I’m off to Kazakhstan for a couple of weeks. I’ll be part of a group studying the migration of birds through Chokpak Pass in the Tien Shen Mountains. I expect that just about every bird will be my bird of the day. The chances of posting anything while I’m there are virtually zero, but there will be lots to write about on my return.
August 28, 2016. Shoreacres Park, Burlington, ON. One of the things that birders get to understand and even anticipate is the waves of migrant movements. We expect spring’s Baltimore Orioles to arrive in the first week of May, Whimbrels around May 24th and the departure of Yellow Warblers by August 15th; plus or minus.
I was out this morning just to see what might be hanging around one of our leafier parks. Earlier this week it had been very busy with countless here-today-gone-tomorrow migrants, but not today. Oh, there were a few: American Redstarts, a much photographed Yellow-billed Cuckoo and a young Gray Catbird pestering its parent, but best of all lots of Warbling Vireos.
Many would think the Yellow-billed Cuckoo must surely be my Bird of the Day, but it was way too high to really enjoy and I got more pleasure listening to the Warbling Vireo’s cascading, throwaway song. Lasting two or three seconds, it’s a lazy summer sound that drifts endlessly in the urban forest canopy, a counterpoint to the electric buzz of cicadas.
Regular readers of this will remember that I have a soft spot for all vireo species. They are rarely flashy, usually unassuming and faintly predatory. Of all of them the Warbling Vireo is the least boldly marked or colourful, it is overall a plain olive to beige, nothing eye-catching.
At the park this morning I could hear Warbling Vireos singing from every quarter, they were so numerous that I felt sure I was in the midst of a migratory wave. A check of a couple of references showed that they start their southward move in early August and are all gone (more or less) by mid September. Best to make the most of them now.
And as for cuckoos? See July 19th.
August 25, 2016. Eastport Dr, Hamilton, ON. I enjoyed watching three Red-necked Phalaropes today; they easily pushed a Lesser Scaup, some Ruddy Ducks and a distant telescope view of a Stilt Sandpiper aside to be my Birds of the Day.
There are only three phalarope species in the world: Red, Red-necked and Wilson’s. The first two breed in the Arctic latitudes of Eurasia and North America, while the Wilson’s breeds across the central and north plains of North America. All spend the winter in equatorial regions. Red Phalaropes are rarely seen inland but the other two make regular but often-overlooked appearances in Ontario; for that I count us lucky because, as I’ve noted before, pharalopes are in the fine china category of shorebirds.
There is something very compelling about phalaropes. They are shorebirds, but unlike most of their relatives they swim rather than parade, pick and poke along the waters-edge. And then there’s the name – phalarope; a touch aristocratic sounding like pharaoh. But my handy authority on bird names says it’s from the Greek “…. phalaris, “ a coot”: Gr. pous, “foot”; hence “coot-footed” for the lobes on the toes like the foot of a coot.” Oh well, maybe not so aristocratic.
There were reportedly six or maybe eight of them in a large enclosed pond adjacent to the nearby industrial harbour. When I showed up most of them were out of sight, sheltered behind a large pile of earth and debris but I managed to get one or two passable shots. Here’s the best of them.
August 21, 2016. Leslie Street Spit, Toronto ON. I took the bait to go and chase a rare species today. That’s twice in a little over a month: in July it was for Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, today for a Common Ringed Plover. I wasn’t all that excited about the plover since I’d seen some a few years ago in England, but a gentle arm-twisting got me out of the house despite a bit of weariness lingering from a long late-night drive.
Common Ringed Plovers are, as their name suggests, very common, just not here. They are a Eurasian species that looks very much like our Semi-palmated Plover, shown in the photos below (and a Killdeer for comparison and scale). Semi-palmated Plovers are frequent passage migrants on their way to overwinter along the shores of the Atlantic and Caribbean.
Several dozen gregarious birders and I gathered in a knot watching the Ringed Plover about a hundred meters distant. It’s a small bird and was hard to make out as it skittered around socializing with Least Sandpipers, Killdeers and the odd yellowlegs. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the other shorebirds, and I’m not sure anyone else did either; I suppose we were too distracted by this Bird of the Day.
Ringed Plovers nest across the northern-most reaches of Eurasia, on the coast of Greenland and on the far reaches of Canada’s Baffin Island; they winter in Africa. It makes sense to assume that today’s Ringed Plover was a Baffin Island nester that has made a gross navigational error and finds itself some 90 degrees off course. I took many photos, mostly for the record, but a strong wind and the distance involved made for a large batch of ‘deletes’. The one below is barely good enough to include (try clicking on the photo to enlarge it) but you’ll get the general idea from the Semi-palmated Plovers pictures above.
The setting for this gathering to examine a wandering bird-turned-extreme-rarity was a long spit of reclaimed land anchored at its east end to a corner of Toronto’s old industrial heartland and reaching out into Lake Ontario. The Spit, as it’s known, continues to grow as construction debris and excavated sub-soils arrive. As the trucks leave so trees and grasses take root making it a very green and leafy place popular with runners, cyclists and birders. It is a natural shoreline conduit for migrating birds and we noted many Eastern Kingbirds, Tree Swallows and Barn Swallows making their way heading south and west, and there was a brief flurry of excitement among the smaller birds as a Sharp-shinned Hawk cruised overhead, I half expected the Ringed Plover to fly away never to be seen again; but it stayed, making a day-long parade of birders happy.
August 11 2016. Valley Inn Hamilton ON. There has been quite a bit of buzz in the local birding community about a Great Blue Heron – a melanistic Great Blue perhaps. Or did it get dunked in old oil somehow ? That was the question. A debate followed for a day or two and in the end I think the consensus was for melanism over motor oil. “ Melanism is a development of the dark-coloured pigment melanin in the skin or its appendages and is the opposite of albinism. “ Thanks internet.
Oiled versus melanism has a bit of history among birders. Every now and then a puzzle of a bird turns out to have been oiled somehow. Goodness knows we’ve all seen sad pictures of hapless waterfowl who unwittingly (and usually terminally) become engulfed in oil. Ken Kauffman, eminent American birder and author of one of the best field guides to North American birds, tells about rushing to Brigantine Wildlife Reserve, New Jersey, to see a Spotted Redshank, a lanky, dark-plumaged European shorebird which would be a rare treat for those who work hard at catching up with random rarities. On arrival at Brigantine (by hitchhiking – it was 1973) Kauffman was surprised to find no other birders; something was clearly wrong. Was the redshank long gone? Checking the guest book at the visitor information centre, he found and read a long, painstakingly careful analysis by one of America’s pre-eminent ornithologists of the day concluding that the Spotted Redshank was actually a Greater Yellowlegs (not a rarity) that had somehow settled into an oily pond and besmeared its plumage.
I spent a bit of time watching our unusual heron today and my preference is for an unspoiled bird that is just a little darker than normal; I don’t think it has had an oily mishap. All of its feathers appear to be clean and in good condition, not matted or misshapen; Its face and bill are the right colour for a Great Blue Heron, not in the slightest bit discoloured and; It appears to be behaving normally. Melanistic yes, oiled no.
So what do we have, other than an intriguing bird of the day? Certainly a young heron hatched this year; it is probably less than four months old and still dressed in its first basic plumage. Young Great Blue Herons are normally a dark, rather monochromatic, brownish. Today’s bird is not so different from ‘normal’, it’s a bit darker than average and lacking some of the pale brownish definition on feathers of the neck and wing that might otherwise make it more mottled. By late this year the grey-blue adult feathers will start to appear. It will be interesting to see if this bird survives the winter to return to this area and if it does, whether it shows any discernable darkness in its adult plumage.
This gallery (visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.) holds a number of shots of today’s bird and a couple of other youngsters and (for interest’s sake) some mature adults. See if you like my conclusions.
July 29 2016. Rockton ON. Not quite so hot today, the temperature stayed well below 30 deg.C even in the middle of the afternoon, a welcome improvement over the last two or three weeks. Given this little reprieve, I opted to walk the length of a road that bisects a large and usually bird-productive marsh, a place known for Sora, Virginia Rails, American Bitterns and sometimes Least Bitterns; but not today. It was as if a flat cloud of ennui had fallen over the place, not a bird moved anywhere. Although not terribly surprised I was a little dismayed to see that the marsh was dry, all the open water had retreated. I made myself feel better thinking it would still be a very squishy underfoot, although I’m not sure why you’d want to find out; there would be plenty of water snakes in there somewhere.
The faint cough of a Common Raven registered in the back of my mind so a little later when I saw a large bird sailing low over a distant pine forest I expected it to be the raven. Through binoculars I followed its course and as it reappeared I changed my mind, not a raven – a Red-tailed Hawk maybe. Then no. Not a red-tail either, but what? Its appearance was slighter, almost trim. It wheeled in a flat turn and I could see its fanned tail had a conspicuous dark terminal band (actually sub-terminal if you were to look closely) – a Broad-winged Hawk. Then another joined it and together they flirted: wheeling, turning and passing, gaining height (though not too much) and drifting slowly north-west away from the woodland’s centre.
Broad-winged Hawks usually travel a little further north of here to breed, so today’s birds were something of a surprise; a true Bird of the Day pleasant surprise. They are a common summer hawk around some areas of the recreational, mixed and boreal forests of central and northern Ontario. But here? Today? Why not, this large woodland could well be suitable for them. I’ll be watching for them next year.
In mid September right after the passage of an early cold front, large, sometimes massive, aggregations of Broad-winged Hawks start heading south and west making their way to Central and South America. Their fall flight is a spectacle to watch for, hundreds of Broad-wings sailing high overhead as if on a smooth, straight highway. It usually happens over a very few days in mid September and if missed well, there’s always next year, it’s already on the agenda.
July 19 2016. LaFarge Trail. Flamborough, ON. Summer birding can be slow going. Today as I walked another stretch of the same trail as two days ago, it almost seemed as though birds had all been vacuumed up, it was so quiet. My eventual turn-around point was an expansive marsh where I was happy to get a couple of glimpses (but just barely glimpses) of Virginia Rails and I thought they might end up as the highlights of my day. But as I sat hoping one of the rails would reappear, a Northern Waterthrush stalked me cautiously for a while. I wasted too much time fumbling with my crossed over binoculars and camera that the waterthrush was long gone by the time I had my camera primed for a lucky photo.
Much later I stepped off the trail for a while to follow the songs of Vesper Sparrows drifting from a dry, scrubby pasture. Sitting quietly in welcome shade, I watched a pair of Eastern Kingbirds flitting to and from a small tree in which I assumed they had a nest with hungry young. Vesper Sparrows patrolled all around me and I heard the soft clucks and coos of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
Both the Yellow-billed Cuckoo and its close relative the Black-billed Cuckoo, tend to be secretive, or at least stealthy, it’s easy to get confused distinguishing one species from the other, but whichever you find it’s always something of a triumph to see one. They prefer the canopies of forests so are a very special treat to watch at close quarters. Both cuckoo species are understated and tastefully dressed birds. A dash of chestnut in primaries and the yellow lower mandible set the Yellow-billed apart from its cousin.
The approaching cuckoo seemed to regard me with both suspicion and interest, it came close a few times, clucked quietly to itself and stayed long enough for me to get a few nice shots. In all the time I enjoyed its company, the pair of Eastern Kingbirds watched from a distance, commenting softly to each other with a chatter sound like a marble rolling around an empty tin can, and Vesper Sparrows continued to sing intermittently. Summer birding is at its best when you fall into a quiet experience like this one.
As I covered the last hundred meters of my walk, a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak emerged from a bordering thicket; always a notable bird. But this one was in the throes of molting out of its spring breeding plumage and taking on the drab browns and cream that are the dress-code of the females and young. I’ve include two photos: today’s bird (above) and another very splendid male photographed just two months ago. All that molting effort (it demands a lot of energy to grow a new suit of plumage) is invested into the bird’s two or three most important months.
July 17 2016. LaFarge Trail. Flamborough, ON. On a very wet camping expedition some years (actually decades) ago I remember being puzzled by a curious, rhythmic scraping sound, like a coarse file practicing on a sheet of corrugated steel. It came from a nearby field and although I was puzzled by it, my friend confidently informed me it was a gleanie. A gleanie it turned out is, or was, vernacular for a Guinea Fowl.
Just to ensure we’re all on the same page, a Guinea Fowl looks like a dark, spotted and portly chicken on silly legs. Apparently they make decent eating and their eggs are substantially richer than those of chickens. But for all of that it seems they are kept for entertainment more than anything else, in this part of the world anyway. Perhaps in sub-Saharan Africa, their homeland, they have other fates.
I came across a small group of Guinea Fowl today and for clarity I believe they were Helmeted Guinea Fowl, a distinction worth making for there are several species. As far as I can tell, this is the only domesticated species.
What made these exotic birds my Birds of the Day was not so much seeing them, but the way it all came together, the convergence of idle thoughts and reality; just serendipity.
I had hiked the length of a hilly woodland trail and had turned to retrace my steps when I heard a sound, maybe a bird call, possibly a cuckoo or possibly not a bird at all. It was a puzzle that occupied maybe three seconds of my brain-space and was gone. A steep hill-climb and descent later I once again heard an odd sound, it reminded me of that wet camping experience, a repetitive scraping sound.
Gleanies! I thought,- I wondered. But who would keep gleanies here? Unless you could herd them back to a safe house every night, they’d soon be lost to foxes, coyotes or even raccoons. Unless, well maybe, if you had a guardian animal, perhaps a donkey. I’d read or heard that donkeys are useful as vigilant, noisy and belligerent overseers of a flock of sheep. It was another thought train that ran a short course and easily gave way to more immediate concerns like biting mosquitoes.
The trail led past a rather untidy field of erratic enclosures, hardly fences, and far to the right a donkey stood quietly grazing. It brought back that thought about security donkeys and gleanies. And then – there were gleanies running around! Four or five of them. So there it was: fifty year-old memories, donkey mythology and gleanies – or more properly Helmeted Guinea Fowl.
July 13, 2016. Bayfront Park, Hamilton ON. July could always do with a bit of avian excitement and providence provided some today in the form of a small group of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. Perhaps I too often make the point that I’m not much for moving very fast to chase unusual species’ sightings, well the truth of it is that sometimes the pull is irresistible.
Early this hot afternoon I happened to click on the link to our local birding list-serve to read that Black-bellied Whistling Ducks had been found not too far from home. Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, now that’s a bit of a sensation and turns out to be a first for our study area. Black-bellied Whistling Ducks breed in Louisiana and southern Texas and winter in coastal Mexico; yet here they are in southern Ontario, most strange! Apparently hunters leave them alone, they’re not good eating, and as a consequence their population is growing, perhaps we’ll see more of them in future years.
I was maybe half way to the reported site when it occurred to me that I hadn’t checked the time and date of the report, maybe it was yesterday’s news and stale-dated already, maybe I’d get there only to plod around in the scorching July sun for no reward. As it turned out it was a very fresh report and quite a group of birders had gathered to enjoy an intimate moment with the birds that were loafing just offshore from a sandy beach in a well-used park.
A somewhat opinionated local joined the throng to see what the excitement was all about and shared the slightly disturbing, if intriguing, view that they’d been around the area for two weeks. The very fact of the whistling ducks’ presence and this nugget of local information reminded us that birds, common and rare, are all around; what it takes is someone who knows what he or she is looking at to add to the body of knowledge.
As an aside I have to commend the good folks at Nikon Canada for effecting what looked like an enormously expensive repair to my camera for around $150. Today was my second opportunity to put the camera through its paces again. I’ve added a couple of shots of the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks; almost sophisticated looking birds I think you might agree.