Thursday, December 28, 2017

Fredericton Christmas Bird Count

Fredericton Christmas Bird Count - Douglas Sector

Bald Eagle
For many years we have participated in the Fredericton Christmas Bird Count, covering the Clements Drive/ Douglas area.  Our sector covers the area from the Claudie Road to Grand Pass and all the side roads and areas in between.  It is our job to assess the bird population in that area.

Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) have been done in North America for over 100 years.  Prior to 1900 there was a tradition called "Side Hunt" in which hunters conducted a Christmas Day hunting 'free for all'.  It was a contest to see who could come in at the end of the day with the most dead birds.  Fortunately the conservation movement was beginning then and Frank M. Chapman, an early officer of the Audubon Society,  proposed a day in which people would go out and conduct a Christmas bird census rather than kill so many birds.  That year 25 Christmas Bird Counts were conducted.  The first one done in New Brunswick was part of that first count and was conducted at Scotch Lake by William H. Moore.  Here is what he recorded counting for one hour from 9:00 to 10:00 am at Scotch Lake, Dec. 25, 1900:  Goshawk 1, Hairy Woodpecker 1, Downy Woodpecker 1, Blue Jay 2, Pine Grosbeak 1, Brown Creeper 2, White-breasted Nuthatch 20, Chickadee 6.  Total 9 species, 36 individuals.  (There are only 8 species mentioned so an error was created somewhere along the line).

Black Duck
Today thousands of counts are done throughout North America (about 50 in New Brunswick) on any day from Dec. 14 to Jan 5.   In Canada about 60,000 volunteers conduct CBCs including people on the road and those watching feeders.  A circle 24 km in diameter is laid out and then divided into sectors.  Groups of people are assigned to a sector or partial sector.  The assigned group is in the sector from dawn to dusk observing birds, looking for good habitat and checking around houses and barns.  They count both numbers and species.  These people are generally well trained and watch the skies, trees, low vegetation and house and barn yards.  Each group usually has a driver and a person who records the birds. 

The general public can help by keeping their feeders free of ice and snow and filled with good bird food.  They can welcome the birders as they drive in their driveways or park along the road.  A friendly wave is always helpful.  

Following are the results for the Clements Drive/Douglas Sector.  

Canada Goose
American Black Duck (Anas rubripes) B
Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) B
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) B
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) B
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) B
Great Horned Owl
Downy Woodpecker 
Hairy Woodpecker 
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) B
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) B
Common Raven (Corvus corax) B
Black-capped Chickadee 
Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) B
White-breasted Nuthatch B
American Robin   (Turdus migratorius) B
Bohemian Waxwing   
Dark-eyed Junco   (Junco hyemalis) B
American Goldfinch   (Carduelis tristis) B
Chipping Sparrow
Wild Turkey
Total No. Species       
Total No. Birds

White-tailed Deer

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Rare Birds Help the Economy


Mistle Thrush [Hank Scarth Photo]
For 13 days Miramichi City, NB has been blessed with the presence of a very rare European bird, a Mistle Thrush.  It has settled into the area of west Miramichi City east of Route 8.  The area provides lots of trees laden with fruit which keep the bird there.

The Mistle Thrush is a species that is native to Europe.  It breeds in summers in northern Europe and the United Kingdom.  It winters in southern Europe and north Africa.  It has never before been confirmed in North America.  That makes this visit ultra-special.  As a result many birders from Canada and the United States immediately wanted to come to see this 'new' species.  Birders are interested in seeing new species, in studying them and adding the sighting to their species lists.  Many birders in New Brunswick have seen over 300 different species in the province.  Many US birders have seen over 500 species in the US or North America.  There is a keen interest in listing numbers among birders.  That sounds crass but for some it appears that the interest is mainly in being able to list numbers.  However, in my many years of birding it is my opinion that most birders are keenly interested in the bird, its habitat and in the conservation of nature.

The Mistle Thrush visiting here has been spending most of its time focused on the yard of one Miramichi residence, that of Peter and Deana Gadd.  Because Peter is a birder and a photographer he understands birds and birders.  He and Deana have been fabulous ambassadors for New Brunswick and Canada in how they have hosted a stream of birders who have come to see this bird.  Speaking with him today, he says he has had over 400 visitors from 7 provinces and 22 states.  The Canadian birders are from Ontario eastward.  The American birders are from as far away as California, Florida and Alaska.  He told me that on Sunday he got a phone call from a birder who was in Alaska.  On Tuesday he was present at the Gadds viewing the thrush!  Birders are an interesting subset of people!

These numbers have made me wonder about the economics of birding, avitourism, as it is called.  Ecotourism is the fastest growing segment of the world travel industry, growing 30% per year since 1987, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Ecotourism covers a wide range of nature-related tourism and avitourism is a segment of it.  These forms of tourism provide billions of tourist dollars annually throughout the world.  According to one study (Tourism Economics and Recreational Trends) travellers who travel to experience natural history spend an average of $62 per day more than the average traveller.  Another study shows that 14% of Americans involved in recreation were birdwatchers, more than the number who golf or go boating.

Bird watching is reported as the fastest growing outdoor activity in America and an increasing number are travelling long distances to spot new birds.  This clearly has been my experience over the last 20 years.  I participated in a birding trip to Newfoundland about 15 years ago and there were birders from California and Florida on that trip.  Some of them told me they had travelled as far away as the Aleutian Islands to view birds.  According to another study (Market Analysis of Bird-Based Tourism) there were 46.7 million birders in the US in 2011 and 38% of them took trips away from home to see birds.  

So what do all these birders add to the economy of the region they visit?  According to the study mentioned above, the average birder visiting a refuge in Texas contributed between $88 and $145 to the local economy.  That study was in 1994, so today's numbers would be considerably higher.  A 2011 Fish and Wildlife Study in the US estimates that the annual economic value of bird watching is $15 billion for trip-related birding and $26 billion for equipment-related expenditures.  

These studies show that the average birder is well-educated and has an above-average income.  This leads to an economic boost to the area visited.  Birders spend money on land and air travel, fuel, lodging, restaurants, books, and equipment.  And studies show that birders spend more money than the average tourist.  They pay more for comfort and good food.  A study by Wiedner shows that the active birder spends $1850 per year on birding activities.  A study by Paul Kerlinger (Birding Economics and Birder Demographics Studies as Conservation Tools) showed that the 100,000 visitors to Cape May, NJ spent $10 million and the 57,000 visitors to Point Pelee spent $3.2 million.  That is a lot of tourist dollars!

So what has the Mistle Thrush contributed to avitourism since it was discovered on December 9? Doing a very loose estimate of the fraction of birders from New Brunswick, other Canadian provinces and the US, I estimate the gain in ecotourism brought about by the presence of this bird is at least $67, 500.  This figure includes land and air travel, meals, lodging, and car rentals but does not include the purchase of clothing, equipment and other necessities.  We birders have thoroughly enjoyed the presence of the Mistle Thrush but the area has benefited greatly from its coming. Maybe we should start a 'Thank a Birder Day'.  At least, the local economy should cherish and protect our wildlife and its habitat.


Eubanks et al. 1995, Cornell Lab of Ornithology,
Kerlinger, Paul. Birding Economics and Birder Demographics Studies as Conservation Tools
Market Analysis of Bird-Based Tourism: A Focus on the US Market to Latin America and the                    Caribbean Including Fact Sheets on the Bahamas, Belize, Guatemala, Paraguay

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Mistle Thrush

Mega-Rare Bird Found in New Brunswick

Mistle Thrush [Isabelle Levesque Photo]
Saturday, December 9, 2017 was a watershed day for New Brunswick birders.  On that day our rarest bird ever was found in the yard of Peter and Deana Gadd of Miramichi City.  It was the confluence of several unusual factors that made this event possible.  Peter Gadd is a naturalist/bird watcher and a photographer.  The Gadd yard is large and filled with a huge, fruit-laden mountain ash which is a preferred winter food of thrushes.  There is cover nearby in several large white pine trees.  The province has an active naturalist network allowing fast, excellent communication among birders and experts.  Peter and Deana are presently participating in a Feeder Watch Program so were watching their yard carefully that day to count the birds coming to their property for an online North American database.  The weather had turned to winter conditions forcing birds to come to feeders and fruit trees.  These factors precipitated the sighting of an unusual thrush which was recognized as unusual, photographed, and sent to local authorities who confirmed it as either a Song Thrush or a Mistle Thrush.  Further emails and exchange of photos followed with further sightings, confirmed the visitor as a Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus).  A short time later the news became available to all New Brunswick birders.  It quickly spread to Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Quebec and Newfoundland.  Within a short time the top birders all over Canada and  the United States were informed of the presence of this special bird.  

And special it is indeed!  This is the first confirmed sighting of the Mistle Thrush in North America!  Apparently the Song Thrush has been found once before in Quebec but the Mistle Thrush has not been documented every before in New Brunswick, in Canada or anywhere in North America!  That makes it a mega-rarity.

Mistle Thrush [Hank Scarth Photo]
The Mistle Thrush is a bit bigger than our American Robin.  It is shaped and acts like our robin but is bit more wary.  It is 27 cm long (our robin is 25 cm).  The most conspicuous marking is the heavily spotted breast and belly.  The spots are dark brown or black, large, roundish and on a beige or white background.  Some spots are arrowhead shaped.  The back is a gray brown.  The tail appears longish, is brownish gray with white fringes.  The feet and legs are pinkish yellow.  The throat is light in colour, has dark malar lines and the spots appear to coalesce around the edges of the throat.  The bill is dark gray with yellow showing at the base.  The lores are white and they extend to a narrow orbital ring.  The wings have pale gray fringes.  The wing linings are white or light gray, a field mark which distinguishes this species from the Song Thrush which has rusty-buff wing linings. 

Mistle Thrush [Peter Gadd Photo]
The Mistle Thrush flies in an undulating fashion and folds its wings during the gliding phase much like a pigeon.  This undoubtedly gave it its Norwegian name, 'duetrost', which means pigeon thrush.  The Mistle Thrush apparently sings when other thrushes are silent and often sings in bad weather.  Unfortunately we did not hear this bird vocalize.  

Mistle Thrush [Peter Gadd Photo]
The Mistle Thrush breeds throughout Europe.  It is a permanent resident of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, northern Italy and northern Greece.  It winters in southern Spain, southern Italy, the Middle East, and northern Africa.  Its normal range does not include Iceland or Greenland.  

Mistle Thrush [Peter Gadd Photo]
So why or how did this bird come here?  That is the big question.  We have had a phenomenal fall for vagrants coming to New Brunswick.  That is undoubtedly related to the severe wind storms and hurricanes that took place in the fall over North America and the Atlantic Ocean.  Severe winds obviously blew this little bird well off course.  The bird itself could also have its internal navigation system fouled up by disease, pollutants or other unknown factors.  

Mega-rarities draw birders from afar.  To date we have had birders from Maine, Quebec, and as far afield as Wisconsin.  Many, many more will follow if the bird stays around.  Good luck Mistle Thrush and to the birders who come to see it.  

Addendum: The Mistle Thrush appears to have left as of April 8.  The last confirmed sighting was on March 24 when it was seen by visitors from Maine and Arizona.  In total 540 visitors were recorded by Peter and Deana Gadd who were the stewards of this rare visitor.  There were certainly a few more who did not get recorded and many came repeatedly.  Visitors came from 8 Canadian provinces and 28 US states including Texas, California, Oregon, Arizona and Florida.  Canadians came from as far away as British Columbia and Alberta.  Most people who came to see the bird were successful.  The bird was coping well with our winter and did not seem to be affected by its many visitors.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Barnacle Goose

Barnacle Geese Spotted  near Florenceville

Barnacle Goose
Three Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) were spotted near Upper Kent,  just north of Florenceville recently.  Just above the Beechwood Dam there is a staging area and as many as 2000 geese have been seen there at once.  Almost all of those geese are Canada Geese but occasionally there is a rare goose among them.  About November 29 three Barnacle Geese were seen with the flock.  They were photographed and verified by local birders.  Unfortunately one was shot by a local hunter.

The photo above and subsequent photos in this post were taken by me of Barnacle Geese seen in New Brunswick at Miramichi City in 2011, but they will be used as illustrations for this post.  I went to see the geese near Upper Kent but they were not there so hence no photos.  

The Barnacle Goose is a smaller goose compared to the Canada Goose.  It is 69 cm (27") long compared to 114 cm (45").  Even though it is marked differently from the Canada it can be difficult to spot in a large flock because of the similar colours and the way geese intermingle and sleep tucked in so well.  

The Barnacle Goose is actually about the same size as the Cackling Goose (the smallest form of the Canada Goose which is now a separate species).  Its shape and size is much like the Brant which passes by our shores in migration.  It is gray and white overall with black on the neck, breast and as a hood.  The face and underparts are white.  The stubby bill and legs are black.  

Barnacle Geese with Canada Geese
The Barnacle Goose is very rare in New Brunswick.  Its normal range is in Europe.  Most birds breed in Svalbard and eastern Greenland.  It builds its nest in dry Arctic tundra on cliffs and other rocky slopes and also on Arctic islands.   They winter in the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, northern England and Scotland.  They spend the winter on coastal pastures feeding on herbaceous plants and seeds.  The birds that are seen here are probably from the eastern Greenland population.  

This is the third report of Barnacle Geese to my knowledge in New Brunswick.  I have seen one in 2001 in Salisbury, in 2011 in Miramichi City.  The "Birds of New Brunswick:  An Annotated List"  does not even mention this species and it was published in 2004.  

Barnacle Goose
It is interesting how the Barnacle Goose got its name.  It was an important part of medieval cuisine.  It was believed that the Barnacle Goose came from actual barnacles.  There is an actual Goose Barnacle and the confusion may have arisen from the similar colours of the barnacle and the goose and the fact that the goose appeared in different seasons.  But, even more interesting, is the fact that Catholics believed they could eat the Barnacle Goose during Lent because of it perceived origin which meant it was classified as fish and could therefore be eaten during Lent.  

Barnacle Goose 
This large flock of geese will probably stay around the St. John River as long as there is open water.  It will gradually move southward and will eventually winter along the eastern seaboard.  When I was there near Upper Kent on Tuesday, Dec. 5, the Barnacle Geese had been seen two days before but unfortunately I did not see them that day.  It is possible they were still in the area.  I saw about 800 geese that day, about 400 or more resting on the river and later a flock at least that big flying.  I don't think it was the same flock because the big flock on the river left in much smaller flocks and at different times, presumably to go feed in nearby grain fields.  Also seen were about 200 of each Black Ducks and Mallards.  A wonderful spectacle indeed!

Friday, December 1, 2017

Purple Gallinule Killed by Cat

Rare Bird Killed in Nova Scotia

Purple Gallinule [Internet Photo]
The Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinica) is a rare bird to see in the Maritimes.  Its normal range is Florida, southern Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Mexico.  It rarely appears north of that but the species is known for occasional vagrants who wander as far north as southern Canada.  Most are seen in the fall as a result of being blown northward by strong winds from storms and hurricanes.  There are at least 20 records of one having arrived in New Brunswick.  This species has also shown up periodically in Europe and Africa!

The Purple Gallinule is a pond-loving species.  It is a secretive bird and is seen wandering around on floating vegetation or climbing on low-overhanging bushes, using its long toes to advantage.  It eats invertebrates, frogs, aquatic vegetation, seeds, and berries.

As you can see the Purple Gallinule is a beautiful bird.  It is green, purple, red and blue with yellow legs and feet and very long toes.  It is 33 cm (13 in) long and appears about the size of a bantam chicken.  

A Purple Gallinule was recently recorded in Nova Scotia.  The body of one was brought home by a cat.  Whether the cat killed the bird is not determined but is likely.  It is difficult to imagine a cat wandering near a pond in order to kill such a bird but cats are natural killers so would go to any length to capture prey.  It is unfortunate that this bird was killed.  See the photo below of the bird that the cat brought home.

Purple Gallinule [Ryan Daniels Photo]
Feral and house cats are the major cause of bird mortality in North America.  They kill more birds than strikes with buildings, vehicles and communication towers, and poisonings by pesticides. That is a huge number.  It is estimated that cats kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds per year in North America (  The cat population in the US is about 1 million.  I am not sure how many we have in Canada but it is close to that.  No wonder our bird population numbers are shrinking to dangerous levels!  The cat population is so high they are now considered a global invasive species.  On some islands in the world domestic cats have driven some bird species into extinction.  

What can be done about this problem?  Feral cats kill more birds than domestic cats but domestic cats still kill plenty.  A simple solution is to keep the cats indoors.  That has been known for a long time but cats like to wander outside and it is difficult to keep them indoors.  Many cat owners do not wish to keep their cat indoors.  Some studies have been done with some success on special collars for cats to decrease bird mortality.  Other studies have looked at what time of year most of the killings occur with the idea of restricting cats at certain times or dates.  There have been ambitious programs to reduce the feral cat populations in a humane way (CARMA) but neutered cats still kill birds.  So, even after a lot of work on this problem, no satisfactory solution has been found yet.  Funds need to be made available for more research and pet owners need to be more vigilant with their cats.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Orange-crowned Warbler

Late Fall Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler [Mark Morse Photo]
The Orange-crowned Warbler Oreothlypis celata is most commonly seen here in the fall.  That is because it is late coming from its breeding grounds and is seen here most commonly after most of our warblers have migrated south.  It breeds in northern Canada below the tree line and in the mountainous areas of western US.  It winters in the southern US and Mexico.  

The Orange-crowned Warbler is a small warbler, 12 cm (4.75-5 in) long.  It is yellowish/grayish with a small sharp bill.  It has faint streaks on its underparts, a broken white eyering, a line through its eye, and yellow under tail coverts.  It is named for its least conspicuous field mark, the orange crown which is rarely seen.  Females and juveniles are grayer than the more yellowish males.  The yellow under tail coverts are an important field mark.  That helps distinguish it from the very similar Tennessee Warbler which has white under tail coverts.  

There are four populations of this species normally separated geographically.  They vary slightly in plumage and behaviour.  It is common in the west but uncommon in the east.  

This species eats invertebrates, berries, nectar and sap, sometimes feeding from sapsucker wells.  It nests on the ground or in a low-lying shrub, preferring marshes, forest edges or swamps as nesting areas.  Its nest is made of grass and plant fibres and is lined with fur and feathers.  It lays 3 to 6 white eggs with red or brown blotches.  

An interesting fact about the Orange-crowned Warbler is that it is one of the latest fall migrating warblers and usually does not leave its Canadian breeding grounds until late September or October.  That is a fact we birders can celebrate.  It is always a good day when we see an Orange-crowned Warbler!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Another Southern Bird Here?

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Shown above is a rare bird we saw on Miscou on October 28 on Wilsons Point Road; a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea.   It is a small fast bird with a high pitched call note.  We were hoping to see this species because it had been showing up periodically this fall on Miscou.  It came in to our call and stayed long enough for us to get a few photos.  It was very actively flitting around among the branches and tree tops.  I hadn't seen one in over 5 years so was delighted to get reacquainted.  My last sighting was in South Carolina.  The last one I had seen in New Brunswick was in 1959!  This present sighting made some in our group so happy they did a dance.  (Some people think birders are strange people but they should see them dancing on the side of the road!  Fortunately that old attitude towards birders has pretty well disappeared.)

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher [Internet Photo]
The photo far above is of the actual bird we saw on Miscou.  It is moulting its tail feathers and shows only one feather remaining.  The photo immediately above shows an adult male in breeding plumage.  Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are mainly blue-gray (or sometimes just gray) above and white below.  They have a characteristic white eyering and their tail is long and black with white outer tail feathers.  They fan their tail from side to side, probably to stir up insects on which they feed.  This is a small species, only 11 cm (4.3 in) long (and much of that is tail!)  

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are often single birds but they do sometimes associate with flocks of kinglets or warblers.  They are busy, feeding on mainly insects which they glean from the edges of deciduous trees.  They are, however, adaptable and can be found in a variety of habitats.  

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is the northernmost member of its family.  It is the only member of the family that is truly migratory and its breeding range is expanding into the northeast.  It normally breeds in the southern and central US and it winters in the very southern US, Mexico and the Caribbean Islands.  It is a permanent resident in the southeastern US states and Mexico.  

In late years more of these birds have been appearing in NB, indicated that they may be slowly expanding into our area.  If that is true, we look forward to it because they are a welcome species to help balance out our insect population.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Migration Fallout Drops Vireos

Rare Vireos 'Everywhere'

Adult White-eyed Vireo
The recent migration fallout brought reports of White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos from all areas of the fallout zone, Grand Manan, Campobello and southwestern Nova Scotia.  Flocks of these migrating vireos were put down by the storm and strong winds.

Vireos are about the size of warblers (13 cm/5 in) and look much like them but appear chunkier.  They live in trees and bushes and feed on insects, spiders, seeds and berries.  In New Brunswick we normally have 4 species; Red-eyed, Blue-headed, Warbling and Philadelphia Vireos.  White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos are rare here.

Shown above is the White-eyed Vireo. This species loves thick low bushes and is usually discovered by its bursts of raspy song.  It is a good mimic and usually sings loudly mimicing several different bird songs.  

Juvenile White-eyed Vireo [Jennifer Pierce Photo]

There are only two bird species in North America with white eyes, the White-eyed Vireo and the Wrentit (from the west coast).  The young White-eyed Vireo (shown above) has a dark eye until the next spring when it turns white.  

The Yellow-throated Vireo is slightly bigger than the White-eyed but is shaped much the same.  It normally lives high in the canopy of deciduous trees.  It feeds on insects and small fruits.  Its song is not as loud or abrupt as the White-eyed.  It is a slow 2 or 3-syllable phrase with long pauses between sometimes depicted as 'three-eight three-eight three-eight'.  

Yellow-throated Vireo [Jennifer Pierce Photo]
The brilliant yellow of the Yellow-throated Vireo is distinctive.  Note, in the photo above, the brilliant yellow on the throat, spectacles and breast.  That bird is hard to miss!  The eye is always dark and the bill is thick like all vireos.  Yellow-throated Vireos need large tracts of land to breed successfully (at least 250 acres).  As a result of landscape fragmentation, their breeding success has become threatened in recent years.  

Yellow-throated Vireo [Internet Photo]
White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos breed in summer in the eastern US and winter in the very southern part of the eastern US, Mexico and the Caribbean Islands.  The flocks that landed here during the recent severe storm obviously got blown off course in their southward journey.  Fortunately they found good weather here which would have provided sufficient insects, spiders and small fruits to allow them to renew their entry stores so they could return to the south.  Come again beautiful vireos!

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Migration Fallout

Birds Falling Out of the Sky

Summer Tanager
On Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 26 and 27, the northeast had over 100 mm rain, fog, and winds up to 100 km/h out of the south and southeast.  That severe weather forced a lot of migrating birds to 'fallout'.    When migrating flocks meet severe weather such as heavy rain and/or opposing winds, they look for the nearest landfall and put down.  Here they rest and feed to replenish energy reserves. This rare phenomenon is difficult for the birds but exciting for birders.  It often brings rare species into areas in which they are not normally seen.  For decades birders have made the connection between bad weather and good birding opportunities.

This is exactly what happened in the Passamaquoddy Bay, Bay of Fundy area over the weekend.  Rare birds sought landfall in Grand Manan, Campobello and Nova Scotia.  Flocks of rare species were found in these areas on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  In some cases there were 12 to 20 individuals seen of species which we don't normally see here.

Birders in these 3 areas found basically the same species, indicating that the flocks were mixed with these same species.  There were likely also smaller flocks of single species.  These birds will likely remain in place for a few days until they have sufficiently fed and the weather provides favourable winds to continue their migration.  

Summer Tanager
Birders in these areas reported the birds feeding furiously on insects or whatever they could find for food.  According to one seasoned birder, Sunday, Oct. 29,  was his 'most memorable [day] for bird rarities all concentrated together'.  Most birders reported the same group of species.

Seen were the following species:  Summer Tanager (as seen above), Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Black-billed Cuckoo, Hooded Warbler, White-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Cattle Egret, Golden-winged Warbler, Indigo Bunting.  There were dozens of Indigo Buntings.  The vireos were seen in many places.  The Golden-winged Warbler is very rare.  The Hooded Warbler is also very rare here and 8 were seen.  All of the above represent fabulous birding.

Hooded Warbler [Internet Photo]
 A fallout is risky for the birds.  They are forced to put down in unfamiliar territory.  Whether they find food safely is sometimes questionable.  Their safety from predators, pollution, human interference, etc. is a big risk.  It appears the birds that put down here in our area are safe and are feeding well.  

Shown below are two photographs taken by Ralph Eldridge on Machias Seal Island of a fallout of warblers.  A flock had put down because of bad weather and were literally everywhere around the lighthouse buildings.  There are several kinds of warblers in the group.  The warblers left the next day when the weather cleared and the winds were favourable.

Migration Fallout of Warblers on Machias Seal Island [Ralph Eldridge Photo]

Migration Fallout of Warblers on Machias Seal Island [Ralph Eldridge Photo]
I will close with an interesting bird fallout story to illustrate just how extensive this phenomenon can be.  In April, 2013, a team of 6 birders created a record in Texas by seeing 294 species in one day due to a fallout which had occurred in that area due to bad weather and large flocks migrating northward.  Migration is indeed an event of huge magnitude and we can get a small glimpse into it when weather interferes.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Bird Migration

Bird Migration is an Amazing Phenomenon

Birds migrate to move to and from areas of abundant food and nesting sites and back to areas with milder winter weather and suitable habitat and food sources.  That means that in the spring and fall there are millions of birds moving north and south through our skies and landscapes.  These are critical times for the birds, exposing them to the dangers of navigating the huge land areas of human development, the exposure to predators, pollution, collisions, starvation, exhaustion, severe weather, and other dangers.

Cattle Egret
Migration periods bring strange birds to our province.  These birds have somehow been misled or driven off their normal flight paths to arrive here.  Just to mention a few of what has occurred in New Brunswick this year, we have a Cattle Egret (shown above) and a Western Meadowlark in Grand Manan this week (see photo below).  There has been a Burrowing Owl also on Grand Manan for about two months.  There has been a Crested Caracara in the Shepody/Alma area for a month.  There is a Fork-tailed Flycatcher on Miscou now and there was a Scissors-tailed Flycatcher at Cape Enrage recently.  There was a Swainson's Hawk and two Yellow-throated Warblers on Miscou last week.  All these species are well away from their normal areas.  

Incredibly just this week there was a bird found in Forteau, NL (on the Labrador coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence) which is normally found from Finland east to Siberia and south to southern China.  This bird is a Yellow-breasted Bunting and has never been seen in eastern North America before.  There have been a few sightings of it over the years on the Aleutian Islands in the far western part of Alaska.

The Cattle Egret shown above should be in Georgia, Florida or Texas now, not in New Brunswick.  The   Burrowing Owl shown below should be in Florida, southwestern US or Mexico now, not here.  

Burrowing Owl
Why do birds make mistakes?  Why do they appear in places that are obviously way off their normal migration paths?  That is a difficult question and the answers are diverse.  Bad weather and severe wind storms play a big part.  Other reasons include disruption in their navigation systems by manmade structures and communication waves/towers, confusion within the bird itself related to its navigation system and many other reasons some of which are unknown.  There are other reasons related to the species population or circumstances which promote a behaviour called 'dispersal' which causes some of the birds to fly away from their normal flight paths.  This is an evolutionary strategy for the potential success or dispersal of the species.  

Western Meadowlark [Jennifer Pierce Photo]
In recent years great strides have been made in the research on bird migration.  In the 1940s the best technique for studying bird migration was to use telescopes to watch the birds as they passed in front of the moon.  Bird banding has been used for hundreds of years but since the recapture rate is only 1.3%, it reveals relatively little data.  In the 1950s they began to use radar to study the movement of bird masses during migration.  Since the 1970s scientists have been using geolocators and satellite transmitters.  Geolocators are small and can be used to track the movement of birds.  A Swainson's Thrush, for example, was tracked in its migration flight from Alaska to the southern Amazon region.  Satelite transmitters are heavy and can be used on birds no smaller than Mourning Doves.  

Scientists are now using nano tags which emit VHF radio waves and can be received by the Motus Network of towers.  They are very small and can be used on creatures as small as insects, making them very useful for birds.  To date 10,000 birds, bats and insects have been tagged.  This method has been much more successful than anything in the past.

But science is not done yet!  High Resolution Genetic Markers are also recently being used.  These measure DNA from feathers and by isotope analysis they can determine where the bird was hatched and where it has been.  It will be interesting to see what data can be gathered from this new technique.

These latter techniques have gathered a lot of data on bird migration.  We know a lot more about it now than they did in 1960 or 1970.  However, we have done little to help the birds and improve their migration success.  We need to preserve key stopover sites, to clear the night skies for them to successfully migrate.  We need to turn off our night lights on large buildings and other prime collision sites.  We need to protect flocks that are forced down during weather fallouts.  The key is education and action.  We must get the general population and cities and municipalities involved.  Four percent decline per year is way too much!!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Gray Jay

Visit with the Gray Jays

Gray Jay (Perisoreus canadensis)
We recently took a trip to Claudie, an abandoned, overgrown settlement deep in the woods north of Fredericton.  We stopped for a visit with a friend who was working on his cottage there. He had a group of Gray Jays which had been habituated to humans.  They soon visited with us and expected a handout.  

At first they landed nearby in the trees making a variety of noises, mostly 'wee-ah' or 'chuck chuck chuck'.  Next, one bird landed on our friend's arm which prompted his producing gifts of bread for the birds.  They then flew in close to take the bread from our hands, even landing on our heads a couple of times.  After stuffing their bills with food, they would fly off and remain away for a few minutes before returning for more.  This was repeated many times.  It was obvious they were storing the food somewhere.

Gray Jay Coming for a Treat
The Gray Jay is about 29.2 cm (11.5 in) long and appears to be a jay with a long tail and no crest on its head.  It has dark gray upper parts, light gray underparts, a white head with a dark gray nape.  Its gray tail is tipped with a narrow white band.  It has a noticeably small black beak and black legs and feet.  The young Gray Jay is dark gray all over except for a faint light gray moustachial line. Juveniles gain their adult plumage in July or August.   Gray Jays on territory live an average of 8 years.  The oldest known Gray Jay was 17 years old (banded and recaptured).  

Gray Jays are omnivorous.  They hunt arthropods, small mammals such as rodents, and nestling birds.  They also hunt amphibians and even land on moose in the winter and remove and eat engorged ticks from their backs.  They also eat carrion, fungi, seeds and fruit.  Gray jays twist and tug their food apart unlike blue jays which hammer it.   

Gray Jay
The Gray Jay inhabits the boreal forest of most of Canada.  Its range also extends into the western US in mountainous areas where there is boreal forest.  Its population is sparse, however.  

Gray Jays are permanent residents throughout their range.  They do not migrate.  They survive the winter months on food they have carefully cached all year.  This may prevent them from migrating.  They have a unique way of caching food.  They roll the food around in their mouths and coat it with a special sticky saliva which allows them to safely stick it into the crevices of bark and under lichens.  It also seems to help preserve the food.  This is then used to feed nestlings and the adults throughout the seasons when food is scarce.  They have good memories and know in great detail where their food is stored.  

Gray Jays nest in late winter, usually March or April.  The female does not leave the nest in such cold weather and is fed by the male.  Both parents feed the nestlings.  Each Gray Jay pair also has a juvenile which remains with them throughout the year to help feed the nestlings when they fledge.  Apparently when the fledglings mature there is a lot of rivalry among them to see which is dominant and 'wins' the chore of remaining with the adults for another year.  Researchers have measured high mortality in the other juveniles which are driven away from the parental area.  They team up with other jays which have had nesting failures that season.  

Gray Jay
The Gray Jay has several colloquial names.  Here it is often called the Canada Jay.  In 2016 an online poll was conducted by the Canadian Geographic magazine to select a national bird for Canada.  The Canada Jay was selected from the top five choices, although it was not number 1.  Another name for the bird is the Whisky Jack.  The origin of that name is interesting.  Since the species is associated with the history of First Nations cultures, the name comes from that.  There was a benevolent First Nations mythological figure called Wisakedjak, and the name for the bird was anglicized from that to Whisky Jack.  In Maine the bird is sometimes called Moose Bird or Gorby.  It is possible the derivation of the name, Gorby, is from the Scottish and Irish word root 'gorb' which means 'glutton' or 'greedy'.

Apparently there was a superstition in the early 20th century among Maine and New Brunswick woodsmen which prevented anyone from harming a Gray Jay.  They believed that whatever they did to a Gray Jay would happen to them.  I wonder what effect that had on the human habituation of the species.  We are probably seeing the effects of that early treatment of this species even today.  

There were three birds in the group we saw in Claudie.  They must have been a pair and their juvenile assistant.  Neat!

Thursday, October 12, 2017


The Willet is a Shorebird 

Willet Showing Breeding Plumage
The Willet (Tringa semipalmata) is a fairly common shorebird which breeds in grassy marshes along the marine shores of the Maritime provinces.  It is a large, rather plump shorebird, a little larger than a yellowlegs.  It has a thick gray bill and gray legs.  It is 38 cm (15") long and appears long-legged.  It feeds by probing along the shore and sometimes in the water.

As in most shorebirds breeding and non-breeding plumages are quite different.  We usually see the non-breeding plumage or a transition stage between the two.  The breeding plumage is much darker than the non-breeding plumage.  The Willet in breeding plumage shows dark gray or brown above and white below with heavy streaking on the neck and barring on the breast and sides.  The non-breeding plumage is plain gray above and white below.  The streaking and barring disappear in the non-breeding plumage.  The outstanding field mark of the Willet is seen in flight. It shows a striking black and white wing pattern in both plumages.

Willets Feeding
The Willet gets its name from its vocalizations. It often says its own name, characterized as 'pill will willet'.  It winters along coastal shores from the Carolinas southward to the Caribbean.

There is a western race of this species.  It inhabits the coastline of the western US and winters in western Mexico.  This race is a bit different from the eastern race.  It moves inland to breed on the prairies and areas of Oregon, California and Nevada.  The western race differs anatomically as well.  It is 10% larger, has a longer bill and longer legs.  Its bill is more slender and it is much lighter in colour.  It makes one wonder if it is a different species.  DNA testing would be useful to determine the relationship between the two races.

The good news for bird watchers is that there is a western Willet presently in New Brunswick.  It was seen in the last few days (Oct 9, 2017) in Cormierville and is well documented.  It shows the light gray colour, the longer legs and characteristically is feeding in deep water.

According to IBirdPro, the Willet is the only North American sandpiper whose breeding range extends southward into the tropics.  All other species breed in the north.  An interesting shorebird species!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Giant Butternut

Large Butternut Tree Found

Giant Butternut
Butternut trees (Juglans cinerea) are common in some parts of New Brunswick.  They prefer limestone-rich well-drained soils in shallow valleys and gradual slopes.  They grow singly or in small groups and are intolerant of shade.  In New Brunswick they are found in mixed hardwoods often with sugar maple, silver maple, red maple, elm, beech, and white and yellow birch.  Here they are found mainly in the St. John River valley and also a few are found in the Miramichi River valley.  

Butternut Tree
The Butternut tree is a species of eastern North America and is found in Quebec and Ontario as well as New Brunswick.  It has compound leaves with 11-17 leaflets.  The leaves are yellowish green, rough above and hairy and often sticky.  The twigs are orange-yellow, hairy and with a reddish brown pith.  The tree bark is light grey in colour, smooth on young trees and shows coarse intersecting vertical ridges on older trees.  We are all familiar with the beauty of butternut wood.  Much of our prized furniture is made from it.  The wood is light, soft, coarse-grained and reddish-brown.  

Butternut Tree
The seeds of butternut trees are the nuts which are found in abundance each fall on the ground under the trees.  They are an important source of food for wildlife.  The nuts grow in groups of 2 to 5, are a greenish-yellow colour and have a sticky, hairy surface with a pleasing fragrance.  They are 4 to 6 cm long, round with a pointed end.  When the husk is removed it reveals a deeply corrugated hard shell.  Inside is the nut which is sweet, oily and very tasty.  The nuts turn a dark brown colour as they age.

The Butternut tree which prompted this post is a giant of its kind.  It was found in Sunbury County in the St. John River valley.   For its protection, no further location details will be given.  It is a large, very old tree and still reasonably healthy.  It is the specimen shown above.  It has the typical growth pattern with a fused large stem splitting into two main trunks about 1 metre off the ground.  The two trunks are not exactly the same size, with the larger trunk more healthy-looking than the smaller.  The tree is growing in a hedgerow on the edge of a wet area among mainly silver maple and red maple.  The circumference of the larger trunk is 7 ft 9 in. (236 cm) and the circumference of the smaller trunk is 6 ft 0 in (183 cm).  The circumference of the combined trunk about 3 feet (1 m) up is 11 ft 7.5 in (354 cm).  The diameter breast height (dbh) of the larger trunk is 29.6 inches (75 cm).  According to Textbook of Dendrology, 1996, Harlow, Harrar, Hardin, White, most butternut trees range from 12 to 24 in. dbh.  That makes our tree very large!  Also according to the above, butternut trees don't usually live more than 75 years.  So, how old is this tree?  We did an official core sample and it revealed that our tree is approximately 150 years old!  A grand-daddy of butternut trees and still going! Wow!

While we were in the area we saw some beautiful landscape and came upon two interesting New Brunswickers.  See below for photos of the pair of moose, a cow and a bull, which were hanging out together.  It is breeding season for moose and the cow was probably in heat.  A wonderful day in the Picture Province!

Cow Moose
Bull Moose Hiding