December 25 2016. LaSalle Marina, Burlington, ON. On Christmas Day 2013 I wrote about Canvasbacks as my Birds of the Day.  It’s worth taking a look if only for the rather wintery photos that accompany the post. December 2013 saw the start of the now infamous Polar Vortex winter that seized North America by the throat for the best part of five months, only finally letting up in mid-May.

Now, Christmas Day three years later, and once again the Canvasbacks are in town. I walked the length of a sheltered waterfront trail knowing that many winter ducks should be close. But this Christmas Day is considerably warmer, the waters of the harbour carry no ice so ducks, wherever they are, have no compulsion to hug the shoreline. Still, it was pleasant watching Canada Geese getting together and it kept my camera busy trying to capture their skillful splash landings.

A family of Trumpeter Swans drifted around some algae-draped rocks and I was struck by how dependent the young seem to be on their parents. In two or three months, as winter draws to a close, the cygnets of 2016 will probably be told to get lost and to make their own way in the world; the adults will have the next round of breeding in mind.

And once again, just as in 2013, Birds of the Day were Canvasbacks, large rafts of them were anchored just off shore. Here’s a couple of the best shot from today – but no snow in the air this time.

Great Black-backed Gull

December 21 2016. Bronte Harbour ON. I was reminded today that one of the things about birding and this follow-up writing exercise, is that my story is as much about the texture of the day as the calibre of the bird(s) that makes the news. Today for example, arguably one of the least productive days of birding in memory. I believe I can list the sightings of the day – and it won’t take long: American Crow, Red-tailed Hawk, Mallard, Canada Goose, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Great Black-backed Gull, Black-capped Chickadee and Mourning Dove; nine species!

What then, was it about the texture of the day? The shortest day of the year, sunlight in limited supply, uneven crusty and sometimes deep, snow on the ground and a quest by three, faintly long-in-the-tooth, usually easy-going birders to see what we could find; with luck maybe an owl or two.

To cut to the chase we didn’t see many birds and we didn’t see any owls. The best bet for most winter owls (other than Snowy Owls) is to check dense groves of evergreens like cedar, spruce and pine where they like to roost hidden from assault or predation. But although we hiked and stumbled along three or four deep-snow kilometers and scanned pine after pine and spruce after spruce, the best we could say was that we found a spruce with evidence of owl poop .

But owls aside, we also walked around the encompassing arm of a now-empty yacht-basin hoping for some nice winter ducks (and maybe a Snowy Owl). On the fractured plates of thin ice, dozens of Canada Geese sat idly passing the time of day. A handful of mergansers cruised by and then a Great Black-backed Gull wheeled into view and settled at the end of a floating pier.

The sight of the gull gave me a little shiver of pleasure; such handsome birds! If they weren’t just another raucous gull or so bloodthirsty at skewering a meal, or if they had some kind of noble bearing, they might, as the world’s largest gull species, have earned a fond place in the public imagination. But it hasn’t worked out that way for them.  Still I admire them and today’s was easily my Bird of the Day – not that it had a lot of competition.

Here’s a couple of photos: Above of a Great Black-backed Gull and a Herring Gull side by side; Below taken three winters ago of a young-plumage Great Black-backed Gull polishing off the remains of an indeterminate duck – on ice.

American Kestrel

December 6 2016. Burlington ON. At this low-light time of year when the urban landscape is monochromatic and the skies, as often as not, grey, then any bird seen against that sky is pretty well sure to be one of: a wind-tossed crow, a solitary gull, a flock of starlings, or, if wheeling around using the wind as an aid, a Red-tailed Hawk.

On my mostly uninspiring drive to my place of casual work I pass a rather abused and under appreciated field. Once part of a productive farm it is now squeezed between the competing space demands of a busy rail line, a highway service road and an overpass that serves to allow the cars and trucks of commerce to move more happily. Someone still takes the trouble to cut the grass and make a few rolls of hay but mostly I suspect to keep property taxes down by claiming that the land is legitimately farmed .

Along the roadside, on the other side of a gritty ditch, runs a march of utility poles, between the poles are swoops of thick cable and on the cable sits an American Kestrel; it’s there every time I drive by. Sometimes it’s moved along from one loop to another but generally it sits impassively gazing at the dry grasses below. Twice I’ve seen it drop purposefully to the ground to grab something.  I wonder what it finds: a mouse, a vole – surely not grasshoppers any more.

I never linger and watch, usually I’m on my way to meet a deadline, it’s not the sort of road that encourages casual stopping anyway and I don’t have my binoculars or camera with me. And besides, that little passing glimpse of a falcon makes for a bright spot, a Bird of the Day, in an otherwise rather dreary early winter day.

Here’s a photo of another American Kestrel, another place and a sunny day.


Pileated Woodpecker

October 6 2016. RBG Arboretum, Hamilton ON. It being late November as I write this and since much of the past few weeks has been absorbed by catch-up on the other demands of life, this is a look back at a day’s birding two months ago. The 6th October: 18 degrees C. (65 F), no cloud, a very light west wind; perfect day for a census and a walk through a hardwood forest.

It was, for a while, a bit on the average side: Yellow-rumped Warblers everywhere, a flyover Cooper’s Hawk and handfuls of Blue Jays. But then it seemed to become a woodpecker day: six Red-bellied and four Downy Woodpeckers, a couple of Northern Flickers, three Hairy Woodpeckers and even a quiet, minding its own business, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Only one missing – although not for long.

Nearing the half-way point of our census circuit we heard a Pileated Woodpecker’s fanfare call some distance away. And the thing about this loud, ringing cry is that it penetrates forests, carrying proportionately much farther than others of the clan; a distantly heard Pileated could be half a kilometer away. We could only hope that the one we could hear was somewhere in front of us and would stay long enough for us to get a lucky glimpse – that’s usually all you get. Our luck held and we soon found ourselves close enough to hear it chopping wood looking for a meal. I was keen to see how far our luck would carry us and wandered off the path a few meters, looking up and following the chunky hammering until I spotted it wrapped around the thin heights of a dying ash. Ash trees here and across much of the north-east are falling in quick succession to an imported pest, Emerald Ash Borer, and the only good thing to come of this blight might be a feeding bonanza for woodpeckers. I suppose it worked in my favour today. Here it is in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

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European Roller

September 5 2016 Chokpak Pass, Kazakhstan. I’m digging back into my near-archives for this one, going back to September when four birder friends and I spent a couple of weeks in Kazakhstan. And I’m writing about the European Roller not just because we saw quite a few, or simply because they’re magnificent, but because I’ve been imagining rollers for decades; they are one of my childhood dream birds. A few times in past posts I have written about the thrill of finally meeting up with those I-never-thought-I’d-see-one birds: Hoopoe, Bee-Eater, Avocet and Osprey come to mind. Many of those elusives are Eurasian birds and in hindsight it’s evident they’re more –asian than Eur.

During our days in Kazakhstan we saw many European Rollers but rarely close enough to get a decent look or photo. For mile upon mile there seemed to be a roller on every loop of the utility lines that paralled the highway or railway, but trains don’t stop to look at birds and the glimpses were unsatisfying. But on this day of exploration of the wide valley that separated our camp from the Tien-Shan Mountain slopes, I finally had a chance to move in close to a small group of European Rollers who had settled in the upper reaches of a track-side thicket.chokpak-pass-looking-sw

What makes rollers so appealing is their glorious colour, a shimmering sapphire blue below and rich chestnut above. Superficially they look and sound (a hard crow-like RACK-ack) as though they belong in the crow family, but it seems they’re in a family of their own and are more closely related to bee-eaters, kingfishers and kookaburras.european-roller-chokpak-pass

Finally getting a good look at one of those childhood nemesis birds is satisfying; it seems to put to rest a nagging incompleteness. And if seeing is satisfying then getting a decent photo is truly icing on the cake. The photo above, while unmistakably of a European Roller, is, I think, of a young bird because it certainly doesn’t have the sapphire blue I referred to.

The illustration below dates from 1876 and shows the bird in the glory I innocently believed in from poring over the sometimes quaint reference books available to me. I was lucky to enjoy the generous, if slightly stand-offish, tutelage of a certain Major Fenwick who certainly was a child of the 19th Century.keulemans_onze_vogels_3_10

Peregrine Falcon

November 8 2016. The Owl Foundation  exists to treat and rehabilitate (if possible) wounded and orphaned owls; they’ve been at it for about fifty years. These sorts of undertakings rarely have a precise starting date but it seems it all got started for Kay and Larry McKeever sometime around 1967. Today the Owl Foundation receives a hundred or so damaged owls every year; sadly many are beyond saving.

Owls in the wild fly across political borders all the time but governments see borders differently and make it difficult for the foundation to accept injured or orphaned owls from anywhere other than Ontario. Interprovincial regulations make it complicated; international regulations make it impossible.

I volunteer some of my time and energy to help raise funds for the foundation and I spent half of today at their facilities just learning more about the operation.  If you like birds and feel that wildlife gets a bad deal, feel free to donate to the Owl Foundation; they will sincerely appreciate your support.

I had thought to open this post with a list of bird sightings today but no one would be fooled. Today’s list of birds included: Great Grey Owl, Barred Owl, Barn Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, Snowy Owl, Long–eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Peregrine Falcon, Northern Goshawk, Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Osprey and American Kestrel – I think that’s all of them. And yes they do sometimes accept other raptors, usually another rehabilitator’s overflow.

But of course, notwithstanding the mission of the Owl Foundation, these are all caged birds – well there was a free flying Red-tailed Hawk perched in a Red Oak just outside the foundation’s office. Many of them will fly free again once strong enough or fully re-feathered.

Peregrine Falcon - young and recovering from surgery.

Peregrine Falcon – young and recovering from surgery.

Any one of these birds whether owl, falcon, buteo or eagle could make Bird of the Day. My loudest gasp of appreciation or admiration was for this young Peregrine Falcon. Just look at those flight feathers! It had somehow suffered a torn crop (how that could happen is anyone’s guess) but surgery, tube feeding and recovery time have done the trick and it will be released fairly soon.

And, by the way, on my return home I saw a free-flying, wild Peregrine Falcon sitting on wires close to a nest site that has been reliable for a few years; so it wasn’t all captive birds.

European Starling

November 6 2016. Cayuga ON. Every year about this time our local naturalists’ club undertakes a one-day bird count across the club’s defined study area, a territory lying within a 40 Km radius of an historic grand mansion in the City of Hamilton. Actually a goodly chunk of that range is open water of Lake Ontario – which presents its own opportunities and challenges. I’m sure if our moderator were to compile a map showing the precise areas actually birded by the dozens of active counters he would see an irregular and scattered patchwork. It might reasonably prompt the question of the value of a count with such erratic and incomplete coverage.  The answer to which is that the goal of such a count is more about identifying long term indicators of species increases, decreases or other unusual changes than it is to attempt to know exactly how many birds exist today. Any data is more useful than none – and it’s good exercise too I suppose.dscn2352

A new-to-birding companion and I spent four and a bit hours criss-crossing our chosen study area, a mix of farmland and thick deciduous forests. It was a bright, sunny and mild day, the predominantly oak forests were startlingly colourful and along some swampy edges were patches of Winterberry Holly carrying heavy loads of brilliantly scarlet berries.

Winterberry Holly - Ilex verticillata

Winterberry Holly – Ilex verticillata

November birding is rarely stimulating but today we enjoyed two or three stops where the birding was really quite good. At one we scanned a line of fences and found several Eastern Bluebirds, an American Kestrel and a Northern Mockingbird – all good sightings even if they were rather distant. A little later, along a quiet gravel road flanked by oak forests, dozens of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings were filling up on holly berries while Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows found something indeterminate yet edible along the grassy roadside.

European Starling

European Starling

Birds of the Day were an enormous flock, or murmuration, of European Starlings, murmuration being the generally accepted collective noun for starlings and other chattering crowds; probably conferred upon them by Victorian lexicographers. They had gathered in the pastures around a radio transmission tower and every now and then a swirl of hundreds wheeled around choosing one minute to search for food in the short ragged grasses, the next to gather and chatter amongst themselves on the guy-wires of the radio mast.dscn2351

Apart from the sight of this large, perhaps five hundred strong, murmuration was the spectacular beauty of the individual birds. Not something you’d usually associate with starlings. But starlings have just finished a post-breeding moult to replace most body and flight feathers, and these new feathers come with pale tips. You’d hardly recognise the birds in these photos as the same rather dark and dowdy starling of urban living; but there they are, glorious for a while until the exigencies of their daily scramble for food, warmth and space gradually wears off those glorifying accents.

Eastern Bluebird

October 29 2016 . RBG Arboretum, Hamilton, ON. Many years (decades?) ago I took a course in creative writing. One of the nuggets I vividly remember was that getting published is easy but that writing is very hard work. I’ve rarely been published (unless you count this site), I haven’t tried very hard, but I can confirm that writing IS sometimes very hard work. These little three-, four- or five-hundred word posts of mine can be exhaustingly hard to create, I really try to make them flow decently as well as capture a sense of the time and place. I often get some of it written in my head while I’m out still on the trail but only rarely does that imagined text read terribly well in print.dscn2327

I tell you all of this because, despite the forgoing, I’m not up for writing much about today’s birding. But I’ll say this, it was warm, rather quiet bird-wise but a small flock of Eastern Bluebirds made the day. Here’s one of them.

Blackpoll Warbler and Northern Parula

October 25 2016 . RBG Cootes Paradise, Hamilton, & Sedgewick Park Oakville, ON. Today just seemed like a good day to be outdoors. It was a light jacket kind of day: bright and breezy and lots of swirling airborne leaves. I explored a couple of favourite locations, the first along a lakeside path to a lookout over an expanse of mudflats, the second the perimeter of a sewage treatment plant where summer birds are known to be lulled into a false sense of security by the abundant insect life.

The first half of the day was enjoyable but not very rich in bird life. I was happy with a close encounter with a Red-tailed Hawk, the spectacle of dozens of spiraling migrating Turkey Vultures and a nervous flotilla of Northern Shovelers, but other than that it was a little quiet.



After a short stop for lunch I decided to see what could be hanging around the treatment plant. It was a busy place: dozens of American Robins clucking and squawking among themselves as they fed on Multiflora Rose berries; many Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets; an Eastern Phoebe, and to top it off, two warblers from opposite ends of the glamour spectrum: A Blackpoll Warbler and a Northern Parula. The Blackpoll was devilishly difficult to see and even harder to photograph. It is, as you can see, a faded, dull, greeny-grey-yellow overall, with faint streaks along the breast and back, a couple of pale wing-bars and an indistinct broken eye-ring. ( A note of contrition here.  At first I took the Blackpoll to be an Orange-crowned Warbler. It’s not; Orange-crowneds don’t have wing bars for one thing and are yellow under the tail – not white. I jumped to conclusions, I do that sometimes.)

Blackpoll Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

The Parula by contrast is a study in the tasteful use of colour; truly a picture is worth a thousand words. This individual was startlingly open and unconcerned by the presence of people or heavy vehicles, tame is not the right word here; but it showed no fear. It may, I hate to think, be in trouble (certainly if it tries to stay here for the winter), it was repeatedly opening its beak as if yawning, as if it was trying to clear something troublesome from its throat. A beautiful little bird but something’s amiss.

Northern Parula

Northern Parula

Fox Sparrow and Northern Goshawk.

October 22 2016 . RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. A couple of days of rain courtesy of a malevolent storm system streaming up from the south has been followed by strong west winds and a steep drop in temperature. It was enough to prompt autumn’s later  stragglers to get moving.

I took on a census walk in my favourite wet and wooded valley and was soon surrounded by White-throated Sparrows, and with them a beautiful, rich chestnut-brown Fox Sparrow. A happy coincidence because yesterday, looking back over my photos, I saw that late October is their time to show up; and here it was, back from the far north where they breed.  Perfect.

The census was very productive, I tallied thirty-five species including Carolina Wrens, a small flock (43) of young Cedar Waxwings, three or four (heard but not seen) Eastern Bluebirds, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglets and a Hermit Thrush.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

What really caught my attention was the numbers of Turkey Vultures passing over, and the more I looked the more I saw, and looking closer I realized there was a major migration of vultures and hawks underway. I added two Northern Harriers, five Red-tailed Hawks, a Bald Eagle and a Red-shouldered Hawk to my census tally – and those were just the ones I could identify with any measure of confidence. There were many more birds circling and streaming past me, but too high and wind-tossed to feel sure of their identity.

Turkey Vultures in an October sky

Turkey Vultures in an October sky

I spent two hours on the census and walked out more than satisfied with a productive morning. But I wasn’t finished; there was too much going on in the storm-torn skies above. So I headed to a nearby cemetery which has the benefit of generally open vistas and a strategic location along the fall migratory track. There I found another birder and between us we spent an hour or so captivated by the steady flow of raptors. Among numerous Red-tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures we also positively identified three Red-shouldered Hawks, a Bald Eagle, a fast moving Merlin, two Cooper’s Hawks a handful of Sharp-shinned Hawks and, triumphantly, a Northern Goshawk.

The Goshawk swept past us fast and low (dodging between tombstones), we had maybe two or three seconds to take it in.  Tom was quick to identify it as a Goshawk, I was slower. It is one of only three hawks in the accipiter family found in North America, making the identification a rather limited process of elimination. As I said to him, “Had I been alone I would have puzzled over it. I would have thought, obviously too big to be a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Probably not a Cooper’s Hawk – still too big – and muscular. So probably a Goshawk on account of it’s size and sturdy build. I probably would have recorded it as – Northern Goshawk with a question mark. But yes – Goshawk, I agree. I haven’t seen one for several years. What a bird, Bird of the Day!” Tom agreed and was happy to accept it as best bird although he’d been hoping for  Golden Eagle. Another Day.

Northern Goshawk. Photographed in spring not far from its nest site

Northern Goshawk. Photographed in spring not far from its nest site