Maine Birds

Chan Robbins (1918-2017)

May 16, 2017 · No Comments

As a fledgling birder in the 1960’s, my chief source of bird information was my cherished Golden Guide Birds of North America by Chandler Robbins and the artist Bertel Bruun. At the time, the Robbins guide and Roger Tory Peterson’s guide were the only two field guides available. To be sure, Peterson’s illustrations were far superior to those of Bruun but the text, the plates and the range maps were in different parts of the Peterson guide. The Robbins guide had text, illustrations, maps and sonograms of each species on facing pages. Plus, all of the bird species in North America were covered.

These memories spring to mind because Chan recently passed away at the age of 98. His contributions to ornithology and to birding were immense. The Golden Guide was just one of his many accomplishments.

Chan took a job as a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1945. He was based at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland until his retirement in 2005 after 60 years or service! Even in retirement, he continued to work as an emeritus biologist for another 13 years.

Early in his career, he conducted research on the effects of DNA on birds. He worked closely with Rachel Carson, one of Maine’s own, and his work on the deleterious impact of DDT provided scientific support for Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962.

Concerned about tracking the effect of DDT on bird populations, Chan realized that we lacked a rigorous method to assess changes in bird populations at the regional and continental level in North America. Chan remedied that problem by designing the Breeding Bird Survey (hereafter, BBS), a citizen-science project that provides a view of the changes of breeding bird populations throughout North America.

A BBS is conducted along a 24.5-mile stretch of secondary roads. Once during the breeding season, an observer starts at the designated starting point about half an hour before sunrise. The observer listens and looks for birds for three minutes, drives 0.5 mile to the next stop, observes for three minutes and so one until 50 stops are sampled.

The observer samples the same route each year, reporting the data to the BBS office.

Nearly 3,000 BBS routes are sampled yearly. Modest contributions from many yield a powerful tool for detecting declines or increases of our avifauna.

The BBS data are available to researchers. Over 400 papers been published with the data. One of the most influential of these papers was a 1989 article written by Chan and his colleagues. They showed that an alarming number of long-distance migrants showed decreasing abundance on the breeding ground in North America.  Related species that did not migrate to the tropics were not showing such steep decreases in abundance. Hence, the authors could infer that deforestation and other habitat degradation in the tropical wintering areas of these long-distance migrants could explain lower densities in North America. This work provided a strong impetus to redouble efforts at habitat conservation.

Chan visited Midway Island in the Pacific ten times during this career. His work involved banding Laysan Albatrosses that nest there. In 1956, he banded an albatross, subsequently named Wisdom. Wisdom is still alive and reproducing at the ripe age of 60! Wisdom is the oldest banded bird ever.

I got to know Chan from ornithological meetings. I well remember chats we had after presentations I made. He was a kind, soft-spoken and generous man.  He was also a highly skilled observer. His eyes and ears were amazing.

For many years, I conducted BBS routes in Maine.  After conducting my 50th BBS census, I received a certificate of appreciation from the BBS Office along with a signed copy of the Chan’s Birds of North America. I am very proud of the book, which sits on my shelf next to my tattered childhood copy.



→ No CommentsCategories: Conservation · History

Costa Rica Trip – January, 2017

May 4, 2017 · No Comments

In the middle of January, my wife, two other couples and I made a 12-day trip to Costa Rica, following by a few months the billions of North American birds that migrated south for the winter.

Waiting to pick up our rental van near the San José Airport, we saw some birds flitting in a few trees adjacent to the building. And our first birds of our trip were . . . . Chestnut-sided Warblers, Tennessee Warblers and a bright male Baltimore Oriole. Not the exotic tropical species were we expecting!

Those three species were the first of many Neotropical migrants we would see on our trip. We tend to think of Chestnut-sided Warblers and Baltimore Orioles as “our” North American birds. But they spend less of the year in North America than they do in tropical areas. We get them on loan for the breeding season.

We spent our first night at the Hotel Bougainvillea, north of the airport. The ten acres of gardens there were delightful for a pre-breakfast bird walk. Clay-colored Thrushes, the national bird of Costa Rica, were common. Other highlights were Lesson’s Motmots, Crimson-ringed Parakeets and some old friends, three Yellow Warblers.

On to the La Selva Biological Station in northeastern Costa Rica, a center of rain forest research in the New World tropics. We took advantage of the extensive trail system there for a glorious three days.

Neotropical migrants included Broad-winged Hawks, House Wrens, Wood Thrushes, abundant Chestnut-sided Warblers, and Summer Tanagers.

Toucans were abundant, loud and easy to see. We found three species: Yellow-fronted Toucan, Keel-billed Toucan and Collared Aracari.

We saw small flocks of Great Green Macaws in flight several times and once had the delight of watching two perched macaws through a spotting scope. Fewer than 300 individuals of this species exist today.

Bronze-tailed Plumeleteers, Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and Steely-vented Hummingbirds were the most common hummers. We also had great looks at a Rufous-tailed Jacamar. This woodpecker relative has a long, thin bill for capturing insects on the wing. It looks like a giant hummingbird!

We had the pleasure of seeing a number of Green Ibis. They are so different from the Glossy Ibis that nest along the southern Maine coast. Glossies are rather quiet birds, sedately probing in the mud with their long decurved bills.

Green Ibises like to perch in treetops and they are extremely vocal, giving an accelerating hooting call.  They are most active at dawn and dusk.

Numerous species of tanagers delighted us, each gaudy and spectacular in its own way. But sometimes, an understated appearance can be the most beautiful. For me, that applies to the Snowy Cotingas we saw: white (male) or light gray(female) feathering with a dark eye and bill. Stunning birds!

We had long looks at a perched Rufous Motmot. Another beautiful bird with subtle coloration.

Birds of prey included a Semiplumbeous Hawk, a Gray-headed Kite and a Laughing Falcon (whose call really does sound like a person laughing).

On our final afternoon at La Selva, we signed up for a boat tour of the Rio Sarapiquí that flows through La Selva.

Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpipers, Great Blue Herons and Little Blue Herons were foraging on the banks. Most of the swallows wheeling overhead were familiar Northern Rough-winged Swallows. Some had gray rumps indicating a different species, Southern Rough-winged Swallows. A few Mangrove Swallows with their blue-green upperparts were mixed in.

Our guide spied a well-hidden Green Kingfisher, only 7.5 inches in length. A delightful imp! We also had a good view of the much larger Amazon Kingfisher.

We had a brief view of a soaring bird that came back into view for a good look. It was a King Vulture. We knew it was a particularly good sighting because our tour guide was so excited to see it.

We saw several Anhingas as well.


We departed westward from the tropical rain forests in La Selva to higher elevation. En route, we passed many cow pastures with Cattle Egrets, Great-tailed Grackles and an occasional Crested Caracara consorting with the bovines.

Ultimately, we arrived at the Arenal Observatory Lodge. The lodge is at the base of the Arenal Volcano, the youngest and most active volcano in Costa Rica. Standing nearly, 5,400 feet high, this cone-shaped volcano is a wonder to behold. Steam and other gases emanate from several craters. The last eruption was in 2010.

The lodge has an expansive deck with chairs with a full view of the volcano. It’s also a great platform for birding. A fig tree only 30 feet away is a magnet for many fruit-eating birds. The lodge staff also puts out fruit on a large feeder to attract birds.

The highlight was the diversity of tanagers, each seemingly more colorful and beautiful than the next. You can get an idea of the colors from the names: Blue-gray Tanager, Blue-and-Gold Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager, Emerald Tanager, Silver-throated Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Green Honeycreeper and my favorite, the Bay-headed Tanager.

Montezuma’s Oropendolas, large members of the blackbird family, were abundant. The males continually performed their bow display.

Montezuma’s Oropendola

From a perch on a branch, a male rotates on the perch to put its head down and tail sticking up, all the while giving a distinctive, loud metallic gurgle.

Great Currasow male

From the deck we had great looks at a Great Curassow, a distinctive ground-dwelling bird as well as a Black-and-white Becard.

Long-nosed Coati

Delightful long-nosed coatis, a raccoon relative, roamed around in small packs.

We hired a guide to take us on an early morning bird walk along some of the many trails and roads of the Lodge property. The highlight was a Yellow-eared Toucanet. Our guide had not seen one at Arenal in over a year. Other goodies included a Laughing Falcon, a Violet-headed Hummingbird, Blue-black Grosbeaks and a Black-cowled Oriole.

We departed Arenal for three days in Monteverde, one of the most popular birding sites in Costa Rica. This area has some large tracts of cloud forest with a distinctive bird fauna.

We hired a guide for a morning walk. Usually the cloud forest is foggy with water dripping from the trees. For our walk, the weather was clear and dry.

We enjoyed the beautiful songs of Ochraceous Wrens and Gray-breasted Wood Wrens, eventually getting a good look at each. An Azure-hooded Jay gave us great looks. Slate-throated Redstarts, mostly yellow and black, darted around at eye-level.

We heard the dry trill of a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, a small songbird that mostly forages on the forest floor. Our guide told us that seeing one of these birds is extremely difficult.

The highlight of the walk was a sighting of a male Resplendent Quetzal. The male we saw was perched in the top of an avocado tree, calmly digesting a meal of avocados.

Resplendent Quetzal male

The word spread quickly about the quetzal and many tour groups converged. Everyone got a good view through a spotting scope. With an iridescent emerald-green head, back and chest, red belly and a long tail with green and white feathers, this species is the most beautiful bird I have ever seen.  The quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala as well as the name of their currency.

Lesson’s Motmot

We also had a fine look at a Lesson’s Motmot high overhead.

Some of us went on an afternoon walk on our own. I saw a bird flitting about on the ground. It was a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo. I was ecstatic!

At the Café Calibri just outside the reserve, hummingbirds visit the many feeders hanging there. We saw seven species including the stunning Violet Sabrewing and Green Hermit.  Bananaquits, currently classified into the tanager family, competed for their chance at the sugar water.




Green Hermit





→ No CommentsCategories: Trip Report · Uncategorized

2016 Big Years; The Effects of Bird Feeding

May 4, 2017 · No Comments

Big Years

Now that 2016 has ended, it’s time to check on the Big Year efforts.  John Weigel shattered the old North American record of 749 species seen in a calendar year by finding 781 birds!  Three of his species are new to North America and must be accepted by rare bird committees before their official inclusion.

Olaf Danielson did nearly as well, finding 778 species (two pending). Danielson also spent time birding in Hawaii and has set a new record of 827 species in a year in the United States.

Laura Keene ended her Big Year with 759 species and Christian Hagenlocher exceeded his goal of 700 species by documenting 750 species.  I’m sure all four of these birders are glad to get a chance to rest!

On a more local level, Josh Fecteau of Kennebunkport did a Big Year in Maine in 2016 and found 305 species. An extraordinary effort! You can read about Josh’s Big Year at


The Effects of Bird Feeding

Feeding the birds is a common practice for hundreds of thousands of Americans. Over 40% of American households maintain a bird feeder.  We know that bird feeding does increase the survivorship of birds and improves their physiological condition. Birds do not become dependent on our handouts. What’s the downside of feeding birds?

Jenn Malpass and two colleagues have recently published a paper describing their more nuanced perspective on impacts of bird feeding. Jenn is a Colby College alumna who recently completed her Ph.D. at Ohio State University.

Jenn’s work investigated the impact that bird feeders have on nest predators over the period of 2011 through 2014.  On the one hand, if bird feeders increase the abundance of Blue Jays, American Crows or gray squirrels, other birds nesting in the area may be at a higher risk of losing their eggs or nestlings to those nest predators. On the other hand, providing food to Blue Jays may satiate them, reducing their tendency to take eggs or nestlings.

The research team used seven study areas in residential neighborhoods in Columbus, Ohio. Each neighborhood was about nine acres in area. The team got permission from most home owners to visit their yards.  The team carefully canvased each area and noted the location of every American Robin and Northern Cardinal nest.  The nests were checked every one to four days for evidence of nest predation.  This project was an ambitious one; nearly 1,000 nests were monitored. The researchers also did visual searches for 18 different potential nest predators.

Unsurprisingly, multiple houses in each area had feeding stations.  The research team placed additional bird feeders in three of the seven neighborhoods, essentially doubling the number of feeders. This supplemental food provided a direct test of the influence of bird feeding on nest predator abundance.  Many of the potential nest predators could take advantage of the bird seeds (squirrels and several bird species).  Others, like cats and raptors would not be directly attracted by tasty sunflower seeds, peanuts or millet.

As you can imagine, the statistical analysis is complicated. The authors first tested the effect of year-to-year variability and the amount of supplemental food available on the abundance of the various potential nest predators. Next, they tested the effect of nest predators and bird feeders on nest success.

The results showed that bird feeders do increase the abundance of American Crows and Brown-headed Cowbirds. However, this increase in nest predator abundance did not translate into reduced nesting success of robins or cardinals.  The one negative effect was a reduction in robin nest success in the presence of high American Crow abundance and high bird feeder density. The main effect of bird feeders on nesting success is neither a positive or negative effect. Our joy in feeding birds, at least for two species, does not entail unintended negative consequences.



→ No CommentsCategories: Behavior · Birding and Birders

Maine Christmas Bird Count Highlights – III

April 10, 2017 · No Comments

This post concludes the overview of the National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Counts conducted in Maine between mid-December and early January.

The Orono Christmas Bird Count (hereafter, CBC) was held on December 17. A Gray Jay was perhaps the least expected of the 44 species tallied. Tufted Titmice were represented by 28 individuals.

A hardy Northern Mockingbird was unexpected. A whopping 1,467 Bohemian Waxwings were found, an excellent count for this early in the winter.

Irruptive finches were well represented with 65 Pine Grosbeaks, 25 Purple Finches, 54 Common Redpolls and 103 Evening Grosbeaks.

Just eight miles south of Orono, the Bangor Christmas Bird Count was held on December 31.  The effort yielded a fine count of 58 species. Careful looks at the Common Goldeneye flocks on the Penobscot River yielded two Barrow’s Goldeneyes.

Two Red-bellied Woodpeckers and a lingering Northern Flicker were the most notable woodpeckers. Two Peregrine Falcons and a Northern Shrike were delightful finds.

Tufted Titmice continue to increase in the area; a total of 96 were found this year. Lingering songbirds included a Carolina Wren, two Northern Mockingbirds and a Yellow-rumped Warbler.

The Bangor counters found 311 Bohemian Waxwings along with 79 Cedar Waxwings.

Northern finches put on a good show: 146 Pine Grosbeaks, six Purple Finches, three Pine Siskins and nine Evening Grosbeaks.

Let’s head over to the downeast coast to Machias and then work our way south along the coast.

The Machias Count yielded 59 species on December 31. A Common Pintail and four Harlequin Ducks were the most notable of the 14 species of waterfowl.

Lingering birds included a Northern Harrier, three White-throated Sparrows and a Song Sparrow.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker was unusual for this part of Maine. Rough-legged Hawks have been scarce in Maine so far this winter so the two found here were great finds.

Red-breasted Nuthatches were well represented with 363 individuals. Irruptive birds included 38 Bohemian Waxwings, 74 Pine Grosbeaks, 61 Purple Finches, 55 Pine Siskins and 27 Evening Grosbeaks.

Counters on the Schoodic CBC started the new year off right, finding 59 species. Twelve species of waterfowl appeared, none out of the ordinary.

Six Northern Gannets were delights along with two Rough-legged Hawks.

Black Guillemots are expected on any coastal Maine CBC. Counters here found 36 along with two other less common alcids: two Thick-billed Murres and a quartet of Razorbills.

Less common gulls included five Black-legged Kittiwakes and singleton Iceland and Glaucous gulls.

Two Northern Shrikes graced the area with their presence. Lingering birds included nine American Robins, a Northern Mockingbird, a White-throated Sparrow and three Song Sparrows.

Winter finches included 55 Purple Finches and an excellent total of 24 Red Crossbills.

Let’s hop on a plane to visit Matinicus Island, 20 miles off shore, like three CBC birders did on January 5. You never know what a far-flung outpost like Matinicus will hold.

The counters found 39 species. This year there were no jaw-dropping finds. The expected coastal birds were present  just offshore.

Lingering birds included a Northern Flicker, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, four White-throated Sparrows and two Song Sparrows. The only other sparrow was a American Tree Sparrow and no finches were found at all.

The Pemaquid Count produced a nice total of 64 species on December 17. Three Wood Ducks were the most unusual of 15 species of waterfowl.

Lingering birds included a Northern Harrier, a Belted Kingfisher, five Eastern Bluebirds and a Northern Mockingbird. A Merlin and two Fox Sparrows were notable.

The Bath CBC was held of December 19, producing a fine total of 74 species. Fifteen Northern Pintails were the most notable waterfowl.

Highlights included an American Pipit, four Lapland Longspurs and a long list of lingering species. These ambitious birds included a Great Blue Heron, five Northern Harriers, two Hermit Thrushes, a Savannah Sparrow and five Red-winged Blackbirds.

[First published on February 5, 2017]

→ No CommentsCategories: Christmas Count Summaries

Maine Christmas Bird Count Highlights – II

March 14, 2017 · No Comments

This column continues the overview of the National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Counts conducted in Maine between mid-December and early January. We’ll concentrate mainly on inland counts in central Maine today.

The Waterville Christmas Bird Count (hereafter, CBC) was held on December 18. A lower-than-normal total of 47 species were detected this time, owing in large part to the freezing rain that delayed the start of the count and restricted birding on foot.

A Northern Pintail, six Barrow’s Goldeneyes and a Bufflehead were the most unusual of nine species of waterfowl.  Two Red-bellied Woodpeckers and a lingering Northern Flicker were notable.  Thirteen Pine Grosbeaks were the only northern finches. Two Northern Shrikes graced the count with their presence.

The dairy farms in the northern part of the count circle are usually good for ground-dwelling land birds. This agricultural habitat did not disappoint this year, yielding three Lapland Longspurs, six Snow Buntings, six Savannah Sparrows and an all-time high count of 325 Horned Larks.

The highlight of the count was a Buteo hawk that had characteristics of both a Red-tailed Hawk and a Red-shouldered Hawk (the latter rare in the winter in Kennebec County). Louis Bevier re-found and photographed the bird, determining that it was a hybrid between these two species.

The Augusta Christmas Bird Count took place on December 31, rescheduled from December 17 because of snow. This CBC yielded 54 species. Three Sandhill Cranes were a big surprise.

The Hatch Hill Transfer Station is usually good for white-winged gulls. This year one Glaucous and five Iceland gulls were spotted.

Boreal Chickadees are common in the mountains and coastal spruce-fir forests of Maine but rare in Kennebec County. One appeared at a suet feeder in Augusta just after Christmas and stuck around long enough to be tallied on the Augusta CBC.

This count did produce a few irruptive finches: two Pine Grosbeaks, 56 Purple Finches, a Pine Siskin and nine Common Redpolls.

Just a bit north of Augusta, the Unity CBC took place in the snow on December 17. A total of 39 species were found, fewer species than in past years. The heavy snowon that day is no doubt the explanation for the failure to find any Mallards as well as the low numbers of many other species.

A lingering American Kestrel and Savannah Sparrow were nice finds. Northern visitors included 125 Snow Buntings, a Northern Shrike, a Pine Siskin and 27 Pine Grosbeaks.

Evening Grosbeaks staged a modest incursion into Maine in the fall although most seem to have passed through the state. The 36 Evening Grosbeaks in Unity were excellent finds.

Let’s move west to Farmington for highlights of their December 28 CBC. A total of 35 species were detected. With most water frozen over, waterfowl were nearly absent. In fact, a single Snow Goose (an unusual species for this time of year) was the only waterfowl species. A lingering Northern Harrier was a highlight.

Northern visitors included 206 Bohemian Waxwings, 36 Snow Buntings, 42 Pine Grosbeaks and a nice total of 37 Evening Grosbeaks.

Participants tallied 25 Tufted Titmice, a clear indication that this species has established itself in Franklin County. Titmice continue their invasion of Maine. The species was essentially absent in central Maine 25 years ago.

Lingering birds in Farmington included four Song Sparrows and an Eastern Bluebird.

Continuing to the southwest, we’ll cover the Sweden CBC in western Cumberland County. This December 28 count produced 37 species.

Four American Black Ducks and 244 Mallards were the only waterfowl.  Gamebirds included three Ruffed Grouse and 194 Wild Turkeys. A lingering Northern Flicker and six Red-bellied Woodpeckers were nice additions to the expected Downy, Hairy and Pileated woodpecker counts.

Northern visitors included a single Northern Shrike, a single Bohemian Waxwing and a lone Snow Bunting.

Hardy lingering birds included a Winter Wren and seven Eastern Bluebirds.

[First published on January 22, 2017]

→ No CommentsCategories: Christmas Count Summaries

Maine Christmas Bird Count Highlights – I

February 21, 2017 · No Comments

The 117th Christmas Bird Count season is now over. As usual in January, I will discuss the highlights of some of the Maine Christmas Bird Counts.  These standardized censuses provide an important tool to monitor the abundance of winter birds throughout North America and beyond.

I’ll concentrate on any changes in regularly wintering birds, the arrival of unpredictable invaders and records of any lingering birds whose wintering areas are well to our south. A rarity or two may pop up as well.

We’ll start with the southern Maine coast. The York County count was held on December 21. Thirty observers found 82 species of birds. Eighteen species of waterfowl were found with the most notable being four Wood Ducks and five Northern Pintail. The York County rocky coast is a stronghold for Harlequin Ducks in Maine; 65 of these lovely birds were counted.

Six species of hawks and eagles were spotted. One Red-shouldered Hawk was a nice find; most winter well to our south. One Rough-legged Hawk, a northern visitor, made a nice geographic contrast. Two Peregrine Falcons added to the diurnal raptor list.

Purple Sandpipers (329 to be exact) were the only shorebirds tallied this year. The only alcids were 22 Razorbills and five Black-Guillemots.

The relatively moderate climate of the York County coast usually has more lingering species than other areas in Maine. This year did not disappoint with a Great Blue Heron, three Belted Kingfishers, a Northern Flicker, 152 Eastern Bluebirds, a Gray Catbird, two Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Rusty Blackbird.

The most remarkable species this year was an Eastern Screech-Owl. I suspect this species will increase in Maine as our climate warms.

Greater Portland usually takes top honors for the most species on their count. Eighty-eight species were tallied this year despite the snowy conditions on December 17. Twenty species of waterfowl were present with the most notable being a lingering Snow Goose and Wood Duck.

Only two Red-throated Loons were present along with 66 Common Loons. No alcids, not even a guillemot, appeared this year.

A lone Glaucous Gull was the only northern gull in attendance. A Merlin and two Peregrine Falcons were found.

Lingering, half-hardy species included a Northern Harrier, an American Coot, two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, six Northern Flickers, a Gray Catbird, two American Pipits, a Black-throated Blue Warbler (an extraordinary find), three Rusty Blackbirds and a Common Grackle.

The Pemaquid count was held on the same day as the Portland count. A total of 64 species appeared. Highlights were three lingering Wood Ducks, 80 Purple Sandpipers, 158 American Robins, a Northern Mockingbird, two Fox Sparrows and an Eastern Towhee.

Twelve Black Guillemots were the only alcids found and only three species of gulls were tallied. I expect the heavy snow throughout the day had something to do with that.

The Mount Desert count was also held on that snowy Saturday. Fifty-three species were counted. This count usually has impressive Common Eider counts; this year 1,402 were counted. An American Wigeon was an unusual bird for this time of year.

Other lingering birds included a Northern Harrier and 133 American Robins. A Snowy Owl was a nice sighting.

The Lewiston-Auburn Count on December 18 yielded a total of 44 species. By late December on inland Christmas Bird Count, any still water is frozen.  Counters have to seek out running water to find any waterfowl and typically waterbird diversity is low. The L/A counters found five species of waterfowl, with the 436 Mallards representing an impressive total. Five Common Loons were found, always an excellent find on an inland Christmas Bird Count in Maine.

Other notable sightings included a Merlin, a Peregrine Falcon and 82 Horned Larks.

The northern finches (Common Redpoll, crossbills, Pine Siskins) failed to appear on any of these counts. Not a strong irruption year so far.

Herb Wilson teaches ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at

[First published on January 8, 2017]




→ No CommentsCategories: Christmas Count Summaries

Aberrant Plumages

February 13, 2017 · No Comments

This snowball of a House Sparrow has been frequenting Peggy Blair’s feeders in Clinton for the past four years. A number of birders got to see this sparrow as they made the trek to Peggy’s feeders to see the two Dickcissels that spent two weeks there, starting in late November.

This sparrow has been the subject of a lot of discussion among birders. Is it an albino? A partial albino? A leucistic bird?  I thought the white House Sparrow would provide a good jumping off point for a discussion of aberrant plumages in birds.

In college, I had a professor who said that nature has no interest in being classified. To be sure, trying to pigeon-hole odd plumages of birds is fraught with problems. Nonetheless, Han van Grouw took a crack at classifying different kinds of aberrantly white-plumaged birds.

To start, we need to know that two major types of feather pigments occur in birds. Carotenoids are the feather pigments that make some birds so colorful.  Carotenoid pigments vary from pale yellow to scarlet red. Birds cannot make carotenoids but rather acquire them from their diet. The pink of flamingos is produced by pink carotenoids obtained from the small shrimp the birds prefer.

Melanins provide the blacks, grays, dark-browns and reddish-browns in feathers. Birds are able to synthesize their own melanin using the amino acid tyrosine, one of the constituents of proteins.

Let’s start with albinism.  An albino bird lacks the enzyme tyrosinase so is not able to convert tyrosine to melanins. An albino bird will have no black or brown feathering on the body at all. Furthermore, the eyes and skin are colorless.  They appear red because of the blood that can be seen through the skin.

Peggy’s white House Sparrow is clearly not an albino. The eyes are dark and you can see some black feathering on the head.  This bird is clearly capable of making melanins.

Albinism is actually one of the least common aberrant white plumages. And here’s a fact to bend your mind. It is possible to have a bird like a Summer Tanager with beautiful red plumage that is an albino.  If that bird cannot produce melanins, it can still acquire carotenoids from its diet to make red feathers. But that bird will have colorless skin and eyes. So, a male Summer Tanager with red eyes is an albino!

The life span of an albino is usually much shorter than average. The reason is bad vision. The lack of eye pigments means that albinos are extremely light-sensitive and also have poor depth perception.

The phrase partial albino is frequently applied to birds from colorful species with some but not all white feathering. I agree with van Grouw that this phrase needs to be stricken from our vocabulary. If a bird can produce some melanin, like our House Sparrow, it is not an albino. Partial albino is self-contradictory, like “very unique” or “slightly pregnant”.

Leucism describes the condition where some or all of the feathers of a bird lack melanins. A leucistic bird can synthesize melanins but it lacks the ability to transfer the melanin to its feathers. This description fits our white House Sparrow perfectly. We know that the bird can produce melanins because the eyes are dark and a few dark feathers appear on the head.

Leucism can vary from fewer than a quarter of the feathers being white to totally white feathers. A leucistic bird does not have the defective eyesight of an albino so its expected life span is not shortened like an albino.

I’ve just touched the surface of aberrant plumages here. Some birds appear to have washed-out feathers but not white. Reductions in the quality (Brown mutation) or quantity (dilution) can yield abnormally light-colored birds.  Some birds overproduce melanin (melanism) and appear much darker than normal. And yes, there are shades of gray!

[First published on December 25, 2016]

→ No CommentsCategories: Genetics · Morphology

Bullock’s Oriole and Dickcissel; Feeding Behavior at Your Feeder

February 13, 2017 · No Comments

The late fall sometimes brings unusual birds into Maine. Whether storm-tossed or directionally challenged, such birds find themselves far removed from others of their species. We have a couple such species represented in Maine late this year.

A Bullock’s Oriole has been visiting a feeder in Camden since November 23.  Bullock’s Oriole is normally found in western North America during the nesting season and mostly in Mexico during the winter. Here is a photo of this beauty:

The ranges of Bullock’s Oriole and Baltimore Oriole meet in the Great Plains. Sometimes individuals of the two species hybridize, producing viable young. Based on this interbreeding, the American Ornithologists Union lumped the two species into one species, the Northern Oriole, but recently reversed their decision based on genetic information.

The Maine Bird Records Committee presently accepts only one prior record of this species, an individual photographed on October 31, 2012 by Jan Pierson in Phippsburg.

On November 30, an adult male Dickcissel was found in Clinton, consorting with a flock of House Sparrows. A few days later, a first-year male Dickcissel was spotted in the flock as well.

Dickcissels are birds of grasslands, abundant in the Midwest. They winter in Central and northern South America.  Dickcissels are not mega-rarities in Maine like Bullock’s Oriole but are uncommon enough to be a thrilling sighting.  Here are some pictures:

Watching Birds at a Feeder

Attracting birds to our yards is a source of joy.  But have you looked carefully at how the birds handle the seeds we provide?

House Finches, Evening Grosbeaks and other large-billed finches are adept at cracking seeds to separate the tasty kernel from the nutritionally poor husk.  These finches do not crush the seeds with brute force but rather do so with an efficient delicacy.

Most seeds have a suture line where the two sides of a seed cover are joined. Such sutures are easily seen in a sunflower seed.

If you look carefully at a feeding finch, you can see that the surface of the upper bill narrows to a tip.   The lower bill surface is a groove.  The point of the upper bill fits nicely in the groove of the lower bill.

To eat a sunflower seed, a finch will manipulate a sunflower seed so that the point of the upper bill bears down directly on the suture line.  As the bill is closed the seed is secured in the groove of the lower bill and the “tooth” of the upper bill splits the seed at the point of least resistance.

Using its tongue and bill, a finch casts out the halves of the sunflower seed husk and swallows the heart.

Some seeds have a second covering, like the reddish skin of a peanut. A finch has the beak dexterity to remove these coverings as well.

Chickadees and titmice are fond of sunflower seeds as well but their short, pointed bill is not an effective crushing tool.  Rather, a chickadee uses its pointed bill to chip away at the seed.

A chickadee will come to your feeder, grab a sunflower seed and then fly off to a nearby branch. The chickadee’s long toes are perfect for holding the seed tight against the branch.  Seed secured, the chickadee attacks the suture of the seed with its bill.

More than one inexperienced birder has been confused by a chickadee seeming to peck repeatedly at its toes. Rather, the morsel-to-be receives the pecks of the bill.

It takes longer for a chickadee or titmouse to open a seed compared to a finch.  But sometimes a chickadee will take a seed and then come back almost immediately.  In all likelihood, the chickadee is caching seeds in a bark crevice for use later in the season.  Chickadees have phenomenal memories so can retrieve most of their cached seeds. Keep your eyes peeled for this behavior.

[First published on December 11, 2016]

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Migration Talk at the University of New England

December 21, 2016 · No Comments

I was invited to speak at the Center for Global Humanities of the University of New England on December 12.  My talk was recorded and posted to YouTube by the Center.  I spoke on the arrival date project I have been working on for the past 22 years, thanks to several hundred birders who have contributed data. If you would like to watch the talk, here’s the link:

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Evening Grosbeaks

December 17, 2016 · No Comments

Additional reports of Evening Grosbeaks from across the state are arriving daily. Perhaps you have been one of the lucky ones to have them in your yard.   Members of this species are awfully restless in the winter so count yourself fortunate if Evening Grosbeaks linger for more than a week at your feeder.

I strongly encourage you to learn the distinctive flight calls of Evening Grosbeaks.  Sometimes the note given (often translated as “cleep”) is sweet and other times burry.  In either case, it is instantly recognizable once you train your ears. Visit this site for good recordings of the calls:

As satisfying as it is to detect an unseen flock of Evening Grosbeaks overhead, seeing these robust beauties is even better. The males with their yellow bodies, brown heads with yellow eyebrows and a large patch of white on each black wing, are stunning.  The understated females, with tones of bluish-gray on their body and a large white patch on each black wing, have a beauty of their own. They love sunflower seeds so keep your feeders stocked.

The scientific name of this finch is Coccothraustes vespertinus.  The genus name “Coccothraustes ” means “kernel breaker”, certainly appropriate for a bird with a stout, conical beak.  The species name “vespertinus”  refers to “evening”, a puzzling claim since these birds are active all day long as anyone lucky enough to have them at a feeder can attest!

The evening reference comes from observations made by a Major Delafield, a United States boundary agent in 1823:

“At twilight, the bird which I had before heard to cry in a singular strain, and only at his hour, made its appearance close by my tent, and a flock of about half a dozen perched on the bushes in my encampment . . .. My inference was then, and is now, that this bird dwells in such dark retreats, and leaves them at the approach of night”.

Perhaps Delafield heard some Evening Grosbeaks as they were going to roost but they certainly do not call only at twilight. Nevertheless, Delafield’s claim of calling restricted to the twilight hours was accepted by ornithologists who dubbed Coccothraustes vespertinus the Evening Grosbeak for its standardized common name.

Evening Grosbeaks are relatively recent arrivals in Maine.  This species is originally a bird of western North America. The imminent Massachusetts ornithologist, Edward Forbush, claims that until the winter of 1889-1890, Evening Grosbeaks were virtually unknown east of Ohio.  During that winter, an eastward invasion brought these birds into eastern Massachusetts.

A second large invasion came in 1910-1911, leading to the gradual establishment of Evening Grosbeaks as breeding birds in southeastern Canada and the northeastern United States.

Some have suggested that the immigration of Evening Grosbeaks into the east was facilitated by the spread of box elder (Acer negundo) trees.  The seeds and buds of box elders are highly favored by Evening Grosbeaks.  The planting of these trees as ornamentals may have contributed to the invasion of Evening Grosbeaks to Maine.

Evening Grosbeaks were fairly common birds in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the northeast. Their success may have resulted from the widespread spruce budworm outbreaks then.  Evening Grosbeaks feed their young protein-rich insects and spruce budworms are among their favored prey.

Spruce budworm populations go through decades-long patterns of growth and decline. A decline in spruce budworm abundance in the early 1980’s is correlated with a steep decline in Evening Grosbeak abundance. The grosbeak populations continue on a downward slope begun around 1980.

Human impacts are certainly responsible for some Evening Grosbeak mortality. This species is the tenth most likely species to be killed from window collisions.  Many Evening Grosbeaks are killed by cars because the birds come onto roads to collect grit for their gizzards as well as road salt.

[Originally published on December 4, 2016]



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