Great Egret

August 30 2015. Hendrie Valley, Burlington ON. Our team of volunteers restart the routine censuses in two days, we monitor the busy migration months of September and October and then April and May. I did a warm-up census around one of our routes this morning, a mix of wooded valley-sides, swampy flood plain, quiet ponds and a small river. It’s always interesting.

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird watching and preening

A change in weather seems to have slowed things down a bit in contrast to some pretty exciting days last week. We are in for a week of very warm, probably thunderous, days. Not great birding weather. It’s cold fronts pushing down from the north that stir migrant birds into moving, not blankets of sticky warmth like this.

Over the next four to six weeks, once the warm humid air moves away, there will be lots of variety to come . Today was rather well, not ho-hum exactly, more so-so; if there’s a difference.  Black-capped Chickadees by the score, actually I counted forty-three, late brood, young Song Sparrows, Common Grackles and American Goldfinches everywhere.

Common Yellowthroat. Creeksode Trail RBG. 30 Aug 2015

Young Common Yellowthroat

Among summer residents counted were: Eastern Wood Peewees, Warbling and Red-eyed Vireos, Gray Catbirds, Common Yellowthroats, Eastern Phoebes and three Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.  

I watched a mini-drama as a Cooper’s Hawk was harassed by some Blue Jays and I was starting to wonder where today’s wow! moment would come from. Could it be the young Common Yellowthroat who seemed to want to keep an eye on me, or maybe a vocal but unseen Carolina Wren, if only it would show itself.

Great Egret. Hendrie valley

Great Egret. Hendrie valley

Then, to validate my belief that there’s always a bird of the day no matter how tedious or otherwise unexciting the day may be, I spotted this Great Egret watching over the ponds from on high. Great Egrets aren’t rare around here; they used to be, but bird populations expand and contract and Great Egrets are in an expansionary mood.  While we see them infrequently in spring, as summer wears on they start to show up and it’s not uncommon to have a dozen or two in the area in August and September. It’s hard to miss them of course.

We are heading to the UK in a couple of days.  I’ll be posting from there. The change of bird life will be refreshing, if not novel.  It’s what I grew up on.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

August 25 2015. Paletta Park, Burlington, ON. I’ve been following some rather lively commentary about the appearance (not altogether unexpected) of a handful of migrant shorebirds: a Wilson’s Phalarope, and some Red Knots in particular. It sounded intriguing enough that I shouldered my telescope, slung my camera and binoculars and went to see if I could find them. I can claim to have seen the Wilson’s Phalarope, but the distances were great and the gusting wind too strong to make it entirely enjoyable. In fact I was reminded how little I really enjoy long-distance through-the-telescope birding. Deciding there had to be a better way, I gathered my stuff and made my way to a local park known for its densely wooded, unmanicured corners.

It was quite a different experience. Out of the wind, wandering the wood-chip paths, warm and fragrant with the scents of late summer; finding birds seemed of lesser importance. But, hearing a distinctive ‘plik’ note I replied with my own immitation and up popped a young Common Yellowthroat. It was unimpressed by me and quickly dove back into the deep tangles of wild cucumbers and grapes.

Young Common Yellowthroat

Young Common Yellowthroat

I sat down on the dry path and waited to see if it would reappear, it didn’t, but a Gray Catbird busied itself working through those tangles and several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds seemed to take exception to a group of American Goldfinches. One of the best sightings was a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher that sat for a few moments on a strategic perch waiting patiently for a meal. It dropped down to catch something and I lost it, a pity because we don’t see enough of them, a pretty little flycatcher.

Bird of the Day was a briefly seen Chestnut-sided Warbler. It takes experience to know a late summer Chestnut-sided Warbler because they bear little resemblance to the bird of spring with its bold splashes of chestnut. By August any traces of chestnut have gone from a female and are much reduced on a male, it’s a transformed bird with new field marks: a bright green back and clear eye-ring.

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The pursuit of birding offers many ways to be challenged and rewarded: Some birders maintain life-lists and year-lists: Some spend hours hoping for the great photo; Others seek to see every extant North American sparrow species (imagine!). Today, abandoning the long distance pursuit of the uncommon for a quiet hour at close quarters with the familiar was all I needed to make a good day in the field.

Osprey

August 19 2015. Lakefield ON. Well, the delayed grandson arrived today; 7Lbs 7 oz. and everybody is well. Under the circumstances I’m sure you’ll understand that it wasn’t much of a birding day, nevertheless a late, fleeting glimpse of an Osprey registered with me and was a reminder that many Birds of the Day are just happy happenstance sightings.

osprey

osprey

I’d say that almost every day I hear or see something that makes me pause for a moment. Around home this summer it’s been the odd flight of Chimney Swifts, a passing Common Nighthawk or one of our wrens (Carolina or Winter). And now as summer starts to lose its grip, a bank of sunflowers is attracting American Goldfinches while a Ruby-throated Hummingbird is still hanging around the monarda. For me they all add a touch of sparkle to the rhythm of daily life.Osprey, Turner River Florida

Today after visiting hours, we were sitting on an outdoor patio enjoying a latish dinner. It wasn’t a particularly scenic spot and not much to see; a cheerful family crowd in front of me and a solitary, somewhat academic-looking man making a pint of beer last several hours behind. And then while I contemplated my emptying glass, an Osprey soared low overhead, it was holding a fish, face forwards as they do, more aerodynamic that way. It was there one moment and out of sight the next; just an Osprey. But really NOT just an Osprey; I know them as elegant, accomplished, catchers of fish who patrol waterways, hover, plunge, seize fish, haul themselves out of the water and, in mid-flight, shake themselves dry like a retriever. Bird of the day today – just because.

Sora

August 18 2015. Townsend ON. We were scheduled to greet a new grandson today but the anesthetist couldn’t attend, so we all have to wait another day. Standing down from high alert, I visited a sewage treatment plant instead. Birders generally limit discussing the relative merits of sewage treatment facilities to birder gatherings (flocks,) for obvious reasons. But I’ll share with you that modern, large-scale, concrete and steel treatment plants with flood-lights, aeration tanks, and sludge-settling cells aren’t a lot of fun, except perhaps in December when they might attract lingering insectivorous migrants; and then birders can be seen hanging around them. Constructed wetlands with several linked sewage-treatment ponds: the first receiving untreated sludge and the last discharging supposedly clean effluent, are generally disagreeable places but they are enormously attractive to both shorebirds and swallows; it to one of these that I was drawn today.

After several weeks of slow birding, it was nice to see some new faces, old friends in a way. I’d seen them all in May on their way to the Arctic: Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, Lesser Yellowlegs, some Pectoral Sandpipers and Solitary Sandpipers.

Killdeer (back) & Semipalmated Plover  Lake Erie shore

Killdeer (back) & Semipalmated Plover Lake Erie shore

All of them are now leaving the far northern reaches of mainland North America, anywhere from Hudson Bay to Alaska and they’re heading back to spend our winter in the food-rich tropical zones of North, South and Central America. They take a few days to pay us a fatten-up visit on the way.

Semipalmated Plovers and Least Sandpiper

Semipalmated Plovers and Least Sandpiper

For a while I thought the little Semipalmated Plovers were the day’s highlights. They have a lot going for them, visually anyway; and plovers of all shapes and sizes are really cool birds. The Killdeer is our local default plover, it’s with us for nine or ten months of the year and a common sight in open grassy areas. Even though they are common it would be hard to not admire their smart appearance.

Semipalmated Plover. Lake Erie shore

Semipalmated Plover. Lake Erie shore

But in the end a Sora stole the day; it was quite unexpected. Soras are small rails, rather like a diminutive chicken, but they inhabit marshes picking over the various wriggly lifeforms found therein. They are infrequently seen because well, they usually stay hidden among the reeds. I’ve heard several over the years, had momentary glimpses of a few and enjoyed lingering looks very rarely. I was able to photograph this one several years ago as it wandered around among the cattails below a marsh boardwalk. Curious and endearing little creatures.

Sora

Sora

Today, on the homeward stretch after walking around the rather malodorous settling ponds, I heard a familiar, sharp ‘keek’ off to my left. In the back of my mind I registered that something, perhaps one of the various sandpipers, sounded like a Sora. I paid it little heed. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw a real Sora scuttling across open mudflats; a triumph of sorts and probably my best ever lingering looks. Alas no photos, not this time. But Bird of the Day for all that.

Herons

3 August 2015. Windemere Basin, Hamilton, ON. Last night, as we drove to meet with family members for an early restaurant dinner, I looked up at an ill-coloured bank of rolling clouds hanging like the rim of a fat saucer and stretching across the sky from west to east.  And while storm fronts like that are interesting and beg further investigation, it was of little consequence to us as it was apparently passing us by and besides, hungry people were waiting for us.  Later I learned that it was a mere fraction of what was probably a circular thundercloud of some thirty of forty miles in circumference.  Evidently it held a thunderstorm of satanic malevolence, which excited much media comment and attention. But we knew nothing of that and were peacefully ordering our dinner as it did its work; our town felt not a drop of rain. However three or four hours later another towering wall of inky doom came upon us and this time it made sure to startle and drench us.

This morning I looked out at a wet and flattened world and wondered whether any interesting birds had been blown in; it happens sometimes.  Skipping breakfast I headed to the often-productive wetlands and settling ponds of our industrial periphery. There wasn’t anything new to see, at least not that I could make out within the reach of my binoculars or telescope; but I think things had been stirred up a bit. I could hear and just make out a few Lesser Yellowlegs picking away in the farthest shallows and I’d like to think I was seeing some Blue-winged Teal too, but between intervening reeds and distance I couldn’t be sure.

The waters of the river below me were laced with swooping, feeding Tree and Barn Swallows and to my surprise a Lesser Yellowlegs sometimes joined them, weaving and swerving quite swallow-like to pick food from the surface. I’ve never before seen such behaviour from a yellowlegs, or any shorebird for that matter.

Black-crowned Night Herons. Windemere

Black-crowned Night Herons. Windemere

In front of me, across the water about twenty metres distant, was the bank of an impoundment and I think that on the other side of the bank (out of my sight and reach) the feeding must have been good. A culvert pierces the bank on top of which there must be a path, in any event there’s a handrail of sorts above the culvert and it was popular with herons. In the half an hour or so I was there, some adults and a juvenile Black- crowned Night-heron, a Green Heron and a Great Blue Heron all lighted upon the handrail to watch over the waters below. I was captivated by them, partly because there was a compositionally pleasing picture to be had, the bird, the riot of wild flowers and the geometry of the handrail all seemed worth framing and giving up my scan for distant celebrities. Good enough to make them collectively my birds of the day. (Click on any of these photos to enlarge it.)

 

Hooded Merganser

31 July 2015. Blue Lakes, St George ON. This is the last day of July and after four days of oppressive heat and humidity, people around here are emerging from shelter in much the same way they would in January following a major snow storm or perhaps as folks do along the east coast after the passage of a hurricane. Well, really no damage was done, some lawns looked a little brown, it had been scorching but we’ve experienced much hotter and some of us, myself included, like it hot.  Stay-indoors days are good for catching up on reading, emails and deferred projects, but eventually you’ve got to get back into circulation.

I checked on a couple of favourite birdy locations today but, as a birder’s day out, it was pretty uninspiring, I was surprised at the quiet. Maybe the past days’ heat had drained us all. There was little more to my first stop than the distant, juvenile ‘Caa’ of a young American Crow pleading for food, and the tired song of a House Wren.

Concluding what had been a pleasant, if largely unrewarding, ramble I followed a road called Scenic Drive. I’d never taken it before and it sounded promising. It led me on a rolling, twisting ride between large ponds; kettle lakes I believe. Kettle lakes are the remnants of the last ice age: as the ice sheets dissolved and departed they left behind large lumps like terrestrial icebergs half buried in the vast piles and sweeps of glacial debris. It must have been a doleful sight, but after ten thousand years those monstrous ice cubes have melted away and left behind cute little ponds in rolling countryside. Why there are kettle lakes in some areas and not in others is beyond my understanding of post-glacial geomorphology; but there they are. In late summer, ten thousand years after the fact, they are who knows how deep, choked with Button Bush, Cattails various willows and skimmed over with Lemna minor or Common Duck-Weed; what some refer to as scum but in truth is anything but. Lemna minor is a fast reproducing, small, simple aquatic plant, we’ve all seen and probably recoiled from it, it’s the sort of thing that would deter anyone from taking a swim, although I’m sure it’s clean and harmless.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

In one pond there were a few lemna-streaked Wood Ducks paddling around, and a Great Blue Heron standing sentinel on a log,

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

At another pond I found what turned out to be the Bird of the Day, a Hooded Merganser, a female I suspect. It certainly wasn’t a full breeding plumage male. It was driving itself purposefully through the thick Lemna and every now and then eagerly seizing upon something, it was hard to make out exactly what, although on one occasion both the merganser and I saw something small make a flipping movement and the merganser reacted in a flash, darted and grabbed a small frog; one gulp – yum!Hooded Merganser-2

From the anonymity of my parked car I enjoyed watching the merganser for quite a while until a tractor pulling a load of hay, or maybe it was Shredded Wheat, rolled noisily by causing it to take flight.Hooded Merganser-3

Pied-billed Grebe

23 July 2015. Morriston ON. There is a pond in this once-quaint village, which I intend to visit every spring but never seem to get around to doing so. Pied-billed Grebes nest there; I’m sure of it. On the two occasions I’ve visited it in late summer, I’ve seen a small group of them paddling around. I really must make the effort next April.

It’s not the visuals of Pied-billed Grebes that attract me; they look like waterlogged chickens, it’s their maniacal almost depraved spring territorial ‘song’. Variously described as: “ …a series of cooing notes… run into slower paced, gulping clucks that can fade away” (National Geographic); or according to Pete Dunne “…a loud wild-sounding keening that incorporates bleating coos and mournful wails…. Like someone blowing a satisfying series of toots into a handkerchief.” (click here for more on Pete Dunne). It’s on my things-to-do list to be visual and auditory witness to this performance. I’ve mentally ear-marked this pond as a best bet.

Unlike the village in general whose heart has been severed by a very busy arterial road and is now just a rather grubby, traffic-light controlled chasm; the pond is a pretty place and worth a diversion from the road race. No doubt a post-glacial kettle lake it would, in the normal course of things, be a rather static body of water. But, flanked by pricey homes it has been beautified to fulfill residents’ expectations of a village pond. It has a couple of small docks suitable for after-dinner dreaming, a spraying fountain and expanses of white water lilies. It can be a good place to watch Great Blue and Green Herons as I noted in an earlier post. (click here to read it)

I stopped there in the middle of the day today and sure enough there were four Pied Billed Grebes; two adults and I assume two chicks. They kept their distance as they always do. So, with my limited camera power, I was unable to get any really good shots but here’s a few rather long-distance shots from today and one taken elsewhere in late winter and which may help illustrate why I describe them as looking like waterlogged chickens.

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(Visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

21 July 2015. Burlington ON. Are these the dog days of summer? I think so and Wikipedia agrees, defining them as the sultry days of July and August. It’s not much of a time for active birding but, from my back door, I still hear the two wrens I referred to a month or so ago. The Winter Wren sings just as stridently every morning and I caught a glimpse of him today, he may even have adopted the few backyard gardens immediately south of us as his own

This evening as we enjoyed a late outdoor dinner we both caught a slip of movement along fringe edge of an old cedar, in unison we exclaimed, ‘Hummingbird!’ We don’t see many in this urban jungle – but then, I suppose if we can get Winter Wrens, then why not a Ruby-throated Hummingbird? We followed it for a minute or so as it sipped from the dusty-blue flowers of Russian Sage until it buzzed overhead and landed behind us on an almost invisible twig. It seemed to be willing us to go away, and then I realized that’s exactly what it was waiting for, we were sitting too close to our wonderfully chaotic tangle of storm-battered Scarlet Bee-balm or Monarda didyma. Those bright tubes almost certainly hold what the hummingbird wanted to get at.

Scarlet Bee-balm

Scarlet Bee-balm

Last January, I wrote at some length about the hummingbirds I met in Panama. It is a large family of over three hundred species, arguably centred in Ecuador and well represented throughout Latin America. So it is, in my humble opinion, something of a privilege that a member of this extraordinary New-World family of birds should grace us with their presence every summer.

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They are incredible creatures in so many ways: tiny with the metabolism of a jet fighter; only better: they fly backwards with ease; they use grams of sugar as fuel not mega-litres of jet fuel; and they make annual round-trip journeys between tropical Central America and Ontario without paperwork. Like anything Boeing or Lockeheed Martin builds, they carry an on-board navigation system for those transcontinental journeys, but of a complexity and sophistication that we scarcely understand. It is quite possible that they steer by the stars and by visualizing and processing the relative angles of the mesh of lines of polarity of the Earth’s magnetic field; you try it.

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So any time a hummingbird comes into view, it should be a time to marvel; if nothing else at their apparently effortless up-down-forward-backward flight. I’ve added a couple of galleries of some of my photos from different times and places.  They’re visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

Hummingbird Clearwing

5-10 July 2015. Wingfield Basin, Bruce Peninsula, ON. A slight departure from my usual posting here, but I can hardly resist sharing with you this moth, a hummingbird-lookalike. I know next to nothing about moths and had it not been for an encounter with some Hummingbird Clearwings about three summers ago, I wouldn’t have been able to put a name to them this week.

Hummingbird Clearwing

Hummingbird Clearwing

But here they are, true moths with a body or thorax about the size of the terminal segment of your little finger and the hovering, nectar-dipping behaviour of a hummingbird. My limited collection of reference books tells me only that there are just two species of ‘clearwing’ moths like this in the north-east. They are members of the tantalizingly named Sphinx or Hawk Moth family. That alone is enough to make me want to know more; but that’s for another time.

Hanging at the flowers doorstep, they used their almost one-inch long proboscis to draw nectar from deep within the bright blue depths of Vipers Bugloss, working their way almost, but not quite, methodically up the spire. Just as I began to feel I could anticipate their next move they’d vanish in a wisp – and then reappear a few feet away.

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Getting a photograph was an exercise in patient ambush. If I just tried to follow them around snapping at any apparent opportunity, my results were mediocre. I’m no expert in the technical aspects of photography; it took quite a bit of effort to dredge up memories of the interplay of shutter speed, ISO and depth of field to come up with a strategy for a decent picture. Their wings beat so quickly that it wasn’t until I shot at 1/1250th of a second that I could freeze the motion.

And just in case we lose focus entirely, here’s a shot of a real hummingbird, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. 

Ruby Throated Hummingbird

Ruby Throated Hummingbird

Greater Yellowlegs

11 July 2015. Wingfield Basin, Bruce Peninsula, ON. I was out paddling around Wingfield Basin enjoying a pre-breakfast exploration of its shallow edges when I heard a Greater Yellowlegs calling from high overhead. It was flying purposefully southward, showing no interest in stopping here to forage around the lake’s shallow margins.

I knew by its distinctive call that it was a Greater Yellowlegs, a ringing and far-carrying Tew Tew Tew Tew. Its semi-sibling, the Lesser Yellowlegs, which is confusingly similar in almost all respects except overall size and relative bill length, has a call that is less strident and usually comprises just two, softer tew tew notes, rather than three or more.

Assuming its internal compass is not defective and that it’s not hopelessly lost, it’s my suspicion that this bird was on its southbound, ‘fall’ migration. Quite possibly it’s a one-year-old bird that failed, for any number of reasons, to breed. Local records contain a few records of one-year-old yellowlegs that never quite complete the spring migration back to the mosquito-rich, sub-arctic lands of their origins but instead wander aimlessly around, a thousand or so miles short of their predestined breeding grounds. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of yellowlegs of both species are now, still in the far north completing their breeding cycle.

Many of this year’s hatch will now be semi independent and capable of flight, but they need a few more weeks of growth and development before they will start their migration south. We generally don’t see the current year’s young on their fall migration until well into August and the flow of all ages of yellowlegs continues into September and October.

As ‘fall’ migrants go, today’s Greater Yellowlegs was definitely an early bird. If you were overly sensitive to signs of approaching summer’s end it might be a touch discouraging. But it’s still high summer, holiday season to most of us and the odd aberrant sighting only enlivens the days.

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Here is a gallery of photos from past days, some are Greater Yellowlegs, some Lesser Yellowlegs.  There’s not a lot of difference between the two species, except overall size (for which you need something to compare with)  and relative bill length, as I noted above. I think I have i.d them properly but welcome any hair-splitting discussions if you think I’m wrong. One photo is of mostly Short-billed Dowitchers with one dozing yellowlegs. The gallery is visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.