Late Spring Snow

So a couple of seeks ago we had some snow in April in Minnesota and people freaked out about birds. Yeah,  I know I live in Minnesota and we get a ton of snow, but snow in April is brutal even for us. But people worried because we had a ton of robins in our area, some were birds that spent the winter and were ready to head north and couldn't. Others were birds just arriving on territory and aggressive to the birds still here. Everybody was bitter and prone to fights because that's what happens when there's a spring snow. I wasn't too worried because birds like robins are tough, robust birds. They can take a snow storm.

Last week we have a few 70 degree days and it was beautiful. Most of the snow melted. Migration progressed. I saw tree swallows and chimney swifts and relaxed that they had survived a crazy spring migration...then 15 inches hit the southeastern part of the state yesterday and more today. Now I am worried. Crazy images are showing up on Facebook like this one from Greg Munson:

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Here's the description with the photo, "Greg, Munson, Quarry Hill Nature Center naturalist in Rochester. The mother goose has been sitting on her 9 eggs for 2 weeks and she wasn't about to let a little snow interrupt her task."

I linked to it on the Birdchick Facebook page and people were wowed and concerned. Someone suggested clearing the snow off of her. That's a risky idea--number one a goose on the nest is dangerous to you. Number two, she most likely would flush, exposing the eggs to snow and would she come back in time to keep them warm enough to hatch.

This morning there's an email from Greg that reads, "The goose is still surviving in the snow and it appears water may have even gone down an inch overnight.   Hard telling what the melt will do to pond levels, probably starting tomorrow. "

We'll have to wait and see if the eggs hatch.

Though we had no snow in Minneapolis yesterday (different story today), it was too cold for insects. We had a yellow-rumped warbler fallout in my neighborhood.



Yellow-rumps were everywhere! They covered the streets and the sidewalks gleaning any sort of food they could. Peter Nichols posted this photo of yellow-rumps covering his feeder. And this video of a yellow-rumped warbler feeding frenzy:

I know some of these birds can take it, but I do worry about the purple martins and the chimney swifts who have to wait it out under cover and not eat until any flying insects finally come out.  Will we lose some of those birds? No doubt? Can their overall population take that loss? Usually, yes. But birds face so many challenges: habitat loss, cats, cellphone towers, windows. It's a vexing winter for sure.



I do take some comfort in the yellow-rumped warblers and their sassy attitude. So cute, so fierce, they almost look as though they defy winter and all it's obstacles. Here's hoping it ends soon without the appearance of White Walkers.

Wondering on Whimbrels

Last week I was in Los Angeles, California and while there I had some whimbrels hanging out with me on the beach (incidentally, that is now bird 138 for my Digiscoping Big Year challenge to help build a Visitor Center for Sax Zim Bog). Whimbrel


These are always cool birds to see--gotta love that beak. But whimbrels have an incredible migration so it's fun to not only enjoy these crazy looking birds but also imagine where this bird has been and what it may have seen.

The Center for Conservation Biology has done some amazing tracking work on these birds--we really didn't know all that much about their migratory route and thanks to transmittors, we know these birds are tough. We've learned that a whimbrel flew into Hurricane Irene and survived...only to be gunned down by lax shooting laws in the Caribbean.

Now that we have an idea of how they get from their breeding ground to their wintering grounds in South America, we need to learn what route they take to get back.  Looks like it's going to be a loop, that they don't go the same way that they came.

According to the website the birds were, "originally captured and marked on the breeding grounds along the Mackenzie River in far western Canada in June of 2012, the birds took a bold fall migration route flying 2,800 miles (4,500 kilometers) to the east coast of Canada in mid-July to stage for 2 weeks before embarking on a marathon 4,300-mile (6,900-kilometer) flight out over the open ocean to the northern coast of South America. All three birds have spent just over 7 months in the extensive tidal system of the Gulf of Maranhao before initiating their migration north."

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The whimbrels left their wintering grounds near Sao Luis, Brazil between April 9 - 13, 2013 and flew nonstop for 95 to 100 hours averaging 40 mph before reaching the Gulf of Mexico. They flew that. Non stop. Wow, maybe all the hassles I deal with in airports are not so bad. Where will these particular birds go? Straight up the continent? Or to the west coast where I saw the whimbrel in the above photo?

So if you ever see a whimbrel, enjoy the crazy madcap design, but also keeping in mind what that bird can fly through...and how many countries it can visit.

Why Are There So Many Robins In Minnesota

Screen Shot 2013-04-18 at 7.49.00 AM I've been posting this super cool link all over on the place on the social medias, but if you aren't in to that, I want to make sure you see it. Above is a screen grab of this video that shows birds migrating in the eastern US and getting blocked by a storm system.  All those blue spheres that appear and disappear? Those are millions of migrating songbirds: warblers, orioles, hummingbirds, vireos, nighthawks, tanagers, grosbeaks, flycatchers, etc., that got up to fly north and then landed. Millions of songbirds pouring in to North American after coming up from Central and South America.

And it kind of shows what is happening with all the robins in the Twin Cities.  The snow won't leave us here in Minnesota, and there's even worse weather up north.  We have robins that spend the entire winter in Minnesota--they can take cold and snow and are resourceful at finding food. Then there are robins who go further south, and they are returning.  Most of these birds want to go further north, but can't because the flight conditions are too dangerous.  So, they are biding their time, waiting here; it's a bird traffic jam.  We see bare trees, but robins will find food—berries and seeds that are not their favorite but will sustain them, like sumac and crabapple. It's like eating ramen noodles during the lean budget times (how many of us subsisted on that in college?).

People will find dead robins; migration is dangerous and birds die for all sorts of reasons—starvation can be one, but they're in far more danger of guy wires on cell towers, windows of homes, office buildings and cats.

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It's not end times; this is something robins have had to deal with for centuries. The strong will survive, the weak will not. You can try putting out things like water, live mealworms, raisins, apple halves, grapes, and peanut suet doughs, but not all robins recognize bird feeders as food source the way chickadees do.

But don't worry, most of the robins will be ok. Use this as a reminder of the importance of planting native trees in your yard and consider planting crabapples, serviceberry, winterberry or cranberry. This won't happen every winter, but when it does, you'll have a valuable food source to help the birds out in your yard.

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I think this photo from the Midwest Peregrine Society's Facebook page showing the female peregrine falcon at the Colonnade Building in Minneapolis incubating last week about says it all.  Birds are resilient. Birds are hardy. Birds do what they have to do to survive. They are built for it, their feathers and metabolism allow them to endure this sort of hardship. Many of us watch birds flying in the wild and envy their freedom and their lifestyle of basic daily survival. We usually do this on a sunny day. Birds don't deal with taxes, boring meetings or a dunderhead of a boss. But birds do have their own challenges to endure and like the Game of Thrones saying, "You either win or you die."

That is the price they pay for their unencumbered lifestyle in the wild.

The bird abides, I take comfort in that.

Random Harris's Sparrow

Sparrow migration is off the hook this week. 

I joined a non birding friend for lunch and when he came back with me to the parking lot at work I pointed to it and said, "Holy cow, that's a Harris's Sparrow, that's a really cool sparrow to see."

I set up my WingScapes Camera under my window feeders at work to see if there were any other sparrows not hopping up the window that I might be missing and got a shot of it. I posted it to Facebook and my friend who joined me for lunch said, "Yawn! Seen it! That EXACT bird...seen it."

I tried to tell him that he needed to show a brown bird some respect when another non birding friend chimed in, "I call all brown birds, Sharon Birds."

Hmmmm.  Perhaps I should write a field guide.

What's Up With Hummingbird Migration?

Last night on Twitter, someone sent me a link to announcing, "Hummingbirds are here!"  And low and behold it looked like ruby-throated hummingbird migration was a month early. I don't expect hummingbirds in Minnesota until the first week in May, MAYBE the last week in April. But then I remembered, I just recorded an interview about migration with Outdoor News and right before it I checked my BirdsEye App to see what eBird reporters had seen hummingbird wise...there's a huge discrepancy.  Check this out:

On the left is a screen shot from my BirdsEys app that gives me up to the date info from what people are reporting in to eBird (it's vetted information, if something doesn't gel with their expected birds, you get a request for clarification or documentation). On the right is the map. This is something where anyone can enter a siting and it's not really vetted.

So what's going on here?  Are eBird users just not interested in backyard birds and only pursuing hardcore rarities?  Are there just too few eBird users and they are missing those early ruby-throated hummingbirds?  Do people reporting to  seeing a few early birds? Are they confusing hummingbirds with hummingbird moths or other smaller birds (don't scoff, you'd be amazed what people mistake hummingbirds for, even someone you would consider well educated)?

There are some migrating birds that can arrive early and though it's a gamble, they can navigate a few cold snaps.  For example--tree swallows, unlike other swallows will eat berries if insects aren't available.  They are one of the first swallows to return.  Osprey and loons need open water for fishing.  If the ice out is month early on the lakes, it's possible to see them that early.  However, bird migration triggers vary from species to species. For some it's hard-wired timing or daylight length and temperature has little to do with it.

I posted the above image this image to my Facebook page to see what others thought. I personally am more inclined to trust the eBird reports since they are vetted and in the past when I've linked to the sightings page, it was often a good two weeks before I saw hummingbird activity myself and have been a bit suspect of it. A rule of thumb for Minnesota has been that once you see yellow-bellied sapsuckers, you can see ruby-throated hummingbirds because the wells that sapsuckers drill on trees not only produce sap but trap minute insects, a valuable back up food source for early hummingbirds that can find little nectar from flowers in a cold spring. Corey Finger over at 10,000 Birds said that doesn't work for New York because they have sapsuckers all winter and he directed me to an interesting blog post by Jim McCormack on this same subject--note all his photos of hummingbird moths.

This morning I found an email from Marshall Illiff, the project leader for eBird who tried to answer some of these questions over at the Massachusetts bird list serve (lots of birders are noticing this).  You can read his full email here, but I'll highlight a few of Marshall's insights below:

"eBird is now a source of up to 3 million records (from over 200,000 checklists) each month. Although I really wish that more people in more places were reporting their birds to it (contact me if you want to get started!), I believe it now has enough information to provide an incredibly accurate and detailed look at the advancing front of bird movement in the USA.

Check out these maps, for example, of the next species that will hit Massachusetts.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher:  -- already early to our south, they may arrive next week (and will be ridiculously early if they do)

Louisiana Waterthrush:-- Likewise, ridiculously early for Maryland and New Jersey. They should reach us within the next 1-10 days, so check territories near you.

These maps above match the chatter on the listservs about what people are seeing; eBird and the listservs provide quasi-independent verification of what birders are seeing.

Yes, this spring is remarkable, and *population-level* arrival in New England of things like American Woodcock, Killdeer, Eastern Phoebe, Tree Swallow, and Pine Warbler are all far ahead of schedule (averaging 10-14 days or more in most of the cases I have looked at). However remarkable though this is, these are all birds that would be expected in Massachusetts within two weeks of their actual arrival. There is a temptation to say -- hey, it's an early spring, "anything is possible." But that simply is not true. I am willing to stick my neck out and say that, in this decade anyway, a March Eastern Wood-Pewee, Blackpoll Warbler, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, or Alder Flycatcher is simply NOT possible. These are species that do not even arrive on the Gulf Coast until mid to late April, and their arrival in Massachusetts follows 2-3 weeks behind that (only three of the four have occurred in April, ever, and those only barely). There is concern among scientists that these birds may *never* "learn" to arrive earlier, which could have drastic consequences for those species. My point is that anything is NOT possible, and that despite the remarkable weather, bird migration is also governed to some degree by an internal clock and by the simple challenge of geography. All four of these birds I mentioned winter in South America, and it takes a long time and a lot of preparation (i.e., fattening up) for these birds to make the jump.

Granted, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, which winter in Mexico and Central America, and increasingly in the Southeastern US from North Carolina to Florida and west to central east Texas, are a different case. Their normal arrival dates are earlier (about 25 April-5 May in New England). But regardless that is about one month from now! Could hummingbirds be one month early? Could any bird?

eBird has a rigorous data quality system, with over 370 volunteer reviewers managing several thousand regional checklists that define bird occurrence in each of the twelve months of the year. Any submitted record that falls outside of expectations is flagged for review. I double-checked to make sure there were no Ruby-throateds lost in the eBird review purgatory. There were two, form Indiana and Wisconsin, and one of those lists has many other suspect species on it (Wood Thrush!). In other words, it isn't like the eBird review process is keeping hundreds of hummingbirds hidden.  The New England result of that data quality process? eBird has this graph of Ruby-throated Hummingbird migration, averaged across all years for these states: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York: The actual numbers? In early April, 1/12355 has reported Ruby-throated; in the second week of April, 0/12826; in the third week, 15/12778; and in the third week, 308/17522 (giving a whopping 1.27% chance of seeing a hummingbird in any of those states in the last week of April…although this chance increases later in April and is probably higher in lowland areas vs. mountainous ones).

Furthermore, the New England-New York arrival takes a full month to occur, with obvious arrivals continuing through the week of 15-22 May and beyond. So we are at least two months from the end of hummingbird migration into New England.

Delving into the literature for this region, here is what I find.

- Cape May, New Jersey (Sibley 1997): extreme early date = 29 March, with bulk arrival not until late April (based on his histogram) - New York (Levine 1998): "extreme early date = 14 April (coastal and inland)" - Massachusetts (Veit and Petersen 1993): extreme dates of 18 Mar 1973 in Sudbury (fide Baird) and 26 Mar 1969 in Chatham (Fuller, fide Baird). [Bird Observer database may have additional info] - New Hampshire (fide Pam Hunt and New Hampshire Bird Records): record early date 8 April, and 14 total April records, with just 5-6 before 26 April

I can't help but wonder if the early dates for Cape May, Massachusetts, and eBird (1st week of April) were carefully vetted. All are far enough outside of the main arrival period as to raise questions. They may be correct. But maybe not. No system is infallible, and all of these raise my eyebrows a bit given how far outside of the norm they are.

Prior to posting this, I checked with bird records managers in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and North Carolina. Without exception, they responded with skepticism about the posted arrival dates and had never heard of verified (i.e., documented with photo) or even credible reports of hummingbirds as early as mid-March in their regions. Never, and that's including this year. Early spring or not, all were skeptical that the data could be believed."

So should you put out a hummingbird feeder in the northern US? It can't hurt, but I wouldn't trust the map that you will have tons of hummingbirds right away.  If you do have hummingbirds...and even a photo, let me know...or better yet, join eBird and submit your sightings.


Snow Storms During Migration & Goose Collars

True to form, our great state of Minnesota received a dumping of snow yesterday. The nice thing about March snow storms is that they melt relatively quickly. Even the city gets slack about it, "Eight inches? No Snow Emergency or parking restrictions, it will melt, deal with it." But many people wonder about those early spring migrants and how it will affect them? Over the weekend, my buddy Clay Taylor and I were at the National Eagle Center and we tallied all sorts of early spring migrants--even tree swallows.  What do insect eating birds do when they get back early and have to contend with several inches of snow? Yesterday, Michael Bates sent me a photo of a woodcock he found in his yard during our Minnesota snow storm.

So, what do early insect eating migrants do when they come back early? They adapt. Woodcocks eat mainly earthworms, but according to Birds of North America Online the will eat some vegetation. Same with tree swallows, they will eat berries if there are no flying insects to feed on. That's all part of the gamble of coming back early to get the prime territory, if you can find something to keep you going for a few days, you'll get the best territory. Not all bird make this, it's part of what makes migration so fascinating.

Here are some Canada geese who found a puddle of open water amid the snow at Lilydale Park in St. Paul, Mn.  These were part of a flock that included about five neck banded geese. All of the numbers were sequential, so I wonder if this is a family group banded last summer that's migrating together. I turned in the band numbers to the Bird Banding Lab and I'm curious to find out where these birds were banded.

Remember this goose? This is a banded Canada goose that I saw at the confluence of the St. Croix River and the Mississippi River in December of 2009.  I submitted the record with a note expressing concern about the tightness of the collar on the goose.  It's been over a year and I haven't heard a thing. I found a page about goose color bands with some interesting info just based on the color of the neck bands and the characters on it:

"Orange and Blue collars are widely used in the Mississippi Flyway. These collars were part of an extensive effort to track the populations and movements of Canada Geese. Orange collars were used in the Canadian portion of the Mississippi Flyway, and Blue collars were used in the US portion of the Mississippi Flyway."

So, sounds as if this goose is also a Mississippi Flyway bird.  Then, I got an interesting email last week from Erik Collins:

"I was birding at Pt. Douglas Park today and saw a Canada Goose with a blue neck collar that had "617A" on it.  I got home and searched online for information about blue collars on geese.  This link from your site came up.

The goose you photographed with the super-tight collar in December of 2009 was the same one I saw today!  Thankfully, it looked a lot more comfortable.

Thought you would find this interesting."

I found it very interesting that someone else saw the goose over a year later alive and well and the collar looking comfortable.  Must have been extremely cold that day and the goose's neck feathers were super fluffed.

I resubmitted the sighting a second time with a note saying that as someone who has volunteered with bird banding projects, I understand that it can take awhile to turn in banding entries, but over a year is a bit much.  When I received my acknowledgment of the color band submissions from the BBL, I noticed this in the email:

"We cannot predict or control the nature of the response you will get from the bander, although we do make them aware that color marking authorizations carry with them an obligation to respond to the public. Many color marking projects are designed to study only local movements, and the bander may not be interested in reports from afar."

That's such BS.  If you put a collar on a bird (so bright that even non birders notice) you should have a system in place so if the goose goes where you don't expect you can at least send out some basic info in an email.  I'm not expecting a long response, but I would like to know what state this bird was banded in and what year.  It would be nice to know that bare bones info of how old this bird is and where it has been.

By not responding to neck band reports, a researcher could discourage people from ever turning in any band that they find--what's the point if no one responds? That certainly is not helpful to fellow bird banders.  Also, a lot of people who don't understand banding do not like it and think it's cruel.  Not responding to banding reports only reinforces that idea.

I don't see what's so hard about turning in the date and place of where you banded a bird so the BBL can at least let the person submitting the band number know the basic info.  Heck, just create a document with your study's theory and copy and paste when you get a neck report.

At any rate, I'm glad the blue neck band hasn't interfered with the bird's survival and we at least know it's still a year older.


Autumn Bobolinks

I woke up in the dark on Sunday morning and was irritated.  I realized that I was awake and since it was still dark out, I assumed it must have been in the middle of the night.  Was it the humidity?  Was it the moon?  Was it that early evening cup of coffee?  All three could be causes of insomnia for me.  Since sleep wasn't coming, I decided to get up and do some writing (Non Birding Bill calls this my acorn gathering time, I generally say yes to a TON of freelance projects in the late summer to tide over the leaner months in winter).  I walked into the living room and was surprised to see the clock read 5:30 am. Waking up at that time would make sense since I went to bed early the night before...CRAP, it's dark at 5:30am--that means the days are getting seriously shorter. I said, "Screw writing." Then grabbed my digiscoping equipment and hit the road.  Gotta enjoy the warm weather and birds while it lasts.

I took in a ton of fall migrants, but my favorite birds were the flocks of bobolinks nibbling on grasses along some gravel roads.  I pulled over and was serenaded by late summer katydids while took photos of the yellow birds as they popped out and then down in the tall grasses.  I'm not sure if this is a male or female, this is the bobolink's non breeding plumage and they both look the same.  If you click on this link you can see what a male bobolink looks like during the breeding season--quite a dramatic change!

I sometimes have trouble remembering that bobolinks are thought to be in the blackbird family--especially in the fall.  They look like large yellowish sparrows.

This is my favorite photo--the bobolinks lurking and hiding while feeding.  The plumage makes sense while migrating.  These birds will also have to contend with the millions of raptors moving south this fall too.  They yellow and brown stripes will help them hide while they feed.

These bobolinks were near some flooded farm fields with lots of shorebirds, I actually went shorebird watching a couple of times last week, but shorebird id stresses me out and I haven't put the photos up yet.  I'll have to bite the bullet and get them up.  Their migration is full on.

If you haven't been out to enjoy some birds, get out there now.  Migration is on!