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.
The 2013-14 duck stamp is now on sale at a post office near you. The stamp is officially known as the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation stamp. Costing $15, funds raised by stamp sales are used to purchase or lease land for national wildlife refuges (NWR) and waterfowl production areas (WPA).
The cost of the stamp is a small but important element in wildlife and habitat protection. Waterfowl hunters must buy a stamp to hunt legally. Everyone who enjoys wildlife, however, should buy a stamp, maybe two. Far more non-game bird species use both refuges and WPAs than do game species. Non-hunters benefit far more than hunters, yet hunters have historically carried the weight in this preservation effort. Birders -- anyone who enjoys wild lands -- need to contribute.
Minnesota has 12 national wildlife refuges, one just below the southern approach to the Twin Cities International Airport. It’s one of the few urban refuges in the country. All of the refuges are excellent places to see birds and hundreds of other plant and animal species.
Less well known but equally important when it comes to conservation are the federal waterfowl production areas. Minnesota has about 700 WPAs totaling more than 125,000 acres. They’re scattered throughout 28 counties in the western part of the state. All belong to you. They’re open for birding, hiking, photography, and most non-motorized outdoor activities. They too are home to hundreds of species of animals and plants. Three of the WPAs area are as close to the Twin Cities as Scott and Carver counties. You can find a map at http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/maps/compass.html. This map also shows all public state and national recreation land – parks, wildlife management areas, scientific and natural areas …. everything. It’s a very useful map.
You can find a list of 266 bird species that have been recorded on the national waterfowl production areas at http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/chekbird/r3/mnwpa.htm
Nationally, there are nearly 7,000 WPAs preserving more than 675,000 acres of habitat. Most of the land is grassland, wetland, ponds and potholes, land in traditional waterfowl areas, land suitable for breeding and nesting. Minnesota and the Dakotas account for almost all of these WPAs. This land is but two percent of the prairie pothole region, but accounts for 23 percent of waterfowl production. The number of non-waterfowl birds of various species produced on this land is so large as to be uncountable.
Most post offices sell duck stamps. So do many sporting goods stores. Fifteen dollars, 98 percent of which is used for land purchase or lease. No kidding. This is probably the most fiscally efficient government program ever. Buy a stamp for yourself. Buy one for a birding friend or relative. Show it off. I stick mine to the cover of my Sibley field guide. The new stamp carries an image of a Common Goldeneye painted by artist Robert Steiner of San Francisco.
You can learn more about the stamp and help promote its purchase at www.friendsofthestamp.org.
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.
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