Blue-winged Teal

22 April 2015. Burlington, ON. There are ducks, and then there are ducks. The good old ‘puddle ducks’ as stereotyped by Walt Disney and Beatrice Potter, include many from the genus Anas. Mallards, (Anas platyrhynchos) Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) and Northern Shovelers (Anas clypeata) for example. There are many other large, free-floating birds that we generically label as ducks but they are not all as endearing or cuddly as the Anas crowd.

It is common among ducks of all types for the drakes to be quite spectacular dressers: always classy, often tasteful, sometimes colourful and occasionally all three. Females in the Anas family are sometimes quite difficult to tell apart, one species from the other. They are commonly mottled browny-grey all over, effective camouflage when incubating but hardly head-turning.

This morning, as part of my census circuit, I enjoyed watching four species of duck: Mallard, Wood Duck, Blue-winged Teal and Gadwall; in every case there were bonded pairs, and in the case of the Wood Ducks there were many males without females in evidence. (For the record, Wood Ducks, along with the outrageously ornate Mandarin Duck of Asia belong in the genus Aix.  Wood Ducks are Aix sponsa.)

The Blue-winged Teals were my Birds of the Day. It is a species in decline, perhaps due to over-hunting on their wintering grounds. Formerly quite common during spring and summer, we don’t see them much any more.   They pass through in the early spring (about now) and it always seems to be a brief visit. At a distance, the male is easy to identify with his white facial crescent and bum-patch. Closer up, the rich cinnamon of his breast and flanks puts him in the tasteful dresser category. This pair was hard to see working the dark edge of some old vegetation, then a passing Cooper’s Hawk panicked everyone but when everything had calmed down, the pair settled back in the open water close to where I could get this shot.

Blue-winged Teal

Blue-winged Teal

My census route encompasses a couple of large ponds which Wood Ducks find very appealing, probably because of the encircling oak woodland. Wood Ducks are so called because they seek mature deciduous trees with lots of natural nesting cavities. They choose a safe hideaway, far above the forest floor and there the female incubates a clutch of perhaps as many as a dozen eggs. When the ducklings hatch they waste no time leaving the nest, the female calls to them from the forest floor below and the featherweight babes jump, and more or less float down to the leaf litter; then they follow mother to the nearest water. Hard to imagine.

I found twenty-one Wood Ducks today, mostly males. I suspect a balancing number of females were preoccupied in their nest holes and incubating this year’s brood. Wood Ducks are distinctive for several reasons and foremost has to be the astonishing plumage of the male. It is a crazy collage of colours: maroon, bottle green, scarlet and cream; and shapes: crescents, slashes and curlicues. The female is no shrinking violet either. She doesn’t go for the exuberance of the male, instead she is a study in soft iridescence and eye make-up; no wonder he’s falls for her. I’ve included several photos of the couple in the gallery below. It’s interesting how, in the riot of spring colours and reflections, this pair quite successfully merge into the background; the female more so than the male. Nearby was another pair of Wood Ducks; each with its own log they watched me nervously. They were a pretty picture, so I’ve included them in the gallery  (Visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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Finally as I was about to wrap up my census I watched a Belted Kingfisher successfully fishing, plunging every few minutes and returning to gulp down little wriggly fish. Here are a couple of shots. (Click each to enlarge) Too bad I didn’t use a faster shutter speed.

American Avocet

20 April 2015. Bronte, ON.  I always say that I don’t chase rare birds; but then I feel I have to add – unless it’s a real rarity and if it’s not too far from home. Some cases in point of rarities that I made an extra effort for would be last April’s King Eider or a previous May’s Kirtland Warbler; I made special trips for both of them and was rewarded with amply soul-satisfying moments.

Today, following a modestly interesting day which started very wet and windy, and which included a group of nine Rusty Blackbirds, a Northern Harrier, a Broad-winged Hawk and a Common Raven, I got word that a bunch of American Avocets had shown up at a nearby beach. Before I start gushing about the avocets, let me briefly note that Rusty Blackbirds are becoming increasingly rare and despite their undeniably sombre appearance, are kind of special.  The harrier, the hawk and the raven (a trio like that belong in Alice in Wonderland) are all good sightings, not especially rare, just unusual birds that catch my attention and frequently play starring roles.

Rusty Blackbird (M)

Male Rusty Blackbird.

Rusty Blackbirds (F)

Female Rusty Blackbirds

American Avocets should always be worth making an extra effort to see, but it was close to a mealtime when I heard about them and I had a meeting to attend later on. I set aside any thought that I should go and look for them, but somehow it just wouldn’t go away. Realizing that with a bit of planning, I could eat, get to the avocet site and still be at my meeting on time, off we went. I say we because my wife came along with me; she’s not a birder and her bird-fascination soon ebbs, but she has a soft spot for avocets and carries a vivid memory of a sighting one stormy day some thirty-two years ago. My diary tells this story. “1983. 2 May. A warm day with incredible storm activity. V. strong winds, tornadoes in SW Ont. The storm has resulted in migration chaos. Off McCollom Rd near the lake and adjacent to 50 Point park, in a wet ploughed field, were 7 avocets. V. unusual for this area…”.  I don’t think I’ve seen more than one or two avocets since that date. It’s not that they’re particularly rare, in fact they’re relatively common in the western half of the continent.

With that bit of history in mind and cognizant that today, like that early day in May 1983, was a day of strong south winds and unsettled skies, we went to see if we could locate these birds. We found them easily enough, an orderly crowd of about twenty-four individuals, standing around, waiting for the winds to die down to let them get on with their long-distance journey.

It’s hard not to gush over American Avocets as perhaps the prettiest shorebirds in Christendom; prettier than their European counterparts who lack the delicious cinnamon head and breast, prettier than the more monochromatic (but just as charming) Black-necked Stilts and perhaps even prettier than Wilson’s Phalaropes in breeding plumage. Last November, I suggested that Wilson’s Phalaropes belong in the fine-china category of shorebirds, and today’s birds set me wondering whether avocets belong there too. But somehow they’re a little too gregarious and long-legged to be china, they’d probably get chipped too easily. I think of them as perhaps more like ballerinas: poised, elegant, graceful. What do you think?American Avocets Bronte Harbour copy

Here they are. There were about twenty four of them.

Avocets 3

In flight. Photo by Bonnie Kinder


Photo: Bonnie Kinder


Great Horned Owl

15 April 2015. Faithful readers may recall my January posting about a Snowy Owl that I helped rescue. It was a roadside casualty and I was called upon to ferry it from a nearby animal rescue centre to the Owl Foundation some 60 Km away. (A worthy wildlife cause if ever there was.)

I’m on the foundation’s list of volunteer ambulance drivers and just after lunch today I was again called to see if I could collect an owl in distress, this time it was a young Great-horned Owl that had been picked up on a golf course. Off I went and found it in the care of four burly young grounds-keepers. It had been discovered under a pine tree early in the day, picked up, cuddled and cared for as best they knew how. They had checked with a local veterinarian who gave them a number of suggestions, including the Owl Foundation. When I arrived, it was in a covered cardboard box and evidently terrified with the events that had overtaken it. As I picked it up to go, it was clear that the hearts of these large men had melted over a baby owl. They wanted to know what would happen to it and when, if ever, it would go free. One of them had already checked with his wife to see if they could raise it themselves; wisely, she refused.

It is the Owl Foundation’s practice to save orphaned or injured owls and to return them from whence they came if possible. In this case, I felt pretty sure that the chick could be reared to maturity and returned to the golf course, so I told them to expect to hear from the foundation when it was time to release it.

An hour or so later I delivered it to the Owl Foundation. It clacked its beak loudly as we opened the box. The technician picked it up carefully and decided that it was perhaps a week or maybe a week and a half old. There was no note of reserve or caution in her voice because, as she said; “Oh we’ll just put him in with Old Red and she’ll take care of him – or her.” Old Red is a wise old owl, injured and unable to fly, she tends orphans every year and will foster it like one of her own.  All being well, in September or October it will be returned to the golf course; Dave and the boys will be happy to see it again.

Great Horned Owl Chick

Great Horned Owl Chick

This photo says it all: helpless but feisty and full of potential. Note the size of its beak.

If there’s any unhappy part to this story it is that January’s rescued Snowy Owl did not live very long. I had delivered in what we’d thought was fairly good condition but a respiratory infection soon set in and turned out to be fatal.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

15 April 2015. Cayuga ON. Funny thing about early spring migration is how it can blow hot and cold. Today it was cold, bird-wise that is. The weather on the other hand was delightful, bright sunshine, no wind, not a cloud anywhere and just a light crunch of frost across the fields. Under these conditions I did the daily census at the bird observatory.

Four of us trudged around. The list of species grew quickly but it was mostly in ones and twos. Of course some of the expected nesters: Tree Swallows, Red-winged Blackbirds and Black-capped Chickadees were around in numbers, but probably more than half of the page in my notebook tells a lean story: Common Grackle-2, Chipping Sparrow-2, Eastern Bluebird-1, Canada Goose-3, and so on.

I had some really sharp-eyed and sharp-eared helpers with me, and one of them, Lisa, picked up the song of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet well before the rest of us. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet’s song is a brief scramble of sweet notes ending with a series of four or five descending clearer notes. It’s the kind of song that demands you stop, listen and look for its owner. We found it quite easily and, as is typical with kinglets, it was endlessly moving on the hunt for small insects. It was my Bird of the Day in an otherwise average census round but, consistent with the morning’s experience, we only found one of them.


Winter Wren

10 April 2015. Burlington ON. Thunderstorms had been with us most of yesterday and by nightfall the weather radar showed another slab of heavy weather coming our way. As we turned in, wind-driven rain fell in torrents battering our windows. Today at breakfast, there was a note on our local birding list-serve saying that around two in the morning, under a clear sky ,(really?) the night was alive with the calls of migrating sparrows. So while I slept, thankful for my warm and dry indoors, millions of birds were on the move out there, making their ways northward, some coming our way, others leaving us and following the retreating snows.

With a not very encouraging weather forecast I decided to walk around one of our census routes this morning. The moment I set foot on the trails I could hear that overnight had indeed been busy; the sky must have been full of American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos all rushing back to their nesting grounds in the far north. They were scattered all over the woodland floor at daybreak,singing and chipping to each other and madly refuelling; perhaps they’ll push on tonight.   I could hear a few White-throated Sparrows, even a White-crowned Sparrow and an Eastern Towhee. It must have been quite a night.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

My day’s census turned up forty-two species. It was a result of that large overnight flight of returning birds and the crazy skies that seemed to be the product of chaotic weather. Strong winds still threw things around, there were several mystery birds that dived or fell out of sight before I could figure them out. A low flying Rough-legged Hawk baffled me for a few moments, and thirty wind-tossed Tree Swallows together with two Barn Swallows blew up and down the valley.

Out of a tumultuous sky came rain and birds. I watched some Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows bathing in a small puddle. They were quite charming to watch but I don’t think aesthetics had anything to do with it. Where had they been, and what had they been doing that necessitated a thoroughly soaking bath?

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I saw or heard many first-of-the year birds including: White-crowned Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Phoebe, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Belted Kingfisher. A few Golden Crowned Kinglets flitted frustratingly quickly through tangles of vines and a House Wren had me baffled for quite a while as it picked and probed at the water’s edge of a marsh. I was pleased to see and hear two Belted Kingfishers, they’ll probably stay around here until October. Oh, and this smart little Hooded Merganser was quite breathtaking; if you had to invent a cartoon duck would you ever come up with this? Hooded Merganser in Hendrie Valley

Bird of the Day was a surprising Winter Wren. There were many birds that gave me a little fizz of excitement or made me smile, but the Winter Wren made me say Wow! (quietly to myself.)   As is usually the case, I heard it before I saw it; in fact I thought it was more distant than it turned out to be. It was exploring the dark innards of a gaping rotten log; exactly the sort of place to expect them. Winter Wrens are a two-part delight: first, a tiny song, a thin, tight-knit tumble of high notes. Two or three Julys ago I managed to capture a short movie of a singing Winter Wren and inasmuch as a picture is worth a thousand words, you’ll be further off if you follow this link and see for yourself.  The second Winter Wren delight is the tiny mite of a bird itself, it’s the size of a golf ball, just as easy to lose in the undergrowth but far more fascinating.

American Robin

8 April 2015. Burlington ON. I really hadn’t reckoned on a Bird of the Day entry today. It’s been pouring for much of the morning and as I write our back yard is flooded. I can’t be sure, but I suspect that winter still hasn’t quite left the soil so it’s possible that a pan of sub-surface ice is preventing free drainage through our otherwise lightish loam.

As I gazed out of a window, I noticed this wonderfully handsome male American Robin pacing around looking for food. He’s been wandering over our lawn for a while, whether he’s found anything much I couldn’t say. He has also been working over some sheltered patches of leaf litter and picking at a few desiccated ornamental berries; I think he’s doing okay.American Robin in our back yard

I managed to get a few shots of him which, despite two sheets of glass between the camera and its subject, worked out quite well. Note a couple of things: The dark sooty blackness of his cheeks and head, that’s what distinguishes him as male, it contrasts with the slate-grey brown of the neck and back, these lighter tones characterise the head of a female robin. Look too at the speckling of raindrops on his tail and flight feathers.American Robin in our back yard-3

It’s interesting (to me) to note the structure and pattern his wing feathers: the wingtips are made up of long pointy and somewhat brownish primaries, they are overlaid by secondaries (which appear in the photos with light coloured edges) and they in turn are topped with layers of coverts. The less stiff feathers of the shoulder are known as scapulars. These feathers and structures when extended create an aerodynamically perfect wing, but in these pictures’ they’re folded as neatly as a courtesan’s fan.American Robin in our back yard-2

Lesser Yellowlegs and Great Egret

6 April 2015. Hamilton ON. A group of likeminded birders and I are engaged in a couple of months of regular bird censuses. Our task, over the two spring months of April and May, is to systematically walk specific routes and record all birds seen and heard. The long-term objective is to build a picture of bird species’ populations and species mix in a very bird-rich part of Ontario. This is the first year in what is designed as a multi-year project, our efforts will probably not start to demonstrate meaningful data until a decade of effort has accumulated.

We are watching and recording the return of dozens of species, starting now with waterfowl, but before long we’ll start seeing the neo-tropical migrants. Soon we’ll notice that some winter visitor species: Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows in particular have left to return north to breed; the Great South to North Spring Shift.

Today in a biting northeasterly wind (Force 3 on the Beaufort Scale) we encountered thirty-three species, a third of which we could safely say were returned migrants. They’d be ho-hum birds a little later in the year but we welcome their return even so, species such as: Common Grackles, Song Sparrows and Killdeers. Less welcome, but returned nevertheless, were the first Brown-headed Cowbirds; a species whose parasitism of small passerines made ecological sense in their original prairie habitat but their spread east into the habitat of eastern woodland species has been and continues to be nothing short of devastating.

Great Egrets in September

Great Egrets in September

Best birds today were a Great Egret and a Lesser Yellowlegs. Neither is a shock to the system, both species are generally and statistically reckoned to show up around the end of the first week in April. Not a shock then, but a surprise; to me anyway. The Great Egret because they don’t breed anywhere around here, I suppose this one was just passing through. We don’t see them consistently until July, August and September when dozens of them settle in to our mudflats and marshes having finished with their far flung breeding colonies.

Lesser Yellowlegs. Cape May N.J.

Lesser Yellowlegs. Cape May N.J.

The Lesser Yellowlegs just seemed so out of place picking its way along the fringes of the barely ice-free shallows. Like the egret, they are usually associated with the warmth of late summer when, on their return south, they rest and feed here awhile in preparation for the next few thousand miles of migration. In August our shoreline habitat must surely be alive with delicious invertebrates, today it would be a quite different matter; just wriggly things on ice.

I’ve included a couple of late summer shots to warm things up.

Tundra Swans

3 April 2015. Hamilton ON. I cannot allow spring’s threshold to go by without somehow celebrating Tundra Swans. There was a time, when I was, perforce more of a creature of the climate controlled, neon-lit indoors, when I might have had to seek them out. Now living virtually under their spring flyway and also having all of the advantages of happy retirement, I could almost sit by my window and wait for them to appear; I could, but I don’t live like that.  Three or four times this spring I have had the happy experience to have been out somewhere doing something useful when I heard the unmistakable, far-reaching calls of Tundra Swans heading north to their breeding grounds. You will almost always hear them long before you find them in the lively skies of March.

Their spring migration takes them from their Atlantic coast wintering grounds to the coastal marshes of the sub-Arctic to breed. Using the Great Lakes as open water stepping-stones, their first stop after leaving Chesapeake Bay is the food-rich farm fields and wetlands around Lake Erie. Those first refueling stops are just a short flying time away by the time I see them passing high over our end of Lake Ontario. A few flocks skim low over our harbour, perhaps wanting to make the passing acquaintance of our wintering flock of  Trumpeter Swans.

Tundra Swans approaching

Tundra Swans approaching

It’s those passing flocks that I love to see.  Sometimes almost out of sight just a long undulating V of perhaps a few dozen birds twinkling white in the sunlight, other times it’s an occasional low-flying formation barely a hundred feet above water level. As they go they call to each other, a soft yet incredibly far-reaching, hwhoo – hwhoo. I suppose it’s a staying-in-touch call, the leader checking with the followers or perhaps it’s the older birds showing the youngsters the landmarks around them, vital information for future years. These photos, taken in threatening weather a couple of days ago, of a small flock flying low over the harbour, captures for me something of the single-mindedness and strength of Tundra Swans on the move.

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This morning I was one of a small group doing a census of resident and migrant birds. We’d had several first-of-the-year sightings: Eastern Phoebe, Brown-headed Cowbird, Tree Swallows and Northern Flicker among them. As we stared across a wide shallow lake working hard to make out a Green-winged Teal, the sounds of a couple of flocks of Tundra Swans stopped our work: one flight of about forty was very high but pretty against the blue sky, the others low enough for us to appreciate the power and order in the flock. For me they were my Bird of the Day, notwithstanding the many other welcome new arrivals.

Hoary Redpoll

1 April 2015. Burlington ON. Today’s date notwithstanding, the unexpected and exciting discovery of a Hoary Redpoll left our small birding group with more questions than answers.

The flow of early spring migrants has taken hold even though the air temperature was just one degree above freezing; it barely changed all morning. Still, our group encountered some encouraging sightings including: A small group of male Wood Ducks looking for open water in hopes of establishing breeding territory; Five Hooded Mergansers, all but one of them males, exploring a narrow opening in an iced-over pond; and a Red-shouldered Hawk wheeling high overhead and glowing in the morning sun. Three Brown Creepers made us all smile; they’re unassuming and industrious little birds.

Our Hoary Redpoll came near the end of our hike. I spotted it while scanning a still largely frozen patch of mosses, woodland debris and tree roots. We were looking for any Skunk Cabbage spears that might have emerged through the ice and snow. Skunk Cabbage when full-grown looks vaguely like a large, bright-green, blowsy cabbage and its crushed leaves smell very musky. It is in the very large arum family of plants (along with Jack in the Pulpit, Cuckoopint and Calla Lily) and has the curious ability to use chemical means to generate sufficient warmth to melt its way through lingering snow and get a start on spring. Its rather introverted and hooded flowers appear long before its leaves just as soon as the first spike has pulled itself up out of the frozen ground. We look for in late March because, if nothing else, it’s a welcome sign of spring.

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As I looked over this known Skunk Cabbage patch, I caught sight of a small finch picking for fallen seeds. After a moment’s puzzling I announced that we’d got a Redpoll, meaning (without thinking) a Common Redpoll (the same species I’d seen in flocks just a few days earlier). It was a little hard to follow as it made its way through the debris, but eventually we all managed to enjoy it.   I noted, but didn’t comment on, how much lighter overall it was compared to the individuals seen on the past weekend. It seemed somehow more finely drawn and even the pink on its breast was more of a blush than a bold declaration. Then one of our team raised the question whether it might be a Hoary Redpoll. Well yes! That seemed like a plausible fit, but Hoary Redpolls are rarely found this far south. I resolved to do some further reading.

The Hoary Redpoll has long been considered a far more northern species and subtly distinct from the Common Redpoll. It differs in having more frosty white tones and somewhat lighter streaking. All authorities caution that the intergrades between the two species are frustratingly subtle; there are darker Hoary Redpolls and lighter Common Redpolls and there seem to be few if any definitively distinguishing field marks. So did we see a Hoary or did we see a light Common Redpoll?

I believe that by most, if not all traditional measures, we found a Hoary Redpoll. But maybe it’s a moot point because very recent DNA analysis of both species shows them to be virtually identical. The belief is growing that the two species are in fact one and the same; like humans they come in many shades. It seems more than likely that science and the arbiters of bird nomenclature will soon rule that henceforth Hoary Redpolls shall be known as Common Redpolls, leaving the adjective Hoary as a quaint artefact. Either way it was a great sighting.

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For the sake of comparison, here are a few photos in galleries visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.  Above are some Common Redpolls seen just a few days ago and below are two shots of today’s Hoary Redpoll. (These two photos courtesy of Bonnie Kinder.)

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Gray Jay & Common Redpoll

28 & 29 March 2015 Algonquin Park, ON. We took a weekend off and went north to a small and rather elegant lakeside resort. Odd, in a way, that just when winter is finally letting go, we should choose to go to where it is still firmly in control. Still, it was all very beautiful, Christmas card scenery with clean virgin snow draping spruce trees and clear blue skies.

A few days before our arrival, we were asked if we had any special needs or requests; I answered, suggesting that Gray Jays and Evening Grosbeaks would be a nice touch. I got the Gray Jay, just one; but no grosbeaks.

A scattering of seed just outside the dining room attracted a sizeable flock of Common Redpolls. We sometimes see redpolls in southern Ontario but it’s been a couple of years since I last encountered any and that was along a roadside where one or two were picking over some the snow covered Goldenrod seed-heads. For us they are only ever winter visitors because they breed very far north in the high latitudes south of Hudson Bay, a land of dry lichen-heath tundra, stunted spruces and willow thickets. This hungry flock was very quick to flee at the first sudden sound or movement, but with patience I was able to move in close enough for a few shots that capture their dainty essence of finch.

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The Gray Jay was something of a triumph. It’s not that they are particularly rare within their broad boreal range, but that range does not extend far enough south for it to be a familiar bird. I was feeling a bit of Gray Jay deficit. While the related Blue Jays are unfailingly spectacular and raucous, Gray Jays instead are a beautiful pearly grey and white, quiet and endearing.

Gray Jay

Gray Jay

Interestingly, a closely related yet slightly more colourful species, the Siberian Jay, is found in the similar habitat across Eurasia and another, the increasingly rare Sichuan Jay, inhabits a small part of Tibet. The Siberian and the Gray are both known for their quiet boldness and are perfectly at ease hanging around campsites where they will readily swoop down to pick up unguarded food. Despite their quiet ways, there is nothing surreptitious about Gray Jays, I suppose if they were humans we’d say butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. You can get away with a lot that way.

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