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 biology

Another loon-with-flies photo

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: July 9, 2014 - 1:35 PM

Reader Dan Laakso who owns a cabin on Lake Washburn near Outing, Minnesota, sent this photo of a Common Loon being attack by Black Flies. (See Wednesday birding column, Variety section, Home and Garden pages for story.) Dan says the loon was driven from its nest, presumably by the flies. The nest was abandoned on May 18. And this was last year, the problem even worse this year.

Black flies and Osprey

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: July 9, 2014 - 12:34 PM

This morning's (Wednesday) birding column in the StarTribune (Variety section, Home and Garden pages) talks about the impact this summer of black flies on Common Loons and other birds. I do not mention Osprey in the column, my oversight. Once I thought to ask the question, this is the reply I received from Judy England, who keeps track of nesting Osprey in the metro area:

"Yes, black flies are terrible on Ospreys this year.  Both the male and female from the nest on webcam at the Arboretum left the single chick alone Saturday night for over one-half hour, just before dusk. The chick was so agitated by the flies that it edged itself over the side of the nest and died. I am watching the black flies crawl all over the adults through my scope when checking osprey nests, and their head-shaking does not cease.  Chicks are also crawling under the wings of their parents to escape the insects.  (Shaded chicks would simply sit in the shade of the adults.) Historically, they would have gotten a little reprieve in the evenings, but the mosquitoes are so horrible they are not getting a break this year."


REPORT NESTS: This note comes from the Twin Cities Osprey Watch

We have had many osprey nests fail this year and adults have left their nests. They often build "frustration nests" after a failure. I am requesting that anyone who sees new nests popping up, or adult ospreys carrying sticks in the eight-county metro area, to please report this activity to Twin Cities Metro Osprey Watch so we can identify these birds and locate new nest sites as part of our ongoing research. Please contact us at  osprey.mn@att.net 
We also have a Facebook page for more Info about metro ospreys:
And a blog at ospreywatch.blogspot.com
Sent by Vanessa Greene, Twin Cities Metro Osprey Watch


Below, an Osprey at its nest, sans flies.

Two nests, both works of art

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: July 6, 2014 - 11:16 AM

The first three photos below show the nest of an American Goldfinch. I found it on the ground in an apple orchard after one of our mid-June windy nights. My identification is based on information from the book “Nest, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds” by Paul J. Baicich and Colin J. O. Harrison (part of the Princeton University Press Field Guide series). 


What gives me pause as I hold the nest is the intricate construction, the careful weaving of grass and hair, the plant down that pads the nest bottom. Edges are bound with spider silk in some cases. We’re looking at the bottom, top, and one side of the nest. The bottom is wound with grasses in the same fashion as a knitter winds her ball of yarn or you a ball of string. The edges are wrapped with grass threads much as a basket weaver secures her work. The nest is described in the book at a “neat and firm compact cup.” It is springy to the touch. The female finch builds this nest by herself in four to six days.


I recovered a House Wren nest a couple of years ago, removing it from a PVC nest box when the birds were finished with nesting. It was constructed of a few more than 200 sticks and pieces of grass, the twigs from an inch to six inches long. It slid out of the PVC tube intact, no moving parts. Each stick and twig was placed to create a tension that held it all together. It could be handled without damage. I photographed it, then dismantled it to count its pieces.


Some birds build rudimentary nests, a scrape in sand, a loose bundle of sticks. Wren and goldfinch nests are far more. They are works of art.


Tough time for birds

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: June 28, 2014 - 9:31 PM

Many bird species had a tough June. The frequent and heavy rains destroyed some nests and in certain cases nestlings. Some bird species had a chance to nest again. For others, biology made that impossible.

Hard hit were species nesting in wetlands or on marsh shoreline where rising water levels dislodged or covered nests. Birds nesting on or near the ground in flooded areas also lost nests, eggs, or nestlings. Wind blew nests and contents to the ground.

If loss occurred before the eggs hatched there was a chance the birds would nest again. If, however, chicks were lost, then the breeding season for the parents ended. Once eggs hatch, the reproductive system of the female bird shuts down. 

Going into the middle of June, birds simply might not have had time to start over and successfully fledge birds that would be mature enough to migrate or survive winter.

Mark Martell, director of bird conservation for Audubon Minnesota said blackbirds, rails, grebes, and terns in particular were at risk from rising water levels. He pointed out that songbirds, too, faced problems if wet weather made insects hard to find. 

Birds feeding hatchlings rely heavily on insects because of their fat and protein content. Missing a couple of days of food because of heavy rains could mean chicks starve.

“This is the kind of situation,” Martell said, “where the most fit chicks survive and the weak die.”

If we’re living in weather’s new normal, and it's beginning to look that way, these losses will continue. Birds will nest as they have for millions of years, awareness of  extended extreme wind and rain a distant evolution away.

An article in the June 24 edition of The New York Times discussed content of a report about our economy in a world of “unchecked global warming.” The author, Justin Gillis, wrote that in 100 years residents of the Midwest could expect  “20 days each year in which heat and humidity make it functionally impossible for humans to be outdoors.” 

What about birds and other animals? 

What happens to birds when it is too hot and humid outdoors for humans? Is there impact on the plants and insects that provide food for birds? Do birds simply become stressed, as do we, and die? 

Certainly, the first concern is for human life, climate impact on where and how we live. And the next century is a long time from now. But whatever conditions we create for ourselves, by action or neglect, we create for animals as well. 


This Lark Bunting was photographed in South Dakota on a July day when the temperature was pushing 100 degrees. The bird was exposing as much skin as possible and panting in an effort to cool itself.



Wood Stork being seen near Blue Earth

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: June 21, 2014 - 11:36 PM

A very unusual bird has been seen for the past three days on a farm west of Blue Earth. A Wood Stork, a bird of Florida and the southeastern coast, has been entertaining birders since being reported to the birding community (email) on June 19. This is a juvenile bird, as indicated by its very pronounced head feathers. The Minnesota visitor is shown in the first photo. The second photo shows an adult Wood Stork, with its typical featherless head. Note also the difference in bill color. The Birds of North America monograph on this species explains that fledglings disperse widely after leaving the nesting colony. There are records for this species as far west as California and up the east coast into Canada. One other Wood Stork has been reported here, in Grand Marais several years ago. Both Dakotas, Iowa, and Wisconsin have records. In its usual habitat Wood Storks eat mostly fish. The diet can include insects, snails, crayfish, frogs, snakes, birds, small mammals, as well as some plant material. The Blue Earth stork has been seen feeding in standing water in a field adjacent to the farm. No one has offered comment on what it might be eating. Nor can anyone say how long it will remain. Wood Stork is the only stork species breeding in the U.S., and is our tallest wading bird, measuring just over three feet tall. Folk names for this species include Flinthead and Ironhead. The adult bird shown here was photographed along the west coast of Florida three years ago.


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