Great Horned Owl

15 April 2015. Faithful readers may recall my January posting about a Snowy Owl that I helped rescue. It was a roadside casualty and I was called upon to ferry it from a nearby animal rescue centre to the Owl Foundation some 60 Km away. (A worthy wildlife cause if ever there was.)

I’m on the foundation’s list of volunteer ambulance drivers and just after lunch today I was again called to see if I could collect an owl in distress, this time it was a young Great-horned Owl that had been picked up on a golf course. Off I went and found it in the care of four burly young grounds-keepers. It had been discovered under a pine tree early in the day, picked up, cuddled and cared for as best they knew how. They had checked with a local veterinarian who gave them a number of suggestions, including the Owl Foundation. When I arrived, it was in a covered cardboard box and evidently terrified with the events that had overtaken it. As I picked it up to go, it was clear that the hearts of these large men had melted over a baby owl. They wanted to know what would happen to it and when, if ever, it would go free. One of them had already checked with his wife to see if they could raise it themselves; wisely, she refused.

It is the Owl Foundation’s practice to save orphaned or injured owls and to return them from whence they came if possible. In this case, I felt pretty sure that the chick could be reared to maturity and returned to the golf course, so I told them to expect to hear from the foundation when it was time to release it.

An hour or so later I delivered it to the Owl Foundation. It clacked its beak loudly as we opened the box. The technician picked it up carefully and decided that it was perhaps a week or maybe a week and a half old. There was no note of reserve or caution in her voice because, as she said; “Oh we’ll just put him in with Old Red and she’ll take care of him – or her.” Old Red is a wise old owl, injured and unable to fly, she tends orphans every year and will foster it like one of her own.  All being well, in September or October it will be returned to the golf course; Dave and the boys will be happy to see it again.

Great Horned Owl Chick

Great Horned Owl Chick

This photo says it all: helpless but feisty and full of potential. Note the size of its beak.

If there’s any unhappy part to this story it is that January’s rescued Snowy Owl did not live very long. I had delivered in what we’d thought was fairly good condition but a respiratory infection soon set in and turned out to be fatal.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

15 April 2015. Cayuga ON. Funny thing about early spring migration is how it can blow hot and cold. Today it was cold, bird-wise that is. The weather on the other hand was delightful, bright sunshine, no wind, not a cloud anywhere and just a light crunch of frost across the fields. Under these conditions I did the daily census at the bird observatory.

Four of us trudged around. The list of species grew quickly but it was mostly in ones and twos. Of course some of the expected nesters: Tree Swallows, Red-winged Blackbirds and Black-capped Chickadees were around in numbers, but probably more than half of the page in my notebook tells a lean story: Common Grackle-2, Chipping Sparrow-2, Eastern Bluebird-1, Canada Goose-3, and so on.

I had some really sharp-eyed and sharp-eared helpers with me, and one of them, Lisa, picked up the song of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet well before the rest of us. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet’s song is a brief scramble of sweet notes ending with a series of four or five descending clearer notes. It’s the kind of song that demands you stop, listen and look for its owner. We found it quite easily and, as is typical with kinglets, it was endlessly moving on the hunt for small insects. It was my Bird of the Day in an otherwise average census round but, consistent with the morning’s experience, we only found one of them.

 

Winter Wren

10 April 2015. Burlington ON. Thunderstorms had been with us most of yesterday and by nightfall the weather radar showed another slab of heavy weather coming our way. As we turned in, wind-driven rain fell in torrents battering our windows. Today at breakfast, there was a note on our local birding list-serve saying that around two in the morning, under a clear sky ,(really?) the night was alive with the calls of migrating sparrows. So while I slept, thankful for my warm and dry indoors, millions of birds were on the move out there, making their ways northward, some coming our way, others leaving us and following the retreating snows.

With a not very encouraging weather forecast I decided to walk around one of our census routes this morning. The moment I set foot on the trails I could hear that overnight had indeed been busy; the sky must have been full of American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos all rushing back to their nesting grounds in the far north. They were scattered all over the woodland floor at daybreak,singing and chipping to each other and madly refuelling; perhaps they’ll push on tonight.   I could hear a few White-throated Sparrows, even a White-crowned Sparrow and an Eastern Towhee. It must have been quite a night.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

My day’s census turned up forty-two species. It was a result of that large overnight flight of returning birds and the crazy skies that seemed to be the product of chaotic weather. Strong winds still threw things around, there were several mystery birds that dived or fell out of sight before I could figure them out. A low flying Rough-legged Hawk baffled me for a few moments, and thirty wind-tossed Tree Swallows together with two Barn Swallows blew up and down the valley.

Out of a tumultuous sky came rain and birds. I watched some Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows bathing in a small puddle. They were quite charming to watch but I don’t think aesthetics had anything to do with it. Where had they been, and what had they been doing that necessitated a thoroughly soaking bath?

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I saw or heard many first-of-the year birds including: White-crowned Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Phoebe, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Belted Kingfisher. A few Golden Crowned Kinglets flitted frustratingly quickly through tangles of vines and a House Wren had me baffled for quite a while as it picked and probed at the water’s edge of a marsh. I was pleased to see and hear two Belted Kingfishers, they’ll probably stay around here until October. Oh, and this smart little Hooded Merganser was quite breathtaking; if you had to invent a cartoon duck would you ever come up with this? Hooded Merganser in Hendrie Valley

Bird of the Day was a surprising Winter Wren. There were many birds that gave me a little fizz of excitement or made me smile, but the Winter Wren made me say Wow! (quietly to myself.)   As is usually the case, I heard it before I saw it; in fact I thought it was more distant than it turned out to be. It was exploring the dark innards of a gaping rotten log; exactly the sort of place to expect them. Winter Wrens are a two-part delight: first, a tiny song, a thin, tight-knit tumble of high notes. Two or three Julys ago I managed to capture a short movie of a singing Winter Wren and inasmuch as a picture is worth a thousand words, you’ll be further off if you follow this link and see for yourself.  The second Winter Wren delight is the tiny mite of a bird itself, it’s the size of a golf ball, just as easy to lose in the undergrowth but far more fascinating.

American Robin

8 April 2015. Burlington ON. I really hadn’t reckoned on a Bird of the Day entry today. It’s been pouring for much of the morning and as I write our back yard is flooded. I can’t be sure, but I suspect that winter still hasn’t quite left the soil so it’s possible that a pan of sub-surface ice is preventing free drainage through our otherwise lightish loam.

As I gazed out of a window, I noticed this wonderfully handsome male American Robin pacing around looking for food. He’s been wandering over our lawn for a while, whether he’s found anything much I couldn’t say. He has also been working over some sheltered patches of leaf litter and picking at a few desiccated ornamental berries; I think he’s doing okay.American Robin in our back yard

I managed to get a few shots of him which, despite two sheets of glass between the camera and its subject, worked out quite well. Note a couple of things: The dark sooty blackness of his cheeks and head, that’s what distinguishes him as male, it contrasts with the slate-grey brown of the neck and back, these lighter tones characterise the head of a female robin. Look too at the speckling of raindrops on his tail and flight feathers.American Robin in our back yard-3

It’s interesting (to me) to note the structure and pattern his wing feathers: the wingtips are made up of long pointy and somewhat brownish primaries, they are overlaid by secondaries (which appear in the photos with light coloured edges) and they in turn are topped with layers of coverts. The less stiff feathers of the shoulder are known as scapulars. These feathers and structures when extended create an aerodynamically perfect wing, but in these pictures’ they’re folded as neatly as a courtesan’s fan.American Robin in our back yard-2

Lesser Yellowlegs and Great Egret

6 April 2015. Hamilton ON. A group of likeminded birders and I are engaged in a couple of months of regular bird censuses. Our task, over the two spring months of April and May, is to systematically walk specific routes and record all birds seen and heard. The long-term objective is to build a picture of bird species’ populations and species mix in a very bird-rich part of Ontario. This is the first year in what is designed as a multi-year project, our efforts will probably not start to demonstrate meaningful data until a decade of effort has accumulated.

We are watching and recording the return of dozens of species, starting now with waterfowl, but before long we’ll start seeing the neo-tropical migrants. Soon we’ll notice that some winter visitor species: Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows in particular have left to return north to breed; the Great South to North Spring Shift.

Today in a biting northeasterly wind (Force 3 on the Beaufort Scale) we encountered thirty-three species, a third of which we could safely say were returned migrants. They’d be ho-hum birds a little later in the year but we welcome their return even so, species such as: Common Grackles, Song Sparrows and Killdeers. Less welcome, but returned nevertheless, were the first Brown-headed Cowbirds; a species whose parasitism of small passerines made ecological sense in their original prairie habitat but their spread east into the habitat of eastern woodland species has been and continues to be nothing short of devastating.

Great Egrets in September

Great Egrets in September

Best birds today were a Great Egret and a Lesser Yellowlegs. Neither is a shock to the system, both species are generally and statistically reckoned to show up around the end of the first week in April. Not a shock then, but a surprise; to me anyway. The Great Egret because they don’t breed anywhere around here, I suppose this one was just passing through. We don’t see them consistently until July, August and September when dozens of them settle in to our mudflats and marshes having finished with their far flung breeding colonies.

Lesser Yellowlegs. Cape May N.J.

Lesser Yellowlegs. Cape May N.J.

The Lesser Yellowlegs just seemed so out of place picking its way along the fringes of the barely ice-free shallows. Like the egret, they are usually associated with the warmth of late summer when, on their return south, they rest and feed here awhile in preparation for the next few thousand miles of migration. In August our shoreline habitat must surely be alive with delicious invertebrates, today it would be a quite different matter; just wriggly things on ice.

I’ve included a couple of late summer shots to warm things up.

Tundra Swans

3 April 2015. Hamilton ON. I cannot allow spring’s threshold to go by without somehow celebrating Tundra Swans. There was a time, when I was, perforce more of a creature of the climate controlled, neon-lit indoors, when I might have had to seek them out. Now living virtually under their spring flyway and also having all of the advantages of happy retirement, I could almost sit by my window and wait for them to appear; I could, but I don’t live like that.  Three or four times this spring I have had the happy experience to have been out somewhere doing something useful when I heard the unmistakable, far-reaching calls of Tundra Swans heading north to their breeding grounds. You will almost always hear them long before you find them in the lively skies of March.

Their spring migration takes them from their Atlantic coast wintering grounds to the coastal marshes of the sub-Arctic to breed. Using the Great Lakes as open water stepping-stones, their first stop after leaving Chesapeake Bay is the food-rich farm fields and wetlands around Lake Erie. Those first refueling stops are just a short flying time away by the time I see them passing high over our end of Lake Ontario. A few flocks skim low over our harbour, perhaps wanting to make the passing acquaintance of our wintering flock of  Trumpeter Swans.

Tundra Swans approaching

Tundra Swans approaching

It’s those passing flocks that I love to see.  Sometimes almost out of sight just a long undulating V of perhaps a few dozen birds twinkling white in the sunlight, other times it’s an occasional low-flying formation barely a hundred feet above water level. As they go they call to each other, a soft yet incredibly far-reaching, hwhoo – hwhoo. I suppose it’s a staying-in-touch call, the leader checking with the followers or perhaps it’s the older birds showing the youngsters the landmarks around them, vital information for future years. These photos, taken in threatening weather a couple of days ago, of a small flock flying low over the harbour, captures for me something of the single-mindedness and strength of Tundra Swans on the move.

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This morning I was one of a small group doing a census of resident and migrant birds. We’d had several first-of-the-year sightings: Eastern Phoebe, Brown-headed Cowbird, Tree Swallows and Northern Flicker among them. As we stared across a wide shallow lake working hard to make out a Green-winged Teal, the sounds of a couple of flocks of Tundra Swans stopped our work: one flight of about forty was very high but pretty against the blue sky, the others low enough for us to appreciate the power and order in the flock. For me they were my Bird of the Day, notwithstanding the many other welcome new arrivals.

Hoary Redpoll

1 April 2015. Burlington ON. Today’s date notwithstanding, the unexpected and exciting discovery of a Hoary Redpoll left our small birding group with more questions than answers.

The flow of early spring migrants has taken hold even though the air temperature was just one degree above freezing; it barely changed all morning. Still, our group encountered some encouraging sightings including: A small group of male Wood Ducks looking for open water in hopes of establishing breeding territory; Five Hooded Mergansers, all but one of them males, exploring a narrow opening in an iced-over pond; and a Red-shouldered Hawk wheeling high overhead and glowing in the morning sun. Three Brown Creepers made us all smile; they’re unassuming and industrious little birds.

Our Hoary Redpoll came near the end of our hike. I spotted it while scanning a still largely frozen patch of mosses, woodland debris and tree roots. We were looking for any Skunk Cabbage spears that might have emerged through the ice and snow. Skunk Cabbage when full-grown looks vaguely like a large, bright-green, blowsy cabbage and its crushed leaves smell very musky. It is in the very large arum family of plants (along with Jack in the Pulpit, Cuckoopint and Calla Lily) and has the curious ability to use chemical means to generate sufficient warmth to melt its way through lingering snow and get a start on spring. Its rather introverted and hooded flowers appear long before its leaves just as soon as the first spike has pulled itself up out of the frozen ground. We look for in late March because, if nothing else, it’s a welcome sign of spring.

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As I looked over this known Skunk Cabbage patch, I caught sight of a small finch picking for fallen seeds. After a moment’s puzzling I announced that we’d got a Redpoll, meaning (without thinking) a Common Redpoll (the same species I’d seen in flocks just a few days earlier). It was a little hard to follow as it made its way through the debris, but eventually we all managed to enjoy it.   I noted, but didn’t comment on, how much lighter overall it was compared to the individuals seen on the past weekend. It seemed somehow more finely drawn and even the pink on its breast was more of a blush than a bold declaration. Then one of our team raised the question whether it might be a Hoary Redpoll. Well yes! That seemed like a plausible fit, but Hoary Redpolls are rarely found this far south. I resolved to do some further reading.

The Hoary Redpoll has long been considered a far more northern species and subtly distinct from the Common Redpoll. It differs in having more frosty white tones and somewhat lighter streaking. All authorities caution that the intergrades between the two species are frustratingly subtle; there are darker Hoary Redpolls and lighter Common Redpolls and there seem to be few if any definitively distinguishing field marks. So did we see a Hoary or did we see a light Common Redpoll?

I believe that by most, if not all traditional measures, we found a Hoary Redpoll. But maybe it’s a moot point because very recent DNA analysis of both species shows them to be virtually identical. The belief is growing that the two species are in fact one and the same; like humans they come in many shades. It seems more than likely that science and the arbiters of bird nomenclature will soon rule that henceforth Hoary Redpolls shall be known as Common Redpolls, leaving the adjective Hoary as a quaint artefact. Either way it was a great sighting.

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For the sake of comparison, here are a few photos in galleries visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.  Above are some Common Redpolls seen just a few days ago and below are two shots of today’s Hoary Redpoll. (These two photos courtesy of Bonnie Kinder.)

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Gray Jay & Common Redpoll

28 & 29 March 2015 Algonquin Park, ON. We took a weekend off and went north to a small and rather elegant lakeside resort. Odd, in a way, that just when winter is finally letting go, we should choose to go to where it is still firmly in control. Still, it was all very beautiful, Christmas card scenery with clean virgin snow draping spruce trees and clear blue skies.

A few days before our arrival, we were asked if we had any special needs or requests; I answered, suggesting that Gray Jays and Evening Grosbeaks would be a nice touch. I got the Gray Jay, just one; but no grosbeaks.

A scattering of seed just outside the dining room attracted a sizeable flock of Common Redpolls. We sometimes see redpolls in southern Ontario but it’s been a couple of years since I last encountered any and that was along a roadside where one or two were picking over some the snow covered Goldenrod seed-heads. For us they are only ever winter visitors because they breed very far north in the high latitudes south of Hudson Bay, a land of dry lichen-heath tundra, stunted spruces and willow thickets. This hungry flock was very quick to flee at the first sudden sound or movement, but with patience I was able to move in close enough for a few shots that capture their dainty essence of finch.

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The Gray Jay was something of a triumph. It’s not that they are particularly rare within their broad boreal range, but that range does not extend far enough south for it to be a familiar bird. I was feeling a bit of Gray Jay deficit. While the related Blue Jays are unfailingly spectacular and raucous, Gray Jays instead are a beautiful pearly grey and white, quiet and endearing.

Gray Jay

Gray Jay

Interestingly, a closely related yet slightly more colourful species, the Siberian Jay, is found in the similar habitat across Eurasia and another, the increasingly rare Sichuan Jay, inhabits a small part of Tibet. The Siberian and the Gray are both known for their quiet boldness and are perfectly at ease hanging around campsites where they will readily swoop down to pick up unguarded food. Despite their quiet ways, there is nothing surreptitious about Gray Jays, I suppose if they were humans we’d say butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. You can get away with a lot that way.

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

Turkey Vultures

23 March 2015 Cayuga, ON. With an absolutely clear calendar I foresaw a day in which I could seek some spring-arrival Tundra Swans and other waterfowl usually associated with the first open water. But the temperatures dropped precipitously last night and, although bright and sunny, it was cold today and a brisk north wind only made things worse. I had little appetite for standing around peering at distant ducks under such conditions; there are times when I’ll willingly do so – but not today.

I visited our local hawk-watch where three shivering and cheerless souls, stood scanning an empty sky. I like hawk-watching under certain conditions: an abundance of birds and moderate temperatures being foremost; I left and headed for the bird observatory where I spend so much time in spring and fall.

Not far from the bird observatory I disturbed a pair of Turkey Vultures who had found the corpse of a raccoon; a satisfying meal I imagine. They flew heavily to a nearby shed and sat disconsolately waiting for me to leave. Anticipating a good photo opportunity, instead I parked in a convenient spot and waited for them to revisit their breakfast before it got cold. Evidently it wasn’t that important to them for after a few minutes they left for a little exercise, a flap around the neighbourhood. I took just a couple of shots, this one ruffling its feathers just before take off.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

At the bird observatory, I bundled up and walked around my spring and fall census route compiling an interesting list of birds, including three petulant Killdeer and a Red-tailed Hawk driving a one-year-old Bald Eagle away from the hawk’s chosen nest site. Two male Wood Ducks flew past me following the river upstream with a flock of six male Mallards close behind. The Wood Ducks were squealing, as they do, like frightened piglets, a rather disappointing sound from a bird, which, in every other way, is thoroughly endearing.

Chilled and eyes streaming, I left knowing that warmer weather is really not very far away and quite happy with my day’s sightings. Especially with the Turkey Vultures, my slightly macabre Birds of the Day.

Gadwall

21 March 2015. Bronte, Oakville, ON. For some thirty five years I have maintained a rather hi-and-miss rolling diary in which I write of notable things happening in the natural world. On this date in 2012 I wrote, “Red-necked Grebes in courtship at Bronte Harbour.”   I remember it well; a pair were conducting an impressive side-by-side courtship dance. They ploughed the waters in a series of brief rituals, braying and cooing to each other as they went. Here are a few pictures from that day.

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Reading that diary note, I decided to see if they’d returned, hoping of course for another chance to witness that elaborate water-dance. This particular harbour is one of the very few places in eastern North America where Red-necked Grebes breed, and they are so indifferent to the presence of people and their play boats, that their nests are easily observed, sometimes no more than ten metres from shore. Today a few Red-necked Grebes were present, having probably returned from a winter spent along the Atlantic coast. But conditions are quite different this year, as yet there is little open water and the sheltered yacht-basin breeding site is still largely iced over. Among the three or four grebes I found, I could see no sign of pair formation let alone courtship. Once the ice melts it won’t take long though for things to change.

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Scanning the yacht basin with its geometric assembly of docks arranged like the halves of a zipper, I found plenty of Redheads – always gorgeous, Lesser Scaup (ditto) and Long-tailed Ducks (ditto). And then, in the distance, a small flock of Gadwall puttering around on an expanse of ice. They were today’s wow! bird. Not because they are particularly colourful, they don’t have any of the splendour of some of their kin: Mallards, Green-winged Teal or Northern Pintails for example. But they have a sort of understated coolness, a disregard for fashion born of self-assurance. Author and ornithologist, Pete Dunne puts it this way; “ Fairly common and conservative, in both attire and social commitment. Males make a fashion statement with tasteful gray….” In the field, one of the most distinctive features of the male is its overall grey appearance, a splash of white in the wing and  a coal-black rear end. The female on the other hand is overall greyish brown, not unlike a female Mallard although slightly more streamlined.

I sense that my words are unlikely to make much of a case for a Gadwall Appreciation Society; it’s not that important anyway. I like them a lot and don’t see enough of them, but when I do they make me smile and celebrate inwardly. Enough to be my Bird of the Day. Here are a couple of photos of that group, maybe you’ll find some of what I see in them.

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