Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Blue Grosbeak

On 16 July 2014, Erika and I stopped at South Dakota's Badlands National Park. In the park, one of the best places to look for birds is the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. This short, half-mile loop consists of boardwalks and stairs, climbing about 200 feet. The Park Service considers this trail to be of moderate difficulty, although I can not imagine that most visitors will find it too much of a challenge. The trail winds around a shallow, often water-filled depression within a cedar draw.

I have seen Blue Grosbeaks at the nature trail, and we found one singing from the top of a tall cottonwood. The bird was a considerable distance from us, so I have included a second photo taken several years ago from Fort Pierre, South Dakota. Blue Grosbeaks mainly breed in the southern United States, but balloon north through the northern Great Plains. They winter in Mexico and Central America.

Blue Grosbeak biology is poorly known. The species tends to be relatively scarce. They may be out-competed by other, more numberous buntings and they are heavily parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds. They feed mostly on insects like grasshoppers and crickets, and also to a lesser extent on wild and cultivated grains (Lowther and Ingold 2011).

Monday, September 29, 2014


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

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sharp-shinned Hawk

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

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

Friday, September 26, 2014

Rufous Hummingbird

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

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Lark Sparrow

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Orchard Oriole

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

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Prairie Wild Rose

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

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

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

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Mountain Bluebird

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

Friday, September 19, 2014

Variegated Meadowhawk

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

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

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Juniper Titmouse

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Red-backed Junco

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

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

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Mountain Chickadee

Although Mountain Chickadees are common birds of the Rocky Mountains of North America, I have never photographed one. During our three days in Santa Fe in March, we visited the Randall Davey Audubon Center. I was delighted to find Mountain Chickadees feeding at the Center’s bird feeders.

Mountain Chickadees are Black-capped Chickadees’ closest relatives. Where their ranges overlap, they occupy different habitats—Mountain Chickadees are usually restricted on conifers, while Black-caps are limited to broadleaf vegetation. Their preferred nesting sites also tend to differ slightly, with Mountain Chickadees preferring higher parts of larger trees. However, where the species overlap and are both uncommon, like in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, the two species may hybridize (Archibald et al. 1999).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Common Gray Moth

For me, eBird serves as a journal of our travels, helping me remember where and when we saw birds. I have journaled for most of my life, and, because of this habit, I was able to enter most of my bird records into eBird. But my “journaling" mostly consisted of bird lists.

When it comes to moths, I really should take notes. This Common Gray Moth was on the screen of our hotel at Big Bend National Park, and is a bit out order in my account of our 2014 travels. One of this moth's field marks is the first abdominal segment having a pale whitish band bordered by a black line, which continues onto the forewing. Common Gray Moths are found throughout North America—except in the arctic—and adults fly from March to October. The larvae feed on a variety of trees as well as on clover (bugguide.net).

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Common Green Darner

This dragonfly is a juvenal Common Green Darner. The tail is violet-brown in both the immature and in the female.  The male’s tail is blue. In both sexes, the bull’s eye pattern in front of the eyes is diagnostic.

Thousands (if not more) Common Green Darners migrate south across Minnesota and other parts of the northern United States and Canada. When they arrive in the South, they reproduce. The following generation flies back north the next spring. Then they breed, often before overwintering species emerge. After the resultant larva emerge, the young darners once again head south (Mead 2009).

Common Green Darners appear to be fairly cold tolerant. I took this individual out of my bird net on a very chilly Thursday evening—the temperature was in the lower 60s F.  I placed the dragonfly on our patio table. Instead of flying, the darner violently shivered for about 5 minutes. You may notice the wings in the lower photo are blurred. In this way, the arthropod gained body heat. When I looked out next, the dragonfly had flown.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Yellow Female Lance-tipped Darner

On Tuesday I came upon this large, striking, yellow-striped and spotted dragonfly in a weedy patch of grass near Union Lake here in Rice Co., Minnesota—just about knocked my socks off if I had socks on, which I didn’t, since I was wearing sandals.

Female Lance-tipped Darners come in blue, green, and yellow morphs. (Here is a photo of a male.) Why do darners appear in three morphs? I previously discussed why some female dragonflies are found in two color phases. Scott King (pers. com.) muses that being yellow is advantageous as the grassy patches they inhabit turn yellow with the fall season, thus rendering the dragonfly more camouflaged. In any case, the yellow morphs tend to sport orange-brown-tinted wings, visible in these photos.

Friday, September 12, 2014


Last March, as we left Apache del Bosque National Wildlife Refuge, we watched a Coyote saunter across a distant marsh. Across much of North America, including Minnesota, the Coyote is the most abundant large predator. In Minnesota, as elsewhere across their range, Coyotes are increasing.  In suburban areas, they prefer mixed farm and forest land, but also thrive in prairie and dense forest (MNDNR). As such, a lot has been written about this canine, both against and in support. 

Their cause is not helped by their killing large mammals and livestock as well as being a significant factor in waterfowl nest destruction. Because they are nomadic, with territories up to 36 square miles and because they usually move two or three miles a day, Coyotes probably do not cause as much duck depredation as do fox, which have much smaller home ranges. Fox can wipe out local duck populations.

On the other hand, mice make up a large part of their prey, and thus Coyotes contribute to a healthy ecosystem. We humans are not good at sharing our planet with predators. Nevertheless, Coyotes howling at a full moon is a haunting sound and an integral component of many wilderness camping trips.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Mexican Duck

While Erika and I birded at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge last March, I took this photo of a passing duck. I knew this might be a Mexican Duck. A Mallard should show much whiter under tail coverts. Black and Mottled ducks are not found in central New Mexico.

But what is a Mexican Duck? Drilling et al. (2002) warn, “the taxonomy of the Mallard and close relatives is complex with little agreement on how to treat some taxa.” The first problem is that Mexican Ducks and Mallards hybridize extensively in New Mexico, leading the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Handbook of Birds of the World—Alive to consider the two populations to be subspecies, with many individuals showing intermediate field marks. But this dictum does not appear to be consistent, since, despite massive hybridization, Black Ducks and Mallards are considered to be distinct species.

Just to further confuse matters, genetic studies indicate that Mexican Ducks are actually more closely related to Black Ducks than they are to Mallards. Some ornithologists think that Mexican Ducks are a recently diverged species that will become reproductively isolated from Mallards. Not helping this situation is habitat destruction and over-hunting. Mexican Duck numbers are declining in the United States. The more adaptable Mallard is holding its own, and may yet genetically swamp Mexican Ducks (Wikipedia).

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Red Saddlebags

Last year I mentioned a New York Times article on dragonflies. The piece states that lions, scourge of the African plains, only catch about 25% of their prey. Great White Sharks, terror of the open ocean, see their attacks fail half the time. Dragonflies, on the other hand, may be “the most brutally effective hunters in the animal kingdom”—with success rates of over 95%! Not only that, dragonflies appear to be insatiable. Researchers fed 30 flies to a dragonfly in the lab and “it would have happily kept eating if there had been more food…”  Other scientists discovered that dragonfly brains are wired to focus on a single prey, keeping track of flight speed and distance. Until too late, the prey is clueless to the attack. Dragonflies come from behind and below and are able to hover, dive, fly backward and upside down. They can pivot 260 degrees in three wingbeats, which can stroke independently of each other.
I took these photos of a Red Saddlebags at Circle Lake near Northfield on 7 September. These dragonflies migrate into our area from the south, and may not be present every year. I have blogged about these saddlebags several times, including this year and in 2012. Photographing flying dragonflies takes patience and quick, manual focus. Especially the first photo falls into the Lucky Shot category.

Monday, September 8, 2014

American Kestrel

This American Kestrel posed for my photograph at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge last March. Kestrels hunt from perches in open areas. They nest in cavities made by other birds such as woodpeckers, or in natural holes in rocks or buildings. Here in Minnesota, they nest in boxes placed by the highway department on the back of large Interstate signs. Smallwood and Bird (2002) write, "The species readily uses artificial nest boxes, and there is increasing public interest in participating in nest-box programs." Kestrel populations are limited by the availability of nesting cavities. I do not know if the creation of oak savannas, a popular pastime among many Minnesota conservationists, helps or hinders kestrels. Large, open areas are created. On the other hand, many old, dead, potential nesting trees are cut down.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Red-tailed Hawk

After all our years in South Dakota, Erika and I are not used to having prairie dogs considered to be rare or endangered. Often we heard anti-environmentalists complain that these rodents’ burrows injure  livestock and destroy rangeland. A popular sport involved parking along highways and shooting prairie dogs. Never mind that most research indicates that rangeland with prairie dogs is more productive than without the rodents. (See my post on prairie dogs and Burrowing Owls.)

Black-tailed Prairie Dogs have disappeared from many parts of their former range. They are reintroduced in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico. Success of this program is by no means assured. This second-year Red-tailed Hawk is feeding upon what appears to be a prairie dog not far from the new colony near the refuge tour loop entrance.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Black Phoebe

During our March 2014 visit to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, this Black Phoebe greeted us. Ranging from California and the American Southwest south through South America, this species is often closely associated with water. Her it perched on a boardwalk across a wetland.

Black Phoebes are more common since people have provided bird houses in which to breed. The birds are monogamous and often bring forth two broods per year (Wolf 1997). They are mostly insectivorous, but have been known to consume small minnows and berries.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Novice birders give fall parulids a bum rap by calling them drab, confusing fall warblers. An exception is the Chestnut-sided Warbler. Definitely a brilliant bird in the spring, but, in the fall, this species sports gray sides to the head, topped by a bright, yellow-green crown. To me, this color is unique among North American birds, although I have seen similar hues in some South American tanagers.

Chestnut-sided Warblers generally breed north of Northfield, thus this is probably a migrating bird. With September’s advent, we look forward to more than the trickle of migrants we have banded to date. This is a common warbler, and I have blogged about it several times (for instance, 20 August 2010 and 27 August 2011).

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ross’s vs. Snow Goose

For Erika and me, one of the more interesting sights at New Mexico's Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in early March were the large numbers of Ross's Geese. In this photo, two Snow Geese are landing in the foreground. Note their large size and black lines (grinning patches) along their bills. The two geese immediately behind the first two, however, are noticeably smaller and have very short bills, which lack grinning patches. Ross's Geese often have bluish warts at the base of the bills. These patches are clearly visible on the first and third geese in the foreground of the bottom photo.

Historically, Ross's Geese were thought to be relatively rare. Their nesting grounds in the Canadian Arctic were only discovered in 1940. Additional sites were found from the mid-1950s to the mid 1990s. They mostly winter in California's Central Valley--although they are becoming more frequent along the Mississippi Flyway. Both as breeding and wintering birds, Ross's Geese are often found with Snow Geese, with which they graze on grasses, sedges and small grains.

Due to conservation efforts and changes in agricultural practices, Ross's Geese numbers have greatly increased. In one Canadian breeding sanctuary, their population increased from some 6,000 individuals in the 1950s to over 1,280,883 in 2006. Their total population is now over 2 million birds (Jonsson et al. 2013). There are so many birds that they are trampling and destroying their breeding grounds. The aforementioned authors state that drastic population control measures are in order.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Long-billed Dowitcher

According to Matthiessen, the name “Dowitcher” may derive from revolutionary times, when Hessians, who avidly hunted them, called these shorebirds “Deutscher Snipe.” Gruson, however, states that the name is derived from Iroquoian word for snipe, “tawistawis" (AllExperts).

This dowitcher flock loafed in the marsh at the entrance to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. I was not sure of their identification, although I suspected them to be Long-billed Dowitchers. With my scope, their flanks appeared to be barred rather than spotted. Also eBird gave me a hint—the Long-billed is the only dowitcher to be expected at this location on 3 March. Another advantage to birding with eBird is that, when you see a bird flagged as rare, you know you really should take a photo—even a poor one—to back up your sighting.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Sandhill Crane

On 3 March 2014, Erika and I began our homeward drive from New Mexico. Our first destination was Santa Fe for a car tuneup, computer repair, a fancy dinner or two, and the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. But first we stopped at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a location I have always wanted to visit.

The refuge is most famous, perhaps, for their huge, wintering flocks of Sandhill Cranes. As often happens in our travels, we were a week late to see the cranes—we only saw three. But, as you will see in the next several posts, other birds abounded. We highly recommend stopping at the refuge if you are ever in the vicinity at any time of the year.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Lance-tipped Darner

On 30 August 2014, Erika and I found several darners flying about a pond at the River Bend Nature Area near Faribault, Minnesota. Flying darners are difficult to photograph. I was disappointed in this one “perfect” shot—a Lance-tipped Darner. You can even see the spines at the end of its abdominal appendages. In the field, the darners appeared to have bright blue-spotted abdomens that contrasted with bright green thorax stripes—perhaps Canada Darners. But, back home, the photographs showed less striking, but, nonetheless, beautiful stripes. One blurry photo seems to show an individual with striking blue thorax stripes—a field mark of the Canadian species. Possibly both darner species were present, but I only came home with Lance-tips.