Nature Notes – Watch for American Coots, a sure sign of autumn in Minnesota

By Jim Gilbert

A3-NatureNotesCMYKDuring the last few years, the first migrating American coots have arrived on Lake Waconia between Sept. 12 and 14.  By late September, and through October into November, we’ll see big numbers of these birds, sometimes in huge flotillas of a thousand or more on some southern Minnesota lakes.
American coots are about a foot long; they’re charcoal gray with blacker head and a thick white bill. Both sexes look alike. Coots are the most aquatic members of the rail family, moving on open water like ducks and feeding with them.
An American coot nods its head as it swims.  I enjoy hearing their voices — a varied chorus of clucking and chattering notes. Coots are excellent swimmers and divers. These birds must patter over the water with their wings flapping to become airborne. They eat various aquatic plants and some insects, and will also come up on land to feed on seeds and grasses. When they do, you may be able to see their green legs and big feet with lobes along the toes — better suited to swimming than walking.
They winter in southern states, Mexico, and Central America.
What’s happening outdoors now?
Apple growers are harvesting Zestar, Wealthy and SweeTango, plus Chestnut crabs.
It’s time for the commercial and garden grape harvest to be underway. Wood ducks, wild turkeys, blue jays, squirrels and white-tailed deer are among the animals eating recently fallen acorns. The loudest and most constant sound of the animal world now comes from annual cicadas and various crickets.
Most ruby-throated hummingbirds leave northern Minnesota by Sept. 12 and the southern part of the state by Sept. 25. Be sure to keep those sugar water feeders up until you’re certain the hummers have all left; that could be into October. Ruby-throats usually migrate by day but they can also migrate at night. Their wintering locations range from south Texas to Costa Rica.

On Sept. 12 a year ago
Carver County farmers continued to chop corn and harvest alfalfa. Soybean fields were maturing; some fields were 90 percent or more green, but most were showing much golden-yellow foliage, and some had dropped a majority of their leaves.
Lantana, Madagascar periwinkle, petunias and snapdragons were among the showy blooming annual garden flowers. The first raft of American coots returned to Lake Waconia for the fall season. We had a high temperature of 78 degrees and a tenth inch of badly needed rain. Lack of rain and drought conditions persisted over Minnesota. Sept. 11 was the 31st day of 90 degrees or above for 2012 in the Twin Cities.