Blue-gray Tanager

January 28 2015, Boquete, Panama.  My field guide, The Birds of Panama by George Angehr & Robert Dean describes the Blue-gray Tanager as one of the most familiar and ubiquitous birds in Panama; I have certainly seen many of them in these early days. I suppose you could get tired of them in time; but then it would seem to be hard not to always be smitten by the subtle treatment of the blue palette on this bird.

There are thirty-seven tanagers listed in the guide’s index. At risk of tediousness, it’s worth noting that while the majority of listed tanagers are “true” tanagers (in the Thraupidae family) a handful, well actually ten, are tanagers in name only, they’re members of the Cardinulidae family, which plunks them in with grosbeaks, buntings and, as you might have gathered from the tongue-twister name, cardinals; I was relieved to note that the Blue-gray is one of the Thraupid tanagers, a true blue.

I sleep rather fitfully so it has become easy to head out at first light to explore some of the hidden corners of this rather picturesque mountain town. Following a quiet road this morning, I ended up at the gates of the cemetery; intact I might add. Cemeteries can be very productive birding spots, they are by definition deadly quiet, and as often as not bordered by woodland or at least some kind of uncultivated area. Many bird species prefer edge habitat over interior forest or even open spaces, edges offer quick cover, access to nearby food and strategic viewpoints, ideal for territorial songbirds. Anyway, I walked around this sometimes-manicured sometimes-not collection of headstones, vaults and tumbledown crosses, but for all of my forgoing introduction it was really not very productive. I did spot a little Red-legged Honeycreeper high up in the nearby forest canopy; it was a male in spectacular breeding plumage: generally all over dark blue but with an iridescent sky-blue cap. It was much too far away to attempt a photograph but I recommend checking Google Images to see what I mean about spectacular.

Leaving the cemetery, I gazed for a long time at the glorious orange flowers on a number of Malinche trees (I think that’s their name). There I found birds aplenty, mostly Tennessee Warblers and Blue-gray Tanagers, feeding I assume on the nectar. Orange and blue are a complimentary colours so it’s no surprise that the tanagers look good among the blooms.
Lest they should someday become ho-hum birds, I’ll take this chance to spotlight today’s Blue-gray Tanagers as my Bird of the Day. Here’s a couple of photos.

Blue-gray Tanager

Blue-gray Tanager

Blue-gray Tanager

Blue-gray Tanager


Cherrie’s Tanager and Magnificent Frigate Bird

24 January 2015. Boquete, Chiquiri, Panama.  Today was my first daylight experience of this mountain town, Boquete. My purpose in being here is to learn another language, pursuing my interest in nature comes a close second
I have two days before classes start and I know Boquete and area will turn up some new and breathtaking birds, but first I have to find my way around. Boquete sits near the top of the range of volcanic peaks that comprise Panama in general and form part of the spine of the Americas. A towering, supposedly inactive, volcano (Volcan Baru) overlooks the town and all around us are thickly forested peaks, ridges and cliffs, all bisected and trisected by tumbling mountain streams rushing towards the Pacific some fifty kilometres away. At this elevation, not far from the continental divide, daytime temperatures are moderated and consequently the town has become a desirable retirement destination for Europeans, Americans and Canadians.  It makes for a cultural mix that is perhaps a bit like a trifle, the parts: ex-pats, Amerindians and mixed-race Panamanians are discernibly distinct but seem to work well together in a colourful and happy way.
Today, I took a long walk this afternoon deep into the recesses of a lush valley. I can only imagine what a wondrously wet and tangled place it was a century or two ago, perhaps even as recently as the 1990s. This valley has been tamed as a pretty ritzy, no-riff-raff-please, retirement community wrapped around a golf course.

Cherrie's Tanager (m)

Cherrie’s Tanager (m)

Cherrie's Tanager (f)

Cherrie’s Tanager (f)


Tropical Mockingbird


I talked my way past the guards on the gate, easily convincing them that a pale Canadian on foot carrying only binoculars and a camera was no threat to residents. I don’t play golf, it holds little appeal, but I have to say that the golf-cart pathways winding from tee to bunker to green allowed me to wander at will and get quite close to some interesting little corners.

Notable birds along the way were a pair of Cherrie’s Tanagers, the male jet black with a hot-scarlet rump and tail, and the female, a beautiful creature of golds, browns and cinnamons. They were my Dramatic Birds of the Day. Spectacles like this are what make Central America: Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua, prime birding destinations.

I came across a pair of Tropical Mockingbirds, very much like our Northern Mockingbird, stately in pearly greys and white but lacking the bold white wing-bars of its northern cousin. My Surprise Bird of the Day was a soaring Magnificent Frigate Bird spotted cruising high over the mountains, much higher than the many Black Vultures that permanently dot the sky around here. Magnificent Frigate Birds are like huge, wildly exaggerated swallows with deeply forked tails and long slender and angular wings.  They are exclusively oceanic, indeed when I turned to my field guide, it showed their range as covering both flanking oceans only, but grudgingly acknowledged that they may sometimes be seen soaring inland. It has nothing to gain from hanging around here, I can only suppose this one had decided to cross the narrow Isthmus of Panama and give the Caribbean a try.

Interestingly, I met a few old familiars too: an Osprey scouting one of the golf course’s water hazards, several House Wrens, a Great Blue Heron and a Great Egret.  A good start on Panama with lots more to come.

European Robin

16 January 2015. Southampton, England. I’ve just returned from a long-weekend trip to the south of England to attend the funeral of a dear aunt; a long life well lived. England’s south is noticeably milder than most of the country and I half expected to see birds from colder parts of Europe holed up for the winter. I’m sure the flocks of Fieldfares were from Scandinavia and I suppose it’s quite probable that the many Blue Tits, Great Tits and Robins I saw had indeed moved from colder places; hard to know.

Robins, (technically European Robins to separate them from unrelated American Robins) hold an almost unassailable place in the hearts of Brits. I think the classic portrayal of the Robin is as a bold hanger-on, waiting to pounce on earthworms and spiders uncovered by a toiling gardener. I remember reading somewhere that this opportunistic tactic of seizing unlucky invertebrates originated with Robins following foraging pigs; Robins, apparently, see us as vertical swine.

Blue Tit

Blue Tit

Where I was, there were dozens of Robins and Blue Tits. But only the Blue Tits, among small birds, would linger long enough to allow a photograph and the flightiness of birds in general reinforced my opinion that European birds are more secretive and nervous than American birds. There were, I sensed, many more Robins than the area would support as a breeding population; or that they themselves could tolerate. They were not terribly easy to see, instead they generally only made themselves apparent by their oft-repeated song, a peevish scramble of high notes, delivered from a hidden perch. But as an icon (a word I use with extreme caution) of Englishness and as a sparkle of colour and song in the appropriately funereal light of January, Robins made the day.

European Robin photographed in Sweden June 2014

European Robin photographed in Sweden June 2014

Hermit Thrush

13 January 2015. Burlington ON. The central premise of this site is that whenever I go birding, there’s always one bird that stands out as special, at least one that makes me say Wow!. Sometimes, usually because the bird is dramatically unexpected, the Wow! comes with punctuation and is capitalized. Frankly most wows are uttered under my breath; they’re still writeable birds though, as you’ll have noticed.

Today’s bird walk produced a Hermit Thrush, a Wow!-with-punctuation find. I had just completed a circuit tallying winter birds. These were truly winter birds, it was minus fifteen degrees Celsius with a light wind from the north. There was an inch or so of snow and the river was frozen over save for a couple of spots where the water churned too fast. In my notes, I twice recorded hearing the empty calls of American Crows, there were dozens of Black-capped Chickadees hoping for handouts of sunflower seeds and a few Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

Moments from returning to my car, I saw what I took, at first, to be a female Northern Cardinal fly up to the top of a scramble of Multiflora Rose briers. It didn’t look quite right for a cardinal so I binoculared (I promise not to try THAT again) it, and then came the Wow!

Hermit Thrushes are regular overwintering birds around here, but in small numbers and generally elusive. Why they stay I can’t imagine, they live on a diet of soft invertebrates, berries and fruits. In a deep freeze you’d wonder where they find any, I assume the meagre scattering of desiccated rosehips was the attraction to this bird. Hermit Thrushes, like their more fully migratory, cousins: Veerys, Gray-cheeked, Swainson’s, and Wood Thrushes are somewhat shy and retiring, bashful, they always seem to be looking back over their shoulder at you. And the expression seems a little doleful as if they wished that neither of us were there to see the other. None of the thrushes is particularly flamboyant, they’re more dignified in grays and browns as if they belong in the servants’ part of the house; not upstairs.

But why the Wow!? I suppose because at this hard part of the year they are few and far between, rarely seen, gentle souls and subtly attractive.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

This photo from Wiki Commons is by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren.

Horned Larks

11 January 2015. Fallsview, Dundas ON. I took part in a Snow Bunting survey today; we didn’t see any but did manage to spot a small flock of Horned Larks that flew to the top of a nearby ridge in a field of corn stalks. They were excruciatingly difficult to make out strutting and scurrying between dried leaves and stalks at about the limit of our binocular-aided vision. We felt pretty pleased with ourselves for having spotted them at all especially in the knuckle-pinching wind, I was pleased enough to consider them my Bird of the Day.

Other than the time spent squinting at the Horned Larks, we spent an enjoyable hour crawling slowly along snow-dusted country roads, scanning fields for Snow Buntings and generally irritating other car-drivers who had more sense of urgency.

Northern harrier at Badenoch

Northern Harrier, hungry and hunting

There were plenty of hungry raptors around. Not far off the road, we spotted a hunting Northern Harrier, flying low, barely a metre above ground level and subsisting I’m sure on the occasional rat, mouse or vole. I twice spotted a Rough-legged Hawk, really too far away to enjoy, at first it was sitting at the top of a bare oak and later, patrolling low and fast over some low-lying fields.

The Snow Buntings survey is interesting. A young friend in pursuit of a master’s degree is studying the correlation, if any, between the amount of snow cover and the apparent abundance of buntings. For this she needs an army of volunteer observers to conduct regular surveys during January and February. ( If you’d like to help, or at least learn more, follow this link.) The ideal three-kilometre long survey route crosses open, windswept landscapes; the last place you might want to be on an icy January day, but just the sort of habitat that Snow Buntings find desirable at this time of year.

Taking part in studies like this is exactly the sort of birding I enjoy most, so it is with some regret (just a little) that I will be away for much of the study period. I’m not going to be much use, but today I helped another birder establish a suitable route and conduct her first survey. Our route cut across open farmland punctuated by old barns and new country dream homes. The flanking fields are either tidily plowed or still hold the remnants of summer’s alfalfa, corn (maize) or soybeans.

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It’s very hard to just spot Snow Buntings wandering around in these winter fields; they are small and exactly the colour of tired, snow-streaked fields. The best opportunities, the ones that make you stop the car and get out, are when flocks of hundreds take flight and roll across the landscape like a snow squall. These flocks sometimes include a handful of Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks and together they’ll eventually settle again to forage for summer’s dropped seeds, and become invisible once again.

More Snowy Owls

4 January 2015. Hamilton ON. I suppose it depends on your definition of drama, but many of my encounters with birds, particularly those that find their way into these postings, involve some element of a mini-drama. I would include today’s encounters with a Snowy Owl as being a minor mini-drama; many wouldn’t, but as I said, it depends on your definition of a drama.

I left the house this morning intending to go to our local library, but being Sunday it wasn’t open until after lunch. What now? I wondered. There were a couple of easy options and I took the ‘go-birding’ one. There’s a spell of bad weather on its way; strong winds to begin with and then it’s supposed to turn much, much colder by nightfall. Knowing that birds somehow anticipate threatening changes in the weather, I headed to the downwind end of our large harbour; there’s always something going on there, especially at this time of year. Winter birding is more about the naked elements, hardship and eat-or-be-eaten dramatics than summer birding. Those same factors are assuredly present in summer, they just suit our ideas of charm and prettiness better.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon


My first drama queen was a female Peregrine Falcon spotted on some cables high overhead. While my back was turned for a few minutes she left, probably in search of a meal, an event that would be no fun at all for the meal but explosive theatrics to an interested observer.

I scanned the shores and harbour edges and noted several loafing Great Black Backed Gulls (highly capable slayers of unwary ducks) and, riding the swells, hundreds of Long-tailed Ducks and Lesser Scaup who don’t frighten anyone except maybe mollusks like Zebra Mussels, which I sincerely doubt experience the emotion of fear.

As the waves started capping white, I moved further around the edge of the harbour, spotting first a distant Snowy Owl and then another right above the road. Being a fair-weather birder, I pulled well over, flipped the emergency flashers on, and angled so that I could watch and photograph from within the dry warmth of my cocoon. The bird was atop a streetlight that seemed to offer it little to grip, I could see that the blustery wind was making life difficult, so anticipating that it might very soon fly off, I took several shots and readied the camera just in case there would be an in-flight moment. It worked and I pressed the shutter not an instant too soon. (All of the Snowy Owl pictures are in galleries visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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The snowy moved a hundred metres or so to another roadside streetlight and I was able to get a few more shots before it had had enough of me and a couple of photographers who’d stopped to see what the fuss was all about. I regretted, just a little, having drawn this extra attention to it; it seems voyeuristic somehow that this minding-its-own-business-and-trying-to-survive bird of open tundra should attract the pointed attention of camera lenses; or am I being too sensitive?

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Snowy Owl

January 1 2015. Burlington ON.  This New year’s Day was not supposed to be a birding day, I had more pressing matters to deal with.  But then things started happening and well…..

Top priority was fixing, or at very least investigating, a domestic plumbing problem that had caused considerable alarm. The details don’t matter, it’s just that I’d set aside the day to get to the root of the problem and either fix it if I could, or accept that it would probably be an expensive start to the year.

I was in the basement experimenting with various shut-off valves when the phone rang. It was the Owl Foundation asking me if I could drop what I was doing and ferry an injured owl to the TOF’s owl hospital some 60 Km distant. Well, what would you do?

Evidently New Year’s night was quiet enough that a provincial police officer found time to rescue this poor owl from the roadside and take it to our city’s animal control building. Animal Control duly called the Owl Foundation and the Owl Foundation then called me. Plumbing could wait, I collected and delivered the owl and briefly stayed to help and watch.

Removed from the covered cage, we found a two or three year old male Snowy Owl (in plumage rather like the one below). He looked more than a bit battered, his tail feathers and wing edges were quite ragged as if he’d dragged himself around for quite a while. The vet tech checked him over gently; collisions with cars or trucks often cause mortal damage to the head or wing-bone fractures. There were slight traces of blood in one ear but otherwise the head seemed okay. It was his left wing that shocked us. A large area of his primary and secondary flight feathers were badly burned away, leaving a huge semi-circular gap in his wing-spread, enough that rendered flightless he probably crash landed.

How this happened is anyone’s guess. But this is a heavily urbanized area and it seems plausible to me that he flew too low over a flame of some kind; perhaps the waste-gas flare that goes with sewage treatment plants or the chimney of some processing industry. Whatever the source, it’s more than a little alarming to think that what appears to be open skies is in fact dotted with such hideous traps.

We had full control of him as he was examined, given some rehydration and a bit of de-lousing. With heavily gloved hands, I held his densely feathered feet, each large, padded digit, or toe, was perhaps two centimeters long and armed with a thick black claw made for quick piercing kills.

Snowy Owl. Photo by David Syzdek

Snowy Owl. Photo by David Syzdek from WikiCommons

I have examined many birds in the hand, I find all of them are unfailingly fascinating. This Snowy Owl was in some ways just another closely scrutinized bird, but if I have one lasting impression (actually I have too many to recount ) it would be his magnificently luminous eyes: framed within the pure white facial disk, each about a centimeter in diameter with intense chrome yellow irises around deep ink-black pupils.

Snowy Owl - those eyes.  Photo by Schneeeulecele4 from Wiki Commons

Snowy Owl – those eyes. Photo by from Wiki Commons

If ever a small relatively unheralded organisation needed support it would be the Owl Foundation.  Read more about it here and don’t feel embarrassed about sending it a financial donation.

Unless we missed other injuries or damage, his chances of a full recovery are fairly good. He could be released once new flight feathers grow in, this won’t be until summer starts to wane so he will be a captive bird for longer than anyone would wish. But when that time comes, a chain of volunteers will transport him as far north as possible and he’ll be set free with a reminder to watch out for chimneys next time.

And the plumbing problem? It turned out to be relatively benign, but dealing with it took up the rest of the day.

My Bird of the Year 2014

Just in case you were wondering whether I would, I have wasted considerable time this past two weeks deliberating over which, of some 160 birds, was my Bird of the Year in 2014. Could it be: two cute Screech Owls; returning Upland Sandpipers; a Brown Thrasher in full song; Scorching red Scarlet Tanagers; or any one of those exquisite American Bitterns? It was none of them; click this link to find out which.

Great-tailed Grackles. Just entertainment - not a hint.

Great-tailed Grackles. Just entertainment – not a hint.


Roseate Spoonbill

There are lots of photos with this post, all of them in galleries which you can only see if you’re  on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email. And… if you really like bird  pictures, you can see lots more of my Florida shots in their original full size on my Smugmug site, click this link. (You’ll see quite an improvement in detail since they always lose definition in the process of posting them in Bird of the Day)

18 December 2014. Estero Beach, Lee County, Florida.  We set out to walk the length of Estero Beach hoping for some wintering Snowy Plovers. This wave-lapped beach stretches for miles in both directions, it seems to suit people and birds equally well with its seashell littered shoreline, wide expanse of sand-dunes and shallow, back-water lagoons. Along our way we came across several wonderful sightings: A Reddish Egret  with its back turned to a White Ibis and stoically overseeing the comings and goings of wanderers like us; Groups of loitering Wilson’s Plovers and little platoons of Sanderlings wandering around and picking through the white sand.

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Best sighting, and truly a wow moment, was a pair of placid Roseate Spoonbills. While I have seen the European Spoonbill in Holland and had some idea of what to expect, it doesn’t compare to this, its American cousin. The European Spoonbill with its spatulate bill is something of a head-turner, but it’s really just another large, white, heron-like thing standing in the water. Since a picture’s worth a thousand words, I hardly need describe the Roseate Spoonbill. What made these birds special was not only our surprise at finding them, but also the gift of a setting with the dark mangrove background framing these blushing birds. I spent a long time on my knees in the foreground sludge watching and clicking.   Here are a couple of my best shots.

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As I worked, a couple of Dunlin came and settled beside me, it took a bit of effort to tear myself away to get some shots of them too. Any other time, Dunlins would be warmly welcomed, but they had stiff competition. Still, here they are.

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As for the Snowy Plovers, we eventually made our way to where a large group of them were whiling away the winter resting in the soft, white, sun-soaked sands of Florida. Spending their winter days like this they may just be the original Snowbirds, a term now used to describe northerners like us who pay a lot of money for that pleasure.

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22 December 2014. Barefoot Beach, Naples, Florida. This morning we went looking for Black Skimmers.  What a bird! They’re related to gulls and have one of the avian world’s oddest modes of feeding: in full flight, its disproportionately long lower mandible slices or skims the surface of the water to sieve and capture whatever might be there. How it distinguishes between the edible, inedible and trip-hazards I’d love to know, whatever the technique, they seem to make it okay. Below is a photo of a skimming skimmer taken near Cape May earlier this year.

Black Skimmer feeding by skimming

Black Skimmer feeding by skimming

We immediately found a large bunch of Black Skimmers along with a few gulls and terns loafing at the water’s edge, they were very approachable and I could have shot some great portraits had they cooperated.  Most of the skimmers were contentedly dozing, their beaks tucked under-wing, and any that looked up did so only momentarily; I was nowhere near quick enough. My morning’s pleasure though, came from the appreciation of three species of terns: Sandwich Tern, Forster’s Tern and Royal Tern.

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I had never knowingly seen a Sandwich Tern before this week. Had our friend Eric not casually noted one flying past and commented on its black-with-yellow-tip bill, I probably could have easily overlooked the few that were hanging around. The books distinguish Sandwich Terns from Common and Forster’s Terns by subtle clues: their relatively slender wings, long bill, paler grey upperparts and that yellow-tipped bill; not much to go on. It’s a widespread species and apparently gets its name from the town of Sandwich, England where the first specimen was taken (shot). Still, it’s a rather distinguished looking bird even in winter plumage; in breeding plumage the head has a full jet-black cap and a rather rakish crest, a vestige of which is visible in a couple of the shots above.

On the other hand, I have seen and admired Forster’s Terns many times. There’s a large inland marsh about a two-hour drive from home and Forster’s are more or less the default tern there in the summer months. Field guides are somewhat helpful in drawing attention to what they call the breeding adults’ ‘frosty’ wingtips seen when flying. It’s true enough, once you get the hang of it; at least it helps separate them from Common Terns, which are likely to be not far away, Common Terns’ wings look overall rather dark. These photos also show how, at close quarters, the Forster’s Tern’s red feet are very distinctive; another handsome bird.

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Most entertaining were Royal Terns, a few juveniles in particular. There was no shortage of Royal Terns along this stretch of coast, they look and behave very much like our more familiar Caspian Tern; they’re large, can be noisy and have a conspicuously shaggy crest. Last summer’s young are still being cared for by their parents and will remain somewhat dependent on them for another two or three months. One would think that by now they are able to fish for themselves, at least to some extent, but they obviously haven’t given up the expectation of a free handout. We watched a few chicks noisily begging their parent for food using a combination of posture and interminable pleading that few human parents would tolerate for many minutes. The series of shots on the gallery below shows, far more clearly than words can describe, the postures and attitudes of both parent and child, all that’s missing is the wretchedly endless pleading squeals of the youngster.

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This post contains many photos in galleries visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email. You can also view many more of my photos of shorebirds, herons and the like in Florida by clicking on this link.