Thursday, March 22, 2018

Hooded Merganser

Our Smallest Merganser

Hooded Mergansers
 The male and three female Hooded Mergansers pictured above were resting on a pipe at a sewage lagoon.  There were late summer post-nesting individuals who would remain in the province until late fall when they would migrate southward.

The Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) is one of our most beautiful waterfowl species.  Its beauty is very evident in the male and more subtle in the female.  The male shows an artistic mix of black, white and chestnut, the black being on the head and back and the chestnut on the sides.  It is noted by its brilliant white crest outlined in black which it often flashes in breeding season.  This is offset by its deep yellow iris.  The female is a mix of browns, oranges and grays.  She is mainly brownish gray overall with an orangish-brown crest which is beautiful when it reflects the sunshine.  Both have a fast, shallow wingbeat.  They are not very vocal but do make growling, croaking and purring sounds during courtship.  The Hooded Merganser is about 46 cm (18 in) long compared to the  Common Merganser which is 64 cm (25 in) and the Red-breasted Merganser, 58 cm (23 in).  The Common Merganser is also a fresh water species but cannot be mistaken for the Hooded Merganser because of its size and much whiter appearance.

Hooded Merganser Male [Internet Photo]
The male Hooded Merganser shown above has his crest extended.  The female shown below is much more subdued in colour.

Hooded Merganser Female
The Hooded Merganser is a summer resident here.  It prefers wooded ponds, streams, swamps and tidal creeks where it nests in tree cavities.  It is a permanent resident in southwestern Nova Scotia and parts of the US south of the Great Lakes.  It winters in the south central and eastern US.  There is also a smaller population in the west which summers in British Columbia and winters on the western US coast.  We have seen part of the wintering population of 'Hoodies' in the southeastern US where they were sleeping and resting on small wooded ponds in South Carolina.  The photo below shows one of those groups where there were about 25 individuals quietly resting.

Hooded Mergansers
The Hooded Merganser is an extremely agile diver and swimmer where it catches underwater prey.  These birds are built for the aquatic environment!  Their legs are set far back on their bodies so they are not so good on land.  They will readily use manmade nest boxes.  Why don't you put one up this year and maybe you will enjoy watching these beauties at work.

Hooded Merganser Female [Internet Photo]
Our first Hooded Mergansers were seen this year on February 27.  This is a very early date and may reflect an over-wintering pair.  That is unlikely due to our weather and lack of open water.  We have since seen 3 males together so their migration is certainly taking place already.  Scan open water in our area with your binoculars and you might be lucky enough to see a Hooded Merganser.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Iceland or Glaucous Gull?

Gulls Can Be Difficult to Distinguish

Iceland Gull First Winter
Some, indeed many, species of gulls are difficult to identify.  Given that gulls take 2 or 3 years to reach adulthood and that they have 5 or more different plumages along the way, no wonder identification is difficult!  

This post will attempt to clarify the difference between the 1st winter Iceland and Glaucous Gulls.  This is a problem often faced by New Brunswick birders because these gulls are often found here in winter.  Immature Glaucous and Iceland Gulls are much more common here than adults.  Non-breeding Iceland Gulls (Larus glaucoides) are found here mainly in winter.  They winter along water from the Great Lakes to Labrador, around the coast of Newfoundland, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and along the Atlantic seaboard as far south as North Carolina.  They breed in summer along the western coast of Greenland and the southern part of Baffin Island.  

The Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus) is more geographically widespread in North America.  Non-breeders spend their summers (and some year-round) on both coasts of Canada, in the west along the entire coast of British Columbia, Yukon and Alaska and in the east from the Great Lakes to Labrador, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and down the eastern seaboard to North Carolina.  Non-breeders also are found in waters from Northern Labrador to Greenland north to Baffin Island.  Adult Glaucous Gulls spend summers on breeding grounds along the coasts of northern Labrador, Greenland, Baffin Island and most Arctic Islands northward.  They also breed along the north coast of Yukon, Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Alaska.

Glaucous Gull First Winter
Note the two species shown in the photos above.  As can be seen, they are very similar.  So how do we tell them apart?  Firstly, the Glaucous Gull is larger than the Iceland Gull (69 cm/27 inches vs. 56 cm/22 inches).  But this is not much help if we see just one bird and have nothing for comparison.  Following are some other features to help identify these species.

Iceland Gull First Winter
Both Iceland and Glaucous Gulls are white-winged gulls.  White-winged gulls do not have black wingtips like our common gulls, Herring Gulls, for example.  Their wingtips vary from white to brownish gray.  See the photos above.  The bill of the Iceland Gull is shorter and more slender than the bill of the Glaucous Gull.  On both species when at rest, the wing tips extend beyond the tail feathers.  The 'wing projection' is longer in the Iceland Gull than in the Glaucous Gull.  The juvenile Iceland Gull is pale brown to creamy overall with variations in the amount of white mottling.  The comparable Glaucous Gull is much whiter in colour.  Both species have a dark eye at this stage.  The Glaucous Gull at this age shows a bi-coloured bill with pink at the base and black at the tip, and showing a sharp demarcation between the two colours.  The juvenile Iceland Gull has a black bill but it gradually transforms to a bi-coloured bill in the next year, with a not-so-clear demarcation between the pink and black. Both species have pink legs.  The wingtips in the Glaucous Gull are often white or whitish whereas the Iceland Gull wingtips at the stage are often brownish to grayish.  

Iceland Gull First Winter
It is always interesting to see these gulls in winter.  In the spring they leave and spend their summers further north.  'Our' Iceland Gulls will move to the coast of Newfoundland and northern Labrador and our Glaucous Gulls will probably fly to the north coast of Labrador, Greenland or Baffin Island.  

Glaucous Gull (front); Iceland Gull (behind)
The photo above shows clearly the difference in plumage colour and bill shape.  Iceland and Glaucous Gulls are always a challenge this time of year.  I admire these interesting species that are adapted to cold temperatures and thus can reap the benefits of feeding off the cold northern Atlantic shores.  

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Eurasian Widgeon

Waterfowl from Europe

Eurasian Widgeon [Internet Photo]
The Eurasian Widgeon (Anas penelope) is a waterfowl species normally living in Europe.   It breeds from Iceland, British Isles and Scandinavia to eastern Siberia and Kamchatka, southward to Northern Europe, central Russia and Northern China.  A few stray to North America every year and spend their time on either the Pacific or Atlantic coasts.  On the Atlantic coast they may be found from Labrador and Newfoundland southward to Florida and Texas.  They prefer marshes, lakes and tidal flats.

According to records, the numbers of Eurasian Widgeon have increased in recent years.  This may be due to increased awareness in birding or to an actual increase.  In my experience it seems to be an increase in numbers in the Atlantic area.  There has never been a recorded case of Eurasian Widgeon breeding in North America.  The birds will, however, hybridize with our own American Widgeon.  

The male Eurasian Widgeon is identified by its rich chestnut-coloured head with a cream or yellow crown and forehead.  It has a mottled gray back and sides.  The female looks much like the female American Widgeon but shows a warmer brown on its head.  See below for an image of a female American Widgeon.  The Eurasian Widgeon is unusual in that it often grazes on land like geese.  It also will hang out close to diving ducks and attempt to snatch food from them as they surface.

American Widgeon Showing Male and Female (on right)
It is always interesting to see a species not normally found here.  Recently there have been at least two reports of Eurasian Widgeon in the Atlantic region, from Newfoundland and New Brunswick.  On Sunday, March 4, a male Eurasian Widgeon was sighted in Lower Jemseg by one of our local birders.  There it was feeding and hanging out with Canada Geese, Common Mergansers and Hooded Mergansers.  The Jemseg River recently became free of ice and the waterfowl were enjoying the opportunity to feed.  The widgeon will soon have many puddle ducks including American Widgeon to keep it company.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Northern Mockingbird

Mockingbirds Are Occasional Residents

Northern Mockingbird
 The Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) is a rare New Brunswick resident and sometimes a migrant.  According to 'Birds of New Brunswick:  An Annotated List' there were only a few reports of this species prior to  the 1950s.  The first recorded nesting was in 1967 in Grand Manan.  It now breeds in a few places in the province mostly along the eastern and southern coasts.  The bird shown in the photos above and below was seen on January 19 in St. George.

Northern Mockingbird
The Mockingbird is very common in the US.  It is a permanent resident from southern Maine through to southern California and throughout Mexico and the West Indies.  It summers northward from there to the Great Lakes and the mid-US.  This species is a mimid (family Mimidae), a family made up of thrashers, mockingbirds and the Gray Catbird.  These birds are known for their long, repetitive songs.  They tend to be secretive and often hide in thickets.  They feed on insects and fruits.

The Mockingbird is the most conspicuous mimid.  Its song is loud and it can mimic the song of other birds.  The bird is about 25 cm long (10 in), is mostly gray with white wing bars and white outer tail feathers which it flashes during courtship.  The genders are similar.  The tail appears long.  The bird also shows black on its wings and tail.  The yellow eye often is evident.  The Northern Mockingbird is given the 'Northern' in its common name to distinguish it from the Bahama Mockingbird and the Blue Mockingbird of Mexico.

Northern Mockingbird [E Mills Photo]
The Mockingbird has thrived with the urbanization of the landscape.  In its regular range it is often seen conspicuously singing from the tops of exposed perches.  It likes brushy fields and suburban landscapes.  It often forages on the ground looking for seeds, fruits, insects, worms, small crustaceans, reptiles and amphibians.

The Northern Mockingbird is the state bird of several US states; Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.  There it is common and flashy, making a good symbol.  If you have encountered many of this species you will notice that it is an aggressive bird.  It will voraciously defend its territory especially in breeding season.  Under threat it will attack pets or humans whom it sees as intruders.  It is an enthusiastic singer and will soon be filling the landscape with its varied songs.  Some of these will even be heard at night!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Rusty Blackbird

Rare Blackbird Visits St. George

Rusty Blackbird in Winter Plumage
The Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) is an uncommon summer breeder here in New Brunswick and rare in winter.  A few have been seen at feeders this winter, like the two individuals I saw in St. George recently.  The Rusty Blackbird shares the Icteridae family with other blackbirds and orioles.  Other members of the family that occur here include the Common Grackle, the Red-winged Blackbird, the Brown-headed Cowbird, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, and the Baltimore Oriole as well the occasional rarity.  

The Rusty Blackbird shown above is in winter plumage.  It is black with a cinnamon colour on its supercilium (eye stripe) and malar (throat stripe).  The feathers covering its wings and rump are edged in cinnamon.  These colourful edges wear off as spring approaches and the bird eventually becomes completely black.  The Rusty Blackbird always has a yellow iris.  Although in spring and summer it is a 'blackbird' it can be distinguished form the Common Grackle by its smaller size, its shorter tail and it is not nearly as glossy.  It can be told from the Red-winged Blackbird by its lack of wing patches even though it is nearly the same size.  The Brown-headed Cowbird is also similar but has a much thicker bill and the male shows dark brown on its head and neck.

Rusty Blackbird in Winter Plumage
The Rusty Blackbird inhabits swampy forest habitats.  It prefers spruce trees near bogs in the boreal forest to breed.  In winter it is found in wooded swamps especially along floodplains.  Its nest is bulky, woven from twigs and lichens and lined with grasses.  Its eggs are pale blue-green with brown and gray spots.  Incubation lasts 14 days.  They feed on insects, snails, small fish, waste grain and seeds, walking along the ground while feeding.

Rusty Blackbird in Summer Plumage
The Rusty Blackbird has a wide range.  The summer breeding range includes most of Canada except the Arctic region.  They winter in the eastern US southward to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and northern Florida.  I have seen them in South Carolina in winter where they associate with Boat-tailed and Common Grackles.

The Rusty Blackbird population has experienced a steep decline since 1960.  Some sources estimate a 90% drop.  The Breeding Bird Surveys and Christmas Bird Counts indicate an 85-95% drop.  This is a drastic population drop for which we have no confirmed cause.  Habitat loss due to clearcutting in the boreal forest would certainly be one cause.  Competition from the increase in other Icterid populations due to intensive agriculture of grain crops would be another.  But certainly more work needs to be done.  Seeing a few here in the province this winter is encouraging.  I hope their population is on the incline.  

Friday, February 16, 2018

Snow Goose Blue Morph

Blue Goose Visits Back Bay

Snow Goose Blue Morph Adult
An adult Snow Goose blue morph has been visiting Back Bay for the last 2 to 3 weeks.  The Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens) is a common goose species of mid-North America.  It normally breeds in our high Arctic islands and winters in south central US.  A small population winters in California and Mexico.  Snow Geese are uncommon here but usually a few pass through during spring migration.  Having one here during the winter is rare and having it a blue morph is even rarer.  The blue morph is a genetic variation of the Snow Goose which occurs in a small percentage of Snow Goose populations.  

The Snow Goose population is divided into different geographical and genetic groups.  The Lesser Snow Goose inhabits the central part of North America and the Greater Snow Goose uses the Atlantic Flyway and Atlantic Coastal Plain.  Those migrating along the Atlantic Flyway and Coastal Plain are seen in the thousands along the St. Lawrence River on their way to the Arctic to breed.  Many of this group come to northeastern New Brunswick near Campbellton to feed on their way north.  In 1998 there were 1000 individuals at Atholville, for example.  

In the mid-20th century the Snow Goose population fell into a steep decline.  Since then their numbers have increased dramatically.  Since 1973 their population has tripled and the central Arctic population has multiplied by a factor of 25!  This huge increase has caused significant damage to Arctic tundra from the feeding flocks.  This has placed a negative stress on other species.  The large flocks are causing much damage to crops in the central part of the continent.  As  a result, governments have legislated increased hunting permits to try to reduce numbers.  Now about 400,000 Snow Geese are hunted annually in the US and Canada.

Shown above is the Blue Goose (Snow Goose Blue Morph).  It basically shows a blue body and a white head.  Technically it has a brown body much of which is covered with blue wing feathers  which are long and beautiful.  The tail feathers are gray with a white border.  Important identifying features are the pink bill and legs and the black 'smile line' on the bill.  This helps distinguish it from the Ross's Goose.  The white domestic goose has an orange bill and legs.  The white head of the Snow Goose is often stained red or brown by the iron oxide in the soil as it grubs for roots and tubers.  

Snow Goose White Morph Adult
The much more common white morph Snow Goose is shown above.  Note the pink bill and legs and the black smile line.  The white morph has black primary wing feathers which show here above the tail.  These show well on birds in flight.  

Snow Goose with Canada Goose
The Snow Goose is smaller than the Canada Goose as shown above.  It is a Chen goose (its genus) which it shares with the Ross's Goose and the Emperor Goose.  It migrates in huge numbers and usually flies very high in large arc formations or very loose 'V's.  They rest at night usually on water.  They can sleep while afloat or while standing on one leg or sitting.

Snow Geese feed on plants, eating most parts of the plant.  They feed heavily on grasses, rushes, sedges, forbes, horsetails, shrubs and willows.  

Snow Goose White Morph Juvenile
The juvenile white  morph can sometimes be mistaken for the blue morph.  We don't see these often so need to carefully observe to make an identification.  This form varies but always shows a dingy gray colour.  The juvenile blue morph is much darker, a dull brown on the head and neck and dark gray-brown overall.  (Sorry, no photo).

Snow Geese mate for life and usually choose a mate of the same colour morph as their parents.  They will choose another morph, however, if the preferred morph is not available.  Offspring will then be of either morph.  The goose in Back Bay is hanging out with a Canada Goose.  Will they mate come spring?  Not likely.  They will fly north and find mates of their own species.  In the meantime, it is good for them to keep company with one another.

Thursday, February 8, 2018


Our Smallest Auk

Dovekie [Mark Morse Photo]
The Dovekie (Alle alle) is the world's smallest auk, family Alcidae.  They breed in summer in the high Arctic islands and winter along the Atlantic coast of Labrador, Newfoundland and down the eastern seaboard sometimes to New England.  The photo above shows the Dovekie in non-breeding plumage and was taken recently off Grand Manan. 

The Dovekie is very small, 21 cm (8.8 in) long, about Starling size.  On the vast ocean, that looks pretty small!  It has the clean black and white plumage of Alcids, black on the back and head and white below.  The breeding plumage shows a black hood covering the head, neck and throat.  In winter white appears on the throat and sides of neck, forming an incomplete neck band.  The bill is exceptionally short.  When it sits on the water it appears neckless as it pulls its head in close to its body.  In flight it is very football-shaped.  It often flies close to the water dodging the waves. 

Dovekies (known as Little Auks in Europe) are a holarctic species.  They inhabit the oceans of the north of the Earth.  Although they breed in northern Canada, the largest colonies are in Greenland, Spitsbergen (Norway) and a smaller colony in Iceland.  They come to land to breed in rocky crevices on scree slopes and mountains along the Arctic Ocean.  The rest of the year they spend at sea.  While in the breeding colony they are very vocal with a high-pitched chattering and screeching sound.  They feed on fish, molluscs, and plankton. which they catch underwater by using their wings and strong feet and legs.  They actually 'fly' under water.

Occasionally in heavy winter storms with strong easterly winds Alcids can be blown inland.  Because they are physically designed for life on the ocean they find it nearly impossible to walk on land.  Their feet are placed well back on their bodies making it difficult to balance in an upright position.  So, if they get blown inland they are stranded.  Without the aid of humans they would soon die or get killed by a predator.   The bird in the photo above was blown in during the storm of January 13 and 14.  It was returned quickly to the ocean where it swam away happily!