Song Sparrow 3/23/17

Male Song Sparrows are already singing for Madge, Madge, Madge to put on the tea kettle please. I heard this one just a couple of days ago, and if it weren’t for him singing, I’d not have known he was male. A few handfuls of these backyard songbirds endure the New England winters, presumably to get a jump on the best territory for spring breeding, but that’s just a guess. I’ve been learning that quite a few migrant species have individuals that brave the winter hardships, and that field guide range maps are pretty worthless when it comes to winter ranges, especially along the coast. A much more reliable source of what species are pushing their winter boundaries is ebird, which has real up to date data based on first-hand accounts in any given area.

 

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Red-throated Loon 3/22/17

Even in a twilight silhouette it’s possible to tell a Red-throated Loon from a Common Loon. They ride lower in the water, are smaller and more slender, and their bills are much thinner and more pointed with a slight upward tilt. They are circumpolar Arctic breeders and in New England we only get to see them in winter when they migrate as far south as Florida. They aren’t all that rare in winter but are still much less frequently seen than their Common Loon cousins.

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Bonaparte’s Gull, Purple Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstone 3/21/17

It can be annoying to bird at popular dog-walking spots. You’ve held still and low, perfectly quiet, patiently waiting for the incoming tide to bring shorebirds or diving ducks close while pretending to be just another rock among many, and then someone’s mutt comes lumbering along wanting to make friends with you and spoiling all that effort. But it can work the other way too. If you know something is around, say a Ruddy Turnstone among a flock of Purple Sandpipers but you don’t want to chase them from one location to another, with a little patience and a strategic perch, the roaming mutts will eventually send them to you.

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American Woodcock 3/12/17

Plump and shy, American Woodcocks are not often seen and if you do happen across one it tends to burst into the air with whistling wings and after a short flight disappears into a thicket. They’re also known as Timberdoodles or Bogsuckers, and are really sandpiper adapted to young forests and brushy swamps, and the peculiar aerial dance of the males at twilight in nearby open areas is a sure sign of spring. They use their long bills to probe soft earth for worms and other invertebrates. They’re found only in eastern North America, migrating from the southern sates to the northern US and southernmost Canada. They face hardship if they arrive too early when the exposed ground they depend on later gets covered with a foot of snow.

 

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Ring-billed Gull 3/8/17

Often people think of gulls as exclusively coastal birds, but Ring-billed Gulls breed in colonies near fresh water rivers and lakes all across the northern US and southern Canada making them the most numerous of all the North American gulls. In winter they become more common on the Gulf, Atlantic, and Pacific coasts as well as the Great Lakes, with some migrating as far south as the Caribbean and Yucatan. In winter plumage their white heads and necks take on a dirty streaking like they’ve been lightly splattered with mud. Ring-bills are considerably smaller than Herring or Great Black-backed Gulls. Adults have yellow feet and a yellow bill with a black ring near the tip while one and two year olds have mottled brown plumages with pink legs and pink bills with black tips.

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Northern Pintail drakes 3/6/17

Northern Pintail drakes are distinctively shaped slender ducks with long necks, chocolate heads, and long black central tail feathers. Females are mottled brown, but have the same graceful shape as the males just with shorter tail feathers. In winter they dabble for plants and seeds in shallow waters but during the nesting season their diet shifts to insects, mollusks, and crustaceans. They breed in open wetlands in the northern areas of Europe, Asia, and North America but here in New England they are early migrants.

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Common Merganser female 3/4/17

Common Mergansers are large diving ducks of mostly freshwater rivers and streams, larger than their Red-breasted cousins of coastal waters, though the two species can both be found in tidal inlets where they can be confused. The sharply defined white chin patch, which you can just make out here, is diagnostic for the female. Males have white bodies with mostly white wings, black backs, and black heads with a green iridescence. Both sexes can raise their head feathers in a crest and like all mergs they have serrated bills to help them grip their slippery prey from which they get the nickname “sawbill.” Duck hunters don’t much care for their fishy-flavored meat.

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