Winter Wren

14 December 2014. Burlington ON. I walked a long muddy creek-side trail this morning resolving to repeat the route on a regular basis and record all birds seen and heard, tallying individual numbers as well as species. I find it more rewarding doing this sort of thing, I call it project-birding, studying, observing and recording birds as part of a greater effort rather than just list-ticking or aimlessly wandering. If my resolve holds, it will be a mini-study that will not only get me out of the house, but should also shed light on changes in the winter species mix from now until spring.

The day was overcast, dank and just a touch above freezing, we’d had drizzle earlier this morning and melting snow made it soggy underfoot; a gloomy December day.

My Bird of the Day, a single Winter Wren, was found towards the end of the walk. It was poking through a thick tangle of roots, branches and dried grasses in search of food. Dense piles of debris, upturned root-balls or tiny crevices are almost the exclusive preserve of Winter Wrens; most other birds are much too large. If they have to fly they do so in short bursts from one deeply inaccessible spot to another. They’re tiny, about the size (and shape) of a golf ball, but much more interesting.

Our Winter Wren used to be found more or less right around the temperate northern hemisphere, from coast to coast across North America and straddling the entire expanse of Eurasia. Recently, skeptical scientists, doubting that one species could possibly be so widespread, took a closer look and spoiled all the fun. They have decided that henceforth there are really three separate (though virtually identical) species, so now there’s the Eurasian Wren and, in North America, the Winter Wren and Pacific Wren.

Wrens are a New World family so undoubtedly the ancestor of all of them originated in North America. But the question is, did it the precursor species spread westward into Eurasia across the Bering Straits, or did it make its way east across the Atlantic somehow; or both? There are no answers to this yet, but whatever its origins it is a very successful creature.

Winter Wren

Winter Wren

For the most part, my other observations this morning were pretty much as expected: Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches and Mallards made up the majority of birds seen. A small group of Blue Jays became noisily agitated about something out of my line of sight and a pair of American Crows likewise started harassing the top of a White Pine, probably an an owl or hawk got them excited.

I enjoyed watching a large group of Slate-colored Juncos and American Tree Sparrows working over the seed-heads of a large expanse of faded goldenrod and a two male Northern Cardinals seemed to want to chase each other around but lacked conviction.

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I’ve added a few of pictures of Winter Wrens from summer days when they were more inclined to show themselves, particularly the singing one in the gallery above. I was able to use the video feature on my camera to capture some of its exuberant song, click this link to see and hear it.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

10 December 2014. Burlington ON. In past years I have offered food to our backyard birds but found that by December they’d all flown south and my urban neighbourhood became an avian wasteland; so I don’t do it much anymore. A touch paradoxical you might think, that a guy who clearly spends so much time in the study of birds doesn’t even hang up a piece of suet. Still, that’s the way it is. The upside is that my birding gets me out of the house.

But this morning, wandering into a back room, I look out to see a Sharp-shinned Hawk perched on the top rail of my back yard fence; It was certainly a wow! moment. It was looking around with quick movements, searching for food I imagine, and a few moments later it took off. Bird of the Day before the day had really got started.

Adult  Sharp-shinned Hawk. Blue/grey back and finely barred breast.

Adult Sharp-shinned Hawk. Blue/grey back and finely barred breast.

I frequently hear from people that a hawk of some kind had appeared from nowhere to seize a Morning Dove from their bird feeder. As often as not it’s about the explosion of dove feathers amid the carnage, but sometimes it’s a tale of woe and rage against the vile hawk. My bet is that the hawk of some kind is a Cooper’s Hawk (which have a preference for larger birds like mourning Doves) or maybe a Sharp-shinned Hawk (which, being smaller, will usually go for smaller birds like juncos); both are ambush hunters built to fly fast through dense woodlands and grab unwitting prey. Backyards with bird feeders are nothing if not well-stocked wintering habitat.

Sharp-shinned Hawk, a first year bird.  Brown back and wings, brown spots and streaks on chest.

Sharp-shinned Hawk, a first year bird. Brown back and wings, brown spots and streaks on chest.

Northern Parula

5 December 2014. Oakville ON.  If you’re looking for the perfect Christmas present for the birder in your life, you might want to consider a field trip to a sewage treatment plant; he or she will surely love it! These past two days, I’ve spent a couple of morning hours at a treatment plant not far from home; it has a lot going for it really: free parking, out of the wind and crowds are small.

I should probably explain. It’s not that birders really like the sewage treatment plant itself, it’s the unusual and unexpected birds that hang around there that make them special. The ponds of warmish, biological froth generate lots of flies and mosquitoey things which are perfect for small insectivorous birds. Apparently some birds on the fall migratory trek are seduced by this man-made warmth and food and, ignoring their instincts (which would be telling them they’ve got another two thousand kilometers to go) decide to hang around. If their gamble pays off they will have a head start next spring and could reach and claim prime breeding sites ahead of anyone else. But chances are that sooner or later the winter will bite really hard, the insect life will dwindle to nothingness and the birds will perish; it’s a gamble, maybe even a microcosm of evolutionary effort. The only probable winners are the birders who hold their noses and prowl the perimeter on the lookout for special birds; I was one of them.

I’d heard there were Winter Wrens, Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets and several warbler species to be found. I was lucky to see many of them and more besides; the best in many ways was a Northern Parula. Parulas are always breathtakingly beautiful, today’s bird certainly was. They can be devilishly difficult to photograph because they rarely stay still, usually hang around well above eye level and seem to bury themselves deep in the overhead foliage; today’s bird actually did quite the opposite and although it was hunting for food, it well, judge for yourself…

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(The parula is in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.) An Orange-crowned Warbler, a much overlooked and rarely encountered species was there too, as were a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Tennessee and a Wilson’s Warbler, all marvelous birds at any time.

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

I have posted lots more photos of the parula on another site where you can see them as full size files, to enjoy them click this link.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

2 December 2014. I have a favourite wooded valley, I’ve mentioned it many times before, most recently a couple of weeks ago in connection with my enjoyment of Black-capped Chickadees. The thing is, it’s close to home, sheltered from the worst of winter winds, full of birds and just a good place to walk around.

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So many walkers scatter seed along the trails that you can easily watch birds close up; anyone can take good photos of many perennially popular species like Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays. I spent a couple of hours there today and enjoyed watching those many always-expected birds and a few other common species like American Tree Sparrow, Belted Kingfisher and American Goldfinches. A solitary but wary Golden Crowned Kinglet came close and a couple of Purple Finches lingered for a moment.

But perhaps one of the best moments came when a hungry Red-bellied Woodpecker showed off its red belly and allowed me to get a couple of illustrative shots.

Red-bellied Woodpecker - and why it gets its name

Red-bellied Woodpecker – and why it gets its name

Red-bellied Woodpecker 1-2

The question is frequently asked why the Red-bellied Woodpecker is so named when clearly it has a red head, not a red belly. I guess there’s a two-part answer: Firstly, the thoroughly well named Red-headed Woodpecker already has the name; and secondly,the Red-bellied actually does have a reddish belly — even though you can hardly ever see it. I suspect some nineteenth century biologist who was holding a museum specimen belly-up in his hand, originally gave it the name. Still, it’s not the best choice, surely someone in that arcane corner of ornithology that dishes out names, can come up with something less misleading.

Downloading my morning’s photos I realized how the morning’s Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals and Red-bellied Woodpeckers discredit my earlier gripe about the lack of colour in this December world. It would be a bit much to post all of the day’s photos here, the ones above are quite enough. But if you’d enjoy more of today’s full colour, eye-popping birds in reds and blues, follow this link to another site, it’s where I sometimes post photo collections. Feel free to browse around it.

This post contains six photos in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

Rough-legged hawk.

30 November 2014. On a mild, yet monochromatic, day I walked various sometimes-birdy stretches of the perimeter of the large industrial harbour that dominates our local geography. It was warm enough but, the bright orange berries of Bittersweet notwithstanding, I was quite conscious of how much natural colour had drained away. It was, as I noted above, a monochromatic day.

Interestingly, the few bird species I made note of were low on colour too. To wit: Several Horned Grebes in their winter greys and whites instead of summer gold and chestnut; A Northern Mockingbird, always pearly grey; A handful of Hooded Mergansers, the young ones in dusky brownish grey and the handsome adult males in black and white; And a young Common Loon, so people-shy that it seemed reluctant to admit to any buoyancy, showing only its mottled grey brown back.

A howling west wind, whipping up whitecaps, kept a windsurfer happy and I watched him for a while. I wondered about the efficacy of his dry-suit, the cold on his exposed hands and face and the advisability of spending any time whatsoever doused in the waters of this famously polluted industrial harbour. As I turned to leave, I noticed a Rough-legged Hawk high overhead making its way efficiently against the wind. At first I thought I was a Northern Harrier because it was so strikingly long-winged. But through binoculars I could see the diagnostic black belly and under-wing patches that mark a Rough-legged Hawk. I suspect the effort and dynamics of flying into the wind accentuated the relative long-winged-ness of this species, a characteristic that gives them a rather languid, floppy appearance when hunting low over winter fields.

I was glad of this Rough-legged Hawk for adding some metaphorical colour to the day even though splotches of black had been the keys to my identification of it.

Pied-billed Grebe and Ruddy Ducks.

28 November 2014.  As October wears on and the birding just keeps on going, I invariably make a mental note that this winter I’ll be hardier, I’ll dress for the weather (whatever it may be) and I’ll be out there keeping active and birding. The thought that there will be many fewer birds doesn’t matter, it’ll be fine. Then the first bite of winter arrives and my resolve fades.

Today, after a morning of domestic errands, I faced a choice: Take a long walk sheltered from the icy wind and hope for some interesting lingering migrants, or head home for a hot lunch? I opted for lunch, but a bit of internal nagging directed me to make a few diversions along the lakeshore, just in case. It was hardly vigorous exercise but it turned out to be worthwhile.

My first stop was a marina that attracts lots of waterfowl. The inlets seemed to be choked with Mallards and a scattering of American Coots and Lesser Scaup. Then the anxious retreat of something smaller and rounder caught my eye, so I made my way to a better vantage point; and there I was able to watch and eventually photograph this Pied-billed Grebe.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

I was kind of enchanted because Pied-billed Grebes are rather enigmatic birds: they’re grebes, which should mean they have a certain subtle presence about them; but they don’t, they’re more chicken-like. When it comes to breeding season, when that stubby little bill turns whitish with a black band around it, (hence the name) Pied-billed Grebes hold their own; dowdy looking though they may be, they can howl like a banshee from within the obscure corners of cattail marshes. If you didn’t know what you were hearing, the territorial wails of a Pied-billed Grebe would stop you in your tracks. Cool birds.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

Nearly home, I parked for a moment to get a better look at rafts of small ducks bobbing just offshore; they turned out to be Ruddy Ducks. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re unduck-like, but that little stick-up tail does set them apart, in much the same way Pied-billed Grebes don’t quite fit the mould. Ruddy Ducks are part of a group called Stifftails, a collective name for any of several small, round ducks with short wings and long spiky tail feathers. The Ruddy Duck is the only North American member of the group (ignoring questionable sub-species); there are others (but not many) in South America, Europe and Africa.

Ruddy Ducks

Ruddy Ducks

At one time, our Ruddy Duck was seen as a valuable and ornamental addition to various wildlife parks in Europe. Once settled in, it began breeding furiously with its European cousin, the White-headed Duck, and in no time hybrids started to dominate the landscape and the pure White-headed Duck was in danger of genetic extinction. Culling the Ruddy Ducks, and presumably any obvious hybrids, and leaving Europe for White-headed Ducks has solved the problem. I recall from my trip to Spain in September that the sight of a White-headed Duck quite excited my tour group leader; they had indeed become nearly extinct. So we get to keep and admire our Ruddy Ducks and there they were today all bobbing around, heads tucked in apparently asleep.

Black-capped Chickadee

20 November 2014.  This was an unusually wintery day (and week) for mid November; but not without precedent I’m sure.  It was very much more like January, with permanent-looking snow on the ground and a wickedly cold wind that blew a couple of  Red-tailed Hawks around like old newspaper pages.

Wind blown Red-tailed Hawk

Wind blown Red-tailed Hawk

This wallop of cold came, as a river of frigidity, straight from the Arctic. It got started a couple of days ago and really picked up steam yesterday. Bitter winds swept the length of Lake Erie absorbing buckets of relatively warm moisture and then dropped it as snow on the hapless City of Buffalo; two metres of snow is a lot – even for winter-savvy Buffalo.

Bundled up in clothes that haven’t been out for nine months, I walked up through one of my favourite sheltered valleys. I had hoped for some unusual birds trying to make it through this hostility. Well, there were no strangers but our resident birds were happy to scavenge for handouts. This valley is part of semi-public lands (technically private, but open to the public as long as they stay on trails). It attracts many walkers and bird-feeders, particularly families on weekends.  The resident Black-capped Chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches have become quite tame and will feed from an outstretched hand. Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue Jays and Northern Cardinals are almost as bold; you can imagine how appealing this is to families with young children.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, chickadee & cardinal in early snow

Red-bellied Woodpecker, chickadee & cardinal in early snow

All of these birds were there, all of them hungry and engaging. But by far the most abundant were Black-capped Chickadees. Whenever I stopped to look around, they’d fly in and sometimes land on my hands for no apparent reason (other than the reasonable hope that I was offering food). I don’t have any idea how many Black-capped Chickadees live in this valley; it’s a lot, probably too many. Nor do I know how many of them are year-round residents or how many just come for the lean months.

Knowing, as we do, that birds migrate seasonally in pursuit of accessible food or breeding territory, it’s not hard to imagine that Black-capped Chickadees from miles around have always sought wintering spots like this valley for shelter and food. And this particular retreat with its superabundance of food well, it’s cute, but I think a touch unhealthy; too many birds of one species in one place.

Trumpeter Swans in snow squall

Trumpeter Swans in snow squall

Heading home, I stopped to scan the harbour waters, just in case. As I admired a group of snoozing Trumpeter Swans and a distant pair of Tundra Swans, a vigorous snow squall blew in drawing a grey curtain across the waters, coating my binoculars and sending me back to the warmth of my car and shortly thereafter, home. Nice for me, but no easier for wildlife.

Tundra Swans in snow squall

Tundra Swans in snow squall

American Pipits

17 November 2014. Burlington ON.  If the first snow of winter should occur overnight it can be a useful aid in getting a determinedly sleeping, school-aged boy awake and out of bed. “Hey, Graham! There’s snow outside!” And Bingo, he’s up! It usually worked once a year, sometimes twice.

Our children are long past that stage now but we still get first of the winter snowfalls; it came last night and continued all morning. I had early errands to do but stopped at a favourite spot to see how snow was affecting the birds.

Well, firstly, this was a day to be a photographer, the quiet wet snow had outlined everything to Christmas Card perfection. Secondly, a coating of snow makes life tough for birds; it’s easy to forget that, and at this time with many late migrants still around, their distress was obvious. The snow had driven them to search for food in places which previously they probably would have avoided. I was quite surprised by the number of sparrows, in particular, seen hanging around bare roadsides looking for food. Snow and hungry birds made for some great, if slightly clichéd, shots but the still-falling snow was wet and I had to be careful not to soak my camera. That same caution seemed to have kept the often-encountered opportunist photographers at home; I had the place to myself. Here in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email, are a few of today’s shots of adorable, if hungry, birds.

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It was while dodging and stepping carefully around puddles of slush, that I noticed the arrival of a group of what I took to be sparrows, land some distance away. I’d left my binoculars in the car (water on lens avoidance again) so wasn’t sure what I was seeing. So I took a couple of long shots for later scrutiny and promptly forgot about them, they soon flew away.

Later as I was reeling through the morning’s cutesy images, I came across those two quick-shots and almost exclaimed out loud. What are these? Oddly my first thought was Redwings, not Red-winged Blackbirds, but Redwings, a pretty little winter thrush of north eastern Europe. Well, clearly it wasn’t that, and it wasn’t until I got home that I was able to take a better look to confirm my second thought, American Pipits. Here they are.

American Pipits

American Pipits

American Pipits aren’t particularly rare, but being birds of open fields and shorelines, they just seem to slip by under the radar. They are closely related to the Old World wagtails and share much of their rather effervescent charm.  American Pipits winter well south of the Mason Dixon Line in the U.S.A, and breed in our far north far beyond the tree line; so for us they’re transients passing through and this is the right time of year to see them. While  not especially noteworthy to those who collect rarities, I was pleased to see them, my Birds of the Day.

Canvasback and Wilson’s Phalarope

14 November 2014. Hamilton and Burlington ON There has been a lot of fuss recently about a Wilson’s Phalarope lingering on some nearby mudflats and making itself generally available to those who would photograph or otherwise record its presence. In the course of some errands I found myself (An odd expression since I wasn’t lost!) close to its reported location, so made a short diversion to take a look. Well, there it was, exactly where everyone said, fluffed up, neck drawn down and hunched. It stood quietly with its back to a cold wind that owed more to January than November. I’ve got to admit that I was underwhelmed, feeling rather flat about this lovely little bird; maybe because there was no element of surprise in finding it, no wow! moment.

It did get up and run around for a while mixing in with squads of shuffling Green-winged Teal. Its slender, finely drawn features put it in the fine-china category of shorebirds, but dressed as it was in its winter greys and looking a little abandoned, it was well, nice but a little uninspiring. I think I quite unreasonably expected more of it.

Phalaropes are dainty little shorebirds; worldwide there are only three species, all of which breed in the northern reaches of North America, two of the three in Ontario. Wilson’s Phalaropes head to western South America for our winter, they gather in tens of thousands at highly saline lakes in the highlands of central Andes in Peru, Chile and Bolivia. The time to see them at their best is on their return spring journey when the females in particular are extremely showy. One of the pictures in the gallery below (visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email) includes many spring plumage Wilson’s Phalaropes, it was taken by a companion in El Salvador in May of 2013.

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Later in the day I stopped briefly to see what waterfowl had shown up in the harbour; it will soon be a mass of wintering ducks, species like Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead and Greater Scaup. In my brief scan I quickly picked up Trumpeter Swans, Red-breasted Merganser, Redheads and Canvasbacks, all nice birds. It’s not that I’m comparing Canvasbacks to Wilson’s Phalaropes, but the delight of seeing a Canvasback, a rather highborn looking duck, had that little wow! moment that made it, in some ways, a real Bird of the Day rather than the oh-yeah-there-it-is-ness of the earlier phalarope.

Canvasbacks in Christmas snowstorm

Canvasbacks in Christmas snowstorm

Fox Sparrows

11 November 2014. Burlington ON. This just might have been the last warm day of the year. Taking advantage of this beautiful grab-it-while-you-can day, we took our exercise along a bird-rich valley and were well rewarded.

My companion soon spotted a very unexpected Cooper’s Hawk sitting on the railing of a large pedestrians-only bridge. Knowing that Cooper’s Hawks rarely tolerate human closeness for long, and hoping for a perfect photograph, I moved closer as unobtrusively as possible. Well, the results weren’t great but here’s what we saw.

Coopers Hawk

Coopers Hawk

Recently I dwelt on the mild embarrassment of being phalaroped; that is to say, leading myself down the garden path to an incorrect identification. I came close again today. We approached a group of three smallish birds high overhead in a bare, perhaps dead, tree. Through binoculars and craning my neck, I struggled to make an identification. Eventually I concluded that I was looking at three juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. I thought I was seeing the streaky underside of three young males with a vague patch of crimson at the throat. Their size was right, the timing was okay, but not perfect, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks should be well on their way to Guatemala by now, and frustratingly, I couldn’t think what else they might be. Fox Sparrows was a possibility, although I don’t associate them with tree-tops, they are birds of the forest floor that like to scratch around in leaf litter. My camera is the perfect tool in marginal viewing situations like this, so propping it against a stable surface, I took several pictures for closer scrutiny later. I’m glad I did for that’s when the Rose-breasted Grosbeak idea came unstuck.

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Above (in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)  are a couple of reasonable photos of today’s birds as well as another individual in the hand for comparison. I make today’s birds Fox Sparrows. Here’s why: The imagined crimson at the throat turns out more of an agglomeration of brownish-red spots the same colour as its wings and under-tail, and consistent with a common field mark of Fox Sparrows. The reddish chevrons on the breast and belly are right for a Fox Sparrow, and wrong for a grosbeak. I’m left, however, puzzling over these three being way up high and exposed on top of a tree when I always though of them as birds of the low leafy understory. Most reference books make that point, only Pete Dunne acknowledges that Fox Sparrows, when flushed, often fly straight to take a high perch in a tree. Conclusion: there’s always something to be learned and the birds don’t necessarily read the texts.

There were other nice birds this morning. Notably, several shiny Green-winged Teal dabbling and swimming alongside some, giant by comparison, Mallards. Later a Sharp-shinned Hawk wheeled low overhead showing off the bands of its fanned tail and its under-wing patterns.

Green-winged Teal (F & M)

Green-winged Teal (F & M)