Snowy Owl

January 1 2015. Burlington ON.  This New year’s Day was not supposed to be a birding day, I had more pressing matters to deal with.  But then things started happening and well…..

Top priority was fixing, or at very least investigating, a domestic plumbing problem that had caused considerable alarm. The details don’t matter, it’s just that I’d set aside the day to get to the root of the problem and either fix it if I could, or accept that it would probably be an expensive start to the year.

I was in the basement experimenting with various shut-off valves when the phone rang. It was the Owl Foundation asking me if I could drop what I was doing and ferry an injured owl to the TOF’s owl hospital some 60 Km distant. Well, what would you do?

Evidently New Year’s night was quiet enough that a provincial police officer found time to rescue this poor owl from the roadside and take it to our city’s animal control building. Animal Control duly called the Owl Foundation and the Owl Foundation then called me. Plumbing could wait, I collected and delivered the owl and briefly stayed to help and watch.

Removed from the covered cage, we found a two or three year old male Snowy Owl (in plumage rather like the one below). He looked more than a bit battered, his tail feathers and wing edges were quite ragged as if he’d dragged himself around for quite a while. The vet tech checked him over gently; collisions with cars or trucks often cause mortal damage to the head or wing-bone fractures. There were slight traces of blood in one ear but otherwise the head seemed okay. It was his left wing that shocked us. A large area of his primary and secondary flight feathers were badly burned away, leaving a huge semi-circular gap in his wing-spread, enough that rendered flightless he probably crash landed.

How this happened is anyone’s guess. But this is a heavily urbanized area and it seems plausible to me that he flew too low over a flame of some kind; perhaps the waste-gas flare that goes with sewage treatment plants or the chimney of some processing industry. Whatever the source, it’s more than a little alarming to think that what appears to be open skies is in fact dotted with such hideous traps.

We had full control of him as he was examined, given some rehydration and a bit of de-lousing. With heavily gloved hands, I held his densely feathered feet, each large, padded digit, or toe, was perhaps two centimeters long and armed with a thick black claw made for quick piercing kills.

Snowy Owl. Photo by David Syzdek

Snowy Owl. Photo by David Syzdek from WikiCommons

I have examined many birds in the hand, I find all of them are unfailingly fascinating. This Snowy Owl was in some ways just another closely scrutinized bird, but if I have one lasting impression (actually I have too many to recount ) it would be his magnificently luminous eyes: framed within the pure white facial disk, each about a centimeter in diameter with intense chrome yellow irises around deep ink-black pupils.

Snowy Owl - those eyes.  Photo by Schneeeulecele4 from Wiki Commons

Snowy Owl – those eyes. Photo by from Wiki Commons

If ever a small relatively unheralded organisation needed support it would be the Owl Foundation.  Read more about it here and don’t feel embarrassed about sending it a financial donation.

Unless we missed other injuries or damage, his chances of a full recovery are fairly good. He could be released once new flight feathers grow in, this won’t be until summer starts to wane so he will be a captive bird for longer than anyone would wish. But when that time comes, a chain of volunteers will transport him as far north as possible and he’ll be set free with a reminder to watch out for chimneys next time.

And the plumbing problem? It turned out to be relatively benign, but dealing with it took up the rest of the day.

My Bird of the Year 2014

Just in case you were wondering whether I would, I have wasted considerable time this past two weeks deliberating over which, of some 160 birds, was my Bird of the Year in 2014. Could it be: two cute Screech Owls; returning Upland Sandpipers; a Brown Thrasher in full song; Scorching red Scarlet Tanagers; or any one of those exquisite American Bitterns? It was none of them; click this link to find out which.

Great-tailed Grackles. Just entertainment - not a hint.

Great-tailed Grackles. Just entertainment – not a hint.

 

Roseate Spoonbill

There are lots of photos with this post, all of them in galleries which you can only see if you’re  on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email. And… if you really like bird  pictures, you can see lots more of my Florida shots in their original full size on my Smugmug site, click this link. (You’ll see quite an improvement in detail since they always lose definition in the process of posting them in Bird of the Day)

18 December 2014. Estero Beach, Lee County, Florida.  We set out to walk the length of Estero Beach hoping for some wintering Snowy Plovers. This wave-lapped beach stretches for miles in both directions, it seems to suit people and birds equally well with its seashell littered shoreline, wide expanse of sand-dunes and shallow, back-water lagoons. Along our way we came across several wonderful sightings: A Reddish Egret  with its back turned to a White Ibis and stoically overseeing the comings and goings of wanderers like us; Groups of loitering Wilson’s Plovers and little platoons of Sanderlings wandering around and picking through the white sand.

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Best sighting, and truly a wow moment, was a pair of placid Roseate Spoonbills. While I have seen the European Spoonbill in Holland and had some idea of what to expect, it doesn’t compare to this, its American cousin. The European Spoonbill with its spatulate bill is something of a head-turner, but it’s really just another large, white, heron-like thing standing in the water. Since a picture’s worth a thousand words, I hardly need describe the Roseate Spoonbill. What made these birds special was not only our surprise at finding them, but also the gift of a setting with the dark mangrove background framing these blushing birds. I spent a long time on my knees in the foreground sludge watching and clicking.   Here are a couple of my best shots.

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As I worked, a couple of Dunlin came and settled beside me, it took a bit of effort to tear myself away to get some shots of them too. Any other time, Dunlins would be warmly welcomed, but they had stiff competition. Still, here they are.

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As for the Snowy Plovers, we eventually made our way to where a large group of them were whiling away the winter resting in the soft, white, sun-soaked sands of Florida. Spending their winter days like this they may just be the original Snowbirds, a term now used to describe northerners like us who pay a lot of money for that pleasure.

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Terns

22 December 2014. Barefoot Beach, Naples, Florida. This morning we went looking for Black Skimmers.  What a bird! They’re related to gulls and have one of the avian world’s oddest modes of feeding: in full flight, its disproportionately long lower mandible slices or skims the surface of the water to sieve and capture whatever might be there. How it distinguishes between the edible, inedible and trip-hazards I’d love to know, whatever the technique, they seem to make it okay. Below is a photo of a skimming skimmer taken near Cape May earlier this year.

Black Skimmer feeding by skimming

Black Skimmer feeding by skimming

We immediately found a large bunch of Black Skimmers along with a few gulls and terns loafing at the water’s edge, they were very approachable and I could have shot some great portraits had they cooperated.  Most of the skimmers were contentedly dozing, their beaks tucked under-wing, and any that looked up did so only momentarily; I was nowhere near quick enough. My morning’s pleasure though, came from the appreciation of three species of terns: Sandwich Tern, Forster’s Tern and Royal Tern.

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I had never knowingly seen a Sandwich Tern before this week. Had our friend Eric not casually noted one flying past and commented on its black-with-yellow-tip bill, I probably could have easily overlooked the few that were hanging around. The books distinguish Sandwich Terns from Common and Forster’s Terns by subtle clues: their relatively slender wings, long bill, paler grey upperparts and that yellow-tipped bill; not much to go on. It’s a widespread species and apparently gets its name from the town of Sandwich, England where the first specimen was taken (shot). Still, it’s a rather distinguished looking bird even in winter plumage; in breeding plumage the head has a full jet-black cap and a rather rakish crest, a vestige of which is visible in a couple of the shots above.

On the other hand, I have seen and admired Forster’s Terns many times. There’s a large inland marsh about a two-hour drive from home and Forster’s are more or less the default tern there in the summer months. Field guides are somewhat helpful in drawing attention to what they call the breeding adults’ ‘frosty’ wingtips seen when flying. It’s true enough, once you get the hang of it; at least it helps separate them from Common Terns, which are likely to be not far away, Common Terns’ wings look overall rather dark. These photos also show how, at close quarters, the Forster’s Tern’s red feet are very distinctive; another handsome bird.

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Most entertaining were Royal Terns, a few juveniles in particular. There was no shortage of Royal Terns along this stretch of coast, they look and behave very much like our more familiar Caspian Tern; they’re large, can be noisy and have a conspicuously shaggy crest. Last summer’s young are still being cared for by their parents and will remain somewhat dependent on them for another two or three months. One would think that by now they are able to fish for themselves, at least to some extent, but they obviously haven’t given up the expectation of a free handout. We watched a few chicks noisily begging their parent for food using a combination of posture and interminable pleading that few human parents would tolerate for many minutes. The series of shots on the gallery below shows, far more clearly than words can describe, the postures and attitudes of both parent and child, all that’s missing is the wretchedly endless pleading squeals of the youngster.

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This post contains many photos in galleries visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email. You can also view many more of my photos of shorebirds, herons and the like in Florida by clicking on this link.

Short-tailed Hawk

December 17 2014. Turner River Florida. I’m told and willingly accept that a Short-tailed Hawk seen circling low overhead should be my Bird of the Day; it has to be. Well, I’d never seen one before in my life and until moments ago I didn’t know they were rare; actually really quite rare.

With friends we had been canoeing down a river on the edge of the Everglades in Florida. This was a canoe trip like no other that I’ve ever done (and I’ve done a few).  Under the patient direction of a park employee, we paddled at least half of our journey along a faintly defined watercourse through a mangrove swamp. Mangroves are those tropical waters-edge trees that put down arching roots to create a three-dimensional low-level waterlogged prison.

Little Blue Heron, Turner River Florida

Little Blue Heron, Turner River Florida

Black-crowned Night Heron reflected in mangrove swamp

Black-crowned Night Heron reflected in mangrove swamp

I said that I’ve done a few canoe trips and that’s neither an overly modest nor an exaggerated assessment. I’m no expert paddler but I do get the mechanics of paddling, steering and progressing along an intended course. This is infinitely more than can be said for one of the other canoeing couples in our little flotilla. I think you’ll readily appreciate that it makes no sense whatsoever for both paddlers (assuming one in front and one behind) to paddle on the same side of the vessel when the intention is go straight ahead. Similarly, should you wish to avoid an obstacle it is never a good plan to point the front of the canoe at the obstacle and paddle hard. Someone should have told Ken and Irene about this; they made me feel like an expert.

Paddling through the mangroves

Paddling through the mangroves

How or why anyone found our route to begin with is beyond me, much of our progress was achieved by grasping overhead branches and pulling our canoes along, we spent a lot of time bent double avoiding a skull-raking or neck-snapping obstruction. Mangrove swamps are essentially impenetrable to humans; somehow we paddled one of the few that is not, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t close in behind us after we’d gone through.

Going through the mangrove tunnel was not a birding experience, but once clear of it we found ourselves in the middle of an expanse of Florida’s wild land; and there were some interesting birds. An American Bittern standing on the river’s edge was a gasp-making sighting for most of our party, and so it should be. I’ve had the good fortune to see perhaps five or six bitterns this year, a goodly number; and I would have counted it as my Bird of he Day had I not seen a Short-tailed Hawk shortly afterwards.

American Bittern, Turner River Florida

American Bittern, Turner River Florida

Our companion Eric had earlier mentioned to always check soaring kettles of Turkey or Black Vultures lest a Short-tailed Hawk or some other oddity had somehow found its way to join them. So at lunch, standing wet-footed where the canoes had been pulled ashore, I dutifully scanned a rather low group of wheeling Turkey Vultures for just that eventuality; and there, sure enough, was a hawk that I didn’t recognise but knew by elimination had to be a Short-tailed. I nudged Eric, gestured skyward with my cheese sandwich and casually noted the Short-tailed Hawk as expected. It wasn’t a wow moment for me but it sure was for Eric; grabbing for his binoculars he almost lost his sandwich and fell back over a canoe he was so thunderstruck. This, he assured me, was a very fine bird indeed, a real rarity. And here’s the thing, I just took it as yet another new-to-me-in-this-lifetime bird; there had been several over the past 48 hours and while they were all eye-brow raising events none had yet made me choke with excitement.  Perhaps the Short-tailed Hawk will grow on me; for now it’s Bird of the Day thanks to Eric.

You can view many more of my photos of shorebirds, herons and the like in Florida by clicking on this link.

Short-tailed Hawk, Turner River Florida

Short-tailed Hawk, Turner River Florida

 

 

Piping Plover

December 16 2014. Naples Florida.  This and the next few posts are about birds enjoyed on a pre-Christmas week escape to summery Florida. It’s not just poolside lolling around for us though, we’re with friends whose idea of a good day is one spent birding, scrutinising leafless trees for orchids, wading hip-deep through dark swamps in alligator country, or anything else necessary to explore the natural riches of the state.

Today, as an introduction to the state’s wonders, we walked to a long white beach where shorebirds and beach-combers share the water’s edge on equal terms. In much the same way you enter a supermarket and are beset by lettuce here, oranges straight ahead and breads and muffins to the left, so it was here with birds: Black-bellied Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings in front, Willets right behind them and Snowy Egrets just a short distance away.

Sanderlings - a bit soft-focus but...

Sanderlings – a bit soft-focus I know, but…

The beach captivated me with Sanderlings like miniature wind-up toys skittering along the advancing and retreating wave-edges, Willets oh-so-stoically letting the water wash around them, and Semi-palmated Plovers wandering up and down, sometimes hopping up onto much drier ground to pick for food wherever it may be found. Ahead of us, the Tri-colored Heron, in the gallery below, stood, sometimes washed by the waves, watchful and waiting for fish and every now and then it would thrust deep into the surf and bring up something small, silver and wriggly.

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Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plovers are anything but black-bellied at this time of year. When we see them in Ontario, usually in August or September, it’s quite clear how they get their name, but that black undersides is a breeding plumage affectation and is moulted away to leave a generally mottled and greyish-brown bird (above). Grey Plover is how the same species is known in the U.K.; both names have their time and place. Whichever name you give them, they, like most plovers, are endearing birds, they have an earnestly vulnerable look about them that makes you want to love and protect them.

Protect them we must, for a least one plover species, the Piping Plover, is in trouble and is considered an Endangered Species in the U.S.A. and Canada. It is a sparrow-sized bird of wide sandy shorelines and chooses to nest on open sand beaches where a bare scrape or hollow is all it needs by way of a nest. The big problem is that such beaches are popular with people too, some of whom bring dogs or ATVs with them or are just plain unwittingly careless; bad for Piping Plovers.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

I was ready to call the Tri-colored Heron my Bird of the Day until we turned a corner and found another group of Sanderlings pottering around and with them a single Piping Plover; a wow bird to be sure. We sat quietly and it paid us no heed, gradually moving in closer. I took several pictures and then we noticed that it bore a small green flag on its right leg, a sign that it had been part of a closely studied brood somewhere and, as a chick, most likely captured, weighed, tagged and released. Reviewing my photos later, we realised that the letters on the flag were readable – E3Y, and that it had an orange band above its right knee. With a bit of on-line research I determined that researchers from Virginia Tech had originally tagged this bird, so I excitedly sent them an email. The next day I received a reply which, condensed a little, read: “Thanks for reporting this banded plover! … this bird was banded as a chick by researchers from Virginia Tech on Fire Island NS, NY in June 2014. It has been re-sighted around the Naples area for the past month. What a life!

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

Piping Plover,

Piping Plover

Above and below are a few photos of this magical little bird. Knowing just that little bit more, about one individual in a species hanging on by a thread, was really quite a thrill. That it had hatched just six months ago, grew to maturity on an Atlantic beach and subsequently migrated down the coast and across peninsular Florida was more than enough to make it my Bird of the Day.

You can view many more of my photos of shorebirds, herons and the like in Florida by clicking on this link.

 

Winter Wren

14 December 2014. Burlington ON. I walked a long muddy creek-side trail this morning resolving to repeat the route on a regular basis and record all birds seen and heard, tallying individual numbers as well as species. I find it more rewarding doing this sort of thing, I call it project-birding, studying, observing and recording birds as part of a greater effort rather than just list-ticking or aimlessly wandering. If my resolve holds, it will be a mini-study that will not only get me out of the house, but should also shed light on changes in the winter species mix from now until spring.

The day was overcast, dank and just a touch above freezing, we’d had drizzle earlier this morning and melting snow made it soggy underfoot; a gloomy December day.

My Bird of the Day, a single Winter Wren, was found towards the end of the walk. It was poking through a thick tangle of roots, branches and dried grasses in search of food. Dense piles of debris, upturned root-balls or tiny crevices are almost the exclusive preserve of Winter Wrens; most other birds are much too large. If they have to fly they do so in short bursts from one deeply inaccessible spot to another. They’re tiny, about the size (and shape) of a golf ball, but much more interesting.

Our Winter Wren used to be found more or less right around the temperate northern hemisphere, from coast to coast across North America and straddling the entire expanse of Eurasia. Recently, skeptical scientists, doubting that one species could possibly be so widespread, took a closer look and spoiled all the fun. They have decided that henceforth there are really three separate (though virtually identical) species, so now there’s the Eurasian Wren and, in North America, the Winter Wren and Pacific Wren.

Wrens are a New World family so undoubtedly the ancestor of all of them originated in North America. But the question is, did it the precursor species spread westward into Eurasia across the Bering Straits, or did it make its way east across the Atlantic somehow; or both? There are no answers to this yet, but whatever its origins it is a very successful creature.

Winter Wren

Winter Wren

For the most part, my other observations this morning were pretty much as expected: Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches and Mallards made up the majority of birds seen. A small group of Blue Jays became noisily agitated about something out of my line of sight and a pair of American Crows likewise started harassing the top of a White Pine, probably an an owl or hawk got them excited.

I enjoyed watching a large group of Slate-colored Juncos and American Tree Sparrows working over the seed-heads of a large expanse of faded goldenrod and a two male Northern Cardinals seemed to want to chase each other around but lacked conviction.

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I’ve added a few of pictures of Winter Wrens from summer days when they were more inclined to show themselves, particularly the singing one in the gallery above. I was able to use the video feature on my camera to capture some of its exuberant song, click this link to see and hear it.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

10 December 2014. Burlington ON. In past years I have offered food to our backyard birds but found that by December they’d all flown south and my urban neighbourhood became an avian wasteland; so I don’t do it much anymore. A touch paradoxical you might think, that a guy who clearly spends so much time in the study of birds doesn’t even hang up a piece of suet. Still, that’s the way it is. The upside is that my birding gets me out of the house.

But this morning, wandering into a back room, I look out to see a Sharp-shinned Hawk perched on the top rail of my back yard fence; It was certainly a wow! moment. It was looking around with quick movements, searching for food I imagine, and a few moments later it took off. Bird of the Day before the day had really got started.

Adult  Sharp-shinned Hawk. Blue/grey back and finely barred breast.

Adult Sharp-shinned Hawk. Blue/grey back and finely barred breast.

I frequently hear from people that a hawk of some kind had appeared from nowhere to seize a Morning Dove from their bird feeder. As often as not it’s about the explosion of dove feathers amid the carnage, but sometimes it’s a tale of woe and rage against the vile hawk. My bet is that the hawk of some kind is a Cooper’s Hawk (which have a preference for larger birds like mourning Doves) or maybe a Sharp-shinned Hawk (which, being smaller, will usually go for smaller birds like juncos); both are ambush hunters built to fly fast through dense woodlands and grab unwitting prey. Backyards with bird feeders are nothing if not well-stocked wintering habitat.

Cooper's Hawk, a first year bird.  Brown back and wings, brown spots and streaks on chest.

Cooper’s Hawk, a first year bird. Brown back and wings, brown spots and streaks on chest.

Northern Parula

5 December 2014. Oakville ON.  If you’re looking for the perfect Christmas present for the birder in your life, you might want to consider a field trip to a sewage treatment plant; he or she will surely love it! These past two days, I’ve spent a couple of morning hours at a treatment plant not far from home; it has a lot going for it really: free parking, out of the wind and crowds are small.

I should probably explain. It’s not that birders really like the sewage treatment plant itself, it’s the unusual and unexpected birds that hang around there that make them special. The ponds of warmish, biological froth generate lots of flies and mosquitoey things which are perfect for small insectivorous birds. Apparently some birds on the fall migratory trek are seduced by this man-made warmth and food and, ignoring their instincts (which would be telling them they’ve got another two thousand kilometers to go) decide to hang around. If their gamble pays off they will have a head start next spring and could reach and claim prime breeding sites ahead of anyone else. But chances are that sooner or later the winter will bite really hard, the insect life will dwindle to nothingness and the birds will perish; it’s a gamble, maybe even a microcosm of evolutionary effort. The only probable winners are the birders who hold their noses and prowl the perimeter on the lookout for special birds; I was one of them.

I’d heard there were Winter Wrens, Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets and several warbler species to be found. I was lucky to see many of them and more besides; the best in many ways was a Northern Parula. Parulas are always breathtakingly beautiful, today’s bird certainly was. They can be devilishly difficult to photograph because they rarely stay still, usually hang around well above eye level and seem to bury themselves deep in the overhead foliage; today’s bird actually did quite the opposite and although it was hunting for food, it well, judge for yourself…

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(The parula is in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.) An Orange-crowned Warbler, a much overlooked and rarely encountered species was there too, as were a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Tennessee and a Wilson’s Warbler, all marvelous birds at any time.

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

I have posted lots more photos of the parula on another site where you can see them as full size files, to enjoy them click this link.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

2 December 2014. I have a favourite wooded valley, I’ve mentioned it many times before, most recently a couple of weeks ago in connection with my enjoyment of Black-capped Chickadees. The thing is, it’s close to home, sheltered from the worst of winter winds, full of birds and just a good place to walk around.

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So many walkers scatter seed along the trails that you can easily watch birds close up; anyone can take good photos of many perennially popular species like Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays. I spent a couple of hours there today and enjoyed watching those many always-expected birds and a few other common species like American Tree Sparrow, Belted Kingfisher and American Goldfinches. A solitary but wary Golden Crowned Kinglet came close and a couple of Purple Finches lingered for a moment.

But perhaps one of the best moments came when a hungry Red-bellied Woodpecker showed off its red belly and allowed me to get a couple of illustrative shots.

Red-bellied Woodpecker - and why it gets its name

Red-bellied Woodpecker – and why it gets its name

Red-bellied Woodpecker 1-2

The question is frequently asked why the Red-bellied Woodpecker is so named when clearly it has a red head, not a red belly. I guess there’s a two-part answer: Firstly, the thoroughly well named Red-headed Woodpecker already has the name; and secondly,the Red-bellied actually does have a reddish belly — even though you can hardly ever see it. I suspect some nineteenth century biologist who was holding a museum specimen belly-up in his hand, originally gave it the name. Still, it’s not the best choice, surely someone in that arcane corner of ornithology that dishes out names, can come up with something less misleading.

Downloading my morning’s photos I realized how the morning’s Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals and Red-bellied Woodpeckers discredit my earlier gripe about the lack of colour in this December world. It would be a bit much to post all of the day’s photos here, the ones above are quite enough. But if you’d enjoy more of today’s full colour, eye-popping birds in reds and blues, follow this link to another site, it’s where I sometimes post photo collections. Feel free to browse around it.

This post contains six photos in a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.