Crow Coughing Up A Pellet

I periodically do segments on our local All Things Considered broadcast in the Twin Cities. I offered to show them the winter crow roost and the host Tom and his producer Sam were interested. You can listen here and they brought along a videographer who got some terrific footage of the crows, be sure to check it out. crows

We had to reschedule the recording at least once because of the cold weather. We are having the sort of winter that Ned Stark would be proud of up here and I didn't want to take them out to see the roost in sub zero weather. Yeah, I know birders are hardy and we can take it, but I find with newbies and casual birders that they really don't have as much fun and I'm not into sadomasochist birding for everyone (just a select few). I like to do it when it works with everyone's schedule and comfort level.

We finally found a day when it was in the 30s and it was a great time.


I joked with producer Sam by asking if that is how he keeps his microphone warm in winter. He said that this was for wind protection but it looks like a piece of Muppet more than a microphone.


I know crows are pretty common birds, but I do really enjoy their winter roost--thousands of crows coming in and swirling around at dusk, it's beautiful spectacle. Not quite a murmuration, but definitely lovely in its own way. And I love taking non birders out and see them be just as awed as I am (if not more so).

crows silhouette

As we did the interview, I tried my hand at digiscoping the crows with my iPhone. I can get some arty shots, but it's still can't quite capture the majesty of the roost. However, as I was grabbing footage, I managed to get a shot of a crow coughing up a pellet--just like an owl or hawk would. Watch the crow on the far right:

Several bird species cough up pellets, just not as regularly as birds of prey. I've seen gulls, shorebirds, robins and even a scissor-tailed flycatcher do it. In theory, any bird will cough up parts of food they cannot digest from scales, exoskeletons or even berry husks. But you don't often see other birds do it. Was fun to capture the footage.


Obligatory Snowy Owl Post

Hey! Have you checked out Project Snowstorm or contributed to it? You should donate because your money allows researchers to study an owl irruption in a way we've never been able to before--in real time rather than spending the next two years trying to figure out what happened, why it happened and if the owls survived. I gave $25, can you do the same? How about $10 or more? But if you can't donate, check out what they are maybe these owls aren't all starving to death and that some are even hunting ducks over open water at night! Amazeballs!

snowy owl male (1 of 1)

If you live in the eastern half of North's kind of your duty to post about snowy owls this winter. So many people are finding them and so many non and casual birders are seeing them, it's reminding me of the great gray owl irruption of 2004/2005...which means my blog will be 10 years old in September of this year. Wow. How did ten years happen that fast? So many adventures and changes. And I wonder who is the next "Birdchick" that is out there with a fire in her belly with a ton of bird stuff to share. She (or he for that matter) doesn't have to be "Birdchick" but I do wonder who is like I was 10 years ago seeing how people share birding information and thinking, "I could do this in a completely different way (and maybe even a better way)," and will soon get their message out there for the delight or chagrin of the world? For every movement there is an anti movement or as we like to say at Chez Stiteler, "For every Mame is an Auntie Mame." And I'm totally cool with being the Mame in this situation and gladly await the Auntie Mame.

But back to snowy owls! They are all over the frickin' place. They are within a 30 minute drive of my apartment to the northwest and to the southeast. All one really needs to do is either use eBird or the BirdsEye app on their phone to see where people are seeing them.

snowy owl on pole (1 of 1)

Based on eBird and Facebook (and the many photos people are posting on that social media site) there is currently a fairly reliable snowy owl on 180th street and Hogan in Dakota County, Minnesota. I headed down after doing some work on Winter Trails Day to test out a new digiscoping adapter on my iPhone 5s (can't talk about the particulars yet). It was far easier finding the owls than I thought, I just drove around to the known spots and pulled over where ever I saw cars on the sides of the farm roads. The above bird has been perching here regularly no matter how close people get to it.  I alas, cannot get close to a snowy because my scope and camera set up have too much zoom! From that particular setting here is what I got with the Nikon V1 and my Swarovski scope:

snowy owl v1 (1 of 1)

I could barely get the whole bird in the frame! With the Nikon V1, you get great photos but it really zooms in. I've noticed before that it's field of view is quite narrow.  When a bird is close like this, I find my iPhone 5s works much better for digiscoping.  Here's the same bird in the same spot but with my iPhone:

snowy owl iphone male (1 of 1)

Better field of view.

Here's another comparison with a different snowy owl that was further out in a corn field:

snowy owl in field iPhone (1 of 1)

This was taken through my scope with the iPhone 5s with a bird that was about 100 yards out from the road. I do like getting habitat shots of these snowy owls. It's fun to try and figure out where they are hiding. I'm to the point now that I look for a dirty wedge of snow and that helps me find the females.

snowy owl (1 of 1)

Same bird taken at the same distance with the Nikon v1 through my spotting scope.

Oh and if you are interested in attempting to sex the snowy owls in your area, Cornell has a good page explaining it. Based on what they show, the bird on the post with the thinner barring and larger white chin patch is a male and the above bird with the thick barring is female.

Here is a short video I made showing the difference between my iPhone and my Nikon V1 of digiscoping the male snowy owl.  You can see that with either set up, you really don't need to be close to the owl and all up in its business.


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.

Screen Shot 2013-04-18 at 10.05.12 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2013-04-18 at 10.07.02 AM


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.

Nemesis Birds

  UPDATE: The Duluth News Tribune joined us for part of the day and you can see our birding posse and learn more about Minnesota's boreal owl irruption here.

snowed port a potty

Nothing says winter in Minnesota like snow drifting into a port-a-potty.

I can't really do my Big Half Year fundraiser for the Friends of Sax Zim Bog without at least one trip to the bog. I knew I would get up there at some point this winter and I had made some plans with friends and then last week, things went a little nuts. A tiny owl called a boreal owl showed up in spades. One report from Chris Wood counted seven! Granted that this not on the scale with the great gray owl irruption of 2004/2005 but it's significant none the less...especially since this is somewhat of a nemesis bird for me (a bird I always seem to miss). I finally got to the point of not even chasing one since every effort to do so ended up with the classic phrase, "Oh it was just hear yesterday (or 15 minutes ago)..."

I figured one day I'd get one.  Well, as plans solidified for my friends and I to head to Duluth and pay for the daily guiding services of Erik Bruhnke (a GREAT guide and worth every penny of his guiding fee, this is the second time we've used him). The reports of boreal owls were just too much and everyone in our group needed one for their list. The owls are mostly being seen between Duluth and Two Harbors, MN (and some right in Two Harbors). We asked Erik what our chances would be to go boreal. He said doable, but it would cut into our time for the bog.  I thought to myself, "Do I want to get as many birds as possible for my Big Half Year or do I want to risk that number and get a lifer (and hopefully a photo of it) and have fewer birds for the day. We went for the boreal.

Erik Bruhnke


Erik told us that we would have to drive along Scenic Highway 61 which is usually a pretty, scenic highway right along Lake Superior...thanks to some snow and lack of plows, it was a bit slow going, which is great if you have eyes desperate for spotting an owl that's about 10 inches long tucked in the thick brush the same color it is. Also, note Erik in the above photo.  It was 18 degrees and there he is, sweet as you please standing outside with out a coat and his sleeves rolled up. Northern Minnesota show off.

North Shore


We creeped along slowly on the highway. As the minutes passed, our vehicle became more quiet--would we miss the owl? Were we wasting valuable bog time by going for a bird we wouldn't see? Was I jinxing everyone in the group by making an attempt for my nemesis bird? You know, the typical things that go through your mind when you decided to chase a bird.

Boreal Owl

Then blammo! We got one! The bird was actively hunting along the highway, not paying any attention to us at all while it flitted from perch to perch. And those of us with cameras were able to get photos.



I don't often get a chance to celebrate a life bird--especially in Minnesota, but when I do, I do it with 16 year old scotch!

boreal owl 1


What a treat to see this bird, we got to watch it fly, bob it's head trying to listen for something small an furry tunneling beneath the fluffy snow, posing in fabulous light, I felt 15 years of searching ease right off my shoulders.  Whatever would happen the rest of the day was just gravy.

We did pursue a few more birds in and around the Duluth area before heading over to the bog.  Of note was a snowy owl which was the weirdest snowy owl I've ever seen.

Hitler the Snowy Owl

Is it me or does this snowy owl bear a resemblance to Hitler? This bird has been banded as well as marked with spray paint. As I understand it, banders have used spray paint to make sure they don't keep retrapping the same owl, because of the feathers on the toes and the bird's tendency to keep its feet hidden, it's hard to tell if a bird is banded. The spray paint can act as a sort of marker. But here is what I do not understand--note the number "8" on the wing? That's a patagial tag, a marker that allows you to know that the bird is already banded but you can actually id individual birds easily with a pair of binoculars. They are used on California condors, pelicans, old world vultures and turkey vultures.  It seems to me that the patagial tag and the spray paint is a bit of overkill as far as trying to make sure you're not pestering the same owl.

The other thing that bothers me about this is that snowy owls use camouflage to hide form predators as well as prey.  Does this muck it up? I normally side with banders on things, but fiddling around with a bird's camouflage makes me uneasy. Perhaps I would feel better if I could find some published information on this, but I can't seem to.  I found one article from the 1960s about captive snowy owls that were spray painted to id some molt  and then whole bunch of links about Martha Stewart spray painted owl stencils.

I'm currently at 56 birds for my Big Half Year, though that will change a bit in a few days. Thanks again to everyone who has pledged money to the effort to build a visitor center in the bog!


Random American Pipit

These birds are easy miss but they pass over me in huge numbers when I go up to visit my hawk banding friends in northern MN and when I do my surveys in southern MN.  If you visit Cornell's All About Birds page for the pipit and scroll to sounds and listen for contact call, you may recognize it or you may find yourself noticing it when you are in open fields. It's a quiet, easy to miss call but it's kind of cool to know these birds are passing through incognito to most of the world.


Brown Birds

Even though autumn is winding down in my part of the country, the color still tried to pop as in one last hurrah before our white and gray pallet of winter arrives. Bird migration still has a big push going and and though it may not be about warblers any more, it's sparrow city in most of my field work or even around the office. These are a sample from the last week, most of these were taken on the same cloudy day with my spotting scope and either my SLR or my iPhone.

And this last ditch effort at color seems to make all the sparrows even prettier. Now, for all you non-birding/casual birding, the sparrows I'm about to post are all different birds--I swear. Above is  swamps sparrow, a native sparrow and not one usually found under bird feeders. I love that pose, the bird had popped up when I pished to see what sparrows were around.

Brace yourself, this is a completely different brown bird that the one above.  This is a Lincoln's sparrow that was in the same loose flock with the swamp sparrow. Note how this one is streaky on the sides and the swamp is not? I love the way this bird is highlighted by the yellow grasses.

Here's a junco that popped up to remind me that it's still representin' as a sparrow.

Beefy fox sparrows flush up on wooded arrows when I approach my field survey spot.

Robust Harris's sparrows are all over the place in the Twin Cities.  I even had one show up at the bird feeder outside my office window, but they're all over on my field surveys too...though my non birding coworkers are dubious that this is different from the house sparrows.

This wasn't seen on my surveys, it's a cool sparrow that with its pumpkin coloring is so appropriate for Halloween.  This is a Nelson's sparrow. And as much as I love getting a photo of one, I'd rather have it on its breeding grounds and not foraging on mud during migration. But a sparrow's got eat what a sparrow's got to eat. Wish these guys would learn to love millet. I'd wet myself if a Nelson's ever showed up under my bird feeder.





Horned Lark

Horned larks a constant in my field work but it seems their numbers have bumped up recently. These birds are fairly common in farm field were I live, I hear them constantly. But I've been on bird trips where people have never seen one and they have been casually birding for a long time. Usually when you see them, they are flying away off the side of a gravel road as you speed past in your car. But since I am stationed on the side of the road for an hour at a time, I have occasion to see them up close.

All the farmers are combining right now and migrating sparrows and larks are grabbing the seeds on the side of the road. As I watched this horned lark nibbling a crush corn kernel, I wondered why we don't see these birds scrounging around under bird feeders. Even if you use the argument that the habitat isn't right, what about all the newly developed houses in former farm fields...surely some adaptable horned larks were be scrounging under those at some point?

I love the moments my job affords me. Even when things are seeming slow, if I pay attention to what's going on around me, I can find something exciting. This morning, some horned larks were getting into a bit of a fight.

These horned larks kept flighting up against each other. I wondered how well this plays out in migration. Wouldn't it be more energy efficient not to fight and focus on where the birds need to travel to? Although a peck order must be established, I suppose.

And once 2 are involved, everyone else needs to get a piece of the horned lark fight club action. Who needs to go on an African safari when wildlife fights can happen in a recently combined soybean field?



One of the joys of migration is that you never when something is going to show up. When I'm out doing my surveys, I have my usual suspects of species but every now and then a surprise hits.

As I was driving between survey points, I passed this field and a small flock fluttered away from the road towards the center. I knew they were shorebirds, but not exactly certain what they were.  I pulled over and got my scope out.

It was a flock of plovers in non-breeding plumage. And when they flew, there was no black in their "wing pits" that you would see on a black-bellied plover in non breeding plumage, so these were American golden-plovers. The birds soon hunkered down into the the soybean stubble and it was amazing how well their plumage mixed in with that. I wondered if they just blew in from their northern migration the night before and were hoping to catch a nap. The above was a shot taken with my iPhone 4s with my spotting scope.

This was taken with my Nikon D40 SLR and spotting scope. Some of the birds were still on high alert. Not the bird in front with a cocked head towards the sky? I looked up and that plover had its eye on a passing Cooper's hawk, high in the clouds.

These birds have one of the longest migrations out there. According to Audubon, American golden-plovers fly offshore from the east coast of North America and travel nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean to South America. Individuals may go more than 3,000 miles in one flight. Juveniles and birds blown off track will move  through river valleys and I wasn't too far from the Mississippi River when I got these shots. Amazing to think about how far these birds will go.

Dickcissel Invasion

Holy cow there are a lot of dickcissels in my neck fo the woods this year. Last year on my surveys I had one dickcissel pair, this year, I'm practically tripping over them. They are by far the most abundant bird outside of red-winged blackbirds on those same survey routes. One of my final duties at the park service was a banding program with Avian Images (and for those who missed it, one of my freelance clients hired me full time and I'm now an Avian Field Ecologist with Westwood Professional Services). The banding program was at Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and we even found a breeding pair of dickcissel there.

The birds have been noticed here in Minnesota and Wisconsin and a challenge has been issued to try and document them in every county. Checking out dickcissel information online, this is par for the course for this species on the outer edges of its breeding range. According to Birds of North America Online:

"...this species is notorious for regular seasonal movements within its primary breeding range and for irregular movements outside of this core range to breed in surrounding areas where extensive grassland habitat exists. These erratic, semi-nomadic movements result in dramatic year-to-year changes in distribution and abundance, especially in peripheral and sporadically occupied areas."

And Minnesota and Wisconsin definitely fall on the outer edges of the dickcissel range.

I can't help but wonder how an influx of dickcissel works with other species. Do they drive out bobolink and frustrate savannah sparrows?

I did some more poking around on Birds of North America Online and if you don't have a subscription, you should really consider it somtime and read up on your favorite birds.  You never know what little gems you will find in there.  Some of my favorites about dickcissel on BNA include:

"Nothing remarkable about defecation."


"Dickcissels show resource-defense polygyny (Zimmerman 1966b), as do a few other grassland species (Verner and Willson 1966). Polygyny in Dickcissels is not based on a skewed sex ratio, but on spatial heterogeneity in grassland habitat, such that some males hold territories of higher quality and attract more mates than others."

As if the name dickcissel weren't provocative enough.  I wonder if anyone has tried to use the above as an excuse for infidelity? "Really, honey, it meant nothing.  It was just a little resource-defense polygyny, nothing more.  You know how great of property we have? How could I say no?"

Downy Woodpecker Working The Corn

Most of the fields in my survey area have been cut and plowed (which has really wrecked my bathroom plans).  At one spot a female downy woodpecker has been systematically work the corn stubble.

She must have been getting something out of there, she worked the stubble piece by piece the two days I was there.  She wouldn't stay if she wasn't getting a good food benefit from it.  She would peck open the cracks to make them larger and stick her tongue inside.

Here's a shot where you can get an idea of how long a woodpecker's tongue is (for more on woodpecker tongues click here).  She actually had it wedged in the stalk but only for a few seconds. And then she continued on to the next stalk.

It was interesting to see a bird finding benefit in the stubble.  I also wonder if there was some bug that moved in to the stalk after harvest or if there was some bug in there and the farmer had a low yield to his crop.