Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Chipping Sparrow

In a weedy field in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, this juvenal Chipping Sparrow posed for us. This sparrow is abundant across much of North America. Chippy’s are found in urban areas and in brushy, weedy fields. Chipping Sparrows were thought to be a monogamous species. Middleton (1998), however, cites banding studies that showed that males move through neighboring territories and may copulate with several females. This author warns that ornithologists do not know if this behavior is widespread. The second photo, of an adult, I took last May. I was collecting miscellaneous bird shots for the BirdsEye photo collection.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Tufted Titmouse

Yesterday Erika and I censused birds for the Red Wing, Minnesota, Christmas Bird Count. Most of my readers know about these 15-mile diameter count areas. They are set up by the National Audubon Society across the United States and the world.  Currently 2100 count circles run each year, scheduled from 14 December through 5 January.

Our “target species” was the Tufted Titmouse. The titmouse’s range covers most of the eastern United States and southern-most eastern Canada. In Minnesota, this species is uncommon in the southeast, straying only occasionally north of Minneapolis/St. Paul. We have seen under a half-dozen titmice in Minnesota and I banded one near Northfield. Our quest was successful, as you can see in the first photograph. Three titmice fed at a local bird feeder. I knew they are reported from Red Wing  These birds are our first in the Red Wing Christmas Count area.

Other interesting birds included a huge flock of at least 168 Common Mergansers. I think I counted 35 in the following picture of part of this flock. Our section of the Christmas Count includes a small stretch of the Mississippi River. Due to our warm fall, the river lacked ice. As a result, we saw few waterfowl. Perhaps the ducks were more spread out without ice, or maybe the winter ducks remained on ice-free water further north. These hypotheses do not explain the large concentration that we encountered.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

House Finch

We don’t see many House Finches at our feeders. House Finches are famous for their explosive range expansion in 1994. Escaped captive birds from New York took over most of eastern North America. This “explosion” caused an outbreak of mycoplasmosis—bird pox—that left individuals blind and crippled. Since the outbreak, birds have developed resistance to the disease and populations have rebounded.

On 1 December 2015, this male House Finch appeared at our feeder. It was sick, although it did not seem to have bird pox. When not eating, the bird spent most of its time preening its feathers. Studies show a high correlation of mite infestation with various bird diseases and parasites. In California, 85% of birds with pox also had mites. In Wisconsin, fecal tests yielded at least 13 species of parasites, including Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus, and Bacillus (Badyaev et al. 2012). At least a few mites infected most of the 305 birds in this study. After reading these accounts, I ran to the pharmacy and bought Clorox wipes to wash my hands after bird banding.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebirds were abundant last July in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Power and Lombardo (1996) write, “The Mountain Bluebird is probably the most aberrant of all thrushes.” They think this bluebird is more like a small kestrel. This bluebird hovers while foraging and consumes more insects than do other thrushes. And, like other bluebirds, but unlike other thrushes, they nest in cavities, both natural and human-made.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

American Bison

Last July, Erika and I spent an extra day driving home from Olympia. Instead of crossing South Dakota, we followed I-90 through North Dakota. We spent one morning in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  I was hoping for some new dragonflies, but the day was cool and windy. To my disappointment, we saw none. We did find a few interesting birds—and American Bison, which seemed to roam everywhere, including the highway. In an earlier post, I wrote about the history of these mammals.

We treated these beasts, the largest North American terrestrial animals, with respect. American Bison are one of the most dangerous animals in North America. Although they have poor eyesight, their senses of hearing and smell are excellent. Annually in Yellowstone National Park, bison kill more people than do bears. Bison can run 35 miles per hour and they are nimble. They may attack with little provocation. Tourists gawking from the roadsides do not ameliorate this situation.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Pine Grosbeak

On Saturday’s Faribault (and Northfield) Christmas Bird Count, Dave Bartkey and others found a Pine Grosbeak near Cannon City here in Rice County. On Sunday, Gene Bauer reported the bird was still present. Erika and I dove over and photographed the bird. The bird fed along with Cedar Waxwings in an extensive patch of fruiting trees and shrubs.

I have previously blogged about Pine Grosbeaks we found one winter near Duluth. This species breeds in northern Canada, Alaska, and south into the central Rocky Mountains. It is also found from eastern Asia into Scandinavia. Rocky Mountain populations tend to be sedentary. North American Pine Grosbeaks east of the mountains experience periodic irruptive migrations into the United States (Adkisson 1999). They don’t stray as far south as other “winter finches.” I checked in eBird and discovered that, so far this winter, our Rice County record is probably the southern-most record east of the Rockies.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Western Red Damsel

Western Red Damsels are easy to identify. They are common, but often overlooked. They stay close to the ground in dense vegetation near ponds, ditches, slow moving creeks and adjacent meadows (PaulsonKerst and Gordon). This habitat is precisely where Erika and I found this damsel. On our way home from our August trip, we once again stopped at the Montana, I-90 public fishing area near Three Forks. I was unable to relocate this damselfly after it flew.

Entomologists argue about Western and Eastern Red Damsels. As one travels east of the Rockies, these damsels become more slender and smaller, with longer abdomens. I have seen one near Northfield, in Minnesota, which I identified as the Eastern species. My understanding is that recent genetic work suggests our Minnesota populations are actually better considered to be Western Red Damsels.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Brewer’s Sparrow

Erika and I found a small flock of Brewer’s Sparrows, with adults feeding young birds, at the I-90 Ryegrass Rest Area, just before the highway descends east into the Columbia River gorge. This photograph is of a young bird. This species inhabits sagebrush scrublands across western North America. Unlike other sparrows, these birds mainly consume arthropods and can go for a long time without water. Although common in its range, these sparrows’ numbers are declining, perhaps as a result of destruction and over-grazing of their habitat (Rotenberry et al. 1999). This species was named for a Boston ornithologist who lived from 1814 to 1880.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Violet-green Swallow

During our week in Olympia last July, we often took short neighborhood strolls. We saw a few Violet-green Swallows. These birds are similar to Tree Swallows, but Violet-greens have more white on their faces (and different-patterned tails).

Violet-green swallows breed mainly in mountainous coniferous forests. They often nest in old woodpecker holes and, unlike Tree Swallows, rarely use bird-boxes (Brown and Damrose 2011). After breeding, Violet-greens move to lower elevations, so the individual in this photo may not be a local bird. This species breeds in western North America, from Canada south to Mexico, and is only rarely observed east of the Rocky Mountains.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Olympia Odes

This first photo is of a dragonfly sunning itself in Olympia, Washington, last July. I had no trouble identifying this female Common Whitetail. A local dragonfly expert, however, expressed surprise at the extent of the wing banding. Usually the bands do not traverse the whole wing. See, for example, the middle photo of a Common Whitetail from Erika's garden. My expert thought that maybe the Olympia individual was half male and half female! He lamented my not taking specimens. Looking Internet images, however, leads me to conclude that female whitetail wings can be variable.
The bottom photo is of a dragonfly that gave me more identification trouble. This ode flew over Capitol Lake in Olympia. It looked superficially like the Common Whitetail, but the tips of the wings were not dark. Finally it occurred to me that this dragonfly was probably a female Eight-spotted Skimmer. This conclusion was kind of guilt by association, since many male Eight-spotteds flew along the pond shores. (Here is a link to photos of male Common Whitetails and Eight-spotted Skimmers.)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Wood Duck

The last birds we saw at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge on 30 November were a pair of Wood Ducks. The hen was not as cooperative as this drake.

Ornithologists in the early 20th century believed this duck would soon be extinct. Hunters prize them for obvious reasons. Over hunting, deforestation, and habitat destruction all contributed to the prediction of their demise. Although Wood Ducks still comprise about 10% of the annual duck harvest (Hepp and Belrose 2013), their populations have made a remarkable recovery. Hunting is regulated, nest boxes set out by conservation groups encourage nesting, and forests have recovered.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Northern Shrike

The scientific name for the Northern Shrike is Lanius excubitor. Translations from the Latin vary, but the name means Sentinal Butcher or Watchman Butcher.  In the winter, Northern Shrikes take small birds and mammals, which the shrikes often empale on thorns or barbed wire. In the summer, insects are also taken. Unlike hawks, which capture prey in their claws, shrikes use their razor-sharp bills.

On 30 November, Erika and I found this Northern Shrike perched on top of a tall, dead tree in the Minnesota River National Wildlife Refuge. These shrikes are winter visitors to Minnesota. They breed across Alaska and arctic Canada.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

American White Pelican

During our 30 November stroll at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge’s Bass Ponds, Erika and I spied an American White Pelican. These pelicans winter where the minimum January temperatures stays above 9 degrees Fahrenheit (Knopf and Evans 2004). That statisitic rules out wintering in Minnesota. Due to a mangled wing, the bird had not migrated south. White pelicans winter from California and the Gulf States, south through Mexico. We gave local wildlife rehabilitators directions to the bird. Due to logistical constraints, the bird remains unrescued.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Western Pondhawk

The second of my Washington, “target species” dragonflies that I recognized on our 14 July 2015, McLane Creek Nature Trail hike was this Western Pondhawk. This dragonfly is similar to the Eastern Pondhawk in the bottom photograph. Westerns, however, lack white ends to abdomen, which also has a slightly different shape. Pondhawks have a unique lime-green color. Males, as they age, like those in both these photos, become blue.

Western Pondhawks are common from British Columbia into Mexico. They often perch on the ground or horizontally on low or floating vegetation. Unlike their eastern cousins, Western Pondhawks prefer preying upon damselflies rather than dragonflies (Paulson). (See my 2011 post for a photo of a dragonfly-eating Eastern Pondhawk.)

Monday, December 7, 2015

Hooded Merganser

On Sunday, 30 November, Erika and I hiked in the Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge from the Bass Ponds to the Old Highway 77 Bridge. On the one open pond swam about a dozen Hooded Mergansers. Because of their pale bills, I believe these birds are hens. Males have darker bills and usually have yellow irises.  The leading bird, because of her more flamboyant crest, is likely an adult. The other merganser is probably an immature. In any event, I found the different water patterns to be intriguing.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Cardinal Meadowhawk

We saw two new dragonflies during our 14 July 2015 visit to Olympia’s McLane Creek Nature Trail. I am finally getting proficient enough to be on the lookout for species not on my list. These Cardinal Meadowhawks were the first of my “target species.”  Confirming field marks included the red eyes and face along with the pale spots at the end of the thoracic stripes. These photos are of males—females are rarely seen.

Cardinal Meadowhawks are found from British Columbia into the southwestern United States. They are common west of the Cascades but tend to be less common elsewhere. They perch facing the sun, thereby reducing surface area and subsequent overheating (Kerst and Gordon).

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Minnesota Bird News App

My friend Rich Hoeg has written an app so that you can keep up with Minnesota bird blogs (plus a few national and international sites).  I helped beta test the app, which works on both iOS or Android platforms. Rich has initiated a “soft launch” of his free app  Check it out. Let Rich know if you have or know of blogs he has omitted. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Pileated Woodpecker 2

Yesterday the Pileated Woodpeckers returned to their demolition stump (see yesterday’s post). After feeding on the ground, the woodpeckers flew to the top of nearby trees to enjoy a dessert of Hackberry berries. Several times before, I witnessed this feeding behavior by Pileateds. This meal becomes quite an acrobatic act! I have also seen Red-bellied Woodpeckers feeding on Hackberries.  

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Pileated Woodpecker

Yesterday Erika and I watched a male Pileated Woodpecker feeding on the ground, shredding the base of a large, dead tree in our back woods.  We noted that the woodpecker seemed to be leaning agains the trunk with its left foot, with the right planted on the ground. The bird worked on the tree for about 20 minutes.

Bull and Jackson (2011) write that Pileated Woodpeckers do occasionally forage on the ground. These authors also note that the birds play “a crucial role in many forest ecosystems.” Their roosting and nesting holes are subsequently used by many other forest birds and mammals. Pileateds also promote woodland decomposition and nutrient recycling. Finally, this woodpecker helps control harmful forest beetle populations.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

McLane Creek Nature Trail Odes

On 14 July 2015, Erika and I explored the McLane Creek Nature Trail near Olympia, Washington. From our visit to this location last year, I knew the park had great dragonfly potential. We did not see many odes last year, but, we were delighted with what we found on this trip.

The most abundant dragonflies were these bluets. As I have mentioned in a few recent posts, bluets are difficult for amateurs to identify. I asked for help from two local experts. Jim Johnson replied, “Tule, Northern, and Boreal are the expected species.” Dennis Paulson wrote, “If I had to guess, I'd say high probability of [their] being Northern Bluets, which are considerably more common than Boreal in western Washington. They also have more black on the middle abdominal segments than populations east of the Cascades. They are definitely not Tule Bluets, which have even more black on the abdomen in both sexes.
The middle two photographs are of dragonflies we already found during our trip. The photo above is a Western Forktail. The photo immediately below is a Four-spotted Skimmer. I have linked their names to previous posts about each species.
In the last photograph, a female Blue-eyed Darner is ovipositing her eggs below the water in emergent vegetation. This behavior is typical for this species. This sighting was only our second of this dragonfly, the first being just a few days before, about which I recently posted.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Leucistic American Goldfinch

On 30 November 2015, a leucistic American goldfinch accompanied a small flock of normal-plumaged goldfinches to our feeders. The long contour feathers splayed across the wings are also abnormal. Although an Internet search brings up many images of leucistic goldfinches, this individual is the first that I have seen.
The wings are also intriguing. Their general black hue suggests a male. The tan wing-bars are typical of a first-year bird. Leucism causes birds or other animals to be pale or have white patches. Albinos are pure white and have pink eyes.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Blue-eyed Darner

We visited Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 13 July. We rustled up a bird-list of 24 species, but were disappointed to see little unexpected. An unfamiliar dragonfly, however, patrolled up and down our walking path. Often it hovered, making photographs possible. The eye color makes the name Blue-eyed Darner perfect for this species. This common West Coast dragonfly ranges east into the Midwest and north into Canada.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Northern Harrier

John Holden drove near Circle Lake in Rice County, Minnesota, on Wednesday. I spied an odd raptor perched near the ground along the roadside. We made a quick U-turn and stopped on the wrong side of the road. The hawk’s strange face and long legs both suggested a Northern Harrier, but its small size and brown coloration left me a bit perplexed. This hawk turns out to be an immature harrier as indicuated by its unstreaked, buffy underparts and by the large amount of white on the head. The small size suggests that it is a male.
Unlike most other hawks, harriers have facial disks—indicated by the white stripes around the head. This disk works like a parabolic reflector. Harriers consume a wide range of prey—small to medium-sized mammals and birds. The facial disk is an aid because the birds rely on auditory and visual cues to find their prey. Harrier numbers are dependant on vole poplulations. When there are few voles, harrier numbers crash. When voles are abundant, harriers rebound. Indeed, in times of plenty, male harriers take on multiple mates (Smith et al. 2011).
As we watched, this harrier lifted its tail and wings and shat. I considered deleting this last photo, but bird excrement is interesting. (Also of note is how much of the bird’s body consists only of wings and tail—as you can see by the source of the excrement, the bird’s anus is located well toward the center of the raptor’s total length.) Take a careful look the next time you see a bird dropping. The urine is a pasty, white substance that is composed of uric acid (not urea like in mammals). The excrement consists of small, black specks within the paste.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Pacific Forktail

Last year, on 21 July, we took our granddaughter to the Olympia Water and Children’s museums. “No reason to take my big lens,” I thought.  Wrong. We discovered a Pacific Forktail, easily recognized by its four-spotted upper thorax. This damsel is the only one in Washington with such marks. I was only able to to take a poor photo through a plate-glass widow with my small camera. This year we returned on 11 July. This time I brought my large lens along with my granddaughter.
These damselflies are fond of backyard, urban pools. Females oviposit in the morning, before males become active. Males dominate later in the day (PaulsonKerst and Gordon). We easily found these males at midday at the Water Museum in downtown Olympia.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Red-tailed Hawk

During a quick drive to nearby Circle Lake on Friday, Erika and I found this handsome Red-tailed Hawk. I did not know that these hawks are included in the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. This legislation allows Federally recognized native tribes exception to treaties making the possession of eagle parts illegal. Qualified people must make application to the Federal government before feathers can be used.

Red-tailed Hawk (and eagle) feathers are sacred for many native people. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act enables these tribes to maintain their cultures. The law is not without critics. Some believe that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act should have no exceptions and that the eagle feather act leaves raptors vulnerable to poaching and trafficking (Wikipedia).

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Eastern Bluebird

Since 2007, I banded 68 Eastern Bluebirds. Only four were adults and three others were fledged, hatching-year birds. The rest were all nestlings. I have never recaptured any of these babies. But this lack of retraps does not surprise me. Although young may over-winter with their fathers, second-year birds are “aggressively repelled” the following breeding season by both the fathers and the fathers' mates (Gowaty and Plissner 2015).

To my surprise, on 8 June this year, I photographed a banded male bluebird. Over time, bird bands tend to become dull and worn. The ring on this bluebird is a shiny, new band. I suspect this bird, therefore, is the only bluebird I bandedin 2015. On 27 April I banded an adult, male bluebird at our Dundas banding station, which is where I took this photograph. Of course this bird could have been banded elsewhere, but I think the odds favor my hypothesis.

Saturday, November 21, 2015


Bushtits are chickadee-like birds that are in constant motion. They are the only member of the family Aegithalidae in the New World. These birds travel in nervous flocks, from three to 40 individuals. They can be hard birds to photograph.

They are common, year-round residents of western North and Central America. Individuals in the southern parts of their range have black ear coverts. These birds were called Black-eared Bushtits. Northern birds lack this field mark and were known as Common Bushtits. But the two populations were merged when it became evident that ear covert color is polymorphic in central populations.

One day in July they descended upon our children’s backyard in Olympia, Washington. Only then did I discover that birds have different eye colors.  Males have dark brown irises, whereas females have yellow, white, or cream-colored eyes.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Western Scrub-Jay

Last July we spent a week in Olympia, Washington, getting to know our granddaughter and welcoming her brother into this world. Birding and dragonflying took second seat. The kids filled their feeders allowing us to see some interesting birds. Western Scrub-Jays have hard for me to photograph. These jays are common across the western states south into Mexico. They frequent forests and suburban areas. In these images, the first is probably an adult and the others are young birds.  Younger birds lack blue on their heads and have have less white in their throats. They lack an obvious white eye stripe.
Coastal Western Scrub-Jays are darker and less shy than birds from the interior.  Unlike in many animals, northern birds are larger than those in southern populations. Contrary to this trend, birds from central Mexico are the largest scrub-jays of all. Because of this variation, ornithologists may yet recognize three species of these birds—the California Scrub-Jay from the northwestern United States to Baja California; Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay from Nevada to central Mexico; and Sumichrast’s Scrub-Jay in south-central Mexico. These species would be further broken into various races. As it is, two outlying jays, the Florida Scrub-Jay and the Island Scrub-Jay are currently considered to be distinct, but closely related, species (Curry et al. 2002).