Thursday, November 1, 2018

Hummer Summer

This past summer was spent at our second home in New Mexico and what a joy it was. Hearing of our plans, friends in Vermont asked almost to a one "aren't you suppose to spend winters there when its not so hot?"...a logical question of course. Well, my explanation follows. At an elevation of 7,500 feet summer temperatures at our home are moderated with daytime highs typically in the high 80s to low 90s dipping down into the 60s or below at night. Coupled with consistently low humidity levels, unlike summers in the Northeast, we find the climate to be quite conducive to outdoor activities such as birdwatching; exploring local natural, cultural and historical sites; and yet making time for some home projects. Cool, dry nighttime air makes for restful sleep and preparation for the next day's exploits. And to top it off, there are few if any of the biting insects (black flies, mosquitoes, deer flies) that are a persistent annoyance to outdoor driven people back in New England.

Over the summer I did most of my birding in Catron County, where we reside. The county is sparsely populated and relatively little birded. Over the two-and-a-half month stay 121 species were observed of which 50 were tallied on our small property. All but two were seen from the house deck! The grandest bird show of the summer undoubtedly were the hummingbirds. Beginning in late June, the first few southbound migrating male Rufous Hummingbirds showed up at our feeders and immediately established territories associated with each of the three hummingbird feeders that we had out. These feisty jewels stood sentry in nearby trees and whenever any of the summer resident Broad-tailed Hummingbirds approached a feeder, it was immediately chased off by the attendant Rufous overlord.  As summer progressed hummingbird numbers increased as did confrontations between "resident" Rufous males and any intruders needing to fill up on sugar solution. From sunrise to sunset the scene from the deck was like an aerial wartime dogfight in miniature. With territorial males in constant defensive mode seemingly taking very little time to replenish their own expended energy reserves, one had to question what biological benefit if any is there for this behavior. Surely there was more than enough food to satisfy the caloric needs of all.

So, is there any way to break down this territoriality and enable more hummers access to the feeders? I had long believed that this could be accomplished by placing feeders apart, or preferably out of sight of one another. This strategy seems to work for our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that we have in the Northeast; however the one obvious difference is hummingbird densities during fall migration in New England are much lower than in the Southwest. To observe more than three or four hummers at one time at our Vermont feeders in late summer is indeed a banner sighting.

As keeping the feeders separated wasn't the trick, I resorted to the internet hoping to find an effective alternate strategy. With little effort I came across Dealing with Hummingbird Feeder Wars which proved to have the solution. Moving my three feeders close together and adding a fourth in the same tree increased exponentially within very short time the number of visiting hummers and gave us hours of viewing pleasure. The feeders were so overwhelmed by intruders that the dominating Rufous males were unable to effectively fend off the assault.  The following short video clip was taken from the house deck. What is the hummingbird count? Frankly, I have no idea other than whatever the number is in this video can be conservatively expanded by a factor of four (number of feeders).

Prior to implementing the new strategy, the feeders required refilling with sugar solution once per week. By pulling the feeders together increasing hummer numbers, we found the hummers consuming nearly a gallon of solution daily.

Four hummingbird species were observed July through August at our feeders. In order of relative abundance (highest to lowest) these included Rufous, Broad-tailed, Black-chinned and Calliope.

Rufous Hummingbird, male.

Rufous Hummingbird, male.
Broad-tailed Hummingbird, male.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird, male.

Black-chinned Hummingbird, male.

Black-chinned Hummingbird, female.

Calliope Hummingbird, male.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Another Snowy Winter?

Project SNOWstorm, a volunteer based organization established after the 2013 Snowy Owl irruption, is forecasting another south of the Canada-U.S. border for Winter 2017-2018.  Already owls have appeared in the Great Plains, Great Lakes and Northeastern regions, including several birds spotted here in Vermont.

Last week two birder friends and I drove to Randolph to see the Snowy Owl that has been hanging out at the Vermont Technical College campus since November 14.  It was easily located perched on a light post near the center of campus and seemed oblivious the students walking within spitting distance of its perch.  Note the small ear tufts clearly visible in the top and middle photos below.  This is the first Snowy Owl, that I have seen, showing ear tufts.  After checking species descriptions given in several field guides in my personal library, either no mention of small ear tufts is made or it is specifically noted that Snowy Owls lack ears tufts.  While the presence or absence of ear tufts is not by any stretch a critical field identification feature, these photos show that at least some individual Snowy Owls have "ears".

I have a vivid memory of my first (life) Snowy Owl seen November 10, 1974 on Star Island, one of nine Isles of Shoals located six miles off the New Hampshire and Maine coastlines.  The owl was perched atop the granite monument erected in 1914 to honor the Reverend John Tucke, who served the fishing community there from 1731 to 1771.  Over the pst four decades vegI cannot recall how many Snowy Owls I have seen (quite a few, surely), but each has been equally as impressive as my first.  That first sighting reminds me of a poem written by Celia Thaxter, a renown 19th century author and resident on Appledore Island, the largest of the Isles of Shoals.  Her poem, The Great White Owl, from Poems (1872, 1st edition, Hurd and Houghton, New York) follows. 

He sat aloft on the rocky height, 
Snow-white above the snow, 
In the winter morning calm and bright, 
And I gazed at him, below. 

He faced the east, where the sunshine streamed 
On the singing, sparkling sea, 
And he blinked with his yellow eyes, that seemed 
All sightless and blank to be. 

The snowbirds swept in a whirling crowd 
About him gleefully, 
And piped and whistled sweet and loud, 
But never a plume stirred he. 

Singing they passed, and away they flew 
Through the brilliant atmosphere; 
Cloud-like he sat, with the living blue 
Of the sky behind him, clear. 

"Give you good-morrow, friend," I cried. 
He wheeled his large round head, 
Solemn and stately, from side to side, 
But never a word he said. 

"0 lonely creature, weird and white, 
Why are you sitting there, 
Like a glimmering ghost from the still midnight, 
In the beautiful morning air?" 

He spurned the rock with his talons strong, 
No human speech brooked he; 
Like a snowflake huge he sped along 
Swiftly and noiselessly. 

His wide, slow-waving wings so white, 
Heavy and soft did seem; 
Yet rapid as a dream his flight, 
And silent as a dream. 

And when a distant crag he gained, 
Bright-twinkling like a star, 
He shook his shining plumes, and deigned 
To watch me from afar. 

And once again, when the evening-red 
Burned dimly in the west, 
I saw him motionless, his head 
Bent forward on his breast. 

Dark and still, 'gainst the sunset sky 
Stood out his figure lone; 
Crowning the bleak rock far and high, 
By sad winds overblown. 

Did he dream of the ice-fields, stark and drear? 
Of his haunts on the Arctic shore? 
Or the downy brood in his nest last year 
On the coast of Labrador? 

Had he fluttered the Esquimaux huts among? 
How I wished he could speak to me! 
Had he sailed on the icebergs, rainbow-hung, 
In the open Polar Sea? 

Oh, many a tale he might have told 
Of marvelous sounds and sights, 
Where the world lies hopeless and dumb with cold, 
Through desolate days and nights. 

But with folded wings, while the darkness fell, 
He sat, nor spake, nor stirred; 
And charmed as if by a subtile spell, 
I mused on the wondrous Bird.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Nighthawks on the Move

As summer winds down [the first day of autumn is just three weeks away] forests, fields and wetlands have fallen silent of bird song, and with another nesting season behind them, many of the bird species that nest in Vermont and north are either in the midst or preparing for their annual southward migration to winter ranges in the southern U.S., Caribbean islands, Mexico, Central and South America.  Warblers, flycatchers and shorebirds are currently on the move and can pass through unnoticed to the untrained eye.  Currently two bird species, Common Nighthawk and Broad-winged Hawk, are wrapping up and beginning their fall migrations, respectively, at our latitude.  Both birds undertake spectacular flights: Common Nighthawks passing through from mid August to late August or early September, and Broad-winged Hawks primarily in September.  The nighthawk is the focus of this post with more to be said of Broad-winged Hawk migration in a future post.

The Common Nighthawk is not a hawk at all but rather a close relative of the Eastern Whip-poor-will, both members of the taxonomic family Caprimulgidae (nightjars) which translates from Latin to goatsuckers, in its own right is a misnomer.  Nighthawks are insectivorous birds feeding nocturnally on the wing and almost exclusively on flying insects.

Photo taken by Lloyd R. Bunten and is used with his permission.
Although nighthawks during migration may be observed in early evening hours just about anywhere in Vermont but especially along river corridors, the very best location to see them in high numbers is at Westminster Station in Windham County, Vermont.  This location is located next to a migration corridor, the Connecticut River, and is an area dominated by open agricultural fields, both features favoring an abundance of insects.  Annual surveys to estimate nighthawk migration abundance have been conducted here since 2010 by Don Clark, the principal counter and an experienced and well respected Vermont birder and naturalist.  Below are count data collected by him over the eight years since monitoring began.

The summer range of the Common Nighthawk includes much of the lower 48 states of the U.S. and the southern Canadian provinces.  Winter range extends from southern Columbia to central Argentina, and migration distance between summer and winter ranges spans 2,500 to 6,800 miles.

Each speck in the above photo is a nighthawk migrating over Westminster
Station, VT.  Place cursor on image and tap to enlarge.  Photo taken by 
Lloyd R. Bunten and is used with his permission.

Observing a thousand birds over several hours, not to speak of the nearly 6,000 counted in one evening this year, is amazing.  So, if you haven't experienced a nighthawk fall migration, mark your 2018 calendar.  You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Atypical Broad-wing Feeding Behavior

Broad-winged Hawks are returning to Vermont since departing New England last September for their principal wintering range in northern South America.  The first report of 2017 was on April 11 from Putney.  Since then sightings have steadily increased.  This is our smallest breeding hawk of the genus Buteo with an average total length of 15 inches followed closely in size by the Red-shouldered Hawk (16 inches) and the Red-tailed Hawk (19 inches).

This is a relatively common hawk nesting in woodland habitats.  Its diet is varied consisting of small mammals, frogs, snakes, lizards, small birds, large insects, and earthworms.  Today I encountered a Broad-winged Hawk picking earthworms off the surface of a paved residential driveway (photos follow).  That the hawk was eating earthworms wasn't as much as a surprise as where it was feeding. The bird was observed consuming no less than a half dozen worms in an environment more expected of foraging robins.  After having migrated as much as 4,000+ miles on average between winter and summer ranges no doubt energy reserves are depleted and with nesting season approaching getting back into prime physical and physiological condition are critical.   Today's rainy and cool temperatures (40s) may not be prime conditions for encountering small mammals but earthworms are easy pickings at least for this hawk.


Saturday, April 1, 2017


March weather in Vermont this year has been sort of a roller coaster ride.  A spell of unseasonably warm daytime temperatures during late February through early March kicked off maple sugaring season and the northward bound hordes of Canada Geese and other waterfowl.  Ice covering the Connecticut River broke up and ice floes flushed out earlier than usual, and open-water conditions on rivers, streams and many of the larger lakes forebode an early spring, or so it appeared, and then a return to winter.  More snow was forecast for yesterday, and this morning we woke to 13 inches of new snow carpeting the yard.  No April Fools joke...just early spring in the Green Mountain State more or less as usual.

All winter we have had a flock of Wild Turkeys numbering between 26 and 31 birds making nearly daily visits to the yard to feed on cracked corn.  With increasing day length we observed this past week two toms come into season showing off their finest "attire" before the hens which seemed not to pay any attention to them but rather focus on consuming corn.  The following movie clip was taken from the dining room window.

The recent snow storm was followed by considerable bird activity at our feeders with 18 species tallied for today.  Of special note was an adult male Pine Warbler feeding on suet and seeds.  While shoveling snow, it could be heard singing (a high, musical trill) from the tall pines hear the house.


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

A Rare Visit from the "Gray Ghost"

When the sighting of an impressive Great Gray Owl in Newport, New Hampshire was announced last Monday, February 27, it generated considerable attention within the New England birding community.  Since then, birders have traveled lengthy distances to view and photograph this rare and unpredictable vagrant from the boreal forests of northern Canada.  Fortunately the owl has been very "cooperative" in rewarding its pursuers with awesome close-up views.  There has been an irruption of Great Grays south of their normal range this winter with birds being reported from Montreal and Ottawa, Canada, nearby northern New York, and northern Maine.  The last incursion of this species south of its normal winter range was eight years ago.  I have heard of several New England birders making extensive drives to these locations, some seeing multiple owls in a day; others striking out altogether. So when a Great Gray is discovered south of the border and so close to U. S. population centers, birders are going to jump at the opportunity to see this striking bird.

Eva and I made the short drive to Newport from our home in Vermont last Wednesday and upon arrival we saw about 40 vehicles parked along Oak Street at the Sugar River Rail Trail access. Walking the trail a short distance to the owl location we passed about a dozen departing happy birders, and at the site joined another 32 birders with scopes and cameras aimed at the owl as it perched on a low limb at the edge of a large field.  With observers as close as 30 feet or so to the owl, it appeared indifferent to all the attention and was content to doze off for minutes at a time presumably getting rest before its evening meal of small rodents.  During our brief visit, I took about 100 photos of the bird of which the following two are typical poses.

At one time something, possibly a vole or the like, below the owl's perch caught its attention (photo below) for only a moment before nodding off again.  As we walked out another 10+ birders and otherwise curious persons were going in to see the Gray Ghost or Ghost Owl, as this bird is sometimes called.

As the world's largest owl species, by length (27± inches) but not weight, it is known to make cyclical winter irruptions south of its boreal range.  Incursions into southern Canada and the northern Great Lakes states typically occurs every four years or so and correlates with low vole population abundance, the principal prey of such a large owl [1].  Appearances in New England are less frequent.  Sightings in New Hampshire occur on average every seven years [2].

As of the date of this posting, the owl continues to be seen and reported from the large field lying just east of the trail.  A Northern Shrike is also being seen at this location.


[1] Chereau, M., Drapeau, P., Imbeau, L., and Bergeron, Y. 2004. Owl winter irruptions as an indicator of small mammal population cycles in the boreal forests of North America. Oikos 107:190-198.

[2] Masterson, E. A. 2013. Birdwatching in New Hampshire. University Press of New England, Lebanon, N.H.

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.