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.

Posts about Bird interactions

Chickadee hybrids

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: March 19, 2014 - 2:42 PM

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.

Birding as a contact sport

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: February 12, 2014 - 5:33 AM

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.)





Dance of the Dunlins

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: May 2, 2014 - 10:17 AM

Perhaps you have seen videos of the incredible flocking behavior sometimes shown by starlings. They’re on YouTube. What’s amazing is the cohesiveness of the flowing flight of the flock. Flock edges as it sways and swings are as exact as if drawn with a pen. An excellent example of this recently posted is called Dance of the Dunlins. A large flock of this shorebirds swirls into motion to avoid the attack of a falcon. Find it at http://birdnote.org/video/2013/10/dance-dunlins

Dunlins are shorebirds that migrate through Minnesota, but not in flocks that might display this flying behavior.

Dinner for eagles

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: November 29, 2013 - 1:12 PM

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.

Hummingbirds likely weak from hunger

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: September 12, 2013 - 11:12 AM

The hanging hummingbirds? Most likely juveniles too weak, too depleted of energy to hold themselves upright at the feeder. Nancy Newfield, who feeds, bands, and studies hummingbirds from her Louisiana home sent an email to answer my question.

As I wrote in this blog yesterday, these birds were seen at a sugar-water feeder at a home near Lutsen, on the North Shore of Lake Superior. I sent Ms. Newfield my question and a photo of the bird hanging from the feeder perch.

“The Ruby-throated Hummingbird appears to be a youngster. Many recent fledglings embark upon a rigorous migration before developing their full strength,” she wrote. “During migration a certain percentage of them will seriously deplete their energy reserves (fat), and become weakened, at least temporarily.”

Were we seeing the same bird on consecutive days? She doubts it. We most likely saw different migrants moving along the shore. Any bird that was hanging from the perch was having a problem finding a supply of food sufficient to continue migration.

The meadows between Lutsen and Grand Marais are filled with blooming wild flowers right now, but few that offer the nectar cup the hummingbirds seek.

Migration takes a toll on birds of all ages. “Especially during fall migration,” Ms. Newfield wrote. “These energy-deficient youngsters are the most vulnerable. They’re less able to force their way to a feeder, and are much more vulnerable to predators.”

A dominant hummingbird guarding a feeder, and driving other would-be feeders away is a common sight.

And what I saw as an attack, one hummingbird clinging to another at the feeder, stabbing or poking with its bill, and pulling feathers?

“If I’m not mistaken, most birds of most avian families will attack sick-looking individuals,” she wrote. “Perhaps this is nature’s way of eliminating the infirm and less fit.

Looking at photos taken three years ago (below) that I sent her showing an attack and a hanging bird, she wrote, “There were at least two attackers. Both appear to be male. That is just the nature of the beasts.”

So, why didn’t the exhausted bird simply drop from the perch instead of hanging there like an ornament? Ms. Newfield explained that when birds perch their feet automatically lock onto the perch. We humans must make a conscious effort to tighten a fist or curl our toes. It’s the opposite for birds. They must make the effort to release their grip. The bird would fall only when it became so weakened that it lost even reflexive muscle control.


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