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Plumage

Some Cedar Waxwings Have Orange Tail Tips

1-23-19 cedar waxwing with orange tail tip_u1a2642Cedar Waxwings can be found in most of New England year-round. They are one of the few North American birds that specializes in eating fruit, particularly in the fall and winter. Unlike the Pine Grosbeak (see 1/16/19 post), which crushes the fruit and consumes only the seeds, Cedar Waxwings eat the whole fruit. If it has fermented, they will feel the effects and, like humans, become somewhat tipsy.

If you look carefully at a flock of Cedar Waxwings you may spot one that has an orange-tipped tail, rather than yellow. This has to do with the bird’s diet. Morrow’s Honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii) was imported in the late 1800s for use as an ornamental, for wildlife food and cover as well as for soil erosion control, but it is now recognized as an invasive plant. Its fruit contains red pigment in addition to the normal yellow pigment found in honeysuckle berries. If a Cedar Waxwing happens to eat enough of the fruit of Morrow’s Honeysuckle at the time of feather formation (they molt between August and January), its tail feathers will have orange tips instead of the usual yellow. Cedar Waxwings with orange tail tips began appearing in northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada in the 1960’s.

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Wood Duck Ducklings Are Growing Up

8-1-17 wood ducks2 049A1473One morning several weeks ago, broods of Wood Duck nestlings leaped out of their nest holes onto the ground or into the water beneath their nest trees. After leaving their nests, most traveled long distances (an average of 1 1/4 miles) with their mothers to rearing areas.

The earliest broods to hatch already have their juvenile (or “first basic”) plumage, which will remain through August. Male juvenile Wood Ducks can be distinguished from female juveniles by the two white finger-like projections that go up their cheeks and neck from their throat. The females lack these stripes but have a wider white patch around their eyes. The pictured male juvenile Wood Ducks are between eight and nine weeks old. Very soon their eyes will turn red and they will be able to fly.

 

 


Snowy Egrets Becoming More Colorful

4-18-17 snowy egret 053

For those New Englanders fortunate enough to live on the coast, Snowy Egrets are a welcome sight this time of year as they return from their wintering grounds to breed. Like most herons and egrets, they acquire plumes – long, wispy feathers – on their back, neck and head during the breeding season. (These plumes were highly sought after by the women’s hat trade in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. They were valued at $32 per ounce, twice the price of gold at the time. Eventually laws were passed to protect the birds.)

Something slightly more subtle but equally as dramatic as ornate plumage highlights the appearance of these birds in the breeding season and that is a change in bill and feet coloration. Different species of herons and egrets exhibit different color changes. Snowy Egrets’ greenish-yellow feet turn a much richer orange-yellow hue during the breeding season, and the patch of bare skin at the base of their bill (lore) changes from a yellowish color to a pinkish/reddish color, only seen at this time of year.

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Green-winged Teals Molting & Migrating

11-2-16-male-green-winged-teal-by-jeannie-male-moltingIn much of New England Green-winged Teals, our smallest dabbling (feed mainly on the surface rather than diving) ducks, are present either during the breeding season, or over the winter, but most of Vermont and New Hampshire have to settle for glimpses during spring and fall migration. Often these ducks stop to rest and refuel on shallow ponds, marshes and flooded fields. While occasionally one or two are spotted amongst a group of mallards, typically they are found in small groups that often congregate in large flocks.

The pictured male is soon to complete its fall “prealternate molt,” in which all body feathers except the innermost feathers of wing are replaced. When finished, he will sport brilliant cinnamon and green head feathers as part of his alternate, or breeding, plumage. Next July he will molt these feathers and acquire a duller basic, or non-breeding, plumage.   (Photo by Jeannie Killam)

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Waterfowl In Eclipse Plumage

9-9-16-revised-wood-duck-eclipse-20160904_3910Most ducks shed their body feathers twice each year. Nearly all drakes lose their bright plumage after mating, and for a few weeks resemble females. This hen-like appearance is called the eclipse plumage and provides drakes with the ability to camouflage themselves. The necessity for waterfowl not to be seen by predators at this time is great, for this is when ducks undergo a “simultaneous” wing molt – losing all their wing feathers at the same time. It takes a month or so to replace these feathers, and during this time they are completely flightless. As soon as drakes can fly again in late summer, they begin a second molt and gradually develop their breeding plumage as fall progresses.

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Male Blackburnian Warblers Singing

blackburnian warbler 473Male Blackburnian Warblers are relatively easy to identify by sight. They are the only North American warbler with an orange throat, and their intense orange breeding plumage is unmistakable. However, because they often forage for spiders and insects high in the canopy where they are hidden from sight, Blackburnians are often located by ear. Their singing peaks soon after they arrive on their breeding grounds. To hear the thin, high-pitched song unmated males sing, as well as mated males when they are near the females, go to http://langelliott.com/mary-holland/BLBUWA_5_songs_with_chips_MB.mp3. (Sound recording © Lang Elliott – langelliott.com & miracleofnature.org)

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Male American Goldfinch’s Seasonal Plumage

3-17-15  male American goldfinch IMG_0482Most songbirds have one complete molt every year, in the late summer. Some, like the American goldfinch, have another (partial) molt in the spring. Last fall male goldfinches molted, replacing many of their bright yellow feathers with drab, greenish-gray feathers, so that they closely resemble females during the winter. Goldfinches start their partial molt in February, and in the next month or two, males will once again become bright yellow beacons. No-one can illustrate the subtle seasonal plumage changes of a male American goldfinch better than David Sibley: http://www.sibleyguides.com/2012/05/the-annual-plumage-cycle-of-a-male-american-goldfinch/ (Photo: male American goldfinch in March)

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Why Cardinals Are Red

12-12-14 cardinal DA8A9669The diet of a Northern Cardinal consists mainly of seeds, fruits and insects (average annual consumption is 29% animal and 71% vegetable matter). As fall progresses, the proportion of vegetable matter in its diet increases until it reaches a high of 88% during winter. The red plumage color of both males and females (females have some red feathers in wings and tail) results from the ingestion of carotenoid pigments obtained from their diet during the fall molt (September/October). Fruits and insects are high in carotenoids, while most seeds are poor sources. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, new research has shown that brighter males have higher reproductive success and territories with greater vegetation density, and that plumage brightness in both the male (breast color) and female (color of underwing-coverts) is positively correlated with parental care (feeding nestlings).

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European Starling

European starling IMG_8398There was no fooling the vast majority of Naturally Curious readers! As unpopular as the European Starling may be, its plumage is impressive, especially at this time of year. The starling’s summer, or breeding, plumage shows purple and greenish iridescence, especially on the head, back, and breast. Following the annual mid-summer/fall molt, most head and body feathers have whitish or buff terminal spots. Through the winter, most of these light spots gradually wear away to produce a glossy black appearance in the spring.

Most creative Mystery Photo response (from Steve Adams): “ This one’s easy. The bird is Hazel Hainsworth. She was sweet but insane. Hazel had a huge hat made of all different kinds of feathers, and because she liked her scotch, her navigation skills were somewhat dull, and she always made a point of telling people she’d been lost in every state in the nation, including Alaska.”

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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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Common Loons Molting

9-30-13 molting loon MH_20091004_214955_3Loons begin a full body molt (minus their wings) in the late summer and early fall, prior to migration. The black and white breeding plumage of adult loons in summer is replaced by the gray-brown of winter. This process typically begins at the base of the bill and spreads across the head and over the upper back. The process of molting can extend through migration on into December.

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Raven Chicks About To Fledge

5-14-13 raven nestlings DA8A1747Looking as if it were stuck to the vertical cliff wall by crazy glue, a raven’s nest is often used for several years in a row. The nestlings remain in the nest for about 5 to 7 weeks, during which time they go from being an orange/pink color, sparsely covered with gray down, to the black plumage of an adult. The pictured nestlings are approximately five weeks old, and have just started to exercise their wing muscles in preparation for their first flight. They are panting with open beaks in an attempt to dissipate the heat of an unrelenting May sun. Within a week or two they will leave the nest, but will stay nearby for a few days. I couldn’t get close enough to give this nest a smell test, but supposedly raven nests can have an unbelievably unpleasant odor (due to the remains of leftover food/ carrion and feces).


Common Grackle Threat Display

5-3-13 common grackle DA8A1629Although the common grackle, a member of the blackbird family, is the bane of many corn growers as well as a threat to songbirds trying to raise young (grackles eat other birds’ eggs and nestlings), it is quite a colorful bird, with its pale yellow eyes and iridescent purple plumage. Grackles have already begun nesting and defending their territory, as can be seen from the stance of the bird in this image. This “bill-up display” is a position assumed when a male is being approached on its territory by another male. It moves its head upwards so that its bill is almost vertical, signaling to the approaching grackle that it would be in its best interest to depart.


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.


Juvenile European Starlings Molting

Unlike their greenish-black iridescent parents, this year’s young European Starlings had a drab gray-brown plumage through the summer.  During late summer and fall all starlings molt and black speckled feathers grow in.  There is a brief period of time when juveniles still have a pale tan head, before it, too, becomes speckled.    Even though both juvenile and adult European Starlings resemble each other by late fall, it is possible to tell this year’s young from adult birds. First-year starlings have more white speckles than adults, and their speckles are heart-shaped, as opposed to the V-shaped speckles of their parents.


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.


Aging a Common Loon Chick by its Plumage

This year’s Common Loon chicks are now roughly two months old.  Even without being aware of when it hatched, you can estimate the age of a chick by looking at its feathers.  Their color and type (down or contour) can give you a good idea of how many weeks old it is. Common Loon chicks are born covered with sooty-black down.  By the time they are three weeks old they have replaced this natal down with a second (gray-brown) down.  Juvenal feathers start appearing soon thereafter, replacing the down — the age of a chick can be estimated by the amount of down that remains.  By eight weeks of age the chicks have just small tufts of brown down remaining on their head and neck (see photo).  By nine weeks of age their entire body, including their head and neck, are covered with smooth, gray contour feathers and there is no sign of down.


Great Horned Owl Fledglings

Hardy birds that they are, Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest nesting birds — you can find them on nests in January, February and March, even in northern New England. Eggs are incubated for about a month, typically in March or April with young usually hatching in May or June. The nestlings remain in the nest for six or seven weeks before fledging. Unable to fly until they’re ten or twelve weeks old, the fledglings follow their parents around and continue to be fed and cared for by them until the fall. These two fledglings were sticking close together as they made their raspy begging calls from high in a white pine. Both their calls and the down that was visible on their heads told me that they were this year’s young.


Red-tailed Hawk Nestling

The Red-tailed Hawk nest that produced two fledglings last year is in use again this spring.  In the past month the nestlings have gone from tiny white powder puffs to nearly equaling their parents in size.  Down is still visible, especially on their heads, but contour feathers are quickly replacing them on other parts of their body. Soon there will be wing stretches and flapping, as well as hopping about on nearby branches in preparation for fledging. 

 


Indigo Bunting

There is something irrepressibly cheery about the song of an Indigo Bunting.  The male’s paired notes ring out from a high perch, where this unbelievably blue bird positively sparkles in the sunlight. According to Cornell’s “All About Birds” site, the male sings as many as 200 songs per hour at dawn and for the rest of the day averages a song per minute.  To hear an indigo bunting sing, go to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Indigo_Bunting/sounds


Yellow-rumped Warbler

The Yellow-rumped Warbler (aka “Butterbutt”) has returned to our woodlands, and our ears and eyes are all the richer for it.  The song of this bejeweled songbird often stumps me the first time I hear it every spring.  It is described as a “slow, soft, sweetly whistled warble” or trill. It is also said to  resemble the sound of an old-time sewing machine.  To see which song description you prefer, or to make your own, go to http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/yellow-rumped_warbler/sounds.