Friday, January 29, 2010

Eagles & Trumpeter Swans on the Upper Mississippi

It was seasonably cold today - by noon the temperature was sunny 16ºF.   A great day to go check out the eagles down the road along the Mississippi River.

Tom and I hopped into the Toyota Prius and headed west, then north from Wabasha towards Lake City.  We hit the jackpot at our first stop:  Reads Landing.

Reads Landing is one of the best places in Minnesota to spot bald eagles this time of year.  The flow of water from the Lower Chippewa River and Lake Pepin speeds up as it moves through the narrow channel, keeping the river from freezing from Reads Landing to Wabasha.   Eagles are attracted to places like this - where the river is open and the fishing is good.

We counted over 200 eagles on the ice on both sides of the river...

loafing in trees over-looking the river...
and flying overhead...

... along with goldeneyes, mallards, crows and - I couldn't believe my eyes (I had to roll down my car window and hear their calls) - 2 dozen Trumpeter Swans.

The Trumpeter Swans were a first for me this time of year.

Reads Landing, however, isn't the only place to spot eagles in our neighborhood.  

You can see dozens hanging out in Red Wing's Colvill Park (where the river is heated Xcel Energy Plant).  Look for them in Alma, Wisconsin by the lock and dam.  Arcadia, Wisconsin, home of Ashley Furniture and Gold'n Plump Chicken, is another great place to see Bald Eagles.   Call the Chamber for sighting info before you go... (608) 323-2319.

And in case you didn't know... Buffalo County Wisconsin is a "hot spot" for wintering Golden Eagles.  Sixty Golden Eagles were spotted in the bluffs of Buffalo County on the 6th annual golden eagle survey, Jan 16th! 


Friday, January 22, 2010

A Bobwhite in the Butterfly House

I toured the Ruby N. Priddy Butterfly and Nature Conservatory in Wichita Falls, Texas this morning.   I was curious about what there was to see in that big glass building.

It was full of surprises.

Zebra Heliconian or Zebra Longwing 
  Heliconius charithonia 

... Zebra Heliconians flitting around the butterfly feeders, 

... an aquatic exhibit with a Gar, that freshwater fish with an elongated, spear-like jaw,
... and Bobwhite Quail.

Wait, there's more.  

The biggest surprise was the exhibit theme inside the Conservatory - the mixed grass prairie of the Rolling Plain eco-region, the "last gasp" of the continental prairie ecosystem.   

Right outside the door of the big glass building is the "bend" (as in River Bend) in the Wichita River and the nearby "falls" from which the city got its name.  

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Birds at the Deer Carcass

A couple of months ago, our local DNR conservation warden delivered a deer carcass to the Maxville Alternative School, just down the road from where I live.   The students strung it up by the birdfeeding station - then waited and watched to see who might show up.

I've made a point of stopping at least once a week to take a look myself.

The first visitor?  A very friendly Black-capped Chickadee.
The biggest surprise?  A Dark-eyed Junco.

The most likely visitor?  A Downy Woodpecker.

Plenty of coyote tracks.  No eagles yet...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Frozen Fog and Hoar Frost

Hoar frost after the frozen fog 

I started my day with a look out the kitchen window.   The view was a uniform white, a "white out."  No, it wasn't a blinding snowstorm.   It was what meteorologists call "frozen fog," also known as ice-crystal fog, frost fog, frost flakes, air hoar, rime fog and pogonip.

According to the AMA (American Meteorology Association) glossary of meteorology, "frozen fog is composed of suspended particles of ice, partly ice crystals 20 to 100 μm in diameter, but chiefly, especially when dense, droxtals 12–20 μm in diameter."  Got it?

These definitions may help:

Fog is a cloud (a visible aggregate of minute water droplets) - at the surface of the earth - that reduces visibility below one kilometer.

Frozen fog occurs when these minute water droplets freeze (and reduce visibility below one kilometer). 

 Close up of "hoar frost" on the spruce in my front yard
Frost is the solid deposit of water vapor from saturated air.   

Hoarfrost is the deposit of ice crystals (formed in the same manner as dew - except the temperature of the objects on which it forms must be below 32º F, and the dew point temperature of the air must also be below freezing) on cold objects - trees, branches, poles, fence wire, etc.

It was the ice crystals that got my attention. It was as if all the outdoors had been dusted with a couple of sprays from that "instant snow in a can" stuff used to add a dusting to holiday wreaths and model train sets. 

I didn't realize how difficult it would be to photograph.  It was such a bright morning and everything in my neighborhood was white.

I hope we get the fog again tomorrow so I can give it another try.

Here's a link to an amazing photo of those ice crystals in Washington State.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

American Robin, Harbinger of Spring - Yes, But...

            American Robin in Durand, Wisconsin in January

I came across a small flock of American Robins down by the Chippewa River the other day.  They seemed to be reveling in the recent heat wave - the thermometer has been hovering around 33ºF.  

I guess if you're a bird and ya need a bath, and water is available - ya just gotta go with it.

Seeing them made me remember the old adages:  "When you see robins, spring is just around the corner" and "the early bird gets the worm."   

I also clearly remember the first time I spotted robins in a snowstorm.  

I was dumbstruck.  Maybe it isn't common knowledge that not all the American Robins migrate south in the fall.   Robins can be spotted in the continental US year-round.  

                                                        Christmas Bird Count Map - American Robin

Why do some robins forgo the migration?  And how does this popular thrush find "worms" to eat in the winter?

Robins don't eat worms in the winter.  Their diet is actually 60% fruit and 40% invertebrates.  

The robins who stay up north, "wander" as they look for fruits.  When these birds actually "leave," they usually don't go very far.   

Friday, January 15, 2010

Winter Eagle Watching Tips

Winter is a challenging time for wildlife.  They have only three things on their minds:  watching out for predators, finding food and burning up as little energy as possible.
While some might describe them as lazy scavengers, I prefer to call them opportunists.  Their feeding strategy is all about conserving energy.  

They often rely on other birds – crows, ravens and vultures - to lead them to carrion, food that’s already dead.  They take sick and injured waterfowl.  They pirate food from other animals, a practice known as kleptoparasitism.  And if they’ve got the energy, they’ll actually catch live prey.
This time of year, eagles are most active at dawn (7-10am) and dusk (3-5pm).  Depending on location and the weather, you may see them flying to and from shared night roosts, and fishing or feeding in large numbers.  

When it’s snowing with sub-zero wind chill, eagles usually don’t leave their roosts.  

Know Your Eagles

Just about everyone knows what an adult Bald Eagle looks like - the huge brownish-black birds with white heads and tails.  But what are those other big black birds that hang out with them? 

They’re likely Bald Eagles too, the immatures.  They have dark beaks and dark feathers, mottled with white.  It takes about 4-5 years for Bald Eagles to get their distinctive white head and tail feathers.  There’s also a size difference.  Females are about 25% bigger than males.

From a distance, you might confuse them with other large soaring birds.  Take a look at the winter range and distinguishing characteristics of Golden Eagles, Osprey, Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures.  None of them however, sounds anything like a Bald Eagle with its surprisingly wimpy call – a high, thin “chitter.” 

Planning Your Trip  

Here are some practical suggestions for a successful eagle-watching expedition: 
  1.       Dress for the weather – in layers (gloves, hats, scarves, boots and a windbreaker) 
  2.       Keep your distance.  Use binoculars and a spotting scope.  If you don’t have any, don’t be shy.   Most bird-watchers are happy let you take a look through  theirs. 
  3.       Stay out of sight (in your car or building). 
  4.       Be quiet.  Don’t yell, honk your horn, or slam your car door. 
  5.       Don’t bring your dog. 
  6.       Respect private and restricted property.  Don’t trespass. 
  7.       Bring a camera.  You’ll need a telephoto lens (400-600 mm) and tripod for great photos.  If you have a point and shoot digital camera, consider a digi-scope adapter. 
  8.      You’re likely to see ducks and other birds, so bring a bird ID book. 
  9.      Bring along a thermos of your favorite hot beverage. 
10.      Be careful driving!  Keep your eyes on the road and use designated pull-offs only.

Resist the temptation to get close, or try to make roosting eagles fly.  That’s harassment, and it’s a federal offense with stiff penalties.

It’s also illegal to collect feathers.  While they’re no longer considered endangered, Bald Eagles are still protected by federal laws - the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bald Eagles: Now's the Time to Spot Them

Back when I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, if you wanted to see Bald Eagles in the wild, you had to pack your binoculars and head up to Alaska.  The only eagles we were likely to see were in a cage at the Bronx Zoo.

With barely 400 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states, our national bird was on the verge of extinction.  The situation looked bleak for the Bald Eagle when it was placed on the federal endangered species list in 1973.

Over the past 40 years, Bald Eagles have made a spectacular comeback, now with more than 60 nesting pairs in the Garden State alone.   Most are in the Delaware Bay counties of Cumberland and Salem, but eagles can be spotted throughout the state.  The number of wintering eagles along Delaware River has increased dramatically from fewer than 10 in 1978, to a record high of more than 250 in 2008.

While I don’t live in New Jersey any more, it’s a rare day that I don’t see at least one Bald Eagle flying overhead in my new neighborhood, along the lower Chippewa River in Wisconsin.  In the winter, there are so many eagles that I have to be careful that I don’t hit one along the highway.  (Our national bird is not above picking at road kill.)

Even though eagles are common here, I just have to stop to watch and marvel whenever I see one.
But you don't have to live in Alaska or the upper mid-west to see Bald Eagles.  No matter where you live, the chances of spotting a Bald Eagle in the continental United States during the winter are very good - if you know where to look. 

You’ll find them where food - fish - is plentiful.  When the lakes in their northern breeding grounds freeze over, eagles migrate to rivers, lakes and seacoasts where there’s open water, good fishing and protected roosting sites.

If you’ve never been eagle-watching before, now’s the time get started.  January through March, Bald Eagles can be spotted in just about every state.  You can go on your own, take a guided tour and attend an eagle-watching festival.  

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Winter Bald Eagles and Wild Turkeys

With the temperature hovering around 32F, today was the beginning of a good old mid-western winter heat wave - and a great day for taking the Prius for a spin.

Would my favorite rural rustic road be clear enough for a Prius - with no snow tires?

Why yes, it was.  And the roadside was full of birds.

The first was a Bald Eagle, taking a mid-day rest in a tree by Tarrant Park in Durand.   Look in the trees along the Lower Chippewa - where the river is open - and in the sky overhead.  You'll see lots of them.  We counted a half dozen on the way to Eau Claire, adults and immatures.

adult Bald Eagle - immature Bald Eagle

We spotted several Red-tailed Hawks in Meridean, hanging out in their usual roosts - at the top of deciduous trees along the edges of the corn fields;  American Robins bathing in the melting snow in the sloughs; and  Tree Sparrows and juncos drinking and bathing in roadside puddles.

Then, just south of Eau Claire, we spotted 2 dozen Wild Turkeys close to the road - in a farmer's front yard.  They are so very smart.  The minute I pulled off the road, they started to disburse.

I had to laugh at the Frosty the Snowman sign by the farmhouse - waving at the gobblers.  Too funny.

It's also amazing - to think Wild Turkeys were extirpated from Wisconsin back in 1881.  Farming and logging resulted in destruction of the habitat these birds prefer - oak forests.  It wasn't until nearly 100 years later that the Wisconsin DNR embarked on a program to bring them back.  It began with a trade: Ruffed Grouse for Wild Turkeys.

The rest, as they say, is history.  The 29 Wild Turkeys (from the Missouri Department of Conservation) released in Vernon County 30 years ago, have multiplied to the now more than 300,000 gobblers in the Badger state.  A wildlife conservation story with a very happy ending.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Camera Repairs: Never Pay in Advance with a Check

The Canon-authorized repair shop in Illinois finally returned my camera equipment.   Cleaning 2 lenses and one camera body took 6 weeks - instead of the 48 hours the company advertised on their website.

This all started back in the fall, before Thanksgiving.  I received a repair estimate, and shipped my equipment to Illinois - with a check - the day after Thanksgiving.

After Christmas (and several phone calls and emails), I got a call from "Jennifer in customer service."  They couldn't get a part for my 100-300mm lens.  They were ready to ship my "cleaned" camera body, the unfixed lens and a check refunding the $95 charge for the unfixed lens.

When will they ship my other lens?  It could take another 4-6 weeks. 

"Jennifer in customer service" called again last Thursday to let me know they had my other lens - an IS 100-400mm - ready to ship back to me.

What about my refund?   She said:  we will enclose your $95 refund check in the package.

I sat home for two days, waiting for the expedited UPS "overnight" delivery, wondering if/when I will ever see that lens again.  When it finally arrived this afternoon, one look at the shipping label and I knew the reason for the delay:  They shipped it "ground" not "overnight."

And the refund check was not enclosed.

I blasted off an email to customer service.   Where's my $95 refund?

Lessons learned:

   1.  Always use a credit card.
   2.  Check with the state attorney general's office for reports on the company.
   3.  Get a written estimate of how long the repair will take.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Squirrels & Birdfeeders

Squirrels are not a problem where I live.

My house is surrounded by corn and alfalfa fields, across from the largest intact floodplain forest in the upper midwest.  I have a few trees in my yard, but not enough to attract a steady stream of arboreal rodents.   So when I see a squirrel, it's a big deal (in a "good for the squirrel" and "fun for me" way). 

During the really cold spell around Christmas (when the temperature dropped into the -20s), a very cute fox squirrel showed up for a day or two.   I'm sure she was attracted to the walnut tree next door, but when she showed up at my feeders, I couldn't resist putting out a little pile of sunflower seeds just for her.

But even when I lived in squirrel-infested suburbia, I never had problems with squirrels.  What's the secret?  It's really quite simple: 

     1.  Don't use bird seed mixes. 
     2.  Invest in squirrel-proof feeders and/or squirrel proof poles.

I'll be writing more about specific strategies with seeds, feeders and poles in upcoming blogs, but here's a picture of what a squirrel-proof suet feeder can get you:

I was amazed that the male downy (on the back left) would let the 3 females near "his" feeder.  But it was late in the day and very cold.  Before I took this photo, there were 6 downies on this feeder (another in the back and one underneath) all at the same time.  Amazing!

Other than bird capacity - what should you look for in a suet feeder?

Is it squirrel-proof?  If they cannot get to the suet, they will leave it alone.

Is it is easy to fill? 

Does it "protect" the suet from dirt and bird droppings?

Is it accessible to woodpeckers of all sizes? 

And is it easy to clean? 

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Early Bird and the Hawk

I was an early bird this morning - up and about before the sun slid over the horizon.  I couldn't resist taking a look at my birdfeeders before I fixed myself an espresso.

It was dark, and at at first glance, I didn't see any birds.    Then I saw something moving in the bottom branches of the big spruce.

I grabbed my trusty little Bushnell 7x26 Custom binoculars for a better look.  I expected to see our local Northern Shrike.   It was a little Sharp-shinned Hawk.

I watched him pluck his breakfast.   It looked like a junco, but there wasn't enough light to be sure.  Despite the "bad" light, I pulled out my newly cleaned camera and snapped a photo.

After awhile, I took a break and made my latte.  As I walked back to the window, I knew the hawk was gone.  The feeders were, once again, full of birds. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Marcescent Leaves

Marcescent Bur Oak Leaves 
along the Lower Chippewa River in Durand, Wisconsin

When I was a kid, I learned the two kinds of trees:  coniferous and deciduous. 

Coniferous trees, also called evergreens, have needles or scale-like leaves and cone bearing seeds. With the exception of tararack and baldcyress, conifers don't drop their foliage all at once in the fall.

A few deciduous trees -  notably oaks, American Beech and Hop-hornbeam - hold on to their withered, lifeless leaves through the winter.

This has also been observed in young trees.  This phenomena is called marcescence.

I never thought much about it - until recently, when I got interested in prairie vegetation.  I've been looking at Bur Oaks lately:  the corky ridges on their branches, the insect galls, their acorns, their resistance to fire and their marcescent leaves.

Why do they "break the rule" and hang on to their dead leaves all winter?
Some scientists have suggested that not dropping withered leaves may protect tree twigs, especially in young trees, from deer and other winter browsers.  

Others suggest a downside:  marcescent leaves, heavy with snow and ice, make tree branches vulnerable to breakage during storms.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Cats and Birds

I went to Tarrant Park this afternoon to photograph oak marcescence.   But I was distracted by a big white blob up in a tree just east of the park road.  It was too big to be an opossum, and an unlikely sighting when it's so cold.

A snowy owl?  A plastic bag?  What?

Curious, I drove over to get a better look.  It was a large domestic cat - and it was howling.  I got the impression it was a pet that had been "dumped" in the park.

As a bird and bat-watcher, I have been accused - more than once - of being a cat-hater.   Nothing could be further from the truth.

I will tell you "free-roaming" cats are an unacceptable (and unnecessary) source of wildlife death.   According to a study by University of Wisconsin scientists, rural free-roaming cats KILL at least 7.8 million and perhaps as many as 217 million birds a year in the Badger state alone.  

Free-roaming cats are also a serious hazard to human health.

It's a wildlife conservation issue caused by human behavior.  We "learn" that it's okay (even good) for cats to run loose outdoors. 

It's also an animal cruelty issue.  Letting cats (and dogs) run loose in the woods is just plain inhumane.

A happy and healthy cat is an indoor cat.

This kitty was seriously unhappy.

I tried to rescue it.   Unfortunately, it responded to my sincere "here kitty" calls with more howls. It stayed put, up too high in the tree for me to reach.  So I drove home and (at 3pm) called the county sheriff's office (the Humane Society isn't open until 5pm).  The dispatcher said:  we only come out if you actually have the cat (or dog) in hand.  Leave a message on the Humane Society's answering machine.  So I did.

At 6pm, I got a call-back from the Humane Society - exactly where is this cat?  I gave directions to the tree, but I wasn't sure the kitty would still be there.

At 7pm, I got another call from the Humane Society.  The news was not what I expected.

Did they find the tree?  Did they find the kitty?

Yes!  And, she was very happy to be rescued.  Can you hear the purring?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Moon Shine on a Frigid Night

Three astronomical phenomena have combined to create another exceptionally bright "moon" tonight.

The moon is the closest it will get to the earth this month - so it looks bigger by 7%.  Tomorrow night the earth will be the closest it will get to the sun this month - so the sun's reflection on the moon is brighter.  And the moon is so high in the sky this time of year, it's like a giant spotlight. 

I just had to go outside and take a photo.

It didn't take long for me to realize the danger in that.  According to my favorite WCCO Weatherman - Chris Shaffer - the temperature outside (with the wind chill) is -24º.   I had to be careful about frost bite.  (Tripod, camera, gloves, hat, scarf, coat, boots)

I'm back indoors now - with this special first-person report:  it is very bright tonight; the moon is so high that I didn't spot it right away; and it's very, very, very cold outside.

I continue to be amazed when I think of the heat halo around the little chickadees on nights like this.  Even though they can drop their body temperature 15 degrees, there can be nearly 100-degrees difference between their core body temperature and the air temperature an inch from their feather coats.