An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide – maryholland505@gmail.com

Passerines

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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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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Ovenbirds Nesting

6-27-14 ovenbird nest2  071Ovenbirds, the warblers responsible for the “teacher–teacher-teacher- TEACHER” song that reverberates throughout deciduous woods at this time of year, are known not only for their distinctive song, but also for their unique domed, ground nests (see dead center of photo). It is the resemblance of their nest to an old-fashioned domed oven that is the source of the Ovenbird’s common name. The materials used to build the nest (bulk of nest is made up of leaves, with additional bits of plant stems, bark, pine needles, rootlets , moss and a lining of deer and/or horse hair), as well as the roofed structure make it all but invisible to most passersby. More often than not the female Ovenbird chooses a site with an especially thick leaf layer on which to build her 6 ½-inch-diameter nest. She enters and exits through a side entrance that is roughly 2 inches wide. The female incubates and broods the young, but both parents feed them, approaching and leaving the nest on foot along a few partially concealed routes. As the nestlings grow, the top of the nest is frequently pushed back, exposing the nest cup. No attempt is made by either parent to reconstruct the roof before the young fledge in about a week to ten days. (Thanks to Tii McLane for photo op.)

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Brown Creepers Singing

4-11-14 brown creeper2  025Brown Creepers –insect-eating, bark-gleaning, little brown birds — are occasionally spotted as they circle their way upwards around and around a tree trunk, probing under bark with their thin, curved beaks for their next meal. Because they are so well camouflaged it is easy to miss them. Your chances of becoming aware of their presence are increased if you become familiar with the high, thin but surprisingly rich song males sing to establish territories on their breeding grounds this time of year. Although they continue to sing through the nesting period until their young have fledged, male brown creepers are most vocal early in the season, when they are staking out their territory. You can hear their song by going to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/brown_creeper/sounds and clicking on “sound.”

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Avian Toe Arrangment

3-17-14 mourning dove tracks 004As opposed to humans, who use the entire bottom of their feet for support, birds stand and walk only on the ball of their foot and with their toes. When you look at a bird’s leg, what appears to be its knee, bending backward instead of forward as it does in humans, is actually its heel.

Most birds have four toes, arranged differently according to the life style of the bird. Songbirds, as well as most other birds, have three toes pointing forward and one pointing back. Most woodpeckers, being active climbers, have two toes pointing in each direction, which provides added clinging support. The outer toe (of the three forward toes) of ospreys and owls is reversible, so that they can have two toes in back should they need to get a better grasp on slippery fish or other prey. Some birds that do a lot of running, such as sanderlings and most plovers, have only the three forward toes. (Photo: Mourning Dove tracks)

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How Are Red-winged Blackbirds Surviving?

3-17-14 red-winged blackbird2 IMG_2063The first reports of Red-winged Blackbird sightings are coming in, and with two feet of snow in some places, frigid temperatures, and very few insects in flight, one can’t help but wonder how they are surviving. A number of factors allow Red-wings to sustain themselves in these conditions, including the fact that their foraging is not restricted to one habitat – they look for food in marshes, pastures, overgrown fields, shores of lakes and ponds and windblown, exposed corn fields and crop lands. Secondly, they look for food in and on a variety of substrates, including but not limited to tree trunks and vegetation, which are accessible even with snow on the ground. Thirdly, they are very adept at gaping – forcing their bill open against the resistance of bark, etc. in order to reach into the crooks and crannies where insects are overwintering. And lastly, their diet fluctuates with the food that is available. During the breeding season, the majority of a Red-winged Blackbird’s diet is insects, and during fall, winter and early spring, Red-wings are primarily plant eaters – weed seeds, tree seeds and in agricultural areas, grains. In many ways, Red-winged blackbirds are more successfully adapted than humans are to this interminable winter!

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Sumac Sustains Songbirds

3-6-14 bluebirds on sumac 033By this time of the year fruit-eating birds have, for the most part, devoured the choicest fruits available in winter. What remains are the fruits-of-last-resort. While Staghorn Sumac fruits may not be a preferred food, they are an important source of winter sustenance for many species of birds, including bluebirds (pictured), cardinals, chickadees, jays, robins, waxwings, crows, mockingbirds and starlings. Some of the best late-winter birding occurs near stands of this shrubby relative of poison ivy. Can you find the four Eastern Bluebirds feeding on sumac in the photo?

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Common Ravens Repairing & Building Nests

2-24-14 common raven IMG_2002Common Ravens have begun tending to their nests – one was seen snapping dead branches off of a Black Locust tree in Vermont last week. Often ravens will use the same nest for many years, renovating and repairing it every year. They typically nest on or in cliffs and trees (although abandoned cars, a satellite dish and a barbecue grill have been used), with the female doing the lion’s share of the construction. (The male assists her by bringing sticks to the nest site.) The base of the nest consists of sticks up to three feet long with smaller branches being woven into a cup lined with softer material such as sheep’s wool, fur and shredded bark. The finished nest is two to three feet across and up to four feet deep.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


The Perils of Fermented Fruit

robin eating rotting apple 782In New England, fruit-eating birds are particularly vulnerable in the winter, because they depend so heavily on a food source that ferments, and to get enough protein they need to eat a lot of it. Toxic levels of ethanol can be produced as the natural sugars ferment, causing some consumers to become inebriated. Robins, waxwings and starlings have been found dead in large flocks after eating toxic berries and diving into the ground or colliding with solid structures. In addition, when they are really drunk, they lose mobility, making them helpless in the presence of predators. To the surprise of many observers, birds that appear lifeless on the ground have been known to eventually sober up and fly away. While birds don’t intentionally wish to ingest a lot of alcohol, there are other animals, such as elephants and apes, that will wander for miles to seek the pleasure of fermented fruits.

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Eastern Kingbird Nestling With A Mouthful

kingbird feeding young female widow skimmer dragonfly 1090If you look very closely you will see that the adult Eastern Kingbird has just stuffed a female Widow Skimmer dragonfly (that it has caught and killed) down the throat of one of its nestlings whose beak is pointed skyward. Eventually, after much hard work, the young kingbird succeeded in swallowing the insect, wings and all. The parents will continue feeding their nestlings for at least three weeks after they have fledged.


Eastern Kingbirds Eat More Than Insects

7-23-13 eastern kingbird  687When one thinks of an Eastern Kingbird, one pictures an aggressive bird launching itself from a branch into the air and gracefully swooping up an insect which is quickly consumed. Eastern Kingbirds are members of the Tyrant Flycatcher (Tyrranidae) family, and, as this name implies, feed primarily on insects. Thus, the sight of an Eastern Kingbird flying down to a blueberry bush and retrieving a blueberry was unexpected. Minutes after this picture was taken, the kingbird flew to its nest and placed the berry in the mouth of one of its nestlings. Unbeknownst to many, during cold and wet or hot and dry weather, especially as the summer progresses, an Eastern Kingbird’s diet is supplemented with many species of fruit, including cherries, serviceberries, blackberries, elderberries, nightshade and blueberries. During fall migration Eastern Kingbirds begin to eat a significant amount of fruit, and fruit makes up most of their diet on their South American wintering grounds.


Black-capped Chickadees Still Nest-building

7-5-13  black-capped chickadee 006Black-capped Chickadees tend to be early nesters, often as early as April, as they build their nest inside a cavity where it is sheltered from the cold. Chickadees rarely re-use a nest, so one might guess that this Black-capped Chickadee with nesting material in its beak in early July has a second brood on its way. However, it is unusual for Black-capped Chickadees to have a second brood of young after the first has fledged. If they lose the first brood, they sometimes will re-nest, but it’s more likely that this chickadee is just a late nester, as nest-building can and does occur up until mid-July. Both members of a pair excavate a cavity in a rotting tree, stump or post and then the female alone builds the nest inside the cavity. The foundation of the nest is usually made of coarse material such as moss. The lining consists of softer, finer material such as deer hair, rabbit fur, or in this case, an aging chocolate Labrador Retriever’s hair.


Migrating Dark-eyed Juncos Passing Through New England

4-10-13 dark-eyed junco2 IMG_9530This week those of us in the Northeast have been inundated with dark-eyed juncos, often referred to as “snow birds” due to their presence in much of the U.S. only during the winter months.  Although this member of the sparrow family breeds here and is found year-round in New England, over most of the eastern U.S. juncos appear as winter sets in and then retreat northward each spring.  Many of the juncos that we are seeing now are transitory migrants on their way to Canada and the Arctic to their breeding grounds.  They will remain there until next fall, when we will experience a similar influx.  Research has found that males migrate earlier than females, and that females tend to migrate further south than males. The timing of this migration is regulated primarily by the lengthening spring days.


Mourning Dove Remains

3-13-13 mourning dove remains IMG_5958A cooper’s hawk made short work of a mourning dove near my bird feeder recently, killing and apparently, given the large number of feathers scattered on the snow, plucking the dove on a nearby snow bank. If you look closely you can see whole sunflower seeds in amongst the feathers. These came from inside the mourning dove’s crop. Mourning doves generally feed quickly, filling their crop with seeds which they digest later, when they’ve found a safe spot in which to roost. Unfortunately for this particular dove, it didn’t live long enough to have that opportunity.


Red-winged Blackbird Epaulettes

3-11-13 redwing epaulettes IMG_2348Male red-winged blackbirds have returned to Vermont, and their most notable features are the brightly-colored reddish-orange feathers on their “shoulders”, referred to as epaulettes. In the military, an epaulette is a shoulder ornament that indicates, through its position, color, length and diameter, the bearer’s rank. Some birds, including male redwings, also possess this badge, or visual cue, which indicates the social status of the bird to other birds of the same species. Studies of male red-winged blackbirds and their epaulettes indicate (through dyeing their bright orange/red shoulder patches black) that epaulettes play a significant role in the male’s defense of his territory. Over 60% of the redwings that had their epaulettes dyed black lost their territories to other males. Further research revealed that aggression by a territorial male redwing is proportional to the epaulette size of the encroaching male redwing. It also indicated that male redwings intruding into redwing-occupied territories greatly limit the exposure of their epaulettes by covering them with black feathers. (Female red-winged blackbird plumage is brown and lacks epaulettes.)


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Countershading

Countershading is a common color pattern in animals in which the upper side of the animal is darker than the lower side.  This color pattern provides camouflage for the animal when viewed from the side, above or below.  The counter shading pattern balances the sunlight on the animal’s back and the shadow beneath the animal so as to blend the animal’s side profile with its surroundings.  In addition, when viewed from below, a counter-shaded animal with a light belly blends into the light coming from the sky above. When viewed from above, the darker back of a counter-shaded animal blends into the darker ground colors below.   Birds (which spend a considerable amount of time in the air) such as this dark-eyed junco, as well as marine animals often exhibit countershading.


Winter Bird Irruptions

According to the predictions on eBird’s annual Winter Finch Forecast, several species of northern seed-eating birds will be moving south this season due to a poor cone crop in the north.  As of mid-October, pine siskins (pictured), purple finches, red-breasted nuthatches and red crossbills have already been showing up in larger numbers than usual in New England, well south of their normal wintering grounds.  This type of movement is referred to as an irruption.  Because of a widespread crop failure of fruiting and cone-bearing trees in Canada, we may be lucky enough to have a glimpse of crossbills, redpolls, pine grosbeaks and evening grosbeaks this winter.   The latest to arrive at my feeders are pine siskins, whose irruptions often occur on a two-year cycle.  Their numbers in New England were great during the winters of 2008 and 2010, so the pine siskin irruption this year is right on time.


Juvenile Cedar Waxwings Migrating

Possibly because of the importance of summer fruits in their diet, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are late nesters, but by late August adults have begun their migration to the southern states and Central America.  This year’s young are beginning this (roughly) 900-mile flight now, a month after their parents have left. You can often find waxwings feeding in crab apple and other fruit trees where they stop over during their flight to refuel.  Juvenile birds lack the sleek look of adults — the red wax-like feather tips for which this bird is named have not developed, and the color of their plumage is much duller than that of the adults.


White-throated Sparrows Migrating

 

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) numbers are building in northern New England as they head towards the mid-October peak of their migration south.  Even though they are no longer constantly singing their “Poor Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody” song, which allows quick  identification, White-throated Sparrows’ white throats, striped crowns and yellow lores (the area between the eye and the bill) make them one of the easier sparrows to identify.  Don’t be surprised if you see this bird with a tan, and not white, crown.  There are two color forms, white-crowned and tan-crowned.  Interestingly, an individual bird almost always mates with a bird of the opposite color form. Males of both color types prefer females with white stripes, but both kinds of females prefer tan-striped males.