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An open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond

Dying birds, butterflies, hurricanes, and duck stamps

Is anyone surprised anymore when one of the Hautman brothers wins the federal duck-stamp art competition? Joe Hautman won last week, the third time one of his paintings will be on the stamp, this for 2017. Brothers Jim and Bob each have won five times. All three are Minnesota residents. Joe's acrylic painting shows a pair of Mallards about to land on water.


Another hurricane has pounded one of the Caribbean islands, raising more concern among birders for survival of animals on islands hit hardest. Latest is Hurricane Maria in the Lesser Antilles. We appropriately get news first about people and buildings, but much damage also has been done to habitat used by many animals and insects. Some of the islands hit were home to endemic -- and endangered -- bird species with small populations. Concern is high enough to cause concern about extinction of some of those.


Painted Lady butterflies are being seen in sufficient numbers of South Dakota to make the birding email exchange. Sightings are happening across the state, more in the east. I wrote recently about frequent sightings here, Minneapolis, western suburbs, and towns heading west out Highway 12. The butterflies are gathering for their annual migration to southern Mexico. They will return in the spring, one generation after another, each completing one segment of the 2,000-mile journey. A truck driver from South Dakota, heading for New Mexico, reported Tuesday morning that he has seen Painted Ladies all the way, "My truck grill is full of them," he wrote.


If parent birds abandon their young at this time of year, beginning migration south while fledgliings are left behind, is that a problem for the young birds? I was asked that recently. Not to worry. The young birds will migrate when length of day and temperature tell them to. They are born with internal signals and maps that have been successfully used for millions of years. What we might worry about is forthcoming landscape and temperature changes that will begin to put static into the migration signals.


Seabirds are dying of starvation in parts of the Bering Sea. Dead birds are washing ashore on islands and the Alaskan mainland. There is no telling how many because most shoreline is isolated and many dead birds sink. The dead birds are emaciated. Researchers are trying to figure out why the birds cannot find the forage fish that have served them (again) for millions of years. The sea temp this summer has been 4 degree C above historic normal. It is possible that warming water has caused the fish to move to another, cooler part of the sea. Most impacted this fall are murres and fulmars (above). Murres also suffered massive die-offs the past two years. Whales and walrus also are dying. Because of ice changes, walrus must hunt for the mollusks that are the base of their diet in water too deep for the necessary dive.


To the south, off the shore of Monterey, California, sea water also is warmer than normal, an increase of almost 2 degrees C. Debi Shearwater, who leads pelagic birding trips out of Monterey, told me recently that she and her clients are having a "spectacular" season, warmer or not, with lots of food present. Lots of food means lots of birds. And whales. Debi said her trips are finding extraordinary numbers of Humpback Whales, as many as 80 per DAY. Book a trip. I've taken six, and your birding life is incomplete without a trip with Debi, an excellent birder and an uninhibited hostess. (, Treat yourself -- stay at the Monterey Bay Inn. 

Goldfinches find seeds, but not at feeders

American Goldfinches, serious seed eaters, have been waiting all summer for flowers to develop seed heads from which they can feed. Gardens and weed patches are what they look for. Here, one bird is working a bergamot patch, the other dandilions. The birds are wonderful to see at feeders, better to see in a garden.


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