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.