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.
Western Grebes can be found on Swan Lake in Nicollet County. I wrote the other day about the grebes at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota. A correspondent from Blue Earth wrote to tell me that Swan Lake is a viewing site close to the Twin Cities. As added attraction is also holds breeding Horned Grebes, Eared Grebes, and Pied-billed Grebes. Swan Lake is a grebe grand-slam. It also is a large lake where decent viewing is likely to require binoculars at least and a spotting scope at best.
The lake is east of New Ulm and north of U.S. Highway 14. Mapping software says it is a drive of about 90 miles made in just under two hours from Minneapolis. Follow Highway 169 south, turning west on Highway 14 at St. Peter. An alternate route is Highway 212 west to Highway 25/5, south then to Gaylord where you take Highway 111 to the eastern shore of the lake.
Below, Eared Grebes, one of the grebe species found on Swan Lake.
A quick trip into South Dakota produced this Swainson's Hawk, upset as we walked into a deserted farmstead. A pair of the birds had a nest in a woodlot on the property. Shorebirds were easier to find in the northeast than elsewhere, inspite of much standing water. This American Avocet was found at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge. West of the Missouri River, in grassland and pasture, meadowlarks and Lark Buntings were the major attractions. I was surprised at the lack of raptors. Perhaps, as the Swainson's were, these birds were staying close to nests.
Tuesday, 8:47 a.m.: A few minutes ago my wife called to me, noting a strange bird on our deck. It was sitting on the back of a chair. Then it fluttered against the patio-door glass, perhaps wishing to come indoors. It displaced a chickadee at a feeder filled with sunflower chips. Then back to the door. It was a Cape May Warbler, for us new for the season and the yard. It said goodbye after somehow clinging to the glass, sort of like a tree frog, maybe begging to get out of the wind. The wind took it then, and it was gone. Strange. It must be the weather, this weird and terrible weather. The photo is of a Cape May acting in normal fashion.
As a summary to the extraordinary Snowy Owl winter we enjoyed, here's an eBird © map of owl location and movement between January and March. The map was created by the crew at ProjectSNOWstorm, the owl-tracking effort that included the Minnesota owl known as Ramsey.
The map includes so many data points that the mapping software converted all individual points to colored blocks, the more intense the color, the more sightings in that area. Minneapolis is at the extreme left edge of the map.
There were a lot of owls.
"Ramsey, our Minnesota-tagged owl who spent the winter just outside the Twin Cities, definitely hears the call of the north. After missing a check-in on April 23, his transmitter phoned home on Saturday night -- from Saskatchewan!
"In the previous six days he'd left Ramsey County, N.D., flown across the southwestern corner of Manitoba the night of April 22-23 -- hitting speeds of almost 50 knots (55 mph/89 kph) along the way -- and stopped for the day in Division No. 16, the county-level equivalent in Manitoba.
"That's flat and empty prairie country, lots of grain farming and not a lot of people. The nearby town of Binscarth is noted for "the largest outdoor swimming pool on the Yellowhead Highway," I have learned, but I doubt that's why Ramsey stopped.
"The map below shows Ramsey's position and GSM cell coverage in Saskatchewan.
"We got lucky. One thing that part of Manitoba doesn't have is much cell coverage, though. When last Wednesday night came and his transmitter tried to call, it apparently got no signal, and so kept storing up data.
"By Saturday, though, Ramsey was sitting on the ice of Silver Lake, near the hamlet of Tufnell, Saskatchewan (population 10) -- and fortunately for us, he was just north of the Yellowhead Highway, along which runs a line of GSM cell towers.
"In all, he'd flown 337 miles (542 km) in the previous six days -- but depending on his route, this may be the last time we hear from him this spring, because those cell towers along the highway are about it.
"North of there, the only cell towers belong to Sasktel's network, and from what I've been able to tell they don't use GSM, which is the cellular system our transmitters use. Here's a map that shows the GSM coverage in the province, overlayed on Ramsey's position Saturday night -- as you can see, north of him there's nothing much, all the way to the Arctic. Unless he flies even farther west into Alberta, where GSM cell coverage is far more extensive and extends much farther north, this may be our last contact with Ramsey for this season."
On the map, Ramsey crosses into Canada from North Dakota as shown by the blue markers in the lower right corner.
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