First new yard bird of 2014

The American kestrel at Richardson Nature Center. This is a colorful male.

The American kestrel at Richardson Nature Center. This is a colorful male.

And our first new bird this year is … an American kestrel! I never would have guessed it, that wasn’t even on my wish list. It’s North America’s smallest falcon, they only weigh about 100g and typically hunt small rodents, grasshoppers, dragonflies, or the occasional bird, but in much more open habitat than we have here in the yard. They have long pointed wings and the notched beak which are characteristic of falcons.

It was late afternoon and I noticed our resident songbirds were completely frozen in place on the feeders. Normally what that means is there must be a hawk around (Cooper’s or sharp-shinned.) I kept an eye out, looking for it out of the back patio door. Suddenly I saw something land in our maple tree and immediately thought kestrel, and quickly dismissed it because we don’t have those around here.

Our kestrel (education bird in permanent captivity) at Richardson Nature Center.

Our kestrel (education bird in permanent captivity) at Richardson Nature Center.

Looked again and confirmed that’s what it was, and got some good looks with the binoculars. It flew to a couple of different perches in the yard before leaving. Since there are no insects around, it was either hunting birds or maybe looking for a mouse. The only prey I noticed was a downy woodpecker and several mourning doves.

We are just on the northern edge of the kestrel’s winter range. I have seen them during the winter closer to the Rochester area and as far north as Cannon Falls. Now that spring is around the corner, they must be moving through. Hopefully he’s finding enough to eat in spite of the continued snow cover. Keep an eye out for kestrels in the warmer months, around open areas like cornfields. They can be seen perched on wires, or sometimes hovering stationary in the air, looking for prey below.

A few years ago there was a kestrel hanging out at Target field that would capture and eat moths flying around the stadium lights. He was on TV and there was some pretty cool video of him, shown during a Twins game.

What is baiting and why does it matter?

Me with one of the raptors I volunteer with at Richardson Nature Center.

Me with one of the raptors I volunteer with at Richardson Nature Center. This owl is in captivity only because it was fed by humans and became imprinted.

There have been over 250 reports of snowy owls in Minnesota this winter (unfortunately, none in my back yard.) Because of that, there has been an increase in incidents of baiting, although it’s something has been going on for a long time. Being an an avid birdwatcher and amateur photographer myself, and also volunteering for the Raptor Center (injured birds being rehabilitated for release into the wild) and Richardson Nature Center (birds in permanent captivity), I understand the motivation for baiting raptors, but my number one concern is the welfare of the bird and so I am very much opposed to the practice.

Many people apply the term “baiting” to include anything from setting up backyard bird feeders to harassing a raptor with live prey. I think it’s important to define what baiting is, how I see it as being different from other activities it is often compared to (a way baiters try to justify the practice), and why I believe it is harmful.

Eagle on deer carcass - someone had pulled road kill away from the road for the safety of the eagles. This is NOT baiting.

Eagle on deer carcass – someone had pulled road kill away from the road for the safety of the eagles. Although it did involve humans, this is NOT baiting.

My definition of baiting is: actively luring an individual bird (usually a raptor) with live (or simulated live) prey, in order to provoke hunting behavior which brings the bird in close proximity to the observer, for purposes such as bird watching or photography, outside the scope of regulated activity such as falconry, scientific research and wildlife rehabilitation.

This differs from other types of bird feeding/attracting in the following ways:

  1. Bird feeders (including seed, suet, nectar, fruit, live mealworms) do not target individual birds. The birds are free to come and go on their own. This type of feeding is widely supported and encouraged by organizations such as the Audubon Society, American Birding Association, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, etc.
  2. Bird banding is highly regulated, done for research purposes, by qualified banders who must follow specific procedures and obtain state/federal permits to do so. Similarly, falconers are regulated and must obtain permits.
  3. Hand feeding backyard birds – many people compare this to baiting. It is different because the types of birds who will come to the hand are already by nature quite tame (chickadees, nuthatches, etc.) and already coexist with humans in backyard environments. They are species that are not dependent on one type of food for their survival. One can debate whether hand feeding songbirds is itself problematic, but regardless, it is different from baiting a raptor.
  4. Setting up perches near or on feeders for photography. This does not target an individual bird, nor provoke any behavior that interferes with a bird’s normal actions. And usually a photography “studio” setup like this attracts songbird species that are already accustomed to humans, or the observer uses a blind for more skittish species. There is no new human=food association that is formed as a result.

I believe baiting (as I defined above) is harmful because:

  1. Raptors are very prey oriented. They are easily ritualized and become habituated to humans when they associate us with a food source. This can result in the bird swooping in on people or even cars in anticipation of being fed (it has been documented many times here in MN.) This is unsafe for birds and humans.
  2. A bird that is baited is not just baited once. Typically it is baited repeatedly over a period of time by one or more photographers/birders. It often involves the bird being harassed/stressed by the behavior of those who are trying to get a closer view and can lead to illegal activities such as trespassing on private property.
  3. If the bait is live, it is usually a domestic pet store mouse. This is not the natural diet of a wild bird and there is the possibility of disease that may result from unsanitary conditions that these mice are raised in. And there is the possibility that the prey may escape and that is neither fair to the mouse nor good for the environment.
  4. If the bait is artificial, the the bird is wasting time and effort chasing a lure when that energy should be spent hunting. This significantly interferes with the bird’s ability to survive.
  5. Baiting is often done near roadsides which puts these birds in danger of being hit by a car.
  6. I am not aware of any birding or wildlife rehab organization that supports baiting. However several oppose it, including the Raptor Center, Owl Foundation, and Raptor Education Group. Also the ethical guidelines of groups like the American Birding Association and North American Nature Photography Association strongly discourage activities which interfere with a bird’s natural behavior.

For those who defend baiting, it’s interesting to ask if a) they have ever been involved with wildlife rehabilitation, and b) can they produce any statement or evidence of a birding/research/wildlife rehab organization which supports baiting as something that should be practiced by the general public. I’ve never gotten a direct answer to those questions from any baiting apologist. I think that says a lot.

Further reading:

Here is an excellent blog post by an Ottawa birder about baiting, which goes into much more detail.
Local ornithologist and author Laura Erickson on baiting: Baiting Owls

Hawks need to eat too!

Cooper's hawk

Cooper’s hawk having a meal after a visit to the feeders

One of the things about having bird feeders is that they will not only attract songbirds, but often will provide some good hunting opportunities for raptors. In our area the types of hawk that we find stalking bird feeders are the Cooper’s hawk and the sharp-shinned hawk. These hawks belong to the accipiter family which mostly prey on other birds and are typically found in wooded areas. They are built for speed and maneuverability, with short wings and long tails, in order chase their prey through trees and shrubs. Yesterday I saw this Cooper’s hawk swoop in on the feeders and pick off a mourning dove.

If you find a red-tailed hawk or a broad-winged hawk around your yard, it’s probably hunting rodents. They are members of the buteo family which tend to hunt their prey from far above (perched high, or soaring in the air) and then catching it on the ground. They are adapted to hunting with long wings and a short tail.

Broad-winged hawk

Broad-winged hawk perched on telephone wire in the back of the yard.

It’s interesting to see the reactions of the songbirds when these different types of hawks appear. If there is an accipiter in the area, the birds either scatter or freeze in place and sound the alarm (chickadees and bluebirds are especially talkative) until the coast is clear. When a buteo is around, they pretty much completely ignore it. For example, when this broad-winged hawk was perched in the back of the yard, the other birds were coming and going from the feeders as usual. Recently I saw a pileated woodpecker going up the trunk of the same tree where a red-tailed hawk was perched. The songbirds definitely know the difference!

Identifying a Cooper’s vs a sharp shinned hawk can be tricky. The two look very similar, although usually (but not always) the Cooper’s is larger and most of them migrate south for the winter, while the sharp-shinned hawk is small and more commonly seen here in the winter. Their ranges overlap here, and at any given time it’s possible to see one or the other, so it’s important to understand the subtle differences between the two in order to identify them. Size alone is not a good indicator, because a large female sharp-shinned can be the same size as a small male Cooper’s. There are some good resources online, for example this checklist put together by Feederwatch.

Sharp-shinned hawk

Sharp-shinned hawk in the back yard, a few years ago, with a woodpecker it took from the feeder

Sometimes it’s not possible to see the shape of the tail or get a good view of the legs, which are probably the most commonly used method of identification. In the case of these two hawks I’ve seen in the back yard, it’s easy to tell the difference just by looking at the head. The Cooper’s hawk has a dark cap on top of its head, and the head has a flattened shape, while the sharp-shinned hawk has more of a hood, where the back of the neck is also dark, and its head looks more round.

Feathers

Woodpecker and blue jay feathers found where the Cooper’s hawk was eating

After the Cooper’s hawk left yesterday (it spent over 2 hours in the pine tree resting/eating), I went back there to see what it left behind. I found many mourning dove feathers from what it had just eaten, but I also found remnants of previous meals consisting of downy woodpecker and blue jay feathers. This is an adult hawk and an experienced hunter. They learn quickly where the best food sources are, and I’m sure it’s a daily visitor to the yard. I rarely see it, but I often see the feeder birds frozen in place, so I know when it’s around by watching their reaction. There is plenty of cover for them around to evade capture. We do have an abundance of woodpeckers, mourning doves, etc. so the hawk is help keeping the population in check. Now if it would only take care of those house sparrows …

It’s Winter Now!!

Forecast temps for tonight

Our forecast low tonight is -25F.

It’s been a pretty cold start to the winter. Right now we have some low temperatures forecast that haven’t been seen in about 20 years (before I moved to the midwest.) I think the coldest I’ve experienced has been -22F and I’ve been out photographing eagles when the wind chill was about -40F, and my eyelashes froze. We are supposed to get down to -25F tonight and wind chills around -50F.

Not much has been going on in the yard, no unusual visitors or anything out of the ordinary. We do have at least one overwintering flicker, and have had a red-tailed hawk hunting in the yard recently. Normally I wouldn’t expect to see one here because of all the trees, but I’ve seen it a few times now. A couple of deer have been showing up to munch on what’s left of the garden (which fascinates the cats.)

Feedercam

Extra suet for below zero temperatures

Because of the extreme cold I’ve put out extra suet and peanuts for the birds. They need as much high energy food as possible. We have two suet logs and I’ve also got a suet cake up in the top gazebo, where I have safflower to discourage starlings. In the tube feeder we have thistle and sunflower chips which the finches really like. There is a second tube feeder with the same that I have hanging on the deck railing, out of view of the camera. The juncos like to hop around under it, catching anything the goldfinches drop.

I haven’t been spending a lot of time outside (other than filling the bird feeders). It’s good weather for firing up the wood stove and settling down to catch up on some TV watching!

Mystery Wren on the feeder

Mystery wren on Feeder Cam

Mystery wren on Feeder Cam

We had an interesting visitor at the feeders this week. As you may have read in my 2013 Yard Bird Wish List post, I have been hoping for a Carolina wren. When I saw this bird on Feeder Cam, I immediately noticed the wren shape and bold white eyestripe, which really got me excited. But something seemed a little off – the tail is quite long, the color more drab that I’d expect.

So I was thinking Carolina wren, but I’m not an expert on them, so I posted the image in the Minnesota Birding Facebook page and many people commented on it. I also posted to the MOU mailing list to get some additional input, and got some great responses from that also. Some thought it might be Carolina, and others suggested Bewick’s wren, which looks correct but would be very unusual. There were some additional suggestions like rock wren or even house wren in bad light. I wouldn’t rule out any of those, because with just a single image like this, identifying a bird (especially if a rare one) is very difficult. But that’s all I have to go on.

I arrived home about 1 1/2 hours after the bird appeared, but couldn’t find any sign of it. I sat on the patio and played various wren calls. Tried the same then next morning and then the next afternoon I spent more time outside on the patio and walking around the neighborhood. A Carolina wren would definitely be interesting and somewhat unusual, although not unheard of. If it were indeed a Bewick’s wren, then that would be big news and I think people would want to see it, so I was really hoping to find it again. Not only would it be a rare Minnesota sighting, but Bewick’s wrens are in decline east of the Mississippi, so that would have been really cool to see one and be able to report it with a confirmed ID.

Unfortunately I never did see or hear any sign of the bird beyond the one Feeder cam image. Many people took the time to look and comment, and I learned a lot from the discussion. I appreciate everyone’s input!

Seen in the garden recently

Hummingbird moth

Hummingbird moth at wild bergamot by the patio

Summer is such a nice time in the garden. Many of the flowers are in bloom, the grasses are really starting to come in, and there is a lot of bird and insect activity. We have TONS of bees, and I’ve seen a few tiger swallowtail butterflies and a monarch (which are sadly rare this year.) I recently noticed a hummingbird moth in the garden for the first time, which was very cool. It seems to favor the native wild bergamot (monarda fistulosa), while actual hummingbirds ignore that and go to the royal catchfly, or another variety of monarda (monarda didyma) which is not locally native, originating from the northeastern US. I’m ok with that because the hummingbirds love it (I’m assuming because it’s red), and the insects can enjoy the native version (which I have plenty of.) Everyone wins! I’ve noticed varies bird families in the yard with their fledglings, such as chipping sparrows, robins, bluebirds and woodpeckers.

Purple prairie clover

Purple prairie clover on the south side of the house

A year makes such a difference. Last year we were in the middle of a big drought and the garden was in bad shape (even native plants were stressed by lack of rain.) This year we’ve had a surplus and all of the plants are doing great. Unfortunately because of last year’s drought and this year’s long winter, monarch butterflies are in serious decline. I’ve only seen one caterpillar and a few adults even though we have plenty of milkweed.

Royal catchfly

Royal catchfly – a hummingbird favorite!

I’ve spent a bit of time in the back of the yard, which I’d let become a bit more “wild” than the areas closer to the house. Unfortunately that means there have been a lot of weeds but I’ve managed to get those somewhat under control. We had a huge amount of stinging nettle and various other undesirable things. I’ve pulled much of that and also have been transplanting more aggressive natives out back where there is more room for them (mostly cup plant and wild bergamot). It’s been very satisfying to see all of the wildflowers blooming and watch the wildlife activity, where there used to be buckthorn and other invasive plants.

Wildflowers

Wildflowers at the back of the yard

There is still more to do, always buckthorn and weeds to pull, but I’m very happy with how the garden has taken off this year. When I first started tackling the yard 6 years ago, I had no idea how much work it would be and how much I would learn in the process!

Latest goings on in the yard

It’s mid July and this is the time of year when bird activity starts to slow down at the feeders. The main push of nesting is over and most species are taking care of their fledglings. It’s fun to watch parents bringing their young to the feeders. We had house wrens, chickadees and bluebirds all nesting at the same time in the yard this year.

Gilbertson bluebird box with chickadee hole reducer

Gilbertson bluebird box with chickadee hole reducer

Earlier in the spring, I had put up two Gilbertson boxes, and left up an existing Peterson box. The chickadees used one of the Gilbertson boxes and then the bluebirds arrived later. Usually if the bluebirds start nesting earlier (mid March) then they will chase off the chickadees (bluebirds are very territorial.) Once the chickadees started laying eggs I attached a hole reducer to prevent larger birds from entering the box.

Because we are in house wren habitat, I always put up a wren guard right after the first egg is laid. House wrens will enter the nest of another bird and poke holes in the eggs and/or toss the eggs out of the nest.

Wren guard for chickadee nest

Wren guard for chickadee nest

When the chicks are about a week old, I take the guard off. Very easy to make and attach, and pretty effective!
Chickadee nest

Chickadee nest

I do the same for bluebird nests. Our yard is not ideal territory for a bluebird since there are many trees, but they seem to enjoy the free buffet. However, it does require vigilance to protect against predators such as house wrens or raccoons. For bluebirds, after I take the wren guard off the nest, I immediately add a Noel guard which keeps the raccoon from being able to reach into the nest. It can be purchased, or you can make one yourself.

Fledgling chickadee on its first day in the big wide world!

Fledgling chickadee on its first day in the big wide world!

Our chickadees fledged on June 9, and the bluebirds fledged on July 7. The parents continue to come to the mealworm dish, grabbing beakfuls to take back to their young. A very successful and satisfying nesting season. :)

A few new arrivals

Harris's sparrow

Harris’s sparrow stopping by the yard for a few days, on its way up north.

We still have some yellow-rumped warblers hanging around, but the feeding frenzy has died down. Fox sparrows are long gone, while other migrating native sparrows have arrived, including white-throated, white-crowned, Harris’s and Lincoln’s.

Harris’s sparrows have a cool song that can easily be reproduced by whistling, so it was fun singing back and forth with this one. There might have been two of them, because I thought I heard the reply coming from different directions. It’s a little like a white-throated song, but clearer and with more notes.

Lincoln's sparrow

Lincoln’s sparrow

These sparrows are just passing through, probably only here for a few days, and I’ve been scattering seed on the ground for them. The Harris’s sparrow breeds in the Canadian arctic and winters in the south central U.S, while Lincoln’s sparrow is more widespread, breeding in Canada and Alaska. White-throated sparrows nest in Minnesota but we are just south of that range. Their song reminds of me of camping in the Boundary Waters, where they are quite numerous and talkative.

Rose-breasted grosbeak

A rose-breasted grosbeak warily keeping an eye on the camera.

Besides sparrows, there have been at least four Baltimore orioles enjoying the oranges I’ve been putting out for them, and a couple of rose-breasted grosbeaks visiting the feeders. I’ve got the hummingbird feeder up too. It seems that spring has finally arrived!

Yellow-rump invasion!

Yellow-rumped warbler in the brush pile near the feeders.

Yellow-rumped warbler in the brush pile near the feeders.

A few weeks ago we were hosting fox sparrows, who finally moved on after about two weeks of being very well taken care of in our yard. It seemed that the weather would improve, and it did briefly, only to get cold again. Some areas of the metro got quite a bit of snow, and we were right back to highs in the 30′s with snow/rain. For the last few days, we’ve had increasing numbers of yellow-rumped warblers. They get their name from the bright patch of yellow the males have on the rump (females have the same markings, but duller.) Since it’s such a distinguishing feature, they have also earned the nickname “butter butt.”

Yellow rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warbler on the caged suet feeder.

It’s one of the first warblers we usually see during migration, coming from the southern US and Mexico, on their way to nesting grounds in Canada and the arctic.

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warbler with a dried mealworm. These birds are very well fed.

Yellow-rumped warblers are normally not feeder birds, but are one of the few warblers I know of that will come to feeders if they are hungry enough. There have been many reports of them all around the city, at suet feeders and in large groups foraging along neighborhood streets. It seems they are everywhere, delayed in their migration because of the cold last week.

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warbler under the feeders.

They are mainly insectivores, but will eat fruit in the winter. Since there haven’t been many bugs around recently, they are having a hard time finding food. Usually they are seen higher up in the trees hawking insects (flying out from a perch to grab an insect in flight.) However when there are no insects, they are forced to forage on the ground. I scattered suet pellets and dried mealworms on the ground for them, and had a flock of probably 2 dozen gobbling it all up. Like most warblers, they move around constantly and quickly so it’s hard to get an accurate count!

Chickadee

This chickadee isn’t happy about sharing mealworms with invading butter butts.

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warblers are everywhere in the yard, this one is in the garden.

So for the last few days, they have been pretty much everywhere in the yard – on the feeder, under the feeders, on the deck and in trees, in the garden and in grassy areas where I had scattered food for them. They seem to really like the suet and have no problem getting inside the caged feeder. I even had one coming to the mealworm dish for live mealworms that I had put out for the chickadees!

Yellow-rumped warblers

Ok, this is getting a little ridiculous …

I’m sure they will move on soon, but it’s been fun hosting them and watching their antics. These warblers are fairly tame and are usually easy to watch up close by just sitting quietly. With all the difficulties that we humans create for birds, sometimes it’s nice to just give them a helping hand in a time of need. We’ll see them again in the fall, migrating on the way back south. Hopefully the weather will be more cooperative.

Trio of thrushes on Overlook Circle

American robin

American robin

Now that most of the snow has melted, robins are everywhere. They may be the most noticeable thrush around, but they aren’t the only ones. Because of the long lasting winter, other migrants have stacked up in the area, waiting for the snow to clear out. We’ve had an abundance of hermit thrushes too, which are smaller than robins and have the typical spotted breast like many thrushes.
Hermit thrush

Hermit thrush

Adult robins don’t have the spots, but juveniles do. And bluebirds are another type of thrush most people are familiar with (juveniles also have a spotted breast.) They are probably the three most common species of thrush we have in this area, another one is Swainson’s thrush which I’ve also seen in my yard before. These three species were all hunting in a front yard at the end of my street, which is a large grassy area, more open than my yard. There were several robins, two hermit thrushes and one bluebird.
Eastern bluebird

Eastern bluebird

I took the opportunity to get some photos in the nice morning light. Unfortunately someone in the neighborhood must have thought the sight of a car parked along the road with a big camera lens aimed out the driver side window was very suspicious, because eventually the cops showed up and wanted to check my ID!