Thursday, March 27, 2008

Northern Maine Birds 12-26 March 2008

Its still winter in northern Maine.

The Easter Weekend Blizzard dropped 14+ inches of snow in Caribou pushing the tally to a record 185+ inches (over fifteen feet). More snow fell in the St. John Valley. Record low temperatures (down to -14 F) were hit on the past three evenings. Snow depths range from 2 to 5 feet from north to south. Even open areas have a deep snow cover.

Some streams in southern and central Aroostook have opened up but overall there remains little open water available.

Despite all local meterological evidence to the contrary, the spring migration season is finally upon us and a few early scouts are arriving in southern areas of the region.

Arriving Species :
Canada Goose 3/26
Turkey Vulture 3/25
Merlin 3/26
Horned Lark 3/14
Song Sparrow 3/16
Red-winged Blackbird 3/20

15 arriving Canada Geese were seen on the edge of a narrow lead in the ice of the Aroostook River in Presque Isle. A single goose was also seen in another part of town on the same day (26th). This date tied last years record for an early arrival. Common Goldeneyes were spotted on Presque Isle Stream in Presque Isle on the 25 and below the Aroostook River dam in Caribou on the 16th. Common Mergansers were at the dam on the 19th. There were 27 American Black Ducks and 20 Mallards at a small pond near the hospital in Presque Isle on the 26th. Ken Lamb noted this Black Duck appeared a bit hard of hearing...

A skier at Mars Hill Mountain was enjoying the post-blizzard powder on Saturday the 22nd when they flushed a roosting Ruffed Grouse from the deep snow on an ungroomed trail.

Raptor reports are trickling in. Bald Eagles continue sprucing up the nests in the area, but we've yet to hear of any settling in to incubate eggs. Ken Lamb photographed the eagle above in Presque Isle on the 25th.

Reports of injured and killed eagles, ravens and crows on stretches of I-95 in southern Aroostook and northern Penobscot continue. The Department of Transportation's unfortunate decision to log and thin the median strips near deer wintering areas between Benedicta and Medway, this winter, has resulted in numerous (dozens) of road killed deer. The deer which are struggling with a particularly tough winter, are tempted to cross the interstate to get to the tasty tree tops that are being stacked here. Though it appears some of the deer carcasses are removed, enough have remained and are an attractant to these scavenging birds. Ironically, DOT says the purpose of the thinning project was to reduce wildlife injury and accidents....

In Caribou a newly arrived Merlin was photographed on the 26th. The female/juvenile appeared to have an injured or frozen foot but still managed to take a Mourning Dove at a feeder here. Carroll Knox was able to get a picture as the bird digested its meal on the phone lines in front of his house.

A few blocks over, a Sharp-shinned Hawk scattered the flocks of finches at Trina Coffin's busy feeder and then posed for the image below.

An arriving Turkey Vulture was seen over Hersey in southern Aroostook on the 25th.

19 Great Black-backed Gulls were seen at the dam in Caribou on the 18th and a single was seen over Presque Isle on the 20th. No other gull species have been reported yet.

All the regular corvids were noted. A Gray Jay was seen in Westmanland on the 15th. Crow numbers continue to increase. Common Ravens continue to work on a nest in Castle Hill and others were observed carrying sticks in Chapman and Easton. A returning flock of four Horned Larks was first spotted along the snowbank-bound roads in Mapleton on the 14th. The birds have subsequently been seen in open fields in Limestone and Caribou.

The Presque Isle Tufted Titmouse survived the blizzard and stretched out its overwinter stay here. 10+ Boreal Chickadees encountered in a woodlot in Westmanland on the 16th, was a high count for this usually-less-than-gregarious species

Snow Buntings have been seen in small numbers in Caribou, Limestone, Presque Isle and Woodland. A vocal Song Sparrow in Mt Chase on the 16th was a bit early in its arrival. Overwintering American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos were still visiting feeding stations in Caribou and Presque Isle.

The female Rusty Blackbird continues at a feeding station in rural Presque Isle. An arriving Red-winged Blackbird stopped briefly in Mt Chase on the 20th. This too, was slightly early.

Pine Grosbeaks were still being seen in Caribou, Fort Fairfield, Presque Isle and Woodland but numbers have dropped and several reporters have noted their complete departure from their yards. Pine Siskins, American Goldfinches and Common Redpolls continue to increase throughout the area with redpolls dominating the counts. Trina Coffin, in Caribou photographed her goldfinch which is starting to change to summer plumage.

A Hoary Redpoll joined a flock of 60+ Commons in my yard in Woodland for one day on the 22nd. Also seen was an interesting "yellow"-poll which had a bright yellow cap replacing the normal red spot on this Common Redpoll.

Evening Grosbeak numbers also seemed to have waned though as many as 12 were still visiting my feeders as late as the 25th.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Northern Maine Birds 28 Feb-11 March 2008

I'll be away (spending a couple days skiing in Baxter State Park) this week, so thought I'd get a report out a bit early.

Winter's kept a firm grip on northern Maine so far this March. Temperatures continue to run below normal, almost all water is frozen and another 2 feet of snow have fallen in the first 10 days of the month. As a matter of fact, the meteorologists say fourteen FEET of the white stuff has landed in central Aroostook this winter. Only about 13 inches to the total snowfall record...great....

Needless to say, there is little change to report in the numbers or diversity of birds. Generally, a trend towards increasing numbers of American Crows and less Pine and Evening Grosbeaks was noted by several reporters.

Two Hooded Mergansers photographed by Ken Lamb on Arnold Brook in Presque Isle may have been over-winterers rather than early migrants. The birds were photographed on the 28th but had been seen at this location for almost a month. Mallards and American Black Ducks continue in Presque Isle stream in PI. Since the Aroostook River has almost completely frozen over at the Caribou Dam, no Common Goldeneyes or Mergansers have been seen here in over a week.

An apparent Sharp-shinned Hawk was photographed by Russ Mount in Castle Hill on the 2nd following a big snowstorm. The hawk was attracted to a good sized collection of Pine Grosbeaks, Mourning Doves and Common Redpolls at a feeder here. Bald Eagles have been seen recently adding sticks to the nest on the Aroostook River in the Stevensville section of Fort Fairfield.

A Snowy Owl was reported at an in-town location in Presque Isle on the 1st.

Also in Castle Hill, a Common Raven pair has been observed constructing a nest in a dense stand of mature spruce trees. As previously noted, the number of American Crow arrivals continues to increase.

Blue Jays are increasingly vocal.

Over fifty Bohemian Waxwings were seen in Mount Chase on the 10th. The Northern Shrike continues to thin the chickadee flock at my yard in Woodland.

Paul Cyr found a gorgeous male Pileated Woodpecker excavating a hole in Presque Isle on the 8th and was kind enough to share what he saw.

This has been an exceptional winter for Northern Cardinal reports in Aroostook County with as many as a dozen different birds being reported from around the region. Again, this week, we hear of these birds in Caribou, Houlton, Island Falls, Fort Fairfield and Presque Isle. Ted Roberts recently snapped a picture of this brilliant male wallowing in the snow with a group of Mourning Doves in Presque Isle

Small Snow Bunting flocks have been reported regularly from throughout the region, with larger flocks being seen in the vicinities of feedlots and horse barns (Oakfield, Fort Fairfield, Woodland). I imagine with 3+ feet of snow in the fields that its difficult to find seeds elsewhere. I suspect if the snow cover continues for more than few more weeks, we may find an abundance of migrating sparrows visiting our feeders by necessity.

On a sad note, the intrepid Eastern Towhee that was overwintering in Sherman was killed by a neighbor's cat on the 28th.

Pine and Evening Grosbeaks are still widespread. In Bancroft, a Pine Grosbeak flock grew to its greatest numbers of the season (20+), but overall numbers continue to drop a bit. A nearly all white (leucistic) Pine Grosbeak was photographed in Fort Fairfield on the 2nd (See previous post).

A few American Goldfinches (Presque Isle, Fort Fairfield) and Pine Siskins (Presque Isle) were reported this week. Common Redpolls seem to be conducting guerrilla-style raids on unattended thistle feeders around the area. One observer said their long-neglected feed sock was emptied in a single day but that the flock did not return once it was refilled. I wonder if these are not flocks on the move.

We should have some migrants to talk about next time!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A leucistic Pine Grosbeak

Earlier this week, I recieved some images of a strange canary-looking bird taken by Joe and Penny Bernard in Fort Fairfield. The bird has been coming to their yard for a while and they were only just recently able to get some pictures of it. It was a bit of a puzzler and not like anything I've seen in northern Maine before... exciting stuff for a bird nerd.

As you can see from Joe's picture, the medium sized bird was mostly white with some light yellow on the head, rump and breast and black and white on the wings. The beak and legs were pink. Unfortunately the bird was all alone, so there were no clues to its identity to be gotten from its associates...

There aren't too many species of birds that can reasonably be considered as candidates in Aroostook county in the winter...The closest looking normal-plumaged bird common in this area is probably the Snow Bunting. By comparing the Fort Fairfield bird to Paul Cyr's Snow Bunting photo in the previous post, you can see that this ID wasn't a good fit. Northern Shrikes have black wings and a lighter body, but they also have a black mask and a black tail which this bird didn't have. Young shrikes also have some brownish tint to some of the plumage but not the lemon-y yellow Joe's bird showed.

The only other birds with white, black and yellow plumage that came to mind were Evening Grosbeak and American Goldfinch. This bird was too big, mis-proportioned and way too light to be a goldfinch. All the white on the upper wing looked good for an aberrant plumaged Evening Grosbeak but the tail was too long....hmmm

On closer look, I found some clues to the birds identity. The bird looked like it had a thick, stubby beak. Medium sized birds with this kind of bill around northern Maine right now are Evening and Pine Grosbeaks and Northern Cardinals. As I said the long tail didn't work for Evening Grosbeaks, and the bird obviously didn't have the crest of a cardinal...Pine Grosbeak?

The shape/morphology was right, but the color? I got thinking about the yellow color. The head, breast and rump were yellow in the same places as a normally colored female/young male Pine Grosbeak. (See the bird in Paul Cyr's photo here) What appeared to be missing was the gray pigment that dominates the appearance of a female Pine Grosbeak. Missing pigment would also explain the beak and legs being pink rather than dark gray/black.

As I understand it, when birds appear to have reduced or partially missing dark pigments (melanin) most ornithologists call it leucism. For some reason the use of this term gets the hackles up on some people who prefer to call birds with lighter than normal plumage partial albino. I've used the term partial albino for such birds before, and had it explained to me that albinism is an all or nothing affair. Either the bird has two recessive genes and NO pigment(=albino), or not. A bird cannot be partially albino.

So, anyway... Joe's bird with some black and yellow pigments looked like it could be a leucistic Pine Grosbeak.

I hadn't heard of one before so I googled around for a while and found several references to such a bird. In our geographical area, there was one collected in Massachusetts in 1965 and a couple others reported in New Brunswick in the past five years. Most surprising was a photo of one taken just a couple of weeks ago (February 23rd) in Quispamsis, NB that looked alot like Joe's bird! This bird was decent enough to be photographed in the company of three other Pine Grosbeaks.

I sent the pics around to a few Maine bird experts and they all concurred with my suspicion that this was a very rare, leucistic Pine Grosbeak. Thats a really good find. Thanks for sharing it Joe and Penny!