Northern Pintail

27 March 2017. Vinemount, Hamilton ON. Although weather patterns vary from year to year, when I look back over my posts I find that you could almost set your watch by some of the returning birds. It’s usually in late March, if there’s a breath of warmth, that Turkey Vultures start streaming in and it’s when we see and hear the first Killdeers and Song Sparrows too. About now, local birders routinely visit certain poorly drained fields, which, while flooded, lure migrating ducks to rest for a while; it’s also an area where we have a good chance of finding Wilson’s Snipes. Once those fields dry out we probably won’t give them another moment’s thought for twelve months.

Mallard, N.Pintail, GW teal, Black Duck

No snipes today, not that I could see anyway, but lots of ducks and swans. Among the thousands of spectacular sights to be enjoyed in the birder’s world, one of them has to be male ducks (drakes) in breeding plumage. In those flooded fields there were hundreds: mostly glistening Mallards but plenty of American Wigeon, several American Black Ducks, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal and almost best of all, many Northern Pintails. All of them kin, colloquially puddle-ducks and scientifically of the genus anas; a,platyrhynchus, a.americana, a.rubripes, a.strepera, a.crecca and a.acuta.

Many species but American Wigeon closest

It was the Northern Pintails that won my heart today – the drakes are so incredibly handsome, almost military, with their white pinstripes on chestnut.

Northern Pintail

If I have over-played the males of the species in this account I make just a small apology; the fact is that the females of all these duck species aren’t nearly as snazzy. They have no time for vanity, they face a long season of doing the hard work: building a nest, laying a dozen eggs, incubating them for a month, guarding and raising the brood; there’s just not enough time in the day.

Off to one side, aloof and avoiding the puddle duck rabble, were half a dozen Tundra Swans, the first I’ve seen this spring. I probably missed most of them while I was in Uganda, an unusually mild February seems to have prompted an early migration. I smiled inwardly, a contented smile, I haven’t missed them after all.

Tundra Swans

American Kestrel

March 19 2017. Ancaster ON. There is a short-lived spell, call it a moment, in mid-March when irregular patches of bright snow stand in contrast against the khaki-fawn tracts of winter-weary grasses. It can be quite stunning; especially if there are some little brush-strokes of scarlet along a watercourse where Red-osier Dogwoods have a toehold.

On my drive home from a day’s outing yesterday I noted my first signs of bird-spring: Turkey Vultures, two of them being blown along on a stiff breeze as if they’d thought, ‘I’ll just hop on this little wind-stream and see where it takes me’; The odd Common Grackle and a few Red-winged Blackbirds quite probably males making their purposeful way – going somewhere. Research shows that among many migratory species, the males tend to spend the winter farther north than females, a risky strategy some years but it probably gives them an edge in the spring race back to seize the best breeding sites and to have the best breeding success.

Male American Kestrel

Along the way I saw a handful of American Kestrels perched on utility lines and closely watching the open roadside below for food on the move. They captured my attention and many times I thought of stopping for a photo. But it’s a just too risky on busy roads and besides, the very act of coming to a sudden stop is usually enough to scare the bird away. Then later on a quiet country road, I saw my chance, an actively hunting pair of kestrels, a place to pull into and turn around slowly and some chance of shooting from the car. Well, I took many bad photos by ignoring my own advice that an idling car means vibration and unless the camera shutter-speed is really fast, blurry pictures are what you get. But finally paying attention and turning off the ignition, I was able to get a couple of decent shots of these American Kestrels, a back view of the female and the male facing the camera – my first spring Birds of the Day.

Female American Kestrel

Bataleur and other wonders

January 30 2017. Queen Elizabeth park and beyond, Uganda. My previous four postings were almost as much about people and places as birds. They recounted some of my experiences while making my circuitous way from Entebbe/Kampala, Uganda’s capital, to Rubugari, a small forest-edge village in south-west Uganda where I spent February.

This, I think though, will be the last of my ‘on-the-road’ sagas, tales about astonishing Ugandan places and astonishing Ugandan animals. From now on, sprinkled among local Ontario bird stories, I’ll revisit specific Ugandan birds as Birds of the Day in my usual manner. Besides, it’s now mid-March and spring is trying to dig itself out. To that point, only yesterday, not far from home, I saw and photographed this delightful little Eastern Screech Owl.

Eastern Screech owl

Following our day in Queen Elizabeth Park, we had to press on southwards. That meant more travelling than lingering but still there were lots of really fascinating animals along the way.

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Because we were on the move it was always easier to spot the big stuff and my notes for the day include several eagle and hawk sighting: Black Kites (probably the most abundant raptor in Uganda or Rwanda) Martial Eagle, Long-crested Eagle, Brown Snake Eagle, Palm Nut Vulture, African Fish Eagle, Bataleur (Eagle), Pallid Harrier, Black-shouldered Kite and African Crowned Eagle. This last one, the Crowned Eagle really stood out because unlike many eagles, which tend to be generally rather browny-black, it is described in my field guide as a “Massive, heavily-marked eagle with a rough crest.” And so it was, loudly marked with zebra-stripes across its underside. We watched one atop a large roadside tree communicating loudly with its family, plotting how they were going to isolate and seize one of the Black and White Colobus Monkeys scrambling for fruit in a nearby fig tree.

African Crowned Eagle

On the topic of large eagles, a pair of Bataleurs made us stop and watch for a long while, appropriately I suppose because ‘bataleur’ means‘street performer’ in old-French. We were open-mouthed at the sight of them, they really are worth feasting your eyes on although I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were performing. The Bataleur is a chunky, short-tailed, and boldly marked eagle: black, chestnut and grey with scarlet feet, bill, cere and facial skin. I had Bataleurs tucked away in the back of my mind as one of those mythical birds – something I’d read and dreamed about but never thought I’d see. We later learned that we had scrutinized a juvenile Bataleur the previous evening but at the time were utterly baffled as to its identity. Two days later a couple of East-African bird experts helped us out, identifying it from my photos by the expanse of facial skin.

There was more to this journey than eagles and birds of course: In the distance I saw a small and ponderous group of African Elephants; It was easy to spot herds of Uganda Kob – a pretty and nervous antelope relished by lions and pythons; A few Topi crossed the road in front of us, they are closely related to the musically-named Hartebeast. Wherever a group of Topi stops to graze one or two stand as lookouts on a convenient high-spot – A wise precaution I felt.

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We made a brief detour to Kisenyi, a fishing village on the shore of Lake Edward; Robert thought I’d be interested to see it. I was but found it rather shocking, discouraging anyway, that a small community barely a kilometer from a main road should be so overlooked by the twentieth (let alone twenty-first) century. Two parallel lines of tiny, shabby block-construction homes were strung along the indicated route, you couldn’t call it a road, leading to the lake’s edge. Marabou Storks and Hamerkops picked for food in the ruts and grass. Along the peaceful shore was a line of elegant, high-ended wooden boats with small teams of men who were sorting, cleaning and re-stacking the fine-mesh nets ready for the next night’s work; they were the day crew. The fishing teams go at night, rowing out to catch what they can to bring home at dawn. One or two ‘rich men’ own the boats and the catch, they contract with the villagers to do the hard work; a bit like share-cropping I think. It was picturesque I suppose, the lake, all those boats lined up and the men at work, but I didn’t see it as pretty, it just struck me as a timeless treadmill of toil with no evidence of a way out.

Kisenyi fishing Village on Lake Edward

Well, there was a lot more. We had hoped to see a famous tourist attraction, the tree-climbing lions of Ishasha. No-one seems to know why they behave that way, and they didn’t do any climbing for us. But I didn’t mind, I’d seen lions the day before and much preferred the way they loafed around like big pussycats.

African Jacana. Ishasha

In fact, more exciting I think were a pair of African Jacanas searching actively for invertebrates among the dense aquatic plants of a lush waterhole. Robert told me that this sort of isolated pond is just the kind of place you could expect to find a young male hippo, outlawed and feeling sorry for itself after losing a battle for status with an older male. There weren’t any but it looked so much like many of the shallow ponds around home that I’ll be sure to look more closely in future.

My tally of birds for this day included such fancifully named birds as Yellow-throated Longclaw, Black-headed Gonolek, Wooly-necked Stork, Malachite Kingfisher, Open-billed Stork, and Common Scimitarbill, so fanciful that a week or so later my companions in Rubugari accused me of making it up and for all they knew I could have been. Here are a few pictures of birds from that day, each dramatic in its own way.

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…and including an Eastern Grey Plantain-eater.

January 28 2017. Bigodi Wetland, Uganda.  Just south of Kibale National Park (one of Ugandan’s prize tourist attractions) lies a small but well publicized and visited wetland. The Bigodi Wetland is just a marsh, a large expanse of lowland with a river meandering through and choked with papyrus sedge. In many settings, particularly in a country with few regulations as to land use, such an area might well be cultivated, planted with sorghum or yam and threaded with drainage ditches. Perhaps it turned out to be undrainable but whatever the reason the community had another and better idea, this wetland is one of western Uganda’s best places to see birds and has become a tourist attraction in its own right.

My guide Robert had arranged for us to be shown around by Gerald a top-notch specialist bird guide on what turned out to be a four kilometer walk. I wasn’t aware that it would be quite that long and I started to drag towards the end. But no matter, the circuit took us through a variety of habitats and each seems to deal some startling sights, a couple of turacos to begin with.

Ross’s Turaco

Turacos are a family of large arboreal birds, rather like overgrown pigeons. I’d seen both Ross’ and Great Blue Turacos on my first visit to Uganda a year ago and here they were again! Turacos in general are big and colourful, usually blue or green.  The Ross’s looks like a large blue chicken with a surprised expression and when it flies, if you can overcome your gasps of disbelief, you realize it has long crimson-emblazoned wings.

Great Blue Turaco

Last year I watched a Great Blue Turaco in a nearby treetop and it stayed around clucking in mild disapproval while I took several photos and a brief movie.

But turacos were just a start to a walk of startling variety. The bird species list included some nearly-familiars like Olive-bellied Sunbird, Brown-eared Woodpecker, African Green Pigeon, Grey-headed Negrofinch, and White-throated Bee Eaters, all of which I noted as plausible if not immediately familiar. And then there were others with exotic sounding names like Grey-backed Cameroptera, Brown Iladopsis, Western Nicator and Hairy-breasted Barbet, not one of them would I know if I saw again. Although, for what it’s worth, a Double-toothed Barbet stationed itself outside the door of my cottage that evening – and it is a memorable bird.

Double-toothed Barbet

We encountered several monkey species today too, including Grey-cheeked Mangaby, Red-tailed Monkey, a quite rare Red Colobus, and several Olive Baboons.

Towards the end of our walk we found a most peculiar bird, an Eastern Grey Plantain-eater. I was absolutely captivated by the improbable size and heft of this bird. Perhaps I should have guessed that it’s related to turacos. My book describes them and the closely related Go-Away-Birds as “….open country relatives of turacos”. None is as showy as any of the turacos but they have presence.

Eastern Grey Plantain Eater.

I assumed that the evident ho-hum lack of interest in the Plantain-eater exhibited by both Robert and Gerald was because, in this land of dramatic animals, it is really just a big grey lump of a bird – you could look at it that way. I shrugged, each to his own, I thought and continued to admire it until it flew.

Well, almost five weeks later, I came to understand their point of view. Eastern Grey Plantain-eaters are bog-common around cultivation and gardens – at least I saw many of them around Entebbe in the days before flying home. They are hard to miss and have a raucous cry that degenerates into a sort of cascading maniacal laugh. You might easily tire of them.

Eastern Grey Plantain Eaters- two of many!

African Fish Eagle and many others

January 29 2017.Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.  A year ago I had the chance to participate in a small-group trip to Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth Park. I gave it a miss mostly because it was a bit expensive and partly because I didn’t know enough about the group. I also think I had the false impression thatQueen Elizabeth Park was the Disney World of game parks criss-crossed by zebra-striped tourist busses; I was quite wrong.

QE, as it is affectionately known, is big, fascinating, full of animals and not at all too touristy. I spent a couple of days in the park this time around. Yes there are plenty of Toyota Land Cruisers poking around the numerous tracks in search of Lions, I was in one of them. And yes we did find Lions although it wasn’t quite the MGM Lion framed by his tawny golden mane. We came upon a group of five lolling around in an area of recently burned grass.  I’m not sure whether the collective noun ‘pride of Lions’ applies in the absence of an big-maned alpha male, but no matter, the five of them looked pretty magical and I had time to contemplate what a privilege it was to be there gazing at Lions as they should be seen.

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The scene would probably be incomplete without some vultures hanging around nearby. Fortunately it didn’t take long for my guide Robert to point out a classically hunch-backed group loafing on a suitable flat-topped tree; they were waiting for something meaty to come to an unhappy ending I suppose. From the comfort and safety of our Land Cruiser we determined they were African White-backed Vultures. Lions and vultures, what could be more fitting?

African White-backed Vultures

(A longish digression here to re-visit my passing reference above to the safety of our Land Cruiser.  Yesterday I had asked Robert whether it would be safe to get out of the vehicle when we’re in QE Park.  His answer was essentially about common sense: If there’s a Lion or Water Buffalo (or anything big) at hand, then stay put. But if there are no animals close, by all means step out – using common sense and caution. You’d really wonder why I thought it necessary to ask, wouldn’t you?

Martial Eagle

But then, a little earlier, just today, we had stopped at the side of a fairly well-used paved road to scrutinize what turned out to be a Martial Eagle standing guard over it’s nearby nest, To get a better viewing angle we both got out and warily stepped off the pavement to where a recent fire had cleared the grass; just burnt stubble.  Unthinkingly I took another step or two into some longer grass and Robert then promptly called out to get back.  Oh yes, I thought, we’d talked about this sort of thing yesterday; wander at your (extreme) peril.  He didn’t admonish me as perhaps he should, but pointed out gently that in long grass you would never see a motionless leopard – or a python.  I do understand about leopards and how they are so brilliantly camouflaged but I had never given pythons a moments thought. But it’s a fact, according to Robert, that a python will take down and  contentedly digest one of the many antelope-type creatures that roam this incredible park. It quite chilled me to contemplate the idea of a python coiling the breath out of me, unhinging its jaws and enveloping me in its digestive tract!)

QE National Parka has endless things to see, it’s a come-and-see-it-place, a wild park, not a man-made attractions sort of destination; with the exception, that is, of a boat ride on the Kazinga Channel. I realize that the geography of this part of Africa is sketchy in most minds, but just to set the stage a bit, there are some pretty big lakes hereabouts. Two of them fall within QE, Lakes Edward and George and they are connected by the 20 Km-long Kazinga Channel. The channel is about a kilometre wide for most of its length and is flanked by 100m-high banks and forested flat land along the shore.

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And what a boat ride! My prejudice against tourist traps had me feeling rather soppy wearing a life jacket (a.k.a life preserver) seated in close ranks with forty or fifty others. I discarded my life preserver when it occurred to me that if the boat should come to some kind of unfortunate end, those so-called preservers might only keep you fresher longer for the countless, patient Nile Crocodiles. Still, putting that aside, that two hour cruise is I think perhaps one of the best birding experiences to be had in the entire world; and that’s not even taking into account the rafts of all-but-submerged Hippopotami, or the pedantic African Elephants pulling down long green branches for a twiggy lunch.

I have several times looked over my day’s notes to see if there could possibly be a Bird of the Day among the fifty or sixty species we saw; there wasn’t. From the earlier Martial Eagle through African Black Skimmers, Ruffs, African Wattled Lapwings, African Jacanas, Battaleurs, (an impossibly large eagle), Marabou Storks, Yellow-billed Storks, Squacco Herons, Grey-headed Gulls and White-winged Terns, it was breathtaking.

One of the easiest birds to photograph was the African Fish Eagle, indeed a pair of them sat quietly as our tour boat drifted by. Other than the inescapable majesty of an eagle anytime, anywhere, the only thing that gives this bird a little more intrigue is that it is so closely related to North America’s Bald Eagle and Eurasia’s White-tailed Eagle.  Not only is it in the same family but also the same Sea Eagle genus Haliaeetus. But in true African style this one goes a step further than either of those basically black and white cousins and has dark chestnut undersides. A magnificent bird; but then they all are.

Chocolate-backed Kingfisher and more

(Traipsing around in a foreign land can mean that it’s a struggle to pinpoint any one species as My Bird of the Day. All the more so in Uganda which has the greatest diversity of bird species anywhere in the world; over 1000 species. So for the next few postings while I share some of my excitement, l’ll skip highlighting any one bird.) 

January 27 2017. Semliki National Park, Uganda. Today was a day spent in lowland tropical jungle, there’s no better way of describing it. We were on a birding tour in Semliki National Park led by Justus, a guide provided by Uganda Wildlife Authority. The park lies along the river-defined border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The DRC is a difficult country, the Canadian Government strongly advises against travel there; or even close to it and we were very close. All sorts of political trouble, international intrigue and violence lurks in the DRC but we experienced no difficulties. Many weeks later some colleagues visited the DRC and said they could sense the barely suppressed chaos, people lived in near anarchy and there was scant regard for the country’s wildlife (or human life).

We started at seven while it was reasonably cool and before the sun peered over the mountains to the east. We spent an hour watching birds along the roadside including: Pygmy Kingfishers, Western Bronze-necked Pigeons and Great Blue Turacos and then suddenly there were hornbills. Astonishing birds, large almost lumbering in flight over the road to make their way to and from the forest: Black and White Casqued Hornbill, Piping Hornbill, African Pied Hornbill, Black Dwarf Hornbill and Black-Casqued Wattled Hornbill. I found myself wondering how such improbable looking creatures could have survived evolution’s pitfalls and blind alleys. But drawing on the cautionary advice to never assume that evolution has stopped, I’m left speculating on whether hornbill species have either been remarkably successful and thrived over the 40 million years of avian evolution so far, or, conversely, done really badly and the twenty or so hornbill species known today are all that’s left of a prehistoric throng; needs research.

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As the sun got up we followed deep shade paths into the forest. Our guide of course knew what to expect and where to find it and showed us some astonishing birds. While everything was new to me, more or less, many fell into familiar families such as doves, falcons, eagles, finches and cuckoos. At the forest edge was this Lizard Buzzard, dressed in the soft striped greys of an old-fashioned morning suit although defying convention by sporting bright yellow socks.

Cuckoos are always interesting, I spotted an African Cuckoo which looks very much like the common European version and our guide pointed out both Red-chested and Yellow-throated Cuckoos, the latter really excited him. I have to say that we took him at his word because for us it, indeed most forest canopy birds, was very hard to make out.

Later as we struggled our way along the edge of a small rivulet, Justus told me that there were ducks in this river. In the abstract that seems unsurprising but if you could have been there and seen what was really a wide trickle seeping through the undergrowth, it might have set you wondering what kind of duck could possibly make a go of it it here. Well, it’s Hartlaub’s Duck and we didn’t see any, but when I checked my field guide I really wish we had because it’s a handsome rarity. My book says, “…a striking, rather large dark chestnut duck with a blackish head, pale blue shoulders …..uncommon on well-vegetated and secluded forest pools and rivers in Semliki Forest …”

Chocolate-backed Kingfisher. Semliki

Perhaps most breathtaking to me, was this Chocolate-backed Kingfisher. It obligingly perched just ahead of us in a well-lit open spot. Not all kingfisher species depend on fish for a living, the Chocolate-backed is a forest species, probably living on various insects and other invertebrates – and perhaps some manageable vertebrates like the slender, bright green snake that slid our way and sent my driver/companion Robert leaping out of its way. Snakes in tropical forests?! I took the hint and gave it a wide berth too.

Black & White Colobus Monkey

Tucked away in Semliki Forest are a couple of hot-springs which Robert felt were worth the additional entry fee (on my part) to go and see. I’ve visited the spectacular and explosive geysers of Iceland and, with them in mind (notwithstanding the obvious contrasts between Iceland and Uganda) we hiked the short distance to the closest spring; I wished I hadn’t used Iceland as the benchmark. The spring was a metre-high fountain of piping-hot water, which, rather than spasmodically erupting, instead fountained a steady issue of scalding water from an ever-growing mineral column and  across a wide apron of steaming salt whiteness. It was all rather curious and other-worldly although the squishy margins attracted a couple of interesting shorebirds, a Wood Sandpiper, a bird that winters in Africa and breeds in northern Eurasia, and a Spur-winged Lapwing.

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Broad-billed Roller and Lilac-breasted Roller

Uganda January 26 2017. It’s been a long time since I can say I really enjoyed birding from the seat of my car. It can be productive, its true, and if there’s a team of birders crammed together the camaraderie helps a lot, but I’ve come to think that the fuel used is hard to justify and you certainly can’t make any claims to healthy exercise. Today however was different.,

With my guide Robert we crossed Uganda, almost side to side, east to west from Entebbe to Bundibugiyo, about 400 km. Robert is an accomplished birder and a professional tour guide, he is to be my lifeline for seven days, we drove (or rather he did) because we’re going into Semliki National Park tomorrow morning. Four hundred kilometres was bound to turn up some nice birds and bearing in mind that it’s pretty well all new to me, there was bound to be something to make my bird of the day.

Black & White Casqued Hornbills seen along the way

Dedicated readers will recall my ode to a European Roller some weeks back, how its sapphire blue-ness and sheer improbability put it on my I- bet-I-never-see-one-of-those list. Then all was put to rights by seeing dozens, if not hundreds in Kazakhstan. it hadn’t registered with me then that there could be other rollers extant in this world; and that was the lesson for today, there’s more.

Broad-billed Roller

What I took at first to be a kestrel of some kind making a purposefully sweeping turn just above tree level and coming to a rest on utility lines, turned out to be a Broad– billed Roller. Setting aside the rather comic connotations of its name, (its not the only bird in creation that could stand a little bit of re-styling I’d say) this was bit of a show-stopper. In flight it had shown a rich chestnut back and wings and a dazzling blue rump and tail. From where we gazed at it, all we could see was its rusty chestnut coloured undersides, a hint of aquamarine beneath its tail and to be fair a very wide bill. I think though that you’ll understand that I was impressed.

Lilac-breasted Roller

Another roadside sighting was a Lilac-breasted Roller, an even more eye-catching beauty. I had to crane my neck a little for a good look and a photo.  How does it get away with dazzling blues like that? And then there’s the chestnut-turning cinnamon, a dashing black eye line and a few touches of cream around the head and neck. Now I have three roller species in my mental collection. I know there are places in the world where rollers are run of the mill and now I have three roller species in my mental display case but it will take a while for me to not be stopped in my tracks by them.

I’ll add for the record, that in order to provide material for this site, I spent this evening in Bundibugyo in an establishment known as Vanilla Hotel. It is reputed to be the best overnight accommodation available in this smallish market town. A little research ahead of time hadn’t helped, former guests who left comments on TripAdvisor were all withering in their reviews, so I knew not to expect too much. My room was acceptably clean which was nice and, to some extent, made up for lack of a shower or indeed running water for any purpose, or for a supposed beef stew ( the only thing on the dinner menu) which included a three large tangles of improbable bones tied together with something odd looking and certainly un-chewable. Still a cold beer was perfect and since my body was still trying to sort out what time of just which day it was I could overlook many imperfections.

p.s Somewhat alarmingly (but several weeks later)  while typing Bundibugyo into Google it auto-filled with “Bundibugyo ebolavirus’ Hmmm!  Apparently “Bundibugyo ebolavirus (BEBOV / BDBV)is one of the four ebolavirus that cause Ebola virus disease in humans.”  Just thought you’d be interested.

Pileated Woodpecker

Friday January 13 2017. RBG Arboretum, Hamilton ON. In need of a good winter leg-stretch and an opportunity to blow the cobwebs away I took the longest and hilly-est route I could find around a wide expanse of woodland. The weather was cooperating, sunny at times but cold enough to be crunchy underfoot, and the day turned out to be quite productive bird-wise. I don’t think I saw another human soul for most of the five kilometers of trails I covered.

I was surprised and delighted by this Winter Wren who popped out of the fringes of a cattail marsh and was curious to see what the fuss was all about. The fuss, such as it was, came from a bunch of Black-capped Chickadees who seemed to expect that I had brought food for them, but I hadn’t and the chickadees were indignantly persistent. The chickadees also attracted the attention of a couple of American Tree Sparrows and a White-throated Sparrow. The rather unexpected Winter Wren was a treat and I had mentally tagged it as my Bird of the Day until just a little further up a trail I found myself almost face to face with this male Pileated Woodpecker. Step aside Winter Wren!

There are many things to celebrate about Pileateds . They’re big, showy and gloriously awesome (awesome in the literal, pre generation-x, sense of the word). They’re more often heard than seen; you’ll often catch a Pileated’s ringing call from perhaps half a kilometer away. Sometimes it’s not only their vocalization but their hammering that you pick up, in search of succulent grubs they bash away at soft old trees, loudly like the chiseling of a medieval shipbuilder; there’s nothing else quite like it. When you see Pileateds it’s often a fleeting, distant and sometimes shy glimpse; but today I was lucky.

This male (male’s have a red moustachial stripe, females black) seemed generally unconcerned about my presence. He didn’t want me too close but 20 feet away seemed to be okay. He was deeply engrossed excavating for food, but even so, as is so typical of Pileateds, he opted to maintain a practical and physical separation by prefering to stay on the opposite side of the tree from me. I stood watching and waiting for perhaps fifteen minutes, knowing he was there and just catching the odd photo when he’d venture around, but more often than not it was just a flash of his red head to one side or the other.

It rarely easy in my experience to get a good photo of a Pileated, and today, although I took the better part of eighty shots, his evasiveness, the foreground clutter and sharply contrasting light made it tricky. Still I did quite well and on one of my shots you can just make out his long, probing tongue. Here is a gallery of shots visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email. Click on any photo to see it enlarged.

It was one of those birding experiences with everything working in my favour: I had the place to myself and there was no urgency on my part or the Pileated’s, a Red-bellied Woodpecker was just behind it (a nice counterpoint) and a White-breasted Nuthatch behind that (ditto).

Funny how, in the depths of winter, woodlands and their fringes can be very quiet one day, and then at other times, like today, quite rewarding, it makes you wonder where the birds go to on the quiet days. By the time I completed my walk I had added a Carolina Wren, three Hairy Woodpeckers, a Northern Mockingbird, Northern Cardinals and a couple of soaring Red-tailed Hawks to my day.


Bald Eagle

Saturday January 7 2017. Royal Botanical Gardens Arboretum, Hamilton ON. A young friend, an enthusiastic and personable staff member at Royal Botanical Gardens, is offering a series of monthly Introduction to Birding walks. Registration is limited, people love it and he’s a little overwhelmed. He asked for help and I’m always happy to share my enjoyment of birds even though I’m a fair weather birder and today was cold like old stone.

Still, our happy group was captivated and eagerly absorbed the instruction on effective use of binoculars. (A side note here; the eyecups on most modern binoculars can be adjusted by a quick turn between extended or flat-down. If you’re not wearing glasses extend them up, if you are wearing glasses the cups should be down. The distance from the surface of your eye to the lens of the binoculars makes a ton of difference.)

Frankly we didn’t see many birds but the group enjoyed learning about the characteristic flight style of an American Crow (Straight ahead, flap flap flap.). We watched a group of House Sparrows finding some food and maybe warmth in the crevices of an old wall and enjoyed the hungry attention of Black-capped Chickadees.

Bald Eagle. RBG Arboretum

The highlight was undoubtedly the appearance fairly low overhead of an adult Bald Eagle. Against the blue sky it was a classic, its stark white head and tail set against the all-black wings and body had everyone’s full attention. We were in a small, tree-sheltered valley and instead of the eagle crossing from one side to the other – in view for a moment and then out of view – it hesitated half way, made an abrupt acrobatic turn and changed course. It was unquestionably our Bird of the Day.

American Goldfinch

January 1 2017. Downtown Burlington, ON. My morning routine is usually,  make coffee, glance at newspaper, then check for emails. But it was pretty slim e-mail pickings on the first day of the year although there are those emailers who dispatch something every day, come what may. Today 10,000 Birds asked, “What was your first bird of 2016?” A bit early I thought, it’s still dark out – but I’ll watch for it, and thereupon resolved that whatever I saw first would be my Bird of the Day, despite the fact that a few years ago my first of the year was a Ring-billed Gull; how dreary. Would 2017 be any better?

It wasn’t until around mid-day that I left the house. It was surprisingly warm, around 4 deg. C, and I was looking forward to leading a nature hike. As I approached my car I could hear the wheezy little notes of a couple of American Goldfinches high above in an old Ash tree. Heard but not seen I acknowledge, but they have equivalency to me; not everyone agrees. But there you have it, American Goldfinch My Bird of the Day to start 2017.  Here are a couple of goldfinch shots from warmer days.

Perhaps more interesting is a note for January 1st in my everlasting nature diary. In 1988 I wrote. “With Geo, M thought we should work on our ’88 list. In its exhaustiveness the list thus far is Canada Goose, Mallard, Black Duck, N Pintail, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Canvasback, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Merganser, Black Vulture, Rough-legged. Hawk, American Kestrel, Great Blue Heron, Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Bonaparte’s Gull, Rock Dove, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Starling, House Sparrow, House Finch, Crow, Chickadee, Junco (31). “ I don’t compile year lists any more, really I never did with any enthusiasm, so I’m not attuned to what’s in town and what’s not but I think it’s an impressive start to 1988.

Of special note is that Black Vulture, I clearly remember that bird seen as a big black lump in the top of a large Eastern Hemlock, I could lead you to the very tree today. Black Vultures, while common throughout most of U.S states to the south of us, have been essentially absent from Ontario except for the odd one now and then. But things are changing and Black Vultures are poised to expand their range northwards. Perhaps, in the vulture community, word is spreading that Turkey Vultures are doing too well in Ontario to have it all to themselves. Over perhaps the last five years it’s almost become a sport to stand on the banks of the Niagara River and watch and wait for one of a pair of resident New York State Black Vultures to stray across international border.

And for what it’s worth, by the end of today I could have legitimately compiled a list with: Black-capped Chickadee, House Sparrow, White-breasted Nuthatch, Ring-billed Gull, Mallard, American Black Duck, Trumpeter Swan, Bufflehead, Orange-crowned Warbler, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-tailed Hawk and Canada Goose.