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Birds

Least Sandpipers Migrating

7-22-14 least sandpiper IMG_7923Least Sandpipers are the smallest shorebirds in the world, weighing only an ounce and measuring 5 – 6 inches long. Their fall migration has already begun, with individuals leaving their breeding grounds in the subarctic tundra and far northern boreal forest for their wintering grounds in Central and South America. Banding has revealed that the eastern population of Least Sandpipers undertakes nonstop transoceanic migrations of about 1,800 to 2,500 miles from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and New England to northeastern South America. Not much bigger than a sparrow, this common but declining shorebird can be seen refueling on mud flats throughout New England during its fall migration.

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Hooded Mergansers Fledglings are Dispersing

7-18-14 young hooded merganser 041Within 24 hours of hatching, Hooded Merganser ducklings leap anywhere from 8 -90 feet from their arboreal cavity nest down to their mother, who is calling to them from the water below. Capable of swimming and diving right away, the ducklings begin feeding themselves immediately. Weighing little more than an ounce, they mostly eat insects, including backswimmers, water boatmen and diving beetles. Eventually, as the ducklings grow, they work their way up to fish and crustaceans — particularly crayfish, such as the pictured merganser has caught. In addition to its size, the lack of a real “hood” indicates that this Hooded Merganser is a youngster.

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Common Loon Chick Update

7-16-14 loon update2 187The fluffy, black loon chick that was the subject of Naturally Curious posts a couple of weeks ago is a month old this week (original photos were taken several days before posting), and it has undergone several transformations. Two weeks ago the black down of the newborn chick was replaced with a second coat of down that is brown in color. Between three to four weeks of age, its body elongated and its bill began to lengthen. In another week or so, the first gray contour and flight feathers will begin to replace the down, a process that takes about three weeks.

Both parents are very attentive and are providing as many fish and crayfish as the chick can consume, sometimes making the chick dive for its meal, sometimes not. Because one egg failed to hatch, the lone chick receives all of both parents’ attention, guaranteeing a full stomach. It isn’t unusual to see both parents dive, come up with fish in their bills, and deliver their catch simultaneously to their chick.

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Bobolinks Fledging and Preparing to Migrate

7-14-14 bobolinks2  234Between their striking black and white plumage and their long, bubbly song, male Bobolinks are hard to miss if they are inhabiting a field. The female’s plumage is more subtle, with lots of browns so that she blends in well when on her ground nest. The Bobolink’s most notable accomplishment is its annual migration between breeding (northern U.S. and southern Canada) and wintering (northern Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia) grounds — a round-trip distance of approximately 12,500 miles. According to Cornell’s Birds of North America Online, one female Bobolink known to be at least nine years old presumably made this trip annually, which would mean that in her lifetime she flew a distance equal to traveling 4.5 times around the earth at the equator.

Grassland birds such as Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, Upland Sandpipers and numerous sparrows, which have been in decline for decades, populate New England’s hay fields, meadows, and pastures. Many of these birds build their nests on the ground, raise young, and forage for insects and grains in summer months. If you own or manage a hayfield that hosts Bobolinks (or any other grassland species), consider delaying mowing until after mid- July to allow these birds the opportunity to fledge their young and get them ready for one of the longest migratory flights of any North American songbird. (Photo: male Bobolink on rock, female on grass.) (Thanks to Jeannie Killam and Terry Ross for photo op.)

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Common Loons: Brooding Chicks

7-2-14 common loon with chicks-broodingIMG_3215While loon chicks can swim as soon as their down dries, they are not able to regulate their body heat for their first two weeks of life and are dependent upon their parents for warmth. (A lot of the chick’s heat is lost through its feet when it is in the water.) Whereas most birds provide this warmth (in a process called brooding) in the nest, Common Loons brood their young on the water during this period. The chicks simply climb up the backs or sides of a parent while the parent raises its wing. Once the chicks are situated on the back of the loon, the adult lowers its wing, sheltering the vulnerable chicks from the elements. If the sun is out, the wind is slight and the temperature is warm, the chicks will come out from underneath the wing(s) and ride around enjoying the view. If the wind picks up or the temperature drops, the chicks will crawl back under their parent’s wings, totally hidden from view.

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Common Loons: Hatching

7-2-14  loons #3-hatching  395Peeps can be heard from inside an egg before the chick starts to crack it open (a process referred to as “pipping”) with its temporary “egg tooth.” The eggs hatch in the order laid, not at the same time. The chicks are covered with sooty black down which is often dry within an hour of hatching. While waiting for the second egg to hatch, the parent loon often takes the firstborn chick for its maiden swim, returning to the nest with the chick to incubate the remaining egg until it hatches. By the third week, the chick’s black down is replaced by brownish-gray down.

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Common Loons: Egg-laying & Incubation

7-1-14  Loons #2 - incubating 404Typically Common Loons lay two eggs, each of which is roughly four inches long and olive green to brown in color, with brown or black splotches. The eggs are laid one to three days apart with the 28-day incubation period beginning when both eggs have been laid. Both parents incubate, turning the eggs when they switch places or during long periods of incubation. If the loon on the nest is anxious for relief, it will give a “wail” call, and if its mate does not respond, it continues wailing, even after leaving the nest to find its mate.

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Cedar Waxwings Conserving Energy

cedar waxwing at oriole nest 241Your eyes are not fooling you. A Cedar Waxwing is visiting a Baltimore Oriole nest. Why? If you had the choice between scouting the landscape for an odd board here and there with which to build your house, or going to a deteriorating, abandoned house and helping yourself to a goldmine of available lumber, which would you choose? The oriole nestlings have fledged — their nest has served its purpose. It’s highly unlikely that the parents would ever use the nest again. Waxwings, which are relatively late nesters, discovered the abandoned nest and are taking advantage of the oriole’s (female builds nest) hours of collecting raw materials. Fiber by fiber a pair of Cedar Waxwings pulled this nest apart and recycled what they removed.

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Avian Parental Care

yellow warbler nesting pair 078Parental care varies according to species, but usually only one sex is responsible for the care of offspring. The exception to this rule is birds, where at least 81% of species exhibit bi-parental care. It may not be shared equally, but both contribute in some way. Fairly typical are Yellow Warblers (pictured). The female Yellow Warbler builds the nest, lays the eggs, incubates the eggs, and broods the young all by herself. The male occasionally feeds his mate while she’s on the nest and when the eggs hatch, shares the delivery of food to the nestlings and the cleaning of the nest. Recent research has shown that the amount of parental care provided by males is directly related to the genetic fidelity of the female. If she’s true blue, then she may well receive a lot more help from her mate.

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Baltimore Orioles Building Nests

6-13-14  b.oriole nestOnce the female Baltimore Oriole has selected her mate, she chooses a nesting site within his territory, often the tip of a slender outer tree branch, as it’s relatively inaccessible to predators. The female usually builds the nest by herself, taking 4 – 15 days to complete it. The first few fibers are wrapped loosely around branches. With apparently random poking, knots and tangles are created in these fibers. The female than adds more fibers, one at a time, to extend, close and line the nest. Somewhat miraculously, after days of laborious work, the nest takes on its gourd-like shape. Initially the weaving of fibers from plants such as grasses, milkweed stems or grapevine bark can be observed (horse hair, twine and synthetic fibers are also used). Towards the end, when the nest lining is added, the bird is hidden inside the nest and all that’s visible is the periodic bulging of the nest where she is applying softer material (often cottonwood or willow seed fluff, milkweed seed plumes or feathers) to cushion her eggs and nestlings.

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Hummingbirds Extracting Nectar

6-10-14 hummingbird tongue 045For years scientists assumed that hummingbirds passively extracted nectar from flowers with their tongue through capillary action, but it turns out that this is not the case. A hummingbird’s forked tongue (which is twice as long as its beak) is lined with hair-like extensions or fringes called lamellae. When it is inserted into a flower and immersed in fluid, the tongue separates and the lamellae extend outwards so that open grooves (between the lamellae) lay flat. As the hummingbird pulls its tongue into its mouth, the forked tips come together and the lamellae roll inward, trapping the nectar within the tongue until it is swallowed by the hummingbird. No output of energy is necessary on the part of the bird – this process is automatic, takes all of 1/20th of a second, and occurs thousands of times a day. (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for Ruby-throated Hummingbird photo op.)

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Warbling Vireo Warbles on Nest

6-4-14 warbling vireo on nest 226 As a rule, male birds do not sing near their nest. When they approach their nest, whether to take their turn incubating eggs, brooding nestlings or delivering food, they are apt to be silent, or sing much more softly than usual, so as to avoid bringing attention to the nest. There are exceptions to this rule, however – male Chipping Sparrows, House Wrens, Common Yellowthroats, Hermit Thrushes, Black-billed Cuckoos, Scarlet Tanagers, Orchard Orioles and American Goldfinches have been heard singing not just near their nest, but while sitting on it! Warbling Vireos are by far the most persistent nest singers. When the male Warbling Vireo is incubating, he sings at all times of the day, as many as 20 bursts of song during one spell on the nest. Listening for the Warbling Vireo’s song and locating the songster can often lead you to its nest. One wonders what function the song has that makes it worth drawing this kind of attention to the nest.

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Make Way For Ducklings

5-26-14 mallard & ducklings  470After having spent a month or so incubating her eggs, the mallard hen begins to hear her ducklings vocalizing from inside their eggs, roughly 24 hours before they start to hatch. She responds with quiet calls, and begins turning the eggs frequently. Within 36 hours the ducklings crack open (“pip”) their eggs with the help of an egg tooth that is lost soon after they hatch. The down of the ducklings dries within 12 hours and often the morning after her young hatch, the hen leads them to water (not necessarily the closest water to the nest). She encourages them to follow her by quacking up to 200 times a minute as they travel over land to their watery destination. The ducklings can feed on their own, consuming mostly invertebrates and seeds. Once in the water, if the ducklings start to scatter, the mother can be heard repeatedly and softly quacking to her brood to gather them around her. She will continue to provide them with cover and warmth for the next couple of weeks, especially at night and during cold weather.

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Avian Parents Hard At Work

robin with food 077To appreciate the parental demands on birds, consider the feeding habits of a pair of American Robins with a nest full of young. Both parents feed their 3 – 4 nestlings, delivering 6 – 7 feedings an hour, each one to a single nestling. (Parents tend to arrive with food at a particular location on the nest rim, so there is much jockeying for a position near this spot on the part of the nestlings.) Each nestling gets 35-40 feedings per day. This amounts to almost half a pound of food delivered to the nest every day for the 13 days that young are in the nest. Even then, the parents’ work is not done, as they continue to feed their fledglings for up to three weeks after the young leave the nest.

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Waves of Warblers

5-19-14 -A. Redstart 012Birders wait with great anticipation for the waves of warblers that pass through New England in May. Flocks, or waves, often consist of several species, with the males’ plumages presenting a variety of brilliant colors, making the search for these fast-moving, tiny birds well worth the effort. Returning from their wintering grounds in Central and South America, some warblers make non-stop flights covering more than a thousand miles at a time. When they stop to refuel, their search for insects is incessant. As they hunt for insects in the canopy, often amongst flowering trees such as this Red Oak, American Redstart males (pictured) often flash their wings and tail, both of which have brilliant orange feathers on them, startling an insect long enough to give the Redstart a chance to consume it.

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Shorebirds Migrating Through New England

5-15-14 greater yellowlegs 286Many of the shorebirds that overwinter in Central and South America, as well as southern North America, migrate through New England during the month of May, on their way north to their Canadian breeding grounds. Although Greater Yellowlegs (pictured) are more solitary than most shorebirds, they tend to migrate in small flocks as they head for the bogs and coniferous forests of northern Canada and southern Alaska. They are recognizable by their upright stance, bright yellow legs and piercing alarm calls (nicknames include “telltale,” “tattler,” and “yelper”). During the early 20th century, before they were protected, Greater Yellowlegs were considered an important game bird, and according to Arthur C. Bent, an ornithologist at the time, this species was often shot “by an angry gunner as a reward for its exasperating loquacity.”

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Colorful Breeding Season Changes in Heron Family

5-13-14  snowy egret3  300The changes birds experience in their appearance during the breeding season sometimes include a partial molt, resulting in a more colorful or ornate plumage in the spring. In addition, some species, such as those in the Heron family (herons, egrets and bitterns), undergo changes in the color of their bills, legs, feet and lores (area between eye and bill) during their brief period of courtship. As an example, Snowy Egrets (pictured), during most of the year, have featherless yellow patches of skin, or lores, at the base of their bill and greenish-yellow feet, but in the spring, their lores turn red and their feet a bright yellow-orange.

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Male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks Return

5-7-14 rose-breasted grosbeakIMG_6053Many of the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks that breed in New England are thought to spend the winter in Panama and northern South America. When the time comes in the spring for their nocturnal migration, adult males depart first, flying northward at an average of 49 miles per hour (this rate includes stopovers). Upon arrival, they establish and maintain their two-acre territories primarily through song. When females arrive and one approaches a singing male, he is initially very aggressive and often attacks the female, but if she persists he eventually comes around and wins her over with courtship displays.

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American Bitterns Displaying

5-3-14  American Bittern3  058American Bitterns are very secretive marsh-dwelling birds and have coloration so cryptic that you can be looking right at one and not see it, especially if it employs its “look like a reed” stance, with bill raised towards the sky. Like other members of the Heron family, American Bitterns possess plumes. These large, white shoulder feathers are visible only at this time of year, during territorial and courtship displays and just prior to copulation, when they are erected. Not only do these plumes impress female bitterns, but they make it much easier for humans to spot the displaying males.

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Great Blue Heron Casting Pellet

great blue heron casting pellet 205Great Blue Herons swallow their prey whole, which means they consume not only flesh, but also bones and fur (if they eat a mouse or a vole). They are able to digest almost all of the prey that they eat due to acidic stomach secretions that are capable of softening even bones. However, they are not able to digest hair, or fur. This indigestible matter is formed into pellets which Great Blue Herons regurgitate – much like owls and many other birds.

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Belted Kingfisher Snags, Stuns & Swallows Prey

4-23-14 b. kingfisher & crayfish 147Watching the hunting antics of a Belted Kingfisher can be highly entertaining. They often swoop down from a branch to grab prey which is near the surface of the water and they are also one of few birds capable of hovering– beating their wings while staying stationary long enough to focus on prey in the water. Once they’ve grabbed their prey, which is mostly fish, but also crustaceans, frogs, snakes, young birds and small mammals, in their pincer-like bill, the fun really begins. The kingfisher flies to a nearby perch with its prey in its bill and then proceeds to pound the prey against the perch with repeated sideways movements of its head. The kingfisher does this in order to stun the fish (or other prey) so that it can eventually turn it and swallow the fish head first. The kingfisher in this photograph was giving the crayfish it just captured a real beating before devouring it (head first).

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Poison Ivy Fruit An Important Spring Resource for Birds

4-9-14 poison ivy fruit 138There are a number of birds that have returned to New England from their southern wintering grounds and are working hard to find enough to sustain themselves until food is more plentiful. Eastern Bluebirds, Hermit Thrushes, Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Phoebes and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers adapt their diets to whatever is available at this time of year, which can mean going from eating insects to consuming fruit. Fruits that persist through the winter are few and far between, but one of the plants that provides the most sustenance to birds in early spring is Poison Ivy. The off-white, berry-like fruits are extremely popular with at least 60 species of birds, including the early returning migrants previously mentioned, as well as Gray Catbirds, Yellow-shafted Flickers, Wild Turkeys, and Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers. The popularity of Poison Ivy fruit with birds explains why this plant is common along fencerows and other areas where birds roost (and pass the seeds). (Caution – irritating urushiol, an oily resin found in the sap of Poison Ivy, is present in the leaves, stems, flowers, roots and fruit of this plant.)

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Snowy Owls Headed North

4-21-14 flying snowy 046The record number of Snowy Owls that spent the winter in New England are turning up in all sorts of new locations now that they are on their way back to their breeding grounds on the open tundra and stopping to refuel along the way. Although many were young birds, and won’t breed this year, the adult owls will when they reach the Arctic in a few weeks. First, the males perform aerial and ground displays. After mating, the female selects a nest site. In addition to having a sufficient food supply, the site must be snow-free, not subject to flooding, and command a view of its surroundings. The latter is achieved by making their nest on a hummock, or slightly raised surface of bare ground. The female scrapes a shallow depression in the earth with her claws, twirling around to make a form-fitted hollow. No insulating material is added to this depression – no vegetation, no feather lining. Eggs and nestlings are totally dependent upon the mother’s warmth, transmitted via the large, featherless, pink patch of skin on her belly known as an “incubation patch.” The female alone incubates the eggs and broods the young chicks while the male provides food for his entire family.

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Brown Creepers Singing

4-11-14 brown creeper2  025Brown Creepers –insect-eating, bark-gleaning, little brown birds — are occasionally spotted as they circle their way upwards around and around a tree trunk, probing under bark with their thin, curved beaks for their next meal. Because they are so well camouflaged it is easy to miss them. Your chances of becoming aware of their presence are increased if you become familiar with the high, thin but surprisingly rich song males sing to establish territories on their breeding grounds this time of year. Although they continue to sing through the nesting period until their young have fledged, male brown creepers are most vocal early in the season, when they are staking out their territory. You can hear their song by going to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/brown_creeper/sounds and clicking on “sound.”

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