Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

22 September 2014. Cayuga ON. It’s a pet peeve of mine that ‘people’ talk about the “official’ beginning or end of a season. According to these pedants, yesterday the 21st of September, was the end of summer and today the official start of fall; such hogwash! Firstly, in my book, summer is when the weather is nice and warm, winter when it’s cold, spring is when things start to grow again and autumn is when it turns cold and the leaves drop. Secondly, here in the mid latitudes (we’re at 43 degrees north) the seasons can, I admit, reasonably be parceled into 3-month blocks lying between the defined solstice and equinox dates; but if you live in Reykjavik, Louisiana, or Tokyo for that matter, it’s a different matter.

Well, while that was all a rant of little consequence, it’s worth noting that the birds migrate when the time is right. Whether they respond to daylight length, the presence or absence of a certain food or the first snow squalls, who really knows. At the bird observatory we see many species pass through in determinable sequential waves and they never seem to pay any heed to anyone’s official dates, they have their own rhythms.

In the past few days, we’ve seen the odd Broad-winged Hawk pass overhead, the stragglers of a wave of perhaps a quarter of a million that surged through southern Ontario ten days ago, effectively a concentrated wave passing through and now gone south for the winter. Today I encountered the first few White-throated Sparrows of fall, a female Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a Slate-coloured Junco, each the advance guard of waves yet to come and go. It’s all a bit like the water draining out of a bath.

I don’t mean to sound dreary even though today’s Bird of the Day, a young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, was well, drab. Funny thing about sapsuckers is their rather shambolic dress. Whoever dresses them needs to pay more attention to style, coordination and colour accents. As it is, they look rather like a down-on-his-luck widower who’s never sure where he keeps his shirts or socks. Still, despite having no clothes sense, and tending towards reclusiveness they are pretty wonderful birds. I mean, a large part of their diet comprises insects drawn to the sticky secretions of sap around holes that the birds themselves make in the bark of trees; how clever. I got to handle and band today’s young sapsucker and it was, I think, something of a privilege. It certainly knows how to use its feet to hold on tight, and that beak means business. Here area few photos of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers taken at different times and places.

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Chestnut-sided Warbler

18 September 2014. Burlington ON. Through an organization to which I belong, I recently offered to lead birding trips for anyone interested. I know there are many who’d like to learn more about birds, but getting started seems to be daunting.

Today I had just one person join me on a pleasant walk around; we had a very rewarding three hours. The splendour of a male Northern Cardinal or Wood Duck never lessens but it’s nice to share the appreciation with someone who’s really seeing it for the first time. I suspect my discussions on the finer points of Trumpeter Swans (versus Tundra and Mute Swans) and the key identification points on a Gray Catbird or Green-winged Teal in eclipse plumage (as against nearby Mallards) may need revisiting; but never mind, we both enjoyed it. I noted that we saw about thirty species including a pair of adult Bald Eagles passing overhead and a Green Heron stalking minnows.

We stopped along a boardwalk where birds suddenly started popping up. I have to admit that many of those fleeting glimpses left me mumbling ‘Not sure.” But I captured a lucky and actually very nice photo of one, which had caused me quite a bit of head-scratching. I’m not ashamed to acknowledge that my first quick-glance impression was that it was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet; except that the overall colour was wrong and it’s a little early to see them on their fall migration, October is a better time.

Chestnut-sided Warbler (juv. female)

Chestnut-sided Warbler (juv. female)

But my lucky photo (above) was a dignity-saver. It is a hatch-year, female Chestnut-sided Warbler. The vivid yellow-green on its back is diagnostic and if you compare it to the youngish male below, photographed in May 2012, it’s a bit of a stretch to tie the two together as the same species.  (The male was probably in its first spring, the chestnut extends further down the flanks in older birds.)

Chestnut-sided Warbler. (adult male photographed in May 2012)

Chestnut-sided Warbler. (adult male photographed in May 2012)

I remember seeing and being puzzled by a young female Chestnut-sided some years ago, but while there’s always something to learn, it’s also too easily forgotten.

Birding in Andalucia, Spain

I have just posted an account of my birding experiences earlier this month in Spain.  I am still working on some of the identification challenges; it’s one thing, in the heat of the moment, to photograph a bird and quite another to remember what it was afterwards.  Anyway, click on this link for the almost-full story.

Griff

Griff

Common Yellowthroat

17 September 2014. Cayuga ON. This must be a quick post, I’ve got far too much to do. But, today at the bird observatory I did the daily census as usual. It was a perfect, very late summer morning; coolish and dewy. Not many birds around for quite a while but at one corner I evidently intruded on the tranquility of family life for some Common Yellowthroats. They are common enough (as their name suggests) but that doesn’t distract in the slightest from their striking looks and endearing character. An on-territory male will always flit out to see what you’re up to and, with mild provocation, will click and chip at you for a minute or so while remaining almost out of sight. They rarely show themselves for more than a very few of seconds so they’re hard to photograph. However this morning one of this family group popped out to see what the fuss was all about (nothing really, just me walking by) and perhaps seeing nothing of particular interest just stayed where it was and allowed me to take a few pictures. For being so obligingly photogenic, it was my Bird of the Day.

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

We encountered many lovely migrants today; many warbler species: Magnolia, Chestnut–sided, Black-throated Green, Wilson’s and Blackpoll Warblers. Some of my favourites: Warbling, Philadelphia, Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos and a few Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes. It was all very nice; about as good as it gets. Oh, and these two Song Sparrows were kind of charming

Two Song Sparrows

Two Song Sparrows

Scarlet Tanager

15 September 2014. Cayuga ON. Last year, around this time, while doing the daily census at the bird observatory, I took long-distance photos of a couple of mystery birds. They were both high up and hard to get really good looks at. Still my photos were passable so I posted them on a local birding site and asked for others’ opinions. The consensus was that they were both of Scarlet Tanagers, either males in non-breeding plumage, or females, or juveniles. You see, while identifying and appreciating a male Scarlet Tanager in May or June is easy, the same cannot be said for late summer and fall when all of that glorious red-hot scarlet has given way to a drab olive green; now the males look like the females and juveniles. Here’s a couple of shots to illustrate.

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Today, I spent the morning at the bird observatory and, as usual, undertook the daily census walk. It’s a hike of a kilometer or so around a prescribed route of various habitats, the task is to record all birds seen and heard. The hike is almost always rewarding and often surprising; only once or twice in the many years I’ve been doing the census have I not enjoyed it and those were only days when it was really miserably cold. The census today turned up a good variety of species including a couple of Black-throated Green Warblers and a Chestnut-sided Warbler, I heard Warbling and Yellow-throated Vireos and saw a couple of Red-eyed Vireos too, all of these birds are heading south, well south, for the winter. I caught sight of a Scarlet Tanager and knew it for what it was, it may be a drab greenish colour, but it’s profile is unmistakable.

In the high tops of some Black Walnut trees I found an Eastern Wood Peewee which was fly-catching and feeding a juvenile. This food dependency by the youngster struck me as very late, but according to the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, 2001-2005, egg laying continues into mid August so, allowing three to four weeks for incubation and fledging, it’s perfectly plausible; there’s always something new to learn.

Anyway, back to Bird of the Day. Also high in the tree tops was a yellowish-green bird actively preening itself. It hurt my neck trying to hold still and watch it, my inclination was that I was watching a Yellow-throated Vireo, a choice that was reinforced by the call of another one off to my left. I used my camera to get several shots of it and thought that I could comfortably double-check my identification a little later, somewhere less awkward and involving less neck pain. Identification from below can be a challenge. Well, the upshot of all of this is that, on reviewing the pictures, it became clear that it was not a Yellow-throated Vireo at all (and photographing thank goodness) but rather another Scarlet Tanager, probably a female. The rather stout beak, a slight fork in the tail and the extent of yellow underneath from throat to tail were indicative. The yellow on the underside of a Yellow-throated Vireo is limited to its breast, and then it’s white from belly to tail. As I said above, there’s always something new to learn and for the instructive moment the tanager was my Bird of the Day.

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Above is a series of those photos of it preening. It was some fifty feet above me and hardly ever still, I had hoped to capture at least one good full headshot but it turned away every time just as I pressed the shutter.

Stone Curlew

7 September 2014. Fuente de Piedra, Spain. Stone Curlews are not especially uncommon birds, not to birders in Spain anyway. But today I spotted one under what to me seemed the most unlikely circumstances. I was part of a small group under the capable and entertaining leadership of Bob Buckler visiting various good inland birding sites. We were coming to the end of a full day and driving through a red-earth olive orchard, a monotonous mono-culture of identical trees set in geometrically precise ranks. I was staring out the window looking at the ground hoping for Hoopoes when I caught a momentary (less than one second, I’m sure) view of a wide-eyed, cartoonish face that I instantly recognised but whose name I couldn’t place. I yelled at Bob to stop the bus, claiming a Cream-colored Courser, which was quite wrong (although not too far off). Sensing my urgency Bob humoured me, stood on the brakes and backed up. The bird flew as soon as it saw us return, fortunately others glimpsed it sufficiently to dispel any suggestion that I was hallucinating, although I missed it this time. But what amazes me is first, that I saw it at all and second, that I recognized the face (if not the name).

Stone-curlew in Lanzarote. Photo by Frank Vassen

Stone-curlew in Lanzarote. Photo by Frank Vassen

For obvious reasons, I did not get a photo of this bird but I’ve managed to find a couple of freely available shots on Wikimedia Commons. I described the face as cartoonish and the more I look at it the more I think it looks like Lisa Simpson, and if that name is meaningless to you, click this link for more. I was telling my son about this encounter and showed him the lower photo, he immediately recognized it as the bird that screams hideously and scares the slumbering daylights out of campers in Queensland Australia. (Actually it’s not the same species, he had encountered Bush Stone-curlews, but there is a very strong family likeness.)

Stone-curlew portrait by Pellinger Atilla.

Stone-curlew portrait by Pellinger Atilla.

There were many other great sightings that day. We started early at a dusty off-road track with a couple of juvenile Rock Thrushes. To Bob-the-leader they were a sensational find and although rather distant, Bob managed to get some good pictures. At that same site we found Blue Rock Thrushes, Thekla Larks, and Black-collared Wheatears all wonderful birds and new to me.

Young Rock Thrush.

Young Rock Thrush. Photo by Bob Buckler

Rock Thrush

Rock Thrush, Photo by Bob Buckler

Frankly the Stone Curlew didn’t really impress the others all that much. I guess it was the novelty and improbability of the sighting that appealed to me and made it my Bird of the Day. Bob’s choice was the Rock Thrushes but I’d say a Whinchat, a handful of Greater Flamingos and a bunch of Griffon Vultures were pretty good too. Here is a gallery of shots from that day.

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(Visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

Red-necked Nightjar

8 September 2014. La Janda, Cadiz, Spain. On this, the last day of my week in Spain, I was one of a small group of bird enthusiasts under the cheerful leadership of Bob Buckler, a British ex-pat and birder of infinite experience. Bob took us to places along the coast west of Gibraltar, places that Bob knows well enough to deliver surprise after surprise.

We spent most of the morning at a couple of strategic raptor-watching spots and saturated ourselves with passing streams of Honey Buzzards, Short-toed Eagles and Booted Eagles. They were a sort of supporting act because every now and then something new like a Peregrine Falcon, Long-legged Buzzard or Montague’s Harrier showed up to assure us that this was time well spent.

Later, we moved along the coast to La Janda, a large expanse of what was at one time a vast, shallow, fresh-water lagoon. For thousands of years it must have been an exceptional place for bird life but in the sixties, alas, it was drained to make room for rice, maize and cotton. It’s still a good birding spot but you spend a lot of time looking for good birds whilst driving along numbingly straight roads that stretch to the horizon.  The birds were there sure enough; White Storks in ranks of hundreds, Marsh Harriers patrolling and Little Egrets stalking.

But the best at La Janda, and certainly my Bird of the Day, was a secretive Red-necked Nightjar. I say secretive, but that’s not quite accurate, nightjars are birds of the dusk to dawn hours, so it might be fairer to say it was just roosting. Nevertheless, nightjars are also masters of cryptic colouration and the one in the picture below was completely invisible to one member of our group.Red-necked Nightjar

They are strange looking birds to be sure (not the only one though, as the picture of some Bald Ibises in the gallery below demonstrates), and have evolved as nocturnal hunters of flying insects. The bristles surrounding its mouth serve to help scoop and trap a captive moth and also to protect the nightjar’s eyes from a flailing victim. The camouflage patterning is nothing short of incredible, whether all individuals have the same feather-for-feather detail, I don’t know, but, from where I stood watching this unmoving bird, I could have sworn that one of its feathers really was a dry leaf.

There was plenty more on this day out (actually about 60 species) and a few of them are in this gallery (which visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.)

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Griffon Vulture

4 September 2014. Casares, Malaga, Spain. In my week in Andalusia, Spain I stayed in an idyllically situated guest house, Finca la Molina sits comfortably with its back against the steep tumbling wall of a mountain with commanding views to the north, east and south. At left, a truly massive peak, craggy, arid and in all likelihood thorny every step of the grueling way to the top. Across the valley, more mountains and precipitous cliffs which allow a toehold for a sparkling white village. And to the right, a long, widening valley which leads down to the Mediterranean lying under a haze of heat and dust. Time spent sitting on the terrace and gazing across the valley is endlessly worthwhile. Dark brings out the bats and Nightjars while the distant barking of village dogs tell of unseen visitors. By day and as soon as the sun has warmed the ground, the Griffon Vultures take flight; and that’s where this post really begins.

This wasn’t really a birding day, my son and I did more cultural things like visiting the remains of a nearby Roman town, enjoying a leisurely lunch and lying on a beach. But my field notes for the day refer to sightings of a Hoopoe (albeit fleetingly) a Lesser Kestrel and a stream of wind-tossed, migrant Black Kites. But late in the day we visited the nearby white village of Casares and there watched as hundreds of Griffon Vultures rode the waves of wind that flowed and swirled around the fractured rocky cliffs and outcrops. Somehow it seemed as if the very presence of the flock on its wind-borne joy-rides drew new birds to join them. As they gained height, sailed north and disappeared, then no sooner was one out of sight than another appeared from somewhere. Maybe they were just doing once-around-the-mountain circuits for the fun of it.

just a few of the Griffon Vultures circling over the town

just a few of the Griffon Vultures circling over the town

A Griff' looking down at me

Griff looking down at me

Watching the effortless control as they sailed and drifted, rising, sliding and turning, their wings so exquisitely right for the task, I could have watched these Birds of the Day for hours; it’s quite possible that I did. I managed to get a few decent photos and the nonchalant what-are-you-looking-at gaze of the one above says it all better than I ever could.

Griffon Vulture sailing by.

Griffon Vulture sailing by.

 

Bee Eater

4 Sept 2014. Casares, Andalusia, Spain. With barely 24 hours of Spain to my credit, I’m in no position to paint any sort of picture but I have, this morning, seen something of the dry craggy peaks and withdrawn, green valleys of rural Andalusia; a world removed from the nearby Costa del Sol and its tracts of beach umbrellas.
We’re staying in a small guest house which sits perched on the west slope of a rugged valley that tumbles away towards the south. From here, it’s a long sweep down to the Mediterranean and I’m told you can see the distant hills of North Africa on a clear day.image
I’m here for the birding experience but my son James has joined me from Stockholm so his presence has changed the emphasis a little. Still he’s happy to go his way while I go mine, so this morning my host, John, took me to a couple of places that he knows well and which could be bird-productive. The first stop was a shaded and gravelly riverside; water can be counted on for bird life and here we found some old finch familiars: Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Greenfinch as well as a couple of new-to-me finch allies: Serin and Cirl Bunting. A gloriously iridescent blue Kingfisher sat obligingly on a branch for a while and I spotted a couple of Crested Tits working through some overhead pine branches as gathering processions of Honey Buzzards streamed overhead.

While I’m not the type to go chasing rarities, there are a few species that I long to see, Bee Eater is one of them. The post-breeding migration of Bee Eaters (it would hardly seem right to call it an autumn migration) starts in early August and is now winding down. I was pleased to have a few wandering flocks pointed out to me so that, if nothing else, I could say I’d seen them; but that’s not the point, I need to experience the bird and that’s something quite different. Late in the morning, John and I stopped along the sun-bleached side of a gravelly farm track to search a shallow, thorny gully for the chance of seeing a reported Rufous Bush Chat, a notable rarity which, it turned out, seemed to have left for this year.

But I was not in the slightest bit disappointed because anything we might see was likely to be new or at the very least novel, to me. Accordingly pairs of Sardinian Warblers, Short-toed Eagles and a handful of Crested Larks were rewarding enough. Then as we were about to leave, a small chattering flock of Bee Eaters arrived and lined up on overhead wires and a fence for my appreciation and enjoyment. They are as engaging in their social behaviour as they are beautiful to look at and several of them settled close enough for some decent photos. In flight they swoop and soar on slim pointed wings while gossiping in fluting voices amongst themselves. Despite many other thoroughly satisfying morning sightings they were my Birds of the Day, if only because I’ve be waiting far too many decades to see them.imageimage

Bee Eater

Bee Eater

Short-billed Dowitchers

27 August 2014. Wainfleet, ON. Late summer is when Arctic-breeding shorebirds leave their fly-bitten, mosquito-infested and windswept breeding grounds and head south to over-winter around tropical beaches, estuaries and lakes. It puts a new spin on birding as a pastime to watch for and identify them. Identification can be tricky and is complicated by a handful of factors: There are many lookalikes that are really hard to tell apart, more so when examined from a distance; The young of the year are often somewhat different from adults, usually their plumage is brighter and crisper. And we only have a short window of opportunity in which to study them, generally four or five weeks.

Today I stopped to investigate an abandoned and partially flooded quarry that is nominally a conservation area but which is, in fact, much the worse for wear from littering and general neglect. A pity since this old quarry has potential, with careful management it could be a wonderful asset, a veritable silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Still, the stop was worthwhile, initially because I could hear a Northern Mockingbird singing nearby and later when I spotted a trio of small shorebirds, (the smaller shorebirds are often referred to as peeps,) feeding along the silty waters-edge about a hundred metres away.

I moved slowly towards the peeps, pausing every now and then to get a for-the-record photograph because frankly I wasn’t at all sure what they were. There are many look-alikes remember and as is the case with the transient warblers of spring, we only see the peeps for a very few weeks each year and it’s easy to forget the lessons of earlier years. Young shorebirds of the Arctic almost certainly have no experiences to guide their response to an approaching person, so I was not entirely surprised that they paid little attention to my slow approach. Eventually I found myself within ten metres of them and sat down slowly to watch. By now I thought I knew what they were, Stilt Sandpipers. My clues: a long bill, bold white eyebrow line, greenish legs and  a probing sewing machine feeding action.

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Now, I must admit that I wasn’t by any means certain of my i.d. There were other candidates, Short-billed Dowitcher being the most likely, but really I wanted them to be Stilt Sandpipers because I hadn’t, until then, been anywhere close to a Stilt Sandpiper, certainly not as eye-poppingly close as to these three, they’d always been a distant sighting whose identification was confidently proclaimed by others.

So I drank deeply of this close encounter, absorbing detail and pleased to be capturing dozens of shots for later analysis. I was a little unsettled by a patch of rufous blush evident on their necks and sides, a wash of which is clearly evident on adult Short-billed Dowitchers. Short-billed Dowitcher pair Townsend 1(As this May 2012 picture at left shows) Maybe I was looking at juvenile dowitchers, although I felt that size militated against dowitchers and everything else seemed to fit for Stilt Sandpipers.

Satisfied eventually with what I’d seen and with a camera full of photos and a sun-scorched neck, I made a slow retreat to consult my in-car field guide, and that’s when doubts about Stilt Sandpipers overtook me. The differences between stilts and dowitchers are there and reasonably clear once you get past first impressions, prejudices and many persuasive similarities. Back home, with access to more and deeper reference materials, I had to concede that I had in fact spent quality time in the presence of three juvenile Short-billed Dowitchers; at least I think so. But no complaints, still very nice Birds of the Day.

I’ve included a gallery of shots of these birds but you can see loads more (a bit repetitive I’ll admit) by following this link. This post contains photos in galleries visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.