Same color, different birds

Karl Riggle of Zanesville, Ohio, sent this picture he shot of a rufous-sided towhee:

I’m told rufous-sided towhees are not uncommon. But they are not nearly so common as robins, and at first glance you might think you’re seeing a robin. But robins can tell the difference … and people can see differences as well.

Look at this picture of a robin, submitted by Ted Harwood, who lives in the 2600 block of East Fifth Street in Duluth:

Although robins are plentiful now, Ted says this one was around all winter. Judging from calls he heard, he thinks there were two winter robins.

Differences between the two birds are apparent. Unlike the robin, the rufous-sided towhee has significant white on the breast, white markings on the wings and an inky black hoodie. You can’t tell this from the pictures, but towhees are slightly smaller than robins.

But that color came from the same crayon in the Crayola box.

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Way up high

Lyle Anderson of the Park Point neighborhood took these pictures on Wednesday. A nice northwest wind was bringing migrating hawks and eagles overhead — way overhead. Lyle writes: "I was using a 70-300 lens with a 1.7 converter attached to that for a 35mm equivalent of 816mm for my Canon Rebel." I don’t understand that sentence, but I’m sure you photography buffs do.

Lyle didn’t have any trouble recognizing the eagles, but he wonders if there could be a red-tailed hawk in the midst. Any thoughts, raptor experts?

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A chukar in Sturgeon Lake

Loren Matson, who lives south of Sturgeon Lake, Minn., sent in this picture with the title: "Looks like a chukar, sounds like a chukar, it must be a chukar:

Loren saw this at the Matson bird feeder on Monday.

I can’t tell from the picture what it sounds like, and it doesn’t matter because I don’t know what a chukar sounds like anyway ("kakakakakachuKAR chuKAR chuKAR," the bird book says). I’ve never seen a chukar either, but from the pictures in the bird books, this definitely looks like a chukar, and must be a chukar.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this is an unusual find. The Golden bird guide that I use at work identifies the chukar’s range as including only portions of the western United States … not anywhere near Minnesota. My Sibley bird guide (which covers the Eastern United States) doesn’t show any range for the chukar at all. It says the chukar was introduced from the Middle East and is "occasionally seen throughout eastern North America when released for hunting purposes."

Wherever it came from, it’s a cool-looking bird.

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Woody Woodpecker in Superior

Thanks to Jennifer Worden, who lives on south Johnson Road in Superior, for sharing a picture of a pileated woodpecker that was working a tree in her yard on Saturday morning. The pileated — inspiration for the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker — stayed around for eight pictures. Jennifer said it was the closest she has ever been to one. Here’s the picture she sent along:

I think I’ve heard the laughing call of a pileated woodpecker a couple of times recently, but I haven’t seen one for many months.

What I have been seeing — and hearing — just today is gulls. They’re back. I realize they never really left, but at least in West Duluth, where I live, it suddenly seems there’s a gull on every light pole. They gossip loudly among themselves.

It’s a welcome sound.

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Demure hawk

Karl Riggle of Zanesville, Ohio, has shared some wonderful looks at a juvenile sharp-shinned hawk in the past. Here’s his latest:

In his e-mail to me, Karl called attention to the "red eye" and vertical stripes. What I notice is how demure this bird appears. Perhaps it’s the deep green of the background that does it.

Ah! Deep green! Doesn’t that look nice?

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Eighty-four species

I finally finshed counting: I’ve seen 84 species of birds since I started keeping track in January 2004.

Lots of birders keep lists by state, or by trips they’ve taken, or by the year. I lump all of my birds into one group. So although the vast majority of the species I’ve counted were in Minnesota, and almost all of those within 50 miles of Duluth, my list also includes the magnificent frigatebirds and brown pelicans I saw three summers ago in Belize.

I’m not going to get to that magic 300 number anytime soon. But taking a good look at my list energized me,  somehow. I know the next new bird I see will be No. 85. And I know the spring migration will be arriving soon. I’m eager to make a quick and (reasonably) accurate record of when and where I saw it.

Which actually makes a good segue to a couple of Web sites I’ve come across recently.  

Let’s start here:

This is the Twin Cities Naturalist blog, posted by Kirk Mona. Scroll down on the page to the map of the United States. What you’re seeing as a loop of weather radar from March 5 of this year. But the blue splotches coming north from Texas aren’t storm clouds: They’re migrating birds. Mona offers a link to another image that was made last April that shows an astounding night of spring migration.

And now for some natural history:

What you’re looking at is Volume 1 of John James Audubon’s "Birds of America," courtesy of the University of Michigan Library’s Pictureit Rare Book Reader. You can turn the pages by clicking the "next" tab at the lower right hand and the "previous" tab at the lower left hand of the page, and the pages do seem to turn. (There’s also a way to magnify the pages to look more closely, but I haven’t figured that out.) It’s almost as if you are in the musty rare-book section of a university library, paging through a valuable book … but you don’t have to worry about tearing the pages or spilling your tea on the book (just on your keyboard).

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The 300 Club

Folks on the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s listserv have been discussing the question of whether having seen 300 birds in Minnesota should be considered a significant milestone.

"Pshaw," I thought, pshawfully. "I’ve seen way more than 300 birds in Minnesota."

Then I realized they were talking about 300 species of birds.


I finally began keeping a list of the birds I’ve seen about seven or eight years ago, using a journal published by the National Geographic. Much to my embarrassment, I’ve never taken my time to actually count the birds I’ve marked as "seen" in that journal. I came closest a year ago, when I started transferring the birds I’ve marked in the journal to a Web site designed for the same purpose. Not much of a chore, but somehow I didn’t finish it.

So it’s my goal to get that done next week. If the weather remains gray and dreary, I just might actually get that done. When I come up with a number, I’ll let you know what it is. One thing for sure: It will be well below 300. It will be well below 100. But this gives me room for growth. There are plenty of birds I’ve yet to see that aren’t all that uncommon in this part of Minnesota: boreal chickadees, gray jays and several kinds of owls, among others.

In the meantime, what about you? Do you keep a list of the birds you’ve seen? Do you keep a list that’s specific to the state you live in, or to trips you’ve been on? How many birds are on your lists? Do you have a goal? I’d love to know.

By the way, most of the serious birders seem to think that 300 bird species in Minnesota is a significant milestone. For what it’s worth, I concur wholeheartedly.

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Raptors of spring

One of the many signs of spring is the return of raptors to the Northland. Another is the return of Hawk Ridge raptor-counter Karl Bardon — but not at Hawk Ridge.

According to Debbie Waters, the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory’s education director, spring migration takes raptors on a different path than fall migration, although both paths come through Duluth. In the spring, the route comes through the southwest part of town. Bardon, who began counting on March 1, will be at a pullout overlook below Enger Tower are from the south, southwest, southeast, north, northwest or west. He’ll be at Thompson Hill — the overlook just below the rest stop — if winds are from the east or northeast.

I should pause to note here that this isn’t like Hawk Ridge in the fall, when there are all sorts of interpreters and educational activities available. If you’re a beginner like me, you might be better off to wait until fall (although I suspect I might take a look at least once). If you’re more advanced and you don’t need someone to tell you what you’re seeing, you can get great looks in the spring, according to Waters. The reason is that the colder ground doesn’t promote huge thermals, so the birds ride updrafts along the ridge. Hence, they’re closer to you.

Here, according to Waters, are the peak times for various raptors:

  • Eagles, around March 25
  • Rough-legged hawks, April 10-20
  • Red-tailed hawks, April 10-20
  • Sharp-shinned hawks, April 10-20
  • Broad-winged hawks, May 1-10

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Bird droppings

Bits and pieces from here and there:

  • Coming soon to a North House Folk School near you (specifically, in Grand Marais): the Spring Boreal Birding and Northern Landscape Festival. Keynote speaker for the event, which takes place June 3-7, is Bernd Heinrich, author of "Ravens in Winter," who will speak on "Ravens: Adventures with the Wolf Birds." The core of the festival is a variety of courses and workshops, ranging in length from one to three days. Among the presenters is Jim Gilbert; my parents in Estherville, Iowa, listen to him every Sunday morning on WCCO radio. Gilbert’s subject is "Spring Wildflowers." Another offering is the cleverly titled "Owl In A Night’s Work," led by Bill Lane. Is there a Web site where I can get more information and learn how to register? You betcha:
  • This one might be for those of you with more of a scientific and/or professional bent than, uh, me. But it’s worth mentioning because it’s so close to home. The 2010 Hawk Migration Association of North America conference will take place April 15-18 at the Radisson Hotel in Duluth. The Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory is the host. With topics such as "Productivity cycles in raptors and links with the Northern Atlantic Oscillation Index," this probably isn’t for the casual bird-watcher. But I suspect it will attract experts in the field from near and far. Here’s the Web site:
  •  Also coming up is the sixth annual Birding Festival at North Lakeland Discovery Center, which is at Manitowish Waters in north central Wisconsin. This one takes place May 14-15. To lift a sentence from the festival’s press release: "On Saturday, May 15, 6 a.m.-5 p.m., Great Lakes area birding experts will share their talents with participants through sunrise warbler hikes, morning field trips, ongoing bird banding and afternoon presentations." Sounds like a long, fun day. More information here:
  • Last but not least, here are a couple of more pictures sent via the magic of e-mail by Bernie St. George of Summerfield, Fla. First, you’ll see a cardinal peering through magnolia leaves, then a cedar waxwing that was part of a flock of waxwings munching on mountain ash berries across the street from the St. Georges’ residence:

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