Monday, 12 April 2021

A Couple of Weeks' Highlights

     If there is one constant in the lives of most of us right now, it is that COVID influences most of what we do. 
     We have not been able to walk and explore to the extent that we normally would, so I am featuring below some highlights encountered here and there.

27 March 2021

     A drive through the countryside revealed signs of spring at every turn, including male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), hormonally supercharged, waiting for females to return to southern Ontario.

     Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) is not an uncommon bird here, but it is almost exclusively found on large bodies of water such as Lake Ontario, and is unexpected inland.

     It gave us a great deal of satisfaction, therefore, to happen upon two pairs swimming together on the Conestogo River in Hawkesville.

     The male's crest resembles what I suspect many people's tresses will look like as hairdressers are not permitted to open for at least another month!
     Two females looked a little better turned out, albeit clad in a more subdued fashion.

     Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) unlike its red-breasted cousin, is to be expected on local waterways at this time of the year. The first bird we spotted was a female.

     It's a safe bet that the sighting would not involve a lone bird; others were doubtless underwater chasing fish. In mere moments a couple of males surfaced to join the female.

     And more appeared, swimming away like a flotilla of miniature craft.

     A Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), watching from the sidelines, seemed far less interested in this little squadron of ducks than we were.

     American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), formerly common, has become quite rare in recent years, and Miriam and I have been happy to see a pair regularly not far from our home.
     The male and female have been seen together throughout the year, but of late have started to show signs of pair-bonding prior to mating and initiating nesting.
     They are very wary birds and getting a picture is difficult, a good picture almost impossible. I am happy to present the male in any event!

     If I may be permitted a moment of personal reflection, the first time I ever took Miriam for a drive through the country in search of birds of prey, the first three birds we saw were male kestrels, each with a vole. It speaks to the abundance of both the birds and the biomass of prey that year. I doubt whether we will ever repeat such good fortune, but it remains a very fond memory for us, and was in good measure responsible for igniting Miriam's passion for birds.

03 April 2021

     A pair of Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus) visited our backyard and we were able to capture an image of the male on one of the feeders.

04 April 2021

     Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) return early to southern Ontario.

     At times it seems as though an ardent male is singing from high in the branches of every convenient tree, its joyful trill permeating the warm zephyrs of spring.

     I have no idea what triggered it, but for the last several weeks I have been studying birds' feet and the different configurations of the toes, and other functional adaptations to lifestyle. Miriam takes a closeup of a bird's foot whenever she gets a chance. Here is the classic anisodactyl orientation of a songbird's foot - digits 2, 3 and 4 pointing forward and digit 1 (the hallux) pointing backwards.

     When a songbird sleeps a special muscle "locks" into place and prevents the bird from falling off its perch. 
     Now that you are as hooked as I am on feet perhaps I will soon regale you with leg scutellation patterns. I know that you are waiting with bated breath!

06 April 2021

     Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have returned to southern Ontario, and are already occupying territories and in some case are nesting. At least one nest box that I monitor now contains eggs.

     The above pair was photographed at a Mennonite meeting house on Three Bridges Road, St. Jacobs, where they have occupied nest boxes for years.
     The bluebirds caused us no surprise, but a single gravestone certainly did.

     Mennonites are plain folk, as you know and their graves markers are modest and uniform. Never is one bigger, more grand, more ostentations, more reflective of wealth, in a "better" part of the cemetery, than another.
     Neither Miriam nor I have ever seen ornamentation of this type at a tombstone in a Mennonite graveyard. Personally, I hope it is the last time.

07 April 2021

     A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) very kindly decided to make our backyard a port of call this spring.

     I suspect that they do so most years, but they generally don't stay more than a few minutes, so unless you are glancing out at the right moment, they pass through unnoticed.

     We spotted them on the trail behind our house later in the day, and have seen them most days since.

08 April 2021

     Fortunately, as mentioned above, we have a trail (Benjamin Park Trail) behind our house, and it has been especially appreciated during the months when the scourge of COVID has dictated the ebb and flow of our lives.
     This male Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) was initially seen busily excavating a nest hole, but I was walking alone that day and didn't have a camera with me.

     It has made substantial progress on the excavation and upon first contact was half way into the hole with wood chips flying. Now, however, it seems to have abandoned this location and has not been seen again completing the work.
     Spring migrant birds are the biggest attraction for us on our walks, but the sheer splendour of spring ephemerals bursting through the soil, are cause for great celebration too.
     I don't know whether I could pick a favourite, but Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), with its leaves curled around the flower when emerging, would be high on my list.

     And it is an early bloomer too. I look for it eagerly each spring.
     American Robins (Turdus migratorius) seem to be everywhere and their cheery song resonates through forest, woodland and backyard alike.

     Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) are no doubt already seeking suitable hosts for their eggs, although their principal victims have yet to arrive. 

     Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa) flit through the air with consummate grace, even posing for a picture once in a while.

     The event which has brought us the most joy along the trail has been the discovery of an Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) roosting in a small Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus).

     To see an owl at any time is a source of high excitement, but this sighting on the Benjamin Park Trail has special significance. For a couple of years I knew where to find a pair of owls, made up of a red morph and a grey morph bird, and I am quite sure I had pinpointed the tree where they bred.
     In one of the purges against infected trees that  happens so frequently that one wonders what will be left untouched, their tree was felled, and I had not been able to relocate them.

     We have high hopes that this is a male resting during the daylight hours, with a partner taking care of young close by. Perhaps we will be able to verify that.
     The feet of the screech owl are anisodactyl, enabling them to snooze in peace without fear of falling from their perch.

     The doleful call of Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) echoes constantly. Ironically, some people think it is an owl.

     This species will breed over a good part of the year and males seem to be in a permanent frenzy, trying to coax often uncooperative females into the trysts that will ensure the survival of the species. Ah, those males; they have just one thing on their mind!

09 April 2021

     Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis) is another flower that emerges early and populates forests and woodland glades.

     How beautiful it is, with its blotchy leaves and glowing inflorescence.

     Willows (Genus Salix) are among the first trees to add colour to the bare landscape of early spring.

     There has been a bit of a craze recently with people depositing painted rocks bearing inspirational messages. The practice seems to be expanding to signs such as this one, attached to a sapling.

     I think I am quite capable of getting my fuzzy, warm feeling without help. And I would prefer the beauty of the tree without a sign stapled to it. Sooner or later the placard is going to deteriorate and fall to the ground to join the other litter left by careless walkers, who think nothing of tossing everything from their masks to their paper cups and plastic lids on the ground, their drink cans and their bags of dog poop, and whatever else would impose such a burden on them to take home and dispose of properly.
    A pox on those who post these signs, however well-intentioned they may be.
     Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is one of the first plants to flower in spring and their little yellow buttons are a cheerful punctuation mark among the brown leaves of last fall.

     Equally yellow are handsome American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), transformed from their olive drab of  winter. This male has almost completed the transition.

     We could not resist a quick look at "our" screech owl, making sure than no one else was anywhere close to inquire about our upward glances.

     Daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) may be found all over, and it is always a bit of a puzzle to me how they find their way to new locations.

     Recently I saw them referred to as Hoop-petticoat, which seemed like a perfectly charming name, but it appears that this nomenclature refers to a domesticated variety.
     Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica) seems to increase in density each year, and while beautiful, is somewhat invasive in areas where conditions are right for it to thrive.

      It was interesting to see several instances where the emerging plant pushes through dead leaves as it thrusts upward towards the light.

     Finally, let me leave you with a lovely animal, and a plea.

     This cat was seen wandering at will. It is obviously someone's cherished pet. It is sleek, handsome and patently well-cared for.

     But please, and I say again, please, do not permit it to roam. It is a fearsome predator of native wildlife and can decimate populations of small rodents, ground nesting birds, young fledglings fresh out of the nest, and even salamanders and other amphibians. Furthermore, you are exposing it to risk to its own safety. Coyotes and foxes abound and a cat would be perfect prey for them. Pets are killed by urban canids every year, and feline fur and bone fragments have been found in the pellets of Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus). I am sure that most pet owners would be mortified to know that the death of their pet had been caused by their own neglect.
     A cat should be a house cat, safe from traffic, protected from predators, and there are myriad structures available now for cats to leave the home without endangering themselves or other creatures.
And they will not antagonize your neighbours by defecating in, and digging up their flowerbeds. And a good neighbour is worth a whole lot!     


Sunday, 11 April 2021

Book Review - Celebrating Birds - Harper Collins Publishers and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

     Having reviewed books for several years for Princeton University Press, it was interesting to receive requests recently from two different sources to review books. Both sounded appealing and I was happy to oblige.
     This is a particularly fine volume, covering 181 North American birds, produced as a collaborative venture between Harper Collins Publishers and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and  illustrated by Natalia Rojas and Ana María Martínez. Rojas and Martínez are the illustrators of the wildly successful board game Wingspan and their wonderful expressive art is featured in this book. Not only is technical accuracy captured, but each illustration gives a real feel for the bird; a lifelike portrayal conveys movement and personality. The book is lovingly illustrated from the inside front cover right up up to the inside back cover. The common and scientific names are provided for each species, along with a brief description. A "Cool fact" is furnished so that the reader learns not only identification techniques, but a little about the lifestyle of the bird.
     True to their origins as illustrators of a board game, Rojas and Martínez have risen to the challenge of providing an entertaining aspect to the book by introducing a game inspired by Wingspan, with options to play indoors or out.
     It has been my experience in working with groups of young birders, in fact with novices of any age, that a challenge adds to the excitement and the mystique of discovering and getting to know new species. Any added dimension to the enjoyment of birds contributes to developing a commitment to not only birds, but to nature writ large. In an age of environmental degradation we need a new generation of eco-heroes, and this work has the potential to develop the interest and the skills required to begin the remediation of the damage we have caused to the biosphere. Throughout history birds have been a powerful force in developing a sensitivity to nature.
     At our local naturalists club we have a kids group and a teens group. I will make sure that this book is put to good use in furthering their interest in, and understanding of, birds. 
     I highly recommend this book as a significant teaching tool. It makes learning fun!

Celebrating Birds - Harper Collins Publishers and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Natalia Rojas and Ana María Martínez
USA $29.99, Canada $36.99
ISBN: 978-0-06-304574-3
352 pages - Full colour illustrations throughout
Published 2021

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Random Memories of Australia - Part 12

     Happiness is a few more birds of Australia!

Australian Darter (Anhinga novaehollandiae)

     Anhingas and darters the world over are exceedingly interesting birds, with a specialized lifestyle that weds them to water in every aspect of their lives.

     Like cormorants, darters are not equipped with waterproof wings, and spend extended periods drying their wings after being submerged.
     Darters settle so low in the water that often only their head and neck is visible, leading to the common practice of referring to them as snake birds.

     Fish are generally stabbed, large prey with both mandibles, and smaller fish with the upper mandible only. Upon surfacing the fish is adroitly tossed into the air and caught head first and swallowed whole.
     Australian Darter is more dimorphic than other anhingids and you may see the wonderful reddish brown patch on the female's neck in the first picture.
     The following image, with an individual perched alongside a Little Pied Cormorant (Microcarbo melanoleucos), shows the difference in size. The two species coexist by preying on fish of different size at varying depths.

     For those readers in North America, Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga), widespread in the wetlands of the southeast, is our local representative of this family.

Lewin's Honeyeater (Meliphaga lewinii)

     This beautiful species takes its name from John William Lewin, an English naturalist who spent the last nineteen years of his life in New South Wales, until his death in 1819.

     As is the case with all honeyeaters it is a charming bird. It is widespread throughout eastern Australia and is quite bold in its habits.

     It has no hesitation in probing cultivated fruits, sweet food in houses, and picnic tables.

      When I return to Australia I will perhaps take a hummingbird or oriole feeder with me. That sugar water should be a real magnet for Lewin's Honeyeater and I will have the pleasure of seeing it up close!

Royal Spoonbill ( Platalea regia)

     I don't know of anyone who does not find spoonbills inherently attractive  due to the very nature of their outrageous, but none the less efficient, bills.

     Royal Spoonbill is widespread over eastern and northern Australia in suitable wetland habitat. It favours shallow waters, inland and coastal marshes, lake shores, mudflats and mangroves.

     Most food is captured by sweeping the bill from side to side and grabbing onto anything the bill comes into contact with. Prey is also visually located, however, and I have seen spoonbills seize quite large fish in the manner of a heron.

          Spoonbills are gregarious birds and seldom is one seen alone.

     The above picture was taken at the Tamar Island Wetlands in Launceston, Tasmania, where this species has become a fairly recent colonist. You can see Chestnut Teal (Anas castanea) in the foreground and a Dusky Moorhen (Gallinula tenebrosa) emerging from the reeds. If that's not a dose of magic, I am not quite sure what is!

Bar-shouldered Dove (Geopelia humeralis)

     Australia is blessed with a stunning assemblage of pigeons and doves, and Plain Janes are not included!
     Bar-shouldered Dove is found throughout eastern Australia and in the north all the way over to Western Australia.

     It was not a bird that we saw often, but we always took the time to enjoy it when we did. I have seen it called Bronze-necked or Copper-necked Dove in older texts, and it seems to me that this is a more descriptive name. 
     As with most species of columbid a flimsy nest of twiglets is constructed, with two eggs incubated by both parents.

     Bar-shouldered Dove is not as gregarious as other Geopelia, usually occurring in pairs or small parties. 

Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis

     Spotted Dove is not native to Australia and its specific name speaks to its Asian origins. 

It is a handsome species and has become part of the avifauna of Australia, having been introduced into the country as far back as the 1860s - and it has prospered. 
     On any rational level it would seem counterintuitive to inject a new dove into a country where spectacular pigeons and doves abound, but rationality has never been a component of human decision-making as it applies to introduced species - and to many other things too!

     It is a polytypic species and there are many intergrades between the various subspecies; in fact this is the norm and "pure" subspecies are seldom found.

     It builds a flimsy platform of twigs, as do most doves, but occasionally lays three eggs as opposed to the usual two. I was unable to verify whether the third chick normally survives under such circumstances. Perhaps someone knows?

Australasian Swamphen (Porphyrio melanotus)

     My "Bible" for rails, crakes gallinules and coots is Rails, Barry Taylor (1998), Yale University Press. At the time it was written a good deal of controversy was energizing the taxonomic world regarding what was then known as Purple Swamphen (Prophyrio prophyrio).  Considerable support was emerging for splitting this species into several distinct species, primarily based on mtDNA sequence data. One of the forms high on the list for elevation to full species was melanotus.
     And so, I present to you Australasian Swamphen (Porphyrio melanotus)!

     As you may see, it is equipped with strong legs with long toes well adapted to soft, uneven surfaces.

     It is a large bird (38-50 cm) and we encountered it in the three states we visited. It quickly loses its fear of humans and walked among us without hesitation. When we were seated at a picnic table having lunch it was around our feet. It has a rich and varied vocal repertoire and was not hesitant to announce its presence.

     The bird above seems to be strutting like a North Korean soldier on parade!
     This species is omnivorous, although primarily vegetarian. We did see it snapping up insects, however, and it is known to relish fish and amphibians.