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Phenology Report: An avian assessment

A Cedar Waxwing sits on a sumac branch in Milaca on Apr. 23, 2023.
iNaturalist user jdziuk1
A Cedar Waxwing sits on a sumac branch in Milaca on Apr. 23, 2023.

Beautiful birches

The fresh snow has revealed lots of birch seeds to staff phenologist John Latimer’s observant eye. These tiny seeds are shaped like miniscule fleur de lis. A tiny sphere in the center holds the seed: four bracts form the tiny wings.

At the tips of the branches dangle three little appendages shaped like turkey feet: these are the male catkins, which will not ripen until spring. These catkins are about 1.25 inches long and are quite hard at this time of year. In the spring, they will soften and begin to dispense pollen.

The ripe fruits are held on a similar structure, about 1.5 inches long, but which is quite crumbly. Touch one, and it will disintegrate in your hand leaving dozens of tiny birch seeds. These seeds are favorites of many birds, including Common Redpolls.

An avain census and a redpoll

John’s bird feeders are hopping with his year-round avian neighbors: chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers. A few standout visitors included a lone American Goldfinch and a Pine Siskin.

A flock of Common Redpolls forage in the snow in St. Louis County on Jan. 18, 2023.
iNaturalist user accipitergentilis
A flock of Common Redpolls forage in the snow in St. Louis County on Jan. 18, 2023.

Notably, Common Redpolls have been absent this winter. In the summer, redpolls nest and breed in the arctic. In winter, they head for southern latitudes but don’t seem to be choosy about the longitude! They are circumpolar birds, meaning they inhabit areas including and adjacent to one of the earth’s poles. In the Common Redpoll’s case, they live on every continent that touches the Arctic Ocean.

They range quite widely – a redpoll banded in Michigan was later captured in Siberia, and another banded in Belgium was found later in China.

In harsher winters, redpolls arrive in Northern Minnesota in large flocks. They love to eat birch seeds and are frequent visitors of bird feeders. At night, they dive into the snow and allow the natural insulative properties of a snowdrift to keep them reasonably warm. If they need a little extra energy to make it through the long night, they eat seeds stored in their esophageal pouch. In addition, they grow more downy feathers in winter – an extra 30% of the weight of their down.

As winter deepens and snow accumulates, redpolls may still visit Northern Minnesota in some numbers. If so, keep an eye for them near bird feeders and birch trees!

Great Horned Owls

John is eagerly awaiting the nightly choruses of courting Great Horned Owls. He's most frequently noted hearing these delightful duets between November and April. Here are some of his records:

A Great Horned Owl sits on the branch of a flowering maple tree in May, 2023.
USFWS Midwest Region via Flickr
A Great Horned Owl sits on the branch of a flowering maple tree in May, 2023.

  • 2023: Jan. 3 
  • 2022: Jan. 17 
  • 2021: Jan. 1 
  • 2020: Jan. 30 
  • 2019: Dec. 6 
  • 2017: Jan. 29 
  • 2015: Jan. 27 
  • 2014: Jan. 11 

Male Great Horned Owls have a slightly deeper voice than females. Listen closely around dusk and into the evening, and don’t forget to make a note when you start to hear them!

Unlike the Snowy Owl, Great Grey Owl, or Northern Hawk Owl, Great Horned Owls hunt exclusively at night. These other species spend summers in the arctic, where it never gets fully dark: thus, they have adapted to hunt in daylight. Great Horned Owls have not made this shift and are therefore less likely to be seen by us diurnal humans.

While he didn’t see the owl responsible, John wrote this record of an owl encounter:

“A cottontail rabbit, minus its head, showed up stashed under an old door leaning against the abandoned outhouse. My first impression was that the owl had made the kill and the weasel that lives in the outhouse had appropriated it two days later.

“I noticed that fully half of the remaining carcass was gone and there were no scraps. Returning 3 hours later, the remaining portion was gone and the snow was stained with whitewash excrement.

“Now I know that it was the owl. The whole time it had hidden the carcass so the ravens wouldn't find it.

“On my wanderings later that day, I came across the scene of the death: A series of clean wing prints in the snow, along with the trail dotted with blood, told the grisly tale.”

As this journal entry makes clear, John is fascinated by Great Horned Owls. In fact, his vote for the national bird would have been the Great Horned Owl! (Unfortunately, the nation’s founders neglected to ask his opinion.) “It is one of my favorites, and a truly remarkable hunting machine not to be fooled with,” John said. “They are effective killers when it comes to predation, and you seldom see them because they are truly night owls.”

Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings

A post on the Season Watch Facebook group reminded John of his article from The Senior Reporter in February/March 2023:

“These are subtly beautiful birds. Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his compendium of the birds of North America, describes the Bohemian Waxwing thusly:

A Bohemian Waxwing holds onto a twig in freezing rain near Bemidji, MN on Dec. 26, 2023.
Steve Patterson via KAXE-KBXE Season Watch Facebook group
A Bohemian Waxwing holds onto a twig in freezing rain near Bemidji, MN on Dec. 26, 2023.

‘The Bohemian Waxwing is an elegant bird, a well-dressed gentleman in feathers, a Beau Brummel among birds. He is not so gaudily dressed in gay colors as many other birds are, but his sleek and silky plumage, in softly blended, harmonious shades of modest grays and browns, clothes his shapely form in a most pleasing combination of colors; and the band of white across the wings, the yellow-tipped tail, the chestnut under tail coverts, the black chin, and the red wax tips rather accent than spoil the harmony of the whole; and, above all, the jaunty crest gives the final touch of aristocracy.’

“The Cedar Waxwing is largely the same without the chestnut under-tail coverts. The wax-like secretions on the wings and tails give these birds their common name. It isn't wax at all. It's a bit more like a plastic and results from their inability to synthesize the carotenoids in their diet. There are other birds whose feathers are colored as a result of this same inability, but the waxwings are the only ones that produce these droplets of color. They excrete these chemicals on the central shaft of the feathers of the tail and secondary feathers of the wing.

“Younger birds will have smaller and fewer of these secretions, and pair bonding appears to happen between birds of similar ages. Close examination of pairs indicates a similar amount of waxy secretions between the two birds.”

I hope you can get out and ‘cedar’ waxwings soon!

That does it for this week! For more phenology, subscribe to our Season Watch Newsletter or visit the Season Watch Facebook page.

Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR).

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Charlie Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Charlie creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, she enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).