Albino or Leucistic Possum? – February 20, 2014

     I haven’t posted anything on Emptynestbirder.com since September of last year.  Not much of interest has happened to justify a report.  I returned from Spain in August ready for back surgery to relieve the increasingly debilitating pain that I had experienced all year.  On October 31 I had a laminectomy, which has been successful.  Recovery has taken a few months and is somewhat complicated by hip problems that may require hip replacement in the near future.  Suffice to say, since August last year I have not travelled out of Iowa and therefore there were no interesting birding results to post.

     On the other hand, I have increased my concentration on my own back yard.  I have kept a birding journal for quite a number of years.  In it I note the species seen each year in (1) my yard, (2) in Iowa, and (3) in North America.  I spent a lot more time in my yard in 2013, especially since August, than in any prior year, and I did set a new record for species recorded in here in 2013: 110.  The previous annual counts ranged from 94 to 104.  The total number of species seen in my yard since we moved here in 1985 is 153.  At this point a new yard species is rare and good reason for celebration. The count thus far in 2014 has been rather small compared to similar periods in prior years:  26 to date.  Nothing unusual has shown up, although the attractive Fox Sparrow that came to my feeder during the most inclement of our inclement weather is somewhat uncommon here in winter.  Eastern Bluebirds, normally seen in January, did not show up until today.  I have been able to drive around central Iowa on a few of our nicer days to see what other birds may be moving about.  The best of those is the male White-winged Scoter, a very unusual bird for Iowa, that has been fishing below the Red Rock Dam, about 40 miles away, for the past 2 weeks.  The northern birds that often invade Iowa in harsh winters have been notably absent this winter.  Snowy Owls have been somewhat of an exception and a number of them have been seen about the state.  Others, such as Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, and Red-breasted Nuthatches that I sometimes see in winter have been absent from my yard and largely absent from Iowa this year.  The food supply must be good in Canada. The scarcity of birds has been offset somewhat by the large number and variety of mammals that have frequented my yard this year.  They include numerous White-tailed Deer and Fox Squirrels, plus occasional Raccoons, Cottontail Rabbits, Coyotes, and Red Foxes.  Yesterday a very rare white Possum (“Opossum”) came to clean up the seeds fallen from my bird feeder.

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I suspect this is the same individual that I saw in the woods behind our house several years ago, when it was a half-grown juvenile.  Because of its obvious divergent coloration I wondered if it would survive, but it seems to have.  Barbara was able to get some pictures of it.

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I think that it is not truly an albino, but rather a leucistic variant, because the eyes  appear to be dark, rather than the distinctive albino pink.  What a strange animal.  How it survives our winters, especially this one, is a mystery to me I am really hoping that one day I will spot a Bobcat in my back yard.  Very surprisingly, they are increasing in Iowa and I keep thinking that one will show up here, but none has, so far.  Bobcats were common in Iowa before settlement in the 1800s.  By the 1980s they were practically extirpated here.  Since then, they have increased steadily in southern and western Iowa, with a current estimated population of 3000.  The Iowa Department of Natural Resources now allows trapping or hunting bobcats in about 40 of our 99 counties.  I hope that doesn’t cause a severe decrease in the number of these beautiful creatures in our state.  Some consider them a pest because they do take a number of our birds, especially game birds such as pheasants and bobwhite quail.  I guess it is all a matter of balance.

May Snows

May Snows bring Orioles to oranges and a Green Heron and Solitary Sandpiper to my neighbor’s frog pond.

Our record May snowfall stranded many migrants here in central Iowa.  Among the more interesting drop-ins was this Baltimore Oriole who found our orange in the midst of the snow fall.

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The next morning a visit to my neighbor’s pond showed a first-time caller to our neighborhood, a very complacent Green Heron who found a good source of frogs.

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The Green Heron was joined at the pond by another first time visitor to our neighborhood, a Solitary Sandpiper.

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Every spring I look for Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in my back yard here in West Des Moines, as they migrate north to their breeding grounds.  Sometimes I find none, but this year was a banner year.  At least four individuals showed up one early April day.  Here is a picture of one of them, as he worked over one of the bigger trees in our ravine looking, I suppose, for sap.

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Falcated Duck in California

It took a while to rest up from the trip to Papua New Guinea in August, 2012.  Much of my birding for the rest of 2012 was confined to my own back yard here in West Des Moines.

I participated in the Red Rock Christmas Bird Count in late December.  Among the better sightings on that gray, cold, drizzly day were a pheasant, 100 or so Snow Geese, 5 Trumpeter Swans resting on a plowed hillside, 2 Swamp Sparrows and a Northern Shrike.  On December 22 I participated very casually in the Des Moines Christmas Bird Count, by noting whatever showed up in my back yard.  The only species that was different from what all the other participants were able to identify was a pair of Common Grackles hanging out by my feeders.

On Christmas eve my son-in-law spotted some large, white birds flying toward my house from the west.  I was able to get the binoculars out in time to identify the 11 Trumpeter Swans that were flying eastward through the mist, like angels going to find the Babe.  It was a beautiful sight, and to add to the pleasure, these were the first Trumpeter Swans that I have ever seen from my yard, so they became my Yard Bird number 155.  (I have lived here for about 28 years).

On December 18th I flew to San Francisco where I rented a car and drove northeast to the Colusa National Wildlife Preserve.  A Falcated Duck, which I have never seen, was being seen there on a regular basis.  The afternoon was clear, windy and cold, following upon the heavy rains of the preceding few days.  Colusa is a very special place.  Thousands of ducks, Snow Geese, other geese and other water birds winter there.  Two other birders and I arrived at about the same time and after an hour or so spent scanning the thousands of ducks and geese, hunters’ guns spooked nearly all the geese and I was able to spot the Falcated Duck, actually quite close (my North American Life Bird number 708).  One of the other birder’s, Lew Milligan, got a good photograph, and with his permission, I am posting it here.  Thanks very much, Lew, and good birding to you.

I drove back to San Francisco and flew to Los Angeles where a White Wagtail (which would also be a new North American Life Bird for me), had been seen for several days on the Outer Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro.  I arrived early and spent the whole day, but the bird did not show (and has not been seen since).  The hours spent lounging on the rocks in the sun while the waves lapped the beach and shoreline rock, was a decent consolation.  I left in time to catch a flight to Las Vegas and drive to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where I hoped to find the third of my “life-bird” trip targets, a Nutting’s Flycatcher.  One had been reported at mile marker 2 of Planet Ranch Road, south of Lake Havasu City. Planet Ranch Road is posted as “Primitive”, and lives up to its billing.  I was able to maneuver my little rental car around the rocks and wash-outs, arriving at Mile Marker 2.  The day was a bit chilly and windy, but not too bad.  I spent it walking up and down the road, exploring a few trails off road and warming up in the car now and then.  The Flycatcher was very reclusive, and I neither heard nor saw it.  (It has been seen there again in recent days).  Net result of the trip:  1 for 3.

My statistics for the year 2012:  91 species of “Yard” birds; 143 species of “Iowa” Birds, 2 new North American Life Birds (Purple Sandpipers in Maine in January and the Falcated Duck in California in December); 4 new Iowa Life Birds (Cinnamon Teal, Arctic Tern, Roseate Spoonbill (believe it or not) and a Townsend’s Solitaire.  Lifetime totals to date:  North America, 708; Iowa, 332; Yard, 155.  I haven’t made a count of the species that I have seen elsewhere in the world, but if I get bored enough in the next few winter months here in Iowa, I will probably try to calculate that.

This “empty nest birder” wishes all of you birders around the world (and anyone else who happens to open this blog) a happy and productive year in 2013. Birding is a wonderful hobby, whether you are traveling to the remote corners of the earth or sitting on your own back deck.  I am looking forward to adding a few new species to each of my lists in 2013.

Wrens Leaving the Nest

Our little house wrens left their nest this morning.

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We were on our deck with our second cup of coffee this morning on the first cool, sunny and dry morning that we have had here for a long time.  We could hear the high school marching band practicing and reminisced about the years we enjoyed working with music and athletic booster clubs when our children were in school.  Those were wonderful years, but now we’re enjoying these “empty nest” years as well.  At about 9:00 a.m. a little wren poked its head out of the hole in its swinging home which dangles from a tree near our house, looked around for a few seconds,  and took off for the nearest perch, which happened to be our deck.  Camera time.

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We watched as numbers 2, 3 and 4 quickly followed the little leader.  By 9:15 all 4 had appeared at their door and flown from the safety of their nest to the nearby cover of our woods.  It was a delightful 15 minutes.  We have had wrens nesting here for many years but never before have we witnessed the “fledging”.

May I have just one more meal before I leave home?

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The first flights of the little wrens reminded us that our lives are full of “fledgings” this year:  a granddaughter heading off to college for her first year; three granddaughters and a grandson starting high school; a grandson and a granddaughter starting kindergarten; and a brand new grandchild scheduled to see the light of day for the first time in two weeks.  So many wings being tried for the first time this year.

Scarlet Tanager

Earlier this week a Scarlet Tanager collided with our deck door window.  I am afraid it nearly did him in, but Barbara put out a shallow tray of water and shaded him, and within a half hour he was moving about and flew away.  I hope he is ok…

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Backyard Turkey Poults

On this beautiful June 25th morning the first of the year turkey poults showed up in the woods behind our house.  There were 3 hens and at least 5 poults.  I would estimate the poults were about 2 weeks old.  They stayed in the shaded, grassy area so I could not get an accurate count.  Last year at this time the brood(s) numbered 13 with 2 hens.  I suspect our wet June weather may have impacted their reproduction success this year.