Monday, 29 December 2014

Red-bellied Woodpecker (Pic à ventre roux)

29 December 2014

     Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus is one of only two members of the genus Melanerpes found in our area. Over the past twenty years or so it has expanded dramatically and is now verging on common in this region. In fact, from the completion of the first Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas in the mid 1980s to the termination of the second atlas for the years 2001 - 2005 the population had increased by about 250% province-wide.
     It is a very handsome bird indeed, as the following picture shows.

     Part of the reason for its success is no doubt warmer mean winter temperatures and the varied and eclectic diet of this species. It does not fit the stereotypical image of a woodpecker clinging to a tree, chiseling away at the bark or drilling holes in a search for insect prey. 

Red-bellied Woodpeckers feed on a wide variety of fruits, nuts, acorns, berries, corn, and will readily consume sunflower seeds at a backyard bird feeder.
     In addition they take a range of invertebrate prey, including beetles, ants, grasshoppers, snails and pretty much anything else they can capture.
     They are also known to eat tree frogs, small mammals, small fish, and even the young of other species such as Black-capped Chickadees Parus atricapillus. This practice of feeding on the young of other species is not confined to Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and I remember reading about the predation of Great Spotted Woodpeckers Picoides major on Blue Tits Parus caeruleus in Britain. The woodpeckers would listen at a nest box and when they heard the young inside they would drill through the wooden sides in order to capture the young tits. This led to the development of a kind of concrete compound nest box to foil the would be assassin.
     Today this individual was feeding on whole corn kernels left on the top of a log.

     It was joined by several other species, including Black-capped Chickadee and
White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis to take advantage of what was very obviously an easy meal.
     Red-bellied Woodpecker is our second largest woodpecker in North America and perhaps because of its sheer size whenever it came to feed the other birds left it alone to feed at will.

     The following picture of a White-breasted Nuthatch shows the size of an intact kernel of corn (maize). No doubt what was a mouthful for a chickadee or a nuthatch was a mere morsel for the woodpecker.

     We drove around for a while visiting several of our regular birding spots and were well rewarded in the little hamlet of Glen Allen with this adult Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus, another species becoming quite common in the region. We had earlier seen a first or second year bird at nearby Conestogo Lake, but nothing quite rivals the spectacular grace and beauty of an adult bird.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Striped Skunk (Mouffette rayée)

Waterloo, ON
26 December 2014

     Striped Skunk Mephitis mephitis is primarily nocturnal and although it may be frequently seen during crepuscular periods it is rarely seen in broad daylight. Thus the opportunities to photograph this creature are limited.
     I was both surprised and delighted to see this individual poking around on the grass, no doubt looking for earthworms, slugs and other such prey, made available by the unseasonably warm weather we are having.
     Even people who have never seen a skunk, or do not have them in their own homelands, are familiar with this small mammal, about the size of a house cat.

     Its best known feature consists of a pair of internal perineal musk sacs, which discharge into the anus. When irritated, or faced with danger, the skunk elevates its tail and discharges a twin spray of foul smelling liquid, with a precise aim that would be the envy of most marksmen. Nothing smells quite as bad!  The odour was described by E.T. Seton as "a mixture of strong ammonia, essence of garlic, burning sulphur, a volume of sewer gas, a vitriol spray, a dash of perfume musk, all mixed together and intensified a thousand times!"

     Despite this defence that one might think almost impregnable, skunks are frequently the prey of Great Horned Owls Bubo virginianus, and I have heard anecdotally that in some areas are their favoured food.

     Personally, I find skunks to be quite charming, and based on my experience if you leave them alone they are quite happy to reciprocate the favour. In a previous house, I had one living under my porch and we got along just fine! 
     Everywhere I looked this morning American Crows Corvus brachyrynchos were abundant, even several of them mobbing an adult Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus. 

     Waterloo really should be renowned for the crow roosts that occur in downtown areas every night. The birds appear to derive the benefit of a warmer overnight temperature in the city, and they flock in by the thousands. At the recent Christmas bird count Virgil Martin conservatively estimated the roost concentrated mainly at the University of Waterloo campus at 10,000 individuals.
     It is a grand experience to watch them leaving in the morning to forage in the hinterland, or returning at night to roost. They stream by non stop for forty-five minutes to an hour.
     I am a great admirer of corvids and a couple of years ago I came across this poem ( which so pleasingly and accurately captures the essence of the urban crow roost. I would recommend it as essential reading for anyone who respects the tenacity, perseverance and beauty of crows.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Merlin (Faucon émerillon) and others

22 December 2014

     This morning I had to go to Oakville, so I decided to spend a few hours birding at some favourite spots in the Oakville/Burlington area.
     Paletta Park has become a great spot for birding in recent years, having a combination of open area, lake shore and hardwood bush. It was formerly a grand estate of the landed gentry, but was acquired by the City of Burlington several years ago and the mansion has been renovated and converted into a prime location for weddings and other events. It truly is a beautiful venue for any significant celebration as the pictures below will attest.

As you can see the recent snow has all gone from the lawns, given the current spate of warm temperatures, and the proximity to Lake Ontario where winter temperatures are a little warmer than those experienced inland. 
    Today as I walked down towards the lake the temperature had hit 0°C and before the day was out had climbed to 3.
    It is ironic that I blogged about Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus yesterday and today I encountered another individual of this species. Fortunately, this one was considerably closer and in much better light. The picture below is quite pleasing I think.

 If you have read yesterday's
post then you will remember my comment about this gull being the world's largest and this image shows this aspect even more clearly. 
    The two American Herring Gulls Larus smithsonianus in front of the Great Black-back are only about a metre away and the size difference is stark.
    It is a very handsome gull, although it is a fearsome predator. Nothing below its own size seems to escape the attention of a hungry Great Black-backed Gull.
    At Bronte Harbour, a little earlier, it was still overcast, but the atmosphere was enlivened immensely when a little flock of Long-tailed Ducks Clangula hyemalis landed in the water quite close to where I was standing.

     Not only are they an unqualified delight to see, this group was chattering away in the fashion for which they are renowned, and the sound is quite magical I can assure you. In addition they were splashing and diving under the water, swimming off with rapidly beating wings, and then repeating the whole performance all over again. They seemed for all the world like a group of high-spirited children at recess.

     At times I almost laughed out loud at their antics and I was quite sad as they moved farther and farther out into the lake, until I could no longer hear them.
     I have saved the best till last, although the picture is unfortunately not the best. A Merlin Falco columbarius, (a juvenile, first year bird, I am pretty sure) perched in a bare tree along the breakwater at LaSalle Park. I was close to the bird, but it was unfortunately silhouetted against a bright blue sky and this is the best of a poor bunch of about twenty-five pictures that I took. I backed away as far as I could (don't forget that I am standing on a breakwater) but I was still basically looking up at the bird.

     In any event any encounter with a Merlin is noteworthy in my book, and this was no exception. When it left its perch it exploded into high speed, zig-zagging flight that is a miracle to behold. Even the Mallards Anas platyrynchos appeared nervous and two American Coots Fulica americana dived under the water without a moment's hesitation.
     I spent about four and a half hour's birding in total and felt that I had a glorious day.

Great Black-backed Gull (Goéland marin)

Columbia Lake
Waterloo, ON
21 December 2014

     Winter is a fabulous time for gull enthusiasts for the cold weather brings many species inland - species not found here at other times of the year.
     Yesterday four species were present at Columbia Lake, all resting on the ice, and we observed nary a squabble amongst them! This very handsome Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus caught our attention as it stood out from the crowd.

     One always thinks of an American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus as a big gull (and it is) but judge from the picture how much larger is a Great Black-backed Gull. It is in fact the largest gull in the world.
     The gulls were loafing in the middle of the lake, so the distance for photographs was not ideal, and the ice was too thin to walk on, so there was no chance for a better angle. 

     At one point a magnificent adult Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus landed, but behind a whole bunch of other gulls, and immediately settled down on the ice, and a photograph was impossible. I'll keep checking throughout the winter and hope for better opportunities.
     It's always fun (or is it masochism?) to try to age the sub adult gulls, and to pick out the juveniles of one species from those of another. Whatever the reason to get out and observe, it's always a pleasure to see a congregation of gulls on a frozen lake.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Kitchener Christmas Bird Count

20 December 2014

     Prior to to the turn of the twentieth century it was an established tradition for people in the United States to engage in the "Christmas Side Hunt."This involved dividing up a Christmas gathering into sides and going out with their guns to shoot whatever moved or flew. The party that brought in the biggest pile won the contest.
     An incipient conservation movement was taking hold, and many participants were becoming uneasy about this wanton slaughter, especially in light of declining populations of birds and other wildlife.
     On Christmas Day 1900, Frank M. Chapman, the distinguished American ornithologist, proposed that people should go afield and simply count the birds, rather than shooting them. Thus began the nascent annual Christmas Bird Count which now involves people concerned with birds, from not only the North American continent, but in many other locations around the world.
     The combined data from all the counts, consolidated by the Audubon Society, has become an important source of data on bird populations and trends, and is one of the very early examples of what is now known as citizen science.
     I have taken part in many CBCs over a lot of years, and Miriam and I were looking forward to doing the first of the two counts we do in this area.
     The whole territory covered by the count is split into various groups each having a leader, a team captain so to speak. For our party, Michelle Tomins has filled this function for many years and does an absolutely splendid job. No participants are ever better prepared by their leader than we are by Michelle.
     Here is our happy group before setting out into our territories.

Michelle Tomins, Janet Ozaruk, Miriam Bauman, John Tomins
       It looks like John said something funny when he took over the camera so that I could get in the picture.

Michelle Tomins, Janet Ozaruk, Miriam Bauman, David Gascoigne
      Michelle organizes a system whereby we drive our cars and park one vehicle at the Otterbein Parking Area  along the Grand River Trail, which will be the point at which we will end our walk along the river, a distance of about 3.5 kilometres from our point of origin. At this location there was a large concentration of ducks and geese on the water, so we mentally created a line of divide, and our two respective parties counted on either side of the imaginary line so that we would avoid duplication. At each area covered I will give the list of species we saw in the order in which we first saw them, not in taxonomic sequence. In brackets I will also state the number of individuals recorded there. 

Species: Common Merganser (1), Mallard (29), Canada Goose (2), Common Goldeneye (4) Gull, sp. (2), Herring Gull (2).

Common Goldeneye, male
     Having left our vehicle, we all got into John's car to drive to the Woolner Parking area, from where we would begin our walk, John and Michelle going in one direction from that parking area, Miriam, Janet and I heading off in the opposite direction.
      Along the way we stopped to check out a house with a variety of bird feeders; a predictably productive spot in years past. Today the activity was sparse. 

Species: House Sparrow (13), Blue Jay (1), Black-capped Chickadee (1), Northern Cardinal (1).


View along the trail
      At 08:37 we bade farewell for the moment to John and Michelle as they headed off to do their count and we commenced ours. The trail, known as the Grand River Trail, or alternatively the Walter Bean Trail, pretty much hugs the bank of the river and meanders through an area of hardwood forest.
     In contrast to previous years, it was tough to find birds, and the number of species seen, and the number of individuals counted was less than normal. I have no explanation why, but we would later find that other parties experienced the same phenomenon. 
     It was a pleasant day, warm for the time of year, with the temperature getting up to around 0°C, by noon.
     This Northern Cardinal was bathed in bright sunlight at the top of a tree.

     The view along the river is pleasant at any time of year, and today we were treated to several splendid vistas.

     For most of the way I followed Miriam and Janet as we made our way along the trail.


     When the leaves are off the trees it is easy to spot interesting features that might easily be missed when concealed from view by the luxuriant foliage of spring and summer. So it was with this nest of a Baltimore Oriole which would have been a place of great activity just a few short months ago.

     There was lots of ice on the water, and little floes were moving down river on the current at a rapid clip. When the sun was shining the ice sparkled and it was really quite magical. It was also really pleasing to listen to the sounds the ice made as floes jostled each other, and scraped along the build up at the bank.

     To no one's surprise evidence of beaver activity was commonly seen, many trees having been felled by these industrious rodents.

     I guess that a little snack of bark seemed appealing to Janet.

      American Herring Gull was the most common gull along the river, although gull sightings were pretty sparse overall.

     Here is another shot of the river.

     Common Mergansers were seen quite frequently, but they were skittish and seem to fly at the slightest provocation; indeed, without provocation at all! I was happy to get this shot of a female on the far bank with a few male Mallards.

     At the end of our walk, before getting back into the car, we sat down for what we felt was a well-earned rest, and Janet produced a bag of dried fruit and (kind soul that she is) shared with Miriam and me. It was delicious and just the little infusion of energy that we needed.

Species:  Black-capped Chickadee (12), Canada Goose (234), American Herring Gull (6), Gull, sp. (3), Mallard (311), Northern Cardinal (1), American Crow (1), Buteo, sp. (1), American Goldfinch (3), White-breasted Nuthatch (1), American Black Duck (7), Common Goldeneye 35), Common Merganser (9).

     Our next stop was at Forfar Park, a small island in a sea of housing, but a location that has traditionally been worthy of checking and has from time to time yielded rarities. Today the activity was muted, but several species were recorded, including this lone American Tree Sparrow, determined not to come out and pose for a picture!

Species:  House Sparrow (8), American Crow (4), American Goldfinch (2), House Finch (16), Black-capped Chickadee (3), Downy Woodpecker (2), Blue Jay (1), Dark-eyed Junco (2), Northern Cardinal (2), Cooper's Hawk (1), White-breasted Nuthatch (1), American Tree Sparrow (1), Common Starling (1), Mourning Dove (1).

       Janet could only be with us until noon so it was time to return her to her car. It was a delight to have had Janet along with us; she was an exquisite companion. 
      Miriam and I then went to meet John and Michelle at a Swiss Chalet restaurant for lunch. It was great to shed a few layers for a while and sit in the warmth and eat. Traditionally, Miriam and I have made sandwiches at home and have eaten in the car, but I think that Swiss Chalet may become a new tradition!
     After lunch we went to Kolb Park, where as had been the case all day, bird life was minimal. However, we did see what became the bird of the day, a male Northern Pintail.

     Pintails are decidedly uncommon so late in the year and we needed to fill out a rare bird report for this species.

     Once again there was ample evidence of the work of beavers and this winter storage gave away the location of the lodge.

Species: Black-capped Chickadee (3), Common Goldeneye (1), Canada Goose (164), Mallard (97), Northern Pintail (1), American Black Duck (3), American Herring Gull (1), Northern Cardinal (2).

     Our final stop was at Blue Springs where the birds were totally absent. We saw but two species and this was right as we were leaving. It was well past 15:00 by now and my right knee was giving me a little grief (old age creeping up on me I guess) so we decided to call it a day.

Species: American Crow (2), American Goldfinch (1).

     After each Christmas Bird Count there is a wrap up dinner hosted by one of the participants and everyone takes along something to add to the wide variety of food that always seems to be available. This year's event was hosted by Peter Coo and Dawn Miles, and we are very grateful for their fine hospitality. I had intended to take my camera to record some of the festivities, but I forgot to do so, so you'll have to imagine what it was like. The pictures will have to wait until next time!

Friday, 12 December 2014

Northern Mockingbird (Moqueur polyglotte)

Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos
Toronto, ON
12 December 2014

     I have fond memories of making a regular annual trip in years past to Niagara-on-the-Lake to find three specialty birds for the Province of Ontario, Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus, Tufted Titmouse Parus bicolor and Northern Mockingbird.

Northern Mockingbird

     This was the only area in the province where one could reliably expect to find, after a little searching to be sure, these three species normally associated with more southerly regions.
     Now the distribution of all three species has become far more widespread, and Northern Mockingbird may regularly be encountered in the Toronto area, and several confirmed nesting sites have been documented. There are a couple of spots where I am quite certain of locating this species if I take the time to search diligently, or, if as was the case this morning, it comes to greet me almost as soon as I park the car. Humber Bay Park West was where I found this individual today.

     It was feeding on the berries seen in the pictures, and for the longest time was half-hidden, as it found the most appealing part of the crop I suppose. Finally it moved upwards and posed briefly for the photographs you see here.
     It is a handsome bird, characterized by large white wing patches when it flies, but capturing a mockingbird in flight is far from easy. 
     So far the winter has been quite benign, but even through last year's brutal conditions, the species seemed to survive and by now no doubt has a population acclimatized to our conditions.
     As regards the other two species mentioned above, Red-bellied Woodpecker, has become quite common in many areas, and we have even had it visit our backyard feeders on a few occasions. Tufted Titmouse is nowhere common in the province, but it can be encountered with a reasonable degree of regularity in Haldimand County.
     The other area I have often encountered Northern Mockingbird in the Toronto region is Colonel Samuel Smith Park, but this morning I was unsuccessful. The following shots show the extent of the snowfall experienced yesterday.

     Winter is part of what makes us Canadian and today was a classic day; sunny, bright and the temperature slightly below freezing; a day to be enjoyed by mockingbird and human alike.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

White-winged Scoter (Macreuse brune) and Others

Lake Ontario
7 December 2014

     Today Miriam needed to go to Carlisle and Burlington, so, since it was a fine sunny day, I decided to go along with her and we did a little birding afterwards.
     Our principal quest was for scoters which by now are starting to populate Lake Ontario, as they do each winter. We were successful in finding two species, White-winged Scoter Melanitta fusca and Surf Scoter Melanitta perspicillata; Black Scoter Melanitta nigra eluded us, if indeed it was present. It is at all times the most difficult to locate and appears in much small numbers than the other two species.
     There are huge rafts of ducks on Lake Ontario at this time of year, some quite monumental, and today we were treated to some of these large aggregations of diving ducks. Unfortunately, they were quite far out, certainly not what one would consider within good camera range. However, when dealing with nature you cannot control the subject, and we worked with what we had.
     Scoters are among the most enigmatic of ducks, in my opinion, with their outlandish bills, as can be seen in the following pictures of a Surf Scoter which came a little closer to shore than his chums.

      The following picture will give you an idea of the variety of ducks to be found in these large concentrations and you can see Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula, Greater Scaup Aythya marila, Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis, and, up at the top left corner, a Surf Scoter.

     This picture shows male and female Greater Scaup, of which there were at least a thousand present at this location alone.

     Again I present a Surf Scoter, this time keeping company with Common Goldeneye.

      These ducks are constantly diving and rarely seem to come up without a mussel in their bill. It certainly attests to the rich feeding ground that Lake Ontario provides for these species which will spend the entire winter on the safety of its waters.

      At the Canada Centre for Inland Waters several Trumpeter Swans Cygnus buccinator were present, some with young.

     Observe the size difference between the Trumpeter Swan and a male Bufflehead Bucephala albeola.

     At least four American Black Ducks Anas rubripes were spotted, although it looks as though the top bird in this picture may be a hybrid Black Duck/Mallard.

     When we left the Canada Centre for Inland Waters we had to wait in a long line of traffic because the bridge was raised to let a lake freighter pass from the open expanse of Lake Ontario into Burlington Bay.

     It was a great couple of hours of birding. Perhaps next time that elusive Black Scoter will be top of the list.

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.