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.

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

Birding Uvalde

It was a cold morning when we set out from Castroville last Saturday. Ten of us were in the van, probably not all of us awake. Glenn scanned the sky as it turned yellow with dawn. He spotted a Crested Caracara, and Alasdair sitting behind him spotted four Red-tailed Hawks.

Red-tailed Hawk photo by Alasdair Brown.
 The sun was up by the time we arrived at a feedlot north of Sabinal. Dove and blackbirds swirled above the cattle, who blinked at us as we aimed our binoculars over their backs. Now and then a pick-up truck rumbled by and we covered the lenses of our cameras and binocs to keep them from the dust.

Glenn led us past the feedlot toward some open fields, his scope on his shoulder and his gaze toward a fence behind which stood a wild array of trees and bushes. Suddenly he froze—he turned and motioned. “Come up here,” he called. We crept forward and stood still behind him. We waited. We thought we saw a flutter, but nothing appeared. “It was a Pyrrhuloxia,” he said. “Let’s keep looking.” We walked down further, all ten of us scanning the scrub, but he didn’t reappear.

Glenn turned our attention to the fields, where we saw Great-tailed Grackle; Red-winged Blackbird; Brown-headed Cowbirds in a live oak, their calls sounding like dripping water; Brewer’s blackbirds with their alarming yellow eyes—and then, to everyone’s delight, two Say’s Phoebe that landed near the top of a hackberry to look about and leave us breathless and stunned. Alastair pointed north, where a flock of Sandhill Cranes etched a silent line. Then to the west we saw a fast and looser line Glenn told us were Greater White-fronted Geese.

Savannah Sparrow photo by Alasdair Brown.

Nearby we caught a Savannah Sparrow perched on a fence, then the piercing cry of a Killdeer rang out—we looked up to catch five or six rushing south; later we watched them feeding in a nearby field. We headed back toward the feedlots, where along the way Chipping, Clay-Colored, and Lincoln’s Sparrows hopped into view—but only for an instant.

We drove to Concan, where along the Frio River’s

Eastern Phoebe photo by Paula Dittrick.

white-pebbled shores we saw Black Phoebe, Eastern Phoebe, and a Belted Kingfisher perched to rest between hunts. Here we caught Lesser Goldfinch and Common Ravens that soared above the red and yellow foliage of cypress and sycamore.

Next we drove to some cabins nearby where under an oleander we watched in wonder as White-crowned and Lark Sparrow hopped about amongst the branches—and then, much to our delight, in came the nondescript but utterly elegant Canyon Towhee, a rare sparrow-like bird that was “A Lifer” for almost all of us. We saw some movement in a tall clump of yucca—we approached carefully, for it seemed like they were sparrows. They were, but they were House Sparrows—beautiful, but available any day of the year out any window.

When we finished looking, Glenn said, “Okay, guys, we have two options. Do you all want to eat lunch, or did you just want to skip it and bird until dinner?” Glenn smiled at the look of concern he aroused in us. It was almost noon and we hadn’t eaten since before dawn, but nobody wanted to be the first to demand our rights and possibly sound like merely a casual birder.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker photo by Paula Dittrick.

A brave member of our group, Henri, spoke up: “Let’s have lunch,” she said.

 “Okay, fine,” Glenn said and headed back toward the van. “But you’re going to have to blindfold me.” None of us had a blindfold with us, so within fifteen seconds, Glenn was on another bird. “Male house finch in that sage,” he said. He pointed and we raised our binoculars. There it was, a spray of red amidst silvery green leaves small as petals. Amazing.
He flew and we looked for him in a cedar, but some Eastern Bluebirds distracted us, then a Golden-fronted Woodpecker landed on a bare trunk not forty feet away. He hopped in view a long time, as if daring us to snap more pictures.

Henri pointed at Glenn, who was near the van. “Look, he’s gone on without us and here we are still birding. This never happens. No one would believe us,” she said.

For lunch we ate at Neal’s Lodges, then afterward from a bridge caught a Green Kingfisher plunging back and forth above the Frio, in search of his own meal.

Great Kiskadee photo by Bill Matthews.

We headed on to Cook’s Slough outside Uvalde where we saw Pied-billed Grebe; Double-crested Cormorant; Green and Blue-winged Teal; Harris’, Cooper’s, and Sharp-shinned Hawks; the Ringed Kingfisher; Great Kiskadee; and Long-billed Thrasher, which made a rough, raw call from a bush, which Henri said sounded like someone clearing his throat. With the sun heading down, we drove back to Castroville, happy at having seen sixty species since the last time the sky was yellow.

Written by Elizabeth White.

Note: More of Paula Dittrick’s photos may be viewed at http://pmdittrick.zenfolio.com. Alasdair Brown’s photos may be viewed at http://skepticalscot.smugmug.com/Nature/Nov11-Uvalde-Trip/20022138_r9CVSW.

I got a call from the Houston Visitors Bureau that a birder from Sweden was coming to Texas and needed a guide. Was I willing? Of course. We met for dinner to discuss his trip: Berndt was a tall, cheerful man who liked to eat. As he clutched his margarita, he peered across the table and said with a glint in his eye that he really wanted to see woodpeckers. In particular, he hoped to see the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, which occurs in the Southeastern United States and nowhere else in the world.

The next morning we headed to W. G. Jones State Forest, the best place near Houston to find this bird. We arrived soon after daylight, the prime time to find this species. The loblolly pines were mostly hidden in mist—the mist was so thick, it looked like white bed sheets pulled across the canopy, with the trees only partially woken-up. I didn’t know how likely we would be to find the Red-cockaded, as they are an endangered species. Historically, this bird was more commonly found throughout the mature savannah-like forests of loblolly, southern yellow, and long leaf pines, but due to our cutting down its homes and building our own homes and businesses and schools in its habitat, there are fewer than twelve nesting pairs left. W. G. Jones State Forest has Red-cockaded woodpeckers at all because of the Texas Forest Service’s practice of initiating controlled fires to keep the vegetation to under four feet.

As we approached the forest, we could smell fresh, living pine needles, as well as the sweet, starchy scent of fallen rotting ones becoming soil. As we crunched our way through the stillness, I buttoned my shirt against the cool. We stopped to scan high up along the trunks, though it was hard to see in the mist. Further on, the tops of pines peaked through the mist—it was as if it were sinking, rather than being “lifted.” Berndt smiled at the beauty. “I feel like you have brought me back to Sweden,” he said, and we continued.

Moments later I heard an Eastern Bluebird singing to welcome the morning, and pointed to where I saw it perched on a downward-sloping pine bough. We headed into the trees and a nasal nyet, nyet, nyet tapped out like tinny Morse code caught my attention—I put out my hand to stop our progress. Looking up, I caught three tiny Brown-headed Nuthatches pecking at the bark of a pine only a few yards away. I pointed these out to Berdnt: These were the first Brown-headed Nuthatches Berndt had ever seen. The Eastern Bluebird had been a first, as well: Berndt smiled with pleasure. “We’re off to a good start,” he said.

Soon after, we came to three tall pines with—Yes! Red-cockaded Woodpecker cavities! Unlike most other woodpeckers, which nest in dead trees, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers nest in living pines. Their cavities also look they’ve been doused with white candle wax, because Red-cockaded Woodpeckers peck away the bark surrounding their holes and cause sap to flow to deter snakes and other predators.

A squeaking chatter arose from somewhere above and I caught a flash of black-and-white as a Red-cockaded winged between two nearby pines. I pointed the bird out to Berndt, and he grabbed for his camera. In quick succession, three more Red-cockadeds arrived. Unlike most woodpeckers, which tend to be solitary, this species lives in family groups with the young of the previous year helping their parents raise their newborn brothers and sisters. The families nest in separate cavities: in the early morning, they’re eager to get back together again and join in a melee of fast chatter that sounds like a family quarrel. The happy quarreling started, and as if he understood their happiness, a grin spread across Berndt’s face. He gave me a thumbs-up: Three new species in less than ten minutes. The day would yield eighteen new species for him in all—I hope, making Berndt’s trip from Sweden worthwhile.

Post co-written by Elizabeth White.