Monday, October 24, 2011

Seaducks and Snow Buntings: Changing of the guard

I found a bunch of interesting birds today at Portage Lake...birds usually associated with the Maine coast in winter.  Most interesting among them was 7 Horned Grebes a high count for me in the county.  I also spotted three different juvenile Surf Scoters (no surf here!), four Red-breasted Mergansers and a lone Black Scoter!

Heres a picture of one of the Scoters:

I checked Lake Jo and Christina after work and found more birds on their way to the salt water:  Best was a group of three Red-necked Grebes right by the dike!  Heres a photo of the trio:

Other unusual species here included a couple Buffleheads, both flavors of scaup, and another Surf Scoter.  On the way out I spotted a little passerine feeding in the road.  The bird dropped down to the shoreline: A Snow Bunting.  First of the season!

Over at Christina Reservoir there were a few more treats:  Fifteen American Coots was a high count for me in the county.  Some more scaup and yet another Surf Scoter were nice finds.  A few Pied-billed Grebes made for a three grebe species day!

Nice stuff.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Cackling Geese in Northern Maine

Northern Maine has been hosting an exceptional number of Cackling Geese this year.  Though its difficult to figure out exactly how many its pretty clear now that there are/have been at least 10 that have been seen in the area this fall.

Cackling Geese were split from Canada Geese back in 2005 and since that time, birders have been paying them a bit more attention.  These small geese are most common in the western and central portions of the country with rare-but-regular appearances on the east coast.  The Cacklers, as all experienced waterfowl oglers know, look a lot like small Canada Geese and the differences between the two species are subtle.

 In my limited experience (as an Eastern birder)  the geographically closest and most expected form/subspecies of Cackling Goose, the "Richardson's" Cackling Goose can be the most difficult to separate from a flock of Canada Geese.  In general, the little geese are substantially shorter necked and stubby-billed, they have a very steep forehead and a blocky head shape.  Less than half of the Richardson's Cackling Geese I've seen show a white band/ring at the base of the black neck "sock".

In addition to their very small size (in proportion to other expected forms of Canada Geese in this area), I think most of these little geese show a silvery tone to the back and wing plumage.  This seems like a subtle distinction, but it can be quite pronounced and many Cacklers I see are clearly a shade lighter and more grayish than the surrounding Canadas.  Differing lighting conditions can effect this, but I think I can often distinguish a Cackling Goose in closer flocks with the naked eye.  Cacklers have a high pitched vocalization which is really more of a yelp than a honk.  ...I think it sounds like a very small dog bark...a squeaky yap.

Like Canada Geese there is plenty of variability in appearance in the Cackling Geese I've seen here.  There are some individuals that are much more easily distinguished than others.  A few I just leave unidentified.

By looking solely for small sized geese, a birder can get in trouble.  I believe Northern Maine has three (and maybe four) subspecies of Canada Geese visiting during migration and these vary quite widely in size.  The "Giant" Canada Goose is the locally nesting form and are substantially bigger than the equally common "Atlantic" Canada Goose that breeds in eastern Canada/ Labrador and migrates through in spring and fall.  Northern Maine also sees plenty of the slightly smaller "Interior" subspecies which comes from northern areas around Hudson Bay.  I have seen many times where an "obviously" smaller goose and Cackling Goose candidate turns out to be an apparent "Interior" form surrounded by "Giant" Canada Geese.

There is also a very small, dark-plumaged form of Canada Goose that shows up in small numbers in Aroostook County during migration.  I'm not sure what subspecies these are or where they are from, but I'm fairly confident they are not just small or young individuals of the other more common Canada Goose subspecies.  I have thought they may be a dark form of the "Lesser" Canada Goose but I have yet to find any literature that says such a form exists!  What ever they are, on the subspecific level, they are certainly small enough to attract attention of a birder looking for a Cackling Goose.

I thought a few photos of the Cacklers we've seen up this way this fall:

My first find this year was a sleepy little Cackler found with a flock of Canada Geese in the downtown impoundment of Limestone Stream in Limestone on 30 September 2011.  Though my photo is no work of art, you can distinguish the stubby bill, steep forehead and silvery plumage in comparison to the larger Canada Goose just behind it.

I cropped another shot of this bird to better show the blocky head profile.  The bill is short, the forehead is almost a step up rather than smooth.  The crown is pretty flat.

Another Cackler was found a few days later over at Collins Pond in Caribou on 2 October 2011.  This digiscoped shot shows the blocky head, short bill and neck and silvery plumage well.  You can also make out a bit of a white neck ring on this individual.

Here is a picture of two Cackling Geese that were feeding in some resprouting barley stubble with a flock of "Giant" Canada Geese.  These were found along the Madawaska Road in northeastern Caribou on 18 October 2011.  Nice for a comparison in size differences...

Lastly I've included a shot of a Cackling Goose flock found at Collins Pond in Caribou on 19 October 2011.  The Cacklers are behind the front four Canada Geese in a line through the middle of the frame.  I am sure there are at least 5 short necked Cackling Geese here.  There are two other small geese which show stubby bills but slightly longer necks that I also think may be Cacklers that are just showing a more alert profile than the other members of the flock.  So there may be seven!  Meanwhile on the other end of pond....

...was another!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Cackling, Barnacle and Greater White-fronted Geese at Collins Pond

Its been a busy week at Collins Pond in Caribou.  The Canada Goose flock has been growing steadily since the middle of last month and we were overdue for something unusual it seemed.

This week the unusual started to arrive with a Cackling Goose on Sunday the 2nd.  The Cackler is a miniature version of the Canada Goose and a bit hard to spot in a flock of 3000+ geese.  Most pronounced to my eye is the silvery cast to their back and wing (mantle) plumage. This seems to stand out among the brown backs of Canadas and is often visible with just a quick scan of a flock. Other pertinent identifying characters include the short neck, stubby bill, steep forehead and of course the slightly-larger-than-a-Mallard body size.  Heres a digi-scoped photo of Sunday's Cackling Goose.

One Tuesday the 4th, an early morning check of Collins Pond produced no sign of the Cackling Goose.  The birds were busy moving about the pond and were departing for the nearby fields to feed  in 10's and 20's.   As the flocks thinned out, the pink bill of a Greater White-fronted Goose became evident.  I forgot my camera that morning but returned on Wednesday and was able to get a few marginal digi-scoped images of the bird.

Later that morning a group of Aroostook Birders returned to the pond to watch the spectacle of several thousand Canada Geese coming back from the fields to roost.  Even by 10 AM there were some geese in the pond. Among them was a Barnacle Goose!  Rarest by far of the rare geese visiting Collins Pond, this European vagrant only gets as close a Greenland in its regular travels.  Luckily Paul Cyr was among the birders at the pond that day and Paul was able to get these nice pics of the bird despite the 30 mile-an-hour winds.

Cant wait to see how long these geese will stay and what else arrives!