Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Rough-Legged Hawks in Maxville

For the past several years, a Rough-legged Hawk has spent the winter in the corn field across the street from our house in Nelson, Wisconsin.  Last year, we could count on seeing this bird, a dark morph - hunting or perched in a tree soaking up the late afternoon sun - every time we drove north to Durand.

I began looking for Rough-legged Hawks along State Road 25 a month ago, after I spotted the first of the season over by the Tell Church in Alma.  We finally spotted one this afternoon around 2pm.  It was flying low, hunting the snow-covered potato fields on SR 25 by the Maxville Airport.   I pulled the Prius off to the side of the road, and we watched the bird head for a distant perch in an evergreen on the far side of the field.  Too far away for a photograph.

It was a warm 30-degrees and sunny today.  The TV weather forecasters have promised two relatively nice days before the next weather event - rain, turning to ice and snow.  It's been a week since we've driven my favorite scenic road - R 107 along the Chippewa River to Meridean.   So we headed out to Pepin County Road M to see if we could find some waxwings and winter finches.

We turned west on County M and spotted a raptor up the road in the bur oaks surrounded by farm fields.  A Red-tail?  Nope.  It was another Rough-legged Hawk.  Maybe I could roll down the hill in my stealth Prius and get close enough for a photo.

As I opened the car door, she lifted her tail and defecated - a sure sign that she'll be off and flying before I can get focused.  I was quicker than I thought.  I caught her tail up in the air, then off she went.

I stood in awe.  What a show!

Then she surprised me.  She returned to the same bur oak and landed.

It looks like an adult female - note the wide dark terminal band on the trailing edges of the wings, the light line between the breast and belly (known as the "U"), the single wide dark sub-terminal band on the tail, dark wrist patches on the wings, and the belly more darkly marked than the breast.

These large hawks are circumpolar, nesting in the arctic and subarctic.  They feed on rodents and occasionally take small birds.   How do they find rodents?  Scientists believe these birds can spot areas of high concentrations of voles by seeing their urine and feces, which reflect ultraviolet light, on the ground. 

Rough-legged Hawks  Christmas Bird Count                       
These raptors are not uncommon in Wisconsin during the winter and there have been numerous reports here in the Coulee Region.  However, the recent heavy snow may make hunting difficult.  Snow depth may force them to migrate farther south. 

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Yikes! A Shrike at My Feeders

I got up before dawn and looked outside my kitchen window to see if Northern Cardinals were up early and at the feeders.  Nope, no cardinals.  

I did, however,  spot two dark lumps on the ground under my feeding trays (full of millet and cracked corn).  Rabbits.  I left them to eat in peace, while I fixed a cup of espresso and turned on the TV.  Not much on the network news - just advice on how to salvage an overcooked holiday dinner.  (I kid you not). 

I turned off the TV and stared out the kitchen window.  It was still dark, but I could see the birds starting to move around.  I put on my boots, jacket, hat and gloves, then went outside to sweep and shovel a path to the feeders.  (We've had a record-setting amount of snow this December).

I filled the tube feeders with sunflower hearts and took the peanut butter cup feeder down to clean and reload it.   Minutes later, I was back outside, standing right in front of the pole, ready to put the peanut butter feeder back on its hook.  

That's when it happened.  

I heard the sound of wings and felt the air move by my right ear.  Startled, I looked up and caught a flash of gray and white feathers, now hovering by the maple tree.  Then the bird with the gray and white feathers (and black mask) was gone - and along with it all the birds at my feeders.

Who was that masked bird?  A mockingbird on steroids?  No, kemosabe, it was a Northern Shrike!

Yep, the predatory songbird flew within inches of my face.

I presume the shrike was heading for a landing on the double-arm pole from which my Droll Yankees tubes and peanut butter feeder hang.   We both happened to arrive at the same time.  Or it could have been that the shrike was after one of the "tame" chickadees scolding me from its perch on the pole.

I've spotted a shrike using that pole for a perch several times in the past week, but I haven't been quick enough to get my camera up and focused.

The near-collision fly-by did it for me.  Today would be the day I'd get a photo of that shrike.  I vowed to stand in front of my kitchen window with my camera until I did.

It turned out to be a very interesting morning.  

The shrike made at least a dozen passes at the feeders, but didn't land anywhere near its "normal" perch on the shepherd's pole.  My photo set-up was all for naught.   Most of the time, I didn't see the shrike at all - just the other birds' reaction to it.  And when the shrike wasn't around, I watched a yard full of songbirds frantically eating seed, suet and snow. 

How do the birds recognize shrikes as predators?  It may be "learned."  What do they do when a shrike shows up?  I watched chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers "freeze" in place.  That strategy probably works better when they're on a tree limb or trunk.   Perched on a pole, they're so obvious.

The Hairy Woodpeckers, goldfinches and sparrows exploded into the sky.  

Bluejays bolted, then hung around to watch from the relative safety of the spruce tree.

It took 4 hours to get the photo at the top of this blog.  Not a great photo, but good enough for identification purposes.

I assume this shrike has been perched in a tree with an unobstructed view of the feeders.  With a little luck, and a better angle - using the Prius as a photo blind - maybe I'll get a better photo of a Northern Shrike this winter.

I've seen both our "winter" shrike, the Northern, and our "summer" shrike, the Loggerhead here in the Lower Chippewa River valley.  According to Robbins (Wisconsin Birdlife), Northern Shrikes have arrived as early as September, but they're more likely to arrive in late October and show up at bird feeding stations in January and February. 

Loggerhead Shrikes nest in Wisconsin, but their numbers have dropped precipitously.  According to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, only a handful of them nest in Wisconsin.   They're listed as endangered in the Badger State (habitat loss and pesticides may play a role in their decline).  Look for them in February and March.   I've seen them along R107 in Meridean.  Loggerheads migrate south in October.  

Check out this website for tips on how to identify the two species. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Extreme Cold Temperatures and The Prius

Trees Full of Bald Eagles at Reads Landing on the Upper Mississippi River

For the past week the temperature here in west-central Wisconsin has stayed way below zero (between -5 and -25) outdoors and in the negative single digits inside my unheated garage.  That's made me nervous about my Prius.   This has been its first exposure to extreme cold.

I hopped in the Prius today and was relieved when it started - no problem.  The car's outside temperature sensor read -10ºF, so I let the engine "warm up" outside the garage in the sun, while I filled my bird feeders.   When I drove off, the temperature sensor warmed up to -2º F.  The Prius "felt" normal and the heater worked just fine.  

After driving down to Alma, Wisconsin to check on the Bald Eagles on the ice, I headed across the Mississippi River to Reads Landing in Minnesota.  Easily a hundred Bald Eagles fishing and loafing in the trees.  Hundreds of Common Mergansers and Common Goldeneyes, and a surprise handful of swans.

The snow was piled so high on the road along the river and my Prius sits so low.  I had to get out of the car to watch birds.  Brrr.  While the eagle numbers are similar, the viewing experience is way more comfortable at Wings Over Alma Nature and Art Center.

And the Prius... after driving 60+ miles today, the only "problem" I noticed with the hybrid is that the side windows seem to fog up easily.  A couple of minutes with the heater fan cranked up seems to take care of that.    The MPG dropped from my normal 50+ to mid 40s, but that's to be expected in the cold.

My hybrid in extreme cold:  so far, so good.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The December Blizzard

The National Weather Service defines a blizzard as large amounts of falling or blowing snow with winds in excess of 35 mph and visibilities of less than 1/4 of a mile for an extended period of time (greater than 3 hours).

WCCO's weathercaster Mike Augustnyiak said it was coming - and he was right.  This is the third storm we've had this fall and this one's on its way to becoming the 5th biggest blizzard ever in our region.

I'm sitting right in the middle of it - in the purple circle by Mike's left elbow.

Snow is falling at a rate of 1.5 inches per hour.  I've got a foot of snow right outside my door already.
 Winds are around 20 mph with gusts up to 35 mph.  White out!

Roads are treacherous - icy under the snow.  Only the snowplows and a couple of farm pickups have been out on State Rd 25 this morning.  According to Mike - we're going to get 15-20 inches.  

I've put out some extra feeders with sunflower chips - to make it easier for the goldfinches and chickadees - and millet for the tree sparrows and juncos.  But I'm surprised by the absence of cardinals, purple finches and house finches that have been visiting the feeders all fall.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

More Bald Eagles on the Upper Mississippi

It was a warm 12 degrees this morning when I drove across the Wabasha bridge.  I was surprised to see the Mississippi River is frozen over - totally.  I spotted several crows and only one Bald Eagle flying downriver towards the open water at Lock & Dam #4 in Alma.   That's where I'll be heading later today.

I can't believe how many Bald Eagles I've seen this week - and how close they were.  The viewing opportunities on the Wisconsin side of the river between Nelson and Buffalo City are the best I've seen in a decade - over 100 at Wings Over Alma, and 200 or more along the Buffalo City riverfront.

Here's a snapshot of  view across the river from the deck at the Wings Over Alma Nature and Art Center:  a raft of Common Goldeneyes and a handful of Bald Eagles perched in the trees and fishing.  The photo at the top of this blog entry was shot from the viewing deck in Alma.   All you need is patience - they have 3 spotting scopes set up indoors at the window. 

It's hard to believe Bald Eagles stick around when the thermometer drops below zero.  But they do.  I understand it's all about food... but the cold is brutal. 

If you go eagle-watching, resist the temptation to hop out of your car to get closer.  Disturbing winter birds is stressful for them, causing them to use up limited energy reserves.    Bald Eagles spend most of the winter conserving energy – by sitting in trees, soaking up the sun.  If you see one feeding on carrion near the road, slow down, but don’t stop and hop out of your car to snap that perfect photo.   When Bald Eagles are “disturbed” while feeding, they may fly off and observers have found they’re not likely to return.

Winter survival is all about conserving energy, the availability of food and thermoregulation. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Bald Eagles on Ice - in Alma, Wisconsin

I drove down the Upper Mississippi River one last time before the snow storm hit today.  I wanted to see if - after more than a week of seasonably cold (freezing) weather - the Tundra Swans have moved on.

I didn't spot any - even though there were still a few spots on the main channel (and in the backwaters of Pool 4) that hadn't iced-over.  And I didn't hear any - no whistlings when I opened my car window (brr).   The swans are gone.

I did, however, hear crows and Bald Eagles - lots of them.  Nothing new about that.  In fact, it's an unusual day when I don't see at least on Bald Eagle from my kitchen window, and at least a half dozen on the drive in to town.

I expected to see a few of them along the river today, standing patiently on the ice around a fishing hole, waiting for a fish to cut the water's surface.

Big surprise:  I saw way more than a few Bald Eagles.  The final tally was over a hundred. 

Most of them were down by Lock & Dam #4 in downtown Alma.  They shared the river with a sky full of frenzied Ring-billed Gulls fishing down-river of the dam, where food is abundant, and easy to catch.  (Fish can get dinged in the churning water as they pass through the dam.)

Every day is a great day when I can get out and watch birds.  But today was special.

I've been watching birds along the River for more than a decade.  I've spent some cold winter days watching birds at the eagle "hot spots" along the Upper Mississippi River -  Colville Park in Red Wing, Reads Landing and Wabasha.   But I've never seen so many eagles on that 9-mile stretch of the river.

They were flying, loafing on the ice, hanging out in the cottonwoods along the river, scooping up fish, harassing other eagles to get them to drop their fish, chasing other eagles, soaring and chittering.

On the way home, I spotted a pair near Tell Lake (State Road 37 east), doing a little housekeeping - adding sticks to their huge nest, one of several in the Buffalo River floodplain.

If you go...

Stop the Wings Over Alma Nature and Art Center to warm up and watch eagles from their riverfront viewing windows.

Have lunch at Kate and Gracie's Restaurant and watch the eagles from one of their window-side booths.