Backyard birding

Chimney Swift nestlings

Monday, August 10th, 2009

A friend has a fireplace chimney that’s housing a Chimney Swift nest. Two of us hauled a ladder to the site one morning last week to take a look. Peering down the chimney for a first look, I saw five birds. I turned to report to my friend. Once again placing my face over the chimney opening I was met by a very loud hissing. I almost fell off the ladder, immediately forgetting birds and thinking bats. I expected bats in my face. What I heard is the alarm call of nestling swifts, described in “The Birds of North America” swift monograph as a “loud rasping raah, raah, raah, a noisy chorus.” You bet. There were five young in the chimney, about 11 feet below the opening. The first 10 feet of this chimney is tiled. The smooth tile sits on a metal collar that in turn rests on the brick portion that opens into the fire pit. The nest is attached to the brick below the collar, so I couldn’t see it. Volunteer observers are going to count swifts throughout Minnesota on Sept. 1. You can participate. Watch swifts in your neighborhood just before dusk and try to discover where they are roosting. Count them as they enter or exit the roost. Report your sighting to Audubon Minnesota by email: For more information on this cool bird go to Swifts, by the way, don’t perch. Adults and near-fledging young hang, as these birds are doing, or fly. If roosting in a chimney they will be clinging to the roughness of the brick. The light colored material below the birds is swift droppings. .  chim-swift-nestlings-5654.jpg 

‘Woodworking for Wildlife’ — new, improved edition

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

The best book to have at hand when you’re building a nest box for a bird always has been Carrol Henderson’s “Woodworking for Wildlife”. Now there is a new and expanded edition. First published 24 years ago and revised in 1992, it is the bible of backyard bird construction. Published by and available from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Henderson’s book gives you easy-to-follow instructions for construction of everything from nest boxes for owls to a toad cottage for your garden. Included is the famous one-board nest box that even I can build. This edition includes information on eliminating predation of birds using these nesting structures. The photos and text about bird nesting, eggs, incubation, and chicks make the book entertaining and valuable even if you never lift a hammer. There are 30 sets of plans here for structures accommodating 46 species of wildlife. This is the best-selling book the DNR ever has published, for obvious and good reasons. To buy one, to to or visit the DNR gift shop at 500 Lafayette Road in St. Paul. The price is $16.95. Royalties from sale of the book go fund to DNR non-game wildlife programs  woodworking-for-wildlife.jpg  

Counting Chimney Swifts

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Are there Chimney Swifts in your neighborhood? Swifts are those fast-flying little birds that alternate rapidly fluttering wings with long, swooping glides. They have bodies that resemble stubby cigars; there seems to be no tail of mention. You’ll see them hawking insects in the sky over your neighborhood or perhaps over a lake or pond. Work is underway to help swifts prosper in Minnesota. Nesting and roosting structures are being built. And in August and September you can participate in the state’s first annual Chimney Swift Sit. This is a census to help determine just how well these birds are doing, and where they’re doing it. You can count the birds as they enter a roosting site for the night, or you can alert Audubon Minnesota about site location so volunteers can be assigned. If you’re counting, this is a sit-down job. Important are swift roosting locations. These most likely will be chimneys (duh!). You’ll see the birds sort of pouring into the structure. It might be a large industrial chimney; it might be an uncapped chimney for your neighbor’s fireplace. I know of one roosting site in our neighborhood (fireplace), and there is another here yet to be discovered. We see the birds daily. We just haven’t yet figured out where they nested and now roost. I’m working on it. You can contact Audubon Minnesota to volunteer or offer information by emailing Ron Windingstad at rwindingstad@audubon. org. Or, go to Swifts are fun to watch, aerial acrobats at their best. chimney-swift-best.jpg chimney-swift-flies-4154.jpg

Bird predation by muskrats (!!)

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

I have forever regarded the muskrat as a gentle vegetarian, living on reeds and tubers found near its mounded lodges in shallow waters. Or, like the muskrat pictured, a shy visitor to a crab apple orchard. Now I learn that they eat ducks, among other birds. A friend called recently to report watching a muskrat attack a half-grown Canada Goose. The mammal really did try to bite off more than it could chew; the goose escaped. That sent me on a literature hunt, seeking more information on this new perspective. Evan Hazard’s “Mammals of Minnesota” mentions only the vegetarian portion of a muskrat’s diet, as did all but one of the sources I found on the Internet. The exception was a paper written in 1918 for the Massachusetts conservation department by ornithologist Edward Forbush. The paper discussed bird predators. And there was the cute muskrat, one of which swims in our pond, credited with dining on Green Herons and ducks as well as geese. This might be partial explanation for the continuing loss of baby Wood Ducks around here. muskrat-4894.jpg

Getting quiet out there

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

A sure sign of the downside of summer, at least for birding, is the quiet you hear these days. Gone are most of the mating and territorial songs offered by our local nesting species. Courtship and mating are done, with the exception of a few species that nest second or even third times in a season. The House Wren in our backyard, for instance, is ready to go again, his song coming from our yard’s brushy edges on a daily basis. Eastern Bluebirds, too, are into second nestings in many instances. Other species are feeding young birds. Very soon some of them will begin meandering south, post-breeding migration not driven by the breeding imperative that governs spring. Those species that nested north of us will begin appearing in metro yards and parks.  I did find one lustily singing bird this past weekend, a Warbling Vireo that perched in some neighborhood willows and sang as if it was May. Here’s a photo of that bird. warbling-vireo-3728.jpg 

Birds at lake a problem?

Saturday, June 20th, 2009

Are perching birds sitting on your boat or dock at the lake? Causing an unsightly problem? Reader David Kleis wanted to keep birds off his dock and pontoon boat. So he simply trimmed a sapling tree, mounted it to the end of his dock, and gave the birds a better place to perch. It’s used by a variety of birds, he says, and has the bonus of convenient viewing.p5070003.jpg 

How’s the birding been?

Sunday, June 7th, 2009

If you’ve been out to look for birds in the last two or three weeks I’d like to know your reaction. Lots of birds? Few birds? Variety of species but few individuals? Better than past years? Worse? I’ve been out almost every morning since May 1, in favorite spots near our home, in county parks, in northwestern Wisconsin. Most days I’ve wondered where the birds are or went. How would you describe this spring? Indigo Buntings, local nesters, have been easy to see. This male was singing at Baker regional park at Lake Independence.


House cats and birds

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Domestic cats — cuddly, purring, and well-fed — kill hundreds of millions of song birds each year. Domestic cats are among the world’s most efficient predators. The problem, of course, is not with the cats. They’re doing what comes naturally. The problem is with cat owners who let their pets outside, where the cat’s hunting instinct is dominant, full tummy or not. Birds have enough problems with us. Keeping cats indoors is one thing we can do to help birds that costs nothing and is immediately effective. The cat benefits, too. Indoor cats are healthier and safer. The American Bird Conservancy has placed an explanatory video on YouTube. The Web address is Take a look. The cat pictured here — an animal with an attitude and what appears to be too many toes — was hunting on a golf course in Arizona a couple of years ago.  cat-feral-2887.jpg 

Find the bird

Friday, May 1st, 2009

The color of a Mourning Dove matches closely the colors of Red Pine bark. That explains this nest site. These is a nesting dove in each of these photos, taken this morning from two sides of a Red Pine branch extending over a neighbor’s driveway. I used a long telephoto lens. The bird is almost impossible to see unless you know exactly where to look. Can you find it?



Heavy migration indicated

Friday, April 24th, 2009

Heavy migration of birds was seen on Thursday night on weather radar. Apple Valley’s Roger Everhart, who follows radar reports to track bird movement, reported last night that birds were moving out of Cuba and over Key West, Florida. He says birding should be good this weekend as migrants move north. We are a ways from the southeast coast, but the push is on. Wet weather this weekend is likely to ground migrants. Rain or not, it’s going to be a good weekend for birding. You can see the radar images on Mr. Everhart’s Web site. Go to