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.
This is Thursday afternoon, the heavy snow of this morning pausing or passing. It has been the best feeder day of the year. Dozens of birds: Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, House Finch, Purple Finch, goldfinch, cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Common Redpoll, Red-bellied Woodpecker, robin, crow, Blue Jay and Dark-eyed Junco, both the pink-sided and slate-colored subspecies, the two common here. Our usual feeders are busy. I put two pieces of plywood out, one on the deck, another sheltered beneath an overhang. Sunflower chips were scattered there, the board keeping the seed from disappearing in the snow. These spots are busy, too. Keep your feeders full, and clear the snow from trays and feeder ports.
House Finches and American Goldfinches
Dark-eyed Junco, pink-sided subspecies
Dark-eyed Junco, slate-colored subspecies
American Tree Sparrow (note spot on otherwise clear breast)
A. Birds can hear well.
B. Many single-lens reflex digital cameras make a loud sound (noise) immediately after the shutter release is pushed.
C. See photos below.
The cardinal, a female, was sitting on a feeder post on our deck before prior to snow seed foraging. I was inside, a double pane of glass between us, like 10 feet. I took four or five photos, bird on the post, bird with seed. On shot number six the bird became very alert, crest upright, eyes snapped toward me. You can see what happened as I took photo seven.
This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Hardly. I should have kept all the before/after pairs of photos. Before the bird heard the camera, looking at whatever kept its attention. After the bird heard me, saw me, and left me.
You probably know this: Single-lens reflex 35mm cameras allow you, the photographer, to see your subject with a mirror placed just behind the lens. The mirror shows you what the lens sees. When you press the shutter release, the mirror snaps up, allowing light to reach the digital sensor (i.e. film). And then the mirror returns to position with, in my case, a loud and annoying clack.
I work with a newer model Nikon digital camera that I considered expensive when I bought it. I knew about the clack. I was unwilling to spend twice as much or more for a high-high-end model that made far less noise. You’d think that camera manufacturers could find an inexpensive way to solve this problem.
Some birds either don’t hear the noise or don’t mind. This cardinal heard and cared. I was impressed. Small benefit: I really do like that snapped-to crest.
The season for trips to find Pine Grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings seems to have pretty much ended. I track this through posts to the Minnesota birding email network run by the Minnesota Ornithologists; Union. Either the birds have moved back north or everyone who wanted to see them, and then posted results of their search, has done so. (Sometimes, if you search for birds to expand your list it becomes seen one, seem ‘em all, and travel slows.)
My guess is the birds are far fewer here right now. The winter finches that crowded our feeders each day for the past couple of months certainly are somewhere else. We had dozens of Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins mixed with our usual American Goldfinches and House Finches. I filled our feeders – eight tubes, one platform, and two on our patio door – twice a week. It’s been a week since I last did that, and all the feeders remain half full. A birder wrote recently on another email network, BirdChat, that finches move from place to place day to day. They are not feeder loyal. Ours have gone somewhere, no birds yet replacing them. We have a handful of goldfinches and House Finches, that’s all.
I hoped but didn’t believe that Bohemian Waxwings would make it as far south as the metro area. They didn’t as far as I know. Pine Grosbeaks mostly got no farther south than mid-state. A friend began a grosbeak/waxwing trek a few weeks ago, beginning in Chisago County and working his way west to Wadena and Todd counties. He keeps lists by county, and this being/having been an exceptional year for sightings of those species, off he went from his Rochester home. Lots of miles, yes, but he had a good time.
Friend Bob found them in Kanabec County, which is pretty close to us. I figured it was worth a chance and some driving. I headed north on Highway 169, skipping Elk River and Princeton as search sites, beginning a block-by-block canvas for ornamental crab apple trees in Milaca. Both the grosbeaks and the waxwings are most easily found in those trees, feeding on apples.
I found Pine Grosbeaks in Milaca, Garrison, and Aitkin. I found a pair of Bohemian Waxwings in Garrison. I took unsatisfactory photos of the waxwings. I had better luck with grosbeaks in Moose Lake on an earlier visit. The birds I photographed were females. Thinking back, I decided all the grosbeaks I had seen – two or three dozen – were females. I didn’t give that a thought until friend Betsy Beneke, naturalist at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, became curious about the same thing. She wrote the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, looking for an answer. She shared this with email list members.
Turns out it was likely I was seeing both females and males. I just couldn’t tell one from the other. The grosbeaks moving south tend to be almost exclusively females and first-year males. The latter look just like their moms. It’s assumed that each nesting pair of grosbeaks raise two viable young per year, the number needed to maintain a stable population. Assume one is male, the other female. Of the four birds in that family, only one looks like a male. If the pair has a very good nesting season and produces four surviving young, they and their mother look alike, and only one bird in six, the adult male, has male plumage.
Plus, the southern edge of any irruption – winter movement south – usually is dominated by young birds, all of which look female. Adults stay north, particularly adult males. This, said the folks at Cornell, is true of most species that occasionally move south, say into Minnesota in interesting numbers. It explains why most of the Snowy Owls found in Minnesota show the mottled black and white plumage of young birds. Rare is the sighting of a truly white, a snowy Snowy Owl. And so my photos prove.
One more brief owl note: Boreal Owls were being seen in unusual numbers in Duluth and north along Old Highway 61. One fellow saw seven in one day, which might be a record. He’s a professional bird guide. He called his day on the North Shore his best birding day ever. Boreals were easy to find. They were perched in trees along Highway 61 and other roads, visible without problem. I want to know how many Boreal Owls were not hunting along roadways. How many were back in the woods, off road, out of sight? When irruptions happen we see the obvious birds, those coincidentally where birders look (and few leave the road to tramp the woods). How many of these birds are really here?
Below, male and female goldfinches. The males, bright yellow and black in breeding season, show soft yellow in the winter. Some of them already have a yellow body feather or two as the spring molt begins. Females wear drab plumage throughout.
The seed you feed birds does has a shelf life. It will go stale. A reader asked that question recently. For an answer I called Melissa Block, manager of the All-Seasons Wild Bird Store in Wayzata. She told me that seeds do lose nutritional value as they age. Sunflower kernels, the nuts inside the shell, dry out, losing nutrients. Thistle seed has the same problem. She tells her customers to buy no more seed than they can use in six to eight weeks. She also said that the birds will know if your seed is worth eating or not. It they're not attending your feeders with the same frequency and in the same numbers this week as last, replace the seed. Clean the feeder, and fill it with seed just purchased. She said that where you buy seed and how it's packaged is an issue. Buy from stores where stock frequently revolves. I've always believed that the plastic bags of seed you see on super-market shelves are not good buys. The seed mixes often contain filler seeds that most of our feeder birds will not eat. And now, consider how long those bags might have been on that shelf.
Feeder birds, like this Black-capped Chickadee with the sunflower seed in its bill, know good, fresh seed from stale seed.
During this cold spell be certain to keep your birds feeders full. Birds need all the energy they can get to survive near-zero temps, particularly with strong winds. Black oil sunflower seeds are highly nutritious. Suet is good, too. Birds also need water in cold weather.
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