Thursday, September 26, 2013

Eastern Phoebe, Forest Beach Migratory Preserve

Between explosive bursts of energy, the Eastern Phoebe mainly rests.

Typically he perches on low branches over water where he presents little contrast to his surroundings.  Here he’ll sit and wait for as long as it takes for something to rise from the water. Zipping towards an insect to zap a meal…he returns to the same tree repeatedly.  

The Eastern Phoebe is an insectivore…eats insects.  He is good at it, too. He can snatch an insect out of the air, off the ground or floating on water.  He could pluck a spider out of its web by hovering before it, too.

I don’t know if the Eastern Phoebe has enemies, but weighing 0.6-0.7 ounce, there is not much to be gained by hunting one.  

By observation, he appears to be fearless, as he sits in the open to scan the water for insects.  

As quick as he is, he would be a challenge to capture for such a small reward.

Because he is so visible and vulnerable, he’s in constant contact with his environment. Twisting and turning his head up, down and sideways, either in offense or defense, he’s enjoyable to watch even while he rests.  

Wearing soft two-tone shades, Eastern Phoebes have a relaxed, refined quality about them.

Eastern Phoebes are loners.  They don’t associate or tolerate other Eastern Phoebes. Even mated pairs don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company for long.  During egg laying the female might drive off the male.  It’s an adaptation that works for them.  They seem to prefer a solitary existence.

Fortunately, they are comfortable around people and manmade structures, often constructing their nest under overhangs, much like swallows.  

For what they lack in sociability with their own kind they make up for in friendliness towards humans.


Credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds
Credit: Wikipedia 
Credit: The Sibley Guide to Birds

Monday, September 23, 2013

Yellow-rumped Warbler

The bold spring feathers of the Yellow-rumped Warbler were faded and had to go.  
It was time to bring out the winter wardrobe. Denying winter is coming is not a option.  

This warbler’s new winter coat is again fashionable for the coming season.  The shades of tan to brown to near black look smart...especially when set-off by a yellow rump, a creamy breast and two white eye crescents.   

Yellow-rumped Warblers always look good.  They may be as common as cows in Wisconsin, but they are never boring. They sport a pretty coat of feathers all four seasons and will linger low in the shrubbery for you to enjoy.  

If you can’t appreciate the beauty of a Yellow-rumped Warbler your life may be too stressful.

(Click any picture to enlarge)

              A leafless tree should convince this one of an approaching season change.

By instinct or experience, she knows the insects she relies upon can be wiped-out overnight with a hard freeze.   She must be ready to leave on short notice.  Looking fit, she is ready for her long journey to Mexico or Central America.

She is leaving Wisconsin now, but hopefully she’ll be back to pass through the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve again.  She should have another new outfit by then, too.


Credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Cedar Waxwing

Sleek and tailored, Cedar Waxwings are drop-dead gorgeous birds, especially when striking a pose.

No feather out of place, Cedar Waxwings take the prize for always looking smartly dressed and well 
put-together. Some juveniles look a bit disheveled, but that’s normal.

This 1st year juvenile seems to be progressing into adulthood gracefully and appears self-sufficient at food gathering.  Cedar Waxwings eat fruit when it’s available and insects at other times. This one was gleaning grapes vining through the trees of Havenwoods State Forest, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

This somewhat younger Cedar Waxwing is still dependent on adults for food.  Ripe fruit is everywhere at this time of year, possibly more fruit that this pudgy young bird cares to eat.  He was quite content just keeping an eye on the attending adult as they warmed themselves in the rising sun.

Both of these juvenile Cedar Waxwings appear to have been born this year, although several weeks apart.  The younger one could be from a second brood for this parent.  Predation takes a lot of young birds.  Often a second brood is started late in the season if the first brood didn’t survive.

Male Brown-headed Cowbird,
 light brown female below
Cedar Waxwings can be targets for the Brown-headed Cowbird, a rogue bird with a devious method of insuring its own species survival.  

The adult female Brown-headed Cowbird secretly lays one of her eggs into a songbird’s egg clutch and then abandons it.  The nest owner may not recognize the odd looking egg and incubates it along with her own.  When it hatches it quickly out-competes the host nestlings to becomes the sole recipient of all the incoming food.  The host parents don’t recognize this large and hungry baby as anything other than their own offspring.  They feed it and raise it unwittingly. Cowbird parasitism victimizes a lot of songbirds, but they seldom outwit the Cedar Waxwing. Why?

The Cedar Waxwing is a fruit eater.  It raises its young on insects, but large quantities of fruit, too.

By luck or chance the Cedar Waxwing unknowingly possesses the means of outwitting the parasitic Brown-headed cowbird.

A Cedar Waxwing duped into hatching an alien cowbird egg doesn't necessarily loose its precious nestlings to the uninvited guest.  That's because the alien chick won't thrive on the Cedar Waxwing's fruit-rich diet and seldom survives to adolescence.

It seems like a cruel outcome to a dirty trick.

All birds need a protein source and insects provide protein.  Hawking insect from the air, while skimming low over a pond, requires fancy aerobatics and the Cedar Waxwing is a skilled flyer. It’s only takes seconds to catch and consume an insect, but small insects require hundreds of flights, which can be tiring.

Perched on a cattail blade a Cedar Waxwing rests.

REMINDER: Click any photo to enlarge.

There is a lot to like about the Cedar Waxwing besides its stunning good looks.  They’re social birds, so when you find one you’ll find others, too.  They aren’t skittish or flighty, so they might allow you fairly close access while pre-occupied with bugs and berries. 

I watched these for an hour beneath a hawthorn tree as the young and old flew sorties together over the pond. The hunting was good today, so they took only momentary rests between flights. 

Thankfully, they remained undisturbed by my presence. I left them before they left me...that never happens.


Credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds

Credit: The Sibley Guide to Birds

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Migration Molt

The birds have been lying low lately…hiding out.

There are dramatic changes occurring in the woods right now and we're not invited to watch.  Down low in the understory, the birds are transforming into a less colorful presentation of themselves. 

It happens every year, shortly after the young have fledged.  Birds start to replace their bright breeding color feathers with fresh new ones, only now in more subdued shades.  Starting in late July and continuing into the fall migration, birds retreat to the thickets to make their migration transformations in private. 

When they come out there is a noticeable difference. These American Goldfinch are making the change now.

The Hermit Thrush normally has a  tail a third the length of his body.  Losing his tail in a molt would make him look more like this juvenile.  He could be at a disadvantage then, if he had to escape a raptor...I'm sure he senses that, too.   Catching his food  has to be more difficult with his limited flying prowess also, so lying low is his strategy. 
Hermit Thrush, May 2013

Feeling vulnerable while short-on- feathers, birds in general choose to remain hidden in late summer.  Being inconspicuous helps them survive this necessary transition. 

Cautious and careful, this Hermit Thrush flew away as soon as he saw me.

Birds don’t lose all their feathers at once; it’s a gradual process.  Feathers get worn, torn, lost and sun bleached. Summer and winter replacement cycles are necessary and predictable. 

Being largely uninvited to view the adults in transition, the young, on the other hand, have something to show off...their new colors. 

This 1st year Northern Cardinal was changing from a multi-colored fledging into a bright red adult and seemed proud to show it off.   The Northern Cardinal is a year-round resident in Wisconsin and a welcome sight when everything else here is black and white.  

REMINDER: Click any picture to enlarge.

The male Indigo Buntings will lose a bit of luster soon, also.  This one is still quite blue, but he will become blotchy blue-brown as the season progresses…he’ll be in Central America by then. 

One bird that doesn’t change much from season to season is the Black-and-white Warbler.  Its black and white stripes are replaced with black and white stripes, so the transition is hardly noticeable.  For a bird whose nature is to forage up and down tree trunks of a similar stripe, he possesses the perfect camouflage.  

Finally, for a bird with common in his name, the Common Yellowthroat doesn’t deserve such disrespect. This one is a 1st year juvenile just now developing the black mask he will wear throughout his life. It's true, he is common in one sense...he's widespread over North America.  He's not often spotted in the wild, though.  In that way he is similar to a bird in molt...secretive all the time. 


Credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds
Credit: Sibley Guide to Birds

Friday, September 13, 2013

Downy Woodpecker

       Leaning back to admire her work a Downy Woodpecker is making a home for herself.

I found her chiseling on a decayed limb of an otherwise healthy box elder tree.  Quite intent, with single-minded determination, she paid close attention to her work, while ignoring me standing below.  She hammered hard and fast, only stopping for the necessary safety checks of her surroundings. 
Dead and dying trees are essential to Downy Woodpeckers in two very important ways…food and shelter.

A male Downy Woodpecker was hanging around outside, too.  I mean that literally, hanging upside down from a branch…downies like to do that. He wasn’t helping her presently, but it is known that both sexes share in the nest building task.

The soft and spongy wood of dying trees make it possible for the Downy Woodpecker to accomplish this head-banging work. It was late August, too late for nesting, so this could be a shelter for winter or a place to raise next year's brood. It was still quite cramped, so it took some effort on her part to chisel overhead.
She hammered away and the chips flew.  She'd deal with the pile of accumulating debris, too.  One beak full of chips at a time was discarded overboard. 
When completed, the cavity will be   6-12 inches deep and enlarged at the bottom for incubating the eggs. Excavation should take 
7-21 days. A few wood chips will remain to serve as a nest lining where 3-8 plain white eggs will lie.

Downies are common, widespread and year-round residents here in Wisconsin.  Downies feed on the insects that hide in tree bark along with berries and seeds, but they are also quick to take advantage of whatever you set out for them. 
A nut something suet blend is a preferred choice.

You’ll find Downy Woodpeckers foraging in the trees throughout the winter.  Hammering and prying bark loose, upside down or sideways, they balance themselves on stiff tail feathers propped against the tree.

The sexes look alike in black and white and spots and stripes, but the male displays a red patch on the back of his head.

REMINDER:  Click on any picture to enlarge.

Don’t be overly anxious to remove dead limbs from your trees.  Besides providing nest sites, dying trees attracts all sorts of invertebrate and insect life that woodpeckers and other birds need to feed  their young.

It is not by accident that her nest is placed on the downside of a limb either.  Spring rains are less likely to accumulate in this cavity; a squirrel may be less likely to discover it and snakes, too, must be avoided. Nest construction is well underway now and the accommodations look adequate. If this site is preferred next year, I will be happy to report again on the results. 


Credit: Sibley, Guide to Birds

Credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Peregrine Falcon / seagull

Roughly calculated, your chance of finding a Peregrine Falcon in the wild 30-40 years ago was fairly close to zero.  They were being wiped out by the widespread use of the pesticide, DDT.  Fortunately, after DDT was banned in 1970, Peregrine Falcons recovered significantly enough to prompt their removal from the Endangered Species List in 1999. 

Now you only need to search out a falcon friendly electric utility, a bird-friendly skyscraper or a cliff nearby to find one. You’ll need patience, some degree of luck and, of course, binoculars.

WE ENERGIES is one of the many sites offering protection, nest boxes and a stage for the Peregrine Falcons' resurgence.  The tall exhaust stacks of a power generating stations is this Peregrine Falcon's stage.

I stopped at the Port Washington Generating Station, Port Washington, Wisconsin to check on the resident pair of Peregrine Falcons.  With information from  WE ENERGIES Peregrine Falcon 2012 Nesting Season Report and the leg band information, this should be an adult female, Indy Foorna.  Peregrines mate for life and  could live for 15 years. She and a male raised four young chicks successfully.

I found Indy Froona resting on the south side of the north stack balancing on one foot while inspecting the other.

It was breezy along Lake Michigan's shoreline, so when a wind came up and ruffled her feathers, she left.

I watched her circle the stack and disappear.

NOTE: Depictions of predation follow.

Figuring I had all the pictures of her I would get today, I started to walk back to my car. Surprisingly, she returned carrying a heavy load.  Coming in low and slow she struggled to make a landing onto an electrical box...landing with a plop and with very little margin for error.

Wings drooping and appearing exhausted, she rested for a long time before she was ready to inspect her catch.  

NOTE: Click any picture to enlarge.

The prey appeared to be a young seagull.  Peregrine Falcons attack from above in steep dives (stoops). Some dives have been recorded at well over 200 miles per hour.  With legs and talons extended, the impact kills or stuns a bird. The prey is clutched in long sharp talons or retrieved as it falls to earth.

A strong breeze off Lake Michigan made the tedious and distasteful process of feather plucking tolerable.  With every mouthful gathered, she rose up to let the wind disperse the feathers behind her.  

Remaining upright for seconds longer than necessary to clear the feathers from her mouth, she made quick scans of her surrounds, as Peregrine Falcons are not without enemies themselves. Even on this high and isolated perch...a hundred feet up…she, too, was vulnerable to an attack from larger birds. 

A Bald Eagle or Great Horned Owl would take advantage of both the inattentive peregrine and the dead seagull if given the opportunity...she remained alert.

In bite-sized pieces or parts swallowed whole, she took an hour to eat. 

Wiping her face clean wherever she pleased, she finished dining for today.  Tomorrow it may be another gull, a songbird, thrush, waxwing or even a bat.  She would even steal a fish or rodent from another raptor if the opportunity presented…everything’s fair.

The Peregrine Falcon was saved in North American by the actions of inspired people who recognized what we were about to lose, acted responsibly and saved this beautiful bird for us today. 


credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology 
credit: We Energies Peregrine Falcon 2012 Nesting Season Report