Thursday, May 17, 2018

Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole in Grand Manan

Orchard Oriole Immature Male
 On May 10, we were fortunate to see and photograph an immature Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) while visiting Grand Manan.  This bird was faithful to the area around the home of one of Grand Manan's faithful bird feeders.  As you can see in the photo, it was enjoying fresh oranges.  The bird would visit the oranges 5 or 6 times a day and feed heavily on the orange flesh.  Baltimore Orioles were enjoying them too but the two species of orioles would not tolerate one another.  The Orchard Oriole would wait for the Baltimore to finish before flying into the tree.

The Orchard Oriole is North America's smallest oriole.  It arrives in the late spring and leaves early for its wintering grounds.  Some leave as early as mid-July.  It breeds normally in the mid-US as far north as the Canadian border and southern New England.   It winters in Mexico south to northern South America.  Although rare here, it is fairly common throughout its normal breeding range.  It prefers open forests and edges with flowering trees, urban parks and riparian zones.

Orchard Oriole Immature Male
The immature male Orchard Oriole is bright yellow with a black throat patch and lores (area between eye and bill).  It has two conspicuous white wing bars, as do both the adult male and female.  The adult female is bright yellow with a greenish back and no black at all.  The adult male looks very different with a black hood, back and throat patch.  He shows deep chestnut on the belly, sides and rump.  He also shows the two white wing bars.

The male sings a high-pitched warbling whistle.  The Orchard Oriole weaves a hanging nest similar to that of the Baltimore Oriole.  It usually is attached to  the fork of a tree or bush.  It lays 3 to 7 pale blue or gray eggs with gray, purple or brown spots.  The Orchard Oriole feeds on insects, nectar, flowers and fruit.

Orchard Oriole Immature Male
The Orchard Oriole is a very rare spring visitor to New Brunswick.  Visitors are often immature birds probably dispersing from their home range.  Some have stayed into summer when they probably return southward.  That is probably what this individual will do.

Orchard Oriole Adult Male [Internet Photo]
There are 10 species of orioles that can be seen in North America.  Some are seen only in the most southerly parts of Florida or California or Arizona.  They are very beautiful birds and we are lucky to have the Baltimore Oriole here and occasionally we get to see the Orchard Oriole.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

King Rail

King Rail in New Brunswick - No Way!

King Rail
On May 7 Jim Wilson announced the sighting of a King Rail at McLaren’s Pond, Fundy National Park.  It was reported as an ‘amazing’ discovery and indeed it was.  There have been only 3 previous sightings of this species in New Brunswick.  Two were found dead; one at Point Lepreau in September, 1952 and one at Gardner Creek, Saint John County in October, 1994 (Birds of New Brunswick: An Annotated List).  The third bird was photographed by Chris Kennedy while doing a breeding bird atlas along the Petitcodiac River in June, 2007.  Nova Scotia has three records and two birds were seen in southern Maine in recent years (as per Jim Wilson).

King Rail Showing Orange Breast and Red Iris
The King Rail (Rallus elegans) is the largest member of the rail family, Rallidae.  Other rail species that are native to New Brunswick in the summer are the Sora and the Virginia Rail.  Rails are secretive birds that live in close proximity to water, especially marshes and wetlands.  The Sora, Virginia Rail and King Rail prefer fresh water habitats and the Clapper Rail prefers salt or brackish marshes.  They like thick vegetation in which to hide, feed and nest.  They occasionally come out in the open but quickly duck back into cover.  The King Rail builds an intricately woven nest with a woven canopy and a sloping ramp entrance.

The King Rail feeds on aquatic insects, crustaceans, frogs, clams and seeds of marsh plants.  They will feed away from water (e.g., this individual appeared to be eating earthworms and insects found in mown grass) but most often feed in long marsh grass and pond plants.  It is reported that they will sometimes carry their food to water and dunk it before eating.

King Rail Showing Side Barring
The King Rail is a spectacular rail as its name suggests.  It is 38 cm (15 in) long and a bit bigger than the Clapper Rail which it closely resembles.  The King Rail is the size of a chicken and really impressive to see as it quietly walks along heavy pond vegetation.  It normally inhabits the coastal areas of southeastern US from Virginia south to Florida and west to Texas.  In summer it sometimes migrates up the Mississippi River.  ‘Casual’ sightings have been reported from Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes.  

The population of the King Rail is in decline due to habitat loss or degradation, toxic environments. accidental trappings, and hunting pressures in some parts of the US.  The King Rail was first described in 1834 by John James Audubon who did a beautiful painting of a pair of the birds.  I wonder how many tens of thousands of years this species existed before it was first described.  It certainly was known by the early inhabitants of North America who called it the ‘marsh hen’ or various aboriginal names.

King Rail Showing Orange Superciliary Line
The King Rail and the Clapper Rail look very much alike.  There is considerable variability within both species.  Some subspecies of the Clapper Rail look much like King Rails. The California race (of Clapper Rail), for example, is more orange in colour and looks even more like the King Rail but that population is considered to be non-migratory.  To make identification even more difficult, the two species sometimes hybridize.  The Cornell Ornithology site states that recently the King Rail species has been split into two species and the Clapper Rail species has been split into three.  The remaining Clapper Rail species has 8 subspecies.  A complex group!

King Rail Showing Burnt Orange Wing Covert 
The King Rail is larger than the Clapper Rail.  My first impression of the bird was its large size, its bill appeared long and thick and the bird looked dark in colour especially the orange which in some places is a burnt orange.  The colours on the King Rail are more saturated than those of the Clapper Rail, making the Clapper Rail look more muted or grayish overall.  The King Rail is overall browner and more orange.  As seen in the photos above, the barring on the sides of the King Rail are bold and that of the Clapper Rail are less so.  The burnt orange on the breast and wing coverts of the King Rail contrast with the more muted grayish or brownish of the Clapper Rail.  The feathers on the back are more heavily streaked with brownish black and edged with olive or brown in the King Rail and the top of the head is brown compared to black or gray in the Clapper Rail.  The Clapper Rail supposedly has a more prominent white superciliary line but this appears to be a subtle difference.  It appeared orange in the Fundy bird.  After close examination of the differences in these two species as outlined in the bird guides (Sibley and National Geographic) it is clear that there are few distinct differences in these two species, given geographic location and hybridization.  In my opinion, the only clear differences are the size, the orange breast and wing coverts of the King Rail along with the much darker plumage and the chestnut edges to the feathers on the back.  Voice and habitat can provide some help but a serious look at the individual is necessary to get a correct identification.

A very interesting species to find in New Brunswick!  To watch it slowly walk out of the thick bush and feed on the grass and then slink away to hide and rest again was indeed a privilege for us northern birders.  Carry on, King Rail.  You are welcome here.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallows Have Returned

Tree Swallow
 The Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) is a common New Brunswick swallow.  They winter farther north than of any of our swallows so are the last to leave in the fall and the first to arrive in the spring.    How nice is the day when they first arrive, twittering over our fields and waterways looking for early insects!

Tree Swallows spend the winters in the most southern parts of the US, Mexico and the Caribbean islands.  They summer in the central and northern US and almost all of Canada.  They nest in abandoned tree cavities or readily accept nest boxes set out for them by people.  They are hardier than other swallow species, feeding on mainly insects but also seeds and berries when needed.

Tree Swallow
Tree Swallows are beautiful.  Their upper parts are a brilliant iridescent greenish blue.  The underparts are a clean white.  Their wings and tail are a grayish black.  The greenish blue covers their eyes and cheeks, a feature which separates them from the western Violet-green Swallow.  Their tails are notched, a fact which can separate them in flight from the Barn Swallow which has a deeply forked tail.  In flight they show the slightly notched tail and a broad-based wing.  Juvenile Tree Swallows are greyish-brown on the upper parts with clean white underparts, like the adults.

Tree Swallow
The Tree Swallow prefers to breed in open areas near water.  They like to hawk insects over fields, marshes, swamps, rivers and lakes.

The Tree Swallow was first described in 1808 by Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot, a French Ornithologist.  An interesting behaviour I have seen this species display is an aerial game (or fighting as described by some) with a feather.  They appear to play chase with it.  This may indeed be a game since they are so agile and energetic.  They do like to place feathers in their nests so it may be competition for nest feathers.  According to iBird Pro investigations on this behaviour are ongoing.

Tree Swallow

Friday, April 27, 2018

Great Egret

Great Egret Visits Salisbury

Great Egret
For the last week there has been a Great Egret feeding at the lagoon in Salisbury.  I saw it on April 23.  A visit early in the morning left us empty-handed but a visit in the afternoon gave us a good sighting of this visitor from the south.  This egret has a smudge of something dark coloured on the left side of its head, probably sludge from an oil slick acquired somewhere on its travels.

The Great Egret (Ardea alba) is a rare visitor to New Brunswick, usually occurring in spring and fall.  Occasionally we will have two together but it is usually a single bird.  Once I saw one at Chance Harbour accompanied by a Tricolored Heron.

Great Egret
 The Great Egret is a large white egret with a long neck and large yellow bill.  Its legs and feet are black.  In breeding season the adults grow long plumes on their backs which extend beyond the tail.  This, unfortunately, almost led to their demise when these plumes (aigrettes) were highly sought after for the millinery trade in the 1800s and early 1900s.  Severe population declines resulted but fortunately they have recovered.  In breeding season the Great Egret develops a pretty turquoise green colour lores (around the eye) which beautifully sets off the yellow eye.  Also, the bill changes from yellow to orange.  This egret is 99 cm (39 in) long with a wing span of 130 cm (51 in) making it North America's largest egret.  A distinguishing characteristic of this species is its slow flight with the neck retracted.

The only other bird you are likely to confuse this bird with is the Snowy Egret which is smaller, has a black bill and black legs with yellow feet.  They do, however, frequent the same habitats.  The Cattle Egret is much smaller (51 cm/20 in) and has a different shape.

 Great Egret
The Great Egret prefers wetlands; freshwater, brackish or saline.  It feeds on fish, aquatic invertebrates and reptiles.  It has the advantage of size and can wade out deeper than other egret species to reach food unattainable to them.  It nests in trees in colonies along with other wading bird species.  The nest is usually 6 to 12 metres (20 to 40 feet) above the ground.  It breeds mainly in the southern US but strays in summer up the Atlantic coast and up the central part of the continent to Michigan and Minnesota.  It has never bred in New Brunswick.

An interesting fact about the Great Egret is that it is the symbol of the National Audubon Society.  Let's keep this beautiful image there and leave their plumes on their backs where they belong.  I am glad we no longer value hats decorated with animal parts!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Redhead

Redhead Duck Seen in Saint John

Redhead
A Redhead duck (Aythya americana) visited Rockwood Park, Saint John for about a week in late March/early April.  It spent most of its time sharing a small pond with other local ducks; mallards, black ducks, american widgeon and many Ring-billed Gulls.  It was finding food and safety there so spent several days resting and restoring its energy stores before moving on to points further north.

Redhead and Mallard
The Redhead is of the genus,  Aythya, along with the Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck, Tufted Duck, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup and Common Pochard.  Most of these genera are North American except the Tufted Duck and the Common Pochard which are European.  To share the same genus indicates that the ducks are closely related and therefore similar in appearance and behaviour (usually).  For example, the Redhead looks much more like the Ring-necked Duck than the Mallard, which is an Anas genus.  The keen eye can see the difference in shape between the Redhead and the Mallard in the photo above.

The Redhead is a beautiful duck with its deep rusty brown head and deep yellow eye.  It is often seen alone here since it is a rare visitor and seen mainly during migration.  I have seen large rafts of them on Lake Ontario where they gather before moving on in their migration.  Most Redheads spend their summers on their breeding range on the prairies and in central Alaska.  It appears there is a small population that breeds in southeastern Ontario and in south-central Labrador.  Redheads winter in the southern US and Mexico.  

Redhead Male
The male Redhead has a deep rusty head and upper neck, yellow eye and a tricoloured bill (black, blue and white, see photo).  Its back is gray; dark gray above and lighter gray on the sides.  Both are vermiculated (showing wavy lines) and are beautiful to see up close.  Its breast is black.  The female is very different looking.  She is brown overall with a paler face and a dark crown.  Her bill is also tricoloured but with gray rather than blue.  

"Birds of New Brunswick: An Annotated List" says that nearly all modern records of the Redhead have occurred since the 1960s.  The only confirmed record of breeding in NB is from 1944 from Middle Island, Sunbury County.  This is unusual and almost all records are from spring and fall as the birds pass through to breeding grounds in Labrador.

Redheads feed by diving in shallow water.  They feed on both plants and animals:  seeds, rhizomes and tubers of pondweeds, wild celery, water lilies, grasses, molluscs, aquatic insects and small fish.  They often associate with other Aythya ducks.  The only other species that could be confused with the Redhead is the Canvasback which has the same colouring but is larger and shows a different head and bill profile.  For distinguishing the female it is best to refer to reliable field guides, for example, "The Sibley Guide to Birds" 2014.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Pink-footed Goose Returns

Pink-footed Goose Visits Keswick

The Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus) has returned!  Or, this could be another individual.  For the purpose of this blog I am assuming this is the same bird that has been seen for the last three years in the Fredericton area.

Pink-footed Goose 
The Pink-footed Goose is an European species that is very rarely seen here.  It normally breeds in eastern Greenland, Svalbard (northern Norway) and the interior of Iceland.  It normally winters along the shores of Denmark and eastern Scotland in the North Sea and sometimes a bit further south. 

So, what is it doing here?  Well, it is not unusual for birds to get blown off course during migration.  Also, sometimes the migration patterns imprinted in their brains can get jumbled.  We do not really know why but wonder if pollutants, radiation, or disturbances in the Earth's magnetic fields, for example, could be causing deviant migration patterns.  In any case, a Pink-footed Goose is now living on the eastern shores of North America.  

Shown above is the individual seen at Keswick, near Fredericton on April 9, 2018.  It was associated with a very large number of Canada Geese (250) and 6 Snow Geese.  These birds were feeding on the Keswick flats where the spring snows had begun to melt and there was vegetation upon which they could feed.  What a wonderful sight it was!  See below for a photo of the Snow Geese that were with the flock.

Snow Goose
There have been other sightings of Pink-footed Geese in New Brunswick.  This rare visitor is making itself available to birders!  The present sighting was first made about the 1st of April in the same area.  The last sighting that I am aware of was on April 9.  In 2017 a Pink-footed Goose was seen in Sheffield east of Fredericton on 14 April and a few days around that date.  In 2016, one was seen at Fredericton at Carmen Creek Golf Course for several days in November.  Before that only one sighting had been made (as far as I know) and it was in 2010 on October 30 at Cocagne on the east coast of the province.  In my opinion that was a different individual from the one that has been seen in the Fredericton area for the last 3 years.  See below for a picture of the individual that was seen in Fredericton in 2016.

Pink-footed Goose
Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his Life Histories of North American Wild Fowl, 1923, gives some additional interesting facts about this species.  Only once before was it recorded in North America.  That was on September 25, 1924 from Essex County, Massachusetts.  He tells us that this species normally nests on the tundra in the very north of Europe and usually lays just 3 to 5 eggs.  After the young have been raised the adults moult and during that time the birds are vulnerable because they can only run away on their feet for protection.  Their only predators in past times were Arctic foxes.  Of course, now they must fear humans.  He relates that during the moulting period on Spitsbergen in northern Norway the biologists found great numbers of their wing feathers strewn along the shores.  He reports that they are the wildest and most unapproachable species of geese in Europe.  That is probably a good thing.  

I am hopeful that their population has increased to the extent that the occasional individual has found its way to eastern North America.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Early Spring Birding

Weather System Brings Early Migrants 

American Robin
Adverse weather in the last few days has brought an influx of early migrants.  Over the weekend there was a southwesterly flow of warm, wet weather that brought in a large number of migrant birds.  On Sunday, April 1, we visited the Mactaquac Dam and the area between Douglas and Mactaquac and found about 300 American Robins, 125 Canada Geese, 20 Killdeer, 4 Song Sparrows and just 1 Bald Eagle.  The eagle has likely been around all winter so does not count as a migrant but was impressive never-the-less.  

The Robins were in the bushes and on the ground practically everywhere gleaning for leftover fruit, worms and insects.  The ground was partly snow-free and melted so some were getting worms.  The Killdeer were on the open grass looking for worms and insects.  I saw one pulling a worm from the soggy soil.

Killdeer
The geese were grazing on the open ground pulling up whatever fresh shoots of green they could find.  There was a lot of jostling and interactions in the flock as the ganders protected their mates from young suitors.

White-tailed Deer
There were lots of White-tailed Deer watching us from nearby bushes or feeding on grass in exposed areas of fields.  They are hungry this time of year and eagerly seek fresh grass to make up for their winter starvation (in some cases).  In the group pictured above there were 7 individuals and 2 of the fawns looked very thin and poor.  They must have had a hard winter with all the snow and the over-population of deer in the Keswick area.

On Tuesday, April 3, there was a huge number of geese on the Keswick flats, probably 300-400.  Most, of course, were Canada Geese.  However, on a closer look, we found 5 (or 6 at a later check) Snow Geese among them.  These are rare but not totally unexpected.  A few Snow Geese usually show up each year when the huge flocks of geese pass through.  These Snow Geese probably join the huge flocks of Snow Geese that gather in the Campbellton area and Gaspe as they stage before moving north to their breeding grounds in Baffin Island.

Snow Geese with Canada Geese
Also on April 3 a birder found a very rare goose among the huge flock of Canada Geese in the Keswick area, a Pink-footed Goose.  This species is from Europe (probably Greenland or Iceland) and is rarely seen here.  One was seen 2 years ago in Fredericton and another was seen a few years before that in the Cocagne area.

Pink-footed Goose with Canada Geese
The photo above was taken at an earlier time but shows the Pink-footed Goose that was found with the recent Keswick flock.