Archive for February, 2017

Turkey Vulture 2/27/17

You don’t need much more evidence of global warming than regularly finding birds like this in Maine at the end of February. Twenty years ago it simply would have been unthinkable. The Turkey Vulture, aka Turkey Buzzard, John Crow, or TV, is another of those birds whose DNA tells a much different story about its evolution than you’d expect. The old story assumed all American vultures (including Condors) were closely related to the vultures of the old world. After all they have similar wings for soaring on thermals, and naked featherless heads for feeding on carrion. But turns out they’re hardly related at all, instead they’re a textbook example of convergent evolution, where similar forms evolve from much different ancestors and only look related. This TV shares more of its DNA with Accipiters—Goshawks, Coopers Hawks, and Sharpies—than it does with any vulture from Europe, Africa, or Asia.

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European Starling 2/16/17

Scorned by most birders as rats with wings, European Starlings are stocky, abundant, colorful, aggressive, and raucous. This one is among a group of robins, bluebirds, waxwings and other starlings foraging on staghorn sumac. In fresh winter plumage the white spots on their feathertips will wear away as the year progresses, disappearing entirely by the spring breeding season. They’re a tremendously successful invasive species that covers most of the continent today with a population surpassing 200 million, having started from 100 birds released in Central Park at the end of the 19th century. They’re terrific mimics and are well-known for their beautiful murmurations, flocks of 100s or 1000s of birds forming clouds that stretch, overlap, bunch, and billow in endlessly changing shapes and patterns.

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Pileated Woodpecker male 2/10/17

The biggest woodpecker in New England is the Pileated, an impressive bird with a bright red crest and, in the males, a similarly bright red mustache. They have an undulating or bouncing flight like other woodpeckers which helps separate them from the similar-sized American Crow. They relish carpenter ants and chisel rectangular holes in rotting tree trunks to find them. They are territorial year round birds needing tall mature hardwoods with standing dead trees and windfalls. Their call is a loud laugh which can transport you back to some Jurassic jungle. In harsh winters they’ve been known to occasionally visit suet-feeders.

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Skunkheads 2/7/17

Skunkhead is a nickname for the drake Surf Scoter, one of our common winter seaducks. They are stocky ducks with peculiarly bulbous and colorful bills. Females are browner and drabber with paler white patches behind the bill and eyes, and their bills not as swollen or colorful but a monochromatic dark gray. They breed on freshwater Arctic lakes and wetlands between Alaska and Labrador, and winter along the East, West, and Gulf coasts where they dive for mollusks and crustaceans.

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Horned Lark female 2/6/17

Larks come in many species in the old world, but the Horned Lark is the only species that’s also found in North America. You’ll find them in open country—tundra, desert, grass, shrublands, and beaches foraging for seeds and insects on bare ground. In winter they’re often seen in small to huge flockls, often mixing with Longspurs or Snow Buntings. Sexes are similar except the black markings on the heads of males are bolder and more distinct.

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A murder of crows 2/5/17

Collective nouns for birds are fun—a “convocation” of eagles, a “college” of cardinals, and the proverbial “murder” of crows. Except in the Canadian population which migrates south, most American Crows are year-round birds that gather into large communal roosts for the night during the winter months, some with as many as a million birds. This one on Sagamore Creek in Portsmouth was just getting underway with new birds still arriving from all directions and by 3:30pm when I came across it, was already numbering more than 400. There’s quite a racket going on too, individuals stomping up and down the spartina grasses, some foraging, others holding forth on their opinions before settling into the trees for the night.

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Green-winged Teal drake 2/1/17

Green-winged Teal are North America’s smallest dabbling ducks, often seen in shallow tidal waters, bogs, swamps, ponds, and other sheltered wetlands, but not often on larger bodies of water. Their breeding range extends across northern North America from the Aleutian Islands to Labrador, but here in New England they can be found year round.

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