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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happy Holidays 2009

To all our blog readers,

We wish you a

Merry Christmas
and a Happy New Year,
filled with beautiful birds.

Thanks for reading our blog this year. We will have lots of good blogging, more of Lillian's photos and a wonderful new Stokes field guide to all the birds coming in 2010 so stay tuned!

P.S. Our Corgis, Abby (left) and Phoebe wish all their fans a cookie filled 2010 and may the Corgi force be with you.

We are taking a break until Jan. 4th, so see you then!

*Photo of us by Peggy Howard

Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas Count 2009

We had a good Christmas Bird Count and amazingly, there was no snow storm here. It was however, very cold in the early morning, temp. at 9 degrees. That brought lots of birds into feeders and that was were we counted the majority of the birds we saw. Highlights were the Fox Sparrow at our feeders. We have been pampering this bird all week, with lots of millet, a protected shelter, brush pile and heated towels (the part about the towels is a joke, that's what you get in a 4 star hotel). We had the only Fox Sparrow seen on the southwestern NH Christmas Count.

Hairy Woodpeckers were well represented. This one likes our hulled sunflower.

We bundled up and

headed out with our Christmas Count buddies, Meade and Sandy, plus our 2 Corgis and their Pomeranian, Dolly.

It was the kind of snow that has a 1 inch crust over the powder, so it was hard to walk as your feet broke through the crust, plus made loud crunching sounds. But it was beautiful. That's the view in front of our house.

One nice thing about counting the birds at our feeders — it can be done from inside the warm house.

Here's the shelter and brush pile we made. At first light, 6 Mourning Doves were huddled under it, eating the millet there.

We had 33 Dark-eyed Juncos at our feeders, the most seen in our area. The best part of the count is that every bird counts. So, it makes you pay attention to everything. The other best part is fun with friends. We saw 17 species, and 237 individual birds for the part of the count circle our team covered. There were other teams covering the other parts of the count circle. Our species list:

Mourning Dove 14
Hairy Woodpecker 11
Downy Woodpecker 16
Crow 4
Blue Jay 20
Black-capped Chickadee 33
Tufted Titmouse 17
White-breasted Nuthatch 6
Red-breasted Nuthatch 3
Golden-crowned Kinglet 7
Northern Cardinal 5
Fox Sparrow 1
American Tree Sparrow 6
White-throated Sparrow 3
Dark-eyed Junco 34
American Goldfinch 51
Wild Turkey 3

Friday, December 18, 2009

Stokes Feeder Friday: Cold Toes

White-throated Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

Dark-eyed Junco

Brrr, it's very cold here, 3 degrees this am. The birds that are coming to the seed sprinkled on our deck are sitting on their toes to keep their legs warm. While my toes are the first thing to get cold in this weather when I go outside, birds have special adaptations to keep their legs and feet warm.

Underneath the scaly skin of their legs, the arteries carrying warm blood, are very close to the veins and help warm the blood in the veins before it returns to the body. However, on super cold days, birds will cover their legs by puffing up their feathers and sitting down on their legs, or you may see them pulling one leg up into their body when standing upright. The puffed up feathers trap air, so it's like placing a down coat over their legs.

I have to rely on my down parka, down mittens, long underwear, L.L. Bean winter boots and thick wool socks to stay warm. I'll need all of that tomorrow, which is our area of NH's Christmas Bird Count and the forecast is for continued cold.

Feeder hints to warm the birds— Keep feeders full, sprinkle seed in sheltered locations near your house to accomodate the ground feeding species like those above, and put up suet feeders. The high fat of suet provides needed calories to stoke the birds furnaces in this super cold.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

No Free Cookies

Abby (on left), and Phoebe

Time for a Corgi break. At a recent family gathering, my sister (who likes birds) said her favorite part of this blog is the Corgi photos. So here are some.

We train our Corgis, or so we think. We read all the dog training books, have taken both Corgis through advanced obedience class. The theory is that we should be "benevolent alphas" (fair, fun and firm) because we are the pack leaders and dogs are pack animals, in which they feel most secure when they know their place in the pack hierarchy. The hierarchy is, us first, then Phoebe, and last, Abby.

Working for treats is a good thing, so the theory goes because it helps establish our leadership. So here are the Corgis, yesterday, when called in from the cold, then asked to do a down-stay. They do this quite well, on a hand signal. When on a down-stay, they pretty much are riveted on me, waiting for the release cue, and then they get a cookie —"OK, Good Dogs!" Sometimes I hand them a cookie (always Phoebe first), other times I toss it. Phoebe is great at catch. Sometimes the cookie bounces off Abby's forehead — she is working on her catching skills.

If we could read their brains, they might be saying to one another, .... "oh this is a piece of cake, we're getting a cookie just for lying down.... look cute and she can't resist letting us up soon... Abby, dooon't catch the cookie, then she'll have to toss us more cookies, thinking we need to work on our catching skills."

Anyone who owns a Corgi, knows they think they're training us and maybe they're right.

Meanwhile, it's freezing here. It was 7 degrees this morning, with minus 8 wind chill. The birds at the feeders are sitting on their feet to keep them warm.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

White-winged Dove

White-winged Dove

Mourning Dove

You never know what might show up. In birding, that's a good thing to frequently remind yourself of.

There's a White-winged Dove in Massachusetts, found Dec. 14th, near the entry to Old Sturbridge Village and still seen yesterday. Photos of the bird can be found here.

White-winged Doves are mainly a southern species and can be found year round across the country in the southern tier of states but seem to be increasing their range. There are records of them turning up elsewhere in the country, mainly on the East Coast all the way up to the Maritime Provinces.

This dove is similar in size to a Mourning Dove, and has big white wing patches, which appear as a white line along the edge of the closed wing, as in my photo above. I photographed this bird in FL. Note also the longer bill and blue area around the red eye (the juvenile has a dark eye). Mourning Doves have shorter bills, a dark eye surrounded by a smaller amount of blue, black spots on the wing, and a longer tail.

So, next time (as in the Christmas Bird Counts occurring now) you're looking at a Mourning Dove, check it carefully. Who knows, it could be a White-winged Dove.
Chance favors the prepared mind, (or birder).

Monday, December 14, 2009

Fox Sparrow

(Click on image to see larger size)

Fox Sparrow at our feeders. Kinda looks like the "mad bluebird" photo. Note the front streaks come together forming a big central breast dot.

We can't say there are no birds at the feeders anymore, there are tons! Included is this wonderful Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), one of my favorite sparrows. Love the foxy color. That puts it way ahead of other sparrow species in the sartorial department, most of whom are brown.

There are many subspecies of Fox Sparrow, divided into four groups, and they vary in color. Most have reddish on their tail rump and wings. The ones we see here are of the Northern Red Group, referred to as the "Red Fox Sparrow" and have some of the most red on their bodies. They breed in the far north, from Alaska to Newfoundland and winter in the Southeast. Western subspecies groups are often darker in color. The Fox Sparrow is also a big sparrow, at 7" in length, making it stand out next to the juncos, who are 6 1/4" in length.

This Fox Sparrow has been at our feeders since the big snowstorm. Hope it stays here for a while. It would be great to count it for the Christmas Bird Count, which takes place in our area this Sat.,

Friday, December 11, 2009

Stokes Feeder Friday, Hawks at feeders!

Sharp-shinned Hawk, juvenile.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk just flew by the feeder, diving at the birds. Don wrote this Haiku poem about it.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk stoops
Into the feeders, making
The cold day colder.

It was a chilling event for the birds, who, in addition to getting food this morning in 20 degree weather with strong winds, always have to be on the lookout for hawks, which could spell instant death for them. We watched with anxiety as the birds dove for cover in the brush pile we created near the feeder. They also sought cover in the rhododendrons we planted nearby.

On the other hand we are always excited to see a hawk. Sharpshins are quick, fierce, and agile flyers, able to zip through the trees undetected. As watchers of nature we try not to make too much of a morale judgement about the hawk. As we say, Sharp-shins are not mean, they're just hungry. They have to eat too. In addition to Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper's Hawks one of the other main predators of feeder birds. Cooper's looks like a slightly larger version of the Sharp-shinned. These both are in the Accipiter group of hawks.

Here are some tips to giving your feeder birds protection from the hawks.

1. A good brush pile is worth it's weight in gold. Construct one near the feeders (about 8 or more feet away). Construct it out of cut sapling trees in a tepee fashion and add other brush and branches. Leave enough space and nooks and crannies for birds to dive into, but not too much open space so it's not protective.

2. Put other cover near feeders, or move feeders near cover. Evergreen shrubs and trees can make excellent cover. We use rhododendron clumps, arborvitae, hemlocks, and more. A good use of your old Christmas tree is to place it near the feeders. If the feeders face south and the evergreens are behind the feeders, even better. The birds can go into the evergreens and warm up and be protected from cold winds.

3. You can also use dense woody shrubs and vines for cover. In addition to the brush pile and evergreens near the feeders, we have lot of berry producing shrubs like Winterberry Holly, Highbush Cranberry Viburnum, Swamp Dogwood, Chokeberry and a few vines climbing up them. This feeds the birds, provides cover and even potential nesting spots.

4. Take comfort in the fact that the hawks do not stay around forever. Usually, after a while, the birds have so wised up to the hawks presence, it looses its advantage of surprise and it will move on.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Snow Storm here

We're in the middle of a big snow storm now.

Went out with the Corgis, who like the snow and walked them around to tire them out. An exercised Corgi is a happy Corgi.

Don, brushing off the feeders and filling them. That's essential to help the birds, who are really flocking to them.

"Abby, (in the lead), Phoebe, come!" Time to come in and warm up.

We're in the middle of a big snow storm. About 8 inches of snow has fallen and it's still coming down heavily. Brings back memories of the big ice storm that hit here the night of Dec. 11th and it was 9 days before PSNH restored power on Dec. 20th. Now we have a generator. Hope we don't need it.

Scenes from this morning are above. We will brush off the feeders many times today and keep them filled, so the birds can get food. The birds are really coming into the feeders now, even though there has been low feeder activity for months due to the warm weather and abundant wild food.

Cardinals, goldfinches, jay, chickadees, woodpeckers, Mourning Doves, Tree Sparrows, juncos, White-throated Sparrows are all at the feeders. We made a low shelter out of plywood and put seed under it to help the juncos, White-throated Sparrows and Mourning Doves feed. These species are ground-feeders, so it is particularly hard on them in snow storms, when the ground is covered.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Bird Rarities

There's been a Common Shelduck spotted in MA by Jim Malone, and announced on massbird. This is a Eurasian species that can be in captivity. When one is seen in the wild the question arises, is it a wild bird arrived on its own, or did it escape from captivity. To see good photos of it, click here.
From massbird, Jeremiah Trimble says,
"Jim's report is very intriguing and I want to make sure that Massachusetts birders consider this report with great interest. It is always difficult to assess the natural occurrence of out-of-range waterfowl. However, this species has been on the radars of many birding folks as a potential true vagrant to northeastern North America. In addition, this species has increased dramatically over the last decade in Iceland, a good jumping off point to North America.
Most significantly, only 2 weeks ago, an immature male Common Shelduck was observed and photographed at Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John's Newfoundland. At a good location for an arriving vagrant and at a good time of year, this bird was considered by many folks there to be a natural vagrant.... anyone who sees this (MA) bird please be sure to submit details and photographs to the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee"

And Marshall Iliff said, "The Newfoundland record just weeks ago (of a hatch-year bird) strengthens the case significantly...Yes, this species is kept in captivity, but with four records of Oct-Dec shelducks along the immediate coast and in appropriate habitat, it is perhaps time to reconsider the ABA/AOU policy that these are not acceptable vagrants."

This report will continue to be sorted out by the birding committees.

Meanwhile, birders wanting to hear about rarities in their area might be thinking, how do I find out? The answer is you sign up for the birding listserve covering your area and you will get emails as to what is being seen by birders in the field. For the archives of state by state birding email lists, go here.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Bluebird, time to migrate

This morning we had a lone Eastern Bluebird fly over our field, as an adult Bald Eagle looked out from its perch across our lake. We had the first snow here on Sat. and the temps are colder. Made us think the bluebird really needs to migrate south now.
Eastern Bluebirds can remain in more northerly areas during winter months, where they survive by eating berries, such as sumac, and roost in bird houses or tree holes at night. But most head to more southern U.S. areas to warmer, gentler weather. We have seen bluebirds wintering in GA and FL. By March bluebirds usually return to our yard. We'll have the bluebird houses cleaned out and waiting.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Stokes Feeder Friday, Woodpeckers!

Downy Woodpecker, male at suet.

Hairy Woodpecker, female at hulled sunflower.

Woodpeckers are great feeder birds because they're easy to attract and several species, the Downy and Hairy Woodpecker, live just about all over the country. These two look-alike Woodpeckers are best told apart by size, the Hairy is 9 1/4 inches tall and the Downy is 6 3/4 inches tall. Males of both species have a red patch at the back of the head.

The trick to attracting them is to offer the right food, in the type of feeder that allows them to cling and feed naturally. We find the favorite foods of Downy and Hairy are suet, hulled sunflower, black oil sunflower and other nutmeats like peanuts. In our yard, the two foods they most prefer are suet and hulled sunflower. Suet is a type of beef fat that is rendered (cooked and cooled) and formed into square cakes, often with some seeds or fruit added.

The above Hairy Woodpecker female is on our Stokes Select Sunflower Screen Feeder, a large enough feeder, with good clinging surface, allowing this large woodpecker to hang on and feed on the hulled sunflower. Woodpeckers in the wild like to cling on and hitch around tree trunks and limbs, probing for insect larvae in the bark, so feeders that allow them to hold on in their usual manner are appealing to them. That's not to say they don't come to tube feeders with short perches as well. The smaller Downy Woodpecker masters that a little better in our yard than the larger Hairy Woodpecker.

There are some cool things we like about these woodpeckers. They excavate their own nest holes, the Hairy in live wood the Downy in dead wood. They "drum" (a rapid pounding on a resonate tree or surface), instead of singing, to attract a mate and define a territory. Usually they make "teek" calls as a way of keeping in contact. They live as a pair all year round, on the same territory. Our Hairy Woodpeckers bring their babies to the feeder when they first fledge. The fledgling hangs on the feeder and the adult grabs the food and feeds it to the waiting mouth. Eventually, the young learn on their own and come to the feeders when they are independent.

So, just by offering their favorite foods in the right containers, you can have woodpecker entertainment all year. What woodpeckers do you attract and what are their favorite foods?

Thursday, December 03, 2009


Raven Haiku (a type of poem)

Low gutteral call
Of the Raven flying high
To distant mountains.

Photo of Raven by Lillian Stokes, Haiku by Don Stokes

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


Thinking about what new birds will show up at the feeders this winter. Perhaps some Evening Grosbeaks, like this male? Gotta love the dramatic coloring, like a space cadet worthy of Star Trek. Listen for their sleigh-bell like calls. Being an "irruptive species", some years they come down into the U.S. more, some years not so much. It depends on the cone crop success in their usual wintering areas.
Speaking of feeders, Christmas Bird counts are coming up. They're fun to participate in. We always do.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler, photographed in GA in winter.


Orange-crowned Warbler, photographed in Ohio in May

Warblers are usually the last birds those of us in the North are thinking about during holiday time, yet a few warblers can show up in late fall/early winter. The Orange-crowned Warbler (Vermivora celata) is one of them. There have been several sightings of Orange-crowned Warblers this fall on the NH coast, including one this past weekend, photo here. There's also an Orange-crowned Warbler being seen now in the Boston area.

Orange-crowned Warblers breed across much of the West, Canada and Alaska. There are 3 subspecies. The subspecies we have in the East, celata, is the dullest, with the bright western subspecies, lutescens, being quite yellowish and the subspecies of the Great Basin and Rockies, orestera, being somewhat in between the other two subspecies in brightness. Not your most glamorous warbler, but interesting. Note the thin, pointed bill, hint of an eye line, and yellowish undertail coverts. The orange on their crown is usually not visible.

Orange-crowns winter across southern areas of the country. So, if you're up North, keep an eye out for them still migrating. If you're in the South, welcome them to their wintering area.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Stokes Feeder Friday, Best Squirrel-Proofing

Last week on our "Feeder Friday" blog post, we were discussing squirrels and how to keep them off your bird feeders. Lots of you offered your ideas on what has helped you. Here's an overview of what things we have found works for squirrel-proofing.

1. Place bird feeders on a pole and put a squirrel-baffle on the pole below the feeders. The baffle needs to be a reasonable height, at least 4 or more feet high. A baffle is a physical barrier that a squirrel cannot climb up over. There are many kinds, some shaped like a cone, some like a cylinder. Here's one of our Stokes Select Squirrel Baffles that wraps around a pole, shown above. The cone has a seam whereby you can open the baffle, then wrap it around a pole, then snap the seam back together. That makes it possible to attach it to a pole that has a bending arm at the top, like the one shown. The baffle sits on a clamp you attach to the pole. These baffles really work. They prevent Gray Squirrels and also Red Squirrels from climbing the pole and reaching the feeder. A big point here is that you have to place the pole at least 12-15 feet (depending on your squirrel's jumping ability) or more from any place a squirrel can jump from including trees, bushes, houses, porches, railings etc. Otherwise, a squirrel could climb up a tree and jump down on the feeder from above the baffle.

2. There are a number of kinds of squirrel-proof feeders. Some are a cage wrapped around a feeder that allows the birds in, but not the squirrels. The beauty of these is that you can put them anywhere, especially in situations were you cannot, or do not, want to mount your feeders on a pole. This would include places like a heavily wooded yard, where you cannot place a pole far enough away from trees, or a deck that squirrels can get on. With these feeders, it does not matter if the squirrels gets on them, the point is the squirrel cannot get to the seed.

Other types of squirrel-proof feeders feature some kind of thing that closes over the seed, triggered by the weight of a squirrel. Beware placing them hanging them from a pole, as a squirrel could climb the pole, hang from its back feet while not putting any weight on the closure mechanism, thereby accessing the seed.

Here's a squirrel-proof suet feeder, enclosed in a cage. This squirrel is having second thoughts and did not get the suet.

Then there's the diversion tactics. The theory is that if you give the squirrels their own feeders, they'll stay away from the seed, mostly. This is a great idea, but it's not a substitite for squirrel-proofing your feeders, which you should do even if you feed the squirrels.

A plus for feeding the squirrels, is that they can be so darn cute. There are "Critter Mixes" of seed (usually containing lots of cracked corn) that cater to squirrels. This Red Squirrel is eating off a platform that has a low pole. The low platform allows squirrels, and ground-dwelling birds, to feed.
One more thought. Some people enjoy the constant battle with the squirrels, they actually do not want to win it and claim they have the world's most (fill in the black here with the adjective of your choice such as, clever, fast, strong, biggest, etc.) squirrel. And that's OK too.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Baby Turkey


This is a busy time of year for all. This is turkey week, so here's a cute photo I wanted to share, of a baby Wild Turkey who visited our yard in the summer. We're lucky to have diverse habitat on our 45 acres of land. We have large open fields that border a pond (really a dammed up section of a river), mixed deciduous/coniferous woodlands, marshy areas, and suburban yard with lots of plantings. So we have habitat for many birds and animals, including the Wild Turkeys.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Stokes Feeder Friday, Squirrels!

Squirrels!!! We had to bring it up. Actually, when you start to talk to people about bird-feeding, as we frequently do, the first topic they usually bring up is squirrels. They complain that squirrels are getting on the feeders and eating the bird seed. The facts:

Gray Squirrels are widespread in feeder land.
They like bird seed
The have amazing, some say superhero-esq, acrobatic abilities
They have all day, every day, to think about how to get on your bird feeders
They are clever, and, depending on who you talk to, they are Einstein-level-clever

The people we hear from may or may not have tried to do something to prevent squirrels from getting their seed. Chances are, if they are still complaining about squirrels, they either haven't tried to do much, or have tried a variety of things which have not worked to prevent squirrels from reaching the bird seed.
We do have solid solutions to preventing squirrels from getting to your bird seed. It involves baffles and squirrel-proof feeders. However, we first thought we would ask you, our readers, to tell us your favorite squirrel-proof solutions. Next week on Feeder Friday, we'll go into all this in detail.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Snow and Bubbles

Snow Bunting

We'll be busy for a few days. Here's some things to look at while we're busy. Snow buntings are migrating now. We had some in our field a few days ago. These beautiful little birds breed in the far north, and winter in the upper U.S. in weedy fields and shorelines.

Look for them in fields and along coastlines. They's so camouflaged.

Speaking of beauty, here's Bubbles, (LLandian's Champagne On Ice) our Corgi Abby's sister. She just won "winner's bitch" (best female who is not yet a champion) at two dog shows, gaining points towards her championship. Congratulations, Bubbles.
See you later in the week.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Western Kingbird in NH

Western Kingbird, photographed in FL

Note the white edge to the tail. Shadow is on bill.

In flight shows the white edges to the outermost tail feathers and dark tail contrasts with paler back.

There's a Western Kingbird causing excitement in NH, being seen at Rochester Wastewater Treatment Plant, (which is closed on weekends and if you visit, check in first), map (furnished by Steve Mirick) to kingbird is here. There are very few records for this species in NH, that's why birders are excited. A nice photo of the NH bird (by Jason Lambert) can be seen here.
To follow the sightings, see NHBirds listserve here.

The Western Kingbird is a type of flycatcher whose range is in the West, but it's a common vagrant (bird who wandered out of range) to the East. They have a yellow belly, gray head and breast, and a dark tail that contrasts with the gray back. The tail has white edges.

We were lucky to have seen a Western Kingbird on our southern NH property on August 31, 2003 when our friends from FL, Lois and Leon White, were visiting. It was seen well by all of us. Always nice to produce a rare species for your area when birding friends are visiting. Above photographs are of a Western Kingbird I photographed in Sanibel, Florida in Jan. 05.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Stokes Feeder Friday, Where Are The Birds, Cont.'d

Dark-eyed Junco

On our Stokes Feeder Friday, we devote the blog to talking about what's happening at bird feeders and what questions are on people's minds about feeding birds.
Seems that the lack of birds at feeders in New England and parts of the East continues. Here at our feeders in southern NH, we can't give away the bird seed. Chickadees are rare at our feeders, even though we know they're in the woods because we see them. The Zen Birdfeeder reports a lack of birds at feeders in eastern NY, NJ, southeast NY, CT, MA, NH. Do you have a lack of birds, and where are you?
The main reason for birds not being at feeders, is because this year there seems to be a superabundance of wild food available, including a bumper crop of pine cones, other cones, seeds, fruits, berries. The birds just don't need the feeders, plus it has been warm and their calorie requirements are lower. As you know, birds in the wild do not ever get all their food entirely from feeders. They go around their winter ranges each foraging in their own species way. Chickadees stay in a small fixed flock in a winter range of about 20 acres and glean insects and larvae from bark, as well as eat nuts and seeds. They visit feeders in their winter territory. In extremely severe weather however, when wild food has been depleted and or is covered with ice, then chickadees will visit feeders more and sometimes it can be life-saving.
For those of you, including us, that are addicted to seeing birds at our feeders, there are some birds coming to feeders now and here's how to entice them.
Dark-eyed Juncos are one of the most common feeder birds in the country. These northen breeders come down into the U.S. in winter. By us, some stay the winter, some migrate farther south. Juncos are a type of sparrow and love eating at or near the ground.

We built this brush pile and placed it about 15 feet from our bird feeder. It is about 4 feet high and 12 feet wide, made of saplings and even seed heads from our perennials. We sprinkle millet on the ground in front of it and in it. The Juncos and White-throated Sparrows just love it and visit often. These species naturally feed on the ground in the wild, and this set-up simulates their wild feeding situation plus gives then the cover of the brush pile to hide from predators. Millet is a tiny white seed enjoyed by sparrow species. It is not the favorite food of chickadees (black oil sunflower is). Even though we sprinkle it on the ground we monitor it and clean up any old seed. Mostly all our seed is in feeders and seed cleanliness is very important to the birds. We also put millet in platform feeders, and sometimes the juncos and other ground feeding species feed there. The brush pile also offers protection from predators to all the other birds who visit the feeders.

Blue Jay

Blue Jays also are coming to feeders now big time. You'll also see them flying across highways as you drive around. Jays have a habit of carrying off seeds and acorns in fall to cache (hide) them for later use. Jays have a mixed reputation; they can eat birds eggs, but they are also great alarmists, warning of hawks, and other birds may benefit from that. We enjoy their beautiful colors against the late fall landscape.
Meanwhile, have patience and keep feeders clean and filled, you want the winter feeder regulars to know you're there when they need you.
If you have feeder questions, email us.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cackling Geese subspecies in the East

Cackling Goose, hutchinsii subspecies

We have been talking about Cackling Geese showing up in the East, see my other blog post here. These geese, who mainly nest in the arctic, look like very small Canada Geese, but are a different species. There are 4 subspecies of Cackling Goose. It is thought that the subspecies who usually shows up in the East is the nominate subspecies, Branta hutchinsii hutchiinsii, (also sometimes called "Richardson's Goose", "Richardson's Cackling Goose" or "Hutchins's Goose"). This is a photo I took in western Massachusetts on 11/8/09 is of the hutchinsii subspecies (confirmed by experts). ID of Cackling subspecies emphasizes head and bill shape. This bird in my photo has a short bill, a short, steeply rising forehead, a rather flattened crown rising to a bit of a peak at the back of the head, all characteristics of the hutchinsii subspecies. Most hutchinsii also have a narrowing of the white of the cheek patch at the level of the eye, also visible on this bird. This bird also has a very pale breast, as have the majority of hutchinsii. The back and sides are also pale, the back does not appear darker than the sides. There's noticeable pale edges to the wing covert feathers, creating pale diagonal lines.

Cackling Goose, unknown subspecies

Cackling Geese cannot always be identified as to subspecies, as with the above and following photos of an individual I photographed in Ohio (east of Toledo) in May 2005. Several experts concur that this might be a hutchinsii subspecies or possibly an intergrade between the taverneri and hutchinsii subspecies, but it cannot be definitively identified. To quote the excellent article on Distribution and Identification of Cackling Goose Subspecies by Mlodinow et al. "though birds breeding on the continental Arctic slope from the Mackenzie River west are thought to be taverneri, the precise border between taverneri and nominate hutchinsii has not been defined, nor has the degree of potential or actual intergradation between the two (J. Leafloor, J. Pearce, D. Derksen, pers. comm.)."

This bird shows a more rounded head than the hutchinsii bird in my top photo, with a more gradual slope from the bill to the head, more characteristic of taverneri. Taverneri subspecies have "stout and somewhat triangular bills". The breast of this bird is pale. Taverneri are "typically medium-gray-breasted, becoming darker on belly/flanks" according to the article. However, sometimes they can have pale breasts.

Here's the neck fully upright in an alert posture of the goose. The head looks faintly flattened and there's white flecking at base of the black neck, suggesting a very thin white neck collar. The article estimated that only 2-5% of taverneri adults have a neck collar and that about 10-20% of hutchinsii can have a neck collar.

Here's another posture with the head looking somewhat flattened. Note that under the chin you can see a thin black line running from bill to the black neck, called a gular stripe. This is seen in up to 25% of hutchinsii, whereas 40-75% of taverneri have a gular stripe according to the article.

Here's another posture where the neck looks short.

Cackling Geese of the hutchinsii subspecies mainly winter along the Gulf Coast from southeastern Louisiana down into Mexico and also from eastern Colorado to eastern New Mexico through western Texas and into Mexico. Of the Cackling Geese that show up outside of their normal wintering range and stray to the East in small numbers, almost all reports have been of the hutchinsii subspecies. They have been reported from Indiana, Ontario, western New York, southern Quebec and Nova Scotia down to Virginia with a few reports to North Carolina, South Carolina and a few from Florida.
Taverneri subspecies winters in mainly Washington and Oregon, although some may winter in the continent's center. There are few reports of taverneri in eastern North America. There's a record from Onondaga county, New York, Sept. 2004, Janesville, Wisconsin, Oct. 2004, Amherst, Mass. Oct. 2007 and maybe the same bird in Middlefield Conn. Nov. to Dec. 2007 for photos of this bird see here.
The other two subspecies of Cackling Geese are leucoparia and minima. Minima (called Ridgway's Goose) is the smallest and darkest of the subspecies and winters mainly in western Oregon and Washington and central California. Only a handful or so of reports for minima exist for east of the Mississippi and are for North Carolina, Illinois, Connecticut, Alabama, Virginia and Tennessee. Leucoparia (called Aleutian Goose) a medium-sized Cackling, has a broad, white, complete neck collar on all adults. It winters mainly California and a little in Oregon and there are no winter records for east of the Mississippi River that we know of.
So keep looking at Cackling Geese in the East, there may be other subspecies showing up besides hutchinsii. If you find them, let us know.

For more details, consult Distribution and Identification of Cackling Goose Subspecies, by Mlodinow et al. North American Birds, vol. 62, no. 3, 2008, pages: 344-360.