Blackpoll Warbler

1 October 2014. Cayuga ON.  Our long stretch of Indian Summer was shaken up with a stormy front passing through. It’s still warm but much cooler weather is imminent. The change has apparently reminded migrant birds that it’s time to stop dallying and to get a move on. It produced some interesting birds at the bird observatory.

I did the daily census, which was rather quiet, the number of species (21) was okay but numbers of individuals were low. The highlight of the census may have been a patrolling Belted Kingfisher working the far shore of the river. I was also grateful for a heard but unseen Common Yellowthroat who started singing its signature “witchety–witchety” song for the benefit of a visitor, just as I had finished describing it to her.

Birds of the Day came right at the end when we captured and banded two Blackpoll Warblers. Blackpoll Warblers can be tricky to identify in fall, the conspicuous black and white dress of spring, moults to a rather non-descript, easily confusable, olive green and muddy white with wingbars. Here are a couple of photos to illustrate the contrast.

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The Blackpolls weren’t the only warblers today, we’d also seen Black-throated Green and Black-throated Blues, an American Redstart and a Pine Warbler. A little more about the Pine and the Blackpoll Warblers is justified because both generated a lot of discussion and interest.

The Pine Warbler because it took a while to identify, perhaps because we don’t see them often. They are, as their name suggests, a bird that favours pines, and the observatory is surrounded by hardwood forest. Below is a photo of another Pine Warbler taken a year ago, probably a mature male showing all field marks. The one we handled today was a young female with absolutely none of the bright yellow about it. It was a very drab muted olive-yellow below, its back grayish brown, the wing-bars very subdued, the partial eye-ring whitish and that little line above and between the beak and the eye almost invisible. Even Rick, who knows his birds better than almost anyone I’ve met, was hard pushed to identify it, spending some time scouring the pages of the Peterson Field Guide to Warblers looking for a likely match.

Pine warbler

Pine warbler

Blackpoll Warblers are wonderful little birds with one of the nature’s best migration stories. They breed across the northern coniferous forests of Alaska and Canada where the dense forests give way to tundra; a very long way north of us. But their fall migration is an epic journey in which the mortality rate must surely be very high. After making the mind-bendingly long trip from the tundra (from as far as Alaska remember) to the softness of America’s eastern seaboard, they launch themselves south and east, out over the Atlantic. They fly endlessly, navigating by systems that we can barely comprehend, until they reach the north-east trade winds which blow them back to a landfall in Puerto Rico, the Lesser Antilles, or northern South America; a journey of up to 3,000 Km., or as much as ninety hours, non-stop. To survive they need a lot of luck and all of the gods on their side, they must: avoid predators like domestic cats, Merlins or Sharp-shinned Hawks: be in top physical condition; and have sufficient fuel on board to carry them on that open Atlantic stage for the best part of four days. (I don’t know what you were doing four days ago, but for me, the idea of a non-stop, foodless trot since Sunday’s Blue-headed Vireo encounter, (my previous post), is incomprehensible.)

The two Blackpoll Warblers we banded today were carrying large amounts of fat as fuel for the ultra marathon ahead. They each weighed about 22 g, double a more typical spring and summer weight of 10 to 12 g. Birds store fat in the avian equivalent of the hollow you and I have between our collarbones (just below our throat), under their wings (our armpits) and lower belly; all of these areas were bulging full. They even felt plump in the hand as we banded and measured them. Once banded, measured, aged, sexed and weighed we released them with our fervent best wishes for a safe passage.

Blue-headed Vireo

28 September 2014. Burlington ON.  I wonder when Indian Summer will become an inappropriate phrase.  Can’t be long!  As it is right now, my only concern about these glorious early fall days is the easy birding. It’s hard to beat T-shirt weather and a steady flow of interesting migrants.

This morning, I led a small group looking for birds in some interesting and varied habitat. We started out walking down into a wooded valley, spent some time watching over a large, cattail encircled pond and ended up strolling a creek-side trail. It was all very nice.

My Bird of the Day came early, it may in fact have been the very first bird seen, a Blue-headed Vireo. Those who follows my postings (is there anyone that compulsive?) will perhaps remember that I speak highly of vireos in general. We see five vireo species in Ontario, all of them summer visitors, only here to breed. Red-eyed, Warbling and Yellow-throated Vireos breed around here but not the Blue-headed or the Philadelphia Vireos, they both prefer the coniferous forests further north. I don’t ever recall enjoying lingering looks at a free-flying Blue-headed Vireo, they always seem to be on the move; today’s was like that. It first caught my attention when I heard its unfamiliar song, I was certainly puzzled, but with a bit of persistence tracing the song we found the bird and were allowed a couple of ‘now you see me now you don’t’ looks, enough to make an identification. Then it was gone. Most of our group missed it and it was probably only my excitement that was memorable. These photos shows how handsome Blue-headed Vireos are (at least I think so).

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Also for your enjoyment, a couple of shots of other vireo species: A Yellow-throated and a Philadelphia. The spectacles on the yellow-throated making it look a little like the Blue-headed. Note the business-like tip of its beak.

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The rest of our walk turned up several interesting birds: A single Sharp-shinned Hawk apparently consorting amiably with a small flock of Blue Jays; We heard but couldn’t find an Eastern Towhee and were amused by a deranged female Wood Duck which seems to have learned to beg food from passers-by. Perhaps its formative months were spent at a marina or urban park where the lines between humans and wildlife sometimes blur; I wonder how and where it will spend the winter and how dependant it is on hand-outs.

European Starlings

European Starlings

And finally, while it’s often hard to have much good to say about European Starlings, these two in their new feathers look quite fetching. The light tips of the feathers will wear off over winter; after which they’ll be just starlings again.

Blackbirds

26 September 2014. Cayuga ON. For reasons that will likely remain a mystery, the beautiful, Indian Summer weather of the past 24 hours resulted on a paltry collection of bird species, yet two days ago, under the same weather conditions, the birding was exceptional. Doing the daily census today, I found a scant fifteen species; two days ago thirty-four. All part of the mystery that makes this such an interesting study I suppose.

Far and away the best sighting of the morning was enormous flocks of blackbirds; they seemed to comprise equal numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles, but it is quite possible there were a few European Starlings or some Rusty Blackbirds mixed in; it was impossible to tell. I came upon the flocks while doing the census, I heard their racket long before I saw the birds. Racket, din or cacophony, any of those would fit, it’s not that the volume was high, it was just the overwhelming sensation of a sky-high wall of chatter. How many birds were there I have no idea, I wrote down 2,000 Red-winged Blackbirds and 2,000 Common Grackles, but it could quite posibly have been twice that number; or just as easily half. They filled the branches of several large riverside oak and hackberry trees, gossiping, sallying out for a quick fly-around or just slipping over to visit friends until, for who knows what reason, they decided it was time to move on. In my diary I wrote: “They left in chattering streams heading over the mansion and away. They seemed to suck all the life out of the census round”. They were Birds of the Day; sheer numbers have it.

A trifling few of the blackbirds.  Mostly Common Grackles in this shot

A trifling few of the blackbirds. Mostly Common Grackles in this shot

Had I not encountered the blackbirds I think a young male Northern Parula that we banded would have stolen my heart. Parulas have an appeal built on downright prettiness, it’s not that they’re rare, not especially anyway. But seeing one is always a rare treat. And then again, the first White-throated Sparrows of fall are quite captivating too, and we saw and banded several. Again, it’s not that they’re rare, they pass through each spring and fall, heading to cooler boggy areas in which to breed. (In fact, there are a few breeding pairs just 50 Km. north of the bird observatory but in dark bogs and swampy woodlands; almost a world away.) White-throated Sparrows have an appeal built on their, at times, elusive nature poking around in the understory but then a quite compliant, almost resigned, attitude once caught in a mist net and banded. Pretty too. Here’s a couple of photos of White-throated Sparrows from previous encounters.

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

22 September 2014. Cayuga ON. It’s a pet peeve of mine that ‘people’ talk about the “official’ beginning or end of a season. According to these pedants, yesterday the 21st of September, was the end of summer and today the official start of fall; such hogwash! Firstly, in my book, summer is when the weather is nice and warm, winter when it’s cold, spring is when things start to grow again and autumn is when it turns cold and the leaves drop. Secondly, here in the mid latitudes (we’re at 43 degrees north) the seasons can, I admit, reasonably be parceled into 3-month blocks lying between the defined solstice and equinox dates; but if you live in Reykjavik, Louisiana, or Tokyo for that matter, it’s a different matter.

Well, while that was all a rant of little consequence, it’s worth noting that the birds migrate when the time is right. Whether they respond to daylight length, the presence or absence of a certain food or the first snow squalls, who really knows. At the bird observatory we see many species pass through in determinable sequential waves and they never seem to pay any heed to anyone’s official dates, they have their own rhythms.

In the past few days, we’ve seen the odd Broad-winged Hawk pass overhead, the stragglers of a wave of perhaps a quarter of a million that surged through southern Ontario ten days ago, effectively a concentrated wave passing through and now gone south for the winter. Today I encountered the first few White-throated Sparrows of fall, a female Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a Slate-coloured Junco, each the advance guard of waves yet to come and go. It’s all a bit like the water draining out of a bath.

I don’t mean to sound dreary even though today’s Bird of the Day, a young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, was well, drab. Funny thing about sapsuckers is their rather shambolic dress. Whoever dresses them needs to pay more attention to style, coordination and colour accents. As it is, they look rather like a down-on-his-luck widower who’s never sure where he keeps his shirts or socks. Still, despite having no clothes sense, and tending towards reclusiveness they are pretty wonderful birds. I mean, a large part of their diet comprises insects drawn to the sticky secretions of sap around holes that the birds themselves make in the bark of trees; how clever. I got to handle and band today’s young sapsucker and it was, I think, something of a privilege. It certainly knows how to use its feet to hold on tight, and that beak means business. Here area few photos of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers taken at different times and places.

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Chestnut-sided Warbler

18 September 2014. Burlington ON. Through an organization to which I belong, I recently offered to lead birding trips for anyone interested. I know there are many who’d like to learn more about birds, but getting started seems to be daunting.

Today I had just one person join me on a pleasant walk around; we had a very rewarding three hours. The splendour of a male Northern Cardinal or Wood Duck never lessens but it’s nice to share the appreciation with someone who’s really seeing it for the first time. I suspect my discussions on the finer points of Trumpeter Swans (versus Tundra and Mute Swans) and the key identification points on a Gray Catbird or Green-winged Teal in eclipse plumage (as against nearby Mallards) may need revisiting; but never mind, we both enjoyed it. I noted that we saw about thirty species including a pair of adult Bald Eagles passing overhead and a Green Heron stalking minnows.

We stopped along a boardwalk where birds suddenly started popping up. I have to admit that many of those fleeting glimpses left me mumbling ‘Not sure.” But I captured a lucky and actually very nice photo of one, which had caused me quite a bit of head-scratching. I’m not ashamed to acknowledge that my first quick-glance impression was that it was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet; except that the overall colour was wrong and it’s a little early to see them on their fall migration, October is a better time.

Chestnut-sided Warbler (juv. female)

Chestnut-sided Warbler (juv. female)

But my lucky photo (above) was a dignity-saver. It is a hatch-year, female Chestnut-sided Warbler. The vivid yellow-green on its back is diagnostic and if you compare it to the youngish male below, photographed in May 2012, it’s a bit of a stretch to tie the two together as the same species.  (The male was probably in its first spring, the chestnut extends further down the flanks in older birds.)

Chestnut-sided Warbler. (adult male photographed in May 2012)

Chestnut-sided Warbler. (adult male photographed in May 2012)

I remember seeing and being puzzled by a young female Chestnut-sided some years ago, but while there’s always something to learn, it’s also too easily forgotten.

Birding in Andalucia, Spain

I have just posted an account of my birding experiences earlier this month in Spain.  I am still working on some of the identification challenges; it’s one thing, in the heat of the moment, to photograph a bird and quite another to remember what it was afterwards.  Anyway, click on this link for the almost-full story.

Griff

Griff

Common Yellowthroat

17 September 2014. Cayuga ON. This must be a quick post, I’ve got far too much to do. But, today at the bird observatory I did the daily census as usual. It was a perfect, very late summer morning; coolish and dewy. Not many birds around for quite a while but at one corner I evidently intruded on the tranquility of family life for some Common Yellowthroats. They are common enough (as their name suggests) but that doesn’t distract in the slightest from their striking looks and endearing character. An on-territory male will always flit out to see what you’re up to and, with mild provocation, will click and chip at you for a minute or so while remaining almost out of sight. They rarely show themselves for more than a very few of seconds so they’re hard to photograph. However this morning one of this family group popped out to see what the fuss was all about (nothing really, just me walking by) and perhaps seeing nothing of particular interest just stayed where it was and allowed me to take a few pictures. For being so obligingly photogenic, it was my Bird of the Day.

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

We encountered many lovely migrants today; many warbler species: Magnolia, Chestnut–sided, Black-throated Green, Wilson’s and Blackpoll Warblers. Some of my favourites: Warbling, Philadelphia, Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos and a few Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes. It was all very nice; about as good as it gets. Oh, and these two Song Sparrows were kind of charming

Two Song Sparrows

Two Song Sparrows

Scarlet Tanager

15 September 2014. Cayuga ON. Last year, around this time, while doing the daily census at the bird observatory, I took long-distance photos of a couple of mystery birds. They were both high up and hard to get really good looks at. Still my photos were passable so I posted them on a local birding site and asked for others’ opinions. The consensus was that they were both of Scarlet Tanagers, either males in non-breeding plumage, or females, or juveniles. You see, while identifying and appreciating a male Scarlet Tanager in May or June is easy, the same cannot be said for late summer and fall when all of that glorious red-hot scarlet has given way to a drab olive green; now the males look like the females and juveniles. Here’s a couple of shots to illustrate.

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Today, I spent the morning at the bird observatory and, as usual, undertook the daily census walk. It’s a hike of a kilometer or so around a prescribed route of various habitats, the task is to record all birds seen and heard. The hike is almost always rewarding and often surprising; only once or twice in the many years I’ve been doing the census have I not enjoyed it and those were only days when it was really miserably cold. The census today turned up a good variety of species including a couple of Black-throated Green Warblers and a Chestnut-sided Warbler, I heard Warbling and Yellow-throated Vireos and saw a couple of Red-eyed Vireos too, all of these birds are heading south, well south, for the winter. I caught sight of a Scarlet Tanager and knew it for what it was, it may be a drab greenish colour, but it’s profile is unmistakable.

In the high tops of some Black Walnut trees I found an Eastern Wood Peewee which was fly-catching and feeding a juvenile. This food dependency by the youngster struck me as very late, but according to the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, 2001-2005, egg laying continues into mid August so, allowing three to four weeks for incubation and fledging, it’s perfectly plausible; there’s always something new to learn.

Anyway, back to Bird of the Day. Also high in the tree tops was a yellowish-green bird actively preening itself. It hurt my neck trying to hold still and watch it, my inclination was that I was watching a Yellow-throated Vireo, a choice that was reinforced by the call of another one off to my left. I used my camera to get several shots of it and thought that I could comfortably double-check my identification a little later, somewhere less awkward and involving less neck pain. Identification from below can be a challenge. Well, the upshot of all of this is that, on reviewing the pictures, it became clear that it was not a Yellow-throated Vireo at all (and photographing thank goodness) but rather another Scarlet Tanager, probably a female. The rather stout beak, a slight fork in the tail and the extent of yellow underneath from throat to tail were indicative. The yellow on the underside of a Yellow-throated Vireo is limited to its breast, and then it’s white from belly to tail. As I said above, there’s always something new to learn and for the instructive moment the tanager was my Bird of the Day.

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Above is a series of those photos of it preening. It was some fifty feet above me and hardly ever still, I had hoped to capture at least one good full headshot but it turned away every time just as I pressed the shutter.

Stone Curlew

7 September 2014. Fuente de Piedra, Spain. Stone Curlews are not especially uncommon birds, not to birders in Spain anyway. But today I spotted one under what to me seemed the most unlikely circumstances. I was part of a small group under the capable and entertaining leadership of Bob Buckler visiting various good inland birding sites. We were coming to the end of a full day and driving through a red-earth olive orchard, a monotonous mono-culture of identical trees set in geometrically precise ranks. I was staring out the window looking at the ground hoping for Hoopoes when I caught a momentary (less than one second, I’m sure) view of a wide-eyed, cartoonish face that I instantly recognised but whose name I couldn’t place. I yelled at Bob to stop the bus, claiming a Cream-colored Courser, which was quite wrong (although not too far off). Sensing my urgency Bob humoured me, stood on the brakes and backed up. The bird flew as soon as it saw us return, fortunately others glimpsed it sufficiently to dispel any suggestion that I was hallucinating, although I missed it this time. But what amazes me is first, that I saw it at all and second, that I recognized the face (if not the name).

Stone-curlew in Lanzarote. Photo by Frank Vassen

Stone-curlew in Lanzarote. Photo by Frank Vassen

For obvious reasons, I did not get a photo of this bird but I’ve managed to find a couple of freely available shots on Wikimedia Commons. I described the face as cartoonish and the more I look at it the more I think it looks like Lisa Simpson, and if that name is meaningless to you, click this link for more. I was telling my son about this encounter and showed him the lower photo, he immediately recognized it as the bird that screams hideously and scares the slumbering daylights out of campers in Queensland Australia. (Actually it’s not the same species, he had encountered Bush Stone-curlews, but there is a very strong family likeness.)

Stone-curlew portrait by Pellinger Atilla.

Stone-curlew portrait by Pellinger Atilla.

There were many other great sightings that day. We started early at a dusty off-road track with a couple of juvenile Rock Thrushes. To Bob-the-leader they were a sensational find and although rather distant, Bob managed to get some good pictures. At that same site we found Blue Rock Thrushes, Thekla Larks, and Black-collared Wheatears all wonderful birds and new to me.

Young Rock Thrush.

Young Rock Thrush. Photo by Bob Buckler

Rock Thrush

Rock Thrush, Photo by Bob Buckler

Frankly the Stone Curlew didn’t really impress the others all that much. I guess it was the novelty and improbability of the sighting that appealed to me and made it my Bird of the Day. Bob’s choice was the Rock Thrushes but I’d say a Whinchat, a handful of Greater Flamingos and a bunch of Griffon Vultures were pretty good too. Here is a gallery of shots from that day.

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(Visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

Red-necked Nightjar

8 September 2014. La Janda, Cadiz, Spain. On this, the last day of my week in Spain, I was one of a small group of bird enthusiasts under the cheerful leadership of Bob Buckler, a British ex-pat and birder of infinite experience. Bob took us to places along the coast west of Gibraltar, places that Bob knows well enough to deliver surprise after surprise.

We spent most of the morning at a couple of strategic raptor-watching spots and saturated ourselves with passing streams of Honey Buzzards, Short-toed Eagles and Booted Eagles. They were a sort of supporting act because every now and then something new like a Peregrine Falcon, Long-legged Buzzard or Montague’s Harrier showed up to assure us that this was time well spent.

Later, we moved along the coast to La Janda, a large expanse of what was at one time a vast, shallow, fresh-water lagoon. For thousands of years it must have been an exceptional place for bird life but in the sixties, alas, it was drained to make room for rice, maize and cotton. It’s still a good birding spot but you spend a lot of time looking for good birds whilst driving along numbingly straight roads that stretch to the horizon.  The birds were there sure enough; White Storks in ranks of hundreds, Marsh Harriers patrolling and Little Egrets stalking.

But the best at La Janda, and certainly my Bird of the Day, was a secretive Red-necked Nightjar. I say secretive, but that’s not quite accurate, nightjars are birds of the dusk to dawn hours, so it might be fairer to say it was just roosting. Nevertheless, nightjars are also masters of cryptic colouration and the one in the picture below was completely invisible to one member of our group.Red-necked Nightjar

They are strange looking birds to be sure (not the only one though, as the picture of some Bald Ibises in the gallery below demonstrates), and have evolved as nocturnal hunters of flying insects. The bristles surrounding its mouth serve to help scoop and trap a captive moth and also to protect the nightjar’s eyes from a flailing victim. The camouflage patterning is nothing short of incredible, whether all individuals have the same feather-for-feather detail, I don’t know, but, from where I stood watching this unmoving bird, I could have sworn that one of its feathers really was a dry leaf.

There was plenty more on this day out (actually about 60 species) and a few of them are in this gallery (which visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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