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.
On a four-mile drive this morning, through Wayzata and barely into eastern Minnetonka I saw and heard thousands of American Robins. They must have arrived overnight, stalled here because of the weather. They're driven on migration by an internal clock that has nothing to do with our discouraging rain and snow.
I heard robins when I went for the paper. I saw robins if I looked up and down the street. Robins flew overhead. Flocks of 50 to 60 birds spotted my drive east through Wayzata.. When I to the Carlson Towers along Carlson Parkway, just west of Ridgedale shopping center, there were thousands of robins. Carlson Parkway and the entrance drive to the towers are lined with ornamental crab apple trees. This is the attraction. Robins will be living on leftover fruit until the snow goes and the ground softens. There were birds in the trees, on the snow, in the road, in the air.
The weather Saturday and Sunday concentrated Dark-eyed Juncos and various sparrows. Our yard held easily more than 100 birds throughout those days. They were eating sunflower seeds and chips. Most of the seasonal arrivals were juncos. Sparrow species were Fox, Tree, and Song; they came for the sunflower chips.
Our pond attracted a pair of Hooded Mergansers and, at high count, 13 Wood Ducks.
The birding right now is pretty good. Other migrants can be found if you're looking. Avid observers are reporting day lists of over 70 species. A couple dozen of those are waterfowl.
Boreal and Great Gray owls, the two species that have made birding in Minnesota particularly exciting this winter, are in retreat. Most seem to have left the area, heading north to their usual territories. Additional birds are being found dead, thought to be victims of starvation. The birds came south to find food. These owls hunt rodents that move beneath the snow cover. The crusty snow we have now has made hunting difficult. The birds can sense the mice, shrews, and voles, but can't break through the crust to make a capture. Two readers were fortunate enough to have Boreal Owls in their yards. The first photo comes from Will Stenberg of Duluth. The owl has a mouse in its grip. This might be the best Boreal Owl photo I've seen: owl, snow, prey. Wish I had taken it. The second comes from Sadie Ellingson of Elk River, another fine photo. Ms. Ellingson's bird spent at least 12 hours perched in a tree just outside her kitchen window. She first saw the bird at 7 o'clock in the morning, and watched it leave as the sun was setting.
Occasionally you see a bird without tail feathers. Chances are the bird lost feathers instead of its life by a lucky escape from a predator. When will the feathers grow back? Is replacement immediate or does it take place with the next molt?
A member of the birding email list BirdChat asked that question a few days ago. Several other list members provided the answer: the feathers grow back ASAP. The delay would come only if the attack caused wounds that needed to heal.
Tail feathers would be replaced automatically in one of the bird’s seasonal molts. But they’re so important to flight control that regrowth begins immediately.
Any waiting period as wounds heal is apt to be short because the bird probably will die first. If the attack draws blood as well as feathers the wounds are infection-prone. Predators’ claws almost always contain septic material – bacteria – that are highly likely to create a fatal infection.
One BirdChat responder told a great story. A birder in England and a friend were using a large live trap to capture birds for banding. A Eurasian Collared-Dove lacking tail feathers was caught. Banded and released, it walked back into the trap. A pattern developed. Released in the evening to go to roost, the dove returned to the trap every morning until tail feathers had been fully replaced. The bird seemed to understand that in the trap it was safe from predators, particularly, I imagine, the one that had removed its tail.
ANOTHER BIRDCHAT NOTE: A bird bander wrote that the itinerant finches we see at our feeders are mostly new day to day. The redpolls and goldfinches you feed today will move on, being replaced by others of the same species. He wrote that he had determned this via the ID bands he attaches to bird legs. I have no confirmation of this behavior (the birds', not his). It might explain, though, why we have a couple of dozen redpolls one day, none the next, and Pine Siskins on catch-as-catch-can basis. Goldfinches are here all the time, for whatever reason. Yesterday I did see a redpoll with a splotch of white on its back, a bit of albinism. We'll see if it returns.
AND, fellow StarTrib columnist Val Cunningham wrote today to say that chickadees in her St. Paul neighborhood are beginning to sing their spring song -- feee-beee, high on the fee note, low on the bee. Chickadees were doing it here this morning as I filled feeders. It's not this sudden burst of heat -- all the way into the low teens -- that has given them voice. Birds respond to the increasng amount of daylight at this time of year to put them into the spring mood.
Two of the Minnesota pelicans radio tagged this fall so their movements can be tracked are at wintering territory on the Gulf of Mexico.
Four American White Pelicans are sending signals to a research team. The study is intended to provide information on where on the Gulf the birds spend the winter, their migration paths, and their movements in Minnesota.
Impetus for the study was evidence of oil and oil dispersant chemical found last summer in eggs and bodies of pelicans nesting here. About one-third of the world population of this bird nests in Minnesota.
One of the tagged pelicans arrived east of the mouth of the Mississippi River in mid-October. Its radio signal is spasmodic, the most recent reception in late November.
A second bird arrived on the Gulf in mid-November. It was located south of Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Two birds are taking more leisurely trips. One of them flew 175 miles on Thanksgiving to a location on the Arkansas River. The second pelican moved through central Mississippi in late November, the last signal showing it near Greenwood, Mississippi.
The project is a partnership between Audubon Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Non-game Program, and North Dakota State University.
To see the map and follow the pelicans go to http://mn.aOneudubon.org/
Cardinals came to our feeders in force as soon as the snow stopped. We had 10 here Sunday at dusk. Monday, the count was eight. Cardinals feed in the dim light of dawn and the fading twilight at the end of the afternoon. Most other bird species retire earlier and rise later. Sunset Monday was at 4:32 p.m. The first cardinal flew into the yard at 4:32 p.m. I'm curious to know if that was a coincidence or if the birds' sense of light level is that keen. I'll try to time them for the next few afternoons.
The smaller lakes near our home were nearly 100 percent ice-coveredMonday. A few small open spots of water remained. I was checking for ducks and coots -- and eagles. If waterfowl can be found on small patches of open water, you might find eagles, too. The hunting is good when the ducks are in restricted space. Coots become particularly vulnerable because they must run across the water to get to lift-off speed. I saw a pair of immature Bald Eagles at Mooney Lake in western Plymouth. There was no prey there, though. With cold, windless nights certain bays on Lake Minnetonka might be good places to look for eagles. The requisite coots are on Smith's Bay, west of Wayzata, but most of that lake is open, at least from the bay out as far as I could see, excluding some narrow bands of ice along the shore. No eagles there today, but a grandson and I watched an eagle make lazy passes at those coots on Saturday. The road there, County 15, is bad at the best of times, narrow, twisty, and busy. Walking on the shoulder -- well, right now there is no shoulder. Parking away from 15 is possible, leaving one with no more than a quarter-mile walk. Four Whooping Swans were on the bay today. They don't worry about eagles.
In the crab apple orchard I check for waxwings and grosbeaks -- nope -- I found more robins on Monday. Forty or 50 of them were picking apples. One photo below shows the effort the birds sometimes make to pull the apples from the tree. The other photos show a robin in the picking process. At the height of the pull the nictitating membranes found in bird eyes have pulled over the pupil. This is a third eyelid, moving across the eye at right angles to the regular eyelids, between them and the eye surface. This membrane moistens and cleans the eye, and provides protection.
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