Chickadees are one of the most endearing birds, with their perky spirit.  Although I probably have hundreds of photos of these birds, I couldn’t resist a few shots of one that was peering into the porch window at me as I was drinking my very early morning coffee.

Black-capped Chickadee-

What a look…

I remember my kids giving me this look when they were teen-agers.

Chickadee take-offs and landings

I’m working on a system of capturing flight in the small birds in the backyard, using what I learned in the Alan Murphy photography workshop in January.  So far, I have only enticed the chickadees to use the set-up, and they really don’t like it as much as the birds in Texas liked theirs.

Black-capped chickadee

The set-up works great for birds that are relatively still, i.e., just landed and having a look at what’s available on the stump.

But because I don’t want to sit out in 30 degree F weather with wind chill, I’m photographing the birds from the comfort of my porch, shooting through window glass as the birds fly straight toward me (that means they are out of focus until just before they land — not a great technique!).  In addition, the background is rather ugly right now, owing to leafless trees and bushes back behind the stump.

But here are some of the interesting take-offs and landings I captured so far to illustrate Chickadee flight acrobatics.

Chickadee landings

Landing attempt #1 — pretty typical – outstretched feet, wings used for brakes. The bird is not very square coming in, but corrects nicely.  Stuck the two point landing in the middle of the stump.

Chickadee landings

Landing #2 — Look ma, I can land with just one wing…

Chickadee landings

Landing #3 — bird approaching too fast, had to use both wings to stop, unlike Landing #2.

Chickadee take-off

Take-off #1 — Usually chickadees fly in, pause, pick up a seed and dart off.

Chickadee take-off

This bird landed, but didn’t like what it saw, and immediately took off again, or rather fell off.

Let me explain briefly how difficult this is, especially if you don’t have lightning fast reflexes.

  • First of all, I shouldn’t be shooting through glass.  Second, I should have set up the camera perpendicular to the birds’ flight to the feeder, i.e., in the same plane of focus as the feeder.
  • Set up the camera on a tripod, focus on the middle of the stump (where you expect birds to land), hook up a remote shutter release that you hope is sensitive enough to fire when you really want it to, but not when you get excited about birds flying overhead, or leaves flying across your field of view.
  • Set the shutter speed for 1/4000, f-stop to 5.6-8 (higher for better depth of field), and let the ISO set itself (AUTO) to whatever the light conditions are.
  • Keep your thumb lightly pressed on the remote shutter and your eyes on the birds in the bush.  Then start firing the shutter as soon as a bird leaves the bush headed to the feeder.  Hopefully, some of the landings are in focus.
  • Now comes the tricky part — you have to anticipate when the bird will leave and start firing the remote shutter again as they hunch for take-off.  Very challenging for those without those lightning fast reflexes.

I hope to get better at this technique and capture a variety of birds coming to the feeder, but not until it’s warmer weather for sitting outside.  If you photographers out there try this and are successful, please let me know how you did.

Back to winter

We returned from wet, but very green California, to a very dry brown and gray Twin Cities landscape, but then immediately drove 100+ miles north to spend a long weekend in the Gull Lake area north of Brainerd for a return to a snowy winter landscape.

New snow, breezy point, MN

There is something especially attractive about freshly fallen snow clumped on tall pines, with beautiful blue sky and white clouds above.

New snow, breezy point, MN

I never thought I would say that I miss winter, but it’s true this year — during the winter that wasn’t.  Our weather columnist reports that “Twin Cities winters are now 5.4 degrees warmer than in 1970”.  True fact:  Minnesota’s climate is warming, making it more like Missouri than the Minnesota of 50 years ago.  True fact:  “February 2017 has set over 9800 records for warmth across the U.S., compared to just 250 new records for cold”.  (Star Tribune weather, Feb. 27, 2017))


Without snow cover and with record warm days, the ice is melting on MN lakes sooner now.

Last week, our newspaper reported that 500-1000 small pan fish (crappies) had succumbed when lake ice melted and near-shore water warmed, leaving the fish without adequate oxygen.   Great for local Bald Eagles, not so great for the fish populations in warming lakes.

As climates change, animals and plants get out of sync with their normal cycle; e.g., birds begin migrating and breeding before prey populations are present to support their offspring and plants bloom before or after their pollinators are present.  Climate changes are a challenge for all of us.


Lots of singing going on in the backyard this week…seems a little early to me for the Chickadees, but maybe I’ve just been paying more attention to that lately.

More on this subject in an interesting article on Vox today:  “these maps show how early spring is arriving in your state”.

Fluff balls

The outdoor thermometer has not budged from its 0 degree F reading in the past two days.  The gray squirrels are absent, but the red squirrels poke their head out every now and then.  The one constant feature in the backyard, regardless of the weather, is the Black-capped Chickadees.  A family group of seven chickadees makes the rounds of the feeders once or twice a day, pausing only briefly in the lilac bush a few feet from the feeder to drill out the core of a sunflower seed before swooping back to the feeder for another.


They space themselves out in the lilac bushes, each waiting their turn at the feeders.  I’m just assuming its a family group, because usually the resident pair and the past summer’s offspring stay together through the winter.  There are always 6-7 of them feeding together.


There are six feeding stations on the bird feeder, but these chickadees prefer to visit just one at a time.


In between visits, the birds fluff themselves up until they resemble a little round puff ball of feathers.  It must be subzero temperatures with the wind blowing today, but it doesn’t seem to bother these hearty little birds that probably weigh less than a McDonald’s ketchup package.

chickadee on a cold day

It’s tough staying warm on a day like today, especially with wind ruffling those feathers and carrying away precious body heat.

Bird barometer

I can usually tell what sort of weather conditions are coming using my “bird barometer”, which consists primarily of monitoring the intensity with which birds are feeding at the various feeders scattered around the backyard.  About 24 hours before a big thunderstorm or a dreary day with steady rainfall, those feeders are humming with activities of multiple individuals of a variety of species.  For example, yesterday was cloudy but mild, but dozens of finches, sparrows, and chickadees crowded in or around the feeders for several hours in the morning.


A flock of a dozen or so White-throated Sparrows searched through the grass and leaves beneath the feeders, often chasing each other away from hot spots where the seed had dropped from the feeders above.


Mixed in with the Sparrows were a bunch of Juncos, equally intolerant of others foraging near them. Extended chases of a bird that encroached on another’s foraging space was common.


A newcomer to the backyard showed up — a Fox Sparrow.  I’ve seen these birds only rarely, and usually just a brief glimpse as they migrate through MN on their way to their breeding grounds in Alaska or their wintering grounds in the southeastern U.S.  They scratch through the litter beneath dense cover, making them tough to spot.


Fox Sparrows are larger than most other sparrows, with bold breast stripes, a gray stripe above the eye, and rusty red tails and backs. The western US subspecies are slate gray though.

These ground-feeding birds were reaping the benefits of all the spilled seed from the multiple gangs of finches, chickadees and nuthatches vigorously attacking the feeder above them.


Red splashes of color on the male House Finch and yellow splashes of color on the heads of the Goldfinches — the last remnants of their colorful selves from the past breeding season.


Purple Finches (male on lower right, female on lower left) dominate the feeder to the exclusion of the slightly smaller Goldfinches and Chickadees.

Today (just 24 hours after the feeding frenzy) is rainy and cold, and the feeders are quiet.  An occasional Blue Jay visits, but even the Chickadees are absent.  How do birds predict such changes in the weather?  Do they really have an internal barometer?

In fact, they do.  A group of hair cells in the Vitali Organ, or Paratympanic Organ (named for Giovanni Vitali who discovered them about 100 years ago) in the middle ears of birds is thought to be responsible for detecting changes in atmospheric pressure of just 10-20 mm of water (about 0.75-1.5 mm of mercury).  Such exquisite sensitivity allows birds to maintain their elevation while flying long distances within 10-20 feet of desired altitude — essential for navigation, but it also allows birds to sense changes in barometric pressure at ground level, especially the declining barometric pressures that signal approaching storm fronts.  Input from these specialized cells due to barometric pressure changes then causes abrupt and marked changes in bird behavior, as they prepare for and protect themselves from changes in the weather.

Are birds the only animals with this unique ability?  Hardly.  Most animals can sense impending changes in the weather, using a variety of other cues (infrasound, daylight, smell (ozone?), static electricity, etc.).  But only one group of mammals may possess the type of middle ear barometric pressure detectors present in birds.  Can you guess what group that might be?

An interesting reference on this subject can be found here:  Von Bertheld and Gianessi, 2011. The Paratympanic Organ:  A barometer and altimeter in the middle ear of birds? Journal of Experimental Zoology 316 (6): 402-408.

Surviving the cold — part I

Even though I’ve just read that 2015 was the hottest year in historical weather record-keeping (2 degrees F above average world annual temperature), the backyard here is buried in the deep freeze.  Several of my fellow bloggers have been posting queries about how animals survive conditions like this in the wild — or how humans who live and work outdoors all winter survive these extremes.  So, being somewhat of an expert on this topic once upon a time, I’m going to try to explain how they do it.

goldfinch-winter chill

Yikes — it’s chilly out there. for this young American Goldfinch

First — the challenges of winter at far northern latitudes:

  • low temperatures mean warm-blooded animals need to turn their heat producing furnaces to high to offset heat lost to the environment
  • wind, sleet, and any precipitation carry body heat away even faster than just being surrounded by cold air

Who ordered this sleety, icy rain?  But Slate-colored Juncos are tough, and they outlast this kind of inclement weather.

  • the sun is low in the sky and it’s often cloudy and overcast, so radiant heat input is hard to come by
  • where’s the food?  Summer production is long past, food is buried under snow, other animals got to it first — so how does a warm-blooded animal get enough energy daily to fuel the heat-producing furnace?

Really, there isn’t much here to fuel the needs of a large-bodied animal like these White-tailed Deer.


1. Prepare for it:  Those chilly fall mornings and waning daylength are signals that challenging days are ahead.  Animals prepare for the challenges of winter by hoarding or stashing food in places where they can find it later. Usually, there is a flurry of activity at bird feeders as birds and squirrels take seeds to their winter roosting sites.


Packing those cheek pouches full, a chipmunk carries his prize underground to eat later.

And — a new set of freshly molted feathers in the fall not only disguises once brightly colored birds, but provides a nice, new downy coat of insulation.  An under coat of dense fur beneath longer guard hairs helps keep mammals warm in the winter.

2. Eat like crazy — in order to put on a nice layer of fat reserves.  This strategy works better if you’re a fleet-footed mammal, because when birds put on too much fat, they can’t fly.  In addition to the insulative value of a layer of fat, it does provide an energy reserve for overnight energy expenses and the days when foraging for food was inadequate.


Dining with friends (House Finches) is always a good idea, so that many eyes can spot the skulking predators.


Pine Siskins are so good at searching out and consuming high volumes of seed per day that they can maintain their body temperatures, even at very low extremes.  Like Common Redpolls, these little birds are champions at cranking up the metabolic furnace to generate heat.

And — since there aren’t many insects active in the winter, avian insectivores like chickadees switch their diet to take advantage of the high-energy content in seeds.


Do you wonder how a bird that weighs less than a McDonald’s ketchup packet stays warm in sub-zero cold weather?

3. Hide from the worst extremes:  Chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers find a refuge from extreme temperature and wind in a roost hole.  Some sparrows and larger birds like Robins and Blue Jays huddle in the thickest part of evergreen vegetation which protects them from the effects of wind and precipitation.  Many mammals retreat to underground burrows, tree cavities, or leafy nests to hide from extremes.

bear-in-den-illustration (

Below ground, temperatures are above freezing, and mammals are protected from wind and precipitation. (Illustration from

To be continued tomorrow with more solutions….


baby, it’s cold out there!

The thermometer read -13F (that’s -25C) in the backyard this morning — birds, squirrels, and deer were sleeping in until the sun rose high enough to hit the trunks of the trees and the bird feeders (around 10 a.m.).  And then the rush was on to grab peanuts, eat suet, and grab a few sunflower seeds before disappearing back into some warmer niche.

black-capped chickadee

Chickadee waiting patiently for a turn at the peanut feeder. 

These little birds look like balls of fluff, with their feather insulation expanded out for maximal warmth.  But a stiff wind today makes heat conservation pretty difficult with wind chill temps hovering around -35 F!

chickadee eating peanuts

Got one!  One small peanut weighs about 1 gram — providing about 0.5 grams of fat, 0.2 grams of protein, and 0.2 grams of carbohydrate.  Just the fuel needed for a cold chickadee.  The bird might come back to the peanut feeder several times, but will probably stash most of them for consumption later.  The chickadee itself only weighs 10-12 grams.

red-bellied woodpecker eating peanuts-

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are peanut specialists, and return many times for these high energy capsules.

white-breasted nuthatch eating peanuts-

White-breasted Nuthatches prefer peanuts over sunflower seeds on a day like this.

I really dislike going out in weather like this, but animals have no choice.  Foraging hours are shorter on extremely cold days, and the birds prefer the high caloric fuel to make energy ends meet overnight.  Of course, retreating to a nicely insulated nest hole helps too.

The other day when I was out walking in the far backyard (marshy swamp area) just before dusk, I stopped to look at a snag (dead stump) with a variety of different sized holes in it, when suddenly a Hairy Woodpecker flew out from one of the holes.  A moment later another woodpecker flew out from the same hole.  They might have been a breeding pair that decided to share their heat in an old nest hole — which is a great way to survive this frigid weather.

Home sweet home

It’s nesting season for some of the resident birds. Having staked out a territory and driven off the competition, it’s time to find that perfect little home in which to raise the kids this year.  For some species, the safest place is a cavity in a tree or nest box, where the offspring will hopefully be safe from predators.  The other day while I was down by the pond in the far backyard looking at turtles, a pair of Black-capped Chickadees were flitting in and out of a notch in a dead branch just a few feet away.

black-capped chickadee-at its nest hole

Each one of the pair entered the hole completely silently (no vocalizations) and then exited a few minutes later with a beak full of wood chips.  It must have been a pretty roomy nest cavity because a couple of times they were in there together.

This cavity may have been used by a previous owner (e.g., a woodpecker) because the entrance is quite a bit larger than the chickadee is.  Nevertheless, this pair is modifying the cavity to suit their needs this year — for example, the typical cavity for a chickadee nest is about 8 inches deep.  After excavation, they will add a layer of moss and small sticks, and then another layer of soft fur to line the nest cup.  It’s quite a production.

Black-capped Chickadee leaving nest hole

They were furtive and silent as they went about their task, — better to keep potential predators from coming back to raid the nest sometime later.

But the number of suitable cavities of just the right size are limited, and there are lots of chickadees, House Wrens, Tree Swallows, and Bluebirds that require one about this size to start building their nest.  While I was watching the courtship activities of the osprey pair at the marsh the other day, I saw some of this interspecific competition between chickadees and Tree Swallows, each of whom seemed to be claiming a cavity in a tall, dead snag.

Black-capped chickadee entering nest hole

A pair of Chickadees were entering and leaving the hole with wood chips in their beak, — completely silently.

Black-capped chickadee leaving nest hole-

Definitely some construction going on there.

tree swallow at chickadee nest cavity

Meanwhile, when the chickadees departed to get rid of their wood chips, a Tree Swallow investigated the cavity.  Unlike the chickadees, three Tree Swallows swarmed around this cavity vocalizing loudly.  They entered and exited very quickly — did they recognize this home belonged to someone else?

Tree Swallows checking nest hole

This shot was taken when one chickadee was still inside, with the Tree Swallow poking its head down into the cavity to observe whose home it was.

I didn’t stay to see who got control of this cavity.  Tree Swallows are a little larger than chickadees and weigh about 50% more, so it’s possible they might have ousted the chickadees and claimed this cavity for their own home.  I’ll have to check back later to see who “won”.

And so it begins…

Earlier this year than last, but probably average for this northern climate, winter began with a flurry of flakes this morning.


The backyard takes on its typical winter hues:  white, brown, and gray.  How long before we see bare unfrozen ground again, I wonder?


Some Minnesotans just love snowfall — me, I keep thinking of warm, sunny days.

red-bellied woodpecker

Even the birds complained this morning — Mrs. Red-bellied Woodpecker was quite vocal about the snow cover on her favorite feeder.

chickadee in snow

There was little activity at the bird feeders this morning, but I can always count on a chickadee or two. I guess most of the birds were smart enough to stay huddled in a protected place.

Safety in numbers

The warblers are back.  They must have flown in with the last storm front this week and are just as busy as they were last spring flitting about the trees and shrubs in search of food.  Since they don’t sing or chirp very much on their way south, I discovered the best way to find them was to listen for Chickadees making the “dee-dee” call.  Every time I found/heard a flock of chickadees, I saw a variety of warblers with them.

black capped chickadee stashing a seed

This chickadee found a sunflower seed somewhere and is trying to find a good place to stash it.  “Dee-dee-dee” calls vary in length; the greater the number of “dees”, the greater the threat.  High-pitched “see” notes indicate the presence of a predator.

It seems the warblers like to hang out with the local insectivores, forming mixed flocks of several species all cruising through the shrubbery and leaves together. Chickadee calls impart a wealth of information about the environment, especially the presence of potential threats, so perhaps migrating warblers rely on the local chickadee experts for information.  In addition, more eyes to watch for predators equals greater safety.

american redstart female or juvenile

An American Redstart female or juvenile bird sports flashy yellow rather than the scarlet-orange patches in the wings and tail of the male.

american redstart flashing its tail

The Redstart signature behavior of flashing its colorful tail feathers makes the ID for this bird pretty easy.

chestnut-sided warbler-fall plumage

That bright yellow cap gives this bird’s identity away — only one warbler has a golden cap like this one: a Chesnut-sided Warbler.

chestnut-sided warbler-fall plumage

No chestnut sides or black facial markings until molting season next spring.  The white eye ring is typical of juvenile Chestnut-sided Warblers.

Warblers are notoriously difficult to identify in the fall, mostly because they are not singing and the typical bright and distinctive male plumage may be dulled, looking more like the less distinctive female of that species.  Adding juvenile birds into the mix further confuses us.  So here’s a bird ID quiz.

Below are two photos of what I thought was two individuals of the same species.

magnolia warbler-juvenile

Gray head, yellow belly and throat, white eye-ring. Should be easy to ID, right?

nashville warbler

Here it is again — gray head, yellow throat and belly, white eye-ring.  Disregard that pale branch obscuring part of the bird’s belly.  It’s really all yellow.  Is the same species as the one in the previous photo?

What do you think?  One species or two?  List your reasons in the comments, and I’ll give you the answer tomorrow.