Fieldfare

12 June 2014 Stockholm, Sweden. We’ve been planning this trip to Sweden for months and the Princeton Birds of Europe field guide has been a key part of my pre search/research. I’m still not really sure what to expect from the greater part of Sweden since it appears to be bypassed by many of the birds of Europe; still my first couple of days have been rewarding. I grew up in England, and while we’re here in Stockholm, I’m seeing many of my familiar garden birds: Magpies, Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Jays and both Great and Blue Tits. I’ve added a few new-to-me birds too: Baltic Gull (actually a subspecies of the Lesser Great Black-backed Gull), Hooded Crow and Fieldfares, a species which as a child I always longed to see. Fieldfare
Fieldfares are a large thrush closely related to (in the same genus) as the American Robin, European Blackbird and Clay-coloured Thrush of Central America. They are predominantly birds of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia but my childhood field guides (such as they were) tantalizingly suggested that I might sometimes see one in England during the winter; I never did. But now, fifty years later, they’re everywhere around me, commoner that any other species and I’m pleased to be able to fill the gap in my mental ‘seen that’ files and deservingly they’ve been my Bird of the Day for a couple of days.
Jays are fairly common too and I’ve seen first hand evidence of why they are loathed by many sentimentalists. Twice I have watched a Jay seize, kill and partially dismember fledgeling Blue Tits as food for its own ravenous young. Blue Tits raise large broods, eight is not unusual, and clearly many are doomed to perish at an early age; after all it only takes one offspring to survive over the breeding life of a single adult to keep the population steady.

Jay and  hungry young

Jay and hungry young

Blue Tit (juv)

Blue Tit (juv)

 

Sedge Wren

10 June 2014. Burlington, ON. A little bit short of time today (for reasons that will become apparent in the next few days), but time enough to head out at first light to look for some grassland birds. I went to a provincial park not far from home, to an area that was formerly farmland and has not so far been transformed into picnic areas or sports fields. June is a nice time to see birds, the great rush hour being done, the birds are active on territory either establishing or confirming ownership through energetic song, or feeding young. You don’t need to spend as much time looking for birds, now you can enjoy looking at them.

female Bobolink

female Bobolink

My tally this morning included Grasshopper, Savannah, Field and Song Sparrows all purposefully zipping from one lookout to another and anxiously singing and chipping to let me know I had no right to be there. I could see and hear Bobolinks including this food-carrying female. A rather splendid Brown Thrasher followed me along a hedgerow, singing occasionally but was noticeably more intent on making sure I meant no harm. An Alder Flycatcher had firm control of the area around an old hawthorn, until the thrasher showed up that is, whereupon the flycatcher deferentially stepped to one side; apparently there’s no point squabbling with a Brown Thrasher over who gets top branch.

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The sparrows, thrasher and flycatcher photos are in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

Bird of the Day was a small group of Sedge Wrens who had taken possession of a couple of acres of old grassy field. You don’t see Sedge Wrens very often, although their relative the Marsh Wren is reasonably common, so hearing the electric chatter that is their hallmark was a special event for me. I was lucky to get this picture of one from some distance away. They move around from one grassy spot to another in a fast-whirring low-level flight that takes some concentration to follow.

Sedge Wren

Sedge Wren

Finally, if Yellow Warblers weren’t so common we might celebrate them a bit more than we do. They really are sensational; the chestnut streaks is the field mark that makes this one a male.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Swamp Sparrow

June 2014. Burlington, ON. I’d been invited and happily agreed to help a couple of young biologists with some survey work this morning. The target species was Least Bitterns and the game plan was to visit four marsh sites to follow an established protocol that also included a five-minute recording of Least Bittern calls in hopes that it might evoke a response. We came up empty handed, but it was a delightful three-and-a-bit hours. When you can do off-trail bird census work at first light and not get dew-soaked to your thighs and quite chilled, it’s a good morning.

Our highlights included at least two large broods of Wood Duck ducklings, each smaller than your fist, threading through wide spreads of water lilies following the hens around the ponds. That each hen had maybe ten ducklings in tow looks cute, but it is an ominous indicator of the mortality rate among such young and flightless birds; predators are everywhere: Snapping Turtles and Pike sometimes pull them under, and when they’re ashore they fall prey to foxes, raccoons and owls.

We watched a circling Osprey carrying a gleaming and thrashing fish until it found a prominent perch on which to tear apart its breakfast. It’s interesting how Ospreys always (I think) carry a captured fish head first, the most aerodynamic way I suppose.

Swamp Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow

As we made our way along a raised boardwalk, a small sparrow flew across in front of us and dropped down into the growing cattails. It was carrying food for its nestlings and I quickly identified it as a Swamp Sparrow. It’s not that Swamp Sparrows are particularly uncommon in summer, but this one was obviously nervous about further betraying the location of its nest. It stayed where it was long enough for us to examine it quite closely and appreciate the key field mark that makes it a Swamp Sparrow, large patches of reddish brown on its wings. For that lingering look it was my Bird of the Day.

Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swans

The low morning sun also showed off nicely a couple of other birds: a pair of Trumpeter Swans puddling for whatever edibles can be found in the mud of shallow ponds and this back-lit female Red-winged Blackbird who is also carrying wriggling food for her brood of nestlings.

Red-winged Blackbird - female with food

Red-winged Blackbird – female with food

American White Pelicans

June 2014. Hamlton, ON. With a couple of evening hours to myself, I went to see a bunch of American White Pelicans reported to have set down on an island in the harbour. They were there alright, four of them recuperating after a long flight and taking up space in a clamorous colony of Double Crested Cormorants, Ring-billed Gulls and Caspian Terns. The gulls and terns seemed to take exception to the pelicans by occasionally dive bombing them, whether because the pelicans were just out-of-place strangers or suspected to be predators I don’t know. The pelicans didn’t seem to mind terribly although every now and then they made wild jabs of retribution with their long orange beak.

I was somewhat more taken by the colourful masses of Caspian Terns, many of them on their nests, than I was by the pelicans; but the pelicans are certainly interesting and not just because they play such a role in children’s literature. It certainly seems incongruous, pelicans in Canada, but they breed around large lakes across a large part of the continent roughly from Manitoba to Alberta and south to Kansas, they have to get there somehow from their wintering grounds of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast so it’s not a big surprise that a few show up every year maybe blown a little off course.

Here they are in a gallery (which you can’t see in an email, you’ll have to visit the site), Birds of the Day or maybe more appropriately Curiosities of the Day.

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Pileated Woodpecker

31May 2014. Kirkwall ON. My diary tells me that on April 15th, just six weeks ago, it was snowing at sunrise. (And as some sort of proof here’s a photo taken that day.)

American Robin in late snow

American Robin in late snow

Now, after a stuttering catch-up spring we are sampling summer. For our migrants their rush hour is over; well, cuckoos and Blackpoll Warblers are still moving through, but the greater effort now goes into rearing the next generation.

Early this morning, I drove out into deep countryside listening for the dawn chorus, there was hardly anyone else on the roads. As a child, my dad shared dawn choruses with me. On our bikes, he and I pedaled down fragrant country lanes sorting out the full volume songs of Missel Thrushes, Blackbirds and Skylarks. Continuing that always satisfying experience, my plan this morning was to visit three different locales each with its own birdy potential: a large hay field bounded on three sides by woodland, a favourite cattail marsh and a commanding hilltop with a walk down into a swamp.

It was at the marsh that I found a Pileated Woodpecker. We’d seen it there a little over a week ago, in fact at the same place on the same drowned tree and doing the same thing, drumming loudly on a reverberant limb to broadcast its territorial claim. I was looking for other birds: Sora, Virginia Rails, Least Bitterns and the like, but the Pileated Woodpecker seemed uncharacteristically determined to be watched and photographed; and since none of the other target birds showed themselves I fell for this elegantly outsized woodpecker.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

They are always an arresting encounter Pileated Woodpeckers, all the more so because they seem to give humans a wide berth. Even if you don’t see them you’ll often hear them from far off, they have a yodeling laugh a bit like a Northern Flicker but louder, clearer and more penetrating. They are a large bird, books say the size of a crow, but In flight they always appear quite a bit larger than that, and certainly heavier; while crows fly lightly and easily, Pileated Woodpeckers flap strongly with an almost urgent effort greater than that required to avert an imminent fall to earth.

Later, walking along a mosquitoey trial through a wooded swamp, I heard and then soon found this Veery calling, apparently in answer to another some distance away. The Veery is one of a handful of buff-brown thrush species that come here for the summer to raise their broods on a diet of mosquitoes. It seemed quite unconcerned by my presence, although I would have preferred it to move somewhere just as close, remaining well lit but against an evenly dark background. But then photography was my problem not its.

Veery

Veery

Veery

Veery

Willow Flycatcher

26May 2014. Cayuga ON. Bird of the Day presented a dilemma that really should not have been too difficult to deal with. Which is it: Canada Warbler or Willow Flycatcher? One a dude, a toff, a popinjay who arrives for the party with his precise charcoal grey cape slung over a buttercup yellow vest, the ensemble set off to perfection by a cascade of black pearls and custom white-rimmed spectacles. The other a workhouse drudge found where it’s wet underfoot and mosquitoes abound, it dresses in army drab and eats flies; there’s little more to be said.

Canada Warbler

Canada Warbler

Canada Warbler

Canada Warbler

Of course I encountered both of them today, the Canada Warbler was trapped in a mist net and brought to the lab for banding, the Willow Flycatcher was somewhere close to the riverside trail singing its heart out. I prefer my birds unfettered; a Canada Warbler is a truly spectacular bird but it loses points for being briefly captive, the Willow Flycatcher is just a symbol of wetlands and its song sets it apart from its lookalike cousins the Least and Alder Flycatchers.

A little bit like vireos, which I enjoy for their often-unremarkable dress and pugnacious attitude, I find flycatchers engaging, the smaller ones you might call perky while the bigger ones tend to be noisily assertive. Here’s a gallery of some of the members of this family (not all of them seen in Ontario); you’ll note they’re not all dressed like workhouse drudges.

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The gallery is only visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

American Bittern

May 23 2014 Carden Plain, ON. American Bitterns are one of those birds you almost never see. Birders in general consider seeing or hearing one as noteworthy, certainly the sort of thing you want to tell your birding friends about, and even worth trying on with your family,  just in case there’s some interest.

Had you asked me back in January, how often I see an American Bittern; I probably would have said: very occasionally, maybe once a year if I’m in the right time and place, or more likely once or twice a decade. This year I’ve had four sightings, and by far the best came today. The first a month ago while sloshing along an informal trail through a dense cattail marsh; the second two weeks later at the bird observatory when a small group of us surprised one resting at the side of a wet trail, and the third on my way to conduct a survey of amphibians, we watched one trying with mixed results to become a part of a distant cattail marsh. Today’s American Bittern was hands-down the star performer and Bird of the Day.

Great-crested Flycatcher

Great-crested Flycatcher

Today we made, what among Ontario birders almost amounts to, a pilgrimage to Carden Plain, an area celebrated for its flat limestone landscape and biodiversity: a mix of watercourses, marshes, swamps and alvars (areas of little or no soil overlying limestone bedrock and subject to excessive heat, cold, drought and other extremes.)Wilsons Snipe Nr Kirkfield

Our day was full of nice surprises including a couple of distant Loggerhead Shrikes, a species considered at risk and Endangered in Ontario. The dry fields of Carden Plain support a few breeding pairs along with plenty of Eastern Bluebirds, Upland Sandpipers, Savannah and Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Kingbirds and Brown Thrashers. A Great-crested Flycatcher and a Wilson’s Snipe posed obligingly for the above photos and I’ve had to delete many photos of a Vesper Sparrow that was just too far away.  It was a full day that ended with us listening in the cold wind for Yellow Rails, a diminutive, elusive and generally un-seeable bird. It eluded us with night falling and a Common Nighthawk zig-zagging overhead .

But, what of the American Bittern? Late afternoon, as we were making our way slowly along a gravel road that bisects a large marsh, we were astounded by an up-close encounter with an American Bittern stalking slowly and deliberately across the road not ten feet in front of us; it was totally unexpected. Bitterns are known as shy and retiring, relying on their cryptic colouring to disappear into a marsh; not for just popping out to cross the street. It was clearly apprehensive about being so exposed, stepping delicately and deliberately in a very horizontal, crouching-with-head-tucked-in pose, it wasted no time out in the open, but still we had the most astounding, if short-lived, opportunity to really see an American Bittern. But there was more to come.

Later that evening when the light was fading, we could hear the bittern calling; that in itself, is an experience few have knowingly experienced. A bittern’s song (if you could possibly call it that) warrants an entire website, but this short but marvellous movie from the Miracle of Nature website, more than does it justice. It is quite possibly one of nature’s strangest sounds to come from a vertebrate. I’ll refer to Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion for perhaps the best written description: “One of the classic sounds of the marsh – a resonant, imperfectly suppressed, three note belch – gulp-G-gulp – sometimes likened to a stake being driven into the marsh; in tone and cadence nearly suggests a bassoon with a limp.” We were able to track down the bird which was ill concealed in an expanse of marsh grass and I managed to get a few reasonable photos.

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Perhaps as compelling as the actual song is the five-second prelude as the bird seemingly winds up for the exertion ahead. It claps its bill two or three times, exhales with a couple of minor gulping clicks and then launches into the song while thrusting its head and neck rhythmically, rather like our cat preparing to throw up something it should never have eaten. The gallery series of photos above (visible only on the website not if you’re reading this as an email,) may help to visualize the performance, but really you had to be there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scarlet Tanager

May 18 2014 Burlington and Hamilton, ON. The eighteenth of May, it would be hard to pick a date more likely to produce a wave of neo-tropical migrants than this. It hasn’t left a lot of time for posting to My Bird of the Day.

Before breakfast I visited a lakeside park not far from home.  The park includes a gracious, former summer home with lawns and formal flower beds; in contrast though much of it is un-manicured, natural and relaxed. A decent sized stream finds its way through the park to empty finally into Lake Ontario. Close to the old home is an overgrown White Cedar hedge which provides cover, protection, and shelter for birds and not to mention clouds of flying insects and various creeping invertebrates; a banquet for the taking. This morning, standing gazing at this old hedge was all you needed to do to see countless brilliant and compelling little birds. I noted: Blackburnian, Tennessee, Blackpoll, Black & White, and Black-throated Blue Warblers. Also American Redstarts, Northern Parulas and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher; all of them minor celebrities as they worked in and out through the hedge.

Later (after an overdue breakfast) and unable to stay home, I retraced our walk of two evenings ago. The bird mix was a little different and I added Bay-breasted Warbler and a Philadelphia Vireo to my day’s notes, but I have to say that the Birds of the Day were the many Scarlet Tanagers.

Female Scarlet Tanager

Female Scarlet Tanager

The photo above shows quite well how the female Scarlet Tanager is really a rather drab green and heavy looking girl. Actually the male is no lightweight either but who notices? Scarlet Tanager pair bonds must be well established in mid-May by the time they reach us, for where there’s a female you can be pretty sure a male is not far away.

While it may become a bit repetitive, I think we all have some appetite for the dramatic, so here’s a gallery of photos from the afternoon but visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

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I have yet to sort out how to persuade my camera to render the blazing scarlet with more definition, it seems to be very easy to lose focus and burn out the expanse of red, it’s as if something overloads the camera’s sensors. I will appreciate anyone’s comments or suggestions on this.

Swainsons Thrush

The afternoon of 16 May 2014. Hamilton ON. I’m sure that my afternoon companions would have bet heavily on two other birds species as odds-on favourites to be my Bird of the Day, they’d choose either a Pileated Woodpecker or a Scarlet Tanager I’m sure, but surely not a Swainson’s Thrush. Sorry to disappoint.

I had been invited by an enthusiastic young (by my standards) birder to join him and assorted friends on an after-work birding walk. That, I thought, was a refreshing idea; add new company and younger eyes to a familiar location and who knows what might happen. Four of us set out and were soon admiring a bunch of Baltimore Orioles, and shortly thereafter found a Chestnut-sided and some Tennessee Warblers. Then I saw and with an air of triumph, pointed out a Swainson’s Thrush lurking low in a small stand of Paw-paw trees. We watched it for a while, distracted by Red-eyed Vireos and songs of more Tennessee Warblers. The thrush excited me while my companions understandably were less enthusiastic, hardly a glamorous or dazzling bird, but I love Swainson’s for their understated coolness and heart-stopping song (about which more later).

Swainson's Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

Moving on, we encountered a fabulous Pileated Woodpecker picking and bashing away at ground level woody debris. These wonderful birds rarely allow you a really good look at them; they tend to peek out shyly from the other side of a tree trunk or vanish into thick cover. Having said that, I know many who have enjoyed long lingering encounters with Pileated Woodpeckers, so it’s not that you never get a really good look, it’s just that it’s rare. Too bad, for they are a sensational creature: startlingly handsome and masterful, but well, shy.

ScarletTanager.  Perfect pose, if a bit far away.

ScarletTanager. Perfect pose, if a bit far away.

We heard Pine Warblers trilling from high in some White Pines, got a glimpse of a Black-throated Blue Warbler, and just like pulling a rabbit out of a hat we greedily enjoyed several brilliant Scarlet Tanagers. It’s hard to explain the intensity of their scarlet, but on my drive home I realized how much they explode red like a traffic light. Over the years I have taken many really crummy pictures of Scarlet Tanagers. Like this morning’s Yellow-throated Vireo, they don’t stay still for very long (although admittedly longer than the vireo) and they are often facing the wrong way or partially obscured by tree bits. Add to that the need to zoom in and focus and well, good shots are few and far between.

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(This post contains more photos of the Tanager in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

But, here’s how it is that the Swainson’s Thrush ended up as Bird of the Afternoon (maybe even Bird of the Day); it’s their song. As we wrapped up our after-work birding walk afternoon was giving way to evening and several Swainson’s Thrushes started to sing. It makes sense that there were others around for, although we had seen only a single bird, when it comes to migration, species often spread through the land on a broad front, like a large wave. The Swainson’s Thrushes’ songs are melodiously dreamy and we were in the grassy lower level of a lilac dell when I heard them, a setting worthy of a Victorian poet. I would have liked to take more time to draw the others’ attention to the songs, but we were in something of a hurry to leave on account of a waiting, pre-ordered pizza and other domestic demands of a young father.   But all is not lost, to get a full appreciation of the Swainson’s Thrushes’ song, follow this link, listen to a few song recordings and at least mentally place yourself in a spring woodland.

Blackburnian Warbler

The morning of 16 May 2014. Cayuga ON. I’m going to have to divide this day in two. This is the peak of the spring migration and I spent the morning at the bird observatory and part of the afternoon birding exploring a lakeside trail with a couple of younger enthusiasts. First the morning.

It was under gloomy, low-hanging clouds that I arrived at the bird observatory. I don’t know how much rain we’d had overnight, it felt as though everything needed wringing out.  It must have been a prodigious amount because all of our customary trails had become watercourses, there were rivulets and mini cascades where I’d never seen or heard them before. Perhaps the ground was so waterlogged from this very wet spring, that last night’s rains had no choice but to find a way to run straight to the river. The daily census was more of a three-hour wade than anything else. But for all of that it was satisfyingly varied.

Quite early on in the census, I encountered a singing Yellow-throated Vireo. It moved in quite closely and took up some beautiful positions for photographs, but I soon learned that Yellow-throated Vireos stay still for exactly as long as it takes me to point my camera and focus, but not a millisecond longer; certainly not long enough to take the photo. I exaggerate only slightly but this shot was the best I could manage out of about fifteen attempts, most of which ended up as photos of empty branches with the occasional blurred wing or tail of a departing vireo.

Yellow-throated Vireo

Yellow-throated Vireo

The remnants of the overnight storm eventually gave way to sunshine reaching through scudding clouds, it was enough to brighten everyone up, and at last creatures of all kinds started to come out of hiding.

My field notes were lengthy. I recorded some fifty-eight species, many of them to be expected, things like House Wrens (8), Baltimore Orioles (24) and Tree Swallows (50) and many not quite surprises but notable sightings nevertheless: a single Cooper’s Hawk, Barn Swallows (16) and Indigo Buntings (2). And then of course, there were the warblers. It’s their season and I recorded ten: Blue-winged, and Yellow Warblers (both summer residents that stay breed) and (just passing through today) Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Green, Tennessee, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Bay-breasted, and Cape May Warblers; and Bird of the Morning two Blackburnian Warblers. Not that Blackburnians necessarily outshine the others, but this vivid male obligingly parked itself on the trunk of a Northern Hackberry to show off and effectively steal the show for a while.

Blackburnian Warbler (male)

Blackburnian Warbler (male)

Blackburnian Warbler (male)

Blackburnian Warbler (male)