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

Sunday, November 1, 2015


Yesterday, a small group of Windsor County birders located a Dickcissel in Woodstock, Vermont at essentially the same spot one was sighted almost to the date two years ago (October 29, 2013).  The habitat is a hedgerow within a power line right-of-way separating two corn fields off Maxham Meadow Way.  This morning hoping the bird was still present and to see it myself  I arrived at the location and encountered Kent McFarland of Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE), who had the same objective. Shortly before he heard from Chris Rimmer, also of VCE, that the Dickcissel was seen about an hour ago. Together we walked the edge of the hedgerow checking out the numerous sparrows (American Tree, Song and Savannah) flitting about and skulking in the thick undercover and at times feeding on corn scrap at the edge of the field.  As we approached the end of the hedgerow we both heard a single distinctive short, sharp insect-like buzz note, that neither one of us recognized. Soon we saw that Chris was still present but had to leave. Spending another 45 minutes or so, our quest was found perched in brush at the hedgerow terminus in the vicinity of where it was first discovered. Both of us managed getting photos of it, three of mine posted below.

Once at home, I checked out Sibley (2000) and National Geographic Society (2011) guides for descriptions of Dickcissel vocalizations.  Both references give renditions of the call often given in flight as "fpppt" (Sibley) and "bzrrrrt" (NGS). The website Xeno-Canto has an extensive library of bird sound recordings from all over the world and is the source for this Dickcissel flight call recording which is spot on what we heard.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Paradise Park/Lake Runnemede

My previous post of October 18, 2015 announced the recent sighting of a Nelson's Sparrow at Lake Runnemede which is the first record for the species at this popular birding location.  Since then I thought this is as good a time as any to do a post on this site for birders not familiar with it.

Lake Runnemede/Paradise Park and Mount Ascutney (elev. 3,130 ft)

Paradise Park situated within easy walking distance from downtown Windsor is comprised of Windsor Town Forest (115 acres) and the Lake Runnemede/McLane parcel (109 acres) of which 62 acres is the lake itself.  At present according to the eBird's database Paradise Park/Lake Runnemede is currently the Top Birding Hotspot in Windsor County with a total of 194 bird species having been reported.  The park has an extensive trail system providing access to a variety of habitat types. Perhaps the focal point for birders is horseshoe-shaped Lake Runnemede, also known as Evarts Pond, and its associated riparian habitats, wetlands, woodland edges and center field.  The latter is actively farmed (pumpkins and squashes) and surrounded by tall grasses and forbs: great for sparrows in late summer and fall.

In spring and fall seasons the lake is a magnet for waterfowl (ducks, geese, grebes, cormorants); and neotropical migrants (warblers, flycatchers, orioles, etc.) frequent shrub lands and the woodland edges. In season, a variety of raptors, including Osprey, Northern Harrier, Cooper's and Sharp-shinned hawks, Merlin, and the year round resident nesting Bald Eagle pair, can be expected to be seen.   Besides birds, the lake is home to River Otters, Beaver and other locally common mammals.

While not obvious to most visitors, the lake is particularly noteworthy for having one of only two populations of Ogden's Pondweed (Potamogeton ogdenii) currently known in Vermont and one of 10 populations known globally (distribution confined to Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Ontario).  The Lake Runnemede property was purchased by the town of Windsor from the Evart family in 1997 with a provision that the town use and manage the property in a manner that is protective of this rare plant and consistent with conservation easements which are co-held with Upper Valley Land Trust and Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.

Directions to Paradise Park/Lake Runnemede: From the center of downtown Windsor (traffic light at intersection of U. S. Route 5/Main Street and State Street) travel north on Route 5 about one-half mile.  Price Chopper supermarket is on left (east side of road).  Parking is limited to road shoulder on west side and access (foot travel only) to lake is via a lane called Eddie's Place.  Please do not drive down this road.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Nelson's Sparrow!

This morning I had the good fortune to encounter Upper Valley Birders (George Clark, Chris Rimmer, Scott Johnson, Ed Hack, Peter LaBelle, Tii McLane and others) as they were close to finishing another Windsor County Birding Quest walk for 2015, this time in Windsor at Paradise Park/Lake Runnemede.  No doubt the find of the morning was a Nelson's Sparrow first spotted and identified by Ed and with perseverance observed several times albeit briefly by others in the group.  The bird spent most of the time skulking under the cover of tall grasses, goldenrod and joe-pye weed in a patch of old field habitat adjacent to the northeast corner of the "pumpkin patch."  From time to time the sparrow revealed its location either when foraging by twitching grass stems or taking a brief flight before dropping back into thick cover.  Luckily I was able to click off several photos (a couple posted here) of this handsome sparrow and uncommon migrant passing through the Connecticut River Valley for more southern climes.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Rutland County Birding Highlights

Today Don Clark, JoAnne Russo and I struck out for Rutland County, Vermont for a day of birding.  None of us had any expectation of encountering a Northern Saw-whet Owl and a Eastern Screech-Owl in daylight no less.  Both birds offered us excellent views and cooperated nicely for photos.  The Saw-whet was seen on Book Road in West Haven and appeared to be scouting for prey.  The gray morph Screech-Owl took absolutely no notice of us as it sat comfortably in an abandoned stove flue pipe at an old barn near Benson Landing.  Also in Benson we came upon a "pair" of Cooper's Hawks but were unable get photos. We started the day by dropping in on the Peregrine Falcon pair which has been regularly seen on the steeple of Grace Congregational Church in downtown Rutland and ended it with a total tally of 36 species, not bad for late winter.

  Northern Saw-whet Owl. West Haven, VT. 

Eastern Screech-Owl.  Benson, VT.  
Peregrine Falcon.  Rutland, VT.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Weathersfield Snowy Owl

This Snowy Owl, perched on the roof of the barn at Wellwood Orchard, was discovered and posted on eBird by a local birder last Sunday, February 23.  Based on plumage characteristics described by Kevin McGowan of The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, this individual appears to be a male.  Note the overall whiteness of the bird and relative scarcity of the dark markings on its back.  The markings are also thin or narrow.  And, the dark markings on the tail are also thin and do not merge forming complete or nearly complete bars.  Although not visible in the photo, the unmarked white bib of male owls is usually more extensive than that shown by females.


As of today the owl was still present on the barn and easily observable from Wellwood Orchard Road.  Birders should not venture onto orchard property and should refrain from activities that might agitate or distress the bird.  After last winter's irruption of Snowy Owls south of Canada, including one bird that was present in Springfield, VT, getting another opportunity to view this impressive species is a real treat.  Irruptions into New England are reported to occur every 3 to 6 years or so.  For more information on Snowy Owl invasions check out the eBird article "The Winter of The Snowy Owl" which was posted February 2, 2012.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Springfield Red-shouldered Hawk

Shortly before 8:00 AM on Thursday, February 19 during my morning commute to work a hawk perched in a dead tree next to the Black River in Springfield, VT caught my attention.  Pulling to the roadside and peering through binoculars at the bird on the opposite side of the river it was apparent this was not one  our common wintering raptors (i.e. Red-tailed, Cooper's or Sharp-shinned hawks) but rather a Red-shouldered Hawk.  Several photos were taken with my work camera, but all were of poor quality.  Hoping the hawk would stay around long enough for a second photo op, the next morning I came prepared with my personal camera but the bird was nowhere to be seen.  Disappointing but to be expected.

But then, I had no expectation of seeing the bird this morning perched in a tree next to the river nearly three miles downriver from where it was first seen.   A handsome bird and cooperative photo subject.

Whether or not this bird has been overwintering in the general area or is an early spring migrant is anybody's guess.  According to the Vermont Bird Records Committee the median spring arrival date for Red-shouldered Hawk is the third week of March, so this sighting is a full month ahead of schedule, more or less.  On the other hand, there has been a resident Red-shouldered Hawk spending the past several winters at Woodside Park in Essex, VT.