Broad-winged Hawks

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 snake 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 Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk

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.

Broad-winged Hawk. Wintering in Panama

Broad-winged Hawk. Wintering in Panama

Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

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.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

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.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Both the Yellow-billed Cuckoo and its close relative the Black-billed Cuckoo, tend to be secretive, or at least stealthy, they are easily confused and are always something of a triumph to see well. 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.DSCN0197

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.

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak - July 19.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

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.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak in May

Rose-breasted Grosbeak in May

Helmeted Guinea Fowl.

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.

Helmeted Guinea Fowl.

Helmeted Guinea Fowl.

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.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

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.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks

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.Black-bellied Whistling Ducks-2

Barn Swallows

July 9, 2016. Flamborough ON. I noticed a small group, perhaps a dozen, Barn Swallows gathered on a utility line today. I thought it was significant even though it doesn’t sound like much of an event, but this was the first sign of summer flocking – and Barn Swallows are beauties at any time. Well, almost first, last night a large flock of Common Grackles flew overhead towards a thick tree where, in past summers, hundreds of grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds have gathered in noisy roosting groups. The point of all this is to note that most of the broods of 2016 are out of the nest, are more or less independent and a collective instinct to gather in pre-migratory flocks has taken hold. It’s a marker denoting a change of season, from spring to summer.

Barn Swallows.July 20 2012

Barn Swallows.July 20 2012

The task of defending a territory is now less important so early mornings of birdsong have faded. The abundance of summer provides what’s needed to prepare for the journey and/or the winter ahead: food to build muscle and fuel reserves, socialization and bonding for safety and navigation, and in some species (Barn Swallows being one) young males get a start on next year by investigating suitable nest sites.Barn Swallow at RBG Arb'

(Things change so quickly, it was just seven weeks ago that a mid-May cold snap had these exhausted and hungry Barn Swallows huddling miserably.)Barn Swallows in the cold

That’s not to say that all species have finished with spring, many are still raising young. American Goldfinches and Cedar Waxwings time their young broods to coincide with late summer’s abundance of seeds and berries; but they are the exception

Sparrows of Summer

June 27 -30, 2016. Westover ON. One quadrant of this small crossroads village is occupied by a large grassy drumlin.  Occupied may be the wrong choice of words for the drumlin has been here for perhaps twelve thousand years while the village for barely one hundred and fifty. Better then to say, this crossroads village lies scrunched in the lee of a large grassy drumlin.

Drumlins are sculpted remnants of debris from the last ice age, some are small – not much more than a small mound, this one feels large; I’m sure there are many much larger. I recently learned that most of the upper expanses of the drumlin is public land.  A beautiful undiscovered open-space treasure and superb on a summer day.

I walked its length a couple of times this week, it was like following the spine of a giant Woolly Mammoth. A clear, clean blue sky was dotted with soaring Turkey Vultures and a rearing bank of cloud in the west turned out much later to be carrying thunder cells.  On one visit as I reached the crest, a small, almost impossibly thin and wheezy call stopped me in my tracks. I recognized it right away as a Grasshopper Sparrow, though there was more in hearing it than simple recognition, it was also a minor reward, an affirmation that my hearing is not quite as derelict as I thought. Really, I would have thought no one over thirty could possibly hear a Grasshopper Sparrow.  The bird flew anxious circles around me pausing at scrubby landmark hawthorns; obviously I was unacceptably close to its nest or young.

Grasshopper Sparrow.

Grasshopper Sparrow.

I could easily hear several Field Sparrows on the flanks of the drumlin, and I followed the song of one until I found it. Their song is much bolder; all descriptions liken it to the accelerating reverberations of a ping-pong ball coming to rest. Like the Grasshopper Sparrows they favour dry-ish grasslands and seem to need some kind of retreat like a hedgerow as a song stage.

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow

There are Vesper Sparrows and Chipping Sparrows here too and they add vocal colour of their own, but for no particular reason I’m not particularly smitten by sparrows. Some birders enjoy the challenge of sorting them out and I understand their pleasure; it could be a lifetime’s work. For me at this time and place they just kind of completed the picture.

Blue-winged Warbler

June 24 2016. Guelph Line, Milton, ON. The day is only half done as I write this but so far three significant events have unfolded: Britain has voted to leave the EU, the ramifications of which are almost beyond my pondering; This is the last day of school for Ontario kids – happy laughter next door; And I found lots of interesting birds, Blue-winged Warblers included.

I woke early and decided to visit a nearby forest that has a reputation for good birding. I’d read many list-serve reports about this place and some of notable birds to be seen, I’m generally not one to go chasing the latest hot-spot but the night had been cool and the prospect of a low mosquito count helped tip the balance.

Least Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

My first encounter was a nice little Least Flycatcher, it must have had a nest nearby as it was quite concerned with my presence, chipping and flittering around, so I soon moved along; besides I could hear, loud and clear, the breathy, inhale-exhale, ‘ bzzzzz – bzzzzz ’ song of a Blue-winged Warbler. Loud and clear!, I was quite startled, very close and there it was again! Maybe my hearing is not as bad as I’d come to suppose.

But just around the corner were two early risers staring intently at a nearby thicket, they crouched behind cameras, colossal-lensed and tripodded, . The Blue-winged song came from them: full volume and repeated at one-second intervals from some kind of playback set up. I felt a little cheated and quite a bit of sympathy for any Blue-winged Warblers in the immediate area who might be bemused, confused or agitated by the falsehood. I stood beside the photographers with deep unease rising inside me.

There is little in the way of organizational structure or authority among birders, it’s a pastime for most of us, no more than that. But there are codes of ethics and one of the tenets is that you reject or at least minimize the use of recordings as lures, especially during breeding season; they’re seen as potentially disruptive and might expose a bird or its nest to needless competition or predation.

There exists an air of suspicion and antipathy between purist birders and purist bird photographers over this topic. Much has been written on the matter, a lot of it on-line and very heated. I’m sure they’re decent guys but I disliked the approach these two gentlemen were taking to finding and photographing birds today; I walked on.

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

It was, as anticipated, a very bird-rich area. In the heard-but-not-seen category were Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Peewee, Wood Thrush, Mourning Warbler and House Wren; all nice birds. But even better were the seen-and-heards: Common Yellowthroat, American Redstarts, Veery, Eastern Kingbird and (Bird of the Day) Blue-winged Warblers. I heard this Blue-winged Warbler long before I saw it but to my delight, rather than evade me, it came close to size me up and allowed me to get a couple of quick fire photos. (This species by the way is the other half of the Golden-winged Warbler genetic-swamping story that I wrote about just a few days ago.)Blue-winged Warbler. Halton Forest. June 24 2016

I’m sure those two highly equipped photographers got some great photos, they deserve some reward for lugging all that stuff around. But then I didn’t do too badly with my little point-and-shoot either.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Bruce Co. ON. There is a field, formerly cattle pasture, in a rather off-the-beaten-track corner of Bruce County that many birders visit, almost as a pilgrimage, to see Sandhill Cranes. The now unmanaged grass grows high, the soil is rocky and the landscape is punctuated by the odd abandoned utility pole or gatepost; it’s all rather scenic. In the distance is a large lake, which I know from past experience, is home to River Otters.

River Otter

River Otter

We visited this field, as everyone does, to see Sandhill Cranes and were not disappointed. I think we were really as much assured as satisfied at the sight of  several cranes stalking around with youngsters in tow.

Sandhill Crane.

Sandhill Crane.

The dry field and neighbouring scrubby areas held all the expected birds: Gray Catbird, Eastern Bluebird, Barn Swallows, American Kestrel and Savannah Sparrow included. In the distance we could se a Caspian Tern quartering the lake. The day’s bird tally hit sixty when we spotted a Grasshopper Sparrow on top of an old Yellow Mullein stalk. It was some distance away but was quick to move in closer to assess us. We must have been quite close to its nest as it circled us several time. I managed to get more photos than anyone needs. Here are a couple.

Grasshopper Sparrow,

Grasshopper Sparrow,

Grasshopper Sparrow,

Grasshopper Sparrow,

Common Nighthawk

June 17 2016. Dyers Bay Rd. Bruce Co. ON. A day or two after I had started to draft the post about Whip-poor-wills, I came face to face, more or less, with a Common Nighthawk. I tried amending the draft to incorporate the two look-alike species, but it ended up like one of those exam essays for which the question starts “Compare and contrast the differences between…etc.” It was too much of a struggle and in any case the Common Nighthawk was such a Bird of the Day that I started afresh.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawks are like Whip-poor-wills in many respects. They are members of the nightjar family: Caprimulgids or Goatsuckers. They all look very much alike (if you’re ever lucky enough to see one) and are birds of dusk and dawn.

Our friend found this one two days ago while searching for orchids and, on a hunch that they are creatures of habit, we went back to the same spot to see if we could re-find it. It saw us and flew up to a nearby branch long before we got too close. It may have been incubating eggs although we certainly didn’t approach to investigate.

Common Nighthawks are one of the most-studied caprimulgids, quite simply because unlike others in the family who prefer dense woodlands, they are more inclined to nest and rest in the open where they can be found and observed.

Enough study has been done to determine that (Ready for this?) dusk flights begin at 28.3 minutes before sunset and ends 68.2 minutes after sunset. Similarly dawn flights begin 54 minutes before sunrise and lasts until about 15 minutes after sunrise. (A great deal less precision there, presumably the researchers had had enough for one night.) Like Whip-poor-wills they fly in pursuit of nighttime moths and unless there is a full moon they sit tight the rest of the day and night.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

Wall Rue.  I know it doesn't look like much but well this is probably as much as you're ever likely to see of it without risking your neck.

Wall Rue. I know it doesn’t look like much but well this is probably as much as you’re ever likely to see of it without risking your neck.

Before finding the nighthawk, the day had been just as exciting as the previous few days. We’d started at dawn with many wetland birds: American Bittern, Virginia Rail, Green Heron, Alder Flycatcher and Sora among them. Had found a deeply fissured rock outcrop packed full of unusual ferns and later, a small colony of Wall Rue, a fern species that is indescribably uncommon in North America; I suppose I’d have to call it Fern of the Day. One of our other afternoon surprises was a male Dark-eyed Junco carrying food to its nest; we view juncos as winter visitors but I suppose we were just far enough north to be within their breeding range.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

 

Whip-poor-wills

June 13th and 16th 2016 Lion’s head, Bruce Co. Ontario. Our daily excursions exploring the beautiful greenness of the Bruce Peninsula deliver such a richness of birds, flowers and ferns that it is hard to focus on any one as the day’s highlight. Easier perhaps to turn instead to the night, although in truth we scarcely see the nights. We are usually so drained that we’re long ago in bed while some lingering bands of light remain in the north-western sky. But on a couple of evenings as dusk closed in we ventured out to listen for whip-poor-wills, and succeeded every time.

Whip-poor-wills are birds of dry mixed forests. Your chances of coming across one are slim to none; you’d have to be traipsing cross-country and off-trail to happen upon one. They hug the forest floor, cryptically coloured like leaf litter, either whiling away the day or incubating eggs, they are virtually invisible. It’s hard to know what goes through the mind of a Whip-poor-will but based on the scant evidence I have, the bird sits quietly through the daylight hours waiting patiently for the light to fade, waiting for some unknowable trigger event: whether it’s light levels, the appearance of certain moth species, or even Sirius the Dog Star’s ascendency over the treetops is beyond me.

Whip-poor-wills are very vocal and call their far-reaching namesake song endlessly.  There is no better approximation of their song than WHIP–pu–Whill delivered with an assertive start and a slight whistling emphasis on the last syllable. On a couple of late evening outings we could hear Whip-poor-wills calling from several points near and far and sometimes overlapping. Whip-poor-wills are most active at dusk, dawn and on full moon nights.  I’ve heard of campers and country residents driven to hair-pulling, scream-inducing rage by the monotony of a nearby Whip-poor-will’s call uttered without pause from all moonlit night long, I can see how it would wear you down, but then, Whip-poor-wills  were here first.

Bruce Co. cottage

Bruce Co. cottage