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.
We are well into the season where birds are acquiring spring plumage, weather aside. The male American Goldfinches visiting our feeders show daily change. This molt begins in late January, triggered by light levels, and can continue into June for some birds. The bright yellow of summer appears one feather at a time, giving the birds a pied appearance. One of two of our feeder visitors have almost completed this molt. Others are way behind. Female goldfinches also molt at this time of year, acquiring a new set of feathers, but with subtle color changes. The molts occur as demonstrated – a few feathers at a time. A molt of all feathers simultaneously would render the bird easy prey and susceptible to weather. Below, two male American Goldfinches.
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.
This female Harrier (sometimes called Marsh Hawk) was photographed recently at The Raptor Center on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. The photos are offered simply because this is such a beautiful species, and I had an unusual photo opportunity. This is a captive bird, a member of the Center's bird team that makes educational visits to classrooms. The hawk was not caged, instead tethered to a perch that allowed me to work from about 10 feet away. In my experience it's difficult to get a good photo of this species perched anywhere, much less so close. The bird calmly accepted about five minutes of photography as my guide for the visit patiently waited for me to finish. The Harrier has a ruff around its face, much like an owl. It serves the hawk as it does the owl, helping to capture sounds made by prey; harriers hunt both by eye and ear. One photo caught the bird turning quickly. The hawk's long legs are evident. The literature I consulted did not mention whether or not the legs are an adaptation to the Harrier's hunting style -- slow flight low above grassland or marsh, capture made by a quick drop and grab. The bird is aerodynamically constructed to allow slow flight that often includes hovering. When prey -- small mammal, birds, amphibians -- is found the long legs can't hurt.
The season for trips to find Pine Grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings seems to have pretty much ended. I track this through posts to the Minnesota birding email network run by the Minnesota Ornithologists; Union. Either the birds have moved back north or everyone who wanted to see them, and then posted results of their search, has done so. (Sometimes, if you search for birds to expand your list it becomes seen one, seem ‘em all, and travel slows.)
My guess is the birds are far fewer here right now. The winter finches that crowded our feeders each day for the past couple of months certainly are somewhere else. We had dozens of Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins mixed with our usual American Goldfinches and House Finches. I filled our feeders – eight tubes, one platform, and two on our patio door – twice a week. It’s been a week since I last did that, and all the feeders remain half full. A birder wrote recently on another email network, BirdChat, that finches move from place to place day to day. They are not feeder loyal. Ours have gone somewhere, no birds yet replacing them. We have a handful of goldfinches and House Finches, that’s all.
I hoped but didn’t believe that Bohemian Waxwings would make it as far south as the metro area. They didn’t as far as I know. Pine Grosbeaks mostly got no farther south than mid-state. A friend began a grosbeak/waxwing trek a few weeks ago, beginning in Chisago County and working his way west to Wadena and Todd counties. He keeps lists by county, and this being/having been an exceptional year for sightings of those species, off he went from his Rochester home. Lots of miles, yes, but he had a good time.
Friend Bob found them in Kanabec County, which is pretty close to us. I figured it was worth a chance and some driving. I headed north on Highway 169, skipping Elk River and Princeton as search sites, beginning a block-by-block canvas for ornamental crab apple trees in Milaca. Both the grosbeaks and the waxwings are most easily found in those trees, feeding on apples.
I found Pine Grosbeaks in Milaca, Garrison, and Aitkin. I found a pair of Bohemian Waxwings in Garrison. I took unsatisfactory photos of the waxwings. I had better luck with grosbeaks in Moose Lake on an earlier visit. The birds I photographed were females. Thinking back, I decided all the grosbeaks I had seen – two or three dozen – were females. I didn’t give that a thought until friend Betsy Beneke, naturalist at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, became curious about the same thing. She wrote the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, looking for an answer. She shared this with email list members.
Turns out it was likely I was seeing both females and males. I just couldn’t tell one from the other. The grosbeaks moving south tend to be almost exclusively females and first-year males. The latter look just like their moms. It’s assumed that each nesting pair of grosbeaks raise two viable young per year, the number needed to maintain a stable population. Assume one is male, the other female. Of the four birds in that family, only one looks like a male. If the pair has a very good nesting season and produces four surviving young, they and their mother look alike, and only one bird in six, the adult male, has male plumage.
Plus, the southern edge of any irruption – winter movement south – usually is dominated by young birds, all of which look female. Adults stay north, particularly adult males. This, said the folks at Cornell, is true of most species that occasionally move south, say into Minnesota in interesting numbers. It explains why most of the Snowy Owls found in Minnesota show the mottled black and white plumage of young birds. Rare is the sighting of a truly white, a snowy Snowy Owl. And so my photos prove.
One more brief owl note: Boreal Owls were being seen in unusual numbers in Duluth and north along Old Highway 61. One fellow saw seven in one day, which might be a record. He’s a professional bird guide. He called his day on the North Shore his best birding day ever. Boreals were easy to find. They were perched in trees along Highway 61 and other roads, visible without problem. I want to know how many Boreal Owls were not hunting along roadways. How many were back in the woods, off road, out of sight? When irruptions happen we see the obvious birds, those coincidentally where birders look (and few leave the road to tramp the woods). How many of these birds are really here?
Below, male and female goldfinches. The males, bright yellow and black in breeding season, show soft yellow in the winter. Some of them already have a yellow body feather or two as the spring molt begins. Females wear drab plumage throughout.
Looking for an easy and inexpensive way to relax? Try bird watching. Bird watching helps you unwind after a busy day. Bird watching eases your worries, and turns idle time into enjoyable recreation that can lower your blood pressure, shrink your waistline, and improve marital relations. Bird watching comes in a variety of sizes. There is one to fit your needs. University studies have shown bird watching to be effective in reducing anxiety and constipation brought on by insufficient physical and mental exercise. Four out of five doctors recommend bird watching. Try bird watching today. It’s available everywhere.
WARNING: Bird watching can be addictive. Addictive personalities should consult their doctor before beginning. Tell your doctor if you tire easily while walking in the woods. Bird watching in cold or wet weather can bring on a runny nose. Consult your doctor if you develop a runny nose. If you watch the same tree for more than four hours seek immediate medical attention. Bird watchers can lose their way when birding in unfamiliar places. Ask your doctor if you should buy a compass. If you become overly excited when seeing a new bird, take several deep breaths and call your doctor in the morning.
Millions of people enjoy bird watching. You will, too. Try it today.
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