A thrush, a vireo, a falcon and a blackbird.

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.

Swainson's Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

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.

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue-headed Vireo

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.

Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird

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.

European Bee-eater

September 7 2016 Chokpak Pass, Kazakhstan.  This was one of our biggest migratory bird days. Hundreds of Common, Crested and Long-legged Buzzards mixed in with Common and Lesser Kestrels soared past; some high and some skimming low over the hillside. It was very exciting and we spent a lot of time trying with limited success to photograph them. If there was a signature bird in our Kazakh adventure though, it would have to be the European Bee-eater and this same day produced many flocks of them too.

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Bee-eaters are magnificent in almost every way: dramatically colourful, they have personality, and (oddly) don’t seem to mind being trapped and banded. There are twenty-four related species in the bee-eater family Merops, and another three species in related families. I met Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters in Uganda and despite their commonness I never tired of them, (even if my companion and guide did). The European Bee-eaters of Kazakhstan are every bit as gorgeous. Everyone loves them except bee-keepers and you can sympathise, the birds have an insatiable appetite for fresh bees which they catch on the wing and cleverly disarm before swallowing.

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At Chokpak we usually heard Bee-eaters before we saw them, not every time, sometimes, although we heard them them, they passed over out of sight against the stark blue sky. Occasionally a flock was low enough and in line with the Heligoland trap and then a handful would end up trapped. From there we’d collect and band them, record their sex, wing length, and fat reserves and then release them. There is a record of a Chokpak-banded European Bee-eater being re-found later in Antibes, France; almost due west about 5,000 Km.

The day ended with the arrival of visiting ornithologists from Uzbekistan, Siberia and other parts of Kazakhstan, who came to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Chokpak bird observatory. So as the day closed we were banding European Bee-eaters, Sand Martins, Pale Martins and Barn Swallows together. We may have been struggling to communicate in broken Russian and English but we shared admiration for the birds and what they accomplish without micro-chip technology. After all at least one showed that it made its way from Kazakhstan to the South of France.gathering-of-ornithologists-at-chokpak

Cinereous Vulture

Sept 6 2016. Chokpak Pass, Kazakhstan. A steady east wind dampened our birding today. Some of us were suffering from a nasty cold and our collective enthusiasm was lacking. I decided to take a long exploratory walk, partly to see what birds I might encounter and partly to see whether following a track across private land (or maybe it ‘s common or community land) presents any problems in post-Soviet Kazakhstan; it doesn’t seem to.common-mynahs

Kicking clouds of ochre dust as I went I was intrigued to see pairs of grazing horses dotted across the open landscape. In each case it was a mare and her foal, always one of them was on a long tether, neither would stray very far that way. The horses were an attraction to  wandering flocks of Yellow Wagtails who found plenty to eat around the horses’ feet. Likewise small clusters of Common Mynahs found ample food buzzing around the horses’ backs and ears.common-mynahs

I startled a Hoopoe which flew in a backwards arc behind a row of trees, too far to follow. I cursed myself for my inattention; it had only been a few metres ahead of me at the edge of the track, I should have seen it first. It’s a bird that seems to prefer dry, dusty, semi-open areas, I’d dearly like to examine and photograph one at length and at close quarters. They’re one of those childhood dream birds.

Hoopoes. Photo by Lucia Turkokova.

Hoopoes. Photo by Lucia Turkokova.

My Bird of the Day was little more than an extension of my imagination. I saw, far, far away and high almost beyond binocular-reach a soaring pair of Cinereous Vultures. The photographs I took don’t tell you much but, they were adequate for one of our Kazakh hosts to identify the geometry of the bird as singularly Cinereous. As the book describes it; “ (A) huge vulture with broad, parallel-edged wings and a very short, wedge-shaped tail”. You’d have to wonder where the thrill is in a nearly microscopic photo image. For me it was the tingle of near disbelief as I strained through binoculars to make sense of something that was obviously colossal; bigger than a Golden Eagle. How could it be anything but Bird of the Day.

Cinereous  Vulture

Cinereous Vulture

Northern Flicker

September 17 2016. RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. You can’t go on birding living on memories of foreign places; there’s things to be done, censuses to complete. Today I picked up where I left off three weeks ago and completed a census walk around one of our nicest, leafiest and birdiest valleys. For some reason it was extremely quiet, few birds and no family groups or dog-walkers, perhaps because rain was threatening.

A secretive (as always) Swainson’s Thrush watched me carefully and busy groups of Gray Catbirds darted between thick bushes. In and around the ponds were small groups of Wood Ducks, a distant Great Egret shining white through the haze and a sole Trumpeter Swan.

Male Northern Flicker

Male Northern Flicker

Birds of the Day were a migratory band of Northern Flickers moving deliberately westward but stopping to fuel up as they went. I watched two, then three until eventually it became a group of ten or twelve working over a tangle of Virginia Creeper that was heavy with fruit. Here’s a couple of photos.dscn1808

Short-toed Eagle

Sept 5 2016. Chokpak Pass, Kazakhstan. I had expected to be happily overwhelmed by new birds both in species variety and numbers. But for the first few days at Chokpak Pass the wind blew steadily from the east keeping the numbers way down. We happily explored the area and indulged ourselves getting to know the less sensational species that prefer to make their way quietly flitting from tree to tree, forest edge to forest edge. This brought us into close contact with Lesser Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs, Spotted Flycatchers, Azure Tits and Turkestan Tits, the last two are both in the family Paridae and close relatives of America’s chickadees and Europe’s Blue and Great Tits.

Azure Tit. Photo Larry Hubble

Azure Tit. Photo Larry Hubble

Azure Tits must rate among the prettiest of small birds as this picture shows: the shot was taken just as it was about to be released after banding.

We took an exploratory cross-country drive to the other side of the pass, to the toe of the Tien Shan mountains. This is what I wrote in my diary; “ We wandered the short-cropped pastures cut with gullies and washes. I struggle to find a single adjective for this landscape. It is powerful and sweeping, dry and vast. It makes you slack-jawed at its sweep and leads you to picture nomads on horseback. It’s too strong and towering to be pretty . You can feel how cold it must be in winter yet sense it to be alive and vital in spring.dscn1361

There are many familiar plants, both forbs and trees: thistles, yarrows, hollyhocks, hawthorn, roses, plums, elms, willows, asters and honey locusts.

The distant fields are dotted with horses and cattle. Slouched herders follow and goad the cattle across long expanses.  Kestrels work the smaller scale edges and gullies, Scimitar-like Hobbys gather in small groups along tree-lines, Palid Harriers and Montague’s Harriers quarter and soar. A Short-toed Eagle sat atop electricity pylon and Common Buzzards wheel around. Pied Wheatears work the scrubby bushes together with Siberian Stonechats.”

The Short-toed Eagle was my Bird of the Day. I’d seen them two years ago in Spain and remembered how their head has a sort of hood that frames the face and gives it a distinctive profile. As eagle species go it is not terribly large, two-thirds of the size of a Golden Eagle, but an eagle is an eagle and worth admiring if you can. We stopped the van and I started taking photos. When my companions suggested moving closer for a better look I decided to stay where I was and wait for the bird to fly, as it most assuredly would. Here’s what I got.

Short-toed Eagle

Short-toed Eagle

Short-toed Eagle

Short-toed Eagle

Here is a gallery of some of the birds from that day. It is visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

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Isabelline Wheatear

Sept 2 2016. Chokpak Pass, Kazakhstan. Our base camp, as I came to call it, sat at the foot of a hill that overlooked the reaches of Chokpak Pass. The hill served a strategic purpose because on its top the bird observatory maintained a large Heligoland trap, a very effective way of temporarily detaining migrant birds. A Heligoland trap is a building-sized frame and mesh structure shaped like a wedge of cheese. Birds blindly or maybe just innocently fly into its large open end and, apparently seeing no reason to turn back, carry on to the narrow end where they are gently trapped and held for banding, or ringing.

Moonrise over the Heligoland trap

Moonrise over the Heligoland trap

On this our first full day at Chokpak Pass, the winds were unhelpful and we saw few birds go in the trap. But still it was all very novel and we enjoyed encounters with many new-to-us species including this Black-throated Thrush an unmistakably close relative of the American Robin and the Eurasian Blackbird.

Black-collared Thrush

Black-collared Thrush

I climbed to the hilltop early in the day to get the lay of the land and learned an interesting and uncomfortable lesson, that many plants of the great Kazkh steppe, use burrs, hooks and spiky bits to ensure seed dispersal. I was repeatedly pulling off my boots and picking prickly things out of my socks. I soon learned which plants to avoid and not to wear shorts.

The lay of the land - burrs and all

The lay of the land – burrs and all

While the view from the hill was magnificent there were surprisingly few small birds to see, I caught a glimpse of a small brownish bird staying low in among the rocks and vegetation and eventually managed to get this photo. A quick check in ‘The Birds of Central Asia’ identified it as a Grey-necked Bunting which it reports as “Common on arid and rocky slopes with sparse vegetation, …. from lowland to mountains” It fits.

Grey-collared Bunting

Grey-collared Bunting

A little further on I met my Bird of the Day an Isabeline Wheatear. The Old-world has many species of wheatear, all rather handsome in a business-like way.  Most flash a bold white rump when they fly and it’s from the white rump that they get the name wheatear, it is a 16th- century contraction or corruption of “white” and “arse”. Appropriately the Isabelline Wheatear is a bird of the steppe and generally dry lands and is conspicuous for its very upright posture. I was rather struck by its elegance and its name Isabelline; (what is it about enigmatic names that gets my attention?). I learned in due course that isabelline is a colour: it’s parchment or fawn, and that the origin of the word may have its roots in an early reference to Queen Elizabeth I. Interesting reading on this can be found on Wikipedia.

Isabelline Wheatear

Isabelline Wheatear

During our days in Kazakhstan we met others of the family: the Pied Wheatear and the closely related Siberian Stonechat. All are birds of open country with commanding views and all are taxonomically considered to be part of the Old-world Flycatchers family Muscicapidae.

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Siberian Stonechat

Pied Wheatear

Pied Wheatear

 

Shikra

Sept 2 2016. Chokpak Pass, Kazakhstan. Taking the overnight train from Almaty to Chokpak was strategically wise; it got us from A to B while we slept. The train was utilitarian and the line, if you were inclined to enjoy two days of it, led all the way to Moscow. On-board bunks provided all you needed for a night’s rest but drawing the short straw for a top bunk complicated things. There is little I can say good about a top bunk at 2 a.m and the contortional acrobatics needed to get down to floor level, to stagger along a rocking and careening corridor to find the cubby-hole of a toilet that really should be serviced more frequently; I’m being polite.

Still we got to our destination efficiently by mid-morning the next day. Chokpak Pass is a wide opening between two ridges, Zabaglytau (Talassky Alatau) and Boroldai (Karatau) of the Western Tien Shan mountains. I certainly understand if that’s rather meaningless but if you really want to see more try going to Shakpak Ata on Google Maps and you’ll be close enough. (Our precise location was 42.530280, 70.605654)

Chokpak Pass

Chokpak Pass

Our camp on the edge of a narrow tract of Siberian Elm forest, comprised a cooking and dining tent, a couple of wheeled bunkhouses, rudimentary but workable washing areas, a hole-in-the-ground outhouse and importantly a small, pentagonal galvanized steel banding lab. It was all very functional and we were comfortable.

As we familiarized ourselves with this new home and started to get some idea of what to expect, Almat, one of our Kazakh ornithologist companions, came into the dining tent and asked if we knew Shikra. I’d say that yes, basically I’d heard of a Shikra but really wouldn’t know one if I saw it; a hawk with legendary hunting skills and a name to match would have been my best guess. With that Almat produced one from behind his back, just caught in the station’s Heligoland trap (about which more later.)

Shikra

Shikra

Shikras are accipiters just like our familiar Cooper’s Hawk. What makes them different is their decidedly pale plumage and, to distinguish them from other accipiters like the Eurasian Sparrow Hawk, a dark streak at the throat. Shikra, an almost onomatopoeic word, means ‘hunter’ in the Hindi language and among Indian falconers they were a favourite because they are fearless, capable hunters and relatively easy to train.

Again, like the many “I-never-imagined-I’d-see-one-in-my-lifetime” sightings of earlier, here was one of those almost mythical birds.

Collared Pratincole

Sept 1 2016. Lake Sorbulaq, Kazakhstan. To put this Bird of the Day into perspective I’ll explain that this is the first chapter of some sort of account of my first two weeks of September 2016 in Kazakhstan. I was there with four other Canadians to work with Kazakh and Russian ornithologists monitoring and studying fall migration.

Summed up in a few dozen words like that may make light of the intensity and complexity of travelling to another continent where the scenery, culture and food were all new and the language and alphabet at times impenetrable. It is a vast, often forbidding, landscape dotted occasionally with the decaying remains of Soviet infrastructure. The landscape often defied my photography skill: on one hand the distant wall of the snow-capped Tien Shan Mountains and on the other, the oh-so-dry expanse of steppe that stretches far to the north beyond the faintest hint of mountain tops.

Steppe, lake and Tien Shan

Steppe, lake and Tien Shan

The Collared Pratincole was spotted towards the end of a tiring day spent exploring a number of drying lakes that offer precious relief from the flat and scorching steppe that makes up much of Kazakhstan. It would be easy to view the steppe in its endlessness as expendable; indeed the Soviet leadership of the 1950s certainly saw it that way because they assigned 37 million acres near Semipalatinsk  in the north-east of the Kazakhstan for forty years of nuclear weapons testing. Today, totally independent of Moscow, Kazakhstan has custody of an exhausted and indefinitely poisoned corner of its country; some legacy.

Collared Pratincole (juv)

Collared Pratincole (juv)

But back to the Bird of the Day, pratincoles are a small family of rather streamlined, insectivorous shorebirds, usually gently beige-ish about the body with striking Cleopatra-esque eye make-up. Among shorebirds they tend to be more sophisticated than cute; and they have that funny name, pratincole, which, to me anyway, suggests some kind of complex lineage. But out of all the sensations this day, I think the special appeal of a pratincole lies in the near impossibility of ever seeing one, or at least that’s how it seemed to a boy growing up and gazing at bird books in post-war England.  Yet here was one right in front of me, a Collared Pratincole, in profile just as the books had shown it, fulfillment of the near impossible and Bird of the Day. (Actually a juvenile. Ed.)

Black Kites - a few of thousands

Black Kites – a few of thousands

The courser was just one of an almost impossible list of new and nearly new birds: We started the day watching an furious stampede of Black Kites streaming westward in circling boils a thousand or so feet overhead; Northern Lapwings, Common Stints, Black-tailed Godwits and Black-winged Stilts probing muddy flats; Green Sandpipers, Wood Sandpipers and Curlew Sandpipers; Common and Ruddy Shelducks; And more Red-necked Phalaropes than I could count. Other “I never ever thought I’d see one’ sights were a Hobby, a small, scythe-shaped falcon, a nervous raft of Dalmatian Pelicans and glistening European Rollers spaced along road-side utility lines.

Red-necked Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope

This young Turkestan Shrike must have felt like a bit of a celebrity; it allowed us to pile out of our mini-bus and grab a few decent shots. And it’s a shrike, always a minor sensation just like the Loggerhead and Gray Shrikes of North America and the Mackinnon’s Fiscals of Uganda.

Turkestan Shrike

Turkestan Shrike

This crowded, hot, dusty and bird-filled day was just a warm-up. It was the precursor to an overnight train ride westward to follow the legendary Silk Road to Chokpak Pass. More to come.

Warbling Vireo

August 28, 2016. Shoreacres Park, Burlington, ON. One of the things that birders get to understand and even anticipate is the waves of migrant movements. We expect spring’s Baltimore Orioles to arrive in the first week of May, Whimbrels around May 24th and the departure of Yellow Warblers by August 15th; plus or minus.

hungry young Gray Catbird and parent

hungry young Gray Catbird and parent

I was out this morning just to see what might be hanging around one of our leafier parks. Earlier this week it had been very busy with countless here-today-gone-tomorrow migrants, but not today. Oh, there were a few: American Redstarts, a much photographed Yellow-billed Cuckoo and a young Gray Catbird pestering its parent, but best of all lots of Warbling Vireos.

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

Many would think the Yellow-billed Cuckoo must surely be my Bird of the Day, but it was way too high to really enjoy and I got more pleasure listening to the Warbling Vireo’s cascading, throwaway song. Lasting two or three seconds, it’s a lazy summer sound that drifts endlessly in the urban forest canopy, a counterpoint to the electric buzz of cicadas.

Regular readers of this will remember that I have a soft spot for all vireo species. They are rarely flashy, usually unassuming and faintly predatory. Of all of them the Warbling Vireo is the least boldly marked or colourful, it is overall a plain olive to beige, nothing eye-catching.

Warbling Vireo

Warbling Vireo

At the park this morning I could hear Warbling Vireos singing from every quarter, they were so numerous that I felt sure I was in the midst of a migratory wave. A check of a couple of references showed that they start their southward move in early August and are all gone (more or less) by mid September. Best to make the most of them now.

And as for cuckoos? See July 19th.

Red-necked Phalarope

August 25, 2016. Eastport Dr, Hamilton, ON. I enjoyed watching three Red-necked Phalaropes today; they easily pushed a Lesser Scaup, some Ruddy Ducks and a distant telescope view of a Stilt Sandpiper aside to be my Birds of the Day.

There are only three phalarope species in the world: Red, Red-necked and Wilson’s. The first two breed in the Arctic latitudes of Eurasia and North America, while the Wilson’s breeds across the central and north plains of North America. All spend the winter in equatorial regions. Red Phalaropes are rarely seen inland but the other two make regular but often-overlooked appearances in Ontario; for that I count us lucky because, as I’ve noted before, pharalopes are in the fine china category of shorebirds.

There is something very compelling about phalaropes. They are shorebirds, but unlike most of their relatives they swim rather than parade, pick and poke along the waters-edge. And then there’s the name – phalarope; a touch aristocratic sounding like pharaoh. But my handy authority on bird names says it’s from the Greek “…. phalaris, “ a coot”: Gr. pous, “foot”; hence “coot-footed” for the lobes on the toes like the foot of a coot.” Oh well, maybe not so aristocratic.

There were reportedly six or maybe eight of them in a large enclosed pond adjacent to the nearby industrial harbour. When I showed up most of them were out of sight, sheltered behind a large pile of earth and debris but I managed to get one or two passable shots. Here’s the best of them.

Red-necked Phalaropes

Red-necked Phalaropes