Wide- billed Roller and Lilac-breasted Roller

Uganda January 26 2017. It’s been a long time since I can say I really enjoyed birding from the seat of my car. It can be productive, its true, and if there’s a team of birders crammed together the camaraderie helps a lot, but I’ve come to think that the fuel used is hard to justify and you certainly can’t make any claims to healthy exercise. Today however was different.,

With my guide Robert we crossed Uganda , almost side to side from Entebbe to Bundibugiyo, about 400 km. Robert is an accomplished birder and a professional tour guide, he is to be my lifeline for seven days, we drove (or rather he did) because we’re going into Semliki National Park tomorrow morning. Four hundred kilometres was bound to turn up some nice birds and bearing in mind that it’s pretty well all new to me, there was bound to be something to make my bird of the day.

Dedicated readers will recall my ode to a European Roller some weeks back, how its sapphire blue-ness and sheer improbability put it on my I- bet-I-never-see-one-of-those list. Then all was put to rights by seeing dozens, if not hundreds in Kazakhstan. it hadn’t registered with me then that there could be other rollers extant in this world; and that was the lesson for today, there’s more.

What I took at first to be a kestrel of some kind making a purposefully sweeping turn just above tree level and coming to a rest on utility lines, turned out to be a Wide- billed Roller. Setting aside the rather comic connotations of its name, (its not the only bird in creation that could stand a little bit of re-styling I’d say) this was bit of a showstopper. In flight it had shown a rich chestnut back and wings and a dazzling blue rump and tail. From where we gazed at it, all we could see was its rusty chestnut coloured undersides, a hint of aquamarine beneath its tail and to be fair a very wide bill. I think though that you’ll understand that I was impressed.

Another roadside sighting was a Lilac-breasted Roller, an even more eye-catching beauty. I had to crane my neck a little for a good look and a photo. ( Almost everything here was written before I attempted to upload a couple of photos to compliment the text. Alas, something technically impenetrable seems to misunderstand something else technically incomprehensible; So no pictures. That I can communicate like this at all from what a few decades ago would count as deepest darkest Africa is a wonder by any measure. So kindly forgive the lapse and you use your imagination, there’s always Google.  I’ll get the photos up when I can.). How does it get away with dazzling blues like that? And then there’s the chestnut-turning cinnamon, a dashing black eye line and a few touches of cream around the head and neck. Now I have three roller species in my mental collection. I know there are places in the world where rollers are run of the mill and now I have three roller species in my mental display case but it will take a while for me to not be stopped in my tracks by them.

I’ll add for the record, that in order to provide material for this site, I spent this evening in Bundibugyo in an establishment known as Vanilla Hotel. It is reputed to be the best overnight accommodation available in this smallish market town. A little research ahead of time hadn’t helped, former guests who left comments on TripAdvisor were almost to a man withering in their review, so I knew not to expect too much. My room was acceptably clean which was nice and, to some extent, made up for lack of a shower or indeed running water for any purpose, or for a supposed beef stew ( the only thing on the dinner menu) which included a three large tangles of improbable bones tied together with something odd looking and certainly un-chewable. Still a cold beer was perfect and since my body was still trying to sort out what time of just which day it was, I believed myself able to ignore a lot of inconvenience by retiring early. However as I write this it is yet barely midnight. I have slept fitfully for perhaps two hours despite the efforts of a dance club which I think may have been set up on my balcony and has played one endless piece featuring a young woman with a powerful voice and an adoring audience. Still I’m awake now and no lasting harm’s done, I may just have to find a way to fill the next six hours. It is airlessly hot in here and I think I should get back under my mosquito net.

Pileated Woodpecker

Friday January 13 2017. RBG Arboretum, Hamilton ON. In need of a good winter leg-stretch and an opportunity to blow the cobwebs away I took the longest and hilly-est route I could find around a wide expanse of woodland. The weather was cooperating, sunny at times but cold enough to be crunchy underfoot, and the day turned out to be quite productive bird-wise. I don’t think I saw another human soul for most of the five kilometers of trails I covered.

I was surprised and delighted by this Winter Wren who popped out of the fringes of a cattail marsh and was curious to see what the fuss was all about. The fuss, such as it was, came from a bunch of Black-capped Chickadees who seemed to expect that I had brought food for them, but I hadn’t and the chickadees were indignantly persistent. The chickadees also attracted the attention of a couple of American Tree Sparrows and a White-throated Sparrow. The rather unexpected Winter Wren was a treat and I had mentally tagged it as my Bird of the Day until just a little further up a trail I found myself almost face to face with this male Pileated Woodpecker. Step aside Winter Wren!

There are many things to celebrate about Pileateds . They’re big, showy and gloriously awesome (awesome in the literal, pre generation-x, sense of the word). They’re more often heard than seen; you’ll often catch a Pileated’s ringing call from perhaps half a kilometer away. Sometimes it’s not only their vocalization but their hammering that you pick up, in search of succulent grubs they bash away at soft old trees, loudly like the chiseling of a medieval shipbuilder; there’s nothing else quite like it. When you see Pileateds it’s often a fleeting, distant and sometimes shy glimpse; but today I was lucky.

This male (male’s have a red moustachial stripe, females black) seemed generally unconcerned about my presence. He didn’t want me too close but 20 feet away seemed to be okay. He was deeply engrossed excavating for food, but even so, as is so typical of Pileateds, he opted to maintain a practical and physical separation by prefering to stay on the opposite side of the tree from me. I stood watching and waiting for perhaps fifteen minutes, knowing he was there and just catching the odd photo when he’d venture around, but more often than not it was just a flash of his red head to one side or the other.

It rarely easy in my experience to get a good photo of a Pileated, and today, although I took the better part of eighty shots, his evasiveness, the foreground clutter and sharply contrasting light made it tricky. Still I did quite well and on one of my shots you can just make out his long, probing tongue. Here is a gallery of shots visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email. Click on any photo to see it enlarged.

It was one of those birding experiences with everything working in my favour: I had the place to myself and there was no urgency on my part or the Pileated’s, a Red-bellied Woodpecker was just behind it (a nice counterpoint) and a White-breasted Nuthatch behind that (ditto).

Funny how, in the depths of winter, woodlands and their fringes can be very quiet one day, and then at other times, like today, quite rewarding, it makes you wonder where the birds go to on the quiet days. By the time I completed my walk I had added a Carolina Wren, three Hairy Woodpeckers, a Northern Mockingbird, Northern Cardinals and a couple of soaring Red-tailed Hawks to my day.


Bald Eagle

Saturday January 7 2017. Royal Botanical Gardens Arboretum, Hamilton ON. A young friend, an enthusiastic and personable staff member at Royal Botanical Gardens, is offering a series of monthly Introduction to Birding walks. Registration is limited, people love it and he’s a little overwhelmed. He asked for help and I’m always happy to share my enjoyment of birds even though I’m a fair weather birder and today was cold like old stone.

Still, our happy group was captivated and eagerly absorbed the instruction on effective use of binoculars. (A side note here; the eyecups on most modern binoculars can be adjusted by a quick turn between extended or flat-down. If you’re not wearing glasses extend them up, if you are wearing glasses the cups should be down. The distance from the surface of your eye to the lens of the binoculars makes a ton of difference.)

Frankly we didn’t see many birds but the group enjoyed learning about the characteristic flight style of an American Crow (Straight ahead, flap flap flap.). We watched a group of House Sparrows finding some food and maybe warmth in the crevices of an old wall and enjoyed the hungry attention of Black-capped Chickadees.

Bald Eagle. RBG Arboretum

The highlight was undoubtedly the appearance fairly low overhead of an adult Bald Eagle. Against the blue sky it was a classic, its stark white head and tail set against the all-black wings and body had everyone’s full attention. We were in a small, tree-sheltered valley and instead of the eagle crossing from one side to the other – in view for a moment and then out of view – it hesitated half way, made an abrupt acrobatic turn and changed course. It was unquestionably our Bird of the Day.

American Goldfinch

January 1 2017. Downtown Burlington, ON. My morning routine is usually,  make coffee, glance at newspaper, then check for emails. But it was pretty slim e-mail pickings on the first day of the year although there are those emailers who dispatch something every day, come what may. Today 10,000 Birds asked, “What was your first bird of 2016?” A bit early I thought, it’s still dark out – but I’ll watch for it, and thereupon resolved that whatever I saw first would be my Bird of the Day, despite the fact that a few years ago my first of the year was a Ring-billed Gull; how dreary. Would 2017 be any better?

It wasn’t until around mid-day that I left the house. It was surprisingly warm, around 4 deg. C, and I was looking forward to leading a nature hike. As I approached my car I could hear the wheezy little notes of a couple of American Goldfinches high above in an old Ash tree. Heard but not seen I acknowledge, but they have equivalency to me; not everyone agrees. But there you have it, American Goldfinch My Bird of the Day to start 2017.  Here are a couple of goldfinch shots from warmer days.

Perhaps more interesting is a note for January 1st in my everlasting nature diary. In 1988 I wrote. “With Geo, M thought we should work on our ’88 list. In its exhaustiveness the list thus far is Canada Goose, Mallard, Black Duck, N Pintail, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Canvasback, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Merganser, Black Vulture, Rough-legged. Hawk, American Kestrel, Great Blue Heron, Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Bonaparte’s Gull, Rock Dove, Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Starling, House Sparrow, House Finch, Crow, Chickadee, Junco (31). “ I don’t compile year lists any more, really I never did with any enthusiasm, so I’m not attuned to what’s in town and what’s not but I think it’s an impressive start to 1988.

Of special note is that Black Vulture, I clearly remember that bird seen as a big black lump in the top of a large Eastern Hemlock, I could lead you to the very tree today. Black Vultures, while common throughout most of U.S states to the south of us, have been essentially absent from Ontario except for the odd one now and then. But things are changing and Black Vultures are poised to expand their range northwards. Perhaps, in the vulture community, word is spreading that Turkey Vultures are doing too well in Ontario to have it all to themselves. Over perhaps the last five years it’s almost become a sport to stand on the banks of the Niagara River and watch and wait for one of a pair of resident New York State Black Vultures to stray across international border.

And for what it’s worth, by the end of today I could have legitimately compiled a list with: Black-capped Chickadee, House Sparrow, White-breasted Nuthatch, Ring-billed Gull, Mallard, American Black Duck, Trumpeter Swan, Bufflehead, Orange-crowned Warbler, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-tailed Hawk and Canada Goose.


December 25 2016. LaSalle Marina, Burlington, ON. On Christmas Day 2013 I wrote about Canvasbacks as my Birds of the Day.  It’s worth taking a look if only for the rather wintery photos that accompany the post. December 2013 saw the start of the now infamous Polar Vortex winter that seized North America by the throat for the best part of five months, only finally letting up in mid-May.

Now, Christmas Day three years later, and once again the Canvasbacks are in town. I walked the length of a sheltered waterfront trail knowing that many winter ducks should be close. But this Christmas Day is considerably warmer, the waters of the harbour carry no ice so ducks, wherever they are, have no compulsion to hug the shoreline. Still, it was pleasant watching Canada Geese getting together and it kept my camera busy trying to capture their skillful splash landings.

A family of Trumpeter Swans drifted around some algae-draped rocks and I was struck by how dependent the young seem to be on their parents. In two or three months, as winter draws to a close, the cygnets of 2016 will probably be told to get lost and to make their own way in the world; the adults will have the next round of breeding in mind.

And once again, just as in 2013, Birds of the Day were Canvasbacks, large rafts of them were anchored just off shore. Here’s a couple of the best shot from today – but no snow in the air this time.

Great Black-backed Gull

December 21 2016. Bronte Harbour ON. I was reminded today that one of the things about birding and this follow-up writing exercise, is that my story is as much about the texture of the day as the calibre of the bird(s) that makes the news. Today for example, arguably one of the least productive days of birding in memory. I believe I can list the sightings of the day – and it won’t take long: American Crow, Red-tailed Hawk, Mallard, Canada Goose, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Great Black-backed Gull, Black-capped Chickadee and Mourning Dove; nine species!

What then, was it about the texture of the day? The shortest day of the year, sunlight in limited supply, uneven crusty and sometimes deep, snow on the ground and a quest by three, faintly long-in-the-tooth, usually easy-going birders to see what we could find; with luck maybe an owl or two.

To cut to the chase we didn’t see many birds and we didn’t see any owls. The best bet for most winter owls (other than Snowy Owls) is to check dense groves of evergreens like cedar, spruce and pine where they like to roost hidden from assault or predation. But although we hiked and stumbled along three or four deep-snow kilometers and scanned pine after pine and spruce after spruce, the best we could say was that we found a spruce with evidence of owl poop .

But owls aside, we also walked around the encompassing arm of a now-empty yacht-basin hoping for some nice winter ducks (and maybe a Snowy Owl). On the fractured plates of thin ice, dozens of Canada Geese sat idly passing the time of day. A handful of mergansers cruised by and then a Great Black-backed Gull wheeled into view and settled at the end of a floating pier.

The sight of the gull gave me a little shiver of pleasure; such handsome birds! If they weren’t just another raucous gull or so bloodthirsty at skewering a meal, or if they had some kind of noble bearing, they might, as the world’s largest gull species, have earned a fond place in the public imagination. But it hasn’t worked out that way for them.  Still I admire them and today’s was easily my Bird of the Day – not that it had a lot of competition.

Here’s a couple of photos: Above of a Great Black-backed Gull and a Herring Gull side by side; Below taken three winters ago of a young-plumage Great Black-backed Gull polishing off the remains of an indeterminate duck – on ice.

American Kestrel

December 6 2016. Burlington ON. At this low-light time of year when the urban landscape is monochromatic and the skies, as often as not, grey, then any bird seen against that sky is pretty well sure to be one of: a wind-tossed crow, a solitary gull, a flock of starlings, or, if wheeling around using the wind as an aid, a Red-tailed Hawk.

On my mostly uninspiring drive to my place of casual work I pass a rather abused and under appreciated field. Once part of a productive farm it is now squeezed between the competing space demands of a busy rail line, a highway service road and an overpass that serves to allow the cars and trucks of commerce to move more happily. Someone still takes the trouble to cut the grass and make a few rolls of hay but mostly I suspect to keep property taxes down by claiming that the land is legitimately farmed .

Along the roadside, on the other side of a gritty ditch, runs a march of utility poles, between the poles are swoops of thick cable and on the cable sits an American Kestrel; it’s there every time I drive by. Sometimes it’s moved along from one loop to another but generally it sits impassively gazing at the dry grasses below. Twice I’ve seen it drop purposefully to the ground to grab something.  I wonder what it finds: a mouse, a vole – surely not grasshoppers any more.

I never linger and watch, usually I’m on my way to meet a deadline, it’s not the sort of road that encourages casual stopping anyway and I don’t have my binoculars or camera with me. And besides, that little passing glimpse of a falcon makes for a bright spot, a Bird of the Day, in an otherwise rather dreary early winter day.

Here’s a photo of another American Kestrel, another place and a sunny day.


Pileated Woodpecker

October 6 2016. RBG Arboretum, Hamilton ON. It being late November as I write this and since much of the past few weeks has been absorbed by catch-up on the other demands of life, this is a look back at a day’s birding two months ago. The 6th October: 18 degrees C. (65 F), no cloud, a very light west wind; perfect day for a census and a walk through a hardwood forest.

It was, for a while, a bit on the average side: Yellow-rumped Warblers everywhere, a flyover Cooper’s Hawk and handfuls of Blue Jays. But then it seemed to become a woodpecker day: six Red-bellied and four Downy Woodpeckers, a couple of Northern Flickers, three Hairy Woodpeckers and even a quiet, minding its own business, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Only one missing – although not for long.

Nearing the half-way point of our census circuit we heard a Pileated Woodpecker’s fanfare call some distance away. And the thing about this loud, ringing cry is that it penetrates forests, carrying proportionately much farther than others of the clan; a distantly heard Pileated could be half a kilometer away. We could only hope that the one we could hear was somewhere in front of us and would stay long enough for us to get a lucky glimpse – that’s usually all you get. Our luck held and we soon found ourselves close enough to hear it chopping wood looking for a meal. I was keen to see how far our luck would carry us and wandered off the path a few meters, looking up and following the chunky hammering until I spotted it wrapped around the thin heights of a dying ash. Ash trees here and across much of the north-east are falling in quick succession to an imported pest, Emerald Ash Borer, and the only good thing to come of this blight might be a feeding bonanza for woodpeckers. I suppose it worked in my favour today. Here it is in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

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European Roller

September 5 2016 Chokpak Pass, Kazakhstan. I’m digging back into my near-archives for this one, going back to September when four birder friends and I spent a couple of weeks in Kazakhstan. And I’m writing about the European Roller not just because we saw quite a few, or simply because they’re magnificent, but because I’ve been imagining rollers for decades; they are one of my childhood dream birds. A few times in past posts I have written about the thrill of finally meeting up with those I-never-thought-I’d-see-one birds: Hoopoe, Bee-Eater, Avocet and Osprey come to mind. Many of those elusives are Eurasian birds and in hindsight it’s evident they’re more –asian than Eur.

During our days in Kazakhstan we saw many European Rollers but rarely close enough to get a decent look or photo. For mile upon mile there seemed to be a roller on every loop of the utility lines that paralled the highway or railway, but trains don’t stop to look at birds and the glimpses were unsatisfying. But on this day of exploration of the wide valley that separated our camp from the Tien-Shan Mountain slopes, I finally had a chance to move in close to a small group of European Rollers who had settled in the upper reaches of a track-side thicket.chokpak-pass-looking-sw

What makes rollers so appealing is their glorious colour, a shimmering sapphire blue below and rich chestnut above. Superficially they look and sound (a hard crow-like RACK-ack) as though they belong in the crow family, but it seems they’re in a family of their own and are more closely related to bee-eaters, kingfishers and kookaburras.european-roller-chokpak-pass

Finally getting a good look at one of those childhood nemesis birds is satisfying; it seems to put to rest a nagging incompleteness. And if seeing is satisfying then getting a decent photo is truly icing on the cake. The photo above, while unmistakably of a European Roller, is, I think, of a young bird because it certainly doesn’t have the sapphire blue I referred to.

The illustration below dates from 1876 and shows the bird in the glory I innocently believed in from poring over the sometimes quaint reference books available to me. I was lucky to enjoy the generous, if slightly stand-offish, tutelage of a certain Major Fenwick who certainly was a child of the 19th Century.keulemans_onze_vogels_3_10

Peregrine Falcon

November 8 2016. The Owl Foundation  exists to treat and rehabilitate (if possible) wounded and orphaned owls; they’ve been at it for about fifty years. These sorts of undertakings rarely have a precise starting date but it seems it all got started for Kay and Larry McKeever sometime around 1967. Today the Owl Foundation receives a hundred or so damaged owls every year; sadly many are beyond saving.

Owls in the wild fly across political borders all the time but governments see borders differently and make it difficult for the foundation to accept injured or orphaned owls from anywhere other than Ontario. Interprovincial regulations make it complicated; international regulations make it impossible.

I volunteer some of my time and energy to help raise funds for the foundation and I spent half of today at their facilities just learning more about the operation.  If you like birds and feel that wildlife gets a bad deal, feel free to donate to the Owl Foundation; they will sincerely appreciate your support.

I had thought to open this post with a list of bird sightings today but no one would be fooled. Today’s list of birds included: Great Grey Owl, Barred Owl, Barn Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, Snowy Owl, Long–eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Peregrine Falcon, Northern Goshawk, Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Osprey and American Kestrel – I think that’s all of them. And yes they do sometimes accept other raptors, usually another rehabilitator’s overflow.

But of course, notwithstanding the mission of the Owl Foundation, these are all caged birds – well there was a free flying Red-tailed Hawk perched in a Red Oak just outside the foundation’s office. Many of them will fly free again once strong enough or fully re-feathered.

Peregrine Falcon - young and recovering from surgery.

Peregrine Falcon – young and recovering from surgery.

Any one of these birds whether owl, falcon, buteo or eagle could make Bird of the Day. My loudest gasp of appreciation or admiration was for this young Peregrine Falcon. Just look at those flight feathers! It had somehow suffered a torn crop (how that could happen is anyone’s guess) but surgery, tube feeding and recovery time have done the trick and it will be released fairly soon.

And, by the way, on my return home I saw a free-flying, wild Peregrine Falcon sitting on wires close to a nest site that has been reliable for a few years; so it wasn’t all captive birds.