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Birds

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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Common Mergansers Taking Flight

common mergansers pattering 425Most ducks can take off nearly vertically from either water or land. However, when taking off from a body of water, unless alarmed, Common Mergansers usually patter along the surface for several yards before taking flight. One would imagine that their flight might not be any more graceful than their take-offs, but the opposite is said to be true of females looking for potential nesting sites. They have been observed maneuvering easily among tree branches seeking a suitable tree cavity in which to lay and incubate their eggs, and once they have found a nest site, they appear to enter and leave their nest holes with ease.

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Spring Has Sprung!

4-3-14 e.phoebe2 002There’s no denying the arrival of spring, even when the snow is still up to your knees in the woods, if Eastern Phoebes are back! This member of the flycatcher family is one of our earliest returning and nesting migrants, arriving on its breeding grounds in late March and early April. One might wonder what this insect-eating bird subsists on at this time of year. Wasps, bees, beetles and butterflies are not in great supply. Fortunately, there are some insects around, including stoneflies – aquatic insects, some of which mature and emerge from streams in the winter and early spring. When insects aren’t plentiful (in fall, winter and early spring) phoebes will eat small fruits, but they only make up about 11% of their diet.

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Cedar Waxwings Turn to Highbush Cranberry As a Last Resort

3-28-14 cedar waxwing 159The primary food of Cedar Waxwings is fleshy fruits that have a high sugar content. Because these birds rely on ripening fruit to feed their nestlings, they are among the latest birds to nest in the Northeast. During the winter they tend to be nomadic, wandering from one sugary fruit supply to another. In the past, juniper berries have dominated their winter diet, but waxwings are increasingly turning to ornamentals such as non-native honeysuckle. (Occasionally waxwings with orange, not yellow, terminal tail bands are seen; this change in color has been attributed to their change in diet.) The fruit of Highbush Cranberry, being consumed in this photograph, is quite acidic and has a low sugar content. It is eaten by most songbirds, including Cedar Waxwings, only towards the end of winter, when sweeter fruit is in short supply.

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Snowy Owl Pellet

3-25-14 snowy owl  203Your knowledgeable ID skills regarding yesterday’s Mystery Photo were most impressive!

Snowy Owls are the heaviest owls in North America, weighing roughly 4 pounds (a Great Gray Owl is only 2.4 pounds). A lot of fuel is needed to power this magnificent raptor. In the Arctic, where they live, lemmings are their preferred prey — one owl may eat more than 1,600 of these small rodents in a single year. This winter the Northeast has experienced record numbers of visiting Snowy Owls. A banner year for the Arctic lemming population followed by prolific nesting success for Snowy Owls resulted in an unprecedented “irruption” of these owls further south this winter.

While we do have lemmings in New England, they are uncommon, so Snowy Owls have relied on our small rodent, squirrel, rabbit and hare populations for food. Those owls wintering on the coast, where dunes and moors closely resemble their tundra habitat, have also taken advantage of the large number of sea ducks. As witnessed and described by Nantucket ornithologist Edie Ray, the owls fly up to great heights over the sea, spot waterfowl and then plummet down to just above the surface of the ocean where they sink their talons into a “sitting duck.” As a result, the indigestible bones, teeth and nails of prey are protectively wrapped in feathers as well as fur in the large pellets coughed up by these owls. (Snowy Owl locators: Edie Ray and Sadie Richards; Snowy Owl pellet finder: Sadie Richards)

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Avian Toe Arrangment

3-17-14 mourning dove tracks 004As opposed to humans, who use the entire bottom of their feet for support, birds stand and walk only on the ball of their foot and with their toes. When you look at a bird’s leg, what appears to be its knee, bending backward instead of forward as it does in humans, is actually its heel.

Most birds have four toes, arranged differently according to the life style of the bird. Songbirds, as well as most other birds, have three toes pointing forward and one pointing back. Most woodpeckers, being active climbers, have two toes pointing in each direction, which provides added clinging support. The outer toe (of the three forward toes) of ospreys and owls is reversible, so that they can have two toes in back should they need to get a better grasp on slippery fish or other prey. Some birds that do a lot of running, such as sanderlings and most plovers, have only the three forward toes. (Photo: Mourning Dove tracks)

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How Are Red-winged Blackbirds Surviving?

3-17-14 red-winged blackbird2 IMG_2063The first reports of Red-winged Blackbird sightings are coming in, and with two feet of snow in some places, frigid temperatures, and very few insects in flight, one can’t help but wonder how they are surviving. A number of factors allow Red-wings to sustain themselves in these conditions, including the fact that their foraging is not restricted to one habitat – they look for food in marshes, pastures, overgrown fields, shores of lakes and ponds and windblown, exposed corn fields and crop lands. Secondly, they look for food in and on a variety of substrates, including but not limited to tree trunks and vegetation, which are accessible even with snow on the ground. Thirdly, they are very adept at gaping – forcing their bill open against the resistance of bark, etc. in order to reach into the crooks and crannies where insects are overwintering. And lastly, their diet fluctuates with the food that is available. During the breeding season, the majority of a Red-winged Blackbird’s diet is insects, and during fall, winter and early spring, Red-wings are primarily plant eaters – weed seeds, tree seeds and in agricultural areas, grains. In many ways, Red-winged blackbirds are more successfully adapted than humans are to this interminable winter!

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Bald Eagles Refurbishing Nests

3-13-14 bald eagle on nest IMG_8514Bald Eagles in New England are repairing and adding to their nests, even as snow and cold temperatures continue. They often reuse their nest year after year – a nest in Ohio was used 34 years before the tree blew down. Although most don’t reach the record-breaking dimensions an eagle nest in Florida did (9 1/2’ wide, 20’ deep, weighing almost 3 tons), they are impressive structures, averaging five feet and three feet deep. Typically eagles will choose one of the biggest trees in an area in which to build their nest. Because their nests will be used for many years to come, eagles often choose living trees (which will remain standing longer) in which to build them. The nest is usually located in the top quarter of a tree, just below the crown. Both male and female eagles collect sticks for the nest, either finding them on the ground or breaking them off nearby trees. In parts of Alaska and northern Canada where trees are scarce and short, eagles often nest on the ground.

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Evening Grosbeak Bills Changing Color

3-10-13 evening grosbeak female IMG_0734Breeding season changes in a bird’s physical appearance can involve more than a set of new feathers. The colors of birds’ feet, legs and bills can also change in different seasons. One transition most people are aware of is the European Starling’s bill which is black in winter and turns yellow as the breeding season approaches. Male and female Evening Grosbeaks also undergo a change in bill color, from bone-colored in the winter, to a greenish hue in the spring. Hormones are largely responsible for these pigmentation changes which often play a role in courtship behavior. Usually change in the color of the bill is most pronounced among birds which retain the same plumage color and pattern throughout the year, such as starlings and Evening Grosbeaks. (Photo-female Evening Grosbeak)

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Ruffed Grouse Wings

2-25-14 grouse wing imprints  010You can often determine the type of flight that a bird is capable of by looking at the shape of its wings. Long, narrow wings are excellent for gliding, while the short, rounded wings of a Ruffed Grouse allow for tight maneuvering in the dense forests where they live. The shape of their wings and their quick-contracting muscles equip grouse for the short bursts of high speed (not long distances) they take when feeding or evading predators. (Photo: a Ruffed Grouse walked a short way and then took flight, beating its wings against the snow twice before it was airborne.)

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Sumac Sustains Songbirds

3-6-14 bluebirds on sumac 033By this time of the year fruit-eating birds have, for the most part, devoured the choicest fruits available in winter. What remains are the fruits-of-last-resort. While Staghorn Sumac fruits may not be a preferred food, they are an important source of winter sustenance for many species of birds, including bluebirds (pictured), cardinals, chickadees, jays, robins, waxwings, crows, mockingbirds and starlings. Some of the best late-winter birding occurs near stands of this shrubby relative of poison ivy. Can you find the four Eastern Bluebirds feeding on sumac in the photo?

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Common Ravens Repairing & Building Nests

2-24-14 common raven IMG_2002Common Ravens have begun tending to their nests – one was seen snapping dead branches off of a Black Locust tree in Vermont last week. Often ravens will use the same nest for many years, renovating and repairing it every year. They typically nest on or in cliffs and trees (although abandoned cars, a satellite dish and a barbecue grill have been used), with the female doing the lion’s share of the construction. (The male assists her by bringing sticks to the nest site.) The base of the nest consists of sticks up to three feet long with smaller branches being woven into a cup lined with softer material such as sheep’s wool, fur and shredded bark. The finished nest is two to three feet across and up to four feet deep.

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Snow Buntings Headed Back to the Arctic

2-27-14 snow buntings2 091Whirling flocks of Snow Buntings have been observed more frequently lately, perhaps because male buntings have begun their migration back to their nesting grounds on the tundra. They are the first migrants to arrive in the Arctic in the spring (in early April), when it can be -20°F. Females arrive four to six weeks later, when days are warming and snow is beginning to melt. It is thought that the males’ early return is related to the fact that, unlike most Arctic songbirds, buntings nest in rock cavities, for which there is great competition. Deep inside narrow cracks, nesting buntings can largely avoid nest predation, but their eggs are susceptible to freezing and require longer incubation than eggs laid in the open. As a result, females remain on the nest throughout much of the incubation period and are fed by the males. This arrangement shortens incubation time and provides the eggs with constant protection from freezing temperatures. (Thanks to Liz and Clemens Steinrisser for photo op.)

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The Perils of Fermented Fruit

robin eating rotting apple 782In New England, fruit-eating birds are particularly vulnerable in the winter, because they depend so heavily on a food source that ferments, and to get enough protein they need to eat a lot of it. Toxic levels of ethanol can be produced as the natural sugars ferment, causing some consumers to become inebriated. Robins, waxwings and starlings have been found dead in large flocks after eating toxic berries and diving into the ground or colliding with solid structures. In addition, when they are really drunk, they lose mobility, making them helpless in the presence of predators. To the surprise of many observers, birds that appear lifeless on the ground have been known to eventually sober up and fly away. While birds don’t intentionally wish to ingest a lot of alcohol, there are other animals, such as elephants and apes, that will wander for miles to seek the pleasure of fermented fruits.

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Birds & Water in Winter

2-21-14  hairy eating snow  012In winter, dehydration can be as much as or more of a threat than starvation for birds. At this time of year, they often get their water supply from melting icicles and puddles. When it is severely cold and there is no available water, they eat snow, as this Hairy Woodpecker is doing. It takes a lot more energy for birds to thaw snow and for their bodies to bring the freezing temperature of the snow to their body temperature (roughly 102°F.) than when they take a drink of water. Water is also key to keeping a bird warm in the winter, as it is used to preen, or clean and realign, their feathers so that they can maintain pockets of air next to the bird’s skin that retain the birds’ body heat.

While access to water is essential, there can be too much of a good thing, especially in freezing temperatures. If you have a heated bird bath, it’s a good idea to put stones in it or sticks across it to prevent the birds from immersing themselves in very cold weather.

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Barred Owl Story in the Snow

2-17-14  barred owl prints 013These beautiful impressions in the snow tell the story of a Barred Owl diving feet first after prey, most likely a vole or mouse. The fact that there are no rodent tracks on the surface of the snow tells you that the mouse or vole was well hidden in its tunnel under the snow at the time. Apparently the owl’s talons did not reach their target (at least, no blood or rodent remnants), and the owl continued to plow through the snow in repeated attempts to capture its prey before taking flight.

The presence of facial discs (feathers in the shape of a funnel around each eye that direct sound waves towards the owl’s ear) plus the differing size and asymmetrical placement of an owl’s ear openings allow the owl to discern the direction a sound is coming from, how far away it is and its height relative to the owl – even in the dark or under the snow! The exceptional hearing ability of owls, particularly those in the genus Strix (which includes Barred and Great Gray Owls), enables them to plunge into the snow and often successfully capture prey, sight unseen. (Species of owl was determined by wing length. Thanks to Rob Anderegg and Jennifer Grant for photo op.)

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The “Strut”

2-12-14  tom turkey displaying IMG_7084The Mystery Photo guesses were extremely entertaining. Most creative and funniest: “A very overweight raccoon cross-country skiing with his belly dragging in the middle?” In all fairness, the fluffiness of the snow certainly didn’t help give the answer away.

When male Wild Turkeys, or toms, are displaying for one or more females during courtship, their behavior includes something referred to as the “strut.” This involves the male turkey fanning his tail, lowering his wings with the middle primary feathers dragging on the ground, raising his back feathers, throwing his head back and inflating his crop as he glides along the ground in view of one or more females. In snow, this behavior leaves a relatively straight line of turkey tracks with a line (or several) to either side of the tracks, left by the tom’s primaries. (When the tom turns a corner, several feather tips often leave numerous lines in the snow.) Wild Turkeys are already displaying in our woodlands, in preparation for mating in March.

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Honeybee Scavenger

2-10-14 chickadee & bee33 174If the weather warms up sufficiently in January or February, honeybees take advantage of it and use this opportunity to leave their hive to rid themselves of waste that they have accumulated since their last flight and to remove the bodies of dead honeybees. They don’t fly very far before dropping either their waste or their dead comrades on the snow. This ritual is quickly noted and taken advantage of by animals that are not hive dwellers and need constant fuel in order to survive the cold. Black-capped chickadees are one of these animals – the chickadee in this photograph repeatedly landed on the hive body, and if a dead bee was available at the hive entrance, the chickadee helped itself to it. Otherwise it would survey the snow in front of the hive and then dart down to scoop up a bee in its beak before flying off to a branch to consume its nutritious meal. (Note dead bees at the hive opening, awaiting being taken on their final flight. Screening keeps mice out, but allows bee to enter and exit.) Thanks to Chiho Kaneko and Jeffrey Hamelman for photo op.

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Snowy Owl Invasion

2-4-14 lemmings-at-nest4In a typical winter, sightings of snowy owls are a regular occurrence in the Northeast, but this winter, as most New Englanders are aware of, we’re experiencing a banner irruption year, with individuals appearing in greater numbers from the north than they have in decades. In the past, hunger and lack of prey in the Arctic have been the accepted explanation for this influx of northern predators, but this year that theory has been put to a test, as 2013-14 visitors are arriving in excellent condition. Last summer the lemming population (snowy owls’ food of choice, with one owl eating up to 1,600 lemmings in a year), as well as other prey species, exploded in northern Quebec. It’s thought that snowy owls amass to nest in areas where prey is abundant, and it appears that this is exactly what happened in Quebec. The rodent explosion resulted in exceptionally large broods (up to 12 chicks per pair of owls). In part due to competition with older owls, this large first-year population of owls moved south this winter, and we are the beneficiaries. To see the movement of this year’s irruption, go to http://www.projectsnowstorm.org, where this photograph of a 70 lemmings/8 voles-lined snowy owl nest by Christine Blais-Soucy originally appeared.

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Bird Feeding – Does It Foster Dependency?

1-15-14 bird feeders 139Decades ago birds remaining in the Northeast in the winter almost exclusively survived on weed seeds and insects they gleaned from crevices in tree bark. Today, nearly one-third of American adults provide about a billion pounds of bird seed each year, to say nothing of suet, seed cakes, etc. Should we be worried about creating a population of food-dependent wintering birds? Studies suggest that this is not the case. Researchers (this is going to sound cruel) removed feeders from woodlands where Black-capped Chickadees had been fed for the previous 25 years, and compared survival rates with those of chickadees in a nearby woodland where there had been no feeders. They documented that the chickadees familiar with feeders were able to switch back immediately to foraging for natural foods and survived the winter as well as chickadees that lived where no feeders had been placed. Not only did the feeder-fed birds not lose their ability to find food, but research also showed that food from feeders had made up only 21 percent of the birds’ daily energy requirement in the previous two years. This is not to say that there aren’t negative aspects to feeding birds, such as window collisions, disease, house cats, etc., but one thing luring birds to our houses for a closer look doesn’t do is destroy their innate ability to find food. (Photo is of a Red-breasted Nuthatch.)

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Great Horned Owls Thaw Cached Prey

1-13-14 great horned owl l MH_20091001_225056_4Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest species of birds to nest in the Northeast –some are already sitting on eggs. Female Great Horned Owls do the lion’s share of incubating the eggs, while the male hunts for and brings her food. While they do eat small rodents, which they swallow whole, the diet of Great Horned Owls also consists of rabbits, hares, opossums, squirrels and skunks, which must be torn into small pieces before being swallowed. Great Horned Owls often kill more than they can eat at one time, and cache the extra food for later consumption, when food is scarce. Needless to say, during winter months the cached prey freezes, and if the prey is large, its consumption is challenging for a bird with a bill that’s designed for shredding and tearing. To solve this dilemma, Great Horned Owls sit on their frozen prey until it thaws, and then proceed to tear it into bite-size pieces.

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Big Birds

blue jay puffed out in snow 101Is your bird feeder being visited by gigantic Blue Jays and Black-capped Chickadees during this cold spell? Your eyes aren’t fooling you; birds often appear larger in very cold weather.
Birds that remain in New England year round must not only be able to find enough food in the winter to produce heat and energy, they must find a way to retain the heat. Various strategies have evolved, but feather structure and function play an important role for the winter survival of all birds. There are different types of feathers, each designed for a different function. A (wing or tail) feather consists of a central, hollow shaft on either side of which are many interlocking rows of barbs. The feathers that cover the body of a bird (contour feathers) often have interlocking barbs only at the ends, on the part not covered by an overlapping feather. The bottom-most, unconnected barbs on these feathers are similar to those of down feathers – loose and fluffy. When the temperature dips, birds often puff out their contour feathers (making the birds look huge). This action, and the structure of the bottom portion of the contour feathers,
increase the number and size of air pockets between the bird’s feathers and its skin. This space provides excellent insulation, preventing much of the bird’s body heat from escaping.

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The Butcher Bird

1-3-14 impaled mouse & MS shrike by Bridie McGreavy DSC_0146The Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor) is highly unusual in that it is a predatory songbird. Birds, mammals and insects are preferred over nectar, nuts and seeds. This tundra-nesting bird comes as far south as New England to overwinter, where it preys mainly on mice, voles and small birds. The Northern Shrike often kills more prey than it can immediately eat or feed its young, storing the excess food to eat later, when available living prey may be scarce. The manner in which it stores this extra food is what gave it the name “butcher bird;” it often impales prey on a thorn, broken branch (as in photograph) or even barbed wire, or it wedges prey into narrow V-shaped forks of branches, where they hang until reclaimed by the shrike. (Impaled mouse photo by Bridie McGreavy; northern shrike photo by MS Henszey)

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Bald Eagles Year Round in Vermont

1-2-14 bald eagle2  033Biologists estimate that there were up to 500,000 Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in North America when the first European settlers began arriving. Seventy-five years ago you wouldn’t have seen a single Bald Eagle in the state of Vermont. Thanks to the banning of DDT in North America, an effective reintroduction program in Vermont between 2004 and 2006, and the protection of Bald Eagle breeding and wintering habitat through the Endangered Species Act, Vermont now has a healthy breeding population of eagles. This summer 16 Bald Eagles nested in Vermont and 26 young eagles fledged. Winter records of Bald Eagles reflect this increase as well – 24 eagles (13 of which were immature birds) were found in the 2013 annual Midwinter Bald Eagle Survey in Vermont, with the largest numbers occuring near open water, such as Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River, where the eagles have access to fish. (You can also find them at frozen lakes where there generous ice fishermen.) Eagles are still listed as endangered in Vermont, but they are off the national Endangered Species list, and biologists say they should soon be off the state endangered list as well.

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