Chickadee take-offs and landings

I’m working on a system of capturing flight in the small birds in the backyard, using what I learned in the Alan Murphy photography workshop in January.  So far, I have only enticed the chickadees to use the set-up, and they really don’t like it as much as the birds in Texas liked theirs.

Black-capped chickadee

The set-up works great for birds that are relatively still, i.e., just landed and having a look at what’s available on the stump.

But because I don’t want to sit out in 30 degree F weather with wind chill, I’m photographing the birds from the comfort of my porch, shooting through window glass as the birds fly straight toward me (that means they are out of focus until just before they land — not a great technique!).  In addition, the background is rather ugly right now, owing to leafless trees and bushes back behind the stump.

But here are some of the interesting take-offs and landings I captured so far to illustrate Chickadee flight acrobatics.

Chickadee landings

Landing attempt #1 — pretty typical – outstretched feet, wings used for brakes. The bird is not very square coming in, but corrects nicely.  Stuck the two point landing in the middle of the stump.

Chickadee landings

Landing #2 — Look ma, I can land with just one wing…

Chickadee landings

Landing #3 — bird approaching too fast, had to use both wings to stop, unlike Landing #2.

Chickadee take-off

Take-off #1 — Usually chickadees fly in, pause, pick up a seed and dart off.

Chickadee take-off

This bird landed, but didn’t like what it saw, and immediately took off again, or rather fell off.

Let me explain briefly how difficult this is, especially if you don’t have lightning fast reflexes.

  • First of all, I shouldn’t be shooting through glass.  Second, I should have set up the camera perpendicular to the birds’ flight to the feeder, i.e., in the same plane of focus as the feeder.
  • Set up the camera on a tripod, focus on the middle of the stump (where you expect birds to land), hook up a remote shutter release that you hope is sensitive enough to fire when you really want it to, but not when you get excited about birds flying overhead, or leaves flying across your field of view.
  • Set the shutter speed for 1/4000, f-stop to 5.6-8 (higher for better depth of field), and let the ISO set itself (AUTO) to whatever the light conditions are.
  • Keep your thumb lightly pressed on the remote shutter and your eyes on the birds in the bush.  Then start firing the shutter as soon as a bird leaves the bush headed to the feeder.  Hopefully, some of the landings are in focus.
  • Now comes the tricky part — you have to anticipate when the bird will leave and start firing the remote shutter again as they hunch for take-off.  Very challenging for those without those lightning fast reflexes.

I hope to get better at this technique and capture a variety of birds coming to the feeder, but not until it’s warmer weather for sitting outside.  If you photographers out there try this and are successful, please let me know how you did.

ducks that go ice “fishing”

What is a duck to do when the lake ice refreezes? If they can’t find open water, at least they might find some weak spots in the ice where a few pokes of the bill can open up a channel to water below.

mallard ducks ice -fishing

Mallards “fishing” through small holes in the ice for the algae lying below.  Frankly, it looked slimy and completely unappetizing.

mallard ducks ice -fishing

Seems to be a successful strategy.   When one of a pair finds a good hole, they took turns sampling the slime.

mallard ducks ice -fishing

And there are plenty more holes to try…

magical sunset light

The changing light from yellow-orange to orangey-pink to pinkey-blue over just 15 minutes last evening after sunset at Lake Josephine in St. Paul, MN.

Lake Josephine sunset (St Paul, MN)-1

7:23 pm

Lake Josephine sunset (St Paul, MN)-2

7:32 pm

Lake Josephine sunset (St Paul, MN)-3

7:37 pm

Why do we enjoy sunsets so much?  Are we wired to appreciate that rosy glow?  Is it symbolic of something, like the comfort of a warm campfire, or the end of the day, or do we (as a species) just really like the color orange?  I’m curious what you think about this question. Thanks for commenting.

the morning mob

A quiet Sunday morning reading the newspaper was interrupted with loud and raucous crow calls from the backyard.  Suddenly a swarm of them appeared and landed in a neighbor’s tree, still calling, so I knew there must be a hawk or an owl out there somewhere.

crows mobbing Red-shouldered Hawk

At first glance, all I saw was a mob of crows.

crows mobbing Red-shouldered Hawks

Looking a little lower in the tree, it was obvious the crows were quite upset about the presence of a Red-shouldered Hawk in their territory.

crows mobbing Red-shouldered Hawks

Another hawk called from the top of a tree nearby, so perhaps this was a mated pair of hawks is investigating the backyard for nest sites.

Red-shouldered Hawk escaping a mob of crows

The crows finally chased one of the hawks out of its tree perch.

crows mobbing Red-shouldered Hawks

The pair met up briefly in another tree before the crows finally chased them both off into the wetland behind the backyard.

Red-shouldered Hawks are forest birds, like Crows, and search out wooded areas near water for nest sites.  Three (as yet unfrozen) ponds in the woods behind the backyard might look like a good spot for a nest, but not with those pesky crows around to harass them continually.

These hawks prey primarily on small rodents, but I suppose they wouldn’t pass up a nestling crow if they had a chance of success, so Crows, like other smaller birds, mount a successful defense against predation by ganging up at first sight of a predator in the area.  Warning calls bring more crows into the area, and some will be daring enough to fly right at the predator, using their feet and wings to strike at them.

crows mobbing Red-tailed Hawk

Crows successfully mobbed a Red-tailed Hawk in the backyard last summer as it flew overhead. Having to watch numerous small bodies coming at you is usually enough to drive a hawk away.

adding some color

The landscape may have turned white again with the latest snowfall, but the birds are starting to show some color at last, with the males molting some of their body feathers.

male house finch

I don’t think I’ve ever noticed the pretty red rump of the male House Finch in its breeding plumage.

male american goldfinch-

Not quite ready for prime time yet, but the male American Goldfinches are starting to sprout new yellow feathers in place of their drab tan winter plumage.

Cardinals, Chickadees, and Finches are singing — spring is on its way, if very slowly.

male cardinal-

Even the Cardinals have yet to lose the gray edging of their bright red feathers before they gain their true spring brilliance.

lazy fox

“the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” (a typist’s challenge), but the lazy red fox napped all afternoon in my neighbor’s backyard.  I bet it was a hard night hunting enough food for a litter of fox kits somewhere in the neighborhood.

red fox nap-

There was just enough sun to take the chill out of the sub-freezing temps today, so Red Fox curled up in the litter for a snooze.

red fox nap

At one point, fox got up to have a good scratch, change position, and find a more comfortable resting place.

red fox nap-


red fox nap-


red fox nap-

stretch some more while smelling out a new resting spot

red fox nap-

settling in again…

red fox nap-

the fox wasn’t really all that close, and it does sort of blend in to the color of the litter

As usual, watching the fox made me wonder about the yawning behavior. What is it, really, and why do we do it?

Yawning is contagious — even thinking about yawning makes me want to do it.  And a huge variety of different animals have been observed to engage in yawning, usually in association with resting or sleeping.

yawning animals

Yawning animals from a Google image search

Dogs supposedly will yawn when they see their owners yawning; try it on your pet and see if this works.

Some people claim that the contagion of yawning is related to the empathy between animals or between animals and humans.  Others claim the primary function of yawning and the deep inhalation of breath that accompanies the yawn is to increase oxygenation to the brain, or perhaps to cool the brain, by bringing increased blood flow from the cooler facial areas that are stretched during yawning.  No one really knows for sure.

Anting turkeys

Type that phrase (“anting turkeys”) into google and you’re likely to get “did you mean hunting turkeys?”  No, of course not, I meant exactly what I typed — are wild turkeys one of the birds that use anting behavior to cleanse themselves of parasites?  And yes, they are. (Read more about this behavior in Bird Watching Daily.


Great Tit anting behavior (observed last May 216 in Wales) is typical of what birds do to rid themselves of eternal parasites.

Over 200 bird species have been observed to search out areas where ants are likely to be found, immerse themselves in the dirt and dust there, and fluff their feathers as if they were bathing.  With a big bird like a turkey, it’s quite a show.


Five Wild Turkeys immersed themselves in pine needle fluff and dirt. Apparently this is a favorite place to go “ant”, because there were numerous turkey-shaped scrapes in the hillside.


Scrape the dirt, fluff feathers, and wiggle around until a good layer of litter and dirt works its way into those feathers.

And the reason for this behavior — ants release formic acid as a deterrent to being disturbed or threatened, and formic acid turns out to be a relatively good miticide (i.e., insecticide for mites).


Crouched down in the litter, the first thing turkeys did was scrape the dirt vigorously with their bill. Was that to agitate the ants and get them moving?


Get those legs into the actions as well, and stir up the litter and dirt behind and beneath them, while rustling feathers.


Rolling around, making sure head and neck get immersed in the ant-laden dirt and litter.

“But that’s not the end of the story.  The ants having released their toxic chemical are now fair game to be eaten, and provide some nutrition if a bird eats enough of them. So, as the bird preens its feathers after its ant dust bath, it can safely consume any stray ants it comes across — sort of like a dessert menu item. And this was quite nicely proven in an experiment by two Cornell biologists (in 2009) who observed that Blue Jays ate 90% of the ants that had been relieved of their formic acid, but engaged in anting behavior instead with ants that were intact (containing their sacs of formic acid).” (Backyard Biology, May 5, 2016)

Back to winter

We returned from wet, but very green California, to a very dry brown and gray Twin Cities landscape, but then immediately drove 100+ miles north to spend a long weekend in the Gull Lake area north of Brainerd for a return to a snowy winter landscape.

New snow, breezy point, MN

There is something especially attractive about freshly fallen snow clumped on tall pines, with beautiful blue sky and white clouds above.

New snow, breezy point, MN

I never thought I would say that I miss winter, but it’s true this year — during the winter that wasn’t.  Our weather columnist reports that “Twin Cities winters are now 5.4 degrees warmer than in 1970”.  True fact:  Minnesota’s climate is warming, making it more like Missouri than the Minnesota of 50 years ago.  True fact:  “February 2017 has set over 9800 records for warmth across the U.S., compared to just 250 new records for cold”.  (Star Tribune weather, Feb. 27, 2017))


Without snow cover and with record warm days, the ice is melting on MN lakes sooner now.

Last week, our newspaper reported that 500-1000 small pan fish (crappies) had succumbed when lake ice melted and near-shore water warmed, leaving the fish without adequate oxygen.   Great for local Bald Eagles, not so great for the fish populations in warming lakes.

As climates change, animals and plants get out of sync with their normal cycle; e.g., birds begin migrating and breeding before prey populations are present to support their offspring and plants bloom before or after their pollinators are present.  Climate changes are a challenge for all of us.


Lots of singing going on in the backyard this week…seems a little early to me for the Chickadees, but maybe I’ve just been paying more attention to that lately.

More on this subject in an interesting article on Vox today:  “these maps show how early spring is arriving in your state”.

a trio of bucks

Back in the Minnesota backyard, where the temperatures have climbed into the 60s (F), the snow has melted, and the deer can now forage on new grass shoots.  A herd of six does wandered through the backyard early this morning for a snack of bird seed, and a trio of young bucks ambled by later in the afternoon.  They still haven’t shed their antlers, but it looks like they have been losing portions of the tines.  Their unique antler growth makes them easy to recognize.


This is Studly; not only is his rack the most symmetrical (so far), but he has a nice white neck patch, and has the most regal posture of the three.


Studly’s regal posture!  Isn’t he handsome?


This is Lopside; he has lost most of the right side of his rack. He has the darkest face of the three bucks (is that a sign of age?)


This is Slurpy; he does a lot of licking. He is somewhat assymetric, with the left side tines larger than the right. He also has a dirty neck — it must be a hard place to clean.

The rut is over, and these three bachelors roam the backyard together, usually apart from the does.  I would love to find their cast-off antlers to add to my collection.

the hunter

Egrets and herons are known to stalk their prey in a variety of habitats, from still lagoons and boggy swamps to moderately flowing streams, but the habitat this little Snowy Egret chose to search for a meal looked really challenging.

Snowy Egret hunting

Snowy Egret hunting In a dense undergrowth of dead vegetation.

There might have been some frogs, or crayfish, or juicy insects wandering around in this dense vegetation, because the bird was focused tightly on one spot, turning its body ever so slightly to get a better view.

Snowy Egret hunting

I watched for several minutes but never saw it strike at anything.

Several studies have reported that Snowy Egrets are consistently about 50-70 % successful in their foraging strikes, regardless of habitat, using a combination of slow stealth, penetrating gaze, and quick strikes.

The bird eventually gave up and moved on to a more typical foraging site…

Snowy Egret hunting

Love those yellow feet, I wonder if the fish do as well?