Thursday, August 30, 2012

Eastern Kingbirds

The Eastern Kingbird family down the road from my house has been a gracious subject on which to experiment with my new camera lens.

One of my favorite birds, kingbirds are gregarious and tolerant of humans. They often sit on fences along rural roadsides, easily spotted as the large dark birds with a white tail edging. Well, comparatively large when looking at other songbirds found in prairie areas.

Here in Afton, we have the Eastern Kingbird, although from time to time a grey and yellow Western Kingbird shows up at the state park.

Why are they called kingbirds? They have a crown that they lift when threatened! I've never seen one, but according to Cornell's Lab of Ornithology they're yellow or orange or red. Must be amazing to see.

While they're with us here in the States, they're insectivores, raising their young on a sole diet of insects. Then, as summer heads into fall and they gear up for their long migration, they begin consuming fruit. Once they've migrated to South America though they consume a diet mainly of fruit.

I love how fluffy these juvenile kingbirds look. They'll become much darker, nearly black, as adults. The low evening sun added to the soft, rosy glow:

note: I thought I had something on my lens when I first saw this image and couldn't figure out why it was just on this series. Turns out those weird-looking gray splotches on the bottom of the photo are what sprays of grass seed look like (the green ones, not the yellow spikes) when they get between you and your subject!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Teensy, And I Mean Teensy, Orange Moth

I wish I could tell you how teensy, tiny this moth is. Well, I can I guess, in two ways:
1) it's wingspan ranges from 10-17mm (which means the max span is just over a half inch, much smaller than a pearly crescent or checkerspot)
2) that's a normal size snapdragon head that it's sitting on in the photo

I first noticed it a week or so ago and could never get a shot of it. It was constantly in motion, and when it did land, it tended to land in the shade. In the shade of runaway mint that's the scourge of our front garden bed. Hmmm... maybe that's why it's called the Orange Mint Moth! It's also been called the Orange-spotted Pyrausta (Pyrausta orphisalis). Its larvae enjoy members of the mint family including monarda.

Incredibly common, but at the same time not a lot of info on the internet about this species. It's found pretty much throughout the U.S. and Canada, except for the West Coast.

If I could've snapped a better photo of it, you'd notice it's a snout-nosed moth. I'll add that to my to-do list!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Today's Bird Encounter: Juvenile Cooper's Hawk

Today's relaxing Saturday was interrupted by a call from the landowner where WRC has much of its outdoor caging.

An injured hawk. Could anyone come get it? He'd put it in one of our large crow flight cages.

So I drove over to transport the bird to the UMN's Raptor Center (TRC). (WRC treats everything but raptors)

Turns out the bird was a juvenile Cooper's Hawk (note the white patches on its back and head) and it wasn't injured. Highly stressed and tired, but otherwise fine. I took it out of the flight cage to an open field and watched it fly to a fence line about 3' away (shown above) and then run along it. I approached it again to make sure it could truly flew well and it flew strongly to a tree 50 yards away.

We suspect that it was trying to hunt the songbirds in the outdoor flight cages and had simply exhausted itself trying to get to them. Giving it cage rest in WRC's crow cage was the perfect thing to do. If it wouldn't have flown when I was there I probably would've needlessly transported it up to TRC.

What a treat to handle and see one of these gorgeous birds. And better yet: for it to be healthy and releasable.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Hummingbird or Red-breasted Nuthatch?

Every now and then I receive a photo at work that is amazing. This one wins the prize so far this year.

Frequenting a feeder in Superior, Wis., this Red-breasted Nuthatch has a deformed bill, giving it the appearance of a hummingbird.

This is most likely avian keratin disorder, where the beak becomes overgrown and often crosses after a certain length. This disorder has exploded in the past three years in Alaska, western Canada and the state of Washington. It's estimated that as high as 17% of all Alaskan crows have this disorder. It typically affects corvids and chickadees, but other species periodically present signs of it.

In these photos, the beak doesn't appear to be crossed and fortunately, the bird has been observed eating and cracking nuts and seeds at the feeder (which I find amazing to be honest).

Sadly, there's nothing that can be done for this. The beak will just continue to grow and in larger birds, the bone beneath the keratin eventually breaks down, leaving no support for the beak.

There is new research being done on the disorder, but currently there is no definitive answer as to why this disorder is increasing. Scientists believe it may be a result of toxins in the environment.

Here is some additional reading:
 - a Red-tailed Hawk at a rehab facility contributes samples to forward study on this disorder (April 2012)

 - original USGS release about Avian Keratin Disorder

 - a Minnesota chickadee with Avian Keratin Disorder captured and banded (Dan Tallman's blog)

Many thanks to homeowner Vern S. and Duluth, Minn., rehabber Peggy Farr
for sharing these photos.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Help with Flower ID? (updated)

I posted these photos last night, trying to pinpoint what type of flower this was, and if it was wild or something that had escaped the garden before I bought the property.

We suspected it was related to foxglove in some way, but I hadn't been able to find photos matching the shape of these flowers.

Thanks to the wonderful Twitter community, we ID'd it within an hour of posting: Grecian, or Wooly, Foxglove (Digitalis lanata).

And, sadly, this striking plant is on the list of "bad" plants from the MNDNR. In fact, this is what the DNR site says about it:
"In Minnesota it has been found primarily in Washington County in the vicinity of the St. Croix River along sunny to semi-shaded road ditches. Native to Europe's scrub oak forests."

Hmmm... that's exactly where we live, with beautiful stands of oak all around.

The funny thing? I've only seen one or two of these around, and usually in yards, not in ditches. I've never seen stands of it, as it prone to do which then threatens the native savannah prairie that so many people have restored here in the beautiful town of Afton.

Of other interest, just like other foxglove members, all parts of the plant are toxic to people and animals (probably why I've never seen deer or rabbits browsing them). It's a biennial or short-lived perennial, forming a rosette of low wooly leaves the first year and then shooting up the large single flower stalk the second year. The flowers are hermaphroditic, containing both male and female parts. And, as I noted in my original post, bees love them.

It's listed as an invasive species in only a few states, including Kansas. It is actually a sought-after garden plant and cultivated in many states including states on the East Coast, Colorado and Utah.

Two other European species have also begun to naturalize in prairie areas: Digitalis purpurea (Purple Foxglove) and Digitalis lutea (Yellow Foxglove).

The Natural Resource Conservation Service has a photo on its site that doesn't look anything like the plant listed on other sites. I don't know if there are variations of the flowers and stalk, but I suspect the NRCS sheet needs updating. The MNDNR site has it listed as it appears in our yard and on other national sites.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Eastern Pondhawk and... Eastern Pondhawk

Dragonflies may well be the death of my overtaxed brain cells. I've always been so focused on learning to ID birds, especially warblers - 1st year, fledglings, etc - but since I was a kid I was fascinated by flying "darning needles" as my mom and her relatives called dragonflies.

Now that I've spent more time learning about dragonflies, and how to ID them, birds look like an easy task.

Take for instance this Eastern Pondhawk. Easy to identify for most of us due to its bright green appearance and size. (Great Pondhawks, which look similar, are a tropical species and not found much farther north than our southernmost states.)

But then consider this dragonfly:

Yes, you guessed it. It's also an Eastern Pondhawk (males are blue). Thankfully the hint of green on its face was an immediate clue, otherwise I would've spent tons of time trying to figure out if it was a slaty something, or a sooty something, or maybe just a blue something.

And don't even get me started on the Eastern Forktails. I'm still trying to make heads or tails of the dozen or so different photos I have, which oddly all seem to be of the same species, although they're all different colors and stripe patterns. That post will be appearing after I pester friends for help in positively identifying them...

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Hummingbird and Oriental Lily

Last week the hummingbirds were at the phlox. Yesterday, the juveniles seemed to be checking out every flower possible. I'd never seen one at our Oriental Lilies before. I can't imagine there's much nectar there for them?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers

Last year was the first time I'd noticed the tiny Blue-gray Gnatcatchers in our yard. They seemed to pass through with the warblers in the spring.

This year they returned, but the exciting part? They've stayed in the yard all summer!

Here in the Twin Cities, we're at the northern range of their breeding range, but their range has been pushing northward over the years. In fact, according to Cornell Lab, this is the only true migratory gnatcatcher and is the northernmost-occurring of all.

I'm pretty sure the one below is a juvenile, based on the brownish colored flight feathers and the remnants of some downy-type feathers:

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are cool little birds, in fact they're quickly becoming one of my favorite species. I've had the extreme fortune of watching one of them raised at WRC by our Avian Nursery Coordinator Jessika Madison-Kennedy. Here's a neat video of it at the fledgling stage, narrated by Jessika.

I learned through her that BG Gnatcatchers build a nest similar to a hummingbird's, way out on the end of a branch; a small cup constructed of lichens, bark, spider and caterpillar silk, and lined with grass and down.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers have white tail coverts, just like Dark-eyed Juncos. Scientists believe that they flash their tail while gleaning bugs to flush and attract more insects. They glean insects from foliage just like warblers do and are almost always in constant motion. I never would've nabbed these shots if not for my fun new lens.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Hummingbird and Phlox

This juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbird happened by while I was gardening today.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Christmas in August: A New Lens

Having a new lens is like getting a Christmas present. That you've always wanted. Like forever and ever.

So of course, on the way home last night I pulled it out of the box and waited for a bird to grace a local field. Any bird. Would've been happy with a cowbird I was so excited to try my new toy.

But lo and behold, this juvenile Eastern Meadowlark kindly cooperated. Which was super cool, having not had the opportunity before to watch them in the wild while they're learning to hunt. (and no, those photos did not turn out, just giant blurs)

I'm pretty happy with the results, especially since I literally pulled it out of the box, mounted it and snapped away. Looking forward to working with it more and learning how to use it better. Three cheers for Christmas in August!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Milkweed Tussock Caterpillar

Found this beautifully patterned caterpillar on one of our butterfly bushes. It's a Milkweed Tussock Caterpillar and its striking coloring is to deter birds from eating it. Apparently the orange and black "sweater" it's wearing announces that not only does it not taste good, it's actually toxic due to its milkweed diet.

I've read that they're voracious eaters and sure enough, when I returned to the plant a few hours later, there were two full heads of flowers that had been eaten down to nubs.