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.
Young Great Horned Owls I’ve been watching apparently are old enough to leave the nest, although they haven’t looked that way to me. The birds pictured are an adult and one of her owlets in their nest at Westwood Hills Nature Center. There were/are two chicks. One left the nest Tuesday. The photo was taken Wednesday morning. In one shot here the young bird is stretching a wing, making primary flight feathers visible (adult peering over wing). The feathers appear half developed or less. The pair of young owls I was watching in a nest near Long Lake left their nest seven days ago. They looked very similar to the one pictured. They know best, obviously.
We recently spent a few days (pre-flood) near Lutsen on the Lake Superior shore. While birding I came across a small chunk of flat rock near shore and just below a cliff. The cliff edge offered excellent viewing of Herring Gulls nesting atop the rock.
Some birds were sitting on eggs, others were tending chicks. The chicks were about the size of chickens a week after you bought them for Easter (never a good idea). I've seen gull chicks before, in Alaska. They were gray and fuzzy, like these chicks, but two-thirds adult size.
Herring Gulls are hardly unusual birds in Minnesota, particularly along the Lake Superior shore, but in all my years of watching this was the first time I've seen nests, eggs, and chicks. The property owner, very gracious in allowing me access to her yard, told me that eagles sometimes visited the gull colony, eating eggs and/or flying away with chicks. Not to wish the gulls trouble, but I hoped to see an eagle give it a try while I stood by with camera. I made two visits the day I took the photos. On the second visit I missed the eagle action by about 30 seconds. I got to my viewing site just in time to watch four gulls hazing the eagle as it flew west down the shore.
The eagle's presence had lifted the hens off their eggs, however, giving me a chance to photograph the eggs. The birds would occasionally rise from the nest to turn the eggs, but never gave me a good look while doing so. The eggs are deeply colored and marked with random spots of camouflage, as you'd expect for birds nesting in the open. The nests I could see had three eggs each, the maximum expected. Chicks hatch after 30 days of incubation. Parents share that duty. I hoped to see the chicks fed, but was off the gull schedule -- feeding about every four hours. The chicks will be fed by parents until about 12 weeks old. Gulls are known to feed in garbage dumps. Chicks fed garbage pay a price for a bad meal, growth slowing. Adults will continue to feed their offspring for as long as 12 to 15 weeks.
Gulls look like they lead an easy life, lots of loafing and what seems to be aimless coming and going. However: The chances of eggs surviving to hatch are about 8 in 10 (Bald Eagles took eggs and chicks from this colony). Hatched chicks have five to seven chances in 10 to fledge. Fledglings are 50/50 to make it through the first four years, when breeding is possible. First-year breeders are seven to 10 to make it to the next breeding season. Herring Gulls can live in the wild until 30 years old or so, if they can make it through what seems to be a tough beginning.
Here are photos of the gull colony.
We live 14.4 miles west of the Guthrie Theatre. I use that measurement as a reference point for our neighborhood, which is within walking distance of a Caribou coffee shop. Less than a mile west of our backyard a pair of Sandhill Cranes have hatched a chick. This might be the second successful nesting out here this year. I have to check with the landowners who last year watched a pair of cranes raise two chicks; I believe those birds returned, and perhaps are nesting again. Until last year, I had no idea that cranes were nesting here, or would even consider it. This is very cool, and very heartening. There are remnants of wildness around us. The photo is of last year's crane family.
(Regarding the sandpipers being seen at Wirth Lake in the large muddy area just off Glenwood Avenue, the White-rumped Sandpiper was not seen this morning, but a Semi-palmated Plover was present along with Least Sandpipers and Spotted Sandpipers.)
When someone asked me last week what is appropriate placement habitat for Eastern Bluebird nest boxes I told him large expanses of grass – meadows, pastures, golf courses, road edges, maybe a yard if it was big enough. There are exceptions to everything. Our back yard is smallish, surrounded by trees, containing trees, backed by a small pond that soon becomes a wooded swamp. It is as unlike the golf course where I tend bluebird nest boxes as can be. I was surprised then, four weeks ago, when a pair of bluebirds spent two days here, investigating a box at pond edge that I had placed for chickadees. Those birds disappeared, and that was not a surprise. I believe I refound the pair yesterday in a most unlikely place: they’re carrying nesting material to a cavity in a tree in our swamp, inches from the pond edge. Bluebirds are cavity nesters, using trees before there were power poles or fence poles, and then choosing those when cavities were available. Bluebirds don’t carve out their own cavities; their bills are not intended for heavy work. Instead, they rely on woodpecker construction or natural decay of wood. This is the first time I’ve seen bluebirds in a natural cavity. And it certainly is the first time I’ve seen these birds in a wooded swamp many feet from grass or dry land. In the photo, the male bluebird is circled above, the nest location circled below. We’ll watch this with interest.
NOTE: One day after writing the post below, about the hatch of eight Hooded Merganser chicks, we saw this morning 11 chicks with the merganser hen. I assume they hatched hours later than their siblings, exited the box on instinct, and somehow became united with the rest of the family.
The female Hooded Merganser nesting in one of our duck boxes was restless yesterday. She was out of the box and on the pond several times, drinking, bathing, idling. I didn't know the exact date she began incubation, so I could do no more than estimate hatch time. Yesterday seemed about right, and the hen's actions fit with that guess. I watched the box closely yesterday, hoping to photograph the hatchlings leaving the box. I resumed watch this morning, but was observing from our deck when I heard the first plop. The sound was made by the seventh of the eight ducklings that left the box to begin life on the water. I watched the last of the brood drop, but not through a camera lens. The merganser led her babies around the pond once, then took them back into the swamp water behind our pond. The ducklings swam more like water bugs than birds, and drank and bathed. They following their mother as if tied to her by string. The geese that hatched here picked up and left after a few days. We hope this brood stays here for longer than that. The first photo shows the hen as she returned to the nest box yesterday afternoon (Thursday). The second photo shows the family this morning minutes after the birds left the box.
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