Semi-palmated Plovers

30 August 2013.  Lake Erie ON. Faced with a day with no seriously limiting commitments I opted to explore the north shore of Lake Erie to look for shorebirds and other birds of passage.  I made my way along several miles of sometimes rocky shore which, had it not been for a decent lake breeze, might have been uncomfortably hot.  For shorebirds now is the time to fly south and for the hordes that head straight down the middle of the continent sooner or later they find the Great Lakes, not blocking their way as they might seem to do for land birds, but actually providing an essential resting and refueling opportunity.

Much of the Lake Erie shore has, over decades past, been appropriated for summer cottages, which makes access for bird-watching tricky at times.  Frankly I don’t think many of the cottagers were having a whole lot of fun this week because a recent on-shore storm had tossed a wide expanse of weed and algae onto the sands and rocky shelves leaving it to decay in deep festering mats like a long, wide cow-pat in both appearance and odour. But not all is lost because with decay comes flies and other invertebrate agents of decomposition and, while you and I might not relish them, the shorebirds gorge on this vast storehouse of protein, rich fuel for the next stage of the migration.

Ignoring the rankness of the situation I found two or three good places to sit quietly and let the birds come to me.  I had plenty of time, at the best site an assorted flock scattered with my arrival, but betting that they’d return I sat quietly and in time they came back.  First a couple of Semi-palmated Plovers flew in, then a small squad of Least Sandpipers hiked over whereupon they all mingled together. The plovers, being of a nervous tribe, were always on the look out for trouble, they’d pick, look up, then run a few paces, look up, then pick again.  A Spotted Sandpiper flew low over the open water to join in the feast and it fed greedily using its somewhat longer bill to slide in to the morass as horizontally as possible; perhaps it knew something the others didn’t.

After a while a pair of Killdeer wandered over to see what was going on and I realized I had a rare opportunity in front of me to get pictures of multiple shorebird species and for a moment I framed all four species in one shot (although it wasn’t a keeper.) The Semi-palmated Plovers made my day, there’s a delicate, almost breakable, look about them; perhaps it’s the porcelain whiteness of their breasts that does it.  This has surely been the week of the plover what with Black-bellied, American Golden and now Semi-palmated taking centre stage.

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Somewhat later at a brief stop to look at a 4th-year Bald Eagle that I’d spotted sitting just offshore on a rock (and who promptly flew away as soon as I raised my binoculars) a couple of Pectoral Sandpipers had me baffled for a minute or two.  I’d become so fixated on my earlier study of small birds that it took a while to put a name to these two handsome but strikingly larger sandpipers.  The Pectoral Sandpipers’ give away is their bold dark bib that ends at an abrupt demarcation across their pectoral muscles.

DSCN1340Although it was very much a sandpipers and plovers day I had many good sightings of engaging and dramatic birds.  It made me think that if I’d taken a foreign visitor along with me with the promise of a good day’s birding, I would have deserved a hefty tip. Among these other successes were: three Bald Eagles including a spectacular adult atop a willow tree, several Great Egrets, Green Herons, Great Blue Herons, and a group of five Sandhill Cranes.

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American Golden Plover

27 August 2013.  Caledonia ON.  As a child growing up in post-war England my sole birding reference was the Observers Book of Birds.  Just 200 breast-pocket sized pages with usually one species per page, a beautiful watercolour illustration by the likes of Archibald Thorburn and a brief written description, it was the bible of British birds.  Even though there was a Peterson Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe published in 1954, I wasn’t aware of it and it wasn’t until well into the sixties that anything like today’s really useful and comprehensive field guides came to my attention.  By then it was too late, my mental images of British birds were fixed; perhaps it’s as well that I left home to start all over again with new birds in Canada.

Golden Plover illus'nAmong those fixed images is the Golden Plover, it figures a rather pensive looking bird gazing at a couple of uncurling fern fronds.  The ensuing description includes this captivating element, “The summer dress of this plover is remarkable. It wears a spotted hood and cloak of gold and black with a white border.”

Today I made a deliberate excursion to look for American Golden Plovers, which are to all intents and purposes identical to the basic European species referred to above. I stopped along a rural roadside to see if any were feeding on the wide expanses of a sod farm.  They seek out wide-open spaces on their migration, golf courses and sod farms included, which, while it may seem a little odd, is I suppose a good example of adaptation.

Anyway here on one of the world’s largest lawns there was a lot of activity; a practiced crew of sun-crisped men were harvesting long peels of turf grass and piling it in tidy stacks.  Watching them carefully were lines of Ring-billed Gulls, and scatterings of Killdeers and American Golden Plovers all hoping to snatch a squirming meal from the freshly exposed earth.  The gulls were generally indifferent to the men’s noisy activities and stayed close to them at all times, the Killdeers were a little more inclined to fly off as machinery approached and the Golden Plovers were so baffled by it all that they moved quite a long way away until the workers took a coffee break, then they came closer where I enjoyed lingering views of them.

Golden plovers are moulting at this time of year, their gold spangling and expansive black underparts give way to an overall beige and brown flecking and non-descriptness, so today’s birds were part way through that process and not quite the pot of gold I might have wished for, still they’re beautiful (as are their cousins the Black-bellied Plovers-see previous entry). They struck me as quite large birds, yet, according to all references, they’re just about the same as a Killdeer in overall length; but here posture and carriage make a big difference, the American Golden Plover’s more upright, on-the-lookout-for-trouble demeanour gives an impression of greater size.

I managed to get a few for-the-record photos, the distance was too great for much detail to be evident, still here’s one, although I think the watercolour illustration at the top is better.Golden Plover Haldibrook Rd Sod farm

Black-bellied Plover

25 August 2013.  Hamilton ON. From the sublime to the ridiculous: early this week we draped ourselves in the tranquility of cottage country; today I was back to the fringes of the industrial harbour, a monochromatic manufacturing landscape with grubby and scratchy places for bird watching.  But some birds, mostly shorebirds, don’t care about scenery provided there are plenty of wriggly invertebrates to eat.

I went out early, before breakfast, while the sun was behind me rather than glowering overhead, to see what might be probing the muddy reaches.  It was pleasant enough under the circumstance although my first notable sighting was a Norway Rat tumbling into a broad waterway apparently having caused considerable anxiety to an on-looking, tail-bobbing and still-peeping Spotted Sandpiper.

A careful sweeping survey of the mud flats turned up a distant Short-billed Dowitcher, several Lesser Yellowlegs and a handsome pair of Stilt Sandpipers. I found and enjoyed watching a couple of Semi-palmated Plovers, our only reasonably common small plover, and mentally compared them to the very similar though much paler Piping Plover seen in New Jersey last year and petite Snowy Plovers of El Salvador four months ago.  These three plovers are all members of the Charadrius genus, a group that is distinctive in having a dark breast band or two, our common Killdeer is the most familiar member of the genus to us. Here are a few of my pictures for comparison (viewable only if you are logged in to My Bird of the Day, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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It was a couple of Black-bellied Plovers that stole the show though.  It’s not that they’re better than any of the Charadrius plovers in any way, I mean how can you say any one bird is better than another, it is such a subjective measure.  It’s just that the Black-bellied Plover evoked my Wow!-response, quite why I’m not sure, they just did.  Perhaps it’s the drama of the coal-black belly against the checkered upper parts, it could be their postural uprightness, the pop-up head or well, who knows?  Whatever, I always enjoy soaking up the sight of Black-bellied Plovers whenever I get the privilege. Today was one of those days.

Black bellied Plover.  September 2011

Black bellied Plover. September 2011

Red-eyed Vireos & Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

19 – 21 August 2013, Haliburton ON. I’m writing this to the background of a Red-eyed Vireo singing in the forest canopy above. I think it’s late in the year for bird song, but for reasons best known to the vireos at least some of them are still tracing calls through the late summer air.

We are privileged to be enjoying a few days at some friends’ summer cottage on the shore of a beautiful northern lake. Ontario has thousands of square miles of lakes and forest country, most of it inaccessible.  But a few hundred square miles of such countryside all within a three or four hour drive from our major urban areas is known affectionately as Up North, cottage country.  It’s a countryside of often heart-stopping beauty, dramatic rounded hills clothed in forests of maples, birch, oak, aspen and beech punctuated by bold evergreens and interlaced with glassy reflecting lakes. At any time of year it is, as my cousin put it, superb.

The bird life here is captivating if not hugely diverse.  I’ve noted about 20 species in the couple of days we’ve been here: I’ve heard Common Ravens rolling their hollow croaks, a Pileated Woodpecker’s laugh, round and ringing, and now a Blue Jay or two are shrieking to each other some way off to the right.

But the signature bird sounds of this cottage are the buzzing flights of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, like the thumb-flipped pages of a book, and the occasional two and three syllable phrases of Red-eyed Vireos.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. juv male (?)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. juv male (?)

Both species hang around faithfully all day.  The hummingbirds come to an overhead feeder for a sip of syrup every three or four minutes.  There’s at least three birds and I’m not sure whether they love or hate each other. Presumably they are related, young siblings perhaps, but whatever their connection there’s never more than one at the feeder even though you’d think there’s plenty of room at for a dozen or more.  They don’t tolerate interlopers and there always seems to be one that wants to muscle in on another’s nectar stop, so we watch little high-speed hummingbird dramas, chaser and chased, They chase and weave like mini Star Wars fighters, one lightning strike following the other barely centimeters behind, swerving and careening in tight-turning arcs, zipping through glimpses of daylight between overlapping branches with microns to spare.  And yet for all of that rarely does the chase last more than three or four seconds when all is forgiven until the next trespass.

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Red-eyed Vireo - Juvenile. Haliburton Co.Half a dozen times an hour, a couple of young Red-eyed Vireos emerge from the security of a thick cedar hedge to gulp ripe berries from the scarlet panicles of an Alternate-leaved Dogwood.  They don’t stay long, a handful of mouthfuls then they dash back into cover.  Their priorities are: Not fall prey to a hungry Sharp-shinned Hawk; Build up muscle mass and fat reserves and; Complete growth of flight and body feathers.  Their eyes show a brownish rather than red iris, which I believe indicates they are juvenile birds.  One of them is still quite rough looking as it finishes growing its flight and body feathers that must take it through the next six to eight months.  In the picture you can see that some of its head feathers are still emerging and its greater and lesser coverts (wings feathers) have not yet grown in evenly.

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The pleasure of watching the hummingbirds and vireos, learning and anticipating their routines and trying for the perfect photo made any ambitions for finding more species irrelevant.  I have my book, my coffee and my birds of the days right in front of me.

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Northern Flicker

14 August 2013. Burlington ON. In the past 24 hours a strong cold front swept down from the north giving us our first hint of the leaf-drop months ahead.  It’s not that it’s suddenly turned cold, it’s just relatively colder than the past month or two, cool enough that I bring my pots of orchids indoors for the night.  As these cold fronts sweep through, starting now as summer wanes and continuing into November, they trigger a surge of birds, as if they’ve been cued that it’s time to clear out.  I noticed the first responders yesterday afternoon, I stepped out of the house to investigate the loud shrieking of a Merlin, an unusual bird here at any time, and looking up saw swirls of southwestward bound Chimney Swifts swooping and tumbling in the buffeting winds.

One of the best spots to see fall migrants around here is a certain lakeside resting-place called Woodland Cemetery.  For many the chance will surely come to spend a lot of time in a cemetery and I’m not trying to rush anyone into it, but in late summer and fall a quiet hour or two here will reward you with some good birding. I went there this morning.

Young female Baltimore Oriole

Young female Baltimore Oriole

Young male Northern Flicker

Young male Northern Flicker

Young male Northern Flicker

Young male Northern Flicker

I saw singles of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow Warbler and Red-eyed Vireo, any of which could just as easily have been local birds, not migrants.  I could hear a bit of commotion and soon came across a couple of family groups: three or four Baltimore Orioles, mostly juveniles although one of the group was still trying to sing so perhaps it was an adult male, and as many as five Northern Flickers.  I managed to get these photographs, (click to enlarge) both of youngsters I think: the oriole is probably a female, determined by the orangey wash being very light across its middle and strongest on its upper breast, and also its scapular (or shoulder) feathers are brownish-grey with dark centres;  The young male flicker has still not developed all of his flight feathers, some of them are still a little truncate and his red patch in the back of his head is rather muted. The malar stripe (moustache) makes it a male.

There will be many more days trying to get glimpses of departing birds, the bird population is at its highest right now with the young of the year included.  But the long journey south, predators along the way and for some the winter scarcity of food will weed out many of them before next year’s breeding season.

Pied-billed Grebe

12 August 2013.  Morriston ON.  My only foray into the woods today drew a blank.  I think I heard distant Black-capped Chickadees and Great-crested Flycatchers, but that’s about it.  There were tons of mosquitoes though and even a liberal (for me) application of bug repellent achieved only partial protection.  As a precaution I pulled on an old white business shirt that I keep in my car for going into biting-insect territory, light colours supposedly helps minimize your mosquito-appeal and it’s also a bit of recognition that I have no further use for business shirts; retirement’s revenge.

Leaving all of that behind I set off to a country clothing outfitters in search of some really good wet-weather boots. My 45 year-old wellies, while still rugged and perfectly watertight, are absolute murder on my aging feet.  Heading west and driving along a quiet country road, I spotted a large pond surrounded in large part by pasture land and flanked on one side by a rather comfortable looking home. Those homeowners have set up a rather nice little dock at the pond’s edge with a larger sitting area at its end together with a couple of comfortable chairs and a canoe tied alongside. Just offshore a fountain of considerable capacity spews an unending plume of water.  I suspect that such a continuous aeration of the pond has significantly changed the ecology of the pond and whether it’s for the better or not probably depends on whether you ask pre- or post-fountain organisms.  But it looks pretty, there are sparkling white water lilies scattered here and there and the pond’s perimeter is defined with tall cattails.

Scanning across the pond I watched a Great Blue Heron beating the living daylights out of a small catfish. I learned how to prepare a catfish lunch, here’s what you do: shake it hard, smack it against a log a couple of times, drop it and watch for movement, lunge and stab again, shake a bit more and finally a couple more whacks seems to do the trick. Serve immediately.

Just along from the Great Blue Heron was a Green Heron, I was startled by the size difference.  It’s not that I always thought of Green Herons as big birds, it’s just that’s seeing them side by side really emphasized how small the Green Heron is.

Then in the middle of the pond I found a couple of Pied-billed Grebes, an adult and a juvenile; they really made my day.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Pied-billed Grebe; they become quite hard to find, even elusive while breeding, seeking out ponds and small lakes with dense emergent vegetation like cattails. They are an odd duck (to coin a phrase), unlike most grebes they score pretty low on the elegance quotient, they sit in the water with a rather hump-backed look and are coloured from the drab end of the palette.  Almost all authors are at pains to draw attention to their bill, perhaps it’s the most notable thing about them for it’s so strikingly chicken-like and, as the bird’s name suggests, it’s pied.

But for all that they’re neat birds.  They are the hallmark of a small lake or pond and have the ability to sink without effort until there’s just a periscope poking above water.  You can see the difference in the pictures below. It’s almost as if it has pulled out the drain plug.  That’s almost what’s happened, in fact by compressing its body feathers it has squeezed out the air and reduced its buoyancy; a clever trick.

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Short-billed Dowitcher

8 August 2013. Port Maitland ON. The Short-billed and the Long-billed Dowitchers are closely related, almost identical shorebirds, so alike that it takes pages of the best references to tease out the fine distinguishing details. I have a 1905 field guide which includes a footnote to the Dowitcher which reads: “Long-billed Dowitcher is found in western N.A.  The bill is supposed to be longer, but the plumage is identical and the birds probably are’. So somewhere along the way the two were declared to be separate species, which leaves us trying to figure out which is which.

Distinguishing those differences in the field is a tough go for most birders, especially when you’re looking across a mudflat to the distant far side where most shorebirds hang out.  Geography helps a bit, exactly where you are in North America in relation to the species’ distribution and migratory patterns sometimes helps; it so happens that we’re in an area where Short-billed Dowitchers are the default species.  In other parts of the continent it’s not so cut and dried and to complicate matters there are distinct sub-species of the Short-billed Dowitcher. At risk of belabouring the whole matter I quote from Pete Dunne’s analysis, “The degree of difference between Short-billed and Long-billed also varies between subspecies.  The Atlantic form of Short-billed is most unlike Long-billed in size, shape and breeding plumage; the prairie form most closely resembles Long-billed in breeding plumage and the pacific form comes closest to long-billed in size.”  Does that help?

It’s too much for me and I think local birders are on pretty safe ground to call any dowitcher a Short-billed Dowitcher.  That’s what I did today.

But what of the day?  I took a trip to some open mudflats and once I’d made my peace with the affable guardian in the Ford F150 pick-up, I enjoyed some excellent shorebird watching.  Wood Duck brood. 8 Aug 2013

I stopped first at a weed-clogged pond where a hen Wood Duck was shepherding her brood around.  The babes have all grown up, they’re the same size as mum, but obedient nevertheless.  Nearby a family of Eastern Kingbirds and loose groups of Barn Swallows found lots of flying insects to pick from the water lily leaves.

At the mudflats, an adult Bald Eagle flew heavily from left to right and set the shorebirds scattering for a few minutes, but they eventually calmed down, so I set up my telescope.

It was marvelous: lots of beautiful classic Greater Yellowlegs, they were easily distinguished from just as many Lesser Yellowlegs.  A few Pectoral Sandpipers showing their crisp brown bibs, some busy invertebrate-picking Semi-palmated Sandpipers, and a group of five or six Short-billed Dowitchers.  The sight of them made me gasp they were so plump and orangey, so perfectly-shorebirdish, so Bird of the Day.

Then my telescope broke and took the fun  out of it all. Without it I have NO hope of even teasing myself with shorebird i.d.

Short-billed Dowitcher2. Cape May N.J.

Short-billed Dowitcher. Nr. Cape May N.J.

However all is not lost, there’s always spring birding along the Atlantic coast.  A little over a year ago I was on the New Jersey shore at a place called Stone Harbor, nearby were many other nautical place names like : Carnival Bay and Long Reach and what they all had in common was streets lined with seaside condo-homes and shops stuffed full of gifts, sunglasses and T-shirts.  All of which incidentally was virtually wiped off the map five months later by Hurricane Sandy. But anyway when I was there, Arctic-bound Short-billed Dowitchers were quite abundant and easily approached along the edges of the inner harbour salt marshes.  Here are some photos of various shorebirds from that visit but you’ll only be able to see them if you’re logged on the website, not if viewed as an email.

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Ruddy Turnstone

2 August 2013. Hamilton ON. It’s a jarring paradox that some of our best birding opportunities are found in some of the ugliest of places.  Hamilton Harbour can be a nasty place, sandwiched between a six lane highway and the gritty and grimy edges of a city that prospered from producing steel.  The harbour has many inlets, tributaries, hard edges, wharves and mud banks, but if you turn your back on the industrial sectors, it becomes almost gracious particularly along its west side where it borders quiet, green neighbourhoods where house prices, even with a view of blast furnaces, are chillingly high.

It’s at one of the smellier, squishy ends of the harbour that birders and shorebirds flock in late summer. Shorebirds stop here to refuel on their journey from the Arctic where they nested (or perhaps more accurately failed to nest, which may account for why some appear so early.)  The outflow from the city’s sewage plant discharges into the harbour and in a project designed to ameliorate the worst of conditions and at the same time provide recreational opportunities (!), the city has created a system of impoundments, marshes, islands and settling ponds, it’s these that the birds find so attractive.

Where there’s muck there’s invertebrates, and where there’s invertebrates there’ll be birds to eat them. Chacun a son goût.

This morning before anyone else in the house was about, I went to see what I could find and identify.  Viewed over long distances, shorebirds can be very challenging, there are many lookalikes and subtle colour and size differences are often hard to determine.  Still it was quite rewarding despite the scratchy plants around my ankles, rich odours and traffic roar.  An island in the middle distance is home to a large colony of Common Terns and some are still busy feeding hungry youngsters. Scouring the edges I found several Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers and (with some help) a Stilt Sandpiper and two Semi-palmated Plovers.  My best bird, seen briefly and spotted running up the stony banks of the terns’ island was a Ruddy Turnstone.

Two years ago I spent two weeks at a bird observatory at Long Point, Ontario. Ruddy Turnstones were a dime a dozen there. You had to admire them not just for their beauty and approachability, but for their heavy diet of Stable Flies, a nasty biting fly which swarmed in the decaying windrows of wave-tossed aquatic vegetation along the shore.

Today’s bird was still brightly marked in breeding plumage, a lucky sighting because in short order they will moult to a less striking though still elegant plumage for the winter months ahead.  The Ruddy Turnstone is probably the most colourful and dramatically marked shorebird of the northern hemisphere although the American Avocet or Eurasia’s Lapwing might be considered rivals.  You’d wonder why some shorebirds can be so cryptically coloured while others are almost splashy in their finery.  I suspect the answer is that even a dramatic, and to us exuberant, plumage is exactly the right camouflage for a bird on its nest.

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