Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, February 21, 2022

Little Walter the Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee waiting for mealworms

All the redpolls crowding into my feeders have been filling me with both joy and the impulse to take bazillions of photos. Their plumage is so variable that no matter how many individuals I photograph, I keep seeing more beautiful variations, and want pictures of every one of them.   

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll

My home office turns out to be the perfect place for this. The redpolls come to the window feeder and, even better, spend a lot of time in the spruce tree near the window. All I have to do is lower the upper pane and click away for perfect, unobstructed shots, at least for a few seconds, and sometimes for a full minute or more. But suddenly and inevitably I hear the soft whirring of wings and insistent chattering and there goes my photo op. 

One particular chickadee—I’m pretty sure the male of the pair that nested in our cherry tree last summer—has flown in. He hovers directly in front of my camera for a moment and then alights on the window, blocking my view of the redpolls. Once he even landed on my camera. I’m of course using my 500mm lens, so can’t get a picture of him except when he darts into the tree to give me a long, hard stare. At that point I can’t help but aim my camera at him, which is counterproductive as far as he’s concerned—he wants food, not a photo op—so in he zooms again. (All the chickadee photos in this blog post are of him when he's doing this. Quite a few of my chickadees make eye contact and allow me to take close up photos, but these were all taken of him during my redpoll photo sessions.) 

Black-capped Chickadee waiting for mealworms

It's not like he doesn’t have plenty of food right there—that window feeder is invariably stocked with the large peanut halves he loves topped off with dried mealworms. I’ve watched him devour those when I’m sitting at my desk with the window closed. When the feeder is full, whether my window is open or closed, all the other chickadees are just as happy to get their snacks there, but not this one guy. When he sees me at the open window, visions of wriggly, warm-alive mealworms dance in his head, and he expects me to drop everything to root through my mealworm bucket just for him. 

Black-capped Chickadee

Of course I oblige him. If I’m entirely focused on taking redpoll pictures, giving him mealworms is the only way he’ll fly off long enough for me to take a few more before he returns. But there’s something else at play, too. When this little guy, so adorable, so confiding, looks right into my eyes, he can wrap me around his tiny claw the exact way my adorable, confiding, one-and-a-half-year-old grandson Walter wraps me around his little finger. I’m Walter’s primary childcare provider during the work week. He’s pretty good at entertaining himself right up until the moment I answer an email or take a phone call. That’s when he looks up at me with those adorable dark eyes filled with expectation, wraps his tiny hand around my little finger, and tugs. Of course I oblige him, though he doesn’t want mealworms—he wants Grandma’s full attention. 

We humans see chickadees through the eyes of a species that produces helpless young that remain dependent for years, so what our eyes recognize as cute or adorable often elicits both smiles and an impulse to nurture. Compared to adults, human babies are tiny with relatively large eyes, plump bodies, and oversized heads—features that help define cuteness to our eyes. Small wonder chickadees are so universally considered cute and endearing. Of course, a chickadee's oversized head didn’t evolve to appeal to us—their head size is evidence of learning capacity. Chickadees readily figure out how to manipulate things in their environment including, in this case, a little old lady in her home office, to get what they want. Even at their most annoying, their adorableness wins out, and so I can’t help but smile and indulge the winsome little creature at hand, whether it's Walter or one particular chickadee.

I don’t usually give my chickadees names, but this guy who knows just what buttons to push to bend me to his will turns out to have an obvious one. I’m calling him Little Walter.  

Black-capped Chickadee

Saturday, February 19, 2022


Common Redpoll

This is a banner year for redpolls. People all over Minnesota and Wisconsin are posting about them on Facebook, and my email box is full of stories about these charming winter visitors. Redpolls have everything going for them as far as their popularity with people goes. They’re little, both sexes have beautiful plumage, their chattery calls are pleasant, and they seem amazingly approachable and even friendly. They get along with one another well enough that a surprising number can crowd into a single platform feeder, though if you pay attention, you can’t help but notice that some are pretty darned assertive in defending their personal space when they’d prefer not to share.  

Common Redpolls at my window feeder

Redpolls, which are circumpolar, breed in coniferous forest and scrub of the far north, in North America through arctic Canada and most of Alaska. In Eurasia they breed from northern Scandinavia, northern Russia, and northern Siberia south to central Russia, southern Siberia, Outer Manchuria, Sakhalin and Kamchatka. For no good reason, the Lesser Redpoll of Europe also been introduced in New Zealand. On tundra and beyond the timberline, they’re found only in hollows and sheltered spots with shrubby vegetation. 

Seed production in many trees varies wildly, often alternating crazily from one year to the next. In response, redpolls stay mostly in the far north when food is plentiful there, and head south in vast numbers when it isn’t. Some winters they may appear as far south as South Carolina, Alabama, and southern California, while other years they barely travel as far south as the northernmost states. 

Hoary and Common Redpoll and Pine Siskin

As befits a bird that can winter so very far north, redpolls are shockingly hardy. Researchers could easily look at extreme temperatures in locations where they knew redpolls were visiting feeders to establish just how hardy they are, but for some reason, some scientists thought it necessary to conduct laboratory studies in which they watched various songbirds become hypothermic and then die as the temperature in a controlled chamber was lowered degree by degree. Common Redpolls survived down to -65º F and Hoary Redpolls down to an astonishing -88º F. I don’t know if that says more about the extreme warm-bloodedness of redpolls or the extreme cold-bloodedness of some researchers.

Redpolls have many strategies to survive such extreme temperatures. Their muscle mass increases as temperatures drop below zero, enhancing their ability to shiver, which warms their core tissues. Their plumage is 31 percent heavier in November than July to increase insulation, and peripheral vasoconstriction—that is, reducing blood flow at their extremities—also thickens their insulation while concentrating the warmth in their core. The fuel that redpolls burn to warm the body in the first place is very high energy—those tiny seeds—and they can eat over a longer time in a 24-hour day than most birds because they have more rod cells in their retinas, allowing them to feed at lower light levels. And they go to sleep not only on a full stomach, but with extra food to unconsciously snack on as they sleep—their esophagus has a great many diverticula, or pouches, that they also fill as evening falls. As they sleep, after they’ve digested their stomach contents, those pouches slowly empty into the stomach, stoking their metabolic furnace through the long winter night. 

Common Redpoll

Their feeding behaviors help conserve heat, too. We can’t help but notice redpolls milling about on the ground as well as in our feeders. In more natural settings, they feed on seeds clinging to trees, but don’t necessarily stay in those trees to eat. They’re much more protected from gusts of wind on the ground, allowing them to fluff their feathers to conserve their body heat. So both on their arctic breeding grounds and wherever they happen to be wintering, redpolls often shake seeds from catkins and then drop to the ground to eat them. 

With such a wide arctic range, different redpoll populations show differences in bill size and plumage. Most recent ornithological research has focused on their taxonomy. Currently, scientists recognize three different species in the world, the Common and Hoary appearing in North America, and both of those along with the Lesser Redpoll appearing in the Old World. Some scientists believe there are as many as six redpoll species, but based on DNA and other data, other scientists believe all of them should be lumped into a single species. Some birders would be just as happy not having to sort through each one seeking out a Hoary, but there will be a lot of birder angst if we lose that one from our life lists. 

Hoary Redpoll

This season, redpolls started passing through northern Minnesota in big numbers back in October. I spent a lot of time outside in November and early December watching the Rufous Hummingbird on Peabody Street and hearing redpolls, but not once did a redpoll come down to my feeders, and I only read a few accounts of them visiting other feeding stations. Why would they bother while so much natural food was available in the form of seeds still clinging to trees?  

But as the season progressed and they depleted more and more of their natural food sources, they showed up at more and more feeders, in bigger and bigger numbers. Redpolls are nomadic, moving about from here to there all season, their numbers usually peaking in late March or April. 

Now that they’re visiting feeders, I’m going through a lot of Nyjer seed. I put it in three small tube feeders, and pour some over the sunflower seed in the two platform feeders in my yard. My home office window feeder is the only one squirrels can get into, so I fill that one with Fiery Feast—a capsaicin-laced mixture of nuts and sunflower hearts—but with so many redpolls, I’ve also been sprinkling Nyjer seed in there. Redpolls really do concentrate on small seeds, but on Saturday I watched one pull a large peanut half from the feeder and dart into my spruce tree, where it took tiny bites as it tucked the peanut chunk into different crevices among the spruce needles. I guess I’ll have to live a lot longer than my paltry 70 years to understand even the most familiar birds. 

Common Redpoll

One of my listeners, Nicole Ottjes writes:

I have lived in Duluth for 6 years in the Piedmont area, and this winter for the first time I have a huge number of redpolls every day in my yard.  For the past few weeks I bet there have been 50-100 redpolls gorging on the shelled sunflower seeds in my tray feeder. To quote my neighbor, “There goes the bird food budget!” When I go out to hand-feed mealworms to my chickadees, the redpolls hang around too and land on my head and hand sometimes.  They haven't eaten a mealworm from my hand yet (maybe mealworms are not in their diet?), but they are pretty intense!    

Adult redpolls are primarily vegans, feasting in their natural habitat on very small seeds from birch, willow, alder, and some conifers. Their interest in insects is mostly limited to the nesting season, particularly as the best high-protein food for their growing chicks. When I mentioned that they aren’t much interested in insects in winter, Nicole quickly wrote back:

You were right - I put seeds in my hand instead of mealworms, and apparently that's all it takes. I wonder if they would have eaten from my hand if they hadn't seen the chickadees doing it already? Chickadees seem like great teachers.   

Nicole sent a great video of at least a dozen redpolls flitting about and crowding into her outstretched hand. 

Copyright 2022 by Nicole Ottjes

I’ve never fed redpolls by hand, but just watching her video was thrilling. I’ve been taking lots of photos of redpolls in my feeders and trees, and this weekend made a short sound recording of their pleasant little call notes, but Nicole’s splendid video tops them all. I'm so pleased that it was her chickadees that inspired her redpolls to come to her hand. 

Redpolls are thriving through all the frigid weather we’ve been having. But their habit of feeding on the ground, which works just fine year-round in their natural habitat and during the coldest period of winter in our backyard habitats, turns out to be dangerous for them when we start getting thaws as winter releases its hold. In nature, not all that many seeds collect under any single tree, but all the wasted seed and seed shells that pile up under our feeders through the winter slowly decay, fostering bacteria and mold growth. Periodic thawing hastens the process, especially as spring progresses. So those of us with bird feeders have a moral responsibility to dig out or rake out the spoiled seed whenever the weather and ground conditions allow. Composting is a perfect way to dispose of them as long as we keep the compost pile or bin screened to keep those little birds out. Like any restaurant owner, we people with bird restaurants have obligations to our diners, even if no health inspectors are checking up on us. 

Common Redpoll

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Winter Bird Song, Part II

Great Reed-Warbler 

Mid-February chickadees, cardinals, and White-breasted Nuthatches are singing. These non-migratory species spend winter on or near the territories they’ll claim come spring, near the mates they’ll nest with come spring. Migratory birds wintering up here who will breed farther north don’t normally sing at all in winter. Some do begin during migration before they reach their destination, even while it’s still wintry. There is nothing more beautiful than juncos and Fox Sparrows singing away during an April blizzard. But neither species is singing right now. 

Winter Wrens and Hermit Thrushes, species with two of the most gorgeous songs on the planet, seldom jump the gun to thrill migration watchers. They wait until they’re on territory to sing.

Oddly enough, some birds that migrate long distances do sing their territorial songs in the dead of winter while they are hundreds or thousands of miles from where they’ll nest. Alert listener Don Watson called my attention to a February 2016 article in The Atlantic by Joshua Sokol, “The Birds That Spend All Winter Practicing Love Songs,” subtitled “Some species work on their beach body. Others work on their pipes.” 

The article, about European birds singing in sub-Saharan Africa in winter, focused on the work of Claire Spottiswoode. She’s been an avid birdwatcher since her childhood in South Africa, where she loved listening to Great Reed-Warblers, which sounded to her like “deep-throated jazz musicians.” These birds don’t breed in Africa, but in Europe, and as Spottiswoode became a researcher, she started wondering why they were singing at all so far from their breeding grounds. Singing is energy intensive and attracts predators, plus reed-warblers don’t associate with mates in winter and obviously aren’t defending a nesting territory. So why on earth are they such active singers in winter?

One of Spottiswoode’s former grad students, Marjorie Sorensen, conducted a study in Zambia testing the possibilities. She found that when playing recordings of their songs, Great Reed-Warblers neither reacted aggressively nor avoided the recordings, so the winter songs apparently had no territorial function. And the singing individuals had no higher testosterone levels than non-singers. Breeding reed-warblers have two song-types—quick ones to warn away intruders and longer ones communicating with potential mates. The winter songs were just as complex as the breeding songs but in a slower tempo. Sorensen explained that “They don’t really have breaks between their songs. They’re just singing, singing, singing.” The songs also seem to meander mid-verse, with the birds switching more rapidly from sound to sound. Females choosing a mate seem to prefer more complex notes, so males apparently use their low-stakes winter rehearsals to try a variety of tones and perfect the best ones. 

There will need to be more research on how these songs change from winter through migration and on the breeding grounds to test whether the purpose of winter singing really is to practice. But this new explanation is inspiring more ornithologists to study the issue. Examining the songs of 57 species that sing in winter, researchers noticed that these species tend to be ones with complex songs and/or drab plumage, making their songs very important in attracting mates. It’ll be fun watching how research teases out what exactly is going on. Here in America, the change in White-throated Sparrow songs from their traditional Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody to a slightly different version (which doesn’t appear to be as universal as scientists originally proclaimed a couple of years ago) apparently sprung up as males from different parts of the country were listening to one another’s songs on their wintering grounds. 

This is why I so love ornithology—one could study birds every day during a long lifetime and never even scratch the surface. The more we know about birds, the more we realize how much we don’t know. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Winter Bird Song, Part I

Black-capped Chickadee

Every morning when I go out to add food to the feeders, I’m hearing a wonderfully welcome sound—my neighborhood chickadees are singing their lovely Hey, sweetie! song, a promise that come spring, these beloved little guys will be doing what needs to be done to ensure the production of new baby chickadees. That clear, whistled song is produced mostly by males, though females are known to sing, too. 

Researchers describe the song as a simple Fee bee, the first note higher than the second, and the second with a very short amplitude break in the middle, audible at close range, that makes it sound more like fee bee-bee. (You can hear it at this link.) My hearing is not very good, but I can hear that break almost all the time, even when the chickadees are pretty far away. 

Eastern Phoebe

The Eastern Phoebe’s raspy song is also described as fee bee, fee bee-bee, but it sounds entirely different (listen here), confusing a lot of people. So instead of using that to describe chickadee songs, I use a different mnemonic, Hey, sweetie!, which serves a double purpose, suggesting one of the purposes of the song, to attract a mate and keep that pair bond strong. 

Bird songs, including those of chickadees, usually do double duty, also announcing that the singer owns and is willing and able to defend a territory. The male chickadees who rank higher in the flock hierarchy sing more than lower-ranking birds do. The singing right now, in the dead of winter, helps solidify flock rankings and pair bonds without disrupting flocking behavior. Those of us who feed birds get to hear more songs than people living farther from feeders—the chickadees who visit high-quality feeding stations first thing in the morning sing more frequently than chickadees who have to work harder for their breakfast. 

Northern Cardinal

Cardinals are singing now, too. At least some chickadees and cardinals were singing a bit back in December, but as days lengthen, giving them more hours to find food each day, they can spend more time on singing and other things. Male cardinals sing year-round, most frequently in the Midwest from late February through July. Female cardinals have a much shorter singing period, more closely coinciding with nesting. Even then, they sing about a fifth as often as males or less. 

Northern Cardinal

Female cardinals have pretty much the same repertoires as males but their songs can be longer with more syllable types. That greater complexity probably has to do with what they’re communicating to the male regarding her needs during incubation and feeding young. Song exchanges between incubating or brooding females and their mates appear to coordinate male feeding visits to the nest. Females also sing in territorial defense of their nest. Males “countersing” with neighboring males as well as with their mates. Before nesting, males and females match each other’s song types more than males countersinging with other males do. 

Northern Cardinal
Yes, it snows in southeastern Arizona! The bird's color is a bit distorted from the lighting, but you can see how his crest is longer and the black around his face covers a smaller area than the male cardinal pictured above.

Intriguingly, there are differences in the singing styles of the familiar cardinals in Canada and most of the United States and the cardinals in Mexico and parts of Arizona. Those of us who pay attention to cardinals may notice that the males in Southeastern Arizona have longer crests, are a slightly different shade of red, and have slightly less black on their faces than cardinals elsewhere in the US and Canada. Their songs are also slightly different. (You can hear both the common Northern Cardinal and the long-crested cardinal on the All About Birds cardinal page here.) Ornithologists are considering splitting cardinals into as many as six species, four of which are found exclusively in Mexico; more research into the vocalizations and genetics of the six types will determine whether any or all of them are truly separate or not. 

Hairy Woodpecker

Chickadee and cardinal songs are so musical that we can’t help but recognize them as true songs. Woodpeckers are drumming right now, which serves as their song, too. Like chickadees and cardinals, they won’t be starting to nest for several weeks, but drumming serves pretty much the same purposes as more musical songs. 

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatches are also singing, but people don’t necessarily notice the differences between their day-to-day cranky yank! notes and their longer song, given exclusively by males, for pretty much the same purposes as chickadee and cardinal songs. You can listen to their calls and songs here

White-breasted Nuthatch

Nuthatches stay in pairs through the winter, which is apparently more beneficial to the males than the females. Both benefit from a nearby extra pair of eyes searching out hawks, shrikes, and other dangers, but whenever a female comes upon a good food source, her mate chases her off to eat first. Fortunately, nuthatches eat like chickadees, carrying off a morsel to eat elsewhere, so she returns to a feeder as soon as he flies away. 

Dark-eyed Junco

Common Redpoll

Most of the other birds we’re hearing right now are making calls rather than songs. Juncos won't start making their trills until March and April. The handful of robins that overwinter up here will start singing around the time average day-night temperatures reach 37º F or so. Redpolls and other finches make plenty of twittering calls, but those don't count as songs. 

February is the shortest month if you’re simply looking at the number of days but by far the longest when we're hungry for spring. Fortunately, the sweetness and warmth of chickadee and cardinal songs touch our hearts as only the most exquisite valentine can do.  

Black-capped Chickadee

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Auggie's Bogwalk

Augie's Boardwalk

On January 29, when my friend Erik Bruhnke and I went to the bog, my loveliest moments of the day were at the Fringed Gentian Bog, named for an ethereally beautiful wildflower found in this part of the Sax-Zim Bog. The birding was nice and low-key, with chickadees everywhere and finches twittering all along as we walked along a lovely boardwalk called Auggie’s Bogwalk. 

Common Redpoll

It ended at a feeding station teeming with redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, and a small display case filled with hand-carved owls and an invitation to take one home. 

Augie's Boardwalk

Auggie’s Bogwalk was built and named in memory of Augustus James Feth, a baby who died the day he was born, August 14, 2018. My grandson Walter was born exactly two years later, on August 14, 2020. Reading about Auggie called to mind Russ’s and my fears during our daughter’s long and arduous labor, and then our intense joy when her healthy baby was born. Standing there, the cheerful twitterings of redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks filling the air, I was filled with gratitude for all I’ve been given; sorrow for Auggie, his parents, and family; and deeply-felt gratitude to Auggie’s great-grandfather, Bob Briski, who had carved each of those owls one by one, creating a warm and loving tribute to Auggie with these treasures, so freely given to hundreds of strangers, springing from his own grief and loss.

In this sacred place, Bob Briski’s lovely tribute to a baby who never had a chance to see birds touched my heart and soul. Knowing how much my own baby grandson loves looking at birds, I felt even more acutely the tragic loss of his great-grandson. Walter’s favorite birds are chickadees, so I was happy that Auggie’s place was so filled with these delightful baby-pleasers. And Walter has seen lots of eastern cottontails during his own short life and makes adorable bunny sniffing sounds whenever he sees a bunny or a picture of one. Fittingly, Auggie’s Bogwalk happens to be the best place in the entire Sax-Zim Bog to see snowshoe hares. Erik and I didn’t see one on this trip, but I love imagining them hopping about on and under the boardwalk, brightening Auggie’s spirit. 

I treasure the owl carving I took home. I’m keeping it in a place of honor on my desk, reminding me to hold my own grandbaby tighter as I think of the unparalleled generosity of a man who found a way to bring joy and light to others from his own unimaginable loss.

Owl carved by Bob Briski in memory of his baby great-grandson

Saturday, February 5, 2022

It's All Good

Bohemian Waxwing

I spent January 29 birding with my good friend Erik Bruhnke. I always plan out a birding adventure by thinking of birds I hope to see. I’ve been hearing lots about Bohemian Waxwings and love seeing them, so I set them as my main goal of the day.   

Erik and I made plans to start out at 5:30 so at first light we’d be at the Sand River, way north of Two Harbors, where people have been seeing Spruce Grouse. Then we’d work our way up to Ely where Bohemian Waxwings hang out in the town’s many fruit trees, and then on across to the Sax-Zim Bog. Waxwings would be possible there, too, but our best chance would be Ely.   

This wasn’t strictly a birding day for Erik—he had to check out restaurants and restroom facilities ahead of a birding tour he’d be leading a few days later, so we couldn’t dawdle the way I do when I’m birding alone. That was fine with me. As Erik always says, “It’s all good.”    

Our plans went awry before we even started—due to unforeseen circumstances, we left much later than we’d planned. It was still darkish but the sun would rise well before we got to the Spruce Grouse spot, lowering our chances of seeing any. So we decided to reverse our plans, starting out at the Bog. No big deal—as Erik says, it’s all good.   

Snowy Owl

And it was good! Our first cool bird of the day was a Snowy Owl on a power pole on Highway 7. Then we worked our way to the Fringed Gentian Bog, a good place to see feeder birds and the best spot to see a snowshoe hare—one has been hanging out around the boardwalk there. I’ve yet to photograph one of those in winter, so I was particularly excited about that prospect. There were a lot of redpolls there, a few Pine Grosbeaks, and the usual chickadees and nuthatches, but we missed the snowshoe hare—an excellent reason for me to return soon. 

Common Redpoll

Erik called out a magpie in time for me to just barely catch it as it flew out of sight beyond the trees. No photos, but even a split second with a magpie is wondrous. As Erik says, it’s all good.   

Next we headed to the feeders on Admiral Road. That used to be the best spot in the bog to see Boreal Chickadees, but they’re not showing up there this year. Erik and I didn’t get to the Welcome Center where Boreal Chickadees have been easy this year, but I got some nice photos a couple of weeks ago, and I’ll head to the Welcome Center again next time I’m at the bog. 

Boreal Chickadee

We did see four Canada Jays which is always exciting.

Canada Jay   

Next we headed to the feeders on McDavitt Road, where 60 Evening Grosbeaks were a sight for sore eyes. I’ve seen them there before this year, but I can never get enough of them. We also had a small flock at Mary Lou’s feeders in the northwest corner of the bog’s birding map. That’s also where we had a delightful flock of Wild Turkeys, including a few of the pale, “smoke,” plumage variant. These were my first turkeys of 2022. As Erik says, it’s all good.   

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

In recent weeks, lots of people have been seeing Great Gray Owls here and there, but Erik and I didn’t spot any. I still need to see that one for the year, but 2022 still has a long way to go. As we headed out of the bog, we got an even better look at our first Snowy Owl of the day. As Erik says, it’s all good.  

We got to Ely later than we’d wanted, and later than the Bohemian Waxwings come each day to a good stand of fruit trees. Erik had to check out a couple of restaurants, and then we drove around town, looking for and scrutinizing every fruit tree we could find, but no waxwings.  

We made one stop, on Spruce Road, on our way down to Two Harbors, and kept searching for owls, waxwings, and anything else we might see, but it was getting late. Oh, well. My goals for each day aren’t like a child’s list of Christmas wishes from Santa Claus. I was too excited about the three new birds for my year list—a Hoary Redpoll at the Fringed Gentian Bog and both Wild Turkeys and House Sparrows at Mary Lou’s feeders—to feel any disappointment at all.  

Oddly enough, the next morning, while I was working at my desk, something made me go to the window right when a large flock of Bohemian Waxwings was sitting in the maple tree in my front yard. I got two very backlit photos from the window and then rushed outside, but the birds were already taking off. I’m sure I’ll get plenty more photos of them in the coming weeks—they were milling about here and there in Duluth on February 5. The sun behind the Bohemian Waxwings in my pictures gives some of them a soft halo-like aura around hazy, ghostlike bodies. Somehow I couldn’t resist posting one on my website. It won't win any photo contests but, like Erik says, it’s all good.   

Horribly backlit Bohemian Waxwings

Friday, February 4, 2022

February Bluebird!!

Eastern Bluebird

On February 2, when the Northland’s woodchucks, aka groundhogs, were safely hibernating except the pitiful few being forced against their will to pretend to be meteorologists, I drove over to a house in the Kenwood neighborhood of Duluth, hoping to see an overwintering Eastern Bluebird. Bluebirds don’t hibernate, but every fall they are supposed to light out for their wintering range way south of here. Seeing one on a frigid February day is as improbable as seeing a wild groundhog, so I could hardly resist when Vi Adams sent me an email this week telling me about her visitor, who’s been hanging out in her yard since October.   

Not only are bluebirds not supposed to be here at all right now—they’re also not supposed to visit feeders at all, though some people who run bluebird trails have enticed them to specially designed bluebird feeders by offering live mealworms and homemade concoctions of such ingredients as suet dough; dried mealworms; and dried, frozen, or fresh fruits. Vi keeps her normal bird feeders filled with a simple commercial fruit and nut mixture that kept her feeders hopping the whole time I was there and is apparently tasty enough to draw in the adult male bluebird a few times each day as well. When not at her front yard feeding station, she often sees him hanging out in and below a dense shrub in her backyard. Some large pine and spruce trees back there almost certainly provide protected roosting spots, but he’d be hard to pick out in them.  

Birds have wings and know how to use them, so it’s always a crapshoot whether we’re going to see even the most reliable bird when we chase a rarity. I was at Vi’s house from about 1:45 pm until 4, but the little guy didn’t come to the feeders once while I was there. I did get a decent but very quick look at him hunkered down and feeding on the ground beneath that dense shrub. The two photos I took are exceptionally poor, though the bluebird is at least identifiable in them. 

Eastern Bluebird in Duluth in February

When the sub-zero temperature got too much for me standing out there, Vi invited me in for a cup of cocoa while we maintained our vigil at the window overlooking the feeders.    

As cool as seeing a bluebird in February might be, it was equally cool getting to know Vi as I watched her regular feeder visitors. I’d already taken closeups of a Hairy Woodpecker on her suet... 

Hairy Woodpecker

...and some House Finches in back being more cooperative than the bluebird in the same shrub.


From in the house I got decent shots of a Red-bellied Woodpecker...

Red-bellied Woodpecker through the window

Red-bellied Woodpecker through the window

...and a Pileated. 

Pileated Woodpecker through the window

Back when Russ and I moved to Duluth in 1981, Red-bellied Woodpeckers any time of year were as rare as bluebirds in winter are now, but this non-migratory species has become an everyday bird in just about every neighborhood. Pileated Woodpeckers haven’t expanded their range—they were always found around Duluth—but in 1981, it was a big event when one visited a backyard in town, and huge when one came to a bird feeder. I often saw and heard Pileated Woodpeckers around my mother-in-law’s property in rural Port Wing, Wisconsin, but they virtually never showed up at her feeders, either. I remember how thrilled I was when one guy I nicknamed Jeepers showed up at my window suet feeder in 2004.

Jeepers the neighborhood Pileated Woodpecker

After he moved on, I didn’t see another in my feeders for years. Now, in recent years, they’re showing up at suet feeders all over—this winter I've had three individuals coming very often! But this represents a change in behavior, not a change in range.  

Is Vi’s bluebird evidence of climate change? Not really—individuals of most species vary at least somewhat in their migratory habits. It’s when some of those individuals wintering further north survive to breed that their genes are replicated in their young. Over long periods of time, individual Red-bellied Woodpeckers and cardinals—both non-migratory species— who wandered north started surviving and breeding north of where our range maps said they were supposed to be, and a few of their young scattered even further north. In the case of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, the hardwood trees they require are slowly replacing the birches and firs dwindling in our changing climate.   

Assuming Vi’s bluebird survives and reproduces after this relatively harsh winter, it’s possible some of his young will share his tendency, but as in the case of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, even as climate change continues apace, it’ll take many decades before individual wintering bluebirds have multiplied to the extent that we can take them for granted. That is something my baby grandson may see in his lifetime. I'll never see that, but I’m sure glad I got a glimpse, even a momentary, crappy one, of Vi’s exceptional little bird.

Eastern Bluebird

Wednesday, February 2, 2022


Black-capped Chickadee

Way back before Christmas, on December 21, the days stopped getting shorter. Not that they immediately started getting appreciably longer—the graph of day length over a year is a simple sine wave, the amplitude varying depending on where on Earth you are. 

The graph is virtually flat at the Equator, where every day is almost exactly 12 hours long, and the sine wave is deep and dramatic near the two poles, where there is no daylight at all near one solstice and no total darkness at all near the other. Wherever you are, day length changes most gradually from day to day at both the trough and the crest—the days surrounding the two solstices—and changes most rapidly in the days surrounding the two equinoxes.

I get up early each morning, and my normal daily pattern of working at my desk next to the window, drinking my cup of coffee as I pay attention to first light and the first birds arriving, makes the time of sunrise each day much more noticeable and important to me than the time of sunset. At December’s end, when days are their shortest, the time of sunrise changes almost imperceptibly from day to day, but as we get into January every year, I start noticing the earlier sunrise each morning.

On February 1, the sun rose at 7:32 am here in Duluth. A minute before 7, while the tree branches were still shadows barely darker than the sky but the snow on the ground was starting to assume a slightly bluish cast, the first two juncos appeared. It was too dark to see them fly in—I’d been watching steadily, but they were suddenly just there, as if Scotty on the Starship Enterprise had beamed them onto my tray feeder and the ground beneath. In the darkness, they looked like generic sparrows until I held up my binoculars—I’ve always marveled at how binoculars gather light, and my 10x42 binoculars with their 42mm objective lens are amazing, making birds much more recognizable even at midnight than the best human eyes could do. By 7:10, it was light enough for me to see other juncos flying in from their roost somewhere behind my yard. Soon the whole flock of 12 was accounted for. 

Dark-eyed Junco

Northern Cardinal

Three cardinals—one male and two females—are visiting almost daily this winter, but hardly ever between sunrise and sunset. I don’t know where they spend the rest of the day—if I’m not looking during twilight, I miss them. Most days they beat the juncos, but on February 1, the cardinals didn’t appear until 7:25, and disappeared at 7:30, two minutes before sunrise. I’ve heard a few cardinal songs in recent weeks, but later in the morning and only from a distance.

Pileated Woodpecker

Birds that roost in cavities don’t notice the gradually brightening twilight the way juncos, cardinals, and other birds roosting in tree or shrub branches do, so woodpeckers aren’t often among the very first birds to arrive before sunrise, but for a while I was seeing one or two Pileated Woodpeckers several minutes before sunrise many mornings, back when my yard was Pileated Woodpecker Central, with three different individuals showing up just about every day. One or two had to be sleeping in a cavity somewhere right around here to be at my feeder so very early, though I never could see one enter or emerge from what look like good roost holes in my three box elders. 

Now, since late last week, I’ve not been seeing any of them at first light, nor in the hour after sunrise before I leave to spend the day with my grandson. I don’t know why they disappeared so abruptly—nothing in my yard seems to have changed except that a Sharp-shinned Hawk showed up at least once on January 19. In the past I’ve seen sharpies terrorize Pileated Woodpeckers, so that might explain their sudden absence.

Exit, pursued by a Sharp-shinned Hawk

My first chickadees always appear before sunrise. My juncos usually concentrate at my big tray feeder and on the ground, but one or two sometimes visit the window feeder, though they usually wait until the chickadees let them know the coast is clear up there.

Black-capped Chickadee

Dark-eyed Junco

For the past week or so, redpolls have been in my yard every day. They have lots of rods in their retinas, so can see at lower light than most birds, but I usually don't see them until right around sunrise. 

Common Redpoll

With our windows tightly closed, this being winter, I can’t hear chickadee sounds from indoors, but when I’m outside filling the feeders right before sunrise or open my office window to fill that feeder, their lovely Hey, sweetie! songs are ringing out each day now, and I always hear them when I get to my daughter’s house about 9 am, and then again at midday if I take Walter outside to play in the snow. Neither chickadees nor cardinals nest up here until April or May, but their songs on the coldest days of winter are consistently part of our normal winter phenology. These songs may not constitute any better evidence that spring is coming than a groundhog not seeing its shadow, but on mornings when the temperature is double-digits below zero, those chickadee and cardinal songs sure do fill us with hope.

Black-capped Chickadee