Prairie birds

It’s a particularly busy time of year for prairie bird parents — all those open mouths to fill. And it doesn’t stop when they fledge and leave the nest because the youngsters just follow the parents around and continue begging for food.

Brown Thrasher

It seemed like every bird (like this Brown Thrasher) we saw at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge a few days ago had some sort of food item in its mouth to take back to the nest.

Eastern Kingbirds hawk insects in the air from a perch and they dive to the ground to capture insects wandering through prairie grass.

The chicks have a long period of dependency, up to 7 weeks, so the parents can only raise one brood per breeding season.

Eastern Meadowlarks used to be common in prairie grasslands, but there seem to be just a few in each grassy meadow. They might hunt from a fence line perch or from a stalk of grass, but they also walk through the grasses probing for insect prey by sticking their bills into the soil to uncover worms and grubs which they take back to their chicks.

This Eastern Meadowlark may have found a treat for his chicks in the grass, but he has perched high upon a small evergreen shrub in the middle of the prairie to check whether it’s safe to deliver this morsel to his chicks.

I didn’t think Common Yellowthroat warbers were prairie birds, but as long as there is a little water in their grassland habitat, these birds are one of the most common ones heard (and seen) on the prairie.  Hence, the name…

It’s a delight to see the Sandhill Cranes each time we visit Sherburne NWR.  The habitat here is perfect for them, lots of open grassy meadows interspersed with boggy wetlands, perfect for hunting frogs, snails, rodents, small birds, bird eggs, tubers, berries, seeds, whatever they come across.

Sandhill Cranes are long-lived, usually raising 1-2 chicks per breeding season, but the chicks develop slowly and follow the parents around for 9-10 months learning how to feed themselves. (Photo by Debbie Reynolds)

One bird is missing from the prairie grassland area these days — the American Kestrel or Sparrowhawk.  They used to be common along the prairie edges, hunting grasshoppers and other invertebrates from power lines or fence posts.  Their disappearance from the grasslands coincides with a drastic reduction in the number of bugs that hit your windshield as you drive through prairie grassland areas in the Midwestern U.S.

a quiet celebration in 2020

It’s not your usual Fourth of July today, so I looked at what the Backyard Biology blog posts for previous years showed.  Here’s a post from 2014 that is appropriate for today’s world.

A red, white, and blue fourth of July flower bouquet was blooming in my garden on July 4, 2014.  Sadly I no longer have that rose variety or the larkspur in my garden in 2020.

For those of you who might have wondered why red, white, and blue were chosen for the U.S. flag, here’s the description from

The colors red, white, and blue did not have meanings for The Stars and Stripes when it was adopted in 1777. However, the colors in the Great Seal did have specific meanings. Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, reporting to Congress on the Seal, stated:

“The colors of the pales (the vertical stripes) are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.”


Perseverance in pursuing justice might be something to keep in mind from this holiday going forward in 2020…

the colorful Cardinals (family)

When I was looking up information on the Blue Grosbeak (previous post), I was surprised to discover it was a member of the Cardinal family, which turns out to be quite a large and diverse, but extremely colorful set of bird species.  It also turns out that I have blogged about this before, when I have photographed some of the other North American species in this family (short memory!).

The Cardinalidae family consists of Buntings, Grosbeaks, Tanagers, Chats, Seedeaters, and Cardinals, 14 species of which can be found in North America at some time of the year — so far, I’ve managed to photograph 12 of the 14.   Although the species look very different from one another and live in very different places, they are all medium-sized, stocky birds that use their somewhat overly large bill to consume seeds, fruits, and insects of all sizes.  As a group, the males exhibit bright coloration and females are more muted in color.

the Buntings — make liberal use of blue structural coloration, in addition to several other bright pigments in their plumage.

Blue Grosbeak (really a bunting), photographed in Eden Prairie, MN

Lazuli Buntings are most closely related to Blue Grosbeaks in the Cardinal family but weigh half as much as the bigger Grosbeak. Their version of structural blue color is more of a turquoise than the royal blue of the Grosbeak.  They are a western species, found mostly in dry, brush habitat west of the Rockies.  This bird was photographed in Madera Canyon, AZ.

Indigo Bunting, nicknamed Blue Canary, another small member of the Cardinal family, about half the weight of a Blue Grosbeak.  They have a phenomenal ability to navigate their way from wintering areas in Central America and the West Indies to breeding areas in North America at night, using cues from the patterns of stars overhead.  (Read more about this here.)

Painted Buntings are well-named, using pretty much every color in the rainbow in their spring plumage.  This bird was photographed on migration in Texas, on its way somewhere in the south-central U.S. to breed.

the Tanagers  (most of the Tanagers are in their own family — but ornithologists have decided several of them are more closely related to the Cardinalidae.)

Scarlet Tanager, another backyard bird, visiting from its winter headquarters in Mexico and southeastern U.S.

Western Tanagers are found in the western U.S.  This one was photographed in the UC Berkeley rose garden.  The birds don’t regularly consume seeds, so the red coloration of the head feathers comes from a rare pigment perhaps obtained from insects, rather than from carotenoids in plants. 

A Summer Tanager on migration in April, photographed in Galveston, Texas.  The only all red (sort of strawberry colored) bird in North America.  This bird uses its big bill to snare bees and wasps, rubbing the stinger off on a branch before eating it.

the Grosbeaks (well-named for their overly large seed-crushing bill)

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, another backyard bird, add a spill of raspberry color down their breast to contrast with their striking black and white plumage.  Their melodic song, “like a Robin that has taken singing lessons” brightens a spring morning in MN.

Black-headed Grosbeaks, another western-only species during its breeding season, also accentuate the black and white plumage with bright color — a deep russet.   It is one of the very few birds that can tolerate the glycoside poisons in Monarch butterflies, and is a major predator of them in Mexico during the winter.   This bird was photographed near Portal, AZ.

the Cardinals (only two members in North America)

Northern Cardinals are year-round residents throughout their range in North America, and unlike the other members of the Cardinal family, they retain their bright red plumage all year.

Male Pyrrhuloxia

Pyrrhuloxia look like gray Northern Cardinals and are in fact closely related to them, so close that the two species are known to produce hybrid offspring where they overlap in habitat in desert areas of the southwestern U.S. (Read more about this here.)

lastly, the Dickcissel — not a member of any group

Looking like a miniature Meadowlark, but bearing the trademark over-sized bill of the Cardinal family, Dickcissels have been a puzzle to taxonomists. They were thought to be related to Sparrows, then Orioles/Blackbirds, and now Cardinals. Unlike the other Cardinalidae species, they are grassland, not forest birds.

Little birds of the prairie

Grasses are slowly waking up out on the Minnesota prairies, and a few birds have arrived to set up territories.  Grasslands are havens for sparrows that mostly look alike to me, but they have distinctive songs that help one identify them.  Recently we encountered two buzzers —  Grasshopper and Clay-colored Sparrows, and two singers — Field and Lark Sparrows.  

Perched on an old mullein stem, the Grasshopper Sparrow sings a buzzy “song” that really does sound like a grasshopper.  But it doesn’t get its name from its song, but from the fact that it loves to eat grasshoppers, and feeds them to its chicks after picking out the edible good parts. Easy to identify as a stubby-tailed bird with a little yellow over its eye and on the margin of its wing — if you’re close enough to see it.

Clay-colored Sparrows “sing” a two-note buzzy song, over and over. They are really hard to locate unless they are up on a stem (or a fence) advertising their presence.  They prefer to nest near shrubs and thickets in the grassland and forage for seeds and insects on the ground near the protection of the bushes.

Even though the grass isn’t tall yet, these sparrows are very small, and their tendency to stay down at the base of the grass looking for food, makes them really difficult to spot.  Spring is the best time to look, because they usually perch a little higher to sing.

Field Sparrows are distinctive with their plain faces and short pink bills. They sing from perches in small trees a “bouncing ball” trill that carries over long distances in the grassland.  They will nest more than once in a summer season, and build a nest higher up in the grass as it grows taller. Unfortunately, up to 80% of Field Sparrow nests are parasitized by Cowbirds who lay their eggs in the sparrow nest, kick out the sparrow eggs, and leave the sparrow to raise the young cowbird.

Lark Sparrows are one of the most handsome of the sparrow group, with their sable brown facial stripes and spots.   This large-bodied sparrow sings a mix of churrs, buzzes, and trills, reminiscent of European Larks.  Males will do a little dance of bowing and hopping to attract females to their territory in grasslands with woody shrubs and small trees.

One of the benefits of trying to get close enough to photograph these small birds is prolonged exposure to their songs, which I hope I won’t forget the next time I go looking for them.

Day 2 photo challenge

Still looking for migrants and finding a few, we trek through bushes, grassy fields, along lake paths, and scour the backyard for recent arrivals.  We came home with a few new birds photographed for the challenge … and some ticks.

Lonesome (Mourning) Dove waiting for a friend (or mate) to join it. This is not the first time I’ve seen them this spring, but the first photo.

Swamp Sparrow, looking very much like a Song Sparrow, except for the distinctive trilling song and the gray cheek patch. Sparrows all look alike to me, but their songs are distinctively different.

Tree Swallows don’t often sit still and I find them impossible to photograph on the wing while they swoop in different directions chasing some bug. Males are distinctively blue-black on the back and head; females are brownish (drab).

Cedar Waxwings crowded among the dense branches of a buckthorn bush eating its berries. Too bad their distinctive red-tipped wax wings and yellow-tipped tails were hidden.

The first Bluebird of the year was a drab female we found just as the light was fading at sunset. Her mate was elusive and hid in the dark shade.

And so the chase goes on…day to day, sometimes twice a day, as we try to add to the list of first-seen, spring migrants.

a season of rebirth

Even though the skies are dumping another few inches of snow on us today, there are still signs of the earth coming alive after a winter sleep:  the grass is greening up, the buds on the trees are swelling, and on warm afternoons, the chorus frogs and wood frogs are chirping away in the wetlands beyond the backyard.  Each day I find a new bird friend, freshly arrived from down south, looking for the best place to set up housekeeping to raise the next generation.

So, in the spirit of all this rebirth of life — Happy Easter, Passover, Ramadan, Hana Matsuri (Buddhism), Hanuman Jayanti (Hindu), or whatever you celebrate at this time of year.

What unusual eggs this kildeer laid this year… (colored eggs courtesy of

Utah’s glorious national parks: the amazing Arches

There is no place like it in the world, with a concentration of several thousand arches of red and buff sandstone, weathered by wind and water.

Great walls of sandstone, eroded by the action of wind and water on layers differing in hardness, stand like monuments on a rolling plain.

In places, all but a slender column of rock is left. And here, a balanced rock rests on such a pillar. Estimates put the weight of that balanced rock equivalent to more than a 1000 cars!

The arches form continually in the long fins of exposed sandstone, with softer materials scooped out or falling out over time to form first, holes, and then finally arches of stone.  Click on the photo to see the tiny humans standing in the hole in the rock to appreciate just how big the structure is.

Wind and water sculpting is converting this sandstone fin into multiple arches. The one on the far left is actually a double arch.

But the pride of Arches National Park is Delicate Arch, a single monolith surrounded by a sculpted basin of rock.  To appreciate its size, note the tiny human standing by the right leg of the arch in the photos below.

Delicate Arch stands by itself in a huge amphitheater.  The 3 mile, 500 foot elevation gain hike just before sunrise one morning was well worth it.

But erosion is slowly weakening this arch, removing chunks from the left arch base and forming cracks in the dome. Its existence is fragile and limited.

Some of the structures have names, like this one that the grandkids are trying to mimic. Its official name is “the three gossips”, but the kids could see that there was a fourth figure hiding just behind the other three.

the color Purple

As I look around at flower gardens in my backyard and in my neighborhood, I see a lot of purple.  Where the first flowers of spring seemed to be largely pink in color, the first flowers of summer seem to be mostly purple, a color that is not all that common in plants.  Why so much purple, and why now?

The intensely violet color of spiderwort flowers is on one end of the purple spectrum.

False Indigo flowers are another example of intensely dark purple color.

Purple is for the bees, and especially the solitary bees which are the most abundant and hearty pollinators we see in cool spring and early summer weather, before honeybees and butterflies have become active.  Bee eyes can detect light wavelengths in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, and it seems that plants have adapted their floral displays to guide the bees right to the places on the flower where their search for nectar or pollen will do the flower the most good (i.e., pollination).

Streaks on the landing platform petal of the iris are probably visible to bees in the ultra-violet range.

One study with bumblebees in Germany showed that naive bees were highly attracted to flowers in the ultra-violet to blue range of wavelengths, and those flowers tended to produce more nectar or nectar with higher sugar concentrations than flowers of other colors.  Purple flowers that attract solitary bees tend to have the highest sugar concentration in their nectar (20-50% sugar), compared to yellow and red hummingbird and butterfly flowers that average around 20-22% sugar in the nectar.

The bell flower petals look homogeneously lilac to our eyes, but what do they look like to bees?

The variation in “purple-ness” of early summer flowers is due to the proportion of anthocyanin pigment in the flower in response to the pH of the soil environment.  In the presence of acid (or hydrogen ion), the pigment is red (or pink), whereas in the presence of nitrogen base the pigment is blue, and in the presence of aluminum, it is violet.   So, you can change the colors of your hydrangea or forget-me-nots by what you put in their soil.

Magenta-colored clematis flowers are the result of a redder expression of anthocyanin in a more acid cellular environment.

Flowers of this penstemon are pink-purple, based on the reaction of the anthocyanin in a more acid pH.

Bachelor’s Buttons, native of Europe, grows best in basic soils, which accounts for its deep blue color, and the bees seem to love it.

Purple is a coveted color in the garden, because of its rarity, and the ephemeral nature of purple flowers.  Looking back in our own history, we find that limited resources and the labor-intensive process used to create the color purple made it an expensive luxury, indulged in only by the most wealthy or by royalty.  Regardless of expense, its calming (blue overtones), yet energizing (red hues) make purple a favorite color.

Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma

Oklahoma is flat, right?  Except for a chunk of interesting geography called the Wichita mountains in southwestern OK near Lawton.  The rocky 2000 foot promontories here are the result of a failed continental rift that filled with granite 500 million years ago, was covered with sediments of the inland sea, and was pushed up late in the Paleozoic.

Sediment erosion has exposed the granite tops of the Wichita Mountains.

A variety of wildlife, including bison (originally from the Jackson Hole herd) and elk, both of which had gone extinct here in the 1800s from hunting pressure, roam this almost 60,000 acre national wildlife refuge.

Buffalo mix in with Longhorn Cattle, also introduced to this refuge. They seem to get along amicably and don’t hybridize.

Even though they were a long way from the road, these cow elk were in a big hurry to get away from us.

We managed a few hours stopover here on our way south to Texas.  The wildflowers were blooming everywhere, especially the Indian Paintbrush and lupine, prairie dogs were sunning their new-born pups, and Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers were busily setting up territories.

Indian Paintbrush

The prairie was abloom.

Beautiful scenery here in the Wichita mountains.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are quick, and don’t slow down to let you photograph them.

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers seem to like the view from the fences, as they search for errant insects.

Mama prairie dog must have quite a few pups!

The pups scurry to their burrow for some reassurance from mom when nosy photographers come around.