Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Sugar Island 




Sugar Island is a private island west of Fredericton in the St. John River.  There are really four islands  in close proximity; Merrithew, Keswick, Upper and Lower Shores and Sugar Islands.  Together they  comprise over a thousand acres.  They are flat agricultural land mostly under cultivation.  The main crops are hay, soybean, corn, and canola.  The edges of the islands and the gullies and cuts are lined with bushes and hardwood trees.  This is an interesting area to visit and bird but unfortunately is not available to the public.  The land is owned mainly by local farmers and it is gated in order to control traffic to and from the area and to keep out the inevitable garbage which comes with human activity.  

With very little snow on the ground recently, we were able to walk the area.  (We are members of the Keswick Island Association and thus have access to the island complex.)  The water was very high and was rushing dangerously between islands.  The landscape was especially beautiful that day.  


The Cut between Upper and Lower Shores Islands

Corn Field Showing Douglas in the Background

Barn on Lower Shores Island
 The Sugar Island area once had many barns.  Unfortunately most of these are now gone.  There are only two left, one on Lower Shores and one on Sugar Island.  Because the crops are now trucked  to barns on the mainland or directly to markets, the barns are no longer used.  It is sad to see them disappear or to fall into disrepair.

Harvested Corn

View of Sugar Island Showing its Expanse

Remains of the Lunch Shack
 The crews working in the fields used to use this small building for shelter and to have their lunches.

Winter Corn
 The islands and the agriculture practiced there contribute heavily to the avifauna of the area.  For some migrants, it is an important stopover during migration.  There they rest and restore their fat stores so that they can continue their flights further south.  The corn, soybeans and other crops left behind after harvest are welcomed by the many birds which go there to feed.  Crows, Ravens and Mourning Doves seem to spend most of their time there until snows get so deep no more food is available.  It is an important staging area for sparrows and other finches.  Waterfowl feed there heavily during migration and lingering flocks of Blacks, Mallards and Canada Geese fly in there every day until they get forced southward by weather and snow depths.

Lower Shores Island Barn at Day's End

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Another Rare Bird - Our Third



New Brunswick has yet another rare bird, and this one is very rare and exciting!  A NORTHERN LAPWING has been discovered at St. Martins in southern New Brunswick on the Fundy coast.  Apparently this bird has been around for about a week and has been seen feeding and roosting at the campground there. 

The Northern Lapwing is a species of the Northern Hemisphere living mainly in Europe and Asia.  Occasionally it strays to North America and when it does it is usually seen on the northern coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador.  It is rare there and it is very rare that it strays down the eastern seaboard.  Previous records from NB are from 1927, 1956, 1966, and 1991.  

The lapwing is a large plover, 32 cm long (12.5 inches).  For comparison, our Blue Jay is 28 cm (11 inches) long.  The Lapwing likes grassy and shrubby open areas near the ocean.  It feeds on insects and other small invertebrates by running along the ground, stopping and pecking much like the behaviour of our killdeer which is also a plover.  

When I saw this bird yesterday, it was very active and appeared healthy.  We wish it well in its quest for food and shelter here in NB.  





Monday, December 22, 2014

Fredericton Christmas Bird Count




Every year we participate in the Fredericton Christmas Bird Count (FCBC).  This year it was held on Dec. 14.  There are over 50 counts done in New Brunswick between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.  This activity occurs all over North America and is a major contribution to citizen science.  Data has been collected this way for over 100 years.  One of the first counts in North America was done right here at Scotch Lake by William H. Moore in the early 1900s.

The count area is a 30 km. circle which is divided into sectors.  Our sector is the Douglas area.  I have participated in the FCBC for over 50 years.  This year the weather was very good and there was little snow, making our task much more enjoyable.

Following are the results for our sector.  The results for the complete circle are not in yet but will surely bring some other interesting results.

American Black Duck (Anas rubripes) B
56
Northern Pintail
13
Mallard
39
Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)
68
Barrow's Goldeneye  

Hooded Merganser
2
Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) B
4
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) B
6
Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus)

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk

Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) B

Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) B

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) B

Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) M

Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus) M

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) B

Rock Pigeon
21
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) B
33
Great Horned Owl

Barred Owl (Strix varia) B

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker 
5
Hairy Woodpecker 
4
Pileated Woodpecker 

Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor) M

Gray Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) B
2
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) B
19
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) B
90
Common Raven (Corvus corax) B
8
Black-capped Chickadee 
119
Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus) B

Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) B
2
White-breasted Nuthatch B
4
Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) B

Golden-crowned Kinglet  
5
American Robin   (Turdus migratorius) B

European Starling   (Sturnus vulgaris) B

Bohemian Waxwing   

Cedar Waxwing

American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) M

Song Sparrow   (Melospiza melodia) B
3
White-throated Sparrow    
1
Dark-eyed Junco   (Junco hyemalis) B
21
Northern Cardinal
7
Snow Bunting   (Plectrophenax nivalis) M

Pine Grosbeak   (Pinicola enucleator) B

Purple Finch (Carpodacus purpureus) B

Red Crossbill   (Loxia curvirostra) B

White-winged Crossbill    

Common Redpoll (Carduelis flammea) M

Pine Siskin   (Carduelis pinus) B

American Goldfinch   (Carduelis tristis) B
80
Evening Grosbeak   

Other



Total No. Species       
24
Finch spp.

Gull spp.

Total No. Birds
612

The river usually provides interesting waterfowl.  This year it was open so there was a good number of ducks.  The Northern Pintails were a surprise.  We have never tallied Pintails on a CBC before.  We were also pleased to count 7 Cardinals, 2 Gray Jays, and 6 Bald Eagles.  There are still a few lingering sparrows around as evidenced by the Song Sparrows and White-throated Sparrow.  The results are also interesting when one considers what we did not find.  There are no Starlings and no raptors, other than the eagles.  Bird populations change with weather and availability of food and good habitat.  Not all these birds will stay throughout the winter but the data show a good picture of the bird populations in our area.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Another Rare Bird!


On Dec. 3 a photo of an owl was posted to Birding New Brunswick Facebook page by a person who wishes to be anonymous.  It shocked most birders.  It was a BARN OWL!

Barn Owl   [photo by anonymous]
Most NB Birders have never seen this species, so this was another mega-rarity.

There have been a few reports of Barn Owl sightings over the last 50 or so years.  All of them have been of specimens of dead birds.  The NB Museum has 3 specimens in its collections.  One is a bird from Europe and the other two are from NB.  They are dated 1980 and 2005.  This was not an owl we could ever go out and see, list and study.  Imagine the excitement this generated!

But, there was a problem.  The person reporting the owl was not telling us where it had been seen and photographed.  Birders waited 12 hours for a report which did not come.  So, they took matters into their own hands.  They had the picture and they knew it came from somewhere near Saint-Marcel, New Brunswick.  A group headed out the next day and drove around until they found the area which matched the background in the photo.  A nearby field was suitable habitat so they waited until nearly dusk that day - and they were rewarded.  The owl flew into the field and even perched on a horizontal tree branch near where they were parked.  It then put on a feeding and flight demonstration that none had seen before.  Marvellous!  The barn owl has long wings and flies close to the ground looking for feed, its flight often in a bat-like fashion.  It shows shallow, slow wingbeats, often with long legs dangling.

Barn Owl  [photo by Carmella Melanson]

The Barn Owl is a medium-sized owl, 41 cm (16") long and with a wing span of 107 cm (42").  It has long legs and is very light colored on the breast and facial disk.  Its facial disk is heart-shaped.  Barn owls feed mainly on rodents and are prized by farmers for their rodent control.  They nest in dark sheltered places in abandoned buildings, barns and hollow trees.

The barn owl is normally very nocturnal thus making it difficult to see.  It could be confused with the Snowy Owl which is also very white.  The Snowy, however, is usually seen in the daytime; the Barn Owl at night.  The Snowy Owl is also a bit bigger.  

One amazing fact is the fantastic hearing possessed by this beautiful owl.  It can easily hear prey hidden by vegetation or buried under the snow.  This is facilitated by asymmetrically placed ear openings, one side being higher than the other.  They also can close their ears if encountering a sound that is too loud for them. 

It is our hope that our visitor finds plenty to eat and moves southward as the weather degenerates.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Long-billed Curlew


Long-billed Curlew [John Massey Photo]
 The curlew sighting is so rare and amazing it deserves a second post.  As of today the bird is still present at Cape Tormentine feeding in a large muddy field, walking around on residents' lawns and strolling around the camp grounds.  Fortunately it is finding food and doing well.   But time is running out for it.  I hope it replenishes its body fat so it will have the energy and will to fly south.  It is unlikely that that will happen.  Whatever navigational mistake which brought it here is not likely to turn it around and direct it southward (my opinion; I hope I am wrong).

The Long-billed Curlew is our largest shorebird in North America.  The female is a bit bigger than the male and stands 55 cm tall (22 inches).  The bill is incredibly long at 16.6 cm (10 inches).  The bill has a pink base making it similar to the Hudsonian Godwit which can be seen here yearly on mudflats and coastal shorelines.  The godwit bill, however, is straight or slightly curved upward.  The curlew has a definite decurved bill (downward curve).  The only other similar bird is our rather common Whimbrel but it has a much shorter decurved bill and a distinct head stripe.  The Marbled Godwit which is rare here is smaller and has a straight or slightly up-curved bill.

Besides the distinct bill, the curlew has blue-gray legs and a nice cinnamon-buff color under its wings.  The body can be beige through cinnamon-buff to the reddish shown in the photo above.  There is a lot of barring on the back and wing coverts and the face and foreneck are light gray.  

The curlew normally feeds in western grasslands and coastal mudflats.  It spends its summers on its breeding grounds in southern British Columbia southward to northern Nevada, eastward to southern Alberta and Saskatchewan south to central New Mexico.  It normally winters along the Pacific coast from southern Washington south and on the Texas and Florida coasts, also in central California south to Mexico.  

The bird usually walks along picking and probing in the mud.  Apparently that long bill is useful to probe into the deep tunnels made in the mud by fiddler crabs in the south.  While I was watching it, it was probing deeply into the mud of the field and coming up at times with what looked like grubs and worms.  

This is New Brunswick's most unusual bird visitor this year.  It has excited birders from near and far. It will certainly put Cape Tormentine on the map.  We thank the residents for their interest, their understanding and tolerance of visiting birders and mostly for watching out for their famous visitor.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Mega-Rarity

Long-billed Curlew [David Robinson Photo]
On November 28 in the afternoon we received word that a LONG-BILLED CURLEW was seen in Cape Tormentine.  At first it was difficult to believe but two photos following shortly thereafter confirmed it.  The internet channels were instantly buzzing!  A Long-billed Curlew!  This species had not been reported from New Brunswick since the late 1800s.  The rush to get to Cape Tormentine was now on.

I drove down early Saturday morning, the 29th.  And so did another 10 or more vehicles.  I joined up with 3 more birders from Moncton and we scoured that tiny village for the entire day.  Frequently checking with the other birders, it was clear that the bird had either left or was hunkered down in some obscure location.  Thorough birding for about 7 hours by our group until dark did not produce the bird.  By interviewing residents of the village we discovered that the bird had been there for the last 3 days.  How frustrating to discover that such a rarity was present for 3 days and we did not know about it.  It was with disappointment that we headed home.  For me it was an overnight and then a long drive home. 

The bird resurfaced on Sunday, the 30th, appearing on people's lawns again!  On Monday I headed to Cape Tormentine again.  The bird had been found early that morning feeding in a large (~30 acres) ploughed field behind the houses where it had been seen earlier.  The warm weather had melted the snow that had covered the same field on Saturday.  Many people lined up on the TransCanada Trail running along the edge of the field with their scopes, marvelling at this rare visitor to New Brunswick.

When we arrived at 1:30PM four people were in the same area wondering where the bird had gone.  Surely we would not miss this sighting again!  We scoured the area in a heavy wind and found only a few gulls.  We scoured the village; no bird.  I was getting exasperated.  Finally we went out on a side road (Immigration Road) which had an open area giving a different view of the same field.  Two other cars were there and on our arrival I got an instant nod from one of our birders.  An experienced birder can instantly interpret that.  Setting up my scope I still could not find that bird.  One of the other birders came and looked through my scope telling me it was right in the middle of the optical field.  Even though it was there, it was very difficult to see.  It was not the size of the bird that made it difficult to see, because it was a large bird.  It just blended in so well with the habitat.  And wow, what a beautiful bird.

The bird was slowly moving from one place to another within a 40 metre area probing the muddy soil with its long bill and visibly retrieving morsels of food.  It looked like it was getting grubs and earthworms.  We all wished it well in getting plenty of sustenance to fatten it up so it could continue its journey southward.  

Long-billed Curlew [Photo from CBC]

Monday, December 1, 2014

Field Trip

On November 29 a group of us went birding to the Cape Tormentine area.  We did not see the rare bird which was reported from there the day before (Long-billed Curlew) but none-the-less enjoyed thoroughly birding the area.  We found 3 birds of interest.

Horned Lark
Near the water there was a large parking lot which was over-grown in some places with weeds.  A small flock of HORNED LARKS was enjoying the seeds from these weeds.  They allowed fairly close approach so I was able to get a photo.  The photo above does not show the 'horns' which are often seen on this species.  They are not horns, as such, but just tufts of feathers.

Snow Bunting
Snow Bunting
In another small flock of finches feeding on weed seeds we found, along with Horned Larks, this SNOW BUNTING.  We found it difficult to identify at first because it was very active and a bit atypical.  Note its outer-tail feathers, facial pattern, and wing bars. 

While watching the Horned Larks, we moved the vehicle a bit closer to the water and flushed a large white bird from the snow-laden clumps of grass on the upper beach area - a SNOWY OWL!  It flew out over the water much to our disappointment.  Later we found it at a distance perched on a rocky breakwall near a wharf.  The bird showed a lot of white in its plumage.  Although some believe this indicates a more mature bird, more recent research indicates the presence of much dark barring compared to a more white plumage is not an indicator of age.  The owl was too distant photograph but another has been substituted below.

Snowy Owl
As we were slowly driving along, looking carefully into every yard, nook and cranny in the small village, looking for the curlew, one of our birders let out a gasp, followed by a slamming on of the brakes.  For a split-second we thought we had found the ultra-rarity, the curlew.  Instead the photo below shows what was actually in someone's side yard.  We were disappointed, but that was the closest we came to finding the much-sought-after curlew.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Winter Birds

We had a big snow storm last night and this morning which dropped over 30 cm  (1 foot) of snow on us.  The high winds blew it into drifts which are deeper than that!  


The birds seem overly hungry before and after a storm.  They were slow getting their feed this morning because it was difficult to access the feeders.  It is nice to feel appreciated when wading snow nearly to one's knees in order to feed them!  The crows were waiting in the trees.


The Mourning Doves were checking under the feeders.  



The American Goldfinches were glad when the feeders were filled.



And our special guest, the Ring-billed Gull, came for breakfast and was not disappointed.


The crows had to defer to the gull and wait for their turn.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Howland Falls

New Brunswick has many beautiful water falls.  Howland Falls is an easy drive from Fredericton and a trip there makes a worthwhile outing.  

Howland Falls

The falls drop about 11 metres in two stage.  The trail down to the base of the falls is short and well-marked.  It is steep but certainly manageable. Good footwear would be an asset.  The falls are on Howland Brook which flows into the St. John River.  The gorge is rugged and beautiful.  

To get to this site, drive west from Fredericton on Route 105.  After you pass Mactaquac Park, drive  about 20 Km. to Bear Island.  Turn north on Scotch Lake Road for about 1 Km. to a cement bridge.  Take the trail down to your right to the falls.  There is a good place to park near the bridge.

There was a lot of water coming over the falls when I was there recently.  Even though it is November, the colours of plants, rocks and rushing water were beautiful.  The twisted rock layers are interesting.  Visit this area and enjoy!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Migrating Ducks


Photo from The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding, Vol. 1
Immature Female
I was birding last week with a friend along the river and we found some diving ducks.  There were two flocks of COMMON GOLDENEYES totalling 30.  Under the bridge was a flock of 11 RING-NECKED DUCKS.  There was one with the Ring-necks that was a bit different.  It was approximately the same size and shape as the Ring-necks but had a different head.  The flock was feeding heavily, moving frequently to the bottom, making it difficult to get a good view.  The unusual one kept disappearing making me wonder if I was seeing things.  Finally I got a second look and it certainly was not a Ring-neck.  It had a sloping forehead and some white on its head.  It looked like the photo above but much darker because it was at a distance.

Getting a closer look I noticed there were two white spots on the head and a small white patch on the wing speculum.  That prompted me to get my bird book out to confirm my suspicions.  Yes, it was a WHITE-WINGED SCOTER.  But the female should have very muted white patches on its head and this one had much whiter spots.  It was a juvenile!  The head of the juvenile is different this time of year; whiter spots.  

Photo from The Sibley Guide to Birds, p.99

That is a somewhat unusual species here on the river in Fredericton.  A single bird with a group of Ring-necks is also unusual.  But, things get mixed up during migration.  Groups of scoters do migrate down the St. John River but they are usually pure flocks of scoters.  They can be mixed scoter flocks (Black Scoter, White-winged Scoter, and Surf Scoter) but it is unusual for them to have other species with them.  And, it is even more unusual to find a single scoter mixed in with a flock of other ducks.  Such is migration and how nice!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Passenger Pigeon 


Martha

On September 1, 1914 the last Passenger Pigeon on Earth passed into oblivion.  What a sad day for humanity!  "Martha" spent her last years living alone in the Cincinnati Zoo.  Her species declined from billions in about 100 years.  

Once the most populous bird in North America, if not the world, the combination of an abundant bird, the greedy market hunter, and the rampant destruction of hardwood forests, spelled the end of this magnificent avian species.  Today we are left with about 1500 mounts, skins and eggs in museums around the world.  Prior to 1800 the population was estimated to be 3 to 5 billion.  It was reported that in Michigan in 1878, 50,000 birds were killed every single day for 5 months.  This kind of slaughter occurred all over its range, supplying restaurants in the East.  No wonder that huge population dwindled to nothing by 1900.  

What does history tell us about this bird?  Alexander Wilson, the father of American ornithology, in the late 1700s or early 1800s described the huge flocks as sounding like a tornado, like thunder, making so much noise it scared the horses.  John James Audubon reported a flock in Kentucky in 1813 as so large that when it passed, the sky was darkened like in a solar eclipse.  In 1866 in Ontario, a flock was reported that was 500 km long, 1.5 km wide and it took 14 hours to pass.

Female and Male Passenger Pigeon, mounts from Royal Ontario Museum

Male Passenger Pigeon, mount from Laval University

Juvenile, Male, Female Passenger Pigeon, Watercolor by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

These birds were beautiful to see, showed some very interesting flight dynamics and certainly played an important ecological role in North American ecosystems.  

The Passenger Pigeon migrated to New Brunswick annually to feed and breed in our hardwood forests.  Our earliest record comes from writings by Nicolas Denys (1672 ) who reported in 1650 many great flocks numbering over 600 passing over the area of present-day Miramichi City (The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America, 1908 translation).   Our last record was one killed at Scotch Lake, NB, near Fredericton in 1899 and reported by William H. Moore (A List of the Birds of New Brunswick, 1928).  There are mounts of this bird in the New Brunswick Museum and in the Grand Manan Museum.

It leaves a sick feeling in a naturalist's stomach to realize that that is all we have left of such a magnificent species.

[Material for this article including photos was taken from the Internet]

Monday, November 3, 2014

Rare New Brunswick Oak


Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is one of the White Oaks.  It is uncommon in New Brunswick.  We recently found two of these trees in the Loyalist Cemetery on Brunswick Street, Fredericton.  There are others growing near the east end of the Burton bridge and in a few other places around Fredericton.



The leaves are distinctive; 10 to 20 cm long and 8 to 15 cm wide; oblong with entire margins (no teeth).  The two centre sinuses of the leaf reach nearly to the midrib.  In the fall the leaves turn yellow or brown and are whitish underneath.  The acorns are 2 to 5 cm long and the caps have a fringe around the margin.  Is this why it is called Bur Oak?  The twigs are yellowish brown, pubescent and may have corky ridges.  The bark is dark gray with vertical ridges.




This tree is at its distribution limit here.  It grows mainly in central and north-eastern United States but also extends into southern Ontario and Quebec.  We are lucky to have some growing here.  Check it out the next time you are in the area.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Birding Trip


Yesterday a friend and I went on a day's birding trip.  Our first stop was at the 2 lagoons in Salisbury.  Stilt Sandpipers had been reported there but we did not find them.  But what we found was spectacular.  The number of waterfowl there was outstanding.  There was a huge flock of NORTHERN SHOVELERS.  A low estimate was 300.  We had never seen so many shovelers in one place before.  

Northern Shovelers

There was also a large number of Mallards (150), mostly males.  This large accumulation of waterfowl (along with other species) made for wonderful viewing.

American Wigeon
Mallard
We also found an AMERICAN COOT and a NORTHERN PINTAIL which are uncommon.

American Coot

Northern Pintail Female
At Sackville we visited the large fields between the road and the river and after careful searching found a HUDSONIAN GODWIT with a flock of PECTORAL SANDPIPERS.  Shorebirds stop in this area to feed and renew their fat stores before continuing their migration south.  Large flocks of BLACK-BELLIED PLOVERS were reported from this area but we found only 4.  

Pectoral Sandpiper

There was a lot of activity at the Waterfowl Park.  Most species were present in moderate numbers.  We were interested in the shorebirds that have been roosting there and found GREATER YELLOWLEGS, LESSER YELLOWLEGS, SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHERS and 1 LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER.  The boardwalk took us close to where they were roosting, affording good views.  Also of note were another AMERICAN COOT, 3 PIED-BILLED GREBES, and a HORNED GREBE.  What a waterfowl bonanza there was there.

Gadwall
Greater Yellowlegs 
Green-winged Teal Female 
Horned Grebe
Sackville Waterfowl Park

At Salisbury we found 2 ICELAND GULLS and 3 more on our return to Fredericton.  Unfortunately that is a sign that winter is coming.