The most complete and accessible bird-information resource for North American bird species is now available to anyone with a Hennepin County Library card. Card-holders can access the wealth of life-history information, along with photos and sound recordings, for every species of bird that breeds in North America. My printed set, bought several years ago before its Internet access was available, includes 716 species. These life histories — distribution, food habits, sounds, behavior, plumage at various stages of life, courtship, breeding and nesting, food, predators, population status, and much more — have been written by a variety of professional ornithologists. This is an incredible resource. Answer to almost any species-specific question you can imagine can be found here. You need a library card. Go to www.hclib.org, search the words North American Birds, enter your card number when requested, and there you are. The cover of the monograph for Downy Woodpecker is shown (copyright The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, A. Poole and F. Gill, editors).
Kirtland’s Warbler is a rare species of bird that had been known to breed only in 13 contiguous counties in northern lower Michigan. It’s nesting habitat needs are very specific: jack pine stands of a certain age. Fire once ensured that such habitat existed. We no longer tolerate natural fire. The 2008 census of this species at its Michigan sites found fewer than 2,000 singing males (singing males because you have to locate them to count them). Now, however, the bird has expanded its range into at least two parts of Wisconsin, the major site less than a two-hour drive from Minnesota — Adams County, which is about 100 miles east of LaCrosse. This nesting season there has been called extremely successful. To put that in perspective, we’re talking about five nests in Adams County that fledged a total of 19 birds. Male Kirtland’s Warblers have been found at two sites in Marinette County, on the Michigan border. One nest containing three eggs was found there. One singing male has been reported from Douglas County (far northwestern Wisconsin) this summer, but the bird has not been relocated. In 2008, Kirtland’s also were reported from Vilas and Jackson counties, but confirmation was not made. Habitat is one problem for the Kirtland’s Warbler, cowbirds another. In Michigan and at the Adams County locations cowbirds are being trapped to reduce the degree of parasitism that can make warbler nesting seasons fruitless. The photo is of a recently fledged Kirtland’s. It was taken by Joel Trick of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and is used with permission.
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.
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.
In the past couple of days, birders in the metro area have reported Eastern Bluebirds, Eastern Meadowlarks (Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge), Common Grackles, Sandhill Cranes, Killdeer, Snow Geese, many species of waterfowl, including Green-winged Teal and mergansers, Great Blue Herons, Double-crested Cormorants, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Rusty Blackbirds, White-fronted Geese, Red-shouldered Hawks, Northern Harrier, Kestrel, Merlin, and Turkey Vultures. American Robins are everywhere, as are male Red-winged Blackbirds.( The males arrive first to claim breeding territories. Females will follow soon.) Pictured is a female Red-winged Blackbird carrying grass for her nest.
Every winter a handful of Varied Thrushes stray east into Minnesota and beyond from their forest homes in the Pacific Northwest. These visitors feed on fruit. They often hang around a bountiful tree for days. At first glance, Varied Thrushes can be mistaken for robins; they’re often found feeding with robins, another bird that feeds on fruit. But the bold stripe at the top of its breast and the orange slash on the Varied Thrush’s head can’t be missed it you look again. The bird shown here was feeding in a crab apple tree in Roseville. It was photographed in a nearby cottonwood tree.
Boreal Chickadee is one of the bird species tracked in the recent study by National Audubon of climate-change impact on winter range. Minnesota has lost over 90 percent of its wintering Boreal Chickadees to northward movement, according to the study. Audubon used Christmas Bird Count data from the past 40 years from both the U.S. and Canada. It determined a line at which an equal number of birds of a particular species was reported on each side, north and south. In 1968, that line for Boreal Chickadees was almost 300 miles south of where it is now. When Bob Janssen published his 1987 book “Birds in Minnesota” he wrote that migrant Boreal Chickadees were reported “every fall” in Duluth. In addition to counting raptors, observers at Hawk Ridge in Duluth have for the past two years counted migrants of all species. Six Boreal Chickadees were seen in 2007, none in 2008, according to Debbie Waters, education director for the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. The habitat conditions this little bird needs are changing. Today, it can survive the weather found north of their former winter range. Other bird species reported in declining numbers here are American Three-toed Woodpecker and Bohemian Waxwing. On the other hand, 18 species are more common here in the winter than they were in 1968. They are Rough-legged Hawk, Dark-eyed Junco, Hermit Thrush, Purple Finch, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, American Crow, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Tundra Swan, Cedar Waxwing, White-throated Sparrow, Redhead, Mourning Dove, Red-breasted Merganser, Caroline Wren, Gadwall, and American Robin. Some of these birds are staying the winter. Others are able to linger longer before moving south (if they do) because, apparently, milder weather allows them to do so. Robins are an obvious example of increased winter population: thousands of robins have been observed in Minnesota this winter, and they’re doing just fine, thank you. (The Boreal Chickadee in the photo was found last week nibbling deer parts along Admiral Road in the Sax-Zim bog area northwest of Duluth.)
A good quick late-fall early-winter birding trip is a tour of the west shore of Mille Lacs Lake. Jude and I were there a feew of days ago, sun shining, water blue. We hoped to find loons in large numbers, but I think we were late. Common Loons gather on the lake during fall migration. Over 1,000 birds have been counted in one day. From the overlook at Garrison we had 17 in sight at once. There were Red-breasted Mergansers, Bonaparte’s and Ring-billed gulls as well. Red-breasted and Pacific loons can be seen there, too, but not this day. Several years ago a Yellow-billed Loon, an extremely rare lower-48 visitor was seen for a few days. It arrived late in the season. Ice formed, trapping it because it did not have enough opem water for the long running takeoff loons need. Eventually, a Bald Eagle ate it. (Pictured are a pair of Bonaparte’s gulls in winter plumage.)
Keep an eye out for strange birds as hurricanes pummel our southeastern and eastern coasts. Those high winds have the habit of blowing seabirds far inland. Wisconsin’s first records of Magnificent Frigatebird and Sooty Tern correlate with hurricane paths similar to that of Gustav and its inland remnants. In the past few days, both of these species have been seen in Oklahoma. You never know. (This Magnificent Frigatebird was photographed along the Gulf of Mexico coast.)