Prothonotary Warbler

May 18 2015 Cape May N.J.  There are dozens of well-recognised places for excellent bird watching on Cape May. It’s kind of the Manhattan of avian society with some parts of the Cape as crowded with birds as Time Square is with people. To carry the analogy a little further, certain corners of Cape May draw purposeful shorebirds while others attract foppish passerines; just as Wall St is for deal making and Midtown for shopping.
Today we spent half a day in at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area which is widely known as one of the best places to see newly arrived migrant passerines. It was hard going because the trees had pretty well fully leafed out and the sun was quite fierce. We could hear plenty of birds so we knew they were close, but finding them was really challenging. Still in the few hours we spent there, we made some good finds including a talkative Yellow-breasted Chat, an inquisitive Prairie Warbler and a fly-catching Blackpoll Warbler.
It was getting hot by the time we left, and we headed to a rather ramshackle conservation area which comprised the parts of an active farm that are either too wet or too overgrown for cultivation. It was there that we found a male Prothonotary Warbler, a spectacularly glowing little bird that lights up the dark, wet habitat it favours. In this case it was sharing a soggy thicket of old willows with a Black-throated Green Warbler, a Red-eyed Vireo, a Blue-headed Vireo and a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Male Prothonotary Warbler

Male Prothonotary Warbler

The Prothonotary Warbler has a rather handsome slate-blue back, but the rest of him is a fiery yellow-orange and he truly stood out in the dank gloom. It is one of those birds that enthusiasts seek out and exchange smug ‘if-you’re-lucky’ tips as to its whereabout, the sort of intelligence that come laced with discouragement: ‘…when last seen’, ‘If you’re lucky’ or ‘…but it may have gone by now.’ Other birders will know what I mean.

Well, we had the good luck to enjoy it for quite a while even though it remained fairly high above us; I even managed to get a couple of decent photos.
p.s. The next morning we went to another site, a quiet lonely road in a delicious hardwood forest. We spent some time at a bridge over a small creek that flowed through dense dark undergrowth, the sort of place where mosquitoes thrive and so apparently do Prothonotary Warblers for there we found another; again lighting up the darkness.

Red Knots

17 May 2015, East Point, New Jersey.  As if Cape May weren’t special enough as a place to go and watch any and all birds in spring and fall, it is also a destination to witness the spectacular spring assembly of migrating Red Knots, today’s incontestable Bird of the Day. The Red Knot is a strikingly colourful and compact shorebird with a story, some of it jaw-dropping and some of it hand wringing. On the jaw-dropping side is the bird’s breeding biology, notably the almost incomprehensible 10,000 mile semi-annual migration between the far reaches of South America and its breeding ground shores of Canada’s Arctic Ocean; a journey made in three or four stages with non-stop flights between each refuelling stop. Such a journey would not be possible without reliably abundant food at all of those refuelling stops.

Red Knots and Semi-palmated Sandpipers

Red Knots and Semi-palmated Sandpipers

You would not for one moment suppose that the Horseshoe Crab matters a whole lot to Red Knots. Horseshoe Crabs have been around since the dawn   of time, they don’t prey on Red Knots and mind their own business crawling around the shallow sea-floors; they seem to have been doing little else for millions of years. But each year in May, Horseshoe Crabs in tens of thousands make their way to the Delaware Bay shores of Cape May to mate and lay eggs; it is quite a spectacle as dozens of what look like upside-down frying pans, wash, tumble and crawl ashore, clawing their way over rocks and each other to mate and lay thousands of pearl blue eggs in the surfy tideline. Those collective billions of eggs are what make the Delaware Bay a critical refuelling stop for Red Knots, they may not feed again before completing the next 3,000 mile flight to their high Arctic breeding grounds. It’s hard to comprehend that this, you wouldn’t call it a ritual, perhaps cycle would be better, has been happening every spring for millions of years. They were definitely here before any of our Homo erectus ancestors even thought of leaving Africa for greener pastures.

Female (L) and male Horseshoe Crabs

Female (L) and male Horseshoe Crabs

Two apparently exhausted Horseshoe Crabs

Two apparently exhausted Horseshoe Crabs

The problem is that 20th Century man, Homo sapien, decided Horseshoe Crabs could be harvested and pulverized for fertilizer. After all, the reasoning went, they’re ugly, no use to anyone and we might as well do something useful with them. Cataclysmic over-harvesting of Horseshoe Crabs meant fewer eggs to feed Red Knots, less food led to lower (or failed) breeding success and in the last decades of the twentieth century the knot population crashed by something like ninety percent.
It is still possible to see Red Knots in breathtakingly huge numbers here on the western shores of Cape May, but it is sobering to contemplate what this might have looked like a century ago when the population was vastly greater and what has since been lost.
My companion and I were witness to this drama today: thousands of Horseshoe Crabs hauling ashore to multiply, and hundreds upon thousands of shorebirds, particularly Red Knots, Least sandpipers, Sanderlings, Semi-palmated Sandpipers and Laughing Gulls waiting to feast on the eggs. I for one was utterly speechless watching perhaps one of the world’s greatest bird spectacles.

Mourning Warbler

11 May 2015. Paletta Park, Burlington, ON. This was a day of astonishing contrasts for me. I spent the morning at the bird observatory where the weather was warm (around 25 deg C) and dry, and birds were plentiful and varied,- if sometimes a little hard to find. On my return home shortly after midday, (here I should digress to explain that the geography and weather of this part of Ontario is dominated by two factors: An abrupt escarpment which elevates much of the Lake Ontario hinterland some 100M above lake level; The presence of Lake Ontario itself.) I found that the lake plain was shivering under a blanket of cold air and accompanying fogs; the temperature at my home was 12 deg C.

Stepping out of my car, I heard a song that I didn’t recognise, I grabbed my binoculars and was soon looking as a beautiful Cape May Warbler, and then a Canada Warbler, a Blackburnian, a Chestnut-sided, a Tennessee and a Yellow Warbler all in my neighbour’s little tree. Then the penny dropped: this sweep of cold air, this fog, had forced last night’s migrating birds to the ground.

I ate a hasty lunch and headed to a leafy park at the lake’s edge where I was rewarded with one of those magical May days, surrounded by colourful little warblers and vireos wherever I looked. It seemed for a while, as if every one of them was perfect as if lifted from a field guide illustration. The list was long, nearly twenty warbler species, tediously long if I were to name them all here, but it includes several sparkling Canada and Magnolia Warblers, Northern Parulas and the always engaging Wilson’s Warblers. There were vireos too: Blue-headed, Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos and they, along with excellent sightings of Yellow-throated Vireos at the bird observatory, they made for a vireo-rich day.

Bird of the Day was a Mourning Warbler seen skulking through some thick undergrowth. Skulking is what they do best; well maybe not best, they are good at it but are interesting singers and disarmingly handsome. The male is generally yellow to greenish-yellow all over except for his head and shoulders, which are hooded slate grey shading to speckled coal black under the chin. I gasped and ooh-ed and ahh-ed like a wide-mouthed innocent at a circus act.

The day did produce some good photo opportunities, some at the bird observatory, and some at warbler park. Here are a few.

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Green Heron

5 May 2015. Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. One of my favourite stream-side walks is a reliably good spot to find breeding pairs of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Green Herons. In fact, with a full-bodied, almost a river, stream on one side and a large marshy pond on the other it’s good for many birds at almost all times of the year. It is also along the route of one of my census walks.

At this time of year the menu-specials change daily. For several weeks it’s been a sure place to see a succession of waterfowl starting early in April with: Hooded Mergansers, Bufflehead and Wood Ducks, then later progressing through the brief appearances of Blue-winged Teal and Gadwall. By the time it’s all over, I am sure the area will be home to families of: Red-winged Blackbirds, Trumpeter Swans, Canada Geese, Wood Ducks, Mallards, Belted Kingfishers, Tree Swallows, Yellow Warblers, Green Herons, Warbling Vireos and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, to name but a few.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

I have been anticipating the return of the Green Herons for a while and today, as I walked the trail, a trio of them flew over, banking low and looking for home. They are quite distinctive in every way: visually they’re elaborately unmistakable, and in flight they’re buoyant, even bouncy. Like most herons they’re vocal croakers when alarmed or in flight, in the case of the Green Herons theirs’ is a sharp coughing bark with an almost metallic ring.

The fly-past group didn’t go very much farther and later as I was on the return leg of the census I spotted two of them in a Manitoba Maple. Two’s company and three’s a crowd, as we know and here were two engaged in either some pair-bonding or territorial squabbling, I’m not sure which. Think back to your own youth, those modes of posturing can be hard to tell apart. The gallery below is of the few photos I was able to get through the trees.

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Heard, but not seen, along the walk was a Northern Waterthrush. It’s a reminder to get exploring some of my other favourite spots. But for now in this, the early days of the cascade of new spring arrivals, the Green Herons made an already fulfilling morning extra colourful; Birds of the Day.

Cerulean Warbler

4 May 2015 Cayuga ON. There were lots of first-of-the-years at the bird observatory today: the warm southerly breeze kept on delivering them. At first light a Whip-poor-will called from some distance away and by around 7.30 we could hear the noisy calls of Baltimore Orioles and they were all around us before long. As we watched a group of half a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers gleaning insects in a budding Northern Hackberry (tree) we found a Tennessee Warbler.   On the census we watched small groups of Western Palm Warblers foraging low along woodland edges. My best birds of the day for a while were Yellow-throated Vireos calling raspily, but three Chimney Swifts wheeling and chasing high overhead, Warbling Vireos singing their tumbling scatter of notes from high in the treetops or a beautifully marked Black and White Warbler kept pressing to be Bird of the Day.

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But the Bird of the Day was came as I prowled a stretch of rich woodland. I was enjoying a gloriously flame-faced Blackburnian Warbler as it worked its way around the newly opening buds of a Manitoba Maple, when I found that I was looking at a male Cerulean Warbler. This species is so uncommon that it took me a while to understand what I was seeing. Prior to today I have only knowingly seen one (perhaps two) Cerulean Warblers.

The species is being assailed from all sides, its best breeding grounds in North America have disappeared to make way for farmland and their wintering grounds in the Andes have been cleared for the cultivation of coca. This little bird is in trouble; it is listed as Endangered in Canada and Indiana and Threatened in Illinois and Wisconsin.

The beauty of today’s sighting was not only in the thrill of its rarity but also that it stayed around long enough for three of us to study it at length. My initial doubts and puzzlement vanished as it moved around, showing me all sides and at times turning its gloriously blue head and back to best effect. Such consideration allowed me to mentally eliminate any possible confusion with other species. Getting a photograph was a real challenge as it was always on the move and back-lit by a bright sky; still I managed a couple of reasonable shots; here they are.Cerulean Warbler2 Cerulean Warbler

The day didn’t stop delivering. Before we closed up around noon we had banded an Indigo Bunting, Magnolia Warbler and Ovenbird and seen a Great-crested Flycatcher; all great birds – all day.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

Yellow Warbler

3 May 2015. Hamilton ON.  I think today was the day of the Yellow Warbler; they’re back and, I hope, ushering in the warblers of May. In a week or two, Yellow Warblers will be too numerous to count, they’ll be just a part of the background noise. But today I was greeted by the first of the year; and standing in one spot, I could distinguish four, maybe five, all singing their hurried ‘Sweet sweet shredded wheat” song. I think they were all males, bright buttercup yellow with chestnut streaks down the breast. My Birds of the Day for being here.

Yellow Warbler )m) in full song

Yellow Warbler )m) in full song

I started the day really early by taking my daughter’s dog for a walk; something I used to do frequently. The sun was still lingering below the horizon as we walked a couple of kilometers along a power-line right-of-way, a wide expanse of grassland flanked by scrubby forest. About every one-hundred metres along the edges, a Field Sparrow was singing its territorial heart out, for every four Field Sparrows there was an Eastern Towhee, also in full song and in the distance a singing Brown Thrasher. It reminded me of my formative days in England when my dad and I would cycle around the dew-sparkling countryside listening to the exuberant dawn chorus of Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Skylarks; these are vivid memories.

Brown Thrasher ( a little later in the year)

Brown Thrasher ( a little later in the year)

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

The Yellow Warblers showed up later in the morning up on one of my census walks. They, along with a single Western Palm Warbler, a pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and a singing Warbling Vireo (another first) made going without breakfast worthwhile. I counted a couple of dozen Common Terns swooping over the lake waters and a handful of their cousins, Caspian Terns, loafing on a shingle shoreline.

 

Upland Sandpiper

29 April 2015. Fenelon Falls ON. I have, perhaps recklessly, volunteered to participate in a provincial effort to determine and monitor the population of Loggerhead Shrikes. Although not terribly rare in the southern half of the U.S.A. it is extremely uncommon in the northeast and the Loggerhead Shrike is considered endangered in Ontario. Loggerhead, by the way refers to its disproportionately large head, it might also be read as blockhead!

The project I signed on for entails visiting pre-determined sites in parts of the province that have appropriate shrike habitat. In my case, it meant a long day, nearly 500 kilometres of driving and in the end no shrikes at all. But actually finding one was not the only purpose, the first step is to establish just what cohort of species uses the same habitat, so my day’s efforts were as much about learning what is there as finding a shrike; indeed I had a low expectation of finding a shrike at all.

This was the first significantly warm day of the year and it’s starting to look as though it’s going to stay that way – more or less. The assigned sites were still reeling from the battering of winter, there was scarcely a hint of green anywhere, and although we heard a Brown Thrasher and several Eastern Meadowlarks singing, and saw Tree Swallows and a pair of Eastern Bluebirds investigating nesting boxes, it was generally rather quiet.

This was the right habitat for and we kept hoping to find Grasshopper, Vesper or Clay-colored Sparrows but no such luck; maybe it was still a bit too early. Several Savannah Sparrows kept us entertained though and as the shot below shows they’re rather pretty in their own right.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

As the day wore on, my companion Eric and I debated the Bird of the Day. At first I was all for an exuberant Brown Thrasher seen and heard working the perimeter of its chosen territory and marking it with long performances of its rich double-phrase song. But later a really hard to make out Upland Sandpiper ended up being my Bird of the Day. Upland Sandpipers are one of those species that has a special place in my heart. There’s something incongruous about them: they’re built like a shorebird, like a dowitcher or a yellowlegs. But instead of wandering around in the muddy edges of lakes and estuaries like any decent shorebird, they make their home in expansive grassy fields. No doubt they find plenty to eat, but at some point their ancestors gave up shorelines and well, here they are chasing grasshoppers and the like; just a little odd.

Eric’s day seemed to be missing a piece until much later, on our way home, we found a wonderful Rough-legged Hawk. I take credit for spotting it a long way away perched atop a small cedar tree. Like many birds, Rough-legged Hawks seem to be keenly aware of the slightest potential threats and although we were perhaps half a kilometer away, when we got out of the car it grew uneasy and took flight. But once airborne it circled around allowing us to enjoy long looks at its strong markings: a broad terminal tail band, black belly and dark underwings. That was Bird of the Day for Eric. We could agree to differ; I still preferred the Upland Sandpiper.

Tree Swallows

24 April 2015. Cayuga ON. April is regularly a month of expectation, encouragement and disappointment. My diary is full of entries attesting to the fact that April can blow hot and cold. Here are a few examples from the last week of April: 1990 “Today was the third day of a sudden heat-wave, temps went to the low 30s.” 1981 ” After a record low night minus 5 deg C.” 2013 “Cold and snow squalls all day.” This week we’re living one of those cold breaks and it has stalled the spring migration in its tracks.

Today I walked the census route at the bird observatory. It was cold, the north wind sliced right through me, and my fingertips were ready to drop off. The census was modestly successful but I was in no mood to linger.

Tree Swallows are always early to return in the spring so there must be something in their make up that enables them to survive late cold spells; or maybe some just starve to death and that’s the way it is.

Tree Swallows waiting out a cold wind

Tree Swallows waiting out a cold wind

I admired a group of six Tree Swallows that were clustered together trying to stay alive by fluffing up their feathers and sheltering each other. They made no attempt to fly away at our approach; that would use too much precious energy. They were a doleful sight but photogenic at the same time.

Blue-winged Teal

22 April 2015. Burlington, ON. There are ducks, and then there are ducks. The good old ‘puddle ducks’ as stereotyped by Walt Disney and Beatrice Potter, include many from the genus Anas. Mallards, (Anas platyrhynchos) Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) and Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata) for example. There are many other large, free-floating birds that we generically label as ducks but they are not all as endearing or cuddly as the Anas crowd.

It is common among ducks of all types for the drakes to be quite spectacular dressers: always classy, often tasteful, sometimes colourful and occasionally all three. Females in the Anas family are sometimes quite difficult to tell apart, one species from the other. They are commonly mottled browny-grey all over, effective camouflage when incubating but hardly head-turning.

This morning, as part of my census circuit, I enjoyed watching four species of duck: Mallard, Wood Duck, Blue-winged Teal and Gadwall; in every case there were bonded pairs, and in the case of the Wood Ducks there were many males without females in evidence. (For the record, Wood Ducks, along with the outrageously ornate Mandarin Duck of Asia belong in the genus Aix.  Wood Ducks are Aix sponsa.)

The Blue-winged Teals were my Birds of the Day. It is a species in decline, perhaps due to over-hunting on their wintering grounds. Formerly quite common during spring and summer, we don’t see them much any more.   They pass through in the early spring (about now) and it always seems to be a brief visit. At a distance, the male is easy to identify with his white facial crescent and bum-patch. Closer up, the rich cinnamon of his breast and flanks puts him in the tasteful dresser category. This pair was hard to see working the dark edge of some old vegetation, then a passing Cooper’s Hawk panicked everyone but when everything had calmed down, the pair settled back in the open water close to where I could get this shot.

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal

My census route encompasses a couple of large ponds which Wood Ducks find very appealing, probably because of the encircling oak woodland. Wood Ducks are so called because they seek mature deciduous trees with lots of natural nesting cavities. They choose a safe hideaway, far above the forest floor and there the female incubates a clutch of perhaps as many as a dozen eggs. When the ducklings hatch they waste no time leaving the nest, the female calls to them from the forest floor below and the featherweight babes jump, and more or less float down to the leaf litter; then they follow mother to the nearest water. Hard to imagine.

I found twenty-one Wood Ducks today, mostly males. I suspect a balancing number of females were preoccupied in their nest holes and incubating this year’s brood. Wood Ducks are distinctive for several reasons and foremost has to be the astonishing plumage of the male. It is a crazy collage of colours: maroon, bottle green, scarlet and cream; and shapes: crescents, slashes and curlicues. The female is no shrinking violet either. She doesn’t go for the exuberance of the male, instead she is a study in soft iridescence and eye make-up; no wonder he’s falls for her. I’ve included several photos of the couple in the gallery below. It’s interesting how, in the riot of spring colours and reflections, this pair quite successfully merge into the background; the female more so than the male. Nearby was another pair of Wood Ducks; each with its own log they watched me nervously. They were a pretty picture, so I’ve included them in the gallery  (Visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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Finally as I was about to wrap up my census I watched a Belted Kingfisher successfully fishing, plunging every few minutes and returning to gulp down little wriggly fish. Here are a couple of shots. (Click each to enlarge) Too bad I didn’t use a faster shutter speed.

American Avocet

20 April 2015. Bronte, ON.  I always say that I don’t chase rare birds; but then I feel I have to add – unless it’s a real rarity and if it’s not too far from home. Some cases in point of rarities that I made an extra effort for would be last April’s King Eider or a previous May’s Kirtland Warbler; I made special trips for both of them and was rewarded with amply soul-satisfying moments.

Today, following a modestly interesting day which started very wet and windy, and which included a group of nine Rusty Blackbirds, a Northern Harrier, a Broad-winged Hawk and a Common Raven, I got word that a bunch of American Avocets had shown up at a nearby beach. Before I start gushing about the avocets, let me briefly note that Rusty Blackbirds are becoming increasingly rare and despite their undeniably sombre appearance, are kind of special.  The harrier, the hawk and the raven (a trio like that belong in Alice in Wonderland) are all good sightings, not especially rare, just unusual birds that catch my attention and frequently play starring roles.

Rusty Blackbird (M)

Male Rusty Blackbird.

Rusty Blackbirds (F)

Female Rusty Blackbirds

American Avocets should always be worth making an extra effort to see, but it was close to a mealtime when I heard about them and I had a meeting to attend later on. I set aside any thought that I should go and look for them, but somehow it just wouldn’t go away. Realizing that with a bit of planning, I could eat, get to the avocet site and still be at my meeting on time, off we went. I say we because my wife came along with me; she’s not a birder and her bird-fascination soon ebbs, but she has a soft spot for avocets and carries a vivid memory of a sighting one stormy day some thirty-two years ago. My diary tells this story. “1983. 2 May. A warm day with incredible storm activity. V. strong winds, tornadoes in SW Ont. The storm has resulted in migration chaos. Off McCollom Rd near the lake and adjacent to 50 Point park, in a wet ploughed field, were 7 avocets. V. unusual for this area…”.  I don’t think I’ve seen more than one or two avocets since that date. It’s not that they’re particularly rare, in fact they’re relatively common in the western half of the continent.

With that bit of history in mind and cognizant that today, like that early day in May 1983, was a day of strong south winds and unsettled skies, we went to see if we could locate these birds. We found them easily enough, an orderly crowd of about twenty-four individuals, standing around, waiting for the winds to die down to let them get on with their long-distance journey.

It’s hard not to gush over American Avocets as perhaps the prettiest shorebirds in Christendom; prettier than their European counterparts who lack the delicious cinnamon head and breast, prettier than the more monochromatic (but just as charming) Black-necked Stilts and perhaps even prettier than Wilson’s Phalaropes in breeding plumage. Last November, I suggested that Wilson’s Phalaropes belong in the fine-china category of shorebirds, and today’s birds set me wondering whether avocets belong there too. But somehow they’re a little too gregarious and long-legged to be china, they’d probably get chipped too easily. I think of them as perhaps more like ballerinas: poised, elegant, graceful. What do you think?American Avocets Bronte Harbour copy

Here they are. There were about twenty four of them.

Avocets 3

In flight. Photo by Bonnie Kinder

Avocets4

Photo: Bonnie Kinder