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.
The movement of Snowy Owls south from Canada into New England and states south to Virginia is being called the largest in two decades. Many owls are being seen. More information can be found at http://nyti.ms/1fqeek7
That blog site also has two fascinating videos of Snowy Owls being harassed by Peregrine Falcons defending territory. Pretty cool.
Minnesota is seeing more Snowies that usual, also, although our numbers do not approach those to the east of us. For some reason, reported sightings are clustered in and around Benton County. Either there are more owls there or more people seeing and reporting them.
Winter finch species, as predicted, are not to be seen so far this winter. Well, a few perhaps, but not many. Certainly not in the Duluth area. The Duluth Christmas Bird Count (CBC) this past weekend found no Pine Grosbeaks, no redpolls, no Pine Siskins, and no crossbills of either species (Red or White-winged). That might be a first. Even if finches don't make it as far south as the metro area, at least a few would be expected in Duluth.
Several weeks ago a Canadian birder offered his annual prediction of finch movement south from northern Canada. He said, in essence, there would be little if any; food would be plentiful in the north. It looks like he was right. The source gathers his information from various sources throughout eastern Canada and Ontario.
Christmas Bird Counts, in case they are new to you, involve a day-long census of bird species seen within a circle 13 miles in diameter. The starting point is the same each year. The date of the event must fall between dates chosen by the National Audubon Society, event sponsor and source of summaries of counts throughout the country. CBCs have been annual events for decades. Comparison of count totals for this species or that, year to year, offer information on the population status of those species.
More than two dozen CBCs are conducted in Minnesota each year by volunteers.
Below, a Pine Grosbeak, one of the reasonably expected winter finches not seen in Duluth during its 20134 CBC.
Snowy owls are being seen along the East Coast as far south as Virginia in what appears to be a significant irruption year for these owls in that part of the country. Dozens if not hundreds of owls have been reported. Birders are delighted with what is a most unusual opportunity for them.
Major airports, large and flat and winter white right now are attractive to snowy owls, resembling the flat tundra habitat they call home. Airports don’t like birds of any species on their property because of possible bird-plane collisions. Fatal accidents have happened.
Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is no different in its appeal to this owl species, but perhaps different in that snowy owls are pretty regular there, albeit in low single-digit numbers.
New York”s JFK airport had an owl problem last week. It was solved with shotguns. This made news, stimulating loud outcry from birders and conservation groups. A switch to live-trapping quickly followed.
At our largest airport harassment is the first means used to move owls off the property, according to Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the metropolitan airport commission. Fake coyotes and wolves also are employed, moved from place to place to simulate the presence of predators. If the owls persist, live-trapping is used. This work is done by the animal control division of the Department of Agriculture.
Mr. Hogan assured me that the airport has never used or considered a method of removal that was fatal to the birds.
The owl pictured below was found near Aitkin a few years ago. In the past day or two snowy owls have been reported from that area, along witH great gray owls. The flecks of black on this bird's feathers indicates it is a juvenile, hatched this past spring. Juvenile snowy owls are those most frequently seen south of their usual habitat.
Migration of birds of all species north and south is very different than it was a decade or two ago. That's well-documented for waterfowl in particular in a story in the most recent edition of the magazine Delta Waterfowl sends to members.
The story reports results of study of hunting statistics for the past 25 years.
“What we found,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, president of Delta Waterfowl, “was a phenomenal later shift in the harvest of migrating ducks in the mid-latitude and southern states.”
The information indicates that the birds are migrating later, although Dr. Rohwer did not come right out and say so.
He used Kansas as an example. Average harvest date for Mallards in 1961 was Nov. 7. That date shifted to Dec. 5, 28 days later, in 2008-2009. For duck species resident in those southern hunting areas, birds that would not be migrating, harvest-date patterns were unchanged.
Ducks are staying later into the fall and winter seasons in North and South Dakota, which is why harvest dates to the south are becoming later. In January 2012 a record number of ducks and geese were counted in North Dakota. The article said that lack of snow cover was the primary reason the birds had not moved south.
In South Dakota a similar situation was seen. Nearly a million birds were found during a January 2013 survey.
“Those midwinter numbers and the motivation for waterfowl to migrate south are driven by the amount of snow cover, open water, and periods of cold temperatures,” Dr. Rohwer was quoted as saying.
Is it that climate no longer pushes the ducks south at historic dates? Or, for southern hunters, is it that the ducks don’t get down to them, not having to go as far south to find open water and food (which is climate-related).
The question: Is it climate change or habitat change? Biologists believe it is both.
At Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern South Dakota later migration of geese is more obvious than such for ducks. That information comes from refuge biologist William Schultze.
“Since I began working here in 1976,” he wrote in an email, “the average peak of the Snow Goose migration has shifted from late October to near mid-November.
“I see changes in agricultural practices in North Dakota and Canada as the primary reason for that shift,” he said. “One other factor that might be considered is the amount of wetlands available, at least in northern South Dakota, since the mid-1990s. The larger wetlands that remain open longer can hold a lot of ducks and geese,” he said.
Goose movement was heavy after Nov. 21 at Sand Lake, the date refuge lakes froze over. The number of Snow Geese reported on the refuge on Nov. 20 was 130,000, with 125,000 ducks and 5,000 geese estimated. Five days later the number of Snow Geese was 400, Canada Geese 3,500, ducks 18,000, and swans zero.
This photo of Snow Geese was taken at Sand Lake NWR.
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.
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