Monday, September 19, 2011

Autumn Colors - Birds and Blooms

This is one of the reasons I love the tangled patch of purple coneflowers that gets thicker each year. A few weeks ago we were enjoying butterflies on the flowers, and now that the petals have withered and the seed heads are the main attraction, we have goldfinches all over them. Some may remember photos I posted late last winter, when pine siskins were clinging to the coneflower seed heads in the snow. Just as the flowers have lost the brilliant color of summer, so too the goldfinches are taking on their subdued winter (nonbreeding) plumage. Together they are an appealing autumn sight.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Young Birds in September (Video)

There's been a cluster of as many as 11 American goldfinches around our purple coneflower seed heads and our feeders in the last 2-3 days, and when we see them up close we notice some have a very fluffy look, not the sleek plumage that mature birds show. I'm not sure whether this is due to their routine late-summer molt in which they transition to winter plumage (at which time the males are no longer bright yellow, but look very similar to the more olive-colored females), or if this is just a normal phase of plumage development for very young goldfinches. Perhaps both! Goldfinches breed late in the season, perhaps bearing a close linkage to the life cycle of the thistle seeds that are a preferred food. Goldfinches are rare in their exclusive preference for a seed-based diet; most other seed eaters also eat some insects.

Also, I got a short video of a female northern cardinal with a juvenile by our front step last evening. Adult females and juveniles look similar, but the adults' beaks are red, while juveniles have dark beaks. In this clip, taken through a window, you'll see the mother feeding the juvie several times -- it looks as if she finds a seed, deftly shells it, spits out the shell, and then feeds the inner kernel to the juvenile. Given the time of year, this would most likely be offspring from a second brood of the season.

Speaking of juveniles, I recently learned that in the birding world the word is often spelled juvenal. Apparently that spelling used to be in general use and meant the same as juvenile, but that usage has become archaic. (However, when capitalized it refers to Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis, A.D. 60?-140?), a Roman satirist.)

I'd seen this spelling in ornithology blogs and wondered about it. My American Heritage dictionary gives this definition:
adj. Of or pertaining to a young bird having its first plumage of true feathers though often lacking the characteristics of its species: juvenal plumage
Being interested in words and usage issues, I looked further and found a discussion in the ornithology journal The Auk, contrasting the use of juvenal (traditionally used as an adjective only, though the writer recommended extending this use to noun status) to refer to a specific stage of plumage in young birds, versus juvenile, as either a noun or adjective, referring more generally to any immature bird. So there you have it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Whooping Cranes near Northfield

Two rare whooping cranes have been hanging out in a field and a nearby wetland on Old Dutch Road west of Northfield for several days -- I'm not sure whether they are still in the area. When we heard about them on Friday, they had been already spotted the previous two days as well. These photos were taken Friday; on Saturday we looked again in the late afternoon and saw only one. If you go looking for them, do not trespass into the field or wetland, and be careful not to disturb the cranes.

Information about this breeding pair of cranes, based on the visible bands in photos examined by a representative of the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin, is given in Dan Tallman's Bird Blog. They have been together for about three years and are part of a flock that breeds in Wisconsin and winters in Florida.

More background on these highly endangered birds appears in my post Whooping Cranes from last May. At that time two birds (I don't know if they were the same pair seen this week) were seen near Dennison, on the other side of Northfield.