Archive for February, 2012

I get many great bird questions via email–whether it’s a bird ID or a question concerning bird behaviors. From now on, I’ll be posting them here, so everyone can benefit. A few days ago a woman named Karen Edwards emailed me a couple good questions.  Here are Karen’s questions, and my attempt at answers:

Purple Martins "staging" (in background). Photo by GO.

1)  Why do those swarming birds (starlings?) huddle so closely together on power lines even when it’s warm?

What you’re seeing is a flocking behavior called “staging,” which happens in bird migration. Flocking offers birds protection from predators, and sitting close together, or staging, does, too. While they might not be actively migrating at the time you see them, their instinctually exhibit migratory behaviors.
It is quite likely the swarming birds you’re seeing are European Starlings at this time of year. Or, they could be grackles or a mix of species, such as European Starlings, grackles, and Brown-headed Cowbirds. We have around twice as many starlings in Houston in winter as we have here in summer, as some of them fly north during breeding season. A few grackle head north, too, but not many. A small number of Brown-headed Cowbirds leave, too.

Swallow-tailed Kite Photo by GO.

2)  Do birds fly all the time because they are constantly feeding or is it sometimes just for fun?

Birds fly to migrate, to look for food, to find mates, to get away from predators, and . . . I tend to think they fly for fun, too. No scientist would agree to the scientific validity of my assessment, but maybe it’s because scientists haven’t found a way to measure fun yet.

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Snowy Owl photo by Glenn Olsen.

“…And why exactly would you go to Minnesota in February?”  We can’t tell you how many of our friends asked us that question before we went, but we can tell you why we went. The birding is AMAZING – we got a total of 19 lifers! We saw 3 rare owls in our first 3 days.

I had thought that if I just got to see a Snowy Owl, the trip would be complete. But Glenn already had the Snowy Owls scoped out so within a few hours of landing at the Duluth airport, we had seen two of these beautiful birds.

The next day, in the heart of Sax-Zim Bog, we found owl #2 – the Great Gray Owl. He is truly a magnificent bird. Tom got the “spot-of-the-day” on that one.

Great Gray Owl photo by Glenn Olsen.

We also fell in love with Gray Jays. Not only are they beautiful, but they are curious, so we had several following us as we hiked in the Bog. Other highlights of the day were both Common and Hoary Redpoll and Pine Grosbeaks.

Day #3 brought owl #3 – the Northern Hawk Owl! This owl is so rare, we hadn’t seriously thought we’d have a chance of seeing one. Glenn had learned there was one being seen at Gooseberry Falls State Park.

Northern Hawk Owl photo by Tom Thweatt.

After hiking several snowy trails, we had given up and ready to head back to the Duluth area. Glenn, not one to give up easily, decided to try one more place and there he was – perched by the side of the road! Another magnificent owl.

One of the highlights of Day #4 was the Boreal Chickadee. We had looked at a LOT of Black-Capped Chickadees when we finally found them (we saw 3) at one of the feeders in the Sax-Zim Bog. These little guys have so much personality they quickly became the favorite bird of the trip – after the owls of course.

Another real highlight was seeing Evening Grosbeaks. The males are spectacular and we got to see a small flock of them – again at a feeder in the Bog.

Boreal Chickadee photo by Tom Thweatt.

The other highlight of Day #4 was the Black-Backed Woodpecker. He had been a target bird every time we birded in the Bog – with no luck. Finally, just before sunset we were walking a new trail – looking hard for him, knowing it was our last chance to see one. Then Lou made the “spot-of-the-day” – seeing him against the evening sky. A great finish to our last full day of birding.

Along with birding Sax-Zim Bog and Gooseberry Falls SP, we had some good birding right there in Duluth on Lake Superior. The highlights included walking on water – we actually walked on the frozen lake at one point, and seeing Icelandic and Glaucous Gulls.

Sax Zim Bog Road photo by Glenn Olsen.

Was it cold in Minnesota? – only when we couldn’t find our bird. As soon as someone spotted one of the target birds, all thought of being cold evaporated. Actually – we were blessed with great weather, clear skies and highs in the 30s. All the locals told us they were having a heat wave. By the last day, we had figured out how to dress, and learned the merits of hand warmers and toe warmers.

So… Minnesota in February with great friends and great birds? We highly recommend it.

-Larry & Vicki Kirby

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