May 22 2013. Hendrie Valley RBG Burlington ON. I had the pleasure of showing two visitors from the U.K around one of my favourite birding spots today. We’d never met before today but through the Birdingpal website , an excellent way to find local birding help when you’re travelling, we arranged to share some good Ontario birding. I’ll admit that I harboured some minor concerns that the valley and trails I’d pre-selected might not live up to expectations but I needn’t have worried, indeed it would be pretty hard to fail at this time of year with so many migrants around. The local birds were in full feather and voice and we enjoyed a good three hours and compiled a tally of about 40 birds.
The chosen trail is always popular with visitors, especially families, because Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches and sometimes Hairy Woodpeckers will happily and greedily take sunflower seeds from your open hand. This experience is always a showstopper and it can take half an hour or more to cover the first leg of the trail. We enjoyed the chickadees and nuthatches for a while and then reveled in close encounters with a Red-bellied Woodpecker, a singing Common Yellowthroat and an inquisitive Baltimore Oriole.
Moving along a woodland trail, we encountered a lone female American Redstart bouncing around in some bordering dogwood bushes, searched tree-tops for a singing Warbling Vireo and watched an Eastern Phoebe sallying out for flying insect food and proclaiming territorial ownership with its wet-throated ‘wee-bee’ call.
We found a Green Heron standing motionless in an about-to-strike pose on the edge of a woodland-edge pond and a trio of Wood Ducks, a female and two handsome males, perched warily on a downed tree limb.
The Bird of the Day, for me anyway, was a Scarlet Tanager found as we were winding up our morning’s birding. It’s been a while, but as soon as I heard the tanager’s distinctive “chik-brrr…….. chik-brrr”, I knew we had a very special sighting to close the day with. It took a while to find him, he was high up in a Red Oak and cussedly determined to stay just out of sight. A Scarlet Tanager is always a winner for me because of the red-hot intensity of the breeding male’s plumage. This photo was taken last year before it was possible to hide.
20 May 2013. Cabot Head ON. Our licensed bander was unavailable this final morning of my days at the Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory so we kept the mist nets closed and instead spent the morning watching for and keeping track of species seen.
It was quite foggy until mid morning when finally the sun managed to break through. When flight conditions are poor for one reason or another, and fog is definitely one, birds are forced to drop down and wait out the weather conditions. While there weren’t tons of birds, certainly nothing like yesterday’s fall-out, the mix of species was quite changed. Lots of Black-throated Blue Warblers and American Redstarts and, for a change, several and various woodpeckers. A Hairy Woodpecker or two hung around and I counted three Northern Flickers either seen or heard. I noted a Blue Jay (one of hundreds) alight on the tip of a nearby old and decaying spruce tree, it was immediately joined by a second one – or so I thought at first. But it looked a little different, paler if anything so warranted a second look; to my amazement, astonishment and exaltation this second Jay turned out to be a Red-headed Woodpecker.
I grabbed a few quick camera shots then stumbled off to tell the others, but it was gone, only the camera to validate the moment.
A Red-headed Woodpecker would be Bird of the Day any time, any place. They are SO handsome and so well, increasingly rare. It was a nice note on which to wrap up my days at the Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory. Here are a couple of shots of enjoyable sightings.
Baltimore Oriole. 2nd year bird.
19 May 2013. Dyers Bay ON. My last full day at the Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory was indeed full, in many respects. The day’s banding efforts exceeded all and anyone’s wildest expectations. An overnight change in the weather had brought southerly winds and a massive influx of migrants; it was so busy that we had to close the nets early to avoid becoming overwhelmed with Magnolia Warblers, Black-throated Blue Warblers, American Redstarts, Philladelphia Vireos and Northern Parulas to mention but a few. And that was just the daylight hours – there was more to come.
I treated my young companions to an evening out; such as it is in a rural backwater. We drove 40 minutes to Lion’s Head, a small town with a pub, and toasted the day’s successes. One of the conditions of my buying dinner was that, on the return journey, we’d stop at a couple of marshes to listen for Least Bitterns. No-one objected; why would they? Our first roadside stop produced the expected din of Spring Peepers and American Toads while in the distance, the dreamy song of a Wood Thrush, the buzzy calls of a Common Nighthawk and overhead the twittering of Wilson’s Snipe display flights made the stop more than satisfying even without Least Bitterns.
Continuing our journey home, the last twenty minutes of the approach to the bird observatory are along a gravel road that demands, and rewards, slow driving. To the right is the narrow rocky beach and open waters of Georgian Bay and to the left a dense Eastern White Cedar and White Birch forest. It was dark as we drove that final stretch and we noticed countless small birds flying from right to left, from the lake and shoreline to the safety and cover of the forest. We debated whether they were new and arriving inbound migrants or were they surprised forest birds feeding along the road’s edge and the shoreline.
Turning a corner the car’s headlights caught the orange reflection of eyes on the road ahead. I knew right away that we were approaching a Whip-poor Will, so we slowed down to a walking pace until we were within a car’s length or two or the bird crouching on the road surface, unmoving. One of our group exited the car to get a closer look and perhaps inevitably the bird flew off. So we continued our journey and again the same thing happened: distant eye-shine leading to a slow and close approach. We stopped and admired this new bird, which every now and then flew up a twisting arc, presumably to catch a bite to eat, then settled back on the gravel road again. I had to try for a photograph and amazingly was able to walk slowly and softly enough to get within range for the photo below. Whip-poor Will – unquestionably Bird of the Day even with the excitement of the morning.
Whip-poor Will motionless on a gravel road
16 May 2013. Dyers Bay ON. A rip-roaring day at the bird observatory today. We had anticipated a large influx of birds overnight, and while it didn’t quite happen that way, within an hour or two of sunrise we were kept busy. Several warbler species showed up including: Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Redstart and Black-throated Blue Warbler. The treetops around the observatory were jumping with lively little birds and lower down, mostly in the bottom couple of meters, the most abundant bird was probably the Western Palm Warbler, a fairly large and pipit-like warbler. They are distinctive at a glance because they pump their tails up and down a lot as they move and forage around – and moving is something they do a lot of, it’s almost impossible to get them to hold still for the camera.
Western Palm Warbler holding still for half a second
Although exhausted by the morning I skipped a planned power nap and headed for the nearest settlement to catch up on e-mail and to see what birds might be found along the way. Missions accomplished, on my return journey I ended up exploring the shore of a large and shallow lake and was rewarded with the sight of a family of River Otters plunging and playing like Marineland porpoises.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker tapping a maple for sap.
Turning back to bird activity, I watched a female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker punching holes in the bark of a small maple. This is what sapsuckers do and how they got their name, apparently the oozing sweet sap draws insects which are eaten later as needed. There were a couple of expected warbler species: Yellow Warbler, Common Yellow-throat, and…this is where it got interesting… hundreds (yes really) of Western Palm Warblers all around me. It was a virtual river of tail-wagging, ground-hugging warblers, and every now and then an intruder like a Yellow-rumped or Magnolia Warbler found itself swept along in the tide. On such a busy day it was hard to single out any one bird as the best, but in celebration of the novelty of a river of birds it would be a little churlish not to view the Western Palm Warbler as my Bird of the Day.
Green-winged Teal making dash for cover
May 13 2013. Cabot Head ON. It feels kind of needlessly self evident to say that birding in new territory is rewarding and exciting; but it’s inescapably true. My days here at the Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory are full of fresh challenges, some of them related to bird species and choice, some to weather and some to the interpersonal dynamics of a group of people who share but one thing in common, an interest in birds.
The mornings we spend looking at and for birds. We capture a very few of them in mist-nets, we band them, record vital statistics and let them go. Most birds though pass through unseen or maybe if we’re lucky glimpsed fleetingly. The afternoons here are free-time and that’s when I grab a map and explore the rugged countryside nearby. It’s an area of poor or abandoned farms, wetlands, rocky scrub and woodlands; it used to be beef cattle country but now it’s of little value in today’s agricultural economy although wildlife thinks it’s just fine. The area is home to remnant populations of Eastern Canada’s only venomous snake, the Masassauga Ratttlesnake, I haven’t encountered one yet but if it should happen that it’ll be on mutually good terms.
Yesterday was cold – really cold, with snow flurries! Today in the wake of the worst of the weather system, an eye-wateringly cold north-westerly wind has kept most people indoors. The flow of spring migrants has stalled as the tender neo-tropical birds hold back waiting for better conditions. But even so the variety of birds that have arrived and are now either moving through or setting up home is a delight.
In some wet fields beside a country road I found a flock of 12 Lesser Yellowlegs, a pair of Blue-winged Teal and a very handsome Green-winged Teal. Across the road a Sandhill Crane was stalking through a dry upland area picking a meal from among the grass and scrubby thorns. A couple of Eastern Meadowlarks flew away in the direction of a male Northern Harrier who was quartering a distant area of long grasses and dried weeds.
I tallied about 20 species over the afternoon, not a large number but a good and rewarding selection. Bird of the Day was the Green-winged Teal, fashion show smart with his bottle-green and chestnut head and neck over a muted fawn and grey body. I’m told that both Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal bred here last year so it seems safe to assume that it’ll happen again this year. The Lesser Yellowlegs though have a long way to go to reach their Arctic shoreline nesting grounds, as soon as weather conditions improve they’ll be on their way.
12 May 2013. Dyers Bay ON.There are something like 15 cranes species in the world, two in North America: Whooping Crane which is excruciatingly rare and the Sandhill Crane which is common in many parts of the U.S and Canada though not seen much around here. The Ontario population seems to be growing though and they may become commonplace in a couple of decades, but for now, and for me, they are a treat worth going out of my way for.
After a morning at the bird observatory I spent the afternoon investigating the wetlands and meadows around the promisingly named Crane Lake. I wondered whether it had earned its name as a reference to a historically large population of Great Blue Herons, often mistakenly referred to as cranes or whether indeed there have been Sandhill Cranes here for generations. Whatever the reason the lake is well and correctly named; I saw about a dozen Sandhill Cranes in a short space of time.
Crane Lake is largely inaccessible, the lands around are now in a national park where happily the management strategy seems to be to leave well enough alone. I parked at the side of a rough untravelled road, more of a track really, and walked down through a rough fractured-limestone grassland towards an expanse of sedge meadow. There were Eastern Bluebirds singing and possessively guarding nest boxes against the ambitions of Tree Swallows. Here and there scrubby trees growing in rocky outcrops held Western Palm Warblers and Eastern Meadowlarks scattered ahead of my progress attracting the attention of a Merlin sweeping overhead. Down in the sedge meadow I heard Sora and Swamp Sparrows
The gurgling bugle calls of Sandhill Cranes pointed to a party of seven or eight settled into a hollow not far away. Later, on my return I intersected the group and had fun watching them stalk away then lift up and circle me, objecting to my intrusion.
Sandhill Crane circling
Sandhill Crane. Bruce Co.
May 4 2013 Ilopango El Salvador. As guests of Rotary Clubs in San Salvador our group is very well cared for. The wheelchair distribution work is done and it’s nearly time to leave; but first to reward us with some down time our hosts took us to what they modestly call the club by the lake. Without dwelling on it needlessly I’ll just say it’s where the wealthy elite relax and find an escape from the grit and gridlock of San Salvador. It’s noteworthy that to drive to the club you have no choice but to pass through a small community typical of any Salvadorian village, except that it’s controlled and managed by a very violent and antisocial gang; the police, the government and law & order have no presence or right to be there!
The club is a hedonist’s paradise, manicured lawns and shady forest groves were alive with birds, mostly Clay-coloured Thrushes and Great-tailed Grackles. Breaking away from my hammock-lounging, lemonade-sipping team-mates I went looking for birds. The list was fairly short: a Rufous-naped Wren, an army of American Coots, some Spot-breasted Orioles, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, a Berylline Hummingbird and, Bird of the Day, a young Northern Jacana strolling across the grass by the beach.
Young Northern Jacana
Jacana’s are a fairly common wading bird of hot climes wherever there’s aquatic vegetation and open wet weedy areas. Northern Jacana adults have a rich dark cinnamon brown back turning to almost black up the neck and head and terminating in a bright yellow headlight. Also known as Lily Walkers, jacanas seem to pick their way fastidiously on stilt-like legs, sampling the way ahead with exaggeratedly long matchstick toes.
Northern Jacana adult
I first encountered jacanas in my earlier trip to Suchitoto but they were all adults, today’s bird, enjoying the club’s facilities and hospitality, was a juvenile. Still the same high-stepping stick legs and concert pianist’s fingers but in light plumage more like an avocet.
May 3 2013. Suchitoto, El Salvador. I was just enjoying a day’s birding in the mountains of El Salvador guided by a quartet of local birders, when I encountered a bird I had no idea existed; a Masked Tityra. I spotted one high in a dense tree on the opposite bank of a wide gravelly river. I called to my companions, two more or less retired American gentlemen and a pair of energetic twenty-something Salvadorian men with excellent bird finding skills. By the time they joined me it had flown out of sight. All that I could tell them was that it was an ash-grey bird with a contrasting black tail band and maybe something red on the head, about the size of a parakeet. They scratched their heads, grunted noncommittally, so we moved on; it often goes that way in birding. Then moments later one of the young guys heard a call, put two and two together and suggested that I’d seen a Masked Tityra.
One look in a field guide and I agreed; that was my bird. All of that would have been satisfying in itself but then a while later, a pair of them landed quite close on a dried up old tree stump and I managed to get a few shots. I think the curiousness and novelty of this bird made it my Bird of the Day. I need to know more about this bird, but it can wait.
We were in Suchitoto in the mountains of El Salvador, a place of drama not only for the exotic bird life but also for its social history and physical geography. El Salvador endured a decade of civil war that left it a broken dysfunctional country. It is recovering but there is still much poverty and gross underdevelopment. Suchitoto was quite a hotbed of the rebel leftist guerrilla movement and there is much evidence of that in the town. To say that the war is over and all is forgotten would be an oversimplification, but the country is at peace, it’s calm except for the seismic activity and our morning’s birding included dancing across a small creek that bubbled with muddy hot spring oozings.
My half day in the heat produced many birds that were either new, newish or long-time-no-see to me, but at least I’d heard of them before: Elegant Trogon, Blue-crowned Motmot, Plain Wren, Roseate Spoonbill, and Collared Plover among them. We found a small group of Buff-breasted Sandpipers and debated for a long time over a pair of birds that I thought were Upland Sandpipers but turned out to be American Golden Plovers. I did not see them, but Marvin, our expert young guide, found and photographed a spectacular group of Wilson’s Phalaropes with some Pectoral Sandpipers mixed in. Courtesy of Marvin Qunitilla here’s his shot.
April 30 2013. I’m in El Salvador to assemble and distribute wheelchairs. Today we distributed100 to children who are patients of a rehabilitation hospital. My team member colleagues aren’t birders, but they understand that some people are, so they go along with it. However our Salvadorian hosts are generally unfamiliar with and somewhat bemused by the idea, and I think the birds too believe I’m up to something sinister. My allotted birding time is early in the day from sun-up until around 8.30 when we head off to work
The area around the hotel is well treed, in fact any corner of land left unused for a while soon becomes well treed, unless someone decides to call it home or set it on fire. So I prowl around the parking lot under the watchful eye of a security guard with a shotgun, looking for movement or listening for bird sounds. None of the birds on my short list of sightings is particularly remarkable, unless you’re a visitor from the cold north, when they’re all a treat.
In San Salvador (the capital city) the sound of Great-tailed Grackles is pervasive as they sail between tree-tops. They must be a nest predator because I often see Clay-coloured Thrushes, Great Kiskadees and Yellow-winged Tanagers chasing them away. Small flocks of parakeets fly shrieking across the sky, I’m not sure whether they’re Pacific Parakeets or Green Parakeets, the species are almost indistinguishable, but they’ll often descend to a treetop and spend half an hour eating flowers and chattering noisily before departing in loud squawking unison, off to the next tree.
I spotted a pair of Rufous-naped Wrens working quietly and inconspicuously over a group of shrubs. It took a while to figure out what I was seeing because as wrens go, they’re large and strongly marked, not much like the wrens we’re familiar with in Ontario. I managed to get these shots of one later at a different location.
When it’s all so new it’s difficult to say any one bird is Bird of the Day but I think a pair of Spot-breasted Orioles would be it for today. It took me a while to be convinced they’re Spot-breasted, they could have been Altimira or even Streak-backed Orioles. I need better photos, my best picture-taking vantage point is a window at the end of the hotel corridor and well, it could do with a cleaning.
The Clay-coloured Thrush
is the national bird of Costa Rica. At first blush it seems somewhat myopic, unimaginative or even perverse that a country renowned for the vivid brilliance and diversity of its bird life should select one of the dullest birds in the Americas as its avian figurehead. But in my short time here in El Salvador, I’ve come to see it Costa Rica’s way.
The Clay-coloured Thrush is a very close relative of our familiar American Robin, it’s the same size, in the same genus, and it flies, hops and stands sentry just like robin; and for all the same reasons, it is equally closely related to the European Blackbird. There are several more near relatives in the same (unfortunately named) genus ‘turdus’, but I mention the European Blackbird because the Clay-coloured Thrush has a song uncannily like the fluting, liquid melody of the blackbirds’.
On the day of our arrival in El Salvador, I heard birdsong coming from within dense bushes near the hotel, it was almost a blackbird’s song and would have been except for some languid run-on phrasing. I started to think that there might be an escaped population of European birds in this small Central American country.
Then on my first (and shallow) night of Salvadorean sleep, I could hear this same ‘blackbird’s’ song at all hours of the night. Next morning with the song of a blackbird in mind, I couldn’t quite associate what I was hearing with other unrelated songster families; mockingbirds, tanagers or members of the Catharus genus like Nightingale, Swainson’s or Wood Thrushes. It was a puzzle.
Later that morning I happened to see several Clay-coloured Thrushes around the leafy suburbia of the hotel; they’re quite common. Then in researching them I learned that Costa Rica had chosen the Clay-Coloured Thrush as its national bird, not for its visual appeal, but for its rich, liquid song which often continues into the night and in some Central American countries has been credited with bringing on the rainy months of May through September. I’m drawn to the conclusion that my blackbird sound-alike is none other than the Clay-coloured Thrush; its song makes up for its drabness, exactly the point Costa Rica made.
All of that is a rather long-winded way of saying that Costa Rica’s bird of the nation was for me, on my second day in El Salvador, Bird of the Day.