Monday, December 31, 2018

HaIry Woodpecker vs Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpeckers are outnumbered by Downy Woodpeckers at our feeder. The two species are quite similar. Note the longer, thicker bill and the white tail feathers of the first image of a male Hairy. If you look carefully, you can see the the female Downy Woodpecker’s outermost tail feathers have black spots. 

Most birders were surprised when ornithologists concluded, using morphological, behavioral, and genetic evidence, that the two woodpeckers are not each other’s closest relatives. The Hairy is closer to Arizona and Strickland woodpeckers of Arizona and western Mexico. The Downy’s are most similar to Ladder-backed and Nuttall’s woodpeckers of California and northern Baja California (Jackson et al. 2018; Jackson and Ouellet 2018). Why have the two woodpeckers evolved such similar plumage? I suspect one factor n=may be that a black and white plumage with a white stripe down the back must be ideal for survival in snowy northern forests.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Downy Woodpecker

Another gray, snowy Minnesota day. Not much at the feeders except voracious Downy Woodpeckers. Identification is confirmed by the relatively small bill. If you look very closely, you can also see a black spot on one or two of the white outer-tail feathers. These spots are also typical for this species.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Ruddy Duck

On 25 December, most of our Northfield lakes are frozen. Only the Superior Avenue pond remains quasi-open. The pond is surrounded by hundreds of Canada Geese, Mallards, one goldeneye, one Hooded Merganser, and this female Ruddy Duck. According to Gerry Hoekstra, who found this duck the other day, very few winter records exist for our county. The turbulence behind the duck is caused by a goose landing. The Ruddy duck appeared to be sound asleep.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018


When we visited Olympia this December, we found Buffleheads to be abundant. I suppose due to their black and white plumage, Buffleheads usually prove difficult for me to photograph. This drake drifted across Henderson Inlet, northeast of the city. The water reflected the sunny day and green forest. For a further discussion of Buffleheads, see one of my previous posts on this diving duck.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Olympic Gull

It turns out that Northwestern/American Crows are not the only trouble-makers in Olympia (see last post). I would have identified this gull as a Western Gull. Sibley assures us that Western Gulls never have extensive, dark head markings, like this gull. Instead, this winter-plumaged bird is a hybrid between a Western and a Glaucous-winged Gull. Western Gulls generally breed further south than do Glaucous-wings. Hybrids between the two “species” occur up and down the Pacific Coast. Almost all the gulls of this type in Washington are hybrids and are often referred to as Olympic Gulls. This bird guarded a grocery store parking lot in Olympia on 3 December 2018.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

American Crow

Crows are abundant in Olympia. In my youth, birds in the coastal Pacific Northwest were called Northwestern Crows. They were identified by their location and by their relatively small size. The birds we saw did seem small. Recent studies, however, indicate that American Crows, which have moved into the Pacific Northwest, breed randomly with the smaller residents. As a result, pure Northwestern Crown may no longer exist. I am not sure why they are not lumped together as suggested by many ornithologists. I am sure my life list is about to shrink by one bird.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Spotted Towhee

Male and female Spotted Towhees fed under our son’s feeders when we visited Olympia in early December 2018. These birds used to be known as Rufous-sided Towhees. But this species was split into Eastern Towhees in the East and Spotted Towhees in the West, despite occasional hybridization in the centrals Great Plains. The birds in Olympia are a Pacific Northwest race known by their relatively dark backs.

Monday, December 17, 2018

California Scrub-Jay

Our journey to Olympia, Washington, in early December, was not a birding trip. California Scrub-Jays, however, greeted us at our son’s bird feeder. Olympia is at the northern end of this species’s range, which continues coastally through Baja California. The species used to be known as the Western Scrub-Jay. The coastal populations differ genetically, habitat, and color from birds in the American Southwest and in Mexico. These latter birds are now known as Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays. The two populations do interbreed where their ranges overlap. Evidence exists that the hybrids have poorer survivorship than pure-bred birds (Curry et al. 2007).

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Mergansers were common this December in both Olympia’s Capitol Lake and in Puget Sound. This drake appeared to be interested in the two hens he swam near. At one point, when the hens were not looking, he turned for some tail feather care. Tail-cocking by males is associated with pair bond maintenance. Usually tail-cocking is done by a male swimming ahead of a female. Pair bonds are seasonal, but form in mid-winter (Dugger et al. 2009).

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Ring-necked Duck

Ring-necked Ducks also plied Capitol lake on 3 December 2018 in Olympia, Washington, on 3 December 2018. This duck is named for a seldom seen brown ring around their necks, In this photo, to my surprise, the ring neck is visible on the male, second from the right. This species, nevertheless, might be better named the Ring-billed Duck. Like wigeons, Ring-necked Ducks consume a variety of aquatic plants. The two species differ, however, in that the Ring-necked Ducks usually dive for their dinner.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

American Wigeon

Even before we arrived at our hotel in Olympia, Washington, on 3 December 2018, we stopped to look at waterfowl on Capitol Lake. We scanned a large flock of American Wigeons, trying, unsuccessfully to turn a few of them into Eurasian Wigeons (which differ from the American version in being much brighter reddish-brown and by the males’ tan crowns). American Wigeons eat mostly plants—only during the breeding season do they turn to insects. Compared to other ducks, their bills are relatively short and narrow.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Amtrak to Portland

Erika and I are back from a spur-of-the-moment jaunt to Olympia, Washington. We took Amtrak to Portland, Oregon, and rented a car for the last two hours of the journey. The train trip took about 45 hours. We booked a sleeper car and passed the time relatively comfortably. The train ran spot-on-time—and, in fact, on our return, arrived in St. Paul an hour early. Who has ever heard of a train arriving an hour early? Our outbound weather was foggy then blizzarding. Coming home was clear and cold. Birding at 80 mph left a bit to be desired. The first photo is of oil fracking near Williston, North Dakota. The second is of Mount Hood (I think) as we covered our final miles along the Columbia River on our way to Portland.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Common Goldeneye

A female Common Goldeneye swam around Carleton College’s Lyman Lake for several days around 17 November 2018. Goldeneues thrive in cold climates, and generally prefer deeper lakes than at the college. They dive for aquatic insects in the summer, but broaden their winter diet to include fish, mollusks and other aquatic invertebrates.

Friday, November 30, 2018


A drake Mallard from our 21 November 2018 stroll around a Northfield pond. Mallards are the most abundant of North American Ducks. Note the “duck-tail” curls above its tail, a trait shared by Mallards and Elvis. In Mallards, these are actually upper tail feathers.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Canada Goose

On 21 November 2018, Erika and I checked for waterfowl at a Northfield pond. All we saw were a few mallards and 900 Canada Geese. One reason for this concentration was that this pond tends to be ice-free longer than other area ponds. It must be spring-fed. Among the geese swam an odd individual with a broad white face patch and a broad eye-brow. I have noted other Canada Geese with similar markings, but never quite this extensive. I wondered if we stumbled upon a hybrid Canada and Barnacle Goose. As you can see, this bird’s breast is white—that argues against the hybrid hypothesis. Among the various races of Canada Geese, some birds occasionally sport white eye-brows and/or white foreheads. It is unclear to me as to whether or not these traits are indicative of some young birds. I have concluded, therefore, that what we found was a Canada Goose.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

New Dragonfly Book

Just out—The 7th edition of my dragonfly book! Hardcopy books are regrettably expensive, but a .PDF file, which can be read on most computers and cell phones, is now available for a mere $7.99. Furthermore, the .PDF format is e-mailed to you immediately. Previews of the first 15 pages of this 300-page book can be seen by following the link. In all, the book includes 133 color photos of North American dragonflies and Damselflies.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrows are common migrants in our part of Minnesota. For some reason, however, we seldom find them in our backyard. Perhaps our woodland does not have enough brushy cover. In any event, this bird poked around under our feeders on 12 November 2018. Elsewhere in this blog I have written about their calls and about their fascinating color morphs.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Purple Finch

A Purple Finch appeared at our bird feeder on 12 November 2018. Because these finches take two years to become purple, this bird could be a female or an immature male.

Purple finches used to be classified in the genus Carpodacus, along with European rosefiches. European ornithologists even called our bird the American Rosefinch. Numerous genetic studies, however, conclude that Purple, Cassin’s, and House Finches are not closely related to the European birds. The American finches are now placed in the genus Haemorhous. These studies also indicate that Purple and Cassin’s Finches differentiated about 3 or 4 million years ago. This stock arose from House Finch ancestors about 9 to 10 million years ago (Wootton 1999). 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Dark-eyed Junco

A Dark-eyed Junco by any other name. Image taken at our Northfield bird feeder on 12 November 2018. Actually, due to their confusing and often controversial systematics, juncos go by a bushel basket-full of names. Until relatively recently, this race was thought to be a distinct species, the Slate-colored Junco. An old folk name used by Audubon and still by many non-birders is Snow Bird. The word “junco” is Latin for “rush,” an odd name for a bird that prefers woodlands to marshes.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Horned Lark

I am surprised by how pink Horned Larks are. This one guarded a dirt road in Goodhue County on 6 November 2018. I pulled sideways to get this photograph, but, unfortunately on-coming traffic obliged me to move. (There are laws agains texting while driving in Minnesota, but I am unaware of prohibitions against bird photography.) Horned Larks are extremely variable in coloration, with some 21 races described across the continent. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Cedar Waxwing Snow Drinking

In the Carleton College campus, on 13 November 2018, I came upon a Cedar Waxwing that appeared to be drinking snow. Never have I seen this behavior. I was surprised, because I have always thought that drinking snow is a metabolically foolish behavior for warm-blooded animals—certainly a fast track to hypothermia. A quick Google search sent me straight to Witmer et al. (2014), in Birds of North America, who write “Cedar Waxwings often drink water or eat snow in winter, since the sugar in their fruit diet can dehydrate the birds.” 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

American Goldfinch

So I finally capitulated and seriously read the directions that came with my new camera. This image of an American Goldfinch is the first post-reading result. I still have a way to go, and I look forward to next year’s dragonfly season with a mixture of excitement and apprehension.

I have previously posted about why American Goldfinches are late-season breeders. They apparently wait until June or July, when thistles flower and go to seed. These birds are almost exclusively granivorous. Unlike most other birds, they eat and feed their young almost no insects. One curious result of this diet is that Brown-headed Cowbird nestlings do not survive in goldfinch nests. Without insect protein, cowbird nestlings’ growth is retarded, and almost all die before they fledge (McGraw and Middleton 2017).

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Eurasian Collared-Doves have spread across most of North America. Just exactly where to find them in southern Minnesota is a bit hard to predict—usually near small town grain elevators. For the last several years, Dennison, Minnesota, has been a reliable location to find these doves. I found them near bird feeders there on 6 November 2018.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Mourning Dove

Have you ever had a Mourning Dove wink at you? This one did along a cornfield near the southwest shore of Lake Byllesby, Goodhue County, on 6 November 2018. What gorgeous blue eye shadow! Mourning Doves breed from southern Canada to southern Mexico. In the United States, southern birds tend to be year-round residents, while northern ones migrate south in the winter. Most leave southern Minnesota; only a few attempt to survive our winter—usually near bird feeders or areas of leftover or stored grain.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Red-breasted Nuthatch

2018 is a Red-breasted Nuthatch invasion year. Nuthatch influxes are caused by winter food shortages in their coniferous breeding grounds. When the nuthatches invade, they are not very particular about their habitat. They often visit bird feeders and can be found across most of the United States. Individuals have even been recorded in Iceland and Great Britain. In large flight years in some locations, over a thousand Red-breasted Nuthatches can be seen in an hour (Ghalambor and Martin 1999). On the other hand, during non-invasion years, these nuthatches may be completely absent outside their breeding range.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatches are among the most common birds in our backyard woods.  Due to their frequent feeding upside-down on tree trunks, this species is often one of the first birds beginners learn. White-breasted Nuthatches also visit bird feeders. Pairs hoard large quantities of food, caching it piece by piece across their territory. These nuthatches form permanent pair bonds and defend territories all year. Some northern birds may migrate, but not much about these movements are known (and I have no evidence from my banding).

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Bald Eagle

Erika and I took this photo of a Bald Eagle perched above the Cannon River in Dakota County, Minnesota, on 23 October 2018. Throughout the year, one of the pleasures of living in Northfield is the abundance of eagles. They even fly over town. It is hard to pass by an eagle without taking a photo, so I have plenty of previous posts about them. Now I am still exploring my new Nikon P1000 camera and its 3000 mm lens. Even with the camera’s suite of image stabilizers, at the high magnifications you really need a tripod. Erika proved to be an excellent bipod. 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Cedar Waxwing

On 23 October 2018, Erika and I happened upon a large flock of Cedar Waxwings in the Carleton College arboretum. The first is a rather motley immature bird. The second is a more elegant adult. If you look closely at the adult, you will notice a few of the red feather tips for which waxwings are named. Both adults and immatures have variable numbers of these feather tips, although immature birds often have fewer of them. The immature in my photo lacks red tipped feathers.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Hairy Woodpecker

Elsewhere in this blog, I have commented on ways to tell Hairy (above) and Downy (below) woodpeckers. In these images, taken of the Downy on 30 October and of the Hairy on 21 October 2018, you can clearly see the difference in the bill size—despite the fact that the Downy is a large male and the Hairy is a relatively small female. But there is another difference evident here. At least at our feeders, Hairy Woodpeckers seem more gluttonous than Downys, as evidenced by the Hairy Woodpecker’s often carrying large chucks of suet away from the feeding station.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

American Pipit

American Pipits are common, if inconspicuous, breeding across Alaska and Arctic Canada south above tree-line through the Rocky Mountains south almost to the Mexican border. They migrate south in the winter to the southern United State, across Mexico, and into Central America. A race of the American Pipit breeds in Siberia and winters from Israel to Southeast Asia.

I have only seven American Pipit records from Minnesota. As I just wrote, these birds are inconspicuous. At least one pipit flushed as I looked for birds at the Dennison Water Treatment Ponds here in Rice County on 29 October 2018. The pipit gave a few high-pitched whistles and flew to a nearby barbed-wired fence. This behavior surprised me, since almost every other pipit I have seen foraged on the ground or perched on rocks. I did not complain and grabbed my camera.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Northern Shoveler

One more duck from our 22 October 2018 visit to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge—a drake Northern Shoveler. When not preening, these ducks swam in tight circles, using their outsized, spatula-shaped bills to sieve the water for small crustaceans. The bills come complete with large comblike structures along their outer edges. While ideal for straining water, the bills do appear to be rather long for preening purposes.

Sunday, October 28, 2018


A pair of Gadwalls shared the Bass Pond where we found the Northern Pintails of my last post. Like the pintails, Gadwalls are found across the Northern Hemisphere. The origin of the word “gadwall” is not known. There are references to “gaddels” in 1667. You can see that Gadwalls are dabbling ducks, feeding with their tails up in the air. Erika calls them Black-assed Ducks.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Northern Pintail

I read that various duck species were seen at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge’s Bass Ponds. This area is about 40 minutes north of us along the Minnesota River near the Mall of America. Erika and I drove up there and found lots of waterfowl in the river, and an assortment of birds in one of the Bass Ponds.

We quickly listed a few Northern Pintails, an abundant duck found across the World's northern latitudes. In North America, they breed across Canada into Alaska and south into the northern Great Plains. They are “puddle ducks” —a group of species that feed with their tails in the air. You can see this behavior in the second photo. As I recall, the duck dabbling in the background is a female. The other pintails in these images are drakes.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Great-tailed Grackle

I have carried this image of Great-tailed Grackles on my desktop for several months. I have been thinking of compiling a collection of bird photos taken through hotel windows. Quality always suffers when you take photos through windows. I took this photo in Fort Worth, Texas, last August. Topaz Labs recently came out with a new feature called AI Clear, which automatically cleans noise and sharpens photos. I ran this photo through Topaz Studio, which contains AI Clear. I think the result is remarkable. For more Great-tailed Grackle information, see my April 2012 blog post.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Eastern Bluebird

Not the best image of an Eastern Bluebird, this photograph does capture the intensity of the bird’s wings, rump, and tail. We found several bluebirds along a Northfield pond on 15 October 2018. The blue of bluebirds depends on light refraction, not on pigmentation. Air pockets and melanin in the feathers scatter blue light and absorb other wavelengths (

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Great Blue Heron

I wonder if this Great Blue Heron we encountered on 15 October 2018 is the same individual we’ve seen on a Northfield pond all fall. Great Blue Herons are common North American birds. They survived both the millinery trade of the early 1900s and widespread habitat destruction. Vennesland and Butler (2011), however, warn that continued habitat loss, climate change, and increases in heron predator populations all present potential problems for the species’ survival.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

American Coot

Erika and I walked around a Northfield pond on 15 October 2018. We discovered a preening American Coot. You can clearly see the red bill knob typical of most North American coots—see my previous post. After the bird finished its feather maintenance, it flapped and stretched its wings.