Did we get your attention? Yes, you are seeing the Snowy Owl in the May Bird Blog. And, no, winter has not returned. This photograph taken by Peter on December 14, 2014 confirms that the Snowy Owl was here on Peaks Island. We feel it is worthy of acknowledgement in the May Blog – as a happy reminder that not all winter events are forgotten even though spring is here.
Snow Owl Battery Steele Photo © Peter Eckel
The Backshore bird frenzies have simmered down since the end of April. Instead of eagerly searching and trying to impress a potential mate, those birds that have found a partner are beginning to know one another.
Male and Female Common Eiders
Great Black-backed Gull Pair
Herring and Black-backed Gull (hybridizing?)
(These two gulls were fighting[?] in Wharf Cove in April)
Herring Gull Pair Eider/Gull Photos © Patty Wainright
The Common Eiders (eiders) are mostly paired and they are scattered along the Backshore waters, feeding, bathing, squabbling and sometimes just resting on the seaweed-covered rocks.
Squabbling Common Eider Pair
Resting Common Eider Pair (note plump female)
Even though the male eider does not aid in the nest building, incubation, and the care of the young, he accompanies and protects his female now as she urgently feeds to nourish the developing eggs within her.
Male Common Eider Protecting Female
Common Eider Photos © Patty Wainright
The eiders are ground nesters. The female will sit alone on her down lined nest for nearly a month until her eggs hatch. She will not leave the nest to feed or drink. She will be vulnerable to ground predators (cats, dogs, Fisher cats, gulls, minks and raccoons) and will most likely defend the nest, even to her death. If she and her eggs survive the incubation process, she will take the eider chicks immediately to the water where other female eiders without young, will assist in the rearing and protecting them. It is incredible though, that with all of the odds against the female eider and her eggs, that we see any ducklings at all. Those females that survive must find great ways to hide their nests.
Dead Racoon (?) on Backshore Photo © Patty Wainright
The eiders enjoy a good bath – energetically so. They roll into the water, they dive, and they splash water. The eiders particularly like fresh water and in the spring they paddle into, what I call, ‘Culvert Lagoon’ where through a culvert, water drains from Brackett Pond and the South Shore marsh. As high tide approaches, they come into the cove to meet the sweet water coming from the marsh.
Bathing Female Common Eider
Bathing Male Common Eider
Eider Photos © Patty Wainright
Even though the eiders savor Culvert Lagoon, they are sometimes unknowingly tormented there. It is in close proximity to lobster traps that need hauling and baiting. Eiders are hunted making them leery, even terrified, of any floating object with a human form on board. They raise their necks; they peer over rocks and waves to keep a close vigilance on any vessel. If the vessel passes too closely – they all scramble – wings and feet going full speed, thrusting them as far from the intruder as they can muster. But with time the sweet water will lure them back, if the tides are not too low (a barrier of rocks keeps them out of the lagoon) or too high (dilutes out fresh water).
Lobster Boat Alarm Photos © Patty Wainright
If you want to observe bathing and squabbling eiders close-up at the lagoon – pack a lunch, wear black and white or brown camouflage clothes, arrive about mid-tide, locate a comfortable rock above the high tide mark, and sit quietly without movement for let’s say ~ one hour. The eiders may then come with the rising tide for their bath, if you stay still as a statue.
Peaks Island - Culvert Lagoon
Culvert Lagoon Picture & Photo © Patty Wainright
The eiders, after a bath, and Double-crested Cormorants (cormorants) after diving for prey, dry their wings while resting on rocks. However, the configuration of their wings exposed to air is very different. The eiders subtly place their wings - ever so slightly elevated over their back - so that the flight feathers (primary and secondary wing feathers) are spread out and exposed. The bird will flex them up and down, similar to an accordion – subtly – so that air moves over each long feather.
Female Common Eider - Drying Wings
Photos © Patty Wainright
The cormorants, on the other hand, are not so subtle – they go all out – stretching out their impressive long wings, completely exposing the top and bottom of them. One can frequently see the cormorants with dark widespread wings – almost devilish in appearance, especially if their double crests on their heads are erected.
Double-crested Cormorant - Drying Wings
Photos © Patty Wainright
So why do the cormorants put so much time into drying their feathers as compared to most other water birds? Each time the cormorant plunges below the surface it gets soaked. Others do not get soaked; their outer feathers repel water allowing for an air barrier between the outer and inner feather layers. The birds remain buoyant underwater. Have you noticed how shallow diving sea ducks (e.g. our plumpish eiders) pop to the surface after a dive? Cormorants, however, dive deep in pursuit of fishes - being buoyant and popping to the surface is not an efficient strategy, so their outer surface feathers are ‘wettable’ – flattening them against the inside feather layer – no air barrier for buoyancy. Yet, this wetted outer surface layer of feathers still protects the inner downy feather layer (stays dry) that keeps the bird insulated and warm. The wettability of the outer layer is all in the microscopic structure of each feather (1, 2)
So you may also ask – what about the deep diving Common Loons (loons) (Common Loon Species Account)? Has anyone noticed the loons drying their wings? Do loons get soaked when diving? No. So how do loons keep from popping to the surface if their feathers are not ‘wettable’ as the cormorant? Brut force. The loons' heavy sturdy bones thrust them into deep dives (1). Most bird bones are light (hollow and filled with air sacs) to aid in flight. The price the loons pay for their added weight is that they are not the agile flyers. Cormorants can be seen flying from place to place whereas the loons mostly paddle (except during migration). So the cormorant's elegant design leaves the loons for wanting. The cormorant is streamlined and pop-resistant with its wetted feathers, it is still insulated for deep cold dives, and it is an agile flyer.
Seagulls and cormorants also love to bathe in fresh water. Crowds of Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls, and a few cormorants enthusiastically bathe in Trout Pond. As the eiders roll, dive and splash in ecstasy, so do the seagulls but they are not silent – they squeal. The cormorants are more demure, silent and less excitable. A constant turnover of birds occurs as they fly in and out of the crowd. Exiting the pond they go to a ‘Preening Station’ on the rocks of the Backshore (in front of house #s ~ 380-406). There they preen and socialize as though they were at a spa. From this station, most seagulls will join the cormorants on Ram Island where they are perhaps starting their nest building – hopefully free of ground predators such as those ones on Peaks Island.
Gulls Bathing in Trout Pond
Gulls at Preening Station Photos © Patty Wainright
The Tree Swallows are in greater numbers than at the end of April at the South Shore and Battery Steele marshes. They alternately fly over the marshes searching for flying insects, and the rocky shore in search of seaweed flies. Remember the April feeding frenzy for seaweed larvae at Wharf Cove? The flies are probably just as tasty for the swallows as the plump larvae were for the water birds, that is, if swallows have taste buds. The Bank Swallows at the Battery Steele marsh are less abundant but they will eagerly defend their nest box against the Tree Swallow.
Tree Swallow Pair Photos © Patty Wainright
Kathy spotted two pairs of Yellow Warblers at the corner of the South Shore and the Backshore – so close to her that she did not need binoculars. We also saw three immature Common Loons and an unidentifiable long-necked grebe off the South Shore. Earlier in the week I saw at least two loons with partial or full adult plumage – are they mature birds lingering behind, or are they immature loons that are starting to sprout some of their adult plumage – readying for next year’s adulthood? Michelle’s answer: “The immature loons stay in the marine environment for one summer season. They head inland in their second summer to look for a mate and nest in freshwater lakes.” (Common Loon Species Account)
Common Loon Backshore in May Photo © Patty Wainright
Butch spotted the Great Blue Heron in Brackett Pond with great pictures to verify. The heron was in the tip top of trees. These herons are often seen feeding in the shallows off the South Shore when the tide is low, preferably in early morning or sunset. They are very wary of people along the shore and they will take notice as we stop and look. If one is cautious and avoids ‘eye contact’, the heron may stay focused on its prey. They apparently were not bothered by harmless Rocky. They are usually as motionless as statues and will hold this pose until an unsuspecting fish or crab is sighted. The heron’s long pointed beak is accurate and fast.
Great Blue Heron, and Rocky Photos © Butch Sullins
On May 1 during a PILP Steward Meeting at Ice Pond several of us noticed a commotion across the pond – yes, those Black Ducks and Mallards were at each other’s ‘throats’ once again with splashing and wing beating. However, several days later Ice Pond was more peaceful as three male Mallards idly drifted across the pond.
Mallards on Ice Pond
From the marsh across from Wharf Cove both duck species were seen flying in and out of the area – perhaps constructing their nests? Peacefully? These ducks are sometimes overlooked, because they are fairly common, but they are unusually beautiful – the Mallard’s shimmering and purple to green iridescent heads – the curly feather over its rump.
Mallard Pair on Battery Steele Marsh
The Black Ducks, too, are beautiful with their red legs, yellow beaks, and shiny purple wing patch. Watch their eyes – they watch us closely.
Black Duck Duck Photos © Patty Wainright
Black Ducks often fly in small groups. An unusual arrangement of flight patterns occurred over Brackett Pond and South Shore. Several ducks flew in wide circles and they were joined by another pair. They switched-back several times followed by more circular flying, until individual ducks peeled-off leaving only a pair of quacking ducks - appearing to go nowhere in particular. Jody’s comment: “They do not appear to have a plan.” What then, were they doing?
1. Bald Eagle Sightings
Peter observed the Bald Eagles still cruising over the Backshore. On the other side of the island Jill and Pete see the eagles active on the Diamond Island nest and, one was seen on Evergreen Landing near daybreak – perhaps in search of breakfast for the eaglets? The eaglets seen on Berry College (Georgia) webcam (http://www.berry.edu/eaglecam/) fledged on May 10 and May 12. How far behind in maturity are the Diamond Island eaglets? Has anyone seen any brown good-sized eaglets perched on the side of the Diamond Island nest? Based on what I have learned from the Berry College webcam, the growing eaglets venture from the security of their large nest, slowly, by cautiously extending their world onto adjacent nest branches.
Bald Eagle Evergreen Landing Photos © Pete
Butch sighted the Bald Eagle wadding in Brackett Pond!
Bald Eagle Photo © Butch Sullins
2. Indigo Bunting Sighting
Hot off the press on May 15, an Indigo Bunting was sighted by Michelle! “I’m excited! I saw a new bird at my feeder this morning – an Indigo Bunting. Very Cool! I remember some folks telling me that they had seen Indigo Buntings here in the past and I wondered what happened to them. Looks like they cycled back around or the population is doing better or…?”
Indigo Bunting Photo © Butch Sullins
3. List of some of the bird migrants arriving on Peaks Island in early May:
Photos © Butch Sullins
Great Blue Heron (Butch)
Turkey Vulture (Joyce and Michelle first observed them in April)
Black-throated Green Warbler (heard)
Yellow Warblers (Kathy)
Chipping Sparrows – feeding on seaweed larvae at Wharf Cove
Northern Oriole (Diana - Pleasant Street)
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Michelle and Butch - "I saw another new bird for me, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak on May 18 - two of them at my feeder! I was pretty excited about sighting the two. Unfortunately, they were gone too fast and Butch wasn't able to get a picture."); (Diana - Pleasant Street)
Indigo Bunting (Michelle and Butch)
Gray Catbird on the Backshore
1. Hanson, T. 2011. Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle. Pages 220-221.
2. Ehrlich, P.R., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. Spread-Wing Postures: https://web.stanford.edu/group/stanfordbirds/text/essays/Spread-Wing_Postures.html
Thank you for your interest in our Peaks Island birds. If you have any bird sightings that you want to share or a list of migrant arrivals, please share them with us and we can post them on the next blog. Please contact Michelle: firstname.lastname@example.org
Reviewers: Sam Wainright and Michelle Brown
Written by: Patty Wainright with contributions from Michelle (e.g. 'wettable' feathers, Common Loon information, Indigo Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, identification of dead racoon, and more).
Acknowledgements: Peter, Kathy, Butch, Pete and Jill, Jody, Joyce, PILP Stewards, Michelle, Marty, Diana