Monday, June 30, 2014

Common Yellowthroat

Common he may be in name, but the Common Yellowthroat deserves more respect. 

Yes, Common Yellowthroats are widespread and numerous, but also secretive. You might never see one without making an effort.  A brushy hiking trail near a marsh is a good place to start looking for a Common Yellowthroat…a favorite spot.

He’s a stocky little warbler of color, contrast and melodic voice.

This Common Yellowthroat flew to me as I watched from the dappled shade of the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve. 

He was unaware of me. 

I took his picture.

My camera flashes made him twitch, but he didn't fly away.  

He sang out in a sharp clear voice, a wichety-wichety-wichety song, to proclaim all this marshland was his.

The male Common Yellowthroat is largely dull
olive-green, but that contrasts nicely against a bright lemon-yellow throat. The female wraps herself in shades of light grey with just a hint of a yellow.

A black mask covers the male's face giving him a sinister look he really doesn’t deserve. 

A 1st year male is just now getting his distinctive black mask.

(Click any picture to enlarge)

Horicon Marsh, May 30. 2011

This somewhat confused Common Yellowthroat has been duped into raising a Brown-headed Cowbird’s chick.  

A female Brown-headed Cowbird surreptitiously laid an egg into the nest of this yellowthroat in hopes of getting the yellowthroat to hatch it. The ploy worked. The little yellowthroat struggles to find enough food to satisfy his huge freeloading foster child.

Parasitism is a bizarre approach to parenting, but it works. The cuckoo bird is even more famous for using this tactic.  

Brown-headed Cowbird egg, pierced and ejected

Normally, the Brown-headed Cowbird’s egg is larger and hatches faster. The more aggressive cowbird chick gets the most food and pushes out the yellowthroat chicks. 

Some songbirds recognize these attacks and eject or pierce the brown-speckled cowbird egg. If unable to remove the alien egg, they might rebuild a new nest right on top and start over.  

Strangely, some birds never recognize the odd egg. 

By failing to recognize the big alien chick, they spend valuable time raising a Brown-headed Cowbird chick at the expense of their own species' propagation.  

Interestingly, the cowbird chick, having never seen her real parents, nor taught the tactic, will grow up to carry on this parasitic trait as an adult.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Peregrine Falcon Chicks

A female Peregrine Falcon returns from a successful hunt…exhausted! She caught a Killdeer. She may have carried this Killdeer a long way to get here because she seemed very, very tired.  She stashed her prize on an I-beam of the Port Washington Generating Station and rested.

Her name is 'Brinn'.  She comes to us from Minnesota.  She was hatched in 2012 on Gold Hoist cliff, Split Rock Lighthouse State Park on the north shore of Lake Superior.

This is NOT Indy Froona, a female known to nest at this site for the past three years. Two-year-old Brinn may have battled five-year-old Indy Froona for ownership of this site and won…driving Indy off. Indy Froona was born in Indiana in 2009, but now her whereabouts is unknown.

Before dismembering the Killdeer into bite size pieces to feed her chicks, Brinn plucks the misfortunate bird clean…tossing feathers to the wind. 

'Ives' was Indy Froona’s mate the last several year and is still the resident male in Port Washington. Ives was born in 2004 in Sheboygan, at Edgewater Power Plant.  He is believed to be the father of Brinn's chicks, but that is still to be determine.

This nesting site is one of several in Wisconsin managed by WE Energies Peregrine Falcon Recovery Program.

Early in the courting ritual the male Peregrine Falcon offers several nesting sites to the female and she picks one. 

(See previous stories of Indy & Ives at links below)

The nest box sits at 120 feet on the very edge of the WE Energies, Port Washington Generating Station.  It mimics a cliff that Peregrine Falcons would naturally choose.  

It overlooks Lake Michigan.

(LOCATOR: The nest box is at the top of the building, bottom of the nearest chimney.)

A ledge in the box keeps the chicks from falling out, but also keeps them from seeing anything but sky.  They  essentially have been isolated for twenty-three days except for parental feedings and a webcam. 

So, if something unfamiliar, like a human presents, it's bound to be scary.

(Click any picture to enlarge)

Peregrine Manager Greg Septon is in charge of banding, sexing and blood sampling the new chicks. 

Twenty-three days is an important point in the peregrine chicks' lives.  Greg must retrieve them before they feather or they could mistakenly believe they can fly, which they cannot.  

If frightened into running away at the sight of him, they could fall to their deaths.

Blood samples are drawn.

Bands are secured to their legs.

                                                             A general check of their physical health is made.

They are returned to the nest. 

Steve Jagow assists with a 'falcon swatter’ (broom) to repel attacks from angry falcons.

Peregrine Falcons have been delisted from the Endangered Species list, but are still protected. They were nearly wiped out last mid-century due to the residual effects of DDT in the environment.

The first pair of captive peregrines was reintroduced in 1987. 

Since then ‘Juneau’ (female chick, left) and ‘Noel’ (male) have brought the Port Washington nest box numbers up to 49 & 50, generated by the efforts of WE Energies Peregrine Falcon Recovery Program.



Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Red-winged Blackbird vs Red-tailed Hawk

Two passing Red-tailed Hawks rest in a tree just hoping to be left alone, but it wasn’t about to be. 

Instead they got a rude reception from several Red-winged Blackbirds whose territory they were trespassing upon.  

I’m guessing they knew they wouldn't be welcome at this time of the year…nesting season, but they came anyway.

Nest robbing birds like hawks, jays and crows, are routinely set upon to encourage them to move away from nesting spaces.

While it’s inevitable that birds will cross other birds' territories as they travel, few nesting birds feel comfortable with Red-tailed Hawks around.

A Mequon meadow is this Red-winged Blackbird's territory and he's very protective of it.  He won't tolerate trespassing and certainly cannot allow two hungry Red-tailed Hawks to rest unchallenged.
The blackbird's distain for hawks is deserved, even if Red-tailed Hawks prefer rabbits and rodents, squirrels and snakes...meatier menu items than baby birds.  Still, it takes some courage to pressure the much larger Red-tailed Hawk to move along.

In response to this threat, he sounds an alarm from his boundary line.  A neighboring male and female respond. As this intrusion cannot be tolerated, a show of force is mustered. 
The three attack the Red-tailed Hawk from behind.

Some birds eat other birds. 
That’s the way it is.  So action must be taken…no matter the odds.  Who would take a chance with a predator in the neighborhood?

Raising a brood to adulthood takes constant vigilance and a serving of luck.  Luck is nice, but Red-wing Blackbirds rely mainly on vigilance and courage. 

Combining nerve and knack, they try to persuade the intruder that it's for his own good he leave. 

Out-matched 40-1 in ounces the trio fearlessly attacks the Red-tailed Hawk. Flying in formation over his back with claws fixed and screaming in his ears, he strangely doesn’t get the message…YOU'RE NOT WELCOME HERE.  He continues to circle, seemingly unaffected by another bird riding on his back. 

So, the blackbird then tries to peck the hawk’s head to force compliance, but still no effect. The hawk just lowers his head to avoid the pecking.

This intrusion took about fifteen minutes with several sorties and rest stops in between, but with no clear winner.  

The Red-tailed Hawk methodically circled the meadow looking for mice, while remaining surprisingly unflustered by the hitchhiking blackbird. 

Eventually the hawk concedes the fight.  Whether it was the lack of mice or intolerable frustration he moved on, as the blackbird rode him out-of-town. 

This may have been a stinging defeat for the hawk or just the cost of doing business in Red-winged Blackbird territory, I can’t say. It just looked to me as if the hawk had done this dance before.  

For the Red-winged Blackbird, he got to claim a victory…at least in his mind. 
With persistence, he forced a larger predator to move on, thereby validating his brilliant strategy and honing his skills as a protector. Meanwhile, he improved his chances of rearing a family with like abilities.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

American Redstart

The American Redstart is a smallish warbler that makes a big impression.

The male American Redstart is a beautiful bird you could mistake for a Baltimore Oriole due to its similar coloration. 

Breeding age males have a large red-orange patch on their finely detailed wings and tail. A brilliant white belly, a black head and dark eyes complete a Halloween style look.  

He contrasts nicely against a blue spring sky and fresh new foliage.

(Click any picture to enlarge)

It takes some patience and a willingness to search out where an American Redstart is likely to present this time of year.

American Redstarts are secretive and shy…prone to duck behind a leaf when spotted. 

But assuming the hyperactive nature of most birds, you won’t wait long before he flits into an opening again…giving you a good second look.

American Redstarts hang out in deciduous trees from low to midlevel heights where they search for insects. 

Insects hide, so American Redstarts flash their wings and tail to a rapid beat, hoping to startle insects into revealing their presence.  

They also hawk a good portion of their food right out of the air.  

The female American Redstart is an attractive package, too.  She is a subtler version of the male...minus the orange and black.   Instead, she's compatibly matched in shades of grey to yellow to olive-green.

It’s important for birds to blend into their surroundings during June's long nesting season.  Keeping a nest's location secret from eggs to fledglings is a full-time task for all birds.  

There is a whole laundry list of mammals, snakes, lizards and even other birds that prey on eggs and nestlings. Domestic and feral cats are major predators in the forest. 

Usually, going unnoticed is vital when raising young.  However, being a standout like the male American Redstart may be okay and even beneficial to his nestling's survival.  He may attract attention off them and onto himself. 
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Red-winged Blackbird Babies

Too young to do anything but beg for bugs, four baby Red-winged Blackbirds responded to my camera’s click when I took their picture.  Expecting food at the sound, they rose up in unison, but sank sadly when they realized I was not their mother…not bearing food…not going to feed them. 

The mother Red-winged Blackbird waited well away with a beak full of bugs, as she did not want to draw attention to her secret nest.  She was just waiting for me to go away.   

Not wanting to keep her from her nestlings, I obliged...stepped back...she moved in. 

She approached the nest horizontally, hopping through the cattail reeds, just inches above the waterline, intent on concealing its exact location. She popped up at the last moment, delivered the food and quickly left again.

Nestlings are vulnerable and nest robbers can be anywhere.  Predators could be watching her comings and goings, so this tactic should confuse or defuse a threat to her brood.

Male Red-winged Blackbirds hold territories and defend them tenaciously.  
A male Red-winged Blackbird may have a couple to as many as 10-15 females in his territory.  He will be quick to turn on and give chase to any Red-winged Blackbird intruding in his space.

With scolding, screeching calls he will hover over a dog, a person or even a cow in defense of his territory.  He is vigilant and insistent that intruders leave.  He’s willing to make contact with that individual if they don’t…drawing blood.

Territorial males spend a large portion of their day just standing guard and intercepting intruders and interlopers.  

Interestingly, genetic testing has shown he may not be the father of all the young in his territorial nests.

Outsider males may have sired a quarter to a half of the nestlings under his protection.

Males don’t provide much food for the nestlings, that is the female’s duty, but he seems to provide training to the adolescent birds by coaching them on where to find food.  When an adolescent bird shivers its wings rapidly, still demanding food, the male  encourages and escorts the youngster to hunt for themselves.

Meanwhile, hunger grows at an 
ever-increasing pace with the 
ever-growing youngsters...

…as she struggles to deliver three meals to four babies.


The Sibley Guide to Birds Second Edition
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

I was quite surprised by the cuckoo bird flying over our house.  I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that. 

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a new species for me, a first-ever sighting. 

Yellow-billed Cuckoos are not rare, just unusual in Wisconsin.  They are common in Texas, Louisiana and the States of the lower Mississippi River, but not here in cooler Wisconsin.

He landed on a bare branch and looked back at me to contemplate his next move. Unsure and uneasy, he watched me only momentarily before bending low in preparation to depart. He showed me his boldly spotted under tail, then disappeared in a matter of seconds.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a slender, fine-featured bird with a bill of yellow that reflects his name.  Seen from the back, he’s rather unimpressive in shades of tan/gray, but seen from below, his belly, bill and long spotted tail detail a more complex bird.

A rusty-rufous patch on his wings and a proudly set black eye completes a portrait of an interesting bird.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is not alone in this world…he has family…a large family.

One close relative is the White-browed Coucal. This White-browed Coucal was no more inclined to linger than was the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I encounter him last year in Kenya, Africa. He allowed me two pictures, that’s all, both identical, before also disappearing.

I’ve since learned that I was extremely lucky to even see a White-browed Coucal, for any length of time, as they are very wary of humans.  They quickly dive into the understory when approached and that’s the last you will see of them.

The Greater Roadrunner of the southwestern United States is also a relative of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. 

Fortunately, this roadrunner was far friendlier.   He not only posed for me on a rock, he waited politely, lingering to make sure I was finished shooting before he left…or so I'd like to think.

Some birds migrate by means of the stars and/or the earth’s electromagnetic field.  Being nocturnal migrants, they are vulnerable to collisions with tall building, wind turbines, antennas, cell and radio towers. Therefore, migrating at night has a danger in contemporary times, a danger that didn’t even present a hundred years ago. 

Birds didn’t evolve with man-made obstacles taller than the treetops, consequently they have no expectations of objects in their path. It’s a painful lesson for birds and a problem not likely to resolve itself to the Yellow-billed Cuckoo’s satisfaction anytime soon. 

Sadly, Yellow-billed Cuckoos have largely been expatriated from the western United States, where they once were widespread. Due to habitat loss, they are now listed as a Common Bird in Steep Decline.  


The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds:

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve

A Baltimore Oriole pries open a blossom to see what's crawling inside.  The sun is rising over the Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve on this last day of May 2014. Hundreds of birds are darting about searching for food…breakfast if you like. 

Hopping from branch to branch, hungry birds look for the lucky blossom that contains the worm.  

No one is keeping a tally of  which blossoms are visited, so each bird inspects every blossom in ongoing scramble of activity. These inspections are repeated thousands of times over millions of blossoms covering the seventy-three acre nature preserve. It's natural theater.

This worm show goes on every morning about this same time.

A Cedar Waxwing is working a tree nearby.  The Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve is located in the Town of Grafton. Sited along the Lake Michigan shoreline, it’s especially busy at this time of year.  

Multiple species of birds are traveling to their summer nesting grounds. Some birds will stay and make Lion's Den their home, but most use it as a stopover on their annual spring migration elsewhere.

Birds are most active and approachable in the morning. If you want to see birds up close, you will have to get up early.

Some people come to walk the sandy beach or the bluff overlooking the lake, others come to walk their dogs. Dogs on leashes are welcome. 

It is a quiet, peaceful place at sunrise.

I appreciate the long daylight hours of May, when it’s only the birds and me.

With newly budding trees, the birds stand out against a slowly brightening sky.

If you don’t see birds, listen for them. 

The Red-eyed Vireo is a dependable singer.  It makes no difference if it’s morning or evening, the Red-eyed Vireo will let you know where he is, if you follow his song.

The Red-eyed Vireo is a small stocky songbird with an olive green back, white belly and white eyebrow. He likes the midlevel branches when searching for food. He sings while gleaning leaves for caterpillars.  

He’s not particularly colorful or ‘drop dead’ gorgeous, but he has a nice song and beautiful dark red eyes.

His red eye shows you he is watching you, so move slowly and wear muted woodland colors.  Whites and bright colors startle birds and will lessen your chances of getting a good up-close view. 

The Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve is adjacent  to the USFWS Wildlife Production Area to the north. Lake Michigan forms the eastern boundary. 

You may find a Green Heron patrolling these waters.   Green Herons eat aquatic life, so look for one at the edge of the pond.     

Along with the Baltimore Oriole you may find an Orchard Oriole in the lowlands surrounding a pond.

The Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve may be the stopping point in this Orchard Oriole’s migration.  Wisconsin is near the top of the Orchard Oriole range.  

They won’t be here for long though. They will be traveling back to Central America for the winter by mid-July. 

This Orchard Oriole calmly rested as I watched him. It was hard to tell if he just arrived, just ate or was just worn out after a long flight. If he searched for caterpillars this morning, I didn’t see him do it. He was happy where he was and felt no need to fly away. He sat quietly for a long time just soaking up the morning sunshine. 

(Click any picture to enlarge)

This Yellow Warbler, singing at the rising sun, offers a double treat.

His sweet song combined with his bouncy antics accounts for two of the many joys of nature. 

As he sings and searches the bushes for bugs, he’s unaware that his yellow-on-yellow color matching with the leaves makes the early morning even more special.


Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds
Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition