Monday, June 29, 2015

Roseate Spoonbill

Last March, as we drove up the Texas coast, we contacted our friends, John and Kathy Holden, who were touring New Orleans. Our plan, in a couple of days, was to meet them in Covington, Louisiana, and do some birding. John asked, “Of course you plan to stop at High Island?”

High Island is famous among birders. John was reading “The Big Year"by Mark Obmascik, upon which the movie of the same nameis based. In the spring, and with the right weather, High Island hosts hundreds of exhausted migrants. High Island had not occurred to me—we were a bit early and the weather was too good. Actually, I did not really know where High Island was. I looked it up on our map—we would be driving across the island—there was no reason not to stop.

Administered by the National Audubon Society, High Island is a forested salt dome in the coastal plain. Just for the record, the High Island of reality does not seem to be the same location depicted in the movie. The refuge contains trails along a swamp and through woodlands. Spoonbills and egrets breed in a rookery in the swamp, and trails along a levee allow close approach. These birds alone are worth the visit. As predicted, we saw very few migrant songbirds, but the rookeries were spectacular.

I have seen spoonbills before, but never this close. The plumage of these breeding birds was truly “flamboyant,” as described by Dumas (2000). Previously I never noticed the golden-colored tails—a color that does not seem to be present on previous birds that I have photographed.

In the United States, Roseate Spoonbills are uncommon residents along southeastern coasts. The species was decimated by plume-hunters in the early 1900s. Most of this destruction may have been collateral, as the hunters slaughtered egrets in colonies shared with spoonbills. Spoonbills lack the plumes coveted by the millinery industry. Spoonbill wings, however, were sold as fans. By the 1940s, spoonbills were gone from Texas and persisted only in a few Florida locations. Although still a species of concern across much of its range, efforts by conservation governmental groups have restored populations from the brink of extinction in North America.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

White-tailed Kite

As we continued north up the Texas coast last March, we photographed this White-tailed Kite. These kites almost became extinct in the early 1900s. But numbers have rebounded, and the kite’s range has expanded north along the Texas coast and up the Pacific Coast all the way up to Washington. The species is also found in southern Florida and Mexico south through South America.

Unfortunately, recently kite numbers have again declined, presumably due to habitat loss (Dunk 1995). These raptors inhabit savannas, where they hover-hunt for small mammals. Threats to savannas include conversion to agriculture and urbanization. My June 2012 blog post contains a bit more information on White-tailed Kites.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Ebony Jewelwing

On 23 June,  Erika and I encountered a dozen Ebony Jewelwings along the creek that drains Carleton College’s Lyman Lakes. We were photographing a female laying her eggs in the quiet water, when a male flew overhead, and landed next to her. We marveled how the male generated lift with its wings folded above its body. Perhaps air is simply much like water to a damselfly.
He seemed to be guarding her, perhaps from interference from other males. Paulson (2011) reports that males, in their territories, guard egg-laying females. Males without territories often try to sneak in and copulate with females in other males’ territories. In this case the male perched next to the female while she continued laying eggs.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Singing Prairie 2

This post is basically a repeat of a June 2011 entry from the Great Western Industrial Park near Randolph, Dakota County, Minnesota. The photographs are somewhat improved, except for this Bobolink, above, which is just different. Note the white wing spots and the right leg with which the bird has just launched itself. The industrial park is thankfully still awaiting industry, but its days are sill probably numbered.
Until then, Grasshopper Sparrows (above) and Savannah Sparrows still stake out territories—both species have yellowish lores, but the Grasshopper lacks the Savannah’s breast streaking. Their songs are also completely different.
A number of Dickcissels called from brush-tops. I have linked this short narrative to previous posts on these sparrows. The photos in this post were all taken on 17 June 2015.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

White-tailed Hawk

After a few days in Rockport, on 19 March we headed north towards Port Arthur, Texas, and Covington, Louisiana. Along the way, we encountered a few interesting birds and, once in Louisiana, our first dragonflies.

The first of these birds was this White-tailed Hawk, a first for my photographic collection. This hawk inhabits arid savannas from Texas to Argentina. White-tailed Hawks are opportunistic predators eating a variety of small prey. The species tends to be shy, and, consequently, has been little studied (Farquhar 2009). Field marks include the black band at the end of the tail and its white breast. We spotted this individual along the highway. I slammed on the breaks and jumped out of the car. I captured these two photos before the bird flew. (Because of the extremely high speed “limits" on Texas secondary roads, birding became relatively perilous.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Ruddy Turnstone

Last March, Erika and I enjoyed trying to photograph a couple dozen Ruddy Turnstones that scurried about the beach and parking lot at the Rockport Beach City Park. Because the birds did not stop to pose, this endeavor proved to be somewhat difficult.

Notice that the turnstone’s left foot lacks front toes. I did not see this abnormality until I worked on the photograph. Other Internet photographers comment that missing toes are a common turnstone affliction. Several explanations are possible, including frostbite, damage from being tangled in trash, or wounds from being trapped by bivalves. Who knows?

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Hooded Warbler

Hooded Warblers are regular, but rare, migrants and summer residents in eastern Minnesota, but it is somewhat diffiuclt to follow Janssen'srange description. I have seen Hooded Warblers several times in Minnesota, and even banded one in my backyard. The bird in today’s post, found on Friday behind the visitor’s center at Afton State Park in Washington Co., is the first Minnesota bird that I have photographed in the wild.

The normal range for this species is from Southeastern Nebraska to the southern Great Lakes, south to the Gulf Coast. Hooded Warblers don’t seem to be declining in numbers—they are a “gap specialist,” preferring edge habitat and forest fragments. They are in trouble only where forests are being completely cut or in regions with large cowbird populations (Chiver et al. 2011). Each year, there seem to be more sightings of Hooded Warblers in Minnesota. I do not know if this increase is due to more of these warblers moving into the state or if there are just more birders looking for them.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Neotropic Cormorant

Neotropic Cormorants breed from the southern tip of South America north to the southern United States. The species wanders even further north, even into southern Canada. Field marks include the white line behind the birds’ relatively short, thin bill.

In 2010, Pelecaniformes, the order in which cormorants were conventionally placed, was split into three—Pelecaniformes (pelicans, herons, and ibis), Phaethontiformes (tropicbirds), and Suliformes (cormorants, boobies, gannets, and others). The bare throat patch and webbed toes of many of these groups is now considered not to be a unifying factor.

I have written about Neotropic Cormorants in this blog. I have not commented on their calls, which sound somewhat like pigs. As a result, Spanish names for Neotropic Cormorants include “pig duck” “Filthy Duck,” and “Grunting Duck” (Telfair and Morrison 2005). This handsome bird greeted us on one of the Rockport, Texas, piers.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Rusty Snaketail

Last year, Scott King and I made a deal. If I showed him a yellowlegs, he would find me a Rusty Snaketail. Scott explained to me that snaketails are found along the Cannon River, and often perch on midstream rocks. Despite Scott’s photographing snaketails at the Carleton College Arboretum and in the Cannon River Wilderness Area, Rusty Snaketails, for me, became a nemesis species, to borrow a birding phrase. It bothered Scott that I could not find one, especially since I, feeling a bit guilty about the ease of my half of the bargain, had introduced Scott to both Greater and Lesser yellowlegs.

On 14 June 2015, Erika and I made this year's first canoe trip on the Cannon River from Faribault to the Wilderness Area. The river was fairly high, submerging most, if not all, of the river rocks. We floated at about 5 mph, way too fast for dragonfly photography. I had given up hope of seeing a snaketail when Erika whispered, “There is your snaketail!” (I had given her a crash-course in snaketail identification.) “Where is it?” I asked. “Perched on the bow of the boat!” she replied. “Well, just lie back so I can see it too…” “No way,” said Erika, imagining, despite her utmost confidence in my canaoesmanship, the result of her lying backwards while her husband jumped up to take a photo.

Reminds me of a joke. What is the difference between a Minnesotan and a canoe?  Canoes tip.

Instead, Deadeye Erika swooped down upon the poor snaketail with her left hand. To her amazement, she caught it. I gave her a quick lecture on how to hold a captive dragonfly. The result can be seen in the photograph above. I am not usually a big fan of pictures of dragonflies being held by human hands, but, with such a great story, this once I do not mind. We released the dragonfly unharmed. We saw two or three more Rusty Snaketails, as we made our way down the river.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


Willets breed in grasslands in the upper Great Plains, in marshes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and in the Bahamas. Willets winter along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts south through northern South America. I have written about Willet races in a previous blog post. We found the Willets in these photos in Rockport, Texas, last March.

Willets and other birds often stand on one leg. This habit enables birds to conserve heat and energy. By standing this way, a bird cuts heat loss by at least half. Furthermore, standing on one leg is energetically efficient. By placing a foot directly underneath its center of gravity, a bird reduces lateral forces and can more easily balance.

Read more here:

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Big Dragonfly Day Part 4

This post is the last of four reporting on the dragonfly-expedition I made with Scott King to nearby Washinghton County, Minnesosta on 2 June 2015.  We spent the afternoon at the William O’Brien State Park along the St. Croix River. This waterway is famous among dragonfly enthusiasts for hosting an unusual diverstiy of clubtails, including at least one that was recently discovered (but missed this day  by Scott and me). The first dragonfly we found was a rather handsome Cobra Clubtail. I have seen this species previously on home turf along the Canon River in Rice County. Field marks include its striking black and yellow markings and by its broad abdomen tip.
Scott excitedly pointed out a second clubtail, the Rapids Clubtail, shown in the second and third photos. This species was new for both of us. Scott pointed out that the last three segments of the abdomen are solid black. This dragonfly is another inhabitant of northeastern North America, with eastern Minnesota being at the extreme west of the range. The prefered habitat is along large, swift-flowing rivers, just like the St. Croix.
By late afternoon, both Scott and I were fairly tired dragonfly hunters. I stayed along a path along the St. Croix, while Scott explored tick-infested shrubbery closer to the river. Frustratingly, dragonflies kept flying from the undergrowth ahead of me and up, out of sight, into the trees. Finally one perched, hanging in a relatively distant tree. I called Scott, but his camera is better for dragonfly close-up photography. My big lens doubles for bird pictures, and captured the last two shots, both of the same dragonfly.
As I worked on these photographs, I became perplexed as to the dragonfly’s identity. I noticed the dragonfly’s spotted abdomen, dark wing bases, and odd, yellow thorax stripe. I also thought the throax was oddly shaped, almost like an 1880s woman’s corseted dress. Scott emailed back, “That’s a Stygian Shadowdragon!” What a great name. Shadowdragons fly over rivers just at sunset but are otherwise found hanging in trees. Stygian refers to Hell’s river, and the species is so named for this dragonfly's nighttime foraging.  Freshly emerged individuals are found in shrubby vegetation near rivers ((Mead 2009)Paulson 2011). Finally, I should point out that shadowdragons are not clubtails, but Emeralds, more closely related to two of the dragonflies mentioned in my previous post.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Rock Pigeon

I noticed that the Birdseye collection of bird images contained relatively few photos of Rock Pigeons.  I guess familiarity may breed some contempt. Therefore, while we visited Rockport, Texas, last March, I stopped to photograph one of these ubiquitous birds.

Native to the Old World, these pigeons were introduced to North America in the 1600s. The birds easily escaped domestication. As a result of many similar releases, pigeons are now found around the world. Probably due to their special relationship with humans, Rock Pigeons are one of the most extensively studied birds. To this work we owe much of our knowledge of avian physiology, navigation, learning, and genetics. As Darwin formulated his theory of evolution, he concluded that natural selection could easily produce the variation that humans had achieved while selectively breeding pigeons.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Big Dragonfly Day Part 3

This post is the third in a series of four that describe Scott King and my search for dragonflies on 2 June 2015 to Washington Co., Minnesota. These photos were taken at the Warner Nature Center. The first is a Dot-tailed Whiteface, a species I have seen many times previously. They are often abundant on floating vegetations in lakes, but I have also seen them flying around the edges of forests. And, yes, they do have white “faces,” this one just happens to be looking the wrong direction.
This spreadwing was abundant around the lake edges. Not until my return home did I realize this species is new to my ever-growing dragonfly list! Scott King told me this was an Elegant Spreadwing, but my ears heard “Emerald.” Note the pale sides of the thorax, pale back, lower legs (tibia), pale back of the head, and emerald color on the back of the abdomen—all field marks for the Elegant Spreadwing. This spreadwing is found over lakes and lake-edges across much of eastern North America, west just barely into Minnesota.
Scott announced that Taiga Bluets are among his favorite damselflies. On the other hand, I have heard this claim made for at least a dozen other Odonata we have encountered during our travels. I posted on this species before and mentioned the field marks include the black adominal segments ahead of the blue adomine spot and the “U"-shaped mark at the beginning of the abdomen. This species appears early as it is able to withstand freezing during our Northern winters.
Springtime Darners, another new species for me, are among the first darners to fly in the spring. This darner hid in the grass. Scott, being a true dragonfly scientist, carries a net with him. I simply have no room for a net among my camera, binoculars, eBird list, and notepad—I guess I will never be a true entomologist.  He captured this individual to more clearly show me the two yellow stripes on the brown thorax and the dainty blue spots along the sides of the abdomen. Notice also the dark, basal wing spots. Springtime Darners fly low to the ground along waterways. Scott, by the way, released unharmed all the creatures he netted this day.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Reddish Egret

Last March, as Erika and I drank coffee at the Rockport, Texas, McDonalds, I noticed a Reddish Egret in a shallow bay across the street. I excused myself and ran over to take these photos. This heron is the rarest of North America’s egrets, and has the most active foraging behavior of the family. I have previously blogged about the color morphs of this egret.

Reddish Egrets race around, flapping their wings, and stamping in the water—all apparently to locate and startle small fish. At least six foraging methods are described by Lowther and Paul (2002)— "Wing-Flicking, Open Wing-Feeding, Canopy Feeding [creating a shadow in the water that attracts sun-sensitive fish], Foot-Stirring, Hovering Stirring, and Stand and Wait and Wade or Walk Slowly.” The photos above show a few of these feeding behaviors.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Big Dragonfly Day Part 2

This post is the second of four reporting on Scott King’s and my dragonfly expedition to nearby Washington County, Minnesota, on 2 June 2015. These photos were taken at the Warner Nature Center, which I described in Part One of this series.
The first two photographs are of new species for me. The first is a Dusky Clubtail; the second, a Calico Pennant. Dusky Clubtails often perch on or near the ground. Their best field-marks are spines on their cerci (the terminal extensions off the abdomen). The Calico Pennant is a strikingly beautiful species for which I’ve been searching for several years. This species bears a superficial resemblance to Halloween Pennants, but the yellow spots on the females, like on this photo, and the wing spots that do not cross the whole wings are diagnostic. Although we found this individual in a dry field, Calico Pennants are often found near water.
The last two photos are of species I have seen previously in Erika’s garden.  Both are baskettails, the first a Common, the second a Spiny. If you greatly enlarge your view of the last dragonfly, you might notice the tiny spine off its cerci, from which the Spiny Baskettail derives its name. Notice also the more extensive black spots on the hind wings of the Common Baskettail. These dragonflies are called baskettails because they carry their eggs on the underside of their abdomens. This ball of eggs is attached to an aquatic plant. The ball unravels, releasing up to a 1000 eggs (Mead 2009).

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


Last Saturday, Erika and I returned to the parking lot of a plant nursery in Carver County, Minnesota, where we discovered a Killdeer nest. To our amazement, three fledgling Killdeer, in the company of their parents, scurried about the very same location as the nest, now a month later. If one were to band such chicks, they would take the same size band as an adult!

Young leave their nest almost as soon as they hatch. Killdeer do not feed their young, which are immediately independent. Adults lead the hatchlings to feeding areas. The young stay in the vicinity of their parents until the young are able to fly—usually within a month or as soon as 20 days from hatching or as long as 40 to 80 days (Jackson and Jackson 2000).

Monday, June 8, 2015

Big Dragonfly Day Part 1

On 2 June 2015, I accompanied Scott King to two locations in nearby Washington County, northeast of St. Paul, Minnesota. We spent a fabulous day dragonflying. The first place we visited was the Lee and Rose Warner Nature Center, privately owned by the Science Museum of Minnesota. Oddly the Center is closed to the general public, opened only to school groups and other classes. Scott knew one of the employees and has done dragonfly censuses for the center. 
The acres around the center are gorgeous and contain several clear, unpolluted lakes. We heard a calling loon and we were greeted by thousands of dragonflies. The first two photos are of Chalk-fronted Corporals. The woods were full of these dragonflies, which are often found in large swarms.  The upper individual is an immature. As they age, they acquire the blue-gray pruinosity evident in the second photo. All ages consume mosquitos and Blackflies, and thus should be welcome community members. I have previously written about how this dragonfly gets its name.
Above the lakes swarmed hundreds of Emeralds. The first is a Racket-tailed Emerald. I had only seen this species once before, at Lebanon Hills Regional Park in Dakota County. Several alighted in the reeds along the lake edge. Note the uneven yellow band at the base of the abdomen. A new dragonfly for me was the American Emerald. As you can see in the photo below, the yellow ring around the base of its abdomen is narrow and even. 
American Emeralds are found from eastern Canada and the Appalachian Mountains west to Alaska and the mountains of California. Racket-tails are more restricted in range, found from Minnesota to eastern Canada and New England. Both fly over marshes and open water. Racket-tailed Emeralds also fly through forests and more often land on the ground and perch in forest openings (Paulson 2011).