Saturday, November 26, 2011

Amazing Nature Photos

Some amazing photos -- winners of the 2011 National Wildlife Photo Competition. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

May we all have enough, and be able to find it when the snow comes.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Downy Woodpecker Chowing Down

Now that the weather has turned quite cold, we've put out suet in a couple of feeders. On Sunday we saw a female downy woodpecker in several locations -- moving up and down the tree out front, at the log-style suet feeder, and at the cage-style suet feeder. Females are all black-and-white; males have a red spot on the backs of their heads. In many bird species juveniles look like the females, but in this case the juvenile has its own distinctive look, with a red spot on the top (not the back) of the head.

Note the tongue showing in the photo below (click on the photo to see it larger). Have you ever seen a woodpecker's tongue before?

In this next sequence you can see the bird excavating a chunk of suet, using an open-beak approach rather than simply chiseling at the suet with a closed beak.

I don't think the first bird above is the same as the one at the log feeder. There are three dark spots showing on the white left outer tail feather immediately above, which is common but not universal for the downy woodpecker, and you can see a hint of a dark spot on its hard-to-see right outer tail feather. I'm pretty sure the bird in the top photo is also a downy, and I would have thought it was the same bird, but there are no spots on the right outer tail feather.

As Dan Tallman noted in a comment to my August 3 post about hairy woodpeckers, an all-white outer tail feather is a good indication of a hairy, rather than a downy, woodpecker. However, the bird in the top photo did not seem to be the larger size of a hairy, and its beak didn't seem to have the length and heft of a hairy's. So it seems more likely we have two female downy woodpeckers hanging around our feeders.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Pine Siskins and Snow - First of the Season

We had a wonderful turnout at the feeders today, after it sleeted and snowed much of the day yesterday -- the first snow that has "stuck" here in south-central Minnesota this season. During the lunch rush, I noticed some familiar figures I hadn't seen since May: three pine siskins. Last year we first noticed them on December 5.

Pine siskin (above) and white-breasted nuthatch

Similar in size and body style to an American goldfinch (and listed next to it in the various field guides), the pine siskin has a heavily streaked underside, a sharp, narrow beak, a notched tail, and a yellowish tinge to its wings.

Two pine siskins

The photos above and below, caught while I was using my camera's rapid-burst mode, crack me up -- it appears that this little guy does not need to use his or her wings to fly.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Good Advice on Birding (and Life) Skills

Deb at Sand Creek Almanac (who is a biologist who works for the DNR up towards Duluth) had a post I really liked the other day. She described first hearing and then spotting some birds she wanted to identify but couldn't see very well. She went through a sequence of steps, or birding skills, to narrow down what she was hearing and seeing, starting with these three:

  • Birding skill #1: Use your ears. 
  • Birding skill #2: Think habitat. 
  • Birding skill #3: Watch for behavioral cues.
I encourage you to read her post to learn how she applied these skills, and others, to the challenge at hand. She concluded:

Perhaps the best way to develop identification skills is not by being told what species is in front of you and then watching it, but by being presented with an unfamiliar species and figuring out what cues might distinguish it from other species.
In birding as in life, isn't this true? Figure something out for yourself and you've really "got" that bird, or that math problem, or the way to set up your computer or stereo system.

Deb identified the birds she saw that day, by the way, as white-winged crossbills, which I've never seen. We could see them here in the winter. Their crossed bills are nicely adapted for prying seeds out of the cones of pines and other coniferous trees.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cannon River in November Twilight

Cannon River from the Canada Avenue bridge - click to see larger version

Returning to Northfield from an appointment in Stillwater this afternoon, I cut over from Highway 47 onto Canada Avenue to come into town from the east side. Crossing the sturdy new bridge (right next to the historic Waterford Iron Bridge that was awarded $95,000 in the recent Partners in Preservation competition for restoration funds), I was struck by the beautiful late-afternoon light and the shirring on the water's surface from the breeze. I parked beyond the bridge and walked back to capture this view.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Project FeederWatch

This was the kickoff weekend for the 2011-2012 Project FeederWatch season. Project FeederWatch is a citizen science project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada that invites people to track the birds that visit their feeders from November to April (the nonbreeding season). Over a two-day period each week, you watch when you can and note the species seen, as well as the largest number of each species seen at once. It's not too late to sign up -- last year we didn't get going until at least January. I'm excited to track our visitors for the whole period this time.

Blue jay at wreath feeder
(photo taken last summer)
Having been hit by a bad cold at the end of the week, it was a perfect weekend to spend a lot of time in a living room chair with a book, looking out frequently between nose-blows to see if there was any action at the feeders. Yesterday was fairly quiet, but today we put out some additional food and we had a lot of visitors, by our standards:
  • American Goldfinch (3)
  • Black-capped Chickadee (3)
  • Blue Jay (4)
  • Dark-eyed Junco (5)
  • Downy Woodpecker (1)
  • House Finch (8)
  • Northern Cardinal (1)
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker (1)
  • White-breasted Nuthatch (1)
Red-bellied woodpecker
(photo taken last winter)
The blue jays put on a lovely show for us when I put out some whole (in-shell) peanuts for them. They cleaned out the four or five handfuls of peanuts in a couple of hours. We've learned not to fill our wreath-style peanut feeder, because they'll polish off the lot in less than a day, so we only fill it about a quarter full at a time, typically. 

The red-bellied woodpecker was an unexpected treat for the start of the season. I've written in the past about not seeing them often, and mainly in deep cold spells, though we did start to see one a bit more often last year.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sandhill Cranes at Sherburne NWR (Video)

I was itchin' to go birding somewhere today while the weather was still mild, and thanks to a couple of blogging friends who mentioned sandhill cranes recently (see Dan Tallman's Bird Blog and Nature Knitter), I'd heard that the cranes have been congregating in large numbers in places like Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in central Minnesota and at Crex Meadows in Wisconsin. We decided to head to the closer of these, Sherburne NWR, to see if we could spot some cranes. The refuge is north of Elk River and Zimmerman, to the northwest of the Twin Cities metro area, about 90 minutes' drive from Northfield.

I've seen sandhill cranes before -- here and there in fields in central Wisconsin last month, for example, while driving to visit our daughter at Lawrence University -- but only a few at a time. The idea of seeing them congregating in large numbers, staging for their upcoming migration south, was an exciting prospect.

The Sherburne NWR website has a nice guide to where to view sandhill cranes, and it was right on target. We started to see some in the air, and then came upon a field where many dozens were foraging, joined almost every minute by new groups of anywhere from three to eight or more gliding in from the east. At a conservative count there must have been at least 300 cranes there while we watched. Here is a short video of some of the cranes on the ground and others flying in. I love how their long legs dangle as they come in. Toward the end of the video you can hear their calls.


 Here are some photos as well.

We also saw a pair of swans fly by.

This was my first trip to Sherburne, and I look forward to exploring it further when it's not deer hunting season. We saw a lot of trucks pulled over and quite a bit of blaze orange hunting gear. We stayed in our car, needless to say.

We've talked about going to Nebraska's Platte River Valley flyway to witness the spring migration of half a million sandhill cranes, considered one of the most amazing experiences in birding anywhere. Dave's seen it, and I'd love to. Getting just a taste of it today has whetted my appetite for that trip even more.

Recent Observations (Late-fall Phenology)

Gray skies and brown ground. It's November.

We had a hard cold snap a couple of nights ago, and many trees that had been hanging onto their leaves dropped them within hours. On the whole, though, it's been a mild autumn. Today the forecast high is around 55 F., but with the recent leaf-drop we are really entering the drab brown period of late fall.

Many of our summer birds have moved on by now and a few of the birds that winter here have appeared. We started to see dark-eyed juncos on the ground under our evergreen tree and under the feeders a couple of weeks ago. And last weekend we noticed a red-breasted nuthatch for the first time in many weeks.

Crows have been congregating in large groups. Several days recently I've seen many of them in seemingly random swooping movements overhead in the late afternoon, and a couple of times (as seen in this recent video) a large, raucous group has gathered in the treetops behind our house and then flown away.

Boxelder bugs always swarm on the south face of our house in the fall, after the first cold snap. I will look forward to having them disappear soon as they find hiding places in the cracks and crevices to spend the winter.

We set our clocks back overnight, and I always picture some phenology-minded birds or animals noting, "Oh yes, at about this time of year, as if coordinating through some magic signal, or pheromones, the humans suddenly do everything a bit later in the day."

Enjoy the extra hour. My son and I are off on an expedition. If we're lucky, I'll have a good post to write in the next day or so.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Best Bird Photograph Ever?

This photo of an osprey diving for a fish near Cocoa Beach, Florida, taken by Mike Wulf, is featured in the December 2011 issue of Birdwatching magazine (formerly Birder's World). The symmetry, the balletic power, the squared-off angularity of those enormous folded wings, the reach of those talons all amaze me. (Definitely click on the photo to see a larger version!)