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.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Black Squirrels

While spending Christmas with our daughter, her husband and extended family members in Melrose, Massachusetts we were surprised by the appearance of a melanistic Gray Squirrel.  It was in the company of typical gray morph individuals foraging for acorns under a backyard oak tree. Now I have been aware of the existence of melanistic populations in other parts of the country, such as in several mid-western states, since having studied genetics during my long-ago college years, but until this sighting I had never seen one in the flesh.

As many birders have experienced, including myself, once a long sought after "lifer" species is seen, it afterwards seems to pop up everywhere with little to no effort.   And so, I may be experiencing this phenomenon once again except now with black Gray Squirrels.  This past Sunday, now back in Vermont and running errands, I saw another black squirrel feeding under a local bird feeder. What's with that: two black squirrel sightings in different states within a day of one another?

Melanism, a genetic condition whereby tissues (skin, hair, feathers) produce excessive amounts of the dark-colored pigment melanin, occurs widely in the animal kingdom at both individual and population levels.  Among birds, several raptor species exhibit dark plumage morphs, including Short-tailed, Swainson's, Red-tailed, Ferruginous and Rough-legged hawks, and the Gyrfalcon. Unlike amelanism (the absence of melanin) and albinism, melanism appears to be a genetic adaptation to a particular environment increasing a species fitness for survival.  Adaptive melanism may allow animals to better absorb solar heat and more efficiently maintain body warmth in cold environs; or others to blend in with their habitat enabling either dark-morph hunting predators to evade detection by prey species or, vice versa, allow dark-morph prey to hide from predators.

Dark-morph Red-tailed Hawk, Catron County, New Mexico

So what is the adaptive advantage to a black squirrel inhabiting an urban or suburban environment? It seems doubtful that such individuals are better camouflaged from predators, such as hawks and free-ranging house cats.  Easily the gray-coated squirrel in the photo below blends in better with the setting than if it was black.  On the other hand, melanism seems to be an effective survival strategy as long as the squirrel is not out in the open but takes advantage of deep shade produced by thick vegetation and forest canopy (bottom photo).  

Here are a couple links to web sites discussing specifically melanism in Gray Squirrel populations: Wikipedia and a more technical treatise in the Journal of Heredity.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

December 2015

As 2015 winds down birders' attentions may be catching the few remaining lingering fall migrants or enjoying some early winter arrivals, or many of us look forward to taking part in one or more annual Christmas Bird Counts. The holiday season also calls on many to indulge in more family-centric activities.  In addition to all of these activities I find this is a good time to reflect on the many birding experiences encountered over the year, such as my attending a family reunion in central Missouri and finding a little time to steal away for first time birding in that state; the spring and fall trips we made to New Mexico; and here in Vermont a personal first: birding in all 14 counties.  The following photos are a small sample of ones taken last May during a visit to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, one of the premier birding destinations in New Mexico.

Yellow-headed Blackbird, male, and Brewer's Blackbird, female

Blue-winged Teal, male

Cliff Swallow constructing mud nest

A completed nest

Cinnamon Teal, male

Greater Roadrunner

Northern Shoveler, male

Snow Goose, a straggler

White-faced Ibis

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Birding Sawmill Well

Water is essential for life and this is no less true than for wildlife and flora living in arid environments.  In the Southwest, where water is a rare commodity much of the year, artificial sources (tanks, troughs, ponds) that ranchers provide for livestock on the range also become oases for a diversity of wildlife, including deer, elk, mountain lion, bats, small mammals, and birds.  This past September during one of our annual visits to New Mexico I had the pleasure to stake out a local livestock watering tank (Sawmill Well) and view first hand a variety of birds attracted to the sight and sound of running water.

Sawmill Well (34.147333 N; 107.908425 W) is in Crosby Canyon which is located in northeastern Catron County in west-central New Mexico.  The canyon originates just east of the Crosby Mountains and extends about six miles east-northeastward before merging with White House Canyon near the small community of Datil at the intersection of US Route 60 and NM Route 12.  Lower elevations within Crosby Canyon is a grassland biotic community with Pinyon-Juniper Woodland dominating the surrounding slopes.  Deeper into the canyon the biome type becomes Ponderosa Pine Forest interspersed with Gambel Oak and junipers.

Sawmill Well & East Sugarloaf Mountain

The well is located on U. S. Forest Service land and flanked on the north by East Sugarloaf Mountain and to the south by Anderson Mountain, both with elevations greater than 8,700 feet.  At first sight the well is not a particularly impressive facility but is a critical water supply for free-ranging cattle and opportunistic wildlife.  One of my brief visits to the well produced the following bird species flying in for a drink or to bathe: Mourning Dove, Red-naped Sapsucker, Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker, Western Scrub-Jay, Pinyon Jay, Western Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, Yellow-rumped (Audubon's ) Warbler, Canyon Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Cassin's Finch, House Finch, Pine Siskin and Lesser Goldfinch.  Being that most local neotropical species (flycatchers, warblers, tanagers, orioles, buntings) had already departed for their winter habitats, imagine what might be seen spring through summer before the monsoon rains arrive.  The following photos were taken at the well.

Red-naped Sapsucker, male

Western Bluebird, male

Northern "Red-shafted" Flicker, male

Mountain Bluebird, male

Canyon Towhee