The blackbird in the photo is chasing a Swainson’s Hawk from its nesting territory. The hawk was just doing a flyover, but the small bird was taking no chances. Raptors do take songbird eggs and nestlings, so an investment in caution is a good idea. Swainson’s eat insects for most of the year, hunting down small mammals, reptiles, and sometimes birds only during the nesting season. Swainson’s Hawks are mostly birds of prairies west of Minnesota, although the bird is routinely seen in our state. They winter in South America, moving south in September and October, sometimes many together. I’ve seen a hay field in South Dakota with more than 100 Swainson’s Hawks working the cut grass for grasshoppers, fattening themselves for the migration flight. These birds were photographed recently in North Dakota.
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.
A year ago I was birding in Churchill, Manitoba, listening to warblers sing, watching shorebirds court. This year six-foot snow drifts on the roads there make birding impossible. Much worse, the extremely late spring in northern Manitoba and across the eastern Arctic has made breeding impossible for many species of waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds. An entire class year has been lost for many species. An early return of non-breeders is predicted. You could be seeing birds returning south weeks ahead of schedule. To read about this go to a story on the Web site of the Winnipeg Free Press newspaper:
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 www.moumn.org and click on Recently Seen (upper right portion of the page).
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.
The first Common Nighthawk I’ve seen this spring was sleeping on a willow-tree branch when I discovered it late last week. It could be a local nester; it could be a migrant. It breeds throughout North America with the exception of high-Arctic areas. Nighthawk might be its name, but it is most active at dawn and dusk. Spring migrants are most often seen alone. In the fall, the bird become gregarious, seen in flocks of dozens or hundreds from July into September as it moves south. Listen for its “peent” call above shopping-center parking lots this summer as it hawks insects attracted by lot lamps. It’s short bill opens to a gape to sweep insects out of the air.
For those of you wondering where the migrant birds are or went, as I am, a lot of them are still working their way north. Roger Everhart monitors weather radar to detect large migration movements. Monday, he reported Sunday night radar images showing many migrant songbirds moving north from the Gulf states. They were concentrating in the mid-Mississippi Valley, to our south. He says these birds will be creeping north over the next couple of weeks. Roger lives in Apple Valley, where he operated the North Central Bird Observatory. We spent the past few days in Burnett County in northwestern Wisconsin. Birding was OK at its best, but many species were represented by one sighting. We wondered if the winds had simply blown them over us. This Golden-winged Warbler was one of our sightings.
During a visit to Crex Meadows Wildlife Area (Grantsburg, Wisconson) Wednesday, one species we expected to see was Trumpeter Swan. We found three, many fewer than expected. We either were in the wrong places or the birds are yet to return. Water is low at Crex, but there certainly not low enough to inhibit nesting. This bird was feeding, its head strained with the mud from the bottom of the shallow wetland were we watched it. Footnote: 24 hours later a drive on the same route produced 32 swans plus Yellow-headed Blackbirds not seen Wednesday. Wednesday night was good for migration.
We’ve been birding near Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. From the looks of things, it’s been raining here since God was a boy. Can’t tell lake from land. There are some migrants. Ducks and coots are swimming right along the edges of US Highway 2 concrete. Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge was a destination, but we could not find open roads to take us there. Water covers everything. Here is a bird with wind problems. Can you identify it? Answer several clicks down.
I plan to visit Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas this spring. It’s a wonderful place to see migrant shorebirds. I emailed refuge staff to ask about timing. Today, staffer Christine LaRue wrote to say, “Spring migration for shorebirds is already underway. Normally the heavy migration time starts in April, peaks in May, and lasts into June. Right now we are at least two weeks ahead of normal. I don’t know what the snow storm this week will do to this, but right now we have several of our early-migration species on the refuge. Other species are also in early migration.” Two weeks ahead of normal is way, way ahead. (In the photo are migrant shorebirds found in western Minnesota last spring.)