Sunday, December 21, 2014

Mexican Jay

You'll know they've arrived before you see them.

The highly social Mexican Jay is a noisy bird. Traveling in small family groups, they command your attention by their numbers and clamorous calls.

This band of about a dozen Mexican Jays arrived at the Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, Arizona on a routine stop to partake in the feast set out for birds.

The seed, suet and sugar-water buffet behind the Santa Rita Gift Shop attracts birds to this mountainside lodge in uncounted numbers.

The birders who line up to watch the birds could be counted, but no one has.

Mexican Jays are in the same family as Blue Jays found in Wisconsin all year long. Crows, Ravens and Magpies are close relatives.

In shades of blue and gray the Mexican Jay is slightly less colorful then the Blue Jay, yet still impressive in size and shape.

Gregarious by nature, they attract attention with their energetic darting, dashing and bouncing.

The family groups stay together for years. Males and females look alike with only the juveniles giving away their age.  The telltale white on the bill indicates an age of less than two years old. With time the bill will turn completely black.

Handouts from people are not their only resource. Living in pine/oak forests at higher elevations, they thrive on acorns and pine nuts stored for the winter. Along with insects and invertebrates they manage quite well without the people food.

Mexican Jays are resourceful and manage quite well. They can't be blamed for taking the low hanging fruit provided by humans. They are of Least Concern as to their survival in the foreseeable future.

That is not the case for far too many birds.


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

Friday, December 12, 2014

Arizona Woodpecker

It's not difficult to find a woodpecker anywhere in the United States. They are widespread throughout North America, including the sapsuckers and flickers, which are also in the woodpecker family.

Uniquely though, the Arizona Woodpecker is much rarer. Barely reaching into Arizona from Mexico, you'll need to look a little harder to find the Arizona Woodpecker.

A good place to start your search is far southern Arizona at the higher elevations. A pine/oak forest with dead trees is a perfect spot to look. Woodpeckers need dead trees to supply the insect food they need. Insects and invertebrates hide under dead tree bark.

You might find an Arizona Woodpecker looking right back at you, too.

Bracing herself with stiff tail feathers, this female Arizona Woodpecker was searching with intense concentration. The image may seem to be sideways, but in fact she is hanging below the branch looking upward.  Upside down is no problem for a woodpecker.  With large feet and sharp claws she forages with ease.

Both sexes are similar in size and shape, but there is a small red patch on the back of the male's head.

Arizona Woodpeckers are not significantly different from many other species of woodpeckers with the obvious exception...they are brown and white rather than black and white. They stand out immediately for that one distinction alone.
                                                                                                                                                                                                      This looks to be a first-year juvenile. Adult-like in many ways...she just doesn't appear to be fully mature yet.

It takes a bit more effort to discover an Arizona Woodpecker...rare to the United States as they are, but somehow worth it.

There are 22 species of woodpeckers. I haven't seen them all yet, but therein lies one of the joys of birding...the search.


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

Friday, December 5, 2014

(southwest) Northern Cardinal / Pyrrhuloxia

A bright red bird on a winter's day is a good omen for your soul.

Finely fashioned in red and black, the southwest Northern Cardinal looks surprisingly similar to the Northern Cardinal familiar to the eastern half of the United States. 

But, the southwest Northern Cardinal is larger, has a bushier crest and has a less-black face.

That's a trivial distinction when you see one sitting in a tree, but it's noteworthy for those who take more than a casual interest in birds.

They are a stately bird with a slightly stern appearance.

male Pyrrhuloxia

In the same family as the Northern Cardinal is the Pyrrhuloxia. He's similar in size and shape, but far less flamboyant. In shades of gray and red the male Pyrrhuloxia is impressive and shares a similar stately appearance. 

The Pyrrhuloxia lives at the far southern reaches of Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and most of old Mexico, too.

They thrive in hot and harsh arid lands.

female or juvenile Pyrrhuloxia

Startled at the camera's click this female Pyrrhuloxia stretches tall and thin to investigate the source of the sound. 

Always wary...
the cost of inattentiveness is life itself...all birds respond quickly to threatening sounds.

If this female Pyrrhuloxia looks a bit concerned...she is. She is incubating eggs in a paleverde tree. Not wanting to disturb her, I went about getting my pictures quickly, so she could get back to her motherly duties. The female Pyrrhuloxia is not nearly as colorful as the male. Her colors reflect her surrounds. It is quite likely she placed those blossoms around her nest as a means of camouflaging her yellow bill.

southwest Northern Cardinal

The amount of joy you experience at the sight of a bird varies from person to person. You can't assign a number to it. 

Still be grateful for the number of birds we have in our lives, as many species are declining. 

They could raise your spirits on a cold winter's day.


Credits: Sibley's Guide to Birds

Credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hummingbird Wishes

I wish to bring a little comfort into your life on these cold winter days and hummingbirds are all I have to offer. 

This Anna’s Hummingbird is wishing you warmth.  In violets and reds he may not be able to affect the weather in your part of the world, but he’s trying his best to help you. He brings you color.

He seems to be asking for a little hug, too.

A Costa’s Hummingbird reflects the sunlight you may also need. He may look a bit menacing, but at 0.1 ounce, he’s harmless.

Please accept his offer in brilliant shades of violets and blues.
He, too, is asking for a hug.  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Acorn Woodpecker

                        If you're like me, an Acorn Woodpecker will probably make you smile.

Acorn Woodpeckers are a medium size, mountain dwelling bird with an outsized birdsonality. They’re comical in manner and appearance with more than enough charm to keep you smiling. Often described as clown-faced, they suggest evolution has a sense of humor. 

They live in the forest, but not in every forest. Their range only covers parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. Oak and pine forests are their preferred habitat, especially the oak forests where acorns provide a primary food resource.

As woodpeckers, they exploit the dead and dying limbs of trees to chisel holes to make granaries. They stuff acorns into the round holes for their winter food supply. Some insects are stored for future consumption, too. These granary trees are valuable to the Acorn Woodpecker’s survival, so they guard them closely.

Making granaries allows Acorn Woodpeckers to remain in one location from year to year, thus insuring a territory with abundant resources. They have a complex social structure in which mate sharing, group sex and infanticide all coexist to benefit the group as a whole.

The sexes look alike…almost. Both sexes have red heads, but the male’s red extends further forward. The male is on the left.  The other two are females. 

Hanging on trees and poles, they use their stiff tail feathers for support. 

Funny looking or not, the Acorn Woodpeckers invite you to let them entertain you.

Take the bait! 

As with any bird, the brief investment in time spent pays off with a smile. You could be measurably poorer without it.


Credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds; Carly Hodes
Credit: The Sibley Guide to Birds 2nd Edition

Monday, November 10, 2014

American Kestrel

         An American Kestrel watches for movements below. From this tall utility pole he sees everything.

It’s morning in Tucson, Arizona. The sun has been up for a couple of hours and the large insects that kestrels prey upon are rising. Insects make up a sizable percentage of an American Kestrel’s diet. They hunt small mammals such as mice and voles, too, but large insects are more plentiful.

Grasshoppers, butterflies and spiders are preferred.

American Kestrels are not big.  For comparison they are about the size of a Mourning Dove and so much like doves, they can be confusing.

They both rest on power lines along rural roadways, but the doves are far more common. 

American Kestrels are the smallest of the North American falcons.

Kestrels hunt during the day. You might find one hovering into the wind…fixed in place, yet still flying. It’s quite likely there is a food opportunity below. 

Because birds can see in the ultraviolet spectrum, they can detect the glowing urine trails left by voles as they crisscross the ground. Knowing where your food travels is a big advantage when hunting.

American Kestrels don’t enjoy top predator status, so they too are hunted.  They fall prey to hawks, owls and even crows. Therefore, it’s important to be vigilant, especially when you hunt from on high.


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

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Fall Migration

The seasons are noticeably changing in Wisconsin. Cooler nights followed by crisper, shorter days have the birds moving again.

Canada Geese are the most recognizable birds overhead now. Constantly reorganizing their lopsided ‘V’, they make their presence known to each other and to us, too.

Honking seems to be their way of insuring inclusion in the group as they migrate south.

An osprey watches the Milwaukee River flow below. Long before ice will cover the river the ospreys will have departed.

Ospreys are known to migrate long distances and this one could easily be in South America for the winter. Ospreys need an ice-free environment to fish.

They fish with dramatic feet-first plunges into the water. Sharp talons and barb-soled feet hold fast a slippery fish.

When flying, they point the stupefied fish face-forward into the wind to reduce resistance.

It must be a surreal experience for the fish.

This Hermit Thrush was poised for a quick retreat if I came any closer. He looks to be a first year juvenile, newly on his own and unsure of whether to stay or go.  

Whichever and wherever, he will be leaving for the winter.

A ground foraging bird, the Hermit Thrush would find few resources in a snow-covered Wisconsin.

A Great Crested Flycatcher has caught a large aquatic insect, but his prey is putting up a struggle. He wants to eat it, but it won’t go down, so first he must tenderize his unmanageable mouthful.

Several well-aimed pile driver whacks on the head takes the fight out of his prey and the deftly dispatched delicacy is devoured.

This Eastern Towhee was passing through Wisconsin on his out-migration to somewhere else.

He stopped to inspect our lawn for seeds and whatever else he could find grazing in the grass.

The Eastern Towhee is a secretive ground dwelling bird. By planting both feet squarely in the leaf litter then hopping backwards, he drags a space clean, uncovering insects and invertebrates in the process.

He pounces on whatever he finds.

A young Northern Cardinal rapidly quivers his wings to his mother. She comes running with a seed to answer his call.  Now losing his downy feathers, this baby cardinal will be dependent on his parents for quite a while yet.

He could have picked up that seed himself, but he’s too young, too inexperienced or too unwilling to fend for himself.  Northern Cardinals are year round residents in Wisconsin.

A young Yellow-rumped Warbler caught a fly. It’s a tiny meal and it takes a lot of flies like this to satisfy even a small bird, but there are a lot of flies in the forest. Flies provide protein for birds.  A migration can be long and hard.  Protein is essential for birds and insects are the best source of protein for them.

A young male Common Yellowthroat preens and straightens his feathers. Preening is a daily exercise.

Yellowthroats are warblers that spend their winters in Central and South America. That is a long trip for this small warbler; so preening is important for warmth and fending off parasites.
You can tell he is a male by the dark patch starting to develop below his eye.

Common Yellowthroats are passing through Wisconsin right now. 

(Click any picture to enlarge)

The Monarch Butterflies are passing through, too.  Monarchs are so numerous they’re hard to miss. Monarch butterflies and wooly caterpillars are seasonal signs of the change.

The monarchs are on the way south, maybe all the way to Mexico.

Black-and-White Warblers don’t change much with the seasons.  They’re always formally attired in black and white. This is either a female or an immature male. Look for this bird hopping up or down a tree trunk.  Insects hide in the bark crevices, so that’s where they look for them.

If you miss the Black-and-White Warbler now, Florida may be your only chance to see another this year.

Fall is a special time in Wisconsin. The bird life changes almost daily. If you enjoy it, don’t miss it. It will be something to savor come January.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Bald Eagle, Muskego

          On the 4th of July I thought it would be appropriate to find an American Bald Eagle to photograph.

Randy Jacques is friend of mine from my working-life in television. He recently emailed me about a pair of Bald Eagles with two chicks, near Big Muskego Lake.  Big Muskego Lake is in southeastern Wisconsin.  Randy lives nearby and heard of the eagles.  He thought I would be interested in seeing them…I was!  

(Click to enlarge)

I was hoping to find them before they fledged, but I was delayed for days by rain and fog. Not knowing the nest’s precise location was another problem.  It's in a remote area of a large lake.  When the weather cleared and the nest’s location was verified I set out.  After a mile long hike, through a mosquito infested marsh, I got to the nest site. Through the six-foot tall grasses I saw a fledgling Bald Eagle perched on the edge of a nest.  The adults and the other sibling were gone. 

Still well out of range for decent pictures, I had little chance of going further without being noticed.

I tried anyway. 

As expected, the small buff brown fledgling flew away, leaving an empty nest.

(Click any picture to enlarge)

I knew I was in for a long wait, but I was dressed in a mosquito suit and armed with a bottle of 98% DEET insect repellent for added insurance.

I set up my cameras as a choir of mosquitoes sang in my ears. They rose from the marsh grasses, thick as pepper on a fried egg. My view was filled with tiny drones.  The only thing that saved me from donating a million drops of blood was the mosquito netting over my head.

                                Surprisingly, I didn’t have to wait long for an adult Bald Eagle to fly in.
Landing in a tree and immediately eyeing me, he came out screaming.  

He flew directly overhead at treetop levels. Uncertain of what he saw on the first pass, he repeated the same circle to satisfy his curiosity. 

I must not have been the threat he expected because unconcerned he returned to his tree to rest.

But, rest was NOT his to enjoy.

As big and powerful as Bald Eagles are, it’s surprising how often they get challenged. A bird one-tenth the size of an eagle will harass and attack them from above and behind. 

The harassment is understandable, but the combatants are confused. 

Who exactly is the intruder and who is being intruded upon?  

Is it all a matter of taking sides? 

On the fourth of July you could side with the Bald Eagle for his tenacity, but then again you could admire the Red-winged Blackbird's courage.  

The blackbird was defending his territory against a goliath of an enemy.  

Spectators gather in a nearby tree to watch the battles.  It’s doubtful these birds had anything to fear from the eagle...still they were troubled by his presence.  

They watched the skirmish from a safe distance…showing support, but risking nothing.

A half-hour standoff developed.  

Vocal insults were being exchanged, but aggression subsided as they slowly accepted the other's claim on the tree. It became more of a staring game with dirty looks than combat.

The reddening sky may have been a contributing factor as the hissing and screaming subsided with the setting sun.
A juvenile returned to the comfort of a parent.  The other adult and fledgling’s whereabouts are still unknown to me.

The mosquitoes, on the other hand, had no intentions of giving up.  The setting sun had no affect on their desire to inflict pain upon me. I discovered a few had found their way up under the netting.  I dispatched them with a pinch.

Surprisingly, when I got back to my
car and took off my gear, I counted 45 empty, mangled, dead mosquito bodies inside my headgear. They lost their lives attacking me…fine. 

All except one. She had some of my blood. She won her battle with me, but wasn't exactly victorious in the end!