Quebec chronicles – birds I know in their summer habitat

As I sit here in the 34 ⁰C/93 ⁰F temperature, a memory of cooler weather in Quebec this past spring beckons. So here we go back to the birding trip I took with some friends at the end of May/start of June. While I was able to see several “lifers” (birds I saw in person for the first time) during that trip, there were also a number of birds I had seen here in North Carolina (NC) but who were now getting ready for breeding on their summer grounds. These included some aquatic species, like the American black ducks (Anas rubripes, above), who interbreed with mallards, and a lovely pair of American wigeons (Anas americana), who are one of the more vocal duck species.

 

At one pond, I surprised a female ring-necked duck (Aythya collaris), who took off in a flurry of wings. These ducks tend to prefer small bodies of water as resting and feeding areas. Later that afternoon, I caught sight of a male counterpart at the far side of another pond as our car passed that body of water.

 

The spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularius) is a shorebird I have seen with some regularity in my home territory in NC. The Northern harrier (Circus hudsonius), which I don’t see as often, is nevertheless a familiar bird.

 

The double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auratus) would fly by on the St. Lawrence Seaway from time to time. I see them often in NC but had not seen the somewhat unusual-looking (to me!) surf scoters (Melanitta perspicillata). The male has what has been described as a swollen bill with patches of white, red and orange color contrasting with its black feathers.

  

A duck that I had seen for the first time in North Carolina, when one paid a rare visit to a lake in our area this past winter, was the long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis). These deep-diving birds breed along Northern sea coasts, lakes and on tundras. There were two males swimming at one place that we stopped – one was in its breeding plumage while the other still sported its winter feathers (with a large round black spot on its face, above). Our local birding pal speculated that the winter-plumage bird might not have been completely healthy and was therefore not going to breed.

A female long-tailed duck was very busy in the meantime diving under water, although she was apparently looking for food close to the water’s surface rather than diving deep (i.e., up to 60 m or 200 ft).

 

The water was really beautiful, looking almost velvety to me as it undulated in gentle movement with the long-tailed ducks and a common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) riding the swells.

On several occasions, we were lucky to see common eider ducks (Somateria mollissima) in the distance. Eider down, which has been used to stuff humans’ pillows, comes from the female duck’s breast and is intended to be used in lining her nest. Nowadays, there are communities in Norway that protect the birds’ nests, eggs and young so that they can later harvest the down from the used nests.

A group of common murres (Uria aalge) flew by one day and, like the eiders, were added to my list of Quebec lifers. The murres are a type of auk, birds that can swim and dive wonderfully but have an awkward gait when walking on land. The murres don’t breed until they are 4 or 5 years old, in contrast to many other birds.

A really beautiful water bird, which I unfortunately was not able to photograph beautifully, was the common loon (Gavia immer). When the light hits its head and neck feathers in the right way, they have a beautiful green-blue iridescence. With its checkered back pattern and white-and-black striped collar, these birds make me think of someone getting ready for a formal dining party, i.e., they are well-dressed avians!

 

We only saw a Canada goose a couple times during our stay in Quebec but did get to  see another species, the brant goose (Branta bernicla). This species almost died out along the eastern coast of North America when their main food, eelgrass, suffered a blight. The birds changed their diet to include sea lettuce and this proved to be a good survival strategy.

 

On land, one afternoon I spotted a sparrow in the garden of a private home. Though I couldn’t get too close, I got an identifiable photo and learned it was a Lincoln’s sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii), which I had not seen before. This species was named by James John Audubon for his friend, Thomas Lincoln, who shot one of the birds during a trip they took together in 1834. (Obviously, one of the sadder aspects of birding in Audubon’s time.)

Another, much larger bird, that I got to see for the first time was a ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus). These birds can be found in Appalachia, but it was only in Quebec that I was able to view these birds three times.

They tend to walk around much of the time but also fly up into trees to forage. We saw them in quaking aspen trees (Populus tremuloides); it turns out that dormant flower buds of male aspens are a major food source for the grouse in winter and early spring.

 

Unfortunately, these birds have been succumbing to West Nile virus in some of their habitats.

Finally, two birds that we saw in great abundance were birds that also appear with regularity on birders’ lists in NC.

 

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, it is far more likely to hear than to see the Swainson’s thrush (Catharus ustulatus); however, it seemed these birds were out and about at every place we stopped.

The initial excitement at seeing one slowly turned into remarks of “oh, another Swainson’s” as one, two, three or more of these charming birds worked the meadows and trail paths looking for sustenance.

 

The same thing eventually happened with our sightings of least flycatchers (Empidonax minimus), one of the smaller birds of its type. These birds like to snatch their meals from the air but will also glean insects from leaves and twigs.

 

 

 

What I did find is that these small companions on our walks were quite charming and cute, so I didn’t tire of seeing them again and again.

 

Next time: some of the non-avians we saw in the Canadian province!

My special bird in autumn 2018

Well, having had time to finally process photos as the year end approaches, I’m “on a roll” with posting blogs in contrast to other months in 2018. I have two more to post on mammals this year. This one is to commemorate a real birding treat that came to me during the snowstorm that was featured in my last two blogs.

 

There had been reports on birding sites and listservs that some bird species which usually don’t come too far south during the winter were on the move this year to warmer climes. They included birds that sometimes arrive in North Carolina (NC) in winter, but who don’t always come in large numbers (an “irruption”) such as pine siskins (Spinus pinus, above) and purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus, below).

  

I’ve also been lucky to see red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis), another irruption species, either in my yard or on nature walks.

 

So why are they coming here in numbers?  It turns out that trees in the northern boreal forests are not producing enough food sources that these birds need to survive winter weather such as conifer seeds and berries (from trees such as hemlock, spruce, firs, alders and larch).

What was really exciting for birders in NC, however, was that some other bird species are also seeking new winter foraging areas. They include redpolls, crossbills and the gorgeous evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) who are seen here only rarely.

I had only ever seen a photo of these grosbeaks and thought it would be fun to see one in person. Members of a listserv mentioned that these grosbeaks had been spotted in Virginia, just above the NC border, so we should be prepared to perhaps see them.

On my visits to the Brumley Nature Preserve, I spent time in the spruce areas in the hope of spotting one, but I had no such luck. And then as the snow was falling heavily on the first morning of our snowstorm, I caught sight of a bright yellow and black bird on a feeder as I looked out my window. Lo and behold, when I grabbed my camera I discovered a male evening grosbeak on a feeder!

What was even more exciting was that he was accompanied by two female birds, both of whom were very lovely as well. I took lots of photos.

They finally flew off and I counted myself very lucky indeed. A while later, when the snow had stopped for a while, I was watching the feeders again and the threesome returned to my delight. They fed and then rested on feeder poles.

I tried to go outside quietly so I could photograph them without a window between us but they were quite skittish and left quickly as soon as I appeared. They flew to the tops of nearby tall pines and then disappeared off into the distance. They were not shy when I stood in front of the living room window, however.

The trio reappeared a third time and I stayed behind the window to admire them. It was interesting to see how they could look different, depending on their posture. The bird above looked “tall” as it fed next to the Eastern bluebird. And then the other looked fat and fluffy on the feeder pole – even looking as if it had an outsized head when it leaned forward a bit!

 

They left in the afternoon and did not return, even when it snowed again the next day. A fellow birder who lives northwest of me spotted a male evening grosbeak on one of her feeders that day – the birds were obviously en route to another destination. I hope they found a good food source area for the rest of the winter. And my photos will remind me of their wonderful visit, which made this snowstorm one to remember. 😊

An avian buffet appears!

In the town where I live, there is a private lake in a neighborhood of single-family homes. The little body of water was created by developers who dammed a local creek; now a neighborhood association levies annual fees for use of the lake for swimming, fishing and boating. In the past month, the neighborhood residents were surprised by an influx of birds that they do not usually see and some photos of the new avian visitors began circulating.

Given my interest in wildlife and birds, some colleagues passed on a couple of photos to me and one couple kindly invited me to come visit so that I could see the new arrivals in person. They were especially curious about the identity of a few ducks. When I arrived, no ducks were in sight, but at least 80 double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auratus) were hanging out in crowds on two floating docks.

Their tightly-packed presence had displaced the Canada geese (Branta canadensis), who are more common lake residents. A group of 11 geese were off in the distance on shore leaving the open water to the visiting avian groups.

Some of the cormorants couldn’t fit onto the platforms, so they swam around in the company of the many dozens of ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) of all ages who were swarming the waters as well.

From time to time, the gulls would begin edging their way onto the platforms, eventually taking up space vacated by the cormorants. There are both adult and immature gulls in the crowd.

From time to time, the gulls launch themselves into the air for aerial forays which end in dives down to pick up a fish, of which there still seem to be plenty. This is because the shad population with which the lake was apparently stocked is dying off as a whole.

Why is this happening? I don’t know the species of shad with which the lake was stocked, but it appears that threadfin shad (Dorosoma petenense) are common in the Southeastern USA and often introduced as forage fish for the bass and catfish that fisher-people seek. The shad are very sensitive to changes in water temperature; when it goes below about 42° F (5.5° C), they expire. In the past 6 weeks, we had an unusual early winter storm with about 8-11 inches of snow, followed by days and days of cold rains. Sometimes, it is cold 24 hours long; other days have nights and dawns below freezing and then afternoon temperatures of 50-60° F (10-17° C). The shad die-off is a result.

  

The newly arrived birds are obviously enjoying the easy pickings. When the gulls drop down to snatch a fish, they are almost always pursued by other gulls who try to make them drop the prize.

 

Even when they alight with a fish firmly held in their beaks, other gulls harass them in an attempt to make them give up the meal.

 

  

The shad often appear to be too large for the gulls to swallow. I saw several gulls try to position them to get them down their gullets but the fish just wouldn’t go down. So they drop the fish in the water and then try to pick off pieces for easier eating, while fending off neighboring gulls.

  

It is unclear to me how the birds who don’t usually populate the lake in winter knew that a spontaneous buffet had appeared. In addition to the cormorants and gulls, a group of seven bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was also fishing when I visited. There were some almost full adult eagles (with mostly white heads and tails) and several immature birds of varying ages (eagles reach maturity at 5 years of age). I guess that they came over from Jordan Lake, which is quite a fair distance away. Searching the Internet has not yet given me an answer to this question.

I didn’t see the eagles harass gulls who had gotten a fish but they were very carefully watching one another. When the eagle below managed to get a snack, other immature eagles closely followed him/her. A sub-adult who got a fish was harassed by an immature bird as well.

 

The eagles soared overhead and were joined at one point by a beautiful red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). The larger raptors let the hawk fly alongside them with no problem.

It was quite a chilly morning when I got to see the visiting aquatic birds, so I only stayed a short time. But my friends invited me to return for another visit, which I hope to do soon as there is no telling how long it will take the visiting birds to eat the easily available shad. And the ducks? I was able to get one rather indistinct photo of a threesome across the lake and helpful folks in a Facebook group confirmed my guess – they are ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis). Maybe I can get a decent photo of them next time. 🙂

Winter wonderland – sharing and spats at the feeders

I thought I had published this blog in early February and just discovered that I had only saved a draft. Since we had snowflakes last night (in April!), I’m going to go ahead and post this now – a break in the series about Costa Rica! When the snow began falling during our day of one-foot accumulation, the feeders were inundated by some of the dark-colored bird species who tend to come in crowds. At first, they were peacefully sharing space.

 

  

Although I sometimes have a couple dozen red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) at the feeders, during the storm only one pair showed up for a brief visit and the other birds left them alone.

 

The mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) often share feeder space with other birds, including those that are smaller than they are.

The common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) are known to other people as domineering birds at the feeder, but those in my yard have always been polite, even though they seem to have a permanent expression that expresses anger.

 

 

The brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) sometimes share space nicely and sometimes fuss at one another as they vie for a good perch. They don’t try to chase off other species though and are not apt to “yell” at other birds.

The birds who do “yell” are the European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Young ones yell at their parents after fledging, begging to be fed. Adults yell at each other when they are trying to all crowd together onto a feeder. And adults yell at other species to drive them away so they can have all the space for themselves.

At my feeders, however, they have found their match in the male red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). One day, I watched as they managed to intimidate him for a few minutes, but he then returned to the feeder and refused to give up. Now he is no longer frightened of them and stands his ground when a starling does its best to make him move.

    

It turns out that studies have shown that the red-bellied woodpeckers are the birds most apt to resist attempts by other birds to displace them from feeders.

The red-bellied woodpecker also was not intimidated by me at one point. He doesn’t like it when he flies in and notices at the last moment that I am sitting or standing on the porch; often he will swerve away and wait for me to leave. During the snow storm, however, he decided to display his displeasure with my close presence, both from a frontal and dorsal view!

 

  

      

 

I guess that the little bird spats do make for sometimes more interesting birding observations. Seeing the tiny ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) warning off a rival a few days before and after the snow melted did show off a gorgeous and brave little bird.

 

 

I’m looking forward to seeing what the springtime observations of animal behavior will reveal.

 

Winter wonderland – sparrows and warblers

Yesterday, as I walked through my yard, I was surprised to see groups of daffodils sticking up their heads; it seemed rather early to me but last year we had early signs of spring as well. It is a big contrast to our weather conditions less than a month ago, though. On the 17th of January, our town was surprised by 11-12 inches of beautiful, powdery snow.

  

  

 

While our southern area often has a couple instances of (light) snow and/or an ice storm in the winter, our climate is generally fairly mild and temperatures in the 50s and 60s Farenheit are not uncommon during winter. So the brief but heavy snowfall was quite an event; our streets were empty of traffic as everyone stayed home and watched the falling flakes.

Some people built snowmen, others went sledding and walking, and some of us spent hours filling our bird feeders and watching the birds. I also made an attempt to photograph some frozen bubbles, which was very challenging since it was windy during the entire winter weather event.

  

The snow began slowly melting a bit the next day, which made some of the icicles on the house elongate to a length of almost 3-4 feet, but it wasn’t until Friday and Saturday that the snow and ice really started disappearing.

My yard looked beautiful, but I spent time on the 17th repeatedly knocking snow off the bird feeders and heated birth bath so that the birds could reach the food and water.

  

   

Although I saw a couple squirrels and the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) also came by, I didn’t see other mammals like chipmunks, raccoons, opossums. But I had 25 different bird species come by on Wednesday and Thursday; on Friday and Saturday, two more species came by. I’d like to share some snow day photos of them all in this and the next few blogs.

First up are the sparrows and warblers. The chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) usually get their seed from the hanging feeders in the front and back yards but now they were looking everywhere for a bite to eat. I had strewn some seed on the ground and they began looking there.

One found a trove of food and another came by asking to be fed, a request the first sparrow accommodated quite sweetly.

 

 

The white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) have an opposite feeding strategy, usually feeding on the ground and occasionally venturing up to a feeder. They, too, searched under the snow for some food.

 

The pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) tend to be rather shy; only very rarely does a pair visit together. Mostly, one shows up at a time; their beautiful yellow color was really highlighted against the white background.

 

The pine warblers did have to brave a bad-tempered bird to get to the feeders. One of the six resident yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) has become very territorial, chasing away some other yellow-rumped warblers, the ruby-crowned kinglets and the pine warbler – in other words, the birds his size or smaller. He allows a couple other yellow-rumps to feed peacefully and I think perhaps they are his family members so that he tolerates them. He didn’t stop the other small birds from coming around, however, as we’ll see in the next blog.