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.
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 .
American Bitterns have returned to New England from their southern wintering grounds, and are announcing their presence with a unique song that Sibley describes as a “deep, gulping, pounding BLOONK-Adoonk” that they repeat over and over. These secret, well-camouflaged marsh birds are almost invisible as they slowly walk through marsh grasses. When they stand still and point their bill skyward, they are easily mistaken for the reeds they inhabit.
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.
Snow Buntings begin arriving in the northern half of the United States from their summer home on the northern tundra by the end of October, and remain here until March, when they begin migrating back to their breeding grounds. Although both males’ and females’ backs and heads are brownish, their bellies and a good portion of their wings are white, and when they take to the air, a flock of snow buntings bears a strong resemblance to a massive snow storm. By the time their breeding season arrives, the male has a totally white head and belly, and a jet black back. This is not because of a second molt – snow buntings only molt their feathers once a year in the late summer – the change in appearance is due to the fact that underneath the colored feather tips, the back feathers are pure black and the body feathers all are white. The male wears off all of the feather tips by actively rubbing them on snow, which produces his black and white breeding plumage. (There is one male snow bunting in this photograph that is close to having breeding plumage — can you find it?)