Friday, September 28, 2012

Watering Your Birds

Birds are attracted to moving water. And, having a bird bath or two in your yard will attract as many birds as a new feeder. In fact, it'll attract birds that don't normally visit feeders, like towhees, thrashers, thrush, vireos (like the one above) and... warblers.

Here in the Twin Cities, we've been in a drought since late August. I was watering our oak and pine trees one day when I noticed there were nearly 100 robins congregating in the damp areas. So now, when I water our trees, I give them a good soak, then I set the hose to a light spray, angle it up slightly so it arcs to the lower tree trunk by other shrubs and watch the birds flock.

A couple weeks ago I counted a dozen different warbler species, in addition to ovenbirds, veerys, towhees and the usual backyard birds.

I had fun taking photos of the birds as they literally seemed to play in the water. Here are some of my favorite photos. While they're not what many would call great photos, I like the textures and the spontaneity of the bathing birds. Hope you enjoy!  (Note that the silver streaks throughout the photos are water)

Yellow-rumped Warbler:

The yellow-rumps, like all the other warblers that I noted, also leaned into the spray with their mouths open. I didn't notice this with the chickadees, cardinals or other yard birds - just the warblers.

This little goldfinch reminds me of those old Memorex ads with the guy sitting in the black leather chair getting blown away by the sound (yes, I realize I just dated myself...).

When I went through my photos this bird threw me for a loop at first. I had assumed it was a yellow-rumped when I took the photo, but in reviewing I noticed the white tail patches and the yellow just starting on its head. It's a juvenile American Redstart.

Here's an adult female American Redstart

The next week, waves of Nashvilles came through:

Looks like we'll be in a continued drought for a while longer. If  you're in Minnesota or other drought areas where migration is occurring, set up a water spray and enjoy the birds!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Eastern Red-backed Salamander

During my recent camping trip, I spent nearly a week on our acreage that has a trout stream running through it before moving to my regular lakeside site. "The land" (we're creative) is a fabulous spot for exploring - I never know what I'm going to find.

While cleaning pine needles out of the dogs' water dish one morning, I went to pick up a twig and realized it was alive. With a red stripe:

This very cute critter is an Eastern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus). One of just six salamanders found in Minnesota.

It has some fascinating qualities:
 - it's the only Minnesota salamander to not go through an aquatic life phase. It spends its life entirely on land (I felt very sorry for it being trapped in 2" of water for who knows how long after learning this).
 - it's a lungless variety of salamander (largest salamander family). It gets all its oxygen through mucous membrane and skin gaseous exchange (now I felt doubly-bad - they must be able to go without oxygen for awhile!)

It's also one of our smallest salamanders, measuring in at a max of 5."

When the young are born, they look exactly like the adults, just teensier: only 1" long! They do not go through a metamorphsis.

Speaking of being born: Eastern Red-backed Salamander sex is occurring right now, and will continue into the early winter months. Even though they mate now, the female won't lay her eggs in a damp hollow log or a rock crevice until next spring. The clutch size is amazingly small: 15 or fewer eggs, average size is 8. And she only reproduces every other year.

But, she's a great mom! Once she lays her eggs she'll curl up around them and guard them for the two months it takes the eggs to hatch. Of course, a few weeks after they hatch they're entirely on their own - but at least she protects the eggs and gives them a good start on life.

And, she remembers her offspring. Eastern Red-backeds mark their territory through scent glands. In times of drought, when food sources are scare, the female will allow offspring back into her territory to hunt until the scarcity eases. Just her offspring, others are chased off. That's pretty neat.

Their diet is all sorts of invertabrates, including spiders, mites, worms, beetles, snails and even ants.

Logging has a very negative impact on these terrestrial amphibians and even fragmentation of forests can affect their population. Some research has found that it can take 40-60 years for their population to rebound in areas of heavy logging. They do best in undisturbed deciduous forests or mixed conifer forests (which is what our land is) with plenty of woodsy material on the forest floor.

During winter, they'll burrow down and enter a state of torpor, they do not actually hibernate. In fact, some references cited seeing them above ground and active on mild winter days. Unlike many of our tree frogs, Eastern Red-backeds can't survive freezing, so scientists believe they remain somewhat active underground during the winter. Discovery of full stomachs found in winter samples also points to the fact that the salamanders will awaken and feed, moving around as needed.

There are two other forms of the Eastern Red-backed Salamander: The red phase (crythristic) and the gray phase (leadback).

Challenge: Do you like looking for worms after an evening rain? If you live in Minnesota keep your eyes open for the gray-backed form. It's never been documented in the state! (Amphibians and Reptiles of Minnesota, Barney Oldfield and John Moriarity) *note that in the book they also list the red phase as having not been documented, but it since has been. A new update of the book will be available a year from now.

Amphibians and Reptiles of Minnesota
Grizzly Run

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ruffed Grouse: Not the Brightest Bulbs

One of the more common sights on the graveled backroads of Northeastern Minnesota is the Ruffed Grouse. From a distance they look like a birch branch or a spruce branch has broken off and is sitting in the road.

Upon closer inspection, and you can get amazingly close to these birds, that branch end will puff itself up and slowly strut off the road. Note that if you don't slow down when approaching them you're likely to clip one with your front bumper.

I saw a fair number of them throughout my recent camping trip, but it wasn't until Friday the 14th that I saw dozens of them along the roadsides. And what was the 15th? Grouse season opener. They're really not the brightest bulbs in the bird world. Pretty (and tasty) bulbs, but not very bright.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Phoebe? Pe-wee? We'll Just Say "Flycatcher"

While I love this photo, it's a lesson in not being distracted while taking photos. My phone rang with a must-answer call, and when I looked back up the bird was gone.

I had no side or back views of the bird and hadn't observed it long enough to notice if it was doing the signature tail-bob of an Eastern Phoebe.

To be honest, I had just assumed it was a phoebe until I looked more closely at the shape of the head, overall color and the beak. Now I'm thinking it was probably an Eastern Wood-pewee.

Either way, it's one of my favorite photos due to the colors and the pose of the bird. It's a bit overexposed, but for pretty bright mid-day sun, I'm happy with it. And, it's a great reminder to be "in the moment" more often.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Northern Escape

I'm enjoying two weeks of bliss at my favorite camping spot way up in Northeastern Minnesota, off the Arrowhead Trail. Fortunately, Dean was able to join me for a long weekend before heading back to the Cities to work. Here he is with Panzer enjoying a gorgeous sunset.

Now it's just me and the dogs enjoying nature, catching up on my reading and doing lots of fishing.

Many thanks to all of you who have shared my blog posts while I'm gone via Twitter and G+. Looking forward to catching up with you when I return!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Warbler Camo (or how to hide an American Redstart)

I chose not to crop this photo because I'm amazed at how well this female American Redstart is camouflaged in our birch tree. Even her body silhouette is close to the shape of the leaves.

This tree is a favorite of the gnatcatchers and all warblers. During spring and fall migration it shivers nonstop in the morning and evening hours as dozens of warblers flit through it picking bugs. The best part? It's only 20' from my favorite stoop sitting spot!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Visiting Ovenbird

I don't know why, but I'm thrown for a loop every time I see an Ovenbird. I always expect them to be smaller than they are. So I see this large, striped-breast bird in the undergrowth and inevitably I'm reaching for my book to look up thrushes with a head stripe (because what thrush has a head stripe???) when I realize it's an Ovenbird. Every time. My "Ovenbird" synapses must have a fatal error in them.

This one showed up in our backyard the other day. Everything is so dry here, our multiple birdbaths are a huge attraction right now.

Here's a good look at its unique head striping from the back:

The Ovenbird gets its name from its unique nest construction: with its curved top and open side it looks like a Dutch oven. Bill Leaman has a neat photo on his site.

Many people assume Ovenbirds are in the same family as thrushes (told you they look like thrushes!), but they're actually warblers. The Louisiana Waterthrush and the Northern Waterthrush (contrary to their names) are also warblers.

This Ovenbird is starting its journey to its wintering grounds in Florida, the Caribbean or Central America.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Indigo Buntings

I thought our Indigo Buntings had left. It's probably been three weeks since I've seen them at our Nyjer seed feeders. Turns out that they've just moved to the field area of our property. They must like some of the wild grasses that are coming into seed.

The interesting thing about this? They leave our yard EVERY YEAR the first week of August. I went back through my phenology. Now I suspect that they hadn't actually left, they had just abandoned the seed in the feeders for the fresh, tasty new grass seed. So much for that phenology record! 

I'll have to check the field better next August. I tend to avoid walking through our field in the summer - I'm afraid of disturbing (or worse yet stepping) on nests.

According to Minnesota birder and author Bob Janssen, the majority of Indigo Buntings are on the move in early to mid-September here in Minnesota. (his book, "Birds of Minnesota" is a phenomenal resource)

When I took the photo below I thought it was a female Indigo Bunting. It was a slightly overcast day and the bird was a fairly good distance away (and of course, no binocs on me). When I went through the photos I was delighted to realize that it was a first-year male Indigo Bunting. Look how nicely his blue feathers are coming in. He reminds me a bit of a mini-bluebird fledgling. Might be one of the cuter juvenile birds that I've ever seen. And don't you just love the red thing sticking out of his head? Had to laugh when I saw how perfectly (or imperfectly depending on how you consider such things) the fruit was placed.

Indigo Buntings aren't picky eaters. They pretty much eat everything: seeds, berries, fruit, and all types of insects.

There are two really cool things about Indigo Buntings:
1) they migrate at night using the stars for navigation
2) they don't learn their calls or songs from their parents, but rather neighboring buntings, and almost always just the males

The species has been moving gradually north, probably in conjunction with warming average temperatures, and can even be found periodically in Europe. It didn't say, but I'm guessing that the European sightings are the result of escaped caged birds. Apparently they're popular as pets in Europe, probably due to their beautiful singing voice.

Here in the States, they're found nearly everywhere except the Rockies and westward. They're also moving into southeastern Canada.