Photo of the Week – September 19, 2013

I was a little surprised last week to find a fledgling meadowlark in the Platte River Prairies.  The bird was young enough that it still couldn’t do much more than flutter clumsily away from me as I first approached it.  The bird must have come out of a very late nest (probably the 3rd or 4th nesting attempt by its parents?)  Multiple nest attempts aren’t unusual for grassland birds – many nests fail because of predators or other reasons – but I can’t remember ever seeing a bird so young this late in the season.

This young meadowlark peered through the grass at me as I crept close enough to photograph it.  Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

This young meadowlark peered through the grass at me as I crept close enough to photograph it. Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

While this particular meadowlark was unusually young for this time of year, it’s common for young-of-the-year birds of many species to hang around prairies longer than their parents, many of whom migrate south soon after their offspring leave the nest.  Because they are not expert fliers and inexperienced with life’s challenges, those newly independent birds are vulnerable to everything from predators to haying equipment.  In some species, young birds appear to take advantage of the adults’ absence by scouting for their own potential future nesting locations – a strategy that might help save them time when they return from migration next year.  However, just knowing where you want to set up a territory doesn’t mean you can fight off a more experienced male who has the same idea!

Frosty Morning Walk

We got our first real snow of the season last week.  Early Friday morning, I braved the icy roads and made it to our Platte River Prairies in time for a sunrise walk.  It was a beautiful morning.  The temperature was about 10 degrees Fahrenheit, but there was only a very slight breeze, so it didn’t feel cold – especially after walking through 2 foot snow drifts for a while.

Snowy prairie in the pre-dawn light.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Snowy prairie in the pre-dawn light. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

I walked across snow-covered prairie to one of our restored wetlands, where a dozen or so ducks flushed off a small bit of open water.  A real duck biologist would have been able to identify them by their calls, but their silhouettes against the pink horizon didn’t give me enough to go on.

Not much else was moving around.  I didn’t even see many tracks in the snow, apart from those of a few small birds that had been feeding on fallen seeds from sunflowers and prairie cordgrass.  I walked around the wetland as the sun came up, enjoying the quiet and taking some photos of frosty wetland plants.

Frost-covered wetland plants stick out from the ice on a frigid but pleasant winter morning.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Frost-covered wetland plants stick out from the ice on a frigid but pleasant winter morning. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

As I walked back to my vehicle, I thought I heard sandhill cranes calling in the distance, but I might have been imagining things.  There have been a few thousand cranes hanging around this winter, but I haven’t seen them for the last week or so.  An immature eagle flew overhead, flapping steadily as though it had somewhere to be and didn’t want to be late.  Just a few feet away, a meadowlark flushed out of the snow and flew about 30 yards to a short perch in the grass.  I bent down to see where it had come from and found a meadowlark-sized hole.  The hole led into a “den” formed by an air pocket in the snow beneath a clump of tall grass.  I took my glove off and put my hand down into the still-warm hiding place.

Eventually, I reached my parking place, shucked off my snow-crusted coveralls, and picked up my cell phone to join a conference call – only a few minutes late.  It was time to get back to work.

Here are a few more photos from the frozen wetland.

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