Thursday, July 12, 2018

Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic Puffins in our Coastal Waters

Atlantic Puffin
We are fortunate to have Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) living on our coastal shores.  Their normal breeding grounds are off Iceland, Greenland, northern Labrador, northern Europe and Atlantic Canada.  They are an iconic species that is well known to most people.  They bring many tourists to our area.

Atlantic Puffin With Bill Full of Fish [D. Ingersoll Photo]
The Atlantic Puffin is a happy-looking, clown-faced bird.  It is a member of the Alcid family.  It lives on the open ocean for most of the year and comes to land in spring and summer to breed and raise its young.  It prefers rocky ledges and islands.  It nests in burrows or among and under rocks on these islands.  It builds its nest from grass, feathers, seaweed and leaves.  It lays a single white egg sometimes spotted with brown or lavender.  Incubation ranges from 39 to 45 days and is shared by both adults.  

The adult puffin stands about 32 cm (12.5 in) tall.  It is a round, heavy bodied bird that walks well on land.  It has a large head and is noted for its colourful face and bill.  In breeding plumage it is distinctively black and white with black on the top of head, collar, back and tail.  The face and complete breast are stark white.  The feet and legs are bright orange red.  The bill is large, flattened laterally and shows red, yellow and blue plates.  The corners of the mouth (gape) are yellow orange.  The eye is ornamented with a clown-like triangle of red colour.  Both male and female look alike.  The non-breeding plumage is subdued with black or gray on the face and the bill loses most of its brilliant colours.  The young have a grayish black face and a much smaller gray bill which may show some muted colour.  

The puffins are strong fliers and fly back and forth to sea in search of fish to feed the young.  See the photo above which shows an adult with a good supply of probably herring to feed its young.  Anatomically they have a series of backward-facing barbs on their tongue and hard palate which help them hold many fish at once.  They forage by diving and swimming under water with their wings and strong feet and legs.  Puffins are mostly silent but do vocalize on the breeding grounds with deep moans and growls.  

Atlantic Puffin Young
The Atlantic Puffin is the provincial bird of Newfoundland and Labrador.  On a visit to Bay Bulls, NL, last summer I saw about 100 puffins swimming in the bay.  

Atlantic Puffin
The scientific name for puffins, Fratercula, means friar or little brother.  Presumably that is because of their black and white 'dress' and their waddling walk which would remind one of a friar or a small child.  It is certainly fun to watch them.  We are noted here in New Brunswick for our colony on Machias Seal Island.  On a visit there I watched many of these birds coming and going while feeding their young, or just standing around apparently socializing on the rocks.  This colony attracts many tourists every year and is strictly controlled so no harm is brought to the birds while the tourists enjoy watching the activity.  

Atlantic Puffin
Because of their weight and shape the puffin has to work hard to fly.  It looks somewhat like a flying football.  Compare them, for example, to a gull or a shearwater which have long pointed wings and stream-lined bodies.  Flight for them would be much easier.  The puffin is an interesting adaptation between flight in the air and under water.  It has done that successfully.  According to IBirdPro, they flap their wings 300 to 400 times a minute to maintain flight in the air.  Amazing!

Atlantic Puffin
If you have never seen this species,  you should arrange a trip to Machias Seal Island to watch them.  They are one of New Brunswick's natural heritages.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Great Cormorant

Great Cormorant Nesting Site 

Great Cormorants
Recently I visited a nesting colony of Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) off Twillingate, NL.  They had taken over a large rocky 'island' off the mouth of Twillingate's large harbour.  The island was about 300 metres long and 50 metres wide, was completely rocky and had steep sides.  All birds had to land on the island at their particular claimed site with very little chance of walking around.  The roughness of the craggy rocks made multiple nesting areas.  There were about 80 to 100 cormorants on the island and many more were in the air around it.

The island was mainly taken over by the Great Cormorants.  No Double-crested Cormorants, no murres, no gannets were seen.  The only other species present were a few Herring Gulls and perhaps one Great black-backed Gull.  

Great Cormorants
Some cormorants were sitting on their nests.  Many were standing around possibly socializing or protecting their mates.  The photo above shows a Herring Gull also present.  The nests were made of sticks and a depression in the rocks was brought up to level and made safe with the sticks.  The nests are lined with seaweed or other refuse (garbage, like plastic).  It looked like these birds are careful nest builders.  They lay 3 to 5 pale blue or green eggs and both the male and female incubate them for 28 to 31 days.

Great Cormorants
The Great Cormorant is our largest cormorant, being 94 cm (36 in) long compared to our other cormorant species, the Double-crested Cormorant, which is 81 cm (32 in) long.  It is black with a white throat patch, yellow skin around its beak and a white flank patch.  The Double-crested does not have these white patches and has orange skin around its beak.  The young Great Cormorant is brownish with a white belly and the young Double-crested is brownish all over with no white belly.  It takes the Great Cormorant three years to get its adult plumage.  The Great Cormorant is mostly silent but deep groans can be heard around the nesting colonies.  

Great Cormorants
The Great Cormorant breeds only in maritime habitats in eastern Canada and Maine.  Nesting colonies are found around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland and south to Maine, on rocky islands and cliffs.  They move south in winter along bays and seacoasts to North and South Carolina.  

The Great Cormorant pursues its main diet of fish underwater, using its powerful feet to propel itself. It also eats crustaceans.  These birds are very sociable and are sometimes found in huge colonies.  This is one of the species trained by Japanese fishermen to help them fish.  An interesting fact about Great Cormorants is that they sometimes swallow pebbles to add weight to their bodies so they can dive deeper after food.  An interesting and obviously trainable species.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Great Auk - The Last Chapter

Great Auk Sculpture

Great Auk
I recently visited Fogo Island off the north coast of Newfoundland, east of Twillingate.  The main purpose of my visit was to see the recent tribute placed there to the Great Auk.  

The Great Auk lived in the North Atlantic for hundreds of thousands of years and nested in huge numbers off our north coasts.  It was a flightless bird which swam huge distances from nesting grounds in the North Atlantic to southerly areas like Cape Cod and Spain in winter only to return again in the spring.  It fed on fish and invertebrates and hauled itself out of the water much like penguins do today.  It was a large bird, measuring 75 to 85 cm (30 to 33 inches) long and weighted 4 to 5 kg (11 lbs).

Joe Batt's Arm Rocky Coast
The tribute to the Great Auk is mounted on heavy granite rock polished by glaciers and the North Atlantic weather at Joe Batt's Arm on Fogo Island.  The hike out to the sculpture is 3.5 kilometres each way on a marked path over a very rocky terrain to Joe Batt's Point.  The sculpture is bolted to solid rock right on the point.

Trail to Great Auk Sculpture
Our hike out to the sculpture seemed very long and we wondered if we had missed it until finally we came upon the sign shown above.  The sculpture was a short climb from there.  The photo below shows what I saw as I mounted the last huge rocky mass that made up the end of Joe Batt's Point.

Joe Batt's Point Showing Great Auk Sculpture
The sculpture looked alone as I climbed over the rocks.  Things were very quiet there, only the sounds of ocean waves and few distant gulls.  That was a far cry from the deep croaks of the Great Auks that once lived there by the thousands.  There was a shallow beach immediately east of the sculpture which would have been inhabited by the auks in past times.  See below for the exact area where auks once sunned themselves after making a landing.

Great Auk Landing Area East of Joe Batt's Point
The Great Auk was officially declared extinct in 1860.  The last official sightings were in 1844 in Iceland and one sighted off the Grand Banks in 1852.  Since then the North Atlantic coasts have been sickeningly missing the deep croak of the millions of Great Auks that once lived here. 

The Great Auk was used by early humans for food and oil for heat and light.  In early times we lived in harmony.  Then for two centuries humankind in their greed slaughtered millions of them, driving them into extinction.  The northern coast of Newfoundland was one place ships from Europe gathered to conduct the slaughter.  Funk Island, 70 miles east of Fogo Island was a chief slaughter location.  It even got its name from the stench caused by the slaughter.  The name of the island is a sad reminder of humanity's folly.  Humankind alone is responsible for the extinction of this species!  There have been lots of feed and ample breeding grounds for this species.  It would still be here sitting on the rocks off Joe Batt's Point if it weren't for mankind and his greed.  

Great Auk Sculpture
The Great Auk sculpture is very well done.  It was sculpted by Todd McGrain and erected in 2010.  It is made of bronze and stands about six feet tall (a little less than 2 metres).  It is only feet from the deep Atlantic waters.  It is facing east for a reason.  Todd McGrain made two of these sculptures and the other one has been placed off the west coast of Iceland.  The Newfoundland sculpture is facing east and the Iceland sculpture is facing west.  They are both looking out to sea towards one another looking for their kind.  It is a beautiful but sad reminder to what has happened to this species.  

Great Auk Sculpture Showing the Flightless Wing
The slaughter of the Great Auk species was so dramatic and so ugly that it has become a symbol of humanity's stupidity.  The only good that has come out of it is that it was for this species that the first law was made to protect wildlife.  That was in England in 1794.  It has taken us a long time to smarten up (and there has been an awful trail of blunders along the way).  Funk Island was the largest and last known colony of the Great Auk.  We can rightfully claim the Great Auk as our own.  We took part in its demise but we can learn from our mistakes.  The biggest problem with wildlife protection is humanity and his ability to change the environment.  We must change our ways or we will execute our own suicide.  The Great Auk has taught us that. 

The photo below shows the Great Auk looking east for his mate and family.  For more  extensive  information on the Great Auk please see other posts on this blog.

Great Auk Watching For His Family

Monday, June 25, 2018

Gray Catbird

Regular Summer Resident

Gray Catbird
The Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) is a regular summer resident here.  It usually appears in late May and leaves in September or October.  It breeds in all of southern Canada and all of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.  It winters in the southeastern US, Mexico, northern California and the Caribbean Islands.  It is a member of the Mimidae family which contains the mockingbirds and thrashers.  These birds, as their family name suggests, are mockers or mimics.  They copy the songs of other birds and sing them repetitively and lustily. 

Gray Catbird
The Gray Catbird can be found hiding in bushes and its presence is usually discerned by its variable vocals.  Its voice is a mixture of various squeaks and squawks interspersed with a cat-like 'mew'.  It also mimics other birds' songs but usually attaches some kind of squeak or mew before or after the mimicked song.  It is really quite fun to listen to the antics of this bird.

Catbirds are secretive and usually only peak out at you from among the dense vegetation in which they usually reside.  There they find their food:  insects, spiders, fruits, berries, and seeds.  They usually feed on the ground or in shrubs or low trees.  When feeding on the ground they toss leaves aside looking for insects.  They are curious birds and often peak at you from among the foliage if you squeak or 'spish' at them.  See below as a catbird peaks out at the camera.

Gray Catbird
The Gray Catbird is 22 cm long (8.5 inches).  Males and females are similar in appearance.  The body is a dark gray and they have a black cap and black tail.  Under the tail is a cinnamon patch which is often difficult to see.  See the cinnamon patch in the photo below.

Gray Catbird Showing Cinnamon Undertail Coverts
An interesting fact about the catbird is that it is able to identify its own eggs and therefore is not as susceptible to parasitism from Brown Cowbirds as some other species.  It sees the cowbird egg as not its own and pushes the alien egg out of the nest.  Discerning birds!

Gray Catbirds are very interesting New Brunswick breeding birds.  Look and listen for them around your yard or while on your next hike.

Friday, June 8, 2018


The Sora is a Rail

The Sora is a member of the Rail family, Rallidae.   This family includes rails, gallinules and coots.  We have two rails commonly found in New Brunswick, the Sora and the Virginia Rail.  Occasionally a rare rail is found here.  For example, there was a King Rail in Fundy National Park earlier this spring.  

The Sora is a compact chicken-shaped bird about 19-25 cm long (7.6 to 10 inches), about quail size.  It is commonly found in marshes and pond edges in summer.  Its presence is usually discovered by the frequent loud descending whinnying sound it makes.  That sound has become synonymous with a fresh water marsh.  As seen in the photo above, the Sora is brown and gray in colour with bright yellow bill and legs.  There is white barring on its back and sides.  The black on the face and throat set the bright yellow bill off well.  The female is similar to the male but slightly muted on the face and bill.  

The Sora is a secretive bird (except for its loud voice).  It skulks through the vegetation and prefers to be heard and not seen.  Note above how well it is camouflaged by the cattails. Its large feet facilitate its slow walk through the marsh vegetation.  It also swims readily.  When walking it bobs its head and cocks its tail high.  

The range of the Sora is widespread.  It summers in all of southern Canada southward to most of the northern US.  It winters in the very southern US, Mexico and the Caribbean Islands.  It builds its nest among the cattails suspending it above water.  The nest is made out of dry leaves, grass and reeds and contains 10-12 buff eggs with gray or brown spots.  Both parents incubate the eggs.  

The Sora feeds on aquatic insects, snails, seeds, invertebrates and wetland plants.  It uses its large feet to rake the aquatic vegetation in search of food, like the way a chicken feeds.  

The Sora is the most common rail in North America.  Large numbers are shot by hunters each year in the US but their population is stable probably because of their large hatch size.  The greatest threat to this interesting species is the destruction of fresh water marshes.  We are thankful for the help Ducks Unlimited is doing to reverse this trend.  Marshes are a healthy part of our environment and should be maintained and kept pure.  

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanger - Our Most Beautiful Bird?

Scarlet Tanager Male
Some people think that the Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) is our most beautiful bird (and rightly so).  The male in breeding plumage as seen above gives meaning to the colour, scarlet.  Set off with black wings and tail, wow!

The Scarlet Tanager varies in plumage greatly depending on the season.  The male in breeding plumage is shown above.  In his non-breeding plumage he is greenish yellow with black wings and tail.  Such a dramatic change!   The female is yellow-green with darker wings and tail and a brighter yellow throat.  The immature male is much like the female.  The adult male is an interesting sight when he is changing plumage with blotches of red on yellow or vice-versa.

Scarlet Tanager Male
The Scarlet Tanager is found in New Brunswick in summer where it breeds.  It feeds high up in the deciduous trees so is not often seen around housing areas.  It builds a nest of grass, rootlets, forbs and twigs 20 to 30 up in a deciduous tree.  Its eggs are blue green spotted with brown.  It feeds on insects, fruits, berries and buds.

Scarlet Tanager Male
I recently saw the Scarlet Tanager pictured above while out looking for warblers.  I was lucky to have it sit still long enough for a photo.  The song of this species is similar to that of a Robin.  It is raspier and is sometimes described as that of a Robin with a 'sore throat'.

Scarlet Tanagers have been recorded eating over 2,000 gypsy moth caterpillars (army worms) in an hour.  We appear to have more army worms this year so that might produce an influx of Scarlet Tanagers.  Keep your eyes peeled for one in a deciduous tree.  Maybe you will be lucky and find a sight like the one pictured above.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow Seen in Grand Manan

Lark Sparrow
 On May 10 we birded Whitehead Island, off Grand Manan and found this beautiful Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus) feeding on a feeder and on the ground under the feeder along with Purple Finches, Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos and Baltimore Orioles.  This was an exciting find because this species is only listed as 'casual' here.  Usually a few sightings occur mostly in the fall along the Grand Manan archipeligo and along other coastal areas on New Brunswick.  Only a few are seen in spring.

The Lark Sparrow is a western sparrow, breeding in summer in the western half of the US as far north as the southern prairie provinces of Canada.  It winters in California, southern Texas, and Mexico.  This is normally a bird of open grasslands where it feeds on seeds, grasshoppers and other insects.  As seen in the photo above, it readily enjoys feeding on seeds from a feeder.

Lark Sparrow
The Lark Sparrow is a brightly coloured bird, showing a beautiful pattern of light and dark brown on its face mixed with white and beige.  It has a long tail which shows conspicuous white outer tail feathers in flight.  The breast is plain gray with a dark spot in the middle.  Both males and females look alike and the juvenile is a muted form of the adult with streaks on the breast.

Lark Sparrow
The Lark Sparrow was first recorded in New Brunswick from Grand Manan on 13 August 1923.   We have had many reports since then and it has become a rare visitor but not unusual.

The male Lark Sparrow performs a courting dance which I have not been lucky enough to see.  It crouches on the ground, holds its tail up high, spreads its tail feathers to show its white outer-tail feathers, and struts around with drooping wings.  He must be an interesting sight!  Apparently the female is impressed because she eventually picks one performing male as her mate.  They go on to build a rough nest of sticks and grass lined with fine grass and rootlets, low on the ground or in a bush.  Their eggs are pale white to gray marked with brown or black spots.  We have no nesting records of this species in New Brunswick.