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.
In Bob Janssen's 1987 book "Birds of Minnesota" Tufted Titmouse is shown on a range map as a bird limited in Minnesota range to our far southeastern corner. Individuals occasionally were seen in other parts of the state, but the regular sightings of the species in the metro area lessened beginning in the mid 1970s for reasons unknown. The species has significantly expanded its Minnesota range since then, also for reasons unknown, although milder winter weather is most likely a factor. A friend in Watertown told me yesterday of a day-long visit to his feeder by a titmouse. That was a first for him.. Another friend reported a visit by a titmouse to her feeders near Siren, Wisconsin. That's thought to be a first record for Burnett County. The bird is regular in Hastings, in St. Paul Park, and across the river in the Hudson, Wisconsin, area. More metro sightings have been reported this year. This is a cool bird, chickadee in size and behavior, a chickadee with a headdress. The photo below was taken three weeks ago near Hudson. It's a bird to watch for at your feeders.
The invasion south into Minnesota by winter finches continues. Evening and Pine Grosbeaks are being reported almost daily from one state location or another, places where they have rarely been seen in winters past. Bohemian Waxwings are another northern species being seen south and west of its usual winter haunts along the North Shore. The waxwings are being found in Mountain Ash and crab apple trees; they eat the fruit of both. I'm checking a nearby crab apple orchard three or four times a week these days. I've seen trees there with dozens of Cedar Waxwings feeding. I'm waiting for its look-alike cousin, the Bohemian. I'd post a photo if I had one. That blank on my photo list is main reason for my search. We'll be in Aitkin County in a few days. Behemians have been reported in several places there.
Wednesday I spent a couple of hours in a yard near Hudson, Wis., just across the river. An unidentified hummingbird had/has been coming to a feeder there. It's possible the bird was a stray from the west, possibly a Wisconsin first record for the species. Photos were wanted for study. I'm lousy when it comes to ID on female and juvenile hummers, which this bird probably was. That’s a science of its own. But, I do enjoy taking photos. So, I drove over, a simple 40-mile drive, simple considering the clotted traffic we have come to regard as normal.
I found a beautiful yard setup for birds, one of the best, maybe THE best I've seen. Many feeders of different types offering a variety of seeds, peanuts, and suet. Best and most important was the water feature -- a self-circulating stream of about 20 feet, with a five-foot drop, the water gurgling done the rocky streambed, flashing in the sun. The contours of the yard made this possible. It's not something all of us could do, although with a few yards of dirt dumped in the middle of our backyard I could give it a try. Unlikely.
There was a constant steam of birds coming to streamside. I was to watch the hummingbird feeder for what I was told were very short visits by the mystery bird. Hard to do, though, with the constant activity of the other birds as seen from the corner of my eye. There was a flock of Cedar Waxwings, two Tufted Titmice, a dozen robins, Purple and House finches, chickadees, nuthatches, three woodpecker species, Blue Jays, and a Mourning Dove. This was ample evidence of the impact water can have on bird attraction. Moving water is best, but any source of water is good, particularly in a dry season.
My hostess provided a very comfortable cushioned patio chair for me to sit in while keeping vigil. For the last hour of my visit I had the company of a pretty and charming fellow-birder. She also was looking for the hummer. We visited quietly in the afternoon sun, pillows behind our backs, birds everywhere, all the while doing something of substance, with a goal. You even could call it an important goal, first-state record on the line. I recommend birding, acknowledging that my lack of an honest job (retired) makes much of my inactive activity possible. Fishing comes close to birding if you want quiet contemplative pleasure. Bobber fishing only, though, no casting or trolling. Sitting and watching, I'm very good at that.
We never did see the hummingbird. It moved on, most likely, doomed to death very soon because it needs a constant source of food. Plus, it doesn't know where it is pertaining to where it should be at this time of year. If it did know it will/would not find enough food between here and there to survive the trip. It came here because of faulty wiring, so will be removed from the gene pool, a positive for its species. Bad wiring should not be passed along to following generations.
The titmice were interesting. Here they were, two miles from Minnesota, a place where they are rarely reported. Perhaps there are feeders east of St. Paul graced with these charming birds but not mentioned in birding-circle communications. Whatever, I wish titmice would spread widely at least in the metro area, as far west as our yard. They’re a treat to see. Here is my non-hummer photo of the day -- a titmouse.
And the drive home, west on 94 and 394 around 5 p.m.? My sympathy to all who do it daily.
Winter is the time when your feeders can be filled with finches. Or not.
It depends a great deal on the coniferous and hardwood seed crops in Canada. Various finches eat various seeds. The seed crop varies year to year by tree species and geography. Seed crops are assessed each fall by a small army of observers from Manitoba east through Canada to the maritime provinces. Reports are gathered, and man named Ron Pittaway of Minden, Ontario, fashions a finch forecast. He speculates on southward movement by several species.
In general, it would be better if Minnesota were an eastern state instead of being toward the western edge of the Canadian forests where these birds spend most of their lives.
Cone crops are poor in eastern Canada, but "much better," according to Pittaway, in the Hudson Bay lowlands (north, northeast of us), and northwestern Ontario west to Alberta and beyond.
Pittaway posts his report on the birding email network BirdChat. Species by species, this is what he sees.
Pine Grosbeak: Mountain ash berry crop variable in northern forests, in part due to drought. What ash berries and ornamental crabapples there are will go fast. Grosbeaks are expected to use black oil sunflower seed at feeders, and buckthorn berries. We could see Pine Grosbeaks in more than usual numbers in northern counties. Birds drifting into central Minnesota are possible
Purple Finch: A strong migration south out of eastern Ontario is expected. Seed crops there are very low. Pittaway says that, "Purple Finch numbers have dropped significantly in recent decades as spruce budworm outbreaks subsided. Currently, a moderate population decline continues in the province."
Red Crossbill: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports a strong southerly migration of this species throughout the northern U.S. Minnesota, including the Twin Cities, saw a brief flare of crossbills in late summer and early fall. Reports of that species have been non-existent in recent weeks.
White-winged Crossbills: Not expected to move south of Canadian breeding habitat.
Common Redpoll: Pittaway predicts a "good southward flight" because of a poor birch seed crop across the north. He recommends Niger thistle seed, and suggests watching for these birds not only at feeders but also in birches and weedy fields. I've seen flocks of hundreds of redpolls rise from tall grasses along roadways.
Pine Siskin: Movement south in the northeast, but over-wintering in northwestern Ontario where seed crops are good. Siskins wander, however.
Evening Grosbeak: This is a species seen each year in limited numbers from Aitkin County north. They can be found in the Sax-Zim birding area north of Duluth (Google Sax-Zim; the name comes from abandoned small towns). Pittaway says most movement south by this species will be in the northeast. Population of this bird is low, he says. It thrives on spruce budworm outbreaks.
Other species he mentions:
Red-breasted Nuthatches north of Minnesota are expected to stay there. Bohemian Waxwings, however, could come down in larger-than-usual numbers because of the poor Mountain Ash crop to our north. Mike Hendrickson, birding guide from Duluth, reports that the North Shore has a good crop of berries this year. He's hopeful that we're looking at a good winter for Bohemian Waxwings. The North Shore is the place to look for these birds, Duluth to Grand Marais.
Photos: Male (top) and female Pine Grosbeaks, both photographed at feeders in the Sax-Zim area north of Duluth.
Watering trees in our yard this week I watched many birds come to the puddle made by the slowly flowing water coming from a hose. The dry weather is affecting birds as well as almost everything else. Now is is the time to provide water. A bird bath will work. Freshen the water at least once a day. Better is a hose with a trinkle of water splashing into a small puddle. That's what is working well for us. This mornng at the small puddle under the hose: chickadees, Downy Woodpecker, flicker, robin, Chipping and White-crowned Sparrows, and goldfinches. That was during the 30 minutes I sat and watched.
This is a story about creepy crawly bird mites. You’ve probably never had to give thought to these members of the arthropod family. Lucky you.
First, you’re unlikely to ever encounter these exquisitely tiny semi-transparent spider-related creatures. Bird mites should in no way affect your interest in or affection for birds.
With that out of the way, here are two mite stories.
I once lived in an apartment with its own entrance. Above that door, on the outside of the building, was a porch light. A pair of Barn Swallows built a nest there.
One evening, dressed for a date, I noticed the now-empty nest. I poked at it with my hand to bring it down. I watched, mesmerized, as a thick cloud of mites floated to me. I was so taken with this unexpected exodus that I stood there until covered with almost invisible bugs.
I showered directly and thoroughly. I put the clothes in was wearing in a plastic bag for later attention. I used a hose to clean the light, the door, the stoop – everything.
Barb, a reader of these pages, wrote recently to ask where she might locate a bird-nesting platform so it would not allow entry to her home by mites. There is only one reason to ask that question.
The mites on her deck, in her kitchen, and on her and her husband came, she believes, from the nest of a phoebe. The bird was using a nesting platform attached to the understructure of their deck.
Phoebes like nooks and crannies in human structures, including the space above light fixtures or alarm boxes. House Sparrows favor cavity-like accommodations.
My suggestion was to not attach any nesting aide to the house. Remove nests attached to the building.
Googling “bird mites” produces horror stories. One of them frequently used the word “psychiatrist.” The most useful information came from a Web site in Australia. Bird mites are not a local phenomenon.
We’re dealing with eggs, larvae, and eight-legged creatures that are extremely mobile. They live on blood, but not yours. The mites learn the hard way that you are an inappropriate host. They bite. They die.
You itch and develop a rash.
The Aussie Web page contained this understatement, “The sensation of crawling mites on the skin will irritate some people.”
Best thing to do is get rid of the source. Insecticide spray will work on invaded surfaces, I understand, but is worth nothing if source material remains
If you clean bird houses in the fall to remove used nesting material, as should be done, avoid the inevitable possibly mite-laden dust. Wetting the nest and box interior first is worthwhile.
Those House Finches with the cute babies that nest in the hanging flower baskets on your porch? You might think twice about them.
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