Archive for November, 2009

Downy Woodpecker 11/30/09


This Downy Woodpecker is only one of several that visit the suet feeder regularly in my garden. This one’s a male which you can tell by the bright red splotch at the back of the head. Females, both adult and immatures, have no red at all and immature males have a splotch of red on the forehead instead. These are the smallest and most common of all the North American woodpeckers, and are a familiar backyard bird at feeding stations so long as there are some young deciduous trees nearby they can glean or peck at for insects.They are year-round residents and look remarkably like Hairy Woodpeckers which are considerably larger with more robust and whiskery bills.


Rock Pigeon 11/27/09


Lots of folks consider pigeons to be little better than flying rats. I like them for their consummate flying, acrobatic, and homing skills, and that the abundant flocks found in cities and towns today attract and help support the resurgence of spectacular raptors like the once endangered Peregrine Falcon. Officially they are called Rock Pigeons, and were first brought to North America from Europe early in the 1600s. Their natural habitat is coastal rocky cliffs, but urban, suburban, and agricultural buildings (and other structures like bridges) have become a suitable substitute so that today they can be found in temperate and tropical climes all over the globe. Three of the most common color morphs can be seen above, bluish grey with pale wings and 2 dark wingbars, the checkered form has darker wings with speckles, and the less common rusty-red birds. Missing is the all dark, almost black form. There are also intermediate forms between these, and pied versions with varying splashes of white. Most have iridescent throat and neck feathers.


Wild Turkey 11/26/09


The domestic turkeys we consume today were originally bred from this North American wild fowl, a favorite game bird of Native American tribes of the East coast and Mexico. Wild Turkeys went back to Europe in the very first ships to come here. My Uncle Jack always refers to Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys as “the holiday casualty,” but the tradition of holiday turkeys is actually a recent one. Wild Turkeys in the US used to be so common they were everyday fare, and pork ribs were the holiday treat. While in Europe the holiday special was traditionally a roast goose or roast of beef. Wild Turkey meat, which I tasted once in the early 80s, is all dark and intensely gamey (from insects contributing to the wild bird’s diet). The biggest known Wild Turkey was a tom weighing in at 38 pounds, but more typically a wild tom weighs 10-25 pounds, and the smaller hens, like the bird above, weigh 7-13 pounds.


White-throated Sparrow 11/25/09


These sweet singing sparrows are dimorphic, meaning they come in two color forms, one with white-stripes on the head like the bird I blogged about a couple of weeks ago, and another form with tan stripes on the head like the bird in the photo above. Many songbirds are sexually dimorphic, meaning the males and females look different. But White-throated Sparrows are more peculiar, roughly half are tan-striped and half are white-striped, and the color of the stripes has nothing to do with their sex. Most often they mate with a bird of the opposite color morph. The white-striped morphs (of either sex) tend to be more aggressive than the tan-striped form. Both forms have the crisply defined white throat, grey bill, and yellow lores. Fetched in Kittery Point.


Dovekie (part 2) 11/24/09


Picking up from yesterday’s cliffhanger with a Dovekie in mortal peril on the rocks off Seapoint… After the big wave drove it into the rocks, I was certain the bird had perished and was watching below for signs of it washing ashore, but it was nowhere to be seen. Then about 50 feet offshore and more to the south, I spotted a new bird, a white one, but which turned out to be the Dovekie floating on its back. Perhaps the undertow had somehow sucked it back out behind the breakers.


Miraculously, its little legs were moving, then after a bit of flailing, it righted itself in the water looking no worse than it had minutes before. Some impulse must have taken hold for it to swim underwater away from the breaking waves. Why hadn’t it done so earlier? I can only presume its injured wing made it difficult or painful, and only in that final moment of impending death did instinct override everything else.


Despite the reprieve, over the next hour I kept watch helplessly as the wind and seas kept driving it back into the breakers, but each time the bird mustered enough strength to gain safety behind the surf, and slowly but surely it was moving southwards, almost against its will which was to head straight into the northeast wind. I’ve had a similar experience caught in a riptide, instinct drives you to fight the current, but intelligence tells you to cross it instead and reach safety without exhausting yourself. In this back and forth struggle the Dovekie was now moving across the face of Seapoint from north to south. Finally it rounded the last little jagged set of rocks where some Purple Sandpipers were hanging out, and there was a mile or more of open water in the cove that forms Crescent Beach. For the next hour at least, it would be able to rest and regroup before facing the dangers of the next point down the shore on Gerrish Island.


I’ll never know its ultimate fate, but was relieved to be spared having to witness it. Perhaps the wind would let up or change direction, perhaps it would make it another couple miles south to the mouth of the Piscataqua and the ebbing tide from the river would carry it out to sea. All I could do now was to wish it well on its perilous journey and hope for the best.


Dovekie (part 1) 11/23/09


Coming around the tip of Seapoint yesterday I spotted what at first I thought was a small grebe, but then noticed there wasn’t any neck to speak of and became very excited to realize it was a Dovekie. These pudgy little black and white seabirds are not even 7 inches long, smaller than a pigeon, and shaped something like a football. They’re members of the Auk family (Alcidae, which includes Puffins, Murres, and Guillemots), and they live and breed along the Arctic coasts in summer, but range throughout the North Atlantic. But like all Alcids, they are pelagic, keeping far offshore for the most part, and you just don’t expect to find one just a few dozen feet off a rocky point.


It was soon apparent this bird was in distress and being driven by the steady northeast winds and relentless seas toward the peril of a lee shore. Each time it was pushed into the breaking surf it would frantically flap its wings to gain the safety of the calmer chop behind the breakers. At first I couldn’t tell if it was just exhausted or perhaps injured.


But soon enough it was obvious its right wing was weaker than the left, perhaps broken, and why it was unable to get airborne, and every struggle to stay in the relative safety behind the breakers was exhausting it. Each time the wind drove it closer to the jagged rocks, the struggle became more desperate, and each time the wind and sea won a few more yards. I looked around helplessly for some way down thinking I could somehow catch it, take it to the Wildife rehab folks in York, but there was no help to enlist, and no way I could approach it in the frigid waters, jagged rocks, and powerful breakers to help without breaking a wing of my own. It was about to be battered in the pounding surf rearing over the rocks just inches under the surface.


This was becoming unbearable. My excitement at finding a Dovekie had been replaced with feelings of  regret and helplessness. I wanted to leave, but how could I leave? There I was trapped having to witness the cruelty of nature. And then the rogue wave hit.


To be continued tomorrow . . .


American Kestrel 11/20/09


Okay, not the best of shots, but you try coming up with a new and different bird pic every day! Shot into the light and blown up as much as I could, you can at least tell what this little falcon is with its double mustachioed face, though you can’t tell it’s a male with the blue wings and bright rufous tail hidden from the camera. Kestrels are the smallest and most common falcon in the US and are found all the way to the tip of South America. They hunt in open country from trees, wires, and poles and will occasionally hover on windy days to catch their prey which includes insects, small herps, rodents, and birds. They only nest in natural or man-made cavities. We’re at the northern edge of their winter territory, so in November they’ve already become scarce until you get farther south in New England. Fetched at Plum Island in Newburyport, MA.


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