Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Vesper Sparrow

There is a Vesper Sparrow [Pooecetes gramineus] that is over-wintering at Notre Dame, north of Moncton, N.B.  This is unusual but the bird seems to be doing well.  It is at the home of a birder who has provided a favourable habitat and lots of food.  So, the chances of it making it through the winter are good.

Vesper Sparrow
The Birds of New Brunswick An Annotated List lists the Vesper Sparrow as a rare, summer resident and a migrant; casual in winter.  It states that the population is in decline mainly through loss of habitat which is cultivated and uncultivated fields, grassland and fallow fields adjacent to farmed areas.  Its range is across Canada, south through the United States and into Mexico.  It feeds on insects during the summer, spiders and other small invertebrates.  It eats mostly seeds in the winter.  It feeds mainly on the ground.  

The Vesper Sparrow is a  large sparrow, mainly streaked grayish brown in colour.  It has a long tail which shows white outer tail feathers mainly in flight.  It is pale underneath with fine streaking.  It has a prominent white eyering and sometimes shows a spot in the middle of its breast.  It has chestnut-coloured patches forward over its wings (lesser coverts) but these are often not visible.  It is similar to the Savannah Sparrow but the Savannah has a shorter tail with no white outer tail feathers and a much less distinct white eyering.

The name of the Vesper Sparrow suggests it sings only at night but it actually sings throughout the day like other sparrows.  Its song is similar to that of the Song Sparrow but is more musical and starts with two pairs of notes.  According to Thoreau, it sounds like, "here here there there quick quick quick or I'm gone".  Sibley describes it as "too too tee tee chidididididi swiswi-swiswiteew".

In the first picture below note the overall grayish brown colour and the streaking.

Vesper Sparrow

The photo below shows the chestnut brown patch in front of the wing.  This is not always visible.

Vesper Sparrow
In the photo below note the white outer tail feathers and the fine streaking on the sides.  The white eyering is distinctive.
Vesper Sparrow
This sparrow is a delight to see.  When May comes, look for it in over-grown fields near active farms or on the edges of blueberry fields.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Plein Air Painting at Wellfleet

In September I attended a 5-day Plein Air Workshop in Cape Cod, MA.  It was put on by Jennifer McChristian, an award-winning plein air painter.  It brought together 12 enthusiastic artists from all over the northeast.  To see Jennifer's work, go to jennifermcchristian.com.

Jennifer Teaching Me [Photo by Bruce Newman]
The workshop was centered around Wellfleet, a small fishing port on the north shore of Cape Cod.  On the first day we met at the Wellfleet Preservation Hall, a century-old building which had been restored in the last 15 years from a Catholic church which had fallen into disuse and disrepair.  The first day was filled with lectures, displays and demonstrations which were useful to orientate, instruct and motivate us.  

The remaining four days were structured the same.  We gathered at a designated place in the morning and usually spent the morning watching Jennifer do a painting demonstration.  This was very informative and useful for our endeavours later.  In the afternoon we all did our own paintings, under the careful eye of Jennifer.  She was available to give us whatever help each of us needed to execute the painting of whatever individual composition we had chosen for the day.  Jennifer's husband, Ben, was always with us, acting as administrator, gopher, porter or whatever was needed.  He took very good care of us.  

Jennifer provided us with a materials list in advance.  She was very good at outlining her methods of composing and executing the painting.  She uses a few different colours and it was interesting to watch her work them into an interesting painting.

One interesting place we went to paint was the Truro Vineyard on Cape Cod.  This was a large vineyard which was well set-up for visitors.  We got to paint whatever scene we chose, whether it be rows of grape vines, large wooden wine casks, historic buildings, or the many tourists enjoying the place.  For me that was the highlight of the workshop.  

Truro Vineyard
I have attached 3 of my paintings.  Each of these was done on site, standing at an easel totally under outdoor conditions which usually were sun, wind and the occasional shower.  Each had to be finished in 2 to 3 hours.  It was a learning experience and I learned a lot.  I met new friends and watched what I consider a master at work, Jennifer.  

Abandoned Boat House, Cape Cod

A Wellfleet House From Across the Marsh

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Sun Dogs

Sun dogs are a natural phenomenon which can occur any time of the year but are more prevalent in winter.  They have been visible in the skies above Fredericton at least twice recently.  

Sun Dog Fredericton 8 Jan 2015 
Sun Dog Fredericton 14 Jan 2015

Sun dogs are more prevalent in winter for two reasons.  Because it is so cold, there are often ice crystals in the atmosphere.  The other reason is the low angle of the sun making them more visible from the surface of the earth.

Light passing through ice crystals is refracted and splits up into rainbow colours making the sun dog.  The dog itself is curved because the visible spectacle is usually in an arc around the sun.  That makes another dog on the other side of the arc which sometimes can be seen.  In the two cases above, we could only see a single dog.  In both pictures above the curvature is apparent.  The reddish part of the refracted light is on the inside of the arc, i.e., on the side closest to the sun.  

Why do we call them 'sun dogs'?  Etymologists are not certain but it may be from an old English term for mist, dag.  Others believe it is from Norse mythology where a constellation of two wolves chased the sun and the moon.  The proper name for them is parhelia (parhelion singular).  Other names include mock suns or phantom suns.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mactaquac Christmas Bird Count

Common Redpoll
The Mactaquac Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was held on January 1.  Eleven dedicated volunteer birders spent the day travelling the highways, walking the fields, woods, and roads in their sectors and recorded the species and numbers of birds found.  

CBCs are a huge contribution to citizen science which is conducted every year between the dates of 14 December and 5 January.  We have been doing it in the Fredericton area for over 50 years and the Mactaquac count, in particular, for over 15 years.  Please see a previous post on this blog on Dec. 22 for more information on how CBCs are conducted.  

Following are the results of the 2014 Mactaquac CBC.

The following graph shows how this year's results compare to other years.

This shows that for this year's count we saw an above average number of species but a below average total number of birds.  It also shows that the total number of birds has been declining over the period that these data have been taken and that the number of species has remained relatively stable.

Why was the total number of birds low this year?  We do not know for certain but we can speculate.  It was a very open winter at the time of the count.  There was very little snow and quite a lot of open water.  The water below the dam and at the fish hatchery was open.  And, so were some streams and wet, muddy areas.  There was an average cone crop and there was a below average amount of natural fruit present.  This would disperse the birds.  Fewer birds were at feeders and concentrated around other food sources and small open water holes.  This would decrease the numbers of birds seen.  The stable number of species might mean that the birds are here but we just did not see some of them.

However, the data might also show that our results are significant and that bird numbers are actually declining.  That is the value of Christmas Bird Counts!  The data from all over North America will be compiled and checked by the experts and they will be able to study changes in our bird populations.

Thanks to all who participated in this count and to the many people along our routes who allowed us to come on their properties to count birds.  Thanks also for tolerating our frequent stops along the roads.