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Birds

Ruffed Grouse Preening

ruffed grouse preening IMG_3515Birds have up to 25,000 feathers, and most birds preen, or clean, waterproof and align their feathers, several times a day. Ruffed grouse, as well as most other birds, possess an uropygial gland, or preen gland, on their rump. (Some types of birds, including owls, pigeons, parrots and hawks, lack an uropygial gland and instead have specialized feathers that disintegrate into powder down, which serves the same purpose as preen oil.) The preen gland produces a waxy substance that helps waterproof feathers and keeps them flexible.

Ruffed grouse reach back and rub their beaks on this gland, and then distribute the wax on their body and wing feathers by stroking them toward the tip. The grouse grasps a feather near the base and draws it through the partly close beak, nibbling as it goes. This distributes the wax and cleans parasites from the feathers. In order to preen its head, the grouse must rub it on other parts of its body. Preening is usually done in a fairly open setting but with a degree of overhead protection, so that the grouse can watch for terrestrial predators, while being protected from hawks and owls.

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Common Loons Migrating

10-27-14 common loons migrating2  146Most of the eastern U.S. and Canada Common Loon population shifts from freshwater inland breeding locations to coastal marine wintering areas, although some remain at inland freshwater sites throughout winter. Research shows that the very large loons in Maine, New Brunswick, and eastern New Hampshire do not migrate far and primarily overwinter in the Gulf of Maine, while smaller loons from other New England and New York breeding populations migrate to Long Island Sound south to New Jersey.

Some Common Loons begin their diurnal migration to their wintering territory in late summer, but most loons leave their breeding territory in September (high latitudes) and October (low latitudes), and arrive at their destination by the end of November. Breeding pairs and their offspring do not migrate together. Parents generally migrate first, usually separately; young remain on their lakes after adults have departed, until near freeze-up, and often migrate in groups. Although they often migrate singly, common loons do form groups (in some places, hundreds or thousands of birds) on large bodies of water before and during migration. These are referred to as staging areas. When migrating over land, loons can reach an altitude of a mile and a half; over water they usually fly within 300 feet of the surface of the water.

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Red-winged Blackbirds’ Diet Changing From Insects to Seeds

blackbird on cattail  118During the breeding season, insects make up the bulk of a Red-winged Blackbird’s diet, but during the rest of the year, plant seeds are preferred. While the seeds of ragweed, corn, oats and smartweed are more staple food sources, cattail seeds are not overlooked. At maturity, and under dry conditions, the cattail spike bursts, releasing the seeds (some estimates are as high as 228,000 seeds/spike). When this happens, blackbirds take advantage of the easily accessible source of food, but the minute size of each seed (.0079 inches long) means obtaining a meal is a labor-intensive endeavor.

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Hermit Thrushes Migrating & Stopping Over to Refuel

10-7-14 hermit thrush  092The Hermit Thrush is often one of the last thrushes to leave its breeding grounds in the fall — peak migration is between the end of September and the middle of October. High pressure, clear skies and wind from the north usually produce many sightings of this bird at this time of year. Unlike many other species of thrushes that winter in Central or South America, the Hermit Thrush is not a long distance migrator, and does not cross the Gulf of Mexico. Approximately one-third of all migratory flights end after only two to three hours of flight. Typically it makes several two-to-six-day stopovers to refuel before reaching its wintering grounds in southern U.S. and Mexico.

The Hermit Thrush is a nocturnal migrant, often departing roughly half an hour after sunset (over half of departures occur within 60 minutes after sunset and none after midnight) with most flights ending about 40 minutes before sunrise (none later than 20 minutes before sunrise). (Flight information from Birds of North America Online)

Inadvertently, the person responsible for my being able to photograph a Saddleback Caterpillar was not mentioned in yesterday’s post. Many thanks to Rick Palumbo for his extraordinary help with this endeavor.

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Juvenile Barred Owls Mastering Flight

barred owl-fractured wing 062Typically Barred Owls in northern New England hatch in May and fledge, or leave their nest, in June at approximately four to five weeks of age. Unlike most young birds, Barred Owl nestlings leave their nest before they can fly. They initially perch on the rim of the nest and then climb to a branch on the nest tree, eventually dropping to the ground and climbing a nearby leaning tree to perch. The parents feed their young from the time they hatch until late summer or early fall. The fledglings begin short flights at approximately 10 weeks of age, attaining longer flights by 12 weeks. The pictured Barred Owl may have been mastering flight when it fractured a wing and ended up on the ground, soaking wet and very vulnerable to predation. (Thanks to Bob Moyer for photo op and Vermont Institute of Natural Science’s Wildlife Rehab staff for setting wing.)

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Common Nighthawks Migrating

8-28-14 common nighthawk_w725_h486Nightjars, or “goatsuckers” as some call them, are a family of birds that catch and eat insects on the wing, are often ground nesters, and many (whip-poor-will, for instance) have distinctive calls. Nighthawks are a member of this group, but not a very well-named member, as they are unrelated to hawks and are active at dawn and dusk (not night). This insect-eating bird is often seen on the wing, hawking insects in both rural and urban areas (Fenway Park comes to mind). Its loud, nasal “peent” calls and bat-like flight make this bird very noticeable if it is feeding. We are currently at the peak of the fall Common Nighthawk migration from North to South America. Flocks of hundreds and sometimes thousands are seen flying overhead, often in the early evening.

Unfortunately, in the past 30 years the breeding population of Common Nighthawks in Vermont has declined by 91%, according to the most recent Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas, and this drop in population is not limited to Vermont – much of Canada, New England and beyond has experienced a 50% – 70% decline. Increased predation, indiscriminate use of pesticides leading to lowered insect numbers and habitat loss may have played a part in this drop. (Photo from public domain.)

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Young Cooper’s Hawks Fledging

8-19-14 juvenile cooper's hawk2 306After a month of living in a nest that measures roughly 7 ½ inches across and 3 inches deep, Cooper’s Hawk nestlings are more than ready to stretch their wings. Although they’ve been dismembering prey (mostly birds and a few small mammals brought to them by their parents) since they were three weeks old, catching prey is a skill they have yet to acquire. For roughly ten days after they leave their nest, the young hawks return to it for continued prey deliveries (and for roosting). During this time the fledglings learn to catch their own prey and they become independent, but they continue to stay together near their nest for the next month or so. (Thanks to Marian Boudreault for photo op.)

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