Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Precipitation of the past year

Yesterday I posted a look at the temperature of the past year as it was much above normal across Connecticut with the exception of November and a near-average June. Today I wanted to look at precipitation as I did from time to time in 2012 when it became a widely known on occasion because of the dry weather. Before I get to that I thought it would be prudent to post this unfortunately awful graphic concerning the current drought taking hold of the country from the U.S. Drought Monitor from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, most of which is due to 2012's weather.

It has been a brutal stretch across the central United States with agricultural areas continuing to suffer long-term droughts. Basically the entirety of tornado alley is in need of rain or snow as soon as possible. The southeast had a difficult several years but has recovered to some degree, and the arid southwest could still use some more rainfall as well. The northeast looks to be largely in relatively good shape, and if you looked at Connecticut on a state level there would be absolutely no drought apparent by their measurements and calculations. I'll get back to that in a moment.

So how dry or wet was it in 2012 in our state? Here is the official precipitation data from National Weather Service weather and climate monitoring stations in Bridgeport and Hartford. I have listed the total precipitation followed by the respective change from long-term averages for the month and then the same for snowfall, if applicable. Snowfall liquid equivalent totals are also accounted for in the total precipitation.

2012 in Bridgeport:
January: 2.98 (-0.12), 7.4 (-0.5)
February: 1.58 (-1.21), 2.2 (-5.6)
March: 1.04 (-3.01), T (-5.0)
April: 2.97 (-1.16), T (-1.1)
May: 4.57 (+0.77)
June: 4.39 (+0.78)
July: 4.35 (+0.89)
August: 3.33 (-0.63)
September: 7.00 (+3.52)
October: 3.24 (-0.40)
November: 1.22 (-2.17), 8.4 (+7.7)
December: 4.32 (+0.99), 7.8 (+2.7)

2012 in Hartford:
January: 2.96 (-0.27), 6.8 (-5.5)
February: 1.47 (-1.42), 5.9 (-5.1)
March: 1.52 (-2.10), 1.7 (-4.7)
April: 3.02 (-0.70), 0.0 (-1.4)
May: 3.27 (-1.08)
June: 4.22 (-0.13)
July: 4.34 (+0.16)
August: 4.12 (+0.19)
September: 4.57 (+0.69)
October: 4.00 (-0.37)
November: 0.40 (-3.49), 2.9 (+0.9)
December: 4.55 (+1.11), 12.9 (+5.5)

Before I even say anything in regard to those numbers I'll reiterate that we should all understand one day, one week, one month, or one year - this is weather, not climate. Think of weather as a measure of the atmospheric conditions occurring at the current time, or over a short period of time at some point in history, whereas climate is the long-term accumulation of weather data. When I comment on a year or a month I am not saying it is all the proof we need of our new climate reality, just as we cannot attribute Hurricane Sandy to the negative changes humans have wrought on the Earth. Some organizations and individuals use this both ways - fighting for climate change by pointing out a specific storm, or claiming that the planet is peachy or getting colder (blatant and absurd lies cherry-picking data at best) because we had a cold winter or a hot summer day. The temperature of the Earth and its oceans has been increasing at dramatic rates over decades due to our actions and technological developments we have made in the last few centuries, and it is important to see the grand scale while realizing specific weather events and time periods will be altered because of the climate. The end of the 19th century had some incredible winter storm systems on a level that no one alive has ever seen, and if that were happening today it would be wrong to say, "Oh, three feet of snow? Global warming" and look at it as more than an isolated event or even a series of them. However, as we watch the thermometer going up and the seas rising, with parts of the world exposed from their icy cover for the first time in thousands of years, it is worth watching patterns that develop here.

One such pattern seems to be our trend of shattering the classic four-season weather that is buried deeply in New England lore. Once again we had a very early snowfall with the November Bridgeport total being an all-time record. Another November all-time record was the lowest amount of precipitation ever measured for the month at Hartford. This was quickly amended there with the all-time December record snowfall of 12.9 inches. The fall season is not normally anywhere near this wintry, and even though the two stations, so close yet so far apart in terms of sensible weather, had much different snowfall totals for November and December they both ended up with a little over 15 inches during the period.

The ensuing lack of snowfall for the remainder of the winter was well known to many. We certainly received some, but more fell in the fall overall, and the beginning of 2012 was marked by a lack of all forms of precipitation that became increasingly worse through March when temperatures soared in the middle of the month and record highs were shattered. As I have written about before here this accelerated the life cycle of vernal pools and began to dry them out very early along with other streams, creeks, and small ponds, sometimes leading to poor breeding years for a multitude of species. We may not always enjoy it but we need the snow, ice, and frigid air in the winter months in order to maintain a semblance of normalcy for our environment in the spring and summer.

April improved dry conditions a little, and the scales balanced a little more heading through the summer. The difference between the two stations is really something, and being on the coast seems to continually provide us with more precipitation than those inland, making for a small state with vastly different water levels at times. Even though we on the coast were somewhat near normal by the latter half of the summer it did not feel like it as higher than average temperatures and the lack of water in critical seasons meant that we had dried out wetlands and evaporated vernal pools. When people asked me about the terrible drought that was going on I pointed them to the precipitation by month and the temperature deviations. If higher than average temperatures become a reality we will need a steadily increasing supply of liquid to go along with it.

Guess what? This January is about to end with lower than average water and, as noted yesterday, higher than average temperatures. There is no reason to believe this will change in February at the moment, and we may be off to the races with an early start to the spring yet again and a struggle for water levels throughout most of the year. Points to our north are also snow-deprived, and I cannot see a lot of water flowing down to us from any snow melting as it does not exist for many areas.

Let's work to make sure this is not the new normal because our environment will not be able to adapt quickly enough to survive it without sustaining heavy losses.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Temperatures of the past year

January 2013 has had a little bit of everything with the operative word being "little". We had a stretch of cold temperatures followed by a snap back to some moderate ones a bit above long-term averages. This led to a week or so of much above-average temperatures, and then a drop back towards a seasonal feel. The most notable stretch of the month we are now exiting placed us in the middle of a frigid polar air mass and negative temperature departures for several days. This stretch helped turn ponds, streams, and even some lakes and rivers to ice, shifting waterfowl across the area and sometimes putting birds like Common Mergansers in Long Island Sound instead of their favorite freshwater patch. Take a look at Stratford Point on one of those chilly days - that is nothing but ice accumulation due to the temperatures and the tide, and it helped keep waterfowl and shorebirds off our beach and out of feeding areas frequently.

Today we are going to be moving towards temperatures in the 40s before a powerful jump into the 50s on Wednesday. Immediately after that we'll experience a cold front with strong winds Wednesday night and then we will be back to winter. Despite all of that we are going to end up with a positive temperature departure once again for the month.

It has been a considerable time since I posted an examination of Connecticut's temperatures. I thought it would be a good idea to go back and take a look at all of 2012 from the official National Weather Service weather and climate monitoring stations in Bridgeport and Hartford.

2012 in Bridgeport:
January: +5.6
February: +6.3
March: +7.8
April: +3.6
May: +3.8
June: +1.0
July: +3.0
August: +2.3
September: +1.2
October: +3.2
November: -2.8
December: +4.2

2012 in Hartford:
January: +5.5
February: +6.0
March: +9.3
April: +2.5
May: +4.3
June: 0.0
July: +2.6
August: +2.2
September: +0.6
October: +3.4
November: -2.4
December: +3.7

At least our deviation from the norm decreased in the second half of the year as we did not surpass five degree differences again after doing so in January, February, and March. One can hope 2013 will have many more months with a degree or two above or below average. November was the first month with a negative departure in a considerable amount of time, going back many more months than shown above. If you take a look at the day-by-day temperatures of November only three days at each of the climate stations hit double-digit departures. What this tells us is that it was a very consistent pattern, and most of the days were just a little cooler than usual. If only we could have a month like this in the critical spring season instead of the somewhat meaningless month of November when wildlife across Connecticut is all but set for winter.

The interesting part of that November data is that it was the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, it being an enormous low pressure system that yanked a mass of seasonally cool air down upon us as it moved away at the end of October. This did not account for the entire month of weather or all of the temperatures, certainly, but one could almost say it took a historic hurricane to bring us some relief from the "heat" of the past few years.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

Photo by Scott Kruitbosch © Connecticut Audubon Society and not to be reproduced without explicit CAS permission

Monday, January 28, 2013

Identify this waterfowl answer

Last week in this post I asked you to identify the waterfowl species in the photo. Here it is once again.

That's a bird in some water in the state of Connecticut - I know, that is a lot to go off of, isn't it? I told you it was in the last few months, and it was actually towards the end of November. I was glad to see a couple of people took the time to leave a guess in the comments section. Neither of them is correct but both of them are definitely understandable and excellent guesses! This photo makes scale difficult to judge, but both a Red-throated Loon and a Double-crested Cormorant are much larger than this species. They may both have longer necks, with a juvenile Double-crested Cormorant having some of the similar lighter tones but a Red-throated Loon having more gray and white on the neck and head.

You can barely see some of the profile of the head but it is short and relatively compact. The bill is mostly hidden, but even this can be a clue as cormorants, loons, and some other ducks would have longer bills sticking out even at this angle. Now that we have established a few more facts I can confirm that this is a freshwater pond. It is calm water, unlike Long Island Sound most of the time, and you can see a reflection of some sort on the left part of the photo, in this case vegetation surrounding the pond, instead of a clear blue or wide open area.

So to recap, it is a small waterfowl species with a compact bill in late November in a freshwater pond with at least some vegetation surrounding it. The bird is alone in the photo as it was in the pond. It has an area of white feathers at the rump, but is mostly drab browns of varying shades otherwise. Any more thoughts? Here is a photo that should help.

That is a Pied-billed Grebe. I was relatively far from the shy bird, but you can see the stout bill, the overall tiny stature, the brighter brown tones on the neck and some on the flanks, and the contrasting darker back. They are relatively nondescript in their wintering appearance as they lack the black ring on a gray bill, a breeding season feature. While this was a migrant and far removed from nesting season, I believe this was actually the only individual of the species I saw during all of 2012, somewhat of an unfortunate indication of how deserving their listing as "Endangered" on the Connecticut Endangered Species Act is.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

Photos by Scott Kruitbosch © Connecticut Audubon Society and not to be reproduced without explicit CAS permission

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Roadkill app

Paula Coughlin, Citizen Science Coordinator at our Grassland Bird Conservation Center at Pomfret, sent me the following on a great new phone app for conservation and wildlife.

How can roadkill data inform us about local wildlife? What species are found more often as the result of traffic? Are there certain locations that are more hazardous to wildlife? Where are the amphibian migratory routes?

In October of 2012, 12 members of the Citizen Science Volunteer Mammal Monitoring Program at the CAS Center at Pomfret, attended the annual Northeast Wildlife Trackers Conference in Leominster, MA. Danielle Garneau Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Environmental Science at SUNY Plattsburgh, was one of several wildlife scientists and trackers that gave presentations highlighting cutting edge wildlife research.

Dr. Garneau has developed a citizen science project to monitor roadkill and live animals using the Epicollect smartphone app (RoadkillGarneau and Wildlife BlitzGarneau). Anyone can add information to the database which includes species, location, condition of animal, and photos.

This data could be used for a variety of uses such as education, research, conservation, and public safety. Those without a mobile device can enter data on their computer. Visit the links to see how easy it is to add local data. The more data we have, the more we can learn about wildlife.

To learn more about this project please visit:

To upload data without a smartphone please visit:

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Hawks hunting feeder birds

Some of the most common questions and complaints I receive via email and in person on walks and at talks are concerning raptors hunting and preying upon passerine birds at backyard feeders. What kind of hawk is doing this to my yard? Why won't it go away? What can I do to stop it? How come it is not more afraid of me? Shouldn't the birds be doing more to protect themselves? Is there a way I can build my feeding stations to keep hawks out of the area? Should I take my feeders down or stop feeding the birds altogether until this hawk goes away or because I am killing all of the little ones? And so forth.

I realize how difficult it can be to watch your feathered friends be hunted, injured, or killed by a raptor. After all you are spending your time and money to put out food for them, to help them survive a little easier in the tough winter season, and to enjoy watching them from your home. I have done this for many years of my life, including when I was a small child. When it comes to kids it can be challenging for them to understand what happens in this process, but everyone else should try to be aware of what is actually occurring. Then we can mostly accept it, continue our role in the lives of our backyard birds, and even appreciate on some level the chain of life that inhabits our neighborhoods.

The most common two species that take aim at feeder birds are the Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Cooper's Hawk. One Sharp-shinned Hawk visited me last week during a brief snow shower in the late afternoon, and while I did not see the attack I saw the aftermath with it picking apart and devouring a Dark-eyed Junco.

While looking at the first two photos notice how the raptor looks to one side and then the other as it continually scans the immediate area for threats. This could include humans, more small birds that could mob it or larger raptors that could easily overpower this small hawk. If you see the size of the pile of feathers in the third photo you will be able to note that not only do Dark-eyed Juncos have a lot of insulation but that this is a small hawk as well. It eventually left after being disturbed by people, carrying what remained of its meal along with it, leaving only feathers.

These are accipiters that specialize in hunting birds in the woodlands. They are thin birds with a long tail plus broad, strong, round wings that all serve them well in navigating through trees and brush at a high rate of speed in pursuit of winged prey. They'll often take a very fast dive at a group of birds, going after the one that moves out of the way the slowest or does not see them at all. They may pursue them for a few minutes, even into thick tangles, hoping to have the endurance and then speed to overtake their prey. Sometimes, if the birds scatter too effectively, you may see one of these raptors sitting in the open in the feeder area, analyzing its options, resting for a minute, or hoping one of the small birds makes a mistake and returns thinking that the attacker has left the area.

Occasionally there will be other raptor species taking a look at your feeding area. Red-tailed Hawks are known to make an attack - extremely impressive ones considering their large size - but they will often be after a mammal instead such as a Gray Squirrel or an Eastern Chipmunk. Take a look at this bird that visited my yard several years ago!

This squirrel looked all but dead by the time I took the photo. It had curled into a ball for protection but it was not moving whatsoever while the Red-tail dug into it deeper and pulled at it with its bill. I saw the Red-tailed Hawk dive-bomb the area and crash right onto the ground onto this squirrel out of the corner of my eye, startling me with its size and sudden appearance. The Red-tail took off shortly after and, while about 10-15 feet in the air, the squirrel shook itself out of the talons! It dashed under a nearby car and the hawk's meal was gone. This was in the middle of a frigid January like this one, and it probably cost the raptor a lot. The squirrel was surely mortality wounded...or was it? Actually no, and over the next week I took careful note of the squirrel with several large talon scratches and holes over its back, and these wounds appeared to miraculously heal. They are tough creatures.

As I alluded to, the key in all of this is that the raptors have to find their own meals in order to survive as well. What is to say they are not as important as the feeder birds? In some cases the species may be at a higher risk overall with, say, a Cooper's Hawk feeding on a very common Mourning Dove. The key to contentment in the backyard is to remember that they are feathered friends of another family in desperate need of food. Many raptors end up starving to death, especially young birds, and this method of hunting streamlines the process a little for them. If they weren't in your yard they would be hunting another bird or mammal somewhere else, and it is not your fault if they are successful. This is a healthy process - survival of the fittest - that weeds out the sick and weak of the prey populations to ensure the continued success of their species for generations to come.

It is best to keep this in mind while watching out your window and to tell children about it whenever they see such an attack, explaining the evolutionary function it serves, the importance of the food chain, and that these larger birds need to forage in their own way as well.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

Photos by Scott Kruitbosch © Connecticut Audubon Society and not to be reproduced without explicit CAS permission

Friday, January 25, 2013

Gray ghost

We have very much enjoyed the company of several Northern Harriers at Stratford Point this fall and winter. Normally there are certainly a bunch of individuals that pass through during migration, and sometimes a bird or two hangs around here on wintering territory. In rare cases, during large snow and other inclement weather events especially focused on our entire region, you will find several birds attempting to hunt the grasslands at Stratford Point because they are quickly forced to the south and following the coast of Long Island Sound in search of acceptable foraging habitat. While we have had a mild winter so far this has not come to pass, but we have had a lot of frequent sightings of birds, including one "Gray Ghost" (adult male) Northern Harrier.

Here are some looks at him searching for small mammals on a (as usual) windy day at Stratford Point. 

I believe we have had so many sightings of this gorgeous guy and others of his species because of Hurricane Sandy. But it's January, you say...huh? Many coastal habitats, low-lying grasslands, marshlands, barrier beaches and the like were all inundated with water during the major flooding brought on by Sandy. This is the case across the entire nearby region, and certainly the case for most of the acceptable habitats in this part of Connecticut. When this happened it is generally believed that a lot of the rodent populations were destroyed, and while they will rebuild quickly, this means that small mammals may be more scarce than usual. Stratford Point may be surrounded by water but it is tens of feet above sea level in many areas, and most of its mammal population would have been able to find shelter and survive easily away from rising waters.

Unless a bird wants to go inland and face more snow, ice, and frigid air, fraught with more unpredictability, they will stay on the coast. And at Stratford Point they can find one coastal location that still has plenty to eat. It's almost too bad that we do not have a major irruption of Rough-legged Hawks or Snowy Owls this year. I feel as though if we had a bird or two looking for a spot to spend the winter they would enjoy the comforts of Stratford Points season even more than usual.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

Photos by Scott Kruitbosch © Connecticut Audubon Society and not to be reproduced without explicit CAS permission

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Identify this waterfowl

Here is an individual of a species of waterfowl taking a little swim. I am not going to name the location or the type of body of water - that would give away too much! It would not be enough for you to solve it based solely off that, but why make things easy on you? You have this picture and this picture alone.

Alright, I will say the photo was taken sometime in the last three months. And it was taken by me, and I was in the state of Connecticut. That's all I am going to give away this time. So what do you think it is? I'll give you the answer in an upcoming post.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

Photo by Scott Kruitbosch © Connecticut Audubon Society and not to be reproduced without explicit CAS permission

Monday, January 21, 2013

Odd duck

Once I realized I had never put him in the blog, I had to post this superbly unique duck that might have you scratching your head for a minute or two. As far as I know 2009 was the first time it was seen in Stratford, and it has come back to visit us each and every winter season. It frequents Raven Park Pond and has been seen once in a while at Wooster Park Pond. This guy is a favored sight and, considering his looks, one has to presume it is the same bird every time. Do you know what he is?

Don't spend too much time flipping through a field guide! What if I told you this was a hybrid, does that help? He was moving about quickly on the dark day I took the photo so you can't quite see the dark long tail which would shed some light on the answer. It's actually...a Mallard and Northern Pintail hybrid. He's a really stunning bird to see up close, and if you are in the Stratford area or wanting to tick off birds for the new year, stop by at one of those locations and try to add this uncountable bird to your list anyways. He tends to hang out with a lot of Mallards, but there are occasionally a Northern Pintail or two that can be found at Raven Park Pond as well.

I wonder if he has been successfully breeding or not over the last several seasons, and if so, which species of female he has found to mate with. I also wonder where he ends up - if he moves far to the north to the Northern Pintail nesting range or stays somewhere within the Mallard range that is closer to his wintering grounds here. I would guess he would go into Pintail range because I would presume his parents met within it, a Mallard being in this more northern parts of their nesting areas. Here's to many more years of him coming back to us.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

Photo by Scott Kruitbosch © Connecticut Audubon Society and not to be reproduced without explicit CAS permission

Friday, January 18, 2013

Redpolls pouring down

Common Redpolls have now started pouring into Connecticut in even greater numbers than we saw last month. Many people (dozens and dozens) reported at least a handful at their bird feeders, myself included. I was able to get up to four birds that spent about 10 days at my home. They moved on at one point around a week ago, perhaps because there was so much other activity with many other species feeding and not much room at the table. I have had everything from a dozen pesky Monk Parakeets (because they're so aggressive and eat absolutely anything very quickly) to tens of House Finch and American Goldfinch swarming the sunflower seeds. This has been, somewhat surprisingly, the preferred choice for the Common Redpolls who have visited me. They have no even touched the thistle seed. Other reports I have heard had them choosing thistle at other homes.

There are several homes that have had upwards of 50 or 75 birds, and now a few reports have come to light that have totals of 150, 200, or even 300 and perhaps 400 or more birds! That many will go through pounds of food a day and quite frankly, I do not know how many feeders you would have to have erected in order to sustain such groups. To think I complain about occasional large blackbird groups or those Monks clearing out all my food quickly, hah! Then again, I would pay the price (literally) to have such a sight to stare at from the comfort of my own window. Take a look at this eBird occurrence map to see just how many have been seen in the state from November through January 17.

I would show you the map from the 2011-2012 winter but it would be literally pointless because, well...there are no points. That is the beauty of the irruptive species and why we love them so. If you have a sizable number of Common Redpolls visiting you then it is time to start looking through them for some Hoary Redpolls. This is an extremely difficult task for even the most experienced birders. Not only is it hard to find critical identification points on tiny birds, it is tough to be able to even pick out a "candidate" bird when you have perhaps over 100 Common Redpolls flitting and feeding all around you. Many people seem to hone in on the Hoary Redpoll candidates simply by finding the frosty bird - one that is very white and pale overall. This may be a starting point in terms of examining it for identification, but it is far from what one needs to be sure they have the extremely rare species. CAS Senior Director of Science and Conservation Milan Bull told me a story of examining birds like this during an irruption a few decades ago, but when several of the frosty individuals were captured and examined in hand, only one turned out to actually be a Hoary Redpoll.

While there will be some in our state this year and seem to have been a few certain birds already, the Hoary Redpoll is a review list species, and not one to simply be noticed, appreciated, and forgotten. Photographs and complete documentation are really vital in order for us to get a better understanding of these birds and the differences between the Common and Hoary Redpoll. A couple of other blogs have excellent write-ups by experts with a tremendous amount of experience differentiating the two species.

One is Julian Hough's piece originally published in The Connecticut Warbler in 2008 which you can find here - Additionally, several pieces by David Sibley can be found on this page - We'll see how many more come to Connecticut before some start pushing back to the north.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Hairy Woodpecker with yellow patches update

If you missed the Hairy Woodpecker that I found in my yard with yellow patches instead of red on the back of his head check out that post here. I received a ton of email both publicly on the CT Birds list serv and privately after that post. It seems my friend has many admirers who really enjoyed his unique look and beautiful bold yellow feathers. Additionally, there were several people, from backyard birders to biologists, who had thoughts on how and why he may be different than your average Hairy Woodpecker. I wanted to post this update with some thoughts and information disclosed and discovered after my original posting. I should also add that the bird is still with me and still sporting his yellow.

Our friend Dr. Robert Askins sought out the opinion of Dr. Alan Brush who has done extensive research on the structure and pigmentation of feathers. His response was the following:

My thought is that on adult bird, the plumage would have been replaced pretty much completely by the end of summer, eg., this is the basic plumage. There is nothing in the literature I can find, that reports this change in this species. So here are the alternatives. 1) dietary, as in HOFI or CEDW. That is, some new or different food source during molt  If that were the case, I would expect it to be a little more widespread or common. While HAWOs are not as common and feed over wider areas, the frequency in the NE would be expected to be lower. Simply a sampling problem. My guess would be that a dietary change is not the case. 2) a mutation or other type of change in the metabolic pathways that changes the precursor carotenoid into the form deposited in the feather. Although this species mainly eats animal food (although I can't think of it as a 'predator'), mostly beetles, grubs, spiders, etc, they also take fruit and seeds. That means they get not only a variety of carotenoids in their diet, it's available year round. Where the 'error' resides in this individual may be the malfunction of an enzyme in the pathway from precursor to product or in the mechanism that transports molecules or incorporates them into the follicle. A change in any of these could produce the change in the nape feathers. Since carotenoids are not deposited in any other tract, it's not a more general problem. One could, of course, discriminate among these possibilities with a chemical analysis of the feathers from this individual and a 'normal' feather. That's the best I can do from here (keyboard rather than a lab).

My thanks to both of them for their time, thoughts, and allowing me to post everything! I have heard from a grand total of one person thus far - Jay Kaplan - who has actually seen a bird like this before. He described it as a color aberration that occurs from time to time. He told me that sometimes people think they have American Three-toed Woodpecker when it is a Hairy Woodpecker with yellow markings rather than red. He has seen two of them in his time in Canton, Connecticut. This is interesting to me for a few reasons, the first being that it is very difficult to find anything in literature describing my bird precisely, and that more modern search techniques (Google images anyone?) yielded nothing in this exact manner either.

The second is that his statement on people's mistakes concerning the identification of species leads one to believe that this occurs more frequently than it seems to in my experience thus far. I have had many experts, doctors and scientists and birders with decades of birding in the state, tell me they've never heard of such a bird, let alone seen one. I think Jay's time on the Avian Records Committee of Connecticut predisposes him to receiving reports of birds such as misidentified American Three-toed Woodpeckers. Even with that variable in mind there may be more birds like this occurring at a higher frequency than I had imagined (albeit still extremely low) not sufficiently recorded or disseminated widely enough.

A few people wrote in concerning juvenile Hairy Woodpeckers that have red replaced by yellow, but there still seem to be some problems here. Rich Huck wrote:

I happened to have a copy of "The Birds of North America, No. 702, 2002 publication on the Hairy Woodpecker. On page 19 of that publication, there is a section on APPEARANCE. Under the MOLTS AND PLUMAGES, subsection on "Juvenal plumage", the second paragraph reads: "Juvenal plumage similar to Definitive Basic (adult) plumage for each sex, but red patch extending from rear of superciliary stripe absent in males; white often tinged with a SULPHURY YELLOW (my emphasis) (Maynard 1881),....paragraph continues. The reference to Maynard is to his book: Maynard, C.J. 1881. The birds of eastern North America. C.J. Maynard & Co., Newtonville, MA. This was apparently a private publication on his part based presumably on his research.

The Birds of North American Online makes the same reference. On a similar topic Ed Kanze sent me an email with the following:

First thing I did was take a look in Sibley (2000) and there I found this in the descriptive text about the hairy: "Juvenile rarely has red plumage replaced by yellow" The accompanying illustration shows a juvenile with red on the forehead. Not sure how common adults are with yellow rather than red at the back of the head, but I imagine the same process is at work, whatever it is!

I think that is precisely it for both - the description is referring to the top of the head or crown of a juvenile bird. This area is usually covered with some thinner and less vibrant red. However, in a small number of birds, it is rarely a sulphur yellow as mentioned above. You can Google such juvenile birds and see exactly what I am describing. I do not believe this refers to traditional red patches on the back of the head. This is also a bird in January, not the end of the summer or the fall season.

I have seen some photos of Hairy Woodpeckers with a little more orange than red patches, and others with an odd shade of red seemingly because of the angle of the view. The dorsal view of a male in February in the Birds of North America Online Hairy Woodpecker account was mentioned to me a couple of times, but it looks like a typical red bird at an odd angle which makes the shade look lighter and brighter (I've now done a lot of staring at the yellow and a classic red Hairy Woodpecker male in my neighborhood and this sort of distortion happens). David Lawton mentioned to me that there "are examples of Hairies with yellowish outer tail feathers in northern California" and indeed there are! These birds have a strange and unique look to them, and while this may not have much in common, it is another example of an odd Hairy Woodpecker.

Whatever the precise answer is it seems that Hairy Woodpeckers as a whole have an intriguing habit of finding creative ways to show some unexpected yellow. Please keep the thoughts and theories coming! I'll keep an eye on my friend. Thanks again to everyone who contributed ideas and effort.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

Monday, January 14, 2013

Weather photo quiz answer

Last week in this post I asked if anyone could tell me what the type of precipitation in the photo was. Here is that photo once again.

I can give you a hint - it is not rain and it is not snow. Those were mostly obvious, though, especially when you consider the scale of the photo and that this is indeed a close-up shot of small white things that are not snowflakes. Most of you are probably going to say hey, wait a minute, if it not snow, and not rain, then it has to be in between - ice. That must mean it is sleet! Nope, not quite. Hail? Not that either, but close. Aren't those the same thing? Actually, no. It is, as the person who commented on that post correctly asserted, graupel! What the heck is that you say? Allow me to explain...

Graupel is a form of precipitation that occurs when snowflakes, while falling from thousands of feet aloft down to us at the surface, accumulate supercooled water droplets on them. These droplets instantly freeze on the snowflake, and while the droplets may cover it they do not compress it entirely. You are essentially left with an opaque round or conical object. It features a snowflake core having this very thin glaze of the supercooled and then frozen water on top of the snow. Since it is not compressed fully and is largely the remains of a snowflake compacted into a ball, graupel bounces really well off of hard surfaces, and it was doing so off the roof, sidewalk, and porch at Stratford Point when I took the photos. Bearing in mind that it is not a ball of ice, it did not make much noise at all, unlike sleet or hail which have greater concentrations of more dense ice.

If you touched the graupel in the photo you would find that you would be able to easily smash any of the little balls. They fall apart like lumps of flour in your hands unlike sleet which is entirely ice. Apart from rain and snow our other major form of winter precipitation is sleet. It is formed by passing through a warmer then freezing layer of air that is surrounded above and below by freezing air. This warm layer is usually about one to two miles above the surface, and it is a common occurrence in many types of winter storm setups. Graupel is a rare form of precipitation in that you have to have snow encountering a layer of those supercooled ice crystals while they fall, and I was happy to see it falling on me.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

Photo by Scott Kruitbosch © Connecticut Audubon Society and not to be reproduced without explicit CAS permission

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Hairy Woodpecker with yellow patches

The Hairy Woodpecker is one of the most familiar backyard and woodland bird species in Connecticut. It is seen year-round and while not as common as the abundant Downy Woodpecker, it can be found everywhere in our state on a consistent basis. I have them in my yard constantly and seeing one is not a remarkable happenstance (but this is not to take anything away from them!) so I will only occasionally pick up my binoculars to examine an individual. In this case I was watching out my window late in the afternoon last week when I saw one that made me think something was wrong with my eyes. This was not a trick of the light, and the below record shots I hastily snapped off have not been modified in any way except for sizing.

I was not ready with my camera and by the time I was the bird was finished with its suet and hopping up and down distant branches. There was little light left in the day, but you can clearly see what should be normally deep red patches on this male are in fact a bright yellow. There is no disputing that, and it is not simply a question of angle, shadows, or the fading sun. I had absolutely no clue what to make of this at the time. After some Googling, emailing, and researching, I could not come up with any other bird that looked as this one did.

Yes, juvenile Hairy Woodpeckers do have a sometimes yellow or orange crown patch, but I did not read anything about the traditional and classic red patches on the back of the head being entirely a different color. This is also the middle of winter when even this top of the head areas of faint yellow should be long gone. I have had a neighborhood Hairy Woodpecker stained mostly yellow all over its body from some sort of environmental source a few years ago, but this was clearly a bunch of bright yellow feathers growing in place of the red ones, and not a mark that could be wiped away. Fortunately, the next weekend day I was able to spot it in the full sunlight and take some more photos.

At this point I have to think it is something like a genetic anomaly. Red and yellow are not that far off on the color spectrum. What do you think? Have you seen or heard of this before? I would love to have any input on this unique individual.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

Photos by Scott Kruitbosch © Connecticut Audubon Society and not to be reproduced without explicit CAS permission

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

First Eurasian Wigeon of the season

On Sunday I found the first Eurasian Wigeon of the season at Stratford Point in the form of a sleeping male in the cove amongst the American Black Duck, Gadwall, and American Wigeon. What I did not expect was that through my scope I found the second Eurasian Wigeon of the season for the property about two seconds later as it slept just to the right of the more obvious bird. Take a look!

Snoozing away in the center

Some stir, one wakes up for a bit while the other...

...goes for a little swim.

There has been a bird or two wandering about the area in Fairfield, Bridgeport, Westport, and even western Stratford, though none had come so far east as us yet. We typically find one nearly annually now with all of the prolonged survey work conducted for waterfowl in Stratford Point's intertidal zone and the constant looks our Science and Conservation staff give the area surrounding our offices. In checking all of my birding records I found that since 2009 I have had 15 instances of Eurasian Wigeon entered into eBird, including this one, but that it was the first of anything other than a solitary bird.

I had just last week mentioned the species to CAS Director of Conservation Services Anthony Zemba while we were walking the property. For some reason I sincerely thought that more were in the fall, but it turns out that none were! Eight of the sightings were in January with decreasing occurrence from February through April. I think it was because there always seem to be a bird or two here and there in the area in December, but for whatever other reason they do not seem to drop by our patch until the New Year. I was delighted to see our foreign friends and I hope there will be more to come - we are due for that Tufted Duck, aren't we?

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

Photos by Scott Kruitbosch © Connecticut Audubon Society and not to be reproduced without explicit CAS permission

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Weather photo quiz

Here is a different sort of quiz than my more typical questions on bird photo identification - weather photo identification! I was conducting a survey at Stratford Point last weekend as the snowstorm was entering the region. Precipitation began in the middle of the day and the types were extremely localized due to a myriad of reasons from the geography of New England to surface temperatures to wind direction to proximity to Long Island Sound to warmth aloft and so forth. Some areas saw rain during most of the daylight hours before accumulating snowfall later that night while others stayed nearly all snow during the entire event. My question to you is - what is this stuff?

That photo is on the steps to the porch at Stratford Point early that afternoon. The drops that you can see are the white things that have melted, and I want to know what that white stuff is. You can see the tops of the screws on the step that help to provide a sense of relative size. See what you can come up with! It is not as easy as it looks.

Scott Kruitbosch
Conservation Technician

Photo by Scott Kruitbosch © Connecticut Audubon Society and not to be reproduced without explicit CAS permission

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Connecticut Audubon Completes Conservation Plan Aimed at Protecting the 'Green Heart' of Fairfield County

Our Conservation Services staff has completed a major conservation and management plan for Aspetuck Land Trust, helping the organization balance conservation and recreation on its heavily-used Trout Brook Valley preserve.

Trout Brook Valley is one of the most important ecological features of Fairfield County. It forms the core of a 6,400-acre expanse that our conservation biologists have characterized as the “green heart” of the region.

The plan is the product of a year’s worth of work that we completed under contract to Aspetuck Land Trust.

We are issuing a news release about it today: “Aspetuck Land Trust Sets New Policies at Trout Brook Valley Preserve Following Study By Connecticut Audubon Society.”

Click here to read it. 

--Tom Andersen, director of communications and community outreach