People have been telling me that yellow-rumped warblers are thick in Duluth, as common as Lutherans at a lutefisk supper. You can’t NOT see them. But where are they? Everywhere. Just go outside. So it was a bit disappointing to spend a couple of hours on the Western Waterfront Trail and the Munger Trail today and not see a yellow-rumped warbler. I saw one flash of yellow, but it probably was a goldfinch. It had that goldfinch way about it. I saw, and saw well, a bird that probably was a warbler, but I couldn’t identify it. But oh, there were ducks and geese and other waterfowl. A whole congregation of ducks, nay, an entire denomination of ducks. It seemed to me that there was not only a great number of birds on the bay, but a great variety as well. Were in not for my inexperience and a chilly breeze that cut into my patience, I might have identified a great many kinds of water birds. As it was, I saw the following:
Mallards, of course
Canadian geese, of course (and they were VERY LOUD)
Ring-billed gulls, of course, but not many of them
A bunch of buffleheads
An eared grebe
A horned grebe
At least a couple of blue-winged teals
A common loon
The teals and the grebes were "lifers" for me, and the loon a first-of-year. The grebes, with their patches of yellow on the heads — feathery for the eared grebe, solid for the horned — are cool-looking, indeed. I also saw, and heard, a choir of redwinged blackbirds in a copse of trees. On the Munger Trail, I saw a hermit thrush. I knew what it was because Bob King did such a good job of describing this bird to me a couple of days ago. I heard a white-throated sparrow, and I think I heard a song sparrow. And I saw that flash of yellow.
I love this time of the year — in spite of cranky weather and wet basements — because there’s something new every day. This certainly applies to birding. Today’s discovery was a stranger that I was almost certain was some sort of sparrow. It was foraging for millet on my deck next to a house sparrow. It was a little bigger than the house sparrow, it had an attractive reddish-brown hue, it had a black badge on its chest along with reddish bars, and it had an unusually long brownish-red tail. The frustrating thing about the bird books is that the pictures never look exactly like what you’re seeing. But after eliminating everything else that seemed possible, I’m almost sure it was my first-ever fox sparrow.
Speaking of cranky weather, at least two birders have reported "reverse migration" on the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s listserv in the past couple of days. One of the reports came from Jim Lind of Two Harbors, one of the best-known bird experts in the region. From the Lester River to Stony Point to Two Harbors, large groups of yellow-rumped warblers, tree swallows, ruby-crowned kinglets and hermit thrushes were observed heading southwest. Given the recent weather, who could blame them? No word on whether any recently vacationing sportswriters also returned to the Southwest.
Which brings us to hummingbirds. No surprise here. There haven’t been any reports of ruby-throated hummingbirds any closer to the Northland during the past week, according to the migration map at hummingbirds.net. Several new reports are indicated in southeastern Minnesota. But there’s nothing as close as the April 21 report from the Twin Cities or the April 19 report from somewhere near Wausau, Wis.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is working to place some female prairie chickens from Minnesota in central Wisconsin in hopes that they’ll mate with Wisconsin males, the Associated Press reports. The greater prairie chicken is a threatened species in Wisconsin. We all know that Minnesota-Wisconsin relationships can be rocky, but David Drake, a University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor who has been monitoring the birds, told the Associated Press: "They have no problem. They’re not asking for ID. We found that out."
Today, I decided to keep track of the kinds of birds I saw without driving anywhere. This meant the birds I saw through the windows of my house and on a walk through West Duluth. There were a number of reasons for this, the primary number being 3.459. With hopes still alive for an evening visit from a cardinal, this is what I’ve seen so far:
A white-throated sparrow (after hearing it yesterday)
As I was driving down Central Avenue in West Duluth this afternoon, a bird with a distinctive patch of white tail feathers flew in front of me. Happily, it perched low on a nearby tree, and I could see easily that it was my first flicker of this year. Flickers are actually woodpeckers, although they do most of their feeding on the ground. They’re bigger than most of the woodpeckers we see around here, although smaller than pileated woodpeckers. They don’t look like any other bird. In addition to the splash of white when they fly, they have tiger stripes in the back, leopard spots in the front and a red crescent on the back of the head. The flicker’s head is grayish blue in the back, buff-colored in front. I suppose it’s possible that some flickers are here all year round, but they’re considered summer birds in northern Minnesota, and chances are the flicker I saw was a recent arrival. Later, I heard the distinctive call of a white-throated sparrow. It starts with a high note, slides to a lower note, then to still a lower note, then holds on that pitch for five or six rhythmic notes. Some say it sounds like the white-throated sparrow is saying, "Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody," or, "Oh, Canada, Canada, Canada." Today, I thought it sounded like it was saying, "What am I doing out in the rain?"
OK, the Miller Hill Mall doesn’t spring to mind as a bird-watching destination. On the other hand, anywhere you go in the Northland — even in the most commercial and urban sections — you can encounter interesting critters, winged or otherwise. Last night, I watched a raccoon skitter across First Street between the Radisson Hotel and the federal building. And we all know about the deer in the bathroom at the St. Scholastica chapel. There have been reports of an interesting pair of birds in the mall area — a male and female great-tailed grackle. Great-tailed grackles are primarily birds of the Southwest. My bird book shows them as rare visitors to southern Minnesota but not farther north. But it also says they’re increasing. And they’re quite different from their cousins, the common grackles. Great-tailed grackles are considerably bigger, for one thing. Common grackles have those strange, iridescent purplish-blue heads, but they are a sort of dusty black elsewhere. Male great-tailed grackles are iridescent throughout; the females are nearly brown. They have thinner, longer heads and beaks and extremely long tails, shaped almost like a paddle. If you’re in the mall area and you see a flock of grackles and one or two of them look bigger and different in other ways from the rest, try to get a closer look — and please let me know what you find. Anyway, it’s something to look for if you have to go to the mall. While I was in the mall area, I talked to my friend Henry, who’s skeptical about that report of a ruby-throated hummingbird in the Twin Cities. It was so far north of other reports that it ought to be taken with several grains of salt, Henry said. Nonetheless, he’s not opposed to putting out hummingbird feeders soon. You want to have the feeders out when they start to arrive, not after, Henry said. Henry also suggested getting oranges and grape jelly out for Baltimore orioles once we get through this latest cold snap. Here’s Henry’s advice for a cool way to bring in the orioles:
Eat half an orange.
Water down some grape jelly, and put it in the orange.
Put the orange-with-jelly out in a tray feeder.
Make sure not to put too much jelly in the orange. Birds actually can get stuck in jelly, which would not be a pretty sight.
This picture of a great blue heron making a meal out of a bass was taken by photographer Scott Gaulin on Monday at Temple Lake Park in Temple, Texas. Gaulin works for the Temple Daily Telegram, and the picture was distributed by the Associated Press. Note the heron’s punk haircut. Also notice the size of the fish compared with the size of the heron’s throat. How does that work? Happily, you don’t have to go to Texas to see a great blue heron. I saw one last week in a marshy area off Duluth’s Western Waterfront Trail. That’s the place that I’ve most often seen herons. But I’ve never seen one catch, or eat, a fish. My colleague Clint Austin told me he once saw a great blue with a frog in its beak. Sounds like another neat trick. As with the old lady who swallowed a dog — I don’t know HOW it could swallow a frog.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are getting closer to the Northland. According to the migration map at hummingbirds.net, at least one hummingbird was seen somewhere in the Twin Cities today (Monday). The was the first hummingbird reported this year in Minnesota, but they’ve been advancing across Wisconsin in recent days. The closest was seen a couple of days ago in north central Wisconsin, perhaps in the Wausau area. For those of us with hummingbird feeders, it’s about time to get them filled and outside.
When I go to the bird store to buy mealworms, I always say, "I’m hungry. Got any mealworms?" I think this is funny every time. I used to have a philosophical problem with buying mealworms as birdfood, my philosophy basically being summed up by the words: Ew, gross. They’re alive. I got over that last year, being enticed by the wide variety of desirable birds that mealworms are said to attract. Warblers. Indigo buntings. Bluebirds. Baltimore orioles, particularly when they are feeding their young. Last year and so far this year, the mealworms I put out mostly have attracted the chickadees that would come anyway. And boy, do they love to eat mealworms. I put a spoonful out in the little mealworm house (pictured below) in the morning, and the chickadees zoom in almost before I’m back in my house. I buy them in little plastic tubs holding 100 mealworms.1 The chickadees, I’m certain, would gladly go through all 100 — perhaps 1,000, or 10,000 — in a morning. This might seem like a bad deal for the mealworms. But I think they lead an idyllic existence. As I mentioned, they come in little tubs, surrounded by oatmeal for them to snack on (pictured above). I bring home the tub and put it in my refrigerator, where they sleep. I put some of them in the mealworm house, where they even have a roof to protect them from the rain. If it’s cold out, they sleep. If it’s warm, they eat, until something eats them. At this point, I wanted to say: And maybe they make baby mealworms. But based on extensive research — I did a Google search — this seems unlikely. The mealworms we feed the birds apparently are in the larval stage of something that grows up to be a beetle. People raise mealworms — there’s all sorts of information on the Web about how to do that. But the mealworms I put in the mealworm house will get eaten long before they ever would get to the point of reproducing. But reproduce they must, or mealworms wouldn’t be available for purchase at the bird store. So I decided to stick with my original title for this blog, "The sex lives of mealworms." The newspaper consultants tell us that the things we write should be relevant, interesting and compelling. (Yes, newspapers really pay consultants to tell them that their stories should be interesting.) I thought my title was at least interesting and compelling, if not relevant.
1 Interesting job of the week: being the person who counts out 100 mealworms and puts them into a tub.