Eastern Bluebird

March 11 2018. Merrick Orchard, Dundas Hamilton, ON.  I think it happens to all of us: you entertain a fleeting and random thought and no sooner has your attention let it go than the object of that randomness suddenly pops up in real life, right in front of you. Sometimes you can rationalize the coincidence, other times it gets you wondering about sixth senses, apparitions or guardian angels; or maybe it’s just plain old coincidence after all.

Eastern Bluebird

Today’s random pop-up was an Eastern Bluebird, actually a pair of them. I had been hiking a long and, at times challenging, woodland trail with steep hills and patches of ice (a nasty combination). The trail eventually opened up to a grassy old orchard dotted with patches of Multiflora Rose, it was where several trails came together. Just as I was thinking that it was the right sort of habitat for bluebirds or maybe even a shrike, and making a mental note to come back in a couple of months, a small bird flew up from the edge of the path to an overhanging branch. A quick binocular look and there, as if fulfilling a prophesy, was an Eastern Bluebird, it made my head spin for a moment. As I debated whether I could make any photographic sense of it, it flew to one of those clumps of Multiflora Rose taking its mate with it. That was an improvement as it was now close enough to be able to get several decent shots. It’s hard to imagine a more subtly beautiful bird than this, there are many equally beautiful, but how could anyone improve on this little thrush? (Yes, a thrush.)

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

As I continued my walk the unmistakable ringing call of a Pileated Woodpecker from somewhere back in the forest added nicely to an otherwise rather un-birdy late winter hike.

I remember a similar sort of happy coincidence three years ago in New Jersey when, as a friend and I walked out of a woodland edge and into an open but scrubby field, I commented that this felt like a good spot for Blue-winged Warblers. With that, one started singing just a few yards away. I wondered at the time whether its faint beee-bzzzzz song had found its way into the wait-a-minute-I’m-too busy-right-now corner of my brain and just needed a trip to my consciousness; or was it something altogether more obscure and spectral? Or maybe I just spend too much time birding.

Blue-winged Warbler

Tundra Swans

February 28 2018. The west end of Lake Ontario, ONEvery year about this time Tundra Swans start their spring migration, they depart from their Atlantic wintering grounds in large groups and set out on a three or four thousand kilometer journey to the shores of Hudson Bay and islands of the high Arctic.

I like to imagine Chesapeake Bay on a late winter day, when thousands of agitated Tundra Swans sense the time is right and take flight in a loosely coordinated lift off, calling across the marshes to confirm who’s where and then coalescing into groups of dozens, scores and finally hundreds. Then heading inland late in the day to fly overnight towards their first refueling stops around the west end of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Six-hundred kilometers later, we see them on mornings like today.

It was 8.30 when, as I walked away leaving my car for an oil change, a group of about 150 Tundra Swans passed directly overhead, perhaps five hundred feet up. Shortly after this first group left me behind I spotted two or three more, smaller flocks much further away and they cemented a feeling of satisfaction that spring must be on its way.

Tundra Swan V

There are few signs of spring more certain to stop me in my tracks than the sound and sight (usually in that order) of a long V-formation skein of Tundra Swans. Often they seem to be thousands of feet up, almost invisible against a blue March sky but given away as they catch the sun and bright white reflections flash off their bodies. The formations hold their long V shape loosely, sometimes stretching or drifting sideways and re-forming as leaders, outliers and insiders swap places.

All of that was satisfying enough, but this evening I looked at the day’s observations on our local list serve and it was all about Tundra Swans. Here are some excerpts from dozens of similarly excited reports: At 9.07 “…we just had a flock of 150 over our yard …. Heading southwest.” At 9.30 “ Saw a group of ~12 fly over the York Blvd. bridge..” At 9.51 “ I’ve seen three groups of 32, ~65, and 29 fly over the east side of Grimsby this morning. All heading in a generally westward direction.” At 10.08 “Two large groups within 10 minutes of each other estimated at least 250 individuals combined.” You get the idea. By 12.30 the moderator had had enough and called a halt to swan reports.

Tundra swans Lake Erie March 17 2009

These first sightings are a marker in the approach of spring, more important than the first snowdrop or robin. Tomorrow I’ll see if I can find some of them on the lakes and flooded fields around here, more should arrive over the next week or two although they don’t do this for our entertainment, so it’s not guaranteed. No matter, they were here today, Birds of the Day.

Tundra Swans

Snowy Owl and Northern Shrike

February 22 2018. Saltfleet, ON. The way we keep seeing Snowy Owls around here is a bit of an embarrassment of riches. Yet that’s the way it is these days, I saw two today making it at least six this year. Whether they are close at hand or far off, snowies are always a wow! bird so, by the strict definition of this site, it should make them my Bird of the Day every time. But I think we’d all tire of a steady diet of Snowy Owls, there’s more to life.

Today’s second (the first one was a long way off) Snowy Owl rounded out nicely a cold morning that included several late winter novelties including a trio of Horned Larks and the first-of-the-year Red-winged Blackbirds.   A recent surge of warmish air has cleared away our thick blanket of snow, streams and rivers are running fast and full with many low-lying areas now under water. An advance guard of ducks and geese anxious to secure the best breeding territories, has flown in. When winter comes storming back unless they are ready to retreat in a hurry I suppose they’ll take whatever cover they can find. In these flooded fields we found groups of Canada Goose, Mallard, Gadwall and a few American Wigeon.

We spotted a Northern Shrike on the top of a bare Red Ash tree and in the time it took to safely pull off the road and get my camera ready it flew to a nearby Hawthorn shrub from which it made a couple of forays to ground, probably in search of voles. I managed to get a couple of shots. Not the best but shrikes are few and far between and we were pleased with this one, Bird of the Day number one.

Northern Shrike

The Snowy Owl that rounded out this morning was almost pure white. First year males and females are heavily marked with dark brown barring and spotting. Second year birds are less marked in males, slightly less in females but it is unknown how long it takes for males to reach pure white adult plumage. We usually see strongly marked younger birds (like the one a month ago) but today’s was clearly an adult male, they’re sort of the prize find among snowies. Bird of the Day number two and only marginally marred by the muddy furrow it obviously found so comfortable; that’s just the way it goes.

Footnote. I like words and wordplay, you’ve probably noticed.  With so many hours spent bashing out stuff for this site it’s hardly surprising I suppose. Part of my fascination with wordplay lies in the scientific names that follow italicized behind the common names of our familiar birds. (And all other living organisms for that matter.) Some are tongue-twisters, some surely private jokes and many just mellifluous.

How about Lanius excubitor ?- the Northern ShrikeLanius being Latin for butcher and excubitor a sentinel. Not only does it fit the bird’s way of life, but doesn’t it just roll off your tongue? And, Bubo scandiacus the Snowy Owl. I’m not keen on the bubo part, a word which in English means the swollen lymph node symptom of Black Death (caused incidentally by Yersinia pestis), but the scandiacus part I like – a nod to the northland.

Other bird name delights include Vanellus vanellus, Anas platyrynchos, Tyto Alba, Alauda arvensis and Melanerpes erythrocephalus. Here’s just some of them.

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