Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The "Nuthatch DMZ," and pursuing the owl

In case you haven’t guessed by now, my entire family is really into birds and wildlife. Despite the fact that there was still three feet of snow in some places in the forest (as I found out when I post-holed up to my waist while walking on top of what I thought was frozen solid snow), and that the snowshoe hares are still pure white (I was lucky enough to spot one on my Friday run!), this time of year is always especially exciting as the signs of spring are starting to emerge.

We saw a few new arrivals. The chipmunks came out of hibernation while I was there (Mom and Dad said this is the earliest they have ever seen them). Juncos, fox sparrows, and purple finches also showed up in the yard to enjoy some seeds at the various feeding stations. Some of the deer are starting to sprout their antler, as you are beginning to see the little velvet nubs poking out of their heads. Mom and Dad constantly see them around the house in the winter eating up the seeds that the birds knock down from the feeders. But soon, most of the deer will be heading back up into the forest once the snow melts and food becomes more plentiful.

A common sight on Mom and Dad’s patio

We spend a lot of time hiking in the woods. Dad has become a wildlife photographer since retiring from teaching, and he is out here every day. Because of that, the chickadees and nuthatches have almost come to accept him as one of their own. They will routinely visit you for sunflower seeds.

One of the friendly chickadees

I have talked about Norris, the infamous resident red-breasted nuthatch, in previous posts. He and his mate, Noreen, both survived the harsh winter and are seemingly doing well, hopefully getting ready to produce another family. One fascinating thing I got to learn about was the “Nuthatch DMZ,” as Dad calls it. It is the line where one nuthatch’s territory ends, and another begins. Dad actually found the border of Norris’ range, which butts up against the territory of Norris’ arch nemesis, “Norbert,” as he was dubbed. These little birds are very territorial, and if one is in the other’s zone, they will chase them noisily through the forest with moves that would make a fighter jet pilot proud. I got to witness a confrontation where Norbert was infringing upon Norris’ territory, and Norris ran him clean out of there. Norris is a force to be reckoned with!

Norris having a snack, keeping an eye out for Norbert

The highlight of our hikes was that I got to add a new bird to my life list. While spending some time near the “Nuthatch DMZ,” Dad was trying to get some pictures of the little birds on the sides of trees. We had been meandering along a deer path, and I noticed some movement in a small tree directly above Dad’s head. A set of yellow eyes turned and looked down at him.

In a hushed yell, I exclaimed, “DAD! There is an owl right above you!!!”

Literally, it was no more than six feet above Dad’s head. By the time Dad had turned to look, the owl had taken off. As soon as the owl flew, the chickadees, nuthatches, and even some redpolls were alerted to its presence. They went after him in hot pursuit, sounded their alarm, and surrounded the owl near the top of a cedar (they are the “woodland police” and will alert other birds to the presence of a predator, but they were clearly off their game because I saw the owl before they did!). The owl was easy to find, but hard to see in the deep cover.

This particular species was a boreal owl; a small, chunky owl of the northern forests that is hardly found anywhere in the lower 48 states. The boreal is perhaps no more than 10 inches tall with glowing yellow eyes. They are the cutest little things that wouldn't look out of place on "The Muppet Show." And this was the first one that Mom, Dad, and I had ever seen. A new life lister for all of us. We spent at least a couple of hours with the owl, Dad even longer. Dad was able to see that the owl had a mouse that it was eating. The fluffy owl eventually flew down to a lower branch where Dad could get some photos, and then it decided to take a post-dinner nap and couldn’t have cared less about our presence. How tremendously exciting!

I am already looking forward to my next trip up there in May, which will be the height of the warbler migration, possibly the most exciting season for bird watchers in Minnesota. Hopefully the snow will have melted by then! :)

Just a little bit of snow left on the ground in northern Minnesota!

Still more to come! I have to tell you about my run to town!

To be continued...
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