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…

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.

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”.

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?

birds and blossoms

Spring has arrived in Northern California, despite long periods of recent heavy rain.  Trees are blooming, birds are singing, its green everywhere you look — truly a wonderful time to be outdoors.

Sycamores and green grass

Leafless Sycamores are a stark contrast to the lush green grass below.


This magnolia in my mother-in-law’s front yard began blooming back in November for some reason, and now shows both flowers and leaves simultaneously. The weather must have confused it….

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow singing loudly from his straddled perch

Black Phoebe

A Black Phoebe sang a few times in between catching bugs

Plain Titmouse

The Plain Titmouse whistled repeatedly to his mate to follow him on to the next tree.

Vultures on the beach

Taking a lesson from the Oroville dam almost-catastrophe, water levels in the Vasona reservoir south of San Jose, CA, have been lowered substantially prior to the next series of storms expected this weekend.

Vasona Reservoir, CA

The water in Vasona Reservoir is quite muddy, with a high volume coming in from highly eroded banks upstream.  The lake level is low enough now to expose some minor gravel islands, though.

Apparently, fish stranded in some of the back channels of the reservoir became fodder for the local bird life.  Turkey Vultures, seagulls, crows, and even a rarely seen Bald Eagle have been spotted feeding on the fish carcasses the past couple of days.

A “venue of Vultures” (I.e., a group of them) were still present picking over the last remains of a few fish this morning.

Turkey Vultures, Vasona reservoir, CA

Turkey Vultures:  where you see one, you usually find many

The weather wasn’t chilly, but when the sun emerged from behind some low clouds, the Vultures immediately began basking, backs to the sun and spreading their wings wide.  First one, then another and another…

Turkey Vultures basking

Does one Turkey Vulture copy another?  Coordinated basking behavior…

Turkey Vultures basking

Turkey Vulture show-off  — “I’m so pretty, oh, so pretty…”

Turkey Vulture take-off

Turkey Vulture taking off.  If you can ignore the naked red head, they are kind of pretty, especially those long, black and white wings.

California flooding

I have been reading about all the rain falling over most of California, but now I’m seeing the effects first hand.  We re-visited our favorite winery in Sonoma this past weekend and found Lake Sonoma overflowing into various tributaries.

Lake Sonoma spillway

Water rushing down the Lake Sonoma spillway is at high volume.

Lake Sonoma county park

At Lake Sonoma county park, what were once clear running quiet streams have turned into muddy backwaters.

Common Merganser and American Widgeon

Common Merganser and American Widgeon ducks seem to love all this water though.

However, the flooding here is minuscule compared to the amount of water pouring over the Oroville dam in the foothills of the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Oroville dam concrete spillway

A huge chunk of concrete eroded out of the center of the Oroville dam concrete spillway, where excess water was being released from the lake. Photo from 2 days ago.

Emergency spillway Oroville dam

Unable to release enough water over the concrete spillway at the Oroville dam, water was released over the emergency spillway and down into the Feather River, which has become a high volume of muddy water. Still capture from KCRA live streaming news coverage.

Thousands of (almost 200,000) homes downstream have been evacuated, but more hard rain is expected next weekend for this rain-soaked and flooded area.  From extreme drought to extreme flood, weather fit for neither man nor beast.

UPDATE: water leaving the dam via the emergency spillway was producing too much erosion with the potential for collapse of that wall of the dam.  Instead, engineers increased the flow out the concrete spillway today.  Great video of the process on Vox: