Friday, April 29, 2011

American Coot foot

Last October I blogged, "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."  The webbed toes are visible in this photo taken in late March 2011 in Faribault's Alexander Park. When the coot swims forward, the paddling motion of the toes expands the webs, making for greater surface area.  As the toes are pulled forward, the webbing folds together, resulting in less water resistance.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Brown Pelican

The Brown Pelican is the only pelican that makes spectacular, head-first dives.  They are coastal birds that range from South America north along both the Gulf, Atlantic, and Pacific coasts of the United States. The species does not normally stray from the coasts, but sporadic inland records exist, even from Minnesota.  I took this photograph several years ago in La Jolla, California.

In North America, we almost lost Brown Pelicans to the pesticides endrin and DDT.  By 1963, Brown Pelicans, although the state bird, disappeared from Louisiana.  Populations were in serious trouble along the Pacific Coast.  In 1970, Brown Pelicans were added to the Endangered Species List.  After DDT was banned and edrin was restricted, pelicans recovered. In 1968 and 1969, Louisiana reintroduced Brown Pelicans from Florida; by the mid-1970s the birds were recovering. The success of these and other birds across the country was so vigorous that Brown Pelicans were taken off the Endangered Species list in 1985.  On the gulf, at least until the recent oil spill, Louisiana Brown Pelicans had recovered to pre-pesticide numbers (Shields 2002, Lowery 1981).  On the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of America, every year Brown Pelicans are increasingly seen in northern states.  

When seeing a Brown Pelican, I always recite Dixon Merrit's 1910 limerick (often erroneously attributed to Ogden Nash):

Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican!
His bill holds more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week.
But I’m darned if I know how the helican.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

American White Pelican 2

Most American White Pelicans breed in the northern Great Plains of North America.  Across most of this range, they consume shallow water fish (not normally prized by humans) and various aquatic amphibians and crayfish.  In parts of the Dakotas, they subsist mostly on larval Tiger Salamanders (which can be incredibly abundant in that region).

Unlike Brown Pelicans, American White Pelicans do not dive. Instead they often practice cooperative hunting.  The pelicans form a large circle.  They then swim towards each other, making the circle smaller, and trapping their prey between them.  The photo above (from Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota) shows a feeding frenzy as the pelicans tightened their "noose."  (If you look closely in the left side of the flock, you may notice a pelican's foot held high in the air, as its owner dines.)  Not all flocks form circles.  Often they simply drive their prey to some dead-end from which escape is difficult.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

American White Pelican 1

On 23 April I came upon three large, odd, birds at the edge of Circle Lake in Rice Co.  Snow Geese?  Large, unkempt plumes erupting from their crowns and napes suggested not.  How about sleeping American White Pelicans with their bills hidden under their scapulars? Perhaps not sleeping...notice that all three have their eyes wide open.
The "horn" on the top of the White Pelican's bill is a fibrous, epidermal plate.  The exact function of this structure is not known, but probably is used in courtship or in territorial conflicts.  The "horn" appears in the early spring and is lost after breeding.  Both sexes have the "horns," which are quite variable in size.  Males tend to have larger "horns" than females, at least compared to the female with whom he mates.  The plumage of the sexes is similar.  Although males tend to be slightly larger than females, I doubt identifying pelican sex by size is very reliable.

Monday, April 25, 2011


Canvasbacks, Aythya valisineria, are among our most uncommon ducks.  They are restricted to deep ponds, marshes and potholes.  During droughts, Canvasbacks often cease breeding.  Their numbers have also been adversely affected by drainage of prairie potholes and perhaps by over-hunting. 

Canvasbacks are expert divers.  They often feed in shallow water, but can submerge to over 30 feet.  They consume aquatic plants and a variety of invertebrates.  In the winter they specialize on Wild Celery, Vallisneria americana, which accounts for their scientific name (Mowbray 2002).

The Canvasbacks in this post are a female (first photo) from St Marks National Wildlife Refuge on the Florida panhandle during our February jaunt, and (below) two males from Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern South Dakota taken several years ago.  Redheads and Canvasbacks look somewhat similar but are easy to identify.  Canvasbacks have "ski-slope" foreheads and bills.  Redheads have a much more typical duck profile.  The white backs of male Canvasbacks are visible from considerable distances.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

California Sister

I remember taking this photo of this California Sister.  I was on a western birding trip. I just don't remember exactly when or where. My leaky memory recalls Montana, but my butterfly guide suggests that I was in western California or Oregon.  Furthermore, I was probably in an oak woodland, even though the pine leaf litter behind this sister suggests otherwise.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warblers tend to be our first spring warbler migrants. They are hardy little birds and regularly winter along the Atlantic Coast to Nova Scotia and the Great Lakes in the Midwest.  A few occasionally attempt to winter in southern Minnesota.  Yellow-rumps have been seen for about the last week, and we banded this bird on 22 April 2011

Yellow-rumped Warblers owe this hardiness to a host of adaptations. In a post on the MOU listserv (21 April 2011) Rick Hoyme wrote, "The Yellow-Rumps have the longest digestive track of any of our warblers which is required in order to be able to digest seeds and extract energy from them..." They are far less picky than other warblers about what they eat and readily consume unfamiliar prey items.   Hunt and Flaspohler write, in The Birds of North America Online, that this warbler has "special digestive features for digesting waxes and lipids, including retrograde reflux of intestinal contents to gizzard, elevated bile-salt concentration in gallbladder and intestine, and slow gastrointestinal transit of dietary lipids."  Furthermore, items that other birds might find indigestible pass through Yellow-rumped Warbler intestines at a slower rate than more delectable fare.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Breeding Siskin

Erika took this photo while I gently blew on this Pine Siskin's breast and belly.  Lacking a cloacal protuberance, this siskin is female. The bird has an obvious and well-developed brood patch.  In most passerines, only the females develop brood patches. Beginning birders are sometimes surprised that birds' feathers grow in tracts, not all over their bodies.  Breeding birds lose the few pinfeathers that sometimes grow between the tracts and the naked skin becomes highly vascularized.  The result is a brood patch, which birds use to incubate their eggs.  Breeding bird surveyors cite brood patches as physiological evidence of breeding.  This record is a good one for southeastern Minnesota.  Siskins do not breed here every year, usually only after invasion years.  Siskins are early breeders--this photo was taken on 21 April 2011 in Northfield. This bird, banded and released unharmed, is the second breeding siskin of the 2011 spring.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Marsh Marigold

The last of the spring wildflowers Erika and I found on our 11 April 2011 stroll in the western Cannon River Wilderness Area in Rice Co. was the Marsh Marigold.  As the name suggests, look for this early spring wildflower in wet areas.  It is found in North America (except the deep south and the western Great Plains) and also in Europe.

Native Americans used this plant to treat colds and sores, aid in childbirth, fight constipation. and to induce vomiting.  The plant also protected one against love charms. Coffey writes that Marsh Marigold can be used as a potherb before most garden greens are grown.  Considering the other uses for the plant, I would advise caution if you are tempted to consume them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Tree Swallow

Photography makes me more in tune with bird behavior.  Perhaps, as I try for at least one photo in focus, I spend more time looking at common birds.  These Tree Swallows, photographed on 12 April 2011 near Circle Lake in Rice Co., offer an example.  I noticed the bird on the right give several yawns.  This gaping did not appear to be sexual, as other female birds do to attract males during courtship; nor did the behavior appear to be aggressive.  Robertson et al. in Birds of North America Online write that perched Tree Swallows have three types of stretching--two different sorts of wing stretches, and a "gape to stretch jaw muscles..."  Finely tuned jaw muscles must be of importance to aerial feeders like swallows. 
While I photographed, both birds performed a lot of self-maintenance.  I was excited to catch this swallow scratching.  Two types of scratching exist in birds: direct and indirect.  In direct scratching, the leg is raised under the wing.  In indirect scratching, like being shown above, the leg is lifted over the wing.  Tree Swallows use both types of scratching.  When perched, they employ indirect scratching.  Flying swallows will often scratch using the direct method (Robertson et al.). Most birds only use one type of scratching.
Since Tree Swallows can survive on seeds and berries, they winter in fairly northern climes along coastal areas of the southeast Atlantic and the Gulf coasts. Hence they are usually our first swallows to return to Minnesota in spring.  Tree Swallows breeding in bluebird houses can be a bane for the bluebird enthusiast.  Tree Swallows tend to be monogamous, in as much as males do not abandon their mates nor do they take on multiple females.  The species does enjoy extra-pair copulations.  Studies have shown about half of Tree Swallow nests contain young not fathered by the resident male (Robertson et al.).

Monday, April 18, 2011

Dutchman's Breeches

For some Native American tribes, Dutchman's Breeches represented an important love charm.  If a man chews this plant, a woman picking up the scent will follow him anywhere. If you try this method of courting, perhaps not swallowing would be advised! Coffey, in The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowerswarns that some species in this genus are toxic to livestock and Wikipedia warns that this wildflower "may be toxic and causes contact dermatitis in some people." Nevertheless, this wildflower does have a number of folk uses. 

This flower is yet another that Erika and I encountered in the west unit of the Cannon River Wilderness Area on 11 April 2011. This plant grows across most of eastern North America and also in the Pacific Northwest. The species is  grown in wildflower gardens, but not commonly, since it becomes dormant by summer.  The Missouri Botanical Garden suggests enjoying Dutchman's Breeches in native woodlands.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

April Snow

On 16 April 2011, we woke to a wet, two-inch snow.  These conditions can be ideal for birding, as hungry birds stick close to bare roadsides.  Most birds are able to retain body heat through a counter-current exchange system in their legs.  Basically arterial blood leaving the body delivers heat to colder veins that return blood to the body. Most heat is retained in the body core. This system can be quite efficient. Nevertheless, the Killdeer in the photo above did not land in the snow, preferring a scarce bare spot in the snowy field. You may also notice that all the birds in these photos have fluffed out their plumage, thereby creating dead air space that retains warmth.
Next I found a cooperative Lapland Longspur.  This hungry bird appeared to be consuming corn kernels from the roadside.  Perhaps this grain was spilled from a farmer's truck last fall or by his taking his harvest to market during the winter.  The longspur was quite reluctant to leave the right-of-way. Snow blanketed most of the surrounding fields and covered other food sources.

Only last March did I take my first photograph of a Lapland Longspur. By comparing images, you can see how much further along into breeding plumage is this April bird.  How often in birding do you finally see birds for the first time, only to find them frequently thereafter!  This encounter also reminds me of another joy of birding--the serendipity of being at the right place and time that permeates our sport.
Usually Vesper Sparrows fly off the roadside and deep into fields.  Today several simply flew up and landed a few feet away.  Vesper Sparrows are usually identified by their junco-like, white outer tail feathers.  In this photo, the white eye-ring and chestnut shoulders are diagnostic.  An archaic name for the species is Bay-winged Sparrow. Vesper Sparrows are declining in the East as fields revert to forests (or housing developments), but remain common breeders in grasslands in the northern plains.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Spring Beauty

With two inches of wet snow on the ground this morning, Erika and I find it hard to remember that we came upon Spring Beauty during our 11 April 2011 stroll in the Cannon River Wilderness Park.  This wildflower is mentioned in Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha as "the earliest flower of Spring-time" (Coffey).

Wild Spring Beauty grows in most of eastern north America.  This plant can be cultivated and even grown like crocuses in lawns. According to Coffey, The roots, when boiled in salted water, are nutritious and have a chestnut flavor.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Ring-necked Duck

Ring-necked Ducks might better be named the Ring-billed Duck. Males sport a brownish ring around their necks, almost visible at the base of the drake's neck in the bottom photo. Perhaps the best field mark is the bright white stripe that contrasts withe the drake's dark breast, black back, and gray sides.
Pairs of Ring-necked ducks stick together, at least until mating is finished.  Pairs form during spring migration--these pairs were taken near Circle Lake in Rice Co., Minnesota, on 1 April 2011.  Only the female, however, cares for the young (at least until they fledge). Ring-necked Duck populations increased during the 1980s and early 1990s.  This increase is odd, since other prairie-nesting ducks declined during this time (Hohman and Eberhardt 1998)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


On Monday, after finding Bloodroot, Erika and I continued our stroll through the Cannon River Wilderness Area.  Next we came upon Hepatica.  (To call this western section of the county park "wilderness" is a bit of a stretch.  The area is in dire need for trash pickup and much refuse blows out of the adjacent county landfill.  The park is also next to an ATV racetrack.)  Hepatica flowers can be an intense violet, but the blooms quickly fade to white.
Hepatica's liver-shaped leaves (lower left in photo below) indicated to our ancestors that this wildflower could be ingested to cure liver ailments.  Nevertheless, the plant was not used much in Europe until 1880, when suddenly the wildflower became in great demand.  Despite little or no scientific evidence that the plant actually was effective in curing liver diseases, in 1883, about a half-ton of Hepatica was imported to Europe from America.  Cherokees used Hepatica to induce vomiting, thereby ridding themselves of nightmares. In the Carolinas, folk belief held that, if a girl sprinkles Hepatica powder on a man's clothes, he will invariably fall in love with her.  This information was gleaned from Timothy Coffey's The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers.

Many field guides recognize two species of Hepatica growing in Minnesota, the Sharp-lobed and the Round-lobed, depending on their leaf shape.  These photos are of the Sharp-lobed Hepatica, which prefers less acid soil.  The USDA Plant Database currently considers these two forms to be varieties of a single species, Hepatica, Hepatica nobilis.  Both are found across most of eastern North America.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Marlene S. told us that wildflowers were blooming at River Bend Nature Area in Faribault.  On 11 April, Erika and I drove over to the west unit of the Cannon River Wilderness Area, just north of Faribault.  The nature trail there is one of our favorite places to find spring ephemerals, April-blooming flowers that take advantage of the sun's being unblocked by forest leaves.

We were immediately greeted by Bloodroot.  This handsome wildflower was our first last year, on 3 April 2010.  You may recall that last year we enjoyed a warm and snowless March.  In all, we counted about a half-dozen flowering species, with more on the way.

The Alternative Nature Online Herbal gives dozens of folk uses for Bloodroot, ranging from a tooth plaque inhibitor, fungicide, diuretic, to anti-wart and anti-ringworm treatment.  Native Americans used Bloodroot as a dye, both on cloth and as war paint.  The herbal warns, IN RED PRINT, " Use internally with caution, it contains toxic opium-like alkaloids and can cause mucous membrane irritation, an over dose can be fatal, do not use when pregnant or lactating. Bloodroot is not edible."

Bloodroot grows in most of eastern North America. Bloodroot should not be transplanted from the wild, as populations in some areas are of threatened status.  Wildflower gardeners should not transpant Bloodroot but obtain them from ethical cultivators. 

Monday, April 11, 2011


I grin whenever I see a hen Bufflehead, as I did in late March, when I photographed this one at Alexander Park in Faribault, MN.  I came upon one in a pond when I was a senior in high school.  If you are desperate to see a Hooded Merganser, and I was, the two ducks look vaguely similar.  After much deliberation, I correctly decided it was a Bufflehead. The bill is duck-like--not pointed and saw-shaped like that of a merganser.  The merganser came later, and that is another story, which involves a foggy morning, overloaded rowboat, duck decoys, and irate hunters.
Drake Buffleheads are hard to misidentify.  This string of drakes and hens were at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern South Dakota.  Buffleheads are sometimes called Butterballs by hunters, who account for significant mortality of the species. This duck breeds across most of boreal Canada. Buffleheads are almost always monogamous.  Females often use the same nesting site for more than one season.  They nest in old flicker holes and in nest boxes (Gauthier 1993).

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Scarlet Cup


Scarlet Cup fungi appeared under my banding net on 9 April 2011--my First-of-the-Year fungus! According to Alexander Smith, in The Mushroom Hunter's Field Guide, these fungi are "harbingers of spring."  They appear in early April and may last until the end of May.  They are found in forests almost worldwide, either on fallen branches or, like these, on leaf-litter.  Smith does not recommend eating them. According to Wikipedia, dried and powdered Scarlet Cups have been used to stop bleeding; the English have also used this fungus as a table decoration.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Siberian Squill

Beautiful Siberian Squill is one of the first "wild" flowers to bloom in the spring.  I took these photos yesterday, 8 April 2011. These flowers were budding and blooming in the border between our house and the neighbor's.  Siberian Squill originates from Siberia and elsewhere in the Old World, and can overrun native wildflowers.  It is resistant to many herbicides and weeding by hand is often ineffective. Nevertheless, this flower is often loved by horticulturalists, even if it often escapes from flower beds and into lawns and woodlands.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Mourning Cloak

I saw my first Mourning Cloak of the year on 7 April 2011. The butterfly flew so fast through our yard that I've made do with another image taken in June 2007 in Northfield.  Mourning Cloaks often emerge from winter hibernation with the first spring thaw.  Although seldom abundant, Mourning Cloaks are found in a wide variety of habitats.  Adults are relatively long-lived, sometimes lasting over ten months.  The larva are found on willows, cottonwoods, elms, birches, and hackberries--all common trees in northern forests.  Most of this information was gleaned from Kaufman's Field Guide to Butterflies of North America.

I am not a butterfly expert--just newly enthusiastic.  After hearing from Hap Huber, I have changed my identification of what I called a Bog Fritillary to an Atlantis Fritillary.  I very much welcome constructive criticisms of any butterfly identification I make!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Song Sparrow

Although perhaps not the best for bird identification, recently I have taken some interesting shots of birds facing me.  Song Sparrows are known for their large, central breast spot.  The dark malar stripes on this bird, the first Song Sparrow I've banded in 2011, are also striking.

When I see Song Sparrows I always think of Margaret Morse Nice.  Born in 1883, she was the daughter of academic parents.  She followed her husband, also a professor, for years. Eventually she found herself house-bound with five children in Ohio. After the death of one of her daughters, seeking release from her grief, Nice joined the Audubon Society.  She began an eight-year study of Song Sparrows.  The resultant  Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow part one and Volume II should be read by anyone seriously interested in studying birds.  These books are assessable even for  non-scientists. The famous ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, said this work was "the first long term field investigation of the individual life of any free living wild animal." At her death in 1974, she had published 250 articles in ornithology!  More details on her life can be learned at the Columbus, Ohio, Audubon website.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Common Loon

Thanks to Penelopedia for blogging about this loon in a pond in residential Northfield.  I photographed it on 4 April 2011.  A less wild habitat is hard to imagine.  Large, closely knit, recently built houses surround the lake.  Half submerged, and making lengthy dives, the loon repeatedly swam around the lake.  Loons control their buoyancy by filling or partially emptying their air sacs.  These sacs are part of a bird's respiratory system.  Air sacs also allow an efficient, one-way flow of air across bird lungs.  
Various hypotheses exist for why loon's eyes are red. Perhaps the sexes are attracted to red eyes. Alternatively, below 15 feet of water, red is no longer visible.  Perhaps if the eyes are not visible, prey  have trouble recognizing predators.  Several sources claim the eye color allows for better vision under water.  Some other diving birds also have red eyes.  Loon eyes, however, are not red in winter.  The question "why do loons have red eyes?" does not seem to have a definitive answer.

Monday, April 4, 2011


Redheads pair up on their wintering range.  By 1 April, when this photo was taken at Circle Lake in Rice Co., many monogamous pairs have formed. Males, nevertheless, usually abandon their mates early during her incubation, retiring to loaf about and molt prior to the fall migration.

Redheads breed in Alaska, the western United States and western Canada.  When nesting, different female Redheads show at least three distinct egg laying strategies.  She may lay her eggs in her own nest.  Others lay eggs in other ducks' nests (both in Redhead and other ducks' nests), and then proceed to lay a clutch in her own nest.  Finally some females forgo raising their young altogether, laying all their eggs in foreign nests. This "facultative brood parasitism" has been shown to decrease the reproductive success of the host species. Redheads, despite their domestic laissez-faire, are usually outnumbered by other North American prairie-nesting species (Woodin and Michot 2002).

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Bald Eagle

Erika and I came upon this mature Bald Eagle in the Cannon Falls city park on 2 April 2011.  The eagle flew up over Lake Fredrickson where it empties into the Cannon River.  The eagle perched atop a one of the large cottonwoods over the park.  The bird preceded to preen and fluff out its feathers.  Although no prey items were apparent, eagles often preen after feeding.  We don't visit the city park all that often, but this eagle observation is our second in several years of a bird perched in the cottonwoods.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Identifying Scaup

Separating Lessser from Greater Scaup is difficult. Take this male Lesser Scaup I saw during a late March visit to Faribault's Alexander Park.

The head shape is the main field mark.  Compare the head shapes in these first two photos.  The Lesser Scaup above has a slightly crested (or angled) head unlike the rounded head of the Greater Scaup in the next photo.  The bill shape is different too.  Lessers have smaller, straighter bills with less black visible at the bill tip.

Head color varies a bit between scaups, with Lessers with a purplish sheen, green in Greaters.  The general consensus is head color is not a reliable field mark. Greater Scaup tend to have brighter white sides than Lessers--but a quick look at these two photos indicates that this field mark is also unreliable.
If the scaup you are trying to identify flies, watch its wing stripe.  In the photo below, notice the white in the wing ends abruptly at the end of the secondary wing feathers.  The stripe in the primaries is dusky, not white.  That field mark signifies the Lesser Scaup.  The white in the wing stripe on a Greater Scaup continues into the primaries.  The head shape and the extent of the white wing stripe are both robust field marks.
Female scaup are more difficult to identify.  Again, look for head shape and wing bars (no help if she does not fly).  The female Lesser Scaup below has a slight angle to the back of her head.  Her bill is relatively short and straight.  Some female Greater Scaup show a white ear spot. If Lesser Scaup show this mark, it is less distinct than on a Greater Scaup. The female below completely lacks this secondary spot (as do many Greater Scaup).