Sunday, 29 January 2017

Where would you go birding today?

     The United States under Donald Trump gets more dystopian every day and just when you think that one round of hyperbolic excess and outright lies is as bad as it can gets, along comes another to prove you dead wrong. The trends in that country are truly disturbing and have ramifications for the entire world. 
     At a point in my life I came to the conclusion that I no longer wished to enter the United States and my reasons at the time are given here. It seems to me that they were reasons enough but other factors would now have to be taken into consideration.
     I have a friend in Southern California (I have birded there on three separate occasions) who is constantly faced with the presence (and sometimes hassles) of the border patrol.Witness an actual incident. She was birding and shooting pictures in the Tijuana Valley from her car and she made a safe u-turn in the middle of nowhere between the famed birding spot, Dairy Mart Ponds and the Bird and Butterfly Garden - not on the border mind you, but close, moving around freely as the constitution of her country allows her to do. She was surrounded by border patrol agents, little twenty-two year olds on three wheelers and told to pull over. They asked her what she was doing. She asked them if she broke the law. They told her she was acting suspiciously. She told them she lived nearby and had turned to photograph a magnificent female dark morph Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis and a Coyote Canis latrans disputing the same dead rabbit on the road.


     She was let go, of course, but she is convinced that it is only because she is white, blond, sixty-two years old and when they ran the check on her licence plate she had no criminal record or outstanding warrants. She says that when confronted she immediately speaks up with humour to try to diffuse the situation, but she cannot imagine that kind of interaction taking place with a young male with a dark skin, a hispanic or middle eastern name, an African American. I know birders here in Canada who would fit all of those descriptions.She admits to living in a police state there, so close to the border. She says that the encounters (plural) are tedious and frightening.
     Even before this latest ban on travel for people from certain countries, I know a Canadian businessman who was born in Iraq, but has lived here since he was nineteen; he is now in his sixties. Several years ago he stopped going to the US because of the hassles he faced at the airports when his Canadian passport revealed a birthplace in Iraq. Twice he was denied entry and sent back to Canada. He once did a good business with US companies, but that is all a thing of the past. Part of his contract was that he would supervise installation and train people in various functions. He was sued by one company (the suit failed) because he didn't fulfill this commitment, despite the fact that he was on his way to do it when he was refused entry and returned to Canada when he tried to get a connecting flight at his initial point of entry into the United States. This honest, trustworthy, forthright fellow committed no crime, he simply was born in the wrong place.and has a stereotypical middle-eastern name.
     In the San Diego area there are border fences both on land and extending out into the ocean.



     A great place to bird was the Tijuana Slough. The last time we were there it was almost impossible due to the constant presence of border patrol helicopters. Their rotors flattened the marshes and the noise they made meant that we could not hear each other speak, let alone detect bird song.
     Border Field State Park, another desirable birding spot, with several endangered species breeding there, is now overrun (my terminology) with border agents. People with binoculars and telescopes are not viewed benignly. It is the same at Otay Mesa on the border with Mexico.
     My friend contends that civil liberties were already being eroded before 9/11, but after that everything changed for the worse. She cannot even contemplate how draconian it will be under Trump, or what will happen (or has happened) to the wonderful birding borderlands of Arizona and Texas. Based on personal experience I can vouch that these locations were fabulous.
     How ironic it is that Ronald Reagan worked so hard to have the Berlin Wall dismantled and now the United States is building its own. Jews for so many centuries were forced to live in ghettos in Europe, now Israel has a border fence and has created its own ghetto. When countries in Central Europe sent their "tired and huddled masses" to the United States, it was salutary and laudable. Now that Syrian refugees are escaping the incredible carnage in their homeland, these same nations are erecting barriers to keep them out. 
    When I go birding I want to be able to travel freely, to move around at will, to not fear using my binoculars or telescope, to not be fearful of being detained without reason, to take whatever photographs I choose - to simply enjoy the moment.
     Where would you go birding today?

Monday, 23 January 2017

A Foggy, Foggy Day

22 January 2017

     It was a bit of a spur of the moment decision for Miriam and me to go down to Lake Ontario to check out its bird life. As we left it was a little foggy, and the farther we drove the foggier it got, and at some point we could not have been faulted had we turned around and returned home. But we hung in and were glad that we did, for although the weather was far from perfect, with not a ray of sunshine the whole day, we had a very enjoyable day of birding.
     It was impossible to photograph most species due to the poor light, especially small passerines, so this post relies heavily on waterbirds of one kind or another.
     Our first stop was at the DesJardins Canal in Dundas, ON where we were surprised to see four Double-crested Cormorants Phalacrocorax auritus. Given that cormorants do not have waterproof feathers and have to dry them after each feeding session underwater, a day with air so heavily moisture-laden must present difficulties for this species.


     Gulls, of course, have no such problems and there were many Ring-billed Gulls Larus delawarensis and several American Herring Gulls Larus smithsonianus, impervious to the gloom and murk of this unseasonably warm January. The following individual maintained its position as we walked by permitting a fairly decent picture under the circumstances.


     We left the DesJardins Canal and made for LaSalle Park and Marina, our principal destination for the day, where a wide variety of species is pretty much assured. Upon arrival, we stayed in the car for a while to eat our lunch, and a large raft of Greater Scaup Aytha marila swam into the small boat launch area in front of us. To capture some of our pictures we merely had to put the car window down.

Greater Scaup - male


Greater Scaup - female
     They were feeding on the endless supply of Zebra Mussels Dreissena polymorpha and were joined by a few Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula who wasted no time in joining in the feast.



Common Goldeneye - male
Common Goldeneye - female

     White-winged Scoters Melanitta fusca were also present but tended to stay out in the bay.




     It was interesting to say the least to see the incredible amount of work the American Beavers Castor canadensis had been doing. Many of the trees that still remain along the shore have now been encased in a metal mesh to prevent further loss.



     American Black Duck Anas rubipres can usually be located at LaSalle and true to form we observed several of them.


     Many Redheads Aytha americana were present but far offshore, but these two Canvasbacks Athya valsineria were snoozing close to shore.


     The only Common Merganser Mergus merganser we saw was this female.


      The surprise of the day, and a singular delight to be sure, was to spot a Great Northern Loon Gavia immer, quite far off and enveloped in mist and spray, but identifiable by its distinctive shape and posture, and by the characteristic fashion in which it launches into its dive.


     By now, Miriam was eagerly looking forward to a hot coffee so we drove into Burlington to get one. Right across from the Tim Horton's Restaurant where we got our coffee a stretch of the Waterfront Trail goes through town and we parked and explored a little. This was a new location for us and we were very happy that we decided to check it out.
     The first thing to greet us was a large raft of Ruddy Ducks Oxyura jamaicensis , numbering at least a hundred birds.



     A few Surf Scoters Melanitta perspicillata were diving for food among the far more numerous White-winged Scoters.


     We had not seen a Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis at all at LaSalle and were very happy to have many close at hand in the water close to the trail. In a family of birds noted for stunning plumage, this species is surely one of the most attractive, and to hear a group of them chattering to each other is magical indeed.



     Our parking ticket was about to expire and we left for home feeling well satisfied with an excellent day of birding. I guess the moral of the story is "Never let the weather put you off!"

Friday, 20 January 2017

Long Point, ON

19 January 2017

     Earlier in the week Miriam and I had decided that we would spend the day at Long Point in Norfolk County, ON and invited our good friend Judy Wyatt to come along with us.
     The day was overcast and dull, the air impregnated with moisture as we set off, but Judy checked the weather forecast on her Smartphone and assured us that we would start to see some sun by ten o'clock. All we can say is, it's a good thing Judy was a doctor before retiring and not a meteorologist! Wherever the sun shone that day it was not on us!
     The weather did not prevent us, however, from enjoying a fine range of birds, to say nothing of each other's companionship.
     Just before coming into Port Rowan we saw our first Sandhill Cranes Grus canadensis, off in the mist, feeding in groups in a farmer's field, with others flying in to join them, bugling as they circled overhead, a sound that betokens the wilderness more than almost any other for me. It is spine tingling in its evocativeness.



     Upon arrival in Port Rowan we went down to the harbour to check what might be there.


     Lake Erie is renowned for its catch of Yellow Perch Perca flavescens and these are some of the businesses that are involved with this industry seen from the back and front .





     We were delighted to see a large flock of Tundra Swans Cygnus columbianus feeding in the patches of open water between the ice. It is unusual to see this species here in mid-winter and one can only assume that the unseasonably mild temperatures have induced them to delay their departure farther south.



     On the way along the causeway, with Lake Erie on one side of us and extensive marshes on the other, we spotted this juvenile Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus feeding on a fish on the ice. Whether it had caught the fish or was scavenging we were unable to determine.



     It certainly is encouraging to note that Bald Eagles have recovered from the very low population levels experienced during the era of organochlorine pesticide abuse and that they are no longer victims of senseless human persecution. It is always exciting to see a Bald Eagle, but no longer unusual.
     The Old Cut woodlot is adjacent to the bird banding station operated by the Long Point Bird Observatory during migration, and it is incredible at times the diversity that one can find in this small area.



     The lichens on some of the trees were a sight to behold.


     We meandered through the woodlot, not finding a great deal, and returned to the banding station where well-stocked bird feeders were a magnet for numerous species.
     Judy and Miriam were dressed to cope with the cool, damp weather. The air temperature was 1°, so not especially cold, but the dampness in the air imparted a real chill.


     Several different species presented themselves at the feeders, but not all were ready to pose for a portrait. This White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis would dart out from cover for the briefest of moments to snag a morsel and quickly retreat back.



     There were lots of Northern Cardinals Cardinalis cardinalis, many of them banded, and they were not hard to capture in all their splendour.


Male

Female
     A few House Finches Haemorhous mexicanus joined the feeding party and this male was especially handsome.


     The star of the show for us was a Tufted Titmouse Baelophus bicolor, relatively unusual here, that zoomed on and off the feeder, for just a second or two and was difficult to photograph, but Miriam persevered and finally got a couple of acceptable images. She spent so long in a fixed position that she went back to the car for a few minutes to warm up.



     Three species of woodpecker presented themselves, with this Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus winning the beauty pageant.



     The biggest surprise in terms of woodpeckers was a species we did not even see. We noted a distinctly different cadence in the drumming we were hearing and Judy immediately called it a sapsucker. Upon listening to a recording on her Smartphone we all three concurred that was exactly what we had heard. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Sphyrapicus varius is very unusual in the winter. 
     When we left Old Cut we headed out to Lakeshore Road where we were treated to an astounding number of Sandhill Cranes. They seemed to be in every field of corn stubble, with some birds close by and large concentrations off in the distance. We were all thrilled with this close encounter with the aristocracy of the avian world. They looked so splendid and regal, creatures from a higher plane.







     I am always dismayed by the amount of roadkill I see, not so much in the winter, but in spring and fall especially. This Virginia Opossum Didelphis virginia met its fate this way.



     We decided to try our luck at Turkey Point before finally heading for home, but we found nothing there except for a large flock of Canada Geese Branta canadensis.
     A great outing together had come to an end; we'll have to be sure to do it again.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Verdin (Auripare verdin)

          When my great friends Franc and Carol Gorenc were preparing for their trip to Arizona, I spent a few hours with them to help them plot their destinations, and offer advice on where to find some of the signature birds of the southwestern desert.
          I remember we talked about Verdin Auriparus flaviceps quite a bit. It is one of my favourite birds when I visit that area and one that I eagerly search for. It is the only  member of the Penduline Tit family (Remizidae) found in North America and assumes a certain cachet by that fact alone.
          It is also a singularly attractive little bird as you may judge from the pictures below, which Franc sent me a couple of days ago.





          It is often found singly, sometimes in pairs and occasionally in flocks. In some of the literature I have examined it is categorized as conspicuous, but I am bound to say that I have never found this to be so. This passage from Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches & Treecreepers (Simon Harrap and David Quinn) more closely aligns with my experience of this species: Shy and retiring during the breeding season until the eggs hatch and, although more approachable at other times, may be elusive in thick habitats and more often seen than heard. Franc has done well to capture bird in the open and the photograph is quite superb.
          Verdin builds a large, enclosed nest, well protected by thorny shrub.



          One could make the case for many species to be considered emblematic of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, but Verdin and Cactus Wren Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus are high on the list for me.
          Thanks to Franc for reminding me of this very special little bird.