September 24 2016 . RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. Well, which is it to be: Swainson’s Thrush, Blue-headed Vireo, Merlin or Rusty Blackbird ? Any of them could be my Bird of the Day. I was leading a group of volunteers in an all-day count of birds; sunrise to sunset in one location. I think anyone birding on this day must have been enjoying a great day, a couple of days of cold and unsettled weather had spurred great drifts of migrants into action.
Our site was a comfortable platform overlooking a large shallow lake which is bordered on one side by deciduous forest and by the wooded floodplain of a small river on the other. The day started at very first light just before seven and the first three or four hours were the busiest: a troop of about fifteen Northern Flickers staked out the tops of a group of old skeletal trees and the first of the day’s Blue Jays (200 by the end of the day) started streaming overhead. It was while I was alone in the first hour that I noticed the movement of a Brown Creeper making its secretive way up the trunk of a nearby Red Oak, following its movement I saw another bird fly to perch almost directly overhead – it was the Swainson’s Thrush; a delight and a great start to the day. I had heard the low, hollow pip! calls of Swainson’s Thrushes as I walked in during the half-light. We expect them at this time of year, but hearing them is one thing, seeing them quite another; they can be very shy and secretive.
Shortly after my first contingent of helpers arrived we spotted a Blue-headed Vireo on the outer limbs of an American Sycamore. I have a special spot in my heart and head for vireos so I was more than happy to see it, and my companions were thrilled too. The Blue-headed Vireo is smartly dramatic in its colouring; olive back, white and yellow undersides and a steel-blue head with white eye-rings like a pair of spectacles to give it an air of authority.
On the pond in front of us we found a large flotilla of Wood Ducks, mostly youngsters, and a couple of Green Herons. A Great Egret flew in to land on a semi-submerged log where it stood out bright white against the darkness of the forest edge.
In our first two hours we tallied twenty-eight species, then in the next two-hour block thirty-two species. In the middle of the day, while we were being interviewed and photographed by the local daily paper, the Merlin appeared. It swept past fast and low. Excitedly we dropped everything to watch it effortlessly flick by, scaring the living daylights out of countless Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches and Blue Jays. The reporter was impressed that such a small, brown, thing-on-wings could move anyone to stir from their seat; he doesn’t understand.
My last contender for bird of the day, Rusty Blackbirds, showed up late in the day, although I suspect they had been present all along, feeding along the squishy margins of the pond. I had seen a group of unidentifiable blackbirds much earlier and I’m just putting two and two together.
Our all-day count was one of two running concurrently on the natural lands of the Royal Botanical Gardens. They are one element of a study called the Long Watch, a project to gather long-term data on bird populations in this bird-rich corner of Ontario. Between our two sites we saw or heard eighty-four species including Least Bittern, Peregrine Falcon and of course my Birds of the Day. This is just our second year of operation and all being well I hope and expect the project to out-live me.