Chimney Swift nestlings

Posted on August 10th, 2009 – 8:20 AM
By Jim Williams

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

Posted on August 6th, 2009 – 3:59 PM
By Jim Williams

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  

Get outta here!

Posted on August 3rd, 2009 – 9:58 PM
By Jim Williams

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.swainsons-chased-4-5021.jpg

Counting Chimney Swifts

Posted on July 29th, 2009 – 9:37 PM
By Jim Williams

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

Posted on July 21st, 2009 – 10:45 AM
By Jim Williams

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  

Rare warbler doing well in Wisconsin

Posted on July 18th, 2009 – 9:37 AM
By Jim Williams

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.kiwa_fledge_adamsctyjuly2009byjoeltrick.jpg 

Bird predation by muskrats (!!)

Posted on July 15th, 2009 – 7:11 PM
By Jim Williams

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

Osprey banding

Posted on July 11th, 2009 – 1:56 PM
By Jim Williams

Young Ospreys being raised in the metro area were banded recently. The work was done by personnel from Three Rivers Park District and others involved in the Twin Cities Osprey Project. Fifty nests were visited, the young birds removed briefly for banding, then returned to their nests. There are 61 known Osprey nests in the greater metropolitan area, those 50 active and occupied. All but one of the nests are on platforms erected for the birds. One pair chose to nest the old-fashioned way this year: they used a tree. Judy Voigt Englund, project coordinator, told me that it’s hoped that as our Osprey population grows more and more pairs will chose trees as nest sites. She said that the chicks raised this year in the tree nest hopefully would be more likely to choose a tree site when they mate and nest. The photos were taken at two nesting sites in western Hennepin County. Doing the climbing is Jim Mussel of the Tree Guys. The young birds are put into that box you see in the photo for the ride to the ground and back. They’re out of the nest for perhaps five minutes. While their chicks were out of the nest, the parent Ospreys flew over the work, calling loudly. They then returned to the job of seeing that each nestling gets the pound of fish it needs each day. Of the two nests we visited, one had three chicks, the other two. Both nests held one unhatched egg (see photo).bird-in-hand-5882.jpg  banding-tight-5806.jpg osprey-egg-5851.jpg 

Getting quiet out there

Posted on July 9th, 2009 – 8:39 AM
By Jim Williams

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 

Photos of threatened species

Posted on July 6th, 2009 – 9:37 AM
By Jim Williams


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.