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Birds

Red-bellied Woodpeckers Sunning

7-20-16 male red-bellied adult 173Red-bellied Woodpeckers have extended their breeding range northward and westward over the last 50 years and are now breeding in northern New England.  Many are year-round residents here, while some individuals move further south during particularly harsh winters.  This range extension allows for observations not possible even 10 or 20 years ago.

While watching a Red-bellied Woodpecker this summer, I witnessed behavior I had never observed before.  The bird flew repeatedly to the same tree branch, flattened itself on the branch with its body facing the sun and then fanned its wings out while cocking its head, raising its crown feathers, opening its beak and appearing to look at the sun.  This behavior is common enough to have a name – the woodpecker was “sunning” itself.  While preening, stretching and calling often takes place intermittently while the bird is engaged in sunning, it may also enter a stupor or state of lethargy.   (Thanks to Cindy Lawrence for photo op.)

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Common Loon Chicks Growing & Acquiring Survival Skills

7-13-16  common loon chicks2  361 A great deal of learning is packed into a Common Loon chick’s first week.   It learns to ride on its parents’ backs as well as crawl under their wings, a necessity due to its vulnerability, lack of maneuverability, inability to regulate its body temperature.  Communication skills are practiced, with soft “mewing” elicited when a chick is hungry or in need of attention.  The act of preening begins, and the chick successfully retrieves small fish and crayfish from its parents’ beaks.

By the second week, Common Loon chicks are still fluffy balls of down, but they molt a second time, after which they are a much lighter brown.   They dismount from their parents frequently and motor around under their own steam, usually staying very close to a parent.  By the time they are ten days old, their hitchhiking days are over for the most part, and they are on their own when it comes to getting from one place to another. The eleven-day-old Common Loon chicks pictured are just starting to make shallow dives at this point in their development, but still depend largely on meal delivery from their parents.  In another month, they’ll be catching most of their meals themselves, although their catches will be supplemented with food provided by the parents.  In two months their flight, as well as contour, feathers will have replaced their down feathers, and within a couple more weeks of that happening, they will be capable of flight.

(The next Naturally Curious post will be on 7/18/16.)

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Changing of the Guard: Hairy Woodpeckers Sharing Parental Duties

5-30-16 hairy woodpeckers  215

When their offspring are very young, Hairy Woodpeckers feed them by regurgitation.  As the nestlings mature, the parents bring food back to the nest.  Most species of birds (85%) engage in bi-parental care, where the male and female contribute equally to feeding and guarding their young.  Often the male does more of the food gathering and the female more of the brooding.

In some of these species the male and female both brood as well as gather food.  Hairy Woodpecker parents share these duties equally for the month that their young remain in their cavity nest.  They both brood their young, with males typically getting night duty, and both gather food for their nestlings.  Lawrence Kilham, a New Hampshire MD and ornithologist, found that male Hairy Woodpeckers foraged farther from the nest, made fewer feeding visits, and brought larger prey to nestlings, whereas females remained closer and fed young three to four times as frequently as males.  (Photo: female Hairy Woodpecker arriving with arachnid food, male about to depart. Thanks to Suzanne Weinberg for photo op.)

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American Woodcock Eggs Hatching

woodcock 019Among ground-nesting birds in the Northeast,  the American Woodcock, also known as the Timberdoodle,  is one of the earliest to lay eggs – usually around mid- to late April.  The female shapes a shallow depression in the leaf litter and then incubates her eggs for about three weeks.  During this time, if she is sufficiently disturbed, the female will flush and feign injury.  She usually lands nearby, runs about with her tail spread, wings drooping and her body quivering, uttering a cat-like sound to distract potential predators.

Upon hatching, the precocial chicks are brooded until their down dries and then leave the nest, usually within hours of hatching.  For the first week or so they are dependent upon their mother feeding them, but soon are finding their own food.  In a little over a month, the chicks become completely independent. (Thanks to Susan Morse and Phillip Mulligan for photo op.)

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American Bitterns Foraging

American bittern and tadpole 347American Bitterns are typically solitary foragers.  You rarely see more than one at a time (if you’re lucky enough to see one) stealthily standing in place, or slowly walking, as it looks for insects, amphibians (frogs, tadpoles (pictured) and salamanders), small fish, mammals (mostly meadow voles), crayfish and small snakes to eat.  This solitary feeder’s cryptic coloration, especially the stripes on its breast and belly, is thought to function mostly to reduce visibility to prey and competitors rather than to predators.  With lightning speed a bittern seizes its prey and swallows it head first . Roughly twenty-two hours after eating, a bittern ejects the indigestible part of its meal in the form of a pellet.

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Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers Drilling Wells & Lapping Sap

4-26-16 yellow-bellied sapsucker 191

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have returned and in between sending their Morse code messages, are drilling into over 1,000 species of woody plants to obtain sap.  At this time of year, sap wells are drilled into xylem tissues (transport water and nutrients from roots to branches) to feed on sap that is moving upward; after deciduous species leaf out, sap wells tap phloem tissues (transport sugars and other nutrients made in the leaves to other parts of the tree).  Unlike sap drawn from the xylem which contains from 2-3% sugar, phloem sap may contain 20-30% sugar.

Sapsucker tongues have a fringe of hair-like projections along the edges which enable the sapsucker to lap up the sap that accumulates in a well (“saplapper” would be a more accurate name for these woodpeckers).  Recently a female sapsucker landed on the trunk of a nearby Sugar Maple and tapped eight wells.  She then spent the better part of the afternoon inserting her brush-like tongue into the wells and drinking the sap that collected.  The entire time she was drinking sap, she was constantly (8 times per hour) evacuating a stream of clear liquid (as opposed to the typical uric acid excreted by birds).  Apparently much of what goes in must come out.

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Cedar vs. Bohemian Waxwings

4-18-16bohemian vs. cedar waxwingWorldwide there are three species of waxwings:  Cedar, Bohemian and Japanese.  The first two species occur in North America, and while they share many traits, they also have their differences.  Both species look somewhat alike, in that they both have crests and black eye masks.  Both species also form nomadic, social flocks that are constantly in search of sugary fruit.   However, there are distinct differences in their distribution, size and plumage.

RANGE:  If you’re in the Northeast, and it’s summer, the waxwing you’re looking at almost assuredly is a Cedar Waxwing, as they are permanent residents, breeding and overwintering here.  Bohemian Waxwings breed in northwest Canada and Alaska, and are only seen in the Northeast in the late fall, winter, or early spring, when they extend their range in search of fruit.  Often they will join flocks of cedar waxwings as they feed.  They are an irruptive species, irregularly appearing south of their normal winter range in large numbers.

SIZE:  Even though Bohemian Waxwings are only about an inch longer than Cedar Waxwings, they are nearly double their weight – Bohemians are chunky, Cedars are svelte.

PLUMAGE:  Both of these species have a black eye mask, a yellow (or occasionally orange, due to diet) tail band and frequently red wax at the tip of some of their feathers. The easiest way to distinguish Cedar from Bohemian Waxwings is to look at the color of their undertail feathers (coverts).  Bohemians’ are rust-colored and Cedars’ are white. Bohemian Waxwings have a gray chest and belly, while Cedars have a brownish chest and yellow belly.

At this time of year you can find both species gorging on crab apples, often side by side, though Bohemians are soon to depart for the Northwest.

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