Red-shouldered Hawk

31 March 2014 Grimsby ON. Birdwatching places tend to have their seasons;  just when and where depends on the lifecycle and biology of the birds in question.  Not too far from home there is a hawk watching spot, it’s a busy place during the spring migration, just two and a half months.  Come snow or shine, a formal hawk count starts on the First of March and human socializing starts as soon as the weather improves; it started today.

I’ve been harping on about the weather, the persistence of winter and all that goes along with it for too long.  Today the sun rose on time and stayed all day warming the earth and driving away the ice imps and frost-devils.

I knew it would be a worthwhile day at the hawk watch if only to catch up with some long-time-no-see friends. It’s been an astonishing thirty-six years since I first spent time here and there have been some notable changes in raptor sightings in that time.  We used to celebrate a Bald Eagle or two per season, maybe one or two Peregrine Falcons and Turkey Vultures, though hardly rare, were not commonplace.  Today Bald Eagles are regulars, Peregrine Falcons reasonably frequent and Turkey Vultures almost reluctantly counted.

Well what about today?  A clear blue sky doesn’t necessarily mean good hawk-watching. Wind strength and direction is important, and against a bright sky with no cloud ceiling the birds can be too high to see.  But for all of the limitations it wasn’t bad. Hundreds of Turkey Vultures sailed by, some almost directly overhead but most to them a mile or so distant and no more than big black dots.  A lone Peregrine Falcon swept low overhead, its black wingtips contrasting against its otherwise pale under-parts.  There were perhaps 30 or 40 Red-tailed Hawks, a handful of Sharp-shinned Hawks and best of all for me today a dozen Red-shouldered Hawks.

Red-shouldered-Hawk. Passing through

Red-shouldered-Hawk. Passing through

The Red-shouldered Hawk is one of just four species of hawk in the genus buteo that may be found regularly in Ontario.  The others: Red-tailed, Rough-legged and Broad-winged Hawks are all captivating birds each in their own way, not the least of the attractions is the bold patterning, and whether seen from above or below doesn’t matter much.

Red-shouldered Hawks often exhibit a distinctive flight rather like Sharp-shinned or Coopers Hawk – a bunch of quick shallow-ish wing beats then a glide: flap-flap-flap-flap…glide.   When circling to ride a thermal of rising air, and backlit, they can be breathtaking.  There’s a finely banded tail, wings with dark trailing edges and black fingertips to set off lighter patches often called windows, and if you’re lucky enough to see it, there’s a wide sweep of robin-red across the forewings and chest.  My camera struggled to focus on this rather high-flying bird but you’ll get the general impression I think.

Red-shouldered Hawk. Overhead, back-lit and superb.  Just not in focus

Red-shouldered Hawk. Overhead, back-lit and superb. Just not in focus

Outside of about a three week migration window, we don’t see Red-shouldered Hawks all that much in southern central Ontario. We expect them to pass through in early spring long before there are any new leaves to be seen. While the species is widespread across the continent, (and downright common in Florida and California) in Ontario they prefer wet woodlands and there’s plenty to chose from further north. So this rather limited opportunity while certainly not a hardship makes sighting them a mini celebration, and all the more so when you get a beautiful full adult backlit one overhead. Ahh spring!

Northern Flicker

30 March 2014. Vinemount ON. Over the last 24 hours a large and dirty storm swept from west to east passing just south of us.  For us, the day dawned clear and bright, but listening to National Public Radio from northern New York State I heard countless messages about the storm: its impact, its duration and worst of all how much snow it was expected to leave behind.  I could see the large bank of clouds from where I went exploring, but then suddenly realized that I was driving on roads covered in wet snow, recently fallen snow too. So that storm had come closer than I’d realized, missing my happy town by a dozen kilometers at most.

The birding in this sloppy snow landscape was dismal and my interest soon waned. Horned Larks stood out against the white fields, a disconsolate group of five Tundra Swans squatted on the ice crust of a flooded expanse and a solitary Eastern Meadowlark, perhaps the same one from nine days ago, watched from the top of a hawthorn several yards from the road.

Just when I’d decided that it was time to head home, I caught sight of a Northern Flicker flying overhead.  It was the yellow of its under-wings that gave it away and it set me thinking of how we distinguish between two colour forms of Northern Flicker, the Yellow-shafted of the eastern half of the continent and the Red-shafted of the west. It’s easy enough for us in the east, but the two forms interbreed over much of the middle of the continent causing some confusion for those to whom it matters.

Their call is so distinctive and carries a long way, so hearing one usually comes long before seeing the first flicker of spring.  But today from among of the remnants of a wet winter storm I saw my first flicker of the year and for the pleasure of that sighting. it was clearly My Bird of the Day.

Northern Flicker (juvenile)

Northern Flicker (juvenile)

 

Pied-billed Grebe

29 March 2014 Hamilton Harbour ON.When it comes to describing disagreeable weather, surely one of the most expressive adjectives is raw: a raw wind, a raw day.  It makes me shudder.  Today was such a day despite our efforts to wish it a daffodil spring day; all that you could really say in its favour was that it was above zero.  For migrant birds that’s good enough apparently, a quick trip along the shore of the lake and harbour turned up many birds we haven’t seen in quite a while.  There must be something like an avian Berlin Airlift going on, millions of birds taking flight, heading north and with them, freedom.

I stopped at three or four windows onto the wind-torn harbour and was pleased, though not entirely surprised, to see hundreds, if not thousands, of Common Goldeneyes, Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Mergansers, White-winged Scoters and Buffleheads.  But little sparkles of excitement came from spotting several Ring-necked Ducks, Canvasbacks, Hooded Mergansers and groups of Gadwall, the latter most particularly in more sheltered spots.

A sole Surf Scoter was a surprise.  They’re birds of salt water so I’m pretty sure this one is a migrant on its way to the Arctic Ocean from the Atlantic .  The last time I remember seeing Surf Scoters was on the Pacific coast near Vancouver, large rafts of them feeding happily until disturbed by ocean-going ships, whereupon they’d take off in rolling streams.

Surf Scoters N. Vancouver

Surf Scoters N. Vancouver

For a while I thought of the Surf Scoter as Bird of the Day until I found a Pied-billed Grebe bobbing around just a few yards off shore.  It’s not as though Pied-billed Grebes are particularly rare, it’s that they’re curious.  Late last summer I found and watched one for a long time and then, as now, was taken by how plain and well, improbable they look. Read more here.

Pied-billed-Grebe

Pied-billed-Grebe

Black Duck

Black Duck

By the time I’d enjoyed the grebe and grabbed a couple of pictures of a Black Duck, I was ready to get back in the car.  On my return journey I found a small group of Northern Shovelers to round out a pretty impressive list of nineteen species of ducks and other waterfowl.

While it’s still on my mind, at my last stop, a sandy Lake Ontario beach, I watched with near disbelief, a lone surfer trying to ride the erratic waves.  Working in his favour: surf of a kind driven by a strong easterly wind and a full-body dry suit. Working against him: Plates of ice along the shoreline and in the water, no covering on his face, Choose your own adjective for him.

Tundra Swans

23 March 2014. Cootes Paradise ,Hamilton ON.  Bird of the Day was a tough decision.  My choices were: a group of five Northern Pintails gathered along the edge of an opening in the ice; Tundra Swans, twenty seven of them, wondering why they’d left their Atlantic havens to find only ice where there was supposed to be water, or; four sub-adult Bald Eagles circling over a group of White Pines.

I visited our local library yesterday expecting to spend much of today indoors since a return to January temperatures was expected.  But although every bit as cold as predicted, the day was bright and I wondered if a brisk walk around some interesting trails might turn up the odd hapless migrant wondering where it’d gone wrong.  It worked, I place the pintails and swans in that category and also added a Great Blue Heron spotted plugging along wondering if it would ever find open water and a bite to eat.

But pleased as I was to find the pintails, they slipped into second place behind the swans. Male Pintails are such graceful ducks, they’re adorned with the avian equivalent of white-wall tires and chrome hood ornaments, I think it must have been a senior apprentice lad at the duck-design studios who created them, starting with an ordinary enough duck but adding as flourishes, an elongated tail and pinstriped necks.  I photographed these two pairs in 2011 in British Columbia. (For now we’ll leave aside any analysis as to why the males have so clearly set themselves apart from the females, or why the photographer appears to agree.)

Northern Pintails (2 m 2 f)

Northern Pintails (2 m 2 f)

The Tundra Swans did for me the two or three things for which I value them so highly:  First it’s the sound of them, a high-overhead flock calling amongst themselves, keeping in touch as they fly, a rhythmic, breathy “whoo whoo whoo”.  It always stops me in my tracks to search the sky looking for a long undulating and flashing white V.  I heard them today but I was in a wooded area and couldn’t find the flock; but still, it was there, that sound.  Then half an hour later I found a group, perhaps the same ones I’d heard, sitting on the ice.  They had probably just flown non-stop from the Atlantic coast, some seven or eight hundred kilometers, on the first leg of their journey to their breeding grounds on the shores of Hudson and James Bay. As I admired the group, I heard again a faint call and another eight or ten individuals arrived to join them; and this is where it can be magical.  Their controlled descent from several hundred feet up in full wing-spread, they bank and turn dropping fast and then for the last fifty feet or so they cup their wings like parachutes, spread their webbed feet as brakes, turn into the wind and finally ease down onto the water where, with a quick ruffling wing-fold, they coo and head-bob a greeting.  I could watch them all day.  This photo taken on St Patrick’s Day five years ago captures some of that controlled descent as flocks gathered on Lake Erie.

Tundra Swans arriving. Lake Erie March 17 2009

Tundra Swans arriving. Lake Erie March 17 2009

There was more to enjoy of course, Hairy, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Red-winged Blackbirds staking out territory in the marshes, a splendid and hungry Blue JayCoyotes trotting across frozen expanses of lake and ice yachts going like a bat out of hell.Blue Jay

A review of today’s photos revealed this nice series of shots of a female  Red-bellied Woodpecker. (Click to enlarge. Visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email) The red cap covers only the nape and back half of the head of a female, but on the male it covers the entire head and nape. One of these photos shows as much of its red belly as you’re ever likely to see, a faint characteristic which someone perhaps thought was helpful to incorporate into its name.

Eastern Meadowlark

21 March 2014. Niagara Peninsula ON. You know how it is when you’re driving in blinding rain and as you pass under a bridge there’s a moment of peace?  Or you pass through the pool of light below a streetlight whilst walking down an otherwise dark as pitch street? Well, that’s how today’s weather seemed, a momentary relief to winter’s hostility. The sun shone warmly all day and both the birds and I thought it was time to get moving.

An account of my long day would be tedious but it included several highlights: The first being that spring migrants took advantage of winter’s let up to flood in.  There were Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Common Grackles, American Robins and Song Sparrows everywhere.  Turkey Vultures streamed in to clean up winter’s road-side casualties, Red-tailed Hawks turned in circles riding the warm(ish) airs.

There was a singing Eastern Meadowlark, at first far off and faint but with a bit of scrutiny I found it on the top of a low hawthorn shrub and somehow the sight of it reinforced what I’d heard (or thought I had) to erase any doubts.  Meadowlarks are always among the first spring arrivals and their clear four-syllable song is enough to make your day; as it did for me, my Bird of the Day.  Here’s one from mid-spring two years ago.

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

 

I spotted a beautiful young Rough-legged Hawk in the middle of a field and at the top of a far off tree.  I admit that I was a bit puzzled for a while, its posture was not quite right for a Red-tailed Hawk and it seemed generally too light-coloured overall, Finally it took flight, and passing overhead it showed its wrist patches and black belly and despite many protests from the auto-focus of my camera I was able to get one good and absolutely diagnostic photograph.

Rough-legged Hawk (juv light phase)

Rough-legged Hawk (juv light phase)

Along the edges of farm field I saw and heard Horned Larks, watched a pair of Northern Mockingbirds getting to know each other, and a Killdeer eyed me nervously.  I was pleased to find a group of about 40 Tundra Swans mixed in with several hundred Canada Geese fueling up in the newly exposed cornfield and flood plain at the bend of a river.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Tundra Swans + Canada Geese

Tundra Swans + Canada Geese

Recalling the metaphor about the blinding rain; snow is forecasted tonight and then two or three very cold days to follow. Here’s a few pictures to ease the pain.

Ring-billed Gull

19 March 2014. Hamilton ON. I read reports today of flights of Tundra Swans and sightings of Black-crowned Night Herons on territory, and I’ve seen a handful of Turkey Vultures, Red-winged Blackbirds and American Robins, but nothing yet that suggests the avian floodgates have opened.  Looking back in my diary, I see that on this date in 1998 we received 18 inches of snow, and that last year a winter storm was blowing ice-bound Tundra Swans off their feet.  It’s March.

This afternoon I drove along a wide and fast, yet lightly travelled, road that serves businesses adjacent to the industrial harbour.  If the traffic was heavy it might be just too hazardous to stop, but there’s a decent road-side shoulder on which to pull off, so I paused a few times to scan the open water for ducks.  The ice is retreating and the place was full of Red-breasted Mergansers; there were hundreds, maybe thousands of them and I’m inclined to think that many must be newly arrived from points south and east.

Part of the industrial part of the harbour remains undeveloped; it’s a large enclosed pond and is well known to the local birding fraternity as worth checking fror interesting waterfowl and shorebirds.  Ruddy Ducks, Canvasbacks and Northern Pintails all stop there for a while.

In spring and summer, the rubble walls that enclose it are the site of a large breeding colony of Ring-billed Gulls.  Parking close to a concrete barrier to scan the waters, a Ring-billed Gull decided that I, or at least my car, was no reason to fly away. It eyed me carefully and stayed where it was, so I lowered the passenger-side window, prepared my camera and waited for the bird to walk along the barrier to where I could photograph him through the open window; and it obliged me.

Ring-billed Gull at home with heavy industry

Ring-billed Gull at home with heavy industry

Gulls are often decried as over-abundant, verminous nuisances and not worth the time of day; they’re raucously vocal, they scavenge garbage and hang around picnic sites. Yet for all of that they’re rather perfect specimens in many ways: beautifully proportioned, elegant fliers and really very splendidly styled in purest whites, blackest blacks and pearly greys. Being close enough to get these photos today was a lesson in just how stunning some of our commonest urban birds can be.Ring-billed Gull, Tollgate ponds. 19 March 2014-4 Ring-billed Gull, Tollgate ponds. 19 March 2014-3 Ring-billed Gull, Tollgate ponds. 19 March 2014-2

Turkey Vulture

17 March 2014. Vinemount ON. Still looking for spring.  The forecasters are all saying that today will be our last day of negative temperatures; we’ll see.  In the faint hope that the tentative warmth of a few days ago had made a difference, I drove around a rather dreary area of waterlogged farms hoping for standing water with ducks, or better yet, Tundra Swans, but nothing.  But…those waterlogged fields are vast expanses of gleaming ice and when it all melts (any day now ?) I predict they will be very enticing stopover spots for waves of migrant ducks, swans, and snipe

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

Birds of the Day were three wind-tossed Turkey Vultures sailing along the sharp edge of the limestone escarpment that dominates our landscape.  Their course is one used by thousands of migrant raptors every spring.  The abrupt escarpment lies close to the south shore of Lake Ontario and winds off the water create a cushion wave that holds these birds aloft as they head around the lake on their spring journey northwards.

The first parade of spring Turkey Vultures is usually a celebration for me, but somehow today’s scattered trio lacked the optimism that should come with heading for a place to call home for the summer, it seemed to be more of a foolhardy challenge to the frozen ground than anything else.  I guess they’ll survive; after all negative temperatures are about to be a thing of the past.

A Snowy Owl bulletin

16 March 2014. This past winter may well become legendary as the Winter of the Snowy Owl.  It has been truly exceptional and as I write this the birding community has become almost dismissive of more Snowy Owl sightings.  This posting is really just to pass along a link to a couple of excellent websites.

NPR recently ran a five-minute feature on the Snowy Owl invasion.  Read more and listen to it by clicking on this link.  

And a newly cobbled together group of American ornithologists has started tracking Snowy Owls on their late winter/spring migration back to the Arctic.  Read more about Project Snowstorm by following this link

A Snowy Owl wo took up residence on the balcony of an office building in 2012

A Snowy Owl who took up residence on the balcony of an office building in 2012

Mute Swans

14 March 2014. Bronte Harbour, Ontario. I went out looking for spring today but most of it got blown away in the strong southwesterly wind.  My mistake may have been visiting places along the north shore of Lake Ontario where the wind had blown the lake’s distress into a choppy onshore frenzy.

I sought backwaters and sheltered corners and soon found a small group of Mute Swans drifting around seemingly asleep.  These are the same two birds, apparently dozing one moment then fully alert the next.

Mute swans

Mute swans

Mute swans

Mute swans

Later I spent a bit of time trying, for my own satisfaction, to separate two almost identical species: Greater Scaup and Lesser Scaup.  You could certainly be forgiven for giving up in despair or for deciding that in fact there is no difference, but all field guides list both species and even suggest generally unhelpful ways of deciding which is which.  I’ve been working at this field problem for several years and had come with a couple of safe solutions, it’s either a “‘probable’ Lesser/Greater Scaup” or  “Scaup species”.

More recently I’ve taken to looking more carefully at the shape of the head. This is not the place for a detailed discussion of scaup morphology, but to cut to the chase I’ve found two, what I think to be reasonable, distinguishing differences.  First. The Lesser Scaup’s head profile has a bit of a peak at the front whereas the Greater Scaup’s head is distinctly rounded.  Second. The Lesser Scaup’s bill has a reduced narrow black ‘nail’ at the tip, whereas the Greater Scaup’s bill has a fairly wide nail.  These distinctions of course are useless at any distance greater than perhaps 10 yards, or 100 through binoculars.  Click on and enlarge these photos and see if you see what I mean.

These scaup photos are in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

As a diversion from the finer points of scaup i.d, it’s perhaps of more interest that both scaup species are members of the Athya family of ducks.  Athyas include some really gorgeous and elegant species, most of which I’ve posted here at one time or another. They are Redheads, Canvasbacks, Ring-necked Ducks and even the Pochard and Tufted Duck from Eurasia.  Here’s a few photos.

Tufted Duck Reykjavik Sept 2012

Tufted Duck Reykjavik Sept 2012 (female?)

Ring-necked Ducks. Page Springs IBA.

Ring-necked Ducks. Page Springs Arizona

Redhead - Bronte 14 March 2014

Redhead (m)

DSCN4353

2 Redhead males and a Lesser scaup

Canvassbacks in Christmas snowstorm

Canvassbacks in Christmas snowstorm

 

Ducks

10 March 2014. Bronte Harbour, Ontario. Five days ago, my birds of the day were King Eiders, but I also mentioned a White-winged Scoter and its battle to subdue a mollusk.  Today I returned to that same marina to see if I could get a better idea of what the scoter and other ducks are feeding on.  I’m almost certain that they’re plucking Zebra Mussels from the lake bottom.  Zebra Mussels are a Eurasian mollusk that was introduced into the Great Lakes from the bilge water of a visiting ship, or so the conventional wisdom goes.  Over the past three decades or so, having few natural enemies, the mussels have spread throughout the Great Lakes and become a serious nuisance.  On the bright side, their abundance is a rich and easy source of food for several Arctic diving duck species that now stay to over-winter here rather than press on to the Atlantic, as they did formerly.

The harbour, where all of last week’s reported events took place and to where I returned today, allows for marvelous close-up views of waterfowl of every stripe.  A pier and extensive seawalls extend out into Lake Ontario and curl around to embrace a small craft marina. Under current ice conditions the majority of the marina is totally iced over, but the furthest point of the pier intrudes into an area of open, yet sheltered, water and it is here that hundreds of ducks, geese and swans have gathered all within a hundred feet or so of a safe viewpoint.

For quite a while I watched several White-winged Scoters diving for food, hoping to see one repeat the food control performance of five days ago.  While none of them managed to spear anything quite as succulent looking, several brought large mollusks to the surface and worked hard juggling them in their large bills to break them open.  Frequently the food-item would slip from the bird’s hold but a quick and easy dive got it back on board.  This whole nutcracker-without-the-hands-to-control-it process made a good case for the development of forelimbs, hands and opposable thumbs in particular; but how then would it fly?

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll save myself hours of typing and leave it to the following to illustrate how ducks in general were my birds of the day.  Click on any picture to enlarge it.

White-winged Scoter (m)

White-winged Scoter (m)

Missed (White-winged Scoter)

Missed (White-winged Scoter)

Redheads 3 males 1 female

Redheads 3 males 1 female

Redheads (m)

Redheads (m)

Red-breasted Merganser (m)

Red-breasted Merganser (m)

Long-tailed Duck (m)

Long-tailed Duck (m)

Greater Scaup (m)

Greater (?) Scaup (m)

Greater  Scaup (m)

Greater Scaup (m)

Greater  Scaup (m)

Greater Scaup (m)

Greater  Scaup (f)

Greater Scaup (f)

King Eiders (1 m & 2 f)

King Eiders (1 m & 2 f)

King Eiders (1 m & 2 f)

King Eiders (1 m & 2 f)

King Eider and Mallard

King Eider and Mallard

Common Merganser

Common Merganser

Common Merganser (f)

Common Merganser (f)

Common Goldeneye (m)

Common Goldeneye (m)

Common Goldeneye (f)

Common Goldeneye (f)

Black Ducks, King Eider, Red-breasted Merganser & Redheads

Black Ducks, King Eider, Red-breasted Merganser & Redheads