Bay-breasted Warbler

May 22 2017. Paletta Park, Burlington, ON. I had to run a ten-minute, early morning errand and as I left the house I could hear warbler song coming from the old cedars in our back yard.  Thin, wispy hey-I’m-here notes tied together in a cascade; probably Yellow-rumped Warblers, although this late in the migration month it could be any of half a dozen species. I made a mental note to self: probably a good birding day. A little further up the street I caught another song, a Swainson’s Thrush, singing a hauntingly beautiful stop-you-in-your-tracks arietta that defies description, you’ll be far better off if you follow this link and listen, far better than me doing it an injustice. With two hard-to-ignore calls to action I set a few domestic chores aside for later and visited a nearby park.

Swainson’s Thrush.

The park was busy, busy with people and busy with birds, but it was not easy birding. Over the course of several hours I saw with some difficulty four place-name warblers: Nashville, Canada, Tennessee and Cape May; two named for the early shotgun-toting ornithologists: Blackburnian and Wilson’s and others self-descriptive: Yellow, Yellowrumped and Blackthroated Green Warblers; and in that latter category My Birds of the Day a few Baybreasted Warblers.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.

There were other heart warmers: a demure Swainson’s Thrush (the songster noted above) Warbling Vireos and Redeyed Vireos, Least Flycatchers, a Yellowbellied Flycatcher, an Eastern Kingbird and an oddity, a Fish Crow. This latter species is very common in a broad band along the Atlantic coast, but hardly ever is it seen far inland. Yet over the past couple of years several reports tell of solitary Fish Crows heard rather than seen (usually) around this end of Lake Ontario. Fish Crows are only slightly smaller than the ever-present American Crows and are only told apart by voice. Fish Crows don’t waste breath on multiple, long, drawn out ‘Caw’s, instead they limit themselves to an abrupt nasal ‘Hah!’ – or maybe two.

Bay-breasted Warbler

The Baybreasted Warbler, my Bird of the Day, is usually a tough bird to see well. They are fairly late migrants who seem to favour the upper branches of deciduous trees which are usually fully leafed out by now; however this spring remains cool and the forest canopy still has a long way to go.  Bay-breasted Warblers fit into the handsome and restrained category. A little on the chunky side and clothed in muted tones of cream, grey and chestnut, they are well-mannered, more like Jeeves than Bertie Wooster or his Drones Club chums. For that I salute them.

Wilson’s Warbler

May 19 2016, Morgans Point Rd. Ostryhon Corners, ON A map, mental, electronic or paper will help in understanding how I met up with today’s Bird of the Day.  Because, from where we met a Wilson’s Warbler and a Philadelphia Vireo, a Swainson’s Thrush and uncountable numbers of swifts and swallows there is a view across Lake Erie to its southern shoreline in western New York State and the mountainous Allegheny Plateau in Pennsylvania beyond; a context that is key to this account.

My companion and I had made our way, a longish drive by the way; to Morgan’s Point, a small conservation area on the north shore of Lake Erie. It is a roughly triangular, pleasantly wooded promontory, which juts out into the lake pointing its nose towards the New York shore. In spring Morgan’s Point can be a very good place to watch for northbound migrants; it’s a landing spot for birds that have dared to fly across the lake rather than take the longer way around.

Baltimore Oriole

When we arrived early this morning the woods, parkland and lake-side dunes were distractingly busy with singing Baltimore Orioles and fluttering Yellow Warblers. We didn’t try to keep count, you couldn’t possibly.  Everywhere we looked we saw them; if it was small and moved it was a Yellow Warbler, if it was large and moved a Baltimore Oriole. I exaggerate for effect of course, but there were hundreds of both as well as many Blue Jays, Gray Catbirds and Common Grackles. We heard and/or saw singles of Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Wood Peewee, Scarlet Tanager, Wilson’s Warbler and Least Flycatcher. Close to the water’s edge were Spotted Sandpipers and, Bird of the Day for Barry, a single Redheaded Woodpecker.

After a couple of hours of oriole-exhaustion and Yellow Warbler wobbles we took a break and headed inland for a change of pace and scenery. A drive along quiet country roads turned up Eastern Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Greatcrested and Willow Flycatchers, Common Yellowthroats, Eastern Towhees and Wood Thrushes among others.

Willow Flycatcher

We returned to Morgans Point later hoping that that a new mix of migrants had made the arduous hop across the lake. We were right and wrong. The place was still seething with Baltimore Orioles and Yellow Warblers (a few pairs had decided this was home and had started nest building). We found a Magnolia Warbler, a Winter Wren, an indeterminate Flycatcher (either a Willow or an Alder Flycatcher – they are impossible to tell apart) and re-found the Wilson’s Warbler, an engaging little warbler who I pronounced to be my Bird of the Day on account of its colourful cuteness and personal rarity, since I hadn’t seen one for a number of years; good enough reasons.

Wilson’s Warbler.

Perhaps most wondrous though was the hundreds, if not thousands, of Chimney Swifts, and Barn, Tree and Northern Roughwinged Swallows apparently making landfall at the tip of Morgans Point. At Lake Erie’s surface uncountable numbers cruised, swooped and picked for insects, but above them and far beyond, out over the lake, the air was equally crowded, like a big fishing line tangle.

It’s my belief that we were seeing birds that had crossed the lake very recently and that, as we watched, more were arriving. Equally, others perhaps having fuelled up on insects were departing, heading inland, driven to reach suitable nesting habitat. Many may have a very long way to go yet.

Barn Swallow

Blackburnian Warbler

May 16 2016, RBG Arboretum, Hamilton ON Counting birds today on the back edge of a three-week system of grey, wet and cold was to be offered many candidate Birds of the Day (summer weather is supposed to start this afternoon). I teamed up with a companion who was scheduled to complete the daily transect and it didn’t take long to fill a page or two of our field books.

Brown Thrasher in song

First B.o.t.D candidate, entered on line six of my book, was a Brown Thrasher seen and heard singing boldly from a treetop. Funny how they hold a hunch-backed posture when they sing, it’s as if they have a bit too much body and not quite enough neck.

We were never out of earshot of Baltimore Orioles announcing their arrival and intention to control the world. We could hear but almost never see many Pine Warblers, Red-eyed Vireos, Blue Jays, Yellow Warblers, Ovenbirds, House Wrens and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Second B.o.t.D candidate was a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak who dared to take food from my companion’s outstretched hand. In a way you could hardly blame him, she was offering whole cashews, almonds, peanuts, dried cranberries and apricot chunks! A female grosbeak watched longingly from a wing-flap away, she was sorely tempted but somehow couldn’t quite make the leap of faith.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks

With a bit of ear-stretching we could make out a far-off Scarlet Tanager in song, it seemed to be getting closer and in time we were treated to a few sightings: two scorching-red males and a couple of demure olive-green females. There must have been a pulse of tanagers passing through because we continued hearing the melodious, ‘sounds-like-a-robin-with-a-sore’ throat song on and off all morning.

Scarlet Tanager

It had started to rain lightly, I was getting chilled and my enthusiasm was threatened. My companion was in good form though and she has a good ear for bird song, she could hear the high-flying ‘zee,ee,ee,ee,eeZIP’ crescendo buzz of a Northern Parula and together we struggled to make sense of the silhouettes of several flitting warblers high in the forest canopy. Against a flat grey sky it’s really tough to make out features and we were missing far too many. The old expression, ‘A bad workman always blames his tools’ nags at me in times like this. Is the ambient light a tool?

Anyway, after a while we were sure that we were watching Bay-breasted and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Northern Parulas and quite probably Tennessee Warblers too. A Bay-breasted Warbler would make a good Bird of the Day but I was hardly exultant at my laboured sightings.

Great-crested Flycatcher

Our day’s list grew filling pages in our field books with Great-crested Flycatchers, Field Sparrows, Indigo Buntings and much, much more (59 species in fact). The day was capped off with a brief but dramatic face-to-face encounter with a couple of Blackburnian Warblers. Thinking back to my musings a couple of postings ago on suitable adjectives for warblers, I think Blackburnian Warblers alone earn the term fiery, nothing in warbler world has quite the punch of a testosterone-loaded male as the Blackburnian. It was my Bird of the day, pushing aside Brown Thrasher, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Scarlet Tanager, and Bay-breasted Warbler – tough competition.

Blackburnian Warbler

Ovenbird

May 13 2017. Ruthven Park Cayuga, ON. Several weeks ago I agreed that I would lead a birding hike for visitors to this park today. It was billed as Warblers and Other Spring Wonders or something like that and almost no-one came! Still, I enjoyed the company of two well-informed but admittedly bird-perplexed women, one was the mother of a young lad who was thoroughly engrossed in the activities of the banding lab.

Frankly it wasn’t very birdy, or at least not what you might expect of a May morning. It is so rewarding when you can show people the drama of spring migration, you know: flashy warblers, tanagers and grosbeaks, but I couldn’t; visible birds were in short supply. I was having a wonderful time, I could hear many birds and usually knew what I was hearing, but drawing someone’s attention to an intermittent bird song is a poor substitute. My companions seemed happy enough though and while I may have thought they were captivated by my bird-lore patter it was more likely the beauty of woodlands in spring; and why not?

It wasn’t without it’s wow moments: a beautiful male Indigo Bunting had us all gasping and I was able to show them a Chestnut-sided Warbler and a Black and White Warbler, both fairly high up. To me a Swainson’s Thrush was pretty special although they are hardly spectacular to look at and my Bird of the Day was an Ovenbird a few yards in front of us.

Ovenbird

Ovenbirds are far more often heard than seen. They have a ringing song that carries far in thickly vegetated deciduous woodlands, but seeing them is more often a matter of luck, they stay low and keep their distance. Today’s was more at ease with our presence than is usual and I was able to get some decent photos. That name, Ovenbird, is a rather folksy reference to their domed nest, like a miniature Dutch oven, constructed on the forest floor.

Twenty-six species was our count, a low one for mid May. For all the promise of May it still can be hit and miss.

Prairie Warbler

May 10 2017 Paletta Park Burlington, ON. I don’t know where to start with today except that well, it’s mid May, and if the birding is good, that’s as it should be. I spent an almost indecent stretch of time checking out favourite birding spots and two out of three were very rewarding. The not-so-good one yielded a single calling Virginia Rail barely meeting my minimum standards for a thirty kilometer drive. Still, just around the corner from it I found a pair of Merlins who looked as though they were setting up home.

Merlin female

But the best experiences of the day came not far from home at a small lakeside park with a rambling old stone house, unkempt hedges, wet spots and a small creek. Arriving there shortly after breakfast and while early-morning dog exercise was in full swing, my first impression was that of a quiet morning. But down almost at the shoreline I could hear a faintly familiar and slightly disturbing song coming from a dense honeysuckle bush, disturbing because I felt I should know it although somehow it kept eluding me. Then a bright yellow warbler popped up showing bold black streaks on the side of its chest. Hmm, which warblers have a yellow breast and a necklace of black pearls?, Magnolia Warbler? Canada Warbler? Black-throated Green Warbler? And with that it flew up and away and was lost against a bright sky high in a nearby maple, although hauntingly it continued singing.

My brain’s Bird Song Analysis Dept. kept trying for a match while the rest of me turned to other birds: a startling Black-throated Blue Warbler and an American Redstart in particular.

Eventually, with the help of a passing dog-walker, we re-found the mystery bird and somehow fragments of memory came together and my birding subconscious started to suggest Prairie Warbler. I latched on to the idea, pulling in old fragmentary memories, then, aided by a few photos, the bits fell into place and before long I remembered when and where I’d heard that song before (eight years ago). Yes a Prairie Warbler. Here it is, Bird of the Day, rare in Ontario and a tingling start to a day that would deliver many more glorious birds.

Prairie Warbler. Copyright Peter Thoem

I could rattle off a string of sightings for the day but I’ll touch on just a couple more highlights. Three Merlins, one seen at the lakeside park chasing a crow hoping to make a meal of a bird three times its size and then the pair I mentioned above; three Merlins in one day is a lot!

Black-throated Blue Warbler. Copyright Peter Thoem

More Black-throated Blue Warblers today (all males) than I’ve seen in the past ten years I think. Some years I miss them all together, other years I’m triumphant finding just one, but this year there must be some kind special on Black-throated Blue Warblers. Spring warblers challenge my repertoire of suitable adjectives: Many are dazzlingly colourful, some subtly beautiful but none are as crisply handsome as male Black-throated Blue Warblers.

Black-throated Blue Warbler. Copyright Peter Thoem

Today’s birds moved around slowly and deliberately enough for me to capture some great photos, perhaps they were exhausted. Above are my best Black-throated Blue Warbler shots followed by this gallery below of a few more. (visible only on the website not if you’re reading this as an email. Click on any image to enlarge it.)

  Rose-breasted Grosbeak

May 9 2017 RBG Arboretum, Hamilton ON There was a touch of frost on the grass when we started this morning but by the time we finished our bird count it was just a beautiful spring morning.

My companion and I spent three hours, much of it at a standstill as we examined each little bird in the extremities of freshly budding oaks and maples trying to make them into something other than yet another Yellow-rumped Warbler.

It was a decorative day with sunshine, little popcorn clouds and colourful birds: Nashville, Blue-winged, Palm, Yellow and Blackburnian Warblers. Two Blue-headed Vireos, a Yellow-throated Vireo and my Bird of the Day was a showy metaphor for a colourful day, a male Rose-breasted Grossbeak – well actually there was a pair of them, but the poor female is not a head-turner.

The male seemed to have no fear of us, he was far more interested in reaching a small scattering of seed on the forest floor. Here are several photos of him because he was so photogenic; click on any picture to enlarge it.

That large pale beak is powerful and suited for getting into really hard seeds like those in cherries. They are fairly omnivorous and happily gulp down beetles, flies, soft fruit, flowers and all sorts and sizes of seeds, but some kind of almost impenetrable nut must be part of their diet somewhere, if not here then on their Central or South-American wintering grounds. The beak is a formidable weapon and anyone who’s handled a Rose-breasted Grosbeak knows to take great care, they will easily slice fleshy, triangular chunks off your hand. Bird-banders use a special stainless band on them because they will snip off a standard aluminum band.

 

Northern Waterthrush

May 7 2017. RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. April – now that’s a month where you know where you stand: even though spring is in the air, it’s quite possibly cold, more likely cool, and on the odd occasion there’s maybe a dab of warmth.   But May, that’s a different matter, it’s a transition month, glorious because it’s green and staring summer in the face, but you never know what just might happen; could be cool, could be hot.

This first week of May has been one of those Surprise! Gotcha! kind of weeks; rain, cold, rain again in biblical torrents, more cold and floods to follow.

Still birders soldier on, wet or dry, and I have been diligently doing our bird counts. Both yesterday and today I explored the same verdant valley I’ve mentioned so often, the one that is a happily overgrown, forest-rimmed flood plain of a small and meandering river; an inundated flood plain yesterday, a silty, squishy flood plain today.

Among terrestrial passerines the long wet spell seemed to make little difference, but among Canada Geese and Mute Swans there appeared to be a lot of upset. Both nest in the valley and probably Trumpeter Swans too.

Yesterday I noted an unusually high level of territorial aggression: goose to swan, goose to goose and swan to swan (and even goose to me). My conjecture is that the rising waters drowned some nests, killing the embryos and pushing the adult birds to disperse or perhaps seek an alternative site to re-nest.

Whether it was just a case of dispersal or whether it was birds looking to re-nest, many geese and swans were aggressively posturing and driving out intruders. One large pond has held one pair of Mute Swans for a month or so, yesterday another Mute Swan dared to show up and I was awe-struck witnessing the whistling-winged, jet-fighter approach of the male Mute Swan hell bent on driving an interloper away. So successfully that the ousted male was forced to fly low through a cluster of dense trees, twisting and stalling, quite un-swan-like.

If the Trumpeter Swans had a nest in the valley (Probably because one and sometimes two individuals have been seen regularly this spring) then I suspect their nest has been lost to the flood.

Well so much for drama, both days turned up lots of species: thirty-nine yesterday and forty-four today.

I mentioned the cold; this morning before breakfast it was seven degrees, brisk for us and really tough for insectivorous birds. I found an Eastern Kingbird hunched grumpily (hungrily) probably wishing it had never made the dash north from Peru in the first place and a Warbling Vireo working over some low dogwood shrubs searching for food. Seeing the vireo at close quarters was unusual, they are birds of the forest canopy, often heard but rarely seen. I got several decent photos of it, one showing its rear end like I’ve never seen before, but none of them showing its face really well.

Warbling Vireo

Back end of a Warbling Vireo.

Bird of the Day? Heard but not seen on both days was a Northern Waterthrush, possibly two. An unremarkable looking bird but wonderful nevertheless. Not a thrush at all, waterthrushes are brown streaky warblers, of low-light swampy woods where they build a nest at ground level in a well-hidden crevice. They have a short emphatic song which I once anthropomorphized as “heck heck not me- no he DID-IT! ‘ spillled sharply without pause.

Northern Waterthrush

I suspect this bird is passing through. This valley may provide suitable nesting habitat but there are better, wetter, darker, more mosquito-infested places not far away; rather them than me. The photo above was taken a couple of years ago at a time and place where mosquitoes were relentlessly drawing my blood as I worked.

Baltimore Oriole

May 2 2017. Hamilton and Burlington ON. I know they’re trying, I met them just a week ago in North Carolina, trying to reclaim the territories they gave up late last year. But lousy weather is holding them back, a big sweeping arc of foul weather, a wall reaching from the further reaches of Texas all the way to Quebec. Yesterday and last night were soakers and the birds that somehow made it this far were grounded, today we went out looking for them and it was worthwhile.

Our woodlands are still pretty bare of leaves so such birds as there are can be spotted quite easily. I took the morning to check three well-wooded parks along the shore of Lake Ontario. In this urban sprawl, parks by the lake are natural refuges for tired migrants although I suspect they’ll drop in anywhere where the insect-pickings are good. But it’s better that we who carry binoculars and cameras are seen wandering around parks than prowling residential neighbourhoods.

Palm Warbler

It was wet and slushy but I could hear Palm Warblers and Yellowrumped Warblers almost everywhere. They weren’t alone, I found singles of Yellow Warbler (the first of millions to come), Northern Parula, Black and White Warbler, Ovenbird and Blackthroated Green Warbler and several Blackthroated Blue Warblers, all of them quite spectacular in their full-on breeding colours. For a while I envied the close-up quick-fire photos of some of the other birder/photographers. This is the time to capture those brilliant portrait shots you find in glossy magazines and I wondered whether I might be better off with a faster camera and big, long lens. But I think not; my little camera gets in the way often enough and I rank seeing the birds, the experience, above photographing them.

Palm Warbler

Setting aside those warblers for a moment, I watched a Veery, shy as always (see April 25 post), heard a Wood Thrush singing and had long lingering looks at Blueheaded Vireos and an inquisitive Yellowthroated Vireo.

Baltimore Oriole.

Despite the choices offered by all of the above, my Bird of the Day was a newly arrived Baltimore Oriole. For me it was the first of the year, I anticipate their arrival towards the end of the first week of May. I heard it first, calling its clear, beckoning whistles long before seeing it. Those calls will brighten the days for a few weeks but just as they become tiresome they’ll stop, their pair-bonds made and territories secured. I found the oriole working through a flowering cherry tree where it looked stunning as though it belonged on a Mother’s day card. Here it is.

Baltimore Oriole.

Here are a few more lovely birds from the day.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Black-throated Green warbler,

Common Grackle

American Robin

May 1 2017. Burlington ON. It’s the First of May and pouring rain, actually cold and pouring rain; and has been all day. It’s a date with significance around the world, it’s International Workers Day and many European cultures celebrate May’s arrival and association with spring. For me it’s a blockbuster month for birding, but today rain; this might be the wettest spring ever.

I look out onto our flooded urban back yard where a crouching Cottontail Rabbit, its fur matted and damp, looks balefully at the rising waters. Closer to the house a pair of American Robins have a nest, I’ve been watching the female sitting tight over her clutch of eggs for the past couple of weeks and marveled at avian instinct. The way she and her mate built the nest just like every other robin has for centuries, a skillfully woven if slightly ragged cup with a lining of mud. How the chicks when they hatch will prompt the parents’ dawn to dusk non-stop delivery of food (Academics seem to prefer to call feeding by another name, provisioning; it sorts out the birders from the ornithologists I suppose.) The first chicks have hatched in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve seen the male bring small fragments of food to the nest. Today’s often-torrential rains present another challenge, how to keep the eggs and chicks warm and dry. I don’t imagine for one moment that the female received any instruction from her mother in how to keep the kids dry, yet she knows exactly and instinctively what to do. In the photos below you can see how she has mantled the nest with her outstretched wings.

Keeping the house dry

Male brings food

As I took these photos the male turned up with a couple of morsels, as soon as he delivered it and left she was back. My marveling at all of this innate breeding cycle know-how: nest-building, incubation, feeding and safeguarding (not exclusive to American Robins of course) just underscored how much we don’t know or understand about life. It also made American Robins my Birds of the Day.

Female returns

Veery

25 April 2017. Reynold Gardens, Winston Salem, North Carolina. Tomorrow I work helping a friend and Friday I’ll be driving for twelve hours, but today I have a birding day to myself in North Carolina; it’s my chance to get a jump on spring. I had thought I’d venture up into the Appalachian Mountains where spring’s unfolding is legendary.  But I was cautioned in advance that spring came extraordinarily early and if it was spring ephemeral wildflowers I was interested in, I’d be too late. In any case it’s a very long drive to the mountains on roads I don’t know, and its all so novel anyway, so I opted to take a short drive to Winston Salem (home of the tobacco industry) to explore the grounds of the Reynolds Estate.

I was astonished by how much further ahead spring is here compared to home in southern Ontario which is just seven degrees of latitude north.  It is almost like summer here, and it shouldn’t be.  The broadleaf forest canopy is fully open, Flowering Dogwood and spring azaleas have finished flowering and Tulip Trees are now in flower.  In comparison Ontario’s Tulip Trees flower in mid-late June, another two months from now.

This can’t be right! There will be migrant birds arriving, expecting, perhaps depending upon, an invertebrate food source that has already been and gone. Whether any of the birds of today were baffled by the state of the seasons I don’t know.  But I enjoyed a full day, a lot of walking and getting reacquainted with many of our familiar landmark birds-of-spring. Almost my first birds were a couple of Worm-eating Warblers, a species I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.  Although I have a recollection of having one pointed out to me about thirty years ago, I remember that I was distracted and it was little more than a skulking shadow.  I count today’s as my firsts.  They should have excited me I suppose but seeing them was a reminder that there are a number of species here in North Carolina that we don’t see in Ontario and that I’d better be on my toes; I needn’t have worried, there were no more challenging strangers.

I filled a page of my notebook with sightings.  New for me this year included: Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Towhee, House Wren, Gray Catbird and Scarlet Tanager. There were several Blue-headed Vireos and Red-eyed Vireos, and in the warbler family, Ovenbird, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black and White Warbler and a couple of sensational, male Black-throated Blue Warblers.

It was in the thrush family that I found my best birds.  Shy may not be quite the right word for thrush behaviour, perhaps retiring is a better choice, whichever, they certainly they don’t stand for close encounters with people.  Only the Hermit Thrush seems to have much tolerance for onlookers, that may be because some of them manage to over-winter in southern Ontario and turn to whatever food source they can, regardless of who’s watching.  I was privileged with a handful of sightings of thrushes: one Hermit Thrush; at least five Wood Thrushes, distinctive with their boldly spotted breasts and ethereal, forest floor, ‘ee-o-lay’ song; and my best, my Birds of the Day, were a pair of Veerys.

My first Veery I first spotted hastening away from me, it felt safer behind an old chain-link fence.  I waited quietly until it saw me as less of a threat and happily wandered to where I could see it well and even photograph it quite clearly.  Another Veery joined it and, as a bonus, they were joined by a Blue-headed Vireo and a Black-throated Blue Warbler, all obligingly well out in the open.