Sunday, 30 December 2012

A Woodlot in Winter

A Woodlot in Winter
Heidelberg, Ontario
30 December 2012






    Part of the territory assigned to us for the Christmas Bird Count included this woodlot in Heidelberg. Hardwood stands are not especially productive from a birding standpoint at this time of year, but it was a great pleasure to immerse ourselves in it nonetheless. One could not help but be reminded of Robert Frost's iconic poem Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Despite the inconveniences snow sometimes brings I for one would not like to live without it. Winter brings its own array of charms as does every other season of the year.

Owling

Owling for the Linwood, ON
Christmas Bird Count
30 December 2012

    This morning I joined Fraser Gibson and Ken Quanz at 5:45 to go out and search for Eastern Screech Owls Megascops asio as a component of the Linwood Annual Christmas Bird Count. It was a fine winter morning when we met, with gleaming white snow all around, and the temperature a moderate minus 6.5° C. We set off to visit a series of woodlots along a route we have travelled before (Fraser and Ken more so than I) and we were amply rewarded with no less than ten of these enchanting small owls. Given the agreeable weather, great companions and a plethora of owls I can't think of a better way to start a Christmas Bird Count. I'll look forward to doing it again next year.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

A Snowy Morning in
Waterloo County, Ontario
29 December 2012

    The winter weather this morning was delightful, with light snow falling and a relatively mild temperature for this time of year of minus five degrees Celcius. My wife and I decided to go for a drive around the rural roads of the county to see what winter specialties we could turn up. At one point we had the splendid convergence of a Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis perched in a bare tree while a Mennonite farmer went by driving a team of horses. The hawk flew shortly after we stopped the car but we managed this sequence of photographs.

                                                             Perched

                                                                                   Leaving the perch

                                                                                                    In flight 

                         Mennonite farmer


Friday, 28 December 2012

Freeze behaviour in Common Redpoll
Carduelis flammea at a feeder

    While watching an aggregation of birds at our feeders, including House Sparrow Passer domesticus, American Goldfinch Carduelis tristis, Common Redpoll C. flammea, Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis and Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura, we watched all of the birds, except for two redpolls, explode into the air.  We have been observing a Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus in our neighbourhood and we suspected that its presence was the cause for the rapid exit of the passerines. Quickly this was confirmed as we witnessed the hawk flying over our fence at high speed. What the outcome of the chase might be we have no way of knowing.
    The two Common Redpolls that stayed at their perches on a finch feeder froze immediately. They literally did not move at all and remained that way for several minutes. As soon as they felt it was safe to move they flew away from the feeder not even staying to get a few more seeds. 

                               Common Redpoll "frozen" at feeder

    This strategy obviously worked because the hawk took off after the fleeing birds and seemed not to notice the two redpolls which would have been sitting targets. Based on this observation one would conclude that freezing by Common Redpolls is a successful defence against predation by an accipiter.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

American Crow, Howard Nelson

American Crow Corvus brachyrynchos
Night time roosts

    In the City of Waterloo and a few surrounding areas there are major night time winter roosts of American Crows and it is a wonderful sight to see countless streams of birds flying into their favourite roosting trees to settle in for the night. Shining a flashlight into one of the trees at night reveals hundreds of birds occupying every branch.
    I recently came across a poem by Howard Nelson, the final stanza of which captures this phenomenon so beautifully.

Around four o'clock or so they begin to drift in.
The couple walking in the cemetery
where the stones flow from other centuries along the hills
notice how the silence gives way
to a few caws, and then more and more coast in
from somewhere, a steady, uneven stream
and a raucous chorus gathers in the trees.
The man sitting in the dentist chair
waiting for the dentist to appear, stares out the window
and sees the crows riding the air
descending onto the trees across the street,
a haunting sight he hadn't expected here.
And someone driving west through town is amazed
at the swirl of the flock across the winter sky,
hundreds, thousands, of black flecks across clouds
stirred with cold blazing light.
Wow, a natural wonder, he thinks,
the most beautiful thing he's ever seen in this city,
or maybe anywhere, and feels
it's a piece of luck to have crows in your city,
something to be grateful for,
to share the wintry earth with crows.


American Kestrel Falco sparverius

    This is the smallest of the falcons found in North America, but also the most colourful. At this time of the year it can often be found perched on wires at the roadside. This male was photographed in Wellington County yesterday.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012


White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis



    This White-breasted Nuthatch remained in a Sugar Maple Acer saccharum tree in our yard for quite some time this morning and it appeared to us that it was sleeping. Certainly at times its eye were closed or half closed. When it awoke (if in fact it had been asleep) it flew to the peanut feeder for a snack!
Two species of "White-winged" Gull
at Conestogo Dam
26 December 2012

    This afternoon, while enjoying an afternoon's winter birding my wife and I spotted these two gulls among the numerous American Herring Gulls Larus smithsonianus and a couple of Ring-billed Gulls Larus delawarensis.

                                                              Glaucous Gull

                                                                                 

                                    Iceland Gull


    As noted in a previous post on my blog subadult gulls are notoriously difficult to age with any degree of confidence but based on the literature I have studied I would categorize these gulls as first cycle Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus and first cycle Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides. Actually we located two similarly plumaged Iceland Gulls, both initially observed in the slipway area of the dam on the side opposite the lake.

Common Redpolls on Christmas Day
25 December 2012

    This year is proving to be a good year to see Common Redpoll Carduelis flammea, a famously irruptive species, with always the chance of an Arctic Redpoll Carduelis hornemanni to warm a birder's heart. This picture was taken at our feeders yesterday, a fitting Christmas gift it seemed to us.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012


A decision not taken lightly

    I first visited the United States forty-seven years ago and I have done so many times since, most recently two months ago. There are beautiful areas to visit and great birds to find.
    But I will not do it again.
    Even though we have always been concerned about the level of gun ownership and the pervasive use of weapons in the United States we continued to go there. We felt distinctly ill at ease in Arizona where people carried weapons openly and now that so many states, including Arizona, have concealed weapons laws which enable anyone to carry a hidden weapon, which he or she can buy at a gun show without background check or training, we would feel a whole lot more nervous.


 Gun ownership in the United States approaches eighty-five per cent of the population so it is quite conceivable that one could sit in a restaurant where more than three quarters of one's fellow diners could be carrying a weapon. God forbid that a dispute should break out in so confined an area.



    As the recent massacre of children at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut so tragically illustrates carnage wrought by guns can happen anywhere – and in the blink of an eye. Simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time can spell death. Events as mundane as going to school, going to hear a congresswoman speak, going to church, walking down the street can be your last act.
    Guns are everywhere, often carried by people who are unable to get help for their problems, and which they can secure at will. They can be bought on line on the computer in your home, at a department store, at a gun show, from a friend. And people are not content with one gun, or even one rifle to protect against rabid animals in a rural area, for example. Many gun owners have whole arsenals of weapons, including military style models like the Bushmaster .223 assault rifle used in the Connecticut school massacre. This weapon is designed exclusively to destroy human life. It has no other purpose, but I could quite literally cross the border today and buy one. Why this kind of weapon is available to anyone who cares to buy it is beyond logic.
    I was astounded to hear Jason Chaffetz, a Republican congressman from Utah talk about the Glock 23 which he carries under a concealed weapons permit. This .40 calibre pistol holds seventeen bullets in the magazine and fires up to five per second and he says we don't have to worry about him. I sure don't want to be anywhere near him, or any of the countless others carrying similar weapons, when he loses his temper one day.
    There have been sixteen mass shootings in the United States this year leaving eighty-eight people dead, to say nothing of all the other shootings that happen every day – the grim statistics are there for all to see. This is a society where, as we have seen in our own lifetime, if you don't like a President's politics you assassinate him or try to anyway. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated social change in a non-violent way and his life ended with a bullet. Bobby Kennedy sought a better America and paid for it with his life. John Lennon was assassinated, George Wallace was maimed for life, Gabrielle Gifford was on the wrong side of the political spectrum in her state and had her life ruined by a gun. The litany goes on.
    I have birded in many beautiful areas in the United States. There are still birds to see there and old friends to visit. I am sorry that I will not be doing either ever again. In life there are certain “tipping points,” the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back, so to speak. The Connecticut school massacre was it for me and my wife. There are just too many other wonderful destinations without walking around in fear of our lives.
    As the old song says, “Thanks for the memories.”

Monday, 24 December 2012

Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus

    The increase in the number of houses with bird feeders in recent years has led to a commensurate expansion of the wintering range of accipiters such as this juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk seen in our back yard this morning. Our feeders, not surprisingly, were devoid of birds while this predator was present, but as soon as it flew off towards the Benjamin Park Trail normal activity resumed in minutes. It is not often that we spot these bird-eating specialists, no doubt due to their ability to stay hidden from view, rather than to any shortage of them in our neighbourhood.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Noteworthy Quotes

    In little more than a single century (from 1820 to 1945) no less than fifty-nine million human animals were killed in inter-group clashes of one sort or another....We describe these killings as men behaving "like animals," but if we could find a wild animal that showed signs of acting this way, it would be more precise to describe it as behaving like men.

                                           Desmond Morris, The Human Zoo
House Sparrow Passer domesticus

                    Male

                                                                                             Female
    Every day we are entertained by a group of about ten House Sparrows which vie for food at our feeders along with other species. These pictures clearly show what a handsome little bird we are privileged to enjoy.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Noteworthy Quotes

"Science adjusts its views based on what's observed. Faith is the denial of observation, so that belief can be preserved.

Source Unknown

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Wild Turkey Meleagris gollopavo



    It is not so many years ago that Wild Turkeys were very uncommon in Ontario. In fact a reintroduction programme was undertaken in 1984 when an exchange was made with the State of Michigan; Ontario shipped moose to Michigan and Michigan provided turkeys to Ontario. This species has become ubiquitous and is easily seen. As these pictures taken in Kitchener show it is not averse to feeding right in a residential yard.
Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis

    These two pictures clearly show the difference in plumage between a male and a first winter female Dark-eyed Junco. Both of these birds visit our back yard every day, but the female is alone among several males. 

                                                                    Female

                                                                                                       Male
     In fact, this species has three other recognizable subspecies, all of which look distinctly different from the Slate-coloured variant shown here. They are the White-winged, Grey-headed and the Oregon forms. Rarely representatives of these races show up in southern Ontario, much to the delight of birders.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Tom Hunter, Bird Carver

Tom Hunter
Flesherton, Ontario
Bird Carver



    A few years ago, at an auction, I bought the two carvings shown here. I actually bought several others on the same day but the Red-tailed Hawk and the American Woodcock are my favourites. These works were created by Tom Hunter of Flesherton, ON and I have been able to find very little about him. Some of his carvings were recently auctioned in New England so it would appear that his work spread beyond southern Ontario. If anyone has any knowledge of this fine carver I would be happy to hear from them.

Gull Identification

I think that most birders would agree that identifying adult gulls, especially those in alternate plumage, is relatively straightforward. That is far from the case, however, when it comes to identifying birds in various stages of subadult plumage.
This is the time of year when many of these challenges present themselves especially given the number of organized trips to gull hot spots such as the Niagara River, the north shore of Lake Ontario and even the local hot spots here in the Kitchener/Waterloo area. I am amazed at how many birders seem to say with absolute certainty “second year Iceland Gull,” “first year Lesser Black-backed Gull” and so on.
The two principal references I use are Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America (Klaus Malling Olsen and Hans Larsson) and Gulls of the Americas (Steve N.G. Howell/Jon Dunn), and I have several other references on my shelves.
Let me just quote several statements from these substantial, comprehensive and first class works. First from from Olson/Larsson:
  1. The large 'four-year' gulls show great variation in the time they take to develop into adult plumage. Age classes between first summer and adult should be regarded as generalisations only. (Bold type in the original).
  2. Grey and brown tones look different under different light conditions.
  3. Only by direct comparison – best in pairs – is sexing advisable.
  4. ...head and bill in the large gull complex have been introduced as characters separating subspecies within the Herring Gull complex, but the use of characters remains tentative.
  5. In judging photographs – the angle of the bird relative to the photographer, the light, the film type (obviously now superseded), equipment used and even processing methods may each result in subtly different shades of grey
From Howell/Dunn:
  1. Birds are categorized by cycle only, i.e. First cycle, second cycle etc.
  2. It should be accepted that the magnitude of variation in many large white-headed gulls – compounded in some cases by hybridization – means that a large proportion of large gulls cannot be identified to species (or parentage) in the field.
  3. Environmental factors may operate directly on the gull or may be indirect but affect the observer's perception.
  4. Photographs on page 254 “Presumed first-cycle Kumlien's Gull......"
  5. Photographs on page 254 “Probably not safely separable from Iceland Gull."
  6. Photograph on Page 159 “Small-billed birds like this can be confused with Thayer's Gull."
I could cite other examples but I think that the point is made. Identification is far from easy and subject to a percentage of error which is probably significant from birders lacking sufficient expertise, whether they acknowledge it or not. I have been present when birders claim to identify gulls in myriad plumages as easily as they identify robins and chickadees in their yard.
Clearly this is impossible and I take all of the reports with a very substantial grain of salt. I think that there is as much alchemy, supposition, auto suggestion and the simple desire to correctly identify everything as there is precise identification of species.

Friday, 30 November 2012

David Attenborough

    I have often thought that if I could have lunch with anyone in the world, who would it be, and the answer is always David Attenborough. I can't think of anyone more interesting, committed to the natural world and anyone with whom I could more enjoy an hour or two. 
   I have read somewhere that he is the most travelled person in the history of the world; not only that, he has gone to all the places that would beckon me, most of which I will never see.
   Here are two of my favourite Attenborough remarks:

1. I often get letters, quite frequently who say how they like the programmes a lot, but I never give credit to the almighty power that created nature. To which I reply and say, "Well, it's funny that the people, when they say that this is evidence of the Almighty always quote beautiful things. They always quote orchids and hummingbirds and butterflies and roses." But I always have to think too of a little boy sitting on the banks of a river in West Africa who has a worm boring through his eyeball, turning him blind before he's five years old. And I reply and say, "Well, presumably the God you speak about created the worm as well, and now, I find that baffling to credit a merciful God with that action. And therefore it seems to me safer to show things that I know to be truth, truthful and factual, and allow people to make up their own minds about the moralities of this thing, or indeed the theology of this thing.

2. Three and a half million years separate the individual who left these footprints in the sands of Africa from the one who left them on the moon. A mere blink in the eye of evolution. Using his burgeoning intelligence, this most successful of all mammals has exploited the environment to produce food for an ever-increasing population. In spite of disasters when civilisations have over-reached themselves, that process has continued, indeed accelerated, even today. Now mankind is looking for food, not just on this planet but on others. Perhaps the time has now come to put that process in reverse. Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, perhaps it's time we control the population to allow the survival of the environment.




Sunday, 25 November 2012

Horned Lark Eremophila alpestris and
Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus
in Waterloo County 25 November 2012

    This afternoon my wife and I decided to take a drive through the "hinterland"of Waterloo County with the principal goal of trying to locate a flock of Snow Buntings Plectrophenax nivalis.
    On Streicher Road in Wellesley Township we had the great good fortune to come across a substantial flock of Horned Larks feeding in a field of corn stubble and in with the Horned Larks were at least two Lapland Longspurs. We parked at the side of the road and the birds were very close indeed, at times coming onto the road to feed on grit. The light conditions were not conducive to good photography but the pictures show both species. 
    And by the way, we did get to see the Snow Buntings too. A little farther west along the road we saw a flock of around five hundred birds.

                                Dorsal view of Lapland Longspur

                                              Side view of Lapland Longspur

                                             Frontal view of Horned Lark

                                             Horned Lark feeding on corn
    All in all it was a great afternoon of birding with many other interesting species to round out the day.
Hairy Woodpecker  Picoides villosus

    This winter, for the first time that we can remember, a male Hairy Woodpecker has been visiting our feeders on a regular basis. Evidently it has found a feeder that appeals to it and the constant supply of peanuts no doubt made the decision a little easier! Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens has always been a frequent patron and at different times of the year we have been fortunate to have Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius and Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus visit our yard. I sometimes see a Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus on the nearby Benjamin Park Trail, hardly any distance at all as a bird flies, so we are always hopeful that this species will visit too. Four species of woodpecker in a suburban backyard seems pretty good to us and a fifth would be terrific. I suppose that Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus is always a possibility, but it seems to us that this is much more of a long shot. 

    In any event we continue to enjoy this male Hairy Woodpecker who has already been at the feeder several times this morning. 

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
19 November 2012

    While driving along Three Bridges Road in Wellesley Township my wife and I spotted the adult Red-tailed Hawk pictured here and remarked that it seemed reluctant to flush even when we stopped to take a photograph. Usually it seems to be an automatic corollary that the moment we stop the car, or even slow down, the bird flies away.
    We quickly noticed the carcass of an animal in the field at the edge of the road, no more than a few metres from the road itself. We could not then, nor have we been able to since, identify the animal. At first glance it seemed like it might have been a rabbit or a hare but it was too big for either one. The hawk in the tree steadfastly maintained its position as we examined the body and took a couple of pictures. As we moved back to the car a second adult Red-tailed Hawk flushed from the ground almost directly below where the first hawk was perched. We went to see what might be on the ground and located the large carcass now stripped down to bone and residual flesh.
    It seems very unlikely that either victim could have been taken down by a Red-tailed Hawk but we can only conjecture what may have caused these two deaths. The large animal might perhaps have been the prey of a coyote,  having been abandoned when the coyote was satiated. As for the second animal we are hard-pressed to come up with anything.
    Red-tailed Hawks are generally solitary at this time of year and we assume that the presence of such a bounty of food would have led them to tolerate each other's presence in close quarters.




    I have witnessed an adult Bald Eagle in this area also; no doubt it would not hesitate to scavenge on this feast.
    If anyone reading this post has any ideas as to what the creatures might be or even how they might have met their demise I would be very interested in hearing from you.


Thursday, 8 November 2012

House Sparrow Passer domesticus and
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris
    
    I ran into a woman the other day while birding at Laurel Creek C.A. who confided to me that she loved birds, except for those nasty, nefarious House Sparrows who evict bluebirds from their boxes, and she wasn't too fond of starlings either. She said that if she had a chance to kill House Sparrows she wouldn't hesitate to do it. I was a little taken aback by the tone of her venomous torrent of vitriol the moment she got onto the topic of House Sparrows. She was transformed from a moderate, agreeable person to talk to, to a rabid destroyer of birds.
    I have heard arguments about these two species before, even from fellow birders, and I have to confess that I am always a little perturbed when people advocate their removal, impossible though it would be. We should remember that first of all we brought them here, and second of all that they represent very successful members of our avifauna. Perhaps in some ways they validate Darwin's notion of survival of the fittest.
    It always occurs to me that maybe what people don't like is that they see too much similarity with our own species. We also are aggressive, belligerent, use force to settle our differences and don't hesitate to displace anyone who gets in our way - just ask indigenous people anywhere in the world about invaders bent on death and destruction. 

                                                             House Sparrow

                              Common Starling
     It's time to stop harping on about these two species, cease calling them aliens and accept them for what they are, successful birds that have found their niche and continue to occupy it. 

Visa for Vietnam

    We will be heading off to Vietnam in February for an exciting birding adventure and we needed to obtain a visa for entry into that country.
    There is no shortage of companies on line offering to obtain visas for you for a fee as high as $150.00 per person. I am sure that these visa service companies rely on travellers having an inherent fear of "not doing it right"  and being unable to secure the documents they need.
    I telephoned the Embassy of Vietnam in Ottawa and received the friendliest of advice from a very helpful person who told me everything I needed to know in order to get our visas. I followed her instructions, mailed off the application along with the required payment and our passports were back in our hands in less than a week with the visa affixed inside.
    I cannot speak too highly of the efficiency of the embassy and I would advise people requiring a visa to do it themselves. There is absolutely no need to enlist the services of any other agency and you can save yourself a lot of money.
    Kudos to the staff of the Embassy of Vietnam for cheerful, friendly help and wonderfully fast service. Now I can't wait to visit their country!


Monday, 5 November 2012

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

    On 15 September 2012 we visited Holiday Beach Conservation Area on the north shore of Lake Erie for the annual Festival of the Hawks. This location is renowned for the numbers of raptors that pass through each fall, and a hawk watch has been in operation for many years. Birds are banded so that their movements may be tracked and on the day of the festival the public is treated to displays which serve to spread the conservation message and enable people who would otherwise be ignorant of, or indifferent to, birds of prey to appreciate them fully.
    This juvenile Red-tailed Hawk in prime condition was banded and an informative presentation was made by the bander, culminating in the hawk being "adopted" by someone who pays a fee for the privilege of so doing, thereby helping to fund conservation. No doubt the bird suffers a few moments of indignity but it will never know the greater purpose it served on that day.
    This series of pictures shows the features that identify this bird as a hatch-year bird (to use the term of the banding crew) or juvenile (to use the ornithological term). They are: a white area on the breast, pale yellow eyes, yellow legs and cere, several dark bands on the tail. Large buteos such as this Red-tailed Hawk will take four years to attain adult plumage so this individual will not have its characteristic red tail until then. It still has many obstacles to face before attaining adulthood; let us hope that it survives them all and returns to breed here in southern Ontario.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
    The Northern Cardinal is probably one of the most familiar garden birds across a large swath of the North American continent. It is one of those species we hardly give a passing glimpse to, given its familiarity, but it is one of the most stunning of our songbirds. The song of the male delivered from high atop a tree is one of the surest signs that spring has arrived. It is a clarion call that lightens the spirit of anyone who hears it.
    Cardinals will not hesitate to make their nest in a suburban yard and it is a joy to see the offspring fledge. Sadly, many youngsters in suburban settings fall prey to marauding cats. Despite numerous pleas to keep house cats only many pet owners let their animals wander at will and feral populations form in this way.
    Nevertheless cardinals are abundant and have no doubt benefited in large measure from winter feeding stations. Indeed, the Northern Cardinal with a backdrop of snow and evergreens has become a staple image of the Christmas card.


    These pictures of the gloriously red male and the more muted female were both taken in our garden.


Sunday, 28 October 2012

Purple Finch, Carpodacus purpureus

    We have been fortunate over the last few days to have at least three Purple Finches visiting our feeders regularly. There is an adult male, a juvenile male and a female. 
    This species breeds farther north than the Waterloo region in the conifer forests of Northern Ontario and generally is sedentary if the seed mast is adequate to provision them through the winter. If the conifer seeds within the breeding range are in short supply, however, a southward migration occurs and this is the situation this year. We can expect to see Purple Finches throughout the winter in our area and many will migrate even farther south. 
    They often associate with American Goldfinches Carduelis tristis and Pine Siskins Carduelis pinus and, in fact, yesterday we saw the first Pine Siskin of the fall at our feeders also. American Goldfinches are year round residents and are customary visitors to our backyard.

    Observers unfamiliar with this species should have no difficulty separating it from the superficially similar House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus by consulting a reliable field guide. Even the females can be told apart with a little practice.