Beauty in Black and Orange

I added three species of warbler to my year list yesterday afternoon – Magnolia, Blackburnian, and American Redstart. (Considering we’ve been doing almost all of our birding in the afternoons, not the mornings, my roommate and I have been doing pretty well this spring.) I love redstarts, and I was thrilled when this beautiful male posed for a couple photos.


009I love that extra flash of orange on the underside of the tail! While going over these photos, I started to wonder where the name “redstart” came from, and Wikipedia has given me the answer: “start” goes back to an Old English word for “tail,” so it means a bird with a red tail. Accurate! North America’s redstarts are actually named after a genus of Old World flycatchers that share this trait.

These were the first nice photos I’ve ever taken of a warbler, so they made me pretty happy. Now I just need to go back out with my camera and stalk the feeder where the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have been hanging out. Talk about your beautiful birds…

Owl #3

Yes, one last post about the owls I saw on my Sax-Zim Bog trip. Like the Great Gray I posted about last Friday, I saw my third and final owl species not in the bog itself, but in the Duluth area.


This was Sunday afternoon, the same day that we saw four Great Gray Owls in one morning. We only saw one of these, but one was enough to bask in its awesomeness: the Northern Hawk Owl! (Or Northern Hawk-owl. I’ve seen it both ways.)

Hawk-owls get their name from the fact that they’re, well, a bit hawkish. See that long tail? In flight this bird looks almost more like an accipiter (like, say, a Cooper’s Hawk) than an owl. They’re active during the day, hunting prey from conspicuous perches at the very tops of trees, like a kestrel or a shrike. Like the Boreal and the Great Gray, this is primarily an owl of the great northern forests, both in North America and Eurasia.

Someone gave me directions to a field just a half a mile out of my way on my drive home that was supposed to be another hawk-owl hot spot. I didn’t see any owls, but I did find another car slowly cruising along the country road. I could resist pulling up next to him and saying “Hey, are you looking for hawk-owls too?”, which of course he was. Got to love birders. (At first when I pulled up next to him and rolled my window down, I don’t think he was sure what to expect. I am not a demographically typical birder. I think I may have been the only woman under thirty at the festival.)

This concludes the tale of my Sax-Zim Bog trip. That means it’s time to start planning my next birding adventure… anyone up for lekking prairie chickens in April?

Owl #2

The unofficial mascot of Sax-Zim Bog, the bird everyone goes there to see, is the Great Gray Owl.

I did not see a Great Gray Owl on Friday evening. I did not see a Great Gray Owl on Saturday. Sunday, I was signed up to spend the day birding in the Duluth area rather than in the bog itself, and hope was fading. But was we headed up toward the lakeshore, we came across a couple cars stopped by the edge of the road. (You’ve heard of “bear jams” in Yellowstone? Duluth in winter apparently has “owl jams.”) There, sitting at the top of a small evergreen tree not one hundred feet from the road, was North America’s largest owl.

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It was beautiful. It was so exciting. But while we were admiring this big beautiful bird, someone suddenly called out, “Hey guys, look! There’s another one right here across the road, and it’s even closer!” And then a minute later, “Here’s another one around the corner!”

Great Gray Owl

Check out that white mustache! Like some other predators, Great Gray Owls hunt primarily based on sound, and can hear small rodents moving through tunnels under the snow. We actually witnessed one dive off its perch and into the snow, although I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo of this and we couldn’t see whether it caught anything. Also, while this is one of the world’s largest owls in terms of height, it is definitely not the heaviest – that volume is mostly feathers.

Image from Wikimedia Commons, by FunkMonk.

Later in the morning we spotted a fourth one. At that point we didn’t even bother to get off the bus. We just admired it through the windows for a moment and kept going, looking for new species to add to our list. And that is the story of how I saw four Great Gray Owls in one day.

To be continued…

Owl #1, Post #500

By far the birds I was most excited to see at Sax-Zim Bog were the owls. Who doesn’t love owls??? However, by mid-day on Saturday I was beginning to feel a little pessimistic. The Friday evening search for Great Gray Owls at dusk had proved fruitless, and today our guide seemed to be doing his best to let us down gently. “Yeah, the Great Grays haven’t been nearly as reliable this year as they usually are. They’ve been a lot harder to find.” “There’s only been one hawk-owl reported in the bog all winter. We’ll look for one but it’s not too likely.” What if I went home at the end of the weekend without having seen a single nocturnal raptor? That would be so embarrassing.

Then this happened.

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Do you see the owl? It’s there, I promise. When a couple of photographers told us what they’d found – in a tree right by the edge of the road, with orange flagging tape around its trunk, no less – we couldn’t believe it. (“You wouldn’t believe how long it took us to train that bird to sit in the tree with the flagging tape so we could find it,” quipped the guide.)

Boreal Owl

Yes, it’s a Boreal Owl! These awesome little denizens of the north country are about ten inches tall and usually spend the day well-concealed in the woods, but ours had ventured into the open. Our bus radioed the location to the other buses full of birders cruising the bog and soon the whole stretch of road was lined with owl paparazzi.

019 (1024x685)What’s good news for birders is unfortunately not good news for the bird. The fact that it was alert and out in the open in the middle of the day probably means that this bird was under stress and not finding enough food during its normal hunting times. This is often the case with the owl irruptions we birders love so much – last winter’s amazing influx of Snowy Owls in the U.S. was a sign that there wasn’t enough food for them in their regular range to the north.

Still, I cannot tell a lie, getting such a spectacular look at such an amazing and seldom-seen bird really made my day. And that was only the first owl of the weekend… to be continued!


Also, on an unrelated note: this marks my 500th post on Rebecca in the Woods. When I began blogging three years ago I was just doing it as a fun project for myself, because I enjoy taking pictures and writing. I had no idea where it would lead me – to becoming a published freelance writer, to doing a graduate project on social media and environmental education, and more. The community I’ve found online has genuinely enriched my life (I feel corny typing that, but it’s true), and I just want to say thank you to every single person who takes the time to read, like, comment, and share. You rock!

Sax-Zim Adventure!

When I told one of the people I work with that I was taking a weekend off in February to go to a birding festival, he said, “Isn’t February an odd time of year for that?” Well, sure, normally. But not if you’re talking about Sax-Zim Bog. Then it’s the perfect time of year for it.

Sunrise over Sax-Zim.

Sunrise over Sax-Zim.

I first heard about Sax-Zim Bog back when I was in college, when I started reading the blog of “Birdchick” Sharon Stiteler. It was also in college that I first read the book The Big Year, in which the area is mentioned prominently as one of the characters criss-crosses it again and again, searching in vain for his Great Gray Owl. (In the movie adaptation this nemesis bird is switched to the Snowy Owl, probably because the Snowy is more familiar to the non-birding public, but they still slipped a quick mention of Sax-Zim into the script.) This out-of-the way patch of rural northern Minnesota, named for two all-but-abandoned settlements on its edge called Sax and Zim, is known as one of the best places in the country to see boreal birds. This winter, with the bog only a four-hour drive away, I couldn’t resist signing up for their annual birding festival and going to explore it for myself.

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Festival transportation.

So I spent this past weekend being driven around on a yellow school bus with a bunch of other birders from around the country and a couple guides familiar with the area, hunting for interesting birds in the bog and in nearby Duluth. The festival itself was fascinating – this was the sixth year they’ve been doing it, and it’s put together by locals who are mostly not birders themselves but who are clearly thrilled that people from all over the country believe this place is special and want to come see it for themselves. The buses were driven by regular school bus drivers, giving up their weekend to ferry us around and show off their home turf, and our Saturday driver told us how much he loves seeing how excited the festival attendees get when they see new birds. It was a fun dynamic.

And oh yeah, we did see some really good birds… more on that later.

Further readingBirders add to life lists during Sax-Zim Bog Festival, from Sunday’s Duluth News Tribune. The reporter was on my bus, but I wasn’t interviewed and somehow didn’t end up in any of the photos he took, either. Which is fine with me.

Red Birds

On Wednesday afternoon my boss stuck her head into the room where I was working. “There’s a crossbill at my feeder,” she said, and while there are plenty of White-winged Crossbills out in the bog, getting a close look at one is still a special event, so up we went to her office to check out the platform feeder outside her window.

Sure enough, we found ourselves looking at a big male crossbill. It seemed odd to see one all by itself near the building, instead of with the flocks in the bog. But – but – “Guys, look at him, he doesn’t have any white wing bars.”

“What? No, he just – wait – oh, wow.”

Photo by Fran McReynolds (my boss).

Photo by Fran McReynolds (my boss).

I don’t know why, but Red Crossbills are by far the less common, harder-to-find of the two North American crossbill species, at least in the east. (Both species of crossbill have funky bills with crossed tips to help them pry open conifers’ cones and extract the seeds.) I wish I’d been able to get my own photo of ours, but it was gone by the time I got my camera, and I had to console myself as best I could photographing another bird with “red” in its name.

Great Christmas card photo, or BEST CHRISTMAS CARD PHOTO EVER?

Great Christmas card photo, or BEST CHRISTMAS CARD PHOTO EVER?

Common Redpolls. They live up to the “common” part of their name in the winter here… but they’re just so pretty.

Bird Photos!

My big Christmas present was a Nikon D3000 DSLR camera, which came with a 55-200 mm zoom lens as well as the standard kit lens. This means that, for the first time, I can take halfway-decent photos of birds. I’ve been having a lot of fun playing with it (Monday’s mystery goose was one example). Here are some more of my efforts so far, all of which I’m pretty sure I already posted on Twitter. Click on any thumbnail below to bring up a slide show of the full-size images.

My favorite is the mockingbird. Hopefully this means I’ll be adding more posts about birds to my usual repertoire of plants, insects, tracks etc. in the future!

Mystery Goose

On December 29 we were walking around at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve when we heard a tremendous amount of honking coming from one of the ponds – a flock of Canada Geese was in residence. This is the right time of year to spot a Snow Goose or two mixed in here, so I scanned the flock, and sure enough…

031 (2)But is that a Snow Goose? (These photos were taken using the 200 mm lens I got for Christmas. The bird was pretty far out.)



There are two very similar-looking species of white goose in North America, the Snow Goose (the larger, more common one, which I’d seen before) and the Ross’s Goose (the smaller, less common one, which would be a new life bird for me). The usual way to tell them apart is by examining the head and bill. Ross’s Geese have rounder heads and shorter bills. Their bills have some bluish or greenish coloring around the base and typically don’t have the black “grin” that a Snow Goose’s bill does. To further complicate things, the two species hybridize pretty regularly. So what’s this one? I wasn’t sure, and since Ross’s Goose would be a lifer, I posted the (admittedly crappy) photos on Twitter and Facebook. On Facebook I directed my question to an old college birding buddy who’s now a PhD student in ornithology, while on Twitter I just posted a general plea for help, which led to someone there forwarding the photos to an ornithologist acquaintance of his own.

The bill coloration looks Ross-ish, but in that last photo the head shape and bill size look more Snow-ish. My Twitter follower and his ornithologist friend decided it might be a hybrid. My ornithologist buddy from college, on the other hand, declared that to be a cop-out and put his money on Ross’s Goose, albeit maybe one with a slightly bigger bill than normal. When I checked eBird and saw that someone else had reported a Ross’s Goose at the Gilbert Water Ranch the same day, I decided to call the bird in these photos my life Ross’s Goose.

Yes, birders really do spend their time thinking about and debating this sort of thing. Here are a Snow Goose and a Ross’s Goose so you can make your own comparison. What do you think?

Ross’s Goose (Wikimedia Commons photo by Dick Daniels)

Snow Goose (Wikimedia Commons Photo by Simon Pierre Barrette) – ignore the brownish coloring on the face, it’s not relevant to the ID

Christmas Bird Count

Once again, I spent the day after Christmas participating in Superior, Arizona’s annual Christmas Bird Count. A big chunk of the morning was spent on a four-plus-mile hike into the backcountry, the route of which I mapped out above in blue. You can see the famous Boyce Thompson Arboretum at the top left, also part of the count circle, although not the area I was helping to cover. You can see two creeks in this map – they’re the corridors of green trees, mostly cottonwoods. The top one is Queen Creek, the one which flows through the Arboretum, and the bottom one is Arnett Creek, which we hiked up over a ridge and down again, scrambling down a dry wash when there was no trail, to get to. At this time of the year the cottonwoods aren’t green, they’re yellow. December is fall color season in the desert.

003 (768x1024)It was around forty-five degrees (Fahrenheit) when we started at sunrise, and I laughed at the other birders in their hats and mittens and scarves. Forty-five is not considered cold in the North Woods. Anyway, the bird of the day for me was my life Bridled Titmouse. This was my eighth year of Christmas counting, and I’ve managed to get at least one “lifer” every year.

public domain photo from Wikimedia

Anyone else out there been Christmas counting this season?

A Christmas Tree Bird Count

Over the past several years, my mom and I have been collecting bird Christmas ornaments, beginning with Hallmark’s “Beauty of Birds” series, of which we have all but the super-rare Scarlet Tanager. (Well, to be fair, my mom does most of the collecting and I enjoy the results when I come home for the holidays – she likes to talk about how she went to three different Hallmark stores to track down the limited-edition female cardinal.) We’ve picked up some non-Hallmark bird ornaments, too, but only ones that are clearly identifiable as specific species. No cute-but-generic owls or hummingbirds for us.

Click on any image to bring up a slideshow.


There are more in the Hallmark series – a Blue Jay, a chickadee, a bluebird, a goldfinch that drives me a bit nuts because it’s bright yellow like a breeding male but conspicuously missing the breeding male’s black cap. By my count, that brings the species tally for our Christmas tree up to eleven.

Has anyone else’s nature habit spilled over into your holiday decorations?