Thursday, April 30, 2015

Early Spring Blooms

Harbingers of Spring

When winter finally loosens its firm grip, our earliest spring flowers begin to grow.  People, overly tired of winter, look forward to the first precious colours of spring flowers.  Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is one of our first wildflower blossoms to poke its head out of frozen soil.  It is so anticipated, there is often an unofficial contest to see who can find the first blooms.  Our Coltsfoot have been in bloom for about 2 weeks now.  

Coltsfoot is a yellow, dandelion-like flower that grows on disturbed sites, mainly roadsides, stream banks and waste areas.  The flower heads are about 2.5 cm wide and the plant grows 7 to 40 cm tall.  The flowers appear before the leaves.  The leaves are vaguely heart-shaped and about 7 to 20 cm wide.  Coltsfoot can be differentiated from the Common Dandelion by its early blooming date, the scaly stems and the shape of the leaves.  In ancient times the leaves of Coltsfoot were used to make a cough syrup.  That explains the Latin name, Tussilago, which is derived from the Latin word, tussis, meaning 'cough'.

Skunk Cabbage (Photo by Nelson Poirier)

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is another harbinger of spring.  It appears so early it is often seen poking out of the snow as in the photo above.  This is a very rare plant in New Brunswick and is found in a few sites in Charlotte County, along the lower Saint John River, and in the Cape Tormentine area.  Skunk Cabbage grows in alder thickets and swampy areas.  It is noted for its bad smell.  The flowers are in a knob-shaped cluster called the spadix inside the hood which is purplish-brown or greenish in colour.  The leaves are large and roundish and appear after the flower.  When crushed they produce a bad odour.  According to H. Hinds, the Mi'kmaq used the oil from the crushed leaves as an inhalant for headaches.  If you have ever smelled this plant you might opt for the headache ahead of using it as an inhalant!

Skunk Cabbage is often confused with another plant which is often called 'skunk cabbage'.  That plant is False Hellebore (Veratrum viride).  False Hellebore grows in alluvial soils along streams and meadows.  It also has large, broad leaves which are vein-streaked like the bellows of an accordion.  

Silver Maple

Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) is the third early spring bloom in New Brunswick.  Silver Maple is also called Water Maple or Soft Maple.  Its flowers are among the first to appear in the spring and appear before the leaves.  The tree grows along rich bottomlands bordering rivers, swamps and lakes.  It doesn't mind getting its roots covered with water.  That makes it an ideal species for the banks of our yearly flooding streams and rivers.  The Silver Maple is a medium-sized tree growing  20 to 25 metres high and up to a metre diameter at the base.  Its leaves are 10 to 15 cm in diameter and deeply palmate and 5-lobed.  They are a pale green colour above and  silvery below.  In the fall they turn a beautiful yellow to orange colour.  When the flowers bloom in the early spring, they paint the tree line with a beautiful pink colour.  

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Birding Maugerville and Sheffield

High Water Extravaganza

The St. John River is a migration route for many birds.  Waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, and song birds use it as a directional aid in their quest to return 'home' to nest and spend the summer.  In high water (flood conditions) the many flooded fields in the Maugerville/Sheffield/Jemseg areas are used by waterfowl and other water birds as staging areas where they rest, feed and congregate.  Route 105 runs along the river and is often close to both the river and the flooded fields.  This makes it a wonderful birding area in high water.

Today, we birded the area and found hundreds and hundreds of ducks and geese as well as many other water-loving birds.  The most numerous were Ring-billed Gulls, Ring-necked Ducks, Black Ducks and Mallards.  There were also many Wood Ducks, Northern Shovellers, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Greater and Lesser Scaup, American Wigeon and Common Goldeneye.  Canada Geese were in large numbers.  That is an amazing array of species and numbers!

Ring-necked Ducks

Ring-billed Gull

There was also an unusual duck present, a Red-breasted Merganser.  This is a sea duck and it is uncommon to find it on the river.  It does happen occasionally during migration.  I expect the strong SSW winds we had on Thursday brought a number of sea ducks up river and a few of them landed to rest and feed.  

Red-breasted Merganser

Besides the numerous Ring-billed Gulls, we found 2 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, several Bonaparte's Gulls and a Black-headed Gull.  The Bonaparte's and Black-headed are rare inland, preferring salt water.  The Bonaparte's is relatively common in the Bay of Fundy.  The Black-headed is rare anywhere in New Brunswick.  The Lesser Black-backed Gull is also uncommon here.

Bonaparte's Gull

Other interesting birds seen include Wilson's Snipe, 1 Lesser Yellowlegs, 2 Greater Yellowlegs, and a Killdeer.  There were a few raptors searching for food or looking for nesting sites.  We saw 1 Merlin, 1 Northern Harrier, 3 Bald Eagles and many Osprey.  In one location a Great Horned Owl was peacefully sitting on its nest.

Wilson's Snipe

Great Horned Owl on Nest
When the water is very high our deer and moose are forced to high ground.  Unfortunately for them, that is often on or near the road.  Pictured below is a yearling cow moose which found itself with no place to go this morning.

Yearling Cow Moose

Friday, April 17, 2015

Exciting Birding Morning

Red-shouldered Hawk Intimidated by Turkey Vultures

Red-shouldered Hawk
For about 2 hours on April 13 birding was fantastic at our home in Fredericton.  A hawk appeared on the snow with a dead squirrel.  It was an unusual hawk, rare even in this area.  It was a Red-shouldered Hawk.  It soon dragged the prey over the brow of the hill nearly out of sight and began to feed.  Within about 20 minutes the action increased.  Four Turkey Vultures appeared out of nowhere and were flitting around the yard like giant butterflies.  They landed in trees near where the hawk was feeding.  Some landed on the ground and stood near the hawk.  At no time did we see any physical or vocal interaction between the hawk and the vultures.  

Turkey Vulture

Four Turkey Vultures

We realized what the vultures were doing was intimidating the hawk.  We could see the hawk get gradually more and more agitated.  It would drag the prey a few feet away and the vultures would move closer.  They made no attempt to grab it.  After about 15 minutes, the hawk became unnerved by the stares of the the vultures and gave up.  It left the prey and flew up into the trees overhead.  The vultures then moved in to feast on the prey, squabbling among themselves.  The hawk began to utter its alarm call repeatedly.  This was a new sound for me.  It would move to another overhead tree, continuing to call.  Finally it took to flight and flew out over the river only to soon return.  The vultures were still feeding and it continued to vocalize.  After another 5 minutes, the hawk appeared to give up and flew away, spirally upward into the sky and then flew up river.  

The vultures continued to feed and interact with one another.  When they were not feeding they were sunning themselves in the trees or on the ground.  The south-facing slope they were on was warm and the area was well protected with trees.  At times they spread their wings to take full advantage of the heat.  They remained in the area for about an hour.

Turkey Vulture Sunning Itself

Turkey Vulture Sunning Itself

In the early evening the hawk returned and immediately found the remains of the carcass.  It did not stay long, flying out over the island in the river.

On April 6 we also had a Red-shouldered Hawk visit our area.  Fortunately I was able to get a photo.  Comparing it with the bird of April 13, it does not appear to be the same individual.  This is unusual.  Birds of New Brunswick: An Annotated List shows the Red-shouldered Hawk as a rare summer resident, casual in winter.  It is unusual to have this species visit and most unusual to have 2 different individuals in a short period.  

Red-shouldered Hawk Seen on April 6

The vultures are early migrants and have not returned.


Friday, April 10, 2015

Sea Watch at Point Lepreau

Point Lepreau Lighthouse
On Wednesday, we participated in the Sea Watch at Point Lepreau Bird Observatory.  This is a migrating bird census done in spring and fall, monitoring mainly migrating sea ducks.  Over 10 years of data have now been collected.  Through this work we have now been able to clarify the migration routes and numbers of many of the species.  Land birds are also recorded.  

Point Lepreau Bird Observatory

Because Point Lepreau projects very far out into the bay, it is a good location for observing birds which migrate up along the shore of the Bay of Fundy. The project is sponsored by the Saint John Naturalists Club.  

Looking East from the Observatory at Sunrise
The counts are done in 15-minute intervals, with one interval on and one off.  That makes it so that the counts are done half the time.  The off periods give time to find land birds in the alders and open areas around the point.

Black and Surf Scoters

Following are what was seen that day.
Black Scoter 834
Common Eider 70
Surf Scoter 30
Long-tailed Duck 18
White-winged Scoter 6
Harlequin Duck 11
Purple Sandpiper 10
Also: Common Loon, Red-throated Loon, Horned Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Red-breasted Merganser, Black Guillemot, Brant, Northern Pintail, Great Cormorant

Harlequin Ducks

Land birds seen were large numbers of Song and Fox Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Snow Bunting, Savannah Sparrow, Woodcock, Ruffed Grouse, Downy Woodpecker.  One Northern Harrier flew over looking for food.

Purple Sandpipers

We did have one very special bird.  Richard saw a Vesper Sparrow in the bushes behind the observatory.  Shortly it appeared in front of our viewing area to feed on the seed there.  So, we had ample time to view this beautiful bird and compare it to the many Song and Fox Sparrows which were there, too.
Vesper Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Great Auk

Part Five

Great Auk (J.G. Keulemans) showing juveniles and eggs
In prehistoric times, the Great Auk lived in harmony with humankind.  They were taken (with difficulty) for meat and eggs. Oil rendered from their bodies was used for heat and light.  When the early explorers came to North America they noticed large numbers of the birds on the Grand Banks.  This became known among seafarers and their presence in numbers was used as a geographical locator for the Grand Banks.  

Records of the existence of the Great Auk go back into antiquity.  They were a food source for the Neanderthals.  They are represented in cave paintings in southern Europe.  Images were carved into the walls of El Pendo Cave in Spain over 35,000 years ago.  They were painted on the walls of caves in France’s Grotte Cosquer 20,000 years ago.  They were used as food by the Beothuk people.  They were used by the early explorers starting with the Vikings in the 1100s.  Jacques Cartier (1534) and many other early explorers landed at Funk Island and filled their ships with salted birds.  In 1536 King Henry VIII sent an expedition to the New World led by Hore which landed on Funk Island and slaughtered many birds.  These are only a few examples of very many.

Great Auk painting by J.G. Keulemans showing Both Alternate and Basic Plumages
The birds were also used by humans in art and adornment.  Archaic Maritime people used their beaks for adornment and were often buried with Great Auk bones.  We have  one engraving of a Great Auk drawn from a live model dating to 1655.  This was done by Ole Worm of Copenhagen.  He had a live auk brought to him by one of the Danish expeditions and he kept this bird as a pet.  The collar he wore around the bird’s neck shows in the engraving as a white band.  It is interesting that many of the depictions of the species after that show a white neck ring which the bird did not have at all.  It was the collar!  The Great Auk has been painted by many early watercolour artists including John James Audubon, Errol Fuller, George Edward Lodge, Heinrich Harder, and Roger Tory Peterson.  Unfortunately today the Great Auk has become a symbol for the destruction of life on Earth.

Line Drawing of Great Auk by Ole Worm 1655 showing 'collar'
Bones of the Great Auk collected from Funk Island 1960 (NB Museum)

In spite of all the bad resulting from the untimely end to the Great Auk, there has been some good.  Its demise laid the early work for protective legislation for birds and the environment.  People became aware that the species was in trouble in the 1700s.  In 1794 Great Britain passed a law banning the killing of the birds for their feathers and eggs.  Violators of this law in 1775 were punished by being publicly flogged.  These laws were difficult to enforce because killing for bait was still allowed.  At least this planted the idea for legal protection for wild species.

The slaughter of the Great Auk continued unabated for two centuries.  Funk Island off Newfoundland was the largest and last known colony.  The island got its name from the stench of the slaughter that went on there.  The hundreds of thousands of birds nesting there were totally wiped out by 1800.  Funk Island is not quiet today because murres, razorbills, puffins, gannets and other species nest there.  But, in a way, it still is sickeningly quiet.  The deep hoarse croak of the Great Auk will never again be heard there or anywhere else.  Man alone is responsible for the extinction of this species since there has been no depletion in its food resources until recent years.  In the words of John Stevens, “.. the wanton extermination of a whole species is an expression of human ugliness, a perverse preliminary to man’s own suicide.” (Bodsworth, p.xii) 

Funk Island, Newfoundland

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Great Auk

Part Four

Great Auk by R. T. Peterson
In very early times humans appeared to use these birds in a responsible way for food.  Early mankind would visit the breeding sites and take a few birds and eggs.  Early explorers would take some for food on their ships.  But when North America was opened up and, starting in the 1700s, heavy exploitation and abuse began.  The atrocities that took place against this species are unimaginable.  It was so bad it is not something I like to think about or write about.  It was a disgrace to mankind.  Suffice it to say that the birds were slaughtered, beaten, burned alive, stripped of their skin and feathers while still alive, scalded alive, and eggs and young stepped on or left to starve and die.  They were wantonly slaughtered and wasted, to say the least.  Because they were flightless and bravely remained on the islands protecting their young and eggs when the plunderers arrived, they were easy targets.  Against mankind, there was no hope.

There were fundamental reasons they became extinct.  Even though they chose islands far away from mainland they were still vulnerable when man developed good seaworthy boats.  They had heavy fat stores which made them vulnerable to be rendered for oil.  They had a thick feather coat which in late years made them victims of the feather and millinery industry.  They were large birds with large eggs making them a worthwhile species to plunder.  They had no fear of mankind making them easy to catch or herd into corrals or up gangplanks onto boats.  

There is another reason they became extinct which is unfortunate.  For eons the main breeding island off Iceland was Geirfuglasker which was so protected by volcanic rocks that it was inaccessible to humans.  But in 1830 a volcanic eruption destroyed the island and the birds moved their breeding colony to nearby Eldey Island.  This island was accessible to humans. 

Eldey Island, Iceland
For hundreds of years the eider duck was exploited for its feathers (eider down).  When they became scarce, the feather industry turned to the Great Auk.  This was the last straw for the auks.  It was the feather industry which finally wiped them out.  Also, as they became scarce, they became the victims of collectors, a popular Victorian pastime.  Their mounted bodies and eggs became more and more valuable as they got scarcer and hence they sustained more exploitation.  It is amazing that the scientists were making study collections of a rare bird and making it extinct at the same time! 

Prices for eggs and mounts reached unbelievable prices.  In 1832 an egg was worth almost twice the annual salary of a skilled worker.  In 1898 a skin and egg together sold for the equivalent of £50,000.  In the early 1970s the remains of one bird were sold to an American collector for $30,000.  In 1971, the Iceland Natural History Museum paid £9,000 for a mounted specimen.