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.

Red-tailed-Hawk

Red-tailed-Hawk

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

Boat-tailed Grackle

October 16 2016 Wetlands Institute, Stone Harbor. New Jersey. Considering the variety of birds seen on this quick early morning walk, it rather surprised me when, in a retrospective moment, I realized that it a was a couple of Boat-tailed Grackles that came out tops as my Birds of the Day.

Boat-tailed Grackle

Boat-tailed Grackle

It’s not as though grackles make the grade in any of the usual great-bird adjectives, they’re not cute, engaging, majestic, secretive or colourful, They don’t sing, they’re not notably long distance migrants and they don’t particularly artfully exploit anyone or anything. They’re just there.  But, as it happens, being there is what caught my attention. To me Boat-tailed Grackles are synonymous with some of the warmer parts of North America, Florida in particular, and anywhere along the Atlantic coast from Cape May south.

We were about to start a long day of driving on the second leg of our journey home from Virginia. The day before we had travelled from Williamsburg to Cape May, essentially just a 400 kilometer jaunt up the Delmarva Peninsula. Following this route filled a gap in my comprehension of this particular stretch of Atlantic coastline. It was a pleasant day’s journey through productive farmland which happens to be flanked along its Atlantic edge by some of the gaudiest development and commercialization of the sandy shore itself.

But today we faced a journey of some 800 kilometers (500 miles), a very full day especially if, like us, you prefer to minimize time spent on major highways. Before getting underway I wanted a deep inhale of birding-air, so we paid a rather quick visit to the Wetland Institute, a place with lots of good birding memories and close to the sea-side town of Stone Harbor.

On arrival the first sound was that of a pair of Boat-tailed Grackles sharing and airing their views on the state of the world from a look-out platform. They have a funny squeaky, ringing, clatter of a voice, described variously as “ chreet chreet keer, ee EEch “; possibly musical in a discordant, avant garde kind of way. But however described, their voice unfailingly reminds me of suburban Florida.

The nicely tended yet suitably unspoiled path at the Wetlands Institute has always been an easy and productive birding walk for me.  In May the tidal flats hold such wonders as Whimbrel, Clapper Rails, Dunlin, American Oystercatchers and Short-billed Dowitchers in huge numbers.

Snowy Egrets

Snowy Egrets

Today it was a lot less frenetic but we spotted a pair of Snowy Egrets sitting quietly on the railing of an elevated path; they made a great picture. At the end of the trail we watched a Great Egret working its way around the edges of a small inlet. Uncountable numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers were busy feeding among the Northern Bayberry bushes that line the path.

An interesting (I hope) side note here: Yellow-rumped Warblers were formerly called Myrtle Warblers, a reference to their ability to successfully overwinter along the Atlantic coast living largely on a diet of myrtle berries. Myrtle is the informal name of Northern Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), a common lowland shrub of the east coast (including seashores) of North America. Some forty or so years ago, avian name-callers decided to lump together the eastern Myrtle Warbler and the western Audubon’s Warbler as one species, the Yellow-rumped Warbler. They are very similar it’s true but by no means completely alike. Time marches on and we now hear that some un-lumping may occur. It’s possible that birders will once again have Myrtle Warblers, Audubon’s Warblers and possibly Goldman’s Warblers and Black-fronted Warblers, the last two in Guatemala and Mexico respectively. Declaring there to be four species where formerly (since 1973) there was only one is a possible bonanza to those who covet a life list.

As we were preparing to leave Wetlands Institute I noticed a flurry of movement in a pond some hundred feet or so distant. Huddled in the grasses there was, I think, the largest aggregation of Greater Yellowlegs I’ve seen for a long time, maybe ever. Confidentially I’m not certain that they are Greater Yellowlegs, it was hard to tell in the light but at that distance I fancied that I made out the slightly up-turned bill on one of them – indicative of Greater Yellowlegs, but if anyone has a better idea please leave a comment.

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Red-headed Woodpecker

October 13 2016, Jamestown, Virginia. Two years ago, almost two years to the day, I wandered down a woodland path to Black Point here in Virginia’s Jamestown and there found myself in some kind of woodpeckers’ Annual General Meeting. Around me, as I recall, were Northern Flickers, Downy, Red-headed, Red-bellied and Pileated woodpeckers, wherever I looked were woodpeckers. Really quite sensational and an easy pick for a My Bird of the Day post. I remember taking many striking photos that day, especially some of the Red-headed Woodpeckers. That whole days outing was a success if my memory serves me correctly.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

Today I walked this same wooded trail again, noting those same woodpecker trees although this time there was comparatively little sign of bird life. Little except, sensationally, for one Red-headed Woodpecker hammering away at a decaying pine branch very close to where I had left them two years ago; it only takes one Red-headed Woodpecker to redeem any number of other let-downs, disappointments and omissions so I was quite thrilled by it and I suppose it’s quite possible I was looking at one of the same individuals. If it made Bird of the Day in October 2014 why not in October 2016. On thinking about it, it’s quite possible I haven’t seen a single Red-headed Woodpecker anywhere else since then. I don’t suppose for one moment that it feels that same sense of Hail Fellow Well Met that I do. But there it is, I’m just another tourist passing by and we’re hardly an endangered species.
At the end of the trail, just out from the seriously eroding shore of Black Point, a scant hundred metres away, a couple of Laughing Gulls and a Forster’s Tern crouched atop some presumably once-useful posts. I took photos of them probably because I was feeling a little sorry for my largely idle camera.

Tree Swallows

Tree Swallows

Hitherto it had, as I just suggested, been a bit of a low bird-count day. Not that I was feeling bad about it, just that I’d made some sort of “Hmmm not so many birds today,” mental note. I’d spent a couple of hours poking around a stretch of shoreline which two years ago had been super productive but today only somewhat challenging: large swirling flocks of Tree Swallows trying out a dead tree skeleton as a gathering place, a patrolling Sharp-shinned Hawk weighing its chances of a Tree Swallow lunch and loads of Yellow-rumped Warblers chipping to themselves while working through the dense stands of Bayberry. Where two years ago I might have leapt easily across a small rivulet, today I wouldn’t have risked my life, those small trickles are now surging with out-flowing flood water. No complaints, just different.

Pine Warbler

October 12 2016. Chickahominy River, Virginia. Summer weather lingers longer in Virginia. As I write this the eastern extremities of the state are licking their wounds after a weekend’s battering and drenching by the late Hurricane Matthew. There’s lots of tree debris lying around and all waterways remain brimful, but with Matthew’s departure the days are once again sunny and warm. I like the feel of Virginia, it has a mild, perhaps warm climate; pleasant most of the time with just a little snow and admittedly the odd hurricane. Coastal Virginia is braided and laced with tidal inlets and the towering vine-entangled forests of oak, maple and pine seem to lean poised to reclaim any open areas given half a chance.
While my companions immersed themselves in pre and post colonial studies I took the morning to explore the wooded shoreline of the James River. There are many commonplace species here which are considered at least remarkable when they occur in Ontario, in that category I saw many Tufted Titmouse, Black Vultures and Fish Crows. And somehow there just seem to be more watchable birds around. The Carolina Chickadee is common here, it is almost identical to our familiar Black-capped Chickadee and really only distinguishable by voice.
And funny how the run of the mill can seem somehow special in a new setting, my head was turned by a low flying, adult Bald Eagle, a trio of noisy Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, a nervous, tree-bound Turkey Vulture, A noisy Brown Thrasher, a trio of  Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and many wheeling Chimney Swifts.

Brown Thrasher

Brown Thrasher


Birds of the Day (species anyway) were Pine Warblers. It may be an over-simplification but it’s my experience that in Ontario we hear many more Pine Warblers than we see; their soft trill is a characteristic summer sound from high in mature pine forests. Here they were quite low down associating with, and behaving like, Eastern Bluebirds, watching from a lookout somewhere a few feet over a rough pasture and then flitting down to seize a meal.
I was quite struck by how startling yellow these birds were because as warblers go, Pine Warblers aren’t particularly eye-popping, a study in niceness rather than splendour.

Pine Warbler

Pine Warbler

Pileated Woodpecker

October 2 2016. RBG Arboretum, Hamilton ON. A couple of days of disturbed weather: intermittent and drenching rain, strong winds, and clouds in angry colours moved aside this morning to let me walk around one of our census routes. Almost the first birds I saw was a group of thirteen Blue Jays flying purposefully westward, then not long after, another group passed and another and another. Before long I’d counted a little over one hundred, clearly the day belonged to Blue Jays.

The woodland edges and open fields of seedy plants were alive with birds moving restlessly; Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows, American Robins, Eastern Bluebirds and a squabbling pair of Hairy Woodpeckers. In the gloomier corners of the scrubby forest I found two Black-throated Blue Warblers and a Winter Wren.

Hairy Woodpeckers

Hairy Woodpeckers

I was about half way around, walking through a stretch of mature deciduous forest when a gentle, light rain started and I could hear thunder not too far away. I picked up my pace,  hurrying on. I’ve heard all the warnings about the dangers of sheltering under a tree in a thunderstorm; but then, when it’s all trees between you and your car, what options do you have?

Still I could hear a woodpecker banging away overhead and I wanted to see if I could find it. It sounded purposeful, a bit like a Hairy Woodpecker or maybe a Red-bellied Woodpecker, they’re both fairly well established in these woods. I tried and tried to find it but eventually gave up craning my neck; if it was above me it must be hidden somehow, perhaps on the wrong side of a branch. I continued my hurried walk, and then making one last try from the other side of a gully I looked back to see a fragment of movement high on top of a crooked limb. It was a Pileated Woodpecker, a welcome sighting and worth getting a little wetter for. It also prompted a loud internal (if that’s possible) exclamation; Wow! The litmus test for my Bird of the Day.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

September 30 2016 . RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. When, a few days ago, I saw that the weather forecast promised us a couple of days of rain I thought, “Good, now I can catch up. I have photographs to review, edit and label, I have emails to answer and presentations to prepare.” So yesterday, with driving sheets of rain outdoors, I worked at my computer, just catching up. Today dawned wet and gloomy and I foresaw another day of much the same, but by late morning I was getting tired of the greyness; and then the sun broke through.

This afternoon I took a long walk armed with binoculars and camera, my usual stuff. The east wind was still howling, tearing away at the remaining fabric of summer so I wasn’t sure what to expect in the way of birds; whether there would be lots of them sheltering in quiet corners or whether they’d all blown away; in the end it was a bit of both.

Strong winds do funny things; high-flying birds sweep across the open sky and are gone in moments. I watched a young Bald Eagle circle overhead and then get carried far away; it was only its size that kept it in view for any appreciable length of time.

Bald Eagle - juvenile

Bald Eagle – juvenile

I plodded around my route grumbling a little to myself because everything seemed to be so transitory, here one minute and gone the next. With a bit of self discipline I paused to make some notes: Bald Eagle, Osprey, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Tennessee Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Wood Duck, Great Egret, Magnolia Warbler and White-throated Sparrow, plus all the old familiars: Great Blue Herons, Gray Catbird, Downy WoodpeckerMallards, Turkey Vultures and Black-capped Chickadees; why complain?

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

I came to realise that it really was a very nice day. A small brown bird ducking around some roots turned out, through binoculars, to be an Ovenbird; and as I was processing some mild jubilation at it, another striking bird stepped to the fore, a male Black-throated Blue Warbler! Now they really are spectacular and I’ll share with you a rather disappointing photograph but ask you accept and ignore a little overly soft focus. It became my instant Bird of the Day and while I examined the photo digesting a twinge of disappointment another bird hopped into view, a Red-eyed Vireo, another favourite.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

This wonderful trio had appeared so suddenly and I wondered whether I’d wandered into the mother lode of sheltering birds. But no, I searched high and low for more, but they had all gone; blown away again.

A thrush, a vireo, a falcon and a blackbird.

September 24 2016 . RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. Well, which is it to be: Swainson’s Thrush, Blue-headed Vireo, Merlin or Rusty Blackbird ? Any of them could have been my Bird of the Day. I was leading a group of volunteers in an all-day count of birds; sunrise to sunset in one location. I think anyone birding in Southern Ontario on this day must have been enjoying a great day, a couple of days of cold and unsettled weather had spurred great drifts of migrants into action.

Our site was a comfortable platform overlooking a large shallow and reedy lake which is bordered on one side by deciduous forest and by the wooded floodplain of a small river on the other. The day started at very first light just before seven and the first three or four hours were the busiest: a troop of about fifteen Northern Flickers staked out the tops of a group of old skeletal trees and the first of the day’s Blue Jays (200 by the end of the day) started streaming overhead. It was while I was alone in the first hour that I noticed the movement of a Brown Creeper making its secretive way up the trunk of a nearby Red Oak, following its movement I saw another bird fly to perch almost directly overhead – it was the Swainson’s Thrush; a delight and a great start to the day. I had heard the low, hollow pip! calls of Swainson’s Thrushes as I walked in during the half-light. We expect them at this time of year, but hearing them is one thing, seeing them quite another; they can be very shy and secretive.

Swainson's Thrush

Swainson’s Thrush

Shortly after my first contingent of helpers arrived we spotted a Blue-headed Vireo on the outer limbs of an American Sycamore. I have a special spot in my heart and head for vireos so I was more than happy to see it, and my companions were thrilled too. The Blue-headed Vireo is smartly dramatic in its colouring; olive back, white and yellow undersides and a steel-blue head with white eye-rings like a pair of spectacles to give it a slightly goggle-eyed look.

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue-headed Vireo

On the pond in front of us we found a large flotilla of Wood Ducks, mostly youngsters, and a couple of Green Herons. A Great Egret flew in to land on a semi-submerged log where it stood out bright white against the darkness of the forest edge.

In our first two hours we tallied twenty-eight species, then in the next two-hour block thirty-two species (many repeats). In the middle of the day, while we were being interviewed and photographed by the local daily paper, the Merlin appeared sweeping around the woodland edge fast and low. Excitedly we dropped everything to watch it effortlessly flick by, scaring the living daylights out of countless Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches and Blue Jays. The reporter was impressed that such a small, brown, thing-on-wings could move anyone to stir from their seat; he doesn’t understand us.

My last contender for bird of the day, Rusty Blackbirds, showed up late in the day, although I suspect they had been present all along, feeding along the squishy margins of the pond. I had seen a group of unidentifiable blackbirds much earlier and I’m just putting two and two together.

Rusty Blackbird

Rusty Blackbird

Our all-day count was one of two running concurrently on the natural lands of the Royal Botanical Gardens. They are one element of a study called the Long Watch, a project to gather long-term data on bird populations in this bird-rich corner of Ontario. Between our two sites we saw or heard eighty-four species including Least Bittern, Peregrine Falcon and of course my Birds of the Day. This is just our second year of operation and all being well I hope and expect the project to out-live me.