Great Horned and Eastern Screech Owls

April 20 2018.  I am being deliberately evasive about where I saw owls today. Birders tend to be reluctant to share the location of owls they’ve seen because of some historical tension between two camps who you would expect to see eye to eye on most things, birders and bird photographers. Purist birders are in the “Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints.” camp, while some bird photographers, a very small minority I’m sure, have shown little regard for the well being of an owl in the quest for a possible money-shot photograph.

The upshot of a few years of rancour is that I, like most birders, withhold the location of owls that might be considered photogenic. I carry a camera almost every time I’m birding and I have my own opinions on the subject but this is not the place for them.

The first of today’s owls was a young Great Horned Owl, so young that at first there was some concern it might have crash landed on its maiden flight the evening before and been unable to take off again. I was one of a team concerned for its safety so went to look for it at first light. We were happy to find it apparently fine and it was last seen on a safe perch well above ground level. Here it is.

Great-horned Owl chick

Don’t be misled by its cuteness, it’s talons will pierce flesh and its beak can rip it into digestible chunks.

Much later today, a trio of companions and I conducted a transect/survey along one of our set routes. For a while we cursed the continuing icy winds wondering if they would ever let off. The birding was quite good but the need to wear gloves got in the way a bit. Still, as if to confirm that there are better days ahead, we watched a Yellow-rumped Warbler, my first of the year (although a few have been reported by others over the last week), a Swamp Sparrow (heard but not seen) was another first and an Eastern Phoebe a second of the year; it’s starting to come together.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Wood Ducks, we recorded twenty-six of them, were busy greeting, chasing and socializing, most that we could see were gaudy males, suggesting the females may already be hidden from sight incubating a clutch of eggs, but the females are quite cryptically coloured so it’s equally possible we couldn’t pick them out against the shoreline debris.

My second owl today, an Eastern Screech Owl, was spotted barely visible in a wide cavity on the sunny side of a hickory.. Two owls in one day is a happy accomplishment, and Yellow-rumped Warbler and Swamp Sparrow notwithstanding, they made my day; Birds of the Day.

Eastern Screech owl

American Woodcock

April 17 2018 Cootes Paradise, RBG, Hamilton, ONBird of the Day today was unquestionably an American Woodcock, actually there were two of them. The story behind it takes a bit of framing, recent weather conditions, the bird’s hunger and a big dollop of luck came together to allow us the privilege of a prolonged look at this relatively common but hardly-ever seen bird.

First the weather. Spring sometimes shows its hand in April but I’m sure the month owes its allegiance more to winter. My diary has as many April references to nasty cold snaps, thick ice and driving snow as it does to patches of unseasonable warmth. We have just emerged from two-and-a-bit days of mistreatment by the convergence of a couple of storm systems, one delivering moisture, rain, the other bringing Arctic temperatures, turning it to ice. All is quiet now but the ground is either frozen and overlaid with crunchy snow and ice, or open and waterlogged. This violent and icy storm was almost certainly fatal to birds of all species as food became totally inaccessible.

And what is it about American Woodcocks that makes them such a novelty? Woodcocks are birds of the woodland-floor and must go unseen and unnoticed. They are cryptically coloured like a scattering of woodland debris and if danger is close they usually become absolutely motionless, freezing on the spot. The only time and place to reliably see them is when the males perform their elaborate spring display flights, and it’s usually dark or nearly so, so you don’t really get much of a look, just glimpses of a bird spiraling up against the fading evening sky.

They need to be where the ground is richly organic and soft enough to use their exaggeratedly long bills to probe for squishy invertebrate food. Books all say they live on a diet of earthworms yet there are no native North American earthworms. Before the arrival of Europeans (bringing familiar plants and, inevitably, earthworms), woodcocks must have lived quite happily on something else. Earthworms or not, for a woodcock to survive a freeze-up it must find soft ground and today’s sites, low boggy hollows with free-running water, met their need.

All of the above is probably more than enough to set the stage, because really all that happened is that we were out birding and happened upon two American Woodcocks. Both sightings were, I’m sure, because the birds had been driven from the frozen forest floor to the margins where it was wetter and most importantly soft. One hastened away from a tangle of blackberry canes heading back to the forest on little bouncing strides, the second and by far the most breathtaking we found in a wide and damp wooded valley. Realising the difficult conditions woodcocks were facing, I half anticipated finding one here so, using binoculars to search the ground methodically and without the usual peripheral distractions, it somehow just popped into view.  Unlike the first who promptly left the area the second one opted for the invisibility tactic so crouched motionless for as long as we were anywhere in sight.

American Woodcock

I have included these few photos, but interesting as they may be, they don’t quite capture the way the bird can vanish against the background; you can see it one minute and lose it the next.

And just for fun and to further illustrate the exquisite camouflage of some birds here are two other candidates for invisibility: a Wilson Snipe ( choosing to be conspicuous) and a Red-necked Nightjar.

Wilsons Snipe

Red-necked Nightjar

Merlin

April 7 2018 Cootes Paradise, RBG, Hamilton, ONA year ago, in fact exactly a year ago, My Bird of the Day was a Merlin, you can read about it here. I could save myself a lot of keyboard angst if I left it at that, just suggesting you advance all dates by exactly one year; but that would take all the fun out writing, rewriting, and endlessly correcting the same maddening finger-slips.

Today I joined a group of enthusiastic birders walking crunchy frozen trails through fields and woodland looking for the April’s promise; promises that April kept to itself, but the group’s enthusiasm made up for the cutting northwest wind that made our eyes stream and noses drip.

We managed to find a few encouraging birds: mostly Dark-eyed Juncos, a sprinkling of Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and a few raptors for the day: a far off adult Bald Eagle, a wind-tossed Redtailed Hawk and Bird of the Day a Merlin. Referring back to the Merlin of this date last year, it was atop a Red Oak on the edge of a parking lot whereas today’s was sitting quietly midway up a Red Ash a very few feet from us, and there it remained for perhaps fifteen minutes. It seemed content to watch the world go by; perhaps it had eaten very recently. Our group was rightly excited with this opportunity to study the bird closely as our leader read aloud its description from his field guide, every detail was a perfect fit.

Could this be the same bird? The same day, the same time and almost the same place. The two sightings were from within 500M of each other, an easy skip and a jump for a Merlin. Here’s a couple of shots of today’s Merlin, my Bird of the Day.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

April 5 2018 Hendrie Valley, RBG, Burlington, ONThe solitary Tree Swallow of a few days ago has company. On the Longwatch transect today we watched a flock of thirty or forty swallows coursing the length of the pond looking for food. At times like this, while the air is still cold and few insects are flying they depend heavily on emerging insects and larvae at the surface of lakes and ponds. It was cold, barely above freezing, and the Tree Swallows must be hungry. This photo includes thirty-two of the flock resting between end-to-end sorties over the pond.

Tree Swallows on a cold morning

My Bird of the Day was the first bird of the transect, a Redbreasted Nuthatch. Some may protest, What’s special about a Red-breasted Nuthatch? Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I like them, I like the blush of chestnut on the breast and their relative daintiness as compared to the more pedestrian White-breasted Nuthatch; and perhaps I’ve seen enough of the latter to last a lifetime. Red-breasted Nuthatches are not particularly uncommon it’s true, it’s all about where you are, they favour coniferous forests over deciduous, while I favour them in the reverse order.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Belted Kingfisher

Our efforts turned up a few nice first-of-the-year early arrivals: twos of Belted Kingfishers and Great Blue Herons, a Brownheaded Cowbird (there will be plenty of them to follow), and a Piedbilled Grebe. Among all the male Redwinged Blackbirds clamouring for attention we saw just one female, they always lag behind the males by a couple of weeks perhaps hoping to find they have secured a suitable breeding territory. And while the male red-wing is striking in black and scarlet, the female is quite different, she is more sparrow-like in browns and cream, streaked and mottled, but, and here is the beauty in this bird, she has a glorious peach-coloured wash on her face.

Why they’re called Wood Duck

Speaking of sexual dimorphism, as we compared a pair of Wood Ducks at fairly close quarters, admiring the flamboyant plumage of the male in particular, my companion noted that the fashion world often finds inspiration in the world of bird plumages. Makes sense, although apparently we’ve applied the lessons in reverse with women’s clothing taking on colour and dazzling display while menswear stays with restraint and earth colours.

Tree Swallow

March 31 2018 Hendrie Valley, RBG, Burlington, ONThank you March, you can leave now. Stuck like a weary gate between February’s winter and April’s spring, you allowed a few birds through but you’re losing your grip and it’s time to go.

On these last two days of March we start our Longwatch transects. If Longwatch means little to you, take a look at this site www.longwatch.ca (It’s not huge but it will explain a lot.) Essentially we are conducting a study of bird populations during the four best birding months of the year: April, May, September and October, we do it by walking defined routes and recording all bird seen and heard. It’s rewarding work (but unpaid).

My two-kilometer route took me around this forested valley; it’s always rich in birds and rarely is it repetitive. It’s very sheltered and several species find enough food and comfort there to keep them going through the winter months. Over-winterers includes a few Winter Wrens and today I was buoyed to hear one singing a hundred meters or so away, a thin, thread-like song but powerful enough to stake a claim in the dense and gloomy woodlands they favour. Hearing it tipped the balance from a nice early spring day to a good one.

Winter Wren

Mallards and Wood Ducks have returned, so far more males than females it seems. Canada Geese have staked out their territories and I watched a pair of them, heads and necks low, half fly half gallop to chase off two would-be settlers. With the interlopers conclusively gone, the defenders bobbed and bowed in mutual admiration and confirmation of having done the right thing.

Male Wood Duck

Bird of the Day was a single Tree Swallow flying roller-coaster swoops over the waters of one of the large ponds. Tree Swallows are well established on this pond and many more will follow but early arrivals like this one run the risk of a cold spell that would put an end to the supply of insects. A couple of years ago we had an extraordinarily vicious late cold snap that must have been fatal to many insectivorous birds. This photo of a group of hungry and cold Tree Swallows was taken on May 5th; plenty of time yet for a change of fortunes.

My day’s total species count was thirty three and also included five Ringnecked Ducks, a couple of Buffleheads, a young Bald Eagle and handsome pairs of Trumpeter Swans and Northern Shovelers.

Eastern Bluebird

March 11 2018. Merrick Orchard, Dundas Hamilton, ON.  I think it happens to all of us: you entertain a fleeting and random thought and no sooner has your attention let it go than the object of that randomness suddenly pops up in real life, right in front of you. Sometimes you can rationalize the coincidence, other times it gets you wondering about sixth senses, apparitions or guardian angels; or maybe it’s just plain old coincidence after all.

Eastern Bluebird

Today’s random pop-up was an Eastern Bluebird, actually a pair of them. I had been hiking a long and, at times challenging, woodland trail with steep hills and patches of ice (a nasty combination). The trail eventually opened up to a grassy old orchard dotted with patches of Multiflora Rose, it was where several trails came together. Just as I was thinking that it was the right sort of habitat for bluebirds or maybe even a shrike, and making a mental note to come back in a couple of months, a small bird flew up from the edge of the path to an overhanging branch. A quick binocular look and there, as if fulfilling a prophesy, was an Eastern Bluebird, it made my head spin for a moment. As I debated whether I could make any photographic sense of it, it flew to one of those clumps of Multiflora Rose taking its mate with it. That was an improvement as it was now close enough to be able to get several decent shots. It’s hard to imagine a more subtly beautiful bird than this, there are many equally beautiful, but how could anyone improve on this little thrush? (Yes, a thrush.)

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

As I continued my walk the unmistakable ringing call of a Pileated Woodpecker from somewhere back in the forest added nicely to an otherwise rather un-birdy late winter hike.

I remember a similar sort of happy coincidence three years ago in New Jersey when, as a friend and I walked out of a woodland edge and into an open but scrubby field, I commented that this felt like a good spot for Blue-winged Warblers. With that, one started singing just a few yards away. I wondered at the time whether its faint beee-bzzzzz song had found its way into the wait-a-minute-I’m-too busy-right-now corner of my brain and just needed a trip to my consciousness; or was it something altogether more obscure and spectral? Or maybe I just spend too much time birding.

Blue-winged Warbler

Tundra Swans

February 28 2018. The west end of Lake Ontario, ONEvery year about this time Tundra Swans start their spring migration, they depart from their Atlantic wintering grounds in large groups and set out on a three or four thousand kilometer journey to the shores of Hudson Bay and islands of the high Arctic.

I like to imagine Chesapeake Bay on a late winter day, when thousands of agitated Tundra Swans sense the time is right and take flight in a loosely coordinated lift off, calling across the marshes to confirm who’s where and then coalescing into groups of dozens, scores and finally hundreds. Then heading inland late in the day to fly overnight towards their first refueling stops around the west end of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Six-hundred kilometers later, we see them on mornings like today.

It was 8.30 when, as I walked away leaving my car for an oil change, a group of about 150 Tundra Swans passed directly overhead, perhaps five hundred feet up. Shortly after this first group left me behind I spotted two or three more, smaller flocks much further away and they cemented a feeling of satisfaction that spring must be on its way.

Tundra Swan V

There are few signs of spring more certain to stop me in my tracks than the sound and sight (usually in that order) of a long V-formation skein of Tundra Swans. Often they seem to be thousands of feet up, almost invisible against a blue March sky but given away as they catch the sun and bright white reflections flash off their bodies. The formations hold their long V shape loosely, sometimes stretching or drifting sideways and re-forming as leaders, outliers and insiders swap places.

All of that was satisfying enough, but this evening I looked at the day’s observations on our local list serve and it was all about Tundra Swans. Here are some excerpts from dozens of similarly excited reports: At 9.07 “…we just had a flock of 150 over our yard …. Heading southwest.” At 9.30 “ Saw a group of ~12 fly over the York Blvd. bridge..” At 9.51 “ I’ve seen three groups of 32, ~65, and 29 fly over the east side of Grimsby this morning. All heading in a generally westward direction.” At 10.08 “Two large groups within 10 minutes of each other estimated at least 250 individuals combined.” You get the idea. By 12.30 the moderator had had enough and called a halt to swan reports.

Tundra swans Lake Erie March 17 2009

These first sightings are a marker in the approach of spring, more important than the first snowdrop or robin. Tomorrow I’ll see if I can find some of them on the lakes and flooded fields around here, more should arrive over the next week or two although they don’t do this for our entertainment, so it’s not guaranteed. No matter, they were here today, Birds of the Day.

Tundra Swans

Snowy Owl and Northern Shrike

February 22 2018. Saltfleet, ON. The way we keep seeing Snowy Owls around here is a bit of an embarrassment of riches. Yet that’s the way it is these days, I saw two today making it at least six this year. Whether they are close at hand or far off, snowies are always a wow! bird so, by the strict definition of this site, it should make them my Bird of the Day every time. But I think we’d all tire of a steady diet of Snowy Owls, there’s more to life.

Today’s second (the first one was a long way off) Snowy Owl rounded out nicely a cold morning that included several late winter novelties including a trio of Horned Larks and the first-of-the-year Red-winged Blackbirds.   A recent surge of warmish air has cleared away our thick blanket of snow, streams and rivers are running fast and full with many low-lying areas now under water. An advance guard of ducks and geese anxious to secure the best breeding territories, has flown in. When winter comes storming back unless they are ready to retreat in a hurry I suppose they’ll take whatever cover they can find. In these flooded fields we found groups of Canada Goose, Mallard, Gadwall and a few American Wigeon.

We spotted a Northern Shrike on the top of a bare Red Ash tree and in the time it took to safely pull off the road and get my camera ready it flew to a nearby Hawthorn shrub from which it made a couple of forays to ground, probably in search of voles. I managed to get a couple of shots. Not the best but shrikes are few and far between and we were pleased with this one, Bird of the Day number one.

Northern Shrike

The Snowy Owl that rounded out this morning was almost pure white. First year males and females are heavily marked with dark brown barring and spotting. Second year birds are less marked in males, slightly less in females but it is unknown how long it takes for males to reach pure white adult plumage. We usually see strongly marked younger birds (like the one a month ago) but today’s was clearly an adult male, they’re sort of the prize find among snowies. Bird of the Day number two and only marginally marred by the muddy furrow it obviously found so comfortable; that’s just the way it goes.

Footnote. I like words and wordplay, you’ve probably noticed.  With so many hours spent bashing out stuff for this site it’s hardly surprising I suppose. Part of my fascination with wordplay lies in the scientific names that follow italicized behind the common names of our familiar birds. (And all other living organisms for that matter.) Some are tongue-twisters, some surely private jokes and many just mellifluous.

How about Lanius excubitor ?- the Northern ShrikeLanius being Latin for butcher and excubitor a sentinel. Not only does it fit the bird’s way of life, but doesn’t it just roll off your tongue? And, Bubo scandiacus the Snowy Owl. I’m not keen on the bubo part, a word which in English means the swollen lymph node symptom of Black Death (caused incidentally by Yersinia pestis), but the scandiacus part I like – a nod to the northland.

Other bird name delights include Vanellus vanellus, Anas platyrynchos, Tyto Alba, Alauda arvensis and Melanerpes erythrocephalus. Here’s just some of them.

Evening Grosbeaks and Canada Jays

February 11 2018. Algonquin Park, ON. The pull of the work week meant that this, our second day at Algonquin Provincial Park, could only be a half day. Still we packed in as much as we could in the search for interesting winter birds. In the end we came up with nineteen species for the weekend, a handful of them were barrel-scrapers like Dark-eyed Junco, American Goldfinch and Blue Jay but everything else held some magic. Among the winter finches only Pine Grosbeaks and Redpolls were worrisome misses, but day lists for the sake of lists are not a priority for me, instead I had a couple of target birds, old acquaintances I hadn’t seen for a while.

On this day my companions were determined to hike a snow-smothered trail on a second attempt to find a putative Blackbacked Woodpecker. We had tried to find it yesterday but came up empty handed but, rather than traipse through the snow in pursuit of one bird, I opted to stay at the park’s visitor centre today. Birding from the observation deck was somewhat compromised by a light but steady snowfall but I can overlook a lot of discomfort when the reward is Evening Grosbeaks. I didn’t count them but I’d guess at perhaps twenty coming and going from a feeder loaded with sunflower seed.

As I hope these photos show, the male grosbeak’s plumage is an almost impossible extravaganza of yellow, gold, black and white. They really are spectacular, and faithful readers of this site may remember my euphoric encounter with them last June in northern Michigan.

If Evening Grosbeaks are the gaudy court jesters of winter then Gray Jays must be the butlers. Gray Jays show up just when you need them and have a certain dignified demeanour implying, You go ahead, everything’s under control. And show up they did in a couple of slightly remote locations.

I managed to get many photos and share some here. I think the effect is rather spoiled by the colourful leg bands on both birds. The bands are courtesy of park biologists who are studying the species’ population dynamics. Breeding success is a major part of the study amid concern that Gray Jays are starting to lose ground as the climate warms and winters become less reliably cold. Gray Jays cache food for later consumption but in recent years, warm winter days have led to spoilage of some caches.

The Gray Jay has been the centre of quite a bit of political fuss lately, the jays themselves couldn’t care less. The Royal Canadian Geographic Society, citing inaction by the central government, decided that more than anything else Canada needed a national bird. Predictably most Canadians pointed to either the Common Loon or the Snowy Owl as most the appropriate embodiments of the Canadian personality, but both of them, while arguably worthy, had already been claimed by a couple of provinces. (Somehow the Canada Goose didn’t get much of a look in.) The Society was steadfast in its deliberations and noted that because Gray Jays are found across Canada from coast to coast the title should go to it.  Fine, but few ever get to see one because they are generally found too far off the beaten track. Now it seems that there is a move afoot to rename it the Canada Jay; fitting I suppose.

My companions succeeded in finding the Black-backed Woodpecker, they deserved their victory and even managed some for-the-record photographs, I know they were happy to have made the effort.

More pictures from the weekend. Click on any one to enlarge it.

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Red Crossbills and White-winged Crossbills

February 10 2018. Algonquin Park, ON. I thank my new-ish group of friends for a last-minute invitation to join them on a weekend birding the snows of Ontario’s Algonquin Park. The majority of Ontarians view Algonquin as The North, though really it’s not. It lies at about 46°N on roughly the same latitude as Portland, Oregon, Croatia and Venice, hardly sub-arctic. But it’s an understandable perception since it can be eye-wateringly cold up here in February and the dramatic, rocky and lake-dotted landscape has a lumberjack country feel to it. In any case, anything more than a three hour drive from the city starts to seem like terra incognita.

It is a different world from southern Ontario: the Algonquin highlands are, in altitude, about 500 metres higher and geologically, topographically and climatically different. All of those factors taken together mean the biotic contents of Algonquin have little in common with the softer lowland south.  It is landscape for year-round recreation by canoe trippers, campers and snowmobilers.

Red Crossbill

We left the comforts of our heated cabin as early as we could today and had hardly gone half a kilometer before we saw a Red Crossbill on the tip of a White Spruce, and not long afterwards pulled to the roadside to watch a more crossbills associating with a handful of Pine Siskins. After several such stops and diversions we had to acknowledge that we really should keep going and eventually arrived at the park’s visitor centre where the viewing platform provides a spectacular opportunity to watch and photograph birds and sometimes deer, moose and wolves.

Purple Finch (m)

Purple Finch (f)

Many birders make a mid-winter pilgrimage here to seek out cold-hardy ‘northern’ bird species, with itinerant finches as a special target.  We missed Redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks but saw many Pine Siskins, Red, and Whitewinged Crossbills, Purple Finches and Evening Grosbeaks all of which depend on a winter diet of conifers and alder seeds. Charming, but overlooked by many, were many Red-breasted Nuthatches. I suppose they’re too commonplace to command much attention but I enjoyed a prolonged conversation with this one which I’m sure believed I was bringing food for it.  Sadly no, it left empty but I got this close-up photo.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Crossbills are so called because their upper and lower mandibles are specially adapted to pry open pinecones. And there is a really interesting, if somewhat complicated, symbiotic relationship between crossbills and coniferous trees that should be worth a paragraph or two; I’ll try to keep it brief.

Conifers such as spruces, pines and hemlocks (all found in Algonquin) go through feast or famine cycles of cone production, several years of modest production followed by periodic bumper-crop years. Each cone holds dozens of seeds and it is a spruce’s hope and expectation (if it is capable of such sentiment) that at least one of those seeds will find fertile ground and be the next generation. Birds and rodents like those seeds too and will eat every last one given the chance.

Biologists believe that a series of modest cone-production years is effective in holding the populations of squirrels and the like at a subsistence level. Then just when those seed-eaters least expect it, the conifers have a big year and produce huge, branch-bending crops of seed-bearing cones. It’s a strategy to improve the odds that a seed will survive to germinate before a mouse, chipmunk or squirrel eats it.

Birds have been around a long time too, long enough for certain species to find a way to live with and exploit the conifers’ surprises. Birds have mobility that rodents do not, so enter the crossbills: Red, and White-winged. They are highly nomadic species driven by the variable nature of cone production and are found across North America and Eurasia. So when the spruces, pines and hemlocks of Algonquin produce big crops, crossbills from across the continent somehow find them. This is one of those rare bumper-crop winters and it makes for good birding; next year when Algonquin’s cone crop is likely to be just so-so the crossbills will be somewhere else.

A feast is one thing and in response the crossbills are now starting to breed; they can initiate breeding at any time of year.  It was way below freezing and snowing purposefully as I started to write this yet the male crossbills were in full courtship singing and selecting a mate.  Some have nests and eggs already and, being mid-winter, the females must sit tight incubating eggs and protecting their chicks while the air temperature may fall to -30 C. She dare not leave the nest so the males’ job is to bring food for everyone.

Needless to say that for this first day of this weekend my Birds of the Day were crossbills. There were many other very inspiring birds to be admired, but I’ll get to them tomorrow.

Common Ravens