Maine Birds

Entries Tagged as 'Migration'

Web App to Explore the Phenology of Bird Migration in Maine

June 5th, 2017 · No Comments

Spring is a wonderful season for naturalists. The earth is awakening after a winter’s slumber. Our eyes and ears are tuned to the sound of the first spring peepers, the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the first blooming Trillium in the forest, the first leaves on red maples, and even the first black fly.

The documenting of these firsts in spring has a formal name, phenology. But being aware of phenological events is not just an academic exercise. Even in the 1700s, British farmers judiciously waited to plant their crops until particular species of migratory birds arrived. The farmers sowed their seeds according to an ornithological calendar.

For the past 23 years, I have been coordinating a volunteer-based phenology study to document the first arrival of over 100 species of Maine migratory breeding birds. Observers are asked to report their first sighting of as many of those species as they see along with their geographic location.  We know have over 65,000 arrival dates. The project has taught us much about the timing and variability of the arrivals of the various migratory species that nest in our state.

To make this information available to any birder, I have developed a web application to allow a user to explore the data. I invite you to visit: https://hobbes.colby.edu/arrival/

A drop-down menu allows you to choose a species and slider bars permit you to select a year and display features. Clicking on the Data Summary tab will give the average, median and other summary dates for a species/year combination.

Tracking changes in phenological events is important in the face of global climate change. Although some people deny the role of human activities in leading to global temperature increases in the face of overwhelming evidence, the fact that the earth is warming is undeniable.  The polar ice caps are melting, sea level is rising, and average temperatures are rising around the globe.

Many phenological events are driven by temperature. We have good evidence that the arrivals of migratory birds are earlier now than in past years. One such study compared arrivals of migratory birds in Worcester, Massachusetts and Ithaca, New York. Both of these areas have long-standing bird clubs with records of arrival dates extending back into the 19th century.  Virtually all of their migratory species are now arriving earlier than they did 50 years and more ago.

Numerous such studies have corroborated the pattern of earlier arrivals. Several bird banding stations that have been operative for 60 years or more reveal the same patterns.

You can explore the Maine data for trends of earlier arrivals over the past 23 years. Just choose Year with the Radio Button at the bottom left and click on Scatterplot.

Although the graphs for most species show a downward trend, indicating earlier arrivals, most of those relationships are not statistically different. For perhaps multiple reasons, Maine migratory birds are not responding as strongly to climate change as birds nesting in states to the south of us.

Some of our migratory breeding birds winter within the continental U.S. (short-distance migrants) while others winter in tropical areas of the Caribbean, Central America and South America (long-distance migrants).  Short-distance migrants seem to be more responsive to spring-time temperatures. When a northeastern spring is mild, the birds continue their migrations and arrive in Maine relatively early. In cold springs, the birds rightly delay their migrations until conditions improve, resulting in a late arrival.

The web app can be used to investigate these patterns. Choose a species and click on Temperature.Departure.from.Mean.  Negative values of Temperature.Dependence indicate a colder than average spring; positive values indicate a mild spring.

Click on Scatterplot to see the relationship. Red-winged Blackbird shows a particularly strong effect.

Lastly, clicking on the NAO.Index radio button allows a user to see the effect of this hemispheric weather phenomenon (analogous to the El Niño effect in the Pacific).

 

[Originally published on April 16, 2017]

 

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

 

 

 

Tags: Migration · Software

Migration Talk at the University of New England

December 21st, 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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VzNxu_kWnd8&feature=em-upload_owner

Tags: Migration

Evening Grosbeaks

December 17th, 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: http://bit.ly/2fiPyiO

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]

 

 

Tags: Foraging · Identification · Migration · Species Accounts

Northern Finches

November 28th, 2016 · No Comments

Are they coming this winter or not?  One hears this question a lot in birding circles at this time of year.  The question centers on the group of birds called the northern finches or winter finches, higher-latitude birds that grace us with their presence in some winters but not in all.  The only predictable feature of northern finch abundance is unpredictability.

The northern finches include Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, Evening Grosbeak, Pine Grosbeak, White-winged Crossbill, Red Crossbill and Common Redpoll.  Although some of these species nest in Maine, most individuals of these species nest well to our north.

All of these species depend on the seeds from trees for their sustenance, particularly during the winter. Redpolls are fond of birch seeds and the rest specialize on conifer seeds (firs, hemlocks, spruces, larches and pines).  Pine Grosbeaks have a taste for fruit as well.

When seed abundance is adequate on the breeding grounds, these finches will forgo a southern migration and spend the winter on their breeding grounds.  The birds spare themselves from the significant cost of migration. However, seed production by the trees the finches depend on varies dramatically from year to year. In a year of low seed production, the northern finches are forced to be nomads, wandering south until they encounter the seeds they need.

These southern migrations are called irruptions.  The birds irrupt or move into areas away from their breeding grounds.

In our neck of the woods, three conditions have to arise for us to see an irruption of Common Redpolls, White-winged Crossbills or other irruptive species. First, seed production on the finches’ breeding areas has to fail. Second, seed production of those trees has to be high in Maine. Third, the irruptive finches have to happen upon our abundant seeds in their wanderings.

For the past 20 years or so, Ron Pittaway in Ontario has been putting out a winter finch forecast.  He gathers data on the cone production of various conifers, birch and fruit trees.  He has been remarkably good in predicting flights of irruptive finches.  His data for southern Ontario mirror abundances in neighboring provinces and states.

According to Pittaway, this winter will likely be poor in Maine for Pine Grosbeaks. Mountain Ash in the boreal forest produced many berries this summer.  Pine Grosbeaks will have no need to irrupt.

On the other hand, cone production by several species of conifers across the boreal forest was modest at best.  Pittaway expects White-winged Crossbills, Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins to stage irruptions.  Purple Finches have already started to appear in Maine in good numbers at feeders.

The Evening Grosbeak has had a couple of excellent breeding years so their population seems to be on a bit of an upswing after several decades of declines.  Pittaway thinks these birds are likely to be seen at feeders in southern Ontario and northern New England.

So far, he seems right on the money.  In the past week or so, I have heard reports of Evening Grosbeaks in Machias (100 birds!), Newcastle, Bangor, Wells, Skowhegan, Gardiner, Milbridge, Pittsfield, Biddeford, and Yarmouth.  You get the picture; it is an irruption!  I am not alone in hoping we have an abundance of these beautiful finches here all winter.  Keep those sunflower feeders filled.

Red-breasted Nuthatches depend on conifer seeds during the winter as well. Unsurprisingly, their irruptions tend to coincide with those of Purple Finches, Pine Siskins and White-winged Crossbills.  I’ve seen more Red-breasted Nuthatches this fall than I have in the past few years.

Blue Jays also show irruptive behavior, responding to the abundance of their preferred winter food, acorns. Acorn production has been low this year in central Maine, perhaps due to the dry summer we had.  Many of our Blue Jays will move south for the winter.

[First published in mid-November, 2016]

Tags: Foraging · Migration

Swainson’s Hawk in Millinocket!

November 28th, 2016 · No Comments

On September 29, Rhonda Little-Aifa posted photographs of an unfamiliar hawk on the Maine Birds Facebook page.  The bird was at the Millinocket Airport on Medway Road, first seen a few days earlier.

Doug Hitchcox, the Naturalist at the Maine Audubon Society, recognized the bird as a Swainson’s Hawk.  Swainson’s Hawks nest on cliffs near grasslands in western North America and spend the winter in South America, as far south as Argentina.

Clearly, this was a bird out of place.  The Maine Birds Checklist Committee recognizes only two prior records for the state, one seen on May 3, 2009 in Pownal and on seen on September 23, 2013 in Harpswell.  Eight other reports of this species, dating from 1883 to 2005, have not yet been reviewed by the Checklist Committee.

A major migration of birders to Millinocket began on September 30. Dozens of birders got to see this cooperative bird, particularly over the weekend.  The hawk was last soon on the morning of October 4.  You can see pictures at: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S31826769

Swainson’s Hawk belongs to the genus Buteo, the genus that also includes the familiar Red-tailed Hawk and Broad-winged Hawk.  Swainson’s has proportionally longer wings and a smaller bill than the similarly-sized Red-tailed Hawk.

Swainson’s Hawk has colloquial names of locust hawk and grasshopper hawk.  The hawks feed often on the ground, chasing grasshoppers, a favored food.  The Millinocket Bird spent most of  its time perched on the fence surrounding the airport or walking/running on the ground, chasing down grasshoppers. Louis Bevier made a video of the hawk capturing a grasshopper: You can watch the video at: https://vimeo.com/185072912

Swainson’s Hawks will also catch dragonflies and other large insects on the wing.

Normally, Swainson’s Hawks migrate south from their western breeding grounds, through Central America and then spread out in South America. Like most Buteo hawks, Swainson’s Hawks are averse to migrating over water.

Swainson’s Hawks are one of the most abundant species migrating through the Isthmus of Panama. Hawk watchers in Panama City counted 900,000 soaring migrants (mostly Swainson’s Hawks and Turkey Vultures) passing overhead on a single day in November of 2013.  That record was eclipsed on November 2, 2014 when 2.1 million birds passed over.  What a spectacle that must have been!

This hawk joins a long list of vagrants to Maine from western North America.  These birds include White-winged Dove, Western Flycatcher, Calliope Hummingbird, Hermit Warbler, Brewer’s Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow and Western Meadowlark.

I think it is significant the the Millinocket Swainson’s Hawk was a young bird, born in the summer of this year.  Many birds that appear in unexpected places during migrations are naïve, inexperienced birds.  Young birds are much more likely to make navigational errors than more experienced birds.

Navigation during migration involves two abilities. Most migrants are capable of vector navigation, maintaining a particular compass direction for a specified length of time or distance.  True navigation requires that a bird knows exactly where it is, even if it is displaced by a storm or wind.

Experiments demonstrate differences between the navigational abilites of juvenile and adult birds. Imagine Yellow-rumped Warlers banded on their breeding grounds in Maine that normally would migrate south to North Caroina for the winter. Vector navigation in a south-southwest trajectory will get those birds to their wintering grounds.

Some ornithologists have experimentally captured such birds and displaced them eastward or westward.  Let’s fly some warblers from Maine to Minnesota and release them there in the fall.  Adult birds have true navigation; they realize where their displaced position is and will migrate in a southeasterly direction to get to North Carolina.  The young warblers are poor at true navigation.  Most will use their vector navigation skills and head south toward Texas. Vagrant birds therefore tend to be young birds that are much more likely to get lost.

Tags: Foraging · Identification · Insects · Migration · Species Accounts

Fall Migration Tips – II

November 28th, 2016 · No Comments

In the last column, I provided some tips on how to predict when migrating birds are likely to be seen in your local patch. Experiencing a fall-out of migrants is exhilarating. In today’s column, we will explore ways that you can experience migrating birds while they are in flight.

Some birds migrate during the day.  We have all thrilled to skeins of Canada Geese or Double-crested Cormorants, winging their way in V-formation to more favorable areas.  Hawks, eagles and falcons are diurnal migrants as well.  They are adept at taking advantage of the vertical winds, called thermals, that form during the day due to uneven heating of the earth’s surface. A rocky outcrop will warm more rapidly than an adjacent forest. The rocks warm the air, the air rises and is replaced by cooler air from the adjacent forest.  That cool air warms, rises and you get the picture.  Hawks are masters at soaring from thermal to thermal, scarcely beating a wing.

A sunny day with winds in the right direction produces spectacular numbers of these soaring migrants.  Mt. Agamenticus in the Ogunquit area and Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park have several thousand raptors migrating over them each fall.  Bradbury Mountain in Pownal can be great for spring hawk migrants.

Hawk watching is a boom-or-bust activity.  Make sure the weather conditions are right and you may be rewarded with more hawks than you can follow.

Shorebirds and most of our songbirds are nocturnal migrants.  Advantages of night-time migration are three-fold. The risk of predation from raptors is low. The air is cooler; migrating birds raise their metabolic rate so high they must constantly dump heat or they will overheat. The cooler air helps them balance their heat budget. Finally, the air is less turbulent at night, making powered flight more efficient.

Migrating songbirds mostly migrate at altitudes of 2,000 to 4,000 feet. Shorebirds may fly a bit higher.

How can you see these birds at night? Get your binoculars or, better yet, a spotting scope and train it on the surface of the moon. If migration is occurring, you will see the silhouettes of birds passing in front of the moon’s image.  Don’t expect to see birds flying at their normal migrating height but as birds take off or descend, they are easily seen against the moon.  The technique works well for birds that are no more than several hundred feet above the surface of the earth.

You can also appreciate migrating birds at night from radar images. In the early days of modern radar in the early 1940s, mysterious blips were detected on radar screens. They proved to be no threat to military aircraft.  These echoes were called angels.  Now we know that the angels are small flocks of birds.

The Doppler radar used now for weather forecasting is perfect for detecting bird migration.  Here is the URL for a great tutorial on how to use the freely available NEXRAD radar images to monitor migration: http://www.woodcreeper.com/videos/NCAR_Tutorial-desktop.m4v

Yet one more way to appreciate nocturnal migration is to use your ears.  Nocturnal migrants are noisy, regularly emitting short flight notes.  In some cases, the flight notes are similar to the calls the birds give while they are on the ground.  In many cases, however, the flight notes are only given during a nocturnal flight.

Bill Evans has been a pioneer in the study of nocturnal flight calls.  Visit his website at  http://www.oldbird.org/ He has sonograms for a number of warblers and sparrows.

On a night that is not too windy, you can hear the flight notes above.  However, a microphone will capture many more of those vocalizations.  Evans provides directions on how to build a microphone system using cheap materials like a plastic flowerpot, saran wrap, a dinner plate and an inexpensive microphone.

Tags: Migration · Weather

Fall Migration Tips – I

November 28th, 2016 · No Comments

The southward migration of five billion birds in North America is a staggering phenomenon.  These migratory movements provide us with the chance to see a diversity of birds, often in very high numbers.  I will devote the next columns to ways to fully experience the fall migration.

Migrating birds are flying right on the edge of survival.  Flight is energetically taxing, requiring that a bird’s metabolic rate be raised five times or more above its resting rate.  With the exception of birds like swallows, swifts and kites that feed on insects on the wing, migrating birds cannot refuel during flight. One way migrating birds try to maximize the length of a migratory leg is to take advantage of favorable winds.

A weather map offers you a tool to predict when migrations will be strong by looking at the relationship of low- and high-pressure systems.  Generally, high-pressure systems alternate with low-pressure systems, moving from west to east across the continent.

A high-pressure system has winds that circle the center of the system in a clockwise pattern.  The leading edge of the high-pressure system therefore has winds that flow from north to south.

A low-pressure system has winds that flow counterclockwise.  The winds on the backside of a low flow to the south.

To determine when conditions are perfect for a wave of fall migrants, all you have to do is find the nearest cold front (indicated on the weather map by a line with triangles).  At the cold front, an area of cool air from a high-pressure system moves underneath the less dense, warmer air of the low-pressure system.  The rising air cools, usually causing a line of precipitation.

As the front passes, a strong flow of wind blowing to the south occurs with the interaction of the trailing edge of the low-pressure system and the leading edge of the high-pressure system.  Depending on the rate at which the high-pressure system moves, spectacular migrations may be seen for several days.

If you see a warm front passing across your neighborhood, you do not need to worry about getting up at the crack of dawn to look for migrating warblers or sparrows.  A warm front (indicated by a line with semicircles on your weather map) is caused when a low-pressure system slides over and above a high-pressure system.  In this case, the winds at and behind the front will flow to the north.  Birds migrate mostly when the winds are favorable and will stay put if the winds are opposite their migratory trajectory.

On a favorable night, birds will fly as long as they can, settling down sometime in the wee hours of the morning.  Sometimes, precipitation can cause birds to land en masse.  By luck, a given spot may be hopping with birds.

Where is the best place to look for a fallout? Frankly, serendipity plays a huge role here. Sometime fallouts are broad, occurring over a county-sized area; at other times, the fallouts may be quite restricted.

However, some places are more likely to produce fallouts.  Shrubby areas along the immediate coast are often productive. Birds that are migrating just offshore will seek landfall to rest and refuel. A dawn excursion to a coastal area can produce a stream of tired birds, welcomed by dry land.  Fort Foster in Kittery, Two Lights State Park in Scarborough and the Eastern Promenade in Portland often harbor many fall migrants.  I have experienced fallouts at West Quoddy State Park in Lubec.  Any patch of coastal real estate with some bush and tree cover can be productive.

Migrating birds may look for islands of habitat in areas that are heavily developed.  The Evergreen Cemetery in Portland is one such magnet.

Finally, migrants need water so checking ponds, streams and rivers can produce excellent fall migrant numbers.

Tags: Migration · Weather

Fall Migration

November 28th, 2016 · No Comments

It’s late Augusts and the fall migration is well underway.  Where did the summer go?

Migrations are tremendously expensive undertakings for birds.  They must pack on fat to fuel each leg of their long journey.  To see fall migratory birds, finding an abundant food source is a good strategy.  Putting on fat quickly is an imperative for migrating birds so they know the best places to eat.

My wife and I spend a lot of time in Lubec on Cobscook Bay.  The area is a wonderful birding destination with lots of accessible conserved land.  During the fall migration, my wife and I use the strategy of going to the food to find the birds.  If you want to see diners, go to a restaurant.

The South Lubec Sand Bar can be hopping with shorebirds and other water birds from August into October.  This bar is about a mile long and is adjacent to an expansive sandflat along the South Lubec Road.  This sandflat is the best restaurant in the area for sandpipers and plovers.

Sandpipers forage by rapidly probing into the sediment, capturing invertebrates by feel.  Their bills are well equipped with touch receptors.  The sandpipers prey on small shrimp-like crustaceans called Corophium as well as polychaete worms, marine relatives of earthworms.  These invertebrates are found in the lower to middle part of the intertidal zone.

Plovers use a different feeding technique, relying more on their vision than their touch.  A plover stands and looks for movement in the sediment. The plover then runs to that unsuspecting prey animal and captures the ragworm, bloodworm or other invertebrate.  This form of feeding is called ambush predation or run-and-peck predation.

The plovers and the sandpipers are dispersed broadly across the flat at low tide. Birding at this stage of the tide is fruitless.

The trick is to let the rising tide bring the birds to you. As the tide starts to cover the productive part of the flat, the birds seem to redouble their feeding efforts as they are forced higher and higher in the intertidal zone.  They congregate right along the rising tide line, seemingly oblivious of the humans staring at them.

For an hour or so, large number of shorebirds will be congregated in a narrow swath, affording great views. Eventually, the tide will force the birds to higher ground.  The birds fly off to local fields or other open habitats and the show is over.

I have found that arriving at the sand bar four hours before predicted high tide is optimal.  The birds will start congregating within the next hour.  By two hours before high tide, the birds will have gone to roost.

Of course, it is possible to arrive at high tide and wait for the birds to return.  I have had less success with this method as the birds seem to be more aware of human presence.

We walked the sandbar recently with a group of friends. Diversity and numbers of birds varies from day to day.  We had a corker of a day but not high bird diversity.  We enjoyed stunning close-up views of many Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers. The Leasts with their reddish-brown upperparts and yellow-green legs are lovely birds.

We had fun picking out the occasional White-rumped Sandpiper from the flocks.  These birds are easy to identify in flight by their namesake white rump.  On the ground, they are similar in color to the gray Semipalmated Sandpipers but a bit larger.  The tail of a White-rump extends well beyond the folded wings, unlike the shorter tail of Semipalmated Sandpipers.

A few Semipalmated Plovers and Greater Yellowlegs rounded out our list for the day. We often see a Merlin, Peregrine Falcon and even a Parasitic Jaeger hunting the shorebirds but not that day.

Of course this technique of letting the tide bring the shorebirds to you works on any intertidal mudflat. Give it a try!

 

Tags: Foraging · Identification · Migration

Northern Flickers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers

November 28th, 2016 · No Comments

The next two weeks (late April into May) will produce the peak of spring migration. Some of the migrants will pass through on their way to more northerly, even Arctic, breeding grounds and others will nest here.  A few species like Red-headed Woodpeckers and Blue Grosbeaks overshoot their intended breeding grounds and generally backtrack to where they should be.

Avian migration is largely driven by food availability. Leaf-gleaning insectivores like warblers and vireos don’t arrive back in Maine until the leaves of deciduous trees are out. Swallows and flycatchers need to delay until insects are on the wing. Birds with broader diets like Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles have an easier time of it, arriving en masse in Maine in March.

Then, we have the hardy birds that scoff at the rigors of a Maine winter and grace us with their presence all year long.  Most of our woodpeckers fall into this category of resident birds. Hairy Woodpeckers and Downy Woodpeckers are common at feeders and in woodlands. Pileated Woodpeckers are fairly common birds, seen less frequently than one would expect based on their crow-size bodies and raucous vocalizations. Red-bellied Woodpeckers have been increasing in Maine over the past two decades and are now regularly seen. Our two three-toed woodpeckers, the Black-backed Woodpecker and the American Three-toed Woodpecker, are infrequently encountered.

All six of these woodpeckers make a living by extracting insect larvae from their galleries or tunnels in wood.  The powerful bill excavates a hole to gain access to the gallery and then their long harpoon-like tongue explores the gallery until resistance is fine. A quick poke and it’s time for lunch.  Perhaps you are aware of the amazing length of the tongue of a woodpecker.  It is so long that it extends behind and then across the top of the skull in a sheath just beneath the skin.  A woodpecker tongue can be three times the length of the bill.

In addition to this sextet of residents, we have two other woodpeckers in Maine that are migratory.  Each relies on food that is only available during the warmer months.

The first is the Northern Flicker.  These large woodpeckers sometimes excavate wood in search of insect larvae. However, they prefer to feed on the ground, having a particular taste for ants.  A flicker’s tongue is modified as an efficient ant-harvesting tool. It is shaped less like a harpoon and more like a brush. The many tips of the tongue effectively allow a flicker to easily harvest ants. You may see a flicker pounding on the ground.  The bird is excavating an ant colony with a particular goal of getting access to the soft, nutritious ant larvae underneath the soil surface.  Beetles make up an important part of their diet as well.

We do see Northern Flickers lingering late into the winter or even overwintering in Maine. Flickers are quite adaptable and can make ends meet by feeding on seeds and berries.

To our south, Northern Flickers may be resident birds. In Maine, the snow prevents flickers from their favored means of ground foraging in the winter.

Our other migratory woodpecker is the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  The name is amusing enough and its way of making a living is fascinating. These woodpeckers maintain elaborate systems of sap wells in trees.  A sapsucker creates these shallow holes and then feeds on the sap that exudes from the wells.  The sap attracts insects and sapsuckers will prey on these insects as well, particularly when feeding young. The protein-rich insects are just the ticket for growing nestlings.

A sapsucker visits its wells daily, enlarging them as necessary to insure the continued flow of sap. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds take advantage of these wells.  Hummingbirds frequently nest near sap wells and follow a sapsuckers as it works its trap line of sap wells.

Flickers and sapsuckers, it’s good to have you back for a while.

Tags: Insects · Migration · Species Accounts

November Migrants

January 4th, 2016 · No Comments

It’s now mid-November and the images of swallows flocking in August as they prepare to migrate are distant memories.  Yet, the fall migration still continues.  The fall spectacle is a wonderfully protracted event.

The schedule of bird migration is largely governed by food.  Migratory birds leave Maine when their preferred food is no longer sufficient. The first to leave are the aerial insect-eaters like swallows, swifts and nighthawks.  Leaf-gleaning insect-eaters like warblers, vireos and tanagers are next on the calendar. The caterpillars and other insects on which these birds depend can be found through September.  Few warblers linger into October.

Sparrows occur throughout October as the seeds of grasses and other plants are available for these ground-feeders.  Most sparrows will depart before the first snows cover their food.

The migration we are enjoying now is waterbird migration.  As long as lakes are unfrozen, these birds can find the sustenance they need.

Fall birding on lakes and ponds can be exciting.  You never know what you might see.  In late October, I took one of my two ornithology lab sections to Sabbatus Pond, a known hotspot for ducks and other waterbirds in autumn.  The first day we saw the expected Buffleheads, Ring-necked Ducks, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Ruddy Ducks and American Coots.

The next day, those same birds were present but a student pointed out a group of birds in the middle of the Pond.  Several hundred dark ducks were arranged in a line, a common behavior in Black Scoters.  Sure enough, that is what they were.  The orange bills of these birds seemed to be illuminated from within.

The flock took flight and we were able to pick out two White-winged Scoters.  Bill Hancock saw these birds later in the day near sunset.  He watched the flock fly south from the lake, making this sighting a one-day wonder.

Black Scoters nest at high latitudes on small ponds.  They winter along the coast. The hopscotch migration of these seaducks gives us a chance to see them on freshwater bodies.

In early November, a smaller flock of Black Scoters and White-winged Scoters visited North Pond in Smithfield. They were accompanied by a few Red-necked Grebes, another species that winters along the coast.

On November 6, Tom Aversa and Bruce Barker found some remarkable waterbird diversity on Sebasticook Lake in Newport.  They saw the expected freshwater species like Canada Goose, Mallard, American Black Duck and Green-winged Teal.  But, if you just saw the rest of their list, you would certainly think Tom and Bruce were birding at a coastal site.  They saw Common Eiders, Black Scoters, White-winged Scoters, probable Surf Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, a Red-throated Loon, a Red-necked Grebe, four Horned Grebes and Bonaparte’s Gulls.  As is normally the case, these coast-bound migrants did not linger.  Striking it rich with fall waterbirds is a hit-or-miss proposition.

On that same day at Lake Josephine in Aroostook County, Bill Sheehan found a Greater White-fronted Goose among the 800 Canada Geese there.  He was also able to find two Cackling Geese, a miniaturized version of the Canada Goose.

November can be a good time to see vagrant species as well.  On November 1, Derek and Jeannette Lovitch, Kristen Lindquist and Evan Obercian found a Gray Catbird and two Orange-crowned Warblers in Portland.

On November 7, Lisa Dellwo and Bill Schlesinger found a Yellow-billed Cuckoo in Lubec.  On November 9, Don Reimer found a Blue-winged Warbler at Sebasticook Lake.

Although none have been reported this year to my knowledge, Cave Swallows occasionally appear along the New England coast in November.  The closest breeding population is in east Texas.

The big excitement this November has been the Franklin’s Gull Lake Sebasticook, present for several days.  This vagrant from breeding areas in the Great Plains provides the tenth record for the state.

[Originally published on November 25, 2015]

Tags: Migration