the nectar thief

Each year, the Ohio Buckeye tree outside my porch window puts out a prodigious number of flower spikes, which reliably attract a few pollinators and one clever nectar thief.

Pollination of these flowers is sufficient for the tree to produce copious quantities of nuts, which are harvested by the squirrels in the fall.

Hummingbirds, bumblebees, and orioles visit the Buckeye tree in the spring, along with a horde of Tennessee warblers.

Tennessee Warblers arrive just as the Buckeye tree is in full flower. How do they manage to time it just right?

Tennessee Warblers really have nothing to do with the state of Tennessee, but do migrate through there, where they were first seen and named way back in 1811.  Like many small insectivores they spend the winter in the tropics, eating insects and nectar, and breed in the Canadian spruce forests where they specialize on spruce budworm and are critical to controlling outbreaks of the moth there.

Though they do visit flowers to consume nectar, they do not perform much of a pollination service for the plants, because they use their sharp beaks to pierce the flower at its base to get at the nectar at the bottom of the flower tube, thus avoiding the pollen on the anthers sticking far out of the flower.

Note where the beak is positioned to the side of the flower at its base. Pollen might inadvertently stick to the bird’s head or breast as it bumps into the anthers, but it might be hit or miss in depositing the pollen on the stigma of another flower.

Their beak is slightly open as if they are biting the flower to open a small hole in its base.

They only visit for a few days each spring, so I guess this must be the peak of their migration through MN this year.  You can see a light dusting of pollen on this bird’s neck and breast.

The sugars in the nectar will be metabolized and stored as fat and should provide these tiny little birds (about 2/3 the size of a chickadee) with the fuel they need to get to the Canadian spruce forest to breed.

(these photos shot with the Sony RX10 iii bridge camera through my porch window — what an amazing little camera!)

A weekend of birds and flowers

We drove to Lincoln, Nebraska for a wedding, and on the way we stopped to census the bird life with a few other birders at Weaver Dunes Nature Conservancy preserve in southeastern Minnesota: the day’s total was 77 species, and among them 14 species of warblers!  This was part of the Nature Conservancy’s one-day state chapter competition.  Last year MN came in second, and the pressure was on to beat Texas this year.

It took six people to find a Blue-headed Vireo in a tree.

Female Downy Woodpecker working on a nest hole — one of the 77 species we saw.

A rustic looking barn on a farm across the road from the preserve.

Prairie Violets covered the ground on some of the dune slopes, the first spring flowers blooming here.

Even the lichen were “blooming”: British Soldiers lichen with their bright red fruiting caps on gray-green stems, usually found on rotting stumps like this one.

I had a Sony RX 10 camera I was trying out on this trip, so before the wedding, we headed over to the Sunken Garden in Lincoln to see what was blooming.

Lots of mosquitos on the water lilies, but no frogs to enjoy them.

I don’t know what these trees were, but their new leaves were brilliant salmon red and pink.  The red pigment in new leaves protects them from sun damage before the leaves have synthesized their chlorophyll pigment.

 

Black and white tulips — that’s a little different.

Spiderwort growing by a waterfall made a nice contrast.  The camera has a wide range of shutter speeds for special effects, like silky water,

Quite a camera this Sony RX10, with its fixed 24-600 mm lens. And it weighs about 1/10 of what Big Bertha (my SLR and telephoto combo) does.  Something to consider when you need a multipurpose, lightweight travel camera.

Buried treasure

April blizzards create new challenges for wildlife, already limited by the diminished resources available.  Can squirrels really remember where they hid some buried treasure last fall?  Apparently so.

After the blizzard, gray squirrels ventured out in the deep snow, digging holes down to the dirt surface in search of their buried treasures.
This shot begs for a clever caption. Got any ideas?

It looks like the squirrel found what it was searching for — a dried up walnut.

I wonder if they can smell nuts under snow cover?

April blizzard

After a week of warmth in California weather, we returned to a Minnesota “spring” blizzard, complete with wet snow, fierce winds, icy rain, and frigid temperatures.  Pity the poor migratory birds that came here to replenish their energy before continuing north.

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow looking forlorn about all the snow covering the vegetation.

The icy crust was too hard for them to scratch below in search of fallen seeds from the feeders.

Slate-colored Junco

Slate-colored Juncos were everywhere scavenging fallen seed.

Male House Finch

This House Finch was eating the snow!

Male Northern Cardinal standing tall, trying to look in the feeder to find seed.

Female Northern Cardinal, not finding much to eat with the snow covering all the feeder holes.

American Goldfinch males have turned their bright yellow spring breeding colors. But it doesn’t seem like spring weather now.

Hopefully this is the last of the white stuff we will see this spring.

 

the competition

They’re back, and they’re busily staking out their territories.  The Red-winged Blackbirds that is.

Red-winged Blackbird

Timing is everything when males want to control the best space and resources to attract females when they arrive, so it’s best to be the first to arrive in coveted areas.

I had heard that blackbirds had been spotted along the southern border of the Twin Cities two days ago, so I went looking for them in our nearby local marshes, and didn’t find or hear a single bird.

But a very small pond lined with cattails bordering the parking lot of the local YMCA had three male blackbirds patrolling the space and actively announcing their presence.

One bird was hiding behind branches of a tree along the busy road.

Red-winged Blackbird

And he wouldn’t move! So this was the best shot I could get. Fortunately the brick walls of the YMCA were out of focus.

Another bird called from down in the cattails, but hopped up on them momentarily for a photo.

Red-winged Blackbird

Not much aggressive action between these two birds on this cold day.

The third bird called from his perch high up on a light pole, and I didn’t bother photographing him.

I wonder which of them will win the competition for this site.  It seems to me they could do so much better for breeding sites at some of the local ponds in parks nearby…but then I don’t know what blackbirds like.

Riding down the Mississippi on a chunk of ice

And the melting continues during a weekend heat wave of 50 F.  Ring-billed Gulls hitched a ride on an ice chunk as it floated down the river toward Coon Rapids dam.

Ring-billed Gulls on the Mississippi River, Minneapolis

Just “ridin’ down the river”…

Their ride had to end, though, as their ice berg approached the dam spillway.

Ring-billed Gulls on the Mississippi River, Minneapolis

Ring-billed Gulls on the Mississippi River, Minneapolis

 

Stark! Cold! Lifeless (almost).

That was the North Shore of Lake Superior this weekend.  So much wind they closed the lifts at Lutsen mountain, and the outer doors of our motel blew right off their track.

Lake Superior, Tofte, MN

There are some interesting ice formations on the frozen part of the lake.

Wind and cold temperatures make for a stark landscape.  It’s more attractive with some people in it — cold hikers!

Lake Superior, Tofte, MN

Lake Superior, Tofte, MN

Lots of frozen waterfalls along the cliff walls of the lake.

Lake Superior, Tofte, MN

Glittering shards of ice litter the shoreline of the lake.

American crow

Crows and ravens always seem to be out hunting for food regardless of weather extremes.

crows feeding on roadkill

Most often the animals you might see are feasting on roadkilled deer.  Larger predators like wolves and coyotes arrive first, then eagles, ravens, and crows. We saw several of these feeding sites along the north shore highway.  Image from a Storyblocks Video. https://www.videoblocks.com/video/common-raven-and-some-carrion-crows-feeding-on-carcasses-ystozgp 

Just being out in this environment for a couple of hours at a time makes me marvel at the abilities of animals to survive in it.

Frivolous fun

You can only blog about our white on white environment here in Minnesota for so long before it becomes quite boring.  Let me just say that I think my husband and I moved over a ton (literally, I calculated the weight of the cubic feet of snow removed at 2400 lbs) of the white stuff from walks and deck after the 10+ inch dump on Wednesday.  That was NOT the frivolous fun; playing with some recent photos using SnapSeed photo software was.

I started with a forest trail I photographed in Oakland, CA, and added some of the critters I have photographed in the backyard here in MN.

A forest trail, Oakland CA

The starting point of the fantasy. I remember this part of the trail being far prettier and more interesting than it appears in camera.

Judicious cropping, removing ugly skinny tree from dead center of the photo, lightening and warming up the image, and then adding a few forest friends, and voilà, a more pleasing (I hope) image to look at.

Storybook forest composite image

This scene reminds me of a page from a fairy tale about Bambi and friends.

of course it’s fake, but just frivolous fun with fotos…

How far can a gray squirrel jump?

If you google that question, you’ll find that gray squirrels can jump at least 4 feet straight up in the air, and at least 9 feet horizontally.  I’ve had a peanut feeder hanging in the buckeye tree about 7 feet from the trunk of the tree all winter, and just today a gray squirrel finally figured out how to get to the feeder. (Shot through the window looking into the afternoon sun with a terrible reflection.)

Gray squirrel jumping to a peanut feeder

This is a composite of two attempts wth the same flight path.  My camera could only capture two images per jump.  Note how this trajectory gets the squirrel to the feeder instead of colliding with the protective dome.  Click on the image to enlarge it to full screen.

Gray squirrel jumping to a peanut feeder

But this is where this particular leap took the squirrel before I scared it off.

The momentum of the landing creates a violent swing in the feeder, which can dislodge the squirrel that might be just hanging on with its toes.

Gray squirrel jumping to a peanut feeder

This might be categorized hanging on by your (toe)nails.

After several failed attempts involving collisions with the plastic dome over the feeder,

Gray squirrel jumping to a peanut feeder

Misjudged the landing on this attempt…

the squirrel successfully launched itself from just the right height on the tree trunk, with just the right trajectory arc, to land most of its body on the side of the feeder.

Athletic and smart, that’s the gray squirrel key to success.

Finch feeding frenzy

The behavior of my backyard birds is often just as telling as the latest weather report.  Judging from the frenzy of activity going on at the bird feeders today, the thermometer must be headed for negative numbers again.

house finches and goldfinches-

There must have been 2 or 3 dozen House Finches and Goldfinches mobbing this feeder in waves.

house finches and goldfinches-

A few waited their turn in the bushes opposite the feeder…

house finches and goldfinches-

Most of the time the birds took turns amicably.

house finches and goldfinches-

But there’s always a bully in the bunch. The red-headed male House Finch at top right tried moving a female House Finch off her perch.  But she beaked him once or twice and he moved away.

house finches and goldfinches-

Moments later, he was over on the left side of the feeder trying to move a male House Finch away from his perch. But he lost that battle, too, and flew away.

house finches and goldfinches-

I never realized how pretty Goldfinches are in flight with their striking black and gold wings.

The finches monopolized the feeder continuously for 10-15 minutes and then disappeared for an hour or two.  Then the frenzy started up once more, but again dissipated.  It must take quite a while to move all that bird seed from their crop and stomach into the lower part of the intestine for digestion.