Sunday, August 31, 2014

Copper Underwing

When Erika and I opened the porch umbrella last week, about 50 Copper Underwing moths flew out. The species is common in hardwood forests across most of North America. The larvae feed on a wide varity of hardwood trees. Adults fly from early July and are most common in August and September. These moths have pale-orange underwings, which are often hidden by the forewings. I wish I had known to look. Thanks to Scott King for ID help.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpeckers are found from Oregon across the Southwestern United States, south through Mexico, Central America, to Columbia. We found a few while visiting my brother north of Silver City, New Mexico. Here they inhabited riparian oak scrubland, but, elsewhere they are also found in pine-oak woodlands. 

Acorn Woodpeckers breed in family groups of up to a dozen birds. The group members cooperatively raise their young and are famous for storing acorns in woodpecker-riddled storage trees called granaries. The woodpeckers fit the acorns into the holes they have drilled, often moving acorns to new, better fitting holes as the acorns shrink as they dry. Not all Acorn Woodpeckers, however, live in groups or use storage trees. The species also is variable in its migratory tendencies, with some populations sedentary, and others migratory.

The groups that do use granaries share their acorns as the winter progresses. Acorns are not the only items they eat—Koenig et al. (1965) also list “sapsucking, flycatching, bark-gleaning, and seed-eating."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Bridled Titmouse

At the end of February 2014, we visited my brother north of Silver City, New Mexico. We made several birding explorations, one in search of Bridled Titmice that my brother assured us lived among the oaks at a local picnic area. A Bridled Titmouse quickly appeared. The titmouse moved from tree to tree so fast that I soon found my legs tangled in the weeds at my feet. The bird acted more like a chickadee than a titmouse. I did, however, manage this one photograph, a new bird for my collection.

Among North American titmice, the Bridled Titmouse’s striking head pattern is unique. They do bear a striking resemblance to European Crested Tit. Some ornithologists wondered if the two species were closely related. Genetic studies indicate, however, that Bridled Titmice are more closely related to North American titmice than they are to the European bird (Nocedal and Ficken 1998).

Bridled Titmice are found in southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico south through Mexico. The scientific name, Baeolophus wollweberi, is interesting. The species was first described by Charles Bonaparte in 1850 and named for Wollweber, who previously collected a specimen. That is all we know about Wollweber, who sent Mexican specimens to a German museum (Nocedal and Ficken 1998; Gruson 1972).

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Green Heron 2

In yesterday’s post, perhaps I should not have been so surprised to find a Green Heron high in a tree. On Sunday, 24 August 2014, Erika and I came upon this Green Heron in the Carleton College arboretum. The bird flew up, high into a nearby conifer. I do not know if its out-stretched neck was to better observe us, or to provide camouflage among the tree limbs.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Highway 77 Bridge

A good place to bird when time is limited when you are in the Minneapolis metro area is the Old Highway 77 Bridge, just south of Cedar Avenue where it crosses the Minnesota River. This area is part of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Especially noteworthy is a short boardwalk that leads across a marsh just south of the parking lot. Plans are to convert the old bridge into a bicycle/foot path, which will afford interesting birding opportunities. Now, however, bridge access is closed. I have never had any problem, but I have been told by a few birders to never leave anything visible in your car and not to put anything in your trunk while at the parking lot, for fear of vandalism.

Anyway, on Friday, 22 August 2014, Erika and I visited the area. We did not list too many species, but we did enjoy finding a Green Heron perched high atop a huge dead tree next to a pond. You usually expect to find this heron on the ground in the marsh vegetation. I posted several other Green Heron photographs in a previous post. It did not help that two workmen puttered about in a noisy ATV (All-Terrain Vehicle).

We were surprised that the small pond alongside the parking lot was drained, just a muddy surface with a creek running through it. We did photograph a relatively tame Solitary Sandpiper. Last May I posted several other photos of this species and wrote about its food habits.

Monday, August 25, 2014

White-winged Dove

I have already written about the recent range extension of White-winged Doves. Here I researched the doves' food preferences. Birds in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona prefer saguaro seeds, which are found in cup-shaped fruits, resulting in easy consumption.  White-winged Doves occurring further east prefer larger-seeded plants, and often cultivated ones.

Interestingly, seeds of the Century Plant, the largest agave in Big Bend National Park, are not listed in Schwertner et al.’s (2002) list of preferred foods. This White-winged Dove feasted on the agave’s seed pods. It is perhaps noteworthy that the seeds lie in cup-shaped fruits. Notice that both of the dove’s eyes are closed as it ate.

The agave is called a “century plant,” although it blooms once after 20-50 years.  Century plants have many human uses, including mescal and tequila. I assume these plants were cultivated, grown in front of the Chisos Mountain hotel.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Torrey Yucca

Four species of yuccas grow in Big Bend National Park—I believe this one is the Torrey Yucca, sometimes called the Spanish Dagger. The flowers require pollination by the Yucca Moth. Indiginous peoples ate the yucca fruit, and used the leaves to make cloth, rope, mats, sandals and baskets. Roots were used as soap and as a laxative. This species was named for John Torrey, a Columbia University botanist, who designated this yucca as a new species in 1859 (NPS; The Torrey Yucca in the United States is native to New Mexico and Texas.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Texas Rainbow Cactus

This Texas Rainbow Cactus was labeled and growing near the Big Bend National Park visitor center at Panther Junction. The species is often cultivated in desert gardens, so I do not know if this is a wild specimen. Wild plants, however, have a limited distribution in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, but are most easily found in the Big Bend region. The plant also grows south into northern Mexico. Plants are normally found with two or three basal branches (Wikipedia; and get their name for the faint, rainbow-like bands on the branches.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Pipevine Swallowtail

Along the Rio Grande last February in the Big Bend National Park, Erika and I found a new butterfly for our list—a Pipevine Swallowtail. The species tends to be an early flier in the spring. In regions without frost, adults may fly all year. The species is named for pipevines (Aristolochia), plants that their caterpillars favor. Adults feed on nectar of a wide range of flowering plants (

Thursday, August 21, 2014


Peccaries (also known as Javalinas) look a bit like pigs, but are classified in a family of their own. They are found from the Southwestern United States through much of South America. Curiously, this Peccary, in the Big Bend National Park, is the first I have ever seen.

Apparently Peccaries usually travel in groups of up to a dozen—and even a herd of 50 has been reported. Single individuals are often old or sick. The animals are most active in the morning and evening, and tolerate high temperatures only poorly. They eat roots, fruits, cactus, insects, worms, and reptiles.

Peccaries are not dangerous, but should be respected. The whole herd can attack if one of the group is wounded. They can drive off dogs, coyotes, and bobcats. If fed, they can lose their fear of humans and can become a nuisance at campgrounds and are even becoming an “urban menace” (

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Carmen Mountains White-tailed Deer

The deer in the Chisos Mountains of the Big Bend National Park are a small race named the Carmen Mountains White-tailed Deer. The Chisos Mountains and adjacent Mexican ranges are the only places to find these animals. Because hunting and livestock grazing are prohibited in the national park, the deer in the park are not endangered—they are common above 4500 feet.  Krausman and Ables (1981) conclude, "Big Bend is probably the only area remaining where the Carmen deer may continue to maintain a healthy, reproducing population in a natural state.”

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Mexican Jay

Erika and I first visited Big Bend National Park 40 years ago when we were heading towards graduate school.As poor students, all we could afford was to spend the night tenting in an overflow campground next to airstream vans running their air conditioners. In February, we stayed at the park lodge in the Chisos Basin. Signs warned not to feed the wildlife, but we were delighted that this Mexican Jay flew up to see if we would break this commandment. Clearly other visitors ignored the sign.
I have previously discussed the amazing social organization of Mexican Jays. The species forms three populations, one in the eastern Sierra Madre Oriental (and ranging north just past the Texas border), one in the western Sierra Madre Occidental (ranging into Arizona and New Mexico), and a third in central Mexico. Recent molecular studies suggest that these populations should be split into two or three distinct species. Arizona and New Mexico birds would be called Mexican Jays, while those in Texas would be Couch’s Jays. The populations are slightly differently plumaged—Texas birds are slightly more blue on the chest—and the two “species” have slightly different vocalizations. Finally, the birds of central Mexico may be a third species, but the data for that split is more ambiguous—these birds might remain as a race of the Couch’s Jay (McCormack and Brown 2008).

Monday, August 18, 2014

Cooper’s Hawk 2

On Saturday, 16 Aug 2014, Erika and I heard a loud, strident, mewing high in the trees at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Carver County, just west of Minneapolis. This large hawk was actually difficult to see among the branches. Note how much shorter the hawk’s outer tail feathers are than the central ones—a good field mark of the Cooper’s Hawk.  Other hawks have their tail feathers of about equal length.

Undoubtedly a first-year female—females are about one-third larger than males. The species shows the greatest reverse size dimorphism of any hawk (Curtis et al. 2006). This disparity makes life kind of tough for the males, who are submissive to the females. The males are about the right size to be a meal. Females make reassuring calls when they are willing to be approached males. Males do the nest building and provide almost all the food to the female and young (

Cooper’s Hawk numbers appear to be increasing. Surveys indicate increases of 10% in Michigan and 12.3% in Wisconsin. Moreover, Cooper’s Hawks have become common in urban and suburban areas. writes that Rock Pigeons and Mourning Doves are often consumed. Some Arizona birds suffer from parasites acquired by eating doves ( In any event, the Cooper’s Hawks in our neighborhood seem to have consumed many of our local birds.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Blister Beetle

This Blister Beetle is feeding on Narrow-leaved Goldenrod. Scott King pointed it out to me on 12 August 2014, south of Northfield, Minnesota. Blister Beetles are in the family Meloidae, and are known to secrete a substance that causes skin to blister. Although this species is black, others of the 7500 species of Blister Beetles are aposematically colored, warning of their toxicity. Scott and I did not disturb this beetle.

Blister Beetle larvae are insectivorous, attacking bees and grasshoppers. Adults feed on a variety of flowers and leaves, including goldenrods.

Crushed Meloidid beetles are the principle irritant in folk medicine used as a male aphrodisiac. Not a good idea, since the arthropods have also been used to poison people. Some species are toxic to horses. A few beetles ingested with alfalfa hay can be lethal. Alfalfa should be carefully dried and treated (Wikipedia).

Friday, August 15, 2014

Dragonfly Day

On Tuesday, 12 August 2014, dragonfly expert Scott King and I walked in a restored prairie just south of Northfield. With Scott along, I brushed up on my nascent identification skills. Here is a quick list of some of the odonates we saw. I have linked the species’ names to other posts I have published. We also listed three additional dragonflies, a Wandering Glider,  Black Saddlebags, and Common Whitetail, but which we failed to photograph.
Common Green Darner—These large, migratory dragonflies were just emerging from the pond. The link will take you to a more complete photograph.

Lance-tipped Darner—Scott netted (and released) a few of these dragonflies. In this photo, Scott is holding on to the wings. I was hoping he would net me a Canada Darner, which can be an abundant migrant, but which I have never seen.
Halloween Pennant—We found a couple of these gaudy dragonflies near a larger lake.
Ruby Meadowhawk—This individual is my first gynomorph Ruby Meadowhawk. Recently I posted a  photo of a male, and I have also seen an andromorph female. That some female dragonflies look like males, and others come in dark forms, are part of what makes this sport so difficult. This typical female is identified by the amber bases of her wings and by the black triangles on her sides.
This year has been excellent for White-faced Meadowlarks—always common, this year they have been abundant. Scott (aka, The Dragonfly Whisperer) demonstrated that, unlike most other meadowlarks, if you slowly raise your hand under a White-faced Meadowhawk, sometimes the dragonfly will perch on you. I have unsuccessfully attempted this feat several times since Scott's demonstration.
Eastern Forktails are among are most common damselflies around Northfield. On this male, note the green-striped body, the blue-tipped abdomen and the dark notch on the sides of the abdomen tip.
Most of the day was spent with Scott patiently teaching me how to identify spreadwings. This first damselfly is a Lyre-tipped Spreadwing. Note the large, inward-curved spines at the abdomen tip.
Also flying were Slender Spreadwings. Their best field mark is a tinge of white at their their outer wing edges.
Finally, Scott netted several Spotted Spreadwings. These damselflies have darker top sides than the other two spreadwings. Their best field mark, however, are the spots on their “bellies” (the underside of their thorax). They are also smaller than the others.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Say’s Phoebe

Back at the parking lot at the Chisos Basin visitor center at Big Bend National Park last February, we found a Say’s Phoebe. This flycatcher is found across western North America, from central Mexico to the Arctic. In the winter, migrants overlap with southern resident birds. They build their nests on rocky ledges and human buildings. In South Dakota, they often nest in abandoned barns and farm houses. Unlike Eastern Phoebes, Say’s Phoebes rarely add mud to their moss and grass nests. These birds are insectivorous, preferring wasps and bees, but also taking a variety of other flying arthropods.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Vermillion Flycatcher

At Big Bend National Park’s Panther Junction campground, we discovered several Vermillion Flycatchers. These are among our favorite birds, and not only because of their brilliant plumage. When we were much younger, in 1970, Erika and I studied field ecology in Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. We camped out for two months near Quitobaquito and William’s Springs. These days you need reservations and an armed guard to visit these border areas.

In the national monument, we watched a pair of Vermillion Flycatchers nest in a large cottonwood at Quitobaquito. The male made high display flights, singing the whole time, while the female incubated. When she left the nest, she was soundly scolded by the male. We were impressed by this domestic behavior, but did not realize it had not been described in the ornithological literature. Someone else wrote about it the next year.

Vermillion Flycatchers are found from the American southwest to Argentina and Peru. In Lima, black morphs exist. The advantage to being all black is uncertain, as is why other populations do not show this dimorphism.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

American Rubyspot

At Panther Junction in the Big Bend National Park, on 25 Febraury 2014, Erika and I walked to the edge of the Rio Grande. There we found a dozen American Rubyspots, damselflies with which I was well familiar from Northfield. I am surprised that a tiny odonate would enjoy such a wide range. Not only is this species found in the United States from coast to coast, it is also found south to Nicaragua. You might think that local populations of such a wide ranging species might differentiate into distinct species. They are, nevertheless, generally common along clear, running streams, with rubyspots in the western United States also favoring slower, muddy rivers (Paulson 2012).

Monday, August 11, 2014

Vesper Sparrow

This rather handsome Vesper Sparrow watched John Holden and me as we drove up a road in Dakota County, Minnesota, on 30 July 2014. I have seen many Vesper Sparrows, but I can not say that I previously noticed the strong dark line surrounding the cheek (auricular) feathers. My identification book, however, assures me this mark is an identifying feature of this species.

Vesper Sparrows are found in shrub-laced, grassy fields and in cultivation. The scientific name of this species is Pooecetes gramineus, which means “grass-inhabiting lover of grass.” If you look closely, you might see a trace of chestnut on this bird’s shoulder. An older name for the bird is Bay-winged Sparrow.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Marsh Wren

I have already written about Marsh Wren songs and possible cryptic species. Generally I find Minnesota Marsh Wrens more wary than South Dakota birds. Nevertheless, about a half-dozen Marsh Wrens approached John Holden and me while we visited the 180th Street Marsh in nearby Dakota County on 30 July 2014. They were difficult to photograph, as they bounced about, calling all the while, and the camera’s autofocus confused by all the cattail leaves.

Male Marsh Wrens often mate with two or more females. The males build multiple nests, often at least six dummy nests for every nest used by a female. This nest building, and their plethora of song types, apparently advertise an individual male’s potential as a successful breeder (Kroodsma and Verner 2014).

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Brown Thrasher

On Monday we banded a young Brown Thrasher at our Dundas station. This event was somewhat surprising, since this year we had no visual evidence of thrashers. The black background of this photo is due to using a flash in the very early morning.

These thrashers usually nests in low trees of shrubs, and occasionally on the ground.  Both sexes tend to the eggs and young.  The hatchlings leave the nest quickly, sometimes within nine days. Brown Thrashers are the most common host for Brown-headed Cowbirds, despite often rejecting cowbird eggs (Cavit and Hass 2000).

Friday, August 8, 2014

Cooper’s Hawk Bathing

On Thursday, 7 August 2014, Erika ran in from the garden and announced, “Quick get your camera, there’s a Cooper’s Hawk in the water feature!” This tame, young hawk allowed me to get quite close as it bathed in the middle pool of the stream. In the second photo, the bird has its head completely submerged as it shook its wings and tail. While belly-deep in the water, the Cooper’s Hawk looked up in the third photo. The hawk seemed completely unconcerned about us. Finally the hawk flew off, chased by Blue Jays.
I have seen Cooper’s Hawks bathing in bird baths, like one several years ago in Aberdeen, South Dakota. According to Curtis et al. (2006), this species "enjoys bathing" in pools of water and in the rain. These authors also write that birds “will often fly to  a sunny perch to dry."

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Review: Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World, Handbook of the Birds of the World—Alive

Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World, Vol 1. Non-passerines. Josep del Hoyo and Nigel J. Collar. 903 pp. Hardbound. $194.65. Handbook of the Birds of the World—Alive. Subscription website. Approximately $40 or $60 annually, depending on subscription level.

Almost any birder will greatly enjoy the Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World, Volume 1—but it is a large, heavy, expensive book. The book contains 357 plates containing 8290 small, thumb-sized illustrations of the non-passerines of the world. These drawings are generally very good, but tend to be in a cookie-cutter style, with birds often in identical poses.

The book is not meant to be an identification guide, but rather is a review of avian diversity. The color plates each contain about two-dozen birds and show species and many subspecies. Small range maps are included on each plate. Opposite each plate is a page giving alternative names, taxonomic notes, and subspecies and distribution. There is also a note on population status and a reference to where the bird appears in the 17-volume, Handbook of the Birds of the World, thus serving as an index to that monumental work.

The 30-page introduction is an interesting discussion about how species evolve and how they are defined. Also covered are definitions of terminology and the general layout of the species accounts. The book ends with at least 30 large atlas-sized maps of the regions of the world, including topographical landmarks and often political boundaries within countries (states and provinces). Finally, the book ends with a list of 2126 bibliographic references.

If you don’t have the $400 required for this volume and the upcoming checklist for all the passerines, or the $3760 (a 20% discount) for the whole 17-volume, Handbook of the Birds of the World, then consider the Handbook of Birds of the World—Alive (HBW—Alive).

HBW—Alive is the web version of the Handbook. You can buy a yearly subscription for approximately $40 annually. The website is massive, covering all 13,367 pages written by 277 authors, 10200 maps, and containing some 15 million words. All the family texts have internet links--some 17000 of them. You can search for bird families and species accounts for any of the birds of the world. But what is awesome is that HBW—Alive is being continually updated with new ornithological information, making the website truly alive and a vision into our technological future.

HBW—Alive lacks the sumptuous photographs of the Handbook. In their place are links to a wide array of still and video sequences of the birds. At this time, this includes over 67,500 links to pictures, videos, and sounds. Links also exist to the original literature cited in the text—although this ability is available only to Supporting Members for about $60 per year.

HBW—Alive also allows you to keep personal notes and to create printable country checklists, complete with color illustrations of every species. Keeping life-lists is also possible for Supporting Members. Updates from the ornithological journals of the world are also available. I have barely scratched the surface of what a stupendous resource this website offers. Anyone seriously interested in birds should check out this link: Overview of HBW—Alive.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Eight-spotted Forester

We had to wait for our room to be ready on our first day at Big Bend National Park on 25 February 2014. So we drove down to Panther Junction along the Rio Grande. Among the cattails in a small pond near a campground, we discovered an Eight-spotted Forester. This day-flying moth is often mistaken for a butterfly. The species ranges across much of eastern North America, west to South Dakota and Texas. The caterpillars can be a pest.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Canyon Towhee

Last February, after we left south Texas, Erika and I spent two days at Big Bend National Park. February is probably not the best month for birding there, so I went with limited expectations. My target species was this Canyon Towhee, a common bird for which I lacked photographs. The reason was that only recently have Canyon and California towhees been split into separate species. (Both used to be called Brown Towhees.)

I asked a park ranger where I might best find Canyon Towhees, and he replied, “Oh, we call them Parking Lot Birds, because that is where you see them.” The ranger was correct. These towhees, inhabitants of our Southwest and northern Mexico, are found in a wide variety of habitats and display a range of behaviors—from shy and hard to find, to tame and confiding.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Anna’s Hummingbird

On 25 February 2014, Erika and I arrived at Terlingua at the edge of Big Bend National Park.  We hoped for rare hummingbirds at local feeders. The only hummers we saw were two Anna’s Hummingbirds. I thought that they might be Black-chinned Hummingbirds. Mary Gustafson, an eBird checker and friend, assures me that the primaries are wide,  not narrow, even on the inner feathers, and the green flanks all point to Anna’s Hummingbird.

The Anna’s Hummingbird’s range has greatly expanded since the 1930s. Then it was only found from Baja California to San Francisco. Now it breeds north to British Columbia and east to western Texas. Apparently this species has taken advantage of the proliferation of hummingbird feeders and exotic plants (Clark and Russell 2012).

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Ruby Meadowhawk

On 29 July 2014, the Carleton College arboretum swarmed with meadowhawks. This is a photo of a Ruby Meadowhawk, only my second encounter with the species. Last year I posted a note on this species  and mentioned that Ruby Meadowhawks are difficult to identify, except in Minnesota and Iowa. Our populations can be identified by their amber wings.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Yellow-headed Blackbird Fledgling

Taking a break from my Texas birds, about which I have been posting for the past week, life has not come to a complete stand-still here in Minnesota.  On 9 July 2014, John Holden and I visited the 180th Street Marsh in nearby Dakota County. To our delight, we found several very young Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Perhaps the presence of these blackbirds is why I have found but few dragonflies at this marsh. Readers of my June blog on the species may recall that Yellow-headed Blackbirds only thrive in wetlands replete with dragonfly larvae.