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.
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.
Golden-winged Warbler, a Minnesota bird you’ve might never have seen, is special. This species is as special to Minnesota as any other bird that breeds here, perhaps more so.
That’s because more of these warblers breed in Minnesota than anywhere else in the world.
The bird is very pretty. It’s white and gray and black with golden trimmings. During nesting season, 42 percent of that species is in our woods. Aitkin and Mille Lacs counties, a two-hour drive north from Minneapolis, could be considered ground zero for these birds.
More of them nest there than anywhere else.
Biologists once believed that this warbler preferred and needed willow/aspen swamps and young aspen forest as nesting habitat.
Research in Minnesota in the past three years has shown that things are not that simple. The birds also use mature forest adjacent to those two habitat types. This complicates forest management.
With the mother load of Golden-wings comes a responsibility for those birds, said Carrol Henderson, non-game wildlife manager for the DNR.
Studies of Golden-wings and their habitat needs are currently underway in north and west central Minnesota.
“We’re trying to tease out information from that research to help us write forest management guidelines,” Henderson said. “We’d rather manage the land correctly to begin with than play catch up. It’s easier that way.”
Audubon Minnesota also recognizes our importance to this species. It has named Golden-wings as one of 13 Minnesota Stewardship Species. These 13 species have at least five percent of their global and North American breeding range in the state.
Lee Pfannmuller, interim director of Audubon Minnesota, told me that the Golden-winged Warbler is doing better here than nearly anywhere else.
“It’s long-term population trend in the state is actually increasing,” she wrote in an email, ending the sentence with an exclamation point. (Bird population increases are hard to find.)
Elsewhere in its U.S. range (east from Minnesota into New York and south to Kentucky) Golden-wing population is dropping. Habitat is a concern.
Interestingly, another bird species also bears some responsibility. Blue-winged Warblers interbreed with Golden-wings, those offspring diluting and diminishing Golden-wing numbers.
Habitat in Central America, where the warbler winters, is another problem. It’s thought to be declining. This makes Minnesota research and forest management even more important.
The stewardship list is Audubon Minnesota’s way of saying that these birds deserve particular conservation attention.
The other 12 species (and the percentage of their population breeding here) are American White Pelican (18%), American Woodcock (10%), Baltimore Oriole (5%), Black-billed Cuckoo (10%), Bobolink (13%), Chestnut-sided Warbler (6%), Nashville Warbler (5%), Rose-breasted Grosbeak (6%), Sedge Wren (33%), Trumpeter Swan (13%), and Veery (6%).
A Golden-winged Warbler
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