Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Black-necked Stilt

I’ll admit it.
I go for the cute birds.
Long legged and curvy, you'll have to agree the Black-necked Stilt is a cute bird.

Black-necked Stilts are wetland birds.  They forage in shallow waters for invertebrates, beetles and tadpoles. Long legs give the Black-neck Stilt the advantage of staying in deeper water for safety from land predators.

You won’t find Black-necked Stilts in Wisconsin.  They prefer  southeast and southwest United States.  Ponds, pastures and reclaimed waters are places to look for them.  These were foraging in reclaimed water in Gilbert, Arizona. 

A very energetic bird, they're constantly bobbing, probing and stepping. They quickly devour whatever they find in the sand and it’s off to find another. 

Crouched down, they're about the size of a baguette and weigh about the same. 

They are cute little bundles.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

Bald Eagle

Don’t try to sneak up on an eagle. 
It doesn’t work and it leaves you feeling frustrated and foolish.
I mention this, just in case you don’t already know it.   

I made trips to Menasha and Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin  
recently to look for Bald Eagles. My good friend, Fred Thorne, a fellow bird photographer joined me. These pictures are combined from those two trips. 

Bald Eagles congregate near open water to fish. That‘s often below a dam or at narrows in the river where the water moves too fast to freeze.  There could be a few eagles, a dozen eagles or a hundred eagles, depends on the fish…we wouldn’t know until we got there.

A hundred Bald Eagles in one place would be wonderful for photographers like Fred and me, but the eagles wouldn’t like that. 
Bald Eagles aren’t social birds. They don't like crowds. 
A cold spell forces them to congregate. They would prefer to have all the fish to themselves.

Squabbles break out in these confined areas and stealing a fish is a common occurrence.
Bald Eagles are not city-dwellers either.  They tolerate noise, traffic and people only because they have to.    

They allowed some encroachment of their space, but drew a line in the snow at photographers. Unfortunately, we never saw that line in the snow.  We must have crossed it because they flew away.  

Giving up, we packed up and drove up to Kaukauna. 

Kaukauna was better for us, but no quieter for the eagles.  Workmen were deconstructing a downtown warehouse and dropped concrete and steel out a second story opening onto the pavement below making an awful racket.  A Bald Eagle would have to be quite hungry to put up with that noise, but some did, 

Their hunger gave us hope.


Photo: Fred Thorne

Fred uses his camera hand-held and I use a tripod. Being more portable, Fred is better able to photograph flying eagles. He caught this young eagle landing on a snag.  

Bald Eagles spend a large portion of their day just sitting in trees, as they were this day, but around noon they all rose into the air and started to circle.

They weren’t fishing, they were playing.
The younger eagles seemed to be having the most fun…chasing others...

…diving at one another...

...mock attacks with closed talons. 

The adults joined in the circles, too, but they were more likely the ones to be attacked. I can’t say these eagles were related, but who other than a parent would put up with such bad behavior. 

The circling and soaring went on for forty-minutes, then stopped just as abruptly as it started.

In Prairie du Sac we looked to find Bald Eagles actually catching fish.

We found them fishing, poorly, I thought.

Coming up empty time after time, I thought these eagles were just bad at fishing, but later discovered they were actually catching fish…small fish…tiny fish…shad.  

Repeatedly dipping into the water to strike at something, most catches were so small as to be invisible at a distance.

So small they weren’t worth landing in a tree to eat, so the eagles ate them in the air…like popcorn.  Head down and feet forward, the talon-to-beak fish transfer was made and munched.

Choosing to eat your catch on the fly solves another eagle problem too…robbery!

Bald Eagles are not above stealing a fish, eating carrion or even garbage to survive.  

Early Americans knew that when they picked the Bald Eagle as our national emblem in the 1782, but they chose the Bald Eagle anyway.  Benjamin Franklin wrote the Wild Turkey was a more honorable and suitable symbol for the new United States of America, but he lost that argument.  

Your opportunity to see these beautiful birds in person is better now than it ever has been.  

With protection provided by the Endangered Species Act in 1978, a ban on the pesticide DDT and ultimately a human appreciation for what we were about to lose, the Bald Eagle has recovered to become a wintertime tourist attraction.  Many communities have eagle day events…cashing in on the Bald Eagle’s magnificence. It’s a success story that needs repeating. 


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Dark-eyed Junco

That black and white, sparrow-sized bird you see under your bird feeder in the winter is probably a Dark-eyed Junco.  He’s a ground feeding bird and he scratches the snow for seeds tossed down from above.  Snow is not a hardship for him…he prefers it.  In spring when temperatures begin to warm up, he will leave middle-latitude Wisconsin for a cooler Alaska or Canada.
     Highly variable in pattern and color, there are several different Dark-eyed Juncos including ‘pink-sided’, ‘white-winged’ and ‘Oregon’. The common one to Wisconsin has a white breast, slate gray head with a pinkish bill and a dark eye.

In Arizona I found this pink-sided, Dark-Eyed Junco scratching in the desert.

At seventy-five hundred feet of elevation on Mt. Lemmon, Arizona, I found this yellow-eyed, Dark-eyed Junco at home in the snow. Dark-eyed Juncos are year-round residents at cooler elevations.

This one preened and cleaned in a dogwood bush until he noticed me watching him, then he froze and remained that way for a time-stamped twenty-minutes.  

                                                     All the while he keep one yellow eye fixed on me. 

Often traveling in the company of other birds such as finches, doves, cardinals, nuthatches and chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos are easy to attract. Lucky for the Dark-eyed Juncos a lot of millet seed ends up on the ground, discarded by the pickier eaters overhead.  This suits the Dark-eyed Junco just perfectly.

For a few cents worth of millet you might get a kitchen window bird show all day long. They won’t be here for long though.  Spring will come again.


Monday, February 4, 2013

Peach-faced Lovebirds

Looking deeply into the dense foliage I could see shapes and forms of what were surely birds…very well hidden birds. By positioning myself just right, though, Peach-faced Lovebirds came into view.

I spent a morning recently in the company of my brother, his wife and three nieces, Hannah 16, Olivia 11, and Ava 8, in an urban Arizona park along with approximately ninety-seven other kids of the same age and exuberance. It was all very enjoyable, but it’s important to note here, the birds were a bit edgy.

Given the kid-factor, it wasn’t surprising that I hadn’t seen a bird closer than a quarter mile.  My luck wasn’t likely to change either, as the number of running kids, rolling bikes and sniffing dogs increased. It was a trade-off though, spending quality-time with three wonderful girls or finding new birds…both worthwhile pursuits. Fortunately, I didn’t have to choose.  The three nieces made the decision for me.

They decided the swings and ladders were more interesting than the birds and they left for the playground with their grandfather, my brother, Kenn.  Meanwhile the other ninety-seven kids kept the birds at bay by themselves, so after an hour, I, too returned to the playground with few birds to show for my morning’s effort.
I asked my sister in law, Linda, where my brother was and she said, "Over that wall, under that tree," pointing to a low wall with multi-colored kid-sized images painted on it.  I looked over the wall and she was right. My laid-back brother was lying on his back under a mesquite tree.  One ankle was across one knee; his head was propped up on a water bottle.  He was looking up into the tree listening to a noisy chatter coming through the dense foliage.  He was wondering what was making all that noise, but that was as far as he went.

My brother can be inquisitive, but rarely so curious as to get up and investigate.  He remained prone, as he is not prone to exertion. He expends only enough energy to keep his heart pumping.

Meanwhile, overhead two Peach-faced Lovebirds were so affectionate towards one another I felt embarrassed watching them, but it was hard to look away.

Sitting wing-to-wing on branches they’d nuzzle and groom, preen and tease, advance and demure, offer and accept, as if they were the only two birds in the world. This went on for quite a while, just fifteen feet overhead in a Gilbert (Phoenix) city park visible to all those who cared to watch.  A small crowd gathered to see what I was doing and soon the oohing and aahing and pointing commenced.  Even my brother got up to watch!

Peach-faced Lovebirds can make sharing a stick joyful.

Peach-faced Lovebirds, as they are called in Phoenix, are not native, but Phoenix has a self-sustaining flock of around 2500 birds.  Known as the Rosy-faced Lovebird elsewhere, it’s an African bird imported by the pet trade.  The Phoenix flock established itself many years ago by escapees and possibly an intentional release of sufficient birds to form a breeding flock.  They are very social birds.  Finding favorable conditions in the desert southwest, similar to their Namibian homeland, they prospered.  They have become welcome visitors at backyard feeders all over Phoenix.  

Living fifteen to twenty-five years in captivity, a Peach-faced Lovebird’s lifespan is known, but a wild bird’s lifespan in hard to estimate. Quick enough to avoid most urban predators such as raptors and feral cats and given their outward affection towards each other, they may reproduce well enough to make Phoenix a permanent home.

Introducing a non-native species into an environment isn’t a wise practice, especially a suspected renegade release like this one.  Unfortunately, little time and effort has been spent studying the Peach-faced Lovebirds of Phoenix, as they seem to be a low priority to ornithologists.

Given the misguided introductions of the past (i.e. House Sparrows, European Starlings, House Finches) this one seems confined to Phoenix by natural forces. I have no insight as to their possible impact on the environment, only an opinion on their impact on me…they’re gorgeous.


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Northern Harrier, Whitewater Draw

Heat wrinkles rose from the desert floor and the low winter sun took some sting out of the air, but a chilly wind was blowing.  When I spotted the female Northern Harrier, I jumped out of the truck without my jacket.  She appeared alone out of the east to patrol this part of her Chihuahuan Desert territory.  She was hungry and hunting. Somewhere near Whitewater Draw…well south of Tombstone…a day away from Tucson and touching Mexico, her territory could be a hundred miles long and hundred miles wide, but out here that’s still nowhere.

With hopes of surprising a bird, a mouse, a lizard or something equally delicious, she patrolled…low and slow, back and forth.  She may have been familiar with this section of desert because she repeated the same pattern several times, as if she’d been lucky here before.  This was not a casual flight, she was hungry…something needed to die today to satisfy her.   

Able to change direction instantly, she dropped down often, but came up empty quite often, too.  

She took some interest in my presence, but only casually. I felt I wasn’t interfering with her hunting and she seemed comfortable with our 400-foot separation. I was as close as I could expect to get.

Flying over foraging birds in the tall grass, she panicked the flock, but made no attempt to catch one.  A bird meal was not to her liking today.

Male Northern Harrier,
Christopher Columbus Park, Tucson

CORRECTION: From John O'Donnell, 
"It sure looks to me like you have a 
Peregrine Falcon
 perched in that telephone pole
 (vs. a male Northern Harrier)."
Thank you for the correction, John.

The male northern harrier looks considerably different than the female.  He has a grey head, white breast and is much lighter overall.  He’s smaller too.

After several passes over the tall grass directly in front of me, she spotted something…dipped down and came up lucky.  Flying away to dine in peace, she had a mouse…hardly a meal…maybe a snack…finally something.

Carefully watching her from behind was a Loggerhead Shrike.  Not foolish enough to steal from a Northern Harrier, he watched her as she struggled in the wind to hold on to both the branch and the mouse.  If there was to be a mouse fumble, I suspect the Loggerhead Shrike would try to recover it.

She carefully consumed Minnie Mouse…not a tidbit lost. But not satisfied by that tiny meal, she was off for another in minutes.   Displaying the distinctive white rump of all Northern Harriers as she left, she banked right into a cool desert breeze and lifted up out of sight. There had to be a bigger, fatter, more flavorful mouse out there somewhere.