Monday, December 30, 2013

Happy New Year!

Wishing you beautiful sights and great adventures in 2014.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Red-bellied Woodpecker at Suet Feeder

A red-bellied woodpecker, always one of my favorite sights, visited our suet log feeder last weekend. You can tell this one is a male because the red cap extends all the way down to its bill in front. You can see a glimpse of his long tongue in the second photo. This feeder is popular with woodpeckers and chickadees.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

CBC - Tree Sparrows and Horned Larks

For the fifth year in a row, I participated in the Christmas Bird Count last Saturday. Light falling snow seemed to reduce the number of birds that were out and about. For example, we saw very few crows in the air, which is certainly unusual. My route, which I shared with Dan Kahl (the naturalist at Mount Olivet Retreat Center in Farmington), took us down the rural roads south and east of Northfield as well as around the southeast quadrant in town.

My favorite sightings of the day were a bald eagle in flight on the far eastern edge of our area, 12 horned larks in a snow-covered cornfield, and 7 American tree sparrows in the tall dried grasses at the west edge of the Sibley Elementary School's nature preserve. Other highlights were large flocks (50+) of house finches and mallards.

Tree sparrows, which breed in northern Canada and Alaska, are only seen here in the winter. Their rusty caps are similar to those of the chipping sparrow, but in the winter we don't see chipping sparrows, which migrate to the far southern U.S. and Mexico. The tree sparrow has a bicolored bill, which you can see better if you click on the second photo below.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

Horned larks are here year-round, but I don't often see them. We only spotted this group by seeing their movements against the snow, though we were looking pretty hard at most fields we passed, hoping to see either horned larks or snow buntings (which we did not see at all this time). The horned larks were spread out enough that I couldn't get a decent photo of several at once. I enjoy their striking markings.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

As always, I thank Gene Bauer for organizing the bird count for our region, Gene and his wife Susan for their hospitality for the pre-count breakfast and post-count lunch, and the other enthusiastic birders who showed up and helped make it a fun day of citizen science.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Frosty Birdbath with Goldfinches

During some of our recent bitterly cold days, the edge of our heated birdbath developed a thick rim of frost. The birds have been flocking to the feeders and appreciate the chance to sip some liquid water from the birdbath. In this series, a bright-eyed American goldfinch in winter plumage took a drink and was joined by others. (As always, click on the images to see a much larger version.)

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

May we all have enough, and be able to find it when the snow comes. And may we be thankful for what we have and aware of the needs of those around us – whatever their species.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Nuthatches in November

Last weekend I spent quite a while watching both white-breasted nuthatches and the smaller red-breasted nuthatches at our feeders. We've commonly been seeing a pair of each -- the males with their black caps and the females with their blue-gray caps. The light was coming from the southeast, passing through the coiled wire wreath-shaped whole-peanut feeder to cast interesting shadows on the birds on the shelled-peanut feeder. Here are some shots from that morning. (To save space in the captions, I use the four-letter "alpha codes" for these birds: WBNU - white-breasted nuthatch and RBNU = red-breasted nuthatch.)

As always, click on any of the photos to see them larger.

Male WBNU - note the crossed primaries (longest wing feathers)

Female WBNU checking her surroundings

Female WBNU in the less-common head-up position. Look at the span of that foot!

Her tongue is visible here -- it's as pointed as her bill

See the spiral shadow -- and a nice view of the strong bill

Female red-breasted nuthatch 

RBNU with spiral shadow
Other posts about nuthatches:

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Exploring River Bend Nature Center

Recently I joined the board of River Bend Nature Center in Faribault, Minnesota. Faribault is our county seat, roughly 20 minutes' drive south of Northfield. River Bend offers miles of trails on more than 700 acres of restored prairie, deciduous woods, wetlands and riparian habitat adjacent to the biggest bend in the otherwise relatively straight Straight River. The Straight River flows from Owatonna, Minnesota, and joins the Cannon River at Faribault; the Cannon flows through Northfield and Cannon Falls on its way to meet the Mississippi River at Red Wing.

My children have spent more time at River Bend than I have (so far), as it's one of the key field trip destinations for Rice County schoolchildren, offering experiential environmental learning programs. They also offer summer day camps and an Outdoor Adventures Program that gives both youth and adults the opportunity to learn skills like rock climbing, archery, fly fishing, geocaching and slacklining (which is kind of like low-altitude tightrope walking -- it looks fun). I'd been aware that Minnesota State Parks & Trails has a program like this (the "I Can Camp/Fish/Climb/etc." series) at sites around the state, but I only recently discovered that River Bend also offers this kind of skills-based education.

Since joining the board I've been making a point to explore the grounds more. Admission is free every day (but memberships are a great way to support RBNC). Today was a glorious fall day -- sunny, pleasantly cool and free of the brisk winds that have been with us for the last several days. With my camera in hand I walked the Overlook / Walnut / Racoon trails at the north end of the grounds. This was the first time I'd been on any of these trails. Here are a few of the sights. I'll start with my favorite shot of the day, though it's out of sequence.

A perfect hill and sky

I think this is the edible Chicken of the Woods mushroom. Impressive!

I need to learn trees better - I think these are aspens turning gold

Wild grapes

Brilliant sumac amid prairie grasses

Layers of autumn hues

Goldenrod gone to seed

Closeup of the fluffy goldenrod seed clusters

Fall color -- and a paper wasp nest high in the tree on the left
Paper wasp nest seen closer

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Transitional Goldfinch

It's the time of year when the male American goldfinch loses his lemon-yellow breeding plumage and takes on his drab winter colors. Here are a couple of photos of a transitional goldfinch at one of our feeders this past week. Kind of a mess, isn't he?

For comparison, here is what a male goldfinch looks like during the breeding season (spring and summer):

And here is a winter goldfinch (this may be a female, as a winter male may have more yellow on his head, but they are not terribly different from each other):

I've written about goldfinches several times: see other posts here.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Bald Blue Jay

About four weeks ago I was startled to see this nearly bald blue jay at our feeder. It's possible that there were two such bald birds, actually, as it/they were quite a common site for a while, but I didn't see two together so I can't confirm that. I quickly learned that this is not an unusual phenomenon. I'd heard of it happening with cardinals, and it turns out it also happens with blue jays.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch page on bald birds notes that most such cases are reported in the summer and fall and may simply be a normal seasonal molt where the bird, for whatever reason, loses all the feathers on its head at the same time instead of gradually. Other causes may sometimes play a role -- perhaps mites, lice, or nutritional or environmental factors -- but the condition is not well understood.

The FeederWatch page cheerfully concludes, "Fortunately, new head feathers grow in within a few weeks." And indeed, this has been the case at our house. The birds we have seen recently are all properly feathered, handsome and sleek, like this one.

Have you seen bald birds at your feeders?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Glorious Late Summer in the Arb

I took a wonderful 4+ mile walk this morning around much of the Long Loop of the Lower Arb at Carleton College's Arboretum. I only had my phone for a camera, but here is a taste of the late summer views.

Meadow yellow with goldenrod

Big Bluestem prairie grass, also known as Turkey Foot (see why?)

I was glad to see monarch butterflies on the liatris
Bur oak acorns on the grassy path, crunchy underfoot

Wild grapes looked ripe

We've got at least a week of seriously hot weather ahead. The early morning is a good time to get outside and take in the colors of late summer. Stay hydrated and don't overdo it!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Avian Pox

Last week a friend and I noticed a lone house finch staying quietly on the ground outside my front door when we walked outside. We stopped to watch it, and after a couple of attempts it managed to fly to a perch on the nearby tube feeder. I expected to see the crusted-over eyes of House Finch eye disease, mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, since we have occasionally seen birds with this debilitating condition, as I wrote about in 2010. However, this bird's eyes were not crusted-over or weepy, but one was greatly overshadowed by a warty-looking bump and there was another bump on its beak. (Now that I look at the 2010 photos, I can see a bump on that bird's beak too, which I didn't notice at the time.)

I consulted my ornithologist friend Dan Tallman, who pointed me to information about avian pox, sometimes abbreviated AVP. This is a disease that affects a wide range of both commercial poultry and wild birds. Warty growths appear on non-feathered areas of affected birds; there is also a variant that affects the mucous membranes and causes breathing problems. It's caused by a virus that can be spread by mosquitoes, by direct transmission between birds, and by contaminated surfaces like feeders. (More info: AVP and conjunctivitis in birds at feeders | Pox from a commercial fowl science perspective)

We've taken down the tube and hopper feeders the finches tend to use, to minimize the risk of transmission between birds at the feeders, and will sanitize them before putting them back up. It's a good practice to clean and sanitize (using a solution of nine parts water to one part bleach) bird feeders every couple of weeks, and if signs of illness are present, more often. Let them dry thoroughly before refilling. (More info: Tips on feeder maintenance)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Youngsters at the Feeders

This week has been marked by a delightful series of visits of young blue jays, orioles, downy woodpeckers and house finches to our feeders. Sometimes their first-year plumage identifies them (the palest orange tinge of the juvenile female oriole, or the red patch on top of the downy woodpecker's head), but for most there is also a clean, fresh look about them and sometimes a charming cluelessness. And sometimes their sheer numbers are the tip-off. The blue jays that used to come one or two at a time now often arrive as a family of five, and the house finches mob the hopper feeder in a constant battle for the best spots.

Young blue jay eating suet

Juvenile female Baltimore oriole on hummingbird feeder

Downy woodpecker - juvenile has red on top of head

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Ground Mist

One morning last week, a thick fog enveloped the whole landscape. Today the morning mists stayed low, hanging softly over ponds and wet fields. As cold air moves in over warmer bodies of water or moist ground, water condenses and forms low ribbons of mist. Normally we wouldn't see much of this until the cooler weather of fall sets in, but we've had a fresh burst of cool air following Tuesday night's storms. The photo below was taken this morning looking north at the pond and wetland that lie between Prairie Street and Michigan Drive in Northfield.

Ground mist

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Misty Morning Spiderweb

Click on photo to see it full size - wow!

I was out walking in the dense fog yesterday morning, with only my older-model iPhone for a camera. The spiderwebs were spectacularly outlined in tiny droplets everywhere I went, and I couldn't resist taking some photos. I didn't really notice the background on this shot as I leaned down with my phone to capture this low-to-the-ground web head-on, but it turned out better than I could have expected.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Prairie Flowers at St. Olaf Natural Lands

Today was such a gorgeous day -- downright chilly by normal July standards, but thoroughly refreshing and invigorating. I hadn't been over to the St. Olaf College natural lands for quite a while, and decided to visit the prairie restoration loop, which proved to be a sea of yellows and purples.

As has been typical this year, I hardly saw any butterflies and just a few bees. In the photo below, you can see orange pollen building up on the bee's "pollen basket" on its leg. The flower is purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea).

The tall yellow sunflower-like plant below is compass plant (Silphium laciniatum). The common name comes from the tendency of the lower leaves to align their edges in a north-south direction. The compass plant is said to be very long-lived, surviving as long as a century. Botanists use the term forb for herbs (non-woody plants) that are not grasses or grasslike, so the clover above and compass plant below would both be forbs.

I'm very much a beginner at dragonfly identification, but it looks to me as if the one below is a twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella). I've been seeing these quite often in recent outings. Today they zigged and zagged along the path ahead of me, rarely landing or staying long in a good spot for me to get a photo, so I was pleased to be able to get this one.

The forecast in southeastern Minnesota is for quite a few more pleasant days ahead, with highs only in the 70s F. and nightly lows mostly in the 50s. That's great sleeping weather, and perfect for getting out and about. Enjoy!