The sun comes out…

Man, oh man, I sure hope you got a chance to get outside today, and not just to shovel your car out of a snowbank, because it was a stunner. I had to go to campus early, so didn’t hit the park till this afternoon when the sun came out and the sky turned that special, dry-winter-air, blue. Talk about lucky timing.

Anyway, the common mergansers are getting thick on the lower river. I counted 10 females and 3 males today. Here’s a few females and one male preening in the sun on an ice sheet.

Here’s a female struggling to land her fish as a female mallard looks on languidly.

Here they are, with the female still wrasslin’ with her fish, heading down river after my presence on the trail disturbed them. Sorry.

Further north, at the abandoned railroad bridge abutment, perhaps this nuthatch is getting its mineral supplement for the day. This entire site along the river was formerly a quarry for the Milwaukee Cement Company, hence the railroad bridge I suppose, and so the minerals are most likely locally-sourced and all-natural. I was looking just about straight up when I took this.

Next, just a bit farther north, on the slope up from the boardwalk along the river to the beer garden, I was treated to this magical sight.

As we’ve already discussed, we think that’s either a veery or a hermit thrush, depending on whether the full eye ring carries more weight than the cinnamon head and back.

I should have just gone home after that.

The buffleheads are still just above the falls, and the mallards were back on the upper river, but they have moved even further north so too far away for good pictures. I went by the pond, but have nothing to show for it. On my way home along the river, I did see a big gathering of common mergansers and even a male goldeneye with two females (finally! right?), but nothing worth posting. There was even a herring gull standing on the far shore with a big fish, but got it swallowed before I could even get my camera out. Next time!

Meanwhile, long-time reader and eagle-eyed Bonnie points out that the junco we saw recently by the pond has dark marks on its otherwise light-colored beak. These cause me to lean even more towards thinking that it really is a visiting Oregon dark-eyed junco, among whom this seems to occur often enough to be easy to find online.

Finally, it appears that we are not the only ones enjoying the antics of aquatic birds. Check out this video, surfing duck, shared by our Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at UWM in his weekly status report. Don’t worry, it is safe for work, refreshingly brief, and you don’t need to have sound on.

A winter wonderland

I was all caught up on my schoolwork, so I ventured into the park while the snow was still coming down today, and I figured that the worst that could happen would be for me to get a little extra workout. Instead, what an absolutely marvelous audiovisual treat it was.

The thick blanked of fluffy new snow really deadens sound, so the river trail was spectacularly quite, and there were parts that appeared not to have felt even the slightest breeze, so that even the tiniest branches were stacked wonderfully high with snow.

One happy new sighting on the lower river was at least four female goldeneyes. Perhaps that’s what our heroine has been waiting for all this time.

Two of the four female goldeneyes on the lower river

Above the falls, I was surprised to find that everyone was gone except for the intrepid pair of half-pint buffleheads, who were busy going about their foraging for snails on the river bottom, as usual.

Further north, I was once again greeted by the cheerful chirp of a woodpecker, and it took me forever to find her. It turns out that she was right over my head, and she might even be the same downy woodpecker we saw yesterday in nearly the same spot.

Just beyond that, there was quite a ruckus in the tree tops, and this time it was grey squirrels, at least 5 of them, not a half-dozen starlings raiding a drey, and they were chasing each other around the tree trunks like crazy. Here are two of the culprits. I wonder what they were tussling over on such a peaceful day.

Finally, beside the pond, I found most of the regulars making the best of it.

It appears that getting a beak full of snow is a common thing when the conditions are right.

Grey skies are back…

The thermometer said 36°F, but my skin said 23°F, and the sky was covered by a thick blanket of clouds. It sure wasn’t like the previous two beautiful days, but I was glad to be back in the park after taking a quick break to help kick off the spring semester at UWM.

Luckily, all the critters appear to have done just fine without me. At the south end, there were a couple of male common mergansers and at least eight females, which is more than I’ve ever seen before in one day, let alone in one place. The most I could get in a row, however, were these three:

As I was trying to line up that shot, a bald eagle drifted overhead, but kept right on going. Just up river from the mergansers was our female goldeneye, a bit down river from her usual spot, and still unaccompanied. Come on, guys!

The usual crowd of mallards and interlopers were in their regular spot above the falls. The pair of buffleheads, at least four male goldeneyes, a couple more male common mergansers, and even a Canada goose or two were all there. No black ducks, though. Sorry Lou.

Further north, as I paused on the trial for a moment, I heard the familiar chirp of a woodpecker, but closer than usual. I slowly turned around, and there it was, right at eye level and not even ten feet away from me. Usually, once they notice me looking their way, they take right off, but this one must have thought it had found the mother lode in that tree trunk because it just keep working on that spot of the bark while I took a couple dozen pictures in hopes of having one look nice.

From the comfort of my dining room table, I’m gonna say that she’s a downy woodpecker because of the dark spots on her white tail feathers and her smaller beak relative to a hairy woodpecker. In the “after” picture on the right above, you can see how much bigger and deeper she had made the hole in the bark during the two minutes she allowed me to stand there taking pictures. That was a rare treat, and I sure hope she got what she was digging for.

Finally, as seems to be my habit these days, I swung by the pond to see who was about. There were goldfinches, cardinals, chickadees, juncos, and a bunch of that sparrow/finch we keep seeing, but this little character really stood out.

It looks similar to the other dark-eyed juncos we’ve been seeing lately, but not quite the same because it has a more distinct line between its black hood and white chest plus the noticeably brown back and sides. Therefore, I’m going to go out on a limb, despite the range maps, and suggest that this is an Oregon dark-eyed junco (J. h. oreganus).

I can’t wait to see how much snow we get this time. How about you?

A lot going on after the snow day…

If you asked me what could have made it a better morning in the park, I don’t know what I could say. It was just perfect, and right off the bat, I was surprised to see this flotilla of common mergansers on the lower river.

And, as seems to be the case with mergansers, they were not alone. Curious.

Mallards at breakfast

By the abandoned bridge abutments, where the river freezes over, some little critter visited the west bank and then came back. Maybe a raccoon?

Further north, above the falls, the pair of buffleheads, a couple of goldeneyes, and even a common merganser all continue to hangout with the main group of mallards.

As I was trying to get a decent picture of the river, this little cutie was trying to get a sip of water from a seep coming out of the bluff behind me. I’m gonna go with a veery (Catharus fuscescens), a little bit north of its usual winter range, because of the uniform cinnamon-brown above with indistinct spotting on the chest, compared to other thrushes.

Finally, I headed over to the pond, and was trying to capture a nice image of the many birds feasting on the staghorn sumac seeds, including this sparrow/finch and European starling, when they all suddenly took off.

Sure enough, the Cooper’s hawk had just flown in and perched high over the island.

Sadly, I was not able to get around to the other side to get what would have been a gorgeous picture before it took off again. Instead, I was left with this even dozen appearing to be waiting for a brave one to show that it is safe to go back to the buffet.

A nice snowy day…

Wow! I wasn’t sure I’d even make it to the park today. Luckily, the snow finally petered out around 2pm, and the winds even let up, so I finally ventured in. No sense trying to take a picture of blowing snow, eh?

The big raft of mallards was in their usual spot on the upper river, and they were joined by the pair of buffleheads, a couple of female common mergansers, and these two goldeneyes. After all this time, I sure was surprised to learn that they have necks! Who knew, right?

After that revelation, I headed over to the pond, were I caught a nice image of a potential mate for yesterday’s female northern cardinal….

finally a decent chickadee picture….

And this little cutie, that I’m gonna say is a swamp sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) based on the generally brown complexion and the dark and intricate face coloration. Your mileage may vary.

All kinds of new stuff…

After the oddly slow day yesterday, I was relieved to see a lot more activity in the park today. It’s the start of the spring semester at UWM, so maybe that’s what was going on.

First up was this lonely little female common merganser trying to get cozy with a few mallards on the lower river, and this one female mallard was simply not having it. I watched her try to get close only to be shooed away at least three times, so I’m pretty sure I was seeing what I think I was seeing, and this wasn’t just some random drifting with the currents. Nothing too aggressive on either’s part, at least that I saw, but pretty clear that something was going on. It must be tough to be a transfer student.

Next, the female goldeneye, that we first saw just this past Saturday, was back in the same spot and by herself again. Maybe she been to the upper river, where the crowd usually hangs out, and thinks it is just a meat market.

Not much further beyond that scene, I heard a bustle, no, not in my hedgerow, but high up in an oak tree. It took me a moment to find it and then another to figure out what was going on. As best as I can tell, about a half dozen European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), which I knew were here but hadn’t seen in the park before now, were raiding one of the many grey squirrel nests that dot the trees in the park.

I mean, they were really going to town on that thing, like maybe they don’t have these in Europe, or something. I took a ton of pictures, but I was shooting almost straight up against a bright white sky, and so the results aren’t the greatest, but I think you can get the idea. Half the time, all you can see is some tails sticking out, which doesn’t really facilitate identifying the birds. I wonder if they were just after a cache of nuts, or if they found something more-substantial? We may never know.

After all that excitement, I finally made it to the falls and was glad to see the upper river packed with dozens of mallards. Phew! Plus, the buffleheads and one male goldeneye were back, too, though they didn’t seem as happy to see me as I was to see them.

Finally, I swung by the pond to see who might be about, and the place was lined with pretty little puffballs: a female northern cardinal, a dark-eyed junco, and a this time I’m going with purple finch because of the lack of “heavy brown streaks under the wings.”

Lastly, on my way home along the Oak Leaf Trial, I encounter a few more juncos feasting on staghorn sumac seeds. Probably freshmen, right?

Sleepy Sunday…

It was a super slow day in the park today. The new snow sure was pretty, but there were hardly any new critters about, let alone new ones, and there were only a few mallards on the river. I got there later than usual, and maybe they had canceled the matinee.

I did see this little guy, though, looking like a kid trying to eat a sugar doughnut.

Speaking of eating, here’s a red-bellied woodpecker snacking on staghorn sumac seeds, a common enough maneuver, but one I haven’t seen from woodpeckers before.

Finally, with the dearth of mobile subjects, I had plenty of time to try these arty still life shots.

Welp, better luck next time, eh?

Just another day in paradise…

The sky was blue, the snow was white, the air was calm, the trail was firm, and yada, yada, yada. Just another …. oh, you know the drill.

Usually, the lower half of the river, south of the mudflats, is pretty empty, with just a few mallards and maybe a gull or two, but today I saw somebody new, our first female goldeneye, swimming and diving all by herself. I wonder if she has already checked out the dudes up river and simply found them all lacking.

When I did get to the falls, I was surprised to find just a dozen or so mallards, no diving birds, and no raptors. I wonder what’s up with that? Anyway, the remaining mallards seemed to be doing just fine, and these two characters, even took a break to ride on an ice floe.

Finally, I swung by the pond to check on our Cooper’s hawk from yesterday, after one concerned reader wonder if it was somehow stuck to that branch. I’m sure you’ll all be relieved to know that, as of this morning, it appears to have successfully moved on. Phew! Instead, I was serenaded by this red-hued little fellow, and this time I’m going with house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus). Don’t @ me!

A pleasant change of pace…

What can I say? After a long run of gloom, we’re having a string of amazing days, and it looks like the red-bellied woodpeckers are fixin’ to make some hay. I saw pairs like this more than once throughout the park.

Even the nuthatch, who gave me such a hard time yesterday, seemed to be in a far-more accommodating mood today.

Lastly, a young Cooper’s hawk, of whom we’ve only managed glimpses before, seemed to have all the patience in the world for me this morning.

No, seriously. I literally have a zillion pictures of this hawk because I stopped to take one after nearly every step as I inched towards it for almost the entire length of the pond, expecting each one to be my last opportunity. At least that’s how it has gone in the past. This morning, however, maybe it was just enjoying the morning sun too much to be bothered, because I could not believe how close it let me get. After my fingers were finally frozen, I said “thanks” and turned around to head home. As far as I know, it is still perched there in the willow tree at the northeast corner of the pond.

I just never know what to expect.

PS: There was nothing new on the water so I didn’t take any pictures, but I did see two gulls, probably herring or maybe ring-billed, chasing a big hawk or maybe even a young eagle north along the river. I don’t believe I spotted a single mammal today.

Surprise, surprise, surprise…

It is hard even to describe how beautiful it was in the park this morning. There was still plenty of shiny white snow on the ground, it was 20°F warmer than yesterday, and there was a breeze, but not so much that there weren’t areas of calm along the river and in the woods. Most of all though, the sky was a stunning, tears-in-my-eyes, deep, deep blue, and here’s what you can do with that kind of sky.

When I got to the river, there was not a mallard in sight, just this cast of misfits:

Clockwise, from 7pm: a male and female bufflehead, two goldeneyes, two female red-breasted mergansers, and one male red-breasted merganser.

It turns out, the mallards were taking a quick vaca, leaving just the diving birds behind, because there were a couple of new sheriffs in town, at least for the moment.

Pair of bald eagles

As soon as those two flew away empty-taloned, though, dozens of mallards materialized seemingly out of nowhere, as though orchestrated by air traffic control. I mean, what were they doing? Just circling at a thousand feet waiting for the raptors to move on? The timing and coordination was uncanny.

Then there was all the usually self-congratulatory chatter: “Carl! Glad to see you made it, ol’ buddy! Phew, that was a close one, eh? Can you believe there were two of them this time? I mean, come on, man. Give us a break.”

Well, after all the excitement, I thought nothing could top that, but looky what we have here! That’s right, a wooly bear caterpillar, larvae to an isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella), just trekking across the snow! What on earth is it doing up at this hour, right?

Well, to calm us all down from that, let’s listen to the soothing coos of a surprisingly elusive white-breasted nuthatch before it bids us adieu.

Oh yeah! I almost forgot! It appears that some little critter fished something big out of the river and dragged it across the ice and snow to a burrow in the river bank. Hope it was tasty, eh? There were no human tracks anywhere on that ice, the drag mark made a one-way, if not perfectly straight, trip between the open water and the shore, and the paw prints sure aren’t from a dog.

Maybe that’s as close as were going to get to the ermine, sorry Carolyn, but I have a hope not. How fun is that?