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.

When it’s too cold to grab a peanut

The porch thermometer read -10 F (-23 C) and there was bright sun in the backyard, but there were no birds and no squirrels present at or under the feeders.  Finally about 10 a.m., the first foragers appeared.  The thermometer had worked its way up to just under 0 degrees F (-18 C), but the wind was blowing, so windchill temps would be well below 0 F.

male northern cardinal-winter plumage

Mr. Cardinal monitored the surroundings while Mrs. Cardinal foraged at the bird feeder.

female northern cardinal

She is finding the discarded sunflower seeds left by the chickadees and nuthatches who pitch them out of the feeder in search of peanuts instead.  The wind is fluffing out her feathers, but also carrying away her body heat.

White-breasted Nuthatch stashing a peanut

This White-breasted Nuthatch is stashing a peanut in a bark crevice, where it will hammer at it until it breaks off pieces it can eat.  I wonder if the crevices are more apparent when they are upside down, or it’s easier to break them up when they come at it upside down????

White-breasted Nuthatch stashing a peanut

After much hammering away, the Nuthatch has reduced the peanut (directly under its beak) to just a small chunk.

White-breasted Nuthatch basking on a cold morning

You know it’s cold when you see a Nuthatch pause for several minutes in its foraging efforts to bask in the sunlight. The bird’s back was directly facing the morning sun.

Black-capped Chickadee

Peanuts are the preferred high-energy foods on subzero days.

Black-capped Chickadee drilling a peanut

The Chickadee’s method of eating the peanut is much different — grasping the nut with its foot, the bird drilled into it to break off small chunks.  But peanuts at -10F must be brick hard, because this bird drilled it over and over and was only able to break off small bits.  After much effort it finally flew off with the nut, perhaps to its roost hole.

American Goldfinch and Black-capped Chickadee

The Goldfinch watched the Chickadee eating a peanut but made no attempt to go find some food for itself at the feeder.

Two birds exhibiting contrasting strategies for surviving harsh winters in the northern temperate climates:  Goldfinches turn up their metabolic furnace to keep their body temperatures stable on extremely cold winter nights; they do this by harvesting fat-rich seeds (like sunflower seeds) and keeping their fat reserves high.  Chickadees are primarily insectivores that do eat seeds in the winter, but typically conserve their internal fuel resources by lowering their body temperatures at night — just in case they need it to find food the next day.

Black-capped Chickadee

The heartiest of little winter birds…Chickadees are survivors!

By noon, the wind had picked up, and the temperature had dropped again, on its way down to an overnight low of -27 F (-32 C), and I didn’t see birds at the feeder for the rest of the afternoon.  I hope they survived overnight!

Seed thief

Early one morning, just as it was getting light, I strolled out to the porch overlooking the back yard with my coffee and saw this.

deer robbing bird feeder-

So that’s why this bird feeder has been emptied so quickly recently…

After the first few nights when temperatures dropped into single digits in the back yard, there were dozens of chickadees, nuthatches, and goldfinches flocking to this feeder in the early morning.  I filled it almost daily, thinking I was feeding just birds.  Apparently not.

doe robbing bird feeder-

I rapped on the window, and the yearling doe stopped in mid-chew to stare at me.

doe robbing bird feeder

And then she continued with her breakfast, unperturbed by my presence at the window.

So I yelled through the window at her, and she finally moseyed off…

white-tailed doe-

“OK, I’m leaving”, she seemed to say

white-tailed does

And off she went with a friend, to explore some other back yards.  

I’m sure the sunflower seeds gave this animal an added boost of protein for a few days; who knows, it might help her survive the long winter fast she is about to endure.  Needless to say, I raised the feeder on its perch, so she can’t reach it — at least until the snow pack around its base gets higher.

Tiny mobsters

Forest walk, Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN

Forest walk, Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN

We got a good demonstration of just how many tiny birds were present in the woods alongside roads in Sax-Zim bog, when our guide (Clinton Nienhaus, head naturalist at the bog) briefly played the call of a Screech Owl.  Within a couple of minutes, dozens of Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches appeared, calling continuously to sound the alert of a predator’s presence.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch, one of about a dozen, sounding the alert in response to a Screech Owl call.

Weighing in at a whopping 10 grams (less than a fast-food packet of ketchup), tiny Red-breasted Nuthatches are just a bit smaller than Chickadees, but even a small bird with that sharp-pointed beak could do some damage at close range.  In any case, the point of the mob action is to pester the would-be predator enough that it eventually flies away.  Mobs of small birds may also attract larger birds like jays and crows to help drive off the predator.

Red-breasted Nuthatches mobbing fake owl

Red-breasted Nuthatches and chickadees flit from branch to branch looking for the owl.  Since I have only ever seen a single or a pair of nuthatches at one time, this was a real treat to see so many of them in action.

Red-breasted Nuthatches prefer coniferous woods, like the black spruce and tamarack of the bog.  In the spring and summer, they are highly insectivorous, but like the chickadees, in the winter they love the peanuts and suet found at bird feeders.  Even though they are one of the smaller birds at the feeder, their feisty, aggressive behavior often drives bigger birds away.  Like their cousins, the White-breasted Nuthatch, they will store some of the feeder largesse in tree crevices for a snowy, cold day.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Looking up, looking down….where is that owl?

Sax-Zim bog is one of the premier birding areas in Minnesota, attractive to a number of Canadian breeding species like the Great Gray Owls and Hawk Owls, as well as northern breeding finches during the winter.  The farm fields filled with hay bales seem to be filled with mice and voles, perfect for raptors, and the dense spruce-tamarack forest provides good cover.  The Friends of Sax-Zim bog have established a welcome center where one can get a map, advice on where to search for some of the more exotic species, and even guided field trips to help you spot those elusive birds.

Field trip Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN

Field trip Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN.  We stopped here to check on the presence of Redpolls and other small finches.  Alas, only one Redpoll appeared, and only very briefly and far away.

For more information about the bog, visit their website (link above) or check out the photos and commentary of one of the founders of the organization, Sparky Stensaas at The Photonaturalist.

Finches of the forest

It was a treat to find two birds we never see in the Twin Cities at the feeders in Sax-Zim bog last weekend.  Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Grosbeaks are the largest members of the finch family, and like other finches, the male is brightly colored and the female is somewhat drab in comparison.

Male (left) and female Evening Grosbeak

Male (left) and female Evening Grosbeak

Male (top) and female Pine Grosbeak

Male (top) and female Pine Grosbeak

Both species use their large, crushing bills to harvest seeds out of reach of the smaller finches in the winter, but the summer diets of both are quite varied.

Male (top) and female Pine Grosbeak

Now that’s a big beak!

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeaks consume a lot of seeds in the winter, but they are largely insectivorous in the summer, especially when feeding chicks.  They are a major predator of the spruce budworm pest.  They are usually found in spruce-pine forests in southern Canada and the mountains of the western U.S. year-round.

Pine Grosbeak male

Pine Grosbeaks prefer a diet of fruit with their seeds and might feast on crabapples in a residential yard, as well as the sunflower seeds at the feeder.  They breed in the northern-most coniferous forests of Canada, feeding their chicks a mash of insect and vegetation.

The two species are not closely related, and the Pine Grosbeak is actually a circumpolar species, found in pine forests from Scandinavia to Eastern Asia, with its closest relatives being the European Bullfinches.  In North America, both species respond to winter food shortages with irruptive behavior that might involve flying miles south of their breeding territories.  Northern Minnesota is on the southern border of their winter range, so we felt lucky to see them.