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?
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.
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.