Saturday, May 25, 2013

Pileated Woodpecker at Our Suet Log

A wish came true this week, as twice we have seen a pileated woodpecker at the suet log that hangs from the maple tree in front of our house -- and today I was able to grab my camera and capture the moment. The first time, last Sunday, I posted on Facebook about the impact of the sighting: "Freaking amazing - first-ever sighting of a pileated woodpecker at our house a few minutes ago, feeding from a log-style suet feeder. Our jaws were down around our knees."

This is a huge woodpecker, nearly the size of a crow. I've only seen a pileated a handful of times before, and until now not anywhere near this close. When seen in flight from below, it shows large areas of white bordered with black. In February I wrote about one I'd seen flying in our neighborhood, and included someone else's terrific YouTube video that shows the striking black and white wings in flight.

It's a female, incidentally. The red cap on a male extends down in front all the way to the top of the bill, and males also have a red "mustache" where the female has a black marking at the side of the bill. Biologist and bird-bander Dan Tallman captured, literally, a male pileated woodpecker in his banding net a few miles from here recently and has a great photo of it here. Actually, it turned out that he had recaptured it; it bore a band showing he had banded it in 2010.

For size contrast, see below on this same suet log a red-bellied woodpecker, which at roughly the size of an American robin is a good-sized bird in its own right. At 9 inches in length compared to the pileated's 15.7 to 19.3 inches, it is only about half the length of the pileated and weighs only a quarter as much.

By the way, pileated can be pronounced either with a long or short initial I: py-lee-ated or pill-ee-ated, though the long-I pronunciation is listed first in both the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary. The word essentially means with a crest, or cap.

We are thrilled that we now seem to be familiar territory for this impressive bird and that we can add the pileated woodpecker to our "yard bird" list.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bluebird Report May 22 - First Eggs!

The contrasts between last year's early spring and this year's late one continue to be stark. By this date last year we'd had several sets of bluebirds fledge already, but we just found the first eggs of the season this week while checking the nest boxes we monitor weekly. As of Tuesday evening we had two nests with one egg each and this nest with three. Once they start laying, bluebirds lay one egg a day, with a typical clutch size being four or five eggs (most of ours last year had five). 

Three eggs - a beautiful sight!

There they are!

On our rural Rice County bluebird trail, which this year has eight sites (four single nest boxes and four pairs), we now seem to have four bluebird nests, two tree swallow nests (no eggs yet), and one black-capped chickadee nest.

Tree swallow nest full of feathers

Black-capped chickadee eggs in mossy nest

The chickadee nest, above and below, is at the location where our most successful bluebirds were last year. We also have chickadees nesting in one of the nestboxes at our house in Northfield. Last year we had a couple of chickadee nests started, but no eggs. Chickadees are cavity-nesters that will use bluebird boxes. They build their nests with soft moss, and as can be seen here, they obviously supplement with other found materials. This is a very soft, fuzzy nest for these six speckled eggs. Chickadees typically lay six to eight eggs (see the page about chickadees).

Chickadee eggs

We hope to see these eggs hatch in another 11 to 14 days and the chickadee nestlings successfully fledge in about four weeks' time.

Follow our whole bluebird trail adventures here: Bluebird Trail.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Oriole with Maple Flowers

Female Baltimore Oriole

A gorgeous female Baltimore oriole amid light green maple flowers against a brilliant blue sky. Irresistible!

This is a phenology post as well as a bird post. Here it is May 12, and the large maple in front of our house is only just flowering, before leafing out.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Rose-breasted Grosbeak - Immature Male

Late Thursday afternoon a male rose-breasted grosbeak was feeding from a caged feeder designed to exclude larger birds such as itself. It was quite successful in reaching its head through the cage to retrieve spilled sunflower chips from the bottom.

After I took the photos and did some research, I realized that this is an immature male in its first breeding season. When in full breeding plumage, a mature male's head will be fully black, the rose color will deepen, and the brownish streaks will disappear, leaving the bird with its stunning black, white and rose-red coloring.

What a beautiful bird.

On this date in 2011, I posted a photo of a male and female (shown below) on one of our other feeders. You can see how the immature male in the photos above is like a blend of the female and the mature male shown below.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak pair (2011)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Colorful Birds of Spring

I saw my first Baltimore oriole and first rose-breasted grosbeak of the season yesterday, within about 15 minutes of each other. I'd put the oriole feeder up in the snow late last week, and just put the hummingbird feeder out yesterday. I haven't spotted any hummingbirds yet. The grosbeak was trying to eat from our caged feeder that only allows small birds inside, and was probably finding that quite frustrating.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (2011)

I didn't see any rose-breasted grosbeaks at the feeders last year, but in 2011 they appeared at the feeders on May 7. Rose-breasted grosbeaks winter in southern Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and northern South America. Read more about them at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds site.

Baltimore orioles have appeared in early May the last couple of years. Here's a photo from last year. I've written more about orioles here. They winter in much the same areas as the grosbeaks, plus Florida.

Baltimore Oriole (2012)

Within half an hour last evening I saw birds of brilliant orange, rose, red and blue -- an oriole, a rose-breasted grosbeak, a cardinal and a blue jay. No goldfinches, though. I remarked on this sudden richness of colorful birds in May two years ago, saying I felt like Dorothy stepping into the technicolor world of Oz.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Bluebird Trail - 2013 First Report

The horrendously late spring this year, including heavy snowfalls in late April and early May, has our bluebird season off to a worryingly slow start. It seems likely that there has been significant mortality for these insect-eating birds, since the insect season is also starting slowly due to the cold.

Tree swallows on overhead lines

By this time last year, we had 20 bluebird nestlings already! This year we have just started to get out to check the boxes, and we barely have any nests that are more than a few strands of grass, let alone having eggs or nestlings.

We have only seen two bluebirds yet this season, one male and one female, seen on different days at our prairie-habitat trail, where one of the four boxes today had a substantially complete bluebird nest. Tree swallows have been much more conspicuous on or near several of our other boxes. Perhaps tree swallows, which eat flying insects in the air, may have had an easier time finding food than bluebirds, which pick insects off the ground.

We have complete or nearly complete chickadee nests in two of our boxes, while last year we had no complete chickadee nests.

We plan to move some boxes from a couple of areas that last year produced wrens but no bluebirds.

Follow our whole bluebird trail adventures here: Bluebird Trail.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Red Squirrel Molting

This morning I noticed a small red squirrel foraging under our feeders. Its coat was clearly in mid-molt, which can be seen especially in the photos below.

An information sheet about the red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) from Northern State University in South Dakota states:
This species of squirrel molts its fur coat twice each year. The summer coat appears in late spring and is brownish red on the back and sides and white on the belly. The tail is reddish on top and gray underneath. A ring of white fur around the eye is characteristic of this species. The winter coat comes in by September and is denser and longer than the summer fur. In winter, a red stripe stretches from neck to tail and the tail fur becomes more reddish on top. Reddish brown tufts of fur develop near the ears for winter also.
I hadn't realized that red squirrels really are redder in the winter, though they certainly look very red in contrast to the snow.

The Minnesota DNR says the red squirrel is found throughout Minnesota but is most common in coniferous forests. They eat conifer seeds, acorns, mushrooms, hickory nuts, walnuts and maple seeds. They clearly enjoy the seeds that fall from our bird feeders (primarily sunflower at this location), as well.

I've previously written about red squirrels making tunnels in the snow. Fortunately, our recent snow has almost completely disappeared.

This squirrel could well be supporting babies right now. The Minnesota DNR says:
Red squirrels mate in late winter. They nest in hollow trees or build a 12- to 19-inch ball-shaped nest in a tree top using leaves, twigs and bark. In early spring, females have two to five babies which are born hairless and weigh less than an ounce. The young squirrels are independent within 12 weeks.
In late May two years ago, I captured some video of young red squirrels playing at the foot of a tree near our house.

Friday, May 3, 2013

May Snow (Crazy! Enough!)

This was the scene through my living room window at about 7 a.m. yesterday. The official snowfall in Northfield was 6.8 inches.

Here are some of our daffodils, which had just struggled into bud during the warmth of the past week. On Sunday it hit 81 F.!

In this return to winter, I've noticed starlings (above, in tree) coming to eat from our suet feeders, which I don't remember ever happening before. I cropped the photo to show the leaf buds which are finally swelling.

I've read on the MNBird listserv that Baltimore orioles have been sighted in the region, so despite the snow I put grape jelly in the oriole feeder and hung it up this morning. Hummingbirds often arrive around now, as well. 

With very few insects, little spring growth, virtually no flowers yet, and last year's seeds and berries pretty well picked over, birds and other animals are facing a tough situation. Continue to put out a variety of high-quality bird foods (small and larger seeds, nuts, suet, jelly, even hummingbird nectar) to help at least some of them get through this.

Facebook birders were abuzz yesterday over Greg and Linda Munson's photo, shared by the Zumbro Valley Audubon Society (based south of here, where they got even more snow) of a Canada goose faithfully incubating her eggs while chin-deep in the snow. 

Much of the snow melted yesterday, but it is snowing again this morning. That is supposed to turn to rain, and we should be back into the 60s and low 70s in another two or three days. Hang in there, birds and people.