Archive for January, 2014

Iceland Gull 2/1/14

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The Iceland Gull is one of the 3 white-winged gull species that visit New England in winter, There is also the Glaucous, and the Glaucous-winged Gull all of which lack any black markings in the wingtips that you’ll always see in the common New England gulls, whether they are immature or adult. Iceland Gulls are smaller than our Herring Gull but larger than our Ring-billed Gulls. This one is just in its first winter, a second winter bird could look much the same only the bill would be paler with a dark ring around the far end. 3rd year birds  get much of the pale gray-wings and white bodies of adults and 4th year birds have adult plumage.  This bird is often referred to as Kumlien’s Gull, which is the North America subspecies of the Iceland Gull, though many taxonomists argue for it being a separate species.

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White-winged Scoter female 1/30/14

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White-winged Scoters are the largest of the 3 New England species of scoter that winter here. Females like this one are dark brown and drab, told primarily by the large white speculum in the wings. Males are black-bodied rather than dark brown, with a distinctive white apostrophe outlining the eye and a knobbier bill with a yellow-orange tip. Pairs build their nests in thick vegetation on the ground next to inland lakes and ponds from Ontario west across northern Canada to Alaska (there is also a Siberian subspecies). In winter they migrate to the Great Lakes and estuaries and bays of both coasts where they dive for shellfish like mussels and clams. Juveniles have more prominent whitish facial patches on either side of the eye. Fetched at Nubble Light in Cape Neddick, Maine.

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Spotted Towhee 1/30/14

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Another rare vagrant has shown up on the seacoast and the birding networks are abuzz and aflutter. Spotted Towhees are a western bird, just another long-tailed sparrow if you live in Oregon or Utah, but quite the big deal on the coast of Rye, New Hampshire. Some of them will migrate eastward to the great plains, but New England’s more than a 1000 miles past that mark. Something about the ornamental evergreens at the corner of Central Ave and Route 1A have captured this one’s attention, it’s been there several days now since it was discovered. My guess is that it would really prefer to continue eastward, but the Atlantic Ocean across the street happens to be in the way. Our Eastern Towhee looks much like this bird, but doesn’t have the white spots on the wings and back. For many years the two birds were considered one species which at that time was called the Rufous-sided Towhee.

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Common Merganser female 1/29/14

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Sleek and large bodied, Common Mergansers are found in forested lakes and rivers across the northern hemisphere. In Europe and Asia this same species is known as the Goosander. I found this female fishing the ice-free pools below Salmon Falls in South Berwick, Maine, and a little later a second female joined her. Males have green heads and redder bills.

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Mallards tipping 1/28/14

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Despite their ubiquity, Mallards are a beautiful duck, and the quintessential dabbler.

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Gray Catbird 10/27/14

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Gray Catbirds migrate south for the winter, but a handful of them don’t and it’s one of the mysteries of local birds that most intrigues me. Here I went looking for a Brown Thrasher I’d heard about hanging out at the bunkers of Odiorne Point and found two Gray Catbirds instead. They were hanging out together which made me think them a pair and one of the two even gave me a classic catbird catcall. There are a number of these intrepid vagrants (just today I saw a Hermit Thrush at Fort Foster) that seem to brave the New England winters when sensible birds are much cozier farther south. One wonders if it’s a deliberate choice to get a jump on the competition come spring, ambition if you will, or if it’s more like there’s a screw loose and they are simply lost.

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Snowy Owl ageing and sexing 1/26/14

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Here’s the skinny on how dark or light a Snowy Owl is and how old and which sex it is. All-white and nearly-all-white birds tend to be older males. But there are many recorded exceptions, so I can’t say anything more definitive about the bird in the tree above than it’s “probably” a mature male. And likewise for darkly barred birds like this one on the rocks in Rye, it is “probably” a juvenile female, but not certainly. What apparently complicates things is egg hatch order. Snowy Owls have large clutches (typically 7-8 eggs, but can be up to 15), and the first-hatched male will be lighter than the last male, and likewise the first-hatched female will be lighter than last-hatched female. And that means an early-hatched female can be lighter than a late-hatched male. Then it gets even more complicated, because they don’t uniformly get lighter with every molt as was once thought. While some get lighter as they get older, others actually get darker, and some others don’t change with age at all!

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