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]