American Pipits

17 November 2014. Burlington ON.  If the first snow of winter should occur overnight it can be a useful aid in getting a determinedly sleeping, school-aged boy awake and out of bed. “Hey, Graham! There’s snow outside!” And Bingo, he’s up! It usually worked once a year, sometimes twice.

Our children are long past that stage now but we still get first of the winter snowfalls; it came last night and continued all morning. I had early errands to do but stopped at a favourite spot to see how snow was affecting the birds.

Well, firstly, this was a day to be a photographer, the quiet wet snow had outlined everything to Christmas Card perfection. Secondly, a coating of snow makes life tough for birds; it’s easy to forget that, and at this time with many late migrants still around, their distress was obvious. The snow had driven them to search for food in places which previously they probably would have avoided. I was quite surprised by the number of sparrows, in particular, seen hanging around bare roadsides looking for food. Snow and hungry birds made for some great, if slightly clichéd, shots but the still-falling snow was wet and I had to be careful not to soak my camera. That same caution seemed to have kept the often-encountered opportunist photographers at home; I had the place to myself. Here in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email, are a few of today’s shots of adorable, if hungry, birds.

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It was while dodging and stepping carefully around puddles of slush, that I noticed the arrival of a group of what I took to be sparrows, land some distance away. I’d left my binoculars in the car (water on lens avoidance again) so wasn’t sure what I was seeing. So I took a couple of long shots for later scrutiny and promptly forgot about them, they soon flew away.

Later as I was reeling through the morning’s cutesy images, I came across those two quick-shots and almost exclaimed out loud. What are these? Oddly my first thought was Redwings, not Red-winged Blackbirds, but Redwings, a pretty little winter thrush of north eastern Europe. Well, clearly it wasn’t that, and it wasn’t until I got home that I was able to take a better look to confirm my second thought, American Pipits. Here they are.

American Pipits

American Pipits

American Pipits aren’t particularly rare, but being birds of open fields and shorelines, they just seem to slip by under the radar. They are closely related to the Old World wagtails and share much of their rather effervescent charm.  American Pipits winter well south of the Mason Dixon Line in the U.S.A, and breed in our far north far beyond the tree line; so for us they’re transients passing through and this is the right time of year to see them. While  not especially noteworthy to those who collect rarities, I was pleased to see them, my Birds of the Day.

Canvasback and Wilson’s Phalarope

14 November 2014. Hamilton and Burlington ON There has been a lot of fuss recently about a Wilson’s Phalarope lingering on some nearby mudflats and making itself generally available to those who would photograph or otherwise record its presence. In the course of some errands I found myself (An odd expression since I wasn’t lost!) close to its reported location, so made a short diversion to take a look. Well, there it was, exactly where everyone said, fluffed up, neck drawn down and hunched. It stood quietly with its back to a cold wind that owed more to January than November. I’ve got to admit that I was underwhelmed, feeling rather flat about this lovely little bird; maybe because there was no element of surprise in finding it, no wow! moment.

It did get up and run around for a while mixing in with squads of shuffling Green-winged Teal. Its slender, finely drawn features put it in the fine-china category of shorebirds, but dressed as it was in its winter greys and looking a little abandoned, it was well, nice but a little uninspiring. I think I quite unreasonably expected more of it.

Phalaropes are dainty little shorebirds; worldwide there are only three species, all of which breed in the northern reaches of North America, two of the three in Ontario. Wilson’s Phalaropes head to western South America for our winter, they gather in tens of thousands at highly saline lakes in the highlands of central Andes in Peru, Chile and Bolivia. The time to see them at their best is on their return spring journey when the females in particular are extremely showy. One of the pictures in the gallery below (visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email) includes many spring plumage Wilson’s Phalaropes, it was taken by a companion in El Salvador in May of 2013.

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Later in the day I stopped briefly to see what waterfowl had shown up in the harbour; it will soon be a mass of wintering ducks, species like Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead and Greater Scaup. In my brief scan I quickly picked up Trumpeter Swans, Red-breasted Merganser, Redheads and Canvasbacks, all nice birds. It’s not that I’m comparing Canvasbacks to Wilson’s Phalaropes, but the delight of seeing a Canvasback, a rather highborn looking duck, had that little wow! moment that made it, in some ways, a real Bird of the Day rather than the oh-yeah-there-it-is-ness of the earlier phalarope.

Canvasbacks in Christmas snowstorm

Canvasbacks in Christmas snowstorm

Fox Sparrows

11 November 2014. Burlington ON. This just might have been the last warm day of the year. Taking advantage of this beautiful grab-it-while-you-can day, we took our exercise along a bird-rich valley and were well rewarded.

My companion soon spotted a very unexpected Cooper’s Hawk sitting on the railing of a large pedestrians-only bridge. Knowing that Cooper’s Hawks rarely tolerate human closeness for long, and hoping for a perfect photograph, I moved closer as unobtrusively as possible. Well, the results weren’t great but here’s what we saw.

Coopers Hawk

Coopers Hawk

Recently I dwelt on the mild embarrassment of being phalaroped; that is to say, leading myself down the garden path to an incorrect identification. I came close again today. We approached a group of three smallish birds high overhead in a bare, perhaps dead, tree. Through binoculars and craning my neck, I struggled to make an identification. Eventually I concluded that I was looking at three juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. I thought I was seeing the streaky underside of three young males with a vague patch of crimson at the throat. Their size was right, the timing was okay, but not perfect, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks should be well on their way to Guatemala by now, and frustratingly, I couldn’t think what else they might be. Fox Sparrows was a possibility, although I don’t associate them with tree-tops, they are birds of the forest floor that like to scratch around in leaf litter. My camera is the perfect tool in marginal viewing situations like this, so propping it against a stable surface, I took several pictures for closer scrutiny later. I’m glad I did for that’s when the Rose-breasted Grosbeak idea came unstuck.

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Above (in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)  are a couple of reasonable photos of today’s birds as well as another individual in the hand for comparison. I make today’s birds Fox Sparrows. Here’s why: The imagined crimson at the throat turns out more of an agglomeration of brownish-red spots the same colour as its wings and under-tail, and consistent with a common field mark of Fox Sparrows. The reddish chevrons on the breast and belly are right for a Fox Sparrow, and wrong for a grosbeak. I’m left, however, puzzling over these three being way up high and exposed on top of a tree when I always though of them as birds of the low leafy understory. Most reference books make that point, only Pete Dunne acknowledges that Fox Sparrows, when flushed, often fly straight to take a high perch in a tree. Conclusion: there’s always something to be learned and the birds don’t necessarily read the texts.

There were other nice birds this morning. Notably, several shiny Green-winged Teal dabbling and swimming alongside some, giant by comparison, Mallards. Later a Sharp-shinned Hawk wheeled low overhead showing off the bands of its fanned tail and its under-wing patterns.

Green-winged Teal (F & M)

Green-winged Teal (F & M)

Lesser Yellowlegs

2 November 2014. Cayuga ON.  This Bird of the Day story started this same first weekend of November three years ago when I was taking part in our local naturalists’ clubs annual Fall Bird Count. A companion and I were criss-crossing an expanse of quiet countryside, mostly farmland and deciduous woodlots. A wide, yet generally shallow, river marked the west boundary of our chosen area, and it was on the shore of this river that we came across a sensational sighting, a phalarope; at least that’s what I made it out to be. On the opposite, gravelly, margin of the river I saw a small grayish shorebird wading chest-deep, or possibly swimming, darting and twirling in a frantic chase for food. It was really at the limit of reasonable binocular viewing, but I was almost certain that it was a phalarope of some kind. But… I hadn’t seen many phalaropes in my life, wasn’t really sure which of two or three of the world’s species it might possibly be, and wondered if it wasn’t getting a bit late for in the fall for them anyway.

Well, after my excitement had died down, and in the exercise of an abundance of caution, my companion and I drove to share the triumph with, or maybe solicit the help of, an expert birder who was rather easily convinced to come and look. By the time he arrived, there was no phalarope to be seen, however we could see a Lesser Yellowlegs picking and prodding for food along the same stretch of shoreline. I think it would be a 99.999% certainty that this was the very same bird that we’d seen, chest deep in water, barely an hour earlier. We thereupon coined the term ‘phalaroped’ as the term for willfully allowing yourself to be misled as to a bird’s identity. Being phalaroped is one of the realities of birding; it happens too often.

These photos, the two above of a bunch of distant Red-necked Phalaropes  (click photo to enlarge) and one below of a Lesser Yellowlegs, may help illustrate how, under marginal viewing conditions, they could be confused.Lesser yellowlegs

Today I undertook to cover that same territory for this year’s Fall Bird Count. It was sunny and cold and we encountered some notables including a flock of 45 House Finches, a young Bald Eagle being harassed by three Red-tailed Hawks and a Northern Harrier, always an elegant bird. But best Birds of the Day came at that same river’s edge where, to my astonishment, on the opposite, gravelly, margin were two Lesser Yellowlegs ! Same time and place; could it possibly be that one of them was the same bird as my phalarope of three years ago?

Snow Bunting

30 October 2014. Burlington ON. The study of birds, like many a generally worthwhile pursuit, is a constant learning experience. This morning included a teachable moment that reminded me just how much I don’t know.Snow Bunting. Valley Inn-2

Towards the end of a satisfying birding morning we came upon a solitary Snow Bunting that left me almost speechless. I was sure, certain, that we’d found a bird so far out of season as to be at least a mild sensation. After all, Snow Buntings are birds of mid-winter, January and February, they’re birds of hard cold days when the landscape is stark, hostile and windswept, not mild and still leafy as it was today.

I could hardly wait to get home to post a “Guess what I saw!” sighting on our local bird-reports line. But first (at least I’ve learned to look before you leap too far)….a precautionary check of the bible of local birding, Robert Curry’s Birds of Hamilton and Surrounding Areas. Here’s what I read; “We know them as winter visitors along the shores of Lake Ontario and Hamilton Harbour when they first arrive in October, and later in open fields as snow cover develops… In late October, flocks of arriving Snow Buntings sweep along the Lake.” Curry reports mean fall arrival dates in the last week of October. Well, yes, but… Oh never mind, it was a delightful sighting, it made my day (Bird of the Day) and it taught me something I didn’t know; Snow Buntings arrive here in October; look for them. Here’s a few more shots of it in a gallery.

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It was not the only highlight of a pleasant two-hour walk through some of the richest, most varied habitat in our region. It started out a little flat with Slate-colored Juncos, White-throated Sparrows and Black-capped Chickadees, nothing wrong with any of those, but nothing all that newsworthy about them either. I had the company of a couple who are fairly new to birding and Marion was pleased when I found a small flock of Eastern Bluebirds, a first for her. A little later we watched a group of Cedar Waxwings feasting on the berries of Tartarian Honeysuckle and were surprised to see a Great Blue Heron perched on a riverside branch, uncharacteristically ambivalent about our closeness. For a while I wondered if it had managed to get itself into a place without an easy exit and therefore making it difficult to fly off, Great Blues are usually quick to distance themselves from any possible human threat.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Reaching an area of shallow water and mudflats, we were treated to a couple of small flotillas of Hooded Mergansers diving for whatever is usually found in shallow silty waters. The males were very spectacular in their striking winter/breeding plumage, especially with their hoods raised. There were Mallards, Northern Shovelers and Green-winged Teals too. The males of these latter three were in different stages of their fall moults which will take them into full breeding plumage. Mallards are now back in full look-at-me plumage, Northern Shovelers part-way there and the Green-winged Teals quite a long way from their Sunday best.

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All of the above-mentioned ducks are in this gallery, but you’ll have to be on the website to see them, you’ll not see them if you’re reading this as an email.


Purple Finches and Tundra Swans

28 October 2014. Cayuga ON.  For a long time this morning, doing the census round at the bird observatory was like walking into a theatre which, save for a few stragglers, held nothing but empty seats. Where, metaphorical moments ago, there was life, today our rich woodlands and river valley seemed deserted; not entirely of course, but what a contrast to those busy fall migration days of just a few short days and weeks ago.

I was counting American Crows, Red-winged Blackbirds and Blue Jays in ones and twos. I could hear a Carolina Wren on the other side of the river, and an Eastern Bluebird somewhere not too far away but I couldn’t see either of them.

Things looked up when a group of six Purple Finches flew up into the lower branches of a Black Walnut and obligingly sat around to be photographed. Purple Finches are neither common nor uncommon, but they always seem to be noteworthy because the males are so striking. Field guides often describe them as looking as though they’ve been dipped in raspberry juice, a little over-folksy I think, but not inaccurate. It’s quite easy to confuse them with House Finches, but the males of the latter species, while quite surprisingly crimson at times, are not as expansively tinted from head to tail. To illustrate, I have included a couple of House Finches along with some of today’s birds in the gallery below. (Visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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Later, I found a small group of Cedar Waxwings feeding on the bright orange fruits of Multiflora Rose briers. My presence made them flighty, so I sat down and remained quite still.  After a while they seemed to accept that I presented no mortal threat  and I was able to get the photos below (Also visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.); and in those same quiet moments caught sight of a Golden-crowned Kinglet.

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I was quite pleased to find the Purple Finches and had notionally flagged them as Birds of the Day, but then much later I heard a quiet, distant, bugle-like call which, at first, I thought might be a Sandhill Crane . But moments later a V of twenty-seven Tundra Swans swept low overhead, calling softly, “wu wu”, amongst themselves as they went. They’ve come from their breeding grounds on the arctic shores of James and Hudson Bays and are on their way to Chesapeake Bay.

I have chosen Tundra Swans as my Birds of the Day many times, but usually in early spring. Today they are a sure signal that cold weather is on its way, but that same high-in-the-sky conversation when heard again four months from now, will be welcomed as a sure sign of the end of winter as they return from their Atlantic coast wintering grounds and head north once again.

Eastern Bluebirds

Ancaster, ON. 25 October 2014.  Baby-sitting three pre-school boys for a weekend doesn’t leave much room for birding; none really. But I managed to find a couple of hours, having previously agreed to join a group examining a tract of land which has recently become a restoration project.

Well, when we arrived, a southwest wind was blowing a gale and rain was threatening. With every gust, another branch was stripped clean and the air filled with tumbling leaves. A sky full of leaves is a betrayal, things airborne being the stock in trade of most birders.

We traipsed around the field, which the owner, a university, had forgotten it owned until just a few years ago. In the half-century or so that have elapsed since the land was acquired (and forgotten), this one-time farm fell victim to the march of European Buckthorn, an invasive species. Using undergraduate labour, the university is trying to restore the land to its original post-glacial, pre-contact state; chainsaws and bonfires are blunt but effective starts to the process.

We saw precious little in the way of bird life; everything with wings seemed to be staying out of the wind. But our day brightened considerably when we came upon a mixed-age flock of Eastern Bluebirds gathered in a sheltered valley; they were deservedly my Birds of the Day.Eastern Bluebird (male) RP

Eastern Bluebirds are widespread across the eastern half of the continent and are year round residents everywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But we are well north of that line and our bluebirds are migratory, most of them anyway; a few sometimes overwinter. We often see these mixed flocks at this time of year and usually they’re loose, rambling groups. Just when you think there’s a dozen birds, more appear and then more again.

The sight and sound (they have a charming fluting call) of the bluebirds certainly brightened up a rather dreary outing, which was otherwise only punctuated by a wind-tossed Turkey Vulture, a solitary Red-bellied Woodpecker and a few robins and goldfinches.Eastern bluebird May 29 2011

Red-headed Woodpeckers

Jamestown Island Va. 16 October 2014. Every now and then you’ll run into what seems to be a moving convention of birds of a feather. Birders often talk about waves of warblers, a fairly common occurrence in spring and fall migration when birds are moving en masse and they seem to be all around, I’ve experienced it several times.

Today I found myself in a gathering of representatives of the Picidae family; the woodpeckers, I think it was just coincidence, not a migratory wave; but whatever the reason, it was memorable.

Blackjack Oak

Blackjack Oak leaves

This was our last day in Virginia and I had the day to myself again. For the purposes of this posting, it’s sufficient to say that the State of Virginia, in and around tidal waters, is a great place for finding birds. I spent a few hours on the botanically and historically rich Jamestown Island, stopping now and then to examine trees like Blackjack and Post Oaks, Persimmons and Black Tupelos, and exploring in general, trying to imagine how this looked as the capital of the Virginia Colony in the mid 1600s. Making my way out to the once strategic end of the island known as Black Point, meant passing through an open glade of Loblolly Pines where I could hear the churring calls of two or three Red-headed Woodpeckers. That certainly stopped me in my tracks and moments later I was rewarded with one landing on a decaying tree trunk nearby.Red-headed Woodpecker-3

But there was more to this place than Red-headed Woodpeckers, I also noticed a Downy Woodpecker bashing noisily at something overhead and, if the Downy was bashing noisily, a Pileated Woodpecker was positively pounding, if not axeing, a pine tree just across the way. Words don’t do its efforts justice, if a picture’s worth a thousand words, then a comic-book illustration with blurred action, sprays of wood chips and Bam! star-bursts would be more like it!  It was soon evident that there were, in fact, two Pileated Woodpeckers when they started calling out to each other with their rather slow mezzo-soprano laugh . They hung around for quite a while but were last seen flying away, one chasing the other like two overweight crows. The soft ‘chfff’ call of a nearby Red-bellied Woodpecker and a yellow flash overhead, the under-wing of a Northern Flicker completed the woodpecker clan gathering.

I lingered to watch the Red-headed Woodpeckers for a long time. In Ontario they are a rare treat and a rapidly vanishing species. A pity since, in a world where looks count, they are really quite spectacular.

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Black Vulture

Williamsburg Va. 16 October 2014. With a full day to do as I pleased I opted to take my time investigating the rich habitats along Williamsburg’s Colonial Parkway. Encountering a group of quite entertaining Black Vultures was an unexpected surprise and it added a rather amusing novelty to an already bird-rich day.
The parkway is a winding, two-lane road that amply deserves its name. It threads through dense forests which include many of my favourite trees: Black Gums, Tulip Trees, various oak species and Paw Paws included. It leads to the shore of the wide, tidal James River and follows it along, crossing a number of reedy tributaries that empty into the James.
I pulled into a picnic area under a canopy of towering Loblolly Pines intending to explore a stretch of waterfront beach and an adjacent river-mouth. Locking my car and glancing down at the beach I saw that I was being watched carefully by a group of Black Vultures, two on the strip of sandy beach, the other somewhat closer to me and up hill a bit. I appeared to be spoiling their fun, the lower two seemed to have been enjoying a seaside stroll while the upper one was pulling on the juicy remains of a large fish. They watched me cautiously while trying to continue with their fun, the lower two started to trot away for a bit, they actually seemed to be capable of quite a canter, but after a moment had second thoughts and strolled back. The fish-dinner individual sauntered further up hill until it stood at the top looking down at the others below. By this time a fourth individual had joined them and it became quite a party. Eventually they’d had enough and spread their wide wings into the wind and lifted off, wheeling away to rise quickly above the treetops.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture

They were quite a contrast to the many smaller and prettier birds that I’d spend a couple of hours watching beforehand. The cover and abundant supply of food along the shore supports a large population of Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Carolina Chickadees and even a Saltmarsh Sparrow – a new bird to me!

Northern Mockingbird in full song

Northern Mockingbird in full song

I watched three Bald Eagles, an adult leading two juveniles, in a purposeful chase after an Osprey which had just caught a fish. The eagles soon caught up to the twisting and turning Osprey which then, perhaps as a result of hard lessons learned, chose to let go of its fish. I expected the eagles to make a mid-air catch, but instead the fish fell several hundred feet to the river below and as far as I could see, that was the end of it. Perhaps, if the fish survived its initial capture and then the fall, there was a happy ending; but there seemed to be nothing in it for either Osprey or eagles.


Peregrine Falcon

October 13 2014. Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Virginia.  The Eastern Seaboard of the USA can be characterised in any number of ways, for millions it’s somewhere to live and work, for birders it’s the Atlantic Flyway; a migration pathway followed by millions of birds. I spent a little time today on one of the hotspots along the Atlantic Flyway, on the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, a long stalactite of abundantly fertile land that separates the teeming waters of Chesapeake Bay from the vast spread of the Atlantic Ocean.

The thing about this long finger of land (and Cape May, its little brother to the north), is that it’s a great birding destination. Most of the Delmarva Peninsula is in Maryland but the southern tip lies in Virginia, not that it makes much difference to the flyway. Away from the Atlantic or Chesapeake Bay shorelines, the land is intensively farmed on wide, flat fields of cotton, beans and sweet potatoes. Dense stands of oak, Sweet-gum and Tulip Trees, impenetrably tangled with vines and briars, encircle the fields, making them suffocatingly hot for many long summer weeks.

Tree SwallowsThis southern tip is alive now with migrating birds. I watched large passing flocks of Tree Swallows, hundreds strong and tailed by hopeful Merlins, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks. At lower levels I could hear small birds chipping and calling in the bushes and trees and just above the horizon were groups of drifting Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures.

Tree Swallows

Tree Swallows

But I set out to tell of the Peregrine Falcons seen today. The first one passed low over our car and was noteworthy simply because, like all Peregrines, it flew as if it owned the skies; the second one, much later, was quite a different experience.

The tip of the Delmarva Peninsula is connected to mainland Virginia by a twenty-and-a-bit miles long bridge and tunnel combination; mostly bridge. The bridge-tunnel links the north and south shores of the mouth of Chesapeake Bay where it opens to the Atlantic Ocean.  Needless to say it is a very commercially important and strategically vital waterway. On a fine day it’s an easy drive, a touch tedious at times, but if you like ocean views and the thought of the engineering task that made it all possible, it’s a rather thrilling experience; but I imagine an approaching hurricane makes it a quite different story. As we drove across, a steady east wind was blowing and Great Black-backed Gulls were riding on the ridge of wind deflected upwards by the bridge structure. To drive north and be passed by a southbound gull surfing a wave of rising air just a few feet away and at eye-level was to make me wish I could stop for a dramatic photo. But while such a picture could be magnificent if done well, stopping to get it would be dangerous and thoroughly illegal.
But the greatest picture, held only in my mind’s eye, was of a Peregrine Falcon, my Bird of the Day, seen streaking south along that same pathway of rising air and, I like to imagine, looking each car driver in the eye as they passed.