Thursday, February 19, 2009

Owls in the Bog

It's been a good winter for northern owls in northern Minnesota. Multiple sightings of Great Gray Owls, Northern Hawk Owls and Snowy Owls have been reported. We all had high hopes for the festival weekend. Unfortunately The Great Grays were getting tougher to find and we didn't see any over the weekend. This is a picture I took in January 2005 during the owl irruption that winter. I was very lucky to see 80 Great Gray Owls in one day trip up north.

We did see a few Northern Hawk Owls. This was a life bird for many of the out of towners and I was glad to see the excitement on their faces while they gazed at this very cool bird.

We got to watch as his head would swivel about looking for prey and keeping an eye on us.

Does this branch make me look fat?

Yeah, well your 19 layers of clothes don't do much for your figure either!


The group on Friday's Duluth field trip did get great looks at a Boreal Owl. One birder in that group really stood out. Fifteen year old Tucker L. drove up with his Dad from Iowa for the festival. I was thrilled to share his excitement when he showed me his great picture of the Boreal Owl and I was even happier for him when he told me it was his 300th life bird!!

Stop by Tucker's blog Birding with Tucker and read his account of finding his 300th life bird. Please leave a comment and offer congratulations on his achievement. I have a feeling Tucker will do something really special with his life and I'm positive he'll make an impact on the world of birds.

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More From the Sax-Zim Bog

Sunday was an early rise for us as we needed to be on the bus at 530AM. I think the alarm rang at 425AM as we had a 40 minute drive from Duluth to Meadowlands. Ugh. Our trip that day would take us through Aitkin County and our first stop was just north of a little town called Tamarack at a field where there was a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. We needed to be there early if we wanted to see them dance. There were approximately two dozen grouse in the field. Most of us stayed in the bus and watched out the windows. The extra elevation in the bus gave us a little better view and helped at bit with the cold. The birds were still a pretty good distance away but with binoculars we soon could see the dance. A male would tip his tail strait up into the air, cup his wings with the tips pointed to the ground, inflate the air sacs on his neck and start stomping his feet. Another and then another would join the dance and soon a whole group would be doing the boogie! It was one of the neatest birding moments I've ever seen. I took just over 100 pictures, trying to capture spectacle. This picture is the closest I came and I'm still disappointed. However, one of the trip leaders mentioned that in March the Aitkin County Department of Natural Resources sets out blinds in this field that can be reserved for watching the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek. Art and I are going to do it. He said we'll have to get to the blind EARLY in the morning before the grouse start to gather at the field. I can't wait to get a closer view of these birds and their dance. LIFER!!!

Most of the rest of my pictures are from the Sax-Zim on Saturday. Our bus went to several wonderful feeding stations that local residents maintain to bring birds in for viewing and to feed them during our harsh Minnesota winters. We got good looks at both of the wintering grosbeaks. The males are a deep dark pinkish- very pretty. But like female Cardinals, I like the more subdued colors of the female Pine Grosbeak.

We only saw a few Evening Grosbeaks. Isn't this male handsome? I wouldn't want a pinch from that beak.

We also saw several Ruffed Grouse throughout our weekend. These birds are quite shy and secretive. They blend in with the twigs and branches and can be tough to find. We see quite a few Ruffed Grouse at Hasty Brook especially in areas where there are lots of young aspen trees. Deb told me that is prime Ruffed Grouse habitat.

White-winged Crossbills have been seen in large numbers throughout Minnesota this winter. They feed on the seeds in spruce cones and since the cone crop in Canada is poor this winter they've moved south to find food. We saw plenty of them during the festival weekend. They are fun to watch as they are able to dangle like acrobats on the tips of spruce branches, using their special crossed bills to pry open the cones and get at the seeds.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Second Annual Sax-Zim Bog Winter Birding Festival

What a terrific weekend! Deb and I both took Friday off so I stopped by her house in the early afternoon. I got to have a tour of her new house and let me tell you, it's simply amazing. You can see that lots of thought went into every aspect of the design and lay-out. Ruthie and I stopped to see Deb last year after the festival when the house was still empty but now with their wonderful antique pieces and the wood stove in the center, it looks like a family home. I even got to meet Deb's husband the Hermit. Their yellow lab Sally is just a doll. I could have rubbed her ears forever but it was time to hit the road again. We made it to Meadowlands and got our registration packets. Once again, Mike Hendrickson the man behind the festival was there to greet us. I need to congratulate Mike on another hugely successful festival. In total there were 155 birders from 22 states and one man who came all the way from Australia to experience the Sax-Zim Bog. We had mostly sunny skies and high temps in the low twenties, great trip leaders, wonderful dinners and outstanding evening presentations. Friday night brought Larry Weber, a retired high school science teacher who talked about life outdoors during Minnesota's winters. He had a beautiful slide presentation ( 35 mm slides- not a power point!!) illustrating the diversity of tracks and other evidence of the presence of life. Larry's enthusiasm was contagious. He sat with Deb and I for dinner and I especially enjoyed our conversation about Bernd Heinrich- one of my favorite nature writers.
Deb and I boarded our bus Saturday morning at 630AM for our day-long trip through the Bog. I had a personal bird wish list of three: Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay and Sharp-tailed Grouse. I also wanted to get a better look at Hoary Redpolls. I saw a few in the Bog last year but I wasn't comfortable that I'd be able to pick one out of a flock of Commons. We did see a few throughout the day but I got my best look at the Admiral road feeding station. There was a Redpoll feeding frenzy going on but one of our guides pointed out this Hoary Redpoll perched a little away from the crowd.

An overall frosty appearance.

I was able to follow it to the ground and watched as it fed with the rest. These are very cautious and jumpy little birds. The Hoary is in the top right of this picture.

Here, on the left you can see how little streaking there is and also how much finer it is. The rump is white on the Hoary, streaked on the Common. TINY, stubbier bill on the Hoary.

White under tail coverts, while the Common has streaked.

It was overcast when I took these pictures so the lighting isn't perfect, but my memory of this Hoary Redpoll is clear. You can bet that the next time I get up to Hasty I'll be watching the Redpoll flock with a keener eye, looking for the "frosty" one in the crowd.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Whoot! Dancing sharp tailed grouse.

Whoot! Dancing sharp tailed grouse. LIFER!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Our great gray owl in the bog.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Going to the Bog!!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

There's a Ditch Near Hasty...

Sorry for the lack of posting here, life has gotten busy. The hospital I work for has had numerous lay-offs that fortunately haven't affected me. In fact, I'm part of a group working on a big computer project for the lab and I've been putting in LOTS of extra hours. (Counting my blessings here). My wrist seems to be recovering nicely. I've done two bird outings with lots of photography and it felt petty good. Before the CTR surgery holding the big lens on my camera gave me trouble. I'm off work today as Art had his first age 50+ Roto-rooter (colonoscopy) procedure today. We go to the same clinic and when we both turned 50 we were given packets that included cards to schedule colonoscopies and "advanced health care directives"!!!
"Here ya go- while you do the prep for the colonoscopy, you can fill out your living will!"
Anyway, while poor Art is sleeping off the versed I thought I'd download my pictures and throw a post together. We had a day of mild weather last week so I packed my gear into the car and headed up to Hasty for a day of birding by myself. When Art and I were there the week before we had filled the feeders and then dumped the rest of the seed all over on the ground in the campsite. Last Friday as I started walking up the long driveway toward the campsite I could see major bird movement in the yard. About half way up the drive I could hear them. There were AT LEAST 300-350 Redpolls and a handful of Pine Siskins feeding on the seed! As I reached the camper they all flew up into the tree tops in one big whoosh. I set up a camp chair, got out my camera, sat down and waited. It took a while but soon a little flock of bold Chickadees zipped in, probably thinking they finally had the feeders to themselves. Within seconds the entire flock of Redpolls dropped from the trees, chattering, bickering and eating. I sat six feet away with my jaw dropped, barely able to take in the sight. Redpolls are such pretty birds. I saw my first ever Redpolls last winter at the Sax-Zim Bog Winter Bird Festival . Two weeks ago I saw a handful at Hasty and a single Redpoll at home and now I was sitting in this huge flock grinning like a goof! It was definitely a birding bliss moment for me. Have you ever had a birding bliss moment?

I just love these guys.

I'm pretty sure I saw two Hoary Redpolls in the flock but I couldn't find them in my pictures.

"Hey lady! The thistle is getting a little low here!"
When I got too cold to sit in the snow any longer I headed back to the car and set out to do some exploring. There were three Wild Turkeys in the trees near the road. I had seen their big tracks in the snow by the feeders and was glad that they seem to be making it through the winter. It was funny to hear them cackling in the trees in mid-winter. I hope they hang around come spring. I'd love to get a look at little poults. Down the road a ways I came across a flock of Snow Buntings that lifted off the road and landed on the lake. I pulled over to get a better look but when I got out of the car some local domestic geese waddled toward me honking and hissing so I stayed put in the car and moved along. Glancing over the fields I spotted a pair of Northern Harriers gliding low, hunting for rodents. I love to watch Harriers hunting. They face the ground, skimming low, listening and watching for food. It seems a bit early for them to be back for the season but I have seen sightings of them on the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union listserv this week. The Ravens and Crows were very vocal that afternoon and there were pairs of Downy Woodpeckers chasing and calling- all signs of spring approaching!
Around mid-afternoon I decided to turn toward home. It had been windy all day and was getting quite overcast. There was just one more place I wanted to check. As I drove along highway 73 toward Cromwell I scanned the fields for a Northern Hawk Owl that had been seen and reported there. THERE! Up ahead on the right-on the power pole! I checked my mirror, no one was coming behind me, so I pulled over onto the shoulder so I could get a good look. I knew the ground was still hard so I was startled when I felt the tires on the right side of the car start to sink. The flat crust of snow left by the snow plows hid the ditch and tricked me into thinking that the shoulder was wider than it was.
In a split second my car was resting on the frame and I was stuck. I crawled out of the car and flagged down a car for help. The car that stopped held an older couple who were delighted to try to help. The woman got out first and she couldn't have been 5 feet tall and 100 pounds. The husband was tall and fit looking. He told me that they'd give me a little push and I'd be on my way. I asked the Little Woman to get in the car so I could help push instead of her but she said she didn't drive. As the husband walked up I realized he had an artificial leg!! When we saw that the frame was resting on the ground and hopelessly beyond pushing, we flagged down another driver with a diesel truck. The Truck Man hooked a strap the the back end of my car and started pulling. The front end of my car swung to the right and went all the way down into the ditch. I couldn't even get out of the car! By now the Little Woman was frozen so she got back into her car. Limping Gentleman went off down the road to stop traffic and Truck Man had to pull me backwards for a few hundred yards, crossing into the other lane of traffic to get my car out. I thanked Truck Man as he rolled up his now broken strap. I offered to pay for a new one but he just smiled and left as I babbled my gratefulness. I turned to Limping Gentleman with tears in my eyes, and offered my thanks. He hugged me and told me not to let it ruin my day of birding and to drive home with care. Such kind people. I can only hope that I can offer such kindness to some one else when they're cold and tired and feeling so careless.
A few miles down the highway I stopped for gas and called Art to tell him of my experience. He didn't laugh or point out my mistake. He said he'd offer two pieces of advice. First, he said, stop at the restaurant across the street and get a bite to eat and relax. Second, drive back up to Hasty and scout around for birds some more before heading home.
The homey Country Inn was just what I needed. They were serving all-you-can-eat fried fish and it was delish!! After three cups of coffee and I won't say just how much fish, I drove back to Hasty. I parked and walked back up the driveway for another Redpoll fix. This time I didn't even bring my camera. I just stood there as the Redpolls swirled around me. As the chill set in and I turned to leave I heard the maniacal call of a Pileated Woodpecker. He swooped in and landed on the same birch snag where I saw him last summer. He was close by and looked me in the eye.
I made my way back to Highway 73 and turned south again. As I passed the spot where three strangers had so generously helped me, I looked around for the Hawk Owl. About one hundred feet off the road beyond my tire ruts, in a tree silhouetted against the glowing sunset, sat a pair of adult Bald Eagles.
I drove the 150 miles home with a full heart.
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Wednesday, February 04, 2009