Monday, December 23, 2013

The Winter Kinglet

Although it is over two weeks into the month of December, only now may one finally say that winter has truly arrived.  Today is December 15, 2013, and up until now it's either been really cold and not snowing, or just below freezing and snowing. The immense snow storm that rolled in from the Southwest a few days ago marked the first time this season that snow coincided with decidedly colder temperatures.  As I walk under a dense stand of pine trees at Fenner Nature Center, I am awed by the beauty of the untouched blanket of white powder that covers every available surface, from the ground I tread on to the tops of the trees.  I can't help but think how lucky I am to live in a place where I can be part of scenes such as this.  
Suddenly, a chorus of barely audible, high-pitched trills off to my right sets my thoughts on another, altogether more marvelous course.  How can these treble voices be part of this winter landscape, covered in seven inches of snow and nightly reaching subzero temperatures?  The Golden-crowned Kinglet, to whom these sounds belong, is nothing short of an avian miracle. These diminutive birds, whose average body size is barely bigger than the top half of your thumb, somehow manage to find enough food in temperatures as low as -40° to sustain their exceedingly hyperactive lifestyle, day after day after day.

© Janine Russell
They survive each day against a set of overwhelming odds that works constantly against them, for a body that small, unaided, in the middle of winter, would die in a matter of not minutes but seconds at such cold temperatures. Their metabolism is so high that they must eat more than their body weight in food every day.  And that's assuming that their diet is as rich in protein as it is during the rest of the year.  Surely that is impossible given the lack of insect life in the middle of winter.  And what of the nights?  How would such a tiny creature stay warm without constant sustenance through the long hours of a cold winter's night?
Their secret to survival lies in the tiny "inchworm" caterpillars of Noctuid moths—mostly those of the One-spotted Variant (Hypagyrtis unipunctata). They lay perfectly camouflaged against the twigs and branches of maple and birch trees all winter long, no matter how low the temperature drops.  The caterpillars themselves are truly phenomenal.  Just before their host trees shed their leaves, they stop feeding and, with a few strands of silk, loosely fasten themselves the outer tip of a branch. Now their bodies go through a chemical change that saturates their body fluids with high concentrations of glucose sugar, to be used as an antifreeze in the winter months.  After a number of weeks, the substance has permeated each caterpillar's every cell.  Packed with antifreeze, they are now equipped to survive even the coldest temperatures that the coming winter has to offer.  The very same glucose that allows a caterpillar to survive the winter simultaneously provides an energy-packed meal for a kinglet.  Thus, the kinglets' "hyperactive" behavior of hovering or hanging at the ends of branches, picking off seemingly invisible prey.
The Golden-crowned Kinglet's winter mainstay--
the caterpillar of the One-spotted Variant. © Canadian National Collection
Another common winter feeding behavior coincides with the range of the Sack-bearer Moths (Family Mimallonidae).  In August, the larvae of Sack-bearer moths construct open-ended sacks of silk and leaves where they will overwinter and pupate in the spring.  They also ensure that their shelters will not fall off of the tree with the rest of the leaves by enforcing the leaf stems with countless strands of silk.  In the winter, flocks of chickadees and kinglets take advantage of this by locating these surprisingly inconspicuous clumps of leaves and poking their heads inside to make a meal of the luckless caterpillars.
After a day of foraging, the members of each small flock find their way back to the dense conifer whose interior they have been roosting in at night since the first night that the temperature dipped below freezing.  Once there, they may settle down close to the trunk of their tree and cuddle close together to form a fluffy ball of feathers.  (One morning last winter, I was lucky enough to find one of these clusters roosting in the pine tree in my own backyard!)  More often, perhaps, the flock returns to settle into a carefully constructed, globular, down-lined nest.  Constructed by the flock during mid to late October, this structure is used solely as a roosting shelter on long winter nights.  This apparently gives the Golden-crowned Kinglet the distinction of being the only North American bird to deliberately construct a nest for purposes other than incubating and raising young.  
Bernd Heinrich's sketch of a kinglet cluster.
© Bernd Heinrich 2003

So, next time you see a Golden-crowned Kinglet on a cold winter's day, perhaps you can stop to ponder the miracle of the winter kinglet.  Think of the staggering odds that the bird has beaten each and every day that the temperature has dipped below zero.  Remember that you are witness to an incredibly unlikely scene: a tiny bird flitting about in lively manner in a frigid, hostile environment.

© Michael Murphy 

For an excellent read and more information on nature's ingenious winter survival strategies, see Winter World by Bernd Heinrich.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


Ugh.  Gulls.   Watching them is no fun--gull watching requires hours of standing miserably on a lakeshore or seashore, or visiting a landfill.  They're just not worth the effort, and you only ever get distant, unsatisfactory views of them. surprises me how many birders resort to this point of view.  Yes, some gulls are difficult and  take a long time to learn (I readily admit that I am still very much in the process of learning the details of several gull IDs), but that's not the case with all gulls.  It's easy to start out: you just need to get to know the species that are the most common in your area.  Here in Michigan, I started out by learning Herring, Ring-billed, and Bonaparte's Gulls inside and out (obviously, the set of gulls that you must get to know will vary based on where you live).  This enabled me to recognize anything that wasn't one of those two species, which allowed me to focus on the odd birds out.

As with the practice of birding in general, a field guide is essential.  The very best, in my opinion, is the Field Guide to the Gulls of the Americas by Steve N. G. Howell and Jon Dunn.  Though I only first laid my hands on it just over a month ago, it has done me an infinite amount of help in furthering my gull identification skills.   Another important facet of gull identification is being okay with leaving a bird unidentified.  No one can always identify every single bird.

The more you learn, the more FUN gull watching becomes!  So finally, here are a few of my best gull experiences:

The first time I had a cool gull encounter was in April of 2011 at Pointe Mouillee SGA.  They were a couple of adult Great Black-backed Gulls loafing with hundreds of "normal" gulls in Cell 3.  I could not get over how huge they were--I kept on exclaiming that they "looked like eagles, they were so big!"  Seeing two adults black-backs at close range left a strong impression on me, such that my heart still skips a beat whenever I see one.

From then until almost the end of 2012, I focused on getting to know the common gulls.  In November that year, my dad took me up to the Upper Peninsula to see Gray Jays at Hulbert Bog and winter finches at Whitefish Point .  After watching over 50 Pine Grosbeaks and hundreds of Common Redpolls (a single Hoary among them) at the Whitefish Point feeders, I went down to the beach and BOOM!  An enormous, all-white gull was the first thing I saw.  It was struggling against the wind, going nowhere despite its powerful wingbeats.  It was a stunning second-winter Glaucous Gull, and I watched it hover close above me for half a minute before it gave in to the wind and rocketed way from me.  It didn't take long for its pale form to blend into the cloudy sky.

Later that day before driving home, we stopped at the Whitefish Harbor Breakwall.   Just as I started to look through the hundreds of gulls on the breakwall, a rather pale juvenile gull flew in and landed not far away.  This was the first time my familiarity with the common gulls kicked in:  it was similar to a Herring Gull but with several important differences. It had gray outer primaries and secondaries that contrasted slightly with paler inner primaries.  The lack of black on its flight feathers was something I thought was odd.

When it landed, I saw that overall it was a monotone gray, instead of brown or tan with a paler head.  Its primaries were only slightly darker than the rest of it, with pale edges. Its feathers were intricately patterned and gave the bird's back a very "scaly" appearance--this bird was clearly still in juvenile plumage.  It also had a smaller, rounder head and a smaller bill than any of the juvenile Herring Gulls nearby.  After observing the bird for a good long while, I finally got into the car and, looking at a field guide, easily saw that it had been a "classic" juvenile Thayer's Gull.  To top things off, my observation was confirmed when, an hour later, a couple of more experienced birders saw the same bird at the same location.

My next awesome gull experiences came much more recently: both within the last month, in fact.  The first of these was on November 10th, at the Fennville Sewage Ponds (restricted access) in Allegan County, Michigan.  As part of an Allegan County field trip that he was leading for the Capital Area Audubon Society, Rick Brigham took us to these restricted-access sewage ponds, where we watched the close-up flocks of waterfowl until my brother and I saw a small gull amongst the 130 or so Bonaparte's Gulls with an interesting wing pattern.  Elijah said, "is that a young Bonaparte's?"  I, reluctant to believe what I thought I was seeing, frantically called Rick over so that he could look at it through his scope.  It wasn't long before he confirmed my suspicion by exclaiming that it was a juvenile SABINE'S GULL!! Were able to watch the beauty for over an hour while it fed in the water at close range.  NOT your typical Sabine's Gull zooming past a lakewatch in high winds!

My last cool gull experience was just a few days ago on November 23rd.  After finishing the Lake Erie Pelagic out of Cleveland (which was also amazing!), many of those who had been on the boat ride drove to Edgewater Marina in order to see the Little Gull that had been present there for a while. It was practically the first thing that I saw upon getting out of the car!  It was seriously RIGHT THERE, approaching us within six feet as we stood poised with cameras and binoculars.  It was accompanied by 300 Bonaparte's Gulls, which were also approaching within arm's reach of us.  I had never seen anything like it; the flock of Bonaparte's alone would have made my day.

Part of the flock of Bonaparte's:

After five minutes or so, I saw this and yelled "Guys!! GUYS, there are TWO!!" as I snapped the photo.

It was absolutely unreal to be standing so close to not one, but two of these beautiful, rare birds!

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Very Skilled Great Blue Heron

   While at Magee Marsh, Ohio, participating in the Ohio Young Birders Club's big day fundraiser, I saw this heron flying very purposefully towards a fish that was flopping around in the water.  I sensed something coming so I quickly took out my camera and was rewarded with this remarkable sequence of eight photographs:

 Yes. The heron flew down from above, snatched the fish, and flew away.  Definitely not something that I was expecting.

Other highlights that day were the innumerable and very friendly spring migrants, and smashing the OYBC big day record of 116 spcies with an awesome total of 123 species! 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Making the Most of Bird Migration

In this post I share some awesome websites that I have come across over the past week or so.  The first, Birding by Radar, has to do with the national weather radar:  Watch as strange circles of blue and green eplode outward from dozens of points across the country.

Incedentally, these many of these circles are centered around the nation's most well-known migration hotspots—indeed, these radar images depict the large nightly flights of migratory birds on their way north or, in the fall, south.  For instance, take a look at the radar composites of good migration nights and other similar nights.  If you know where to look, you might see that the evening flights of the migrants are centered around places like Central Park in New York City, High Island in Texas, Cape May in New Jersey, Magee Marsh in Ohio, southeast Arizona, and many other migration hotspots.

In such spectacular flights as the one that occured on the night of May 12, 2011, you can even see flights centered on some of the more local hotspots that you are familiar with.  Looking at the migration that happened that night, I can see a sizeable circle whose epicenter is what I presume to be Kalamazoo Nature Center and/or other nearby migration hotspots.  Earlier in the season, I swear I can see a migration of what are probably enormous flocks of waterfowl leaving one of my favorite birding spots, Maple River State Game Area.

Another interesting thing to watch is the ways in which weather systems affect bird migration.  Take last night's (April 10th) migration.  There is a large storm system moving north and then East across the eastern US.  When the evening flight occurs, all of the major flights happen south of the system, while virtually no flights of any significance occur north of it.  Looking at these radar composites are a tremendous help in deciding whether or not to go out birding tomorrow morning.  If there is a big migration one night, you can almost always depend on there being plenty of birds out the next day.

The second website features an incredible map of current wind speeds and directions.  In spring, winds coming from southerly directions, often indicate that large numbers of migratory birds will drop out of the sky into local parks and woodlots overnight, especially as .  In fall the opposite is true—winds from a northerly direction often signal large numbers of southbound migrants the next morning.

Occasionally, weather like this conjures up the sort of event that every birder lives for—a fallout (more specifically a migration fallout, NOT to be confused with a nuclear fallout—this confusion occurs all too often between birders and non-birders).  Fallouts are the sources of birding legend.  Warblers drip from the trees and carpet people's lawns and rooftops.  20+ species of warblers, tanagers and vireos can be seen in a single shrub.  Because fallouts usually occur before or after a flight of birds completes a marathon journey across a body of water or other area devoid of perching or feeding areas,  hundreds of tiny hummingbirds and exhausted songbirds approach within feet or even inches of one's face.  Places famed for their spectacular fallouts include the previously mentioned High Island, Cape May, and Magee Marsh as well as Ontario's Point Pelee and Michigan's Whitefish Point.

Some other helpful websites include:

Radar and Migration FAQ
Clemson University Radar Ornithology Lab
North Woods BIRDAR--an amazing resource for birders in Michigan!!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Favorite Quote of Mine

I adapted this text from a quote in a documentary I just watched:

"How can you buy or sell the sky?  The warmth of the land? . . . If we do not own the freshness of the air, and the sparkle of the water, how can [we] buy them?  We don't own them.  Every part of this earth . . . is sacred.  Every shining pine needle, every humming insect.  The earth is . . . our mother.  We are a part of the earth and it is a part of us.  The rivers are our brothers.  We give the rivers the kindness we would give to any brother.

"But the white man does not understand . . . He is a stranger who takes from the land whatever he needs.  The earth is not his brother but his enemy.  And when he has conquered it, he moves on.  He kidnaps the earth from his children.  And he does not care."

——The Native American Chief of Seattle, 1854, in reply to an offer from the US government to buy a large area of Indian land.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Cardinals on a Windy Day

February 18th was a very windy day (gusts of up to 30 mph) here in Lansing, and I just wanted to share the amusing photos I took of cardinals at the feeders that day.

Those crests must be a real nuisance on windy days like that...

The cardinal in the background later chased away the junco, seemingly because
its feet could obviously get a better purchase on the wood than they could on the
packed snow on top of the feeder. 

The wind was shifting all the time.   In this photo, the wind was blowing from the North
instead of from the East as it is in the rest of the photos.

Every time I look at these photos they just look wrong.  This cardinal's tail was at almost
a 90° angle from its body.  The reason is that at this point, the wind was so strong
that the cardinal was nearly being toppled over!  This was his ingenious and rather amusing
solution to the dilemma. 

Here's a bonus—a look at the black downy feathers of a Dark-eyed Junco!   I took
this photo on the same windy day as the cardinals, 18 Feb.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Avian Photo Essay Part Two: Passerines

So finally, here is the second part of my photo essay:

Rare or Otherwise Notable Passerines

Northern Shrike, Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area, OH.  Feb 8.

American Crow:  I have already covered this species in detail in previous posts, nut I though it would be fun to repost some of my favorite shots as well as some newer shots from the roost.

My favorite photo of all time:) 
Hundreds of crows at a time dropping into the roost
The entire roost lifts up and swirls about in the air for about half a minute
before alighting back in the trees.
90 or so crows with the glint of the setting sun on their flight feathers. 
A small section of treetops that are overloaded with crows.

Juvenile Horned Lark. One of dozens of that species at ADM Grains on 5 Jan.

Brown Creeper.  One of three in my yard on Jan 26. 

This and another Carolina Wren are both regular year-round feeder visitors
in my yard, especially in the winter and some summers.  One summer, they
bred in the garden, fledging three young!

Townsend's Solitaire:  like the American Crow, I have already dedicated a couple of posts to this and just wanted to share some new photos (9 Feb), as well as mention that the solitaire only has ONE FOOT!  I did not even notice this during my first five hours of observation.  I think it must have been born with it, because it functions so well in spite of it.  It also explains the lack of a bright eye ring on one side–it has to hold on to the branch with its good foot and preen with its stump.  Therefore the eyering on the "stump" side of its head is much brighter than the one on the other side.  I have included some photos which illustrate that it has a stump leg quite well but I somehow didn't notice until after I heard that it had only one foot.

Varied Thrush, 27 Dec.  This bird was seen by a looooot of people during its long stay
at some feeders in Barry County. 

Most of the flock of an incredible 64 Bohemian Waxwings at Rose Lake
WRA.  Among them there were only 8 Cedar Waxwings.  Wow.  That
means that the flock was 88% Bohemians and only 11% Cedars.  Not some-
thing you see very often.  Seen on 11 Jan.  

This tiny bird came as a huge surprise to me and my family when we
discovered it under our pine tree, eating berries and insects off a pokeweed
plant.  After that it flew into our garden, where we managed to take a few pic-
tures.  It actually stayed until the 15th, even visiting the bird bath a couple of times.
The eBird weekly totals graph for Nashville Warbler from Sep-Nov of 2012 suggests that
this one was the only Nashville Warbler in our area that late in the year. 

10 of the 11 Chipping Sparrows in my yard on Oct 25.  A very large number of
chippers for that time of year.

Flock of 123(!) Snow Buntings on 5 Jan at ADM Grains.

This late-ish Red-winged Blackbird was a good surprise at the feeders on 26 Oct.

These photos are of a group of 18 White-winged Crossbills at Mt Hope
Cemetery, 16 Nov.

Photos of a group of 38+ Pine Grosbeaks on the feeders at Whitefish Point
on 17 Nov.