Archive for Eggs

Dark-eyed Junco female and nest 7/26/18

Dark-eyed Juncos are sparrows, only unlike their brown and streaky cousins the eastern subspecies are mostly charcoal gray with white bellies and white feathers edging their tails. Females like the one above, and juveniles have more brown in them. Junco subspecies from other parts of North America sport different plumages. They are ground birds, foraging on the forest floor for seeds but during the breeding season they supplement their diet with insects. I came close to mowing over this nest hidden in thick grasses until I saw the woven cup and three brown speckled eggs.

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Least Tern 8/11/11

The littlest of all the terns lay their eggs in a shallow scrape on sandy beaches. I found this parent just off the nest at Sandy Point Reservation at the southern tip of Plum Island.  Least Terns have a distinctive arrow shaped white patch on their foreheads with yellow bills tipped in black, becoming all black in the nonbreeding season. They are a North and South American species, closely related to the Little Terns of Eurasia. The eggs should be hatching soon and I hope to get pics of the chicks my next visit.

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4 Killdeer Eggs 4/13/11

Killdeer have been moving through the coast for a couple of weeks already, but Cheryl and I came across an adult in a one-acre gravel lot last weekend, not flying off and keeping about 30 feet from our deadly feet. If we stopped the bird would quickly settle down as if nesting, wanting us to think that’s where the nest was, and so lead us away from the real thing. We complied but from farther off watched for where she went back to, and marked the spot to find later without danger of stepping on the jewels. Later on and once the chicks have hatched Killdeer parents will elaborate their diversion tactics by feigning a broken wing. I’ll be checking up next week to confirm if 4 is the full clutch, but I suspect it is. The adult went back and settled to brood, and birds don’t usually start incubating until the last egg has been laid—that way all chicks hatch about the same time. Killdeer incubation is 3.5 to 4 weeks. [May update: The mom and one of her chicks after hatching]

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July Nests, Chicks, and Fledglings

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When I was about 6 my family spent a summer in Sorrento, Maine, across Frenchman’s Bay from Bar Harbor. In front of our cottage along the road was a tall hedge of bush honeysuckle—those typically thick sprawling shrubs chock full of bright red and wet berries that kids just love to mash into each others hair. One day I discovered a bird nest in them and for the next several weeks I watched and watched fascinated as the adults fed each other berries affectionately, and the female brooding her clutch and then feeding her naked little chicks I eventually saw fledge in the yard, and in those short summer weeks I fell in love with birds, and most particularly the Cedar Waxwing.

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This female I found on Seapont was just getting started though. She was still fussing with the details of trim and had laid only one egg by then and hadn’t yet begun to brood in earnest. Finding her called up all those dormant memories of carefree seaside summers and beginning to discover the natural world. From a distance or against the light, Cedar Waxwings can appear a drab brown, but up close and personal the colors are rich and silky, especially the delicate grading of of rich brown breast to a pale lemon belly. Then there’s the bright yellow or orange band across the tail, the brilliant droplets of red wax on the tips of the wing feathers from which they get their name, the active crest, and that sly black mask bordered in white. They are still one of my all-time faves and their familiar thin whistles and trills never fail to turn my head to see if I can spot them.

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While not closely related to the waxwings, a Northern Cardinal fledgling is superficially similar though somewhat bigger and fatter billed. Cardinal fledglings are also brownish with a crest, but lack the mask of Zorro or yellow band tipping the tail of waxwing fledglings.

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Above is a nest with 3 Eastern Phoebe chicks, perhaps about a week old. Phoebes often nest near, on, or even in buildings and bridges and as I climbed a stepladder to photograph these under the eaves of a garage, the noise of my approach led the chicks to think supper was ready. But mama was in the wings waiting nervously for me to beat feet. Phoebes are the earliest of the flycatchers to arrive, around here in late March, which inclines me to believve this was her second clutch of the season.

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In the same building but just around the corner and tucked into deeper eave pocket was another nestful of youngsters mere days from fledging and I could hear the unmistakeable burbling phrases of a House Wren. At first I thought there were just 4, then another look said 5, and finally in this shot I was able to count 7 of them all packed together like sardines. 2 are pointing at 10 and 11 o’clock, another 2 point to 1 and 2 o’clock, and a final trio pointitot 6, 7, and 8 o’clock. Talk about overcrowded!

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Here’s mom, or dad, hard to tell since House Wren sexes are alike. I didn’t see any evidence in my photos but these clever little birds are known to deliberately weave spider egg sacs into their nests so that when the spiderlings hatch, they can feast on mites and other parasites that have been infesting the nestlings. Note that both the Eastern Phoebe and the House Wren use mud to anchor their nests in the eaves.

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Enough brown birds, here’s a grey one—a Tufted Titmouse—that catches a bit that nervous peepy cheepy uncertainty you gotta love about just-fledged birds.

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Next year the darker grey on the forehead between the eyes will become a rich black and the flank under the folded wing will develop a saffron streak which you can see in the next year’s calendar page for March.

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April Arrivals

Waves of fresh migrants have been moving through the south coast of Maine following the early birds of March. Almost every day I spot another first-of-year species in the yard or along the highway or at the beach. Kingfishers are back chasing each other along the tidal creeks with their raucous chatterings, and I’ve seen a hummingbird cruising the neighborhood prompting me to prep the feeder. All kinds of hawks are returning like Osprey, Broad-wings, Kestrels, and more shorebirds and waders like Dunlin, Yellowlegs, and Snowy Egrets continue to accumulate.

It’s the time of year unusual birds show up and are relatively easy to spot. I subscribe to the MaineBirdList where birders from all over the state report what they’re seeing in their locales, just recently there’ve been confirmed sightings of American Oystercatchers, a Sandhill Crane, even a Swallow-tailed Kite!

In my neighborhood the most excitement over the last month was a Little Blue Heron I found in the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge (Brave Boat Harbor division, Kittery Point). While out of its range, it’s not that all that far off course or especially unusual for these parts, but still it made my day.

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While “little” compared to the Great Blue Heron, these two species aren’t much alike despite the similarity of names, the Great Blue being almost twice the size and mostly cloaked in soft grey, white, and black. This Little Blue Heron is a dark, mostly a slatey blue with a purplish neck and head, and stands only 2 feet tall as opposed to the GBH which stands close to 4 feet tall.

Sparrows aren’t easy to learn, there are so many varieties and the distinctions can be quite subtle, made especially complicated by females and juveniles which are often less distinguishable than the males. One of the best things to look for first with sparrows are whether they have streaked breasts or not, and whether they have a central spot on their breast (with or without streaks). Those two field marks at least help narrow down the possibilities.

The Song Sparrow, unlike the White-throated, has a prominently streaked breast, and a smudged central breast spot where the streaks run toghether (at least on the East coast it does). They are our most common and familiar sparrow, found in many environments including suburban ones and often hard to tell from Savannah and Lincoln Sparrows. I call him Mr Madge, after the common paraphrasing of his song Madge Madge Madge, Put on the tea kettle, Pleeease! The first notes (the Madge part), are evenly spaced notes but the song gets buzzier and more trill-like from there, though there are many regional differences, and the song sparrow has literally dozens of subspecies all over the continent and their song also varies widely. Usually the males sing from a low but exposed perch.

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Chipping Sparrows have clear grey breasts and a distinctive rufous cap above a white eye stripe, they sing a long trill with a repeating note, usually from high up in a tree, that sounds something like an industrial sewing machine, but with a bit more musicality.

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Just as complicated and varied but much more colorful are the wood warblers also arriving just now. Invariably the first warbler I see and hear in the spring is the Palm Warbler around mid-April, and usually near the ground. Breeding adults like Chipping Sparrows have a chestnut cap which you can see in my photo and also distinctive yellow undertail feathers which are hidden in this shot. Their song is also something like a Chipping Sparrow’s, an almost mechanicaltrill though slower, shorter, and with a bit more of a warble to it. Another diagnostic is their compulsive tail bobbing.

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A similar, and probably more familiar early wood warbler is the Yellow Warbler. Many warblers are yellowish but the Yellow Warbler is the yellowest of all. Males are brighter than the females and juveniles, and have reddish streaks on their breast and flanks. Their song is sometimes paraphrased Au, Au, Aujourd’hui in Canada, but south of the border you’ll usually hear it described as Sweet sweet sweet, I’m so sweet. And of course they are.

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I’m always glad to see the little Common Yellowthroat, its black mask bordered at the top by a white stripe and on the bottom by bright yellow throat and breast. That mask is unmistakable and reflects somewhat their secretive nature flitting about near the ground and often near the water’s edge. Females and first years lack the Zorro effect, but occasionally show hints of it. Their loud songs are easy to remember as Witchety, witchety, witchety, witch!

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While not warblers and only distantly related, I tend to lump the tiny Kinglets and the chunkier and stouter-billed Vireos in with them. Here’s a photo I’ve been working on, having stalked Ruby-crowned Kinglets flitting among forsythia blossoms for a few days now, but I haven’t yet caught a male with with his ruby crest in evidence, he needs to get excited for that. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are really tiny and somewhat olive drab otherwise, with a broken eye-ring and white wingbars. The male’s song starts with a thin whistle of a few notes, then gets louder and burbley, followed by a chattery warble that’s almost thrushlike.

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The first of the vireos to arrive here is invariably the Blue-headed one. Not so long ago it was called the Solitary Vireo, but the splitters got hold of them and the Solitary is now divided between 3 overlapping and interbreeding species. The Blue-headed Vireo in the east, and Cassin’s and Plumbeous Vireo in the west and southwest. All three have the distinctive white spectacles—a white stripe over the bill connecting white eye-rings. The Blue-headed has a darker blue-grey head and more contrasting colors than its western cousins. Their song is a little robin-like, at least I hear a cheerio now and then among other intermittent short whistled phrases like, see ya, or hey you, and be seeing ya. Like most vireos, they forage for insects among the upper canopy of deciduous trees and are rarely seen once the leaves fill out, but still heard.

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Speaking of robins, which along with bluebirds belong to the thrush family and are among the most consummate of songbirds, a pair of them is nesting already in my entry overhang and down the road a piece Eastern Bluebirds have been busy commandeering next boxes set out in old fields and along the edges of the tidal creeks. But right now the spotted and more secretive woodland thrushes are just coming in, first among them the Hermit Thrush. Their song is among the most mellifluous and beautiful of all the spring songbirds. It starts with a whistled note followed by a fluted descending trill and repeated at different pitches either a little higher or lower than the previous one. They are medium sized thrushes and the reddish tint to their rump and tail feathers is the easiest way to remember them.

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A number of songbirds that are winter residents or that arrived last month have already begun nesting. Here’s a Purple Finch nest in a Christmas wreath that was about to come down for spring clean up but will be left undisturbed for now. Note the bigger and darker spotted egg at the bottom of the clutch.

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That was left by a Brown-headed Cowbird, our most common brood parasite species. Female cowbirds don’t bother building a nest of their own, instead their energy goes into producing many eggs and scattering them in host nests as they move about. The usually larger cowbird chick is going to outcompete at least some of its nestmates. Sometimes female Cowbird have been known to check back on the nests she’s parasitized and if her egg or chick has been rejected, she may even ransack and destroy the remaining eggs or chicks like a vengeful thug. Here’s a male Brown-headed Cowbird. They belong to the blackbird family.

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Yesterday walking along the shore I watched a few Common Grackles which have taken up residence and noticed some of the females occasionally disappearing into the thickets away from the shore. I watched and waited to see if I could see where the nests were among some stunted cedars which seemed to offer the only reasonable cover as most leaves are still just beginning to burst from their buds. Soon enough I saw a female approach cautiously and disappear into the top of one. Being about 9 feet off the ground the nest was just out of my camera’s reach which inspired me to drag a lobster trap off the beach to give me enough of a boost to glimpse the beginning of her clutch inside.

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If that trap manages to escape the beach cleanup scheduled this weekend, look for a progress report next month.

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