White-rumped sandpiper

May 18 2016. Townsend Ontario. A day of many interesting sightings. Two of us completed a census taking three and a half hours to do what normally takes two. It was full of surprises and pleasures and we ended up with a list of fifty-eight species. Stand-outs in my view, although my companion Barry may have other ideas, were hearing many Tennessee Warblers, finding a neck-breakingly high overhead Blackburnian Warbler, two Cooper’s Hawks patrolling the area on languid wingbeats reminiscent of a Short-eared Owl’s floppy flight style, a female Wood Duck with a brood of eleven day-old ducklings and finding ourselves in close proximity to a male Scarlet Tanager. I have gushed about Scarlet Tanagers often enough but sometimes bemoan the fact that I find them difficult to photograph. Today’s was enjoyed by a gathering crowd of walkers and my camera did well to get some quite good photos; here are a couple. (In a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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With our census done we went in pursuit of shorebirds at some distant sewage lagoons. Birders like sewage treatment areas, I won’t go into details; it’s one of our peculiarities.

It was quite good birding. The lagoons held large numbers of Dunlin, Least Sandpipers and Semi-palmated Plovers. It brought back memories of this time last year along the shores of New Jersey. We found one White-rumped Sandpiper which was interesting, more to Barry than to me I think. He scrutinized it at length, checked its field marks (streaky breast, wing length and slightly drooping bill) mulled over its purported body length in comparison to other sandpipers and gave it his conclusive stamp of approval.

Shorebirds can be excruciatingly difficult to sort out, I’m pretty comfortable with the ones we see most commonly; but a White-rumped Sandpiper is rare enough that I find that they just add to my confusion.

Back home I did a little more research and here’s where it gets really interesting: White-rumped Sandpipers migrate between the extreme southern end of South America, Patagonia in particular, to the extreme northern end of North America, the shores of the Arctic Ocean and Baffin Bay, to breed. A journey of 13,000 kilometers made in a few, long, non-stop flights which can last as long as 60 hours and cover up to 4,000 kilometers. All of this on reserves of body fat as fuel. Pause and think about all of that: a metabolism that converts some forty grams (around one ounce) of yellow, greasy fat into fuel enough to fly from Surinam to Ontario in one go; guided by an internal navigation system that relies on… what: Stars, Earth’s magnetic fields, the Sun? Who knows? Cool bird; Bird of the Day

Swallows

May 15th 2016. Cootes Paradise, Hamilton ON. Canada is sometimes understood to be a country of ice and snow and log cabins and dark pine trees; a impression richly undeserved. It is a picture that today’s hi-speed, hi-definition world should be able to dispel; but fails to. It doesn’t help that every now and then we get a day like this: cold, wet and with sleet and snow in the air; winter just letting us know it hasn’t forgotten us. It was perhaps the coldest May day in history.

I walked one of our census routes. It was raw but the birds still have to live and many could only find food on the ground; flying insects having either died or hunkered down somewhere. I encountered a flock of Cedar Waxwings, an Eastern Kingbird and a solitary Swainson’s Thrush all foraging low along a well used path. I could hear Nashville Warblers, Warbling Vireos and a Northern Waterthrush, all insectivors and probably struggling.

Along the margins of a large lake, Tree, Barn and Northern Rough-winged Swallows were chasing what few flying insects there were, both low, almost at surface level, and just inland in sheltered coves and along marshy tributaries. It may sound unremarkable but swallows normally fly high, swooping, aerial loops picking flying insect at all levels ; today’s birds had been forced down and concentrated in those marginally warmer corners. Many birds had stopped flying, stopped wasting energy in a fruitless pursuit and chose instead to perch, fluffed up to keep warm; whether they were beyond a fatal point of no return I can only speculate on. I’m sure this turn of events was deadly to many insectivorous birds, particularly hatchlings dependent upon parents delivering an endless supply of food.

Barn Swallows in the cold

Barn Swallows in the cold

Here are a couple of shots of swallows: three Barn Swallow above and a Northern Rough-winged Swallow below, waiting for better times.

N Rough-winged Swallow in the cold.

N Rough-winged Swallow in the cold.

Indigo Bunting

May 13th 2016. Cootes Paradise, Hamilton ON. I walked a census route today and enjoyed a few bird encounters that were either landmarks or lessons. I think a female Indigo Bunting stands out as most memorable and instructive and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Scarlet Tanagers, Swainson’s Thrushes and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird all added to the lively 45-species census.

Female Indigo Bunting

Female Indigo Bunting

The photo above is the Indigo Bunting, a female. She flew up from the trail in front of me and perched obligingly just overhead allowing me enough time to get a couple of shots. It took me a few minutes to figure out just what I was looking at and I needed to check a good field guide later to confirm my suspicions. This bird is drab and almost devoid of key field marks, but what caught my eye and led me in the right direction was the faintest hint of blue around the base of the wing. Clearly she bears no resemblance to the dazzling male (photo below). But his foppish glory is short-lived, once the breeding season is over he will become a mottled blend of browns and muddy blue –“…and we all do fade as a leaf”.

Male Indigo Bunting

Male Indigo Bunting

Speaking of dowdy, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was also instructive. Of all the woodpeckers, this species seems to care least about appearances. A well-turned-out sapsucker dresses like an underpaid TV detective, while a dowdy one, like today’s, more like a farmhand.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

The forest was noisy with the songs of half a dozen or more Scarlet Tanagers. Their song is often described as sounding like a robin with a sore throat, which is not a bad description, although I think robins put a bit more heart into it. Perhaps they don’t need to impress with song because seeing a Scarlet Tanager at close quarters is quite enough, almost a shock to the eyes.

Two Swainson’s Thrushes, like all thrushes, kept their distance. I watched them for a while and rarely did I see much more than their backs. Like the Hermit Thrush (See April 30th below) they always seem to be getting ready to leave.

My last and landmark sighting was a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird watching a crowd of school-children from atop a dead tree. His flash of ruby on the throat is not apparent in this light, you’ll have to forgive him; he’s just arrived after a solo flight from Panama. There’s a lot more to a four-gram hummingbird than flashy feathers and a long bill.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Black-throated Blue Warbler and Hooded Warbler.

May 11 2016. Long Point Ontario. Apparently persistent north-east winds of the past few weeks are holding back many of our expected migrants. Among those who gauge the warbler migration of May migration in superlatives and hysteria, today was just an okay day; but I was perfectly happy with it. A companion and I revisited the Long Point area (see May 4) and once again tallied a very varied and respectable list. Some first-of-the-years were: Least Flycatcher, American Redstart, Veery and Red-eyed Vireo. Notable (just because) were a Broad-winged Hawk, several Scarlet Tanagers, a handsome Northern Flicker, and Chestnut-sided, Nashville, Yellow-rumped, Magnolia and Black-throated Green Warblers.

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

We found ourselves on the opposite side of a thicket of brambles, dogwood and grape from a large knot of anxious birders who were desperately trying to find the Black-throated Blue Warbler they could hear but was avoiding them. Their problem was that while they were on the west side of the thicket, we and the bird were getting along nicely on the east side.  I was able to get a few photos, here’s the best of them.Black-throated Blue Warbler. Old Cut, LP

For a long time the Black-throated Blue Warbler was unassailable as Bird of the Day, that is until we were directed to a splendid male Hooded Warbler that was hopping and flitting quickly around a tangle of downed branches. It shone in the relative gloom and had us all gasping in admiration, one look makes you an instant fan. Hooded Warblers’ distribution in Ontario is very limited, generally close to Lake Erie and towards the west end of Lake Ontario; it’s a privilege to count them among our breeding birds. And incidentally, it easily matched the Black-throated Blue Warbler in eye-popping appeal. Co-Bird of the Day.

Hooded Warbler

Hooded Warbler

Hooded Warbler

Hooded Warbler

Bay-breasted Warbler and Yellow-throated Vireo

May 9 2016. Ruthven Park, Cayuga ON. Another one of those cascading-warblers days. I left home long before most mortals were awake but checked the radar beforehand; the image was pulsating with migrants on the move. It takes fifty minutes to get to the bird observatory and the sun was up when I arrived, the woods were ringing with bird song and there was the lightest touch of frost on the grass.

Charged with the mission of doing the daily census I was soon overwhelmed: Chipping Sparrow, Wood Thrush, Song Sparrow, Warbling Vireo, American Robin, Yellow Warbler, say them to yourself quickly and you’ll have some idea of the fury. Black-capped Chickadee, Blue Jay, Baltimore Oriole, American Goldfinch and Tufted Titmouse – and on it went. I quickly filled two columns of a page of my notebook – forty-six entries.

I stared up at the sunlit side of some towering Norway Spruces and found a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, two flame-faced Blackburnian Warblers, a Magnolia Warbler , a Yellow Warbler and a couple of Black-throated Green Warblers. From the top came a clear fluting song that I thought I knew, I had the wrong species in mind but was nevertheless pleased to make the connection with an Orchard Oriole. (Here is a gallery of some of those birds, visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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Much farther along, with my brain, binoculars and notebook all working flat out, I looked up at a small bird working over the tops of a Hackberry, it was a Bay-breasted Warbler. Wow! That’s early by a week or two, I thought. Bird of the Day for that reason alone, but also because Bay-breasteds can be a bit hit and miss, a species that is prone to population swings and, to my mind, often neck-twistingly high overhead.

I watched it and others for a while and then became aware of the unmistakable tree-top call of a Yellow-throated Vireo; I just love these guys and here they are back for another summer’s fun. Their song is a repeated, hoarse, two-phrase whistle; ‘Whee – up’ that sounds a bit the worse for wear as though last night was a late one with too many drinking games. And come to think of it, that whole image of a dissolute party-goer rather fits the nonchalantly pugnacious demeanor of the Yellow-throated Vireo. A quick search of this site will turn up many entries about vireos, all of them in praise of.

Yellow-throated Vireo

Yellow-throated Vireo

I spent three hours on the census, a job that usually takes half that time, and tallied sixty-two species. A high count that could have been higher, I missed a couple of birds that really should have been dead certainties but there it is; after a while birdy days like this can become an over-saturated blur – if happy one.

Common Gallinule

May 4 2016 Long Point Ontario. This was one of those big days. With two companions I went birding to Long Point, one of Ontario’s premier birding destinations. Long Point is an elongated sand-spit that reaches out into Lake Erie to catch the north-bound spring migrants. I started a tally of birds seen as soon as we left home and ended the day with seventy-seven species; a very respectable number. Oddly, we did not see a Mallard all day, not that we were looking for them but it was a conspicuous absence. If I gave it more thought I’m sure there would be other common-but-unaccountably-missed species.

There is a very busy Bird Studies Canada bird observatory at Long Point, visitors are welcome to watch them at work as they band birds caught in an extensive array of mist nets. We, and many others, stopped to see what sort of a bird day they were having; it was, they said, the best day of the year so far. I avoid clogging these postings with long lists of birds but I can hardly let the day go by without sharing our excitement at seeing: Ovenbird, Hooded, Black and White, Palm, Nashville and Black-throated Green Warblers. For one of our group it was his first experience of the Colour Guard rush of May and he was justifiably choked with astonishment to find a male Scarlet Tanager in full-on hot scarlet. I think the Scarlet Tanager probably achieves the pinnacle of colour intensity among any bird species I know; the red is like a campfire ember in its fierce intensity, so intense that my camera struggles to register it. The deep coal-black of its wings and tail emphasizes the scarlet. It is a prize at any time.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

Our day list included many other new migrant arrivals: Chimney Swift, Brown Thrasher, Warbling Vireo, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, White-crowned Sparrows and Blue-headed Vireo among them. We stopped at some open water and added Sandhill Cranes, Bald Eagles, Ring-necked Ducks, Marsh Wren and somewhat astonishingly, Common Gallinule to our tally.

Common Gallinule was until recently considered as one and the same species as the Common Moorhen of Europe. Those who’d rather analyze DNA in a lab than go birding have decided that the two are no longer the same species, that there are enough differences in voice and bill morphology to declare two species where formerly there was one. I know the moorhen from my English childhood, the gallinule is uncommon here although reasonably widespread south of us but best described as wide-ranging, scattered and locally changeable.

On such a blockbuster day it is hard to pick out a single Bird of the Day, but I think the Common Gallinule takes it – although a Chimney Swift and a Nashville Warbler were every bit as exciting to welcome back.  Here’s a Common Gallinule (or Common Moorhen as it was then known)  photographed in South Carolina several years ago.

Common Gallinule

Common Gallinule

American Bittern

May3 2016. Ruthven Park, Cayuga ON. The colour guard arrived today: Yellow Warbler, Baltimore Oriole and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. In my mind the spring arrivals arrive in three tranches: First to push back the ice and bring hope, Red-winged Blackbirds and Tundra Swans; Then dozens of fill-in species through March and April; Lastly the Neo-tropical Colour Guard of May, the tanagers, warblers and orioles.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

The radar loop had shown a big overnight push of migrants. Our proof was a dawn Whip-poor-will calling from somewhere unseen, then as the day brightened a first of the year Baltimore Oriole, a bright splash of orange that we haven’t seen for quite a while.

Three of us did the daily census at the bird observatory. We hoped for but didn’t see the Whip-poor-will, but heard or saw several more first-of-the-year birds: Yellow Warbler, Baltimore OrioleRose-breasted Grosbeak and somewhat sensationally, and Bird of the Day, an American Bittern who we inadvertently flushed from the riverbank where it had presumably called a halt to a night of migration. The rather erratic, at times thin, vegetation along the banks of the river is not the bittern’s idea of home. It will keep going looking for a wide expanse of cattail reeds or deep marsh grasses.

American Bittern

American Bittern

Two years ago I encountered American Bitterns on three occasions making it a red-letter year. This photo is from one of those encounters.

Hermit Thrush

April 30 2016. Cootes Paradise, Hamilton ON. I walked a woodland trail this morning as a precursor to possibly adopting it for further study; it was strangely quiet. I know that in less than a month it will be ringing with bird song, all trees will be in full leaf and the forest floor carpeted with White Trilliums and Wild Geraniums; but not today. I wasn’t entirely surprised. Although the birding world has excitedly followed the arrival of spring migrants, we’re still not quite there as far as forest birds go, and we won’t be until the weather warms up a bit, leaves open and insects proliferate.

It was more a day for listening, I could hear woodpeckers: Northern Flickers, Red-bellied, Downy and Pileated; they all have far-carrying calls. At the other end of the spectrum I picked up the tiny songs of Ruby-crowned Kinglets and, passing through a grove of tall White Pines, the nearly-musical trill of Pine Warblers.

Bird of the Day was a solitary Hermit Thrush. I know they have a beautiful song once they reach their breeding grounds but at other times they are quiet, unassuming and ghost-like. It’s as if they don’t have a social life, always in retreat and rarely stopping long enough for a photo. This one did though and I was finally able to to come close to capturing the essence of the species.Hermit Thrush. RBG 30 April 2016-2 Hermit Thrush. RBG 30 April 2016

Yellowlegs – Greater & Lesser

April 27 2016. Ruthven Park, Cayuga ON. On my way to the bird observatory, passing a still dormant winter-wheat field just a mile or so short of my destination, I noticed a small group of shorebirds in a large puddle. I pulled off the road, grabbed my binoculars and saw that they were Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs. Nice, I thought, they’re refuelling after an overnight flight of scores, if not hundreds, of miles.

Once at the bird observatory I made a point of going down to the river to see whether the water was low enough to expose a small and often productive gravel bar. It was barely exposed but a Spotted Sandpiper and one Lesser Yellowlegs were there.

It was a steady morning at the bird observatory. I helped here and there, stood by as others with more patience explained all about birds to a large kindergarten group, and completed the daily census; by which time the Spotted Sandpiper had gone.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

The forested areas held groups of White-throated Sparrows, I had brief looks at a Pileated Woodpecker, admired a pair of Rusty Blackbirds and two bright Eastern Bluebirds who ornamented an otherwise quiet corner.

Rusty Blackbird.

Rusty Blackbird.

Greater & Lesser Yellowlegs. RP. Apr 27 2016

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs

I returned to check the gravel bar several times and each time the number of Yellowlegs seemed to increase. Around midday, and the last time I looked, there were five Greater Yellowlegs and two Lesser Yellowlegs. That may have been it for the day for, as we watched, something made them decide to leave and six of the seven rose and flew off upstream. Anticipating that the seventh would soon follow I readied the camera and got this okay-ish shot as it lifted off.

Greater Yellowlegs.

Greater Yellowlegs.

Migrating birds – all of them.

April 26 2016 North America. The northbound, tropics-to-temperate-zones spring migration occurs in such massive numbers that the birds show up clearly on radar. It’s a birding drama you can witness without leaving your seat.

I need to lay a little groundwork here to set the stage: 1) Most tropics-to-temperate birds: warblers, flycatchers, cuckoos and the like, migrate at night to better avoid predators and for navigational cues from the stars. 2) The big surges head north via Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean islands, making landfall in Florida, Louisiana and south Texas; 3) Sophisticated air-traffic radar systems pick up echoes of the masses of birds; they appear in circular blobs around major cities where the radar is most effective. While I understand some aspects of bird migration fairly well, I have a very limited understanding of radar and its capabilities.

At night you can see them by following this link, in the daytime you’ll probably just see weather systems and minor stuff.

All of the above is a little dry I know, well it’s not field work after all. But for me seeing the radar images and interpreting them as a momentary sample of the colossal volume of birds on the wing is thrilling, it’s almost beyond comprehension. On an April or May night, (subject to adverse weather conditions) you may well see images like these below which I saved from last night and this morning.