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Birds

Lingering Great Blue Herons

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Most fish-eating birds that breed where most bodies of water freeze over in the winter migrate further south in the fall, including Great Blue Herons.  Movement of this large wading bird takes place largely from September to mid-October. According to Christmas Bird Count data, the Great Blue Heron has the widest wintering distribution of any heron species in North America.

While the number of Great Blue Herons in the Northeast is greatly diminished in November and December, it’s not uncommon to spot lingering birds at this time of year.  Come January, when most bodies of fresh water are inaccessible to herons, sightings become rare until they begin returning in March.

Where open water remains in the Northeast, those Great Blue Herons braving the cold continue to consume fish, insects, amphibians and crustaceans.  Small mammals, especially voles, and birds remain a warm-month delicacy, when mammal hair is cast in pellets and bones are digested.

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Ospreys Migrating

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Banding birds, and the retrieval of these bands, has provided valuable information on the movement of birds. Today we also have the benefit of satellite telemetry, in which a bird carries a tracking device and its location is calculated via satellites that orbit the Earth.  The following is just a sample of what this tracking technology has revealed about the migration of Ospreys.

There are significant differences in male and female timing of migration (females leave up to a month before males), distance traveled and overwintering locations.  There is strong fidelity to overwintering sites as well as to migration flyways.  Breeding pairs of Osprey do not migrate or overwinter together, and adults do not migrate with their offspring.  Ospreys rarely migrate at night over land but inevitably migrate at night when undertaking longer (more than 12 hours) water crossings.

Subtle insights into migratory behavior can be gained by the findings of satellite telemetry, as well.  Their first flight south by juvenile Ospreys is often largely over water. A majority of juveniles migrating over the Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts to the Bahama Islands flew as many as 1,500 miles over a period of up to 58 hours. The fact that no adults or 2nd year birds took this route over water suggests that juvenile Ospreys learn the coastal migration route during their first trip north.

Overwintering habitat preferences have also been assessed.  Of 79 Ospreys tracked by satellite, 30.4% overwintered on coasts, 50.6% overwintered on rivers, and 19% overwintered on lakes or reservoirs, with differences based on both sex and region of origin.

These few facts don’t begin to exhaust the information gathered from banding and satellite telemetry on Ospreys, much less many other species. They just serve to illustrate how modern tracking technology compliments and increases the information formerly gathered by firsthand observation and banding.

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American Goldfinches Dining On Thistle Seeds

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American Goldfinches are almost exclusively granivorous (consumers of seeds/grains).  Very few insects are consumed by these birds, even when feeding nestlings.  This is highly unusual in that spiders and insects are an essential part of 96% of N.A. terrestrial bird species. At the very least, most seed-eating birds feed their nestlings insects. (Brown-headed Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, leaving the raising of their young up to the host bird. It is rare that a cowbird chick will survive to leave an American Goldfinch nest, probably because it cannot thrive on a diet of virtually all seeds.)

The seeds of plants in the Composite family (sunflowers, thistles, dandelions, etc.) are the preferred food of goldfinches. Thistle seeds, being high in fat and protein, are high on the list. There appears to be a correlation between the late nesting period of goldfinches (late June or early July) and the flowering of thistles.  By the time American Goldfinch eggs have hatched, there is an ample supply of thistle seed for the nestlings.

Now is the time to keep an eye on the seedheads of thistles, dandelions and other composites for the acrobatic seed-plucking antics of American Goldfinches.

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Barred Owls Fledging (But Not Flying Yet)

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If you heard Barred Owls calling this winter, and have occasionally spotted one in the same vicinity this spring, now is the time to start looking up at the canopy to see if they produced any young owls. Having spent four or five weeks in a tree cavity being fed and cared for by their parents, Barred Owl nestlings get the urge to spread their talons (and eventually their wings) and leave their nest about this time of year. It will be roughly another month before they begin short flights; until then the fledglings are referred to as “branchers,” as that is where you will find them, perched and begging for food from their parents, who will continue to feed them until late summer or fall. (If you know a youngster who is captivated by owls, they might enjoy reading Otis the Owl by yours truly!)

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Common Ravens Fledging

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Amazingly, there are birds that are fledging from their nests this early in the spring, among them Common Ravens. The intelligence of this species is well known, but perhaps less familiar are their antics, especially those of young birds.

Common Ravens have been observed “sliding down inclines on their belly, lying on their side grappling sticks, dropping and catching objects while in flight, hanging upside down by one or two feet, snow “bathing,” giving vocal monologues, caching inedible items, playing “tug-of-war” or “king-of-the-hill” with other ravens, and pecking predators on the tail.” (Birds of North America Online) If you hear their guttural call from above, be sure to look up and enjoy the show. (Photo: Common Raven fledgling. Thanks to Erin Donahue and Charlie Berger for photo op.)

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Changing of the Guard

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In approximately 85% of bird species, both the male and female of a mating pair contribute to the feeding and guarding of their offspring. Red-bellied Woodpeckers are of this ilk. Both members of a pair help excavate a nest cavity, incubate the eggs, brood the young and feed the nestlings for up to 10 weeks after they fledge. As seen in this photograph, when tending to their nestlings, one member of a pair wastes no time in departing as soon as its mate appears.

Thanks to the extension of the Red-bellied Woodpecker’s range northward, even northern New Englanders now have the opportunity to observe the nesting behavior of these medium-sized woodpeckers. (Photo: female Red-bellied Woodpecker leaves nest as food-bearing male arrives. Note continuous red crown on male, which is broken in female.) (Thanks to Sadie Brown for photo op.)

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Common Grackles Nest-building

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Common Grackles are hard to miss and hard to mistake for any other bird, with their yellow eyes, iridescent bronze or purple plumage and long, keel-shaped tails. Most of the spring migrants have reached their breeding grounds, and courtship, mating and nest-building are underway.

Because grackles begin reproduction so early in the season, conifers are the nesting site of choice due to the cover they provide. Females tend to choose the actual site for a nest, and in so doing can be quite fickle, often abandoning partially constructed nests and selecting alternative sites. They earn this right, as they’re usually doing all the construction work, although males have been observed with nesting materials, helping to build and repair nests.

Look for their 6-8”-diameter, large bulky nests near water, agricultural fields or near human habitation. They are usually built four to twenty feet above the ground. If you find a bird on the nest, it will most likely be an incubating female (slightly less glossy than male) – males not only do not have a brood patch and do not participate in incubating the eggs or brooding the young, but roughly half of the males desert their mates during this time. Those that do remain participate in the feeding of their young nestlings.

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Tom Turkeys Strutting Their Stuff

3-19-18 wild turkey IMG_7081Congratulations to Penny Jessop, who submitted the first correct Mystery Photo answer!

In the Northeast, male Wild Turkeys begin gobbling and strutting in late February. Their courtship ritual usually starts before females are receptive, and continues into late March and early April, when mating typically takes place.

At this time of year males are bedecked with blue wattles (flap of skin on throat) and snoods (fleshy piece of skin that hangs over beak), and bright red major caruncles (bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat). Displaying these adornments while slowly gliding around a female, the male fans his tail, lowers his wings with the primaries dragging on the ground/snow (these primary wing feathers are responsible for the parallel lines either side of the trail of tracks), elevates the feathers on his back and throws his head backward the female. If she is receptive, she lowers herself and crouches on the ground, signaling to the male that he may mount her.

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Birds Keeping Warm

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Birds utilize a number of behavioral adaptations that afford them some protection from frigid air such as we have been experiencing lately. They include sunning (turning their backs to the sun, exposing the largest surface of their bodies to the heat), shivering, tucking (placing one foot up inside feathers while standing on other leg, or squatting to cover both legs and feet with feathers; tucking their bill into their shoulder feathers and breathing air warmed by their body), roosting together in small groups (often in a small cavity, so as to conserve heat) and, most obvious of all, fluffing themselves up (creating air pockets that are warmed by body heat).

While feathers serve many purposes, from helping to attract a mate to providing camouflage, one of the most important jobs they have in winter is to keep a bird warm and dry. A bird’s body heat (the average bird’s body temperature is 105 degrees Fahrenheit), warms the air between its feathers. Birds fluff up in the cold to trap as much air in their feathers as possible, as the more trapped air, the warmer the bird. They can appear two or three times larger than they appear on a 32 degree day. This insulation is effective because it also is a barrier to water. The oil that birds apply to their feathers when they preen serves to waterproof the feathers. (Photo: Dark-eyed Junco)


Avian Evacuation

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To start with the basics, both the excretory anatomy and the consistency of bird droppings are different from those of most mammals. Birds have one opening, a cloaca, which serves as their intestinal, reproductive and urinary tract. Everything from mating and laying eggs to voiding waste takes place via the cloaca.

Instead of releasing waste as urea dissolved in urine, as we do, birds excrete it in the form of uric acid, which is the white liquid we associate with bird droppings. Why is it white instead of brown? This is due to the biochemical reactions that take place in processing the waste so it can be safely excreted with minimal water loss.

If you look carefully at a bird’s droppings, you’ll usually find a small dark solid blob amongst all the white uric acid. Both acid and solid waste are evacuated from the same opening at the same time. Because they come from two different bodily systems, they don’t have much time to blend.

Most people are not great fans of bird droppings due to the damage (and mess) they can cause. However, some ingenious soul took advantage of this property and concocted a skin exfoliator for sale that consists of nightingale droppings, water and rice bran.

(This post is dedicated to my sister who didn’t quite believe I would actually write a post about this subject much less use this Snowy Owl photograph.)


Where Are All The Birds?

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Even though signs as well as sightings of active bears are plentiful, and black-oiled sunflower seeds are an open invitation for them to visit and potentially become “nuisance” bears, many devoted bird-lovers have already hung out feeders in hopes of luring feathered friends closer to their home. Throughout northern New England so few birds have been attracted to these feeders that they have remained full, some not having been refilled since September. Our usual fall and winter visitors appear to have all but vanished, and concern has been growing amongst those who feed birds.

Those familiar with bird feeding habits know that in the fall, when seeds are abundant, feeder visits by resident birds typically slow down. However, this year, at least anecdotally, appears to be extreme in this regard. Warm weather extending into November certainly has lessened birds’ food requirements. But having sunflower seeds sprout in your feeder before the need to replenish them arrives is unusual, if not alarming.

Dr. Pam Hunt, Senior Biologist in Avian Conservation at New Hampshire Audubon, recently shared some of her personal research with the birding world (UV- Birders). Hunt has conducted a weekly, 10 km-long, bird survey near Concord, NH for the past 13 years. In addressing the current concern over a lack of feeder birds, she extracted the data she had accumulated on 12 common birds (Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, American Goldfinch) over the last 13 falls, focusing on the period between Oct 1 and Nov 15. After extensive analysis, Hunt concluded that there has not been a dramatic decline in the number of birds this year, relative to the averages of the past 13 years. One cannot argue with scientific evidence (except for, perhaps, #45), but it does seem mighty quiet on the western (northeastern?) front this year.

 

 


Ospreys Migrating

email-osprey 014Adult female Ospreys begin their fall migration in August, before their young are completely independent. After females leave, males continue to feed this year’s young and don’t reach the peak of their migration until the middle of September. Ospreys tend to migrate during the day, except when crossing over large bodies of water, which they do at night. Unfortunately, the nocturnal flights of northeastern Ospreys over the Caribbean (a 25-hour nonstop flight) on their way to their wintering grounds in South America often coincides with the hurricane season. As treacherous as this is, 80 percent of adult Ospreys survive migration, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

 


Turkey Vultures Preening

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Turkey Vultures spend much of their day gliding and soaring with their wings out in a dihedral position, scavenging for carrion. This requires each of their wing feathers to be aligned in the most optimum position relative to its adjacent feathers and the bird’s body shape. In order to achieve this alignment (as well as dust, dirt and parasite removal and feather-oiling) Turkey Vultures typically spend two to three hours a day preening, mostly nibbling at the base of feathers, but also running their bill along the shaft of individual feathers from the base to the tip.

Typically in the morning they preen at their roost or in a communal post-roosting area on perches exposed to the sun before heading out to forage. Shortly before sunset they do the same in reverse, landing in an exposed pre-roosting perch site within half a mile of their roost site and engage in maintenance activities before bedding down at their roost site for the night.

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Baltimore Orioles Building Nests

5-26-17 b oriole building nest2 243Although male Baltimore Orioles have been known to partake in nest building, usually it’s the female who selects the specific site within the male’s territory and builds the nest. Located at the tip of a slender branch, this pendulous nest provides its occupants with as much protection from predators as is possible.

The material with which the nest is started usually consists of flexible plant, animal or human-made fibers, and provides support. “Springy” fibers are then woven into the inner bowl and downy fibers are used to line the nest.  The oriole usually brings only a single fiber at each visit, and works it into the nest with a complex series of bill-weaving techniques. The nest is completed in roughly one week.

Construction material includes hair (especially horsehair), twine or string, wool, synthetic fibers (one oriole nest was made entirely of cellophane), various types of plant fibers including grasses, milkweed stems and grapevine bark, cottonwood or willow seed “cotton,” milkweed seed plumes and feathers. Females have been observed flying more than a quarter of a mile in search of construction material. (Photo:  Female Baltimore Oriole on her first day of nest-building)

YESTERDAY’S MYSTERY PHOTO: Once again, Naturally Curious readers outdid themselves with creative solutions to a Mystery Photo. If you want a thoroughly enjoyable 5 minutes of entertainment, read yesterday’s comments! I will let you know if this mystery is ever solved.

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Tom Turkeys Gobbling & Strutting

3-30-17 tom turkey IMG_7637In the Northeast, male Wild Turkeys began gobbling and strutting in late February. Their courtship ritual usually starts before females are receptive, and continues into late March and early April, when mating typically takes place. Hearing a tom turkey gobble is as sure a sign of spring as the sight of one strutting.

At this time of year males are bedecked with blue wattles (flap of skin on throat) and snoods (fleshy piece of skin that hangs over beak), and bright red major carbunkles (bulbous, fleshy growths at the bottom of the turkey’s throat). Displaying these adornments while slowly gliding around a female, the male fans his tail, lowers his wings with the primaries dragging on the ground/snow, elevates the feathers on his back and throws his head backward the female. If she is receptive, she lowers herself and crouches on the ground, signaling to the male that he may mount her. (Thanks to Chiho Kaneko for photo op.)

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Tufted Titmice Singing & Calling

3-24-17 tufted titmouse 085The two-note “Peter-Peter” song of the Tufted Titmouse has just started to ring out through northern New England woods. Although titmice may pair up any time of year, the singing of the males is still a vital part of establishing territory and courtship. The rate and the volume at which these songs are sung is highest during pre-nesting, nest-building, egg-laying and incubation.

While the Tufted Titmouse’s song is familiar, its calls are more numerous and varied. Twelve different Tufted Titmouse calls have been identified. They range from the ‘chick-a-dee’ and ‘seet’ calls made in reponse to predators, to the hissing done by a female titmouse in a cavity, defending her nest.

To hear both songs and calls of the Tufted Titmouse, go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Tufted_Titmouse/sounds.

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American Woodcocks’ Wintry Arrival

3-20-17 A. Woodcock 014Over the past decade or so, there appears to be a trend of increasingly early American Woodcock arrivals on breeding grounds in Vermont. It used to be that when March arrived, you started looking for the very first returning migrants. Now you need to keep your eyes open for this forest-dwelling shorebird in February.

The start of the Woodcock migration northward and the rate of their progress is said to be greatly influenced by photoperiod and weather. With the unusually warm weather we had in February and early March this year, American Woodcocks, as well as several other migratory species, have been returning earlier than normal. Since their return, we have had early thaws interspersed with hard frosts and several days in a row staying below freezing which created a hard crust on what snow remained. This was followed by a storm that dumped one to two feet of snow on the ground and colder than usual temperatures.

Migration is demanding enough on birds, but those fortunate enough to reach their destination then have to find food and stay warm.  It is most challenging for those species with a fairly limited diet, such as Woodcocks, whose diet consists primarily of earthworms. In a typical year there are frequently brief freezes after Woodcocks return, and even storms that leave several inches of snow. But it warms up relatively quickly and there are usually ditches and wet, thawed areas where long bills can probe the soil for life-sustaining food. Not so this year – a deadly combination of early arrivals and late frigid weather spells disaster for American Woodcocks.

The Raptor Center, a wild bird rehabilitation center in New Jersey, reports that during a recent 24-hour period, they admitted more Woodcocks than in all of 2016. After flying hundreds of miles, these birds are exhausted and very hungry when they arrive on their breeding grounds. Should you find one in distress, you can locate a wildlife rehabilitator that accepts birds (in all states) by going to www.owra.org/find-a-wildlife-rehabilitator .

Special thanks to Maeve Kim and Ian Worley for the data and information in this post.

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Rare Winter Visitors – Great Gray Owls

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Great Gray Owls are impressive birds – at 27” in length, they are our largest owl (Great Horned Owl – 22”, Snowy – 23”) but at 2.4 pounds, not our heaviest (Great Horned Owl – 3.1 pounds, Snowy – 4 pounds). The feathers that make a Great Gray Owl look so massive are what keep it warm during winters in the northern boreal forests where it resides.

Most of a Great Gray Owl’s diet consists of rodents, and some winters, when prey is scarce, individuals wander south to southern Canada and northern U.S. to sustain themselves. Sometimes Great Gray Owls are highly irruptive, and the number of sightings in the Northeast is high. In the winter of 1978-79 there were over 150 sightings in New England and Quebec. While there were numerous sightings in southern Canada this winter, northern New England was visited by only a few individuals, including the one pictured (in central New Hampshire).

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Cedar Waxwings Feasting on Fruit

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Cedar Waxwings are strictly fruit eaters in the winter, expanding their diet to include insects during the warmer parts of the year. As their name implies, one often finds these birds in areas where there are a lot of cedars, as they’ve historically fed on cedar berries in winter. However, they increasingly rely on the fruit of mountain ash as well as apple, crabapple and hawthorn in the Northeast. Waxwings run the risk of intoxication and even death after eating fermented fruit such as the apples pictured. In recent years Cedar Waxwings have started feeding on the fruits of invasive honeysuckles, a habit which ornithologists feel might be responsible for a shift in waxwing distribution as well as regional population increases.

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The Relationship Between Ruffed Grouse & Poplars In Winter

1-12-17-ruffed-grouse-aspens-049a2566Poplar (also called Aspen) buds are an important winter food source for wildlife, but for none as much as the Ruffed Grouse. During the course of a year, a Ruffed Grouse may feed from as many as 100 species of plants, but in the winter, species of poplar are by far its most important food source. In fact, the relationship between grouse and poplars is such that the range of the Ruffed Grouse is practically identical to the range of Trembling (also known as Quaking) Aspen (Populus tremuloides) and Big-tooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata).

Poplars are dioecious – the male and female flowers grow on separate trees. Although grouse will settle for any poplar bud, it is the male flower buds of Trembling Aspen trees which they prefer, due to the buds’ high amounts of proteins, fats and minerals. (Female buds are smaller and have less nutrients, oddly enough.)  Ruffed Grouse seldom feed on a poplar tree that is less than 30 years old. Perhaps these older trees have more vigorous buds, or perhaps their branches are easier to perch on because they are larger. (Information source:  Ruffed Grouse: Woodland Drummer by Michael Furtman)

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Pine Grosbeaks May Be A Rare Treat This Winter

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Several members of the Finch family of birds periodically fly south of their range into southern Canada and the northern U.S. during the winter in search of food. Pine Siskins, Common and Hoary Redpolls, American Goldfinches, Red and White-winged Crossbills, Purple Finches and both Evening and Pine Grosbeaks participate in these irruptions. Whether or not these species extend their range further south in any given year has much to do with their diet and its abundance or lack thereof on their wintering grounds . According to Ron Pittaway’s 2016-2017Finch Forecast (http://ebird.org/content/canada/news/ron-pittaways-winter-finch-forecast-2016-2017/ ), many of these birds will have a difficult time finding natural food sources this winter in Southern Ontario and the Northeast due to poor cone crops. Some may head north or west, where crops are much better.

Even if there were plenty of cones in the Northeast this year and many Canadian seed-eating finches were headed south of their normal range, we might not see large numbers of Pine Grosbeaks. This is due to the fact that the Pine Grosbeak’s diet is not limited to seeds, but includes buds, insects and fruit. Most of these birds are staying north this winter because of an excellent crop of Mountain-ash berries across the boreal forest. They eat these and other fruits by biting through and discarding the pulp and crushing the seed (which gives them a slightly unkempt look). We will see some — there have been several sightings of mostly small flocks of Pine Grosbeaks in New England in the past few weeks, lingering just long enough to consume what European Mountain-ash berries and crabapples they can find. But those of us who see them are very fortunate this year. (Photo: female Pine Grosbeak eating crabapples.)

Thank you to all of you who so kindly wished me well. I’m sure those wishes are what hav me bright-eyed and bushy-tailed once again!

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Woodpeckers Drumming

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Non-vocal communication between woodpeckers has become apparent in the last week or so — hairy woodpeckers have started to hammer out bursts of steady staccato drum beats on nearby trees. Both male and female woodpeckers drum year round, but they do so most intensively from January to May, especially during the courtship and early nesting seasons which begin in March. Woodpeckers drum for a variety of reasons: defending territory, attracting a mate, maintaining contact with a mate, signaling readiness for copulation and summoning a mate from a distance. Woodpecker pairs also engage in duet drumming, which is thought to play a role in nest site selection and in promoting and maintaining the bond between mates.

If you are hearing but not seeing a woodpecker drumming, it is possible to identify the species by the pattern and pace of its drumming. According to ornithologist David Sibley, the drum of the Hairy Woodpecker is extremely fast and buzzing, with at least 25 taps per second, but has long pauses of 20 seconds or more between drums. The Downy Woodpecker drums at a slower rate, only about 15 taps per second, and drums frequently, often with pauses of only a few seconds between each drum. (Photo is of a female Hairy Woodpecker.)

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The Nuthatch Name

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Have you ever thought about the derivation of the Red- and White-breasted Nuthatch’s common name? It comes from their habit of wedging a nut, acorn, etc. into a tree’s bark, and by repeatedly striking the nut, “hatching” or exposing the seed within it.

Many of these seeds are then stored in bark furrows for later consumption. In one study it was found that nuthatches spend more time caching husked than unhusked seeds (71% of sunflower seeds cached were husked). This inevitably would lower the expenditure of energy and time spent when consuming the cache later in the season. Hiding time, and time and distance flying from feeders to cache sites were longer when nuthatches hoarded husked than unhusked seeds, perhaps indicating their increased value to the birds. (photo:  White-breasted Nuthatch with husked sunflower seed)

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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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