Eurobirds

Postings may be a bit erratic for a week or so. I’m leaving tomorrow to fulfill a long-held ambition to experience autumn migration at the Straits of Gibraltar. The continents of Africa and Europe are separated by just seventeen kilometers at this point, making it a natural route for fall migrants heading south to Africa.

I expect to finally meet up with birds that have long been on my ‘I’d-love-to-see-that’ list. As a child and teen, growing up in England, I had an informal mental list of birds I knew were probably out of my reach. That list included: Hoopoe (a dove sized, pink, black and white bird with a flamboyant crest), Bustard (a bird of open grasslands, sort of an ostrich / turkey cross) and a Bee-eater (iridescent blue, green, gold and carmine, a little bit like a streamlined kingfisher. Imagine!). September is peak time for eagles, buzzards, and vultures. I’ll share the best with you.

This photograph of Hoopoes is courtesy of birding friend Lucia Turčoková.

Hoopoes by Lucia Turčoková

Hoopoes by Lucia Turčoková

Short-billed Dowitchers

27 August 2014. Wainfleet, ON. Late summer is when Arctic-breeding shorebirds leave their fly-bitten, mosquito-infested and windswept breeding grounds and head south to over-winter around tropical beaches, estuaries and lakes. It puts a new spin on birding as a pastime to watch for and identify them. Identification can be tricky and is complicated by a handful of factors: There are many lookalikes that are really hard to tell apart, more so when examined from a distance; The young of the year are often somewhat different from adults, usually their plumage is brighter and crisper. And we only have a short window of opportunity in which to study them, generally four or five weeks.

Today I stopped to investigate an abandoned and partially flooded quarry that is nominally a conservation area but which is, in fact, much the worse for wear from littering and general neglect. A pity since this old quarry has potential, with careful management it could be a wonderful asset, a veritable silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Still, the stop was worthwhile, initially because I could hear a Northern Mockingbird singing nearby and later when I spotted a trio of small shorebirds, (the smaller shorebirds are often referred to as peeps,) feeding along the silty waters-edge about a hundred metres away.

I moved slowly towards the peeps, pausing every now and then to get a for-the-record photograph because frankly I wasn’t at all sure what they were. There are many look-alikes remember and as is the case with the transient warblers of spring, we only see the peeps for a very few weeks each year and it’s easy to forget the lessons of earlier years. Young shorebirds of the Arctic almost certainly have no experiences to guide their response to an approaching person, so I was not entirely surprised that they paid little attention to my slow approach. Eventually I found myself within ten metres of them and sat down slowly to watch. By now I thought I knew what they were, Stilt Sandpipers. My clues: a long bill, bold white eyebrow line, greenish legs and  a probing sewing machine feeding action.

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Now, I must admit that I wasn’t by any means certain of my i.d. There were other candidates, Short-billed Dowitcher being the most likely, but really I wanted them to be Stilt Sandpipers because I hadn’t, until then, been anywhere close to a Stilt Sandpiper, certainly not as eye-poppingly close as to these three, they’d always been a distant sighting whose identification was confidently proclaimed by others.

So I drank deeply of this close encounter, absorbing detail and pleased to be capturing dozens of shots for later analysis. I was a little unsettled by a patch of rufous blush evident on their necks and sides, a wash of which is clearly evident on adult Short-billed Dowitchers. Short-billed Dowitcher pair Townsend 1(As this May 2012 picture at left shows) Maybe I was looking at juvenile dowitchers, although I felt that size militated against dowitchers and everything else seemed to fit for Stilt Sandpipers.

Satisfied eventually with what I’d seen and with a camera full of photos and a sun-scorched neck, I made a slow retreat to consult my in-car field guide, and that’s when doubts about Stilt Sandpipers overtook me. The differences between stilts and dowitchers are there and reasonably clear once you get past first impressions, prejudices and many persuasive similarities. Back home, with access to more and deeper reference materials, I had to concede that I had in fact spent quality time in the presence of three juvenile Short-billed Dowitchers; at least I think so. But no complaints, still very nice Birds of the Day.

I’ve included a gallery of shots of these birds but you can see loads more (a bit repetitive I’ll admit) by following this link. This post contains photos in galleries visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

 

Green Heron

22 August 2014. Hamilton, ON. What impressed me about today’s Bird of the Day, a young Green Heron, was the necessary smallness of its world, an algae-draped corner in a broad and shallow pond. A corner of a pond, which, in turn, is a backwater in a large, natural harbour, itself an afterthought of Lake Ontario. It might be intriguing to find the heron by using a film-maker’s zoom-in technique, starting at the International Space Station and plunging through layer upon layer and eventually slowing to a landscape of increasing familiarity. Finding the heron would not be nearly the end of the story. It’s the fish that matter to the heron and little wriggly invertebrates that matter to the fish, and on down the food chain; just a link in a chain.

Young Green Heron

Young Green Heron

As I said, I found this young Green Heron in an algae-draped clutter of discarded branches and other debris. It was motionless, as if modeling for an Athenian sculptor, frozen in mid-lunge. I watched it hold the most improbable, apparently unbalanced, positions for many minutes at a time: mid stride, mid strike, eyes fixed and waiting. Several times I saw the tension build, a touch more forward tilt and then, as if a tight-coiled spring released, it plunged with wings spread. Successfully it drew back holding a small, utterly baffled fish, its mouth agape, eyes wide and tail flicking hopelessly. I’ve added a few pictures, but you can see many more by following this link.

The plunge

The plunge

Captured, one catfish.

Captured, one catfish.

 

Sandhill Cranes

20 August 2014. Glen Morris, ON. Not too far from home, there is a marshy and bog-rimmed lake which rose to fame a few years ago when a pair of Sandhill Cranes were discovered to be nesting there; they’ve returned to breed every year since.   It is an uncommon species in the southern half of Ontario, but quite widespread much further north. This pair and the other two plus young that I found a week ago may very well be evidence of the species’ range expansion.

The lake is close to a very large dry field, home to five towering radio masts and a blocky service building, but otherwise unoccupied. This field was the summer home of countless Savannah Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks and Bobolinks and the grass was left to grow to seed, but has since been mowed and all those grassland birds have left. It looks as though the grass was left uncut long enough to allow birds to complete nesting; and for that I (and the birds) are thankful; too many fields are scalped for hay or silage in June or early July.

I introduce those two habitats to set the scene for our encounter today. We scanned the marsh for a long time looking for anything of interest, including the Sandhill Cranes should they still be around; they weren’t and very little was moving in the thunderous summer heat. Moving on, we scanned the grass field, but it too was quiet. No sparrows at all, but a few Mourning Doves picked away at the dry ground, a Red-tailed Hawk and an American Kestrel both sat watching for a meal from up high on one of the many guy wires that keep these radio towers standing. Then, far way on the other side of the field, we spotted three Sandhill Cranes, two adults and a juvenile, doubtless the family from the nearby marshy lake. We were able to approach much closer and eventually walk up to a fence line within a few metres of them. The youngster and one of the adults kept their distance while the other adult moved past us, its improbably long and articulated legs stepping with deliberate, mechanical precision, it scarcely gave us a second look.

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Here’s a photo gallery, visible on the website only, not if you’re reading this as an email. You can see many others by following this link.

The Sandhill Cranes were undoubtedly Birds of the Day, but we enjoyed other interesting sightings including: several Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks and perhaps a Pied-billed Grebe or two on roadside ponds. Barn Swallows lined up along overhead wires and countless, always cruising, Turkey Vultures dipped and wheeled across fields and woods looking for a cheap meal.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

16 August 2014. Carnarvon, ON. Not all birding has to involve wet feet and insect bites; sometimes it’s only a matter of stirring yourself to fill a bird feeder and pour a cup of coffee; oh yes and switch on the camera. Friends invited us to spend some time at their cottage, a lovely home on the shores of a quietly treed lake in Ontario’s recreation land; the only flaw in the whole arrangement is the weather. The surface of the lake has vanished, obscured now by a white sheet of hammering rainfall. The usual non-sound of trees has been overtaken by the shrrrrrr of steady rainfall, and it’s much colder than mid August should be; it’s the sort of day that reminds me why wilderness camping can sometimes (too often?) be a treacherous venture. Still, it’s snug where we are, the wood-stove, intended for the chills of fall, has made it shirt-sleeve comfortable and we brought lots of reading; nice for us.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

I sit indoors watching Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, a Red-breasted Nuthatch and American Goldfinches at feeders filled for their convenience; business as usual for them, rain or no. Other birds have visited briefly: A single, male Black-throated Blue Warbler momentarily suggested there might be some exciting birding, but I haven’t seen any more of him. A Broad-winged Hawk greeted our arrival a couple of days ago, they had a nest around here somewhere, but our encounter was brief and almost soundless. Common Ravens croak in the distance and a small flock of Blue Jays passed silently through.

Ruby-throated-Hummingbird

Ruby-throated-Hummingbird

My challenge has been to photograph a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, to reduce, if I could, the blur of its wings to a frozen wing-beat. Hummingbirds are very obliging when it comes to posing, a feeder of sugar water will draw them in about every five minutes. The trick then is patience: a comfortable seat, a decent background and experimentation. I found that a shutter speed of one six-hundreth of a second still showed some blurring, but that at one one-thousandth of a second the wingbeats froze; all of which says much more about the physiology of hummingbird flight than it does about my photography skills, which are pretty much a product of a modern all-functions-automated camera anyway. Still, it’s instructive and rewarding. Here are two of my better in-flight shots.

Ruby-throated-Hummingbird

Ruby-throated-Hummingbird

Ruby-throated-Hummingbird

Ruby-throated-Hummingbird

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-throated Vireo and Sandhill Cranes.

13 August 2014. Cayuga, ON. Three Wow! birds today: A Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a Yellow-throated Vireo and a family of Sandhill Cranes.

I started by visiting the bird observatory where I spend much of spring and fall months. I wanted to check on the fortunes of a couple of rare plants and also follow the riverside trail to enjoy its dense summer exuberance. It turned out to be a busy walk. Within moments I was being scolded: Firstly by a pair of Tufted Titmouses, quite simply for walking through their territory; Then as I stood on the riverbank gazing at the far shore, a perched Osprey picked up the theme of indignation and started ‘tcheeping’ loudly at me; Then lastly, and most impressively, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo arrived shrieking wildly, ‘clucking‘  and ‘chakking’ from just a few feet away. Cuckoos are usually very shy and retiring birds.  When we hear one, it makes us sit up and pay attention, and we count it as quite notable to catch anything more than glimpse of it.   Yet this one was an extraordinary sighting; almost certainly I was somewhere far too close to a juvenile in its care. I can think of no other reason for the noisy and determined display that also included wing fluttering, tail fanning and lots of hopping from branch to branch. I managed to get a few photos, but because of its state of anxiety it hardly ever stayed still. This photograph, while hardly a prizewinner, gives you some idea of its agitated frame of mind. Surely Bird of the Day.

Agitated Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Agitated Yellow-billed Cuckoo

To calm things down I watched hundreds of Tree, Barn, Bank and Northern Rough-winged Swallows diving and swirling along the river’s course picking at the masses of insects hatching in the warm water. A pair of House Wrens, a Gray Catbird and a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak all added to the pleasure. Then, just as I thought the fun was over for the morning, a beautiful Yellow-throated Vireo showed itself briefly, long enough for me to gasp appreciatively; a striking, if sometimes pugnacious, Bird of the Day number two.

Much later in the day, rounding a bend in the quiet road that follows the course of the river, I spotted a family of Sandhill Cranes feeding in a gently uncultivated pasture. Sandhill Cranes are not common in this part of Ontario, yet for some time we’ve been aware of evidence of a lone breeding pair in this neighbourhood; I think this was them. I left my car a distance away and approached quietly and, I thought, hidden by thick hedges. But you’ll never fool birds into thinking you’ve left the area that easily, I knew that, but I much prefer to approach slowly and minimize the drama if possible. Eventually I found myself about 50 meters from them. The parent birds knew exactly where I was and slowly herded the youngsters away. Looking at these young birds I couldn’t help marveling at the amount and complexity of the growth they have achieved since hatching. They probably emerged from eggs some six to eight weeks ago, and in that time have grown those long, matchstick legs and broad wings that will soon be capable of carrying a body weight of around two to three kilos (4-7 Lbs). They can manage their first flight at about ten or eleven weeks, although it takes ten months for the colts to reach adult size and for most of that time they remain somewhat dependant on their parents. These are elegantly poised birds with a touch of haughtiness about them. Birds of the Day number three.

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Here are a couple of shots of the Sandhill Cranes. More photos from the day (for better or for worse) can be found here.

Snowy Owl (but in summer!)

12 August 2014. Hamilton, ON. Frankly I don’t know quite what to make of this; a Snowy Owl. Here? and now?  A Snowy Owl is a marvel at any time. We saw loads of them six or seven months ago when a major population irruption occurred and individual Snowies were reported far and wide across North America, even as far south as northern Florida; but that was winter when we half expect them. But a Snowy Owl in August! In Southern Ontario!

Well one showed up just a week ago. It’s been a little elusive, but tonight I found it sitting atop a utilitarian, concrete-block building in an industrial park on the fringes of our deep-water harbour.

I took several photos.  The white building in the background was quite a challenge but it also created some compositional opportunities. Here is a gallery of those photos, (visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.) More photos can be found here.

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I checked several reference books and websites looking for corroborative support, but could find scarcely a word about mid-summer oddities such as this. They don’t even breed in Ontario’s farthest north; it’s still not Arctic enough for them.  Our pre-eminent local area authority noted extreme dates of May19th (a lingering winter bird) and September 26th (earliest arrival).  But eBird, a fairly new, on-line, interactive, bird sightings website reveals that August sightings are not entirely unheard of; they’re very few and far between, but they do happen, including one reported along the Hudson River, near the Statue of Liberty in August 2009.

It all leaves me a little breathless.

Piping Plover

12 August 2014. Hamilton, ON. It’s a little hard to reconcile quite why today’s Piping Plover should be my Bird of the Day. My mental test, that whenever or wherever I go birding, there’s always at least one bird that stands out, one bird that makes me say Wow! was satisfied.  The plover qualified but today’s sighting came at a price.The bird was about 400 metres away and barely discernable, even through a telescope. I did manage to see it, but with difficulty. It was way back picking and poking around a drying mud flat along with a mob of loafing Caspian Terns. A stiff wind made the telescope vibrate so the image was frustratingly erratic; you had to know what you were looking at; or at least believe what you’d been told.

On the plus side: Piping Plovers are a rarity in southern Ontario, and the very few known nest sites are carefully protected. It’s a plover, which immediately places it in an agreeably handsome family, and one of the engagingly pretty little ones too, along with the pale and diminutive Snowy Plover (known in Europe as the Kentish Plover.)

Last year we watched a nesting pair of Piping Plovers in an area of fenced-off beach where it was protected from wandering families, sunbathers and un-leashed dogs; It was not a very satisfying experience from a birder’s point of view. Previous to that I had enjoyed a very close encounter with a male at the edge of a shoreline pond in Cape May, New Jersey. I took my first ‘for the record’ photo when it was about a hundred metres distant and kept on clicking as it wandered closer and closer. Eventually it was picking at flies and other invertebrates barely five metres from me, and not in the least concerned by my presence.

Here are a two shots from the encounter with that charming little bird.

Piping Plover. Cape May N.J.

Piping Plover. Cape May N.J.

Piping Plover. Cape May N.J.-2

Common Terns and Bonaparte’s Gulls.

7 August 2014. Hamilton, ON. Lake Ontario is a pretty tidy, well-defined body of water. Most of the water flowing in is delivered by the mighty Niagara River and collected from Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes strung out above. There are plenty of smaller rivers feeding into it too. Once gathered within the tight confines of its Ontario and New York shores, it drains eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. It is part of a landscape recovering from the abuses dealt it by the Wisconsin Ice Sheet, which only retreated some twelve thousand years ago. The post-glacial imprint is on our landforms everywhere, it shapes our lives but we take it for granted; it’s just where we live.

I paddled my kayak around a smallish lake, which for complex geomorphologic reasons is separated from Lake Ontario behind two ancient beach bars. It is nevertheless directly connected to Lake Ontario and any water level fluctuations are courtesy of Canadian & American authorities jointly.

This roughly triangular lake is very shallow, it’s said the water is a metre deep at most, but that the soft muds and debris that make up the bottom go on forever. Along its eastern side is a ribbon of communication links, two noisy roads and busy rail lines that split and splice according to their purpose. The other two sides of the triangle are well wooded with many hiking trails, but here the shoreline itself is quiet and largely inaccessible, except by canoe or kayak. I decided to paddle my way around the perimeter, nosing into the many inlets and marshes to see what was happening on this quiet summer day. It was everything I hoped it could be; I seemed to startle Spotted Sandpipers, Belted Kingfishers, and Great Blue Herons at every turn, sending them peeping, rattling or croaking on ahead of me. Sun-bathing Painted Turtles, lined up on wet logs, dropped and plopped back into the water at the mere thought of me, and I interrupted a Northern Water Snake trying to organise and swallow a Brown Bullhead (catfish) which, as far as I could tell, was hanging crosswise in its jaws.

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Away from the sheltered shoreline and approaching a large expanse of cattails, I found a group of seven Great Egrets high-stepping slowly with their necks S-coiled ready to strike. Great Egrets don’t breed anywhere close by, but as summer matures we regularly see a dozen or more who arrive to stalk these waters until the approach of winter drives them south.

Great Egret

Great Egret

I seem to be rambling a bit, but today’s Birds of the Day deserve some context; I’m trying to take you with me into this summery, mostly unruffled, life-as-normal (with the possible exception of the water snake’s captive catfish) marsh. We move along to a part of the marsh where restoration work means creating fenced-in expanses of replanted cattails; without fencing, the plants would be easily snuffled and grubbed out by unwelcome Asian Carp. Along the top rail of the fence, a line of young Common Terns sat expecting their parents’ ceaseless delivery of fresh fish. They were quite unmoved by my slowly approaching kayak and I eased in close enough to watch parent terns come and go for quite a while. The line included a couple of Bonaparte’s Gulls: one juvenile hatched this year, and the other (probably) a non-breeding one-year-old adult.

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The  galleries above are visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

What makes Bonaparte’s Gulls special is that they add a sparkle to the otherwise brawlers’ world of gulls. It’s their dainty, almost tern-like, flight, their decidedly fetching looks and well, they’re passage migrant that we encounter only briefly in April as flocks head to their northern boreal breeding grounds (the only gull to nest in trees), and in late summer and fall on their way back to the Atlantic coast for the winter. Here they are, I love the cinnamon on the back of the youngster.

Bonaparte's Gull (non-breeding adult)

Bonaparte’s Gull (non-breeding adult)

Juv. Bonaparte's Gull

Juv. Bonaparte’s Gull

Solitary Sandpiper

6 August 2014 Kilbride, ON. Our aging cat spent most of this afternoon sprawled in the shade; had I done the same (and I was tempted) I would have missed my Bird of the Day, a Solitary Sandpiper.

Instead I decided to revisit the site where last week, last posting, I’d enjoyed the company of Cedar Waxwings. I went back, not for the waxwings necessarily, but for the place; a small lake in a quiet wooded valley. It has an interesting history, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the valley was the site of small scale marl quarrying, Marl is a soil conditioner that is common in post-glacial lake bed sediments and often found underlying peat bogs.The quarrying, really more like small-scale, hand-dug, open pit mining, has left a string of little rectangular lakes connected by a small stream. The whole area is now owned, managed and notionally protected by a conservation authority and is lightly used, legally for hiking and less so by a few covert fishermen.

I was struck by the silence of the birds. The sandpiper peeped weakly, just once, as it flew away from me. It didn’t go very far and I was able to watch it for quite a while. A dainty little bird, dusted with light speckles on its dark back and a conspicuous eye ring, it is the Nearctic counterpart of Europe’s Green Sandpiper. Cedar Waxwings were around, still hawking for insects and a fly-catching Eastern Phoebe too, neither had anything to say; perhaps they felt much the same way as our cat, that the afternoon was really not meant for exertion.

The Solitary Sandpiper’s name is appropriate; I only ever see one bird at a time. Presumably every now and then though, a pair gets together to ensure continuity of the species, but I’ve never seen a throng like that. This one is on its lonely southbound migration, with breeding taken care of for another year, it’s heading back to Central and South America. Here are a few photos of it (visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email) I wonder if it is the same bird as the one I saw in the same place almost exactly two years ago.

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A family group of Eastern Kingbirds broke the silence. Also flycatchers, they kept up a light chattering, calling from one exposed treetop to another. Kingbirds are the standard-bearers of the family of birds known as Tyrant Flycatchers, indeed their scientific name, Tyrannus tyrannus, speaks of their I’m-in-charge-around-here personality. They have a voice that sounds like the rattle of small stones in a tin can, a sound reflected in the French-Canadian name, Tyran tritri.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

 

Snapping Turtle

Snapping Turtle

The long, quiet sit produced more than birds: A large Snapping Turtle cruised by, barely visible just below the water surface but leaving a long trailing plume of silt. A small, malevolent-looking Northern Pike, perhaps six inches long, hung motionless in a small weedy gully; And the air was full of dragonflies: Eastern Pondhawks, Common Whitetails and Twelve-spotted Skimmers.

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When I finally checked the time I realised that outside this quiet little corner, rush hour was well under way. I joined it and headed home to find that our cat hadn’t moved.