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.
I have Black Fly bites, four of them large enough to be seen from across the room. This doesn't make me exceptional. It does make me itch. I was in Caledonia Saturday for a meeting of a Quail Forever group, devoted conservationists focused on Northern Bobwhite. Minnesota has a few of those birds in Houston County. We were sitting in a farmyard at picnic tables beneath large shade treess, all very pleasant. I noticed a small flying insect on the table in front of me, and smacked it. Dead but intact, it offered close examination. I thought I could recognize the humped shape of a Black Fly, the shape that gave them one of their several folk names -- Buffalo gnat. Speaking to the group briefly about birds I mentioned the Black Fly problem in central and northern parts of out state. While I was talking a cell phone rang, a member of the small audience having a short conversation. He happened to be a veteranarian. The call, he told us, came from a local DNR biologist who had just arranged transportion to The Raptor Center in St. Paul for a Bald Eagle chick so bothered by the flies that it crawled out of its nest and was injured in a fall to the ground. There was some surprise that the flies were attacking birds way down there in Houston County. A few hours later Thurman Tucker, active QF member and advocate for the species disappeared from lunch. Unannounced, he was hurrying home to Minneapolis, so many fly bites on his face that one of his eyes was almost swelling shut. My bites weren't apparent until I got home, and my wife took a look at me. The one on my left temple is the size of a half dollar coin, the one inside my left elbow quarter-size, the bites on the back of my neck no more than a nickel. No itching last night, but they itch like blazes. I felt no bite nor any insect on my skin while being bitten, an absolute stealth attack. There were no swarms around our heads, thankfully, like the swarms seen on and around heads of Common Loons, one of the bird species under particular attack. The fly I killed on the table was about 1/8th of an inch long. I wonder if bites received by birds swell, and do they itch? Is it the attack itself which drives birds to distraction and death or is it the aftermath, the swelling and itch?
Monday morning -- I also wondered about the impact of the files on domestic and wild mammals. I await information from the University of Minnesota Extension Service. I did visit with a vet in Duluth, assuming that the flies have been or are as much as a problem there as anywhere. The doctor with whom I visited said she had seen no cases of noteworthy response to fly bites on pet animals. I found remarks concerning livestock on a web site in Europe (these flies are everywhere). Swarms of flies are said to send cattle and horses into panic-driven runs. Hundreds of bites on one animal can produce enough stress and/or allergic reactions to cause death. Flies can gather in nostrils and throats in numbers sufficient to suffocate the victim. I can find no such local reports. The good news is that the flies have a life span of about a month, hatching basically an event occurring broadly at the same time. We are soon to find respite.
Here, from the Internet, is a photo of a black fly, hardly looking like the terror it can be.
Right now -- 12:45 p.m. Friday -- you can watch South American birds eating bananas at a research station feeder by going to
The camera is on most days. There is a second camera, different location, buzzing with hummingbirds, but picture quality is lousy.
Western Grebes can be found on Swan Lake in Nicollet County. I wrote the other day about the grebes at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota. A correspondent from Blue Earth wrote to tell me that Swan Lake is a viewing site close to the Twin Cities. As added attraction is also holds breeding Horned Grebes, Eared Grebes, and Pied-billed Grebes. Swan Lake is a grebe grand-slam. It also is a large lake where decent viewing is likely to require binoculars at least and a spotting scope at best.
The lake is east of New Ulm and north of U.S. Highway 14. Mapping software says it is a drive of about 90 miles made in just under two hours from Minneapolis. Follow Highway 169 south, turning west on Highway 14 at St. Peter. An alternate route is Highway 212 west to Highway 25/5, south then to Gaylord where you take Highway 111 to the eastern shore of the lake.
Below, Eared Grebes, one of the grebe species found on Swan Lake.
A quick trip into South Dakota produced this Swainson's Hawk, upset as we walked into a deserted farmstead. A pair of the birds had a nest in a woodlot on the property. Shorebirds were easier to find in the northeast than elsewhere, inspite of much standing water. This American Avocet was found at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge. West of the Missouri River, in grassland and pasture, meadowlarks and Lark Buntings were the major attractions. I was surprised at the lack of raptors. Perhaps, as the Swainson's were, these birds were staying close to nests.
A grandson and I went to Crex Meadows at Grantsburg, Wis, Saturday, hoping he could see the Garganey. When we arrived about 10 a.m., no Garganey. There was a young man with a scope who had been there since 6 a.m. He had given the quest 11 fruitless hours on Friday. I figured he was not going to give up, so I asked if he had a cell phone (yes), gave him my card, and asked him to call me if and when the duck appeared. An hour later, as Cole and I were watching warblers, the phone rang with the anticipated message. Using the phone for an alert was just like the old days.
The Garganey made brief and distant appearances throughout the day. We visited with a couple that had driven up from Oklahoma, and another from Missouri. Guest-book records in the Crex nature center show entries by people from Kansas, Montana, and Oregon, the assumption being that they came for the duck. That certainly is not definitive of visitor travels, but it does indicate the importance many people placed on seeing this Eurasian bird.
The teal in the Garganey pond (County Road F and Abel Road) put on the best show waterfowl yesterday. Warblers were thin, just one location I would call good. There were few shorebirds, this collection of a dozen yellowlegs being the best we saw. We did find six garter snakes, five painted turtles, one snapping turtle, and a bat, all important to an 12-year-old a who loves those creatures along with birds.
We also saw tens of thousands of spiders spread along 150 yards of webbing stretched from weed stems along Pump House Road at Crex. Very strange. If you got too close, as I did, they ran up legs and onto neck and hair. Not good. Larger ones were the size of pennies, the smallest maybe an eighth inch.
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