Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists 80th Anniversary

Kitchener-Waterloo Field Naturalists 
80th Anniversary
10 May 2014

    This year our local naturalists club celebrated its 80th Anniversary, an auspicious achievement by any standards. As Vice-President of the club I was charged with the responsibility of planning and organizing a suitable celebration.
    We were fortunate to be able to host our principal event at rare, a charitable foundation dedicated to conservation and environmental awareness, in Cambridge, a constituent part of the area covered by our club. 
    It seemed fitting to us to plant eight native trees, one for each decade of the club's existence and we invited local dignitaries, politicians from each level of government and other honoured guests to join us in our celebration.
    A suitable plaque was installed to mark the event for posterity. The covering which drapes the sign was made by my wife, Miriam, with a suitable motif representing local birds and other aspects of nature.

         But I'll give you a sneak preview of the inscription.

     One of the quite wonderful features at rare is this amazing old slit barn, dating back to the 1880s, which, with minor work has been restored to its original glory. There are various interpretations of the function of a slit barn, but the one that seems the most plausible to me is that it was used for threshing and the slits enabled the dust to escape. The other suggestion is that the slits were used for rifles without exposing yourself to enemy fire, but since there were no significant hostilities of any kind in this area at the time the barn was built, it seems a little fanciful. The barn is entirely constructed from stone quarried locally and there are numerous fossils clearly visible in the walls. 

    One of the first local politicians to arrive was Ken Seiling the Chair of Waterloo Region (to explain the various levels of government we have here would require more space than I care to give it) and he is seen here with Graham Macdonald, President KWFN and myself.  

Graham Macdonald, Ken Seiling, David Gascoigne

    Another distinguished guest was Caroline Schultz, Executive Director of Ontario Nature, the umbrella group at the provincial level to which our club and many others belong. Ontario Nature plays an important role in advocating for conservation and environmental protection for all Ontarians.


    The local politicians were happy to line up with their shovels and help us  plant two sugar maples Acer saccharum.

    When the holes were filled with soil the plaque was unveiled by the distinguished guest speakers.

Doug Brock, Chair, Grand River Conservation Foundation, Stephanie Sobek-Swant Executive Director rare, Graham Macdonald, President KWFN, Caroline Schultz, Executive Director, Ontario Nature

    The club was presented with various certificates to memorialize the milestone in the life of our club. Here is Peter Braid, MP, Kitchener-Waterloo, bringing greetings from the Government of Canada.

     After the tree planting and the speeches a delicious lunch was enjoyed by all.

    Three different nature walks, and one dedicated to the archaeology of the area, were organized after lunch, all well attended and greatly enjoyed.

    I was unable to make the walks due to a few administrative chores to take care of, but Miriam went on the archaeology junket and even managed a few bird shots.

Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus

Rose-breasted Grosbeak Pheuticus ludovicianus
Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus
    We were blessed with good weather and the entire event went off without a hitch. It was a fitting tribute to eighty years of dedicated service to the natural history of our area. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Benjamin Park Trail Leafed Out

Benjamin Park Trail
18 May 2014

     This post is mainly for Richard Pegler who commented on my last post about the Benjamin Park Trail that he was looking forward to seeing it when the trees were leafed out. Spring was certainly delayed this year due to the severity and length of the winter, but the trail has now assumed its verdant glory and provides shade and tranquility during the heat of the day.
    I couldn't resist throwing in one more picture of the Eastern Screech Owl who has been a regular feature of our walks since I first discovered it. I have not failed to see it on any of my subsequent walks.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
RIM Park, Waterloo, ON
17 May 2014

    Many species in the genus Buteo are highly variable in plumage, perhaps none more so that the Red-tailed Hawk, commonly found throughout North America in plumages as dark as that found in Harlan's Hawk, to the ghostly pale colouration of the desert-dwelling Krider's Hawk.
    Common Buzzard Buteo buteo also presents substantial colour variation - for excellent pictures of a variety of plumages of this species see Noushka's excellent blog 1,000 Pattes.
    This pale morph Red-tailed Hawk was seen perched in a tree quietly surveying its surrounding.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owl  Megascops asio
9 May 2014

    I always think that owls and rails are the "best" birds to find, simply because they are generally the most difficult. Eastern Screech Owl is a strictly nocturnal species and roosts in a cavity during daylight hours. It is quite common and I suspect that every wood lot of a hectare or more contains one or two pairs, but finding them is an entirely different matter. Sometimes during the day, they will emerge to sit at the entrance to their hole, a behaviour which, curiously enough, seems to be most obvious during the winter months, when even on a very cold day strong sunlight will bring them out to bask in its warmth. I should add that, though outside their hole, their camouflage often renders them invisible.
   To say that I was delighted to find this individual would be an understatement. I first located it on 9 May and have seen it every day since. I am pretty sure that it has a mate sitting on eggs in the cavity, and there is barely room for two of them inside together.
    The photographs are hardly spectacular, but we do not wish to approach the owl any closer for fear of spooking it, or in any way interfering with its breeding attempt. We have studiously avoided broadcasting the sighting and will continue to monitor the site ourselves. We can only hope that one day soon we may be looking at little owlets perched on nearby branches.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Sure Signs of Spring on the Benjamin Park Trail

The Benjamin Park Trail
6 May 2014

    We are very fortunate in that the Benjamin Park Trail starts right behind our house and is an area we frequently walk. At certain times of the year it can be very productive for wildlife and wild flowers and we always manage to find something of interest.

   One of the earliest butterflies to emerge from hibernation is the Mourning Cloak Nymphalis antiopa and having gone through the severest winter in several decades, I think it was an even more welcome sight than usual for all winter-weary northerners.

    No less welcome was this stunning Red Trillium Trillium sessile glowing on the forest floor.

    Coltsfoot Tussilago farfara had opened up and this fly wasted no time in seeking nectar.

    I think that a Cooper's Hawk Accipiter cooperii or two are permanent residents of the trail, but they are adept at concealment and we were fortunate to see this individual relatively exposed. There is little doubt that the proximity of houses with bird feeders accounts for their presence, for a good supply of prey is readily available.

    My most exciting find along this trail has been a nesting pair of Eastern Screech Owls Megascops asio and this will be the subject of my next blog post.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Eastern Bluebird and Supporting Cast

Eastern Bluebird Sialia sialis
and Supporting Cast
Waterloo County, ON
6 May 2014

    The Eastern Bluebird has been celebrated in song (and Western and Mountain Bluebirds also) perhaps more than any other species. There are countless songs in North America extolling the beauty of bluebirds, and one of the most memorable songs from World War II is Vera Lynn's song about there being bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover - and Britain doesn't even have bluebirds!

    It seems that this species has somehow always had a certain resonance with humans, and its return was eagerly anticipated by First Nations people in times past as an augury of good times ahead. Their belief was that the Great Spirit sent the sky on its back and the earth on its belly, and that as long as the bluebird returned there would not be famine.
   Bluebirds are cavity nesters and since humans have an apostolic zeal for destroying old forests and removing snags, natural cavities are in short supply, with much competition from other species for them. Some twenty to thirty years ago, Eastern Bluebirds were in serious decline and were a cause of great concern. Champions of bluebird conservation started to spring up everywhere and there now exist a great number of bluebird societies, established for the express purpose of providing habitat for the species. Legions of volunteers erect and maintain nest boxes, with some dedicated enthusiasts maintaining bluebird trails of several hundred nest boxes.

    Miriam and I are no less enthusiastic about bluebirds, and though we do not maintain a trail, we eagerly await their arrival each spring, and from early April onward start to check the locations where we regularly find them.
    I blogged recently about the Conestoga River and it is close to its banks that we often see our first Eastern Bluebird of the year - always an event of great joy.
    When coupled with the pastoral tranquility of the river valley, rarely does the exquisite quality of nature impress itself more resolutely.

     This lone Trumpeter Swan Cygnus buccinator had somehow become separated from other members of its kind and was cruising along the river.

    A pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds Molothrus ater were feeding on seed left by some bird lover. It is amazing to us how often we see seed left on walls, stumps, fence posts, or simply strewn on the ground. People obviously do this from a deep-rooted love of wild creatures for they do it without 
obvious reward and as far as we have observed do not even tarry to see what species come to their bounty. Perhaps this is altruism in its purest form.

    Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe is always one of the earliest flycatchers to arrive back in southern Ontario from its wintering haunts in warmer climes, and we were delighted to see this individual. Phoebes will sometimes nest in the same location year after year, constantly adding one nest atop the previous ones, until a veritable tower is constructed.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Northern Flicker Excavating Nest

Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus 
Excavating Nest
5 May 2014

   I witnessed this female Northern Flicker busily excavating a nest cavity in a snag at a local wetland. It was truly prodigious in its efforts and at times wood chips were flying out of the hole. I have visited subsequently and the nest seems to be ready for occupancy. A pair of flickers were in the vicinity but I did not see either of them enter the hole. I will continue to check!

    Not to be outdone, this Canada Goose Branta canadensis seemed equally interested in hole in a snag!

Friday, May 09, 2014

The North Shore of Lake Ontario

The North Shore of Lake Ontario 
Peel and Halton Counties
4 May 2014

      Miriam had to put in a few hours at the artists' cooperative in Carlisle so I drove down with her and took advantage of a free afternoon to do a little birding along the north shore of Lake Ontario.
     My first stop was at the foot of Hurontario Street in the south end of Mississauga, where the street basically runs into the lake. This is an area that has been developed with high end condominiums featuring a pleasant aspect to the waterfront, with a gazebo and trails.   
     Offshore were a couple of Horned Grebes Podiceps auritus, resplendent in their breeding plumage. I don't know how we got to call this species Horned Grebe in North America, and this is the name adopted by the IOC in its quest to standardize the English name of birds the world over. I doubt it is going to happen! In other parts of the English speaking world the bird is called Slavonian Grebe and in French it is Grèbe esclavon, indicating some common origin for the name.
     In any event, regardless of its nomenclature it is a vision of transcendent beauty at this time of the year.

       Farther west, I checked out Bronte harbour and was delighted to see a posse of Caspian Terns Hydroprogne caspia, decked out in crisp black and white with a stunning blood red bill. 

      In addition there was a very large number of Double-crested Cormorants Phalacrocorax auritus, seemingly having at least one refuge to live out their lives undisturbed by the unconscionable and senseless culls of recent years.
For an excellent discourse on this bird I highly recommend the recently published book The Double-crested Cormorant, Plight of a Feathered Pariah by Linda R. Wires, magnificently illustrated by Barry Kent MacKay. It should be must reading for every birder, bird lover and ornithologist.

Raft of Double-crested Cormorants

Leaping into a dive
Group close to the breakwater
Close up of head showing nuptial features

Frontal View
Side View

     I left Bronte Harbour and went to pick up Miriam. We drove home and were greeted by a Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina and a pair of American Goldfinches Spinus tristis.

Chipping Sparrow

American Goldfinch - Male

American Goldfinch - Female


Land Acknowledgement

We acknowledge that the land on which we are situated are the lands traditionally used by the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and Neutral People. We also acknowledge the enduring presence and deep traditional knowledge, laws, and philosophies of the Indigenous Peoples with whom we share this land today. We are all treaty people with a responsibility to honour all our relations.