Birding in Sweden

I know you’ve been waiting for this.  I have posted my story and impressions about the birds I saw and enjoyed in Sweden on a separate page. Follow this link, or just click on “Birding in Sweden” on the black bar above.

Barnacle Goose defending nest

Barnacle Goose defending nest

 

Marsh Wren

21 July 2014 Port Maitland, ON. With the exception of evaporation and a trivial leakage at Chicago, all of the waters of the Great Lakes Basin (Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie) eventually flow down the Niagara River where, to the endless amusement of mankind, they careen over Niagara Falls before reaching Lake Ontario, the last of the Great Lakes. The cataract, while very dramatic, was always an impossible impediment to commercial shipping – and it remained so until men thought to dig around it creating canals with lift-locks. As ships grew in size, so the early canals became obsolete and were abandoned. Traces of those early canals remain, overlooked, taken for granted and often little more than a wide ditch choked with cattails and water lilies; good bird habitat.

Walking beside the headwaters of one of these old canals, I heard the short, clockwork rattle of a Marsh Wren coming from a small stand of cattails. There were other birds around too: a Belted Kingfisher, an anxious Willow Flycatcher and families of Wood Ducks. Continuing along, I saw and heard several more Marsh Wrens and was really pleased to have found an apparently vigorous population.  Marsh Wrens seem to be increasingly scarce; in at least two previously known locations I haven’t seen or heard them for a couple of years; I’m uneasy about the species’ future.

But where Marsh Wrens are to be found, it’s not difficult to find their nests, they’re always bulky bundles of intertwined reeds woven around supporting cattail stems, several feet above water level and often at our eye level. I watched an adult who appeared to be carrying food for young, visit one such nest repeatedly. The longer I watched the more I began to suspect that it was a single parent until, on one of its visits, I noted that it was carrying a large beak-full of fluff of some kind, but certainly not food. That was a surprise! Could it be that I was watching nest-building? In late July?

Marsh Wren as it leaves its nest under construction.

Marsh Wren as it leaves its nest under construction.

With some follow-up reading, I learned that Marsh Wrens are known for polygyny, with over half of males attracting more than one female. They also build dummy nests for no apparent reason. (In one study a male was observed building twenty-two of them.) This is not the place for a review of the very large topic of wren behaviour, but I think that what I was watching was a male building a dummy nest. Maybe he thought he’d prove his worthiness as a mate to watching females.  It leaves me wondering though if, somewhere nearby, one or more females were watching in exasperation hoping that he’d help out with the kids at home instead of embarking on yet another pointless construction project. I’ll never know, but it was interesting to watch and, on this hot summer day, he was easily my Bird of the Day.

Marsh Wren.  Never easy to see, they rarely stay still for very long.  But this one did.

Marsh Wren. Never easy to see, they rarely stay still for very long. But this one did.

 

and nearby was this Willow Flycatcher

and nearby was this Willow Flycatcher

Bald Eagle

16 July 2014 Hamilton, ON. The house is a riotous place these days; our daughter and her boys (a five-year old and two-year old twins) are staying with us while their kitchen is being renovated; dad is at home with the dog. This state of affairs will continue until the reno’ is complete; in other words, it’s indeterminate. I mention this because meal times, a frantic scramble to fill hungry mouths with something nourishing that will bring peace upon the house, are not unlike the struggles going on in the bird world. Fledglings are out of the nest and parent couples are trying to keep up with the endless calls for more attention. Feed me – feed me – feed me.

After a morning spent in volunteer weeding and planting, I took a long walk though woodlands and along lakeside trails and, as is so often the case, when you take the time to watch quietly, all sorts of mini-dramas unfold.

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I watched the mealtime of a handful of young Barn Swallows lined up on a fence. One of the parent birds took a few quiet minutes to attend to its summer moult. I took some quick photos and you’ll see in one of them (the ones with outstretched wings – and note the claws holding on tight), that it’s missing a couple of flight feathers. (Visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email) There are a couple of loose feathers in the under-wing lining and its body contour plumage is looking a little ragged too.Great Blue Herons

White-tailed DeerLater, I sat for a long while at the end of a marsh boardwalk just watching over a wide shallow lake. A couple of Great Blue Herons paced around watching each other carefully, a White-tailed Deer waded to the grass growing greener on the other side and, way off in the distance, one of our young Bald Eagles sat on a partially submerged log begging for food. Its parent attended solicitously helping to shred a fish and, when it looked as though the youngster had had enough, flapped away, pestered by a band of Common Terns following like the flies that might surround you on a country walk. When the time was right, the adult scooped another fish and delivered it. This is the second year that our local Bald Eagles have raised a brood, they’ve become minor celebrities and today these two, adult and child, were my Birds of the Day.Bald Eagles Ad & juv.

As mid-day wore on, it became wearying trudging those trails, but I was rewarded by the sight of a Scarlet Tanager, still blazing like a red-hot coal and singing endlessly from the top of a Red Ash tree. A singing Scarlet Tanagers sounds almost bored with its see-sawing rhythm, I wrote it down as “S’there ya are – Now t’ meetcha”..

Another good sightings was a Wood Thrush eyeing me nervously from the forest floor and heard, but not seen, were: A Black-billed Cuckoo, Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos and Swamp Sparrows.

Terns – Common & Caspian

11 July 2014 Stoney Creek, ON.  A birder acquaintance told me about a small action of his that resulted in a feeding frenzy among Common and Caspian Terns; it happened this way. Not far from his home (& mine) at the shore of Lake Ontario, a small creek gathers in a large pond before finally trickling across the gravelly beach and into the lake. Sometimes the outlet runs steadily and at other times, like last week, it gets blocked by storm debris. It being choked, Barry scraped the channel open allowing a surge of pond water into the lake. It’s the sort of thing we’ve all done at sometime over the years.

The rush of relatively warm water into Lake Ontario’s bone-aching cold produced an abundance of small fish of some kind along the edge of the lake. Whether they had been swept out of the pond and were trying to stay close to the warmer outflow, or were drawn inshore for food I don’t know; I suspect the former.

The terns found this new food source and fed greedily for a couple of days. Things have slowed down now, but after the next rain (due in two days) it may happen again. In any event it’s easy photographic pickings to sit quietly by the outflow and watch the Common Terns and Caspian Terns patrolling the shore and every now and then plunging for a fish. It was an entertaining hour or so.

And inasmuch this is about my Bird of the Day, the grace and style of these birds should say it all. But in a few of shots, note the perfection of the wing structure. It’s long and slender and you can see how the pointed primary feathers flex elegantly to carry the wing-loading; and if the simplicity of the structure of a flight feather persuades you to glue feathers to your arms and jump off a cliff; think again, it’s already been done and not well.

Here are two galleries of photos. You won’t be able to see them if you’re reading this as an email, you’ll need to be on the website.

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Eastern Kingbird juveniles

July 10 2014. Flamborough, ON. High summer is a turning point for many birds. The next big event is the fall migration to wherever they spend the dark months. Parent birds, if not busy feeding and fattening their fledglings or working on a second brood, are moulting out of their spring finery back into their everyday work clothes. The gorgeous spring colours of male Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers and Bobolinks will be gone in a few weeks.

Today I made two stops between errands. The first at a usually productive marsh that has produced American Bitterns, Sora, Virginia Rails and Pileated Woodpeckers in the past, and later at a large un-mowed field full of Savannah Sparrows, Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks.

Eastern Kingbirds fledglings

Eastern Kingbirds fledglings

It was rather quiet at the marsh. The Cattails had grown up obscuring most of the formerly open expanses, but I could hear several Marsh Wrens chattering. A Pileated Woodpecker flew low overhead and settled on a dead tree that it obviously uses as a drumming post. I was delighted by the sight of this group of young Eastern Kingbirds sitting and waiting for to be fed. They were quite a distance away but I’d guess that they have only been out of the nest for less than a week; clearly they are still very dependent for food on their parents. It’s a tough job making a living as a flycatcher (which Kingbirds are); it’s all about being fast and accurate on the wing to capture the few calories in an insect.

Along the fence-line of the grass field I found a Grasshopper Sparrow and many Savannah Sparrows. Many of the Savannahs looked really shabby, almost scrawny; I suspect they were moulting adults. Moult is a complex business to understand (and I don’t very well). All birds do it; if nothing else they have to replace worn feathers, and of course, as spring approaches, many males moult into showy breeding plumage and afterwards back out into what’s termed ‘basic’ plumage. The sequence and timing of feather loss and replacement varies from species to species; sometimes they go through a complete moult right after breeding and sometimes it’s a partial moult, started after breeding and completed after migration. I think the Savannah Sparrows below are part way through a complete post-breeding moult. (But I’ll be happy to corrected).

Savannah Sparrow in moult (note tail feather)

Savannah Sparrow in moult (take a close look and you’ll see a loose tail feather)

Savannah Sparrow in moult Savannah Sparrow (molting)

Savannah Sparrow in moult

Savannah Sparrow in moult

 

Common Eider

28 June 2014. Gothenburg, Sweden. Earlier I commented on a small family group of Common Eiders. Today we took advantage of one of the best and cheapest sightseeing cruises possible and along the way saw dozens of such groups, enough to have a better idea of who’s who among the Eiders of June.

First the cruise. This, I know, is not especially on topic but should you ever find yourself at loose ends in Gothenburg, Sweden, then here’s a suggestion. Buy a single-ride transit ticket for 25 Kroner (about $4.00) and take either the number 9 or number 11 tram all the way out to the coastal community of Saltholm, then transfer onto a ferry (all on the same ticket, the ferry is a part of the public transit system), and enjoy a cruise. Depending on which of the many ferry routes you choose, you’ll return some time later after a no-frills, no-nonsense trip around some to Sweden’s most dramatic coastline; all for 25Kr. We did, and had enough time to ride a ferry that made a dozen stops. We accomplished the whole trip (against a backdrop of dark thunder clouds and distant lightning) in the space of four hours before boarding a train for our return to Stockholm. It all worked smoothly although we had barely fifteen minutes to spare by the time we boarded the train.

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It is maybe something of an exaggeration to characterize a ferry ride as a cruise, but there are many tourist excursions operating from Gothenburg that offer cruises that visit the same chain of islands and, other than allowing you time to step ashore and shop for a while, offer little to distinguish them from the ferries.

I’m sharing all of this because it was on this accelerated cruise that I managed to get in a good two solid hours of pelagic bird-watching. Maybe for more money I’d have seen more species but my twelve-species list including: Common Eiders, Black-headed Gull, Grey-lag Geese, Barnacle Geese, Shelducks, Great Black-backed Gulls and a couple of Oystercatchers was probably about as good as it gets.

Female Common Eider & young

Female Common Eider & young

Youngish Common Eiders

Youngish Common Eiders

Male Common Eiders nearing eclipse plumage

The Eiders were well worth the money and Birds of the Day. I enjoyed long looks at groups of all-brown ones which as far as I can tell would comprise breeding females (which have pale tipped bills) non-breeding second-year birds and this year’s juveniles. The latter were easy, they were all or somewhat fluffy, brown and anywhere from fist to watermelon size, and they tended to scurry after an adult female. Males were at that difficult eclipse stage where they are undergoing a mid to late summer moult, so generally they appeared all black except for a conspicuous slash of white on the back.

Hawfinch

30 June 2014 Skogskyrkogården, Stockholm, Sweden. I spent a couple of hours wandering and looking for birds at Stockholm’s Skogskyrkogården cemetery today. There are a few things you should know about Skogskyrkogården.

First, I’m pretty sure that unless you’re Swedish you have little chance of pronouncing the word. That little circle over the ‘a’ changes things, it’s not an ‘a’ as in card, or back, or wave, but something quite different. Also those ‘k’s and the ‘g’ are not apparently represented with a hard sound. I have heard the full word announced on the subway frequently and each time I repeat in my head until I’m persuaded that I will be able to say it later; I never can.

Second, Skogskyrkogården is not just any old cemetery, it is recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site on account of it’s ground-breaking and revolutionary landscape design. It attracts many visitors including scholars of art, landscape and urban design; and not a few birders too I should imagine. Most of it is a mature pine forest manicured as graveyard although some of it is still quite untouched; an expansive un-forested part is open, landscaped and grassy.

Foraging Greenfinches. Skogskyrkogarden

Foraging Greenfinches. Skogskyrkogarden

I walked up to the top of a small rise capped with a geometric planting of elms which had started scattering their flat seeds. I noticed a few Greenfinches on top of one of the elms, another joined them and then another until soon it was a flock which, hesitantly at first, moved down to the ground to feed on elm seed. I watched for quite a while and noticed that among them was a Hawfinch; I’d never seen a Hawfinch before, in my childhood they’d only existed in the pages of books, this was quite a find for me.

Hawfinch.

Hawfinch.

At first glance they are reminiscent of a Cedar Waxwing, the same general size and colouring. But Hawfinches are top-heavy birds thanks to the large powerful muscles that power a fearsome beak which is powerful enough to split a cherry stone, something none of us would care to try for long.

My subsequent reading justifies why, despite having spent my childhood looking at birds, (without binoculars) I’d never knowingly seen one. They are not uncommon, but the books tell me that Hawfinches are not easy to see, they tend to be elusive, preferring the upper reaches of broad-leaved trees and they’re quick to take flight.

Foraging Goldfinch

Foraging Goldfinch

Chaffinch & Greenfinch. Skogskyrkogarden

I stayed around for quite a while watching and enjoying the Greenfinches, a trio of Goldfinches and one or two Chaffinches almost as much as the Hawfinch. I spent just as much time waiting for the flock to return to the area and for feeding to resume after the they’d startled and taken flight. Perhaps it was my presence that unnerved them, but it seemed that without warning they’d all explode into flight and fly off, calling and twittering, to a distant forest edge until a few minutes later, one or two would return and then more until gradually they were all back happily feeding until the next alarm.

Jay

29 June 2014. Stockholm Sweden. Stockholm has been rather gloomy and cool these past few weeks. It’s been too easy to linger indoors but by the middle of this morning, I needed a leg stretch so spent a couple of hours walking around what is now familiar ground.

Stockholm itself is laced with inlets, arms and branches of Lake Malaren and the city has done an enviable job of developing and growing in harmony with nature and its thousands of kilometres of waterfront; finding pleasant wooded places to walk is easy.

It was darkly overcast and spitting with rain when I left but everything brightened up quickly and was verging on warm for a while. I wasn’t particularly looking for birds but just as I came within a hundred metres or so of returning to our apartment I encountered a small group of Jays in an oak tree, they were busying themselves with family politics and paid me little heed. I was on the high level walkway of a bridge looking at them at eye level from just a few metres away. They were, as I said, busy with family matters and hopped and flitted around quite a bit, sometimes in the open but often as not partially hidden. Sensing that for once I had birds within easy camera range I made myself comfortable and waited for my opportunities to happen. Here are two of them.imageimage
These were an easy Bird of the Day for me, I have always admired Jays, both the European, (Garrulus glandarius) and our North American species: Blue Jay, Gray Jay, and Stellars Jay all of them opinionated and handsome. I’ve written about all of them from time to time; memorably (for me) in September 2012 when I encountered this same European species in Holland where it known as the Flemish Jay or Vlaasmse Gaai.

 

Black-throated or Arctic Loon

22 June 2014. Stockholm’s archipelago.  Stockholm sits at a pivot point between the brackish, non-tidal waters of the Baltic Sea and the endlessly branching fresh waters of Lake Malaren, the long fingers of which drain far into the heart of central Sweden.  Indeed Stockholm was founded on a small strategic island astride what must have been some furious rapids where the sweet water dropped the last few meters to meet the salty. Between Stockholm and the open Baltic lies a delta of islands scattered like a handful of gravel, some large and populated but many no more than ice-polished rock humps; this is the archipelago, Stockholm’s playground.

Summer homes in Stockholm Archipelago

Summer homes in Stockholm Archipelago

On a sightseeing cruise through the islands and out to fashionable Sandhamn, our boat threaded between steep granite walls, across open stretches of lake and along quiet iris-lined backwaters. It was a day of bright sun interspersed with cold rain that came in black, blustery squall fronts; and to judge by the the Swedish reaction, June can be like that. On the return trip, most passengers stayed out of the cold but I found a sheltered corner and, with a couple of cushions under and blankets over me, was quite comfortable. It was during this watch that I spotted a pair of Black-throated Loons with a single chick in their care.  I was, I admit, excited and quite unprepared for such a surprise but a quick check of my field guide (which doesn’t get excited about individual species – and nor should it) supported the sighting and also, somewhat dryly, informed me that this species is known by North Americans as the Arctic Loon. My mental Loon-list has now accounted for four (Common, Red-throated, Black-throated and Pacific) of the world’s five species. It may be a long wait for the Yellow-billed Loon which is a bird of northern Russia and Norway.
Maybe it’s just North Americans who get dewey-eyed and wistful at the sight and sound of the loon (by which we usually mean the Common Loon), they are after all the familiar hallmark of northern lakes. I have seen no evidence that Europeans hold loons in any particular esteem, they’re just not a recognizable part of the outdoors; at least not conspicuously so. When they are at their most appealing, both in breeding plumage and and voice, they are far away in remote northern waters, except of course here in Scandinavia. In winter, when loons head for the coastlines of America and Europe, they may appear as no more than a distant grey duck.
A straggling family of Common Eiders was another pleasant surprise. There seemed to be about a dozen of them which may have been a female and well-grown young but it also included a handsome summer-plumage male which may have been the father of the brood. If I sound a little tentative it’s because I’m not sure that the drakes have much to do with parenting once the brood is out of the nest; it may be that my group comprised birds that for one reason or another were non-breeders.
Apart from the loons and Eiders, the bird sightings were in many ways illustrative of how alike are so many European and American species. I noted a couple of Common Sandpipers flitting low across quiet stretches of water and for all the world you’d think they were (our North American) Spotted Sandpipers but without the spots as if out of breeding plumage. The same goes for Grey Herons (like Great-blue), Coots (like American Coot), Cormorants and Nuthatches (all much the same world-wide) and Tree Creepers (virtually identical to Brown Creeper); and so goes birding in Sweden.

Stockholm Archipelago

Stockholm Archipelago

Great Spotted Woodpecker.

18 June 2014. Sylvhyttea, Dalarna, Sweden. This corner of Sweden, the Landskap of Dalarna, holds some interesting lessons for other parts of the world. I’m not talking of the legendary Swedish way of living in a thoughtfully modern, clean and harmonious society, a condition that I can’t help feeling is about as far as it is possible to get from the way things work in other parts of the western world, Texas or Florida for example, I’m thinking of some lessons learned about nature’s ability to recover from industrialization, but only if you’re lucky.

Dalarna and much of Northern Sweden is rich in minerals: iron, copper and other ores; indeed one of the world’s richest deposits of iron ore lies in Kiruna, well north of Dalarna and within the Arctic Circle. For two or three hundred years from the seventeenth to the first half of the twentieth centuries, Dalarna was pockmarked with mines and smelting operations, some of them on a necessarily small scale but a few very large.

The tranquil little corner where I heard the Cuckoo a couple of days ago, Norn, was just such a place. Although the scale was small, just two towering furnaces for smelting ore, its footprint was large: The diversion of natural water courses to power water wheels; The unceasing clearance of forests to fire the smelting processes; The attendant infrastructure that goes with heavy industry; Everything involved in transportation of raw and finished materials, and supporting the homes and community of a hundred or so souls. Today little remains of all of that, it is now a pretty little lakeside village with a dozen or so interesting homes and assorted buildings, some odd topography and the mostly overgrown ruins of what once must have been a dirty and in many ways dangerous place. Today you visit Norn to see the Swallows nesting in the old smelting house, watch White Wagtails strutting down the quiet gravel road and listen for Cuckoos; at least I asume that’s what most people do.

The lesson happily learned is that despite centuries of violent abuse of, and intrusion into, a natural landscape, Mother Nature can sometimes recover and reclaim the landscape and make it pretty again. I don’t want to trivialize the power of mankind’s industry to lay waste; goodness knows there are enough examples of damage done that will take centuries, if ever to undo: Chernobyl, Sudbury and the Sahara Desert come to mind; Dalarna got off lightly.

Today we visited a couple of old abandoned mine sites and ended up at Sylvhyttea (there should be two dots over that final ‘a’), a quiet little picnic spot sitting between two sizeable forest-encircled lakes. A small waterway with a lift lock connects the two lakes and it, together with a handful of picturesque stone and wood-clad buildings, is almost all that remains today of a sizeable industrial enterprise that grew up around smelting silver and later, and more successfully, iron. Now it it one of the nicest picnic sites imaginable, a century ago doubtless it was a grossly polluted and rather desolate place. It was here that we encountered a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers who were busy carrying food to their nest-load of hungry youngsters. Rather like the Fieldfares of Day One of our holiday, the Great Spotted Woodpecker is another of those dreamed-of childhood birds; often wondered about from the pages of books but never actually seen by me until I find myself where they are commonplace. But there they were, large as life and living up to the description found in my field guide, “...saturated red underparts sharply demarcated from whitish belly, by unstreaked flanks, and by its two large, white, oval shoulder patches. The black wings are barred white….” Once seen it turns out they’re everywhere, or so I’m told.  The Great Spotted Woodpecker is a reasonably frequent winter visitor to bird feeders and my son mentioned that he’d watched a couple from his apartment balcony just this morning; never mind, that doesn’t detract from Great Spotted Woodpecker being my Bird of the Day.

Great Spotted Woodpecker at nest hole

Great Spotted Woodpecker at nest hole

Pied Flycatcher

Pied Flycatcher

My dallying to admire and perhaps get a photograph of the woodpecker may have momentarily taxed the patience of the rest of our group.  But then it should be noted that in the greater interests of the group’s agenda I let pass many even more intriguing sightings that normally would have held my attention for much longer. This is the season of intense bird parenting, there seems to be fledglings and anxious adults everywhere I turn and with such easy pickings I was able to enjoy watching a pair of Swallows visiting their nest under a small dock, Spotted and Pied Flycatchers carrying food and even a nervous female Goldeneye with three scurrying young bobbing in her wake.image

Goldeneye with young

Goldeneye with young