Thursday, 22 October 2020

Countryside Meanderings and Forest Royalty

A Pleasant Drive      

     A few days ago it was grey, misty, raining on and off, hardly the best weather for a walk but great for a drive out to the farming regions of Waterloo Region.
     These cattle had perhaps rehearsed their day's activity, for all were lying down, contentedly chewing their cud.

     Well, until one contrary individual decided to stand up, that is!

     Many trees have now shed their leaves and this denuded individual stood like a sentinel in the field.

     It will not be long before Rough-legged Buzzards (Buteo lagopus) begin to arrive in this area, down from their Arctic nesting ground, and we will be scanning the treetops for sight of this magnificent raptor.
     In two locations we saw fairly large flocks of Buff-bellied (aka American) Pipit (Anthus rubescens) but they were constantly in motion, and when they did come to earth from time to time, were immediately lost against the multi-hued substrate. Miriam did well to get this picture.

     While we were intently watching a group of pipits, we spotted first one, and then two Northern Harriers (Circus hudsonius). They were far off and constantly in motion as they quartered the fields in search of prey.

     There was no animosity between them, and while they did not appear to actually cooperate in their quest for food, they showed no sign that they resented each other's presence.

     Juvenile Northern Harriers closely resemble adult females, with minor difference, undetectable at the range we were dealing with, but I am wondering whether these two individuals might have been siblings still keeping company with each other prior to migration. Post-breeding Northern Harriers are known to gather in large numbers too, especially after arrival on their wintering grounds, so it is possible that these were two unrelated birds.

   In any event it was a pleasure to sit and watch these two hunters quartering the grass in that slow, rocking flight so characteristic of the species. One of them dropped to the ground and came up with something in its talons, probably a rodent, and flew off with it. 
     Just before we left the pipits and the harriers to carry on with their lives, the sun came out as though to cap our day, and the beauty of our province in all its autumnal splendour was a wonder to behold.

     It really is good to live in Ontario.

Hillside Park

     Soon you will be as familiar with Hillside Park as I am!

      Over time it has delivered many a special bird for us, and is always a pleasant place to walk at any time of the year.
     After an entire lifetime of birding, any owl at any time is a momentous sighting, and we were enthralled to see this Barred Owl (Strix varia) peering down at us.

     I have seen a good many Barred Owls over the years, but the sense of excitement at the encounter never gets any less intense.

     Owls, mysterious creatures of the night,  have been persecuted throughout history by superstitious humans who viewed them as agents of the devil, or as witches, or other forces of malevolence. We have ritually killed them, tortured them, burned them alive, destroyed their habitat, yet they have survived, all the while keeping rodent populations in check. Service to humanity is rendered despite our effrontery towards them.

     Thank goodness we are at least marginally more enlightened in the 21st Century. Not much mind you, but a little.

     Perhaps this regal female (I am pretty sure based on size it was a female) looked down on us with rightful disdain.

     Here we have a bike tossed into Laurel Creek. It seems we cannot resist dumping our trash where it doesn't belong. Let's pollute a few streams, toss away our disposable masks, throw our plastic water bottles into the grass - generally befoul our whole environment, knowing full well what we are doing yet continuing to do it. Of late the charming addition of used condoms seems to have been added to the items we hurl out of the car window in a couple of spots I visit (I resisted the temptation to show you a picture or two).
     "Yes," says that wise owl, "Those humans are something else!"
      No wonder owls try to keep to themselves. It sure beats hanging around with us.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Book Review - Rocks and Minerals - Princeton Field Guides


     Who among us has not collected an interesting  rock, an especially colourful one, or one veined with minerals, or containing a fossil? Who has not taken a pebble home from the beach? Perhaps even now they serve as paperweights on your desk, or are arrayed together in a corner of the garden to be shown with pride to visitors.
     There seems to be an eternal fascination with rocks and minerals, yet it is probable that most people who collect them have little knowledge of what they have brought home. They sparkle and gleam and provoke conversation even, yet their identity remains a mystery.
     This is the book that unlocks the Pandora's box of knowledge. It is a first class guide that can be used by the amateur rock collector or mineral sleuth, but equally by geologist and earth scientist, as a convenient, comprehensive, well-illustrated compendium of rocks and minerals.
     Chris and Helen Pelland have carved a niche for themselves in this field, having authored several books covering the structure of the earth, its formation, the fossil record and the story of evolution to be found therein. 
     The images in the book, first class coloured photographs all, were taken from the collection at the Natural History Museum in London, one of the largest collections in the world, with all exhibits documented and authenticated beyond reproach.
     Excellent introductory notes to rocks and minerals lead into a description of each type with glorious pictures to accompany each section. The pictures of are of very high clarity, taken of the finest specimens extant, and you will be able to quickly identify the rock sitting on your desk, collected on a vacation many years ago, or picked up during a walk along the lane yesterday.  Furthermore, if you slip this guide into your pouch or vest pocket, you will be set to add geology to your enjoyment of the natural history quest on which you are embarked. I remember years ago seeing my first Secretary Bird in South Africa, a monumental sighting in itself, but made even more agreeable by the fact that it was in a field strewn with volcanic bombs, prompting an impromptu lesson from a friend who is a geologist.
     There is an excellent glossary with links to further information.
     If you have even the slightest interest in the very ground on which you walk, this is the book for you!

Rocks and Minerals
Chris and Helen Pellant
Paperback - US$19.95 - ISBN: 9780691204062 - 208 pages - Many coloured photographs - 5.5 in. x 8.25 in.
Publication date: 17 November 2020



Sunday, 18 October 2020

Hillside Park, Waterloo, ON

     Hillside Park is close to home, it is a great place to walk, harbours an abundance of birds, and is a favourite place for Miriam and me. Over the past few days we have been there twice, once just the two of us, and on Friday last we were joined by Heather and Lily.
     The fall of 2020 seems to be exceptional for mushrooms and for a dedicated mycologist there must be much of interest, and more than a few good meals for one who is certain of the edible varieties.
     I believe this is Pleurotus dryinus which I know to be edible, but I have never had the pleasure of tasting it. 

     We saw several small gatherings of Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and I am reminded that this species, not being native to North America, is generally not highly regarded by birders.

     It is a little perplexing really to reflect that we introduced this species deliberately into North America and immediately set about disliking it, even embarking on futile attempts at eradication.
     Miriam recently found a delightful book for me in the local Value Village store, Birds in my Indian Garden, by Malcom MacDonald, a volume that I have thoroughly enjoyed, a work that has much to commend it.
     The Common Mynah (Sturnus tristis) is a kissing cousin to our familiar starling, and these words about the mynah, changed for context naturally, might well be equally attributed to our familiar starling: "One of the Common Mynah's virtues is courage. It sometimes displays daredevil recklessness. I have seen it giving chase to monsters much bigger than itself, like kites; repeatedly dive-bombing a mongoose who ventured too near its nest; disputing violently with a pair of Spotted Owlets about a building site; and in the vanguard of a troupe of birds mobbing an eagle. The species certainly has the bravado of its impertinence."
     American Robin (Turdus migratorius) arouses no animosity in anyone; it is a perennial favourite, and in spring eager observers vie for bragging rights for the report of the first bird to return from its winter quarters to the south. 

     A Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) is no less appealing and can at times be very confiding and entirely approachable. 

     Homelessness is a scourge in many modern societies and Canada is not immune from this pressing social issue. The distant reaches of a public park are often the havens of poor souls without other shelter, and this appears to be such an encampment we stumbled upon.

     It was a happy time all round when we met Heather and Lily for our Friday walk. Lily's early days are being saturated with exposure to the natural world in all its glory, and we are happy to be the agents of her early immersion into the wonders of nature.

     Perhaps this Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) lingered into October to have one last look at Lily before heading to the southern United States and Northern Central America to spend the winter months.

     White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) are also passing through this area on their way south.

     I doubt that they spend any time admiring the beauty of a southern Ontario fall.

     It is certainly a cause for reflection among appreciative humans, however.

     We saw several White-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis) all busily engaged in securing food, both for instant consumption and as a choice item to be stored for winter rations.

     A juicy insect appears to be the prize following suitable excavation of loose bark.

     Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) is the hardiest of our migrant flycatchers, being the earliest to arrive in spring and the last to depart in fall.

     Every berry-bearing bush was loaded with fruit - rich pickings for American Robins, and for Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) who were active, but declined to pose for a photograph, unfortunately.

     One does not tire of gazing at the splendour of fall in eastern North America.

     Fallen leaves carpet the trails and pathways in ribbons of intricate beauty.

     Can you even imagine making a jig saw puzzle from the leaves on the ground!
     Laurel Creek meandered peacefully through the park.

     The stems of Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) are very visible now that the plant has shed most of its leaves, and are a deep reddish colour, hardly noticed when the plant is covered with leaves and flowers, and abuzz with the sound of bees and other nectar seekers.

     All too soon it was time to say goodbye to Heather and Lily for another week.

     All that strenuous nature gazing makes a girl tired you know.

     When Lily's hair finally settles into some semblance of orderliness we are all going to be mightily disappointed!
     We always extol the virtues of Lily in these posts and dwell on the sheer joy of watching this little girl change as she grows up, and that is all understandable of course.
     But it is perhaps time to give a shout out to Heather, who I first met as a dedicated young biologist, not yet married, hard at work helping us every weekend at our bird banding station. She always arrived dark and early along with the rest of us, never shirking for a moment the responsibilities she had taken on.

     From the very moment I met this young woman I was happy to be around her, delighted to know her, thrilled to be cooperating with her in the furtherance of our knowledge of birds, in a never-ending quest to try to improve their lot in a tragically impoverished world.
     Those of us who know Heather, never doubted for a moment that she would accept the mantle of motherhood easily and our faith has been validated a thousand times over as we see her interactions with Lily.
     Many children visited our mist nets and seeing Heather's involvement with them left no doubt that she was "made for the job".

     I met Heather's mother only once when she visited us at SpruceHaven, but I can say without hesitation that she is no doubt well pleased with the terrific daughter she raised.

     I am glad that she is willing to share her with us.



Thursday, 15 October 2020

A Shrew in the Backyard

     I know that many of us have discovered hitherto unknown treasures in our backyards during the pandemic, but none caused me greater surprise - or envy that I missed the sighting - than when Miriam showed me pictures of a shrew that had been visiting the yard.
     Most of the shrews that I have ever seen have been dead, and I doubt that I have seen more than twenty living, breathing individuals in my life.

    These voracious little creatures have an extremely high metabolism and spend most of their time eating, with brief bouts of sleep. They are fearless and will attack and consume almost anything they can subdue.  Many species have poisonous salivary secretions to assist in rendering their prey helpless.
     I have very little familiarity with shrews, but based on the research I have been able to do, and the likelihood of a given species being in our area, I believe this visitor is a Masked or Cinereus Shrew (Sorex cinereus). If anyone with expertise in this taxon is able to confirm or refute this conclusion I would appreciate their input.

    Shrews are intolerant even of their own species and will readily fight with a degree of savagery that is truly remarkable. Females will not tolerate the presence of a mate except when rearing young.

     According to Banfield (1984) the principal prey items of Masked Shrew are 65% insects (adults, larvae, pupae and eggs), 7% vertebrates (salamanders and young mice), and 7% centipedes, worms, molluscs, sowbugs, with vegetable matter accounting for the balance of its diet. Other than salamanders, I suspect that most of these items could be readily found in suburbia.

     It was a distinctly unusual visitor and most welcome I must say. I am just sorry that I missed it.
     Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) returned from their breeding territories a week or so ago, and are now regular visitors beneath the feeders, where obliging goldfinches and sparrows knock down seed for them. 

     The Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) we planted about fifteen years ago is now taller than the house, and we will need to trim a couple of branches lest they find their way into our bedroom! The colour at this time of year is reason enough to make a Sugar Maple part of your landscaping.

     Anyone familiar with Canada's flag will recognize the inspiration for our national symbol.

     And looking our from the deck towards the front of the house, autumnal splendour is equally on display.

      A White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) pays little heed to the colours, spending its time gathering and caching food for the winter ahead.

 Western Conifer-seed Bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis) is a beautifully patterned but unwelcome visitor.

     It feeds on the developing seeds within the cones of pines and other conifers. Injured seeds fail to develop properly and seed production can be greatly reduced. 
     In recent years this strikingly marked insect has developed the habit of entering homes in the fall. It poses no threat and does not bite or sting, but is likely not welcomed in most residences.
     Had the shrew and the bug been present at the same time, I am confident that the shrew would have dined on a conifer-seed bug that day!