Saturday, October 30, 2010

American Robin

I banded this scruffy juvenile American Robin on 10 October.  Most robins have completed their prebasic molt by October.  This bird was either a late hatchling or perhaps had some sort of physiological block to molting into adult plumage. In any event, the spotted juvenile breast spotting clearly allies robins to most other thrushes. (I last blogged about Robins on 13 July 2010.)

Despite banding no robins in June and July, October has been a banner robin month.  The robins are attracted to our water feature. This month I banded 132 robins at my Northfield residence.  For the past week, our little cul-de-sac has been blanketed by hundreds of robins. I previously reported the super low pressure cell that roared across Minnesota with rain and 60 mph wind gusts.  I banded 40 robins in the two days before the storm (24-25 October) and 25 more on the morning of 28 October.  During the two-day storm, the robins remained abundant (but I was marooned indoors). The sun returned the afternoon of the 28th, and many of the robins have departed--on the 29th I banded only 11.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Roxie Laybourne

The highlight of my high school career was being taken under wing by Roxie Laybourne. Every Thursday night, Roxie held court in the bowels of the Smithsonian as she held bird-skinning sessions. I prepared many bird specimens, including an embryonic Whooping Crane, a casualty of the Federal crane recovery program.

Later, after a long day visiting the capitol and the Washington Monument, I introduced Erika to Roxie at a skinning session. Erika declined Roxie’s invitation to skin a bird. Roxie took me aside and said, “This isn’t the girl for you.” But years later apologized and said she had been mistaken; perhaps after visiting us in Ecuador and seeing Erika sew the head back on a poor shot up Pygmy Tyrannulet—a flycatcher no bigger than a thumb. The photo above shows Roxie and Erika, when Roxie visited us in the Ecuadorian jungle.

During one of my college jobs, I did a stint with Roxie at the National Museum. I banded my first birds that semester in the woods near Washington. My first bird was an Ovenbird, banded near a drug deal being consummated nearby. Banding at Roxie’s was much preferable! One of my banded birds, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, became the oldest on record, at 13 years.

When they were young, my sons realized that Roxie was famous when she was interviewed by Big Bird on Sesame Street. Late in her career, Roxie realized that birds could be identified by microscopic examination of single feathers.  She became a forensic specialist for the FBI and also studied bird strikes by aircraft. Most importantly, she inspired a host of young people who later became ornithologists.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Ancient Murrelet

With 55 mph gusts and possibly the lowest air pressure in Minnesota history expected over the next two days, the first and only record of an Ancient Murrelet in South Dakota comes to mind.  A farmer in Ipswich, in the north-central South Dakota, found the bird in November 1993 after a snow storm. Ancient Murrelets feed off the Pacific shore of North America. They breed in burrows along the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska; they winter further south to the California coast.  The storm that brought this murrelet originated in the North Pacific was exceptionally large. 

The bird died soon after being found.  The body was given to Dave Williams, who, in turn, gave it to me.  I prepared the carcass as a museum specimen, and sent to the U.S. National Museum.  I have never encountered a more emaciated bird. Williams wrote up an account of this discovery in South Dakota Bird Notes (46:34) and mentions that six records of this species exist for Minnesota (and at least two of the somewhat similar Dovekie).

South Dakota birders had been on the lookout for an auk, the family to which murrelets belong.  Laura Ingalls Wilder, in her autobiographical classic, The Long Winter, reported her father's finding a strange bird after an October 1880 blizzard.  After the storm, they released the bird, which they tentatively identified as a Great Auk (but which, based on her description, was probably a murrelet or a Dovekie) (Steve Van Sickle (1988) South Dakota Bird Notes (40:95-96)).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

John Trott

John Trott was my seventh grade teacher. I joke that, in his class, you didn’t have to learn math or English, but you did have to learn to identify birds. John banded birds and his students could help, if they passed a written exam. The exam was a page long, but all answers had to be spelled correctly.

“What does AOU stand for?”

“American Ornithologist’s Onion.”

It took me three tries to pass. John once commented that he thought people don’t change after the seventh grade. He may be right—I still can’t spell.

I am surprised how little of an Internet presence John has. He died in September 2000. I came to his class in 1960. I know this date because I have bird lists back until then. I was 14.

John was like no teacher I had ever had before. John was temperamental, unpredictable, gossipy, and an opera lover. Aside from learning about birds, we also made an extensive plant collection. Although I was not aware of it, this learning was hands-on and peer-mentored. John also read to us. He asked my parents’ permission for me to read an x-rated book, “The Big Sky,” about trappers in frontier South Dakota. Little did I know that I would grow up to teach in that state for almost 30 years. The point here is that John treated us seventh-graders as adults.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Banded Birds

During the past year I observed several banded birds in the wild.  This banded Snowy Plover was among a dozen on the beach at Sanibel Island, Florida, last January.  All sported a different combination of color bands. I also came upon this banded first-year Great Black-backed Gull.
I took photos of the front and the back of the band, hoping to decipher the number. I then conitnued to walk down the beach.  On the way back, I came upon the gull again and took more photos.
I was disappointed that the front and back of the band photos do not reveal enough of the band to know the complete number.
Today I enlarged the photo of the photo I took upon our return hike (the first photograph on this post).  To my amazement, this is a completely different band from the first!  The band is far more worn, with almost eligible writing on the top and the bottom.  It is the same dead fish, but a different first-year Great Black-backed Gull feasted on it! Most gulls are banded as chicks; the closest breeding areas to Florida for Great Black-backs is the New Jersey coast.
Last May I blogged "Less than 1% of banded songbirds are recovered. Since the 1960s, in both Europe and North America, band reporting rates have declined.  Robert A. Robinson, Mark J. Grantham and Jacquie A. Clark wrote a paper entitled "Declining rates of ring recovery in British birds" (2009 British Trust for Ornithology, Ringing and Migration 24:266–272). They suggest people spend less time outdoors and therefore find fewer dead birds and, when they do find bands, they do not know where to send the information.  I think Americans these days may be less likely, for whatever reasons, to cooperative with the Federal government."

A colleague added, " I think another factor that might be involved is that the BBL [Bird Banding Lab] is not issuing permits to recreational banders anymore, and is requiring additional work/justification for renewals of current permits. Thus, I suspect that fewer total birds are being banded than previously, and that this likely contributes to fewer reported returns too."

Finally, another potential problem, for whatever reasons, is the length of time the BBL can take when responding to recovery reports.  Almost a year has passed without a reply from them on the color-banded plovers and over a year without a report on the banded oystercatcher I blogged about in October 2009.  Perhaps the Banding Office will be better able to promptly respond once they update their database, a project they are currently pursuing.

The BBL allows people to report bands electronically at and also by toll free phone: 1-800-327-BAND (2263).

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ring-billed Gull

Ord in 1815 first described the Ring-billed Gull from the Delaware River near Philadelphia, hence its scientific name, Larus delawarensis.  A great book is Words for Birds, which describes the origins of American bird names, and can be obtained at bargain prices from the the link on the right of this page. The species is quite common across most of the mid-section of North America. 

The Ring-billed Gull is abundant in Minnesota.  They inhabit garbage dumps,  fields, and our numerous lakes. Its hard to believe this gull was almost exterminated by the 1920s. Although still often considered a pest, obviously the species has recovered. Even now, however, control efforts are occasionally attempted. Ring-billed Gulls eat about anything, including insects, earthworms, fish, rodents, and grain. The birds in these photos foraged in a park for picnic scraps in Stillwater, Minnesota.

This species is usually monogamous.  However, when females outnumber males, the males will fertilize females who will then form pairs with other females.  Both females in these pairs lay clutches in the same nest and raise the young (Ryder 1993).

The Ring-billed Gulls in these photos appear to be adults in winter plumage.  This gull takes three years to reach adult plumage.  First-year birds are dusky.  Second-year birds lack the large spots that you can see on the wing tips in the photo above. As you can see by the differing amount of streaking on their heads, even birds in similar plumage, as in these photos, can be variable. Add to that variation the various plumages through which the gulls pass, and you can see that identification can be tricky.  Gulls of North America, Europe, and Asia (inexplicably very expensive) and Gulls of the Americas are good books for gull identification.  Note the deformed lower bill on the photo below--the lower mandible is longer than the upper one.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Painted Lady

The wide-ranging Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is found on all continents except Australia and Antarctica.  They invade North America every spring from northern Mexico, almost reaching northern Canada.  These butterflies, although relatively cold-tolerant, do not survive the northern winter, and re-invade our region every spring.  Last week I found this individual at a local farm.  Much of this information is from the Field Guide to Butterflies of South Dakota by Gary Marrone, and published by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks in 2002.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Yellow-throated Vireo

I banded this gorgeous Yellow-throated Vireo on Sunday, 10 October 2010 and have saved this post for today, this blog's first birthday.  According to Birds of Minnesota, this date is late for this species.  The book also mentions that this species has been increasing to the north and west.  I have previously blogged about this species on 20 July 2010.

Book-loving birders may be interested in the classic, two-volume The Birds of Minnesota by Thomas Roberts.  I often consult this book when I am curious as to what races of birds have been recorded in Minnesota. Two editions were published, one in 1932, with a revision in 1936.  Even then this vireo was thought to be expanding its range northward, so this trend appears to be in progress for some time.  Roberts cites no October records.

Kim Eckert advises, "If you find a set of Roberts' for sale somewhere at $100 or so, buy it."  An autographed copy is available at Amazon.  Be careful that you do not get a key to identification that Roberts also wrote (unless, of course, your are interested in antique Minnesota bird books).

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Eastern Gray Squirrels are abundant in our Minnesota backyard.  I never saw one in South Dakota.  According to the book Wild Mammals of South Dakota, Eastern Gray Squirrels should occur along the eastern tier of South Dakota counties but are only known from Roberts County, in the far northeast of the state. Museum specimens exist from Minnehaha Co.

This squirrel hoards food in hundreds of small caches, to which the squirrels return months later. Wikipedia informs us that the squirrels have very accurate spatial memories for the locations of these caches.  They use both distant and nearby landmarks to find the caches again. These squirrels usually make leaf nests in tree forks, but will also nest in tree holes and in human habitations.  They breed twice a year.  As we well know in Minnesota, Eastern Gray Squirrels do not hibernate.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Woolly Bear Predicts Warm Winter!

According to folklore, you can predict how bad winter will be by observing Woolly Bear Caterpillars.  If the caterpillar sports a narrow brown stripe, and broad black stripes on the front and the back, then winter will be bad.  If the caterpillar has a broad brown stripe, winter will be mild.  Since this Woolly Bear Caterpillar lacks black, we should be in for a great winter!  Research, unfortunately, has not documented the folklore.  Apparently the brown stripe becomes narrower with age (Oehlke).

Monday, October 11, 2010

Red Squirrel

Red Squirrels cache food for the winter.  They do not hibernate, although they will remain inactive during inclement weather.  These squirrels also harvest maple sugar, biting into the tree, and allowing the sap to flow.  After the sap dries, the squirrel returns and consumes the maple syrup. A Red Squirrel nested in a hole only a couple of feet from the ground in a Hackberry tree in our backyard. After the young hatched, the parent carried the young to a secondary nest elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bird Field Guide Recommendations

Beginning birders might find this bird difficult to identify.  During my 30 years of teaching ornithology, I am often asked to recommend bird guides. Here are some quick suggestions.

I believe the best book for beginners is Peterson's Eastern Birds.  Birders in western North America will want the Western volume (Minnesota counts as East).  The bird portraits in the Peterson book are large, accurate, and clear.  The patented Peterson system of arrows pointing to the most important field marks is also a plus.  Finally, Peterson's introduction presents a fine essay on how to identify birds.

Many advanced birders use The Sibley Guide to Birds.  Sibley also paints his birds large, but with much more detail than Peterson.  This detail is great for the more advanced birder, but may tend to confuse a beginner.  The Sibley book contains all the birds of North America, which is good for a traveling birder, but gives the novice more chance to make mistakes. When the Sibley book first came out, it was criticized for being too large to carry in the field.  Since then he has published smaller guides to eastern and western birds, but I feel the bird pictures in those two books are too small for effective identification.

I usually carry Sibley with me at all times, but lately I have been enjoying the National Geographic Illustrated Birds of
North America Folio Edition
.  It is a coffee table-sized book that I keep in my house for when I return from the field.  The book is also effective for teaching to groups. For my old eyes, the large format is quite enjoyable.  In many respects this latest edition of the National Geographic guide is comparable to the Sibley guide, and most advanced birders own both.

Finally, during my later years of teaching, I assigned my students Thayer's Birds of North America DVD. Be careful to order the correct version for your computer, Windows or Mac (the lower link to is a Mac version). I never liked field guides based on photographs because I felt it hard for a birder to focus on the most important field marks.  This DVD, however, contains multiple images of most birds (which can be shown side-by-side), song files, range maps, videos, and even a short ornithology textbook.  Most importantly, you can build bird quizzes with the birds you want to learn.  After using these quizzes, my students commented that identifying birds was pretty easy.  I replied that most things become easy if you study as hard and as often as they did while using their Thayer bird quizzes.

The bird above?  A young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker--complete with dried sap on its chin!   Sapsuckers will drink sap from the holes in the trees they drill, and will also dip insects into the sap.  Perhaps they like their arthropods to be sugar-coated.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Pied-billed Grebe

Erika and I also photographed this Pied-billed Grebe during our recent Circle Lake trip.  This bird is another waterfowl that beginning birders sometimes mistake for ducks.  But grebes are not ducks.  Older bird books place them next to loons, but DNA research suggests that grebes are distantly, but most closely related to flamingos!  They lack webbed feet, having only their individual toes with webs and their bills are not shaped like a duck bill.

Grebes are one of the few bird families that lack tail feathers.  They have only downy feathers where the tail should be.  The lack of a tail may be an adaption for streamlining these expert divers.  To keep them dry, grebes have over 200,000 feathers, which have a unique waterproofing structure.  You can see water droplets on this bird's head.  Pied-billed Grebes eat fish and protect their gizzards from fish bones by eating their feathers, creating protective pellets around the fish bones.  Eventually the grebes regurgitate the pellets.

Much of this information is from the Handbook of the Birds of the World, a wonderful, lavishly illustrated resource for birders with deep pockets.  There are to be 16 volumes.  If you factor the price per bird family, however, the series' cost becomes less prohibitive.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

American Coot

My friend George P. commented "American Coots are proof that God has a sense of humor."  The poor birds don't seem to be able to paddle and keep their heads still at the same time. Erika and I found this coot on Circle Lake in Rice Co. last Tuesday.

Many non-birders and beginning birders assume that coots are closely related to ducks.  On land, they look kind of like chickens.  They do not have webbed feet.  Each individual toe is webbed. In fact, coots are rails, distantly, but more closely related to cranes than they are to ducks or chickens.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatches irregularly irrupt out of the North Woods.  I banded this nuthatch on Sunday. These irruptions are caused by shortages of spruce budworms and conifer seeds in the north.  This movement, when it does occur, can begin early--like in early July or August.  Be careful not to interpret these early migrants, which may include relatively young birds, as local breeders.

Also adding to confusing breeding records is the fact that Red-breasted Nuthatches will sometimes begin excavating their small, square nest cavities south of where the species breed.  Later in the spring, these early excavators continue their northward migration.  When this species is breeding, females usually choose the nest site and do most of the excavating.  Unmated males, however, often begin excavations, in hopes of attracting females (Cornell Lab of Ornithology).

Most Minnesota birders own a copy of Robert Janssen's Birds in Minnesota.  Although now somewhat dated, this book is a good resource on where and when to expect birds in Minnesota.
Many of us are also faniliar with Kim Eckert's A Birder's Guide to Minnesota.  This book gives directions to good birding spots in all Minnesota counties.  Some birders are less familiar with his review of Minnesota birds, complete with sophisticated identification tips.  Kim keeps his book updated on the web.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Bay-breasted Warbler 2

Because this bird clearly shows fairly bight chestnut sides, this Bay-breasted Warbler is readily identifiable.  Compare it to the drab bird that I've copied from my 5 September 2010 post.  Not only is this new bird, banded on Sunday, brighter than most fall birds, the sides of the face are also darker than most. Both of these birds were young of the year, although I assume the one above is a male. Most fall Bay-breasted Warblers show only a hint of chestnut on their flanks.
If you are interested in improving your warbler identification skills, the Peterson Field Guides Warblers is an excellent resource.  When I am banding, I always have it nearby. In future blogs, I will try to recommend other books for a birder's library.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Orange-crowned Warbler

On Saturday I caught a few Orange-crowned Warblers. This drab species is one of the last of the fall warbler migrants (and one of the first of the spring). I taught my ornithology students that the best field mark for this warbler is the lack field marks.  Generally they have grayish heads and white eye rings.  Faint breast streaking is the salient field mark.  Their orange crowns are seldom visible. Orange-crowned Warblers show variable brightness, with increasing yellow and less gray as you move west across North America. Orange-crowned and Tennessee Warblers might be easily confused.  DNA studies have found that, although clearly in the same genus, the two species are not otherwise closely related (Gilbert et al. 2010).

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Red-sided Garter Snake

The Red-sided Garter Snake is a race of the Common Garter Snake.  The Red-sided is found in western Minnesota and is replaced by Common Garter Snakes in the east.  Range maps in Reptiles and Amphibians of Minnesota by Breckenridge (1944) shows overlap between the two races in southeastern Minnesota.  My brother and I encountered this individual on the Cannon River Bicycle Trail in Goodhue County about 4 miles east of Cannon Falls.
Our Red-sided Garter Snake aggressively stood its ground, striking at us as we approached.  Recently garter snakes have proven to contain neuraltoxins, although in non-lethal quantities to affect humans.  The snakes also lack an effective method of venom transmission.  Although garter snakes are known to coil and strike, our snake may have been run over by a bicycle, which might explain its unwillingness to flee.

Wikipedia also reports that male and female garter snakes produce distinctive pheromones that allow males to find emerging females in the spring. Swarms of up to 25 males mate with each female.  Some males, however, practice kleptothermy.  Kleptothermy is when you steal someone's heat.  In this case, these males release female pheromones, attracting other males to attempt to copulate with them.  This action warms up the female-pheromone-releasing males, and makes them more active.  Studies demonstrate that these "she-males" are more active than cooler males and are thus able to mate more often.  Females are able to store sperm for several years.  The fertilized eggs hatch inside the female. Three to 80 young are then born live in a single litter, a condition termed ovoviviparity.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Deformed Yellow-rumped Warbler

On Thursday I banded a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers, including this bird with deformed feet.  I can only speculate about the cause of the missing toes.  Is this the result of a developmental deformity?  Is it a bird that recovered from avian pox?  Had it suffered frostbite (the bird was an adult, so it was alive last winter)?  Had it barely escaped from a predator? In my banding career, I have never seen anything quite like this.  One wonders how this bird perched.  Most deformed birds do not survive.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Asian Lady Beetle

Another winter home invader is the Asian Lady Beetle, Harmonia axyridis. This beetle has spread across North America during the last 20 years.  In an attempt to control Soy Bean aphids, this beetle was introduced from Japan, Korea, and other parts of Asia.  Introductions began as early as 1916, and many were unsuccessful.  Now the beetle is often abundant.

Most households do not welcome these beetles. Once inside, they are everywhere.  They smell bad and they bite.  They out compete and prey upon native lady bugs.  They also damage fruit crops.  They spoil the taste of some wines made from infested grapes.  A few people are allergic to these beetles.

On the other hand, Georgia peach growers now rely less heavily on pesticides after the farmers used lady beetles to control aphids.  You may not want to try to control a home invasion of Asian Lady Beetles with pesticides.  Asian Lady Beetles are preyed upon by Carpet Beetles.  If you wipe out the lady beetles, the Carpet Beetles, which also live in homes, move on to consuming your carpets and other linens. As in the case of Box Elder Bugs, vacuuming the invertebrates may be your wisest remedy.  Much of this information is from Wikipedia and the University of Washington.