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.
Rare Birds of North America, Steve N. G. Howell, Ian Lewington, Will Russell, Princeton University Press, 2014, hardcover, 428 pages, heavily illustrated, with index, $35.
All bird identification books should be this good.
The two authors and the artist, Lewington, have created a guide to 262 species of birds rarely seen in North America. Their criteria for species is five or fewer North American sightings per year, using records dating to 1950.
The book is lavishy illustrated; Lewington is a fine artist. The text is lavish, too, far more information offered than is found in the usual field guide.
This, of course, is not a usual field guide. Working with 262 species, about one-third the number found in your Peterson or Sibley guides, is a real advantage for the authors, thus a real plus for readers.
Each species is discussed first in a brief summary of where it has been seen. Comment on taxonomy follows, then extensive discussion of status and distribution, comments on sightings, very complete field identification comments, including differing plumages by age, sex, and season, and comments on similar species. Similar species often are illustrated; side-by-side comparisons can be made.
If you seek rare birds or just hope to encounter one on your travels, the authors give you a thorough review and explanation of vagrancy and migration patterns. With many maps and clear text, you can actually plot — well, make a reasonable guess — as to where and when you want to be to see whatever.
There are no other books I know of that offer such extensive analysis.
The book is an enjoyable and educational read for anyone interested in how and why rare birds sometimes show up in odd places, including Minnesota and Wisconsin.
There was a Fieldfare, a northern European thrush, in Grand Marais in 1991, for example, way off its usual paths. A tropical hummingbird called Green Violet-ear spent a few days in LaCrosse in 1998. Another tropical hummer, a Green-breasted Mango, was in eastern Wisconsin in 2007.
Minnesota had a Garganey, a European duck, in 1993. It breeds across northern Eurasia. A Smew was seen in Superior, Wisconsin, in 2000. It’s a boreal breeder from Scandinavia east across Russia. Minnesota has seen more than one Fork-tailed Flycatcher, a resident of South America.
The book helps you understand why this happens and, perhaps, when. The latter makes this a beautifully done wish-list.
A Red-throated Loon, most unusual bird for Minnesota in winter, is being cared for at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota in Roseville. The grounded bird was brought to the center undernourished and with damaged primary feathers.
These birds often winter on the Great Lakes. This year's extensive ice cover has forced birds to seek open water elsewhere. The loon arrived here, disappointed no doubt with our lack of open water. It needed help because its legs are made for swimming, not walking. With legs set far back on its body, as you can see in a rehab center video, loons are almost helpless on land. They must run on water to attain speed needed for liftoff, a run impossible for them on land.
The bird has its own pool at the rehab center, and is eating minnows. If anyone is yet ice fishing, small sunfish would be accepted as food for the bird. Take a look at the wonderful video of this lively bird at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQV31p05UWE&feature=youtu.be
The Red-throated Loons, below, are the smallest of the five loon species. It nests in the Arctic. It is seen in Minnesota during migration, most often in the fall.
You can follow the loon's progress on the rehab center's Facebook page.
A few Minnesota bird photographers, continuing to harass Snowy Owls for photographs, have put us on the national birding map.
You know about our Snowy Owl visitors and ProjectSNOWstorm. About a dozen of the hundreds of owls being seen from here to the East Coast have been fitted with small transmitters. These devices allow a research team in Pennsylvania to track owl movements. This is the first time this opportunity has been available to biologists who study these birds. One of tagged owls can be found in Ramsey, a suburb on the north edge of the metro area. This owl has been given the name Ramsey.
Ramsey and a second owl in an adjacent hunting territory have been harassed continually for weeks by a few ego-driven, irresponsible photographers. They bait the birds with pet-store mice or dummy mice attached to casting reels on fishing rods. This is unethical, bad for the birds, and now is messing with the data ProjectSNOWstorm is collecting. Unnatural owl movement creates invalid information.
Scott Weidensaul, a member of the research team, maintains maps that show the location of the tagged birds. Their movements at 30-minute intervals can be seen on web-site maps (http://www.projectsnowstorm.org/posts/tag/ramsey/). Scott posts weekly email updates on this project. Sunday morning he wrote, in part:
“Almost all of the transmitters checked in (delivered information) Thursday night, but we haven’t yet updated the maps. Unfortunately, in a few places something we’ve been worried about from the beginning has begun to happen — photographers using our maps to locate and target a couple of owls, which they then flush repeatedly.
“This is not an indictment of photographers in general — in fact, the vast majority have been respectful, considerate, and a tremendous help in documenting this winter’s irruption, and our tagged birds specifically. Those folks keep their distance, often using their vehicles as blinds, and make a point of not bumping or flushing the owls. Would that everyone was as well-behaved.
“So, for the foreseeable future, we’ll be delaying the map updates by (three days) to give the birds a chance to move on. …
“Frankly, this won’t help address the worst situation, involving Ramsey in Minnesota," Scott wrote. "Ramsey is a highly predictable owl in a fairly small winter territory where a few lazy photographers are routinely feeding him and another Snowy Owl lots of pet-store mice. ….”
The feeding is done, as you might guess, to manufacture photo opportunities.
There are codes of ethics for people who photograph wildlife. These codes and guidelines easily can be found on the Internet by Googling “wildlife photography ethics.”
There is an ongoing clash locally involving behavior of some of the photographers taking photos of Snowy Owls. Not all photographers; let me be clear on that. There are many photographers who understand and follow appropriate behaviors. And there are those few who do not.
Perhaps you saw the WCCO-TV (Channel 4) story two nights ago on the 5 p.m local news. It illustrated and discussed the issue of baiting owls. Baiting involves either offering an owl a live mouse to lure the bird into close photo range, or casting fake mice toward the bird for the same purpose. These photographers have been particularly present at a site in Dakota County and at another location in the City of Ramsey, a northern suburb. There, you might see them in action between Armstrong Boulevard and Ferret Street along 147th Avenue. Watch for the ice-fishing rods and reels used for casting dummy mice.
The Ramsey owl, unfortunately cooperative, has been harassed in such a fashion for days, maybe weeks. The same photographers appear, with the same fake or store-bought mice. These men have been told by other photographers on site that such behavior is unethical, and bad for the bird. Those comments have been met with laughter and threats, or the people urging appropriate behavior are simply ignored.
It seems that none of the the photographers who need to bait owls to get the photos, photos they must desperately want, know anything about ethics. They seem ignorant of the numerous wildlife photography clubs and national associations that have very specific codes of conduct. These codes pointedly say baiting is unethical and should never be used to bring a bird close for photos.
So, our bozo photographers either are so uninformed about their own hobby that they don’t know behavior codes exist, or they just don’t care.
Our DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are looking into interpretation of existing laws concerning harassment of birds. The debate is whether baiting is or isn’t harassment. Well, according to many wildlife photography groups baiting, illegal or not, is unethical. If you are a photographer who would represent your hobby in an acceptable way, baiting or use of lures to bring birds closer to the camera should not be done.
Here are excerpts from two photography codes:
Nature Photographers Network — “Do not entice a wild animals with food (baiting) in order to get the photo.”
digicamhelp.com: “Never force an action.” “Never feed or leave food (baiting) for wildlife.”
North American Nature Photography Association: “… use good judgement: treat wildlife, plants, and places as if you were their guest.”
britishbirds.co.uk: “Be honest in declaring the circumstances in which a picture was taken.” I include this because I wonder how many of our baiters are explaining their methods when showing off their photos. It’s not hard to find these photos on Facebook and other photo-posting sites. If you go to look, pay attention to explanations, if any, on how the photo was obtained -- with true skill and care or faked with baiting. In my experience as a wildlife photographer the chances of a raptor attempting or making a capture or kill directly in front of you, at close range, is nearly impossible. Such photos are almost always faked. How can a person be proud of or brag about a faked photo?
Ottawa Field-Naturalists Bird Committee: “Keep a good distance away and do not linger.”
International Association of Wildlife Photographers: “In the field, security and lack of disturbance of the animal must be put before all other things.”
In conversation this week with another photographer at the Ramsey location I was told that a local nature photographers club met recently and discussed the ethics of baiting. I was told club members broke about 50/50 on whether or not baiting was acceptable. I hope that’s not true. I hope someone misunderstood. I hope photo clubs here have clear ethical standards. I hope the clubs are not endorsing behavior that wildlife photographers world-wide find unacceptable.
Photos taken Saturday Feb. 13, near corner of 147th Avenue and Ferret Street in Ramsey, Minnesota
The owl barely reacted to several attacks by a pair of crows.
Peering at possible prey
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