Lincoln’s Sparrow.

September 12th 2017. RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. Cool weather continues to chase the birds south. It was just 14 degrees C. at 8.50 this morning when I started a count of birds in the valley.

It starts with a stretch of trail that gets a lot of foot traffic, much of it families bringing offerings of cracked corn and sunflower seeds for the waiting Gray Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks, Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches and Mourning Doves. Occasionally (and this was one of those days) something unusual and migratory stumbles upon the bounty, we sometimes see Fox Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows mixed in. Today there was something altogether new – Lincoln’s Sparrows.

Another day I might have overlooked them. As I approached the bottom of a small hill I saw and noted what I took to be a couple of Song Sparrows scuffling with all the usual ruffians. Then one of them shot across the path running (yes running) like a panicked rodent. I wondered for a moment if what I’d seen was a large vole and not a bird; a worrying sort of misidentification for an experienced birder you’ll understand, or maybe I’d just imagined something. Then it happened again and this time I knew it was a bird, but this was behaviour unlike any I’d ever seen before. Birding is full of new experiences most of which get tucked away and absorbed as part of the lore and so far this rodent run was nothing more than that.

Then moving on I heard a song I didn’t recognize, a weak musical trill, pretty and puzzling. I found who was singing it and I realized it was a Song Sparrow lookalike but definitely not a Song Sparrow. It didn’t take long to narrow the field to Lincoln’s Sparrow, not that I’ve seen many, but there were a few field marks to point in that direction. I found a recording of the song on an iPhone app to clinch the identification and smiled inwardly; a new one for the valley.

Lincoln’s Sparrow getting ready to run across the path

A little later I met one or two more Lincoln’s Sparrows, singing too. Song at this time of year is unusual but without it I might well have noted a handful of Song Sparrows. Here is a better picture of a Lincoln’s Sparrow followed by one of a Song Sparrow, you’ll understand the confusion.

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Song Sparrow

There was more to the day of course. The last of the season’s vireos: Philadelphia, Warbling and Red-eyed, a couple of Belted Kingfishers patrolling the waterways and a shy Green Heron. All delightful birds but it was definitely the Lincoln’s Sparrow that carried the day.

Philadelphia Vireo

September 10th 2017. RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. The vireos are on the move, Red-eyed, Warbling and Philadelphia, all heading south. I’m sad to see them go, but it’s time and birding would only be half the fun if we didn’t have the ebb and flow of migrants in their varying seasonal plumages. In the valley there were lots of vireos in what seemed to be small groups, I think though it could well have been a mass movement and I was just seeing several whenever I stopped to look.

It wasn’t only vireos; the valley was busy with birds (and Sunday strollers). Obvious migrants included Swainson’s Thrushes, American Redstarts, Rosebreasted Grosbeaks and a pair of Scarlet Tanagers, the male now dressed in olive green rather than the fiery scarlet of spring and summer.  Few birds stay still long enough to allow me a good photo, for every one photo I post dozens are discarded. But today a pair of vireos was moving slowly enough for me to get at least one decent shot.

Philadelphia Vireo

I have to admit that I was surprised to see I’d photographed a Philadelphia Vireo and not a Red-eyed Vireo as I had assumed. While they are quite similar my pride had assured me I knew the difference, the Philly is a bit smaller and distinctly washed yellow below, but somehow I’d missed the cues. It doesn’t matter, I’m happy to have a decent picture of a Philadelphia Vireo and it was my bird of the day.

Common Yellowthroat (juv)

There were many Common Yellowthroats too. The adult males of the species with their bold Lone Ranger mask are unmistakable all year, but the females and juveniles are much subtler. Here, above, is one from today showing a yellow throat as you might expect but little else to make it an easy identification. Their damp habitat behaviour and rather flinty chip note helps with identification but I have to say there’s lots of room for mistakes.

Common Yellowthroat.

Swainson’s Thrush

September 6th 2017. Morgan’s Point, Ontario. My calendar was open and invited me to squander a day in aimless birding.  Well not quite aimless, I had some ideas where good birding was to be found so made my way to the shores of Lake Erie. At this time of year there’s a reasonable chance of finding gatherings of southbound shorebirds; conditions have to be right.

What makes Lake Erie most productive for birds and birders is a spell of churning stormy weather to drive swaths of loose aquatic vegetation ashore. Then allow a week or so for rank decay to begin and you have an odiferous feast of invertebrates for hungry birds. Understandably these are conditions that shoreline property owners hate and believe that ‘they’ (government at some level) should do something about it.  It was that way at the end of August four years ago when I had a marvellous day studying and photographing yellowlegs, sandpipers and plovers.  But today was the sort of day made for beach-strolls and sunbathers but not much good for birds and birders. Inland was a little different though.

Sandhill Cranes

It’s an hour’s drive to Lake Erie and I took back roads as much as possible. A couple of open fields held distant clusters of what I assumed were Killdeers, but they were too far away to invest a lot of time studying.  Much better were a pair of Sandhill Cranes seen gleaning a recently harvested wheat field.  I pulled to the shade of a Burr Oak and watched them for a while thinking of the Grey Crowned Cranes of Uganda I had admired for the same reasons six months ago.  Stately would be the right adjective for cranes.  What would it be like, I wondered, to be a crane, stalking fields with precisely chosen strides, hunting late summer grasshoppers, tidying up grain spills and unafraid; at that size and with a dangerous looking spear of a beak you would think cranes are pretty well unassailable.  I know that in some mid-western farmlands crane populations have become a nuisance and many are shot, whether a ‘harvest’ is really warranted or whether it’s itchy trigger fingers I don’t know; I hope they taste good.

I was sure these Sandhill Cranes would be my Birds of the Day but it was still early and exploring the shores of Lake Erie was yet to come. I stopped for a while at a wooded lakeside park, it was unexciting and I didn’t see much except for this delightfully subtle Swainson’s Thrush, it stopped me in my tracks; my Bird of the Day.

Swainson’s Thrush

It’s hard to put my finger on just what it is about these reclusive birds, all of our thrushes: Swainsons, Grey-cheeked, Hermit and Wood Thrushes and their Veery cousins are generally soft brown, cream or buff; hardly showy. But they are songsters that lay down ethereal and fluting songs in the spring forests, sounds that always make birders stop and listen.

I wrapped up my day gazing at a scattering of shorebirds working the shallow stretches of a flooded and now abandoned quarry. There were several Greater Yellowlegs and to my surprise two Black-bellied Plovers, one adult and one juvenile. It’s been a few years since I last saw this species and they always make for a satisfying sighting. I wouldn’t call them stocky or stolid but they are well-proportioned and handsome, typically plover-ish like their Killdeer cousins, only better. Killdeers are inclined to act a little hysterically, like street performers and so are hard to take very seriously. Black-bellied Plovers on the other hand conduct themselves with an air of solemnity, more ringmaster than juggler.

The shot below shows Black-bellied Plovers in spring, at their most handsome, surrounded by a mass of Short-billed Dowitchers.

Black-bellied Plovers and Short-billed Dowitchers

Cape May Warbler

September 2nd 2017. Algonquin Island, Toronto ON. The Cape May Warbler has been a bit of a nemesis bird for me. It’s not particularly uncommon during those two short times of the year when they pass through, but somehow I seem to keep on missing them. I have quite a vivid memory of one from some years ago and I thought I had a photo too, but I can’t find it. This is the fall migration time for many warbler species and things changed today, not only did I see two or three Cape May Warblers but I had time enough to register what I was seeing and I came home with a few decent photos; here are two of them.

Cape May Warbler.

Like many warblers, it’s an even more eye-catching bird in May when the streaky-chested male shows handsome chestnut cheek patches encircled by a bright yellow face. At this time of year though the cheek patches are fainter, although with a bit of imagination you can make them out in the photos. This Cape May Warbler was my Bird of the Day, hard earned in a day of much walking and hard searching.

I had joined a group of bird enthusiasts exploring a cluster of islands lying a short ferry ride from the shining geometry of downtown Toronto. Appropriately named, Toronto Islands, are a recreational refuge covering a lot of real estate. It took us all day to walk, well saunter, from one end to the other and I estimate we covered nearly ten kilometres.

At one time our route took us hard alongside the perimeter fence of a commercial airfield and we were entertained by a metallic voice from a motion-triggered recording that told us sternly we were in a restricted area and had better leave right away; we just kept slogging along. Shortly afterwards a bored looking security guard drove past us, he on the inside we on the outside, and I’m not convinced that he saw us.

I think the group as a whole tallied about sixty-six species, I counted fifty-four including several other warbler species including Blackpoll Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Magnolia Warbler and Nashville Warbler, all shown below with photos from other late summer excursions.

Blackpoll Warbler

Common Yellowthroat.

Magnolia Warbler

Nashville Warbler


Tennessee Warbler

August 26 2017. Paletta Park, Burlington, ON. There are times when a bird is visible just long enough get some clues but not quite long enough to identify it with any certainty. That’s birding and it drives some people crazy, but I try to shrug, tuck the memory away and sometimes label it as a Bird-for-Another-Day. On one of my trips to Uganda there were lots of puzzlers and one day when I said out loud, “It’s a bird for another day” Emmanuel, one of my African companions, looking puzzled, took a while to process what I had said. I had thought it just an introspective comment but it puzzled him deeply, eventually he found it really quite funny and from then on a Bird-for-Another-Day met with broad smiles. We later invented Cup-of-tea Birds (to be identified from photos later over a cup of tea) and just plain Mystery-Birds (forever a Who-knows?).

I found and photographed a Mystery Bird today. Other birders might have named it in a flash but frankly I didn’t. At the time of writing I think it’s a juvenile female Tennessee Warbler. It was obliging in its tendency to pause from time to time and I was able to take several photos even though sharp focus was rare and the bright sky distracting. You’d think that identification would be easy matter with reasonable photos; well maybe. Here are four photos and some comments.

In the photo above you can see the bird that it is bright lemon yellow below, has a greyish tail, a sharply pointed beak, a dusky line through the eye and a bit of a grayish cheek pattern. In the second photo, below, we can see an olive-yellow back, brownish yellow wing feathers and a yellowish-grey cap. The dusky line through the eye is clearer, the dark line slicing across the back is distracting but it’s just a shadow. All of the above is generally consistent with a juvenile female Tennessee Warbler although the yellow in this bird is I think unusually bright.

The third and fourth photos confirm some of the key points and you’ll see that its underside is quite bright yellow right to the grayish tail feathers; and there’s the sticking point, Tennessee Warblers are usually white under the tail although apparently a blush of yellow is not out of the question.

I’ve taken a few days to write this awaiting the thoughts of a few experts or near-experts; the consensus is that it’s a juvenile female Tennessee Warbler.

Mystery bird aside, the last couple of days have been a little on the cool side, good for birders because the first chills of late August set fall migration in motion. The woods, fields and skies, although still fragrant with summer, have been dotted with birds on the move. In my wanderings today I enjoyed watching a Yellow-throated Vireo, a couple of Magnolia Warblers, a Least Flycatcher and a Yellowbellied Flycatcher, among others. They were all fueling up for the long journey in the weeks ahead, they’ll be heading to central America, anywhere from Guatemala to Panama; it seems so improbable, three to four thousand kilometers, half of it over water, on a diet of insects.

Peregrine Falcon

August 20 2017. Townsend, ON.  It’s a longish story but by way of a website that links visiting birders with locals willing to share, I spent the day showing a young British birder and his fiancé Andrea, around one of this season’s best birding places. This is Andrew’s first time across the Atlantic so for him the volume was at the sensational level; by breakfast he’d thrilled at the sight of our robins, goldfinches and nuthatches. I know how he felt, it takes a few days for the waves of first impressions and novelty to move aside and allow for a more measured assessment.

Short-billed Dowitchers

Our first and longest stop was at a large expanse of mudflats, actually a sewage settlement lagoon that was dotted with hundreds of hungrily feeding shorebirds. Andrew was almost delirious at the abundance and variety of lifer birds, mostly confusing sandpiper species: Least, Semipalmated, Pectoral, Solitary and Stilt Sandpipers mixed in with slightly less puzzling Killdeer, Semipalmated Plovers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Short-billed Dowitchers. Every sweep of the binoculars turned up something new for him, something that leapt to life which, until that moment, had been just remembered photos in magazines, books or field guides; I’m certain he could have stayed all day, Andea was very patient.

Semipalmated Plover and 2 Least Sandpipers

Our first sighting here (really our very first!) was a young Peregrine Falcon found hunched along a shoreline watching over these hundreds of meal tickets. My companion was a touch blasé about the peregrine, I wasn’t though. I’ve seen and watched many peregrines over the years but can never quite get over their clean and powerful elegance.  To see a peregrine zip past on easy wing flicks is really spine tingling; but then to witness today’s bird joined by another and take flight to scatter the shorebirds into a panicked mass-escape, to see them separate one as their quarry and chase it hard in wide sweeps and staggering climbs was a lifetime spectacle, a bit like those wildlife wolf-and-caribou or lion-and-zebra hunts that usually end badly for the hunted.

In this chase the (probable) Pectoral Sandpiper eventually got away, leading the hunters in zigs and zags and finally outrunning them. Most shorebirds, even if they’re tasty, are fast and efficient long distance fliers. Peregrines do better stalking from above and killing by diving and clobbering their prey; with their selected sandpiper and chasing it on the flat or on uphill turns they were evenly matched.

We were enjoying a privileged birding spectacle, just us and all these shorebirds! A spectacle that in the U.K would have attracted many dozens of birders and a collective fortune in optical equipment. I was thrilled to pick out a slightly different-looking bird that turned out to be a Stilt Sandpiper, perhaps the only one among the many look-alikes. I can barely remember the last time I knowingly saw a Stilt Sandpiper and studying it today was a lesson that will stay with me. Next time I should have no trouble picking one out in a crowd.

When I convinced Andrew to turn away from inhaling shorebirds he added a Wilson’s Snipe, Bufflehead, Purple Martin, Bobolink, American Widgeon and a magnificent adult-plumaged Bald Eagle to his head-spinning day’s list.

Soaring Bald Eagle

Despite the novelty of so many shorebirds the peregrine was the most breathtaking episode, and it was just the start of a very full day.As we left the lagoons he asked if there was a chance we might see a Green Heron,  I said, ‘Maybe”.

Hummingbird Clearwing

August 6 2017. Urquhart Butterfly Garden, Dundas On. I’ve spent a week or two mulling over whether a Hummingbird Clearwing has a place as a Bird of the Day. Technically no because it’s a moth but Hummingbird Clearwings look and behave a bit like a bird, superficially anyway.

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These evenly warm summer days bring out the pollinators like those above, insects mostly: butterflies, all sorts of gentle (non stinging) bees and wasps, and moths. All you need is a block of idle time spent in an unkempt expanse of knee-deep flowering plants to see them, the sort of dreamy, summer-light place that might inspire a Victorian poet to start scribbling or painter to unpack her watercolours.  In this part of the world you have a reasonable chance of seeing a Hummingbird Clearwing hovering at a flower’s doorstep. They use their almost one-inch long proboscis to draw nectar from deep within tubular flowers.

Hummingbird Clearwing

Hummingbird Clearwings are members of a family of moths called Sphinx or Hawk Moths and don’t behave anything like the way we expect moths to.

In expanding my knowledge of moths I found that unlike butterflies, which are generally considered inoffensive and charming, many moth species engage in some pretty undesirable behaviour at one stage or another of their life cycle. If there’s a worm that does destructive things in gardens and orchards, there’s a chance it’s the larva (caterpillar) of a moth. Just take a look at the index of The Peterson Field Guide to Moths and you’ll find some pretty anti-social sounding creatures: Cherry Shoot Borer, Sorghum Webworm, Ironweed Root Moth, Red-necked Peanut Worm and Iris Borer to name a few.

Hummingbird Clearwing

I don’t know what the Hummingbird Clearwing does as a larva, whether it’s destructive to anything that mankind values. But as an imago (the mature stage of any insect’s four-stage life) it is an arresting sight. As I took the photo above, a woman standing beside me was certain it was a real hummingbird. It’s not…except as an honorary Bird of the Day.

Barn Swallow

August 19 2017. RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. I’ve just read that August is the Sunday of summer. I get the analogy, August is kind of slow-paced dreamy, it also means that the work-week starts in September and there’s plenty of truth in that. We will be starting our systematic bird counts, or transects, in a couple of weeks and as a warm-up I walked around my favourite deep wooded valley this morning. I’m not the only one who likes the valley, by mid-late morning many family groups make their way along the easy paths feeding Eastern Chipmunks, Gray Squirrels and Black-capped Chickadees.

My walk around was largely unremarkable but seeing thirty or so species of all shapes and sizes, as I did, is pretty good going. Looking back at some of my best days in Uganda or Kazakhstan thirty is decent day’s count. The really big count days come in the midst of the migrations of spring or fall and at known hot spots.

I heard more American Goldfinches than I could either see or reliably count, they twitter musically whether flying or gathered in upper branches. I noted thirty-five but it could easily have been twice as many. At this time of year the males are bright yellow with jet black cap, back and wings, the females are less vividly yellow, a little more olive. They’re easy to hear but hard to spot passing high overhead, tiny birds against a stark blue sky.

American Goldfinch

I was musing on what a rich birding experience this place offers to anyone visiting from almost anywhere and thinking about which of ‘our’ species might be familiar to long distance visitors: Mallards are found in the temperate and sub-tropical Americas, Eurasia and North Africa; they are abundant here and I counted twenty-six this morning; Ospreys (I saw at least one this morning, but there could have been two or three, it’s hard to be sure) have a worldwide distribution and are the second most widely distributed raptor species after the Peregrine Falcon.

At least one Belted Kingfisher was patrolling the river and watery reaches. I hear them more often than see them, there could easily have been more because I’m sure they breed here and this year’s young are presumably not far away.

Belted Kingfisher

It was Barn Swallows, a pair of them chittering musically, from a branch overhead that prompted the species distribution line of reflection. As a child in the U.K I was fascinated to watch them at high-speed skimming and insect-gleaning inches, maybe a foot, above the mown grass of our school’s sports fields. Swallows are built for effortless flight like few other birds, they have with long, slender flight-efficient wings and, as if to emphasize their sporty build, adults have exaggeratedly long outer tail feathers. I saw wintering Barn Swallows in Uganda last February, I don’t know where they go to breed from there, Europe possibly or almost anywhere across to Siberia. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Barn Swallows breed throughout North America and from Iceland, across Europe to n. Siberia, south to Mediterranean regions, n. Africa, Near East, Arabia, Iran, Himalayas, China, Taiwan, and Japan. And from all of those northern territories they winter in Central and South America, tropical Africa, East Indies, n. Australia, and Micronesia.

Barn Swallow

As one who longs to travel I looked at these two Barn Swallows above me (my Birds of the Day incidentally) and thought for a moment about the months-long journey just ahead of them. A journey they make without any of the trappings we depend on; the route is known to them without thinking and they’re ready to leave when the winds tell them; any day now.

Hooded Warbler

August 4 2017. Spooky Hollow, Normandale ON. It’s an hour and a half’s drive from home to what is probably my favourite bit of old Ontario forest. It’s a nature sanctuary purchased some fifty years ago by our local naturalists’ club and valued for its richness: towering maple, beech and oak forest, a clear, fast-running,sand-bottom, cold-water stream, and, what I came to enjoy today, many species of ferns growing luxuriantly. I had little expectation of seeing birds, well, I thought I might hear Black-throated Green Warblers calling in the tops of the Eastern Hemlocks since they breed here, but it’s late in the season and I didn’t. In any case my mind was on fern study, the threatening thunder-storm and fending off mosquitoes. But unexpectedly the day produced two bird experiences following in quick succession.

Pushing between dripping branches I heard a little ‘chink’ note repeated several times to my right. My first thought was that an Eastern Chipmunk was warning me off, but no, the longer I listened the more I came to appreciate that I was hearing a bird’s alarm note. I remembered how on just about this same date in 2011 and in almost the same spot I came face to face with an adult Acadian Flycatcher feeding a fledgling; could this be a repeat performance I wondered. It wasn’t, but watching me closely was a beady-eyed, bright-ish yellow warbler of some kind. Yellow Warbler was my first reaction but the habitat was all wrong. I snapped several quick photos to examine later if needed and then did what I should have done in the first place, used my binoculars for a better look. Right away, something inside me said female Hooded Warbler. Here she is. (Click on any picture to enlarge it.)

I know that Hooded warblers breed in this forest so it wasn’t such a surprise, but the hour and a half drive from home, better things to do, and their characteristic evasiveness scarcely makes it worthwhile to come here looking for them in spring. The male is a bird photographers’ favourite, he’s so strikingly handsome. Here’s one seen and photographed in May of last year.

Hooded Warbler

Since she was alarmed it was time to move along and, still feeling a touch jubilant about the warbler, I very soon passed a tip-up, the root-base of a fallen tree. Some forests have more tip-ups than others; this place has many probably the sandy soil and the maturity of the forest play a part. Eventually long after the tree’s fall and total decay, evidence of tip-ups remain as small humps and hollows on the forest floor. I was thinking back to how, as a young bird-watcher, we used to inspect the underside of tip-ups for birds’ nests, they offer many sheltered crevices and hollows that suit wrens in particular. And there, almost to order today was, a wren’s nest – or at least that’s what I suppose it was. Here are two photos, see if you can spot the slightly mossy entrance to the nest.


Wren nest in tip-up. See it?

Willow Flycatcher

July 26 2017, SC Johnston Trail, Brantford, ON. That there’s always something interesting to be found underlies the origins of My Bird of the Day. I hold that whenever I go birding, regardless of how otherwise dismal the day may be, there’s always at least one bird that makes me think Wow!  Today we investigated new, unexplored-to-us, places.  Although we weren’t exactly off trail there was plenty to enjoy including some interesting mid-summer bird behaviour, an identification lesson or two and a wow! of a different kind, an insight into brevity, longevity and timelessness.

Our first lesson came when we misidentified a Grasshopper Sparrow calling it a Clay-colored Sparrow. I should know better by now, not that it matters all that much, we got it right in the end.

We had half expected to encounter a pair of Orchard Orioles, half expected was appropriate for when we did we saw only the female.  She popped up quite unexpectedly at the edge of a dense, shrubby willow allowing just enough time for one photo and a moment or two to wonder quite what we were seeing. My first impression was of a large Yellow Warbler; but hardly. What then? Once I’d got it, it was a good reminder (lesson number two) that Orchard Orioles are noticeably smaller than their Baltimore Oriole cousins and that the females look nothing like the brick-red coloured males, she had me baffled for a moment.

I’ve noted a few times, in recent posts, how bird song diminishes as summer displaces spring. Most song that is, not all, I still hear a Carolina Wren around our neighbourhood and on today’s walk we became aware of a repeated note, the dry fitz-bew exclamation of a Willow Flycatcher. We found it patrolling the edges of a small patch of willows and young cottonwoods. It was a wonderful opportunity to study the bird: we both managed to get some decent photos. Because it and two close relatives, the Least and Alder Flycatchers, are so easily confused, the long and instructive encounter enriched our morning and made it My Bird of the Day; I suspect for both of us.

Willow Flycatcher

There were a couple of other contenders for the title: Eastern Meadowlarks, A flock of a dozen or so circling and feeding over nearby river flats and a Black-billed Cuckoo feeding busily in the upper levels of an overhanging Manitoba Maple. We probably would have spent more time watching the cuckoo had it not been for biting mosquitoes and a noisy grass-trimming team.

I started this with the observation that there’s always something interesting to be found and I think the Encounter of the Day was finding a Preying Mantis making its painstaking way up the vertical face of a boulder. I’m not sure what you’d call this: A study in contrasts? A metaphor for time fleeting and immemorial? Here, a predator with a life expectancy of just one summer, with the eponymously fitting scientific name of Mantis religiosa and the lineal descendent of insect species going back for perhaps 300 million years. It was on a pinkish boulder placed precisely in its place by someone driving a front-end loader to mark a trail’s end. The rounded rock, the size of a lawn chair, has been tumbled around by ice sheets for a few hundreds of thousands of years but got its start about 1.2 billion (!) years ago as the metamorphosed bedrock of a long-vanished mountain chain. Now, not that it cares, it too has a name, Grenville gneiss. Nice.

Preying Mantis (mantis religiosa)