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.
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.
This isn't like last winter when Snowy Owls were here in large numbers, but a few have been reported in Minnesota to date. Weather aside, it is early in the season. This information comes from the hotline report issued weekly by the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union.
This week, one has been seen near Long Prairie, four and a half miles north of town along Todd County Road 6. A Snowy Owl has been seen near Rush City in Chisago County. The bird was reported as along County Road 3 about a quarter mile east of County Road 30. Two have been seen in Sherburne County, north of Big Lake and south of U.S. Highway 10 along County Road 17.
And in downtown Minneapolis, an owl was reported as being on the corner of Washington Avenue and Third Avenue.
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.
That Rufous Hummingbird that found itself trapped by weather at a St. Paul feeder earlier this month is flying free in Texas.
It was released near Austin yesterday (Sunday) after a free ride on a corporate jet. The donor asked to be anonymous.
The bird was captured Nov. 11, and taken to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota. It was discovered by Terri Walls as it fed at a nectar feeder she keeps in her front yard. Capture was all that was going to save the bird’s life.
It was stuck here because once it left that St. Paul feeder the chance of it finding other food sources was nil.
The bird wandered from its breeding range in the Northwest. At the time of its capture it should have been in Mexico.
Many birders came the Walls’ yard see it, Rufous Hummingbirds highly uncommon here. This was the 16th time that species has been reported in Minnesota.
While at the rehab center the hummingbird was fed a special diet, and gained significant weight, from three grams to four. It was undernourished because the sugar water it was eating in St. Paul, a common formula for feeder nectar, lacks protein and other diet essentials.
Feeder nectar is good when the birds can feed naturally, using feeders as supplemental. It won’t put pre-migration fat on the bird.
Staff at the rehab center, guided by executive director Phil Jenni, worked hard to ensure that the bird received proper care here, and would have a safe trip to wherever. Discussions were held with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas wildlife officials, and other rehabbers.
Eventually, the offer of a free trip was received. The jet was going to Austin anyway, and had room for the bird.
A wildlife rehabber in Austin received delivery of the bird, then released it.
If you had been inclined to pay for the bird’s trip to Austin, via a small hired jet — not that anyone was likely to do that — your bill would have been between $18,000 and $22,000.
The free ride was a good deal.
Gyrfalcon (we should be so lucky)
Common Eider, female: two plus a juvenile seen in Duluth and Two Harbors recently.
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