Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Bizarre Pink Blue Jay

Back in January I heard of an oddly colored Blue Jay that had been frequenting a Unity, NH backyard feeder since early December.  I was shown a poor quality photo of the bird which stirred my curiosity having never seen such an oddity and questioning whether it was in fact an example of erythrism or had been artificially induced, such as dyeing.  I tracked down the homeowner (name withheld at request) to whom's feeder the bird was regularly being seen and who kindly permitted me the opportunity to view and photograph it firsthand. Shortly after my host placed fresh seed out at the feeding stations a group of 15 normal colored Blue Jays arrived and several minutes later the str pink bird flew in. Even though it's visit was brief, I did manage to get several photos including the one posted below.  In all respects the jay is typical except for the pale rosy-red overcast coloring most but not all of its plumage.  Bill, eyes, legs and feet are normally pigmented.

An internet search failed to turn up any similar variants in birds and particularly in jays with exception of a pink Blue Jay photographed in Canada.  That bird generated some discussion on Birdforum in May 2013, but the consensus was the image had been altered significantly or fabricated.  The Unity, NH bird photo posted here is as it appeared and is not a hoax.

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology was contacted to inquire whether any similarly colored jays are known to have been encountered and if so possible causes for the strange pigmentation.  While staff are unaware any such birds, two possible explanations were offered: (1) a genetic factor causing erythrism, or (2) some sort of environmental staining.  One respondent thought that it looks like staining, such as a fluorescent colorant having been applied for a science project.  Thus an actual cause for the pink plumage remains in the realm of speculation and is unlikely to be resolved without having feather samples from the jay to subject to analysis.

Diet-induced erythrism has been observed in other species of birds.  The introduction and spread of nonnative red berry bearing shrubs, e.g. bush honeysuckles Lonicera spp., is suspected of causing unusually red feathering in Baltimore Orioles occurring in southeastern Canada, and reddish House Sparrows reported in Scotland are thought to have been diet induced.


Friday, January 6, 2017

Some Observations of a Turkey Vulture Roost

Admittedly I'm a fan of Turkey Vultures despite their dietary habits.  The sight of a vulture effortlessly soaring overhead, wings slightly tilted upwards, gently rocking side to side makes me wish for such freedom and views of the landscape spread out below.  Andrew Wyatt's painting "Soaring" has long captured my interest.  Of course I could take up hang gliding or skydiving for a similar experience, but I prefer to keep both feet firmly planted on Earth and leave unconfined flight to my imagination and to creatures that have evolved to fly.  Some art critics have described the painting as dark and unsettling.  I'll venture to guess that they are not birders.

"Soaring" (1950) by Andrew Wyeth.  Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, VT.
This past summer I kept close watch on a Turkey Vulture communal roost located in North Springfield, VT.  The roost has been active for some years, and this summer was occupied by at least 35 birds.  At dawn vultures congregated in a large dead elm tree next to the Black River, spread their wings for a morning stretch and to absorb the sun's radiant energy.  By mid morning by ones and twos they took to the air rising on thermal currents, congregating once again in kettles drifting off in various directions presumably in pursuit of a meal of carrion.  At the approach of evening they gathered again at the roost tree before retiring to an adjacent conifer stand for the night.

What I found puzzling is that the number of vultures counted at the roost tree never varied by more than several birds on each of my visits conducted from late spring through the summer.  This seemed odd being they appeared to be all adults and I thought that they would have been incubating eggs and caring for young for much of that time rather than hanging out at a communal roost.  For a plausible explanation I delved into several references on vulture life history.

According to the species account given on the EOL website, Turkey Vultures at northern temperate latitudes lay eggs (typically 2) between May and June.  The incubation period is 32 to 41 days (average 35 days) and the young fledge the nest at 70 to 80 days of age.  There is little data from Vermont establishing when nesting typically begins; however, assuming a date of May 10, egg hatch would be expected to take place about June 14 with young fledged some time between late August and early September.  Both parents share in egg incubation and the care of the young.  This eliminates the possibility that the roost is comprised of mostly post-mating males.  Rather, sexual maturity is not attained until 3 years of age which suggests the vultures seen at the roost through the summer were likely sub-adult birds with the possibility of a few mature individuals that either failed to mate or experienced nest failure.

On the morning of September 30, my last count of the year, a total of 36 vultures were counted at the roost.  A few weeks later the roost tree was abandoned as the birds undertook fall migration to points south for the winter. Sometime around the last week of February or first week of March the first Turkey Vultures of the New Year can be expected to return to Vermont on steady outstretched wings riding spring air currents with seemingly little to no effort as captured by Wyeth.

Monday, January 2, 2017

2017 New Year's Resolution

Never having been one to make New Year's resolutions I am going to go out on a limb and make one this year.  Since starting this blog over eight years ago, I have become increasing lax in posting articles and keeping the site current.  For that I apologize.  I have learned that blogging takes time...a lot of time...and work to keep the site up to date, interesting and hopefully relevant.  My passion for observing, learning about, and enjoying birds, other wildlife, and the environment is as important to me as ever. What has changed as of the end of 2016 is my retirement from a 36+ year professional career as a fisheries biologist, and now find myself in the enjoyable position of having more time to pursue birding and other interests. So, my New Year's resolution is to commit more time to writing blog articles and hopefully become better at it.  In my pursuit of self-improvement I welcome feedback and constructive criticism from readers.

A New Year's Day treat in Swanzey, New Hampshire: male Varied Thrush, a
species that breeds in moist, coniferous dominated forests of the Northwest (Alaska,
western Canada, northwestern United States) and is a winter vagrant in the East.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Super Rare Redwing in New Hampshire

On March 13 a Redwing (Turdus iliaca) was discovered by Christopher McPherson in Hollis, New Hampshire.  To describe this bird as "super rare" is by no means an over-exaggeration being this sighting is only the fifth record for the "Lower 48" of the U. S., an ABA Code 4 species, and perhaps a first for the state.  Previous accepted sightings are from New York, 1959, the first North American record; Washington, 2004; Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, both in 2005.  Sightings are a bit more numerous from eastern Canada, particularly the Maritime Provinces.  In addition to the Washington state record, there is one record each from Alaska, 2011, and British Columbia, 2016.

The Redwing is an Eurasian species with a breeding range that spans from the southern tip of Greenland east through Iceland, the Faeroe Islands south to northernmost Scotland, through Scandinavia, the Baltic States, northern Poland and Belarus, northern Russia and to the Kolyma of the Russian Far East.  Its winter range is southern Eurasia and northern Africa.  Two subspecies are recognized: Eurasian (Turdus i. iliaca) and Icelandic (Turdus i. coburni).  It seems reasonable that most if not all western North American sightings are the Eurasian subspecies and those from the East are the Icelandic.

Getting back to the New Hampshire bird, it was found in the company of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) which were present in astounding numbers (perhaps conservatively in the high 100s) frequenting the several athletic fields and brushy edges at Hollis-Brookline High School.  So for Christopher to pick out one Redwing out of the hordes of robins is a testament to his meticulous patience and/or luck. Whatever it may be, kudos to him for this very special find and his promptly getting the news out to the birding community.  As would be expected birders from throughout the Northeast and beyond converged on the location and for the most part the bird failed to disappoint.  I made the trip with a friend early Tuesday morning in a misty rain.  Arriving at the school a few minutes after 7:00 a.m. about a dozen hopeful birders had already staked out the fields but with no sighting of it up to that point.  We checked out several fields, most dotted with robins, checking them out one by one.  The robins tended to be a bit unsettled and easily spooked causing many to take cover in the thick brush and others flying off elsewhere. In such a maelstrom, frankly we each thought our chances of seeing the Redwing were a long shot.

The numbers of birders steadily increased to as many as 50 or more, when the thrush was spotted on the ground in the brushy edge behind the chain link fence that formed the backdrop of the track field. Those that had their binoculars, spotting scopes and cameras on the bird barked out directions to others not yet on it.  Eventually the thrush moved out onto the grass next to the track providing everyone in attendance with great views and photo opportunities.  Seeing a birder without a smile was nearly as rare as the "guest" thrush.   Satisfied we headed back to Vermont only to learn on eBird that a Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius), a bird of the Pacific Northwest, was in Merrimack, one town north of Hollis.  Oh, well.

The Redwing continued to be seen off and on through March 17.  Reports state, robins remain in abundance and considering there is so much habitat suitable to them (fields, lawns, brushy hedgerows, etc.) in the neighborhood, it may very well continue to be in the area.  Relocating it will require perseverance, sorting through robin flocks, and of course luck.

American Robin, left; Redwing, right.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Gloucester Birding Trip

Gloucester, Massachusetts and other nearby Cape Ann locations, such as Rockport, Andrews and Halibut points, have long been favorite destinations whether to watch winter waterfowl, take in the area's historic and current commercial fishing culture, or simply for relaxation and enjoyment of the rugged New England coastline. The sights and oddly even the smells of the ocean, salt marshes, mudflats and fishing vessels are all comforting to me.

So when up to four Thick-billed Murres appeared in Gloucester Harbor and were being reliably sighted on a daily basis with a bonus King Eider being seen regularly off Bass Rocks, I needed no additional encouragement to make the nearly 3 hour drive from home.

Arriving at Jodrey State Fish Pier shortly after 9:00 a.m. I was rewarded with excellent views of the murres, an elusive life species for me.   I cannot count the number of trips over my many years of birding that were made to the New England coast with the purpose of seeing this species but only to come up short by missing it by a few hours.  Well, not this time.  Other harbor sightings included a hen Black Scoter, male and female Surf Scoters and Common Eiders, a Long-tailed Duck, Greater Scaup, Red-breasted Mergansers, a Common Loon, and of course Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls.

Thick-billed Murres

Thick-billed Murre

Common Eider "Atlantic" dresseri subspecies, adult male

Red-breasted Merganser, adult males

Black Scoter, female

Surf Scoters, left to right: mature & immature males, female

From there it was a short drive to Bass Rocks on the Atlantic Ocean side of Gloucester and more waterfowl to be seen: Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes, White-winged Scoters, and Red-necked Grebes.  But the highlight at this relocation was the adult male King Eider positioned well off shore and almost out of binocular range but clearly identifiable with the spotting scope albeit too far to get a good photograph.

Even though my birding had to be cut short, the birds and seacoast made for a very satisfying break from late winter in Vermont.


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Tufted Duck

The first Vermont record of this handsome duck was reported from Lake Champlain's Shelburne Bay on April 7, 2000.  Since then, Tufted Duck has been observed on the lake 13 out of 17 years.  While not reported from the lake in 2012, one was seen on Lake Carmi (Franklin County) on April 13.   Lake Carmi is about 12 air-miles from Lake Champlain.  All Vermont reports are male birds except when seen paired with a female which occurred in 2005, 2006 and 2009.  The seasonal distribution of Tufted Duck in the state is December through April and is usually found in the company of Lesser and Greater scaups.

Tufted Duck is an Old World species of diving duck (genus Aythya) with a breeding range extending from Iceland through northern Europe and Asia.  Vagrants observed on the East Coast of the U. S. likely come from populations located in Iceland and Europe.  On the East Coast the species has been documented in all four Canadian Maritime provinces and all U. S. states from Maine south to North Carolina.

The  male Tufted Duck in the photos below easily differentiated from male scaup by the pronounced head plumes, black back and white sides was observed on February 6 of this year on Lake Champlain from Chimney Point.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Windsor Prison Farm Lands Finally Conserved!

During the final day's of last year Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed an executive order transferring 739 acres of the 899 acre Windsor Prison Farm property from the Department of Buildings and General Services (BGS) to the Fish and Wildlife Department (FWD).   The remaining 160 acres are to be retained by BGS on which the Southeast State Correctional Facility is located and additional lands for a possible 4.9 MW panel solar array development.  This decision assures the lands will remain in the public domain to be responsibly managed for wildlife and the enjoyment of outdoor enthusiasts.

Mount Ascutney from Windsor Prison Farm.

In an April 2014 post I wrote of the Windsor Prison Farm and its noteworthiness as a special Connecticut River Valley birding destination.  Once a state operated working farm affiliated with the Department of Corrections, farming operations largely ended by 1992.  Since then open lands have been gradually reverting back to various stages of early successional habitats (ESH), such as upland and lowland shrub and young forest communities.  Several fields have been maintained in grasses and mowed annually through lease arrangements with local farmers for hay production.  The consequence has been a boon for ESH bird species,  Fifteen (or 26%) of the 57 state designated bird Species of Greatest Conservation Need have been documented on prison farm lands.  These include Ruffed Grouse, Northern Harrier, Cooper's Hawk, American Woodcock, Black-billed Cuckoo, American Kestrel, Veery, Wood Thrush, Brown Thrasher, Blue-winged Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Eastern Towhee, Field Sparrow, and Bobolink.  Being ESHs are ephemeral in nature and will in time transition to forests active management is necessary for their maintenance and continued use by ESH birds, wildlife and flora.

For some years the future of the property had been up in the air with proposals including prison expansion, intensive agricultural use, and residential and industrial development.  The former Governor Douglas administration sought to dispose of "surplus" state lands for local development pursuits.  While this had its proponents, it also greatly concerned many local citizens who recognized the importance and value of the prison lands as wildlife habitat, bird watching and other recreational uses (e.g. hunting, hiking, snowmobiling, horseback riding), or to those who simply receive pleasure from taking in views of Vermont and New Hampshire undeveloped rural landscapes.

With the land transfer now in hand, the FWD and other Agency of Natural Resources departments will need to prepare a long-range management plan with involvement of stakeholders for the 739 acres.  According to FWD Commissioner Louis Porter, "We are looking forward to managing [the land] for the wildlife and for the people who care about wildlife." Porter and other agency staff will meet with the Windsor Selectboard early next month to begin a discussion of the planning process.

Southeast State Correctional Facility.

This will become the FWD's 85th Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and the 11th located in Windsor county.  Unlike the other southeastern Vermont WMAs, that are primarily forested tracts, the former prison lands present unique management opportunities for habitat diversity and bird conservation.