Monday, 29 February 2016


     After my recent trip to Costa Rica, I updated my life lists and, based on the number of people who ask me about such things, it occurred to me that the dedicated birders who follow my blog might be interested in seeing the spreadsheet below.
     This shows all the bird families of the world, based on the IOC World Bird List 2016, with the number of species I have seen in each family, and the percentage that represents of the total. I derive enormous pleasure from seeing the first member of a family of birds that I have never seen before, and with a little diligence and a little luck I can add another family in Cuba this year.
     If you are not interested in such matters quit now!

Hints of Spring Migration

27 February 2016
Waterloo, ON

     As soon as it gets towards the end of February, birders in this part of North America start to watch for the first migrants to arrive from the south. Some species are passing through on their way farther north, others are arriving to breed in this area.
     It was almost uncanny that I was sitting in the family room thinking that I should be keeping an eye open for Pine Siskins Spinus pinus and I looked out the window and there were two of them on one of the bird feeders.

     These birds are in transit here as they move north to occupy their breeding areas. 

      It is always a delight to see Pine Siskins and we can confidently expect to see them in greater numbers over the next couple of weeks.

     Squirrels are very intelligent creatures and miss no opportunity for an easy meal. This one simply positioned itself below the feeder to munch on the seeds knocked out by the birds above.

     The American Goldfinches Spinus tristis are now acquiring their lovely yellow colouration and are a delight to see.

     A friend of mine reported that she has a single male Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus in her backyard, and another friend has reported Brown-headed Cowbirds Molothrus ater. 
     The early vanguard is here! More is yet come.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Yellow-throated Toucan on Canadian Postage Stamp

     In Canada, and I suspect in most other countries too, one may now customize postage stamps according to one's wishes. Perhaps this is an attempt to encourage more people to use the postal service as opposed to electronic mail, based on the theory that people will want to send correspondence with their souvenir stamp to their friends and acquaintances.
    We have done this once before, several years ago, with a particularly nice picture of a Barred Owl taken by Miriam and I decided to do it with one of my photographs from our recent trip to Costa Rica. This handsome bird certainly fits the bill. I suspect that it may be the only Canadian postage stamp ever to feature a toucan!

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Nest Boxes Installed for Eastern Screech Owl (Petit-duc maculé)

23 February 2016

     Many of you will have read my earlier posts about SpruceHaven and the marvelous opportunity that has been afforded me to help shape the evolution of a farm into a wildlife preserve.
     A few weeks ago I asked Dave whether he would consider installing a nest box for Eastern Screech Owl Megascops asio. In that enthusiastic fashion of his, a character that defines his very personality, he replied without hesitation, "How about two or three?"
     And so it was that yesterday we installed three houses for this endearing little owl.
     Initially I had ordered the three boxes from Wild Birds Unlimited in Guelph, but they only had one in stock and would require several weeks to obtain the other two. We took the one box they had and Sam, a family friend of the Westfalls, immediately declared that he would make the other two. How fortunate this was because in the opinion of everyone the boxes constructed by him were quite superior to the one we got from the store.
     Our "installation crew" consisted of Sam, John Lichty, Jamie and Sandy, and myself. Sam was clearly the leader, for not only had he constructed superb nest boxes, he came well prepared to handle the installation, with a ladder, a full range of tools, safety equipment, a toboggan to facilitate moving across a snowy field, and know-how. Sam quite rightly stated that any project involves about eighty percent preparation and twenty percent execution. He was superbly prepared.
     Here are Sam and John unloading Sam's car and starting to assemble the gear onto a cart.

     This is a full service nest box service so Sam and John stuffed a combination of wood shavings and dried grass into each box to provide a soft substrate for the eggs we hope will be laid there.

     I had scouted the woodlot ahead of time and had selected trees for the installation of what originally would have been two boxes. Here is one of the boxes made by Sam sitting at the bottom of the first tree, a Sugar Maple Acer saccharum. 

     Every member of our crew seemed up for the task!

     While John was assembling the ladder Sam was checking the compass on his smart phone to ensure that we had the correct orientation.

     The ladder was secured in place.

    And Sam tied himself off to permit safe working while having the range of movement required to position and install the nest box.

     In order to get the nest box in position Sam hammered in a single nail on which to hang the box pending the serious business of attaching it securely and permanently.

      It turned out to be quite a challenge to get this box installed. The term "hardwood" was never more apt than when describing this maple. Bolts broke, bits broke and it was extremely difficult to drill pilot holes. Sam persevered doggedly; no doubt sore wrists and elbows will be the price he paid.

     Finally the box was in place! Hallelujah said we all!

       I mentioned above that I had selected two trees in the woodlot, but on the way over, Jamie wondered whether we should install one box on a tree bordering the swale and this seemed like an excellent idea. Sandy carried the nest box over; this one being the store-bought product.

     The installation process was the same as in the wood lot, but by now it was old hat to Sam. Furthermore, the tree we chose offered far less resistance and installation was finished much more quickly.

     Here is the line of sight from the hill across from the swale where we will be able to observe the comings and goings of the occupants.

     The third box was destined to be erected quite close to the house, since Eastern Screech Owls are known to have no hesitation in occupying suitable dwellings in close proximity to their human friends. 
     John and Sandy are waiting for instructions from Sam!

     This box was installed in record time.

     No doubt because Dave had by now come along to supervise!

     It was a superb combined effort and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dave, Sandy and Jamie for enthusiastically supporting the idea when I first proposed it, to Sam for buying into it and helping out in ways that we could never have foreseen, and to John Lichty, my stalwart brother-in-law, who I call on far too often to help with projects like this, and who never refuses.
     We have three boxes in three different habitats and it is going to be really interesting to see which species inhabit which box. Our wish is for owls in all three but if a woodpecker or a cavity-nesting duck selects one as home we will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Spot-crowned Euphonia

    Euphonias are an interesting assemblage of birds, for many years placed in a grouping with the tanagers (thraupidae), but in recent years assigned to the finches (fringillidae) as the endless game of taxonomic musical chairs seems to continue unabated.
    Two special attributes partly define euphonias. Their stomachs are especially adapted for eating mistletoe berries (and other berries)  and they build domed nests with side entrances. Nests are usually well concealed in epiphytic plants growing on tree limbs, on steep banks in nooks well surrounded by dense vegetation. 
     Spot-crowned Euphonia Euphonia imitans was commonly seen at the feeders at Las Cruces, Costa Rica. This species is endemic to Panama and Costa Rica. The male is a strikingly handsome little bird.

     The female no less so, and quite distinctive in plumage not resembling the male at all.

     We hardly saw this bird anywhere else so its distribution appears to be somewhat confined - or perhaps we just didn't roam around the area sufficiently to spot it elsewhere.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Brown Three-toed Sloth with Baby

18 January 2016
Tortuguero, Costa Rica

     For those of you who have read my trip report you will recall the Brown Three-toed Sloth Bradypus varigatus that we saw with a baby, but in the photographs I took I had managed to capture only the adult.
     When Miriam finished downloading and editing all her pictures she had indeed been able to include the baby in her shots.

     As I had mentioned the young sloth is pretty much a miniature of its parent and is well protected by a devoted mother.

     The green tinged fur derives from the algae that live inside the fur. Each hair is a hollow tube slit lengthwise, a structure that allows the algae access to the interior of the tube. Sloth moths that inhabit the fur keep algal growth in check by eating the algae.

     Sloths eat leaves, an extremely low-energy diet; hence the reason for their slow-moving life style.
      Strangely, the animal makes weekly visits to the forest floor to defecate. Why it would not simply poop in the tree to conserve energy is a bit of a mystery. A couple of theories have been postulated but there is no really satisfactory explanation.
      Any sighting of a sloth is just one of the highlights to be enjoyed on a visit to Central America.

Friday, 19 February 2016

Speckled Tanager

     Central and South America are home to a stunning array of tanagers, perhaps one of the most diverse and superbly colourful families in the avian world. Costa Rica is blessed with a wonderful selection of these amazing birds. Many of them are easy to see since they readily come to feeding stations, especially those with bananas to which many of them seem to be especially attracted.
     When we stayed at Las Cruces Biological Station at San Vito in the southern part of the country, Speckled Tanager Tangara gutta was a predictable patron of the feeders there. 

     Interestingly this species lives in families or small groups and is rarely seen alone, so once one bird is sighted others are sure to put in an appearance too. Furthermore, it travels with mixed flocks of other tanagers, so a Speckled Tanager at your feeder likely means that other species will soon be joining them.     


Silver-throated Tanager Tangara icterocephala

     Many of the observations of breeding birds were done by Alexander Skutch (see earlier post) and it was found that the birds nest from 3 - 7.6 metres off the ground in a tall bush. Both sexes participate in building  a compact open cup made of leaves and rootlets. 
     It's a wonderful bird to see with all the charisma one might expect from a tropical species. I hope that all of you will one day be able to experience a mixed flock of tanagers with a Speckled Tanager as one of the star attractions.

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.