Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Rough-Legged Hawks in Maxville

For the past several years, a Rough-legged Hawk has spent the winter in the corn field across the street from our house in Nelson, Wisconsin.  Last year, we could count on seeing this bird, a dark morph - hunting or perched in a tree soaking up the late afternoon sun - every time we drove north to Durand.

I began looking for Rough-legged Hawks along State Road 25 a month ago, after I spotted the first of the season over by the Tell Church in Alma.  We finally spotted one this afternoon around 2pm.  It was flying low, hunting the snow-covered potato fields on SR 25 by the Maxville Airport.   I pulled the Prius off to the side of the road, and we watched the bird head for a distant perch in an evergreen on the far side of the field.  Too far away for a photograph.

It was a warm 30-degrees and sunny today.  The TV weather forecasters have promised two relatively nice days before the next weather event - rain, turning to ice and snow.  It's been a week since we've driven my favorite scenic road - R 107 along the Chippewa River to Meridean.   So we headed out to Pepin County Road M to see if we could find some waxwings and winter finches.

We turned west on County M and spotted a raptor up the road in the bur oaks surrounded by farm fields.  A Red-tail?  Nope.  It was another Rough-legged Hawk.  Maybe I could roll down the hill in my stealth Prius and get close enough for a photo.

As I opened the car door, she lifted her tail and defecated - a sure sign that she'll be off and flying before I can get focused.  I was quicker than I thought.  I caught her tail up in the air, then off she went.

I stood in awe.  What a show!

Then she surprised me.  She returned to the same bur oak and landed.

It looks like an adult female - note the wide dark terminal band on the trailing edges of the wings, the light line between the breast and belly (known as the "U"), the single wide dark sub-terminal band on the tail, dark wrist patches on the wings, and the belly more darkly marked than the breast.

These large hawks are circumpolar, nesting in the arctic and subarctic.  They feed on rodents and occasionally take small birds.   How do they find rodents?  Scientists believe these birds can spot areas of high concentrations of voles by seeing their urine and feces, which reflect ultraviolet light, on the ground. 

Rough-legged Hawks  Christmas Bird Count                       
These raptors are not uncommon in Wisconsin during the winter and there have been numerous reports here in the Coulee Region.  However, the recent heavy snow may make hunting difficult.  Snow depth may force them to migrate farther south. 

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Yikes! A Shrike at My Feeders

I got up before dawn and looked outside my kitchen window to see if Northern Cardinals were up early and at the feeders.  Nope, no cardinals.  

I did, however,  spot two dark lumps on the ground under my feeding trays (full of millet and cracked corn).  Rabbits.  I left them to eat in peace, while I fixed a cup of espresso and turned on the TV.  Not much on the network news - just advice on how to salvage an overcooked holiday dinner.  (I kid you not). 

I turned off the TV and stared out the kitchen window.  It was still dark, but I could see the birds starting to move around.  I put on my boots, jacket, hat and gloves, then went outside to sweep and shovel a path to the feeders.  (We've had a record-setting amount of snow this December).

I filled the tube feeders with sunflower hearts and took the peanut butter cup feeder down to clean and reload it.   Minutes later, I was back outside, standing right in front of the pole, ready to put the peanut butter feeder back on its hook.  

That's when it happened.  

I heard the sound of wings and felt the air move by my right ear.  Startled, I looked up and caught a flash of gray and white feathers, now hovering by the maple tree.  Then the bird with the gray and white feathers (and black mask) was gone - and along with it all the birds at my feeders.

Who was that masked bird?  A mockingbird on steroids?  No, kemosabe, it was a Northern Shrike!

Yep, the predatory songbird flew within inches of my face.

I presume the shrike was heading for a landing on the double-arm pole from which my Droll Yankees tubes and peanut butter feeder hang.   We both happened to arrive at the same time.  Or it could have been that the shrike was after one of the "tame" chickadees scolding me from its perch on the pole.

I've spotted a shrike using that pole for a perch several times in the past week, but I haven't been quick enough to get my camera up and focused.

The near-collision fly-by did it for me.  Today would be the day I'd get a photo of that shrike.  I vowed to stand in front of my kitchen window with my camera until I did.

It turned out to be a very interesting morning.  

The shrike made at least a dozen passes at the feeders, but didn't land anywhere near its "normal" perch on the shepherd's pole.  My photo set-up was all for naught.   Most of the time, I didn't see the shrike at all - just the other birds' reaction to it.  And when the shrike wasn't around, I watched a yard full of songbirds frantically eating seed, suet and snow. 

How do the birds recognize shrikes as predators?  It may be "learned."  What do they do when a shrike shows up?  I watched chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers "freeze" in place.  That strategy probably works better when they're on a tree limb or trunk.   Perched on a pole, they're so obvious.

The Hairy Woodpeckers, goldfinches and sparrows exploded into the sky.  

Bluejays bolted, then hung around to watch from the relative safety of the spruce tree.

It took 4 hours to get the photo at the top of this blog.  Not a great photo, but good enough for identification purposes.

I assume this shrike has been perched in a tree with an unobstructed view of the feeders.  With a little luck, and a better angle - using the Prius as a photo blind - maybe I'll get a better photo of a Northern Shrike this winter.

I've seen both our "winter" shrike, the Northern, and our "summer" shrike, the Loggerhead here in the Lower Chippewa River valley.  According to Robbins (Wisconsin Birdlife), Northern Shrikes have arrived as early as September, but they're more likely to arrive in late October and show up at bird feeding stations in January and February. 

Loggerhead Shrikes nest in Wisconsin, but their numbers have dropped precipitously.  According to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, only a handful of them nest in Wisconsin.   They're listed as endangered in the Badger State (habitat loss and pesticides may play a role in their decline).  Look for them in February and March.   I've seen them along R107 in Meridean.  Loggerheads migrate south in October.  

Check out this website for tips on how to identify the two species. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Extreme Cold Temperatures and The Prius

Trees Full of Bald Eagles at Reads Landing on the Upper Mississippi River

For the past week the temperature here in west-central Wisconsin has stayed way below zero (between -5 and -25) outdoors and in the negative single digits inside my unheated garage.  That's made me nervous about my Prius.   This has been its first exposure to extreme cold.

I hopped in the Prius today and was relieved when it started - no problem.  The car's outside temperature sensor read -10ºF, so I let the engine "warm up" outside the garage in the sun, while I filled my bird feeders.   When I drove off, the temperature sensor warmed up to -2º F.  The Prius "felt" normal and the heater worked just fine.  

After driving down to Alma, Wisconsin to check on the Bald Eagles on the ice, I headed across the Mississippi River to Reads Landing in Minnesota.  Easily a hundred Bald Eagles fishing and loafing in the trees.  Hundreds of Common Mergansers and Common Goldeneyes, and a surprise handful of swans.

The snow was piled so high on the road along the river and my Prius sits so low.  I had to get out of the car to watch birds.  Brrr.  While the eagle numbers are similar, the viewing experience is way more comfortable at Wings Over Alma Nature and Art Center.

And the Prius... after driving 60+ miles today, the only "problem" I noticed with the hybrid is that the side windows seem to fog up easily.  A couple of minutes with the heater fan cranked up seems to take care of that.    The MPG dropped from my normal 50+ to mid 40s, but that's to be expected in the cold.

My hybrid in extreme cold:  so far, so good.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The December Blizzard

The National Weather Service defines a blizzard as large amounts of falling or blowing snow with winds in excess of 35 mph and visibilities of less than 1/4 of a mile for an extended period of time (greater than 3 hours).

WCCO's weathercaster Mike Augustnyiak said it was coming - and he was right.  This is the third storm we've had this fall and this one's on its way to becoming the 5th biggest blizzard ever in our region.

I'm sitting right in the middle of it - in the purple circle by Mike's left elbow.

Snow is falling at a rate of 1.5 inches per hour.  I've got a foot of snow right outside my door already.
 Winds are around 20 mph with gusts up to 35 mph.  White out!

Roads are treacherous - icy under the snow.  Only the snowplows and a couple of farm pickups have been out on State Rd 25 this morning.  According to Mike - we're going to get 15-20 inches.  

I've put out some extra feeders with sunflower chips - to make it easier for the goldfinches and chickadees - and millet for the tree sparrows and juncos.  But I'm surprised by the absence of cardinals, purple finches and house finches that have been visiting the feeders all fall.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

More Bald Eagles on the Upper Mississippi

It was a warm 12 degrees this morning when I drove across the Wabasha bridge.  I was surprised to see the Mississippi River is frozen over - totally.  I spotted several crows and only one Bald Eagle flying downriver towards the open water at Lock & Dam #4 in Alma.   That's where I'll be heading later today.

I can't believe how many Bald Eagles I've seen this week - and how close they were.  The viewing opportunities on the Wisconsin side of the river between Nelson and Buffalo City are the best I've seen in a decade - over 100 at Wings Over Alma, and 200 or more along the Buffalo City riverfront.

Here's a snapshot of  view across the river from the deck at the Wings Over Alma Nature and Art Center:  a raft of Common Goldeneyes and a handful of Bald Eagles perched in the trees and fishing.  The photo at the top of this blog entry was shot from the viewing deck in Alma.   All you need is patience - they have 3 spotting scopes set up indoors at the window. 

It's hard to believe Bald Eagles stick around when the thermometer drops below zero.  But they do.  I understand it's all about food... but the cold is brutal. 

If you go eagle-watching, resist the temptation to hop out of your car to get closer.  Disturbing winter birds is stressful for them, causing them to use up limited energy reserves.    Bald Eagles spend most of the winter conserving energy – by sitting in trees, soaking up the sun.  If you see one feeding on carrion near the road, slow down, but don’t stop and hop out of your car to snap that perfect photo.   When Bald Eagles are “disturbed” while feeding, they may fly off and observers have found they’re not likely to return.

Winter survival is all about conserving energy, the availability of food and thermoregulation. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Bald Eagles on Ice - in Alma, Wisconsin

I drove down the Upper Mississippi River one last time before the snow storm hit today.  I wanted to see if - after more than a week of seasonably cold (freezing) weather - the Tundra Swans have moved on.

I didn't spot any - even though there were still a few spots on the main channel (and in the backwaters of Pool 4) that hadn't iced-over.  And I didn't hear any - no whistlings when I opened my car window (brr).   The swans are gone.

I did, however, hear crows and Bald Eagles - lots of them.  Nothing new about that.  In fact, it's an unusual day when I don't see at least on Bald Eagle from my kitchen window, and at least a half dozen on the drive in to town.

I expected to see a few of them along the river today, standing patiently on the ice around a fishing hole, waiting for a fish to cut the water's surface.

Big surprise:  I saw way more than a few Bald Eagles.  The final tally was over a hundred. 

Most of them were down by Lock & Dam #4 in downtown Alma.  They shared the river with a sky full of frenzied Ring-billed Gulls fishing down-river of the dam, where food is abundant, and easy to catch.  (Fish can get dinged in the churning water as they pass through the dam.)

Every day is a great day when I can get out and watch birds.  But today was special.

I've been watching birds along the River for more than a decade.  I've spent some cold winter days watching birds at the eagle "hot spots" along the Upper Mississippi River -  Colville Park in Red Wing, Reads Landing and Wabasha.   But I've never seen so many eagles on that 9-mile stretch of the river.

They were flying, loafing on the ice, hanging out in the cottonwoods along the river, scooping up fish, harassing other eagles to get them to drop their fish, chasing other eagles, soaring and chittering.

On the way home, I spotted a pair near Tell Lake (State Road 37 east), doing a little housekeeping - adding sticks to their huge nest, one of several in the Buffalo River floodplain.

If you go...

Stop the Wings Over Alma Nature and Art Center to warm up and watch eagles from their riverfront viewing windows.

Have lunch at Kate and Gracie's Restaurant and watch the eagles from one of their window-side booths.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Robins and Hackberries

American Robins eating hackberries

It was about this time last year that I "discovered" Hackberry trees along the Lower Chippewa River.  They've always been there.  I just never noticed them.

What made me stop and look?  A flock of birds, perched in the leaf-less canopy, silhouetted against a mean gray sky.   Their movements caught my eye.

It didn't take much to identify the birds.  They were gluttonously feasting on a dark fruit the size of cherries.  Had to be Cedar Waxwings or American Robins.  A quick look through binoculars confirmed it:  Cedar Waxwings.

But what were those fruits?  And what was that tree?

I was clueless.  And I felt stupid.  Why didn't I "know" that tree?

Figuring it out required getting out of the Prius (brr) with my little Canon Powershot to get some reference pictures. 

Hackberry Bark

Lucky for me, I could get close enough to photograph the bark.  From there it was easy.  Common Hackberries are known for their "cork-like bark with wart-like protuberances."

Turns out, figuring out the identity of this one tree last fall opened my eyes to some of the other creatures related to it, animals I also spotted for the first time, this past year.

Hackberry Gall Psyllid
Hackberry Emperor butterfly
Hackberry Nipple Galls

Hackberry Petiole Gall (summer)

Hackberry Petiole Gall (winter)

Now that I can identify a Common Hackberry tree, I keep looking for "new" creatures associated with it.

Today it was the same fruits, same tree, same weather - but different birds.  Today's birds were American Robins.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Big Freeze on the Upper Mississippi

After a week of freezing weather, I was very surprised to see Tundra Swans at Rieck's Lake Park yesterday.   We spotted a dozen big white birds sitting on the ice in front of the observation deck.  They were sleeping when we arrived.  They woke up when a flock of Canada Geese honked as they flew by.

It's just a matter of time before the backwaters and main channel of the Upper Mississippi River ice-over.

Looking across Pool 4 from the Jay Hawk Ranch (Nelson, WI)

I went back for another look today.  The Upper Mississippi River at Pool 4 is iced over - covered with strings of resting waterfowl - ducks, geese and Tundra Swans.  This may be the last weekend to see large concentrations of waterfowl on the river.

Despite what the calendar says, when the backwaters are filled with people ice-fishing, winter is here.

The sunny skies have been full of Bald Eagles, soaring along the bluffs and coulees.  It's not unusual to spot them feeding on roadkill along the highways and in fields feeding on deer remains left behind by hunters.

 We spotted hawks on utility poles and along tree lines - lots of Red-tailed Hawks, a couple of Harriers and our first-of-the-season Rough-legged Hawks.

Red-tailed Hawk

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Eagles and Wildlife Art at the Mayo Clinic

My husband has had some health challenges recently, so we've been driving back and forth to the Mayo Clinic.  While he doesn't look forward to "going to the doctor," the hour-long ride to Rochester has a tranquilizing effect.  We watch for waterfowl and raptors as we drive across the Mississippi River, and as we drive up the bluffs and through the farmland.

Today it was "raptor alley" all the way.  Bald Eagles were everywhere, including a surprising number hanging out along the road between Kellogg, Plainview and Rochester.  Not just one or two, but groups of three and four - soaring and perched in trees at the edges of recently harvested cornfields.

We counted two dozen Bald Eagles, a half dozen Red-tailed Hawks and a lone American Kestrel.

If I had a choice about when to go to the Clinic - it would be spring and summer, when the Peregrine Falcons are nesting.   You can watch them on the falcon-cam at the subway level near the pharmacy.  It's like Discovery Channel meets "Brothers and Sisters."

Today I discovered there are more birds to watch at the Mayo Clinic - if you know where to look.

I had to park in the Graham Ramp because of construction across the street from the Gonda Building.  That took us on a new route through the Clinic's subway level.

That's when I saw the Orangutan, rhino and Bighorn Sheep.

Across the hallway, I spotted the Bald Eagle.

Who's the artist?

To find out, I had to read the text to the right of the bird.  "I never met an animal I didn't like," was the quote attributed to the artist.

The famous artist was born in Pittsburgh, son of Czech immigrants.   In these 10 screen prints depicting endangered species, he used his signature brilliant colors, photographic blow-ups and dramatic lines to create almost human-like expressions. 

Recognize him?

The Pop art icon:  Andy Warhol.

If you're interested in art, be sure to stop at the information desk in the Gonda Building (Lobby Level) and ask for a self-guided art tour map.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Another Bat in the House

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Armistice Day blizzard - one of the worst storms in the history of the mid-west. That day started out much like today, with unseasonably warm weather - in the 60s. It was a perfect day to go duck hunting on the Upper Mississippi River. Then, without warning, temperatures plummeted into the 30s, winds whipped up to 80 mph and more than 2-feet of snow fell. Nearly 50 people died in Minnesota - half of them duck hunters on the Upper Mississippi River.

I was thinking about that Blizzard today and the program Wings Over Alma Nature and Art Center is presenting on Sunday.

I was not thinking about bats today - although on warm days like this "close encounters of the bat kind" can happen. (Unseasonably warm days can disrupt hibernation - causing confused bats to crawl out of an attic - and fly around the house.)

No, I wasn't thinking about bats at all, when my phone rang at 9:30 pm.

The caller was a woman I'd met only a few times. She lives in northern Minnesota. And she was thinking about bats today.

She had a bat in her house and she thought I might be able to help her.

Yah, sure, I said, expecting to hear that she wasn't happy about her little furry visitor.

I was wrong. She likes bats.

She said she caught the little guy and fed him some mealworms. She wanted to know what to do next.

I cautioned her about Minnesota wildlife regulations and the health concerns associated with handling bats. Then I explained what the bat was doing in her house (following the vertical gradient of temperature - looking for a cooler place to roost/hibernate).

Like "Alice in Wonderland"... the bat went down the rabbit hole and ended up facing not one, but four Cheshire cats. (She has 4 indoor cats). Disoriented and dehydrated, all this little bat wants to do is get a drink, then get back to a cool roost and get on with the hibernation.

The woman said she put it in a little plastic cage with a dish of mealworms and gave it a spritz of water. Now what? She just couldn't put it outside now that it's freezing. She didn't want him to die.

Put him back up in your attic and he'll be fine, I said.

You may see him again, if it gets unseasonably warm. If you do - feed him and give him a drink, but don't put him in a "cage" with hard surfaces (plastic aquarium or gas jar). The hard surfaces can damage bat wings.

Consider buying a "reptarium" cloth mesh cage. Get your pre-exposure rabies vaccination. And if you want to know more about bats in captivity, take a look at this book: Bats in Captivity: Aspects of Rehabilitation.

Send me a photo, so I can confirm the ID.

She did: it's a Big Brown bat.

Would that all "bat emergency" calls have happy endings like this one:

 "I put him back in the small attic space after he ate 16 meal worms and had another drink. He crawled through the gap in the access panel. I heard him climb up the inside wall. Then he crawled back down and peeked out again. I told him he had to go back to bed, play time is over! He turned around and went back. I hope he makes it..."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Ruffed Grouse in the Road

It never ceases to amaze me - what I've seen from the front seat of my Prius.

Today it was this Ruffed Grouse, foraging in the middle of the road (Rustic Road 107) in the mixed hardwoods near Xcel Energy's Tyrone property.

While these grouse are still relatively common in Wisconsin, I've only seen four in my life.  And I remember the "when and where" for every one of them.   Today's was the second-best view I've ever had.

My best happened on a sunny fall morning in New Jersey's Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.  I was hiking up to the hawk banding station when I heard, off in the distance, what sounded like a muffled motor.  I stopped and looked around.  There it was:  a grouse on a drumming log with his chest puffed out and wings a-whirring.

The wild chicken that crossed the road today was not so dramatic - cautiously pecking at acorns crushed by passing cars.

How close could I get in my stealth Prius?

We were about 30 yards away when the bird stopped, looked our way, then exploded into the sky and disappeared into the woods.

In pre-settlement days, three species of grouse were common in the lower Chippewa River valley:  Prairie Chickens, Sharp-tailed Grouse and Ruffed Grouse.  As brushlands and prairies succumbed to the plow, Sharp-tailed and Prairie Chicken populations began to decline.   Sharp-tails disappeared around 1900.  Prairie chickens started their decline in the 1930s.  In the fall of 1932, Buss and Mattison recalled seeing a flock of 150 Prairie Chickens in Meridean.   By the 1950s they were gone.

The Ruffed Grouse survived settlement.  The logging that followed created habitat that favored them:  early successional mixed hardwood forests - with oaks, aspen, birch, hazelnuts and dogwoods.

Ruffed Grouse populations are cyclical, with population peaks occurring every 10 years or so.   Oliver Gibbs wrote one of those peak years, 1869: 

           " the month of October, these grouse were so plentiful that while one of us was  
             starting up the fire in the morning, another might take his gun, step into the thickets 
             anywhere and return in 15 minutes with enough for breakfast.  In the evening, an hour 
             or so before sunset, we could hear a noise like distant thunder occasioned by their 
             flying down from the bluffs to feed upon the birch and alder buds along the bank of 
             the stream..."

Look for them this winter, foraging on the ground and in the trees, especially aspens.  They feed on aspen buds, hazelnut catkins and buds, willow, birch and maple.

And where the snow is powdery and more than 8" deep, look for them in what's called a "snow roost."  When conditions are right (no crust on the snow), Ruffed Grouse will dive head-first into the powder and continue to burrow until they find just the right place to spend the night - protected from both winter winds and predators.

And yes, Ruffed Grouse have been known to explode up and out of these snow roosts as hikers pass by...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Tundra Swans in Nelson, WI

Here's what it looked like this afternoon from Cedar Ridge Resort just south of Nelson, Wisconsin.  Wes Stensland said he first noticed them (their vocalizations) on Sunday.

Look up-river from the dock at Cedar Ridge.  They're pretty far off so you'll need a scope.

There's a handful of Tundra Swans in the Buffalo River near Tell (head east on State Road 37 towards Mondovi).

Just up-river from Rieck's Lake Park (take County Road I to Badland Road) we got great looks at dabbling ducks - Gadwalls, pintails, Green-winged Teal - and coots.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Tundra Swans are Back in Alma, Minneiska & Brownsville

When the morning weather reporter forecast sunny skies and temperature pushing 60-degrees, Tom and I decided to head down the Mississippi - on the Minnesota side - to check out the Tundra Swan migration.

First stop, just north of Minneiska on US 61 - Great River Road.

We pulled off the road and parked at St. Mary's Cemetery. That's where we saw 200+ swans and a thousand or more coots. Too far away for a photograph. I resisted the temptation to cross the highway and railroad tracks to get closer.

Instead, we got back in the car and headed south to Brownsville (south of La Crescent, MN). We spotted the first rafts of swans just south of the Shellhorn Bar and Grill on MN State Rd 26. A mile further down the road, we got our closest looks - at the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife and Fish Refuge new Brownsville Overlook.

According to the Refuge fall waterfowl aerial survey report for October 25, there were 10 Tundra Swans on the river. Today there were several thousand, along with thousands of ducks, coots and Canada Geese.

On the way back home we stopped to check out the waterfowl on the Wisconsin side of the river - at Cedar Ridge Resort in Nelson and Rieck's Lake Park in Alma. We spotted a handful of swans and several rafts of waterfowl way off in the distance at Cedar Ridge (please stop by the front desk at Cedar Ridge and ask Wes Stensland for permission before you drive down to the river) and a few swans way off in the distance at the Rieck's Lake Park observation deck.

We got a better (but not great) look at a dozen swans in the lake by the Tell Church on State Road 37 (south and east of Rieck's Lake Park on the Buffalo River).

By the time we found these swans, the sun was setting.


Now's the time to head down river to see waterfowl. If you're interested in a guided tour, the Refuge is sponsoring a SwanWatch bus tour ($20/person - lunch included) on Saturday, November 13 (9am-3pm) departing from Winona. To reserve a seat, call Ed Lagace (before November 6) at 507-494-2636.

Refuge volunteers will be at the Brownsville Observation Deck to help answer questions every weekend (10am to 4pm) in November.

Dress for cold, windy weather. If it's too cold, you can see the swans from your car at Brownsville. The bird action is best early in the morning and late in the afternoon.

Click here (and scroll down) for a sample of what you'll hear...

Friday, October 29, 2010

Tree Sparrows are Back!

The big storm that blew through earlier this week set a new record - the strongest non-coastal Low pressure system in the Continental US (CONUS).  The city of Bigfork, Minnesota recorded a barometric pressure of 28.20 inches or 955 MB, a reading normally associated with category III hurricanes (115 mph winds). 

About 250 miles south of Big Fork, here in the Chippewa River Valley, the front brought high winds and rain, but no floods and no tornadoes.  The wind knocked down some trees and whipped the leaves around.  And it brought the first Tree Sparrows I've seen this fall.

They were everywhere in the bushes along the Chippewa River State Trail today, hanging out with the chickadees and juncos.
American Tree Sparrow - Christmas Bird Count data                     
These little brown birds are complete migrants, their breeding and wintering grounds do not overlap.  They breed in the tundra and winter further primarily in the lower 48 states.

Despite its name, this sparrow nests on the ground in the sub-arctic, a region that's not known for trees.  They're attracted by the availability of insect protein up north - and in the winter, they switch over to seeds.  Fill a plastic tray with white proso millet, and they'll come to your backyard to feed along with the juncos and White-throated Sparrows.

So how'd it get the "tree" moniker?   European settlers called it a "tree" sparrow because it reminded them of their rusty orange-capped Eurasian Tree Sparrow.

Look for their white wing bars, the back stick pin in their chest and their yellow mandible.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ambush Bugs

The sky was ominous this afternoon, but the temperature was a very pleasant 66-degrees.  Other than the usual suspects (chickadees, Purple Finches and nuthatches), there wasn't much avian activity along the Lower Chippewa River State Trail. 

So I decided to take a close look at the few goldenrods still in flower.  They were a-buzz with insects.  I felt some of them before I got close - female mosquitoes, getting in their last licks before the snow flies.  I spotted a few paper wasps, and a pair of what appeared to be copulating bugs with forelegs that reminded me of praying mantis.

Ambush Bugs paired
I've seen them before, but haven't been able to get a photo that could help me with identification.  Determined to get one today, I plucked the couple off the goldenrod and held them in my hand for good look (and better photo).

Was it a male was riding on the back of a larger (and lighter colored) female?  I'd have to figure it out when I got home. 

Ambush Bug
An hour later, I found them on Plate 3 in the Peterson Insects Guide: abdomen wider toward the rear; antenna 4 segmented, last segment swollen:  ambush bugs.

Known for sitting camouflaged on flowers (usually yellow or white), they wait to ambush their prey - the other insects working the flowers:  bees, wasps, flies, bugs and lepidoptera.  These tiny bugs are reported to take arthropods 10 times their size.

How to they do it?  They grab their prey with their modified forelegs and then bite, injecting a chemical that first paralyzes them, then liquefies their insides.  

Next time I see an ambush bug on a flower, I'll look for the lifeless exoskeletons of their prey nearby - on the flower and on the ground below.

Were they mating?  Maybe not.   Male ambush bugs are known for hitching a ride on the female's back as he waits to share in her hunting success.  (When ambush bugs mate, the male is lateroventral, not ventral-dorsal.)

If the pair I photographed today copulate, the female will glue her eggs onto a nearby twig, where they will over-winter and hatch out in May.  

Are they dangerous to handle?  While some references say they don't bite people, others say they do.   Next time, I won't take any chances.  I'll be carrying a glove in my pocket.