Green Heron

5 May 2015. Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. One of my favourite stream-side walks is a reliably good spot to find breeding pairs of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Green Herons. In fact, with a full-bodied, almost a river, stream on one side and a large marshy pond on the other it’s good for many birds at almost all times of the year. It is also along the route of one of my census walks.

At this time of year the menu-specials change daily. For several weeks it’s been a sure place to see a succession of waterfowl starting early in April with: Hooded Mergansers, Bufflehead and Wood Ducks, then later progressing through the brief appearances of Blue-winged Teal and Gadwall. By the time it’s all over, I am sure the area will be home to families of: Red-winged Blackbirds, Trumpeter Swans, Canada Geese, Wood Ducks, Mallards, Belted Kingfishers, Tree Swallows, Yellow Warblers, Green Herons, Warbling Vireos and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, to name but a few.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

I have been anticipating the return of the Green Herons for a while and today, as I walked the trail, a trio of them flew over, banking low and looking for home. They are quite distinctive in every way: visually they’re elaborately unmistakable, and in flight they’re buoyant, even bouncy. Like most herons they’re vocal croakers when alarmed or in flight, in the case of the Green Herons theirs’ is a sharp coughing bark with an almost metallic ring.

The fly-past group didn’t go very much farther and later as I was on the return leg of the census I spotted two of them in a Manitoba Maple. Two’s company and three’s a crowd, as we know and here were two engaged in either some pair-bonding or territorial squabbling, I’m not sure which. Think back to your own youth, those modes of posturing can be hard to tell apart. The gallery below is of the few photos I was able to get through the trees.

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Heard, but not seen, along the walk was a Northern Waterthrush. It’s a reminder to get exploring some of my other favourite spots. But for now in this, the early days of the cascade of new spring arrivals, the Green Herons made an already fulfilling morning extra colourful; Birds of the Day.

Cerulean Warbler

4 May 2015 Cayuga ON. There were lots of first-of-the-years at the bird observatory today: the warm southerly breeze kept on delivering them. At first light a Whip-poor-will called from some distance away and by around 7.30 we could hear the noisy calls of Baltimore Orioles and they were all around us before long. As we watched a group of half a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers gleaning insects in a budding Northern Hackberry (tree) we found a Tennessee Warbler.   On the census we watched small groups of Western Palm Warblers foraging low along woodland edges. My best birds of the day for a while were Yellow-throated Vireos calling raspily, but three Chimney Swifts wheeling and chasing high overhead, Warbling Vireos singing their tumbling scatter of notes from high in the treetops or a beautifully marked Black and White Warbler kept pressing to be Bird of the Day.

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But the Bird of the Day was came as I prowled a stretch of rich woodland. I was enjoying a gloriously flame-faced Blackburnian Warbler as it worked its way around the newly opening buds of a Manitoba Maple, when I found that I was looking at a male Cerulean Warbler. This species is so uncommon that it took me a while to understand what I was seeing. Prior to today I have only knowingly seen one (perhaps two) Cerulean Warblers.

The species is being assailed from all sides, its best breeding grounds in North America have disappeared to make way for farmland and their wintering grounds in the Andes have been cleared for the cultivation of coca. This little bird is in trouble; it is listed as Endangered in Canada and Indiana and Threatened in Illinois and Wisconsin.

The beauty of today’s sighting was not only in the thrill of its rarity but also that it stayed around long enough for three of us to study it at length. My initial doubts and puzzlement vanished as it moved around, showing me all sides and at times turning its gloriously blue head and back to best effect. Such consideration allowed me to mentally eliminate any possible confusion with other species. Getting a photograph was a real challenge as it was always on the move and back-lit by a bright sky; still I managed a couple of reasonable shots; here they are.Cerulean Warbler2 Cerulean Warbler

The day didn’t stop delivering. Before we closed up around noon we had banded an Indigo Bunting, Magnolia Warbler and Ovenbird and seen a Great-crested Flycatcher; all great birds – all day.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

Yellow Warbler

3 May 2015. Hamilton ON.  I think today was the day of the Yellow Warbler; they’re back and, I hope, ushering in the warblers of May. In a week or two, Yellow Warblers will be too numerous to count, they’ll be just a part of the background noise. But today I was greeted by the first of the year; and standing in one spot, I could distinguish four, maybe five, all singing their hurried ‘Sweet sweet shredded wheat” song. I think they were all males, bright buttercup yellow with chestnut streaks down the breast. My Birds of the Day for being here.

Yellow Warbler )m) in full song

Yellow Warbler )m) in full song

I started the day really early by taking my daughter’s dog for a walk; something I used to do frequently. The sun was still lingering below the horizon as we walked a couple of kilometers along a power-line right-of-way, a wide expanse of grassland flanked by scrubby forest. About every one-hundred metres along the edges, a Field Sparrow was singing its territorial heart out, for every four Field Sparrows there was an Eastern Towhee, also in full song and in the distance a singing Brown Thrasher. It reminded me of my formative days in England when my dad and I would cycle around the dew-sparkling countryside listening to the exuberant dawn chorus of Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Skylarks; these are vivid memories.

Brown Thrasher ( a little later in the year)

Brown Thrasher ( a little later in the year)

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

The Yellow Warblers showed up later in the morning up on one of my census walks. They, along with a single Western Palm Warbler, a pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and a singing Warbling Vireo (another first) made going without breakfast worthwhile. I counted a couple of dozen Common Terns swooping over the lake waters and a handful of their cousins, Caspian Terns, loafing on a shingle shoreline.

 

Upland Sandpiper

29 April 2015. Fenelon Falls ON. I have, perhaps recklessly, volunteered to participate in a provincial effort to determine and monitor the population of Loggerhead Shrikes. Although not terribly rare in the southern half of the U.S.A. it is extremely uncommon in the northeast and the Loggerhead Shrike is considered endangered in Ontario. Loggerhead, by the way refers to its disproportionately large head, it might also be read as blockhead!

The project I signed on for entails visiting pre-determined sites in parts of the province that have appropriate shrike habitat. In my case, it meant a long day, nearly 500 kilometres of driving and in the end no shrikes at all. But actually finding one was not the only purpose, the first step is to establish just what cohort of species uses the same habitat, so my day’s efforts were as much about learning what is there as finding a shrike; indeed I had a low expectation of finding a shrike at all.

This was the first significantly warm day of the year and it’s starting to look as though it’s going to stay that way – more or less. The assigned sites were still reeling from the battering of winter, there was scarcely a hint of green anywhere, and although we heard a Brown Thrasher and several Eastern Meadowlarks singing, and saw Tree Swallows and a pair of Eastern Bluebirds investigating nesting boxes, it was generally rather quiet.

This was the right habitat for and we kept hoping to find Grasshopper, Vesper or Clay-colored Sparrows but no such luck; maybe it was still a bit too early. Several Savannah Sparrows kept us entertained though and as the shot below shows they’re rather pretty in their own right.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

As the day wore on, my companion Eric and I debated the Bird of the Day. At first I was all for an exuberant Brown Thrasher seen and heard working the perimeter of its chosen territory and marking it with long performances of its rich double-phrase song. But later a really hard to make out Upland Sandpiper ended up being my Bird of the Day. Upland Sandpipers are one of those species that has a special place in my heart. There’s something incongruous about them: they’re built like a shorebird, like a dowitcher or a yellowlegs. But instead of wandering around in the muddy edges of lakes and estuaries like any decent shorebird, they make their home in expansive grassy fields. No doubt they find plenty to eat, but at some point their ancestors gave up shorelines and well, here they are chasing grasshoppers and the like; just a little odd.

Eric’s day seemed to be missing a piece until much later, on our way home, we found a wonderful Rough-legged Hawk. I take credit for spotting it a long way away perched atop a small cedar tree. Like many birds, Rough-legged Hawks seem to be keenly aware of the slightest potential threats and although we were perhaps half a kilometer away, when we got out of the car it grew uneasy and took flight. But once airborne it circled around allowing us to enjoy long looks at its strong markings: a broad terminal tail band, black belly and dark underwings. That was Bird of the Day for Eric. We could agree to differ; I still preferred the Upland Sandpiper.

Tree Swallows

24 April 2015. Cayuga ON. April is regularly a month of expectation, encouragement and disappointment. My diary is full of entries attesting to the fact that April can blow hot and cold. Here are a few examples from the last week of April: 1990 “Today was the third day of a sudden heat-wave, temps went to the low 30s.” 1981 ” After a record low night minus 5 deg C.” 2013 “Cold and snow squalls all day.” This week we’re living one of those cold breaks and it has stalled the spring migration in its tracks.

Today I walked the census route at the bird observatory. It was cold, the north wind sliced right through me, and my fingertips were ready to drop off. The census was modestly successful but I was in no mood to linger.

Tree Swallows are always early to return in the spring so there must be something in their make up that enables them to survive late cold spells; or maybe some just starve to death and that’s the way it is.

Tree Swallows waiting out a cold wind

Tree Swallows waiting out a cold wind

I admired a group of six Tree Swallows that were clustered together trying to stay alive by fluffing up their feathers and sheltering each other. They made no attempt to fly away at our approach; that would use too much precious energy. They were a doleful sight but photogenic at the same time.

Blue-winged Teal

22 April 2015. Burlington, ON. There are ducks, and then there are ducks. The good old ‘puddle ducks’ as stereotyped by Walt Disney and Beatrice Potter, include many from the genus Anas. Mallards, (Anas platyrhynchos) Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) and Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata) for example. There are many other large, free-floating birds that we generically label as ducks but they are not all as endearing or cuddly as the Anas crowd.

It is common among ducks of all types for the drakes to be quite spectacular dressers: always classy, often tasteful, sometimes colourful and occasionally all three. Females in the Anas family are sometimes quite difficult to tell apart, one species from the other. They are commonly mottled browny-grey all over, effective camouflage when incubating but hardly head-turning.

This morning, as part of my census circuit, I enjoyed watching four species of duck: Mallard, Wood Duck, Blue-winged Teal and Gadwall; in every case there were bonded pairs, and in the case of the Wood Ducks there were many males without females in evidence. (For the record, Wood Ducks, along with the outrageously ornate Mandarin Duck of Asia belong in the genus Aix.  Wood Ducks are Aix sponsa.)

The Blue-winged Teals were my Birds of the Day. It is a species in decline, perhaps due to over-hunting on their wintering grounds. Formerly quite common during spring and summer, we don’t see them much any more.   They pass through in the early spring (about now) and it always seems to be a brief visit. At a distance, the male is easy to identify with his white facial crescent and bum-patch. Closer up, the rich cinnamon of his breast and flanks puts him in the tasteful dresser category. This pair was hard to see working the dark edge of some old vegetation, then a passing Cooper’s Hawk panicked everyone but when everything had calmed down, the pair settled back in the open water close to where I could get this shot.

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal

My census route encompasses a couple of large ponds which Wood Ducks find very appealing, probably because of the encircling oak woodland. Wood Ducks are so called because they seek mature deciduous trees with lots of natural nesting cavities. They choose a safe hideaway, far above the forest floor and there the female incubates a clutch of perhaps as many as a dozen eggs. When the ducklings hatch they waste no time leaving the nest, the female calls to them from the forest floor below and the featherweight babes jump, and more or less float down to the leaf litter; then they follow mother to the nearest water. Hard to imagine.

I found twenty-one Wood Ducks today, mostly males. I suspect a balancing number of females were preoccupied in their nest holes and incubating this year’s brood. Wood Ducks are distinctive for several reasons and foremost has to be the astonishing plumage of the male. It is a crazy collage of colours: maroon, bottle green, scarlet and cream; and shapes: crescents, slashes and curlicues. The female is no shrinking violet either. She doesn’t go for the exuberance of the male, instead she is a study in soft iridescence and eye make-up; no wonder he’s falls for her. I’ve included several photos of the couple in the gallery below. It’s interesting how, in the riot of spring colours and reflections, this pair quite successfully merge into the background; the female more so than the male. Nearby was another pair of Wood Ducks; each with its own log they watched me nervously. They were a pretty picture, so I’ve included them in the gallery  (Visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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Finally as I was about to wrap up my census I watched a Belted Kingfisher successfully fishing, plunging every few minutes and returning to gulp down little wriggly fish. Here are a couple of shots. (Click each to enlarge) Too bad I didn’t use a faster shutter speed.

American Avocet

20 April 2015. Bronte, ON.  I always say that I don’t chase rare birds; but then I feel I have to add – unless it’s a real rarity and if it’s not too far from home. Some cases in point of rarities that I made an extra effort for would be last April’s King Eider or a previous May’s Kirtland Warbler; I made special trips for both of them and was rewarded with amply soul-satisfying moments.

Today, following a modestly interesting day which started very wet and windy, and which included a group of nine Rusty Blackbirds, a Northern Harrier, a Broad-winged Hawk and a Common Raven, I got word that a bunch of American Avocets had shown up at a nearby beach. Before I start gushing about the avocets, let me briefly note that Rusty Blackbirds are becoming increasingly rare and despite their undeniably sombre appearance, are kind of special.  The harrier, the hawk and the raven (a trio like that belong in Alice in Wonderland) are all good sightings, not especially rare, just unusual birds that catch my attention and frequently play starring roles.

Rusty Blackbird (M)

Male Rusty Blackbird.

Rusty Blackbirds (F)

Female Rusty Blackbirds

American Avocets should always be worth making an extra effort to see, but it was close to a mealtime when I heard about them and I had a meeting to attend later on. I set aside any thought that I should go and look for them, but somehow it just wouldn’t go away. Realizing that with a bit of planning, I could eat, get to the avocet site and still be at my meeting on time, off we went. I say we because my wife came along with me; she’s not a birder and her bird-fascination soon ebbs, but she has a soft spot for avocets and carries a vivid memory of a sighting one stormy day some thirty-two years ago. My diary tells this story. “1983. 2 May. A warm day with incredible storm activity. V. strong winds, tornadoes in SW Ont. The storm has resulted in migration chaos. Off McCollom Rd near the lake and adjacent to 50 Point park, in a wet ploughed field, were 7 avocets. V. unusual for this area…”.  I don’t think I’ve seen more than one or two avocets since that date. It’s not that they’re particularly rare, in fact they’re relatively common in the western half of the continent.

With that bit of history in mind and cognizant that today, like that early day in May 1983, was a day of strong south winds and unsettled skies, we went to see if we could locate these birds. We found them easily enough, an orderly crowd of about twenty-four individuals, standing around, waiting for the winds to die down to let them get on with their long-distance journey.

It’s hard not to gush over American Avocets as perhaps the prettiest shorebirds in Christendom; prettier than their European counterparts who lack the delicious cinnamon head and breast, prettier than the more monochromatic (but just as charming) Black-necked Stilts and perhaps even prettier than Wilson’s Phalaropes in breeding plumage. Last November, I suggested that Wilson’s Phalaropes belong in the fine-china category of shorebirds, and today’s birds set me wondering whether avocets belong there too. But somehow they’re a little too gregarious and long-legged to be china, they’d probably get chipped too easily. I think of them as perhaps more like ballerinas: poised, elegant, graceful. What do you think?American Avocets Bronte Harbour copy

Here they are. There were about twenty four of them.

Avocets 3

In flight. Photo by Bonnie Kinder

Avocets4

Photo: Bonnie Kinder

 

Great Horned Owl

15 April 2015. Faithful readers may recall my January posting about a Snowy Owl that I helped rescue. It was a roadside casualty and I was called upon to ferry it from a nearby animal rescue centre to the Owl Foundation some 60 Km away. (A worthy wildlife cause if ever there was.)

I’m on the foundation’s list of volunteer ambulance drivers and just after lunch today I was again called to see if I could collect an owl in distress, this time it was a young Great-horned Owl that had been picked up on a golf course. Off I went and found it in the care of four burly young grounds-keepers. It had been discovered under a pine tree early in the day, picked up, cuddled and cared for as best they knew how. They had checked with a local veterinarian who gave them a number of suggestions, including the Owl Foundation. When I arrived, it was in a covered cardboard box and evidently terrified with the events that had overtaken it. As I picked it up to go, it was clear that the hearts of these large men had melted over a baby owl. They wanted to know what would happen to it and when, if ever, it would go free. One of them had already checked with his wife to see if they could raise it themselves; wisely, she refused.

It is the Owl Foundation’s practice to save orphaned or injured owls and to return them from whence they came if possible. In this case, I felt pretty sure that the chick could be reared to maturity and returned to the golf course, so I told them to expect to hear from the foundation when it was time to release it.

An hour or so later I delivered it to the Owl Foundation. It clacked its beak loudly as we opened the box. The technician picked it up carefully and decided that it was perhaps a week or maybe a week and a half old. There was no note of reserve or caution in her voice because, as she said; “Oh we’ll just put him in with Old Red and she’ll take care of him – or her.” Old Red is a wise old owl, injured and unable to fly, she tends orphans every year and will foster it like one of her own.  All being well, in September or October it will be returned to the golf course; Dave and the boys will be happy to see it again.

Great Horned Owl Chick

Great Horned Owl Chick

This photo says it all: helpless but feisty and full of potential. Note the size of its beak.

If there’s any unhappy part to this story it is that January’s rescued Snowy Owl did not live very long. I had delivered in what we’d thought was fairly good condition but a respiratory infection soon set in and turned out to be fatal.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

15 April 2015. Cayuga ON. Funny thing about early spring migration is how it can blow hot and cold. Today it was cold, bird-wise that is. The weather on the other hand was delightful, bright sunshine, no wind, not a cloud anywhere and just a light crunch of frost across the fields. Under these conditions I did the daily census at the bird observatory.

Four of us trudged around. The list of species grew quickly but it was mostly in ones and twos. Of course some of the expected nesters: Tree Swallows, Red-winged Blackbirds and Black-capped Chickadees were around in numbers, but probably more than half of the page in my notebook tells a lean story: Common Grackle-2, Chipping Sparrow-2, Eastern Bluebird-1, Canada Goose-3, and so on.

I had some really sharp-eyed and sharp-eared helpers with me, and one of them, Lisa, picked up the song of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet well before the rest of us. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet’s song is a brief scramble of sweet notes ending with a series of four or five descending clearer notes. It’s the kind of song that demands you stop, listen and look for its owner. We found it quite easily and, as is typical with kinglets, it was endlessly moving on the hunt for small insects. It was my Bird of the Day in an otherwise average census round but, consistent with the morning’s experience, we only found one of them.

 

Winter Wren

10 April 2015. Burlington ON. Thunderstorms had been with us most of yesterday and by nightfall the weather radar showed another slab of heavy weather coming our way. As we turned in, wind-driven rain fell in torrents battering our windows. Today at breakfast, there was a note on our local birding list-serve saying that around two in the morning, under a clear sky ,(really?) the night was alive with the calls of migrating sparrows. So while I slept, thankful for my warm and dry indoors, millions of birds were on the move out there, making their ways northward, some coming our way, others leaving us and following the retreating snows.

With a not very encouraging weather forecast I decided to walk around one of our census routes this morning. The moment I set foot on the trails I could hear that overnight had indeed been busy; the sky must have been full of American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos all rushing back to their nesting grounds in the far north. They were scattered all over the woodland floor at daybreak,singing and chipping to each other and madly refuelling; perhaps they’ll push on tonight.   I could hear a few White-throated Sparrows, even a White-crowned Sparrow and an Eastern Towhee. It must have been quite a night.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

My day’s census turned up forty-two species. It was a result of that large overnight flight of returning birds and the crazy skies that seemed to be the product of chaotic weather. Strong winds still threw things around, there were several mystery birds that dived or fell out of sight before I could figure them out. A low flying Rough-legged Hawk baffled me for a few moments, and thirty wind-tossed Tree Swallows together with two Barn Swallows blew up and down the valley.

Out of a tumultuous sky came rain and birds. I watched some Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows bathing in a small puddle. They were quite charming to watch but I don’t think aesthetics had anything to do with it. Where had they been, and what had they been doing that necessitated a thoroughly soaking bath?

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I saw or heard many first-of-the year birds including: White-crowned Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Phoebe, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Belted Kingfisher. A few Golden Crowned Kinglets flitted frustratingly quickly through tangles of vines and a House Wren had me baffled for quite a while as it picked and probed at the water’s edge of a marsh. I was pleased to see and hear two Belted Kingfishers, they’ll probably stay around here until October. Oh, and this smart little Hooded Merganser was quite breathtaking; if you had to invent a cartoon duck would you ever come up with this? Hooded Merganser in Hendrie Valley

Bird of the Day was a surprising Winter Wren. There were many birds that gave me a little fizz of excitement or made me smile, but the Winter Wren made me say Wow! (quietly to myself.)   As is usually the case, I heard it before I saw it; in fact I thought it was more distant than it turned out to be. It was exploring the dark innards of a gaping rotten log; exactly the sort of place to expect them. Winter Wrens are a two-part delight: first, a tiny song, a thin, tight-knit tumble of high notes. Two or three Julys ago I managed to capture a short movie of a singing Winter Wren and inasmuch as a picture is worth a thousand words, you’ll be further off if you follow this link and see for yourself.  The second Winter Wren delight is the tiny mite of a bird itself, it’s the size of a golf ball, just as easy to lose in the undergrowth but far more fascinating.