Archive for December, 2017

Common Loon 12/27/17

Common Loons are heavy birds with large spear-shaped bills, able to dive up to 200 feet underwater. They prey mostly on fish but also catch mollusks and crustaceans, usually swallowing them whole on the way back to the surface. Their legs are positioned so far back on their body for underwater swimming that they are ungainly, almost helpless on land having to slide on their bellies pushed by their hind feet, and they need considerable runway on water for take-off. They breed across the northern boreal forest lakes and tundra ponds and winter on the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts as well as the Great Lakes.


Sharp-shinned Hawk, female, Christmas Puzzlebird 12/25/17

Last week’s Christmas Puzzle bird was looking to ID this bird, in particular whether it was a Cooper’s or a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

The tricky part of this photo was that none of the usual signs were especially definitive or obvious in this photo. The nape coloration wasn’t prominent so you couldn’t really tell whether the bird appeared “hooded” or “capped,” nor was proportional head size obvious, and even what appears to be a rounded tail was a bit misleading. The one thing that could be said for sure about this bird was that it was an Accipiter and with a yellow eye, that made it a juvenile Accipiter. When you see a juvenile accipiter that is either Sharpie or Coop, it’s very easy to tell them apart from their front sides. The immature Coop has finely drawn  dark streaks on a white background, while the Sharpie has brown barring. both give way to reddish barring in the adults of either. But this example here is clearly a Sharp-shinned Hawk. So what about that rounded tail? Well what makes a Sharpie tail look square is that all the tail feathers are the same length, while the outer 2 feathers in a Cooper’s Hawk are always shorter than the rest, which creates the pronounced rounding. Looking carefully at the bird above to see the tail feathers are indeed all one length, and that alone is enough to definitivel;y call this bird a Sharp-shinned Hawk. It also turns out that the outermost tails feathers of female Sharpies are a little rounder than males, while the tail feathers of male Sharpies sometimes shows a notch in the middle.


Black-capped Chickadee 12/23/17

Cheerful and curious, Black-capped Chickadees have developed numerous adaptations for surviving the frigid temps of winter. They become omnivorous, they cache food, they can lower their body temps at night, and they have several roosting cavities to choose from when it’s time for bed or whenever they need a cozy spot to ride out a spell of dirty weather. Roost cavities are much smaller than nest cavities, most commonly they are small cracks or holes in trees (esp. birches), and need only be large enough and sheltered enough to keep out wind and precipitation.


Eastern Screech Owl (red morph) 12/21/17

There are a couple dozen screech owl species found in the Americas, all of them now considered different enough from their old world “scops owl” cousins to warrant their own genus “Megascops.” Contrary to their name, Eastern Screech Owls don’t screech. Instead they have a descending trill that’s reminiscent of a horse whinnying and another courting trill. Eastern Screeches come in 2 color morphs, red or gray (in southernmost Florida there’s a third rare brown morph). Except for occasionally finding one roosting on its doorstep like this, they’re strictly nocturnal and go unnoticed.


Wood Duck pair on ice 12/20/17

Wood Ducks can be found year round in many parts of New England, so long as they can find open water in swamps, marshes, and other wooded wetlands, but many of them migrate farther south for the winter.  Unlike other ducks, they have clawed toes that enables them to climb out of deep nest cavities as ducklings, as well as perch high up in trees as adults. They’ve made a remarkable recovery from overhunting in the last century, helped in large part by humans providing nest boxes for them.


American Tree Sparrow 12/19/17

American Tree Sparrows are tundra breeders, come south to escape the Arctic winter, and replacing our Chipping Sparrows who themselves have fled even farther south. You can tell them by their rusty cap and rusty (not black) eyestripe, and that distinctive gray over yellow bill. They often have a central breast spot. You’ll find them along edges and open fields scratching the ground for weed seeds with juncos, and they even visit backyard feeders.


Sharpie or Coop? Christmas Puzzlebird 12/17/17

This hawk burst through my Arbor vitaes this afternoon after one of the Juncos foraging under the feeder. Missed! It’s either a Cooper’s or a Sharp-shinned Hawk and telling the difference between the two is one of the more difficult challenges for beginner and even intermediate level birders. Both are Accipiters, short-winged and long-tailed hawks designed for agility and speed when chasing prey through the woods. One of them has a more squared off tail while the other’s more rounded. One’s head is proportionally large to the body while the other’s head is proportionally small. One has a paler nape than its crown creating a “capped” appearance while the other has a dark crown and nape, creating a more “hooded” appearance. And while Sharpies are smaller than Coops, male Coops are about the same size as female Sharpies. Sharpies have those skinny legs (the eponymous “sharp shins”) compared to Coops.  To make things even more complicated, juveniles have different breast feathering from each other and adults!

I’ll send a free 2018 Phillip’s Fetching Birds Calendar to whoever posts the correct answer with the best explanation that appears in the comments by midnight Christmas eve. Winner and answer will be posted here on Christmas day.


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