Birding North Dakota’s Prairie—Part 2: Marsh Birds

Last blog post we talked about the prairie birds of central North Dakota’s Kidder and Stutsman Counties, and now we focus our lens on the county’s birds of lake and marsh. Where I live in Northeastern Minnesota, cattail marshes are a rare commodity, and even where present they don’t normally attract the western and southern species that are cattail specialists. So it was fantastic fun to get to see avocets and ibis, Ruddy Ducks and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, all at close range.

American Avocet flying Kidder County ND IMG_0889AMERICAN AVOCET
An exotic breeding bird of the prairie pothole region is the American Avocet. Not often seen in Minnesota, it is a fairly common bird in central North Dakota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/3200 at f5.6 ISO 320; handheld]

Pied-billed Grebe nest Kidder County ND IMG_0837PIED-BILLED GREBE FAMILY.
I stumbled across several active Pied-billed Grebe nests along the backroads and main roads. Unlike the ducks, male grebes are actively involved in raising the young. Juvenile Pied-billed Grebes are colorful stripy little guys.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1000 at f5.6 ISO 320 -0.67ev; braced on car window]

White-faced Ibis Kensal ND IMG_0763WHITE-FACED IBIS

White-faced Ibis Kensal ND IMG_0746WHITE-FACED IBIS
Ibis in North Dakota? Yes, several species of herons and ibis have moved into the northern plains as breeding species since the 1970s, including White-faced Ibis.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/640 at f5.6 ISO 500; braced on car window]

Swamp Sparrow Horsehead Lake Kidder Co ND IMG_1295SWAMP SPARROW
A very common and vocal marsh dweller is the Swamp Sparrow. Its staccato trill often goes unnoticed as it becomes background noise in wet areas.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/4000 at f5.6 ISO 640; handheld]

Horsehead Lake is well, shaped like a horse’s head. At least it used to be. Lakes all over this part of North Dakota have been rising dramatically over the last 20 years, probably the result of a natural wet cycle. But it is a great place to get up close and personal with many prairie wetland species.

Yellow-headed Blackbird Horsehead Lake Kidder County ND IMG_1157YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD

Yellow-headed Blackbird Horsehead Lake Kidder County ND IMG_0989YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD

Yellow-headed Blackbird Horsehead Lake Kidder County ND IMG_1185YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRD
Most of us are quite familiar with the ubiquitous Red-winged Blackbird, but the Yellow-headed is restricted to high-quality cattail marshes of central and western U.S. Their yellow feathers often look quite fluffy, more like a mane. They outcompete Red-wings for the best nesting sites, occupying the deepwater cattails near the center of the marsh and forcing the Redwings out to the less secure shallow-water fringes.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/320 at f5.6 ISO 320; braced on car window]

Ruddy Duck Horsehead Lake Kidder County ND IMG_1112RUDDY DUCK
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/400 at f5.6 ISO 320, -1 ev; braced on car window]

Ruddy Duck Horsehead Lake Kidder County ND IMG_1091RUDDY DUCK
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1600 at f5.6 ISO 320, -1 ev; braced on car window]

Ruddy Duck Horsehead Lake Kidder County ND IMG_1084RUDDY DUCK
The male Ruddy Duck (right) is a dapper little fella. His blue bill and chestnut plumage are just part of his allure. He also performs a funny head-pumping display that evidently attracts and impresses the female (left).
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/60 at f22 ISO 320; braced on car window (Note: I was taking video previous to this photo and forgot to switch my camera settings…that is why the ridiculous f22 at 1/60…but I lucked out and it is sharp)]

A bucolic summer scene at Horsehead Lake in Kidder County, North Dakota
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/400 at f5.6 ISO 320; braced on car window]

Black Tern Horsehead Lake Kidder County ND IMG_1053BLACK TERN
A bird of inland prairie cattail marshes, the Black Tern is rarely seen in the Duluth area, so it was fun to see several near Horsehead Lake in Kidder County.
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/800 at f5.6 ISO 320; braced on car window]

Double-crested Cormorant Kidder County ND IMG_1388DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT
These water birds are a common sight along the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth, and a sighting is often accompanied by the phrase “Oh, just a cormorant.” But they are impressive birds when seen in good light and at close distance. I especially like their azure blue eyes!
[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/2500 at f5.6 ISO 320; braced on car window]

Birding North Dakota’s Prairie—Part 1: Grassland Birds

I have a very embarrassing secret…As of a month ago, I still needed Ferruginous Hawk for my Life List! Most of you may be saying “Huh?,” but the birders out there know what I mean. Seeing 600 of North America’s bird species is a Major milestone…and a month ago I was at 636 species and had yet to see this relatively common hawk of western North America (Sidebar: “North America” to bird listers is the Lower 48, Alaska and Canada…It does NOT include Hawaii or Mexico). So obviously the thing to do was to head out to central North Dakota’s Kidder County where the Ferruginous nest, and as one birder put it, “there’s one on nearly every hay bale!” More about how this saga unfolds below.

But after leaving Manitoba it seemed natural to swing through North Dakota on my way back to northern Minnesota and home in Wrenshall. Several of my birding friends had made MANY trips to Kidder and Stutsman County to see rare prairie birds and western raptors and soak in the abundance of ducks, shorebirds, and other marsh birds that inhabit the prairie pothole region. In fact, the major bird tour groups in North America (Wings and VENT) put this part of North Dakota on their tour itinerary each year. I had to check it out for myself…and I was not disappointed!

Upland Sandpiper on fence post Kidder Co ND IMG_1500UPLAND SANDPIPER
Lift off! An Upland Sandpiper takes wing from a prairie fence post. Though technically a shorebird, these long-necked, small-headed birds are really more at home in crop fields, hayfields, grazed meadows and native prairie. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/2000 at f5.6; ISO 500; camera braced on car window]

Upland Sandpiper on fence post Kidder Co ND IMG_1462UPLAND SANDPIPER
Though there are spots in Minnesota where these sandpipers still breed (including the Sax-Zim Bog), they have a stronghold on the northern prairies. In some Eastern states, Uplands find airports to their liking as nesting spots…These airports mimic prairies much farther west with their short grass, flat terrain and wide open spaces. In the boreal forest they may nest in large semi-dry sedge meaows in huge bogs. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/800 at f6.3; ISO 320; camera braced on car window]

Upland Sandpiper on fence post Kidder Co ND IMG_1478UPLAND SANDPIPER
When the Upland’s alight on a perch they have a neat habit of holding their wings over their back and then leisurely folding them. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1250 at f5.6; ISO 320; camera braced on car window]

Arrowwood NWR Stutsman County ND IMG_0219Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge
My first stop was to see Stacy Whipp at Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge. I’d met Stacy at the Sax-Zim Bog Winter Bird Festival a few years ago and knew that she is a very knowledgeable birder. Stacy helps organize the Potholes & Prairies Bird Festival and she gave me wonderful info and exact locations for many of my target species. These spots were fresh in her mind from her extensive scouting for the Festival and the field trips during the event.

Arrowwood NWR Stutsman County ND IMG_0218Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge

Say's Phoebe Arrowwood NWR Stutsman County ND IMG_0696SAY’S PHOEBE
My first truly Western bird of the trip was this Say’s Phoebe at the Arrowwood NWR Headquarters. Like “our” Eastern Phoebe, it has no problem with hunting near humans and their habitations. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/2000 at f5.6; ISO 250; handheld]

Asclepias speciosa Showy Milkweed Kidder Co ND IMG_1512SHOWY MILKWEED (Asclepias speciosa)
A gorgeous western milkweed…cousin to our Common Milkweed

Sparky Arrowwood NWR Stutsman County ND IMG_0720Sparky scanning the rolling prairies of central North Dakota. Ethanol subsidies and governmental mandates on ethanol usage have created high corn prices and the result has been that many farmers in this dryer part of North Dakota have converted grazing land (i.e. great prairie bird habitat) into sterile corn fields (and soybean fields).


Swainson's Hawk Arrowwood NWR Stutsman County ND IMG_0729SWAINSON’S HAWK with Richardson’s Ground Squirrel in its talons. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/160 at f5.6; ISO 400; camera braced on car window]

Chestnut-collared Longspur Kidder County ND IMG_0962CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR with spider prey.
The longspurs are a colorful lot…at least the males in breeding plumage, and this Chestnut-collared Longspur is no exception. A bird strictly of the midgrass and long grass prairies, it was once a common Minnesota breeder but has been reduced by habitat loss (i.e. conversion of prairie to cropland) to survival in a few scattered prairies in the western fringe of the state. Ironically, cattle ranching is this species friend as grazing keeps the grasses shorter and hospitable to this picky species.[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/3200 at f5.6; ISO 320; handheld]

Swainson's Hawk Kidder Co ND IMG_1373SWAINSON’S HAWK
Swainson's Hawk fence post Kidder County ND IMG_0980 SWAINSON’S HAWK
I really think these are very attractive raptors, made more so by the fact that I don’t see them very often. They do nest in SW Minnesota but I rarely get to see them. Swainson’s Hawks are very common in this part of North Dakota. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1250 at f5.6; ISO 320; camera braced on car window]

Western Kingbird foggy fence spider web Kidder Co ND IMG_1347WESTERN KINGBIRD
While the days were warm (low 80s) the nights were nice and cool. And on this morning the combination meant dense fog in the valleys. Fortunately inclement weather can also be the photographers best friend, and in this case it created a moody shot of a Western Kingbird and a dew-covered orbweaver spider web. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/500 at f5.6; ISO 200; camera braced on car window]

Ferruginous Hawk on fence post Kidder Co ND IMG_1365FERRUGINOUS HAWK
[My pursuit of my lifer Ferruginous Hawk continued:] Sadly, I had to leave North Dakota without my lifer Ferruginous Hawk (insert sad-face here). I’d checked out the nest that Stacy said was active just a couple weeks before, but not a thing was stirring. I did snap a photo of yet another Swainson’s Hawk nearby and promptly forgot about it. Later that day I found three more Ferruginous Hawk nests…all empty. But, “Wait,” you’re saying “You have a photo of a Ferruginous Hawk in this blog post.” True, and here is the rest of the story. After arriving home and downloading all my memory cards, I discovered an image of a bulky and distant raptor. A major crop of the photo revealed that the bird was not “just another Swainson’s” but a juvenile FERRUGINOUS HAWK! Probably one that had just fledged from the nearby nest. I indeed had seen my Lifer Ferrug but had not known it at the time. We can argue about whether a bird identified later on your computer screen and not in the field can count as a new bird on your list, but I have no qualms about making Ferruginous Hawk #637 on my North American ABA Life List. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/1600 at f5.6; ISO 200; camera braced on car window]


Ultimate Bog Orchid Boardwalk—Brokenhead in Manitoba

JUNE 24, 2015
I got quite lost trying to find the BROKENHEAD BOG BOARDWALK. I had rough directions with road names that didn’t match any road signs. I ended up in a gravel pit/dump at one point, but eventually found this gem of a spot just south of Lake Winnipeg near Selkirk, Manitoba. An elderly man pulled up next to me when he spotted my parked car. He was a local and though he could only walk with a cane, regularly visited. He looked at my rubber boots and said, “You won’t need those!”

Sparky Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0180The wood Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk is over a mile long at 1.8km and traverses several habitats.
The Brokenhead Wetland complex covers 1240 hectares and consists of dry black spruce stands and Sphagnum patches, wet swamp, forested fingers, spring-fed forest stands composed of eastern white cedar, black spruce, and tamarack, saturated spring-fed channels, as well as fens, strings, and flarks. The ecological and floristic diversity of the complex may make it unique in Manitoba.

The most significant wetland in this complex is the calcareous fen, a wetland type considered rare in North America. A calcareous fen is a wetland characterized by a fluctuating water table. Groundwater and surface water movement can be observed in the channels and pools in the Brokenhead Wetland. The water is rich in calcium carbonate. Fens are more mineral rich and less acidic than bogs.

The reserve contains 23 species of provincially rare and uncommon plants. Amazingly, 28 of Manitoba’s 36 native orchid species, including the rare ram’s head lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium arietinum), are found in the wetland along with 8 of Manitoba’s 10 species of carnivorous (insect-eating) plants. A rare white cedar community also forms part of the wetland area.

People have been attracted to this wetland for many years. The Brokenhead Ojibway Nation has been using it for approximately 300 years and they continue to regard it as a place of great cultural importance and for collecting medicinal plants, tea berries and cedar. The traditional use of the wetland by the Brokenhead Ojibway is a way in which tradition permits a community to become intergenerational. Conserving the Brokenhead Wetland is an important step towards conserving Brokenhead Ojibway culture.

In 2005, Premier Gary Doer declared a 563-hectare portion of the Brokenhead Wetland the Brokenhead Wetlands Ecological Reserve. Since then the protected portion has doubled in size and includes a calcareous fen, a wetland type considered rare worldwide. This fen is the keystone of the ecosystem. If compromised, the rare plants in it will surely die off.

Amerorchis rotundifolia Small Round-leaved Orchis Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0388Small Round-leaved Orchis (Amerorchis rotundifolia)
The tiny but stunning Small Round-leaved Orchis is a showstopper! That is if you take the time to get low and appreciate its tiny magenta-spotted petals.

Amerorchis rotundifolia Small Round-leaved Orchis Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0412Small Round-leaved Orchis (Amerorchis rotundifolia)
Up until this day, I’d only seen this orchid once in the wild, and that was in Minnesota’s Itasca County on a tip from a fellow bird surveyor.

Amerorchis rotundifolia Small Round-leaved Orchis Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0413Small Round-leaved Orchis (Amerorchis rotundifolia)
Amerorchis is widespread but rarely encountered in its remote boggy haunts. It is found from Alaska east to Greenland and south to northern Maine and the North Woods of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota (though seemingly absent from most of the NE corner of the state.

Corallorhiza maculata Spotted Coralroot orchid Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0417Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata)
Why no green? Spotted Coralroot is one of our saprophytic plants that lacks green chlorophyll and so cannot manufacture food from the sun. Instead it relies on soil fungi to hand-deliver nutrients to the plant. Some years coralroots can be common but go back to the same spot next year and there may be none.

Corallorhiza maculata Spotted Coralroot orchid Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0420Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata)
The name “coralroot” comes from the fact that they lack real roots and only have rhizomes below the dirt (underground stems). The rhizomes thick branching nature must have reminded an early botanist of coral.

Moneses uniflora One-flowered Wintergreen Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0431One-flowered Wintergreen (Moneses uniflora).
Also called “Single Delight,” this tiny denizen of boreal forests is a real treat to find. Only an inch or two tall, it is easy to walk right by this delicate wildflower in the pyrola family. I really like the Norwegian name for it—St. Olaf’s Candlestick.

Platanthera obtusata Blunt-leaf Orchid Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0446Blunt-leaf Orchid (Platanthera obtusata)

Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0475 The wooden boardwalk is built atop large plastic floatation pods. Photography is relatively easy as many plants are just off the edge of the walk way.

Arethusa bulbosa Dragon's Mouth Orchid Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0484Dragon’s-Mouth (Arethusa bulbosa)
My first Arethusa orchids were found in Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog…and I had to bushwhack about a mile to find them! These stunners were right off the edge of the boardwalk!

Arethusa bulbosa Dragon's Mouth Orchid Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0500Dragon’s-Mouth (Arethusa bulbosa)
Looking right into the “Mouth of the Dragon”

Platanthera orbiculata Large Round-leaved Orchid Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0519Large Round-leaved Orchid (Platanthera orbiculata)
Unfortunately I was a bit early for the dramatic white blooms of the Large Round-leaved Orchid.

Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0177iPhone panorama of the fen and boardwalk.

Triglochin maritimum Greater Arrow-grass Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0525Greater Arrow-grass (Triglochin maritimum)
Though not an orchid, Arrow-grass is nonetheless a very unique flower. It grows in saltwater and freshwater marshes and bogs and is circumboreal in range.

Triglochin maritimum Greater Arrow-grass Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0531Greater Arrow-grass (Triglochin maritimum)

Betula pumila Bog Birch Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0554Bog Birch (Betula pumila)
I love the penny-sized leaves of this midget birch. It only grows in wet boggy areas.

Cypripedium parviflorum Large Yellow Ladyslipper Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0561Large Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium parviflorum)
I also saw the Small Yellow Ladyslipper who’s blossom is barely the size of a nickel!

Cypripedium reginae Showy Ladyslipper Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0592Showy Ladyslipper (Cypripedium reginae)
To be honest, I didn’t put much effort into photographing the Showy Ladyslipper as I knew I was going to make a visit to a patch with over 1100 blooming Showys in Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog in a week or so.

Coeloglossum viride var. virescens Long-bracted Orchid Brokenhead Bog Boardwalk Selkirk Manitoba IMG_0594Long-bracted Orchid (Coeloglossum viride var. virescens)
I ended up tallying ELEVEN species/subspecies of orchids in a couple-hour jaunt:
Amerorchis rotundifolia (Small Round-leaved Orchis)
Arethusa bulbosa (Dragon’s Mouth)
Coeloglossum viride (Long-bracted Orchid)
Corallorhiza maculata
Corallorhiza trifida (Early Coralroot)
Cypripedium acaule (Pink Ladyslipper/Moccasin Flower)
Cypripedium parviflorum var. makasin (Small Yellow Ladyslipper)
Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens (Large Yellow Ladyslipper)
Cypripedium reginae (Showy Ladyslipper)
Platanthera obtusata (Blunt-leaf Orchid)
Platanthera orbiculata (Large Round-leaved Orchid) [not in bloom yet]

[Photos taken with Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens; Close ups used a Canon 500D lens screw-mounted to the front of the 70-200 lens; Pop-up flash used on many photos]

BROKEN HEAD BOG BOARDWALK is technically not open to the public yet…But the grand opening is planned for Fall 2015. It is located about an hour northeast of Winnipeg near Selkirk, Manitoba. Entrance to the Brokenhead Wetland is about two kilometres north of Stead Road, on the west side of Highway 59. There’s a little gravel area to park on the west side, with boulders across the start of the trail. You walk a gravel trail before reaching the boardwalk.

Manitoba’s Oak Hammock Marsh

My road trip in late June led me from Wrenshall, Minnesota to a place I’d long wanted to visit. It is called Oak Hammock Marsh and it is about 30 minutes north of Winnipeg, Manitoba. This is how their website describes it…”Oak Hammock Marsh is one of North America’s birding hotspots and a great destination for people of all ages. This 36km2 Wildlife Management Area features a restored prairie marsh, aspen-oak bluff, waterfowl lure crops, artesian springs, some of Manitoba’s last remaining patches of tall-grass prairie and 30 kilometers of trails for you to explore. …the Interpretive Centre features wheelchair-accessible facilities including a 120-seat multimedia theatre, a scenic café, a gift shop, meeting rooms, rooftop observation deck, and interactive exhibits.” Visit their website for a bird list and more info.

sign Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0340

Oak Hammock Marsh Nature Center Manitoba IMG_0109

American Avocet Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0164American Avocet [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/3200 at f5.6; ISO 320; tripod]

American Avocet Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0072American Avocet pair [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/1250 at f5.6; ISO 125; tripod]

American Avocet Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0104American Avocet pair [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/1250 at f5.6; ISO 125; tripod]

American Avocet Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0085American Avocet pair [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/1250 at f5.6; ISO 125; tripod]

Black Tern Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0404Black Tern over algae-splotched marsh

Killdeer nest Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0369Can you spot the Killdeer eggs? Yes, this is all the “nest” they need…just a scrape in the dirt of a parking pad. They prefer spots with much rocks-gravel in order to provide camouflage to their splotched eggs.

Killdeer nest Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0358Mom Killdeer is sitting tight to her nest as I crawl closer and closer. She eventually pops off the nest and tries to lure the vicious predator (me) away from her nest with a “broken-wing” display. I didn’t want to stress her unduly so I moved on. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/250 at f8; ISO 100; pop-up flash -2 2/3ev; hand-held while crawling on my belly]

Purple Martin nest box house Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0095It was good to see a very active Purple Martin nest box near the edge of the marsh. It is an all too rare sight in Minnesota these days. Purple Martins are actually giant swallows who feast on aerial insects, often near water.

Yellow-headed Blackbird Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0264Yellow-headed Blackbirds are rare in northeastern Minnesota, so it is a treat to see them and hear their raspy “song.” They actually outcompete Red-winged Blackbirds and claim the safer nest sites deep in the cattails forcing Red-wings to nest at the margins of the marsh.

American Coot and juvenile IMG_0190 - Version 2Adult Coot feeding one of her two colorful young.

Marsh Wren Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0203Marsh Wren in the cattails [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/1600 at f5.6; ISO 100; hand-held]

Marsh Wren Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0207Marsh Wrens are very well named as they nest smack dab in the middle of dense stands of marsh cattails. Their “sewing machine” song (sounds like an old treadle sewing machine) rattles from many territorial birds along the walkways. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/1000 at f6.3; ISO 100; hand-held]

Black Tern Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0323Black Tern’s wings are paler than their jet black body. You really need at least 1/1600 of a second shutter speed to freeze the motion of the wings of terns and gulls in flight. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/1600 at f6.3; ISO 200; hand-held]

Black Tern Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0239Black Tern

Black Tern Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0205Black Terns are quite rare in northeastern Minnesota, so it was a real treat to see this large colony. They don’t dive and plunge into the water like many of the “white terns” but rather delicately pluck aquatic critters and tiny fish off the surface. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/3200 at f5.6; ISO 250; hand-held]

Ranunculus aquatilis White Water Crowfoot Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0284White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis) grows in the sluggish backwaters of the marsh.

Northern Shoveler hen flight Oak Hammock Marsh Selkirk MB IMG_0340Northern Shoveler hen in flight

Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0647Not a great photo…But my best photo ever of a Nelson’s “Sharp-tailed” Sparrow. This shy cattail-lover is rarely seen in migration and nests in sedge and cattail marshes from north-central Minnesota (McGregor Marsh) up to northern Saskatchewan. Other populations nest along saltwater in NE North America and along Hudson’s Bay. Their subtle song has been described as someone dousing a hot poker in a vat of oil…and that’s about right. This guy appeared at dusk. The “tick-ticking” of a Yellow Rail joined several singing LeConte’s Sparrows as a big thunderhead rolled on south of me. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/60 at f5.6; ISO 1000; pop-up flash -2 2/3ev; hand-held]

LeConte's Sparrow Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0639LeConte’s Sparrows were “dirt common” in the northwest portion of Oak Hammock. They are fairly common in my home ground of the Sax-Zim Bog but this was amazing! Every wet meadow seemed to hold several. Photo taken at dusk. This is a fairly “noisy” photo because it was shot at ISO 2000(!) but it nicely shows the habitat and orangey color of this not-oft-seen bird. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, 1/125 at f5.6; ISO 2000; pop-up flash -2 2/3ev; hand-held]

IMG_0187 I found this canid skull in the marsh. I love finding skulls as it is really the ultimate track of an animal.

Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0299

Oak Hammock Marsh Manitoba IMG_0297This impressive multi-million dollar building is also the Headquarters of Ducks Unlimited Canada. The marsh buts right up to the walls and you can watch Black Terns and ducks right from the windows.

IMG_0307The mission of the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre is to connect people with wetlands and they do it via outdoor activities and indoor displays and classes.

Five Hours in a Fen

I was able to combine business and pleasure yesterday (July 1st)… Well, It was really all business and a complete pleasure! I had heard of a bog near Cable, Wisconsin that held many Calopogon tuberosus orchids (Swamp-Pink or Grass-Pink) and I was hoping to get video of their ingenious and devious pollination method (read more below).
This particular peatland is actually classified as a fen. What is the difference between a bog and a fen? Bogs are usually stagnant water with very acidic waters. Fens have some water movement and are more basic in pH and richer in nutrients.
Calopogon tuberosus Swamp Pink orchid IMG_2153 Calopogon tuberosus (Swamp-Pink or Grass-Pink orchid) is a delightful mid summer orchid that grows in the floating mat of bogs and fens. Its flowers are “upside down” as the lip is actually on top. The insect-enticing yellow hairs are just a ruse…They fool insects into thinking that they are pollen-tipped or hold nectar, neither of which is true. If a heavy enough bee comes along, it gloms on to the yellow-tipped hairs and tries to extract some pollen. The flower has a built in hinge that collapses and drops the bee on to the sticky pollen packets below. The startled and frustrated bee flies off to try his luck at another Calopogon, and the scenario is repeated, though this time pollination is completed. Devious and Delightful orchid!
Calopogon tuberosus Swamp Pink IMG_2095
Note that on the middle right flower the hinge has already been collapsed by a visiting bee. Though I got video of several small syrphid flies visiting the orchid, none heavy enough to collapse the hinge paid a visit with my camera rolling. Oh well, a reason to go back!
flag spruce IMG_2207Believe me, I was shin deep in water and sinking fast as I took this image. This is an example of a “flag” spruce… A growth form that is very common in the subarctic lands. The “flag” is the upper branches while the nonexistent middle branches were scoured by winter winds and failed to thrive. The sprawling mass of branches low down on the trunk survived because they were protected by deep blanket of winter snow.
Elfin Skimmer male Nannothemis bella IMG_2109
Elfin Skimmer Nannothemis bella IMG_2114Elfin Skimmer male (Nannothemis bella)
A wonderful surprise! Just days after Jim Lind and Dave Grosshuesch found many Elfin Skimmers at the Sax-Zim Bog BioBlitz III (a new species for Sax-Zim!) I got my lifer dragonfly! This is the smallest dragonfly in North America at a tad over 3/4 inch long…and the second smallest in the World (one in China is a bit smaller). The male is pruinose bluish and almost appears to have a clubbed abdomen when in flight.
Elfin Skimmer Nannothemis bella IMG_2087Elfin Skimmer Nannothemis bella IMG_2080Female Elfin Skimmers (Nannothemis bella) are very different than the males. They show a ringed black and yellow abdomen. Both the males and females perch often and only move a short distance when disturbed. These were found hunting around a bog pool mainly on the floating mat.
Pogonia ophioglossoides Rose Pogonia IMG_2048Another orchid was just coming into bloom… the Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides) a delicate beauty of floating bogs. Genus name Ophioglossoides is from Greek meaning “snake tongue,” and I guess you’d have to use your imagination on that one, but the lower lip may resemble a fuzzy tongue to some.
Okanagana Cicada IMG_2134Okanagana Cicada IMG_1949A very exciting find was not one, but two singing Okanagana Cicadas. The male of each species produces a unique sound with their tymbal organs on their abdomen which vibrates and resonates in a cavity inside their abdomen and thorax. The Okanagana’s sound is a fast and steady high-pitched buzz.
Crimson-ringed Whiteface Leucorrhinia glacialis IMG_2146Crimson-ringed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia glacialis) is a bog-loving dragonfly of mid summer.
Lincoln's Sparrow IMG_2000Lincoln’s Sparrow was the most obvious avian bog dweller today, singing its beautiful hollow-can, echoey song from stunted Tamaracks and Spruces. Other birds seen in the bog included Nashville Warbler, Eastern Bluebird, Red-tailed Hawk and Eastern Kingbird. The oak-maple covered hills surrounding the fen held Pileated Woodpeckers, Scarlet Tanagers, Ovenbirds, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Eastern Wood-Pewees and other deciduous species that would have no use for a bog.
Rhynchospora alba White Beaksedge rush IMG_2019Rhynchospora alba or White Beakrush (or White-beaked Sedge) was very common surrounding the bog pools.
Sarracenia purpurea Pitcher Plant leaf IMG_1900Is there a lovelier leaf in the world? Yes, the “pitcher” of the carnivorous Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea) is actually a modified leaf. Inside a deadly mixture of rain water and enzymes can drown and dissolve the unwary insect. The plant is able to absorb important nutrients such as Phosphorous from the tiny carcasses with special cells low inside the pitcher. Good thing these guys aren’t six feet across!
Utricularia cornuta Horned Bladderwort IMG_1952One more carnivorous plant was super-abundant at this fen, Horned Bladderwort (Utricularia cornuta). The related Common Bladderwort is a predator that has dozens of tiny bladders on its underwater leaves. The hair-triggers on the bladders are set off when a tiny aquatic insect blunders by and sucked in to the bladder in a rush of water. The bladder now becomes a tiny stomach and the insect is dissolved by the plant.
IMG_1929Mystery sedge/rush.
IMG_0338If you do swing through Cable, Wisconsin, be sure to stop at their impressive Cable Natural History Museum. Among other treasures, they have an actual stuffed Passenger Pigeon! More info at

Superior Shorebirds & Friends at Wisconsin Point

Dunlin Wisconsin Point Superior WI IMG_1030 [Dunlin resting above the wave line]
Shorebirds are some of our latest migrants in the northern reaches of Minnesota. Though flocks may begin appearing in late April, the mass movement doesn’t peak until late May. And so I took several opportunities to scope out the migration along one of Lake Superior’s most beautiful beaches…Wisconsin Point. Along with its “sister spit,” Park Point in Duluth, Minnesota, they create the world’s longest freshwater sand spit…nearly 10 miles long! Shorebirds moving north to their Arctic breeding grounds find the wide sand beaches and immense body of water familiar sights, and are likely reminded of their coastal wintering grounds in the southern U.S., Central and South America.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f7.1 at 1/1250 sec. ISO 200, handheld but braced on log]

Dunlin Wisconsin Point Superior WI IMG_1464 My technique in photographing shorebirds (shown in my video, Get Close & Get the Shot) is to move slowly in plain sight of the waders, crawling along the beach, then laying down in the sand as they get near. I try to get as close to eye level as possible (without grinding sand into my camera equipment!) as this gives a more intimate portrait. The success ration is not high as they often turn and start feeding in the opposite direction or scurry past so fast that getting a shot is almost impossible.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f6.3 at 1/800 sec. ISO 250, handheld but braced on log]

Dunlin Wisconsin Point Superior WI IMG_1291 [Dunlin]

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f6.3 at 1/2500 sec. ISO 200, handheld while laying on sand]

Dunlin Wisconsin Point Superior WI IMG_1032[Dunlin sleeping]
Considering that this Dunlin may have already flown a thousand miles from wintering beaches in the southeastern U.S. or Atlantic Coast, it’s no wonder she’s tuckered out. And she’s got a couple thousand more miles to go to get to breeding grounds in northern Canada and the North Slope of Alaska.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f7.1 at 1/1250 sec. ISO 200, handheld while laying on sand]

Dunlin Wisconsin Point Superior WI IMG_1292
Dunlin are easy to identify. They are the ones that look like their bellies have been dipped in black ink. Also note their longer drooping bill.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f6.3 at 1/2000 sec. ISO 200, handheld while laying on sand]

Sanderling breeding plumage Wisconsin Point Superior WI IMG_1312 We normally see Sanderlings in their “winter whites,” their pale non-breeding plumage. But this bird is already acquiring its reddish breeding plumage.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f6.3 at 1/2000 sec. ISO 200, handheld while laying on sand]

Shorebirds mixed flock Wisconsin Point Superior WI IMG_1341This mixed flock of shorebirds contains Sanderlings, Dunlin and a rather rare visitor to Lake Superior…the Red Knot (the largest bird). I usually only see one or two of these each spring, and some years I miss them completely, so this was a real treat.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f6.3 at 1/1600 sec. ISO 200, handheld]

Red Knot Wisconsin Point Superior WI IMG_1263[Red Knot]

Common Tern Wisconsin Point Superior WI IMG_1482[Common Tern]
Terns seemingly float on buoyant wingbeats as they patrol shorelines for fish. Their head is angled down scanning the water for a likely meal and once a fish is spotted, they instantly tuck their wings in and go into a plummeting vertical dive into the water.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/3200 sec. ISO 250, handheld]

Common Tern Wisconsin Point Superior WI IMG_1519
As part of their courtship the male Common Tern flies around with a small fish which he offers to the female. Strangely, these terns LOVE to nest on dredge material…sand and dirt dug up from the Duluth-Superior bay and piled on to land. Due to this preference, Common Terns formerly nested right in the Port Terminal of Duluth, which was essentially built entirely on dredge. But an effort to move them out of this busy industrial area had little success until Interstate Island (a tiny 8 acre island in the St. Louis Estuary just upstream of the Blatnik Bridge which is divided by the Minnesota-Wisconsin state lines) was bulldozed and became an ideal sanctuary off limits to humans. Unfortunately, Ring-billed Gulls rule the island with 13,000 nest in a recent census. Common Tern nests numbered about 200. This is only one of two nesting locations in the Lake Superior region. Commons are listed as Endangered in Wisconsin and Threatened in Minnesota.

Caspian Tern Wisconsin Point Superior WI IMG_1513 I LOVE Caspian Terns! Maybe it’s that I only see them passing through in late May, or maybe their exotic name (they also range across parts of Europe and Russia including the Caspian Sea) These mega-terns are giant versions of the diminutive Commons that perched nearby. Their pterodactyl-like croak signals their presence with authority! Like the Common Terns, Caspians live almost entirely on fish.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/3200 sec. ISO 250, handheld]

Redhead pair Wisconsin Point Superior WI IMG_1581 [Redhead pair on the bayside of Wisconsin Point]
Redheads are attractive ducks of our western and midwestern pothole prairies. While not rare, they are certainly not common either, and always a treat to see. This flock of four was even tolerant of my semi-stealthy approach along the bank of the bay.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f7.1 at 1/2000 sec. ISO 250, handheld]

American Redstart warbler Wisconsin Point Superior WI IMG_1203 [American Redstart
Hiking back to the car on the inland side of the wind-whipped point we found a very cooperative warbler, the American Redstart, proudly and emphatically defending his territory in song.

[Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f7.1 at 1/2500 sec. ISO 1600, handheld]

A Superior Day—Pine Marten, Red Crossbills, Black-backed Woodpeckers & More

May 4th, 2015

I spent the day up in the Superior National Forest and Echo Trail, north and east of Ely, Minnesota just south of the Canadian border. It was a beautiful “May the Fourth be With You” day…Low about 35 and high in the 50s, sunny and calm. It was good to get out and exercise my shutter finger. And there was plenty to shoot!

Pine Marten Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7940

A grizzled Pine Marten (American Marten) along the Echo Trail, Ely, MN [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; f5.6 at 1/500 second at ISO 400; handheld]

World’s Oldest Pine Marten?

Coming around a corner, I spotted a Woodchuck along the road. At least that’s what I thought it was. But when I got it in my binoculars, I discovered it was a Pine Marten! But an interesting looking Marten that had a very white face. Its grizzled muzzle reminded me of an old dog who’s going gray. I got a few “insurance” shots from a long ways away, then eased the van forward. But this old-timer was moving slow, even his bounding gait seemed like that of an old timer who needs a new hip. So I continued the pursuit on foot. As he moved into a recently logged area, I pished and used my predator call to get his attention, but this veteran was too smart for me. He quickly realized I was no threat and continued poking his nose under brush searching for voles. But for a photographer, it was a bit frustrating as he only gave me good looks at his back. Finally he paused very briefly and looked over his shoulder at me. I fired off a barrage of shots. All were sharp but I had “too much lens,” as photographers say. My 400mm f5.6 lens on a Canon 7D is the equivalent of 640mm, and I clipped his tail. In hindsight I should have grabbed a frame that focused lower down and captured his entire tail. He finally had enough of me and loped off into the dense woods. Hope you make it through another winter, my friend.

Red Crossbill Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7882

A juvenile Red Crossbill comes begging for food from dad (Echo Trail, Ely, MN)

Nesting in Winter?

Maybe you’ve heard this amazing fact…Red Crossbills have been recorded nesting in every month of the year! How can this be? Well, this bird relies completely on one food source…the seeds of pines. Even their nestlings are fed regurgitated seeds. So when this wandering species finds an abundant source of food such as a Red Pines laden with cones along Ely’s Echo Trail, their little bird brains do some mental calculations and determine that, yes, there is enough food here to sustain our family, and so courtship and nesting begins. That brings us to this morning and explains what I witnessed.

I put on the brakes for two birds in the middle of the dirt road. It was a male and female Red Crossbill eating dirt. It is well known that all crossbills seem to crave minerals, like salt, that are concentrated in some soils. This was interesting, but what happened next was even more fascinating and something I had not witnessed in years.

The male flew up in a tree and was quickly surrounded by chipping birds. He continued to move lower in the tree and was followed by the striped birds. Then I realized that these were juvenile Red Crossbills begging for food from daddy. Working backwards, I calculated that these crossbills likely nested in these, or nearby pines, in late winter! How does a couple-ounce bird keep fragile and very small eggs from freezing at Minus 20 F temperatures?

Red Crossbill female and juvenile Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7865

Juvenile Red Crossbill (striped bird left) and adult female Red Crossbill (right).

Red Crossbill juvenile May 4 Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7893

I really did not know what a juvenile Red Crossbill looked like until this morning. They are very distinctive with a boldly striped/streaked body. Three young ones were begging from their daddy, and maybe from their mom, but I did not witness that.

Red Crossbill Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7848

Red Crossbill Echo Trail Ely MN IMG_7855

Red Crossbills (as well as White-winged Crossbills) are often seen feeding on snow or dirt along backcountry roads. It is known that they crave salt, and they are likely ingesting soil that is saturated with road salt.


The Snowshoe Hares have almost reclaimed their brown summer pelage, only their legs, feet and belly remain white. While driving down this road early in the morning I flushed a Northern Goshawk from the road. When I got closer I could see that it had killed a Snowshoe Hare and was feeding on it. I wish I would have been paying better attention so I could have watched through binoculars. I lingered, hoping it would return. But I knew it wouldn’t come near when I was only a hundred yards away. Like all raptors, the female Goshawk is quite a bit larger than the male. She is able to easily prey on hares, while the male, being smaller, prefers smaller game like Ruffed Grouse.

boat landing Big Lake Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8003

A classic Northern Minnesota scene. You just have to drive down a road like this to see what’s at the end.

Epigaea repens Trailing Arbutus Echo Trail near Moose River Ely MN IMG_7956

Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens) is a fragrant early spring wildflower found in dry pine stands. It is a member of the Ericaceae  and related to blueberries, cranberries, wintergreen and leatherleaf to name a few. The evergreen leaves are broadly oval with nearly parallel sides, which helps separate them from Wintergreen which has more football-shaped leaves. If you are lucky enough to find a stand of these uncommon beauties, kneel down and take a good sniff of their fragrant blossoms.

snow in woods Echo Trail MN IMG_8037

Though we had a relatively mild winter, some rogue patches of winter snow could still be found in ravines.


The Red Maples were in peak flower, and the aspen leaves were just opening up.

Cicindela longilabris White-lipped Tiger Beetle Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8028

Boreal Long-lipped Tiger Beetle (Cicindela longilabris)
These half-inch-long beetles are ferocious predators…at least to other half-inch long critters. You can find them along sandy or gravel paths on sunny days in spring and fall. Like their common name implies, they are a creature of the Great North Woods, occurring from New England to the Western Great Lakes and north across Canada from Labrador to Alaska. Found in openings in the coniferous forests. Also at high elevations in western mountains.

Cicindela longilabris White-lipped Tiger Beetle Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8017

The “white lip” is actually the labrum and it is very visible and a good field mark in identifying this tiger beetle. They also have unmarked dark elytra.

Broad-winged Hawk Stoney River Forest Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8033

The Broad-wings are back from their wintering grounds in South America. Millions exit the U.S and Canada in September and October and head for warmer climes. Unlike their mammal-eating cousins such as the Red-tailed Hawk and Rough-legged Hawk, Broad-wings thrive on a diet of reptiles (snakes) and amphibians (frogs). And their timing on returning to the North Woods is no accident…four species of frogs are very vocal and active in ponds now, and the Garter Snakes have emerged from hibernation. The Broad-wing buffet is set!

Broad-winged Hawk Stoney River Forest Road Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8295

Black-backed Woodpecker Pagami Creek Fire burn Isabella Lake Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8198

Black-backed Woodpecker Pagami Creek Fire burn Isabella Lake Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8239

Mating Game

I found a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers EXACTLY in the same spot I last saw them 7 months ago. Now I don’t know if they are the same birds, but I’d like to think so. The area is in a four-year old burn called the Pagami Creek Fire. The charred Jack Pines are a veritable grocery store for the woodpeckers. Wood-boring beetle grubs invade the dead and dying trees. I watched as the male dug out one fat white grub and one skinny yellowish grub. Yummy!

I ran into photographer friend Jason Mandich and we spent some time with these incredibly tame birds. Interestingly, they seemed to get quite agitated when they heard the nearby song of a White-throated Sparrow.

Several times, the female would perch on an angled branch, more horizontal than vertical, and hold her body parallel to the branch. The male would fly over and approach her. I imagine this was part of their mating ritual, but I did not witness any actual mating.

Black-backed Woodpecker Pagami Creek Fire burn Isabella Lake Superior National Forest Lake Co MN IMG_8274

I guess they have black backs for a reason! I wonder if their solid black backs are an adaptation to feeding on the charred trunks of trees in burns. Seems like it would be a handy trait when trying to avoid aerial predators. Note how this guy almost disappears.

IMG_8279 - Version 2


I loved the pattern of these stacked pulpwood logs with the single needled branch hanging on. I also played with the image a bit to turn it into a more graphic black-and-white illustration.

Coyote hunting MN23 near Skogstjarna Carlton Co MN IMG_8354

Just a mile from home, and in the dim light of dusk, I spotted a Coyote on a hillside. She was hunting actively and I watched her catch two voles from the same patch of tall grass. It was far too dark for good photos but I couldn’t keep myself from taking a couple shots with the lens braced on the car window. She would not have allowed me to get out and set up a tripod. I do like the deep blue dusk sky.


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