Blue-headed Vireo.

April 21 2017. RBG Arboretum Hamilton, ON. I have many times been asked if I have a favourite bird; I don’t. But I do have a favourite bird family: the vireos; I’ve written about them here many times.

If you were to browse back over previous entries you’ll see that at one time or another I’ve headlined all the vireos we see in Ontario: Blue-headed, Yellow-throated, Warbling, Red-eyed and Philadelphia (in roughly that order of frequency) and White-eyed Vireo on one of my trips to Cape May. I love them all when they’re here, love them for a various reasons: attitude (self assured and a bit pugnacious), song (evocative of summer) and the identification challenge (although I’ve got that under control now, but it wasn’t easy to begin with.)

I undertook one of our bird counts on this ugly-cloud morning, with the weather trying to settle down after a chaotic twenty-four hours of heavy rain. You know how it is when you have one of those short-lived but violent stomach flu episodes, and when it’s over, how you feel delicate, tentative and battered? That’s how our landscape looked today. But it’s an ill wind etc. because the woods were alive with migratory optimism and that’s where my vireo story starts.

Walking a fresh-green flushed woodland edge I was enjoying and counting the short tumbling songs of several Ruby-crowned Kinglets. I was following a Yellow-rumped Warbler as it worked through the lower levels of some old cottonwood trees, and a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers, some American Goldfinches and a distant singing Field Sparrow, were all keeping me fully occupied when my brain’s bird-song-processing-centre tapped me on the shoulder and directed my attention to the fractured notes of vireo song somewhere behind the foreground clatter. It was a longish way off but I pinpointed it to a thicket of old hawthorns and crab-apples. Moving closer, the song became clearer and I was increasingly sure I was hearing a Blue-headed Vireo, all I needed was to see it and confirm it, and soon enough I did both and asterisked it in my notebook. The Blue-headed Vireo’s song, by the way, is similar to that of the Red-eyed, Philadelphia and Yellow-throated Vireos, similar enough at the start of the season to give me pause. I wasn’t aware that any vireo species was likely to be around this early in spring but a bit of research revealed that yes, Blue-headeds start showing up in mid-late April; earlier by a couple of weeks than the others of the clan.

Blue-headed Vireo.

That was all well and good and very satisfying; a nice bird at any time. I kept walking and it wasn’t too long before I’d seen and heard four more; this was becoming a very good day.

By the end of my census walk I’d added six Pine Warblers (heard but not seen, that’s the way it is with them.), two Brown Creepers another Yellow-rumped Warbler, two Bald Eagles and a Broad-winged Hawk. My day’s tally was thirty seven species. By the end of the census walk the sky was opening up with sizeable patches of blue tearing at a bank of deep grey clouds and the sun dabbed around a bit of warmth.

Yellowlegs – Greater and Lesser

12 April 2017. Stoney Creek Mountain, Hamilton ON. There are yellowlegs and there are yellowlegs; Greater and Lesser, two closely related and closely-resembling-each-other species. Thank goodness their common names tell everything you usually need to know to make a field identification; they have yellow legs and one species is noticeably smaller than the other. It’s (pretty well) all about size.

In the absence of some kind of yardstick it can be difficult to know whether you’re looking at a big one or a little one. There are some subtle differences and with experience you can usually make somewhere between an educated determination and a hopeful guess.

Experienced birders faced with uncertainty know to look at the length of the bird’s bill in relation to its head. The greater’s bill length is about one and a quarter times its head length whereas the lesser’s bill length is equal to its head length. The greater’s bill also shows an upturn towards the tip, it’s slight in some individuals and quite marked in others. Overall size aside, all the relative proportions, the external morphology, of the species are so similar as to make them indistinguishable ( to me anyway).

Greater & Lesser Yellowlegs

Today I had the rare opportunity of examining both Greater Yellowlegs and Lesser Yellowlegs side by side. In the photos above and below, the individuals show some slight differences in plumage but I think they only reflect slightly different stages in the individual birds’ spring moult. The difference in relative  bill length is evident and with a bit of coaxing you might come to see the slight upturn of the greater’s bill.

Greater & Lesser Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

These birds made my day. Otherwise I did rather too much aimless wandering looking for anything the spring winds had blown in. I watched a Peregrine Falcon in territorial display by an established nest site, a male American Kestrel and a couple of active Eastern Meadowlarks. But it was a bit unsatisfying so I opted instead to scout out a woodland where I’m scheduled to lead a nature walk early next month. Capturing shots of the emerging leaves of Wild Ginger and flowers of Blue Cohosh was every bit absorbing as the close study of two yellowlegs species. There’s always something to be learned outdoors.

Grebes – Horned and Red-necked.

April 13 2017. LaSalle Marina Burlington and Bronte Marina Oakville ON.  Grebes – they’re sort of raffish. I think raffish is the right word, if it means (which I believe it does) defying convention in a mild, erratic and somewhat dashing way. Yes, raffish will do. It’s as if creation intended to make a duck but it came out a bit wrong, with lobed rather than webbed feed, a tendency to sink sometimes, and an appearance of being a little un-combed rather than smooth and handsome.

Every year we have the pleasure of the company of three, sometimes five, grebe species; in warmer weather only that is, they all leave for the winter. Let the lakes freeze. But come spring they return, some just passing through, one or two staying to breed. I watch for them every April and yes, they’re back.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebes gather along our lakeshore for a week or two, or three, and there are a few reliable places to go and admire them up close. They deserve admiration; just look at the photos above and below, gorgeous golden ear-tufts, chestnut neck and along the waterline, and piercing red eyes. Getting a decent photo took a lot of patience: to keep myself from being conspicuously silhouetted I had to sit low among some large boulders and then wait for one to make its way inshore and close enough. It was diving for whatever they eat and perhaps one in four photos showed just a puddle or a vanishing wingtip or foot.

Horned Grebe

Inspired by the Horned Grebes I went to a nearby marina where Red-necked Grebes return to nest each year. They are encouraged to stay by someone, maybe the harbour authority, who anchors a tire in a nicely boat-quiet corner of the marina, the grebes use it as a suitable semi-dry platform on which to build a nest. It is within a very few feet of a harbour-side path and the countless morning-strollers, joggers, dogs-with-owners, and wound-up pre-schoolers stop to admire, or bark, or just smile, point and wonder at them. As I watched, the grebes seemingly snoozed, floating at all times close to the tire to stake their claim to this, their territory for a spring and summer. The vast majority of Red-necked Grebes choose to nest much further north and west of here and the handful of pairs that settle in this and other nearby marinas are a mysteriously disjunct population.

Pied-billed Grebe. July

And the others, the rest of the handful?  Well Pied-billed Grebes (above), curious to look at and even stranger if heard calling on territory, can be found in southern Ontario, breeding on small weedy lakes and ponds. Eared Grebes and Western Grebes are just occasional stray visitors; a pity. Eared Grebes are cute, like mini-Horned Grebes in a way and Western Grebes in spring are majestic and elegant – if still raffish.

Western Grebe. Smithers BC

American Bittern

April 11 2017. RBG Arboretum Hamilton, ON. Good birds came tumbling in today. I did a walk around one of my favourite woodland and lake routes and was almost breathless at the sight and sound of new arrivals. The day before a blast of warm air pushed up from the south and it must have swept a lot of anxious migrants along with it. I tallied forty species, many old familiars of course but within a few minutes of getting started I found a Yellow-rumped Warbler. In a week or two they’ll be commonplace, but today it was a treat. I wonder just how far south it had overwintered; every year a scant handful is seen to stay with us but few survive.

Within a few minutes I’d added American Tree Sparrows, Northern Flickers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and White-throated Sparrows to my notes. Then a pair of Rusty Blackbirds flew up in front of me, a good sighting at any time. They were feeding around the margins of a squishy woodland edge, typical Rusty Blackbird habitat.

Much farther along I spotted a small bird flitting high in a White Pine, as I examined it and was searching my mental database, a large and noisy military plane flew almost overhead distracting us both, but I wrote down Pine Warbler with a question mark; not sure. But then I heard it and others singing; delete question mark. First of the spring.

Out across the lake I could barely make out a small duck-like thing. Again I struggled to make an identification. At times like this I’ll sometimes use my little camera’s long zoom to see what I can make of the grainy image. It worked, I satisfied myself that it (actually they) were Pied-billed Grebes. Here’s the evidence, you’ll need to look closely.

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Finally my Bird of the Day was an American Bittern. It surprised me by exploding into purposeful flight from a small marsh just in front of me. I was almost shocked at the luck and improbability of seeing it and for that shock value it was my Bird of the Day. But the Yellow-rumped Warbler, Rusty Blackbirds,Pine Warblers and Pied-billed Grebes all tied for a very close second place for welcome-back value.

Eastern Phoebe

There were of course many more interesting birds which, at other times, would be special for any number of reasons: Carolina Wrens in full song, an Eastern Phoebe, a busy Rubycrowned Kinglet, Doublecrested Cormorants – 185 of them! a pair of American Wigeon, a flotilla of Common Mergansers and a very vocal Pileated Woodpecker – heard but not seen.

American Wigeon

Merlin

April 7 2017. RBG Arboretum Hamilton, ON. A very birdy day today despite a nasty, totally uncalled-for blast of winter; twenty-four hours of cold wind and rains and overnight snow almost everywhere. But as this late-winter unkindness eased up, I set out to do one of our regular census circuits. In a fairly brisk hike around I tallied thirty-three species. Always the usual suspects: Downy Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatch, Black-capped Chickadees, Red-winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows, I could go on. And it was pleasant but not out of the ordinary to find several American Tree Sparrows, a couple of singing Carolina Wrens, a Belted Kingfisher and a pair of anxious Wood Ducks.

Redheads 3 males 1 female

I had some special surprises, again not really out of season, but welcome: four Redheads, a subtly elegant, tidy and compact duck, and half a dozen Goldencrowned Kinglets picking their way through the lower levels of winter-bare trees. Kinglets are tough little customers, weighing six or seven grams (roughly the weight of a couple of coins) they are very late to head south in October and equally early to return – if return is the right word because they don’t go very far south and are known to be able to survive our northern winters.

Merlin.

I would still be weighing which of the Redheads or the kinglets was my bird of the day had I not come across a Merlin as I approached the end of my census circuit. It was perching on the top of an exposed oak being buffeted by the strong northwest wind. I stared at it appreciatively taking in its overall brownness and strongly streaked breast, both key identification marks to distinguish it from an American Kestrel, the only other similarly sized North American falcon. It stayed long enough on its station that I was able to return to my car and drive to a reasonably close spot and take a number of photos. It is always tricky shooting a subject silhouetted against a bright sky or water, but I’m reasonably happy with the much computer-corrected results and very happy with the final shot below, as it took flight. So happy that it instantly became my Bird of the Day.

Wood Ducks

April 2 2017. RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON.  Starting a census walk this morning with two companions, we had hardly gone a hundred meters, three minutes walking and commenting on the Red-winged Blackbirds all around us, when we saw a large bird fluttering against the trunk of an oak just a short distance in front of us. My first thought was Pileated Woodpecker, but no, it was a male Wood Duck. As we grasped what we were seeing he flew a few meters to alight on a slender branch and we saw he was in the company of a female, then it all made sense. A bonded pair, spring arrivals, needing a suitable nest cavity – house hunting. As we watched them for a few minutes I told my companions that we’d have to find something really exceptional to top these two as birds of the day. Evidently the small knothole he’d been examining when we first spotted him was not up to their standards because they soon left.

Wood Duck pair

The census took a three hours; there were more birds this time than last. The steady but quiet surge of new arrivals reminded me of the ebb and flow of the ocean tides: you know it’s happening, you can watch and measure the trickle (as we birders do) and every now and then appreciate just how thoroughly all the ecological bays and inlets have filled up (or drained out). Our morning species list reached thirty-two, ten more than the same route just three days ago.

New on today’s rising tide were the Wood Ducks, an Eastern Phoebe, two each of Golden Crowned Kinglets, Northern Flickers and Brownheaded Cowbirds. A wide, shallow pond held half a dozen Gadwall and a pair of Buffleheads as well as many more male Wood Ducks, Mallards and a Mute Swan.

Hooded Merganser

In the small rushing river that makes this valley what it is, we watched this handsome, male Hooded Merganser fight the current in his efforts to get away from us.

Hooded Merganser

All nice birds and welcome spring arrivals many of them. But none of them could steal the Bird of the Day prize from the Wood Ducks.

Turkey Vultures

1 April 2017. Vinemount, Hamilton ON. A day of nasty, stay-indoors, weather behind us I went out looking for some of the shorebirds and ducks some people have been seeing. Just as in my posting of three or four days ago, I watched a mass of puddle-ducks for a while: Mallards, Northern Pintails, American Black Ducks, Gadwall, American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal. They were happily resting and feeding in a waterlogged farm field and would probably still be there if a couple of young guys on noisy dirt-bikes hadn’t shattered the silence and scattered them. I watched for a little while longer as small groups flew around high overhead, I decided it was a good opportunity to work on identifying ducks on the wing; a skill that many hunters acquire through hours huddled in an icy November marsh. I did advance my knowledge a little noting that Northern Pintails in flight look long and lean, have slender angular, pointed wings, and the males’ long tail feathers are quite obvious.

Eastern Meadowlark

I did a bit more, rather aimless, driving around and looking; an approach to birding I find unsatisfying. I spotted a couple of early Eastern Meadowlarks singing from the top of hawthorns in a dry field, they’re regulars at this site and one of the treats of early spring.

The spring flight of inbound Turkey Vultures is going full tilt and it didn’t surprise me to see a low-flying swirl of them not far up the road. As I drove towards them I realized they had taken a break from migration and their interest was something lying in the ditch, delectable and probably well aged. This wasn’t just a gathering of Turkey Vultures it was a dinner party.

Turkey Vulture

My car’s approach caused them to disperse, albeit reluctantly, they really didn’t want to abandon the feast. Sensing that their urge to continue eating was greater than their concern about me in my car, I pulled carefully and strategically to the side of the road hoping to photograph them as they returned. Then, in the opposite direction, I was intrigued to see that up to a dozen of them had settled barely twenty meters away on the end-posts of a series of grapevine fences. It was a captivating sight and far from static as they jostled for room and as new birds arrived.

They don’t have a great reputation Turkey Vultures. Viewed from our cultural vantage point we see an ugly, bare-skinned head on a bird known to clean up corpses. It doesn’t help that they roost communally and apparently poop on each other; many of the individuals I watched were streaked with white. But they are well adapted to their role as scavengers of carrion: the featherless head is perfect for sticking inside a body cavity, they soar and wheel high in the summer sky taking advantage of helpful breezes and thermals and find their meals by following the distinctive odor of carcasses. I wouldn’t say I like them exactly, not the way I like vireos or bee-eaters, but admire them? Yes I do.

Turkey Vultures

Belted Kingfisher

March 29 2017. RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. The start of another season of census walks starts in a couple of days.  A team of us, in ones and twos, will be walking three different, more or less circular, routes just counting birds. In anticipation of that absorbing way of going spring birding, I walked down into my valley to see what I could find; it was full of pleasures.

A sustained level of background noise, literal and metaphorical, came from almost uncountable numbers of Red-winged Blackbirds, males only – the females follow in a couple of week, and spring-song Black-capped Chickadees. Scratching around on the ground Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows were abundant too, they’ll be heading north soon. Indeed for all I know, they may well have started their journey and those I counted today were from well south of us, Pennsylvania maybe, while our local, over-wintering birds have long since left.

It was a breath of fresh air to hear Song Sparrows singing and from far away a Carolina Wren too. And then the surprises started.  The first, while watching two Turkey Vultures  tree-skimming overhead, I saw something different, much smaller and fast, flying high above them.  What, I wondered, is that? I swept my binoculars up for a better look and got my first Tree Swallow of the year. As a mini celebration. I put an asterisk beside it in my field book – Bird of the Day maybe.

Four Ring-necked Ducks, a male Mallard and a Canvasback

Checking a wide shallow pond I could easily make out Mallards, a Mute Swan and a scattering of Canada Geese.  Best though was a pair of Ring-necked Ducks; another nice surprise but really not unexpected, they are early migrants and usually appear to in time to clear out the last of the ice.

Belted Kingfisher

As I reached the turn-around point and my species list grew to close to two dozen, I heard but dismissed a faint rattling call.  Perhaps a bit woodpecker-ish, but never mind, it was faint and far away and I put it out of my mind; until it happened again and stopped me in my tracks. Belted Kingfisher!  Looking up I soon saw a pair of them wheeling around, sometimes high, sometimes not, moving fast and wide in a flirtatious side-by-side formation. Belted Kingfishers have a jerky, halting flight; you might almost think they’ll drop out of the air at times. Those, I knew, were my Birds of the Day, a low flying Great Blue Heron seen a couple of minutes later (another first of the year) couldn’t come close.

 

Northern Pintail

27 March 2017. Vinemount, Hamilton ON. Although weather patterns vary from year to year, when I look back over my posts I find that you could almost set your watch by some of the returning birds. It’s usually in late March, if there’s a breath of warmth, that Turkey Vultures start streaming in and it’s when we see and hear the first Killdeers and Song Sparrows too. About now, local birders routinely visit certain poorly drained fields, which, while flooded, lure migrating ducks to rest for a while; it’s also an area where we have a good chance of finding Wilson’s Snipes. Once those fields dry out we probably won’t give them another moment’s thought for twelve months.

Mallard, N.Pintail, GW teal, Black Duck

No snipes today, not that I could see anyway, but lots of ducks and swans. Among the thousands of spectacular sights to be enjoyed in the birder’s world, one of them has to be male ducks (drakes) in breeding plumage. In those flooded fields there were hundreds: mostly glistening Mallards but plenty of American Wigeon, several American Black Ducks, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal and almost best of all, many Northern Pintails. All of them kin, colloquially puddle-ducks and scientifically of the genus anas; a,platyrhynchus, a.americana, a.rubripes, a.strepera, a.crecca and a.acuta.

Many species but American Wigeon closest

It was the Northern Pintails that won my heart today – the drakes are so incredibly handsome, almost military, with their white pinstripes on chestnut.

Northern Pintail

If I have over-played the males of the species in this account I make just a small apology; the fact is that the females of all these duck species aren’t nearly as snazzy. They have no time for vanity, they face a long season of doing the hard work: building a nest, laying a dozen eggs, incubating them for a month, guarding and raising the brood; there’s just not enough time in the day.

Off to one side, aloof and avoiding the puddle duck rabble, were half a dozen Tundra Swans, the first I’ve seen this spring. I probably missed most of them while I was in Uganda, an unusually mild February seems to have prompted an early migration. I smiled inwardly, a contented smile, I haven’t missed them after all.

Tundra Swans

American Kestrel

March 19 2017. Ancaster ON. There is a short-lived spell, call it a moment, in mid-March when irregular patches of bright snow stand in contrast against the khaki-fawn tracts of winter-weary grasses. It can be quite stunning; especially if there are some little brush-strokes of scarlet along a watercourse where Red-osier Dogwoods have a toehold.

On my drive home from a day’s outing yesterday I noted my first signs of bird-spring: Turkey Vultures, two of them being blown along on a stiff breeze as if they’d thought, ‘I’ll just hop on this little wind-stream and see where it takes me’; The odd Common Grackle and a few Red-winged Blackbirds quite probably males making their purposeful way – going somewhere. Research shows that among many migratory species, the males tend to spend the winter farther north than females, a risky strategy some years but it probably gives them an edge in the spring race back to seize the best breeding sites and to have the best breeding success.

Male American Kestrel

Along the way I saw a handful of American Kestrels perched on utility lines and closely watching the open roadside below for food on the move. They captured my attention and many times I thought of stopping for a photo. But it’s a just too risky on busy roads and besides, the very act of coming to a sudden stop is usually enough to scare the bird away. Then later on a quiet country road, I saw my chance, an actively hunting pair of kestrels, a place to pull into and turn around slowly and some chance of shooting from the car. Well, I took many bad photos by ignoring my own advice that an idling car means vibration and unless the camera shutter-speed is really fast, blurry pictures are what you get. But finally paying attention and turning off the ignition, I was able to get a couple of decent shots of these American Kestrels, a back view of the female and the male facing the camera – my first spring Birds of the Day.

Female American Kestrel