The Anniversary Of The Great Blue Heron Rookery Destroyed By A Tornado

This has been an action packed week for me, it's the one year anniversary of the Minneapolis Tornado that ripped through a great blue heron rookery, destroying all the nests (and almost all the offspring) and displacing most of the adults. The herons ended up renesting, some at an older rookery at Coon Rapids Dam and then other establishing a new rookery downriver at the Head of Navigation on the Mississippi River, near Marshall Terrace Park. To our surprise and relief, some of the birds ended up fledging young last year.

And to my utter delight, they came back this year and nesting is again well under way. Tom Crann from All Things Considered asked if there was a way to go out and visit the rookery. The superintendent of my park (MNRRA) Paul Labovitz offered to drive the boat and try to safely land on the island. So off we went under the threat of rain and lots of wind to visit the new rookery. Above is Jayne Solinger, Tom Crann, Paul Labovitz, Jeffery Thompson and Brian Valentine. Tom was getting a photo of me getting a photo of him.  It was all very meta on Twitter.

This is a shot beneath the rookery from the boat, look at all those those nests.  Even though it was windy, if you took a moment, you could hear the chicks begging for food. Paul found a safe place to land the boat and we walked around on the island. I was able to count about 40 nests, most of which were active. I wasn't sure if some of the smaller ones were starters or leftover from last year. There's still plenty of room to grow on this island, so I'm sure we'll see more nests in years to come.

We had fun on the island and I even taught Tom how to digiscope with his iPhone and my Swarovski scope.

This is one of our iPhone scoped photos, we were sending them to Twitter, but Tom also added them to the story on the MPR site. Awesome. These young herons look like they are about to leave the nest. I think that mild March allowed the great blue herons an early start on nesting.

I couldn't help but notice how much poop was on the island. As I understand it, Xcel Energy owns the island and you're not supposed to land on it, but people do.  Last year I found some campers and a local tour operator landing under the rookery. I couldn't help but think this a foolish situation, fish reeking heron poop is no fun to have on your clothing...or to camp under--ew. While we were on the island, we felt some moisture and we thought it had started to rain...

Then I noticed that the speckles were white and realized that I just got the MPR crew covered in heron poo! Way to go, Ranger Sharon! I had to call and ask Swarovski what the best and safest method is for removing heron poop from my spotting scope body. Typically I just run it under the shower but I think this will need a little elbow grease...and quite possibly a toothbrush.

Thanks to the super windy conditions on our way back to shore, everybody got sprayed with Mississippi River water, so that did kind of help clean off the heron poop...though everybody had to go back to the studios a little wetter than expected.

The peregrine falcons who use the nest box flew around us on the island a few times.

You can see they are still using the island as their plucking perch. We found all sorts of bird parts from several blue jay wings, killdeer wings and catbird parts.

There was even a disembodied killdeer head!

Canada geese nest all over the island, but many of the nests were abandon. I wonder if people landing on the island or the constant barrage of heron poop was the cause.  I wasn't able to get a photo but there are also at least three spotted sandpiper nesting territories. You know, if it weren't for the heron poop factor and parent freak out factor, this island is a naturalist's dream and I would love, love, love to use it as an outdoor classroom.  So much to explore and every bit of it is a teachable moment.

So, here is the story from All Things Considered and Tom also found that Xcel has set up a heron cam, so you can watch from the safety (and less stinky) area of your desk.





Winter Surveys

I'm still doing some of my bird surveys. And up until this week I was having a cheery time in the field, but now it's so incredibly silent. I can't believe this is the same spot that was chock full of bobolinks not so long ago. It's so strange to suddenly have a spot that was so vibrant with sound from breeding birds then switch to crickets then to chips of secretive migrating sparrows and then to nothing.  It makes those hour long point counts feel like a long time. And though the landscape is beautiful, it's bleak and lonely...and not nearly as much fun to scramble under electric fences as the snow piles up.

We've even been able to squeeze in another aerial waterfowl survey this week. Half the Mississippi River is frozen and reminds me a bit of a lunar landscape.

It snowed lightly while we were flying and the ending result made it seem as though we were flying right through a holiday card.  I suggested the pilot attach a bright red nose to his plane and I'm not sure he found that nearly as funny as I did.

Swans fly like shimmering ghosts through the snow.  The numbers of swans has dropped on the Mississippi and I'm not entirely sure that a majority of them are tundras.  In early and mid November, I watched huge strings of swans fly over while I did my eagle surveys.  I could hear their calls well before I saw them and knew they were tundra swans heading to the staging area on the Mississippi.  Last week, I had smaller groups of swans using the exact same route, but listening to them, they were distinctly trumpeter swans.  It's hard to tell the 2 apart in a plane at 100 miles an hour.

They are easy enough to count and id on the open water...

But much harder on ice and snow.  This was as we were doing a high pass to see if there was enough open water to warrant a fly by.  At fist, I though there are a few swans but not many...then I noticed how many of the whiter spots were moving on the ice, there were still hundreds of swans to be counted.

Canada geese are in large numbers, the biggest numbers I've seen all season.  Considering all the waste corn in farm fields and all the places that have open water along the river, it's no surprise.

Here's part of a flock of bald eagles, there are at least 29 in this photo.  I saw some very interesting behavior that I've not seen bald eagles do this week.  Common mergansers are in huge numbers on Lake Pepin, but I was able to get a shot of them.  Where ever we had huge flocks of mergansers, we had sizable flocks of bald eagles hunting them.  It was crazy, we would have 10 bald eagles actively trying to nail a mergansers over open water.  One spot was so active and dicey with mergansers and eagles, our pilot skillfully dodged around the flock.  Our pilot doesn't like eagles to be directly over head because they can suddenly drop, through in a few thousand panicked ducks and barely freezing water and you have a dangerous situation.  It was cool to get a fleeting glimpse of the behavior.  Lake Pepin is so huge, it's not something easily viewed from shore.  I'd be curious how successful this technique is and if any bald eagles ever end up drowning after catching a merganser on water.  I know eagles are capable of swimming some distance to shore by paddling wings, but I don't think an eagle could make it from the center of Pepin.

Not as many ducks, but what a treat to get to view the bluffs in Minnesota and Wisconsin on either side of the Mississippi River.  This was our last flight for ducks.  I might do one ground survey next week, but that depends on if Pepin stays open.  To view our waterfowl numbers check here.  If this week's numbers aren't up yet, they will be up by Friday.




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.


Final two rescued herons released

Photo by Brian Peterson.

Hello all, NBB here.

The StarTribune has a story about the final two heron chicks that were rescued after a tornado destroyed their rookery on the Mississippi River. Sharon's been involved with this story as one of the first people to investigate the damage, to being part of the rescue team, to helping release the birds.

The Strib talks about the rehabilitation process for the birds:

The nine chicks had spent much of their three-month respite in a 20-yard-by-5-yard kennel, on property in Inver Grove Heights that belongs to Vance Grannis. Their kennel, originally built for rehabilitating swans, also held a pool stocked with fish, giving the birds a vital chance to practice hunting. They also could spread their wings and fly, though not far. The nine young were lucky. They came in healthy, if a bit stressed. The center's staff and volunteers worked hard to keep them that way until they were old enough to care for themselves.

Check out the Strib site for more on the release, and some great pictures of the birds.

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:



Birding and the Government Shutdown

I was out at Mr. Neil's the other day doing some final inspecting of bee equipment (they should be here in a week and a half).  We're getting seven new hives this spring and poor Hans (the groundskeeper) was trying to finish removing our dead hives in time for the new bees.  I had a hard time focusing because migration has hit hard.  A big flock of purple finches were chowing down around the feeders.  Above is a purple finch perched on a red-osier dogwood (I love the way the feathers of the male compliment the branches).  This is a purple finch and not a house finch because there is no streaking on the flanks and he's an overall beefier bird.

It's interesting to note the change in juncos (the bird behind the purple finch).  Their breeding hormones are kicking in and they are chasing each other singing like crazy.  Here's what a singing junco sounds like--have you heard that in your neighborhood?

You may have heard some talk in the news this week about a possible government shutdown.  It's been brewing for awhile and I must admit, up until yesterday I thought it was nothing more than bluffing you would find on a prairie chicken lek.  As of yesterday, I think it may happen.  I find it amusing that one of the reasons I have my part time Park Ranger job is so I can have a safety net with my unpredictable freelance work and in a strange turn of events, it has suddenly become the unpredictable job.

I have a program on Saturday and at the time that I'm typing this, I have no idea if it will happen (and no official idea until midnight eastern time Friday night).  A friend invited me to go birding on Saturday if I don't have to work and I'm not sure where we will be going.  Some of the places I love to visit will be closed off during the shutdown like Minnesota Valley NWR.  Here's a list of all National Wildlife Refuges in Minnesota.  You might want to click on your state's link and see what refuges could be closed near you.  Keep in mind that National Parks, National Historic Sites, National Forests and Bureau of Land Management areas.  Think of where you plan to watch birds this weekend.  If "National" is in the title of the will not get in if there is a shut down.

Let's hope it doesn't happen and if it does that it is brief.

And let's keep politics of the shutdown out of the comment section.  I'm not happy with anyone involved that this is happening and this post is more a head's up to birders about where they plan to watch birds this weekend.




Unusual Bird Watching Training

For the second time in my life, I have questioned how much I love birds and wondered if I need an intervention.  The first time with the Horned Guan Death March , especially in Part 2 of that epic hike up a volcano to see one of the rarest birds in the Americas. But the second time came last week when I did some mandatory training for our fall waterfowl surveys on the upper Mississippi River.

When we do our aerial waterfowl surveys, we fly low.  It seems to me that we are right above the trees, but it's about 150 feet off the ground.  It's low.  Our biggest danger is power lines that run across the river.  Most of them are well marked and we have GPS map system on the plane that alerts us to when we are approaching a set.  But accidents happen.  If I'm going to keep doing these surveys, then the federal government said that I need to have training on plane safety and how to survive a crash, specifically in water.  How did we do that?

Why in a pool at a YMCA!  That's one of my teammates and me in a makeshift small plane, belted into our seats and about to be dumped  face down in the pool to see if we could calmly unbuckle and leave the plane should it submerge in the water.  In order to complete the course, we had to do this four times...twice upside down.

I'm not going to was nerve racking.  I survived three out of four times.  The fourth time, I got trapped inside the box and had to be pulled out (I was never in any danger, note all the people in the pool).  Two people are watching you under water and they knew right away if you were stuck and they pulled you out.  I think because on my third attempt, I got a big shot of chlorinated water up my nose and just general fatigue are the reasons I missed on the fourth attempt. And really, the chances of me crashing into water four times in a row in an afternoon are incredibly slim.  I have high hopes I'll survive a water crash and even higher hopes that I won't even need to use this training in my lifetime.

Here we are on one of our simulated crashes when they turned us upside down--you can see our toes. I think it was this dunking when I asked much do I love birds?  If this is what I need to do in order to complete my job to watch and count them from a plane, then maybe there is something psychologically wrong with me.  But still, even when we did the classroom portion, I asked myself, "Is counting ducks important enough for me to risk not coming home to Non Birding Bill at the end of the day?"

I think what we learn about native duck usage of the upper Mississippi River is important for the long run and it is worthwhile.  Honestly, flying in the plane has been fun and seems like an adventure. However, when you're preparing for a worst case scenario (that will most likely never happen) you do play those scenarios in your head and you wonder if you will be ready if that moment comes.

The first day was general classroom work on plane safety and guidelines.  We were given examples of plane crashes and outlined all the little things that could have prevented them and the reasons why some people survived and some people didn't.  When I first started doing these surveys, I took an online course on crash survival.  I chuckled as the training showed little cartoon planes fall to a fiery explosion and then learned that the number one thing that is going to save me in a crash is a positive mental attitude (surprisingly, not a parachute).

Our classroom training reinforced that and we learned the Seven Steps of Survival in a Plane Crash on Water.  Any guesses as to what the first step is when the pilot shouts, "May Day, we're going down!" (or some form of profanity)  Any idea?

Step one, say, "I'm a survivor!"

Side note: Do not sing it like a Gloria Gaynor song...that's frowned upon.  But first things first, you want to mentally psyche yourself up that you will stay calm and get through this.  You will survive and end up at home with your family at the end of the day.

You might be surprised to learn that of the Seven Steps, unbuckling your seat belt is Step Six.  Before that, you need to (shout, "I'm a survivor!") unplug your helmet, open the plane door (if you're sitting next to it) brace for impact, when you hit the water you want to count to four to give yourself time to for the plane to stop moving and then sit up, find a reference point to the open door (make sure the doorway is still clear) and then you can unbuckle your belt and exit.  The last thing you want to do it swim towards the top with a hand up first to check for debris and/or flames on the water (yikes).

The helmets remind me of the movie Spaceballs. The training was fun in a Mythbusters sort of way and a bit morbid, but I'm so grateful that I had it.  I'm fortunate in that we have a professional and attentive pilot but I feel more prepared than ever should we have to go down into the river.

All part of the fun and exciting life of being a park ranger.

Waterfowl Surveys & Flooding

Monday was our first flight out for our annual fall waterfowl surveys on the upper Mississippi.  This is our initial flight to get back into the swing of things, make sure our maps are correct and to get a refresher course on identifying and counting waterfowl while flying over them.  Last year my route went from around Hastings to Lake City.  This year, there were some staffing changes and now my part of the surveys go all the way down to Brownsville, MN.

We had some heavy rains last week and parts of the Mississippi River and the Minnesota River are flooding.  In downtown St. Paul, the Mississippi is expected to crest at 18.5 feet by Friday.  That will be in the top ten highest crests of recorded history.

We saw several areas affected by the flooding Mississippi south of St. Paul.  The above photos are cows working to stay high and dry.

American white pelicans and double-crested cormorants were some of the most common species that we observed.  They are mercifully some of the easiest birds to identify--especially those pelicans.

There were also quite a few great egrets staging for migration.  Unlike other types of waterfowl, they tend to gather in loose flocks.  They do not bunch together like pelicans, each egret appears to need its own fishing space.  But these loose flocks are a sign that they will be gone soon.  We saw far more egrets than great blue herons.

We did see some ducks.  Can you make out any different species?  The big white ones are easier--those are pelicans.  The rest are mostly American wigeon with a few gadwall mixed in with a few coots too.  It's all about wing pattern.  The wigeon are the bird with the white wing patches with a dark patch below the white.  The gadwall just have a white patch.

We even found a few small groups of ruddy ducks too.  They don't have the bright blue bills right now but they have those big white cheek patches which makes them obvious when we fly over--which I love.

And so we're off with our counting.  I'll be curious to see how the flooding affects our surveys in the first few weeks.  I'll admit, I'm a bit nervous about the sheer number of birds we'll be counting, but I'm learning some techniques that seem small but help a great deal.  One technique is when you see a huge flock of 3000 ducks and it's mixed--say 3000 and give percentages of species.  We fly to fast to do it any other way.

Now, as long as my stomach stays settled and I don't get motion sickness, I'll be good to go.

More Lock & Dam 1 Peregrines

As part of my duties as a park ranger, we go out and rove in the park.  Basically, we tote around a back pack with park info and you're on hand to answer questions--it's fun, it's a bit like improv.  I like to take my scope for birding of course, but it gives me a chance to explore more areas of the park that I otherwise wouldn't visit.  One is Lock and Dam 1.  On Friday, we did a canoe paddle through the lock (you really haven't experienced the Mississippi until you've taken a canoe or kayak through a lock and dam--to be tiny in something so big is amazing). It was fun Saturday morning to look down on it knowing the day before I had been right in it.

I was curious to be back on Saturday to see the peregrine chicks.  Last week, they were a lot fluffier!  On Friday as we canoed past, one was already out of the box, flapping around on a nearby ledge under the watchful eye of the adults.  We had that big storm on Friday night and I wondered how the first fledger from the box fared.  When I arrived, two were still visible on the nest box perches, practicing their flapping skills.  I scanned and couldn't find the third one.  I wasn't too worried, I figured it was perched nearby and when the adults arrived with the food, I would hear it begging.

This is the view from the deck of the Lock and Dam 1 visitor center.  You can see the peregrine nest box on the far left on the wall (note the box below the brick building).  As I watched this, I noticed some flapping behind the big pipe on the right...

The bird out of the box did survive the storm!  Heck of  a first night out of the nest box--2 storms with heavy rain and the only refuge is a pipe.

The other two continued to practice.  The one on top of the box almost seemed like it was really going to get completely off the box, but stayed and screamed impatiently for one of the adults to feed it.  The adults flew in once or twice with food, but no drop offs were made in the box.  They want the young out of the nest so they can learn to fly.  The chicks want to be fed and eventually, they will put two and two together. When the chicks are hungry enough, they will fly out towards the adults with the food.

I checked on the peregrine fledgling behind the pipe and noticed that it was laying down and they eyes were part way closed.  I thought it was odd, but chicks lay down when they sleep, adults  remain upright, sleeping on one foot while the head is turned around and tucked under a wing.  I wondered if this bird was exhausted and not used to sleeping while standing yet.

If you think about how quickly a bird grow they have to work out how their bodies move and function relatively quickly.  You will often see young birds like the immature above, just letting its wings hang to the side after flapping--those things are heavy and they aren't quite used to using those muscles just yet.

You'll see young birds in all kinds of weird positions as they work out their bodies (what's that bird doing, checking for the time on her Swatch?)--imagine going from super soft fluff to hard pin feathers growing in over every inch of your body in about two weeks.  We think teething makes babies cranky.  Feather shafts poking all over the skin has to be about as fun as sandpaper underwear on a bad sunburn.

When the peregrine nodded its head down, I though I would call my buddy Avian Images just to be on the safe side.  She works at The Raptor Center and goes to the bandings, I thought she'd have an idea.  As soon as I heard her cell ring...

In flew one of the adult peregrines and this bird sprang upright to beg for food--it was fine, just sleeping like a young bird instead of an adult.  Whew.

And peregrines weren't the only cool thing--I found a huge turtle out of the water.  I know that it is a softshell turtle, but I'm not sure which type.  Someone on Twitter thought it might be a spiny softshell turtle which is possible in Minnesota (as is the smooth softshell).  But many of the photos for spiny softshell show a light colored turtle and this is a very dark one.  Whatever kind of turtle, it was huge with a pointy nose.

Peregrine Falcon Viewing At Lock & Dam 1

Just a heads up that right now is an excellent time for peregrine falcon viewing at Lock and Dam 1 in Minneapolis near Minnehaha Creek.  I took the above photo of one of the chicks Saturday. Look at that baby peregrine--doesn't it look like quite the thug?

Here's a screen capture of the dam from Google Maps.  I circled the area you want to stand in to view the falcons.  Of course it helps to have binoculars or a scope, but the falcons are quite visible without optics.

The cool thing about the timing for the next two weeks is that the chicks are losing their natal down and growing feathers--they should be easy to see and huddled in the back of the nest box.  They are quite active as they beg for food and practice flapping their wings when they take flight very soon.

Here is one of the adult birds that was perched near the nest--look at that, her foot is tucked and her feathers are fluffed.  That's a sign of a relaxed and contented bird.  The Lock and Dam peregrines are a treat in the Twin Cities--easily accessible and awesome birds.  You can also watch for other species around the dam including great blue herons and double-crested cormorants.  Take advantage of this cool view before the chicks leave the nest box.