Monday, April 27, 2015

Leap of Faith: Duckling Wonders

Post contributed by Kelsey Jennings, Conservation Corps Youth Outdoors Crew Member:

Remnants of a dump nest
I'm sure while walking along Lake Como, you have seen them: wooden boxes placed 10 or so feet offshore. Occasionally you'll see a male duck with iridescent plumage and white flares down his neck swimming around below them or sitting in the trees above. But, if you're really lucky, you'll see what I affectionately refer to as the "hatchling leap of faith." One by one,  7-15 ducklings jump from their warm nests into the cold spring water, only to return much later to have a nest of their own.

Wood ducks or Aix sponsa pair in late winter, with the females laying eggs in early spring. Typically, the females will lay anywhere between 10 and 20 eggs. However, if breeding pairs nest too close to one another, the females will lay eggs in both nests, a behavior called "nest dumping." In a nest dump, it is likely to have upwards of 40 eggs in a single nest, but amounts over 60 have been discovered. A nest that possesses this many eggs will likely be unsuccessfully incubated, and unless cleaned out, will not be used again.

Filling wood duck boxes with nesting material
During incubation, male wood ducks remain present to protect the female, but will abandon the clutch before the ducklings hatch.  In Minnesota, females lay their eggs in early-mid April,  with the ducklings typically hatching in May. Less than 24 hours after hatching, the mother will leave the nest and call to the babies from the water until all of the ducks have jumped. Wood ducks are unique from many other waterfowl in the way that they possess sharp claws used for perching in trees. These claws are needed for the ducklings to crawl from the bottom of the nest to the opening, which can be anywhere from a one to five foot climb.

Due to severe habitat loss and over-hunting in the 1800's, wood ducks and many other waterfowl species were virtually wiped out by the beginning of the 20th century. In 1918, the United States passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which outlawed the hunting and scavenging of over 800 migratory bird species, including the wood duck. Many species quickly rebounded to stable numbers, but the wood ducks still struggled due to expansive habitat destruction. The artificial wood duck house that we see today was implemented in the 1930's and provided a much needed boost to the population. Due to the continued efforts of natural resource officials and passionate landowners, the wood duck population has stabilized and they are now the second most commonly hunted duck in North America, behind the mallard.  If you are interested in implementing a wood duck house on your property, they are easy to assemble and plans can be found here: Although wood ducks prefer to nest near or over water, they will nest up to 1.5 miles away from a water source.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Como Park Bluebird Trail Update: April 23rd

Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer bluebird trail monitor:

Standard bluebird eggs
Unusual white bluebird eggs

The first eggs have been laid. The cherry trees are in bloom. A female bluebird flew out of one box as I approached and I found five blue eggs inside. Another box contained four white bluebird eggs. White bluebird eggs are less common, and may be a genetic trait associated with the female. This is not the first time white eggs have been laid on the Como Park trail.

Four more boxes contain completed bluebird nests. At one, I found a damaged pale blue egg on the ground. The nest inside was empty.

So far, no chickadees or tree swallows have moved in and five boxes remain empty.
Damaged egg

Monday, April 20, 2015

Ssssnakes in Saint Paul!

Post contributed by Ryan Manders, Conservation Corps of Minnesota Youth Outdoors Crew Member:

It is that time of year again, when each day is filled with anticipation. Anticipation for warmer days, for the first cardinal to fly by, for the first flower to bloom, or in our case for the first sighting of a snake. It was early April and after several days of varying high and low temperatures, I lifted my head to the yelling of “SNAKE!” I stopped what I was doing and began to run towards the newly formed circle of my coworkers. As I moved into the circle I was handed a common garter snake about 18 inches long. My eyes lit up and I began to smile as this was the first snake I have seen this year. 

Ryan Manders educating Youth Outdoors crew members on the garter snake they found at Lilydale Regional Park.
Having studied reptiles and amphibians in school, I began talking to all of the local high school students working with us at Lilydale Regional Park and explaining some interesting facts about them. Being cold blooded animals, they use the sun to warm themselves up and give them more energy and as they have been hibernating all winter, they seemed quite cold and sluggish yet. As all the students were getting the chance to hold the snake we watched its tongue flicker in and out of its mouth. As they do this, their tongues pick up chemicals in the air which they use to help find prey and detect predators.

Lilydale Regional Park
While we were standing there we found another snake and a couple more about an hour later. This is not surprising to find them so close together for this time of year because garter snakes will hibernate in large groups, possibly hundreds in one den. They will do this to help conserve their body temperature as they all coil up around each other. As the students finished up their photo session with the snakes, we released them back by a fallen tree and watched them disappear into the leaf litter.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Como Park Bluebird Trail Update: April 16th

Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer bluebird trail monitor:

Male and female bluebird in the park
Magnolia near Como Lily Pond
There are four completed bluebird nests on the trail, and two more under construction. One box has just a small amount of nesting materials inside, and four are still empty and awaiting occupants. Bluebirds were singing and pink and white magnolias were in bloom. Last week’s suspected house sparrow nest was not! I checked it again a few days ago and found it had become a lovely bluebird nest. Next week promises to be colder, so it is a good thing no one has laid any eggs yet.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Burn Season in Saint Paul

Post contributed by Brett Stolpestad, Conservation Corps of Minnesota, Youth Outdoors Crew Member:
Photo by Brett Stolpestad - Prescribed fire at Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary
Spring has arrived, and so has the prescribed fire season. As the ground thaws, the cool soil hosts the growth of a variety of familiar plant species in Minnesota. Unfortunately, many of the species we have come to know are invasive.

Crab grass, smooth brome, burdock, garlic mustard, motherwort, and reed canary grass, are just a few among many cool-season weed species in Minnesota that are the first to break through the soil in the spring. This is primarily because many of Minnesota’s invasive species require lower soil temperatures to be able to grow.

Photo by Brett Stolpestad
Thankfully, this problem has a relatively simple and natural solution. Fire. Prescribed fire is an effective management technique, controlling invasive species and promoting growth for native species. Fire accomplishes this in several ways. First, fire knocks back the progress of invasive species. Second, the burned plant material adds nutrients back to the soil for native species to use. Third, after a fire has moved through an area, the blackened surface of the soil is able to absorb more radiant heat from the sun, increasing soil temperatures, giving native species a much-appreciated boost.

On March 19th, Saint Paul Natural Resources staff kicked-off the burn-season near Lake Phalen. In addition to a larger Lake Phalen restoration project, Saint Paul staff took the lead on a prescribed fire designed to burn approximately three acres of oak savanna on the northwest side of the lakeshore, with the goal of further transitioning the area to a true oak savanna. 

Two days later, the Saint Paul Natural Resources team led a small group of volunteers on another prescribed burn at Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. Once an old train yard, Bruce Vento is now host to a variety of native grasses including little blue stem and native switch grass. Bruce Vento is also host to a variety of invasive and weedy species such as spotted knapweed, sweet clover, and non-native brome.

Photo by Brett Stolpestad - New growth emerging a few weeks after prescribed burn
Within three weeks of completing the prescribed burns at Bruce Vento, visitors can now observe the invigorating sight of new green grasses covering the blackened patches of soil.