The Red Crossbill: An Unusual Beak

This beak is not deformed. Nature intended it to be thus. It is an adaptation for the opening of cones. While useful for that purpose, it does make the bird into a specialist and whether the beak crosses to the right or to the left runs about 50-50. Crossbills must have coniferous forests in order to survive and because conifer cones may last on the tree up to 20 years, there is no need to migrate out of an area of good cone production. Therefore their movements are irregular and controlled by cone availability.

There are two species of crossbills in North America: the Red Crossbill and the White-Winged Crossbill. The red variety is hard to “spot”, but is very abundant in the Cassia and Twin Falls mountain areas. The more glamorous White-Winged one is an inhabitant of boreal (northern) forests.

These interesting birds may not come to seed feeders, but water can be a major attraction. They are very gregarious and will come in to drink in large groups. The all-red, mature male is pictured. Immature birds are boldly streaked brown. The females are yellowish-olive and may show patches of red. The species is 6 ¼” long, with a large head, and a short, notched tail.

Different strains of the species are each adapted to a specific tree type (i.e. Lodgepole Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, etc). Other species such as finches, chickadees, and siskin benefit from the nuts not consumed after a cone is opened. Crossbills are also quite vocal and will call while in flight. Each individual’s calls may vary somewhat from other individuals, giving that bird a character of its own. It gives a rapid series of harsh “jip” notes, started with several two-note phrases and followed by a warbled trill.

The female lays three eggs, but only two individuals usually fledge and there is about a 12% survival rate of the young into the second year. It is enough, however, to maintain the bird’s population numbers.

The crossbills of our south hills have the largest beaks of their kind. They are an isolated population and researchers are thinking of denoting them as a separate species. When camping, the presence of crossbills gives one a true flavor of the mountain experience. It is a truly unique bird!

Western Tanagers & an “invisible” experience

I have seen western movies where an Indian felt safe, amid a battle, because he claimed to be invisible. This is a situation that I’ve often wished for and strangely enough it has seemed to have happened a few times during my pursuit of wildlife photos. There is no other way to explain it. After pursuing bird after bird, only to have them “spook” and fly away, sometimes a lucky situation will arise.

One time in late July, when camping at Lake Cleveland, we found a shallow pond at one side of the campground. It was the result of snow-melt and was receding quite rapidly each day. In a “devil-may-care” mood, I stuck a stick upright in the mud of that pond. I then proceeded to place my chair a scant 20 feet from the stick. It was as if I wasn’t there. Sixteen different species alighted, either on that stick, or at my feet, before moving in to drink. Hairy Woodpeckers, Pine Grosbeak, and others; but the most noticeable were Western Tanagers. If you would have told me that this would happen, I’d have said that you were crazy.

The tanager is one of my favorites and his red head makes for a breath-taking sight. The bird needs a good supply of carotene in its diet to enhance the red coloration. Slightly smaller than a Robin, it has a black back and tail and a bright yellow body and yellow wing bars. The female is colored like the male – minus the red head.

This bird prefers the coniferous forests of the western United States during the summer months, but winters in central Mexico and further south. In the early spring this species always pays a visit to our yard, where it is much attached to the sugar water we put out for the Orioles

The Common Snipe: My Introduction to the Bird World

There he was, perched on a post in the marsh, close to the road. A strange, chunky, brown bird that was about 10” long with an extremely long beak. I was at a seminar at Utah State University and the professor, that morning, had taken us bird watching. “What is that?” I asked. “A Common Snipe,” the teacher replied. I was flabbergasted! Snipes were supposed to be a Boy Scout myth, but there one was just as big as life! I was “hooked.” Upon returning home, every bird seen now became a point of curiosity. Binoculars and a field guide became a necessity. Later on, we started photography. I discovered a truth: you can’t become aware of one facet of nature without becoming aware of all the others. Thus trees, flowers, etc. had to be learned about.

The Snipe is a stocky species of marsh and wet meadow. During courtship, in the early spring, the male rises high in the sky and makes a flight display called “winnowing’ – swooping through the sky in a series of loops with the wind whistling through his wings and tail. This causes an eerie fluttering sound. Perching on a post is a normal resting area. However, during nesting season, they are secretive and seldom seen unless flushed. They then explode up and away.

Classified as a shore bird, the long, straight beak allows probing in shallow water with a rapid jabbing motion for the small organisms that abide there.

On our first visit to the new state park – Castle Rocks, we were greeted at the entrance sign by a Snipe just sitting there and solarizing. This seemed to be a good omen and a fitting introduction to this newly opened area.

Cooper’s Hawk – A Bird Eating Bird

Hawks are very difficult to approach. This one was by a forest-service water trough in North Heglar Canyon. He seemed cooperative, and so I crawled on my belly and got very close to take this picture. He’s a young hawk and perhaps that is the reason I was able to get quite close. He was frequenting the area in hopes of catching other birds that were coming in to drink.

Cooper’s Hawk & its smaller look-alike, the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, are both predators that feed on other birds. “Sharpies” feast on the smaller species while Cooper’s will take birds the size of doves. Their falcon-type, streamlined bodies make swift pursuit possible. Exceptionally maneuverable through trees, they really “zoom” after their prey. We have an extensive bird feeding set-up in our yard, and these two hawks hang around in our trees. They make surprise attacks, scattering birds in all directions, as they swiftly appear out of nowhere. The reason why bird feeders need to be situated close to cover, is so a quick dive into a protected area is possible.

These two species are classified as Accipiters. These are medium-sized hawks with slender bodies, long tails, and short wings. These attributes give them great maneuverability in the tree habitats in which they reside. Cooper’s is 14” to 20” long. “Sharpies” are 10” to 14” long. Another difference is that the Cooper’s Hawk has a rounded end to its tail while Sharp-Shinned tail is squared.

Although we hate disturbance at our bird feeders, the appearance of one of these predators is always exciting. They are only doing what they are programmed to do. They are not nearly as great a menace as are the many stray house cats that we are plagued with – or the dogs that feel free to frequent our yard.

FLASHES OF RED & BOBBING WHITE RUMPS!

If I could give another name to “Indian Summer” it would be “The
Time of the Flicker”. The late autumn months are full of much woodpecker
activity in our yard. Especially plentiful is our county’s largest one – the
RED- SHAFTED FLICKER (12 ½ inches long). It’s such an appealing bird with its
poke-a-doted belly, black chest crescent, and red moustache. When in flight, it
flashes the orange/red under parts of its wings and tail (thence its name) and a
conspicuous white rump patch.

As I step outside each morning in autumn, I’m greeted by these birds in
undulating flight – wings flashing color and that white rump patch bobbing up
and down as they scurry to a distant perch. The yard “teems” with an abundance
of these birds.

Flickers like open woodlands and suburban areas. Snags (standing dead trees)
or soft wood trees such as Aspen are preferred when drilling nest cavities.
Their long beaks and tongues facilitate the procurement of ants and other types
of insects – whether on or in the bark of a tree, or on the ground. They also
like fruit and we often see them feeding on our elderberry bushes. Their call is
a loud wik – wik – wik – wik and wick-er, wick-er, wick-er, and a single, loud
klee-yer.

The eastern variety (Yellow-Shafted) has yellow under-parts, a black
moustache, and a red crescent on the back of its head.

 

The Great Horned Owl – Fighter or Lover?

It’s mesmerizing to fall asleep, or awaken, to a soft hooting in
the early evening, or in the wee morning hours. Such is a common occurrence at
our house. These love calls begin in late fall and result in the laying of four
eggs in late winter. Incubation is started at once and results in separate
hatching times for each egg. This situation is known as a “stairstep” family and
whether all, or part, of the young are raised depends on the food supply. The
biggest baby is always fed first and it will survive even if the others don’t.
When the young fledge, they are ½ again larger than the adults. This allows for
an adjustment period when they are learning to fend for themselves.

The GREAT HORNED OWL is not only “tender” with its own but is very formidable
with others. They can take prey as large as a skunk and I have seen young cats
(in our yard) that have been torn in half. A smack on your head with their
talons could be very injurious.

They are identified by size (22”), a white throat, and ear-like feather
projections. They are quite adaptable and wide spread across North America and
are important rodent controllers. Mice and voles make up the lion’s share of
their diet. Other bird species will often “mob” them during daylight hours. Our
yard and lower tree plots are to their liking and we get to witness the raising
and fledging of young each year.

 

A bird in the hand equals two in the bush

By Dave Hanks 

Tiny little claws grasp and tickle my fingers. It’s a BLACK- CAPPED CHICKADEE – a small bird that is named for its call and black cap. If you are in the woods you hear the call “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”, it is unmistakably this bird.

We have two Chickadee species in Cassia County: the Black-Capped and the Mountain. The Mountain Chickadee is told from the Black-Capped by a white eyebrow stripe and is the more common in our county. Both prefer higher elevation woodlands of both deciduous and coniferous trees. They usually forage in the lower branches where they are often seen feeding by hanging upside down. When not nesting, they gather in huge flocks. They are insectivorous but will come to feeders containing seed.

As you can see, they can also be lured onto ones hand, perch on your camera, or even alight on your head. Following a Chickadee call can lead you to other species, which they tend to feed in a group with; such as woodpeckers, nuthatches, warblers, and kinglets. They may even lead you to owls that are sitting on their daytime roosts. These frisky fellows are a favorite winter visitor to bird feeding stations.

 

 

Our Neighborhood Kingfisher

I hear his “rattling” as he flies over our trees on his way to breakfast. Our neighbor has a large pond that is stocked with goldfish. The bird perches on a zip-line cable that is stretched over the pond. He watches below, plunges down and spears a fish, and then flies to a small bridge that leads to an island within the pond. He then smacks the head of the fish against the metal railing to kill it before ingesting it. Having observed this behavior, I set up my portable blind beside the bridge. I get in it each morning, before sunup, for most of a week. The “rattling” alerts me to his presence and I get ready for him to land on the bridge. This gives me the opportunity to get some good Kingfisher photos.

The BELTED KINGFISHER is a species in which the female is the more colorful. She has a rusty red belly stripe. They are 13” long and have a noticeable crest that looks to need “combing”.

They nest in burrows, dug in banks, close to fish inhabited waters. A short tail creates less drag as they exit the water after a dive. I became a Kingfisher lover from the time I first noticed one winging and “rattling” its way above Rock Creek, in southern Twin Falls County.

 

Mysterious Interloper

by Dave Hanks

In 2003 and 2004 I was called upon to identify a mysterious bird seen in the tall trees in the south-west section of Burley. I say mysterious because the species involved managed to stay hidden most of the time, or at least when I was called to observe it. After much searching and discussion of behavior, an unlikely visitor was identified. Unlikely because this bird is closely associated with marshes, where it nests. Because the river is within easy flying distance is the only reason that seems logical for this large wading species to be where it was sighted.

The AMERICAN BITTERN is 28 inches long with a voice that sounds like water gurgling. When alarmed it will stand in the sedges with neck stretched skyward, looking much like the reeds that surround it.

Immature Night Herons are also streaked and could possibly be confused with the bittern.

It is a hard species to approach and to get photographs requires a bit of luck.

I Really Like to be in Southern Texas

by Dave Hanks

I REALLY LIKE TO BE IN SOUTHERN TEXAS!

It’s pleasant in winter time, when temperatures are low.

This is the time of year when it’s best to go

To the Rio Grande Valley to enjoy the birdie show.

I REALLY LIKE TO BE IN SOUTHERN TEXAS!

All sorts of perchers like these conditions too

Just put out some feed and they soon come into view.

They are there in abundance, and I will name a few:

I REALLY LIKE TO BE IN SOUTHERN TEXAS!

To see Woodpeckers, Jays, Thrashers, and the Kiskadee;

Cardinals and Titmice, and an Oriole in a tree

And so many, many others, are there for you to see.

One gulf coast denizen is the Tri-Colored Heron. It is also known as the Louisiana Heron. They will be there stalking the shallows to catch and ingest almost anything that they can get down their gullet. This 26 inch tall bird inhabits the saline waters of the gulf’s marshes and mangrove swamps.

Audubon Oriole is another southern Texas joy to find, with its yellow body and black head and neck. Texas has more bird species than any other state in the union, and when we can take a trip there, it is always rewarding.

 

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