Heron Rookery Reloaded Post Tornado

Who knew this story would have such legs?!

As reported last month, the great blue heron rookery at North Mississippi Regional Park was completely obliterated by a tornado that went through north Minneapolis. I worked with some of my fellow National Park Rangers at MNRRA, the MN DNR and the Animal Humane Society to help gather what few live chicks and injured adults were remaining on the island.  We all pretty much guessed that it was late enough in the season that the herons would not rebuild.  All last week, I received several emails about herons building new nests in two different locations with my the boundaries of my National Park!

I organized a boat trip with my fellow park rangers, Carrol Henderson from the MN DNR, Bill Hudson and Brad Kopp from WCCO and Jim Williams from the Star Tribune to investigate.  I was excited, I was able to get our park's head honcho Superintendent Paul Labovitz to be my river chauffeur for the morning!  We passed the mangled rookery and even made a stop.

I was amazed at how few carcasses were left on the tornado ravaged island, we found very few compared to what was there a couple of days after the tornado.  I'm sure turkey vultures and crows took advantage of the food source and based on some of the damaged feathers found around the few remaining bones, some mammalian predators ate them too, possibly raccoon or fox.

One of the reports of the herons rebuilding centered on islands just off of the Riverside Power Plant north of downtown Minneapolis.  Even the power plant staff sent emails asking if they needed to do anything to help keep the herons safe--how cool is that?

There are two small islands here and we found about two dozen nests.  There could be more, but it's hard to count them among the leaves.  They rebuilt quickly.  Park Ranger Gordon (who took some of the photos in this post) looked at me and said, "You know, those birds were flying around with sticks when we went to the island two weeks ago.  I didn't think they would seriously re-nest."  I agreed.

More herons came in with sticks while we circled the islands.  I've observed herons adding sticks to nests with chicks during nesting season.  I figured that they look like flimsy nests to begin with and additions are regularly added.  When we saw the herons with sticks right after their nests were destroyed, I thought it was just an attempt, not serious nesting behavior--kind of like their hormones were telling them, "this is what you need to be doing now."  But we watched more than one bird fly in with sticks while we checked the new rookery.  I wondered if we would see any birds incubating.

Sure enough, herons were incubating on this island!  Wow!  I was not expecting that.  I'll be curious to see when the chicks fledge.  It should be a three month process, but if we have a warm fall, these birds just might be successful.

As we cruised under the trees on the boat, Paul asked, "What's that bird on the branch, it looks like a lump." Carrol, Gordon, Jim and I all about jumped out of our seats--it was an adult peregrine falcon perched below all of the heron nest.

There's a peregrine falcon nest box right on the Riverside Power Plant.  I thought our chances of seeing a peregrine falcon was very good, but I didn't expect one to be hanging out in the midst of a heron rookery.  Great blue herons are not one of the preferred foods of this falcon.  I don't think the herons see it as a serious threat.  I had to give our park's superintendent some serious props for locating the falcon while all the birders in the boat missed it.

The falcon eventually flew over to its nest box but wow, what a bonus to see a peregrine mixed in with herons!  This made me happy on so many levels--I love bird resiliency and I especially love when they do not read the same books and articles that I do and do their own thing.  I'm also excited because we planned some canoe trips to view the old rookery this summer and I thought those would be bummer trips with me saying, "Well, we used to have a rookery here, but..."

This new little rookery is on that paddle route, so we'll be able to take people by the old tornado damaged island and the new one.

The one big bummer about this new rookery is that it is not easily viewable from either shore of the Mississippi River.  Because of barge companies and power plant security, you can't view it like you could from North Mississippi Regional Park.  However, not all of the herons relocated to this rookery.  Some when to Coon Rapids Dam which is totally viewable from the eastern shore of the Mississippi River!


There's been a rookery there for years.  What's interesting is that staff told me last year that the number of birds using the rookery was shrinking, the speculation being that the herons were using the old North Mississippi Regional Park rookery.  But now, some have gone back to re-nest after the tornado.  Most of the nests were covered up, but there were quite a few on the outer edges where birds could be seen incubating.  If I really tried to focus my scope, I would make out nests deep in the leaves with chicks about five to six weeks old.  You could certainly hear older heron chicks calling.  A few years ago, I found a great horned owl nesting in this rookery, and no heron would nest next to it.  I think the owls may have partaken of some heron chicks and that may have contributed to some leaving this rookery.  Hopefully no owl will visit the nests on the outer edges of the this summer.  At the very least, the owl nesting season should be over at this point.

I did find a red-tailed hawk with two large chicks among the newer heron nests, another bonus raptor for the day!  Herons aren't high on the red-tail's preferred prey list, so I don't think it will be an issue for the herons.

So, all in all a very hopeful outcome to a devastating loss.  Bill and Brad did a very nice piece on the rookery, I was grateful they were interested in a follow up story.  The resiliency of birds never ceases to amaze me.  I'll post Jim's story when it comes up.







It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year

Blackpoll warbler chips outside my bathroom window. I look through the screen.  It chips and flies away as if to say, "You just got served!" I did?  I got served.  Holy crap, is it on?  According to Mike McDowell's blog, it's on. Fall migration has totally hit and from looking online, some of the hottest action is at Hawk Ridge.  Check out this photo of a peregrine falcon eating a sharp-shinned hawk on the wing.  Yeah, migration is on!

coon rapids dam

Yesterday, I was supposed to lead a bird walk at Coon Rapids Dam.  No one showed, so I took it as an opportunity to "rove."  We rangers will sometimes just walk around in different parts of our park and be there to chat with people.  Walking around with my uniform, spotting scope and camera, I'm basically a walking sign, "Come and talk to me!" People do.


I didn't get very far because I found a spot right on the bank of the low Mississippi River that was just chock full of birds. This cedar waxwing was surrounded by palm warblers, one Cape May warbler, yellow-rumped warblers, hundreds of robins, one Philadelphia vireo and a red-eyed vireo.  Behind me were gulls, herons and egrets so it was a great spot to point out birds.


I got this shot of a great egret and when I downloaded it noticed that there was also a drake mallard in the shot too--the drake is coming out of his eclipse plumage. His head is almost all green with that patch of brown. Ducks must be so relieved to be finished with their molt in the fall. I can't imagine what it must feel like to have thousands of pin feathers coming in at once.

canada geese

I met a new birder Paul who was also taking photos. He said that he was relatively new to birding, but it's been awhile since I've met someone excited about geese. He took photos of them every chance he got--which is great. I think many birders overlook the "common" birds and he was focused on getting the best flight shots of them possible. He inspired me to take a few shots, I like getting photos of them squabbling.


The big treat for me were the sparrows. Check out Mr. Mutton Chops above--I love song sparrows, when you catch them in just the right angle, they have such a great pattern on their heads. Song sparrows are fun this time of year, they are in fresh plumage, the tee up nicely for photos and I LOVE listening to young song sparrows in a bush practicing their songs for next spring. They don't quite have it down and the sing over and over sound like sort of song sparrows.

song sparrows

I saw a group of four song sparrows as I was leaving. After I got a few shots, I continued the walk back to my car. I noticed something scurry like a mouse across the trail. Only it wasn't mouse shaped, it was bird shaped. "Lincoln's sparrow," I thought to myself. I set my scope up to where it had scrambled into the grasses and waited, knowing it would pop out again.

lincoln's sparrow

And it did. I love me some brown birds and a Lincoln's sparrow is always a great during migration. It has streaks like a song sparrow, although not as thick. They can even have a central breast spot like a song sparrow, but they don't quite have the mutton chops that the song sparrows have. Ah, what a great sparrow to find.

starlted tree

As I went up the trail to the parking lot, I apparently startled a tree. In fairness, it was dozing on the job so kind of had it coming.

Non Restricted Heron Rookery

People were talking about Coon Rapids Dam on the Minnesota birding listservs. The great blue herons were returning to the rookery and there was a great horned owl using one of the nests. From my understanding, the owl has been there for the last few years--there's a plethora of nests for it to choose from but I've never made it over to see it. So I took a few minutes to go check out the rookery.

Some of the great blue herons were actively building nests, others were kind fluffed out as if they were too cold to want to deal with it. I couldn't tell right away which nest had the great horned owl. I followed the directions to try and see the fourth one from the right and all I saw were herons.

I systematically checked each nest. Heron...heron...heron...heron...oh hey:


You're not a heron! That's a little red-tailed hawk head! And the great blue herons don't seem to care. Granted, red-tails are a mighty hunter, but adult heron probably isn't high on their prey list. Young herons would be a possibility...but I wonder if red-tails do not like the fishy taste? The red-tail would have been in that nest before the herons arrived, so the herons are choosing to nest there despite the hawk. I wonder if the hawk has nested there before? I wonder if the hawk built its own nest or just refurbished an old heron nest?

great horned owl

I found some birders nearby and asked if they knew which nest had the great horned owl and they pointed to a cluster of heron nests away from the active clump that had no herons on them whatsoever. There in the center was a great horned owl. This cluster of nests was further back and I found it interesting that the herons nested next to the red-tail seemingly without any problems but gave plenty of space to the great horned--the owl would go for adult and young herons. I remember when I went to a rookery a few years ago and we found the night-heron remains with a big fat owl pellet in the middle. I wondered too if the early returning herons get the better nest spot farther away from the owls and if the later ones would be forced to take a nest next to the great horneds? Either way, the other active nests are in easy view of the great horns and I'm sure the owls will take a few nestlings from them. The red-tail is in easy view of the great horned...I wonder how that territory negotiation is going? The owl would have started nesting in January, the red-tail in early March, and now the herons. I wish I had more time to spend and watch the negotiations.

I also noted that almost every wire stabilizer had a staring next to it singing territory song. The holes that the wires go through are wide enough to easily fit a starling and the area on the inside must make a snug nest. Such enterprising birds.