Tennessee Warbler

August 26 2017. Paletta Park, Burlington, ON. There are times when a bird is visible just long enough get some clues but not quite long enough to identify it with any certainty. That’s birding and it drives some people crazy, but I try to shrug, tuck the memory away and sometimes label it as a Bird-for-Another-Day. On one of my trips to Uganda there were lots of puzzlers and one day when I said out loud, “It’s a bird for another day” Emmanuel, one of my African companions, looking puzzled, took a while to process what I had said. I had thought it just an introspective comment but it puzzled him deeply, eventually he found it really quite funny and from then on a Bird-for-Another-Day met with broad smiles. We later invented Cup-of-tea Birds (to be identified from photos later over a cup of tea) and just plain Mystery-Birds (forever a Who-knows?).

I found and photographed a Mystery Bird today. Other birders might have named it in a flash but frankly I didn’t. At the time of writing I think it’s a juvenile female Tennessee Warbler. It was obliging in its tendency to pause from time to time and I was able to take several photos even though sharp focus was rare and the bright sky distracting. You’d think that identification would be easy matter with reasonable photos; well maybe. Here are four photos and some comments.

In the photo above you can see the bird that it is bright lemon yellow below, has a greyish tail, a sharply pointed beak, a dusky line through the eye and a bit of a grayish cheek pattern. In the second photo, below, we can see an olive-yellow back, brownish yellow wing feathers and a yellowish-grey cap. The dusky line through the eye is clearer, the dark line slicing across the back is distracting but it’s just a shadow. All of the above is generally consistent with a juvenile female Tennessee Warbler although the yellow in this bird is I think unusually bright.

The third and fourth photos confirm some of the key points and you’ll see that its underside is quite bright yellow right to the grayish tail feathers; and there’s the sticking point, Tennessee Warblers are usually white under the tail although apparently a blush of yellow is not out of the question.

I’ve taken a few days to write this awaiting the thoughts of a few experts or near-experts; the consensus is that it’s a juvenile female Tennessee Warbler.

Mystery bird aside, the last couple of days have been a little on the cool side, good for birders because the first chills of late August set fall migration in motion. The woods, fields and skies, although still fragrant with summer, have been dotted with birds on the move. In my wanderings today I enjoyed watching a Yellow-throated Vireo, a couple of Magnolia Warblers, a Least Flycatcher and a Yellowbellied Flycatcher, among others. They were all fueling up for the long journey in the weeks ahead, they’ll be heading to central America, anywhere from Guatemala to Panama; it seems so improbable, three to four thousand kilometers, half of it over water, on a diet of insects.

Peregrine Falcon

August 20 2017. Townsend, ON.  It’s a longish story but by way of a website that links visiting birders with locals willing to share, I spent the day showing a young British birder and his fiancé Andrea, around one of this season’s best birding places. This is Andrew’s first time across the Atlantic so for him the volume was at the sensational level; by breakfast he’d thrilled at the sight of our robins, goldfinches and nuthatches. I know how he felt, it takes a few days for the waves of first impressions and novelty to move aside and allow for a more measured assessment.

Short-billed Dowitchers

Our first and longest stop was at a large expanse of mudflats, actually a sewage settlement lagoon that was dotted with hundreds of hungrily feeding shorebirds. Andrew was almost delirious at the abundance and variety of lifer birds, mostly confusing sandpiper species: Least, Semipalmated, Pectoral, Solitary and Stilt Sandpipers mixed in with slightly less puzzling Killdeer, Semipalmated Plovers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and Short-billed Dowitchers. Every sweep of the binoculars turned up something new for him, something that leapt to life which, until that moment, had been just remembered photos in magazines, books or field guides; I’m certain he could have stayed all day, Andea was very patient.

Semipalmated Plover and 2 Least Sandpipers

Our first sighting here (really our very first!) was a young Peregrine Falcon found hunched along a shoreline watching over these hundreds of meal tickets. My companion was a touch blasé about the peregrine, I wasn’t though. I’ve seen and watched many peregrines over the years but can never quite get over their clean and powerful elegance.  To see a peregrine zip past on easy wing flicks is really spine tingling; but then to witness today’s bird joined by another and take flight to scatter the shorebirds into a panicked mass-escape, to see them separate one as their quarry and chase it hard in wide sweeps and staggering climbs was a lifetime spectacle, a bit like those wildlife wolf-and-caribou or lion-and-zebra hunts that usually end badly for the hunted.

In this chase the (probable) Pectoral Sandpiper eventually got away, leading the hunters in zigs and zags and finally outrunning them. Most shorebirds, even if they’re tasty, are fast and efficient long distance fliers. Peregrines do better stalking from above and killing by diving and clobbering their prey; with their selected sandpiper and chasing it on the flat or on uphill turns they were evenly matched.

We were enjoying a privileged birding spectacle, just us and all these shorebirds! A spectacle that in the U.K would have attracted many dozens of birders and a collective fortune in optical equipment. I was thrilled to pick out a slightly different-looking bird that turned out to be a Stilt Sandpiper, perhaps the only one among the many look-alikes. I can barely remember the last time I knowingly saw a Stilt Sandpiper and studying it today was a lesson that will stay with me. Next time I should have no trouble picking one out in a crowd.

When I convinced Andrew to turn away from inhaling shorebirds he added a Wilson’s Snipe, Bufflehead, Purple Martin, Bobolink, American Widgeon and a magnificent adult-plumaged Bald Eagle to his head-spinning day’s list.

Soaring Bald Eagle

Despite the novelty of so many shorebirds the peregrine was the most breathtaking episode, and it was just the start of a very full day.As we left the lagoons he asked if there was a chance we might see a Green Heron,  I said, ‘Maybe”.

Hummingbird Clearwing

August 6 2017. Urquhart Butterfly Garden, Dundas On. I’ve spent a week or two mulling over whether a Hummingbird Clearwing has a place as a Bird of the Day. Technically no because it’s a moth but Hummingbird Clearwings look and behave a bit like a bird, superficially anyway.

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These evenly warm summer days bring out the pollinators like those above, insects mostly: butterflies, all sorts of gentle (non stinging) bees and wasps, and moths. All you need is a block of idle time spent in an unkempt expanse of knee-deep flowering plants to see them, the sort of dreamy, summer-light place that might inspire a Victorian poet to start scribbling or painter to unpack her watercolours.  In this part of the world you have a reasonable chance of seeing a Hummingbird Clearwing hovering at a flower’s doorstep. They use their almost one-inch long proboscis to draw nectar from deep within tubular flowers.

Hummingbird Clearwing

Hummingbird Clearwings are members of a family of moths called Sphinx or Hawk Moths and don’t behave anything like the way we expect moths to.

In expanding my knowledge of moths I found that unlike butterflies, which are generally considered inoffensive and charming, many moth species engage in some pretty undesirable behaviour at one stage or another of their life cycle. If there’s a worm that does destructive things in gardens and orchards, there’s a chance it’s the larva (caterpillar) of a moth. Just take a look at the index of The Peterson Field Guide to Moths and you’ll find some pretty anti-social sounding creatures: Cherry Shoot Borer, Sorghum Webworm, Ironweed Root Moth, Red-necked Peanut Worm and Iris Borer to name a few.

Hummingbird Clearwing

I don’t know what the Hummingbird Clearwing does as a larva, whether it’s destructive to anything that mankind values. But as an imago (the mature stage of any insect’s four-stage life) it is an arresting sight. As I took the photo above, a woman standing beside me was certain it was a real hummingbird. It’s not…except as an honorary Bird of the Day.

Barn Swallow

August 19 2017. RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. I’ve just read that August is the Sunday of summer. I get the analogy, August is kind of slow-paced dreamy, it also means that the work-week starts in September and there’s plenty of truth in that. We will be starting our systematic bird counts, or transects, in a couple of weeks and as a warm-up I walked around my favourite deep wooded valley this morning. I’m not the only one who likes the valley, by mid-late morning many family groups make their way along the easy paths feeding Eastern Chipmunks, Gray Squirrels and Black-capped Chickadees.

My walk around was largely unremarkable but seeing thirty or so species of all shapes and sizes, as I did, is pretty good going. Looking back at some of my best days in Uganda or Kazakhstan thirty is decent day’s count. The really big count days come in the midst of the migrations of spring or fall and at known hot spots.

I heard more American Goldfinches than I could either see or reliably count, they twitter musically whether flying or gathered in upper branches. I noted thirty-five but it could easily have been twice as many. At this time of year the males are bright yellow with jet black cap, back and wings, the females are less vividly yellow, a little more olive. They’re easy to hear but hard to spot passing high overhead, tiny birds against a stark blue sky.

American Goldfinch

I was musing on what a rich birding experience this place offers to anyone visiting from almost anywhere and thinking about which of ‘our’ species might be familiar to long distance visitors: Mallards are found in the temperate and sub-tropical Americas, Eurasia and North Africa; they are abundant here and I counted twenty-six this morning; Ospreys (I saw at least one this morning, but there could have been two or three, it’s hard to be sure) have a worldwide distribution and are the second most widely distributed raptor species after the Peregrine Falcon.

At least one Belted Kingfisher was patrolling the river and watery reaches. I hear them more often than see them, there could easily have been more because I’m sure they breed here and this year’s young are presumably not far away.

Belted Kingfisher

It was Barn Swallows, a pair of them chittering musically, from a branch overhead that prompted the species distribution line of reflection. As a child in the U.K I was fascinated to watch them at high-speed skimming and insect-gleaning inches, maybe a foot, above the mown grass of our school’s sports fields. Swallows are built for effortless flight like few other birds, they have with long, slender flight-efficient wings and, as if to emphasize their sporty build, adults have exaggeratedly long outer tail feathers. I saw wintering Barn Swallows in Uganda last February, I don’t know where they go to breed from there, Europe possibly or almost anywhere across to Siberia. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Barn Swallows breed throughout North America and from Iceland, across Europe to n. Siberia, south to Mediterranean regions, n. Africa, Near East, Arabia, Iran, Himalayas, China, Taiwan, and Japan. And from all of those northern territories they winter in Central and South America, tropical Africa, East Indies, n. Australia, and Micronesia.

Barn Swallow

As one who longs to travel I looked at these two Barn Swallows above me (my Birds of the Day incidentally) and thought for a moment about the months-long journey just ahead of them. A journey they make without any of the trappings we depend on; the route is known to them without thinking and they’re ready to leave when the winds tell them; any day now.

Hooded Warbler

August 4 2017. Spooky Hollow, Normandale ON. It’s an hour and a half’s drive from home to what is probably my favourite bit of old Ontario forest. It’s a nature sanctuary purchased some fifty years ago by our local naturalists’ club and valued for its richness: towering maple, beech and oak forest, a clear, fast-running,sand-bottom, cold-water stream, and, what I came to enjoy today, many species of ferns growing luxuriantly. I had little expectation of seeing birds, well, I thought I might hear Black-throated Green Warblers calling in the tops of the Eastern Hemlocks since they breed here, but it’s late in the season and I didn’t. In any case my mind was on fern study, the threatening thunder-storm and fending off mosquitoes. But unexpectedly the day produced two bird experiences following in quick succession.

Pushing between dripping branches I heard a little ‘chink’ note repeated several times to my right. My first thought was that an Eastern Chipmunk was warning me off, but no, the longer I listened the more I came to appreciate that I was hearing a bird’s alarm note. I remembered how on just about this same date in 2011 and in almost the same spot I came face to face with an adult Acadian Flycatcher feeding a fledgling; could this be a repeat performance I wondered. It wasn’t, but watching me closely was a beady-eyed, bright-ish yellow warbler of some kind. Yellow Warbler was my first reaction but the habitat was all wrong. I snapped several quick photos to examine later if needed and then did what I should have done in the first place, used my binoculars for a better look. Right away, something inside me said female Hooded Warbler. Here she is. (Click on any picture to enlarge it.)

I know that Hooded warblers breed in this forest so it wasn’t such a surprise, but the hour and a half drive from home, better things to do, and their characteristic evasiveness scarcely makes it worthwhile to come here looking for them in spring. The male is a bird photographers’ favourite, he’s so strikingly handsome. Here’s one seen and photographed in May of last year.

Hooded Warbler

Since she was alarmed it was time to move along and, still feeling a touch jubilant about the warbler, I very soon passed a tip-up, the root-base of a fallen tree. Some forests have more tip-ups than others; this place has many probably the sandy soil and the maturity of the forest play a part. Eventually long after the tree’s fall and total decay, evidence of tip-ups remain as small humps and hollows on the forest floor. I was thinking back to how, as a young bird-watcher, we used to inspect the underside of tip-ups for birds’ nests, they offer many sheltered crevices and hollows that suit wrens in particular. And there, almost to order today was, a wren’s nest – or at least that’s what I suppose it was. Here are two photos, see if you can spot the slightly mossy entrance to the nest.

Tip-up

Wren nest in tip-up. See it?

Willow Flycatcher

July 26 2017, SC Johnston Trail, Brantford, ON. That there’s always something interesting to be found underlies the origins of My Bird of the Day. I hold that whenever I go birding, regardless of how otherwise dismal the day may be, there’s always at least one bird that makes me think Wow!  Today we investigated new, unexplored-to-us, places.  Although we weren’t exactly off trail there was plenty to enjoy including some interesting mid-summer bird behaviour, an identification lesson or two and a wow! of a different kind, an insight into brevity, longevity and timelessness.

Our first lesson came when we misidentified a Grasshopper Sparrow calling it a Clay-colored Sparrow. I should know better by now, not that it matters all that much, we got it right in the end.

We had half expected to encounter a pair of Orchard Orioles, half expected was appropriate for when we did we saw only the female.  She popped up quite unexpectedly at the edge of a dense, shrubby willow allowing just enough time for one photo and a moment or two to wonder quite what we were seeing. My first impression was of a large Yellow Warbler; but hardly. What then? Once I’d got it, it was a good reminder (lesson number two) that Orchard Orioles are noticeably smaller than their Baltimore Oriole cousins and that the females look nothing like the brick-red coloured males, she had me baffled for a moment.

I’ve noted a few times, in recent posts, how bird song diminishes as summer displaces spring. Most song that is, not all, I still hear a Carolina Wren around our neighbourhood and on today’s walk we became aware of a repeated note, the dry fitz-bew exclamation of a Willow Flycatcher. We found it patrolling the edges of a small patch of willows and young cottonwoods. It was a wonderful opportunity to study the bird: we both managed to get some decent photos. Because it and two close relatives, the Least and Alder Flycatchers, are so easily confused, the long and instructive encounter enriched our morning and made it My Bird of the Day; I suspect for both of us.

Willow Flycatcher

There were a couple of other contenders for the title: Eastern Meadowlarks, A flock of a dozen or so circling and feeding over nearby river flats and a Black-billed Cuckoo feeding busily in the upper levels of an overhanging Manitoba Maple. We probably would have spent more time watching the cuckoo had it not been for biting mosquitoes and a noisy grass-trimming team.

I started this with the observation that there’s always something interesting to be found and I think the Encounter of the Day was finding a Preying Mantis making its painstaking way up the vertical face of a boulder. I’m not sure what you’d call this: A study in contrasts? A metaphor for time fleeting and immemorial? Here, a predator with a life expectancy of just one summer, with the eponymously fitting scientific name of Mantis religiosa and the lineal descendent of insect species going back for perhaps 300 million years. It was on a pinkish boulder placed precisely in its place by someone driving a front-end loader to mark a trail’s end. The rounded rock, the size of a lawn chair, has been tumbled around by ice sheets for a few hundreds of thousands of years but got its start about 1.2 billion (!) years ago as the metamorphosed bedrock of a long-vanished mountain chain. Now, not that it cares, it too has a name, Grenville gneiss. Nice.

Preying Mantis (mantis religiosa)

Scarlet Tanager

July 22, 2016, RBG Arboretum, Hamilton ON.  I wouldn’t exactly say I was humbled (one should try to avoid that), but I more or less had to eat my words this morning. I had the pleasurable assignment of leading a two-hour birding hike for an indeterminate number of people, and I misled everyone, including myself.

The background to this is that Ontario’s Royal Botanical Gardens had staged a two day bio-blitz, an all out effort (yesterday and today) to see just what species and forms live, grow, breath, fly, buzz or just sway in the breeze in this large tract of land. Yesterday was for professional botanists, entomologists and zoologists and today was open to anyone interested in contributing. My job was to lead a group of bird enthusiasts and see what we could find.

I was quite surprised at the size of the group that gathered, perhaps fifteen or twenty: some novices, some clearly skilled and a very helpful number of young ears and eyes. Before we set off I explained how July birding can be very quiet, that the noise, the clamour and the drama of migration, courtship and territory-claiming is over and that the birds are now much quieter and more inclined to remain unseen. My expectations were low.  How wrong I was; we ended up with a tally of forty-seven species, Whew!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I was relieved quite early in the walk to spot a Ruby-throated Hummingbird atop an ornamental beech, it was in almost exactly the same place as we reliably found one last year so quite possibly the same bird. Just as I was feeling relieved to have found the hummingbird, one of our young members called out, “Scarlet Tanager!” and there in deliciously full view, a male posed for several minutes, even allowing several to get some really good photos.

Scarlet Tanager.

I had hinted at the outset that we might, just might, be lucky enough to see a bluebird this morning and, lo and behold, as we revelled in the tanager spectacle at least one Eastern Bluebird came quite close. American Goldfinches flew overhead to add to the colour of the moment. An Eastern Wood Peewee took issue with the tanager’s presence and chased it around for a while, Blue Jays shrieked from the forest behind, a Northern Flicker or two cried out and, to my delight, a Redeyed Vireo sang its ‘here I am – way up –treetop’ song. It was becoming a very good morning.

Black-crowned Night Herons

Venturing down towards a large expanse of water we added Indigo Bunting, Common Yellowthroat and Blackcrowned Night Heron, many of which were reasonably well seen by everyone. We were all excited to see a Great Blue Heron and a Great Egret almost side by side, what a comparison!. I asked people to be on the lookout for Bald Eagles and in due course one of our younger members caught sight of one, albeit fleetingly. We also managed distant glimpses of an Osprey, a Belted Kingfisher, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Mute Swans and Barn and Northern Roughwinged Swallows.

Bonaparte’s Gull

As we straggled towards a rainy end of the walk I was happy to admit that I’d been needlessly, what? un-encouraging about our morning’s prospects. Perhaps a lesson learned; I really should get out more.

Winter Wren and Black-throated Green Warbler

July 12 2017 Fletcher Creek EPA, Wellington Co. ON. Following all the ornithic (look it up) clamour and frenzy of April, May and June it feels as though a quietness veil has been drawn across the July landscape. The birds haven’t gone away, not far anyway, it’s just that it’s no longer in a bird’s interest to be assertive and visible, far better to keep your head down and avoid the attention of the many predators out there looking to feed their growing families.

I try to get out and revisit favourite sites or explore as many new places as I can during these birding doldrums. Today I revisited a really interesting and geologically varied conservation area; it encompasses the headwaters of a significant cold-water stream and has been the site of many instructive encounters over the years. I spent a couple of hours following the stream as it made its sparkling way through a thick and often boggy forest of Eastern White Cedar. In the gloom I was happy to pick up the faint two-note call of a Black-throated Green Warbler, just a fragment of its much longer ‘zee zee zee zee zooo-zee’ spring song and a confirmation that the species is almost certainly breeding here, apt because dense conifer forests are their first choice.

Black-throated Green Warbler

Later, perhaps half an hour, I sat to enjoy the time and place for a while, something I don’t do often enough although it is one of the best ways to get under the quietness veil. After several minutes a Northern Waterthrush approached, drawing closer all the time and ticking repeated notes of irritation at my presence. I wondered for a while whether it would come down to a convenient level and allow me to capture a photo-portrait, it didn’t but as it scolded me from above my left shoulder I got this shot.

Northern Waterthrush

The waterthrush’s noisy disapproval drew in a Black-throated Green Warbler, my second of the day, but this time just a few feet away and easy to see (though not photograph). So there, I’d seen and heard two birds both of which were bird of the day-worthy and as I mused on this, I picked up the far off, thread-like musical trill of a Winter Wren; heart-stopping to me because of a sensational Winter Wren encounter four years ago. I refer you to an earlier post and (this is important) its accompanying video.

Winter Wren

The wren stayed around for a while singing intermittently, presumably defining territorial boundaries is still important work. And as I listened, an unseen Common Raven arrived far overhead and started its version of singing, gurgling and croaking. At first blush ravens and wrens might seem an odd pairing but both are truly birds of the north and maybe what was more notable was their presence here, both of them at the southern limit of their breeding range.

So, four birds from which to find My Bird of the Day: Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Winter Wren and perhaps even Common Raven. It was the wren that stopped me in my tracks and the Black-throated Green that surprised me the most. Two Birds of the Day.

Carolina Wren

July 7 2017 Burlington ON. Urban birding again but an exception to the rule this morning; instead of me going looking for birds, the bird came looking for me.  At my computer, the one from which all of these posts originate, I was checking the day’s news and idly deleting junky emails. The room was unlit, cool and one window half open; just another start to a summer day.  Hearing a purposeful fluttering to my right I looked back to see a Carolina Wren had flown in to see what I was up to.

I’m used to hearing Carolina Wrens around our home and neighbourhood, often it’s their strident tea-kettle tea-kettle tea-kettle song, other times a declarative purring. They’re not shy birds, anything but, a trait they share with others in the wren family and I believe them to be patrolling the neighbourhood, checking for irregularities, just making sure everything is as it should be. They get under all the overhangs, mouse their way through brushy corners and peer into dark recesses; so what, on a bright day, could be more inviting to a Carolina Wren than a dark opening to an unlit room? So in it came.

The fluttering caught my attention, I recognized it for a Carolina Wren immediately and knowing how interested they are in affairs of the neighbourhood I struck up a conversation, much the way people talk to their cat, ‘Well, what are you doing in here?” that sort of thing; we don’t have a cat. My wife, sitting at her desk just a few feet away but out of sight, was thoroughly baffled. I’m used to her talking to herself and probably she has some sort of reciprocal acceptance of my foibles too, but she says this was a different conversation. I called her to come and see who I had with me.

The wren flitted around the room and, not wanting to see it bash itself against a windowpane as some panicked birds will do, I closed the blinds leaving only a gap leading to the sunlit outdoors.

It investigated bookcases, magazines and chair-backs without apparent concern, long enough for me to get just one recognizable photo, then dropped down to a little window-side table and zipped out the way it’d come in.

Other than a Carolina Wren there isn’t another species of neighbourhood bird I’d rather share my office space with. I may try the open window trick again tomorrow but I suspect being neighbourhood-wise and having satisfied its curiosity, it won’t need to come back.

Carolina Wren where it belongs

Peregrine Falcon

June 27 2017.Hamilton On. This evening we attended an event at the Art Gallery, the occasion was the opening of new exhibits, the public was invited and the cost of entry free. Free or not we probably would have gone, our daughter has a staff position of some responsibility and she encouraged us to broaden our cultural horizons a bit. So we went, we admired, genuinely admired, the rare sculptural pieces, the recreated artists’ studios and the sweeping pencil drawings of arctic life.

In due course it was time to gather for opening remarks from the people who typically fill gaps in the action this way. The setting was nice, the room acoustically perfect and behind us loomed the quiet, sunlit office-buildings of downtown.

I think I’ve always been on the fidgety side so I have trouble with long, applause-punctuated, introductions of countless dignitaries of descending rank. After a while my attention wandered from the speakers and turned to the bright, geometric cityscape behind us. I was musing on just how different was this scene with its rectangles, triangles and ranks of parallel lines, from the pleasing chaos of the world of nature hinted at by the row of lindens in the foreground. I think I liked what I was looking at but knew I infinitely preferred almost anywhere without concrete or bricks.

geometry

As I weighed my thoughts, playing visual games with the intersection of rooflines, a Peregrine Falcon appeared from the lower half of the gap to the right and swept up to exit the stage at top left. It shot through and was gone in one second or two, or three wing-beats maybe; I’m sure no-one else noticed.

In front of me, to my delight, had passed the fastest animal in the world. It was a fly-past by a top predator with not the slightest interest in our cultural gathering, just the natural world saying I’m still here.