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.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Red-shouldered Hawk Returns

Back for the Fifth Year in a Row

Red-shouldered Hawk
I was busy in town when I received a text saying, 'Our Red-shouldered Hawk is back!'  I thought I would not have a chance to see it because I could not come directly home.  Fortunately a few minutes after I returned, it flew through the yard perching briefly in a tree out front.  I felt like a friend had returned.  Earlier he had perched in a close tree for about half and hour while he rested and preened.  

Red-shouldered Hawk [M Schneider Photo]
The back of the Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) is distinctive.  Notice the white circles made by the feather edges and the white stripes in the tail.  None of our other hawk species has a pattern on the back like this.  Some have white horizontal streaks or crescents and occasionally the Accipiters (Cooper's, Sharp-shinned, Goshawk) show large white spots on the back when they ruffle their feathers, but even that looks different.  And, they do not have white stripes in their long tails. 

Red-shouldered Hawk [M Schneider Photo]
This is the fifth year in a row we have had a visit from a Red-shouldered Hawk.  In fact, I have been waiting for his visit this year!  Here are the dates of his previous visits (I am assuming this is the same bird, which is quite likely).  
2014 - March 29
2015 - April 6
2016 - March 24
2017 - April 5
2018 - March 28


The video above was taken in 2016 and shows the Red-shouldered Hawk very well.  What a beautiful bird!

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.