Monday, September 29, 2014


The Dickcissel is one of the most abundant breeding birds of the North American prairie. Minnesota lies on the northern edge of this range (Temple 2002). Dickcissels undergo seasonal movements, and can be irregular here on the edge of their range. Some years they are much more abundant than in others. They winter in Central and South America, where they can be an agricultural pest. Erika and I found them common in southwestern Minnesota when we visited Blue Mounds State Park on 15 July 2014. I have also blogged about Dickcissels in 2010 and 2012.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sharp-shinned Hawk

In Minnesota, Sharp-shinned Hawks generally breed north of Interstate 94. Only about a half-dozen summer records exist in eBird south of that line in our state. This individual acquired a bird band after hitting our net. Fortunately no small birds or large banders were harmed during this incident. Bildstein and Meyer (2000) write, “although small mammals and even insects appear in its diet, this forest-dwelling predator feeds almost entirely on small birds.” I respectfully held the hawk as Erika took this photo in the sunlight with the dark forest interior as a backdrop.

These authors also contend that, with males only averaging 57% of the female’s in body mass, this species is the most sexually dimorphic of North American hawks. With a wing chord of 206 mm, this Accipiter must be a female Sharp-shinned Hawk. (The mean for male wing chords is 169 mm; females average 200 mm, with no overlap between the sexes (Mueller et al. 1981).) The yellow eye indicates an immature bird.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Rufous Hummingbird

For the past week or so, birders flocked to Le Sueur County, 45 miles from us, to see a Rufous Hummingbird at a farmyard bird feeder. Despite giving the bird about a week’s head start, Erika and I were delighted to have it fly up immediately upon our arrival. Our host put out two chairs next to the feeder, and assured us the bird would not mind our proximity. The species’ reputation for being pugnacious was confirmed as it mercilessly drove away local Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. (The odd crosshatching in this photo is the front of our host’s porch screen.)
This record may be Minnesota’s third for an adult male; about a dozen records exist for the species. They nest from Alaska to the Pacific Northwest and winter in Mexico and along our Gulf Coast. In recent year the species has occurred more and more frequently in the southeastern and even northeastern United States. Ornithologists do not know if these records represent an true change in range or if there are just more people feeding hummingbirds. In any event, Rufous Hummingbirds are cold-hearty birds and undertake one of the longest migrations of any hummingbird. Healy and Calder (2006) somewhat humorously write, “After making the longest (measured in body lengths) known avian migration, individuals from Alaskan populations face a short breeding season but the longest day-length seen by any hummingbird.”
Bees swarmed all over the farmyard. The bees put Erika and me at unease as we are both allergic to their stings. We saw bees strike and drive away several of the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. We did not see interactions between the bees and the Rufous Hummingbird. In the last photo, the Rufous flipped up its tail, and flew backwards and away from the feeder. After that, the bee moved forward and into the sugar-water. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Lark Sparrow

I have previously blogged several times about Lark Sparrows, including last May. Erika and I found them to be common in July at Blue Mounds State Park in southwestern Minnesota. The bird in the second photo is preening, an important feather maintenance and cleaning behavior among most birds. Oddly, Martin and Parrish (2000), in their account in Birds of North America, write that “no information is available” about Lark Sparrow self-maintenance behavior.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Orchard Oriole

After visiting Pipestone National Monument last July, we drove the short distance to Blue Mounds State Park in southwestern Minnesota. We failed to find our target species, the Blue Grosbeak, although we did find it the next day in South Dakota. We were pleased, however, to find this preening Orchard Oriole.

I do not know if preening has been described in the literature for wild Orchard Orioles. Scharf and Kren (2010) describe preening in a captive bird: "Reaches with bill to upper back, lower flank, and belly while keeping body erect. Extends and rotates wings halfway forward to preen lower surfaces; often inverts head while preening underside of wing. Lifts tail and rotates to side to expose crissum and underside to bill. Stretches wing and leg at same erect, oblique angle, with wing half extended and tail spread out to side under wing while leg on same side stretches backward. Leg does not touch undersurface of wing or tail in this stretch.”

This male is at least two years old. Younger males and all females are drab greenish-yellow. First-year males have black throats. I am surprised that I lack a photo to share with you. I have banded quite a few in South Dakota and even saw both females and first-year males on this trip. Another species to make a mental note to photograph next time I encounter one.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Prairie Wild Rose

The Prairie Wild Rose, Rosa arkansana, is found from Texas northwest to British Columbia and northeast to Ontario and New York. The species is common in the western Tall Grass Pairie region. Erika and I were beginning our second journey of 2014, when, in July, we visited the Pipestone National Monument in southwestern Minnesota.

The Prairie Rose’s petals are initially bright lavender, but quickly fade to white. According to the University of North Dakota, various indigenous peoples used these roses for emergency food and treating burns and eye ailments. Europeans made wine and tea from the rose buds. Contemporary herbalists report that rose hips “can be eaten raw, stewed, candied, made into a jelly, or beverage.” The hips are high in calcium, iron, and phosphorus.

Rose flowers are also important for bees. The insect is this photo, however is a bee look-alike, a syrphid (or hover) fly. They do not sting, but look like they might. Adults often feed on nector and pollen; larva often feed on aphids. There are about 6,000 species worldwide (Bugguide; King, pers. comm).

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Mountain Bluebird

These Mountain Bluebirds were the last significant photos we took during our February and March trip to Texas and New Mexico. On 8 March we stayed at Canyon, Texas, and visited the Palo Duro State Park—well worth your time if you are ever in the vicinity. (I tried to post this account yesterday, but it disappeared into hyperspace—this post is a rewrite, and hopefully the original post will not reappear.)
We saw a flock of over 40 Mountain Bluebirds. This observation surprised us since, in their breeding grounds in western North America, we seldom encountered groups of over three or four. But the species is known to form large flocks on their Mexican wintering grounds and during migration. The second photo is of a female flock member. The last photo is a South Daota male. I have published picture before, but reworked it here to show that they are, indeed, brilliant blue birds.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Variegated Meadowhawk

Last Sunday at the Valley Grove Prairie in nearby Rice County, Minnesota, the air was full of dragonflies—mostly Common Green Darners, but also Variegated Meadowhawks like this one. I was struck by its beauty and that it looked different from others I have seen—the blue thoracic stripe seemed unique.

I was confident of my identification (for once), because of the blue-gray “portholes” along the sides of the abdomen. Scott King assures me that this stripe is the mark of a young male, and that the blue will fade, leaving only the yellow spot at the bottom of the stripe. In April 2012, I posted a photograph of an adult male and in September 2011 I explained why one tends to see immature Variegated Meadowhawks in the fall, but adults in the spring.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Juniper Titmouse

The fourth titmouse species we listed during our winter trip was this Juniper Titmouse.  My photos are poor, the titmice did not pose very still for me, and these are the best I got. I will try to improve upon them the next time I am in the Southwest.

I lacked a photograph of the species, since, when I took photos of them before, they were of the Oak Titmosue, found in oak woodlands of the Pacific slope of California. Juniper Titmice are found in juniper and pinion-juniper woodlands in the interior of the Southwest. Recently the two populations, previously called Plain Titmice, have been declared to be separate species. 

Both species mate for life, and neither forms flocks as do other titmice. Both sexes hold year-round territories. They cache food, which is surprising in a non-flocking species. Males sing all year, though most intensely in the spring, and ususally defend their territories against other bird species (Cicero 2000).

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Red-backed Junco

Also at the feeders at the Randall Davey Audubon Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in March 2014 were several Gray-headed Juncos. Currently ornithologists recognize 15 races of the Dark-eyed Junco, including this one. These races used to be considered to be six species, but they interbreed where their ranges overlap (Nolan et al. 2002).

Gray-headed Juncos breed from southern Idaho and Wyoming south to southern Nevada and eastern California east to northern New Mexico and western Texas into northern Mexico.  Gray-headed Juncos differ from Red-backed Juncos, the race found in southern Arizona and New Mexico, in having both mandibles pale, rather than the upper mandible dark.