Archive for the 'Bird' Category

2017 Purple Martin Workshop

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

The 12th annual Purple Martin Workshop was held today near Kalona, Iowa. The organizers, Jim Walters and Evan Gingerich, planned another wide ranging session. The morning included information about waste management and recycling, why citizen science and conservation are important, and an update on the reintroduction of Eagles, Ospreys and Peregrine Falcons in the Midwest.

The afternoon began with a presentation about Purple Martins (Progne subis) and appropriate landlord practices which was followed by a panel of Purple Martin landlords answering questions from the audience. Everyone learns a bit more from the questions and answers.

Between the morning and afternoon sessions the crowd enjoyed a hearty lunch provided by women in the neighborhood. Mr. Walters also showed a short video about an Eagle Scout project involving a new Osprey tower.

There were exhibits of birding books and equipment, information on a variety of birds and organizations but especially information on Purple Martins, our largest swallow. The end of the program is always followed by door prizes and an auction. The proceeds from the auction are donated to the charity whose building hosts the workshop.

People come from all over the state and some from neighboring states to visit and learn more about birds, but more particularly about Purple Martins. Purple Martins are almost completely dependent on humans for providing nest houses and gourds in the Eastern U.S. That is why those who provide homes for the martins are called landlords.

The one above is sub-adult – probably a male. It is not turned far enough to see for certain if there are any purple feathers on its chin, chest or tail. The chin is darker than sub-adult females, so that is our guess. The bird behind is crawling into the gourd appears to be a brownish female.

The first “scout” Purple Martin has recently been reported in southern Iowa so they are on their way back. Just as we are awaiting Spring, we hope the Purple Martins will also be arriving soon, even if they do not nest until the big insects are hatching.

Iowa City Darwin Day 2017

Saturday, March 4th, 2017

The stellar presenters at the Iowa City Darwin Day 2017 were a privilege to hear at the 10th annual event to celebrate Charles Darwin’s 209th birthday yesterday afternoon and this morning. We went to both sessions. The Iowa City event was a belated birthday celebration. Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 – the same day as Abraham Lincoln.

One of the species of Darwin’s finches (above) from Santa Cruz Island is in tribute of hearing Peter and Rosemary Grant of Princeton University speak about their 40 plus year adventure studying the Darwin’s finches on Isla Daphne Major of the northern side of Santa Cruz. Though it has been several years since they camped on Isla Daphne Major, they continue to study the DNA sequences from the blood samples they collected over many years of fieldwork. The sequencing is done by a group in Sweden with whom they collaborate.

We are not certain of which species the female above is but we think she is one of the ground finches. We made a trip to the Galapagos Islands in 2012. She was bouncing up to get the seeds at the center top of the photo. Her beak looks large and strong enough to tackle much larger seeds. The beaks of the various finch species on the Galapagos Islands have evolved to eat seeds of varying sizes and/or to eat nectar and pollen as well as seeds.

Richard Wrangham of Harvard University spoke on the genetic changes the domestication of animals reveals and how bonobos and humans may have self-domesticated themselves. Today he addressed the theory that control of fire and cooking of food may have influenced a primate on its way to becoming homo sapien.

Mary Kosloski of the University of Iowa does work with modern and fossil snails and crabs. She discussed how a super predator crab, whose right claw can exert 19,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, changed a snail from having a right-handed shell to a left-handed one. It was not by exerting pressure on the shell but that the rare left-handed snails lived to reproduce (if they found a left-handed mate) because the crab could not extract the snail with its right claw.

Anne Fausto-Sterling of Brown University spoke about gender identity and expression yesterday. The interaction of nature and nurture may determine how genes are expressed. Today her talk about diversity and its contribution to science so that people do not become scientifically ignorant. She, like many scientists, is very concerned because there seems to be a deliberate social and political effort to keep people and legislatures from having the information they need to make rational decisions about human and earth welfare.

As we have the same worries, we were heartened that this was spoken in the context of a celebration of one of the most important and productive minds in science. Should he come back today to see what is now possible, if people are not willfully ignorant, Mr. Darwin would be amazed and vindicated.

“Red Enhancement Display”

Saturday, February 11th, 2017

Today while photographing from a nature center blind, we saw what is called by ornithologists a “Red Enhancement display” by a male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). While perched, a bird (usually a male) might raise his feathers on the crown and nape so that it appears large and very red – a sign of threat. There were three birds in the tall trees behind the feeders. One was a female. The males were competing for her attention. This male really puffed up his body as well as the red feathers on his head.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are often described as sleek like the male below. His shiny red crown is more typical of what casual viewers might see. He must have been waiting to try one of the other perching displays used by Red-bellied Woodpeckers.  Sometimes they hunch their shoulders up (stiff pose) or spread their tails while their wings are angled upward at a 45 degree angle (full threat) – also to look bigger and more formidable. The full threat display may also be done in flight and is called a ‘floating threat’.

We hoped they would come close to the feeders but they stayed high in the trees. The female seemed to prefer one tree and we wondered if there was a potential nest hole in it. The males flew to several trees. We only know there were three birds because at one point, all were in the same tree – the one preferred by the female.

Young Eagle Release at Eagle Day

Sunday, February 5th, 2017

After doing our presentation at the Eagle Day Expo we drove out to the eagle viewing area below the dam on Coralville Lake. We got there just in time for Linda to get her camera and dash to get a few images of the release of young a Bald Eagle who had been cared for by RARE (Raptor Advocacy Rehabilitation & Education), a new bird rescue organization in the Iowa City area.

It was cold, windy and very dreary. There were many bald eagles in the trees and flying over the viewing area so those who came to see eagles got their wish. Some trees had ten or more birds in them.

This young eagle had been found on the ground and was taken to RARE for examination and rehabilitation. No injuries were found, except that it did have a low lead level in its blood. Even a small lead shotgun pellet eaten from carrion (perhaps a dead deer that a hunter did not find) can kill an eagle. Lead accumulates in anything that eats or drinks lead contaminated food or water. It does neurological damage to the organism. The worry is that if it eats more lead contaminated fish or meat it will be severely compromised and probably die a horrific death. Lead shot and fishing weights should be banned in all states.

As you can see above, this is a feisty bird that should take care of itself if it finds uncontaminated fish and carrion. When the bird was released, it flew through dense trees against a background of more trees. Even though the camera was set for high speed continuous images, most were obscured by branches and trees. It did circle once and is visible in this crop from a file. Its wing beats were strong and deep so there is hope for it to survive and thrive.

We hope that people continue to make regulations that protect animals and people. The health of all on the planet is determined by what caring and thoughtful people do.


2017 Bald Eagle Watch & Expo

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

Saturday, February 4, 2017 is the Bald Eagle Watch & Expo at the Coralville Dam and nearby North Central Junior High School in North Liberty, IA.  The viewing are is at Tailwater West below the dam. There will be spotting scopes at the viewing area and people to help visitors.

At the junior high school there will a number of exhibits. At 10:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., the film Listen to the Eagle will be shown. At 11:30 a.m. we will present Soaring to New Heights: Bald Eagles in Iowa & Elsewhere about the come back of eagles after the ravages of DDT. We also have a short presentation on other hawks and eagles. At 1:30 the Iowa Raptor Project will present about owls.

We hope to meet you on Saturday.

Great Horned Owl Calls

Friday, January 20th, 2017

On Wednesday evening, Karla Bloem and Ruby, the Great Horned Owl, were at the Indian Creek Nature Center here in Cedar Rapids to present a program on Great Horned Owl vocalization. We had met Alice, Karla’s other education owl, some years ago when we attended several owl festivals in Houston, Minnesota.

Karla became interested in owl vocalization and while doing a literature search discovered that there was no research. She speculates that this is because Great Horned Owls are quite common.

Ruby, who does not like her travel cage, spent over an hour on Karla’s arm while she talked about the owls in her aviary and the wild owls in the neighborhood who she came to identify by their calls. Male and female GHOs have different and idiosyncratic patterns of vocalizations so it was possible to recognize and name the owls. Above, while Ruby stared at the ceiling projector, Karla showed a sonogram on this slide while playing Alice’s call. She also showed and played the calls of other GHOs she came to know by voice.

Ruby was staring in the distance toward some art work on a wall which provided the opportunity to see her eye from the side. It is easy to see why GHOs get eye injuries when they collide with vehicles or buildings. The cornea protrudes from the sclerotic ring that support the eye. In fact, one wild female owl did injure an eye while attacking the building where the research owls live.

She often looked at the high ceiling and at the projector when she was not looking at the audience or Karla. Karla is a very animated speaker and it was amazing that Ruby did not startle or appear to be concerned. She just wanted to be with Karla. Flash did not bother her in the least because it rarely bothers animals.

The auditorium and projector lighting created issues with camera settings so Linda did something she had never before done. She did not want to have to keep guessing at changing settings so she  put the camera on P or Program mode and let it decide. It chose a shutter speed of 1/60 sec, a much wider aperture and higher ISO than she usually uses. She had a small flash on her camera and the images were useful for this blog post. She was even able to pull these bottom three crops out of larger files so you can look into Ruby’s face.

To learn more about owls, you may want to attend the International Festival of Owls in Houston, MN on March 3-5, 2017. Karla is very busy that weekend with international visitors and helping volunteers for the events and activities. Or plan a trip some other weekend to the International Owl Center in Houston.

Skiing on the River

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

We were at Lock & Dam 14 on the Mississippi River yesterday looking for Bald Eagles to photograph. The eagles mostly sat in trees digesting the fish they had caught prior to our arrival. Did get to video one eagle eating a fish and a few flying by. An American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) came skiing in to settle among the ducks and gulls that were fishing along the lock.  It moved along the lines of ducks and gulls as if inspecting them and what they were catching.

One of the things that interested us about the pelican was that is was growing a horn  (nuptial tubercle) on its upper mandible and had the beginning of a wispy feather crest on the back of its head. From what we knew this was far too early or too late  in the year for these to appear. These characteristics appear in the breeding season. Pelicans migrate north in March to nest mostly in the Dakotas and Canada. The horns are present on mature mated pelicans and fall off after eggs are laid.

Some pelicans winter along the Mississippi River if it is not frozen. Most head further south to open water. Several weeks ago we saw groups of White Pelicans further north in Minnesota.

This bird is getting a 3 month head start on these characteristics or may have an endocrine disturbance. We searched for scientific information on nuptial tubercles in pelicans and only found research on some fish species which also have them, but not on pelicans. This bird seemed healthy and curious. And we were left to wonder about its physical appearance on a bright and clear early winter day.

We both made a series of images as it was braking, skiing and settling in the water from different vantage points. The bird shadowed itself from one angle and was much brighter when photographed with the light coming perpendicular to the bird.

Thanksgiving Hummingbird

Thursday, November 24th, 2016

A  female Rufous Hummingbird (Selaphorus rufus) was reported on the Iowa Bird list on November 20 here in East Central Iowa. Whenever one makes an appearance  this far north in the eastern part of the country, they attract many visitors. We were not able to visit the hospitable home earlier in the week and thought we had missed the opportunity. Early this afternoon there was a message on the bird list that she was still coming to feeders. In spite of the dark and dreary sky we decided to go see her even if we were not able to photograph her.

In spite of the low light we did get our cameras ready. The ISOs were pushed up much higher than we like and the shutter speeds were still too low to stop wing movement even with shallow depth of fields. It was so dull that there is almost no catch light in her normally shiny eyes. The photos have too much digital noise but we enjoyed making them.

We did see several of the identifying characteristics of a female Rufous Hummingbird. The rufous base of her tail and that her tail extended a bit passed her wingtips are typical.  The central spot on her throat is almost visible in the lower image.

Rufous Hummingbirds are sometimes described as small and compact with short wings. This image fits the description.

She came in twice in the hour and a half that we watched the two feeders hanging from the porch rail. We stayed in our vehicle to improve the chances of her appearing. These images are cropped from the original files

We are definitely thankful for opportunities like today, even if the images are a bit too noisy.


Saturday, November 19th, 2016

On Thursday we drove to several overlooks along the Upper Mississippi NWR to look for Tundra Swans that we thought might be already in their stopover ahead of the winter weather coming this way. There were Tundras way out on the river between the islands – thousands of them – but none close enough to shore for photography. There were also several flocks of American White Pelicans that we could see with our binoculars.

The families that were in reach of our long lenses were Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator). Their common name is a reflection of their scientific name. Cygnus is swan and buccinare is to trumpet. Nest success must have been good this year because we saw family groups with two to four juveniles. Trumpeter Swans lay four to six eggs which they incubate by covering the eggs with their feet.

Trumpeters have made a comeback after near extinction in the last century. Conservation efforts are still important to their continued recovery. Several innovative projects in the Upper Midwest have contributed to this success.

After being startled by someone getting too close to the shore, the birds gradually came back within range of our lenses. These two youngsters felt secure enough to stay still while observing us. The bird close to the camera has relaxed its leg to let it float on the surface. They will grow into the largest waterfowl species in North America with wingspreads up to 8 feet (over 2 meters) and weighing up to 26 pounds (12 kgs).

The sun was setting so we our visit was short. The next time we see swans there will probably be snow on the ground.

Tufted Titmice

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

In the last several weeks there have been increasing mentions of Tufted Titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) on the birding discussion lists of the upper Midwest. We have a pair that has been visiting our back yard during this time. This one was photographed last Saturday from the bird blind at a local nature center. It registered its annoyance at the long lens which was peeking out of one of the small observation doors before deciding to go to one of the feeders.

 It spoke and turned back and forth. It also tried puffing its feathers to appear larger. Bob made a series of the various postures it adopted before deciding that the lens was stationary and not a threat.

During the nesting season, they are relatively quiet and discrete. Now that it is autumn they are coming to bird feeders to stock seeds in their larders for the winter – under bark and in crevices. A pair may work together. They do not congregate in flocks but usually live as a pair on a territory. Sometimes a youngster may live with the couple.

Titmice are one of the few bird species that are showing an increase in numbers over recent years. They are also expanding their range northward into Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ontario and further northeast. Also westward into Nebraska and further into Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. As the climate changes, passerine birds are expanding their nesting ranges northward. Northern species are not expanding their ranges southward according to an article published in the Conservation Biology journal in 2006.

 The peter, peter, peter call of a Tufted Titmouse is a clear bell on a winter morning. We hope that the pair at the feeder in our yard continues to regard it as in their territory.