Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Snow Buntings and Horned Larks

     Last evening I gave a presentation to the Stratford Field Naturalists Club and during the segment where people report their recent bird sightings, a fellow mentioned that he had seen a flock of about 1,500 Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis). This reminded me that I have not seen any so far this winter, but as soon as we get some serious snow cover they will start to appear, often in large flocks, and frequently in the company of Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris).  Flocks of the two species combined can sometimes reach staggering proportions and careful scrutiny will reveal a few Lapland Longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus) mixed in with them too.

Snow Bunting

Horned Lark

     If you ask me why winter in the north can be very pleasant, there is no better reason than that we get to enjoy these two species. 
     It sometimes confounds the imagination that they can make a living in a bleak winter landscape, but they are adept at finding seeds on grasses and dormant wildflowers poking above the snow, and exploiting micro climates wherever they find them. They can be found on rural roads feeding on minerals and grit, and in fields of corn stubble where there is  much food to be found. Corn spilled while loading trucks, or residue not harvested by mechanical means is quickly discovered and hundreds or even thousands of birds will descend to feed.

     Upon first encountering the birds they are generally quite skittish, but by remaining in a vehicle, which effectively becomes a blind, they will return and often feed quite close, sometimes walking right alongside the car.

     A few hardy folks brave the winter weather in the interest of science, retrieving and banding birds with bare hands, for these two species are easily attracted to a baited trap, where they feed merrily until removed from the cage. It always amazes me that some birds get banded, and on the very next round of the cages we find that they have re-entered. The lure of corn seems irresistible. 

     It is snowing right now. Maybe it is time for a drive through the rich farmland just north of here. Who knows what winter treasures may be awaiting us?


     I know that Miriam will be eager to grab her camera and binoculars to come along with me. How great it is to have a birding spouse!
     And come to think of it, we haven't yet come across a Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus), recently arrived from the Arctic. It really is time to get out there and search!

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Tuesday Rambles with David - Hillside Park, Waterloo, ON

      Having spent the weekend in Ottawa with my daughter, Caroline, and her family, we were happy to be back with our "gang" for our regular Tuesday ramble. Mary was unable to make it this week, so we were seven today.
     The past few days have brought full-on winter conditions to southern Ontario, and it was with great delight that we embarked on a walk through Hillside Park in crisp, clean snow with the temperature a very pleasant minus 4°C.
     The winter scene was little short of exquisite.

     The air was still and clear with no wind, and bright sunshine. It was a Christmas card made to order, with birds aplenty to complete the scene.
     We could have been forgiven at several points along the way had we concluded that a convention of cardinals was taking place (the important kind, not those ancient celibates in Rome). Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) were vivid exclamation marks against the whites and greens of the season as they sought winter provender. 

     Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) no doubt were also finding food throughout the snowy woods.

     The creek runs swiftly enough through Hillside Park that there is always open water, even in the depths of winter.

     We knew that last year a male Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) had remained throughout the winter, maintaining a territory in anticipation of the return of a female in spring, so we mounted a search to see whether he had stayed again this year. It did not take long to find him, with Francine's sharp eyes detecting him first. Miriam's picture was taken at a distance, but it serves to record this significant sighting.

     There were no takers at the bench this morning.

         But we cast a long shadow on the trail.

     White-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis) were both vocal and visible, foraging along trunks and branches in that most characteristic nuthatch way; upside down is all in a day's work for a nuthatch.

     Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) were never far from us either.

     And Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), that gallant cavalier of the woodland, had no hesitation in showing off his finery.

     A few forlorn leaves still clung to a branch here and there.....

     ..... and the snow on the evergreens was magical to say the least. Be sure not to walk under the tree when a squirrel is scampering across the branches, however, or you will be wearing that snow!

     At some point during every walk we muse about "the bird of the day." And since we all agree that any day when we find an owl is a banner day, kudos must go to Jim Huffman for locating an Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio).
     Here is Jim:

     And here is the owl:

     I will leave it up to you to decide who looks the wiser. Francine is not allowed to vote on this one!
     A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) was not in the best position for a picture, but it did not escape unphotographed.

     Franc and I were a little ahead of the group when we saw a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) come out of the creek and scurry into someone's backyard where it was grubbing around for food of some kind.

     It spent several minutes there so we assume its quest was successful.
     The resident House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), perched in a stand of Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) had their own affairs to take care of.

     At a section of the creek where houses are located on the opposite side of the path, Mallards (Anas platyrynchos) are prone to congregate and as soon as they see a human they all approach as one, knowing that often food will be dispensed.

     We could be forgiven for thinking this was dessert left out for us. Snow cone anyone?

     We made our way back to our cars and just a couple of minutes from the end of the trail a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) graced us with its presence.

     What a great way to end a walk, already made memorable by the kingfisher and the owl. 
     I wonder where we will go next week?

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Some Days You Get Lucky

26 November 2019
An Outing to Long Point, ON

     Recently, our group of eight has been intact as we go on our outings, adding to the pleasure of the day. Today was such a day; Mary and Judy rode with Miriam and me, Franc and Carol picked up Jim and Francine at their house.
     November, in its infancy, presented us with cold weather and snow. We all groaned and complained about an early start to winter, but of late inclemency has morphed into benign and pleasant conditions, and we looked forward to a day of sunshine and a temperature climbing to 10° C. And we were not disappointed! Furthermore, a day at Long Point is always made all the more enjoyable by the fact that we are permitted to use Carol's sister, Betty's house to have our lunch, including fresh coffee which Carol always makes for us. It is never less than very agreeable, but on a cold day it verges on heavenly.
     Just to the north of Port Rowan we glanced off to the side and saw hundreds upon hundreds of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) in a ploughed field. This is one of the signature attractions of the Long Point area in the fall and the spectacle we were to witness would exceed all our expectations.

     Everywhere we looked there were cranes, adults and juveniles, birds landing, birds on the ground, spectres high in the sky and others coming in to land in that magical fashion of cranes of every species throughout the world.  Never had we seen so many in Ontario.

     In the evocative words from Paul Johnsgard's little book Those of the Grey Wind: The Sandhill Cranes - "The long, wavering grey line of cranes was like a giant aerial armada, weaving and advancing in wave after wave of birds stretching as far as the eye could see - and beyond."
     And so it was for eight awestruck observers, humbled by the grandeur of it all.
     The voice of these magnificent birds evokes wonder, joy, contentment, tranquility and a link to the primeval and vital quality of nature. It is at once a burble, a booming, a bugling, a glorious chorus in celebration of life, a choir of the great outdoors, a symphony borne on the wind, a trumpet of joy to sooth the most troubled breast. 

      The cranes were not the only spectacle, however. Fall on the north shore of
Lake Erie is equally renowned for the arrival of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) fresh from their breeding grounds above the Arctic Circle. The skies were filled with swans. Swans vied with cranes to capture our attention. The chorus of the cranes was reinforced by the melody of the swans. We were delighted to see so many young birds, clear evidence of a successful breeding season.

     Upon landing the swans lined up in regimental fashion, all facing the same way, as though on a parade ground with a sergeant-major putting them through a drill.

     Swan or crane? Where did one look first?

     As we meandered along slowly, stopping all the while to feast anew on the spectacle, we saw more and more birds of both species, but the Sandhill Cranes had the edge in numbers. It was truly a remarkable show.

     The sky just kept on delivering cranes, and even provided a hint of celestial  colour as a fitting backdrop.

      In Europe many have seen spectacular concentrations of Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and while we do see large flocks in North America, they pale by comparison to the European spectacles. This was about as large a flock as we have seen and they wheeled around in unison, maintaining a tight formation, and thrilling us with their aerial exploits.

     Normally we all meet at the harbour in Port Rowan, but we had been occupied with the cranes and swans and were distracted from our regular pattern, but we decided to visit the harbour before lunch to check out the waterfowl. 
     The fish huts looked serene in the bright autumn sunshine.

     What few ducks were present were way out on the water. It is duck hunting season in Ontario, so perhaps they were wisely seeking safe haven in the middle of the bay.

     Most of the ducks in the image below were Canvasbacks (Aythya valsinaria).
Doubtless there were a few other species but we could not be sure of their identification.

     A Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) was surveying the area, seeking prey no doubt, from atop one of the fish huts.

     At nearby Bird Studies Canada headquarters a Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii put on a bit of a show for us.

     A couple of stops along the causeway produced very little in the way of birds. But some of the trees still retained their leaves and looked quite splendid in the sunlight of this fine day.

     After lunch we went down to the area known as Old Cut, where Mary insisted on a group picture of some of us at least.

David, Mary, Carol, Franc
     There were many House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) around the feeders near to the banding station, and this picture reveals just what an attractive little bird this much maligned species is.

     We saw a couple of Brown Creepers (Certhia americana) in the woodlot and Francine managed not a bad picture.

     And not to be outdone she snapped her own group shot too.

Judy, Miriam, Jim, Mary, David
     It had been a fabulous day, highlighted by the Sandhill Cranes and the Tundra Swans, a day we will not soon forget. It was great that the whole group was able to enjoy it together.