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Bird Migration

Waterfowl Returning To Northern New England

3-1-17-wood-ducks-084Northern New England birders starved for the sight of colorful waterfowl in their binoculars and scopes are celebrating the timely arrival of waterfowl in open bodies of water. Both ducks that will remain and breed here, such as Wood Ducks, as well as those that are just stopping to refuel on the way to their more northern breeding grounds, such as Green-winged Teal, have made their appearance in recent days, and many more will follow in the coming weeks.

Wood Ducks can be found year-round as far north as southern Vermont and New Hampshire, but further north we lose them to the south in the winter. Like most ducks, migrant Wood Ducks depart shortly around sunset or shortly thereafter, and are thought to fly most of the night at speeds of 37 miles per hour or more. As the sun rises, they descend to rest and refuel. Look for them in rivers, swamps, marshes and ponds, where they refuel during the day.

Green-winged Teal typically migrate in large bunched flocks of up to a few hundred individuals, mostly at night. They tend to spend days during their migration in shallow inland wetlands and coastal marshes, typically with heavy vegetation and muddy bottoms.  (Photo:  Wood Ducks)

(Please excuse absence of Naturally Curious posts this week due to illness and lack of internet access.)

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Snow Buntings Starting To Head North

2-24-17-snow-buntings-on-ground-img_6743Flocks 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. (Photo:  can you find the lone Lapland Longspur?)

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Green Herons Migrating

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Green Herons (Butorides virescens) are small, crested, wading birds that inhabit wetland thickets throughout most of North America. After breeding, most tend to wander to more favorable foraging areas before migrating south to Florida, Central and South America. Migration begins in late August/early September and by mid-October, most Green Herons have departed.

Green Herons are among the few species of birds that use tools in order to lure fish to within their striking distance. Bread, mayflies, twigs, leaves, berries, earthworms and feathers are among the lures they have been observed dropping into the water as bait. To watch a video of a persistent and successful Green Heron fishing with a lure, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Porp5v5lLKk .

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Peak of Broad-winged Hawk Migration

9-14-16-broad-winged-hawk2-037We are currently at the peak of the Broad-winged Hawk fall migration, an annual event that birders look forward to with great anticipation. These birds are gregarious, often migrating in flocks or groups called “kettles” that range from several individuals to many thousands of birds. In New England in mid-September it’s possible to see 10,000 Broad-winged Hawks a day at a hawk watch site; near the Great Lakes, 50,000 a day and Texas hawk-watchers have been known to see 300,000 to 500,000 a day.

Broad-wings depend more on thermals, rising columns of warm air, during their migration than most raptors. They don’t usually begin flying until mid-morning, by which time the sun has created thermals, and they stop flying as soon as thermal production ceases in later afternoon. During the day kettles can be seen circling around and around, higher and higher as they ride thermal columns of air upwards, peeling off at the apex and soaring (saving energy other migrating hawks use flapping their wings) southwards towards their wintering grounds.

To find hawk watch sites in your part of the world, go to the  Hawk Migration Association (http://www.hmana.org/hawk-watch-sites/).

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Great Egrets Dispersing

great egret flyingAlthough Great Egrets breed sporadically as far north as Vermont, seeing one in northern New England is always noteworthy. The likelihood of a sighting increases as summer progresses, due in large part to the phenomenon of post-breeding dispersal. After young Great Egrets have fledged, individuals wander well outside their typical breeding range, as far north as southern Canada. The northward dispersal of juvenile birds peaks in August and September. Most Great Egrets migrate in the fall, from September through December.The extent of their migration is influenced by annual fluctuations in temperature. When winters are mild, individuals may remain as far north along the Atlantic Coast as Massachusetts.

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Hooded Mergansers Returning To Nest

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Hooded mergansers are present in most of the Northeast year round where there is open water, but many move south and southwest in winter.  Some actually migrate north to spend winters in the Great Lakes and southern Canada. Their numbers swell in March and April, when migrants are passing through as well as returning.  Often within days of when the ice goes out, this smallest (and arguably the most beautiful) of the three North American merganser species appears.

The courtship ritual of hooded mergansers takes place in groups of one or more females and several males.  The males raise their crests, expanding the white patch, and engage in behavior known as head-throwing.  They jerk their heads backwards until it touches their backs, while giving a frog-like croak. Females court by bobbing their heads and giving a hoarse quack.

Female breeding hooded mergansers select suitable cavities in both live and dead trees in which to nest. Stumps and snags near or in forested wetlands are their preferred nesting sites. Nest boxes are also used by this species, with those over or near water being the most sought after. After a month or a little more, the eggs hatch and downy, day-old chicks jump to the water (or ground) below, in response to their mother’s vocal urging.

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Mixed Emotions Greet Returning Common Grackles

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The first common grackles of the year have been sighted — not something to be celebrated by all, for there is a lot to dislike about common grackles. They are among the most significant agricultural pest species in North America, causing millions of dollars in damage to sprouting corn. They also eat other birds’ eggs and nestlings, and occasionally kill and consume adult birds. However, one has to admire the intelligence that some of these actions plus others reflect.

These members of the icterid, or blackbird, family have learned to follow plows in order to consume the invertebrates and mice that are exposed. Grackles engage in “anting” – letting ants crawl all over their bodies in order for the ants to secrete formic acid which may then rid the grackles of parasites. They rotate acorns between their mandibles, utilizing a ridge inside their mouths to open the acorns. And at least one common grackle was crafty enough to live for 23 years before being killed by a bird of prey – an extraordinarily long life for a passerine, or perching, bird.

Regardless of how we regard any one species, the phenomenon of spring migration and the remarkable birds that survive its rigors every year are cause for celebration.

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