An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Migration

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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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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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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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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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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Great Egrets Migrating

4-18-14 great egret2  055After overwintering in Central America and southern U.S., Great Egrets head as far north as the New England coast and Vermont’s Champlain Valley to breed. The peak of their spring migration occurs in April so now is a good time to look for them in wetlands where they stop to rest and refuel en route. Great Egrets eat mainly fish, but also crustaceans (see crayfish in insert), amphibians, reptiles, birds and small mammals.

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Journey North

4-11-14 ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_9466If you are curious about the status of the northward migration of Monarch Butterflies, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds or American Robins this spring, there is a wonderful organization and website that you should be aware of, if you aren’t already. Its name is Journey North ( http://www.learner.org/jnorth/ ) and they recruit citizen scientists throughout the U.S. to report sightings of certain selected species. Journey North then posts these sightings on their site, making it possible for anyone to see exactly how far each of these species has advanced in their migration north. Sightings are clumped into two week periods of time, allowing you to see not only where the birds or butterflies are currently, but how long it’s taken them to get there. A North American map for each species has sightings color-coded by date, allowing you to follow their progress closely. Migratory information on other songbirds, Whooping Cranes, Gray Whales and much more is also available. This site is the next best thing to migrating alongside these hardy creatures.

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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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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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Common Loons Molting

9-30-13 molting loon MH_20091004_214955_3Loons begin a full body molt (minus their wings) in the late summer and early fall, prior to migration. The black and white breeding plumage of adult loons in summer is replaced by the gray-brown of winter. This process typically begins at the base of the bill and spreads across the head and over the upper back. The process of molting can extend through migration on into December.

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Common Green Darners Migrating

9-16-13 common green darner 249The Common Green Darner, Anax junius, is one of our largest dragonflies, measuring three inches long, with a four-inch wingspread. It is strikingly colored, with a green thorax and a bright blue (male) or reddish (female) abdomen. As if that weren’t enough to set this dragonfly apart, it is also migratory. Common Green Darners migrate south from August to November, stopping over (like migrating birds) occasionally along the way, resuming flight after resting and refueling. Thanks to radio telemetry, we now know that over a two-month migration, Common Green Darners, each weighing about one gram, can migrate over 400 miles. (Photograph is of a Common Green Darner perched on Bottle Gentian.)

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Blue-headed Vireos Begin Migration

8-21-13 blue-headed vireo 094Blue-headed Vireos (formerly called Solitary Vireos) are fairly distinctive birds, given their white “spectacles” or eye-rings. (Trying to make their heads blue seems to be a bit of a stretch, however.) They are the latest species of vireo to migrate, beginning about now and peaking at the end of September/beginning of October. After spending the winter in southern U.S. or Central America, they will head north, one to two weeks earlier than any other species of vireo.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Monarch Numbers Down

7-22-13 monarch IMG_1107According to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, this spring and summer there’s been an estimated drop of 90% in the overall monarch population in eastern Canada – the most dramatic decline ever recorded. Vermont (and most likely New England in general) is experiencing much the same situation. The low numbers of monarchs are due to several factors that they have encountered along their migratory routes the past couple of years, including extreme temperatures, record drought, low nectar production by flowering plants and a scarcity of their host plant, milkweed. The cold temperatures and record amounts of rain this spring undoubtedly added to their stress.


Migrating Dark-eyed Juncos Passing Through New England

4-10-13 dark-eyed junco2 IMG_9530This week those of us in the Northeast have been inundated with dark-eyed juncos, often referred to as “snow birds” due to their presence in much of the U.S. only during the winter months.  Although this member of the sparrow family breeds here and is found year-round in New England, over most of the eastern U.S. juncos appear as winter sets in and then retreat northward each spring.  Many of the juncos that we are seeing now are transitory migrants on their way to Canada and the Arctic to their breeding grounds.  They will remain there until next fall, when we will experience a similar influx.  Research has found that males migrate earlier than females, and that females tend to migrate further south than males. The timing of this migration is regulated primarily by the lengthening spring days.


Peak Migration of Common Mergansers

3-28-13 common mergansers IMG_7729Common mergansers can be seen year round in northern New England, but in the spring their numbers peak around the first week in April, due to the large number of birds that wintered further south and are migrating to Canadian nesting grounds. These birds are fish eaters, known to consume at least 50 species which they easily grasp with their bill due to the sharp projections along its edges. Egg-laying is still a couple of months away, but coveted tree cavities where they nest are being scoped out. (female common merganser on left, male on right)


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Insects in Winter

What happens to insects this time of year?  A few remain active, such as snow fleas, and some, like monarch butterflies, migrate, but the vast majority of insects overwinter in New England.  The insects that stay here are susceptible to freezing due to the fact that they cannot control the temperature of their body.  Some insects, such as woolly bear caterpillars, can tolerate having ice form in their tissues, but most insects go into a state known as diapause.  When the days start getting shorter, these insects reduce the water content of their body, as water freezes at a high temperature compared to other liquids, and replace it with glycerol, which acts like antifreeze, protecting them from freezing.  (Due to technical problems which hopefully will be resolved soon, I am unable to include a photograph with this post.  My sincere apologies.)


Juvenile Cedar Waxwings Migrating

Possibly because of the importance of summer fruits in their diet, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are late nesters, but by late August adults have begun their migration to the southern states and Central America.  This year’s young are beginning this (roughly) 900-mile flight now, a month after their parents have left. You can often find waxwings feeding in crab apple and other fruit trees where they stop over during their flight to refuel.  Juvenile birds lack the sleek look of adults — the red wax-like feather tips for which this bird is named have not developed, and the color of their plumage is much duller than that of the adults.


White-throated Sparrows Migrating

 

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) numbers are building in northern New England as they head towards the mid-October peak of their migration south.  Even though they are no longer constantly singing their “Poor Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody” song, which allows quick  identification, White-throated Sparrows’ white throats, striped crowns and yellow lores (the area between the eye and the bill) make them one of the easier sparrows to identify.  Don’t be surprised if you see this bird with a tan, and not white, crown.  There are two color forms, white-crowned and tan-crowned.  Interestingly, an individual bird almost always mates with a bird of the opposite color form. Males of both color types prefer females with white stripes, but both kinds of females prefer tan-striped males.

 


Juvenile Broad-winged Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk chicks spend their first five or six weeks in the nest being fed small mammals, toads, nestling birds and a variety of invertebrates by their mother. They then fledge, but for the next two weeks these young birds continue to use the nest as a feeding (food is still being provided for them) and roosting site. At about seven weeks of age they begin capturing their own prey, and remain on their parents’ territory for the next month or two — just enough time to learn the ropes before migrating south for the winter, which they are doing right now (peak migration is mid-September).


Monarch Butterfly Migration is Underway

Monarch Butterflies have begun migrating — the peak of their migration in Central Vermont/New Hampshire is September 3 – 15. Monarchs typically cycle through four generations during the breeding season. The final generation migrates to Mexico. Those individuals emerging in late summer live much longer than the Monarchs that are around in June and July (6-9 month life span vs. 6-8 weeks). This allows Monarchs in the East the time needed to migrate up to 3,000 miles (a trip that takes roughly two months) to central Mexico, live through the winter and to begin a return trip (making it only about halfway back), mating along the way. The succeeding generations of Monarchs continue the return trip back to New England, and with luck, the great (or great-great) grandchildren of the butterflies that are migrating to Mexico now will grace our milkweed patches next summer.


Solitary Sandpipers

Solitary Sandpipers (Tringa solitaria) nest in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska (in the abandoned tree nests of several different song birds!), and winter in the tropics, from northern Mexico south through much of South America.   Individuals started their nocturnal migration south in June, which is both inland as well as offshore.  In the fall, some birds appear to fly southeast over New England towards the Atlantic Ocean, as if on direct course to South America, while others follow the eastern coastline. Although their migration over New England peaked in July, you can find them through mid-October on the shores of ponds, resting and feeding during their long flight.  As their common and species names indicate, they migrate singly, not in flocks like most migrant sandpipers.


American Bittern

American Bitterns have returned to New England from their southern wintering grounds, and are announcing their presence with a unique song that Sibley describes as a “deep, gulping, pounding BLOONK-Adoonk” that they repeat over and over.  These secret, well-camouflaged marsh birds are almost invisible as they slowly walk through marsh grasses.  When they stand still and point their bill skyward, they are easily mistaken for the reeds they inhabit.

 


Eastern Phoebe

The Eastern Phoebe, a member of the flycatcher family, is one of the earliest nesting songbirds to return to New England after spending the winter in southeastern United States.  It is easily identified from its perch, where it typically wags its tail up and down repeatedly while waiting for an insect to fly by.  The Eastern Phoebe is the first bird ever banded in North America – in 1804 John James Audubon tied a small circle of silver thread around the legs of phoebe nestlings and documented their return in successive years.


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