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Birds

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers Drilling Wells & Lapping Sap

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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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Ruffed Grouse Drumming

3-22-16 ruffed grouse IMG_0778A majority of male passerines, or perching birds (also called songbirds) claim territories and secure mates through song.   With the help of a syrinx, or voice box, musical notes, some more complex than others, are created.  There are species of birds in different orders that use other parts of their bodies for territorial and courtship displays, among them ruffed grouse (wings), American woodcock (wings) and Wilson’s snipe (tail).

Male ruffed grouse, also known as partridge, are aggressively territorial throughout their adult lives, defending roughly 6-10 acres of woodland which is usually shared with one or two hens. The male grouse claims his property by engaging in a “drumming” display during which he creates a sound reminiscent of a lawn mower starting up. This sound is made by the male beating his wings against the air to create a vacuum, as lightning does when it makes thunder. The drummer usually stands on a log, stone or mound of dirt roughly 10-12 inches above the ground when drumming and this substrate is called a “drumming log.” He does not strike the log to make the noise, he only uses the drumming log as a stage for his display.

Grouse occasionally drum in the summer and fall, but in the spring, drumming becomes more frequent and prolonged as the male advertises his location to hens seeking a mate.  This phenomenon is heard but rarely seen by humans; Lang Elliott has captured both the sight and sound of a ruffed grouse drumming in this extraordinary video:   http://langelliott.com/mary-holland/ruffed-grouse/    (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com)

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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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Cedar Waxwings Seeking Fruit

2-12-16 cedar waxwing  027Cedar Waxwings can be found year round in northern New England, but the waxwings we see this winter are not necessarily the same birds that were nesting here last summer. May through September Cedar Waxwings can be found nesting throughout New England. Come fall, most Cedar Waxwings migrate an average of 880 miles in a southerly direction. Thus, many of the waxwings we see in winter are probably Canadian breeders.

Once on their wintering grounds, Cedar Waxwings tend to wander in flocks in search of sugary fruits to eat. In recent years, they have relied increasingly on crops of ornamental fruit trees such as crabapple, hawthorn and mountain ash. In the summer, you see Cedar Waxwings regularly if they are nesting in your area, whereas if you see them one winter day, you may very well not see them the following day, unless there is an ample supply of fruit nearby. Once they discover a food source, be it fruit on a single tree or an orchard full of fruit, these nomads usually descend, strip and eat the fruit until the branches are bare and then depart for greener (or redder) pastures.

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Ruffed Grouse Flying Into Windows

1-25-16 dead ruffed grouse by Eve BernhardThose of us who feed birds are well aware of the hazards that windows and glass doors present to birds. The latest research shows that roughly 988 million birds are killed each year in the United States from hitting windows. Migratory birds and songbirds are the most common victims, but Ruffed Grouse, especially in the fall and winter, are very apt to collide with glass windows. (This phenomenon is not the same as the aggressive behavior towards glass that a bird’s reflection can promote, especially by males during the breeding season.)

Many of the grouse victims are first-year birds. Often, inexperienced young grouse, frightened by a predator, crash into buildings, trees or windows in a so-called “crazy-flight.” Hard, transparent glass is not something grouse recognize as a barrier, due to the reflections it creates. There are a number of things one can do to reduce the chances of this happening. Netting, decals, window film and tape hanging from the top of the window can help. One of many creative new products available are window panes that have external patterns that birds can see from the outside, but that are invisible from the inside. On a national level, legislation and bird-friendly buildings are gaining traction. For more window crash-prevention ideas, go to http://www.birdwatchingdaily.com/featured-stories/15-products-that-prevent-windows-strikes/. (Photo by Eve Bernhard)

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Great Horned Owls Courting

Great Horned Owls are staking out territories and beginning courtship rituals in northern New England. Their “songs” are typically given with their beak closed, as they lean forward and cock their tail up (see photo). When calling, their white throat feathers are pronounced as their throat swells.

The hooting of a Great Horned Owl can be compared to the sound of a distant foghorn – it is soft, and somewhat subdued, with no strong accent on any one hoot. Pairs often synchronize their deep sonorous territorial songs, a custom which is referred to as “duetting.” The higher-pitched female calls a six or seven-note song and the male responds with a deeper five-note song during or within a few seconds after the female’s song.  The chances of hearing a Great Horned Owl are somewhat greater after midnight than before. To hear Great Horned Owl territorial calls and duetting go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Horned_Owl/sounds. (Thanks to Vermont Institute of Natural Science for photo op.)

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