Thursday, November 6, 2014

Frosty Feathers: How to help out Minnesota's winter birds

Post contributed Meredith, Conservation Corps of Minnesota crew leader:

As Minnesota transitions from fall to winter (that’s right, it’s happening) we here at Conservation Corps have been lucky to witness many seasonal changes as we go about our work in the city parks. Piles of red and orange leaves, squirrels stashing walnuts and over-wintering birds busy in the trees around us.  As fall colors start to fade and winter’s grays, whites and browns set in its important for us Northern dwelling humans to look for the beauty in these upcoming winter months.  For many, the splendor of winter is glaringly apparent when watching a resident chickadee or cardinal flit around a backyard feeder.  Many bird species endure Minnesota winters along with us and just as they bring cheer to our winter months we can be of service to them as well.
Black Capped Chickadee, a Minnesota winter resident
There are many challenges that resident birds (birds that do not migrate south) face during the winter. Sure, birds don’t have to shovel the driveway but they do have to stay warm, find food, and find water which can often be scarce during the winter.

Birds have a few ways of staying toasty in colder temperatures. Many birds fluff up the layer of feathers closest to their skin, also called down feathers, to trap warm air close to their body. Species that are social, like Black-Capped Chickadees, will roost in colonies to take advantage of each other's body heat. We can provide comfy roosting spots by cleaning out old nests and bedding from bird houses and replacing it with dry leaves or wood shavings.  Sawdust retains water so it is not a good choice for birdhouse bedding. It is also good to seal ventilation holes in bird houses, which are important on a hot summer day, but can be detrimental to birds trying to stay warm in the winter.
Downy Woodpecker, another winter resident
Providing food for birds in your backyard can be helpful as well.  Many people already have tube feeders in their yards but there are other ways to cater to your neighborhood bird’s appetite.  High calorie foods like meat scraps, suet (fat rendered from processed beef), and peanut butter can give birds important high caloric fats to sustain them through the winter. Coating a pine cone in peanut butter and then sprinkling it with a bird seed mixture and hanging it by string from a tree branch is an easy way to provide a meal to winter birds.

A bird bath heater is an option to keep liquid water available for birds throughout the winter. This is particularly important if it is below freezing and there is no snow on the ground that birds can use as a water source. Bird Watcher’s Digest suggests placing several rocks in your bird bath if you are heating it in the winter to keep birds from actually bathing in the bath.  When birds get wet at below freezing temperatures their feathers can freeze solid which can be deadly for them. Allowing enough room in your bath for birds to drink but not bathe is important.

We hope that as you prepare yourself for winter you also think about doing something Minnesota’s (winter) feathered friends! Please visit these sites for additional info about winter bird necessities!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Bad Business for the Bats

Post contributed by Mary, Conservation Corps Youth Outdoors crew member:

As night time temperatures drop below 50 degrees, it is time for bats to hibernate. With hibernation, however, comes a new danger – White-nose syndrome (WNS). WNS is a bat disease that has been rapidly spreading across the United States and Canada. It is a skin infection caused by a fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which develops over the bats wings, ears and muzzles during hibernation restricting their breathing. This causes the bats to awaken from their deep hibernation sleep, which in turn causes them to rapidly deplete their fat stores before winter’s end resulting in death from starvation. Some bats appear to die directly from the infection as well, so the exact cause of this rapid death is still unclear. WNS, which is thought to have been brought from Europe to a cave in New York eight years ago, has spread to 25 states and five Canadian provinces decimating bat populations. If WNS infects a cave it can wipe out over 90% of the bat population. Bat populations cannot recover quickly from losses such as this because bats usually lead long lives and have only one pup a year.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via flickr
There are seven species of bats in Minnesota, four of which hibernate as opposed to migrate and are therefore susceptible to WNS. All four of these species, Little Brown Myotis, Northern Long-Eared Myotis, Tri-Color Bat, and Big Brown bat, have been affected by the disease in eastern states. The fungus associated with WNS has been found in two Minnesota caves, Mystery cave and the Soudan mine, but so far bat populations have remained healthy. We hope the 2014/2015 winter will bring the same results because bats are essential to Minnesota’s ecosystems and agriculture and their disappearance could be detrimental. Bats are one of the only predators of night flying insects and consume them in huge numbers. A female caring for her young can eat her weight in insects in one night. Bats help keep down numbers of insect pests who can damage crops, prairies and forests, and not to mention are a nuisance to humans.

We can all help slow the spread of WNS by reporting to the Minnesota DNR any bats that you see flying during the day in the winter; a sign that they have woken up from hibernation and may be looking for food. It is also a good idea to not enter any caves where bats are hibernating as not to disturb them or possibly spread the disease which is thought to enter caves on the shoes and gear of spelunkers. If you do go in a cave make sure to wash your clothes, gear and shoes before and after entering. 

Want to know more?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Bluebird Trail Winding Down

Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer bluebird trail monitor:

Five one-week old bluebirds
All is well on the trail this week. The eight week-old bluebirds occupying two boxes appear quite content and healthy. I did not open the box containing five close-to-fledging bluebirds, but caught a glimpse of a beak poking up towards the entrance hole from inside as I passed by. The rest of the boxes remain empty and I will soon remove them, to clean and store them for next spring.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

All is Well on the Trail

Young male bluebird out on his own!
Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer bluebird trail monitor:

Only three boxes are occupied now on the trail. In those boxes are a total of 13 healthy young bluebirds (five over a week old, and eight recently hatched). The other eight nest boxes remain empty.

Ants had moved into the box with the unused bluebird nest inside it, so I removed the nest (and some ants). Since no new bluebird eggs had been laid in the nest where the four eggs disappeared last week, I removed that nest also.

I was pleased to come upon a speckled young male bluebird perched in a little tree near one of the occupied boxes.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Week of the Disappearing Eggs

Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer bluebird trail monitor:

Five bluebirds hatched recently. There were no new fledgings or eggs laid in the past week.
Gorgeous tall grass prairie in bloom,
site of Gilbertson nest box occupied by bluebirds
Unfortunately, there has been a reduction in the number of bluebird eggs on the trail. Four bluebird eggs disappeared without a trace from one box—the nest inside was completely undisturbed and clean. It could be the work of house wrens, though the box is not located near a brushy area (typical house wren habitat).

There are still eight bluebird eggs in two other boxes.

The last tree swallow nest filled with feathers turned out to be empty—no eggs, no birds, no mess—used tree swallow nests end up very messy by the time the young birds fledge. There definitely were eggs in there earlier, but they never hatched—this nest was pristinely clean. The phantom yellow beak in the photograph from two weeks ago must have been the thick blade of yellow grass I discovered when I removed the empty nest. What happened? Perhaps house wrens removed these eggs, too.

Eight boxes are now unoccupied.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Record Numbers on Como Park Bluebird Trail!

Four new bluebird eggs
Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer bluebird trail monitor:

Three more bluebirds fledged in the past week (19 total) and there are now 17 bluebird eggs in four nest boxes. If all goes well, this year’s totals could be the second highest in the six years the trail has existed. Sadly, I found two young bluebirds dead of unknown cause in the box where the other three fledged.

I did not open the last tree swallow box since the young birds may be too near to fledging.

There are now five empty boxes. Two had small amounts of nesting materials probably belonging to house sparrows, which I removed. Another had a pair of bluebirds defending it, who will hopefully soon build another nest inside. The last box has an empty bluebird nest in it.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Bluebirds Begin Second Round of Nesting!

5 new bluebird eggs
Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer bluebird trail monitor:

In the past week nine more bluebirds fledged (16 total so far this year). There are five bluebirds who will likely fledge in the next week, and a new nest with five blue eggs (the first eggs of “Nesting Round 2”). The bluebird nest that contained a cowbird egg (and no bluebird eggs) was empty this week—no egg at all!

Tree swallow nest,
note the yellow beak on the right
At least four and up to seven tree swallows fledged in the past week. The remaining active tree swallow nest, the one I was unable to see into last week, was still very difficult to see into this week. My camera captured what appears to be a yellow beak, and the box felt warm inside, so I am sure there is life in there, but I don’t know how many birds. Could be up to five.

Six boxes are now empty and ready for new nests. One formerly empty box had a small amount of nesting material inside that may belong to a house sparrow.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Como Park Bluebird Trail Update: June 25th

Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer bluebird trail monitor:

Seven bluebirds and one chickadee fledged in the past week. Two boxes are now empty and another has what may be a new bluebird nest on top of the old one. The bluebird nest with the cowbird egg in it remains the same—no bluebird eggs have been laid, so perhaps the bluebirds got wise to the intruder and went elsewhere. If there is no change in the cowbird egg by next week, I will remove it and the nest.

In four other boxes there are 14 more bluebirds. I did not open three of the boxes since the young birds are too near to fledging.

The remaining three boxes have tree swallows in them. Two, I did not open, but as I passed I could see two tree swallow heads poking out in one, and another in the second. I could not see into the third box for all the feathers. There were no parents defending the nest, and as far as I can tell, the mother was not camouflaged inside. Perhaps next week will provide a clearer view. If not, a little probing may be in order. (This is the box that was being vandalized two weeks ago.)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Nasty Neonicotinoids: Problematic for Pollinators

Post contributed by Mary, crew member of Youth Outdoors Crew 2:

This week is national pollinator week! It was created to celebrate and support pollinating animals, which include bees, butterflies, bats, beetles, flies, birds, small mammals and more.  Pollinators are essential members of every ecosystem and help 90% of flowering plants reproduce including a third of crops worldwide. With increased chemical use, pathogens, and disappearing habitat and food sources, pollinator populations have been in decline and they need our help.
You can celebrate pollinator week by planting native flowering plants in your gardens and choosing not to use pesticides that are harmful to the bees and butterflies. Neonicotinoids are a widely used family of insecticides, most commonly applied to ornamental plants in urban gardens to target aphids and beetles.  They are systemic in plants so when they are added to the soil, the plant takes it up as it grows and it is incorporated into the leaves, flowers, pollen, and nectar. Thus, if it is used in a nursery and then transported to your garden, the insecticide will still be active in the plant and can even enter neighboring plants or plants grown the next season. Neonicotinoids affect the nervous system and attack connections in the brain, which can lead to problems with navigation, flying, ability to learn new tasks, and general foraging ability.  Bees are especially vulnerable to neonicotinoids because they have more of the targeted receptors and more memory and learning genes than other insects. It has also been found that exposure to neonicotinoids may make bees more susceptible to parasites and pathogens. Making sure you purchase plants from nurseries that do not use neonicotinoids is incredibly important for the health of bees and ecosystems in general.

The European Union has suspended the use of certain neonicotinoids for a period of two years due to the effects they are having on bees. The EPA is re-evaluating the use of neonicotinoids through registration review, but has made no new restrictions yet.
To learn more:

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Nestlings Galore!

Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer bluebird trail monitor:
Tree swallow nest with 5 eggs
All eleven nest boxes are in use this week. A new bluebird nest was made in the past week in the empty box, for a total of seven boxes occupied by bluebirds. However, in that new nest is one speckled cowbird egg.

There are 21 bluebirds of all ages in six other boxes. I did not open two of those boxes, because the nestlings are old enough that opening the box might startle them into fledging too soon.

I also did not open the nest box with the chickadee inside for the same reason.

Four over-a-week old bluebirds
Three other boxes contain eight tree swallows over a week old, and five tree swallow eggs (in the box that was under attack last week; they appear unharmed, and the mother swallow flew out as I approached). One of the tree swallow nests had previously been stuck to the nest box door, so I’ve opened it very, very carefully each week. This week, I barely opened it a sliver, and saw two tree swallow nestlings, their beaks against the door, ready to tumble out if I opened it any wider.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Disturbance on the Bluebird Trail

Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer bluebird trail monitor:

Four recently hatched bluebirds, one in mid-gape
Many more bluebirds hatched in the past week. In six boxes, there are a total of 16 young bluebirds (seven, a week old or older, and nine, under a week old). Seven blue eggs have yet to hatch. Parent bluebirds are busy finding insects to feed their growing youngsters.
The cowbird in the chickadee nest fledged and is likely out pestering its parent chickadees for food. Left in the nest is one chickadee, maybe a week old, one unviable chickadee egg, and one unviable cowbird egg. The other five chickadee eggs disappeared. Hopefully, the parent birds will be able to feed both their hungry cowbird fledgling and chickadee nestling.

One box remains empty.

The other three boxes are occupied by tree swallows and contain eight young tree swallows and three tree swallow eggs.

At the end of the trail, at the tree swallow nest box nearest the Como Visitor Center entrance, I witnessed a very disturbing scene. Several poorly-supervised young boys were gathered around the nest box and jerking its post back and forth. They were part of a very large group of preschool- to kindergarten-aged children picnicking on the grass. I told them to stop and explained why, but I’m afraid it fell upon deaf ears as they then moved on to terrorize a young chipmunk in a nearby tree. The chipmunk was nearly stomped to death by a toddler as it ran for cover to a wooded area nearby. All the while, the mother bird was inside, nestled on her three eggs, braving the storm and commotion, protecting her offspring.

Two bluebirds, over a week old

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Bluebirds Hatching!

Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer Bluebird Trail monitor:

Bluebirds, three days old or less
The first young birds have hatched on the trail. Six boxes contain six young bluebirds and 18 bluebird eggs. Both nests with recently-hatched bluebirds also contain an unhatched egg—one is likely unviable, one may simply not have hatched yet—it is too soon to tell.

The chickadee/cowbird nest box contains one large fast-developing cowbird and at least one tiny chickadee that I could see. A parent chickadee scolded from a nearby tree.

Tree swallows now occupy three boxes and have laid a total of 11 white eggs in their beautiful feather-lined nests.

Only one box still remains empty, though several bluebirds were in the area.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Buzz about Bees

Post contributed by Mary, Conservation Corps Youth Outdoors Co-leader:

This week, the youth working for Conservation Corps Youth Outdoors program are planning their end of term youth lead service project, which will take place the last Saturday in May. One crew has decided to plant a bee garden at Stryker Garden in West St. Paul. Both colonized and native bees all over America are in decline for reasons that are not entirely clear and the youth are doing their part to help the struggling bees by providing them with pollen producing native wildflowers.
Honey bees, which were brought over to the US from Europe in the 1600s, have been suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder which is thought to be caused by a multitude of factors such as disease, parasites, pesticides, decrease in habitat and foraging areas, higher work load, and stress. These are the bees that produce our honey and pollinate about a third of the plants we eat, but there are also nearly 4,000 species of native, North American bees whose populations are also decreasing. Native bees have been especially affected by a loss of habitat and a decrease in available food sources. Huge monoculture farms will produce ample food for a few weeks, but without plants blooming the whole season the bees will starve. By planting a watermelon patch alongside wildflowers, the Phalen Youth Outdoors crew aims to provide nectar and pollen that will feed bees all season long.

Wildflowers are already starting to pop up all over Saint Paul Parks as the bees emerge from their winter homes. The parks provide a great habitat for bees but everyone can help our native bees by planting flowers at home as well. Planting a bee garden is simple and can make a huge difference for the bees. Even a small plot of land increases their habitat and promotes a healthier ecosystem. It is important to plant a variety of flowers that will bloom at different times during the growing season. Bees also prefer single head flowers, as those are easier to access the nectar and pollen.

To learn more about bees, check out these sources:

Incubating time on the Blue Bird Trail

Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer Blue Bird Trail monitor:

Feather-lined tree swallow nest with 4 eggs
Two boxes are empty now after I removed small amounts of moss and grass that had been sitting untouched for two weeks. The house sparrow pair gave up and moved elsewhere after I cleared their nest last week, and that box is now occupied by bluebirds.

I could count six chickadee eggs and two cowbird eggs in the chickadee nest. Last week, I saw seven chickadee eggs. It is very possible that seventh egg is hiding out of view of my camera. I use a small camera to see into each nest in the Peterson-style boxes on the trail, because the boxes are mounted above my eye level.

The cowbird eggs may hatch as early as tomorrow. Depending on when the chickadee began incubating her eggs, it could be as late as next Wednesday before the chickadee eggs begin to hatch. That would be bad news for the young chickadees, as they would be so much smaller than the cowbirds and could easily be trampled or smothered. If the parent birds are busy feeding cowbirds before their own eggs hatch, I wonder if incubation would even be able to proceed successfully?

Tree swallows have laid seven white eggs in two boxes.

The number of bluebird-occupied nest boxes held steady this week at six, even though that new nest was made in the former house sparrow box—one nest I had identified last week as a sparsely-made bluebird nest actually belonged to tree swallows! There are now a total of 19 bluebird eggs in these boxes.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bluebird Nesting is Underway!

Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer Como Park bluebird trail monitor:

Seven chickadee eggs and two cowbird eggs
Three bluebird eggs
All but three boxes contain completed nests this week. House sparrows continue to attempt to nest in one box, and two other boxes have only small amounts of nesting materials inside.

There are six bluebird nests, one with three eggs and one with five. Incubation of the eggs has begun, as both mother birds flew out when I “knocked” before opening their boxes. Incubation lasts for about two weeks.

There is one chickadee nest with seven chickadee eggs and two cowbird eggs. Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Both of these species’ eggs are speckled, but cowbird eggs are significantly larger than chickadee eggs. Unfortunately, I was unable to add a hole reducer to this box, which would have prevented the larger cowbird female from entering to lay her eggs. The original entrance hole had been enlarged just enough to make attaching the reducer impossible. Cowbirds develop faster than chickadees and bluebirds, and will likely hatch before their nestmates, putting the young chickadees at a disadvantage.

Tree swallows occupy one box, and have already laid three eggs. As I approached, a tree swallow poked its head out of the hole to see what was going on, as they often do.

Wary tree swallow

Friday, May 16, 2014

Getting our Feet Wet with Wood Ducks!

Post contributed by Ben from Conservation Corps of Minnesota Youth Outdoors crew #1:

Preparing wood duck houses for
the nesting season
Last Friday because of my leaky waders, I was able to quite literally, “get my feet wet” working with the wood duck houses at Lake Como. There are six small wooden houses filled with cedar bedding (like you find in a gerbil cage) just off shore all along Lake Como that are utilized by wood ducks (Aix sponsa) for nesting and laying eggs during the breeding season. The crew and I had the task to get into the water and clean the houses out and prepare them for the upcoming egg laying season. Some ducks got a head start on us though, for we found two houses already filled with 7+ eggs and one with a surprised mama duck!

Working with these houses got me thinking about how cool and unique wood ducks are in the waterfowl world. The common name alone, “Wood Duck” gives you a clue to one interesting aspect of the bird. The wood duck has a special relationship with wood. Wood ducks are the only North American member of the “Perching Duck” group, meaning a duck that is equipped to readily perch in a tree because of the strong claws they have on their feet to help them climb in trees. Another unique characteristic of the wood duck is that the females lay their eggs high up in tree cavities (newly hatched ducklings may jump from over 200 feet up without injury) or when natural tree cavities are scarce, they utilize man made houses like the ones at Lake Como!

Here are a couple other interesting nesting facts about the wood duck. Because ducklings are raised in the water and not the nest, wood ducks prefer to nest close to water but they may lay their eggs over a mile away from the nearest water source. Wood ducks are also the only North American duck that regularly produce two broods (group of bird offspring) in one year. Finally, females that do not have a nesting site may practice, “nest dumping”, where they lay their eggs in a mature female’s established nesting site with the hopes that her eggs will be taken care of. This is usually a last resort because this behavior usually results in a lower success rate of the new hatchlings.

The eggs that we found in the houses should hatch, at the latest, in June (wood duck eggs incubate for around 30 days), so be on the lookout for some ducklings next time you are walking, biking or relaxing by Lake Como!

We also LOVE this video of wood duck ducklings leaving the nest...enjoy!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Como Park Bluebird Trail Update: May 14th

Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer Bluebird Trail monitor:

A lovely spring day on the trail. The sun was shining, orioles were singing, and little warblers searched for insects in the park. Wildflowers are in bloom in the woodland. Many school children were also out enjoying the park.
Bluebird nest from side
Bluebird nest with egg

Corydalis and Pennsylvania sedge

There are six bluebird nests in all stages of development—one even had one blue egg inside. Three other boxes contain a completed chickadee nest, a little bit of moss, and a small amount of nesting material (not enough to identify the type of bird yet). I removed a well-built house sparrow nest from another box, and left some material in the last box, which may or may not be the beginning of another house sparrow nest.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Wild Sumac in Spring!

Post contributed by Meredith, Conservation Corps Youth Outdoors Crew Leader:

This week, after a seemingly un-ending winter, the Conservation Corps Youth Outdoors crews have finally noticed some signs of spring in the Saint Paul parks! Cardinals have been singing, grass has been greening, and buds have been emerging.  During our time in the parks this week we noticed a particularly special plant showing signs of spring.  It stumped us at first.  We noticed slender, singular twigs emerging from the snow covered ground.  These twigs were covered in a fine down-like material and the middle was a white, spongy wood.  A few days later we noticed that these branches had something very familiar to us emerging from their tips, a conic clump of small red berries! Do you know what we were seeing?
Have you seen it in our parks?  Wild Sumac is a deciduous small tree or shrub that grows about 25 feet tall and has a broad, open crown. It forms dense patches of male or female plants which have alternately pinnately compound leaves.  Wild Sumac is native to the Eastern United States and the Midwest and is planted ornamentally in all temperate regions of the world.  Check out this USGS map of the native range of Rhus typhina. Rhus typhina berries serve as important food source for many game birds, song birds and mammals and was shown to be a significant food source for moose on Isle Royal, Michigan. Besides its visual beauty and interest sumac is also edible and can be used as a dye.  Check out this recipe for sumac lemonade!
We hope you are enjoying the start of spring as much as we are!

Como Park Bluebird Trail Up and Running!

Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer bluebird trail monitor:

Gilbertson nest box
New Peterson nest box
Ten of the eleven nest boxes on the Como Park Bluebird Trail are now up and awaiting occupants. We added two Gilbertson design boxes this year and two new Peterson design ones. The Gilbertson boxes detach completely, allowing a view of the nest from the top. There will be no hanging boxes as in past years; all are mounted on posts with predator guards attached. These are much easier to monitor.

Many bluebirds were in the park today, singing, sparring, and catching insects, but they’ve not yet begun to build their nests. House sparrows did begin a nest in one box; I removed those materials.
A male and female pair search for insects

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Getting Ready for Spring!

Post contributed by Matt, Conservation Corps Youth Outdoors Crew Leader:
Youth Outdoors crew member planting
native seeds in the hoop house
With the spring thaw finally coming, it’s time to start planting again!  For the past few weeks the Conservation Corps of Minnesota (CCM) has been working on removing common buckthorn, red mulberry, honeysuckle and other invasive plants from the Saint Paul Parks and Recreation (SPPR) park system.  Now that the weather is getting warmer, CCM and SPPR will start planting native plant species to replace the invasive plants that have been removed.  This is an important step in the restoration process because it guards against erosion and helps native plants establish themselves in an area.
To get an early start on this the CCM has been helping SPPR with preparing sugar maple, purple prairie clover and a variety of native Minnesota prairie grass seeds for planting.  Both youth and adult CCM crews worked to separate and clean seeds that had been collected from the Saint Paul Park System and then plant them in trays to get ready for final planting in the parks.  The youth involved in this project had a great opportunity to learn about how native plants are essential for conserving our water resources and preventing erosion.  Over the course of two days the CCM prepared and planted 532 sugar maple seeds, 490 purple prairie clover seeds and 1062 prairie grass seeds in starter trays.

Mixture of native prairie grass seeds
The Minnesota prairie grass seeds and the purple prairie clover will both be used to augment and restore natural prairie area within the Saint Paul parks system.  Minnesota once had 18 million acres of prairie land but this has dwindled down to 150,000 acres.  Prairies help Minnesota's water cycle with their deep root systems and provide a natural habitat for native animals.  Native prairie plants come in a wide array of shapes sizes and colors so they add a great aesthetic to our park system as well.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Woodpeckers in the Park

Post contributed by Christine, Conservation Corps of Minnesota crew member:

This past week, the Corps crews have been working at Hidden Falls Regional Park, clearing invasive species.  The weather has been warm and cold as spring teases us, but even as temperatures fluctuate, we have been hearing many different species of birds.  We have been hearing chickadees, cardinals, and most commonly woodpeckers.

Pileated woodpecker
Woodpeckers are fascinating birds.  There are about 2 dozen species of woodpeckers in the United States.  The pileated is the largest bird in the US, and the downy is the most common. Woodpeckers have all kinds of specializations to aid their strange pecking habits.  First, their skull is reinforced and structured to spread the impact force to prevent headaches from constant pecking.  That is good news for woodpeckers, because they do a lot of pecking: woodpeckers can peck up to 20 times per second, or a total of 8,000-12,000 pecks per day.  They also have zygodactyl feet, which means two toes face forward and two backward.  This arrangement helps them grip trees as they forage for food.  They also have incredibly long tongues used for grabbing the insects from the holes they peck.  Some species have tongues as long as four inches!  Their tongues are barbed so that their food sticks.  As they create holes in trees, wood particles fly off, but they have bristly feathers that lay over their nostrils to ensure that no debris clogs their airways. 
Male downy woodpecker

Look for signs of woodpeckers this spring. Rectangular holes in downed trees are characteristic of Pileated woodpeckers foraging for grubs.  Keep your eye out for Downy woodpeckers with chickadees and nuthatches, as they participate in mixed flock dynamics.  These special birds are always a sight to see.

More interesting links:

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Homeward Bound

Post contributed by Nick Kiecker, volunteer Greenhouse Assistant and blog writer:
February is nearing its end, and one of the oldest-used indicators of impending spring and warmer weather is the arrival of migratory birds. New technology helps scientists keep an eye on where birds are moving using tools like this Ohio State University composite radar map, which shows bird movement in real time. I contacted my former bird science professor, Dr. Robert Zink, the Breckenridge Chair in Ornithology at the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum of Natural History, to ask a few questions about returning birds.

           Nick: Is there a species of bird whose return you consider to be indicative of spring?

             Dr. Zink: Horned Larks are one of the first. But the “fee-bee” call of the Black-capped Chickadee beginning in January is a reminder of spring to come.

           Nick: What are some resources for information of the return on Minnesota migratory birds in particular?

            Dr. Zink: eBird and the Minnesota Ornithologist's Union.

            Nick: What bird's call do you most enjoy hearing upon its return to Saint Paul?

            Dr. Zink: All of them.

            For Saint Paul residents who share Dr. Zink's and my own passion for birds, a wealth of online resources allow citizens to contribute data on local birds. Some of this data is used for research projects performed by scientists and ecologists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cornell's ornithology program leads the nation, and in 2002, with the National Audubon Society, they launched eBird, an online data submission service, which “provides rich data sources for basic information on bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales”. Natural areas depend on birds to distribute seeds and pollen among plant communities, so the importance of knowing which species are where is crucial to ecosystem studies. If your interest is peaked by the opportunity to do real science while watching birds, consider participating in eBird or the Minnesota Ornithologist's Union's rare bird reporting hot line, or even becoming a member.

            I took a walk at the Battle Creek Regional Park off-leash area with my dog, Zip, and heard a bird I couldn't identify. Can you? Later that day I saw a robin, and smiled at knowing that spring is near. Here's looking forward to those warm mornings waking up to dense birdsong!

Nick Kiecker is a Greenhouse Assistant volunteer with Saint Paul Natural Resources who also lends his pen and expertise by submitting regular contributions to our blog. If you are interested in volunteering or writing for our blog, please visit

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

2013 in a Nutshell!

Post contributed by Anna Hersh, Seasonal Natural Resources Technician:

It has been a busy year for the Saint Paul Parks and Recreation Environmental Services Team! We wanted to share with you some of our accomplishments from 2013. None of this would be possible without our hardworking staff, volunteers, and grant partners.

Because of the dedication of wonderful nature-loving volunteers, we logged 3,580 volunteer hours (1,500 volunteers). That is the equivalent to 1.72 full-time employees!

Volunteers hard at work planting native grasses and 
forbs at Bruce Venture Nature Sanctuary during our 
National Public Land’s Day volunteer event.

In coordination with partnering organizations, we used approximately $650,000 in grants and donations, including $80,000 of in-kind professional labor, to maintain natural areas in Saint Paul.

Part of the restoration work that we did at the ponds of Phalen Golfcourse 
with grant money from Ramsey Conservation District.
We employed and educated 22 Youth Job Corps members in the Eco-Ranger program curriculum and directed another 48 youth in the Youth Outdoors program, in partnership with the Conservation Corps of Minnesota.
One of the EcoRanger Academy crews tuning their bikes 
as they head to the park they are working in for the day.

We also planted approximately 7,600 trees and shrubs, 20,000 native grasses and flowers and 68,000 floodplain tree seeds.
Just a fraction of the thousands of native seeds and plants that we spread throughout Saint Paul's natural areas in 2013.

Finally, we burned a total of 13 acres at 7 sites.  In partnership with Public Works, we were able to successfully burn 4,250 lineal feet of native grass median along Phalen Boulevard.

A prescribed burn at the Phalen Park Wetland.

We have had a very productive year and look forward to many more to come! Thank you all for your dedication and support, but mostly, thank you for using and appreciating the parks in Saint Paul.