Blue Jay 6/13/18

The word “Jay” was first used to describe loud and garrulous people and flashy dressers, and then later began to be applied to a European bird exhibiting similar characteristics. Today there are close to 60 species of jay worldwide, many of which are found in the American tropics. They are closely related to crows, ravens, and magpies in the Corvid family, all of which are known for their intelligence, and jays in particular for being able to plan ahead as well as their incredible abilities to mimic. The Blue Jay is primarily a year-round forest bird that has adapted well to the park-like habitats of human residential land use in eastern North America. They have one basic plumage of blue, sky-blue, black, white, and pale (sometimes lilac) gray that doesn’t vary year round or between sexes.

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Tree Swallow 6/11/18

Tree Swallows, sometimes called White-bellied Swallows, arrive in April from southernmost parts of North America, the Caribbean, and northern Central America while other North American Swallows winter farther south. Males are an iridescent blue-green on their uppersides and white below, while females are browner above with just hints of blue-green iridescence. As females age they become more colorful and iridescent like the males. They’re found near open fields and wetlands and nest in tree cavities but take readily take to nest boxes like this one. ¬†They raise their young on insects caught on the wing, but if caught by a cold snap early in the season, they can supplement their diet with berries.

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Blue-headed Vireo 6/10/18

Up until about 20 years ago when DNA studies began rewriting the relationships between bird species, Blue-headed Vireos were lumped together with the similar looking Cassin’s and Plumbeous Vireos of the west and southwest, and were together called the Solitary Vireo. Today they are recognized as 3 distinct species. All have prominent white “spectacles,” but the Blue-headed Vireo is the easternmost of the group, and most colorful with the bluest head and greenest body. They are small migratory songbirds with much stouter bills than the warblers, and like all vireos, there’s little to no distinction between the sexes. Vireos reside in the middle and upper canopies of hardwoods, where they are virtually impossible to see once the trees have leafed out, though the Blue-headed Vireo also makes use of mixed and coniferous woods.

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Three migrating Greater Yellowlegs 6/8/18

Not the most stunning photo of Greater Yellowlegs, but so typical of how I often find them. They are a little nervous because I am poking up into the sky many times their size and getting closer. But all I need to do is stop, squat, become another rock sticking up out of the mud, and they go back to dancing around the shallows for little things to snatch. These are Yellowlegs which should be self-evident, and Greater not Lesser Yellowlegs for 2 reasons, the first being that the bills of all three are longer than their head is wide, and the second being that you can see the spotting under their folded wings (along the flanks), continues all the way back to the undertail. There are other clues, but those are the ones evident at this distance. They are Tringa sandpipers or “shanks” like the Willet I started this week of shorebirds with, but unlike the Willets they are migrants heading farther north, not to the Arctic tundra like all the little sandpipers, but to the bogs and marshes of boreal Canada that sweep across the continent.

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Ruddy Turnstone female 6/4/18

Turnstones use their short pointy bills like shovels, digging and flipping through the rocks and seaweed at the edge of the sea for invertebrate snacks. Their bright orange legs and harlequin markings stand out in all seasons, but the rusty wings that come with breeding plumage make them one of the more colorful shorebirds on the spring beach. This one’s female, males have more black in the face and breast and the rusty patches in the wings are more distinct. They are pigeon-sized with a bolder wing pattern than most making them easy to pick out in a mixed flock of flying shorebirds. They’re long distance migrants with some traveling to the high Arctic from South America, while at the same time its not unusual to find some wintering on the Maine coast.

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Semipalmated Sandpipers 6/2/18

Semipalmated Sandpipers are small and probably the most abundant of all the shorebird species you’ll see running about the beach or on mudflats during spring migration. They have dark legs, straight black bills, short necks, some faint streaking across the light breast (but no streaking on their flanks), with mottled wings and back that can appear either brownish or gray. They winter on the shores of South America and southern North America, and gather by the thousands on their long trek north to the Arctic tundra breeding grounds. Like the Semipalmated Plovers posted the other day, they have a bit of webbing between their toes. They are 1 of the 5 smallish sandpiper species that are together known as peeps.

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Semipalmated Plover male and female 5/31/18

I try to avoid bird photos with busy backgrounds like this one, but there’s two interesting things in this image worth pointing out. Most field guides as a rule don’t mention the sexual dimorphism in shorebirds, perpetuating the idea that the sexes look exactly alike. I’m guessing the reason is that shorebirds are already so tricky to ID, they don’t want to push it with even subtler distinctions. But here’s an example of a male and female Semipalmated Plover. Plover and not sandpiper because the bill is short and the body is stockier, and semipalmated because there’s a bit of webbing between the toes (but nothing like say a duck or seagull). Now look at the male bird in the foreground and notice all the black around the face, while in the female behind the black single ringed collar is really dark brown, as is the face mask except for the forehead. The other thing I wanted to point out is a new discovery for me, and that’s the thin but bright yellow eye-ring, which is part of the bird’s breeding plumage that you won’t see when these birds migrate back through in the fall.

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