King Eider at Cape Cod Canal

Every winter we get a few birds hanging around our area that are fairly rare but which appear as singletons with some regularity. For example, harlequin ducks, beautiful birds from the far north that usually winter off the rocky Maine coast, can be seen off the Cape in several locations almost every winter. There may be one or two that spend a good part of the winter by the canal jetty each winter and there always seems to be at least one seen at Nauset or Coast Guard Beach. I have seen them in both locations each winter for at least 10 years but just the one or two.

King eiders are another northern duck that seems to make a yearly appearance here on the Cape in the winter. Most often seen with the flocks of eider ducks in or around the Cape Cod Canal one can sometimes be seen off the outer Cape beaches or off Sandy Neck, which may be the same one seen by the canal. That’s a king eider smack in the center, hanging out with his common eider buddies.

Some years I spy one but for the last few years when a king eider has been reported at the canal I have missed it. This year reports have been coming in over the last few weeks that a very accommodating king eider drake was being seen daily by the herring run on the Wareham side of the canal. The weather was rough and I was busy and I enjoyed everyone else’s photos. Until yesterday. Yesterday we were heading to New Bedford so we had a chance to stop and see the bird.

As everyone else had mentioned, it was indeed, right there and easy to spot. I do not have a fancy camera so you can see how close the bird was. If you’re so inclined, go see it. One of these days it will leave but for now it seems quite content to hang out eating shellfish and crustaceans which are abundant in the canal, especially along the rocky jetties.

The Blackbirds are Back!

It’s always one of my favorite and first signs of spring–the return of the blackbirds. I often get common grackles before I get red-winged blackbirds at my own backyard feeders but I know the red-wings are around because I hear them.

Common grackles are big, bold and glossy birds with big yellow eyes. Their fan shaped tails are distinctive as is their raucous behavior. You always know when they are around.

Male grackles are the first to arrive, though it is difficult to tell males and females apart. Their big, solid bills help the crack corn and also eat carrion. They will gobble down seed and suet faster than you can say, hey, leave some for the squirrels and they often bicker while doing so. You have to give them credit in the looks department though. I think they are gorgeous birds, all that color glowing off them as they turn in the light. Their calls are loud and scratchy, often compared to the sound of rusty gate hinges.Red-winged blackbirds arrive in large flocks, often mixed in with grackles. Like grackles, the males arrive first and almost immediately begin to stake out territory.

Check out this guy’s raggedy tail feathers. All migratory birds look a bit haggard when they first arrive. They are often thin, minus a few feathers and in need of a good rest. That doesn’t stop them from declaring their superiority, however. Flocks of blackbirds often quibble in the still bare trees and will sing, if we can call it singing, louder and louder as time goes on and the others don’t move. That’s when you’ll start to see some aggression as one bird will decide to chase the others away. This early in the spring the others often ignore such antics and just move away a foot or so, if that. When they first arrive, the epaulets of the male red-winged blackbirds may appear dingy and lackluster. In a few weeks time the yellow and red will become quite bright, all the better to see and be seen in their world. Those bright red patches can be puffed out to seem much larger than they are. These are used as warning signals while setting up territories and chasing out would be interlopers but are also used to attract mates once the females arrive. Most are familiar with the “conkle-a-REE!” call of the red-winged blackbird. If you haven’t heard it yet, keep listening. By the end of this week they should be singing Cape wide.Have you seen a red-winged blackbird yet? Where?

Welcome, summer!

Oops, I’ve been busy and I have not been updating here. I’ve been working with kids in the woods, at the pond and at the salt marsh. I’ve been drawing and painting, catching frogs and writing.

One of the coolest things I did over the last few weeks was attend a bird banding demonstration at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

The table was all set up with the necessary tools for weighing, measuring and recording.

038The next step was to check the mist nets which had been set up in areas migratory birds fly through but which also had some protection.

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The little bag holds other bags which can gently hold the birds found and carefully removed from the nets.

Look what we found! A great crested flycatcher! These guys are feisty and vocal in the wild and they are when captured as well.

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Feathers are examined to determine condition and age of the bird.059By blowing on the belly of the bird the bander can tell if the bird has a bare brood patch, meaning it is sitting on eggs. In this species both male and female can have brood patches so sex was not determined.

062The bird is then weighed. It looks sort of tough but really, the bird is quieted by the darkness and the fact that it can’t move. It is only in the tube for a matter of seconds.

071 072After all that the band is affixed to the leg and all info is recorded.

061A moment is taken to admire and thank the bird for its cooperation

074and then it is released. When releasing the birds, they are held close to the ground which helps them orient themselves.

077Let’s just say the birds do not hang around after being released. This one actually called and chatted back and forth with what we assumed was a mate almost immediately. All of this takes place in a matter of minutes, by the way. The bird banders are very kind, calm and aware of the bird’s dignity and stress level. I have seen birds banded before but it was a pretty cool way to spend a morning.

 

Winter visitors at the bird feeders

This has been a tough winter for many of our feathered friends. Copious amounts of snow have made it difficult to find natural food and many birds that don’t usually visit feeders have been coming around, hoping for some nutritious handouts to tide them over.

For the first time in my yard I have had a hermit thrush. Hermit thrushes do over winter here on the Cape in small numbers but in 30 years I have never had one in the yard until now.

036 037Another bird that we have all summer but not usually at a feeder in the winter is the gray catbird and yet one showed up about two weeks ago and visits the suet feeder daily.

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This isn’t a great shot but check out that rusty red under the tail feathers!020

Another unusual visitor has been this northern mockingbird. Again, a bird that we know is around even in the winter but which usually stays far away from the feeders.

005 009 011And then there is the visitor to the feeders none of the other birds like to think about but hey, it’s been a tough winter and even the Cooper’s hawks are hungry…

100Many people have been spotting unusual birds in their yards this winter. What have you been seeing?

 

Blizzards make for hungry birds!

Today the sun is shining and the temperature is climbing to at least freezing. The howling winds and stinging snow are now just memories. What we do have is lots of snow to move around and lots of very hungry birds.

Although I had seed and suet out all through the storm the wind was so tough not many birds braved it. I threw seed out the back door and into areas where the wind wasn’t quite so fierce and we got some takers.

We got a lot of snow and had a lot of drifting…the day after the storm is when the feeding frenzy began and lasted pretty much through the day.

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My feeders are by my garden which has a chicken wire fence so the bird is not in a cage, just behind the wire…
006 I don’t remember seeing such hungry birds. I had dozens of birds everywhere I looked, eating, eating, eating!009I seem to have at least a dozen juncos that are calling my yard home this winter and I always think of them as the true snow birds…
030 Mr. Cardinal and all his cardinal friends were very hungry and at one point I had over 20 in and around the feeders.039

 

 

I was most excited to see that the little orange crowned warbler survived the storm! It showed up about midday yesterday….013

The resident Carolina wren also survived and was very territorial around the suet feeder.018

 

Blue jays arrived in a feisty little group to take over the ground feeding at one point.002This morning the sun shone clear and bright and Mrs. Cardinal posed as if to say, “All is right in the world today!”
027Things are slowly returning to normal around here and the birds feeding today are hungry as usual but not frantic. How did you make out in the blizzard? Any unusual birds to report?

 

Battening down for the blizzard

If you’re in New England you can’t help but know there’s a big storm on the way and it seems to have started already.

This morning its was totally serene and peaceful at the beach.

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I put out a lot of extra food for the birds, including extra suet for the little orange crowned warbler that continues here…that’s the little warbler on the left, on the suet.

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The regular visitors are also here such as the house finches

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and the white breasted nuthatches025and the cardinals, among many others…

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Stay safe and warm, everyone! And may the power stay with you!

 

 

Orange Crowned Warbler in Hyannis

Last winter I had a little olive and brown colored bird arrive in my yard that I knew immediately wasn’t one of my usual suspects. It had no wing bars, no eye ring and just a touch of golden color here and there. It was quite dainty and lovely and when I looked it up I determined that it must be an orange crowned warbler. They are migrants in our area but unusual so I needed to be very sure. I needed to take a photo.

This bird was little but it knew how to move! I got many blurry shots before getting one that really gave us a chance for a confirmed identity, which I did get.

Just a few weeks ago, I saw the bird, or one like it, again! It was also elusive in terms of being photographed.

I got a lot of shots like this one.

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and this one

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and this one

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before I finally got this one

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and this one

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It’s a feisty little thing but also very shy. Any time the bigger birds arrive it leaves the suet feeder and the gardens though on the very coldest days it seems to be a little braver.

How long will this bird hang around? No one knows though it seems they hang around where there’s food so we’ll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, it’s a very cool yard bird!

You can learn more about Orange crowned warblers at this link.

An influx of purple finches on Cape Cod

If you feed the birds or have been out and about looking at birds on Cape Cod this weekend you may have seen a purple finch or two or three. Some people have even been seeing flights of hundreds! I myself have about 20 in my yard in Hyannis even as I write this.

My photos are a bit blurry because they are taken through a window with a screen but they will give you an idea.

This is the first female I saw. Purple finches used to be common here but have been more or less pushed out by house finches. These days, spotting a purple finch on your feeder can be very exciting. Except for when it’s not, like right now when everyone and their neighbor has a purple finch at the feeder…

008Purple finches and house finches look rather similar so check your bird book or Cornell’s All About Bird Page for Purple Finches to see the differences. The females are more heavily marked, especially on the head where you can see the dark cheeks and eye line.

The male is pretty rosy, with the pink going right down his chest and on his rump as well. also note the marked notch in the tail.

007Have you been seeing these at your feeders? Keep count and notes as there are people collecting information. Most of these birds seem to be migrating through. Will some stay for the winter like the red breasted nuthatches did a few years ago? Who knows? For now, anyway, they sure are fun to see!

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Field sketching for birders

This past weekend I was at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to teach an intensive two day Field School focusing on Field Sketching for Birders. I never know who will sign up for such a class or what their expectations will be so it is always a bit of a challenge setting up the schedule.

Drawing birds seems like a simple thing but it is actually quite challenging to get them right.

photo 2The weather forecast was for rain and cold wind for both days which made it difficult to work outside. The first day we worked indoors but we did manage to get out several times on Sunday.

In the classroom we began by drawing bird shapes from memory and then worked on drawing bird silhouettes, as correct shape and form is important for bird identification. The students had different goals and different levels of ability but this exercise went well for all.

photo 3We worked on drawings of bills and feet, bird anatomy and then from bird pictures in field guides before venturing out to the feeder area. Drawing live birds is quite a challenge but these folks were up to it! They worked very hard and although the birds were in constant motion the sketchers were able to pin down characteristic moves and postures.

photo 1At 7 a.m. on Sunday we headed out in a cold drizzle to see what we could see for birds with naturalist and birder, David Clapp. A great egret was a highlight as were several green winged teal in Goose Pond. The rain got heavier and we returned to the classroom where Melissa had prepared a wonderful hearty continental breakfast for us. Warm beverages were especially appreciated.

photo 4We drew from feathers and from the bird mounts in the WBWS collection. We returned to the feeders but also worked on bills and feet from the mounted hawks and songbirds on display in the exhibit area.

All this drawing was pretty intense and some people began to fade. Unless you’ve actually sat or stood and drawn something for almost 8 hours it is hard to describe the concentration and attention required and how tiring it can be. Also, drawing small moving targets can be frustrating. And yet, the students put on their brave faces and kept on drawing. I was impressed with their attitudes and their willingness to really work hard. Their drawings were impressive, even if some of them were frustrated by the results of their own labors. This is not easy stuff! They did great.

At one point one of the students mentioned she and her mother had seen a nest on the ground with a broken egg. She thought the nest was woven into the grass. I was curious and she took me out to see it. I photographed it as well as drew it and showed it to the bird experts when we returned to the building. After some discussion it was decided it was….

photo 5a woodcock nest! It had not survived a predator attack but it was still cool to see such a thing. I brought all the students out to see it and it made a nice little finish to the workshop.

My next field school session will be in July and will be Nature Sketching for Scaredy Cats.

 

 

 

 

Nest building

Even though it has been chilly out there this week the birds are already busy declaring territories, courting and some are already building their nests.

Last week we were out walking when we noticed a pair of chickadees keeping an eye on us. They also had their eye on the end of a branch that seemed to be hollow. Knowing that chickadees often choose such sites for nest building we pretended we weren’t watching and just hung around quietly.

This is what we saw.

022The chickadees were using old cattail fluff to line the nest. The cattails were growing in the nearby swamp which would also be a great place to catch insects to feed a growing family.

023You can’t see it in these photos but the chickadee is patting down the fuzzy warm fluff to line the nest in there.

024The chickadee also used its breast to shape the nest inside the hole in the branch. Both chickadees took turns doing this.

021These stills don’t really show the movement made by these busy birds but hopefully you sort of get the idea. Here is some more information about our state bird, the black capped chickadee. Most of us can recognize them but knowing more about them will let you observe what they are up to more easily.