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Migration

Common Loons Returning

common loons back IMG_7494

After spending the winter along the Northeast coast, adult Common Loons are returning to their New England breeding ponds and lakes.  Evidence indicates that photoperiod determines the general timing of their northern migration.  Loons are well known for arriving at their breeding lakes soon after ice out (often returning when lakes are only partly open). How do they time their return so precisely?  Loons often congregate in open bodies of water, including rivers, as they proceed northward. Once they approach their breeding grounds, reconnaissance flights are made from open water to territorial waters to see if the ice is out. Once it is, their migration continues.

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Evening Grosbeaks Returning From Southern Wintering Grounds

evening grosbeak 022Until the mid-1800s evening grosbeaks were considered uncommon to rare east of the Mississippi River.  Today evening grosbeaks can be found year round in northern New England.

The eastern expansion of evening grosbeaks is mainly attributed to the accessibility of winter food in the form of box elder fruits.  These trees were planted as windbreaks on the prairies, and as ornamentals in northeastern cities.  Their seeds persist into the winter, allowing erratic winter flocks from the west to overwinter further east.  Some overwintering birds remained here to nest, and thus began the expansion of their breeding range.  Some ornithologists also believe that the recurring spruce budworm outbreaks in boreal forests facilitated eastward expansion by providing food in the summer months.  Feeding birds became popular in the 1930’s, and may also have contributed to this range extension.

In a typical year in the Northeast, many birds migrate south of their breeding grounds to spend the winter.  From March to early May, most of these individuals return to northern and western coniferous forests to breed and we have a greater chance of seeing them at feeders (along with hungry bears). (Photo: male evening grosbeak.  Note bill is beginning to show the green tint it has during the breeding season.)

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Hooded Mergansers Returning To Nest

3-25-16  hooded merganser flying 243

Hooded mergansers are present in most of the Northeast year round where there is open water, but many move south and southwest in winter.  Some actually migrate north to spend winters in the Great Lakes and southern Canada. Their numbers swell in March and April, when migrants are passing through as well as returning.  Often within days of when the ice goes out, this smallest (and arguably the most beautiful) of the three North American merganser species appears.

The courtship ritual of hooded mergansers takes place in groups of one or more females and several males.  The males raise their crests, expanding the white patch, and engage in behavior known as head-throwing.  They jerk their heads backwards until it touches their backs, while giving a frog-like croak. Females court by bobbing their heads and giving a hoarse quack.

Female breeding hooded mergansers select suitable cavities in both live and dead trees in which to nest. Stumps and snags near or in forested wetlands are their preferred nesting sites. Nest boxes are also used by this species, with those over or near water being the most sought after. After a month or a little more, the eggs hatch and downy, day-old chicks jump to the water (or ground) below, in response to their mother’s vocal urging.

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First Killdeer Returning to Northeastern Breeding Grounds

3-1-16 killdeer 062Killdeer that breed in the southern half of the U.S. are year round residents, and do not migrate, but in the northern half of the U.S. killdeer are migratory. Their wintering range extends across the southern tier of states, through Mexico and the Caribbean and along the coastal regions of western South America (Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru). Killdeer that breed in the Northeast overwinter in Gulf and southern states that border the Atlantic Ocean.

The first returning killdeer have been sighted in Vermont. While the spring migration of killdeer is early, it is also prolonged, peaking in late March or early April in New England. Killdeer migrate during the day as well as at night, in flocks of 6-30 birds. When they stop to rest and/or forage, the birds typically do not go within 13 to 20 feet of each other, and are met with aggression from other flock members if they do. Once on their breeding grounds, killdeer are even less tolerant of each other. The courtship behavior in one pair often elicits aggressive behavior from neighboring pairs.

Now is the time to keep ears and eyes open for this inland-nesting shorebird. Corn fields, lawns and parking lots are a good place to start. For a perfect example of onomatopoeia, listen to Lang Elliott’s killdeer recording: http://www.langelliott.com/mary-holland/killdeer/ (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com)

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Last of the Canada Warblers Heading South

9-23 Canada warbler IMG_7397The Canada Warbler (or “necklaced warbler” – the male’s “necklace” is very pronounced in spring plumage) is one of the last warblers to arrive on its breeding grounds in the spring, and one of the first to depart. The last of members of this species are now leaving the cool, moist forests of boreal Canada and the Northeast for northern South America – a particularly long migration for a New World, or wood-warbler. Canada Warblers pass through rapidly, over about a three-week period, which is soon coming to an end. During migration, these warblers are known to sing frequently, and often continue singing on their wintering grounds. Populations of Canada Warblers have declined steadily over the past 30 years, likely in response to forest succession and loss of forested wetlands on their breeding grounds. (photo: fall female or 1st year male Canada Warbler — plumage is indistinguishable. Thanks to George Clark for i.d. confirmation.)

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Ruby-throated Hummingbirds Migrating

9-7 female hummer IMG_1097Anyone with a hummingbird feeder knows that finally female and juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbirds can feed without fear of being driven off by male hummingbirds, due to the fact that the males have, for the most part, headed for warmer climes. All summer the males do their very best to have sole occupancy of feeders. When the time for hummingbirds to migrate south arrives in the Northeast, males leave first, then females, and lastly, juveniles. The fall migration of hummingbirds occurs just at the time of peak of Spotted Jewelweed (Touch-Me-Not) flowering, suggesting this flower is an important nectar source during this time and may influence the timing of migration. Many of the hummingbirds visiting feeders now are migrants.

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“Reflections” on Solitary Sandpipers Migrating

email-solitary sandpiper, shadow, reflection2 070Solitary Sandpipers (although not truly “solitary” birds, they do migrate in smaller flocks than most shorebirds, sometimes even alone) are passing through New England as they migrate to the boreal forests of far northern Canada and Alaska, just south of the tundra, to nest. One of the more fascinating oddities about this bird is that it is one of only two sandpipers (out of 85 species worldwide) that nests in trees in the abandoned nests of songbirds, and not on the ground.

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