Magpie: Our Black and White Jay

The Black-Billed Magpie is an extreme bird. People either love ‘um or hate ‘um. They probably have more detractors than supporters. However, I am one who likes this beautiful bird. Their satiny black and white feathers and long tails are most attractive. Seen in the right light, their feathers shine with an iridescence. People from the east who haven’t experienced this species are usually very impressed – much as westerners are with Blue Jays when visiting eastern states.

Like all jays, this bird is very raucous. When they are near, you can hear them “jabbering away” to each other. This intelligent species would have to be considered the valedictorian of the bird world. Very alert to their surroundings and very hard to approach, they have been known to do clever things – like the one that dropped nuts at a stop light. The nuts would be cracked when the traffic ran over them. The bird would then fly in to get the results when the light changed.

They are a year-round bird and very adaptable. As generalists, their diet covers a wide range from fruits, grains, worms, slugs, and insects to small animals like snakes and mice. They also do much scavenging and are often seen on highways taking advantage of the “road-kill”. Magpies are early nesters and build roofed, dome shaped nests of sticks that protect the eggs from the early spring weather. The same nest is used each year. Five to nine eggs are laid and are incubated for 16 to 18 days. When fledging, the young have short tails which elongate as they mature. By early nesting, they are gone from the tree when other species arrive.

We have other jays in Cassia County: the Scrub Jay which is blue and gray, the Pinyon Jay which is all blue, Clark’s Nutcracker which is gray, black, and white, the American Crow, and the Common Raven. All are raucous, opportunistic, smart, and adaptable. The Black-billed has a cousin – the Yellow-billed which is slightly smaller and found in central California. Magpie behavior is always interesting. I’ve watched them “mob” hawks and owls, sneak food away from larger animals, and even perch on the rumps of deer – getting great pleasure out of annoying their hosts.

Magic Sap Trees

by Dave Hanks

Sapsuckers are aptly named. They excavate tree cavities for nesting, and other birds use the holes after the original owners are done with them. They also drill series of small holes in a tree’s bark, which then becomes a source of sweetness for all to utilize. Cassia County has large populations of sapsuckers – Red-Naped ones. This woodpecker is especially evident at the City of Rocks. Its red chin differentiates it from other woodpeckers.

On a trip to New Mexico one winter, we camped in an out of-the-way place called Water Canyon. It was reputed to have wild turkeys, and my wife wanted to observe them. It was wintry, but that situation was disregarded. Snow limited where we could park our truck, but there was a spot just off the road by a forest service restroom. There was considerable bird activity around that restroom. We soon discovered the reason. An Arizona Black Walnut tree with brown, withered leaves that hadn’t been totally shed stood next to that outhouse. It was oozing sap and, as if by magic, a wide variety of birds were visiting that tree.

A Red-Naped Sapsucker would arrive at 20 minute intervals and work on two or three branches. There were dark areas on the bark and, with binoculars, I discovered that each spot was covered with tiny holes. Obviously, sapsuckers are not the only ones that love sap. White-Breasted Nuthatches were all over the tree. Ruby-Crowned Kinglets preferred a spot where a freshly broken limb made a large stain on the dangling branch. Other species invading that tree were: Common Bushtit, Mountain Chickadee, Bridled Titmouse, Juniper Titmouse, Stellar’s Jay, and Scrub Jay.

We didn’t find any Wild Turkeys, but it was great to get such a close-up glimpse and an expanded knowledge of sap holes. The time spent at the base of that “Magic Sap Tree” and all the many birds in it, made that short side-trip most rewarding!

His red chin identifies him as a sapsucker

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!

How many rocks could a Rock-Chuck chuck?

Rock Chuck or Wood Chuck, both are marmots. The correct name however, for our local marmot, is the Yellow-Bellied Marmot. The marmot is the only mammal to have a USA holiday named for it (Ground Hog Day).

This large (14” to 20”) rodent loves rocky terrain where they can lay in the sun and also escape predators when alarmed. One individual always stands guard and gives an alarm call. The call will vary according to the type of predator (hawk vs. coyote, etc). It may be a “chuck”, whistle, or a trill. Rock habitats must be close to greenery, as the animal lives entirely on green vegetation of all types.

Yellow-Bellied Marmots spend 80% of their lives in burrows – this includes nighttime, as well as hibernation which lasts from August through February. They are meticulous about keeping their den and bedding clean. Their hearty appetite allows them to put on a good layer of fat for their 7 month hibernation. Sleeping late, then eating vigorously, and finally resting on a rock in the sun conserves the energy that turns into a layer of fat.

The males are “harem-polygymous” and litter sizes average a bit over 4 pups. Males leave the colony, but females tend to stay with their mothers and become reproducers at 2 years of age.

This “bear-like” rodent has a golden to rufus coat, brown head, and a yellowish-red belly. Wood Chucks are found in the east, but Yellow-Bellies are a western, intermountain species.

They are most interesting to observe, whether sunning on a large rock or scurrying across a road or trail into the closest cover.

(A big one sunning – a favorite pastime)

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.

Grizzlies have an amazing digestive system

Grizzlies are always hungry. It’s no wonder, because of a five month hibernation fast, they must go into the den at least 150 pounds over the weight from which they emerge. This large, aggressive omnivore (meat and vegetation eater) is in reality a very poor predator. Meat is preferred, but not often an option. As a result, the animal consumes a wide variety of food stuffs.

Their favorite food is ground squirrels, which they vigorously dig for. Other meat sources may include fish, newborn mammals, and carrion from winter kill. However, 70% of their diet is grass. It needs to be moist and at least 4 inches long because they graze with a sideways motion of the head. It’s interesting to watch them grazing on a hillside like cattle. Other foods are insects, buds, berries, nuts, and roots.

That hump between the shoulders is a massive muscle for digging, which they are masters at. They require a massive 24,000 calories a day, and their digestive tract is 80 feet long (10 feet for each foot of body length – humans have 4 feet for every foot of height). This great length of gut enables the digestion of a truly great variety of food stuffs. The bear is most aggressive when guarding a carcass, or when a sow is guarding her cubs. The bear is also very fast. Grizzlies can cover 50 yards in 3 seconds. My wife and I watched one ambling along, when suddenly the bear became alert and was off. It was amazing how fast that beast covered the ground and was gone!

Once, in a Canadian campground, I was sitting and reading to my wife. Our backs were toward the woods. A man came up the trail, on his way to the restroom. He asked if we had enjoyed our visitor. Evidently, a Grizzly had come out of the woods and sat behind us, unbeknown to us. It then, when seeing the man approaching, had returned into the trees.

 

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.