Saturday, August 30, 2008

Missy, Sissy, Pippy

Two months ago, I wrote about the Mississippi Kites which were beginning to nest in a maple tree on Main Street in Newmarket, NH. This was not only the first confirmed nesting of Mississippi Kites in New Hampshire, but the first confirmed report of this bird in New Hampshire. Even in its normal range in the deep South and southern Great Plains, the Mississippi Kite is uncommon.

There are some reports of this bird of prey nesting in New Jersey, and possibly Pennsylvania, but southern New Hampshire is a couple of hundred miles further north, and many hundreds of miles north of its usual range. How and why these birds ended up so far north is a subject of speculation. Global warming is the oft used mantra of explanation.

Whatever the reason, Mississippi Kites nested in New Hampshire this summer. Two weeks ago, I made a second trip to see the kites, including the single chick, at that time almost grown.

A local resident of Newmarket, has been watching the kites every day and carefully noting the actions and activity of the birds. She brought me up to date: In June, there were three kites: a young female (perhaps one year old) who was named “Missy,” a fully mature female, named “Sissy,” and an adult male, named “Pippy.” In late June, nest building was underway, and Pippy was seen mating often with both females. An egg was laid, although whether that egg came from Sissy, or Missy, is unknown.

When I was there two weeks ago, only Missy and Pippy were around. Sissy had disappeared; where, how, or why is unknown. On June 25, the birds were tending the nest and changing places sitting on the egg. Since that date, Sissy has not been seen.

The nest tree is close to a busy road and shades two neighboring driveways and a sidewalk. There was concern that the birdwatchers, and more importantly, the local neighbors, joggers, pedestrians, and mothers strolling with their babies, might be harassed by the kites. In other parts of their range, kites have been known to swoop and attack people who venture too near their nest tree.

These kites have been very tolerant of the neighbors, pedestrians, and gawking birdwatchers. They seem to recognize that people do not pose a threat. But that doesn’t mean that they have not had to protect their nest. Pippy has been seen chasing off a Broad-winged Hawk, American Crows, and an Eastern Kingbird. The kingbird, true to his tyrannical nature, has been the most annoying, often dive bombing the kites as they have been sitting quietly, preening. On at least one occasion, Pippy flew from his perch and tangled with a Cooper’s Hawk. It appears that he has a wound near one eye. The presence of other predators and Pippy’s aggressiveness may explain the absence of the older female, Sissy. Even predators like the Mississippi Kite have to contend with other predators; sometimes predators also become prey.

A reader in Mississippi wrote to me about Mississippi Kites which nest regularly near his home. He reports that the kites often engage in cooperative breeding where a third bird, probably a young bird raised by the adult pair in a previous year, assists in nest repair and in feeding the current year’s chick. He reports that “the ‘teenager’ helps out, but mainly just to bring a dragonfly to its new sibling every now and then. It mostly just sits around in the top of a tall pine and talks to my wife.”

That is very similar to what I observed with the New Hampshire kites, and what the local observer reported. During the time I watched the kites two weeks ago, Missy sat in the top of a tree preening. Pippy came once and perched near her; more often he perched in other favorite trees, hunting occasionally from the treetop perch, or while soaring on the wing. While I was watching, only Pippy, the dad, fed the chick. By the way, the chick is named “Itsy.”

My Mississippi correspondent followed his general report on the kites in his yard with an update for this year’s trio. The adult pair, with their helper, raised their chick and by mid-August had departed, an earlier departure than in previous years. By contrast, the New Hampshire kites are quite a bit behind. In mid-August, Itsy was a sizeable nestling, but still downy. He/she was beginning to look like a kite, but not one that was going to fly right away.

When the kites do fly, they are as sensuously graceful as any bird. John James Audubon wrote with a flourish characteristic of the nineteenth century. But when describing the Mississippi Kite, his flourishing style is perfectly in order: “Its flight is graceful, vigorous, protracted, and often extended to a great height ... At times it floats in the air, as if motionless, or sails in broad regular circles, when, suddenly closing its wings, it slides along to some distance, and renews its curves. Now it sweeps in deep and long undulations, with the swiftness of an arrow ... When in pursuit of a large insect or a small reptile, it turns its body sidewise, throws out its legs, expands its talons, and generally seizes its prey in an instant ... It never attacks birds or quadrepeds of any kind, with the view of destroying them for food, although it will chase a fox to a considerable distance, screaming loudly all the while, and soon forces a Crow to retreat to the woods.”

Just in case your mind wandered while you were reading, or just in case you are resistant to stereotypical behavior and gender biases, let me repeat a couple behavioral patterns of these New Hampshire kites.

In late June, male Pippy enjoyed the company of two females, and he mated with both of them often. In mid-August, only the young female Missy was around, and she spent most of her time in a treetop preening, while Dad Pippy did all the work. One is certainly tempted to say that Pippy was just a philandering male - and that later Missy was just a vain female and Pippy an overworked, henpecked (but responsible) male. One is tempted to say that. But I won’t.

Good birding!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Weekend of Good Birding

The by-line at the end of this column says that I am a birding hobbyist, but that doesn’t mean that I always have time to pursue my hobby. For some reason, this summer has been like that, with many distractions and not enough time to walk in the woods or wander in search of birds - until last weekend.

My weekend of birding started with a day trip to Plum Island. On the way, we stopped in Newmarket, NH, to check on the nesting Mississippi Kites which I wrote about two months ago. These southern birds of prey have never been reported nesting so far north before now. As we walked down Main Street with binoculars and scope, the local woman who monitors the nest daily greeted us. Pointing toward different tree tops, she said, “Mom’s there. Dad’s there. Baby’s still in the nest.” We watched Mom preen. We watched Dad fly gracefully, swoop, and then carry food to the chick in the nest. And through the thick leaves, we could just see the growing youngster moving about in the nest, still a week or so from fledging.

On to Plum Island and the wildlife refuge near Newburyport, MA. There we saw both the waning of summer and the beginning of fall. The summer breeding season was coming to an end as Common Terns were busy feeding their fledgling young. There was so much movement that it was hard to figure out how many families and how many young were being cared for. Young terns gathered in a loose group of three to six, impatiently waiting while parents fished over the open water. Sometimes patience was in such short supply that one or two or more would chase an adult. Other times a chick would wait quietly until it spied an adult carrying food, then scream loudly. The chicks were not far removed from independence, and it sometimes seemed that the adult was carrying food and delaying the feeding, as though to say, “Look this is how it is done.”

Shorebirds represented the beginning of fall. They were resting on the sand and feeding along the shore. Most of the small sandpipers, the peeps, nest in the Arctic. But their stay is brief. They court; they mate; they incubate. When the eggs hatch, the young are precocial - relatively well-developed and able to leave the nest soon after hatching and feed themselves. When the young leave the nest, the adults leave the Arctic and their young and start south. The young follow some weeks later. We saw adults: Sanderlings, Semipalmated Sandpipers and Plovers. The sandpipers and Sanderlings were in various stages of molt - some still showing their breeding plumage, some in winter plumage, and many somewhere in between. All reminded me that the best any field guide can do is to give an impression or suggestion of what a shorebird’s plumage may be.

But the real attraction for a mid-August day on the Massachusetts coast comes down to one bird: the Tree Swallow. Finished with their breeding season in New England and the North, they begin forming their winter flocks. Along the entire length of the island, swallows swooped and swirled over the dunes, salt marshes, and tidal pools, feeding on nature’s bounty in the form of mosquitos and green-headed flies. Near the southern end of the island they must have been staging for a flight across the bay. There we stood among scattered small trees and shrubs and watched the chaotic roiling of some 10,000 swallows. It was breathtaking.

Saturday morning, an Audubon walk through a private preserve provided this same mixture of impending fall and waning summer among songbirds. A pair of Scarlet Tanager and Baltimore Oriole were just sort of hanging around. A Canada Warbler was on the move, but not hurriedly so. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was keeping on eye on a juvenile.

But here, and everywhere else last weekend, the greatest activity was coming from the Cedar Waxwings. They nest in loose colonies; when one family fledges, there are likely to be other families fledging in the same vicinity and at the same time. The waxwings rushed from tree top to tree top, swooping out to flycatch, returning to feed young - young swooshing out, trying to feed on their own. Constant movement, constant activity, and all accompanied their thin, buzzy “sreee.”

Back in my yard in the afternoon, I continued to watch waxwings as they fed over the river. In a couple of months they will turn to the berries and crab apples hanging thickly on branches, but for now they are gobbling the insect protein.

The wren in my yard was still protecting his second brood. A House Finch fed a youngster, as did a Purple Finch. Young Rose-breasted and Evening Grosbeaks, pretty much on their own now, came by for a meal, as did young hummingbirds. The male seems to have moved on; at least he is no longer trying to defend his territorial prerogatives.

Sunday evening we kayaked on Sunset Lake. A pair of loons lured me from one side of the lake to the other, and from the west end to the east end and back again. They were just beginning their molt from breeding to winter plumage - still sleekly handsome. They seemed to have little concern as I drifted nearby and one came on its own to within a few yards, its red eye gleaming in the evening light before it slid quietly beneath the water.

We closed out one of the most pleasant weekends of this summer sitting on the edge of the river behind our home, slowly eating a bowl of ice cream. The sun had disappeared behind the hills and the hills were growing dark. I looked upstream. The remaining light of the dusk sky reflected on the river, giving it an almost mirror like glow. In the fading light, I saw small forms floating along the current, dark against the river.

We sat very still as the dozen forms approached on the current. But we were not unnoticed. A few yards upstream from where we sat, the mother Hooded Merganser went into a frantic half flight. Her brood followed suit. Half formed wings lifted them enough that they could scurry-run on the river’s surface. Quickly they ran past us and continued running downstream until they disappeared around a bend.

The last light of the day faded away, and we said a good night to a weekend of good birding.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Weekend of Good Birding

Went on to Plum Island where shorebird migration is beginning - lots of semi-p plovers and sandpipers, and Sanderlings. A few other things. Highlight was the Common Terns, which were busy feeding recently fledged chicks.

Bringing a meal for a demanding chick.

Everywhere this weekend, the Cedar Waxwings were present in abundant numbers, with some young still being fed and many more learning how to fly-catch for themselves. Then there was this one who paused for a dip in our river.

The weekend concluded with an evening kayak on Sunset Lake, where a pair of Common Loons consumed my intention and led me from one side to the next to the other end, occasionally talking with one another, and often fishing.

What a treat!!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Delighting in the Common Goldfinch

I once birded with someone (not a local) who was very disparaging toward the American Goldfinch. It was early winter, and there was not much variety in the birds to be seen. Everywhere we went, however, we seemed to see goldfinches in their olive-drab winter plumage. “They’re so common,” he complained, “and so ho-hum. Wish we could find some good birds.”

I recall this exchange several times every year as I encounter the goldfinch. Each time I dismiss the opinion more quickly as simply the opinion of a birding snob. Yes, the goldfinch is a common bird. But it is also a bird which delights the eye and ear during every season of the year.

Thirty years ago, when I was just beginning my bird watching hobby, I was walking through an abandoned orchard in late August looking for migrating song birds. This was a time when I still needed to see a bird, track it, study it carefully through my binoculars, and thumb my bird guide in order to make an identification. The passing years have erased many of the details and sequence of events which led me to discover a dainty nest in one of the old apple trees - a nest being attended to by a pair of goldfinches, and filled with the gaping mouths of hatchlings.

At a time when nearly all other species have completed their nesting, the goldfinches finally get down to their business. In the last week I have watched a young cardinal come to the feeder; its parents have left it on its own. Robins are finishing with their second set of young. House wrens will either fledge their second brood in a few days, or will abandon them in order to head south. The immature red-tailed hawk is still calling for its parents, but it is going to be on its own very soon.

On the other hand, the gregarious flocks of goldfinches have only recently dispersed, and turned their attention to the business of nesting. One of the folk names for the American Goldfinch is “thistle-bird,” a reference to its fondness for the thistle weed. The silky thistledown is used to line the cup of grasses and plant fibers woven by the female. Later, the thistle seeds are a favorite food for feeding the young.

The female needs four to five days to build the nest, then incubates her eggs for twelve to fourteen days. The male does not share in these tasks, but stays nearby to serenade his mate, and once she is on the nest, to feed her. An observer described how the male feeds the female during incubation: “The female goldfinch heard her mate’s flight-song while he was still far distant, and called at first loudly, then softly and continuously, until he arrived. He stood on the rim of the nest and held his head above that of his mate, who pointed her bill upward to receive his offering. He took her bill in his, and through my glasses I could glimpse the white viscid mass that he passed to her. Then he lifted his head slightly in order to regurgitate a second portion. He passed her twenty-one mouthfuls in this manner....” (Bent)

When the eggs hatch, the young are also fed with partially digested, regurgitated vegetable matter. This regurgitated food results in a feeding pattern that is very different from that of many songbirds. For example, I have watched House Wrens make dozens of trips to the nest in an hour, bringing insects in their bill to feed to their young. The goldfinch, by contrast, is rarely observed carrying food to the nest, and the visits to the nest are few and far between. One observer watched a goldfinch nest for twenty hours. During this time, the young were fed on eighteen occasions, nine by the male and nine by the female. The feeding intervals were about one hour. Other observers have recorded shorter intervals, but nothing like the frequency of most songbirds.

The partially digested food which is fed to the young is nutritious. In about two weeks the young are able to leave the nest.

Many birds are very fussy housekeepers, keeping their nests clear of debris and excrement. Forbush (1925) describes the goldfinch in this regard: “As the little ones grow the parents leave them much to themselves and never seem to manifest such fussy anxiety about them as is displayed by the robin or catbird, nor are they so assiduous in cleaning the nest, which often presents a rather slovenly appearance before the young are ready to leave.” The “slovenly appearance” is Forbush’s delicate way of referring to the ring of white excrement which accumulates on the edge of the dirty nest.

I took a break from my writing to get a cup of coffee, then lingered at the kitchen window to watch a male goldfinch feeding on sunflower seeds, adeptly cracking the outer shell with his large finch beak, letting the debris litter the ground while he swallowed the nutritious heart. He was brilliant yellow, with black wings and just the hint of a thin white wing bar, black cap and pink-yellow bill. In a few weeks when the breeding season is complete, he will revert to his drab, yet still distinctive, winter plumage.

In their summer raiment, the goldfinches provide some of the most thrilling sights in the bird world. I am awestruck when I see a flock of fifteen to fifty bright yellow birds feeding on the ground around my feeders ... until something disturbs them and they burst into flight. It is as though the sun has exploded, strewing sparks of brilliant yellow in every direction.

But you don’t have to see the goldfinch to be delighted by this little bird. It is one of the first birds to begin singing in the Spring, its song a jumbled, variable, complex of twitterings, which has earned it yet another folk name: wild canary. Or you may catch just a glimpse of an undulating flight, bounding and dipping across an open field, but the distinctive call leaves no doubt about the goldfinch’s identity: “per-chic-o-reee.”

An early naturalist summarized the life of the goldfinch: “Few birds seem to enjoy life more than these happy rovers. Every month brings them a change of fare, and in pursuit of fresh dainties the nesting-time is delayed almost until summer begins to wane ... Their love song is delivered with an ecstasy and abandon which carries them off their feet, and they circle over the fields sowing the air with music.”

Our American Goldfinch is so common, and that’s great! Every season of the year is brightened and enlivened by its color, or song, or call - or just its sudden unexpected presence along a back road as a flock leaps into the air.

Good Birding!

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Per-chicoree Bird

The summer breeding season, steaming along for two months now, continues to provide its entertainment to avian voyeurs like me. The fledgling young of over thirty species have passed through my yard. Many have stayed to feed regularly, like the young Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, hummingbirds, the Song, Chipping, and House sparrows, and the Evening Grosbeaks. After absence and silence for several weeks, Blue Jays reappeared in the yard two days ago, young fledglings fluttering their wings, noisily demanding food, and chasing parents from branch to branch to shrub.

But there is one bird that has barely gotten started with its breeding, although it has been and singing happily since mid-April. It is the “per-chicoree” bird, and it has been around all year. You hear it whenever it flies, calling “per-chicoree” as it moves through the air with U-shaped undulations. Some modern birders now like to render its flight call as “potato chip.” Wing beats jerk it rapidly upward. It arcs, and plunges with closed wings, always in conversation with its friends: “per-chicoree.”

The American Goldfinch: In winter, both the male and female are olive-drab little birds wandering grassy fields and favoring thistle and sunflower feeders, but almost always moving with their undulating “per-chicoree” flight.

Some time during the Spring - usually about the middle of April - two changes take place in the life of the goldfinch. First, they begin to molt into breeding plumage. The female becomes a little bit brighter; she may sport a shading of yellow in her plumage. The male, on the other hand, becomes one of the brightest North American birds. His breeding plumage is a pure, primary yellow, accented by a black cap worn like a jaunty beret over his forehead, and black wings further accented with a white stripe. He is unmistakable. A perky, happy, primary yellow bird can only be an American Goldfinch.

Second, about the middle of April, the goldfinch begins to sing. In trees that will not begin to leaf out for another month, the goldfinch perches on the highest bare branches and sings. Sweet, sprightly, high-pitched, sometimes short, sometimes long, varied, two-noted, or trilled. Happy and cheerful. You might even hear the song in early March, or on a winter day when winter seems to have lost its grip for a moment and spring tries to make an early appearance.

The song of the goldfinch is unlike that of most other songbirds. The Spring song of most songbirds is a macho proclamation to the opposite sex, a call to check me out, because I have great genes. It is also a territorial warning to other males: this is my turf, stay away.

But the goldfinch apparently sings for the sheer joy of singing. When they finally get around to the business of courtship (usually in late June), then their singing gets turned up a notch. The great naturalist, John Burroughs, wrote a delightful description of the goldfinch’s courtship ceremony: “When the change [in plumage] is complete, and the males have got their bright uniforms of yellow and black, the courting begins. All the goldfinches of a neighborhood collect together and hold a sort of musical festival. To the number of many dozens they may be seen in some large tree, all singing and calling in the most joyous and vivacious manner. The males sing, and the females chirp and call. Whether there is actual competition on a trial of musical abilities of the males before the females or not, I do not know. The best of feeling seems to pervade the company; there is no sign of quarreling or fighting; ‘all goes merry as a marriage bell,’ and the matches seem actually to be made during these musical picnics .... I have know the goldfinches to keep up this musical and love-making festival through three consecutive days of a cold northeast rainstorm. Bedraggled, but ardent and happy, the birds were not to be dispersed by wind or weather.”

The cheerful song of the American Goldfinch is a contrast to its scientific name: Carduelis triste. “Triste” means “sad,” presumably a reference to its mournful call. But its call is hardly mournful. The closest adjective to mournful is by Pete Dunne, who describes the classic call as “a whinny ascending, two-note query: ‘jur-EEEEE?’”

The American Goldfinch received its scientific name from a Swedish academician whose main interest was plants, who never heard the bird sing or call, and for that matter, never even came to North America. He misnamed it, but the rules of scientific nomenclature require that the name persist. So the American Goldfinch is forever the “sad” bird with the cheerful song and the happy call.

The rest of the scientific name is somewhat more accurate. The Genus name, Carduelis, means “thistle,” a reference to one of its favorite foods. It shares its Genus with western goldfinches, the Lesser and Lawrence’s, and with the two redpolls, Common and Hoary. Its closest relative in our neighborhood is the Pine Siskin. The Pine Siskin often flocks with the American Goldfinch during the winter; it has very similar habits and a song that is almost identical to the goldfinches, except for a harsh, rising “zzsshrreeee” tossed in among the sweet notes.

Appropriate to Carduelis, the folk name for the American Goldfinch is “thistle-bird.” Earlier European settlers in North America saw the goldfinch hanging on the thistle, eating the seeds and gathering the down for its nest; so prevalent was the association that they called the bird after the plant. The goldfinch prefers weedy open areas with scattered trees. It lives in orchards, among shade trees, along roadsides, and near forest edges, places where thistle and sunflowers (another favorite food) can thrive.

This summer food preference also helps explain why the goldfinch is one of the latest nesting songbirds. When the seeds ripen and provide their food, then the goldfinch has what it needs to feed its young. Most of our resident birds have completed their breeding season, or are well advanced into a second brood. The American Goldfinch is just getting started. I will have more on the nesting goldfinch next week.

Watch for a small bird, with a U-shaped flight, calling to its neighbors - the per-chicoree bird. Good birding.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Hummingbird Moth & Hummingbird Tales

A Hummingbird Moth visited the bee-balm recently.

The resident male Ruby-throat is still guarding his territory and chasing off intruders, but it is a constant effort, in spite of his vigilance ...

... as evidenced by this female (probably a female - maybe a juvenile).

There are more young Evening Grosbeaks around, either from a later breeding pair, or a second brood. Yesterday they were chasing Dad all over the yard.

The young Purple Finches have gotten the idea that they have to feed themselves, but are wary of people presence and the presence of other birds.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Defending the Territory & Feeding Young

The resident male Ruby-throated Hummingbird always finds a challenge in protecting his territory during mid-summer when the young and females are attracted to the feeder and especially the bee-balm. He stands guard and patrols diligently. and is constantly chasing off intruders, but without consistent success.

In spite of his truculence and constant pursuit of intruders, his success is inconsistent. We have seen as many as seven young and females feeding among the bee-balm.

Many species which room in the area use our yard for their board, and bring their young around when they fledge. Tried to get photos of the Purple Finch fledgling being fed, but without success. However, here are a few fledglings that I have managed to photograph in the last few days.

At least two pair (maybe more) Evening Grosbeaks nest somewhere in the neighborhood and board at our place.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak also nests somewhere in the neighborhood.

Song Sparrow nests in shrubs along river and edge of field across river.


Related Posts with Thumbnails