Archive for May, 2009

A Mix of Maybirds

Here’s a followup on the Purple Finch nest photo I posted last month which had a Brown-headed Cowbird egg smuggled in. Only the Cowbird chick remains!


I’ve also been following a Common Grackle nest at Seapoint beach, Here’s the presumed dad keeping his bright eye on things in the neighborhood.


While the mom has her eye on me as I drag a couple of lobster traps up off the beach to stand on so I can see into a nest roughly 8 feet off the ground in a small cedar. In this photo from the 4th of May there are four blue-greenish eggs speckled with brown.


And a week later on the 11th the 4 fuzzball chicks have hatched, looking positively naked and helpless.


But after another week I discovered that the nest had been raided, yanked right out of its moorings and the little chicklets perished.


By mid-May, the main wave of spring migrants is in full force and many shorebirds arriving among them. I took this snap of Semipalmated Sandpipers resting at the edge of the tide by turning myself into a rock and holding still for a half hour while the water came in slowly and brought them closer and closer to me. Plovers differ from sandpipers by having relatively short legs and short bills.


On Goose Rocks beach in Kennebunkport, at least one pair of Piping Plovers have arrived. They share many of the same markings as the Semipals (note the white foreheads, orange bills with black tips, orange-ish legs, and white bellies) but are much paler overall. Note the male in background bird has a thicker unbroken dark band across the breast, while in the foreground the breast band of the female is broken and less prominent. Because they nest right on the beach these birds are endangered along the New England coast, largely due to the recreational activities of us humans.


A much bigger shorebird arriving in May is the Willet with a long straight bill and grey legs. It’s not a plover but actually part of the sandpiper group. You can’t see it in this photo, but when in flight they have a flashy black and white wing pattern, and their calls are quite loud and piercing. This one’s an immature as adults tend to be more grey than brown.


On the other end of the sandpiper size spectrum is the Least Sandpiper, smallest shorebird in the world but quite common.


Greater Yellowlegs are a mid- to large-sized shorebird with a relatively long neck with a white tail and rump. Often you’ll hear their piercing and plaintive calls of 4 or 5 notes near the shore or along creeks and estuaries. Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs are very tricky to tell apart, the best diagnostic is a slight difference in size and a slight upturn to the bill in the Greaters while the Lessers are always straight and proportionally just a mite shorter. Oddly the Greater Yellowlegs is more closely related to the Willet than it is to the Lesser Yellowlegs.


In the backyard I’m being regularly visited by a male Red-bellied Woodpecker, here showing off the subtle splash of red between his legs by which the species gets it’s name. Red-bellies have been moving into Northern New England over the last decade, when I was a kid growing up in NH seeing one would have been something quite rare. Now they’re almost a commonplace, even throughout the winter.


When Baltimore Orioles start arriving in May you can attract them into you backyard with slices of oranges. Another attraction orioles can’t resist is grape jelly! But for me they only seem interested for a short time.


Another brief visitor I to the backyard feeders in May is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The females are drab brown and look like jumbo-sized sparrows or female purple finches on steroids, but they have a patch of gold under the wings if you’re lucky enough to spot it. The chunky males with their red white and black patterns are hard to mistake for anything else.


My friend Laura invited me out to her farm in Eliot as the Bobolinks had arrived in her fields. They’re closely related to orioles and other blackbirds, though their tails and bills are much shorter than their cousins. Once you hear their musical and burbly but strangely mechanical song you won’t forget it. There’s nothing else like it.


Gray Catbirds are one of my favorite songbirds, there seems to always be one around but you’ll hear them more than see. They are quite secretive among dense thickets and tangles and avoid straying out in the open for long. Their songs are full of the notes and paraphrases of other songbirds, and sometimes are mistaken for mockingbirds. But their loud and scratchy meow like call which gives them their name is distinctive.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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