Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, September 18, 2020

Smith's Longspur!

 Smith's Longspur

One of my favorite birds that I’ve hardly ever seen in my life is Smith’s Longspur. You can count on the fingers of one hand, without using the thumb or index finger, the number of times I’ve seen this tundra-nesting species. (You'd need a lot more fingers to count the number I tried for but missed!) I got my lifer with my friend Paula in Arkansas in January 2006, at the Stuttgart Municipal Airport, which is the birding hotspot for birders to add this species quickly and easily every winter. As many as 150 have been seen in the tiny airport—most birders see fewer than 10 simply because they go there, see it, and move on. When Paula and I went five years after 9-11, airport security regulations throughout the country were at their strictest. We entered the office, they saw our binoculars, sent us to a sign-in sheet, and told us to get off the runway if we heard a plane coming. I was thrilled to finally add this lifer—they’d been seen in Duluth a few times in the previous 25 years, and in western Minnesota most years, but I’d never been able to break away to see them except for the times I just missed one. My 2006 photos were exceptionally crappy, but oh, well—they were the best I had, and they showed my lifer.  

Smith’s Longspurs are regular in a few grassland areas in western Minnesota in mid-October, and may appear, rarely, in Duluth and along the North Shore in spring and fall, but they usually take a lot of effort to see. When I wrote my Field Guide to the Birds of Minnesota for the American Birding Association, I was limited to 300 species, but made sure to include it not just because it is regular but fairly predictable and "gettable." The Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union often has mid-October field trips to see it. Back on October 6, 2017, I saw one briefly, but didn’t get photos at the Old Stella Jones Pier in Duluth. 

Then this year, on September 17, I heard there were a couple at the McQuade Road safe harbor, just a few miles up the shore, so Russ and I went there in late afternoon. And voila! I finally got some reasonable pictures of this elusive but fascinating bird.  

Smith's Longspur

Smith's Longspur

In autumn, Smith's Longspur is fairly nondescript, but it is, indeed, fascinating because this species has one of the most unusual social breeding systems known among birds. Most songbirds form socially monogamous relationships for breeding, even as the majority of species have what we call extra-pair paternity—that is, even in birds that form fairly tight pair ponds, such as chickadees and bluebirds, a lot of hanky panky goes on. But Smith’s Longspur is polygynandrous. Rather than forming pairs at all, each female associates and copulates with two or three males to produce a single clutch of eggs. And each male associates and copulates with two or more females.  

Males do not defend territories, but instead guard two or three females by following them closely and competing with each female’s other mates for fertilizations. Over a period of one week in the early spring, a female longspur will copulate over 350 times on average; this is one of the highest copulation rates of any bird. The males are each trying to ensure that their sperm will displace the sperm of each of their mates’ other mates. To accomplish this, the testes of Smith’s Longspurs are about double the mass of those of the closely-related but monogamous Lapland Longspur. Once chicks hatch, two or more males may assist each female in caring for her nestlings; the amount of care provided by each male depends on the number of young he has sired within that nest. No one understands how this system, so different from other longspurs, arose in the first place. Perhaps the advantages females obtain from extra male help in raising offspring may explain why they pair and mate with more than one male, but since each male divides his time among two or more females, too, a true explanation isn’t quite that simple.

Two exceptionally calm, cooperative Smith’s Longspurs were at the McQuade landing Thursday and Friday, hanging out with several Lapland Longspurs. A Merlin looking for lunch flew over and one of them ran to a rock on which a birder was sitting. It crouched down between the rock and the man's boot. I didn't react in time to get a photo of that. 

Smith's Longspurs are sparrow-sized and colored, blending in with the grass and weeds, but I got a lot of photos. I’d of course love to get pictures of them in their striking breeding plumage, but their soft winter appearance is quite lovely in its own way. 

Smith's Longspur

Smith's Longspur

When Russ and I got there, even as we could see the three birders who arrived before we did taking photos, we got distracted by an unusually cooperative American Golden-Plover and Pectoral Sandpiper. 

American Golden-Plover

Pectoral Sandpiper

I didn’t spend too much time with them before I headed for the longspurs. We spent over a half hour standing in one spot looking at and photographing longspurs before we started back, getting distracted all over again by the plover and sandpiper. So I have plenty of pictures of them, too. Like the other birders, the plover and sandpiper stayed socially distanced from us, so all was well on a jolly afternoon.  

Buddies: American Golden-Plover and Pectoral Sandpiper

A Brief Digression into Nomenclature 

In recent weeks, ornithology has been rocked by the American Ornithological Society changing the name of the longspur previously called McCown’s to the Thick-billed Longspur. McCown may have shot the first described specimen(s) of that longspur in Texas, but he had no clue what they were—he was simply shooting at Horned Larks when he found one or two oddballs among the carcasses and sent them to his friend George Lawrence, who named them for him. At the time, McCown was serving in the U.S. Army in Texas. He wasn’t much of a naturalist, but all the birds he shot for science and the one article he wrote about roadrunners were a direct result of serving in the U.S. Army after he was educated at West Point. He turned against that army to join the Confederates during the Civil War, making him a traitor to his country in a war fought to support slavery. Honoring him for shooting some birds he didn’t even know needed to be corrected. 

An excellent case could be made that the name of Smith’s Longspur should be changed, too, but not for the same reasons. Smith’s Longspur was first described by William Swainson as the “Painted Buntling” in 1831 from a specimen in breeding plumage collected by John Richardson in Saskatchewan. More than a decade later, in 1843, John James Audubon received specimens of the same species in winter plumage from Illinois from Edward Harris and John G. Bell. He named what he incorrectly thought was a new species in honor of his friend Gideon B. Smith of Baltimore in 1844. When ornithologists realized the two were the same species, they decided to solve the discrepancy, by keeping Swainson’s scientific name (Emberiza picta) while retaining Audubon’s vernacular name honoring Smith. This really does violate those "written-in-stone" rules about primacy that some ornithologists cited to argue against changing the name of what is now the Thick-billed Longspur. 

Smith's Longspur as Audubon painted it, based on Richardson/Swainson's specimen; Audubon, who didn't respect the names other ornithologists gave birds, called this the "Buff-breasted Finch" on his painting from Birds of America. I don't know if he included a painting of what he called Smith's Lark-Bunting. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Backyard Fun

Northern Saw-whet Owl with mouse

This fall migration has been very fun for me, even being stuck at home not being able to chase the Buff-breasted Sandpipers and Sabine’s Gulls I’m reading about others finding near Duluth. Last night, September 16, about 11 pm, after the Cubs had won in extra innings, I took my dog Pip outside before bed. It was a lovely night—stars filling the sky and little wind. I could hear a few migrants flying overhead, but my attention was arrested by someone calling much closer to the ground, a saw-whet owl. I’ve been putting one of my trail cams into my platform feeder at nighttime. I was hoping I might catch a little flying squirrel action, though Russ and I haven’t noticed any in our yard since the early 90s, but instead every night a deer mouse materializes in that feeder. It’s up on a tall pole with a squirrel baffle, and I haven’t quite figured how it’s getting into the feeder, but I’ve grown attached to the little guy. First thing this morning, I checked my cam pictures to make sure the owl hadn’t flown off with him. I don’t begrudge saw-whet owls calories, just so they don’t come from my personal friends.  

Deer mouse

Hawks have been migrating through. I’ve seen quite a few Broad-winged and Sharp-shinned Hawks, Bald Eagles, Merlins, and one Peregrine Falcon, and had one Broad-wing drop down into my own backyard for a bit. My Blue Jays squawk to beat the band when they notice a Merlin or Sharpie flying through. So far so good as far as my Blue Jays surviving the onslaught.   

Broad-winged Hawk near

On the best days here under Hawk Ridge, most of the raptors have seemed to be flying pretty high, and I haven’t sat outside watching them. But oddly enough, I added one as a new yard bird on Sunday the 13th—a Mississippi Kite—strictly by luck. I was watering plants on my front porch when I looked at the sky to the south, toward the lake, and saw a falcon-shaped bird with a fluttery flight moving along. My good friend Susan lives in St. Louis, Missouri, and when I visit her, I see lots of Mississippi Kites, so I’ve become very familiar with them in flight, but they’re quite rare in this St. Louis County, and I was holding a watering can, not binoculars or my camera. I checked the Hawk Ridge site—they saw one on September 9, but no one reported this one on the 13th. So it was going to be one of those “ones that got away” until Julian Sellers posted on the MOU listserv that he had seen one just a few minutes after I had, flying in that same general area. Confirmation!  

Gray-cheeked Thrush

My dogwood has ripe berries again and my mountain ash is nice and full. I’ve been seeing lots of Swainson’s Thrushes and a few Gray-cheeks in with the robins pigging out here. Red-eyed Vireos keep showing up, too, sometimes eating berries but mostly munching on the insects that are also attracted to fruits. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is almost always somewhere in my mountain ash or crabapple tree. My male Pileated Woodpecker, who disappeared during the nesting season, is back and has given me some splendid photo ops, but not in the fruit trees.  

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

2020 has become my personal Year of the Blue Jay. I’ve had so many great opportunities for photos, and on September 14, I had another first—a leucistic Blue Jay among the dozens visiting my feeders. I personally prefer to call any bird with normal plumage except for some pure white patches a “partial albino”—leucism can refer to any abnormality involving less melanin than normal, from patches of white to overall pale, or “dilute” plumage, so it doesn’t seem very precise. The bird in my yard had perfect Blue Jay plumage except its nape, which was pure white extending right up to the vertical black facial markings, and its blue crown, flecked with white. During the one day it was here, that jay flew off any time I tried to photograph it outside, but I got some decent photos from my dining room.   

Leucistic Blue Jay

Leucistic Blue Jay

A few times, I’ve had a hummingbird in mid or late September, but never before this year have I had hummingbirds just about every day through at least September 16. I haven’t seen it yet today.   

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I got pretty solid confirmation that autumn is really here when a Fox Sparrow joined my abundant White-throats. Also, a flock of between 75 and 100 Pine Siskins dropped in about noon strictly for my birdbaths. I saw them out the window but didn’t get outside in time to get photos. Fortunately, my trail cam was on the scene.   

Pine Siskins at my bird bath

Every day brings something new, so it’s worth looking out the windows and, better yet, getting out there to enjoy. If we’re going to be stuck in a pandemic for a while, we might as well have fun with the birds.  

Pine Siskins at my bird bath

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Bird Die-off in New Mexico

A research paper published in Science last October is still making news—in it, a group of scientists established that the total number of birds in North America has declined by about 3 billion birds since 1970, which amounts to about 29 percent of the entire bird population. And in the news this week, we are apparently in the midst of a massive die-off of western birds just since August. 

Martha Desmond, a professor in New Mexico State University's department of fish, wildlife and conservation ecology, said that on August 20, a large number of dead birds were found at the US Army White Sands Missile Range and White Sands National Monument, and then more dead birds were found in regions throughout the state. She told CNN:  "It's just terrible. The number is in the six figures. Just by looking at the scope of what we're seeing, we know this is a very large event, hundreds of thousands and maybe even millions of dead birds, and we're looking at the higher end of that.” The dead birds include warblers, bluebirds, sparrows, and flycatchers, and people are reporting dead birds in Colorado, Texas, and Mexico as well. 

Necropsies haven’t been done yet, so we can’t be absolutely certain what killed them. We know that the incredible fires in the West have taken an incalculable toll. Not even considering birds dying in the fires themselves, the smoke has made the air quality the worst in the world right now. It’s devastated forests, of course, but all the toxins released when houses, cars, gas stations, propane tanks, and so much else burns up has made the smoke exceptionally poisonous. People in some areas of California are right now being advised to wear masks indoors as well as out. This kind of smoke is not only killing birds directly, but also taking out prey, from insects to rodents, exacerbating the damage to birds. 

The fires, starting at the time of year when dependent young were most vulnerable, would have taken a huge toll anyway; if parents and other birds over those 5 million acres were to survive at all, they’d have to hightail it out of there, breathing that toxic air and struggling to find food as they made their escape. I presume a lot of the necropsies of birds found in New Mexico will show that the birds had empty crops and stomachs, and also damaged lungs. 

But the fires and the horrible dry conditions in New Mexico right now can’t be the only cause for the number of birds being found in the Southwest right now. According to Martha Desmond, “We began seeing isolated mortalities in August, so something else has been going on aside the weather events and we don't know what it is. So that in itself is really troubling.”

My new baby grandson has given me a lot to smile about in the past month. But he’s also the reason I’m growing more anxious than ever about what we are doing to our environment—this is the world we are bequeathing him. Every objective scientist who has studied the crazy weather and fire patterns and hurricanes sees the clear linkages to climate change. The only scientists denying that link are being paid to find something—anything—else to cast doubt on reality, in the exact way that Brock Turner’s defense attorney tried to find something—anything—that might cast doubt on the reality that he was sexually assaulting an unconscious Chanel Miller outside by a Stanford University fraternity dumpster until he was stopped by two Swedish men on bicycles who chased and tackled him. 

Denying reality rather than facing it and making a sincere and powerful effort to right wrongs has become the toxic norm in our world, and we must end this. As Martha Desmond said about the hundreds of thousands of dead birds found just in the short time since my tiny grandson was born, “This is devastating. Climate charge is playing a role in this. We lost 3 billion birds in the US since 1970 and we've also seen a tremendous decline in insects, so an event like this is terrifying to these populations and it's devastating to see.”

It IS devastating to see, but we must look anyway. We need to actually face, with a steady gaze, the rising sea levels and heating planet and dead birds, children in cages, police crushing or suffocating or shooting the life out of human beings, men in high positions getting away with sexual assault. Without looking at any problem head on, we cannot fix it. And I’ll fight to my dying breath against this being the kind of world I leave to my baby grandson. 

Monday, September 14, 2020

My Yard List

Evening Grosbeak
Evening Grosbeaks, the very first species on my yard list, were very common when we first moved here in 1981. 

Russ and I moved into our house on Peabody Street in July 1981. Even as we were carrying the first boxes into the house, I was starting my yard list, with Evening Grosbeaks calling and a Bald Eagle flying overhead. To count a bird on my yard list, either I or the bird must be touching my property. If I’m home, I can count a hawk flying overhead or a bird perched in a neighbor’s yard or anything I hear. If I’m at a neighbor’s, I can count a bird sitting in my tree, but not a bird flying over and nothing calling unless I can see it in my yard. My first autumn here, I was up at Hawk Ridge when a Golden Eagle flew over. I was thrilled, but suddenly realized I wanted it for my yard list. It was moseying, so I jumped in my car, drove home, jumped out of my car, looked up, and barely caught it while it was still identifiable. That afternoon, when I was planting tulips, I looked up and saw another. 

Bald Eagle

My yard list grew by leaps and bounds our first few years here. I’ve never ever had a lifer in my own backyard, but I have had three close calls. A month after we moved here, Russ and I went a bit north of Two Harbors where Kim Eckert said I’d have my best chance of a Boreal Chickadee. Sure enough, I got it, but had I only waited, I’d have gotten my lifer in my backyard that November. 

Boreal Chickadee
I've seen these beautiful guys in my yard, but only photographed them in the Bog.

I got word of Bohemian Waxwings a few blocks north of me our first winter here, and just a few days later, a big flock was in my own yard. 

Bohemian Waxwing
Bohemian Waxwings used to be very common every year. 

And that first autumn, Kim Eckert called me about a couple of Harris’s Sparrows on Park Point. I drove out, added the lifer, came home, looked out the window, and guess what was right there at my feeder?  

Harris's Sparrow

I live in a regular neighborhood in Duluth a mile from the lake. I’ve had flyover loons, some waterfowl, American White Pelicans, and a Pied-billed Grebe, but my yard list is missing a lot of very common Minnesota birds. In the four decades we’ve been here, I brought my yard list up to about 170, including 27 species of warblers and my best claim to fame, 7 species of owls. I don’t know that I’ll ever see a Snowy, Northern Hawk Owl, or Short-eared from my yard, though I’ve seen them all in Duluth. The rarest owl on my yard list is the Eastern Screech-Owl—we’re just north of their range. One fall night,  my education owl Archimedes started calling and acting weird, so I went outside and heard the wild screech owl and got a few glimpses. 


The hardest bird to add to my list was the Barred Owl who was perched on a roof two doors down, with trees and a house blocking the view from almost everywhere in my yard. To add it by my list rules, I had to stand on our cyclone fence leaning over at a jaunty angle, hanging on to an old apple tree for dear life. But I saw it!!

Viola the Rufous Hummingbird

Besides the screech-owl, I’ve had other genuine rarities, too, including a Rufous Hummingbird, Varied Thrush, and Townsend’s Solitaire. The most disappointing rarity I added, a few years ago, was a Blue-winged Warbler. This is such a gorgeous species, and I love them, but they’re expanding their range northward and genetically swamping out my beloved Golden-winged Warbler. I was sad that they’ve reached Duluth now. 

Cardinal feeding his mate

I never saw a cardinal in my yard until they were becoming fairly common throughout Duluth. I saw my first Red-bellied Woodpecker in December 1981, when they were still extremely rare up here. It was several years before I saw another, and years more before they were starting to be regular up here. In 2016, a pair nested in my very own box elder tree. That was the first nest ever reported in St. Louis County, but my two birds weren’t the first to breed here—Mike Hendrickson and others, including me, had seen fledglings with their parents years before that. 

Nesting Red-bellied Woodpeckers

Hello, world!

The longest awaited fairly common bird for me to add to my list was the Golden-winged Warbler. My very first fall here, a group of birders came over for dinner during Hawk Ridge Weekend, and one of them saw a Golden-wing in my yard, but I missed it and year after year after year, I never saw one. For a few years, I tried luring them in during spring migration by playing recordings, but year after year after year, I never saw nor heard a single one. Finally I saw one in 2015, after living here for 34 years, and Ive seen them a couple of times since, all after I'd given up on the recordings. I still don't have a photo of one here. 

The bird that took the most technological assistance to add to my yard list was the American Woodcock. A few of them used to display down by the train tracks on Superior Street, 6 blocks from my house. One night I sat up on our roof with my parabolic microphone and listened hard in every direction until I could finally hear them. If we can use binoculars and spotting scope to bring distant birds closer visually, why not a parabola to bring them closer aurally? 

Anyway, new yard birds are very difficult for me to come by nowadays. But on Friday morning, September 11, 2020, the very day that I’d done my podcast and blog post about Ruffed Grouse, my neighbor Jeanne called—a Ruffed Grouse was strolling through her front yard that very moment. 

Ruffed Grouse
A pre-enactment. This photo was taken at Crex Meadows. I didn't get a photo of my yard Ruffed Grouse. 

I was holding my baby grandson Walter at the time. I ran to the window, and lo and behold! There it was! So at four weeks of age, Walter has a bird on my yard list that took me 39 years to see. And that makes me very happy. 

Friday, September 11, 2020

Grousing about viruses

Ruffed Grouse

In the past couple of years, I’ve had pretty good luck taking photos of a couple of individual Ruffed Grouse—one of those species I particularly love—at the Sax-Zim Bog, so my ears pricked up as I read an email from James Stone of Northome. He wasn’t looking forward to the end of mushroom picking, but otherwise seemed to be looking forward to the first frost. He wrote:  

I believe we will freeze the lower ground tonight, which will put an end to my chanterelle picking and maybe bring the ruffed grouse broods out of wherever they’ve been prospecting. There was a period of time—2 weeks or so, about 6 weeks back—that the ruffed grouse hens were moving their broods around and I was chasing them off blacktops and watching them take dust baths on the forest gravels.  Since then, they’ve virtually disappeared and of course I always have this concern about West Nile. In 2007 the ruffed grouse populations crashed statewide; the DNR pretended the crash never happened (license sales) but consequent news out of Pennsylvania gave me the idea that WN virus was probably the culprit.  And I can testify to the abundance of mosquitos this summer, even in the sandy chanterelle ground.  
Tragically, James is right about how West Nile Virus has affected grouse. According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, between 1978 and 2000, flush rates for ruffed grouse reported by hunters in Pennsylvania declined by 2 percent as forests aged beyond the early succession the birds need for food and shelter. But then, between 2001 and the end of 2018, flush rates plummeted by 54 percent, due to West Nile Virus.  

Ruffed Grouse

When West Nile first appeared in New York City in 1999, fears of a pandemic for humans were extreme—I went down to New Orleans in 2001 and when birding here and there, saw many people wearing mosquito netting from head to toe. Yet in the worst year, 2003, there were fewer than 10,000 human cases nationwide, and nowhere near as many deaths. Indeed, in the 20 years since West Nile Virus was first detected in the US, a total of about 2,300 Americans have died from it. For comparison, during on May 1 of this year—just that one 24-hour period—over 2,909 people died of COVID-19, and even as we developed better treatments for people with the virus, there were a great many single days this summer when more than 1,000 people died. In just six months, COVID-19 has killed almost 2 orders of magnitude more people in the US than West Nile Virus has in more than two decades.  

COVID-19 is airborne, which makes it hard for people to infect wildlife. West Nile Virus made it into wildlife much more easily, because it’s transmitted via mosquitoes, and was far more lethal to many wild species than it is to humans. Jason Bittel reports in a June 4, 2020, article for National Geographic that even as West Nile Virus was ebbing in humans:  

The virus lingered in the woods … spreading from bird to bird—not just ruffed grouse but more than 300 species, causing brain lesions, and killing millions of birds. "Some of our best-loved backyard birds are missing,” [Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist Lisa] Williams says. Crows, owls, and blue jays are among those that have suffered severe losses to West Nile virus. Ruffed grouse numbers have fallen in states from Minnesota and Michigan to North Carolina and New Jersey, a problem exacerbated by climate change. 

 In Pennsylvania, Williams says, ruffed grouse declined by an estimated 23 percent between 2017 and 2018—¬“a horrendous year.” West Nile virus, she adds, is “a classic climate change disease.” Earlier springs in the forests give mosquitoes more time to pump out larvae, and increases in precipitation, also spurred by climate change, create more stagnant pools in which the insects can reproduce.

All of us enjoy reminiscing about those mythical “good old days” when life was ever so much better, either because we were unaware of how bad those days were for others or because we’ve forgotten the bad elements. Grouse have always undergone dramatic population swings in regular cycles, and I always remember when I complain that I haven’t seen any in a while that we may be in the low part of their cycle. But even cyclical species can truly decline, bringing the low swings far lower than historical lows, and the highs much lower than the historical highs. That is happening with Ruffed Grouse. 

Population trend of Ruffed Grouse in Minnesota between 1966 and 2012 (data from the BBS is harder to get in recent years, thanks I think to budget cuts).

This splendid bird may not be our state bird, and hunters may be losing interest in it—small game license sales have been declining in Minnesota for the past 20 years, and last year saw the smallest number of grouse hunters since the DNR started keeping records in 1969. Grouse hunters and non-hunters alike need to join forces to ensure that the DNR has the funding to protect grouse habitat and to keep tabs on exactly what is happening to this wonderful species. 

Ruffed Grouse

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Fall Migration Update

Red-eyed Vireo

On September 7, I got an email from James Stone, who lives near Northome, Minnesota. He summed up migration in his neck of the woods: 

2 1/2 weeks ago a big slug of phoebes, warblers, vireos and gnatcatchers piled in 2 nights in a row, feeding on lake hatch insects, and disappeared just as quickly when a group of adult and juvenile merlins and sharpshins showed up.  I never under-estimate the terror the bird hawks inspire.

Things have been pretty quiet since except for a movement of cedar waxwings. The last 3 days have seen small packs of blue jays, the occasional warbler and vireo, and a thrush or two.  Robins noticeably absent. Hummingbirds all gone for a week or so.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
I took this photo in my yard on September 6. This hummer or another was still visiting on September 10. 

Living near Lake Superior, we see hummingbirds a bit longer than people inland. I hadn’t had an adult male Ruby-throated Hummingbird in over a week, but I did see one on September 4. I didn’t see any hummers at all on Sunday or Monday, but had a female or young hummer once on September 8, and all day on September 9 (and first thing in the morning on September 10). I’ll be keeping up my feeders at least until October this year, just in case. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds traveling through are never tempted to overwinter because of a feeder. An individual may remain for a few days or even a week or more, but that’s simply to make up the deficit in calories as the natural foods they need grow scarcer.  

Red-eyed Vireo

Red-eyed Vireos are still hanging out in my neighborhood, too. On the 5th, I was sitting in a lawn chair watching the activity at my birdbath when I heard something right next to me. And lo and behold, in the Juneberry shrub less than 2 feet away was a Red-eyed Vireo! This was probably a bird hatched this year because the iris was brown, not red, though a few adults never get a brilliant red eye. 

I was holding the camera with my good 300-mm lens, which takes great photos but cannot focus close. I held my breath, and when the bird moved on a minute or so after I noticed it, it flew just another foot further, into a small tree by our fence. Even there I had to pull myself as far back as I could without falling over in order to focus, but I got a few nice photos. I also got fairly nice photos of a Philadelphia Vireo that morning.  

Philadelphia Vireo

The, early that afternoon, I watched a Mourning Dove fly into the yard—the first since spring. A few hours later I went out with my dog Pip, and she found the remains of what was probably that very Mourning Dove—we’ve been getting a steady hawk migration.

Mourning Dove

The one who got my dove was most likely a Merlin or a Sharp-shin, but an adult Peregrine flew circles over my yard for quite a while that afternoon, too, and they’re not above taking doves. The next day, I did see another Mourning Dove in the yard.  

Mourning Dove

I’ve read several reports of warblers moving through along the shore and at Park Point in recent weeks. I’ve had a few in my own yard, but not nearly as many as usual, and virtually none visiting my birdbaths. But the number of White-throated Sparrows in my yard has been wonderful—at least 50 each day over the weekend, and well over a hundred in the days since. My Song Sparrows and Chipping Sparrows are still hanging around, too. I’ve been keeping my trail cams focused where some of the sparrows feed. When I’m watching them from outside with my camera, they’re all at least somewhat wary of me, making them less likely to squabble among themselves. The trail cam has caught fights but mostly feeding activity.


I put one trail cam in my tray feeder last night. Overnight, a deer mouse made it into the feeder. I don’t see how it could scale the squirrel barrier, but perhaps it jumped from the lilac bush. 

Mouse in my feeder, via my trail cam

First thing in the morning, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak showed up.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak via my trail cam

Then the Blue Jays took over. In one video, a Blue Jay is hammering away at a sunflower seed between its toes, and the moment its head came up with the kernel at the tip of its beak, another jay grabbed the seed right out of its mouth and flew away. 

Blue Jay cracking open seeds. Near end, another jay takes the kernel right out of its beak!

This morning, September 9, a Mississippi Kite flew right over Hawk Ridge. It was probably visible from my yard, had I been outside at the right moment looking in the right direction. We can’t see every bird that comes through even when we’re watching every moment. When we learn about the birds we missed, we’re motivated to pay closer attention, and for those of us with imagination, there’s also excitement. Imagine—a Mississippi Kite flew over my yard today! The joy of birding comes from what we do see, but I’d rather miss a good bird that others saw than not have that good bird fly over at all. 

Mississippi Kite
I photographed this Mississippi Kite in Oklahoma in 2013. I doubt if it's the same one who
flew over Hawk Ridge yesterday.