Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
Migration of birds of all species north and south is very different than it was a decade or two ago. That's well-documented for waterfowl in particular in a story in the most recent edition of the magazine Delta Waterfowl sends to members.
The story reports results of study of hunting statistics for the past 25 years.
“What we found,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, president of Delta Waterfowl, “was a phenomenal later shift in the harvest of migrating ducks in the mid-latitude and southern states.”
The information indicates that the birds are migrating later, although Dr. Rohwer did not come right out and say so.
He used Kansas as an example. Average harvest date for Mallards in 1961 was Nov. 7. That date shifted to Dec. 5, 28 days later, in 2008-2009. For duck species resident in those southern hunting areas, birds that would not be migrating, harvest-date patterns were unchanged.
Ducks are staying later into the fall and winter seasons in North and South Dakota, which is why harvest dates to the south are becoming later. In January 2012 a record number of ducks and geese were counted in North Dakota. The article said that lack of snow cover was the primary reason the birds had not moved south.
In South Dakota a similar situation was seen. Nearly a million birds were found during a January 2013 survey.
“Those midwinter numbers and the motivation for waterfowl to migrate south are driven by the amount of snow cover, open water, and periods of cold temperatures,” Dr. Rohwer was quoted as saying.
Is it that climate no longer pushes the ducks south at historic dates? Or, for southern hunters, is it that the ducks don’t get down to them, not having to go as far south to find open water and food (which is climate-related).
The question: Is it climate change or habitat change? Biologists believe it is both.
At Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern South Dakota later migration of geese is more obvious than such for ducks. That information comes from refuge biologist William Schultze.
“Since I began working here in 1976,” he wrote in an email, “the average peak of the Snow Goose migration has shifted from late October to near mid-November.
“I see changes in agricultural practices in North Dakota and Canada as the primary reason for that shift,” he said. “One other factor that might be considered is the amount of wetlands available, at least in northern South Dakota, since the mid-1990s. The larger wetlands that remain open longer can hold a lot of ducks and geese,” he said.
Goose movement was heavy after Nov. 21 at Sand Lake, the date refuge lakes froze over. The number of Snow Geese reported on the refuge on Nov. 20 was 130,000, with 125,000 ducks and 5,000 geese estimated. Five days later the number of Snow Geese was 400, Canada Geese 3,500, ducks 18,000, and swans zero.
This photo of Snow Geese was taken at Sand Lake NWR.
On a recent Saturday morning in the upper right-hand corner of the front page of the StarTribune was the story of the day: Forests in state give way to farmland.
Forests? TREES? Way up there in Cass County??? First it was grasslands, then wetlands, and now we’ve finally gotten around to our forests. The issue of the moment is 1,500 sandy acres in Cass County, perfect for growing potatoes once you get rid of the trees. Potatoes for whom? McDonald’s! Happy Deal!
Genetically modified potatoes, maybe, so that nothing interferes with harvest and profit. We’ve done to that corn and soybeans, which explains in part our continuing loss of grass and water. Easy grow. Easy sell. Easy profit.
Let's use genetics in our favor, either re-modifying the plants or modifying us so that when we even see corn or soybeans we gasp for breath. There must be a gene somewhere in our bodies that could be switched on or off to make these nemesis crops (and from an environmental standpoint that’s what they are) -- to make them inedible.
Of course, pretty soon it will be too warm here for corn to grow, and so to for the particular species of trees facing the plow in Cass County.
Below, a Canada Warbler. In a tree.
Scary thought: by the end of this century or close to it, far northern Minnesota could resemble from a vegetative standpoint our Orono neighborhood, in particular our yard. This would be the undesired result of a warming climate.
I learned that when reading the excellent article on forests of the future in the StarTribune of Sunday, Oct. 20. The article focused on our boreal forest, the forest you see in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
An illustration with the article showed “A possible 2100 BWCA Landscape.” The plants depicted were:
* Little blue stem, a prairie grass that isn’t on our yard but grows about a mile north of us.
* Prickly-pear cactus. We have it in our flowerbeds, imported from Nebraska and South Dakota, and thriving.
* Red oak and burr oak. Not in our yard but close.
*Basswood. We have it.
* Hackberry. We have it.
* Hybrid cattail. We have that, too.
* The only plant I'm not certain of is juniper, although it could be nearby and unnoticed.
That vegetative change, of course, would produce a profound change in bird life as well. Many species would disappear from the state, moving north with the climate and vegetative change.
Minnesota is home in the breeding season to about 20 species of warblers. Several of them depend upon spruce trees, which would be among the plant species considered non-survivors.
Birds are very good at finding specific niches in which they find food. In a single spruce tree you could find five species of warbler making a living, each staking out a particular part of the tree.
Yellow-rumped Warblers feed mostly in the tree’s understory, below 10 feet. The Black-throated Green Warbler works the mid-portion of the tree. It shares these branches with Cape May Warblers. They can share because Black-throated Green hunts on the branches, while Cape May looks for insects attracted by sap on the trunk.
Blackburnian Warblers and Bay-breasted Warblers share the treetops. The former feeds on outer branches and by fly-catching aerial insects, while the latter finds insects closer to the trunk.
You can see what happens to bird diversity as spruce trees fade to cooler climes.
Read the article. Consider our future. Do something about it.
(The information on warblers and spruce trees was taken from the book “How Not to Be Eaten By Insects,” author Gilbert Waldbauer, newly released by University of California Press.)
Below, Black-throated Green Warbler
Fall is a great time to visit Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge in the northwestern corner of the state. Sandhill Cranes are the main attraction right now, with hundreds on the ground and many more on the way.
The refuge serves as staging ground for thousands of migrating cranes moving south from Canada and Alaska. There is a lack of water this year, only an estimated 10 percent of available wetlands actually wet. Cranes, even though they prefer it wet, will stop at the refuge as they migrate through. As many as 4,000 birds can be expected.
Many species of grassland and wetland birds can be seen here during migration, spring in particular, and as nesting residents. Cranes nest here, along with Greater Prairie Chickens and Marbled Godwits. During a visit to the refuge a few years ago I saw my first-ever Badger.
The refuge, about 36,000 acres of land, was established in 2004. Major intent was to preserve and restore native tallgrass prairie and wetlands.
The refuge is featured in the most recent issue of the magazine “Refuge Update,” published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The article notes that reconstruction of prairie at Glacial Ridge is the largest contiguous tallgrass prairie project in U.S. history.
The refuge also is the largest contiguous tract of Wetland Reserve Program land in the state.
Work on restoration and conservation is a join effort between the USFWS, The Nature Conservancy, and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service through its wetland reserve program.
The refuge is located about 50 miles north of Detroit Lakes and 20 miles south of Thief River Falls. Access is from U.S. Highway 2.. Immediately to the east is Rydell National Wildlife Refuge. Not far to the south are three more refuges: Hamden Slough, Tamarac, and Northern Tallgrass Prairie.
It’s a fair drive from the Twin Cities, but Glacial Ridge a beautiful place to visit if you like prairies and prairie wildlife. The other three refuges are, of course, also well worth a visit. (Below, cranes in migration.)
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