Sora

April 24 2016 Safari Road, West Flamboro, On. Around midday a small group of us spent a while staring at the rather winter-weary edge of a marsh hoping for a glimpse of a Sora. We’d heard it utter its funny whinnying call just a few feet away across an expanse of shallow water; but hearing a Sora (or a Virginia Rail, American Bittern or Least Bittern for that matter) is one thing; seeing one is quite another. They generally don’t waste time out in the open where they’re more exposed to predators. For birders they can be very frustrating, frequently heard but rarely seen. They (the birds) spend their lives among dense marsh vegetation picking for frogs, small fish and other food in the shallows, silts and vegetative debris. They raise their brood in this wet and gloomy world which must surely provide a super-abundance of things to eat – provided you’re okay with wrigley pond life.

The marsh was at one time, I imagine, a fifty-acre lake, a left-over remnant of the last ice age. But it has filled in over the eons to become an expanse of cattail-choked shallows dotted with Buttonbush and willows. Sometime in the last century, progress sliced a road across, bisecting it into neat halves. There’s plenty about this road to regret: the traffic is noisy, the margins swallow prodigious amounts of car-tossed litter and racing traffic kills birds, frogs and snakes that dare to cross. But on the plus side the road gives birders access into the heart of the marsh.

We caught a few momentary glimpses of the Sora, but eventually one wearies of such non-events. I wandered up the road to see what else might be around, a waste of time as it turned out, then turned back to the site of hopelessness where the other couple were at the point of leaving. As they started their car I re-found our Sora, this time out in the open and apparently moderately happy to be there. I pointed my camera and kept clicking, all the while beckoning the others to come back. My half of the story is a happy one, theirs is not for as they got out of their car the Sora slunk back into thick cover and left us. I got my Bird of the Day, another time they will get theirs. Here it is.

Sora - a species of rail

Sora – a species of rail

Northern Mockingbird

Woodburn On. 20/21 April 2016. Today, returning from a fruitless errand I parked to scan an unkempt grassy field hoping for an early Upland Sandpiper (no luck). As I paused, a Northern Mockingbird arrived to perch on the top of a small hawthorn on the other side of the road. I grabbed my camera and took a number of easy shots that are remarkable only because the bird is as grey as the day and the forest backdrop were; but still a nice mockingbird.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

It dropped to the scratchy tangle below and started sorting through the dry grasses and leaves. Then it started doing something I hadn’t seen before, the bird repeatedly and briefly spread both wings in an open umbrella fashion. Apparently this wing flashing behaviour has been well studied but not convincingly explained, my immediate thought was that it serves to startle invertebrate food into movement thus giving away its position. It’s a widely held thought but no seems to be convinced yet. I remain intrigued.

Northern Mockingbird. Wing flashing

Northern Mockingbird. Wing flashing

Short-eared Owl

Vinemount ON. 20 April 2016. This is a post-script tale about the second of two interesting birds seen the same day. The first was the Blue-headed Vireos, q.v, the second a Short-eared Owl seen at dusk. It wasn’t a triumph of discovery on my part; I pretty well expected it to be there, as did a horde of other photographers and birders.

It’s been several years since I’ve seen a Short-eared Owl, watching one in flight is compelling, almost hypnotically so. They fly in a buoyant, moth-like manner on wide angular, pale-on-the-underside wings. Pete Dunne in his excellent book ‘Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion’ likens a flying Short-eared Owl to a pale beer keg on wings.

The one we saw had just started its dusk hunt and came from across a quarry behind us, wheeled around and landed atop a decrepit old apple tree in the middle of large scrubby field. It remained there for perhaps fifteen minutes until a nearby freight train made enough racket to prompt it to move on. Because owls are generally so magnetic it was a wonderful sighting even if it lacked any of the thrill that comes from finding the bird myself. Falling on the same day it couldn’t displace the Blue-headed Vireo as bird of the Day but it certainly was Bird of the Evening.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

Blue-headed Vireo

Hendrie Valley 20 April 2016. An interesting first and last today – or perhaps more accurately, a last and first. My last 2015 sighting of a Blue-headed Vireo was at the end of September. My first sighting of this year came today – in precisely the same place! This may not sound like a very big deal and I suppose it’s not, but I really like vireos of all species and this one came with a little element of intrigue; it was unusually bright lemon yellow below. So what? Well Blue-headed Vireos are smart looking little birds, (see photos below) broadly speaking they’re grey and olive-grey above, white below, and have bright yellow flanks and very distinct white spectacles. The point is that today’s bird was extensively yellow below, from its under-tail coverts to its belly; almost as bright yellow as its cousin the Yellow-throated Vireo. I just think this bird was at the extreme end of the yellow-flanks spectrum. Blue-headed Vireos are few and far between; we only see them on their way to and from their more northerly breeding grounds. It was also on the very early side of local spring arrival date records. An intriguing bird, a delight to see and easily my Bird of the Day.

Blue-headed Vireo  with unusually yellow under-tail coverts and belly

Blue-headed Vireo with unusually yellow under-tail coverts and belly

Blue-headed Vireo. Showing more typical yellow flanks and white belly

Blue-headed Vireo. Showing more typical yellow flanks and white belly

The vireo had Bird of the Day competition. It was seen at the end of a census walk that started with a Pileated Woodpecker that called loudly and paraded long enough to allow us some tantalizing views. We found a single Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in the top of a stream-side Manitoba Maple, heard and saw a Pine Warbler perhaps staking out its territory in some tall White Pines, and several male Yellow-rumped Warblers. The yellow-rumps still have quite a long way to go to reach their breeding grounds. They were working over and through the understorey trees, gleaning insects and singing softly to themselves as they went.

Barn Swallow

West Flamboro, ON. I was one of a fairly large group that explored a wide expanse of farmland, wetlands and forest edge this morning looking for spring arrivals. It was a magnificent day: sunny, warm and dry, the sort of weather we count on to bring us our birds of summer.

Our group wandered far and wide. We started with a lone Horned Lark, a bird synonymous with mid-late winter, scratching for food at a roadside and three hours later came face to face with a Barn Swallow, synonymous with mid-summer; the two a metaphor for our continental climate, which can swing from cool and wretched to warm and magnificent in the space of a very few days.

Barn Swallow - just back from Amazonia

Barn Swallow – just back from Amazonia

Those two sightings were bookends for a many good encounters. A couple of high overhead Broad-winged Hawks, a small flock of Sandhill Cranes, a territorial, male Eastern Bluebird, a lone Common Loon and a singing Brown Thrasher may have been highlights. Hard to say because many of our group were just as thrilled by a Pileated Woodpecker, Caspian Tern and Common Raven. We also had a few heard-but-not-seens: Pine Warbler, Ruffed Grouse, Eastern Towhee and Rusty Blackbird.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

For me the prize was the Barn Swallow. It was picture perfect, alighting on a wire just a few feet in front of me, it was as if it came to say relax, winter’s over.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

April 15 2016. Ruthven Park, Cayuga, ON. I think today’s bird of the day marks a turning of the tide, my first warbler of the year, a Yellow-rumped Warbler. I was at the bird observatory doing the daily census and there was absolutely nothing to complain about: no cold, no wind to speak of, no rain snow or ice, just a pleasant, blue-sky, spring day with a manageable smattering of birds to keep me on track: singing Northern Cardinals, Song Sparrows, American Robins, Tufted Titmice and Dark-eyed Juncos. I watched a pair of Downy Woodpeckers chasing and engaging each other like a couple of adolescents, Northern Flickers were calling and Tree Swallows weaving big ariel loops.

This Yellow-rumped Warbler was happily making its way picking for insects in the lower branches of a Bur Oak.

First Yellow-rumped Warbler. April 15 2016

First Yellow-rumped Warbler. April 15 2016

Yellow rumps are the hardiest of our warblers, every year one or two are reported as wintering over around here (or at least attempting to) and many Yellow-rumped Warblers survive the winter quite happily in the southern half of the U.S on a diet of such insects as they can find and the berries of Bayberry or Wax Myrtle. Indeed it is their ability to digest the waxy coating of Wax Myrtle berries that gave the species its former name of Myrtle Warbler. So they are the last to leave and the first to return and are a welcome splash of colour; more so in spring than fall.  Pine Warblers and Palm Warblers won’t be far behind.

Ospreys

April 14 2016. Valley Inn, Burlington ON. My headliner today, and for perhaps the umpteenth time, is the Osprey. I’m keenly aware that some species make it as My Bird of the Day more often than others; I can’t help it, they just pack enough style, class and poise to make them special.  The many ho-hum, run-of-the-mill species: Lesser Scaup, Mallard, Ring-billed Gull and the like well, they’re nice too, I’m sure their mothers love them, but…

Today on errands and just for the fun of it I went out of my way to see what was around. When you make an effort there’s always plenty to be found, the expected and the unexpected.

Along the shore of Lake Ontario were large groups of resting Red-necked Grebes, they are probably on their way from wintering along the Atlantic coast to much further north and west to breed in the lakes and ponds of the prairie provinces, Yukon Territory and Alaska.

Just seven of over 50 Red-necked Grebes.

Just seven of over 50 Red-necked Grebes.

In my favourite valley were: Pied-billed Grebes (always notable), three or four Wood Ducks, a Caspian Tern a pair of obviously courting Belted Kingfishers and a pair of mellow Trumpeter Swans apparently past the courting stage.

But it was a group of Ospreys that made the day. They have recently returned from wherever they found winter to be hospitable and are very likely to breed around here. I watched four of them quartering a wide shallow inlet looking for fish.  It must have been a good day for them as I saw several successful plunges. The series of photos on the gallery below lack crisp focus, my camera is good but it doesn’t track moving targets terribly well. We think we’re so clever with our industrial technological society but just take a look at what an Osprey can do as a matter of routine: fly circuits, hover, plunge, capture a submerged fish, and carry it aerodynamically head first. Bird of the Day.

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Bonaparte’s Gull

April 12 2016 Cayuga ON. In my last posting (Blue-winged Teal) I dipped my toe into the subject of phenology or the study of plant and animal life cycles in relation to seasonal change. I was reminded of this topic today.

I had spent the morning back at the bird observatory helping with the daily census and banding birds. It was pleasant work, not too fast-paced (it can be). I enjoyed close-up experiences with a Hairy Woodpecker, two Mourning Doves, several Brown-headed Cowbirds and a couple of Dark-eyed Juncos. But there was a still lot of time to catch up, discuss some of the more arcane points of embryo development in Eastern Bluebird eggs and compare birding experiences in Africa.

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

On my return I drove past a flooded field and glanced over in a vague expectation of seeing some Bonaparte’s Gulls, they’re a regular occurrence in early spring although maybe not this early. Well I was partly wrong, there was one, just one and a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs.

I went back into my archives and found that what I’d written on April 19th just three years ago could, other than the reference to a flock, be applied to today. I wrote, “ A flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls enjoying (I suppose) a brief respite from their marathon migration was a refreshing midday surprise.  Their spring migration is a long haul, taking them from the Atlantic Coast to the taiga belt of Canada’s sub-Arctic where, uniquely for gulls, they usually nest in trees. They had settled in a flooded field with evidently plenty to eat. “ The Bonaparte’s Gull was my Bird of the Day because they are rather more dainty than the more commonly encountered Ring-billed Gulls that are so common around here. And I think their black head is a classy touch.

Blue-winged Teal

April 10 2016. Hendrie Valley, Burlington ON. My birding career, if that’s what you can call it, has been a long one; six decades if I care to stretch the point. But it is only in the last four or five years that I can say that I’ve been much more than a very interested but casual observer. Nowadays I usually carry my camera and a notebook to record what I see (and hear) and while a camera and a notebook record things quite differently they both serve the same purpose: partly essential for conducting census walks and partly as a source of inspiration, illustration or reminder for writing these postings. What emerges from this more rigorous approach to birding is my growing appreciation of the cycles, patterns and rhythms, the ebb and flow of bird activity.

By way of illustration, today a companion and I completed one of our routine census walks. The air was cold but the bird activity was high nonetheless. We recorded many good species including a Golden-crowned Kinglet, two Eastern Phoebes, a Brown Creeper, a zipping-by Cooper’s Hawk and a score of hungry Tree Swallows. This is a watery part of the world and waterfowl of many species either stay for all or part of the year or pass through in spring and fall. Today we found: Canada Geese, Mallards, Wood Ducks, Gadwall, Hooded Mergansers and to our delight (and Birds of the Day) two male Blue-winged Teal.

Male Blue-winged Teal

Male Blue-winged Teal (April 10 2016)

I was so impressed by the handsomeness of the Blue-winged Teal that I made some effort to get photos knowing that distance, the prevailing light and my shivering all mitigated against a great shot; but worth a try. Back home, as I was loading the photos onto my computer I started to feel that maybe I’d done this all before: same species, same place and same time of year. And yes, on April 22nd last year I took the photo below of a pair of Blue-winged Teal in precisely the same place. It’s a better shot than today’s (above).

Pair of Blue-winged Teal

Pair of Blue-winged Teal (April 22 2015)

When I look back at last year’s April 22nd entry, my Bird of the Day was Blue-winged Teal (!) and my sightings that morning virtually identical, right down to the hunting Cooper’s Hawk.

And there it is: cycles, patterns and rhythms that you could almost set your clock by. Well maybe not your clock – there’s a two-week timing difference, but at risk of sounding glib, last year’s winter was colder and spring a couple of weeks later.

Pied-billed Grebes

April 8 2016. Cootes Paradise Hamilton ON. Our team of volunteer-birders has resumed its regime of census walks counting birds around two bird-rich mixed-habitat loops throughout April and May. We start bundled up against the last blasts of winter and finish in T-shirt weather. I well remember the first census last year, it was April first and there was plenty of old snow still lying thick on the ground. It was stimulating to be out birding and even more stimulating to find a Hoary Redpoll among a flock of Common Redpolls.   When I wrote about that sighting I got into some discussion about whether or not Hoary Redpolls and Common Redpolls are one and the same species. It’s a hair-splitting task for the taxonomists and as far as I can see, still far from clear.

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

This year, (January and March anyway) has been much, much milder, but just as we were becoming complacent the first week of April played tricks on us, once again the month opened with snow on the ground. The surge of spring migrants has continued nevertheless and today and yesterday I walked around the same census route noting a few subtle (and possibly imagined) changes.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

It was cold and raw; in a sheltered corner today we found perhaps a dozen White-throated Sparrows, a couple of lingering Dark-eyed Juncos and a handful of American Tree Sparrows; yesterday I saw none.   Two Eastern Phoebes were a bit of a surprise and there were lots of ducks whiling away the cold morning, including twelve Canvasbacks and seven Ring-necked Ducks. A large raft of snoozing Ruddy Ducks had almost doubled in size to 300 and suddenly Pied Billed Grebes appeared.

Odd ducks Pied-billed Grebes. Grebes as a family are well, different, at one end of the spectrum they are outlandish, I’m thinking of the dancer-on-water, the very elegant Western Grebe. It is as spellbinding in its athleticism as its cousin the Pied-billed Grebe is clownish and lumpy. A Pied-billed Grebe proclaiming its territory ‘sings’ of one of nature’s more hair-raising calls, a prolonged wailing, clucking and howling that eventually dwindles to a finale as if the bird is drowning itself. I’ve written about them a few times because, for all of that, the Pied-billed Grebe is in its own way sort of loveable, and despite some other enjoyable and notable sightings was my Bird of the Day.