Your turn

OK, fellow wannabes, and any real birders out there, too. I’d love to hear from you as the year changes from ’09 to ’10.

Two questions:

  1. What was your favorite bird-related moment from 2009? A bird you had never seen before, a trail you went on, something you shared with a friend …
  2. What is your bird-related goal for 2010? Is there a specific bird you’d really like to see for the first time? Someplace you’d like to go to check out the birds? Something you plan to do … maybe plant flowers that will attract hummingbirds?

I’ll weigh in on both of these questions within the next few days, but I’d like to hear from you first (and maybe borrow ideas from you).

You can use the comment button below, or send me an e-mail at: Thanks!

Amorous hummingbirds

It’s passing strange that I’ve written about hummingbirds in two of my past three posts, given that I live in Duluth and it’s December.

But you’ve got to see this.

Kurt Kuehn forwarded this link to a BBC video of the spatuletail hummingbirds of Peru.

Before I forget, here’s the link:

Filmed in super slow motion, the video shows the bird’s mating ritual. I can safely say that I’ve never seen anything like it.

Contact me at: Pictures, Web links, comments, amusing anecdotes welcome.

Winter survival

So in the past week we’ve had snow, wind and rain. And the forecasters say we’ll be ringing in the new year with subzero temperatures.

I’m sure glad we’re having a mild winter.

While I whine, the birds go about their business. How do they do it? And can we help?

When I was in Iowa for Christmas, my mom passed along an article she found in the Des Moines Register. It originated in the Chicago Tribune, and it quoted Duluth’s own Laura Erickson, so it comes full circle.

The article, by Barabara Mahany, offers these tidbits on bird survival in winter:

  • Birds have inner thermostats. Scientists have found that chickadees can turn their temperatures down by as much as 20 degrees on cold nights. That way, they use less energy when the nights are long and they have few hours to forage for seed. Mahany notes that when the temperature dropped to -60 in Tower on Groundhog’s Day, 1996, chickadees emerged from their sleeping holes at dawn’s first light "and chirped up  a storm, undaunted."
  • Birds need water, year-round. This is where Laura Erickson, science editor for Cornell Lab of Ornithology and part-time Duluth resident, comes in. In her recent book, "The Bird Watching Answer Book," Erickson advises against the heated birdbaths that some of us (ahem) own. Her concern: In air temperatures of 20F or less, ice crystals could form on a bird’s feathers as it emerges from the water, impeding its flight. Erickson’s preference is to set out a bowl of water in the morning and remove it when ice forms. The birds learn when to look for the water while its available.
  • Our well-meaning sympathy for the birds might prompt us to put out too much food. That can lead to seed getting knocked to the ground (check), where it’s more likely to rot or become a breeding ground for bacteria or fungi. The exception is white millet, which is best for ground feeders. Mahany says the best seed for attracting the widest variety of birds is black-oil sunflower, although striped sunflower is a good choice for discouraging blackbirds and house sparrows. But I still prefer safflower: Cardinals like it, and starlings don’t.

What do you do to help birds in the winter? Share your thoughts and your bird pictures, at:

Hummingbirds in slow motion

We have many months to wait before we get to see hummingbirds in the Northland again.

But maybe we can see them on TV.

PBS is promoting an episode of its Nature series entitled "Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air," which will premiere Jan. 10.

I looked at the promotional video, and it whetted my appetite. It offers snippets of hummingbirds in slow motion, so that you can actually see the movement of those tiny wings. You can watch it, too. Here’s the link, which also includes information on the program:

Christmas in Indiana

While we were dealing with vexatious weather, bird-watchers on Lake Michigan’s South Shore got a rare treat for Christmas. An ancient murrelet, a sea bird that’s a biological cousin to the charming puffins of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, was seen off the Port of Indiana. It was only the third ancient murrelet ever recorded in Hoosier territory. Little wonder: My bird book says ancient murrelets are birds of the Pacific Coast, and even there are uncommon within sight of land.

Don’t you wonder how one got to the Great Lakes? Don’t you wish it would make its way to the Head of the Lakes?

Elsie Sullivan spotted the story that’s my source for this information in the Chicago Sun Times online edition. Here’s the link:,CST-NWS-oddbird26.article

Birds on the bog

Then there was the Sax-Zim Bog Christmas Bird Count, in which 10 birders spotted 33 species on Monday.

Sparky Stensaas reported the results on the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s listserv today, and the list of birds they saw is replete with birds I’ve never seen: boreal owl, gray jay, black-billed magpie, common raven, boreal chickadee, snow bunting, evening grosbeak, among others.

Which makes me wonder:

  1. Why I don’t visit the Sax-Zim Bog more often.
  2. Why, when I do visit the Sax-Zim Bog, I don’t see some of those birds.

The birders saw record numbers for the Sax-Zim count of bald eagles (21), American crows (178), ravens (301), and American goldfinches (104). The boreal owl was a first for this count, and marks the seventh owl species that has been seen during Sax-Zim Christmas Bird Counts. They also spotted their first American robin.

Christmas (Bird Count) surprises

Jim Lind posted results from the Duluth and Two Harbors Christmas Bird Counts on the Minnesota Ornithologists’  Union’s e-mail listserv, and there certainly were surprises.

Three species were seen that have never been reported before during the weekend Christmas counts: black-headed grosbeak and Barrow’s goldeneye in Duluth and chipping sparrow in both Duluth and Two Harbors. Chipping sparrows are common here, just not in the winter. But the Barrow’s goldeneye and black-headed grosbeak are, as I understand it, primarily western birds. There has been quite a bit of excitement about that grosbeak, which has been hanging out at someone’s feeders in far eastern Duluth.

Overall, more than 50 observers spotted 60 species during Saturday’s Duluth count, with record highs for eight birds: common goldeneye; hairy woodpecker; red-breasted nuthatch, brown creeper, American robin, cedar waxwing, white-winged crossbill and American goldfinch.

On the other hand, five  birds that ordinarily are seen weren’t this year: bufflehead, northern goshawk, gray jay, snow bunting and evening grosbeak.

In Two Harbors, the count was on Sunday, and nearly 30 observers spotted 46 species. They saw record-high numbers of six birds: mourning dove, red-breasted nuthatch, cedar waxwing, dark-eyed junco, white-winged crossbill and American goldfinch.

Interesting about the red-breasted nuthatches. I’ve had unusually heavy activity from these fun little birds at my suet feeders for the past several weeks. I like their "beep-beep" warning calls — they sound like little European cars.

P.S. Thanks for your votes on the mystery bird in my preceding post. So far, we have votes for red-tailed hawk, peregrine falcon and osprey. You can comment on the tab below, or contact me at



Mystery bird online

Here’s an online mystery bird.

Elsie Sullivan spotted this bird picture in the online edition of the Janesville (Wis.) Gazette, a newspaper, incidentally, where I interviewed for a job many years ago.

The person who took the picture wasn’t too specific about what kind of bird it is, which is ideal for our purposes.

Your assignment, should you decide to accept it, is to click on the link, take a look at the bird, then come back here and hit the comment button to tell me what sort of bird you think it is.

Here’s the link:

Christmas Bird Counts

Although the Christmas Bird Count in Duluth was today (Saturday), as well as in 32 other locations throughout Minnesota, other counts are coming up in the region, starting Sunday, Dec. 20, with Fredenberg Township, Grand Rapids, Two Harbors and Virginia. The Sax-Zim Bog count is on Monday, Dec. 21. In Ely, it’s on Saturday, Dec. 26, and in Pine County it’s on Monday, Dec. 28.

Well and good, you say, but where specifically do I go? Where are the counts in other parts of the state? Whom do I contact? Where is more information?  Where can I find out how many birds of every species have been counted in the history of Christmas Bird Counts in Minnesota?

There’s a Web site for that. Here it is:

Starlings taking a bath

Starlings aren’t my favorite birds, but I don’t know if there are any birds that are more fun to watch in the birdbath.

This morning, my heated birdbath played host to two starlings taking a bath together, the water flying in all directions. Then a third starling came and had the bath to itself for a long time, again making the water fly. I don’t think animals experience emotions in the same way as humans, but it certainly appeared that this bird was enjoying itself, thoroughly.

It was 5 degrees Fahrenheit outside at the time, according to the Duluth News Tribune’s home page.

Two or three house sparrows tried to join in on the fun, but the starling wasn’t having it. So they stayed on the periphery for a few seconds at a time, getting the equivalent of a bird shower.

Some bird experts disapprove of heated birdbaths. I don’t know. The birds sure seem to like it.

You can send pictures and stories of your bird experiences to me at