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.

…not a creature was stirring…

North of the Twin Cities of Minnesota about three hours drive is a vast boggy patchwork of black spruce-tamarack forest and open prairie/cropland that is the winter home of some of the raptors that breed in the Canadian tundra.  We visited there over the weekend hoping to see a few Snowly Owls and Rough-legged Hawks, the chief avian predators of the open fields between the swampy areas of Sax-Zim bog.

Birch-aspen forest in Sax-Zim bog, MN

We had high expectations of seeing our target species in these open fields on a frosty morning, when the thermometer hovered around 7 degreees F and the tips of the trees were covered in hoar frost.

Hoar frost

What little moisture is in this frigid winter air condenses into icy coatings on exposed branches when temperatures dip below the dew point at 7 degrees F.

Cropland in Sax-Zim bog, MN

Looking high in the trees for the hawks and low on the hay bales for the owls, we traversed the bog and crop lands searching for raptors. A Snowy Owl should be perched on one of the hay bales…

Cropland in Sax-Zim bog, MN

But not a creature was stirring. In fact, there were no birds of any sort flitting about. It was unnaturally still!  Rough-legged Hawks should be perched in one of the trees lining the open fields searching for mice…

Alas, a four-hour search turned up just one hawk, seen at a distance of about 1/4 mile, and no owls.  But there was a lot of photogenic scenery along the way (more on that next time…)

The next day we did find a Rough-legged Hawk perched right by the side of the road, overlooking a farm field of corn stubble, but the bird flew off as we drove up.  It would have been a nice photo op, something like this…

Rough-legged Hawk, Wikimedia Commons, photo by dfaulder

Rough-legged Hawk, (Wikimedia Commons, photo by dfaulder).

Heavily streaked with brown and sporting flashy white tail feathers and densely feathered legs to keep those toes warm in the frigid winter temperatures, these medium-sized hawks hunt for mice in the open fields.  But they will attack most any bird or mammal prey they find, including rabbits and weasels, snow buntings and tree sparrows, even other raptors from whom they may steal the food.  If live food is lacking, the hawks will feed on carrion.

Voles and lemmings make up the bulk of their diet, and there is some evidence that Rough-legged Hawks can actually see the scent marks left in the vole urine which is visible in the UV.  Imagine the hawk’s eyes following trails of blue fluorescing across the snow to where a mouse hides just under the crust.  Bam!  Dinner.

Funny feet

I think of American Coots as very common, uninteresting birds, and so I never photograph them.  But I was intrigued by their diving maneuvers to obtain submerged vegetation, and stopped to watch them more closely on my walk along Los Gatos Creek in San Jose, CA the other day.

Juvenile American Coot

This juvenile Coot was very protective of a small patch of submerged vegetation a foot or so below the surface.

Coots seem to be very buoyant in the water; it takes work to submerge and they actively kick their feet against the water as they dive, quite unlike what Cormorants do.

American Coot diving

This is the intriguing part.  Look at those big feet/toes that the bird uses to propel itself down into the water.

Submerged American Coot

Using their lobed toes to propel them, Coots can get down to choice bites of vegetation.

Juvenile American Coot

Sometimes they bring up a large amount of vegetation that they bite off in chunks.

American Coot feet

A better look at those funny feet.   Photo from http://naturemappingfoundation.org/natmap/facts/american_coot_712.html

Coots occupy a wide variety of wetland habitats throughout North and Central America, feeding on a variety of aquatic vegetation.  But they are not fussy and will eat seeds or invertebrates they find on land as well.  Typically, they forage in small groups, their lobed toes expanded to a web as they kick backward to propel them through the water, and then collapsing inward as they bring their foot forward again.

That lobed toe design comes in handy when Coots walk across muddy, marsh ground, preventing them from sinking down into it.  And they assist Coots in taking off from water, when they need to use their feet to help lift their chunky bodies into the air.

Pretty useful, those funny feet!

American Coot taking off from water (Audubon)

American Coot taking off from water (Audubon Guide to North American Birds).

Fruit feast

Trees and shrubs are dripping with fruit and berries this fall, and the robins are loving it.  A migratory wave of the feisty chirppers arrived this past week to attack the crab apple crop.

American Robin in a crabapple tree

With this many fruits to choose from, this Robin must be overwhelmed with the sea of red.  

But not all fruits on the crabapple tree are equal, and Robins prove to be quite choosy about which fruits they select.

American Robin in a crabapple tree

This one?

American Robin in a crabapple tree

Nope, this one instead. Notice it’s kind of shriveled and wrinkled looking.

American Robin in a crabapple tree

Down it goes, and the search for the next (ripe?) fruit begins.

The firm, plump red crabapples area definitely not the desirable ones. Are the wrinkled ones sweeter, or are they a little fermented, more like crab apple wine?

the beginning of the end…of summer

It’s down to the asters and goldenrods, among the last of the blooms for pollinators to visit before it’s too cold to visit anything.

Bumblebees sleeping in asters

A couple of very cold bumblebees must have spent the night in these asters. They were pretty comatose on this chilly morning.

Hoverflies on goldenrod

The yellow jacket mimicry of these very large hoverflies was so good, I almost walked away from this Stiff Goldenrod plant to avoid them.

Bumble bees on showy goldenrod

Later in the day, a hoard of bumblebees attacked the few remaining flowering stems of Showy Goldenrod. It’s a last chance to harvest nectar and pollen to store away for the winter.

All this work, and then what happens to these insects?

The bumblebee queen who founded her colony in the spring (the old queen) and all of the workers she produced will likely die in the first freezing weather of the winter.  All their work over the summer and fall was to ensure that new queens would be born and survive the winter to found new colonies the following spring.  New queens hatched during the summer feed voraciously on nectar and pollen in the fall to lay down fat stores that will carry them through the winter in their underground nest.

Bumblebees on dahlias

Dahlias keep producing their glorious blooms well into the fall until the first hard frost, another good source of nutrition for young queens.

Hoverflies (depending on the species) might overwinter as adults or as late-stage, fully grown larvae, by taking shelter in protected nooks and crannies of  tree roots or bark.  In Minnesota, they will have to withstand freezing solid, as temperatures drop well below zero.  Individuals that overwinter as adults (probably females) are the ones we see flying around in the spring looking for aphid-infested plants on which to lay their eggs before they die.  When the larvae hatch, they have a food source waiting for them. A second wave of hoverflies join the party after warmer temperatures have spurred them through the pupal stage to emerge as adults.

Hoverfly on New England aster

Hoverflies slurp up nectar from fall flowers to build up their fat reserves. Some of the fat will be used to produce a glycerol anti-freeze compound so that their cells can tolerate freezing without damage from ice crystal formation.

Fall harvest gone wild

This should be called the year of the fantastic nut crop: acorns by the ton, walnuts carpeting the lawn, and buckeyes remaining unharvested because there is a food surplus in the backyard like never before.

Ohio buckeye nuts

The Ohio Buckeye tree is loaded with nuts, which the squirrels should have harvested by now.

Why is this happening?  I don’t remember there being great spring weather; oh wait, I was in the UK during spring.  The summer was the usual blend of hot and humid interspersed with cold and rainy, so it must have been perfect for growing a huge nut crop.  But why have all the oak trees in the backyard gone crazy with acorn production?

Oak acorns

The forest floor has become crunchy with fallen acorns. This is just what the squirrels leave behind.

We are experiencing a “mast year” in oak tree production of acorns, which happens irregularly, every two to five to seven years.  And it’s happening in not just one species of oak, but simultaneously in the three most common Minnesota oak species — the northern pin oak, the northern red oak, and the bur oak.

Bucks eating acorns, photo by Charles Alsheimer

In a normal year of acorn production, animals consume or store most of the acorn crop, leaving little chance that the nuts could sprout into seedling oaks. Photo by Charles Alsheimer.

In a recent post (September 12), I discussed how trees “talk” to each other, and this synchronous boom production of acorns is a good example of the result of that communication, which can occur not only locally within a forest, but over broad distances.  Basically, mast production of acorns is the trees’ combined strategy of satiating the acorn consumers so that the leftovers can develop into seedlings.

The oaks must have been talking to the walnuts in the backyard as well, and the squirrels are just not able to keep up with the bounties of this fall harvest.

Gray squirrel husking a walnut

Bring all your friends, Mr. Squirrel, I’ve already raked up a garbage can full of walnuts.

The perfect response to this enormous fall bounty — “stop, I’m full already”.

National Geographic funny animal photos, 2018, Photo by Mary McGowan, CWPA, Barcroft Images

National Geographic funny animal photos, 2018, Photo by Mary McGowan, CWPA, Barcroft Images.

What’s all the commotion?

I could hear two Red-shouldered hawks screeching at each other in the backyard, so I went out to investigate (with camera, of course).  As they flew back and forth between the tall oak trees, still vocalizing quite noisily, I caught a glimpse every now and then.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawks have a distinctive call, more of a shrill scream, actually, “kee-yeear” uttered repeatedly with a downward inflection.

This commotion went on for about 15 minutes, and I have no idea what it was about, whether they were fighting over territory or a prey item or mobbing something I couldn’t see.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Both were adult birds, perhaps a breeding pair that used the way backyard forest and ponds to raise their young this summer.

Red-shouldered Hawks are a forest bird in eastern North America, and eastern-most Minnesota seems to be the western limit of their breeding range.  But they are not permanent residents here, where snow-cover limits their ability to find their favorite food — voles, chipmunks, frogs, toads, and crayfish, which are all dormant in the winter.

Red-shouldered Hawk

It’s easy to see why the scientific name of this bird is Buteo lineatus, with its finely striped, rusty-colored breast stripes.

Red-shouldered Hawk

One last pose among the branches before taking off…

Red-shouldered Hawk

Wolfishness

Wolves doing what they do best at the Minnesota Zoo…enhanced for dramatic effect with a little photo editing.

Gray wolf, Minnesota Zoo

My attempt to make this very handsome gray wolf in its semi-natural Zoo enclosure look every bit of the dominant animal that it is.

Gray wolves, Minnesota Zoo

Wolffish greeting. I didn’t realize that wolves have such long thin legs, more apparent in their summer fur.

Gray wolves, Minnesota Zoo

The social hierarchy seems to be well established in this small pack: subordinate animals lower their heads in the presence of more dominant animals.

Gray wolf, Minnesota Zoo

the “leader of the pack”…

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