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.
Fall is a great time to visit Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge in the northwestern corner of the state. Sandhill Cranes are the main attraction right now, with hundreds on the ground and many more on the way.
The refuge serves as staging ground for thousands of migrating cranes moving south from Canada and Alaska. There is a lack of water this year, only an estimated 10 percent of available wetlands actually wet. Cranes, even though they prefer it wet, will stop at the refuge as they migrate through. As many as 4,000 birds can be expected.
Many species of grassland and wetland birds can be seen here during migration, spring in particular, and as nesting residents. Cranes nest here, along with Greater Prairie Chickens and Marbled Godwits. During a visit to the refuge a few years ago I saw my first-ever Badger.
The refuge, about 36,000 acres of land, was established in 2004. Major intent was to preserve and restore native tallgrass prairie and wetlands.
The refuge is featured in the most recent issue of the magazine “Refuge Update,” published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The article notes that reconstruction of prairie at Glacial Ridge is the largest contiguous tallgrass prairie project in U.S. history.
The refuge also is the largest contiguous tract of Wetland Reserve Program land in the state.
Work on restoration and conservation is a join effort between the USFWS, The Nature Conservancy, and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service through its wetland reserve program.
The refuge is located about 50 miles north of Detroit Lakes and 20 miles south of Thief River Falls. Access is from U.S. Highway 2.. Immediately to the east is Rydell National Wildlife Refuge. Not far to the south are three more refuges: Hamden Slough, Tamarac, and Northern Tallgrass Prairie.
It’s a fair drive from the Twin Cities, but Glacial Ridge a beautiful place to visit if you like prairies and prairie wildlife. The other three refuges are, of course, also well worth a visit. (Below, cranes in migration.)
Two of northern Minnesota's finest artists have collaborated on a book about hawks. The book is "Hawk Ridge: Minnesota's Birds of Prey." The author is Laura Erickson, the artist Betsy Bowen. Hawk Weekend is this Saturday and Sunday. The book is a perfect companion for a hawk-watching trip to Hawk Ridge in Duluth.
Hawk Ridge is an observation point above the city of Duluth. It's famous as one of the nation's best places to see raptors (and other birds) as they migrate. Birds can be seen in both spring and fall, but the fall movement is the one to watch. Some days are spectacular, with tens of thousands of birds flowing over and along the ridge.
Erickson has been a fixture at the main Hawk Ridge observation point for years. She writes with clarity and passion the life histories of 20 species of eagles, hawks, falcons, kites, and vultures. She tells why birds make Hawk Ridge the exciting place it is from August through November, the fall migration window. She writes with grace, knowledgeable sentences flowing as smoothly as the ridge wind.
Bowen, who works up the Lake Superior shore in Grand Marais, is perhaps best known for her woodcut art. Here, she has painted some raptors, drawn others with pen and ink. Her distinctive style is evident regardless of medium.
Timely is the short chapter on visiting Hawk Ridge because this weekend, Sept. 20 and 21, is Hawk Weekend. Erickson details all you need to know, wear, and bring when you visit.
Special events are planned for both days. Help with identification will be available. Live birds will be shown. With appropriate weather, good visibility and a wind from the north or northwest, these could be spectacular migration days. Broad-winged Hawks are the species that usually has the highest count number, often approaching 100,000 for a season, with one or two days when the majority of those birds could pass.
The Broad-winged total for this season stood at 9,504 for the season to date. That means the big flights are yet to happen. To date, 14 raptor species have been seen. (Both species of eagle and Rough-legged Hawk tend to appear later in the fall.)
Find a copy of the book, then head for Duluth. If you plan an overnight, make reservations immediately. The birds and the fall color in the forests make Duluth a high-demand destination right now. For more information go to www.hawkridge.org
The hanging hummingbirds? Most likely juveniles too weak, too depleted of energy to hold themselves upright at the feeder. Nancy Newfield, who feeds, bands, and studies hummingbirds from her Louisiana home sent an email to answer my question.
As I wrote in this blog yesterday, these birds were seen at a sugar-water feeder at a home near Lutsen, on the North Shore of Lake Superior. I sent Ms. Newfield my question and a photo of the bird hanging from the feeder perch.
“The Ruby-throated Hummingbird appears to be a youngster. Many recent fledglings embark upon a rigorous migration before developing their full strength,” she wrote. “During migration a certain percentage of them will seriously deplete their energy reserves (fat), and become weakened, at least temporarily.”
Were we seeing the same bird on consecutive days? She doubts it. We most likely saw different migrants moving along the shore. Any bird that was hanging from the perch was having a problem finding a supply of food sufficient to continue migration.
The meadows between Lutsen and Grand Marais are filled with blooming wild flowers right now, but few that offer the nectar cup the hummingbirds seek.
Migration takes a toll on birds of all ages. “Especially during fall migration,” Ms. Newfield wrote. “These energy-deficient youngsters are the most vulnerable. They’re less able to force their way to a feeder, and are much more vulnerable to predators.”
A dominant hummingbird guarding a feeder, and driving other would-be feeders away is a common sight.
And what I saw as an attack, one hummingbird clinging to another at the feeder, stabbing or poking with its bill, and pulling feathers?
“If I’m not mistaken, most birds of most avian families will attack sick-looking individuals,” she wrote. “Perhaps this is nature’s way of eliminating the infirm and less fit.
Looking at photos taken three years ago (below) that I sent her showing an attack and a hanging bird, she wrote, “There were at least two attackers. Both appear to be male. That is just the nature of the beasts.”
So, why didn’t the exhausted bird simply drop from the perch instead of hanging there like an ornament? Ms. Newfield explained that when birds perch their feet automatically lock onto the perch. We humans must make a conscious effort to tighten a fist or curl our toes. It’s the opposite for birds. They must make the effort to release their grip. The bird would fall only when it became so weakened that it lost even reflexive muscle control.
The Hanging Hummingbird has returned. For the third September in a row, on the same feeder on the same Lutsen shoreline property, a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird is displaying what I consider odd behavior. It hangs upsidedown from one of the perches on a sugar-water feeder here.
Three years ago we watched a feeding hummingbird being attacked vigorously by a second bird. The attacker stabbed its victim and pulled at its feathers with its bill. The attack went on for minutes. Eventually, the attackee hung by its feet from the perch, head down. We assumed it was injured. It soon dropped from the perch and lay on its stomach on the deck floor beneath it, then disappeared. It flew away or rolled off the deck into the weeds; I don’t know.
The second year a hummingbird hung upsidedown on that feeder without an observed attack. We saw that behavior only once. This year a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird is hanging again, more than once a day, and two days in a row, Saturday and Sunday.
Sunday morning it hung by one claw on one foot, what looked like a precarious position. I thought perhaps the bird was weak or injured. The hanger returned that evening, hanging for perhaps 30 minutes. It was close to dark when it released its grip and flew away. Monday morning, at 8 a.m., there was the Hanging Hummingbird one more time, firmly gripping the perch with all toes on both feet, eyes open, no problem evident. It hung there while a second hummingbird fed, the feeder returning more than once. That was unusual because for three days prior defense of the feeder as food source for one bird only was the rule. Around 8:15 that morning, the bird was gone. Monday evening it hung again, flying away without apparent problem when approached for photos. It returned to hang a few minutes later.
The bird comes and goes it a natural fashion. It flies as it should. It feeds on occasion. It is not bothered by the other hummingbirds using the feeder. Indeed, they feed from perches beside the hanger.
I have no idea why this behavior is occurring. Maybe we’ve been watching the same bird for three years. The fight three years ago, a serious attack, explained for me the hang at that time; the bird easily could have been wounded. Last year and this year? No idea. I’m contacting a couple of hummingbird specialists to see if they can offer an explanation.
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the last documented sighting of the Eskimo Curlew. Everything considered, the species is extinct. And if any remain, they would be so difficult to find/see that extinction is the same.
The bird migrated through southwestern Minnesota on its way to the Arctic tundra for nesting and to the far end of South America when nesting ended. The curlew, one of eight species in its family, as numerous as any shorebird, made one of the longest roundtrip migrations of any bird species.
It disappeared for the usual reasons. When we had wiped out the Passenger Pigeon, that source of meat for market gone, hunters next chose Eskimo Curlews, one hunting party able to take thousands of curlews in a few days. As many as two million birds a year were killed annually, according to estimates.
At the same time, the portion of the birds’ migration path through the United States was being plowed for crops. The prairies that provided the insects that fueled the final legs of migration disappeared.
The curlew could not survive that double whammy. The birds were gone about 20 years after the onslaught began. It doesn’t take long if you ignore what you’re doing.
A few Minnesota birders, not many, have in recent springs invested a day or two to drive the state’s southwestern pastures and prairie remnants in search of migrating flocks of plovers. The curlew resembles a plover, if you take a casual look. These birders held thin hope that the curlew was not extinct, its small remaining numbers simply overlooked. They hoped to find the slimmer, slightly taller bird foraging with the plovers, evident to a sharpened eye.
The last confirmed sighting of Eskimo Curlew was in Texas in 1962. A year later – 50 years ago – a specimen was taken on Barbados. That was the end of the official story. Sighting of 23 Eskimo Curlews in Texas in 1981 was termed “reliable,” no evidence presented. Ditto unconfirmed reports from Texas and Canada in 1987, Argentina in 1990, and in Nova Scotia as recently as 2006. Unconfirmed is the key word.
A wonderful book about this bird titled “Last of the Curlews” was published in 1954. Canadian author Fred Bosworth offered a fictional account of a year in the life of the bird. Over 3 million copies have been sold. I’ve read it. It’s a good book, a sad story.
That makes three species of birds once seen in Minnesota and now extinct: the curlew, the Passenger Pigeon, and the Carolina Parakeet. The latter’s range just nicked the southwestern edge of the state.
The drawing is from the late 1800s, artist unknown.
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