Friday, June 8, 2018


The Sora is a Rail

The Sora is a member of the Rail family, Rallidae.   This family includes rails, gallinules and coots.  We have two rails commonly found in New Brunswick, the Sora and the Virginia Rail.  Occasionally a rare rail is found here.  For example, there was a King Rail in Fundy National Park earlier this spring.  

The Sora is a compact chicken-shaped bird about 19-25 cm long (7.6 to 10 inches), about quail size.  It is commonly found in marshes and pond edges in summer.  Its presence is usually discovered by the frequent loud descending whinnying sound it makes.  That sound has become synonymous with a fresh water marsh.  As seen in the photo above, the Sora is brown and gray in colour with bright yellow bill and legs.  There is white barring on its back and sides.  The black on the face and throat set the bright yellow bill off well.  The female is similar to the male but slightly muted on the face and bill.  

The Sora is a secretive bird (except for its loud voice).  It skulks through the vegetation and prefers to be heard and not seen.  Note above how well it is camouflaged by the cattails. Its large feet facilitate its slow walk through the marsh vegetation.  It also swims readily.  When walking it bobs its head and cocks its tail high.  

The range of the Sora is widespread.  It summers in all of southern Canada southward to most of the northern US.  It winters in the very southern US, Mexico and the Caribbean Islands.  It builds its nest among the cattails suspending it above water.  The nest is made out of dry leaves, grass and reeds and contains 10-12 buff eggs with gray or brown spots.  Both parents incubate the eggs.  

The Sora feeds on aquatic insects, snails, seeds, invertebrates and wetland plants.  It uses its large feet to rake the aquatic vegetation in search of food, like the way a chicken feeds.  

The Sora is the most common rail in North America.  Large numbers are shot by hunters each year in the US but their population is stable probably because of their large hatch size.  The greatest threat to this interesting species is the destruction of fresh water marshes.  We are thankful for the help Ducks Unlimited is doing to reverse this trend.  Marshes are a healthy part of our environment and should be maintained and kept pure.  

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanger - Our Most Beautiful Bird?

Scarlet Tanager Male
Some people think that the Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) is our most beautiful bird (and rightly so).  The male in breeding plumage as seen above gives meaning to the colour, scarlet.  Set off with black wings and tail, wow!

The Scarlet Tanager varies in plumage greatly depending on the season.  The male in breeding plumage is shown above.  In his non-breeding plumage he is greenish yellow with black wings and tail.  Such a dramatic change!   The female is yellow-green with darker wings and tail and a brighter yellow throat.  The immature male is much like the female.  The adult male is an interesting sight when he is changing plumage with blotches of red on yellow or vice-versa.

Scarlet Tanager Male
The Scarlet Tanager is found in New Brunswick in summer where it breeds.  It feeds high up in the deciduous trees so is not often seen around housing areas.  It builds a nest of grass, rootlets, forbs and twigs 20 to 30 up in a deciduous tree.  Its eggs are blue green spotted with brown.  It feeds on insects, fruits, berries and buds.

Scarlet Tanager Male
I recently saw the Scarlet Tanager pictured above while out looking for warblers.  I was lucky to have it sit still long enough for a photo.  The song of this species is similar to that of a Robin.  It is raspier and is sometimes described as that of a Robin with a 'sore throat'.

Scarlet Tanagers have been recorded eating over 2,000 gypsy moth caterpillars (army worms) in an hour.  We appear to have more army worms this year so that might produce an influx of Scarlet Tanagers.  Keep your eyes peeled for one in a deciduous tree.  Maybe you will be lucky and find a sight like the one pictured above.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow Seen in Grand Manan

Lark Sparrow
 On May 10 we birded Whitehead Island, off Grand Manan and found this beautiful Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus) feeding on a feeder and on the ground under the feeder along with Purple Finches, Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos and Baltimore Orioles.  This was an exciting find because this species is only listed as 'casual' here.  Usually a few sightings occur mostly in the fall along the Grand Manan archipeligo and along other coastal areas on New Brunswick.  Only a few are seen in spring.

The Lark Sparrow is a western sparrow, breeding in summer in the western half of the US as far north as the southern prairie provinces of Canada.  It winters in California, southern Texas, and Mexico.  This is normally a bird of open grasslands where it feeds on seeds, grasshoppers and other insects.  As seen in the photo above, it readily enjoys feeding on seeds from a feeder.

Lark Sparrow
The Lark Sparrow is a brightly coloured bird, showing a beautiful pattern of light and dark brown on its face mixed with white and beige.  It has a long tail which shows conspicuous white outer tail feathers in flight.  The breast is plain gray with a dark spot in the middle.  Both males and females look alike and the juvenile is a muted form of the adult with streaks on the breast.

Lark Sparrow
The Lark Sparrow was first recorded in New Brunswick from Grand Manan on 13 August 1923.   We have had many reports since then and it has become a rare visitor but not unusual.

The male Lark Sparrow performs a courting dance which I have not been lucky enough to see.  It crouches on the ground, holds its tail up high, spreads its tail feathers to show its white outer-tail feathers, and struts around with drooping wings.  He must be an interesting sight!  Apparently the female is impressed because she eventually picks one performing male as her mate.  They go on to build a rough nest of sticks and grass lined with fine grass and rootlets, low on the ground or in a bush.  Their eggs are pale white to gray marked with brown or black spots.  We have no nesting records of this species in New Brunswick.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Orchard Oriole

Orchard Oriole in Grand Manan

Orchard Oriole Immature Male
 On May 10, we were fortunate to see and photograph an immature Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) while visiting Grand Manan.  This bird was faithful to the area around the home of one of Grand Manan's faithful bird feeders.  As you can see in the photo, it was enjoying fresh oranges.  The bird would visit the oranges 5 or 6 times a day and feed heavily on the orange flesh.  Baltimore Orioles were enjoying them too but the two species of orioles would not tolerate one another.  The Orchard Oriole would wait for the Baltimore to finish before flying into the tree.

The Orchard Oriole is North America's smallest oriole.  It arrives in the late spring and leaves early for its wintering grounds.  Some leave as early as mid-July.  It breeds normally in the mid-US as far north as the Canadian border and southern New England.   It winters in Mexico south to northern South America.  Although rare here, it is fairly common throughout its normal breeding range.  It prefers open forests and edges with flowering trees, urban parks and riparian zones.

Orchard Oriole Immature Male
The immature male Orchard Oriole is bright yellow with a black throat patch and lores (area between eye and bill).  It has two conspicuous white wing bars, as do both the adult male and female.  The adult female is bright yellow with a greenish back and no black at all.  The adult male looks very different with a black hood, back and throat patch.  He shows deep chestnut on the belly, sides and rump.  He also shows the two white wing bars.

The male sings a high-pitched warbling whistle.  The Orchard Oriole weaves a hanging nest similar to that of the Baltimore Oriole.  It usually is attached to  the fork of a tree or bush.  It lays 3 to 7 pale blue or gray eggs with gray, purple or brown spots.  The Orchard Oriole feeds on insects, nectar, flowers and fruit.

Orchard Oriole Immature Male
The Orchard Oriole is a very rare spring visitor to New Brunswick.  Visitors are often immature birds probably dispersing from their home range.  Some have stayed into summer when they probably return southward.  That is probably what this individual will do.

Orchard Oriole Adult Male [Internet Photo]
There are 10 species of orioles that can be seen in North America.  Some are seen only in the most southerly parts of Florida or California or Arizona.  They are very beautiful birds and we are lucky to have the Baltimore Oriole here and occasionally we get to see the Orchard Oriole.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

King Rail

King Rail in New Brunswick - No Way!

King Rail
On May 7 Jim Wilson announced the sighting of a King Rail at McLaren’s Pond, Fundy National Park.  It was reported as an ‘amazing’ discovery and indeed it was.  There have been only 3 previous sightings of this species in New Brunswick.  Two were found dead; one at Point Lepreau in September, 1952 and one at Gardner Creek, Saint John County in October, 1994 (Birds of New Brunswick: An Annotated List).  The third bird was photographed by Chris Kennedy while doing a breeding bird atlas along the Petitcodiac River in June, 2007.  Nova Scotia has three records and two birds were seen in southern Maine in recent years (as per Jim Wilson).

King Rail Showing Orange Breast and Red Iris
The King Rail (Rallus elegans) is the largest member of the rail family, Rallidae.  Other rail species that are native to New Brunswick in the summer are the Sora and the Virginia Rail.  Rails are secretive birds that live in close proximity to water, especially marshes and wetlands.  The Sora, Virginia Rail and King Rail prefer fresh water habitats and the Clapper Rail prefers salt or brackish marshes.  They like thick vegetation in which to hide, feed and nest.  They occasionally come out in the open but quickly duck back into cover.  The King Rail builds an intricately woven nest with a woven canopy and a sloping ramp entrance.

The King Rail feeds on aquatic insects, crustaceans, frogs, clams and seeds of marsh plants.  They will feed away from water (e.g., this individual appeared to be eating earthworms and insects found in mown grass) but most often feed in long marsh grass and pond plants.  It is reported that they will sometimes carry their food to water and dunk it before eating.

King Rail Showing Side Barring
The King Rail is a spectacular rail as its name suggests.  It is 38 cm (15 in) long and a bit bigger than the Clapper Rail which it closely resembles.  The King Rail is the size of a chicken and really impressive to see as it quietly walks along heavy pond vegetation.  It normally inhabits the coastal areas of southeastern US from Virginia south to Florida and west to Texas.  In summer it sometimes migrates up the Mississippi River.  ‘Casual’ sightings have been reported from Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes.  

The population of the King Rail is in decline due to habitat loss or degradation, toxic environments. accidental trappings, and hunting pressures in some parts of the US.  The King Rail was first described in 1834 by John James Audubon who did a beautiful painting of a pair of the birds.  I wonder how many tens of thousands of years this species existed before it was first described.  It certainly was known by the early inhabitants of North America who called it the ‘marsh hen’ or various aboriginal names.

King Rail Showing Orange Superciliary Line
The King Rail and the Clapper Rail look very much alike.  There is considerable variability within both species.  Some subspecies of the Clapper Rail look much like King Rails. The California race (of Clapper Rail), for example, is more orange in colour and looks even more like the King Rail but that population is considered to be non-migratory.  To make identification even more difficult, the two species sometimes hybridize.  The Cornell Ornithology site states that recently the King Rail species has been split into two species and the Clapper Rail species has been split into three.  The remaining Clapper Rail species has 8 subspecies.  A complex group!

King Rail Showing Burnt Orange Wing Covert 
The King Rail is larger than the Clapper Rail.  My first impression of the bird was its large size, its bill appeared long and thick and the bird looked dark in colour especially the orange which in some places is a burnt orange.  The colours on the King Rail are more saturated than those of the Clapper Rail, making the Clapper Rail look more muted or grayish overall.  The King Rail is overall browner and more orange.  As seen in the photos above, the barring on the sides of the King Rail are bold and that of the Clapper Rail are less so.  The burnt orange on the breast and wing coverts of the King Rail contrast with the more muted grayish or brownish of the Clapper Rail.  The feathers on the back are more heavily streaked with brownish black and edged with olive or brown in the King Rail and the top of the head is brown compared to black or gray in the Clapper Rail.  The Clapper Rail supposedly has a more prominent white superciliary line but this appears to be a subtle difference.  It appeared orange in the Fundy bird.  After close examination of the differences in these two species as outlined in the bird guides (Sibley and National Geographic) it is clear that there are few distinct differences in these two species, given geographic location and hybridization.  In my opinion, the only clear differences are the size, the orange breast and wing coverts of the King Rail along with the much darker plumage and the chestnut edges to the feathers on the back.  Voice and habitat can provide some help but a serious look at the individual is necessary to get a correct identification.

A very interesting species to find in New Brunswick!  To watch it slowly walk out of the thick bush and feed on the grass and then slink away to hide and rest again was indeed a privilege for us northern birders.  Carry on, King Rail.  You are welcome here.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallows Have Returned

Tree Swallow
 The Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) is a common New Brunswick swallow.  They winter farther north than of any of our swallows so are the last to leave in the fall and the first to arrive in the spring.    How nice is the day when they first arrive, twittering over our fields and waterways looking for early insects!

Tree Swallows spend the winters in the most southern parts of the US, Mexico and the Caribbean islands.  They summer in the central and northern US and almost all of Canada.  They nest in abandoned tree cavities or readily accept nest boxes set out for them by people.  They are hardier than other swallow species, feeding on mainly insects but also seeds and berries when needed.

Tree Swallow
Tree Swallows are beautiful.  Their upper parts are a brilliant iridescent greenish blue.  The underparts are a clean white.  Their wings and tail are a grayish black.  The greenish blue covers their eyes and cheeks, a feature which separates them from the western Violet-green Swallow.  Their tails are notched, a fact which can separate them in flight from the Barn Swallow which has a deeply forked tail.  In flight they show the slightly notched tail and a broad-based wing.  Juvenile Tree Swallows are greyish-brown on the upper parts with clean white underparts, like the adults.

Tree Swallow
The Tree Swallow prefers to breed in open areas near water.  They like to hawk insects over fields, marshes, swamps, rivers and lakes.

The Tree Swallow was first described in 1808 by Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot, a French Ornithologist.  An interesting behaviour I have seen this species display is an aerial game (or fighting as described by some) with a feather.  They appear to play chase with it.  This may indeed be a game since they are so agile and energetic.  They do like to place feathers in their nests so it may be competition for nest feathers.  According to iBird Pro investigations on this behaviour are ongoing.

Tree Swallow

Friday, April 27, 2018

Great Egret

Great Egret Visits Salisbury

Great Egret
For the last week there has been a Great Egret feeding at the lagoon in Salisbury.  I saw it on April 23.  A visit early in the morning left us empty-handed but a visit in the afternoon gave us a good sighting of this visitor from the south.  This egret has a smudge of something dark coloured on the left side of its head, probably sludge from an oil slick acquired somewhere on its travels.

The Great Egret (Ardea alba) is a rare visitor to New Brunswick, usually occurring in spring and fall.  Occasionally we will have two together but it is usually a single bird.  Once I saw one at Chance Harbour accompanied by a Tricolored Heron.

Great Egret
 The Great Egret is a large white egret with a long neck and large yellow bill.  Its legs and feet are black.  In breeding season the adults grow long plumes on their backs which extend beyond the tail.  This, unfortunately, almost led to their demise when these plumes (aigrettes) were highly sought after for the millinery trade in the 1800s and early 1900s.  Severe population declines resulted but fortunately they have recovered.  In breeding season the Great Egret develops a pretty turquoise green colour lores (around the eye) which beautifully sets off the yellow eye.  Also, the bill changes from yellow to orange.  This egret is 99 cm (39 in) long with a wing span of 130 cm (51 in) making it North America's largest egret.  A distinguishing characteristic of this species is its slow flight with the neck retracted.

The only other bird you are likely to confuse this bird with is the Snowy Egret which is smaller, has a black bill and black legs with yellow feet.  They do, however, frequent the same habitats.  The Cattle Egret is much smaller (51 cm/20 in) and has a different shape.

 Great Egret
The Great Egret prefers wetlands; freshwater, brackish or saline.  It feeds on fish, aquatic invertebrates and reptiles.  It has the advantage of size and can wade out deeper than other egret species to reach food unattainable to them.  It nests in trees in colonies along with other wading bird species.  The nest is usually 6 to 12 metres (20 to 40 feet) above the ground.  It breeds mainly in the southern US but strays in summer up the Atlantic coast and up the central part of the continent to Michigan and Minnesota.  It has never bred in New Brunswick.

An interesting fact about the Great Egret is that it is the symbol of the National Audubon Society.  Let's keep this beautiful image there and leave their plumes on their backs where they belong.  I am glad we no longer value hats decorated with animal parts!