E-A-G-L-E-S Eagles!

I’m not much of a football fan, but I do have enjoy watching the Super Bowl. Many bird sites like to post about SuperbOwl Sunday,  but this year the Philadelphia Eagles are in the championship game. I live close to Philly, so I’m right in the middle of Eagles country. So in honor of the fact that the birds are in the Super Bowl, here are some fun facts about Bald Eagles, the team’s mascot.

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Bald Eagles (Image by Pasquale Gabrielli via picanimals.com)
  • Bald Eagles are known for their distinctive white heads/tails, dark bodies, and yellow bill/legs. This is actually the adult plumage. Juvenile eagles are all brown and mottled on their body to various degrees. Each year they gain more white feather until the reach their full adult plumage around the age of 5.
  • Fish is the main staple of the Bald Eagle. They are opportunistic and will eat carrion, as well as birds, mammals, amphibians, and invertebrates. They will also try to pirate food off Ospreys or fish-eating mammals.
  • The Bald Eagle has been the national emblem of the United States since 1782.
  • Mate selection begins around the age of 4, and breeding pairs will stay together for life. Both sexes will contribute to making a nest, with the female focusing on stick placement.
  • Bald Eagles construct some of the biggest nests in the world. They can be as tall as 2-4 feet and as wide as 5-6 feet. An eagle pair use the same nest for many years, often adding sticks to it each year.
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Juvenile Bald Eage (Image by CleberBirds via allaboutbird.org)

 

  • The record for the largest Bald Eagle nest was 9 feet, 6 inches in diameter and 20 feet deep! It was located in St. Petersburg, Florida.
  • Bald Eagles are usually solitary birds. In the winter, they will congregate in large groups, especially if there is a salmon spawn.
  • Bald Eagles are known for one of the most dazzling mating displays. A pair will lock talons and rapidly descend to the ground in a dizzying spiral. They will release their talons before hitting the ground.
  • While diving, eagles can reach speeds of up to 100 miles per hour.
  • Bald Eagles represent one of the greatest success stories in bird conservation. In the 1978, these birds were added to the Endangered Species Act, mainly due to exposure to the harmful chemical DDT.  After DDT was banned, populations began to rebound through the 1980s. By the 1990s breeding populations started to become more established. They were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007. However, they still face threats from overdevelopment, lead ammunition, and collisions with vehicles.
  • Alaska is home to the highest number of Bald Eagles in North America, with a population of around 70,000. Other states with high Bald Eagle populations include Florida, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Here’s hoping the birds win! Either way, Bald Eagles are still majestic and amazing birds. Fly, Eagles, fly! 🦅

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Bald Eagle By AWWE83 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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The Whistler

Sorry I missed Waterfowl Wednesday this week! It was my first night of my Bio 2 Lab, so I didn’t get home until late. To make up for it, I wanted to share some facts about my newest life list addition, the Common Goldeneye.

  • Hunters sometimes refer to the Common Goldeneye as the “whistler”. Goldeneyes are rapid flyers, so their wings make a whistling sound when they fly away. They can reach speeds of around 40 mph in flight.
  • Common Goldeneyes are part of the genus Bucephala, which is derived from the Greek word boukephalos, meaning “bull-headed”. The other two living species of this genus are the Barrow’s Goldeneye and the Bufflehead.
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Common Goldeneye female and male (Image via pinterest)
  • Goldeneyes have up to 14 different movements that they can use during courtship displays. One common display is when the male stretches out his neck, suddenly whips it back over his body, and kicks his feet up to cause a splash while making a two-note call. Many males will try to court a single female. (I recommend searching “common goldeneye courtship” on Youtube and watching some of the cool display videos).
  • Common Goldeneyes sometimes act as brood parasites  and lay their eggs in another Goldeneye’s nest, particularly when nest sites are in short supply.
  • Like Wood Ducks, Goldeneye females lay their eggs high up in tree cavities. They commonly use Pileated Woodpecker holes, but will use artificial nest sites if readily available. Chicks will leave the nest cavity one day after hatching. They have quite a fall to endure: some Goldeneye cavities can be as high as 60 feet from the ground!
  • During breeding season, Common Goldeneyes are found in the taiga through Alaska and Canada. They spend the winter throughout a majority of the “lower 48” of the United States.
  • The Common Goldeneyes are obviously named for their gold-colored eye, however their eyes change colors many times before adulthood. All chicks are born with gray-brown eyes. By five months of age, their eyes will have transitioned from purple-blue, to blue, to green-blue, to pale green-yellow. Males will have their eyes change to golden by adulthood, while females will have a range from yellow to white.
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The Beautiful Golden Eye By Francis C. Franklin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Gadwall Wednesday

Today’s waterfowl of the week is the Gadwall. This duck may not be as colorful in appearance as other ducks, but Gadwalls have a simple elegance that makes them hard to ignore.

Gadwall (Anas strepera)

Description:

  • Roughly the same size as Mallards
  • Squarish heads with high foreheads
  • White secondary feathers sometimes visible
  • Males: Gray-brown with black tail patch and silver tertial feathers (innermost flight feathers to the wing), black bill 
  • Females: Brown and buffy, orange bill with black spot
  • Juveniles: Gray-brown, plain face, thin black bill with orange sides
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Gadwalls, male (front) and female (rear) (Image by BirdNation)

Range:

  • Resident: Mid-Atlantic Coast, Pacific Coast, Pacific Northwest, Great Plains region
  • Breeding: Upper Great Plains, Great Lakes, parts of Central Canada
  • Winter: Southern regions of United States, Mexico
  • Migration: Medium-distance migrant. Northeastern United States, Midwest region, Ontario, nothern parts of Quebec and Newfoundland

Habitat:

freshwater or alkali lakes, coastal marshes, estuaries, inter-mountain valleys

Diet:

Aquatic vegetation, mollusks, crustaceans, invertebrates, insects. Forages by dabbling or taking food off the water’s surface. Will sometimes scavenge and steal food from other birds, especially American Coots.

Breeding/Nesting:

  • Courtship: Occurs in the fall and pair bonds are monogamous during breeding season. Displays included showing off white patches by making head and tips of tail meet, rearing up with bill in water while whistling. Pairs will face each other and bob heads or hide their bill under the wing as if preening.
  • Nesting Site: A shallow depression about 200 yards from open water in grasses/brush or on small islands.
  • Young: Females incubate 8-11 for about 3 weeks. Chick are precocial so they quickly leave the nest, and are tended to by the mother but can feed themselves. First flight occur around 50 days after hatching.

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 Gadwall Nest By USFWS Mountain-Prairie; Credit: Char Binstock / USFWS (2012) (Flickr: Gadwall Nest) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Vocalizations:

Females quack similarly to Mallards, though they sound more nasally and higher-pitched. Males give a deep call during flight that is referred to as a “burp”.

Conservation:

Gadwall populations have actually increased over the years due to conservation programs.

Fun Facts:

  • Sometimes females will act as brood parasites and lay their eggs in another female’s nest.
  • Gadwalls are the third most hunted duck in North America (after Mallard and Green-winged Teal respectively)
  • Gadwalls also breeding in parts of Asia and northern Europe.
  • Females will consume more invertebrates than males do to get more protein while laying her eggs. She will lay one egg each day until she completes the brood.

American Wigeon: Waterfowl Wednesday

It’s one of the best times of the year again: waterfowl season! And you know what means…the Waterfowl Wednesday feature is back for its 3rd winter!

Today we took our first winter trip down to Edwin B. Forsythe NWR and saw a plethora of waterfowl (13 species to be exact). One of these species was the lovely American Wigeon.

American Wigeon (Anas americana)

Description:

  • Male Alternate Plumage (breeding): Pinkish-brown body, white forehead, green patch from eye to nape, white rear flanks, green speculum, black undertail coverts, gray cheeks/chin, white patch on upper wing, gray slightly down-turned bill with black tip
  • Male Basic Plumage: (eclipse)Variable amounts of green and white on heads, and some white on undertail coverts (usually black)
  • Female: Reddish-brown body, mainly gray heads with dusky/white streaks, gray slightly down-turned bill with black tip
  • Immature: Very similar to female plumage, gets black tip on gray bill as it gets older
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American Wigeon male (Image by BirdNation)

Range:

  • Breeding: Canada and Northwestern United States
  • Resident: Parts of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, and Colorado
  • Winter: Pacific and Atlantic Coasts, southern half of United States, Mexico
  • Migration: New England and Midwestern regions of United States

Habitat:

freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, bays, fields, lakes, coastal estuaries

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Breeding male American Wigeon (Image by David Horowitz)

Diet:

Mainly aquatic plants, mollusks, some insects, seeds. Forages day or night on land or in shallow water by submerging head. Sometimes steals prey from diving ducks in deeper waters.

Breeding/Nesting:

  • Courtship: jumping out of water, head-turning, wing-flapping, wagging tail. Several males court a single female, with pairs forming on wintering grounds.
  • Nesting Site: Dry land away from water. Uses a small depression on the ground lined with grasses and down feathers. Conceals nest with vegetation
  • Young: Female incubates 5-12 whitish eggs for about 3 weeks. Males tend to leave before the eggs hatch. Chicks are precocial, they leave the nest shortly after hatching and can feed themselves. The female will tend to the young until their first flights, which can be between 45-63 days after hatching.

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Female Wigeon By Mdf (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Vocalizations:

Males whistle whew-whew-whew! Females give a low harsh quack or rred growl

Conservation: 

Although populations have risen and fallen over the years, American Wigeons are considered stable. Their breeding range has slowly been extending eastward. They are widely hunted during fall hunting season.

Fun Facts:

  • American Wigeons spend more time in deep water than other marsh ducks.
  • The male’s white forehead has given these ducks the nickname “Baldpate”.
  • American Wigeons have been known to hybridize with the Eurasian Wigeon, a rare visitor to North America. Breeding male Eurasian Wigeons are distinct from Americans because of their dark rufous heads. Female Eurasians have a brown head. Juvenile Americans and Eurasians look almost completely alike, however, Americans have white underwings and Eurasians have gray underwings.
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Male American (left) and Eurasian (right) Wigeons (Image via pinterest)

Ready for a Snowy-storm?

It’s that time of year again: Snowy Owl irruption! Many birders across regions of the United States have been observing these black-and-white owls very far away from their home in the tundra.

There’s something magical about the Snowy Owl. These beautiful birds capture our imaginations each winter. Snowy Owls breed high in the arctic and subarctic tundra zones of Canada, so it’s no wonder seeing a Snowy Owl in the United States is a huge deal. So why are these owls showing up further south from their usual winter range?

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By pe_ha45 [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Snowies are well-equipped for life in the cold, barren tundra. Once breeding season is over the owls typically either: 1. stay at the breeding grounds 2. go even farther north! or 3. move south throughout Canada and the upper Great Plains of the US. But for reasons still be studied, some years Snowies irrupt further south into the United States. An irruption is an unpredictable migration of a large number of birds. Small Snowy Owl irruptions usually happen every 4-5 years, but rarely there are “mega-irruptions”.

Why do these irruptions occur? Scientist don’t quite know, which is where programs like Project SNOWstorm come in. Project SNOWstorm was co-founded by Scott Weidensaul. Since Snowy Owl irruptions are so mysterious, Project SNOWstorm aims to study this phenomenon in order to conserve these marvelous birds.

One thing we do know for certain is that there are some popular myths surrounding Snowy Owls and irruptions. One of the biggest misconceptions is that Snowies irrupt because they are hungry, mainly from a lack of lemmings (one of their main food source). Recent studies have found that the opposite is true: there’s an overabundance of food.

A successful breeding season depends on good lemming populations. When the population drops, these birds may breed less or not at all. But when there’s a boon of lemmings, the owl population soars as well. An average clutch of eggs is between 5-7, but can be as high as 11 in boom years (or as low as 3 in lean times). So successful breeding seasons result in more offspring and potentially large irruptions. Many Snowy Owls that arrive in the United States during an irruption are generally healthy and usually tend to be heavier than in non-irruption years.

One of the ways Project SNOWstorm tracks the owls is through GPS-GMS transmitters. The transmitters are solar-powered, and record locations in altitude, latitude, and longitude. They are programmed to record data at 30 second intervals, so the owls are always being tracked. The transmitters only weigh about 40 grams and attach to the bird by a small backpack. The data is sent through cell towers, so when an owl is out of range, the transmitter can store up to 100,000 locations and send the data when the owl is back in range (even years later!).

So far, 52 owls have been tracked throughout the program’s entirety, but there are 7 currently being watched. 3 happen to be here in New Jersey: Island Beach, Higbee, and Lenape. Island Beach and Lenape were both fitted with a transmitters at Island Beach State Park and Higbee at South Cape May Meadows in Cape May.  The other current owls are Hilton (Rochester, NY), Sterling (Sterling, NY), Chickatawbut (last detected in Quebec), and Wells (Maine).

Of course, not all the Snowies that irrupt get tracked, so there have been tons of owl sightings throughout the country since November. Dave and I went to Island Beach State Park a few weeks ago looking for Snowies, but were unsuccessful. There’s been reports of Snowy Owls on Long Beach Island, so I would love to see if we can find one over winter break.

What should you do if you happen to see a Snowy Owl? You should keep a respectful distance and never feed the owls. Many Snowy Owls that irrupt are found on beaches (since it resembles the tundra to them), so please, keep off the dunes! Observing Snowy Owl etiquette is extremely important for the health of the owls, while making the experience for birders more enjoyable and safe.

To learn more about Project SNOWstorm, check out their website projectsnowstorm.org.

Have you ever seen a Snowy Owl? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

 

 

Barred Owl Wednesday

Exciting news before I start the feature: Dave and I saw our first Short-eared Owl a few weeks ago! We were walking along the Delaware River at Palmyra Cove when Dave spotted a male soaring over the river near some gulls. It was pretty overcast so we didn’t get any good pictures, but we watched it for about 10 minutes before it flew over our heads and into the wooded area of the park. It was amazing!

This week’s featured owl is the Barred Owl. Although we have not yet seen one, we did hear a Barred Owl when we hiked at Michael Huber Prairie Warbler Preserve in the Pinelands.

Barred Owl (Strix varia)

Description:

Barred Owls are medium-sized owls that are a little smaller than the Great Horned. These beautiful owls are brown to brown-gray on their upperparts and heads. As their name suggests, their necks, nape, back, wings, tails, and crowns feature white/buffy barring. Barred Owls are tuftless with round heads. Their blacks eyes stand out against their gray facial disks. Juveniles have white natal down until about 2-3 weeks when their adult flight feathers start to develop.

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Barred Owl (By Peter K Burian (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Range: 

Resident of the United States from the Great Plains to the East Coast. In Canada, found in the southern regions of Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba; through central Saskatchewan and Alberta; throughout British Columbia expanding south to Washington, Idaho, Oregon and northern California. Also found in parts of Mexico.

Habitat: 

Woodlands and wooded swamps, including deciduous, mature conifers, and mixed forests. Also does well in older suburban neighbors with a lot of shade trees.

Diet:

Opportunistic hunters. Mainly eats small mammals such as mice, voles, rabbits, shrews, rats, and squirrels. Also hunts small birds, frogs, snakes, lizards, some insects, and aquatic prey. Barred Owls watch prey from a perch or glide low through the forest. They mainly hunt at dusk and dawn. Sometimes they will hover over prey before grabbing it. These owls usually swallow small prey whole, but tears large prey into pieces.

Breeding/Nesting:

Referred to as a “duet”, mating pairs will court by raising wings, bobbing heads, and calling while perched together. Males may also feed the females during courtship. Scientist are unsure whether Barred Owl pairs stay together in the long term, but pairs begin to form in late winter/early spring. Pairs will choose the oldest tree they can find since they are likely to have large cavities, which Barred Owls depend on. Sometimes they will evict other occupants, such as Red-shouldered Hawks, if needed. Barred Owls may also use nest boxes.

The female will incubate a brood of 2-3 eggs for about 28-33 days while the male provides her food. Egg hatching is asynchronous, so the eggs hatch a few days apart. The female will stay with the owlets much of the time while the male feeds them. The young will begin branching (exploring the area around the nest) at around 4-5 weeks and take their first flights at 6 weeks.

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Sleepy Barred Owlets from Wild Birds Unlimited/Cornell Lab’s 2015 Barred Owl Cam (Screenshot by BirdNation)

Vocalizations:

Extremely vocal and instantly recognizable. Their loud calls, which are typically described as “Who-cooks-for-you, who-cooks-for-you-aaaaaallllllll!”, are made by males and females. Female’s calls are higher-pitched than the males. Scientists have recently started to study a suite of 13 complex vocalizations.

Conservation:

Still common and widespread. Their range is expanding into central Quebec. These owls were originally only found in the East, but over the past century have dramatically expanded their range into the Northwest. While this may be good for the Barred Owl, it’s having a detrimental effect on its close relative, the Spotted Owl.

Fun Facts:

  • The Barred Owl’s most dangerous predatory threat is the larger Great Horned Owl. Barred Owls will try to avoid Great Horns since they usually live in the same habitats.
  • One study done on on Barred Owls in Oregon found that the birds had 95 different species represented as prey items.
  • They mainly are active at night, but may sometimes hunt during the day more than other owls.
  • Studies on banded Barred Owls have shown that these owls do not travel much. They are usually found living no more than a few miles away from where they were banded.

Short-eared Owl Wednesday

Time for the second owl post of the week! Today’s featured owl is the Short-eared Owl, one of the most widespread owls in the world. It’s Latin name is Asio flammeus, translated to “flame-colored horned-owl”.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

Description:

Short-eared owls are sandy-colored, medium-sized owls. Their short ear tufts are so tiny they are almost impossible to see unless you are close to the owl and it’s alarmed or agitated. Their underparts are heavily streaked and their upperparts are brown with white and buff. Males are grayer than females with whiter undersides/underwings. Their facial disks are lightly streaked and whitish with blackish triangular spots around the eyes. Short-eared Owls have very short tails and round heads. Juveniles are downy, and as they start to get adult plumage, their facial disks are black with white crescents with a white “mustache” chin.

Short-eared_owl_(Asio_flammeus)_Photograph_By_Shantanu_Kuveskar
By Shantanu Kuveskar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Range:

Short-eared Owls live throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere, including North America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. They are also found in the southern part of South America and on islands including Micronesia, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Galapagos. In North America they are residents in the American West, parts of Canada, and Cuba. They spend the summers throughout Canada and winters in the Midwest and Northeast. Irregular irruptions can be found in the Southwest and Southeastern United States. The Caribbean population regularly invades Southern Florida.

Habitat:

Open country, such as grasslands, marshes, prairies, farmland, dunes, and tundra.

Diet:

Mainly meadow voles, but other small mammals such as mice, muskrats, moles, rabbits, pocket voles, and weasels. Also known to eat large insects and small to medium-sized birds. Short-eared Owls hunt most actively during dawn and dusk, but can be found hunting in daylight. They soar low to the ground and hover over their prey before landing on it.

Breeding/Nesting:

Males perform a “sky-dancing” display which include impressive spiraling flights, diving, calling, and wing-clapping. They will start courting in late winter, but pair bonds don’t usually last for the season. Nests are usually just a small depression in the ground, but Short-eared Owls have be occasionally known to also nest in trees with Long-eared Owls.

Short-eared Owls have one brood per year with the average clutch size of 5-6 eggs. However, when prey is abundant, it’s possible for the female to lay up to 11 eggs. The female incubates the eggs for 21- 31 eggs and hatching is asynchronous (meaning the eggs hatch over a number of days, not at the same time). The male will bring food to the female who will feed and brood the owlets. The owlets will usually leave the nest on foot at 12-18 days and can start to fly around 27 days.

Vocalizations:

Bark calls are given by both females and males, a nasal and harsh eee-YUURK! that can be short or drawn out, or a short rik-rikr-rik!.  Males hoot during courtship activities.

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Short-eared Owl (Image by Gregg Thompson via birdnote.org)

Conservation: 

Still widespread, but have declined by 50-80% in its North American range, mainly due to the fact that these owls are grassland specialists. They are listed as “endangered” or “special concern” in 26 states. They are still relatively widespread in other parts of their range. The Caribbean populations of Short-eared Owls have been expanding. Habitat restoration program have help populations improve.

Fun Facts: 

  • They are one of the few owl species to construct their own nests.
  • Hawaii’s only native owl is the Pueo, a subspecies of the Short-eared Owl.
  • Males can be extremely aggressive towards other males in the territories. They will duel by flying towards each other, locking talons and tumbling to the ground. They let go right before they hit the ground.