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.
I 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.
Even 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.
I 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!
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.
I’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.
After a long, snowy winter, it is awfully nice to see (and hear) the spring birds returning to the forest.
I’d been convinced for a while that even though we hadn’t seen or heard them yet, our woodcocks must be here somewhere, hunkered down and waiting for the weather to change so they could start their spring displays. Well, now I have proof – one of the teachers at the school where I work snapped this photo on campus earlier this week.
photo by Robert Eady
Poor sad, confused, hungry woodcock. Hang in there, little buddy.
The scientific name of the Greater Prairie Chicken is Tympanuchus cupido. Translated from Latin, that loosely means “drummer of love.” The quirky name comes from its elaborate and famous courtship ritual, and Sunday morning I was lucky enough to witness it.
Greater Prairie Chickens, technically a species of grouse, used to be common, but their numbers plunged as the country’s grasslands were converted to agriculture, and now they’re mostly limited to carefully managed and protected prairie remnants like those found in Central Wisconsin. Anyone can pay $15 for the privilege of getting up at 4 AM on the April morning of their choice, tucking themselves into a wooden blind so small that it’s hard to sit upright, and sitting in the freezing cold darkness waiting for the birds to appear for their performance. It’s totally worth it.
Okay, so if you remember from Wednesday, the reason we were snowshoeing out to Inkpot Lake was to check out some reports of Black-backed Woodpecker activity in the area. Black-backed Woodpeckers are a boreal species with a habit of flaking the outer layer of bark off of dead conifers in search of food, leaving large patches of the red cambium underneath exposed. No one I know has ever seen one here on campus. They’re uncommon, picky about their habitat, and mostly found further north than this – we’re near the southern extent of their range.
We bushwhacked along the boggy lakeshore (not something you could easily do in summer, but you can snowshoe over it okay) to get to a thicket of alders, spruce, and tamarack that looked promising, where we found… this.
Yes? No? Maybe so? I’m no expert, but if someone who was told me this was Black-backed Woodpecker activity, I would believe them. I think they tend to move around a lot during the winter, so it’s possible that whatever did this has moved on already, but the fact that there are bark flakes on top of the snow suggests to me that this happened a couple weeks ago at most.
We had one more interesting wildlife encounter before we left the lake, which I was going to include here, but this is plenty of photos for one post already so I think I’ll keep you in suspense until Monday. Next week is my spring break and I’m going to visit my parents, so my next few posts after that will be about Arizona – expect desert wildflowers and, if I’m lucky, maybe Elegant Trogons!
I finally managed to get a couple decent photos of our Red-breasted Nuthatches – they’re very common here, but they’re quick little buggers! This one is a male, which you can tell from his coal-black cap (on females it’s more grayish). I love their colors, the slaty blue-gray back, the striped face, the buffy underparts. In my totally subjective opinion, they’re far more handsome than their larger white-breasted cousins, and I love their nasal little calls. Where I grew up in Ohio, White-breasted Nuthatches were by far the more common species, with Red-breasteds only visiting occasionally in the winter. Here in the North Woods we have both year-round.
Nuthatches get the nickname “devil down-heads” from their habit of working their way down the trunks of trees head-first in search of food (insects etc.), the opposite of woodpeckers, who generally start lower down on the tree and work their way up. That doesn’t mean they won’t flip right-side up to dig into a particularly promising clump of dead wood, though.
I took a quick glance at what I was posting about at this time last spring – woodcocks displaying, spring peepers calling, butterflies on the wing, pussy willows and hazelnut bushes in bloom. Hard to believe when this year we’re still blanketed under a couple feet of snow.
I admit it: I’m getting tired of winter. People who live further south are already posting photos of tulips and crocuses. Here we still have snow and ice. I’m ready for flowers and insects and migratory birds to come back.
But, I am still enjoying our feeder birds, and I like this photo of a Pine Siskin in the late afternoon sun that I took yesterday. The light brought out the yellow highlights in its wings.
Unlike the redpolls, these guys might stick around all year – we’re at the southern edge of their breeding range, and they like pine forests, which we have plenty of here.
You might be surprised if you knew how often I find myself sitting on my couch going, “Ugh, I really do not feel like going for a walk right now but I need to find something new to blog about.” Inevitably, though, once I’m actually outside my energy comes back and I end up enjoying myself thoroughly.
Temperatures are up this week, and yesterday was one of those sunny winter afternoons where the trees start shedding their accumulation of snow – periodically you’d hear a loud FLUMP! and the creaking of newly unburdened branches as clumps of snow rained down on the forest floor. I heard another sound as I walked, though. It was a woodpecker tapping, and not just any woodpecker. The loud, slow TAP, TAP, TAP suggested a woodpecker that was big. (Note that I am not referring here to drumming, the sustained rat-tat-tat-tat-tat that woodpeckers use to announce their territorial claims.)
This is (of course) a Pileated Woodpecker – a female, as you can tell from the black forehead. This is a really cropped photo, but I spent a few minutes walking closer to try to get a better one. I was able to walk right up to the tree she was in without disturbing her, but she’d moved around to an awkward spot between branches.
I’m guessing it’s too early for them to be nesting, but pairs stay on their territories all winter, ripping up dead trees like this one in search of insects to eat (they’re especially fond of ants). This one was leaving quite a bit of debris around the base of the tree she was working on.
Nothing to brighten your afternoon like a close encounter with North America’s largest woodpecker!
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?