Archive for August, 2014

Great Black-backed Gull with juves 8/31/14


These largest of gulls don’t reach maturity until they are 4 years old when they are white headed and black mantled with robust yellow bills that have a bright red spot near the lower tip. Gull chicks will only be fed by their parents when they instinctively peck at the red spot. Here you can see 2 juveniles in their nondescript mottled plumage still begging for one of their parents to feed them. Gulls molt twice a year so between these two plumages is a progression of intermediate winter and summer plumages, each season/year looking more like the adult and less like the juvenile. Once mature, they alternate between breeding and non-breeding plumages which are only subtly different. To really know your gulls, you need to know the whole series for each species—a prodigious feat! Adult Greater Black-backed Gulls can only be confused with adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls, which are considerably smaller at about 2/3’s the size, and have yellow feet and legs instead of pink.


8/30/14 Glossy Ibis


You’ll see these strange birds—the only ibis regularly seen in the northeast—in many of the same habitats you find herons and wading shorebirds, such as salt marshes, agricultural fields, lagoons and wetlands. But ibis are more traditionally grouped with spoonbills as their closest relatives, not the straight-billed herons. All Ibis are long-legged waders with long decurved bills suitable for probing muddy shallows in search of crustaceans and insects. Glossy Ibis are the most widely distributed of all the ibis species, being found in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and Atlantic North and South America and the Caribbean. North American birds are thought to have originated from birds dispersing out of Africa, and northeast birds are migrants. They are dark chestnut colored with dark glossy green wings. This one’s begun molting into non-breeding plumage, where you can see its losing color in the head plumage. Glossies are very similar in appearance to the White-faced Ibis (rare in the northeast but more common in the west and southwestern US), however, White-faced Ibis have much bolder and more complete white markings around the face and are set off against a pink rather than blue-ish face, though juvenile White-faced and Glossy Ibis are almost impossible to tell apart.


Red Knot juvenile 8/29/14


Red Knots are circumpolar shorebirds found in 6 subspecies depending on where they breed around the Arctic Circle. This bird belongs to the American subspecies Calidris canutus rufa, breeding north of Hudson Bay in places like Baffin Island and migrating as far south as Tierra del Fuego, another impressive migrant journey from one end of the planet to the other. The subspecies however, is in big trouble, these birds have lost half their population since commercial harvesting of Horseshoe Crabs began in the 1980s, because the knots depend on Horseshoe Crab eggs when refueling in Delaware Bay on their spring migration. Breeding adults have speckled uppersides with cinnamon red faces, throats, and undersides with black legs, while nonbreeding adults are a pretty solid gray above. Only the juves have the lacy gray plumage and green legs you can see in this bird. Knots are the largest of the Calidris sandpipers which all the little peeps belong to, but knots are much larger than any of the peeps.


Northern Cardinal male 8/28/14



White-rumped Sandpiper 8/27/14


White-rumped Sandpipers are one of the peeps—the five smallest sandpipers—and like the same-sized Baird’s Sandpiper they have especially long wings with tips extending well beyond their tails. This one’s an adult beginning to molt out of breeding plumage—winter markings are similar but in a cooler more uniform gray than the warm tones you see here and we’ll be seeing that plumage in the coming month. Juveniles are more colorful but are late migrants we won’t see until October and November. Note the spotting extending down along the flanks, none of the other peeps—Least, Semipalmated, Baird’s and Western Sandpiper—have spotted or streaked flanks.



Adult, immature, and juvenile Black-crowned Night Herons 8/26/14


I tried to sneak up on a Black-crowned Night Heron I spotted napping in the lower limbs of a large hardwood and wound up spooking six of them, who all flew farther down the edge of the marsh and resettled, but wide awake now and wary. This is an adult, black-crown, red eyed, shorter and shorter necked than a Great Blue Heron or Great Egret. We have two night herons, the common Black-crowned and the much scarcer Yellow-crowned, which actually look quite similar. Night herons inhabit pretty much the same habitat as the larger herons, and use the same wait-in-ambush hunting tactics, but these are active at night when the bigger diurnal herons sleep.


Black-crowned Night Herons don’t reach maturity until they are three. This one was probably born last summer, there’s still a bit of brown from its juvenile appearance but the crown is only gray and the eye is orange, not yet red.


And here’s a juve, brown plumage with white speckling, born only a few months back.

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American Crow 8/25/14


We’re all familiar with the raucous cawing of crows, mobbing a hawk or an owl invading their territory, sounding an alarm, or calling during play or fights. There’s a wide variety of these calls, at least 20, though their meanings are poorly understood. But there’s also another dimension to their vocalizations which ornithologists call “subsongs” but I call “soft talk.” It’s quieter, more intimate, and in my backyard there are regular complex communications between pairs and families constantly keeping in touch with coos, clicks, and croaking rattles, sometimes even going on at some length like an improvised soliloquy. American Crows and other members of the Corvid family are considered to be among the most intelligent of birds, long known for their ability to count, mimic, memorize, distinguish individuals, and make tools. They are omnivorous birds, year round residents in most US states, but the more northern Canadian populations migrate south in winter.


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