Boreal birds

The Boreal Forest (also known as the taiga) is a harsh place, dominated by snowy landscapes, primarily coniferous trees, extremely cold and long winters and short-lasting, cool summers, but it is the largest land biome circling the high northern latitudes of the globe. In North America that includes most of inland Canada and Alaska.

Boreal forests are dominated by conifers, and usually have an understory of moss or lichen. The coniferous forests of northern Minnesota aren’t really part of the boreal biome, being warmer year round and having many fruit- and seed-bearing plants in the understory. This is an important difference for boreal-dwelling birds.

Over 300 species of birds breed in the boreal biome during its short summers with almost continuous daylight and abundant supply of insects, but only about 30 bird species stay for the rest of the year. In years when food resources are scarce during the winter, some boreal-dwelling bird species “irrupt” and make short migrations south to the northern coniferous forests in Minnesota and other parts of the U.S. These irruptions are irregular both in timing and location, but we can usually find a few boreal species in the spruce-tamarack forest of Sax-Zim bog.

Boreal Chickadees are one of the species that may desert their boreal habitat in search of food in coniferous forests further south. Some years they are never seen during the winter at Sax-Zim bog in northcentral MN, and some years they can be found in abundance. This year, there seemed to be just one Boreal Chickadee hanging out at this particular feeder.
Boreal Chickadees look very similar to our familiar Black-capped Chickadees, but they have a brown cap, gray cheeks, and rustier sides, and their calls are distinctly different. Besides being geographically separated by occurring further north than the Black-caps, Boreal Chickadees prefer to spend their time at foraging at the top of spruce trees, while chickadees forage much lower and in a variety of conifer or deciduous trees. However, their ranges do overlap in the boreal forest, and there is at least one report of a hybrid produced by interbreeding of the two species.
Pine Grosbeaks breed in the farthest northern reaches of the boreal biome across northern Canada, but may retreat to the southern parts of the biome and northern coniferous forests in MN for the winter where they dine on a variety of seeds from feeders and from the understory vegetation of the forest.
These large-bodied, colorful finches are entirely vegetarian: they crush large seeds and fruits in their bills or may nip the tips of the needles off pines or firs. The birds vary in color and even in size throughout their range, which extends around the globe in the boreal biome. Males are pink to rosy red in color and the females have variable amounts of copper color on the head and breast.
Evening Grosbeaks are another large-bodied finch that breeds in the boreal region, and like Pine Grosbeaks, they retreat south during the winter, often in large flocks. Their irruptive movements during the winter are unpredictable and irregular, and they might be found as far south as Texas.
Evening Grosbeaks consume seed in the winter, but are ferocious consumers of insects in the summer, especially spruce budworm. Males in their bright black and yellow plumage really stand out in the gray winter landscape. Females sort of resemble the smaller Goldfinch females with their black and white wing feathers.
Canada Jays (well named because they are found almost entirely in just Canada, unlike the Canada Goose!) stay in their boreal homes year-round, tolerating whatever the climate throws at them. They are well-adapted to the cold, with dense plumage, short beaks, and even feathers that insulate their nostrils!
The best way for Canada Jays to survive the boreal climate is to eat whatever they can find: berries, insects, small mammals, nestlings of and sometimes adult small birds like chickadees, carrion, even fungi. Like some other coniferous forest residents, they store food year-round securing it under bark and in crevices with their sticky saliva. Canada Jays adapt to human presence easily, making use of their food stores (like a hanging deer carcass) and inspiring colloquial names like “camp-robber” and “whiskey-jack”. Do they really sample the alcohol?

Other notable “irruptive” species one might find in the northern coniferous forests of MN like the White-winged or Red Crossbills, Bohemian Waxwings, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Purple Finches, Common or Hoary Redpolls, Pine Siskins, as well as Snowy Owls and Great Gray Owls, all make winter excursions “up north” an exciting adventure in bird watching.

Jays of the forest

Hiking into cool evergreen forests in the outer coast range near San Jose CA, you immediately meet up with the “jays of the forest”, the Steller’s Jay. We hear them before we see them, and they really are stellar to look at with their vivid black and deep blue plumage.

Like its eastern cousin the Blue Jay, Steller’s Jays have a crest, and like Blue Jays and Scrub Jays, they are intensely curious, especially of photographers creeping up on them, This bird played hide and seek with me, dodging behind tree stumps and hiding in thick brush as I tried to get a better angle on it.

Steller’s Jays are found only in the western North and Central America, typically in montane forests, like the coast range. In the U.S., they are found in coastal montane areas from Alaska through Canada to California and in the Rocky Mountains, where they barely overlap with the range of their closest cousin, the Blue Jay.

The hike along Steven’s Creek park in Cupertino was cool and rather dark with all the evergreen vegetation over the trail. Finding birds in the dense vegetation is challenging, and there isn’t much light to work with.
Steller’s Jays prefer the mixed deciduous and coniferous forests of the coast range of California. In the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains, they are usually found in coniferous forest at low to mid altitudes.
“can you see me now?” Darn bird, hiding in the sticks.
I had never noticed before that Steller’s Jays have turquoise eyebrows running vertically up their crest. They can also flare their crest forward or flatten it down, depending on their mood.
Their curiosity makes them adept at finding new food sources, so Steller’s Jays are quick to find bird feeders, or new eggs or nestlings in another bird’s nest, or a source of acorns they can cache for later. And they seem to have excellent memories for where they have hidden their food treasures.

Life on a restored prairie

The restored prairie at Tamarack Park in White Bear Lake is teeming with mid-summer activity.  Part of the restoration has included planting a very large 20 acre field with Big Bluestem grasses and other native forbs, and the grass “as high as an elephant’s eye” right now.  It’s amazing how much you can see in just an hour’s walk in such a place.

The Big Bluestem is already about 2 feet over my head. The park has cut paths through the prairie in places so you can see what being in the middle of a tall grass prairie is really like.

Most of Minnesota is part of the prairie-forest ecotone (the area where the two biomes intersect), and this photo is typical of that sort of vegetation.  Regular prairie fires, started by lightning or by native Americans, maintained the grasses and kept the woody vegetation from invading.  Trees competed better in wetter areas near lakes where prairie fires typically stopped burning.

Dozens of wildflower species are at or just past their peak, and add color to all the green.

Tall spikes of purple Blazing Star and yellow Tickseed and Black-eyed Susans stood out in the sea of green.

Several Goldenrod-Soldier Beetles were happily pollinating some of the Rudbeckia species plants.

Hundreds of dragonflies were flitting over and through the tall prairie grasses, hunting insects or perhaps a mate.

Halloween Pennant dragonflies (named for their orange and dark brown color) perched on the tallest vegetation in the prairie (on Mullein plant here) while they waited for something tempting to fly by.

Several male Widow Skimmer dragonflies were flitting around in the low grass near the edge of the path. These are mosquito specialists, so I like to see lots of them around.

Young fledgling birds were trying out their newly acquired hunting strategies to feed themselves.

A couple of young Bluebirds were eating fruit and looking for caterpillars. One was successful and immediately flew off with it — I guess to protect it from being stolen.

Two young Phoebes (with squeaky voices) were hunting by a small pond — competing with the dragonflies for flying insects.

Chipmunks, squirrels, and 13-lined Ground Squirrels scurried around, already storing up food for the long winter to come.

You don’t often see these 13-lined ground squirrels out in the open — and this one made a made dash for cover when he spotted me photographing him.

Life is busy on this prairie, and the only slow movements are those of the humans strolling along admiring all this beauty.

I could hear (but not see) frogs calling in the pond, and dragonflies were busy hunting along its edge. I love the clouds reflected in the clear water of a prairie pond.

Hawk nest hunt

Every spring and summer, Red-shouldered Hawks make their presence known in the backyard.  They soar over the cottonwood trees in the wetland just beyond the backyard and occasionally stop to perch on the trees in the backyard to see if there is anything worth eating in my yard.

One of a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks that were mobbing an owl (that I couldn’t find) last summer.

They have been particularly noisy this spring soaring overhead, calling to each other with plaintive cries, and mating in full view in the cottonwoods in the wetland (far away and behind many sticks).  So, this week while I have been walking out in the wetland photographing woodpeckers and wood ducks, I’ve been searching the tops of the trees for the Red-shouldered Hawk nest, and finally found it yesterday with the help of a neighbor.

It was across the wetland high up in a tree, probably much more visible from the street in front of the houses.

I could just see the top of the hawk’s head (and eye) with my binoculars and the zoom of the camera lens.

Trekking through the muddy wetland and across to the other side, another neighbor told me that this was a new nest this year, and that their former nest in his yard had fallen down with a heavy snowfall this past winter.  Eureka! — this might the pair that have been soaring and screeching over the wetlands in previous years.

One of the effects of this pandemic “stay home” restriction is that neighbors are outside socializing from driveway to driveway in the middle of the afternoon, and are happy to point out the wildlife they have seen in their backyard.  And the neighbor in whose tree the hawks built their nest kindly opened his backyard gate and let me to photograph the nest.

I got there just as there was a nest exchange and the sitting hawk flew off when its partner arrived and sat on the edge of the nest.  The nest doesn’t look particularly well-built, with loose sticks woven into the fork of the tree where four branches come together.  But perhaps they will add on if they are successful rearing chicks here.

A better view of the Red-shouldered Hawk adult with its obvious red shoulder patch, lightly barred rusty-colored breast feathers, and black tail with narrow white stripes.  The tail (along with the red shoulder patch and rusty barred breast feathers) helps distinguish this bird from its similar-sized, but more open country inhabitant, the Red-tailed Hawk. (Note I edited out the branches in front of the bird for a better look.)

The fact that one of the hawks was sitting down in the nest cup probably means there are some eggs there already, and I hope this pair successfully rears a couple of chicks so that I can return to photograph this spring and summer.

wood chips and nest holes

Walking along the muddy path the deer have made through the wetlands behind our house, I spied a load of wood chips beneath one tree.  That can only mean one thing…

Lots of white, flaky wood chips on the forest floor — what made these?

And looking up I found a series of holes in this standing dead tree, at the top of which was the creator of the wood chips.

Each dip of the Pileated Woodpecker’s head into the hole brought up big chunks of wood, which the bird launched into the air to add to the pile at the base of the tree.  You can see each of his chisel strikes at the side of the hole.  Eventually, the nest chamber will be 10-24 inches deep.  I can’t imagine how long that takes — extracting just a few chunks of wood at a time.

To read more about this process in Pileated Woodpeckers, click on this link to read a post from six years ago about nest building in these amazing wood chippers.

A little further down the trail in the wetland/cottonwood forest, I found a second hole high in a live tree.  Actually, a series of holes near the top of the trunk made it look like there might have been some false starts.

Pileated Woodpecker holes tend to be sort of oval in shape. This one is very round, and is in a tree that still has a lot of dense bark, rather than a dead snag. Who could have made this fairly sizeable excavation?

I’ve yet to see the creator of that particular nest hole (above), but judging from the size it’s a fairly large-sized woodpecker. I hope it’s a Red-bellied Woodpecker, like the one whose nest hole I discovered at a nearby park.

Although our lives are very different these days in many ways — one of the advantages of “staying home” is that I’ve started to pay more attention to what’s going on in my backyard instead of looking for more exotic landscapes and creatures to photograph.

A walk in the woods…

Usually one leaves the cold northland to bask in the sun on a sandy beach, but this time we are reveling in the rainy mist of the temperate rainforest of coastal Oregon.

Fog shrouds the lofty Sitka spruce in the temperate rainforest of Neahkahnie Mountain south of Cannon Beach, Oregon, making it look like a scene from the planet Endor. (Star Wars, VI)

Like its tropical counterpart, the temperate rainforest is so wet almost all of the year that plants are crowded together and basically grow on top of each other.  The big difference is the cool temperature that makes it a very quiet place almost devoid of animal life, at least in the winter on a rainy day.  The only bird life we saw on this hike was a Pacific Wren.

Typical vegetation in the Oregon coastal temperate rainforest: sword ferns, lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, and high on the mountains — Sitka spruce.

Moss drapes itself over pine branches. Lichens drip from tree limbs as well. Plants grow on top of plants.

Fungi and slime molds can be found on the few bare areas on downed wood that ferns and mosses haven’t colonized.

Hiking in this weather is perfect, because it’s not too cold, and you don’t get overheated or dehydrated, like we do in the Sierras. (I didn’t hear a single complaint from the grandkids about this trail up Neahkahnie Mountain.)

And so it begins…

It’s snowing as we run the lawnmowers dry and fill the snowblowers today.  It’s time to swap the places these two pieces of seasonal machinery occupy in the garage.

The leaves have been raked up (again!) in the backyard, and the grass has been mowed for a final time this year.

It’s just a light dusting of snow, and it won’t be heavy enough to keep the leaves in the far backyard from blowing onto the lawn. Darn!

I think in all the years we have lived in Minnesota, it has usually snowed for the first time, right about now.  And I’m not particularly happy to see it.  You can take the girl out of California, but you can’t take California (weather) out of the girl…

So, instead, how about a last look at some fall color we enjoyed on a family hike through the woods at our campground at Peninsula State Park in Door Co., Wisconsin last month.

Walking through crunchy leaves in golden light…

Daughter and granddaughter share a story on the trail…

Sights along the trail — crooked tree and beautiful birch.

Sights along the trail — a healthy population of decomposers at work.

Scenic campsite, wonderful evening campfires, with of course, s’mores for dessert.

Canada Geese flocking up in preparation for fall migration to somewhere.

Very skittish Geese, which apparently don’t tolerate humans within 100 yards of them.

Scenes from the Cerrado – plants and their pollinators

Although we visited the Cerrado in the dry season, there were many shrubs and trees putting out new leaves and flowers, even in the absence of any trace of rainfall for the past 6 months.  Extensive underground aquifers that fill during the rainy season are tapped by deep roots of most of these plants, ensuring that they can flower and produce seeds when their pollinators and seed dispersers are present.

One of these small shrub/trees was quite common, and was particularly noticeable because of its huge displays of large, white flowers.

This is the Pequi tree, (Caryocar brasiliense), whose large white flowers produce copious nectar and pollen.  It blooms only during the dry season — July to September.

The leaves of Pequi trees are leathery, an adaptation to living in an arid environment. The flowers are rather large (bee in the top flower provides size comparison) and white with lots of yellow stamens.  They produce copious nectar throughout the night, which is higher in sugar concentration in the morning than the evening.

Artistic view of the Pequi flowerhead

If there were a single plant species whose absence would markedly affect insect, bird, mammal, even human populations in the Cerrado, the Pequi would be it.

Pollination is done mainly by bats at night, but the plant is also visited by nocturnal moths, wasps, and ants, all feeding on the nectar produced by the flowers.  In the daytime, no nectar is produced, but bees and wasps visit the flowers to feed on pollen.

Hummingbirds may be found on the flowers at dusk and in early morning, cashing in on that last sweetened formula of nectar the flowers put out.  Guira, White-lined, Palm, and Siaca Tanagers along with Curl-crested Jays also frequent the flowers at dusk as well:

Colorful Guira Tanagers sip the nectar, eat the flowers, and munch on the seeds of the Pequi.  Photo by Dario Sanches.

Curl-crested Jays hang around the Pequi trees in the very early morning hours, perhaps to feast on the insects that are attracted to the flowers. (Photo by Debbie Reynolds)

Glittering bellied Emerald hummingbirds are one of many hummingbird species that depend heavily on the nectar provided by flowering trees.

But that’s not the only role that Pequi plays in the Cerrado.  Well-pollinated flowers produce a bounty of nuts, eaten by animals and especially favored by indigenous people of the Cerrado.

Pequi seeds in Cuiaba, Brazil market (Photo by Mateus Hidalgo).

The pulp surrounding the seeds has been described as aromatic, fruity, and cheesy, and can be eaten raw or used to flavor other dishes.  The seeds (with spines removed) are roasted and eaten like peanuts, or crushed to extract their oil, so the whole fruit has great commercial value.  Pequi trees are typically planted around villages for residents to harvest the tree’s bounty.

Exploring Maplewood state park

We made a brief trip up north over the July 4 holiday to lovely Maplewood state park, about a 3-hour drive northwest of the Twin Cities.  Lakes, trails, great campsites, rental canoes and kayaks available, swimming beach, wildlife, and more.  What a beautiful place, and it must be even more so in the fall, when the maple-basswood forest has turned gold and red.

The view of upper and lower Lake Lida from Hallaway Hill must be spectacular in the fall.  Driving the man-made causeway west takes you out of the park.

The sumac was in full bloom, and honeybees were busy pollinating. In the fall, red plumes of sumac seeds will light up this hillside.

At the top of Hallaway Hill, we happened to be standing at the intersection of the territories of three Yellow Warbler males. If one male got too close to another male’s boundary, a brief aerial scuffle between them ensued. One of the resident males checked us out.

A pair of Trumpeter Swans fed on submerged vegetation on one of the lakes in the park.

Back in April

The great migration of songbirds is mostly over, and the “pretty birds” have moved on to their northern breeding grounds.  Several people have commented on what an amazing spring it was this year, with so many migrants congregating in backyards everywhere.

Swainson’s Thrush was almost a common backyard bird as they stopped off to search through the fallen leaf litter for something to eat.

Apparently the extreme cold weather and snow we had back in April stalled the migration, with birds piling up just south of us, waiting for better weather and northerly winds.  Elsewhere the migration stalled where extreme flooding occurred in Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska.

As we returned north from Texas through the Plaines states in late April, we just missed the massive concentration of waterfowl that had briefly taken up residence in Loess Bluffs wildlife refuge in northwestern Missouri.  It wasn’t easy to get to the refuge because there was flooding with road closures all around it.  The refuge itself was also flooded, but we could still drive part way around it.

Redbuds were in bloom. Flooded pools that were full of migratory waterfowl two weeks earlier in the background.

Extensive wetlands attract a variety of waterfowl, especially Snow Geese.

May Apples were just about to bloom in the forests on the Loess Hills.

A month earlier, the refuge had an enormous population of Snow Geese stopover for refueling on their northward migration.  The Kansas City Star newspaper reported that on March 5, there were about 20 Snow Geese on the refuge, and a week later there were 1.3 MIllion!  Imagine the mess 1.3 million Geese would leave behind.  Maybe it’s a good thing the water levels were so high.

The scene on the refuge on March 15, 2019. Photo from the Kansas City Star.

There were still quite a few Snow Geese on the refuge (far away across the water in the background) in late April.  But what is of interest in this shot is the horde of Tree Swallows (small black dots on the cattails in the middle of the pond) spending a few nights in the marshes fattening up on insects.

We made a sunset drive through the refuge and spotted a few of the residents.

Lots of Great Blue Herons

Another GBH

Another GBH, in a scene looking like abstract art.

A pair of Sandhill Cranes moseying along the bank.

Turkey Vultures were congregated at the outlet of this large pond, where there was a bunch of stinky, dead fish.  The last golden rays of the setting sun almost made this bird attractive…

After reveling in the spring weather of northern Missouri, we headed home to MN, where the leaves were still in buds on the trees.