Archive for September, 2011

Double-crested Cormorants, 9/30/11

Double-crested Cormorants, colloquially called “shags” or  “shitpokes,” are common seabirds of the coasts but are just as common on inland bodies of water. In New England they are summer residents, fishing the shores, creeks, rivers and lakes and breeding in colonies before migrating south for the winter. Above are an adult on the left (both sexes are the same) with a dark hooked bill, all dark feathering, teal-colored eye, and orange gular skin under the bill. Juveniles like the bird on the right have lighter feathering in the throat and chest that can vary from white to brown, and the bill is a yellowy orange without much of a hook at the tip.  The eyebrow crests are prominently displayed during the breeding season and in some West Coast subspecies they are white. Cormorants forage mostly on fish and are considered especially pestiferous around commercial fish farms.

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Black-bellied Plover 9/29/11

Black-bellieds are the largest of the North American plovers, and are known as the Grey Plover in Europe and other parts of its nearly worldwide distribution. They breed around the Arctic Circle and, on the East Coast, winter south of Massachusetts, but many of them migrate far into the southern hemisphere. I found these 2 juveniles passing through Seapoint Beach last week, and being quite wary of 6+ foot lugs like myself, had to get down on my belly and crawl across the sand to get this close a snap of them while they foraged and called their plaintive “pee-ooo“s along the edge of the tideline. Adults in breeding plumage are much less common visitors to Seapoint though I do see a few here now and then, but the larger beaches and estuaries are more reliable locales to spot migrating adults. Black-bellied Plovers are quite similar in appearance to the smaller and more slender-billed American Golden Plover, and can be hard to tell apart at any distance. One sure field mark is the Black-bellied’s black patches under the wings which can be seen in all plumages when in flight or when lifting their wings.

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Short-billed Dowitcher 9/27/11

Dowitchers are stocky and long-billed shorebirds most often seen in these parts on tidal mudflats during migration, like this one behind Hampton Beach. They’re related to the snipes but have shorter bills, a less striped appearance, and greenish legs. They are especially hard to tell apart from their close cousins, the rarer Long-billed Dowitchers, which were once considered the same species. Like busy sewing machines they’re fun to watch probing the muddy shallows for aquatic invertebrates such as insect larvae, worms, molluscs and crustaceans, most of which are usually swallowed under the mud. They breed in a few concentrated areas across boreal North America and winter near the shores of Central and South America.

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Common Tern 9/26/11

The breeding season’s over now and Common Terns are becoming a lot less common around here but I still see a few cruising the shore, rivers, and tidal creeks. This one hovering before a dive for some small silvery snack just off the Spruce Creek bridge in Kittery. This is an adult, birds born this summer lack the solid black cap, and bright red bill and feet, and have a caramel brown blush on their heads and backs. It’s a good time to be watching for other migrating terns though. Arctic, Forester’s, Roseates, and even Caspian terns are being sighted along the New England coasts on their way to tropical and subtropical shores for the winter.

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Downy Woodpecker 9/23/11

Downies are North America’s smallest woodpeckers, often found foraging with small neighborhood mixed flocks of chickadees, nuthatches and titmice, and often visit backyard feeding stations. They look very similar to their cousins the Hairy Woodpecker but are much smaller, with smaller proportioned chisel-like bills. Males have a small patch of red at the back of the head, and juveniles have red on the cap, but females like this one sport no red at all. They are non-migratory residents across most of North America, especially anywhere smaller deciduous trees can be found.

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Cooper’s Hawk 9/22/11

This hawk sitting above an I-95 overpass brought me to a screeching halt the other day to back up and crack open the sunroof. It’s such a big bird that at first I was sure it was an immature Northern Goshawk, but a closer look says it’s a Cooper’s Hawk. First, the sleek profile and long long tail says Accipiter (not a Buteo or a Falcon). The brown plumage and pale yellow eye says it’s an immature accipiter, and the size of this bird definitively rules out the smallish Sharp-shinned Hawk. Immature Cooper’s Hawks and Northern Goshawks can be mighty hard to tell apart, but all the subtle fieldmarks are in this shot to do it. A Northern Goshawk would typically have a more prominent eyestripe, and the dark barring in the tail would be uneven whereas the bars here go straight across the tail, and the dark streaks in the white breast would extend all the way into the undertail coverts, which in this bird are pure white. That makes it a Cooper’s Hawk, but a mighty big one, which leads me to conclude it’s a female.

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Greater Yellowlegs 9/21/11

Greater Yellowlegs breed in the marshes and bogs of boreal North America and migrate through New England in the spring and fall. Many are familiar with their plaintive and descending call, paraphrased “Whew whew whew whew.” Though very similar in appearance, they aren’t as closely related to the Lesser Yellowlegs as they are to the Greenshanks and the Spotted Redshanks of Eurasia, but all belong to the Tringa genus of shorebirds which are loosely called the Shanks for their long and often colorful legs. Usually found along salt marsh creeks, mudflats, and the edges of other wetlands, it’s not often you’ll actually see a Greater Yellowlegs on the beach, but that’s where I found this one at Fort Foster in Kittery Point.

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