Magnificent Magpies

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Black-billed Magpie.

Photo by Alan D. Wilson, via Wikimedia Commons

Is that not a beautiful bird? I grew up in the magpie-free eastern third of the continent, and the first time I laid eyes on one was the summer I spent on the Saskatchewan prairie. The locals didn’t understand my fascination, but I mean, look at it. That long, streaming tail! (The only non-magpie bird regularly found in the U.S. with a tail so long relative to its body length is the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, which I’ve never seen.) The handsome black-and-white plumage, with iridescent blue-green highlights!

Now, of course, I’ve moved to a corvid-rich part of the country where Black-billed Magpies are just one of the cool members of the jay family flying around (I also see Common Ravens, Stellar’s Jays, Gray Jays, and Clark’s Nutcrackers all pretty regularly). No matter how many magpies I see, I never get tired of them. They’re so handsome. A fellow immigrant to the area told me he used to think they were cool until he found out they’re “just scavengers.” Just scavengers?! Yes, like most corvids they’re not above eating roadkill, but the best looks I’ve gotten at eagles (both Bald and Golden) have also been at roadkill! There’s no such thing as “just” a scavenger. Hmph.

Photo by ZeWrestler, via Wikimedia Commons

I wonder if people who grow up out here and move to the eastern part of the country are as fascinated by Blue Jays as I am by all their beautiful western cousins. Magnificent marvelous magpies with their streaming tails.

Terrible Photos of Oregon Juncos

Juncos! Who doesn’t love juncos? These fluffy little gray birds were one of the first species I learned to identify, always a winter fixture at our backyard birdfeeder when I was growing up in Ohio. But when I first cracked open a field guide, I was in for a bit of a surprise: juncos in other parts of the country looked very different from mine. In fact, what I know as the Dark-eyed Junco used to be considered about five different species before the “lumpers” got their hands on it. Back in the day, my plain-gray Ohio juncos would have been called Slate-colored (not Dark-eyed) Juncos to distinguish them from their various cousins around the country.

Which brings me to the birds that were in my backyard over the weekend.

Just like in Ohio, the arrival of juncos here is a sign that winter is approaching, but these aren’t “Slate-colored” Juncos, they’re (appropriately enough) “Oregon” Juncos. A common yard bird here, but a novelty to an easterner like me, and even though the lighting was bad I couldn’t resist taking a few terrible photos.



See? I warned you, terrible. But at least you can see that they have a dark gray head that contrasts with the reddish-brown back, unlike “Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Juncos, which are just solid gray on top.

Despite all the junco lumping, there is still a second official junco species in the U.S., but you have to travel to the mountains of southeastern Arizona to see it: the Yellow-eyed Junco (exactly what it sounds like, and on my 2013 year list, thanks to my spring break Arizona trip). It’s entirely possible that the Oregon subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco could be split off again in the future, giving me one more tick for my list. In the meantime, I’ll just keep enjoying my yard birds!

The Natural History of Dark-Phase Hawks

I wish I had photos to illustrate this post, but I don’t, it’s just something that’s been on my mind.

I’m not sure I’d ever laid eyes on a dark-phase Red-tailed Hawk before I moved to Eastern Oregon. Now I see them all the time. (At first, I’m embarrassed to admit, I think I mistook a few of them for Golden Eagles. Western raptors are still a new thing for me.) Click here for a photo of a typical Red-tailed Hawk, and here for a photo of the dark variety. Same species, two very different-looking birds.

A number of other Buteo raptors also have dark and light morphs – Swainson’s Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, and Ferruginous Hawks are all found here and all include both dark and light birds. This variation is genetic (think of hair color in humans), and while dark birds are generally less common that light birds in every species, this varies by geography – you’re more likely to see a dark Red-tailed or Ferruginous Hawk out west, more likely to see a dark Rough-legged Hawk back east. What I want to know is, why? Is natural selection at work here, and if so, how are different color morphs adaptive for different regions? Continue reading

Ferruginous Hawk

It’s Sunday afternoon. You realize it’s been a week and a half since your last natural history blog post. You don’t feel like going on a long expedition. What do you do?

Luckily, I live somewhere where I can grab my camera and long lens, pick a direction, drive for ten minutes, and find a subject for a blog post on the side of the highway.

002 (730x1024) 005 (733x1024)As is the case throughout most of North America, our most common roadside hawks here are Red-tails. This one, though, is something different. It’s not a species I see very often but I’m ninety-five percent sure this is a Ferruginous Hawk, specifically a light-morph juvenile. The pale unmarked underside and face and the feathered legs set it apart from the Red-tail, Swainson’s, and other buteos we might expect to see here. I was first introduced to this hawk, a classic grassland species, four years ago during the summer I spent on the Saskatchewan prairie.

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After humoring me for a minute while I snapped photos through the passenger window of my car, it took off into the evening. This was a new one for my year list – I’m sure I’ve passed Ferruginous Hawks while driving around here before, but this was the first time I stopped and looked closely enough to make the ID.

The Corvid Method for Approximating Altitude

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This June, during my big cross-country move, I was chugging up toward a mountain pass in my heavily-laden car when I noticed that the pines that had been lining the highway had given way to fir trees. In a few minutes I had crossed the Continental Divide. Just as observing the plant species around you can give you a hint about your altitude, so can noticing the birds. Continue reading

Owl Pellets

If you saw these gray blobs on the ground under a tree, would you recognize them for what they are?

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I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t – and not only am I birder, but at one point I actually lived in a building that doubled as a raptor rehab center and had a number of resident owls in enclosures in the yard, so I really have no excuse. These are owl pellets, retrieved from under the tree in front of the building where I work, after my boss clued me in to the fact that they were there. As I’m sure everyone reading this already knows, after an owl eats a meal (often whole), it later harfs up all the undigestible bits like fur and bone in a compacted pellet. I have never, to the best of my knowledge, stumbled across pellets from wild owls like this before, but it seems likely I’ve walked right past them in the woods without seeing them.

Not having dissected an owl pellet since I was a kid (and even then, probably only ones from captive owls with controlled diets), I carried these home and ripped them apart to see what our local wild owls have been eating. Continue reading

Tiny Killdeer Fluffballs

A couple weeks ago I posted about a Killdeer nest in the school’s butterfly garden. Well, sometime within the last twenty-four hours, the chicks hatched, so this afternoon once I finished up my cleaning and packing I headed to the garden to snap a few last photos.

Family portrait - mom with two of the four chicks.

Family portrait – mom with two of the four chicks.

There are basically two types of bird babies: altricial and precocial. Altricial chicks are those born naked and helpless, needing constant parental care, like these guys:

Photo by Qatar&Me, via Wikimedia Commons.

Not Killdeer chicks! These babies are precocial, born fluffy and ready to run – think “precocious.” And they are cuuuuuuuute. Their markings are very similar to adults, except that chicks only have one dark band across their chest instead of two.

013 (1024x687)007 (1024x685)I may be leaving tomorrow, but life here goes on – a new generation of baby birds growing up, more wildflowers coming into bloom, fields buzzing with insects. Goodbye, Wisconsin. It’s been an education.

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…


Who doesn’t love Killdeer? These bold birds are perhaps the most habituated to humans of any North American plover, nesting in almost any open area. This spring a pair have nested in the corner of one of the wildflower beds in the school garden.


010Even though they nest on the ground right out in the open, the nests can be surprisingly hard to spot – the eggs are very well camouflaged! If you do approach a Killdeer nest, the parents will try to lead you away with a distraction display, pretending to drag broken wings to make themselves look like easy targets for predators. That’s what the bird below was doing.

011I like this photo because you can see the bird’s eyes even though you’re looking directly at the back of its head. Prey birds like this can have an almost 360° field of vision.

I’ll try to get some more photos once the eggs hatch. Killdeer chicks are cuuuuuuuute. Tiny little plover fluffballs!

Return of the Sapsuckers

Some of our woodpeckers – Downy, Hairy, Pileated – are year-round residents in the North Woods. Others – the Northern Flicker and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – are migrants, only here for the breeding season. Both of the migratory woodpeckers have just turned up here on campus in the last week or so, and my first inkling that the sapsuckers had arrived was hearing their distinctive irregular drumming. Taptaptap-tap-tap–tap—tap! (Click here to listen.)

This morning while I was rambling around a male flew in and landed on a nearby trunk at eye-level, posing for a few photos.

019I’ve written before about sapsuckers’ interesting foraging habits – as their name suggests, they drill small holes in tree trunks and feed off the sap. I like these guys. That red cap and throat are a beautiful pop of color.

018After a long, snowy winter, it is awfully nice to see (and hear) the spring birds returning to the forest.