Archive for February, 2009

February Shorebirds

Seapoint is one of my favorite spots for beach walks and checking on winter shorebirds and seaducks. Flocks of Purple Sandpipers arrive from the Arctic in the fall and settle in for the winter, feeding and resting at the edge of the tide. They are fairly tame and the most common winter shorebird in these parts. At low tide, they’re harder to find as the waters recede and more land is exposed far from the beach or paths, but at high tide you can get quite close to them without having to risk breaking a leg on the slick rocks.

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This winter Seapoint is supporting about 100 Purples and they’ve gotten used to me cozying up to them, or at least I’ve gotten better about approaching them without giving cause for alarm. If they are hungry and I stay still enough, for long enough, a couple of them might even doodle across my boots as they forage about. I like that their bills match their feet.

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Purples aren’t the only orange-legged shorebirds around Seapoint this winter. There’s been a small group of Ruddy Turnstones hanging out with them, which wouldn’t be unusual a little farther south, but is for here, especially as this hasn’t exactly been a mild winter. I’ve been seeing anywhere between 2 to 20 since fall, though not more than a dozen together since the new year. Here’s 4 of them resting and stretching a bit apart from the Purples. Come spring they’ll take on their elaborate harlequin markings before making their way back to the tundra. Turnstones really do turn over little stones with their slightly upturned bills to find small crustaceans and other invertebrate treats.

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My favorite winter shorebirds though are the Sanderlings. The odd one shows up at Seapoint or Fort Foster now and then, but they definitely prefer the longer and sandier beaches. They are so energetic and funny running about at the water’s edge, teasing the waves and probing their bills into the wet sand for snacks. Here’s a trio settling down to snooze as dusk falls on Ogunquit Beach just a couple of weeks back.

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This year’s been a good woodpecker winter. The usual Hairies and Downies, and not so usual Red-bellies, continue to visit my garden regularly. I had a quick glimpse of a Red-headed Woodpecker at Fort Foster back in November which you rarely see around here in the summer and almost never in winter, and I’d heard of a couple other sightings of them nearby. But by the time I got around to following up they were long gone. And I spooked a pair of Flickers over on little Harbor in January and couldn’t imagine where they were finding any ants to eat. Still it’s hard to beat the biggest pecker of them all—the Pileated. I heard that unmistakable haunting laugh last week, grabbed the camera and ran out to look. It sounds so otherworldly it makes you think of prehistoric forests and fetid swamps, despite the snow and cold. You can tell this one’s a male by the splash of red in his black mustache stripe and the red forehead right above his bill. Females also have the red crest on top but their foreheads are grey.

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Since last month’s blog, I heard from my friend Laura about a beautiful white hawk she’d seen several times in her neighborhood and thought might be a Gyrfalcon. That’d really be something to have for next year’s calendar I mused, and after scouting the area I realized my friend Bee also lives nearby and might know more. Turns out it’s a leucistic Red-tailed Hawk, and a male who was born right there several years ago behind the Marshwood Junior High in Eliot. He’s pure white except for a red-feather on either side of the tail. I’ve been out looking for him several times now and have managed to spot him twice, but the only photographic fruits so far have been distant white specs. Maybe I’ll get lucky for next month since I’ve a good idea of his territory now and found some good places to watch from.

One of those spots produced these White-winged Crossbills which were something of a consolation prize that day. You can just make out the funny scissor-like bill which they use to tear open cones for the seeds inside. These two are males, females are similar but cloaked in yellowy-green instead of bright red.

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Crossbills are pretty boreal, and not all that common in suburban New England unless you have deep softwood forests close by, but this year they are irrupting out of their breeding habitat in numbers and can be seen at feeders all over. Often you’ll hear them in small flocks twitter-twattering before you see them.

Last month I was lucky enough to get invited to another Center For Wildlife raptor release, this time a young Peregrine Falcon female that had been hit by a car in New Castle, NH. The injury tore open her crop requiring 3 layers of stitches and then 6 weeks of rehab before she could go free again. She was lucky, most raptor collisions with vehicles tend to include head trauma, broken bones, or worse. There’s at least one pair of Peregrines known to be breeding at the Navy Yard, somewhere in the military-industrial heights where they can lord over the river traffic and find plenty of fat city pigeons to gorge on. This young bird might even have been born there as she was found right across the river on the causeway. Here she is, just before the big moment.

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She took off from the Four Tree Island parking lot heading south, no doubt freaked after having been handled and stuck in a box, then unstuffed and handled some more, and finally the small crowd of humans gathered to witness and celebrate her freedom. In seconds she was nearly out of sight but just as she was disappearing over the South End, she doubled back and circled us once as if to say thanks or maybe just get her bearings, and then sped off south again. By that time another falcon had come tearing across the river hot on her tail. How often do you see 2 wild peregrines chasing each other overhead? My first thought was uh-oh, trouble. But then realized this could be home turf for her and she’d been missing for some time. That second bird might just as well be a close relative come to welcome her back. It made me wonder just how much these wild birds relate, especially intelligent ones like falcons. Truly magnificent birds.

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