Friday, December 8, 2017

Barnacle Goose

Barnacle Geese Spotted  near Florenceville

Barnacle Goose
Three Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) were spotted near Upper Kent,  just north of Florenceville recently.  Just above the Beechwood Dam there is a staging area and as many as 2000 geese have been seen there at once.  Almost all of those geese are Canada Geese but occasionally there is a rare goose among them.  About November 29 three Barnacle Geese were seen with the flock.  They were photographed and verified by local birders.  Unfortunately one was shot by a local hunter.

The photo above and subsequent photos in this post were taken by me of Barnacle Geese seen in New Brunswick at Miramichi City in 2011, but they will be used as illustrations for this post.  I went to see the geese near Upper Kent but they were not there so hence no photos.  

The Barnacle Goose is a smaller goose compared to the Canada Goose.  It is 69 cm (27") long compared to 114 cm (45").  Even though it is marked differently from the Canada it can be difficult to spot in a large flock because of the similar colours and the way geese intermingle and sleep tucked in so well.  

The Barnacle Goose is actually about the same size as the Cackling Goose (the smallest form of the Canada Goose which is now a separate species).  Its shape and size is much like the Brant which passes by our shores in migration.  It is gray and white overall with black on the neck, breast and as a hood.  The face and underparts are white.  The stubby bill and legs are black.  

Barnacle Geese with Canada Geese
The Barnacle Goose is very rare in New Brunswick.  Its normal range is in Europe.  Most birds breed in Svalbard and eastern Greenland.  It builds its nest in dry Arctic tundra on cliffs and other rocky slopes and also on Arctic islands.   They winter in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, northern England and Scotland.  They spend the winter on coastal pastures feeding on herbaceous plants and seeds.  The birds that are seen here are probably from the eastern Greenland population.  

This is the third report of Barnacle Geese to my knowledge in New Brunswick.  I have seen one in 2001 in Salisbury, in 2011 in Miramichi City.  The "Birds of New Brunswick:  An Annotated List"  does not even mention this species and it was published in 2004.  

Barnacle Goose
It is interesting how the Barnacle Goose got its name.  It was an important part of medieval cuisine.  It was believed that the Barnacle Goose came from actual barnacles.  There is an actual Goose Barnacle and the confusion may have arisen from the similar colours of the barnacle and the goose and the fact that the goose appeared in different seasons.  But, even more interesting, is the fact that Catholics believed they could eat the Barnacle Goose during Lent because of it perceived origin which meant it was classified as fish and could therefore be eaten during Lent.  

Barnacle Goose 
This large flock of geese will probably stay around the St. John River as long as there is open water.  It will gradually move southward and will eventually winter along the eastern seaboard.  When I was there near Upper Kent on Tuesday, Dec. 5, the Barnacle Geese had been seen two days before but unfortunately I did not see them that day.  It is possible they were still in the area.  I saw about 800 geese that day, about 400 or more resting on the river and later a flock at least that big flying.  I don't think it was the same flock because the big flock on the river left in much smaller flocks and at different times, presumably to go feed in nearby grain fields.  Also seen were about 200 of each Black Ducks and Mallards.  A wonderful spectacle indeed!

Friday, December 1, 2017

Purple Gallinule Killed by Cat

Rare Bird Killed in Nova Scotia

Purple Gallinule [Internet Photo]
The Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinica) is a rare bird to see in the Maritimes.  Its normal range is Florida, southern Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Mexico.  It rarely appears north of that but the species is known for occasional vagrants who wander as far north as southern Canada.  Most are seen in the fall as a result of being blown northward by strong winds from storms and hurricanes.  There are at least 20 records of one having arrived in New Brunswick.  This species has also shown up periodically in Europe and Africa!

The Purple Gallinule is a pond-loving species.  It is a secretive bird and is seen wandering around on floating vegetation or climbing on low-overhanging bushes, using its long toes to advantage.  It eats invertebrates, frogs, aquatic vegetation, seeds, and berries.

As you can see the Purple Gallinule is a beautiful bird.  It is green, purple, red and blue with yellow legs and feet and very long toes.  It is 33 cm (13 in) long and appears about the size of a bantam chicken.  

A Purple Gallinule was recently recorded in Nova Scotia.  The body of one was brought home by a cat.  Whether the cat killed the bird is not determined but is likely.  It is difficult to imagine a cat wandering near a pond in order to kill such a bird but cats are natural killers so would go to any length to capture prey.  It is unfortunate that this bird was killed.  See the photo below of the bird that the cat brought home.

Purple Gallinule [Ryan Daniels Photo]
Feral and house cats are the major cause of bird mortality in North America.  They kill more birds than strikes with buildings, vehicles and communication towers, and poisonings by pesticides. That is a huge number.  It is estimated that cats kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds per year in North America (audubon.org).  The cat population in the US is about 1 million.  I am not sure how many we have in Canada but it is close to that.  No wonder our bird population numbers are shrinking to dangerous levels!  The cat population is so high they are now considered a global invasive species.  On some islands in the world domestic cats have driven some bird species into extinction.  

What can be done about this problem?  Feral cats kill more birds than domestic cats but domestic cats still kill plenty.  A simple solution is to keep the cats indoors.  That has been known for a long time but cats like to wander outside and it is difficult to keep them indoors.  Many cat owners do not wish to keep their cat indoors.  Some studies have been done with some success on special collars for cats to decrease bird mortality.  Other studies have looked at what time of year most of the killings occur with the idea of restricting cats at certain times or dates.  There have been ambitious programs to reduce the feral cat populations in a humane way (CARMA) but neutered cats still kill birds.  So, even after a lot of work on this problem, no satisfactory solution has been found yet.  Funds need to be made available for more research and pet owners need to be more vigilant with their cats.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Orange-crowned Warbler

Late Fall Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler [Mark Morse Photo]
The Orange-crowned Warbler Oreothlypis celata is most commonly seen here in the fall.  That is because it is late coming from its breeding grounds and is seen here most commonly after most of our warblers have migrated south.  It breeds in northern Canada below the tree line and in the mountainous areas of western US.  It winters in the southern US and Mexico.  

The Orange-crowned Warbler is a small warbler, 12 cm (4.75-5 in) long.  It is yellowish/grayish with a small sharp bill.  It has faint streaks on its underparts, a broken white eyering, a line through its eye, and yellow under tail coverts.  It is named for its least conspicuous field mark, the orange crown which is rarely seen.  Females and juveniles are grayer than the more yellowish males.  The yellow under tail coverts are an important field mark.  That helps distinguish it from the very similar Tennessee Warbler which has white under tail coverts.  

There are four populations of this species normally separated geographically.  They vary slightly in plumage and behaviour.  It is common in the west but uncommon in the east.  

This species eats invertebrates, berries, nectar and sap, sometimes feeding from sapsucker wells.  It nests on the ground or in a low-lying shrub, preferring marshes, forest edges or swamps as nesting areas.  Its nest is made of grass and plant fibres and is lined with fur and feathers.  It lays 3 to 6 white eggs with red or brown blotches.  

An interesting fact about the Orange-crowned Warbler is that it is one of the latest fall migrating warblers and usually does not leave its Canadian breeding grounds until late September or October.  That is a fact we birders can celebrate.  It is always a good day when we see an Orange-crowned Warbler!



Thursday, November 16, 2017

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Another Southern Bird Here?

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Shown above is a rare bird we saw on Miscou on October 28 on Wilsons Point Road; a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea.   It is a small fast bird with a high pitched call note.  We were hoping to see this species because it had been showing up periodically this fall on Miscou.  It came in to our call and stayed long enough for us to get a few photos.  It was very actively flitting around among the branches and tree tops.  I hadn't seen one in over 5 years so was delighted to get reacquainted.  My last sighting was in South Carolina.  The last one I had seen in New Brunswick was in 1959!  This present sighting made some in our group so happy they did a dance.  (Some people think birders are strange people but they should see them dancing on the side of the road!  Fortunately that old attitude towards birders has pretty well disappeared.)

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher [Internet Photo]
The photo far above is of the actual bird we saw on Miscou.  It is moulting its tail feathers and shows only one feather remaining.  The photo immediately above shows an adult male in breeding plumage.  Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are mainly blue-gray (or sometimes just gray) above and white below.  They have a characteristic white eyering and their tail is long and black with white outer tail feathers.  They fan their tail from side to side, probably to stir up insects on which they feed.  This is a small species, only 11 cm (4.3 in) long (and much of that is tail!)  

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are often single birds but they do sometimes associate with flocks of kinglets or warblers.  They are busy, feeding on mainly insects which they glean from the edges of deciduous trees.  They are, however, adaptable and can be found in a variety of habitats.  

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is the northernmost member of its family.  It is the only member of the family that is truly migratory and its breeding range is expanding into the northeast.  It normally breeds in the southern and central US and it winters in the very southern US, Mexico and the Caribbean Islands.  It is a permanent resident in the southeastern US states and Mexico.  

In late years more of these birds have been appearing in NB, indicated that they may be slowly expanding into our area.  If that is true, we look forward to it because they are a welcome species to help balance out our insect population.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Migration Fallout Drops Vireos

Rare Vireos 'Everywhere'


Adult White-eyed Vireo
The recent migration fallout brought reports of White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos from all areas of the fallout zone, Grand Manan, Campobello and southwestern Nova Scotia.  Flocks of these migrating vireos were put down by the storm and strong winds.

Vireos are about the size of warblers (13 cm/5 in) and look much like them but appear chunkier.  They live in trees and bushes and feed on insects, spiders, seeds and berries.  In New Brunswick we normally have 4 species; Red-eyed, Blue-headed, Warbling and Philadelphia Vireos.  White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos are rare here.

Shown above is the White-eyed Vireo. This species loves thick low bushes and is usually discovered by its bursts of raspy song.  It is a good mimic and usually sings loudly mimicing several different bird songs.  

Juvenile White-eyed Vireo [Jennifer Pierce Photo]

There are only two bird species in North America with white eyes, the White-eyed Vireo and the Wrentit (from the west coast).  The young White-eyed Vireo (shown above) has a dark eye until the next spring when it turns white.  

The Yellow-throated Vireo is slightly bigger than the White-eyed but is shaped much the same.  It normally lives high in the canopy of deciduous trees.  It feeds on insects and small fruits.  Its song is not as loud or abrupt as the White-eyed.  It is a slow 2 or 3-syllable phrase with long pauses between sometimes depicted as 'three-eight three-eight three-eight'.  

Yellow-throated Vireo [Jennifer Pierce Photo]
The brilliant yellow of the Yellow-throated Vireo is distinctive.  Note, in the photo above, the brilliant yellow on the throat, spectacles and breast.  That bird is hard to miss!  The eye is always dark and the bill is thick like all vireos.  Yellow-throated Vireos need large tracts of land to breed successfully (at least 250 acres).  As a result of landscape fragmentation, their breeding success has become threatened in recent years.  

Yellow-throated Vireo [Internet Photo]
White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos breed in summer in the eastern US and winter in the very southern part of the eastern US, Mexico and the Caribbean Islands.  The flocks that landed here during the recent severe storm obviously got blown off course in their southward journey.  Fortunately they found good weather here which would have provided sufficient insects, spiders and small fruits to allow them to renew their entry stores so they could return to the south.  Come again beautiful vireos!

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Migration Fallout

Birds Falling Out of the Sky

Summer Tanager
On Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 26 and 27, the northeast had over 100 mm rain, fog, and winds up to 100 km/h out of the south and southeast.  That severe weather forced a lot of migrating birds to 'fallout'.    When migrating flocks meet severe weather such as heavy rain and/or opposing winds, they look for the nearest landfall and put down.  Here they rest and feed to replenish energy reserves. This rare phenomenon is difficult for the birds but exciting for birders.  It often brings rare species into areas in which they are not normally seen.  For decades birders have made the connection between bad weather and good birding opportunities.

This is exactly what happened in the Passamaquoddy Bay, Bay of Fundy area over the weekend.  Rare birds sought landfall in Grand Manan, Campobello and Nova Scotia.  Flocks of rare species were found in these areas on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  In some cases there were 12 to 20 individuals seen of species which we don't normally see here.

Birders in these 3 areas found basically the same species, indicating that the flocks were mixed with these same species.  There were likely also smaller flocks of single species.  These birds will likely remain in place for a few days until they have sufficiently fed and the weather provides favourable winds to continue their migration.  

Summer Tanager
Birders in these areas reported the birds feeding furiously on insects or whatever they could find for food.  According to one seasoned birder, Sunday, Oct. 29,  was his 'most memorable [day] for bird rarities all concentrated together'.  Most birders reported the same group of species.

Seen were the following species:  Summer Tanager (as seen above), Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Black-billed Cuckoo, Hooded Warbler, White-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Cattle Egret, Golden-winged Warbler, Indigo Bunting.  There were dozens of Indigo Buntings.  The vireos were seen in many places.  The Golden-winged Warbler is very rare.  The Hooded Warbler is also very rare here and 8 were seen.  All of the above represent fabulous birding.

Hooded Warbler [Internet Photo]
 A fallout is risky for the birds.  They are forced to put down in unfamiliar territory.  Whether they find food safely is sometimes questionable.  Their safety from predators, pollution, human interference, etc. is a big risk.  It appears the birds that put down here in our area are safe and are feeding well.  

Shown below are two photographs taken by Ralph Eldridge on Machias Seal Island of a fallout of warblers.  A flock had put down because of bad weather and were literally everywhere around the lighthouse buildings.  There are several kinds of warblers in the group.  The warblers left the next day when the weather cleared and the winds were favourable.

Migration Fallout of Warblers on Machias Seal Island [Ralph Eldridge Photo]

Migration Fallout of Warblers on Machias Seal Island [Ralph Eldridge Photo]
I will close with an interesting bird fallout story to illustrate just how extensive this phenomenon can be.  In April, 2013, a team of 6 birders created a record in Texas by seeing 294 species in one day due to a fallout which had occurred in that area due to bad weather and large flocks migrating northward.  Migration is indeed an event of huge magnitude and we can get a small glimpse into it when weather interferes.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Bird Migration

Bird Migration is an Amazing Phenomenon

Birds migrate to move to and from areas of abundant food and nesting sites and back to areas with milder winter weather and suitable habitat and food sources.  That means that in the spring and fall there are millions of birds moving north and south through our skies and landscapes.  These are critical times for the birds, exposing them to the dangers of navigating the huge land areas of human development, the exposure to predators, pollution, collisions, starvation, exhaustion, severe weather, and other dangers.

Cattle Egret
Migration periods bring strange birds to our province.  These birds have somehow been misled or driven off their normal flight paths to arrive here.  Just to mention a few of what has occurred in New Brunswick this year, we have a Cattle Egret (shown above) and a Western Meadowlark in Grand Manan this week (see photo below).  There has been a Burrowing Owl also on Grand Manan for about two months.  There has been a Crested Caracara in the Shepody/Alma area for a month.  There is a Fork-tailed Flycatcher on Miscou now and there was a Scissors-tailed Flycatcher at Cape Enrage recently.  There was a Swainson's Hawk and two Yellow-throated Warblers on Miscou last week.  All these species are well away from their normal areas.  

Incredibly just this week there was a bird found in Forteau, NL (on the Labrador coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence) which is normally found from Finland east to Siberia and south to southern China.  This bird is a Yellow-breasted Bunting and has never been seen in eastern North America before.  There have been a few sightings of it over the years on the Aleutian Islands in the far western part of Alaska.

The Cattle Egret shown above should be in Georgia, Florida or Texas now, not in New Brunswick.  The   Burrowing Owl shown below should be in Florida, southwestern US or Mexico now, not here.  

Burrowing Owl
Why do birds make mistakes?  Why do they appear in places that are obviously way off their normal migration paths?  That is a difficult question and the answers are diverse.  Bad weather and severe wind storms play a big part.  Other reasons include disruption in their navigation systems by manmade structures and communication waves/towers, confusion within the bird itself related to its navigation system and many other reasons some of which are unknown.  There are other reasons related to the species population or circumstances which promote a behaviour called 'dispersal' which causes some of the birds to fly away from their normal flight paths.  This is an evolutionary strategy for the potential success or dispersal of the species.  

Western Meadowlark [Jennifer Pierce Photo]
In recent years great strides have been made in the research on bird migration.  In the 1940s the best technique for studying bird migration was to use telescopes to watch the birds as they passed in front of the moon.  Bird banding has been used for hundreds of years but since the recapture rate is only 1.3%, it reveals relatively little data.  In the 1950s they began to use radar to study the movement of bird masses during migration.  Since the 1970s scientists have been using geolocators and satellite transmitters.  Geolocators are small and can be used to track the movement of birds.  A Swainson's Thrush, for example, was tracked in its migration flight from Alaska to the southern Amazon region.  Satelite transmitters are heavy and can be used on birds no smaller than Mourning Doves.  

Scientists are now using nano tags which emit VHF radio waves and can be received by the Motus Network of towers.  They are very small and can be used on creatures as small as insects, making them very useful for birds.  To date 10,000 birds, bats and insects have been tagged.  This method has been much more successful than anything in the past.

But science is not done yet!  High Resolution Genetic Markers are also recently being used.  These measure DNA from feathers and by isotope analysis they can determine where the bird was hatched and where it has been.  It will be interesting to see what data can be gathered from this new technique.

These latter techniques have gathered a lot of data on bird migration.  We know a lot more about it now than they did in 1960 or 1970.  However, we have done little to help the birds and improve their migration success.  We need to preserve key stopover sites, to clear the night skies for them to successfully migrate.  We need to turn off our night lights on large buildings and other prime collision sites.  We need to protect flocks that are forced down during weather fallouts.  The key is education and action.  We must get the general population and cities and municipalities involved.  Four percent decline per year is way too much!!