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.