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.
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.
A friend in Virginia emailed me yesterday about five Snowy Owls reported in his state, pretty unusual for Virginia. Also yesterday the Associated Press carried a story describing Snowies being seen in many unusual places at this early winter date, east to west. Guide book author Lillian Stokes was quoted as saying this could be a record year for sightings of that Arctic bird in the U.S. So far in Minnesota, our birding email line has carried notes of sightings in Meeker, St. Louis, and Polk counties. Perhaps a half dozen other sightings have been reported in the Dakotas. The owl below was photographed last year in South Dakota.
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.
This looks like a slim winter for finches in Minnesota.
Mike Hendrickson, birding guide from Duluth, commented the other day by email that few finches of any species have been seen in Duluth or along the North Shore recently. During a good finch year for us, migrants from Canada would be coming south by now.
This agrees with an annual prediction made several weeks ago by Canadian birder Ron Pittaway. He makes a yearly fall survey of seed crops across northern Canada, gathering information from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and numerous birders. His report is published on the birding email list BirdChat.
His general forecast: “This is not an irruption (flight movement south) year for winter finches.” He expects movement only into what he calls “normal winter ranges.” Those usually do not extend into Minnesota.
Tree-seed crops in Canada are good, offering sufficient winter food for Pine Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, Red and White-winged crossbills, both redpoll species, Pine Siskins, and Evening Grosbeaks.
Our usual best bets for winter finches as far south as the Twin Cities are Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls. Expect few this winter. Most will stay in northern Canada, Pittaway says. He writes of “continent-wide” seed crops in Canada. Trees on which these birds feed include Mountain Ash, buckthorn, birch, alder, spruce, pine, and hemlock. The only tree species for which a poor seed crop is reported is White Pine.
Pittaway also predicted a small to moderate movement south of Blue Jays, no southern movement of Red-breasted Nuthatches, and few Bohemian Waxwings.
For more information go to:
Below, a pair of Common Redpolls photographed at Two Harbors in 2010.
A Ross's Goose, least common of the goose species to be seen in Minnesota, has spent the past several days in Hopkins. Tuesday it was present from early afternoon until dusk at Central Park in Hopkins. The park is adjacent to Excelsior Blvd., just west of 17th Ave. S. The Ross's Goose has been keeping company with several dozen Canada Geese. Ross's is a small goose, no larger than a Mallard, with plumage very similar to Snow Goose. It would be expected to be seen in small numbers the far western portion of the state. It is a beautiful bird.
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