Purple Finch

9 June 2016. Flamboro ON. My dad taught me all I knew about photography – at least for the first decade or two of my life. He was an ambitious amateur photographer but perhaps most talented when developing film and printing his own work. One of his lessons was about the quality of evening light, something like, “Sometimes the late-day light can be quite flattering, but there’s too much red in it to come out well in a photograph.” That was in the post-war years, when fold-up cameras were loaded with rolls of monochrome Kodak or Ilford film. Instamatics were still a decade or two in the future and the digital revolution half a century away.

That ‘…late-day light can be quite flattering’ phrase came back to me last night when I had the opportunity to capture some long-distance shots of this, Bird of the Day, Purple Finch.

Purple Finch in evening light.

Purple Finch in evening light.

I was in a small marsh waiting for nightfall to start a survey of frog vocalisations; a survey which I had to abandon in the end because the temperature dropped below the effective survey threshold. As I waited I checked some known spots for bird activity, but it was getting late and slow going. A Veery came out to the woods to decide whether I was a threat, but it was the only bird I saw well other than the Purple Finch. But I could hear the songs and calls of White-throated Sparrows, Northern Waterthrushes and a Virginia Rail; all noteworthy birds. A Green Heron flapped away and settled on the tip of a far-off dead Silver Maple from which it could oversee crowds of fussing Red-winged Blackbirds periodically rising from the Cat-tail marsh.

My dad was right about evening light and flattery. It probably wouldn’t have helped with many bird species but Purple Finches are washed raspberry red anyway and since shooting against the bright sky added a risk of ending up with a rather meaningless silhouette, I was quite happy with the result.

Veery, checking me out.

Veery, checking me out.

 

Canada Warbler

7 June 2016. Flamboro ON. There would be some birders who believe in their nemesis bird; I don’t. I see what I see without going to disproportionate lengths, I’m fairly adept at spotting what’s there and I don’t fret a great deal about birds missed. A shrug is much easier on the soul than gnashing teeth. I’ve missed several gloat-worthy birds the sort of rarities that set pulses racing. But then again, there’s the Canada Warbler.

It’s not that I’ve never seen a Canada Warbler, I see a few every year. They’re really striking. But they are elusive and they never stop around long enough for me to get a good photo; I came close today though.

I led a group of, let’s call them, individuals with the luxury of ample free time on a weekday. I took them to three of my favourite birding spots: first a trail that led down into a rich swamp from a hilltop with magnificent views; then a quiet roadside beset with thick swampy woodland growth and finally a gravel road that cut across an open marsh.

It became as much a plants and flowers hike as a birding one. I was distracted by exuberant Cinnamon and Crested Wood Ferns, while others found Lady’s Slipper orchids along the wet margins. Plenty of birds too of course and at our first stop our very satisfying list included: Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, Black and White Warbler, Northern Waterthrush and Veery, the last two species were heard rather than seen. The second stop was audibly tantalizing: we could hear a Canada Warbler singing purposefully but could not for the life of us see it; We could hear a couple of White-throated Sparrows and I was inclined to think I heard a Purple Finch singing high overhead. I don’t think we actually saw any birds of note at the second site but I made a mental note to return some early morning soon. Our last stop filled a few gaps in our day including a pair of Spotted Sandpipers and a small group of Cedar Waxwings. By then most of the group had gradually dissipated, so we said our final farewells and, retracing our steps two of us tried once again to find a Canada Warbler. To cut a long story short we succeeded; but with only brief glimpses.

Canada Warbler

Canada Warbler

Here is the best photo I managed to get. They are very handsome little creatures with that black necklace strung across a yellow chest. In the gallery below is a selection of all the Canada Warbler photos I’ve managed to get previously; the on-line trash-talking community might call them ‘Fails’, but they were still worth keeping.

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Yellow-billed Cuckoo

May 31 2016. Ruthven Park, Cayuga ON. The end of May is the end of spring bird censuses. I went to the bird observatory feeling a little remiss for having not helped as much as I’d hoped and to see how the season had shaped up. Activity was slow and they banded relatively few before taking down the mist nets for the season.

As usual I undertook the daily census and quite surprised myself with nearly sixty species. Many were just single birds of a species: Green Heron, Scarlet Tanager, Trumpeter Swan, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Yellow-throated Vireo being stand-outs in my mind.

Last year, same time, same place I found a lone Trumpeter Swan paddling down the river, it was a first for the observatory. Something must have gone well for it because it, or possibly another individual, showed up this spring and appears to like it well enough to stay; whether it has found a mate no one seems to know.

Trumpeter Swan - Grand River

Trumpeter Swan – Grand River

The day also produced large numbers of Baltimore Orioles, Warbling Vireos, and Yellow Warblers. Six Chimney Swifts chased and wheeled around, sometimes in courtship flight where one bird, usually the trailing one of a pair, holds his or her wings in a deep V for a couple of seconds.

My best bird was a brief glimpse of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I heard it calling several times and it always seemed to be on the move. Cuckoos are a bit on the secretive side and tend to stay fairly high in the forest canopy and I knew that getting to see it was a bit of a long shot, but in the end it was just luck; there it was, my Bird of the Day.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Mourning Warbler

May 28 2016. Rail Trail at Copetown ON. I went out this morning with a birding friend who wanted to show me his newly discovered birding destination, the empty rail bed of a former railway that linked industrial Hamilton with points west. Like many once important but now abandoned lines, it has been made into a hiking and biking trail.

The charm and sometimes scourge of railway lines is the back-yard views along the way,  Bob’s old rail line was marked by views into remnant ponds and bogs, farmland and someone’s garden. Railway lines may hold unexpected virtues, routes crossing the Great Plains and Prairies  are almost the sole refuge of a host of native plants, which for the most part (99.99% most part) were plowed and tilled out of existence over a century of settlement.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

The margins of the trail were hopping with birds: some colourful like Indigo Buntings, Yellow Warblers, and American Redstarts; and others heard but not seen, a Black-billed Cuckoo in particular. We stopped for a while at an interpretive lookout where I made a surprisingly successful vocal attempt at flushing out birds because up popped a male Mourning Warbler followed shortly by his mate. They hung around for quite a while to see what the fuss was about, it was a rare treat for us.

American Redstart (male).

American Redstart (male).

Mourning Warblers are aptly named, at least the male is. Contrasting his yellow breast and belly, his head, neck and throat are draped in a somber veil of grey that gathers to shape a black cravat; very handsome. Birders tend to celebrate all warblers for their beauty whether subtle or outrageous and the Mourning Warbler sometimes gets more than its share.  I wish I had a photo of one worth sharing but I see them too infrequently, I’ve never had the opportunity

Indigo Bunting.

Indigo Bunting.

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The Black-billed Cuckoo was a rather frustrating pleasure (heard but not seen) but amply made up for by the tantalizing surprise Mourning Warbler, my Bird of the Day.

Common Nighthawk

21 May 2016 Hendrie Valley, Burlington ON. This was a very long day. It was the day of our spring all-day, sunrise-to-sunset bird count. Sixteen-hours in one spot, an interesting and habitat-diverse location, counting all birds seen and heard. Why we do this is a longish story but it is part of a long term project, the Long Watch, to study bird populations on the lands of Royal Botanical Gardens, Ontario.

Starting at 05:45 we watched the day brighten to become comfortably overcast and breezy . We tallied fifty-six species, almost exactly the same number as this time last year. Rather sensationally our second bird was an unexpected, low-overhead Common Nighthawk. I was jubilant!  Nighthawks have become uncommon verging on rare over the past few decades. They’re goatsuckers, an ancient, somewhat pejorative, name for the Caprimulgidae family of birds that includes nightjars and whip-poor-wills. An odd name you might think (I do) but Aristotle (who needs little introduction) wrote of them, “Flying to the udders of she-goats, it sucks them and thus gets its name. They say that the udder withers when it has sucked at it, and that the goat goes blind.” Can you believe that?

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

Our first two hours were lively and noisy. We recorded many Great Blue Herons, Mallards and Wood Ducks coming and going to the ponds around us. About thirty male Red-winged Blackbirds enlivened a marsh in front of us and high overhead almost uncountable numbers of Ring-billed Gulls passed over. A single Common Loon, also high overhead, was perhaps heading north better late than never. As the day wore on avian life quieted down, but the Ring-billed Gulls kept on going. We became aware of patterns of behaviour: a pair of Eastern Phoebes running food to their hidden nest, five or six male Common Yellowthroats singing from their perches, each about 50 meters equidistant and occasional passes by a Cooper’s Hawk that set the smaller birds diving for cover. We watched Red-winged Blackbirds harassing a Great Blue Heron who was trying to mind his own business stalking and catching fish. I’ve included a gallery of the heron and blackbird below but it’s visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.

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Our day became as much social as anything and, as dusk started to close in, we were all happily contemplating going home.  Looking up at the darkening sky we watched a small group of Chimney Swifts careening and wheeling in circles. And to close out the day, another Common Nighthawk, but this time very high overhead. We’d seen one here at dusk a year ago and I’d kind of promised a repeat performance to one of our young observers. I explained how single, white, under-wing stripes makes the bird unmistakable. Despite its height she saw it well and confirmed that without the wing-stripe she would never have known, a sharing moment with my Bird of the Day.

 

White-rumped sandpiper

May 18 2016. Townsend Ontario. A day of many interesting sightings. Two of us completed a census taking three and a half hours to do what normally takes two. It was full of surprises and pleasures and we ended up with a list of fifty-eight species. Stand-outs in my view, although my companion Barry may have other ideas, were hearing many Tennessee Warblers, finding a neck-breakingly high overhead Blackburnian Warbler, two Cooper’s Hawks patrolling the area on languid wingbeats reminiscent of a Short-eared Owl’s floppy flight style, a female Wood Duck with a brood of eleven day-old ducklings and finding ourselves in close proximity to a male Scarlet Tanager. I have gushed about Scarlet Tanagers often enough but sometimes bemoan the fact that I find them difficult to photograph. Today’s was enjoyed by a gathering crowd of walkers and my camera did well to get some quite good photos; here are a couple. (In a gallery visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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With our census done we went in pursuit of shorebirds at some distant sewage lagoons. Birders like sewage treatment areas, I won’t go into details; it’s one of our peculiarities.

It was quite good birding. The lagoons held large numbers of Dunlin, Least Sandpipers and Semi-palmated Plovers. It brought back memories of this time last year along the shores of New Jersey. We found one White-rumped Sandpiper which was interesting, more to Barry than to me I think. He scrutinized it at length, checked its field marks (streaky breast, wing length and slightly drooping bill) mulled over its purported body length in comparison to other sandpipers and gave it his conclusive stamp of approval.

Shorebirds can be excruciatingly difficult to sort out, I’m pretty comfortable with the ones we see most commonly; but a White-rumped Sandpiper is rare enough that I find that they just add to my confusion.

Back home I did a little more research and here’s where it gets really interesting: White-rumped Sandpipers migrate between the extreme southern end of South America, Patagonia in particular, to the extreme northern end of North America, the shores of the Arctic Ocean and Baffin Bay, to breed. A journey of 13,000 kilometers made in a few, long, non-stop flights which can last as long as 60 hours and cover up to 4,000 kilometers. All of this on reserves of body fat as fuel. Pause and think about all of that: a metabolism that converts some forty grams (around one ounce) of yellow, greasy fat into fuel enough to fly from Surinam to Ontario in one go; guided by an internal navigation system that relies on… what: Stars, Earth’s magnetic fields, the Sun? Who knows? Cool bird; Bird of the Day

Swallows

May 15th 2016. Cootes Paradise, Hamilton ON. Canada is sometimes understood to be a country of ice and snow and log cabins and dark pine trees; a impression richly undeserved. It is a picture that today’s hi-speed, hi-definition world should be able to dispel; but fails to. It doesn’t help that every now and then we get a day like this: cold, wet and with sleet and snow in the air; winter just letting us know it hasn’t forgotten us. It was perhaps the coldest May day in history.

I walked one of our census routes. It was raw but the birds still have to live and many could only find food on the ground; flying insects having either died or hunkered down somewhere. I encountered a flock of Cedar Waxwings, an Eastern Kingbird and a solitary Swainson’s Thrush all foraging low along a well used path. I could hear Nashville Warblers, Warbling Vireos and a Northern Waterthrush, all insectivors and probably struggling.

Along the margins of a large lake, Tree, Barn and Northern Rough-winged Swallows were chasing what few flying insects there were, both low, almost at surface level, and just inland in sheltered coves and along marshy tributaries. It may sound unremarkable but swallows normally fly high, swooping, aerial loops picking flying insect at all levels ; today’s birds had been forced down and concentrated in those marginally warmer corners. Many birds had stopped flying, stopped wasting energy in a fruitless pursuit and chose instead to perch, fluffed up to keep warm; whether they were beyond a fatal point of no return I can only speculate on. I’m sure this turn of events was deadly to many insectivorous birds, particularly hatchlings dependent upon parents delivering an endless supply of food.

Barn Swallows in the cold

Barn Swallows in the cold

Here are a couple of shots of swallows: three Barn Swallow above and a Northern Rough-winged Swallow below, waiting for better times.

N Rough-winged Swallow in the cold.

N Rough-winged Swallow in the cold.

Indigo Bunting

May 13th 2016. Cootes Paradise, Hamilton ON. I walked a census route today and enjoyed a few bird encounters that were either landmarks or lessons. I think a female Indigo Bunting stands out as most memorable and instructive and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Scarlet Tanagers, Swainson’s Thrushes and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird all added to the lively 45-species census.

Female Indigo Bunting

Female Indigo Bunting

The photo above is the Indigo Bunting, a female. She flew up from the trail in front of me and perched obligingly just overhead allowing me enough time to get a couple of shots. It took me a few minutes to figure out just what I was looking at and I needed to check a good field guide later to confirm my suspicions. This bird is drab and almost devoid of key field marks, but what caught my eye and led me in the right direction was the faintest hint of blue around the base of the wing. Clearly she bears no resemblance to the dazzling male (photo below). But his foppish glory is short-lived, once the breeding season is over he will become a mottled blend of browns and muddy blue –“…and we all do fade as a leaf”.

Male Indigo Bunting

Male Indigo Bunting

Speaking of dowdy, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was also instructive. Of all the woodpeckers, this species seems to care least about appearances. A well-turned-out sapsucker dresses like an underpaid TV detective, while a dowdy one, like today’s, more like a farmhand.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

The forest was noisy with the songs of half a dozen or more Scarlet Tanagers. Their song is often described as sounding like a robin with a sore throat, which is not a bad description, although I think robins put a bit more heart into it. Perhaps they don’t need to impress with song because seeing a Scarlet Tanager at close quarters is quite enough, almost a shock to the eyes.

Two Swainson’s Thrushes, like all thrushes, kept their distance. I watched them for a while and rarely did I see much more than their backs. Like the Hermit Thrush (See April 30th below) they always seem to be getting ready to leave.

My last and landmark sighting was a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird watching a crowd of school-children from atop a dead tree. His flash of ruby on the throat is not apparent in this light, you’ll have to forgive him; he’s just arrived after a solo flight from Panama. There’s a lot more to a four-gram hummingbird than flashy feathers and a long bill.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Black-throated Blue Warbler and Hooded Warbler.

May 11 2016. Long Point Ontario. Apparently persistent north-east winds of the past few weeks are holding back many of our expected migrants. Among those who gauge the warbler migration of May migration in superlatives and hysteria, today was just an okay day; but I was perfectly happy with it. A companion and I revisited the Long Point area (see May 4) and once again tallied a very varied and respectable list. Some first-of-the-years were: Least Flycatcher, American Redstart, Veery and Red-eyed Vireo. Notable (just because) were a Broad-winged Hawk, several Scarlet Tanagers, a handsome Northern Flicker, and Chestnut-sided, Nashville, Yellow-rumped, Magnolia and Black-throated Green Warblers.

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

We found ourselves on the opposite side of a thicket of brambles, dogwood and grape from a large knot of anxious birders who were desperately trying to find the Black-throated Blue Warbler they could hear but was avoiding them. Their problem was that while they were on the west side of the thicket, we and the bird were getting along nicely on the east side.  I was able to get a few photos, here’s the best of them.Black-throated Blue Warbler. Old Cut, LP

For a long time the Black-throated Blue Warbler was unassailable as Bird of the Day, that is until we were directed to a splendid male Hooded Warbler that was hopping and flitting quickly around a tangle of downed branches. It shone in the relative gloom and had us all gasping in admiration, one look makes you an instant fan. Hooded Warblers’ distribution in Ontario is very limited, generally close to Lake Erie and towards the west end of Lake Ontario; it’s a privilege to count them among our breeding birds. And incidentally, it easily matched the Black-throated Blue Warbler in eye-popping appeal. Co-Bird of the Day.

Hooded Warbler

Hooded Warbler

Hooded Warbler

Hooded Warbler

Bay-breasted Warbler and Yellow-throated Vireo

May 9 2016. Ruthven Park, Cayuga ON. Another one of those cascading-warblers days. I left home long before most mortals were awake but checked the radar beforehand; the image was pulsating with migrants on the move. It takes fifty minutes to get to the bird observatory and the sun was up when I arrived, the woods were ringing with bird song and there was the lightest touch of frost on the grass.

Charged with the mission of doing the daily census I was soon overwhelmed: Chipping Sparrow, Wood Thrush, Song Sparrow, Warbling Vireo, American Robin, Yellow Warbler, say them to yourself quickly and you’ll have some idea of the fury. Black-capped Chickadee, Blue Jay, Baltimore Oriole, American Goldfinch and Tufted Titmouse – and on it went. I quickly filled two columns of a page of my notebook – forty-six entries.

I stared up at the sunlit side of some towering Norway Spruces and found a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, two flame-faced Blackburnian Warblers, a Magnolia Warbler , a Yellow Warbler and a couple of Black-throated Green Warblers. From the top came a clear fluting song that I thought I knew, I had the wrong species in mind but was nevertheless pleased to make the connection with an Orchard Oriole. (Here is a gallery of some of those birds, visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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Much farther along, with my brain, binoculars and notebook all working flat out, I looked up at a small bird working over the tops of a Hackberry, it was a Bay-breasted Warbler. Wow! That’s early by a week or two, I thought. Bird of the Day for that reason alone, but also because Bay-breasteds can be a bit hit and miss, a species that is prone to population swings and, to my mind, often neck-twistingly high overhead.

I watched it and others for a while and then became aware of the unmistakable tree-top call of a Yellow-throated Vireo; I just love these guys and here they are back for another summer’s fun. Their song is a repeated, hoarse, two-phrase whistle; ‘Whee – up’ that sounds a bit the worse for wear as though last night was a late one with too many drinking games. And come to think of it, that whole image of a dissolute party-goer rather fits the nonchalantly pugnacious demeanor of the Yellow-throated Vireo. A quick search of this site will turn up many entries about vireos, all of them in praise of.

Yellow-throated Vireo

Yellow-throated Vireo

I spent three hours on the census, a job that usually takes half that time, and tallied sixty-two species. A high count that could have been higher, I missed a couple of birds that really should have been dead certainties but there it is; after a while birdy days like this can become an over-saturated blur – if happy one.