Friday, March 25, 2011

Spring Sparrows Are Arriving

Vesper Sparrow in the Snow
Vesper Sparrow

I don't know who was more surprised by my encounter with this little brown bird on side of the road to Meridean today - the Vesper Sparrow or me.  I did a double-take, then played my birdJam audio - just one stanza.  The bird looked at me - looking at him.  Then he flew to the barbed wire fence and posed long enough for me to be sure of his identity.

Vesper Sparrow

The discoloration near the tip of the bill is from the dirt in which he was poking around for something to eat.   Vesper Sparrows usually arrive in April and scrape for seeds along roadsides and dry prairies and fields.  These ground-nesters are a Wisconsin species of special concern.

Vesper Sparrow
Vesper Sparrow

Last spring, I spotted my first Vesper Sparrow on April 7. 

More new arrivals in my yard this week:  

Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Brown-headed Cowbird

But I wasn't fast enough to get a photo of a Rusty Blackbird trio. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Witches Broom - Another Hackberry Gall

Witches Broom on Common Hackberry

This time of year, before the trees leaf-out, it's relatively easy to spot odd growths on trees.   I was driving on Badland Road near Rieck's Lake Park in Alma, Wisconsin today looking at cranes and waterfowl when I spotted this fist-sized knot of twig growth.  At first I thought it might be an abandoned bird nest.

I stopped and got out of the car to get a closer look.  That's when I realized the tree, a Common Hackberry, supported more than a dozen of these strange growths.  That would be way too many nests for one just tree.

Witches Broom on Hackberry

Turns out it's a gall known as witches broom.

Scientists haven't figured out exactly what causes this gall, but they know it occurs when the bud on a tree branch is injured (by winter road salt, a fungus or a bacteria) - or infected by a microscopic mite Eriopes celtis and by a powdery mildew fungus Podosphaera pytoptophila

While scientists don't understand how the mite and fungus interact, they do know that it doesn't "kill" the tree.

Witches broom galls are not unique to hackberries.  They can also be found on oak, cherry, birch, red cedar, alder and spruce.

Mites are not the only animals associated with witches brooms.  In Alaska, Flying Squirrels have been known to create winter hibernating capsules in spruce witches broom.  They chew out cavities of the gall and insulate them with a lining of mosses and feathers, making their winter hide-away snug as a bug in a rug.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Super Moon

The Night Before the SUPER Moon

It's the last day of winter.  Temps in the 50's.  We've got a full moon tonight, and it's super close to Earth.  The news media's calling it the "SUPER MOON!"  For the technical explanation, click here

But it's not SUPER here along the Lower Chippewa River in Wisconsin.   Our view of the moon is obscured by clouds tonight - and rain is in the forecast.  

Most of this winter's snow is gone now.  But... Sven Sungaard (our tv weather reporter) says snow will be back in the forecast next week.  (The groundhog was right).

I went out last night to take a photo of the moon - the day before it became totally SUPER.  It really was brighter and bigger than the "normal" full moon - which is great for songbirds who migrate at night.  

Go outside and watch - and listen to them this spring!

Friday, March 18, 2011

What Are the Black Growths on Tree Branches?

Black Knot Gall

Every time I've taken a walk in the woods this winter, I've noticed this distinctive black growth on a number of trees and shrubs.  Today I took a photo to remind me to find out what it is.

It's a gall, caused by a fungus that has two names:   Dibotryon morbosum,  Apiosporina morbosa.  Commonly known as Black Knot disease, it's found only on Prunus species - cherries, plums and apricots.  The presence of this gall is an easy clue to winter identification of these trees.  

In the spring, fungus spores discharged from sacs on the black knots infect new shoots after the buds pop.  The "knots" are visible in the fall and into the second spring.  They turn black during the second winter.

After a year or so, the black knots may also host a whitish pink mold and insects.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Backyard Golden Eagle in Buffalo County Wisconsin

Golden Eagle - Buffalo County, Wisconsin

With the thermometer pushing 50º F this morning and all the reports of migrating waterfowl, songbirds and raptors, I decided to head down to Tell Lake near Alma, Wisconsin to look for ducks in the backwaters of the Buffalo River.  Instead of turning on State Road 25, I decided to take the "scenic route," County K.   That's when I spotted an odd looking eagle, chased up from the Misha Mokwa Creek behind my house by a pair of crows. At first I thought it might be a Turkey Vulture.  Then it hit me:  it's a Golden Eagle!

Red-tailed Hawk and Golden Eagle

Tom and I watched as it flew over the coulees, leaving the crows behind as it caught up with a Red-tailed Hawk floating on a thermal.   The golden was so fast, it disappeared before I could get a good picture.  Undaunted, I headed towards the coulees in pursuit.  Zoom Zoom. 

We never caught up with that eagle, but we did spot dozens of Bald Eagles on Co. V, hopping from thermal to thermal as they headed north.  We headed down Lindstrom Valley Road and back to County K.  At the turn to Little Bear Creek Road, we spotted a kestrel and another raptor, floating just above the road:  our FOY (first of the year) Harrier.  And right before our eyes, he caught a rodent.

Harrier catches a rodent

male Harrier

We continued on our way, through the coulees on County II.  The skies were full of raptors - Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks and another big surprise:  a Red-shouldered Hawk sitting on a utility wire.

Red-shouldered Hawk

This is one of the best looks at a Red-shouldered Hawk I've had in Buffalo County.   But it wouldn't look at me.  The bird sat on the wire for 5 minutes.  We had our eyes on it - and it had its eye on whatever was flying overhead.

Red-shouldered Hawk on Buffalo Co. I

No frogs, chimpmunks or voles in sight, it took off.  Then we took off.  More red-tails, Wild Turkeys in the cornfields, White-tailed Deer everywhere.

When we arrived at the Buffalo River, I rolled down my window.  Honk, Honk.  Canada Geese overhead.

Then we heard bugling of Sandhill Cranes!

Sandhill Cranes on the Buffalo River
Canada Geese & Sandhill Crane Family at Tell Farm

And the muted whistling of Tundra Swans!  Spring is here - finally.

What are those metal coils on the utility wires?

BFD - Bird Fight Deflectors

My drive in to Alma, Wisconsin today was slowed by a bucket truck and a half dozen men working on the utility lines along the Great River Road by Rieck's Lake Park.  They were installing little yellow metal coils. 

"What are those coils for?"  I asked the man in charge of the "slow/stop" sign.

"They're bird deflectors," he said as he waved me by.

It must have something to do with Rieck's Lake Park, famous as a stop-over for migrating waterfowl and cranes.   When I got home, a quick search on the internet provided an explanation - and the good news.   Turns out, it's an easy way to minimize bird-wire collisions.

Also known as bird flight diverters, these yellow wire coils are the one of several new products in bird-wire collision avoidance technology.   The coils are a relatively economical way to make overhead wires, cables and guy wires more visible to birds, especially cranes and swans.  

The utility wires along the Great River Road are a deadly hazard to the birds flying back and forth between the wetlands at Riecks Lake and the Missississippi River. 

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ice Jam on the Lower Chippewa River

Ice jam on the Lower Chippewa River

This winter's near-record snow has finally started to melt, and the run-off is flowing into the Lower Chippewa.  The ice and snow covering the river has started to melt too.

But it was a chilly 26º F this morning when we went for a ride through the backwaters.  I was surprised to discover an ice jam behind the Riverview Community Center in Durand.

The Ice Jam down-river from Durand

What causes an ice jam?

When water from snow melt (and/or rain) increases water flow and raises water levels, the water pushes against the sheet of ice covering the surface of the river.  The rising water breaks up the surface ice into chunks that float downstream.  If they hit an obstruction - a frozen section of the river, a bridge or a shallow - ice piles up creating an "ice jam."

When the water flow is obstructed at an ice jam - flooding can occur up-river. 

Fortunately for Durand, this ice jam is small.  It will probably melt tomorrow when the temperature hits 40º F.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Horned Lark Numbers on the Rise

A Horned Lark with Hackles Raised

I've been seeing dozens of Horned Larks along the roads in Pepin County, Wisconsin.  And I continue to try to creep close enough for a better look.  Today I got lucky.  The birds seemed to be more intent on feeding, than concerned about the black shadow (me in my Prius) coasting towards them.

Playing my iPod with the BirdJam recording of the song of the Horned Lark seemed to help my picture taking.  One of the birds alerted to the song, looked up and raised the feathers between its horns - something I've never seen before.  I also got close enough to see for the first time, the pinkish tinge to the feathers on the back and shoulders.   The field guides illustrations don't do this bird justice.

Horned Lark with Seed in Beak

One of the best places to see Horned Larks year-round in Pepin County is Silver Birch Road (off County P near Round Hill ).

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The World's Best Birdfeeder? Droll Yankees A-6

Downy & Red-bellied Woodpeckers @ Droll Yankees A-6 feeders

While I'm not always as meticulous as I should be, I work at keeping my bird feeders clean.

When I heard the weather forecast (wet snow turning in to rain) yesterday, I knew I would be doing my "cleaning the feeders" routine at the end of the day.  Wet seed spoils - and sunflower hearts spoil more quickly than seeds with shells.  

My cleaning regimen starts at dusk - emptying the feeders and bringing them into the basement (where I have room to take them part) and soaking them in a hot, soapy, bleach solution in the utility sink.  I don't wash animal feeders in the kitchen because it's important to separate human food preparation sites from potential contamination from bird droppings and potentially spoiled bird food.

Then I bring them upstairs and run them through the dishwasher.  

Every time I clean my feeders (about once a month - more often when it's wet, hot or humid), I can't help but think of Peter Kilham, the engineer and artist who designed "the world's best bird feeder."  Back in 1969, he took a polycarbonate plastic tube, added metal feeding portals and perches, a metal base and top - and created the A-6 tube bird feeder.  This simple design fueled the boom in the hobby of bird feeding.

While the Droll Yankees company has made a number of cosmetic and design improvements (and added new models), their tube feeders have stood the test of time:  they're the best.


1.  it's easy to clean
2.  it's not likely to injure birds (no rough edges)
3.  the seed levels are visible
4.  it protects seed from bird droppings and "weather"
5.  you can "modify" it to discourage birds you don't want to see (house sparrows, starlings and pigeons, house finches) by adding a tray or removing perches
6.  it comes in several sizes
7.  it comes with a lifetime warranty

For best results use only one type of seed (sunflower or safflower or nyjer) in a tube feeder.  

Here's why it's more economical to avoid seed mixes:

When you mix seeds, birds show their personal preferences by tossing the seeds they don't prefer on to the ground.  Birds that feed on the ground under bird feeders are vulnerable to predators and disease (from spoiled seed/shells and bird feces below the feeder).

When you add up all the wasted seeds - mixes actually cost more!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Winter Severity and White-tailed Deer

This winter is the 8th snowiest on record (so far) in west-central Wisconsin.   The snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures have certainly limited my outdoor activity - and kept my bird feeding station busy.   When I'm out driving my Prius - equipped with an electric seat warmer - I feel empathy for the deer along the roadside.

This winter, they've had to contend with deep crusty snow and bitter cold winds.   Sure, they had a great summer and fall to pack on the fat, but they're way more visible these days.  It looks like winter has taken a toll on them.

I spotted a bedraggled and thirsty yearling, alone on the side of Semple Road in Arkansaw.   I came across a half-dozen does and yearlings sitting in the snow, hidden among rows of stubby little evergreens in a roadside Christmas tree farm.  I've spotted herds of them digging through the snow in the cornfields by the tree lines in the coulees.

And the numbers of road-kill deer are mounting - more than a half dozen on State Road 25 near my house.  It's always disconcerting to see dead deer along the road.  But if you look - you might be surprised to see who joins the list of scavengers at the carcass - chickadees, eagles and woodpeckers.

Red-tailed Hawk at a roadside deer carcass

So, is our local deer population suffering from a severe winter this year?

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources - no, not yet.

The Wisconsin Winter Severity Index ranks this winter as relatively mild - so far - for deer.  “What stands out this winter is that it started early," says Mike Zeckmeister, DNR northern region wildlife biologist.

That it did.  And we're in for more snow tomorrow.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Cooper's Hawk Takes A Pigeon

When I got up this morning, the first Saturday in March, the sky was gray.  The thermometer was a blue 25º F.  And there wasn't much activity at the bird feeders.

Not a great day for a hike in the woods.

But because snow is in the forecast for Sunday night (and into next week) and the birding listservs were a-buzz with reports of Sandhill Cranes and other migrants, I decided we might see something along the Lower Chippewa River.  Why not take the Prius out for a spin through the bottoms to Meridean?

Horned Lark

The roadsides were full of Horned Larks - some in isolated pairs, others in flocks of a dozen or so.  I rolled down the window and put my stealth Prius in "electric" mode.   The birds were not fooled.   They saw me coming.

Maybe birdsong would work.  I pulled out my trusty iPod and played the BirdJam song of the Horned Lark.  They didn't buy it.

I could not get close enough for my 400mm lens.  After about a dozen or so tries, I gave up with the camera and just enjoyed watching them with my binoculars.

Where are the Snow Buntings?   I looked at yet another flock of roadside Larks and there they were - the first Snow Buntings I've seen in months.

Other than the regulars (juncos, tree sparrows, downy and hairy woodpeckers, Bald Eagles and White-breasted nuthatches), we didn't see many birds.  As we coasted into Meridean, I looked towards the river and spotted a raptor perched in a big old cottonwood, facing the corn fields.  It was a Rough-legged Hawk.  They haven't left yet.

On the way back home, I took a detour to check out a tree where we'd seen a rough-leg before (on County V near SR 85).   It was not there today.

I continued on down County V and stopped by a pen full of cows.  Did that pile of manure move?  I pulled out my binoculars for a closer look.  It wasn't manure - and it DID move.

Female Cooper's Hawk in a Cow Pen

It was a Cooper's Hawk, and she was plucking the feathers off a pigeon!  We sat and watched as the feathers flew.

The pigeon moved its head and the hawk stopped plucking and loosened her grip.   Then the pigeon broke free and took off, flying back towards the barn.  All eyes (cows and humans) were on the hawk as she took off after the pigeon and nailed it over by the feed trough.

She calmly started plucking away.  Then suddenly - to everyone's surprise, the pigeon broke loose again.  This time the pigeon got away - and flew into the barn.

Cooper's Hawk didn't hang around.  She took off in the other direction.

The cows went back to feeding and we headed home.