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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.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cackling Goose, more

This is the year for Cackling Geese in New England. These small geese mainly breed in AK and arctic areas and winter in a few places in the west, the lower central part of the country and TX. They are very uncommon in New England. On Sunday we went to see a group of seven that have been hanging out together, in with a large number of Canada Geese, in farm fields in Ipswich, MA. See the three smaller birds above, much smaller than the Canada Geese.

It seems that one cackling Goose was seen first, then on Fri. 11/6 six more joined it. Seems they all spend the night at Stage Island pool on Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island, MA, then fly out early to go feed in the fields in Ipswich.

We saw them quite distant in the fields but were fairly easy to pick out because of their small size next to the larger Canada Geese. They were mostly feeding with their heads down, making digiscoping difficult. They were too far for my Canon SLR digital camera and 500 mm lens.

There really were seven, here seen together. They stayed close, but not always right next to one another. There are four subspecies of Cackling Geese and some of this is still being worked out, see my blog post here. If you find more Cackling Geese outside their normal range, let us know, and send photos, if you have them. They're really interesting little geese and fun to see.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Black-headed Gull

Went to see the Black-headed Gull in Gloucester, MA yesterday and lucked out; it was there. Here are some digiscoped photos. It's mainly found in Eurasia. A few breed in Newfoundland and they're common there in winter. They are uncommonly found here in the Northeast in winter. So it's exciting to see one.

The red bill (with some dark on the tip) on this bird really stood out. Note the red legs. This adult bird is in winter plumage, so it does not have the dark hood of breeding.

Here it is with some Mallards.

There were some Bonaparte's Gulls, (the front five, the back two are Ring-billed Gulls) out in the water. Bonaparte's look similar to the Black-headed Gull but are smaller and have dark bills. Black-headed Gulls are know to hang out with Bonaparte's, so look closely through any Bonaparte's you see for a larger gull with a longer, slightly down-curved reddish bill.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Cackling Goose from every angle

Today we went to see the Cackling Goose on the Turner's Falls power canal in Turner's Falls, in western MA., first found by James Smith on Nov. 5th. Cackling Goose is a species that was split from Canada Goose in 2004. I got lots of photos from every angle. Had to look through more than 700 plus Canada Goose to find this smaller goose. There are 4 subspecies of Cackling Goose. This one is called the Richardson's Cackling Goose, (Branta canadansis hutchinsii) the subspecies most likey to show up in the Northeast. At the end of this blog post, we summarize the information on the various subspecies.

Aside from it's smaller size, the head and bill shape stand out. The head has a flattened boxy look and the bill is a little less than half the length of the head. Note also the pale breast and the pale fringes to the wing covert feathers, making pale scalloped stripes on the sides. The white in the cheek patch of this bird was slightly dusky. Note there is no white collar at the base of the black neck color on this bird. Hutchinsii subspecies of Cackling Goose can sometimes show a thin white collar, but seldom do.

Note the slightly paler back color compared to this Canada Goose. Here you can see the size comparison and the comparitively longer bill on the Canada Goose.

From the back it was clearly smaller than the Canada Goose and looked thinner from the rear than the Canada.
Something in the sky made it look up. Here you can see that the underneath of the chin is all white. There is no black gular stripe running from bill to neck; the taverneri, leucopareia, and sometimes minima subspecies have gular stripes.

Here's another view of the chin, showing no center black gular stripe.

Here's another size comparison, again showing paler color of the Cackling Goose compared to the Canada Goose on the right.

Here's another size comparison. Note the Canada Goose's head also looks a bit flattened on top, but it has a much larger bill. When scanning through a big flock of Canadas to find the Cackling, we found it helpful to look at heads and bill lengths.

They're in synchrony here.

View from the back.

The Cackling is the smaller goose on the right. In this photo it's head looks very flat, with a steep angle from bill to crown, almost looking like it has a bump on the forehead. It really struck us how this goose could look rather different, depending on the angle it was viewed from.

Here's a "where's Waldo" photo. Even though the Cackling Goose was smaller than any of the Canada Goose there, it was not always easy to spot it. We had to look closely through the Canada Goose flock with a scope. Canada Geese can vary among themselves due to age and sex and nutrition. Male Canadas can be almost 50% larger than females.

Many of the geese took baths and stretched. Here's the Cackling doing stretching movements,

Looks like angel wings here.

Here's a digiscoped photo showing the geese line-up with the Cackling Goose in the front.

Another size comparison with the Cackling Goose in the middle. Canadas can look quite different in size just because of their distance and body angle.

Here's the Cackling Goose on the right in an alert posture with its neck stretched up. Cackling Goose is often said to have a a short neck, but clearly it can elongate the neck making it look much longer. The neck looks thinner compared to the Canada's.

Here's another view of the Cackling Goose on the left and nearest us, Canada Goose on the right. The Cackling's neck, which is extended, almost looks as long as the Canada Goose's neck which is not extended.

Can you find the Cackling Goose? This is good practice so next time you see some Canada Geese, look through them and see if you can find a Cackling Goose. Cackling Geese are rare in New England, but this year there are already a handfull or more of sightings.

I was using a Canon Mark II camera with a Canon 500 mm lens with a 2x teleconverter. Still I wish the geese were closer.

A small portion of the hundreds of geese we had to look through to find the Cackling.

Here is a brief summary of some information on the subspecies of Cackling Goose. Ratios for bill and head mentioned are just guidelines, since individuals can vary considerably.

There are 4 subspecies in North America of Cackling Geese. From largest to smallest:

taverneri subspecies summers in north to northeast AK; winters in Columbia River Valley, OR and WA to Central Valley, CA. It is called “Taverner’s Goose”; weight is 6 lb. It's the largest subspecies; head blocky but rounded; bill length to depth at base is about 3:2; bill length is 1/2 head length. Breast and back slightly darker than hutchinsii and B.c. parvipes; rarely has a white collar; most have a thin gular stripe (a dark line under the chin which separates the two white cheek patches).

hutchinsii subspecies summers in coastal Nunavut; winters in eastern NM to northern TX and south, also on the Gulf Coast of TX and w. LA. It is called “Richardson’s Goose”; weight is 5 lb. Medium-sized; head blocky with a steep forehead that angles to a flat crown that angles to the nape; bill length to depth at base is about 3:2; bill length just less than 1/2 head length. Pale-bodied with contrastingly paler buffy breast; fairly wide pale fringes to wing coverts and scapulars; seldom a white collar; no gular stripe.

leucopareia subspecies summers in western Aleutian Islands; winters in the Central Valley, CA. It is called the “Aleutian Goose”; weight is 4 lb. Small; head a rounded-off square; bill length to depth at base about 4:3; bill length clearly less than 1/2 head length. Breast fairly dark brown; usually a wide white complete collar, widest in front; almost always a gular stripe.

minima subspecies summers in northwest AK; winters in Willamette Valley, OR to Central Valley, CA. It is called Ridgway's Cackling Goose. Weight is 3 1/2 lb. It is the smallest subspecies; head and crown rounded; bill stubby; bill length to depth at base is 1:1; bill length about 1/3 head length. It's also the darkest subspecies; breast dark brown, sometimes with rusty or purplish tones; full, partial, or no gular stripe; most have no white collar.

The identification of the Cackling Goose subspecies is still being worked out. It may be impossible to distinguish the smallest subspecies of Canada Goose (B. c. parvipes) from largest subspecies of Cackling Goose (B. h. taverneri) due to variation in size and color within subspecies and size variation due to nutrition and sexual dimorphism (males average 8-12% larger in these subspecies), although bill characteristics are still useful.