Saturday, September 29, 2007

Nuthatches - Agile Acrobats on the Tree Trunk

Just when I think I have gotten a bird nicely figured out, I see one of its kind do something completely out of character. This time, it was the nuthatches, and specifically, the Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Nuthatches are stubby, stocky little birds with short tails; they have strong legs and feet, and long toes with sharp claws. These are all adaptations for life on a tree trunk, a niche they share with woodpeckers and the Brown Creeper. Their body style bears a superficial resemblance to these other arboreal species, but that is as close as their relationship comes - superficial. Nuthatches parted evolutionary company with the woodpeckers long ago. The somewhat similar traits in a similar habitat are the result of what scientists call “convergence.”

The woodpeckers and the creeper, supported by their stiff tail feathers, climb up a tree trunk. The nuthatches also climb up the tree trunk, but they are just as likely to climb down the tree trunk head first. The tree trunk, and the tree branches, are where the nuthatches earn their living. They forage for insects and assorted invertebrates in the bark crevices. Their short tail enables them to move as easily down as they do up. By contrast, the longer tail of the woodpeckers would get in their way if they tried to move downward.

Science has not been able to figure out why nuthatches climb down a tree. Research seems to suggest that it is more efficient to forage in the manner of the woodpeckers and creepers - fly to a low spot on the trunk and then move upward. Perhaps the nuthatches are able to see prey when they are moving down that the upward feeders miss.

The natural habitat of the nuthatches is mature forest. The White-breasted Nuthatch will make its home in the broken “forest” between river and farm field, or in a town or village, providing the “forest” has large trees. The Red-breasted Nuthatch prefers mature coniferous forests. With suitable habitat nearby, these nuthatches will often forage for seeds at bird feeders where sunflower seeds are their preferred choice.

Bent’s Life History calls the White-breasted Nuthatch droll, earnest, sedate, and lacking in a sense of humor. Adjectives applied to the Red-breasted include happy, jolly, quick and agile. I rather prefer “acrobatic clown” for the White-breasted; it perches on the feeder, upside down, with head extended at a right angle from its body, daring any chiropractor to set its spine straight. The smaller Red-breasted may be jolly, but it is also feisty, sometimes aggressive toward larger birds. “Irrepressible woodland gnome” is appropriate even when the Red-breasted ventures out of the woodlands and to our feeders.

That the nuthatches are feeder birds tells you that their diet is varied. They may be adapted to foraging on tree trunks for invertebrate protein, but vegetable matter in the form of nutrition rich seeds is prevalent in their diet. Seeds and small nuts give them their name, “nuthatch.” At our feeders, nuthatches are like chickadees and titmice; they grab a sunflower seed and fly off to crack it open. Chickadees and titmice hold the seed between their feet and pound it open with their bill. Nuthatches, by contrast, take a sunflower seed, fly to a tree, and jam the seed into a crevice. Then they pound it open with their bill to release the nutritious kernel.

Nuthatches have been finding food in this manner long before we started putting out bird feeders. We watch them forage from the warm comfort of our homes, which, you must admit, is a very indolent way to observe nature. When observation of nature required walking in the woods (or more likely - working, hunting, harvesting, and foraging), the nuthatch was frequently seen hacking open seeds or small nuts with its bill. Hence its name: nuthatch. “Nut” from its food - probably nothing so large as a hickory nut or walnut, but a small pod which contained seed ... and “hatch,” which is an earlier form of “hack,” from its practice of hacking a seed too large to swallow whole into small pieces.

This hatching requires certain physical adaptations similar to those of the woodpecker - a sturdy bill and muscle strength for pounding. This in turn allows most nuthatches worldwide (there are 25 species) to excavate a nest cavity. The Red-breasted Nuthatch excavates a cavity, and often smears sticky pitch around the entrance hole, probably to discourage other creatures from entering. Our White-breasted Nuthatch is an exception; it uses existing cavities.

Nuthatches are one of the few birds that use a tool. Some will hold a piece of bark and look for food by flaking off other pieces of bark.

So that summarizes the adaptation of the nuthatches to life on the trunks and branches of mature forest trees. These intelligent and agile little birds make their living by acrobatically gleaning invertebrates and gathering seeds and nuts from their arboreal home. They are not aerialists; they fly, awkwardly it often seems, from one food source to another.

A week ago, I was in a stand of pines on the edge of a coastal marsh looking for shorebirds. The tide was out, so the shorebirds had gone to the rich mud of the tidal estuary and I had to notice other things. What I noticed was a flycatcher sallying from the pines, making a quick circle over the marsh grasses, and returning to the pines. I had glimpsed a tail-wagging phoebe and assumed that the flycatching bird was a phoebe doing what it is designed to do. In the absence of shorebirds to watch, I decided a good look at a phoebe would be in order. I continued to watch the swooping flycatcher bird until I finally saw it return to an overhead branch. But the bird had no tail and instead of perching upright, it clung to the side of the branch. I thought I had missed the return of the flycatching phoebe. Everything about the bird I was looking at said Red-breasted Nuthatch, including the repeated, thin notes: “eeeen, eeeen, eeeen.” It stayed still long enough for me to focus my binoculars.

Then the Red-breasted Nuthatch flew out over the marsh grasses in a quick circle and returned to the pines. Over and over and over it sallied through swarms of insects. Once it alighted, and paused, so that I could see in its beak the insect which it had adeptly snatched in mid-air.

My first thought was - the Red-breasted is not adapted to flycatching. But then I realized that the most important adaptation for the Red-breasted, or any species, is the ability to adapt. The flycatching Red-breasted saw those swarms of rich protein over the grasses and exploited their availability. It did not care that it had not evolved as a flycatcher. Back on the branch, it clung acrobatically upside down while it ate its fly.

Good Birding!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Plum Island

A recent trip to Parker River NWR (Plum Island) near Newburyport, MA, on the coast produced Buff-breasted Sandpiper, American Golden Plover, Baird's Sandpiper, and Stilt Sandpiper, all relatively rare, and among the shorebirds, something of an identification challenge. Unfortunately, they were also beyond good photography range. Here are a few that were within range for photography.
(BTW and FYI, I use a Sony DSC-H5 with 7.2 megapixels and 12X optical zoom)

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Osprey - a Unique Bird of Prey

The e-mailer was driving along Route 142 near the Connecticut River when she saw a bird just above the water. She wrote: “This bird was big! Very light, mottled feathers, mostly white, but what really caught my eye was the distinctive black eye ‘patch’. As I watched, the bird made a very tight circle, folded it's wings, and dove straight into the water! It flew back out, apparently unsuccessful, because I did not see anything in it's talons.”

She saw an Osprey, also known as the Fish Hawk. With its recovery from the devastation caused by DDT, the Osprey is again a common bird along the New England coast, and may be seen anywhere in Vermont where there is water - along our rivers, lakes, and large ponds.

The Osprey’s diet is almost exclusively fish, and from what I have been able to determine, almost exclusively fresh fish. It hovers 30-100 feet above the water surface looking for fish near the surface. Finding its prey, it plunges to the water, sometimes completely submerging save for wing tips. Terres in Encyclopedia of North American Birds completes the description of the Osprey’s fishing: “Rises from water with fish gripped in both feet, pauses in midair to shake water from plumage, and to arrange fish with head pointed forward, which reduces its resistance to air, flies with it to habitual perch to eat or to nest to feed young. Reported to carry fish up to 4lbs or more.” This dull description only hints at the excitement generated when you are able to watch the real thing.

The Osprey is the only bird which fishes in this manner. Gulls plop on the surface. Many aerial sea birds, like pelicans or gannets, plunge dive, capturing fish in their beaks. The Bald Eagle, also a “fish hawk,” plucks fish near the surface with its talons.

The Osprey and the Bald Eagle pose interesting contrasts. The Osprey rarely eats dead fish; the Bald Eagle enjoys dead fish, and dead anything else. The Osprey is a tireless fisher. It will consume its catch, then go hunting for more. The Bald Eagle does as little work as possible. When in the mood for fresh meat, rather than carrion, it is content to let the Osprey catch a fish and then steal it.

An older naturalist, like Edward Forbush, always wrote of the benefit or harm that a particular bird posed to humans. In contrast to many other hawks, Forbush could write of the Osprey that all “the evidence available points to the conclusion that the Osprey is harmless to poultry, birds and game, and that most of the fish that it takes are species of little value to mankind. Fishermen usually welcome it as a guide to good fishing. All things considered, this great, handsome, picturesque and interesting bird must be regarded as a subject for perpetual protection.”

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an even greater contrast in attitude was found among coastal farmers. Where most people in those times considered hawks vermin to be exterminated (most hawks, given the opportunity, would take a barnyard chicken), coastal farmers and fishermen actively protected Osprey. They watched Ospreys aggressively protecting their nests, eggs, and young. The farmers’ young chickens ran free during the summer; it was assumed that the Osprey protected the chickens from other hawks. Coastal farmers were anxious to have Osprey nesting close to their farmyard, so they set up nesting platforms for them - a tall pole with a wheel fixed on its top.

However, John James Audubon was the more complete observer of the Osprey. In the mid-nineteenth century he described the Osprey, or Fish Hawk as he knew it, as having a mild disposition: “Not only do these birds live in perfect harmony together, but they even allow other birds of very different character to approach so near to them as to build their nests of the very materials of which the outer parts of their own are constructed. I have never observed a Fish Hawk chasing any other bird whatever.”

He also debunks the coastal farmers belief that the Osprey protected the barnyard chickens from other hawks. Rather than staying away from the Ospreys, the other hawks simply went away; they went inland “for the purpose of rearing their young in security.” When the shorebirds and waterfowl returned to the coastal marshes, the other hawks returned as well. By then, the Osprey had completed its nesting and had begun moving south.

The Osprey is one of the most widely distributed birds in the world, found on every continent in the world except Antarctica and even on some remote Pacific Islands. In the western hemisphere it nests in North America; northern populations migrate to warmer climates for the winter.

The Osprey is a unique bird of prey. It belongs to the Order: Falconiformes - the diurnal birds of prey. But the Osprey has been on its own evolutionary path for a long time. Taxonomic classification constantly changes. At one time the Osprey was in a Family by itself; the other Families being Hawk Family and Falcon Family. Current classification puts it in a sub-Family of the Hawk Family, making it a little more closely related to the hawks and eagles than to the falcons, but not by much. It is the only member of its sub-Family.

The point is, there are things about the Osprey that are unique among the diurnal birds of prey. For example, the Osprey has long, strong claws, curved about one-third of a circle. The claws are round. The toes are equal length. The lower surface of the toes are covered with spicules (small, bony spines) which help hold slippery fish. The outer toe is reversible (like an owls’) so that it can hold prey with two toes in front and two in back. Its plumage is compact which reduces wetting when it plunges into the water. These are only some features of the Osprey which make it unique among the hawks.

The scientific name for the Osprey is Pandion haliaetus. The genus name refers to the complicated Greek legend of Pandion, king of Athens, and his two daughters. The rules of taxonomic nomenclature require that once a name has been applied, we are stuck with it, even if it is wrong. This is one of those cases; there is no reasonable, or even unreasonable, reason for applying the name “Pandion” to the Osprey. The best that can be said, is that this was a flight of mythological exuberance. The species name, haliaetus, does a little better; it means “sea eagle” from the Greek.

How the name “Osprey” came to be applied to this “Fish Hawk” is a mystery. “Osprey” probably derives from the Latin, meaning something like “bone breaker.” The original “bone-breaker” known to the Romans was the Lammergeier, or “lamb vulture,” which dropped bones from a height in order to break them. No one seems to know how “osprey” came to be applied to the bird we know. However, translators of the King James Version (1611) do refer to “the eagle, the ossifrage, and the ospray.” An early commentator on this translation explains that the ossifrage is a “species of eagle” and the osprey is “the black eagle.” Clearly these theologians were a bit confused, especially since Shakespeare a few years earlier had written (correctly) in Coriolanus: “As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it by sovereignty of nature.” This suggests that for reliable observations of the natural world, you may be better served by a poet than by a theologian.

Good birding!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Osprey - a Favorite with Hawk Watchers

Migration is underway. If the weather has cleared by the time this column appears, the Broad-winged Hawk numbers crossing the Putney Mountain ridge should be at their peak, with potential numbers in the hundreds in a day. The small band of hawk watchers began trekking to the clearing along the ridge line at the beginning of September. They do an actual count of the migrating hawks; the count numbers are sent to a national data base and become fodder for researchers.

The “count” provides an excuse for this quirky sub-group of birdwatchers to pursue their fascination with hawks, and in particular, with the challenging art of identifying hawks in flight. Most bird identification by birdwatchers involves observation of field marks, recognition of plumage, and association of size, shape, and feeding habits with a particular species. But hawks in flight are high overhead, often only a dark profile against the sky. Watching that dark profile as it flaps, or glides, or soars, or stoops and attaching those distant observations to a particular species, is an art. Join the watchers on Putney Mountain and listen as they discuss the identity of a passing hawk, and you will realize that it is an imprecise art. For some, it is also an art that is addictive.

But my interest today is not the hawk watchers, but the hawks - and one in particular: the Osprey. In a typical year, a couple hundred Ospreys may be counted by the Putney Mountain hawk watchers, so it is not an uncommon bird. Even so, the Osprey always creates a buzz as it approaches and passes over, diverting attention from any other hawks which may be visible at the same time. Only an eagle - the less common Bald or very rare Golden - creates a greater buzz and diverts attention for longer.

The Peregrine Falcon also generates excitement, but the Peregrine is likely to pass quickly, as though it has a deadline to meet. Not so the Osprey. It flies steadily and with purpose. It is large, twenty-three inches in length and with a wing-span of sixty-three inches. Among the hawks of the Northeast, only the eagles are larger. The Osprey’s size neutralizes wind and weather. Strong winds buffet small hawks, like the Sharp-shinned or kestrel, bouncing them on the currents, pushing them along like a red maple leaf loose in the air. Not so the Osprey. It flies steady, seemingly oblivious to even the heaviest winds, yet deftly employing those winds to travel with minimum expense, seldom flapping, merely adjusting a wing set or a tail angle for full advantage.

Moreover, the Osprey is likely to travel in all manner of weather. Cloud cover, heavy and low, grounds most hawks. But the Osprey, always born near water, is a habitue of lakes, of ocean coasts with rolling fog banks, and river valleys where morning fog lies heavily long after sunrise. A bit of cloud cover is no deterrent to this master of the gray skies.

That’s not say that the Osprey cannot soar. It can and does soar. Give it a rising thermal on a sunny mid-day, and the Osprey will circle quickly and effortlessly upward, joining the dozens of Broad-winged Hawks that rely on those thermals during their long migration to the tropics.

When still a dark spot in the sky, hawk watchers are likely to announce the Osprey’s approach. The wing set is their clue. The Osprey looks like a large flying capital “M.” A more technical description is that Osprey’s wings are held above the horizontal with a sharp downward bend at the wrist. Some writers also caution that this wing set can be confused with the wing set of gulls; they caution that the Osprey is the hawk that looks like a gull but is not. If I had not read that an Osprey could be confused with a gull, I would not have known that. Gulls may fly with wings that look like a capital “M,” but they almost always flap their wings. Ospreys over Putney Mountain don’t flap. (At least, they don’t flap like the occasional passing gull.)

The Osprey’s charisma lies in its size, in the steadiness and surety with which it flies, and in the command it exercises of wind and weather. Its charisma may also derive from its sheer presence and relative commonness. Not too many years ago, the Osprey was severely endangered. The pesticide, DDT, worked its way through the food chain, concentrating in the prey species at the top of the food chain - in the Osprey’s case, the fish on which it fed. DDT thinned the egg shells, the end result of which was widespread nesting failure. When DDT was banned, the Osprey began to recover, aided by many recovery efforts. Nesting platforms all along seacoasts, lakes and rivers are the most visible evidence of those recovery efforts which also included rigorous protections, and often hacking programs. Hacking programs involve taking a chick from a distant area, and raising it with surrogate parents (usually underpaid biology students). The success of these programs with Ospreys was probably helped by the fact that Ospreys are genetically programmed to hunt in the Osprey manner; they do not have to be taught by the parents. When the young are able to fly, they begin to fish.

The Osprey has recovered. Especially along the coasts, it is considered common. In southeasternVermont you may see it along the Connecticut or West Rivers from late-March to early November. Many pairs nest near Lake Champlain. I have seen Osprey over Grout Pond, Somerset and Harriman Reservoirs. And of course, during “hawk watch season” on Putney Mountain, they are regular.

The hawk watchers have a rule of thumb that when one Osprey is seen, five minutes later another will be appear. I would not want to subject this rule to a rigorous scientific testing, but it is generally true that the Osprey is an unusually gregarious hawk and travels with others of its kind. John James Audubon often saw flocks of eight or ten Ospreys migrating together along the coast.

Ospreys are also likely to nest in proximity to other Ospreys. In the early twentieth century, Forbush knew of a colony on Narranganset Bay with about seventy-five active nests. In protected coastal areas today where nesting platforms have been erected, it is common to see multiple Osprey nests. Ospreys seem to be able to get along with their neighbors, a characteristic that is not very common in the natural world - nor, for that matter, in the civilized world. Given this characteristic, it is not so surprising that the Ospreys will migrate together, sometimes at five minute intervals.

Of course, many hawks are seen with their kind during migration. Sharp-shinned Hawks often travel together, but as any hawk watcher will tell you, they don’t travel together in peace. Sharpies are constantly in dog-fights with one another, or any other hawk or eagle that may presume to share air space with them. Broad-winged Hawks migrate by the dozens, and sometimes hundreds, and further south by the thousands and tens of thousands. They congregate where the thermals are rising; they watch for distant kettles of broadies to locate the next thermal on the route. But once in the tropics, they disperse widely and singly to spend the winter.

Ospreys don’t seem to need their kind to get along, but they seem to get along with their own kind. I can think of worst ways to live one’s life. I’ll probably have more on the Osprey in the future, but for the moment, the rain has stopped, the sky is clearing, and I’d rather go look at hawks than write about them. And that dark spot in the sky that looks like the “Arches” with the gold turned off - that’s an Osprey. Good birding.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Late Summer Sightings at the Feeders

First the birds that have not been in my backyard lately. The blackbirds - they showed up early in the Spring and were regular until early August. By then their nesting and breeding were complete and they abandoned my yard to gather in their huge flocks, and I suppose for some of them, to begin their migrations. Red-winged Blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds, and starlings may be around your area, but they are no longer visiting my feeders.

The Cedar Waxwings which were buzzing so persistently through the tree tops just a couple of weeks ago have apparently taken the kids, who should be old enough now to feed themselves, and gone to join up with others of their kind. Their large, gregarious, nomadic flocks will now wander about our neighborhoods, carousing on fermented fruit through the winter months.

I have not seen the resident nesting Common Yellowthroat. The young are on their own, and the parents no longer have territory to defend or nests to care for. If they are still around, they are skulking quietly.

So what birds are around? All of the expected year-round residents are here: chickadees, titmice, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, doves and pigeons. They seem to have concluded their young rearing for the year. Some, like the doves and pigeons have raised multiple broods. The young of all of these are evident, not so much by plumage as by their naivete. They are still slow to take flight, not yet fully aware of the dangers lurking around the yard.

The adult cardinals still come by in the early morning and late evening. One male cardinal is very scruffy - either he is a young bird molting into adult plumage, or a adult changing his plumage. Cardinals may raise three or four broods in a season, and I suspect that the resident pair is still busy with nestlings. Last year there were recently fledged cardinals in mid- to late-September; plumage of the juvenile is much like the female, but the bill is dark.

As recently as last Saturday, an Evening Grosbeak was feeding its young in the backyard. As a nestling, the grosbeak is fed regurgitated insects. I watched the adult crack open sunflower seeds with its powerful beak and feed them into the open bill of the fledgling. These young grosbeaks are undoubtedly a second brood.

Song Sparrows also raise multiple broods during a breeding season, and one of the resident pair is still finishing up with their latest brood; they were feeding young in the yard early this week.

Some of my neighbors in Newfane have enough coniferous forests around their homes that the Red-breasted Nuthatch is a regular, year-round visitor to their feeders. In my backyard, I have come to expect them to show up in the late summer. They are regular for about a month. Then they are a sporadic feeder bird through the Fall and Winter. Smaller than its cousin, the White-breasted Nuthatch (which visits my feeders every single day of the year), the Red-breasted Nuthatch is an active little comic - tame, acrobatic, inquisitive. A delight to have around.

The bee-balm is starting to fade, but the Hummingbirds are still here, now feeding on the phlox and drinking nectar from the hummingbird feeder. There are always two or three around, and I have counted as many as seven. But the hummingbirds in my yard pale compared to those of a friend on Newfane Hill. Her feeder is twice the size of mine and she fills it twice a day. Most of the hummingbirds appear to be juveniles. The male has given up defending his territory from other males, females, and his offspring; he’s probably on his way south. I’ll keep the humming bird feeder out until late September.

The goldfinches are common. They are one of the last birds in our area to nest, often not beginning until mid to late June, but often managing more than one brood anyway. They’re beginning to form into their winter flocks. One or two pair were visitors to the backyard during the early summer; now there are a dozen or more. The bright-yellow males are showing feather wear, looking sort of tattered. They will soon molt into their winter olive drab.

Occasionally joining the goldfinches are a couple of their close relatives, the little brown Pine Siskins. The siskin can be easily mistaken for a sparrow. The siskin bill is thin and pointed, unlike sparrows. A trace of yellow in the wings is very unsparrow-like.

A walk through my yard shows feathers scattered everywhere. The doves and jays, in particular, are molting feathers. I saw a dove yesterday with a day feather sticking out at an odd angle. When it flew, the feather was shaken loose and floated to the ground. When Mourning Doves perch, the tail feathers usually form a long, neat point. The pointed tail of a dove on my feeder consisted of one feather.

A few days ago, I was taking in clothes from our solar clothes dryer. (Older readers might know it as a clothesline - the most energy efficient, cost effective, environmentally friendly, and underused laundry appliance.) From somewhere in a nearby bush I heard movement and rustling, like a cat or groundhog might make if it were barging through the understory. A chickadee called sharply. I looked toward the disturbance. A hawk was beneath the bush, banded tail spread wide. It flew. My glimpse, not much longer than the time it will take you to read this subordinate clause, was of a young Sharp-shinned Hawk, brown-backed, not gray like the adult. By the relatively large size, it was probably a female. I could not see its talons as it flew off so I don’t know whether it had hunted successfully. I suspect not. Its whole manner had seemed clumsy.

After the hawk disappeared and I returned to my solar dried laundry. My mind finally woke up to the Blue Jays’ cacophony in the distance. They called their warning before the hawk attacked, but I had paid no attention. They were continuing to signal the danger. When I looked toward the feeders, the birds were gone. There was silence from the surrounding trees.

And yes, the Blue Jays are around. A dozen at a time sweep in on the feeders. They shovel seed to the ground for the ground feeders, then pick out one seed, then repeat the shoveling before eating another seed. They tussle among themselves. They are not the unmitigated bullies some people imagine them; grosbeaks hold their own against the jays. So do the timid appearing, passive appearing doves. I suspect that even the birds which appear to be bullied by the jays don’t really mind. The Blue Jays, after all, are the neighborhood’s guardians. In the constant movement, the jays are usually the first to notice danger, raise the alarm, and marshal forces to drive off predators. The young hawk will have a better opportunity to practice its hunting skills if it can find a neighborhood free of Blue Jays.

As you may have gathered, during the late summer there is a lot of good birding in my backyard.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Backyard Birds

The backyard feeders have been busy. But first, what has not been here - no blackbirds since early August. Red-wings, grackles, cowbirds, and starlings have moved from their breeding dispersal, gathering in flocks elsewhere.

In the backyard as of Saturday, September 1 - Evening Grosbeaks were feeding young.

Pine Siskins have come down from their mountain breeding areas and have been regulars

Some neighbors have the Red-breasted Nuthatch as a regular year-round feeder bird. At my feeders, they show up during August and September, then periodically through the winter. Two or three were around all day yesterday.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are less common, but this youngster is beginning to show his true colors.

There have been so many young hummingbirds on the bee-balm, that the resident male has given up trying to defend his territory. I counted six at one time yesterday.

Spotty without his breeding spots is still working the river.

An odd resting stance for the Mourning Dove - looks like its injured, but it was fine.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Herring Gull - the Typical Gull

I love the New England coast, and in recent weeks I have had several occasions to wander sections of this coast, explore some of the inlets, and just watch as the tides breaks on the rugged rocks and cliffs. During most of this wandering, I was not deliberately looking for birds, with the result that I noticed some birds more than I otherwise might have.

Specifically, I noticed the Herring Gull, which is bound to make some birders may gag. The Herring Gull is so common. It is often a pest; it is noisy and pushy. It preys on the eggs and young of “good” birds. It eats garbage. It poops prodigiously on docks, sidewalks, signs, and any other object on which it may alight on or fly over. The Herring Gull is there - always - and need not be noted or paused over as the birder pursues the next bird sighting.

Yes, the Herring Gull is there, and that’s what I noticed. I saw it on a stone guard rail at a scenic parking spot, unconcerned about my car intruding on its space, its feathers ruffled only by the ocean breeze. I saw it hopping amount the tables of an outdoor restaurant in the early evening; the diners were gone and the waitstaff was cleaning up. So was the Herring Gull, looking for bits of food strewn on the grass. I saw the Herring Gull perched on a car top on a coastal mountain top.

Thirty miles from shore, in the open ocean, I saw a Herring Gull flying steadily and purposefully eastward toward the deeper waters of the Atlantic, and another flying in from those distant waters. And another, resting on the waters among the pelagic shearwaters which only come ashore to breed.

I watched a Herring Gull hover over a roadway with something in its beak, then drop that something onto the hard pavement - a mollusk of some type. It repeated the exercise, each time from a greater height, until the protective shell finally cracked and yielded its contents to the resourceful, and hungry, gull.

I saw a Herring Gull sleeping peacefully on a sunny rock, and a dozen of varying ages socializing on a sandbar, and several dozen following a lobster boat for whatever offal might be thrown on the waters, and another wading in the thick seaweed and mud just exposed by the ebbing tide, its feet sucked in by the semi-liquid ocean floor just as were those of the human hunter for crabs nearby.

I saw the Herring Gull everywhere along and near the coast. It is a proto-typical gull - the gull that is used as the model with which to compare and contrast other gulls. Other gulls are bigger than, smaller than, slimmer than, stockier than, lighter than, darker than, whiter than, more graceful than ... the Herring Gull.

The Herring Gull is a large gull, with pink legs, yellow bill, and a bright red spot on its lower mandible. It has a white head. It is white underneath and gray on the back. The primary wing feathers are black on the ends with white spots. While typical of gulls, it is not the most handsome of gulls; Dunne in his Essential Field Guide Companion calls it “gangly and angular” and concludes that “if any gull deserves to be called ugly, this one is it.”

The Herring Gull’s scientific name is Larus argentatus. Larus is from Latin for gull; argentatus means silvery, or plated with silver, hence one of its folk names - “Silver Gull.” It is also known as the “Harbor Gull,” for its prevalence in and around harbors, and the “Winter Gull” for the fact that it often appears in the winter. In southeastern Vermont and the Connecticut River valley it is one of our three “winter gulls,” joining company with the smaller Ring-billed Gull and the larger Greater Black-backed Gull. (Other rarer gulls can sometimes be found in the Connecticut River valley during winter, but these are the three most common.)

Along the New England coast, the Herring Gull is found year-round. Its breeding range generally begins on the off-shore islands and extends northward to the Arctic. In winter it vacates the far north, wintering from Newfoundland southward along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and sometimes to Mexico and the West Indies. It takes three to four years for a Herring Gull to mature and begin breeding; young birds may stay on the wintering range throughout the year and may wander much further than adults.

Herring Gulls are today the most common gull in the east. Commonalty often leads to disinterest and even contempt. But a hundred years ago, the bird was in danger. Their numbers had been drastically reduced by eggers, and the feather trade.

Audubon described a visit in 1833 to White Head Island at the entrance to the Bay of Fundy. He was surprised to find Herring Gulls nesting in trees. The island’s owner explained that his sons and fishermen collected most of the eggs for use in winter. The gulls gradually began to put their nests in trees in the thickest island woods. Only the younger gulls were still nesting on the ground. The depredation to the gulls was so great, that the owner prohibited strangers from robbing the nests and only permitted select persons, such as Audubon and his party, to shoot the gulls. “I daresay,” quoted Audubon, “you will not commit any greater havoc among them than is necessary, and to that you are welcome.”

But this island owner was an exception in his restrictions. Gathering eggs for food, and killing the birds for the hat-feather trade (Herring Gulls and many other species), was so great during the nineteenth century that numbers were drastically reduced, endangering the survival of some species, and beginning to push the Herring Gull to that point. Fortunately, in the early twentieth century protections were instituted and the gull populations began to recover.

Herring Gulls recovery has been helped by its adaptability. They will eat anything. When natural food sources have been depleted, they have turned, instead, to offal, garbage and sewage. Forbush described their food adaptations: “It gathers in flocks in harbors and wherever fish are dressed or thrown away, at canning factories, fish-freezers or fish-wharves, and quickly devours all offal or fish-waste thrown into the water. It flocks in thousands where sewage is discharged .... Wherever fish, killed in thousands by disease, frost or other causes, are cast up in countless multitudes upon the shore to poison the air with the offensive effluvia of decay, there the gulls gather and in an astonishingly short time succeed in abating the nuisance.”

Landfills and garbage dumps are favorite gathering places for gulls where, in spite of their best efforts, they are unable to devour the tons of human generated garbage. Polite society does not like to be reminded of its garbage and filth, and looks down on those who clean up after the waste. Herring Gulls are enthusiastic omnivores and indiscriminate garbage lovers, thus reaping prejudice by the garbage producers.

On the New England coast, and in winter on many inland waters, Herring Gulls are everywhere. When I am not too busy, I notice them. Good birding!


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