Friday, February 14, 2014

Mixed Winter Flocks and More--Birding Adventure, Week 4

In the winter months, birds often gather into large, mixed-species flocks. When you think about it, it's not such a bad idea! They can keep one another warm, find food together, and protect one another from predators (like the birds of prey discussed in the last blog). Many of these birds are repeats from the first week of class because common winter birds are often found in mixed flocks. Let's take a look at some of the ones we haven't discussed yet!

Belted Kingfisher
The Belted Kingfisher is on the list for this week, thought it is not a winter bird. These awesome creatures make their nests in the banks near bodies of water and fish (as their name suggests) on lakes, ponds, and rivers, so when the ground freezes and the lakes ice up, they have to migrate. They're still pretty amazing, though, and if you learn them now you'll be able to spot them right away when they get back in the spring. Often, I hear them before I see them; their call is a really neat rattle that is very distinctive.

The other birds that are new on the list this week include the
Northern Flicker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Northern Flicker. These are both types of woodpeckers that will be coming back very soon! The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker looks almost like a Hairy Woodpecker, but it has more red on its head and a yellow wash on its belly. The Northern Flicker, however, has a black "bib" below its chin and polka-dots on its chest and belly.

My very favorite of this bunch has to be the Pileated Woodpecker. It is one of the largest, most iconic forest birds in North America, and while it is not endangered, it can still be difficult to find. We went out to the UW Arboretum to go birding as a class for the first time this semester earlier this month. It was snowing the whole time and the temperature was around -5 degrees, but we found a patch of open water. Not only did we see a Great Blue Heron (which usually migrate south in the winter), but we got a good look at a Pileated Woodpecker! It was our first time out, and already I was able to see one of my "life birds." A "life bird" is a species that you have not yet seen in your life. Most birders keep a running list of all the species they have seen and what they most want to see, and now I can add the Pileated Woodpecker to my life list!

Pileated Woodpecker

Coraciiformes: Alcedinidae
Belted Kingfisher

Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Pileated Woodpecker

Passeriformes: Corvidae
Blue Jay
American Crow

Passeriformes: Paridae
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse

Passeriformes: Sittidae
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch

Passeriformes: Certhiidae
Brown Creeper  

As usual, the list of birds for this week and links to their informational pages can be found above. Start looking for woodpeckers in your back yard--Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are especially common, and I have seen quite a few Red-bellied Woodpeckers lately.

Happy Birding!
Nature Net Intern 

Eagles and Owls and Hawks, Oh My! --Birding Adventure, Week 3

Birds of prey are on the docket for this week's session of Birds of Southern Wisconsin! Raptors such as these are cool because many of them stay in Wisconsin in the winter and they are big, amazing birds that are more common than you might think. Let's explore some of their habitats and places that you might encounter these awesome specimens.

Sharp-shinned Hawk--Note the
squared edges of its tail
Cooper's Hawk--Its tail is
more rounded
Sharp-shinned Hawks are the smallest hawk species in North America and have adapted very well to urban settings. While they do hunt small mammals like mice and voles, their diet is approximately 90% songbirds.
Anything smaller than an American Robin is fair game to these guys, though they have been known to eat birds that are a bit larger, as well. Once this past fall, I saw two Sharp-shinned Hawks on two different telephone poles right in the middle of the Brentwood Village on the North side of Madison. Spotting a Sharp-shinned can be as easy as looking out your front window! The females, as in most species of hawks, are larger than the males and can be as large as a male Cooper's Hawk. Cooper's Hawks look very similar to Sharp-shinned Hawks, but there's a little trick to tell them apart. Cooper's Hawks have rounded tails while Sharp-shinned Hawks have a more squared-off tail.

A Northern Saw-whet Owlet
Turkey Vultures are another raptor that may be easily spotted during Wisconsin winters. They can often be spotted near roads feeding on roadkill or circling above open fields. American Kestrels are notorious for sitting on telephone wires, and even Bald Eagles can be spotted this time of year.

Owls, on the other hand, are a bit more difficult to spot because they are nocturnal. You are probably more likely to hear them than see them, but if you go out on a night hike you could be lucky enough to get a glimpse of one. My favorite bird of this week's bunch is definitely the Northern Saw-whet Owl. It is so cute and tiny, but don't let that fool you! It is still a fierce hunter. You can listen to its call on All
About Birds--I think it sounds almost like sonar.

Adult Northern Saw-whet Owl

Accipitriformes: Cathartidae
Turkey Vulture

Accipitriformes: Pandionidae

Accipitriformes: Accipitridae
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk

Falconiformes: Falconidae
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon

Strigiformes: Strigidae
Eastern Screech-Owl
Great Horned Owl
Barred Owl
Long-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl
Northern Saw-whet Owl

Passeriformes: Laniidae
Loggerhead Shrike
Northern Shrike

Some of these birds look remarkably similar, and their only defining characteristics are most easily described by using bird topography, as discussed in last week's blog.  For example, the Loggerhead and Northern Shrike look almost identical except for their size, but the eye-stripe on a Loggerhead Shrike is much thicker than that of a Northern Shrike. It is much easier to say eye-stripe than "the line through its eye," and this is one of the many cases in which bird topography is so helpful.

As always, you can look these birds up and listen to their calls by clicking on their names, which are linked to their All About Birds pages. Listen to the iconic screech of the Red-tailed Hawk or the "hoo hoo hoo" calls of a Great Horned Owl, and see if you can recognize any calls around your home or favorite park!

Happy Birding!
Nature Net Intern

Friday, February 7, 2014

More than Just Mallards--Birding Adventure, Week 2

Here's a bird diagram with all of its different parts labeled
During Madison summers, male and female mallards and their ducklings can be found almost everywhere, but did you know that amongst these highly common ducks are a number of other less-well-known species? Grebes are tiny diving ducks that can be seen all over lakes Mendota and Monona, and in the spring and fall, Buffleheads will begin to gather by the dozen. This week in Birds of Southern Wisconsin, we're learning all about water fowl. The three Orders of birds we have to memorize are Anseriformes (swans, geese, and ducks), Gaviiformes (loons), and Podicipediformes (grebes). Alongside bird species, we're familiarizing ourselves with "bird topography." Bird topography is basically a nomenclature for the different physical parts of most birds. For example, the top of the head is referred to as the "crown," the back of the neck is the "nape," the sides are the "flanks," and so on. We're learning about bird topography so we can more accurately describe birds in the field. Instead of saying, "The bird has stripes on its wings and the top of its head is red," we can be more descriptive and precise by saying, "The bird has white wing bars and a red crown." This way, we will know exactly where to look for certain field markings and can more quickly find and identify the bird.

Field markings are useful tools for identification, especially when birds are very similar. For example, the Greater Scaup and Lesser Scaup look almost identical, but the Lesser Scaup has a "top knot," or tuft of feathers on the back of its head. Because size is difficult to determine in the field unless the two subjects are close to one another, such field markings are a more accurate way to determine the species of a bird. Phenology, the study of appearance, is a science that is made more exact with the addition of technical terms for specific features. In the field, birders rely on phenology, and bird topography makes our jobs easier.

Our lab session this week involved going to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Zoological Museum to view mounted specimens of all the birds that we'll be learning this semester. The Museum has over 24,000 avian specimens, some of which date back as far as 1845! It was very helpful to view the birds up close and examine their features more fully.

I am particularly fond of water fowl, so choosing a favorite bird out of this week's list is difficult for me. It is probably a tie between the Tundra Swan and Pied-billed Grebe. Tundra Swans are graceful and iconic, and
Tundra Swans

the first time I identified one I was over the moon. I happened to be on Lake Mendota in November of 2012 and it was snowing lightly. Mostly, I was amazed that a bird so large and, in my mind, so rare (though that is not quite true) could end up on the lake right next to my campus. It opened my eyes to the amazing biodiversity we experience right here in Madison.

Pied-billed Grebe
The Pied-billed Grebe on the other hand, is a tiny diving duck. They have big, lobed toes that are placed quite far back on their body. The placement makes them excellent swimmers, but they're more than a little clumsy on land. When I started birding, I saw one of these little guys sink quickly straight down into the water instead of diving and thought it was the funniest thing. When I started reading  about them, though, I learned that they actually do that when they feel threatened. They can quickly push all the air out from between their feathers and sink straight down like a submarine!

If you want to learn more fun facts about these birds, here's a list of the species we're learning with links to their All About Birds pages. You may want to listen to their calls, as well. I think waterfowl have some of the most amazing calls; for example, the Common Loon makes the most beautifully haunting call, while the Pied-billed Grebe sounds almost like a monkey.

Anseriformes: Anatidae (Anserinae)
Greater White-fronted Goose
Snow Goose
Cackling Goose
Canada Goose
Mute Swan
Tundra Swan
Trumpeter Swan

Anseriformes: Anatidae
Wood Duck
American Wigeon
American Black Duck
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Common Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Common Merganser
Ruddy Duck

Gaviiformes: Gaviidae
Common Loon

Podicipediformes: Podicipedidae
Pied-billed Grebe
Horned Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Eared Grebe

These orders of birds need open water, which is a bit scarce during these winter days in Wisconsin. They migrate further south, but they'll be back with us soon enough! Keep your eyes peeled for the first string of Canada Geese that may start coming back as early as next month.

Happy Birding!
Nature Net Intern