Monday, January 31, 2011

A Surprise at my Bird Feeder: A Tufted Titmouse

A Rare Tufted Titmouse in west-central Wisconsin

I did a double-take this morning.  Was that a Tufted Titmouse at my feeders?  I grabbed my camera and watched from my kitchen window...   yes, a lone Tufted Titmouse was pecking at my peanut butter feeder!

Having lived most of my life on the East Coast, I'm used to seeing titmice.  But out here in west-central Wisconsin, these feisty little songbirds are rare.

How rare?  According to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas map (below), there are no confirmed nests in my neighborhood (the red dot).   In the past decade, I've only spotted them in 2 places:  a few times along the Lower Chippewa River in Durand - and only twice during the winter at my backyard feeders. 

Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas Map - Tufted Titmouse

According to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, Tufted Titmice were first recorded in Wisconsin in 1900 and by 1920 they had made a major push northward.  Buss and Mattison in A Half Century of Change in Bird Populations of the Lower Chippewa River reported Tufted Titmice in Menomonie in 1942, and suspected they could be found further south on the Lower Chippewa.

But in the 1960s, Tufted Titmouse numbers started dropping throughout the state, and "bottomed out" in 1980.   Conservationists have several theories about what caused their decline - competition for nesting sites, severe winters and forest fragmentation.

Tufted Titmice are however, relatively common throughout their "normal" range in the eastern US.  Scientists believe they have been extending their range north, aided by people like me, who feed wild birds in the winter.

Tufted Titmouse - Christmas Bird Count                           
Tufted Titmouse - Breeding Bird Survey                               

What attracted them to my feeding station?  Peanut suet and Peanut Butter suet.  They ignored the black oil sunflower.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

How Do Birds Survive the Cold?

I checked the thermometer before I went outside to fill the feeders this morning.  -16º F.

I bundled up - hat, coat, boots and gloves.  But it just wasn't enough.   In a matter of minutes, I felt the cold biting at my fingers and nostrils.

My breath froze on my eyeglasses.  By the time I filled the 6 feeders, my fingers were numb.  And I could feel the ice clinging to the tiny hairs inside my nose.

The birds outside didn't look much better.  They all had frost around their faces too.

How do these creatures survive temperatures like this?

The answers have to do with feathers and behavior, anatomy and physiology.

Songbirds need to maintain an average body temperature of ~104º F.  On really cold days, they fluff out their feathers to trap body heat, creating a thermal barrier against the cold.   That's what they were doing this morning.  All the birds at my feeders were fluffed out like cute little plush toys - almost as wide as long.

Birds feeding on the ground - the juncos, Tree Sparrows and cardinals - fed while squatting down so their feathers covered their legs and feet.  One of the cardinals shivered (to increase his body temperature) as he pecked at cracked corn.  A Blue Jay up in the spruce tree near my feeders, squatted on a limb, fluffed out its feathers to cover its feet and turned its body towards the sun.  Then the jay buried his beak under his wing.

Yes, beaks play a significant role in avian thermoregulation.   Beak size matters.  In warm climates, large beaks help birds dissipate heat.  Smaller beak size (in relation to body size) in colder climates helps birds reduce heat loss.

But what about plumage color?  Why do so many of the birds at my feeders have white plumage on their bellies and black feathers on their backs?

Dark feathers assist with thermo-regulation.  The dark pigments absorb heat from the sun (like a black car sitting in a parking lot in the summer). The "white" feathers provide additional insulation - holding in the heat generated by the bird's metabolism.

What makes white feathers "warmer" than others?  They're structurally different.  The "white" feathers are created due to an absence of pigments in the cells.  The spaces where the pigments would be are "empty" of pigments but full of air.  The bubbles of air - like the air spaces in downy feathers - trap body heat, increasing the feather's insulating capability.

Cardinals don't fit this black & white plumage theory.   But they're originally "southern" birds.  They've extended their range north with the increased number of people feeding birds in the winter.

For more information on how birds survive the cold, check out this website

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Scold of Blue Jays

I don't remember when I've seen so many Blue Jays at my backyard bird feeding station.  They first showed up in October, and as the snow piled up and the temperatures plummeted, their numbers have increased to an all-time high:  12.  

But the number isn't what caught my eye.  It's their behaviors that have me spending more time watching them from my kitchen window.

After an inch of snow the other day, I watched a jay use his beak to shovel the snow to get to the cracked corn under it.  Then he filled his throat with 15 pieces of corn before flying to a perch in a nearby tree, where he spent the rest of the morning soaking up the sun and watching the action at the feeders.

That was just one of the jay behaviors I hadn't noticed before.  

I've also spotted them eating snow, peanut butter suet from a suet cage, millet on the ground (as many as 36 seeds at a time) and the carcass of a mouse (that I had caught in a snap trap in my basement).

But the biggest surprise so far:  Blue Jays eat millet.  

Monday, January 17, 2011

Deer in the Snow

White-tailed deer sunbathing in the snow

It's not unusual to see white-tailed deer at dawn and dusk feeding along the tree line in west-central Wisconsin.  This winter however, I've been seeing deer throughout the day - along the tree lines, in farm fields, along the roads and leaping out in front of my car.

Today the fields were full of Wild Turkeys and the woods were full of deer.

The weather was unseasonably mild - temperatures in the 20s but the sun was shining.  No snow.  We took a spin on the rural roads in northwestern Buffalo County - looking for Golden Eagles.

We spotted several Bald Eagles, a Rough-legged Hawk and a number of Red-tailed Hawks - some soaring, but most of them in trees soaking up the sun.   Seeing them all puffed out, facing the sun, reminded me of lemurs in their "sunning posture" at the zoo.

I was thinking about the warmth of today's sun as I drove down Dorwin's Mill Road.  I was startled when a dog bolted across the road in front of my car.  I slammed on the brakes and did a double-take.

It wasn't a dog, it was a very small doe.  Watching this runt leap through the deep snow into the woods reminded me again - how tough this winter has been for wildlife.

As I put my foot back on the gas pedal, I wondered if we'd see more deer crossing the road on the way home.   I proceeded slowly.  Just a few minutes later, I stopped at the top of the hill and scanned the edge of the cornfield - looking for raptors. 

That's when I saw them:   4 does in a row - sitting in the snow, soaking up the rays. 

Sunbathing deer.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Dead Bird at the Feeder

Here's what the coulees of west central Wisconsin looked like at 2:30pm today.    Bone-chilling cold.  Snow is in the forecast - again.  We were out looking for raptors in all the usual places.  When the sky clouded over, we headed home and spent the rest of the afternoon checking out the birds at the feeders.

When I started feeding birds years ago, I knew I was doing it for my own entertainment.  I had no illusions that I was "helping" birds survive the winter.  In fact, I still feel some "guilt" about luring birds to an unnatural feeding situation which exposes them to disease and predation.

I do my best to minimize disease transmission.  I'm meticulous about keeping the feeders clean and sanitized.  In the winter, I wash them in hot soapy water every week.  I rake up the debris on the ground below the feeders daily.  And I don't use "mixed" seeds.   I put separate seeds - nyjer, sunhearts, black-oil sunflower, corn and millet - in separate feeders.  

When I spot a finch with conjunctivitis, I take down my feeders and sanitize them in a 10% bleach solution.  I wait for the "sick" bird to disperse before I re-install the feeders.

To minimize predation, I put my feeders close to cover and minimize window collisions by soaping the reflective glass and installing flash tape.

Still, this winter has been particularly tough for songbirds (deer and rabbits too).  It's not easy for animals to get to food under the deep snow with an icy crust.  I marvel at their ability to survive a "real" winter.  And I empathize when I see animals that don't have what it takes.

The other day - at 10am, I spotted a "hatch year" American Goldfinch "sleeping" in my Droll Yankees feeder. 

I went outside to get a closer look.  The bird didn't fly off.  I stood still and watched.  Then I saw her shiver.  She was obviously stressed.  So I went back indoors and watched from my kitchen window.

About an hour later, she was on the ground - literally belly up.  Dead.

I grabbed some plastic gloves and went outside to see if I could figure out why she died.  I blew on her chest to check for fat.  She didn't have any fat deposits - and very little muscle.  While I have no way of knowing the primary cause of death, this bird was starving when she died. 

I left her on the snow and went back inside the house.

How long would it take for a predator to claim her?

I watched for an hour (all the while thinking:  the watched pot... ).  I left the window to make a cup of coffee.  When I returned the body was gone.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Best Place to See Bald Eagles: Alma, Wisconsin

Where's the best place to watch Bald Eagles on the Upper Mississippi River?

Last year, I would have said:  Read's Landing in Minnesota.  Sure, there are other places along the Mississippi River in Minnesota where you can get those iconic views of a dozen or more "eagles in a tree," but the highway overlooks between Lake City and Read's Landing are among the best.  Bring binoculars and dress for bone-chilling cold weather.

Ask me where to go this year, and I'll tell you:  The best place to see bald eagles is Alma, Wisconsin.

View from the indoor viewing area at Wings Over Alma (sans binoculars)

It's reliable:  you'll see dozens of eagles - flying, "surfing" (riding the ice flows), sitting like penguins on the ice and decorating the cottonwood trees along the river.

It's hassle-free:  you don't have to worry about pulling off the road, parking or traffic.

It's comfortable:  you're inside a heated building with great views of the eagle action on the river with an eagle "naturalist-guide-spotter" who provides the optical equipment and points them out to you.

And it's all free - no admission charge.  (They won't turn down a donation, if you want to make one.)

Where is this place?

Wings Over Alma Nature and Art Center - a little storefront at 118 North Main Street (in downtown Alma).

Before you head out the door, here's a few tips on where to look, when to go and how to behave....

Where to look:
Eagles go where the food is.   Bald Eagles feed on fish and carrion (dead animals).  
Look for them perched in trees near open water:  near power plants and the locks and dams along the Upper Mississippi River.
Look for them down-river from dams and “lock and dam” infrastructure where the fishing is easy.  Passage through dams is perilous for fish.  Many are killed and/or stunned, making the fish catching relatively effortless for eagles.
Look for them down river from power plants where cooling water is released back in to the river.  This warmer water – low in oxygen - causes fish kills.
Look for them strafing the surface of the water, grabbing fish and vulnerable (sick, starving or injured) waterfowl.
Our national symbol is not above feasting on dead animals.  Don’t be surprised to see them near roads – where they feed on roadkill – as big as deer, raccoons and as small as turtles and frogs.
Look for Golden Eagles back in the coulees and farm fields, where they hunt of the fly - rabbits, rodents and larger birds.    They’ll also feed on roadkill.  Last year, Buffalo County, Wisconsin had the highest concentration of Golden Eagles in the annual “Winter Golden Eagle Survey.”
If you want to go “eagle-watching,” but don’t want to deal with the cold and the traffic – head over to Wings Over Alma Nature and Art Center in Alma, Wisconsin.  You can watch eagles and waterfowl – up close – from the comfort of their indoor, heated birdwatching deck.   And they provide spotting scopes, binoculars and naturalists to show you where to look.  
Best Time:    
The best time to spot eagles this time of year is between 9am and 2pm.   
Winter is a very difficult time for all wildlife.    If you go out to look for eagles (and other wildlife), resist the temptation to get out of your car for a closer look.    Eagle inactivity is an important survival strategy when food is relatively scarce and weather is severe.  Seemingly benign human behaviors (walking too close, closing your car door, etc) can push an already stressed bird over the edge.   So…   
     1.  Stay in your car.  Don't approach eagles closer than a quarter mile. Avoid roosting areas.  
     2.  Don’t make noise to get a better photo: no honking horns, door slamming, radios playing, yelling, etc.     
     3.  Don’t let your dog out of the car.  Better yet, leave your dog at home.  
     4.  Bring binoculars or spotting scopes to get a better view.  
     5.  Be careful driving.  Don’t abruptly stop and pull off the road.   Watch where you are in relation to other vehicles.   
     6.  Don’t trespass.  Respect private property and avoid restricted areas.   
Be CAREFUL - and dress for the cold!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Sharp-shinned or Cooper's Hawk?

I spotted a Bluejay sitting in a tree on King's Highway in Maxville, Wisconsin the other day.  Nothing unusual about that.  What caught my eye was its behavior.

The lone jay was bobbing up and down and squawking.  I could hear the "jay-er, jay-er" alarm call.  But I didn't see what it was that upset the jay.  There were no other birds on the ground or in the trees nearby.

So what's your problem, Mr. Bluejay?

I looked across the street and spotted the problem.  It was in a tree by the shed:  a large Accipiter hawk - probably a Cooper's.  The hawk took off as I opened my car window (to get a photo).  That got me thinking - we've seen shrikes at our feeders, but no Accipiters.  I wondered why. 

Then this morning, I looked out the kitchen window, and there it was:  an Accipiter on the ground below my birdfeeders.

Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk plucking a Downy Woodpecker
I grabbed my camera and with great stealth, opened my door.  I snapped two shots before the bird took off with its prey.

Okay... which is it - a Sharp-shinned or a Cooper's Hawk?  I had to pull out the ID books.

Eye color:  Both the Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawk juveniles have yellow eyes.  Adults have red eyes.

This one has bright yellow eyes, a juvenile for sure.

So now I go to Wheeler and Clark's Photographic Guide to North American Raptors to look at the differences between the two juveniles.

Belly:  In the Sharp-shinned, streaking of underparts extends into belly.

Back:  The Sharp-shinned has white spots on the back and upper wing coverts.

Eyebrow:  The Sharp-shinned has a pale supercilliary.

My best guess:   it's a Sharp-shinned.  Probably a female (female Accipiters are larger than males).

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Woodpeckers at a Gut Pile

Hairy Woodpecker on a gut pile in the snow

It snowed again last night.  Only an inch or two.  The red liquid in my kitchen thermometer hovered around the "0" line.  I dreaded going outside.  But the birds were a callin' and they wanted the feeders filled. 

I put on my coat and gloves and went outside at 7am.   I shoveled the feeding station and filled the feeders.

I didn't see the "crime scene" until I started shoveling the driveway.  I found it behind the big spruce that shelters my feeding station.  At first I thought it looked like one of those clumps of snow and road sand that I've been kicking off the wheel-wells my Prius.   It wasn't until I got closer that I realized it was something else altogether.

The gut pile in my driveway

Here's what was left at the scene:  The fur and tracks (on the right) belong to a cottontail rabbit.    Feather and talon tracks (on the left) belong to an owl - a Great-horned or Barred.  I've heard them both in my backyard.

It looks like an owl spotted a rabbit early this morning.  The bird killed it and eviscerated it on the spot;  then flew off with the body, leaving the rabbit's intestines and a swatch of fur behind.

Will the owl come back?  Will another creature eat what was left behind?  Inquiring minds want to know.

I moved the guts to a place I could watch from the comfort of my kitchen window.

Downy Woodpecker on rabbit intestines

Minutes later, a Downy Woodpecker discovered the now-frozen guts and started pecking away at the pile.  As I was setting up to take a photo, a Hairy Woodpecker flew over, scared the Downy away and started pecking

I couldn't stay and watch, but when I got home at 4pm, some of it was still visible from the kitchen window.  I'll be surprised if it's still there in the morning.  Stay tuned...

Monday, January 3, 2011

Hawks, Eagles and a Winter Red Fox

A roadside Red-tailed Hawk

After a weekend of snow and ice, the sun was shining and the sky was blue.  Despite the freezing temperatures (21- degrees F), I couldn't resist taking the Prius out to look for roadside raptors.  I didn't have to go far.  Rural Pepin and Buffalo Counties in west-central Wisconsin are full of hawks, shrikes and eagles.

A roadside Northern Shrike
Rough-legged Hawk

I was surprised to see so many Bald Eagles perched in trees along the farm roads - several miles from the frozen Chippewa River.

Bald Eagles at State Road 85 and Pepin County Road T

The sky turned gray around 2pm and it started to snow.  At the intersection of State Road 85 and County T, I asked my husband:  should we head home, or turn left on to Marsh Road?  I didn't wait for an answer.  I turned left.  I've never been on Marsh Road... maybe there actually is a marsh... maybe we'll see something out of the ordinary.

The road was icy.  I started to wonder if this was such a good idea after all.  But the Prius pulled us up the hill without a slip.

Then we saw something out of the ordinary.   I stopped the Prius; put it into park; and held my breath as I opened the window on the passenger side.  I pulled up my camera and snapped 2 photos of a red fox walking across the farm field, sniffing for rodents.

 It stopped and looked at us, then ambled off towards the tree line.

Red foxes are not uncommon in west-central Wisconsin.  Spotting them in the daytime is, however, a rare treat.   We sat in the comfort of the car - and watched, hoping to see this one pounce on a mouse or vole.  Not today.

This is the time of year when red foxes pair up and mate.  Their dens are almost always near some kind of water - a marsh, pond or stream.   Kits are born in March and April.  

A couple of years ago, I spotted a fox den and two kits, in a cornfield on State Road 25.

I was surprised to learn that red foxes are native to North America - and that they are the most widely distributed carnivore in the world.  Back in colonial times, the British imported red foxes to what is now the eastern United States - for sport hunting.

Populations of red fox increased as wolves were extirpated and continent was changed by human settlement.