Archive for February, 2014

Feb 17 2014

Intrepid Minnesotan

Gray jay in Minnesota (photo by Jessica Botzan)

I’m back in the ‘Burgh with a fond look back at my time in Minnesota at the Sax Zim Bog Birding Festival.

Though I never found a great gray owl I saw seven Life Birds(*) and learned a lot about cold and snow.

Cold… was not a problem.  I didn’t have to cope with the worst of this winter in Minnesota but -13F was a typical morning in the bog.  Three to four layers of clothes are indispensable. Toe warmer heat packets inside Sorel boots are the key to warm feet.  I was never cold.

Snow… is a way of life.  If you’re afraid to drive in snow in Minnesota you’re homebound for half the year.  So you just do it.

Minnesota snowplows are awesome, huge, coordinated.  I arrived during a Winter Weather Advisory (4”-6”) and left during a Winter Storm Warning (5”-7”).  No problem.  All the roads and parking lots were plowed, not to bare pavement but quite passable.  The Duluth airport was plowed down to bare pavement.  My flight home was delayed only by de-icing.  Check out this video of clearing the runway.

Birds … are intrepid in Minnesota’s winters.  The easiest to find are ravens and black-capped chickadees.  The rarest are Carolina wrens and robins.  The gray jay is the cutest and the most intrepid.

Gray jays (Perisoreus canadensis) look like oversized chickadees but have the typical corvid attitude.  They’re bold and curious and willing to eat anything including berries, insects, fungi, other species’ nestlings and small mammals.

Jess Botzan saw this one at Sax Zim Bog during the coldest of the cold weather last month and the bird wasn’t phased by it. Gray jays are so intrepid that they lay eggs in March while temperatures are still below freezing and snow is on the ground.  They don’t even bother to nest again in May and June when the weather is easy.

Like everyone else in Minnesota, the gray jay is intrepid in snow and cold.

 

(photo by Jessica Botzan)

(*) Life Birds seen:  Pine grosbeak, black-billed magpie, boreal chickadee, gray jay, northern hawk owl, black-backed woodpecker, Bohemian waxwing.

One response so far

Feb 17 2014

I Climbed Lake Superior

Published by under Travel,Weather & Sky

Walking on Lake Superior, 16 Feb 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

Yesterday’s Sax-Zim-Festival field trip to Duluth held an unexpected surprise.  Every year the birding trip stops at Stoney Point to observe gulls and waterfowl in the open water on Lake Superior.  But there is no open water.  The lake is 95% frozen.  Locals say this hasn’t happened for 20 years.

In the absence of birds we walked down to the lake, and then on it — a moonscape experience.

The inshore ice was flat and walkable but the pressure of offshore ice and wind had left a landscape of broken plates stacked in piles and covered in snow.

Ice chards at Lake Superior (photo by Kate St. John)

Each piece was thick and clear like a pane of glass.
Man holding ice chard from Lake Superior (photo by Kate St. John)

Fifty yards out the pressure was orogenic, so strong that it created a mountain ridge of bluish, broken ice more than 15 feet tall, so high we couldn’t see the lake beyond it.

Blue ice on Lake Superior, 16 Feb 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)

 

In this video from my cell phone you can see how big and strange it is.

 

Inevitably, the ice mountain posed an irresistible challenge.  Two guys climbed it.  Eventually I climbed too.  Going up was like climbing a hill of shale but coming down was a butt-slide in an ice cube tray.

So now I have three “Life Lake” experiences:  I saw Lake Superior for the first time, I walked on it, and then I climbed it.

 

(photos and video by Kate St. John)

3 responses so far

Feb 16 2014

Boreal Birding

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Boreal chickadee (photo by Jessica Botzan)

After two days of birding in northern Minnesota I’ve seen seven Life Birds.  This species is one of them.

I’ve tried to find boreal chickadees in Maine in September and come up empty, perhaps because the weather was too pleasant.  In Minnesota in the depths of winter they come to the peanut butter feeders at Sax Zim Bog.  Life bird at last!

This is one bird you must visit at his home if you want to see him.  Boreal chickadees (Poecile hudsonicus) never migrate so you won’t see one passing through in spring or fall.  They live exclusively in the “spruce moose” forest where they survive the winter by stashing food at every opportunity.

It’s a harsh landscape in winter.  As I have learned from personal experience, a typical birding day may yield only 10 species.  The only boreal species I’m missing, and probably won’t see on this trip, is the great gray owl.

Sandy Komito, record holder of the North American Big Year since 1998(*), spoke at the Sax Zim Bog Festival on Friday night.  What bird did he miss in northern Minnesota during his Big Year?  Great gray owl.   So I don’t feel so bad.

To make up for it, I saw a moose.

 

(photo by Jessica Botzan)

(*) Last December (2013) Neil Hayward beat Sandy Komito’s record by one bird.  His record is not official until the local states’ records committees pass judgment on three first ABA records.  Click here for a photo of them together.

7 responses so far

Feb 15 2014

Owl In Full Sun

Northern hawk owl (photo by Jessica Botzan)

Yesterday at Sax Zim Bog was bright, both day and night.  It began with a full moon at -13F and peaked at 10F with this bird.

My Life Bird northern hawk owl was perched on top of a tree near the road, easy to see.  He eyed us with suspicion as we trundled off the bus and stood in the road, staring at him.  Do his eyebrows give him that disapproving look?

When he wasn’t staring back at us he scanned the bog for prey.  I’ve read that northern hawk owls have perfected the technique of hunting by sight and can identify prey as much as half a mile away.

It helps to be in full sun if you need to see a vole at 2,640 feet.

 

p.s. Jess Botzan was lucky to capture this one in flight. I have never yet seen one fly.

(photo by Jessica Botzan)

2 responses so far

Feb 14 2014

Call Me Crazy

Great gray owl at Sax Zim Bog (photo by Jessica Botzan).

I am really tired of cold weather and the effort it takes to walk around in heavy clothes and boots.  I can hardly wait for spring and yet … I flew north yesterday to the Arrowhead of Minnesota where the high temperatures are lower than Pittsburgh’s lows, the lows have been -30F, and it snowed six inches yesterday.  What was I thinking?

Well, I have a list of northern birds I’ve never seen and my best chance to find them is at the Sax Zim Bog Birding Festival this weekend in Meadowlands, Minnesota.

Jess and Brian Botzan were here last month and saw all the birds on my wish list: great gray owl, northern hawk owl, boreal chickadee, black-billed magpie, gray jay and pine grosbeak.  Braving -50F wind chill Jess photographed this great gray owl at the very bog where I’ll be looking for one today.  I hope to be so lucky.

So I’ve put on my long johns, corduroys, ski pants, turtleneck, thick wool sweater, polarlite cardigan, parka, Nordic earflap hat, two layers of mittens, wool socks, Sorel boots, face mask, bula and “Hot Hands” heat packets stuffed near my toes and fingers.  I look and feel like a purple Pillsbury dough-boy but I am not cold.

My husband, who is too nearsighted to enjoy birding, has wisely stayed home.

Call me crazy.  ;)

 

(photo by Jessica Botzan)

p.s. Thanks to Jess Botzan who’s providing photos from her trip to illustrate my expedition.

7 responses so far

Feb 13 2014

Great Backyard Bird Count Starts Tomorrow

Published by under Books & Events,Quiz

American goldfinches at the feeder (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Fill your feeders and get ready for the bird count you can do in your pajamas.

For four days — tomorrow February 14 through Monday February 17 — you can participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count from the comfort of your home.  All you need to do is count birds for at least 15 minutes, keep track of the highest number of each species you see, and record your count on eBird (instructions here).  If you take pictures, submit them to the GBBC Photo Contest.

Join with others across the continent in this weekend science project.  Your data will show trends in winter bird populations across North America as you can see in these statistics from prior years.

Don’t want to stay indoors?  You can count birds anywhere or join others at one of these local events. (Scroll down for the many events in Pennsylvania.)  Here’s how to participate no matter where you choose to count.

Meanwhile, you can practice counting with this photo by Marcy Cunkelman.  What species and how many birds are in the picture?

 

(photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

2 responses so far

Feb 12 2014

Another Visit to Gulf Tower

Published by under Peregrines

Peregrine at teh Gulf Tower nest, 12 Feb 2014

Today at 5:00pm!   The visit lasted just a minute.

Fingers crossed that this falcon likes what she sees and decides to put her eggs here!

 

(photo from the National Aviary falconcam at Gulf Tower)

p.s. Here’s why we have our fingers crossed.

No responses yet

Feb 12 2014

We’re Getting There

Published by under Peregrines

Streaming falconcam installation at Pitt (photo by Kate St. John)

Those of you who watch the Cathedral of Learning falconcams noticed that the streaming camera disappeared on Monday and didn’t come back right away.  Here’s why.

On Monday morning, the University of Pittsburgh, the National Aviary and PixController teamed up to replace the old streaming video camera (“CAM1″) with a new high definition camera.  Here you see Dave Marti of Pitt and Bill Powers of PixController preparing to install the new cam.

In the background Bob Mulvihill of the National Aviary held a broom to protect the team from peregrine attacks but the birds didn’t put in an appearance.  It was too gray and cold (18F) and Dorothy was sleeping off her breakfast on the other side of the building.   The broom came in handy for sweeping away the snow.

Broom sweeping snow away from nest area (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera at Univ of Pittsburgh)

The nest ledge is so cramped that Dave and Bill had to use the nest surface.

Installing the new streaming falconcam (photo from the National Aviary falconcam a Univ of Pittsburgh)

Installation of streaming falconcam at Cathedral of Learning (photo from the National Aviary snapshot camera)

The job was finished by noon but the camera didn’t work right away. Soon it was clear that the camera had to be “factory reset” before it would talk to the Internet.   Ack!

We reconvened yesterday afternoon.  Bill went out on the ledge, removed the camera dome and hit the reset button. Indoors, I used a computer to configure the camera.  Bob held the broom and was again disappointed that the peregrines did not show up.

Though the camera isn’t broadcasting yet the first big hurdle is over.  It’s installed and operating before the February 15 deadline that prohibits nest ledge access of this Pennsylvania endangered species.

Here’s what the camera looks like from the maintenance screen.

Screenshot from the Cathedral of Learning falconcam, 12 Feb 2014

In the next few days WildEarth will configure the stream and the camera will become visible to the world.

We’re getting there.

 

(outdoor photo by Kate St. John, remaining photos from the National Aviary falconcams at the Cathedral of Learning)

p.s.

5 responses so far

Feb 11 2014

Subtle Differences

Published by under Beyond Bounds

Faces of green-winged and scarlet macaws (photos from Wikmedia Commons)

If you were paying close attention to last Wednesday’s post about scarlet macaws you noticed that I changed the photo on Friday. That’s because Diane Korolog pointed out that the original photo was misidentified.

When I first published the article I used the photo on the left (green background).  It’s a 2013 Featured Photo on Wikimedia Commons that was labeled “scarlet macaw” but Diane said it looks like a green-winged macaw (Ara chloropterus).  The scarlet macaw (Ara macao) is on the right.

How can you tell the difference with only a head shot?  Diane explained that the scarlet macaw has a clean all-white face, while the green-wing’s face has red feather lines.  The feather lines are so unique that you can identify individual green-winged macaws by their pattern.  This is as cool as identifying individual tundra swans by the yellow patterns on their bills.

The story doesn’t end there.  On Friday I wrote to Information at Wikimedia Commons, explaining the labeling problem.  A volunteer put me in touch with the photographer in Germany and we discussed the problem online.

Tuxyso photographed the bird at the Muenster Zoo where both scarlet and green-winged macaws live in the Tropical Hall exhibit. He labeled the photo “scarlet macaw” because this bird has the yellow wing feathers diagnostic of Ara macao.  But he isn’t a scarlet macaw.  The Muenster Zoo website held the hint to this bird’s true identity.

I can’t read German so I used Google Translate on the link Tuxyso provided.  The zoo explains that in the wild scarlet and green-winged macaws don’t interbreed but in the exhibit a scarlet and a green-winged secretly paired up and produced a hybrid offspring.  Tuxyso called the zoo and confirmed that the bird in his photograph is the scarlet-X-green-winged hybrid.

Everyone was right. This bird is both.

Subtle differences are important.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons: on left hybrid macaw by Tuxyso via Creative Commons license, on right scarlet macaw photo in the public domain)

2 responses so far

Feb 10 2014

Fresh Water At Risk

Published by under Musings & News

Aqueduct mapping tool screen shot at World Resources Institute

In the U.S. we tend to think that oil is the most precious and contested substance on earth because we hear about it in the media every day:  oil exploration, spills, oil prices and wars.  But if you think competition for oil is bad, water is worse.  Oil is a luxury, water is a basic necessity and clean fresh water is getting harder to find.

Last month the World Resources Institute (WRI) published Aqueduct, an interactive tool that measures and maps water risk.  From the maps I learned that water woes come in many flavors.

Some are naturally caused:   (This is not an exhaustive list!)

Others have man-made origins:

Water is very complicated,” says WRI.

Try their Aqueduct interactive tool to see where water is at risk.  You may be surprised at what you find in Wisconsin, Michigan and Cape Cod.

 

(screenshot of the Aqueduct mapping tool at World Resources Institute. Click on the image to use the tool)

2 responses so far

« Prev - Next »

Bird Stories from OnQ