Ninja squirrel

I have tried many different feeder styles and placements in my backyard, but the gray squirrels have defeated every one of my squirrel-proofing attempts.  Nothing had worked to prevent the squirrels from empyting the bird feeders when I’ve been gone for several days, until we covered the trunk of the feeder tree (the Ohio Buckeye) with stove pipe sheet metal to keep them out of the tree altogether.

squirrel-proof bird feeders

But is this really squirrel-proof?  

No, because now they try to jump to the feeders from the porch railing.

flying gray squirrel

I think it might be just one ninja gray squirrel that is doing all the pilfering. He’s quite an athlete.

flying gray squirrel

It looks like he might have the distance and the height for this jump.

flying gray squirrel

But it’s not just the distance that must be covered, it’s the grab at the end of the jump that’s important.  Note outstretched paws ready to make the grab.

flying gray squirrel

No joy. A clean miss. But the jump is not fruitless because he is usually able to knock some seed out of the feeder onto the grass below.  The angle of this shot is deceptive.  The feeder is really about 6 feet from the tree trunk.

This squirrel must have tried to make the jump at least 12 times before he finally landed — and I missed the successful attempt unfortunately, because I wanted to see how he did it.

gray squirrel on feeder


Based on Ninja Squirrel’s prodigious feats of athleticism, I moved the feeder closer to the tree trunk.  We’ll see how he manages now.


We visited the new gorilla exhibit at the Como Zoo with the grandkids the other day. While it’s wonderful to see the animals in a more complex, outdoor environment, it always makes me wonder what they think about it.  Have you ever noticed that large mammals (apes, cats, etc.) don’t like to meet your gaze? In fact, it often looks like they avoid it, as they stare in some other direction.  Eye-to-eye confrontation must be too intimidating.

Orangutan at Como Zoo, St. Paul MN

orangutan at Como Zoo, St. Paul, MN

Facing me, but not looking at me…

gorilla female at Como Zoo, St. Paul MN

Her eyes are set so far back in their sockets you can hardly see where she is looking. As she turned her head toward me, she looked down and away.

Male Gorilla at Como Zoo, St. Paul, MN

This big silverback Gorilla was thinking hard about his delicious meal of lettuce., but avoided making contact with all the human eyes admiring him.

grandkids and gorilla

Well, the kids won’t look at me either.


Record rainfall in June created new wetland habitat in a local marsh that overflowed its cattail border and created new ponds out of former meadow.

flooded bike path

The flood has receded somewhat, but the bike path is still flooded.

flooded bike path

There is enough water here to attract a variety of waterbirds, like this Great Blue Heron hunting right at the edge of what used to be the asphalt bike path.

great blue heron

flooded bike path

Water from the marsh flows through the bike tunnel under the road and out into meadows on either side of the trail creating (temporary?) ponds that attract a variety of wildlife.

great egret flying over the marsh

Quite a few Great Egrets use the shallow water of these temporary ponds to hunt frogs, and perhaps fish that were washed in from the marsh.

great egret panting

It’s a hot day in the marsh, and this Great Egret was panting, rapidly fluttering the skin in its throat area to cool itself.

great egret in the marsh

Another egret perched on the shore of the shallow meadow lake.

flooded marshland

I counted as many as four Green Herons hunting along the shore of this flooded meadow here.

These birds were quick to find and utilize this newly created habitat — a real serendipitous occurrence.

great blue heron flying over the marsh

Egrets at sunset

Peering through the leaves of the trees that border the lake up the street from my house, I could see a dozen or so Great Egrets coming into their favorite roosting tree just as the sun was setting.great egret

great egret

great egrets coming into roost at sunset

Landing on a branch too close to another egret caused a bit of commotion.

great egret

Backlit by the setting sun, they almost look pink, instead of white.

great egret preening

Once settled on a particular branch, the birds began to preen their feathers before hunkering down for the night.

I don’t know what egrets think is the perfect roosting tree, but the birds seem to come back to the same couple of trees each summer, where they can usually be found vocalizing and thrashing about in the leaves just at sunset each evening.

Acrobatic wrens

Marsh Wrens, as their name implies, usually hang out in damp, marshy places, gobbling up insects, spiders, and small snails as they maneuver through the cattails and reeds. However, I found a male Marsh Wren singing loudly from the tops of Big Bluestem grasses on a hill-top prairie, and admired his ability to cling to the floppy grass stems while broadcasting his song of loud, shrill twangy notes.

A very atypical habitat for a marsh wren -- and Big Bluestem really doesn't have the vertical support that a nice fat cattail does.

A very atypical habitat for a marsh wren — and Big Bluestem really doesn’t have the vertical support that a nice fat cattail does.

snail lake marsh prairie

Atypical habitat for a Marsh Wren.  Perhaps he was advertising for new mates.

Marsh Wrens are not melodious singers like the House Wren and Winter Wren. Their song sounds to me more like the string of a bass guitar vibrating.

marsh wren

I tried to sneak around to the front of this guy, but he kept turning around on his precarious perch to sing with his back to me.

marsh wren

He has a dark cap and a white eyebrow, but otherwise looks like a House Wren with heavily barred feathers on its back and tail, which points up — wrenlike.

Marsh Wrens males are flirty guys, and may attract a number of females as mates. Each female builds her own nest, incubates her eggs, and feeds her chicks.  The male secures the territory for these multiple households, and builds several dummy nests, which he might use for roosting, but probably are also useful to confuse nest predators.

These birds are somewhat secretive and difficult to see in their typical aquatic environment, but the males do climb to the tops of the tallest plants to proclaim their territory, and often end up straddling two stems in a very acrobatic fashion.

Marsh Wren, Cistothorus_palustris

He might end up doing the splits, as his weight separates the two stalks to which he clings. Photo from Wikipedia

Loon legs

The signature bird of the northern forests, the Common Loon, is an adept swimmer and diver, a speedy flyer (up to 70 mph on migration), but a pathetic walker.

common loons

With their spear-shaped bills, conical heads, and torpedo-shaped bodies, these are sleek aquatic machines capable of chasing and gobbling up fish underwater.

Pushing the adaptation for efficiency in the water by moving the legs far back on its body to act like propellers has made this bird totally unsuited for a terrestrial existence.

common loon stretching its leg

You can’t really appreciate just how far back the loon’s legs are, even when you see the bird stretching those legs while on the water.

common loon flying

This view of a loon flying overhead illustrates just how far back the leg placement is.

Walking on land requires leg placement under the body, not behind it, such that the center of gravity of the mass of the bird is more or less right over the legs which support it.

bird leg postition in gull, duck, swan, and pelican

Heavier-bodied birds might waddle a bit as they walk but at least they are upright and mobile on land.

Loons only come on land to mate and to tend to the eggs in their nest, which they place close to the water’s edge.  Instead of getting their legs under them to stand upright, they use those rear-placed legs to shove them forward on their bellies.


A “bird” out of water:  kind of awkward.  Photo from:

And as the video below shows, their movement onto their nest is slow and awkward. (You might want to turn down the volume of sound when playing the video. The loon moves onshore to its nest at about 0:40 into the video.)

Get your ducks in a row

The idiomatic meaning of this strange saying is to get one’s affairs in order, to get organized before some big event, like a trip around the world.

Some waterfowl species really take this idiom to heart:  they swim in a row, fly in a row, walk in a row, even stand in a row.

Mallard ducklings in a row behind the hen

Following behind their mama in a line, or they will likely get lost or eaten.

mallard ducks swimming in a row

I’m not sure why it is important to swim in a line when “ducking for cover”, trying to escape from the photographer.


The energetic advantages of flying in a line, drafting off the bird in front, are well studied.

Canada geese-follow-the-leader

The advantages of following the leader on land are less well known.


Even while standing around on the ice, these Canada Geese adopt an orderly line-up.

Do you wonder where these strange idioms come from?  After watching some ducks evade my attempts to photograph them, I started to wonder whether this idiom originated from watching birds behave, or from some other source. and had some thoughts on the subject.  The bottom line is that the expression probably originated from sports games, specifically bowling, shooting, and pool.  Early bowling pins were short and squat and were called ducks.  Hand-setting of the pins after each frame was therefore called “getting the ducks (pins) in a row”.  Early carnival games often featured sitting or flying ducks placed on a conveyor belt that had to be perfectly aligned (in a row) for the shooter to topple them with an air gun.  Duck is also a term used in pool for a ball that is sitting right in front of a pocket — i.e., an easy shot.  Thus, to have one’s “ducks in a row” was to set up easy pool shots.  So take your pick for an origin of the term.

The common behavior of waterfowl species to form a line, rather than clump in a ball like a school of fish might do when threatened, seems to have some selective pressure driving it.  I have no idea what that is, but it’s interesting to contemplate why it happens.  Would a bird be safer in the middle of a line?  Do lines provide greater energy efficiency?


A rare beauty

It’s rare that I would see something rare, but that must be the case with this rare beauty I found on my neighbor’s Shasta Daisy plant the other day, because I spent two hours looking at various moth and butterfly websites to get an ID for it.  Nothing even faintly resembled the color pattern of this particular moth, and you know when that happens that it hasn’t been seen or photographed very much.

leadplant flower moth, Schinia lucens, nectaring on a Shasta Daisy

A fuzzy purple and white striped moth — in the daytime, in the hot sun, nectaring on a Shasta Daisy.  Aren’t moths nocturnal creatures, especially the hairy ones?

This is a very hairy moth, with its head mostly tucked under its thorax.  It seemed quite intent on sucking up every drop of nectar it could find in the daisy.

This is a very hairy moth, with its head and greenish eyes mostly down and tucked under its thorax. It seemed quite intent on sucking up every drop of nectar it could find in the daisy.

Patience rewarded finally, I found a similar-looking moth on a website about moths of the UK, so at least I knew to start looking at Noctuid moths on BugGuide, and there it was — the Leadplant flower moth (Schinia lucens).

leadplant flower moth, Schinia lucens, on Leadplant

This is the typical host plant for Leadplant flower moth — the Leadplant.  You can see they blend into their environment much better on this prairie plant than they do on the starkly white background of the daisy. (Photo by Armund Bartz, Wisconsin DNR)

The distribution of the Leadplant flower moth in the U.S. naturally follows the distribution of Leadplant in the dry prairies of the central and western part of the country. It is rare where Leadplant is rare, but widespread wherever the plant occurs, because the moth larvae are solely dependent on the maturing seeds of leadplant for their development.

leadplant among prairie plants

Leadplant (Amorpha canescrens), in the foreground with long flower spikes, is a member of the pea family found in dry prairies.  The name probably comes from the grayish tinge of the vegetation, not from its ability to extract lead from the soil, as some have claimed.  The flowers are unusual for pea flowers, having just one large petal, hence the genus name Amorpha.

leadplant flower moth, Schinia lucens, on Leadplant

Photo by Kyle Johnson from a presentation by Armund Bartz, Wisconsin DNR

Depending on the abundance of just one host plant for successful reproduction is a risky strategy.  Herbivore species may disappear when the habitat or environmental conditions eliminate their sole host plant.  This can result in local extinctions, and if those environmental conditions become pervasive, then global extinctions may occur.  Leadplant is a common plant on dry prairies, but only where grazing pressure is light.  It is highly palatable to cattle and disappears with high intensity grazing, and so of course, would the rare beauty of the Leadplant flower moth.

Ant wars

Boundary disputes settled by all-out warfare.  Sound familiar?

pavement ant war

Ants erupt from the pavement edge in response to intruders from a nearby colony.  

Such eruptions of millions of these pavement ants from their nest happen infrequently, but predictably in the spring, when colonies get too large and need to expand, only to find that they have trespassed on a neighboring colony in their expansion.  Pavement ants are fiercely aggressive, attacking members of another colony with their large mandibles and ripping heads from bodies.

pavement ant war

Members of one colony face off head-to-head against members of another, as you can see from the two by two line-ups in the photo.

Tetramorium caespitum-

My macro lens wasn’t up to the job of zeroing in on these tiny (less than 1/4 inch) critters, but photos by Alex Wild illustrate the face-off perfectly.  Those enlarged mandibles on their square-shaped heads can do a lot of damage.

Pavement ants are tiny, household pests that must have come with early settlers of North America, because they have been here since the early 1800s.  The must be hearty creatures because they can colonize some of the most uninhabitable-looking spaces.  The mounds of sand and dirt you might find between slabs of concrete in the summer are the work of pavement ants venting their underground nests.

pavement ant war

The day after I took the first photo above, an even larger eruption of pavement ants took place on the opposite side of the driveway.

Just another day in the life of a pavement any colony.

Incidentally, if you like cool photos of insects, Alex Wild’s photo gallery has some amazing ones.

Missing something

Red-bellied Woodpecker juvenile

Is it the angle of this shot or does this juvenile Red-bellied Woodpecker seem to be missing something? Its tail.

Red-bellied Woodpecker juvenile and House Finch

Yes, definitely missing its tail, as well as the signature red feathers on the crown and nape of its neck.  But the latter is typical of juveniles, the former (tail loss) is a liability.

Some predator may have tried to grab the youngster by its tail and pulled the feathers out. Normally, wing and tail feathers would develop simultaneously in young birds, so a fully feathered wing and absence of tail indicates some foul play here.

Woodpecker tails form the third leg of a tripod with their feet to support them on vertical surfaces, as the photo below illustrates.  The central tail feathers are pointed and especially stiff, propping the bird up while holding the body away from the tree surface.

Red-bellied Woodpecker illustrating the tripod of support provided by two legs and stiffened tail feathers

Woodpeckers typically spread their tail feathers as they land on a vertical surface, increasing the surface area of that third leg.  The central quill (rachis) must be strong enough to function as a support but must also flex and not bend, like a drinking straw would. This is accomplished by increasing the diameter of the central tail feather rachis, filling it with a high density of interlocking keratin proteins surrounded by a rigid keratin shell.

hairy woodpecker tail cross section-from

Cross sections of the central quill (rachis) of body and tail feathers of a Hairy Woodpecker illustrate well the strengthening provided by higher density of keratin in the shaft of the tail feather.  From a presentation by Tiffany Lee (MIT open courseware).

Without its tail support, young RBW will find it difficult to forage for grubs under the tree bark.  Perhaps that’s why it has been a constant visitor at the birdseed feeders recently.