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

Thursday, September 28, 2017


Wave-loving Shorebird

The Sanderling (Calidris alba) is one of our shorebirds commonly called 'peeps'.  This term is often used for the smallest shorebirds that frequent our shores especially in the late summer and fall.  Their call notes are interpreted in the name.  We have many different species of shorebirds but the smallest ones are limited to about 6 species; Least, Semi-palmated, White-rumped, and Baird's Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plover and the Sanderling.  The other common species are larger to varying degrees.

The Sanderling is a very active sandpiper.  It loves large bodies of water where it appears to chase the waves as they break on the shore.  See the photo below.  Actually what they are doing is searching for invertebrates and insects brought in or stirred up by the waves.  That action makes them active little birds.  It is interesting to watch small flocks as they actively feed.  

Sanderling Chasing Waves In and Out
Here the Sanderling is usually seen in the very pale whitish non-breeding plumage.  It shows a distinguishing black patch at the leading edge of the folded wing.  In flight it shows a wide white strip on the wing with a black leading wing edge.  The breeding plumage is much different and rarely seen here because we don't see this species here in the spring.  Acquired in late April, the breeding plumage shows a deep mottled rusty brown on the head and back, with white underneath.  I have never seen a Sanderling in this plumage.  In both plumages, the Sanderling has a black bill and legs.

Sanderling Showing Black in Anterior Aspect of Folded Wing
The Sanderling nests in the far north in our Arctic islands.  It migrates north usually up the central flyway (up the centre of the continent).  In the fall it returns south down the east and west shores of North America as well as the central flyway.  That brings the birds here to New Brunswick in the fall  where they feed on our sandy shores  until gaining enough weight to continue their journey south to Mexico and the Caribbean islands.  

The Sanderling is one of our shorebirds with a worldwide distribution.  It also breeds in Northern Europe and Asia and winters in the Mediterranean and eastward.  This species was first describe in 1764 by a German naturalist, Peter Simon Pallas.  It is a cheery little species and makes our visits to the shores of our large lakes and oceans much more interesting.


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Blackpoll Warbler

Dramatic Plumage Change in the Fall

Blackpoll Warbler in Breeding Plumage
The Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata) is a warbler species which undergoes a big plumage change twice yearly; into its breeding plumage and into its non-breeding (alternate) plumage.  The change is so dramatic it is difficult to recognize it as the same bird.

Shown above is the male Blackpoll Warbler in breeding plumage.  This is what it looks like when it arrives here in the spring.  Note the black cap extending through the eyes, white cheek and black malar (cheek) line.  The back is black-streaked on warm grey; the sides are heavily streaked in black and the underparts are white.  There are two white wing bars and the feet, legs and bill are yellowish.

Blackpoll Warbler in Alternate Plumage [N. Geographic Complete Birds of N America p. 539]
And, as you can see above, the fall Blackpoll Warbler looks vastly different. The back is a dull olive green with black streaks.  The underparts are white with yellow streaks on the sides.  There is white under the tail.  The face is yellow with a dark streak through the eye.  It has the same two white wing bars.  Even the legs have turned dark!  

Now you can see why fall warbler birding is difficult!  But how does this little bird change so dramatically?  I recently was shown photographically by a good birding/blogging friend who has kindly given me permission to use her photos.  She has luckily photographed a Blackpoll Warbler in the transition stage.

Blackpoll Warbler [Lisa de Leon Photo]

Blackpoll Warbler [Lisa de Leon Photo]
These photos above show how this bird changes its plumage from breeding to fall (alternate) plumages.  It must do it quite quickly because we seldom see birds in transition like this.  If you had a fall-plumaged bird in hand you could tell for sure it was a Blackpoll because it retains the yellow soles on its feet.

The Blackpoll Warbler breeds in the summer in the Maritimes and throughout most of northern Canada to Yukon and Alaska.  It migrates southward in the fall eastward and then south either down the eastern US or to the Maritimes and south directly over the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Islands and South America where it winters.  This amazing latter flight route averages 1864 miles over water!  That would require a non-stop flight of approximately 88 hours (Ibird Pro).  In order to do this, this species needs to double its weight by feeding heavily here in our province on insects in August and September where we have plenty of suitable habitat.  A remarkable species indeed!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Big Bald Mountain

Let's Climb Big Bald Mountain

View From Near Top of Big Bald Mountain
On August 20 a small group of botanists climbed Big Bald Mountain in Northumberland County.  The road leading up the mountain is about a half hour north of Red Bank, near Miramichi City.  We were able to drive to the foot of the mountain, leaving an hour climb up a steep trail.  It was interesting to watch the vegetation change as we climbed.  Northern/alpine species of plants grow only on mountain tops in New Brunswick.  

View From Top of Big Bald Mountain
We saw lots of moose sign on our way up.  It was surprising to me to see that moose could find something attractive to eat way up there.  We also saw flocks of White-winged Crossbills and Dark-eyed Juncos and heard Fox Sparrows.  As we climbed, the vegetation got shorter and sparser.  The view was spectacular from the top.  You could see for miles, mostly untouched wilderness.  We could, however, see vast areas of former and some new clearcuts.  There were a few roads and two or three lakes.  One lake had a cabin on its shore.  The air was so pure and there were no sounds other than those of nature.  Such a delight to be there!

The most outstanding plant we found was the Highland Rush Juncus trifidus.  This is an extremely rare plant found only once before in the province in the same area in 1982 by H. Hinds.  It is normally found on peaty heathland in Hudson Bay, Baffin Island, northern Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland and Eurasia.  That was a very important find!

Juncus trifidus
Juncus trifidus
The dwarf birches were interesting.  It is hard to believe they can become so small and low-growing.  It is amazing how nature can adapt to harsh growing conditions.  We saw Betula glandulosa and Betula minor.  The Betula glandulosa was so low to the ground we had to get on our knees to photograph it.  It is a true dwarf and apparently reaches only 2 metres when fully mature.  What we saw was up to 30 cm tall.  Its leaves are very tiny and one would wonder if it really is a birch.  It is also extremely rare (S1).  

Betula glandulosa Dwarf Birch
An interesting fern was growing on the cliff face at the top of the mountain, Dryopteris fragrans, Fragrant Wood Fern.  Although this species is not unduly rare (S3), it was spectacular in the site in which we found it.  It required mountain goat-like agility to get close to it.  Plants are amazing how they can populate the most severe areas.  Fragrant Wood Fern normally is found from Yukon to Newfoundland and south to New England.

Dryopteris fragrans Fragrant Wood Fern

Dryopteris fragrans Fragrant Wood Fern
Canadian Mountain-Rice was another interesting find (Piptatherum canadense).  It is also an S1 plant, meaning extremely rare.  It grows on sandy barrens and rocky outcrops from British Columbia to Newfoundland and south to New Hampshire.  

Piptatherum canadense Canadian Mountain-Rice
Are we getting a pattern here?  Amazing how many rare plants are growing up there.  Another S1 plant we found was Vaccinium boreale Alpine Blueberry.  It was growing in small patches among
 the more common blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium.  Alpine Blueberry is remarkable in how small it is.  It was only about 5 cm high!  Its berries were small and sweet.  This plant was first found in the province by H. Hinds at this location in 1982.  

Vaccinium boreale Alpine Blueberry
We also found Mountain Cranberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea.  This is not particularly rare but is not something I see very often.  It is the common Partridgeberry of Newfoundland.  

Vaccinium vitis-idaea Mountain Cranberry
Another interesting find was Northern Comandra Geocaulon lividum.  This is a parasitic species and is listed as uncommon (S3).  It grows in sphagnum bogs and dry sandy areas from Alaska to Newfoundland south to New England.

Geocaulon lividum Northern Comandra
This was a very rewarding and unique botany trip.  To find so many extremely rare species was exciting.  We were viewing parts of New Brunswick few people have seen.  Although many have climbed Big Bald Mountain, I am sure most did not realize what an important ecological area it is to support such rare plants.  We are so blessed to have such areas still relatively untouched in New Brunswick.  It is our responsibility to protect them.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Eastern Phoebe Second Nesting

The Phoebes Have Fledged

Eastern Phoebe
This year we had a pair of Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) nest under our raised deck.  They raised two clutches and were more successful in the second clutch.  The first clutch was parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds.  See a previous post for more details (June 17, 2017).  The first clutch had 3 phoebe chicks and 1 cowbird chick.  The second clutch had 3  or 4 phoebe chicks.  

Eastern Phoebe Fledgling
The phoebes like to nest on or near human habitation.  In our case they built on top of a shelf over a light affixed to the underside of a raised deck, a secure, dry spot indeed!  The nest was made of mud pellets and moss and lined with fine grasses.  Such fine workmanship!

After the eggs hatched, both parent phoebes were very busy feeding the hungry chicks.  Every possible perch around our yard was used by the adults as they hawked insects.  The youngsters grew quickly and were poking their heads up at the least sound or motion near their nest.  

Eastern Phoebe Fledgling
The chicks fledged at age 2 to 3 weeks.  I was made aware of the eventful day by our dog who was witnessing the event from inside the house.  I didn't know what the commotion was about until I went out to hang clothes on the line.  A baby phoebe landed on the line right beside my hand!  I was able to gently stroke its breast while it decided what its next move would be.  That was a neat experience.  With the dog securely shut inside, I waited outside to watch the event.  There were 3 or perhaps 4 very young phoebes wheeling around unsteadily, obviously trying their wings and this new mode of transportation for the first time.  The adults were noisily giving advice from the sidelines.  It did not take long for the young ones to gain more control of flight and to get themselves hidden away in the shrubbery.

Eastern Phoebe Fledgling
I felt privileged to have been a witness to the rearing of at least 6 new phoebes this year.  Our yard was a good nesting site and we are grateful for all the insects that have been removed from our environment.  We are especially pleased that this second clutch was not parasitized.

Eastern Phoebes make great neighbours.  They unobtrusively build their nests and raise their young around our buildings and help rid our areas of insect pests.  It is nice to watch them perch on garden stakes, lamp posts and every other suitable perch while watching for the next meal to come within  range.  We will certainly miss our phoebes when they leave for their wintering grounds in southeastern US and Central America.  Safe journey, friends!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Rare Sandpiper Visits Miscou

Buff-breasted Sandpiper
On Tuesday, August 29, we made a long, rather difficult trek north of Wilson's Point on Miscou Island to look for shorebirds.  We have been visiting this place every late summer for a number of years now.  It is a good birding spot.  Mal Baie Sud has a large pond which is flushed daily by tides.  It is surrounded by marsh and is separated from the open ocean by a large sand dune.  The ocean has broken through the dune, hence the daily flooding of the bay.  There had been a report of a Buff-breasted Sandpiper from the area so we were looking especially for it.

The area is difficult to check because of the mile-walk in to the area along the beach followed by a bit shorter walk along the bay.  When you get back to your car, you have walked about 3 to 4 miles.  To make it even more difficult, the reported bird was seen across the cut made in the sand dune by the ocean, requiring you to cross a deep stream flowing out of the pond.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper
There were lots of shorebirds in the area.  We saw many Semipalmated Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers,  Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitchers, White-rumped Sandpipers, a Baird's Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, and Ruddy Turnstones.  As we reached the uppermost section of the sand dune I spotted the special bird.  There it was feeding heavily on some black-coloured invertebrates.  The bird was moving quickly along a row of vegetation very intent on feeding.  With camera on tripod I was clicking digital images quickly, knowing the window of opportunity was probably short.  We did not approach closely and let the bird continue its feeding.  Fortunately I had a superzoom camera.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper
First impression was a rather large sandpiper (21 cm/ 8.3 in) and its buff colour was not as dark as other Buff-breasteds I have seen.  The large dark eye stands out in contrast to the buffy head.   It has long yellow legs so appears to stand tall.  It does stand straight up at times.  Its beak is long and the pattern on its back is prominent.  It is a very beautiful sandpiper!  Its shape makes you think it is related to the Upland Sandpiper.

The Buff-breasted Sandpiper is a rare fall migrant to this area.  It nests in the Canadian Arctic and most birds fly south on the central flyway down the central part of North America to southern South America where it winters in Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina.  What a huge distance to fly!  A few bend their route to come over the Maritimes where they have been seen in the Acadian Peninsula and on Grand Manan.  This species needs abundant feeding areas here to refuel for its long journey to South America.  It prefers to feed on the drier parts of the marshy shores.  This is exactly where we found it, feeding about 20 metres from the wet mud and water.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper
This is the only species of North American shorebird that uses the lek system to attract mates.  Males join together and perform bold wing displays in order to attract females.  This species was very abundant in the 1800s and early 1900s.  By the 1920s market hunting had decimated their population, nearly driving them to extinction.  The species numbers are still trying to recover!  It is our responsibility to see that they have safe, clean, abundant feeding areas while passing through our region.