October 9th. 2017. RBG Arboretum, Hamilton, ON. Last night we were drenched with the aftermath of a late tropical storm, originally Hurricane Nate, as hurricane’s go it was a relatively lightweight number but it still managed to do a lot of damage to Costa Rica. I was scheduled to do one of our transects and had pretty well decided it would be a wash out, but then the rain stopped and radar showed the whole system had moved on. It was a good outing that delivered a handful of surprises.
First in rather gloomy light, a roosting flock of forty Turkey Vultures on the skeleton of a transmission line tower. These are birds who prefer to soar on warm rising air than flap too hard for a living so I’m sure they were waiting for the sun to come out.
Once on the trail I was almost shocked to find a Northern Mockingbird sharing the upper reaches of a leafless hawthorn with a flock of Red–winged Blackbirds. It really was a surprise, it’s been far too long since my last one. They have never been common here, we’re on the northern edge of their range, and I feel the local population has dwindled in the past half-dozen or so years, partly due, I suspect, to the aftermath of a couple of punishing winters, I don’t know. Anyway I was very pleased to see it and asterisked it in my field notes as probable Bird of the Day.
Rounding the corner to a grassy path that cuts through a wide expanse of waist high goldenrod and dogwood, I found myself among a nervous scattering of Myrtle Warblers, Song Sparrows, White–crowned Sparrows, a Common Yellowthroat and a Tennessee Warbler. The White-crowned Sparrows were also Bird of the Day-worthy and especially captivating; just like their White-throated Sparrow cousins. Both are just-passing-through birds, the White-throats show up first, and we can count on them for charm, then the White-crowneds follow a bit later as if to show how smart a sparrow can be. Here’s one photographed one spring morning some years ago.
The path leads through a tunnel of overgrown shrubs into a tract of tall mixed forest. In the too often bird-less tunnel I was happy to find several flitting Myrtle Warblers and a lone Eastern Phoebe, which always managed to stay several comfortable yards ahead of me. But a nice surprise came when a Hermit Thrush (the first of three this morning) popped up to take a quick look at me, trying to decide whether I was much of a threat I suppose. All of our thrush species have a discrete, almost shifty, way of moving from your approach, making you wonder whether you only imagined movement. Then if you do catch sight of one, it’s usually looking back over its shoulder, in a kind of better-safe-than-sorry stance.
This family of thrushes can be quite confusingly similar in appearance and making a quick identification takes some practice and experience. The Hermit Thrush is one of the easiest because its back, rump and tail show a rich rusty brown as this photo taken in my back yard a couple of years ago shows.
Much as I’d enjoyed the Northern Mockingbird and the White-throated Sparrows the Hermit Thrush really stopped me in my tracks and stood out as my Bird of the Day.
The two hours I spent on the trail produced well over thirty species, not bad at all, but among them were many very nice sightings: the vultures, mockingbird, sparrows and thrushes as described, but also a handful of discrete Tennessee Warblers, two Common Yellowthroats, twenty or so American Robins getting drunk on some ripe magnolia berries, a small flock of Chipping Sparrows and a Cooper’s Hawk in a leafless tree quietly watching over a wide park hoping for an easy kill.