Carolina Wren 1/26/18

This little brown job (aka “lbj” in birdspeak) is a relative newcomer to New England winters, having only been a fairly common resident in southern Maine for about 30 years. Field guides will tell you the primary reason for its northward expansion is global warming, and while no doubt that’s a factor, I believe their march northwards is better attributed to the popularity among birdlovers of putting out seeds and suet and meal worms during the winter months. They don’t migrate but are sensitive to severe winters, and frequently many perish in hard years, but they can produce several large broods in one season so that decimated populations recover quickly and soon there are new birds to expand the range even farther. To help them survive winter months, they often roost close to houses which radiate heat at night, creating a microclimate change of a just few degrees, which can mean life or death to them. Consider keeping some old pots, watering cans, or 5-gallon pails filled with dryer lint, dried straw, grasses, or leaves up against your foundation under a deck or stairs for them to sneak into on those nights when the polar vortex is upon us.

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American Wigeon drake 1/25/18

American Wigeon are alternatively known as “Baldpates” for the drake’s ivory crown, or “Bluebills” for the pale blue bill found in either sex, or “Poachers” for their habit of hanging out with diving ducks who sometimes bring tasty vegetation to the surface. They are dabbling or puddle ducks that don’t dive but “tip” to reach underwater for growing shoots, and they’ll also forage on land for waste grains. We see them in winter and during migration when many travel to the east coast. In recent decades their breeding range, which historically extends from Hudson Bay west to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, is expanding eastwards.

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White-winged Scoter drake 1/22/18

Scoters are a peculiar genus of highly migratory sea ducks. They have bulbous and colorful bills but this White-winged one was intent on keeping his tucked away as if he were sleeping, but in the half hour or so I spent with this bird, it would drift close and always kept an eye out, but always maintained its restful pose and I was not inclined to disturb it. White-winged Scoters breed near freshwater lakes and ponds in the forests and tundra west of Hudson Bay in Canada all the way to Alaska, but migrate thousands of miles to winter on the east, west, and gulf coasts as well as the Great Lakes. Their favorite winter prey to dive for are mussels and clams. Females are browner and lack the white inverted eye comma but have white patches on their cheeks.

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American Bittern 1/19/18

This was a bird stalking, and like the ice it moved glacially. What it was stalking on the ice and in the dried grasses we never discovered but it was on the hunt. The more years I spend birdwatching the more it seems to me that just about every species has these intrepid individuals that wind up not migrating to brave the winter, when all their peers are enjoying warmer winter digs. I’ve always thought of these birds as flukes, outliers, when really they are something of a norm. With some species like the Carolina Wren or the Turkey Vulture, there are many who push the boundary and every winter there seem to be a few more, while others like the American Bittern, are few and far between. But all quite possibly participating in the same process, just at different speeds.

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Northern Cardinal male 1/17/18

Can you imagine New England without cardinals? Actually you don’t have to go back very far in history to find that, not even a 100 years. Cardinals, or Redbirds, came from the southeastern US and began spreading north and west, taking advantage of warming temps, the habitat changes that come with suburban development, as well as the popularity of backyard bird feeding in winter. Cardinals don’t migrate, they need year round territories with dense thickets, where they typically rear several broods in a season. It’s no surprise that when people compulsively “tidy up” the brambles and thickets on their property they later wonder what happened to all the songbirds.

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Sanderling and Purple Sandpiper 1/15/18

Occasionally in winter, walking the empty beach out to Seapoint in a bitter northeast wind rewards me with a shorebird treat. In November a small flock of Purple Sandpipers comes down from the Arctic and takes up residence on the surf-beaten point. At sandier points north and south similar-sized flocks of Sanderlings, the “alba” of the Calidrid sandpipers, winter on long sandy beaches such as you find at Hampton or Ogunquit. Neither of these birds are especially rare, but it is a bit unusual to find them together. The Sanderling is just passing through, it forages the wet sand at the seas edge, and isn’t really at home on the rocks, but most traveling shorebirds find safety in numbers.

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Merlin tiercel 1/10/18

Merlins are one of the falcons, now known to be more closely related to parrots than to other hawks. They are designed for speed and agility with long narrow wings to catch and kill smaller birds on the wing. Like most birds of prey they are sexually dimorphic with females being larger than males, an adaptation allowing a pair to better exploit prey sizes within their territory. Male falcons are called tiercels, some sources say for being roughly a third smaller than females. Merlin tiercels are also bluer winged while females are brown. Merlins are found around the Northern Hemisphere in 9 subspecies.

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