Orchard Oriole and Blue-winged Warbler

2 July 2015. Ruthven Park, Cayuga ON. Early this morning I received a very polite request from the family of Jonathon, a visiting birder, asking for directions; “ ... He’s especially interested in finding a blue-winged warbler and an orchard oriole. I wondered if you would have any suggestions.” Either species is worth some effort to find, so I offered to go with them and try our luck. We arranged to meet at the bird observatory in an hour.

The two species are just about equally hit and miss. The oriole’s distribution in Ontario is patchy because we’re close to the limit of its range; and the warbler is fussy about habitat, it’s a small and flighty bird and can be hard to locate. To add to the challenge it’s becoming just a little late in the season for bird song to be helpful, and the leafy exuberance of summer tends to get in the way. As we set out I offered our chances: the Orchard Oriole as a long shot and the Blue-winged Warbler, a probable.

I called a stop in front of a large Black Willow that is always a busy place for birds; if the Orchard Oriole was to be found anywhere, this was perhaps the most likely spot. The willow was so lively with the comings and goings of Yellow Warblers, Song Sparrows and Cedar Waxwings that Jonathon described it as the ‘Tree That Keeps on Giving’.

It may be trite to start a sentence with ‘suddenly’, but that’s the way it happened; suddenly I picked out a familiar song coming from a nearby Black Walnut, it had Orchard Oriole written all over it, at least to it did to me. We searched the tree and then followed the flight of a smallish bird that flew from whence the song came, it landed, sang again and then flew back to theTree That Keeps on Giving.  And there it was, an Orchard Oriole. “There’s your bird.” I proclaimed, as if it always works that way. One down, one to go.

Blue-winged Warbler

Blue-winged Warbler

The Blue-winged Warbler came just minutes later. I had expected that we’d have to continue some way to an altogether drier and scrubbier part of the property.  Instead we found them at a densely green corner, quite un-Blue-winged Warbler-like, where all around us several birds were chipping anxiously. These were the sort of short, dry, chip notes I associate with Common Yellowthroats in a state of distress, scolding or anxiety. A few moments passed before we were able to find one and instantly realised that it was a Blue-winged Warbler, and not just one, but several. It seems we had barged in on a family: mom, dad and perhaps three or four fledglings, still a little fluffy. We enjoyed several long, almost intimate, minutes watching them. And well, that was it! Both species in the bag with almost Amazonian mail-order dispatch.

We continued our ramble. Warbling Vireos above us, Wood Thrushes calling from somewhere deep in the wet forest and Field Sparrows out along the field edges; it was all very nice. We parted company, Jonathon apparently thrilled with the outcome and me mentally weighing how much of our success was just luck.

Caspian Tern

30 June 2015. Windermere Basin, Hamilton ON. The exact locations of where I go birding is, I think, generally irrelevant to my accounts; unless of course I’m somewhere a little different and the place is as much a part of the story. But regular readers will know that most of my birding is in southern Ontario, Canada. In order to frame the following, I’ll share with those that haven’t yet figured it out, that I live very close to Hamilton, Ontario. Hamilton is a city founded on heavy industry and one of its outstanding natural physical attributes is a very large, deep-water harbour. It would all be very nice if it wasn’t for the fact that Hamilton Harbour is one of the most polluted places on the Great Lakes; careless urbanization and heavy industry are to blame; mostly the latter.

Times change and both the U.S and Canadian governments are making herculean efforts to repair the ecological damage, and that’s where today’s bird of the day story really starts.

On my way home from a minor errand, I stopped at a fairly new, man-made lake that adjoins a tributary of Hamilton Harbour. It’s a impoundment of perhaps ten acres, generally rectangular and features a couple of rocky islands, some shoals, shallows and muddy backwaters. Not so long ago this was the nastiest of backwaters full of industrial debris and barely treated sewage. The impoundment presumably serves some water quality amelioration purposes and it has been designed to be green and to attract wildlife. It hasn’t taken very long, today this is a good place to see shorebirds and waterfowl. In the two or three years of their existence the islands have attracted a large breeding colony of Caspian and Common Terns and around the lower areas, quite a few ducks; mostly Mallards.

My stop was short; I was just ahead of an approaching wall of light rain. But in those five or ten minutes, I saw several species, which would be worth pointing out at any time: a Snowy Egret (a rarity here and something of a celebrity with local birders) a nicely marked male Blue-winged Teal, two Gadwall, many Tree Swallows and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and of course the Common and Caspian Terns.

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern

Caspian Terns demand your attention; they are always dominant, frequently noisy, but undisputedly handsome. The Russian name for them is Chekrava, almost onomatopoeic, the word and the bird mirror each other’s purposeful crispness.

Some might say the Snowy Egret was Bird of the Day – but I’d seen enough of them a month ago on Cape May to last me for a while, and the Blue-winged Teal was a candidate, but I have a soft spot for terns, Caspian Terns in particular, and I think it was this youngster waiting for food that won the day.

 Young Caspian Tern and food arriving

Young Caspian Tern and food arriving

Afterwards as I drove home I saw one of our local Peregrine Falcons circling over the highway. It was then that I was reminded that despite all of the ill that mankind does to the natural world, when we just pause and try to make amends with a bit of rehabilitation and restoration, wildlife quickly moves to reclaim a niche where it can. It may just be a bunch of ducks and gulls and the odd falcon, but still an’all.

The Wrens

24 June 2015. Burlington, ON. It’s barely seven a.m as I write this, and there is a Carolina Wren not far away singing loudly, “SHEEbu SHEEbuSHEEbu SHEEbu.” Well actually not just singing; shouting it. It’s moving away, now a hundred yards distant, beating the bounds of its urban territory. Soon, within the next hour, I’ll probably pick up faint notes of a Winter Wren as it starts its rounds beginning in the thick undergrowth around the creek, a block or so away. It too, belting out its the cascading and tangled song and doing the rounds of its proclaimed territory, just letting everyone know this is where it belongs, for the summer anyway.

Carolina Wren in greenhouse

Carolina Wren in greenhouse

Carolina Wren April 10 2011 Williamsburg Va.

Carolina Wren April 10 2011 Williamsburg Va.

The Carolina Wren comes with a story of expanding range. It’s a bird which thirty years ago, was a rarity in Ontario and found in just a few of the milder pockets of the province. But the climate has changed, it’s been warmer for decades and the Carolina Wren’s toehold has expanded. Two years ago you might have described the Carolina Wren as a modestly well-established species. But two very hard withers in a row have thinned their population. It may be that ten years from now, if tough winters prevail, the Carolina Wren will once again be a rarity. Who knows? The ebb and flow of bird population cycles can be very long, beyond the attention span of most of us. For now the Carolina Wren is a welcome relative newcomer, valued for its upliftingly positive song and decidedly assertive behaviour.Winter Wren Colling area.

Winter Wren

Winter Wren

This Winter Wren’s appearance is something of a surprise to me. It is not a species I associate with this kind of urban backyard jigsaw of mine. They are birds that prefer cool dark woods, places with lots of thick undergrowth. If I want to find a Winter Wren I know of a couple of good areas to go, but I have to travel some distance. So when I first heard one singing in my neighbourhood one early morning about three weeks ago, I assumed it was a late north-bound migrant. I liked what I heard, I always do with Winter Wrens, and I was tempted to post a Bird of the Day entry in recognition of the fleeting visit; but time ran away and it just didn’t happen. Still, the next day I heard it again, and the next and so it has continued. In time I’ve come to believe that a Winter Wren has taken up residence and maybe, just maybe, found a mate who agrees that this is an okay place to raise a family.

My day’s plans do not include being anywhere particularly birdy, but with two species of wren patrolling my neighbourhood, I hardly need to.

 

Northern Waterthrush

13 June 2015. Flamborough ON. I started early and just couldn’t stop birding this morning, in fact morning was just a distant memory by the time I headed home. If May is the month when you have to be out there to see who’s just arrived, a sort of migratory rush hour, then June is when open-for-business begins. For the birder, mid-June is the perfect time to linger, listen and to see who’s where and doing what.

My day started while the air was still fresh. I parked atop a grassy hill with sweeping views. Around me were Brown Thrashers, Gray Catbirds, Song Sparrows, American Goldfinches and Bobolinks, all singing. A few Turkey Vultures sat quietly in a naked elm waiting for warmer airs to set them sailing for the day. This place would be delicious enough as is, but at some not-too-long-ago time, a thoughtful service club stationed a park bench at one of the most strategic of resting spots, silent of people and noisy of birds.

Nice as it was, I wasn’t there to write Victorian poetry, this was the starting point of a plan to walk several long trails. All of them in a township dotted with cool swamps and dark woods. I stuck to trails and roadsides that cut through mosquito-rich habitat with rivulets, brooks and creeks weaving through dense forest. Those common elements of running water and thick vegetation produced many of the same species at each stop, but that was quite okay.

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Today’s Birds of the Day and probably the commonest, were Northern Waterthrushes. Their habitat of choice is dense, dark and wet woodlands and, were they not so vocal and demonstrative, you could easily overlook them. They and their close relative the Louisiana Waterthrush, are nominally members of the warbler family but are not nearly as colourful as some of their supposed cousins. They make up for it with a spirited song that penetrates the swampy thickets and when in the slightest bit agitated, if for example they see you as threateningly close to their hungry nestlings, they flit overhead and around you, frantically chipping and bobbing their tail. One anxious waterthrush parent is never enough, before long the other parent will appear and then others apparently to lend noisy support to the protest. Other than the challenge of keeping up with them, it wasn’t too hard to get some good photos. But being obliging to the camera was in contrast to a handful of Canada Warblers who were also heard but only fleetingly glimpsed in those same wet brushy areas.

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My field notes from these areas of darkness and wet included Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Wood Peewee, Veery, Common Yellowthroat, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow and even a Green Heron. There’s nothing in the species list that would turn heads, it was more a case of you had to be there.

 

Canada Warbler

12 June 2015. Normandale ON. It takes an hour and twenty minutes to drive to one of my favourite forests. I was going to say favourite birding spots, but it’s much more than that; it’s a nature sanctuary, a wonderful and virtually untouched mixed forest, with towering American Beech, Sugar Maple and Eastern Hemlock, a thick understory of Flowering and Round-leaved Dogwoods, Mountain Maple and Leatherwood and masses of ferns of many species; the birding is pretty good too.

I went there in hopes that I might find an Acadian Flycatcher or perhaps see a Hooded Warbler and, as much as anything, to enjoy the place. In reverse order, there was much to enjoy, I heard, but didn’t see a Hooded Warbler but there was no sign of an Acadian Flycatcher. Not finding an Acadian Flycatcher was no surprise, they are at best an occasional nester in Ontario; this particular woods was home to a breeding pair in 2012 but they’ve not seen here since.

I actually felt a little disappointment by the sense that other species I’d seen here a couple of years ago were either not present today or were in much reduced numbers. I think it was because two years ago the Eastern Hemlock grove seemed to support several singing Black-throated Green Warblers, while today I heard only one. But my notes from almost this date in 2013 shows a close parallel today’s encounters, so perhaps all is as it should be.

Canada Warbler - today's best shot

Canada Warbler – today’s best shot

My Bird of the Day was a young male Canada Warbler, probably one year old. I could hear it singing as it patrolled up and down the course of a fast-running cold-water creek and, with a bit of patience, I was able to draw it closer to me. Canada Warblers, like many other warblers, won’t stay still for very long. I’ve had almost no luck photographing them and today my shot is a nice one of its back; one of these days it’ll all fall into place.

Canada Warbler. Last year's best attempt.

Canada Warbler. Last year’s best attempt.

A little later I spent a long time trying to get a good look at a singing Black-throated Blue Warbler. It too was doing a circuit of what I assume is its territory, but it was neck-crackingly high overhead and I was lucky to get just one long enough glimpse of it to be sure of what I was hearing.

After four enjoyable hours exploring and searching I had had enough of black flies and mosquitoes around my head and called it a day. I paused at the roadside to watch a couple of Veerys and a vividly coloured Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I rinsed insect repellant off my hands, got into my car and pulled away as the skies darkened and moments later dropped a heavy summer downpour.

Peregrine Falcons

11 June 2015. Hamilton Burlington ship canal, ON. I’ve probably said it before, because goodness knows I’ve celebrated Peregrine Falcons as Bird of the Day often enough, but any Peregrine Falcon is automatically Bird of the Day-worthy.

Today I set out to watch over a trio of Peregrine Falcon chicks who have just taken wing. Peregrines are supposed to be masters of the air but evidently not right away, these youngsters have been a involved in a couple of crash-landings and this busy highway and bridge site is not the place for a grounded chick.

I watched for a couple of hours and in that time saw the male parent smack a Tree Swallow down into the lake and from the surface it delicately retrieved and carried it back to the hungry horde. At one time we had all five birds, parents and three chicks, in view but there was a lot of coming and going and it was sometimes hard to know who was who.

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Above (in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email) are some photos from the morning’s watch: one of the mother and several more of the only female in the brood stretching her wings and working at mastering balance.

Postscript to knots and sandpipers

6 June 2015. My post of a couple of weeks ago (May 17th) celebrated the Red Knot, a beautiful and resourceful shorebird that flies from one end of the world to the other in order to breed. My post didn’t dwell at length on their migration route but it’s worth repeating that many of the spring migrant Red Knots we see on the east coast, have flown from Tierra del Fuego, (about as far south as you can go in South America) and are heading to Baffin Island, (ditto North). This long distance journey and its numerous perils so fascinate the ornithology world that many studies are underway to learn more.

Avian studies often include the capture and banding of birds, shorebirds can be effectively marked with an easily-read-from-a-distance flag on their leg. My many photos taken along the shoreline of the Delaware Bay include some of those flagged birds, mostly Red Knots but also one or two Semi-palmated Sandpipers. I didn’t see the flags at first but on closer scrutiny I found half a dozen. Well this is exciting, because by reporting my sightings I have learned that one or two have indeed travelled some long distances. This of course is not a surprise, I mean we know they do these journeys, but to actually be able to see a bird which was captured, tagged and handled at least once before in Argentina or French Guiana, is something of a thrill. Here are a few photos (click on them to enlarge) of flagged or banded birds, one of them with observations from http://bandedbirds.org/Red Knots & Dunlin. REKN Flagged centre

 

The Red Knot above has an easy to read green flag inscribed 7P5.  I believe that means it was originally trapped and flagged on the shore of Delaware Bay in May 2013.

3 band Red Knot.  (Argentina)

 

The above Red Knot on the right has an orange flag plus an “ additional blue band…this bird was banded in French Guiana.

 

Sanderling and SEPA flagged left

 

Above Semi-palmated Sandpiper on the left has a green flag.  It’s almost but not quite readable. So far I have no further information as to where this bird was first caught and flagged.

Two REKN flagged Rt

In this picture above, on the right at the water-line and just above the gull’s head are two Red Knots each with a different colour flag.

 

 

 

 

Upland Sandpipers

3 June 2015. Kirkfield ON.  Three of us spent half the day scouring open grasslands for birds. We were looking for Loggerhead Shrikes; but without luck as it turned out. We weren’t unduly disappointed though because grasslands are really delightful spring birding places; open pastures attract some to the most vocal songbirds.

Our day turned up some nice sightings: Wilson’s Snipe, Willow Flycatcher and Brown Thrasher included. The various songsters of the day find their own best spots from which to sing. Among those we saw were: bright yellow-breasted Eastern Meadowlarks who prefer a high wide-vista spot, roadside utility wires do the trick; Bobolinks who like deep grass cover so tend to stay hidden until the handsome black, white and yellow males emerge like a Jack-in-the box to fly a short looping and fluttering territorial flight to let everyone know who’s in charge; Savannah Sparrows who like fence posts while Grasshopper Sparrows apparently don’t need to broadcast their faint, short-burst, buzz song all that far, they are content with a modestly prominent grass stalk as long as it will take their weight.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

After dutifully completing our Shrike-watch rounds we headed home but made a long detour to inspect more open fields. And it was here that we found our Upland Sandpipers. It was really promising countryside for Upland Sandpipers: wide fields, dry-ish but punctuated by low wet spots, decrepit hedges and occasional thickets of hawthorn.

We had stopped and were straining to admire something to our left, an Eastern Kingbird I think, when I heard –or at least thought I heard – the ululating whistle of an Upland Sandpiper to our right. We scrambled to the other side of the car and scanned the deep grasses and soon found one, then two, three and eventually four of them about a hundred feet away moving across in their jerking, stop-go way of stalking with precautionary safety stops to peer around. Upland Sandpipers stand about ten inches tall and have a preference for eight inches high grass, many times, all you see is their rather disproportionately small head bobbing around.

I’ve posted about Upland Sandpipers several times before, simply because I like them so much; they’ll rise to the top of any day of birding. Almost everything about them: the incongruity of a sandpiper making a living in dry fields (they are typically species of puddles and shorelines) : their funny, little, chicken-like heads; their wolf-whistle of a song (described cleverly by Pete Dunne in his excellent Essential Field Guide Companion as “..a plaintive, rising-and-falling, slurred whistle: “woooolEE WEEurr.”); and especially for their innocent and engaging ‘Who me?” expression.

Upland Sandpiper

Upland Sandpiper

For one of my companions, the Upland Sandpiper was a lifer bird; I know the excitement of that feeling: you’ve read about them; you’ve heard about them and others tell you where they just saw one – but too late; then one day, sometimes without warning, the final piece of the puzzle drops into place. Here’s her picture of that lifer.

Upland Sandpiper  - photo by Bonnie Kinder

Upland Sandpiper – photo by Bonnie Kinder

Pileated Woodpecker

30 May 2015 Cootes Paradise, Hamilton. ON. My Bird of the Day today? A Pileated Woodpecker; without a doubt. I had just started a census round on this very warm and blustery morning, and hadn’t gone more than perhaps two or three hundred metres when I heard the unmistakable, ringing laugh of one. Their call carries well and hearing one is usually all you get, seeing one is the icing on the cake; perhaps you’ll get one sighting for every ten hearings.

I was standing talking to a nature interpreter when I noticed a large in-flight shadow pass over us. Flying shadows, as bird cues go, are tricky because following up usually means looking up towards the sun – and all that goes with that. Still, this time it worked for there just above us, a Pileated Woodpecker had arrived to explore a large old willow tree. It was gloomy in the recesses of the tree and my camera’s battery quit after I’d taken four or five not-bad photos in the low light. Here are a couple.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

The census turned up just a little over forty species, but a strong south-west wind backed by a murderous looking pile of clouds evidently unnerved bird life; they were quite quiet, especially for late May. Later in the day those clouds rolled out some epic thunderstorms.

I tried counting the Common Terns weaving and diving across the lake but could only make a best guess. The count of Canada Geese was higher than it has been for a while, perhaps the many one-year-olds and failed breeders have given up trying to hold territory and have decided to hang out together, or perhaps sensing the approach of bad weather they had headed for a sheltered area. That birds sense the approach of bad weather is well understood, we often see them feeding heavily before an approaching snow storm. There is a astonishing account, recently published, of five Golden-winged Warblers (a species rarely seen around here) in Tennessee who were tracked flying 450 miles south to avoid a tornado-bearing storm system that was 250 miles west but heading their way. After the storm had passed, the birds returned to resume defence of their Tennessee territories. This is no place to go into much detail of why or how they were tracked except to say that they had been fitted with tiny geolocators which returned quite precise information.

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I spotted a small, tight formation flock of about 25 sandpipers wheeling around an offshore islet. It was impossible to be sure but they were probably Least Sandpipers; I saw thousands of them on Cape May a week ago. They are within a few thousand kilometers of completing their spring journey to their Arctic breeding grounds. They have to get there at just the right time; today those grounds may well still be snowed covered. But soon there will be a window of a few weeks with open ground and abundant food in which to establish territory, mate, incubate, feed and raise young and then head south again before the snows of late summer. A bit like waiting for a gap in the ocean waves to run in, grab your wind-tossed hat and retreat before the next swamping. A lot of well-timed effort for the prize.

Trumpeter Swan and a sparrow

29 May 2015 Cayuga ON. I puzzled over two funny sightings today at the bird observatory. First a mystery sparrow and then a Trumpeter Swan.

On my early morning arrival, I heard a Savannah Sparrow singing from quite high in a Black Walnut tree. It’s a distinctive song, a sound of wide-open, sometimes weedy fields, dry and high pitched, and described adequately as “tist tsit tsit t-seeeeeee rrrr”. If your upper range hearing isn’t what it once was, it’s an easy song to miss. Savannah Sparrows are quite common in appropriate habitat and I’m very familiar with them. To hear one at the bird observatory is a little out of place because it’s better described as a well-treed parkland or garden setting than dry field, but well, stranger things happen.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

I took some long-shot photos of it before it flew away and, given the looking-up-at-its-belly angle, it is a credible (though far from conclusive) Savannah Sparrow. A little later we heard it in another tree and managed to get closer, again it sang the Savannah Sparrow song, but just for a while and then it switched to a Song Sparrow’s song. At that point we all agreed that it was in fact a Song Sparrow; the habitat was the right fit, Song Sparrows are common and we managed to get a good look at it. We all shrugged and went back to the day’s routines; if the others thought I was hallucinating they were gracious enough not to mention it.

Today's Song (formerly Savannah) Sparrow

Song (formerly Savannah) Sparrow

It leaves many questions in my mind: Why would a Song Sparrow sing a perfect Savannah Sparrow’s song? Songbirds learn their appointed song during their first few months of life. And they don’t just sing any old song; they faithfully learn their own species’ song from their parents and others of their species. I suppose it’s possible that this Song Sparrow had somehow mixed in with Savannah Sparrows somewhere and become imprinted with their song, perhaps on its wintering grounds; but then, singing isn’t something birds do in winter. How did this happen? I have no good answers, and I don’t think I’m given to hallucinations. The above photos may only confuse the issue.

Later on, as I reached the river during the course of doing the daily census, I heard the absolutely unmistakable sound of a Trumpeter Swan trumpeting. Now, Trumpeter Swans are a species in recovery in Ontario. Once extirpated, a small reintroduced population has grown in size and breeds fairly regularly to the north of us. They also winter in large numbers close to home, so I’ve come to know them fairly well. There’s no mistaking a Trumpeter Swan from anything else- especially when you hear them call; they sound just like a one-note blast on a trumpet. Had I found a pair of Trumpeter Swans on a pond or lake, I would have been pleasantly surprised at the expansion of their nesting range; as I said earlier they breed fairly regularly to the north of us. But all I found was this solitary bird paddling steadily down river and blowing a single trumpet blast about every hundred meters, an “Anyone there?” call I think. Had it lost its mate? Was it still, at this late date, looking for one? Was it just joy-riding. For all I know it might have continued on downstream, calling it’s plaintive “Anyone there?” note every hundred metres for the rest of the day.

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan