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!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Afternoon Bluebird - and Season Update

This female bluebird stayed on the wire near her nestbox as we checked it late this afternoon. She has four nestlings about a week old in this nestbox in rural Rice County -- the second brood of bluebirds in this box this year. We were there on hatch day last week, finding three tiny nestlings and one egg not yet hatched. This is one of only three locations this year where bluebirds have started a second brood, and we have quite a few empty boxes right now. Last year quite a few of them managed two broods. It's been a tough year for bluebird survival and reproduction.

This year so far 21 bluebirds have fledged out of six nestboxes, with a potential of 12 more to come in the three second-round nests, if they all survive. Tree swallows have raised broods in several of the other boxes. We took on three new nextboxes just a couple of weeks ago, which showed evidence that one brood of bluebirds and two of tree swallows had been raised there, but we don't know how many, or whether they were definitely from this year or not. Chickadees started nests in two more of our nestboxes, but, sadly, neither of them successfully raised a brood -- in one, the eggs were abandoned before hatching, and in the other the nestlings disappeared from the nextbox before they reached fledging age. We have house wren eggs in one box right now.

In the next 10 days to two weeks, in all likelihood, the bluebird breeding season will be over for this year.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Delight of Dickcissels

I first met the dickcissel last summer. We had been visiting a prairie remnant weekly for several weeks to monitor several bluebird nestboxes placed along an access road there. We'd become used to hearing field sparrows, clay-colored sparrows, song sparrows and the occasional distant KWUNK of a pheasant, when suddenly one day in June there was this new, very distinctive, rhythmic SONG demanding to be noticed! The first week it seemed to be coming from just one bird, but the next week it was all around us. I've been a fan of the dickcissel ever since.

Dickcissel male, singing his heart out

I wrote about dickcissels shortly afterward -- such as how they are one of the latest birds to arrive on breeding grounds in Minnesota, which is why we hadn't heard them in April or May.

Dickcissel male - so handsome

For the past couple of weeks the dickcissels have been posing beautifully for us. This week we were there in the morning, rather than our usual evening, and the light was terrific, so I thought I'd share these new photos.

Female dickcissel - with delicate yellow coloring

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Penelopedia's on Facebook

The Penelopedia blog now has a Facebook page: It'll be a place where I'll share new Penelopedia posts, but it's also a less formal space for sharing photos, sightings and thoughts that don't make it into full blog posts. I'll also share photos, updates and articles from other sources that I think are beautiful, thought-provoking or newsworthy.

The focus will be, much like that of the blog, on birdwatching and other encounters with nature in Northfield, southern Minnesota and beyond, supporting an ethic of awareness, respect and stewardship.

An alternative way I sometimes describe this focus is, "Noticing the natural world around me, and trying to tread lightly on it." It's much the same thing. What we notice, we start to really see. What we see, we can't help but take some interest in. What we take an interest in, we learn more about -- and care more about. And I think that's so important. You don't miss what you've never noticed. I'm determined to notice as much as I can, while it's here and I can make a difference.

If you're on Facebook, I hope you'll "like" the new page. I look forward to expanding the conversation into that space. If you're not on Facebook, don't worry. Penelopedia will continue to be what it's been -- perhaps with the addition of occasional blog posts about something that came up on the Facebook page!

As always, thanks so much for reading and for your comments and emails, which I treasure.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Bobolinks and Our Vanishing Grasslands

Male bobolink, McKnight Prairie, Goodhue County

The bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) is one of my husband Dave's favorite birds. Whenever we are in suitable habitat  -- grasslands -- his ears and eyes are open for them, and it's usually the ears that find them first. Bobolinks have a rich, varied, burbling, sometimes buzzing song. David Sibley, in his Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, describes it as "a bubbling, jangling, rising warble with short notes on wide pitch range." Roger Tory Peterson, in his Eastern Birds field guide, describes it as "ecstatic and bubbling, starting with low reedy notes and rollicking upward." Several samples of bobolink song can be heard here.

The Dennis Rodman of birds: Male bobolink, Rice County 

The male bobolink in breeding plumage is the only American bird that is black underneath and has white on its back (not just its wings). The straw-colored patch on the back of the head, which often looks thick and furry (but not always, as can be seen in the photo below), is usually the first thing I spot that tells me that I am seeing a bobolink. The female and the nonbreeding male are drabber and buffy in color. The bobolink is one of the Icterids (Icteridae), the songbird family that also includes the New World orioles, meadowlarks, blackbirds, cowbirds, and grackles. Its diet consists of seeds and insects.

Male bobolink, Rice County near New Prague

As grassland habitat has been lost, the populations of grassland-dependent birds, mammals and insects have dwindled. Meadowlarks and bobolinks are among the grassland birds that are harder to find than they once were. Bobolinks have the additional threat of being shot as agricultural pests in their wintering grounds thousands of miles to our south in central South America. Earlier hay mowing than in earlier times also threatens their reproduction; they nest on the ground in tall grass, so they are vulnerable when that grass is cut before the young birds leave the nest.

In Minnesota, less than two percent of the original (pre-European settlement) 18 million acres of native prairie, which covered one-third of the state, remains. What has been lost has been converted to row-crop agriculture and other human uses. The little that remains is scant and patchy, rather than forming large contiguous areas that provide the best habitat for those that depend on it. The enormity of this loss is displayed in this map from the Minnesota DNR, showing in yellow and tan the native prairie distribution in the second half of the 19th century, with the surviving remnants shown in red. It makes me want to weep.

This map can be seen on page 7 of the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan, published in 2011 by the Minnesota Prairie Plan Working Group, which included members from the Minnesota DNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy and other interested organizations. Click on the image above to see a larger version, and follow the text link above to learn more about a vision for prairie and grassland habitat acquisition, restoration and enhancement in Minnesota. 

The future of creatures like the bobolink depends on our doing what we can to preserve and restore the grassland habitat that is part of our great natural heritage.

Here are some additional resources:
Addendum: After posting this, I came across a blog post called Where Are the Bobolinks, published only yesterday on the excellent birding blog One Jackdaw Birding. I recommend it.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Fledging and Starting Again

We checked our larger bluebird trail Sunday evening and found that three broods of bluebirds and two broods of tree swallows had fledged. In two out of three of those bluebird boxes, new eggs had already been laid to start a second brood. It is typical for bluebirds to raise two, and sometimes even three, broods in a breeding season, and with the late start this year the birds are wasting very little time starting again. We learned last year from Carroll Johnson, one of our county Bluebird Recovery Program coordinators, that it's unlikely that new eggs will be laid after late July.

We've never seen fledging happen (though last week and once last year we checked a nestbox assuming that fledging had already occurred, only to find one bird still in the nest -- either not yet fledged or perhaps, as they sometimes do, returned to the nest). Nor have we seen any of "our" bluebird fledglings after they've left the nest, at least not while they were still identifiable as juveniles. But last night we saw a family of six -- adults and juveniles together -- that most likely was not one of "ours," and we got a great look at a couple of the young birds enjoying the insect-gathering potential at a newly mown field. Here is a young bluebird on an overhead wire, already quite accomplished at dropping down to the ground for an insect and returning to a perch. The juvenile is easily recognizable by its spotted plumage.

Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) are members of the thrush family (Turdidae), as are American robins (Turdus migratorius). (It's okay, go ahead and laugh.) You can see and learn about other members of the thrush family here.