Winter got a tad aggressive last week. It's been weird, we had snow in early October, so I was prepared for six months of cold and snow. Then it got strangely warm for the rest of October and November and thought, "Terrific, maybe winter won't be so bad!"
Then out of nowhere, we went from 40 degree weather to below zero and single digits in one night--no build up, just blammo: booger freezing cold. On the upside, all the area lakes froze up in a hurry making places where water stays open popular with the remaining waterfowl. One particular hot spot this time of year is Douglas Point Park. This is where the Mississippi River meets with the St. Croix River on the Minnesota and Wisconsin border. I love it for a couple of reasons. One--it's in the boundaries of the National Park I work for and two--it's a hop, skip and a jump away from Carpenter Nature Center. The water here stays open and it corrals some of the waterfowl. I headed out there on Friday.
When I arrived, there was still a bit of a mist on the river and some of the Canada geese were covered in frost on the back. See the guy towards the bottom of the photo just covered in frosty white on the back? I always do wonder about ducks and geese in cold water. Yeah, I get that feathers are a terrific insulator and that birds have a different circulatory system and metabolism than humans so they handle cold in a way that I simply cannot understand--but damn, thats incredible to witness.
The mix was mostly Canada geese and goldeneye. The goldeneye crack me up, as soon as they realize a scope is on them, they dive or take off. I love this shot above of Canada geese and mallards and one lone lurking male common goldeneye coming up after diving under. Isn't he just a little Mr. Lurky McLurk Lurk!
Goldeneyes are just awesome little diving ducks. We'd seen a ton of them on our waterfowl surveys this fall. It was a treat just to hang out and watch a big section of waterfowl and not have to worry about counting them or identifying them in a hurry. But I had plenty of time scan and got a kick out what I found:
Like the stealthy pintail male behind the Canada goose in the upper right hand corner. It's fun to find a big stretch of waterfowl which on the surface look like a ton of Canada geese only to scan and find a few different guys mixed in.
But the big excitement of the day was the above male harlequin duck that was floating around the area--even the Canada geese seem to look like, "What the duck is that??"
This duck is exciting on several levels. Number one: it's a cool looking duck--a male in full on adult plumage. When I tell my non birding friends about this exciting bird, I say, "It's blue and white duck!" They seem to understand. As a matter of fact, I'm typing this blog entry backstage during our Golden Girls Christmas Carol and the other actors agree that he is very, very sweet.
The second thing that makes this a cool bird is that a male harlequin duck, is not even supposed to be here any time of year and one has been spending the last three winters at this spot--this is quite possibly the same bird. If it is, I got a photo of him last winter.
Just because the water stays open doesn't mean this is the safest place there is. Bald eagles patrol this spot regularly and both adults and immature eagles take pot shots at the waterfowl. I digiscoped the above bird actively hunting and it was zeroing in on some goldeneye. I've not seen an eagle take a dive at the harlequin. I wonder if Minnesota and Wisconsin eagles think blue ducks "just aren't right" and avoid diving for it? Nah, I've seen them eat dead chickens mixed in with chicken manure, I don't think their standards are that high. Must be one evasive harlequin duck.
For some reason, this photo reminds me of a Huey Lewis and the News album cover. There were quite a few trumpeters mixed in with all the other waterfowl. It was fun to hear their trumpet calls rise above the over a thousand or so Canada geese. Since this spot was part of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, I asked my boss if I could work some of the day today at Point Douglas to help people watch the waterfowl. He bought it or...I should say, he agreed that it would be a great idea. I thought I would interact with mostly with birders from Minnesota and Wisconsin, but a vast majority of the people I spoke to just happened to be driving along the river and stopping for photos of the swans, completely unaware of the harlequin duck or other waterfowl. The harlequin didn't show up to Point Douglas while I was there in the morning, but there are still quite a few open spots around Prescott, WI. As the ice closes in further, people should have a better chance of seeing him this winter.
Word spread from some other birders that a long-tailed duck was seen along the Mississippi River in South St Paul on the corners of Grand Avenue and Hardman so on my way back to the visitor center, I stopped by to look for it. There were quite a few common mergansers working the shrinking patches of open water.
Sure enough, you could see it--she's the bird laying flat on the water. The other two are male common mergansers.
She's the opposite of the male harlequin, this is a female long-tailed duck. Still cool to see a rare bird, but not as striking as the male. This is a bird that I have a tough time convincing my non birding friends is a cool find. Word spread on the birding trail that a white-winged scoter was seen here earlier in the morning. I wanted to walk along the trail and look for it, but I had to get back to the visitor center--all in all, not a bad weekend for waterfowl.