Bird identification

What if chickens were wild birds?

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Yes, this is a barnyard chicken. It’s a bird, though, whether or not we think of it in the same terms as warblers and raptors. And it’s a beautiful bird. I’m partial to chickens. The chicken display at the state fair is a can’t-miss stop for me. Think of this bird as wild, uncommon in Minnesota, hard to find. Think of the pleasure of standing in a woods or prairie or wherever and hearing it crow for the first time. The guide book would suggest you be there at dawn. Think of your first look at this beauty: the shawl of feathers, the bright red comb and wattles. You’d be impressed and pleased, right? I would. I am.rooster-5-6505.jpg 

Best kind of birding

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

My all-time favorite kind of birding is done on boats on oceans. I’ve taken several trips off the California coasts, but until a couple of days ago only one Atlantic trip, that out of North Carolina. Pelagic birding cannot match whale-watching for popularity, so one day last week Jude and I boarded a whale-watching vessel in the Gloucester, Mass., harbor, and hoped for birds. The chances were pretty good. The whalers go out as far as 35 miles, depending upon where the whales are feeding. That’s a lot of water. We saw five species of pelagic birds: Greater, Cory’s, and Sooty shearwaters, and Wilson’s and Leach’s storm-petrels. The shearwaters are bigger birds, their slender wings almost four feet tip to tip. The storm-petrels are the size of Purple Martins, but with longer wings. They’re all gorgeous
flyers, usually no more than a foot or two off the water, riding the air currents created by wave movement. Pelagic birding guides chum, tossing bits of fish overboard to attract gulls which in turn can bring the true ocean birds within viewing distance. Whale-watching captains don’t chum. You takes your chances. It turned out to be a good day. It would have been even better two days later when the storm named Bob blew by. It surely carried with it birds usually seen to the south. But no tourist boat filled with tank-topped adults photographing whales with their cell phones was going to do that. (There’s something odd about taking pictures of whales with cell phones.) The bird pictured is a Sooty Shearwater, one of two of our five pelagic species generous enough to sit beside the boat for a few moments. Usually, you’re doing your ID work from 300, 400, 500 feet away.


Latin names

Friday, August 14th, 2009

Birds have common names and scientific names. Both offer valuable information, the latter often more informative and entertaining. I have a book entitled “The Dictionary of American Bird Names.” It was written by Ernest A. Choate, published by The Harvard Common Press in 1985. It’s both a useful reference tool and great fun to read. The House Wren, for example, has the Latin name Troglodytes aedon. Troglodytes refers to the wren family; all birds with this group name are members of the wren family. Aedon specifies a particular species, the one we know as House Wren. Troglodytes means cave dweller, given to wrens because they are cavity nesters. Aedon is from the Greek. Aedon, the daughter of Pandereus, was changed into a nightingale by the gods, but, as author Choate notes, into a wren by a fellow named Vieillot, who first gave the bird its formal name. House Wrens and nightingales share an ability to sing pretty songs. Sometimes that second or ‘trivial’ name honors a friend or associate of the person doing the naming. Lucy’s Warbler, for example: Vermivora luciae. Vermis is worm in Latin, voro Latin for eat: A family of birds that eats worms. Luciae is for Lucy Baird, daughter of an early and well-known ornithologist (Baird’s Sparrow is named for him). Below, Troglodytes aedon in song.


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 

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

Taking the babies for a ride

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

Earlier this year I watched Western Grebes in their courtship dances at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge north of Aberdeen, South Dakota. Last week, in the same spot, I watched young grebes being fed atop a parent’s back. This pair of grebes had two young, both tucked beneath the wings of one of the parents. Sometimes you couldn’t see the small birds. Other times they had their heads and necks extended, mostly when food was offered. The non-carrying parent was fishing for minnows to feed them. What do you do with the babies when it’s your turn to fish? You just extend your wings and rise out of the water. The babies unceremoniously slide off, promptly climbing aboard the other parent. It didn’t look like the grebe chicks were ready for the change, and neither was I, my camera’s shutter speed not fast enough to capture a clear shot of the sliding chick. My favorite spot to watch these birds is the bridge where South Dakota Highway 10 crosses the Sand River in the northern part of the refuge. The river is wide here, lake-like, bordered by high reeds. The grebes fish in the water flowing beneath the bridge. They sometimes are as close to observers as 15 or 20 feet. Terns, gulls, pelicans, and cormorants also feed here.  west-grebe-family-low-rez-51491.jpgwest-grebe-feeds-low-rez-51431.jpg grebe-unloads-trib-5182.jpg  

Photos of threatened species

Monday, July 6th, 2009


A program known as ARKive is working to compile audio-visual records for the 16,300 animal, plant, and fungi species whose survival currently is considered threatened. Target species come from the Red List maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The photos and recordings gathered so far can be seen and heard on a really cool Web site at It’s an incredible resource, available to all. The program has been active for five years. Eventually, ARKive, based in the United Kingdom, wants to provide Web records of all known world animal, plant, and fungi species. Check it out. Do it when you’re not in a hurry. Several species of birds regularly seen in Minnesota are on the list, including this Parasitic Jaeger.

Red-throated Loons in Duluth

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

Two years ago I was in the Alaskan boonies, an hour’s flight out of Bethel, looking at Red-throated Loons. You can see the same bird today with a much shorter trip:
Duluth. As many as 15 of the Arctic breeders were seen this morning (Sunday) on Lake Superior off Park Point. This is most unusual, both in number and date. To see photos taken by Duluth bird-guide and photographer Mike Hendrickson go to and click on Recently Seen (upper right portion of the page).

Marsh Wren nesting

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

Here’s another breeding-bird mark for my Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas records. This Marsh Wren, busily adding cattail strands to its globe-like nest, conveniently is building about six feet off a paved road near Long Lake, west of Wayzata. This is in my atlas township quadrant. The male of this species begins construction of more than one nest, as House Wrens do. Should he find a mate, she chooses the actual nesting location, and the nest is finished, soft fibers used to line its inside. This bird spent a lot to time working inside the reed ball, so we might have the real thing here. I can only hope. The bird, more often nesting deep inside a cattail marsh, is making observation very easy. marsh-wren-at-nest-4-0891a.jpg 

Willow Flycatcher

Sunday, May 31st, 2009

Binoculars make no permanent record of what you see through them, nor can you enlarge the image and examine it at leisure. Bless photography. This very cooperative Willow Flycatcher, seen Sunday in my Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas block, was doing something I had never seen before, not that I noticed before pumping the image up with Photoshop. It was raising its crest, a sign of its displeasure with me in its space. It also was calling vigorously, so it goes into the record as a potential breeder.