gray squirrel for breakfast

I complain that I have too many gray squirrels in the backyard, clever ones that manage to defeat all the squirrel barriers on bird feeders.  It’s my own fault for supplying too much bird seed, but there is an unexpected benefit to attracting squirrels — attracting their much more photogenic predators.

red fox with gray squirrel kill-

I missed the actual fox-squirrel encounter, however, the fox was making sure the squirrel was dead by biting it in the neck several times.

red fox with gray squirrel kill-

checking for life from another angle…

red fox with gray squirrel kill-

bite it again, just to make sure…

red fox with gray squirrel kill-

So, eat it now, or save for later?

Save for later, was apparently the decision, as the fox picked the squirrel up in its jaws and trotted off behind bushes and the neighbor’s house to have some privacy.

Foxes and probably the Great Horned Owls in the backyard have been doing a fine job of keeping the local rabbit population in check.  In fact, I rarely see a rabbit munching on my flowers any more.  As is usually the case, when one population of prey decreases, there is increased pressure on other prey species, in this case, the gray squirrels that annually produce a new crop of naive youngsters that like to hang out near the bird feeders.  And therein lies the balance of nature…

Note: these are not the best photos of a photogenic fox; they were shot on a very gray day, early in the morning, through dirty windows, with a much too slow shutter speed — but the action was exciting!

big bruiser in the backyard

This guy is big! The biggest one I think I have seen near my backyard, anyway. He calmly strolled onto the neighbor’s lawn about 20 feet from their house, and plopped himself down on the lawn for a morning rest.

buck with big antlers-

The photo doesn’t do justice to his size and girth, but it’s obvious he has a pretty massive neck.

Not only are there multiple tines in his rack, but some are quite broad, meaning this guy took in a good measure of protein and minerals (e.g., calcium) in his summer diet while those antlers were developing.  Maybe he discovered a nice vegetable plot with peas and beans, or a stash of acorns.

buck with big antlers-

You would need to develop those neck muscles just to hold up the weight of those antlers.

Males need a high protein (as much as 16% protein in younger animals), mineral-rich diet not just to grow antlers but to develop the protein and fat stores that will carry them through the energy-intensive rut season and the remainder of the winter.   How much leafy green stuff would they have to chow down each day to take in that much protein?

That’s a trick question, because the protein they absorb doesn’t come directly from their food, but from the microbial fermentation products, and from digesting the microbes themselves, that deer and other ruminant herbivores raise in their complex, four-compartment stomachs.  So, the better they feed their microbial friends, the more nutrients the microbes pass onto their deer hosts.

buck with big antlers-

He looks like a champion contender, doesn’t he, ready to take on the competition?

Males might lose as much as 30% of their body mass during the rut, depending on the level of competition and number of competitors they face, so gaining as much mass as possible during the summer is integral to their success and their survival.

I know I’m doing my part to sustain these guys, judging from the number of perennials in my garden that get munched down to their roots every summer.

Getting to know you…

“getting to know all about you” — that’s what we often see in the synchronized displays of paired birds that mate for life.  It’s more commonly seen in the spring resurgence of pre-breeding behaviors, but often, mated pairs renew their bond in the fall before migrating to warmer climates with open water.

Trumpeter Swans pairs exhibited their neck bowing and chest-to-chest-wing flap and trumpet greetings with each other on Lake Vadnais yesterday with gusto.

Trumpeter Swan courtship behavior

Neck bowing behavior, up and down, from fully extended to completely bowed, repeated several times, both while swimming in parallel and while facing each other.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Because these birds often don’t breed until they are 4-6 years old, cementing their partnership early is integral to their eventual breeding success, in defending their nest territory as well as protecting their offspring, which single individuals cannot do alone.  Their synchronized neck bowing behaviors occasionally escalated to more vigorous displays of wing flapping and chest bumping (kind of remniscent of football players in the end zone after a touchdown).

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Muted trumeting accompanied the wing flap face-off between these partners.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

But then, one swan seemed to be trying out a couple of different partners as it first performed the neck bowing sequence with one individual and then took-off flying and pursued another individual, bowing and wing-flapping with it, and then eventually settling down to feed side by side.  I wonder if this is the equivalent of swan dating?

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Swan in the lead with partner #1, performing the head bowing behavior as they swim

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Suddenly the lead swan takes off, trumpeting, chasing another swan into flight. Huge webbed feet paddling against the surface of the water help these large-bodied birds get aloft.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Once landed in the same area, vigorous wing-flapping and trumpeting occurs for several seconds, following by neck bows, and finally feeding side by side.

I might have thought this was one male chasing another, except for the behavior that followed.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior trumpeter swan courtship behavior trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Just another day in the lives of the Trumpeter Swans, even if confusing to us human observers.

Another California memory

Sometimes small sparrow-like birds are difficult to identify because they are rather non-descript or resemble a number of different species, and so birdwatchers call them LBJs (little brown jobs).

california towhee

A California Towhee sitting very uncharacteristically in a tree.

The California Towhee might be a plain brown, but it is larger and stouter than an LBJ, and usually recognizable by its habit of scratching through the litter by jumping back and forth with both feet.  It’s a bird of the understory, meaning way under and into the interior of low shrubs, and usually pretty well hidden from view.  So, it was a little unusual to see a towhee perched in a tree in full view, and completely at ease with me encroaching on its space.

california towhee

If only the male hummingbird was as patient as this bird…

California Towhees are found only along the coast of California and the Baja peninsula in Mexico, where they thrive in the dense chaparral scrub, hunting seeds, fruits and berries, insects, spiders, and whatever other edibles can be found there.  The berries of Poison Oak are a favorite item in their diet; in fact, they like poison oak vegetation so much, they often nest in the thickest branches of the plants, perhaps feasting on the berries at the same time.

california towhee

More often you find California Towhees scratching the surface near grassy areas where they can pick up fallen seed and perhaps an insect or two.  Their long tail and smooth, all-over brown coloration make them easy to identify — not an LBJ.

And so another California visit comes to an end, and I’m back in the freezing northland again, awaiting the next snow storm.  Sigh…

The teaser

The resident (and very territorial) male Anna’s Hummingbird in my mother-in-law’s backyard proved to be quite a challenge to photograph. He always sat with his back to me, singing his scratchy sing-song, and he preferred to hover in front of me with his back to the sun.  In fact he hovered above and around me for just seconds before dashing away to hide in the middle of the bottlebrush shrub.  What a tease!  You have to be really quick on the trigger (shutter) to catch these guys in prime light, and there were many more misses than successes with my attempts.

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

Just passing through

As I look back at previous years’ blog posts around this time of the year, I always find a few posts about duck migration.  And once again, right on schedule, huge rafts of Common Goldeneye and Ring-necked Ducks have taken up residence on Lake Vadnais in St. Paul, to fatten up before completing the rest of their migration south.

raft of ducks

The gigantic raft of floating ducks stretches down the center of the lake more than 100 yards.

This particular reservoir seems to be a favorite stop-over for these ducks, and they usually stay until the freezing weather causes the lake to ice up.

Ring-necked ducks

Ring-necked ducks mill around in circles, dabbling and diving.


You rarely get to see why these ducks are so named — for the chestnut ring of feathers at the base of the neck.


Male Ring-necked ducks outnumber their females by a large margin; where do all the females go on migration?


Small flocks of Common Goldeneye, with their distinguishing white cheek patch and bright golden eyes float separately from the Ring-necked ducks.  Dark-headed males seem to outnumber brown-headed females 10 to 1.

Ring-necked ducks

Some small groups that break off of the long raft of ducks swim purposefully (somewhere) in V-formation.

Ring-necked ducks

And some just streak through mirror-calm water in a straight line.

canvasback duck

There’s always one that has to be different — a lone male Canvasback swam toward a distant group of Goldeneyes, but they ignored him.

Seven swans a-sleeping…

A scene from across Lake Vadnais in St. Paul called to me to get closer and try to photograph the group of Trumpeter Swans.

trumpeter swans

I haven’t seen any Trumpeter Swans up close since last winter, and here they were basking on the shore of one of the lakes that supply water to St. Paul.

So I hiked around the lake trying to figure out where on the trail they might be. However, it was bow season for deer that day, and so I couldn’t stray too far off the path into the woods.

By the time I found them, this is what I saw:  seven swans a-sleeping (well, one was alert).

trumpeter swans-2

It must have been a busy morning, and I’ve never seen them a bunch of swans so completely sacked out.

However, road noise woke a couple of them up, just for a few moments.

trumpeter swans

trumpeter swans

and then right back to napping.

I guess when you’re as big as an adult Trumpeter Swan, you don’t worry too much about photographers creeping up near by.  Even the Mallards were unperturbed.

how to eat a juniper berry

The fall harvest season is on:  it’s time to pick pumpkins and apples, the last of the field corn and soybeans; and if you’re a bird and you like fruit, it’s time to feast on the berries of the eastern red cedar, commonly known as juniper.  Actually to be entirely correct, these “berries” are actually just fleshy cones that surround a few seeds within.  They are covered with a waxy coating, which is also digestible if a bird has the right pancreatic enzymes to break it down.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries

Yellow-rumped Warblers love these juicy “berries”, gobbling them up whole.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries-3

Sometimes this large round nugget is a little hard to choke down, though, and the bird continually adjust the berry’s position in its mouth before swallowing.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries-5

Dark blue ones are the ripest, green ones the least ripe, and the birds seem to be quite choosy about which ones they take.  There are so many berries within reach, but this bird needs to stretch upside down to get the perfect one.

Robins eating juniper berries-4

Robins joined the feast, with three or four birds all foraging within a few feet of each other.

Robins eating juniper berries-2

Being a much larger bird than the warbler, the robins had no trouble downing the berries, one after the other.

Robins eating juniper berries-6

Robins toss their heads back as they swallow, and occasionally lose the berry in the process.

Catbird and juniper berries

A couple of catbirds got into the action as well, but they preferred to consume their berries in private, away from the camera lens.

Juniper berries are the only fruit/spice from conifers we use in cooking, and of course they give gin its characteristic flavor.  Beneath the waxy coating, green pulpy flesh surrounds a few seeds.  Fruit-eating birds normally quickly separate the pulp from the seeds in their gut, digesting the sugary pulp and converting it to fat stores rather quickly.  They then excrete the seeds as they fly off to other foraging areas, thus helping the plant spread into new locations.

But seed-eating birds might have a different strategy…

Female cardinal eating juniper berries-3

This female cardinal was systematically picking off berries and crushing them between her mandibles, squeezing the pulp and then discarding it.

Female cardinal eating juniper berries-5

It’s hard to tell whether she discards the pulp to get at the seeds, or discards the whole mass after squishing out berry juices.  

Seed-eating specialists probably have stronger gizzard muscles  that can crush the seeds to extract their nutrients, and seeds typically have higher fat and protein content than the sugary, pulpy mass that surrounds them.

Whatever the strategy, juniper berries provide a useful resource for migratory as well as non-migratory birds in the fall.

a pretty pest

Fall blooming plants attract such an interesting variety of pollinators.  Among the many species I was able to capture with my macro lens last week was this very pretty moth.

Flowerflies, or hoverflies as they are often called, feed on plant nectar and pollen. Their larvae, however, are often carnivorous and devour many species of plant pests, like aphids.

I didn’t know what this species was, and was surprised to see a moth out in the daytime.

There are a few moth species that do forage in the daytime, but this one really is largely a nocturnal forager and disperser, quite distinctive with its well insulated body of fuzzy tan “hairs” and huge green eyes.  It’s a corn earworm moth — the larvae of which are major agricultural pests on a variety of crops, especially corn, tomatoes, and cotton.

Corn earworm moth, Helicoverpa zea

Adults feed on flower nectar, but the larvae are not at all fussy about the host plant they feed upon. You have to admit, it’s an attractive looking moth, although its prodigious reproduction and polyphagous (eat lots of different plants) larvae make it a real threat to agricultural production.

As a major pest of commercial crops, corn earworm has been subjected to pesticide exposure for years, and over generations, the larvae have developed resistance to some pesticides, which makes controlling them even more difficult.  Each female can lay 500-3000 eggs in her lifetime, and the combined damage of corn earworm larvae runs in the 100s of millions of dollars in the U.S each year.

Fortunately for us (in the northern midwest), corn earworm is not a permanent resident but must re-invade with short, northerly directed migratory flights each summer.  They cannot survive sub-freezing temperatures and will die off each winter.

it’s not a bee…

Among the many insects buzzing around the fall blooming plants, especially the asters, daisies, and stonecrop (Sedum) are the flower flies (Heliophilous species).  I caught some of their feeding action with my macro lens the other day.

Hoverfly -Heliophilous fasciatus?

Flower flies, or hoverflies as they are often called, feed on plant nectar and pollen. Their larvae, however, are often carnivorous and devour many species of plant pests, like aphids, during their development.

Slightly smaller than a honeybee, this particular species of hoverfly looks very much like a bee with its yellow and black striped abdomen.  But they lack stiff hair-like insulation of bees, have much larger eyes, and only a single pair of wings that project outward from the body when the fly is at rest, instead of folding over the abdomen as those of bees do.  Nevertheless, the bee-like warning coloration and their hovering habit may protect them from naive insect predators.

Hoverfly -Heliophilous fasciatus?

Hoverflies make an up-and-down motion with their body to insert their proboscis deep into the disc flowers of asters.  They turn in a circle systematically probing all of the flowers before moving on.

Hoverfly -Heliophilous fasciatus?

The proboscis and tongue extension are relatively short and quite wide. Halteres (ovoid, silvery structures located just behind the wing) are modified hind wings that control the fly’s balance in three-dimensional space.  They vibrate along with the forewing; sensory organs at their base detect the fly’s position in space to correct or modify the action of the forewings.

Hoverfly -Heliophilous fasciatus?

Although the proboscis looks like a continuous tube, it seems to have some rough edges to it.

Unlike hummingbirds, hoverflies don’t hover to feed, but the males often do hover over their territory, moving quickly up, down, backward, and forward to fend off intruders, or perhaps to show off for females.