Monday, January 31, 2011

Bald Eagle at Hastings

We took a quick outing to open-water areas on the Mississippi at Prescott, Wis., and Hastings, Minn., yesterday. Common mergansers, a large (21-28", slightly larger than mallards), handsome diving duck with the typical long, narrow merganser bill, were present in groups of a dozen to several dozen. Among them we saw a small number of common goldeneyes, another diving duck, not as large (15.7-20"), and notable for its black head, round white cheek patch and, yes, golden eyes. At Prescott we saw no bald eagles, but several could be seen in the air and trees near the Hastings bridge. My son took the photo above (and cropped, below) from our viewing point under the Wisconsin side of the bridge.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Our Rice County Bird List

I've just added to the top navigation bar a list of the birds we've seen in Rice County. I had a yard list going (and am still keeping it privately), but I thought this would be more interesting, with more scope for growth. A very useful resource for Northfield-area birders, which I relied on in building our list, is the official Cowling Arboretum bird list. I'm hoping we add a lot more of the birds seen there to our Rice County list this year -- especially owls and warblers.

Cowling Arboretum, owned by Carleton College, is a wonderful birding resource. Other favorite spots in the county include the Cannon River Wilderness Area, Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, River Bend Nature Center in Faribault, and the Union Lake area west of I-35. We're less familiar with the lakes in the southern part of the county.

I had to refer to a county map several times to make sure I was staying legal. Unfortunately, some of the nearby spots where we've seen shorebirds are outside the county lines, and I had to remove the Redhead (a duck) from the list when we determined that the lake just after the big bend in Hwy 19 west of Lonsdale is actually in Scott County. Lake Byllesby is a favorite spot, where we've not only seen a lot of shorebirds but also an osprey, but it's in Goodhue and Dakota Counties. Oh well.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pair of Northern Cardinals

Of all the birds that visit our feeders in winter, northern cardinals seem the most likely to travel in pairs. Chickadees, goldfinches, house finches and pine siskins usually come in groups of anywhere from three to ten. Nuthatches and woodpeckers most often appear singly, though we have seen pairs occasionally. But, almost always, if you see one of the cardinals the other is close at hand.

A Complete Guide to Bird FeedingHowever, I don't often see them at the same feeder at the same time, as they happened to be a couple of days ago (above). In fact, John V. Dennis observes in A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994, 2002)  that a male cardinal may not let his mate eat with him all winter, though he eventually relents when spring brings the breeding season:
Instead of chasing her from the feeding tray, he now begins to offer her shucked sunflower seeds and other choice tidbits. When he brings these offerings, she crouches appreciatively with her beak open and wings vibrating. Her posture and actions are exactly the same as those of young birds begging food from parents.
Maybe having the hopper-type feeder with two sides, as shown in the photo, is an advantage to the female at this time of year. He may not even have known she was there.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Fluffing up the Insulation

My son took this photo of a house finch using all its feathery powers to stay warm in the maple tree in front of our house on Sunday morning, after an early-morning low of -18 F.

When it was even colder a couple of nights earlier, to help out the ground feeders, including the squirrels, I scattered a mixture of seeds, cracked corn, and shelled peanuts plus some leftover raisins and small pieces of a bagel with peanut butter on the front walk and nearby snow. Sunday morning I noticed that two American crows were hanging out in the maple tree and saw one fly up to it from near our house, so I believe they were taking advantage of the buffet. I've not seen crows attracted to our feeder area before, though we have plenty of crows in the neighborhood. On the other hand, I don't usually put food out on the ground deliberately, and when I've tried scattering just the cracked corn it's been very unsuccessful. But much of what I put out this weekend was taken, not too surprisingly given the cold and the deep snow cover.

The ground feeders we typically get right by the house include mainly the the little red squirrel(s), dark-eyed juncos (which I haven't seen since the cold snap despite the extra food), and the short-tailed shrew (which, again, I haven't seen for several days now). They search through the leavings under the other feeders, which include a whole seed here and there among the scattered shells.

Perhaps thanks to the return of such severe cold, we saw the red-bellied woodpecker at our suet feeder again on Sunday. So for our Project Feederwatch reporting, we were able to record its visit as well as that of the crows, both for the first time.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Lady Nuthatch in Repose

This white-breasted nuthatch simply rested atop our suet feeder for some minutes yesterday. I didn't see her eat; she just blinked once in a while. Despite temperatures in the low single digits above zero F., the sun was shining on her and she seemed to be soaking in what she could.

Male white-breasted nuthatch
Male red-breasted nuthatch
I say "she" because the stripe on the top of her head is more gray than black. Compare the bird above to the one at left. See how not only is the cap blacker below, the color of the cap also extends in a "cape" around the shoulders, which it doesn't on the bird above. There are some helpful photos of male and female WBNs on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds site. I hadn't been aware of the difference in the "cape" until today, but I knew there was something different about the bird on the suet feeder compared to the one I'd photographed recently on the peanut feeder..

The large photo shows that WBNs do have some rusty coloring, similar to that of red-breasted nuthatches, on their lower bellies. But white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches are easily distinguished not only by the location of that rusty color (the red-breasted, as its name implies, bearing it high up on the breast) but also by the black stripe that goes right through the eye on the red-breasted nuthatch, which is also the smaller of the two. (See the lower photo at left.) White-breasted nuthatches are year-round residents in much of the United States, whereas the conifer-favoring red-breasted nuthatch tends to be a winter-only visitor to much of the eastern U.S., including southern Minnesota.

I think until recently we have almost always seen the male WBN at our feeders, but last week we briefly saw that there was a pair there and yesterday the female was there on her own, and so I think and hope that she is starting to be more confident in visiting.

Friday, January 21, 2011

C-c-c-c-cold! (And look who's back)

It was somewhere between -25 and -29 F. early this morning in Northfield, Minnesota. Up north, -46 F. at International Falls was the coldest reading in 43 years. At about 5:30 a.m. our house made a couple of sharp banging/popping sounds that people on Facebook were calling "cold booms" today; it sounded and felt as if something very heavy were abruptly dropped upstairs. I've lived in the upper Midwest for almost 30 years now but I grew up in much more moderate climes, and it still feels new to me when we get conditions like this. I guess maybe unless you live somewhere like International Falls, you never really get used to it.

The last time we had temperatures almost this cold here in Northfield, I believe, was January 15, 2009.  According to this blog, that morning the temperature was -25, and that was the only time a red-belled woodpecker has ever visited our feeders (to our knowledge)... until this morning!

I was working from home this morning and I kept one eye on the feeders, expecting it might be a particularly busy or interesting morning because of the cold. There was no action at all until after 10 a.m., when I saw our little red squirrel and shortly thereafter a small group of chickadees, a female cardinal, and one pine siskin. (No house finches at all, which is quite unusual.) And then I saw the rare visitor.

The red-bellied woodpecker is a bird of the eastern U.S.; we're not far from the western edge of its range. At 9" long and with a 13-16" wingspan, it's huge compared to our more typical feeder visitors. Below for comparison is a photo of a downy woodpecker (5.5"-6.7" long) and a chickadee (4.5"-5.9") at the same suet feeder earlier in the season.

Photo for size comparison

As you can see in the photos, woodpeckers use their stiffened tails as extra support (usually against a tree, of course) while they excavate.

It's interesting to me that the red-bellied woodpecker has been such a rare visitor. (Of course, it could be visiting regularly on weekdays when we are not usually at home, but we never see it on the weekend and it's not likely that it knows its days of the week quite that well.) I take it to mean it is a very competent forager and can generally manage quite well on, and probably prefers, naturally available foods. But on these numbing, coldest-of-cold days, a little extra help from a local suet feeder is, apparently, quite welcome.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Out of the Tunnels - Updated

Update: Since posting this, I've been advised by a pretty knowledgeable fellow that what I have here is a short-tailed shrew, not a vole. The inch-long bare tail and very dark fur would indicate he's right, though the vole (or field mouse) is also described as having a short tail. It never dawned on me that this was a possibility. Here's a page that discusses the differences. If this is a shrew, that's a very interesting creature -- it's carnivorous and venomous as well as eating seeds, for one thing! The Minnesota DNR mammals guide doesn't show a picture, but has a good general discussion about the various shrews found here.

Here's a great description of what voracious eaters they are:
Shrews are opportunistic predators taking whatever prey season, habitat or opportunity presents. Prey includes mice, moles, salamanders, frogs, birds, bird eggs, all types of insects, slugs, snails, isopods, spiders, millipedes and centipedes. Shrews will also eat roots, berries, nuts, fruits, fungi and general vegetable materials if prey is limited or if these materials are abundant. Shrews must continuously eat in order to sustain their very high rate of metabolism. They are active all year round (they do not hibernate) and rely on cached food materials for consumption during times of resource limitations. A short-tail shrew must eat every two or three hours or they will succumb to starvation. 
From The Virtual Nature Trail at Penn State New Kensington

Original post:
I've commented before on the tunnel system built by both red squirrels and voles in the snowpack in our front yard. Here's a peek at the little vole [see update, above] coming out to inspect the pickings under a couple of our bird feeders.

Here is more information on voles and other common Minnesota rodents from the DNR.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Yin and Yang on the Peanut Feeder

Black-capped chickadee and red-breasted nuthatch during a busy morning feeding time Sunday. We actually saw a pair of the red-breasted nuthatches for the first time today, as well as a pair of downy woodpeckers. I've not seen any of the woodpeckers or nuthatches in pairs before; they've always come singly. 

Usually the RBNs come in and out so quickly it's very hard to get a photo, but this one hung around on the peanut feeder for quite a while. They really are one of my favorite birds.

Above, a relatively rare view of a nuthatch "right side up."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Red-tailed Hawk Visits Our Backyard

As I sat at the computer Sunday afternoon at about 2:15, I could see the tops of our neighbors' cottonwood trees through a window. There are often crows up there, but I saw something else fly in and land that made the crows look small. I grabbed my binoculars and was amazed to see that the bird was a red-tailed hawk, a bird with a four-foot wingspan. No wonder it dwarfed the crows, which are not small birds themselves.

Photo taken by my son through glass door to our deck

These magnificent hawks are quite common out in the open spaces of our region, but to see one perching in a tree adjacent to our backyard (albeit in an area with large yards near the edge of town) was a first for me. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes:
You’re unlikely to see this bird in your backyard (unless yours is a big one). Red-tailed Hawks eat mostly mammals, so they’re less likely to visit a popular feeder than a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned hawk is. ... The best way to find a Red-tailed Hawk is to go for a drive, keeping your eyes peeled along fenceposts and in the sky.

Trying to get a better view, I hauled out the spotting scope and set it up looking out of our dining room window. I don't have a good setup for taking photos through the scope, so there's some color distortion and vignetting (the dark circle around the scene), but we were excited to get such a good look at a hawk from inside our house. My 11-year-old son has really been enjoying watching birds lately and this was the first red-tailed hawk he'd seen since he started to keep a list. He grabbed the camera and took the top photo above while I was setting up the scope. I didn't crop that one so you could see its size in the treetops.

Lighting adjusted to bring out tail color

After about 15 minutes the hawk turned so its creamy front side was facing toward us, and just as we were about to take more photos it flew off to the west, in the direction of downtown Northfield.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Northern Shrike With Prey

We went in search of the snowy owl that has recently been spotted in northern Rice County (see Dan Tallman's wonderful photos) but came up empty on that one. We saw a number of other birdwatchers slowly driving around the area on the same mission, and stopped to exchange words with several of them. When we had tired of the hunt and were on our way back into Northfield on Wall Street Road, we saw a bird on a wire that turned out on closer examination to be a northern shrike. I had seen my first one of these on the recent Christmas Bird Count outing just a few weeks ago, not too far from where we were today, so it may even have been the same bird.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the northern shrike thus:
A predatory songbird, the Northern Shrike breeds in taiga and tundra and winters in southern Canada and the northern United States. It feeds on small birds, mammals, and insects, sometimes impaling them on spines or barbed wire fences.
The bird we'd seen soon disappeared from the wire and we saw it much closer to us on the snow at the near side of the road. It returned to the wire and then again to the same spot on the ground, where we suddenly realized it had prey. I couldn't tell, but Dave says the animal was still alive when he first saw it. I was lucky enough to catch these three photos of the bird with its prey, which looks like a vole.

Be sure to click on the photos to see them larger.

Then, while I was trying to switch my camera to the quick-burst format (great for capturing birds in motion),but before I had accomplished it, the shrike picked up its kill and we watched it fly away low over the field until it disappeared into the distance. We were quite impressed by how far it flew without stopping, bearing such a load.

This was quite an amazing encounter and I am thrilled to have captured this fascinating bird in action.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Red Squirrel

With today's 10-below-zero start, I thought it would be a busy day at the feeders, but it's been quite slow. I did enjoy watching this little red squirrel come out of one of its many tunnel entrances -- this one is right below the shepherd's crook that holds two of our bird feeders.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Year in Review and What's New at Penelopedia

I had to write a new post to get the white-breasted nuthatch off the top post, because I have just adopted him or her as my new header photo. What do you think?

Also, I added up our 2010 bird list (see tab at top of page) and we saw 95 species -- to which announcement Dave replied, "Is that all? We'll have to do better in 2011." So there we have it: a challenge for the new year.

Another new thing on the blog is a page to track our 2011 Project Feederwatch counts. The idea there is to track the largest number of a particular species that you see together at one time during a given count period (we'll try to count each week). That way you know for sure there are that many individuals, rather than adding up birds you see at different times of the day. House finches are the leaders so far, with as many as seven visible at one time at or near our feeders.

I've also added a Book List page with some of the books that have influenced me or that I refer to regularly. As always, I truly encourage you to patronize your local bookseller if you are interested in any of these, but for convenience there are links to 

Penelopedia has been getting a lot of hits recently from people looking for images of animal tracks in the snow. With all the snow in the UK and elsewhere this December, my post about that subject from a couple of years ago, which features a track chart from the Ohio DNR, has had 754 page views in the last month and more than 1,700 since May. The Northfield flooding in September also brought about 1,500 visitors to the blog (that's the big spike you see in the graph at left).

Thanks for stopping by, whether you are a one-time visitor looking for information on a particular topic or a regular reader of Penelopedia. I look forward to sharing more birding and nature adventures and discoveries with you in 2011. And I WILL be planting a vegetable garden this year, so stay tuned for some gardening moments as well. Peace.

Favorite photos from 2010

Western Minnesota road trip, May

Busy day at the feeders, December

Great blue heron in the treetop, October

Grey crowned crane at the Int'l Crane Foundation, September

Argiope spider, September

Dog day cicada, August

Monarch butterfly on coneflower, July

Green heron at St. Olaf nature area, June

Sunday, January 2, 2011

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted nuthatches are year-round residents in Minnesota, as in much of the United States. They are residents of mature woods, particularly deciduous forest. They are fairly regular visitors to our feeders, and I had a nice opportunity today to get some shots of one at our peanut feeder.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes them as:, agile little birds with an appetite for insects and large, meaty seeds. They get their common name from their habit of jamming large nuts and acorns into tree bark, then whacking them with their sharp bill to “hatch” out the seed from the inside. White-breasted Nuthatches may be small but their voices are loud, and often their insistent nasal yammering will lead you right to them. [Link to sound clips added.]

If you click on the photo above to zoom in, you'll see that the bird is busy extracting part of a peanut from the feeder. As I've mentioned before, if you see a bird head-down on a branch, tree trunk or feeder, chances are excellent that it is a nuthatch -- either the white-breasted or its smaller relative, the red-breasted nuthatch.

Both types of nuthatches can look a bit like chickadees at a quick glance but their head-down habit is diagnostic, and nuthatches can also be distinguished from chickadees by their much shorter tails, as well as different patterns of black and white on the heads. Nuthatches have a much narrower black cap than the black-capped chickadee; white-breasted nuthatches are completely white around the eye and cheek, and red-breasted nuthatches have a black stripe through the white around around the eye.