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Migration

Waterfowl Returning To Northern New England

3-1-17-wood-ducks-084Northern New England birders starved for the sight of colorful waterfowl in their binoculars and scopes are celebrating the timely arrival of waterfowl in open bodies of water. Both ducks that will remain and breed here, such as Wood Ducks, as well as those that are just stopping to refuel on the way to their more northern breeding grounds, such as Green-winged Teal, have made their appearance in recent days, and many more will follow in the coming weeks.

Wood Ducks can be found year-round as far north as southern Vermont and New Hampshire, but further north we lose them to the south in the winter. Like most ducks, migrant Wood Ducks depart shortly around sunset or shortly thereafter, and are thought to fly most of the night at speeds of 37 miles per hour or more. As the sun rises, they descend to rest and refuel. Look for them in rivers, swamps, marshes and ponds, where they refuel during the day.

Green-winged Teal typically migrate in large bunched flocks of up to a few hundred individuals, mostly at night. They tend to spend days during their migration in shallow inland wetlands and coastal marshes, typically with heavy vegetation and muddy bottoms.  (Photo:  Wood Ducks)

(Please excuse absence of Naturally Curious posts this week due to illness and lack of internet access.)

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Snow Buntings Starting To Head North

2-24-17-snow-buntings-on-ground-img_6743Flocks of Snow Buntings have been observed more frequently lately, perhaps because male buntings have begun their migration back to their nesting grounds on the tundra.  They are the first migrants to arrive in the Arctic in the spring (in early April), when it can be -20°F. Females arrive four to six weeks later, when days are warming and snow is beginning to melt.

It is thought that the males’ early return is related to the fact that, unlike most Arctic songbirds, buntings nest in rock cavities, for which there is great competition. Deep inside narrow cracks, nesting buntings can largely avoid nest predation, but their eggs are susceptible to freezing and require longer incubation than eggs laid in the open. As a result, females remain on the nest throughout much of the incubation period and are fed by the males. This arrangement shortens incubation time and provides the eggs with constant protection from freezing temperatures. (Photo:  can you find the lone Lapland Longspur?)

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Fox Sparrows Passing Through

11-7-16-fox-sparrow-049a1364Fox Sparrows are named for the red hue of their plumage, but their coloration varies and not all Fox Sparrows are as rusty red as those we see migrating in the spring and fall through New England. Many of these birds have spent the summer breeding in the boreal forests of northern North America, and are currently on their way to the southeastern U.S. to spend the winter. Most passed through the Northeast during October, but a few stragglers can still be seen under feeders, scratching in leaf litter for insects and seeds. Although the number of Fox Sparrows is relatively high and they aren’t a species of special concern, their population has declined by about 51% in the past 50 years.

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First Monarchs Have Arrived At Wintering Sanctuaries

10-31-16-monarch2-img_5186

During the first two weeks of October, south winds prevented migrating Monarchs from making a lot of progress on their flight southward. Cold fronts were weak during this time, and wind blew from the north infrequently. On Oct.12 this persistent weather pattern broke, headwinds subsided and thousands of Monarchs were seen migrating through Texas. By Oct. 20 the first Monarchs entered Mexico and by the 23rd the first butterflies had reached their wintering grounds. Follow their progress as they continue to stream across northern Mexico, headed for their sanctuaries, at http://www.learner.org/jnorth/maps/monarch.html.

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Fall Amphibian Migration

10-24-16-red-backed-sal-089The migration of amphibians from the woodlands where they overwinter to their breeding pools in March is a familiar spring phenomenon to most. However, some of these amphibians engage in a fall migration as well. Amphibians (and reptiles) need to find a good overwintering spot, where they won’t freeze. In some cases, that might be a few feet upstream or into a seepage area, and in others it is a few hundred yards uphill. The extent of the migration and the species participating vary in different parts of the state.

In western Vermont, Jim Andrews, Director of the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas(http://vtherpatlas.org), has observed Blue-spotted and Four-toed Salamanders moving down into wetlands in the spring, staying close to the wetland for moisture and feeding during the summer, and then moving uphill back to wintering areas in the fall. On the other hand, he has found that most Spotted and Jefferson Salamanders, as well as Wood Frogs, move down in the spring to breed, and then head back uphill in stages soon after they are done breeding.

Eastern Red-backed Salamanders (pictured) migrate as needed during the summer to maintain their body moisture, and in the fall, search for an animal burrow or crevice to hibernate in. Migration often occurs at night, while it’s raining, so as to prevent their skin from drying out. (Amphibians need to have moist skin because a large portion of the frog’s “breathing” occurs via oxygen diffusing through the skin. Oxygen will not diffuse through a dry membrane.) After the very dry summer we’ve had, a large number of amphibians were observed taking advantage of the recent rain and migrating.

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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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Wood Ducks Return to Breeding Grounds

4-13-15  wood ducks 284You can find waterfowl in almost every open body of water, from puddles to ponds, at this time of year. Among these migrating waterfowl are colorful Wood Ducks returning to northern New England to breed, having already formed mating pairs. Their courtship displays enable them to maintain this pair bond. The most common display involves the male’s turning the back of his head towards the female as he swims in front of her while holding his wings and tail high. Chin-lifting, feather-shaking, wing-preening, neck-stretching and bill-jerking are just some of the displays that occur during Wood Duck courtship.

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Pied-billed Grebes Returning to Northern Breeding Grounds

4-8-15 pied-billed grebe 1370After wintering from southern New England southwards, Pied-billed Grebes return to the northern freshwater marshes and lakes where they breed and nest on floating platforms of vegetation. It is here, on their nesting grounds, that they are most vocal, with both males and females producing songs (the female’s is a bit softer). At this time of year, you often hear a Pied-billed Grebe before you see it.

When singing, a Pied-billed Grebe submerges its breast and neck to varying degrees. Its primary song has three parts. During the first part, the grebe retracts its head slightly with every note. During second and third parts, it moves its bill up toward the end of each note. David Sibley describes this extremely variable call as sounding something like “ge ge gadum gadum gadum gaum gaom gwaaaaaow gwaaaaaow gaom.” You can hear it and describe it in your own words by going to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/pied-billed_grebe/sounds.

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Common Grackles Returning

3-30-15 common grackle 083Male Common Grackles have started to arrive on their northeastern breeding grounds (females will arrive in another week or so), having migrated from southern U.S. Common Grackles typically migrate in large flocks containing hundreds of birds, not all grackles. Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, European Starlings and occasionally American Robins can be found alongside Common Grackles in these migrating flocks. In the early 1990’s, magnetic material was found in the heads and necks of Common Grackles, indicating that the geomagnetic field may play a role in their migratory navigation.

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Returning Red-winged Blackbirds Announce the Arrival of Spring

3-10-15  red-winged blackbird IMG_3155Regardless of the deep snow that remains on the ground and the frigid temperatures we’ve had recently, spring has announced itself with the arrival of red-winged blackbirds this week. Most redwings that breed in New England migrate approximately 500 miles further south to spend the winter. In the spring, males begin migrating first, flying north in flocks during the day to their breeding grounds. (In the fall, females depart first.) While they eat primarily insects during the breeding season, redwings subsist mainly on seeds and grain this early in the season. Before you know it, females will return, and up to fifteen of them will be nesting on the territory of each male (though he doesn’t sire all of the nestlings).

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Common Mergansers Migrating

11-14-14  common mergansers 120Common Mergansers are hardy, fish-eating, cavity-nesting ducks that can be found in New England year round, as they winter as far north as open water allows. However, the birds we see in the winter on large bodies of water most likely are not the same birds that breed here. All North American populations of Common Mergansers migrate, generally short to intermediate distances. Populations near the coast move only short distances, while more interior birds migrate farther. Heavier birds and adult males seem to tolerate colder winter temperatures and remain farther north than immature birds. They can often be seen on large lakes and rivers, as well as the coast, where they form small groups that may gather into large numbers at favored sites.

Migrating Common Mergansers tend to leave late in the fall (this week marks the peak of their fall migration), making them often the last waterfowl migrants to head south. Common Mergansers typically migrate over land at night, and along seacoasts or major river systems by day. In the spring, adult males return north first as soon as open water is available, followed by females a few weeks later. (Photo: 2 juvenile Common Mergansers) Thanks to canoe-steadying Sadie Richards for making it possible for me to take this photograph.

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Gray Catbird Stragglers Passing Through

10-30-14 gray catbird 109Gray catbirds begin their nocturnal migration to wintering grounds in late August and early September. The last of the stragglers are now passing through northern New England. Catbirds winter from the southern New England coast south to Panama, with concentrations on the U.S. Gulf coast and the Yucatan Peninsula. Those individuals that winter in the Yucatan Peninsula and Central America cross the Gulf of Mexico, and in order to do so they put on so much fat (during fall migration their mass may increase to 150% of lean body mass) that it approaches the upper limit of what flight allows.

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Common Loons Migrating

10-27-14 common loons migrating2  146Most of the eastern U.S. and Canada Common Loon population shifts from freshwater inland breeding locations to coastal marine wintering areas, although some remain at inland freshwater sites throughout winter. Research shows that the very large loons in Maine, New Brunswick, and eastern New Hampshire do not migrate far and primarily overwinter in the Gulf of Maine, while smaller loons from other New England and New York breeding populations migrate to Long Island Sound south to New Jersey.

Some Common Loons begin their diurnal migration to their wintering territory in late summer, but most loons leave their breeding territory in September (high latitudes) and October (low latitudes), and arrive at their destination by the end of November. Breeding pairs and their offspring do not migrate together. Parents generally migrate first, usually separately; young remain on their lakes after adults have departed, until near freeze-up, and often migrate in groups. Although they often migrate singly, common loons do form groups (in some places, hundreds or thousands of birds) on large bodies of water before and during migration. These are referred to as staging areas. When migrating over land, loons can reach an altitude of a mile and a half; over water they usually fly within 300 feet of the surface of the water.

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Hermit Thrushes Migrating & Stopping Over to Refuel

10-7-14 hermit thrush  092The Hermit Thrush is often one of the last thrushes to leave its breeding grounds in the fall — peak migration is between the end of September and the middle of October. High pressure, clear skies and wind from the north usually produce many sightings of this bird at this time of year. Unlike many other species of thrushes that winter in Central or South America, the Hermit Thrush is not a long distance migrator, and does not cross the Gulf of Mexico. Approximately one-third of all migratory flights end after only two to three hours of flight. Typically it makes several two-to-six-day stopovers to refuel before reaching its wintering grounds in southern U.S. and Mexico.

The Hermit Thrush is a nocturnal migrant, often departing roughly half an hour after sunset (over half of departures occur within 60 minutes after sunset and none after midnight) with most flights ending about 40 minutes before sunrise (none later than 20 minutes before sunrise). (Flight information from Birds of North America Online)

Inadvertently, the person responsible for my being able to photograph a Saddleback Caterpillar was not mentioned in yesterday’s post. Many thanks to Rick Palumbo for his extraordinary help with this endeavor.

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Common Nighthawks Migrating

8-28-14 common nighthawk_w725_h486Nightjars, or “goatsuckers” as some call them, are a family of birds that catch and eat insects on the wing, are often ground nesters, and many (whip-poor-will, for instance) have distinctive calls. Nighthawks are a member of this group, but not a very well-named member, as they are unrelated to hawks and are active at dawn and dusk (not night). This insect-eating bird is often seen on the wing, hawking insects in both rural and urban areas (Fenway Park comes to mind). Its loud, nasal “peent” calls and bat-like flight make this bird very noticeable if it is feeding. We are currently at the peak of the fall Common Nighthawk migration from North to South America. Flocks of hundreds and sometimes thousands are seen flying overhead, often in the early evening.

Unfortunately, in the past 30 years the breeding population of Common Nighthawks in Vermont has declined by 91%, according to the most recent Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas, and this drop in population is not limited to Vermont – much of Canada, New England and beyond has experienced a 50% – 70% decline. Increased predation, indiscriminate use of pesticides leading to lowered insect numbers and habitat loss may have played a part in this drop. (Photo from public domain.)

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Least Sandpipers Migrating

7-22-14 least sandpiper IMG_7923Least Sandpipers are the smallest shorebirds in the world, weighing only an ounce and measuring 5 – 6 inches long. Their fall migration has already begun, with individuals leaving their breeding grounds in the subarctic tundra and far northern boreal forest for their wintering grounds in Central and South America. Banding has revealed that the eastern population of Least Sandpipers undertakes nonstop transoceanic migrations of about 1,800 to 2,500 miles from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and New England to northeastern South America. Not much bigger than a sparrow, this common but declining shorebird can be seen refueling on mud flats throughout New England during its fall migration.

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Bobolinks Fledging and Preparing to Migrate

7-14-14 bobolinks2  234Between their striking black and white plumage and their long, bubbly song, male Bobolinks are hard to miss if they are inhabiting a field. The female’s plumage is more subtle, with lots of browns so that she blends in well when on her ground nest. The Bobolink’s most notable accomplishment is its annual migration between breeding (northern U.S. and southern Canada) and wintering (northern Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia) grounds — a round-trip distance of approximately 12,500 miles. According to Cornell’s Birds of North America Online, one female Bobolink known to be at least nine years old presumably made this trip annually, which would mean that in her lifetime she flew a distance equal to traveling 4.5 times around the earth at the equator.

Grassland birds such as Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, Upland Sandpipers and numerous sparrows, which have been in decline for decades, populate New England’s hay fields, meadows, and pastures. Many of these birds build their nests on the ground, raise young, and forage for insects and grains in summer months. If you own or manage a hayfield that hosts Bobolinks (or any other grassland species), consider delaying mowing until after mid- July to allow these birds the opportunity to fledge their young and get them ready for one of the longest migratory flights of any North American songbird. (Photo: male Bobolink on rock, female on grass.) (Thanks to Jeannie Killam and Terry Ross for photo op.)

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Waves of Warblers

5-19-14 -A. Redstart 012Birders wait with great anticipation for the waves of warblers that pass through New England in May. Flocks, or waves, often consist of several species, with the males’ plumages presenting a variety of brilliant colors, making the search for these fast-moving, tiny birds well worth the effort. Returning from their wintering grounds in Central and South America, some warblers make non-stop flights covering more than a thousand miles at a time. When they stop to refuel, their search for insects is incessant. As they hunt for insects in the canopy, often amongst flowering trees such as this Red Oak, American Redstart males (pictured) often flash their wings and tail, both of which have brilliant orange feathers on them, startling an insect long enough to give the Redstart a chance to consume it.

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