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.
You are looking (photo below) at a wall of glass, the entire south side of the National Eagle Center building in Wabasha, Minnesota. Lots of reflections in what is plain old window glass. The building is 100 feet from the Mississippi River, and faces due south, into the teeth of spring migration.
And how many birds die here each spring season? It used to be about 100, the small warning decals here and there on the glass (look closely) making little difference. That number has been reduced by 80 percent in recent years by one simple change: All — ALL — the lights in the building are turned off every night during migration months. Even security lights go dark. (A close look also will reveal the interior lights on the high ceiling.)
Eagle Center staff discovered that the birds — mostly night migrants, as is the usual case — were attracted to lights. Whatever was applied to the glass made little or no difference in the dark because the birds could see neither glass nor warnings. The birds flew to the light, even the smallest glimmer.
Putting the building into dark mode made a big difference.
Three American Woodcock captured at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge last fall are playing a major role in a project aimed at tracking the birds’ migratory moves. The three are among several woodcock carrying tiny solar-powered satellite transmitters that mark locations every 48 hours.
You can follow the birds’ movements both on wintering grounds and as they begin spring migration back to Minnesota. (That should be underway very soon.) Go to http://www.ruffedgrousesociety.org/woodcockmigration.
One of the birds was in southern Arkansas yesterday, Sunday, March 8, moving north from Louisiana, where it had spent most of the winter. A second bird was in western Arkansas, near the Oklahoma border. It, too, had moved north from Louisiana. The third bird was in northwestern Mississippi on March 4. On the maps, click on the colored dots to find and track the birds.
Project sponsors — multiple organizations including the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources — plan to have 45 birds carrying transmitters a year from now.
The transmitters are similar to those being used to follow migration of Purple Martins from nesting locations in North Dakota. The transmitters placed on Snowy Owls during the 2013-14 winter, including a bird that over-wintered here, are similar, but download information via cell-phone towers.
The transmitters on the woodcock must be recovered for the information to be secured.
This has nothing to do with the tracking project, but below is a photo of a woodcock head and bill. I found this last spring at a location where the birds had been preforming courtship displays. I’ve no idea how the bird lost its head.
I found the bill interesting. The lower third of the bill contains sensitive nerve endings that help the bird locate earthworms, a major food item. Look closely for the tiny holes that I believe aid in prey location. The tip of the upper mandible can be opened while the bill is underground, allowing the bird to grasp worms and pull them from the ground. The bird’s tongue and the underside of the mandible are rough-surfaced to provide a good grip. The bird then sucks the worm into its bill.
Woodcock return to Minnesota from now through early May, with mid-April a migration peak. Warmer weather could advance the later dates.
Many Snowy Owls are being reported in Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin again this winter, although it’s nothing like last year. Not yet, anyway.
Project SnowStorm, the owl tracking effort that began last winter, is back in business, its blog on-line and available (http://www.projectsnowstorm.org). The blog is keeping track of current sightings.
One recent post was written by Jean-Francois Therrien, senior research biologist at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. He’s been studying Snowy Owls in the Arctic for years with Laval University in Quebec. His report documents a 2014 owl breeding season that surpasses the 2013 season believed to result in the mass movement south last year.
The study Therrien is doing is on Bylot Island in Nunavut, Canada, above Baffin Island. The core study area covers 39 square miles. Previous record number of nests found there was 13, in 2004. This past summer the team found 20, a high density.
Expanding the count area brought the total nests found to 116, far more than the previous high count of 33, from 2010 in the same area. Lemming density was lower this past summer than in 2013, however, so it is expected that fewer young Snowy Owls fledged. “Nonetheless,” Therrien wrote in the blog, “we are expecting to see some Snowies this winter, but we’ll have to wait to see if the numbers get close to what we had last winter.”
It also was reported that some of the owls equipped with geolocaters last winter are beginning to move south into cell-phone range. This is important because the data collected on the devices, strapped to the owls’ backs as they spent their summer in their Arctic breeding territory, record and store the information, downloading it when the birds get within range of a cell-phone tower. Analysis of the information so far available is underway.
Owls coming down this season also will be tagged when possible. The study continues. Stay tuned.
Tens of thousands of finches were counted at Hawk Ridge in Duluth this fall, in addition to 59,000 raptors. Below is the seasonal summary as written by Karl Bardon, count director for the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory (www.hawkridge.org). He posted this Wednesday on the email network of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. Bardon predicts that you will see some of those finches -- Common Redpolls -- at your feeders in coming weeks.
The official counting season at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory for the fall
2014 season ended on Nov. 30. Although the raptor migration was
fairly average with a total of over 59,000 raptors counted, the non-raptor
migration was the best ever, with a total of over 357,000 non-raptors
counted (this is over 38,000 birds above the previous high season, and over
70,000 birds above average).
Much of this high count is due to the amazing
count of 111,320 finches, including 15,276 Purple Finches, 38,440 Common
Redpolls, and 52,389 Pine Siskins. This is the highest season to date for
all three of these species, but where did they all go? Judging from mou-net
postings, no large numbers of these finches have been reported south of
Duluth. It would seem that a major invasion of these species is underway,
so it will be interesting to see when and how many of these birds show up
in the south.
Duluth is certainly one of the best places in the country to
see finch migration, but this year the numbers were simply overwhelming!
For those who did not witness the daily barrage of flock after flock after
flock of finches moving down the shore, it may be difficult to conceive
just how many birds these totals represent. Even more amazingly, radar work
by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggests this diurnal migration counted
at Hawk Ridge may just be the tip of the iceberg, with unknown additional thousands
of finches potentially moving over at night.
Interestingly, this is not the first time a major invasion of redpolls passed
through Duluth without being recorded in the south, since the same thing
happened in 2011 when over 37,000 Common Redpolls were counted at
Hawk Ridge (mostly in late October). Although Common Redpolls are
generally thought to be on a biannual cycle, current data from Hawk Ridge
shows high numbers of Common Redpolls every three years,
including 20,139 in 2008, 37,759 in 2011, and 38,440 in 2014
(most of which were in November). So will redpolls show up at your feeder
this winter? I sure think so!
Daily updates of migration throughout the season are provided at
www.hawkcount.org/hawkridge, and weekly blogs summarizing the
count areprovided at http://hawkridgeblog.blogspot.com
Below, a Common Redpoll.
Interested in a little holiday birdwatching? This is a very good time of year to find eagles south of the Twin Cities along the Mississippi River. The opportunity will continue through the winter where there is open water.
The areas from Red Wing south will be good all the way down to Brownsville. Wabasha has eagles in addition to the National Eagle Center, well worth a visit.
From Red Wing south you can find hundreds of Bald Eagles, sometimes dozens in one location. Look on the ice, and in shoreline trees. You will be on Highway 61, a busy road. Get off the road to view the birds. Don’t try to do your watching from a moving car.
The Tundra Swans that rest late each fall in the wide backwaters of the river at what is called Weaver Bottoms have mostly moved on, continuing migration to Chesapeake Bay. As of last Friday, the 21st, a few hundred remained far from shore at that location. A spotting scope would be necessary for good looks. A good site is called Pool Eight, meaning there is a dam and locks at that river location. Check a map for precise locations.
Best viewing for swans is past. On a good day earlier in November at the right location tens of thousands of Tundra Swans can be seen. Put it on your 2015 list of things to do.
In deep open water, the river channel, you presently can find thousands of diving ducks and mergansers. A scope will make viewing much more enjoyable.
Given this abrupt start to serious winter weather, a trip sooner than later will be best. Much of the river is frozen over, and more certainly will freeze.
Both sides of the river offer viewing opportunities, by the way (although the Minnesota side brings you closer to the water). Cross at Winona, and return north on the Wisconsin side.
Below, Bald Eagles on river ice near Wabasha, and Tundra Swans at the Weaver Bottoms.
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