Thursday, February 7, 2013

Moving Day!

My daughter has been setting up a new site for me that will have fewer problems with fonts and other issues. All previous posts will stay here, but will also appear, along with all new posts, at

Species of Concern: Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike
Loggerhead Shrike
When I bird in Florida, I’m ever scanning fence posts and power lines in hopes of seeing Loggerhead Shrikes. 

Shrikes are predacious songbirds, but that’s not very exceptional—so are chickadees, robins, and bluebirds, the insects and worms they eat being very much animals. Shrikes feed on small lizards, birds, and mammals as well as insects, but so do some crows, ravens, and even large flycatchers. The difference is that shrikes eat meat almost exclusively, with physical and behavioral adaptations unique among songbirds. The hooked beak tip and sharp notch near the tip help grab and sever the spinal cord of small vertebrates. When a shrike bites off more than it can chew in one meal, so to speak, it can impale whole prey or parts on thorns or barbed wire, or wedge it into the fork of a branch, both for easier killing and for longer-term storage. This habit led to the family nickname, “butcherbirds.” 

The proportionally large head of all shrikes is particularly highlighted in the Loggerhead Shrike’s name, a synonym for “blockhead.” Of the 30 or so species in the family, only the Loggerhead is entirely restricted to North America. It’s a little smaller and daintier than the Northern Shrikes we see up here in winter. And Loggerhead Shrikes eat fewer rodents and birds, focusing heavily on grasshoppers.
Loggerhead Shrike
Loggerhead Shrike eating grasshopper
Loggerhead Shrikes used to be fairly regularly seen in southern Wisconsin and Minnesota, but they declined drastically through the last half of the twentieth century. They’ve essentially vanished from the northeastern part of their range and continue to decline everywhere else. The subspecies on San Clemente Island in California is listed as endangered on the federal list.
Breeding Bird Survey numbers:
Loggerhead Shrike decline in Wisconsin

Breeding Bird Survey numbers:
Loggerhead Shrike decline in Minnesota
I’ve visited Florida almost every year since our son Joe moved there in 2003. I have a much harder time finding them now than I used to down there, and the steep decline shown in Breeding Bird Survey numbers for Loggerhead Shrikes in Florida between 1966 and 2010 bears graphic testament to my experience. I find it endlessly frustrating that despite the dramatic decline virtually everywhere, they aren’t on the federal list for endangered, or at least threatened, species.

Breeding Bird Survey numbers:
Loggerhead Shrike decline in Florida
Breeding Bird Survey numbers:
Loggerhead Shrike decline in United States
Russ and I had a pretty close encounter with a nesting pair back in 2006. I got plenty of photos, though this was before I had a high quality camera. Because they were nesting in an area with heavy foot traffic and we were quiet and unobtrusive, they pretty much ignored us. 
Loggerhead Shrike
Russ and I watched this breeding Loggerhead Shrike at a Nature Conservancy/Disney
property in Florida in 2005.

Overall, Loggerhead Shrikes seem a little calmer in the presence of gawking birders than Northern Shrikes usually are, but even they are a bit skittish. In January I came upon one while on a pleasant drive from Titusville to New Smyrna Beach in Florida. It had caught a large grasshopper and was starting to eat it. I stopped momentarily when I spotted it and snapped a few photos from my car window, but I did not want to risk frightening off the little predator, especially since he might have lost the morsel, so I drove on. We humans haven’t left them much space and our pesticides kill many of their prey, but these handsome songbirds deserve our respect and affection.
Loggerhead Shrike
Loggerhead Shrike with grasshopper

Monday, February 4, 2013

February 3: Superb Owl Sunday

Boreal Owl

Several years ago, I realized that by just adding a properly placed space, I could transform Super Bowl Sunday into Superb Owl Sunday. Last year Russ and I were in New York City visiting our daughter Katie and her S.O. Michael on the big day. We decided to head out to Breezy Point Tip on the city’s ocean front to at least get out into the wild for a while, when what to our wondering eyes should appear but two Snowy Owls! One was a very mature adult male, his plumage snow white. I’ll never forget that thrilling and unforgettable day, even richer for sharing it with my family.

Snowy Owl in the Big Apple
Snowy Owl in NYC on Superb Owl Sunday, 2012, not enlarged or cropped
NYC Snowy Owl
That Snowy Owl after cropping

This year I was certain things couldn’t possibly go that well ever again on Superb Owl Sunday, but figured I might be able to see an owl somewhere. During the past two weeks, Boreal Owls have been appearing all over between Duluth and Two Harbors, and a few weeks ago, Ryan Brady even had one in his yard in Washburn, Wisconsin, and so birders from all over the country are descending upon Duluth to see them. Boreal Owls periodically “irrupt”—that is, large numbers of them suddenly appear well south of their breeding range. This is a well-known, if rare, phenomenon. Birders rejoice, because except in rare years like this, this secretive owl is one of the hardest of all regularly occurring North American birds to add to a lifelist, but it’s a mixed blessing because the adorable little predators are so desperately hungry that they must hunt at midday, usually coming up empty. Tour groups are seeing as many as seven in a single day, but I feel like I’m gawking at someone in their time of misfortune, so I seldom go out to look for them.

But yesterday being Superb Owl Sunday, my doing a big year, and Russ and I having a couple of free hours, we headed up to Two Harbors. I was hoping we’d luck into spotting a Boreal Owl tucked into a conifer somewhere along the scenic highway—owls hiding out in spruces and cedars probably had successful hunting the night before. It’s tricky to spot one when zipping by in heavy traffic, but when so many birders are afield searching, one may spot a pack of birders already watching one. Russ and I had no such luck, so when we got to Two Harbors, we headed straight to Fourth Avenue—there’s a 2- or 3-block alley behind the houses there where I’ve seen Boreal Owls several times in the past. We spotted seven deer, including a handsome buck, but didn’t hear or see a single chickadee, much less a Boreal Owl.

White-tailed Buck
This and six other deer walked past us in the woods behind the alley
Right as we were growing discouraged, from the road above, one of my birding friends spotted me and drove down to the alley to tell us about a saw-whet owl he’d seen just a few blocks away. If I were to come up with a top ten list of my favorite birders in the world, Jim Lind would definitely be on it. He’s a great and generous birder who produces our area’s weekly rare bird reports and compiles the Duluth Christmas Bird Count. In years like this, Jim spends his free time searching out good birds in Two Harbors, and obviously goes out of his way to help other birders see them. And he has the best Boreal Owl Karma of anyone in the known universe. He hadn’t spotted one yet in Two Harbors on this Superb Owl Sunday, but the even tinier owl he’d spotted a little while before was a great sighting. We chatted for a few minutes, until he had to be going and we were ready to move on for the Saw-whet. We said our goodbyes, and right as he was turning away, his eyes locked on a Boreal Owl only about 15 feet away! Right there in the open, right beside us!

Jim Lind pointing out Boreal Owl
See what Jim Lind found? Right next to us!! Was the little owl there all along?

The bird was alert, so focused on searching for the sounds of small mammals that s/he ignored us. When Jim moved on, I kept photographing the little thing.
Boreal Owl

Boreal Owl

Boreal Owl

S/he flew to two other branches and a stump, coming even closer than where s/he started out. Alighting on the flat stump, s/he held one foot up and used a wing to balance on one branch, so I think the raised foot was injured. I felt sorry for the little thing, regretting seeing him/her even as I clicked my camera shutter over and over as s/he looked sharply this way and that, desperate for a meal.

Boreal Owl
The left foot appears to be injured, though s/he managed to catch and carry a shrew.
Boreal Owl

Right when I was feeling sadder than joyful to be witnessing such intense hunger, the little owl plunged into the snow and pulled out a fairly large shrew. 

Boreal Owl

Boreal Owl

Chickadees noticed the tussle and started gathering, chickadee-dee-deeing every naughty expression they knew.

Black-capped Chickadee
This chickadee was saying several naughty words!

The Boreal Owl took off, carrying a nice hot lunch with him/her, and dropped down on the ground behind a fallen log under a tangle of branches to try to eat in peace. Russ and I walked away in great relief that the little mite wouldn’t spend the day hungry.

Boreal Owl
Going off to eat in peace!

If this 20-minute encounter with a Boreal Owl wasn’t enough, we went to the spot where Jim Lind’s Saw-whet Owl was spending the day. That little guy was roosting on an exposed branch, carefully keeping both eyes closed to avoid notice by chickadees. Some people spent last evening watching a flock of ravens playing football, but not us. We’d already experienced the best Superb Owl Sunday ever.

Northern Saw-whet Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl

Total miles for day: 65. New species bringing total for year to 188:

  1. Boreal Owl
  2. Northern Saw-whet Owl

Sunday, February 3, 2013

February 2: Duluth Audubon field trip to the Sax-Zim Bog

Below zero temperatures tried to put the kibosh on Duluth Audubon's annual Sax-Zim Bog field trip. The temperature in double digits below zero kept our bus from starting. While things were still in flux, we had a quick but delicious and hot breakfast at Perkins, and then decided to carpool. That was fun! I rode with a lovely couple named Charlie and Diana, with another fun birder, Elsa, along in our car as well. Elsa picked out our first bird of the day! Not quite a real one, but even an owl decoy can be fun to see.
First bird of day!
Our first bird of the day! Elsa spotted this owl. We didn't even mind that it was fake.
The real birds we had in the bog were splendid! We started out at the community center, wandered up toward Owl Avenue and the large feeding station Sparky Stensaas and the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog set up. It's become a great stop!! From there we worked up to the Admiral Road feeders, then back to the Community Center, on to the Little Whiteface Road feeders and the Blue Spruce feeders, and home. What a great day! No owls, but the temperature warmed from -19 degrees to a right balmy +10, and we had plenty of other birds:
  1. Ruffed Grouse
  2. Bald Eagle
  3. Rough-legged Hawk (people in some cars saw)
  4. Red-tailed Hawk (one along Highway 53 on the way home--I don't know if people in other cars saw this one)
  5. Downy Woodpecker
  6. Hairy Woodpecker
  7. Northern Shrike (not everyone got a good look at this one)
  8. Gray Jay (Great looks for everyone! There were five at the Admiral Road feeders!)
  9. Blue Jay (two were all fluffed up and looking rather unhappy first thing this morning)
  10. Black-billed Magpie (this would have been my first sighting of the year if only I'd seen them! But some people got a quick but very nice look.)
  11. American Crow
  12. Common Raven
  13. Black-capped Chickadee
  14. Boreal Chickadee (two at the Admiral Road feeders)
  15. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  16. White-breasted Nuthatch (only at the Blue Spruce feeders)
  17. Brown Creeper (one in the trees and on the ground near the Friends of Sax-Zim Bog feeders)
  18. European Starling 
  19. Pine Grosbeak
  20. Common Redpoll
  21. Hoary Redpoll (ALL of my photos of these didn't turn out! But we had great looks at three different feeding stations)
  22. American Goldfinch (at least one with the House Sparrows and redpolls in the trees across the street from the Community Center)
  23. Evening Grosbeak (the only place we saw these was first thing in the morning, in trees across the street from the Community Center)
  24. House Sparrow (Our hopes of a "clean count" were destroyed first thing in the morning at the Community Center)
Ruffed Grouse
Ruffed Grouse feed on aspen buds in winter. If you look carefully, you'll see the little grippers on its toes--they help when branches are icy!
Hairy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker feeding on a deer's ribcage at what I call "Sparky's feeding station" on Owl Avenue.
Downy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker at suet.
Gray Jay
Gray Jay! There were at least 5 visiting the Admiral Road feeders.
Gray Jay
Gray Jays look like chickadees on steroids.
Boreal Chickadee
Boreal Chickadee at the Admiral Road feeders
Boreal Chickadee
Boreal Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch--a pretty male
Brown Creeper
This Brown Creeper was feeding in this tree and on the ground at the Owl Avenue feeding station.
Red Squirrel
I love red squirrels!

February 1: Frozen morning with Erik Bruhnke

Steamy Lake Superior in Two Harbors
Erik Bruhnke and I headed out to Two Harbors in hopes of seeing a Boreal Owl this morning. Erik's car thermometer showed -20 degrees, and it sure felt that cold! The lake was steaming up beautifully. No luck on the owl and no new species for the year, but we had a jolly time seeing corvids, a couple of Bald Eagles, a flock of Herring Gulls in the frozen mist coming up from Lake Superior. I'll have to try again for a Boreal Owl.

Erik Bruhnke
Erik is one of my favorite birders. He's so fun to be with, and just as knowledgeable as he is enthusiastic. He's been showing lots of birders around the bog and other hot spots—I bet a LOT of birders are seeing lifers with him this year!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

January 31: First month wrap up

Home to cold little chickadee toes on my fingers! And a Red-bellied Woodpecker showed up to ease the transition from Florida to the frozen northland. Total miles on the trip: 4309 (plus the miles with Mike McDowell). Total species for the month: 186.

January 30: Wild goose chase

Greg Neise posted on facebook last night that a Barnacle Goose had been seen yesterday on Lake Bloomington in McLean County in Illinois. Today seemed like a good day for geese, especially after I saw a handful of Snow Geese (new for the year) not far from the Kentucky/Illinois border. And turns out my GPS was sending me right past an exit just a few miles from where it was seen. There was a lot of bad weather before and behind me, but when I got to Bloomington, it was just cold and blustery, not raining or snowing, so off I went on my wild goose chase.

No luck on the Barnacle Goose, but added two more geese to my year list, and met a couple of really nice birders who'd been searching for the Barnacle Goose all day. So I'm very glad I made the stop even though I got skunked on the bird I was searching for. I had a long way to go still, but made it home in one piece before 10:30. New for year, bringing my total to 186:

  1. Snow Goose 
  2. Greater White-fronted Goose
  3. Cackling Goose
  4. Gadwall