Friday, February 16, 2018

Snow Goose Blue Morph

Blue Goose Visits Back Bay

Snow Goose Blue Morph Adult
An adult Snow Goose blue morph has been visiting Back Bay for the last 2 to 3 weeks.  The Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens) is a common goose species of mid-North America.  It normally breeds in our high Arctic islands and winters in south central US.  A small population winters in California and Mexico.  Snow Geese are uncommon here but usually a few pass through during spring migration.  Having one here during the winter is rare and having it a blue morph is even rarer.  The blue morph is a genetic variation of the Snow Goose which occurs in a small percentage of Snow Goose populations.  

The Snow Goose population is divided into different geographical and genetic groups.  The Lesser Snow Goose inhabits the central part of North America and the Greater Snow Goose uses the Atlantic Flyway and Atlantic Coastal Plain.  Those migrating along the Atlantic Flyway and Coastal Plain are seen in the thousands along the St. Lawrence River on their way to the Arctic to breed.  Many of this group come to northeastern New Brunswick near Campbellton to feed on their way north.  In 1998 there were 1000 individuals at Atholville, for example.  

In the mid-20th century the Snow Goose population fell into a steep decline.  Since then their numbers have increased dramatically.  Since 1973 their population has tripled and the central Arctic population has multiplied by a factor of 25!  This huge increase has caused significant damage to Arctic tundra from the feeding flocks.  This has placed a negative stress on other species.  The large flocks are causing much damage to crops in the central part of the continent.  As  a result, governments have legislated increased hunting permits to try to reduce numbers.  Now about 400,000 Snow Geese are hunted annually in the US and Canada.

Shown above is the Blue Goose (Snow Goose Blue Morph).  It basically shows a blue body and a white head.  Technically it has a brown body much of which is covered with blue wing feathers  which are long and beautiful.  The tail feathers are gray with a white border.  Important identifying features are the pink bill and legs and the black 'smile line' on the bill.  This helps distinguish it from the Ross's Goose.  The white domestic goose has an orange bill and legs.  The white head of the Snow Goose is often stained red or brown by the iron oxide in the soil as it grubs for roots and tubers.  

Snow Goose White Morph Adult
The much more common white morph Snow Goose is shown above.  Note the pink bill and legs and the black smile line.  The white morph has black primary wing feathers which show here above the tail.  These show well on birds in flight.  

Snow Goose with Canada Goose
The Snow Goose is smaller than the Canada Goose as shown above.  It is a Chen goose (its genus) which it shares with the Ross's Goose and the Emperor Goose.  It migrates in huge numbers and usually flies very high in large arc formations or very loose 'V's.  They rest at night usually on water.  They can sleep while afloat or while standing on one leg or sitting.

Snow Geese feed on plants, eating most parts of the plant.  They feed heavily on grasses, rushes, sedges, forbes, horsetails, shrubs and willows.  

Snow Goose White Morph Juvenile
The juvenile white  morph can sometimes be mistaken for the blue morph.  We don't see these often so need to carefully observe to make an identification.  This form varies but always shows a dingy gray colour.  The juvenile blue morph is much darker, a dull brown on the head and neck and dark gray-brown overall.  (Sorry, no photo).

Snow Geese mate for life and usually choose a mate of the same colour morph as their parents.  They will choose another morph, however, if the preferred morph is not available.  Offspring will then be of either morph.  The goose in Back Bay is hanging out with a Canada Goose.  Will they mate come spring?  Not likely.  They will fly north and find mates of their own species.  In the meantime, it is good for them to keep company with one another.

Thursday, February 8, 2018


Our Smallest Auk

Dovekie [Mark Morse Photo]
The Dovekie (Alle alle) is the world's smallest auk, family Alcidae.  They breed in summer in the high Arctic islands and winter along the Atlantic coast of Labrador, Newfoundland and down the eastern seaboard sometimes to New England.  The photo above shows the Dovekie in non-breeding plumage and was taken recently off Grand Manan. 

The Dovekie is very small, 21 cm (8.8 in) long, about Starling size.  On the vast ocean, that looks pretty small!  It has the clean black and white plumage of Alcids, black on the back and head and white below.  The breeding plumage shows a black hood covering the head, neck and throat.  In winter white appears on the throat and sides of neck, forming an incomplete neck band.  The bill is exceptionally short.  When it sits on the water it appears neckless as it pulls its head in close to its body.  In flight it is very football-shaped.  It often flies close to the water dodging the waves. 

Dovekies (known as Little Auks in Europe) are a holarctic species.  They inhabit the oceans of the north of the Earth.  Although they breed in northern Canada, the largest colonies are in Greenland, Spitsbergen (Norway) and a smaller colony in Iceland.  They come to land to breed in rocky crevices on scree slopes and mountains along the Arctic Ocean.  The rest of the year they spend at sea.  While in the breeding colony they are very vocal with a high-pitched chattering and screeching sound.  They feed on fish, molluscs, and plankton. which they catch underwater by using their wings and strong feet and legs.  They actually 'fly' under water.

Occasionally in heavy winter storms with strong easterly winds Alcids can be blown inland.  Because they are physically designed for life on the ocean they find it nearly impossible to walk on land.  Their feet are placed well back on their bodies making it difficult to balance in an upright position.  So, if they get blown inland they are stranded.  Without the aid of humans they would soon die or get killed by a predator.   The bird in the photo above was blown in during the storm of January 13 and 14.  It was returned quickly to the ocean where it swam away happily!  

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Harris's Sparrow

A Rare Sparrow Spends the Winter

Harris's Sparrow
The Harris's Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula) is an unusual sparrow to see in New Brunswick, normally spending its winters in the mid-southern-states and its summers in our far north (northern Manitoba, northern Saskatchewan, Nunavut and Yukon).  There has been one wintering happily in the St. George area this year.  

The Harris's Sparrow is our largest sparrow (19 cm/ 7.5 in long).  It is a Zonotrichia sparrow (the genus) so it resembles closely our other Zonotrichia sparrows, White-throated, Yellow-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows.  That means its colouring, its shape and its behaviour are much like its close relatives.  

The Harris's Sparrow has a distinctive pink bill and an extensive white belly.  It shows pale gray or brown cheeks and in breeding plumage has a black crown, face and bib.  In the non-breeding plumage, as shown above, it loses most of the black from its crown, bib and chest.  All plumages show a postocular black spot.  Notice the black streak behind the eye which often shows just as a spot.  Both genders are similar.

Harris's Sparrow
This species breeds in the far north in mixed forest-tundra areas.  It likes low bushes, willows, and open spruce areas.  It lays 3 to 5 white to pale green eggs with brown markings in a nest built on the ground.  It eats seeds, berries, insects, spiders and snails which it catches mainly on the ground.  It readily adapts to bird feeders in winter.  

Harris's Sparrow [Janice Harmon Photo]
The photo above readily shows the pink bill and the remnant of the black face and crown.  Note the brownish cheek and the postocular spot.

Although the Harris's Sparrow is a mid-continent species vagrants (wanderers) do occasionally occur both to the east and to the west.  There have been a handful of sightings of this species in New Brunswick.  There were 5 sightings noted up to 2003 and there have been a few since.  Certainly this is one we could only see every few years at best.  

Harris's Sparrow
The Harris's Sparrow is Canada's only endemic breeding sparrow.  That means it is the only sparrow that breeds solely in Canada.  It was named by Audubon after an American amateur ornithologist, Edward Harris, who accompanied him on his 1843 trip up the Missouri River.  It was first collected and described by Thomas Nuttall in 1834.  

Although we don't get to see the social interactions of this species, they are quite interesting.  In breeding plumage the males have large black bibs and the male with the largest bib is usually the most dominant.  'Jump fights' are common among males to establish dominance of both females and breeding territory.  The males face off and jump up in the air and claw at one another while beating each other with their wings.  We would have to go to northern Canada in spring to see this!

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Another Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owls Seen at Tantramar

Short-eared Owl [Jean-Guy Gallant Photo]
The Tantramar Marsh has been good habitat for Short-eared Owls Asio flammeus again this winter.  This species prefers open spaces such as grasslands, salt marshes, prairies, agricultural fields, estuaries and tundra so the Tantramar is ideal as long as there is a good rodent population to support them.  The Short-eared Owl species exists all over Canada except the high Arctic islands.  They are not abundant but can be seen in suitable habitat.  They are permanent residents around Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and down the St. Lawrence River to about the Quebec border.  One wonders if they are extending their range further eastward to include New Brunswick.

For much more information on this species, please see the post on April 12, 2016.  The birds shown in this post were photographed by Jean-Guy Gallant on January 3 on the Tantramar.  The flight shot is especially difficult to get and as you can see he did a good job.

Short-eared Owls are nocturnal but do show some activity early in the morning and late in the day.  During the day they are usually roosting on the ground in the tall grass so are difficult to see.  They are 38 cm (15 inches) long and their wing span is 99 cm (39 inches).  With that large wing span they look magnificent in flight.  They flutter and bounce around in flight resembling a huge butterfly!

Short-eared Owl [Jean-Guy Gallant Photo]
If you want to see this bird take some time to watch a large wet salt marsh or wet meadow or agricultural field some time just before dark.  You might be lucky to see some action by this interesting species as it searches for food.  They are not very vocal but they do make a "voo-hoo-hoo" sound.  The female often responds with a "ke-oow".

The Short-eared Owl was first described in 1763 by a Danish bishop named Erich Ludvigsen Pontoppidan.  Other names that have been used for this species are Evening Owl, Marsh Owl, Mouse-hawk and Flat-faced Owl.  Let's enjoy and protect another one of New Brunswick's great treasures!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

White Morph Gyrfalcon

Gyrfalcon Seen in New Brunswick

Gyrfalcon [Jean-Guy Gallant Photo]
On December 18, 2017 a white morph Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus) was seen and reported near Caissie Cape by Nora Hebert.  The Gyrfalcon is such a rare bird it has sparked a frenzy of birders travelling to the area in an attempt to see it.  It was seen sporadically there for 3 or 4 days and then seemed to disappear.  Fortunately it was seen again (or another individual) in the Buctouche area by the same birder on January 8.  There it has been spotted almost daily since.  

Referring to the photo above (thank you, Jean-Guy Gallant) this bird is a juvenile white morph.  The Gyrfalcon comes in three morphs (or plumage types), white, gray and dark.  The present bird is a typical white showing a very white white with spots and streaks in dark reddish brown and dark gray. It has dark wing tips with a smudging of colour on its head, nape, belly and tail.  The bill and feet are a light grayish colour, making it a juvenile.  If it were an adult these would be bright yellow.  Please see a previous post (February 24, 2017) for more detailed information on this species.

The Gyrfalcon is our largest falcon.  Our other falcons are the Peregrine, the Merlin and the Kestrel.  The Gyrfalcon is 51-64 cm long (20"-25").  It has more body than our other falcons.  Note the heavy body and broad wings.  That makes it a powerful predator which can take down flying prey easily.  It feeds mainly on waterfowl, pigeons, and rodents.  

We saw this bird on January 12 and it was chasing pigeons.  The area it is frequenting in Buctouche is ideal habitat.  There is a highway bridge and a walking bridge, 2 lagoons, a pond, a large bay and the ocean all close by.  That day the Gyrfalcon was making a pass at a large flock of about 50 pigeons.  When I saw it, it was in the middle of the flock, in the air.  The flock was flaring in all directions and the falcon was right in the middle trying to grab one of the pigeons.  It appeared fast and powerful!  Its pattern seems to be to make a couple of passes at the pigeons or ducks in the morning and sometimes again late in the day.  The window of opportunity (to see and photograph the bird) is very short and the weather is not conducive to standing out watching for long periods.  However, to see the bird makes the effort well worthwhile.  We saw the flock of pigeons in wild chaos again about an hour later that morning and suspect the Gyrfalcon was after them again but did not see it among the flock.  

The Gyrfalcon's range is all of Arctic Canada, Alaska, Greenland and the very northern part of the prairie provinces, Ontario, Quebec and Labrador.  It is a holarctic species so also occurs in the most northern part of Europe and Asia.  It rarely comes south but occasionally vagrants show up in Newfoundland or the Maritime provinces.  We are lucky this is one of those years!  To view this bird is a rare opportunity which may not come again for many years.  

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Our Smallest Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl
Early Sunday morning my telephone rang and a neighbour told me that a small owl had just hit their window and it was on the ground 'shivering'.  I quickly made plans to go and rescue it but received another call soon afterwards telling me it had flown away.  That was good news.  That meant that the owl was probably just stunned and was recovering.

The owl shown above was another individual which appeared around houses looking for something to eat.  There were bird feeders there and the owl was watching for rodents or small birds as prey.  Northern Saw-whet Owls are strictly nocturnal.  Their main diet is rodents, shrews, voles, birds and insects. They forage close to the ground and spend their days roosting in thick evergreens.  

Northern Saw-whet Owl
Shown above is the actual bird that sparked the phone call.  It is an adult Northern Saw-whet.  Notice the small size, the white 'V' between its eyes, the fine white streaks on the forehead, the reddish brown vertical streaks on its breast and the spots on the sides.  This cute little owl is only 20 cm (8") long!

The Northern Saw-whet Owl inhabits a large area of North America from Alaska across all of southern Canada southward to southern US.  In winter some individuals migrate a short distance to more southerly climates within its range.  It is a permanent resident of New Brunswick.  It nests in abandoned woodpecker holes or natural cavities in trees.  The female incubates the eggs for 26-28 days and the male brings her food.  They vocalize only during the breeding season making a monotonous short repeated sound that sounds like a saw being filed or 'whetted'.  

Northern Saw-whet Owl [Internet Photo]
The only other owl species that might be seen here that one would confuse with this species is the Boreal Owl.  That is a much more northern species which is very rare here.  It is slightly larger but has white spots on its forehead rather than the streaks of the Saw-whet.  The juvenile Northern Saw-whets are very different looking.  They are dark brown overall with an orange breast and belly.  They show the white 'V' between the eyes, the same as the adult.

Northern Saw-whet Owl [Internet Photo]
Sometimes the winter brings hard times for these owls.  That is often the reason they are seen near human habitation.  They are desperate for food and hope for rodents or other food.  That makes them prone to injury (as in this case) from window or automobile strikes, predators,  or interference with humans.  Some of them are so tame or so starved that they allow humans to approach too closely.  It is best to back off and protect these little creatures at these crucial times.  With deep snows finding food is difficult and they are stressed from weather, starvation and being in close proximity to human habitation.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Mactaquac Christmas Bird Count

Annual Christmas Bird Count

White-throated Sparrow

The Mactaquac Christmas Bird Count is an annual event taking place on January 1.  A team of hardy citizen scientists brave the cold weather and conduct a bird census in a large 24-km circle running from Keswick to Upper Prince William and Mazerolle Settlement to Springfield.  This count has been done for many years now and the data are collected and compiled by NatureNB, Bird Studies Canada and the Audubon Society.  

The weather was severe this year.  Participants braved extreme temperatures and a wind chill up to - 29ÂșC.  Being on the road for most of the day made conditions difficult.  Participants observe from their cars but frequently get out to look for birds and to walk through woods, roads and lanes.  Most groups consist of 2 people, a driver and a recorder, both watching carefully for birds.  

White-winged Crossbill
This year we counted 1697 birds representing 32 species.  Both total numbers and species numbers were below average.  This is probably for two main reasons.  Firstly, the weather was so severe many birds held tight in whatever hiding place they had chosen away from the wind and cold.  Secondly, so far this has not been a finch year.  Our fruit and cone crops are low and migrating flocks of finches are not coming into the area to feed.  Many of these flocks are staying well north of us.  That may change as the season progresses and they are forced to move into this area seeking food sources.  There was also less open water this year with the extreme cold so a lot of waterfowl have moved out of the area.  

We did however find a remnant of winter finches.  Note the White-winged Crossbill shown above.  We found only 6 of these.  And, only 1 of the White-throated Sparrow shown above.  We did, however, notice some trends.  The Blue Jay population is high, having seen 164.  We also noticed that the American Goldfinch population is rebounding.  In the last few years the goldfinch population has plummeted.  Not so anymore.  They are increasing now in this area.

Shown below are two charts, one showing a summary of the birds seen on this year's count.  Below that is a comparison of the last 7 years of counts comparing species numbers and total numbers of birds counted.  

Mactaquac CBC 2017

Jan. 1, 2018


Am Black Duck


Common Goldeneye

Hooded Merganser

Common Merganser

Bald Eagle

Ruffed Grouse

Great Black-backed Gull

Rock Pigeon

Mourning Dove

Barred Owl

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Blue Jay

American Crow

Common Raven

Black-capped Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

Brown Creeper

Golden-crowned Kinglet

European Starling

American Tree Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Northern Cardinal

Snow Bunting

Purple Finch

White-winged Crossbill

Pine Siskin

American Goldfinch

Accipiter sp.


No. of Species

Mactaquac CBCs 

No. of Species
Total Birds