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.
Coots are easy prey this time of year, and Bald Eagles know it.
Driving through Crex Meadows Wildlife Area a couple of years ago, just after freeze-up, I discovered a patch of open water on Phantom Lake. Swimming in a pool about 40 by 10 feet were maybe two dozen coots. Coots need to run across the water to gain air speed for takeoff. The pool was short. There were nine Bald Eagles loafing on the ice nearby. I watched one rise and fly to the far end of the pool, then glide its length. The coots knew trouble when they saw it. The roly-poly dark birds jammed against the ice when they ran out of water. The force of the jam popped one of the coots out of the water onto the ice. It was helpless there, not that it mattered for long.The eagle knew exactly what it was doing — herding coots into the lunchroom. The big raptor, feet dangling, swept the luckless coot away, landing far enough from the other eagles to eat undisturbed.
A couple of days ago a South Dakota birder, on that state’s birding email list, described another eagle strategy. This bird found four coots, flew low over them, hovered, forcing a dive. It repeated its hovering until the coots were exhausted. It was no problem then to pluck a coot from the water.
The coot below was found at Rice Lake National Wildllife Refuge, north of here on Highway 65. It was running for that elusive air speed. I took the photo from a very loud, very fast air boat used to tour Rice Lake and count the Ring-necked ducks that gather there by the 10s of thousands in fall migration.
BTW -- Bald Eagles can be found right now on many lakes that are partially ice-clad. On two Lake Minnetonka bays yesterday I saw seven eagles. They sit at ice edge and wait for unwary waterfowl, mostly ducks now, coots having moved on south.
This looks like a slim winter for finches in Minnesota.
Mike Hendrickson, birding guide from Duluth, commented the other day by email that few finches of any species have been seen in Duluth or along the North Shore recently. During a good finch year for us, migrants from Canada would be coming south by now.
This agrees with an annual prediction made several weeks ago by Canadian birder Ron Pittaway. He makes a yearly fall survey of seed crops across northern Canada, gathering information from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and numerous birders. His report is published on the birding email list BirdChat.
His general forecast: “This is not an irruption (flight movement south) year for winter finches.” He expects movement only into what he calls “normal winter ranges.” Those usually do not extend into Minnesota.
Tree-seed crops in Canada are good, offering sufficient winter food for Pine Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, Red and White-winged crossbills, both redpoll species, Pine Siskins, and Evening Grosbeaks.
Our usual best bets for winter finches as far south as the Twin Cities are Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls. Expect few this winter. Most will stay in northern Canada, Pittaway says. He writes of “continent-wide” seed crops in Canada. Trees on which these birds feed include Mountain Ash, buckthorn, birch, alder, spruce, pine, and hemlock. The only tree species for which a poor seed crop is reported is White Pine.
Pittaway also predicted a small to moderate movement south of Blue Jays, no southern movement of Red-breasted Nuthatches, and few Bohemian Waxwings.
For more information go to:
Below, a pair of Common Redpolls photographed at Two Harbors in 2010.
A Ross's Goose, least common of the goose species to be seen in Minnesota, has spent the past several days in Hopkins. Tuesday it was present from early afternoon until dusk at Central Park in Hopkins. The park is adjacent to Excelsior Blvd., just west of 17th Ave. S. The Ross's Goose has been keeping company with several dozen Canada Geese. Ross's is a small goose, no larger than a Mallard, with plumage very similar to Snow Goose. It would be expected to be seen in small numbers the far western portion of the state. It is a beautiful bird.
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the last documented sighting of the Eskimo Curlew. Everything considered, the species is extinct. And if any remain, they would be so difficult to find/see that extinction is the same.
The bird migrated through southwestern Minnesota on its way to the Arctic tundra for nesting and to the far end of South America when nesting ended. The curlew, one of eight species in its family, as numerous as any shorebird, made one of the longest roundtrip migrations of any bird species.
It disappeared for the usual reasons. When we had wiped out the Passenger Pigeon, that source of meat for market gone, hunters next chose Eskimo Curlews, one hunting party able to take thousands of curlews in a few days. As many as two million birds a year were killed annually, according to estimates.
At the same time, the portion of the birds’ migration path through the United States was being plowed for crops. The prairies that provided the insects that fueled the final legs of migration disappeared.
The curlew could not survive that double whammy. The birds were gone about 20 years after the onslaught began. It doesn’t take long if you ignore what you’re doing.
A few Minnesota birders, not many, have in recent springs invested a day or two to drive the state’s southwestern pastures and prairie remnants in search of migrating flocks of plovers. The curlew resembles a plover, if you take a casual look. These birders held thin hope that the curlew was not extinct, its small remaining numbers simply overlooked. They hoped to find the slimmer, slightly taller bird foraging with the plovers, evident to a sharpened eye.
The last confirmed sighting of Eskimo Curlew was in Texas in 1962. A year later – 50 years ago – a specimen was taken on Barbados. That was the end of the official story. Sighting of 23 Eskimo Curlews in Texas in 1981 was termed “reliable,” no evidence presented. Ditto unconfirmed reports from Texas and Canada in 1987, Argentina in 1990, and in Nova Scotia as recently as 2006. Unconfirmed is the key word.
A wonderful book about this bird titled “Last of the Curlews” was published in 1954. Canadian author Fred Bosworth offered a fictional account of a year in the life of the bird. Over 3 million copies have been sold. I’ve read it. It’s a good book, a sad story.
That makes three species of birds once seen in Minnesota and now extinct: the curlew, the Passenger Pigeon, and the Carolina Parakeet. The latter’s range just nicked the southwestern edge of the state.
The drawing is from the late 1800s, artist unknown.
Kingfishers nest on or near property my oldest daughter and her family own in Elk River. A small pond feeds a small creek that runs through their land. Kingfishers have been a fixture there for years. Jill says she sees them in season "all the time, every day." Saturday, one of the adult birds was feeding a youngster. We watched from about 200 yards away, not exactly photography distance. I've tried there before to get pictures of those birds. I've tried many places to do that, to get what I consider decent shots. So far, so-so. So, I set up my photo blind beside the creek Monday morning, in place by 6 o'clock. The first kingfisher rattle -- that's how their call is described -- was heard at 6:26, the second at 7:15. If there was a third call before my departure at 10:30, I missed it. Sighting? Haha.
There was much bird activity, finches, wrens, sparrows dropping from trees to the water to bathe or drink. I saw or heard wood-pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, blackbirds, crows, a robin, a nuthatch, an oriole, and a beautiful Red-shouldered Hawk. I had finches and the wren sitting atop the blind. Eventually, the non-kingfisher activity was sort of annoying, like rubbing it in. I know better. I've done this. Birds are there or they aren't. No need to be annoyed. Still: "all the time, every day."
I had my i Pad with me to play kingfisher calls. Luring birds close with their recorded voices is an iffy proposition. You don't want to fool around with a bird's territorial defense. This being post-breeding, however, I thought I'd try it. I played the call three times. No response. Not enough play? Too much play? The iPad not being a boom-box, could the bird hear the recording? How good are kingfisher ears? Or maybe the bird just didn't give a darn. The questions were annoying.
With the iPad in my lap I could play solitaire to kill some of that birdless time. Four-square is my game. I was dealt terrible hands. It was annoying. Then, the sun came out and the small, airless canvas blind became warm, then humid and hot. My binoculars steamed up. Very annoying.
I packed up and came home. Jill, my daughter, who had not been home during my visit, called about noon to ask how I had done. She sees the birds all the time. In the years I've been visiting there I've never gotten a good look at a perched bird, much less one feeding young. She sounded almost apologetic, offering that she and two of my grandsons had seen the birds Sunday morning at 9:30, "so they must be there." That annoyed me, too.
I'm going back, though, but I wish it was cooler. The blind is like a sauna. It will be a test for me: How badly do I want the photos?
Here's the hawk. Nice bird. Looks like it's molting.
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