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.
Commmon Grackles, uncommon most of the year in our yard, thank goodness, are far too common on some early fall days. I remove feeder trays to reduce the amount of seed they eat, but the birds work hard to grip anything that gives them seed access, often sparring for position. Last week, as this acrobat and its companions raided us, I simply let the feeders go empty. We'll fill them today, with crossed fingers. Grackles are beautiful birds, very photogenic, all angles and iridescence, one of my favorites. Some days, actually, the seed is worth the photos. The bird in the second photo, being confronted (not fed!), is a juvenile, as shown by its red eyes.
Yes, hawks are threatening, and crows probably are nesting near the field where I watched this encounter Saturday, but I think crows need more to do. They harassed this Red-tailed Hawk for several minutes, three of them, following it for maybe a quarter mile before giving up. Later, nearby in a woods, I watched crows, 10 or a dozen of them, drive a Great Horned Owl from the woods, and five minutes later come back to find another, driving it away as well. A pair of owls had been tending a nest in those woods. I was there to check on that. The nest lacked an adult bird. I assume the pair that drew the crows' attention had given up on the nesting effort. I hope they remain loyal to the woods.
From the ground it can look like hawks ignores their harassers, usually continuing to circle in its quiet glide instead of fleeing as owls will do. You can see from these photos that the hawk was very aware. In the third photo the hawk is watching another of its attackers.
The Sandhill Crane pair being seen west of our home in Orono was dancing yesterday. I watched them for a couple of hours, and got to see two brief dancing bouts. A neighbor told me they nested at this location last year, producing one colt. It disappeared after a week, probable coyote victim. I've heard of nesting in other years, but never have seen the birds after early spring. I intend to be more observant.
Black-capped Chickadees and their Carolina cousins interbreed where their ranges meet in southeastern Pennsylvania. That’s not news. What is noteworthy is the finding that the range of hybridization has moved seven miles north. The Carolina Chickadees are moving north into Black-capped territory. This information comes from an email posted by Scott Taylor of the Fuller Evolutionary Biology Lab at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He adds that there is evidence of northward shifts in the northern range limits of other species as well. The implication for me is that warmer temperatures are the driving force behind the range changes.
Recognizing a hybrid is not simple. There is little visible difference. Carolina Chickadees are smaller than Black-capped, have shorter tails, and are less brightly colored. They can be distinguised by voice. Below is a Caroline Chickadee photographed in Louisiana.
Jude and I were in Ramsey yesterday (11 Feb 14) afternoon, looking for the Snowy Owl being seen there, and hoping to see some of the photographers who are using mice to bait the owls into position for “hunting” photos. The owl was there. Two guys with stubby ice-fishing rods were there, fake mice tied to the end of the fishing line. Casting for owls. They were kneeling in the snow about 50 feet from the bird. I walked to within about of 20 feet of them, behind them, and began talking to them, to their backs, actually.
I told them using mice is wrong. It stresses the bird. It’s unethical. The photos would be fakes, cheesy photos. Never one to under-emphasize, I said most of this at least twice. I invited them to cast a fake mouse so I could take a photo. They neither did so nor turned to face me.
The fake mouse on the fishing line is tossed toward the owl, then retrieved to lure the owl into attack. The owl, of course, gets nothing for its effort. It expends energy and wastes time. We have no way of knowing the cost to the bird of these fruitless hunting efforts. How many times in recent weeks have Twin Cities Snowy Owls wasted energy on cold days in pursuit of fake mice? This is being done at both the Ramsey site and in Dakota County along 180th Street, and perhaps elsewhere. It is an unfortunately common way that a handful of photographers use to scam owls.
After maybe 20 minutes in Ramsey, the two men with fishing rods left. There was a small older one and a large younger one. Walking past me to get to the parking lot, the larger fellow said to me, “Take my picture and I’ll break your f…ing nose.” To add insult to potential injury he said my camera was shitty. So there!!
His comments weren’t unexpected. I certainly did push. But the reluctance of those two men to have their photos taken tells me that they understood perfectly well that their behavior was bad for the owl. These birds get stressed, heart rate elevated, stress hormones released. There is no way to know this by looking at the bird. I read of a comment by a photographer in Dakota County who said of an owl, “Look at him. He’s not stressed. He just sits there and watches us.” The bird should not be watching photographers. It should be hunting.
Four other photographers were present in Ramsey, none armed with mice. Two of them came over to introduce themselves. One of them told me that if I had been “attacked” the four of them were ready to intervene. Can you believe this? Six birders wrestling in two feet of snow because one of them is desperate for a photo! Half an hour later the big ornery guy returned. He walked past me to get onto the path into the owl field, saying in a very quiet polite voice as he passed, “I’m just going to look for something I lost, and then I’ll get out of your hair.” He almost sounded contrite. If so, good for him. What a day!
Photos can be taken of the birds without harm. Keep your distance. Get in and out quickly. Leave if the bird seems to be paying attention to you.
I work with Nikon equipment.. The shot here was taken from about 100 feet with a 400mm lens. One picture is as it came from the camera, the other cropped in Photoshop to enlarge the image of the bird. (The photo would be better if I had a better camera.)
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