Monday, 30 November 2015

The Seven Woodpeckers of Waterloo Region

      I am sure that many birders, not even birders in fact but people who appreciate nature, enjoy woodpeckers. For me, no matter how many times I glance out the window to see a Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens on the suet feeder, or pecking away at peanuts, there is always a surge of pleasure involved.
    We are fortunate to have seven species of woodpecker in this area, one of which (Red-headed Woodpecker Melanerpes erythrocephalus) is quite rare, but nevertheless present. Just a little farther south, along the north shore of Lake Erie it can be found much more easily.
     Our most common resident is Downy Woodpecker, a diminutive bird that would be considered a pygmy woodpecker in other parts of the world.

     In the following picture the nictitating membrane can be seen quite clearly as it is drawn across the eye to prevent damage from flying wood chips or other potentially harmful material.

     This bird can be found on any walk through a woodlot at any time of the year and it is also attracted to backyards with trees. It frequents suet and peanut feeders readily.

     The Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus is our next most common resident species. It resembles nothing so much as a Downy on steroids! Its colouration is basically identical but it is larger and has a longer, sturdier bill.

     Novice birders are often perplexed by the two species and have trouble separating them. To add to the confusion their vocalizations are quite similar. A little practice in the field resolves this dilemma, however, and before long the two species are easily identified one from the other.

      Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus is a stunning woodpecker that has become increasingly common in recent years as its range expands northwards. The last two winters in Waterloo Region have been quite severe but this species seems to handle the conditions without suffering any decline in numbers. I have actually seen more Red-bellied Woodpeckers than Downy Woodpeckers on walks recently, a situation unheard of in years past. 

     As may be seen from the picture below this species is not especially well named. The red smudge on its belly is barely visible and it is from this ignominious patch that the bird takes its name.

     Our fourth resident bird is Pileated Woodpecker Dryocopus pileatus, a large, noisy, dramatic species, which can be surprisingly elusive for a loud, gaudy bird that is not uncommon in the area. I must confess to being spectacularly unsuccessful in photographing this species.

     The pictures below give a good idea of the excavating power of Pileated Woodpecker.

     Red-headed Woodpecker is extremely rare in Waterloo Region. It is a stunningly beautiful bird and I find it breathtaking every time I encounter one. Whether it is resident or not I am not sure. I have never encountered it in winter, nor has it been recorded on our Christmas bird counts, but this is hardly definitive evidence. Perhaps like the Red-bellied Woodpecker its number will start to swell.

         Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius is a migrant that arrives back in our area in early spring.



    This species gets its name from its habit of drilling precise rows of rectangular holes in the bark of trees, to which it returns to feed on the sap oozing out of the wound it has inflicted on the tree. The sweet sap also furnishes a rich source of food for hummingbirds, as well as providing protein for both species in the form of insects trapped in the gooey sap. As you might imagine sapsuckers are not always popular with homeowners whose trees are killed by repeated attacks on the bark.

     The seventh and final woodpecker to enrich our avifauna is Northern Flicker Colaptes aurata. Unlike most woodpeckers this very handsome species feeds primarily on the ground, with ants being its preferred diet. Its loud call is reminiscent of Pileated Woodpecker and it takes a little practice to be able to differentiate one from the other.


Male feeding on ants


       Northern Flicker comes in two colour variants, the yellow-shafted form we have here and the red-shafted form of the western part of the continent. Flickers are very prone to the behaviour known as anting where the bird spreads its wings to allow ants to circulate through its feather tracts. The ants secrete formic acid which dislodges feather mites and other ectoparasites.
      As you may see we are well blessed with a number of attractive woodpeckers here - and there are others to be found elsewhere in the province. It is a very fortunate circumstance for a birder and one in which I rejoice.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Turkey Vultures (Urubus à tête rouge) at Niagara Falls, ON

26 November 2015

     Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura is a hardy species and can be seen locally well into the cold days of winter, with a few individuals even passing the winter here. In recent years it is to be expected that a few will be tallied on Christmas Bird Counts.

     Yesterday on a visit to Niagara Falls several were circling above the Niagara Gorge and along the Niagara River, and we spotted four birds perched at the river's edge.

     Based on anthropomorphic interpretation a Turkey Vulture is not the most appealing species but I have a great deal of respect for it and even have a sweatshirt with a hand painted image of a Turkey Vulture on it. The function they perform is vital to the well-being of the ecosystem and I think that everyone is familiar with the situation in India where vultures are poisoned by feeding on chemical-laced carcasses.  The result is that rotting animals that would have been consumed by vultures are now spreading myriad forms of disease to humans.

     I was happy to have the opportunity to photograph these individuals while they rested for a while.
     In late November and early December Niagara Falls is a magnet for gull watchers with always the chance of extreme rarities showing up. The highest daily total is thirteen species, including Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistagus, an errant bird from Asia.
     Yesterday was not an especially good day for gull observation, but the pictures below give some idea of the concentrations to be found. These views are taken above the falls, just before the water plunges over the precipice which forms the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side of the border. 

     This image gives some sense of the rapids at this stage of the river's journey onward to Lake Ontario.

    We did succeed in locating a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls Larus fuscus at the Adam Beck Power Stationa relative rarity here, and if you look carefully you can see the birds, as well as a late Double-crested Cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus.

     Far and away the most numerous species was the diminutive Bonaparte's Gull Larus philadelphia, and you can see them on the water with other larger gulls for size comparison. At the generating station fish are chopped up in the turbines and provide rich feeding for opportunistic gulls.

     The following image shows part of the massive bulk of this hydro-electric generating station.

     A day's outing in the Niagara area is always an agreeable experience and we even saw a Tufted Titmouse Parus bicolor in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Unfortunately we were unable to get a picture of this fairly rare species in this area.
     We chuckled to ourselves, as we observed tourists from every corner of the globe, that we were perhaps the only duo in town whose main interest was not the mighty falls!

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Great Potoo (Grand Ibijau) in Costa Rica

6 February 2011

     While travelling through the Alajuela region of Costa Rica, our driver braked suddenly and backed up. His incredibly sharp eyes had spotted a Great Potoo Nyctibius grandis roosting in a tree.

     This bird is difficult to locate when searching diligently for it, so to have located it incidentally like this is quite remarkable. 

     Even if the driver knew that the species had been seen in the area previously it is till quite a feat to relocate it. This bird is so cryptic, and is able to remain totally motionless, that it resembles nothing so much as a branch of the tree in which it is perched.

     It was a distinct highlight for us to see this species, our first ever, and we were able to capture it photographically to relive the experience again and again.  On a cold winter's day in Canada it is very pleasant to look at the pictures and remember the hot, sultry day when we found this bird.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Vive La France

Allons enfants de la patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie
L'etendard sanglant est levé! (bis)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes,
Mugir ces féroces soldats?
Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras
Égorger nos fils, nos compagnes!

Aux armes, citoyens!
Formez vos bataillons!
Marchons! Marchons!
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons!

Amour sacré de la patrie,
Conduis, soutiens nos bras vengeurs!
Liberté, Liberté cherie,
Combats avec tes défenseurs! (bis)
Sous nos drapeaux, que la victoire
Accoure à tes mâles accents!
Que tes ennemis expirants
Voient ton triomphe et notre gloire!

Nous entrerons dans la carrière
Quand nos aînés n'y seront plus;
Nous y trouverons leur poussière
Et la trace de leurs vertus.
Bien moins jaloux de leur survivre
Que de partager leur cercueil,
Nous aurons le sublime orgueil
De les venger ou de les suivre!

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Southern Crested Caracara ( Caracara huppé) near Punta Arenas, Patagonia, Chile

17 February 2012

     Some time ago I bought an external drive for my computer and embarked on a project of loading and classifying all of my digital photographs. Everything is categorized by date and location, and where possible separate files are created for males, females, family groups, fledglings etc. Not only are birds covered but every other organism I have photographed, plus numerous other topics. When it comes to items such as wildflowers, grasses, sedges, acquatic vegetation, molluscs and so on, the unidentified species file is quite large, especially for species seen on other continents!
     Obviously the task at hand is not for the faint of heart, and it will be at least another year until it is complete. It is pretty rewarding, however, when I am asked whether I have a picture of a gull, for example, in a certain plumage, resting, or flying, and I can click on one file where every such image that I have is there with details as to where and when it was taken. 
     What this process compels one to do is to look carefully at all the pictures one has taken. This series of pictures was taken during a trip to Chile in 2012.
     An adult Southern Crested Caracara Caracara plancus was seen feeding on the carcass of a skua sp. - an interesting juxtaposition of one scavenger feeding on another.

      It was not long before a juvenile spied the feast and joined the adult to secure its share of the booty.

         Whether the young bird was an offspring of the adult there is no way of knowing, but there was very little squabbling when the young bird horned in on the carrion. In short order they were feeding side by side in apparent harmony.

      I have already seen several other interesting sequences and I have little doubt that many more await discovery. It's a great way to relive the excitment of a trip.    

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Northern Cardinal (Cardinal rouge)

    This morning as I was glancing out the window and realizing that my main bird feeder is empty and that I need to get to the feed mill to buy more seed, a dazzling male Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis was picking through the wilted garden plants to secure whatever errant seeds may be found among them. It struck me, not for the first time I must admit, that we are very fortunate to have such a stunningly beautiful bird present here all year.

     It survives our harsh winters and is one of the first songsters to proclaim the arrival of spring when the males sing constantly from high perches. This species first moved north of the Mexican border in the early twentieth century and since then has colonized much of the continent.

     I have no doubt that it is a backyard favourite with anyone fortunate enough to have them close by.

     Although the male is the stunner, the female is imbued with a charm all her own. The subtle hues of her plumage are perfectly integrated into a study of grace and delicacy.

     Who can fail to be captivated by this species? Not many it seems, for many sports teams here have adopted the name Cardinal. No matter how well they perform, however, they will never rival the excellence of the bird from which they derived their name. 

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Halloween Hijinks

31 October 2015

     Is there any doubt that we have entered our second childhood?

     The theme was eat, drink and hoot with laughter...on a repetitive basis. Good wine always tastes better when shared with good company, and these guys are the best!

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.