Tuesday, 21 November 2017

White-throated Dipper (Cincle plongeur)

     Whenever one speaks to a bird enthusiast who has never seen a dipper, it is high on their wish list to do so. There is something uniquely captivating about dippers and their aquatic lifestyle.
     On our recent trip to Europe Miriam and I were the only members of our group who had ever seen a dipper and we are fortunate to have seen four of the world's five species.
     A discussion about which species is the most attractive is obviously subjective in so many ways, but I think it is safe to say that White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) would occupy a spot in the top two, the other being the Rufous-throated Dipper (Cinclus schulzi), the rarest of all dippers, with a very limited South American range.
     There was ample suitable habitat in the rapidly flowing mountain streams of the Julian Alps and we set out on a quest to find this enigmatic species.

     Dippers are totally wedded to water and know no other habitat. Even when they fly it is always low over the surface of the water and never over land.

     When they perch on rocks in a stream waiting to enter the water to forage, they bounce up and down as though their legs were little springs (dipping).

     They sometimes feed by plunging their head into the rapids searching for typical food such as mayflies and caddis flies and their larvae.

     Much of a White-throated Dipper's time is spent foraging, but sometimes it rests between bouts of feeding.

     A great deal of feeding is done by swimming down to the bottom of the stream, using powerful wing movements. The bird retains its body heat by enveloping itself in a film of small air bubbles; its feathers are also very robust and highly waterproof. Upon total immersion the dipper's heart rate drops; dipper blood has a high concentration of haemoglobin and hence a greater capacity to store oxygen compared with the blood of terrestrial birds.
     Here is a photographic sequence of a bird emerging from a bout of feeding and flying up out of the water.

     We had but this one encounter with a dipper, but it was for an extended period of time, and I can safely say it was one of the significant highlights for every member of our group.
     Thanks to Franc Gorenc for his excellent photography.

Friday, 17 November 2017

American Red Squirrel (Écureuil roux)

     The American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) is a delightful little creature, full of charm and personality.

     This individual was feeding on the last few keys left on the Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) in our backyard, and was scampering from one part of the tree to another, sometimes moving at lightening speed.

    This species does not enter into true hibernation and may often be seen in the winter, in temperatures as low as minus 25°, on a sunny day. It is strictly diurnal and is most active during the most comfortable hours of the day, morning and afternoon in summer and midday in winter.
     Although it garners seeds for storage underground this individual seemed content to make a meal of what was left on the tree.

     American Red Squirrels share their habitat with larger Grey Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) but are quite fearless and readily rout them if they dare to trespass. Red Squirrels are so often seen chasing Grey Squirrels it gave way to the myth that the Red Squirrel castrates its larger cousin!
     Squirrels are a nuisance for anyone feeding birds, but this little charmer is far less of a problem that Grey or Black Squirrels. It is never seen to be as voracious and seldom cleans out a feeder.
     I have always enjoyed this description of American Red Squirrel by the American zoologist, Clinton Merriam.

The Chickaree combines qualities so wholly at variance, so unique, so incomprehensible, and so characteristic withal, that one scarcely knows in what light to regard him. His inquisitiveness, audacity, inordinate assurance, and exasperating insolence, together with his insatiable love of mischief and shameless disregard of all the ordinary customs and civilities of life, would lead one to suppose that he was little entitled to respect; and yet his intelligence, his untiring perseverance, and genuine industry, the cunning cleverness displayed in many of his actions and the irresistible humour with which he does everything command for him a certain degree of admiration. He is arrogant, impetuous, and conceited to an extreme degree, his confidence in his own superior capabilities not infrequently costing him his life. In fact, these contradictions in character and idiosyncrasies in disposition render him a psychological problem of no easy solution.

         I think that most of us would echo its sentiments!

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

A Day Out with the Ladies

12 November 2017

     Our stalwart helpers at our SpruceHaven banding operation, Heather, Daina and Debbie, indicated an interest in joining me for a day's birding. Today worked for everyone so we embarked on a quest for waterfowl - and any other species we could find.

Debbie Hernandez, Daina Anderson, Heather Polan

     Heather and Daina have had considerable exposure to waterfowl; Debbie much less so, and it was my aim to refine the identification skills of Heather and Daina a little, and begin the educational process for Debbie.
    The temperature was relatively mild and as November days in Ontario go, it was quite pleasant.
     We started our day at the DesJardins Canal in Dundas, a location which Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) seem to find particularly appealing, and large numbers can be found there as long as there is open water.

     There was not a whole lot else on the water, except for the predictable large numbers of Mallard (Anas platyrynchos), Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and, surprisingly, a couple of juvenile Black-crowned Night Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax) still braving the cold. A few juvenile Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) were also still present, and some members of this species routinely spend a good part of the winter there. This always strikes me as odd in a species that needs to dry its wings after pursuing fish underwater, but they seem to accomplish this operation despite the freezing temperatures.

All species at DesJardins Canal: Canada Goose, Mallard, Hooded Merganser, Black-crowned Night Heron, Double-crested Cormorant, Ring-billed Gull, Carolina Wren (Heard only by Heather), House Sparrow. 

     We moved over to LaSalle Park and Marina in Burlington, our principal destination for the day, where we were amused to see the male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) observed there a couple of weeks ago, in ardent pursuit of what appears to be a female Mallard/American Black Duck (Anas rubipres) hybrid. This little duck, half the size of the object of his affections, provided a textbook demonstration of mate guarding, and fearlessly drove off any male Mallard that had the audacity to come near.

     The sheer number of ducks, geese and swans was not great, but there was a pleasing variety of species, allowing for many inter specific comparisons, identification of males and females and the opportunity to observe feeding strategies.
     Heather tried her best to gain entry into the world of the Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator), but she was treated with nothing but disdain.

     Greater Scaup (Aytha marila) was seen in great numbers, generally far off, but a few individuals were obliging enough to come in close, prompting a discussion of the ways to identify Greater Scaup from the very similar Lesser Scaup (Aytha affinis).

     There were many Red-breasted Mergansers (Mergus serrator) on the water, all females.

     Both Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata) and White-winged Scoter (Malanitta deglandi) have begun to assume their annual residency on Lake Ontario. A few White-winged Scoters came in close enough for a photograph.

     Just a few weeks ago I was looking at Eurasian Wigeon (Anas penelope) in Slovenia and Croatia and was given to pondering the difference a nine-hour flight can make as I gazed at American Wigeon (Anas americana) in Ontario!

     Surely one of the most under-appreciated ducks of all is Gadwall (Anas strepera) but I am always struck by its subtle, understated beauty, and more than once I have mused about the beautiful quilt that Miriam could fashion by combining all those shades of brown and beige. Perhaps she might even add a jaunty accent of black - just like the duck.

     A walk along the woodland trail was very pleasant but did not turn up anything of note.

All species at LaSalle Park and Marina: Canada Goose, Trumpeter Swan, Wood Duck, Gadwall, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Mallard, Greater Scaup, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Ruddy Duck, Horned Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, American Coot, Bonaparte’s Gull, Ring-billed Gull, American Herring Gull, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, House Sparrow, Northern Cardinal.

     Our final destination of the day was Paletta Park, which was quiet, but we did see our only Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) of the day.

     Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) was also present, a familiar bird that often merits barely a passing glance, but it is indeed a creature of great beauty.

All species at Paletta Park: Canada Goose, Greater Scaup, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Ring-billed Gull, Mourning Dove, Blue Jay, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, House Finch, Dark-eyed Junco.

     It was a very pleasant day indeed and it was a delight to spend time in the company of Heather, Daina and Debbie. I hope we can do it again.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Book Review - The Quotable Darwin - Princeton University Press

          Perhaps no figure in history has been more controversial or more seminally important than Charles Darwin. This legendary naturalist overturned all conventional thought as to the very beginnings of life itself and, heretically at the time, postulated that even Homo sapiens was derived from natural events and not by divine creation. He was a brave man indeed to advance such ideas in the nineteenth century!
       In a stroke of irony, another naturalist who has left his brand on modern science, Alfred Russell Wallace, was contemporaneously coming to the same conclusions as Darwin.
       I have a well worn copy of On the Origin of Species (1859) on my book shelf, as well as The Voyage of the Beagle (1845), The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Darwin has been important to me for most of my adult life and many is the time I have turned to his works for foundational ideas and thematic progression.
       The Quotable Darwin is the work of Janet Browne, arguably the foremost scholar extant of Charles Darwin. It enables the reader to instantly focus in on Darwin the man, Darwin the young explorer, Darwin the husband, Darwin the father, Darwin the scientist, Darwin the revolutionary - all the various facets of the life of this great man. Darwin was notably shy and did not seek publicity and a chapter is devoted to other people's impressions of him, as he was already being recognized (or reviled) by some as one of the foremost thinkers in the history of humankind.
       In order to test the usefulness of the book I thought of certain aspects of Darwin's work where I might profit from looking at the original text, and without exception I found material that exactly fit the bill, saving me the time and effort to find it, being uncertain exactly where to look.

       This book is being published at a very apropos time in the 21st Century, where in some countries there is a resurgence of creationist theory and a denial of science. It can only be hoped that this book will help people to steer the right course as they reexamine the most important concepts that have shaped our very understanding of life on Planet Earth.

Publication date: 15 November 2017 
Price: US$24.95; £19.94

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Tuesday Rambles with David - The Mill Race, St. Jacobs, ON

07 November 2017

We have probed the earth, excavated it, burned it, ripped things from it, buried things in it, chopped down its forests, levelled its hills, muddied its waters, and dirtied its air. That does not fit my definition of a good tenant. If we were here on a month-to-month basis, we would have been evicted long ago.

-Rose Bird, Chief Justice of California Supreme Court (2 Nov 1936-1999) 

     Franc and Carol are still away in Europe (I think they return tomorrow), Judy was otherwise occupied, so it looked as though we would be only five of the regular group of eight, this morning, but at the last minute something came up that Jim and Francine had to take care of, so Miriam and I were joined only by the indefatigable and ever entertaining, Mary. 
     A leisurely stroll along the Mill Race, where the last vestiges of Autumn bedeck the landscape, seemed just what the bird doctor ordered.

     It was a pleasant 2.5° when we set off, with sun poking through every now and then. The sheer number of birds was quite amazing, especially common species like White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis).

       Some kind individual makes it a practice to set out sunflower seeds for the birds, as you can see in the above pictures. He/she does this the entire length of the trail and the birds respond accordingly. 
     Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) are wonderfully handsome little birds at this time of year, and they perhaps more than all other passerines have no hesitation in associating with humans.

     I had intended to bring sunflower seeds with me, but forgot, nevertheless I didn't feel guilty holding out my hand since so much seed had been deposited for them. I will rectify my error next time I go to the Mill Race!

     Downy Woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) were also as common as I have ever seen them, with sometimes at least four individuals present at the same time. A conservative count would be at least twenty individuals as we walked the length and breadth of the trail.

     Contrasted with this we saw but one Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinensis).

     Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) were kept busy gathering seeds and nuts for their winter storage, and they took advantage of sunflower seeds strewn around by the birds.

     Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) was also commonly seen and heard.

     The prize for the "bird of the day" goes to Mary whose sharp eyes picked out this Rusty Blackbird (Eupagus carolinus). I am sure that most of its conspecifics have already migrated.

     Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus) is an invasive species that crowds out native trees, but its berries are relished by many birds.

     I don't believe that Wild Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) provides food for anything. This species is also called Bur Cucumber or Prickly Cucumber - which is a really good reason to familiarize yourself with the scientific name.

     Numerous pairs of Mallards (Anas platyrynchos) plied their way up and down the Mill Race.

     And this individual appears to be a Mallard/Black Duck (Anas rubipres) cross.

    At the end of our walk Mary pointed out that Miriam and I, especially Miriam, are generally behind the camera and that she should take a picture of the two of us together. Here is the result.

     It was great morning out together - pleasant weather, scintillating company, wonderful wildlife. What more could anyone ask for?

All species seen: Mallard, Mallard/Black Duck intergrade, Ring-billed Gull, American Herring Gull, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Golden-crowned Kinglet, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, House Sparrow, American Goldfinch, Rusty Blackbird, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, American Tree Sparrow, Northern Cardinal - Total: 18 full species and one Mallard/American Black Duck cross.

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.