Thursday, January 31, 2008

Winter on Cape Ann

Note: This was a post with Short-eared Owl photos. I've remove the photos from this post so they can be used with column on 2/9. Here are a few other photos from winter birding around Cape Ann.

American Black Ducks and Gadwalls photographed near lighthouse on Eastern Point, Cape Ann.

Harlequin Ducks near Andrews Point.

Great Cormorants were roosting at low tide on rocks off the Granite Pier near Rockport.

Began the day birding Cape Ann. At Halibut Point, a flock of 75 Purple Sandpipers were feeding & bathing in their manner, on the rocks as the high surf broke.

Off the Granite Pier in Rockport,captured this Harlequin Duck just as it dove.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Slaty-backed Gull on Cape Ann

I was on a narrow road near Niles Pond on East Point in Gloucester, Massachusetts. I had just gotten in the car when a walker stopped by the driver’s window. I lowered the window. He asked, “I notice a lot of people are taking pictures today. How come?”

“There’s a rare gull out there,” I replied. My answer seemed to leave him unmoved. So I added, “It’s from the eastern Pacific.” He still seemed unimpressed, but muttered a “Thanks” as he continued on down the road. Gulls just don’t excite some people.

On the other hand, many birders get excited by gulls. Niles Pond on Cape Ann is a regular stopping place for birders, especially in the winter when gulls gather there by the thousands.

The unusual object of interest on Niles Pond this year is the presence of a Slaty-backed Gull. It is native to coastal areas and islands of northeastern Asia, with the largest breeding concentration being Kamchatka; it is sometimes called the Kamchatka Gull. In winter it often ranges south to Korea and through the islands of Japan. A few non-breeding and winter birds find their way to western Alaska. In North America it is a rare vagrant, usually found from southern Alaska to Oregon.

But, in the last twenty years the Slaty-backed Gull has been turning up in widely scattered locations including Ontario, Missouri, Texas, Florida, and Hawaii. Last year one was recorded at a water treatment plant in Rochester, New Hampshire.

On December 23, while birding on the Jodrey Fish Pier in Gloucester, David Sibley (of the Sibley bird guides) identified a Slaty-backed Gull sleeping on a flat roof on the waterfront, although he had to wait for the bird to awake and take flight to confirm the identification. About an hour later, a staff member of Massachusetts Audubon observed a “suspicious” gull on Cape Cod while doing a Christmas Bird Count. This also was a Slaty-backed Gull. Eventually a third one was found in Gloucester, leading the Boston Globe to report “A Russian Invasion in Gloucester.”

Most gulls belong to the genus Larus, including all of the regularly occurring gulls in North America. In the Northeast, the three most common gulls are all white-headed Larus gulls: Great Black-backed, Herring, and Ring-billed. There are enough size differences and distinctive field marks that identification of adult birds is seldom difficult ... if you only have these three gulls to tell apart.

But when additional white-headed gulls get thrown into the mix, then identification can be challenging. My first sighting of the Slaty-backed Gull was through the spotting scope of a Massachusetts birder and photographer. That gave me the angle and I was able to find it with my scope. It was among several hundred other gulls on distant rocks on the ocean side of Niles Pond. At that distance it looked very much like a Great Black-backed Gull. I could see differences between the Slaty-backed and the Great Black-backs, but they were subtle differences. I doubt I would have found the bird on my own.

A couple of hours later, I returned to Niles Pond and this time found the bird on my own; it was again among many hundreds of other gulls, this time on the ice of the pond. The Slaty-backed Gull is about the same size as the Great Black-backed Gull. Both have black backs. But this time I could see the characteristics that set the vagrant apart from the resident. The head of the adult winter Slaty-backed is dark streaked, that of the Great Black-backed is white. The legs are raspberry-pink on the Slaty verses dull fleshy on the Great Black-backed. Tertial edges are noticeably broader on the Slaty than on the Great Black-backed.

It takes several years for gulls to reach maturity, and it is not unusual for young gulls to wander widely. It is more unusual for mature gulls to wander. The Slaty-backed Gull I saw at Niles Pond was an adult, at least four years old. Adult gulls are a challenge to identify, but there are usually differences in field marks, size, or shape which enable a sorting out. Immature gulls are more difficult. Plumage varies each year as the gull matures and molting from one plumage to the next adds more variation.

Then add in to the mix the close relationship among the Larus gulls. Speciation occurs when populations become isolated from one another and evolve according to local needs and conditions. In evolutionary terms, the Larus gulls have been evolving for only a short time. How these gulls are classified as species and subspecies is a subject of intense debate among scientists.

Take, for example, the Herring Gull: Most classify Larus argentatus as a single circumpolar species, with at least three subspecies (or races) - Asian (“Vega”), North American (“American”) and European. Some taxonomist accord species status to each, giving them there own common and scientific names: Vega Gull, American Herring Gull, and Herring Gull, with the latter having British/Iceland and Scandinavian races. Within their own range, each is distinguishable. But ranges overlap and one species (or subspecies) grades into the next.

We are in the center of the (American) Herring Gull range, so it is very rare (but not unknown) for an Asian or European Herring Gull to show up and confuse us. But the close relationship within the Genus Larus results in hybridization. Regularly occurring eastern gulls which occasionally cross breed include: Herring Gull x Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull x Lesser Black-backed Gull, Laughing Gull x Ring-billed Gull, Black-headed Gull x Ring-billed Gull. The Herring Gull x Glaucous Gull is sufficiently common that it has its own name: “Nelson’s” Gull.

A few birders with the time, patience, and opportunity to study gulls are able to sort out the many variations among and between species and even to identify the parentage of hybrids. But some apparent hybrids remain mysteries. “Unidentified gull” is the label attached to some gull photographs which are posted on web blogs and other birding sites by these Class A birders.

I don’t have the time or opportunity to do enough gull watching to become good at it. If there is a rare vagrant among a mixed flock of several hundred gulls, I am probably going to miss it. However, the Slaty-backed Gull was a first Massachusetts record, and the Massachusetts birders were all atwitter. When I headed to Cape Ann on that cold morning last week, I was sure I would find experienced gull watchers watching the gulls. I did. They showed me the gull, and later, knowing what I was looking for, I found it for myself.

I have no idea how an Asian gull (three, in fact) from the Pacific ends up on a pond near a Massachusetts fishing harbor. But it did. A life bird in the middle of a New England January is a good way to start a new year.

Good birding!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Barred Owl - Our Most Common Owl

Coming out of Brattleboro on a faux Spring day last week, just pass the Retreat Meadows I saw something white and brown in a tree close to the road - not the erect posture of a hawk, but a stubby, round posture that said, “Owl.” Fortunately, there were no vehicles in front of me or behind me so I could brake suddenly with safety. And the berm was wide, so I could exit rapidly and also safely. (Getting smacked by a vehicle when chasing a bird can ruin the chase.)

The Barred Owl was so close to the road that I only grabbed my camera. It was looking at something in the direction of the West River. I took a couple of pictures of the back of its head, then began maneuvering through the snow bank for a better angle. I got the better angle. The owl’s head swivelled at my noisy disturbance through the crunchy snow, considered me with distaste for a moment, and then flew.

Fortunately, it merely crossed the road and found a new perch among tall trees. It perched with complete ease, even as I again maneuvered along the roadside for an unobstructed view through the barren branches. My camera whirred away.

Then I began to hear a bird call that I don’t remember having heard before. Just before I had braked for the owl, I had made a quick stop to insure that the mockingbird perched on a wire was in fact a mockingbird and not a shrike. Now the mockingbird had come across the road. The unfamiliar calls I heard were strident, warning calls; the mockingbird began harassing the owl, boldly. It flew within a few feet of the owl, screaming as loudly as a mockingbird can scream, then flew back and yelled some more. A couple of times it appeared to peck at the back of the owl, and once it looked like it had landed on the owl - ever so briefly. To say that the mockingbird was unhappy with the owl’s presence in its neighborhood is an understatement.

Soon after the mockingbird began its noisy harassment of the owl, chickadees began calling. Downy Woodpeckers chimed in. The troops were rallying. The alarm had been sounded; the danger passed along. However, I did not see any of the small birds join the harassment, and, after a few minutes, the mockingbird allowed discretion to replace valor and moved some distance away. If there had been Blue Jays in the neighborhood, they would have been much more aggressive.

This harassment of a predator is called “mobbing.” It is a collective response to danger. At the very least it alerts the bird community to the threat and sometimes results in driving away the enemy. I have often seen crows harassing a Red-tailed Hawk along an interstate; they usually succeed in chasing away the hawk.

A few summers ago on a Newfane hill, I heard an unholy racket from a mob of crows. I could only get glimpses of the crows through the tree tops and I never saw the object of their odium. But in the deep woods, I was quite sure that they had found a Barred Owl and were more than a little unhappy about their discovery.

The Barred Owl is the most common owl in our area. At twenty-one inches, it is large. It is stocky, round-headed, with a grayish-brown back speckled white and a streaked (barred) belly. It has an orange-yellow beak and black eyes. It is the only owl likely to be seen in our area with black eyes.

The Barred Owl is a forest owl. It prefers mature deciduous and mixed forest with a closed canopy. The Great-horned Owl (a less common year-round resident) and the Great Gray Owl (a rare winter visitor to the northern US border) usually sit on the forest edge. Both have yellow eyes. The Barred Owl rarely sits on the forest edge.

The Barred Owl usually perches high in trees and close to the trunk. It hunts from a perch closer to the ground, and almost always at night. Unlike the powerful Great-horned Owl, the Barred Owl has weak talons which impose limits on what it is capable of killing. Most of its prey consists of small rodents: mice, rats, chipmunks, squirrels, moles, shrews, bats, young rabbits. In his life history, Bent cites the conclusion of a researcher: “Altogether, the Barred Owl seems endowed with about as mild a personality as a raptor could have yet maintain a predaceous existence, in some instances subsisting for considerable periods upon large invertebrates (insects and crayfish) or upon fish and amphibians.”

That being said, the Barred Owl is similar to most other predators. It will eat whatever is available, including birds. The list of documented birds in the food of the Barred Owl is long. While primarily nocturnal, there is plenty of evidence that it also hunts in broad daylight. The owl I watched being harassed by the mockingbird may not have been hunting, but like all raptors, it posed a potential danger to songbirds, and danger cannot be ignored.

The Barred Owl is normally a bird of the forest, but in the winter it may venture into villages and towns. The one I saw was very close to Brattleboro. Burlington has had several reports of an urban Barred Owl. And in general, there are been an unusual number of daytime sightings of this owl in recent weeks.

Last summer rodents had a prolific breeding year. This in turn produced higher than usual nesting success for many raptors that feed on the rodents, including Barred Owls. The young owls are inexperienced hunters; they often have a difficult time getting enough to eat. They feed on roadkill, but become victims themselves of vehicles. They often turn up on the doorstep of rehabilitators injured or emaciated.

Now add an early winter with deep snow, and the challenge of survival becomes greater, even for experienced adults. They must take food when and where they can find it. They must do so in these harsh conditions successfully for at least two more months. Then, sometime in late March, they may begin their nesting season.

This is a harsh winter for the owl, but a good winter for seeing owls. It is more common for us to hear the Barred Owl with its haunting “who cooks for you, who cooks for you, who cooks for you allll ....” - often as a back and forth conversation seeming to echo through the night forest.

In 1927, Edward Forbush witnessed a Barred Owl performance which I have to share with you. He wrote: “At one of my lonely wilderness camps in the month of March a pair of Barred Owls came to the trees over my campfire and made night hideous with their grotesque love-making, banishing sleep during the evening hours. Their courtship antics, as imperfectly seen by moonlight and fire light, were ludicrous in the extreme. Perched in rather low branches over the fire they nodded and bowed with half-spread wings, and wobbled and twisted their heads from side to side, meantime uttering the most weird and uncouth sounds imaginable. Many of them were given with the full power of their lungs, without any regard to the sleepers, while others were soft and cooing and more expressive of the tender emotions; sounds resembling maniacal laughter and others like mere chuckles were interspersed here and there between low wha whas and hoo-hoo-aws.”

Good birding.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Slaty-backed Gull - Niles Pond

Slaty-backed Gull, one of three in Gloucester, Massachusetts. This one on Niles Pond. Photographed on January 17. Also, many Iceland Gulls, several Glaucous Gulls, a Nelson's Gull (HEGU x GLGU), displaying waterfowl. Check links on right - Some (Fairly) Recent Photos - for additional photos on photobucket site - Also updated with Hawaii Birds and Winter Birds

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Bush Is for the Birds ... but What about Birdwatchers?

Every issue of Audubon, the magazine of the National Audubon Society, has a section of “Field Notes” - brief items about birds, wildlife, and conservation that have recently been in the news. In the most recent issue (January-February 2008), one of those “Field Notes” carried the dateline, “White House,” and the headline, “Bush is for the Birds.”

When I read the headline, my first reaction was, “So, what else is new.” National Audubon Society, along with almost the entire environmental and conservation community, have harshly criticized the current administration for practically everything it has done, or not done, over the past seven years, including (but not limited to) censoring global warming reports, inadequately funding the National Park Service, and adding the fewest number of species to the endangered species list of any presidency in the last thirty-five years.

Suspecting there might be a double entendre behind the headline, I read the article. It began: “One day last October, Audubon’s editor-in-chief received a phone call that nearly knocked him off his chair. The White House Office of Media Affairs wanted to know if the magazine would like to cover an event in three days at which President George W. Bush would announce major bird initiatives.” This was a totally unprecedented contact.

An Audubon reporter attended the Saturday morning event. The President and First Lady arrived in a fuel deficient Chevy Suburban. The President announced a “grab bag of policies to benefit birds,” and explained that “‘[These policies] show our commitment to protecting America’s migratory birds, conserving habitat they depend on, and ensuring that generations of Americans will enjoy the beauty of birds for decades to come.’”

The article speculates that this twilight interest in birds might stem from Laura Bush, whom the President describes as his very own “birdwatcher extraordinaire.” The article then concluded, as it must, with this caution: “if he ends up carrying through with his promises and putting birds on the political map, it may well be good news.” If!

The Audubon report included a photograph of President Bush holding a screech-owl on a gloved hand. He looks a little uncomfortable. Texas ranchers are more accustomed to picking up dead birds they have just shot, than to holding live ones. In a burst of spontaneous eloquence, he referred to the screech-owl as a “cute little fellow,” although this eloquence hardly matched that of his father who referred to the Northern Spotted Owl as “that little furry-feathery guy.”

The bird-friendly initiatives announced by the President are better than none - if implemented. We can only hope that they are not too little, too late. A recently completed, comprehensive analysis of all birds in the United States lists 217 of 700 U.S. species on the WatchList. Fifty-nine continental species are considered to be in danger of extinction. Photo-Op events for politicians and green image burnishing is not going to address threats from critical habitat loss, toxic pollution, or global warming.

Bush may be for the birds, but, tempted as I am to elaborate, this is not a political column. I am reminded of that trite but true adage that when you point a finger at another person, there are three fingers pointed at yourself. While bird loving birdwatchers continue our criticism of the environmental disaster that this current administration has been, we ought also to question whether we are for the birds.

Bird loving birdwatchers who let their cats roam outside are for the birds. Domestic cats kill millions of birds and small animals every year. They take a bloody toll. They have no way of distinguishing between an invasive pest like the House Sparrow and starling, and a rare Dickcissel migrating or an endangered Bicknell’s Thrush which may pause in the neighborhood on its long journey. A fledgling Mourning Dove on the ground has little awareness of danger and is easy prey for beloved tabby. A young Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovering by a late August bee-balm in the backyard garden is within easy reach of the crouching cat out for a prowl. You might like to think that your cat has gone out for a walk and some exercise, but it is predator on the prowl.

It is stating the obvious: bird feeders and cats are a bad mix.

So, you are a bird loving birdwatcher. You do not let your cat outdoors. Or even better, you have a small dog. A small dog running in the backyard rarely gets blamed for anything, and unlike a cat, quickly comes home when called. You enjoy sitting with a cup of coffee, watching the birds at your bird feeder. In the Spring, you are especially anxious to see the return of certain birds to your feeders - a Rose-breasted Grosbeak perhaps, or Indigo Bunting. You put out oranges for the Baltimore Oriole, and you watch the trees carefully for fleeting glimpses of one of the colorful warblers.

Your coffee came from a one pound, or maybe a three pound, can which you purchased in the super market. It is one of the major brands and you got it for a good price - perhaps $2.50 - $3.50. Per pound

But that cup of coffee was almost certainly grown on a sun-coffee plantation, very likely in Brazil or Columbia. Small coffee shrubs are in neat, closely packed rows. There is no ground cover, no mulch, no shade trees. There is nothing to enhance soil fertility or prevent erosion. The farms rely on synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides, usually applied by workers with little training and no protective clothing. They are biological deserts. There is no habitat for those wintering songbirds you love to see. Feeding the birds, and drinking that kind of coffee is for the birds.

But you can still have your cup of coffee, and feed the birds, and be for the birds. You can also be a good capitalist, an environmental activist, an advocate of social justice for farm laborers, and a birder committed to species protection. You can be all those things by buying coffee that is shade grown and/or organic. The fact is that how the beans in our morning cup of coffee were grown is more important to the long term diversity of our local bird life than the many dollars we spend on squirrel-proof bird feeders (there is no such thing, by the way) and those bags of bird seed.

Shade-grown and/or organic coffee is more expensive than the supermarket canned stuff. But add up the extra cost and compare it with the cost of bird seed for the year. If you can’t afford both, go for the coffee. Our local feeder birds can survive without our bird feeders. Our tropical migrants (like the Rose-breasted Grosbeak or Baltimore Oriole) need a place to live winter after winter, if they are going to return spring after spring and fill our woods with their song.

Two things you can do for the birds: keep your cat indoors, and drink shade grown and/or organic coffee. Frankly, I doubt that Bush is really for the birds, but I do hope that birdwatchers are for the birds.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Last Day of the Old Year

The last day of the old year. I am sitting by the kitchen window watching the snow fall. Later this morning I will go outside and clear the driveway, but for the moment, I just sit. A chickadee comes to the sunflower feeder, takes one, and flies to the red-twig dogwood. The small bill pounds on the seed until it cracks open, yielding the kernel inside. The shell drops to the ground. When the Spring thaw is finally complete, I will find the barren ground littered with sunflower shells. Now the debris just disappears into the pristine snow. The chickadee returns to the feeder for another seed, but flies further off. He does not return. There are no birds at the feeder. It is quiet.

When the day had finally lightened, I came down for my second cup of coffee. There were more birds stirring at that first light. A couple of chickadees, a junco, a redpoll, a pair of tree sparrows. They had surely just emerged from their nighttime roost and were quickly replenishing their fat reserves. The feeders needed attending, so I bundled up and went out. I tramped a path among the feeders with my snowshoes, swept the snow from the platform, filled the mixed seed feeder, and replenished the suet. A chickadee seemed to say chatter a “thank you,” so I gave it a “you’re welcome.” I spread some seeds on the covered porch for the ground feeders, and returned to my winter roost.

I have not been doing much bird watching recently. The home was full of family for the holidays. The children needed tending, feeding, changing, and regular nose wipes. They needed help getting in and out of snow suits, making a slide for the snow saucers, and finding carrots and coals to provide their “Frosty” with eyes and nose. They are active, irrepressible, creative, sometimes cranky, but more often fun. And generous - they brought lots of germs with them and shared them freely. And now they’ve gone to their homes, and I snuffle their gift. The house is quiet. With my coffee, I sit by the window, and finally have time to watch the birds. But the birds are gone and the only sound is the snow falling silently beyond the window.

A Downy Woodpecker comes to the suet feeder. No red spot brightens the back of the head, so I know this is a female. Her mate comes soon after. A small flock of chickadees hurries in. With each trip to the sunflower feeder, they return to a branch, and the piled snow is knocked loose, dropping to the ground with a silent plunk. I can hear muted conversation through the window. A pair of nuthatches land on the platform. A wandering flock of our wintering birds has made a visit.

That is typical. Our wintering birds gather in mixed flocks and forage over a wide area during the day. Black-capped Chickadees, White and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers - see or hear one and you are likely to see or hear the others in the woods or around the feeders. Less conspicuous, but often accompanying these flocks, is the Brown Creeper; it does not come to the feeder, foraging along tree trunks and branches throughout the year. Golden-crowned Kinglets are often present in these flocks, and Blue Jays may not be far away. Foraging is a full-time activity during the short winter days and food is often scarce. Individuals are helped in their foraging when others are looking for food. Multiple eyes can watch for predators. If a wintering Sharp-shinned Hawk is hunting, the odds of being alerted to its presence are greater if vigilance is shared with others. The odds of surviving are also better if there are ten birds, rather than one, or twenty rather than two.

Not all wintering birds join mixed flocks. Doves and pigeons stay with their own. Separate flocks of about a dozen each are regular in my yard, but around towns the numbers that join together may be in the hundreds. Cedar Waxwings form large flocks, often of fifty, a hundred, or more. The waxwings are very nomadic in the winter, but when you come upon one, you are likely to come upon many.

The wintering finches which have so many New England birders excited this year also tend to form homogenous flocks. Pine Grosbeaks, Evening Grosbeaks, and Snow Buntings are generally with their own kind, although Horned Larks and an occasional Lapland Longspur may be found with the buntings, or with each other, or by themselves. Likewise Common Redpolls tend to flock with their own kind, though I have also seen Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches with redpolls. Birders will study flocks of Common Redpolls in the hopes that a Hoary Redpoll is mixed in somewhere.

The neighborhood cardinals just came in. They are skittish, seldom staying long on any feeder, and cautious before leaving the protective branches of the apple tree. In the winter landscape, they are so conspicuous, especially the brilliant male. The four females that travel with him don’t stand out quite as prominently as he does, but their rich red and brown plumage can’t be missed against the white landscape. If Prince Cardinal and his harem of four all survive the winter, I wonder how things will be sorted out come spring. A previous generation of observers regarded the cardinals are exemplars of monogamy and family devotions. Recent research shows that most songbirds prefer genetic diversity in their clutch of young. I rather suspect this little flock of congenial cardinals will evolve into a daytime soap opera come April. The females will compete with one another, and the male will try to make them all happy, when not contending with strays males trying to intrude on his menage-a-five.

I finally stirred myself and cleared the drive, hopefully for the last time this year, but only the first time this week. I was delayed a few minutes in my chore. When I first went out, I heard a musical call from a tree top. I have a hard time remembering the songs and calls of the familiar birds and have to refresh my memory several times every year. But this call was not a familiar call that I couldn’t remember. It was, as I said, musical - sort of a “chyew-wee” or maybe a “tew-tew-tew.”
I had an inkling of what I might be hearing, and I finally found a dark silhouette on the top of a branch. I retrieved my binoculars and focused on a male Pine Grosbeak, still whistling his call.

Again, the feeders are quiet. No birds. It is very different from what I see from April through October when migrants pass through, when courtship is underway, when young are being fed, when fledglings are feeding, when flocks are gathering, departing, passing through again. Now only a few residents remain. I saw the young of many of these through the summer breeding season - like the downies, for example. More than one brood from more than one pair enjoyed the seeds and the suet. But not now. Parents may have driven them off - or they may already have succumbed to the harsh, early winter, to a predator, to their own failure to learn to forage and develop their ability to feed themselves.

I sit in my warm kitchen. It’s late morning now. I have switched from coffee to hot chocolate, and the warm cup warms my chilled hands. I watch the last drifting snowflakes. The branches of the pines sag beneath the accumulated snow. It is a winter wonderland, a peaceful fairy landscape. An indulgence which I can enjoy in my cosy winter nest.

For the chickadee that just flew in, there is no pleasant indulgence. Survival is its only concern. I watch him on this last day of the old year, and wish many days in the new year.


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