Saturday, October 31, 2015

Cedar Waxwing

Yesterday, Erika and I happened upon a large flock of Cedar Waxwings feeding on what we assume to be honeysuckle in the Carleton College arboretum. When I see waxwings, my mind always wanders to the poem that begins Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire:

 I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff--and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.

Many birds hit windows. Waxwings propensity for these fatal events are augmented by their fondness for fruiting bushes, which are often grown in suburban lawns. Waswings are also known to become drunk from consuming fermented berries. I suspect one should not fly under the influence.
On October 16, 2009, the first post in this blog dealt with waxwing tail feathers. I have published other posts about the “waxy” tips to some waxwing wing feathers. These structures occur on both sexes, adults and immatures, but not on all individuals. Notice that this waxwing is atypical because of the wax tips on both the secondaries and secondary coverts. Click on the following links to see my other waxwing posts: July 11, 2010, October 23, 2011, October 18, 2013, June 6, 2014, November 24, 2014, August 15, 2015.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Bighorn Sheep

This year was extraordinary in that Erika and I made major two road-trips. I have recounted the first, to Texas and Florida. The second was a non-birding jaunt to Olympia to welcome a grandson into this world. The trip out was quick, with our arriving two days before the due date. We entertained our grand-daughter while our children attended to birthing.

On 6 July 2015, we drove to Spearfish by way of the Badlands National Park. This park is always a pleasant diversion. We looked forward to visiting the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail, but we found the trail parking lot overrun with road construction equipment. 

We did find a large herd of Mountain (or Bighorn) Sheep. Despite many trips out to the national park, we had never before encountered Mountain Sheep. As I explained in a previous post, no Mountain Sheep in South Dakota is native—all are the result of repeated introductions. Native sheep became extinct in the early 1900s. Bighorns are not long-lived, succumbing to disease, starvation, poor weather, and predators (Higgins et al. 2000).

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Golden-crowned Kinglet

I banded this immature, female Golden-crowned Kinglet on Monday. I did not expect the two dark stripes this bird's cheeks. I have never seen any markings like those before, and similar marks do not appear in any of my field guides. Googling photos of this species brings up a few vaguely similar individuals, like this one from the Natchaug Ornithological Society. Perhaps this pattern is within natural variation within the species. At first I wondered if this bird could be a European Goldcrest; but that species has an even plainer face than our kinglet.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Tennessee Warbler

It seemed like every time I checked my net this fall, I found at least one Tennessee Warbler. Between 24 August and 8 October, I banded 73 of these drab warblers. My average number banded both in the spring and fall from 2008 through 2013 is 34.

Tennessee Warbler numbers fluctuate from year to year. On their Canadian breeding grounds, these birds are Spruce Budworm specialists. When budworm caterpillar numbers peak, like after fires or logging, Tennessee Warblers can become abundant. Censuses found over 500 male warblers per 250 acres during peak years. These data are from Rimmer and Mcfarland (2012), who report that, despite the fluctuations, Tennessee Warbler populations have been stable during the past 30 years. They suspect the species is “more abundant now than it was in the nineteenth century.”

Monday, October 26, 2015

Eastern Towhee

This Eastern Towhee was the last bird photographed during our March/April road-trip to Texas and Florida. We found it in Cove Lake State Park about half way across Tennessee. The bottom photo is another Eastern Towhee that John Holden and I found in May here in Minnesota.

Male Eastern Towhees, like these birds, are famous for their “drink your tea!” song. The first note is sharp and the last note is a trill. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, sometimes the song will start with more than one “drink.” The calls of both sexes are a rising “chewink or tow-hee.” The songs and calls, however, are quite variable. Occasionally towhees mimic songs and calls of other species. Male towhees learn their songs from their parents and other nearby adults (Greenlaw 2015).

Eastern and Spotted towhee songs become even more complicated where they overlap and occasionally hybridize in the northern Great Plains. Males can learn the wrong species’ call, making identification by sound impossible. In South Dakota, I once saw a Spotted Towhee singing the Eastern’s “drink-your-tea.” The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology discribes the Spotted Towhee’s song as “a drier faster take on the Eastern Towhee’s drink-your-tea song that often omits the middle section…The song starts with one or two (up to eight) short introductory notes and then a fast trill that can sound like a taut rubber band being plucked,"

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Red-bellied Snake

During a 20 October 2015 hike in the Carleton College arboretum, Erika and I surprised a Red-bellied Snake. They breed in the spring, but give birth in the late summer. Unfortunately we did not flip it over to see its pink belly. But we did notice the reddish spots on the side and top right behind the head.

These snakes are small and nonvenomous. This one was about half the size of a fully grown, ten-inch adult. They eat slugs, insects, and worms (MNDNR). They spend the winter in burrows in ant mounds, between rocks, and stone foundations. They may share these burrows with other snake species.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Rambur’s Forktail

Rambur’s Forktails were the only dragonflies we saw during our Charleston, South Carolina, visit. They flew about the edge of the Ashley River amongst the cattails. We saw this species in several previous places during our road trip, but I saved an account of them for this post. I took all these photos at the Magnolia Plantation Gardens.
Jules Rambur (1801-1870) was a French entomologist. The forktail that bears his name is polymorphic. These photographs show a male, with its bright greenish thorax and dorsally dark abdomen with terminal blue bands (although the last segment is incompletely blue).  The second photo is an orange, immature female. The third forktail is less certainly identified, except through its association with the other two, and is probably an olive-hued female. A third morph of females look like males.
In the eastern and southern United States, Rambur’s Forktails are widespread, often along the coastal plains. They are also found in the southwest. They breed from Mexico south to Chile, in the Antilles, and in Hawaii. They fly all year in Florida, and most of the year elsewhere, where weather permits. They like most wetland habitats (Bug Guide). These forktails are conspicuous and aggressive. Males need to take heed—females often consume them if mating attempts are unsuccessful (Beaton 2007).

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Fox Sparrow

Last week I photographed this Fox Sparrow in a brush pile in the Carleton College arboretum. I was glad to find this bird, since I missed seeing any last spring. The problem was that we were too late in returning from our Texas and Florida adventures.

Audubon first discovered this sparrow in Labrador in 1834. The species breeds across northern Canada and into Alaska. In the west, they occur far south into the Rock Mountains. Many, but not all, populations are migratory. In a previous post, I wrote about this bird's tremendous variation, and why many ornithologists believe Fox Sparrows are, in fact, four different species.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Great Blue Heron

Last Saturday, Erika and I hiked the 3-mile loop at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Despite few birds and no dragonflies, we enjoyed the brisk weather and fall colors. We spied a Great Blue Heron in the grass by the side of road. The bird stood motionless on dry ground with its neck out-stretched. I thought maybe this heron was one of the arboretum’s sculptures. I walked within several yards and the bird never moved a muscle.
Then, a bit to my relief, the heron bent over and scratched its neck. The bird then sedately walked away from me. This bird is a juvenal, and does not appear crippled—although I made no attempt to make it fly. Regular readers of my blog will recall that Great Blue Herons do not specialize in eating fish. They take almost anything they can get their beaks around—even amphibians and other animals in dry fields. (See, for example, my post from February 2013.)

Monday, October 19, 2015

Common Gallinule

At the end of our April road-trip, Erika and I spent a few days exploring Charleston, South Carolina. We had never been to the city and Erika was keen to visit a few of their famous gardens. Both the city and the gardens proved to be somewhat of a disappointment. Among cities, we both thought Savanna to be more interesting. The gardens were relatively devoid of birds and dragonflies and must be heavily sprayed with pesticides. We did list this Common Gallinule.

Gallinules are interesting birds. They are rails, although rails and gallinules are usually placed in different groups within the family, which is generally considered to be closely related to cranes or sandpipers. In any event, Common Gallinules are often found in appropriate aquatic habitat in eastern North America and locally in the west. An endangered race also inhabits Hawaii. They are also found in Central and South America. Our birds were thought to be the same species as the Common Moorhen found in Europe and Asia, but they have different vocalizations, morphology, and genes.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Black Racer

This Black Racer greeted us on 5 April when we visited Carol Foil near Satsuma, Florida. Black Racers, found across much of eastern United States, are often one of the most common snakes. These snakes are not poisonous, and usually flee upon approach. If cornered, they may strike and bite. This racer was lounging on Carol’s air conditioner.

Black Racers, generally diurnal, are opportunistic feeders and occur in a wide variety of habitats. They take insects, lizards, other snakes, birds, amphibians, and mammals. They generally swallow their prey alive. Although usually terrestrial, these snakes are good at climbing through trees and shrubs, where they sometimes sleep during the night. Otherwise, they take shelter under cover or in burrows (Savannah River Ecology Lab).

Friday, October 16, 2015

Great Blue Skimmer

On 4 April, along the Palm Hammock Trail of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a hiker walking out of the hammock reported seeing lots of big dragonflies. Erika and I discovered many Great Blue Skimmers. The whole scene seemed right out of the Ordovician, millions of years ago.

Great Blue Skimmers inhabit most of eastern North America, migrating north as far as Ontario and Massachusetts. This species, with a total length of about 60 mm, is one the the largest skimmers. As these dragonflies get older, they aquaire a blueish color that accounts for their name. The species can be confused with other dragonflies, but the wing pattern and white face are good field marks. Great Blue Skimmers are common near swampy ponds, lakes, and forest streams (Odonata Central).

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrow

On Tuesday, I found sparrows in a large brush pile in Carleton College’s arboretum. Most of the birds were White-crowned Sparrows. This male  can be identified as the Gambel’s race of the species, known by its gray lores. Black-lored birds are the eastern, nominate (first described) subspecies of the bird (which also migrates across Minnesota). In 2009, I blogged about a few of these races and how to tell them apart. I was surpised that eBird flagged Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrows as being rare in Northfield.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Scarlet Tanager

I was not surprised when eBird flagged this first-year, male Scarlet Tanager as being rare in Minnesota on 12 October. The record is close, but before, the latest dates in the state listed by Janssen.

I have previously posted a note on the molt sequence of male Scarlet Tanagers. I have seen first-year, male Scarlet Tanagers a few times in the fall in Minnesota, and once, years ago, during the winter in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador. According to Mowbray (1999), most Scarlet Tanagers arrive in Columbia by mid-October and Ecuador and Bolivia by November. Little or nothing is known about the speed of their migration or how weather affects their travels.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Bonnethead Shark

Bonnethead Sharks are abundant in nearshore Florida waters. This species is the smallest of the hammerhead sharks. They are harmless to people, who often use the meat as crab bait (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission). The beach at the Merritt Island was full of fishermen and beach people. These sharks are said to be good sport fish, but the fishermen appeared to leaving their catch to die on the sand.

The purpose of the peculiar-shaped head of this shark is not fully understood. Hypotheses include enhanced reception of prey electrical impulses, enhanced maneuvering while swimming, and prey manipulation (these sharks sometimes use their heads to pin down stingrays). Of the ten species of hammerheads worldwide, one three are known to have attacked humans.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Wilson’s Plover, Scoters and eBird

In the United States, Wilson’s Plovers are restricted to the Gulf and Southeastern Atlantic coasts. This shorebird winters from Central into South America. Beach development and disturbance are the main threats to this species. Last April, when I listed a pair on the beach at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, eBird demanded confirmation. Fortunately, I had this photo, clearly showing the single breast band and stocky black bill. Alexander Wilson did not have eBird when he collected the first specimen of this plover in 1813 at Cape May, New Jersey, where they were rare even then.

The eBird app often alerts me to the need for such documentation, which is handy if you are traveling in unfamiliar territory. Later in our journey, in South Carolina, I reported Black and White-winged scoters. These ducks were also flagged by eBird. Thus knowing they were rare, I took the photos below, even though the birds were quite distant. Despite the poor quality of the images, I was able to document my observations in my eBird list. (The duck with the white wing patches is the White-winged Scoter; the bird in the last photo with the dark crown and paler cheeks is a Black Scoter.)

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Le Conte’s Sparrow

On Wednesday I took John Holden to see the Nelson’s Sparrows I reported in yesterday’s blog. We were only at the 180th Street Marsh in Dakota County for a few minutes before a small sparrow flew up and into a roadside willow shrub. Although we were uneasy that this bird was relatively bright and a a dozen meters from the nearby cattails, we both assumed we were seeing the Nelson’s Sparrow. My photographs clearly showed a white crown stripe, quite unlike the Nelson’s and typical of a Le Conte’s Sparrow.

Le Conte’s are among the most elusive of sparrows. Even where they are common, these sparrows are hard to observe. They are reluctant to fly, instead creep about “like mice under mats of grass” (Lowther 2005). The first specimen was collected in 1790 and named for a physician friend of Audubon. By 1872, only three additional birds had been found. The nest was first discovered in 1882. Only in the late 1990s were numbers of nests adequately described from North Dakota and Minnesota (Lowther 2005).  I have photographed this species before in South Dakota and you can read a bit more about this sparrow in my previous blog on Le Conte’s Sparrows.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Nelson’s Sparrow

For the last week or so, Nelson’s Sparrows have been reported from the 180th Street Marsh in nearby Dakota County. Never having photographed one, nor seen one in Minnesota, Erika and I ventured out to the swamp on Tuesday. We had no problem finding four birds along the edge of the marsh. Photographing them was another matter. These photos show the ochre eye-stripes and ochre, faintly streaked breasts. The top photo shows the gray sides to the face and the lower photo shows the broad, gray crown. Most of all, these photos show the habitat in which this sparrow skulks.
Nelson’s Sparrows have a confusing systematic history. Until recently, they were known as Sharp-tailed Sparrows. Three different populations were recognized, one breeding in the upper midwest, a second along Hudson Bay, and a third along the Atlantic coast of the northeastern United States. Because of differences in plumage, song, size, behavior, and genetics, Sharp-tailed Sparrows from the the Atlantic coast were split off and called Saltmarsh Sparrows (Shriver et al. 2011). Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows overlap along the northern New England Coast. Nelson’s Sparrows are named for Edward Nelson, who directed the Biological Survey from 1916 to 1927. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Halloween Pennant

According to John Abbott in the new (and free) DragonflyID app, Halloween Pennants are widely distributed, abundant pennants of North America. Apparently they are particularly common in Florida, and we saw them in numerous locations around the state, where they fly all year. These photos are from the Everglades in early April. They are easily recognized by their orange, dark-spotted wings.

They forage from the tops of marsh vegetation, often with their wings appearing to be out of alignment. Both sexes are able to fly in rain and strong wind. Males wait on their perches for females interested in breeding. The pennants in the upper photo are in their wheel position, the male guarding his mate, while she collects gametes from the male’s seminal pores. The dragonfly in the lower photo is a female, which is poorly represented in my photo collection.

Monday, October 5, 2015


On 2 April, Erika and I drove to the end of the road in the Everglades National Park to the “village” of Flamingo. I already shared with you some of the dragonflies we saw. We listed relatively few birds.

I noticed a bird photographer in an empty parking lot. Clearly we was intent on photographing something in the overhanging trees. I strolled over and found the Osprey with the fish in the left-hand photo. I wonder how our pictures compare. We saw the Osprey in the first photo later in our trip, near Satsuma along the St. John’s River with our intrepid guide, Carol Foil.

Ospreys are North America’s only raptor that eats almost only live fish (Poole et al. 2002). I once saw an Osprey take a small mammal, so this rule of being an exclusive piscivore is not absolute.

Ospreys have been brought back for the edge of extinction in the mid 1900s. The pesticide DDT was the main cause for this crises. Thanks to aggressive environmental remediation, by 2000, Ospreys are once again approaching historic numbers (Poole et al. 2002).

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Nashville Warbler

This fall, I am banding quite a number of Nashville Warblers. I have not made an official tally. Nashville Warblers are one species, at least, that, preferring secondary growth habitats for breeding, have benefited from recent western and Canadian wildfires and clear-cutting.

Sexes of Nashville Warblers are similar. Males tend to be a bit brighter than their mates. Males in winter plumage tend to be duller than in the spring. Young birds, like this one, look like faded adults. Despite their relative lack of winter flamboyance, Nashville Warblers in any plumage are handsome, little birds. For a photo of a spring male and more infornation on the species, see my post from 2010.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Regal Darner

As we walked through the Pineland Trail in the Everglades National Park, a Regal Darner flew up and perched in front of Erika and me. Photographing darners can be frustrating. Usually they are zig-zagging through the air, flying this way and that. This perched darner allowed us only a few photos before it continued on its way.

The green eyes are distinctive for Regal Darners, although this color changes to blue in mature females. The thorax is green with brown stripes. When not feeding in open areas, these darners are found in woodlands with ponds and swamps—exactly the habitat in which we encountered it.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Needham’s Skimmer

In the Everglades National Park last April, we phonotgraphed a couple of unfamiliar dragonflies. The first is this Needham’s Skimmer. This species is common near the coast from Texas to Maine. This skimmer replaces the similar Golden-winged Skimmer in coastal areas. I had trouble identifying Needham’s Skimmers, but the gold in their wings is less extensive and their bodies have less contrast than in the Golden-winged Skimmer.

Erika and I found several of these Needham's Skimmers along the Pineland Trail in the Evergrlades National Park on 3 April 2015. We found other individuals elsewhere in the park.