The Outside World, In and Around Duluth


Eagle Hunting Mallard

A couple of months ago, I saw a mature bald eagle hunt and finally catch a mallard in the water. It was pretty cool to see, and I didn’t figure I’d get to see anything like that again soon. I was mistaken.

During this year’s Brrrrdathon (supporting the Friends of Sax Zim Bog), I had the chance to see – almost – that entire scene played out again.



White-Throated Sparrow

This one was intent on picking caterpillars, so my proximity didn’t seem to mean much to it at all.

White Throated Sparrow

Boreal Owl Along Lester River

There have been a lot of reports of an owl irruption in Duluth lately.

For quite a while, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled, and finally, I was rewarded with this Boreal Owl that was hunting along the Lester River:

Boreal Owl 1

It flew right over me and was obviously listening for something:

Boreal Owl 2

I managed to take a lot of bad pictures (the camera can’t tell the difference between a tree branch and an owl), but at least these two came out all right.

Finally, the owl decided that whatever it was hearing had hunkered down, and it flew off.

I haven’t seen many owls, so this was a special treat.

Common Redpoll

poll (noun): the top of the head

And this one had a bright red poll, indeed.

It’s fun to see birds returning, after having been absent for the past six to eight months.

Pine Grosbeak

This female pine grosbeak apparently hit our window and died. I was able to find it before the dog did, thank goodness.

It’s interesting how she still has bits of crabapple on her bill from our tree.

The pine grosbeak is the largest of the finches, and their bill certainly fits their name: grosbeak. When you consider that pine siskins, with their needle bills are part of the same family, it’s pretty cool to see the range of adaptation within the same family of birds.

I wish I knew more about birds to know what other interesting things I could be looking for when I have one up close like this.

On the Prowl for Snowy Owls

The snowy owls have descended from the tundra.


I’m not a hardcore birder, but I do think it would be pretty neat to see a snowy owl, and this sounds like it would be the year to see one.

The word on the street was that owls were being reliably seen around the old Interstate Bridge under the Blatnik bridge and also near the Aerial Lift bridge in Canal Park.

Here’s the old Interstate Bridge, at the far end of Garfield Ave:

Bridge to Nowhere

[Here’s a nice article about the history of this bridge:]

I had also heard that some folks had seen otters down around the pilings at the far end, so if I was lucky, I might see fur and feathers!

There was no one else around. Temperatures were around 5°F, and it was breezy. Sure – who else would want to be out on a day like this?

First, I walked out to check the ice. It was heaved and variable, so walking too far out was out of the question. This was on the St. Louis River, and although I didn’t figure there was a lot of flow under the ice, ships were still coming in and out of the port, so the ice was getting pushed around pretty regularly. So instead, I followed the shoreline for a while just to see what was around.

Found a jawbone and these leg bones. Based on the teeth in the nearby jaw, I’d say these was from a deer:

Leaking Bones

This part of town is very industrial, and there are only a few places you can go where you don’t feel like you might be trespassing. Eventually, I headed out onto the bridge itself.

At the very end of the old Interstate Bridge, the only birds I saw were pigeons. And since I was seeing pigeons, that meant that there probably weren’t any owls around. The pigeons were mostly roosting up in all the nooks and crannies of the structure of the bridge:

Except for this one – I’ve got to say – it made me strangely happy to see this pigeon choosing to hang out on the ice:

It didn’t seem as though it were finding food, and it was obviously very exposed. Maybe this was a pigeon who wouldn’t be around for very long, but for the moment, we were simpatico.

I ambled around for a while, but never saw any owls (or otters). Oh well.

Since Canal Park was en route to home, I swung by there to check things out briefly.

There were crowds of goldeneye ducks:

Note the difference in the ice level and the waterline. Lake Superior is down.

As I came around under the bridge, I was quite surprised to see a crowd of birdwatchers. I consider my birdwatching to be a pleasant diversion – I certainly make no claim to being hardcore about it. On the other hand, there I was, out on a cold and breezy day, camera in hand and looking for a bird…

You can see a couple of the real birders in the corner of this picture:

Those are mostly mallards and goldeneye in the above picture, but I guess the birders were looking for some glaucous-winged gulls – a saltwater bird very far from its normal range. They’ve been reported down in the canal park area for a while. I’m obviously not a serious birder, since the chance to see a glaucous-winged gull doesn’t set my heart all atwitter.

On the other side of the pier were more mallards along with a pair of bufflehead. Seeing them with these mallards gives you a good idea of how tiny bufflehead are (they are about a foot long):

Pigeons, goldeneye, mallards and bufflehead.

No snowy owls. Maybe next time.

Even so, you can hardly call it a bad day, when you get to spend time outside enjoying the world.

Bird ID When the Bird is Missing

Well, most of the bird was missing.

I was walking the dog a few days ago and we came upon a bit of mayhem that ended badly for some bird:

All that was left were a couple clumps of feathers and some flesh. Whatever had taken the bird down had been thorough.

I spent a long time trying to figure out what sort of bird this was. Obviously, a larger bird – those feathers were at least six inches long. And with that rufous edging, I didn’t figure it was an owl.

Here’s a picture of another clump of feathers with a nice little chunk of meat:

A raptor didn’t make any sense. I mean – a raptor having taken this bird down made sense, but those don’t look like any raptor from around here.

So how do you identify a bird when you only have a few feathers left?

I’m not sure what anyone else does, but I asked my question over at Flickr’s Bird ID Help Group. It’s pretty cool how people – random strangers – pitch in and help other random strangers. It’s stuff like this that makes me feel hopeful for our future.

I asked if anyone recognized the bird from which these feathers were from, and the first response was a ring-necked pheasant:



Hard to tell.

Well, what is a pheasant’s range in Minnesota? The MN DNR was the natural place to turn for that question:

Image: MN DNR

Duluth is just above the letter ‘P’ in the word ‘Prospects.’ Yeah, I don’t know. It seems pretty far out of the range (as of September, 2011).

I don’t know – the bird doesn’t look quite right… the range didn’t seem right… I wasn’t wholly satisfied, and said so.

That’s when someone pointed me to the US Fish and Wildlife’s Feather Atlas (who knew there was such a thing?!).

I browsed for a while, looked at the ring necked pheasant (and lots of other birds’ feathers), but nothing really seemed to satisfy. The feathers I found out walking were vibrant, and the pheasant feathers in the atlas were pretty muted:

The right-most feather in the above link seemed close. Maybe.

Then another person shared this image:


Bingo (and from a feather wholesaler, of all things!).

Sure enough, that’s it.

It still doesn’t entirely make sense to me that the pheasant would be this far out of its normal range. But the bigger and more satisfying thing I took from this little adventure was that people can be good and helpful, and for no reason other than to to be good and helpful.