Sunday, August 26, 2012

Baltimore Oriole

There is a confusing array of orioles, but it is safe to say the Baltimore Oriole is the one most likely to be seen in Wisconsin.  Of the eight identified US orioles only the Baltimore and occasionally the Orchard Oriole make a home here.

Orioles are noteworthy in that the males and females look somewhat similar.  The female shares the same colors with the male, only slightly duller.  

The male's bold orange and black colors stand out, so he is easy to identify.  If you can’t find him by sight, follow his song.  He has a melodic sweet sound and sings often.  

Look for them in the very tops of trees where they like to hang out and build their nests.

June 2012

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Eastern Kingbird

The Eastern Kingbird is a favorite bird of my friend, Tom Gerber.  Formerly of Cedarburg, now of Florida, Tom has been on me quite a bit about finding an Eastern Kingbird.  I’ve tried to fill his request, but I can’t find birds on demand; it doesn’t work that way.  I take them as they come.  He knows that, but you have to know Tom to know that no excuse will satisfy him.  Tom Gerber and patience have never been introduced. 

Eastern Kingbirds are widespread and common, so I can’t explain my failure to find one other then to say they fall into the category of LBB’s (little brown birds) that everyone sees yet fails to distinguish.  It has taken me quite a while to find enough Eastern Kingbirds to post.  They are songbirds in the general category of tyrant flycatchers (flying insect-eaters), which means they are extremely fast and extremely difficult to photograph in the air.  I haven’t been lucky enough to find many perched on branches either. 

This one is a juvenile.  I found him on a branch in Mequon, Wisconsin.  He looked to be waiting to be fed.   When startled, he flew away, but struggled only far enough to feel safe again.  He likely was in his home territory and either unwilling or unable to stray out of it. 

The males, females and juveniles all look alike…soft black and white to shades of gray.  They have the slightest hook at the tip of their bill.  They are sleek, slender and agile enough to catch flying insects as their prey darts and dives to avoid capture. Like all flycatchers, they are fun to watch. 

Maybe now that I’ve found these three my luck in finding Eastern Kingbirds will improve and I will find them everywhere.  

I can only hope and Tom will be pleased…finally…possibly…unlikely…damn!


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Elegant Trogon

The Elegant Trogon isn’t your typical backyard bird.  You can’t see one whenever you’d like.  They won’t come to your Wisconsin birdfeeder, no matter what.  You will have to travel to see them. They live in remote areas far from people, but they don’t seem to fear people.  Far southeastern Arizona is the only place you’re likely to find one in the United States.

The Elegant Trogon is special.  He has a square-tip tail and round-tip wings. He has a red belly and a blue-green back.  His wingspan is 16 inches.   Black and white, brown and gray feathers round out his color palette with a bright red eye ring for accent. Maybe that’s why people travel so far to see him…he looks so strange.

He's a prize for birders. Compare him to: ‘Box Seats’, ‘A-Hole-in-One’ or ‘Babe Ruth’s rookie card’ to understand the level of mystique this bird holds. 

Colleen and Stein Simonsen (pronounced: ‘Stain’ in Norwegian) went to South America to see one last year. I met them on the Carrie Nation Trail in Madera Canyon, Arizona. They’re from Idaho, now living part-time in Arizona. They wanted to see an Elegant Trogon here in North America too.  We hiked together up and down the mountain trails and stood quietly for hours, our backs to each other, so we could scan the trees in 360 degrees.  Waiting for a trogon to show up takes patience, but our patience paid off.

About mid-April Elegant Trogons start moving up into Southern Arizona.  They’re looking for nesting sites along mountain slopes with Sycamore trees, one of their favorite nesting trees.  Birders flock (no pun intended) to these areas to search for the Elegant Trogon.  Bandoliered with binoculars and all lengths of lens, they’re in hopes of seeing or maybe just hearing an Elegant Trogon. 

The word was out on this year’s Elegant Trogon sightings in Madera Canyon and birders were anxious to be the next lucky person.  But Colleen, Stein and I were next!  We found this one where one had been spotted before…about a mile up, along a mountain snowmelt stream.  Perched about thirty-feet over my head, his red belly was fully exposed.   I didn’t have the birder credentials to be this fortunate, but I gladly accepted this prize. 

The Elegant Trogon is not without shortcomings though. For a bird named Elegant, he has a less than elegant voice.  His voice has been rightly compared to a hoarse barking dog.  I might add a dog crossed with an oinking pig.  Few would say his call is elegant.  It’s good he calls out, though, because that’s how you find him. His barks give him away in the dense cover of trees.  But for what he lacks in song, he more than makes up in elegant plumage. 
April 2012

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Red Crossbill

I wouldn’t have any pictures of these Red Crossbills if it weren’t for Dave and Andi.

The Red Crossbill is an unusual bird.  Not surprisingly, it gets its name from its bill.  The upper and lower bill appears grossly misaligned, as compared to other finches.  It is not a defect in the Red Crossbill ancestry; it’s an evolutionary advantage.   He uses this unique bill to pry open the ‘pine cones’ of spruce, pine, Douglas fir and hemlock…his primary food.

Placing his bill on the cone he bites down, prying apart the cone’s scales, exposing the seed inside.  His is a highly specialized seed diet, so they evolved this method of extracting seeds from cones. The prying action of a crossed bill works quite well, even if it is upsetting to think of your teeth similarly mismatching.  You will find Red Crossbills in conifer forests, often in flocks, foraging near the tops where the pine cones are numerous.  

Fred, a fellow birder, and I went looking for this particular bird, at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve, Port Washington, Wisconsin without much luck.  I called Fred at 6AM after I saw a rare bird alert on the Internet stating a flock of Red Crossbills was spotted at the preserve the day before. He was awake, but just barely…coffee…no shower.  I was in his driveway in fifteen minutes and we were staged to start shooting at 0700 hours.  My enthusiasm waned by 08:30 hours.
After an hour and a half of seeing nothing but LBB’s (little brown birds) and a tree full of starlings, we were about to leave in disappointment.  Then a hawk appeared over a hill. Fred, whose camera is set-up for flying birds, squeezed off ten frames, but the hawk was flying away from us and was distant anyway.  The hawk disappeared over the parking lot.  Fred’s shots weren’t great, but the last frame included Dave and Andi. 

As they walked towards us on the path, I knew what they were going to say.  Dave was equipped with camera gear that meant he was only looking for birds. “Did you see the Red Crossbills?” he asked predictably. We sadly said, “No”.  Dave asked, “What are those?” pointing to the standing dead tree we had just passed.  I said, “Starlings”.  Dave looked through his binoculars and said, “No, they’re Red Crossbills!” I said again confidently, they were starlings, but he was right.  When the hawk flushed the starlings, the tree was quickly refilled with Red Crossbills.

BINGO…we went to work!

The crossbills cooperated with us nicely for a half an hour, posing on branches, probing the muddy water’s edge for delicacies and prying open pinecones. We took photographic advantage of every opportunity they granted us. We got our shots.

The trees were heavy with cones and the crossbills ate their fill.  It wasn’t for lack of food that they eventually left, but they disappeared one by one, backwards into the dark pinewoods of Forest Beach Migratory Preserve.   They retreated as secretly as they arrived, but we all left satisfied. 


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Rough-winged Swallow (preening)

Morning time is preening time…time to get your feathers on straight…time to look your best…private time!?!

I was watching from a discrete distance when these two Rough-winged Swallows were doing their early morning routines of fluffing and straightening their feathers. 

The male was singing and shaking. 
He shook violently to dislodge anything that shouldn’t be there.

He checked under his wings to make sure everything was right 

He occasionally glanced back to see if she was still there.


She was on the branch twenty feet behind him. She was already looking good.  Her fluff' and fix’n was finished. She was onto showing her stuff.  Her feathers were fresh and her tail was glowing in the desert sun.

He ventured back towards her.

He liked what he saw. 

He flew in for a visit.

(Fade to black)

She straightened her feathers again.
Time to start the day.

April 18, 2012


Friday, August 10, 2012

Eastern Meadowlark

This Eastern Meadowlark appears to be singing, although he might be coughing, hacking or choking.  It was hard to tell as I watched him in the treetop, but I could see he was surrounded by smoke.

He was standing his ground, so to speak, defending his territory from all other meadowlarks. But a nearby grass fire was producing a different kind of threat to him…breathing.  He was in the thick of it.  If the smoke wasn’t bad enough, my presence was annoying him too.  He was suffering with me wanting his picture.  This bird was having a bad day. 

It’s bird-mating season here in Wisconsin and it coincides with another well-practiced rite of spring…ditch burning.  There are few good reasons to burn the ditches every spring, but burn they will.   It's arguably better for nesting and food gathering purposes if they weren’t burned, but there is something about old men, dry grass and ditches all reaching a flash point on warm days in March. It is very predictable.  The matches are struck and the smoke billows across the countryside.

A Mequon Police officer pulled up and stopped fifty-feet in front of me, to warn the old Man-with-Rake, ‘you shouldn’t be doing that’.  Just then the wind shifted.  Smoke now surrounded all four of us…Man-with-Rake, Mequon police, Meadowlark and me. The fire was on my right and the choking Meadowlark was on my left. I could hear bits and pieces of the Meadowlark hacking through the smoke and bits and pieces of the Mequon police officer’s conversation with Man-with-Rake.  It went something like this.
Mequon Police: …you…fire…permit???
Man with Rake: …what??...need what???
Mequon Police:  …fire department…dangerous…smoke!!!
Man with Rake:…????really???
Mequon Police: …lots…smoke!…out…now!!!
Man with Rake: OhKaaay

I thought it best if I kept my nose out of it, so at that point I made a sharp ninety-degree turn towards the Eastern Meadowlark, although the meadowlark wasn’t at all happy with that.

Man-with-Rake stamped out the fire and the smoke died down.  The meadowlark came into clear view again and looked to be claiming victory.  He obliged me by staying around for a dozen more shots then went about his business of guarding the acres of grassland he’d claimed…dry grassland that is!

He may have more battles to face.

March 25, 2012

Painted Bunting

Birding is possibly like hunting.

I don’t know what a hunter feels when he finds his prey, but I get an adrenaline rush when I see a new bird, especially a bird like a Painted Bunting.  Painted Buntings are spectacular, but not rare.  They are declining in number, though, and listed as near threatened due to habitat loss.  Their breeding range is limited in the United States to mainly Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi and the coastal Carolinas.  So for a Wisconsin guy, finding one raises your adrenaline level, just like the hunt.

When I spotted a bird in a treetop in Huntington Beach State Park, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I didn’t know it was going to be a trophy bird for me.  The great distance muted his colors, but he was just unusual enough for me to investigate.  The closer I got the more interesting he looked.  When I got to just barely acceptable range for a picture, he flew away.  It was exciting and disappointing.  I followed him in the direction he flew, but I couldn’t find him.  I had noticed he was singing which could mean this was his territory.  If it was, he might come back.  I waited.  He did.

That is when the multi-blade, institutional sized, mega-horsepower lawn-monster-mower showed up to cut the grass under his territorial tree.  Smartly he flew away again. The howling, growling grass grinding machine cycled back and forth for a half an hour under his tree. By this time I was sure he had moved to another state.

I was wrong and when he came back to claim his territory with a song, I was waiting for him.  Because I was there before he returned, maybe he didn’t notice me or maybe he just accepted me.  Territories are important to male Painted Buntings.  Maybe he couldn’t defend his territory against a lawnmower, but he returned to defend it against any other male Painted Bunting.  Male Painted Buntings are known to defend boundaries to the death.  This one didn’t seem to have any competition, but he was voicing his property rights none the less.

I’m glad I hunt with a camera because to describe this bird is challenging.  Only a picture or a painting can do him justice.  A songbird-sized version of a tropical parrot is about the best I could do in words.  A pheasant or peacock possibly compares in color, but for the most part this is a trophy bird to a birder from Wisconsin. 

June 20, 2012

Wood Stork

No one goes out of his or her way to see a Wood Stork.

It’s a bird with an image problem.  Or maybe we have a problem with its image? 

Truthfully, I go looking for the good-looking birds…the colorful birds, the shiny birds, the sleek birds and the ones with the beautiful calls.  The Wood Stork has few of these beauty characteristics.  But that is my problem, not the Wood Storks. 

It is a large bird standing over three feet tall with a nearly six-foot wingspan.  Its plumage is mostly white with black outlines. Its head and neck are bald and rather mottled-looking in shades of brown and tan.  The bald head gives it an odd appearance.  Bald eagles are called ‘bald’, but their heads are actually covered with white feathers. The Wood Stork is vulture-bald. It contrasts sharply to its elegant body of fluffy white feathers. 

Their range is the near coastal area of Southeastern United States…South Carolina to Texas.  They are a year-round resident in most of South America.  The coastal marsh is where it nests and feeds its young on small fish, frogs and invertebrates.  The chicks have many enemies including raccoons, crows, vultures, grackles and skunks.  A chick and a half is considered a successful breeding cycle for the Wood Stork. 

An adults Wood Stork has few natural enemies, but alligators take a few.

For a bird already lacking a pretty face, unfortunately it has little to fall back on with a song.  It’s usually silent.

June 20, 2012

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

White-breasted Nuthatch

If you feed the birds, you know the nuthatch.  They are widespread and common and come in at least three varieties. If you don’t know them by name, you’ll know them by sight.  They are the birds that hop, headfirst, down the tree.

The three White-breasted Nuthatches, Eastern, Pacific and Interior West, all variations of the same bird, cover the continent.

He is energetic and entertaining.  Making numerous trips to the bird feeder, snatching one sunflower seed at a time, he flies off to hide his prize in nearby trees. The foraging goes on all day long. He  tirelessly chisels and wedges seeds into bark crevices. When he’s not at our feeder, I’m sure he’s at the neighbor’s feeder doing the same thing.  White-breasted nuthatches are year-around Wisconsin residents; storing winter food is necessary for survival. 

He can’t possibly keep track of the thousands of seeds he’s hiding, so why does he hide so many? Why is he working so hard?

I’m sure he’s feeding the squirrels too, but not intentionally.  I’ve never witnessed a squirrel plundering his stores, but I can’t imagine a squirrel passing up a found sunflower seed.  The squirrels are way too smart to pass up free food!  Squirrels even consider my bird feeder defenses as silly. They don’t even bother trying to get to the seeds inside.  Why should they?  They get their meals delivered!

Traveling headfirst down a tree, the nuthatch only appears to be hopping. He’s actually walking, very quickly, one foot at a time. That’s what I mean by entertaining.  He’s a fun bird to watch. If you don’t recognize this bird by this trait alone, maybe you don’t have White-breasted Nuthatches in your neighborhood. 

For entertainment, he’s a star!   Songbirds are seasonal and raptors are rare, but the White-breasted Nuthatch puts on a show every day.


This is likely a Pacific or Interior West, White-breasted Nuthatch.  I can’t tell them apart.  I only got one picture before he flew away.   I found him in the Santa Rita Mountains of southern Arizona, so chances are he’s an Interior West.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Loggerhead Shrike

We spotted this Loggerhead Shrike five hundred feet ahead of us on the trail, perched in a small tree.  By ‘we’ I mean the twenty or so people on the early morning birding trek into the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona.  Of the twenty people on the trek, only two of us were interested in photographing birds.  The others were only interested in seeing birds, as most birders like to do. 

On command, we all stopped when the Loggerhead Shrike was spotted.  We preceded slowly, a few steps at a time.  We were hoping to sneak-up on him, although we were clearly in his sight lines all the time.

‘We’ now means a German gentleman and me.  'We' wanted to get close enough to this Loggerhead Shrike to get good pictures.  I took ten small steps forward, then stopped and shot.  Then he would take ten steps in front of me to get his shots.  Then it would be my turn and so on and so on. His English was heavily accented and my German was ‘nicht so gut’, but we tacitly agreed to repeat this maneuver until the bird flew away, but honestly, I don’t have any idea what we agreed to. 

Meanwhile the main group was watching from the rear and being good sports about letting us get our pictures first.  They all had binoculars, so they weren’t missing anything, but it was nice of them to allow us the opportunity.  The voices from the rear, normally soft, now were whispers.

Our cameras were making the most noise.  Although shutter clicks are not particularly noisy, they could scare a jittery bird.   We kept sneaking and whispering, with a few finger signals thrown in for emphasis.   We were lucky.  The shrike remained on his perch.  Eventually we got so close we were looking up his butt and he still wasn’t moving.  The whole group arrived pointing, peering and chatting about him in the tree above.  He ignored us, seemingly to the point of, ‘I couldn’t care less about you people.’

Loggerhead Shrikes are sometimes referred to as ‘butcher birds’.  They are mainly meat eaters.  They have a technique of impaling their meals on a thorn or barbwire fence to dissect it.  Their ‘victims’ are usually grasshoppers, reptiles or other birds.  They don’t have strong feet or talons to hold their prey, so they use this method to aid them in butchering.  They also have a small ‘tooth’ just behind the bend in their beak. That is used to severe the spinal cords of their victims before the butchering begins. The ‘remains’ sometimes remain on the thorns for all to see. 

I’ve seen ‘victim’ remains hanging on a butchering thorn along Cedar Creek, near Cedarburg, WI, but I don’t know who did the deed.  A Northern Shrike could have done it.  Northern Shrikes are more likely to be in Wisconsin than Loggerhead Shrikes.  These two species are so similar you need one bird in your left hand and the other in your right to notice the difference.  The Loggerhead Shrike is slightly smaller.   

If I’d seen either shrike in Wisconsin, it must have been farther away than five hundred feet because I don’t remember ever seeing one. 

January 14, 2012

White-fronted Bee-eater, Africa

These White-fronted bee-eaters were hunting bees while perched on a branch over the Zambezi River in Zambia.  I was happy to see them.  I’d seen the White-fronted Bee-eaters before but I was never able to get a good picture of one. 

We were being briefed on our upcoming elephant trek into the bush.  It was midmorning and chairs were set up in a rectangle on the lawn, under a canopy to protect us from the hot African sun. I noticed bee-eaters landing in a nearby tree.   As important as this briefing was, I decided I wasn’t going to miss out on getting a shot of these beauties. 

I had already heard the part about staying back from the riverbank ten meters because there were crocodiles in the Zambezi.  On average about one crocodile every fifteen meters, they said.  I don’t know who came up with that figure, or how, but I took them at their word. 

I stepped forward slowly for two reasons.  First, I didn’t want them to fly away before I got at least one shot and secondly I wasn’t quite sure just how far ten meters was.  Is a meter longer or shorter than a yard?  My feet were shuffling, my eyes were fixed on the bee-eaters and my brain was working overtime!  I didn’t want to miss my chances with this beautiful bird while at the same time I didn’t want to become a crocodile snack. 

I started inching forward on tiptoes, as if that made any difference. Do crocodiles use the metric system or inches and feet? 

The briefing in the rectangle stopped.  I could sense the other in the rectangle watching me. It bothered me a little to think, I could be the next big video on YouTube, if someone was recording this, but I kept inching forward.  I rationalized, maybe there were two crocs in the next fifteen-meter section and none in this one?  The math still worked!  It worked well enough for me to keep shooting and I got my photographs. I’m happy with that.

August, 2011