September 27 2012. Holland. I’ve had a soft spot for Magpies that goes back to my childhood.  There’s more on that in ‘Thieving Magpie?“.  Here in Holland they are abundant, not quite as abundant as Coots (or ‘Meercootes’ in Dutch) which seem to be entrenched on every slough, ditch, pond or canal; but wherever there’s air to fly in you’ll find a Magpie or two not far away. There’s a pair just outside our hosts’ front door and they patrol the block intensively, leaving nothing unnoticed or uncommented upon. Like Jays they are members of the crow family, and like Jays they are, or were, considered a predatory pest in the England of my childhood.

The Magpie of Europe is not quite the same species as North America’s Black-billed Magpie, although the differences are minor and more evident in the species’ vocalizations.  Here in Holland they seem to be disapproved of but more for their noisy and assertive presence in urban-avian life than for any particular sin. For all of their omnipresence I’ve found it difficult to get a good photograph of a Magpie, perhaps they are more persecuted than I know.  Anyway this one was scrambling up a thatched roof to join a mate when I managed to get this tail-end shot.

Magpie 26 September 2012

Northern Lapwing

September 23 2012. Gelderland Province, Holland.   Even though Holland is still very much a landscape of wide green fields, canals and low farm buildings, it is now criss-crossed with soulless motorways that slice across the gentle land.

It was on a fast motorway ride that I noticed a field dotted with stationary Lapwings. Our driver first pointed them out, proclaiming: “Kievit” I knew exactly what she meant because in Britain they’re also known as the Peewit, an onomatopoeic name reflecting its anxious call. Lapwings, Peewits, Kievits, call them what you will, they are one of those birds that capture the imagination and hearts of country folk.  They are plovers and have the characteristic stand-up-and-pay-attention posture of members of that family, they are boldly marked in bottle green above and white below with a bold black bib and, most distinctively, a cow-lick of a crest.  They fly as if tossed on the wind with big sideswiped swoops and calling urgently: ‘peeeWit’.

At this time of year Lapwings gather in large flocks to forage over open fields alongside Grey-lag Geese, Mute Swans and the occasional sentinel Buzzards. This photograph is courtesy of Andreas Trepte whose site is full of neat bird pictures.

Northern Lapwing.


Flemish Jay

September 20 2012. Gelderland Province, Holland.  Here in Holland, the Jay of my childhood  is called the Vlaamse Gaai, or Flemish Jay. I was pleased to learn this slightly different twist on the old and familiar because the bird-naming folks of 19th century England tended to seize and over-simplify the definitive names of many animal and plants. They named Britain’s tiniest bird ‘the Wren’ before anyone could speak up for the Cactus Wren or Carolina Wren, they appropriated the Toad before the Fowler’s Toad showed it’s face and did much the same thing with the Crow, Jay, and Kestrel.

But whatever its name, the Jay (Garrulus glandarius – say that to yourself a few times; it’s rather melifluous) shares all of the flash and dash of the American continent’s Blue Jay, Steller’s Jay and Mexican Jay.  They’ll eat anything, including acorns, small animals and anything they can seize from another bird’s nest: eggs or young; and it’s this latter predilection that loses them friends. English gamekeepers made (and perhaps still make) a point of shooting Jays on sight on grounds that they raid the nests and young of their employers’ pheasants.  It’s important to keep a pheasant alive you see, so that when it’s fully grown you can go out with friends and shoot it.  As a young man I remember being both impressed and appalled when I watched a gamekeeper bring down a high-flying Jay in one smooth, loud and accurately destructive act. Jays in England were both uncommon and understandably skittish.

Today we visited a home in rural Gelderland, it was surrounded by oak trees that were heavy with acorns upon which Jays and Wood Pigeons were happily feasting.  The acorns seemed to be swallowed whole, which would be quite an accomplishment, so it was maybe not surprising that a few Magpies chattered with amazement in the background.

The Jay, the definitive, the Flemish Jay is handsomely dressed: it has bold black moustachial stripes, an overall wash of pinkish buff across its back, tail and breast, and its wingtips are black while its primary and greater coverts are a bold and showy slash of Blue Jay-blue. These Jays had no apparent fear of being shot down so I was able to watch and admire them for quite a while, I wish I could have enjoyed them so closely fifty years ago.

(European) Jay in Great Britain, Flemish Jay in Holland. September 2012

Jays are quite comfortable in urban areas too.

Black-headed Gull

September 16 2012, Reykjavik, Iceland.  I never imagined that I might one day see a Black-headed Gull as anything much more than just a seagull; something to throw dry sandwich crusts to.  Where I grew up the Black-headed Gull was the default seagull. I really didn’t know much about other gulls except for an awareness of the existence of the Great Black-backed Gull and Herring Gull.  Several years ago a friend asked me if I’d be interested in going to Niagara Falls to see a reported Black-headed Gull, Without really thinking I replied that I wouldn’t cross the street to see one.  Rather glib I suppose, but  not being one to chase species for the sake of a year-list, that’s how I felt about them.

But today I found a group of Black-headed Gulls loafing beside a duck pond.  In Iceland this bird is pretty commonplace but I took a quick for-the record picture of one and was later struck by how stunningly elegant this little bird really is.  While various field guides talk of reddish legs and bill, I think they fall short.  This one has the most gorgeous full crimson-red legs and bill which perfectly compliment the pure white and pearl grey of it’s body and wings.

Black-headed Gull in Reykjavik Iceland

By the way, neither the Black-headed Gull nor its North American look-alike, the Bonaparte’s Gull, has a black head at this time of year, just two pretty little smudges of sootiness over and behind the eye, the black head is a breeding affectation.

Whooper Swan

September 17 2012, Reykjavik, Iceland.  I had never seen a Whooper Swan before today, so when I caught sight of a small group of them in a gravelly river valley it was something of a triumph. They could well have been my Bird of the Day on their own merits but they happened to be almost the only bird of any note seen today,

We’re in Iceland and I had expected to be enthralled by lots of new birds here, but it turns out that while Iceland is a good place for seabirds and shorebirds in the summer, it is somewhat low on passerines all year, and even the seabirds and shorebirds are few and far between now that summer’s over.  We spent the day well inland and other than a solitary Common Raven and the cluster of Whooper Swans, I didn’t see any birds until we returned to coastal Reykjavik this evening.

Whooper Swans are closely related to North America’s Tundra and Trumpeter Swans, indeed they’re the Eurasian equivalent of the Trumpeter and some consider them to be the same species.  However the Whooper has a mostly yellow bill while the Trumpeter’s bill is all black. 

A distinct population of Whooper Swans breeds in Iceland, but as winter closes in the Icelandic population heads southeast crossing a vast expanse of open Atlantic Ocean ( 2+ hours by Icelandair) to overwinter in the British Isles.  Iceland sits just south of the Arctic Circle so winters are long and tough, these swans will be heading south very soon.

Lesser Yellowlegs

September 12 2012. Ruthven Park, Cayuga ON. This may be looking a gift horse in the mouth, but today’s birding while quite varied and done in beautiful weather, was not really all that memorable. I went to the bird observatory early, early enough to be there before the mist nets were all open and with the door to the banding lab still locked.

As is usually the case, around mid-morning I did the daily census but was quite surprised at how quiet the grounds and woods were, in fact I only found 24 species; usually at this time of year I’d get more like 35 to 40 .  I couldn’t even find a single Song Sparrow, Killdeer or Red-winged Blackbird.  There was an Osprey fishing along the river and I was lucky enough to see it rise from the waters carrying a nice sized something-or-other. There were flocks of Cedar Waxwings working over a couple of Red Cedars trees picking berries and occasionally sallying out for an insect meal, and a Redbellied Woodpecker was noisily scratching for a living from the top branches of a Shagbark Hickory.

The river has a small gravel bar in the middle, which has been uncovered long enough this year to be quite well vegetated, mostly with Pink Knotweed.   I scanned the length of it and the nearby shallows hoping for some ducks or shorebirds, at first there was nothing, but then a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs appeared from behind the Knotweed and as I watched a Spotted Sandpiperjoined them.  They were a welcome addition to an otherwise quiet census round, and Lesser Yellowlegs always seem to add charm to a shoreline, enough to be today’s Bird of the Day. I managed to get a couple of long-shot photos, here’s one of them withe Spotted Sandpiper, like one of those funny mid-blink, looking-the-wrong-way holiday snaps.

Spotted Sandpiper & Lesser Yellowlegs.

Red-tailed Hawk

September 11 2012. Cootes Paradise, Hamilton ON.  As a follow-up to yesterday’s note about the flood of Broad-winged Hawks, at a hawk-watch some 100 miles to our west they counted 5,575 of them! Today, by comparison, despite constant monitoring I saw only one Broad-winged Hawk in the air.  Perhaps the brisk southwest wind made all the difference, because in all other respects the weather was a copy of yesterday.  Or maybe they’ve all gone, save for a few stragglers.

I spent an hour or two this afternoon at a raised platform overlooking a broad marsh, I was hoping for a change in shorebird numbers and species mix, but it was pretty quiet.  A dozen or so Greater Yellowlegs were stalking along the water’s edge and way off in the distance I watched two Rednecked Phalaropes swimming around furiously stirring up food.

Red-tailed Hawk.

The day’s drama came as I was getting ready to leave when I spotted a Redtailed Hawk flying acrobatically in swoops and plunges, apparently taking advantage of the breeze.  I realized that it was either chasing or displaying to something, spiraling up and then plunge-diving down into to the treetops with wings folded back and all but closed.  Soon there were two interacting Red-tailed Hawks in the air and it looked like the sort of territorial display flight that you’d see in the spring; and maybe it was a bit of for-the-record pair-bonding. Finally a third one joined in though not for long, it carried on through, heading westward and out of sight, perhaps it’d just blundered through someone else’s territory. To top it off and perhaps as a final mark of approval of the aerobatic displays, an adult Bald Eagle took a slow ‘just-so-you-know-I’m-watching-you’ turn past the Red-tails.

Bald Eagle. Adult

Broad-winged Hawk

September 10 2012. I live just a couple of hundred meters from the north shore of Lake Ontario, it’s a very strategic location at this time of year.  Many (and there would be millions) of the fall migrants draining southwards out of the land to the east and north of the Great Lakes, find their way south blocked by Lakes Ontario and Erie, so they turn to the southwest following the shorelines until eventually they stream out of south-western Ontario into Michigan and Ohio. Anywhere along this pathway, especially along those major shorelines can produce some very busy birding days.

There are a few days in the year when Broad-winged Hawks put on a show: a week or two in mid-April and a day or two or three, in September.  Today was one of them.  After weeks of solid summer weather things have changed, the hot still days have given way to pure-bred September with cold starts, clear days and small cumulus clouds hanging against a blue sky.  It’s this sort of change in the weather that sets the Broad-winged Hawks heading south, and they do it in massed flights.

I started the day with a beautiful morning at the bird observatory.  On the daily census I found two Yellow-billed Cuckoos high in a Black Locust tree, surprised a single Carolina Wren working its way through a thicket of old grapevines, and enjoyed the identification challenges of Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes. 

Around midday I returned home to find a message that the Broad-winged Hawks were on the move. Binoculars in hand I went back outside and looked up to the undersides of puffy cumulus clouds, and after a few moments of scanning around found a group of 6 or 7 Broad-wings sailing by but moving very quickly out of sight.  Minutes later a single bird picked up the lift from a nearby column of rising air, it was wheeling around and sometimes skidding sideways fighting the breeze. Seen like this you can often make out the wide tail bands and light patches at the ends of their wings and when they settle into a glide they’ll sometimes show a bow-fronted profile. Twenty minutes later, way up beyond the stretch of the naked-eye, I found a stream of perhaps 50 or 60 Broad-winged Hawks gliding along an invisible westbound highway, changing lanes and making room for merging traffic as they went.

For every Broad-winged Hawk there were perhaps a dozen large dragonflies, mostly Common Green Darners and Black Saddlebags, also migrating, but they were much lower and not quite as dreamily in flight, just skimming busily along at rooftop height.

Blue-winged Teal

September 5 2012. Ruthven Park, Cayuga, ON.  At the bird observatory this morning we enjoyed a wide variety of birds, both seen and/or banded.  They included: Philadelphia, Warbling and Red-eyed Vireos, Black-throated Green, Magnolia and Wilsons Warblers as well as single Northern Parula, American Redstart and Nashville Warbler.  Quite a day.

We also faced two of the toughest fall identification challenges: Baybreasted and Blackpoll Warblers. (See photo and comment here)   They and the Pine Warbler taken together, look very much alike at this time of year, which is utterly maddening because there’s no way you’d confuse them in the spring.  All three species undergo a late summer molt to become a non-descript beige-breasted-streaky-backed-wing-barred-warbler, which puts them firmly in the I-give-up category for many bird enthusiasts.

Down by the river a young Bald Eagle was stirring things up sending a bunch of Killdeers and a small group of terrified ducks dashing for cover.  The eagle, indifferent to the chaos he’d left behind, flew off upstream and in the calm that followed we enjoyed the company of two or three Ospreys, a pair of Belted Kingfishers, some patrolling Caspian Terns and even a couple of Doublecrested Cormorants.

Later we spotted the ducks gathered on a mid-stream gravel bar.  Unsure of what they were we approached them slowly and managed to get a number of photos before they once again flew off in a panic.  In the short moments we had them in our sights we could tell they were Blue-winged Teal. I was pleased to see that my quick-fire photos turned out quite well.  Blue-winged Teal are easily identified when you see a male in breeding plumage, but this is the wrong time of year for that, so the key field marks are a long, low profile, long flattish bills, white crescent over the eye and a pale patch at the base of the bill.  And when they flew away the wide wing patches of blue bordered with bright white were easy to see.  The teal were quite unexpected and really quite refreshing, so despite the competition from all those challenging migrant warblers they were my Bird of the Day.

Blue-winged Teal.


Vireos (lots of them).

September 5 2012. Ruthven Park, Cayuga ON.  At the end of a day I’ll often ask myself: What was the one bird, above all others, that made me think Wow?  What was the Bird of the Day?  Well, today it was vireos: Warbling, Philadelphia, Redeyed and Yellowthroated; we encountered them all and they all made me smile.

For reasons that I can’t quite explain, I like the vireos, maybe because they can be so challenging to identify visually, maybe because of their endless summertime songs, or maybe it’s their “I may not be very colourful but I’m here.’ approach to life.

Yesterday’s unsettled weather, which produced torrential rains not very far from us, moved out overnight.  At first light this morning patchy fog hung low over the bird observatory and we wondered what species might have left and what might have come in to replace them overnight .

Quite early while the fog still hung low, we could hear a Yellowthroated Vireo singing in the woods behind the banding lab.  They have a rather hoarse and throaty song that is ably described in Pete Dunne’s excellent book as: Lazy whistled song is a series of alternately higher then lower two-(sometimes three)note phrases separated by a pause. Tweeree (rising) heyew (falling); tweelree(rising) or heyew.the overall quality is hoarse and slurred a vireo with a sore throat.”  We always have a few Yellow-throated Vireos nesting in the wooded ravines near the observatory, they kind of anchor the woodland.

Later on this morning we started seeing Redeyed Vireos and ended up banding a dozen or more, all youngsters hatched this year.  This is a bird that dresses like a hung-over courtroom lawyer, somber grays, beiges and off white, with red eyes framed by immaculately trimmed eyeliner; very handsome.  On territory it sings endlessly all day and continues well into August.  To me, like sweet corn and peaches, the Red-eyed Vireo is a part of summer.

The Red-eyed Vireo’s song is almost identical to that of the Philadelphia Vireo, a rather hard to see, hard to find little bird. We agreed that the Philly’s plumage is so unremarkable, so devoid of defining field marks except for a beautiful wash of pale yellow on the breast, that sometimes a yellowish summer bird with nothing much to distinguish it may turn out to be a Philadelphia Vireo.

Lastly, Warbling Vireos were singing as if it were June.  We banded one or two this morning, but I encountered several while doing the daily census.  The census trail leads along the bank of a wide, shallow river and at one time I could pick out 2 or 3 Warbling Vireos singing from the bordering Hackberry trees.  Their song is a frantic scramble of sweet notes, very hard to describe, but a friend once sent me this description of it: “If I sees ya I will squeeze ya an Ill squeeze ya till ya hurt.  Say that a few times fast (there’s no punctuation, so no pauses) and you’ll get something like the cadence of their song.

The only likely Ontario vireo missing today was the Blue-headed Vireo,  probably the most strikingly marked of the lot.  But it’s the only vireo for which I have a photo, so here it is from two years ago.  Just banded and about to be set free.

Blue-headed Vireo.