Great Crested Flycatcher near the Rookery

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This is a lifer for me! When we were in Concord last weekend we spotted a big yellow bird in the trees above. At first we only saw the belly, and I had no clue what it was.

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When it moved to a different branch, we got a good look at it, but I was still was baffled. It looked like a flycatcher, but much larger (and much yellower)than I expected a flycatcher to be. An expert would have known immediately, but I have never been one to look high in the treetops. My eyesight isn't that good!  In my defense, however, I offer a description from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology "All About Birds" website, which says the bird is a "treetop hunter of deciduous forests and suburban areas, the Great Crested Flycatcher is easier to hear than to see."

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Great crested flycatchers build large nests in natural cavities or excavations made by other species.  They build a bulky nest, and therefore prefer deep cavities. Before constructing a nest, they will generally fill a deep cavity with trash to a level of 12 to 18 inches from the top. They are known for their habit of including a snake skin in the nest or dangling from the cavity, and if no snakeskin is available they will substitute a piece of plastic. No one knows for sure why they do this, but most likely it is to deter real snakes and other predators.   Pretty smart, huh?


Impending Tragedy: Cormorants in the Great Blue Heron Rookery

I've always liked Cormorants very much I don't think they are ugly or funny looking, and I like how recognizable they are when flying.

According to the first Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas, Double-crested Cormorants don't breed in Middlesex County at all, never mind in the middle of Framingham.

This is the Great Blue Heron Rookery in the middle oft he Foss Reservoir between Route 9 and the Mass Pike. It is hard to get decent pictures from the shore, but you can see that there are quite a few Great Blues in the nests. (Click on the image for a larger view.)
There are fewer herons in the rookery than there were a year ago. There are many more Double-crested Cormorants than last year - and they are definitely breeding. It is hard to tell from so far away, but there are quite a few cormorant chicks among all those cormorants. Studies suggest when cormorants move into a GBH rookery, the herons will abandon it. (Click on the image to see the cormorants nesting.)

If I am going to lose my beloved Great Blue Herons to a bunch of cormorants, I will heartbroken and resentful. Just the possibility fills me with horror. I don't know why the Great Blue Herons give up their ancestral homes so easily, but the sheer volume of cormorants that appeared this year suggest they are simply outnumbered.


Magnificent Turkey Vultures on Cape Cod

A magnificent Turkey Vulture flying over Pocasset, Massachusetts. The Turkey Vulture's head has no feathers because it eats carrion, which is teeming with bacteria. Feathers would become encrusted with it's food (and the bacteria), but his bald head stays relatively clean, and the residue soon gets baked away in the sun.

 Turkey Vultures are enormous birds, with a six foot wingspan. They are also one of the most graceful birds in the world when in flight. They soar for hours without ever flapping their wings. They huge, board-like wings can be confused with a American Eagle when seen in silhouette, but the Turkey Vulture's wings are held in a "V-shape," or dihedral.

The Turkey Vulture can glide for over 6 hours at a time without flapping a wing, but they are not at all graceful when taking off from the ground. These large birds require a lot of energy and a lot of vigorous wing flapping to get off the ground.

Many people incorrectly call these birds "buzzards", and fear them or think they are dirty and spread diseases because they eat dead meat. In reality, the Turkey Vulture prevents the spread of disease by cleaning up carcasses that would normally breed masses of dangerous pathogens.

The Turkey Vulture is so named because it's head looks the the head of a turkey. This magnificent bird was not present in Massachusetts 100 years ago. Today, this bird can be seen anywhere in the state. It only recently moved onto the cape, where it has been confirmed as breeding according to the Mass Breeding Bird Atlas 2.


Great Blue Heron Babies

There were more than a few families with younger chicks,and (although I try and maintain a scientific impartiality when blogging or birding) I think they are the cutest little things ever! Seriously - how can you not find those babies adorable? Click on the image to get a better look at their facial expressions.

I hate anthropomorphizing wild animals (at least I claim to hate it in public), but I can even imagine what each of these heron families are saying to each other. Click on the image to view larger and imagine this little guy talking away!

The nest on the left with the two babies all alone worries me a bit. Usually, one parent will be in the nest at all times when the chicks are this small. If both parents abandoned the nest for some reason, these two little guys are in big trouble.

The two little ones look healthy to me.  They can't have been alone for too long.

 Here is a small GBH nuclear family with a very tiny chick.  Isn't he adorable?

On one of the highest nests I saw this one old guy all alone (anthropomorphizing again - I don't know how old he is.) With his giant beard of plumes and what looks like two big feathers in his cap, I'm guessing he is the King of this rookery!


Great Blue Heron Rookery: Feeding Their Young

Did you know how LOUD a Great Blue Heron rookery can be during June and July?  I didn't know that a Great Blue Heron rookery (or heronry, which is one technically correct term; heron colony is another)  was noisy because "my" rookery is on an island, and the sound doesn't carry over water.  We visited a different rookery on Friday, and we learned just how deafening these youngsters can be when they're hungry.  The noise is hard to describe; something like a flock of loud quacking ducks mixed in with a few large barking dogs and a Wild Turkey gobble or two thrown in for good measure.  It's deafening!

This Great Blue Heron rookery is not on an island, but it is isolated and fairly inaccessible to snakes, mammals, (especially humans) and other predators by virtue of being in the middle of a swamp and high in the dead treetops.

"Heron species tend to desert nests and entire rookeries if repeatedly disturbed during the periods of pair formation, nest construction, or egg laying" (Buckley and Buckley 1978). The buffer between this heron colony and human civilization is not large, but it is pretty effective.

Certainly the herons seem to be thriving (when seen from afar, at least.) There are many large healthy looking broods. What GBH parent wouldn't be proud of these almost identical twins? (Are all nestlings genetic twins, or is there no such thing as twins in the bird world? I have no idea.)

For the first two months after hatching, Great Blue Heron chicks stay in their nests and are fed by their parents.  If there are three or four youngsters that are almost full grown, like the family pictured above, keeping the chicks fed is a herculean task even with both parents working at it full time. These guys are still getting regurgitated food from their parents, but when they get a little older Mom and Dad will just drop fish into the nest for them to fight over.


A Tragic End for Our Laughing Gulls?

Laughing Gulls are named after the sound they make, which sounds like laughing. But they often look like they're laughing, too! 
Sometimes, they look comical enough to make us laugh!  This is how Laughing Gulls look with the wind in their hair.
Laughing gulls are our smallest gulls, and are gorgeous and graceful in flight.

Two ships passing in the night (actually, two birds passing in the day!)

The one looking up may be having a drink of water. Laughing Gulls have a salt gland that allows them to drink sea water. They prefer fresh water, but when you're thirsty; you're thirsty!

This is a Laughing Gull pulled from the Louisiana coast earlier this month.  The pictures taken by AP photographer Charlie Riedel have become tragically famous, but we can't escape the horrible effects of the gulf oil spill just because we are far removed from the spill itself.

Many of the Laughing Gulls that breed here in the Northeast spend their winters in the Gulf of Mexico.  Think about all those happy birds at the beginning of this post being trapped and terrified and struggling to breathe in the oil slicked waters of their winter home.  I can hardly breathe myself just thinking about it. 


Tree Swallows and how they find a place to nest

This is an immature female Tree Swallow.  The female retains the brown immature plumage throughout her first year and well into her second.  Males and fully mature females have beautiful iridescent blue coloring.  Tree Swallows are related to Purple Martins, but about 2 inches smaller.

Tree Swallows tend to appropriate bluebird nest boxes - even when occupied by nesting bluebirds! Tree Swallows arrive later in the spring than Eastern Bluebirds, and if they can't find a vacant nesting spot, they force the smaller bluebirds out and take over their nests.  Tree Swallows will kick out the whole bluebird family, babies and all!  This is probably a year old female based on the specks of blue appearing on her feathers.

There is no blue to be seen on this female, at least in this light.  We got quite close to this Tree Swallow at Broadmoor Audubon Sanctuary in early May.

This nest box is a bluebird box no longer! It seems to be quite well guarded, actually.

A female on top and a male (immature or adult) peeking out from inside.


The Most Beautiful Birds in Flight

Surely there is nothing more beautiful than the sight of a tern in flight. My husband took this series of a Common Tern, or Sterna hirundo.

It seems to be impossible for a tern to be ungainly or awkward in the air.  They are especially lovely against a bright blue sky, like this one. 

These shots are so crisp and clear that you can see the glint of his eye!

Here you see the classic curve of a tern's wing in flight.  It may be difficulty to know exactly what species of tern you are seeing, but it is usually easy to recognize a flying tern by shape alone.

How beautiful, and how perfectly graceful, is a tern in flight!


Purple Martins

Purple Martins are the largest member of the swallow family in North America.  They spend the winter in Brazil and migrate to North America to breed.  East of the Rocky Mountains, Purple Martins breed exclusively in human supplied housing.  This is an adult male Purple Martin, with glossy purple-black plumage.

Purple Martins take two years for both sexes to acquire their adult plumage. Subadults are sexually mature, and typically breed. In this picture, the one in the center is an adult male, the other two may both be subadults or could be a a female and a subadult. It is difficult to identify the exact age and sex of these birds unless you get very up close and personal.

This shot was taken by my husband, and has excellent detail.  Nonetheless, I am not sure if these two are females or subadults of either gender.

I'm fairly certain this is an adult female martin.  Purple Martins all look as if they have nasty dispositions and are about to attack, but that is a human interpretation of the bird's facial expressions. 

It is hard to tell if these two like each other or are about to attack each other!  I'm not even sure if they are a pair or a parent and child.

These are the Purple Martin houses at the Daniel Webster Audubon Sanctuary in Marshfield, MA.  Note how the nest boxes resemble gourds.  It is thought that Purple Martins started nesting in gourds centuries ago, when Native Americans used hanging gourds to attract the birds to their villages.   The reason they wanted Purple Martins around was because the birds eat mosquitoes, which is still a good reason to attract Purple Martins to your yard today!


Beautiful Yellow Warblers!

My son took every one of these awesome shots.  I still can't find a warbler unless it lands on my head.  But isn't this a beauty!
The 5 inch Yellow Warbler is the most common and familiar warbler in the US, which makes it quite astonishing that I can never find one on my own.
Yellow Warblers can be found in shrubby areas, usually near water.  They arrive in their breeding range in late spring – generally about April/May – and move to winter quarters again starting as early as July, as soon as the young are fledged.

The Yellow Warbler's song is a musical "sweet, sweet, sweet, sweeter than sweet."