Northern Waterthrush

13 June 2015. Flamborough ON. I started early and just couldn’t stop birding this morning, in fact morning was just a distant memory by the time I headed home. If May is the month when you have to be out there to see who’s just arrived, a sort of migratory rush hour, then June is when open-for-business begins. For the birder, mid-June is the perfect time to linger, listen and to see who’s where and doing what.

My day started while the air was still fresh. I parked atop a grassy hill with sweeping views. Around me were Brown Thrashers, Gray Catbirds, Song Sparrows, American Goldfinches and Bobolinks, all singing. A few Turkey Vultures sat quietly in a naked elm waiting for warmer airs to set them sailing for the day. This place would be delicious enough as is, but at some not-too-long-ago time, a thoughtful service club stationed a park bench at one of the most strategic of resting spots, silent of people and noisy of birds.

Nice as it was, I wasn’t there to write Victorian poetry, this was the starting point of a plan to walk several long trails. All of them in a township dotted with cool swamps and dark woods. I stuck to trails and roadsides that cut through mosquito-rich habitat with rivulets, brooks and creeks weaving through dense forest. Those common elements of running water and thick vegetation produced many of the same species at each stop, but that was quite okay.

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Today’s Birds of the Day and probably the commonest, were Northern Waterthrushes. Their habitat of choice is dense, dark and wet woodlands and, were they not so vocal and demonstrative, you could easily overlook them. They and their close relative the Louisiana Waterthrush, are nominally members of the warbler family but are not nearly as colourful as some of their supposed cousins. They make up for it with a spirited song that penetrates the swampy thickets and when in the slightest bit agitated, if for example they see you as threateningly close to their hungry nestlings, they flit overhead and around you, frantically chipping and bobbing their tail. One anxious waterthrush parent is never enough, before long the other parent will appear and then others apparently to lend noisy support to the protest. Other than the challenge of keeping up with them, it wasn’t too hard to get some good photos. But being obliging to the camera was in contrast to a handful of Canada Warblers who were also heard but only fleetingly glimpsed in those same wet brushy areas.

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My field notes from these areas of darkness and wet included Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Wood Peewee, Veery, Common Yellowthroat, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow and even a Green Heron. There’s nothing in the species list that would turn heads, it was more a case of you had to be there.

 

Canada Warbler

12 June 2015. Normandale ON. It takes an hour and twenty minutes to drive to one of my favourite forests. I was going to say favourite birding spots, but it’s much more than that; it’s a nature sanctuary, a wonderful and virtually untouched mixed forest, with towering American Beech, Sugar Maple and Eastern Hemlock, a thick understory of Flowering and Round-leaved Dogwoods, Mountain Maple and Leatherwood and masses of ferns of many species; the birding is pretty good too.

I went there in hopes that I might find an Acadian Flycatcher or perhaps see a Hooded Warbler and, as much as anything, to enjoy the place. In reverse order, there was much to enjoy, I heard, but didn’t see a Hooded Warbler but there was no sign of an Acadian Flycatcher. Not finding an Acadian Flycatcher was no surprise, they are at best an occasional nester in Ontario; this particular woods was home to a breeding pair in 2012 but they’ve not seen here since.

I actually felt a little disappointment by the sense that other species I’d seen here a couple of years ago were either not present today or were in much reduced numbers. I think it was because two years ago the Eastern Hemlock grove seemed to support several singing Black-throated Green Warblers, while today I heard only one. But my notes from almost this date in 2013 shows a close parallel today’s encounters, so perhaps all is as it should be.

Canada Warbler - today's best shot

Canada Warbler – today’s best shot

My Bird of the Day was a young male Canada Warbler, probably one year old. I could hear it singing as it patrolled up and down the course of a fast-running cold-water creek and, with a bit of patience, I was able to draw it closer to me. Canada Warblers, like many other warblers, won’t stay still for very long. I’ve had almost no luck photographing them and today my shot is a nice one of its back; one of these days it’ll all fall into place.

Canada Warbler. Last year's best attempt.

Canada Warbler. Last year’s best attempt.

A little later I spent a long time trying to get a good look at a singing Black-throated Blue Warbler. It too was doing a circuit of what I assume is its territory, but it was neck-crackingly high overhead and I was lucky to get just one long enough glimpse of it to be sure of what I was hearing.

After four enjoyable hours exploring and searching I had had enough of black flies and mosquitoes around my head and called it a day. I paused at the roadside to watch a couple of Veerys and a vividly coloured Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I rinsed insect repellant off my hands, got into my car and pulled away as the skies darkened and moments later dropped a heavy summer downpour.

Peregrine Falcons

11 June 2015. Hamilton Burlington ship canal, ON. I’ve probably said it before, because goodness knows I’ve celebrated Peregrine Falcons as Bird of the Day often enough, but any Peregrine Falcon is automatically Bird of the Day-worthy.

Today I set out to watch over a trio of Peregrine Falcon chicks who have just taken wing. Peregrines are supposed to be masters of the air but evidently not right away, these youngsters have been a involved in a couple of crash-landings and this busy highway and bridge site is not the place for a grounded chick.

I watched for a couple of hours and in that time saw the male parent smack a Tree Swallow down into the lake and from the surface it delicately retrieved and carried it back to the hungry horde. At one time we had all five birds, parents and three chicks, in view but there was a lot of coming and going and it was sometimes hard to know who was who.

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Above (in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email) are some photos from the morning’s watch: one of the mother and several more of the only female in the brood stretching her wings and working at mastering balance.

Postscript to knots and sandpipers

6 June 2015. My post of a couple of weeks ago (May 17th) celebrated the Red Knot, a beautiful and resourceful shorebird that flies from one end of the world to the other in order to breed. My post didn’t dwell at length on their migration route but it’s worth repeating that many of the spring migrant Red Knots we see on the east coast, have flown from Tierra del Fuego, (about as far south as you can go in South America) and are heading to Baffin Island, (ditto North). This long distance journey and its numerous perils so fascinate the ornithology world that many studies are underway to learn more.

Avian studies often include the capture and banding of birds, shorebirds can be effectively marked with an easily-read-from-a-distance flag on their leg. My many photos taken along the shoreline of the Delaware Bay include some of those flagged birds, mostly Red Knots but also one or two Semi-palmated Sandpipers. I didn’t see the flags at first but on closer scrutiny I found half a dozen. Well this is exciting, because by reporting my sightings I have learned that one or two have indeed travelled some long distances. This of course is not a surprise, I mean we know they do these journeys, but to actually be able to see a bird which was captured, tagged and handled at least once before in Argentina or French Guiana, is something of a thrill. Here are a few photos (click on them to enlarge) of flagged or banded birds, one of them with observations from http://bandedbirds.org/Red Knots & Dunlin. REKN Flagged centre

 

The Red Knot above has an easy to read green flag inscribed 7P5.  I believe that means it was originally trapped and flagged on the shore of Delaware Bay in May 2013.

3 band Red Knot.  (Argentina)

 

The above Red Knot on the right has an orange flag plus an “ additional blue band…this bird was banded in French Guiana.

 

Sanderling and SEPA flagged left

 

Above Semi-palmated Sandpiper on the left has a green flag.  It’s almost but not quite readable. So far I have no further information as to where this bird was first caught and flagged.

Two REKN flagged Rt

In this picture above, on the right at the water-line and just above the gull’s head are two Red Knots each with a different colour flag.

 

 

 

 

Upland Sandpipers

3 June 2015. Kirkfield ON.  Three of us spent half the day scouring open grasslands for birds. We were looking for Loggerhead Shrikes; but without luck as it turned out. We weren’t unduly disappointed though because grasslands are really delightful spring birding places; open pastures attract some to the most vocal songbirds.

Our day turned up some nice sightings: Wilson’s Snipe, Willow Flycatcher and Brown Thrasher included. The various songsters of the day find their own best spots from which to sing. Among those we saw were: bright yellow-breasted Eastern Meadowlarks who prefer a high wide-vista spot, roadside utility wires do the trick; Bobolinks who like deep grass cover so tend to stay hidden until the handsome black, white and yellow males emerge like a Jack-in-the box to fly a short looping and fluttering territorial flight to let everyone know who’s in charge; Savannah Sparrows who like fence posts while Grasshopper Sparrows apparently don’t need to broadcast their faint, short-burst, buzz song all that far, they are content with a modestly prominent grass stalk as long as it will take their weight.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

After dutifully completing our Shrike-watch rounds we headed home but made a long detour to inspect more open fields. And it was here that we found our Upland Sandpipers. It was really promising countryside for Upland Sandpipers: wide fields, dry-ish but punctuated by low wet spots, decrepit hedges and occasional thickets of hawthorn.

We had stopped and were straining to admire something to our left, an Eastern Kingbird I think, when I heard –or at least thought I heard – the ululating whistle of an Upland Sandpiper to our right. We scrambled to the other side of the car and scanned the deep grasses and soon found one, then two, three and eventually four of them about a hundred feet away moving across in their jerking, stop-go way of stalking with precautionary safety stops to peer around. Upland Sandpipers stand about ten inches tall and have a preference for eight inches high grass, many times, all you see is their rather disproportionately small head bobbing around.

I’ve posted about Upland Sandpipers several times before, simply because I like them so much; they’ll rise to the top of any day of birding. Almost everything about them: the incongruity of a sandpiper making a living in dry fields (they are typically species of puddles and shorelines) : their funny, little, chicken-like heads; their wolf-whistle of a song (described cleverly by Pete Dunne in his excellent Essential Field Guide Companion as “..a plaintive, rising-and-falling, slurred whistle: “woooolEE WEEurr.”); and especially for their innocent and engaging ‘Who me?” expression.

Upland Sandpiper

Upland Sandpiper

For one of my companions, the Upland Sandpiper was a lifer bird; I know the excitement of that feeling: you’ve read about them; you’ve heard about them and others tell you where they just saw one – but too late; then one day, sometimes without warning, the final piece of the puzzle drops into place. Here’s her picture of that lifer.

Upland Sandpiper  - photo by Bonnie Kinder

Upland Sandpiper – photo by Bonnie Kinder

Pileated Woodpecker

30 May 2015 Cootes Paradise, Hamilton. ON. My Bird of the Day today? A Pileated Woodpecker; without a doubt. I had just started a census round on this very warm and blustery morning, and hadn’t gone more than perhaps two or three hundred metres when I heard the unmistakable, ringing laugh of one. Their call carries well and hearing one is usually all you get, seeing one is the icing on the cake; perhaps you’ll get one sighting for every ten hearings.

I was standing talking to a nature interpreter when I noticed a large in-flight shadow pass over us. Flying shadows, as bird cues go, are tricky because following up usually means looking up towards the sun – and all that goes with that. Still, this time it worked for there just above us, a Pileated Woodpecker had arrived to explore a large old willow tree. It was gloomy in the recesses of the tree and my camera’s battery quit after I’d taken four or five not-bad photos in the low light. Here are a couple.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

The census turned up just a little over forty species, but a strong south-west wind backed by a murderous looking pile of clouds evidently unnerved bird life; they were quite quiet, especially for late May. Later in the day those clouds rolled out some epic thunderstorms.

I tried counting the Common Terns weaving and diving across the lake but could only make a best guess. The count of Canada Geese was higher than it has been for a while, perhaps the many one-year-olds and failed breeders have given up trying to hold territory and have decided to hang out together, or perhaps sensing the approach of bad weather they had headed for a sheltered area. That birds sense the approach of bad weather is well understood, we often see them feeding heavily before an approaching snow storm. There is a astonishing account, recently published, of five Golden-winged Warblers (a species rarely seen around here) in Tennessee who were tracked flying 450 miles south to avoid a tornado-bearing storm system that was 250 miles west but heading their way. After the storm had passed, the birds returned to resume defence of their Tennessee territories. This is no place to go into much detail of why or how they were tracked except to say that they had been fitted with tiny geolocators which returned quite precise information.

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I spotted a small, tight formation flock of about 25 sandpipers wheeling around an offshore islet. It was impossible to be sure but they were probably Least Sandpipers; I saw thousands of them on Cape May a week ago. They are within a few thousand kilometers of completing their spring journey to their Arctic breeding grounds. They have to get there at just the right time; today those grounds may well still be snowed covered. But soon there will be a window of a few weeks with open ground and abundant food in which to establish territory, mate, incubate, feed and raise young and then head south again before the snows of late summer. A bit like waiting for a gap in the ocean waves to run in, grab your wind-tossed hat and retreat before the next swamping. A lot of well-timed effort for the prize.

Trumpeter Swan and a sparrow

29 May 2015 Cayuga ON. I puzzled over two funny sightings today at the bird observatory. First a mystery sparrow and then a Trumpeter Swan.

On my early morning arrival, I heard a Savannah Sparrow singing from quite high in a Black Walnut tree. It’s a distinctive song, a sound of wide-open, sometimes weedy fields, dry and high pitched, and described adequately as “tist tsit tsit t-seeeeeee rrrr”. If your upper range hearing isn’t what it once was, it’s an easy song to miss. Savannah Sparrows are quite common in appropriate habitat and I’m very familiar with them. To hear one at the bird observatory is a little out of place because it’s better described as a well-treed parkland or garden setting than dry field, but well, stranger things happen.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

I took some long-shot photos of it before it flew away and, given the looking-up-at-its-belly angle, it is a credible (though far from conclusive) Savannah Sparrow. A little later we heard it in another tree and managed to get closer, again it sang the Savannah Sparrow song, but just for a while and then it switched to a Song Sparrow’s song. At that point we all agreed that it was in fact a Song Sparrow; the habitat was the right fit, Song Sparrows are common and we managed to get a good look at it. We all shrugged and went back to the day’s routines; if the others thought I was hallucinating they were gracious enough not to mention it.

Today's Song (formerly Savannah) Sparrow

Song (formerly Savannah) Sparrow

It leaves many questions in my mind: Why would a Song Sparrow sing a perfect Savannah Sparrow’s song? Songbirds learn their appointed song during their first few months of life. And they don’t just sing any old song; they faithfully learn their own species’ song from their parents and others of their species. I suppose it’s possible that this Song Sparrow had somehow mixed in with Savannah Sparrows somewhere and become imprinted with their song, perhaps on its wintering grounds; but then, singing isn’t something birds do in winter. How did this happen? I have no good answers, and I don’t think I’m given to hallucinations. The above photos may only confuse the issue.

Later on, as I reached the river during the course of doing the daily census, I heard the absolutely unmistakable sound of a Trumpeter Swan trumpeting. Now, Trumpeter Swans are a species in recovery in Ontario. Once extirpated, a small reintroduced population has grown in size and breeds fairly regularly to the north of us. They also winter in large numbers close to home, so I’ve come to know them fairly well. There’s no mistaking a Trumpeter Swan from anything else- especially when you hear them call; they sound just like a one-note blast on a trumpet. Had I found a pair of Trumpeter Swans on a pond or lake, I would have been pleasantly surprised at the expansion of their nesting range; as I said earlier they breed fairly regularly to the north of us. But all I found was this solitary bird paddling steadily down river and blowing a single trumpet blast about every hundred meters, an “Anyone there?” call I think. Had it lost its mate? Was it still, at this late date, looking for one? Was it just joy-riding. For all I know it might have continued on downstream, calling it’s plaintive “Anyone there?” note every hundred metres for the rest of the day.

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan

Chuck Will’s Widow

20 May 2015 Jake’s Landing Rd NJ. Along the New Jersey coast, close enough to Atlantic City to be a probable distraction to birder office-workers, is one of the most wonderful wildlife refuges ever, the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. Quite what Mr. Forsythe had to do with it and why his name has supplanted the earlier far more evocative maritime name of Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge, I’m not sure. But that’s U.S. politics, none of my business, and more significantly, I don’t suppose the thousands of birds that live and feed there, care one amphipod’s antenna whose name is glorified.

We spent the best part of the day prowling the twelve-kilometer roadway around the estuarine reserve and scored multiple jaw-dropping sightings of birds. It was quite cool, verging on cold, with a northerly wind blowing and I could only begin to imagine what a wickedly exposed and bone-numbing place it would be in February. Still, the birds knew it was indeed May and there was more on their minds than where the wind was coming from.

Starting with an early sighting of a group of Glossy Ibis, the day just got better and better. Mud flats with scampering Semi-palmated Plovers, Least Sandpipers and Snowy Egrets were flanked by wide expanses of salt-marsh where Ospreys on nest platforms are commonplace and singing Seaside Sparrows every hundred metres or so, stake out their territory. Overhead were squealing Least and Forster’s Terns strategizing to push each other from patches of key shoreline. At one stop we watched a large group of dozing Black Skimmers and Dunlin, every now and then an imagined alarm sent a few of them wheeling around, maybe it was really just about getting some wing-stretching exercise, I’m not sure. This gallery of photos from the day, gives I hope, some idea of the richness of Brigantine. (Visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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But despite everything that Ed Forsythe could produce, my Bird of the Day was yet to come. As the day wound down, and we pondered our late day birding, my companion suggested that we might want to make one last ditch effort to find a Saltmarsh Sparrow; his nemesis bird. So we spent a couple of pre-dusk hours at a rather down-at-the-heels, former fisherman’s dock at the edge of a tidal inlet sorting through various false alarms: calling Clapper Rails, a skulking Least Sandpiper and Seaside Sparrows that refused to change identity. Finally with light fading, no Saltmarsh Sparrows, and Black Flies making it increasingly difficult to concentrate, we left the salt marshes.

Clapper Rail

Clapper Rail

The way back to the main road led through a large forested area where, according to reports, a Chuck Will’s Widow was said to be. I’m a fan of Chuck Will’s Widows and all of its near-relatives, collectively known as Nightjars or Goatsuckers. They are a marvelously named group of odd-looking birds with equally odd habits, calls and in some cases, odd onomatopoeic names. The collective name Goatsucker, refers to the ancients’ belief that while the goatherd slept, these birds sucked the she-goats udders and thereby blinded her; quite why they’d bother to suck goats is beyond me. The familiar names: Chuck Will’s Widow and Whip-poor-will, refer to their far-carrying calls as they fly circuits around their territory.Red-necked Nightjar

This picture taken in Spain last year of a Red-necked Nightjar is pretty much what they all look like. Exquisitely camouflaged, they spend the day out of sight just waiting for nightfall.

Anyway, despite several quiet listening-stops at the side of the forest road, the putative Chuck Will’s Widow eluded us . Finally as we left to go – and you’ve probably guessed how this is going to end – we made one last stop. Almost immediately we heard something. Getting out (ignition key removed to silence the pitiful dinging of an insecure car) we heard it; a Chuck Will’s Widow doing its rounds. If you say its name aloud (not whispered to yourself) clipped and with the emphasis as follows,CHK–whi-WHDo you’ll get some idea of its call: then repeat a thousand times. Or better yet follow this link for a recording.  I was ecstatic! It’s been some thirty years since I last heard a Chuck Will’s Widow; and I have certainly never seen one; with Nightjars it’s all auditory for me. They’re almost never seen or heard in Ontario and besides they’re virtually invisible anyway, so it’s up to the imagination and, as night falls, the imagination is a powerful magnifier.

Purple Sandpipers

19 May 2015 Stone Harbor Beach. NJ. This was a full day of birding and my notes spill over with really wonderful sightings, many of which should be or could be Bird of the Day. The notion of singling out just one as Bird of the Day is a very difficult on an adventure like this, but there’s a blog to write and so I’ll try. Setting aside glimpses of an Acadian Flycatcher Hooded Warbler and Yellow-Throated Warbler (all of which would be treasured sightings in Ontario) perhaps the birds that really took the biscuit were late in the day shorebirds, a pair of Purple Sandpipers.

We had an idea that walking the length of the wide, white gleaming beach of Stone Harbor would turn up a few new birds; we had Black Scoter and Northern Gannet in mind. Both of which would be distant sightings at best and we soon realized there’s far too much Atlantic Ocean out there and specks in the ocean haze are well, just specks; so neither of them made the day’s tally.  But we encountered some Piping Plovers, little, scampering, sand-coloured shorebirds, a handful of American Oystercatchers and the pair of Purple Sandpipers.

Purple Sandpipers are a wonderful example of a species adaptation to and exploitation of a niche. They look like other sandpipers in that they are generally small to medium sized, mottled and spotty, on the long-legged side and certainly relatively long-billed. Most sandpipers live close to water where they feed by wandering around picking at invertebrates and other shoreline delicacies. Purple Sandpipers are no exception to the general rule, but have chosen to find their food in perhaps one of the most perilous and hair-raising of places, among the always wet, surf-splashed rocks and jetties of ocean shorelines. They spend their feeding hours scampering among rock crevices, skipping and dodging the battering of surging surf.

Purple Sandpiper

Purple Sandpiper

I’m certain they know all there is to know about staying one fluttering step ahead of the breaking waves, but I can’t help recalling how it was for me as a boy. I grew up on the south coast of England where scrambling over the sort of rocks that Purple Sandpipers would find good footing and easy pickings, was part of growing up. We went crab-fishing on shorelines like this, but on those slippery-as-ice, sea-weedy rocks ended the day with bruises, grazed shins and soaked feet. My poor mother!

Purple Sandpiper in surf

Purple Sandpiper in surf

Purple Sandpipers are not really purple; they are little darkish side and perhaps with some imagination have a purplish sheen, although I never saw it. But what I did see was a wonderful little creature that understood and exploited life on the edge. Bird of the Day despite almost too many contenders.

Prothonotary Warbler

May 18 2015 Cape May N.J.  There are dozens of well-recognised places for excellent bird watching on Cape May. It’s kind of the Manhattan of avian society with some parts of the Cape as crowded with birds as Time Square is with people. To carry the analogy a little further, certain corners of Cape May draw purposeful shorebirds while others attract foppish passerines; just as Wall St is for deal making and Midtown for shopping.
Today we spent half a day in at Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area which is widely known as one of the best places to see newly arrived migrant passerines. It was hard going because the trees had pretty well fully leafed out and the sun was quite fierce. We could hear plenty of birds so we knew they were close, but finding them was really challenging. Still in the few hours we spent there, we made some good finds including a talkative Yellow-breasted Chat, an inquisitive Prairie Warbler and a fly-catching Blackpoll Warbler.
It was getting hot by the time we left, and we headed to a rather ramshackle conservation area which comprised the parts of an active farm that are either too wet or too overgrown for cultivation. It was there that we found a male Prothonotary Warbler, a spectacularly glowing little bird that lights up the dark, wet habitat it favours. In this case it was sharing a soggy thicket of old willows with a Black-throated Green Warbler, a Red-eyed Vireo, a Blue-headed Vireo and a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Male Prothonotary Warbler

Male Prothonotary Warbler

The Prothonotary Warbler has a rather handsome slate-blue back, but the rest of him is a fiery yellow-orange and he truly stood out in the dank gloom. It is one of those birds that enthusiasts seek out and exchange smug ‘if-you’re-lucky’ tips as to its whereabout, the sort of intelligence that come laced with discouragement: ‘…when last seen’, ‘If you’re lucky’ or ‘…but it may have gone by now.’ Other birders will know what I mean.

Well, we had the good luck to enjoy it for quite a while even though it remained fairly high above us; I even managed to get a couple of decent photos.
p.s. The next morning we went to another site, a quiet lonely road in a delicious hardwood forest. We spent some time at a bridge over a small creek that flowed through dense dark undergrowth, the sort of place where mosquitoes thrive and so apparently do Prothonotary Warblers for there we found another; again lighting up the darkness.