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.
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.
This looks like a slim winter for finches in Minnesota.
Mike Hendrickson, birding guide from Duluth, commented the other day by email that few finches of any species have been seen in Duluth or along the North Shore recently. During a good finch year for us, migrants from Canada would be coming south by now.
This agrees with an annual prediction made several weeks ago by Canadian birder Ron Pittaway. He makes a yearly fall survey of seed crops across northern Canada, gathering information from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and numerous birders. His report is published on the birding email list BirdChat.
His general forecast: “This is not an irruption (flight movement south) year for winter finches.” He expects movement only into what he calls “normal winter ranges.” Those usually do not extend into Minnesota.
Tree-seed crops in Canada are good, offering sufficient winter food for Pine Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, Red and White-winged crossbills, both redpoll species, Pine Siskins, and Evening Grosbeaks.
Our usual best bets for winter finches as far south as the Twin Cities are Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls. Expect few this winter. Most will stay in northern Canada, Pittaway says. He writes of “continent-wide” seed crops in Canada. Trees on which these birds feed include Mountain Ash, buckthorn, birch, alder, spruce, pine, and hemlock. The only tree species for which a poor seed crop is reported is White Pine.
Pittaway also predicted a small to moderate movement south of Blue Jays, no southern movement of Red-breasted Nuthatches, and few Bohemian Waxwings.
For more information go to:
Below, a pair of Common Redpolls photographed at Two Harbors in 2010.
Fall is a great time to visit Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge in the northwestern corner of the state. Sandhill Cranes are the main attraction right now, with hundreds on the ground and many more on the way.
The refuge serves as staging ground for thousands of migrating cranes moving south from Canada and Alaska. There is a lack of water this year, only an estimated 10 percent of available wetlands actually wet. Cranes, even though they prefer it wet, will stop at the refuge as they migrate through. As many as 4,000 birds can be expected.
Many species of grassland and wetland birds can be seen here during migration, spring in particular, and as nesting residents. Cranes nest here, along with Greater Prairie Chickens and Marbled Godwits. During a visit to the refuge a few years ago I saw my first-ever Badger.
The refuge, about 36,000 acres of land, was established in 2004. Major intent was to preserve and restore native tallgrass prairie and wetlands.
The refuge is featured in the most recent issue of the magazine “Refuge Update,” published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The article notes that reconstruction of prairie at Glacial Ridge is the largest contiguous tallgrass prairie project in U.S. history.
The refuge also is the largest contiguous tract of Wetland Reserve Program land in the state.
Work on restoration and conservation is a join effort between the USFWS, The Nature Conservancy, and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service through its wetland reserve program.
The refuge is located about 50 miles north of Detroit Lakes and 20 miles south of Thief River Falls. Access is from U.S. Highway 2.. Immediately to the east is Rydell National Wildlife Refuge. Not far to the south are three more refuges: Hamden Slough, Tamarac, and Northern Tallgrass Prairie.
It’s a fair drive from the Twin Cities, but Glacial Ridge a beautiful place to visit if you like prairies and prairie wildlife. The other three refuges are, of course, also well worth a visit. (Below, cranes in migration.)
Two of northern Minnesota's finest artists have collaborated on a book about hawks. The book is "Hawk Ridge: Minnesota's Birds of Prey." The author is Laura Erickson, the artist Betsy Bowen. Hawk Weekend is this Saturday and Sunday. The book is a perfect companion for a hawk-watching trip to Hawk Ridge in Duluth.
Hawk Ridge is an observation point above the city of Duluth. It's famous as one of the nation's best places to see raptors (and other birds) as they migrate. Birds can be seen in both spring and fall, but the fall movement is the one to watch. Some days are spectacular, with tens of thousands of birds flowing over and along the ridge.
Erickson has been a fixture at the main Hawk Ridge observation point for years. She writes with clarity and passion the life histories of 20 species of eagles, hawks, falcons, kites, and vultures. She tells why birds make Hawk Ridge the exciting place it is from August through November, the fall migration window. She writes with grace, knowledgeable sentences flowing as smoothly as the ridge wind.
Bowen, who works up the Lake Superior shore in Grand Marais, is perhaps best known for her woodcut art. Here, she has painted some raptors, drawn others with pen and ink. Her distinctive style is evident regardless of medium.
Timely is the short chapter on visiting Hawk Ridge because this weekend, Sept. 20 and 21, is Hawk Weekend. Erickson details all you need to know, wear, and bring when you visit.
Special events are planned for both days. Help with identification will be available. Live birds will be shown. With appropriate weather, good visibility and a wind from the north or northwest, these could be spectacular migration days. Broad-winged Hawks are the species that usually has the highest count number, often approaching 100,000 for a season, with one or two days when the majority of those birds could pass.
The Broad-winged total for this season stood at 9,504 for the season to date. That means the big flights are yet to happen. To date, 14 raptor species have been seen. (Both species of eagle and Rough-legged Hawk tend to appear later in the fall.)
Find a copy of the book, then head for Duluth. If you plan an overnight, make reservations immediately. The birds and the fall color in the forests make Duluth a high-demand destination right now. For more information go to www.hawkridge.org
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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