Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Willet and Whimbrel (California)

During a far-too-short trip to the San Francisco Bay Area for a reunion this past weekend, Dave and I went out looking for shorebirds in the aptly named Shorebird Park near the Berkeley marina. We saw a nice variety of species we don't see often or at all in Minnesota. Two of these were the willet and the whimbrel, both seen picking their way along next to shellfish-encrusted rocks at the edge of a wide, flat beach.


The willet is a large, straight-billed shorebird, mostly gray in its winter plumage and a more mottled brown in summer. It's an elegant bird, to my mind, and is most often seen alone. We have seen them in Minnesota, but not often.


Here's the whimbrel. Look at that bill! How would you like to go through life with that on the front of your face?  It's well-suited to its job, though: apparently the curve of the whimbrel's bill exactly fits the shape of the fiddler crab's burrow, perfect for reaching in and pulling the crab out.

The Cornell Lab says about the whimbrel (which has also been known as the Hudsonian curlew):
One of the most wide-ranging shorebirds in the world, the Whimbrel breeds in the Arctic in the eastern and western hemispheres, and migrates to South America, Africa, south Asia, and Australia. It uses its long, down-curved bill to probe deep in the sand of beaches for invertebrates, but also feeds on berries and insects.
The only other time I've seen a whimbrel was along the rocky northern California coast in March 2009.

Whimbrel (front) and Willet

Here they are together. While you can't see the full bill of the willet in this photo, you can get an idea of their relative size and coloration. Both are considered large shorebirds, weighing roughly between half a pound and a pound, but the whimbrel is the larger of the two.

Monday, April 15, 2013

New Yard Bird: Fox Sparrow

Amidst the many dark-eyed juncos we've been seeing in the last few days a new visitor suddenly appeared: a fox sparrow. Its rusty red tail caught my eye first; then I noticed how large and plump it looked next to the juncos. The heavily streaked breast is another field mark of this large sparrow.

This was the first fox sparrow we've seen at our house. A new entry in our "yard list"! Those are pretty rare at this point. I'm not sure if I've ever seen a fox sparrow at all before, in fact. It's a very distinctive bird, with its rust-red-and-gray coloring, bold facial markings and heavily streaked breast. There are considerable regional variations in color and bill thickness, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, with "sooty," "slate-colored" and "thick-billed" variants seen in various parts of the West, as well as the rusty red variant that is widely distributed across the northern boreal forests.

Fox sparrow at center right, with male (darker) and female juncos
Rice County records on eBird show that fox sparrows are seen here only in migration, in late March through late April and again in late September through October. The Cornell Lab describes them as birds of dense thickets and scrubby, brushy woods, with a rich, musical whistle. They breed in remote locations in the northwestern mountain states, northwestern and far northern Canada, and Alaska. They spend their winters in the coastal West and the south and southeastern states.

The streaky breast is supposed to concentrate on one large central chest spot, but I wasn't able to get a photo of that. The bird was quite skittish and quick to fly away if it sensed movement, even through the window where I was watching and trying to take photos unobtrusively.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Winter in April and Juncos Galore (with video)

The weather has been on our minds and in our face in Minnesota this week. Just ask this squirrel.

Much-needed rain followed by sleet, snow and more snow have dragged weather more typical of early March into mid-April, and most people are pretty sick of it. There's another weather advisory out for more snow, sleet and freezing rain for tonight and tomorrow morning, and temperatures will remain below normal for some days to come. Sigh.

It's been hard on the animals and birds, as well. We've had plenty of views of robins in the snow, and rabbits came to feed on seed we'd put out by our front steps yesterday.

People in Minnesota have also been commenting on the huge numbers of dark-eyed juncos seen in the last few days. At our house in Northfield, throughout most of the winter we tend to see just a few juncos at a time -- typically just three or four, though occasionally more (we would have more, I'm sure, if we routinely scattered seed on the ground) -- but suddenly this week we were seeing first a dozen, then two dozen, then 30+ at a time.

Below is a short video clip of juncos I took yesterday feeding on seed we scattered for them under our hanging feeders. And yes, that is the juncos you hear in the video. They sound like a video game with "pyew, pyew" shooting noises, don't they? While this was going on, twice as many juncos were feeding under some of our other feeders. We have also seen them trying to eat from the hanging feeders, which -- being ground-feeding birds -- they don't generally do. I previously wrote about the dark-eyed junco in December 2012.

Northfield-based bird bander Dan Tallman reported on Tuesday that he banded 197 juncos this week, including several of the lighter "Oregon race" which are not often seen here. In an earlier post he offers a quick tutorial on the differences between the Oregon junco and our familiar "slate-colored" junco.

Central Minnesota nature blogger Richard of "At the Water" commented on seeing large numbers of juncos this week as well.

We were at Minnesota's annual Bluebird Expo here in Northfield today, and the well-known Minnesota phenologist (one who observes and studies seasonal patterns of animals and plant life) Jim Gilbert, one of the featured speakers, remarked on the large numbers of juncos. Many in the audience raised their hands to indicate that they too had been noticing flocks of juncos in the past few days. In conversation with him later, I asked him if he has seen juncos flocking in such huge numbers in previous years. He said that he has not, and he speculated that the cold front associated with the wet and then wintry weather that hit us this week may have had a "fall-out" effect on migrating birds. When the weather improves, it's likely they will be gone again very quickly.

Speaking of bluebirds, a few have been reported in the state in the past few days. By this time last year (which was truly exceptional), many bluebirds had already nested and laid eggs. This year they face a cold, rather miserable start to their breeding season.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Red-breasted Mergansers

Late this afternoon half a dozen male red-breasted mergansers were on Northfield's Superior Drive pond, keeping company with several pairs of hooded mergansers.

We haven't often seen these here. In late April 2011 we saw a lone female red-breasted merganser on the same pond, and I noted that I'd only seen them before up in Grand Marais, where we'd seen a mother with ducklings in August 2008.

Mergansers are diving ducks that eat mainly fish.

(Click on photo to see it larger)

Above, a male hooded merganser is flanked by five red-breasted mergansers -- note their considerably larger size than the small hoodie, as well as their bold, dark, fluffy-crested heads. An American coot is in the foreground -- a duck-like bird that is actually more closely related to rails and moorhens than to ducks. I last wrote about coots on April 4, 2012, after we saw large numbers of them at Lake Byllesby.

This pond was still almost entirely iced over as recently as Friday evening. Yesterday's warming temperatures and the afternoon's rain, followed by sun today, cleared out the ice in a hurry. Some remains, but the pond is largely ice-free today.

We also saw several yellowlegs, probably lesser yellowlegs, on the far edge of the pond that is to the south of the large pond. These, along with some recent killdeer, have been our first shorebirds of the season.

Dozens of ring-billed gulls were on the remaining ice on the large pond that lies between Jefferson Parkway and Superior Drive. Many of them were tearing at hunks of fish that we presumed had been dead in the water.