Monday, May 30, 2011

Bluebirds at the McKnight Prairie

Carleton College's McKnight Prairie is a place I'd been hearing about for quite a while, but I'd never been there until we went early this morning. This rare remnant of original prairie is great habitat for grassland species, including a variety of sparrow species plus phoebes, kingbirds, tree swallows and bluebirds, all of which we saw. We saw song sparrows, field sparrows, chipping sparrows and savannah sparrows and heard but did not see clay-colored sparrows. The pair of bluebirds we saw had something in their beaks every time we saw them outside of their house. I'd never had a chance to get good bluebird photos before. The four close-ups below were taken through the spotting scope.

Male Eastern Bluebird

Male Eastern Bluebird

Until yesterday I assumed that the McKnight Prairie was an area within the Cowling Arboretum that I'd never happened to stumble on, but in fact it's a 33-acre preserve several miles northeast of the arboretum in Stanton township. The two hilltops within the fairly narrow strip of land were never disturbed and though the surrounding land was once cultivated, it has been recolonized by native prairie grasses and other plants. It was here that whooping cranes were spotted last summer.

Female Eastern Bluebird

Female Eastern Bluebird

Bluebird pair on fence wire

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Whooping Cranes

On our recent drive to Ohio for my elder daughter's college graduation, we stopped in Wisconsin at the International Crane Foundation so my recently-bird-fanatic son could see the magnificent birds they keep and breed there. We got some exceptionally nice views of the two whooping cranes that were in the exhibit area, partly helped by my discovery that the enhanced digital zoom on my camera is not totally useless for birds, at least when they are large and relatively close.

Coincidentally, when we returned home Sunday evening we found multiple phone and email alerts from friends telling us that two whooping cranes had been in a wet field near Dennison, Minnesota (just a few miles from Northfield) for the previous two days. Dan Tallman's Bird Blog devoted a blog post to them on Monday, and here is a video that an acquaintance of mine, Lisa Graff, took while they were here, showing distinctive leaping and wing-flapping courtship behavior. (Great capture, Lisa!)

Whooping cranes were also spotted last summer at the McKnight Prairie in Carleton College's Cowling Arboretum. With these multiple sightings, it is tempting to hope that the greater Northfield area may become a regular visiting spot for these birds from the Wisconsin population (see more below).

Now one of the rarest birds on earth, the whooping crane once occupied North America from central Canada to Mexico and from Utah to the Atlantic. Due to loss of habitat, hunting and egg collection, the population dwindled until only one natural, self-sustaining flock remained. In the 1970s and '80s, there was an attempt to foster whooping crane eggs with much more robust sandhill crane populations, but it did not result in successful pair-bonding among the fostered whooping cranes and so the project was abandoned. According to the International Crane Foundation's whooping crane page:
In 1999, governmental, non-profit, and private organizations united to form the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) to establish a new, migratory flock of Whooping Cranes to the core part of their historic breeding range. This flock migrates between Wisconsin and coastal Florida. To re-establish a migration route that was completely lost, the chicks are conditioned to follow an ultralight aircraft at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin. The aircraft guides them on their first migration south. In the fall, the young Whooping Cranes and a team of pilots and biologists begin the 1200 mile journey to Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. The birds spend the winter in Florida and return unassisted to Wisconsin in the spring. In 2006, this flock numbered over 60 birds.

Horribly, three young, banded, transmitter-bearing whooping cranes from this precarious population, on their first migration to Florida, were shot and killed in Georgia this past December, and two more suffered the same fate in Alabama in February, despite being protected by the Endangered Species Act, state laws and the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Rewards are being offered for information leading to arrests and successful prosecution in these cases. Two men (one a minor) who shot two whoopers in Indiana in 2009 recently received only probation, court fees and a $1 fine for the offense, and were never charged with violations of federal law. Apparently the pair were out indiscriminately shooting whatever animals they saw, "kind of like target practice," according to the article in the preceding link. It is heartbreaking to consider the effects of such thoughtlessness not only on the tiny whooping crane population but also on those who have invested so much of themselves in the rearing and training of these precious cranes.

I encourage your support of the International Crane Foundation, whose website is I'll close here with a short video of the two cranes at the ICF.

Red Squirrels Playing (Video)

There's a red squirrel family with three young ones in our yard, and I recently caught them frolicking at the foot of a tree.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sunday at CRWA, with Scarlet Tanager

Having heard a report that the cold, rainy weather on Saturday had resulted in a major warbler fallout, stopping migrating birds in large numbers, on Sunday morning we headed to the west branch of the Cannon River Wilderness Area between Northfield and Faribault. While we did not see large numbers of birds, there was a good variety of species to be seen.

Warblers take some patience, because they don't stay still. They are insect-eaters, and they constantly flit to find and follow the insects. You walk slowly and quietly through the woods, listening for bird calls and letting your eyes adjust so that they start to tune into every tiny movement in the leaves, from ground level all the way up to the treetops, and you start to see them. Various species prefer particular levels in the wooded environment.

Here is a view of the trail we took. The slow spring delayed leafing-out, so that the small birds were still relatively visible if you took the time to watch for them. Some years, the trees are fully leafed-out by now and it's almost a hopeless task to try to find these little creatures in the trees.

Woodland trail, Cannon River Wilderness Area

I didn't even try to photograph any of the warblers we saw. They included:
  • Bay-breasted Warbler (absolutely gorgeous with its chestnut, cream and black coloring; a new favorite. Here's a photo from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, though I don't think it does justice to how gorgeous this bird is real life.)
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler
  • Blackburnian Warbler (stunning with its bright orange throat)
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Blackpoll Warbler
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Yellow Warbler
  • American Redstart 
But the highlight of the outing was my first view ever of scarlet tanagers. In the light green environment of the spring woods, it is hard to imagine anything more shiningly brilliant than this lovely bird.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Adventures at the Oriole Feeder

I feel a little like Dorothy, when she stepped out of the tornado-tossed Kansas house into the technicolor world of Oz. I've recently written about seeing rose-breasted grosbeaks and blue jays at our feeders for the first time ever. The Baltimore oriole is another colorful bird that has for the most part managed to elude me in my bird-watching, bird-feeding life.

Female oriole perches on the pole below the new feeder
This year, as a Mother's Day/birthday present, Dave found me the one shown below. It has two cups for feeding grape jelly (a highly favored food for orioles) and two blunt spikes for securing orange halves (which they also like, but not as much as grape jelly). Its bright orange color itself attracts orioles just as red attracts hummingbirds, and the clear roof keeps the rain off -- and it's made of recycled plastic.
Female oriole eyes the goods

It's amazing: if the birds are out there and you get the right feeders, they will come. Or at least that seems to be true this year. I think the fact that we've been consistently feeding at this location for almost three years now means that our established birds (like chickadees, house finches and goldfinches) help newcomers realize that there might be something worth checking out. Anyway, we had briefly spotted a couple of orioles in the trees in the preceding days, but within a day or so of putting up the feeder, the orioles started to show themselves.
Male considers his approach
We've seen as many as three male orioles near the feeder at one time, and two females so far. They are protective of access to the feeder, and a bird in possession is likely to chase a same-sex bird away.

There he goes
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the new-world orioles were named for their resemblance to old-world orioles, but the American birds are not closely related to their namesakes and are much more closely related to blackbirds and meadowlarks. The top photo here is very reminiscent of a red-winged blackbird clinging to a cattail stalk (that's a bullrush, to UK readers), isn't it?

He made it!

Hmmm, we may need to add a squirrel baffle

Yep, we definitely need to add a squirrel baffle

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Blue Jays - At Last

We had a very satisfying winter of bird feeding, but one obvious gap was blue jays. We know they were around -- we'd see them other places, or hear them -- but they didn't seem to be attracted to our feeders at all. We recently learned that in-shell peanuts are a favorite of blue jays and decided to invest in a wreath-style feeder I'd seen on another birder's blog. The first location we tried, right in a small evergreen, wasn't a success, so we moved it to hang more out in the open and within a day or two we started to see jays.

Above, the jay has a peanut in its beak. The technique for getting the peanut out took some trial and error. The peanuts have to be pulled out of the outer, more open side of the coil, but the bird generally perches on the inside for stability, resulting in some minor contortions. The blue jay is known for its intelligence and tight family bonds. As with the other jays and the closely related crows, male and female birds look alike.

Here, a jay perches on the top of one of our shepherd's crooks that support feeders. I love the wings; they are like stained glass.

In reading about blue jays on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds site, I learned that they have unconventional migration behaviors:
Thousands of Blue Jays migrate in flocks along the Great Lakes and Atlantic coasts, but much about their migration remains a mystery. Some are present throughout winter in all parts of their range. Young jays may be more likely to migrate than adults, but many adults also migrate. Some individual jays migrate south one year, stay north the next winter, and then migrate south again the next year. No one has worked out why they migrate when they do.
 I hadn't realized that blue jays migrate at all; the range maps show a large year-round range with only tiny areas considered seasonal only.Here is a eBird map showing sightings covering about the eastern three-fifths of North America.

Phenology: Recent Bird Sightings

Here are recent first-of-the-year bird sightings, all in Northfield except as specified. I've noted whether each is a possible summer resident or a migrant:
Male oriole at feeder
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler (4/24) (migrant)
  • Chipping Sparrow (4/24, approx.) (summer resident)
  • Red-breasted Merganser (4/25)(migrant)
  • Lesser Yellowlegs (4/25) (summer resident)
  • Spotted Sandpiper (4/25) (summer resident)
  • White-crowned Sparrow (4/30) (migrant)
  • White-throated Sparrow (4/30) (migrant)
  • Solitary Sandpiper (5/1) (migrant)
  • Baltimore Oriole (5/1 approx.) (summer resident)
  • Purple Finch (5/1, female only)(migrant)
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird (5/4, approx.)(summer resident)
  • Barn Swallow (5/5) (summer resident)
  • Forster's Tern (5/5)(probable migrant - on the western edge of the breeding territory)
  • Black-and-white Warbler (5/7) (River Bend Nature Center, Faribault) (probable migrant)
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak (5/7)(summer resident)
  • Northern Waterthrush 5/7) (River Bend Nature Center, Faribault) (migrant)
  • Harris's Sparrow (5/8) (migrant)
  • Green Heron (5/9)(summer resident)
  • Indigo Bunting (5/13) (summer resident)
  • Swainson's Thrush (5/14) (migrant)
I thought the white-throated sparrows that arrived a couple of weeks ago had all moved on, but we had two at the house today, eating millet along with a couple of chipping sparrows and an occasional mourning dove.

We are still also seeing a red-breasted nuthatch at the feeder from time to time, and after several days of seeing none there was a pine siskin here today as well. Both species, having spent the winter here, are most likely to head back north for the summer.

Janssen's Birds in Minnesota (we have the 1987 edition) says the red-breasted nuthatch's latest reported dates in the south are late May. Every time I see it I expect it to be the last time, but I keep being surprised.

Pine siskins are not seen every year in southern Minnesota and do not consistently nest here but may do so after an "invasion" winter. About three weeks ago Dan Tallman reported banding a pine siskin that had a well-developed brood patch (bare patch on the belly used to incubate eggs), considered to be physiological evidence of breeding.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011

    First Ducklings of 2011

    These were the first mallard ducklings we'd seen this year, though I've heard reports of others seeing some a week or so ago. There was a group of two in one pond (of which you only see one, with its mother, below) and a group of eight in the adjacent pond (bottom photo). It's amazing to see how independently they explore and how very quickly they swim back to find mama.

    Pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks

    The morning after we first saw male rose-breasted grosbeaks at our feeder, I saw a male-female pair there.

    The female certainly doesn't much resemble her mate -- only her size, the large pale beak, and some of the wing streaks help to make the identification. I've heard the female grosbeak described as "a sparrow on steroids." The photo below, blown up as it is, may confirm that image.

     We haven't seen either the male or female for the past day, but I do hope we'll see them again.

    Monday, May 9, 2011

    Harris's Sparrow

    I'm not sure if I had seen one before, but I'd certainly never identified a Harris's sparrow by myself before. This handsome sparrow was on our front lawn on Sunday. I certainly won't forget this one now that I know it, with its distinctive black face and pink beak.

    The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says about the Harris's sparrow:
    The striking Harris's Sparrow is rarely found far east or west of the middle of North America. It breeds along the edge of boreal forest and tundra in north-central Canada, and spends the winter in the very central region of the United States.
    It didn't apparently hang out at our house for long; it had many miles to go to reach those north-central-Canadian breeding grounds.

    Sunday, May 8, 2011

    Feeder Activity Update, with Goldfinches

    Spring migration update around our feeders:
    • Baltimore oriole seen fleetingly 2-3 times in the past week or so. We don't have an oriole feeder yet, but we do have a hummingbird feeder up, which orioles may be drawn to.
    • Two male rose-breasted grosbeaks seen yesterday and a male-female pair together on the feeder today
    • Ruby-throated hummingbird seen today
    • A friend had an orchard oriole at her feeder in Northfield
    The above are all birds that may summer here. Also seen today on our front lawn were two Harris's sparrows with their distinctive black face and pinkish beak, which are merely passing through on their way to their much more northerly summer breeding grounds. The flock of white-throated and white-crowned sparrows that arrived a week ago reduced their numbers in recent days, and today for the first time we've not seen or heard them at all, so they are most likely on their way further north as well.

    I wrote yesterday of my joy in the unexpected arrival of our first-ever rose-breasted grosbeak at the feeder. The day had already been exciting with a sudden multiplication of American goldfinches at our feeders. We've been seeing up to about four at a time in recent days and weeks, but suddenly in the last couple of days we have seen groups of up to 13.

    As you can see in the photo below, some of the birds are still completing their transition from the drab olive of the winter male to the brilliant yellow we usually associate with this small songbird.

    The goldfinches have been seen at our sunflower-seed hopper feeder, at the Nyjer seed sock-style feeder, at the large tube feeder which currently offers a mix of black-oil sunflower seed and safflower seed, and on the ground below the feeders. I sometimes refer to the sock feeder here as the thistleseed feeder, though I gather that Nyjer (formerly known as Niger or Niger thistle, but with a modern name change for marketing reasons that may be apparent) is not actually a thistle.

    Below you can see five male goldfinches, two female goldfinches and a chipping sparrow. At the same time two more were on the sock feeder and two or three were on the tube feeder, both immediately above the area shown in this photo.

    Saturday, May 7, 2011

    Thought I'd Gone to Heaven: Rose-breasted Grosbeak at Feeder

    The rose-breasted grosbeak is one of the most beautiful songbirds in the United States, and until today I had only ever seen one in my life [well, actually, two, I discovered from searching this blog: my first at Nerstrand Big Woods State Park and another near Henderson, Minn.]. They're not rare, I've just not been in the right places at the right times. But today we came home from buying tomato, pepper, broccoli and basil plants and were chatting outside by the mailbox when I suddenly noticed what was at one of the bird feeders. "Blown away" would hardly do justice to how amazed and elated I was to see a male rose-breasted grosbeak snacking away on sunflower seeds.

    It soon flew away, but an hour or two later it (or another male -- read on) was back, and it stayed for quite a while, not eating most of the time, just resting. Later when we had gone out again,my daughter noticed two males were at the same feeder. They may just be passing through, but I'm holding my breath and hoping that if they like the conditions here, we might have a nesting pair or two in the neighborhood.

    We didn't hear this one singing, but the grosbeak's song has been described as like that of "a robin that's had singing lessons," being similar but richer and "more sweetly melodic" as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says.

    This was a terrific day for birds -- we had a flock of goldfinches at the feeders and saw some good birds on a quick trip to River Bend Nature Center. But even if we never see another one this year, having a rose-breasted grosbeak at our feeder today was surely one of the highlights of my life as a birder.

    Sunday, May 1, 2011

    A First: A Shorebird in Our Yard

    The land next to our house has a low area that forms a small temporary wetland after snow melt or heavy rains. Mallards often come and hang out, and we've joked about how it would be great to see a wading bird or shorebird there, but really didn't expect to. Well, today my son was outside and came racing back to the house to tell me we actually had one. It was a solitary sandpiper (or so I believe! My confidence is a little rocky after a couple of questionable identifications lately). I quietly walked within a few dozen feet of it to get the bottom shot, then returned to our three-season porch and got the top shot through the window with the spotting scope. Never thought I'd be able to photograph a sandpiper from my porch, that's for sure, and that's why I had to do it!