Friday, 30 June 2017

Tuesday Rambles with David - Birding Along the Mississauga Section of Lake Ontario

27 June 2017

     It has not been often that we have had all the members of our "gang of eight"  together over the past several weeks and some participants have been absent far more frequently than they have been present. It may be time to reevaluate whether we continue with these outings. Miriam and I routinely set aside each Tuesday, Franc and Jim have been faithful too, but for one reason or another we are missing two or three others most weeks. Obviously if people are taking vacations away from the area or are sick, they cannot be present, but that has not always been the case. Perhaps we just have to ride out the summer and see what happens beyond then, but if we are committed to Tuesday outings that have always been both enjoyable and productive, we should all be willing to make the effort to show up. End of rant!
     This week Jim, Francine and Franc rode in Jim's car, Miriam and I in our car, to begin the day at Marie Curtis Park in Mississauga.

      A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher Tyrannus forficatus  had been seen there on Sunday 25 June, and the internet was abuzz with reports and photographs. This species is very rare in Southern Ontario, but it has showed up from time to time in the past, and generally has stayed around for several days, or weeks even. Not so with this individual, it was a one-day wonder and has not been spotted again.
     But missing one bird certainly does not ruin a day. We had barely set out on the trails when Miriam (whose hearing is a whole order of magnitude better than mine) picked up the almost inaudible (even for those with good hearing) buzzy song of a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea. She quickly realized that more than one individual was vocalizing and then detected a nest, classically fabricated from lichens and bound with spider webs.

       A pair of birds was going back and forth to the nest, but we didn't see them carrying food, so we were at a bit of a loss to figure out what was taking place. Then we spotted a fledgling out on a branch being fed by adults.

     Its dedicated parents were doing a very conscientious job of provisioning their offspring.

     Clutch size for Blue-grey Gnatcatcher is 3 - 5 eggs, so it appears that most of the young from this brood did not survive since no other fledglings were seen.
     Shortly after seeing the gnatcatcher, a Black-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus erythropthalmus put in a brief appearance and Miriam was able to get a quick shot before it disappeared from view.

     Francine was especially elated with this sighting. Ever since we banded this species earlier in the season at SpruceHaven she had been searching for it without success. It was particularly sweet for her because if I am not mistaken it was Francine who first spotted the bird. A better look would have been desirable, but she will have to save that until the next time.
    As we were searching to try to relocate the cuckoo this female Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis put in an appearance.

     I have been to Marie Curtis Park many, many times over the years, but in recent visits I have tended to stick to the area right at the lake, so it was great to walk some of the trails again.

     The grassland shown above is a rare habitat indeed in the Greater Toronto Area and is no doubt what attracted the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher to the park.
     Eastern Kingbird Tyrannus tyrannus was common, often sallying out to catch insects right above the grass.

     Far and away the most common of the neotropical warblers present locally in the summer is American Yellow Warbler Setophaga aestiva and this is quite a dramatic shot of a female.

          A pair of Song Sparrows Melopsiza melodia were kept busy with the gargantuan task of satisfying the appetite of a Brown-headed Cowbird Molothrus ater surrogate child. 

     In the meantime a Mallard Anas platyrynchos female with an entourage of ducklings was a portrait of domestic tranquility.

     All thrushes in the genus Turdus seem to take an unusual degree of pleasure in bathing, for they immerse themselves in the water, toss it up over their back, thrash their wings vigorously - and go at it for quite a while. This juvenile American Robin Turdus migratorius has discovered this pleasure early in life.

     Another American Robin was sitting tight on the nest; probably incubating a second clutch by this time of the year.

     A female/juvenile Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula was apparently not on duty at all..

     We had all brought lunch and were able to sit outside at a picnic table to enjoy it al fresco, following which we moved on towards Douglas Kennedy Headland at Lakefront Promenade Park. Over many years this has been a reliable breeding area for Red-necked Grebe Podiceps grisegena and since they have lost their inherent wariness due to the constant presence of people, the photographic opportunities are really quite outstanding.

     A pair of Mute Swans Cygnus olor had also made their home in the inner harbour and were tending to a single egg in the nest.

     A female Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus was sitting on the pavement and at first I thought it might be injured, but it was simply resting and flew vigorously when it was ready to do so.

     Perhaps it was taking advantage of a warm surface.
     Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica easily adapt to human activity and three pairs occupied nests in the walkway to the washrooms, a location where noisy human presence is a constant.

     Franc wanted to photograph a Common Tern Sterna hirundo, that ballerina of the skies (or swallow as its scientific name implies), and we went to St. Lawrence Park where this species patrols up and down the waterfront. Not today, however! We did see a couple but they were far out, well beyond the range of Franc's lens.

     Our final destination for the day was Rattray Marsh.

     Recent deluges and violent inshore winds had rendered parts of the trails impassable, but we were able to explore enough to have an enjoyable time there.
     Miriam captured this Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias poking its head up above the reeds.

     Franc immortalized this individual as it flew by, looking for all the world like a vision from a primordial swamp.

     Several Cedar Waxwings Bombycilla cedrorum were seen, generally in small numbers. This species is now well into breeding mode and no doubt many are sitting on eggs.

     A Grey Catbird Dumetella carolinensis perched quietly in the foliage.

     We stayed down by the lake for a while, where lots of activity was taking place. A very pleasant surprise was the presence of three Bonaparte's Gulls Larus philadelphia actively feeding.

     Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis, a gull for which familiarity brings contempt, proved for all who care to cast an unbiased glance, that is indeed among the most handsome of birds.

     There were thousands upon thousands of Double-crested Cormorants Phalacrocorax auritus streaming across Lake Ontario, mostly far out, but a few came in close enough for us to see all the details of their plumage, in full breeding splendour at this time of year.

     It was time to head for home after another very rewarding Tuesday Ramble with David. Who knows what next week's installment will bring?

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Dickcissels (Dickcissels d'Amérique) in Ontario

    Dickcissel Spiza americana is the only member of its genus in the family Cardinalidae. The scientific name translates straightforwardly to American finch.

     This species, resembling a miniature meadowlark, is common to abundant throughout its range across the midsection of North America, where it inhabits native grassland, and readily adapts to agricultural uses, where it voraciously feeds on seeds, much to the chagrin and annoyance of farmers.
     I first saw this species in Ontario about twenty-five years ago in a part of Richmond Hill which has now been totally converted to tract after tract of residential development. At that time a fellow birder located a male and in searching together in the days following his discovery we found a female also, giving at the least the possibility of breeding. We were never able to confirm whether nesting occurred or not.
     At that time a Dickcissel in southern Ontario was a mega-rarity, such that when I ended my term as Chairman of the the Board of a well-known Canadian charity, a picture of the species was painted and presented to me in honour of our rare sighting.

    Since that time, up until the present, I have seen this species only once more in Ontario.
    This is in stark contrast to this year, when Dickcissels seem to be everywhere throughout the Province of Ontario, with multiple sightings, even here in Waterloo.

      Several other species are colonizing Ontario as climate change seems to herald a northward movement in their range, and I wonder whether Dickcissel is the next species to exemplify this trend.
     Franc Gorenc, ever ebullient, wanted to take pictures of what was a new bird for him, and he and Carol, on a very windy day, visited its known location with us. We were not disappointed, seeing two males and a female. The conditions for photography were less than ideal, with very strong winds blowing the birds around as they perched, and constantly blowing grass in front of the lens to distort the focus. Despite this, a persistent Franc managed a couple of shots.

     Having enjoyed seeing this enchanting little bird this year, we are left to wonder whether it will return again in 2018 to cement its status as a breeding bird in Ontario. Perhaps in years to come it will be a standard feature of our grassland ecosystem, taking its place alongside other common residents. It will be very welcome!

Saturday, 24 June 2017

One of our Favourite Summertime Dinners

     Like many people I suspect there are certain meals that we associate with summer, especially when we have those languid evenings on the patio, soaking in warm breezes, entertained by hummingbirds and swallowtails.
     One of these is a chicken pasta salad, which we enjoyed this evening, I highly recommend it; accompanied by a glass of your favourite white it is heavenly!

     Here is the recipe:

Grilled Chicken Pasta Salad

3 boneless skinless chicken breasts (450g/1 lb.)
3 T. vegetable oil
3 T. red wine vinegar
1 T. water
1 T. Dijon mustard
2 green onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp each pepper and granulated sugar
4 cups fusilli pasta
1 each red (or yellow) and green pepper, chopped
3 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
¼ cup red or sweet onion
1/3 cup fresh basil
Grated Romano Pecorino cheese to taste

Place chicken in shallow dish. In small bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar, water, mustard, onions, garlic, salt, pepper and sugar; remove 2 T. and brush over chicken. Let stand for 10 minutes.

Place chicken on greased grill over medium-high heat; close lid and cook, turning once, for 8 to 10 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink inside. Slice diagonally into thin strips.

In large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta for 8 to 10 minutes or until tender but firm. Drain and cool under cold water; drain well. In bowl, combine pasta, chicken, red and green peppers, tomatoes, onion and basil. Toss with remaining dressing. Sprinkle with grated cheese.

Makes 4-6  servings
Bon appétit! 

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Tuesday Rambles with David - Columbia Lake, Waterloo, ON

20 June 2017

     In terms of birding, the dog days of summer are upon us. Most species are breeding, and are silent. Birds are consumed with the struggle to raise a family and tend to keep themselves hidden from view.
     On a dull day, (at least when we set out), five of us (Franc, Carol, Jim, Miriam and I) decided to explore the often productive water and woodland of Columbia Lake, on the Environmental Reserve of the University of Waterloo. This is a splendid location not far from home, where we can spend a pleasant three or four hours and still be home for lunch.
     We parked near the sports fields and looked down upon the southern part of the lake.

     We meandered down to the shore and it was not long before we spotted a Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia zipping over the water, head down, scanning for fish. Several times it plunged and emerged with a captured fish, quickly swallowed in flight.

     Northern Rough-winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx serripennis was frequently seen, especially hawking for insects over the water, but these two seemed to be having a particularly enjoyable day.

     Leaving the shore of the lake we wandered inland a little.

     Miriam had us pose for a group shot.

     Even though I have seen him do it many times, I am still impressed by the way that Franc can swing that heavy camera and lens up in an instant, quickly focus on his target, and get great pictures. A male Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula, was seen but briefly and a female not much longer, but Franc managed these two impressive shots.

     I don't know whether it has anything to do with his grip on his camera, but Franc has a bone-crushing handshake. How sweet it would be if only he could grasp the hand of Donald Trump and crush his tiny fingers! Franc would put even Emmanuel Macron to shame!
     How many Cedar Waxwings Bombycilla cedrorum have I seen? Certainly well into the thousands but it never, ever gets to be old hat. I think it must be like hearing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - every time there is something else to be learned, a nuance previously unnoticed. So it is with Cedar Waxwing; its perfection strikes you as never before and the beauty is undiminished.

     A male House Finch Haemorhous mexicanus is pretty pleasing to the eye too, and its burbling, cheerful song is a joy to hear.

     Every little patch of habitat, every tree, every riffle in a stream harbours its own secrets.

     A Song Sparrow Melopsiza melodia is content to sit quietly and watch the world go by for a while.

     Of course, birds are not the only taxon to be studied and this fearsome-looking insect was both impressive and interesting. Even Franc's handshake would be a poor defence against that stinger!

     Several species of butterfly were observed but few alighted. A Monarch Danaus plexippus with ragged wings was more cooperative than most.

     Grey Catbird Dumetella carolinensis is a common species, often alerting us to its presence by its jumbled song with its characteristic cat's miaow at the end of it.

     My sister-in-law, Grace, remembers Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea with great fondness from her childhood, where it could be seen and heard in the tree around the home farm. She would have been thrilled to have been with us to see at least three males in all their nuptial glory.

     It seems to me that getting a good shot of a bird that appears all black (although they never are) is especially difficult and I think that all will agree that Franc has done a superlative job with this American Crow Corvus brachyrynchos. 

     We had debated whether we should walk all the way to the end of the main trail, because the woodland there is sometimes particularly bothersome with mosquitoes, but we decided to do so and were rewarded with a pair of Downy Woodepeckers Dryobates pubescens feeding an offspring.

     Black-capped Chickadee Poecile atricapillus was common throughout.

     Dragonflies and damselflies are quite abundant by this time of the year; Ebony Jewelwing Calopteryx maculata, probably capturing first place, both female.........

     ........and male.

     A Warbling Vireo Vireo gilvus was not doing too much warbling!

     Several families of Mallard Anas platyrynchos were observed in various stages of development; these youngsters are now almost as big as their mother.

     A Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus passed overhead and none of us could really figure out what it was carrying. From certain angles it appeared to be a rodent, but knowing that this species feeds almost exclusively on fish, that didn't seem to ring true. As the picture clearly shows it is nothing but an addition of material to its nest.

     We came across at least one, but more likely two Spotted Sandpipers Actitis macularius with young. Since Spotted Sandpiper is a polyandrous species, the adult birds we saw would have been males, tasked with the duty of taking care of the young in the first stages of their life.

     In the same area a Northern Leopard Frog Lithobates pipiens did its best to remain camouflaged - not entirely successfully we concluded.

     By the time we left Columbia Lake the sun had broken through and it was warm and pleasant. You truly do not have to stray far from home in this area to immerse yourself in nature. Thanks for dropping by and stay tuned to see what discoveries we make next week.

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.