.



Geese at sunset

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

This flock of Canada Geese was flying over the North Platte River at sunset Tuesday. We saw huge flocks of Snow Geese from Kearney, Nebraska, up the river to Lexington. Then, only Canada Geese were in the air, heading northwest.