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Monday, 27 January 2020

Snow Buntings at Metz

26 January 2020

     Given the up and down winter we have had so far, with relatively little snow or cold temperature, we had not seen a single Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) and set out to try to rectify this omission.
     The Metz area is a location that has been invariably successful for us in years past so we loaded coffee and muffins into the car and set off in that direction.


     The fields did not have deep snow but there was sufficient cover to give us hope.


     But as we drove slowly along the back roads we in fact saw little avian life of any kind.



     However, we knew of one particular spot where our greatest successes have been achieved in years past, and that is where we encountered a fairly large flock of Snow Buntings numbering around three hundred or so. It looks as though a farmer had put out corn for them, or perhaps a bird bander was using corn as bait to lure the birds in close. These delightful little snow birds, always active, and flying in cohesive flocks, were all around us, on both sides of the road and on the road itself.
     We were using the car as a blind, and Miriam managed to get off a few shots, but nothing of great merit.



     She thought she might do better from the back seat of the car and moved there, but given the generally dull conditions, and the constant movement of the birds, she did little better.



     In an instant, from no cause that we were able to detect, the birds swirled up en masse and left. We assumed that the corn would be an irresistible attraction and that they would return in short order. They did not! We waited for a while, but there was not a sign of a single bird. A flock of three hundred or more individuals had vanished from sight.
     I am posting below a few pictures from winters past to illustrate our successes with this species.





     As soon as we get a good snowfall and a few consecutive cold days, we will go back out there to try our luck again. After all this has also been a reliable location for Snowy Owl (Bubo scandicaus), Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor), and even the odd Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus).
     In the meantime we had enjoyed a morning together doing what we do best, and were quite content as we said au revoir to a gloomy day at Metz.


     The next time will be better!

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Book Review - The Gardener's Botanical - Princeton University Press

     Every so often a book comes along that represents sheer delight just to look at, before you ever get into the content. This is such a book.



     The editorial team responsible for this work deserve the highest praise. There is no dust jacket, and the canvas type of cover, combined with the stunning illustration at the right, immediately transports one back to the fine flower books of the nineteenth century. In an instant one is captivated and experiences a mood shift from the mundane to the sublime.
     And this impression is both reinforced and enhanced as page after page yields artwork that hearkens back to the glorious illustrations of renowned floral artists like P. J. Redouté. The style is reminiscent of Redouté and a comparable level of inner warmth is generated by the pictures. I freely confess to leafing through the book when I first received it, page by page, and finding myself awash in the pleasure of the artwork. I confidently predict that I will do this over and over again.



     The actual purpose of the book is to explain the history of binomial nomenclature, the practical use of the system, and its current application, which is basically unchanged since Linnaeus devised it in his Species Plantarum of 1753. Due credit is given to the advances in classification brought about by DNA analysis and the name changes which have resulted from molecular work. 
     The main body of the work consists of a breakdown of the Latin names for plants, arranged alphabetically, each section beginning with a glorious illustration of a flower intertwined into the capital letter. 
     

     There then follows an explanation of every term used, both generic and specific, and a whole world of fascination awaits the reader. Consider a couple of examples: Abelia Named after Clarke Abel (1780 - 1826), British surgeon and naturalist (Caprifoliaceae); and, pomeridianus pomeridiana, pomeridanium, Flowering in the afternoon, as in Carpanthea pomeridiana.




     It is a veritable treasure trove of information from the very first page to the final exquisite illustration of a Dahlia. And even the inner front and back covers are filled with eye-pleasing leaves, stems and ferns. This book delivers satisfaction and deep pleasure on every single page.
     The index of common names links the vernacular to the scientific and the format used is bold and striking and makes for very easy reading.
     Ross Bayton, a former editor of the BBC's Gardener's World assembled this majestic work of reference, with introductory essays by John David, Head of Horticultural Taxonomy, Royal Horticultural Society, Brent Elliott, Royal Horticultural Society Librarian (retired), Alastair Culham, Curator of the University of Reading Herbarium, and James Armitage, Editor of The Plantsman. A stellar group indeed.
     Some books find their way to your shelf and barely make the journey off them again. I guarantee that will not happen with this work. Better buy two copies for one might become dog-eared from repeated use!

Selected images from The Gardener's Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names - with more than 5,000 entries by Ross Bayton. 
Copyright © 2020 by Quarto Publishing plc. Published by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.
Hardcover - US$29.95 - 9780691200170 - 352 pages - 350 colour drawings - 8 1/2 in. x 11 in.
Publication date: 25 February 2020

Monday, 20 January 2020

A couple of backyard visitors

     It looks as though winter has finally arrived for real, and snowfall and colder temperatures recently have been very welcome. Surprisingly, given the conditions, and in particular deep snow of late, our feeders have been patronized but sparingly. 
    Two recent regular visitors were present at the same time, and there could hardly be a more stark contrast between the two. 


     A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) is probably recognizable to many readers, even those who live far from areas where they occur. I think in fact it must be second only to the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) as a symbol on Christmas cards. An accolade much deserved too, given that seasonal greetings featuring snow and non native birds seems to be an enduring tradition around the world. It is strange on the face of it to receive a Christmas card from someone in Australia enduring temperatures in the forties, depicting snow and a European or North American bird, but that is what happens.
    A Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) is as subdued in tone as the cardinal is gaudy. 


     As a backyard visitor it is no less delightful, however, and we eagerly await the flash of its white outer tail feathers as it flies off at high speed at the slightest hint of disturbance.
     The Northern Cardinal is not quite so skittish, and perhaps benefits from being a regular visitor, thereby knowing the lay of the land well, and where to quickly dive for cover if need be.



     The cardinal is a resident bird, you see, whereas the junco only joins us in the winter.


     In any event they were both welcome visitors and we enjoyed the time they granted us. 




     A male Northern Cardinal is usually the last bird at the feeders before dark; perhaps always the same individual. The Dark-eyed Junco seems to seek its nighttime roost a little earlier.


     I am sure that both species will return to charm us again tomorrow. And perhaps they will bring a few more of their friends. Lunch is always free at the Gascoigne café!

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Tuesday Rambles with David - DesJardins Canal and North Shore of Lake Ontario

14 January 2020

     The day started oh so well.
     Judy and Mary arrived to carpool with us, and Judy produced a bag of six of her unrivalled cinnamon buns. The entire world should be permitted to taste these treats, unencumbered as they are by sticky, gooey over-sweet icing. She had brought them for us to eat at home, but in short order the combined appetites of Mary, Miriam and I, were doing justice to three of them - and still there were three remaining to leave in the house for later. I am seriously contemplating making this a condition for Judy to join our Tuesday walks. I will grovel if need be, prostrate myself - whatever it takes to have her bring more! As the world might note to its advantage, Judy has fine buns!
     Winter in Ontario has thus far been an up and down affair, with a few classic cold, snowy days, but more than a fair share of grey, sullen days with mist and fog, the temperature soaring well above freezing. Today was such a day, but we were not to be deterred. After all, we can't change the weather so the only solution is to make the best of it.
     I was fortunate to have the company of three attractive, intelligent women and the journey to our first stop in Dundas was over in no time at all. 

The DesJardins Canal

     The canal was remarkably devoid of birds. There were lots of Mallards (Anas platyrynchos) and Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and really not much of anything else.


     Miriam spotted this twig looking remarkably like a bird and we had fun debating what it most closely resembled.


     The conditions were hardly ideal for photography.
     Over time this area has been converted from a grimy industrial no man's land to an attractive urban oasis, with careful planning and excellent results. This shelter is quite new.


     We cast a farewell glance along the canal before returning to the car to leave for LaSalle Park and Marina in Burlington.


All species at DesJardins Canal: Canada Goose, Mallard, Ring-billed Gull, Double-crested Cormorant, Downy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch. 

LaSalle Park and Marina

     I have visited LaSalle for many, many years, and it has become one of my favourite spots in southern Ontario. This is a place where it is hard to have a bad day.
      It was murky! A little sun was trying to break through but that's about as lucky as we got. 


     There were many ducks out on the bay, but the combination of distance and poor light made picture-taking a challenge.
    Mallards were very common, as is always the case, joined by a Redhead (Aythya americana) in the picture below.


     Large flocks of Canvasbacks Aythya valisineria) floated on the waves much farther out. The lake was quite choppy as you will note.


     A Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbulus) nest being tossed around in a leafless tree brought back memories of last spring and reminded us that those joys await us again soon. We visualized that flash of orange and black in our mind's eye!


     This female Mallard was extremely interesting, and quite beautiful I might add, and seems to be exhibiting a good degree of leucism.


     Some of the Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) appear to have been foraging in areas where there is a considerable level of ferrous content in the soil or mud.


     In the past many of you have voiced your disapproval of the large yellow wing tags used to identify these swans, and I share your view that they are not especially attractive, but I am assured that they are effective and do not impede the bird.
     Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) are not fitted with similar adornments.


     For the most part the birds seemed to get along well together.


     But what would a day on the lake be without a quarrel or two?


     A handsome male House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) seemed to prefer his own company.


     For as long as I can remember LaSalle Park has been a reliable location for American Black Duck (Anas rubipres) and a dozen or so were present today.


     We had a quick conference and decided that we would venture a little farther than we normally do and journey on into Toronto to Colonel Samuel Smith Park. We ate our lunches in the car and headed east along the lake shore.

All species at LaSalle Park and Marina: Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Trumpeter Swan, Mallard, American Black Duck, Canvasback, Redhead, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Downy Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, House Sparrow, Northern Cardinal. 

Sioux Lookout Park, Burlington, ON

     This was just a quick stop to scan the lake for Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis) and we did see a few individuals. Once again the birds were far out and there were whitecaps on the waves. No other ducks of any kind were observed.

Colonel Samuel Smith Park, Toronto, ON

     We made good time and it was an entertaining ride, especially for Judy. She knew little of the history of the various hamlets, villages and settlements that have been amalgamated into larger municipalities and cities along Lake Ontario and I was able to give her a bit of background into all of this, which she found very interesting.
     Almost as soon as we began our walk through the park we saw evidence of recent activity by American Beaver (Castor canadensis) anywhere that suitable trees were located.




     I would imagine that their winter storage is well provisioned!
    Lake Ontario was very rough and waves crashed against the shore.




     Gadwall (Mareca strepera) are usually numerous in this corner of the lake, but I suspect that the wind and waves had driven them to more tranquil and sheltered inland ponds which is where we found them.




     A Canada Goose occupied a fine perch.



     Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) is a supremely attractive little duck but can be very difficult to photograph. It seems that no sooner are you focused on them than they dive out of sight. Miriam did well to get these images of a male and a pair.




     If you are like me you are always curious about the origin of birds' names, but a Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) tells the story at a glance.




     Long-tailed Ducks could be seen far out, but in nowhere near the numbers we have come to expect at this time of the year. A shot of this female is all that we managed.



     Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator) were also riding on the turbulent water and once again a distant shot of a female was the best we could obtain.



     Mute Swans were abundant at the marina, and judging from their response to humans walking by, I suspect that they are accustomed to people feeding them.





     It will not be long before this juvenile acquires the pristine white plumage of an adult bird.




All species at Colonel Samuel Smith Park: Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Gadwall, Mallard, Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Ring-billed Gull, Black-capped Chickadee

Lakeshore Promenade Park

     By the time we arrived at this location, our final stop for the day, the conditions had ameliorated somewhat, especially in terms of the light, so decent photographs became more of a possibility.
     We saw more gulls in one spot than we had observed all day.



     Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) was the most numerous species, but American Herring Gull (Larus smithsonianus) was also present, and a lone Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) is visible in the pictures below.




     It is easy to also pick out Herring Gulls in the above picture, and Ring-bills of course, and the size ranking is quite apparent - Great Black-backed Gull is the largest (it is in fact the world's biggest gull), followed by American Herring Gull, with Ring-billed Gull being the smallest of this trio.
     But in terms of sheer numbers Ring-billed Gull won the day.





     Can anyone who takes the time to really look at this bird fail to be impressed?
     Mallards were not reticent about paying a visit to creatures on two legs, hoping for a handout I am sure.




     Redheads were closer to shore than they had been at LaSalle Park.



     And so were Greater Scaup (Aythya marila).    






     What message do we take from this day, a day filled with the enjoyment of birds, the pleasure of nature, the richness of a shared experience with good friends? Whatever the weather there is fun to be had outdoors and knowledge to be gained. Don't close your door and stay at home. The world is out there waiting to be explored and each of us has only so many days to do it.

All species at Lakefront Promenade: Mute Swan, Gadwall, Mallard, Redhead, Greater Scaup. Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Ring-billed Gull, American Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull.