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.
Winter Wrens, on their way north and certainly appropriate for viewing today (Monday) were easy to find at Westwood Hills Nature Center this morning. Walking 200 yards east and west along the trail that circles the lake, beginning below the nature center building, I had nine sightings and two hearings in about 30 minutes. Some of the birds certainly were seen more than once. I'd guess six individuals were playing mouse in the scramble of fallen trees, limbs, leaves, and brush along the trail. The birds flushed from the thickest parts. That's were they landed, too, for the most part. Two of them stayed in the open long enough for good looks and photos. They really do remind me of mice: dark brown darters among the forest debris. Fiight is brief, airborne dashes from one hiding place to another. A diversion was turkey courtship. Two toms were displaying for half a dozen hens responding, if at all, in ways only a turkey would recognize. The turkeys were not hard to find: they were displaying on the pathway I walked for wrens. Moving quietly I easily got within 50 feet of the birds. Westwood Hills is a compact woods/prairie/marsh/lake complex just south of I-394. Exit at Louisiana, take the service road (Wayzata Blvd.) west to Texas, and follow the signs. The center is well-maintained, has feeders, nest boxes, benches, a lovely pond/waterfall/stream display, and plenty of wildlife. When the snow is gone and the birds are here, Westwood will make a particularly fine walk. Here are two of the turkeys, with a closeup of breeding adornments (snood, wattles, beard), and one of the wrens.
This Rusty Blackbird was foraging in a waterless pond in the Bass Pond area in Bloomington. I watched it several days ago, the day I got my best looks at one of the Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows that were being seen along the river backwater shoreline there.
The first picture in this sequence shows the bird with a snail it just pulled from the mud. The bird found the snail beneath a leaf, methodically working its way across the pond, flipping leaves in a search for food. In the second picture the bird holds the shell with its foot as it pulls the snail loose. And in the third picture, it’s snail for lunch.
Four or five Rusty Blackbirds were in the area that day. They were moving through on migration.
The Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow that has been drawing birders to a site in Bloomington was on location Monday. About 30 people got a good look. The bird is a lingering migrant that has found cattail habitat at the Bass Ponds to its liking. The ponds are part of a Bloomington natural history area. The land is on the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Google “bass ponds bloomington’ for information and directions. It’s an excellent place to see birds of many kinds – songbirds, shorebirds, water birds, raptors, and more.
The sparrow has most recently been seen foraging out of the cattails on a small mud flat adjacent to a beaver dam near the shore of a backwater of the Minnesota River. The best place for viewing is a narrow strip of land leading to the dam. It was crowded on Monday; see photo.
I took pictures before and after the crowd. Also present for photographs were an American Pipit, Rusty Blackbirds, a Swamp Sparrow, a Red-tailed Hawk, a male Harrier, and Canada Geese. Today, the flight path of passenger planes landing at the International Airport was directly overhead. Every few minutes a large plane roared past, making conversation impossible, but having no apparent impact on the birds.
This sparrow species nests as near as Aitkin County, in the large marsh straddling Highway 65 south of the town of Aitkin. It also can be found in Crex Meadows Wildlife Area north of Grantsburg, Wis. Range maps show its breeding territory angling from northwest Minnesota far into Canada.
This particular individual (or more; as many as five were accounted for one afternoon two or three weeks ago) is popular because it is easy to see (duh). During spring, when it is singing on territory, it’s a tough one. It sings from down in the grass and reeds, rarely coming into view. Its song is small and weak, an unmusical tsssk. This then is an opportunity not often available. The bird is likely to be here until foul weather pushes it south.
Birders are below, followed by the object of their affection, Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow.
Winter is the time when your feeders can be filled with finches. Or not.
It depends a great deal on the coniferous and hardwood seed crops in Canada. Various finches eat various seeds. The seed crop varies year to year by tree species and geography. Seed crops are assessed each fall by a small army of observers from Manitoba east through Canada to the maritime provinces. Reports are gathered, and man named Ron Pittaway of Minden, Ontario, fashions a finch forecast. He speculates on southward movement by several species.
In general, it would be better if Minnesota were an eastern state instead of being toward the western edge of the Canadian forests where these birds spend most of their lives.
Cone crops are poor in eastern Canada, but "much better," according to Pittaway, in the Hudson Bay lowlands (north, northeast of us), and northwestern Ontario west to Alberta and beyond.
Pittaway posts his report on the birding email network BirdChat. Species by species, this is what he sees.
Pine Grosbeak: Mountain ash berry crop variable in northern forests, in part due to drought. What ash berries and ornamental crabapples there are will go fast. Grosbeaks are expected to use black oil sunflower seed at feeders, and buckthorn berries. We could see Pine Grosbeaks in more than usual numbers in northern counties. Birds drifting into central Minnesota are possible
Purple Finch: A strong migration south out of eastern Ontario is expected. Seed crops there are very low. Pittaway says that, "Purple Finch numbers have dropped significantly in recent decades as spruce budworm outbreaks subsided. Currently, a moderate population decline continues in the province."
Red Crossbill: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports a strong southerly migration of this species throughout the northern U.S. Minnesota, including the Twin Cities, saw a brief flare of crossbills in late summer and early fall. Reports of that species have been non-existent in recent weeks.
White-winged Crossbills: Not expected to move south of Canadian breeding habitat.
Common Redpoll: Pittaway predicts a "good southward flight" because of a poor birch seed crop across the north. He recommends Niger thistle seed, and suggests watching for these birds not only at feeders but also in birches and weedy fields. I've seen flocks of hundreds of redpolls rise from tall grasses along roadways.
Pine Siskin: Movement south in the northeast, but over-wintering in northwestern Ontario where seed crops are good. Siskins wander, however.
Evening Grosbeak: This is a species seen each year in limited numbers from Aitkin County north. They can be found in the Sax-Zim birding area north of Duluth (Google Sax-Zim; the name comes from abandoned small towns). Pittaway says most movement south by this species will be in the northeast. Population of this bird is low, he says. It thrives on spruce budworm outbreaks.
Other species he mentions:
Red-breasted Nuthatches north of Minnesota are expected to stay there. Bohemian Waxwings, however, could come down in larger-than-usual numbers because of the poor Mountain Ash crop to our north. Mike Hendrickson, birding guide from Duluth, reports that the North Shore has a good crop of berries this year. He's hopeful that we're looking at a good winter for Bohemian Waxwings. The North Shore is the place to look for these birds, Duluth to Grand Marais.
Photos: Male (top) and female Pine Grosbeaks, both photographed at feeders in the Sax-Zim area north of Duluth.
A rally to encourage restoration of the Old Cedar Avenue bridge will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at the bridge site in Bloomington. Gov. Mark Dayton is scheduled to speak. Prior to 2002, the bridge was a magnet for birders wishing to see waterbirds from the vantage point of a span crossing the Minnesota River. Slowly but surely falling apart, the bridge was deemed unsafe in 2002 and closed to foot and bike traffic.
Many people want to see the bridge restored. It can’t be replaced because its been given national historic site status. Money to repair and restore the structure is available – at least most of the money needed. The sticking point is who’s going to take care of the bridge once it’s back in use. The city of Bloomington owns the bridge. It sits within the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Regional and state hiking/biking trails would cross the bridge if there were a bridge to cross. None of those agencies, however, wants to own the bridge or take responsibility for its upkeep.
The rally hopes to pump more voices and energy into finding a caretaker and beginning restoration design.
The bridge is located south of the intersection of Old Cedar Ave and Old Shakopee Road in Bloomington. From Cedar Avenue south past the Mall of America, exit at County Road 1 / Old Shakopee Road. Turn right. Follow East Old Shakopee Road to Old Cedar Avenue. Go left down the hill to the large parking lot at the bridge site. Hiking-biking trails begin at this point. The birding is excellent in both directions. From the lot on the trail to the right you find a boardwalk and overlook (first left off the trail) that has been very good lately for Sora, ducks, geese, and Great Egrets.
The bridge as it looks today.
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