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Birds

Wattles, Caruncles & Snoods

11-27-14  HAPPY THANKSGIVING IMG_7637Wild tom turkeys have a number of ways of impressing hens in addition to displays involving their feathers. Among them are wattles, caruncles and snoods — fleshy protuberances that adorn their throats and beaks. A large wattle, or dewlap, is a flap of skin on the throat of a male turkey. The bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat are major caruncles. Large wattles and caruncles have been shown to correlate with high testosterone levels, good nutrition and the ability to evade predators, which makes the genes of a tom turkey with them very desirable to a female. The snood, another fleshy outgrowth which hangs down over the male’s beak, is normally pale and not very long. When he starts strutting and courting a hen, the snood (and caruncles) becomes engorged with blood, making it redder and longer. This impresses both male and female turkeys –the males avoid or defer to him and the females’ interest in him is heightened. A longer snood has also been correlated with a lack of internal parasites, making toms with large snoods even more irresistible to hens.

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Bird Nests Visible

11-25-14 black-throated blue nest  043When leaves start falling from deciduous trees, bird nests appear out of nowhere. Most songbirds abandon their nest after raising one brood, never to return to it. An empty nest sits where it was built until the elements break it down, another animal recycles the material from which it was made, or a mouse takes over winter occupancy. The period of time after the leaves fall and before winter and other creatures deconstruct the nests is ideal for discovering who raised their young under your nose this past summer.

Just as each species of bird has its own distinctive song, each species also builds a unique nest. It is often possible to determine what species built a nest without ever setting eyes on the bird. The size, shape, material used and habitat in which a nest is built are remarkably similar for all birds of a given species. Eastern phoebe nests mainly consist of mud covered with moss. Gray catbirds incorporate grape vine into their nests, and line them with rootlets. Ovenbird nests are on the ground, roofed over like old-fashioned ovens. While federal permits are necessary to collect these nests, they can be admired and identified without a permit. (Photo: the combination of this nest’s size (3” outer diameter), location (3’ off the ground) and material used (yellow birch bark strips, grasses, cocoons and black rootlet lining) pinpoint the builder as a Black-throated Blue Warbler.)

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European Starling

European starling IMG_8398There was no fooling the vast majority of Naturally Curious readers! As unpopular as the European Starling may be, its plumage is impressive, especially at this time of year. The starling’s summer, or breeding, plumage shows purple and greenish iridescence, especially on the head, back, and breast. Following the annual mid-summer/fall molt, most head and body feathers have whitish or buff terminal spots. Through the winter, most of these light spots gradually wear away to produce a glossy black appearance in the spring.

Most creative Mystery Photo response (from Steve Adams): “ This one’s easy. The bird is Hazel Hainsworth. She was sweet but insane. Hazel had a huge hat made of all different kinds of feathers, and because she liked her scotch, her navigation skills were somewhat dull, and she always made a point of telling people she’d been lost in every state in the nation, including Alaska.”

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Tufted Titmice Caching Seeds for Winter Consumption

tufted titmouse2  379Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees are in the same family (Paridae), and share several traits, one of which has to do with securing food. They are both frequent visitors of bird feeders where they not only take seeds and soon thereafter consume them, but they also collect and cache food throughout their territory for times when there is a scarcity of food. Tufted Titmice usually store their seeds within 130 feet of the feeder. They take only one seed per trip and usually shell the seeds before hiding them.

In contrast to most species of titmice and chickadees, young Tufted Titmice often remain with their parents during the winter and then disperse later in their second year. Some yearling titmice even stay on their natal territory and help their parents to raise younger siblings.

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Common Mergansers Migrating

11-14-14  common mergansers 120Common Mergansers are hardy, fish-eating, cavity-nesting ducks that can be found in New England year round, as they winter as far north as open water allows. However, the birds we see in the winter on large bodies of water most likely are not the same birds that breed here. All North American populations of Common Mergansers migrate, generally short to intermediate distances. Populations near the coast move only short distances, while more interior birds migrate farther. Heavier birds and adult males seem to tolerate colder winter temperatures and remain farther north than immature birds. They can often be seen on large lakes and rivers, as well as the coast, where they form small groups that may gather into large numbers at favored sites.

Migrating Common Mergansers tend to leave late in the fall (this week marks the peak of their fall migration), making them often the last waterfowl migrants to head south. Common Mergansers typically migrate over land at night, and along seacoasts or major river systems by day. In the spring, adult males return north first as soon as open water is available, followed by females a few weeks later. (Photo: 2 juvenile Common Mergansers) Thanks to canoe-steadying Sadie Richards for making it possible for me to take this photograph.

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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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