Thursday, August 28, 2014

It's Not Just About the Birds

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Tricolored Heron
I got into birding through my love of nature photography. After moving to Florida birds became my chief photographic subject. I fell in love with their beauty as well as the challenge of learning to find and identify them.  To this day, when I go out into nature, my top priorities are birding and bird photography.  But over the last few years, I've also become fascinated with other forms of wildlife that I sometimes encounter while birding.  I'm still a bit of a novice at non-bird wildlife, but at risk of deviating too far off this blogs topic of the fun of birding, I thought I'd share a little bit of the non-bird wildlife I've been enjoying learning about.

I love butterflies.  Especially when the birding is slow, it's fun to see what may be fluttering about. At first my process was to photograph first and then consult field guides later.  Recently, though, I discovered a wonderful website,  It's the butterfly equivalent of eBird, and it has encouraged me to learn more about butterflies.

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Zebra Swallowtail
Orlando Wetlands Park
Zebra Longwing
Dragonflies have been a bigger challenge for me.  Thankfully, there's a wonderful site called You can record your sightings, but there is also a section to help you identify dragonflies and damselfles.

Merritt Island NWR
Marl Pennant
Merritt Island NWR
Seaside Dragonlet
Lower Wekiva River Preserve
Halloween Pennant
By far my favorite website for insects is  They have a fantastic online guide to help you identify just about any bug you might find in the U.S.  And even better, you can submit photographs for identification.  This allowed me to find out that the digger wasp in the photo below is of the species Sphex jamaicensis.

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Digger Wasp with Katydid
It's not hard to distract me from birding for a few minutes at the sight of a turtle. They are fascinating creatures.  To help me learn how to identify turtles, I've been making use of and

Hal Scott Preserve
Gopher Tortoise
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Peninsula Cooter
There's another website that I've found helpful for lizards. It's called My personal favorites are the Five-lined Skink and Six-lined Racerunner.

Oviedo, FL
Five-lined Skink
Hal Scott Preserve
Six-lined Racerunner
There are also some wonderful mammals to see. A good site for mammals is

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Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug
River Otter

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Midwest Woodpecker Drill Team

What's that drumming sound? A question often asked here in the Midwest. A resonant drilling noise can be heard on shingles, gutters, house siding, utility poles, garbage cans and dead trees. The culprit ... woodpeckers!  Below I feature several members of the Midwest Woodpecker Drill Team.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker (female)

Downy Woodpecker (male)

The downy is North America's smallest woodpecker. They are one of the most widespread species and a common sight at parks, woodlands, as well as other locations.

A large portion of the Downy Woodpeckers diet consists of insects, the likes of caterpillars, beetle larvae and ants. They also eat fruits, seeds, and sap from sapsucker woodpecker drill wells. These woodpeckers visit backyard feeders often to dine on black oil sunflower seeds, suet and steal sips from hummingbird feeders.

Female Downy Woodpeckers forage on large branches and tree trunks, males seek prey on the smaller limbs.

During breeding season, both the male and female downy pair will work together on a nest hole. This task can take from 1 to 3 weeks. The excavated cavity is then lined with wood chips.

The female and male look identical except the male sports a vibrant red occipital cap.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker (male)

Pileated Woodpecker (female)

Pileated Woodpeckers are large woodpeckers measuring 16.5 - 19.5 inches in length, with a wingspan of 27 - 30 inches.

These red-crested birds feed primarily on ants, termites, beetle larvae, tree-boring bugs and other insects such as grasshoppers and caterpillars. Acorns, nuts,  tree cones and various fruits are also on their menu.

When seeking food, Pileated Woodpecker are known to excavate impressive rectangular holes in trees. These holes can be a foot or more long and reach deep inside the wood. Round holes are used for nesting.

Males do most of the work when excavating the nesting cavity, especially at the beginning. When the hole is nearing completion, the female will assist in the work.

Pileated Woodpeckers can be quite clamorous. Their vocal calls and drumming can be heard from up to a half a mile or more away.

Males can be distinguished from the females by their scarlet mustache (females have a black mustache) and red forehead (females have a black forehead).

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker (male)

Red-bellied Woodpecker (female)

Red-bellied Woodpecker (juvenile)

Though, noticeably red-headed, the rosy blush seen on the lower portion of the belly gives the Red-bellied Woodpecker its name. Males have a red crown and nape, whereas females have a gray crown and red nape.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are commonly seen in the eastern half of the United States and can be found in open woodlands, forests and parks.

They consume vast numbers of wood-boring beetles, grasshoppers, spiders and other insects. They will also feed on acorns, nuts, pine cones and fruit. Occasionally they will eat bird nestlings, tree frogs, lizards and small fish.

This boisterous woodpecker can extend its long tongue about 2 inches beyond the tip of its beak. The bird produces a sticky spit and uses its barb-tipped tongue to extract prey from tree crevices. Red-bellied Woodpeckers will store seeds, corn, nuts and insects in tight bark crevices to be consumed at a later date.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

The handsome Red-headed Woodpecker with its striking plumage has many nicknames. The "flying checkerboard", "patriotic bird" and "shirt-tail bird", to name a few.

Of all the woodpeckers in the United States, Red-headed Woodpeckers are the species least likely to drill for food. They will often catch insects on the wing, as well as fly to the ground to nab prey. Like the Red-bellied Woodpecker, they store food in bark crevices for future consumption. There are reports of these handsome woodpeckers caching live grasshoppers and beetles into tree cracks and covering them with wood or bark. Red-headed Woodpeckers also eat a variety of insects, fruits, and seeds.

Male and female Red-headed Woodpeckers are identical in plumage (sexually monomorphic).

Though some are permanent residents, Red-headed Woodpeckers migrate during the day and for short distances.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (male)

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (female)

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers drill holes into the inner bark of a tree in search of sticky sap. Using their short bristly tongues, they lap up the oozing fluid.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are considered keystone species. Squirrels, bats and many other animals and birds depend on the sap holes, as well as the protein-rich insects they attract, for sustenance.

When harvesting sap, these woodpeckers excavate two kinds of holes. They drill deep, round holes that flow sap continuously, and shallow, rectangular holes which need to be maintained to keep the sap flowing.

Besides sap, these migratory woodpeckers will eat insects attracted to the drill wells, berries, fruits and tree buds. Spiders and ants are also on their menu. They occasionally can be seen drinking sugar water from Hummingbird feeders.

The female looks similar to the male but has a white throat and paler underparts. 

Northern Flicker (yellow-shafted)

Northern Flicker (yellow-shafted, female)

Northern Flicker (yellow-shafted, male)

The main staple of a Northern Flickers diet is ants. These woodpeckers are often seen in open spaces, digging in the dirt and using their barbed tongue to capture large quantities of ants. Flickers also eat beetles, a variety of insects, fruits and seeds. When attempting to capture prey, they can extend their long tongues up to 2 inches beyond the tip of their bills. 

Northern Flickers use their drumming technique to attract a mate, and also as a form of communication in territory defense.

The flickers plumage coloration allows it to blend in well in the forests and woodlands where it lives.

Males can be distinguished from the females by the presence of a black mustache. Northern Flickers have a black crescent bib on its upper chest, a prominent red chevron on the back of its crown and a white rump.

Of the five Northern Flicker subspecies, there are two distinct geographical groups. The Yellow-shafted Flicker form can be found in the east and northwest. The Red-shafted Flicker form can be found in the western United States.

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker (male)

Hairy Woodpeckers look very similar to Downy Woodpeckers but there are noticeable differences. The Hairy Woodpecker has a larger, longer bill and the white outer feathers of the black tail lacks spots or bars. They are also larger in size and have more slender bodies than the downy.

Like the Downy Woodpecker, males have a bright red patch on the back of their heads, females lack this patch.

These birds can be found in all types of forests, they also frequent gardens and residential areas.

The Hairy Woodpecker enjoys a great assortment of foods, especially insects. They are partial to caterpillars and Gypsy Moths. Other insects consumed include ants, beetles, grasshoppers and spiders. Nuts, seeds and some fruits are also on their food list.

The male does the majority of the nest cavity excavating, but the females will contribute. The female lays 3 -6 eggs and incubates them during the day. The male takes over the task in the evening.

~ ~

Posted by Julie Gidwitz ~ Nature's Splendor -

Thursday, August 7, 2014

To All the Birds I Loved Before

Gambel's Quail at Saguaro National Park in Tucson, AZ

To all the birds I loved before
Who flew past my windows or my door,

Black-capped Chickadee in Andover, MA

You’ve made me feel at home,
I dedicate this poem,

House Finches in Corona de Tucson, AZ

To all the birds I loved before.
Western Kingbird at Lakeside Park in Tucson, AZ

To all the birds I like to spot,
And may I say I’ve seen a lot,

Great Egret at Reid park in Tucson, AZ

You bring me so much bliss,
I know I’ll always miss,

Rose-breasted Grosbeak in Lisbon Falls, ME

 all the birds I loved before!

Cattle Egrets and White-faced Ibis near the Salton Sea, CA

The winds of change are always blowing,
And I keep moving far away,

Brewer's Sparrow at Michael Perry Park in Tucson, AZ

But with every state I live in,
I see more birds everyday!

Wood Thrush in Central Park, New York

To all the birds I count each day,
You make me smile while you play,

White-winged Dove and Mourning Dove in my backyard in Tucson, AZ

I love to see you fly
Or bathe before my eyes,

Rufous, Broad-tailed, and Magnificent Hummingbirds on Mt. Lemmon in Tucson, AZ

You are the birds I loved before

Cactus Wren in Tucson, AZ

And I can’t wait to see some more!

~Kathie Adams Brown (August 6, 2014)

Willet at Reid State Park in Maine

I had a little fun this month playing with that old Willie Nelson, Julio Iglesias song, To All The Girls I Loved Before. I used it as a pattern but totally changed the words to fit my birding passion! I hope it makes you smile! I am having fun Birding in Maine!

You can always see more birds and read more poetry at my blogs:

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Expansion of the Blue Grosbeak's Range in Minnesota

Blue Grosbeak
I am becoming more and more convinced that the Blue Grosbeak is expanding its range in Minnesota and growing in numbers, so I have been doing some investigating to back up my theory.  I can remember when I first became a birder how I badly wanted to see a Blue Grosbeak. Imagine my surprise then, when I learned that they are a rare, regular species in the very southwestern corner of Minnesota.  Specifically, Blue Mounds State Park in Rock County is the place to see them.  That's where we got our lifer last year.
Range map of the Blue Grosbeak from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
But then I saw them nearly two hours further to the northeast at Cottonwood in each of the last two years when they were discovered by a young birder living there.  I started to get curious about this species growing in numbers and in range when this birder reported them two years in a row.  Additionally he found a nest this year.  The site fidelity was intriguing.
My curiosity grew even more when a local birding friend said he was hoping to someday find a Blue Grosbeak in Kandiyohi County where we live.  I could hardly believe that he would think it was possible because this is even more north and east than Cottonwood.  But then he told me how he and another friend found a family of Blue Grosbeaks in Renville County just six miles south of the Renville-Kandiyohi county line in 2012.  So last week I decided to head to this location in Renville County which was a city compost site.  I wanted to see if the Blue Grosbeaks were still around a couple years later.  If they were, I wanted to document them for eBird.  Some birders have been documenting their Blue Grosbeak sightings, and it is apparent that the Blue Grosbeak has gone beyond its normal Minnesota home of Rock County, the very southwestern corner of the state.
The red dot is where we live.  Blue Grosbeaks have traditionally been found in just the very southwestern corner of Minnesota which is much less territory than what this sightings map indicates
The red dot is where we live. Blue Grosbeaks have traditionally been found in just the very southwestern corner of Minnesota which is much less territory than what this sightings map indicates
I did not find any Blue Grosbeaks at the compost site where my friends found them two years prior.  Not wanting to waste a trip, I had scouted satellite imagery of the area ahead of time looking for any gravel pits or waste areas as Blue Grosbeaks prefer this type of habitat.  In our sea of green, these areas are habitat islands.  Unlike the arid southwest, this type of desert-wash habitat is rare here and makes for easy places to look for the Blue Grosbeak.  If they are in the area, they are going to be in one of these pockets of habitat.
Blue Grosbeak
I checked out the gravel pit pictured above just a mile from where the Blue Grosbeaks were seen in 2012.  Almost immediately upon arriving I heard a singing male Blue Grosbeak. I was absolutely thrilled, even more so when I finally got to lay eyes on it.
Blue Grosbeak
The first Blue Grosbeak I found in Renville County.
I was pretty pleased with the find and reported the bird to the listserv, MOU-net, so other birders could see it.  But after I was at home and studying satellite images again, I realized I didn't fully explore the area.  It turns out that the pit I stopped at is part of about a four-mile tract of old gravel pits. I went back two days later intent to check out more of the area.  When I got to the site of the Grosbeak pictured above, I ran into two birders who had just seen the bird and were listening to a second bird nearly a mile away from the first one!  Now I was really excited to get my search underway.  I took every north-south road that intersected this tract of gravel deposits.  And on each road I found a singing male Blue Grosbeak!  In all there were five male Blue Grosbeaks. It was unbelievable yet believable because of the habitat I was exploring.
Locations of where I found Blue Grosbeak males; the bottom-right marker is the bird found by Ron Erpelding and Herb Dingmann
Locations of where I found Blue Grosbeak males; the bottom-right marker is the bird found by the other birders.
Blue Grosbeak at the Danube Brush Site
The third Blue Grosbeak of the morning.  I've been told someone later found a female with it.
Blue Grosbeak
The fourth Blue Grosbeak.
Blue Grosbeak sub-adult male on 270th St. in the trees just south of 840th Ave.
The final Blue Grosbeak was a sub-adult male but was singing the same song as the others.
Several birders have made their way to Renville County to find some of these Blue Grosbeaks.  What has been phenomenal is that they are turning up more Blue Grosbeaks at these sites and in other counties while en route!  With this volume of Blue Grosbeaks so far from Rock County, it seems that this species is definitely making its home further north and east than where it is "supposed" to be.  Any bit of suitable habitat in the southern half of the state should be investigated by Minnesota birders.  I have been studying satellite imagery for any hint of gravel or waste areas in an area that is dominated by agricultural fields.  I'm particularly interested in finding a Blue Grosbeak here in Kandiyohi County.  We are hopeful that one will make the jump six miles north if one hasn't already.
The green line is the Kandiyohi County and Renville County Line - Blue Grosbeaks are only six miles away!
The green line is the Kandiyohi County and Renville County Line - Blue Grosbeaks are only six miles away!
The only problem, though, is that we have no gravel pits to speak of in the southern half of our county.  The best and closest habitat, a very large area of several gravel pits, is about 30 miles northeast of all these Grosbeaks.
Blue Grosbeak
We have already been getting a lot of the necessary permissions to enter these lands to begin our search.  Hopefully we can turn one up.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Hubbard Glacier birds

The final (seventh) day of our Alaska Cruise started with a visit to Hubbard Glacier. We witnessed calving of chunks of ice as high as 20 story buildings. Favorable winds had cleared the icebergs from the area in front of the glacier, so our ship was able to maneuver quite closely. To view other posts describing our Alaska trip, click here.

Hubbard Glacier begins 76 miles away in Canada's Yukon and meets the sea in Disenchantment Bay (also known as Yakutat Bay). It is North America's largest tidewater glacier. As it breaks off into the sea it towers 60 feet tall and is 7 miles wide.

Hubard Glacier face with Batman 20140619

Far to the right, barely visible along the face of the glacier in the above photo, is an ice formation that looks like an animal's head with two protruding ears. We called it the "Batman" formation and it looked unstable.

Hubbard Glacier Batman formation2 20140619

The large deep blue tower just this side of Batman's "ear" suddenly came crashing down with a thunderous roar.

Hubbard tower crashing 20140619

Luckily, I had captured a burst of about 12 frames as the tower fell. If you do not see the animation, click on the image to view the series as an animated GIF, or visit this link.

I did not expect to see many birds from our vantage point, but a mixed flock of Surf Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks appeared in front of the ship.

Surf Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks 20140619

They burst into flight. This was the first time I had ever photographed Long-tailed Ducks. They are distinguished from the scoters by the white they show on their outer tail feathers.

Surf Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks 2-20140619

This chunk of ice shows how the glacier's deepest layers are blue, indicating that the weight of snow that accumulated over more than a hundred years have squeezed out all the air.

Calved Iceberg 20140619

Members of the ship's crew collected chunks of blue ice to be used in carvings (...and maybe cocktails.* Glacier "worms" crawl out when they are irritated by the alcohol-- see note at end of this post).*

Crew collecting ice 20140619

In the foreground, a Bald Eagle was roosting on an iceberg.

Eagle on iceberg 20140619

The eagle flew up. It was in sub-adult plumage, probably in its fourth year.

Bald Eagle sub-adult 20140619

Black-legged Kittiwakes flew around the ship.

Black-legged Kittiwake 20140619

We were offered a private tour of the ship's galley.

Galley tour - bread 20140619

Galley tour - salad 20140619

The next morning, we docked in Seward. Our ship, The Radiance of the Seas, is in the background.


Our families visited the Alaska SeaLife Center. The open aviary provided photo opportunities. Here are better views of Long-tailed Ducks:

Long-tailed Ducks Sealife Ctr 2-20140620

Long-tailed Duck Sealife Ctr 20140620

Horned Puffins:

Horned Puffins Sealife Ctr 2-20140620

Horned Puffins Sealife Ctr 20140620

Tufted Puffins:

Tufted Puffins Sealife Ctr 20140620

Tufted Puffin Sealife Ctr 2-20140620

Common Murres:

A Common Murre with a pair of King Eiders:

Common Murre with King Eiders Sealife Ctr 20140620

Close-up of the male eider:


Red-legged Kittiwake:

Black Oystercatcher

We proceeded up to Denali National Park on the land portion of our tour. To view other posts describing our Alaska cruise and land tour, click here.

*More about ice worms at this link

The Ballad of the Ice Worm Cocktail
--Robert Service, 1940

(final stanzas as Major Brown finally drinks it down
to earn the right to be called a "sourdough.")

...The Major took another look, then quickly closed his eyes, 
For even as he raised his glass he felt his gorge arise. 

Aye, even though his sight was sealed, in fancy he could see 
That grey and greasy thing that reared and sneered in mockery. 

Yet round him ringed the callous crowd - and how they seemed to gloat! 
It must be done . . . He swallowed hard . . . The brute was at his throat. 

He choked. . . he gulped . . . Thank God! at last he'd got the horror down. 
Then from the crowd went up a roar: "Hooray for Sourdough Brown!" 

With shouts they raised him shoulder high, and gave a rousing cheer, 
But though they praised him to the sky the Major did not hear. 

Amid their demonstrative glee delight he seemed to lack; 
Indeed it almost seemed that he - was "keeping something back." 

A clammy sweat was on his brow, and pallid as a sheet: 
"I feel I must be going now," he'd plaintively repeat. 

Aye, though with drinks and smokes galore, they tempted him to stay, 
With sudden bolt he gained the door, and made his get-away.

And ere next night his story was the talk of Dawson Town, 
But gone and reft of glory was the wrathful Major Brown; 

For that ice-worm (so they told him) of such formidable size 
Was - a stick of stained spaghetti with two red ink spots for eyes.