Monthly Archives: June 2012

Northern States Wrap Up

Well, I’m back from my first trip of the year, to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

Total bird species: 145

Total miles driven: 2532

Total miles hiked: 35 (approximately)

Favorite Place: Rice Lake NWR, MN

Best bird: Kirtland’s Warbler

Most unexpected bird: Snowy Owl

Hardest bird to get: Connecticut Warbler

Biggest miss: Greater Prairie-Chicken

Coolest non-birds: Moose, 13-lined ground-squirrels, black squirrels of Michigan (tie)

Funkiest restaurant (in a good way): Bear’s Den Pizza in Grayling, MI and the Outdoor Trail Center on the Gunflint Trail, MN

Funkiest restaurant (in a less good way): That Coca Cola cafe in a place that shall remain nameless

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Night in a Michigan Pine Forest watching Goatsuckers

If you really want to see all of the birds in North America, you have to venture out at night.  While most birds are active during the day and sleep at night, many of the 19 species of owls and 8 species of nighthawks are only active when it’s dark.  I spent my last night in Michigan tracking down and observing Eastern Whip-poor-wills, a member of the nighthawk family (some people call this group of birds nightjars or goatsuckers).

I tried to record some audio that night and embed it in a powerpoint presentation (the basic wordpress blog does not allow direct uploading of audio and video files unless you pay them a lot more $$$), and then added the .ppt file to my blog (click on the link below!).  I’ve never tried this before, so this is a test.  You’ll need to download the file by clicking on the link, and then run the presentation as a slide show.  You’ll probably have to turn up the volume on your computer (the recording is very quiet) to hear the Whip singing.  The photo is the woods where I found them just after sunset.

Whips singing

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Why I came to Michigan

This is Kirtland’s Warbler, one of the most critically endangered bird species in North America.  This is also the story of how Smokey the Bear drove this little guy and all of his friends to the brink of extinction, and how some forestry experts, wildlife biologists, and cowbird murderers are bringing them back.

Kirtland’s is a habitat specialist – it won’t nest just anywhere.  It prefers dense stands of young jack pine trees (like the ones in the picture above), between 5 and 20 feet tall.  When the trees get too tall, the habitat is no longer suitable for this warbler, and it can no longer breed successfully.  For eons, this habitat type was constantly being regenerated by the natural forest fires that periodically swept north-central Michigan and the rest of the upper midwest.  But 20th Century forest practices all but put an end to natural fire here.  As people moved in, they demanded that fires be suppressed to protect homes and timber interests.  They also cleared land for houses, towns, and agriculture.  As a result, appropriate nesting habitat for Kirtland’s Warbler began to dry up.

Compounding this problem, the opening of the forest made this area more attractive to Brown-headed Cowbirds, a native species of blackbird.  Cowbirds are brood parasites; that is, they don’t make their own nests and raise their own chicks.  Instead, a female cowbird will dump an egg into the nest of another songbird when the nest is temporarily unattended.  The baby cowbird often hatches first, and is bigger and more aggressive than the host babies.  As a result, the begging baby cowbird successfully monopolizes most of the food the songbird parents bring back to the nest.  The other nestlings typically starve to death, or are actually pushed out of the nest by the baby cowbird.

In the 1970s, with cowbirds parasitizing about 75% of Kirtland’s nests, and their habitat nearly gone, the warbler almost disappeared altogether – maybe a few hundred of them survived in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  But once wildlife officials figured out what was happening, an ambitious plan was put in place to rescue Kirtland’s Warbler.  Fire and logging was used to clear out mature forest, and young jack pines were planted in its stead.

Cowbirds were trapped and removed from the nesting areas, using these rather ingenious cages.  A wire mesh cage is set up, and “baited” with live captive cowbirds and millet seed.  Since cowbirds are a flocking, gregarious species, wild cowbirds see their buddies hanging out and eating seed, and come in to see them.  Slots in the top of the cage allow cowbirds to drop into the cage, but then they can’t figure out how to get back out.  The traps are checked every day, and the new wild cowbirds are “destroyed” (as one wildlife worker told me).

The plan is working, and the most recent census figures show that there are now a couple thousand Kirtland’s nesting here.  A few of them have also been spotted nesting in neighboring areas in Wisconsin and Ontario.  Kirtland’s is not out of the woods yet – there are still many on-going challenges to its survival, both here and on its wintering grounds in the Bahamas.  But the population is certainly headed in the right direction.

I was very excited to see Kirtland’s Warbler.  Of the more than 50 species of regularly occurring warblers in North America, it was one of only two that I haven’t seen yet.  So I knew that this trip was going to be special.  But I was unprepared for how, well, charismatic these little guys are.  Unlike many warblers, they are not shy and skulky, nor do they hang out in the tops of 100-foot trees.  They tee up on 10-foot pines and sing their little hearts out (which is why I was able to get such good photos).  And they are confiding and largely unafraid, sometimes wandering within 15 or 20 feet of you looking for bugs.  I watched one perch quite close and carefully dismember a large dragonfly, carefully knocking off all of the wings, and then gulping it down.  This is a day I will remember.

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Crex Meadows – Part II

Day Two at Crex Meadows.

Apparently the water is really high this year at Crex.  I heard there has been so much rain this week that there’s flooding in Duluth and along the north shore.  All this water has been good for the waterfowl, though.  Everywhere I look I see baby ducks, loons, geese, & swans.

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The wildflowers also seem to be doing great with all the wet weather.  Here is some butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa, a kind of milkweed) – and sure enough, the butterflies love it!

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Swans are everywhere again this morning.  Here is one cooperative individual.

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The left one in the picture below is banded on the neck, #82K.  Wildlife biologists band swans to track their movements, health, and reproduction.

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I snapped this picture of a Common Loon.  They are fairly common back home in the metro Seattle area, but we usually see them in late fall, winter, and early spring when they are in their dull winter plumage – not their spiffy breeding outfit.  It’s fun to see them in their full-summer glory.  This is a cool shot because I took it right before the loon gave its characteristic call.  When calling, loons tip their heads back slightly.  In this photo you can see the narrow “chin strap” that is above and in front of the thicker neck band.  The chin strap is often hidden when loons are swimming in their normal posture.

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The call of the loon sounds haunting and mysterious.  In fact, it’s used (over-used?) quite a bit on TV and in the movies to provide some “here we are in the scary wilderness” sound effects.  What’s funny is that the actors are usually supposed to be in the middle of a desert, or on an African savanna, or some place that has never, ever been visited by a Common Loon.  And if a loon were unfortunate enough to end up in the middle of an Arizona desert (their calls are used a lot in Westerns), they certainly wouldn’t be giving their territorial breeding calls!

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Loons take care of their young for some time until they’re old enough to fend for themselves.  Here’s daddy loon offering a little fish to a fuzzy youngster, who promptly gobbled it down.  Baby loons often times hitch a ride by climbing on top of their parents’ backs and let mom or dad paddle them around.

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A late-morning thunderstorm put an abrupt end to the birding and wildlife watching.  I’m heading back to the Twin Cities now, and tomorrow I’m flying to Michigan for a couple days before heading back to Seattle.  Why Michigan?!  Why for only a couple days?  I’ll post an update from there in a couple days with answers!

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Crex Meadows

Wisconsin!  It’s not all cow pastures and cheese making.  I’m up in northwest Wisconsin to spend a few days at Crex Meadows state wildlife area.

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Some people call this area the “pine barrens” – which is a rather unfortunate term.  It’s far from a barren landscape – the area is filled with shallow ponds, wet meadows, marshes, and stands of trees.  Marsh birds love it!  I counted over 60 Wood Ducks and over a dozen Trumpeter Swans today.

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The weather has been unsettled, with clouds, showers, and thunderstorms.  It has made for some dramatic lighting, though.

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I met the little guy below on the side of the road.  He’s a Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel, and he was munching on some grass seed.

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This area is called Crex Meadows, and it gets its name from a type of native wire grass (Carex stricta).  In fact, in the early part of the 20th Century, there was a huge carpet-making factory here that used this wire grass to make carpets.

Swans are a real highlight of summer on the refuge.  Here are a couple of them floating on one of the many shallow lakes.  The black and white smear on the left of the picture near the top is a Black Tern on fly-by just as I snapped the photo.

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On the way back to my hotel (in downtown Siren, WI – population 187), I passed this Bald Eagle perched on an old sign in a field.  It was a bit of an odd sight for someone who is used to Bald Eagles perching in 100-ft Western Hemlocks, snagging fish out of Puget Sound, and soaring past Mt. Rainier.  This fella was just chillin’ in the middle of this marshy swamp.

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More from Crex tomorrow!

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Passing Through the Twin Cities

Driving back from the prairies, I stopped by the Twin Cities to do a little more birding and spend the night.  I’m headed to Wisconsin, but since there’s only one of me I decided to break up the driving.  Besides, it gave me a chance to stop at one of my favorite parks in the Twin Cities area, Murphy-Hanrehan.  I love this place.  It has great trails through fields, forests, and along the shores of a lake.  I spent a couple hours in the evening and the next morning exploring. 

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Henslow’s Sparrow and Cerulean Warbler were the avian highlights.  I also stopped to watch this turtle dig a hole and lay some eggs.

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This morning I also spent some time at Falls Creek State Natural Area, which was just beautiful.  The running creek and the abundant bird song made for a magical soundtrack to my walk through the woods.  I also saw Louisiana Waterthrush, Acadian Flycatcher, and a mama (or daddy) Wood Thrush feeding a begging baby.

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Heading east, I came to the mighty Mississippi River at the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.

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The geology of this area is just incredible.  Those of you back in Washington state might be familiar with glacial lake Missoula, and its role in creating ice age era flows that carved and sculpted the landscape of Eastern Washington (e.g. Dry Falls, for one spectacular example).  Ancient Minnesota also was glaciated (most recently about 12,000 years ago) – with glacial lake Duluth serving a somewhat similar role here in MN/WI.  As the glaciers melted, the resulting ginormous floods carved out many unique geological features here, including these potholes – also called giant’s kettles.  The potholes are deep round depressions (up to 30 feet across) carved in the rock due to the action of the water at the bottom of a glacial river.  When these enormous rivers surged past giant boulders, eddies and whirlpools formed in the wake.  These eddies over time carved out circular depressions in the soft sandstone. 

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Some of them are large enough to climb down inside!

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On to Wisconsin!  Next: Crex Meadows…

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A Very Lost Snowy Owl – The Whole Story

I think I was too tired to be blogging the other day when I tried to post this originally – and I kept erasing it by accident.  Finally I gave up.  It gets light here around 4:45am, and the sun doesn’t set until after 9:15pm.  One consequence of this extended daylight is that you can be tempted to spend 16 hours in the field, which doesn’t leave that much time for sleeping, eating, blogging, etc.  And that doesn’t even count the midnight trips to McGregor Marsh for Yellow Rail!  But I will try to re-write my post from the other night below…

 

I’m in the Morehead MN/Fargo ND area – prairie country!  One of the amazing things about Minnesota is that it possesses at least three distinct bio-regions, something that is fairly unusual even for a state of its size.  Each of these regions has its own unique set of animal and plant communities, which means visiting each one allows you to see a whole new array of birds.  The area around the Twin Cities, and the region south and east of there shares much in common with the eastern and even southeastern US.  They have nesting Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-winged Warbler, and Acadian Flycatcher.  A couple hours north by car, and you transition fairly rapidly into boreal forest.  These are the spruce bogs and northern timberlands that stretch well into central Canada, and north of Duluth you can find Boreal Chickadee and Spruce Grouse.  Head west a couple hours and you are in The West – a land of gently rolling prairies and pothole lakes.  And windmills.

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I soon discovered why they have so many windmills here – it’s incredibly windy!  I spent a couple days roaming around the Felton Prairie area, seeing Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Upland Sandpipers.  I looked and looked for Prairie-chickens, but they were elusive.

I checked the rare bird alert before I left, and was stunned to see a Snowy Owl being reported south of Fargo/Moorhead.  Now sometimes Snowies wander down from Canada in mid-winter to hang out in Minnesota and other far northern states, but by spring they always head back.  By June, Snowies should be eating lemmings in the high Arctic and making baby Snowies.  They most definitively should not be sitting next to a field of knee-high corn in western Minnesota.  I don’t know if this one is sick, injured, or just really, really lost.

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I think it’s an adult male based on the extent of white in his plumage.  He was flying around a bit, so he doesn’t have a broken wing.  The picture isn’t great because I didn’t want to get too close – he’s probably stressed enough as it is.

Tomorrow I’m heading back east!

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