Saturday, November 17, 2012

European Starling

Reputation is everything.

It’s been my observation that people don’t like the European Starling or enjoy having him around. In his defense though, during the winter molt, he looks pretty good.

There is little doubt the European Starling’s introduction into America was a disaster, but he is here to stay.  There are 150 million European Starlings in the United States.

All those starlings can be attributed to Eugene Schieffelin.  As president of the American Acclimatization Society, he released 60 European Starlings into New York’s Central Park in 1890.  His aim was to introduce the city to every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare.  The European Starling was his success story. From those 60 birds we now have 200 million across North America. 

Labeled a noisy nuisance, an agricultural pest, and the reason for the decline in native songbird species, they have a reputation problem.  Flocks of thousands are a hazard to aviation. Their droppings are a health hazard, contaminating water supplies. They’re aggressive around feeders and nesting sites.  It’s the European Starling you see strung out on rural electric lines this time of year, although the much larger Rock Dove (pigeon) also congregate on power lines.

The European Starling is classified as a songbird (passerine), but musical he is not. Their songs and calls are described by experts as a list of negatives including high, thin slurred whistles, harsh rattling, wheezes, piping notes, overall a mushy, gurgling, hissing chatter. 

That isn’t a glowing assessment of his singing ability.  Rightly, he doesn’t sing for us.  He sings for other European Starlings and they seem to appreciate it.  

Although long on shortcomings, he’s not a boring bird.  Striped and spotted, shiny and dull, light and dark, multi-colored and ubiquitous, he invites closer inspection. Even molting juveniles can look interesting…at least fuzzy.

The American Acclimatization Society’s goal a century ago may have been misguided, but their admiration for this bird was understandable.  Even with all his undesirable traits and the negative impact he’s had on his new homeland, he’s still an interesting and colorful bird.  

               This one was hacking-up small indigestible bits on a sunny Mequon morning.                       

Repairing the European Starling’s damage to the environment would be an impossible task after 120 years on the loose, but he still has his admirers.  His reputation just needs some polishing.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owls aren’t unknown in Wisconsin…only unusual.

This Snowy Owl probably knew she stood out against the black wall of the North Pier.  A half-mile out from Sheboygan's Harbor Centre Marina, she was alone until I came out to see her.

For me, approaching a Snowy Owl was exciting and challenging.  I didn’t want to scare her, stress her, or lose her, but I needed her picture…close, but not too close.  I worried close and too close meant something different to each of us.

The snowy alternately switched between staring at me and ignoring me, in equal measure.  The staring  made me feel I might be bothering her, but she may have just felt exposed.

Slowly inching away from me with her feather skirt dragging, she decided to fly away.

Taking to the air, she circled around behind me, but the spot she chose to land offered no better camouflage than before…off she went again.

There was a big ‘irruption’ of Snowy Owls in 2011/12, forcing Snowy Owls out of the Arctic Circle with some coming to Wisconsin.  That delighted the birders who saw them, but I missed them.

She landed on one of the huge limestone rocks outlining the marina. Now camouflaged by rocks that match her feathers, she sat nearly motionless...observing for hours.   An occasional ‘hiss’ towards threatening seagulls discouraged them from getting closer.

She showed no concern for my presence though, often looking away for long periods of time. Only occasionally she’d glance backwards, her head swiveling like a doll’s, to see if I was still there.

This Snowy Owl is most likely a juvenile female, as juvenile males are somewhat whiter and adult Snowy Owls are almost entirely white. Now old enough to be on her own, she was likely driven out of her parent’s Arctic Circle territory to establish her own.

Snowy Owls have huge home territories, so finding a place to call her own may have brought her all the way to Sheboygan.  Sheboygan may be nice, but it is not ideal for a Snowy Owl.

In the Arctic, Snowy Owls live on lemmings, swallowing them whole, head-first, up to sixteen hundred a year, according to some studies.  Lemmings are limited in Sheboygan so she’ll need to substitute mice, voles and other small mammals to survive.

Owls hunt at night, but above the Arctic Circle it’s 24-hours of daylight in summer, so they must hunt in the daytime too. I don’t know when or where she hunts or what she is surviving on.  I didn’t see her hunt or eat anything, but she looks well nourished…something is keeping her beautiful, cat-like, yellow eyes so bright.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

White-throated Sparrow


                    If you are a person for whom every bird looks like a sparrow, this is a sparrow.

The White-throated Sparrow is a common bird throughout the United States and Canada. Sadly, when they are grouped with almost three-dozen other sparrow species, you’re not likely to recognize them as different.  But to dismiss them as LBB’s (little brown birds) for their lack of distinction is a disservice.  You only need to view them up close to notice they’re uniqueness.

Obviously named for his throat, the bright yellow spot above each eye is a big help in identifying them, too. They are not hard to spot among all the other sparrows.  You only need to pay attention to the details to find one in Wisconsin. They sing a crisp, clear song all year long similar to Oh, Sweet Canada, Canada. Males and females look similar.

Often foraging at eye-level or below, the White-throated Sparrow will come to your platform feeder.  Living on tree buds in the spring and fall and on insects and invertebrates in summer, when feeding their young, they’re highly active.

White-throated Sparrows hop rather than walk.  Scratching in the leaf litter, they pounce on whatever they uncover.

Sparrows can be difficult to ID.  The differences between species are subtle.  But, the satisfaction of knowing exactly what you are looking at is huge. It’s no longer ‘just a sparrow’.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Yellow-rumped Warbler

The well-named Yellow-rumped Warblers could get your attention now, but certainly should next spring when they pass through Wisconsin, headed back to Canada and Alaska. 

Widespread and common, they’re still passing through, but in their non-breeding fall colors now.  Not as bold, brilliant and conspicuous as in the spring, but still highly visible.  You will have to be slightly more focused to discover them. They hang around at eye-level and above in brushy areas. 

They may still be singing in fall, so listen as well as watch.  Males sing a soft, sweet, warbled song. Without territories to defend, birds in general are less vocal in the fall of the year, but you might hear some vocalizations.

This male has molted into his less colorful form for the winter.  Still bright in comparison to other birds, he will be splendid in spring, when his blacks are blacker and his yellows are brighter, all set off against charcoal grey and white.  Make an effort to find him when he’s all dressed-up next year.

The female too will be more colorful and conspicuous in spring, although remaining brown-backed and streaked for nesting camouflage. She seems to be able to hide or display as much of her yellow rump as she wishes.  I doubt she shows any at all when she is sitting on eggs, but it’s on full display in flight and when she wants to be seen.

They will all be gone from Wisconsin soon, mainly wintering in the southeastern United States and Mexico, but spring and the springtime protocols bring them back every year.  Look for them.  

Even if you can’t identify any other bird, the Yellow-rumped Warbler should be a no-brainer.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

We had a rare and unexpected visitor in Wisconsin this week.  This Scissor-tailed Flycatcher caused lots of excitement in the birding community. The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher is common to Oklahoma and the states bordering it.  He’s a rarity in Wisconsin, but roundly welcomed when visiting.

The word went out on the Wisbirdn network of his presence in Cedarburg. There, on the first day, fifty-five flycatcher fans followed his every move along Pioneer Road. The second day the crowd was smaller as news spread that he’d departed over the barn at noon, so ending the excitement.  

The departure disappointed many out-state birders who were coming here to see him, but hadn’t yet arrived. The gracious landowner even agreed to stop plowing his nearby field to accommodate the birders a little longer. 

Flycatchers hunt by hawking flies out of the air.  Insects are scarce at Halloween, so this male seemed to be surviving on invertebrates and berries tossed up by passing cars on Highway C.  

Timing aerial acrobatics between moving cars is a risky business for a bird, so he had to be quick.

He waited for the traffic to clear momentarily and then flew out, grabbing tasty morsels off the road…darting back…across the white-line edge…remaining only inches off the pavement…avoiding certain death.  He appeared to be more brave than bright, but no harm came to him and he was clearly finding enough food.

I can’t say why he was here in Wisconsin, other than some birds might be more adventurous than others. 

Food was plentiful for him here and the recent days of fair weather may have enticed him to come farther north than normal.   

If he understands winter, he’ll need to leave soon for Central America…if he intends to be around next year.  

He is a snowbird in the travelling sense of the word…more so than most.  He can’t survive here.  I’m sure he knows that.  

He’s a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on the far side of Oklahoma who may be pushing his luck. 


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Peregrine Falcon

A hundred feet high and trying to hide, this Peregrine Falcon was having a hard time fitting onto the narrow ledge he calls home.  

The Port Washington Power Plant’s cream-colored smoke stacks didn’t camouflage him or suit him well as he struggled to stay balanced.   He even looked uncomfortable.  He quickly departed. 

He flew a short distance to a corner nest box built by the power company to help in the recovery of Peregrine Falcons.

This could be a male or a female.  Peregrine Falcons look alike and I don’t know the code used on their leg bands to determine the sex.   I’m not sure if he/she raised a family in this nest box either, but it is not a juvenile.   

It was sunny and very windy on this Sunday in Port Washington. Two weather systems were colliding. Hurricane Sandy and a Canadian high-pressure system were disturbing Lake Michigan. He was looking for a spot with less wind and more sunshine.  

He found a blue electrical box and it seemed just right.  He stretched out…


…scratched and sniffed for an hour in the sunshine.  

Then something stirred him to leave…

...and he was gone.  

It could have been hunger, boredom, or both…

...but I’m glad he shared some time with me.