Evening Grosbeaks and Canada Jays

February 11 2018. Algonquin Park, ON. The pull of the work week meant that this, our second day at Algonquin Provincial Park, could only be a half day. Still we packed in as much as we could in the search for interesting winter birds. In the end we came up with nineteen species for the weekend, a handful of them were barrel-scrapers like Dark-eyed Junco, American Goldfinch and Blue Jay but everything else held some magic. Among the winter finches only Pine Grosbeaks and Redpolls were worrisome misses, but day lists for the sake of lists are not a priority for me, instead I had a couple of target birds, old acquaintances I hadn’t seen for a while.

On this day my companions were determined to hike a snow-smothered trail on a second attempt to find a putative Blackbacked Woodpecker. We had tried to find it yesterday but came up empty handed but, rather than traipse through the snow in pursuit of one bird, I opted to stay at the park’s visitor centre today. Birding from the observation deck was somewhat compromised by a light but steady snowfall but I can overlook a lot of discomfort when the reward is Evening Grosbeaks. I didn’t count them but I’d guess at perhaps twenty coming and going from a feeder loaded with sunflower seed.

As I hope these photos show, the male grosbeak’s plumage is an almost impossible extravaganza of yellow, gold, black and white. They really are spectacular, and faithful readers of this site may remember my euphoric encounter with them last June in northern Michigan.

If Evening Grosbeaks are the gaudy court jesters of winter then Gray Jays must be the butlers. Gray Jays show up just when you need them and have a certain dignified demeanour implying, You go ahead, everything’s under control. And show up they did in a couple of slightly remote locations.

I managed to get many photos and share some here. I think the effect is rather spoiled by the colourful leg bands on both birds. The bands are courtesy of park biologists who are studying the species’ population dynamics. Breeding success is a major part of the study amid concern that Gray Jays are starting to lose ground as the climate warms and winters become less reliably cold. Gray Jays cache food for later consumption but in recent years, warm winter days have led to spoilage of some caches.

The Gray Jay has been the centre of quite a bit of political fuss lately, the jays themselves couldn’t care less. The Royal Canadian Geographic Society, citing inaction by the central government, decided that more than anything else Canada needed a national bird. Predictably most Canadians pointed to either the Common Loon or the Snowy Owl as most the appropriate embodiments of the Canadian personality, but both of them, while arguably worthy, had already been claimed by a couple of provinces. (Somehow the Canada Goose didn’t get much of a look in.) The Society was steadfast in its deliberations and noted that because Gray Jays are found across Canada from coast to coast the title should go to it.  Fine, but few ever get to see one because they are generally found too far off the beaten track. Now it seems that there is a move afoot to rename it the Canada Jay; fitting I suppose.

My companions succeeded in finding the Black-backed Woodpecker, they deserved their victory and even managed some for-the-record photographs, I know they were happy to have made the effort.

More pictures from the weekend. Click on any one to enlarge it.

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Red Crossbills and White-winged Crossbills

February 10 2018. Algonquin Park, ON. I thank my new-ish group of friends for a last-minute invitation to join them on a weekend birding the snows of Ontario’s Algonquin Park. The majority of Ontarians view Algonquin as The North, though really it’s not. It lies at about 46°N on roughly the same latitude as Portland, Oregon, Croatia and Venice, hardly sub-arctic. But it’s an understandable perception since it can be eye-wateringly cold up here in February and the dramatic, rocky and lake-dotted landscape has a lumberjack country feel to it. In any case, anything more than a three hour drive from the city starts to seem like terra incognita.

It is a different world from southern Ontario: the Algonquin highlands are, in altitude, about 500 metres higher and geologically, topographically and climatically different. All of those factors taken together mean the biotic contents of Algonquin have little in common with the softer lowland south.  It is landscape for year-round recreation by canoe trippers, campers and snowmobilers.

Red Crossbill

We left the comforts of our heated cabin as early as we could today and had hardly gone half a kilometer before we saw a Red Crossbill on the tip of a White Spruce, and not long afterwards pulled to the roadside to watch a more crossbills associating with a handful of Pine Siskins. After several such stops and diversions we had to acknowledge that we really should keep going and eventually arrived at the park’s visitor centre where the viewing platform provides a spectacular opportunity to watch and photograph birds and sometimes deer, moose and wolves.

Purple Finch (m)

Purple Finch (f)

Many birders make a mid-winter pilgrimage here to seek out cold-hardy ‘northern’ bird species, with itinerant finches as a special target.  We missed Redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks but saw many Pine Siskins, Red, and Whitewinged Crossbills, Purple Finches and Evening Grosbeaks all of which depend on a winter diet of conifers and alder seeds. Charming, but overlooked by many, were many Red-breasted Nuthatches. I suppose they’re too commonplace to command much attention but I enjoyed a prolonged conversation with this one which I’m sure believed I was bringing food for it.  Sadly no, it left empty but I got this close-up photo.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Crossbills are so called because their upper and lower mandibles are specially adapted to pry open pinecones. And there is a really interesting, if somewhat complicated, symbiotic relationship between crossbills and coniferous trees that should be worth a paragraph or two; I’ll try to keep it brief.

Conifers such as spruces, pines and hemlocks (all found in Algonquin) go through feast or famine cycles of cone production, several years of modest production followed by periodic bumper-crop years. Each cone holds dozens of seeds and it is a spruce’s hope and expectation (if it is capable of such sentiment) that at least one of those seeds will find fertile ground and be the next generation. Birds and rodents like those seeds too and will eat every last one given the chance.

Biologists believe that a series of modest cone-production years is effective in holding the populations of squirrels and the like at a subsistence level. Then just when those seed-eaters least expect it, the conifers have a big year and produce huge, branch-bending crops of seed-bearing cones. It’s a strategy to improve the odds that a seed will survive to germinate before a mouse, chipmunk or squirrel eats it.

Birds have been around a long time too, long enough for certain species to find a way to live with and exploit the conifers’ surprises. Birds have mobility that rodents do not, so enter the crossbills: Red, and White-winged. They are highly nomadic species driven by the variable nature of cone production and are found across North America and Eurasia. So when the spruces, pines and hemlocks of Algonquin produce big crops, crossbills from across the continent somehow find them. This is one of those rare bumper-crop winters and it makes for good birding; next year when Algonquin’s cone crop is likely to be just so-so the crossbills will be somewhere else.

A feast is one thing and in response the crossbills are now starting to breed; they can initiate breeding at any time of year.  It was way below freezing and snowing purposefully as I started to write this yet the male crossbills were in full courtship singing and selecting a mate.  Some have nests and eggs already and, being mid-winter, the females must sit tight incubating eggs and protecting their chicks while the air temperature may fall to -30 C. She dare not leave the nest so the males’ job is to bring food for everyone.

Needless to say that for this first day of this weekend my Birds of the Day were crossbills. There were many other very inspiring birds to be admired, but I’ll get to them tomorrow.

Common Ravens

 

Snow Buntings and Short-eared Owls

February 8 2018. Hagersville, ON.  On a snowy, mid-winter afternoon three, I’ll call them life-experienced, men took the afternoon off to go birding.  The end goal, if we were lucky, was to see Short-eared Owls – and we did; so perhaps that’s a good place to start. Under a darkening dusk sky, tinged along the western edge with orange and swept by a cutting wind, we spotted two and perhaps three Short-eared Owls swooping and hunting over scrubby, hawthorn-dotted, grassland.  Although we had half expected to see them we were deeply awed, Short-eared Owls are a rare treat and our oohs, aahhs and wows were heartfelt.  They were exciting and lovely, conclusively Bird of the Day for two of us, but I found myself searching my soul on this point. Really, after an hour of magical, tumbling flocks of Snow Buntings just an hour or so earlier, could Short-eared Owls be any better?

You see, at the front end of our journey we had pulled to the side of a snow-drifted country road, to watch a couple of large flocks of Snow Buntings feeding on scraps of leftover corn. Together with the buntings there was also a dozen or two Horned Larks  and one, just one, Lapland Longspur. They’d gather en-mass to feed busily for maybe a minute and then take off as if in a panic to sweep around in broad turns before returning to settle back down as if nothing had happened; we were mesmerized. Any birds not feeding would wriggle down into the fluffy snow until only their heads and backs were exposed.

In past winters I have spent hours at this very spot helping to capture and band Snow Buntings, so the spectacle wasn’t altogether novel, but it never loses its charm.  And just four years ago, also at this very spot, I was frostbitten for my bunting-banding troubles, perhaps I deserved it.(For lots of Snow Bunting pictures click on this link.)

Snow Buntings thrive in the cold, they winter in the open grasslands and farm fields of the mid latitudes of North America, from coast to coast.  Flocks sometimes move a hundred kilometres from day to day in their search for winter seeds. When spring approaches they head north to breed in the High Arctic where the snow still lingers. Early evidence suggests that buntings wintering here in southern Ontario return to Labrador and Greenland for the summer.

Snow Buntings

 

So there you have drama in the end and the beginning of the day – in that order, but there was lots more to it.  As we drove quiet roads from one all-white site to another we saw at least five Roughlegged Hawks, spotted a group of Turkeys and the occasional American Kestrel.  It was a day of highlights, two lifers and two Birds of the Day.

 

Eastern Bluebird

February 3 2018. Captain Cootes Trail, Royal Botanical Garden Arboretum, Hamilton, ON. One of my young friends runs a once-a-month programme for people who want to learn more about birding. He styles it Not-Just-Another-Birding-Club and it’s invariably well attended. I’m privileged to be invited along as a back-up pair of eyes and ears and, it’s hinted, for my elder-wisdom. Of course the meetings include as much outdoor trail time as possible and it’s always an eye-opener how successful we are in finding birds in seemingly impossible winter weather. But I have to remind myself that cold though it may be, as long as birds can find food they’ll probably survive winter, maybe the greater risk is that they themselves may end up as food for a larger bird, a Cooper’s Hawk or a Great Horned Owl.

There were plenty of Blackcapped Chickadees, the odd Whitebreasted Nuthatch and a single Whitethroated Sparrow. A small group of American Crows held our attention for a while, one in particular was making a strange staccato throat rattle. The rattle is one of dozens of recognized crow vocalizations but one without attribution as to its purpose; maybe it was shivering. I spotted a Brown Creeper but it was so far away and hard to pick out amongst all the monochromatic trees that the others in the group had to take my word for it. Similarly a little later someone spotted a couple of Eastern Bluebirds but they scattered and it was devilishly difficult to re-find any of them. I suppose I had the benefit of experience in knowing how to find and see a small bird in the twiggy distractions of a forest. Eventually I was able to find one, maybe two, and against the whites and greys of a winter woodland, a brief flash of electric blue was all I needed for it to be my Bird of the Day.  Here’s a bluebird from a different kind of day.

Eastern Bluebird.

House Sparrow

February 1 2018. Dundas, ON. A sudden change of plans leaves the month of February open to me for new challenges. Free of major obligations I’ve set myself the goal of hiking a stretch of quite rugged trails, about thirty to forty kilometers in bite-size chunks is what I have in mind.

A decent snowfall two nights ago has made the trail with its uncertain footing and steep slopes out of the question,   I opted instead to follow a part of it through an old residential neighbourhood. The strengthening sun had the upper hand today so the roads and sidewalks were dry and clear of ice patches, you couldn’t say it was spring-like, winter is still firmly in the driver’s seat, but you could dream.

My attention was caught by a sudden flurry of bird life and found the attraction was a small, well-loaded feeder. House Sparrows – How dreary I thought. When you weigh up the positives and negatives of House Sparrows you’re really not left with a lot one way or the other; but at least they’re here and they can brighten up a winter day. I took a number of photos, which manage to make them look quite engaging. Engaging enough to be Birds of the Day.

House Sparrows

And some will think I have my priorities all wrong for, on my way home, I stopped at a reliable spot to see an Eastern Screech Owl and there it was, making the most of the morning sun. I suppose it should have been Bird of the Day, after all it’s an owl. But lovely though the owl is, I give the recognition to House Sparrows, the unsung foot soldiers of winter.

Eastern Screech Owl

Common Raven

January 28 2018. Valley Road Dundas, ON. In need of exercise and because the day dawned bright and mild, I walked a steep and wooded trail this morning. I was more focused on the treacherous footing than anything else but it entered my mind that this might be the sort of day to keep a list of birds heard but not seen, easy enough in mid-winter I suppose. Today the list would have been Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers and American Crows.

Although spring is three months away the air was warm and I could imagine these woods as they will be a few months from now. It was an enjoyable two hours and made all the more enjoyable by the appearance of two Common Ravens passing overhead.  They were calling to each other in a voice I can’t begin to describe, but which Pete Dunne, in his excellent book Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, takes a stab at as follows, “Short, loud, varied and comical. Some vocalizations are loud and harsh; others are low, gurgled or muttered. All have a rough musical finesse that makes crows sound amateurish.”

What’s so special about Common Ravens is that they were anything but common a handful of years ago, indeed they were a rarity in these parts. But over the past two or three years more and more have been reported, it’s as if they’ve made a decision to colonize urban Ontario.

They are birds synonymous with wilder, emptier and more rugged areas than this densely populated realm. I’ve seen or heard Common Ravens in Sweden, Mexico and at the Grand Canyon, Arizona, and in Uganda I met the very similar White-naped Raven, which behaves and sounds very much like the Common Raven – but its malevolent looking Roman-nose bill gives it a distinctly brutish look. Here is an international selection of photos of ravens.

White-naped Raven, Uganda.

Common Raven Stockholm, Sweden.

Common Raven Grand Canyon AZ

White-crowned Sparrows

January 21 2018. Oakes Rd. Stoney Creek, ON. Birding seemed like a good idea, the hard cold of two weeks ago has gone, the snow cover was fading and it wasn’t particularly cold. Barry & I set out to follow up on a number of oddities and rarities reports.

We hadn’t even started the car when we heard the first spring whistle-song of a cardinal coming from an old tree overhead. It’s amazing what a few notes of “Tewww-tewww-tewww’ can do to a mid-winter day. This was a male Northern Cardinal probably made aware by increasing daylight that he had better stake out his territory before someone else seizes it.

Almost every stop turned up some good birds: Twenty Bald Eagles on the frozen harbour, just as it was two weeks ago; A single Harlequin Duck found and much publicized earlier by others but interesting because they are few and far between on the Great Lakes, and one of our local Peregrine Falcons scaring the living daylights out of resident Rock Pigeons hanging around a bridge.

We stopped to see a reported group of King Eiders, there were six of them, one young male and six females, quite a long way offshore and close to large groups of Surf Scoters, a bird I haven’t seen well for many years. Here’s a picture of three King Eiders from four years ago when they wintered in a nearby marina.

King Eiders (1 m & 2 f)

At our next stop, while my companion was searching the distant lake waters for Black Scoters, I was completely smitten by a youngish Snowy Owl sitting on the rooftop of a nearby house.

Leaving the owl and the far-too-distant-for-me scoters, we went in pursuit of a reported Ross’s Goose – a rarity which we didn’t find. Instead we were surprised and delighted by the company of half a dozen White-crowned Sparrows (totally unexpected and always a treat). They are close relatives of the rather common, if seasonal, White-throated Sparrow and, like them, have a sweet, distinctive and drawn-out song. Going a little off road we spotted a Northern Mockingbird and somewhere distant could hear a Great Horned Owl calling.

Finally, we stopped at a spot known for Short-eared Owls, and although we didn’t see any we were happy with two American Kestrels, a Northern Shrike, two Common Ravens, another Peregrine Falcon a brief glimpse at a Rough-legged Hawk (almost certainly the same bird I wrote about on January 1st) and to wrap up the day, a flock of about thirty Turkeys.

When I set down to write this I couldn’t say which of so many good sightings was my Bird of the Day. The Northern Cardinal was top of the list for a long time but became equal-first with that close-at-hand Snowy Owl. But I think the wow moment came with the White-crowned Sparrows, quite unexpected, totally charming and they stopped me in my tracks.

White-crowned Sparrow

Bald Eagles

January 16 2018. Hendrie valley, Burlington, ON. Canadians like to think of themselves as winter-hardy. I doubt that many of us really are, most of us are urbanites and live in cosseted comfort; no wood to hew or water to draw. I sure felt un-hardy today when I took two heavy falls on ice. Both times I landed hard and gracelessly with disconcerting cracks and bangs heard from my binoculars and camera.

I had decided to take a mid-winter birding walk along a lightly used and rough but nevertheless favourite valley trail; in fact its name, Creekside Walk, pretty much describes it. The problem, if you can call it that, is that within the past week or so: we’ve had a sudden and complete thaw followed by a day of heavy rain, a quick and hard freeze and finally last night a few inches of light fluffy snow. So while this riverbank trail looked clean, white and inviting, under the snow were scattered and randomly tilted (!) slabs of ice. Thick ice groaning under your weight can be fun especially if every now and then you feel the ice give a little (being generally sensible of course). The ice along the trail didn’t need to give to alarm me, it was just plain treacherous. But although the fun went out of the slipping and sliding, against my better judgment I kept going; this was supposed to be a birding walk.

Well the truth of the matter is that I saw maybe four birds, two Black-capped Chickadees looking for a handout, a Carolina Wren dashing for cover and a soaring Red-tailed Hawk. This is in the valley where I have spent so many rewarding birding hours, where I’ve almost seen enough Blue-headed Vireos, Ospreys and Green Herons to last a lifetime; yet today just four birds.

So Bird of the Day? I’d like to think it was the Carolina Wren, but the birds that really made me think wow were twenty Bald Eagles hanging around on the wide ice of our industrial harbour, waiting for duck dinner. A congregation, which this cosseted Canadian was able to view from his heated car.

American Wigeon

January 5 2018. Fort Erie, ON. My day’s errands took me close enough to the City of Niagara Falls that I decided to take a drive along Niagara Parkway, as the road that parallels the Niagara River is known. I went to see what ducks, geese and swans were around. The road passes close enough to the falls to allow me to see what all the recent media fuss was about. It is bitterly cold and has been for several days and the press seems to think the falls have frozen over. Maybe so on the American side, although there was too much spray to tell, the Canadian falls certainly had not.

Regular readers (particularly those with a good memory) will recall (and locals will know) that the Niagara River is not so much a river as a mighty sluiceway that connects Lake Erie to Lake Ontario (and featuring a spectacular 100M drop along the way) and that sooner or later pretty much all of the waters of the Great Lakes basin find their way along it; a formidable torrent and a good place for waterfowl. The river never freezes over.

The Niagara Parkway is a pleasant drive at any time, there’s always something to look at. Upstream it ends at Fort Erie with Buffalo opposite on the American side; border towns.

I had no expectations of finding any unusual waterfowl and that’s just the way it went. There were many Common Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, Red-breasted and Common Mergansers, as there should be. I was a little surprised at the number of Tundra Swans, perhaps one or two-hundred. I suppose it was just in my imagination that all Tundra Swans spend the winter along the Atlantic coast and that come March they make their way to our local waters on the first leg of their journey north. Seems I was wrong, some hang around on the Niagara River.

Tundra Swans and Redheads on Niagara River

I got much pleasure from of the small flotillas of Redheads and Canvasbacks gathered along the shoreline. I stopped to watch one Canvasback in particular because I thought I could get a good photo of it, and maybe I did, but then I noticed a single American Wigeon muscling in with the others and almost bullying its way around for no apparent reason. Not sure why but I was quite smitten by it perhaps because it was different and quite handsome in its chestnut and grey. See what you think. For no really good reason the wigeon was my Bird of the Day, just different I guess.

Canvasback (L) and Redhead

American Wigeon and Redheads