Grasshopper Sparrow

Bruce Co. ON. There is a field, formerly cattle pasture, in a rather off-the-beaten-track corner of Bruce County that many birders visit, almost as a pilgrimage, to see Sandhill Cranes. The now unmanaged grass grows high, the soil is rocky and the landscape is punctuated by the odd abandoned utility pole or gatepost; it’s all rather scenic. In the distance is a large lake, which I know from past experience, is home to River Otters.

River Otter

River Otter

We visited this field, as everyone does, to see Sandhill Cranes and were not disappointed. I think we were really as much assured as satisfied at the sight of  several cranes stalking around with youngsters in tow.

Sandhill Crane.

Sandhill Crane.

The dry field and neighbouring scrubby areas held all the expected birds: Gray Catbird, Eastern Bluebird, Barn Swallows, American Kestrel and Savannah Sparrow included. In the distance we could se a Caspian Tern quartering the lake. The day’s bird tally hit sixty when we spotted a Grasshopper Sparrow on top of an old Yellow Mullein stalk. It was some distance away but was quick to move in closer to assess us. We must have been quite close to its nest as it circled us several time. I managed to get more photos than anyone needs. Here are a couple.

Grasshopper Sparrow,

Grasshopper Sparrow,

Grasshopper Sparrow,

Grasshopper Sparrow,

Common Nighthawk

June 17 2016. Dyers Bay Rd. Bruce Co. ON. A day or two after I had started to draft the post about Whip-poor-wills, I came face to face, more or less, with a Common Nighthawk. I tried amending the draft to incorporate the two look-alike species, but it ended up like one of those exam essays for which the question starts “Compare and contrast the differences between…etc.” It was too much of a struggle and in any case the Common Nighthawk was such a Bird of the Day that I started afresh.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawks are like Whip-poor-wills in many respects. They are members of the nightjar family: Caprimulgids or Goatsuckers. They all look very much alike (if you’re ever lucky enough to see one) and are birds of dusk and dawn.

Our friend found this one two days ago while searching for orchids and, on a hunch that they are creatures of habit, we went back to the same spot to see if we could re-find it. It saw us and flew up to a nearby branch long before we got too close. It may have been incubating eggs although we certainly didn’t approach to investigate.

Common Nighthawks are one of the most-studied caprimulgids, quite simply because unlike others in the family who prefer dense woodlands, they are more inclined to nest and rest in the open where they can be found and observed.

Enough study has been done to determine that (Ready for this?) dusk flights begin at 28.3 minutes before sunset and ends 68.2 minutes after sunset. Similarly dawn flights begin 54 minutes before sunrise and lasts until about 15 minutes after sunrise. (A great deal less precision there, presumably the researchers had had enough for one night.) Like Whip-poor-wills they fly in pursuit of nighttime moths and unless there is a full moon they sit tight the rest of the day and night.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

Wall Rue.  I know it doesn't look like much but well this is probably as much as you're ever likely to see of it without risking your neck.

Wall Rue. I know it doesn’t look like much but well this is probably as much as you’re ever likely to see of it without risking your neck.

Before finding the nighthawk, the day had been just as exciting as the previous few days. We’d started at dawn with many wetland birds: American Bittern, Virginia Rail, Green Heron, Alder Flycatcher and Sora among them. Had found a deeply fissured rock outcrop packed full of unusual ferns and later, a small colony of Wall Rue, a fern species that is indescribably uncommon in North America; I suppose I’d have to call it Fern of the Day. One of our other afternoon surprises was a male Dark-eyed Junco carrying food to its nest; we view juncos as winter visitors but I suppose we were just far enough north to be within their breeding range.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

 

Whip-poor-wills

June 13th and 16th 2016 Lion’s head, Bruce Co. Ontario. Our daily excursions exploring the beautiful greenness of the Bruce Peninsula deliver such a richness of birds, flowers and ferns that it is hard to focus on any one as the day’s highlight. Easier perhaps to turn instead to the night, although in truth we scarcely see the nights. We are usually so drained that we’re long ago in bed while some lingering bands of light remain in the north-western sky. But on a couple of evenings as dusk closed in we ventured out to listen for whip-poor-wills, and succeeded every time.

Whip-poor-wills are birds of dry mixed forests. Your chances of coming across one are slim to none; you’d have to be traipsing cross-country and off-trail to happen upon one. They hug the forest floor, cryptically coloured like leaf litter, either whiling away the day or incubating eggs, they are virtually invisible. It’s hard to know what goes through the mind of a Whip-poor-will but based on the scant evidence I have, the bird sits quietly through the daylight hours waiting patiently for the light to fade, waiting for some unknowable trigger event: whether it’s light levels, the appearance of certain moth species, or even Sirius the Dog Star’s ascendency over the treetops is beyond me.

Whip-poor-wills are very vocal and call their far-reaching namesake song endlessly.  There is no better approximation of their song than WHIP–pu–Whill delivered with an assertive start and a slight whistling emphasis on the last syllable. On a couple of late evening outings we could hear Whip-poor-wills calling from several points near and far and sometimes overlapping. Whip-poor-wills are most active at dusk, dawn and on full moon nights.  I’ve heard of campers and country residents driven to hair-pulling, scream-inducing rage by the monotony of a nearby Whip-poor-will’s call uttered without pause from all moonlit night long, I can see how it would wear you down, but then, Whip-poor-wills  were here first.

Bruce Co. cottage

Bruce Co. cottage

Golden-winged Warbler.

June 14 2016. Bruce Co. Ontario. We spent a long day with like-minded friends exploring the back-roads and trails of Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula looking for birds and plants, especially orchids, for which ‘ the Bruce’ is rightly famous. We couldn’t have had a better day; sunshine and just warm enough to be comfortable but not enough to inspire mosquitoes, Black Flies or Deer Flies. It was a richly colourful day in which probably the most compelling image was that of Rita alone on a quiet road backed by two young Black Bears.  Rita stayed a safe distance away, the bears were young and soon left. Rita and Black Bear cubs

I don’t know where else in the world you could see orchids in such abundance, particularly Yellow Lady Slippers. Where some parts of the world might be yellow with Dandelions, on the Bruce it is Yellow Lady Slippers. In places we also found the smaller (and fragrant) variety, Smaller Yellow Lady Slipper. Apart from being smaller overall, the enlarged lip is backed by very dark brown petals, in contrast to the usual pale greenish yellow. We also found an early, extravagantly pink Showy Lady Slipper, some fading Ram’s Head Orchids and a couple of spires of Tall White Bog and Tall Northern Green Orchids; the last two favouring squishy lake margins.

Yellow Lady Slipper Orchid

Yellow Lady Slipper Orchid

Smaller Yellow Lady Slipper

Smaller Yellow Lady Slipper

But what of the birds? It might have been impossible to choose a bird of the day in the face of so much, but an almost chance encounter with a pair of Golden- winged Warblers nudged the competition aside. Competition that included an Upland Sandpiper, Virginia Rail and a Northern Harrier.

Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler

Golden Winged Warblers are unwittingly losing a battle for their existence against a very near relative, the Blue-winged Warbler. The blues are expanding their range to the north and east, and where blues encounter the golds they all happily breed and hybridized. Presumably neither species minds particularly; after all breeding usually involves some level of receptivity if not consent. But what’s happening is the genetically dominant blues are swamping the golds. Hybrids: Brewster’s and Lawrence’s Warblers, appear in the wake of this eviction, but after a few generations the hybrids are no more and it’s all Blue-winged Warblers. Golden- winged Warblers are becoming increasingly rare and Blue-winged Warblers increasingly to be expected. It’s fascinating to observe; perhaps it’s an evolutionary surge.

Pine Warbler.

Pine Warbler.

We ended the day pink from too much sun (I know, I know!) and with a list of bird and orchid sightings to warm a winter evening, Birds also included: hearing but not seeing both Sora and Virginia Rails, a number of Chestnut-sided Warblers, Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks and Eastern Bluebirds in lush meadows and both Black and White and Pine Warblers in a dry expanse of Jack Pines. So many of the migration must-sees of May are here nesting.

Purple Finch

9 June 2016. Flamboro ON. My dad taught me all I knew about photography – at least for the first decade or two of my life. He was an ambitious amateur photographer but perhaps most talented when developing film and printing his own work. One of his lessons was about the quality of evening light, something like, “Sometimes the late-day light can be quite flattering, but there’s too much red in it to come out well in a photograph.” That was in the post-war years, when fold-up cameras were loaded with rolls of monochrome Kodak or Ilford film. Instamatics were still a decade or two in the future and the digital revolution half a century away.

That ‘…late-day light can be quite flattering’ phrase came back to me last night when I had the opportunity to capture some long-distance shots of this, Bird of the Day, Purple Finch.

Purple Finch in evening light.

Purple Finch in evening light.

I was in a small marsh waiting for nightfall to start a survey of frog vocalisations; a survey which I had to abandon in the end because the temperature dropped below the effective survey threshold. As I waited I checked some known spots for bird activity, but it was getting late and slow going. A Veery came out to the woods to decide whether I was a threat, but it was the only bird I saw well other than the Purple Finch. But I could hear the songs and calls of White-throated Sparrows, Northern Waterthrushes and a Virginia Rail; all noteworthy birds. A Green Heron flapped away and settled on the tip of a far-off dead Silver Maple from which it could oversee crowds of fussing Red-winged Blackbirds periodically rising from the Cat-tail marsh.

My dad was right about evening light and flattery. It probably wouldn’t have helped with many bird species but Purple Finches are washed raspberry red anyway and since shooting against the bright sky added a risk of ending up with a rather meaningless silhouette, I was quite happy with the result.

Veery, checking me out.

Veery, checking me out.

 

Canada Warbler

7 June 2016. Flamboro ON. There would be some birders who believe in their nemesis bird; I don’t. I see what I see without going to disproportionate lengths, I’m fairly adept at spotting what’s there and I don’t fret a great deal about birds missed. A shrug is much easier on the soul than gnashing teeth. I’ve missed several gloat-worthy birds the sort of rarities that set pulses racing. But then again, there’s the Canada Warbler.

It’s not that I’ve never seen a Canada Warbler, I see a few every year. They’re really striking. But they are elusive and they never stop around long enough for me to get a good photo; I came close today though.

I led a group of, let’s call them, individuals with the luxury of ample free time on a weekday. I took them to three of my favourite birding spots: first a trail that led down into a rich swamp from a hilltop with magnificent views; then a quiet roadside beset with thick swampy woodland growth and finally a gravel road that cut across an open marsh.

It became as much a plants and flowers hike as a birding one. I was distracted by exuberant Cinnamon and Crested Wood Ferns, while others found Lady’s Slipper orchids along the wet margins. Plenty of birds too of course and at our first stop our very satisfying list included: Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, Black and White Warbler, Northern Waterthrush and Veery, the last two species were heard rather than seen. The second stop was audibly tantalizing: we could hear a Canada Warbler singing purposefully but could not for the life of us see it; We could hear a couple of White-throated Sparrows and I was inclined to think I heard a Purple Finch singing high overhead. I don’t think we actually saw any birds of note at the second site but I made a mental note to return some early morning soon. Our last stop filled a few gaps in our day including a pair of Spotted Sandpipers and a small group of Cedar Waxwings. By then most of the group had gradually dissipated, so we said our final farewells and, retracing our steps two of us tried once again to find a Canada Warbler. To cut a long story short we succeeded; but with only brief glimpses.

Canada Warbler

Canada Warbler

Here is the best photo I managed to get. They are very handsome little creatures with that black necklace strung across a yellow chest. In the gallery below is a selection of all the Canada Warbler photos I’ve managed to get previously; the on-line trash-talking community might call them ‘Fails’, but they were still worth keeping.

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Yellow-billed Cuckoo

May 31 2016. Ruthven Park, Cayuga ON. The end of May is the end of spring bird censuses. I went to the bird observatory feeling a little remiss for having not helped as much as I’d hoped and to see how the season had shaped up. Activity was slow and they banded relatively few before taking down the mist nets for the season.

As usual I undertook the daily census and quite surprised myself with nearly sixty species. Many were just single birds of a species: Green Heron, Scarlet Tanager, Trumpeter Swan, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Yellow-throated Vireo being stand-outs in my mind.

Last year, same time, same place I found a lone Trumpeter Swan paddling down the river, it was a first for the observatory. Something must have gone well for it because it, or possibly another individual, showed up this spring and appears to like it well enough to stay; whether it has found a mate no one seems to know.

Trumpeter Swan - Grand River

Trumpeter Swan – Grand River

The day also produced large numbers of Baltimore Orioles, Warbling Vireos, and Yellow Warblers. Six Chimney Swifts chased and wheeled around, sometimes in courtship flight where one bird, usually the trailing one of a pair, holds his or her wings in a deep V for a couple of seconds.

My best bird was a brief glimpse of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I heard it calling several times and it always seemed to be on the move. Cuckoos are a bit on the secretive side and tend to stay fairly high in the forest canopy and I knew that getting to see it was a bit of a long shot, but in the end it was just luck; there it was, my Bird of the Day.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Mourning Warbler

May 28 2016. Rail Trail at Copetown ON. I went out this morning with a birding friend who wanted to show me his newly discovered birding destination, the empty rail bed of a former railway that linked industrial Hamilton with points west. Like many once important but now abandoned lines, it has been made into a hiking and biking trail.

The charm and sometimes scourge of railway lines is the back-yard views along the way,  Bob’s old rail line was marked by views into remnant ponds and bogs, farmland and someone’s garden. Railway lines may hold unexpected virtues, routes crossing the Great Plains and Prairies  are almost the sole refuge of a host of native plants, which for the most part (99.99% most part) were plowed and tilled out of existence over a century of settlement.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

The margins of the trail were hopping with birds: some colourful like Indigo Buntings, Yellow Warblers, and American Redstarts; and others heard but not seen, a Black-billed Cuckoo in particular. We stopped for a while at an interpretive lookout where I made a surprisingly successful vocal attempt at flushing out birds because up popped a male Mourning Warbler followed shortly by his mate. They hung around for quite a while to see what the fuss was about, it was a rare treat for us.

American Redstart (male).

American Redstart (male).

Mourning Warblers are aptly named, at least the male is. Contrasting his yellow breast and belly, his head, neck and throat are draped in a somber veil of grey that gathers to shape a black cravat; very handsome. Birders tend to celebrate all warblers for their beauty whether subtle or outrageous and the Mourning Warbler sometimes gets more than its share.  I wish I had a photo of one worth sharing but I see them too infrequently, I’ve never had the opportunity

Indigo Bunting.

Indigo Bunting.

.

The Black-billed Cuckoo was a rather frustrating pleasure (heard but not seen) but amply made up for by the tantalizing surprise Mourning Warbler, my Bird of the Day.

Common Nighthawk

21 May 2016 Hendrie Valley, Burlington ON. This was a very long day. It was the day of our spring all-day, sunrise-to-sunset bird count. Sixteen-hours in one spot, an interesting and habitat-diverse location, counting all birds seen and heard. Why we do this is a longish story but it is part of a long term project, the Long Watch, to study bird populations on the lands of Royal Botanical Gardens, Ontario.

Starting at 05:45 we watched the day brighten to become comfortably overcast and breezy . We tallied fifty-six species, almost exactly the same number as this time last year. Rather sensationally our second bird was an unexpected, low-overhead Common Nighthawk. I was jubilant!  Nighthawks have become uncommon verging on rare over the past few decades. They’re goatsuckers, an ancient, somewhat pejorative, name for the Caprimulgidae family of birds that includes nightjars and whip-poor-wills. An odd name you might think (I do) but Aristotle (who needs little introduction) wrote of them, “Flying to the udders of she-goats, it sucks them and thus gets its name. They say that the udder withers when it has sucked at it, and that the goat goes blind.” Can you believe that?

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

Our first two hours were lively and noisy. We recorded many Great Blue Herons, Mallards and Wood Ducks coming and going to the ponds around us. About thirty male Red-winged Blackbirds enlivened a marsh in front of us and high overhead almost uncountable numbers of Ring-billed Gulls passed over. A single Common Loon, also high overhead, was perhaps heading north better late than never. As the day wore on avian life quieted down, but the Ring-billed Gulls kept on going. We became aware of patterns of behaviour: a pair of Eastern Phoebes running food to their hidden nest, five or six male Common Yellowthroats singing from their perches, each about 50 meters equidistant and occasional passes by a Cooper’s Hawk that set the smaller birds diving for cover. We watched Red-winged Blackbirds harassing a Great Blue Heron who was trying to mind his own business stalking and catching fish. I’ve included a gallery of the heron and blackbird below but it’s visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

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Our day became as much social as anything and, as dusk started to close in, we were all happily contemplating going home.  Looking up at the darkening sky we watched a small group of Chimney Swifts careening and wheeling in circles. And to close out the day, another Common Nighthawk, but this time very high overhead. We’d seen one here at dusk a year ago and I’d kind of promised a repeat performance to one of our young observers. I explained how single, white, under-wing stripes makes the bird unmistakable. Despite its height she saw it well and confirmed that without the wing-stripe she would never have known, a sharing moment with my Bird of the Day.

 

White-rumped sandpiper

May 18 2016. Townsend Ontario. A day of many interesting sightings. Two of us completed a census taking three and a half hours to do what normally takes two. It was full of surprises and pleasures and we ended up with a list of fifty-eight species. Stand-outs in my view, although my companion Barry may have other ideas, were hearing many Tennessee Warblers, finding a neck-breakingly high overhead Blackburnian Warbler, two Cooper’s Hawks patrolling the area on languid wingbeats reminiscent of a Short-eared Owl’s floppy flight style, a female Wood Duck with a brood of eleven day-old ducklings and finding ourselves in close proximity to a male Scarlet Tanager. I have gushed about Scarlet Tanagers often enough but sometimes bemoan the fact that I find them difficult to photograph. Today’s was enjoyed by a gathering crowd of walkers and my camera did well to get some quite good photos; here are a couple. (In a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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With our census done we went in pursuit of shorebirds at some distant sewage lagoons. Birders like sewage treatment areas, I won’t go into details; it’s one of our peculiarities.

It was quite good birding. The lagoons held large numbers of Dunlin, Least Sandpipers and Semi-palmated Plovers. It brought back memories of this time last year along the shores of New Jersey. We found one White-rumped Sandpiper which was interesting, more to Barry than to me I think. He scrutinized it at length, checked its field marks (streaky breast, wing length and slightly drooping bill) mulled over its purported body length in comparison to other sandpipers and gave it his conclusive stamp of approval.

Shorebirds can be excruciatingly difficult to sort out, I’m pretty comfortable with the ones we see most commonly; but a White-rumped Sandpiper is rare enough that I find that they just add to my confusion.

Back home I did a little more research and here’s where it gets really interesting: White-rumped Sandpipers migrate between the extreme southern end of South America, Patagonia in particular, to the extreme northern end of North America, the shores of the Arctic Ocean and Baffin Bay, to breed. A journey of 13,000 kilometers made in a few, long, non-stop flights which can last as long as 60 hours and cover up to 4,000 kilometers. All of this on reserves of body fat as fuel. Pause and think about all of that: a metabolism that converts some forty grams (around one ounce) of yellow, greasy fat into fuel enough to fly from Surinam to Ontario in one go; guided by an internal navigation system that relies on… what: Stars, Earth’s magnetic fields, the Sun? Who knows? Cool bird; Bird of the Day