Barn Swallow

17 April 2014. Cayuga ON. It took some debate to decide on Bird of the Day. I thought Barn Swallow because it was, for me, the first this year of these handsome summer aristocrats. My companion though, favoured a male American Kestrel seen (and photographed) carrying a writhing snake to its Waterloo; that was my second choice. But then there was a handful of maybes to consider too: A shy, first of the year Hermit Thrush; A high, almost out of sight, Broad-winged Hawk; A single Bank Swallow skimming the river and tangled up with dozens of Tree Swallows; A pretty little Blue-gray Gnatcatcher or even a handsome leaf-tossing Eastern Towhee. All tough competitors and certain to make the cut another day, but in the end I opted for the Barn Swallow because it made me say Wow!

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee

We found the Barn Swallow in the course of doing the daily census at the bird observatory. It was a full morning with bird songs (or in some cases bare utterances) all around, including Eastern Tufted Titmouse, Field Sparrows, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Northern Cardinals and Slate Coloured Juncos.

Barn Swallows. July 20 2012

Barn Swallows. July 20 2012

The river has been very high for the past couple of weeks, two days ago its flood-plain was just that, flooded. Now as the levels are receding, the birds are finding lots of insect meals. We watched as thirty or so Tree Swallows zipped around picking at the river’s surface and it was in this almost impossible to follow multitude, that I picked out the Bank Swallow, and to my clear delight, my Bird of the Day a female Barn Swallow.

Barn-Swallow.

Barn-Swallow.

Here are a couple of photos (courtesy of Renata Sadowska) of the American Kestrel with its still-writhing lunch.

Kestrel and Garter Snake Copyright R Sadowska.

Kestrel and Garter Snake Copyright R Sadowska.

Kestrel and snake Take off.  Copyright R Sadowska.

Kestrel and snake Take off. Copyright R Sadowska.

Double-crested Cormorant

16 April 2014. Hamilton ON. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who’s a fan of cormorants. Well maybe in China and Japan where tethered cormorants are used to catch fish for their masters. But in North America anyway, cormorants are variously seen as: ugly, dirty, destructive of fish stocks and a population out of control. While any of these may be true to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the subjectivity of your opinion, they are a bird (which is good) and supremely adapted to their environment. Sitting in my kayak, I’ve watched them dive and then followed the trail of fine bubbles that betrays their underwater course. Although I could never develop a warm feeling for them, I did admire them.

Today, taking my car to get an oil-change, I had a great opportunity to watch Double-crested Cormorants at close quarters when I stopped at a cluster of harbour-side trees which has been home to a large breeding colony for many years. This is a particularly active time of the year because the cormorants are forming pair bonds, claiming nest sites and making sure that everyone within pecking range understands exactly where he or she belongs in the colony’s societal structure. I also wanted to get a closer look at the so-called crest that makes up part of their name, a feature that is rarely easy to see.

...and suddenly they all started singing the Hallelujah Chorus

…and suddenly they all started singing the Hallelujah Chorus

I didn’t have a lot of time and the passing traffic was a little disconcerting, but it was quite fascinating to watch flamboyant nest-site displays. Lots of bill-clacking, neck-stretching and wing-arching. There were also birds sitting quietly, some adding twigs to nest platforms and others apparently already incubating eggs – or maybe just resting.

bashful Double-crested Cormorant

bashful Double-crested Cormorant

 

They were easy to photograph and it wasn’t until I downloaded the photos that I realized just what terrific birds these are. The cascading plumage of its back ending in a tense fan of a tail, the hooked fish-gripping beak, the orange and yellow of the gular pouch and supraloral skin are all quite arresting. As Pete Dunne in his excellent reference book, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion (click here for more) says, “The body language more than the face seems sinister. (At close range the shocking blue eyes of the adults are more arresting than sinister.) The “double crests”, suggestive of shaggy horns, are present only in the breeding season and are difficult to see.”

In anticipation that you can get past the bad rap these birds have, I hope you enjoy my photos.

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Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

14 April 2014. Cayuga ON. I spent the morning at the bird observatory where a blustery south wind kept bird life a little quieter than it might otherwise be. It was probably an average sort of early-April morning, which means that aside from the weather, there were noticeable changes to the bird mix and, for the sharp-eyed, a few early ephemeral woodland plants emerging through the leaf litter.

My census round turned up several interesting sightings. I spotted four Common Loons flying hard against the buffeting winds.  Because they’re very light-coloured, almost white below, my first impression was that of Common Mergansers, but Loons are distinctive in flight and I quickly changed my mind. In flight, loons’ necks, heads, legs and feet appear to sag lower than their body, as if a single thread suspends the bird.  It’s more of an illusion than reality, probably caused by the contrast between the light underparts and dark upper body and wings.  There’s a couple of very nice photos illustrating this here: Common Loon | NorthNW | Lake Erie birding

A flight of perhaps thirty Bonaparte’s Gulls passed by.  We sometimes see them in spring when farm fields are flooded (as they are now) where they congregate to feed at the water’s edge.  Bonaparte’s Gulls are rather dainty fliers; they’re quite a bit smaller than our familiar Ring-billed Gull (plenty of them around the flooded fields too) and have a black head that makes them look rather classy. The Black-headed Gull of Europe and the Laughing Gull of the Atlantic coast have black heads too, it’s a designer touch for gulls. Here’s a bunch of Laughing Gulls, see if you agree.

Laughing Gulls. Cape May N.J.

Laughing Gulls. Cape May N.J.

As the morning was drawing to an end with the first spots of rain spoiling our fun, we started closing the mist nets.  It was then that I came across my Bird of the Day, a newly arrived Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a stylish bird at any time, but this one, a male in breeding plumage, is really chic. On the photos below you can see quite clearly the black forehead/eyebrow line that gives it a rather Latin rakishness I think. It’s just a wee mite of a bird, weighing in at a mere six grams, the same as a kinglet, less than a dollar coin.  Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are not common, but they’re not rare either; more unseen and easily overlooked as they seem to favour treetops, particularly near water.  An early mentor of mine described them as reminiscent of a miniature mockingbird with the same grayish tones, long tailed proportions and the way they flash their white outer tail feathers.  In the hand though, its adjectival name, Blue-gray  is very apparent. And they have a real tongue-twister of a scientific name, Polioptila caerulea, apparently constructed from the Greek: polios “gray” and ptilon “feather” ,as the primaries are edged in grey – and Latin caerula “blue” for the blue back.  Lots about this bird to enjoy, an easy Bird of the Day.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

 

Louisiana Waterthrush

11 April 2014. Cayuga ON. I’ll get straight to the point.  Bird of the Day today was a Louisiana Waterthrush; a REALLY big deal – particularly to those who pay close attention to rarities and early arrivals.  I’m quick to admit that what follows won’t excite everyone but for those of us at the bird observatory today it was (I repeat) a REALLY big deal.  Here’s why.

Waterthrushes, there are two species Northern and Louisiana, are warblers, not very colourful and a little oddball when it comes to behaviour and appearance. Warblers, or so I believed, arrive in May and late April, not early April.   I’m well acquainted with the  Northern Waterthrush, it’s a fairly common summer resident around here, choosing wet woodlands as its habitat.  Unless you’re quite at ease with mosquito country you’re not going to run into many of them.  The Louisiana Waterthrush is a bit of a stranger to me, it’s a much sought after bird, a species of special concern, rarely seen in Ontario and known to breed in just a handful of locations. It too inhabits wet woodlands; I saw my first one ever last May, far from home, and only by joining a keen group led by an even keener local specialist.

Louisiana Waterthrush

Louisiana Waterthrush

Well, I found the Louisiana Waterthrush along the flooded banks of a forest creek while conducting the daily census and thought at first that I’d found the more familiar (to me)  Northern Waterthrush.  An understandable mistake as the two species are very similar and well, what, I thought, are the chances of finding a Louisiana Waterthrush anyway?   Based on a long-shot photo by colleague Renata, Matt began to suspect that today’s bird might just be a Louisiana and, on further investigation, re-found it and took the photo above. Louisiana Waterthrush it is! To put a bit of perspective on it, below is a picture of a Northern Waterthrush, taken (by me) last year.  Not a lot of difference for sure but, on the Louisiana, the pale eyebrow line becomes wider behind the eye and the breast streaking is less dense.

Northern Waterthrush

Northern Waterthrush

We had several new-for-this-year birds:  A Horned Grebe on the river (rarely seen at the bird observatory); A high fly-over by a Sandhill Crane heard gurgling like a turkey long before being spotted, and; an American Kestrel that zipped past looking for lunch.  And that was the excitement for today, most of it anyway. Spring and sunshine produced some nice photo ops and these: two of a Tree Swallow confirming possession of a nest box and one of a male Eastern Bluebird, just speak of spring.

Tree Swallow at nest

Tree Swallow at nest

Tree Swallow at nest

Tree Swallow at nest

Eastern Bluebird (male)

Eastern Bluebird (male)

 

Northern Harrier

10 April 2014. Badenoch ON. I tried for more Rusty Blackbirds this afternoon but once again came up empty.  There were few small birds to be seen anywhere, it could well have been the howling force five westerly wind that did it.  The sky held many Turkey Vultures tossed around like loose garbage bags and in a quiet wooded pond I found two anxious looking pairs of Hooded Mergansers.

Osprey at Badenoch

Pair of Ospreys on nest platform

My search for Rusty Blackbirds took me past a dusty soccer pitch where, for many years, a pair of Ospreys has nested atop a floodlight structure.  Their overbuilt straggly nest survives from year to year and today, with the winter’s snow cover barely gone, both birds had returned and were crouching on it, facing into the wind and holding on. I watched for a while until one stood up, opened its wings and lifted off, in control despite the wind, going fishing.

A little further down the road as I scanned a wide marshy area I noticed a distant Northern Harrier rocking and sliding in the buffeting gale.  Sometimes it just works out that the bird I’m watching, instead of becoming more distant, draws closer and somehow holds a pose long enough for a decent photograph.  I’m not really talking about the easy shots like waterfowl or birds lured by ready food, but birds on the wing.  This Northern Harrier did it right for me, despite the pitching and bucking westerly; it came closer until, to my disbelief, it gave me time to arm the camera and get off a hopeful shot.

And so My Bird of the Day came to me on a platter, a glorious female Northern Harrier, here she is.

female Northern Harrier

female Northern Harrier

Eastern Bluebird

7 April 2014. Cayuga ON. On my daily census round at the bird observatory, I was pleased to spot a male Eastern Bluebird picking up food from the dry, flattened grass.  From among a list of thirty census species, the bluebird was, by a narrow margin, my Bird of the Day.  Dozens of Golden-crowned Kinglets and a couple of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were strong contenders, but I must have been in a greeting card, or maybe Walt Disney frame of mind to pick the birds that have become synonymous with sweethearts.

Bluebirds are rather difficult to approach; I’ve managed a couple of decent photos over the years but not today, unless you count this one, which is perhaps more artsy than anything.  Shooting against a bright sky is always problematic, and trying to persuade the camera to focus on the bird rather than a branch is another challenge. I wouldn’t say I was particularly successful but well, it has its appeal.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Other nice, but not necessarily notable, species included: Eastern Tufted Titmouse, three of them staking out territory; four Tree Swallows, five Northern Flickers (four of them heard but not seen); and a pair of Wood Ducks flying up river.

And then there were the Red-winged Blackbirds, male Red-wings arrive on our doorsteps almost as soon as winter’s ice starts to let go; they are one of the first signs of spring.  The females arrive a little later allowing the males a couple of weeks to sort out their territorial claims.  It’s an interesting process watching the males establish territories; the first to arrive will noisily claim ownership over an expanse of suitable habitat.  As more males arrive they squabble amongst themselves, flashing their red wing patches, chasing and repelling each other, all to loud musical pronouncements.  In time they divide up the whole area into territories defined like a jig-saw puzzle.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

This one was so busy trying to shout down another male that he hardly noticed me as I took a couple of shots of him in full voice.

Horned Grebes

6 April 2014. Bronte Harbour ON. This was a day of new(ish) sightings.  At the bird observatory, where I have returned to volunteer my time and talents through April & May, a low overhead male Northern Harrier caused a stir, a flock of some 40 or 50 Green-winged Teal circled and dropped down to the river, apparently just to settle a few squabbles before taking off and continuing upstream.  A pair of Ring-necked Ducks watched the teal from a quiet eddy, while over the opposite bank a two-year-old Bald Eagle soared just above the treetops.

In the afternoon I went to the marina, which, just a month ago, had been home to squads of Lesser Scaup, Redheads, White-winged Scoters, Trumpeter Swans and Red-breasted Mergansers.  A few of which still remain, but most have moved on making haste to their northern breeding grounds.  In their place, Red-necked Grebes and Horned Grebes have arrived.  The Horned Grebes still have a long way to go, they nest across much of the north-west of the continent: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon and Alaska.  The Red-necked Grebes, some of them at least, will breed right here in the marina on artificial platforms much to the entertainment and pride of local residents.  More about them in future weeks I’m sure.

Today’s highlights were the dozen or so Horned Grebes paddling around. They are part way through their spring moult changing from their drab grey/brown winter wear to the flamboyant breeding plumage seen almost complete on most of the birds in these pictures.  That head with its extravagant golden ear tufts, blood-red eyes and black chin is almost satanic.  The expanse of chestnut down the neck and flanks will fill in as the moult completes.  Pete Dunne in his excellent reference book, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion (click here for more) has this to say of the Horned Grebe; “Both males and females in breeding plumage are all dark with a swollen face (the bird looks like it has mumps) and a bright yellow, tightly bound wreath atop the head. From behind, the golden plumes resemble lobes or “horns”.  At closer range and in good light the neck is clearly chestnut red.” 

I often struggle for just the right adjective to describe an especially head-turning bird; I use elegant quite frequently but somehow don’t see it as quite fitting for the Horned Grebe.  Bizarre, no; Flamboyant, yes; Demonic maybe; Fascinating certainly.  Enjoy these pictures and decide for yourself.

Horned Grebe trio.  One still in very early stage of its spring moult.

Horned Grebe trio. One still in very early stage of its spring moult.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe

Tree Swallows

3 April 2014. Mountsberg Conservation Area. I decided to look for Rusty Blackbirds this morning.  There’s a continent-wide survey to try to get a better picture of the species’ migration patterns and I’m hoping by my efforts to add some data.  Not today though, I saw none.

However at a stop on the shoreline of a lake, really a damm-made reservoir, where the habitat is right for Rusty Blackbirds, I spotted a small group of Tree Swallows.  Tree Swallows are early returnees, they precede the other swallow species by several weeks and it’s usually cold, and to my mind too hostile for an insectivore, when the first spring arrivals show up.  They are inoffensive, insect eating, nest box users and the males’ backs shine a vivid purple/green gloss; altogether a beautiful little bird.  Here’s one from a warm spring day in 2010.

Tree swallow on nest box

Tree swallow on nest box

What made these birds extra special was that today is cold, close to zero degrees, and the lake was completely frozen over, but the swallows seemed to be finding food in the little puddles of melt-water.  They wheeled around and dipped occasionally to pick at something, I assume it was food, not just a sip of water.

Tree Swallow on ice

Tree Swallow on ice

The weather is supposed to improve markedly over the next days so, provided they’ve found enough to get by on, I think that starting tomorrow life will become a little easier for them.

Peregrine Falcon

3 April 2014.  To set the stage for today’s posting, I quote from the “About Me and This Collection” page, “I have this idea that whenever I go birding there’s always a Bird of the Day.  Even a miserable, cold, dank day will produce something special, and it doesn’t have to be rare to be special. Sometimes two or three birds are the highlights, but there’s always at least one, one that stands out because it made me think Wow!

I wouldn’t say that this was a miserable or dank or even particularly cold day but as birding days go it was a bit of a slog; but it had its highlights.

My first stop was the hawk-watch.  I thought that today’s overcast skies might bring the birds down to where we could get a better look at them rather than way up high against an endless expanse of blue. Well, the birds were perhaps a little lower, but if anything farther away from the lookout.  In any event after three quarters of an hour and a bunch of distant Red-shouldered, Red-tailed and Sharp-shinned Hawks I declared it not quite exciting enough and left.

I spent an hour or perhaps two patrolling the iced-over or sometimes waterlogged farm fields looking for ducks and geese. It took a while before I found the right place, and when I did, I sat comfortably in my car scanning distant congregations of Canada Geese (by the hundreds) Mallards (plentiful), perhaps a dozen Northern Pintails, two each of American Wigeon and American Black Ducks and a solitary Tundra Swan.  In this shot, (click on it to enlarge it) there are actually three pintails although two of them are quite  hard to make out.

N Pintails with Canada geese

N Pintails with Canada geese

Bird of the Day, the Wow! bird, was the casual sighting of a road-side Peregrine Falcon.  It obligingly allowed me a few photos.  Its destination, whether it will choose to breed on an inner-city office tower somewhere or a distant cliff face, is anyone’s guess.

Peregrine Falcon. A menacing stare

Peregrine Falcon. A menacing stare

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Lastly I stopped at one of our nastier industrial birding sites where, in the dubious waters of a canal, which counts as part of its headwaters the discharge from a sewage treatment plant, were dozens of Lesser Scaup, American Coots and Northern Shovelers.  I understand that those waters may be relatively warm and that the supply of invertebrate food is probably quite nourishing, but hanging around in waters like that can’t be good for a species’ reputation.

Lesser Scaup at take off

Lesser Scaup at take off

Northern Shovelers and Lesser Scaup

Northern Shovelers and Lesser Scaup

Footnote, a little off topic.  American Woodcock are early returns in the spring, usually just as the ground is softening up.  This link will take you to a fascinating video of an American Woodcock at its twilight display ‘song’,  And quite apart from its woodcock piece, The Miracle of Nature site is fabulous and well worth taking a look.

King Eider – male and spectacular!

1 April 2014 Hamilton Harbour ON.  I pay attention what birds are being seen around our area but rarely do I drop everything and go.  But this evening I happened upon a note that “a full blown adult male King Eider” had just shown up close to where I found the Pied-billed Grebe just five days ago.

I posted about a trio of King Eiders a few weeks ago, two females and a young male.  The thing is, those three were basically mottled brown; what birders yearn for is a male in breeding plumage, they are so absurdly spectacular.

So grabbing binoculars, camera and spare battery, and with the evening light failing, I made my way there as quickly as I could.  The bird was easy to find just a hundred yards or so offshore, Whether it will still be there in the morning remains to be seen, for as we looked across the water a tight flock of twenty or thirty scaup rose together, circled to gain height and headed away to the northwest.  The hundreds of thousands of bay ducks that crowded these waters just last week have diminished by perhaps 90%.  That avian Berlin Airlift I referred to is a very serious matter, it’s a dash to northern breeding grounds that cannot be delayed; the King Eider may well leave tonight.

. , and inasmuch as a picture is worth a thousand words, here it is.

King Eider

King Eider

King Eider

King Eider

King Eider

King Eider