Saturday, 31 December 2016

Herons and Egrets in flight

     Photographs of birds in flight are difficult to achieve, it seems to me, and with the basic equipment that I have, almost impossible. I am a birder, first, foremost and always; photography is entirely secondary to my quest to see, study and understand birds, although I am always very happy when I get some decent shots to cement the experience.
     My good friend, Franc Gorenc, whom you have recently met through the pages of this blog, is almost a polar opposite. He is constantly searching for the perfect shot, especially of a creature animated by feeding or mating, or defending a territory or engaged in any other natural behaviour. He seeks to record life as it is in myriad interesting situations. 
     Franc made available to me all the photographs from our recent trip to Cuba that he felt were worthy of keeping, and encouraged me to use them in any way that I see fit. A generous gesture indeed!
     He captured numerous images of herons and egrets in flight that impressed me. When we have students visit our bird banding operation at SpruceHaven we always go into considerable detail about the various feather tracts used in flight, having the advantage of course of a bird in the hand. Franc's pictures are a fine complement to this study, and armed with a rudimentary knowledge of the principles of avian flight, they facilitate the understanding of birds as superb masters of the air.
     The juvenile form of Little Blue Heron Egretta caerulea is white. Here is one coming in to land.





     Adults are the familiar slate blue with a violaceous neck and head. This bird is ascending.



     And this individual has just landed.



     This individual is calling in mid-air.





     Great Egret Ardea alba was a common species that we saw every day. Here is a series of varied flight shots.












     I think everyone can agree that Franc has captured this large bird in many different phases of its flight, revealing the interplay of light and shade as it soars through the air.
     Snowy Egret Egretta thula was also common.




  



     I am sure you have enjoyed seeing Franc's pictures as much as I have enjoyed bringing them to you.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Tuesday Rambles with David - Region of Waterloo Hinterland

27 December 2016

     Suffering from a surfeit of Christmas festivities I think, the five of us who met this morning were eager for a jaunt into nature. Franc and Carol are away in the sunny southwest and Mary had another commitment so the rest of us (Judy, Jim, Francine, Miriam and me) ventured forth.
     It was a grey day, the kind referred to in the line of the carol which talks about the bleak midwinter - and it has hardly begun! The ambient temperature was slightly above freezing but a vicious wind imparted more than a hint of chill to the air.
     Our initial forays were singularly unproductive; other than large numbers of American Crows Corvus brachyrynchos feeding in fields now mostly devoid of snow cover, few birds put in an appearance.



     Coaxed out of hibernation by relatively warm temperatures I suppose, this Raccoon Procyon lotor seemed undisturbed by us. It appeared sleek, fat and in good condition.



     Near the River Song Banquet Hall in St. Jacobs a lone American Robin Turdus migratorius flew directly over our heads, proof once again that populations of this species ever more frequently spend the winter here.



     We decided to go north on Schummer Line where Northern Raven Corvus corax has bred for a couple of years, in hope of seeing this rugged survivor that treats even the worst winter weather with disdain. We were unsuccessful in that quest but discovered what was unquestionably the bird of the day. In a mixed feeding flock of House Sparrows Passer domesticus, Dark-eyed Juncos Junco hyemalis and American Goldfinches Spinus tristis Miriam detected an adult White-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia leucophrys, very unusual for this time of the year. Judy and I also managed a good look at the bird, but Jim and Francine in their car behind us, missed it. For Miriam, Judy and me this was our first ever winter record.





Dark-eyed Junco
            Earlier, we had run into Ken Burrell who is the rare birds coordinator for this area so we wasted no time in letting him know of our sighting and its precise location. As a matter of fact the bird was seen one day before the annual Linwood Christmas Bird Count so it will be an important addition to the species recorded during the count week.
            A couple of Downy Woodpeckers Picoides pubescens were seen close by and Red-bellied Woodpeckers Melanerpes carolinus hitched up trees a little farther off.


Red-bellied Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker - female


     Flushed with success we saw two Turkey Vultures Cathartes aura on Chalmers-Forrest Road, another unusual late December species, although it has been recorded in small numbers throughout the winter in recent years.



      We also spotted an American Kestrel Falco sparverius, a species formerly very common, and now rarely observed. We all remembered our experience with this species in Cuba where the birds seemed totally unperturbed by human proximity, as contrasted by this individual which flew off at the slightest attempt to take a picture.



     Our primary targets today were Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus and Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis and we dipped on both of them. However, it turned out to be a fine outing, with a range of species, including a decent number of Mourning Doves Zenaida macroura, and Rock Doves Columba livia were abundant around the silos on the farms that dot the region.


Mourning Dove

     The photographs taken today in poor light were of mostly poor quality so many of the images that are used for this post are taken from my archives. Franc of course is not here to act as the official photographer for the day and will not be with us for several weeks. I am sure you will all agree that he should hop on a plane in Arizona every Monday evening and fly up here for the Tuesday walk, but we all know how much chance there is of that happening! I guess we will all have to bear down and do our best until he returns in early February.
     

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Cuckoos of Cuba

     We encountered two species of cuckoo on Cuba, both extremely interesting and one endemic to the island.
    The most frequently seen was Smooth-billed Ani Crotphaga ani, every day in fact.
     

     The sexes are alike, having a glossy black head and nape, contrasting with glossy bluish feathers on the back. In the field anis usually look uniformly black unless observed at close range in good light. They are gregarious, frequently found in small flocks from two to a dozen.



     Their diet consists of insects, mainly grasshoppers; also mantids, other orthoptera, cockroaches, beetles, squash bugs and assassin bugs. They are fond of weevil root borers which are serious pests in sugar cane plantations, so are welcomed in those locations.
     Smooth-billed Anis, like most birds, are opportunistic feeders and they have been recorded taking small birds from mist nets.




      Breeding activity is unusual in that several pairs occupy a single nest. As many as nine adults may take part in building the nest, which is built in a thorny tree, shrub or thicket and comprises a large, bulky shallow mass of interlaced sticks. Many adults bring food to the nestlings.





     Smooth-billed Anis are confined to sub-tropical and tropical areas of the Americas and I consider myself fortunate to have observed this species at length in several countries. Their presence enlivened our days on Cuba.

     The second cuckoo observed was Great Lizard Cuckoo Coccyzus merlini, a species endemic to Cuba. 
     This is a very large cuckoo having an overall length of 54 cm; its tail comprising more than half its length. Despite its large size it is secretive, skulking and often difficult to see. As you will see from the various pictures here, one would need to photoshop them all together to get a complete bird in one frame!



     Vines and dense vegetation in tropical lowland evergreen forest, tropical deciduous forest, secondary forest, woodlands and thickets, vines, creepers and abandoned coffee plantations all form the habitat of Great Lizard Cuckoo. Although capable of strong flight it is more frequently seen gliding from tree to tree.





     The diet of the Great Lizard Cuckoo includes lizards, frogs, snakes, bird eggs and nestlings, grasshoppers, bees and wasps.





     There is a common misperception held by some that all cuckoos are brood parasites, but this is not true. Many species, including both Smooth-billed Ani and Great Lizard Cuckoo raise their own young. 
     The nest of Great Lizard Cuckoo is a shallow saucer of twigs, in a tree. Two to three white, somewhat glossy eggs are laid.
     We encountered this species less frequently than Smooth-billed Ani, and never out in the open, but that only added to the delight in finding it. 
     Franc, as always, was there, camera at the ready, to capture these images and we appreciate his largesse in contributing them for this post.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Tuesday Rambles with David - North Shore of Lake Ontario

20 December 2016

     Our numbers were down a little as we set out for our regular Tuesday outing, Francine having been felled by a severe headache and Mary had a conflicting event. 
     It was a mostly grey day, punctuated by a few outbursts of sunshine, but the temperature was mild for the time of year, and six of us were happy to be out and about in birdland.
     We started our day at Humber Bay Park in Toronto where two spits of land create discrete habitat; a location I have found very productive over many years.


     The west side of the park, shown above, still contains a bit of woodland and undisturbed shore, the eastern side is far more developed, although there remain great spots for birding, with access to sheltered coves where waterfowl tend to congregate, especially during spells of inclement weather.
     The number of condominiums being constructed there is quite obscene, and the view of the lake is impeded for all but the owners of the properties; but of course profit trumps everything, and if a few councillors can get their grubby hands on a little more tax revenue that speeds up the pace of development.

     
     We were treated to a magnificent aggregation of waterfowl, with Northern Shovelers Anas clypeata swimming at close range. Their characteristic bill truly is a remarkable appendage.



     When we visited Cuba Franc shot more pictures of Northern Mockingbird Mimus ployglottos than any other species and he became quite enamoured of this bird. Humber Bay Park is the best location I know of to locate Northern Mockingbird in southern Ontario. I had no sooner finished telling everyone about a previous visit when an individual landed on my car, enabling Franc to capture the following sequence.
     The bird first of all landed on top of the car.
     

     Then moved to the rear view mirror, exactly as it had done on the previous occasion.


     I am starting to wonder whether Northern Mockingbird has some odd affinity for vehicles! 
     Before anyone points it out, I know that my car is dirty, but it's hard to keep a vehicle clean when driving through the slush of winter, and much of our birding is done on dirt roads to compound the problem.
     After perching for a minute or two the bird flew off.


      At the east side of the park Miriam was able to capture this delightful picture of a male Gadwall Anas strepera, a lovely species, underrated it seems to me, but its combination of delicate hues is appreciated by all with a shred of sensibility. Miriam is a quilter and has an educated eye for colours and patterns that align together. There is no better guide to complementary themes than the myriad, diverse realms of nature.

       
      We witnessed a substantial mixed flock of waterfowl land in one of the bays, including impressive numbers of Redhead Aytha americana.



     It was exciting to see so many Redheads, and it was equally appealing to spot a few American Wigeon Anas americana scattered throughout.



     Hooded Mergansers Lophodytes cucullatus were present too, although none came close to shore.


     It was lunch time so we went to Marie Curtis Park where we sat in our vehicles and ate, following which we moved on to Long Branch Park. Here the wind was ferocious and we did not tarry long. This flock of Buffleheads Bucephala albeola in flight gives an idea of the strength of the wind whipping up the waves on Lake Ontario.


     Yet these tiny ducks thrive under whatever conditions the lake throws at them.
     Moving on to Colonel Samuel Smith Park we enjoyed a suite of passerines in addition to the waterfowl bedecking the lake. A male and female Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis will never fail to elicit appreciation no matter how many times one sees them.



     American Tree Sparrow Spizella arborea is an appealing bird that moves into our area in late fall and enlivens the winter days with its presence until it leaves again next spring.



     American Robin Turdus migratorius can now reliably be found throughout the winter in southern Ontario. It exploits microclimates to find adequate food and tolerates the cold well.


     One of Franc's great skills is capturing birds in flight. The combined weight of his camera body and lens is around 5 kg but he swings it skyward as though it were a feather, and with a steady hand captures amazing shots. This Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens was initially photographed on a tree but when it took off Franc was there to record its movement. What a classic shot!



     Someone had made a bird feeder from an old coffee can and, I presume, is stocking it with seed. It enabled us to view several species at leisure as they returned constantly to feed. Below one may see Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus, American Goldfinch Spinus tristis and House Finch Haemorhous mexicanus.


     The feeder was pretty effective and I suggested to Jim Huffman that he has a whole new business opportunity there!
     Our final stop was at A.E. Crookes Headland in Mississauga, where we reviewed the range of waterfowl we had seen at our earlier stops. This Ring-billed Gull was stationary as it hovered against the wind. Franc, Miriam and I were standing side by side and it is interesting to see the photographs each of us took of the same bird, starting with mine using a 50 zoom lens.


      Followed by Miriam's with a 60 zoom lens......


     And finally, Franc's shots which deserve all the superlatives you can muster, taken with his superior camera body and expensive professional lenses.



     It is safe to say that Franc takes the prize!
     Next Tuesday, weather permitting, we will be scouring the hinterland of Waterloo and Wellington Counties searching for Snowy Owls Bubo scandiacus, Rough-legged Hawks Buteo lagopus, Snow Buntings  Plectrophenax nivalis and other winter denizens so stay tuned for that report. Alas, Franc will not be with us, so we'll have to redouble our efforts to see what pictures we can come up with ourselves!