Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Owls in the Park

By Sharon Stiteler, Park Ranger with the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

Typically winter along the Mississippi River is a time of snowshoeing and ice fishing. Some of us may notice birds but long for May when the colorful migrants like Blackburnian and black-throated green warblers burst onto the scene as they head north to their breeding grounds. 

But believe it or not now is the beginning of the bird-breeding season in our park. 
Our earliest nesters are great horned owls…though a couple bald eagles are trying to give owls a run for their money this year if you check out the Minnesota DNR’s bald eagle nest cam. 
DNR eagle cam (the undisclosed location falls into the boundaries
of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area).

Starting in January you might start to hear the familiar “hoo ho ho hoooooo hooo hoo” of the great horned owl. If you hear that, you can be safe in the knowledge that great horneds are setting up territory. These owls can be found just about anywhere along the 72 mile stretch of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, even close to downtown Minneapolis. Good places to check them out include Lilydale Park, Coon Rapids Dam (occasionally one will nest in the heron rookery) and Pike Island. 

Great horned owl.
Great horned owls do not build their own nests but take over old large nests like an old red-tailed hawk nest or even a leafy squirrel nest. Sometimes when we do our spring bald eagle nest monitoring via aerial surveys we even find great horned owls have take over bald eagle nests. That’s pretty impressive when you consider that great horned average about three and a half pounds and bald eagles average ten pounds. But being smaller and more agile at night aids the great horned owl in earning its folk name of “tiger of the woods.”

Great horned owls are strict carnivores and only eat meat. They can afford to start nesting in midwinter because they are adept at capturing the locally available food that includes skunks, rats, rabbits and even other birds. Have you ever noticed the huge crow roost that gathers in downing Minneapolis at dusk? Crows roost together in large flocks to avoid being eaten by predators. Let’s face it, if you are one of 50,000 sleeping in trees barren of leaves, you are less likely to be the one eaten. 

However, great horneds still manage to pick off a few crows in the roost. Great horned owls have several rods in their eyeballs, more than cones. That means they can see despite the light being low but they do not see color very well. Also, their entire head is built for specialized hearing. If you look at their faces, the front of the head is shaped like a satellite dish, allowing it to “capture” the sound. The feathers on the face are short but very sensitive and studies show that the feather structures literally guide sounds to where their ear canals are located. Great horned owl ears are nestled beneath their feathers, but if you can burrow down and find the ear holes in the skull, you’ll notice the ears on either side of the head are uneven, this allows them to triangulate the sound of a mouse under a foot of snow when they bob their heads.

Even a great horned owl’s wings are incredible. Their primary wing feathers are bristled which breaks of the sounds of the “swooshing” with their wings flap. They are built to hunt in darkness when our park’s average daylight range in winter is about ten hours.

Apart from the feathers driving sounds of prey to their ears and hiding the sound of their flight, they are thick and downy, providing ample heat that makes them perfect at incubating eggs in winter. They are really ready to breed this time of year. So keep your ears peeled just after dusk for the familiar great horned owl. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

“The Once and Future River”: a Discussion You Won’t Want to Miss

Reblogged from Patrick Nunnally at the University of Minnesota's River Life.

Hold the dates of April 8-10, 2015 for the symposium “The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change,” to be held at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.  A preliminary program is on the symposium web page, where updates and registration information will be posted in the coming weeks.

The program begins Wednesday April 8 at 7:00 with a talk by Jim Rock, well-known Dakota scientist and educator.  Discussions continue all day Thursday and conclude Friday morning April 10.

We all know that there are many ways people make the Mississippi River part of their lives, whether through their work, as a subject of study, a place for recreation, or as that bit of nature we go to for healing and rejuvenation.  We rarely question what the Mississippi River really is, what it means (especially to people whose background is very different), or what its future will be.  Our imaginings of the Mississippi are often dormant, unquestioned, just “there,” like the river itself.

Climate change is changing the Mississippi, though, and, some think, changing the ways we ought to be thinking about it.  These are the conversations that will begin in April.  Sessions all feature speakers from academic disciplines as well as realms of practice not located in the academy.  We will hear from Dakota people, for whom the river has always been central to their concept of “home.”  We’ll see some innovative short films that are suggestive of the river’s future.  And we’ll have a chance to talk and learn with other passionate river people from across the region.

So–save those dates!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Wildlife Animal Cams: More than Cute Critters

It’s hard to resist a romp of otters.
Our park’s recent animal cam videos have gotten about a hundred and fifty thousand views, but there’s more to the story than adorable otters acting playful. Otters aren't your everyday LOL cats.
The videos show that our urban national park is home to many kinds of animals, including some wildlife most of us never get a chance to see close up. As Ranger Allie notes, “For coyote and river otter, two very intelligent and elusive carnivore species, seeing them in the wild is very rare since they usually avoid humans at all cost.”

Rangers study the videos to learn more about where and how animals live within the park, and see how animals interact with one another. As Ranger Allie explains, otters may rely on beavers to keep water open. The beavers shape the environment—building dams and lodges—and the otters take advantage of that beaver-improved environment.

Sometimes, trail cams offer clues about mysteries in the park, like a deer carcass or recently killed fox. Rangers Jordan and Neil set a trail cam to scope out what happens next with the fox.Watch this fox trail cam video

To rangers, the animal cams are remote infra-red motion triggered cameras. By any name, the animal cams require some skill and luck. Rangers have gone weeks without capturing any signs of wildlife. Other times, the cameras are spot on. Watch this heron video
Like the DNR’s popular Eagle Cams, our park’s animal cams connect people to wildlife. Maybe the videos will inspire you to get outside and explore. But if you go scouting for wildlife, take a tip from Ranger Allie and don’t get too close. “We try to interact as little as possible (with wildlife) and not return for a couple of weeks. We give them their space.” Watch this coyote video

From otters to heron to coyotes, it’s hard to resist seeing wild animals caught on camera. So we’ll keep the cameras rolling, and hope you keep on clicking.Watch rangers set up trail cams

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Art for water lovers

Earth Day Brilliance
by Cordelia Pierson
Main Street Mill Race
by Cordelia Pierson
Cordelia Pierson cares about water, so it’s natural that her new photo exhibit is all about rivers, lakes, waterfalls and even flooded streets. 

Pierson’s “Caring for Water” art is on display until February 21 at the First Congregational Church in south Minneapolis. (The church is usually open Tuesday through Friday, 10 am to 2 pm, but call the church at 612-331-3816 before visiting.)

Pierson’s photographs range from frost-rimmed scenes of the Mississippi river front to a stunning Lake Superior sunrise and seldom seen views of the watery tunnels under Main Street. Pierson does more than just snap pretty pictures of water. She’s spent years working on, and for, waters. At age 20, Pierson was one of a six-person crew that sailed across the Atlantic in a 43-foot yawl. 

City By Nature by Cordelia Pierson
These days, she’s executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Fund and also represents the metro area on the Minnesota Mississippi River Parkway Commission. She and other commissioners are working on a longterm plan for the river that will be complete this October. 
Fawn's Leap Creek by Cordelia Pierson

Pierson’s photos, including a flooded street scene called Fawn’s Leap Creek, help viewers make connections about water and our environment. She notes that rain drains directly into the Mississippi River through hidden storm water tunnels where creeks once flowed. “We can create places to absorb and clean the water, and for plants with names like butterfly plant and prairie smoke to thrive,” Pierson said.

East Channel Snake
by Cordelia Pierson
From a sinuous snow-covered rock to pre-tornado views of the heron rookery and boys launching a leaf boat, “Caring for Water” highlights the grace and power of a most essential element of our world.