Monthly Archives: April 2014

Biddeford Pool Snowy Owl and Weather Discussion

This was the birding highlight of Tuesday morning’s visit with Katrina to Biddeford Pool.
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The first photo was taken shortly after our arrival to The Pool, while the second two -with much more pleasant skies – was taken as we departed around noon.  Although its plumage is much more faded and worn now, it is likely that this is the same Snowy that has spent the winter near the western end of mile stretch.  Today, it was hunting voles once again on the incoming tide from one of its favorite rooftop perches.

While this was my latest Snowy in Maine, it is far from unprecedented following a massive irruption year. But seeing a Snowy Owl a mere two days away from May is still special; it could be a lifetime before we see an irruption of this magnitude again.

A little further down the road, where the second of the Mile Stretch Snowies overwintered, we found a pile of pellets below one of that bird’s favorite perches. Most were full of small mammal fur and bones, and the skulls were all of voles. One pellet, however, was pure thick, downy feathers – probably from a duck.
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But with migration still at a virtual standstill, the rest of the day’s highlights were rather few and far between; very few migrants were around. A pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers around the beach parking lot was a nice, and I had my first House Wren of the year in the neighborhood, and my first Laughing Gull off of East Point. 1-3 Black-crowned Night-Herons were also my personal “FOY’s,” but they have probably been present here for at least a couple of weeks now.

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The seas and skies sure looked like winter today, and the raw winds and low temperatures – and Snowy Owl! – sure made it seem more like early March than late April!

But yeah, migration has been kinda slow.  Although, interestingly enough, the House Wren and Laughing Gull were right on time for me, most of the usual late April arrivals (Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, etc) are nowhere to be seen, and really, have I only heard one Blue-headed Vireo so far this season?

We all know spring has been running late this year, and I would say bird migration is now about 7-10 days behind schedule (catching up from the 2-3 weeks behind schedule of early April).  Recently, our onshore winds (not conducive to facilitating migration for birds heading north) in this stubborn blocking pattern (a pattern that has seemingly become more and more regular recently) have not helped matters.  Here, for example, is the wind map from Sunday, showing the low pressure system just south of Nova Scotia that was pumping in those onshore winds since late last week.
wind map, 4-27-14

But take a look at today’s wind forecast…
wind map, 4-30-14

Here we see the massive low pressure system marching across the Great Plains. But now, on the leading edge of it, we see a deep southerly flow, originating all of the way from the Gulf Coast.  This southerly flow is expected to last for at least the next 48 hours.

Although the weather will remain unsettled – and we’re about to get a pretty good soaking tonight and tomorrow – through at least the weekend, I would expect quite a few migrants to begin to trickle in over the next few days. Simply put, some birds are running low on time to wait!  And, as evidenced by the 73 and 110 raptors tallied passing The Brad over the last two days, respectively, despite easterly winds, it is clear that some birds simply have to make some progress, and will do so when conditions are at least somewhat favorable (or, at least not completely unfavorable).

Furthermore, these deep southerly flows at this time of year can facilitate the arrival of annual spring “overshoots” from the south (see Chapter 4 of my book, How to Be a Better Birder for a full explanation of this phenomenon). When I see weather patterns such as this, I begin to think about things such as Summer Tanagers, Blue Grosbeaks, and Hooded Warblers!

At least potential food sources (insects emerging from ponds; insects attracted to blooming trees) are getting a little chance to catch up before the bulk of migrant birds arrive.  This phenology, or timing, of the plant and insect cycle is critical for migrant birds that need to refuel and/or then fuel up for the next leg of their journey. “Weird” weather such as this doesn’t bother birds as much as it bothers us, but it becomes a real problem when the weather results in the lack of specific food sources.

I haven’t seen much in the way of nectar-producing flowers yet – but Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Baltimore Orioles often begin to arrive in the first week of May. This is going to be one of those seasons where well-stocked feeding stations are critically important to migrants, especially those that need insects and nectar.  Our hummingbird and oriole feeders are out and ready for business, and our feeder is stocked with insect-laden suet blocks (check out our “Photos from Friends of the Store” gallery on our Facebook Page to see what one particular feeding station in Brunswick has been seeing eating insect suet) and live mealworms.  It lies in wait for the first hummers, orioles, or any other migrants in need of assistance…oh yeah, any vagrants from the south, too!

White-faced Ibis Have Returned to Scarborough Marsh

For the 7th consecutive spring, White-faced Ibis have been found in Scarborough Marsh.  I found the state’s 5th record in 2008 – a single adult bird – and in each of the next three years, a single adult bird was seen. It is more than likely that this was the same adult returning for each of those years, and likely beyond.

Things became a little more muddied in 2012, however, when three different White-faced Ibis (WFIB) were documented (that spring, I wrote an extensive blog summarizing the difference and the previous records. Although that was posted to my old Mainetoday.com blog that has since imploded, if anyone would like a copy of that synthesis, please let me know).

Photos from 2012 can be seen here.

Additionally, some earlier photos of the sub-adult bird can be seen here, although they are not of high quality.

In 2013, at least three individuals were identified once again.

So the question becomes are these birds all related? How many of these individuals have shown up for home many consecutive years? And, are they breeding?

Last year, WFIB were spotted on occasion through the end of the summer, confirming that the birds are not just spring overshoots or drift vagrants. Although the detection of – and ability to study the – ibis becomes much more challenging as the season progresses due to the growing marsh grasses, last year WFIB was a semi-regular sighting in the marsh. Some of my photos from July and August of last year can be seen here.

Juvenile WFIB are impossible to separate in the field from juvenile Glossy Ibis in the late summer and fall (by late winter, the development of the red eye and perhaps even facial skin coloration would at least tip us off to the possible identification). Therefore, if breeding is to be confirmed, it would likely have to be on Stratton Island – where they would likely breed within the large colony of Glossy Ibis (GLIB) – or, by conjecture as a population increases. Figuring out exactly how many birds are seen each year, and their ages, could help us track potential breeding (and perhaps eventual colonization?). It’s also fun – if you like this sort of thing.

Each year, WFIB show up in late April, about the time that the majority of the GLIB arrive, and this year, the birds were first reported on Saturday (4/19). Two to three birds were reported, and over the past week, we have tried to determine exactly how many birds they are, and, if possible, what ages they are.

On Sunday, Jeannette and I were planning on heading to the marsh in the afternoon anyway (to take advantage of the high tide on our rare extra day off), so looking for the WFIB first reported on Saturday added extra incentive. And luck was with us. As soon as we arrived at the marsh, we found a group of about 70 GLIB foraging close to Pine Point Road. We jumped out, and immediately found two White-faced Ibis within the group, along with one other bird of interest (a bird that looked absolutely fine for a pure GLIB, but with distinctly reddish-pink knees, and perhaps a pinkish hue on the rest of the leg.  Jeannette, unfortunately, was unable to get photos of this individual).

Most obvious, there was this “bright-faced” bird.
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Although the facial skin, especially right at the base of the bill, has a slight grayish tint, I see no reason to argue that this is anything other than an adult bird (or very near-adult, perhaps).

Secondly, there was this “pale-faced” bird.IMG_5519_edited-2

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Note the greatly reduced amount of white around the face, with no white behind the eye. In the field, I called this bird a sub-adult, but on close inspection of the photos, I don’t feel comfortable calling its age – other than it is definitely more than a year old. Although there isn’t much white on the “face,” the pure red eye, pink facial skin, and pinkish legs with brighter red-pink knees are all fine for an adult, in fact, as are the spiffy, glossy tertials. Perhaps a spread-tail shot could help confirm this. It might simply be a dull (facial-marking-wise) adult.

Meanwhile, photos from other folks suggest that a third WFIB, or perhaps a hybrid, is present. If it is, perhaps we will be able to compare these birds to those of last year, and perhaps even conclude that the same three birds are back. Regardless, it will be an interesting exercise, and quite the challenge, as ibis are a real challenge to age. In fact, we might not even know for sure how to age them! Of course, you know me, that doesn’t necessarily stop me from trying.

What intrigues me is that we have not yet documented a hybrid, even after an adult was present for 4-5 years. Since out of range WFIB are well known to hybridize with GLIB (and visa-versa), we often expected to see hybrid kiddies running around (at least by next spring when they would have been noticeable). Perhaps it did not breed, or the young did not survive. And/or perhaps it waited long enough for another WFIB to arrive. Whatever is going on, it will be most interesting to watch, this summer and beyond.

Feathers Over Freeport!

hawkwatch4, 4-15-13

Looking for an excuse to get outside and learn something about birds and migration? Ever wonder how you or your kids can get started with this wonderful pastime? What about learning about the things that live in the woods that don’t have feathers – from flowers to frogs?

No matter what your interests are, or what your level of birding experience is, then we have just the event for you! Join us on the last weekend of April (every year!) for “Feathers Over Freeport: A Birdwatching Weekend!”

With events all day, Saturday April 26th at Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal and all day Sunday, April 27th at Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park in Freeport is the event for the whole family. It started four years ago as a way to introduce people to birding and gain an appreciation for the feathered life around us. It is not meant to be a “birding festival” per se, but a way get people excited about birds – the first step.

Events begin each day with my morning birdwalks – 8:00am on Saturday at Bradbury and 8:00am on Sunday at Wolfe’s Neck. Bird migration is just beginning to kick into high gear in late April, so it is a fun time to begin learning some of those early migrants without getting too overwhelmed.

The timing of the weekend also perfectly coincides with the Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch’s peak. My hawkwatching workshop will teach visitors how to identify the 15+ species of hawks that pass by this mountain every spring.

And, speaking of hawks, the Osprey pair at Wolfe’s Neck is back on nest, providing a great opportunity to view these awesome birds and learn a little about their biology. As in past years, both parks with be hosting programs by Hope Douglas from Wind Over Wings. See live birds of prey up close and personal, including a Golden Eagle!

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Feathers Over Freeport is also the State’s official Pledge 2 Fledge event. This is an international effort to get people who already have an interest in birds to share that with someone new. The children’s activities and workshops during this weekend help us work towards that goal.

For a complete listing of all of the weekend’s events, visit the Feathers Over Freeport webpage. Hope to see you there!

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Birds, Books, and Beers Series: Richard King, author of The Devil’s Cormorant, 4/18

King Freeport Event
Jeannette and I are excited to welcome Richard J. King, author of The Devil’s Cormorant to the store on Friday, 4/18 for the next installment of our “Birds, Books, and Beers Series.”

This free event will include a talk and book signing here at the store at 5:00pm, followed by informal conversation and signing at Maine Beer Company beginning at 6:00pm.

This is one of our new favorite natural (and cultural) history books, and we are honored that Mr. King will be joining us, and we hope you will too. For more information, visit our website, here  (and save the date for upcoming events with Will Russell and David Sibley!)

Here is the review of the book that I posted to my blog a couple of months ago.

Hope to see you on Friday.

Thanks,
Derek

Common Teal to Northern Lapwing; American Woodcocks to Wood Ducks: 5 Great Days of Spring Birding!

Well, that was a helluva good five days of birding! And, I covered a heckuva lot of ground in the process. Yes, spring – and spring birding – is finally upon us.

After checking local hotspots on Thursday morning (lots of Killdeer and my first Eastern Phoebes), I began my trek eastwards after lunch. I was giving a presentation and book signing at the Maine Coastal Islands NWR headquarters in Rockland, thanks to an invite from the Friends of Maine Seabird Islands. On the way, I hit a handful of water overlooks, with the only birds of note being my FOY Fish Crows in downtown Brunswick and FOY Double-crested Cormorant in Damariscotta Harbor.

But then I arrived at Weskeag Marsh, and that was most productive. Highlighted by two drake “Eurasian” Green-winged (aka “Common”) Teal, a nice diversity of waterfowl also included two pairs of American Wigeon and a pair of Northern Pintail. I flushed two American Woodcocks and four Fox Sparrows from the short trail that leads to the viewing blind. Afterwards, I found a single 2nd-Cycle Glaucous Gull with four 1st-cycle Iceland Gulls still at Owl’s Head Harbor.

Here’s a poorly phone-scoped image of one of the Common Teal, showing the bold horiztonal white bar across the wing and the lack of a vertical white bar on the side of the chest.
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Spending the night with friends, I then met up with staff from the Coastal Mountains Land Trust for a walk around their Beech Hill Preserve to discuss and offer suggestions as to augment and improve bird habitat there. A spiffy male Northern Harrier and a Northern Shrike (my 11th of the season!) were me rewards.

I then took the (very) long way home, checking farm fields on my way to the Hatch Hill Landfill in Augusta. Although 900-1000 gulls were present at the dump – a nice number for here – all but 5 were Herring Gulls (plus three Great Black-backed and 2 Ring-billed). At least 10 Bald Eagles were still present however.

Working my way down the Kennebec, I checked the mouth of the Abagadasset River in Bowdoinham, which I found to still be frozen. Nearby Brown’s Point, however, had open water, and duck numbers were clearly building, including 44 Ring-necked Ducls and 50+ Green-winged Teal. Back at the store soon thereafter, I found our Song Sparrow numbers had grown from four to 12 overnight.

As the rain and drizzle ended on Saturday morning, the birdwalk group convened, and we headed inland (for the first time since December!) to work the “Greater Yarmouth Goose Fields.” Highlighted by two Cackling Geese that were first located on Thursday (a couple of hours after I checked the fields in the fog, dammit!) and yet another Northern Shrike (our third week in a row with a shrike on the birdwalk!), this very productive outing is fully covered on our website, here – as are all of our birdwalk outings.
IMG_3244_CACG,GreelyRd,Cumberland,4-5-14One of the two Cackling Geese, phone-scoped through the fog.

Normally, the birdwalk’s return to the store is the end of my birding on Saturday, but not this week. Soon, Kristen Lindquist, Barb Brenneman, and I raced off to Jordan Farm in Cape Elizabeth to twitch a real “mega,” the stunning Northern Lapwing! Discovered Friday evening, the bird was enjoyed by many throughout the day on Saturday, but it was not seen again on Sunday despite much searching. This is the 4th record of lapwing in Maine, and the third in just three years! I consider myself exceedingly fortunate to have seen the last two. My distantly-phone-scoped photos of the Cape Elizabeth bird hardly do this stunner justice.
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Yet even still my birding day was far from over, as Saturday night was our annual “Woodcocks Gone Wild at Pineland Farms” dusk trip. Keeping an eye on the weather (the rain had cleared, but increasing winds were a concern), Jeannette and I wondered if we should postpone the outing. Moments after we decided to give the go-ahead in the afternoon, the winds began to gust – a lot. Then, at about 5pm, they died. When our walk got underway at 6:30, there was a little breeze once again, but it was not enough to keep the woodcocks from going wild! In fact, it’s possible that a little wind kept the birds’ display a little lower – especially the first handful of flights – which resulted in quite possibly the best show we’ve ever had here! At least 7 males were displaying, including one repeatedly right over our heads – and at least two more silent birds were observed flying by. Add to this lots of American Robins and a Northern Shrike before the sun set, and the group was treated to a wonderful spring evening performance!

Next up was Androscoggin County on Sunday with my friend Phil McCormack. While our primary target was a pancake breakfast at Jillison’s Farm in Sabattus, we were also hoping for a Redhead that was discovered on the outlet stream at Sabattus Pond a few days ago. Well, the pancake chase (the more important one!) was successful, but the Redhead chase was not. However, a very good day of birding was enjoyed nonetheless.

Scattered ducks on the river including Ring-necked Ducks and Common Mergansers, a couple of pockets of Tree Swallows, and other assorted species were trumped by two flooded fields along Rte 136 in Durham. With ponds and marshes still frozen, ducks are stacking up at more ephemeral – but unfrozen – habitats.  Thousands of ducks and geese were present, mostly Canada Geese, Mallards, and American Black Ducks.  However, between the two fields, we tallied an unbelievable 273 Wood Ducks (probably about quadruple my previous high count in the state). Two immature Snow Geese were my first of the year, and very rare away from the coastal marshes in the spring. 18 Green-winged Teal, 12 Ring-necked Ducks, 10 Northern Pintail, and two pairs of American Wigeon were also among the masses.
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Although these phone-scoped photos hardly do the scene justice, they should at least give you a taste of what things looked like.

After brunch, we birded the west side of the Androscoggin River (more Ring-necked Ducks and Common Mergansers, etc) before spending our last hour of our birding (half) day at Bradbury Mountain.  Our disappointment over missing an unprecedented 9 Sandhill Cranes was alleviated when #10 was spotted, along with my first two Ospreys of the year.

After four days of extensive birding, my Monday agenda at the store was lengthy, but the weather in the morning was just too good to pass up!  A spin of the local waterfowl hotspots was fruitful.  The Goose Fields yielded the two continuing Cackling Geese along Greely Road, along with my first American Kestrels of the year, and my FOY Wilson’s Snipe, also along Greely.

No luck finding a lingering Barrow’s Goldeneye in the Harraseeket River, but at Wharton Point, a group of 7 Northern Shovelers was one of the largest flocks of this species I have seen in Maine. My first Greater Yellowlegs of the year was also present, as were 60+ Green-winged Teal, 16 Ring-necked Ducks, about 30 distant scaup, 8 American Wigeons, and 1 Northern Pintail among several hundred American Black Ducks.

Two joyous hours at the Brad were full of raptors: 127 birds had past the watch when I departed at noon, including 4 Osprey. Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks continue to add to their all-time record tallies. Hundreds of Canada Geese were sorted through, hoping for a rarity, while other migrants included Tree Swallows, American Black Ducks, Common Mergansers, and Great Blue Herons.

Furthermore, signs of a good flight last night included the return of Golden-crowned Kinglets to the area – after we were virtually devoid of them this winter, and an increase in Red-breasted Nuthatches (relatively few and far between this winter as well), Song-Sparrows, and at the store, a Fox Sparrow – a bird we don’t get here every spring due to our open habitat.

So long story short, it’s been a great few days of birding!  But now, I should probably get some work done!