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).

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Black Saddlebags

If you drive west across Washington on I-90, you should stop at the overlook just before you reach the Columbia River. There, on 8 July, Erika and I encountered dozens of large flying dragonflies. Often they were attached pairs. We chased single dragonflies until one finally perched on the dry vegetation. The black patches on their hind wings suggested Black Saddlebags.

This behavior is typical of the species. After mating, males and females fly in tandem until they are over water. The male releases the female so that she can drop her eggs into the water. He reunites with her after she deposits her eggs, until she is ready to oviposit once again (Kerst and Gordon).

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Black-billed Magpie

Last July, as  Erika and I drove west across Montana, we saw Black-billed Magpies at a few Interstate rest areas.  Magpies have a long association with humans. This corvid followed both Native and European Bison hunters and explorers like Lewis and Clark (Trost (1999); see my previous post of a magpie eating a French fry.) In recent years, Magpie populations have suffered losses from West Nile Disease and pesticides applied to control ticks on cattle. In the last case, mapgies are poisoned after they scavenge the remains of dead livestock. Overall, however, we thought magpies were more apparent than during our other trips in recent years.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Bearmouth Bluet Convention

The Bearmouth Rest Area on I-90 east of Missoula is another of our favorite highway stops. We stopped her this year on 7 July. This elaborate facility includes a small lake and a path to the East Fork of the Clark River. In previous years we listed Western Wood-Pewees, Western Tanagers, and Barrow’s Goldeneyes. This year we stumbled into a bluet convention—all, unfortunately, unidentifiable for amateur entomologists. Species identity depends on microscopic examination of their tail-ends.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Rusty Blackbird

A week ago, on 6 November, Erika and I scanned a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds at the River Bend Nature Center here in Rice County, Minnesota. We estimated the flock contained 400 blackbirds. To our surprise, among the Red-wings were at least six Rusty Blackbirds and one Common Grackle. The bird in this photo is a female Rusty Blackbird.

Over the past 40 years, Rusty Blackbird populations declined by 85 to 95 percent. Ornithologists are at a loss to explain this drop. Hypotheses include loss of wetlands in their wintering grounds, environmental contaminants and habitat loss in breeding areas, and collateral loss during blackbird control programs aimed at other species (Avery 2013).

Friday, November 13, 2015

Sprague Odes

Overlooking the town of Sprague, Washington, along I-90 is a rest area that is worth visiting. We stopped on 8 July this year. Ring-billed Gulls and Brewer’s Blackbirds stroll across the lawns. Western Kingbirds fly-catch from the trees. Several odonates caught our attention. With the help of Washington dragonfly expert Jim Williams, I was able to identify the following species. The first is a Vivd Dancer, a common western damselfly. Copulation takes place away from water, thus this waterless rest stop makes for an appropriate habitat.
I thought that this second ode was an Emma’s Dancer, but Jim assures me that it is an unidentifiable bluet. My belief that the purpish color on this individual would lead to easy identification proved to be illusionary.
The splayed out wings of this final ode definitely pointed to a spreadwing. Black dots on its undrside confirmed the species to be a Spotted Spreadwing. This damselfly is northern in distribution. It is often common and prefers stagnant, seasonal, and saline waters—exactly the predominant habitat in dry, western Washington.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Three Forks Odes

Every time we drive across Montana on Interstate 90, we always stop at a public fishing area near Three Forks. The seventh of July this year proved to be no exception. This location is off the frontage road along the Madison River. Over the years, improvements have been made—an outhouse, a bridge over the river. In my early travels, I searched for a variety of small birds, otherwise difficult to observe at 75 mph. Now it is a superb stop for odes (another word for dragonflies.  I use “dragonflies” to include damselflies). Come to think of it, 75 mph is also not ideal for dragonflies.
Despite our seeing a half-dozen dragonflies, we were disappointed that none were new for us. For each dragonfly we saw, I have linked their common names to my previous posts where they are described in my blog. My target species for this stop was this Western Forktail.  I found one here last year, but my only photo was not quite in focus. To my delight and with little effort, I found Western Forktails in the reeds along the Madison. The forktail here is a male. 
I can still remember my excitement last year as I realized that the black-and-white dragonflies at this location were Eight-Spotted Skimmers and not the Twelve-spotted species from Minnesota. The Eight-spotted is a western skimmer, found from British Columbia into Mexico. The species ranges east to the western Great Plains.
At least four bluets, Northern, Boreal, Alkali, Marsh, and Hagen’s, are so similar that they are not identifiable by the casual observer. Their color patterns vary. You need to microscopically exam their tail ends.  I have considered becoming a real entomologist by purchasing a dragonfly net and taking specimens. But the prospect of becoming a one-man traveling circus, with binoculars, cameras, bird lists, and insect net, seems daunting. This photo is probably of one of those five bluets. I will have more to say about bluets in an upcoming post.
Band-winged Meadowhawks are locally common in our area of Minnesota. Eastern and western groups of this transcontinental species differ. Dragonfly experts wonder how these populations are related. DNA research suggests they but one, variable species. By range, the dragonfly in this photo is one of the western Band-wings.
Four-spotted Skimmers are another dragonfly that I often see in Minnesota, including Erika’s garden. The species has a huge range across northern and middle North America, even north to Alaska and further west into Asia, Europe, and North Africa. The species is often abundant in marshes and quiet ponds (Kerst and Gordon).
Common Whitetails are abundant in Erika’s garden. Males like this one often perch near shorelines, usually in vegetation or on the ground. They seldom perch on the tips of plants (Beaton). This dragonfly is another transcontinental species, and are found from Canada into Mexico.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Autumn Meadowhawk

Flying into November, Autumn Meadowhawks are the latest dragonflies of the North Woods. They survive until hard freezes and do well in temperatures in the high 40s (Mead). Despite this hardiness, the species ranges north only to southern Canada.This male’s wings do look a bit tattered. Yesterday, 9 November 2015, this Autumn Meadowlark flew up and landed on a sunny wall. We have only had a couple of light frosts this fall.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

American Robin

This year I took several photographs of American Robins. The first, taken on 5 May, was in the Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. The other photos were in the Carleton College arboretum on 30 October. Robins are the “most abundant and most widespread North American thrush” (Vanderoff et. al 2014).

Many people think of robins as being the first sign of spring but, even here in central Minnesota, robins overwinter. In the winter, their diet switches from worms to fruit and berries. At least in the fall, a better name for this bird might be Hackberry Thrush.
Wintering birds may not be the same populations as breeders. Usually you can tell male robins from females—the males are darker than their mates. But Canadian birds tend to be darker than robins breeding in the United States. As different populations mix during migration and winter,  birds’ sexes may not be identifiable by plumage. First-year birds also complicate matters, because their genders are often impossible to determine. As a likely local breeder, however, the robin in the first photo is likely to be a male.

Once robins molt out of their spotted, juvenal plumage, hatching year birds can be difficult to separate from birds born in previous years. The bird in the second photo was almost certainly hatched this year. Its wing coverts are pale-tipped and are buff-colored. If you look closely, the tail feathers are not worn—they have sharply pointed tips. I believe the last robin is also a first year bird. The field marks, however, are not as clear.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Western Wood-Pewee

Also seen at the Red Shale Forest Service Campground near Ashland, Montana, on 7 July 2015, was this cooperative Western Wood-Pewee. I previously posted that this flycatcher’s populations are declining, perhaps due to the destruction of western riparian habitat or other, unknown factors in their Latin American winter range. This decline, however, is curious. The bird is a wide-spread generalist in western woodlands. Wood-pewees sally forth in pursuit of a wide variety of flying insects.

Eastern and Western Wood-Pewees are nearly identical. Their breeding ranges, however, do not normally overlap. You can usually identify wood-pewees by call. The Eastern gives a high, plaintive “PEEawee,” whereas the Western sings a burry “DREE-yurr” (Sibley).

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Plumbeous Vireo

If you ever find yourself in Spearfish, South Dakota, and want to drive to Crow Agency, Montana, you have a choice of routes. You can stay on Interstate 90 and drive 267 miles in three hours and 37 minutes. Or you can drive across on US Highway 212 for 216 miles and three hours and 31 minutes. The shorter route might seem like the obvious choice, except that passing is sometimes dangerous on this truck-laden highway. If you have mechanical problems along this sparsely-populated route, help can be problematic. Furthermore, 212 is occasionally flooded during spring rains. But the scenery is spectacular and roadside birding stops are often rewarding.

Our best stop this year, as we raced towards western Montana on 7 July, was the deserted Forest Service’s Red Shale Campground, just east of Ashland, Montana. Although the photography gods were not cooperating—these pictures should have been wonderful—I did manage to capture images of a new bird for my collection. This Plumbeous Vireo is a dark slate bird with a contrasting white eye-ring.

Plumbeous Vireos, until the late 1990s, were a race of the Solitary Vireo. Due to genetic studies, the Solitary Vireo was split into three species, the Plumbeous of the interior west, the Cassin’s of the West Coast, and the Blue-headed Vireo of eastern North America. Field Identification of the three species warn Goguen and Curson (2012) “requires caution and is not always possible.” Southern Montana is on the northern end of the Plumbeous Vireo’s range, but none of the other vireos discussed in this post are found here. The habitat, dry Ponderosa Pine forests, is perfect for a Plumbeous Vireo.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Surf Scoter

Yesterday, Gerry Hoekstra texted Erika and me that he found six Surf Scoters at Cody Lake in northwestern Rice County. Although three hours passed before we were free to search, we found the birds without difficulty. These ducks were feeding intensely about half-way across the lake (east-west), and, despite their being some distance from the shore, I was able to take these very blown-up photos. My field guides assure me that the field marks of fall Surf Scoters include their vertical (rather than oval) white patches behind their bills and their lack of white wing patches (although these patches are not always visible on swimming birds). Finally, Surf Scoters are less stocky birds and their bill profile is less wedge-shaped than White-wings.
Away from their arctic breeding range, Surf Scoters inhabit the sea coasts of North America. Nevertheless, during migration, these sea ducks are rarely reported everywhere across the United States. In Minnesota, these scoters are uncommon in Lake Superior and rare elsewhere in the state. At sea, Surf Scoters feed on invertebrates, mainly mollusks and crustaceans. Their freshwater diet is less well known, but includes clams, Zebra Mussels, and caddisfly larvae. Anderson et al. (2015) write that they “perhaps rarely [feed] on dense schools of juvenile forage fish.”

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Burrowing Owl

On 6 July, during our scenic detour through South Dakota's Badlands National Park, we saw a lot of people and few birds or dragonflies. We did discover several Burrowing Owls in an extensive prairie dog colony. In my previous Burrowing Owl post, I mentioned that the Zuni called this owl “the priest of the prairie dog.”
The owls breed in underground burrows, sometimes digging their own, but often using burrows dug by ground squirrels, badgers, prairie dogs, or other mammals. Owls also use underground nest boxes or other human structures that allow easy access. Nests are often lined with animal dung that attracts the insects the owls eat. Decaying dung may warm the nesting chamber (Beauty of Birds).
We enjoyed watching the owls’ display flights. The owls flew up, hovered and dropped to the ground. Usually owl burrows are abandoned by their original owners. Occasionally, owls “evict” the original owners. We are not sure what is happening in the final photograph. This behavior was clearly aggressive between an owl and a prairie dog. Was the owl driving the mammal away from a burrow? Or was the owl defending a nesting hole? The owl, in any event, won the encounter.