Day One Of Big Half Year Challenge

So my goal is to do a fundraiser for the Friends of Sax Zim Bog to help build a welcome center up there.  My goal is to see how many different species of birds I can digiscope between January 1, 2013 - June 30, 2013. MN Valley

I took my first outing today at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge to knock out a few of the feeder species and I found myself in a quandary...I was able to get photos of tons of birds, mostly in focus but I knew that if lighting was a bit better, my shots would be better.  However, you really do not know how timing is going to play out and you may find that by June you don't have a junco photo.  So, I'm going to always strive to get photos of different birds, but if I have an opportunity to get a better photo of a bird that I already have a photo of, I'm going to go for a better photo.

blue jay

Here is a blue jay giving me Zoolander's "Blue Steel" look! So I took out my Swarovski ATM 80mm scope with the 25 - 50 zoom eyepiece and my iPhone and tooke 175 photos, 9 of which I'm calling countable for my Big Half Year.

wild turkey

Here's a wild turkey I digiscoped today. My friend Craig on Twitter said that he would only donate for bird photos in focus (unlike the World Series of Birding which asks photographers to provide "identifiable" shots). So I think I'll keep Craig's rule and try to keep things in focus for birds that end up on the official list.


I took 174 photos today and I added 9 species of birds to the list (like the above northern cardinal). I'm keeping an official photo album of all species over at Flickr. I thought I would keep track of how many photos I take and how many photos I use because a lot of people don't realize that photographers delete a LOT of photos.

house sparrow

Got my obligatory house sparrow out of the way. You can donate to the cause and I would recommend not donating per bird, but just putting in a fixed amount.  I anticipate that I will exceed my goal of 250 digiscoped bird species in six months. And it really is a good cause, so many people visit Sax Zim Bog for the birding potential and it would be great to help people find their way to the cool birds...and avoid the scary people.

Here's the link to my Big Half Year Flickr Album and if you are inclined to donate, here's the link for that.

Random American Pipit

These birds are easy miss but they pass over me in huge numbers when I go up to visit my hawk banding friends in northern MN and when I do my surveys in southern MN.  If you visit Cornell's All About Birds page for the pipit and scroll to sounds and listen for contact call, you may recognize it or you may find yourself noticing it when you are in open fields. It's a quiet, easy to miss call but it's kind of cool to know these birds are passing through incognito to most of the world.


Focus on Diversity Conference 2012

My brain is so exhausted from the Focus on Diversity Conference held at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge this past Saturday. It's no secret that I'm kind of a party girl and like to mix it up, but between an extended Birds and Beers on Friday night, leading a walk for the conference Saturday morning and my brain being jammed packed with ideas and emotions from the conference, I felt like I was jetlagged as if I had just come home from an 18 hour overseas flight on Sunday. Sometimes, I have to force myself and take a moment to realize what I'm doing with my life (usually in a good way). Ferris Beuller was not lying when he said, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it."

And I found myself taking stock of what I was doing on Saturday:

Which was moderating a panel with Paul Baicich, Dr. J. Drew Lanham and Kenn Kaufman titled, "Do we REALLY need to focus on diversity in birding?"

I would think the answer to this question would be a no brainer: yes! However, gettting people to come to this event in Minnesota was not as easy as I thought. And it's not because we are an all white city. I know people may think it's all Norwegian up here but we have the largest Hmong and Somali population in the US. I felt certain when I heard this conference was coming to Minnesota that all the local birding organizations would be jumping on board...that was surprisingly not the case. I know part of the reason is that all of us are busy and it's difficult to to find time in budgets and schedules during migration but at the same time, how can we afford not to focus on this issue and figure out what we tend to be a homongenous group.

Other topics covered "Barriers to Birding," "Considerations for Reaching New Audiences" and even breakout sessions to come with ideas for something you yourself could do.

I was struck by the mix in attitudes of the speakers in the conference which echoed that it's not something to be fixed overnight and one single solution is not going to make every person of every race and color comfortable. Above is Kaufman, my good friend Duck Washington (a regular at Twin Cities Birds and Beer), photographer and author Dudley Edmondson, Roy Rodriguez with Texas Parks and Wildlife with Mamie Parker who used to work for US Fish and Wildlife. Duck had a great quote about birding companies marketing to more diverse audiences. I know I've heard before, "We don't need to market to them, they won't be interested or have the money."

Duck pointed out that there's enough of the minority population that does have the money and the interest that ignoring them is a loss of revenue. This rings true with conversations I've had with Rue Mapp at Outdoor Afro, just because someone is part of a minority group does not mean they do not have the money to spend on outdoor equipment.

Dr. Lanham spoke several times and gave a very touching and heartfelt talk about teaching his son how to talk to the police when he's pulled over so he will be safe and not be shot. He also talked about what it was like to look in the mirror and not feel that he may have belonged. All of us who have birded for years may think we are welcoming, but at the end of the day, don't we feel safer mingling with people who "look like us."

And let's face it, not all birders are welcoming.  There's a great example of one I intereacted with on Facebook that I wrote about over at 10000 Birds. This person is a birding field trip leader and isn't racist can't trust most Mexicans. I still read that and shake my head with pity.

Dudley Edmondson was decidedly on the opposite side of the spectrum and said he didn't worry if there were nothing but white people in the woods, "I don't care, there's a rare butterfly over there and I need to get past you to see it."

Edmondson also shared a story of when he was working on getting photos for a Wildflowers of Minnesota book, he found a flower he needed in his neighborhood in Duluth, MN. As he was on the ground taking photos, an older white woman came out and demanded that he hand over his camera and film or she would call the police. He explained that he was a nature photographer taking photos of flowers, she said that he was not, he did not look like a nature photographer. The conversation escalated a bit and ended with Edmondson leaving and calling her crazy. Someone in the audience took him to task for not using it as a teachable moment--maybe educating that woman about people of color in nature. Edmundson said that he didn't care, it wasn't always up to him to do that and this woman was crazy.

I sympathized with him--you cannot fight crazy (some of the people I've blocked from this blog have more than proven that rule to be true). And I also thought that is a heavy burden to put on someone--you must educate everyone you ever meet who is distrustful of you.  Sometimes, you just want to be outdoors or maybe try to do your job outdoors and because your skin color is different from others who are enjoying nature shouldn't mean that you have to automatically educate everyone about yourself. Duck also pointed out that sometimes leaving before things escalate is the safest thing to do.

This is just a stream of consciousness of some of the things that struck me from the conference, there is so much more. I think some of the conference will be put up online so you can listen later and I encourage you to do so. Also, they announced when the next conference will be--in 2013 it will happen right before the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival (it always happens the second weekend of November so you can kind of get an idea of when it will be now). Try to put on your calendar--at the very least RGV should be on there, that festival should be on everyone's Bucket List.


Twin Cities Snow Shoeing

I have accepted the snow and have taken to snowshoeing.  Partly because my park got a whole bunch of snowshoes this winter and I'm doing some programs one on January 21 and the other on February 19.  I need to practice because I have a tendency to walk with my toes out, which inevitably leads to me stepping my shoes and tumbling ass over tea kettle into the snow.  I was out with a bunch of rangers at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge last week and it was so cool.  We found just about every textbook thing you could find on a snowshoe hike: coyote tracks, otter tracks, rodent tracks that end with feather prints and...

...even a fresh antler shed!  That's a couple of my fellow rangers in the photo.  The antler had six points on it.  That's pretty incredible when you consider how deeply this refuge is embedded in the urban Twin Cities.  This shed was so fresh, it hadn't been chewed by any mice yet and it still had a bit of blood on the spot where the antler was attached.  Too cool!  I think it wasn't even an hour old.

After the snowshoe, I hung out at the feeders at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.  Check out all the spots of red, the cardinal activity was off the charts.  There were even more in the above photo, but at least three were cropped out.

I find comfort in watching the steady stream of activity at bird feeders.  Little things like blue jays filling their crops so full with peanuts that you can see the overflow in their open beaks.

I was surprised to see a white-throated sparrow hanging out at the feeders, but for whatever reason, this bird didn't go further south.  It's got a good food supply and cover at the refuge.  If it can dodge the local sharp-shinned hawk, it just might make it.  Here are some other birds visible in the falling snow around the refuge:

Female cardinal (with a female house finch down at the bottom).

Male house finch.

Signs of Spring

The red-winged blackbirds are arriving in larger and larger flocks in Minnesota--spring. I got this photo on Monday while filming a segment with weatherman Rob Koch from KSTP. We were doing a segment on migration and I figured our best bet would be at the Minnesota Valley NWR--sure enough, there was a flock of red-wings. This female downy woodpecker hopped over to a male red-winged blackbird and the two birds stared at each other for a moment. It was almost as if they were having a conversation:

Downy: Oh hey, when did you get back in town?

Red-wing: Just arrived last night, still gotta go another 70 miles north Hinckley, any good grub around here?

Downy: Not to many insects in season yet, but the peanut suet isn't bad down at the feeders.

Red-wing: Score.

The Furious Pack

I'm furiously packing and trying to tie up some details before I leave...did I mention I'm going to Guatemala.

I was clearing out my camera and found a photo I took of a fox sparrow from last Friday. We have a small flock that is bound and determined to spend the winter in the Twin Cities at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. They are for sure taking advantage of the native plantings that drop seeds all winter, but I think a case could be argued for the feeding station as well. Perhaps that is giving them the extra edge to survive? I've counted at least three, but I suspect there are four total.

By the way, I have to thank all the helpful followers on Twitter. Yesterday I had a sore throat. I suspected on Sunday that I was coming down with a bug, so I started to swab my inner nostrils with Zicam. When I wrote a Tweet about remedies, replies poured in. I tried almost all of them from honey, cider vinegar, honey, no dairy, honey, chicken ginger soup, honey, tea, honey, Emergen-C, honey, scotch toddy, honey, etc that I think they all worked (and left me with a minor stomachache). Sore throat is gone. I'm mildly stuffy, but no fever like yesterday.

Thanks for all the tips.

Bird Feeder Rush Hour

One of my favorite things is to watch a really active feeding station. Even if it's birds I've seen a bazillion times, I love watching bird feeder activity, especially in winter before we get a snow and birds are coming from all different directions. Tuesday had subzero temperatures and the start of snow fall and birds were ready to take advantage of a feeding station. I laughed when I arrived at the Minnesota Valley NWR visitor center because of the turkey activity. Note all the turkeys on the ground and all the songbirds crowded into the feeder on the right. Now, note the turkey on top of the feeder on the left...and now songbirds!

It was fun to watch the large bird balance its body and avoid sliding as it went after the food in the platform feeder. Periodically the turkey would slide down and then feed on the ground for a bit. But soon it would again try for the food on the feeder. The activity of all the birds and the snow was intense. I tried to get a video:

It was a steady stream of turkeys, house sparrows, cardinals, blue jays, woodpeckers and chickadees.

Some of the turkeys would just park themselves right next to the windows and sit there. I'm not sure if the bird was looking at its reflection or feeling some of the heat off the building. I've always found it curious that turkey vultures migrate out of Minnesota, but wild turkeys stay. Turkeys have bald heads, but they do have some bristly feathers and from the above photo, it looks like those are enough to keep them off the face.

A big surprise to me was a small flock of about 16 brown-headed cowbirds hanging out. They really looked like they were hating life. I'm sure they were asking each other, "Okay, who had the brilliant idea of not migrating because it would cost too much energy and be dangerous?" The mostly stuck to roosting in the trees and the few who came to the feeders were not their usual bossy selves. They were slow and lethargic. One lone male kept feeding on the ground and almost got stepped on (or tasted) by a turkey.

I like sit on the visitor center on cloudy days in winter. If you sit inside you can watch the feeders without the sun directly behind them. So, I was able to sit inside, get some decent photos, and stay warm.

One challenge is that the heaters are right next to the windows, so you do have to deal with a little heat shimmer, but that combined with the snow can make for some arty photos like the above digiscoped image of a female cardinal. And though the birds were active at the feeders full of sunflower seeds, there was plenty of other food around:

Tree sparrows (above), cardinals, and juncos were feeding on seeds in the grasses. It's a myth that if you start to feed birds in the fall that you have to do it all winter or they will starve to death. They find plenty of food in plants that we look at and see nothing. I think that falsehood was started by some seed seller out there to try and keep his customers coming all winter.

If you have to go for a bit without feeding the birds, they will get over it, some birds like the above blue jay stash food away in a cache for just such an occasion. That said, birds may not visit your feeder as regularly as one that is always filled, but they will come back and they will not starve. They treat your bird feeders the way we should treat fast food restaurants. It's a convenience, but not a sole source of food.

Here's a downy woodpecker on a mullen. The woodpeckers mostly perched on this but they would peck on it from time to time, so I wonder if they were getting some food out it as well?

The mullen also made nice perches for the juncos too. It was just a gorgeous snow scene.