Saturday, September 29, 2012

Northern Flicker

On any walk near a wooded area, you are likely to startle a Northern Flicker from the ground.  You’ll recognize it flying away by its white rump and colored wing patches. 

The Northern Flicker is a large woodpecker that prefers foraging on the ground for ants and grubs, unlike most other woodpeckers that peck at decaying trees for insects.   

The Northern Flicker is a short distance migrant.  This small group could have been heading south for the winter as they rested in Lake Park, Milwaukee, but they could have been year-round residents, too. 

These are the yellow-shafted variant of Northern Flickers. 

There is a red-shafted variant also in the western United States.  I found this one at the Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson, Arizona last January.

You’ll most likely notice the Northern Flicker after he noticed you first and flew away, but watch where he lands to see if you can get a better look at this beautiful bird.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Hummingbird Feeders

A bit of a controversy surrounds when to stop feeding hummingbirds coming to your backyard feeder each fall.

Some people say September 1st, while others claim it is all right to leave it hanging until the hummingbirds leave.  The argument suggests that the hummingbirds would be encouraged to stay around an artificial food source too long and might not migrate early enough to survive. 

I spotted several female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in Lake Park, Milwaukee recently, looking healthy and capable of migrating whenever they felt like it. They were alternating between loading up on jewelweed nectar for one minute and resting on branches the next.  The scene was mostly peaceful with many fall flowers available, but a few nectar squabbles broke out anyway. 

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology claims the need to take down feeders early because it discourages a timely migration is a myth.  Hummingbirds, like other birds, are more likely to leave naturally because of the shortening hours of daylight, rather than the availability of food. 

They seem to know naturally when to leave for their own good and no amount of feeder food will encourage them to stick around when it is time to go.  Cornell Lab even recommends you leave your feeder up for a couple of weeks after seeing the last hummingbird to supplement any stragglers that may have timed their departure poorly.  

Taking it down or leaving it up, a feeder is largely for our enjoyment anyway.  There is a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovering six-inches outside my window right now.


Rose-breasted Grosbeak

If you want to see a lot of birds, now is the time to go looking.  Any trail, stream or path is likely to present you with a new bird, now that the fall migration is on.

Birds that don’t usually live here are passing through on their way south. Also noticeable are the large flocks of Common Grackles and European Starlings.  Smaller and more colorful birds are arriving daily too. 

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is one of those.  I saw this one along the Ozaukee Interurban Bike Trail feasting on buckthorn berries…food for the trip.  He is a first year male, just getting his signature rose-colored breast. 

This female Rose-breasted Grosbeak was in one of the ravines of Milwaukee’s Lake Park.  I’ve been to Lake Park many times, but rarely descended into the ravines to explore them.  There are many ravines and well-worn paths to take you down.  It’s surprising how quiet it becomes thirty feet below street level.  There is evidence of bird-life all around you.  That is where I found this Rose-breasted Grosbeak, up-close and personal.

This male Rose-breasted Grosbeak was defending his territory in the Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge last June.  He was quite vocal and challenged me at the time, but he, too, was only twenty feet off the trail. 

Binoculars bring the birds in closer and they raise your enjoyment factor considerably.  It’s also a way of being in a beautiful place with a purpose.


Monday, September 17, 2012


Smart birds shut up when the Merlin is around.

The Merlin is a bird-eater. I can understand a songbird’s reluctance to sing in his presence…could cost him his life.

The Merlin is a pigeon-sized falcon with a taste for other birds.  He eats moths and dragonflies, but other birds are preferred.  Flying low, fast and straight he surprises his prey at the last moment.  If his prey manages to get away, the Merlin will tail-chase him down.  

He is a swift, efficient hunter and ‘armed’ to kill.

I was tagging along with the early morning warbler-watching group through Lake Park in Milwaukee.  It became disappointingly bird-quiet early in the walk, but no one knew why.  Then we discovered the Merlin sitting stately atop a snag on the other side of the ravine.  From there, he had a 360-degree view of everything.

He wasn’t announcing his presence, but he wasn’t hiding either.  He preened and stretched until every feather was in place and the rising sun had warmed his back. 

Then glancing in all directions, he turned to warm his front side too.  He was well aware of his place in the food chain and had little to fear.  His presence kept all the other birds in hiding.  The walking warbler watchers weren’t worried about not seeing other birds…rather they accepted the Merlin as a fortunate close encounter instead.

The Merlin posed in place for 10-minutes; long enough for everyone to get a good view of him and as many pictures as they wanted.  Then, for reasons of his own, he left.  Within minutes the warbler activity increased…say, minus one?


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sandhill Crane

Hiding in plain sight is possible!

Only thigh-high grass and one box elder tree kept this Sandhill Crane from discovering me and taking off. I had no time to hide and nowhere to go when he suddenly appeared from behind the only tree at the river’s edge.  The sun was just breaking over the trees on this calm, blue-sky day. He was looking for something to eat and the Milwaukee River's, Blue Heron Wildlife Sanctuary in Saukville was his breakfast choice.

With no way of blending into my surroundings, I just froze.  My only hope was to hide in plain sight.  My camera and tripod may have broken up my silhouette from the sun rising behind me, but I was sure he would discover me.  He was so close I could hear him walking. 
 For 45-minutes he patrolled the waters back and forth in front of me, turning over water plants looking for invertebrates.  He seemed comfortable and confident alone with his mate and offspring, so I felt like an intruder, but not enough to leave.  What he didn’t know wasn’t going to hurt him. 

She joined him and they patrolled together finding undistinguishable tidbits in the water as they walked side by side.    

Sandhill Cranes can live to be 20 years old.  They mate for life and migrate yearly with their offspring, mainly to Florida, Texas and New Mexico.  

The two adults turned upstream, and were joined by a younger one.  I suspect they were on their migration journey already.

I was lucky to have shared this spot on the river with them, hidden in plain sight. 


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Green Heron at Lion's Den Gorge

This first-year Green Heron would not have allowed me so close had he known I was there, but I was at the pond first.

When he flew in, he first checked to see if it was safe.  He either didn’t see me standing motionless 100 feet away or he didn’t perceive me as a threat.  He kept his long neck tucked tightly to his body while surveying his surroundings.

To get a better view he stretched it out full length to see over the tall grasses.  

Once convinced he was safe, the Green Heron patrolled his branch for the best fishing spot.

This Green Heron is a juvenile…a little dull for this delicately feathered species. Next year he will be sporting a brighter color palette overall, including a bluish cap with a slight crest and a chestnut throat and neck.  Green Herons are common, but not your typical backyard-bird, unless you have a pond in your backyard.

He struck a few fish-threatening poses, but came up empty each time.  Inexperienced, uninterested or frustrated with his lack of luck, he flew away after five minutes of trying.  

I was the lucky one today.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Northern Waterthrush

The fall bird migration is underway.  The Northern Waterthrush is a bird that gets an early start on migration.  It is important to start early because they have a long way to go. 
 They leave their breeding grounds in Alaska, Canada and the Maritime Providences in late July and head for Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. They treat the United States as a fly-over country on their way, but we get to see them briefly as they pass through, if you know where to look. 

I learned where to look for these Northern Waterthrushes from the Internet, thanks to the many, many birders who post sightings of new and rare birds migrating through our area.

The Northern Waterthushes’ migration is long and there are many of them making the trip, so food is a primary concern.   Places like the Lion’s Den Gorge are important resting and refueling stops on their journey. 

The Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve is a 73-acre parcel on the west shore of Lake Michigan and is a stopping point for many migrating birds.  It’s impossible to say where these particular Northern Waterthrushes started or how long it took to make it this far, but they seem to be enjoying our pond scum. 
Weighing only 0.5-0.9 ounce, walking-on-water doesn’t present much of a problem.  Searching for insects, arthropods, and even small fish, they glean the algae. They will be in warm climates well before the snow flies. 

They are enjoyable to watch because with every rapid scoot across the scum, an accompanying up and down tail bob marks the beginning and end. The tail bobs aren’t something they do for balance…they are well footed.  It’s just something they do naturally. 
I got to the Lion’s Den Gorge minutes after a Lake Michigan sunrise. My friends, Fred and Bonni, met me there.  They enjoy the birds too and it didn’t take long for us to find the pond mentioned in the Internet post. I found a waterthrush almost immediately in the brushy understory of the pond’s bank and was imagining myself quite lucky. When a waterthrush decided it was safe to come out into the sunlight I was happy to take his picture.  It was going to be a good day.  That is when the first small airplane flew over the pond. 
The waterthrush scooted back undercover. 

We waited until he felt secure enough to come out again.  That is when the second small airplane flew overhead.  The waterthrush disappeared again.  We waited again and eventually he felt safe enough to reappear for a third time. We got a few more pictures and that is when the Flight For Life Medical Helicopter whop-whop-whopped overhead.

I mumbled a few damn words as he disappeared again. 

Hunger eventually won out and he came back a fourth time. A few last pictures and then we left him eat in peace.  He will need his strength to get to his winter home.  He’s about a third of the way there now, but looks quite fit for the journey. 


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only hummingbird you are likely to see in Wisconsin.  If you have one sipping nectar in your garden this year, consider yourself lucky. 

The male usually gets all the attention, due to his brilliant throat colors, but the female is just as beautiful. 

The female's throat is largely white, although there is nothing large about this bird at all.  At a petite 0.11-ounce and with a wingspan about as long as your middle finger, hummingbirds have to be seen up-close to be appreciated. 

Viewed from the back, males and females are nearly identical. The female’s blue-green iridescent back is just as striking as the male’s.  

From the front the male has a ruby throat, but only when the light strikes him at just the right angle.  At all other times his throat is a dull black. 

The female keeps herself looking good by occasionally cleaning, straightening and re-arranging her coat of feathers.  

The male spends a lot of his time chasing other hummingbirds from his territory and away from his nectar sources. Males are very aggressive and highly territorial.  He shares his nectar with the female, but he definitely drinks first. 

Feathers are rearranged and tucked back in place.

This looks to be a first-year male. He's just now developing his iridescent throat feathers. 

He might return next year to the state of his birth fully grown to establish his own territory…fully-grown at 1/10 of an ounce, that is.
I'd be happy to see all three of them if they returned to my garden next year.
They certainly are welcome.