Town Finch and Country Finch*

Today I’ll show you two rather similar red and brown birds that you might call “Town Finch and Country Finch”, after Aesop. The town finch, which I see in Boston, is the House Finch , Haemorhous mexicanus. Here is a male:

The country finch, which I see in Maine, is the Purple Finch, Haemorhous purpureus, which is red, not purple. Again, a male:

and in exquisite closeup:

The two females are (of course) much drabber. The town (House) female first:

then a somewhat bedraggled country (Purple) female :

The Purple Finch is native to New England, and likes cooler, higher elevation wooded habitats, with evergreen cones being a major part of its diet.

The House Finch is native to the Western US. In 1939 a few birds were released from a New York City pet store, where it was being marketed as the Hollywood Finch. And then it spread out from there, yet another example of Hollywood’s influence!

In the summer I see lots of Purple Finches around my feeder, but they are rare in the winter, so this February sighting is a bonus:

I was fascinated to learn that they migrate south only every two years, when the northern conifer cone crops are low. They are quite aggressive when food is scarce, as it is in February:

and they raise that little crest:

The House Finches have a quite different habitat. They are almost exclusively found in settled areas, and often nest in high-rise buildings. Mine hang out on the eighth floor of my downtown Boston high-rise condo building; I am watching for a nest in the coming months.

That’s about 90 feet up, and there are sometimes 3 or 4 at once.

97% of their diet is seeds, buds, flowers, leaves, and fruits.

So watch out for nature even where you wouldn’t expect it. Birds are surprisingly versatile.

PS Sadly, there was a decline of 50% in the breeding population of Purple Finches in the northeastern U.S. between 1961 and 1994 . The explanation is somewhat unclear, but is usually blamed on the Hollywood immigrants. But the House Finch likes quite different habitat, and a study (Yunick 2018) in an upstate New York area where there are no House Finches still found a 50% Purple Finch decline from 1971-2015. This was a period when the temperature during breeding season rose by 2F. The Purple Finch likes cool climates, so Yunick suggests that the decline could be attributed to climate change, not to the intruders. In my part of Maine, though, we do have a few House Finches, so they may indeed pose a threat to the poor Purples.

PPS There are occasional suggestions that the two species may sometimes hybridize, which I assume gives rise to a Purple House Finch?

Warblers IV: A blacker theme

[This is my last prepared warbler post. Good timing, because in a few weeks they will be coming through on their way North, and I might get lucky and see some of the ones I’ve never seen.]

I’m moving on from yellow, or indeed buff or brown, to a darker hue. That said, my first candidate today is rather yellow, but its name qualifies it for this post. The Blackburnian Warbler, Setophaga fusca, is called after Anna Blackburne, an 18th century English naturalist, whose brother Ashton had moved to America and sent her bird specimens. (Not enough birds are named after woman scientists; good for her.) We are at the southern edge of its breeding range, and this looks like a singing female, which is unlikely but not impossible; there is growing evidence that some female warblers do indeed sing, and I hope Anna Blackburne’s namesake is one of them.

Here it is posing politely for its headshot.

The throat of the male is almost orange, something my photos fail to show.

Finally, I turn to warblers with no trace of yellow! The Black-and-White warbler, Mniotilta varia, is a dapper little bird.

It behaves like a nuthatch, hanging upside down as it feeds on creeping insects:

All these warblers frequent the deep woods, and that makes catching a photo tricky. The following photos are pretty awful, but for those of you who like lists (me too) I’m including them anyway.

This is a male Black-throated Green Warbler, Setophaga virens, which, I’ve just realized, really belongs back in the “something yellow” category. Oh well.

And finally, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler, Setophaga caerulescens.The female looks so different that for a long time they were thought to be entirely different species.

I only saw this because of modern technology. I heard a call, and saw movement, but the bird was elusive. So I used my Merlin app to record the song and to ID it, and it told me it was a Black-throated Blue Warbler. I’d never seen one, so I waited patiently for ages and ages, and finally got a glimpse, and a bad photo.

I fear I have crossed the line depicted by The New Yorker:

Otterly obsessed

I fear I may be boring you. If so, stop reading. It’s just that some moments light up your day in such a way that you cannot stop yourself wanting to show them to anyone you encounter, and this was one of those. I was filming a solitary otter on the ice, and then …

This is the land where my otters live, shared with the beavers who built the huge lodge behind them:

As the video starts, she is alone… but not for long… (try to watch it fullscreen, and don’t miss the somersault):

I think it was the mother and last year’s young again, two of them are rough-housing while one is resignedly letting them roll around on top of her. Here they are in closeup, the mother in the centre:

Two days earlier, another magical encounter. I was showing a friend’s grandkids the otter pond, and carefully refraining from promising otters, when one popped up 20 feet from us, and stayed there.

This has NEVER happened to me before, the kids of course had no idea that it was the sighting of the year!

Finally, two days before that, here is the biggest fish I have ever seen one catch. My piscine expert thinks it is a large-mouth bass.

It took seven minutes to eat the whole thing.

I will really try not to post about otters again next time. Sorry.

The big menu of a small mammal

It reminds me of a menu from Noma, the three-Michelin-star Copenhagen foraged restaurant (actual menu at end of this post!):

Eastern Chipmunks, Tamias striatus, have a varied diet. They eat lots of sunflower seeds, and are easy to train if bribed with a trail of seeds:

Given half a chance they make off with their cheeks full and cache them back at base camp:

They devour many other foods inadvertently provided by humans, like cherry tomatoes

and apples

They also like the flowers and seeds from cultivated flowers like Love-in-a-Mist:

and cosmos

and dianthus:

including infuriatingly the flower buds:

Here is an action video:

If you watch carefully once I zoom in, you can see that they actually eat only the base of the flower, where the nutritious ovary is, and discard the actual flower*. This is what is left:

But they are more than capable of feeding themselves from wild sources, like acorns:


Rose hips:

Hickory nuts (very hard to get int0, but apparently worth the effort)

Here is a brief video of one gnawing on a hickory nut:

And finally beetles (something I showed you before):

These are just the snacks I have watched them tuck away on camera. There are undoubtedly more.

*After the flower is fertilized, the ovary becomes the fruit, and contains the seeds. This is the nutritious part of the plant.

PS An Ohio study showed that beetles, caterpillars and and fungi are the mainstays of their summer diet. In the spring and fall, the balance shifts to a larger proportion of acorns and hickory nuts (easy to cache).

John A. Wrazen and Gerald E. Svendsen (1978) Feeding Ecology of a Population of Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) in Southeast Ohio. The American Midland Naturalist , Vol. 100, No. 1 pp. 190-201

Right now, they are still ‘hibernating’. Chipmunks are not true hibernators. but they enter a torpid state with decreased body temperature and heartbeat. They wake every few days to feed on stored food. They will wake up fully in a few weeks as the weather warms and the snowpack melts.

PPS Actual Noma menu, for comparison purposes

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