new color combinations and the eastern blue bird

Thinking about the activity and breeding of Eastern Blue Birds- here are some studies with tara pod, cone flowers and indigo.

Emily Donovan
Summer Solstice

Yesterday, I took a short road trip today to Redwing to drop off artwork for the Floral and Fauna exhibit at the Anderson Center. The arts facility is an amazing place - an artist compound, I’d say with beautiful brick buildings on the north side of highway 61 as you arrive in Redwing, Minnesota. Redwing is on the map; for boots, for pottery and also for a major birding stop.  Right next to the Mississippi river along the bluffs, the land and geography lends itself to a perfect habitat to our bird friends. From the Anderson Center, we continued south to Frontenac State Park.  

 Our trip down proved to be exciting as we say over 25 large raptors. Eagles or hawks, not quite sure but on the windy day the large birds caught the updraft from the river and gilded easily over the land.  At the park, there is a list of over 200 species of birds that one may encounter along the trail system.  Two hundred!  What would we see? This afternoon, I truly realized that I am a novice in the realm of birding.  Within the thick canopy along the bluffs of the river shore, I listened and watched. I heard so many wonderful songs as I swatted the mosquitos of my arms and legs.  Everything is very wet and green with major flooding in the river valley. What are we listening to? Who are they?  

 I captured a few pictures of the busy birds and I am hoping that they are bluebirds.  A recent article about the bird and the restoration project is on my mind and perhaps it’s wishful thinking.  But, I have their song in my mind, a few pictures, my notes and the Internet to help me identify.  

Emily Donovan
It’s some kind of flycatcher, I think…

I have new neighbors. There is a couple who have moved into the house across the street and another new family that has built a nest on top of my gutter downspout . Across the street the couple who purchased a brand new, custom-built home that replaces the old house, a little 1907 Cape Cod that fell into disrepair. The new home took about a year to complete. My other new neighbors we’re swift in their construction. It felt like overnight! I noticed it a couple of weeks ago. A nest neatly balanced on the metal downspout of my gutter system has long tendrils of dried plants collected from my yard . I saw the mom (I think) perched on the nest this morning. The bird is hard to identify. Although only ten feet above my deck, the good parent sits their for most of the day, its body hidden within the nest.

I convinced myself that it was some kind of flycatcher. At least I want to think this is true. I saw what I thought was one perched on the electric wire that runs across my back yard. It’s grey head full of feathers looks like a punk rock hairdo, spiked on top. But, later I follow the birds from the nest. They both yelled at me it short little chirps because I am getting into their space. And then I realize….it’s a nest of robins.

Robins are generally thought of a sign of spring in Minnesota so I am happy to see them but, also a little disappointed. I was hoping I had an obscure family of birds living with us.

It’s been fun to watch as the parents dutifully attend to the nest and finally there are baby birds. I count four. They grow quickly and little heads pop up and chirp brightly as the parents bring them worms to feed them. My husband, who has been enjoying this nature show too, wondered if the parents can tell the babies apart and know who has had the last worm? Or if its the most hungry or strongest baby who leverages their way to additional food?

And are Robin’s migratory? In recent years, we still see them here in Minnesota during the winter months. Rather than following the traditional north/south patterns of migration, these guys stick around if there is enough food to support them during the cold winter months. I’ve read that the smarter birds, don’t necessarily migrate as they are able to figure out survival modes and why waste the time?

From my observations of their parenting style and the dedication they have to their young, they are prolific. The baby birds now seem to big for the nest and it will be fun to see when they launch.

The neighborhood is growing.

Emily Donovan
nature's best palette - the cedar waxwing
Cedar Waxwing @ Brian sullivan

Cedar Waxwing @ Brian sullivan

I live in a birding paradise it turns out. Lake Como and the wooded areas that surround it is home to multitudes of birds. I’ve found that the early morning walk, around 7am proves to be the best time to experience the variety of calls, sightings and other birders with cameras and dogs in tote.

This morning the calls are overwhelming. I search my brain and try to recognize the songs and chatter that explode in the trees and along the lakeshore. The combination of bugs, water and blossoming trees create the ideal situation to observe.

I find many, many Cedar Waxwings in groups on the branches of young willows. They take flight in a haphazard pattern. Wings flapping individually, rather than in unison like you might see with geese that fly in a direct, arrow-like formation.

cedar waxwing in flight

The Cedar wax wing has bold markings and the they look so soft to the touch. They have a dapper black mask, tinged with white that surrounds their eyes and complements the its crest or the “prominent tuft of feathers on the crown of a bird's head”. It’s mask gives them a look of character and distinction. In contrast, they have the softest looking body with subtle shading, from grays, browns and yellows. You totally want to touch them.

Cedar Bird  - John Jay Audubon

Cedar Bird - John Jay Audubon

Nature is the best painter, drawing you in like that. I wonder if John Jay Audubon noticed this and painted them while trying to achieve this delicious blending of color.

His title for the waxwing is simply “cedar bird”. I am guessing because of their affinity for the berries. Their diet of berries has caused a stir in recent years. When they ripen, the cedar waxwing will gorge themselves and grow drunk from fermentation. The intoxicated creature becomes erratic, flying into windows, sometimes passing out or collide, causing paralysis or death. This activity, I learned is their greatest obstacle in survival.

They are migratory. Visiting Minnesota and other northern states and Canada to breed and to satiate their appetite for berries. They help reseed fruit trees and bushes and travel to Central America and Mexico in the winter months.

I am so inspired by these marvelous birds.

Emily Donovan
morning hike along the river

I have never watched a group of people suddenly become so silent.

Our morning was beautiful and clear and our attention is drawn to a recent controlled burn in the Oak Savannah that will provide new growth and nutrients for the soil. I am on a birding adventure with my mom along the river parkway in Minneapolis. As we crunched along the pathway in along the woods, our ears strained to hear the calls of birds. The naturalist who hosted the hike told us to watch for both movement in the trees and on the ground and to listen for bird calls. To me, it is like learning a new language. A good way to remember these calls- is to create a description with words like brights, chirping, schrill, etc. or a phrase that has meaning to you. We found yellow finches, heard song sparrows and spotted several Cedar Waxwings.

Emily Donovan
going on a bird hunt, bird hunt, bird hunt.

Yesterday, I attended my aunt and uncle’s 50th Wedding Anniversary Party in Osakis, Minnesota.  I have many memories of Osakis.  The small town with a population of about 1,750 is 2 hours Northwest of Minneapolis.  There is a lot of farming in the area and a number of resorts surrounding the large lake with the same name, Lake Osakis.  It’s a place where I spent many Sundays with my family on the farm.  Me and my cousins would wander in the woods, play with the animals, get dirty, and often get into some kind of trouble.  

My uncle is a carpenter and has a great passion for classic Fords, Blatz beer and hunting. My aunt keeps a large garden, cans food and butchers chickens every summer. They are both funny, enthusiastic with wonderful, teasing laughs. There are many bird mounts that decorate the living room. I remember making occasional eye contact with the yellow marbles of the owl hanging on the wall while watching In Search Of on TV.  It wasn’t my favorite show but, there was only one tv channel at their house. Me and my cousins would half way watch while playing cards as we waited for Sunday dinner.

The memories I have about the anniversary couple’s house, the stuffed birds, hunting has perfect timing. In my research for my grant, I’ve found that many hunters know the bird byways and also track migration. I decided after the party, that I would go on my own bird hunt.

 Luckily the day turned out to be cool, sunny and bright. Originally, the weather forecast had predicted snow (on April 27th!).  Looking up Lake Osakis on birding websites, I found that it is considered an Important Bird Area (IBA) and a very popular spot for both the observer and a long list of sought after species.  The Red-Necked Grebe for example is often seen on the lake and does a wonderful mating dance with the chest puffed out and wings expanded.

 Could I be so lucky to find this?

 The drive around the lake was beautiful, but I think I was too early to find the Grebes.  What I did find instead was something quite amazing – the Northern White Pelican.  We drove around the lake and my husband Tom kept watch along the shoreline and then we saw them, floating in the water.  The pelicans looked quite majestic, gliding along like a carnival ride with wings tucked under and a large pointed beaks.  We stopped with our binoculars to take a closer look and saw them flying overhead with gigantic wings expanded.  I was quite giddy! This is what birding is about!

 On the drive home, we read aloud from The Birds of Minnesota about the Northern White Pelican.   Here is what I learned:  

They are a migratory species and 1/5 of their population resides in the lakes of Minnesota during the summer and fall months.  They winter in Texas and Mexico.  Lake Osakis is a great home for them as the shallow waters are rich with fish that they collectively forage in groups by dipping their giant beaks in unison in the water to drive up their prey.  They do not dive for fish like the Brown Pelican. They migrate in early spring and pair up quickly to lay two eggs in their non-insulated nests of mud and sticks.  They are graceful flyers despite their size with a wingspan of up to nine feet.

 The population of Northern White Pelicans has improved.  From the 1960’s through the 80’s they were considered endangered due to changing water levels, human disturbances and environmental contamination.   One form of human disturbance is from the game fisherman.  Pelicans were believed to threaten the fish that anglers wanted to catch, but now it is acknowledged that they mainly eat “rough” fish. This has helped the Pelicans but, environmental contamination is still an big issue. Scientists have found remnants of the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill in their eggs.

Once again, the pelicans are threatened.

I wanted to ask my uncle specifically if he studies byways or migration when he hunts, and what he knew about Northern White Pelicans. Was he a fan? Or what about the Grebes?  When should I come back to see them?  But the party was too busy- Fred is a popular guy!

Emily Donovan
flyways and byways

Last spring my son, Gabriel and I took a road trip.  The route was Texas to Minnesota in three days. It’s a beautiful way to see the country and was a little challenging because weather in March varies as you cross the country, from heat to heavy rains to snow. But, a road trip!  Gabriel was a high-school senior and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend time together before he graduated.  With a teenager, I’ve found that the best conversations are had in the car.  

 What initiated the trip was antique related. At the time I was still wheeling and dealing as a manager of an antique store and 500-piece, Venini chandelier had to be picked up.   So, Gabe and I flew to Houston and planned a trip that included seeing a few sights, a couple of antique stores and many miles of highway..   The first morning we arrived the home of this great chandelier, which ‘just wasn’t a good fit’ for the $10M new construction. We quickly packed up the light, loaded it into our rental mini-van and started our trek after stopping at the Rothko chapel filled with his gigantic dark, color field paintings, something that everyone should experience.  

 We angled our way along the eastern boarder of Texas, the top of Arkansas, and then to Memphis to stop at another architectural salvage store, for some BBQ and to see the town.  Heavy rain began that evening and we stopped before heading back north through Missouri along Highway 67.  It’s a scenic route that crosses through Mark Twain National Forest with roads that undulate like a roller coaster.  I found myself nervously giggling, as our car would catch air on the hills and the Italian crystal that filled our back seat lightly clinked together. As we drove, we noticed above the expansive fields hundreds of birds flying in the sky.  My guess at the time was that guessing they were hawks. It became a distracting as we drove and probably a little dangerous as we couldn’t keep our eyes off the masses of birds going in the same direction as us. The route, I now know is part of the Mississippi flyway for bird migration.

 Last night, I was reminded of this trip at Minnesota River Valley’s Audubon monthly meeting I attended.   Meetings are held on the last Thursday of each month, and the auditorium is packed with people for the speaker, Mr. Jim Egge.  He is a past president of the Audubon Society of Minneapolis who is talking about bird migration.   This was my first attendance for my migration project and I am excited to learn more about migration patterns in Minnesota.  Here are notes of interest that I took:

 Four billion birds cross the northern US in migration.  4.7 billion cross the southern boarder but only 2.6 billion return. 

The bird migration patterns are 4-5,000 years old.  

Minnesota is a stop for migration, a ‘trap’ or drop-off place where you can find a higher concentration of birds- often because of food supply, climate or stresses on birds such as weather.  This is what makes Minnesota a popular birding state. 

 There are different dialects in bird calls called Regiolects, which can help track migration.

Most hunters know the different flyways:

Pacific Flyway- lightest in travel

Rocky Mountain Flyway

Mississippi Flyway- that’s us!

Eastern Atlantic - Florida flyway.

As a complete beginner, I learned some important facts and had some great conversations with the group.Mr Egge went on to describe some interesting studies. My favorite and the one that provided me with the most inspiration so far was the Emlen funnel.  The study which will require more research and reading on my part involves placing a bird in a cone, covered and an inkpad on the bottom to capture prints of bird feet to track direction to further explain migratory behavior. I wrote down “Do work about this!” I do think of the poor birds hitting the clear tops of the cones- but the imagery of the feet makes me think about what colors and dyes to use as I formulate a plan.  

Emily Donovan
a letter to Mother Earth

I wrote this today for an art call:

Dear Earth,

You are such a good friend.   In fact, I think you are one of my best friends.  You always make me smile.  You are magical.  You are able to grow things and make the seasons change and provide me with wonder and awe.

Remember that one time last spring when we were walking around the lake by the house and you pointed out the view as the sunlight danced over the water?  We laughed at the geese splashing one another. They showed off their long necks in various poses.  You told me it was a mating dance.  I think you were right.  

Do you remember when we were camping on that small island two summers ago and that giant storm came up?  The wind blew and the thunder was so loud.  We huddled in our tent, hoping the trees would stay standing.  I was scared.  I think you were mad at me.  Were you?

I know that one day was really hard when you discovered how all the big trees across from the house were cut down.  I felt bad about it, too.

I guess I don’t blame you for being angry and I want to tell you that I’m sorry.  I respect you so much and the power you have to give life.  I know that you feel taken advantaged of.  All of your hard work is slowly getting destroyed and the beauty that you’ve created is disappearing; the animals, the plants, the air, the water.  

Earth, I promise to be a better friend and take better care of you, as you do for me.  I hope we can talk about this some more.



Emily Donovan
oh, technology!

There’s a great program nearby my home called ‘Sunday Series’. It’s held weekly on Sunday afternoon where you can learn more about the neighborhood, nature and ways to get involved.

I attended the meeting called “Citizen Science” where I learned about two online apps - ‘iNaturalist’ and ‘eBird’ where you can contribute information about animal and bird sightings that scientists will use globally.

iNaturalist records an encounter with an individual organism; when you saw it, where , and what you saw. I’ve found this to be an amazing tool- especially as an amateur bird watcher. I look daily now at the observations in my neighborhood and find myself quickly running outside to see if I too, can see the birds captured online.

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Emily Donovan
The couple - Mallards

I like to watch the Mallards around the lake and how they pair off. They are a consistent member of the lake community and always present in the spring. Why? INaturalist will tell you that the mallard population is considered to be of ‘least concern’ and are considered invasive in some areas. They thrive because they are adaptable in city environments. Migration to the Northern United States begins in early Spring, arriving from destinations in Mexico and Central America. Interesting to note: Some Mallards do not migrate and those who stay behind, interbreed with wild ducks and genetically pollute other species.

As they pair off- I can watch for the eggs to hatch. Incubation of eggs is 27-28 days.

Colors to note are mainly from the male with his glossy green head, orange beak and bright purple-blue speculum feathers, the underside of their wings. Even though they might be considered a problem bird, their arrival marks the change in season and I am happy when they return.

Emily Donovan