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.
"The Raptors of Iowa" could just as well be titled "The Raptors of Minnesota." With few exceptions the birds featured in this beautiful slim book from the University of Iowa Press (UIP) are found here as well as to our south. The book, a touch over 100 pages long, showcases raptor paintings by the late artist James F. Landenberger.
He was best known in Iowa, a birder and teacher who became an artist. There are 32 color plates of his raptor watercolors. He was superb in that medium, judging by this work.There is a touch of Audubon here, Landenberger giving his birds postures and attitudes that convey life and, well, attitude, as did Audubon. The birds have personality.
Each painting includes appropriate background -- branches, leaves, ground vegetation, prey, cloudy skies. A favorite of mine is the rendition of a pair of Merlins streaking toward the ground. Landenberger captures not only the beauty of the birds but their spirit as well.
The art is accompanied by brief accounts of the birds' presence in Iowa. There also are four brief essays about Landenberger and about the raptors he loved.
This is a Bur Oak book, a special set of natural history books edited by Holly Carver at UIP. Bur Oak has issued 33 books, some specific to Iowa, others covering subjects with broader range.
Included are two books written by Minnesotan Nancy Overcott: "Fifty Common Birds of the Upper Midwest" and "Fifty Uncommon Birds of the Upper Midwest." Both are illustrated by artist Dana Gardner. This pair of books came out several years ago. They remain in print. Amazon has copies, along with a 2013 release by Overcott and Gardner titled "Living a Dream: Bluff Country Offerings," and other Bur Oak books.
Bur Oak Press does good work. These soft-cover books are well made, printed on acid-free paper, and designed throughout to bring pleasure to the eye. Design and content go hand-in-hand. The books by Overcott and Gardner would be excellent additions to a library featuring Minnesota birds.
Wood Duck hen with ducklings.
The Broad-winged Hawk that has been visiting our backyard pond to hunt from frogs gave me an opportunity for photos one day. The banded tail, visible when the bird stretched a wing, is diagnostic.
Whip-poor-will is a bird more often heard than seen. An insect eater active at night, it can drive you crazy with constant and rapid repeat of its mating song – whip-poor-will whip-poor-will, on and on. They are found throughout Minnesota except in the southwest and far western edge. They favor woodlands. River bottoms and wooded valleys are a favorite location. We recently heard and saw them in Crex Meadows Wildlife Area near Grantsburg, Wisconsin, moving between an oak woodland and prairie marked with scrubby oak bushes. You occasionally can see or flush one from the tree branches on which these birds sleep during the day, stretched out parallel to the branch, well camouflaged. At night they sometimes can be seen on rural roads, identified by the orange glow of their eyes as vehicle headlights hit them. That is how we found and ran over ours. It was an accident. The bird was looking the wrong way, its eyes not visible. We saw it just before it fluttered off the pavement and into the bottom of our van. We stopped to examine it. This is a bird rarely seen in hand. Whip-poor-wills are members of the nightjar family, all with long wings and tails and cryptic coloration. Nightjar, by the way, doesn’t mean what it meant when my grandmother used the word. It actually comes from Europe where a similar bird makes a “jarring” noise, or so I read in “The Dictionary of American Bird Names” by Ernest Choate. OK, now we have the remains of this bird in front of us. Closed, its bill looks smaller than expected, petite, almost hard to see when the bird is at rest. Opened, however, and it gapes from ear to ear, a huge basket into which the bird sweeps the flying insects it eats. Also cool are the bristles, the stiff feather whiskers on either side of its mouth, helpful in insect capture. This bird was one of three we saw, all roadies. We heard one but short burst of song. I’ve heard them sing all night long, however, not necessarily music even to the ears of a birder. The arrow in the first shot points at the hinge of the mouth.
An unusual number of ibis have been reported in Minnesota this spring. More than four dozen White-faced Ibis were listed as seen along with several Glossy Ibis. These sightings were shared with birders on the email list maintained by the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union (MOU). The White-faced reports are high in number but reasonably explained. The Glossy reports are unusual in both respects.
MOU records for previous sightings of White-faced Ibis list 38 spring sightings, 11 summer, and 26 fall. Those reported since April 19 equal more than 60 percent of all previous records. That's a lot of ibis. South Dakota and North Dakota birders also have been reporting this species, not unusual since the birds nest in the northeast corner of South Dakota. White-faced also have been reported in Wisconsin, including seven seen near LaCrosse. The farther east the sightings are made the more unusual they are. White-faced are western birds breeding mostly in southern California and Mexico with small populations scattered in several other western states, including South Dakota. The birds winter in Mexico.
Minnesota's White-faced reports stretched from the southeast corner of the state to the northwest, including reports from Carver and Dakota counties.
Most unusual are the sightings of Glossy Ibis. Total historic reports for the state are four, the same number said to be seen here in the past two weeks. This species breeds along the east coast of the U.S., wintering in the Caribbean. A biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources speculated that the White-faced birds were blown east from usual migration routes by our spring storms. That makes sense. It's hard to use the same rationale for Glossy Ibis, however.
One of the supposed Glossy Ibis was being seen at the boat landing on the north side of Swan Lake in Nicollet County. I photographed this bird a few weeks under cloudy skies. I used a 400mm lens, and shot from about 250-300 feet away. I thought my photos were inconclusive as to species, but I'm no ibis expert. So, I sent my photos to Kenn Kaufman, the author of "A Field Guide to North American Birds." Kaufman said the bird might be a Glossy but looked more like a Glossy/White-faced hybrid. Better photos would have helped; I needed to get closer to the bird, a risky maneuver, not wanting the bird to flush. A Glossy seen and photographed in Kittson County on April 24 looks like the real thing. You can see that photo by scrolling down the Agassiz Audubon Society's Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/agassizaudubon.
Ted Floyd, editor of the American Birding Association magazine "Birding" with no hesitation called the bird Glossy. Clincher for me was the same answer from Dr. Francie Cuthbert, University of Minnesota ornithologist focusing on colonial water birds (nest together in colonies). Ibis are colonial.
The birds reported are not all of the ibis that came to Minnesota. They were just the birds that birders found. There certainly were more. We cursed the winds for cold weather and snow. Some of us blessed them for ibis. Perhaps you remember: my birding list is for species photographed. Glossy Ibis went on the list.
Looking at the photos of both species one might wonder how any question could exist, and the local discussion of these sightings raised many questions. Considered were age of the bird (which determines plumage), the lighting in which the sighting took place, and hybrids. Several subtle difference occur in plumage of these birds, the most obvious being the white feathers than encircle the face of the aptly named White-faced Ibis.
Glossy Ibis. White-faced Ibis below.
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