Usually when writing a blurb for a Birdaday photo, I go to a few websites for background info and today’s no different. Everywhere I go for this bird the very first thing I come across is “. . . formerly called Oldsquaw” and “. . . once known as Oldsquaw,” as if people don’t call them “Oldsquaw” anymore. While lots of birders do use the politically correctified name “Long-tailed Duck” and nothing else, in my experience most regular folk talking about these doll-like winter diving ducks (including many hardcore birders) still use the name “Oldsquaw” regularly. The American Ornithologist’s Union (AOU) formally changed the name in 2000 claiming it was to conform to “worldwide use” (by which they really mean British use) and denying political correctness as their motivation. Ok whatever. I use the name Long-tailed Duck in print, but in conversation still refer to them as Oldsquaw more often than not, not seeing or expressing anything derogatory in that use, though I recognize the Algonquin word “squaw” has had many pejorative connotations historically. In this photo, the male is the one in front with the pink bill.
I see Bald Eagles fairly regular these days, soaring overhead while taking a walk on the beach, or in some pine watching the water for flotsam and jetsam like this one with scanning the York River. I had my eye on him for a good half hour and can say he was a small one, meaning male, as females are up to 25% larger. Their remarkable comeback continues even after they came off the Endangered Species list a decade ago.
Not long ago it would have been quite unusual to find the Northern Mockingbirds overwintering in Southern Maine. They prefer open scrub and park-like areas with short grasses and sparse shrubbery and no doubt the relentless expansion of urban and suburban environments has significantly contributed to their success. They are aggressive birds, often in early winter you’ll find one or a pair jealously guarding some fruiting shrub, vigorously fending off marauding starlings or waxwings. Their prodigious repertoire of imitated sounds not only includes the songs and calls of many other birds, but they will also mimic dogs, frogs, insects, even car alarms! Both sexes sing, sometimes endlessly, sometimes in winter, and even sometimes at night, though females sing more softly and less frequently. Their repertoires continue to expand as they age.
These highly active and small diving ducks of the Goldeneye family are common in New England tidal waters from October to April, but you’d never guess that they spend their summers far from here in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska where they commandeer and recycle old flicker nests for breeding. They probably spend as much time underwater foraging for marine invertebrates as they do on the surface. The purple and green iridescent head of the drake is only noticeable when the light is just right, otherwise they are black and white. Females lack the iridescence, are even smaller and mostly dark gray above with lighter undersides, and have a prominent white cheek patch.
Possibly my favorite of all sparrows, White-throateds sing a plaintive slow whistle, usually paraphrased Oh-sweet-canada or Old Sam Peabody. But what’s really interesting about them is that half their population comes with tan and brown stripes on the head while the other half has crispier white and black stripes like the bird in the photo, but both forms have the white throat and the yellow lores. Each form is roughly half male and half female. So what’s the big deal? Many birds come in different color morphs (eg: the gray and red morphs of Eastern Screech Owls), but what’s really peculiar about these birds is that one morph always mates with the other morph.
Wood Ducks are year round birds in their southern range but here in the Northeast they typically have to migrate far enough south to find open fresh water once winter temps fall below freezing. But not all do, some rivers stay open as well as the tidal edges near the coast leave a few shallow places that stay ice-free enough to support a few intrepid pairs. This drake and its mate have found a duck pond in York where food is supplied for Mallards and geese, and the water is artificially kept moving and open with pumps so that only the edges freeze up. Wood Ducks don’t seem to migrate much farther south than necessary, and are among the very first migrants to return with the spring thaws.
American Tree Sparrows look much like Chipping Sparrows, except for 3 field marks—the dark spot on their breasts, a rusty (not black) eyestripe, and the two-toned bill of black over yellow. Otherwise they are very similar birds, but they don’t much overlap in space or time. In New England when Chipping Sparrows have gone south for the winter, American Tree Sparrows arrive from the Arctic tundra shortly afterward, giving rise to their other common (and more apt) name of Winter Sparrow. American Tree Sparrows neither feed or nest in trees—they breed in the Arctic tundra where there are no trees! Just a couple of years ago they were classified as 1 of 7 species in the genus Spizella, but DNA studies showed they had significantly diverged from their cousins and were given their own genus Spizelloides. Perhaps some day scientists will get around to fixing the incorrect “Tree” part of their name.