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.

Fairest of them all…

Participating in Warbler Weekend in Frontenac,MN, on the Mississippi River this past weekend was quite an experience.  The total bird list seen by all 100+ observers at this gathering ran to 139 species; I think my husband and I saw about 70 of those.  Some were old friends (e.g., Yellow-rumped and Yellow Warblers), and some were brand new to us, like the Cape May Warbler.  It’s hard to pick a “most beautiful” among such colorful creatures, but the Cape May was my choice for this weekend.

Cape May Warblers were named for the type specimen collected in Cape May, New Jersey, through which they migrate.

Cape May Warblers were named for the type specimen collected in Cape May, New Jersey, one of the areas through which they migrate.  Their northward migration from the Caribbean each spring takes them through the eastern half of the U.S. to the spruce forests of central and eastern Canada.

The “best bird” was also the first bird I saw this weekend, highlighted in the golden light of our early morning (6:30 a.m.) departure on bird walks all over the wooded areas of Frontenac.  This particular bird was so busy probing into the flowers of this tree that it completely ignored the exclamations and chatter of the dozens of people standing 20 feet away.

It's doubtful there were insects buried in those flower heads, and more likely that there was some nectar there the birds were after.

It’s doubtful there were insects buried in those flower heads, and more likely that there was some nectar there the birds were after.

Cape May Warblers are spruce budworm specialists, but they do have an unusually curled and semi-tubular tongue that allows them to probe into the depths of flowers to lap up nectar, which they use as an alternative food source to their highly insectivorous diet.

These warblers are also unusual in having a larger than expected number of nestlings for a tiny warbler. Their clutch size might vary markedly depending on the density of spruce budworm available in a particular season, ranging from a low of 4 to a high of 9 nestlings per brood. This density dependent strategy allows the warbler population to expand rapidly and serves as an effective control of budworm outbreaks in the coniferous forests.

With brown cheeks, black cap, and a yellow breast faintly streaked with black, the Cape May Warbler will be an easy one to remember.

With brown cheeks, black cap, and a yellow breast faintly streaked with black, the Cape May Warbler will be an easy one to remember.