Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas Bird Count 2014: Quiet

Participating in the annual Christmas Bird Count has become a tradition I look forward to eagerly. It's a chance to devote half a day, or more, to looking for birds and documenting the number of each species we see, as well as our time spent and mileage covered by car and on foot, to aid in interpreting the numbers reported. I've also written here about the Christmas Bird Counts of 2009, 20102011, and 2013. As in the past, we were assigned to a rural area east and south of Northfield, as well as a good portion of Northfield's east side.

Relatively mild at about 30-32 F. all morning, it was also gray and chillingly damp, though thankfully not windy. Ponds were frozen, while creeks were open. The mantra of the day for our group of four turned out to be, "Boy, it's really quiet out there." While we saw some decent action at a few homesteads that had well-stocked feeders, we came up dry at many others, including those at my own house. It wasn't always literally quiet, as we had an ample number of crows cawing raucously, but there were a lot of places that seemed unexpectedly bird-free.

Open water at the creek west of Dennison -- but no birds

The photo above is taken from the highway bridge just west of Dennison. Every year I get my hopes up for this creek, which often offers open water and seems so inviting from a human perspective, but once again there was nothing to see.

Here are our results for the morning. Occasionally birds (mostly chickadees and nuthatches) were identified by sound though not seen.

  • 2 Canada geese
  • 55 mallards, seen in many small groups overhead, flying with their characteristic rapid wingbeats, and in a large congregation on the open creek in the golf course
  • 1 ring-necked pheasant. Pheasant numbers are down so much in the last few years that this was now considered a lucky sighting.
  • 1 sharp-shinned hawk seen flying through woods (I missed seeing this. Darn!)
  • 1 red-tailed hawk
  • 19 rock pigeons (your standard barnyard or urban pigeon) on silos
  • 5 mourning doves
  • 1 red-bellied woodpecker
  • 5 downy woodpeckers
  • 1 hairy woodpecker
  • 12 blue jays
  • 52 American crows
  • 14 black-capped chickadees
  • 7 white-breasted nuthatches
  • 43 dark-eyed juncos, including a flock of 35 seen on the west edge of the Sibley School natural area
  • 5 northern cardinals
  • 39 house finches, the majority of them in one large group at a rural homestead with plenty of large trees and well-stocked feeders
  • 22 house sparrows, mostly in one large group at the pond west of Archibald Street and just north of Jefferson Parkway; we first caught sight of a few of them on top of and going into a wood duck box. 
This total of 18 species is the same as our total in 2011 (the last count I can find detailed notes for). Species seen then that we did not see yesterday included the European starling, wild turkey, American robin, American goldfinch, and northern shrike. Species seen yesterday that we did not see in 2011 included Canada goose, ring-necked pheasant, sharp-shinned hawk, rock pigeon, and hairy woodpecker. I always hope to see snow buntings or horned larks for the CBC, but there were none to be seen yesterday, nor (ambitious hope) a snowy owl, for which there have been sightings in Rice County in the past week or so.

Non-avian sightings included plenty of squirrels and, notably, a mink that was being eyed warily by a pair of mallards on Spring Creek on the east edge of Northfield.

I was happy to see several new participants at our Northfield-based count, including my longtime friend Mary, who came along in our group, as well as the now-familiar friends who are faithful to this effort. Thanks as always to Gene Bauer for organizing the bird count for the Northfield area, Gene and his wife Susan for their hospitality for the pre-count breakfast and post-count lunch, and the other bird enthusiasts, both experienced and developing, who showed up and helped make it a fun day of comradery and citizen science.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Leaf-fall and Autumn Birdwatching

We have a large, beautiful maple tree in front of our house, which makes a nice staging point for birds coming to our feeders. In the summer, we may hear the birds in the tree, but we don't see them until they leave the thick leafy cover. In the fall, for a week or two the tree is gloriously golden-pink, and then, of course, the leaves fall. My sadness at losing the color is never long-lived, because as the leaves drop, the birds become visible in the tree once more and I know we have entered one of our most satisfying birdwatching seasons. Our summer birds have departed, the goldfinches have put on their winter plumage, the dark-eyed juncos have arrived for the season, and we are ready to hunker down by the living room window, camera and binoculars at hand, so see what we will see.

Our maple on October 17

Downy Woodpecker with backdrop of golden leaves, October 17

What we lose in leafy loveliness, we'll gain in bird visibility.
October 24

Winter-plumage American Goldfinch

This female Red-bellied Woodpecker has become a regular visitor
to the peanut feeder as the light starts to fade each recent evening. When she
leaves the feeder, I can see her moving higher and higher in the maple tree.

The coiled whole-peanut feeder caught some falling leaves.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

October in the Arb

I've been resting a troublesome foot and so it has been weeks since I've taken a good walk in the Arb (the Carleton College Cowling Arboretum). Today I could not stay away, and so I walked gently for two and half miles through the eastern side of the Lower Arb. While the trees are more spectacular in town, where there are many brilliant maples, autumn in the Arb has its own mellow beauty -- the beauty of dried grasses and hard or fluffy seed pods, of shimmering milkweed floss, of rusty oaks and burgundy sumac and the sparkle of low sun skimming across the prairie.
















Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Birds and the Vikings Stadium

Below is the text of an email I sent today to the Chair, Executive Director and Director of Communications for the Metropolitan Sports Facility Authority regarding the proposed use of special glass that will greatly reduce the incidence of birds striking this glass-heavy, spectacular new stadium located along a key North American bird migration path, the Mississippi flyway. More information on this topic, and contact information for key decision-makers, is available here:
And I'd like to follow that last article's title with the comment that because such a major flyway is involved, this is decidedly NOT just a threat to Minnesota's birds. Birds that use the Mississippi flyway during migration may very well be coming from or returning to other states in the U.S., Canada, the Arctic, Mexico, Central America and/or South America. State boundaries have very little relevance here. These are the Western Hemisphere's birds.

My email:
With great concern, as a birder, nature blogger, Minnesota Master Naturalist volunteer, conservationist and long-time Minnesota resident, I most strongly urge you to act to protect birds from the foreseeable effects of such a large glass structure located so close to the Mississippi flyway. 
As a strategic communications professional (at Neuger Communications Group, where I am a vice president and senior communications counselor), I also urge you to take this step. It will be truly a shame if this beautiful, world-class, publicly supported facility is forever tainted in the minds of many game and event attendees, and many more who will not be in a position to attend, as a bird-killer. 
The pledge to adjust lighting when possible during key migration periods is important, and to be applauded. The choice also to use bird-friendlier glass is one that can still be made, and now is the time to make it -- for good public relations, and because it is the right thing to do for the survival of the beings with whom we share this continent. 
Please, please, find the funds and make this happen.

(Note: This post was amended August 7 to add the link to the Audubon petition to the Vikings.)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Midsummer Prairie - But Where Are the Bees and Butterflies?

Yesterday I took a long, leisurely walk through prairie and oak savanna habitats in Carleton College's Cowling Arboretum. It was a day that seemed to presage autumn, with moderate temperatures and a good breeze pushing clouds that occasionally looked stormy, though we got no rain.

Compass plant is the tallest flower on the scene, routinely reaching
 5-6' or more.

Lush mix of grasses and flowering plants

I think this is hoary vervain (Verbena
 stricta
).  I'm sure someone will let me know if it's not.


Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) and grasses blowing in the wind

But where were the bees and butterflies? Granted, it was a windy day, which probably accounts for a good part of the quiet, but at least low down among the thick stems I would have expected to see the landscape busy with insect activity -- but I barely saw any.



In fact, I've seen very few butterflies or bees at all this year. At home, my flowering thyme, bee balm and Joe Pye weed should be humming with bees, but I've seen only a couple here and there, and a couple of butterflies. There are many factors at play, including our cold spring, but something certainly doesn't feel right.