If only the sky would look like this …
… but it’s unlikely in Pittsburgh. Not only are we too far south for most aurora borealis, but our skies are often overcast and city lights drown the spectacle.
This beautiful aurora was photographed over Bear Lake at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.
(photo from Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license. Click on the image to see the original)
The burrowing owl’s genus is named for Athena, goddess of wisdom.
In Brazil, this Athene cunicularia stood on one leg for his portrait.
Thinking big thoughts?
(This photograph was Picture of the Day at Wikimedia Commons on 19 February 2014. Click on the image to see the original.)
After two days of birding in northern Minnesota I’ve seen seven Life Birds. This species is one of them.
I’ve tried to find boreal chickadees in Maine in September and come up empty, perhaps because the weather was too pleasant. In Minnesota in the depths of winter they come to the peanut butter feeders at Sax Zim Bog. Life bird at last!
This is one bird you must visit at his home if you want to see him. Boreal chickadees (Poecile hudsonicus) never migrate so you won’t see one passing through in spring or fall. They live exclusively in the “spruce moose” forest where they survive the winter by stashing food at every opportunity.
It’s a harsh landscape in winter. As I have learned from personal experience, a typical birding day may yield only 10 species. The only boreal species I’m missing, and probably won’t see on this trip, is the great gray owl.
Sandy Komito, record holder of the North American Big Year since 1998(*), spoke at the Sax Zim Bog Festival on Friday night. What bird did he miss in northern Minnesota during his Big Year? Great gray owl. So I don’t feel so bad.
To make up for it, I saw a moose.
(photo by Jessica Botzan)
(*) Last December (2013) Neil Hayward beat Sandy Komito’s record by one bird. His record is not official until the local states’ records committees pass judgment on three first ABA records. Click here for a photo of them together.
Yesterday at Sax Zim Bog was bright, both day and night. It began with a full moon at -13F and peaked at 10F with this bird.
My Life Bird northern hawk owl was perched on top of a tree near the road, easy to see. He eyed us with suspicion as we trundled off the bus and stood in the road, staring at him. Do his eyebrows give him that disapproving look?
When he wasn’t staring back at us he scanned the bog for prey. I’ve read that northern hawk owls have perfected the technique of hunting by sight and can identify prey as much as half a mile away.
It helps to be in full sun if you need to see a vole at 2,640 feet.
p.s. Jess Botzan was lucky to capture this one in flight. I have never yet seen one fly.
(photo by Jessica Botzan)
I am really tired of cold weather and the effort it takes to walk around in heavy clothes and boots. I can hardly wait for spring and yet … I flew north yesterday to the Arrowhead of Minnesota where the high temperatures are lower than Pittsburgh’s lows, the lows have been -30F, and it snowed six inches yesterday. What was I thinking?
Well, I have a list of northern birds I’ve never seen and my best chance to find them is at the Sax Zim Bog Birding Festival this weekend in Meadowlands, Minnesota.
Jess and Brian Botzan were here last month and saw all the birds on my wish list: great gray owl, northern hawk owl, boreal chickadee, black-billed magpie, gray jay and pine grosbeak. Braving -50F wind chill Jess photographed this great gray owl at the very bog where I’ll be looking for one today. I hope to be so lucky.
So I’ve put on my long johns, corduroys, ski pants, turtleneck, thick wool sweater, polarlite cardigan, parka, Nordic earflap hat, two layers of mittens, wool socks, Sorel boots, face mask, bula and “Hot Hands” heat packets stuffed near my toes and fingers. I look and feel like a purple Pillsbury dough-boy but I am not cold.
My husband, who is too nearsighted to enjoy birding, has wisely stayed home.
Call me crazy.
(photo by Jessica Botzan)
p.s. Thanks to Jess Botzan who’s providing photos from her trip to illustrate my expedition.
If you were paying close attention to last Wednesday’s post about scarlet macaws you noticed that I changed the photo on Friday. That’s because Diane Korolog pointed out that the original photo was misidentified.
When I first published the article I used the photo on the left (green background). It’s a 2013 Featured Photo on Wikimedia Commons that was labeled “scarlet macaw” but Diane said it looks like a green-winged macaw (Ara chloropterus). The scarlet macaw (Ara macao) is on the right.
How can you tell the difference with only a head shot? Diane explained that the scarlet macaw has a clean all-white face, while the green-wing’s face has red feather lines. The feather lines are so unique that you can identify individual green-winged macaws by their pattern. This is as cool as identifying individual tundra swans by the yellow patterns on their bills.
The story doesn’t end there. On Friday I wrote to Information at Wikimedia Commons, explaining the labeling problem. A volunteer put me in touch with the photographer in Germany and we discussed the problem online.
Tuxyso photographed the bird at the Muenster Zoo where both scarlet and green-winged macaws live in the Tropical Hall exhibit. He labeled the photo “scarlet macaw” because this bird has the yellow wing feathers diagnostic of Ara macao. But he isn’t a scarlet macaw. The Muenster Zoo website held the hint to this bird’s true identity.
I can’t read German so I used Google Translate on the link Tuxyso provided. The zoo explains that in the wild scarlet and green-winged macaws don’t interbreed but in the exhibit a scarlet and a green-winged secretly paired up and produced a hybrid offspring. Tuxyso called the zoo and confirmed that the bird in his photograph is the scarlet-X-green-winged hybrid.
Everyone was right. This bird is both.
Subtle differences are important.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons: on left hybrid macaw by Tuxyso via Creative Commons license, on right scarlet macaw photo in the public domain)
Last fall Parrot Confidential introduced us to the ARA scarlet macaw recovery project in Costa Rica and a bird named Geoffrey who was abandoned by his mother. I assumed at the time that Geoffrey was rescued because his mother was new to motherhood and unskilled in raising her first brood.
But no. Scarlet macaws have a very unusual parenting strategy. The female lays up to four eggs but when the eggs hatch the parents choose just one of the nestlings — usually the first — and shower it with attention. The rest are ignored, unfed, not brooded. They die within three weeks. The parents raise an only child.
I learned about this very unusual behavior in an article in wired.com about the Tambopata Macaw Project in southeastern Peru. Since 1989 the project has collected a wealth of information on scarlet macaw biology and behavior including the birds’ habit of raising only one chick each year. From Nadia Drake’s article:
Observations suggest that this outcome is one of choice, rather than resource limitation. So far, the reasons why are still a mystery. This parenting strategy seems to be unusual even among birds, which often lay extra eggs and then distribute limited resources among chicks with brutal efficiency.
The truth is that macaw chick mortality does not appear to be the accidental or inevitable result of scarce resources.
“This is death by neglect,” said ornithologist Donald Brightsmith of Texas A&M University. “Complete and utter neglect.”
This parenting strategy is an unfortunate trait for an endangered bird but it explains why the ARA Project has a natural supply of baby scarlet macaws: Every nest has an abandoned nestling. By raising the “extra” birds the project boosts the local population.
Scarlet macaws are very intelligent. They have a reason for choosing to raise an only child. We just don’t know what it is yet.
Read more here at wired.com.
(photo in the public domain from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)
When birders don’t see a bird they’re specifically looking for some of them say they “dipped” on that bird. Loosely speaking, dipping means “I didn’t find it.” It comes from British birding slang.
Though I’ve never searched out an American dipper, I have certainly missed seeing one when I was in the right habitat for North America’s only aquatic songbird. (Dippers swim!)
Last year Steve Valasek set himself the challenge of finding all the birds listed in a small New Mexico field guide by the end of 2013. He looked for American dippers but didn’t find one until ten days into 2014. Click here to read his account of finally not dipping on this American dipper.
(photo by Steve Valasek)
Birds are often on camera, but rarely on the camera.
This photo of a pygmy nuthatch was an experiment by Ed Sweeney (Navicore on Flickr). Thanks to its Creative Commons license on Wikimedia Commons, I found the photo and learned of Ed Sweeney’s extraordinary photographs. See more on his Flickr page here.
(photo by Ed Sweeney, on Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original and Creative Commons license.)
OK, it’s cold again, but not (yet) so cold as the worst we’ve seen this month so I think we can afford to get “subtropical” today.
Chuck Tague photographed this reddish egret in the subtropics between the 35th parallel and the Tropic of Cancer — specifically, in Florida.
Reddish egrets (Egretta rufescens) are found from Florida and the U.S. Gulf Coast, down both coasts of Central America to the Caribbean edge of South America. But they’re not found everywhere. They only fish in shallow saltwater so they’re restricted to specific locations, always coastal. Click here for their range map.
Some reddish egrets are actually white but most have this distinctive reddish head, gray body and black-tipped pink bill. They’re easy to identify if you watch them hunt. They jump and dart like crazed dancers with their wings open.
Don’t take this beautiful bird for granted. It’s listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List because “despite its large range it occupies a restricted habitat and is patchily distributed.”
If you’re at the coast within its range, take the opportunity to look for a reddish egret.
(photo by Chuck Tague)