Sunday, December 26, 2010

Nice Minnesota Bird Book for Kids

Wild About Minnesota Birds: A Youth's Guide to the Birds of MinnesotaMy 11-year-old son is showing quite an interest in the birds at our feeders -- he'll grab a field guide to figure out what something is, or grab my camera if it's nearby and start taking photos. (He got the shots of the white-breasted nuthatch in my previous post.) I brought him along on the Christmas Bird Count a week ago, and he remained interested all morning and asked to be put in charge of the observation checklist/tally sheet.

So when I saw the book Wild About Minnesota Birds: A Youth's Guide to the Birds of Minnesota while doing my last-minute Christmas shopping in downtown Northfield, I thought it would be a great choice. It's a nice size (about 7.5" x 10"), with a good balance of beautiful photos and engaging descriptions of the birds, habitat and habits. I'm looking forward to dipping into it myself.

This book is available at Present Perfect on Division Street in Northfield, and I'm sure it would also be available at Monkey See Monkey Do.

Christmas Eve Bird Party

The Christmas Eve snowfall brought perfect conditions for an active morning at the bird feeders. Trying to attract woodpeckers more regularly, I recently added a shelled-peanut feeder and moved our suet feeder from a location where it was hanging freely to one where it had a firm backing. Within a couple of days we were seeing a marked increase in woodpecker visits. Below, a male downy woodpecker (the males have the red spot on the back of the head) is seen on three different feeders. Within the same hour or so we had a red-breasted and a white-breasted nuthatch, chickadees, about a dozen pine siskins, and house finches (the males showing brilliant red plumage). The photos below give an idea of the action, with birds coming and going while I focused on one bird or another.

Downy woodpecker at suet feeder

A chickadee flies past

Downy woodpecker at the tube feeder, eating sunflower seeds

Downy woodpecker at the peanut feeder while a male house finch flies to the platform feeder

A red-breasted nuthatch joins the house finch and downy woodpecker

Black-capped chickadee eating peanuts
White-breasted nuthatch - note the flat head

Nuthatches are often seen head-down
My 11-year-old son took the photos of the white-breasted nuthatch and was the first to alert me to the gathering numbers at the feeders that morning.

Later in the day I caught sight of a large northern flicker (another member of the woodpecker group) hanging at the bottom of the tube seed feeder, which is an unusual sighting for this usually ground-feeding bird. My first instinct when I saw its size and splash of red was that it was a red-bellied woodpecker, which I've only ever seen once at the feeders but am hoping to attract with the new set-up, but then I saw the unmistakable spots on its breast to prove it was a flicker before it flew away.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tunnels in Snow

I've recently discovered that red squirrels and voles (field mice) dig tunnels through the snow. A couple of weeks ago we saw a vole moving in and out of tunnels under the feeders that are in front of our living room window, and my son saw a red squirrel disappearing under the snow and emerging at the base of the large maple tree near the curb. The photos below show tunnel openings I noticed yesterday, leading from our front step area (below one set of feeders, as you'll note from all the seed shell litter) and leading toward our other set of feeders -- and who knows where else.

Two tunnels I believe were made by red squirrels

Snow tunnel of a red squirrel -- perhaps with a vole tunnel to its right

Here are some photos another blogger caught of a red squirrel actually using such a tunnel. I'll keep my eyes open too, but this view of the tunnel openings isn't one I can catch without actually being outside and noticeable to the animals, and they move very quickly.

The current online issue of Audubon has an article by Jeff Hull that talks about the several layers of the snow habitat:
For many animals that don’t migrate or hibernate, snowpack provides shelter and food throughout the winter. The snow world, or nivean environment, is divided into three regions: supranivean (above the snow), intranivean (within the snowpack), and subnivean (beneath the snow). Birds such as grouse may cover themselves in powder near the surface to stay warm, while deeper snow shields mice and voles from birds of prey and foxes, coyotes, and bobcats. Tunnels that form along tree trunks and shrubs allow weasels and other small mammals to move throughout the layers. In the subnivean space, near the warmer earth, rodents such as mice and shrews graze on grass or insect eggs. And at the ground surface, fungi and bacteria communities thrive, a source of carbon dioxide that’s been recognized only in the past decade.
 The article also points out that as the snow warms and refreezes in early spring there are dangerous downsides to this otherwise protective winter habitat:
Earlier in the winter, depth hoar—fragile crystals with minute spaces between them—dominates the snowpack. Deer mice, voles, shrews, and weasels can move freely beneath and within it. Grouse often submerge themselves in soft snow as shelter from nighttime cold.
But spring’s isothermal conditions are dangerous for mammals below. Because the snow is water-saturated, it’s lost many of its insulating properties. A string of too-cold or too-warm days could be disastrous. “Should a real cold front move in, a cross section of snow could freeze and the animals could be trapped in there,” [naturalist JimHalfpenny, of Gardiner, Montana] says. This late in the winter, food supplies are grazed over. Being trapped in one place by an ice layer could limit the animals’ ability to forage, which could be fatal.
A sudden, sustained rise in temperature is equally dangerous. “Since water is percolating down, everything [at ground level] is pretty wet,” Halfpenny says. “In a real heavy melt, small mammals can get wet and get hypothermic—or, worse yet, drown. This can be a delicate time of the year for small mammals.”
During the heavy snows and frigid cold temperatures of the past couple of weeks, I've been particularly conscious of how difficult life must be for birds and other wildlife, but also heartened to discover the tunneling life of red squirrels and voles, which protects them from the elements and from predators to some extent. We try to keep our feeders full, make sure snow isn't clogging access to the seed, and sprinkle some seed and bread crumbs on the ground as well, to give a helping hand to those that can't perch on or cling to the feeders.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Unofficial Turkeys

I spent this morning participating in the Northfield section of the Faribault "circle" of the Christmas Bird Count, as I did last year. This year, unfortunately, Dave had to be away from home, so my 11-year-old son came with me and we were paired up with Dan Kahl, who is the naturalist at the Mount Olivet Conference and Retreat Center. It was great to have the help of such an experienced and affable partner; he was able to quickly make identifications I would have struggled with alone due to distance, speed of flight or other factors.

At the pre-count breakfast hosted by area coordinator Gene Bauer and his wife, Susan, I was also happy to meet Dan Tallman, and his wife Erika, of Dan Tallman's Bird Blog; we've been exchanging blog comments for some time now so it was nice to connect in person. We probably met at the same event last year, but at the time we didn't have any frame of reference. Birdwatchers seem on the whole to be such congenial people, and I enjoy getting to know more of them.

We were assigned a section of southeastern Northfield and a rural area extending farther south and east as far as the edge of Dennison. Much of our driving route was along roads that bordered our assigned area, so officially in those situations we were supposed to count only birds on one side of the road -- the side toward the interior of our area. Anything on the other side of the road was reserved for the person(s) assigned to the adjoining section to record.

There was just one time when we saw something interesting that was on the wrong side of the road: a flock of 11 wild turkeys on a driveway near the intersection of 110th St. and Hall Ave. So these were unofficial turkeys from our perspective, but being large and relatively stable, they formed a good subject for the only photo I took during the outing.

Wild turkeys, rural Northfield (click on photo for larger view)

Birds we officially recorded today included a northern shrike (a very cool spot, and a life bird for me), two small flocks of snow buntings (another lifer -- we looked hard for them last year but didn't find any, though we did find horned larks, which sometimes flock with snow buntings), a flock of 23 robins (!), several downy woodpeckers, a red-bellied woodpecker, a white-breasted nuthatch, two cardinals, quite a few blue jays, four mourning doves, four ring-necked pheasants, four rock pigeons, one bald eagle seen in town behind Sibley School, 34 crows, and numerous juncos, chickadees, goldfinches and house sparrows.

People who participate in the CBC are sent both the regional results and, eventually, a bound copy of the nation-wide report for the year. It's gratifying to be part of this "citizen science" project that helps track avian population patterns.

Oh, and at the end of the morning after hearing our story, Gene noted our turkeys on the side of the reporting form and said that if the adjoining reporters did not spot that flock, he would count them. So it turns out they might not be unofficial turkeys after all.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bird Names: To Capitalize or Not

Update (Jan. 2014): This post, now three years old, is one of the most frequently visited posts I've written. The issue clearly comes up for people a lot. The comments contain some good points that helped me develop my views (and probably state them better), and so I encourage readers to read them too.

Readers with an editor's eye (perhaps I should say eagle-eyed readers) may have noticed that I've been less than consistent when it comes to the capitalization of the official English names for bird species, such as Northern Cardinal or Black-capped Chickadee (or, as it may happen, northern cardinal and black-capped chickadee).

In this, I'm reminded of my quandary over the use of the apostrophe in common terms like farmers' market and kids' meals, which I explored in some detail three years ago in a post titled Tormented By an Apostrophe. (After some dithering, I came down firmly on the side of retaining the apostrophe despite a modern trend to do without it that is generally supported on the claim that the plural is being used purely as an adjective, not connoting possession; I was convinced to the contrary by applying the question to irregular plurals, concluding that we would not feel comfortable calling something a children meal or looking for women sizes in a department store.)

However, back to capitalization of bird names. There's a split here, basically between ornithologists and the rest of the writing world, except where style guides expressly defer to the common usage in a particular field. As a born editor and English usage junkie, I had to investigate further. (This is going to be a long one, so settle in...)

It's undisputed that the International Ornithologist's Union prescribes capitalization in the official English common names set forth in its definitive IOC World Bird List:
Our goal on behalf of the International Ornithologist's Union, formerly International Ornithological Congress (IOC), is to facilitate worldwide communication in ornithology and conservation through the consistent use of English names linked to current species taxonomy. The English names follow explicit guidelines for spelling and construction that increase clarity of application. ...
An important rule adopted at the outset was that the words of an official bird[']s name begin with capital letters. While this is contrary to the general rules of spelling for mammals, birds, insects, fish, and other life forms (i.e., use lowercase letters), the committee believed the initial capital to be preferable for the name of a bird species in an ornithological context, for two reasons. 
  1. It has been the customary spelling in bird books for some years;
  2. Because it distinguishes a taxonomic species from a general description of a bird. Several species of sparrows could be described as "white-throated sparrows," but a "White-throated Sparrow" is a particular taxonomic species.
I'd like to point out that the IOC World Bird List website,, is a marvel of clear, simple, precise writing (though not without a few typos), and I admire it very much.

I surveyed our collection of  field guides at home, and found that every one (Sibley, National Geographic, Peterson, Audubon, Golden, and Tekiela) uses the IOC convention of capitalizing all words in a bird's common name except for a word following a hyphen in a hyphenated name, such as White-throated Sparrow.

This practice in the world of ornithology departs from that in most other areas of plant and animal classification, which follows the generally accepted rule of reserving capitalization for proper nouns (such as names of specific people and places, and trade names). Some defenders of the IOC approach say that birds' names ARE proper names, equating Bald Eagle with Johnny Depp, but that doesn't explain why most other groups of animal and plant biologists don't apparently feel the same.

Wikipedia Manual of Style generally requires its contributors to avoid unnecessary capitalization, but recognizes an established exception for bird names:
Common (vernacular) names of flora and fauna should be written in lower case (oak, lion). There are exceptions; for particular groups of organisms, there are particular rules of capitalization based on current and historic usage among those who study the organisms; for example, official common names of birds.
So, if all these sources agree to capitalize bird names, what is the authority against it? As Anselm Atkins wrote in The Auk in 1983: "Any American dictionary. Look up "blue jay."

Atkins continues:
Most field guides and some other books do use capitals. On the other hand, birds are confined to lower case in the writings of Darwin, Thoreau, Muir, Aldo Leopold, Stephen Gould, and many others. Highly literate magazines such as Audubon, Smithsonian, National Geographic and National Wildlife do not capitalize birds' names. Neither do Science or Scientific American. A great number of writers and editors thus follow the dictionary rather than the CBE [Council of Biology Editors, which follows the IOC rule for bird names, or at least did at the time Atkins was writing]. ...
Language changes; grammatical usages come and go. There are no eternal verities here; convention and consent are all. Rules of grammar are not handed down from on high--they are merely a codification of actual usage. The dictionary says "what is," not "what should be." Nevertheless, it is proper to follow "what is" as determined by the compilers of current dictionaries. Professional ornithologists and lepidopterists, whose writings surely constitute only a fraction of today's literature, cannot possibly win the day (but what a gallant showing of nets and binoculars against all those typewriters, word processors, and printing presses!). Lacking an Archimedes' fulcrum, we shall never change convention but only succeed in violating it. Meanwhile, our idiosyncrasy causes confusion among those who want to write birds' names correctly. It would be most helpful if we would generously concede and conform. As Humpty-Dumpty said (it's impossible to make it through a reflective essay without quoting Lewis Carroll), it is a question of who is to be master. In this instance, let us surrender to the dictionary. Until we do, we ornithologists, with our Important Capitals, continue to look Curiously Provincial.
Whew! What writer with an interest in nature could dislike being grouped with Muir, Leopold, Gould and the other luminaries mentioned, and who could fail to be charmed by Atkins' comments about "nets and binoculars" and Lewis Carroll? And yet what blogger who focuses on birds wouldn't want to be taken at least a bit seriously in the birding world?

As a writer and editor (this is a significant part of what I do for a living) who is not a trained ornithologist, I have to say those capitals catch my eye. When I use them in my blog posts, they start to bug me. They look old-fashioned and, as Atkins notes, overly Important. They don't seem necessary for clarity most of the time when I or others are writing carefully, though they do indeed convey instant information that sometimes helps avoid ambiguity.

So, I imagine you're thinking, Cut to the chase. What's your decision?

And my answer is that I'm not sure I have a final decision. And, after all this wallowing, I'm not sure that it's really all that important to decide. But if I were writing a Penelopedia style guide right now, here's where I think I'd start, recognizing that I'm a generalist who writes for a wide audience, not an expert writing for a scholarly audience:
  • Use IOC format (caps) in lists of bird species, but --
  • Use dictionary format (no caps) in general text. There, I said it. I feel relieved. But I will --
  • Add the Latin species name in parentheses when needed for clarity
One nice thing about style guides is that while they provide a useful consistency, they can change. (Witness the Associated Press finally in the past year adopting the almost universal non-AP usage of website, abandoning the awful, stilted-looking Web site.) So I'll see how this goes, and if I have problems or  misgivings, I'll revisit the issue.

In the meantime, you general readers, trained ornithologists, and English style junkies out there: what do you think?

Morning After the Blizzard

This morning there was no more snow than when I wrote last night, but the temperature had dropped 20 degrees F. The sun came out and shone upon dazzling heaps of white. A few chickadees and house finches came to the feeders once the sun was well up; I expect to have a bumper day today with birds seeking calories to stay alive in the frigid cold.

Low-angle view of the snow on the deck (note drift marks and old footprints)

My rear neighbor's balcony

If we get much more snow, the mailbox will disappear!
After the plow cleared our circle

 See more photos from yesterday's blizzard (also posted yesterday) and today's aftermath: View large slide show here or click through to the album below.

Blizzard Dec11

Saturday, December 11, 2010

December 11 Blizzard

Feeder and coneflower stalks seen through snow-spattered window

The front window looked like this by midday

Pine Siskins lunching as the snow flies
By evening I am guessing we had 15 inches of new snow on the ground here in Northfield, and the snow was tapering down. The winds remain, bringing below-zero temperatures overnight and blizzard-like conditions into the morning. We're not out of the woods yet!

See more December 11 blizzard photos here. I'll add more in the morning.

The Cannon Freezes

On Monday the Cannon River just upstream from the dam was mostly covered with snow-topped ice, with just a narrow channel of open water down the middle. One of my Facebook friends posted about how lovely it was to go skiing in the Cowling Arboretum with the nearby river still open. I agree that open water in a snowy landscape is a beautiful sight, so dark and shining.

On Thursday I realized that although the scene looked the same (see below), the channel down the middle had frozen. It only looked like an open channel at first glance because there was no new snow to cover the new ice with a coating of white. Today's heavy snows will rectify that.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Pine Siskins (Amended)

As I woke from a lazy Sunday nap, Dave announced that we had pine siskins at the "sock" feeder. This is the first new bird in quite a while for my 2010 bird list (see tab at the top of the page). I may have seen them once or twice in prior years, but we have not had them at our feeders before. They are small, heavily streaked finches with yellow on the wings. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology calls them the most common of the irruptive "winter finches" that much of the U.S., including southern Minnesota, sees only in winter, but in much larger numbers some years than others.

Above, four pine siskins enjoying thistle seed. Below, a close-up of the yellow wings.

The bird is paler underneath than above, but noticeable streaky both above and below.

Addendum: Bird photographer John Briggs ("Birding in Maine" blog) recently reported a flock of more than 100 pine siskins in his yard and has video of them feeding from his wife's hands. Check it out here!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Busy Morning at the Feeder

House finches and a couple of goldfinches have been crowding the feeders in the last half hour. These are challenging conditions for photography, but I was pleased to capture this male house finch in flight.

Nature's Snow Scuptures

Our 8-10 (amended: I just read a report that we did indeed get 10+ ) inches of dry, fluffy new snow formed a surprising pattern near a privacy fence at one end of our deck -- like a mini mountain range. Here are three shots, cropping closer each time. Interesting how the colors change when cropping this snowy scene really close.