Merlin

30 November 2015. Queen Elizabeth Way, Mississauga, ON. It’s been a while since I needed birding to get away from a tedious day of work; indeed it’s been a while since I held a steady job at all. But a friend offered me casual work, one day per week, delivering product to various customers in and around the city of Toronto. I’ve been doing it for three months now; I manage.

Mid-morning today, perched high above ordinary car traffic at the wheel of the largest truck my ‘G’ license allows me to drive, I was plodding along with the flow of city-bound traffic. I noted several Red-tailed Hawks: two were soaring in circles over a major interchange and others had moved into position as sentinels along our highways. In a way, they are the truck traffic among birds, heavy, deliberate and conspicuous; you wouldn’t want to be hit by a Red-tailed Hawk.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Thirty minutes into my journey and moving steadily with the flow of traffic, I glanced to my right at an uphill on-ramp delivering new traffic into our stream. A white something-or-other car was closing in about to join us, and then, going the other way a falcon flicked past on easy wing-beats. Just a fleeting glimpse, but enough to know it was a Merlin: too small, too brown and too much of a sprinter to be a Peregrine Falcon; too direct and purposeful to be an American Kestrel. This little sports car of a bird defying the rules of traffic added a defiant “See ya!” zip to the ordered progression of highway manners. Merlins, by the way, make flying look easy.

Merlin

Merlin

Wrens

27 November 2015. Hendrie Valley, Burlington ON. The inspiration for My Bird of the Day is the bird which, no matter how dismal the day, how slim the pickings, makes me say wow! There always one that makes the day.

Today it was an unexpected trio: a House Wren, a Carolina Wren and finally a Winter Wren, all at the same place and time. That sort of happy conjunction doesn’t happen very often. I remember some ten or maybe fifteen years ago having all seven of our woodpecker species in sight at the same time. It was early fall as I recall and taken individually all were more or less to be expected sightings. Today’s three wrens were a different matter, only the Carolina Wren could reasonably be anticipated.

Male Mallard

Male Mallard

The day was unusually warm but as I went about my census walk there was rain on its way. It started falling gently as I was finishing up but most of the walk was dry and for a while all was quiet. Good old Mallards, fifty of them, were milling around in the shallow woodland ponds and connecting watercourses. A lovely dark brown Mink was watching three of them closely. I have no doubt the Mink would make short work of a Mallard if it got the chance, this one seemed to be weighing up the risks of staying around in the hope of duck dinner against any potential threat my arrival posed.

Mink

Mink

I sometimes wonder what to make of my six-and-a-bit-decade ears. As I walk these census rounds I hear, or think I hear, little high-frequency squeaks and chips that are impossible to pinpoint. I wonder am I nearly-hearing Brown Creepers above and around me, or is it just unseen chickadees?  Brown Creepers are a possibility but much of their song is out of my range and I was lucky enough to see three of them this morning.

It was during a hard-listening pause as I was trying to decide whether I was hearing something or nothing that things changed. I picked up a distant rasping chip, it sounded like a Song Sparrow (but unlikely I thought, they should have headed south a couple of weeks ago). I caught a far-off sibilant ’chack’ of a Red-bellied Woodpecker, then the maybe-Song-Sparrow again, now a Blue Jay scream or two. These, and more started to sound like alarm notes and when that happens, I look for a predator menace: a Coyote, an owl or a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawk perhaps. With that a Red-tailed Hawk drifted past and settled high in a leafless White Oak tree; now I understood.

But that minor disturbance seemed to have been a wake-up call and there were now birds all around. Perhaps my hearing had switched on, or was I a new menace? I heard a few short, mechanical ‘bzzzt’ from deep in the dogwood tangle, it turned out to belong to a curious House Wren who had come to inspect me; I was surprised, almost shocked; it should have flown south long ago. I gave it an asterisk in my field book – bird of the day. A Song Sparrow appeared in front of me, and then another, so there are a few lingerers. A couple of American Tree Sparrows and a Dark-eyed Junco joined in the fun, and then off to the right a Carolina Wren started a musical purring. The piece de resistance was the cameo appearance of a Winter Wren who watched me for a second or two and then vanished into the deep undergrowth tangles. As I stood a little bemused at this late autumn richness, the Winter Wren sang its musical cascade of little notes from not far away.

Winter Wren

Winter Wren

This is perhaps a long account of what, at another time of year, would be just another day in the field. But I was thrilled to have had three wren species in front of me at once, and the appearances of the Song Sparrow was a bit of a surprise too. It makes me wonder if this little corner will turn out to harbour a number of out-of-the-ordinary winter birds. It’s an area of open water, pond margins, cattail marsh, thick deep grasses and woodland undergrowth; all of which amounts to shelter, food and survival. I’ll be watching closely.

Green-winged Teal

18 November 2015. Valley Inn Burlington/Hamilton, ON. The day didn’t allow much time for birding but I squeezed in two passing scans of likely sites. The first, a harbour-side park, produced a beautiful close encounter with a Carolina Wren and as I readied my camera a strolling passerby sent it scurrying for cover; that’s just the way it goes. My second stop produced close looks at this rather fine male Green-winged Teal. Although not apparent from my photos, Green-winged Teals are quite small ducks, when seen mingling with Mallards they appear to be half the size. Indeed according to the Sibley Guide to the Birds, a Mallard weighs in at around 1100 grams and a Green-winged Teal at 350 grams, a third of the weight.Green-winged Teal. Valley Inn

The markings of the adult male, from the delicate grey striations of its flanks to the bold bottle green backstrap on its chestnut head; make it well worth taking a few minutes to appreciate.Green-winged Teal. Valley Inn-2

Belted Kingfisher

14 November 2015. Hendrie Valley, Burlington ON. This time last year the first snows fell, while it didn’t last long it ushered in a very cold winter. In contrast, today was not especially cold and there is a forecast for some balmy days ahead. I completed a census in Hendrie Valley and was struck by the quietness of the place. Just a month ago it was a birder’s challenge but the stiff broom of November has swept away almost everything.

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

I walked my circuit rather dismayed at the paucity of birds. When winter really takes hold I expect the few birds that remain to become more apparent as they become increasingly dependent on families with children coming to feed them. Indeed at almost any time of year the resident Black-capped Chickadees are extremely bold and many times a chickadee will land on my writing hand as I add entries to my field notebook. Today I counted more than thirty chickadees and for every three or four there’s an almost-as-bold White-breasted Nuthatch not far away.

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

I wouldn’t say that I trudged around, that would imply that the circuit was burdensome and it was far from that, but it did lack sparkle. There were Blue Jays shrieking at imagined injustices, a couple of Carolina Wrens purring to mark their place in the order of things and several Mallards gossiping quietly in the tree-enclosed ponds.

The wow moment came when I heard the rattle call of a Belted Kingfisher and caught a fleeting sight of him flying upstream. I was surprised that he was still around, although perhaps I shouldn’t be for as long as there’s open water there will be fish to catch.

Hooded Mergansers

Hooded Mergansers

A little later I stopped at a large sprawling and somewhat shabby pond where I was pleased to find twenty or thirty Hooded Mergansers, males and females. They are late migrants and will continue heading south until they are out of reach of possible freeze-up. They were just milling around in little bands, padding nervously to avoid any movement or noise that seemed out of place; first one way then another.

Fox Sparrow

 

7 November 2015. Hendrie Valley, Burlington ON. My Bird of the Day today was a Fox Sparrow found almost at the start of my census walk, but it had a good run for its money later in the morning from an Eastern Screech Owl. The Fox Sparrow was scratching for seed among the fallen leaves along with a small group of Dark-eyed Juncos. If it can be said that any sparrow is gorgeous, then it surely applies to a Fox Sparrow. Wher most sparrows are any shade of brown: crown, cheeks, back, wings and tail, Fox Sparrows are a rich rufous brown – like a fox; even the usual breast spots and streaks are rich, bold and almost showy.

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Fox Sparrow. Hendrie Valley Nov 7 2015.-2

Fox Sparrow.

The census included a small but nevertheless satisfying selection including: a small flight of American Robins, Black-capped Chickadees by the dozen, four lingering White-throated Sparrows, a Belted Kingfisher and a handful of Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

DSCN0463

Red-bellied Woodpecker

I often refer to doing a census, so it’s perhaps worth some explanation. The purpose of regular censuses is to build a large body of data to reveal and maybe understand long-term population trends. The count from any one day taken on its own is of little consequence, except perhaps when something special turns up, in which case well, you’ve got a noteworthy bird record. But with ten years and more of accumulated census data you can start to see development of population trends. Clearly a census project is of increasing value the longer it continues.

This year at the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) in Hamilton and Burlington, Ontario, we have started such a bird population study by completing censuses at least three times per week over the four spring and fall months: April and May, and September and October. Each census walk is completed along a defined route in areas of great habitat diversity; our task is to count all birds seen and heard. (Find out more by clicking on this link)

Apart from the RBG project, I have for many years been volunteering at a bird observatory at Ruthven Park in Cayuga, Ontario. Whenever I’m there I usually complete the daily census. Ruthven’s observatory (more here) operates daily in those same four months and has done so for two decades, its census protocol is the model for the new RBG project.

Conducting a census sharpens my birding skills, I get to know and anticipate individual birds or pairs and it broadens my appreciation and understanding of the natural world; need I add that I love it?

But back to today. Heading home after my census, I stopped at a marina to see if there were any, or many, newly arrived winter ducks on the large industrial harbour that defines our area. As I arrived I saw a group of Saturday strollers staring at something several feet up into a rather forlorn willow. Right away I knew what had got their attention; an Eastern Screech Owl.

Eastern Screech owl

Eastern Screech owl

For the cold months of the year, Screech Owls seek the shelter of a south or west-facing cavity, usually a hole in a tree but sometimes a nest box. When the sun shines, or maybe just when they feel like it, the birds sit up at the entrance, eyes closed to a slit, and while away the day. Shortly after sunset they leave the hole to do what owls do at night and return to their hideout just before sunrise. During spring and summer months, other than using a suitable cavity as a nest site, they are content to spend their daylight hours hidden in the thickness of trees.

My early Fox Sparrow had stolen the day but this afterthought Eastern Screech Owl was a special treat.

American Tree Sparrow

1 November 2015 Bronte Provincial Park, Oakville ON. For several decades our local naturalists’ club has been running a Fall Bird Count on the first Sunday in November. My participation has been intermittent but this year I offered to join a group who cover a large count territory not far from home. I was co-counter with Andrew, a young, sharp-eyed and sharp-eared man with a keen passion for adding birds to his lists. He had just returned from a five-hour-each-way trip to Ottawa to see a Pink-footed Goose. Not the way I enjoy the study of birds but each to their own.

We started our morning at a rough and ready parking area to the north of a large expanse of dry and unkempt (and therefore attractive to all wildlife) fields. We were scarcely out of the car when he called out “American Tree Sparrow”. That really caught my attention (and became instant Bird of the Day) because I’ve been watching for them for a couple of weeks, wondering when they’ll be back. They are endearing little winter visitors almost identical in plumage to Field Sparrows, a summer visitor. Last spring I observed that no sooner had winter’s American Tree Sparrows left for their northern breeding grounds than the Field Sparrows arrived to take their place.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

There were dozens of tree sparrows here along with a handful of American Gold Finches, House Finches and a White-crowned Sparrow working over a weedy and seedy bank; a good start to our count exercise.

We spent the better part of three hours wandering around the fields, hedgerows and various bordering plantations and woods. I suppose it was about as good as November birding can get, not particularly remarkable, no rarities but plenty to see: There were massive swirling flocks of European Starlings, we estimated 560; widespread groups of American Robins; an American Kestrel and a few straggling Turkey Vultures.

Last Turkey Vultures of the fall on their way.

Last Turkey Vultures of the fall on their way.

With few exceptions, we were seeing what amounts to the birds of the winter ahead. This is not necessarily their stopping place, many will continue to move southward and others will arrive from further north. Numbers will thin out, but almost anything seen today is likely to be findable anytime in the winter months.

Pine Siskins

29 October 2015 Hendrie Valley, Burlington ON. A few days ago a giant storm, Hurricane Patricia, emerged from the eastern Pacific Ocean to make landfall along the west coast of Mexico. There were dire warnings that this, by far the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the western world, would lay waste to vast areas of Mexico. We held our breath for all the poor souls in lightweight homes but in the end the hurricane was merciful and damage was lighter than feared. Then Patricia continued on along a track to the north and east, drenching Texas as she went and us as almost her last gasp. So yesterday we had a full twenty-four hours of steady, sometimes torrential, rains. Today, winds blew at storm force all day long; presumably air rushing to ease Patricia’s low-pressure heart.

I ventured out to do a census expecting the valley to be relatively tranquil, and it was. Trees around the perimeter were roaring and tugging and the sky was full of flying-things-not-birds. My ninety-minute census was pleasantly varied and included a male Belted Kingfisher, a Rusty Blackbird, six Purple Finches, a Fox Sparrow and a Brown Creeper.  Here’s some of them in a slideshow gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

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Pine Siskin 17 Oct 2012

Pine Siskin 17 Oct 2012

I was quite happy with the birds I’d seen, it spoke of the decline of fall and I had enjoyed the drama of the surrounding storm. I think three Pine Siskins were almost my last sightings, I heard them chattering to each other in their almost inaudible squeaks (tsee-wee, tseee tseee tseee) in the very top of a Yellow Birch where they were working over the seed cones. Content though I was with the kingfisher, the Brown Creeper and all the rest, the siskins were my Birds of the Day.

Pine Siskin 17 Oct 2012

Pine Siskin 17 Oct 2012

We describe Pine Siskins as winter finches; they breed much farther north of here in the land of pine and spruce. It’s only when there’s poor pinecone crop that they are prompted to move south this early. Tempting though it may be to see them as precursors of more winter finches, the factors driving their winter wanderings are many. It may happen, it may not.

Carolina Wren

26 October 2015. Downtown Burlington ON. The vanishing of our birds has become increasingly noticeable in the past week or two; as the leaves fall so the birds leave town. I have conducted a few routine censuses recently, each one turning up fewer birds than the previous, but always with a highlight: A singing Purple Finch that baffled me for a while. I thought it was a Blue-headed Vireo, their songs are vaguely similar; A Fox Sparrow seen briefly as it darted into a thicket of dogwoods, allowing just a fleeting glimpse of the intense rust-red of its back and wings. Both of these species are late fall migrants; it’s their job to turn out the lights when they leave.

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The four seasons in our temperate climate stand in clear contrast to each other. In the garden this is the season to clear away the exhausted, the depleted and the frost-bitten. We don’t have a compost pile, our garden debris is taken and composted by the city, but I’d rather not dispose of plants that still have seed heads. Instead I gather and tie sheaves of exhausted Woodland Sunflowers, Echinacea and Phlox and pile them in a quiet corner where birds, and probably rodents too, can find shelter and food for days and weeks to come. I’ve always hoped these piles serve their supposed purpose but had no sure way of knowing. But this morning when I looked out, I saw a small dark bird making its way down and around an old wooden barrel and into the pile. I reached for my binoculars and a few minutes later an alert Carolina Wren appeared, perching prominently on top of one of the sheaves and showing clearly the its rich brown plumage, pale eye-stripe and pale throat. Moments later I spotted a companion bird and since Carolina Wrens stay paired up all year, it was probably its mate.

Carolina Wren in greenhouse

Carolina Wren in greenhouse

We’ve had a pair (I assume) of breeding Carolina Wrens in the neighbourhood all summer, more often heard than seen. Now, of course I hope my pile of garden debris will continue to attract them through the winter.

Blue-headed Vireo

16 October 2015. Ruthven park, Cayuga ON. I know that it’s only been a couple of weeks since I last celebrated a Blue-headed Vireo. But I can’t help it if one turns up to delight me. Today I spent a couple of hours at the bird observatory and while there found this beautiful Blue-headed Vireo in one of the mist nets. It was my pleasure to gently remove it, measure and weigh it, band it and photograph it. Here it is. Bird of the Day.Blue-headed Vireo,. RP 16 Oct 2015 Blue-headed Vireo.. RP 16 Oct 2015

And, oh yes there were other nice encounters. At the bird observatory: a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds, a couple of Hermit Thrushes and half a dozen Eastern Bluebirds. Elsewhere: five-hundred, maybe a thousand, Ruddy Ducks, a hundred Bonaparte’s Gulls, a couple of late Barn Swallows, a trio of Tree Swallows and ten or fifteen American Pipits. All nice birds; but against a Blue-headed Vireo they had no chance.

Solitary Sandpiper

15 October 2015. Valley Inn Burlington / Hamilton, ON. At the edge of town there is a once-busy but now tired corner called Valley Inn. It used to have all the importance and trappings of a regional crossroad (including an inn), but that was well over a hundred years ago. Now it’s an area of underused and closed roads flanked by a major rail line and interlaced with the estuary of a minor river, and remote shallow reaches of the harbour. When you’re there you can understand its once-importance but the inn is long gone and the sole remaining house is in a desperate state of repair; it’s all a bit seedy. Except to fish, count trains or watch birds there are few reasons to go to Valley Inn. But I was there today and found a Solitary Sandpiper, not an especially unusual bird, but a small a group of us spent quite a bit of time admiring and photographing it.

I had wrapped up a long walk to some distant mudflats in hope of well, anything. Perhaps it was the gusty westerly winds, I don’t know, but it seemed as if all the birds had blown away. I kept looking skywards because when the autumn turns cool and the wind blows anywhere out of the west to north quadrant, that’s when the eagles, hawks, falcons take flight. The odd Sharp-shinned or Red-tailed Hawks drifted by, but there was no suggestion of purpose in them. A decent sized group of Turkey Vultures though seemed to be following some kind of invisible west-bound pathway, so I decided to park at Valley Inn as a likely spot to watch for more.

It was a little dull until someone pointed out a couple of small shorebirds working the muddy margins. I knew right away by the rather long downward-drooping bills that they were Dunlins. But then I started questioning myself. Why had I jumped to a conclusion? Other than their bills, they looked only similar to the Dunlins I’d seen in May. So biting back my hasty identification, I settled in to watch and examine them a bit more closely.

They were overall grayish though quite a bit lighter below and they were probing the mud deeply and rhythmically. Did that make them Dunlins? Or how about something less familiar? I started to review my mental who’s who of shorebirds when another, more experienced, birder joined me and confidently confirmed the Dunlin i.d. I suppose he made me feel better about my first-impressions identification. I wondered, should I have been more secure of myself with my first call, or is a bit of insecurity a good thing? The lesson learned was a reminder of the difference many species exhibit between spring and fall plumage: the former tending towards the flamboyant while the latter is more suitable for the office.

In the slide show below, just for comparison, I have included a shot of a group of spring-plumage Dunlins (foreground) along with several absolutely gorgeous Red Knots.

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It was shortly after pondering the Dunlins that I found the Solitary Sandpiper. It worked its way towards us along a grubby shoreline, one on which I certainly wouldn’t walk barefoot. In the picture immediately below, you can make out a bit, almost a vestige, of webbing between the toes. (You can enlarge the picture slightly by clicking on it.) At risk of confusing things, I point this out because, in the cases of both Semipalmated Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers, they too have this limited webbing on their feet and that is why they have the adjectival component ‘semipalmated’ as part of their common names. I’m just as happy the Solitary Sandpiper is called what it is, despite its feet. Actually, solitary is a very good descriptor, I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than one, maybe two, at a time and all the books agree that they usually travel alone or in small groups.Solitary Sandpiper,

The rather poised and unpretentious bearing of this Solitary Sandpiper made it my bird of the day. The fall-plumage Dunlins, while nice and certainly instructive, really didn’t capture my imagination in the quite the same way.

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These two galleries are visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.