The forecast of rain on Sunday morning put the PeaksFest Bird Walk at peril. Even in pouring rain, Michael is willing to forge ahead with this bird walk. Forecasters do make mistakes, don’t they?
A small and
knowledgeable group of intrepid ‘birders’ arrive: Lori from Sea Isle City, New Jersey, Theresa from Rhode Island, and Peaks Island residents - Megan and Anne. The morning is windless and the cloud cover eases with hints of sun.
Smooth seas allowed for clear ocean views of seabirds – including a Common Loon offshore. Female Common Eiders highlight the shore as they scout for breakfast - with ducklings in tow.
As Megan observes, “It takes a community to raise the young eiders.”
The males have mostly left – to their ‘man-cave’ (Anne) as they molt their striking black and white plumages. They leave the females because this full molt reduces them to flightless ducks, and vulnerable to predators. They seek safe havens.
This male departure leaves the females to protect the young from predators – forming ‘crèches’. The females that assist in these crèches are the ‘aunts’. As a predator approaches, the mother and ‘aunts’ raise and lower their heads and make a call - a grunt sound. From this signal the ducklings know to huddle in a ball as the females provide a protective barrier. Once the threat wanes, the ducklings proceed, diligently following the females – if one can imagine how their small legs and feet can provide them with enough speed to keep up with the adults’ larger propellers. Or they may continue to dive along side the adults - hunting for very small invertebrates. These small watertight puffballs of downy feathers submerge themselves using their stubby wings and small legs. An adult can submerge on an average of 60 seconds (diving Common Eiders). The ducklings appear to submerge for 10 seconds; they then easily pop to the surface (diving ducklings).
We walk along the Battery Steele Marsh to Whaleback. The marsh is active with Red-winged Blackbirds. Michael points out that the female looks similar to a large sparrow, noting her cryptic brownish-stripped plumage. While on her nest she blends in nicely with the marsh grasses. The male, though, sports a vibrant overall black ‘coat’ punctuated by orange and red upper wing feathers – always displaying and calling atop the marsh grasses. Anne notes that one male has only yellow upper wing feathers – juvenile from last year?
Tree Swallows are actively insect hunting, and overly feisty – chasing a larger insect-collecting competitor – the Eastern Kingbird as it too, hunts along the shoreline. Little cheeps are heard as the swallows fly over the marsh and shoreline. Parents training their fledglings?
One couple feeds their young in a nest box – the youngsters are too large for the parent to enter the box, so it feeds them while clinging to the entrance hole. As sun breaks through the clouds, the swallows’ bluish-green back and wing feathers shine with irridescent qualities.
Two warbler species are in the marsh calling and perhaps keeping a close eye on their nests or newly fledged young. The Common Yellowthroat with its broad black mask (The Bandit) and bright yellow throat, and the bright yellow plumage of the Yellow Warbler are the two most common warblers on Peaks Island. Michael imitates their characteristic calls of the Common Yellowthroat (witchety, witchety, witchety in three to five syllabels) and the Yellow Warbler (a variable sweet, sweet, sweet) that sometimes resembles a Chestnut Warbler. Did Michael hear a Chestnut Warbler in the marsh as well?
A Great Egret flies over the marsh and shore in addition to the pterodactyl-like Great Blue Heron and the plumpish-grey Black-crowned Night Heron. The Black-crowned Night Heron, and possibly the Great Blue Heron, nest on Ram Island along with the Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, and Double-Crested Cormorants.
While at Whaleback, we observe at a far distance over Hussey Sound two small birds sitting high on the water’s surface. Their plumage is light and they are roundish in shape. Are they juvenile Black Guillemots – perhaps recently fledged from Outer Green Island where Audubon volunteers monitor and protect their nests from predators, along with Common Terns?
The highlight of the Bird Walk is seeing an Alder Flycatcher. Michael shares with us a trick to help us spot a flycatcher. When a flycatcher hunts for insects – referred to as ‘hawking’ - it perches on a favorite branch that provides good views of flying insects. After each ‘hawking’ event, the flycatcher returns to its branch. Once you observe this behavior, one can try to identify the species of flycatcher by its plumage, call, and location. Plumages of the Alder and Willow Flycatchers are very similar, but their calls are distinctive. This flycatcher did not call, however, Michael shares with us that the Alder Flycatcher prefers alder trees and the Willow Flycatcher favors willow trees. This flycatcher was in an alder tree:
As a final treat – with the Pancake Breakfast on our minds, Anne spots a Common Tern (from Outer Green Island?) as it heads to Trout Pond for a bath. Thank you Anne, Theresa, Lori and Megan for joining us.
Bird List (For a complete list with species numbers please see Bird Lists 2018):
7:00 AM - 8:15
Backshore at Battery Steele Marsh
Comments: Partly cloudy changing to sunny skies
Great Blue Heron
Black-crowned Night Heron
Common Eider Females and immature (ducklings), and one male
Great Black-backed Gull:
By: Patty Wainright
Photos: Patty Wainright
Bird Walk: Michael LaCombe