Sunday, April 21, 2013

Ice Age Respite

Sunshine on Perplexed Fauna                     20 April 2013

Sandhill Crane, patiently waiting...

For just a day, the sun is out and the April snowstorm is taking a deep breath. No wind last night, a crisp, cold dawn broke pushing orange sun into a cobalt blue sky.   Twenty degrees Fahrenheit didn't hold back the enthusiasm of birds eager to reach their breeding grounds, and new arrivals piled in on the heels of those who had halted with the snow.   Perhaps it is only the snow that prevents them from moving any further along in the journey.  Steadily, the number of birds using the sunflower seeds has been increasing.  

Dark-eyed Junco

Out in the bigger wilds, I have found a similar scenario.  Birds are eager to find open water, and birds that defend breeding territories in the sedge wetlands of this area have stumbled into Arctic winter visitors.   Great Horned Owls, so famous for nesting in the January snows, are rivaled in skill by this year's Bald Eagles, already incubating eggs.   Sandhill Cranes seem to be staring at ice and snow, willing it to melt away. Trumpeter Swans are strangely scarce.  Eagles are looking lean.  About a hundred miles south of us, there is no snow.  I imagine that a tremendous army of winged wildlife waits there, anxious to launch for the north.

Adult female Bald Eagle

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

Adult female Bald Eagle

Red-winged Blackbirds

We are living in a time of unpredictability.  Unusual climate change resonates in a foreign rhythm across the familiar and anticipated changes of the season.  Everything changes.  Change is the essence of biology, and there are always patterns within the patterns.  Dynamic Equilibrium.  Selection.  Nature reclaims life from destruction.  But now we must learn to deal with another less-understood layer--the anthropogenic ripples as they rock the phenology of our time.  It is a modern parallel to a time when humans sought to understand the wanderings of the moon and the tides that followed.  Patience... Hope... Spring?

The Arctic's Rough-legged Hawks are still here and congregating in large numbers across the frozen sedge meadows.   Their loitering is of some concern to Northern Harriers, arriving here recently to their usual breeding grounds.  This year, the bitter and extended winter is bringing to light a truth about Rough-legged Hawks and harriers.  They have the same ecological niche.  Now, so long as the Arctic birds are remaining, the harriers have fierce competition for their small mammal prey.   This stress is apparent, and harriers who catch voles have to be on the lookout for competing harriers, and, now, more aggressive cleptoparasitism from Rough-legged Hawks.

Rough-legged Hawk, a Winter visitor from the Arctic...Eats voles...

Northern Harrier, arriving on breeding territory... Eats voles...

Northern Harriers, brief competitive interaction...

At last light... A Rough-legged Hawk attempts to steal a vole from a harrier... chase...

...and succeeds. 
"Raptor" has its etymology in concepts of pirates, thieves, and risk-takers...

Red skies at night.  Sailor's delight.  It's what the old wisdom spoke of, but I know better.  We are living in different and unusual times.  Behind the veil of peace, pink skies, and no wind, I see mare's tails in the stratosphere, long waves of ice crystals that predict more snow for the 21st of April, and another day of Winter in Spring.

All images were made with a refurbished Canon 7D and prime Canon 300mm f4 L IS lens.  It was a day of "run and gun" photography with no tripod.  I hiked in snow all evening, some drifts as deep as 2 feet, and always 8 inches or more.  The "ice" on wild ponds was deceptive, a layer of steel-gray slush that gave way immediately underfoot.  "Ma" and "Pa", my trusty swans, were nowhere to be seen.  A Bald Eagle tried to catch a Canada Goose.  A Northern Shrike, perched on a lone alder, said, "Winter's still here, buddy."

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Make a Splash!

April Showers Part II                           19 April 2013

Dark-eyed Juncos in the blizzard

The late April snows continued, blowing nearly a foot of new snow into the Saint Croix River valley of Northwest Wisconsin.  Winds blew hard from the North, halting bird migrations and pushing all wildlife into shelter and into feeding frenzies.   While the snow was deep and drifting, the temperatures remained forgiving, dipping just below freezing.  

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrows

By this date on most years, I'd be listening to the chorus of Spring birds, hiking past blooming Hepatica and Blood Root to soak in the blending warm and chilled air currents drifting along a lakeshore. Green plants would be piercing through dead leaves as they pushed toward the sun.  By this date on most years, I'd be pitching waxworms to the bluegills hovering in the shallows and rejoicing in Spring with a Friday night fish fry that had started with an evening peace of Song Sparrows, robins and loons.  Sunset would dance in surface ripples, set to motion by a dancing fish.  

Common Redpoll, Spring lilac

Purple Finch, Spring Lilac buds and more snow

House Finch

The driving snow cakes the pines and low shrubs, bowing down the limbs and making secret hiding places for rabbits and resting birds.   While I watch the birds at my sunflower feeder, I find them to be very active.  In reviewing my first few images, I suddenly realize that I am making imagery of blowing snow and a wintery vision of kids kicking puddles, making an April splash.  The busy birds are making a secondary snow storm underfoot.  Splash!
Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

American Robin

Dark-eyed Junco landing long...

Everybody has a different strategy.  The Fox Sparrow "kick scratches" to remove snow from seed.  The Blue Jay scatters the flock with a resounding alarm call.  A Purple Finch, out of his element and down on the ground, uses his wings like snowshoes to avoid falling in over his head.

Fox Sparrow "kick scratch" in action...

Purple Finch "snowshoes" in deep snow...

By 2 PM, I am at the hardware store buying more seed.   Bird numbers seem to be growing as the feeding frenzy continues.  As I drive to school to shut down the lab (snow day) and deal with the unexpected, I see flocks of Hermit Thrushes drifting in the wind and scattering to the low lying shrubs.  Home safe, I hunker down with the birds and watch the storm give way to a hidden warmth of Spring.

Dark-eyed Junco, female

Dark-eyed Junco, "Oregon Junco", a Rocky Mountain bird in Wisconsin...rare treat!

All images were made with a refurbished Canon 7D and my trusty Canon 300mm f4 L IS lens.  There was more light today than yesterday, so I was able to shoot faster and freeze the action.  

Thursday, April 18, 2013

April Showers Bring...Snow.

Feeding Frenzy in a Spring Snowstorm                   18 April 2013

Fox Sparrow

April Showers

Dark-eyed Junco

Fox Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, Killdeers, Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, American Kestrels, and Merlins... Make no mistake.  Spring is certainly here.  Great Blue Herons are tending nests at Interstate Park.  Bears are ambling about.  Spring for sure.  Yup.

Fox Sparrow

Here in Northwest Wisconsin, lake ice is still frozen (even on the ponds) and we just accumulated another eight inches of snow.  This time last year, we had bluebird skies, leaf buds breaking, and warming waters in all of the north bays.  If climates are like people, the tension zone between boreal taiga and temperate deciduous forest is that interesting personality with a tendency for drama.  Steady and same is just too boring, I suppose.  We have a Mother Nature that needs some adventure.

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

I suppose that is also why those of us that live here choose to stay.   Every season is different.  There are four seasons written into the history books, but I have never seen a single season repeat itself in my lifetime.  Every year is remarkably different.  Last year, maple syrup harvest was spent by the last weeks of March.  Today, it's still running.  Grass was green this time last year.  Not sure what grass looks like this year.  Last summer's drought left a lingering thirst in heat-stroked trees.  This Spring, the thirst is quenched in the promise of snow melt.  But will the snow ever melt?  Sandhill Cranes, migration-starved and eager to lay eggs, must be asking the same question.

Common Redpoll

Today, in the driving snow, a large flock of Dark-eyed Juncos descended enthusiastically, frantically upon bird seed, joining the small band of Fox Sparrows that had hunkered down for the week.  Purple Finches freely mingled with the House Finches, and a Common Redpoll, too far south for the season, looked right at home in "winter."   The birds were lively and brought color and joy to the snow-swept landscape. Suddenly, all birds scattered and froze in the lilacs.  Drifting along the wind, dramatic in the gray and white storm, a Cooper's Hawk cruised low over drifting snow, darting between spruces.  When the coast was clear, all of the frenzy began anew. It was a good day along the tension zone.

Purple Finch

Dark-eyed Junco

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow and Common Redpoll, Spring meets Winter...

All images were made with a refurbished Canon 7D and a prime Canon 300mm f4 L IS lens.