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Birds

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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Admirable Qualities of the Canada Jay

Most of New England never sees Canada Jays (formerly called Gray Jays), but in the northern reaches of the Northeast this bird is familiar to most boreal woods walkers.  It’s not hard to find something to admire about the cleverness of Canada Jays.  Admirable traits include their habit of using their sticky saliva to glue bits of food behind bark or in other vegetation during the summer (as well as the ability to be able to find it again when hungry in the winter), their use of forest tent caterpillar cocoons to hold their nest of twigs together, and their ability to incubate eggs in -20°F during their late winter nesting season.

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Bird Nests Revealed

Deciduous leaves have fallen, revealing bird nests that were right under our noses all summer without our even knowing it.  In addition to building in specific habitats and constructing different sized nests, each species of bird uses a combination of building material that is slightly different from every other species. Because of this, the material a bird uses to construct its nest can be diagnostic as far as determining what species built the nest.  Is the nest lined with rootlets? Are grape vines incorporated into the nest? Is moss covering the outside of the nest?  Is there a shed snake skin woven into the nest? The answer to these questions and others can help narrow down the list of possible builders.

This is the time of year to look for nests and try to determine, with the help of a good field guide such as Peterson’s Field Guide to Bird Nests, the identity of the birds that built them.  (Be aware that possession of a bird nest, egg or feather of most migratory birds, even for scientific research or education, is illegal if you do not have a Federal Migratory Bird Scientific Collecting Permit.)

Sometimes you’ll find material in nests that surprise you — some contain man-made, as well as natural, materials. Among the most unusual examples of this are a nest built solely out of barbed wire by a Chihuahuan raven in Texas and the pictured clothes hanger nest built by a crow near Tokyo and photographed by Goetz Kluge.

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Spruce Grouse Foraging

While Ruffed Grouse are plentiful throughout most of New England, one has to go to northern Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine to see its cousin, the Spruce Grouse.  Associated with boreal forests, this largely herbivorous bird feeds primarily on the needles of pine, spruce and fir (a small amount of animal matter is consumed in the summer as well as ground vegetation). Especially in the winter, a large volume of conifer browse is consumed in order to meet energy demands.

The grouse holds the needle between the tips of its mandibles and breaks it off by flicking its head.  This action, and the fact that Spruce Grouse feed exclusively on needles in the winter, leads to the wearing off of the tip of the bird’s upper mandible by spring.

If you are searching for a Spruce Grouse, you might want to concentrate in the middle of the crowns of trees, as this is where the birds tend to forage. Theories for this preference include the fact that needles in this location have higher nutritive value, branches provide sturdy support, and grouse can see approaching avian predators while remaining partially concealed. (Birds of North America, Cornell Lab of Ornithology). (Photo: male Spruce Grouse browsing on Tamarack needles and (inset) looking for grit on the ground.)

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Birds Molting Old Feathers And Growing In New Ones

With birds, molting refers to the loss of old, worn feathers and the growth of new ones.  A molt can involve all of the bird’s feathers (complete molt), or just some of them (such as wing or tail feathers – a partial molt). Most birds have a complete molt once a year (chickadees, hummingbirds, owls, etc.), or one complete molt and a partial molt before the breeding season (buntings, tanagers, warblers, etc.), or two complete molts per year (Bobolinks, Marsh Wrens).

Complete molts often occur in late summer and early fall, after the breeding season is over. When you think about it, the timing of this “prebasic” or “postnuptial” molt makes a great deal of sense. Growing new feathers takes an inordinate amount of energy; food is plentiful now, the demands of breeding are over and for many birds, migration isn’t quite under way. It is the perfect time to look for molted feathers on the ground.  (Photo:  molted Red-tailed Hawk tail feather)

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Juvenile Least Bitterns Foraging

The Least Bittern is the smallest member of the heron family, measuring 11-14 inches in length with a 16-18 inch wingspan.  It is so secretive and well camouflaged that it is heard far more often than seen. A soft cooing song is sung by the males in spring, and a variety of calls are given on their breeding grounds. (You can hear both types of vocalizations at www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Least_Bittern/sounds.)

This elusive bird of freshwater and brackish marshes is foraging for itself soon after it leaves its nest at two weeks of age.  Long agile toes and curved claws enable the Least Bittern to climb and grasp reeds while it looks for frogs, snakes, salamanders, leeches and other prey from on high.

Like its relative the American Bittern, the Least Bittern freezes in place when alarmed, with its bill pointing up, turns both eyes toward the source of alarm, and sometimes sways to resemble windblown marsh vegetation. (A few wisps of white down still remain on young Least Bitterns at this time of year, as is evident in photo.)

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Common Loon Chicks Riding High

July on a lake occupied by nesting Common Loons is a birder’s slice of heaven.  Eggs are hatching, day-old fluff balls are riding high on their parents’ backs, parents are busy catching and delivering small fish and crayfish to their chicks, and survival lessons are being given. Recently while watching a pair of two- or three-day-old chicks whose parents were off obtaining their offspring’s next meal I observed a juvenile Bald Eagle, known predator of Common Loon chicks, soaring overhead.  Within a split second both loon chicks dove and stayed submerged long enough for the eagle to give up the ghost. Nature or nurture?

To see a related entertaining phenomenon, go to https://loonproject.org/2019/06/29/unlikely-allies/?fbclid=IwAR0po44dJaElcyYpqKqLwaz9A6gs7RxWfhJRkoB-QleC7sUGnjgElksR5G4.

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.