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Bird Migration

Snowy Owls Starting Their Return To The Arctic

Every year in North America some Snowy Owls migrate southward during Arctic winters while some remain in the Arctic.  (In some winters — not this one — we see large numbers, or irruptions, of young owls in the Northeast which is thought to be a result of food and weather conditions further north.)  Individuals that spend the winter in New England usually can be found near large, open terrain that resembles their Arctic breeding grounds. Agricultural fields, coastal dunes and airports provide them with an ample diet of small mammals and birds.  Overwintering Snowy Owls begin to head northward in March and April. Occasionally a few owls linger on wintering grounds well into spring and summer (records of Snowy Owls exist in May in Massachusetts and June in New Hampshire).

Much has been learned about the migratory flights of Snowy Owls due to satellite tracking. According to Birds of North America, in February 2012, a transmitter attached to a female at Logan Airport in Boston, MA tracked an owl to Nunavut, Canada. The owl migrated north along Hudson Bay’s eastern shore during spring migration and returned south along Hudson Bay’s western shore during the autumn migration. It eventually returned to Logan Airport the following November, having completed a 7,000 mile round trip.

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Red-winged Blackbirds Returning to Northern New England

Except for the coast, most of northern New England doesn’t see many Red-winged Blackbirds during the winter months.  Numbers usually start increasing the last week of February with males arriving before females.  In the fall it’s the reverse, with males departing after females.

Practically as soon as male Red-winged Blackbirds return, you can hear them singing and see them displaying as they claim their territories.  If you could tell the females apart, you might well recognize some of them, as research shows that nearly half of the females return to the previous year’s territory.

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Common Loons Migrating

Much has been learned about the fall migration of Common Loons in northern New England.  They are diurnal migrants, parents generally migrate first, young loons remain on the lakes where they were born or adjacent lakes until close to when the lakes freeze up, and the greatest number of fall migrating loons occurs in late October and the first half of November.

The very large loons in Maine, New Brunswick, and eastern New Hampshire do not migrate far and primarily over-winter in the Gulf of Maine, while smaller loons from other New England states and New York migrate to Long Island Sound south to New Jersey. Many loons migrate singly but group together on larger lakes referred to as staging areas. Overland migration altitudes range from a mile to a mile and a half, while over water loons often migrate within 300 feet of the surface.  One-and two-year old Common Loons remain throughout year on wintering sites. (Cornell’s Birds of North America)

(Photo of adult and juvenile Common Loons taken in early October, just as molting was beginning at the base of the adult’s bill. By December most adult loons have fully molted into their gray winter plumage.)

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Last of the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers Migrating

Most of us in northern New England are probably seeing the last of the Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers that nested here this summer.   Unlike most species of woodpeckers (which are year-round residents), a majority of sapsuckers that breed this far north end up migrating further south; southern U.S. and Central America are where most of them overwinter. Females have been observed migrating before males, and spending the winter further south than males.  We don’t often see sapsuckers migrating, as they do so at night and are relatively quiet when flying.  Occasionally you may come upon one during the day resting motionless on a tree, or even briefly drumming.

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Northern Flickers Migrating

The Northern Flicker is one of the few North American woodpeckers that is strongly migratory. However,  most of the eastern migrants are Canadian breeders.  They fly south from Canada with big flights moving down the Atlantic coast in the fall to the southeastern U.S.. Peak fall migration occurs from late September to early October, with some migration continuing to early November. As a result, New England sees an increase in the number of flickers sighted at this time of year.  More southern populations are sedentary, and do not migrate. Northern Flickers that nest in New England do both.  Some remain here for the winter, while some fly further south and return next spring to their northern breeding grounds.

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Watching For Warblers

5-13-19 yellow warbler_U1A8433Spring migration has begun in earnest and we are at the height of warblers arriving in and passing through New England. These little jewels, especially the colorful males, are a sight to behold as they flit about in shrubs and trees, constantly gleaning insects amongst the branches, flowers and emerging leaves. Getting and keeping a warbler in your binoculars can be challenging, to say the least — these busy little birds give the Energizer Bunny a run for its money.

As to when to look for warblers, the best times (“fallouts”) are when there’s a south wind (saves birds flying north considerable energy) and a change in the weather, such as a storm. The birds are forced to seek land, which is where we find large concentrations referred to as “waves” feeding furiously to fuel the rest of their journey.

The pictured Yellow Warbler, weighing 1/3rd – 1/4th of an ounce, left its wintering ground in Central or South America and travelled perhaps as far as 4,000 miles or more in order to return to Vermont this spring.

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Lingering Great Blue Herons

11-12-14 great blue heron2_U1A1373

Most fish-eating birds that breed where most bodies of water freeze over in the winter migrate further south in the fall, including Great Blue Herons.  Movement of this large wading bird takes place largely from September to mid-October. According to Christmas Bird Count data, the Great Blue Heron has the widest wintering distribution of any heron species in North America.

While the number of Great Blue Herons in the Northeast is greatly diminished in November and December, it’s not uncommon to spot lingering birds at this time of year.  Come January, when most bodies of fresh water are inaccessible to herons, sightings become rare until they begin returning in March.

Where open water remains in the Northeast, those Great Blue Herons braving the cold continue to consume fish, insects, amphibians and crustaceans.  Small mammals, especially voles, and birds remain a warm-month delicacy, when mammal hair is cast in pellets and bones are digested.

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