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 identification

White-winged Scoter being seen near downtown

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: April 10, 2014 - 4:42 PM

A White-winged Scoter is being seen near the east end of Boom Island, which is at the west end of Nicollet Island near downtown Minneapolis. This species is regular in Minnesota during migration, but most often along the North Shore. It is unusual to have one mid-city, particularly one so loyal to a single location. It has been seen in or near this location for several days. Best viewing is from Boom Island. Enter the park from Sibley Avenue and drive to the far end (Washington Avenue east from downtown, left turn on Plymouth, right turn onto Sibley Street NE). A short walk will take you to the river bank. Check water near the channel between the islands. White-winged Scoters breed from central Canada northwest into the interior of Alaska. They winter along both coasts. The bird has been identified by staff at Audubon Minnesota as a female hatched in the spring of 2013.


Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: March 30, 2014 - 1:43 PM

If you read the interview with David Sibley in last Wednesday's StarTribune you know that in his new book falcons no longer appear after eagles and hawks. In the first edition, as in all other guide books, falcons are grouped with other raptors. Sibley has moved falcons back with the parrot family. He did this because, he explained, recent DNA studies show falcons to be more closely related to parrots than other raptors. In that regard, Rick Fournier of Minneapolis sent me this comment.

Great Horned Owl and chicks

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: March 23, 2014 - 10:13 PM

A Great Horned Owl nest holding the hen and two chicks can easily be seen at Silverwood Park in St. Anthony. (Park personnel have established a limit to approach to prevent disturbing the birds.) The hen and her chicks are nesting in the hollow of a broken branch in a large tree very close to a paved walking path, about 30 feet up. Visitors should have no problem locating the birds. Just look for the photographers, ever-present at this unusual viewing opportunity. The young owls appear to be about six weeks old. The male owl often can be seen perched, sound asleep, high in a nearby tree. That bird, as you can see from the photo below (not a very cooperative bird) is much lighter than its mate. Coloration of this species is highly variable. This female has typical adult coloration. The male tends more toward the lighter birds found most often far north. Great Horned Owls can be so light as to resemble Snowy Owls. This one is far from that, but interesting nonetheless. The owls should be visible for several more weeks. Once the young birds leave the nest they often remain in its vicinity. To find them, drive to the park’s most distant parking lot. There is a paved walkway leading between two park buildings. Follow that pathway approximately 200 yards. You might also find interesting the courtship behavior of at least seven Eastern Chipmunks in a tangle of brush and fallen logs immediately to the right of the walkway from the best owl-viewing spot. Friday, they were chasing each other incessantly. The chipmunks are very obvious right under the eye of the female owl. The male owl, the family’s provider, sleeps during the day, hunting at night. Perhaps that explains the mammals’ apparent daytime nonchalance.

An excellent book on North America's rare birds

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: February 28, 2014 - 4:54 PM

Rare Birds of North America, Steve N. G. Howell, Ian Lewington, Will Russell, Princeton University Press, 2014, hardcover, 428 pages, heavily illustrated, with index, $35.

All bird identification books should be this good. 

The two authors and the artist, Lewington, have created a guide to 262 species of birds rarely seen in North America. Their criteria for species is five or fewer North American sightings per year, using records dating to 1950.

The book is lavishy illustrated; Lewington is a fine artist. The text is lavish, too, far more information offered than is found in the usual field guide.

This, of course, is not a usual field guide. Working with 262 species, about one-third the number found in your Peterson or Sibley guides, is a real advantage for the authors, thus a real plus for readers.

Each species is discussed first in a brief summary of where it has been seen. Comment on taxonomy follows, then extensive discussion of status and distribution, comments on sightings, very complete field identification comments, including differing plumages by age, sex, and season, and comments on similar species. Similar species often are illustrated; side-by-side comparisons can be  made. 

If you seek rare birds or just hope to encounter one on your travels, the authors give you a thorough review and explanation of vagrancy and migration patterns. With many maps and clear text, you can actually plot — well, make a reasonable guess — as to where and when you want to be to see whatever. 

There are no other books I know of that offer such extensive analysis.

The book is an enjoyable and educational read for anyone interested in how and why rare birds sometimes show up in odd places, including Minnesota and Wisconsin. 

There was a Fieldfare, a northern European thrush, in Grand Marais in 1991, for example, way off its usual paths. A tropical hummingbird called Green Violet-ear spent a few days in LaCrosse in 1998. Another tropical hummer, a Green-breasted Mango, was in eastern Wisconsin in 2007. 

Minnesota had a Garganey, a European duck, in 1993. It breeds across northern Eurasia. A Smew was seen in Superior, Wisconsin, in 2000. It’s a boreal breeder from Scandinavia east across Russia. Minnesota has seen more than one Fork-tailed Flycatcher, a resident of South America.

The book helps you understand why this happens and, perhaps, when. The latter makes this a beautifully done wish-list.

There's a new birding movie

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: March 13, 2014 - 4:50 PM

A new birding movie, a coming-of-age story that centers on possible discovery of a bird extinct for over a hundred years, opens March 21 in "selected cities." The title is "A Birder's Guide to Everything." Four teen birders chase the rarest-of-rare possibility, the hero meets a girl, and it all ends well, except the bird is ... well, I don't want to spoil the ending. You can see a preview at www.tribecafilm.com. It looks good, and is said bv a reviewer not to contain the cliched satire that dominated the last birding movie made (The Big Year). Whether or not it will play here is the question.


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