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Birds

Modern Technology Reveals Snowy Owl Winter Behavior

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With the arrival of this winter’s first Snowy Owls in New England comes a renewed interest in the winter ecology of these birds of prey. An organization called Project Snowstorm (www.projectsnowstorm.org ) gathers detailed information every 30 seconds on the movement of Snowy Owls that they have outfitted with a backpack harness containing a solar transmitter. These transmitters use the cellular phone network, not a satellite, and when they are out of range of a cell tower, they store information which is transmitted when the bird is back within cell coverage territory – even if it’s years later.

The information that has been gleaned from this modern technology is stunning, and has allowed us to know far more about the behavior of Snowy Owls in winter. Some Snowy Owls stay within a quarter mile of where they are banded; others cover hundreds of miles within a few weeks. Some Snowy Owls spend much of the winter out on the frozen Great Lakes, where they prey on waterfowl they find in the cracks in the ice that open and close repeatedly.   Not only has it been confirmed that Snowy Owls feed heavily on birds in the winter (especially ducks, geese, grebes and gulls), but their use of channel markers and buoys as hunting perches while they seek prey over the open ocean at night has been documented.

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Small Birds Beware of Sharp-shinned Hawks

coopers-and-blue-jay-by-jeannieShort, powerful, rounded wings and a relatively long tail enable Sharp-shinned Hawks to maneuver in dense cover in pursuit of small birds, which compose 90% of their diet. Small mammals and insects are consumed, but not nearly as frequently as birds. The size of the birds eaten range from hummingbirds to Ruffed Grouse. Long legs and toes (especially middle toes) enable individuals to reach into vegetation and large eyes enhance its ability to catch fast-moving prey.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are familiar sights to those of us with bird feeders – this species is responsible for 35% of 1,138 predation incidents reported at feeders in continent-wide survey. In this photograph, a Blue Jay is successfully warding off an attack by a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk. (Photo by Jeannie Killam.)

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Silver Lining to Low Water Levels

9-27-great-blue-heron-20160911_7746The low water level of most small ponds and streams this fall has at least one silver lining, and that is that consumers of fish and other aquatic creatures expend far less energy finding prey, for it is all concentrated in much smaller bodies of water. The few puddles of water in small streams contain a vast amount of life, as do small ponds.

The Great Blue Heron has the advantage of having a varied diet that is found in a variety of habitats, so it forages in grasslands, marshes, intertidal beaches, riverbanks and ponds. While amphibians, invertebrates, reptiles, mammals, and birds are all known to have been eaten by Great Blue Herons, fish are their mainstay. They often forage in ponds, where they typically wade or stand in wait of prey in shallow water, which has not been in short supply this summer and fall. While the low water level is wreaking havoc with beavers and muskrats, it provides bountiful fuel for herons, egrets, kingfishers and other birds that forage in small ponds and streams as they wend their way southward.

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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 Blue Herons Cooling Off

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Birds have a number of ways of keeping cool. They don’t sweat, nor do they pant, but birds do have several behavioral adaptations which reduce their temperature. Often nestlings that are exposed to the relentless heat of the sun for long periods of time, such as platform-nesting raptors and herons, resort to what is called gular fluttering. They open their beaks and “flutter” their neck muscles, promoting heat loss – an avian version of panting.

Another avian strategy for cooling off is demonstrated by this adult Great Blue Heron — that of arranging its wings in a certain position in order to reduce its body heat.  Great Blue Herons droop their wings while standing, which allows air to circulate across their body and sweep away the excess heat.

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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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