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!
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.
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?
Juvenile Red Crossbill (striped bird left) and adult female Red Crossbill (right).
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 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.
A classic Northern Minnesota scene. You just have to drive down a road like this to see what’s at the end.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.