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Birds

A Few Avian Songsters Remain In New England Year Round

Anyone tuned in to bird songs is aware that the skies become fairly quiet once migration has taken place. 75% of North American songbirds head to warmer climes in the fall and when they disappear, so do their songs.  Among those birds that remain in New England year-round are some species that actually continue to sing throughout the year as well.  Northern Mockingbirds, Black-capped Chickadees, and Northern Cardinals are among them, as is the Carolina Wren (pictured), whose range has extended north as our climate has warmed.

Male Carolina Wrens sing year-round defending their territory. Unlike other wren species in its genus, only the male Carolina Wren sings. An individual can have from 17 to 55 song types. He will sing a song type an average of 15 times before switching to another song type, usually after a pause in singing. To hear a Carolina Wren, go to  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Carolina_Wren/. How fortunate we are that their voices can be heard now and even in the dead of winter.

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Purple Finches Irrupting

Every year a Winter Finch Forecast (https://finchnetwork.org/winter-finch-forecast-2022-2023 ) is published which predicts which finches in the northern boreal forests might be extending their range south due to a poor food supply farther north. These larger-than-normal movements of birds are referred to as irruptions, and they happen every year, to varying degrees with varying species. 

This year’s Winter Finch Forecast predicted that Purple Finches would irrupt southward, following the large spruce budworm outbreak (producing short-term population increases) and poor mast crop in much of the eastern boreal forest.  The past few days have proven the forecast right and signaled the start to a large-scale irruption event. Once Black Bears have gone into hibernation and your feeders are up, keep an eye out for ever-increasing numbers of Purple Finches (as well as irrupting Evening Grosbeaks).

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Great Blue Heron “Powder Down”

Hidden beneath the outer breast feathers of Great Blue Herons are patches of special down feathers. These feathers grow continuously and are never molted.  When combed with the fringed, or pectinated, claw on a Great Blue Heron’s middle toe, the tips of these feathers break down into a dust the consistency of talcum powder.  The heron collects some of this “powder down” and applies it to its feathers which protects them against fish slime and other oils. (BirdNote)

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Caspian Terns Feeding

Watching a Caspian Tern (our largest tern) feeding in deep water is a lesson in persistence and grace.  Flying back and forth it circles the water below, its bill pointed down as it searches for fish. A Caspian Tern’s dive is impressive. Once a tern sees a fish it hovers briefly, flexes its wings and then plunges straight down like a bullet.  When it hits the water, it typically completely submerges itself.

Most fish captured are consumed on the wing, unless they are delivered to offspring. Fish bones and scales are difficult for terns to digest; they solve this situation by casting one or two pellets a day that consist of these indigestible parts.

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Eastern Kingbirds Rule The Sky

The Eastern Kingbird’s scientific name, Tyrannus tyrannus, reflects its aggressive nature (“tyrannus” meaning tyrant, despot or king).  This feisty insectivore can be found perched on a tree or shrub often near wetlands where it periodically darts into the sky to retrieve its unsuspecting meal. When not securing food for itself or its young, it demonstrates its fierceness by defending its nest, mate and territory with vigor.  Whether vocalizing, displaying, chasing, or actually fighting with an interloper, Eastern Kingbirds are quick to establish dominance.

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American Redstarts Co-Parenting

American Redstarts, lively and colorful little warblers, share much of the parental care of their young.  He selects and presents her with a choice of nest locations.  She chooses the site and builds the nest.  He feeds her while she incubates the eggs. Both parents collect insects and feed their nestlings as well as remove fecal sacs (small packets of waste produced by nestlings). She does much of the brooding of the young. When their young fledge, the mother and father divide responsibility for the fledglings, with each parent separately caring for a portion of the young.

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Juvenile Great Horned Owls Fledged & Flying

At about six weeks of age, young Great Horned Owls fledge, moving from their nest into nearby trees where they spend their time hiding among the branches while waiting for their parents to deliver food. (If discovered by crows, they are easy to find — just follow the cacophony created by the mobbing crows.) At seven weeks they are taking short flights, but remain close to their nest. At this point they are about 3/4’s grown and resemble the adults except for lacking the prominent feather tufts or “horns.” Even at nine or ten weeks, when capable of extended flight, juveniles tend to stay close to their parents. The adults bring their young occasional food items as late as September, when dispersal begins. (Photo: fledged juvenile Great Horned Owl after a downpour; thanks to Sharon Glezen and Cara Calvelli for photo opportunity)

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Killdeer Parents Provide Protection For Newborn Chicks

Killdeer are ground nesters and their young are precocial – born with a layer of down and able to walk, run and find their own food a few hours after hatching.  Even so, the parents brood (cover them with their body, providing heat) their young if it’s cool and provide shade for them if it’s hot the first few days after they hatch. 

Killdeer parents are very protective of their young.  Their distraction display — leading predators away from their chicks by feigning injury — is familiar to anyone who has closely approached them. They also provide shelter for their chicks if they perceive a threat. If you look closely at the main photograph, you will see four tiny legs extending to the ground from the adult Killdeer’s breast.  These legs, and the black tail feathers poking out of the adult’s white feathers, belong to two chicks who felt the need for protection.

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Black-crowned Night Herons Feeding

Black-crowned Night Herons employ a number of techniques for capturing a wide variety of food, from standing stock still for a considerable amount of time waiting for prey to swim by to securing prey while swimming.  They feed mainly from evening until early morning. Because they are crepuscular (feeding at dawn and dusk) as well as nocturnal (as their name implies), feeding competition from other (diurnal) herons is minimized.

The diet of opportunistic Black-crowned Night Herons includes earthworms, insects, crayfish, mussels, fish, amphibians, snakes, turtles, birds, small mammals and plant material. They have been observed actively manipulating bait (bread in one case, dragonflies in another) to attract and catch fish. As can be seen in the inset photograph, they grasp, rather than stab, their prey.

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Double-crested Cormorants In Their Prime

In New England, if you don’t live on the coast or in a couple of inland locations, you will probably only see Double-crested Cormorants as they pass through during migration.  At first sight, these birds aren’t especially eye-catching – blackish-brown, somewhat prehistoric-looking, often seen perched with wings stretched out to dry. Hardly worth a second look, some might say, but in the spring they would be mistaken.

During their breeding season Double-crested Cormorants’ eyes are a brilliant turquoise color, and they develop the tufts of feathers, or crests, on their head for which they are named. Should you see one in the spring, watch for it to open its beak – the inside of their mouth is also bright turquoise at this time of year!

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White-breasted Nuthatches Nesting

White-breasted Nuthatches are one of the 85 species of North American birds that are classified as cavity nesters.  Although the young of birds nesting in cavities are protected from the elements, they are still vulnerable to predators.

White-breasted Nuthatches have an unusual strategy for discouraging uninvited guests.  They “bill-sweep” with an object, usually a crushed insect, in their bill, sweeping back and forth on the tree both outside and inside the nest, often for many minutes at a time.  It’s thought that chemical defense secretions from the crushed insect may discourage squirrels from entering the cavity.  (Red-breasted Nuthatches apply sticky conifer resin to both the inside and outside of their nesting cavity, which presumedly serves the same purpose.)

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American Bitterns Mating

Trying to look like a reed so as not to attract human attention, but all fluffed out to impress a potential mate, this male American Bittern strikes a formidable pose.  While its impressive call earned it several descriptive common names such as “stake-driver,” and “thunder-pumper,” (to hear this call, go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Bittern/sounds) the sudden appearance of white feathers that are usually concealed beneath its wings signals copulation is imminent.

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Male Red-bellied Woodpeckers Calling & Tapping To Attract Mate

One of the best ways to determine if Red-bellied Woodpeckers have chosen to nest nearby is the presence of their persistent and distinctive “kwirr” call.  It is given most often now, during the breeding season, when males try to attract a mate to their roost cavity or a partially completed excavation by calling to them.  Drumming and soft taps are also performed by males as part of the courtship ritual. 

When attracted, the female flies to the male and indicates her acceptance of his cavity by perching beside him while they both engage in tapping behavior. If the cavity is partially completed, the mutual tapping behavior also appears to stimulate the female to help the male finish excavating the cavity. (Photo: male Red-bellied Woodpecker at nest hole; inset: male (left) and female (right) tapping at nest hole.)

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Horned Larks Aplenty In Vermont’s Champlain Valley

Along the sides of plowed roads flocks of brown birds called Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) may rise up as you drive by, fly in undulating fashion for a while and then settle back down on the roadside where they resume foraging for the seeds of ragweed, foxtail, crab grass and other weedy plants. 

With its tiny feather tufts looking like miniature devil horns, this winter visitor from the north and the only native lark of North America will rarely if ever be seen perched in a tree or even a low shrub, for it is a creature of the ground where it both feeds and nests.

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Blue Feathers

The colors in the feathers of a bird are formed in two different ways, from either pigments or from light refraction caused by the structure of the feather. Red and yellow feathers get their color from actual pigments (carotenoids) that come from the bird’s diet. Blue, however, is a structural color, created by the way light waves interact with the feathers and their arrangement of protein molecules, called keratin.

Thus, no birds have blue feathers made from pigments – they are blue strictly from the structure of the feathers.  Different keratin structures reflect light in subtly different ways to produce different shades of what our eyes perceive as the color blue.

If you observe the blue feather of an Eastern Bluebird, Blue Jay or Indigo Bunting in normal lighting conditions you will see the expected blue color. However, if the feather is back-lit, and the light is transmitted through the feather, it will look brown. The blues are lost because the light is no longer being reflected back and the brown shows up because of the melanin in the feathers.

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Black-crowned Night Herons: Not Your Typical Heron

When you think of a heron, you usually think of a diurnal wading bird that has long legs, a long neck and a long bill.  Black-crowned Night Herons don’t possess any of these familial characteristics.  Stocky and relatively short-legged and short-billed, these herons typically rest during the day and start actively hunting at dusk, continuing through the night.

Prey includes fish (half their diet) plus a wide range of other creatures including leeches, earthworms, insects, crayfish, snakes, turtles, small mammals, birds and frogs. The manner in which a Black-crowned Night Heron lures and captures its prey varies.  Two of its most intriguing fishing techniques include bill vibrating (opening and closing its bill rapidly in the water to attract prey) and bait fishing – using bait to attract fish.

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Northern Mockingbirds Wing-flashing

Occasionally one comes across animal behavior that has yet to be understood by humans.  If you watch Northern Mockingbirds for any length of time, especially females, you are likely to see them stop and raise their wings half to fully open, in several progressively higher jerky movements.  When they do this, their white wing patches are fully exposed. 

Ornithologists are not of one mind as to what this behavior achieves. Perhaps it is anti-predator behavior – an attempt to scare would-be nest raiders away.  It could be a way of startling insects enough to make them move and thus easier to see and catch.  It also could be a form of territorial display/defense. Interestingly, mockingbird species that lack the white wing patches also engage in this behavior.

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Turkey Vultures Staying Cool

On hot, humid summer days, consider the ingenuity of the Turkey Vulture.  When overly hot, this bird will often defecate on its own legs.  The water in its waste (feces and urine are eliminated simultaneously through a bird’s cloaca) evaporates and cools the blood vessels in the Turkey Vulture’s unfeathered legs and feet, which results in cooling the entire bird.

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Parental Feeding Techniques of the Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Herons are colonial nesters – a rookery can have hundreds (up to 500) of nests, usually in dead snags, with one, two or three nests in a single snag.  Because the chicks are in the nest for roughly two months before fledging, their interactions with both parents, especially when food is delivered to the nest, has been observed and well documented.

Newly hatched chicks peck at the adult’s bill, the nest and each other. Initially the adult returns to the nest  where it stands on the rim and regurgitates food into the open bills of the chicks.  The chicks get quite proficient at grabbing the adult’s bill and pulling it into the nest as soon as the parent returns.  As the chicks age, the adult often regurgitates onto the floor of the nest and the chicks eat it.  When the nestlings are about a month old, they take food directly from their parents.

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Common Grackles Raising Young

Although female Common Grackles do all the incubating, both males and females provide food for their nestlings.  Males average almost two feedings an hour, females almost four. Judging from the size of the larvae the pictured Grackle has in its beak, its nestlings are midway to fledging, perhaps a week old. The older/larger the nestlings, the greater the size of the food they receive.  Male and female nestlings received items of equal quality and quantity.

During the breeding season, both nestlings and adults feed primarily on insects in addition to a small amount of grain (and an occasional fish, small rodent or leech).  During the winter, their diet consists mostly of agricultural grains and tree seeds such as acorns.

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Brown-headed Cowbird: Brood Parasite

One has to admire a creature who has managed to eliminate the laboriousness of raising its offspring.  Brown-headed Cowbirds, renowned brood parasites, have done just that.  These birds do not build nests; females lay up to 40 eggs a summer in the nests of more than 220 species of birds which raise their young for them.  Cowbird eggs are generally larger than the host bird’s and hatch in fewer days, thereby putting Cowbird chicks at a distinct advantage over the host’s chicks when it comes to parental attention.

In this photo a Brown-headed Cowbird has deposited three eggs in the nest of an Eastern Phoebe (which has constructed its nest inside an abandoned American Robin nest). Unlike some songbirds, Phoebes do not recognize and remove the Cowbird’s eggs. Neither do they build a new nest on top of the old one, as some smaller songbirds (i.e. Yellow Warblers) are known to do.

Cowbird chicks develop faster than the chicks of the host bird, thereby often getting the first crack at the food parents bring to the nestlings.  Not only are the host species’ chicks often at a disadvantage when it comes to parental care, but they are at the mercy of the Cowbird chicks which often remove both the eggs and chicks of the host. (Thanks to friends in Thetford, VT for the use of their photograph of this parasitized Eastern Phoebe nest. The three larger, speckled eggs are Brown-headed Cowbird eggs; the four smaller white eggs are Eastern Phoebe eggs.)

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Purple Martins Face Challenges Upon Returning To Breeding Grounds

Many of the Purple Martins that return from South America to the Northeast to breed have flown across the Gulf of Mexico to get here.  Once they’ve made this impressive trip, their challenges are far from over.  The reproductive success of Purple Martins depends not only on their arriving on their breeding grounds, but on surviving once they have arrived. One of the largest challenges that faces them upon their return is related to their diet, which consists exclusively of flying insects.  Purple Martins are particularly susceptible to spells of cold and rainy weather during the spring and early summer which can drastically reduce their supply of food.

Even when the weather doesn’t present them with nutritional challenges, Purple Martins have to contend with European Starlings and House Sparrows, both of which aggressively compete with them for artificial/human-made nest sites. Human intervention and management is often needed in order to protect the martin population. (Photo: male Purple Martin)

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Mourning Dove Nesting Idiosyncracies

Nest-building and chick-feeding are a bit unusual for Mourning Doves.  As to nest construction, the female remains at the nest site while the male dove collects the nesting material (twigs, grasses, pine needles, etc.). He returns to the nest and proceeds to stand on his mate’s back while presenting the material to her and she weaves it into the nest.  

The hatchlings, or squabs, are fed by regurgitation.  For the first four or five days, the squabs insert their bills in each side of either parent’s mouth and drink what is referred to as crop milk, a secretion from the lining of the crops of the parents.  All pigeons and doves produce crop milk for their young.  Seeds are regurgitated in increasing amounts and by the time the squabs fledge, they are essentially seed eaters like their parents. (Note: With a little effort, scruffy feathers of squabs can be seen beneath the breast of this nesting Mourning Dove.)

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Wild Turkeys Feeding and Making Burdock Balls

Almost every response to this Mystery Photo was spot-on, but “myip2014” was the first NC reader to recognize the signs left by a Wild Turkey feeding on Common Burdock (Arctium minus) seeds. A variety of plant material is eaten by Wild Turkeys in the winter: white pine and hemlock needles and buds, evergreen ferns, lichens, moss, and buds and stems of Sugar Maple, American Beech and American Hophornbeam trees. Especially when there is deep snow, Common Burdock is a favorite due to having seeds that are within reach and usually above the snow.

Turkeys consume these seeds in such a distinctive manner that one can recognize what animal has been feeding on burdock, even if tracks and scat are not present. The burdock burrs, or fruits, are plucked off the plant by the turkey, opened and the seeds are eaten. The burrs end up nearly inside out as a result of the turkey prying them open to get the seeds, and often are stuck together and form “burdock balls.“  The presence of these balls is a sure sign that turkeys have dined on the seeds they once contained.

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