Monday, August 31, 2015

Sea Cucumber

A sea cucumber on the Sanibel Island beach last March; not a plant—but a starfish with its arms connected by flesh. Sea cucumbers are close to Erika and my hearts. When we were in college, Erika spent a summer taking marine biology at Santa Barbara, while I studied birds at LSU. I returned to California just in time to participate in her biology class’s culminating feast, wherein the students ate the marine life they had been studying.

Sea cucumber recipe: spread salt over animal’s body until the echinoderm eviserates its digestive tract (an escape strategy for sea cucumbers in the wild). Cut the creature into tire-shaped pieces.  Marinate in vinegar for several hours, and, voila, its ready.

When it came to sea cucumber, Erika promised me, “If taste it, so will I.” I chewed, and chewed—the poor creature tasted like salty rubber—but Erika reneged on her promise and, to this day, has never experienced the delight of sea cucumber salad.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Especially during the last 25 years, Lesser Black-backed Gulls are now regular visitors to eastern North America—and the range is expanding. This gull is common across Europe. Almost all seen in North America are the race that breeds in Iceland, Britain, and western Europe—as you can see in this photo from Sanibel Island in March, the back is much lighter than the wing tips. The yellow legs are a good field mark for the species; similar gulls have pinkish or yellowish legs.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilts have long, red legs—not that you can tell from these photos from Sanibel Island last March. Stilts feed in shallow water of various depths, but do not like getting their breasts wet. They consume a wide variety of aquatic insects and even crayfish, small fish and frogs (Robinson et al. 1999). These authors describe three feeding methods—Pecking, Plunging, and Snatching. Clearly the bird in the bottom photo is Plunging. Some studies have shown that flocks of stilts have higher foraging success than solitary birds.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Zebra Heliconian and White Peacock

Last March, Erika and I found two easily identifiable, tropical butterflies on the Bailey Tract of the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.

The Zebra Heliconian is found from South America north into Florida and southern Texas. The butterfly strays north to New Mexico, Nebraska, and South Carolina. Larvae feed on poisonous passion vines, rendering the butterflies poisonous to predators and the adult’s striking pattern further advertises their noxiousness (Brock and Kaufman).

Helionians also have a bizarre mating habit—upon mating, males present females with a cyanide-laced spermatophore, a “nuptual gift" containing sperm.  The cyanide does not kill the female or the embryos, but does make them distasteful, if not poisonous, to predators. The spermatophore also changes the female’s odor, making her less attractive to other males (Wikipedia).

White Peacocks have a similar range to the heliconian, but may more wides wonder into the central United States. Male White Peacocks hold 15-meter territories containing host plants and aggressively defend them against other insects and male peacock butterflies (Wikipedia). Host plants include Water Hyssop, Green Shrimp Plant, and Frogfuit.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Lance-tipped Darner

Because they dart this way and that and seldom land in reach of my camera lens, darners are hard to photograph. As we tended Erika’s garden on 23 August, this female Lance-tipped Darner flew up and landed between Erika and me. The yellow rose and the red hibiscus make for a great background!

On the dragonfly, note that the thoracic stripes widen dorsally and that the face lacks a black cross-line. The species is found across the northern United States and southern Canada. Lance-tipped Darners feed as they fly close to the ground, often into the evenings (Meade).

Sunday, August 23, 2015

FOY Fall Warblers

Fall migrants appear in central Minnesota during the last week of August. Last spring was a miserable migration for my banding and birding—hopefully problem was that the weather was just so good last spring that the migrants flew right over Northfield, without bothering to stop. This week I have caught up by listing two FOY warblers. FOY is birder lingo for First of Year.

Both the Blackburnian (above) and the Chestnut-sided warblers (below) are considered to be common in Minnesota (Eckert 2002). They are among the many warblers I missed seeing this spring, and are thus FOY for my year list. I have linked both species’ names in this paragraph to previous accounts in this blog. The links also give you images of these species in spring plumage.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Black-bellied Plover and Ruddy Turnstone

We often saw Black-bellied Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones running on the Sanibel Island beach last March. Both species were in molt, with the turnstone further along than the plover. A breeding plover, as its name suggests, will have black underparts. Both species undergo an incomplete Definitive Prealternate molt to take them into breeding plumage. Among plovers, males undergo a more extensive molt than do the females. The sexes of turnstone undergo a much more similar molt. This Black-bellied Plover has a way to go to achieve breeding plumage. Turnstones are in breeding plumage in late April through mid May (Paulson 1995; Nettleship 2000). The turnstone in my photo is much closer to breeding plumage than is the plover.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Marl Pennant

Erika and I became aware of Marl Pennants during one of our later March visits to the Bailey Tract on Sanibel Island. We met another dragonfly enthusiast in the field and we owe our identification to that gentleman. This species is found along Atlantic and Gulf coastal areas, across Mexico, and south through the Caribbean  to Belize and Venezuela (Paulson 2011). They are found in brackish and fresh water and often perch, like this one, on the tips of vegetation. The dark “W” marking is a good field mark of the species. Marl is a calcium carbonate or lime-rich mud; it is unclear if this substance is critical for this dragonfly.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Fish Crow

Fish Crows used to only be found in tidewater areas of the southeastern United States. They have adapted to scavenging human trash and were common around Sanibel Island, Florida. I have posted previously that these small crows are expanding northward, even as far as St. Louis and southern Ontario.

I suspect they will one day become common in Minnesota—the trick will be documenting their occurrence. Small, female American Crows are almost identical to Fish Crows. Young American Crows are smaller than adults. The only reliable difference between these two crows are their calls, and even these sounds can be confusing. “The Fish Crow sounds like an American Crow with a bad cold” writes McGowan (2001). The trouble is that so do begging young American Crows—subordinate adults give similar nasal begging calls when young are not around. Theoretically American Crows never give a double-noted “Uh-uh” call, which ends abruptly with no “higher-pitched gobbling notes” at the end. If you hear such calls, try to record them on your cell phone (assuming you have one handy).

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Snowy Egret

While Erika searched for shells on the Sanibel, Florida, beach, I looked for birds. I saw far fewer last March than we listed in January 2010. For one thing, with so many people on the beach in 2015, space for birds was severely limited.  But those birds present proved, perhaps unsurprisingly, to be remarkably tame.

As I have previously written, Snowy Egrets, from about 1880 until 1910, bore the brunt of the Millinery trade. In 1886, the plumes, used in women’s hats, sold for twice as much than gold—$32 per ounce (Parsons and Master 2000). Since 1910, after the passage of protective laws, Snowy Egret populations have rebounded, even exceeding historical numbers.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Brown Pelican

During our Sanibel sojourn, I suppose I should not have been surprised to see a Brown Pelican delicately perched on the outer branch of a tall tree. They do nest in trees, as well as on the ground. Their webbed toes make them good swimmers, but they are awkward walkers and climbers. Shields (2014) reports that, “when moving through bushes or trees, [they] may step or hop among branches” balancing with their wings partially spread. Notice that this bird is banded on the right leg.

By the early 1970s, the pesticides Endrin and DDT almost wiped Brown Pelicans out. By 1963, they were gone from the Pelican State, Louisiana. In 1970, Pelicans were placed on the Endangered Species List, DDT was banned, and Endrin use was cut. Pelican populations recovered, and the species was delisted in 1985—another success for the Endangered Species Act, legislation now often the target of conservative politicians.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Band-winged Meadowhawk

On Saturday, Erika and I braved high temperatures and humidity (for Minnesota) and marched across the Art Crawl at the MN Landscape Arboretum. We encountered quite a few Band-winged Meadowhawks. We have found them at the arboretum before (even on the same fence). The reddish background of this photo is due to a distant roadside-construction fence. This color also intensified the bands on the dragonfly’s wings. When I took the photo, I was equally aware of the bright green eyes.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Chimney Swift

These two Chimney Swift photos won’t win any prizes, but they are my best to date. Swifts fly so fast and erratically, getting them focused in a photo is difficult. Although large numbers of swifts can still be observed, I don’t see them as often as even ten years ago. Populations are, indeed, declining. Ornithologists are not sure of the reasons for this drop in numbers. Fewer buildings with nesting chimney’s has been blamed, but research proves this hypothesis to be false (Steeves et al. 2014).
These swifts were among several feeding over the Dennison, Minnesota, sewage treatment ponds last Wednesday. From what I understand, because of the molting secondary feathers of the second bird, it must be an adult. Young swifts molting out of their juvenal plumage into their first basic (= winter) plumage do not molt their flight feathers.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Bobolink and Cedar Waxwing

I never thought that Bobolinks and Cedar Waxwings are very similar. Last Wednesday, I walked along the perimeter of the Dennison, Minnesota, water treatment pools. I was photographing a flock of a dozen Cedar Waxwings perched on the fence and flying down into the freshly mowed grass, presumably consuming abundant grasshoppers, a somewhat odd prey item for waxwings. I suddenly realized that two or three of the yellowish birds were not waxwings, but freshly molted, basic-plumaged Bobolinks. I made spishing sounds and one of the Bobolinks raised its body out of the tangled vines that lined the fence.
Because of its extensively black throat, this waxwing is a male. The red “wax” wing feather tips do not indicate the bird’s sex or age. Bobolinks are more difficult. After their juvenal plumage, they molt into a pre-basic plumage. They then undergo another molt into their Basic or Winter plumage. Adults undergo a complete molt into the same plumage. The sexes are similarly patterned. I guess that the birds in this post are first-year males, recently molted into their pre-basic plumage. Such birds are darker breasted than adults and males are brighter yellow than females. Older birds should show a few yellow-tipped, black feathers on their chins breasts (Martin and Gavin 1995)

Friday, August 14, 2015

Seaside Dragonlet

Another common dragonfly at the Bailey Tract was this Seaside Dragonlet. Note the blue mouth parts on the male above. We did not see females on Sanibel Island. We found the striking female below a week later on Florida’s Atlantic Coast at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

The Seaside Dragonlet is the only North American Dragonfly that breeds in salt water. Often restricted to salt or brackish water, the larvae can also develop in freshwater. Individuals occasionally found away from the coast are probably vagrants. This species is normally found from Nova Scotia south around Florida, continuing around the Gulf of Mexico, throughout the Caribbean, to Venezuela Paulson (2011),

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Magnificent Frigatebird

Frigatebirds soar over the oceans. They rarely flap their wings. They are the only birds with fused pectoral girdles, giving them further rigidity for soaring. They are often called “Man-o’-war Birds” due to their habit of harassing and robbing other seabirds. They, however, capture most of their prey by snatching fish or squid from the ocean surface (Diamond and Schreiber 2002). This species lacks waterproof plumage and, consequently, is rarely seen on the water. Because of their short legs, they never walk or swim.

Magnificent Frigatebirds breed throughout the Caribbean and the coasts of Central and South America.  The closest breeding location for this frigatebird, which we saw on Sanibel Island, Florida, is probably the Dry Tortugas at the end of the Florida Keys. Frigatebirds are occasionally blown far inland by hurricanes. Erika and I once witnessed several frigatebirds over Baton Rouge after a hurricane in the 1970s. These birds apparently soar in front of storms and are accidental in Alaska, Minnesota, Wisconsin and eastern Canadian provinces. 

Notice the deflated, red throat pouch and long, but closed tail feathers.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Four-spotted Pennant

Last March, upon arriving at the Bailey Tract of the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Erika and I immediately found a new dragonfly—this Four-spotted Skimmer. The male, above, was easily identified. The female, below, was more difficult, but the white stigma are good field marks. (Stigma are the spots at the leading, outer, edges of the wings. The stigma may signal identity to mates or rivals. It may also counteract wing vibrations and fractures.)

Four-spotted Skimmers are found from Arizona east along the Piedmont of the southeastern states. As in these photos, they often rest on exposed perches. They hunt for flying insects over ponds.  Paulson (2011) writes that this skimmer can occur in swarms. We found them to be common.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Sanibel Island

On 25 March, Erika and I finally arrived at our destination—Sanibel Island on Florida’s Gulf Coast. This visit, which lasted until 1 April, was our second to the island. We visited here in January 2010. We saw many fewer birds during our 2015 trip and many, many more people.

We had a good time, however, since Sanibel is renown for the diversity of shells. On our previous trip, I was not chasing dragonflies. And we were on a quest to find a Gray Kingbird—January was too early for this lifer, and the end of March, for that matter, was marginal. Using the BirdsEye phone app, we discovered a Gray Kingbird had been seen two days earlier at the Bailey Tract, an outlying parcel of the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Refuge personnel directed us to the tract.

We made at least four visits to the Bailey Tract, a large parcel of undeveloped land containing several freshwater holding ponds—perfect habitat for dragonflies, if not kingbirds. On our first visit, we encountered a refuge ranger, who told us a Gray Kingbird was seen just down the path about 30 minutes ago. Way in the distance, we took the greatly enlarged photograph below—a Gray Kingbird candidate. The bird really did not look right—the bill is not thick enough—perhaps a Northern Mockingbird. But the bird did not seem contrasty enough for a mockingbird, although the silhouette seemed correct. Despite our great efforts, we never did see anything else at Bailey to call a kingbird. As you will learn, later, in the northern Florida Keys, we did add Gray Kingbirds to our list. At Sanibel, we were content to discover new dragonflies for our list. And we did see birds, as you will see in the next bog posts.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sandhill Crane

While I was intently photographing the Cyprus Clubtail of the last post, Erika, some distance away, was gesticulating and pointing to my left. In  a weedy field in back of some homes and near a canal, strolled a Sandhill Crane. The crane allowed me close approach before it finally flew.

Sandhill Crane systematics are complicated. Basically six races inhabit northern North America, but these populations interbreed where they overlap (especially in these days of expanding crane populations) and the races are often further divided by wildlife managers into units determined by where they breed.

The crane in this photo is a Florida Sandhill Crane, Grus canadensis pratensis. This birds reside from southeastern Georgia to central Florida. They do not migrate. They are similar to the Mississippi Sandhill Crane, which breed in southern Mississippi. Florida birds are generally paler than those from Mississippi. A third race is resident in Cuba. The three remaining races are migratory. The Lesser Sandhill Crane breeds from Siberia across Arctic Alaska and Canada; the Canadian Sandhill breeds further south, from British Columba east into Ontario; and the Great Sandhill Crane breeds from southern British Columbia east to the western Great Lakes (Gerber et al. 2014).

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Cypress Clubtail

A few dragonflies flitted about the  Harns Marsh, Florida, when we visited on 25 March. Blue Dashers,  Eastern Pondhawks, and Halloween Pennants were common, and well-known to us. When I saw this clubtail at my feet, however, I knew it was a new one for me. I called it a “Green-striped Clubtail,” and excitedly emailed Scott King for his opinion. He quickly replied that he thought it was either a Cypress or a Sandhill clubtail.

I identified it as a Cypress Clubtail. First, Cypress Clubtails are found south of Lake Ochchobee, according to Paulson (2011), whereas Sandhills are found further north in Florida. The habitat of Harns Marsh is typical of the Cypress—Cypress lined, muddy lakes. The micro-anatomy shown in my photo also points to this being a Cypres Clubtail, although I have to admit I was relieved when Odonata Central vetted my identification.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Halloween Pennant

Erika and I were greeted by a dragonfly found in Minnestoa, this Halloween Pennant, when, on 25 March, we revisited Harns Marsh in search of Limpkins. We first visited the marsh in 2010, before our focus on dragonflies. This species is found from Canada through the eastern United States south into Central America. Wikipedia claims they are particularly common in Florida. This source reports that this dragonfly often perches at the tip of weed stalk. The wings wave in the breeze, leading to the name pennant, a word that describes a small flag. I think "halloween" is an odd name. All things orange do not refer to halloween. Indeed, as I have previously written, the general coloration may mimic poisonous butterflies and therefore discourage predators.

Thursday, August 6, 2015


In the United States, Limpkins are residents of Florida, with casual or accidental records elsewhere in the Southeast. These curious birds also breed in the West Indies, southern Mexico and Central America, and much of South America. Erika and I found them on 25 March on the east side of Harns Marsh, which is east of Fort Myers. At least in Florida, Limpkins specialize in eating Apple Snails, mollusks also sought out by Snail Kites, which we also listed at the marsh. The Limpkin bill is bent and twisted, an adaptation for removing the snails from their baseball-sized prey. Not surprisingly, Florida wetland development threatens Limpkin populations.

In Wild America, an entertaining book describing one of North America’s first birding big years, Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher write that the Limpkin gives a “shrieking, yelping, and caterwauling…” call. Alexander Sprunt wrote that, when several males counter-call, the sound is “one of the weirdest cacophonies of nature” (cited by Bryon 2002). The screech has been compared to a woman being strangled. I recognized the call when Erika and I heard it at the marsh. I think the call is actually kind of pretty—you decide what you think it sounds like.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

American Green Tree Frog

Erika and I discovered this American Green Tree Frog on the underside of a marsh plant in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary on 25 March. This frog is common the southeastern United States, from Delaware to Florida and west to Texas. It is Georgia’s State Amphibian.

American Green Tree Frogs prefer wetlands with floating vegetation, grasses, and cattails. They tend to be noctural. Florida males give advertisement calls between March and September. They often have multipe clutches, with the average clutch containing about 400 eggs. Eggs take about five days to hatch. These frogs show no parental behavior beyoung mating and egg laying (Wikipedia).

Monday, August 3, 2015

Red-shouldered Hawk

Overall, during our 25 March visit to the National Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, we saw fewer birds than on our previous visits. Perhaps the time of year was poor, and, at the time, the swamp was suffering from drought. We were, delighted, to find the south Florida race of Red-shouldered Hawks, to be common as always. Buteo lineatus eximus breeds in the southern half of Florida. It is relatively small and has a pale gray or whitish head
Red-shouldered Hawks in Minnesota and most of the eastern United States are much larger and darker. They are named Buteo lineatus lineatus. Most of the information I am relating in this post is from Dykstra et al. (2008).
Buteo lineatis alleni breeds from North Carolina, Tennesee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma south to Lousiana, Texas, and the northern half of Florida. These birds are slightly smaller and paler than Minnesota hawks, and lack dark streaks on their underparts.

Curiously, Red-shouldered Hawks also breed in California, Oregon, Baja California and Arizona. Their range is not contiguous with eastern Red-shouldered hawks. They are relatively small and have bright rufous underparts.  These hawks are named Buteo lineatus elegans.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Seeing Eurasian Collared-Doves is no longer much of a surprise in much of North America. During my recent travels across the country, I am surprised by how widespread and common this species has become. I have previously posted accounts of this species’ spread. John Holden and I found this dove buffeted by the wind in nearby Dakota County. I thought the back-lit tail feathers to be particularly striking.

Romagosa (2012) writes that “little appears to be limiting the spread of this dove in North America.” Bird feeders and grain storage bins provide year-round food supplies. Urban landscaping gives the birds habitat. Romagosa suggests that disease could cut back high dove populations, although she admits little evidence exists for this hypothesis.