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.

 

Sora

April 24 2016 Safari Road, West Flamboro, On. Around midday a small group of us spent a while staring at the rather winter-weary edge of a marsh hoping for a glimpse of a Sora. We’d heard it utter its funny whinnying call just a few feet away across an expanse of shallow water; but hearing a Sora (or a Virginia Rail, American Bittern or Least Bittern for that matter) is one thing; seeing one is quite another. They generally don’t waste time out in the open where they’re more exposed to predators. For birders they can be very frustrating, frequently heard but rarely seen. They (the birds) spend their lives among dense marsh vegetation picking for frogs, small fish and other food in the shallows, silts and vegetative debris. They raise their brood in this wet and gloomy world which must surely provide a super-abundance of things to eat – provided you’re okay with wrigley pond life.

The marsh was at one time, I imagine, a fifty-acre lake, a left-over remnant of the last ice age. But it has filled in over the eons to become an expanse of cattail-choked shallows dotted with Buttonbush and willows. Sometime in the last century, progress sliced a road across, bisecting it into neat halves. There’s plenty about this road to regret: the traffic is noisy, the margins swallow prodigious amounts of car-tossed litter and racing traffic kills birds, frogs and snakes that dare to cross. But on the plus side the road gives birders access into the heart of the marsh.

We caught a few momentary glimpses of the Sora, but eventually one wearies of such non-events. I wandered up the road to see what else might be around, a waste of time as it turned out, then turned back to the site of hopelessness where the other couple were at the point of leaving. As they started their car I re-found our Sora, this time out in the open and apparently moderately happy to be there. I pointed my camera and kept clicking, all the while beckoning the others to come back. My half of the story is a happy one, theirs is not for as they got out of their car the Sora slunk back into thick cover and left us. I got my Bird of the Day, another time they will get theirs. Here it is.

Sora - a species of rail

Sora – a species of rail

Northern Mockingbird

Woodburn On. 20/21 April 2016. Today, returning from a fruitless errand I parked to scan an unkempt grassy field hoping for an early Upland Sandpiper (no luck). As I paused, a Northern Mockingbird arrived to perch on the top of a small hawthorn on the other side of the road. I grabbed my camera and took a number of easy shots that are remarkable only because the bird is as grey as the day and the forest backdrop were; but still a nice mockingbird.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

It dropped to the scratchy tangle below and started sorting through the dry grasses and leaves. Then it started doing something I hadn’t seen before, the bird repeatedly and briefly spread both wings in an open umbrella fashion. Apparently this wing flashing behaviour has been well studied but not convincingly explained, my immediate thought was that it serves to startle invertebrate food into movement thus giving away its position. It’s a widely held thought but no seems to be convinced yet. I remain intrigued.

Northern Mockingbird. Wing flashing

Northern Mockingbird. Wing flashing

Short-eared Owl

Vinemount ON. 20 April 2016. This is a post-script tale about the second of two interesting birds seen the same day. The first was the Blue-headed Vireos, q.v, the second a Short-eared Owl seen at dusk. It wasn’t a triumph of discovery on my part; I pretty well expected it to be there, as did a horde of other photographers and birders.

It’s been several years since I’ve seen a Short-eared Owl, watching one in flight is compelling, almost hypnotically so. They fly in a buoyant, moth-like manner on wide angular, pale-on-the-underside wings. Pete Dunne in his excellent book ‘Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion’ likens a flying Short-eared Owl to a pale beer keg on wings.

The one we saw had just started its dusk hunt and came from across a quarry behind us, wheeled around and landed atop a decrepit old apple tree in the middle of large scrubby field. It remained there for perhaps fifteen minutes until a nearby freight train made enough racket to prompt it to move on. Because owls are generally so magnetic it was a wonderful sighting even if it lacked any of the thrill that comes from finding the bird myself. Falling on the same day it couldn’t displace the Blue-headed Vireo as bird of the Day but it certainly was Bird of the Evening.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

Blue-headed Vireo

Hendrie Valley 20 April 2016. An interesting first and last today – or perhaps more accurately, a last and first. My last 2015 sighting of a Blue-headed Vireo was at the end of September. My first sighting of this year came today – in precisely the same place! This may not sound like a very big deal and I suppose it’s not, but I really like vireos of all species and this one came with a little element of intrigue; it was unusually bright lemon yellow below. So what? Well Blue-headed Vireos are smart looking little birds, (see photos below) broadly speaking they’re grey and olive-grey above, white below, and have bright yellow flanks and very distinct white spectacles. The point is that today’s bird was extensively yellow below, from its under-tail coverts to its belly; almost as bright yellow as its cousin the Yellow-throated Vireo. I just think this bird was at the extreme end of the yellow-flanks spectrum. Blue-headed Vireos are few and far between; we only see them on their way to and from their more northerly breeding grounds. It was also on the very early side of local spring arrival date records. An intriguing bird, a delight to see and easily my Bird of the Day.

Blue-headed Vireo  with unusually yellow under-tail coverts and belly

Blue-headed Vireo with unusually yellow under-tail coverts and belly

Blue-headed Vireo. Showing more typical yellow flanks and white belly

Blue-headed Vireo. Showing more typical yellow flanks and white belly

The vireo had Bird of the Day competition. It was seen at the end of a census walk that started with a Pileated Woodpecker that called loudly and paraded long enough to allow us some tantalizing views. We found a single Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in the top of a stream-side Manitoba Maple, heard and saw a Pine Warbler perhaps staking out its territory in some tall White Pines, and several male Yellow-rumped Warblers. The yellow-rumps still have quite a long way to go to reach their breeding grounds. They were working over and through the understorey trees, gleaning insects and singing softly to themselves as they went.

Barn Swallow

West Flamboro, ON. I was one of a fairly large group that explored a wide expanse of farmland, wetlands and forest edge this morning looking for spring arrivals. It was a magnificent day: sunny, warm and dry, the sort of weather we count on to bring us our birds of summer.

Our group wandered far and wide. We started with a lone Horned Lark, a bird synonymous with mid-late winter, scratching for food at a roadside and three hours later came face to face with a Barn Swallow, synonymous with mid-summer; the two a metaphor for our continental climate, which can swing from cool and wretched to warm and magnificent in the space of a very few days.

Barn Swallow - just back from Amazonia

Barn Swallow – just back from Amazonia

Those two sightings were bookends for a many good encounters. A couple of high overhead Broad-winged Hawks, a small flock of Sandhill Cranes, a territorial, male Eastern Bluebird, a lone Common Loon and a singing Brown Thrasher may have been highlights. Hard to say because many of our group were just as thrilled by a Pileated Woodpecker, Caspian Tern and Common Raven. We also had a few heard-but-not-seens: Pine Warbler, Ruffed Grouse, Eastern Towhee and Rusty Blackbird.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

For me the prize was the Barn Swallow. It was picture perfect, alighting on a wire just a few feet in front of me, it was as if it came to say relax, winter’s over.