Figure 1: Song Sparrow Photo © Michael LaCombe
By: Michael LaCombe and Sam Wainrght
The 2019 bird breeding season on Peaks has begun; you can see it and hear it! Birds are making their presence known, especially on clear sunny days. Of course, we are not the intended targets of their display…they are showing off to attract mates. Song Sparrows (figure 1) can be heard everywhere, Northern Cardinals are manifest, and, in the marshes along backshore, the Red-wing Blackbirds are trading their conk-a-reeee calls with each other. Each of these species maintains at least a skeleton crew on Peaks throughout the winter. But they were lying low; trying not to be seen by resident predators, such as Cooper’s Hawks, as they search for scarce food.
Common Eiders (figure 2) too have been here all winter, and are now everywhere along the shore. Males are in striking black and white tuxedos with green trim, strutting their stuff in exotic dances to impress the sienna brown females. A few seconds later they beat up on their male competitors, sometimes drawing blood.
Figure 2: Common Eiders Public Domain Photo
The other group of birds that grab our attention this time of year are the spring migrants; these include the “snow birds” that have been away on winter vacation further south, and are now returning to breed. American Woodcocks arrived at the transfer station 2 weeks ago. You rarely see these rather pudgy, long-billed shorebirds, but they reveal themselves around dusk in forest openings and fields with a distinctive buzzy call. In their amazing courtship display the male flies upward in a spiral pattern while producing a twittering sound, and then descends while creating a chirping sound as air rushes through its wings (ref.1).
Belted Kingfishers (figure 3) will be here soon, most commonly along the Brackett Street marshes. An island favorite, our Tree Swallows, come this month. Gray Catbirds are normally an early May arrival but at least one showed up ahead of schedule (7 April, observed by SW).
Figure 3: Belted Kingfisher Photo © Michael LaCombe
The Eastern Towhees (figure 4) will arrive late this month. You can always find them at the upper end of Upper A, near the gravel pit.
Figure 4: Eastern Towhee Photo © Michael LaCombe
The warblers are another group of spring migrants. Some, such as the Yellow Warbler, breed on Peaks. Others, such as the Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers are just passing through. The first to arrive on Peaks are the Palm, Pine, and Yellow-rumped Warblers (aka. butter-butts) (figures 5,6,7). Butter-butts were also the last warblers to leave in the fall; a few overwinter on Peaks.
Figure 5: Palm Warbler Public Domain Photo
Figure 6: Pine Warbler Photo © Michael LaCombe
Figure 7: Yellow-rumped Warbler (aka. butter butt) Public Domain Photo
Migrants that are “just passing through” are here only briefly, perhaps for a travel break, but ultimately headed for their breeding grounds in Canada. Brants (figures 8,9) are a late April migrant; ML saw a large flock last year at this time, crossing Casco Bay and headed northward with determination. A quiet bunch, they were all business.
Figure 8 and 9: Brants Public Domain Photo
Among the ducks, neither the scaups nor the American Wigeon have ever been reported on Peaks via eBird. This seems strange because they are now being sighted along the mainland coast not far from here. Furthermore, both species are on PILP’s List of Peaks Island Birds, which means that someone has seen them on Peaks before. Why haven’t I (ML) seen them? Well, I think it’s because I am not patient enough - always in too much of a hurry.
On first glance, at a distance, the male Greater and Lesser Scaups might be confused with our resident male Common Eiders (figures 10,11,12).
Figure 10: Greater Scaup Public Domain Photo
Figure 11: Lesser Scaup Public Domain Photo
Figure 12: Common Eiders Public Domain Photo
As well, the male wigeon, (figure 13) with its iridescent green head, might be counted as a male Mallard (figure 14), without a passing glance. At least, that’s my excuse. Perhaps this year I can add them to the eBird Peaks Island list, which now holds 203 species and hybrids.
Figure 13: American Wigeon Public Domain Photo
Figure 14: Mallard Photo © Michael LaCombe
There is another category of spring migrants on Peaks: those that overwinter here, and then migrate northward in the Spring to their breeding grounds. Many of our water birds fit this pattern, such as Common Loons, the 3 species of scoters, Long-tailed Duck, Razorbill, and land birds such as Northern Shrike and Snowy Owl. Look for them before they depart.
It is an interesting and exciting time of year to observe birds!
FYI: ML and SW have posted their most recent bird lists (2019 Bird Lists) on this Peaks Island Land Preserve website.
Reference 1: www.allaboutbirds.org
Edited by: Patty Wainright, Marty Braun, Michelle Brown