Turkey Vultures

7th & 8th October 2015. Burlington and Cootes Paradise Hamilton, ON. Turkey Vultures entertained me at both ends of the day. Yesterday I spent the morning doing a very rewarding, but generally unremarkable, census. Highlights I suppose, were a single Hermit Thrush and Rusty Blackbird, three Eastern Phoebes,  Black-throated Green and Magnolia Warblers and a surprise Eastern Towhee. That’s not to detract from the other pleasures of the census; two of us spent an enjoyable bird-rich three hours soaking up the fine weather and non-stop variety of birds. We tallied thirty-seven species.

Back at home, late in the afternoon while doing some garden tidying, I looked up at the cloud-dotted sky to see a fairly low Sharp-shinned Hawk zip overhead. It was moving steadily southwest, keeping the north shore of Lake Ontario to its left and on its way to spend the winter who knows where. As I inwardly savoured the small pleasure of that sighting, I noticed a couple of Turkey Vultures much higher and gliding south-westward along the same track. And close behind them was another drift, about twenty more, moving effortlessly as if sliding down an invisible glass highway.

Seen like this, I find it difficult to estimate their height; large, black and a yard across, they were barely visible with the naked eye against a blue sky. Does that make them five hundred feet up – or a thousand? More, or less? And how does our world below look to them? All conjecture.

Then this morning, with another beautiful autumnal day is store, I went to walk the shores of a nearby estuary and marsh. As soon as I arrived I noticed a large group of Turkey Vultures circling low; I counted thirty-six. Could it be that yesterday afternoon’s birds had settled for the night and were just getting airborne to continue the journey. Well, probably not my birds of yesterday in this morning’s group, but I do think they were migrants getting started for the day, circling and looking for the first thermals to carry them up and onwards.

I binocular-searched the group looking for any oddities ( hoping for a Black Vulture for example) and found a young Bald Eagle, a Sharp-shinned Hawk and a Red-tailed Hawk sharing the vultures’ search for rising air.

Young Bald Eagle

Young Bald Eagle

There are more goodies to come; in the days and weeks ahead there will be many more vultures, hawks, falcons and eagles sliding down that invisible glass highway.

Rusty Blackbird

3 October 2015, Hendrie Valley, Burlington ON. The blustery weather that blew in a couple of days ago intensified to nearly gale force overnight. I left home this morning under racing skies in all shades of malevolent grey and as I drove past Lake Ontario I could see it was pounding its hard shorelines with long tumbling whitecaps and towering plumes of spray.

I walked the census route sure, that in the sheltered valley, there would be some interesting birds. Just as before the valley harboured hundreds of Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-throated Sparrows all staying low out of the wind. There were many Ruby-crowned and Golden Crowned Kinglets and a bright flash of yellow in one of the darker corners of the forest turned out to be a beautiful, bright Black-throated Green Warbler.

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

Bird of the Day was a small group of Rusty Blackbirds who were feeding around the marshy edge of a large pond. Rusty Blackbird populations have declined precipitously over the past few decades. The general consensus is that losses of wintering wetlands, contaminants in their boreal breeding grounds and perhaps poisoning have been the causes. The rustiness, so evident in the shot below, and from which it gets its name, is apparent only in the late summer, fall and early winter.

Rusty Blackbird. (male)

Rusty Blackbird. (male)

Being generally blackish and brownish, the Rusty Blackbird is not the sort of bird to capture the public imagination the way Eastern Bluebirds or Wood Ducks did when their numbers were seen to be in free-fall. Few people seem to care that the Rusty Blackbird species is dwindling fast.

We rarely see Winter Wrens in any sort of numbers but when we do they are always a treat. This one watched me closely as I tried to keep track of the Yellow-rumped Warblers, kinglets and White-throated Sparrows numbers. Getting a photo of it was tricky as it was always on the move but I was flattered by the attention it paid me.

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This post contains photos in galleries visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.


Blue Jays

30 September 2015, Hendrie Valley, Burlington ON. Last night the weather changed, it turned cold and blustery and millions of migrants took heed.  On a day when the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team made some sort of scoreboard history, their namesake Blue Jays, the originals, took to streaming west in enormous numbers vacating the north as fast as they possibly could.

Blue Jay. Just one of thousands

Blue Jay. Just one of thousands

On my census round today I counted one hundred and fifty-seven Blue Jays, shrieking, screaming and riding south-westward on the brisk north-east wind. If I saw that many over two hours in my little slice of the sky, the total number making their way must have been immense. For the sheer wow-value spectacle of this exodus, Blue Jays were my Birds of the Day.

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But there were lots more on the move and I seemed to be in the thick of it. The geography of our little corner of Ontario creates something of a natural funneling corridor for birds heading south in fall, it was as if rush-hour had been uncorked. There were uncountable numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers, and White-throated Sparrows. The Yellow-rumps, looking nothing like the handsome birds of spring, were especially fond of the margins of cattail marshes where there were lots of insects; while the White-throated Sparrows stayed low in woodlands, scattering in front of me along the paths; who knows how many there were away from the paths. Four Winter Wrens seen may not seem like many, but they are usually all but invisible creeping through dense underbrush; for every one seen there could well be dozens not seen.

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Two young White-crowned Sparrows were an identification challenge. Adult White-crowns are very handsome birds with three bold slashes of bright white on their heads, the youngsters definitely lack that heraldic distinction, but fortunately the give-away was their hefty size (for a sparrow) clear grey-buff breast and pinkish bill.

The trees were bouncing with Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Nashville Warblers, Common Yellowthroats and Western Palm Warblers. I watched as two Red-bellied Woodpeckers harassed a young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker for no apparent reason. The sapsucker clung quietly to a dead limb hoping its attackers would lose interest and helpfully posed for this picture.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

This Gray Catbird caught my camera-sense when it fed briefly on some Red Osier Dogwood berries.Gray Catbird. Hendrie V. Sept 30 2015

Even after my census was done the day kept on delivering surprises. Dozens more Yellow-rumped Warblers, swirls of Cedar Waxwings and high in the troubled skies were circling Sharp-shinned and Red-tailed Hawks, while a young Bald Eagle flapped manfully against the wind or maybe it was just enjoying the change of season.

Blue-headed Vireo

27 September 2015, Hendrie Valley, Burlington ON. It was my happy pleasure to lead a group of four birders into this very bird-rich valley this morning. We were there to conduct the almost-daily census which, I had suggested, would take two hours although in the end we spent the best part of three at the task. The weather was perfect and the valley full of late summer colours and vegetative exuberance, just the place for a morning walk and lots of birds.

We can always count on plenty of resident White-breasted Nuthatches, Black Capped Chickadees, Mallards and Northern Cardinals, I expect that most of them will stay somewhere around here for the winter. Nearly everything else was on the move, either heading south with some sense of urgency or hanging around long enough to fatten up until forced out by the first hard frosts. There were dozens of Blue Jays passing overhead, screaming as they went. (I noted sixty-three but if any-one had told me I was mistaken and the real count was a hundred and sixty-three, I wouldn’t argue.)

Osprey at breakfast

Osprey at breakfast

A wheeling Osprey landed close by and ripped a few shreds from a captive fish before leaving to find a more private place to eat. Flocks of young Cedar Waxwings hung around tree-tops everywhere, we found a House Wren skulking deep in a grape tangle and heard but didn’t see two Carolina Wrens. Our list grew to thirty-eight species and towards the end of our walk there was a cascade of notables: A couple of cautious-looking Brown Thrashers skulking deep in the undergrowth trying to avoid being seen; a pair of Cooper’s Hawks glimpsed skimming overhead and a young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker among them. As the sun warmed the air and lit up the tree-tops we found quite a few migrant warblers; American Redstart, Nashville Warbler, and a Common Yellowthroat. A bright yellow Wilson’s Warbler and a Northern Parula gave short bursts of colour to remind us of the good old days of spring. (Three photos below are visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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The best came last, a Blue-headed Vireo. Faithful followers will have read of my soft spot for vireos in general and a particular place in my heart for Yellow-throated and Blue-headed Vireos. On the ‘in general’ point, vireos have the sort of tenacious here-I-am-take-it-or-leave-it air about them that makes them rather like the sometimes-left-out kid in the class who goes on to great success despite the  conventional wisdom of others. They work the middle and upper levels of forests and woody margins, looking for insects, moving deliberately from branch to branch while singing a casual two or three phrase song that is discernibly similar among many of the vireo species.

Blue-headed vireo

Blue-headed vireo

The Blue-headed Vireo prefers coniferous forests so is not much found around here; I usually see one or two each fall and count myself lucky when I do. I don’t think they’re particularly rare; it’s more that they tend to be solitary, generally undemonstrative and well, not secretive but inconspicuous. Today’s Blue-headed Vireo was singing brightly, minding its own business as if spring was in the air. It was working through the canopy over the heads of many family groups who were feeding chickadees and chipmunks. I heard it first and in time we all managed to see it clearly when it lingered in the open. It’s not a particularly large bird, sparrows sized, and were it not for its plumbeous blue head and startling white spectacles you might not pay it much attention. Hearing and then seeing this bird so well, almost text-book quality, pushed aside any thoughts that our Brown Thrashers, Cooper’s Hawks or especially the Northern Parula might be Birds of the Day. They are all good candidates, and have had their days in the sun, but they are not vireos and do not have a soft spot reserved for them by me.

Scarlet Tanager

22 September 2015. Ruthven Park, Cayuga ON. I was back at the bird observatory today ready to do the daily census. It was early when I arrived, a touch on the cool side and quite dewy, so I took part in a bit of bird- banding for a while.

Banding is not a time to linger too long with a bird in your hand, they have enough stress to deal with without a lot of oohing and aaahing. Nevertheless it is quite a privilege to hold a Magnolia Warbler, tiny, bright yellow and jet black, or a Blackpoll Warbler, a bird only half way through its autumn journey from Canada’s far north to the Amazon Basin. We hold these little mites just long enough to close a small aluminum band around their right tarsus, measure their wing length, assess fat deposits and muscle condition and finally weigh them.  The Blackpoll weighed in at 14.6 grams, a little over a typical 12 grams adult weight, but still a bit short of it’s probable weight of 18 to 20 grams that it will need before it sets out over the Atlantic Ocean.

I also enjoyed brief moments banding a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, admiring its primrose yellow under-parts, orangey-yellow lower mandible and the screen of short bristles that surround the base of its bill protecting its eyes from flailing fly-bits; one of the hazards of catching flies for a living. Much later we had a flight of mostly young Cedar Waxwings in one of the mist-nets.

Young male Scarlet Tanager

Young male Scarlet Tanager

The census round was unusually quiet, almost as quiet as a November morning might be. But it had its moments. Perhaps best (and Bird of the Day) was an encounter with a young male Scarlet Tanager. It flew down to the pathway in front of me and seemed oblivious to my closeness as it picked for food. I took several photos until it flew back up into the low branches of a small tree where it posed obligingly for even more shots. There was something quite wrong with its behaviour,yet it showed no signs of sickness, in fact it was a picture of health as far as I could tell. I managed to creep closer until I was within about four paces of it, clicking all the while as I approached.  You’ll see from the pictures that there is no trace of the fiery scarlet that we associate with this species, scarlet is a male affectation of spring and summer. The female is always a drab olive-green colour as are young of the year, which I believe this one is. The jet black of the wing coverts make this one a male; a female’s would be dark but not black. Scarlet Tanager. RP Sept 22 2015-2


September 20 2015. Hendrie Valley, Burlington ON. I spent all of the daylight hours today on a bird survey, we started at daybreak, six-thirty, and stayed until the light faded well after sunset. Our task was to count all birds seen and heard from a single location. It was a rewarding and interesting day and I certainly slept well at the end of it. This exercise was part of a project we have put together called the Long Watch. To save me the laborious task of explaining the whole project here, it’s with considerable relief that I can now point anyone who wishes to read about it by following this link.

The upshot of it was that over a thirteen-hour period we saw fifty-three species and well over eleven-hundred individual birds. Our team was positioned on a small lookout platform between a string of large ponds, which are flanked by woodlands, and river flats; it is a very bird-rich area. At first light, when you could hardly make them out, the dark forms of forty or more Wood Ducks flew in wheeling and side-slipping to settle in the waters. Black Crowned Night Herons laboured past heading for their day-time roosts, and behind us an Osprey sat atop the remaining spike of a long-dead tree, I think it had been there all night, and when the sun finally warmed things up, it left for a while to catch a large gleaming and wriggling catfish which vigorously objected to being eaten.

Red-winged Blackbird in fall plumage

Red-winged Blackbird in fall plumage

The first rays of sun illuminated an ash tree which we found was hopping with Nashville Warblers and a Blue-headed Vireo, both very nice sightings. Around mid morning a pair of adult Bald Eagles passed heavily overhead to settle just out of sight in some tree tops. We were thrilled by a couple of Merlins, at least two Green Herons and day-long flights of Northern Flickers and Blue Jays.And so the day went on. There was a noticeable mid-afternoon lull but as the evening approached, somehow the birds came out again.

Green Herons. Adult with juvenile behind.

Green Herons. Adult with juvenile behind.

There were several birds that might qualify as Bird of the Day: An early morning Blue-headed Vireo, some Rusty Blackbirds and a heard-but-not-seen Carolina Wren. But I think an Osprey or two provided us with just the right level of dramatic spice to keep us entertained and somewhat awe-struck all day. They had a favoured perch just around the corner, out of sight and from there would periodically wheel into view, sometimes carrying a fish. In this first shot it is carrying something orangey-red, perhaps a goldfish.

Osprey over Hendrie Valley. Sept 20 2015-2

Osprey over Hendrie Valley. Sept 20 2015


September 10 2015. Hampshire England.  I am so excited about this that I’m not sure quite where to start. Perhaps if I blurt it out: My uncle, a country-man of advanced years but keen eye and secure in his identification of birds, saw a Wallcreeper yesterday, here in southern England. That’s the story. 

And so what? Well, it wasn’t my sighting. But I’m okay with that, there’s precedent, I celebrated a couple of my son’s bird sightings some three or more years ago: a Cock of the Rock in Peru and Andean Condors in Peru. Also, Wallcreepers are excruciatingly rare in the UK. Among those birders who would drop everything and drive across country regardless of domestic or employment consequences, a Wallcreeper is worth risking everything for; it’s sensational.

In size and shape a Wallcreeper is a bit like the familiar Brown Creeper of North America or Treecreeper of Eurasia (perhaps a touch larger) but much prettier and far, far more elusive. Wallcreepers favour mountain ranges with bleak, towering rock-faces where they inconspicuously work the crevices and cracks in search of insects. Birders seeking to add a Wallcreeper to their life-list must spend their days in the Pyrenees or Alps praying for a glimpse. Shaded rather like a nuthatch, it is a generally greyish bird, inconspicuous as it moves quietly around the sheer cliff faces but, as my Birds of Europe field guide notes, “…. when shifting position the broad rounded wings are spread, gaudily marked with red, black and white above….much red on wing.”

So, what was a Wallcreeper doing in southern England? It’s anyone’s guess. Obviously far from its normal range of southern Europe and central Asia, somehow it had lost its way like the scant dozen previously reported sightings in the UK over the past two decades.

My uncle has been a knowledgeable and competent bird-watcher for decades longer than I. He is not part of the rat-race of birders who share and celebrate their sightings publicly, he usually keeps his bird pleasures to himself but in his daily phone chat with his eldest daughter, my cousin, it came out. She mentioned his triumph to me, “Dad told me he saw a bird yesterday that he’d never seen before in his life. A Wallcreeper. He said he watched it for a long time, he’s very excited about it.” And so he should be. I am too, for him and his Bird of the Day.

Common Kingfisher

5 September 2015. Broadlands, Hampshire, UK. The Common Kingfisher may be common, but it is rarely seen well and, if at all, is usually more of an inference, suspected from a flash of iridescent metallic blue following the course of a small river. Such was my view of one today, and I count it as lucky enough and good enough to have been my bird of the day. 

Following a day of busy tourism, we needed a bit of downtime, certainly I did because I’m the only driver, the car is new to me and the roads very, very challenging. We walked for a long while following a hiking trail through quiet farmlands bordering the River Test until we found a quiet place by a small tributary stream to sit and daydream. Some of us chose to read or knit; I looped my camera and binoculars over my neck and watched this soft watercolour landscape for whoever or whatever might show itself. 

There were un-namable fish in the river, the occasional farm tractor and a solitary hiker determined to cover ten miles by late lunchtime. I could hear, but not see, Robins, Great Tits and Wrens in the dense, fruit-loaded Hawthorn, Blackberry and Elderberry hedgerows. A Grey Heron hauled itself lugubriously from one unseen river bend to another and a Kestrel hovered in the wind over sheep-dotted fields.

As I leaned on a bridge railing, looking deep into the urgently flowing waters laced with waving waterweed, the Kingfisher must have passed through the low arch under my feet. One moment it was there and the next it was just a dazzle of shiny blue, bright under the overhanging trees, chasing the upstream.

Unlike the conspicuous, clattering and attention-grabbing antics of North America’s Belted Kingfisher, Europe’s Common Kingfisher is half the size and to all intents and purposes silent. Decades ago, I knew a very accomplished birder who came upon the territory of a pair of Common Kingfishers and with great patience managed to photograph them both at rest and plunging for minnows. Those were great shots even though it was in the era of black and white photography.  


September 2 2015, Gatwick airport, UK. I’ m a window seat kind of air passenger, I understand the convenience of an aisle seat well enough but I’ll skip it any time in favour of the living map below. It’s my idea of fun to interpret the physical and political geography passing under. But as we coast in on the final approach the challenge turns to spotting the first signs of local bird life. On the final approach to Huatulco, Mexico a couple of years ago, we were eye-to-eye with Black Vultures as they wheeled and turned over the coastal scrub-land. The approach to Panama City airport leads over mangrove swamps where egrets stalk the shallows. After touch-down as we taxi to the terminal the first bird is always something that favours open fields and has no fear of big noises; at Pablo Picasso Airport in Malaga, Spain a Lesser Kestrel was my first sighting. Approaching Gatwick Airport early this morning it was no surprise to see a trio of Magpies busying themselves at the runway’s edge, ignoring the wide sweep of our taxiing aircraft; things that fly are nothing new to them. As our our welcoming committee they were my Bird of the Day.

Great Egret

August 30 2015. Hendrie Valley, Burlington ON. Our team of volunteers restart the routine censuses in two days, we monitor the busy migration months of September and October and then April and May. I did a warm-up census around one of our routes this morning, a mix of wooded valley-sides, swampy flood plain, quiet ponds and a small river. It’s always interesting.

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird watching and preening

A change in weather seems to have slowed things down a bit in contrast to some pretty exciting days last week. We are in for a week of very warm, probably thunderous, days. Not great birding weather. It’s cold fronts pushing down from the north that stir migrant birds into moving, not blankets of sticky warmth like this.

Over the next four to six weeks, once the warm humid air moves away, there will be lots of variety to come . Today was rather well, not ho-hum exactly, more so-so; if there’s a difference.  Black-capped Chickadees by the score, actually I counted forty-three, late brood, young Song Sparrows, Common Grackles and American Goldfinches everywhere.

Common Yellowthroat. Creeksode Trail RBG. 30 Aug 2015

Young Common Yellowthroat

Among summer residents counted were: Eastern Wood Peewees, Warbling and Red-eyed Vireos, Gray Catbirds, Common Yellowthroats, Eastern Phoebes and three Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.  

I watched a mini-drama as a Cooper’s Hawk was harassed by some Blue Jays and I was starting to wonder where today’s wow! moment would come from. Could it be the young Common Yellowthroat who seemed to want to keep an eye on me, or maybe a vocal but unseen Carolina Wren, if only it would show itself.

Great Egret. Hendrie valley

Great Egret. Hendrie valley

Then, to validate my belief that there’s always a bird of the day no matter how tedious or otherwise unexciting the day may be, I spotted this Great Egret watching over the ponds from on high. Great Egrets aren’t rare around here; they used to be, but bird populations expand and contract and Great Egrets are in an expansionary mood.  While we see them infrequently in spring, as summer wears on they start to show up and it’s not uncommon to have a dozen or two in the area in August and September. It’s hard to miss them of course.

We are heading to the UK in a couple of days.  I’ll be posting from there. The change of bird life will be refreshing, if not novel.  It’s what I grew up on.