Thursday, 31 December 2015

An Uncommon Commoner

30 December 2015

     One of the very common birds in Ontario is Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura. Common it may be, but it is uncommonly beautiful and worthy of our attention.

     This individual was perched on the edge of the bird bath yesterday where the water was frozen. Winter has been exceedingly mild until a few days ago, but we are finally getting a little of the kind of weather we should be getting at this time of the year. 
     Mourning Doves will cope with winter, although in severely cold weather they sometimes get frost bitten toes. 
     This one seems to have the right kind of attitude to tackle whatever winter brings!

     Perhaps it will stay around to breed and bring its young to our yard. We will look forward to spring together.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

LaSalle Park on Christmas Day

25 December 2015

     What better thing to do on Christmas Day than to go for a good walk in the park? Especially so when the temperature hovered around 10°, as this totally abnormal warm December continues. As you can from the pictures below there is not a hint of snow on the ground, nor a patch of ice on the water.

     The number of waterfowl is down considerably as many species are tending to remain farther north during this prolonged period of open water. Very few birds were close to shore, and it was interesting to observe this fossil-embedded rock as we made our way across a breakwater which extends into the lake, to try to get a little closer for better photographs.

     Mallard Anas platyrynchos was one of the few species to populate the rocky shoreline and this handsome male was loafing for a while. His mate was in the water just out of camera range so perhaps he was guarding her also.

     The local Black-capped Chickadees Poecile atricapillus were, as always, very happy to see humans bearing food, and this one patiently waited his turn to alight on the hand of a delighted child, perhaps having this magical experience for the first time.

     You don't have to be a child, however, to take pleasure from this intimacy with nature, and here is my outstretched hand with a bird feeding on peanuts.

     I always wonder what encoded bit of this species' DNA makes them so confiding and so willing to come to the hand of a human. Few other species are so bold. Red-breasted Nuthatches Sitta canadensis will readily come to hand, but I have never been able to induce a White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis to do so. Blue Jays Cyanocitta cristatus and Grey Jays Perisoreus canadensis display little fear and will take food from the hand, but very few other species can be coaxed to do the same thing.
    We saw a couple of Double-crested Cormorants Phalacrocorax auritus among the ducks, geese and swans, not unheard of at this time of year, but relatively unusual.

     Trumpeter Swan Cygnus buccinator is the signature bird at LaSalle in winter, but the number present was down considerably.

     Greater Scaup Aythya marila was probably the most numerous duck present, with a few White-winged Scoters  Melanitta deglandi mingled in with them. The scaup were co-operative in terms of photography; the scoters not so much!

     Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula were also much in evidence and curiously they were already displaying courtship behaviour. It makes one wonder whether their internal clock has been somehow disrupted by weeks on end of warm weather; however, perhaps this behaviour has another meaning in early winter.

     Bufflehead Bucephala albeola was present, but in small numbers only.

     The only species of gull we saw was Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis whereas American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus would generally be the most numerous by now.

    The Grey Squirrels Sciurus carolinensis were always on the lookout for a friendly human with food and they seem particularly sleek and fat this year.

     This Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis was content to feed on the ground on seed tossed there by humans, but even though it fed within a couple of metres of the chickadees on my hand it remained wary and would flush at any unexpected sudden movement.

     At the end of the woodland trail on the way back to the car we heard the loud, joyful song of the Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus and it did not take us long to find the source of the loud musical notes.

     In recent years the invasive Zebra Mussel Dreissena polymorpha, which arrived in the Great Lakes in ballast discharge, has become a huge problem. It multiplies at a prolific rate and clogs water intake pipes and fouls, in one way or another, just about everything it comes into contact with. In the winter the docks, pontoons and other devices related to boating are removed from the water, and the following images show the extent of Zebra Mussel accumulation.

     It was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon, with many other people out enjoying the air on Christmas Day - a welcome respite no doubt from a surfeit of food, drink and contrived merriment. Nothing like a chickadee on your hand to give you a real feeling of joy and well-being at Christmas.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Ducks and Monkeys

     I received an email request for information on Costa Rica from a friend yesterday, in preparation for an upcoming trip, and this spurred me to look at some of the records from my first trip to that magnificent country, where the study of natural history in all its forms is ever at hand.
    One of the memorable places I visited was the Parque Nacional Palo Verde.

    This park is a wetland paradise located in the driest province of Costa Rica, Guanacaste; it is situated at the head of the Golfo de Nicoya.

     One of the birds that was most numerous was the Black-bellied Whistling Duck Dendrocygna autumnalis, a very handsome duck indeed.

     There were literally thousands of them present. 
     It was interesting to see wild Muscovy Ducks Cairina moschata also, as compared with the domesticated versions most people are familiar with.

     When we had lunch at a picnic table under the shade of trees to shield us from the hot noonday sun, we were surrounded by a troop of White-faced Capuchins Cebus capucinus. 

     Even though they must be very habituated to humans bearing food at no time did these monkeys approach us and try to beg for, or steal, food. They seemed to be perfectly content to feed on the food they gleaned from the forest.

     They were endearing creatures and certainly enhanced our visit to the national park.

     AS I look at these images and remember the phenomenal experience that I had in Costa Rica it makes me realize how fortunate I have been to have experienced the natural world in some many corners of the globe.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015


     Recently, I have had the rare privilege and distinct pleasure to get to know Dave Westfall and his sister, Sandy, and Sandy's husband, Jamie.

Sandy and Dave

     They live at SpruceHaven in St. Agatha, a village on the western edge of the City of Waterloo. Formerly a working farm, some of the fields are now rented out to another farmer for alfalfa production, but much of the land is devoted to wildlife and the natural environment. Dave and Sandy would like to continue to promote nature in all its myriad forms and move Sprucehaven in the direction of an environmental preserve, with multi-faceted habitats for wild creatures, including native vegetation, trees reflecting the patrimony of the land, and wetland. Already they have done extensive planting and have created substantial wildlife corridors and other brushy habitat ideal for local mammalian and avian forms alike. Approximately eighteen acres of original beech/maple forest remain on the property - an impressive stand of near old growth forest. Even though I first started to survey the bird life in November, probably the worst month of the year for species richness, I am already impressed by what I have found. Apart from the birds, there is a deep sense of peace and contentment to be gained from the simple act of immersing oneself in this oasis of sylvan tranquility. 
     Dave and Sandy like to emphasize the Haven part of SpruceHaven  and consider themselves stewards of the land - a fitting epithet I can tell you, from someone who has come to know and cherish them.
     This year's prediction for winter finches offers the possibility of a major incursion into our area. If crossbills Loxia sp. are part of this invasion, Tamarack Larix laricina may be found on site, and this is the favourite food of both species of crossbill.

Tamarack Cones
     I will be keeping my eyes open for this species as the winter progresses.

    A couple of weeks ago I noticed that much of the Goldenrod was infested with the maggot of the Goldenrod Fly Eurosta solidaginis and the telltale galls had caused the familiar swelling on the stem of the plant.

     This maggot is an important source of winter food for woodpeckers and I checked last week specifically to see if there was evidence of picid predation on the galls and found none. 
     Today was a different story altogether. In the picture below you can see the holes drilled by woodpeckers to get at the juicy, protein-rich maggot inside.

     I suspect that Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens is the main species drilling on the galls, but I did not see any active excavation going on. Here is a picture of a gall where the woodpecker has successfully extracted the food it was seeking.

     At the interface between the forest and one of the fields I came across this rock pile. It bears silent witness to the labour of a farmer who every spring must pick all the rocks from his fields to increase the arable area. After the winter the frost heaves up rocks anew and the labour begins again.

     Last week when I was surveying in the forest I came across three species of ferns, but today I could find but one. Spinulose Wood Fern Dryopteris carthusiana retains its bright green colouration long after other species have withered and turned brown.

Topside of the pinna

Underside of the pinna showing the sporangia

      Waterloo Region is blessed with a large population of American Crows Corvus brachyrynchos and SpruceHaven receives its share.

     The presence of these highly intelligent birds adds to the appeal of a rural landscape and their raucous calls are an evocative insight into the untarnished essence of nature.

     The nasal call of the White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis usually alerts you to its presence before you see it - always a welcome sight as it hitches up and down the bark of a tree searching for every morsel, or stashing food to be retrieved later when the harshness of winter descends on the landscape.

     American Goldfinches Spinus tristis are very muted at this time of year and small flocks were feeding on the seed heads of numerous plants in the wildlife corridor.

      Dave and Sandy have granted me the rare honour of planning an informal survey of their property and have given me the liberty to propose plans and ideas that might benefit the environment and enhance the habitat for wildlife. Already we have concrete plans in place to band the Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica nesting in their old barn, and next spring we will install a bluebird trail in the hope of attracting Eastern Bluebird Sialia sialis. We will install the nest boxes in tandem and perhaps will succeed in achieving the nirvana of having bluebirds and Tree Swallows Tachycineta bicolor nesting as neighbours. 
     In two weeks the first Christmas Bird Count will occur on their property and other ideas are already percolating in my head.
     It is a very exciting adventure on which I am embarking and the immense good fortune which has befallen me is appreciated beyond words.
     Dave and Sandy I salute you as true stewards of the environment; people motivated by what is right and not what is most profitable. The whole world benefits from the largesse of spirit you are demonstrating. Thank you for including me in your vision.
     The best is yet to come!

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.