Monday, August 14, 2017

Burrowing Owl

Rare Owl Visits NB

Burrowing Owl
 A Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) was sighted on Grand Manan about 2 weeks ago by a local birder.  I saw it on August 3.  It was perched on the rock breakwall at Castalia Marsh.  It has been there now for about 2 weeks.

The Burrowing Owl is very rare here.  Only one has been recorded in the past, being seen at Fort Beausejour on 21 and 26 June 1978 and later confirmed from feathers found at the site.  The normal range of this species is the grasslands of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, western United States and its wintering grounds in southwestern US and Mexico.  There is also a permanent population in central and southern Florida.

So why/how is this bird here?  There are two subspecies of this owl.  The western subspecies is hypugaea and the Florida subspecies is floridana.  The subspecies have a slight difference in appearance and the one here is the western subspecies (hypugaea).  The western subspecies is lighter in colour with buffy-coloured spots and the Florida subspecies is darker with white spots.  The western population is larger so the probability of a bird arriving from the west is greater than one arriving from Florida.  Vagrants do sometimes appear in spring and fall in southern Ontario, southern Quebec, Maine and North Carolina.  So, having one arrive here is rare indeed.  Whether this bird actually flew here or arrived on a boat or a truck is up for speculation.

Burrowing Owl
The Burrowing Owl likes open areas where it perches on conspicuous dirt or rock piles, or posts.  It normally nests in ground squirrel burrows.  It is mostly nocturnal and preys on small mammals, insects and birds.  It is a beautiful little owl, 24 cm (9.5") tall.  It is different from our owls with its long yellow legs.  Its spotted appearance is immediately obvious.  It has deep yellow eyes and beak and its legs are a lighter yellow.  It was mostly sleeping when I saw it but if disturbed it will bob its head to get a better perspective on an intruder's distance away.  The fact that the female is smaller than the male makes it unique among owls.

The population numbers of this species is greatly reduced in the north mainly due to the extermination of its prime prey, prairie dogs.  It is also suseptible to pesticide use and habitat loss.  Declines continue due to the conversion of prairie to intensive agriculture.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Whale Watching in Newfoundland

Whales Up Close

Humpback Whales
Whale watching from St. Vincent's on the southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland is a unique experience.  The whales are very close as you stand on the shore of beautiful St. Vincent's beach.  The bottom is obviously very deep immediately off the beach so that they can come right up to the beach.  We were there last week and the capelin were rollin in so the whales were feeding heavily.  It was a unique experience to have the whales 25 metres (75 ft) away from my camera lens and not be in a boat.  We were so close we could hear them breathing and smell their breath!

St. Vincent's Beach
St. Vincent's beach is a beautiful scene.  As you can see in the photo above, it was foggy when we were there.  I suspect that is a common occurrence.  It did not matter because the birds and whales were so close we could see very well.  There were about 30 people there watching along with us.  The birds were excitedly flying over the whales, grabbing whatever fish they missed as they lunged up, filling their gaping mouths; Black-legged Kittiwakes, Herring Gulls, Great Shearwaters.

Humpback Whales
There are three Humpback Whales in the photo above.  On the left you can see the blowholes of two. On the right the dorsal fin of another if visible.  There were only Humpback whales seen while we were there.  It was difficult to tell how many.  My guess is there were 6 or 8.

Because the capelin were there in large schools, it made easy feeding.  They appeared to dive deep and then come up with mouth open, their throats hugely swollen with water and fish.  At or above the surface I could see them closing their mouths around the fish and beginning to squeeze the water out through their baleen.  Awesome sight!

The Humpback Whale is a fin whale (member of the family Balaenopteridae) along with the Finback Whale, the Blue Whale, the Sei Whale and the Minke Whale.  These whales are characterized by a fin on the back, longitudinal grooves on the throat and chest, and long tapering pectoral flippers.  The Humpback in particular is characterized by its scalloped pectoral flippers, knobby protuberances on its head and lower jaws and its broad serrated flukes.  

The Humpback Whale is about 12 to 22 metres long (35 to 60 ft) and it weighs 25 to 45 tons.  Its pectoral flippers are 4-6 metres  (11-17 ft) long.  Its fluke (tail) is 5-8 metres (15-21 ft) wide.  They feed mainly close to shore on krill, small fish and squid.  Mating in the North Atlantic takes place in April.  They are very amorous and indulge in such antics as caressing one another with their flippers and rubbing one another with the knobby protuberances on their heads, jaws and flippers.  Gestation is about 10 months in the North Atlantic.  The young are born during the winter and measure 3 to 6 metres long (9-17 ft).  They weigh a whopping  1,100 to 1,800 Kg (2,500 to 4,000 pounds).  The mother suckles the baby for 5 to 10 months.  Females produce young every other year.  

Humpbacks are fun to watch because they are active at the surface.  They frequently 'lob-tail' (slap the surface with their flippers and tail).  They sometimes swim on their backs showing their white bellies.  And, of course, we all want to see them breach.  When doing this they jump straight up, completely out of the water and fall back usually on their side with a huge splash.  When out of the water the back is bent (or humped) hence its name.  

In the period up to the twentieth century the Humpback whales were hunted nearly to extinction.  For example, during the 1952-3 season the world catch was 3,322.  I am thankful we now have laws to prevent that!

Humpback Whales Feeding

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve

Visit to a Seabird Rookery 

Seabird Colony
I recently visited the Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve (CSMER) on the southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland.  What a treat that was!  It is one of seven seabird ecological reserves in Newfoundland and is the most accessible.  After a 1.4 Km walk, you are standing on a point of land that juts out close to the large sea stack on which the birds nest.  

Steep Clifts Provide Multiple Nesting Sites
The path going out to the site is on a narrow strip of relatively flat land covered with sub-arctic tundra. The edges drop off abruptly to a free fall of about 100 metres.  The area of often foggy (as seen in my photos) but since the birds are as close as 10 metres, they still can be seen.

The CSMER is about 2 hours from St. John's.  Some of the roads have a lot of potholes so driving can be tedious.  When approaching the modern interpretive centre, one can hear the birds.  What a cacophony!  It was so foggy at first we could not see beyond the interpretive centre but there was no doubt we were in the right place.  And, we could certainly smell the birds, a fishy, guano-like smell.

Northern Gannet and Chick
The rookery is home to about 70,000 breeding birds; Northern Gannets, Common Murres, Thick-billed Murres, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Black Guillemots, Razorbills.  The sea stack is taken over by the gannets and the ample cliff edges provide nesting sites for the other species.  This ecological reserve is Newfoundland's major seabird colony and the most southern breeding site for some of the species.  

Common Murres with Chick
We could see many chicks resting on the ledges protected by the adults or waiting patiently for the adults to return with food from the rich ocean surrounding the area.  There was tremendous flight activity as birds came and went, making you wonder how they managed to avoid collisions.  

Black-legged Kittiwake with Chicks
The vegetation on the plateau leading out to the point had an interesting mix of moss, lichens, low-growing bushes, grasses, blue flags and a pink flower from the pea family. 

Common Murres 
The CSMEC was established in 1983.  The waters off the site are an important wintering site for thousands of sea ducks including Harlequin Ducks, Common Eiders, scoters and Long-tailed Ducks.  The government of Newfoundland should be commended to have the foresight to protect this important bird area and to preserve it for future generations of these bird species.  This is such a unique area that it should be on everyone's bucket list of things to see.  Go and appreciate nature at its best and you can experience it in a completely unobstrusive way. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Northern Parula

Northern Parula Nest Found 

Northern Parula
Recently we had the pleasure of watching a Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) build a nest.  Mid-July seems late for nest building but the literature states that this species nests from April to July.  This pair might just be late nesters or perhaps the first nest was destroyed.  The Northern Parula nests in hardwood, softwood or mixed forests, always near water and always where there is an abundance of epiphytes (lichens like Old Man's Beard).  The above description fits our birds perfectly; the nest being built in mixed woods, near a lake and in a tree heavily laden with Old Man's Beard.  

Northern Parula
The Northern Parula is a smallish warbler, 11 cm (4.5 in) long.  It has a relatively short tail, bluish back with a green patch in the middle, white broken eye ring, bright yellow throat with a black necklace and white belly.  Its song is notable and easily learned.  It is a rising buzzy trill with a sharp drop at the end.  Sibley's describes it as "zeeeeeeeee-tsup".  The Northern Parula is an active warbler and is found feeding in bushes and trees looking for insects and spiders of all kinds.  It gleans the foliage in the tree canopy performing all sorts of acrobatics to get at its prey, even hovering or hanging upside down as seen below.

Northern Parula
The Northern Parula breeds in the Maritime Provinces and westward to Central Canada and southward to the Gulf of Mexico.  It winters in Mexico, the Caribbean Islands and in southern Texas and Louisiana.  

The Northern Parula is one of the few species of warblers which weaves a hanging basket nest out of lichen.  That is what we watched it do.  It was interesting to watch it ambitiously carry in material and weave it into a hanging basket.  The literature says it uses plant fibres, grass and bark to weave the nest in the lichen.  What was observed was strips of plant fibre being carried inside the lichen which was somehow anchored to the branch and shaped securely into a basket.  The plant fibres were then woven inside the basket by the bird going inside and turning round and round and poking the fibres around the existing strands.  The energy displayed by the birds was remarkable.  The task appeared to be accomplished over about 3 days.  Both male and female worked on the project.  The nest is shown below.  Note the rounded bowl shape well camouflaged among existing hanging lichen.  This nest is about 13 metres (40 ft) up in a birch tree, hanging on a dead limb.  

Northern Parula Nest
The Parula lays 3 to 7 white eggs with brown specks and will take 12 to 14 days to incubate them.  The sitting is done by the female.  See below for a close-up of the nest.

Northern Parula Nest
It will be interesting to watch whether the male hangs around while the female incubates the eggs.  We will not know how many eggs will be laid but I hope we get to see the young as they fledge.

Northern Parula

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Cedar Waxwing

Late Summer Nester

Cedar Waxwing
The Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) is a common New Brunswick summer resident.  It is usually found in brushy habitat, open areas, and suburbia where it can find its favourite food: flowers, buds, berries and other small fruits, and insects.  Its high pitched zeeeee call is a common summer sound.

Cedar Waxwing
Any brownish bird with a crest and a yellow tip on its tail is a waxwing.  We have two species, the Cedar and the Bohemian Waxwings.  Generally the Cedar Waxwing is a summer resident and breeder here and the Bohemian is a winter visitor.  The Cedar Waxwing is a bit smaller than the Bohemian Waxwing.  It is 18 cm long (7.3").  It is usually seen in flocks as it flits from one food source to another.  It has a black mask and black on the upper throat.  Its body is a smooth brown which transitions into yellow on the belly.  It has white under tail coverts.  The dark wings sometimes have bright scarlet 'wax' appendages.  The Cedar Waxwing can be told from the Bohemian Waxwing because it lacks the cinnamon colour on the under tail coverts and it has no white bar on the wing.

Cedar Waxwing
As indicated in the title above, the Cedar Waxwing is a late summer nester.  It delays its nesting until there is an abundance of berries to feed its young.  This is an interesting adaptation by this species.  They can be seen almost everywhere in summer in New Brunswick.  This species is native to most of southern Canada and the United States.  It winters in the southernmost parts of Canada (including a few in New Brunswick), the United States and into Central America.  In winter it is not unusual to see some here mingled in with flocks of Bohemian Waxwings.  

Cedar Waxwing
There have been some Cedar Waxwings reported with an orange tail tip rather than the characteristic yellow.  That is because they have been eating the fruit of an exotic honeysuckle species during molt which taints their feather colour during new feather growth.

The juvenile waxwings are mainly grayish with the characteristic crest, streaks on their breast and a white chin.  They will soon be seen in our area so watch for them with the flocks of adults.  Good birding!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Crested Caracara

The Impossible Visitor

Crested Caracara [Internet Photo]
There has been an elusive raptor flying in southwestern New Brunswick for nearly two months.  It was first reported in early May and was considered a false report by many.  It was relocated about a week ago in the Lake Utopia area and seen by just a handful of people.  It was coming to roadkill on a road east of the lake and first viewed by a passerby.  A blurry photo confirmed its presence.  I think I saw this bird on May 8.  It was with ravens and flew across the road quickly in front of our car.  I noted the white on the rounded wingtips and could not identify it at the time.  The species is so rare here one does not immediately think of it as a possibility.

Crested Caracara [Internet Photo]
The Crested Caracara (Caracara cheriway) is a large raptor.  It is classified as a falcon but does not look much like a sleek falcon.  It is 58 cm (23 in) long with a wide wingspan.  It associates with scavengers like ravens and vultures.  It has a long white head and neck, long yellow legs, black crest, orange facial skin, grey blue beak, black body, white tail with a black terminal band.  When it flies it shows characteristic rounded wings with large white wingtip patches.  This species usually is close to the ground either walking or perched on nearby poles or trees.  

Crested Caracara with Turkey Vulture [Internet Photo]
Why is this species the 'impossible visitor'?  Well, it is so far out of its range it is seemingly impossible for it to be here.  Its normal range is in Central and South America.  It is a permanent resident of Texas, Central Florida, southeastern Arizona but mainly in Mexico, Panama, some Caribbean Islands, and northern South America.  What is it doing here?  The species is nonmigratory but occasionally there are vagrants that wander to Minnesota, Ontario and the Maritimes.  This must be the year!  Actually, there was one here a number of years ago.  I saw that one in northern New Brunswick on 29 October 2002.  It stayed a few days and was seen by many.  

The Crested Caracara is a scavenger and prefers to feed on carrion as well as small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, eggs, and small birds.  Sometimes a group of caracaras work together to capture prey.  

This is a very interesting species to show up here.  I hope it stays long enough to be seen by many who would appreciate it for its uniqueness.  According to the literature, it is a common subject of folklore and legends throughout Central and South America.  It is sometimes called the 'Mexican Eagle'.  If you see a handsome long-legged hawk that is associating with vultures this summer, please leave a message on the Nature Moncton Information Line at 506-384-6397 or leave a comment on this blog.  A photograph is helpful but never disturb the bird in order to get it.  Happy Birding!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Showy Lady's-Slipper

Our Most Beautiful Lady's-Slipper

The Showy Lady's-Slipper (Cypripedium reginae) is our largest and most beautiful lady's-slipper.  It is listed as very rare (S2) and often grows in bogs deep in the woods.  Because of its beauty, populations have been devastated over the years by unscrupulous pickers who want to bring its beauty to their yards and homes.  

Showy Lady's-Slipper
The Showy Lady's-Slipper grows up to 90 cm (3 ft) tall usually in calcareous bogs, fens, boggy meadows and sometimes swamps from Manitoba to Newfoundland and south to North Dakota and Georgia.  In southern regions it is usually in mountainous regions.

Showy Lady's-Slipper Showing its Usual Habitat
 The Showy Lady's-Slipper plant has leaves growing along its long upright stem.  The leaves have prominent parallel longitudinal veining.  The leaves are a bright yellow green colour.  The blossom appears at the apex of the stem and is very evident as you approach the bog where the plants are growing.  The colour of the blooms is bright and beautiful in the otherwise drag-looking habitat.  The flower of this lady's-slipper is large and the white and deep pink colours are contrastingly beautiful.  The plant stem is stout and hairy.

Showy Lady's-Slipper
The first Showy Lady's-Slippers were collected and recorded in New Brunswick in 1876 by G.U. Hay
from a bog near Saint John.   At one time this beautiful orchid was common in New Brunswick.  We have records of bogs and other suitable habitat sometimes sporting thousands in June and July in early days of this province.  They have been drastically reduced by loss of habitat and by unscrupulous pickers.  These plants cannot be transplanted to gardens and must be left in their normal places to flourish for yet another year.  

Showy Lady's-Slipper