The cold remains, but some color returns…

After getting skunked for the last few days, I’ve finally got something to show you, and given the nature of this project, perhaps I should clarify that by “skunked” I mean coming up empty, not being sprayed by a skunk, which I would definitely endure in exchange for a good picture, but that would be a different story. I saw no skunks in the park today.

Instead, I enjoyed the rare treat of this truly magnificent creature tolerating my presence at a surprisingly close range while it was waiting for another crack at a squirrel who was busy warning everyone within earshot, and I am not to surprised to read that squirrels listen to other birds to assess the danger.

I spotted what I hoped might be a raptor from seemingly a mile away, and I had to check with binoculars to make sure it wasn’t just some snow on a tree. As I made my way towards it, at one point it made a try for a squirrel, but came up empty, and I was thrilled when it settle back down in the vicinity for me to continue my pursuit. In the end, I even crossed some of the frozen river, all the while trying to make it look like I wasn’t ever walking straight towards it, as my friend Drew suggested. I ended up about 20 feet away and right next to a tree to which I could hold my camera to eliminate jiggling. After I figured I must have gotten one good shot (out of 50+!) I continued north and was able to confirm from behind that it is indeed a red-tailed hawk, not some cheap knock-off, and it might even be the one we saw back in January feasting on a different squirrel.

Anyway, the river continues to freeze over, but a slew of intrepid goldeneyes, common mergansers, and even some mallards are sticking around in the few remaining wet spots. There was not a single water fowl on the upper river today, however, and that was long after the one bald eagle I saw had already flown past.

Instead, a certain chickadee almost seemed unwilling to admit it had made a mistake by landing on a branch too closed to me. As I carefully took out my camera, it pretended not to notice that I was only 6 feet away and quite casually went about its business. Sweet.

After glimpsing an eagle and photographing a hawk, I had a hope that I might get lucky at the pond, and I did, but not in the way I expected. Instead, these two colorful characters provided these close-ups that almost looked staged, right?

And these little cuties could not seem to be less concerned about me. I half expected either one of them to check my head next. I’ve thought there must be bugs in there for years now.

Starting to get frisky…

The amazing streak of cold weather continues, and I didn’t see a single mammal this morning, but for the birds who are prepared for it, not only does it not seem to slow them down, they’re actually starting to get frisky!

I had barely gotten into the park when this pair of nuthatches caught my ear. Well, his song caught my ear, but when I looked up, I spotted her first. I read that you can distinguish him from her by her greyer cap compared to his blacker cap. Plus, he was doing all the singing, and she was just soaking it in along with the bright morning sun.

Within the same earshot, this male northern cardinal was staking out his territory.

On the lower river, there wasn’t much new. The goldeneye flotilla was in the same spot as yesterday, but not quite as big, and some of them appeared to be trying to take a nap, although you can see that the male was keep his goldeneye on me.

Above the falls, there were a few mallards, one male goldeneye, and the pair of buffleheads, but no eagles today. The one fascinating event I got to witness was the goldeneye, who had been diving with the buffleheads, suddenly making a beeline for the mallards, and the half-pint male bufflehead popping to the surface right behind him and in hot pursuit! I guess, as they say with dogs, it’s the size of the fight in the bird as much or more than the size of the bird in the fight.

Here’s the male goldeneye a moment later explaining to a couple of male mallards that he actually wanted to swim over towards them ’cause that other spot is pretty much grazed out now.

Here’s the male bufflehead escorting his date the heck out of that dump!

There was nothing new at the pond this morning, but there was a lot of activity in the trees lining the Oak Leaf Trail. Here are a pair of either downy or hairy woodpeckers checking each other out, bill to bill, but my one lousy shot doesn’t reveal the cues that would enable me to tell them apart. There was also some energetic movement before this scene, but you’ll just have to imagine that, or watch this nice video someone else posted on youtube.

Anyway, this male downy was kind enough to sit for a proper portrait.

Finally, this goldfinch wasn’t doing anything new or interesting, but just looked too nice against the nice blue sky to pass up.

Fade to grey…

Today seemed a bit like an odd and dark repeat of yesterday. The temps were about the same, but the sky was blanketed by heavy grey clouds, and that seemed to throw everything off.

I only spotted a few female common mergansers on the lower river, and was doing my best to spot more, when there was a big commotion in a tree not 20 feet up the trail from me. It looked like a big hawk, of undetermined kind, had crashed into a tree, and then a smaller bird, maybe a robin, fled across the river from the crash site like a bat out of hell. I froze in hopes that the hawk would take a moment to collect itself, and I would have a chance to take a picture, but no luck. It quickly took off, too, and I was left with only the memories.

Further north, I was approaching the spot where the goldeneye’s have been hanging out, and I quietly approached the water to reconnoiter the situation from afar, when the single male, who must not have spotted me yet, led his flock downriver right towards me.

I froze again, because these birds have been especially shy all winter, and they drifted to a stop right opposite me, and now I can see that the little stud is escorting 10 females. Ha!

I read that they form monogamous pairs “between early December and April, and the pair stays together until the male abandons the female early in the incubation period,” but maybe he hasn’t read that yet, or maybe he’s just taking his sweet time. Decisions, decisions, but I’m probably mistaken if I thinking he’s the only one making them, right?

Anyway, I waited and waited for him to do that call thing with his head and neck again, but he refrained, and I eventually had to give up and move on. It’s too cold out to stand still for too long.

As I approached the falls, I again stopped to scope out the scene before I disturbed it, and the few mallards on the water just above the falls all took flight, just like yesterday, and sure enough, a young bald eagle, not yet in mature colors, drifted into view high overhead. This time, sadly, it and at least one companion stayed far to the north, so I couldn’t get a good look at them, let alone a picture, but it’s just as well. With the dark grey skies behind them, they’d only come out as silhouettes anyway. I did glimpse two of them performing some exciting-looking aerial acrobatics, but it is really hard to tell if it was courtship or rivalry.

After all that excitement, I finally proceeded north and as happily surprised to find the bufflehead pair, whom we haven’t seen in days, back on the water, and just as shy as ever.

By the time I walked up to the north end and back, a few mallards had already returned to the river and were busily back at work accumulating the calories they need to melt the ice off their bills.

Finally, I swung by the pond again, but didn’t see a raptor there at all today. I did spot a squirrel, and hoped it was our little red friend, especially after the visit from the Cooper’s hawk yesterday, but, from the comfort of my dining room table, today’s visitor looks decidedly grey.

Lastly, the skies, the water, the eagles, the ducks, and the squirrels may all be shades of grey today, but the male northern cardinals are still rocking their brightest red. Yee haw!

The Day of the Raptors

Our string of pitch-perfect weather continues, and it was another glorious morning in the park.

Right off the bat, as I was checking on the female common mergansers we’ve been seeing regularly at the south end, I annoyed a hawk on the near shore, who flew across to the other side to keep hunting, glare at me, and pose for this picture. I’m going to go with red-tailed hawk, just based on the size of it.

Just north of there, I also startled a grey squirrel, who darted up this tree a bit, and then froze, while perhaps thinking as loud as it could at me, “I am not the squirrel you are looking for.”

Near the end of the open water on the lower river, the growing group of goldeneyes were right where we’ve been seeing them lately. The male called again, and this time I did catch him with his head completely up against his back. Maybe next time, I’ll focus first.

By the mud flats, where the river becomes completely iced over, some little critter appears to have hauled something home again across the snow from the edge of the ice. Not as big a catch as last time, though, or maybe the snow is just firmer now.

Just south of the bridge abutment, I found a pretty little goldfinch, where we’ve seen them before.

And this time, it was accompanied by this female cardinal, who seemed to be enjoying both the nice morning sun and the smooth jazz stylings of this male cardinal who was serenading her from the tree behind me. They would make a dashing pair, eh?

As I approached the falls, I paused to survey the scene from afar, and a flock of mallards buzzed the group still in the water, who immediately scrambled to follow them. A few seconds later, I was treated to a new spectacle that had just caused the previous one.

Not one, not two, but three, yes three bald eagles soared over the falls! Two were mature adults in white heads and tails, which we’ve seen before, and the third was a juvenile, perhaps in its second year, based on the whitish belly and dark head. They all circled a few times before confirming that there was not a bird left on the water and then headed south.

After that, with my heart all atwitter, I continued north along the river before it occurred to me that if I could spot a Cooper’s hawk, perhaps at the pond where we’ve seen them several times before, I’d have my first raptor hat-trick. So I made a bee-line to the east.

As soon as I arrived, I could tell by the sound of all the chatter, that there was no hawk around. Well, I’m at the pond anyway, where I’ve seen some nice things, so I settle in to take a look. Not more than a minute later, a hawk glides right in and perches on a branch in a tree at the northeast corner. The pond ice is nice and firm these days, so I head directly there, and it must have been hungry, or I’m getting a little better at this, because it let me get nice and close before I turned around and left it to hunt in peace. Ta da!

At that point, I was almost exhausted from all the excitement, so I opted to walk straight home along the Oak Leaf trail. Well, there are plenty of birds there, too, and what’s the point of such a beautiful blue sky if we don’t spot a woodpecker against it. Right? By the looks of the marks on her white tail feathers, I’m gonna say she’s a downy.

The deep of winter settles in…

It wasn’t as cold as yesterday so my eyelashes didn’t freeze this morning, but sustained temps near 0°F and about a foot of snow on the ground is about as good as we get it here in southeastern Wisconsin, and the hardy critters seem to be coping just fine.

The five female common mergansers were in their usual spot on the lower river, and I even got a nice shot of them all lined up, but this close-up of the middle one standing up for a moment to keep and eye on me looked better.

The group of goldeneyes upstream has grown to eight females and one male, but they are just as shy as ever, so I can only get this group shot from far away, and the steam fog is still present.

Also on the lower river, a herring gull was working on a morsel it had found while a female mallard looks on.

Above the falls, I could only see mallards today, and this bunch had found a spot to graze that was perhaps a little deeper than usual, but not deep enough to dive for. Thus, they had to generate quite a bit more splash with their feet than usual to reach the good stuff.

Meanwhile, on the far shore, a crow stopped by to take a sip of the only liquid water to be found in the park.

By the pond, someone has scattered birdseed on the snow, and it attracted this trio this morning: a red squirrel, a female cardinal, and some kind of sparrow.

The woodpeckers were hard at work throughout the park, including this hairy male.

Finally, despite the current conditions, some of the male cardinals have already started to stake out their territory in song. This was not one of them, at the time, but he made a much nicer picture.

Life goes on…

The weather app on my phone reported -8°F this morning, so I was curious to see what activity I could find in the park. The only mammals I saw were two guys and a dog, but the birds were mostly going about their business not much differently than yesterday.

On the lower river, a trio of female common mergansers were all keeping watchful eyes on me as they waited out the cold on the river ice, but they opting not to budge as I took their picture. There were a couple more, out of frame, but I thought these three made the nicest composition.

Just north of them, this pair of mallards floated by in the thick steam fog rising off the relatively-balmy 32°F water. You can see little beads of ice formed all over their heads. Brrr.

Finally, the goldeneyes were in their usual spot, a bit south of where the river freezes all the way across. They’re very shy, so I stay on the trail a bit up the bluff as I pass them, but they saw me anyway. The male swam downstream first, then appeared to call to the three females, who soon swam down to join him. I could hear the call, and see his outstretched neck, but I never got to see him with his head against his back and beak sticking straight up. Maybe next time.

North of the falls, just a few mallards were dabbling on the far side.

This lone male common merganser was waiting out the cold

And keeping him company, was this lone female goldeneye. An odd couple.

When I got to the pond, it was quiet. Too quiet, I thought, and as I stood there trying to spot even one junco, a Cooper’s hawk flew over my shoulder and into the far trees out of range. It was as though I had flipped a switch. Suddenly the chickadees were chirping, the juncos were hoping, and the cardinals were flitting from branch to branch. Here’s a red-bellied woodpecker back to work on that tree trunk and a goldfinch gulping down a morsel it had just found.

The Cooper’s hawk reminds me that I forgot to tell you yesterday that I saw another bald eagle, but this time gliding at about tree-top-level over the softball field on the way from the pond to the beer garden. I didn’t manage a picture, but sure did enjoy the sight. Can you imagine if the NFL could arrange that kind of flyover during the National Anthem? There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the stadium.

The deep freeze settles in…

It was one of those magical mornings when every footstep squeaks in the clean white snow packed firmly onto the path. If your trying to sneak up on something, you’d better step off into the deep soft stuff.

The lower river had most of the regulars, a few mallard pairs, a few female common mergansers, and the male goldeneye with three females.

Hoar frost had formed some pretty patterns on stems over a couple of seeps that emerge from the bluff and even on the ice covering the little stream that runs down from the pond.

I didn’t see a non-water bird until halfway to the falls, and was beginning to think that maybe it was just too cold for them to be active, but then a woodpecker and a few goldfinches gave some chirps to alert me to their activity. The woodpecker didn’t stick around, but this goldfinch was willing to sit still for a moment.

At the north end, this pair of mourning doves never budged from their branch in the sun.

By the pond, a couple of woodpeckers each had found something interesting enough to distract them from me. I could hear several red-bellied woodpeckers throughout the park, but could never spot one today.

Meanwhile, this little trio kept their eyeballs on me.

And finally, this little chickadee found something on that twig far more interesting.

Winter ain’t done with us yet…

The park was crowded yesterday morning, I suppose with folks trying to get their visit in before the forecast precipitation came, so I wasn’t able to find much to show you. My best shots are of this raft of female common mergansers and one male common goldeneye on the lower river. I was bummed not see a female goldeneye with them.

Today, the situation was markedly different, and maybe 10°F and 20 mph has something to do with that.

A pair of mallards were taking a break.

A pair of common mergansers were on the hunt for something good to eat.

A young herring gull was chowing down on a fish, while its elder chilled nearby.

A little further north, the missing female goldeneye situation from yesterday seems to have resolved itself, and today there were three! They all appeared be spending as much time under water as they physically could. Perhaps they were just really hungry, or perhaps the 32°F water feels a lot better than the 10°F air.

By the mudflats below the falls a red-bellied woodpecker appears to be sampling the snow.

On the upper river, there was a good group of mallards and one female goldeneye, but I didn’t see the buffleheads today. Let’s hope they found someplace warm to ride out this deep freeze.

Finally, as I was walking around the pond, I was super lucky to spot a Cooper’s hawk, perhaps the one we’ve seen at the pond last month, lurking in the bushes just over the water at my eye level. I managed to get off this one shot before it noticed me and bugged out.

Love survives and a new kid arrives…

I had the deep pleasure of walking home from campus late yesterday afternoon, along the river from Hubbard Park to Estabrook Park, after the clouds cleared out, the breeze calmed down, and the sun lit everything with a gorgeous setting glow. It was an absolute pleasure, but I wish I had brought my camera, as there was a good-sized group of mallards and mergansers settling in for the evening south of the Capitol Ave bridge with a couple of gulls silently gliding overhead looking for pre-caught fish, we can now suppose.

Well, my wish belatedly came true, because the perfect weather continued into this morning, so I got to enjoy it again with camera in hand. The first exciting news, that I know you are all anxiously waiting to hear, is that the pair of common goldeneyes, whom we first spotted together just yesterday, were still together this morning on the lower river. Yay!

Above the falls, the big crowd of mallards were back, along with the pair of buffleheads, one male goldeneye, and this newcomer, who appears to be an immature male goldeneye. You can see the start of his cheek patch, but the rest of his coloration still resembles is mom more than his dad. You can read other authors who have come to the same conclusion here, here, and here.

Also, along the river, were this red-breasted woodpecker warming in the morning sun, and this chickadee trying to get a taste of a sapcicle.

Finally, up on the bluff, this grey squirrel, the ubiquitous, bigger, and bolder cousin of our little cutie from yesterday, appeared and sounded to be in growling standoff with three others in the same tree.

Perhaps they were all waiting to warm up in the sun enough to begin chasing each other up, down, and around tree trunks.

Lunch lost and love found…

First the loss. The raft of common mergansers were on the lower river again this morning, and it is tricky to count them all because of their movement and the convoluted topography of the river bank, but I’m sure there are at least a dozen or more, with roughly three to four females per male. Two different females had fish again today, and they both struggled a bit to get them lined up right, without using hands of course, just like soccer.

The first one appeared to fend off another hungry merganser successfully, who perhaps was just trying to help, but the second one was forced to give up the goods when threatened by, what looks to be, a herring gull. That’s right, this gull hovered, perhaps tried or threatened to peck, the merganser dove empty-billed, the gull snagged the fish, and here’s my best shot of the results, through the brush. The gull gulped down the fish pretty quickly, at least it didn’t go to waste.

Why they don’t arrange to stage these dramatic scenes where I can get a better view is anyone’s guess. Surely they understand that its all about the clicks these days, right? Anyway, based on the number of mergansers I’ve been seeing with fish lately, we can have a hope that there are plenty more fish in the river. The trick it seems is getting them into the belly.

Now, the love. We first saw a lone female goldeneye on the lower river back on January 23, and I’ve wondered repeatedly since then why she stays there, day after day, while the guys, as many as three of them at a time, stay on the upper river. Well, today it appears that we have our first love connection. Yay! Or maybe its just lunch. Time will tell, eh?

We wish the young couple much success in any case.

Finally, I spotted a little rascal by the pond today whom we haven’t seen in months, since the summer.

That’s right, our elusive little pal, the very energetic red squirrel. He made at least three trips from the top of the willow tree to the ground and back while I attempted to capture a descent likeness.

So I guess that’s a lunch found. Talk about a happy ending.