Lawrence's Warbler

I took a quick trip down to Indianapolis to visit my family. On the way, I made a stop at Mr. Neil's and got a big surprise. I went to the spot where blue-winged warblers have nested in the past and sure enough heard the familiar 2 note, buzzy call of a blue-wing. I was excited to see one, but when I got it in my binoculars I was surprised to see something golden-winged was a hybrid!

This is a Lawrence's warbler which is some sort of mix of blue-winged warbler and golden-winged warbler. These two species are known to hybridize, the more familiar hybrid is the Brewster's warbler. This bird really threw me for a loop because it sounded so much like a blue-winged warbler. Here's a video so you can hear what it sounded like (there's also a common yellowthroat singing in the background):

I was kicking myself that I didn't wander the trail for bird watching until so late in the evening, I wished I had better light. I took both the photo and video with my iPhone through my scope...incidentally, I used the Meopix iScoping Adaptor to secure my iPhone to my spotting scope...more on that later.

I found an interesting article by by David Bonter and Irby Lovette on these two hybrids. It reads, "The most common hybrid form is known as a "Brewster's" warbler; the rarer form is known as a "Lawrence's" warbler. We currently believe that a "Lawrence's" warbler results when two "Brewster's" warblers mate, or when a "Brewster's" warbler backcrosses with one of its parent species, but research into the genetics of hybridization between these species is underway and many questions remain unanswered."

I haven't paid attention to this spot in the last few years because of my work and travel schedule. Did a golden-winged warbler mix it up with a blue-winged warbler? I can't imagine this bird coming to the exact territory where a blue-winged has nested in the past unless it hatched here. One thing is for sure, I'll be checking it more closely this year.

Here's a an article from the American Birding Association's Birding about the hybrids with lots of great photos.



Naturalist ADD In Spring

I signed on for a book project last December thinking that this is Minnesota and an early April deadline will be a great way for me to occupy my time. Then warm temperatures came early, leaves started bursting and survey work rolled in sooner than expected. Before I knew it, my body was chained to my book and computer and I could only glare enviously at friends posts on Facebook and Twitter as they were enjoying birds.

Sure, I had some of my field work, but trying not to throw up from the back of a float plane while counting eagle nests is not the same as a bird walk through the woods. Although, I did get a kick out of a great horned owl that took over one of my park's eagle nests--that's a ballsy move, but that's a great horned owl for you.

But finally, through a scheduling snafu, I ended up with two days off in a row and in the middle of all of that, we got word that our three new beehives would arrive. Time to relish spring and not just go through the motions of spring chores.

I was worried with all the warm weather that I might have missed my chance to see wildflowers but on bee installation day the surrounding woods was carpeted with rue anemone and I found myself in a quandary--what do I focus on for the day? Wildflowers? Birds? Bees? I tried my best to do all three. What a bonus to have a day off and get so much spring all at once.

Here's a transition of winter to spring. A pine siskin and a female goldfinch. One bird that came down to feed for the winter and the other gradually shifting into a bit brighter yellow plumage for the coming breeding season.

Up in the northern US we don't have the warbler extravaganza those south of us have going on but we do have the early ones like the yellow-rumped warblers.

But even as there are birds overhead, there are secretive and unique beauties down below. There's a patch of wild ginger near the hives and they hide there flowers below their two leaves.

What an amazing tiny flower, so hidden on the woods floor.

Our bees that survived the winter are thriving in the early spring. Bees with big fat pollen baskets strapped to their back legs returning. And the pollen is in several different colors. I think most are coming back with dandelion pollen but others are foraging on flowering fruit trees. One of the hives was so full, we went ahead an put on a honey super. Lilac are just starting and I'm kind of hoping we'll get honey that has a bit of that flower.  That happened a few years ago and I think it was my favorite.

We did our annual bee installation and put in three new hives, so combined with the three that survived the winter, we now have a total of six hives. As we were doing the installation, someone came by with a high speed camera and got footage of Neil dumping the bees into the hive. I love how the video almost makes Neil look like he's not moving while bees glitter all around him.  Here it is:


So all in all some great time off. And for my mom, here are a few more wildflower photos from around the hive:

Trout lily.


Dutchman's breeches.





Bee Flicking

You need some bees off your frame?  Try Mr. Neil's excellent Bee Flicking technique.  Also a handy way to distract enemies should they surprise you in your bee yard. [vimeo][/vimeo]

No bees harmed in the making of this video and most were scooped up off the ground and gently placed back in.

Merlin vs Red-bellied Woodpecker

Non Birding Bill and I were over at Mr. Neil's to do some fall beehive prep (for those who follow, the bees seemed to take my Ned Stark speech well and all but one of the hives actually bumped up production).  After we finished checking the hives we were back in the house surfing the net, dealing with emails when I heard a heard a sound. "Distressed woodpecker sound," my brain noted as I read an email. Then my brain kicked me, "DISTRESSED WOODPECKER SOUND! RAPTOR! ALL HANDS ON DECK!"

Then it sunk in--"Holy cow, look out the window, stupid!"  I turned to look out the window and saw a small raptor gliding away with a red-bellied woodpecker.  I figured the raptor was most likely a male Cooper's hawk or a female sharp-shinned hawk--both a fairly regular bird in Mr. Neil's yard, especially during migration.  I dashed to the front room and was shocked to see...

...a small dark falcon killing a large woodpecker.  "Holy crap! It's a merlin," I shouted...well, I'm sure there was more profanity than that but you get the idea.  Falcons have a notch in their bill that they use to sever the spine from the head and kill prey fairly quickly.  The merlin went in for a bite, but she had to go in for a second to really put the woodpecker out.  While she did that, I scrambled off for my digiscoping equipment.

Look at that face!  She's so adorable--Nature's Perfect Killing Machine! You can even make out those little malar stripes under each eye that all falcons have! I digiscoped this photo of her after she killed the woodpecker. It's not as in focus as I would like, but I was shooting through an old farmhouse window and my scope picks up imperfections in window glass.  I didn't want to open the window because this small falcon had worked hard for her kill and I didn't want to risk flushing her off her food.  This is the first time I've seen a merlin in Mr. Neil's yard.  This bird is possible for the area, but mostly as a migrant.  If she was on a long journey to migrate south, she needed a good hearty meal and my need to get a perfectly in focus shot was not as important as her need to get nourishment.

She was fairly close to the driveway with her kill and I noticed a car coming down.  She mantled a bit over her kill but didn't fly away from it.  I heard voices and noted that Non Birding Bill, Mr. Neil and the newly arrived Steve Manfred hadn't followed me into the front room to watch the merlin.  I shouted, "Hey, you guys really need to come see this, this is a really cool bird!"  Again, the "really" in the previous sentence was most likely profanity.  They soon followed and had to concede a merlin with a red-belly was pretty badass.  Cameras started clicking and both Neil and I got photos.  I immediately called this bird a "she" and Neil asked why.  First, in raptors females are larger than males. Based on this bird taking out a red-bellied woodpecker I knew she was female.  Now, merlins are one of the few raptor species where you can tell male from female apart based on plumage.  Females are brown on back and males are blue:

These are a couple of males that we trapped up at Frank Taylor's banding station in Duluth.  See the blue on the wing feathers?  That's male.  This gets tricky in young birds.  Merlins hatched this year will be brown on back--both male and female.  That's where size comes in handy.

Here's a shot that Mr. Neil took of the merlin.  Note how all the feathers on the back are uniform?  They all look like they grew in at the same time--that's something you would only see in a bird hatched this year.  Adults would still have some molting going on and you'd see worn, older feathers mixed in that would be a slightly different color.  The tail has some light colored bands through it.  The look tawny or buff.  If this were a male, those bands would look gray.  Again, females are larger than males and this small falcon took out a red-bellied woodpecker--it's large, she's female.

This is another shot Mr. Neil got with his camera. I had to chuckle because the woodpecker looks almost "cartoon dead."  See the tongue hanging out of the beak?  The only thing missing is the little "X" over the eye.  Note the size of the red-bellied woodpecker next to the merlin--I've had both in hand and always thought of them to be similar in size.  I decided to do a little digging on the Internet on merlin size vs red-bellied woodpecker size.

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds red-bellied woodpeckers are about 9.4 inches long, have a wingspan of 13 - 16.5 inches and weigh about 3 oz.

Merlins are 9.4 - 11.8 inches in length, have a wingspan of 20.9–26.8 inches and weigh 5.6 - 8.5 oz.  Figure that the smaller numbers are males and the larger numbers are females.
So according to Cornell, a male merlin could be about as long as a red-bellied woodpecker.  This is another photo taken by Mr. Neil from the second level of his house.  Here you can see that the merlin is larger than the woodpecker, again identifying her as female.  What was interesting was that most of the birds left her alone.  There was some mobbing noise from a hairy woodpecker and goldfinches, but no blue jays came in to scold. A few crows did and the merlin did not like that at all.
She stopped eating and watched them.  The crows didn't caw like crazy at her like they would an owl or larger hawk. They cawed but not as frantic, as if not wanting to provoke her but let each other know, hey Nature's Perfect Killing Machine Down here.  I've seen merlins chase the heck out crows and even heard of accounts of merlins killing crows to take over a nest site.  They will go for something larger than they are and if any small raptor is capable of getting the job done, it's a merlin.  She watched them for several minutes and then to my surprise, took off with the woodpecker in her talons and dove at the crows.  I watched her bank to some trees and tried to go out to follow where she landed to eat but lost her completely. 
I had hoped if I found her that I could see the woodpecker carcass she finished eating to see if the woodpecker was banded.  Sometimes friends of mine come out to band birds here and have ringed a few red-bellies.  It would have been to fun to have that as a banding record.  If the woodpecker was banded we would had an idea of her age and a notation of the really interesting way to die.  I mean, getting killed by a merlin is one of the coolest ways to go.  As I was editing photos for this blog entry, something caught my eye:
In one very crappy photo that I took, I noticed that the merlin was banded.  Noooooooooooo!  Why didn't I get more photos of her foot to id the band number? BLARG!  Based on where Mr. Neil lives this is most likely a bird banded at Hawk Ridge this fall.  She was hatched this year so there are only so many raptor banding stations north of here.  There is a chance that my buddy Frank Taylor banded her, but I'm not sure if he's had a merlin in the nets yet this year.  Most likely a first year female banded on her migration south.  Without the number we will never know for sure but I'm curious of my buddy Frank Taylor or Hawk Ridge has banded any hatch year merlins because chances are good, she is one of their birds.
Man I love unexpected merlins but to have one make such an interesting kill and be banded just really made my Thursday.

Random Catbird

This gray catbird has taken to the suet plugs at the feeder in a big way. It's one of two catbirds (presumably a pair) that have decided the peanut suet dough in the woodpecker log is the best thing ever.  Hope they bring their fledglings too.

Honey Covered Titmouse

  This is a problem that only I could have.

Non Birding Bill and I had one of those exciting married people dates: did a little dinner, sorted some tax receipts, pretty much got down last night.  While we were enjoying some sushi, my phone went off and I noticed the number was from Mr. Neil's housekeeper, Merry.  She rarely calls unless there's a bird emergency, so I picked up.  Her daughter Alicia walks Mr. Neil's dogs in the evening and when she arrived, she found a honey covered bird unable to fly on the ground.  Merry sent this photo:

Oh no!  A honey covered tufted titmouse!  How the heck did that happen?  I felt so guilty, it was as if the 2 loves of my life, birding and beekeeping found out about each other and got into a fight.  I advised Merry to do what wildlife rehabbers do with oiled birds, use luke warm water and a little bit of Dawn Detergent and gently was off the feathers.  I also asked her to check if it was banded (it was not).

So, she took to gently cleansing the feathers of the sticky bird, even carefully using a cotton swab to get the feathers around the face clean.  Laura Erickson has had experiencing cleaning a red-breasted nuthatch that got caught in some grape jelly and she warned that it might take a few washings to get the bird totally honey-free.

I told Merry the bird would need a warm, dark and dry place to settle, dry out and preen its feathers. I mentioned that titmice like suet, peanuts and sunflowers too, so she put some peanut suet in the cage, covered it and let the bird be til morning.  I tried to puzzle how this would happen.

None of our hives survived the winter and it's been a group effort of the groundskeeper, Hans gathering the hives and all of us taking a turn at extracting the remaining honey before too many deer mice move into the empty hives and eat what the bees did not.  Some of the hives have been left outside the house to await extraction.  What would make a tufted titmouse explore the hives?  They are not honey eaters.  I wondered if our 50 degree weather brought out some early spring insects and they were attracted to the honey, which in turn attracted the titmouse?

I also recalled last fall setting out frames that were covered in wax moth larvae for the chickadees and titmice to eat.  Did this bird recognize the frames as a source of larvae?  It could have hopped into the open box inspecting the frames, only to come out covered in honey and unable to fly?

Thank goodness we didn't have any active hives.  With that warm weather, the bees would have been out and would have gone to the titmouse to clean off the honey.  The titmouse would have struggled, causing them to sting...ew, don't even want to think about that.

When Hans found out, he went back to the house last night and moved and covered the open brood boxes so no other birds would make the same mistake as the titmouse.

I got a text this morning that the titmouse was dry and feisty so it was immediately released back to the yard, hopefully a bit wiser.  Thank goodness Alicia found the bird, had it been left out, it probably would've succumbed to the chilly air. It's sticky feathers wouldn't have been able to maintain a proper temperature in the cold night air.  No doubt a raccoon would have found it and ate too.

Who knew beekeeping would be hazardous to birds?  Now Merry has another talent to add to her resume: honey extraction from titmouse feathers.

Banded Birds At My Bird Feeder Camera

In case you have not heard, we're buried under an old school blizzard dumping up here.  The local weather folk were predicting with barely restrained glee the potential for a massive storm.  And though many of us have heard in the Twin Cities that we could get 1 - 2 feet of snow, many of us eyed this impending Snowmaggedon with skepticism.  It often amounts to only a few inches.  But to to be safe, I head out to Neil's for some last minute honey bottling finished--I need to get some together to mail to family for the holidays.  I generally use birds at the feeder as an indication if the weather predictions are true.  On Friday all feathers pointed to us getting seriously slammed on Saturday.  The goldfinches were draining the thistle feeder and even the pileated woodpecker chowed down on the suet feeder closest to the window.

While I was dealing with the honey (more on that later), I set up my WingScapes Camera out on a stump and covered it with some bird food.  Above is a male and female cardinal along with a winter plumage goldfinch.

Check out this ambitious white-breasted nuthatch!  Besides black oil sunflower seed, I crumpled up some peanut suet and the nuthatch was grabbing one of the larger chunks.  I also noted the nuthatch was banded.  Most likely the handy work of my buddies Mark and Roger who come out to band birds twice a year.  There were quite a few banded birds coming in to the cam:

Here's a banded blue jay--I think it's been a few years since Mark and Roger got one of these in the nets, so this bird could be a few years old.  Can't say for sure, since I can't read the band number, I can't say for sure.  It could even be someone else's banded bird.

Here's one of several banded black-capped chickadees.  Are they all photos of the same banded bird or several banded chickadees coming in to the seed, each taking a turn?

Here's a banded dark-eyed junco.  With the dark gray head and the brown on the back feathers, its looks like a first year junco, probably banded this fall.

And here is a banded titmouse.  It's nice to see all of the banded birds surviving and still coming to the feeding station, despite the nets going up twice a year.

There were a few other interesting photos that the cam picked up:

I find that crows are the hardest birds to capture on a motion sensitive camera.  This crow was watching the other birds go after the suet and it really, really wanted it.  It watched the stump for about ten minutes, trying to work out what the camera was all about.  After watching dozens of smaller birds go down for the suet, it tried.  But as soon as it landed, it bounced off the stump.  I wonder if it can hear the digital camera go off?  Can it see some change in the shutter?  It never grabbed any suet and it never returned to the stump--which suited the smaller birds just fine.

This photo cracks me up.  It looks like the cardinal is totally planning to ambush the chickadee.

These are just a small fraction of the hundreds of photos my Wingscapes Cam grabbed that afternoon.  The birds didn't lie, we got slammed with snow.  Even though the storm was Saturday, I can hear a semi truck in my neighborhood squealing it's tires as I type this.  It's been stuck in a bank of snow for the last 45 minutes. Minneapolis is pretty savvy when it comes to snow removal, but this one came so fast and there's only so any places that a city can put it, we're still a few days away from normality.

Mom, I'll post photos of our neighborhood later

Random Angry Titmouse #birding

We were banding birds at Mr. Neil's yesterday.  I have quite a few photos of angry titmice--we got three in the nets.  These are exciting birds for us because my buddies Mark and Roger band mostly around the Twin Cities metro area and we don't have titmice there, it's just out of their northern range, but Mr. Neil is loaded with them.

I love tufted titmice--the general lack of them in the Twin Cities metro area is what keeps it from being the perfect place to live.  It could be argued that before beekeeping, I was using my friendship with Mr. Neil for a titmouse fix.  But as much as I love titmice, I kind of dread them in the bird banding nets--those tiny feet so well adapted for clinging upside down on a branch, cling tightly to a wad of mist net.  As you try to pry open those clamped toes to untangle them from the nets, they wail on your fingers with that hard beak--aiming for cuticles and knuckles.  I don't blame them, how are they to know that we are simply checking their weight, feather condition and attaching a small band. For all they know, we are no better than a sharp-shinned hawk about to eat them and they aren't going down without a fight.

Their call is very interesting too.  Up close, their angry whistles have an almost mechanical buzz beneath it.  It's hard to describe.  I tried to get a video of Roger getting nailed by the titmouse as he was getting photos of its molt pattern.  The titmouse's calls even made Lola the dog bark--she was locked in her pen and desperately wanted to investigate the sound:


Titmice are the personification of attitude.

Honey & Swollen Dog

It's that special time of year when Lorraine extracts a little early honey, follows the strict codes, guidelines and fees of the county fair and submits it for approval.  I know we aren't the only ones entering honey because fellow beekeepers in the same county made some noise when we won last year that they intended to "serve us" and that this year it was "on" and we had better "bring it."

Bring it we did and got the blue ribbon!  That now makes three years in a row for extracted honey and two years in a row for comb honey.  Our bees rule!

Above is Storm of Paul & Storm sampling comb honey fresh from the hive earlier this summer.  I know our honey awesome and when friends visit and we force them to partake of the honey they also agree it is awesome.  But it is so nice to get the county officials behind you who say, "Indeed, mighty fine honey you got there, ma'am!"

An individual who is probably not as impressed with this victory is Lola.

If you missed it on Twitter, Mr. Neil's puppy got nailed by the bees.  We took her to the hive and didn't have any idea she had been stung.  When the other dog Cabal has been stung--you know.  He yelps, runs and if bees follow him, he tries to fight them by snapping wildly.  For the most part, the dogs understand to stay away, but here and there they get stung.  Interesting thing though about Lola was that we never heard any yelping at all.  When we were back at the house, I noticed that she kept wiping her face with her paws.  I asked Mr. Neil, "What's that all about?"

"Don't know," he said.  "Dog dream?"

She continued to rub her face against her paws and when she paused, I thought her eye looked swollen.  We immediately went to her to check that no stingers have been left behind.  I think we found where she was stung, but it looked like the stinger was gone.  Her face was so itchy, she rubbed it against anything she came in contact with: paws, carpeting, grass, rear ends--you name it.

Here you can really see the swelling, Mr. Neil said she looked like a cartoon dog.  He checked out what we could do to help the poor thing--turns out over the counter antihistamine medication.

Here's what Lola should look like for comparison.  Her swelling went down a few hours after Mr. Neil gave her some meds. Swelling is normal for bee stings.  Many people think that they have a fatal allergy to bees when they swell up from a sting.  That's a normal reaction.  When you really want to worry is when you itch in weird places.  If you get stung on the hand and soon after the bottoms of your feet or armpits are itchy--that's a sign of a fatal allergy and you should hightail it to the emergency room ASAP.

This is my favorite photo with a Hans inspired caption.  Poor Lola, she looks like she's wondering why her nose is so big.  That's got to be weird for a dog that uses smell the way we use sight.

Some good with the bad.  Glad Lola is better and happy that our bees still reign supreme in the county.