Hooded Merganser

31 July 2015. Blue Lakes, St George ON. This is the last day of July and after four days of oppressive heat and humidity, people around here are emerging from shelter in much the same way we would in January following a major snow storm or perhaps as folks do along the east coast after the passage of a hurricane. Well, really no damage was done, it was scorching but we’ve experienced much hotter and some of us, myself included, like it hot.

Stay-indoors days are good for catching up on reading, emails and deferred projects, but eventually you’ve got to get back into circulation.

I checked on a couple of favourite birdy locations sites today but, for a birder’s day out, it was pretty uninspiring, I was surprised at the quiet. Maybe the past days’ heat had drained us all. There was little more to my first stop than the distant, juvenile Caa of a young American Crow pleading for food, and the tired song of a House Wren.

Concluding what had been a pleasant, if largely unrewarding, ramble I followed a road called Scenic Drive. I’d never taken it before and it sounded promising. It led me on a rolling, twisting ride between large ponds; kettle lakes I believe. Kettle lakes are the remnants of the last ice age: as the ice sheets dissolved and departed they dropped and left behind large lumps like terrestrial icebergs half buried in the vast piles and sweeps of glacial debris. It must have been a doleful sight, but after ten thousand years those monstrous ice cubes have melted away and left behind cute little ponds in rolling countryside. Why there are more kettle lakes in some areas and not in others is beyond my understanding of post-glacial geomorphology; but there they are. In late summer, ten thousand years after the fact, they are who knows how deep, choked with Button Bush, Cattails various willows and skimmed over with Lemna minor or Common Duck-Weed; what some refer to as scum but in truth is anything but. Lemna minor is a fast reproducing, small, simple aquatic plant, we’ve all seen and probably recoiled from it, it’s the sort of thing that would deter anyone from taking a swim, although I’m sure it’s clean and harmless.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

In one pond there were a few Wood Ducks paddling around, streaked with Lemna and a Great Blue Heron standing sentinal on a log, I’m not sure how it could expect to see anything below the lemna-green surface.

Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

At another pond I found what turned out to be the Bird of the Day, a Hooded Merganser, a female I suspect. It certainly wasn’t a full breeding plumage male. It was driving itself purposefully through the thick Lemna and every now and then eagerly seizing upon something, it was hard to make out exactly what, although on one occasion both the merganser and I saw something small make a flipping movement and the merganser reacted in a flash, darted and grabbed a small frog; one gulp – yum!Hooded Merganser-2

From the anonymity of my parked car I enjoyed watching the merganser for quite a while until a tractor pulling a load of hay, or maybe it was Shredded Wheat, rolled noisily by causing it to take flight.Hooded Merganser-3

Pied-billed Grebe

23 July 2015. Morriston ON. There is a pond in this once-quaint village, which I intend to visit every spring but never seem to get around to doing so. Pied-billed Grebes nest there; I’m sure of it. On the two occasions I’ve visited it in late summer, I’ve seen a small group of them paddling around. I really must make the effort next April.

It’s not the visuals of Pied-billed Grebes that attract me; they look like waterlogged chickens, it’s their maniacal almost depraved spring territorial ‘song’. Variously described as: “ …a series of cooing notes… run into slower paced, gulping clucks that can fade away” (National Geographic); or according to Pete Dunne “…a loud wild-sounding keening that incorporates bleating coos and mournful wails…. Like someone blowing a satisfying series of toots into a handkerchief.” (click here for more on Pete Dunne). It’s on my things-to-do list to be visual and auditory witness to this performance. I’ve mentally ear-marked this pond as a best bet.

Unlike the village in general whose heart has been severed by a very busy arterial road and is now just a rather grubby, traffic-light controlled chasm; the pond is a pretty place and worth a diversion from the road race. No doubt a post-glacial kettle lake it would, in the normal course of things, be a rather static body of water. But, flanked by pricey homes it has been beautified to fulfill residents’ expectations of a village pond. It has a couple of small docks suitable for after-dinner dreaming, a spraying fountain and expanses of white water lilies. It can be a good place to watch Great Blue and Green Herons as I noted in an earlier post. (click here to read it)

I stopped there in the middle of the day today and sure enough there were four Pied Billed Grebes; two adults and I assume two chicks. They kept their distance as they always do. So, with my limited camera power, I was unable to get any really good shots but here’s a few rather long-distance shots from today and one taken elsewhere in late winter and which may help illustrate why I describe them as looking like waterlogged chickens.

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(Visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

21 July 2015. Burlington ON. Are these the dog days of summer? I think so and Wikipedia agrees, defining them as the sultry days of July and August. It’s not much of a time for active birding but, from my back door, I still hear the two wrens I referred to a month or so ago. The Winter Wren sings just as stridently every morning and I caught a glimpse of him today, he may even have adopted the few backyard gardens immediately south of us as his own

This evening as we enjoyed a late outdoor dinner we both caught a slip of movement along fringe edge of an old cedar, in unison we exclaimed, ‘Hummingbird!’ We don’t see many in this urban jungle – but then, I suppose if we can get Winter Wrens, then why not a Ruby-throated Hummingbird? We followed it for a minute or so as it sipped from the dusty-blue flowers of Russian Sage until it buzzed overhead and landed behind us on an almost invisible twig. It seemed to be willing us to go away, and then I realized that’s exactly what it was waiting for, we were sitting too close to our wonderfully chaotic tangle of storm-battered Scarlet Bee-balm or Monarda didyma. Those bright tubes almost certainly hold what the hummingbird wanted to get at.

Scarlet Bee-balm

Scarlet Bee-balm

Last January, I wrote at some length about the hummingbirds I met in Panama. It is a large family of over three hundred species, arguably centred in Ecuador and well represented throughout Latin America. So it is, in my humble opinion, something of a privilege that a member of this extraordinary New-World family of birds should grace us with their presence every summer.

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They are incredible creatures in so many ways: tiny with the metabolism of a jet fighter; only better: they fly backwards with ease; they use grams of sugar as fuel not mega-litres of jet fuel; and they make annual round-trip journeys between tropical Central America and Ontario without paperwork. Like anything Boeing or Lockeheed Martin builds, they carry an on-board navigation system for those transcontinental journeys, but of a complexity and sophistication that we scarcely understand. It is quite possible that they steer by the stars and by visualizing and processing the relative angles of the mesh of lines of polarity of the Earth’s magnetic field; you try it.

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So any time a hummingbird comes into view, it should be a time to marvel; if nothing else at their apparently effortless up-down-forward-backward flight. I’ve added a couple of galleries of some of my photos from different times and places.  They’re visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

Hummingbird Clearwing

5-10 July 2015. Wingfield Basin, Bruce Peninsula, ON. A slight departure from my usual posting here, but I can hardly resist sharing with you this moth, a hummingbird-lookalike. I know next to nothing about moths and had it not been for an encounter with some Hummingbird Clearwings about three summers ago, I wouldn’t have been able to put a name to them this week.

Hummingbird Clearwing

Hummingbird Clearwing

But here they are, true moths with a body or thorax about the size of the terminal segment of your little finger and the hovering, nectar-dipping behaviour of a hummingbird. My limited collection of reference books tells me only that there are just two species of ‘clearwing’ moths like this in the north-east. They are members of the tantalizingly named Sphinx or Hawk Moth family. That alone is enough to make me want to know more; but that’s for another time.

Hanging at the flowers doorstep, they used their almost one-inch long proboscis to draw nectar from deep within the bright blue depths of Vipers Bugloss, working their way almost, but not quite, methodically up the spire. Just as I began to feel I could anticipate their next move they’d vanish in a wisp – and then reappear a few feet away.

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Getting a photograph was an exercise in patient ambush. If I just tried to follow them around snapping at any apparent opportunity, my results were mediocre. I’m no expert in the technical aspects of photography; it took quite a bit of effort to dredge up memories of the interplay of shutter speed, ISO and depth of field to come up with a strategy for a decent picture. Their wings beat so quickly that it wasn’t until I shot at 1/1250th of a second that I could freeze the motion.

And just in case we lose focus entirely, here’s a shot of a real hummingbird, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. 

Ruby Throated Hummingbird

Ruby Throated Hummingbird

Greater Yellowlegs

11 July 2015. Wingfield Basin, Bruce Peninsula, ON. I was out paddling around Wingfield Basin enjoying a pre-breakfast exploration of its shallow edges when I heard a Greater Yellowlegs calling from high overhead. It was flying purposefully southward, showing no interest in stopping here to forage around the lake’s shallow margins.

I knew by its distinctive call that it was a Greater Yellowlegs, a ringing and far-carrying Tew Tew Tew Tew. Its semi-sibling, the Lesser Yellowlegs, which is confusingly similar in almost all respects except overall size and relative bill length, has a call that is less strident and usually comprises just two, softer tew tew notes, rather than three or more.

Assuming its internal compass is not defective and that it’s not hopelessly lost, it’s my suspicion that this bird was on its southbound, ‘fall’ migration. Quite possibly it’s a one-year-old bird that failed, for any number of reasons, to breed. Local records contain a few records of one-year-old yellowlegs that never quite complete the spring migration back to the mosquito-rich, sub-arctic lands of their origins but instead wander aimlessly around, a thousand or so miles short of their predestined breeding grounds. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of yellowlegs of both species are now, still in the far north completing their breeding cycle.

Many of this year’s hatch will now be semi independent and capable of flight, but they need a few more weeks of growth and development before they will start their migration south. We generally don’t see the current year’s young on their fall migration until well into August and the flow of all ages of yellowlegs continues into September and October.

As ‘fall’ migrants go, today’s Greater Yellowlegs was definitely an early bird. If you were overly sensitive to signs of approaching summer’s end it might be a touch discouraging. But it’s still high summer, holiday season to most of us and the odd aberrant sighting only enlivens the days.

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Here is a gallery of photos from past days, some are Greater Yellowlegs, some Lesser Yellowlegs.  There’s not a lot of difference between the two species, except overall size (for which you need something to compare with)  and relative bill length, as I noted above. I think I have i.d them properly but welcome any hair-splitting discussions if you think I’m wrong. One photo is of mostly Short-billed Dowitchers with one dozing yellowlegs. The gallery is visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

 

Barn Swallow

9-11 July 2015. Wingfield Basin, Bruce Peninsula, ON. It is our privilege, on many counts, to be staying for a week in a spacious and comfortable, if slightly down-at-the-heels, cottage on the shore of Lake Huron. Any demerit points accrued by the cottage’s lack of polish are amply made up by its delicious remoteness, the spectacular view from the back porch and its almost total disconnection with the wired world.

From the back porch we look across The Basin, a sheltered harbour that finds favour with passing yachts almost every evening.

Wingfield Basin

Wingfield Basin

There’s lots of wildlife too. Majestic birds: Bald Eagles, Sandhill Cranes and Merlins come to mind, while the trees all around carry the songs of American Redstarts, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Red-eyed Vireos. Out on the Basin are small flotillas of young Common Mergansers, a group of Ring-necked Ducks and the odd Common Loon.Beaver At Wingfield Basin. July 2013

Beavers have appropriated the burned-out and decaying hull of a once-working ship, the Gargantua, we watch them plowing the waters and bringing small branches back to the lodge; perhaps food for their kits; and this morning a young Black Bear was ambling along the far shore.

The birding is brilliant in spring and fall; indeed this cottage is the home of the Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory and the streams of migrants make it a very busy place.  Off season, summer anyway, it’s available to users who agree to take on the responsibilities of being the Warden.

Three  hungry mouths

Three hungry mouths

Part of the natural charm here is the Barn Swallows‘ nest over the back door. In the days immediately following arrival, the nest was full of hungry youngsters, four of them competitively craning their necks and pleading with bright yellow gapes for the next delivery of insects.  There is no end to the parents’ day long task of gathering food, most of which is building young swallows capable of flying to the Amazon Basin in a couple of months.

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On Thursday the first of the brood, perhaps the oldest by a few hours, left the nest. It evidently fluttered, rather than flew, to safety on a somewhat lower ledge. There the parents continued to feed it, dividing their attention between the three still spilling out of the nest above and the fledgling below. We were able to watch at quite close quarters as the escapee visually tracked the approach of a food-bearing parent and if that parent came close, it started the wing-fluttering and wide-mouthed begging  that had worked so well for it.

As night fell, things suddenly didn’t go too well.  The fledgling flopped to the ground just outside our window and from inside we watched the parent anxiously trying to coax it into flight.  The parent would land a few inches from the babe who immediately assumed it was going to be fed, instead the parent took off, chipping encouragement as it went, and then returned moments later for another try. We left them to it, knowing there was nothing we could possibly do to help and fearing that our presence might compromise the parents’ efforts.DSCN9255

It could fly, if weakly, but somehow the youngster got through the night. In the morning we found it sitting and swaying precariously at the end of the clothesline. After that we lost track of it, and by day’s end I feared that it had somehow perished. There are too many perils around Wingfield Basin, what with hunting Merlins, predatory gulls and the chance of crash landing in open water; indeed most young birds fail to make it through their first year.

The story has a happy ending though. On the last day of our stay we could once again see four hungry mouths in the nest, so somehow it had managed to get back up to rejoin its siblings. No mean feat since the nest was in the apex of the roof over our porch. What I’d taken as a fledgling taking its first pre-ordained flights seems instead to have been a case of someone falling out of bed.

(This post contains photos in galleries visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

Eastern Kingbird

July 5 2015 Crane Lake Rd., Bruce Peninsula, ON. Where I grew up there were many fords, the cars yes, but more particularly those places where a river or stream flows broadly across a paved road and where neither stream nor road is particularly inconvenienced.  If winters in southern England amounted to anything much they might not be quite so common.

In Ontario’s less tamed countryside, water flooding across a road is quite likely to be the consequence of a beaver dam created somewhere not far away. Much as roads maintenance folks may curse them, you have to admire the dogged competence of a beaver at modifying its environment to suit its own purposes.  That your only access road is flooded is not the beaver’s concern.

Eastern Kingbird - Crane River

Eastern Kingbird – Crane River

One of our familiar back roads in Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula crosses a shallow marsh which frequently becomes a wide beaver-enhanced lake. It’s a gravel road and the appearance of big puddles of varying depths makes for an uncertain drive, the sort of slow-paced sloshing that has the kids in the back seat tingling with excited anticipation.  We don’t fill our cars with kids anymore so my more sedate pleasures come from pulling over and wandering the road to see what birds have made the most of the beaver pond.

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All of that preamble is to set the stage for my encounter today with a pair of Eastern Kingbirds.  It took me a while to understand why they seemed so loyal to one particular corner of the newly grown swamp but eventually I came to understand that they had appropriated a hollow in the torn stump of a drowned tree for a nest site and that it was home to a brood of hungry chicks. It was a treat to stand back and watch the parent birds bringing food, each time presenting a frail damselfly to the open mouths. A young couple with a large pick-up truck decided to park as close to the nest as was feasible and the parent birds watched them guardedly but nevertheless continued to bring food. There was more to be seen and heard here: Common Yellowthroats and Swamp Sparrows singing loudly to mark their territories, an adult Virginia Rail with two youngsters tip-toed cautiously across the road and I could hear Rose-breasted Grosbeaks singing from a nearby woods. But I think the kingbird family were birds of the day, a reminder of how the next generation is in the making and despite immense risks in their first year some of them will survive.

Common Yellowthroat Crane R.

Common Yellowthroat Crane R.

Orchard Oriole and Blue-winged Warbler

2 July 2015. Ruthven Park, Cayuga ON. Early this morning I received a very polite request from the family of Jonathon, a visiting birder, asking for directions; “ ... He’s especially interested in finding a blue-winged warbler and an orchard oriole. I wondered if you would have any suggestions.” Either species is worth some effort to find, so I offered to go with them and try our luck. We arranged to meet at the bird observatory in an hour.

The two species are just about equally hit and miss. The oriole’s distribution in Ontario is patchy because we’re close to the limit of its range; and the warbler is fussy about habitat, it’s a small and flighty bird and can be hard to locate. To add to the challenge it’s becoming just a little late in the season for bird song to be helpful, and the leafy exuberance of summer tends to get in the way. As we set out I offered our chances: the Orchard Oriole as a long shot and the Blue-winged Warbler, a probable.

I called a stop in front of a large Black Willow that is always a busy place for birds; if the Orchard Oriole was to be found anywhere, this was perhaps the most likely spot. The willow was so lively with the comings and goings of Yellow Warblers, Song Sparrows and Cedar Waxwings that Jonathon described it as the ‘Tree That Keeps on Giving’.

It may be trite to start a sentence with ‘suddenly’, but that’s the way it happened; suddenly I picked out a familiar song coming from a nearby Black Walnut, it had Orchard Oriole written all over it, at least to it did to me. We searched the tree and then followed the flight of a smallish bird that flew from whence the song came, it landed, sang again and then flew back to theTree That Keeps on Giving.  And there it was, an Orchard Oriole. “There’s your bird.” I proclaimed, as if it always works that way. One down, one to go.

Blue-winged Warbler

Blue-winged Warbler

The Blue-winged Warbler came just minutes later. I had expected that we’d have to continue some way to an altogether drier and scrubbier part of the property.  Instead we found them at a densely green corner, quite un-Blue-winged Warbler-like, where all around us several birds were chipping anxiously. These were the sort of short, dry, chip notes I associate with Common Yellowthroats in a state of distress, scolding or anxiety. A few moments passed before we were able to find one and instantly realised that it was a Blue-winged Warbler, and not just one, but several. It seems we had barged in on a family: mom, dad and perhaps three or four fledglings, still a little fluffy. We enjoyed several long, almost intimate, minutes watching them. And well, that was it! Both species in the bag with almost Amazonian mail-order dispatch.

We continued our ramble. Warbling Vireos above us, Wood Thrushes calling from somewhere deep in the wet forest and Field Sparrows out along the field edges; it was all very nice. We parted company, Jonathon apparently thrilled with the outcome and me mentally weighing how much of our success was just luck.

Caspian Tern

30 June 2015. Windermere Basin, Hamilton ON. The exact locations of where I go birding is, I think, generally irrelevant to my accounts; unless of course I’m somewhere a little different and the place is as much a part of the story. But regular readers will know that most of my birding is in southern Ontario, Canada. In order to frame the following, I’ll share with those that haven’t yet figured it out, that I live very close to Hamilton, Ontario. Hamilton is a city founded on heavy industry and one of its outstanding natural physical attributes is a very large, deep-water harbour. It would all be very nice if it wasn’t for the fact that Hamilton Harbour is one of the most polluted places on the Great Lakes; careless urbanization and heavy industry are to blame; mostly the latter.

Times change and both the U.S and Canadian governments are making herculean efforts to repair the ecological damage, and that’s where today’s bird of the day story really starts.

On my way home from a minor errand, I stopped at a fairly new, man-made lake that adjoins a tributary of Hamilton Harbour. It’s a impoundment of perhaps ten acres, generally rectangular and features a couple of rocky islands, some shoals, shallows and muddy backwaters. Not so long ago this was the nastiest of backwaters full of industrial debris and barely treated sewage. The impoundment presumably serves some water quality amelioration purposes and it has been designed to be green and to attract wildlife. It hasn’t taken very long, today this is a good place to see shorebirds and waterfowl. In the two or three years of their existence the islands have attracted a large breeding colony of Caspian and Common Terns and around the lower areas, quite a few ducks; mostly Mallards.

My stop was short; I was just ahead of an approaching wall of light rain. But in those five or ten minutes, I saw several species, which would be worth pointing out at any time: a Snowy Egret (a rarity here and something of a celebrity with local birders) a nicely marked male Blue-winged Teal, two Gadwall, many Tree Swallows and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and of course the Common and Caspian Terns.

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern

Caspian Terns demand your attention; they are always dominant, frequently noisy, but undisputedly handsome. The Russian name for them is Chekrava, almost onomatopoeic, the word and the bird mirror each other’s purposeful crispness.

Some might say the Snowy Egret was Bird of the Day – but I’d seen enough of them a month ago on Cape May to last me for a while, and the Blue-winged Teal was a candidate, but I have a soft spot for terns, Caspian Terns in particular, and I think it was this youngster waiting for food that won the day.

 Young Caspian Tern and food arriving

Young Caspian Tern and food arriving

Afterwards as I drove home I saw one of our local Peregrine Falcons circling over the highway. It was then that I was reminded that despite all of the ill that mankind does to the natural world, when we just pause and try to make amends with a bit of rehabilitation and restoration, wildlife quickly moves to reclaim a niche where it can. It may just be a bunch of ducks and gulls and the odd falcon, but still an’all.

The Wrens

24 June 2015. Burlington, ON. It’s barely seven a.m as I write this, and there is a Carolina Wren not far away singing loudly, “SHEEbu SHEEbuSHEEbu SHEEbu.” Well actually not just singing; shouting it. It’s moving away, now a hundred yards distant, beating the bounds of its urban territory. Soon, within the next hour, I’ll probably pick up faint notes of a Winter Wren as it starts its rounds beginning in the thick undergrowth around the creek, a block or so away. It too, belting out its the cascading and tangled song and doing the rounds of its proclaimed territory, just letting everyone know this is where it belongs, for the summer anyway.

Carolina Wren in greenhouse

Carolina Wren in greenhouse

Carolina Wren April 10 2011 Williamsburg Va.

Carolina Wren April 10 2011 Williamsburg Va.

The Carolina Wren comes with a story of expanding range. It’s a bird which thirty years ago, was a rarity in Ontario and found in just a few of the milder pockets of the province. But the climate has changed, it’s been warmer for decades and the Carolina Wren’s toehold has expanded. Two years ago you might have described the Carolina Wren as a modestly well-established species. But two very hard withers in a row have thinned their population. It may be that ten years from now, if tough winters prevail, the Carolina Wren will once again be a rarity. Who knows? The ebb and flow of bird population cycles can be very long, beyond the attention span of most of us. For now the Carolina Wren is a welcome relative newcomer, valued for its upliftingly positive song and decidedly assertive behaviour.Winter Wren Colling area.

Winter Wren

Winter Wren

This Winter Wren’s appearance is something of a surprise to me. It is not a species I associate with this kind of urban backyard jigsaw of mine. They are birds that prefer cool dark woods, places with lots of thick undergrowth. If I want to find a Winter Wren I know of a couple of good areas to go, but I have to travel some distance. So when I first heard one singing in my neighbourhood one early morning about three weeks ago, I assumed it was a late north-bound migrant. I liked what I heard, I always do with Winter Wrens, and I was tempted to post a Bird of the Day entry in recognition of the fleeting visit; but time ran away and it just didn’t happen. Still, the next day I heard it again, and the next and so it has continued. In time I’ve come to believe that a Winter Wren has taken up residence and maybe, just maybe, found a mate who agrees that this is an okay place to raise a family.

My day’s plans do not include being anywhere particularly birdy, but with two species of wren patrolling my neighbourhood, I hardly need to.