Category Archives: Birds

Sorting Sparrows: White-throated Sparrow

Photo of White-throated Sparrow
14 Dec 2014 | Kennebunkport, ME

White-throated Sparrows can be found in New England year-round but are most numerous in fall, when adults and their immature offspring retreat from their more northerly breeding grounds. They're fond of thickets and forest edges, where they find ample food (primarily seeds and fruits in fall and winter) and plenty of places to hide from predators.

Photo of White-throated Sparrow (white-striped adult)
White-striped adult | 5 May 2015 | Biddeford, ME

Adult white-throats, as I often call them, come in two flavors, or morphs: those with tan-and-brown head-stripes and those with white-and-black head-stripes (often called tan-striped and white-striped, for short).

Photo of White-throated Sparrow (tan-striped adult)
Tan-striped adult | 5 May 2015 | Biddeford, ME

Apparently, breeding pairs nearly always consist of one of each morph. You might guess the break-down is along gender lines; however, both morphs may be male or female.

Photo of White-throated Sparrows
5 May 2015 | Biddeford, ME

White-throats utter mainly call notes this time of year, but in spring and summer listen for their distinctive whistled songs. Here's a clear example of a northern Maine singer recorded by Tayler Brooks.

For more info on White-throated Sparrows, visit All About Birds.

Sorting Sparrows: Lark Sparrow

Photo of Lark Sparrow (Ogunquit, ME)
14 Oct 2015 | Ogunquit, ME

In addition to stunning foliage and frosty mornings, October in New England is a time of sparrows. Last week, at a single location, I observed nine sparrow species* including a Dark-eyed Junco and Song, Swamp, Chipping, Savannah, Field, White-throated and House Sparrows. The final species and the motivation for my visit that particular morning was a Lark Sparrow.

Photo of Lark Sparrow (Wrentham, MA)
24 Nov 2012 | Wrentham, MA

Given their striking face pattern and white-edged tail, Lark Sparrows are fairly easy to recognize, especially if you're familiar with the more common sparrows. A feature that stood out to me was the cream-colored patch at the base of the bird's primaries (see top photo). Trickier than IDing them is finding them. Lark Sparrows are rare but regular visitors to New England, with most sightings occurring in the fall months. In this case, I was aided by a local birder, who reported the bird on an eBird checklist the previous afternoon. Prior to last week's sighting, the only Lark Sparrow I'd seen was three years ago in Wrentham, MA.

Photo of Lark Sparrow (Wrentham, MA)
24 Nov 2012 | Wrentham, MA

*All are members of the family Emberizidae, except for House Sparrows (in the family Passeridae).

Quick Guide to Gulls: Lesser Black-backed Gull

Photo of Lesser Black-backed Gull

The Lesser Black-backed Gull (Bird Code: LBBG) is primarily a species of Europe, but in recent decades has been turning up in North America in larger numbers.* LBBGs average smaller than Herring Gulls (HERG), but larger than Ring-billed Gulls (RBGU). Adult birds have gray mantles that are darker than those of HERGs or RBGUs, but not as dark at those of Great Black-backed Gulls (GBBGs). The following photo shows an adult LBBG with an adult GBBG. In addition to the size and color differences, notice the yellow legs of the LBBG, versus the pink legs of the GBBG.

Photo of Lesser and Greater Black-backed Gulls

The first Lesser Black-backed Gull I ever saw was with a mixed flock of gulls (that included at least one Iceland Gull) at a mostly ice-covered reservoir in Rhode Island. Can you pick out the LBBG in the following crowded scene? (See full-size).

Photo of Mixed gull flock (LBBG bottom center)

Note: Today's photos were taken in low light and at a fair distance, so the image quality is less than sharp. To see higher quality images of LBBGs, visit the Audubon Field Guide or All About Birds.

*In 2007, a LBBG nested with a HERG on Appledore Island in Maine. This was the first US east coast breeding record.

Terns: Caspian Tern

When I arrived at the Basket Island causeway (at Hills Beach in Biddeford, ME) one afternoon last month, I scanned the rising waters and the shrinking sand bars, noting the usual assortment of late-August birds. In late summer, on the rising tide, the causeway often hosts flocks of gulls, sandpipers, plovers, and terns. And sometimes, sifting through the masses reveals unusual or rare birds.

Photo of Caspian Tern with Herring and Great Black-backed Gull

Tern numbers were low that afternoon, but when this black-capped, red-billed Caspian Tern landed to join the mixed flock of gulls on the causeway, I penciled in one more bird code (CATE) to my observation notebook. Caspian Terns are rare visitors to Maine, typically seen only during spring/fall migration, and this was my first (and only) sighting in 2015. (I photographed the following duo in May of 2014 at Goose Rocks Beach.)

Photo of Caspian Terns with Ring-billed Gull

To balance the scales with a single Caspian TernĀ (1.4 lb) it would take five or six Common Terns (4.2 oz/ea) or almost fifteen Least Terns (1.5 oz/ea)*. As you might guess, they are the world's largest tern. Royal Terns (weighing about 1 lb) are the only other species likely to be mistaken for a Caspian. The two look most similar in spring, but by mid-summer, Royals lose their full black cap (see All About Birds for photos), making them easy to tell apart.

Photo of Caspian Tern in flight

*Weight estimates from David Allen Sibley's The Sibley Guide to Birds (2014).

Shorebirds: Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Photo of Buff-breasted Sandpiper

After work on Monday, I dashed to the beach in Biddeford Pool, ME, hoping to see my first Buff-breasted Sandpiper. A scaly juvenile had been seen there on Sunday afternoon (according to a report on Maine Birds) and was still present at mid-day on Monday (according to a report on eBird), so my odds were looking favorable. The majority of Buff-breasted Sandpipers migrate through the middle of the continent on their way to South America to spend the winter, but a rare few visit New England annually in late August and September.

During migration, Buff-breasted Sandpipers most often stop and feed in dry, open places, like plowed farm fields, short-grass prairies, and, in the case of the bird I was looking for, upper sections of beach covered with decaying seaweed. I'm happy to report the bird was foraging among the seaweed when I arrived. (To view the following images in full-size, click here.)

Note: According to Bird Life International, "the species was brought to near extinction in the early 1920s by hunting" with an estimated 16,000-84,000 individuals remaining today from a population that may have been more than a million around 1900. Exposure to agricultural toxins have likely also taken their toll on these birds -- yet another reason to move away from chemical-dependent industrial agriculture toward regenerative plant and animal polycultures.