A Northwoods Almanac for May 15-29, 2015
Pine Siskin Surprise!
I was watching our bird feeders on 5/6 when I noticed one pine siskin feeding a sunflower seed to another pine siskin, a sure sign of an adult feeding a fledged chick. The adults and chicks look very similar, so I wouldn’t have known one was a fledgling unless it was begging to be fed.
The droves of pine siskins that are nesting here this spring aren’t a total anomaly. Ordinarily they are an uncommon breeding species in northern Wisconsin, and a common breeding species well north into Canada and Alaska. However, they are also well known as an irruptive species that can be abundant in a given locality one year and then absent the next, presumably due to the absence or presence of conifer seeds, which make up the bulk of their diet. This is a bird that clearly defines the term “opportunistic.” Its erratic movements and lack of attachment to specific breeding area, seemingly unconstrained by time and space, prompted one biologist to describe it as “errant par excellence.”
The National Biological Service’s Bird Banding Laboratory database had 2,161 recovery records for banded siskins as of 1997. To show how wildly erratic the siskin’s movements can be, a few records document the presence of banded birds on approximately the same date in different years but at places separated by nearly a continent – Quebec one year, California the next! So, they can be true nomads.
Whenever Mary and I have been walking in a conifer woods this spring, we’ve heard flocks of pine siskins in very specific areas. I’ve since learned that pine siskins primarily nest in loose colonies in relatively open conifer or coniferous-deciduous forests. So, these flocks are most likely colonies of nesting birds.
Their nests are generally located in foliage on the end of a horizontal conifer limb (average 18 feet above the ground), often just below another branch. This location apparently offers protection from precipitation as well as preventing radiation losses to the night sky.
The chicks develop quickly, becoming fully feathered by day 10 and often fledged by day 13. However, the fledglings continue to be fed by the adults for another 3 weeks, so keep an eye on your feeders and nearby trees to see if you can observe one siskin feeding another, proof that the siskins have raised chicks nearby.
We currently have white-throated, white-crowned, song, and chipping sparrows feeding below our house (the tree sparrows just recently moved on north), but we were really delighted to observe a Harris’s sparrow at our feeders on 5/10. Their distinctive black crown, face, and bib, all encircling a pink bill, make them unmistakable. They’re only occasionally seen in migration in Wisconsin, so we always feel blessed when one stops by our feeders.
Harris’s sparrows breed in the relatively narrow transition zone from boreal shrubs to tundra, and I found it interesting that Cornell’s Birds of North America, the Bible on species research, says “their remote breeding habitat and secretive nesting behavior have made it one of the last passerines in North America to have its nest and eggs described; until recently, little was known about even the most basic aspects of its breeding biology.”
Today, 5/11, the bird is still present, likely grounded during the night due to the rainy, cool weather. I suspect it will soon move on, but in the meantime, we’ll enjoy our good fortune in having this one visit our home.
4/29: Sarah Krembs sent me a wonderful note that emphasized just how aggressive, and beautiful, male trumpeter swans can be at this time of year: “I was treated to the most amazing show at Powell Marsh this evening! A pair of trumpeter swans were floating around lazily in that first big pond where they have been seen this spring. Another swan, which had been in the far pond, flew over the pair, and they started hooting like crazy at the other one, and so he flew further away from them. Then, the pair faced each other and spread their wings toward each other and bobbed their heads over and over again. They settled down a bit, but kept bobbing their heads. It was like some affirmation that THEY were a couple, and this third interloper dude was not to be any part of it.
“Then, over near where the swan nest was last year, an unsuspecting sandhill crane flew in, landed and started pecking around, like they do. Well, the one swan from the pair was upset about that and flew over and chased the sandhill away! And then he went back to the other swan. A minute or two later, the crane got too close to the same area again, and same thing. Oh, boy! I think they are totally planning on having a nest this year. Fingers crossed.”
5/2: Dan Carney in Hazelhurst reported the first rufous-sided towhee in the area, and then the first solitary sandpiper the following day.
5/3: Our daughter, Eowyn, was visiting for a few days from San Diego, so we needed to take her paddling and birding for old-time’s sake. In the morning, we paddled a short section of the Bear River and saw our first-of-the year (FOY) palm warblers and spotted sandpiper. Later that afternoon, we hiked in Powell Marsh and found a yellow-headed blackbird as well as a flock of greater yellowlegs, among an array of other birds.
5/4: Judith Bloom on Lake Tomahawk sent me a fine photo of an American widgeon that visited them that day. Judith also noted that the ice went out this year on 4/15 compared to 5/9 last year.
5/4: Grace Wanta in Springstead reported the first orioles in our area.
5/4: Cherie Smith in Lake Tomahawk sent me photo of a brown thrasher and noted, “Every year I see one in our yard and then he disappears.” She also noted, “I saw in your column last week that someone had a pine warbler eating peanuts. We have a pair of them, and they seem to love this peanut butter/suet stuff we make too. We've had several birds eating this concoction, including chipping sparrows and juncos, and last year even an oriole was enjoying it!”
5/5: Mark Pfleiger in Harshaw saw his FOY ruby-throated hummingbird, as did Grace Wanta in Springstead. We saw our first one as well in Manitowish. I heard my first black-throated green warbler and black-and-white warbler while hiking with Conserve School students near Land O’Lakes.
5/6: Mark Pflieger reported his FOY rose-breasted grosbeak in the Harshaw area, and again, we also had our first one in Manitowish. Pat Schwai also reported her FOY rose-breasted grosbeak on Cochran Lake. Mark also noted, “We have a Coopers hawk that is becoming very proficient at chasing birds into our sliding glass door and then coming back and hunting them on the ground. Walks and turns his head like something out of Jurassic Park.”
5/7: Sarah Krembs sent several photos of four northern water snakes she watched swimming beneath the bridge on Hwy. N that crosses Plum Lake.
5/7: Cherie Smith reported her FOY ruby-throated hummingbird in Lake Tomahawk.
5/7: A red-bellied woodpecker visited our feeders for a day, and then departed. We also saw our first yellow warbler and northern parula warbler.
5/7: Grace Wanta in Springstead reported the first indigo bunting in the area. I don’t know what Grace is feeding the birds over there on the Turtle-Flambeau Flowage, but the next day she had five rose-breasted grosbeaks, two orioles, two indigo buntings, and one hummer.
5/8: Laurie Timm on Witches Lake reported her FOY rose-breasted grosbeak, and had her first ruby-throated hummingbird the following day.
5/8: Pat Schwai reported her FOY ruby-throated hummingbird, black-throated green warbler, and least flycatcher on Cochran Lake. She also noted the emotional perils of being a male songbird displaying his wares: “I had to chuckle the other day when a male purple finch landed on a branch in the midst of five females, not more than three feet from any one of them. His crown feathers were raised, his wings trembled and not one of the ladies gave him a nod. How humiliating is that?”
5/8: FOY baby robins were reported by Tom and Kaye Oscar in the Irma area.
5/8: Linda Johnson sent me a photo of a wood turtle eating slugs rather indelicately – it had slug parts extending all around its mouth.
5/8: Dan Carney in Hazelhurst reported the first golden-winged warbler, American redstart, common yellowthroat, and catbird in the area.
5/9: Birders attending the North Lakeland Discovery Center’s Birdfest counted 93 species of birds on a rather chilly, often drizzly morning. If the Birdfest ever gets a warm spring morning preceded by a good migration night flight, the number will easily top 100 species. Kudos to the Discovery Center for organizing another very pleasurable event, their 11th annual!
5/9: Mary and I led a morning trip for the Birdfest into the Van Vliet Hemlocks where we had FOY sightings of a Nashville warbler and Blackburnian warbler, among the nine species of warblers we heard or observed, including yellow-rumped, northern parula, black-throated green, pine, black-and-white, chestnut-sided, and ovenbird. We also had a FOY blue-headed vireo, heard but not seen. Back home in Manitowish, we saw our FOY Baltimore orioles and white-crowned sparrows.
5/11: On a hike on the Land O’Lakes bike trail, Mary and I heard our FOY black-throated blue warbler and got exceptional close-up looks at a northern parula warbler. Spring flowers were up on the trail; in particular, hundreds of Dutchman’s breeches and Carolina spring beauties. Juneberries were in flower all along County B.
The planet Jupiter shines brightly in the evening western sky all month and nears the waxing crescent moon on 5/24 and 5/25. With a small telescope or bird spotting scope, you can see four of Jupiter’s moons – Io, Callisto, Europa, and Ganymede. Galileo was the first to discover them, so they are named the “Galilean satellites.”
Venus outshines Jupiter in the western sky after sunset, but it sets a few hours after the sun. Jupiter and Venus approach within 25 degrees of one another on 5/27. So, how far is 25°? If you extend your arm, make a fist, and hold it to the sky, the distance across the width of an average fist is about 10°. If you spread out your thumb and little finger as far apart as possible, that’s about 25°.
Saturn remains an early morning “star” in the southwest. Its ring system is currently tilted at 25 degrees from horizontal, a feature that can be seen with a spotting scope or a small telescope.