Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Erika took this photo at the the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum on 26 July 2012. Raccoons are usually nocturnal. When seen in the day, they are often sick. This young Raccoon, however, appeared to be in good health.

Raccoons can be pests. They are fond of corn, though they also eat "crayfish, frogs, insects, fruits, and bird eggs" (Minnesota DNR). They can be especially destructive to loon and duck nests. Add earthworms to that list--look closely--this individual rather dexterously fished worms from the roadside leaf litter. In Northfield, Raccoons live in the storm sewers and often damage local bird feeders. I have also seen them high in trees during the daytime. They partially hibernate during the winter and often form communal dens (once under our porch). Raccoons can be found across all of Minnesota except in the far northeast. Each year hunters harvest up to 150,000 Raccoons, while trappers take an additional 100,000 (MN DNR).

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Marbled Godwit

As a birder from South Dakota, I tend to think of Marbled Godwits as inhabitanst of northern Great Plains prairies. These godwits winter, however, along the coasts of the United States (southern California and the southeast), the Mexico and Central America. Marbled Godwits are monogamous and nest in low densities. They are threatened by conversion of prairie to farmland, but numbers have increased since hunting them became illegal (Gratto-Treor 2000). The godwits in the first photo foraged along the beach north of La Jolla, California, in March 2012; the godwit in the second photo was taken several years ago near Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Saturday, July 28, 2012


At the end of March, Erika and I began a relatively slow drive up the Pacific Coast from California to Washington State. Clearly our granddaughter's hatching was not eminent so we had to cool our heels. Just north of La Jolla, we enjoyed exploring the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.

When I took this photo of Whimbrels along the beach, I was aware the bird in the background was clearly larger than the first one. Did I have a vagrant, Old World species? After considerable study, I decided that these are both North American Whimbrels. Females are usually significantly larger than males (Skeel and Mallory 1996).

Whimbrels breed in the world's arctic areas. In the New World, they winter from the coasts of the United States and all the way along the coasts of South America. Although some Whimbels fly overland (and are seen in the upper midwest), others make phenomenal, non-stop, ocean flights of up to 4000 km (from New England to South America). In the winter and during migration, coastal Whimbrels use their long-decurved bills to extract fiddler crabs from crab burrows in the sand  (Skeel and Mallory 1996).

Friday, July 27, 2012

California Ground Squirrel

California Ground Squirrels are common in most west-coast states of the United States and Baja California. Recently they have expanded into Washington and Nevada. Where no snow falls, these ground squirrels are active all year. In colder regions, they hibernate for several months. During hot summers, they may estivate. They become tame in parks, such as this squirrel in La Jolla, California, and learn to take food from picnickers. They are not universally loved, as they feed on ornamental plants and trees and their burrows cause damage to lawns and gardens. These burrows are often communal, although each squirrel has its own entrance (Wikipedia).

Rattlesnakes prey on California Ground Squirrels. Many adult squirrels have some degree of immunity to rattlesnake venom. Squirrels will often provoke rattlesnakes to rattle their tails, allowing the mammals to assess the size and temperament of the snakes. Others will rise their own body temperatures and wag their tails. This behavior may give the snake the impression that they are dealing with a larger mammal than a squirrel (Wikipedia).

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Brown Pelican

Erika and I took this photograph in La Jolla, California in March 2012. Among the pelicans, only the Brown makes these dramatic, head-first dives. Upon hitting the sea, their expandable throat pouches fill with water and small fish. Brown Pelicans are the world's only mostly dark pelican (the others being mostly white) (unless you count the Peruvian Pelican and Galapagos pelicans as distinct species). They are also the most marine Pelican, although they wander inland, north to southern British Columbia, New England, and even the northern Great Plains (Shields 2002). I previously posted on this species 28 April 2011.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bronze Copper

I found this Bronze copper on 21 July 2012 as I trudged along the edge of the big pond in the St. Olaf College Natural Area. This habitat is perfect--the butterfly prefers wet areas near water. The species is found in much of central and northeastern North America. Kaufman reports that it is local but sometimes common in this habitat. The photograph is of a male. Females have more striking dots on their upper wings. The keys to identification of the Bronze Copper include the bottom side of its wings--orange on the upper wing, silver on the lower.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Powdered Dancer

On Friday, 20 July 2012, Erika and I discovered the Spring Lake Park Reserve in northern Dakota County. This park, called the "hidden jewel" of the Upper Mississippi (Watson), looks over bluffs along the river. On a large rock in a forested area, we photographed a Powdered Dancer. Although records exist from surrounding counties, our record is a first for Dakota County (Odonata Central)!

The "heavily pruinose male [looks] like nothing else" (Paulson). (Pruinosity is the tendency for many odonates to develop a whitish or blue-grayish, waxy, powder-like color on their bodies--mostly on males, but sometimes also on females.) This species, the largest Pond Damsel of the region, is usually found closer to water than the one we found. Mating pairs sometimes lay eggs while under water for over an hour (Dubois).

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Fox Squirrel

My impression, completely unsupported by any scientific data, is that Fox Squirrels are less common than Gray Squirrels in Rice County. When I do see Fox Squirrels, they tend to be in the countryside and they tend to be wary (perhaps due to 160,000 taken annually by Minnesota hunters (MN-DNR)). On the other hand, when I lived in South Dakota, I only saw Fox Squirrels. I even offered an A to any Vertebrate Zoology student who could show me a Gray Squirrel in South Dakota. Nobody collected my bounty (and the offer is no longer valid).

Although they do not inhabit the far northeast, Fox Squirrels are found in most of Minnesota; they are most common in the western half of the state.  Fox Squirrels are found in woodlands, parks, and residential areas. I have seen Fox Squirrels in Loring Park in Minneapolis. These rodents eat tree nuts, corn, maple seeds, pine seeds, acorns, and even garbage (MN-DNR). Erika and I found this quite tame Fox Squirrel in the Spring Lake Park Preserve in northern Dakota County in July 2012.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Heermann's Gull

Heermann's Gulls are atypical gulls--all dark, like in the immature above, or only white-headed, as in the adult below. Both photos where taken in California, the immature bird at La Jolla in March 2012, the adult at Morro Bay in June several years ago. Heermann's Gulls breed off both coasts of Baja California. Non-breeders are regularly found north to San Francisco, with many records north to Vancouver Island. Over 90% of the total population breed on one island, Isla Raza, in the Gulf of California. After breeding from March through July, they move north, joining non-breeders in southern California at the end of May. This "reverse" migration culminates in British Columbia during July and August. Non-breeders may not leave the United States, but breeding birds head south during the fall and winter. With protection from the Mexican government, Heermann's Gull populations are on the rise--perhaps 10-fold since 1975--and now the species tries to breed in California and is occasionally seen further from its normal range (Islam 2002).

Friday, July 20, 2012

Brandt's Cormorant

The next stop on our western road-trip was La Jolla, California. One reason to visit this city is to get close-up views of Brandt's Cormorants. These cormorants, with their diagnostic blue throats, are endemic to North America. They breed on the west coast from Vancouver Island, British Columbia south to Baja California. The species winters in coastal areas both to the north (to central Alaska) and south (to central Mexico) of the breeding range.

La Jolla, California is the only mainland nesting site for this cormorant in southern California. The birds breed asynchronously on the ocean-side cliffs within La Jolla almost all year, from December through September. Here they are common, but remain at risk from commercial fishing, pollutants, and human recreation (Wallace and Wallace 1998).

The Brandt's Cormorant is named for a Russian naturalist.  Brandt described the species from a specimen in a St. Petersburg museum collected from an unknown location by an unknown naturalist.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Lyre-tipped Spreadwing

Most local spreadwings are nearly impossible for the amateur field observer to identify. Perhaps that is why I neglected to post these photographs last year. The male on the top photo was taken along the Sakatah Singing Hills Bike Trail in La Sueur County on 3 August 2011; the female in the lower photo was taken in Erika's garden in Northfield, Rice County, on 19 July 2011.

Using Damselflies of the North Woods as a guide (this book should cost around $20 rather than the $200 quoted by Amazon), I believe these are Lyre-tipped Spreadwings. (Scott King also helped a bit.) The white on the back of the male's head, the three gray, terminal abdominal segments, and the relative clarity of the wings all support this identification. Furthermore, the male's paraprocts (central spines poking out the middle of the rear of the abdomen--between the longer cerci at the rear edges) appear to be curved. Although my guide warns "separation of females of these species...is tentative," the greenish stripes on the abdomen's top are indicative of this species. The guide concludes, "positive identification is based on subtle differences in lengths of some abdominal segments seen under a microscope."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Phainopeplas breed in the southwestern United States south into Baja California and central Mexico. The photo above is of a male we found in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument; the gray female, in the lower photo, was taken in the Joshua Tree National Park of California during a previous journey. The word "phainopepla" comes from the Greek for "shining robe." They belong to the family Ptilogonatidae--Silky Flycatchers--which DNA work shows to be relatively closely related to waxwings.

Phainopeplas are common in the Sonoran and Colorado Deserts, where they breed from February into April. With the onset of summer heat, these birds leave the desert and take up residence in oak and sycamore canyons of Arizona and California--here they breed again, but ornithologists do not know if the same birds breed twice. Furthermore, Phainopeplas behave differently in the two habitats. Desert birds form pairs that fiercely defend their territory. In woodlands, birds form loose colonies of 3-15 pairs. These colonies are defended by the groups. In the desert, Phainopeplas specialize in eating mistletoe fruit. Many mistletoe seeds pass through the birds and establish themselves as parasites on a variety of desert trees and bushes. This stable resource may be one reason for the behavioral differences between desert and woodland populations (Chu and Waisberg 1999).

Monday, July 16, 2012

Curved-billed Thrasher

Forty-four years ago Erika and I did our college senior thesis along the Mexican border with Arizona at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. A lot has changed since then. Now southern Arizona seems like a war zone. The visitor center is named after Kris Eggle, a ranger who was murdered by Mexican drug smugglers. Over 150 miles of illegal roads traverse the monument. Dangers possibly encountered in area include "heat, lack of water, spiky plants, poisonous snakes and the possibility of encounters with armed smugglers and illegal immigrants" (Americansouthwest.net). Nevertheless, the monument assures potential visitors that automobile accidents resulting from fatigue and speed are your most pressing worry.
You can not even visit William's Springs, where we did much of our research. The rangers on duty did not seem overly impressed with our history, although they did express surprise that water flowed at William's Springs 44 years ago (but see photo below). One of the few options for tourists is driving the 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive. One of the common birds here is the Curve-billed Thrasher. This ground-feeding thrasher is found in the southwestern United States south to central Mexico. It has a relatively broad habitat tolerance and wide feeding preferences--insects, seeds, fruits and seeds. It is threatened, however, by human development of the landscape (Tweit 1996).

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Gambel's Quail

Gambel's Quail numbers fluctuate depending on winter and early spring rainfall. Over 90% of this quail's diet is composed of plant material. Conditions seemed to be good in March 2012 in the Tucson area. Both sexes support the odd crown plume seen in this photo, taken through our car's front window. The bird was named after William Gambel a naturalist who collected plants and animals along the Santa Fe Trail in 1841 (Brown et al. 1998).

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Swallow-tailed Kite

In my last post about raptors' eating dragonflies, I was thinking of Swallow-tailed Kites. I photographed this kite near Mitchell, South Dakota, in September 2007. Dragonflies swarmed through the air around the kite. Unfortunately I had not yet embarked on my odonate-watching career, but, in retrospect, the dragonflies may have been darners.
Swallow-tailed Kites also capture a variety of other prey items (insects, frogs, birds, lizards, snakes, bats, fruit, and even small fish) (Meyer 1995). Small but conspicuous populations of this raptor breed in far southeastern United States. This kite also occurs from southern Mexico through central South America. North American birds winter in Central and South America. Historically Swallow-tailed Kites were noted up the Mississippi Valley north into Minnesota, where a few recent sightings of vagrants have been reported. To the best of my knowledge, the species had not been seen in South Dakota since 1878. The causes for this decline are unexplained and, despite the occasional vagrant, reasons for the species' not reestablishing its former range also remain unknown.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Common Green Darner

The large Common Green Darners in this photograph are abundant species throughout North and Central America. Here in the North, these dragonflies are renown for their migrations from here to Texas and Mexico. Records of their occurrence also exist for the Caribbean, Tahiti, Europe, Japan, and China.

Migrating darner flocks provide a food source for kestrels, kites, Green Herons, and, perhaps, nighthawks. Darner migration differs from birds in that the dragonflies oviposit eggs along their travels. The next spring, returning migrants are often joined by darners that have hatched and metamorphosed locally (Paulson).

In this photograph, a male Common Green Darner protects his mate by grasping behind her neck, while she lays fertilized eggs into the pond. Swarming around the darners are perhaps six damselflies--probably Hagen's Bluets. Note that one of them is perched on a wing of the female darner! In case the photo needs further explanation, it is a study in reflections.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Costa's Hummingbird

Found from western Arizona and adjacent Nevada and California south through coastal northwestern Mexico, the Costa's is a desert hummingbird. Birds in Arizona migrate south after breeding in the spring. Although these hummingbirds fly-catch, they are common only when nectar sources are abundant (mainly chuparosa or ocotillo). Vagrants occur north to Alaska and east to Kansas (Baltosser and Scott 1996). One advantage to a zoo like the Arizona Desert Museum in Tucson is that the birds can not fly far.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid

On Sunday, Erika and I found several Lesser Purple Fringed Orchids alongside the Bog Boardwalk at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (Carver County, Minnesota). Identification was easy--the Arboretum labeled them. I called the Arboretum and asked if these orchids were natives, or if they were planted.  The Arboretum Library replied that they have no records of the orchids' being planted and presumed them to be wild.

The Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid grows in much of northeastern North America in wet environments. This orchid is endangered, rare, or threatened in at least a half dozen eastern states. The Iroquois used the plant in aid in childbirth, cure cramps in children and to treat other injuries (University of Michigan). The species is pollinated by butterflies (Dave's Garden.com). In Minnesota, the range is from the northern Twin cities into the Arrowhead, and in the southeastern part of the state. In the Friends of Eloise Butler Wild Flower Garden website, we learn that Lesser Purple Fringed Orchids were introduced to that Minneapolis wildflower preserve by Eloise herself in 1908 with a plant brought from Nova Scotia. Despite subsequent introductions then and in the 1930s, the species is no longer to be found in the preserve.

Tina Negas informs us that other orchids in this genus are named "Devil's Fingers, Bloody Bones, Dead man's hand - what horrible names for such a lovely flower! The names derive from the tuber - DEFINITELY not for digging up! The swollen tubers were thought to indicate LUST, the flaccid ones, an antidote - no prizes for guessing why." According to the Merriam Webster On-Line Dictionary, several European orchids in other genera are also called Dead Man's Fingers due to their pale digitate roots.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Although Erika and I were disappointed with the Arizona Desert Museum (see last post), we were delighted by an easy hike across the street from the museum and up the King Canyon Trail (part of the Saguaro National Park). The trail leads to Wasson's Peak, seven miles distant, but we hiked a two-mile loop, up a dry riverbed to a picnic area. This hike was pleasant in March, but be forewarned, summer temperatures can be life-threatening and no water sources exist along the trail.

We came upon several Verdins, birds heretofore unphotographed by me. These active little birds prove to be North America's only representatives of an Old World family, the Remizidae, or Penduline Tits. The species is found across the extreme southwestern United States, from Texas to California, south to central Mexico. Verdins build round nests with openings at the bottoms. They make nests for breeding and others for roosting.

We met group of local hikers. "Did you see the pictographs?" they asked. We were blown away that we did not see the images on the canyon walls right in front of us--too busy birding and watching for snakes I guess. These paintings were left by prehistoric Hohokam people (for more information, see Phoenix.gov or Wikipedia).

Monday, July 9, 2012

Gila Woodpecker

After leaving New Mexico last March, Erika and I visited the Arizona Desert Museum in Tucson. We had fond memories of visiting the museum 44 years ago. This time we were disappointed--the museum was more like a zoological park than a desert preserve, and completely full of people. Tucson has grown in the last half century.

We did see a few wild birds, including this Gila Woodpecker poking out of a cavity in a Saguaro Cactus. The woodpecker is a year-round in southern Arizona and northwestern Mexico. The species is characteristic of Saguaro deserts, but is also found elsewhere. This is a noisy, aggressive woodpecker and is easy to find. It is an omnivore, consuming cactus flowers and fruits, insects, other animals and even bird eggs (Edwards and Schnell 2000).

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Sandhill Crane

Driving through Rice County, Minnesota, soybean fields on Sunday, 8 July 2012, Erika spotted a family of four Sandhill Cranes. Since soybeans do not fruit until August, these cranes were probably farmer-friendly, consuming insects among the soy plants. The status of these majestic birds appears to be changing.  Once considered uncommon and local in our area, Sandhill Cranes are increasingly reported as breeding in Rice and surrounding counties. Apparently the cranes are adapting so as to coexist with human-altered habitats.

Sandhill Cranes do not breed until they are at least two years old and can live to over 20 years. Pairs are monogamous and stay together for more than one breeding season. They lay two-egg clutches but, unlike the birds Erika discovered, they rarely raise more than one young to fledging (Tacha et al. 1992).

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Willow vs. Alder Flycatchers

Last month Erika and I photographed this Willow Flycatcher at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. We are confident of our identification because the bird was singing "Fitz-bew." Willow and Alder flycatchers overlap in the Minneapolis/St. Paul region (see eBird), and the two species are very difficult to tell apart in the field. Alder Flycatchers, however, sing "Free-beer" and sometimes "Fee-bee-o!" Even in the hand, the two species are nearly identical. Some identification guides suggest that Willow Flycatchers tend to have browner backs than the greener-backed Alders.  Nevertheless, the Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL) would rather that non-singing birds simply be labeled "Traill's" Flycatchers. Below is a photograph of what I am fairly certain is an Alder Flycatcher but which I reported to the BBL as a "Traill's" (at their insistence). (The bird was banded in May 2008 near Dundas, Minnesota.) I have previously posted on why these two birds are now considered to be separate species. (The song links in this post are used with permission of Thayer Birding Software.)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Review: Beauty of Birds

Princeton University Press has embarked on an interesting project called Princeton Shorts. These eBooks are selections from larger publications. Recently they digitally published chapter 5, The Beauty of Birds, from Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experienceby Jeremy Mynott. The eBook is only 40 pages long (not counting notes and citations and costs $2.99 (vs. about $20 for the whole, 392-page book). The Beauty of Birds is available through a wide variety of eBook programs, including Kindle and Nook.

Mynott, former CEO of Cambridge University Press and a fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, ponders what makes birds beautiful. Examples of these inquiries include the following questions. Are rare birds inherently more beautiful than common ones? Is the Red-winged Blackbird less beautiful for an American birder than for someone seeing it for the first time? Are swans and cranes inherently more beautiful than sparrows? To what degree is bird behavior intrinsic to their beauty? Despite conventional wisdom, is a bird in the bush worth more than one in the hand? Is a dead Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager as beautiful as a living one?

Are species celebrated in poetry, art and music more beautiful than others? How does an interest in birds connect with other parts of our lives? To what degree is our appreciation of birds spiritual? How do birds affect our powers of imagination and association? How has our appreciation of bird changed through history?

Do improvements in bird art affect our appreciation of birds? Are birds appreciated more because of artists’ ability to capture essences of bird behavior? Are bright birds more beautiful than subtle ones? (Interesting questions, considering The Beauty of Birds is illustrated only with black-and-white plates! The photos in this review are mine--the blackbird from Minneapolis and the mountain-tanager from Peru.) Mynott includes a plate of naked women in his discussion of beauty, photos that seem incongruous in an essay on avian aesthetics.

Mynott concludes that “Birds are beautiful…a fact of life, a fact about some of our lives.” Perhaps birds are appreciated to different degrees by different people. Not mentioned in this essay is the role of flight in our appreciation of birds. Welty, writing from a less politically correct time, attributed flight for our love of birds “When the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker recently surveyed native school children of Northern Rhodesia and asked them, given a free choice, what they most wanted to be, nearly half the boys wanted to be birds. Almost half the girls wanted to be boys but about one quarter of the girls wished that they, too, might become birds….”

Here is a link to this eBook:
The Beauty of Birds: From "Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience" (Princeton Shorts)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Two-tailed Swallowtail

An early Two-tailed Swallowtail fluttered across my New Mexican brother's lawn while we visited last March. Not always common, this butterfly is found from British Columbia east to central Nebraska and south through Mexico. Adults take nectar from a variety of weeds, including thistles and milkweeds. This species is similar to the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail but has thinner and fewer black stripes and each wing has two tails. It is that state butterfly of Arizona.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Mexican Jay vs. Western Scrub-Jay

As I converted my life list to eBird, I lost several species. One was the Mexican Jay I saw in Oaxaca. According to eBird, Mexican Jays are not found in Oaxaca. So it was with enthusiasm that I followed my brother during our recent road-trip to New Mexico. He told me he knew where to look for them and how to separate them from Western Scrub-Jays. According to the field guides, as you can see from these photos, Mexican Jays (above) have gray throats and cobalt-blue upperparts (this last color is well-illustrated in the National Geographic Guide), while scrub-jays (below) are darker blue above and have white throats.

"The way you tell them apart," said my brother, "is that Mexican Jays are found in higher elevation, oak forests and are seen in noisy flocks. Scrub-Jays are usually alone or in pairs and are more often silent."

The Mexican Jay is found from the southern southwest United States to central Mexico. This jay is highly social, flocking in groups of five to 25 individuals. These flocks have a complex organization. Several females may breed simultaneously and monogramously. The young, however, are fed by most flock members. Flocks tend to be sedentary and non-miratory. Individuals within the flock may live past 20 years, either in its birth territory or in an adjacent one (McCormack and Brown 2008). My brother knew just where to look.

Compared to Mexican Jays, Western Scrub-Jays are found over a wider range across the western United States and central Mexico. They also enjoy a wider habitat range, including suburban cities. Scrub-Jays tend to frequent lower and drier areas than Mexican Jays. Western Scrub-Jays are less social than Mexican Jays or Florida Scrub-Jays (Curry et al. 2002).

Monday, July 2, 2012

Racket-tailed Emerald

Among the emeralds, writes Paulson, the Racket-tailed is the easiest to photograph because it frequents forest clearings and paths and lands more frequently than other emeralds. This species is found from Minnesota into New England and southeastern Canada. This emerald eats blackflies and often cruises around people in search of these annoying arthropods. Erika and I found this lone Racket-tailed Emerald at the Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Dakota County, Minnesota.