American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus)

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The American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) is a secretive bird. Although it is rarely seen, you are sure to know that one is about when you hear its eerie, booming call echoing through the reeds. Populations of American Bitterns can be found in areas extending from Central British Columbia, toward Newfoundland, down to the Gulf Coast and Across to southern California. This stocky wetland bird species migrates only a short distance from home. Sadly, American Bittern populations are suffering due to the damage being done to their wetland habitats. Mankind’s lack of concern is once again leading to the decline of a vital bird species.

American Bitterns are noted as being large, stocky birds measuring a length of about 23 inches and a wingspan of 45 inches. This wading bird species can be identified by its bright yellow eyes and yellow bill with a dark culmen. The upperparts are a rich dark brown whilst the throat is white with black/brown streaks. When in flight, its outer flight feathers are distinctly dark compared to the light brown inner area of the wing. Adults have a black stripe running down the side of the throat. The two genders look alike whilst juveniles lack the noticeable streaking. If you do not spot the American Bittern itself, you will be able to identify the bird by its call, a deep “oong-ka-choonk”.

American Bitterns dine on a number of wetland creatures including insects, frogs, salamanders, little fish, small snakes, crayfish and sometimes voles. These quiet birds rely on stealth when foraging for a meal. They will remain motionless, undetected by potential prey. As the snack nears, the bittern will speedily dart forward, nabbing the creature in its bill. Prey is killed by shaking and biting, after which it is swallowed whole.

Breeding takes place in the north between mid-April and early May. Males are typically polygamous, but they differ from other herons in that they are not colonial nesters. The courtship display of the American Bittern is truly fascinating. Arching his back and dipping forward he serenades the female. Together they participate in a complex aerial display. The nest is built by the female who constructs it out of sedges, reeds and other wetland plants. Incubation lasts 24-29 days. Although the young offspring leave the nest at around 2 weeks, the female still cares for them.

A very elusive bird, the American Bittern goes to great lengths to remain hidden. When approached, the bittern will stretch it neck, staring up at the sky, standing absolutely still or swaying slowly to imitate the reeds. If danger continues to threaten it will fly away with a low barking call.

The American Bittern has been declared state endangered in Connecticut and falls under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The chief reason for the lessening numbers of American bitterns is habitat loss. Marshes and swamps forming the habitat of the species have been built over and used for commercial gain. You and I can help by supporting wetland conservation legislation as well as efforts to control water polution. Why not make an effort to save the American Bittern.

American Coot (Fulica americana)

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The Fulica Americana or otherwise known as the American coot is a common water bird, family of the Rallidae, and is about 12 inches in length with a wingspan of 25 inches. It is quite a large bird with relatively short wings and tail, and can often be seen swimming and diving in ponds or dams of water. When the American coot goes walking about it often flicks and cocks its short tail, revealing a white under tail. The bill is short and thick and the legs are yellow in color with toes that have lobed webbing. When you look at both the male and female you won’t notice much difference in appearance between the sexes.

There are quite a few differences between the adult and the juvenile. The adult bird has a beautiful white bill with a dark, reddish oval near the base of the bill than not lacks the ring near the tip. The adult’s head, neck, breast, back, and upper wings is a dark gray, brown color with the feathers on the under-belly being slightly lighter. The juvenile on the other hand, is a paler gray-brown color on the breast and back, upper wings and on the under parts of the bird. It has a bright red head and beak with orange colored plumes that come off the neck.

Another bird that is a similar species is the common Moorhen. It is similar in size and shape to the American coot but its bill is reddish in colour with a yellowish tip. It also has a white stripe on its flank and a brown back. The American coot is often mistaken for a duck, although its black body and white triangular beak, which looks similar to a chicken, makes it more easily distinguishable from a real duck. The bird sound of the American coot is a scratchy clucking noise followed by a row of “kuk-kuk-kuk” notes.

Their breeding grounds are in marshes from the southern part of Quebec to the Pacific coast of North America, and then as far south as the north part of South America. They choose a nesting area in between tall reeds in a well-concealed area. If water is available to the birds throughout winter then they will not migrate, but if this is not the case they will migrate to northern areas or to southern British Columbia and United States.

American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)

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The Eastern or American Goldfinch, Latin name Carduelis tristis, is a member of the finch, Fringillidae, family. It is a typical North American seed eating bird and so only starts nesting in mid to late summer, when weed seeds are available. Because they are late breeders the goldfinch stays in a flock for much longer than other species of birds that have already formed pairs and have begun breeding. Due to late nesting, only one single brood is raised every year.

The goldfinch is about 11 to 13 cm long, smaller than a sparrow. These little birds breed all over southern Canada and from Newfoundland to British Columbia, as well as in the northern and southern states of America. They like open spaces with trees spotted around, like orchards and alongside the road.

American Goldfinches have been studied quite extensively and it has been found that when they migrate they often hesitate before they fly over water, with some even returning to the mainland. It takes the main leader of the group to head out over the water before the others, one by one, will follow along. It won’t be long before they will return to the water’s edge, chatting away noisily to each other almost as if they are gathering courage. Again they will try head over the water and those that remain will return to land until winter forces the birds to complete their migration.

The breeding male is bright yellow in colour with a white rump and a black forehead. The wings and tail are black with a white outer edge; the wings differentiate from the tail because of having an extra splash of yellow on the bend of each wing. The male and female have a dull olive-gray winter coat with black wings, tail and white stripes on their wings. When spring comes around again the goldfinches lose all their dark winter feathers and once again regain their striking orange bill. The male American Goldfinch differs from the female in that the rest of his body goes a canary yellow with a black cap.

American Kestrel (Falco sparverious)

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The American Kestrel (Falco sparverious) can be easily identified by its unique markings. They have a wingspan of 21 inches and measure 8.5 inches in length. The American Kestrel has a short, hooked beak, and the adult males have rust patches on their crown, tail, breast, back and nape. Their bellies are pale in color, and have dark feathers at intervals, which creates a spotted effect. Black spots can also be found on the wings coverts, flanks and on the scapulars. The immature males have streaked breasts and have predominantly rust and black coloring on their backs. The female American Kestrels are streaked with brown across their chests, and their wings and back are predominantly black. This tiny little falcon might not be colorful, but is the most commonly found raptor in North America.

American Kestrels can generally be found in the stretch of land between Alaska and Tierra de Feugo. These North American birds are also comfortable living in populated areas. American Kestrels are extremely interesting birds when it comes to their hunting tactics. A suitable perch to view the ground from is preferable, but they are not dependant on seating arrangements. These North American birds are very graceful during flight, and can reach high speeds quite rapidly. If an American Kestrel is hunting without being able to perch themselves, they are able to hover over a specific area. Hover-hunting is not favorable though, as they are easily spotted by their prey. American Kestrels are raptors, and therefore their prey usually consists of rats, mice, young squirrels and bats. They will also eat other birds, worms, beetles, crickets and dragonflies. Small reptiles and amphibians may also make it onto the American Kestrel’s menu.

During the winter months, it is believed that the females migrate south first, giving them the opportunity to find and establish territories during the winter months. The females prefer the open habitats, and the males are usually found in the more wooded areas. It seems that their winter homes are not by choice, but having to take whatever area is left unoccupied by the females.

The nesting period for American Kestrels starts approximately during mid-March, with the females laying their eggs, usually four to six, in the beginning of April. The incubation period for a female American Kestrel
is between 28 to 30 days. During this time, the male will hunt on behalf of the female. Another strange attribute exclusive to the American Kestrel, is its nesting habits. They are known to squirt feces on the walls of the nest cavity, which is left to dry. The feces together with the remains of half eaten prey does not make this nest the best smelling home in North America, and it is no surprise that the young kestrels decide to fledge the nest after 28 to 30 days.

American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliates)

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The American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliates) is a coastal bird that can be found along the Gulf Coast and over most of the Atlantic Coast. This is a bird that is 16 inches in length and can be identified by is predominantly black body, grayish-brown back and wings, and a snowy white belly. This coastal bird has pink legs and a bright orange or blood red bill, with yellow eyes and an orange orbital ring. Juvenile birds have a dark tip at the end of their bills and their eyes are dark. Although its coloring does not make the best fashion statement, it does make them distinctive. Being a coastal bird, the American Oystercatcher relies on the ocean for its food that consists of mussels, oysters and clams, Unfortunately, coastal developments by humans are increasingly encroaching on the habitat and lifestyle of these birds.

American Oystercatchers are migratory birds, with the breeding populations located in the north often migrating to the southeastern areas of the United States during the winter months. Due to development and coastal activities, populations in the Massachusetts area have increased in numbers. In contrast to the northern populations, it seems that the birds that are found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, are more established and remain permanent residents of the area. Many IBA’s (Important Bird Areas) have been established to provide the American Oystercatchers with safe nesting grounds, and winter habitats for the migratory populations. There are approximately thirty breeding pairs that are protected by the Hatteras National Seashore IBA, in North Carolina, and the Altamaha River Delta IBA, in Georgia, is home to approximately 250 migratory American Oystercatchers. Many of these IBA’s, including the Big Bend Ecosystem IBA, Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge and Hillsborough Bay IBA in Florida, play an important role in the conservation of these beautiful birds. These areas are also motivated by the fact that in the 1850’s, American Oystercatchers had become extremely scarce in the mid-Atlantic areas, and only began increasing in population numbers during 20th century.

Not only does human development threaten these coastal birds, but they also fall victim to hurricanes and oil-spills. All these factors make nesting very difficult for the birds. American Oystercatchers nest on the ground, which enables them to blend in with their surroundings as a form of camouflage. Their eggs are gray in color and are speckled, having a pointed shape which prevents the eggs from rolling away. But no matter how many preventative measures the American Oystercatcher has, it remains up to humans to protect these birds, and the land they live on.

American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

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As the name might suggest, the American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) is predominantly white in color with black plumage on its wings, and is approximately 60 inches in length with a 110 inch wingspan. They have very long, orange bills with pouches on their lower mandibles, and short legs with large webbed feet. Another very unique characteristic of the American White Pelican’s beak is that males develop a fibrous plate on the upper part of their beaks during the mating season.

The American White Pelican is an extremely social bird, and is always found in colonies, or in the company of a friend. They are also family orientated, and therefore they will breed and rear their families in the safety of the colony. They tend to nest on islands and quiet areas, where the female can lay two to four white eggs, with a one month incubation period. Nests are built on the ground, using grass, reeds and sticks. Both parents take an active role in the rearing of their young, as both male and female pelicans will participate in feeding. The adult birds are very quiet, with the exception of the occasional grunt. The young however, will make themselves heard by squealing noisily.

As the American White Pelican feeds on fish, they are found in coastal areas, near lakes and even in marshes. That includes areas such as Utah, northern California, southwestern Minnesota, northeastern South Dakota and Colorado. Occasionally, the pelicans can be seen on the coast of Texas. During the winter months, they are known to migrate to the Pacific Coast.

It might seem to be impossible for birds of their size to float on top of the water, but the American White Pelican has the advantage of air-filled bones and air sacs that are located in their bodies. In contrast to other pelican species that dive from great heights to catch food, the White Pelican simply glides around, scooping fish out the water with its immense pouch. As the pelican is bound to scoop as much water as he does fish, the pouch is able to hold about 3 gallons of water. And instead of swallowing gallons of water with his meal, he bends his bill downward to drain the water, and then lifts his head up, to let his catch slide down his throat. An adult American White Pelican can eat approximately four pounds of fish a day, with preferred choices being that of jackfish, shiners, catfish, carp and yellow perch.

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

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The legendary Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) has long been a symbol of power, wisdom and beauty. Many of the Native American tribes chose to venerate the bird, while European settlers chose to make it the national symbol of the country. As it flies it makes use of thermal convection currents and other environmental factors to give the picture of effortless grace that so easily captivates man’s admiration. Bald Eagles may emit a squeak or a shrill cry punctuated by grunts as they fly but do not make the eagle scream that one so commonly associates with them. As one sees the Bald Eagle soaring high above, it may be seem infallible. However, for much of the 20th century, this beautiful bird was on the brink of extinction.

Also known as the American Eagle, the bird can be found in much of North America and its range stretches all the way from northern Mexico to most of Canada. Those found below the 38 degree North latitude belong to the subspecies leucocephalus while those above this latitude belong to the subspecies washingtoniensis. The Bald Eagle gets its name from the word piebald which was used to refer to the dark and white colouring of the bird’s head and body. The immature Bald Eagle has speckled brown plumage and looks similar to the Golden Eagle. However, the Bald Eagle has feathers down its legs while the Golden Eagle does not. After two or three years, the Bald Eagle starts to reach sexual maturity and it develops its distinctive white head and tailm and its dark brown body. The average adult has a wingspan of about 7 feet (2m) and can weigh between 4.1 and 5.8 kg’s depending on gender. Wild Bald Eagles generally live between 20-30 years, although they may live as long as 60 years in captivity if their needs are well catered for. Nests may be as big as eight feet across and parents share nesting responsibilities. The female may lay between one and three eggs but it is rare for all offspring to fly successfully.

In 1984, the National Wildlife Federation listed hunting, electrocution, collisions in flight and poisoning as the leading causes of death. For many years there was controversy surrounding the effect of the pesticide DDT on the bird but after extensive research it was found that the chemical had little – if any – effect on the Bald Eagle. Today, after years of careful preservation, the species is no longer in danger. There is a stable population of eagles spread across the continent with steady growth being evident in certain parts of the country, and about half of all Bald Eagles being found in Alaska. Bald Eagles are protected by law and illegal possession of either dead or live birds is considered a felony.