Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cackling Goose, Rough-legged Hawk and Iceland Gull

After a week of slow birding, I had a good day in the field. There were a bunch of new arrivals in central Aroostook county... and good ones at that.

Just after sunup I located my first Cackling Goose of the year among a few hundred Canada Geese at Collins Pond in Caribou. A Bald Eagle had the flock quite nervous and the geese were leaving the pond in 10s and 20's. We were able to snap a few photos of the little goose before it departed.

In the cropped shots you can see the bird's small size, short neck, stubby bill, steep forhead and overall silvery tone of the plumage are all visible in the photos...enough to make this tough ID.

A single Lesser Scaup and a few dozen Hooded Mergansers were also milling with the geese.

Over in Easton at Lake Josephine, the duck flock seems to be reassembling after retreating from the gunfire earlier this month. Best of these was seven American Wigeon and 18 late Gadwall. 11 Lesser Scaup, 70 or so Ring-necked Ducks and 25 Common Goldeneyes were also present. My first-of-the-season Rough-legged Hawk was hovering over the field just north of Lake Jo. The dark phase hawk allowed a long viewing session and was quite spectacular in the morning sun.

Just north at Christina Reservoir my first-of-the-season Iceland Gull flew up as if to greet me when I had just arrived. The first winter bird did a lap around the pond with a small flock of Herring Gulls and then headed out towards the potato fields to the north. A White-rumped Sandpiper was a bit of a surprise as were a few lingering Lesser Yellowlegs. The Common Mergansers here numbered over 90.

In the afternoon I also found a medium sized flock of Horned Larks in a potato field on the Limestone and Fort Fairfield town line. Mixed in with the larks were 18 Snow Buntings and two colorful Lapland Longspurs. The longspurs landed very near the road and treated me to some of the better looks of these that I've had in a while.

Not too shabby.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Small Canada Geese in Maine

I've been using this rainy Saturday to catch up on correspondence and bird reports from the past couple weeks. As usual, I've been quite interested in all the recent goose sightings from around the state.

So far this fall we've found Canada, Snow, Greater White-fronted, Cackling and Pink-footed Geese here in Maine. (...Any Brant?) I also noticed quite a few reports this fall of smaller Canada Geese that astute birders are noticing amongst the larger individuals. I'm sure these get attention as we all sift through the flocks in search of a rare Cackler.

Though there have been quite a few reports of "Lesser" Canada Geese lately, I wanted to mention that this subspecies has yet to be definitively documented in Maine....This is not to say people aren't seeing groups of small Canada Geese in Maine just that these are probably not the true "Lesser" Canada Geese. (I know discussions of subspecies is often seen as the threshold to the realm of true bird nerd-dom but I still think there's a bit of confusion that bears clearing up.)

Size Variation: Real and apparent

In my experience, we currently see a wide variety of sizes of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) in Maine. I think birders need to consider several things when evaluating the size of a goose and before assigning it to any one subspecies.

First is just the variation in body size of populations within any subspecies. Generally the birds in the northern reaches of the range tend to be smaller than those in the south. So larger and smaller birds within a migrating flock could be both from the same subspecies.

Sex, age, molt and diet can all work in various combinations to produce some real size extremes. Males are generally slightly larger than females and young birds are smaller than adults. Thanks to good food availability in some locales there are certainly some big, beefy geese out there and likewise there are some smaller birds that have struggled and end up true runts. These outliers usually are usually encountered in ones or twos (as opposed to whole percentages of flocks with differing sizes as is the case when subspecific size difference is in play).

Body posture, lighting, plumage erection and variation in the surface a bird is standing on can all also create some perceived differences in size. A relaxed or dozing bird can look a lot smaller than an alert or alarmed one. Likewise I've been fooled by geese that appeared small in a field, until they stepped out of a furrow and up beside a goose that seemed much larger moments earlier... A swimming bird that is angled slightly away can also look amazingly smaller than a similarly sized individual offering a true side profile. (This can also make bills seem stubby and Cackling-esque!)

Its also worth noting that some telephoto and digiscoped images have distorted perspectives that make birds further away from the camera appear disproportionately larger than those that are closer. (Ever notice how huge the batter and catcher look compared to the pitcher when the video camera in center field is being used during baseball games?)

Subspecies of Canada Geese in Maine

I'm quite confident that there are probably three subspecies that show up in numbers in Maine in the fall. I believe our locally breeding geese come mostly from the introduced "Giant" Canada Goose (B.c. maxima). As the name suggests, these are big geese. We also have another subspecies that breeds northeast of Maine known as the "Atlantic" Canada Goose (B.c. canadensis) that we see in migration. These are slightly smaller than the local birds but still quite large on average. Additionally there is a smaller subspecies called the "Interior" or "Hudson Bay" Canada Goose which generally breeds north and northwest of us (western Quebec and northern Ontario). The marked Canada Geese from Greenland, that I and others around New England have been finding, also seem to be from this subspecies rather than the geographically closer (to Greenland) "Atlantic" subspecies. Many flocks I see in October, here in northern Maine, are a fun mix of these subspecies and when these different varieties are found together the size differences can seem quite pronounced.

Lesser Canada Geese

As recognized by the current taxonomy, the true "Lesser" Canada Geese (B.c. parvipes) are breeders in the northwest parts of Canada and in Alaska and generally winter in the southwestern US. Though there probably have been a few found in the east, these are quite rare. I am not aware of any known Lesser Canada Goose, banded on the breeding grounds, that has turned up in the northeastern US or maritime Canada. Maybe someone can tell me otherwise!

Anyway, I wanted to offer this up to the inquiring minds of the blogosphere: lesser (small "l") Canada Geese in Maine are probably not Lesser (large"L") Canadas!

David Sibley has a great map on his website that shows, generally, the distribution of the various subspecies of Canada (and Cackling) Geese in North America. Its worth checking out:


Monday, October 12, 2009

Whimbrels in northern Maine

Back in late August, I had a really good day in the field.

I birded a route from Woodland and Caribou east to Limestone and then south through Fort Fairfield and Easton. The morning started off unremarkably and I was tallying most of the expected commoner birds and a few of the less common migrants here and there. Regardless of the apparent mediocrity in bird assortment, I was enjoying the morning and was taking my time and in no rush. As it turned out, I ended up at Christina Reservoir fairly late in the morning and even though I really didn't think there would be much to see, I decided to stop in anyway.

Surprisingly enough, there seemed to be quite a bit of bird activity at the reservoir. The first to draw my attention was some large rafts of ducks in the middle of the pond: about 430 Ringed-necked Ducks and well over 200 American Wigeon. It was an impressive group, and once I got a good look at them with my spotting scope, the number of molting wigeon in the raft was a bit of a surprise. A few molting Common Goldeneyes were also in the mix.

Once I turned my attention away from the ducks and started to scan other parts of the lake, I came across a gorgeous breeding plumaged Red-necked Grebe tucked up in one corner. These grebes are quite rare but not unexpected in late summer as migration begins. Still it was a good find amongst all the Pied-billed Grebes that breed here.

3 young White-winged Scoters were my next find. They were asleep in the middle of the pond but slivers of white showing on the sides of their black velvet plumage revealed thier idenities. Early arrivals, too. Another good discovery.

Some midsized, dark birds bouyantly flying over the far side of the pond turned into Black Terns under my scope's high magnification. I hadn't seen one of these in northern Maine since the previous year...finding 3 was quite a coup! The birds were in partial winter plumage and had quite a bit of white on them. I was really cranking now!

If all this wasn't enough, there was a pretty good shorebird show going on here. The low water meant lots of bare mud along the shore and quite few sandpipers were working the waters edge. Small groups of these were cycling back and forth across the mud. Kept aloft, no doubt by a circling Merlin. Amongst them were Least, Spotted and a few Semipalmated Sandpipers, numbers of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and a bunch of Semipalmated Plovers and Killdeer.

I already thought this was banner shorebird day for this inland location when 7 large brown shorebirds flying over the east end of pond caught my eye. My binoculars revealed long downcurved bills and bold dark stripes on the head. Whimbrels!

Though there are a few records of this big shorebird in northern Maine (including Christiana Reservoir), I had never seen this species here. To find seven was thrilling to say the least. I watched the birds for 15 munutes as they landed on the dead wood piled on along the shore. The birds preened a bit then tucked in their heads and settled in for nap.

I underlined the date in my notebook...August 23rd 2009. I was going to remember this day!

Whimbrel redux

In first week of October, I received an email from Linda Alverson. She had forwarded me a couple pictures of an unusual bird she'd gotten from a local resident. In her message, Linda identified the bird as a Whimbrel and the images proved her out.

The bird had been photographed in a horse paddock in my hometown of Woodland by Jessica Belanger . On spotting the big brown shorebird, she had recognized it as unusual and spent 10 minutes sneaking up on the bird and snapping the great photos you see here. The dark brown eye and crown stripes and the long bill are clearly visible.

Recalling the Christina Reservoir Whimbrels, I thought this was a great coincidence that this rare species was found in twice in northern Maine this fall! Most amazing was the date the bird was photographed...23 August! The same date I had seen the 7 over in Fort Fairfield.

Clearly there was some weather and migratory phenomena that brought these rare birds down in central Aroostook county on the same day. Good stuff.

Whimbrel migration in Maine

In mid August, Charlie Duncan sent out a message about a satellite transmitter equipped Whimbrel that had just embarked on a marathon movement that took it over Maine then out over open ocean. The bird had, at that point, been flying for 4 days straight and had covered well over 1000 miles! The bird was marked as part of a collaborative effort by the Center
for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary - Virginia
Commonwealth University and the Virginia Chapter of the Nature Conservancy to discover migratory routes that connect breeding and winter areas and to identify en route migratory staging areas . Amazing stuff

The link for a website that shows the paths of migratory Whimbrels that are tagged with satellite transmitters is well worth a look:

Good birding

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

6 October a Sixth Greenland Canada Goose at Collins Pond

I found GJY yesterday afternoon.

This was my sixth collared Canada Goose from Greenland so far this season. Again the bird was found in Collins Pond in Caribou. It was
with about 900 other Canadas. Attached is a photo (so I get the code

As always, when I report a marked goose to researchers Tony Fox and David Stroud, they respond quickly to me with the details of the birds travels. David Stroud wrote in part:

"...That's a really nice record, as we only had one sighting of
GJY last winter (in Connecticut) and this summer we saw it just once
(Lake L on 20 July) but even though it was evidently present in the
area, we didn't manage to retrap it. So that's only the third record
since we ringed it as part of our mega-catch that year." (that year was 2008).

It has been a bit frustrating this season that I can't seem to
relocate any of the other marked geese after I've spotted them once... I think I have spent more time, than ever before, monitoring the goose flocks in
the central Aroostook county area. In the past three days I have probably scoped 8,000+ geese in six different towns to no avail! I
wonder if most flocks are pushing through and continuing south rather
than staying in the area....

Due to the vagaries of agricultural markets, there seems to have been substantially less barley planted in the area this year in comparison with recent years. Many Aroostook farmers seem to have sown oats as a rotation crop (to their potato mainstay). While the oat crop offers the geese some spilled grain immediately after the harvest and, occasionally, clover (which is seeded with the oats and flourishes once the oats are cut), it can't compare to barley. This grain re-sprouts after the stubble is plowed under and in the past, offered the geese hundreds of acres of tender shoots!

Cull potatoes, left behind during harvest, also offer a favorite food
source for the geese but these are only consumable when there is a
steady cycle of freeze and thaw. The potatoes become soft in this
environment and the geese will nibble out any potato flesh they can
get. With an apparent early migration this year, the geese are bit
ahead of the cold temperatures and I rarely find geese in potato
fields yet.

So it appears food is a bit limited, as of yet, and it is possible that
the flocks aren't lingering as they usually do. Contra to my
hypothesis, I have relocated an unusual single adult Snow Goose and a
leucistic Canada Goose several times, so it appears at least some of these migrant birds are sticking around the area for a while.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Four Greater White-fronted Geese in Fort Fairfield and ANOTHER Greenland marked Canada Goose

Friday started off well for me with another quick visit to Collin's Pond in Caribou. I was on my commute to work and thought I'd stop in and try again to relocate the two marked Canada Geese I spotted earlier in the week. I was trying to atone for my mis-read of the codes on the two neck collars of these by relocating them and rechecking the alpha codes.

I was surprised to find the pond still quite full of geese and expected they were soon to depart for a morning of feeding in the ag fields around Caribou. The birds were quite alert and fidgety and appeared ready to fly in any moment, so I made a quick cursory scan of the birds with my bins. Sure enough, there was a thick necked Canada on the far side of the pond with a yellow collar!

After a slightly embarrassing dash to my truck and subsequent wrestling match with my increasingly testy tripod I was able to zoom my spotting scope in on the bird. The view revealed the alpha code on this collar was GLS. This wasn't one of the two I'd seen earlier but yet another new marked Canada Goose! The fifth for this little pond this year.

The birds held in the pond a little longer and I was able to digiscope this picture for the record. I love the slick of feathers in the background...these geese are obviously still molting a bit.

Later on in the day I took a late lunch hour, with my coworker Jim, to patrol a few of the goosier day roosts that I had been neglecting. We had another good find. At Puddledock Pond in Fort Fairfield, we encountered the first Greater White-fronted Geese of the season in Maine. The four adult birds were contentedly swimming amongst about 70 Canada Geese and 50+ Hooded Mergansers. Again I set up the scope and had a good long look.

After Jim and I had a good session observing these rare geese, I reached for my camera and then realized I'd forgotten it and couldn't photograph them! White-fronts are still rare enough in Maine that all sightings should be documented if possible. I cursed my bad luck a bit and folded up my tripod and got in the truck to drive away.

Then a great stroke of GOOD luck occurred.... As I pulled from the parking area of the pond Paul Cyr came over the knoll in his big black Hummer! For those who don't know, Paul is the outdoor photographer extraordinaire who has provided about half of the bird photos for this blog. In my experience, the man rarely travels without a full assortment of cameras and gear....

After a quick chat with Paul about eagles and geese, he headed out to the pond. When I left the spot, I knew there would be a good photo of these birds for the record...and, of course, Paul didn't disappoint!

That evening, I sent my digiscope of GLS and Paul's great photo of the White-fronts to Tony Fox in Denmark and David Stroud in the UK and they quickly provided feedback on both:

Like most of the yellow-collared Canada Geese I've found, GLS was first captured and marked in Greenland in July 2008. Unlike most, this bird had not been relocated since that time.

As for the Fort Fairfield White-fronts, they confirmed that these birds appeared to be individuals of the Greenland subspecies of the White-fronted Goose.

As before, the updates on these birds and the others found at Collins Pond can be found at the White-fronted Goose project's website here: