Horned Guan Death March

This post was updated December 19, 2017 when I noticed many of the photos were gone after transferring the blog from Wordpress to SquareSpace. I also updated some of the text. It was originally two posts and now I've condensed it to one.

Yowie Horned Guan

This particular toy at the top of this post is a replica of a horned guan. You can get them from knock-off Kinder Eggs called Yowies—which for whatever reason are legal in the US. I was going to just buy the eggs until I got my guan, but the chocolate is nasty. Rather than going the traditional route of purchasing several inedible eggs, I found someone on eBay who already had the guan and for the price of one Yowie egg I had the guan sent directly to my home. To people who say this is cheating...I say, "Bite me."

A horned guan is one of the rarest birds in the Americas. Imagine a black and white bird the size of a turkey that has a bright red horn on its head that lives in the trees on the side of a volcano. Even if there weren’t only 600 or so of these birds left in the world, they're are still an amazing sight.

If I truly understood what was ahead of me to see a guan, I don't know that I would have gone for it. There were tales from some of my buddies on the bird festival circuit that it was a horrific climb. I had heard of well-known, great birders, who I considered to be physically fit, having to crawl that last part of the trail just to see. Here's Julie Zickefoose on NPR and on her blog or Bill of the Birds on his horned guan search. I think a part of me thought that was just a bit of exaggeration--birders have their fish stories too.

The hike up Volcan San Pedro was saved for one of our final days of birding in Guatemala. Our group had been mentioning it to each other, "Do you think you're going to be able to do it?" or "Sharon, do you really think you can take your scope up the volcano, I'd leave it here."

I heard that previous male birders had brought their scopes, so I thought that I should be able to do it too. I didn't get very scared until the day before. I had found some wifi at our lodge in Los Andes and put up a status update on Facebook: Sharon is nervous about tomorrow's climb up the Volcano to see the horned guan. I got a comment from Chris Benesh who works for Field Guides--travels all over the world to show people birds. He was also on the same Ivory-bill Search Team I was on. I considered to him to be very physically fit. He left a comment to the effect of the climb being the toughest he had ever done, it was brutal, but the got the guan.

Okay, if Chris called it brutal, maybe those stories of birders panting and crawling to the top weren't just exaggerated fish tales. I decided to be all Scarlett O'Hara about it and, "I'll not think about that right now, I'll go crazy if I do. I'll think about that tomorrow."

We had one more field trip planned at Los Andes to look for some mannikans, I opted to take the afternoon off, relax a bit so I could be fresh the next morning. The next day was a rough schedule. We had to be ready to go by 4:15 am, take a bus to Lake Atitlan where we would take a ferry to San Pedro for the climb. The hike up to the guan was going to take four hours, who knew how long the hike down would take.


Initially, all went well. We arrived at Lake Atitlan and watched in amazement at how the locals used the water. As we were loading our ferry, one man drove in his tuk tuk (tiny taxi car) into the water for a wash, another drove in his truck, a couple of people were bathing in the nude right on the water's edge.

Volcan San Pedro...were we really going to climb that?

Volcan San Pedro...were we really going to climb that?

We boarded boat, marveled at the beautiful volcanoes that surrounded the lake and laughed as the cool water sprayed us as we hit waves. Outside the boat we looked to pad our species list with lesser scaup, brown pelicans, and ruddy ducks. As we approached the other side of the lake, we watched in amazement as Volcan San Pedro loomed over us. Yes, we would be climbing this extinct volcano. Hugo, our guide tried to alleviate our fears since many of us were not accustomed to this altitude. In his quiet, spanish accent he said, "Yes, we will go slow. It will be slow, slow walking, then looking at birds, slow, slow walking, then looking at birds."

I felt some comfort in this. Perhaps the four hours was not all climbing but just such a slow pace of birding that it would seem steep, but not be that bad.

When we landed in San Pedro, I saw more tourists here than in any other town. Peddlers were ready for us, a Mayan woman greeted us with a basket full of baked goods. I looked at the steep streets in front of us and wondered if we were going to start right away, but our local guides and hosts Irene and Ana Christina said that a bus was coming to take us.

Our "bus" was a pick up truck and they ended up corralling ten birders like livestock in the back to take us up to the horned guan preserve.

Our "bus" was a pick up truck and they ended up corralling ten birders like livestock in the back to take us up to the horned guan preserve.

Birders looking for horned guans

I love this photo. We’re all so happy, so giddy, so blissfully unaware of the horrors and sweat that awaited us. That’s me with Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds, Jen Sauter, Hugo our guide and even a part of Rick Wright. It was all just an exciting adventure then.

This poor guys was carrying what appeared to be recently washed blankets up a steep road. 

This poor guys was carrying what appeared to be recently washed blankets up a steep road. 

We began our drive through the narrow cobblestone streets of San Pedro, up and up we went. We passed many locals taking the route on foot, many carrying piles of goods on their backs. What is it like to be acclimatized to this?

Horned Guan Preserve

We arrived at the reserve for the horned guan. We readjusted our packs with our lunches and our bottles of water and began the trail. The day was sunny, the birds were numerous and we made some stops.

We found a spot loaded with western tanagers (more of those North American breeders). I was excited to get the rufous-capped warbler. I had actually seen one of these earlier in our journey, but was the only one who had. I was glad others got to see it and this time I even got to digiscope it. We also got great looks at this ginormous squirrel cuckoo—it was much bigger than the black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos I see. And so beautiful too—reminiscent of a brown thrasher.

Rufous-capped warbler.

Rufous-capped warbler.

As we stopped for all of this birding, I started to think, “This isn’t so bad.” I have short legs and I was not used to the elevation but was doing ok. I did lag behind the group but always managed to catch up with enough time to rest along with them before pressing forward. I felt that I could do this.

The relentless trail to the guan...five hours of this nonsense. 

The relentless trail to the guan...five hours of this nonsense. 

But then we didn’t stop for birds anymore and the trails became much steeper. It was switchback after switchback. It was dry and the volcanic dust made for powdery walking conditions. I toiled up the trail and as my pace slowed, the sound of our group ahead became more and more faint, I realized I was losing ground. There was another person named Mel in our group who seemed to struggle with the climb along with me. I was grateful for the company and to not to be the pokiest of the little puppies.

This guy booked it past me like the switch backs were nothing. 

This guy booked it past me like the switch backs were nothing. 

Local farmers loaded with burdens of fire wood, corn or coffee moved swiftly passed us on the trail. Many looked to be twice my age which made me feel worse. I bike ride, I lead nature hikes, I haul bee equipment and this trail was turning my legs to jelly. It was relentless in its incline. I was desperate for a flat surface. The high elevation and lack of oxygen didn’t help either. Life in Minnesota rarely exceeds 850 feet. The trail starts at about 5000 feet and has a change of over 4000 feet.

The gorgeous views on the climb. 

The gorgeous views on the climb. 

After much sweat and panting my slow friend and I caught up to the group at another resting spot. I hoped that we were half way up and was saddened to learn that we were only a third of the way, with another three hours to go. It was at this moment that Gustavo from Neblina Tours told me , “I’m having trouble staying balanced on this steep trail. Would it be alright with you if I took your scope and used it as a way to balance myself on the trail?”

One of our guides Hugo on the left. Gustavo on the right holding my scope...note how much equipment he was carrying besides my scope. 

One of our guides Hugo on the left. Gustavo on the right holding my scope...note how much equipment he was carrying besides my scope. 

It was lie. He carried more on this trip than I did: he had two massive field guides besides his binoculars, lunch, water, recording equipment, etc. I knew it was a lie and I was too sweaty and tired to care. I gratefully accepted his offer and continued my slow lumbering walk up the trail.

We eventually made it to a halfway point. I sat on the floor of the observation deck and used the wooden railing to prop my head up and looked out at the beautiful view. I was seriously questioning my life choices. I was not forced to do this, I signed up--willingly. What’s worse is that I could have stopped at any time. I could have just stopped walking on the trail and said, “No more, I’ll wait here in the shade, watch some foliage-gleaners and pepper-shrikes and wait for you on your glory walk down the trail after seeing the guan.” One of our group already had given up the trail due to a bad knee. It was the honorable and safe thing to do. But I willingly continued. Quitting this steep upward battle was never an option to me.

I looked at our group and said panting, “This is like hitting yourself with a hammer because it feels so good when you finally stop.”

We laughed and Hugo warned that we should probably save our oxygen.

Jen soon joined Mel and I as those lagging behind now and two of us practically held on to each other to stay upright. Ana Christina from the tourism board sensed our waning resolve and anytime we  paused she would call in her sweet Spanish accent, “Jen, Sharon, come on, the horned guan is right up here.”

We fell for it once and scrambled up, but realized she was really a cloud forest sprite beckoning us forward. It worked. At every switchback we would pause to try and get some order to our respiratory system, Ana Christina would be another switchback ahead of us calling, “C’mon Jen. C’mon Sharon, horned guan is waiting for you.”

We finally reached the horned guan appropriate elevation. I sat in the dust. Gustavo smiled and pointed out how dirty my face was. Fuck you, Gustavo. Part of our group rested, while the rest did an initial search.

The exact moment I realized I hated birds and that I may need psychological help. 

The exact moment I realized I hated birds and that I may need psychological help. 

I took a picture of myself at this point. I wanted to remember forever the exact moment I realized how much I hated birds and that I needed psychological help. What the fuck was wrong with me. I had heard how horrible it was and I kept going, for what? For the high of seeing one rare bird.

No guan. We needed to go higher. Fuck everything.

We paused once more. Optimism was fading in the group. A few still held out some sweaty hope, but the rest of worried that we’d been talking too much or paying more attention to our body and foot aches and completely missed the turkey sized tree chicken that was our quarry. One guy even said, “You know, we could go all this way and not see it.”

This was the first time in my life I ever felt the deep, gutteral desire to throat punch someone.

Then an anxious whisper came from above us, some crazy asshole in our group was still climbing and went two switch backs up…and found the guan. All of us suddenly forgot body fatigue and dashed up the switchback—where had this new-found energy come from?

Horned guan foot.

Horned guan foot.

The light broke through the trees and…all I could see was a bird foot. Fuck you, bird. I was going to count it, but if this was all I’m going to get of you. Fuck you.


Finally, a little head poked out. I saw the horn, the little red horn where the guan gets its name! And the crazy yellow eye! At first we thought there was one guan, but there were two…and then a whole flock of about 7—they vocalized, they displayed, they flew! My little head exploded in awe as I realized I was watching what is arguably the most endangered bird in the Americas.

Horned guan in all its crazy glory. Alas, this was back when I was digiscoping with a point and shoot. Oh the photos I could get  now with a smartphone. 

Horned guan in all its crazy glory. Alas, this was back when I was digiscoping with a point and shoot. Oh the photos I could get  now with a smartphone. 

And after all of that, we had to go back down! Certainly it would not take the five hours that it took to get up to the guan, but it would still take time. My legs are only used to flat surfaced and had been trudging uphill for four hours non stop. And now I had to go down, something I still wasn't used to. Every muscle in my legs vibrated at any moment I stopped. I kept going, but the decline and volcanic ash still caused me to slide and fall. Every time I did fall, a large cloud of dust preceded me, causing Hugo to cross his arms and shout, "Safe!" as if I were a baseball player sliding into home. Fuck you, Hugo.

Gallo Beer

Some way, some how we made it back down the trail to our meeting point, our water bottles depleted. Ana Christina took us to a local watering hole for some refreshments to wait for the ferry. In our dehydrated state, we should of have had water, but it wasn’t safe for the American to drink so our only option was beer. Giddiness soon set in with most of us, especially for me--I NEVER HAVE TO DO THAT CLIMB EVER AGAIN. It occurred to me that a horned guan is a bird that I will only see once in a lifetime and I had a pang of pity for guys like Hugo and Mel who would have to lead a tour here again and take people up that volcano. Those poor god damned bastards.

One of the many Mayan ladies who sensed our fatigue and tipsiness and used the opportunity to relieve us of many quetzals in exchange for their exquisite and colorful textiles. 

One of the many Mayan ladies who sensed our fatigue and tipsiness and used the opportunity to relieve us of many quetzals in exchange for their exquisite and colorful textiles. 

We finally crossed the lake and checked into our next lodge. I took a very long shower with my scope and binoculars to clean off all of the volcanic dust. By the time we were settled and clean it was 8:30pm when we sat down for dinner of squash soup, homemade tortas, fruity drinks and rich dark Guatemalan run.

I've only ever seen this hot sauce in Guatemala. It was as tasty as it was hilarious. 

I've only ever seen this hot sauce in Guatemala. It was as tasty as it was hilarious. 

We discussed the next day's birding. After getting our stuff together at 4:15am that morning and birding almost 12 hours, I was delighted to hear that we were meeting at 7am for breakfast before birding (we'd get to sleep in).

Mel said in a panicked voice, "Hey that means we won't get birding until 8 - 8:30 am, anyone for starting earlier?"

Goddamn lister was already on the quest for more birds.

Hugo our guide said, "Well, it's whatever you want..."

There was a pause, I could tell by some in the group that they needed the rest as much as I did but didn’t want to look like the weenie and say no. I myself have no problem saying no.

"I gotta say that I'm not in favor of that idea and would rather sleep in and rest after today."

Mel looked disappointed, but I felt a palpable wave of relief come across the table from everyone.

So I look down on my little plastic horned guan that ordered from eBay, I think you can understand why I don't think it's cheating to go through loads of technically edible chocolate to get my little souvenir of the day I realized my limits in birding. 

Win A Swarovski Scope

Guess what, gang? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mm0OE0aSoV8

Once again, I have partnered up with Swarovski Optik North America to give away a spotting scope.  And this time we are producing a short eight episode web series with birding and digiscoping tips with me and my buddy Clay Taylor. Now for the contest part: the birds in each episode are a clue to the overall series theme. If you correctly guess the theme, you will be entered into a drawing for a Swarovski STM spotting scope!

The series will debut this spring, we are still filming some of it. You do not have to be a top notch birder but it helps if you know birds.

What To Expect When You're Married To A Birder

Having been married to a non birder for a long time, we've had to negotiate certain things. You will find yourself having strange arguments and in hindsight, funny misunderstandings. Here's a video example that Non Birding Bill and I made that anyone considering marring a birder who is a non birder may want to check out.  This will give you an idea of to expect throughout that relationship (also you get to actually see NBB in this video): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJ-NDqxVmZI

And yes...Swarovski scopes (and binoculars) are THAT waterproof.  After they are particularly dirty, I do shower with them.


Woodcocks At Biggest Week

Part of the fun of birding at the Biggest Week is I get to see my friend Dale Forbes.  I met him a few years ago in Kazakhstan and since then he's moved on to working full time for Swarovski Optik as a products manager.  This is Dale's first time in North America...so you can imagine he's about to explode getting tons of colorful life birds. Jeff and Liz Gordon are also here pimping the American Birding Association and they tipped us off to some hot all woodcock action over at Maumee Bay State Park.  We hightailed it over there after one of my programs so Dale could get the full on woodcock lekking experience.

Before we started, we could hear an eastern screech-owl trilling outside their cabin. I of course had to experiment getting a shot of said owl with my iPhone.  Considering the only light was a flashlight, this wasn't too bad.

Dale got the full woodcock treatment.  The bird skydanced and timberdoodled several times.  He even landed so close at one point that there was no way for me to digiscope him--but what a thrill, we even heard the little crazy inhale sound before they explode out their peent.  Most of the time though he was in a position to not only get shots like the above with my iPhone and scope but also video:


Jeff also got a video of the woodcock and the sound quality is much better, though he was using an actual camera with video and not an iPhone...it now kind of makes me want to investigate mics that are available for the iPhone.

Woodcocks are all over, one has been found foraging near the boardwalk and appears to have a nest hidden in the leaves.  Some of us have tried to scope her but she's so well hidden, almost all you see is that eye.

So it's not just all about the warblers here at Biggest Week.



Best Place To Watch Cranes On Earth

A large part of my trip to Israel was spent at the Agamon Hula in northern part of the country.  The story of the cranes in the valley is quite amazing and quite recent.  I've seen crane migration several times in the US, it's one of my favorite things to watch and encourage others to do (I've got a sandhill crane tattoo designed by Paul Johnsgard in the small of back, I love it so much).

But the Agamon takes to you see cranes in the way you've always wanted to view them.  Close.

And I mean REALLY close.  This is the closest that I've ever been to large flocks of cranes and it's really incredible how the whole situation works.

The story of the cranes at the Agamon started in the 1940s. There was a huge shallow Hula Lake was drained so the land could be farmed. All was well and good for about 10 or 15 years and then the peat dried out. Whole planted fields failed as dried peat combusted--some farmers lost tractors that sank in the combusting dried peat. In the late 1980s to early 1990s they began to rehabilitate the peat and the lake gradually returned, though not quite as large as it originally had been.  As the Hula Lake reformed and several birds started using it on their migration south. Some had shown up in the lake's previous glory but nothing like this.

The first year, about 15,000 common cranes used it as a staging area. Many people came to view the cranes and the area began to grow as an eco-tourism site and at this point, roughly 30,000 cranes use the area. It's an incredible site. But what makes this special is that the cranes have developed a fondness for the surrounding farm fields which presents both an incredible wildlife opportunity and a challenge.

On the one hand it's incredibly amazing that the cranes are all wedged into this area and they have grown accostomed to farm equipment. Someone caught on to this and noted that people wanted to view the cranes and thought, "What if we attached a big box that holds 50 - 60 people to a tractor and drove it through big flocks of cranes in the Hula Valley? And it works!  The cranes are very used to the equipment and as the tractors tote around groups of crane watchers, the birds casually walk out of the way but stay relatively close.  In the above photo you can see the view from our blind and beyond the cranes is a tractor pulling another blind.  As you can see, the cranes are relatively nonplussed by all the humans watching them.

It's not 100% an ideal situation. The cranes should be using the area for staging (gathering and feeding like crazy to continue their migration south). However, the cranes have found ample forage and several thousand are spending the winter in the Hula Valley roosting on the lake and foraging nonstop in the surrounding field. This is a problem, both for cranes and for farmers, as cool as the birds are, the farmers don't want to lose their income and really, the cranes should be migrating.

So, Israel has come up with a unique idea. There are fields where supplement food is set out for the cranes and a squad who patrols the area and flushes cranes from farm fields where they shouldn't be feeding by using loud noises like fireworks and gun shots--the cranes are not harmed, but flushed from areas where they shouldn't be, keeping the farmers happy and the cranes safe.

It's quite amazing how acclimatized to humans the cranes are despite being flushed from certain fields.  In Nebraska, you can't get as close to the birds and if you went out into the fields where they forage during the day, the sandhill cranes take off.  In the Hula Valley in Israel, you can get quite close and the refuge is happy to help you get there.  It's great for getting photos, for sketching or for just sitting there and enjoying the spectacle of thousands of cranes.

Even in the hides built around the refuge to visit birds throughout the year are visited by cranes.  You don't even have to keep quiet.  While I was in the above blind several people were inside chatting animatedly in Hebrew.  Even when we were in our tractor blinds our guides had microphones and speakers and spoke at a very normal level when close to the cranes and the birds were not perturbed.

Common cranes are only part of the magic of viewing birds in the Hula Valley, but they are a great part.  To view them at their peak you need to visit in early November. There are always great birds at the Hula, but for a crane migration spectacle, plane on early to mid-November. After visiting the Hula Valley, I may have to adjust my tattoo.

Oh and to give you an idea of how similar they are to sandhill cranes in North America, check out this video, they sound almost exactly the same:



Dynamite Kingfishers Of The Hula Valley

One of the big highlights visiting the Hula Valley in Israel was all the kingfisher action.  This is a pied kingfisher, about the size and shape of belted kingfishers but are all crazy black and white.  And unlike the kingfishers in my state are incredibly cooperative:

The pieds were especially obliging and would hover quite close allowing for photo opportunities!  They were an easy species to watch, we had them along the beach outside of our hotel in Tel Aviv, they perched nearby when we were watching cranes in the valley and they were all over around the fish ponds.

This is the common kingfisher and about six inches long is about the cutest thing on wings.  It zips around like a little race car.

Here's an example of how tiny they are.  This bird was part of a banding operation going on at the Agamon Hula.

Then there's this bad boy.  This is the white-throated kingfisher or Smyrna kingfisher.  And the blue on the back looks as though it can't exist in nature, yet it does.  Now even though this is called a kingfisher, note its shape.  It's shaped more like a kookaburra.  And though it will eat fish, these guys will also go for snakes, frogs, lizards and small rodents.

Just a few more examples of the really cool birds you can see in the Hula Valley.


Merlin vs Red-bellied Woodpecker

Non Birding Bill and I were over at Mr. Neil's to do some fall beehive prep (for those who follow, the bees seemed to take my Ned Stark speech well and all but one of the hives actually bumped up production).  After we finished checking the hives we were back in the house surfing the net, dealing with emails when I heard a heard a sound. "Distressed woodpecker sound," my brain noted as I read an email. Then my brain kicked me, "DISTRESSED WOODPECKER SOUND! RAPTOR! ALL HANDS ON DECK!"

Then it sunk in--"Holy cow, look out the window, stupid!"  I turned to look out the window and saw a small raptor gliding away with a red-bellied woodpecker.  I figured the raptor was most likely a male Cooper's hawk or a female sharp-shinned hawk--both a fairly regular bird in Mr. Neil's yard, especially during migration.  I dashed to the front room and was shocked to see...

...a small dark falcon killing a large woodpecker.  "Holy crap! It's a merlin," I shouted...well, I'm sure there was more profanity than that but you get the idea.  Falcons have a notch in their bill that they use to sever the spine from the head and kill prey fairly quickly.  The merlin went in for a bite, but she had to go in for a second to really put the woodpecker out.  While she did that, I scrambled off for my digiscoping equipment.

Look at that face!  She's so adorable--Nature's Perfect Killing Machine! You can even make out those little malar stripes under each eye that all falcons have! I digiscoped this photo of her after she killed the woodpecker. It's not as in focus as I would like, but I was shooting through an old farmhouse window and my scope picks up imperfections in window glass.  I didn't want to open the window because this small falcon had worked hard for her kill and I didn't want to risk flushing her off her food.  This is the first time I've seen a merlin in Mr. Neil's yard.  This bird is possible for the area, but mostly as a migrant.  If she was on a long journey to migrate south, she needed a good hearty meal and my need to get a perfectly in focus shot was not as important as her need to get nourishment.

She was fairly close to the driveway with her kill and I noticed a car coming down.  She mantled a bit over her kill but didn't fly away from it.  I heard voices and noted that Non Birding Bill, Mr. Neil and the newly arrived Steve Manfred hadn't followed me into the front room to watch the merlin.  I shouted, "Hey, you guys really need to come see this, this is a really cool bird!"  Again, the "really" in the previous sentence was most likely profanity.  They soon followed and had to concede a merlin with a red-belly was pretty badass.  Cameras started clicking and both Neil and I got photos.  I immediately called this bird a "she" and Neil asked why.  First, in raptors females are larger than males. Based on this bird taking out a red-bellied woodpecker I knew she was female.  Now, merlins are one of the few raptor species where you can tell male from female apart based on plumage.  Females are brown on back and males are blue:

These are a couple of males that we trapped up at Frank Taylor's banding station in Duluth.  See the blue on the wing feathers?  That's male.  This gets tricky in young birds.  Merlins hatched this year will be brown on back--both male and female.  That's where size comes in handy.

Here's a shot that Mr. Neil took of the merlin.  Note how all the feathers on the back are uniform?  They all look like they grew in at the same time--that's something you would only see in a bird hatched this year.  Adults would still have some molting going on and you'd see worn, older feathers mixed in that would be a slightly different color.  The tail has some light colored bands through it.  The look tawny or buff.  If this were a male, those bands would look gray.  Again, females are larger than males and this small falcon took out a red-bellied woodpecker--it's large, she's female.

This is another shot Mr. Neil got with his camera. I had to chuckle because the woodpecker looks almost "cartoon dead."  See the tongue hanging out of the beak?  The only thing missing is the little "X" over the eye.  Note the size of the red-bellied woodpecker next to the merlin--I've had both in hand and always thought of them to be similar in size.  I decided to do a little digging on the Internet on merlin size vs red-bellied woodpecker size.

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds red-bellied woodpeckers are about 9.4 inches long, have a wingspan of 13 - 16.5 inches and weigh about 3 oz.

Merlins are 9.4 - 11.8 inches in length, have a wingspan of 20.9–26.8 inches and weigh 5.6 - 8.5 oz.  Figure that the smaller numbers are males and the larger numbers are females.
So according to Cornell, a male merlin could be about as long as a red-bellied woodpecker.  This is another photo taken by Mr. Neil from the second level of his house.  Here you can see that the merlin is larger than the woodpecker, again identifying her as female.  What was interesting was that most of the birds left her alone.  There was some mobbing noise from a hairy woodpecker and goldfinches, but no blue jays came in to scold. A few crows did and the merlin did not like that at all.
She stopped eating and watched them.  The crows didn't caw like crazy at her like they would an owl or larger hawk. They cawed but not as frantic, as if not wanting to provoke her but let each other know, hey Nature's Perfect Killing Machine Down here.  I've seen merlins chase the heck out crows and even heard of accounts of merlins killing crows to take over a nest site.  They will go for something larger than they are and if any small raptor is capable of getting the job done, it's a merlin.  She watched them for several minutes and then to my surprise, took off with the woodpecker in her talons and dove at the crows.  I watched her bank to some trees and tried to go out to follow where she landed to eat but lost her completely. 
I had hoped if I found her that I could see the woodpecker carcass she finished eating to see if the woodpecker was banded.  Sometimes friends of mine come out to band birds here and have ringed a few red-bellies.  It would have been to fun to have that as a banding record.  If the woodpecker was banded we would had an idea of her age and a notation of the really interesting way to die.  I mean, getting killed by a merlin is one of the coolest ways to go.  As I was editing photos for this blog entry, something caught my eye:
In one very crappy photo that I took, I noticed that the merlin was banded.  Noooooooooooo!  Why didn't I get more photos of her foot to id the band number? BLARG!  Based on where Mr. Neil lives this is most likely a bird banded at Hawk Ridge this fall.  She was hatched this year so there are only so many raptor banding stations north of here.  There is a chance that my buddy Frank Taylor banded her, but I'm not sure if he's had a merlin in the nets yet this year.  Most likely a first year female banded on her migration south.  Without the number we will never know for sure but I'm curious of my buddy Frank Taylor or Hawk Ridge has banded any hatch year merlins because chances are good, she is one of their birds.
Man I love unexpected merlins but to have one make such an interesting kill and be banded just really made my Thursday.

Post Tornado Heron ReNesting Has Chicks!

Well the big theme story in the blog this summer was the tornado ravaged great blue herons. Their rookery was blown away in May and some birds attempted to re-nest at Coon Rapids Dam and Marshall Terrace Park.  I headed out last week to Marshall Terrace to see if chicks were visible. I had heard from people boating on the river that the chicks are calling from the nest.

When I arrived at the park and walked to the river trail, I was sad to see that the nests built on the island right across from the park were all abandoned. However, I could clearly hear heron chick begging calls. Just north of the park is the Riverside Power Plant and there is another island in front of it that some herons were also using.  It's harder to see that island but if you take the stairs all the way down to the river and have binoculars or a scope, you can see some nests.

I scanned the trees with my scope and found quite a few young heron chicks and a few adults flying in to feed them! Yay!  Now if the adults can get them squared away on foraging and migration before all the water freezes up, they'll have as good a shot as any other young heron hatched this summer.  There's still time.  This makes me happier than the herons from wildlife rehab being released--the adults attempted a second nesting on their own and it worked!

I also noticed something very interesting about the island with the active heron nests.  It's hard to see in this photo, but there were campers on this island. So, of course, I digiscoped them.

Looks like they kayaked in and pitched a tent. Interesting because there's not really any place you can legally camp on the Mississippi River through the Twin Cities.  Can't say that I blame them for camping there, lovely spot in the urban Twin Cities landscape, but ew right below a heron rookery?  The stink from the droppings and the non stop heron begging would be enough to keep me away--regardless of the legality.  I'm fairly certain this island is owned by Xcel Energy.  It's interesting to note how relaxed some rules have become post 9/11.  The Head of Navigation is on one side of this island and a power plant for a major metro area is on the other. Usually, security is forces people away from those areas fairly quickly.  The campers were not the only visitors to the island.

A half dozen people on paddle boards landed on the island.  A couple of them noticed the little stinky fish smelling poop factory above them. They weren't there to camp, but to rest and grab a drink from their coolers.

And use the rope swing on the island.  The herons don't seem to mind and I'm sure people landed on their old island.  If you are going to nest in an urban landscape, you have to learn to deal with the humans, that's the way it is.  The nests are high enough that the humans wouldn't be a threat and if someone were foolish enough to climb up to a nest, they'd learn the hard way what a messy business it is getting face to face with a heron chick--they can vomit up fish when scared just like a pelican.  Nasty, nasty stuff.

All in all, it's just really great for me to see that herons are re-nesting and testing out new areas on the river.  I'll be curious to see what they do next year.


Young Herons From Tornado Released!

If you've been following this blog this summer, you are aware of the tornado that hit Minneapolis in May and destroyed a heron rookery and the recovery and rebuilding.

I got a call from the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center that last week and they planned to release 7 of the 9 great blue heron chicks recovered after the tornado last Monday.  They invited a couple of us from my park (the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area to be there) and I got to release one of the herons and my fellow Park Ranger Gordon took photos.

This was the great blue heron in my box.  The herons have come a long way from when they were first admitted to the WRC.  Videos on YouTube showed their progress--here's one of the chicks honing its fishing skills.

The birds were released at Cenaiko Lake at Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park--a perfect spot since the lake is managed and stocked for trout fishing.  It's also not too far from the Coon Rapids Dam heron rookery, so they will be able to watch the local adults to see where they go to forage and learn from them.  Perhaps one of the adults renesting in the park is a parent of one of the released chicks?  There won't be any magical family reunion, if these are any of their chicks, too much time has passed for the adults to regard these chicks as anything other than a competitor for food and territory.

I took this shot with my phone.  My heron was one of two that hung out in the water for several minutes after release.  I'm sure some if it had to do with the confusion of a new situation for them but the day we released the herons was the first day of that nasty heatwave that ravaged the midwest last week--yuck.  I think they just wanted to cool off.

The heron from my box eventually flew to the edge of the lake where it was promptly bapped by some red-winged blackbirds who didn't take kindly to it being in their territory.  It then found an edge where it could gather its thoughts in peace and heat.  It started panting and I could understand why.  I was in my full on Park Ranger uniform and I have to tell you that the poly-wool blend the government makes us wear retains heat like nobody's business.  I was only out in the heat in under 30 minutes and I'm certain I lost 5 pounds in sweat.  My clothes were soaked through when I got to the car.  Eventually the heron flew to a shadier spot close to the water, ready to fish.

And so this is a happier ending to the Minneapolis tornado for the herons. Though many nests were lost, the herons rebuilt and a handful of chicks have been returned to the wild. These chicks have aa good of a chance as any raised completely in the wild and I hope that they will figure out the best fishing spots and have a chance to migrate south and return next year.

Here's some of the media coverage of the release from KARE 11 , MPR and KSTP. (Mom, you'll be interested in the first 2 links).

And I leave you with a funny video of the herons from the WRC not long before their release.  One of the chicks decides to take on a monster sunfish.  With that sort of can do spirit, I'm sure the will do fine:



The Danger Of A Stake Out Bird

On Monday, a bird call woke me from my sleep.  Half asleep I thought, "Why is a robin singing with a cardinal type whistle note?" Something didn't add up.  I rolled over and pressed nose to the screen trying to wake up and figure it out.  This is not a sound I hear in my Minneapolis neighborhood...so different...so familiar...what does it sound like?

I went to the bathroom and it sounded as though the bird were right outside the window.  I stepped over the tub to the window and pished...then saw it--a Carolina wren!  Rare for Minnesota and no wonder I couldn't place it in my half awake state.  I stream of profanity let loose from my mouth as I tried to figure out how best to document it.  My bedroom and bathroom are both the worst for digiscoping.  I dashed to my camera.  All my noise woke up Non Birding Bill and he asked drowsily, "Wait, what is it, what's wrong?"

This is not the Carolina wren outside my window, this is one that I took a picture of one in Cape May, NJ.  But you get the idea of how distinctive they look.

"Carolina wren outside our window, not supposed to be here," I said searching for an SD card for my camera.  By the time I got it, I came into the bedroom to find NBB upright in bed and aiming his iPhone to our window where the bird feeders are.  Here's the video he got (you can't see the wren, it's perched just above the feeder, but you can hear it):


Alas, the wren flew off before I could get any kind of photo.  I posted the news to my Twitter and Facebook account and then got a couple of messages from local birders telling me that they have either never seen one or at least not in Minnesota and could I let them know if it comes back...panic set in.

The bedroom is by far the MESSIEST room in my apartment--it is the land of laundry and books and the occasional computer part NBB is playing with. I mean, I look at our apartment as a place to sleep between birding trips, not a display of indoor decorating.  I can live with people seeing that chaos, but the bedroom?  Yikes!  Worse yet, there's a whole host of embarrassing things in there.  I can't have people in my apartment...at least not the bedroom.  The bedroom window is the only window my apartment building allows me to have feeders, the other windows face a paring area and people don't like seed shells and bird poop on their cars, so it's not like I can move the feeders.

Mercifully, the Carolina wren has not returned but I'm still a bit stressed that it could at any moment...