Category Archives: Birds of New England

DUELING SNOWY OWLS SOARING THROUGH THE DUNES

On a recent hike looking for Redpolls and Snow Buntings, I encountered a pair of Snowy Owls intently battling over territory. Positioned low on a dune trail, half kneeling and partially hidden while photographing a Black-capped Chickadee, when a Snowy flew right in front of my path, twenty feet away. Rats! It all happened so quickly I didn’t capture even a moment. Suddenly out of nowhere a second Snowy appeared, hot on his trail. This one landed on the path I was traveling, not ten feet away. We both looked at each other in utter amazement but this time I had my movie camera turned on! He/she didn’t wait to see what I was doing and off he flew in the direction of the female Snowy. The two flew through the dunes, landing and taking off several times. I lost sight of the pair for a few moments when way, way out over the ocean the two were spied in an aerial duel.

I am going to try to post the close-up Snowy clip before Christmas. It’s been several weeks since that day and I have not seen either–hopefully they did not discourage one another from wintering over in the dunes and are still in the vicinity.

The sweet flock of Redpolls was found, but as with the owls, neither species has been since that beautiful day watching Snowies soar through the dunes. Will post the Redpoll photos later this week 🙂

SNOWY OWL GOLDEN-EYED GOLDEN GIRL

We startled each other! 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO PROJECT SNOWSTORM

By Scott Weidensaul

On this day five years ago, my phone rang not long after breakfast. It was my friend and colleague Dave Brinker, a biologist with Maryland’s Natural Heritage program. He was calling because of something we’d both been watching with growing interest and amazement — the almost unprecedented invasion of snowy owls coming south into eastern North America, which was playing out across birding listserves, eBird and other information outlets.

The numbers were incredible. Just a week earlier, a birder in Newfoundland had reported counting nearly 300 snowies in one small area at Cape Race — 75 of them visible in a single sweep of his binoculars. White owls were showing up as far south as Jacksonville, Florida, and on the island of Bermuda.

“None of us are going to live long enough to see something like this again,” Dave said. He’d been talking with another mutual friend, owl bander Steve Huy, and they had some ideas — recruiting other banders to try to trap and band snowy owls to help track their movements, or maybe soliciting photographs from the public, which would allow us to age and sex many of the owls to get a sense of where the different age- and sex-classes were wintering.

That was plenty to think about, but not long after I hung up, the phone rang again. This time it was Andy McGann, who in 2007 was an intern on my saw-whet owl banding project, and in 2012 had worked for me again as a research technician while Dave and I tested a new type of automated telemetry system for small owls.

Andy was now working for Cellular Tracking Technologies, a company founded by golden eagle biologist Mike Lanzone to build next-generation GPS transmitters. Andy asked me if I’d been following the news about the snowy owl invasion. “Because, um, we have a transmitter here that was built for another project — but Mike said if you can find some funds, just enough to cover our costs, we’d love to put it on a snowy owl instead,” he said.

That was the beginning of Project SNOWstorm — and it snowballed (no pun intended) was stunning speed. By the evening of Dec. 7, 2013, I had spoken with a longtime supporter of our saw-whet work, the late Jim Macaleer of West Chester, Pa., who had agreed to underwrite not one but five transmitters. The next day, anonymous friends and fellow researchers had matched that gift with one of their own. We’d reached out to our good friend Norman Smith in Massachusetts, who has been studying snowy owls since 1981, who enthusiastically joined the effort. Along with Steve, another former research tech of mine, Drew Weber, brought web savvy and know-how. Jean-François Therrien, a French-Canadian researcher who did his Ph.D. on snowy owls in the Arctic and who now works here in Pennsylvania at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, jumped in with both feet. The proposal we submitted to the U.S. Bird Banding Lab for authorization to tag and track snowy owls was approved in record time, since the BBL was already looking for someone to do just that kind of project.

Less than two weeks later Dave, JF, Mike and I gathered along the  Maryland coast, where we trapped “Assateague,” a juvenile male and our first tagged owl. It’s been a wild five years ever since, as this project has grown in ways we never could have expected. For instance, we had a research project but no budget, so Dave suggested we try crowd-funding. I was frankly skeptical, but many of you quickly proved that it’s possible to launch and maintain an ambitious scientific project with small donations from the general public and birding/ornithological organizations. (Our institutional home, the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in central Pennsylvania, has been a huge supporter from the start, not least because all donations to SNOWstorm are thus tax-deductible in the U.S.)

READ MORE HERE

MR. SWAN (AND HOMIE) HIRED BY ACE HARDWARE

Just kidding, but really, don’t you think Ace should enlist Mr. Swan for an ad campaign?Joel and Skip Munroe ensure Mr. Swan is well-fed during the winter months.

RATS!

Gloucester’s Animal Advisory Committee recently sponsored an informative presentation by Gary Menin, director of the Massachusetts chapter of the organization R.A.T.S. (Raptors Are The Solution). Gary presented a talk with accompanying slides on the catastrophic effects of rodenticides on owls, hawks, falcons, eagles, and other birds of prey.

Gloucester is a waterfront community and as such, we will most assuredly always have a rat population.  As has been pointed out dozens of times at the AAC meetings, improper handling of garbage is one of our number one problems. Garbage bags not contained in cans that are placed on city streets the night before trash collection attracts and provides food for coyotes, gulls, crows, and rats. Dumpsters not properly closed and maintained also support rats, gulls, crows, and coyotes, as do overflowing beach barrels.

Although second generation rodenticides are banned, exterminators are still allowed to use them. Gary reminded us however that YOU are the client. If all else fails and an exterminator must be hired, tell them not to use rodenticide under any circumstance.

Firstly, if we better manage our trash, we can greatly shrink the nuisance critter population. Additionally, Gary provided an excellent list of alternatives to rodenticides.

1). Snap traps

2). Ultrasonic waves

3). Electrocuting traps

4). Live trap and relocate

5). Dry ice pellets placed at hole entryways

6). Moth balls and peppermint oil as a repellent

7). Goodnature A24 Rat Trap

Under no circumstances are glue traps recommended as they are an unusually cruel method of extermination.

As we have talked about many times on Good Morning Gloucester, the White-footed Mouse and the Chipmunk are the greatest vectors of Lyme disease. Raptors play a vital rope in controlling mice, chipmunks, and other small rodent populations and have proven to be an important link in the fight against Lyme disease.

Gary also mentioned that the city of Revere recently purchased rat-proof garbage cans that every member of the community is mandated to use. The local governing body was fed up with the proliferation of rats because of flimsy trash bags, overflowing barrels, and careless disposal of garbage. You can read more about Revere’s new barrels here: Revere Looks to Put Lid on Rat Problem.

  *   *   *

We can also purchase or build our own owl nest box. With a quick google search you can find tons of DIY videos, plans, and directions online such as this one for a Screech Owl house.

Screech Owl House Plans

Every year we hear Screech Owls in our neighborhood, close-by, and I’m inspired to build an owl house after hearing Gary’s presentation!

Last winter Hedwig was seen with almost clock-work regularity departing nightly for her evening hunt. An adult Snowy Owl feeds on average three to five times per day.

The food web graphics provided by R.A.T.S. are terrific and are free and downloadable for anyone’s use.

Invasion of the Little Black Scoters

The best kind of invasion–an usual bird invasion! The flock of male and female Black Scoters was fairly far offshore at daybreak. Later in the day I checked back on the scoters and they were continuing their southerly directed swim along the shoreline, but a little closer to the rocky coastline. Oh how I wish we could see them really close-up!

Male Black Scoters sport a distinctive orange-knobbed bill

I call them little because they are the smallest of the three scoters we would see in our area, the other two being Surf Scoters and White-winged Scoters. Even from far off shore I could hear their soft whistling calls.

The little Black Scoter breeds in the northern tundra, wintering along both the East and West coasts, as well as the Gulf of Mexico. This beautiful little duck is a species thought to be in decline, namely because of its susceptibility to oil spills and pollution.

THRILLING TO SEE SWANS FLYING OVER THE TWIN LIGHTHOUSES!

Friday afternoon, after the nor’easter, the sun came out just barely before the skies again darkened with a brief snow squall. I was driving along Atlantic Road during those fleeting in between moments when way off in the distance I spied a flock of birds, with the distinct shape of swans in flight. Swans fly with their long necks extended, unlike herons and egrets, which fly with their necks curved in. What on Earth is Mr. Swan doing out in this wildly windy weather I thought. But it wasn’t Mr. Swan, it was an entire family of Swans! There were two adults and four cygnets. Stunning to see and very uplifting. They flew over the Twin Lights and then further and further until I could not see them any longer. 

The first and third swans are the adults, the second, fourth, fifth and sixth are the cygnets, or first-hatch year juveniles.The young swans will retain their grayish brown feathers until their second summer.

Please write and let me know if you saw the Mute Swan family on Friday afternoon. They were flying along the backshore at about 2:15. Or, if you live on the Northshore and know of any swan family with two adults and four youngsters, I would love to learn more about them. My email address is kimsmithdesigns@hotmail.com. Thank you so much for any leads!

Swans and wave crashing

A few more of the Mute Swan family flying toward and over Thacher Island

Mr. Swan Update

Mr. Swan busking, a thing swans do to look twice as large and threatening.

Cape Ann’s beautiful blue-eyed swan is doing quite well especially considering he is at least 28 YEARS OLD. It is highly unusual for a Mute Swan to live that long. Wild Mute Swans live on average eight to twelve years. In captivity, they can live up to 40 years, but our Mr. Swan hardly lives the cushy life of a Queen’s swan. .

He is only occasionally a little gimpy on his bad leg. Mr. Swan still manages to rule most of Cape Ann’s waterways, from the Annisquam River to Rockport Harbor, and everything in between.

Rock On, Mr. Swan!