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.  

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Cardinal Flower

Our Most Beautiful Wildflower

Cardinal Flower
Naming our most beautiful wildflower would be a tough call because we have so many beautiful ones.  In my opinion, however, the Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is the most beautiful.  For me it earns this award because of its gorgeous deep cardinal red.  Some call it scarlet but it is really deeper than that and cardinal red is the perfect descriptor.  It is too bad that many have not seen this flower.

Cardinal Flower
The Cardinal Flower grows along streams and damp meadows in late summer.  It prefers calcareous soils so is found mostly in the southwestern part of the province.  We found this plant recently in the Spednic Lake Protected Nature Area while participating in the Biota sponsored in that area by the New Brunswick Museum.  I have seen this plant rarely before so delighted in its presence and its beauty. 

Cardinal Flower
The Cardinal Flower shows many flowers in an elongated cluster.  Each flower is about 3.8 cm or 1.5" long.  The flower is irregular looking, having 2 partly-fused petals on top and 3 fused petals below.  The stamens are fused, making a long tube which  extends beyond the petals.  The style (female part) is within the tube formed by the fused stamens.  The pollen shows white at the end of the tube, giving a lovely contrast to the brilliant red petals.  Below the flowers on the stem are many bracts.  Below them are the leaves which are 2.5 to 9 cm long (1-3.5").  When these flowers are found along a stream bed, contrasted by the many greens and pale yellows of grasses and sedges and also contrasted by the black rocks of stream beds, it is wonderful sight, as shown below.

Cardinal Flower
Cardinal Flowers belong to the Campanulaceae family.  They are poisonous because they contain lobeline, a piperidine alkaloid.  So, these plants are best left right where they are growing.  Admire them from a distance or enjoy them from a photograph.  

An interesting feature of this flower is that they cannot be fertilized (or not easily) by insects.  The stamens being fused in a long tube make it difficult for insects to reach the style to fertilize the flowers.  So, guess what fertilizes them?  Hummingbirds!  Here in NB they are fertilized by Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.  What an interesting relationship between them.  No wonder our hummingbirds like red!  They are evolutionarily programmed to seek out red and thus fertilize the Cardinal Flowers.  How interesting nature is!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Female
The above photo shows a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird who is responsible for fertilizing the Cardinal Flowers.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Burrowing Owl

Rare Owl Visits NB

Burrowing Owl
 A Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) was sighted on Grand Manan about 2 weeks ago by a local birder.  I saw it on August 3.  It was perched on the rock breakwall at Castalia Marsh.  It has been there now for about 2 weeks.

The Burrowing Owl is very rare here.  Only one has been recorded in the past, being seen at Fort Beausejour on 21 and 26 June 1978 and later confirmed from feathers found at the site.  The normal range of this species is the grasslands of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, western United States and its wintering grounds in southwestern US and Mexico.  There is also a permanent population in central and southern Florida.

So why/how is this bird here?  There are two subspecies of this owl.  The western subspecies is hypugaea and the Florida subspecies is floridana.  The subspecies have a slight difference in appearance and the one here is the western subspecies (hypugaea).  The western subspecies is lighter in colour with buffy-coloured spots and the Florida subspecies is darker with white spots.  The western population is larger so the probability of a bird arriving from the west is greater than one arriving from Florida.  Vagrants do sometimes appear in spring and fall in southern Ontario, southern Quebec, Maine and North Carolina.  So, having one arrive here is rare indeed.  Whether this bird actually flew here or arrived on a boat or a truck is up for speculation.

Burrowing Owl
The Burrowing Owl likes open areas where it perches on conspicuous dirt or rock piles, or posts.  It normally nests in ground squirrel burrows.  It is mostly nocturnal and preys on small mammals, insects and birds.  It is a beautiful little owl, 24 cm (9.5") tall.  It is different from our owls with its long yellow legs.  Its spotted appearance is immediately obvious.  It has deep yellow eyes and beak and its legs are a lighter yellow.  It was mostly sleeping when I saw it but if disturbed it will bob its head to get a better perspective on an intruder's distance away.  The fact that the female is smaller than the male makes it unique among owls.

The population numbers of this species is greatly reduced in the north mainly due to the extermination of its prime prey, prairie dogs.  It is also suseptible to pesticide use and habitat loss.  Declines continue due to the conversion of prairie to intensive agriculture.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Whale Watching in Newfoundland

Whales Up Close

Humpback Whales
Whale watching from St. Vincent's on the southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland is a unique experience.  The whales are very close as you stand on the shore of beautiful St. Vincent's beach.  The bottom is obviously very deep immediately off the beach so that they can come right up to the beach.  We were there last week and the capelin were rollin in so the whales were feeding heavily.  It was a unique experience to have the whales 25 metres (75 ft) away from my camera lens and not be in a boat.  We were so close we could hear them breathing and smell their breath!

St. Vincent's Beach
St. Vincent's beach is a beautiful scene.  As you can see in the photo above, it was foggy when we were there.  I suspect that is a common occurrence.  It did not matter because the birds and whales were so close we could see very well.  There were about 30 people there watching along with us.  The birds were excitedly flying over the whales, grabbing whatever fish they missed as they lunged up, filling their gaping mouths; Black-legged Kittiwakes, Herring Gulls, Great Shearwaters.

Humpback Whales
There are three Humpback Whales in the photo above.  On the left you can see the blowholes of two. On the right the dorsal fin of another if visible.  There were only Humpback whales seen while we were there.  It was difficult to tell how many.  My guess is there were 6 or 8.

Because the capelin were there in large schools, it made easy feeding.  They appeared to dive deep and then come up with mouth open, their throats hugely swollen with water and fish.  At or above the surface I could see them closing their mouths around the fish and beginning to squeeze the water out through their baleen.  Awesome sight!

The Humpback Whale is a fin whale (member of the family Balaenopteridae) along with the Finback Whale, the Blue Whale, the Sei Whale and the Minke Whale.  These whales are characterized by a fin on the back, longitudinal grooves on the throat and chest, and long tapering pectoral flippers.  The Humpback in particular is characterized by its scalloped pectoral flippers, knobby protuberances on its head and lower jaws and its broad serrated flukes.  

The Humpback Whale is about 12 to 22 metres long (35 to 60 ft) and it weighs 25 to 45 tons.  Its pectoral flippers are 4-6 metres  (11-17 ft) long.  Its fluke (tail) is 5-8 metres (15-21 ft) wide.  They feed mainly close to shore on krill, small fish and squid.  Mating in the North Atlantic takes place in April.  They are very amorous and indulge in such antics as caressing one another with their flippers and rubbing one another with the knobby protuberances on their heads, jaws and flippers.  Gestation is about 10 months in the North Atlantic.  The young are born during the winter and measure 3 to 6 metres long (9-17 ft).  They weigh a whopping  1,100 to 1,800 Kg (2,500 to 4,000 pounds).  The mother suckles the baby for 5 to 10 months.  Females produce young every other year.  

Humpbacks are fun to watch because they are active at the surface.  They frequently 'lob-tail' (slap the surface with their flippers and tail).  They sometimes swim on their backs showing their white bellies.  And, of course, we all want to see them breach.  When doing this they jump straight up, completely out of the water and fall back usually on their side with a huge splash.  When out of the water the back is bent (or humped) hence its name.  

In the period up to the twentieth century the Humpback whales were hunted nearly to extinction.  For example, during the 1952-3 season the world catch was 3,322.  I am thankful we now have laws to prevent that!

Humpback Whales Feeding