Bonaparte’s Gull

April 12 2016 Cayuga ON. In my last posting (Blue-winged Teal) I dipped my toe into the subject of phenology or the study of plant and animal life cycles in relation to seasonal change. I was reminded of this topic today.

I had spent the morning back at the bird observatory helping with the daily census and banding birds. It was pleasant work, not too fast-paced (it can be). I enjoyed close-up experiences with a Hairy Woodpecker, two Mourning Doves, several Brown-headed Cowbirds and a couple of Dark-eyed Juncos. But there was a still lot of time to catch up, discuss some of the more arcane points of embryo development in Eastern Bluebird eggs and compare birding experiences in Africa.

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

On my return I drove past a flooded field and glanced over in a vague expectation of seeing some Bonaparte’s Gulls, they’re a regular occurrence in early spring although maybe not this early. Well I was partly wrong, there was one, just one and a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs.

I went back into my archives and found that what I’d written on April 19th just three years ago could, other than the reference to a flock, be applied to today. I wrote, “ A flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls enjoying (I suppose) a brief respite from their marathon migration was a refreshing midday surprise.  Their spring migration is a long haul, taking them from the Atlantic Coast to the taiga belt of Canada’s sub-Arctic where, uniquely for gulls, they usually nest in trees. They had settled in a flooded field with evidently plenty to eat. “ The Bonaparte’s Gull was my Bird of the Day because they are rather more dainty than the more commonly encountered Ring-billed Gulls that are so common around here. And I think their black head is a classy touch.

Blue-winged Teal

April 10 2016. Hendrie Valley, Burlington ON. My birding career, if that’s what you can call it, has been a long one; six decades if I care to stretch the point. But it is only in the last four or five years that I can say that I’ve been much more than a very interested but casual observer. Nowadays I usually carry my camera and a notebook to record what I see (and hear) and while a camera and a notebook record things quite differently they both serve the same purpose: partly essential for conducting census walks and partly as a source of inspiration, illustration or reminder for writing these postings. What emerges from this more rigorous approach to birding is my growing appreciation of the cycles, patterns and rhythms, the ebb and flow of bird activity.

By way of illustration, today a companion and I completed one of our routine census walks. The air was cold but the bird activity was high nonetheless. We recorded many good species including a Golden-crowned Kinglet, two Eastern Phoebes, a Brown Creeper, a zipping-by Cooper’s Hawk and a score of hungry Tree Swallows. This is a watery part of the world and waterfowl of many species either stay for all or part of the year or pass through in spring and fall. Today we found: Canada Geese, Mallards, Wood Ducks, Gadwall, Hooded Mergansers and to our delight (and Birds of the Day) two male Blue-winged Teal.

Male Blue-winged Teal

Male Blue-winged Teal (April 10 2016)

I was so impressed by the handsomeness of the Blue-winged Teal that I made some effort to get photos knowing that distance, the prevailing light and my shivering all mitigated against a great shot; but worth a try. Back home, as I was loading the photos onto my computer I started to feel that maybe I’d done this all before: same species, same place and same time of year. And yes, on April 22nd last year I took the photo below of a pair of Blue-winged Teal in precisely the same place. It’s a better shot than today’s (above).

Pair of Blue-winged Teal

Pair of Blue-winged Teal (April 22 2015)

When I look back at last year’s April 22nd entry, my Bird of the Day was Blue-winged Teal (!) and my sightings that morning virtually identical, right down to the hunting Cooper’s Hawk.

And there it is: cycles, patterns and rhythms that you could almost set your clock by. Well maybe not your clock – there’s a two-week timing difference, but at risk of sounding glib, last year’s winter was colder and spring a couple of weeks later.

Pied-billed Grebes

April 8 2016. Cootes Paradise Hamilton ON. Our team of volunteer-birders has resumed its regime of census walks counting birds around two bird-rich mixed-habitat loops throughout April and May. We start bundled up against the last blasts of winter and finish in T-shirt weather. I well remember the first census last year, it was April first and there was plenty of old snow still lying thick on the ground. It was stimulating to be out birding and even more stimulating to find a Hoary Redpoll among a flock of Common Redpolls.   When I wrote about that sighting I got into some discussion about whether or not Hoary Redpolls and Common Redpolls are one and the same species. It’s a hair-splitting task for the taxonomists and as far as I can see, still far from clear.

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

This year, (January and March anyway) has been much, much milder, but just as we were becoming complacent the first week of April played tricks on us, once again the month opened with snow on the ground. The surge of spring migrants has continued nevertheless and today and yesterday I walked around the same census route noting a few subtle (and possibly imagined) changes.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

It was cold and raw; in a sheltered corner today we found perhaps a dozen White-throated Sparrows, a couple of lingering Dark-eyed Juncos and a handful of American Tree Sparrows; yesterday I saw none.   Two Eastern Phoebes were a bit of a surprise and there were lots of ducks whiling away the cold morning, including twelve Canvasbacks and seven Ring-necked Ducks. A large raft of snoozing Ruddy Ducks had almost doubled in size to 300 and suddenly Pied Billed Grebes appeared.

Odd ducks Pied-billed Grebes. Grebes as a family are well, different, at one end of the spectrum they are outlandish, I’m thinking of the dancer-on-water, the very elegant Western Grebe. It is as spellbinding in its athleticism as its cousin the Pied-billed Grebe is clownish and lumpy. A Pied-billed Grebe proclaiming its territory ‘sings’ of one of nature’s more hair-raising calls, a prolonged wailing, clucking and howling that eventually dwindles to a finale as if the bird is drowning itself. I’ve written about them a few times because, for all of that, the Pied-billed Grebe is in its own way sort of loveable, and despite some other enjoyable and notable sightings was my Bird of the Day.

 

Sandhill Crane or Northern Harrier

April 3 2016. Lakefield ON. We got up this morning to an obliterating snowstorm. Much as I’d like to view such arctic weather as having no future in April, it was the start of two or three truly wintery days. We had planned a weekend at a lakeside cottage and as I write, small groups of Buffleheads, Common Mergansers and Goldeneye appear and disappear on the sparkling, wind- rippled lake. Buffleheads are small ducks and dive so frequently that it’s easy to lose sight of them in anything other than a flat calm. More than once a Bufflehead took flight, one moment unseen, the next moment airborne as if by magic. They’ll be making their way north as the retreat of March ice permits and looking for small lakes and ponds to claim as their breeding territory, a place to produce the next generation.

Bufflehead

Bufflehead

On our way into a nearby town to shop for fresh market breads, two unexpected migrants crossed our path: First a pair of Sandhill Cranes, barely a hundred feet overhead and determinedly heading north.  Then minutes later a male Northern Harrier was seen quartering a winter-scalped field and rocking from side to side in the blustery west wind. Not quite under my breath I said, “Two good birds already this morning.” But I don’t think anyone else heard me; perhaps just as well. Both birds made me gasp in admiration and surprise, either might be Bird of the Day; just one person’s opinion.

Sandhill Crane - heading north.

Sandhill Crane – heading north.

Wilson’s Snipe

29 March 2016. Vinemount, Hamilton ON. I saw my first of the year Tree Swallows, Eastern Meadowlark, Red-shouldered Hawk and Northern Flicker today. The flicker was a surprise but all the others were more or less to be anticipated. A brisk off-the- lake north wind set my eyes streaming and I wondered how insectivores like Tree Swallows manage to eke out a living on these days.

First of the year Tree Swallow

First of the year Tree Swallow

I stopped beside an expanse of flooded fields in hope and expectation of finding some Kildeer, Wilson’s Snipes and assorted ducks. No ducks but a few Kildeer and four or five Wilson’s Snipe were there.

Wilson's Snipe happy on its own.

Wilson’s Snipe happy on its own.

One of the snipes was just a few yards off the road and I was able to move my car slowly forward to watch and study it . You don’t often see snipe well or for long periods, but this one was easy. I watched and snapped away for several minutes and was lucky to have my camera aimed and focused when a European Starling landed right beside the it. I don’t think the starling could have seen the snipe or anticipated its defensive and aggressive reaction; the snipe stood tall and fanned its strongly patterned tail; it was all over in one or two seconds. The sequence below seems to show the starling a little taken aback by where it finds itself as the snipe takes a Who are you? Why are you here? Move on! stance.

In a what are you doing here? stance

In a what are you doing here? stance

You'll be leaving now

You’ll be leaving now

Goodbye

Goodbye

Wilson's Snipe6

..and don’t come back

Red-winged Blackbird

27 March 2016. Cootes Paradise, Hamilton ON. There are days in the field when I expect to see the usuals yet still hope that maybe something odd will show up. At this stage in the unfolding of spring, not much odd shows up, it’s all pretty much old favourites. Today, bright, sunny and passably warm, seemed like a good opportunity to walk some familiar trails and get reacquainted with some familiar birds; which is exactly how it worked out.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

I was stopped in my tracks by a Carolina Wren who scolded me for coming too close to what I suspect will be a nest site in the tangles of man-made debris and discards around a boat house. For a while I stopped to watch a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers and a handful of Black-capped Chickadees finishing off a pile of sunflower seeds.(Click on any picture to enlarge.)

It was all very nice, good to be outdoors, and to be comparing this bright, northern hemisphere, winter-in-retreat March day with my birding experiences in Uganda just a month ago. And it was as I sifted through those memories that I was struck by the similarities between the territorial displays of this Bird-of-the-day Red-winged Blackbird and a Ugandan Fan-tailed Widowbird.

Birding in Uganda

After many days of sorting, captioning and editing photos and cross referencing them with field notes, and even more time writing, just plain writing, I have posted a page all about Birding in Uganda; well, the little corner of Uganda where I spent last month.  I hope you find it readable, I tried to avoid clogging the narrative with endless lists by moving them to an appendix.  See what you think by following this link or clicking on “Birding in Uganda” in the titles bar above.

Here’s a photo of a pair of Grey-crowned Cranes, Uganda’s national symbol, to set the stage.

Grey-crowned Cranes

Grey-crowned Cranes

 

Winter Wren

18 March 2016. Hendrie Valley, Burlington ON. Although day-to-day tropical birding is firmly behind me I’m still sifting through four weeks of field notes and photos. I’ve been able to uncover a couple of ‘new’ species, birds I’d misidentified first time around. But back in Ontario, spring is clearly underway. A two-week burst of sustained warm weather has brought in waves of Tundra Swans, Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, Song Sparrows and Turkey Vultures. They must spend the late winter anticipating and watching for a break in the weather as their green light to head north. In contrast many other species, those who spend the winter in the tropics including as far as the Amazon Basin, would have no clue about the northern winter, whether it’s let go or not, and must take their cues from the sky, the spring equinox perhaps.

Today, for the first time since January 8th, I walked around my census route. As I’d expected there were lots of changes, perhaps one of the most noticeable was the clamour of bird calls, mostly Red-winged Blackbirds and Canada Geese but Northern Cardinals and Carolina Wrens were working hard at claiming their piece of real estate too.

Winter Wren - Hendrie valley

Winter Wren – Hendrie valley

My greatest pleasure came from hearing some tiny wisps of Winter Wren song. I thought my chances of seeing them would be slim, they’re so small and work hard at staying low, but one hopped up a few metres away and stayed long enough for me to capture a few photos. It’s possible they had over-wintered here, it’s sheltered and winter has been very mild. By the end of my walk I’d seen or heard four of them.

Eastern Phoebe (in October)

Eastern Phoebe (in October)

A little later I spotted an Eastern Phoebe, undoubtedly a new arrival. They are one of the landmark arrivals of the spring migration. It’s always the return of the Tundra Swans, Red-winged Blackbirds etc. that we celebrate first and then, just as they’re becoming old hat, the first Eastern Phoebe shows up; and not far behind it a Tree Swallow or two.

My day ended with twenty-six species, a pretty good total.  It included a handful of American Robins, Blue Jays and Hairy Woodpeckers – nothing out of the ordinary there, but a dozen American Tree Sparrows singing with enthusiasm for spring, a Trumpeter Swan claiming ownership of a stretch of pond, an overhead Turkey Vulture, Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks (six of each) were all refreshing to see.  I’ll be looking for that first Tree Swallow but a week of cooler weather is forecasted; we’ll see how it goes.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

Turacos

February 2016. Rubugali. Kisoro District, Uganda. There is a patch of hilltop land near here called Heaven; aptly named in its own way. The way up is long and taxing.  You start by slogging up a very rough, rocky and shade-less track for a kilometre or so. It’s all climbing, no flat spots. The Ugandans have the right approach, walking uphill is not a challenge, it’s something you do in measured, one-at-a-time easy steps; no one is timing your ascent. After the first kilometre the track ends at an open, grassy saddle between two hills; it’s a good resting stop.

Heaven itself awaits yet another kilometre higher, but this time the trek is along an erratic, single file path. Plodding on, then pausing, you look down over fields of beans, maize and potatoes to the valley bottom far below and nearly lost in blue haze.

The top is a quite different world, cooler, quieter and more open, mainly a wide expanse of tree-dotted cattle pasture. Were it not for the occasional fence or cattle shed you might think it is an English country park.  Behind is the valley we’ve just left: occupied, cultivated from top to bottom and threaded with the distant echoes of people and their animals. In front of us lies original Africa: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest rolling away into the blue distance, from treetop to treetop it’s all green: towering trees draped in orchids, ferns and vines, and underlain with thick mattressy undergrowth scratched over in patches with geometric tree- ferns. This is where Mountain Gorillas live and where the resonant calls of birds or the grunting barks of monkeys quite simply belong.

Bwindi side of Heaven's top

Bwindi side of Heaven’s top

We actually made two day trips up to Heaven, both produced some fine and novel bird sightings: A Grassland Pipit standing erect on a rock, looking around as if it was on sentry duty; White-naped Ravens flipping over pats of cattle dung looking for beetles and grubs; and a rather sensational Black-shouldered Kite, pale grey and slender and whose flight the field guide accurately describes as soft and elegant. We struggled to identify what turned out to be a Regal Sunbird, it kept vanishing in some dense treetops but when we did finally get to look at it, it was neck-breakingly right overhead. I managed to get this Regal-Sunbird-from-underneath photo, which without explanation you’d wonder what on earth you’re looking at.

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For me there were so many new discoveries that it is hard to pick out a best bird, but perhaps the most breath-taking would be Turacos. We heard Great Blue Turacos chattering in the forest and watched a couple of Ross’s Turacos feeding in the upper layers of a fig tree. Turacos are large (chicken-size) birds, rather ponderous and breathtakingly showy. When you spot them you can usually rely on them staying where they are for a while. The Great Blue Turaco in the photo below was busy preening itself perhaps in a deliberate show of nonchalance. The Ross’s Turacos were harder to photograph and I only managed some rather coy shots. When they left the relatively open spaces of Heaven and flew back to the forest the Ross’s showed off wide expanses of crimson upper-wings.

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Tundra Swans

March 4 2016.Burlington, ON. With my head still spinning a little from thirty days spent eight time-zones east and forty-six warm degrees of latitude south of home; I’m still adjusting. Six inches of snow underfoot and temperatures thirty Celsius degrees colder don’t help.

Today I heard the first Tundra Swans of the season. Well heard is maybe not quite the right word. You know how it is when you’re somewhere and there’s all kinds of stuff going on around you: noise, distractions, traffic and people chattering, and somehow you hear someone say your name. It’s not that you hear it so much as become aware that you’ve been tagged, and, like nudging your computer mouse, some inner micro-processor wakes up, you look around and there really is someone trying to get your attention. That’s how I heard the Tundra Swans – a faint sound cut through the clutter and something inside me said, “Hey! That might be Tundra Swans – better look up, see if you can find them.” And there, quite high against a scruffy grey cloud, a small wind-tossed group of about twenty swans, flashing white as they struggle to make headway.

They were a little earlier than usual by my informal reckoning but by no means exceptionally early according to official record keepers. They’ve probably made a couple of days journey from the Atlantic coast, the start of a long trek, optimistically following the retreat of winter, to the Hudson Bay coastal lowlands. The earlier they arrive on their nesting ground the better their choice of nest site.

Tundra Swans were definitely Bird of the Day; they always captivate me but in truth they were probably the only birds I noticed today.

Tundra swans Lake Erie March 17 2009

Tundra swans Lake Erie March 17 2009

This photo was taken on St Patricks Day several years ago.