on the edge

Tromping around Weaver Dunes, south of Wabasha MN, for 8 hours trying to identify every bird we could find was exhausting but rewarding, and what an absolutely beautiful day to participate in The Nature Conservancy’s bird blitz on May 12.

Cape May Warbler-

First bird of the day — Cape May Warbler, high in a leafy tree (bane of photographers — the tree, not the bird)

The spring migration was running a little behind schedule, but we managed to find (and identify) 58 species (which admittedly doesn’t sound like a lot for 8 hours of work).  We explored a variety of habitats, but the best places to look were edges between shrub and forest, or prairie and forest.

Yellowrump Warbler-

Yellow-rumped Warblers outnumbered other warbler species, and thankfully posed at much lower elevations in the trees.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak-

We only saw one Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and he was quite shy about coming out in the open to show off his raspberry bib.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrows were more common than the warblers, flashing their white outer tail feathers as they flew. True to their name, their song is much more of a warble than a buzz — i.e., lark-like.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrows typically nest in shrubs and forage in grassy areas removed from the nest. They have the unusual habit of walking, instead of hopping.

Northern Waterthrush-

Down at the edge of a small pond, a Northern Waterthrush hunted for insects.

Northern Waterthrush-

A distinctive eyestripe and wagging tail made this large warbler easy to identify.

Brown Thrasher-

A Brown Thasher was very uncooperative about posing, and remained hidden in the dense foliage of trees in the grassy savannah.

Baltimore Oriole-

Orioles foraged high in leafy treetops, but were easy to find by listening for their characteristic song.

Gray-cheeked Thrush-

Another edge-lover found skulking among the low vegetation in the woods surrounding a pond was the Gray-cheeked Thrush, with its characteristic white eyering.

Our efforts were added to those of the birders walking other TNC properties throughout the tri-state region of MN, North Dakota, and South Dakota.  Together all observers on May 12 found over 200 different bird species, or approximately 50% of those known to reside or pass through MN on migration in May.  Not bad…it’s a nationwide competition, so we’ll see how MN bird numbers stack up with those elsewhere in the U.S.

Considering that our American birds have to navigate and survive stormy weather and drastic climate changes, glass windows and glass-covered buildings, marked habitat alterations, and depleted food supplies from all the pesticide and herbicide applications, it’s a wonder that we see the diversity that we do.

Raising the kids

There’s no rest for busy bird parents these days as they patrol, hunt for food, and defend their youngsters. I saw a few examples of this on my nature walk the other day.

canada geese and goslings

The Canada Goose goslings have grown since I photographed them last week and most of them show the adult facial markings. One or two seem younger (smaller) than the others, and one definitely is developmentally behind the others (second from right). Perhaps these younger ones came from a different clutch and were adopted?

osprey and chicks-

There are (at least) wo chicks in the osprey nest, old enough now to stand up in the nest and beg.  

baltiimore oriole at his nest-

Mr. Oriole was busy tending to his chicks. The woven basket nest was well hidden in a clump of leaves and suspended by just a few thin threads from the branchlets above.

baltiimore oriole female-

Meanwhile, Mrs. Oriole was busy searching for something to feed her noisy youngsters.

Jelly-eaters

Just recently avian parents have started bringing their newly fledged offspring to the bird feeders to show them where to get a free meal.  I heard Baltimore Orioles vocalizing in the oak trees in the backyard, so I quickly added some grape jelly to the hummingbird feeder.  Within a few minutes, the whole oriole family visited, and continued to visit for the next couple of days.

Molting male Baltimore Oriole eating grape jelly

See, this is how you do it, kids.”  I think this might be first year male Baltimore Oriole that is molting its black head feathers.  Sometimes, even first-year males can attract a mate and raise a family.

Baltimore Oriole eating grape jelly

It’s slippery and sweet and slides right down.

Juvenile Baltimore Oriole in a Buckeye tree

A juvenile Baltimore Oriole watches how to eat jelly from the nearby Buckeye tree.  I thought this was a funny-looking Goldfinch until I heard the Orioles vocalizing to each other.

Juvenile Baltimore Orioles at grape jelly feeder

These juvenile orioles are pale in comparison to their parents. They lack the typical yellow belly, and their head feathers are mostly brown. It takes two full years for the male Baltimore Oriole to show his typical breeding plumage.

There's enough to everyone to share.

There’s enough for everyone to share.

Juvenile Baltimore Oriole eating grape jelly

Why grape jelly and not strawberry or blueberry flavors?

Unlike many fruit-eaters, Orioles prefer only the ripest, purple-est fruits, like mulberries, dark red cheeries, and of course, grapes.  I wonder about the blueberry flavor though, because a lot of the ripe blueberries are suddenly missing from my bushes.

Oriole parents feed their chicks insects, but switch their diet to the high energy sugar contents of ripe fruits in the fall in order to put on fat for migration.  It seems a little early for that — we barely have gotten into summer weather here. But the biological clock never lies, and preparation is the key to survival.

A crazy day in the backyard

Even though it was chilly and overcast yesterday, the backyard was humming with visitors.

Brrr... Minnesota springtime is chilly.  A female Baltimore Oriole huddled up to stay warm.

Brrr… Minnesota springtime is chilly. A female Baltimore Oriole fluffed up to stay warm.

While the Yellow-rumped Warblers swarmed the suet feeders (as many as 8 on the feeder at one time), the Baltimore Oriole and his girlfriend (?) monopolized the oranges, a Least Flycatcher, a Swainson’s Thrush, and an Ovenbird perched near the garden hunting the dead mealworms I had thrown there, and an Indigo Bunting and a pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks tapped into the seed feeders.  It was hard to get anything done while looking out the window every couple of minutes.

This Indigo buntingis as bright blue as his cousin the Cardinal is red.  At least they have the bright colors in common.    Buntings are probably the smallest member of the Cardinal family, and sing a much prettier song than Cardinals do.

This Indigo Bunting is as bright blue as his cousin the Cardinal is red. At least they have the bright colors in common. Buntings are probably the smallest member of the Cardinal family, and sing a much prettier song than Cardinals do.

Like other small songbirds, Indigo Buntings migrate north in the spring at night, using the stars to navigate their way.  You can read more about how their navigational abilities were discovered in an earlier blog post.

Least Flycatchers may be small but they are obviously successful because they are one of the most common flycatchers seen in the northern U.S.

Least Flycatchers may be small but they are obviously successful because they are one of the most common flycatchers seen in the northern U.S.  They dart out from a favorite perch over and over, chasing small insects.

I have never seen an Ovenbird in the backyard before.  Perhaps it saw how much the Flycatcher was enjoying the mealworms and decided to get a few for itself before moving on.

I have never seen an Ovenbird in the backyard before. Perhaps it saw how much the Flycatcher was enjoying the mealworms and decided to get a few for itself before moving on. Their striped breast and bright rusty crown stripe make them easy to recognize.

Ovenbirds are grouped with the Warblers, but they certainly don’t act like them.  Instead of flitting around in the tree tops, these little birds search through the litter of the forest floor picking up small insects and other invertebrates.  They might be hard to spot among the dense vegetation of the forest, but their loud, repetitive call, “tee-cher, tee-cher, tee-cher” alerts you to their presence.  The female weaves a globe of grass and twigs, kind of resembling a Dutch oven, for her nest — hence their common name.

Swainson's Thrush may be a plain brown bird with a few streaks down its breast and a buffy ring around its eye. but like other thrush species (except Robins) it has a melodious song.

Swainson’s Thrush may be a plain brown bird with a few streaks down its breast and a buffy ring around its eye. but like other thrush species (except Robins) it has a very melodious song.

More often heard than seen, Swainson’s Thrush can be really difficult to locate in a dense forest as they hide behind vegetation and face in several different directions to sing.  Territorial males can get so antagonistic toward each other, they engage in a sing-off, each producing louder and louder cascades of flute-like sound, spiralling up or down the scale.

Part of the reason so many birds are congregating in the backyard right now is because of the delay in warm spring weather in the upper Midwest.  Early, mid, and late arriving migrants are stacked up here, waiting for that warm front from the Gulf that will carry them north on the final leg of their migration.  Meanwhile, I feel like I’m back in the tropics, with a huge diversity of birds flitting around in the backyard.  Most likely, that will end soon.

“Orange” you pretty!

Yesterday’s surplus of yellow is followed today by an appreciation of the brilliant orange of the Baltimore Oriole.

I discovered this bird foraging very low to the ground on a cold spring day.  He was so intent on his foraging that he paid no attention to me.

I discovered this bird foraging very low to the ground on a cold spring day. He was so intent on his foraging that he paid no attention to me.

Baltimore Orioles are common throughout the eastern half of the U.S. in the spring and summer, and their bright orange plumage lights up the green foliage.  They are agile feeders on fruits and berries, as well as insects.

This bird seemed to be finding some minute critters crawling around on the loose bark of dead stems.

This bird seemed to be finding some minute critters crawling around on the loose bark of dead stems.

And he was willing to go to great lengths to get at whatever was there.

And he was willing to go to great lengths to get at whatever was there.

But in the spring during their northward migration, they seem to be drawn to oranges and nectar, so as soon as I saw this oriole in a park, I put a feeder out in my yard.  Two days later, several orioles showed up.

There was a little hostility over who got to use the feeder.

There was a little hostility over who got to use the feeder.  The female on top eventually gave up her position to the male.  I never realized what pretty tail feathers the male has.

Females get more orange with age, and are almost as bright as the male, but lack the distinctive black head and face.

Females get more orange with age, and are almost as bright as the male, but lack the distinctive black head and face.  This was shot in early morning light, so the colors are a bit off, but you can see that she matches the color of the orange well.  I don’t know if this is a mated pair — they weren’t very friendly toward one another.

The Buckeye tree in the backyard is just about to flower, and when it does, orioles and warblers will feast on its nectar.  You can read more about that in posts from last year.

The adult male plumage looks like this, but males don't reach this stage of color perfection until the fall molt of their second year.  First year males (born the previous year) look somewhat like females, with some blacker coloration on their heads.  If they are lucky, they may breed during the first year, but often aren't pretty enough to attract a female.

The adult male plumage looks like this, but males don’t reach this stage of color perfection until the fall molt of their second year. First year males (born the previous year) look  like females, with some blacker coloration on their heads. If they are lucky, they may breed during the first year, but often aren’t pretty enough to attract a female.

Meeting in the middle

The Great Plains states are a meeting ground of eastern and western-occurring bird species. Breeding activity was in full swing in the South Dakota Black Hills this past week, with birds dashing around, fighting, singing, and completely uncooperative as far as photography was concerned.

Bullocks Oriole are the western counterpart of the eastern Baltimore Oriole, but look quite different.

Bullocks Oriole are the western counterpart of the eastern Baltimore Oriole, but look quite different, with their black eyestripe (instead of an all black head).

The white on the wing is more of a large patch than a wing bar (as it is in the Baltimore Oriole.

The white on the wing is more of a large patch than a wing bar (as it is in the Baltimore Oriole.

The Baltimore Oriole occurs in South Dakota, but doesn’t seem to breed in the Black Hills, which is the eastern limit of breeding range for Bullock’s Oriole.

baltimore oriole

These two species do occasionally overlap in breeding areas and can make mistakes and pair with the wrong species, which is why ornithologists once lumped them as one species, the Northern Oriole.  However, DNA comparisons of the two species show that they don’t even share a recent common ancestor.

Western Kingbirds are similar in size and habits to their eastern counterparts, the Eastern Kingbirds.

Western Kingbirds are similar in size and habits (flycatching from a perch) to their eastern counterparts, the Eastern Kingbirds.

Both eastern and western kingbirds hunt for insects in the open prairie, but nest in the protection of shrubs and trees.

Both eastern and western kingbirds hunt for insects in the open prairie, but nest in the protection of shrubs and trees.

With completely overlapping ranges and similar foraging strategies throughout the Dakota prairie, Western and Eastern Kingbirds would seem to be in direct competition with one another, but apparently avoid it with minor differences in their specific habitat preferences for nesting and hunting.  Western Kingbirds were very common in towns, parks, and camping areas where there were very large, widely dispersed cottonwood trees, which they prefer for nesting.  Eastern Kingbirds were only seen in lower vegetation (shrubs) near the prairie edge.

We saw Mountain Bluebirds as we were driving along in the Black Hills, but not close enough to photograph.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Elaine

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Elaine Wilson.

Eastern Bluebirds may also breed in parts of the Great Plains states, although they are rare in the Black Hills. Mountain Bluebirds prefer higher elevations (e.g, in the Black Hills), while Eastern Bluebirds are more common in the river valleys on the prairie itself.  These two species probably don’t interact, being completely separated in habitat choice.

South Dakota, with its varied landscapes — desert, mountain, and prairie — is a great place for birding!

Another dinner guest

Baltimore Orioles also seem to be quite fond of buckeye flower nectar.  At least two males (differing in the amount of black on their heads) and two females (differing in their orange-ness, which is a sign of their age) have been constant visitors to the buckeye tree for the past few days.

This male thoroughly examined one raceme of flowers for several minutes, allowing me to take photos from about 20 feet away.

This male thoroughly examined one raceme of flowers for several minutes, allowing me to take photos from about 20 feet away.  (Specks in these photos are not dirt, but rain drops.)

Like the Tennessee Warblers, they contort their body around or hang from the flowers heads to probe every flower for the nectar at its base.

baltimore oriole feeding on buckeye flower nectar

baltimore oriole feeding on buckeye flower nectar

Zooming in a little closer I could see the oriole probe the flower parallel to its axis to reach the nectar.

The viscous nectar sits at the base of the flower right above the stalk that connects it to the stem of the raceme.

The viscous drop of nectar sits at the base of the flower right above the stalk that connects it to the stem of the raceme.  Orioles use the brush-like tip of their tongue to mop up the nectar.

But occasionally the oriole used a different technique and inserted its slightly open bill perpendicular to the flower right above the nectar pool.

This is called "gaping".

This is called “gaping”.  It is a different method of achieving the same result, allowing a puddle of syrupy nectar to pool into the open mouth or get lapped up with the tongue. 

Orioles eat a variety of foods, but prefer fruits and nectar in the spring and fall, when the demand for quick energy and rapid fat storage is high.  More insects and spiders are eaten during the summer when they are raising young or molting new feathers.

baltimore oriole

It was a cold, rainy day, and this guy looks a little bedraggled from getting wet.  I think the brown specks on his face are the anthers of the buckeye flowers.  Orioles are probably not a desirable pollinator for these flowers, if they break off entire pollen-bearing structures.  Usually there is a swarm of bees and wasps on this tree, but it’s too cold for that today.