Sunday, September 30, 2018

Pied-billed Grebe

On 28 September 2018, Erika and I discovered an immature Pied-billed Grebe on a Northfield lake, Striped sides of the head are typical of many juvenile grebes. Pied-billed Grebes retain remnants of these stripes until late winter, even after the grebe molts into its first definitive plumage. You can see this individual’s black bill ring beginning to become evident. Click here to see a photo of an adult.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Cedar Waxwing

Erika and I photographed this Cedar Waxwing in the Carleton College arboretum on 22 September 2018. Although waxwings will flycatch for insect prey, these birds are one of the few North American birds specialized for eating fruit. Indeed, this individual feasted on the cedar berries for which the bird is named. Waxwings get nutrients from the fruit pulp and pass the fruit seeds onto the surrounding countryside (Witmer et al. 2014). Eating fruit has also caused waxwing numbers to increase, as people plant ornamental fruit trees in ever-expanding suburban sprawl. Waxwings may also benefit from recent regulation of agricultural pesticides.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrows breed in the Northwoods across Alaska and Canada, south to the northern tier of eastern states and into the Rocky Mountains. Due to their boreal range, their preference for dense shrubs, and their general shyness, Lincoln’s Sparrows are poorly studied. They winter from the southern United States to northern Central America. Erika and I found this individual in the Carleton College arboretum on 22 September 2018.The Lincoln’s Sparrow was first scientifically described by Audubon in 1833. The bird was named for Thomas Lincoln, an independently wealthy Maine farmer. Lincoln accompanied Audubon on a collecting trip to Labrador, which is where they found the sparrow.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Double-crested Cormorant

Erika and I found several Double-crested Cormorants at the Wood Lake Nature Center near Minneapolis on 21 September 2018. This species is the most widespread and most common of the six North American cormorants. Double-crested Cormorants often perch with their wings spread. This behavior probably helps to dry out their plumage. On the other hand, wet feathers may aide in a cormorant’s ability to dive. Wing spreading may have a role in temperature regulation (Dorr et al. 2014). Not all cormorant species show wing spreading behavior.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

We photographed this female Rose-breasted Grosbeak at the Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield, one of Minneapolis/St Paul’s many “suburbs.” 21 September seems like a relatively late date. Most of these grosbeaks are by now well on their way to southern Mexico to northern South America. The uneven wear of the tail feathers suggests that this bird is an adult. All of the feathers of a young bird would be freshly molted.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Hooded Merganser

Erika and I found a young Hooded Merganser at the Wood Lake Nature Center in greater Minneapolis on 21 September 2018. If nothing else, this image is a study in camouflage. Although relatively small and surrounded by city, the nature center provides ideal merganser habitat—marshland surrounded by woodlands.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Blue-headed Vireo


On 14 September 2018, I banded this Blue-headed Vireo. These vireos breed across Canada and in the eastern United State and winter in the southeastern United States, eastern Mexico and northern Central America. Little or nothing seems to be known about this bird’s physiology that favors such a northern winter distribution. Blue-headed Vireos appear to be increasing in numbers as abandoned fields revert to forests.

Blue-headed Vireos slowly move about forest branches as they snatch insects from leaves and twigs. Facilitating this foraging strategy, these vireos have relatively week jaw adductor muscles. This anatomy allows them to rapidly snatch their prey, often in flight (Morton and James 2014).


Thursday, September 20, 2018

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Yellow-bellied Flycatchers are exceptional among the difficult-to-identify species in the genus, Empidonax. Unlike the others, Yellow-bellied Flycatchers are easily identified by their unique yellow plumage. They are common enough migrants from the northern forests towards Central America, but they are small and camouflaged. Each spring and fall, I band a few—this one on 11 September 2018. In the hand, capturing their color proves to be difficult. I think I came close in this image.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfishers are often wary birds to photograph. They are infamous for their eating fish, which they catch near the water surface. Kingfishers usually require clear water in which to hunt.  They use the white spots between the bill and their eye to aim at their prey. As they hit the water, however, their eyes are closed. They plunge headfirst into the water, but do not usually submerge. Kingfishers prefer small fish. After returning to their perches, the birds often pound their prey. This action aligns the fish so that the prey is swallowed head-first and may also remove sharp fish spines. Belted Kingfishers also take other prey like mollusks, crustaceans, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, small mammals, and berries (Kelly et al. 2009).

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Blackburnian Warbler


As Confusing Fall Warblers go, Blackburnian Warblers, with their dark cheeks and relatively bright yellow throats and eye-stripes, are fairly striking. Blackburnians used to be in the genus Dendroica. Recent DNA studies conclude that all the Dendroica are closely related to redstarts, Setophaga. Due to taxonomic rules that the first name for a species has priority, all the Dendroica are now merged into Setophaga. Other warblers, Wilsonia and Parula, have also joined Setophaga. By whatever name, Blackburnian Warblers breed from western Canada to the Maritime Provinces. They also nest in northern Minnesota and the northeastern tier of the United States. From New England they breed south through the mountains to Georgia. They winter in Central and South America.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Black-throated Blue Warbler

I banded this Black-throated Blue Warbler on 13 September 2018 in our backyard. I encounter this species once or twice a year, at most, but not every year. My observations are all in the fall. This species has an odd range, covering the Minnesota Arrowhead and southwestern Ontario to the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada south through the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia. Most winter in the Greater Antilles, and also in south Florida, the Yucatan, Belize, and even further south through Central and northern South America. Holmes et al. (2017) do not even show the species’ occurrence elsewhere in Minnesota. eBird, however, shows Black-throated Blue Warbler records scattered across the western United States, during migration and winter. It almost appears that young birds are genetically programed to migrate correctly to the southeast, but some birds inherit a reversed map and head southwest. As a result, quite a few records are from southern California.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

On 28 August 2018, birders reported seeing a Buff-breasted Sandpiper at a nearby, Dakota County sod farm. This habitat is excellent for this shorebird, which prefers upland areas to the mudflats favored by other shorebirds. Erika and I, despite the rainy afternoon, had little trouble locating the bird, which appeared to be feeding on worms alongside muddy puddles in the fields.

I have only seen Buff-breasted Sandpipers about a dozen times. One reason is that they breed along the Arctic coasts of Alaska and western Canada. They winter in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. In the continental United States, this sandpiper is only a migrant, with restricted habitat preferences and, especially in the spring, a limited range (over a narrow band of the eastern Great Plains). These factors make it difficult to census Buff-breasted Sandpipers. Most studies suggest that populations are declining. Others maintain that numbers fluctuate from year to year. More srtidy is needed (McCarty et al. 2017).

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Autumn Meadowhawk

During September, Autumn Meadowlarks are common in Erika’s garden. This image is our first dragonfly capture with the new camera. I am pleased with it, despite the focusing and adjusting of dials being somewhat mysterious. Autumn Meadowhawks are the only meadowhawks that have yellowish, not black legs. They also lack the black triangles often observed on the abdomens of other meadowhawks. Autumn Meadowhawks are among the last of the dragonflies to fly in the fall. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Vesper Sparrow

On 9 September 2018m I checked out a local woodpile that often attracts migrating sparrows. I was a bit surprised to find two Vesper Sparrows, since I usually associate this species with open fields. This sparrow was once rare in the East, but became common as forests were cut. Now, as forests reclaim pastureland, Vesper Sparrow numbers are declining. Reclaimed prairie, however, does surround the woodpile. The white eye-ring, the white stripe surrounding most the ear-patch, and, especially, the white outer tail feathers all support my identification. 

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Great Blue Heron

A contortionist Great Blue Heron. Note the heron’s bill in the lower center of the photo. I am experimenting with a new Nikon Coolpix P1000. With its unbelievable 24-3000 mm lens, I will need some time to figure out how it works. For this image, the camera was set at 3000 mm and attached to a monopod. The bird was on the far side of a local, Northfield, lake.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Magnolia Warbler

Even among Confusing Fall Warblers (CFWs), Magnolia Warblers can be identified by their yellow, lightly streaked underparts, white wing bars, and gray heads with white eye rings. The white patches in their tails are also distinctive if you can see them as the birds flit through the leaf cover. Spring birds are much more striking. The species was once called the Black-and-yellow Warbler. The species was first collected in a Mississippi magnolia tree, hence its present, relatively misleading name. Although common with healthy populations, relatively little is known about this warbler’s breeding biology. Their breeding range is in the remote North Woods and their nests are hard to find (Dunn and Hall 2010).

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Red-eyed Vireo

Erika and I photographed this Red-eyed Vireo on 30 August 2018. By the last week of August, and often even earlier, fall migrants are on the move. This bird accompanied about a dozen warblers in Carleton College’s arboretum. Elsewhere in this blog, I have wrtten why this vireo was once called Preacher Bird, and I have explained that first year birds lack the red eyes of adults.

Ornithologists have puzzled over how vireos are related to other birds. At one time or another, they have been placed near warblers or shrikes. Recent DNA research suggests that, like shrikes, they are distantly related to crows. Within this assemblage of birds, however, vireos are relatively distant from present-day crows and shrikes, originating, instead, from the most primitive of crow ancestors. The crow assemblage evolved in Australia or Southeast Asia. Now Vireos are only found in the New World. Recent research, however, concludes that a couple of Asian birds are, in fact, vireos (Brewer et al. 2018).

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Autumn Meadowhawk

Erika and I found this male Autumn Meadowhawk in Rice County, Minnesota, on 31 August 2018. This species is the only northern meadowhawk with yellowish, not black, legs. It flies later than almost all other dragonflies of the region and can be seen into November, if there are no hard freezes. Eggs over-winter on blades of grass or on muddy banks. The eggs hatch with spring floods and runoff.