Photo of the Week – December 26, 2014

The sun finally reappeared this week after what seemed like a month of absence.  I figured the best way to celebrate the end of dreariness was a couple of prairie hikes. I started by wandering along a creek at our Platte River Prairies to see what the resident beaver family had been up to.  Green sunfish slipped in and out of hiding places in the deep pools behind beaver dams, but little else was moving in the water.  Later, the sound of frantic chirping turned my head in time to watch a sharp-shinned hawk just miss its prey.  I couldn’t tell what kind of bird the hawk was chasing because it didn’t stop flying until it was out of sight.  I also caught a quick glimpse of a small mouse scooting through the thatch, spotted a perched eagle in a far off tree and flushed a small flock of mallards from an backwater wetland.  Not a bad way to spend an afternoon!

Later in the day, I stopped at our family prairie and roamed around until the sun went down.  As the sun dropped, its warm light illuminated the golden brown prairie and I managed to take a few photographs – something I’ve not done much of lately.  Here are a few of those photos.

A stiff goldenrod seed is stuck in the velcro-like hairs on the stem of a plant of the same species.  Helzer family prairie, Stockham, Nebraska.

A stiff goldenrod seed is stuck in the velcro-like hairs on the stem of a plant of the same species. Helzer family prairie, Stockham, Nebraska.

A Flodman's thistle (native species) stands out against the sky.

A Flodman’s thistle (native species) stands out against the sky.

The spiny beauty of Flodman's thistle seed heads.

The spiny beauty of Flodman’s thistle seed heads.

Tall dropseed (Sporobolus compositus) in golden prairie.

Tall dropseed (Sporobolus compositus) in golden light.

Stiff goldenrod

A stand of stiff goldenrod and mixed-grass prairie.

Happy Holidays, and best wishes for your New Year!

Isn’t it a little late to be nesting?

As you might remember, my Photo of the Week last week was an image of a fledgling meadowlark I’d found in mid-September.  At the time, I’d talked about how surprised I was to see such a young bird so late in the season.  Well, last Friday, Eliza Perry, one of our Hubbard Fellows, called me to say she’d just found a nest full of tiny birds – did I want to come take a look?  Of course I did.

American goldfinch chicks sit in a nest about three feet off the ground in a tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) plant.  Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

American goldfinch chicks sit in a nest about three feet off the ground in a tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) plant. Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

I’m pretty sure what Eliza found was an American goldfinch nest.  The bills and markings on the birds look right, and we spotted an adult goldfinch nearby.  However, the best supporting evidence was that the nest was located in a thistle plant (a native thistle species, by the way) and had thistle down in the nest cup.  There is a strong tie between American goldfinches and thistles.  Unlike most other bird species which feed their young on insects, goldfinches instead feed them regurgitated seeds – especially those of thistle plants.  In fact, they often delay their nesting until those thistle seeds have ripened.  Here is a link to photographer/naturalist Stan Tekiela’s post on this topic, if you’re interested in learning more about the topic.

These birds are even further behind the meadowlark in their development, and it’s already getting pretty cold overnight, so the nestlings’ chances for survival might seem slim.  Of course, the difference between the meadowlark and the goldfinches is that the goldfinches have adults around to help them.  Both have a challenging fall and winter ahead of them, but nothing others of their species haven’t dealt with countless times before, I guess.

A better view of the nest placement within the tall thistle plant.

A better view of the nest placement within the tall thistle plant.

Thanks to Anne Stine, our other Hubbard Fellow, who graciously helped hold equipment for me as we photographed the nest.  Because of the very bright early afternoon sun, I had Anne hold a diffuser near the nest to reduce the harshness of the sunlight while I held a small flash unit to better illuminate the birds.  We worked quickly and got out of the way so the parents could resume their feeding duties.