Saturday, March 7, 2015

Xanthochromic Evening Grosbeak in Northern Maine?

Back in January, Brenda Ketch sent me some pictures of an unusual Evening Grosbeak that had appeared in her yard at Madawaska Lake here in Aroostook County.  The bird was clearly a male grosbeak with bright yellow body plumage and big conical bill, however it was unusually colored with a bright yellow head and neck and whitish wings.  The bird looked like a hefty canary.

Obviously this bird had a pigment problem.  Unlike leucistic birds which are missing pigment and appear light or white plumaged, Brenda's grosbeak appeared to have yellow where it should be dark or black.  

I did some reading and found there are a couple papers reporting this pigmentation condition in Evening Grosbeaks.  Xanthochromic is the term used to describe a bird that has yellow pigmented plumage where it should be some other color.  It seems to occur most commonly in red or pink-plumaged birds.   Records exist of yellow Northern Cardinals, yellow breasted Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and orangey-yellow House Finches.  A cool local example of a rare pigmentation form!  Case closed..or so I thought...

Brenda's bird kept visiting her feeder well into February and she got a bunch of great photos of the bird with its normal flock mates.  Eventually the bird moved on.

This morning I was watching the finch horde that has been hitting my feeders this winter and I was quite surprised to see a lemon yellow bird in the Evening Grosbeak flock.  Of course I scrambled to get some pictures of it.  It looked very similar to grosbeak that Brenda had photographed.  

I compared the photos that Brenda has sent and sure enough, this bird had all the same marks as the Madawaska Lake bird!  Spots on the back of the head, near the eye, and on the breast were identical. Very cool that a bird seen over 12 miles away ended up here!  I made a collage to illustrate the at this was the same individual.
Comparison of Madawaska Lake and Woodland grosbeak (click to enlarge)

As I watched the bird in my yard and compared it to Brenda's photos, I noticed something that I hadn't previously:  This bird didn't just have yellow feathers replacing black the wings and tail parts of feathers that should have normally been black were white.  It appears that the black wasn't necessarily replaced by yellow (as xanthochromism is defined)...but perhaps it was that the black was just missing in spots and the underlying pigmention (color that was obscured by the dark melanin pigment) was now visible.

Looking at normally pigmented male Evening Grosbeaks, it is clear that there is an underlying yellow pigmentation to all the head, neck and belly feathers.  These same feathers are suffused with dark (melanic) pigmentation but the yellow shows through, to varying degrees.  The underlying pigment (yellow) is concealed by the dark pigment.   The wings and tail feathers of a normal male Evening Grosbeak are primarily black with only the inner wing feathers (tertials) being white.  Without melanin it would be expected that these would be white as was the case with our bird.

So is this really Xanthochromism?

I went back to the literature and found that a few authorities don't agree that Evening Grosbeaks like ours are xanthochromic but rather use a term non-melanic schizochroic for cases where dark pigment is missing in places and revealing normally concealed pigmentation in the feathers.  This sounds like what we have here.

I haven't seen the bird again today. but it  was a great distraction in the depths of a northern Maine winter!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Short-toed Doves

Paul Cyr sent me another great photo of a local bird last week: A Mourning Dove.

The bird was an attractive specimen with tan and gray-blue feathers melding into a subtle, pleasing plumage.  The dove's sky blue eye ring was sublime. Its bright pink feet were...FROZEN!!!

I'm not 100% sure (and I hope I'm wrong) but the dove sure looked like its feet were so stiff they could not grab the branch on which the bird was balancing.  For sure, the bird was missing some toe tips- in particular the outer portions of the longer central toes. It appeared this bird had frozen and damaged its outer digits while perched on a tree branch on a frigid northern night.  I felt bad for the dove, but thought the bird's condition was probably not a surprise considering the regular subzero temperatures that northern Maine has experienced recently.  I thought of a dove roosting on a could cover most of its feet with its fathers but that one, longer, central toe as it wrapped around the branch, was sure to be exposed.

I have a pretty good supply of overwintering doves here in my yard and I thought I'd check them out to see whether any of these showed similar injuries.  There were plenty feeding right out the window and I was able to get good looks at nearly all of their feet.

Out of 17 doves, NONE had a full set of toes!  This amazed me.  All the doves I observed were missing, at the minimum, the tips of at least one of the two central toes (as Paul's bird showed).  Many others were missing 3 four and five toe tips.  Several had lost their toes nearly back to the joints and were hobbling on stubs.  Some that weren't yet missing toes had shriveled and dark toe tips that were soon to be lost.  Yet here they were, shuffling along on the ground under my feeders, picking up seed and presumably doing all right.

I was quite shocked that so many of these birds were injured.  I did some investigation of the literature to find out whether this was unusual.  In bird banding papers primarily, I found that it is fairly common, in the north, to find Mourning Doves with missing toes. Apparently these birds, being relative newcomers to the northern climes have not adapted well to the cold.  Here in northern Maine, Mourning Doves have really just become common winterers in the past 30 years.  A short time.

Its tough to tell if the damage these birds are experiencing is a recent phenomena or something that happened over a long time.  I suspect much of this toe loss has happened in the past couple of very cold months.  (January is on track to be one of the colder on record here.)

Odds are that there are at least a few first-year birds in my little flock and the fact that I found no doves with intact feet would indicate these are injuries that occurred since summer.

I'll be watching their feet a little more closely the rest of this winter.

Friday, April 4, 2014

First Arrivals Spring 2014

This past month seemed particularly gruelling, weatherwise, and I was worried that I was starting to get a bit spleeny... The Weather Service guys cheered me up however, when they announced March was indeed the coldest on record for Caribou and Bangor. Thanks to almost no melting and 20+ days when it snowed, northern Maine remains completely and deeply buried in snow. At months end, there was nearly 3 feet of snow out in the open at the Caribou weather station and four + feet are being reported in the woods.

Open water is limited to the few spots where swift water, dams or other warmer water inflow has kept the streams ice-free.  20+ inches of ice was reported on the St. John and Aroostook Rivers just yesterday, leading to some concern for jamming problems when the ice finally lets go.

The change from winter to spring birding has been oh-so-slow thus far, but its clear the door has opened a bit in the first few days of April and reports of new arrivals are coming in. 
The first migrant waterfowl to arrive was a Hooded Merganser that showed up on March 19th at Caribou Dam.  Commmon Mergs appeared in the area by the 31st with pairs seen at the outlet of Christina Reservoir in Fort Fairfield, Presque Isle Stream in downtown Presque Isle and in Caribou.  A pair of Wood Ducks were right on schedule on April 3rd at Caribou Dam.  The first pair of Canada Geese were spotted on April 2nd at PI Stream and a flock of 19 was on the Aroostook River ice in Caribou the next day.  The female Northern Pintail that overwintered at the hospital stormwater pond in Presque Isle continued through April 3rd.

Not much has been reported yet for arriving raptors.  The first Merlin of the year was seen by two different observers around the 26th of March at Fort Fairfield.  This too, seems right on schedule, if not a bit early.  A light phase Rough-legged Hawk was seen off the Tompkins Road in Presque Isle on April 2nd.  A larger accipter has been reported regularly around Mantle Lake in Presque Isle and other has been partaking of the tasty doves at a feeder in Chapman.  Bald Eagles are now on nests across the area and egg incubation has begun at some.

A Ruffed Grouse appeared at Mary Collishaw's feeder in Caribou in late March.  Mary sent over this nice portrait.  Ring-necked Pheasants have been regularly reported from Mt. Chase, Patten and Fort Fairfield.

On April 2, I found the thin strip of mud along the front of my south-facing foundation wall riddled with the holes from a feeding American Woodcock.  This was the only bit of thawed, bare ground anywhere in my yard and the thorough probing it gave this little bit of mud was evidence of a desperate bird I thought.  I flushed another (or possibly the same) bird from the shoulder of my road the next night.  Killdeer arrived in numbers on the 2nd with reports from Presque Isle, Chapman, Mars Hill and Houlton. 

As usual, the first returning gulls were Great Black-backed's with a small group arriving on St. Patricks Day in Caribou.   A couple Ring-billeds arrived at Caribou Dam on March 22nd and the first Herring Gull was seen here on the 29th.  On April 1, a fourth year Bald Eagle was feeding on a Herring Gull in this same spot.  

The overwintering Northern Flicker continued at a feeder on the Hardison Road in Caribou through the beginning of April.
Snowy Owls continue to be seen in Presque Isle.  Two darker (probably juvenile) owls were seen along the Brewer Road on the 3rd and another remains at the "PT" Barn just a mile to the north.  Kevin Levesque lent me use of this nice shot of one of the Brewer Road birds.  A Barred Owl has been regular at Paul Cyr's feeders in Presque Isle and the first (and only thus far) Northern Saw-whet Owl was heard on the night of March 27th in Caribou.   Paul Cyr captured the wonderful shot at the top of this post of his Barred Owl being harassed by a foolish and fearless Red Squirrel.

After a season with no over-winterers, arriving American Robins were notable this week.  First birds were reported from Caribou, Presque Isle and Woodland during the storm on the 30th with many more seen subsequently.  Bohemian Waxwings also showed in numbers over the past 10 days.  Sizeable flocks up to 110 birds were reported from Caribou, Fort Fairfield, Mapleton, Patten and Presque Isle.

 I recently commented that I had had few reports of Northern Cardinals this winter.  Several observers let me know that there were overwintering pairs doing well at Presque Isle, Ashland, Caribou and Houlton!  Pairs of Horned Larks were seen in Van Buren, Limestone and Caribou in the first days of April.  

In the past two weeks, many small flocks of Snow Buntings were noted by birders across the area.  More than one commented on the attractive black and white plumage of the males as they reach breeding condition.  American Tree Sparrows continue to be widely reported in good numbers at feeding stations.  Males are singing strongly now.  The first pulse of migrant Dark-eyed Juncos has built into the area in the first days of April and the first Song Sparrow of the year appeared in my yard in Woodland this AM.

The icterid vangard appeared on schedule too.  The first Red-winged Blackbird was reported from a feeder in Presque Isle on the 25th of March with others appearing at Caribou on the 30th and in Chapman by Ap[ril 4th.  The first (and thus far only) Common Grackle was seen flying over the UMPI campus on the 3rd.  Two male Brown-headed Cowbirds in my yard on the 3rd were the first of the season.

With the restrictive, heavy snow cover in northern Maine unlikely to change substantially for at least a couple weeks, it appears its going to be a tough season for early arriving migrants.  With limited open water or ground, many arriving birds will be forced to concentrate in the few available open areas.  Local birders will probably be seeing large to possibly unprecedented numbers if they monitor the right spots.  Scattering seed for ground feeders will certainly be a good attractant for the near future as more sparrows and blackbirds arrive.

Good birding!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Northern Shrike nibbling Kidneys

Bill Hersey sent over a few photos of a Northern Shrike thats been visiting his yard. Interestingly this bird is coming to a kidney Bill had gotten with some suet at a local butcher.  Bill said he'd gotten the organs before, but he'd always thrown the meat on the snow behind his house for the crows and ravens. This time though he secured it on the front porch railing to see what would come to get it.  I'd say his experiment paid off when he found a Northern Shrike had started working on the frozen piece of meat and tearing off bits.  Bill was able to get several nice shots of the bird.

I have never heard of shrikes coming to eat suet or meat scraps before, but both Cornell's Birds of North America online and A.C. Bent's "Life Histories.." makes mention of the behavior.

Other excitement in Bill's yard is a male Northern Flicker that appeared on the first week of March.  This is exceptionally early for a migrant and I suspect the bird may have been one of a unusual number of flickers that wintered in Maine this year.  The only Northern Flicker I have seen in northern Maine in winter was a bird that showed up in February of 2011.    It too was in Bill's yard!!!

Bill sent a good documentation shot of his latest flicker eating spilled seed in the company of a couple of Blue Jays.  The bird was photographed on March 11th.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Great Goosing

What a great fall it has been for rare geese in the central Aroostook area!  Canada Geese are thinning out now, but numbers peaked in mid-October with more than 30,000 geese staging locally to fatten up on waste grain, grass sprouts and potatoes.

In addition to our usual hordes of Canada Geese, we had the pleasure of spotting SIX other species of geese over the past month and a half:

Snow Geese- It’s been a light year with some early reports starting in mid-September and several single Snows reported in Limestone and Caribou in early Oct.  A few small flocks were seen in the middle of the month.  No “Blue” phase Snow Geese were reported this year.

Cackling Goose-  Rare but regular most years…Only a couple of these mini-sized Canada Goose imitators were seen this fall.  One was reported at Long Lake in mid October, another one was photographed in the mill pond at Limestone on the 21st of October and yet another was seen at Christina Reservoir on November 6th.

Greater White-fronted Goose- Bob Carns in Portage Lake reported one in early November on the Fox Hill Road.  Another was reported in October from the Grand Isle area.  The Portage Lake bird was a member of the Greenland subspecies with a bright orange bill and legs.

Barnacle Goose-  Tanya Byrum spotted a Barnacle Goose in the mill pond in downtown Limestone on October 29th.  She was able to snap a couple pictures of the before the bird departed.   It was not seen again.  A European species, Barnacle Geese have only visited northern Maine on two other occasions.

Ross’s Goose-  Aroostook County’s first ever Ross’s Goose spent a week at the mill pond in downtown Limestone from the 29th of September through the 5th of October.  This miniature version of the Snow Goose was easy to observe and many area birders were able to enjoy the bird as it loafed and bathed with the Canada Geese.

Pink-footed Goose-  In a season of standout rare geese, this was the star.  This very rare species has only been ever seen in Maine a handful of times and the adult bird found at Collins Pond by the Aroostook Birders was another first-ever for Aroostook County!  Seen only on October 19th, this one-day wonder apparently moved on quickly.  We were lucky to see it on our Wild Goose Chase outing!

Other odd geese-  there were a few other strange ones seen this season.  “GL9” a Canada Goose banded in Greenland in July 2009 was at the Limestone pond on 3 October.

Also at Limestone, an apparent Canada Goose/Swan Goose hybrid was seen on the 29th of September-the same day as the Ross’s Goose.  

Lastly, also at Limestone, Tanya Byrum photographed a couple hazy gray geese in early November that were apparently leucistic Canada Geese .


Definitely a goose watchers season to remember!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Northern Maine Birds: Hoary Redpoll and Rough-legged Hawk

The Hoary Redpoll that has been sporadically visiting my yard for the past month, spent much of day here again today.  It was associating with Common Redpolls but seemed to move quite independently of the flocks.  

Had one sickie Common which shows the symptoms of Salmonellosis.

The American Tree Sparrows have begun singing here in Woodland and were good company while I pruned the apple trees today.

I poked around central Aroostook a bit in the afternoon to see if any more waterfowl had arrived, but ice still predominates the rivers and streams and Blacks and Mallards were the only ducks found today.  

I did spot a first-of-year Rough-legged Hawk along the North Caribou Road in Fort Fairfield.  I believe the light phase bird was my first Rough-leg ever in northern Maine in the month of March.

...A good end to a week that included arriving Red-tailed Hawk (Washburn), Common Grackle (Woodland) and Hooded Mergansers (Caribou).

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Northern Hawk Owl in Houlton

Back in late January, Dennis Kerekes reported a Northern Hawk Owl had been seen in Houlton.  As soon as I could, I made the trip down to see the bird for myself and had no problem spotting it right where Dennis said it had been seen.  Since that time I've stopped in to the bird's favored location several times and its never failed to pop and and show itself. 

Like the Snowy Owl, the HawkOwl is a visitor from the north and always an exciting bird to see.  It is active in the daytime and a busy hunter.  As its name suggests, the bird seems like a Kestrel or other falcon with its longer tail and rapid and direct flight style. 

The bird is very conveniently located just north of the intersection of Route 1 and Interstate-95 along the Access Road just behind York's Ford/Toyota dealership.  The owl has been seen most often in the small group of trees directly behind Furniture and Floors North and across the street from the veterinary clinic there.  

Many local birders have been to see the owl and more than  few from southern Maine, New England and beyond have made the trip to see the bird.  This week Paul Cyr was in the neighborhood and stopped in with his camera and sent along these shots of the owl. Enjoy.