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.
Whip-poor-will is a bird more often heard than seen. An insect eater active at night, it can drive you crazy with constant and rapid repeat of its mating song – whip-poor-will whip-poor-will, on and on. They are found throughout Minnesota except in the southwest and far western edge. They favor woodlands. River bottoms and wooded valleys are a favorite location. We recently heard and saw them in Crex Meadows Wildlife Area near Grantsburg, Wisconsin, moving between an oak woodland and prairie marked with scrubby oak bushes. You occasionally can see or flush one from the tree branches on which these birds sleep during the day, stretched out parallel to the branch, well camouflaged. At night they sometimes can be seen on rural roads, identified by the orange glow of their eyes as vehicle headlights hit them. That is how we found and ran over ours. It was an accident. The bird was looking the wrong way, its eyes not visible. We saw it just before it fluttered off the pavement and into the bottom of our van. We stopped to examine it. This is a bird rarely seen in hand. Whip-poor-wills are members of the nightjar family, all with long wings and tails and cryptic coloration. Nightjar, by the way, doesn’t mean what it meant when my grandmother used the word. It actually comes from Europe where a similar bird makes a “jarring” noise, or so I read in “The Dictionary of American Bird Names” by Ernest Choate. OK, now we have the remains of this bird in front of us. Closed, its bill looks smaller than expected, petite, almost hard to see when the bird is at rest. Opened, however, and it gapes from ear to ear, a huge basket into which the bird sweeps the flying insects it eats. Also cool are the bristles, the stiff feather whiskers on either side of its mouth, helpful in insect capture. This bird was one of three we saw, all roadies. We heard one but short burst of song. I’ve heard them sing all night long, however, not necessarily music even to the ears of a birder. The arrow in the first shot points at the hinge of the mouth.
An unusual number of ibis have been reported in Minnesota this spring. More than four dozen White-faced Ibis were listed as seen along with several Glossy Ibis. These sightings were shared with birders on the email list maintained by the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union (MOU). The White-faced reports are high in number but reasonably explained. The Glossy reports are unusual in both respects.
MOU records for previous sightings of White-faced Ibis list 38 spring sightings, 11 summer, and 26 fall. Those reported since April 19 equal more than 60 percent of all previous records. That's a lot of ibis. South Dakota and North Dakota birders also have been reporting this species, not unusual since the birds nest in the northeast corner of South Dakota. White-faced also have been reported in Wisconsin, including seven seen near LaCrosse. The farther east the sightings are made the more unusual they are. White-faced are western birds breeding mostly in southern California and Mexico with small populations scattered in several other western states, including South Dakota. The birds winter in Mexico.
Minnesota's White-faced reports stretched from the southeast corner of the state to the northwest, including reports from Carver and Dakota counties.
Most unusual are the sightings of Glossy Ibis. Total historic reports for the state are four, the same number said to be seen here in the past two weeks. This species breeds along the east coast of the U.S., wintering in the Caribbean. A biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources speculated that the White-faced birds were blown east from usual migration routes by our spring storms. That makes sense. It's hard to use the same rationale for Glossy Ibis, however.
One of the supposed Glossy Ibis was being seen at the boat landing on the north side of Swan Lake in Nicollet County. I photographed this bird a few weeks under cloudy skies. I used a 400mm lens, and shot from about 250-300 feet away. I thought my photos were inconclusive as to species, but I'm no ibis expert. So, I sent my photos to Kenn Kaufman, the author of "A Field Guide to North American Birds." Kaufman said the bird might be a Glossy but looked more like a Glossy/White-faced hybrid. Better photos would have helped; I needed to get closer to the bird, a risky maneuver, not wanting the bird to flush. A Glossy seen and photographed in Kittson County on April 24 looks like the real thing. You can see that photo by scrolling down the Agassiz Audubon Society's Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/agassizaudubon.
Ted Floyd, editor of the American Birding Association magazine "Birding" with no hesitation called the bird Glossy. Clincher for me was the same answer from Dr. Francie Cuthbert, University of Minnesota ornithologist focusing on colonial water birds (nest together in colonies). Ibis are colonial.
The birds reported are not all of the ibis that came to Minnesota. They were just the birds that birders found. There certainly were more. We cursed the winds for cold weather and snow. Some of us blessed them for ibis. Perhaps you remember: my birding list is for species photographed. Glossy Ibis went on the list.
Looking at the photos of both species one might wonder how any question could exist, and the local discussion of these sightings raised many questions. Considered were age of the bird (which determines plumage), the lighting in which the sighting took place, and hybrids. Several subtle difference occur in plumage of these birds, the most obvious being the white feathers than encircle the face of the aptly named White-faced Ibis.
Glossy Ibis. White-faced Ibis below.
In stores now is Richard Crossley's newest field guide to birds: The Crossley ID Guide -- Raptors. It's similar to his first field guide, but better. It deals with a family of birds well suited for his idea of setting many photos of a species against a large photo background.
His first book covered all of the bird species of eastern North America. This book deals solely with raptors. Crossly's initial effort, published in 2011, was called revolutionary for the way it presented its photos. Each species was presented on full pages with multiple photos, birds seen from every conceivable point of view. Crossley wanted to duplicate your field experiences.
The raptor book makes the most of this idea. Raptors are often, perhaps most often, seen flying. Crossley's photos of birds in the air -- birds soaring and gliding and swooping -- would be better only in video. The book's photos do match what you see in the field; they are very pertinent. There are raptors near and far, high and low, raptors perched, raptors overhead.
Raptors are special because it's possible to make accurate identifications at a distance, when plumage details are not easily seen. How are the bird's wings set? Is it bulky, or slender, large head or small? The physical attributes of the bird, perched as well as aloft, can spell its name. Crossley has captured this well. His idea really works with raptors.
Supporting the hundreds of fine photos is text on each species, the particulars similar to what you can find in other guides but more extensive. There are range maps. And if you want to hone you raptor ID skills, Crossley provides several pages of quiz photos. They show a mix of raptor species in various poses at various distances, what you might see in the field. This is a wonderful idea, a true test. He does provide answers, for which I was grateful. (I need raptor work.)
Crossley's had collaborators for this effort, well-known raptor experts Jerry Liguori and Brian Sullivan. All of the photos used were taken by these three men.
"The Crossley ID Guide -- Raptors" is soft cover, 285 pages, extensively illustrated with double-page photo spreads, glossary index, $29.95. The book is another in the fine series if bird guides published by Princeton University Press.
Below is one page of the two-page spread for Cooper's Hawk.
The Great Horned Owl chicks in the nest near our Orono home are growing up. They've lost the chick fuzz. I don't know the date of hatching, but from the looks of them they could begin climbing around their tree in a couple of weeks. They move in and out of the nest before they fly.
The Great Horned Owl chicks I've been watching are beginning to look like owls. This photo was taken Sunday morning.
There were crows and jays in the area, birds that would mob adult owls. The young birds are ignored. Perhaps they are recognized as non-threatening in this plumage.
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