Countershading is a common color pattern in animals in which the upper side of the animal is darker than the lower side. This color pattern provides camouflage for the animal when viewed from the side, above or below. The counter shading pattern balances the sunlight on the animal’s back and the shadow beneath the animal so as to blend the animal’s side profile with its surroundings. In addition, when viewed from below, a counter-shaded animal with a light belly blends into the light coming from the sky above. When viewed from above, the darker back of a counter-shaded animal blends into the darker ground colors below. Birds (which spend a considerable amount of time in the air) such as this dark-eyed junco, as well as marine animals often exhibit countershading.
Common Mergansers are primarily fish-eating ducks. Young mergansers require over half a pound of food per day during their first summer, and often supplement their fish diet with insects, mollusks, crustaceans, worms, frogs, small mammals, birds and plants. The pictured immature Common Merganser had just downed a crayfish when it spotted a frog which it succeeded in catching and eventually swallowing.
I had to laugh recently when I noticed a chain reaction going on in a Great Blue Heron nest I was watching. There were five chicks, and one of them yawned. At least I presume it was a yawn, though perhaps it could have be re-aligning its beak or perhaps cooling off. Exactly like humans, each of the remaining four birds followed suit and proceeded to stretch their beaks open wide in succession. It struck me as quite comical, especially when I discovered myself yawning as I observed the heron chicks doing the same.
In New England, Dark-eyed Juncos typically have two broods in a summer. The second-brood nest in the photograph contains the first of probably four or five eggs which are laid one day at a time. The egg lies on a soft lining made from the hair of a White-tailed Deer. Unlike most songbirds, Dark-eyed Juncos build their nests in a wide variety of sites, from the ground up to eight feet high in trees. Often they are in a small cavity on a sloping bank (well hidden by surrounding grass), under a protruding rock or among tree roots. But they’ve also been found under fallen tree trunks, on supports underneath houses on stilts, in barns or lofts between hay bales, in vines on the sides of buildings, on window ledges and light fixtures and in hanging flower pots. It’s not unheard of to find a Dark-eyed Juncos relining the old nest of an American Robin.
Well done, those of you who guessed Wild Turkey, which was most of you! Charlotte Carlson not only discovered their nest, but managed to photograph the hen and tom turkey in the act of making the eggs!
There is something irrepressibly cheery about the song of an Indigo Bunting. The male’s paired notes ring out from a high perch, where this unbelievably blue bird positively sparkles in the sunlight. According to Cornell’s “All About Birds” site, the male sings as many as 200 songs per hour at dawn and for the rest of the day averages a song per minute. To hear an indigo bunting sing, go to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Indigo_Bunting/sounds .
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.
The welcome sound of the “Morse Code woodpecker” is once again reverberating through our woodlands. Although many woodpeckers drum against hard surfaces with their bills, yellow-bellied sapsucker drums are distinctive — they usually begin with several rapidly repeated strikes in an “introductory roll” followed by a pause, then more strikes in an irregular pattern which some people liken to the Morse Code. These birds, like most woodpeckers, communicate with each other by drumming on different surfaces – often dead snags, but also metal signs and roof tops. They communicate over long distances, so the louder the drum, the better. Males are arriving back on their breeding grounds and establishing territories with the help of this drumming before the females arrive. Females arrive back about a week later than males, at which point, drumming will assist male sapsuckers in obtaining a mate. Females also drum, but less frequently, more softly and for shorter periods of time. Photo is of an adult female yellow-bellied sapsucker.
Recently Common Loons have been seen on several Vermont lakes and ponds. Spring arrival on nesting lakes depends largely on the timing of ice-out. During migration, Common Loons have what are called “staging” areas — lakes as well as rivers, where many loons congregate as they proceed northward (southward in the fall). Reconnaissance flights are usually made from open water north to territorial waters to see if the ice is on its way out.
For the first time this winter, there is enough snow for ruffed grouse to find shelter from the cold by flying into it and creating a burrow that keeps them relatively warm and invisible to predators. When not resting in their snow burrows on cold nights, or “budding” on nearby aspen buds at dawn and dusk, ruffed grouse do a considerable amount of walking on top of the snow. Their feet are well equipped for this (see Naturally Curious post for 11/4/11) and leave a chain of two-inch, three-toed imprints, one directly in front of the other. (The grouse that left these tracks was walking toward the bottom of the photograph.)
While some American robins usually overwinter in northern New England, we have a larger number of them this winter than usual. A lack of snow cover and an excellent crop of fruits and berries are contributing to this phenomenon. You often see them in flocks of a hundred or more, especially on south facing fields, and where there are fruit trees. Migration is a hazardous undertaking for birds, and in general they go only as far south as they need to in order to survive. If there is an ample supply of food, and a lack of snow, robins are more likely to remain in northern New England during the winter, or stop here on their way south from Canada.
American goldfinches are late nesters – it is not uncommon for them to be raising young in August, and occasionally even into September. Recently while walking through a wet meadow, I became aware of a sudden burst of activity to my right. Unbeknownst to me, I had come quite close to an American goldfinch nest which was full of nestlings on the brink of fledging. As I passed by, the young burst explosively from their nest. Two fluttered to the ground and quickly sought cover, one flew a short distance into some shrubs, and one remained in the nest. Regardless of where they sought shelter, the young will be fed and cared for by their parents for the next three weeks or so.
Since hatching in July, the downy, sooty black common loon chick has matured in to a sleek, brown juvenile, close to its parents in size. Even so, adult loons are still caring for and feeding their young, though far less so than earlier in the summer, as juvenile birds are now foraging on their own. Roughly nine weeks old, the young bird accompanying its parent in the photograph will be airborne in three weeks or so, but for the most part will remain on its natal pond or lake. Juveniles typically don’t leave for their salt water wintering grounds as long as there is open water — long after their parents have migrated.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, New England’s only species of hummingbird, are a major pollinator of flowers. As they hover at flowers, often red like the pictured bee-balm, hummingbirds probe their bill down into the flower’s nectaries in order to reach the nectar. As they do so, the anthers of the flower brush against the hummingbird, often on top of its head or on its face, depositing pollen. Some of this pollen is likely to fall off on the strategically placed stigma of the next flower it visits (often the same species). Research in Illinois and Missouri confirms that ruby-throated hummingbirds deposit ten times as much pollen (per stigma per visit) as do bumble bees and honey bees! The diet of hummingbirds is not limited to nectar, however. Insects, including caterpillars, mosquitoes, spiders, gnats, fruit flies and small bees, are gleaned from leaves and bark, as well as captured in air. The sap holes drilled in trees by yellow-bellied sapsuckers attract insects which hummingbirds consume along with the sap.
In the heat wave we’re having, humans aren’t the only creatures looking for relief. In the middle of the day this hen turkey and her poults sought cooler temperature in the only shade this pasture offered – a small clump of sugar maples and white pines. They settled in and did some serious preening before ambling off in search of grasshoppers and other insects to eat. The young males will disperse in the fall, while the female poults will remain with their mother until next spring.
The bald eagle previously photographed on its nest in May has successfully raised two nestlings, both of which may fledge in the near future. The young eagles are all brown — it will be four years before they attain the white head and tail of an adult. As they near their two-month-old date, the young eagles are flapping their wings and lifting themselves up several inches in the air and onto nearby branches as they develop their flight muscles and practice landing. Research indicates that up to half of all eagle nest departures are unsuccessful, and the young may remain on the ground for weeks before regaining flight ability. While the parents do continue to feed them, the fledglings are very vulnerable to predators.