Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Halloween Pennant

Halloween Pennant—24 July 2016—along the Jefferson Parkway Wetlands in Northfield, Minnesota. I should have posted this image on Halloween. This image lay forgotten in my blog queue. I am going to try to empty the queue during the next several weeks.

According to the DragonflyID app, this large dragonfly is common and widespread across most of the eastern United States. Minnesota is about as far north as they get. Like this one, pennants perch atop vegetation and wave in the breeze like flags. The fore and hind wings often lie on separate planes—this field mark can be seen in my photo.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Red Fox

While we photographed the Great Gray Owl in Yellowstone Park, up trotted a Red Fox. These foxes are found from the Arctic Circle through most of North America, North Africa, and Eurasia. Their range has expended into suburban areas and they are introduced into Australia, where Red Foxes are considered to be invasive pests. They mainly take rodents, but also feed on rabbits, game birds, reptiles and invertebrates. Red Foxes are often found in pairs or in small family groups. Young remain with their parents and assist in caring for other young (Wikipedia). We, however, only saw this single fox.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Great Gray Owl

We found the Great Gray Owl in Yellowstone National Park last September. It was not hard to spot. The poor bird was surrounded by birdwatchers. A park ranger kept vigilance over the birders. Actually this bird does not look too healthy. Hopefully it was just napping at midday. Great Grays hunt both by night and day.
The owl performed a few maintenance behaviors, like preening its legs in this second photo. I find the pine needles on the bird’s side odd. I would have thought that the owl would have cleansed itself of miscellaneous vegetation. Preening is common for this species. Stretching is another frequent behavior. I am not sure what is happening in the last picture. Several times the owl appeared to face upwards, perhaps stretching? Or trying to become invisible to the enthusiastic birders?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Rocky Mountain Elk

Yellowstone National Park is a good place to see Rocky Mountain Elk. Elk were once found across much of North America, but their range is now greatly contracted. 

The elk in this photo is a female. Females and young live in herds. Males either live alone or in groups of batchlors. During rutting season, females and young will move into harems with one or two males. Males coat themselves with urine-soaked mud, which attracts the females. I did not notice it at the time, but this female is urinating. This behavior is probably not marking territory, and no more complicated than it seems. (As we raced across Yellowstone in search of the Great Gray Owl, this photo is the only elk image I captured.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Bison and Magpie

Look closely at this Bison from Yellowstone National Park. A Black-billed Magpie is perched on its head. Magpies form symbiotic relationships with large ungulates. The magpie feeds on ticks and other ectoparasties. The advantage to the bison is obvious, but the situation may be more complicated. Magpies cache the ticks for later consumption, but often don’t kill the ticks first. If the ticks survive, they reproduce, thus increasing tick numbers. For the bison, tick borne illnesses and outright blood loss from tick wounds can cause deaths. Magpies feast on the bison carcasses, and both carcasses and ticks are probably critical food sources for the birds (Trost 1999).

In yet another twist, I have been told that ranchers often treat cattle with poisons to kill ticks. If their cattle die from other causes, the poisons sometimes collaterally kill scavengers like magpies and Golden Eagles.

Magpies are omnivorous, consuming grains, vegetable matter, and both living and dead animals. Magpies cache food for only a couple of days. Often their caches are stolen by other magpies, that find the caches by smell. Female magpies watch males cache food and later steal the males’ hoard. Males will often move caches away from carcasses on which they feed and take the food closer to their nests. Magpies cache whatever food is most abundant. Both wild and pet magpies also cache shiny trash.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Greater White-fronted Goose

On 16 November, John Holden and I checked out the New Prague, Minnesota, sewage treatment ponds. This location often harbors migrating waterfowl, and this day was no exception. Nearby, among a large flock of loafing Canada Geese, we spied a solitary Greater White-fronted Goose.

White-fronted Geese breed in arctic regions around the the world. They migrate over much of Canada and the United States, and winter in California, the Southeast, and in Mexico. In our country, it is most common west of the Mississippi River. The numbers of this goose have fluctuated greatly since the early 1950s, declining from over-hunting and habitat destruction (Ely and Dzubin 1994). Nevertheless, over a million birds inhabited North America in 1994.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Green-winged Teal

On 5 November, Erika and I walked along the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. We parked at the Bass Ponds and turned around at the renovated pedestrian bridge that crosses the river. Along the way, we observed a flock of 30 Green-winged Teal. These ducks were relatively unwary and busily washed and preened.

This individual appears to me to be a first-year male. Males desert their mates while the females are incubating. Females then do all the incubation and any further parental care. In the winter, large flocks are common. These teal eat arthropods and marsh plant seeds (Johnson 1995).

Friday, November 18, 2016

Yellowstone Falls

We spent most of the morning of 23 September driving from West Yellowstone to the shores of Yellowstone Lake. Erika’s sister and her husband were excited about showing us the Great Gray Owl they found the day before. We did not have time for geysers and paint pots. But we did stop at the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River.

The National Park Service writes “the caynon was a barrier to early travel.” Indeed, the falls do not look like good news for the canoeist going in either direction. At 308 feet, the falls are twice the size of Niagara. Obviously, however, the Niagara sports more gallons per second. 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Common Raven

This Common Raven greeted us in a parking lot in West Yellowstone, Montana, on 23 September 2016. We detoured south from Belgrade and I-90 to spend the morning with Erika’s sister and her husband. They were excited about seeing a “huge” owl feeding near Lake Yellowstone, so that was our goal. My brother-in-law and I rode in our car, while Erika and her sister visited in theirs.

Ravens and people have had a long and often contentious relationship. For better or worse, ravens are an integral part of human cultures. The authors cited below write, “It is difficult to imagine any other bird being associated with so much myth, mystery, and misinformation.”

Ravens, the largest of the passerines, are widespread around the world. Ravens followed Bison herds in the Great Plains, but are now largely absent there. On the other hand, this corvid is reestablishing itself in the forests of eastern North America. In other areas Ravens are considered pests that eat crops and young livestock, resulting in eradication programs. Other raven populations have declined so drastically that people have tried to reintroduce them. Ravens have been implicated in the decline of several endangered species, including California Condors and Least Terns (Boarman and Heinrich 1999).

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Gray Jay

Gray Jays are found across Canada and Alaska, with populations penetrating the northernmost  United States, and south through the Rocky Mountains. This jay flew overhead as we hiked in Mount Rainier National Park last September.

They are odd birds. Their salivary glands are enlarged and are able to glue food under tree bark and lichens.  Even perishable food items are scatter-hoarded across their territories. Perhaps stranger yet, this jay breeds in late winter, incubating eggs when temperatures can approach -30 degrees C.  These birds don’t even try to breed in the warmer temperatures of May or June. Strickland and Ouellet (2011) further report that global warming may be causing stored food to spoil. As a result, some southern populations of Gray Jays appear to be declining.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

American Pipit

In the alpine meadows surrounding Mount Rainier’s snow, we found a flock of American Pipits. These birds breed in Alaska and arctic Canada, south through the Rocky Mountains. The birds are common migrants or winter residents in much of the rest of North America. I have blogged about migrant pipits in Minnesota.

Pipits survive their harsh breeding environment. All About Birds reports that 17 pipit nests in Wyoming were buried by snow for a day. Nestlings over 11 days survived. Most younger birds died.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Hoary Marmot

On our walk up the Sunrise Trail in Mount Rainier National Park, we saw marmots. These giant squirrels did not look right. We remembered marmots that were much more uniformly brown. These animals seemed to be silver-haired, hence their name. This species is found in western Canada, Alaska, and in our Pacific Northwest.

Not surprisingly, we saw several marmots along the trail. They live in colonies consisting of up to 36 individuals. The colony includes an adult male, perhaps three adult females, and various young marmots. Colony size is limited by food availability.

Hoary Marmots hibernate for seven or eight months a year. In the summer, they often sun themselves on rocks. About half their day is spent this way. The remainder of their time is spent foraging for various plant materials.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels ran up the Sunrise Tail in Mount Rainier National Park on 21 September 2016. This rodents are common in the Rocky Mountain West. I am surprised this post is my first for the species.

These ground squirrels lack the facial stripes of chipmunks. They hyburnate in burrows during the winter. They collect seeds and other vegetation in cheeck pouches, storing some of their food in their burrows. They have litters of four to six young in the summer. Ground squirrels are imported prey items for hawks and various larger mammals (Wikipedia).

Thursday, November 10, 2016


Yesterday, 9 November 2016, John Holden and I photographed a Merlin near the 180th Street Marsh in nearby Dakota County. John was with me when I last captured a Merlin image in Rice County on 27 November 2012. Compare the two birds in this post. The first is yesterday’s falcon, the bottom is the Rice County bird.

When I wrote about the Rice County Merlin, I explained that three races of Merlin are described. I hesitantly concluded that our bird was a taiga race due to its overall dark coloration, creamy eye-stripe, and buffy breast. Our more recent individual seems clearly to be a Prairie Merlin. Note the very pale sides of the face, the white stripe above the eye, and the non-buffy, white breast markings.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Sooty Grouse

On 21 September, we began our journey home. Our first stop was Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. This destination promised us a short day, but we both know that, no matter how many miles we have to cover, our days always seem to take 11 hours—especially if you detour and go by way of Mount Rainier National Park. We found ourselves with a little over an hour at the park. We walked a short distance up Skyline Trail, which runs towards the peak from the park headquarters. The morning was breath-takingly beautiful.
The trail was relatively crowded. We can’t imagine what a zoo it must be in season. We came upon the bend in the trail in the first photograph. To our surprise, a flock of seven Sooty Grouse fed along the edge of the trail. The grouse were completely unperturbed by our presence. In fact, the birds appeared to defend their territory from us. Because they are often quite tame, grouse are often called Fool's Hen or Trail Chicken.
Grouse systematics are confusing. Until very recently, Blue Grouse were considered a single species. DNA research confirms what some ornithologists suspected. Blue Grouse are actually two species, the darker, coastal Sooty Grouse, and an interior Dusky Grouse. I had never seen a Blue Grouse or either of the two newly described species. One of the joys of birding is the serendipity of being at the right place at the right time. Twenty minutes later, on our return down the trail, not a grouse was to be found.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Pacific Tree Frog

Apparently the Pacific Tree Frog is Washington’s only chorus frog and Washington’s State Amphibian. It is found from Northern California to southern Alaska (where they may have been introduced). Most active at night, this frog is often common and is found in a variety of aquatic habitats. They can change color, ranging from green to brown. They are identified by the black line from their noses to their shoulders. We found this tree frog at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Paddle-tailed Darner and Eight-spotted Skimmer.

Actually the “best” critter we listed during our 20 September 2016 Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge hike was this Paddle-tailed Darner. Not that this dragonfly is rare. This species is the common, late-season darner in western Washington. But it was a new one for my list. Paddle-tailed Darners are found from Alaska to southern California, east to South Dakota and Nebraska.

The Eight-spotted Skimmer has a similar, although less northern range.  The skimmer, also common, usually flies earlier in the season. Dennis Paulson, who wrote Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West, wrote me that his last one this year was in Seattle two days later.  Erika and I previously listed this dragonfly last July, also in Nisqually, and elsewhere in the West

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Mew Gull

As I hustled down the tidal-flat boardwalk at Nisqually National Wildliufe Refuge, I paid scant attention to the many Ring-billed Gulls—except to take a this photo. As I glanced at another bird to my left, the bird alarm rang in my brain. The field marks did not add up. No ring or other markings on the bill. The bird seemed slightly small. The head seemed, rounder, more delicate than that of the Ring-billed Gull. “This could be an adult Mew Gull,” I thought as I began taking pictures.
Mew Gulls breed in the Canadian northwest and in Alaska. They also breed across much of much of northern Eurasia. Our birds winter off the Pacific coast of the United States. They are common in Puget sound from August until early May. Thus my September record is not exceptional. These are, however, my first photos of this species.

Friday, November 4, 2016


Birders we met at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge were atwitter over several Whimbrel at the end of a long boardwalk over the tidal flats. “Hightail it out to the end now, and you will probably see them—but go quickly because the tide is going out,” said one birder. I hurried the family along, although I was not sure why they birders were so excited about Whimbrels. Turns out, while these birds are fairly common migrants along Pacific shores, they are uncommon in Puget Sound.

The Whimbrels were not hard to find at the end of the boardwalk. My photograph is not fabulous, since the birds fed some distance from us. We watched them probe the deep mud with their long bills. Their bill shape matches the shape of some species of fiddler crabs. Whimbrels also eat other crustaceans, worms, mollusks, and fish. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpipers are common migrants across Washington. A few can be found at any time of year in Puget Sound (Bird Web). Most, however, winter in northeastern South America. They walk slowly while eating amphipods and other small arthropods. This sandpiper uses “surface tension transport,” using water surface tension to deliver prey to its mouth. Opening and closing its bill, the sandpiper moves drops of water containing the prey to its mouth (Prakash et al. 2008). The downside to this feeding technique is that it leaves the birds vulnerable to surface pollutants.

The species can usually be identified by its yellow legs and small size. We saw this individual in the tidal flats at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge on 20 September 2016.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


Bushtits are foliage-gleaning specialists, as they hunt for insects and spiders. They usually travel in flocks. Unlike this individual in the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge near Olympia, Bushtits more often forage in foliage rather than on stems or branches (Sloane 2001).

Genetic studies reveal that Bushtits are the only New World member of the family Aegithalidae (long-tailed tits). The research further suggests that Bushtit ancestors arrived in North America by way of the Bering land bridge 10-12 million years ago. They are now found in western Canada, United States, and in the mountains of Mexico and Central America.