Scarlet Tanager

July 22, 2016, RBG Arboretum, Hamilton ON.  I wouldn’t exactly say I was humbled (one should try to avoid that), but I more or less had to eat my words this morning. I had the pleasurable assignment of leading a two-hour birding hike for an indeterminate number of people, and I misled everyone, including myself.

The background to this is that Ontario’s Royal Botanical Gardens had staged a two day bio-blitz, an all out effort (yesterday and today) to see just what species and forms live, grow, breath, fly, buzz or just sway in the breeze in this large tract of land. Yesterday was for professional botanists, entomologists and zoologists and today was open to anyone interested in contributing. My job was to lead a group of bird enthusiasts and see what we could find.

I was quite surprised at the size of the group that gathered, perhaps fifteen or twenty: some novices, some clearly skilled and a very helpful number of young ears and eyes. Before we set off I explained how July birding can be very quiet, that the noise, the clamour and the drama of migration, courtship and territory-claiming is over and that the birds are now much quieter and more inclined to remain unseen. My expectations were low; how wrong I was; we ended up with a tally of forty-seven species, Whew!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I was relieved quite early in the walk to spot a Ruby-throated Hummingbird atop an ornamental beech, it was in almost exactly the same place as we reliably found one last year so quite possibly the same bird. Just as I feeling relieved to have found the hummingbird, one of our young members called out, “Scarlet Tanager!” and there in deliciously full view, a male posed for several minutes, even allowing several to get some really good photos.

Scarlet Tanager.

I had hinted at the outset that we might, just might, be lucky enough to see a bluebird this morning and, lo and behold, as we revelled in the tanager spectacle at least one Eastern Bluebird came quite close. American Goldfinches flew overhead to add to the colour of the moment. An Eastern Wood Peewee took issue with the tanager’s presence and chased it around for a while, Blue Jays shrieked from the forest behind, a Northern Flicker or two cried out and, to my delight, a Redeyed Vireo sang its ‘here I am – way up –treetop’ song. It was shaping up as a very good morning.

Black-crowned Night Herons

Venturing down towards a large expanse of water we added Indigo Bunting, Common Yellowthroat and Blackcrowned Night Heron, many of which were reasonably well seen by everyone. We were all excited to see a Great Blue Heron and a Great Egret almost side by side, what a comparison!. I asked people to be on the lookout for Bald Eagles and in due course one of our younger members caught sight of one, albeit fleetingly. We also managed distant glimpses of an Osprey, a Belted Kingfisher, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Mute Swans and Barn and Northern Roughwinged Swallows.

Bonaparte’s Gull

As we straggled towards a rainy end of the walk I was happy to admit that I’d been needlessly, what? un-encouraging about our morning’s prospects. Perhaps a lesson learned; I really should get out more.

Winter Wren and Black-throated Green Warbler

July 12 2017 Fletcher Creek EPA, Wellington Co. ON. Following all the ornithic (look it up) clamour and frenzy of April, May and June it feels as though a quietness veil has been drawn across the July landscape. The birds haven’t gone away, not far anyway, it’s just that it’s no longer in a bird’s interest to be assertive and visible, far better to keep your head down and avoid the attention of the many predators out there looking to feed their growing families.

I try to get out and revisit favourite sites or explore as many new places as I can during these birding doldrums. Today I revisited a really interesting and geologically varied conservation area; it encompasses the headwaters of a significant cold-water stream and has been the site of many instructive encounters over the years. I spent a couple of hours following the stream as it made its sparkling way through a thick and often boggy forest of Eastern White Cedar. In the gloom I was happy to pick up the faint two-note call of a Black-throated Green Warbler, just a fragment of its much longer ‘zee zee zee zee zooo-zee’ spring song and a confirmation that the species is almost certainly breeding here, apt because dense conifer forests are their first choice.

Black-throated Green Warbler

Later, perhaps half an hour, I sat to enjoy the time and place for a while, something I don’t do often enough although it is one of the best ways to get under the quietness veil. After several minutes a Northern Waterthrush approached, drawing closer all the time and ticking repeated notes of irritation at my presence. I wondered for a while whether it would come down to a convenient level and allow me to capture a photo-portrait, it didn’t but as it scolded me from above my left shoulder I got this shot.

Northern Waterthrush

The waterthrush’s noisy disapproval drew in a Black-throated Green Warbler, my second of the day, but this time just a few feet away and easy to see (though not photograph). So there, I’d seen and heard two birds both of which were bird of the day-worthy and as I mused on this, I picked up the far off, thread-like musical trill of a Winter Wren; heart-stopping to me because of a sensational Winter Wren encounter four years ago. I refer you to an earlier post and (this is important) its accompanying video.

Winter Wren

The wren stayed around for a while singing intermittently, presumably defining territorial boundaries is still important work. And as I listened, an unseen Common Raven arrived far overhead and started its version of singing, gurgling and croaking. At first blush ravens and wrens might seem an odd pairing but both are truly birds of the north and maybe what was more notable was their presence here, both of them at the southern limit of their breeding range.

So, four birds from which to find My Bird of the Day: Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Winter Wren and perhaps even Common Raven. It was the wren that stopped me in my tracks and the Black-throated Green that surprised me the most. Two Birds of the Day.

Carolina Wren

July 7 2017 Burlington ON. Urban birding again but an exception to the rule this morning; instead of me going looking for birds, the bird came looking for me.  At my computer, the one from which all of these posts originate, I was checking the day’s news and idly deleting junky emails. The room was unlit, cool and one window half open; just another start to a summer day.  Hearing a purposeful fluttering to my right I looked back to see a Carolina Wren had flown in to see what I was up to.

I’m used to hearing Carolina Wrens around our home and neighbourhood, often it’s their strident tea-kettle tea-kettle tea-kettle song, other times a declarative purring. They’re not shy birds, anything but, a trait they share with others in the wren family and I believe them to be patrolling the neighbourhood, checking for irregularities, just making sure everything is as it should be. They get under all the overhangs, mouse their way through brushy corners and peer into dark recesses; so what, on a bright day, could be more inviting to a Carolina Wren than a dark opening to an unlit room? So in it came.

The fluttering caught my attention, I recognized it for a Carolina Wren immediately and knowing how interested they are in affairs of the neighbourhood I struck up a conversation, much the way people talk to their cat, ‘Well, what are you doing in here?” that sort of thing; we don’t have a cat. My wife, sitting at her desk just a few feet away but out of sight, was thoroughly baffled. I’m used to her talking to herself and probably she has some sort of reciprocal acceptance of my foibles too, but she says this was a different conversation. I called her to come and see who I had with me.

The wren flitted around the room and, not wanting to see it bash itself against a windowpane as some panicked birds will do, I closed the blinds leaving only a gap leading to the sunlit outdoors.

It investigated bookcases, magazines and chair-backs without apparent concern, long enough for me to get just one recognizable photo, then dropped down to a little window-side table and zipped out the way it’d come in.

Other than a Carolina Wren there isn’t another species of neighbourhood bird I’d rather share my office space with. I may try the open window trick again tomorrow but I suspect being neighbourhood-wise and having satisfied its curiosity, it won’t need to come back.

Carolina Wren where it belongs

Peregrine Falcon

June 27 2017.Hamilton On. This evening we attended an event at the Art Gallery, the occasion was the opening of new exhibits, the public was invited and the cost of entry free. Free or not we probably would have gone, our daughter has a staff position of some responsibility and she encouraged us to broaden our cultural horizons a bit. So we went, we admired, genuinely admired, the rare sculptural pieces, the recreated artists’ studios and the sweeping pencil drawings of arctic life.

In due course it was time to gather for opening remarks from the people who typically fill gaps in the action this way. The setting was nice, the room acoustically perfect and behind us loomed the quiet, sunlit office-buildings of downtown.

I think I’ve always been on the fidgety side so I have trouble with long, applause-punctuated, introductions of countless dignitaries of descending rank. After a while my attention wandered from the speakers and turned to the bright, geometric cityscape behind us. I was musing on just how different was this scene with its rectangles, triangles and ranks of parallel lines, from the pleasing chaos of the world of nature hinted at by the row of lindens in the foreground. I think I liked what I was looking at but knew I infinitely preferred almost anywhere without concrete or bricks.

geometry

As I weighed my thoughts, playing visual games with the intersection of rooflines, a Peregrine Falcon appeared from the lower half of the gap to the right and swept up to exit the stage at top left. It shot through and was gone in one second or two, or three wing-beats maybe; I’m sure no-one else noticed.

In front of me, to my delight, had passed the fastest animal in the world. It was a fly-past by a top predator with not the slightest interest in our cultural gathering, just the natural world saying I’m still here.

 

Eastern Kingbird

June 24 2017.   Flamborough Ontario.  Birding is a very different pursuit as June matures. The headlong rush is over: the rush to get here, seize territory and find a mate;  the task now is to get the next generation launched, literally airborne.

I spent half of today scouting ahead for a trip I’m leading tomorrow, it’s billed as Birds, Swamps, Bogs and Marshes.  It was cool when I started but even so a few dedicated mosquitoes viewed me as a warm breakfast and, to add to the distractions, I was irritated by the almost constant sound of small aircraft overhead. There is an airport with a flight school several miles away and apparently the airspace above where I like to go birding is remote enough to try the riskier aspects of learning to fly.

Grasshopper Sparrow

I went to half a dozen of my better birding sites and was a little surprised when a few species I’d expected to find were absent. Still, Northern Waterthrushes, a Canada Warbler and a Grasshopper Sparrow were fairly easily found in the same places as last year. An Indigo Bunting, Common Yellowthroats, Veerys, a Great Crested Flycatcher and an Eastern Towhee were all singing loudly to reinforce their territorial claims and, near a small lake, a pair of anxious Spotted Sandpipers begged me to keep my distance.

Indigo Bunting

Bird of the Day was probably an Eastern Kingbird eyeing me warily from its nest. Kingbirds are pugnacious defenders of their territory and don’t seem to go to a lot of trouble to conceal their nest, but then again set among the spikes and spines of a hawthorn bush like this, maybe it’s not so important.

Eastern Kingbird on nest

Yellow-headed Blackbird

June 8 2017. Nayanquing Point State Wildlife Area, Michigan. Describing a road trip around Michigan as an expedition is a bit of an exaggeration, expeditions surely imply a measure of hardship and some confrontations with the unknown; hardly what you get in Michigan. Nevertheless, this was the last day of what we understood as our Michigan expedition and we were making our way back to the familiar landscapes of Ontario; Nayanquing Point State Wildlife Area was on our way. It is a managed wetland on the shore of Lake Huron not far from the once thriving industrial city of Saginaw. Saginaw by the way was formerly a very prosperous manufacturing city with ties to the fortunes of Detroit and the auto industry; but….

Sandhill Cranes

Nayanquing is good wetland birding. In a couple of hours we tallied about forty species including Caspian Terns, Trumpeter Swans, Pied-billed Grebes, a pair of nervous Sandhill Cranes and this lovely little Common Yellowthroat.

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We were hoping to see Least Bitterns but didn’t despite an intensive scrutiny of likely habitat. Least Bittern has become something of a nemesis bird for me. I remember seeing just one about thirty years ago, then I picked up a dead one at the roadside within the last five years and I know where to go to hear them but seeing them is another matter.

Another target bird was Yellowheaded Blackbird, a species I had never seen, not surprisingly because it’s a bird of the western half of the continent. It took a bit of finding and when we did I was rather distracted by the intriguing landscape in which we encountered it. We had wandered away from the trails towards the shoreline and found ourselves in a small oak savannah on a narrow sandy strip of beach that separated the inland marsh from the cold waters of Lake Huron; I wish I’d taken more time to investigate and understand this isolated and probably fragile ecosystem. While trying to understand the landscape, the ecology and to identify the oaks (they were Black Oaks) that sheltered us from the onshore wind, we became aware of a near cacophony of musical squeaks and parrot-like HhShhhh sounds coming from those same encircling oaks. We soon tracked down the culprits, a small group of male Yellow-headed Blackbirds: immediately My Birds of the Day.

Birds of the Day for several reasons: I’d never seen one before so it would be an addition to my life list should I ever compile one; They were startlingly larger and more imposing than I’d anticipated, I had imagined them be about the same as Red-winged Blackbirds but substituting yellow heads for red wings; And they reminded me strongly of the raucous Yellowwinged Caciques common in the urban parks of western Mexico, so strongly that, for a while, I wondered if they were closely related; it turns out they’re not.

I managed to get just one reasonable Yellow-headed Blackbird photo, here it is along with one of those Mexican caciques (kahHEEkays). And you know, in the cold light of day they are quite different – the challenge of birding.

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Bookend Warblers

Seeing our last bird of the trip, a Canada Warbler, I commented to Dan that our just-completed, six-day circuit had been book-ended by premium warblers: Mourning Warbler and Canada Warbler. It got me thinking. Could it be that we saw a special new warbler each day? I went back over my notes and no, we didn’t. It was birds of every stripe that made our journey so rewarding. But for the record and as an exercise in nostalgia here is a library of warblers.

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Our starter was a Mourning Warbler found along a trail at the edge of a sphagnum bog not far from home. It was lifer for Dan and just as special for me. Although Mourning Warblers are around, they are not common and I rarely see one. At this site we also heard a Common Yellowthroat, always an engaging bird and the first of many more to come.

We spent our first overnight near Point Pelee and passed the afternoon in this legendary bird-magnet. There were suggestions of a Cerulean warbler but we couldn’t find it but a while later we were held spellbound by a couple of Prothonotary Warblers holding off intruders in their preferred dark, waterlogged, woodland home.

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The second day we spent in richly agricultural southern Michigan visiting three sites: Sharonville State Game Area, Watkins Lake State Park and Nan Weston Nature Preserve. The morning was low on warblers but sensational on many other fronts. We added Yellow Warbler without difficulty and in the heat of the afternoon I heard a couple of Ovenbirds singing in the otherwise quiet, green forests at Nan Weston.

On day-three our goal was to explore Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, but first we prowled up and down Embury Road near Chelsea, a switchback of a road through quiet woodlands, we were seeking (and found) Cerulean Warblers. We also added three more new warblers that morning: Hooded Warbler (heard but not seen), Blue-winged Warbler and American Redstart. The afternoon at Shiawassee was for waterfowl but we also found more Common Yellowthroats, Prothonotary Warblers and Yellow Warblers along a woodland trail.

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Nayanquing Wildlife Refuge on the shore of Lake Huron was another waterfowl spot and held no new warblers for us but, just to add colour, we topped up on Common Yellowthroats and Yellow Warblers. We made a side-trip along a nearby woodland edge, reported to be a spot to find Golden-winged Warblers; we didn’t but instead found a Blue-winged Warbler, our first Chestnut-sided Warbler and a brief and shadowy Mourning Warbler.

Kirtlands Warbler.

The next day was to be the culmination of our trip. We headed to Hartwick Pines State Park in countryside more reminiscent of northern Ontario where Kirtland’s Warbler was an easy find. It’s a pilgrimage bird for many and I was in the company of a score of checklisters. It was the Kirtland’s we were after but brief appearances by a Palm Warbler and a singing Nashville Warbler were welcome sightings nevertheless.

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That afternoon we tracked down a pair of beautiful Golden-winged Warblers Keeping company with Chestnut-sided Warblers and American Redstarts. At our otherwise unremarkable motel, afternoon Pine Warblers sang from the White Pines around us.

On Dan’s last 24 hours in Ontario and before delivering him at the airport I was able to show him three each of Northern Waterthrush and book-ending the week, a couple of splendid, singing Canada Warblers.

Canada Warbler

I make that seventeen warbler species; perhaps we should have found Black and White, Yellow-rumped and Magnolia Warblers had we scoured appropriate habitat. Dan clung to a really long-shot hope, a Connecticut Warbler, but no. Yellow Warblers, American Redstarts and Common Yellowthroats were the warbler lubricant that kept things moving along, they were part of the background pretty much every day and at almost every place.

Kirtland’s Warbler & Golden-winged Warbler

June 7 2017 Hartwick Pines State Forest, Michigan. There is absolutely nothing to seeing a Kirtland’s Warbler.  They are very rare it’s true, they’re also protected and cosseted so, if you want to see one, just about the only way, certainly the best way to get a glimpse, is to show up just before seven a.m at the visitor centre at northern Michigan’s Hartwick Pines State Park and join the guided tour, it’s free and warbler-encounters pretty well guaranteed. A young naturalist briefs you on the circumstances of the Kirtland’s Warbler’s ecology, history, population crash and subsequent recovery, and then off you go.

You join a car-convoy of birders and in no time at all you’re at a site where Kirtland’s Warblers breed and where males of the species sing lustily.  It’s all very easy.  That’s what we did today and the only struggle was in actually laying eyes on one, you could hear them all around, often just a few feet away, but the pines, though short, are thick and the birds rarely obvious.

The thing about Kirtland’s Warblers is that there are only about two thousand in the world; about the same as the population of Grayling, the sprawling crossroads of a town closest to the State Forest.  They spend the winter in the Bahamas (the birds not the people of Grayling), nest in northern Michigan and make an unaided two-thousand five-hundred kilometre journey twice a year.  Such a journey is not particularly extraordinary in the bird world; other species fly the length of the American continents, south to north and back.  But what is extraordinary is that the Kirtland’s Warbler came close to extinction. European settlers thought they knew better and catastrophically disrupted a few natural underpinnings of the Kirtlands’ habitat and breeding biology.  By the mid 1900s the species’ population fell close to three hundred and it seemed doomed.

Kirtlands Warbler

To the great credit of Michigan Audubon and the state’s Department of Natural Resources the free-fall has been reversed and the Kirtland’s Warbler seems to be recovering, but it’s still a very rare bird and we were privileged to see it, stage-managed though it was. It was unequivocally Bird of the Day until…

….We went looking for a Golden-winged Warbler and found it too. Truth is we’d heard where we might find them and made our way to an obscure gravel road. We parked in the shade, scratched together some bits and pieces of lunch and then paced up and down, looking, listening and enjoying the time and place. In a half an hour or so of trying we found Chestnut-sided Warblers, American Redstarts, and Hairy Woodpeckers. We were far from discouraged but wondered just a little whether the directions we’d been given were all they were cracked up to be.

Golden-winged Warblers sing after a fashion, it’s really just a short series of buzzes, like a worrisome electrical short; and harder to hear the older you get. But then…there it was overhead and anxious. It stayed in one place just long enough for us to get our binoculars on it and then it zipped across the road looping around to another half-hidden vantage spot. A short maddening pause, long enough for us to spot it and then off again, around and around it went. Eventually we got used to each other and things settled down and we realized there were two of them and they were carrying food to nestlings somewhere nearby.

Golden-winged Warbler

The sight of a Golden-winged Warbler always makes me catch my breath and it indisputably fits in the category of pretty warblers. It is also in my personal collection of ‘Warblers I never get a decent photo of.” Here’s couple: one above from this day and one below from a year ago. Both lovely to look at but I recommend seeing a real one in the open and sunlit; if it’ll stay still that is.

Golden-winged Warbler

Evening Grosbeak

June 6 2017. Hartwick Pines State Forest, Michigan. Today’s Bird of the Day came as a surprise.  A complete surprise because the idea of northern finches was quite possibly one of the furthest things from my mind; after all we had spent the day in pursuit of what I suppose you might call the birds of summer: warblers, vireos, grebes and the like. Then suddenly right in front of us was an Evening Grosbeak, a bird I associate with winter.

We had come to the end of a longish trek north and decided to visit the visitor centre at Hartwick Pines State Park in north-central Michigan.  The countryside had changed over the past half day from largely prosperous agriculture beset by broadleaf forest to sandy and dry with impoverished or half-abandoned farms; altogether more northern.

At the park’s visitor centre a staff member was telling us about the area and what to expect.  As part of her explanation she pointed casually at a loaded bird feeder where a male Evening Grosbeak sat happily gulping down sunflower seed.  It was a complete reset to the day: it cast aside memories of Mourning Warblers, American Bitterns and Ring-necked Pheasant any of which otherwise might have been my Bird of the Day; this was a late entrant and totally unrehearsed.

Evening Grosbeak pair

Evening Grosbeaks are gorgeous birds, to look at anyway, for all I know they may be boreal thugs.  The photo above is of a male and female on one of the feeders and the one below a male.

Evening Grosbeak at water

Evening Grosbeak

A few odds and ends about Evening Grosbeaks: It’s been decades since I last saw one; it may have been a spring day thirty-five years ago when I last saw a small flock of them.  A scattering of buttercup yellow birds on a gravel road busily picking grit; an old and vivid memory. 

Evening Grosbeaks are a close relative of Europe’s Hawfinch, two of three birds in the genus Cocothraustes (a melodious and somehow self-descriptive word!)  The three in the family are: HawfinchCoccothraustes coccothraustes; Evening GrosbeakCoccothraustes vespertinus; and the Mexico’s Hooded GrosbeakCoccothraustes abeillei. They are a year-round bird of the northern coniferous forests and one of the best (and easiest) ways to see them is on-line via a web-cam set up in a northern Ontario back yard and streamed on Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website (Here’s a link , click on Ontario Feeder Watch, but at the time of writing it is showing archived material).

Cerulean Warbler

5 June 2017. Pinkney Recreation Area, Michigan.There is a condition known as ‘warbler neck’, it affects northern hemisphere birders, older ones more so than younger, and is especially prevalent in May and June. It’s usually felt as painful vertebral torsion caused by prolonged binocular searching for warblers in the forest canopy directly overhead.  It can be eased by going home.

Dan and I endured a long episode of warbler neck today.  We were in a gloriously green hardwood forest searching for Cerulean Warblers.  It was cool, spring-jacket weather, mosquito-free and the forest was ringing with bird song: Scarlet Tanagers, Yellow-throated Vireos, Baltimore Orioles, Tufted Timice and Eastern Wood Peewees.  We endured the discomfort because we could hear Cerulean Warbler song, at least I could.

Few warblers are as sought after as Cerulean Warblers, perhaps because they are so hard to spot and are uncommon; maybe the latter is a consequence of the former. And yet – we succeeded.  It took a little while, too often the birds were fast-moving silhouettes against a flat-grey morning sky.  We pieced together bits and pieces, small clues as to identification until we felt sure we had a Cerulean, then finally a male dropped low enough, unobstructed and lodged on a big old branch such that its markings and its blues, greys and whites became clear against a dark background. Cerulean Warbler identification clinched!  Unlike the previous two days when we have found target birds quickly and almost without effort (Mourning Warbler and Henslow’s Sparrow respectively), the Cerulean Warbler was a struggle, deservedly My Bird of the Day. Here’s an unsatisfactory photo from a couple of years ago..

Cerulean Warbler

It’s worth noting here that in the informal birder circles of southern Ontario there are a number of what I’d call trophy birds: Cerulean Warbler would be one, Acadian Flycatcher another, Prothonotary Warblers for sure, and Mourning Warbler probably.  There are many other rare and unusual birds of course, too many to list here, but they’d be birds that just don’t belong and are occasionally seen on migration or perhaps are an off-course wanderer.  Trophy birds on the other hand are known or suspected to be around but are few and far between and always hard to see. The four noted above are all in the bag for us on this trip and a few more wait to be found: Least Bittern, Connecticut Warbler and Golden-winged Warbler.  What are our chances?  Right now I’d say good, very poor and fair in that order.

Now 24 hours later, I can report that we could not find a Least Bittern despite our best efforts patrolling the margins of a likely marsh at the Nyanquing Wildlife Refuge near Saginaw, Michigan.  It wasn’t all lost though, an American Bittern flew up from a trailside waterhole and I could hear the hauntingly weird song of Pied-billed Grebes.

Birding has been called a sport, I’m not sure about that but it sure has its challenges.