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!!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Gray Jay

Visit with the Gray Jays

Gray Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)
We recently took a trip to Claudie, an abandoned, overgrown settlement deep in the woods north of Fredericton.  We stopped for a visit with a friend who was working on his cottage there. He had a group of Gray Jays which had been habituated to humans.  They soon visited with us and expected a handout.  

At first they landed nearby in the trees making a variety of noises, mostly 'wee-ah' or 'chuck chuck chuck'.  Next, one bird landed on our friend's arm which prompted his producing gifts of bread for the birds.  They then flew in close to take the bread from our hands, even landing on our heads a couple of times.  After stuffing their bills with food, they would fly off and remain away for a few minutes before returning for more.  This was repeated many times.  It was obvious they were storing the food somewhere.

Gray Jay Coming for a Treat
The Gray Jay is about 29.2 cm (11.5 in) long and appears to be a jay with a long tail and no crest on its head.  It has dark gray upper parts, light gray underparts, a white head with a dark gray nape.  Its gray tail is tipped with a narrow white band.  It has a noticeably small black beak and black legs and feet.  The young Gray Jay is dark gray all over except for a faint light gray moustachial line. Juveniles gain their adult plumage in July or August.   Gray Jays on territory live an average of 8 years.  The oldest known Gray Jay was 17 years old (banded and recaptured).  

Gray Jays are omnivorous.  They hunt arthropods, small mammals such as rodents, and nestling birds.  They also hunt amphibians and even land on moose in the winter and remove and eat engorged ticks from their backs.  They also eat carrion, fungi, seeds and fruit.  Gray jays twist and tug their food apart unlike blue jays which hammer it.   

Gray Jay
The Gray Jay inhabits the boreal forest of most of Canada.  Its range also extends into the western US in mountainous areas where there is boreal forest.  Its population is sparse, however.  

Gray Jays are permanent residents throughout their range.  They do not migrate.  They survive the winter months on food they have carefully cached all year.  This may prevent them from migrating.  They have a unique way of caching food.  They roll the food around in their mouths and coat it with a special sticky saliva which allows them to safely stick it into the crevices of bark and under lichens.  It also seems to help preserve the food.  This is then used to feed nestlings and the adults throughout the seasons when food is scarce.  They have good memories and know in great detail where their food is stored.  

Gray Jays nest in late winter, usually March or April.  The female does not leave the nest in such cold weather and is fed by the male.  Both parents feed the nestlings.  Each Gray Jay pair also has a juvenile which remains with them throughout the year to help feed the nestlings when they fledge.  Apparently when the fledglings mature there is a lot of rivalry among them to see which is dominant and 'wins' the chore of remaining with the adults for another year.  Researchers have measured high mortality in the other juveniles which are driven away from the parental area.  They team up with other jays which have had nesting failures that season.  

Gray Jay
The Gray Jay has several colloquial names.  Here it is often called the Canada Jay.  In 2016 an online poll was conducted by the Canadian Geographic magazine to select a national bird for Canada.  The Canada Jay was selected from the top five choices, although it was not number 1.  Another name for the bird is the Whisky Jack.  The origin of that name is interesting.  Since the species is associated with the history of First Nations cultures, the name comes from that.  There was a benevolent First Nations mythological figure called Wisakedjak, and the name for the bird was anglicized from that to Whisky Jack.  In Maine the bird is sometimes called Moose Bird or Gorby.  It is possible the derivation of the name, Gorby, is from the Scottish and Irish word root 'gorb' which means 'glutton' or 'greedy'.

Apparently there was a superstition in the early 20th century among Maine and New Brunswick woodsmen which prevented anyone from harming a Gray Jay.  They believed that whatever they did to a Gray Jay would happen to them.  I wonder what effect that had on the human habituation of the species.  We are probably seeing the effects of that early treatment of this species even today.  

There were three birds in the group we saw in Claudie.  They must have been a pair and their juvenile assistant.  Neat!

Thursday, October 12, 2017


The Willet is a Shorebird 

Willet Showing Breeding Plumage
The Willet (Tringa semipalmata) is a fairly common shorebird which breeds in grassy marshes along the marine shores of the Maritime provinces.  It is a large, rather plump shorebird, a little larger than a yellowlegs.  It has a thick gray bill and gray legs.  It is 38 cm (15") long and appears long-legged.  It feeds by probing along the shore and sometimes in the water.

As in most shorebirds breeding and non-breeding plumages are quite different.  We usually see the non-breeding plumage or a transition stage between the two.  The breeding plumage is much darker than the non-breeding plumage.  The Willet in breeding plumage shows dark gray or brown above and white below with heavy streaking on the neck and barring on the breast and sides.  The non-breeding plumage is plain gray above and white below.  The streaking and barring disappear in the non-breeding plumage.  The outstanding field mark of the Willet is seen in flight. It shows a striking black and white wing pattern in both plumages.

Willets Feeding
The Willet gets its name from its vocalizations. It often says its own name, characterized as 'pill will willet'.  It winters along coastal shores from the Carolinas southward to the Caribbean.

There is a western race of this species.  It inhabits the coastline of the western US and winters in western Mexico.  This race is a bit different from the eastern race.  It moves inland to breed on the prairies and areas of Oregon, California and Nevada.  The western race differs anatomically as well.  It is 10% larger, has a longer bill and longer legs.  Its bill is more slender and it is much lighter in colour.  It makes one wonder if it is a different species.  DNA testing would be useful to determine the relationship between the two races.

The good news for bird watchers is that there is a western Willet presently in New Brunswick.  It was seen in the last few days (Oct 9, 2017) in Cormierville and is well documented.  It shows the light gray colour, the longer legs and characteristically is feeding in deep water.

According to IBirdPro, the Willet is the only North American sandpiper whose breeding range extends southward into the tropics.  All other species breed in the north.  An interesting shorebird species!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Giant Butternut

Large Butternut Tree Found

Giant Butternut
Butternut trees (Juglans cinerea) are common in some parts of New Brunswick.  They prefer limestone-rich well-drained soils in shallow valleys and gradual slopes.  They grow singly or in small groups and are intolerant of shade.  In New Brunswick they are found in mixed hardwoods often with sugar maple, silver maple, red maple, elm, beech, and white and yellow birch.  Here they are found mainly in the St. John River valley and also a few are found in the Miramichi River valley.  

Butternut Tree
The Butternut tree is a species of eastern North America and is found in Quebec and Ontario as well as New Brunswick.  It has compound leaves with 11-17 leaflets.  The leaves are yellowish green, rough above and hairy and often sticky.  The twigs are orange-yellow, hairy and with a reddish brown pith.  The tree bark is light grey in colour, smooth on young trees and shows coarse intersecting vertical ridges on older trees.  We are all familiar with the beauty of butternut wood.  Much of our prized furniture is made from it.  The wood is light, soft, coarse-grained and reddish-brown.  

Butternut Tree
The seeds of butternut trees are the nuts which are found in abundance each fall on the ground under the trees.  They are an important source of food for wildlife.  The nuts grow in groups of 2 to 5, are a greenish-yellow colour and have a sticky, hairy surface with a pleasing fragrance.  They are 4 to 6 cm long, round with a pointed end.  When the husk is removed it reveals a deeply corrugated hard shell.  Inside is the nut which is sweet, oily and very tasty.  The nuts turn a dark brown colour as they age.

The Butternut tree which prompted this post is a giant of its kind.  It was found in Sunbury County in the St. John River valley.   For its protection, no further location details will be given.  It is a large, very old tree and still reasonably healthy.  It is the specimen shown above.  It has the typical growth pattern with a fused large stem splitting into two main trunks about 1 metre off the ground.  The two trunks are not exactly the same size, with the larger trunk more healthy-looking than the smaller.  The tree is growing in a hedgerow on the edge of a wet area among mainly silver maple and red maple.  The circumference of the larger trunk is 7 ft 9 in. (236 cm) and the circumference of the smaller trunk is 6 ft 0 in (183 cm).  The circumference of the combined trunk about 3 feet (1 m) up is 11 ft 7.5 in (354 cm).  The diameter breast height (dbh) of the larger trunk is 29.6 inches (75 cm).  According to Textbook of Dendrology, 1996, Harlow, Harrar, Hardin, White, most butternut trees range from 12 to 24 in. dbh.  That makes our tree very large!  Also according to the above, butternut trees don't usually live more than 75 years.  So, how old is this tree?  We did an official core sample and it revealed that our tree is approximately 150 years old!  A grand-daddy of butternut trees and still going! Wow!

While we were in the area we saw some beautiful landscape and came upon two interesting New Brunswickers.  See below for photos of the pair of moose, a cow and a bull, which were hanging out together.  It is breeding season for moose and the cow was probably in heat.  A wonderful day in the Picture Province!

Cow Moose
Bull Moose Hiding