Snow Bunting

30 October 2014. Burlington ON. The study of birds, like many a generally worthwhile pursuit, is a constant learning experience. This morning included a teachable moment that reminded me just how much I don’t know.Snow Bunting. Valley Inn-2

Towards the end of a satisfying birding morning we came upon a solitary Snow Bunting that left me almost speechless. I was sure, certain, that we’d found a bird so far out of season as to be at least a mild sensation. After all, Snow Buntings are birds of mid-winter, January and February, they’re birds of hard cold days when the landscape is stark, hostile and windswept, not mild and still leafy as it was today.

I could hardly wait to get home to post a “Guess what I saw?” sighting on our local bird-reports line. But first (at least I’ve learned to look before you leap too far)….a precautionary check of the bible of local birding, Robert Curry’s Birds of Hamilton and Surrounding Areas. Here’s what I read; “We know them as winter visitors along the shores of Lake Ontario and Hamilton Harbour when they first arrive in October, and later in open fields as snow cover develops… In late October, flocks of arriving Snow Buntings sweep along the Lake.” Curry reports mean fall arrival dates in the last week of October. Well, yes, but… Oh never mind, it was a delightful sighting, it made my day (Bird of the Day) and it taught me something I didn’t know; Snow Buntings arrive here in October; look for them. Here’s a few more shots of her in a gallery.

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It was not the only highlight of a pleasant two-hour walk through some of the richest, most varied habitat in our region. It started out a little flat with Slate-colored Juncos, White-throated Sparrows and Black-capped Chickadees, nothing wrong with any of those, but nothing all that newsworthy about them either. I had the company of a couple who are fairly new to birding and Marion was pleased when I found a small flock of Eastern Bluebirds, a first for her. A little later we watched a group of Cedar Waxwings feasting on the berries of Tartarian Honeysuckle and were surprised to see a Great Blue Heron perched on a riverside branch, uncharacteristically ambivalent about our closeness. For a while I wondered if it was somehow constrained from flying away as Great Blues are usually quick to distance themselves from a perceived human threat.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Reaching an area of shallow water and mudflats we were treated to a couple of small flotillas of Hooded Mergansers diving for whatever is usually found in shallow silty waters. The males were very spectacular in their striking winter/breeding plumage, especially with their hoods raised. There were Mallards, Northern Shovelers and Green-winged Teals too. The males of these latter three were in different stages of their fall moults moving towards full breeding plumage. Mallards are now back in full look-at-me plumage, Northern Shovelers part-way there and the Green-winged Teals quite a long way from their Sunday best.

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All of the above-mentioned ducks are in this gallery, but you’ll have to be on the website to see them, you’ll not see them if you’re reading this as an email.

 

Purple Finches and Tundra Swans

28 October 2014. Cayuga ON.  For a long time this morning, doing the census round at the bird observatory was like walking into a theatre which, save for a few stragglers, held nothing but empty seats. Where, metaphorical moments ago, there was life, today our rich woodlands and river valley seemed deserted; not entirely of course, but what a contrast to those busy fall migration days of just a few short days and weeks ago.

I was counting American Crows, Red-winged Blackbirds and Blue Jays in ones and twos. I could hear a Carolina Wren on the other side of the river, and an Eastern Bluebird somewhere not too far away but I couldn’t see either of them.

Things looked up when a group of six Purple Finches flew up into the lower branches of a Black Walnut and obligingly sat around to be photographed. Purple Finches are neither common nor uncommon, but they always seem to be noteworthy because the males are so striking. Field guides often describe them as looking as though they’ve been dipped in raspberry juice, a little over-folksy I think, but not inaccurate. It’s quite easy to confuse them with House Finches, but the males of the latter species, while quite surprisingly crimson at times, are not as expansively tinted from head to tail. To illustrate, I have included a couple of House Finches along with some of today’s birds in the gallery below. (Visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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Later, I found a small group of Cedar Waxwings feeding on the bright orange fruits of Multiflora Rose briers. My presence made them flighty, so I sat down and remained quite still.  After a while they seemed to accept that I presented no mortal threat  and I was able to get the photos below (Also visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.); and in those same quiet moments caught sight of a Golden-crowned Kinglet.

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I was quite pleased to find the Purple Finches and had notionally flagged them as Birds of the Day, but then much later I heard a quiet, distant, bugle-like call which, at first, I thought might be a Sandhill Crane . But moments later a V of twenty-seven Tundra Swans swept low overhead, calling softly, “wu wu”, amongst themselves as they went. They’ve come from their breeding grounds on the arctic shores of James and Hudson Bays and are on their way to Chesapeake Bay.

I have chosen Tundra Swans as my Birds of the Day many times, but usually in early spring. Today they are a sure signal that cold weather is on its way, but that same high-in-the-sky conversation when heard again four months from now, will be welcomed as a sure sign of the end of winter as they return from their Atlantic coast wintering grounds and head north once again.

Eastern Bluebirds

Ancaster, ON. 25 October 2014.  Baby-sitting three pre-school boys for a weekend doesn’t leave much room for birding; none really. But I managed to find a couple of hours, having previously agreed to join a group examining a tract of land which has recently become a restoration project.

Well, when we arrived, a southwest wind was blowing a gale and rain was threatening. With every gust, another branch was stripped clean and the air filled with tumbling leaves. A sky full of leaves is a betrayal, things airborne being the stock in trade of most birders.

We traipsed around the field, which the owner, a university, had forgotten it owned until just a few years ago. In the half-century or so that have elapsed since the land was acquired (and forgotten), this one-time farm fell victim to the march of European Buckthorn, an invasive species. Using undergraduate labour, the university is trying to restore the land to its original post-glacial, pre-contact state; chainsaws and bonfires are blunt but effective starts to the process.

We saw precious little in the way of bird life; everything with wings seemed to be staying out of the wind. But our day brightened considerably when we came upon a mixed-age flock of Eastern Bluebirds gathered in a sheltered valley; they were deservedly my Birds of the Day.Eastern Bluebird (male) RP

Eastern Bluebirds are widespread across the eastern half of the continent and are year round residents everywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But we are well north of that line and our bluebirds are migratory, most of them anyway; a few sometimes overwinter. We often see these mixed flocks at this time of year and usually they’re loose, rambling groups. Just when you think there’s a dozen birds, more appear and then more again.

The sight and sound (they have a charming fluting call) of the bluebirds certainly brightened up a rather dreary outing, which was otherwise only punctuated by a wind-tossed Turkey Vulture, a solitary Red-bellied Woodpecker and a few robins and goldfinches.Eastern bluebird May 29 2011

Red-headed Woodpeckers

Jamestown Island Va. 16 October 2014. Every now and then you’ll run into what seems to be a moving convention of birds of a feather. Birders often talk about waves of warblers, a fairly common occurrence in spring and fall migration when birds are moving en masse and they seem to be all around, I’ve experienced it several times.

Today I found myself in a gathering of representatives of the Picidae family; the woodpeckers, I think it was just coincidence, not a migratory wave; but whatever the reason, it was memorable.

Blackjack Oak

Blackjack Oak leaves

This was our last day in Virginia and I had the day to myself again. For the purposes of this posting, it’s sufficient to say that the State of Virginia, in and around tidal waters, is a great place for finding birds. I spent a few hours on the botanically and historically rich Jamestown Island, stopping now and then to examine trees like Blackjack and Post Oaks, Persimmons and Black Tupelos, and exploring in general, trying to imagine how this looked as the capital of the Virginia Colony in the mid 1600s. Making my way out to the once strategic end of the island known as Black Point, meant passing through an open glade of Loblolly Pines where I could hear the churring calls of two or three Red-headed Woodpeckers. That certainly stopped me in my tracks and moments later I was rewarded with one landing on a decaying tree trunk nearby.Red-headed Woodpecker-3

But there was more to this place than Red-headed Woodpeckers, I also noticed a Downy Woodpecker bashing noisily at something overhead and, if the Downy was bashing noisily, a Pileated Woodpecker was positively pounding, if not axeing, a pine tree just across the way. Words don’t do its efforts justice, if a picture’s worth a thousand words, then a comic-book illustration with blurred action, sprays of wood chips and Bam! star-bursts would be more like it!  It was soon evident that there were, in fact, two Pileated Woodpeckers when they started calling out to each other with their rather slow mezzo-soprano laugh . They hung around for quite a while but were last seen flying away, one chasing the other like two overweight crows. The soft ‘chfff’ call of a nearby Red-bellied Woodpecker and a yellow flash overhead, the under-wing of a Northern Flicker completed the woodpecker clan gathering.

I lingered to watch the Red-headed Woodpeckers for a long time. In Ontario they are a rare treat and a rapidly vanishing species. A pity since, in a world where looks count, they are really quite spectacular.

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Black Vulture

Williamsburg Va. 16 October 2014. With a full day to do as I pleased I opted to take my time investigating the rich habitats along Williamsburg’s Colonial Parkway. Encountering a group of quite entertaining Black Vultures was an unexpected surprise and it added a rather amusing novelty to an already bird-rich day.
The parkway is a winding, two-lane road that amply deserves its name. It threads through dense forests which include many of my favourite trees: Black Gums, Tulip Trees, various oak species and Paw Paws included. It leads to the shore of the wide, tidal James River and follows it along, crossing a number of reedy tributaries that empty into the James.
I pulled into a picnic area under a canopy of towering Loblolly Pines intending to explore a stretch of waterfront beach and an adjacent river-mouth. Locking my car and glancing down at the beach I saw that I was being watched carefully by a group of Black Vultures, two on the strip of sandy beach, the other somewhat closer to me and up hill a bit. I appeared to be spoiling their fun, the lower two seemed to have been enjoying a seaside stroll while the upper one was pulling on the juicy remains of a large fish. They watched me cautiously while trying to continue with their fun, the lower two started to trot away for a bit, they actually seemed to be capable of quite a canter, but after a moment had second thoughts and strolled back. The fish-dinner individual sauntered further up hill until it stood at the top looking down at the others below. By this time a fourth individual had joined them and it became quite a party. Eventually they’d had enough and spread their wide wings into the wind and lifted off, wheeling away to rise quickly above the treetops.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture

They were quite a contrast to the many smaller and prettier birds that I’d spend a couple of hours watching beforehand. The cover and abundant supply of food along the shore supports a large population of Northern Mockingbirds, Eastern Bluebirds, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Carolina Chickadees and even a Saltmarsh Sparrow – a new bird to me!

Northern Mockingbird in full song

Northern Mockingbird in full song

I watched three Bald Eagles, an adult leading two juveniles, in a purposeful chase after an Osprey which had just caught a fish. The eagles soon caught up to the twisting and turning Osprey which then, perhaps as a result of hard lessons learned, chose to let go of its fish. I expected the eagles to make a mid-air catch, but instead the fish fell several hundred feet to the river below and as far as I could see, that was the end of it. Perhaps, if the fish survived its initial capture and then the fall, there was a happy ending; but there seemed to be nothing in it for either Osprey or eagles.

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Peregrine Falcon

October 13 2014. Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, Virginia.  The Eastern Seaboard of the USA can be characterised in any number of ways, for millions it’s somewhere to live and work, for birders it’s the Atlantic Flyway; a migration pathway followed by millions of birds. I spent a little time today on one of the hotspots along the Atlantic Flyway, on the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, a long stalactite of abundantly fertile land that separates the teeming waters of Chesapeake Bay from the vast spread of the Atlantic Ocean.

The thing about this long finger of land (and Cape May, its little brother to the north), is that it’s a great birding destination. Most of the Delmarva Peninsula is in Maryland but the southern tip lies in Virginia, not that it makes much difference to the flyway. Away from the Atlantic or Chesapeake Bay shorelines, the land is intensively farmed on wide, flat fields of cotton, beans and sweet potatoes. Dense stands of oak, Sweet-gum and Tulip Trees, impenetrably tangled with vines and briars, encircle the fields, making them suffocatingly hot for many long summer weeks.

Tree SwallowsThis southern tip is alive now with migrating birds. I watched large passing flocks of Tree Swallows, hundreds strong and tailed by hopeful Merlins, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks. At lower levels I could hear small birds chipping and calling in the bushes and trees and just above the horizon were groups of drifting Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures.

Tree Swallows

Tree Swallows

But I set out to tell of the Peregrine Falcons seen today. The first one passed low over our car and was noteworthy simply because, like all Peregrines, it flew as if it owned the skies; the second one, much later, was quite a different experience.

The tip of the Delmarva Peninsula is connected to mainland Virginia by a twenty-and-a-bit miles long bridge and tunnel combination; mostly bridge. The bridge-tunnel links the north and south shores of the mouth of Chesapeake Bay where it opens to the Atlantic Ocean.  Needless to say it is a very commercially important and strategically vital waterway. On a fine day it’s an easy drive, a touch tedious at times, but if you like ocean views and the thought of the engineering task that made it all possible, it’s a rather thrilling experience; but I imagine an approaching hurricane makes it a quite different story. As we drove across, a steady east wind was blowing and Great Black-backed Gulls were riding on the ridge of wind deflected upwards by the bridge structure. To drive north and be passed by a southbound gull surfing a wave of rising air just a few feet away and at eye-level was to make me wish I could stop for a dramatic photo. But while such a picture could be magnificent if done well, stopping to get it would be dangerous and thoroughly illegal.
But the greatest picture, held only in my mind’s eye, was of a Peregrine Falcon, my Bird of the Day, seen streaking south along that same pathway of rising air and, I like to imagine, looking each car driver in the eye as they passed.

Blue-headed Vireo

10 October 2014. Cayuga ON.  I make no apologies for celebrating a Blue-headed Vireo as my Bird of the Day even though I did so just a couple of weeks ago. Quite simply, today’s vireo met the standard that it, among all of the day’s birds, made me think Wow!

This time of year is a birding roller coaster, the weather is changeable, birds are migrating in enormous numbers and trees are shedding their leaves. I was at the bird observatory all morning, there was a touch of frost first thing, but by midday it was almost T-shirt weather. Our expansive meadows are knee-deep in what were once bright flowers but are now billions of seeds for American Goldfinches, House Finches and Song Sparrows, and there are trusses of wild grapes drawing in squalling flights of American Robins and young Cedar Waxwings; it’s time to fatten up .

My census round seemed quiet at first but here and there I could hear (and sometimes see) White-throated Sparrows or their close cousins White-crowned Sparrows. I watched two Northern Flickers high in a Shagbark Hickory feasting on Poison Ivy berries. (A couple of side notes: Our local sub-species of Poison Ivy is a high-climbing woody vine, unlike the more northerly ground-hugging version which rarely grows more than a metre high. I doubt any rational person would venture to eat the berries but clearly many other creatures are unaffected. After all, berries are the way they are in order to be eaten by something.) I noted a few Yellow-rumped Warblers foraging and it wasn’t until near the end of the census route that I found the Blue-headed Vireo. It seemed quite unmoved by the mini-crisis that was being whipped up by a small group of Black-capped Chickadees and a handful of anxious Chipping Sparrows. The vireo just went on about its business of gleaning insects from the inner branches of an American Basswood. I stood to watch and enjoy it for a while although it was never still for very long but I was able to get this satisfying action photo.

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue-headed Vireo

Merlin

8 October 2014. Burlington ON. I didn’t go looking for birds today; there are other things in life. But the day nevertheless ended with a lucky and spectacular sighting, a Merlin; I’m sure it saw me long before I saw it.

I have been helping a friend who is seeking election to the local city council. We spent much of the afternoon knocking on doors and as afternoon was turning into rush hour, I stopped to install one of her ‘Vote For Me’ signs on a strategic corner. I had finished the job and was just putting my tools away when I glanced up and noticed a good-sized bird sitting atop a utility pole. I knew immediately that it was a falcon and a quick binocular check told me that it was a Merlin.

Two things about Merlins: they terrify smaller birds and they make flying look easy. It’s a little difficult to be sure, but I think the back is bluish enough to make this a young male, but male or female, young or adult, a Merlin would be Bird of the Day any day of the year .

I admired it for a while and then decided that it was worth the gamble of driving home to get my camera; normally I wouldn’t bother, few birds stay in one place for very long. But Merlins are hunters that pounce on the unsuspecting and are inclined to sit and wait for an opportunity. Home was a two-minute drive away (maybe five in rush hour), the question was whether it would wait long enough.

Well, it did. I returned and was able to take many photos that capture both the hunter and the vulnerable inner individual, just another creature struggling to survive. As I returned to my car, I turned for one last shot and caught the moment of its take off.

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The photos in the gallery above is visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

Northern Parula (warbler)

6 October 2014. Cayuga ON. I thought for a while that today’s Birds of the Day would be a pair of Turkey Vultures seen high on the stark limbs of a dead oak, waiting for flight conditions to improve. They were quite picturesque in a funereal sort of way and since the day started blustery with rain threatening they seemed to complete the picture; but then the sun came out.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

And with the sun came loads of interesting, mostly migrant, birds. Before setting out on the daily census we had seen Tennessee, Cape May and Magnolia Warblers. The census got off to a good start with a Sharp-shinned Hawk trying to brush off a pestering American Crow. Soon after that, I found myself close to a busy group of White-throated Sparrows who were being watched by a couple of Gray Catbirds in much the same way that long-term residents might keep an eye on an erratic family moving in next door. An Eastern Phoebe, a Cape May Warbler, a Brown Creeper and a Black-throated Green Warbler all made me pleased to be out in the woods on this (now) bright and gusty day.

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A number of times during the census I seemed to be enveloped in a wave of small birds. I could hear tiny, high frequency pips and tseeps, my eyes were drawn to quick movements, many of which turned out to be falling leaves, but I had the greatest trouble really identifying what I was seeing – if I could see it. Too often it was a vanishing glimpse or a half view, although half views can sometimes be interpreted later from a decent photo. And it was while trying for such a photo that I found myself with a surprise Bird of the Day. I was hoping to get enough information to identify this bird.Golden-crowned Kinglet. RP

Which I now think it was a Golden-crowned Kinglet. But in my scramble to get a quick snapshot, I got this instead, a Northern Parula.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

Birders get excited about parulas.  It’s not that they’re particularly rare, but that they are a standout among a family of generally beautiful little birds. A male in spring, like the one below, taken in Cape May last spring, presents with an almost alarming coat of many colours: slate-blue, black, white, orange and an intense chestnut; so striking! Today’s bird was not as eye-popping though, but it nevertheless surprised and heart-warmed me.

Northern Parula Cape May

Northern Parula Cape May

Bald Eagle

3 October 2014. Cayuga ON.  A warm and blustery wind from all points south pulled leaves from trees and blew them around like well, snow. It should have been a tough day for birds, had it been my choice (as a bird) I would have stayed low. But who am I to call the shots? The census at the bird observatory had its interesting moments, it seemed to be a woodpecker day because we found three each of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Northern Flickers, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Another immense flock of blackbirds, mostly Common Grackles, traced the course of the river. They were impossible to count as they streamed by, large squadrons sometimes splitting off to connect with other flights on the opposite bank.

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Looking upriver I glimpsed a large bird dip down towards the river surface then peel away to vanish behind a willow. Osprey, I thought. But no, it was a young Bald Eagle. It came back into view, close to the river surface again, its bright yellow legs lowered and reaching, without luck, to snatch a meal, then wind-tossed, it peeled up and away like a war kite. That pause while it was behind the willow gave me time to get my camera ready and I managed to get a few shots, not great ones, but enough to be able to make out its white under-wings, the mark of a bird hatched just this year. Battling and playing with the wind like that, dipping and soaring, sometimes a victim of the wind other times master of it, this baby Bald Eagle was my Bird of the Day.