Nature News: Long-tailed ducks give a glimpse of the Arctic

long-tailed duck

published Dec 28, 2020 in local Seacoast newspapers and online at seacoastonline.com

I moved to North Berwick, Maine, a couple years ago and while getting to know my immediate neighborhood I’ve neglected visiting the beach. Especially in winter, my favorite time, because it isn’t crowded and the bracing wind and ice-lined shore is an exercise in exhilaration. So, I’m trying to visit at least once a week. 

During a recent trip to catch the sunset, it happened to be low tide and walking along the sandy river mouth where it bends to meet the beach, we watched a variety of sea ducks floating in the shallows and diving for prey. A cinnamon-brown female eider dove and brought up a crab.  Tooth-billed mergansers and buffleheads took turns diving down and popping up.  And, most exciting for me, some long-tailed ducks were also out hunting.  

Check out the eponymous two long central tail feathers on this long-tailed duck.

Long-tailed ducks are spectacular birds, the males in particular. Both their summer and winter plumage is a striking contrast of black, brown and white. In the summer, they have mostly black heads with white cheeks, while in the winter they have mostly white heads with black and brown cheeks.

They are on the small size – they looked tiny compared to the large, blocky eiders hunting nearby – and get their name from the two long tail feathers that stream from behind the males. Another distinctive feature of these ducks is the loud, yodeling call of the very vocal males. Sometimes the call is described as sounding like “Tom Connolly,” which gives it one of its common names. 

Two male long-tailed ducks at Parson’s Beach in Kennebunk.

Of all the sea ducks, long-tailed ducks spend the most time in and under water. They are the only ducks to use their wings, not their feet, to propel them through the water, allowing them to dive deeper than other ducks – to depths of up to 200 feet!

The majority of their diet is any kind of aquatic invertebrate (a variety of mollusks, crustaceans, insects, but also fish and even plant matter) they can catch or find. Being able to dive so deep lets them feed on the aquatic invertebrates that live at the very bottom of the water column (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology).  

These are true ducks of the north. They have a circumpolar distribution, breeding on small tundra lakes, bogs and wetlands of the high Arctic: Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Arctic Russia and Northern Canada. They come down here, to the coast (and large freshwater lakes that don’t freeze over), to overwinter, oftentimes forming large flocks that will stay out at sea unless pushed inland by a storm.  

One of the reasons I love living in New England is that while we can still enjoy nice warm summers, we get a taste of the Arctic every winter when the Northern winds howl and bring blizzards and ice storms.

We also get beautiful Arctic migrants frequenting our backyards. Watching a flock of snow buntings sweep over a barren icy field, or a snowy owl hunkered down in the dunes, or a long-tailed duck diving for mussels feels, to me, like the Arctic is reaching out and saying hello. With rapid climate change becoming more and more of a reality, I think we need to grab these encounters with the wild north while we still can.  

Birch Trees Bending

Published in the York Weekly, Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily (and more) Dec 14 2020

I went up to Blue Job Mountain State Park for a walk last weekend.  There was a lot more snow up there than where I live in North Berwick.  Lining the parking lot were the birch trees, bent over, touching the ground, with their heavy loads of icy snow.   Hiking up to the summit of Little Blue Job was an obstacle course as we worked our way around all different types of trees, some were flexible like the birch and bent by the snow, some had snapped.  

Birch and beech saplings on a snowy afternoon

And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed.

This got me thinking about birches.  They are known for bending and not breaking.  Most of us read Robert Frost’s poem about boys swinging on birches in high school, but there is a part about the birches themselves  “Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust—Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away.  You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.  They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,  And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed.” where Frost talks about how birches bend and aren’t broken by the snow.  He talks about how sometimes they stay bowed after a long winter “So low for long, they never right themselves:  You may see their trunks arching in the woods.  Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground.”  The sad thing was, people had made it worse by walking over their heads, cementing them into the icy trails.  Many were snapped by the weight of feet and all it would have taken was that first person on the trail to free the birches from their icy load, pull them out of the snow and let them spring back up towards the light.  

Adaptations to the North

This ability of birches to bend is an adaptation to living in the north.  We have a number of different species of birch in New England, among them, paper birch (Betula papyrifera), is one of our most widely-distributed trees, found from Newfoundland west to British Columbia and south to New York and South Dakota.  It is also one of a handful of broad-leaved trees that can live in the far north.  It  can live so far to the north because of those flexible branches.  Its northern neighbors, balsam fir and hemlocks, have a different adaptation to the same conditions and are cone-shaped; their long sloping branches help snow slide off instead of collecting on the branches and causing them to snap. 

Hemlocks conical shape lets snow slide off (eventually!)

Flexibility isn’t a paper birches’ only adaptation to northern climates.  During cold winters the thick, dark bark of an oak or ash becomes a liability, absorbing sunlight during the day and heating up, only to cool down again, usually quite rapidly, at night. This heating and cooling can kill the cells of the cambium, the layer of cells between the bark and the wood that is responsible for the growth of the trunk. Rapid temperature fluctuations can also severely injure a tree by causing frost cracks to form in the bark.

In contrast, the highly reflective, light-colored bark of a paper birch doesn’t absorb the sun’s radiation and heat on cold winter days, and so avoids the damage caused by rapid heating and cooling.

What causes this extreme whiteness? That white powder that coats the bark is primarily composed of a chemical called betulin. The cells in the outer layers of bark contain betulin crystals that are arranged in such a way as to reflect light and appear white.

Free the Trees!!

My walking partner is a tree enthusiast.  She felt sorry for all those forlorn birches bending under their heavy loads, and even more sorry for the birch tops that had been cemented into the trails by uncaring feet, or even worse, those that had snapped due to this trammeling.  She started clearing as many as she could.  Pulling the tops out of the snow and letting the trees spring free.  It was exhilarating and infectious to watch.  I joined in and we spent more of our time freeing birches than walking.  I don’t know whether this really will help the trees survive the winter, but figure it can’t hurt.   I’ve read that Frost once said “it was almost sacrilegious climbing a birch tree till it bent, till it gave and swooped to the ground, but that’s what boys did in those days”.  I agree, it is sacrilegious, and feel like now we should know better.  Trees have a hard enough time these days, if you see one struggling with the snow, why not help it out?

Stephanie Eno clearing snow from bowed maple and birch saplings

Nature News: Blue jays intelligent, striking, not feeder-hogs

published Nov 30 in the Portsmouth Herald/the York Weekly and other print newspapers as well as online at seacoastonline.com

I have been participating in some great citizen science – Cornell Laboratories “Project FeederWatch” – excitedly logging in all of the birds I see at my feeder.  It is a whirlwind of activity and color. My newest, most exciting, most colorful additions, have been a red-bellied woodpecker and a flock of beautiful golden-yellow evening grosbeaks.

Blue jays can seem annoying as they raid bird feeders this time of year, but they’re fun to have, they are striking and intelligent and great to watch! photo by steve morello www.stevemorello.com

My most annoying visitors, in my mind, have been the blue jays. I don’t remember so many last year. Now, we have a good-sized group of five or six that visit every morning, scaring away the other birds, sitting at the feeder and stuffing themselves with expensive black oil sunflower seeds, hogging the feeders while everyone else (tiny chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches) hangs out in the wings, waiting for an opportunity to grab one seed.

Two things dawned on me this past week as I watched. The chickadees were taking single seeds, carrying them up to a safe roost, hammering them open and extracting the seed from the shell. I realized that the blue jays weren’t actually gorging on all those seeds, they were instead filling something, I assumed their crop, and then carrying the seeds off.

Gular pouches vs crops vs gizzards

I consulted my go-to resource for everything about birds – www. allaboutbirds.com from Cornell Lab: “Blue Jays carry food in their throat and upper esophagus — an area often called a “gular pouch.” They may store two to three acorns in the pouch, another one in their mouth, and one more in the tip of the bill. In this way they can carry off five acorns at a time to store for later feeding.”

I’m curious how many sunflower seeds they can carry – I’ve read upward of 100 – I, personally, have observed blue jays picking up 20 to 25 sunflower seeds before flying off.  

Learning about the gular pouch (not the same as a crop or a gizzard) shed new light on blue jay anatomy and behavior for me. The gular pouch (or sac) is different from the crop. The gular pouch is an area of stretchy throat skin, attached to the lower mandible of the beak, that can be used for storage. One of the most famous gular pouches is that found on pelicans – that obvious expandable throat sac where they comically store all those fish. 

In comparison, the crop is a thin-walled sac located between the esophagus and the stomach, part of a bird’s digestive system, that is sometimes used to store partially digested food before regurgitation or further digestion. Blue jays, like all members of the corvid family (crows and ravens, etc.) do not have true crops. Then there’s the gizzard, which I always thought was in the throat, but actually comes after the stomach.  Gizzards often contain grit to help grind up tough grains. 

Why store all those seeds in their gular pouch if they aren’t eating them? So they can carry them off into the woods to cache them for the winter. When jays find a ready supply of food, it makes sense to eat enough to satisfy their caloric demands and then store leftovers for the winter. 

Why store all those seeds in their gular pouch if they aren’t eating them? So they can carry them off into the woods to cache them for the winter. When jays find a ready supply of food, it makes sense to eat enough to satisfy their caloric demands and then store leftovers for the winter. 

Just like those chickadees, when a jay wants to eat a sunflower seed, it has to do it one at a time, holding the seed between its toes and cracking it open.

I’ve learned to examine my biases about birds before judging

The second thing that dawned on me was that I take blue jays for granted, and, in fact, my preconceived notions about their behavior made me see them as bullies and aggressive feeder-hogs when they really aren’t. They aren’t feeder hogs any more than the evening grosbeaks who descend en masse and drain the feeders. And, while they will do tricky things like imitate predatory birds to scare other birds from the feeder and do attempt to dominate the feeder, if you watch long enough you’ll see that all those other birds generally get a chance at the food. You’ll see that “mild-mannered” birds like mourning doves, cardinals and red-bellied woodpeckers scare them off, you’ll see those “timid” chickadees and titmice (they aren’t timid) swoop in and take seeds after blue jays have noisily and flamboyantly arrived at the feeder as often as they do when there are no blue jays.

What’s more, blue jays are one of the most intelligent and striking birds to grace our woodlands. This is why it’s worth getting the back stories on local wildlife, knowing just a little bit more about a wild neighbor can completely transform your perspective.

Nature News Pileated woodpecker: a powerful bird

published Dec 8 2020 in the Portsmouth Herald/York Weekly and other print seacoast newspapers as well as at seacoastonline.com

Pileated woodpeckers are an iconic woodpecker, Woody the Woodpecker made flesh; they are crow-sized with striking black and white markings, both male and female bear a flashy red crest. Large and brash, they swoop through the forest uttering primeval jungle-bird calls, somewhat incongruous to hear in the winter.

We’ve just recently had a pileated woodpecker tear apart a rotten tree, it literally ripped so much out of it about 4 feet off the ground that the tree fell over (this can evidently be an issue when pileated woodpeckers excavate nest holes in telephone poles).

Now it is attacking what I thought was a healthy, giant, old hemlock that must not be as healthy as it looks because this woodpecker is undoubtedly drawn to the sounds of carpenter ants or some other insect pest eating the tree from within. Pileated woodpeckers are often blamed for killing trees, but while they may hasten death all evidence indicates that they only do significant damage to trees that are already infested and on their way out. 

Woody the Woodpecker The name “pileated” comes from the Latin for “capped,” referring to their bright red cap.  I had always thought that pileated woodpeckers were the inspiration for Woody the Woodpecker, however, according to the American Bird Conservancy, it is more complicated; “It turns out that the popular mid-20th century cartoon character Woody Woodpecker was actually inspired by a persistent acorn woodpecker that staged a cameo during animator Walter Lantz’s honeymoon, calling and drumming at the couple’s cabin. Lantz’s wife Gracie suggested that Walter make a cartoon character of the bird — and so Woody was created. But credit is due to to the Pileated Woodpecker as well: Woody’s shaggy red top-knot much more closely resembles a Pileated Woodpecker, and the cartoon character’s characteristic laugh, originally voiced by Mel Blanc of Warner Brothers fame, sounds more like a Pileated Woodpecker’s call as well.”

In addition to their large size and brilliant red crests, another noticeable feature of pileated woodpeckers is their extra long neck. These long necks give the woodpecker more force than a shorter neck, necessary for ripping deep holes in trees, which they accomplish by wedging their long, stiff, tail against the tree trunk while they hammer away with their heavy, sharp beaks.  

These are elusive birds-signs are more often seen than the bird themselves I find it so thrilling to see pileated woodpeckers in the wild, but these are elusive birds that I rarely see. This year I’ve glimpsed just one flying off through my woods – its size and characteristic slow, undulating flight a dead give-away. The only sign that it was in my neighborhood, the excavated tree.

Next time you go for a walk in the woods, look for the big rectangular holes and wood chips beneath. Years ago, while on a tracking walk with Dan Gardoqui of Lead with Nature (leadwithnature.com), I learned that one fun thing to look for in the wood chips at the base of the trees is pileated woodpecker scat. A quick look through their scat makes it pretty obvious what their primary food is – carpenter ants. We found some nice samples of pileated scat on that walk, chock-full of big, shiny, black carpenter ant heads, thoraxes and abdomens (I still have a vial with the remains). Dan is really good at finding things in nature – sit in the woods somewhere and he’ll find a single strand of deer or fox or coyote hair, likewise, on this walk there was pileated woodpecker scat galore in that pile of wood chips. I, personally, have never found any since … but I’ve never given up trying, it makes looking through every pile of wood chips from a pileated woodpecker’s excavations an adventure.