Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.
A friend wrote to tell me that she had covered the perches of her bird feeders with material to keep birds’ feet from contact with cold metal. She has a kind heart. Actually, birds have adaptations to foot muscles, nerves, and blood supply that make damage from cold weather unlikely. While looking for information on this in Cornell Lab’s “Handbook of Bird Biology,” I learned that some birds have fingerprints. The feet of birds like raptors and parrots have papillae, small, nipple-like projections that cover the bottom of the foot. They form patterns that vary from individual to individual, allowing birds of similar appearance to be identified one from another. This is said to be handy in particular for identifying birds of significant value, birds stolen for instance. I wonder if you can scan bird eyes for the same pupil differences used to identify humans. Probably. Generally speaking, at this point in human development we can do way more than we need to do.
A good article discussing the beginning of what might be an irruption year for Snowy Owls can be found at
A friend in Virginia emailed me yesterday about five Snowy Owls reported in his state, pretty unusual for Virginia. Also yesterday the Associated Press carried a story describing Snowies being seen in many unusual places at this early winter date, east to west. Guide book author Lillian Stokes was quoted as saying this could be a record year for sightings of that Arctic bird in the U.S. So far in Minnesota, our birding email line has carried notes of sightings in Meeker, St. Louis, and Polk counties. Perhaps a half dozen other sightings have been reported in the Dakotas. The owl below was photographed last year in South Dakota.
Migration of birds of all species north and south is very different than it was a decade or two ago. That's well-documented for waterfowl in particular in a story in the most recent edition of the magazine Delta Waterfowl sends to members.
The story reports results of study of hunting statistics for the past 25 years.
“What we found,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, president of Delta Waterfowl, “was a phenomenal later shift in the harvest of migrating ducks in the mid-latitude and southern states.”
The information indicates that the birds are migrating later, although Dr. Rohwer did not come right out and say so.
He used Kansas as an example. Average harvest date for Mallards in 1961 was Nov. 7. That date shifted to Dec. 5, 28 days later, in 2008-2009. For duck species resident in those southern hunting areas, birds that would not be migrating, harvest-date patterns were unchanged.
Ducks are staying later into the fall and winter seasons in North and South Dakota, which is why harvest dates to the south are becoming later. In January 2012 a record number of ducks and geese were counted in North Dakota. The article said that lack of snow cover was the primary reason the birds had not moved south.
In South Dakota a similar situation was seen. Nearly a million birds were found during a January 2013 survey.
“Those midwinter numbers and the motivation for waterfowl to migrate south are driven by the amount of snow cover, open water, and periods of cold temperatures,” Dr. Rohwer was quoted as saying.
Is it that climate no longer pushes the ducks south at historic dates? Or, for southern hunters, is it that the ducks don’t get down to them, not having to go as far south to find open water and food (which is climate-related).
The question: Is it climate change or habitat change? Biologists believe it is both.
At Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern South Dakota later migration of geese is more obvious than such for ducks. That information comes from refuge biologist William Schultze.
“Since I began working here in 1976,” he wrote in an email, “the average peak of the Snow Goose migration has shifted from late October to near mid-November.
“I see changes in agricultural practices in North Dakota and Canada as the primary reason for that shift,” he said. “One other factor that might be considered is the amount of wetlands available, at least in northern South Dakota, since the mid-1990s. The larger wetlands that remain open longer can hold a lot of ducks and geese,” he said.
Goose movement was heavy after Nov. 21 at Sand Lake, the date refuge lakes froze over. The number of Snow Geese reported on the refuge on Nov. 20 was 130,000, with 125,000 ducks and 5,000 geese estimated. Five days later the number of Snow Geese was 400, Canada Geese 3,500, ducks 18,000, and swans zero.
This photo of Snow Geese was taken at Sand Lake NWR.
Coots are easy prey this time of year, and Bald Eagles know it.
Driving through Crex Meadows Wildlife Area a couple of years ago, just after freeze-up, I discovered a patch of open water on Phantom Lake. Swimming in a pool about 40 by 10 feet were maybe two dozen coots. Coots need to run across the water to gain air speed for takeoff. The pool was short. There were nine Bald Eagles loafing on the ice nearby. I watched one rise and fly to the far end of the pool, then glide its length. The coots knew trouble when they saw it. The roly-poly dark birds jammed against the ice when they ran out of water. The force of the jam popped one of the coots out of the water onto the ice. It was helpless there, not that it mattered for long.The eagle knew exactly what it was doing — herding coots into the lunchroom. The big raptor, feet dangling, swept the luckless coot away, landing far enough from the other eagles to eat undisturbed.
A couple of days ago a South Dakota birder, on that state’s birding email list, described another eagle strategy. This bird found four coots, flew low over them, hovered, forcing a dive. It repeated its hovering until the coots were exhausted. It was no problem then to pluck a coot from the water.
The coot below was found at Rice Lake National Wildllife Refuge, north of here on Highway 65. It was running for that elusive air speed. I took the photo from a very loud, very fast air boat used to tour Rice Lake and count the Ring-necked ducks that gather there by the 10s of thousands in fall migration.
BTW -- Bald Eagles can be found right now on many lakes that are partially ice-clad. On two Lake Minnetonka bays yesterday I saw seven eagles. They sit at ice edge and wait for unwary waterfowl, mostly ducks now, coots having moved on south.
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