October 2015 Bird Sightings

Autumn is here and Peaks Island bird populations continue to change. Migrants are still passing through, and perhaps some may stay for Maine’s relatively moderate winter, as compared to more severe conditions further north. With the help of Michael and Sam, we present several stories of featured birds and their bird lists combined for all of October. We hope you enjoy the stories and listings as much as we had fun searching for the birds.

This month Michael has again been busy searching for birds – focusing on the ever-changing migrants who use Peaks Island as a stopover or as a staging area before making their next leap toward warmer locations. Some may choose to stay here. Michael shares with us notes from his October field notebook: In early October Michael sights three stunning Indigo Buntings along Backshore marshes and a Black-bellied Plover on Centennial Beach. Elsewhere on the island he sees two striking male Baltimore Orioles, a Pine Grosbeak, two Black Guillemots (one in flight and another floating offshore), and a Brown-headed Cowbird. The guillemots in their grey winter plumages will be offshore this winter, and we can hope that the Pine Grosbeak stays on the island as well, while the orioles and cowbirds are only passing through.

In mid-October along the Backshore’s rocky shore he finds a dozen or so Ring-billed Gulls together with one of their young, lounging in the sun. Some of them will probably choose to remain here while others may move further south to the southern Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. And, it gets better! The following birds are the highlights of Michael’s mid-October searches:

… “A peregrine falcon high on a dead birch at the SW end of Battery Steele, drooling over the Mallards in the pond below; had never seen one so close - magnificent in the morning sun; and had never seen one on Peaks before. …Blue-headed Vireos - seen mid-month behind Battery Steele, low in the bushes and so with some patience and stealth, seen close-up; stunningly beautiful with white eye ring and blue tone to head; they stayed for 2-3 days and then headed south. …Yellow-rumped Warblers all month, culminating in two dozen or so in the high trees behind Backshore, were seen last week. …Last week, from Backshore drive, I spied a dozen or so robin-sized birds two hundred yards away, in a high tree flush with Battery Steele. Could make out flashes of orange, much activity, which only increased my excitement. Raced in along the boardwalk, and got close enough for an I.D.! Wait for it! American Robins. About 12-15 of them, obviously just passing through.”

On the morning of October 27th, “it was clear blue and cold; 36 degrees about an hour after sunrise. The migrating birds in great evidence this AM were: About two dozen robins behind Battery Steele, a flock of House Finches, a flock of White-throated Sparrows with a single Swamp Sparrow in the mix, a large flock of Song Sparrows in that clear area in front of Battery Steele at the SW edge.

Interestingly, there were scant Common Eiders; just a handful seen up and down Backshore - no large flotillas of females with young such as we will see (I hope) in winter. No scoters yet. No Double-crested Cormorants today whatsoever.”

Michael was also in search of a Sora, a small rail-like bird that Sam saw along the boardwalk pond between the Backshore and Battery Steele (October 10). This small 8-inch marsh bird presented itself in the late afternoon as Sam walked along the path, daydreaming of interesting birds. As he searched the upper tips of marsh grasses he heard a ‘plop’ in the water. He focused his gaze downward and there, in the little body of water nestled in the grasses was a robin-sized marsh bird with a chicken-like butt, plodding along the water’s edge – a Sora? The bird was not very skittish – living up to its reputation as being one of the bolder of marsh birds – so Sam was able to ‘pin-down’ its distinctive markings as a Sora: a chicken-like body (and butt) with a short tail and two very characteristic features - white under the tail and a black facemask, distinguishing it from other small rails.

Camera in hand, we return the next day. We see the Sora on the other side of the marsh grass wall that blocks the view of the pond beyond it. The marsh grasses part slightly – an oval opening – shaped as though an animal created it as a portal. The small bird prances back and forth across the opening, back lighted by the setting sun that creates a characteristic Sora silhouette, including the chicken-like butt. Too dark for a photograph. I return several days in a row spotting only hints of the Sora’s presence – a familiar ‘plop’ sound and the scurry of a small bird in the grass shadows; a “keek” call; and on another day, a small shape moving along the grass-lined shore. Michael is even less successful: “Never saw Sam’s Sora, although I went to the spot on your map and waited for him every day.” On this last day of Oct 27 Michael is more optimistic: “I just KNEW I would see Sam’s Sora this AM, and as I closed in on the spot, a woman with a dog overtook me!”

During my Sora searches, kneeling on the ground in the wet cold marsh, I ponder things such as ‘what does the Sora find to eat here’ or ‘what if someone comes by and finds me stalking an eight inch bird at sunset’. On one of those days while drifting in and out of these nonsense thoughts, a small bird flies directly over the marsh toward me, stops in mid-air and makes a 90 degree turn – with its body dropping below its head as it turns, but catching up with its head - after the bird gains momentum. Was it the Sora? The size of it matches that of a Sora. No, as our eyes meet, I see the little bird’s flat buffy face framing big eyes – a tiny owl. A Saw-whet Owl?

The following afternoon, the temperature is up and the frogs are out. They surface for air in the pond – Sora food? A very large black beetle emerges from below the water’s surface climbing a tall reed – it is nearly 3 inches long with large pinchers. Tasty Sora food, or the reverse? No Sora that day – perhaps a glimpse of that beetle sends the Sora on its southward journey?

Tasty Sora food?

As Michael, yet again, is in the ‘bush’ this month in search of interesting birds we take to the sea one last time (October 11 and 12) in the Sea Parrot II around Peaks Island and adjacent islands.

Sea Parrot in Route

With fewer humans to monitor moored boats and docks, the gulls are happy to take charge – to see what being a Captain is all about:

Herring Gull and its new float

Juvenile Great Black-backed Gull and its Summah FUN

The navigator - Great Black-backed Gull

The juvenile Double-crested Cormorants and Ring-billed Gulls prefer the comforts of TEIA’s floating dock, perhaps just enjoying a gathering of like-minds. And, the gulls are taking advantage of Peaks Island’s abundance of apples, with a titch of salty water to add flavor.

Juvenile Double-crested Cormorants and Ring-billed Gulls (background)

Herring Gull's salty apple cuisine

Juvenile Double-crested Cormorants breast feathers are slightly lighter than the all black belly of the adult. Judging by the abundance of light breasts, we see mostly youngsters resting together on rocky ledges or docks, or in feeding groups.

Juvenile Double-crested Cormorants with Lightish Breasts

A flock of more than 100 cormorants gathered on the waters between the public boat landing and the ferry dock, apparently in a feeding frenzy. On the water’s surface we see skinny necks – alert – peering in all directions, looking like snake heads. Wings flap as they scurry across the waters, chasing their prey as they move along the shore. It all appears as one living organism in pursuit of an underwater delicacy hidden from our view.

Frenzied Double-crested Cormorants, Diamond Passage

Herring Gull and Crab Morsel on Ram Island

A few Herring Gulls and juvenile cormorants still remain on Ram Island. Most adult cormorants appear to have left earlier, leaving their young behind to fend for themselves, albeit clumsily.

Clumsy Juvenile Double-crested Cormorants

The adults and juveniles cormorants have also left behind elaborate nests made of sticks and colorful plastic ropes.

Double-crested Cormorant Nests

Likewise the adults of many shorebird species leave the breeding grounds before juveniles. The few migrating Semi-palmated Plovers that still visit the shores of Ram and Vaill Islands, may be youngsters as well. On the Vaill Island sand flat we see Black-bellied Plovers, without black bellies. In their winter or juvenile plumage they too stop here for refreshments during their migration south.

Semi-palmated Plover

Black-bellied Plover

What is so surprising is finding tree trunks on the Vaill Island sandy shore – revealed only at low tide. There are no large trees on this wind-swept island, but some of these tree-trunks are big, and they are rooted deep in the sand. Perplexed and puzzled, we ask Michelle. She ponders the question … perhaps, she says, years ago these trees were cut - maybe when large trees grew on this tiny island. Their removal caused erosion of the surrounding soil, cutting away of the land by the sea, and finally creating a sandy beach and lagoon. Anyone have any other ideas?

Tree stumps on Vaill Island Beach

The female and juvenile Common Eiders are more abundant near small islands and fewer off Peaks Island’s Backshore during October, as noted above by Michael. These eiders are flying over the isthmus between Little and Great Chebeague Islands; their flight feathers appear to be in working order after their complete summer molt.

Mostly Female Common Eiders in Flight

On our return to Peaks Island we see a Bonaparte’s Gull in the waters off Little Chebeague Island. This individual looks like a first winter juvenile – with its mottled wing feathers (coverts) overlying the flight feathers. This gull species, too, may stay here or head south for the winter.

First Winter Bonaparte's Gull

On October 17, Trout Pond is alive with Wood (~12) and Black (~24) Ducks. The Wood Ducks are loafing at the mouth of the stream on the west side of the pond, while the Black Ducks socialize mid-pond. The Wood Ducks, not seen in such large numbers previously, were not seen the following three days, so perhaps the pond was a staging or stopover area during their migration to the South from the North.

Wood Ducks in Trout Pond

Another bird feeding frenzy is observed on October 22 offshore (across from the bicycle house) – a Northern Gannet, repeatedly diving, surfacing, and taking off from the water’s surface; ~20 Common Loons; and numerous gulls (Herring, Great Black-back, and perhaps more). Common Loon sightings have been few during October, but apparently they are out there – waiting for the fish to school near shore for our observation pleasures. Do, listen for them – I was alerted to their presence twice this last week by a few notes of their distinctive call, otherwise they might have been overlooked.

Feeding Frenzy: Northern Gannet, Common Loons, and Gulls

Michael and Sam's October Bird List Combined:

Michael identified during 10 field visits, 56 bird species on Peaks Island from October 1 – 31, 2015. Sam identified on Peaks Island and adjacent islands 35 species. Those species seen only by Michael are in black. Those species seen only by Sam are in red. Overlapping species identified by Sam (October 10-11) and Michael are printed in blue.

Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)

American Black Duck (Anas rubripes)

Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Common Eider (Somateria mollissima)

Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator)

Common Loon (Gavia immer)

Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus)

Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)

Sora (Coturnicops noveboracensis)

Accipiter sp. (Accipiter sp.)

Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)

Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle)

Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)

Bonaparte’s Gull (Larus philadelphia)

Rock Pigeon (Columba livia)

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)

Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)

Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris)

Empidonax sp. (Empidonax)

Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus)

Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavifrons)

Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius)

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)

Common Raven (Corvus corax)

Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

Red-bellied Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis)

Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis)

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)

European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Patty check below sci names:

Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia)

Connecticut Warbler (Oporornis agilis)

American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)

Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia)

Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia)

Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus)

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata)

Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum)

Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana)

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea)

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)

Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula)

Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator)

House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

Additional Information:

Written by Patty Wainright and Michael LaCombe

Photographs by: Photo © Patty Wainright

List by: Michael LaCombe and Sam Wainright

Reviewed by: Sam Wainright, Michelle Brown and Marty

Thank you for your interest in the PILP Bird Blog. If you have any comments or questions please contact Michelle at: brownmichh@aol.com

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