Monday, October 31, 2016

Song Sparrow

I took this first Song Sparrow photo on 30 September in Carleton College’s Upper Arboretum. The second was taken at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Washington on 20 Sepember. I am always surprised by how dark Song Sparrows are in the Pacific Northwest. Up to 52 races have been proposed for this variable sparrow; the American Ornithologists’ Union recognizes around 38. 

My Minnesota bird is probably the eastern Melospiza melodia melodia. This race is small, brown, and black streaked. Western Washington Song Sparrows should be Melospiza melodia morphna, which is more brownish than other western races, but darker than eastern ones. The largest of the Song Sparrow races is found on a couple of Aleutian Islands and is dark, gray, and the size of a towhee.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Red-tailed Hawk

On 28 October I head a cacophony of jays and nuthatches in the backyard. Erika spied a Red-tailed Hawk quietly perched in our woods. We knew the species’ identity even before we saw the red tail. Note the streaks across its lower breast.

Red-tails generally prefer more open areas, but we have noted this raptor in our woods on a number of occasions. This hawk is common and its populations are increasing. The species survives in urban disturbed settings if prey and perch sites are available (Preston and Beane 2009).

Saturday, October 29, 2016

American Coot

Back at the Jefferson Parkway Wetlands here in Northfield, on 27 October, I photographed this American Coot. Standing on one foot, definitely stretching or practicing for a synchronized swimming performance. Brisbin and Mowbray (2002) simply list stretching among “comfort movements” noted in captive coots. 

I am surprised that primary feathers appear to be absent. The authors cited above report that coots lose primaries, secondaries, and all wing coverts almost simultaneously. The result is that coots are probably flightless for about four weeks. Primary feathers take a few more days to be replaced than the secondaries. This difference, however, probably does not explain the lack of primaries in this bird since the secondaries are long.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Herons were common during our 20 September 2016 hike in the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Although we had just seen one take a frog, thier main prey is fish. Other amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals are also taken. They occasionally scavenge carrion.

This heron is showing typical hunting technique—waiting and ambushing prey. Other strategies are reported, including using bread crumbs as fish-bait. Great Blue Herons are found in a number of habitats, both in and near fresh and salt water. They can also hunt on dry land. Consequently it is one of the most common of the North American herons and egrets (Vennesland and Butler 2011).

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Bad Frog Day

American Bullfrogs still inhabit the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. I have previously written about this invasive species. This year, we visited the refuge on 20 September. The grandchildren enjoyed seeing the frogs, but, happier yet, was this hungry Great Blue Heron.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

American Dipper

My color-blind Dad was a trooper with his birding sons. He laughed at us, however, when he read that American Dippers bob “spasmodically” in rushing mountain streams. In 1965, we found one in western Mexico. Spasmodic is an odd word, but this thrush-sized aquatic songbird does body-pump its way from rock to rock, sometimes even disappearing under the water. There they are carnivores, eating aquatic insects, invertebrates and even small fish and fish eggs (Wilson and Kingery 2011).
Whenever I visit the Rocky Mountains, I am on the lookout for Dippers. Years ago I read that Dippers can be found at Tumwater Falls next to Olympia. I immediately accepted my son’s offer on 19 September for a family outing to Tumwater Falls Park. Erika found this dipper when she noticed the water splashing strangely in the creek. Dippers feed in nearly freezing water. To survive this habitat, dippers have a low metabolic rate and, compared to other birds, are able to store more oxygen in their blood. Their feathers are exceptionally thick and water resistant (Wilson and Kingery 2011).  Even under water, as you can see in the final photo, the dipper does not appear to be getting wet! (Our bird’s yellow bill indicates this is an immature.)

Monday, October 24, 2016

California Scrub-Jay

California Scurb-Jays were common along with Steller’s Jays in Olympia, Washington. This jay is a relatively new bird to my life-list. Only recently have ornithologists concluded that California Scrub-Jays are a distinct species, separate from other scrub-jays. These birds differ in habitat and are brighter blue than are inland scrub-jays (now known as Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay). They do not, however, vary greatly genetically and they interbreed in narrow hybrid zones where their ranges overlap.

Our scrub-jays fed on fruit trees. Elsewhere they are opportunistic feeders, taking arthropods, lizards, fruits and seeds. They will eat ticks off of deer. They are not adverse to eating carrion. We watched the jay below cache his fruit under some bushes along a sidewalk. This behavior is well-known. Most caching is done in the fall and their buried bounties are consumed from mid-winter until spring.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Steller’s Jay

We saw many Steller’s Jays during our Olympia visit. These photos were taken over several days in September. This species is usually found in coniferous forests, but is also to be expected in tree-filled urban areas. (Coincidently, I posted an account of this jay just before we embarked on our trip.)
Steller’s Jays are closely related to the Blue Jays of eastern North America. They share the same genus. The two species are known to hybridize where their ranges overlap. Hybrids are intermediate between Blue and Steller’s jays. One hybrid between a Steller’s Jay and a California Jay is reported (Walker et al 2016).
Talk about a Bad Hair Day. The wind blew this jay’s crest way out of kilter—especially when the bird turned its head. We found one Steller’s Jay feeding on sunflowers. Judging by the yellow at the corner of the gape, this bird is probably an immature.
Steller’s Jays take a wide variety of food items. These jays eat many plants and animals, including arthropods, nuts, seeds, berries and fruits. They consume small vertebrates, even other birds’ nestlings. They often visit bird feeders or clean up the left-overs after human picnics (Walker et al 2016).

Saturday, October 22, 2016


During our swing through the ponds below Washington’s capitol, I photographed a feral, female Mallard. Not that I have that much to say about Mallards—this just seemed like a pretty picture. Mallards are the most common North American Duck. Feral Mallards inhabit the cites of the world, where they survive because people feed them. These ducks are the evolutionary source of almost all our domesticated ducks (Drilling et al. 2002).

Friday, October 21, 2016

Glaucous-winged Gull

In my last post, I wrote about the hybrid swarm of Western x Glaucous-winged gulls in Puget Sound. Seeing pure parental types of birds is not impossible, especially in the fall when young birds of either species may wander into the area. In the northern Capitol Lake in Olympia, I believe we had several immature Glaucous-winged Gulls. These birds are told from the other gulls in the area by their relatively pale wing tips. The dark tail band probably indicates that this bird is approaching its second winter.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Olympic Gull

On 18 September, Erika and I took a swing around the Olympia harbor. I photographed a couple of gulls in close attendance with young birds. The adult in the first picture slipped off his perch on a metal roof. The young bird followed in hot pursuit. Both adults appeared to ignore their young, perhaps attempting to wean them from parental feeding.

These birds are “Olympic” Gulls, hybrids between Western and Glaucous-winged gulls. The ranges of these two gulls overlap here, the result being a hybrid swarm in the region, with almost no genetically pure individuals. Given this situation, I think that they should be considered a single species.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Hooded Merganser

A few years ago, I wrote, “although male Hooded Mergansers are stunning, hens are ducks with unruly coiffures.” Perhaps I wrote in haste. This merganser hen that Erika and I found on Monday in eastern Northfield is quite a beauty in her own right. Assuming, of course, that this bird is a female. Sexes of Hooded Mergansers are hard to tell apart in their first fall. Eventually males’ eyes become yellow, while female eyes remain brown. By spring, males acquire their yellow eyes and striking plumage.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Swamp Sparrow

Erika and I kicked up about a dozen Swamp Sparrows on Monday as we strolled along the Jefferson Parkway Wetlands in eastern Northfield. Mowbray (1997) writes that this sparrow is “common, if elusive and local” across eastern North America, breeding from Canada to our northern states.  As far as Swamp Sparrows go, this individual is remarkably handsome. I usually think of Swamp Sparrows as duskier-plumaged birds. Since they molt on their breeding grounds, I suspect this is a freshly molted bird in its first-basic plumage.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Striped Meadowhawk

Our stroll through St. Martin’s Univesity on 18 September also yeilded a plethora of Striped Meadowhawks and a few photographically shy darners.  Although we saw the meadowhawks during last year’s Washington visit, we enjoyed seeing these dragonflies again. I wrote, “Striped Meadowhawks range in western North America from British Columbia to the Southwest, and east to the western Great Plains.  Males defend territories in weedy area and over grassy lawns. More than other meadowhawks, they often perch in shrubs, and are usually found near water (Paulson 2009).”

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Douglas Squirrel

On the morning of 18 September, Erika and I discovered the campus of St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. This spacious open area includes a system of storm ponds, ideal for birds and dragonflies. A Douglas Squirrel, also known as a Chickaree, greeted us at the edge of the visitor’s parking area.

We were unfamiliar with this species, found along the West Coast, from British Columbia to central California. Douglas Squirrels are closely related to the more widely distributed Red Squirrel. Burt and Grossenheider write, “does little if any harm; affords pleasure to campers and visitors of parks within its range.”

Douglas Squirrels prefer old growth or mature second-growth forests. The area around our parking lot contained large trees, and this environment apparently satisfied the squirrel's requirements. They mostly consume fir, spruce, and pine seeds.

Friday, October 14, 2016

American Coot

When entering American Coot observations into eBird, I was perplexed with the choice of checking American Coot or American Coot (Red-shielded). My research into this conundrum indicates that almost all North American coots have a red callous, or shield, on the top of their bills. This coot, found in Northfield on 13 October 2016, shows this field mark.

Coots found in the Caribbean have white frontal shields. Ornithologists do not know if these Caribbean Coots are a separate species or if they are just a color morph of American Coots. Caribbean birds occasionally show up in Florida. Payne and Master (1983) found a successfully breeding mixed pair of coots in Michigan. They could not confirm that the white-shielded bird was a Caribbean Coot, but concluded that their ability to interbreed suggested that red-shielded and white-shielded birds are, indeed, but color morphs of a single species.

Why the choice in a Minnesota eBird checklist?  Often the shield color is hard too see in poor light or from even moderate distances. A white-sheilded coot is quite unlikely in Minnesota, or anywhere north of Florida. But they are not impossible.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Red-breasted Nuthatch

During our Olympic sojourn, during family walks and trips to playgrounds, I carried my camera. One bird I was happy to encounter was this Red-breasted Nuthatch. This species is often common enough back home in Northfield, where it is found during migration and winter. But this species is unpredictable. Northern populations are migratory, more southerly ones are residents. All populations occasionally irrupt from their breeding grounds.

Little is known about these movements. We don’t know if irrupting nuthatches return to their breeding grounds. The usual assumption is that these movements are the result of scarce cyclical food supplies. Ornithologists also hypothesize that the irruptions happen when too many nuthatches occur in a given area. Probably the answer is a combination of low food supplies and too many birds (Ghalambor and Martin 1999).

I found this Red-breasted Nuthatch behind the Olympia Toyota dealer on 17 September 2016.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Black-headed Grosbeak

We spent four days in Olympia, Septemper 17-20. Upon our arrival, the weatherman predicted four days of rain. On top of that, this trip was a grandchild visit. My worries of a dearth of birds was for naught. First, rain is an off and on event in the Pacific Northwest—it comes and goes. The weather for most of our visit was quite pleasant. The grandchildren, for their part, happily survived birding trips with grandpa.

Our first morning, however, was wet. A young-looking Black-headed Grosbeak fed at the kid’s feeder. To my surprise, eBird flagged this species as rare, requiring either written or photographic confirmation. I ran out to the car for my camera. The patio window was made of such poor glass that decent pictures were impossible. This image was taken through a screen in front of an open window. The travails of an eBirder! I will try not to burden you with further “screen shots." Meanwhile, I have asked eBird why these birds are considered rare. As far as I can tell, the species should not be that rare in Olympia. The species is, however, absent after September.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Mount Rainier

When traveling to Olympia, our habit it to take White Pass out of Yakima. A mandatory stop is an over-look to Mount Rainier. At 14,400 feet, this peak is the highest of the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest. It is an active volcano, a fact that must lurk in the recesses in the ninds of Washington residents. The mountain has been known by a variety of other names. Native Americans called in Tacoma, Tahoma, or Talol. These names may mean “Mother of Waters.” Lewis and Clark refer to it as Mount Regniere. Rainier commemorates Rear Admiral Peter Rainier, a friend of George Vancouver. With the renaming of Denali in Alaska in 2015, some favor returning Rainier to one of its aboriginal names.

We always stop at Clear Creek Falls, just east of the pass. This 228 foot drop seems perfect for Black Swifts. These birds often nest behind waterfalls. The only problem is I have never seen one there. Black Swifts breed late and leave early. Clear Creek may be at southern edge of their breeding range in Washington. Their nesting coincides with the emergence of flying ants. Perhaps we have never been at the falls at exactly the right time. Pretty waterfall, nevertheless.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawks are widespread and common across North America. On 8 October, I found this one on a telephone pole at the edge of Carleton College’s Upper Arboretum in Rice County. This hawk was relatively tame, despite my close approach. Red-tails spend most of their time perched—up to 96% of the time (Preston and Beane 2009). Then they often preen. This maintenance behavior involves repeated use of their oil (uropygial) gland, located on their rumps.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Flicker Intergrade

During my blackbird hunt in Gillette, Wyoming, on the morning of 15 September (described in my last post), I randomly took photos of all the birds I saw for inclusion in my eBird list. I took photos of a robin and this flicker. In this photo and in the field, I clearly saw the flicker’s yellow wing-feather shafts. 

Very quickly I received an email from Tony Leukering, the eBird reviewer for Wyoming. We call such communications “I doubt it emails.”  Tony wrote, “The mix of red and black in the malar suggests to me a hybrid; granted, a way backcrossed hybrid. If you agree, please alter your checklist accordingly.” 

Because of their different plumages, eastern and western flickers used to be considered separate species. Birds in the west, with their red feather shafts, were Red-shafted Flickers. Eastern birds with yellow feather shafts were Red-shafted Flickers. There are also other differences. Following this paragraph is a picture of a Red-shafted Flicker taken two days later in Olympia, Washington. Western males do not have red neck collars. Eastern mustache stripes are black, not red. Where their ranges overlap in the midwest, flickers massively hybridize. I have seen quite a few orange-shafted flickers in South Dakota. 
I did not notice that the mustache stripe is oddly colored on my Wyoming flicker. What Tony suggested is that, somewhere in its genealogical history, this yellow-shafted flicker had hybrid ancestors. The hybrid apparently bred with yellow-shafted birds, leaving only a trace to the red-shafted encounter. I gladly changed my eBird list. A bird I had serendipitously photographed turned out to be one of the more interesting birds of our trip. Just for the record, here is a male Yellow-shafted Flicker:

Friday, October 7, 2016

Brewer’s Blackbird

We stayed the night of 14 September in Gillette, Wyoming. As I walked to check in to our motel, I noticed Brewer’s Blackbirds strolling through the lawn. My photo was not quite in focus, so, the next morning, I went out and looked for another. Brewer’s Blackbirds are common across western North America and I have other photos. But these days I am collecting photos to paste into my eBird lists. I had no trouble finding a dozen blackbirds.

In a previous post, I wrote about this blackbird’s interesting nomenclature and range extension. Bird ranges are not static. Beginning in the early 1900s, Brewer’s Blackbirds moved east along the boarder states and provinces to Michigan and eastern Ontario. The birds followed highway, train, and utility corridors to reach newly created agricultural land (Martin 2002). Meanwhile, grackles have expanded west, at least to Colorado’s Front Range. Where Brewer’s Blackbirds met Common Grackles, the two species competed. In the countryside, the smaller Brewer’s Blackbirds displace grackles. Common Grackles, however, hold their own in urban situations. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Variegated Meadowhawk

We did not see many dragonflies on our trip to Olympia. September is a bit late for these insects. We did find a few, including several dozen Variegated Meadowhawks feeding in the grass around the Badlands National Park headquarters in South Dakota.

Variegated Meadowhawks are among our most common dragonflies. They are found across North America, from souther Canada to northern Mexico. They are thought to be migrants. They appear to fly southeast from the western United States. In some areas of the south, they are absent in the summer.  In other areas, they are year-round residents, but may be more abundant in the spring and fall. Mass flights have been observed. They fly in a great variety of habitats.

When I posted the lower photo in a dragonfly FaceBook page, some readers wondered if the abdomen was correctly colored—it seemed too blue. I figure this is but an extreme individual. These photos are both females—males are more red. The first photo is more typically colored.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Palm Warbler

Palm Warblers are drab birds in the fall. A good key for their identification is their flamboyant tail wagging. Erika and I found Carleton College’s upper arboretum full of these migrants on 30 September. They seemed to be everywhere we looked (though we only reported ten individuals to eBird). We saw them in the trees, in the prairie, and even walking along the trail in front of us.

Despite its name, this species breeds further north than almost all of the warblers. It winters among the palms, however, residing then along the southeastern American coast and in the Caribbean. I have written about the interesting systematics of this bird.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Pronghorn Antelope

We did not see Burrowing Owls in the Badlands prairie dog colonies. We did find Pronghorn Antelope. These antelope were part of a group with several females and young, with one male. Females and their twins usually form nursery herds. One or two males often join these herds. Pronghorns tend to be gregarious and form large winter herds (Higgins et al. 2000). Historically, Pronghorns were found east to the Mississippi River—but habitat destruction and hunting brought them close to extinction. Present-day Pronghorns in South Dakota are rare east of the Missouri, and western ones suffer during abnormally harsh winters. Later during our trip we saw huge herds in Wyoming. We learned that Wyoming has more antelope than human tax-payers.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Black-tailed Prairie Dog

We stopped at a Black-tailed Prairie Dog colony in the South Dakota Badlands. Prairie dogs populations are decimated across their Great Plains range. Drought and plague cut their numbers. They are vulnerable to a number of predators—hawks from above, snakes and ferrets from below. Ranchers often despise them—accusing the rodent of competing with livestock, destroying crops, and even injuring horses that might stumble in their burrows. “Sportsmen” use them for target practice.

Prairie dogs are a Keystone species in their prairie habitat. Predators depend on them. Their burrows shelter a number of other species. That is why we stopped. We searched in vain for Burrowing Owls that we listed last year at this same colony. Perhaps the owls already departed on their fall migration or maybe we were unobservant.