Sharpie or Coop? Christmas Puzzlebird 12/17/17

This hawk burst through my Arbor vitaes this afternoon after one of the Juncos foraging under the feeder. Missed! It’s either a Cooper’s or a Sharp-shinned Hawk and telling the difference between the two is one of the more difficult challenges for beginner and even intermediate level birders. Both are Accipiters, short-winged and long-tailed hawks designed for agility and speed when chasing prey through the woods. One of them has a more squared off tail while the other’s more rounded. One’s head is proportionally large to the body while the other’s head is proportionally small. One has a paler nape than its crown creating a “capped” appearance while the other has a dark crown and nape, creating a more “hooded” appearance. And while Sharpies are smaller than Coops, male Coops are about the same size as female Sharpies. Sharpies have those skinny legs (the eponymous “sharp shins”) compared to Coops. ¬†To make things even more complicated, juveniles have different breast feathering from each other and adults!

I’ll send a free 2018 Phillip’s Fetching Birds Calendar to whoever posts the correct answer with the best explanation that appears in the comments by midnight Christmas eve. Winner and answer will be posted here on Christmas day.

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American Black Duck pair 12/15/17

Black Ducks are closely related to Mallards with whom they often hybridize. They are a favored game bird east of the Rockies, breeding in Boreal Canada from Labrador to Saskatchewan and wintering in the southeastern states from Texas to Florida. In the southern Great Lakes, New England and much of the Atlantic seaboard they are year round birds. They look much like a very dark version of the female Mallard but you can tell the sexes apart by bill color. Males have yellow bills while females have dull green bills that are often speckled. Their iridescent speculum (wing patch) is a blue purple.

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Song Sparrow 12/14/17

Seapoint is a stubby spit of grass and scrub poking into the Atlantic, flanked by Seapoint and Crescent Beaches and backed by the salt marshes draining Chauncey Creek in Kittery Point. While Seapoint offers a a wealth of bird life, on land and sea and in the air, at any time of year, this little Song Sparrow and its mate are the only-year round avian residents of the 2+ acres that I know of. I regularly see one or both of them every time I visit, usually several times a week.

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Great Blue Heron 12/13/17

Even in the middle of December it’s not unusual to find a few Great Blue Herons in tidal habitats along the coast. When it gets thick with snow and frozen with ice, they may disappear for awhile (probably to Cape Cod) but with a warm spell of just a few days they’ll be back stalking the marshes and any ice free waters for fish and other prey. Great Blues belong to the genus Ardea, comprising the Great Herons of the world. The one above is a juvenile, which you can tell by the gray cap which is black in adults.

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Herring Gull 12/12/17

Whenever people mention “seagull” they’re most often referring to the Herring Gull. They are aggressive scavengers who usually hang out not far from their food sources, and contrary to popular opinion, gulls in general do not venture very far offshore. Herring Gulls breed both along the coast as well as inland across boreal Canada, though their numbers grow considerably along the coasts in winter. In this photo are a variety of plumages. Adults have white heads and tails, light gray wings tipped in black, and yellow bills with a redspot. In winter their heads take on dirty streaks. Juvenile birds are a mottled brown all over, becoming more gray in the wings and more white everywhere else as they progress towards adulthood which takes 4 years. In all plumages they have pink feet.

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Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 12/11/17

Every winter has its vagrants, birds who show up that just don’t belong here. This little Blue-gray Gnatcatcher has been around for at least a week or so but really ought to be somewhere in the Caribbean or around the Gulf of Mexico right now. Was it blown off course by a storm? Was it migrating south and something stopped it? No one really knows why it happens. The best explanation I’ve heard is that migrating birds have two separate instincts, one tells them how far to travel, and the other tells them which direction. And just on account of variation or some mutation, one or both of those signals get crossed. The most peculiar thing about this example is that a Spotted Towhee (a bird of the Western US) spent a good chunk of the 2013-14 winter in these very same bushes in Rye, NH.

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Eastern Bluebird female 12/10/17

Though many migrate south, many small groups of Eastern Bluebirds will brave the New England winter. Once insects have disappeared with the arrival of snow and frozen earth, they switch their diet and you’ll find them competing for the same fruits and berries that waxwings, robins, starlings, mockingbirds, and others go after. But I’ll also see them at the beach where piles of rotting seaweed¬†hatch brine flies, or in the salt marshes where a receding tide leaves little crustaceans for them to find, and once I saw a group gather at a construction site where a backhoe opened up the frozen earth for a foundation exposing worms and other invertebrates, and bluebirds are no dummies. But this one is in my garden, come for the dried meal worms we scatter for them and the Carolina Wrens.

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