Winter Wren

October 14th. 2017. RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. I scrapped the first couple of attempts at writing this because I was struggling to frame the idea that some migrant species arrive in waves, or pulses. But that’s it, that’s what I wanted to say. It’s mid October, probably the majority of south-bound species have cleared out by now and birding these days features the arrival and passage of the hardier species passing through as if on a schedule.

What we’re seeing at this rather late date is the passage of migrants most of whom are quite winter-hardy. For them almost anywhere with the right habitat south of the Great Lakes is safe enough through the winter months and we are at the northern limit of that winter range. Some will stay with us especially in sheltered places like valleys with open water or around houses and thick hedges.

For a week or two we have been witness to hordes of White-throated Sparrows working through our woodlands, everywhere you focus your attention there would be a white-throat or two bouncing around. With them came Goldencrowned Kinglets, always on the move, picking, fluttering and searching especially around leaf stalks for insects, they’ve been followed closely by Rubycrowned Kinglets who I think are now in the majority.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Barely a week ago the first Hermit Thrushes of the fall showed up, now they are almost common; although common may not be the best choice of word because you don’t see many, they’re so secretive. Today I happened upon two, but they are evasive and stay low, I’m certain there are many more around. While other members of the thrush family make their way into Central and South America, the Hermit Thrush manages to get though winter in the southern half of the United States and into Mexico; a few even linger as far north as this part of Ontario but I think they’re really pushing their luck.

Winter Wren

In the last couple of days Winter Wrens have shown up, a very few will stay the winter but most will keep going. It’s often just a flicker of dark movement somewhere low and impossibly tangled that gives them away. But if you’re patient they usually re-emerge just a few feet away and jump around, flying low and fast, to get your measure.

Winter Wren

Four Winter Wrens were my Birds of the Day but were among many interesting sightings. They were in a transect count that included a late Common Yellowthroat, nearly sixty White-throated Sparrows (it’s reasonable to assume that for every one I counted another ten were not far away.): Two Hermit Thrushes, Two Swamp Sparrows and, heard but not seen, an Eastern Towhee. I’ll be listening and watching for more signs of the Towhee, it just might stay in this sheltered valley.

Hermit Thrush

October 9th. 2017. RBG Arboretum, Hamilton, ON. Last night we were drenched with the aftermath of a late tropical storm, originally Hurricane Nate, as hurricane’s go it was a relatively lightweight number but it still managed to do a lot of damage to Costa Rica. I was scheduled to do one of our transects and had pretty well decided it would be a wash out, but then the rain stopped and radar showed the whole system had moved on. It was a good outing that delivered a handful of surprises.

Turkey Vultures’ roost

First in rather gloomy light, a roosting flock of forty Turkey Vultures on the skeleton of a transmission line tower. These are birds who prefer to soar on warm rising air than flap too hard for a living so I’m sure they were waiting for the sun to come out.

Northern Mockingbird.

Once on the trail I was almost shocked to find a Northern Mockingbird sharing the upper reaches of a leafless hawthorn with a flock of Redwinged Blackbirds. It really was a surprise, it’s been far too long since my last one. They have never been common here, we’re on the northern edge of their range, and I feel the local population has dwindled in the past half-dozen or so years, partly due, I suspect, to the aftermath of a couple of punishing winters, I don’t know. Anyway I was very pleased to see it and asterisked it in my field notes as probable Bird of the Day.

Rounding the corner to a grassy path that cuts through a wide expanse of waist high goldenrod and dogwood, I found myself among a nervous scattering of Myrtle Warblers, Song Sparrows, Whitecrowned Sparrows, a Common Yellowthroat and a Tennessee Warbler. The White-crowned Sparrows were also Bird of the Day-worthy and especially captivating; just like their White-throated Sparrow cousins. Both are just-passing-through birds, the White-throats show up first, and we can count on them for charm, then the White-crowneds follow a bit later as if to show how smart a sparrow can be. Here’s one photographed one spring morning some years ago.

White-crowned Sparrow

The path leads through a tunnel of overgrown shrubs into a tract of tall mixed forest. In the too often bird-less tunnel I was happy to find several flitting Myrtle Warblers and a lone Eastern Phoebe, which always managed to stay several comfortable yards ahead of me. But a nice surprise came when a Hermit Thrush (the first of three this morning) popped up to take a quick look at me, trying to decide whether I was much of a threat I suppose. All of our thrush species have a discrete, almost shifty, way of moving from your approach, making you wonder whether you only imagined movement. Then if you do catch sight of one, it’s usually looking back over its shoulder, in a kind of better-safe-than-sorry stance.

Hermit Thrush

This family of thrushes can be quite confusingly similar in appearance and making a quick identification takes some practice and experience. The Hermit Thrush is one of the easiest because its back, rump and tail show a rich rusty brown as this photo taken in my back yard a couple of years ago shows.

Much as I’d enjoyed the Northern Mockingbird and the White-throated Sparrows the Hermit Thrush really stopped me in my tracks and stood out as my Bird of the Day.

The two hours I spent on the trail produced well over thirty species, not bad at all, but among them were many very nice sightings: the vultures, mockingbird, sparrows and thrushes as described, but also a handful of discrete Tennessee Warblers, two Common Yellowthroats, twenty or so American Robins getting drunk on some ripe magnolia berries, a small flock of Chipping Sparrows and a Cooper’s Hawk in a leafless tree quietly watching over a wide park hoping for an easy kill.

Brown Thrasher

October 5th 2017. RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. It was a glorious morning to be out birding, the sort of day that the Great Masters might have painted glowing radiant light. There would have been mythical creatures peacefully attending gentlefolk, heavenly hosts gazing beatifically from distant clouds and of course birds decorating the landscape. While we didn’t manage the entire composition we certainly had birds decorating the landscape.

I’m sure today was International White-throated Sparrow Day, they were everywhere. You can grow a little tired of some over-abundant species, Red-winged Blackbirds come to mind, but not the White-throated Sparrow. As sparrows go they are pretty, the browns are rich, the black and white striped head is bold and the white bib (when evident, because it isn’t always) modestly charming. They have a distinctive spring and summer song, which is reduced to a sibilant whisper at this time of year; instead we recognize them now by a rather short metallic chip note, “plink’. I was supposed to be counting them and tallied ninety but I’ll bet there were ten times as many around the valley.

White-throated Sparrow

Coming a close second in abundance were Myrtle Warblers. At this time of year they are comparatively drab and were it not for their signature yellow rump they might cause a lot of confusion. I counted just over thirty but again, for every one I counted I’ll bet there was another dozen.

Myrtle (Yellow-rumped) Warbler

These two species are on my long list of small-f favourites, not for any special reason, I just like them and the day might have been satisfying enough with them alone, but many more surprises were to come. My list for the day hold ones and twos of many species which I had assumed had left for good some days or even weeks ago: a Nashville Warbler, two Palm Warblers, an Eastern Phoebe, a Philadelphia Vireo, two Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and – My Bird of the Day a Brown Thrasher which certainly invoked my Wow! response.

Brown Thrasher

I thought Brown Thrashers had left for good a month or so ago, wrongly it turns out; I certainly hadn’t seen one since mid-late August. But there it was, feasting shyly on the thick bunches of Virginia Creeper fruit. Searching various reference books I’ve learned that Brown Thrashers don’t need to go very far south to find suitable winter quarters and may sometimes be found here during the coldest months. Well, not so unusual I suppose, but still My Bird of the Day, it too is in my long list of small-f favourites.

Eastern Phoebe

The drama of the day came while I was looking down across a pond holding passive Wood Ducks and Mallards, I heard a brief splash and caught the vanishing sight of a Peregrine Falcon climbing strongly away from the pond and heading to the crest of a line of tall oaks. It was one of those fleeting Peregrine glimpses and I assume the splash was a panicked but still alive duck, the falcon left empty handed.

Canvasbacks and Common Gallinule

September 26th 2017. Port Rowan Wetland, ON. Today brought the break in the weather we’d been waiting for. The overnight turned cool, we found morning temperatures in low teens (C.) and a steady breeze from the north-west.

With this change of weather in mind and anticipating a rewarding day my companion and I headed to Long Point, arguably one of the best (if not the best) birding spots in Canada. Long Point is a 38 km, east-west aligned, finger of sand, anchored at one end and leading out into the middle of Lake Erie. In many ways it is effectively an island and for reasons I have yet to fully understand, migrant birds are drawn to it before working their way back westward to the base of the finger to rejoin the mainland.

Our day started in the woods around the bird observatory and it was busy: busy with volunteer observers counting, collecting and banding birds, busy with visitors like us and busy with birds almost everywhere we looked. My British companion could hardly keep his feet on the ground he was so inspired and excited by the abundance. He used expressions to describe the windfall, common enough in England I imagine but oddly colourful to North Americans, “It’s mental, it’s heaving with warblers everywhere you look!” he exclaimed before disappearing down another trail dense with wild grape and poison ivy.

Myrtle Warbler in fall drab

Much of the activity was Mytle Warblers but there were other favourites of mine like Blue-headed Vireo and Northern Harriers. In our half-day spent more or less in one small area I noted about forty species, a good half of which would be comment-worthy sightings any day and included: Wilson’s Snipe (three feeding in the deep mud of a shallow pond), a Blackthroated Green Warbler, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, three Bald Eagles, and first Bird of the Day, a long, V-skein of Canvasbacks high overhead.  Almost out of sight, flying in silence and twinkling in the sunlight, perhaps a hundred and fifty of them. Sadly many of them will end up one on someone’s table; they are one of America’s favourites, roasted and served with fried hominy and red currant. They look better, I think, served up like the ones below (ice and snow excepted).

Canvasbacks (& a Redhead) in a Christmas Day snow storm

To close out the day we made a side trip to a managed wetland where we found an interesting assortment of ducks and near-ducks: Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Mallards, Pied-billed Grebe, American Coot and a last minute joint-Bird of the Day, a Common Gallinule with her trio of fluffy black chicks. As soon as I saw it I exclaimed “And there’s a Moorhen!” Well a year or two ago I would have been correct, it was a moorhen, but the arbiters of nomenclature have renamed it Common Gallinule; a name that doesn’t trip nearly as easily off the tongue.

Common Gallinule

Going back through some of my old books, first published variously in 1898, 1934, and 1966 this species was always Common Gallinule and then sometime in the not to distant past ‘they’ decided to call it Common Moorhen. That was an easy and welcome change for me because it is virtually identical to the European Moorhen of my childhood; an aquatic bird of quiet waterways with plenty of shoreline vegetation. Too good to last,a short-lived name change now it’s gone back to being Common Gallinule.

Others seem to see them with regularity, I don’t. It’s been a few years since I last caught a glimpse of one so, scarce or not, today’s Common Gallinule was an easy Bird of the Day in the company of that earlier flight of Canvasbacks.

Cooper’s Hawks

September 26th 2017. RBG Arboretum, Hamilton, ON. Another hot day brought low expectations for bird activity. Today was forecasted to be almost the last of this dehydrating heat wave. My companion and I made our way through woodlands listening to Blue Jays screeching and chuckling and walked a lakeside trail scanning the waters hoping for something more interesting than the usual rolling and roiling flocks of hungry Double-crested Cormorants.

At a time when we would normally be seeing active small migrants, warblers, vireos and the like, we struggled to find much movement in the trees at all. We spent an inordinate amount of time trying to make out this small warbler, neck-wrenchingly high overhead. Here’s a blown-up photo, the best I could get and I think it was a Myrtle Warbler.

Myrtle Warbler

A word about Myrtle Warblers is in order here. In about 1974 when I first started birding in Canada there were Myrtle Warblers, I won’t say I knew them well; they were just one more puzzling warbler species among the two or three dozen that might be encountered. Around that time a formal committee of the American Ornithologists’ Union decided that Myrtle Warbler was too sweepingly vague and that it should thereafter be split into at least two species; our local bird would become the Yellow-rumped Warbler and out west there would be Audubon’s Warbler. Well, that did make it easier for many of us; Yellow-rumped is after all a perfectly descriptive name (whereas neither Myrtle nor Audubon’s tells a novice birder anything helpful). And so for as long as I have been posting to this site I have greeted Yellow-rumped Warblers countless times, they are a conspicuous and much-loved part of our avifauna. But the Yellow-rumped is no more: it and its close relatives have been re-sorted and the Myrtle Warbler is back with us.

Our Bird of the Day was a pair of young Cooper’s Hawks that stormed us, flying low and fast up the middle of a trail, approaching us at eye-level and only breaking away at the last moment. They split, one veered to the lake while the other shot to our right and settled in a tree not five metres away. It sat nervously on a branch watching us warily but allowed me to take several pictures, here’s one of the best.

Cooper’s Hawk

It all happened so fast and I was uncertain, were they Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawks? The two species are all but identical and my opportunistic photos didn’t help much. There are some subtle plumage and structural differences and Sharp-shins are generally smaller, but only generally smaller because a female Sharp-shinned may be larger than a male Cooper’s. After the fact examination of my photos and some poring over texts persuaded me these were young Cooper’s Hawks.

We were still tingling from this close engagement when a little later we saw two more Cooper’s Hawks who were trying to ignore groups of protesting Blue Jays; the jays chased and screamed and the hawks coarsely SSHHhhhd back at them.

Common Grackles

September 23rd 2017. RBG Arboretum, Hamilton, ON. A blanket of hot weather has rolled over us and promises to hang around for a few days yet. Heat really puts the damper on all bird activity so my companion and I had low expectations of today’s count around one of our defined routes.

Saving the day though were uncountable numbers of Common Grackles pacing around and feeding across a wide-open expanse of short grass. By wide and open I’m referring to an expanse, perhaps five or ten acres, of clear, tree-dotted parkland, and the grackles were thick on the ground. We approached slowly hoping for a closer look suspecting that the group included some Red-winged Blackbirds and hoping that maybe, with luck, a few Rusty Blackbirds too, but no, it was all grackles.

Common Grackle

They were quite a spectacle and counting them was impossible. They were flighty anyway and kept moving, marching and leap-frogging, group over group as if they were anticipating a call any moment to take off and leave for good; a bit like waiting for your flight to be announced. Enough of a spectacle to be Birds of the Day, especially in light of the rest of a hot day’s birding.

The woods and skies were noisy with migrating Blue Jays, but otherwise we were recording species numbers in ones and twos. One White-breasted Nuthatch, one Great Blue Heron (see artsy photo below), two Hairy Woodpeckers and so on. An hour later sticky and weary it really was time to call it quits.

Great Blue Heron

Lincoln’s Sparrow.

September 12th 2017. RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. Cool weather continues to chase the birds south. It was just 14 degrees C. at 8.50 this morning when I started a count of birds in the valley.

It starts with a stretch of trail that gets a lot of foot traffic, much of it families bringing offerings of cracked corn and sunflower seeds for the waiting Gray Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks, Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches and Mourning Doves. Occasionally (and this was one of those days) something unusual and migratory stumbles upon the bounty, we sometimes see Fox Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows mixed in. Today there was something altogether new – Lincoln’s Sparrows.

Another day I might have overlooked them. As I approached the bottom of a small hill I saw and noted what I took to be a couple of Song Sparrows scuffling with all the usual ruffians. Then one of them shot across the path running (yes running) like a panicked rodent. I wondered for a moment if what I’d seen was a large vole and not a bird; a worrying sort of misidentification for an experienced birder you’ll understand, or maybe I’d just imagined something. Then it happened again and this time I knew it was a bird, but this was behaviour unlike any I’d ever seen before. Birding is full of new experiences most of which get tucked away and absorbed as part of the lore and so far this rodent run was nothing more than that.

Then moving on I heard a song I didn’t recognize, a weak musical trill, pretty and puzzling. I found who was singing it and I realized it was a Song Sparrow lookalike but definitely not a Song Sparrow. It didn’t take long to narrow the field to Lincoln’s Sparrow, not that I’ve seen many, but there were a few field marks to point in that direction. I found a recording of the song on an iPhone app to clinch the identification and smiled inwardly; a new one for the valley.

Lincoln’s Sparrow getting ready to run across the path

A little later I met one or two more Lincoln’s Sparrows, singing too. Song at this time of year is unusual but without it I might well have noted a handful of Song Sparrows. Here is a better picture of a Lincoln’s Sparrow followed by one of a Song Sparrow, you’ll understand the confusion.

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Song Sparrow

There was more to the day of course. The last of the season’s vireos: Philadelphia, Warbling and Red-eyed, a couple of Belted Kingfishers patrolling the waterways and a shy Green Heron. All delightful birds but it was definitely the Lincoln’s Sparrow that carried the day.

Philadelphia Vireo

September 10th 2017. RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. The vireos are on the move, Red-eyed, Warbling and Philadelphia, all heading south. I’m sad to see them go, but it’s time and birding would only be half the fun if we didn’t have the ebb and flow of migrants in their varying seasonal plumages. In the valley there were lots of vireos in what seemed to be small groups, I think though it could well have been a mass movement and I was just seeing several whenever I stopped to look.

It wasn’t only vireos; the valley was busy with birds (and Sunday strollers). Obvious migrants included Swainson’s Thrushes, American Redstarts, Rosebreasted Grosbeaks and a pair of Scarlet Tanagers, the male now dressed in olive green rather than the fiery scarlet of spring and summer.  Few birds stay still long enough to allow me a good photo, for every one photo I post dozens are discarded. But today a pair of vireos was moving slowly enough for me to get at least one decent shot.

Philadelphia Vireo

I have to admit that I was surprised to see I’d photographed a Philadelphia Vireo and not a Red-eyed Vireo as I had assumed. While they are quite similar my pride had assured me I knew the difference, the Philly is a bit smaller and distinctly washed yellow below, but somehow I’d missed the cues. It doesn’t matter, I’m happy to have a decent picture of a Philadelphia Vireo and it was my bird of the day.

Common Yellowthroat (juv)

There were many Common Yellowthroats too. The adult males of the species with their bold Lone Ranger mask are unmistakable all year, but the females and juveniles are much subtler. Here, above, is one from today showing a yellow throat as you might expect but little else to make it an easy identification. Their damp habitat behaviour and rather flinty chip note helps with identification but I have to say there’s lots of room for mistakes.

Common Yellowthroat.

Swainson’s Thrush

September 6th 2017. Morgan’s Point, Ontario. My calendar was open and invited me to squander a day in aimless birding.  Well not quite aimless, I had some ideas where good birding was to be found so made my way to the shores of Lake Erie. At this time of year there’s a reasonable chance of finding gatherings of southbound shorebirds; conditions have to be right.

What makes Lake Erie most productive for birds and birders is a spell of churning stormy weather to drive swaths of loose aquatic vegetation ashore. Then allow a week or so for rank decay to begin and you have an odiferous feast of invertebrates for hungry birds. Understandably these are conditions that shoreline property owners hate and believe that ‘they’ (government at some level) should do something about it.  It was that way at the end of August four years ago when I had a marvellous day studying and photographing yellowlegs, sandpipers and plovers.  But today was the sort of day made for beach-strolls and sunbathers but not much good for birds and birders. Inland was a little different though.

Sandhill Cranes

It’s an hour’s drive to Lake Erie and I took back roads as much as possible. A couple of open fields held distant clusters of what I assumed were Killdeers, but they were too far away to invest a lot of time studying.  Much better were a pair of Sandhill Cranes seen gleaning a recently harvested wheat field.  I pulled to the shade of a Burr Oak and watched them for a while thinking of the Grey Crowned Cranes of Uganda I had admired for the same reasons six months ago.  Stately would be the right adjective for cranes.  What would it be like, I wondered, to be a crane, stalking fields with precisely chosen strides, hunting late summer grasshoppers, tidying up grain spills and unafraid; at that size and with a dangerous looking spear of a beak you would think cranes are pretty well unassailable.  I know that in some mid-western farmlands crane populations have become a nuisance and many are shot, whether a ‘harvest’ is really warranted or whether it’s itchy trigger fingers I don’t know; I hope they taste good.

I was sure these Sandhill Cranes would be my Birds of the Day but it was still early and exploring the shores of Lake Erie was yet to come. I stopped for a while at a wooded lakeside park, it was unexciting and I didn’t see much except for this delightfully subtle Swainson’s Thrush, it stopped me in my tracks; my Bird of the Day.

Swainson’s Thrush

It’s hard to put my finger on just what it is about these reclusive birds, all of our thrushes: Swainsons, Grey-cheeked, Hermit and Wood Thrushes and their Veery cousins are generally soft brown, cream or buff; hardly showy. But they are songsters that lay down ethereal and fluting songs in the spring forests, sounds that always make birders stop and listen.

I wrapped up my day gazing at a scattering of shorebirds working the shallow stretches of a flooded and now abandoned quarry. There were several Greater Yellowlegs and to my surprise two Black-bellied Plovers, one adult and one juvenile. It’s been a few years since I last saw this species and they always make for a satisfying sighting. I wouldn’t call them stocky or stolid but they are well-proportioned and handsome, typically plover-ish like their Killdeer cousins, only better. Killdeers are inclined to act a little hysterically, like street performers and so are hard to take very seriously. Black-bellied Plovers on the other hand conduct themselves with an air of solemnity, more ringmaster than juggler.

The shot below shows Black-bellied Plovers in spring, at their most handsome, surrounded by a mass of Short-billed Dowitchers.

Black-bellied Plovers and Short-billed Dowitchers

Cape May Warbler

September 2nd 2017. Algonquin Island, Toronto ON. The Cape May Warbler has been a bit of a nemesis bird for me. It’s not particularly uncommon during those two short times of the year when they pass through, but somehow I seem to keep on missing them. I have quite a vivid memory of one from some years ago and I thought I had a photo too, but I can’t find it. This is the fall migration time for many warbler species and things changed today, not only did I see two or three Cape May Warblers but I had time enough to register what I was seeing and I came home with a few decent photos; here are two of them.

Cape May Warbler.

Like many warblers, it’s an even more eye-catching bird in May when the streaky-chested male shows handsome chestnut cheek patches encircled by a bright yellow face. At this time of year though the cheek patches are fainter, although with a bit of imagination you can make them out in the photos. This Cape May Warbler was my Bird of the Day, hard earned in a day of much walking and hard searching.

I had joined a group of bird enthusiasts exploring a cluster of islands lying a short ferry ride from the shining geometry of downtown Toronto. Appropriately named, Toronto Islands, are a recreational refuge covering a lot of real estate. It took us all day to walk, well saunter, from one end to the other and I estimate we covered nearly ten kilometres.

At one time our route took us hard alongside the perimeter fence of a commercial airfield and we were entertained by a metallic voice from a motion-triggered recording that told us sternly we were in a restricted area and had better leave right away; we just kept slogging along. Shortly afterwards a bored looking security guard drove past us, he on the inside we on the outside, and I’m not convinced that he saw us.

I think the group as a whole tallied about sixty-six species, I counted fifty-four including several other warbler species including Blackpoll Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Magnolia Warbler and Nashville Warbler, all shown below with photos from other late summer excursions.

Blackpoll Warbler

Common Yellowthroat.

Magnolia Warbler

Nashville Warbler