Sunday, October 28, 2012

American Redstart & Black-and-White Warbler

There was a confusing mix of warblers passing through Wisconsin recently.  Many were so similar in appearance that only the experienced birder could identify them on the wing. 

But two warblers that are relatively easy to pick out of the flock are the American Redstart...

...and the Black-and-White Warbler. 

This female American Redstart passed over Wisconsin a month ago.  You can still see green leaves on the trees. There are occasional reports of new sightings of American Redstarts, but the migration is slowing.  I was waiting for my chance to photograph a male during this fall’s migration, but I couldn’t find one. 

This female put on quite a show for me though, flitting in the understory at eye level and slightly above, showing off her bright yellow tail patches and inviting investigation.  She wasn’t shy!  The male, which I never found, is black where the female is grey and orange where she is yellow. 

The Black-and-White Warbler is well named.  Heavily striped in black and white, it is hard to come up with a better name for it.  Unusually aggressive for a warbler, it will fight when necessary.  Equipped with a longer rear toe and claw for foraging in the trees, mostly it searches for insects, upside down and sideways.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Constantly in motion and tiny to begin with, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet is a challenge to capture in pictures. 

Given their preference for the tallest trees, finding one near the ground is a lucky find.  

This is a male.  You can tell by the tiny red line on the top of his head.  It is a crest, but only when he wants it to be and that’s usually when he’s agitated.  He appeared to be agitated this day with a continuous flicking of his wings combined with a constant bouncing from twig to twig, but evidently he wasn’t. On this warm day in October, he kept his red crest closed and almost completely out of sight.  I’m not sure what it takes to agitate a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, but I didn’t meet that standard this day.

Ruby-crowned Kinglets are insect-eaters, preying mainly on spiders, wasps, aphids and ants.  The female can lay 5-12 small eggs (0.02 oz) with a combined weight that out-weighs the female herself, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  That’s quite an accomplishment for a 0.2-0.4 ounce bird. 


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Red-breasted Nuthatch

You can be entertained by a bird, if you have a mind to.

Weighing in at one quarter-ounce, this bundle of energy is the Red-breasted Nuthatch…a bird constantly in motion. He’s searching for something to eat and he prefers the insect life hiding in the bark crevices.

Searching head-up or head-down and round and round, gravity seems to have no influence on the Red-breasted Nuthatch.  He is actually walking, but at such an energetic pace he seems to defy gravity as he hops down the tree trunk.  An over-sized backwards-facing claw anchors him as he maneuvers in a vertical world. The Red-breasted Nuthatch’s show is free and it runs continually if you care to watch.  

Few insects are safe from his close inspection.  Beetles, spiders, ants and earwigs are his food choices.   During the breeding season, he feeds his mate as she alone chisels out a nest cavity. Late in the year when insects are scarce, Red-breasted Nuthatches live on seeds and nuts.  If a nut is too tough to open he will wedge it into a crack and hack it open with his pointy bill…living up to his name.

If you’re tired of being entertained by television’s awesome athletes, dizzying dancing or political posturing…take a break. Watch your bird feeder for a while…it can help.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cooper's Hawk

Widespread and dangerous, the Cooper’s Hawk snatches a bird from your feeder in a flash.  Carrying his prey away from his body with long legs and curved claws, he repeatedly squeezes the life out of it…time to eat.

That’s why birds at your feeder are so skittish.   They’re always on guard for the Cooper’s Hawk.  Flying fast and low, while maneuvering his three-foot wingspan through thick brush, he appears suddenly and disappears just as quickly. You’re lucky if you catch the catch. 

A small bird may get away, but a starling, dove or jay, along with an occasional squirrel or chipmunk, often doesn’t.  A stray feather under the feeder may be the only evidence of his arrival and departure.  With a gunmetal blue-gray back, camouflaged mottled breast and forward facing eyes, the Cooper’s Hawk is an efficient predator, although some Cooper’s Hawks bear scars of unsuccessful hunts.

In a study examining over 300 Cooper’s Hawk skeletons, 23 percent showed old, healed-over breast bone fractures, most likely due to hunting crashes.

Formerly hated as the ‘chicken hawk’ for its believed predation on poultry, its impact on domestic animals is now known to have been negligible.

The Cooper’s Hawk is one of several birds that has recovered well from the ban on the pesticide DDT, the chemical that almost wiped-out America’s Bald Eagle.  The Cooper’s Hawk has recovered so well it is now threatening the viability of another predator bird, the American Kestrel. 


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Wilson's Snipe

The well-camouflaged Wilson’s Snipe is likely to go unnoticed by you, until they can’t take you approaching any longer and zigzag away.

They patrol the muddy water’s edge with their extremely long flexible bill looking for worms, invertebrates and crustaceans.  They can open the tip of their bill underwater without opening the whole bill itself.  They nibble for small creatures as they bob, tilt and probe the mud that camouflages their presence. 

These secretive birds, likely on migration, were recently feeding at the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve.  They used to be called the Common Snipe, but have been reclassified according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website as the Wilson’s Snipe. The Wilson’s Snipe is slightly different from the Common Snipe of Eurasia, mostly involving the number of tail feathers each species possesses. 

A tail feather more or less aside, the Wilson’s Snipe has an interesting nesting adaptation.  A mated pair usually produces four eggs.  The male leaves the nest to raise the first two hatchlings alone and never returns.  The female continues to incubate the third and fourth eggs and raises them alone too. They’re not known to see each other ever again. 

I didn’t witness that particular nesting peculiarity because it’s not the breeding season.   I was only lucky enough to see these well-camouflaged birds at close range, foraging for food as they migrated south.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Rusty Blackbird

Fall and spring migrations provide an opportunity to observe birds we rarely get to see.  The Rusty Blackbird is one of those birds.

Leaving Canada and Alaska, they treat Wisconsin as a fly-over State as they head southeast.

Related to Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles, Rusty Blackbirds share a similar appearance, but are unique enough for you to search them out at this time of year.  These Rusty Blackbirds were sharing a tree with Mourning Doves at the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve.   

They like ponds and wetlands.   If you want to see them you will have to make the effort to be there when they’re passing through and that’s right now.

It could be a worthwhile adventure into a place you’ve never been before and at almost no cost.  It only happens twice a year, though, and your fall window is closing.