Saturday, 10 August 2019

Radio Tagging Barn Swallows at SpruceHaven

09 August 2019

The goals of science may be noble, but there's no avoiding the fact that the practice of field biology can be terribly impolite to its subjects.
Thor Hansen

     It was with a good deal of pleasure that several interested biologists and others gathered to observe our annual radio tagging of Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) at SpruceHaven. 
     This year we were fortunate to be joined by several of Dave and Sandy's cousins from various parts of the continent, and by my daughter, Caroline, visiting from Ottawa.
     As is our normal practice we strung a mist net in the barn, and in no time at all we had trapped our first birds.

     We were delighted to enjoy the company of Julia Shonfield, who was a great help in retrieving birds from the net.

     Perhaps it is accurate to say that Sandy was left holding the bag!

     We received exceptional help this year from Megan Hiebert from Bird Studies Canada, who did the lion's share of the work in processing the birds.

       She was at once proficient, quick and extremely adept at attaching the equipment to the birds. Furthermore she was as agreeable and pleasant as one might wish for. I certainly hope that Megan will consider SpruceHaven a haven indeed and visit us often. I cannot overstate her contribution to a successful day.

     The tags are always checked to make sure they are functional before attaching them to a bird.

     Greg Mitchell, the scientist from Environment Canada who spearheads this  research programme, was as always, a consummate professional, always concerned for the welfare of the birds and working with precision, care and delicacy.


     If only these birds could know the contribution they will make to the ongoing survival of their species they would surely endure their indignity a little more willingly. 

     There was not a person present, from veteran swallow biologist or bander, to those seeing the bird up close for the first time, who was not taken by the beauty of the bird.

     Dave was attentive as Megan explained some of the finer points of her actions to him.

     Technology advances apace and improvements in the life of the tracking devices and their miniaturization are a constant. Megan introduced us to a new device called a Life Tag, which is permanently attached to the bird, and has its own solar panel to generate energy. It requires two sets of hands to attach this one.

     Would you say that Megan, Lorraine and Heather look pleased with the morning's activity?

     Caroline was anxious to observe and absorb as much as possible and stuck close to Greg to benefit from his expertise.

     Except when she was with Lorraine, that is!

     Lee Fraser was happy to release a bird and seems to be a supplicant to favourable winds and good foraging to speed the birds on their way to their winter quarters in South America.

     As always, it was a very agreeable day, in many respects the culmination of our year's work with the swallows and we appreciate the contribution that everyone made to its success.
     We will look forward to receiving news of our swallows as they embark on their hazardous journey, and hope that we will welcome them back again next spring.

Friday, 2 August 2019

A Boy and His Dog

       For the past couple of days the two youngest grandchildren have been visiting with us. 
     Following the death of their old dog, it was initially decided that they would not have another one, but somewhere along the way that resolve evaporated and so it was that Marty came into the family - and came to visit Grandma and Grandpa too.

     It is not hard to figure out that this little guy would work his way into your heart pretty quickly, and he is as affectionate as he is good looking.
     This is a family pet, but there is not a shred of doubt that it is "Eddie's dog." 

     The way that these two have bonded is really quite remarkable and Marty hangs on Eddie's every word, and stays close to him. Even when Eddie goes to the bathroom, Marty lies outside the door waiting for Eddie to come out.
     As I watched these two together, and saw the obvious joy Marty derived from being with Eddie, I could not help reflecting that at one time it was verging on heresy to ascribe emotions to non human animals. If anyone has any doubt that animals experience feelings in the same way we do, they need do nothing more than watch a devoted dog interact with a devoted human. Reactions of joy are engendered by the same triggers that apply to humans, and sadness and disappointment are equally clear.

     Like a child exploring a new area for the first time, Marty enjoyed getting to know every part of the back yard.

     It wouldn't be a visit to Grandma without having her make something, and this time it was a pillow with a blanket for Marty. Lest anyone think he didn't like it, take a look at this picture shortly after it was placed on the floor.

      I always think that in life there are certain pairings that go together perfectly and should not be tampered with - wine and cheese, bacon and eggs, baked potato and butter.. ....
      Maybe it's time to add a boy and his dog.

     What could be more perfect than that?

Monday, 29 July 2019

A Visit to Bronte Harbour, Oakville, ON

25 July 2019

     For almost as long as I have known Miriam, we have been making excursions along the north shore of Lake Ontario; in fact a few special memories were created on such outings. So, it was with great delight that we embarked on another adventure together.
     Bronte Harbour is a picturesque little cove, especially appealing in the summer when many craft of various sizes, degrees of opulence and affordability, are berthed at the docks.

     Canada in general is not a flag-waving nation (thankfully), so it is both striking and unusual to see so many flags fluttering in the breeze. 
     For many years Bronte Harbour was home to a thriving colony of American Cliff Swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) and many nests remain.

     Unfortunately, these nests have been taken over by aggressive House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), an alien species, and not a single nest is any longer occupied by Cliff Swallows. 
     Even where barriers had been installed to prevent the Cliff Swallows from nesting, and raining their droppings on pedestrians below, wily House Sparrows have found a way to beat it.

     It is entirely due to the deliberate actions of humans that this invasive species has become so well established throughout North America, but it has become a serious problem for many native species, especially cavity nesters.

     A pair of American Crows (Corvus brachyrynchos) had obviously had a successful breeding season, and dedicated parents were still being pestered by young birds fully capable of getting their own food, but always on the lookout for a free meal if it was to be had. The begging calls of the fledglings were constant.

     In recent years, chairs (known locally as Muskoka chairs) have become available at various dockside points for people to sit on and enjoy the sun. The chairs are sponsored by local businesses and organizations and add a lovely splash of colour to the environs. 

     I can vouch that it is pleasant indeed to sit on the dock, with the water lapping gently against the seawall, sipping a cold drink, or simply watching the world go by.

          Our principal goal for the day was to see the sizable colony of both Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia) and Common Tern (Sterna hirundo), and we were not disappointed. 

     Caspian Tern is the world's largest tern and in the picture below you can see how it dwarfs the Common Tern off to the left on the breakwater.

     The task of catching fish to feed hungry young is a serious business.

     We were entertained for a half hour or more by these aerial acrobats, and more than a few rested on the breakwater between bouts of fishing. As you can see a few Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis) were happy to share the space with them. 

     We have become accustomed to seeing large numbers of Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) at Bronte, sometimes numbering in the thousands, but today we saw but a couple of flocks far out on the lake, perhaps  forty or fifty birds, and a lone individual perched on the spar of a boat.

    I suspect that this has something to do with the senseless, illegitimate and heartless cull of this species. Someone should start to cull a few of us.
     The breeding success achieved by Red-necked Grebes (Podiceps grisegena) over several years has been quite remarkable. The past couple of years, however, have been equally remarkable for their lack of results and it appears that once again there is complete failure. A bird was sitting on one nest, attended by her partner, but there appeared to be none of the excited interaction that normally is manifest in a breeding pair. There was no exchange at the nest so we were unable to ascertain whether there were eggs. Sadly, we saw no young of the year at all.

     It was quite a different story with Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) where many young are now almost indistinguishable from their parents.

    Several Mallards (Anas platyrynchos) were basking lazily at the water's edge. No doubt they too enjoy a tranquil, warm summer's day.

     I suspect that these birds are males who have moulted their feathers and are in the condition known as eclipse plumage and are now acquiring their new plumage.
     See Kortright (1943) - In the early summer, as soon as the females are well established in their incubation duties, the males of most of the ducks desert them, gather into flocks by themselves, and proceed to moult their bright winter plumage.
     During this moult, the brilliant plumage of the males is gradually replaced by a sombre, inconspicuous dress, which in most cases is almost identical with that of the adult female. This plumage is known as the eclipse plumage.
     The moult which results in the eclipse plumage is known as the "post-nuptial"or "eclipse" moult. It consists of a complete moult, of the body, tail and wing feathers.
      After we left the harbour we went to a little restaurant where we had eaten a couple of times in the past, and always enjoyed it. Lunch was as good in the eating as it had been in our memory!
      We have to be sure to do this again before summer is done with us for another year.