Can You Hear Me Now?

How about now?

You’ll have to look carefully at the top photo to see the hawk.  He is at the midpoint of the tower – find the red section and look at the top.

Don’t worry, when I stop on the highway to take these photos, I always put safety first, liking looking left…

…and then right.

That makes five Red-tailed Hawks within four days.  From what I can tell, they are probably five unique hawks as each sighting has been greater than five miles from any of the others and there are visible differences in their plumage.  I’ve heard Red-tailed Hawks migrate; perhaps they are just returning because I have not seen much hawk activity prior to this week.

A bird blogger from Idaho that I follow knows all the Great-Horned Owls on his birding patch by their slight differences in plumage.  Perhaps I’ll be able to start recognizing the individual hawks when I see them.  I’m naming this one Verizon Guy.

Birds in the Hoar Frost

This morning we woke up to beautiful hoar frost covering every tree and shrub.  It is absolutely amazing.  With a morning like this, I am a little more patient for the end of winter.  Everybody but me was asleep in the house, so I slipped outside to take some pictures.

The two photos below are of the Common Redpoll.  I love having these little guys visit for the winter, but they need to go back to their Arctic home.  First, their presence is a reminder that it is still winter.  Second, they eat like pigs and are costing me a fortune.

With the hoar frost today, the name Hoary Redpoll finally made sense to me.  The Hoary Redpoll is a “frosty” white version of the bird you see above.  Hopefully I can see and photograph a good example someday.

The American Goldfinch is always fun to see, even with its duller greenish plumage right now.  We can’t wait to see their bright yellow color because it’s so pretty and it means spring!

As I was snapping pics in the front yard, I looked at the living room window and saw that someone inside was awake.  Do you see his red-cheeked face looking at the open bird book?  It’s a regular sight, but this is the first time I’d seen it from this side.

Before I had gone outside, I spied this chunky little bird amongst the hoar frost-covered limbs of our birch tree.  It is the semi-regular visitor, the House Finch.  We haven’t seen one for over a month.  This one did not stick around long for me to photograph.

Later in the day I had to go into my school to do some work.  I’ve learned to take my camera along as I frequently see interesting bird activity during my commute.  The other day it was a Red-tailed Hawk that had just killed a hen pheasant on the shoulder of the highway.  Other times I see interesting raptors that I can’t identify or large groups of pheasants.  All I can do is tell Evan about it.  Now I can start to record my sights to share my observations with him.

Right away I found another Red-tailed Hawk. I know they were over-done on the last two posts, but I want to show you what my relatively inexpensive high-zoom camera (Canon SX 50) can do.  It continues to impress me.  Who needs binoculars anymore?   Look at the two photos below.  The dark speck at the top of the center tree is the hawk.

And I saw lots of pheasants on the trip home.  I found a group of about 5 roosters and 5 hens.  I tried to get a cool picture of all those males to show Evan, but they quickly and easily hid on the other side of a snowdrift at the sight of my vehicle on the shoulder.  Pheasants are so hard to photograph because they get nervous and RUN. I guess with all these Red-tailed Hawks around, I would be nervous too.  I found this lone rooster a little later on in my drive.  Again, this one was about 100 yards away.   No lifers today, but it was fun to see a lot of the good looking regulars on a beautiful winter day.


Donuts, Hawks, and a Lifer – A Great Day

After yesterday’s hawk encounter, I got the bug to go birding for hawks this morning and I was secretly hoping to find a Snowy Owl. Plus I needed something to do with the kids to break up the day since Mom is at musical practice until later this afternoon.  Our first stop of the morning was Thompson’s Bakery in Atwater for the world’s best donuts.  The kids have to have sprinkles, but I got to the bakery too late (8:00 AM) and they were out.  So I grabbed us a mess of glazed donuts.  Sure enough, Evan balked, “What? You just bought me a bread donut?”  I told him they were my favorites and to just try it.  Grudgingly he put it to his lips, and then he couldn’t deny the deliciousness as his scowl turned to a grin and then laughter.  Not a crumb was wasted by either kid, and I ended up sharing my second donut.

Marin was excited for donuts and “bird hunting.”  About two minutes after her donut was consumed, however, she said, “I want to go home.”  There certainly wasn’t much birding action, and it was dull except for the scenery.  It was a beautiful, sunny morning with fresh, sparkling snow but nothing crossed our path as we traversed the barren landscapes.  On our zig-zag route home, I decided to swing by one of my favorite public hunting areas.  Boy, am I glad I did.  Right away we saw a rooster pheasant and before long we found a group of 5 roosters in a corn food plot.  They were spooked easily, but I got one decent shot of this one on the run to show you.  Look at those spurs!

Then I drove by a Waterfowl Production Area, and we hit the hawk jackpot.  First we found one Red-tailed Hawk high in a tree.  This bird was way out there (over 200 yards).  With that 200x digital zoom, I was able to reach out and get him.

As I was taking photos, Evan was screaming that there was another one in the tree right in front of us.  It flew away, but then flew back.  Look at its beak – building a nest, perhaps?

Then, this soaring bird landed right with the first one!  What a scene it was!  Of course, we were a scene too with our whooping and hollering and opening windows and climbing out of the car in 12 degree weather.  As you can see, they each took turns looking at us.

I actually saw these two hawks begin mating, but they quit soon.  I suppose they didn’t want an audience.  I wasn’t ready for the birds and bees discussion, so I kept this information to myself.  You can see the beautiful red tail below.

So, how do you top a rush like this?  You finish with a life bird – the Horned Lark!  These little guys were shy and spooked easily.  I couldn’t get within a tenth of a mile, so my photos are blurred.  But thanks to this camera, which doubles as my binoculars, we could make a positive ID.

What a day it was!  It is so satisfying to get our target bird of the morning, and a unique shot of two made it all the better.  Then to cap it off with a lifer made for a thrilling morning!




A Blurry Photo Can Be The Most Revealing

These days I am nearly a single dad as Melissa is busy putting the finishing touches on her school’s musical production of the Little Mermaid.  So I put a lot of miles on the vehicle as I race around dropping kids off and picking them up.  Today was no different except that when I was heading home after picking up both kids from daycare/school I was driving extra fast because one of my pint-sized passengers was desperate to relieve a full bladder.  Wouldn’t you know that this was the time that I caught sight off a huge hawk perched in a lone, bare tree.  I think Evan briefly forgot about his biological predicament as he shouted, “I see it! I see it!”  Only two miles from home, we hatched a plan that we would hurry to the house and I would grab the camera while Evan did what he needed to do.  Then we’d hop back in the car and race back to the hawk.  The dogs would have to wait just a little longer to get their relief.

The hawk was still there, and I snapped some pics.  I had to do a full zoom and the windshield and falling snow were interfering with the camera’s ability to focus automatically.  Needless to say I was frustrated and only got the blurry photo you see.

Once we were home again, I combed the field guide to ID this raptor.  Nothing matched what we saw.  I had an idea.  Last night I had just “liked” the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union Facebook page.  People can upload their bird photos to share good sightings and get ID help, so I uploaded my blurry shot with a plea for help.  As I impatiently waited for a reply, a couple of my friends saw my post, unbeknownst to me, and commented on it.  One of my wise guy friends, Allen, commented, “This hawk is male.”  Another friend, Jeff, said it appeared to be a yearling Red-tailed Hawk. I thought that seemed like very specific knowledge.  Knowing the guy, I figured he either really knew his stuff or he was just making up a BS answer.  I was leaning toward the latter because I didn’t know him to be a bird guy.  A couple hours later the moderator of the MOU FB page commented that he/she agreed with Jeff!

Jeff was ecstatic and called me up to celebrate his official Facebook confirmation.  It turns out that he’s always had a love of raptors and that he used to go birding with his family.  I learned from Jeff that Red-tailed Hawks have white feathers in their first year. I learned something new about a friend (and Red-tailed Hawks) because of this blurry photograph. It seems that there are secret birders everywhere.  That’s what I love about birding.  Finding cool birds is half the fun; the other, perhaps better half is sharing that joy with others.

Duck Dynasty

These birders were happy, happy, happy today.  For not planning on going birding, we stumbled across a hidden treasure.  After church we went to St. Cloud so that Melissa could pick up some supplies for Willmar Middle School’s upcoming production of The Little Mermaid.    Birding wasn’t even in the plans.  In fact, Evan must have complained about being bored at least 75 times on the car ride there.  We trekked through places like Crafts Direct and Party City.  These places were visually stimulating and ripe for tactile exploration.  The boredom issue never came up again.  On the contrary, we were exhausted from telling two kids to put things back and to stop touching things.

As we drove between stores, we started to see Mallards flying here and there.  After all, the Mississippi River runs right through St. Cloud, and where there’s water, there are birds.  Evan and I got excited over every Mallard and Bald Eagle we saw.  After we had finished Melissa’s errands, she surprised us by saying that we should grab a treat from McDonald’s and try to find a road down by the river to see some ducks.  She wanted this to be a fun outing for us guys too. Isn’t she great? Thankfully I had my camera along since I used it to record Marin’s singing program at church earlier.

We made our way toward the river and right by Apollo High School I noticed Mallards seeming to land in the northeast corner of the football field.  What? There must be water.  We did some maneuvering with the vehicle and discovered the ducks were actually landing in a small ditch with cattails right by Highway 15.  I found a place to park at an empty lot right near the ditch.  We saw many, many ducks whiz by, and I made horrible attempts at flight photography.  Here is a sample of what we saw.

What are they landing in?!?

I was compelled to get out of the vehicle and walk through two feet of snow with just shoes to take a closer look.  Aha! Open water!

And then I looked and saw more Mallards than I’ve ever seen…

After seeing all these ducks and flushing a couple hundred with my presence, I went back to the car to get Evan.  I carried him through the snow so he could witness it for himself.  I don’t remember his exact words, but he was excited!  We got back into the car and  watched the ducks on the top of the bank a little longer.  As I photographed birds and made more miserable attempts at flight photography, Melissa and the kids were entertained by this bully drake Mallard who was chasing other ducks, pulling out tail feathers, and just being a regular grouch.

It was quite a treat to see Mallards in the snow.  Even better was seeing so many of them! It was absolutely crazy, and I’m sure it is an experience that our family won’t forget.  Evan kept saying on the way home, “That was awesome!”  Yes, Evan, it was.  Who needs the Mississippi when you have a ditch?

From the Vault: Ruffed Grouse and the Team – 2009

After last week’s blog interview with my dad and his official work with several species of grouse, I remembered having shot some footage in 2009 of Ruffed Grouse males on display. Melissa did a great job editing this footage many years ago into the 3-minute clip below. I think you’ll find the bird behavior fascinating.

I think you might also find the human aspect of this fascinating too, especially if you’ve been reading the blog. The setting of this video is my wife’s parents’ house in northern Minnesota in late April or early May. We, along with my parents, were there to celebrate our niece Mya’s 2nd birthday. I want you to watch/listen for two things: 1) About halfway through you will hear Evan’s tiny 2-year-old voice ask, “Is dat Mourning Dove?” and 2) You will see a shot of Grandpa Rick holding Evan on his lap as we are watching Ruffed Grouse out the window – a wonderful shot that foretells our adventures today as the Team.

Can anyone identify the bird that makes a loud chirping sound in the beginning of the video?  You can even see the bird, but it is too far away to ID.  I have identified one of the other bird sounds on the video as the Red-Breasted Nuthatch.

The GBBC – Care to Join Us?

This weekend we will be participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count – a global bird watching project organized by the National Audobon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  It is similar to the annual Christmas Bird Count sponsored by the National Audobon Society since 1900, but for this count you do not have to leave the house.  It is easy to do with kids.  Here is what you need to know:

What: Count the number of each species you see in your yard and submit your results to the Great Backyard Bird Count.

How: Get a printable data sheet here to record bird species and numbers.  When the count starts you then create an account at this same website to submit your results.

Who: Anyone! Novice, expert, young, old, busy, not-so-busy.

When: Friday, February 15th through Monday, February 18th.  You can pick one or all of those days for your observation.  You can even choose the time of day and length of time – even if it’s just 15 minutes.  It is very flexible!

Where: Your own yard!

Why: Scientists and bird enthusiasts need help in tracking the movements of birds.  It is just too broad for any one person or organization to track. Here are some specific questions that can be answered by the collection of this data:

  • How is the weather affecting bird movements?
  • Are there any “irruptive” species, meaning species that shows up in large numbers some years and not others?
  • How do migration patterns compare with the previous years?
  • Are diseases like West Nile impacting populations in certain regions?
  • What kind of species diversity is there in cities compared with rural areas?

Are you interested and want more information? Go directly to the Great Backyard Bird Count website.

Not a birder? I bet you know someone who watches birds, like a parent, grandparent or neighbor who would love to have you over.  Call them up, bring over a box of donuts, and drink some coffee while you count birds for the sake of science.  Birds are a great excuse to go visit loved ones.  So go for it – I promise you’ll have fun.

Evan and I would love to know if you’re joining us – let us know in the comment section.

April Will Be Epic!

Look what I got in the mail today!  Shooting a Wild Turkey is a bucket-list item for me, and now I have the opportunity to make that a reality.  It just so happens that my friend, Terry, has nearly a hundred turkeys running around on his land, and he has given me permission to hunt .  More than that, Terry has ground-blinds set up all over his property with turkey decoys.  He told me to bring a good book and a gun.  He also said Evan, who will be 6, will be the perfect age to sit in the blind and listen and look for turkeys.

Minnesota has eight consecutive turkey seasons in the spring that are each 5 days long. The first season starts April 17th.  To hunt in the first four seasons, you need to have your name drawn in the turkey license lottery.  You can hunt the last four seasons by buying a tag over-the-counter as long as there are still permits available. As you can see, my name was drawn for season B, the second season, which is a Monday through Friday.  I don’t work on Monday, and I may have to take an extra day off to get my bird.  I might be pulling Evan out of school for a day so he can share in this adventure.  I’m excited for this opportunity.  If I see a big, strutting tom, though, I will have a huge dilemma as to whether I should reach for my Canon or my Benelli (12 gauge).

April is also going to be a memorable month because the Team has a huge birding adventure planned.  It’s such a top-secret affair that only a handful of people know about it right now.  In fact, even Evan has no clue it’s going to happen.  For now I’ll just tell you that state lines will be crossed and that Evan and I will be missing some school. So be prepared for some great stories in just two months.  I can’t wait to write them, and I really can’t wait to live them with Evan!