Monday, January 26, 2009

White-winged Crossbills!

They're Heeeeerrrrreeee!!!! (Think "Poltergeist"and that creepy little girl...)

Oh, yeah, baby! I have been waiting for these guys for quite a while. Ron Pittaway puts a finch report out every fall that predicts which birds will migrate based on cone crops and observations. There were reports of White-wing Crossbill sightings up north in Indiana. Then, reports of them in Columbus, Ohio, which is directly east of Indianapolis. I knew they would have to show up in Indy soon. I saw a flock in the Hocking Hills region of Ohio the weekend after New Years. Next, Kirk Roth found a lone male on January 3rd at Eagle Creek Park. Most likely a scout, checking out the food situation. Don Gorney had 425 around the Ft. Wayne area the 18th. Finally, on Wednesday, January 21, Mary Lou Stark found a flock of 12 White-winged Crossbills near the Ornithology Center at Eagle Creek Park. Chad Williams found 40 the following day. They have been putting on nice shows ever since. (All the crossbill photos are from Kevin Carlsen who is working dilligently on the new up and coming Eagle Creek Ornithology Center. More on that later in the post.)

So why are they here? No, it has nothing to do with ancient burial grounds. The spruce cone crop up north in Cananda is not up to snuff. With not enough food for all the birds to survive, flocks will wander farther south to partake of the bounty in our neck of the woods.

Above is a female crossbill. Females have greenish-yellow plumage with white wingbars. What fascinates me most about crossbills is their crazy beak. With a beak twisted and slightly askew, crossbills look like a science project gone a little awry. I have taken the photo above and cropped it so you can see a closeup of the beak below.

As you can see on this female White-winged Crossbill, the upper and lower mandibles criss-cross. This makes the perfect tool for prying open seed cones. Interestingly, some birds are lefties and some are righties. There is a blog post about it here.

Here is a nice capture of the male. Nice red color with black wings and the bold white wingbars that cinch the ID.

So what are these White-winged Crossbilss feeding upon? Eastern Hemlock cones. Their beaks are perfectly adapted for getting into the cones and extracting the seeds. I have heard that they are not too tasty for humans, but crossbills love 'em! Look at this happy guy carrying his prize.

And here are the tasty nuggets found inside each cone. Tiny little seeds that the crossbills crave. They have been witnessed feeding on spruce and pine cones, as well, and I have read they also enjoy sweet gum fruit. The seed photo above was stolen from Jim McCormac's blog. He also has a few good posts on crossbills, here and here.

Special thanks to Kevin Carlsen for letting me use some of his photos. If you are in the area of Eagle Creek and like building objects or painting and creating displays, he can use volunteers at the Ornithology Center, due to open sometime this year. The number is 327-BIRD(2473).


Sunday, January 18, 2009


My niece from Delaware sent me this great picture of her resident Red Fox she calls "Foxy". Brenda and her husband Mike Heindl live on a virtual naturalist's paradise at Oversee Farm, a Nature Conservancy property. (I hope they don't mind auntie dropping in for a visit).

Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes, is the most ubiquitous wild canine. This species can be found in the U.S., Canada, Europe, North Africa, most of Asia, Japan and it was even introduced to Australia. Weighing anywhere between 6.5 to 25 pounds, they are eating machines. They are omnivores with a diet consisting of fruit, worms, crayfish, rodents, rabbits, birds, eggs, amphibians, small reptiles, fish, carrion and even human garbage. In the U.S., fox weighing in on the hefty side usual reside in the areas to the north, while the daintier ones reside in the warmer areas to the south. Red Fox have small stomachs and therefore can only eat around 10% of their body weight. When they have an abundance of food, they will store it in shallow holes that they dig and position throughout their territory. This act insures if another animal discovers their bounty, all their supply will not be lost.

Red Fox have territories that can be as large as 20 square miles. Though they can be viewed during the day, fox are normally active at dawn and dusk and can even be nocturnal in areas where they encounter frequent human interference.

Red Fox can endure cold weather by growing a thick winter coat. The coat coloration can vary greatly from deep chestnut, rusty red to sandy blonde. There is also a rare color phase of the Red Fox that is black, seen above, which makes up a mere 10% of the population. Photo from Wikipedia. Such an ominous looking beast!

Red Fox can be fascinating to watch, as my niece can attest. These carefree clowns love to romp and rough-house. They are especially amusing to observe as they hunt, leaping high into the air and landing on a juicy vole or mouse. They have acute hearing, and can detect the slightest movement of a rodent under the thick grasses. A master at camouflage, they can lie in wait concealed in the tall grass. A rabbit has little chance at escape when it is surprised by a furry bullet that can reach a speed of 45 miles an hour.

Red Fox can be viewed at Eagle Creek Park and Holliday Park. The ones at Eagle Creek Park have raised young there, and if you are lucky enough, you can catch a glimpse of the kits in the spring frolicking in the park.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Baby, It's Coooollllldddd Outside! -Alberta Clipper

Path of most Alberta Clippers. Photo from Wikipedia.

Okay, waking up to temperatures of 11 below zero is not a treat in my book. I am not a big fan of cold weather. Looovve snow. But I can do without bone-chilling cold.

Anyway, some of you might be interested in why we are having this bit of cold weather. It is the cause of an Alberta Clipper. No, Alberta is not the name of some mean school marm that likes to torture kids. Alberta is the name of a province in Canada. This is where the storm arises. The "clipper" part comes from the fast moving ships of the 19th century, since this type of weather moves very quickly dropping temperatures 30 degrees in less than 12 hours sometimes.

This phenomenom occurs when warm moist air from the Pacific Ocean encounters the mountains in British Columbia and Alberta. This warm air travels down the mountain and brings unseasonably warm air to Alberta, sometimes as warm as 70 degrees F. Okay, I could go for that right now!

Next, the clipper visits the prairies of Canada and mixes with the cold air mass that is here in the winter. It then moves south, where is gets caught in the jet stream, rapidly bringing this cold air mass to our doorstep. It also brings strong winds 35-45 mph. This can cause the wind chill to be as low as 20 -50 below zero. Brrrrrr!!!!

But luckily, this is a clipper that is fast moving. So by the weekend, we will be a balmy 30 degrees. Get out your bikini!