November 2015 Bird Sightings

Male Common Eider Photo © Patty Wainright

The Boys are back, but not in any big rush. The male Common Eiders leave their mates for their molting stations in the summer, after their toddlers hit the waters running. These males now 'trickle-in' to the Backshore waters. However, as Michael notes: “As yet, [we see] none of those spectacular huge flotillas of Common Eider we saw last winter off Backshore, and very few males at any rate.” We see only scattered patches (5-12 per patch) of eiders this month.

Common Eider Pair [note white wing bars on mature female] Photo © Patty Wainright

Previous years we saw more eiders along the shore:

November 2012: 75 to 130 (10% males), based on 7 days of observation

November 2013: 50 to 200, based on 7 days of observation

November 2014: ~ 60, based on only 2 days of observation

In December 2014 the numbers increased to over 250, followed by a surge in January to 200 ~ 650 (30-50% males). We hope to see a similar increase this December and January. But where do these missing eiders go in the fall?

Michael observes an unusual event after several days of wind and rain in mid-November – female and juvenile Common Eiders are in Trout Pond – a get-away from the stormy seas. He sees them huddled there with the gulls that regularly bathe there. Common Eiders in fresh water? How do the eiders know that this pond is available as a refuge? We rarely see them fly over the island, as they keep to the sea; it is their home. However, during Storm Sandy (October 29, 2012) the eiders struggled with the huge seas off the point between the South Shore and the Backshore. Scoters and more eiders also rode out that early afternoon winds (~ 40-50 mph) in the middle of Whitehead Passage. One lone eider found refuge in Woodcutter’s Cove – smart duck. Later in the afternoon though, as waves crashed through the passage, no sea ducks were seen. Where did they go? However, this day in November (2015), their home is just too turbulent to sustain their safety. Perhaps they see the gulls fly toward Trout Pond – recording in their minds that safety may await them there? Did they go to Trout Pond during Storm Sandy?

Common Eiders at South and Backshore Corner[Storm Sandy 2012]

Whitehead, Cushing Island (Storm Sandy 2012]

Common Eiders and Scoters in Whitehead Pasage [Storm Sandy 2012]

Photos © Patty Wainright

Mid-November Michael finds suitably plumaged sea ducks - non-breeding attire - returning from their northern breeding grounds: Long-tailed Ducks, Buffleheads, and all three species of mergansers (Hooded, Red-breasted, and Common Mergansers). Our resident dabbling ducks (Mallards and Black Ducks) are ‘motoring’ along the surface of the island ponds, or you might see them just ‘dabbling’ with their tails pointing skyward. Sometimes one can see the Black Ducks feeding along the sandy or rocky shores - mostly sifting through floating seaweeds in search of crunchy invertebrates. Double-crested Cormorants, four gull species (a single Bonaparte’s Gull, Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, and Great Black-backed Gulls), and Common Loons are mostly along the shore, while Northern Flickers, Pileated Woodpeckers, a female Eastern Towhee, and a ‘single beautiful’ Peregrine Falcon (seen very close-up) are found over the land.

Not only is November sparrow migration month, but strong winds and rain mid-month creates yet another “migratory fall out’ dropping a lively crew of sparrows onto the island. Remember the fog fallout phenomenon Michael experienced in August? This day in November sparrows are everywhere – he sees, Chipping, White-crowned, Savannah, and Song Sparrows. Late in November a Vesper Sparrow with its creamy colored belly, appears on the island, passing on its way to warmer places. [1]

Barrow's Goldeneye Photo Wikipedia Commons

Later in the month, on November 27, Michael observes more birds, as posted on Peaks Island Neighbor: “On upper back shore, in Wharf Cove just below Table Rocks, a large collection of Ring-billed Gulls, Bonaparte Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, [Herring Gulls], as well as a few Red-breasted Mergansers (see below photo) and Black Ducks were feeding close to shore at high tide; above there, at Elm Tree Cove, five Redheads [ducks] were quite close to shore. Off Evergreen Landing, a single Barrow's Goldeneye (see above photo) was seen with two Red-breasted Mergansers, and in Diamond Pass, quite close to the Peaks coast, nine Buffleheads.” Perhaps this remarkable congregation of birds in Wharf Cove might be labeled as a feeding frenzy. Remember the frenzy last spring when the seaweed-fly larvae were abundant in Wharf Cove [April 2015 Bird Blog]? Storm Sandy (2012) stirred-up Wharf Cove creating a huge gull feeding frenzy. Hundreds of them, including an abundance juveniles learning to take advantage of natural misfortunes, all fought the winds and surf. Something very tasty lurked in those dirty waters.

Wharf Cove Storm Sandy 2012 Photos © Patty Wainright

In Wharf Cove what food items this November (2015) would attract gulls, mergansers, and ducks at high tide in the fall? Ducks and gulls will eat about anything, but mergansers prefer fish, although they will not refuse a juicy invertebrate. As you pass Wharf Cove, do take a peek for more feeding frenzies.

Red-breasted Merganser Photo © Patty Wainright

[Note head crests and how they place their eyes below the surface to search for food.]

At Elm Tree Cove Michael studies for long periods the unusual sighting of three male Redheads [ducks] using his tripod-held 20x80 binoculars! These ducks may be the same ones reported on Sabbatus Pond in October in Guillemot [2]. The female is an overall round and brownish duck. The male wears a bright-rufous layer of head feathers and blue bill during breeding season, sporting a more toned-down plumage in the winter. This species is only a fall visitor as it, too, heads South to settle in ice-free waters from Cape Cod to Florida. [1]

Redhead Photo Wikipedia Commons

An interesting note that Michael found in this month’s Guillemot [2] is about the migration pattern at ‘Cousin’s Crossing’: “Apparently birds migrating south along the Gulf of Maine in the fall congregate at the south end of Cousin’s Island and then make the short cross to the mainland, to Yarmouth and Falmouth. [This strategy] may account for the relatively low numbers of migrating birds we see here, and the occasional striking collections of a very few species I come across, e.g. the dozen or so Ruby-crowned Kinglets and the large flock of American Robins. I don’t know how ‘solid’ this science is right now; I can’t imagine large numbers of species saying ‘here’s where we take a right and get over to Yarmouth’ when so many species use nocturnal celestial navigation or magnetic polar forces [to find their way].” Michael ‘will keep an eye on it and let us know’ what he learns in the future.

Michael, who continues to be our ‘birder in the bush and on the shore’, regularly, contributing to the Bird Blog, offers to provide additional information. One of his interests (as shown above) includes the movement of birds along the coast during migrations and local travels. He ponders why some birds come to Peaks Island and why some slip-by, closer to the mainland. In his attempts to better understand these bird activities he compiles a list of regional birds from eBird that one might expect to see in December. He then compares it to what we may see on Peaks Island (see below*).

This list is based on data from eBird: “A real-time, online checklist program, eBird has revolutionized the way that the birding community reports and accesses information about birds. Launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, eBird provides rich data sources for basic information on bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales. [3]” This data allow one to predict what birds are seen in different months within specific regions such as Casco Bay.

*December Visitors:

From eBird data for the past thirty years, the species that are rarely seen in spring, summer, and early fall but may be expected to visit in December, include:

The three beautiful scoter species: Black, Surf, and White-winged:

Male Black Scoter Photo Wikipedia Commons

Male Surf Scoter Photo Wikipedia Commons

Male White-winged Scoter Photo Wikipedia Commons

Long-tailed Ducks

Buffleheads

Common Goldeneyes

Red-breasted Merganser

Iceland Gull

White-breasted Nuthatch

American Tree Sparrow

Those species not commonly seen until late summer and those ones that tend to remain in and around Peaks through December include:

Bonaparte’s Gull

Black Guillemot (breeds on Cushing and Outer Green Islands)

*Hints for December Birdwatching:

  1. Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes, and Long-tailed Ducks may best be seen in Diamond Pass above Centennial Beach towards Evergreen Landing.

  2. Bonaparte’s Gulls are predictable on upper Backshore, near Table Rocks.

  3. Black Guillemots nest in the cliffs of Cushing’s Island (and Outer Green Island). They can be seen in Whitehead Passage, and sometimes along the Backshore – mostly solitary, not found in flocks.

  4. The three scoter species are seen off the Backshore, generally out a bit, often mixed with Common Eider flocks.

  5. Look for the loner - you may gain success in seeing uncommon species by focusing on the solitary lone sea bird drifting apart from the crowd.

Other November animal sightings:

In early November, juvenile Great Blue Herons congregate in small groups along Centennial Beach – described as ‘playing’ together (Anonymous). Carrie sees them behaving in yet another manner: “This fall I was walking on Centennial Beach, low tide, at sunset... when I saw SIX Great Blue Herons, all standing equidistant apart from each other, fishing! Of course, they appeared to all be statues, standing perfectly still, until something caught their eye. It was a magical moment for me.” They too, as juveniles, appear to be left on their own as their parents leave early for other places. We see this behavior with other migrating birds – the plovers, sandpipers, and cormorants.

American Crow, Member of the Winding Way Gang Photo © Patty Wainright

Crow behavior on the island appears different recently – generally our marauding crows move about in small groups or gangs, defending their territory from predators, or skirmishes between these groups may occur. At times, island gangs gather to mob the Bald Eagle, e.g. at Brackett Pond. Recently, however, the crowds of crows are coming together in the mid-afternoon. Generally in the fall the American Crows do gather at sunset into huge groups - hundreds to thousands of them – darkening the sky. These masses of crows are heading for the safety (and perhaps warmth) of large roosts. This phenomenon appears to be a new event on Peaks Island, as observed by Terry, Michelle, Anonymous, and more – with comments such as – ‘this is unusual’. I follow two of these events – appearing as a large swarm - from Beaver Pond to Battery Steel, and on another afternoon along Brackett Pond woods. Here a multitude of crows flew from the treetops to the forest floor, not once but many times. They then move to the small trees and bushes at the northern end of Brackett Pond. Their calls are excited and varied - with squeals of excitement – each individual with a different tone. They flit about in what appears as moments of sheer enjoyment. No, this gathering is not threatening to us as the blackbirds in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, The Birds. The crows are so engaged with each other that no attention is paid to me – even in their midst. This crowd of nearly 200 crows flies toward the west in a loud cacophony of calls. Where did they go – a roost? Has anyone seen the roost? Do they pick different roosts each night?

How is the Common Raven pair holding up with so many besieging crows? The ravens are rarely seen, it seems. Perhaps their stealth behavior keeps them safe from the crow gangs. And sometimes, they just like to tease the crows. On a windy day in November, the Winding Way crow assembly yet again were in raven-aggravation mode – winging about them, screaming obscenities and being a general nuisance. Ravens love to soar and it was a great day for it. The pair can out-soar these crows and that is exactly what they did. The ravens kept one wing beat ahead – turning and angling in a manner that out maneuvered their pursuers. The ravens slowly pulled away, soaring to higher altitudes. Another mischievous day for the raven pair.

And what about the amphibians – we saw frogs at the end of October. Andrew spotted this spotted salamander mid November. Anything else crawling out of the bushes?

Spotted Salamander Photos © Andrew Jackson

References:

1. Sibley, D.A. (2000). National Audubon Society: The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. NY.

2. Guillemot: The Newsletter of the Sorrento Scientific Society, 12 Spring Street, Bar Harbor, ME 04609. (Please note: To become a member and receive the Guillemot please send $5 membership fee to this address. Membership includes a window decal showing the Black Guillemot.) Thank you Kathy for introducing us to the Guillemot.

3. eBird: Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society.

http://ebird.org/content/ebird/about/

Additional Information:

By Patty Wainright and Michael LaCombe

Reviewed by Sam Wainright, Michelle Brown and Marty

Photographs by Andrew Jackson, Wikipedia Commons, Patty Wainright

Contributors: Anonymous birder, Carrie Fexa, Andrew Jackson, Terry, Kathy McCarthy

We thank you, Michael for your time and efforts to share all of this new information with us. Based on popular demand, we hope that Michael will continue to post his current bird sightings on Peaks Island Neighbor.

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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