Friday, 24 March 2017

Book Review - Raptors of Mexico and Central America - Princeton University Press

     I have always appreciated both the field skills and published works of Bill Clark, so when I was made aware that a new work Raptors of Mexico and Central America had gone to press, I anxiously awaited its publication, and was delighted when asked to review it.
     Having travelled through Central America on several occasions I am well aware of the difficulty of identifying raptors not seen on a regular basis, especially birds in flight. This volume really makes the job easier, providing a wealth of information to help the itinerant birder and resident ornithologist alike.

     The colour plates by John Schmitt are nothing less than superb and truly capture the jizz of the birds depicted. I can well imagine the discussions that might have taken place between Clark and Schmitt as they refined and perfected these illustrations. Often pictures in a field guide are flat and lifeless; in this case they portray the vitality and fluidity of the birds.

     Instead of following a pedantic taxonomic structure, birds with similar features, lifestyles and habitats are shown together, making for ready comparison of species that could easily be confused one with the other. In the pages shown above all of the Peregrine Falcon subspecies found in the area are illustrated with explanatory notes for each one. To compress this into a single page, without losing any clarity is a tour de force and one of the features that makes the book so enjoyable. 
     That most variable of raptors, the Red-tailed Hawk, is similarly depicted in all its colour variants, with adult and juvenile plumages illustrated..

     But not only are there superlative illustrations, photographs accompany the detailed text for each species covered.

     And the text really is comprehensive with the following coverage for each species: Identification Summary; Taxonomy and Geographic Variation; Similar Species; Status and Distribution; Habitat; Behaviour; Moult, Description; Unusual Plumages; Hybrids; Etymology; References. The combination of the illustrations, the photographs and the text provide a complete picture - and all in a book portable enough to be taken into the field.
     The range maps are nicely done and there is a section dedicated to helpful facts for raptor field identification.The glossary is very detailed indeed and covers all the terminology associated with raptors.
     In the interests of balanced coverage I tried to find shortcomings, but without success. This is a work that comes as close to perfection as you can get. It combines the expertise of one of the world's leading raptor experts and an artist sans pareil.
     At US$39.95 or £32.95 it is very reasonably priced and merits a place on every birdophile's shelf - but don't just leave it there, take it with you in the field to make your task of identifying raptors so much easier.
     This is a work you will cherish for years to come.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Canadian National Wildfowl Carving Championship

19 March 2017

     Miriam and I were very happy to attend the above event again this year, where we could marvel at the truly outstanding work done by these carvers. Their output is art in every sense of the word and merits the serious attention of collectors. 
     We were very happy for Tom Weiler, a member of a local club, who had submitted three items and won a ribbon, or honourable mention, for all three, I joked to Tom that I would have to exhibit them in my home to really appreciate their beauty and he rejoined that there were times when he was carving and painting them he would gladly have given them to me!

      Congratulations Tom on a job well done and the appreciation it garnered, not only from the judges but from the discerning public who came to the show.
       As was the case last year, I was stunned by the lack of attention to the basic requirements of spelling. Surely in a NATIONAL championship it is not unreasonable to expect that someone would proof read the cards to ensure that the names of the birds are spelled correctly. To the right of Tom's Belted Kingfisher above you see the card saying Red Headed Woodpecker and not Red-headed Woodpecker. The difference is profound and the incorrect nomenclature effectively changes the bird to a different and non-existent species.
      A wide variety of waterfowl was on display, beautifully rendered to be sure.


       Here are two admirable carvings of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a Red-winged Blackbird.

     Again, both names are spelled incorrectly. I might ask rhetorically if no one checks anything, but the answer is obviously no.
    The Chipping Sparrow below is a gorgeous rendition of this familiar species and here the spelling is just plain sloppy (Spparow instead of Sparrow). It is not even a misrepresentation of the bird's name.

     It truly is a shame that Linda would not check her card a little more closely, or perhaps she has no influence over it.
     This Baltimore Oriole had us all filled with appreciation. Every component has to be carved and we wondered at the fine detail of the leaves and speculated as to how many might have been broken before perfection was achieved.

     A Cuban Tody brought back memories for us of this gorgeous little bird seen so frequently on our last two visits to Cuba.

     A Grey Catbird always delights us and we are looking forward to its return. And we will be sure to spell its name correctly whenever we refer to it. It is a Grey Catbird and not simply Catbird.

     Furthermore, the artist is designated as being from Dartmouth, Nova instead of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Is it really so hard to get the right information on these tags?
     A Blue Jay, a familiar species to us all, was rendered beautifully.

     How about this Golden-crowned Kinglet? Captured to a tee don't you think?

     Once again the named is misspelled. A Golden Crowned Kinglet would be quite a different bird from a Golden-crowned Kinglet.
      This Gyrfalcon was so lifelike, you almost expected it to move when viewed from certain angles.

     The same could be said of this Peregrine Falcon.

     My good friend, Bill Wilson, a distinguished birder and a carver of great merit exhibited an American Three-toed Woodpecker. This species is well known for its proclivity to forage 

in freshly burned areas and I think that Bill has captured this behaviour wonderfully.
     This show represents an amazing opportunity for carvers to enter their works into competition and to have the general public appreciate their fine work. It is too bad that the peripheral aspects of it lend this Mickey Mouse quality to it.
     I bet that the next time you visit the Louvre you won't see signs directing you to the Mona Liza, or a visit to the McMichael Gallery won't reveal the works of the Group of Sevven, or urge you to examine a canvas by A.Y. Jackksn. 
     If anyone reading this wishes to take me up on this, I would happy to proof read the cards next year before they are printed. It can only benefit the show and the dedicated artists who put so much effort into it.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Waterloo Region Nature Outing to the North Shore of Lake Ontario

18 March 2017

Leader: David M. Gascoigne

Club members participating: Miriam Bauman, Scott Beemer, Alice Buehrle, Roland Buehrle, Anne Godlewski, Nathanael Harper, Denise Leschak, Greg Michelenko, Sandra Moores, Jen Oakum, Janet Ozaruk, Judy Wyatt.

Guest: Stephen West

     Every year, sometime during the second half of March, I lead a WRN outing to check out the bird life along the north shore of Lake Ontario.
     The weather is extremely variable at this time of the year, and today's outing was characterized by foul or fouler! However, hardy Canadians that we are, we did not permit the adverse conditions to deter us and we ventured forth in good spirits, looking forward to an agreeable excursion into nature. Miriam had agreed to act as the official photographer for the day allowing me the freedom to concentrate on the group, help them locate species and answer their questions.
     I decided that we would detour first to the Desjardins Canal in Dundas, where Hooded Mergansers Lophodytes cucullatus are virtually a certainty, with far less likelihood of encountering this species at other planned stops. Here is the scene that greeted us when we parked at the canal.

     The temperature hovered right around zero with wet, heavy snow. 
     Our group quickly coalesced and we set out to see what we could find.

     We had barely taken a few steps when a male Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens announced his presence as he hammered away on the trunk of a tree.

     Anyone who felt even mildly disconsolate about the weather was immediately put in a better frame of mind. A cheery woodpecker will do it every time!
     It was not long before we found our target - Hooded Merganser - but the conditions were such that it was impossible to get a decent picture.

     This Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis seemed unbothered by it all.

     On the way down to Dundas we had seen a few vehicles that had slid off the road, obviously driving too fast for the conditions; we took it easy, had no difficulty staying together and had no problems. One pick up truck had driven straight off the road and since there were no skid marks or indications of fishtailing we assumed that the driver had not been paying sufficient attention (texting perhaps) and had simply driven off the road.
     On our way back from the canal to rejoin the highway, a tow truck had been requisitioned to pull the vehicle back onto the road. A police car was stationed right at the top of a small hill, lights flashing, but not angled in any way to block the road, and with no officer visible. I, followed by Roland, drove around the cruiser and proceeded very slowly down the hill. A cop then jumped out of the vehicle and came running after us to tell us to turn around and go back. He was, to say the least, less than polite, but we were sufficiently humble and apologetic and there were no further consequences, other than the group getting separated.
     Why the officer had been sitting in his cruiser rather than being outside it directing traffic, or why he had not blocked off the road farther away from the incident, was a question none of us could answer.
     None the worse for the delay, we all met up again at LaSalle Park and Marina in Burlington.
     LaSalle, as always, presented us with a smorgasbord of waterfowl, close enough that despite the gloom we could see them well. There were many Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula and a little flotilla meandered by as though to congratulate us for braving the weather.

     To the right of the goldeneyes you can see a female Greater Scaup Aythya marila and this male was not far away.

     Several members of the group were not especially familiar with waterfowl and were happy to have the opportunity to compare Mute Swan Cygnus olor, a non native species with Trumpeter Swan Cygnus buccinator, the dean of North American Swans. 
     It is not hard to understand why the Mute Swan in Britain is considered a royal bird. It looks regal as it swims by with its wings in heraldic position, graceful and dignified.

     Trumpeter Swan is all business by comparison. Here is an individual loafing on the boat slip with the ubiquitous Mallards Anas platyrynchos.

     Judy Wyatt made the very apt observation that there are probably few places where you can walk among the swans and be surrounded by them, an experience to warm the heart of any bird lover.
      Many people have commented to me personally and via my blog that the large yellow tags are "obscene" and while I admit that they are not the prettiest ways to mark the birds, I am assured that it is the most effective way for the birds to be identified at a distance, and to alert less than scrupulous hunters that they should not be shooting this bird.
     Many Long-tailed Ducks Clangula hyemalis were present, always a favourite with waterfowl enthusiasts.

     Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator was also quite common with many pair bonds apparently having been struck.

     I was there to explain the field marks of the birds and other salient facts, but there was always time to check the field guide too and prepare oneself for the next venture. Here is Janet studying intently.

     As I have mentioned in previous posts American Black Duck Anas rubipres interbreeds extensively with Mallard, but LaSalle is one place where one can usually find pure Black Ducks.

     This odd looking Mallard was present and I believe it is a partially leucistic female. It could be a "barnyard" species I suppose, but that categorization didn't seem right to me.

     A woman was sitting by the water's edge with a long lens on her camera bemoaning the fact that she had not seen a Wood Duck Aix sponsa. In the blink of an eye one of our group said to her, "Like that one there," pointing to a stunning male no more than three metres from where the photographer was sitting.

     The following shot of the Wood Duck with a Ring-billed Gull clearly illustrates what a tiny duck this is.

     A walk along the woodland trail was not especially productive, although we did get fleeting glimpses of Carolina WrenThryothorus ludovicianus.

       Gadwall Anas strepera, that most understated of ducks, was pleasantly close and easily visible from the shore.

     Far out across the bay a Great Northern Loon Gavia immer could be seen. We saw a loon out there in January so I suspect the same bird has spent the winter here.

     As we made our way back along the trail we noticed the Wood Duck preening - and who can resist one more picture of such a Jim Dandy?

     For me, the highlight of the day was about to occur. I noticed Bev Kingdon (the Angel of the Swans) there and went to say hi, and she informed me that Harry Lumsden was in her car. Harry is truly one of the great figures in Ontario Ornithology (see previous commentary here) and I could not wait to introduce everyone to him. He is still robust, vigorous and commands everyone's attention at the age of ninety-four. Without Harry's dogged determination there would be no Trumpeter Swans in Ontario.
     Roger Suffling remembers Harry from way back when he (Roger) was a student at the University of Guelph. Roger was very happy to have his picture taken with his old mentor. The swans behind them are a fitting backdrop.

     Some of our group had already hightailed it back to their vehicles to warm up and eat lunch, but those of us who remained were delighted to have our picture taken with Harry. I daresay no one will forget this encounter with an ornithological legend, and a humble, gracious man to boot.

Bev Kingdon, Scott Beemer, Greg Michalenko, Judy Wyatt, HARRY LUMSDEN, David Gascoigne, Roger Suffling, Nathanael Harper, Alice Buehrle, Stephen West, Anne Goldlewski
     After lunch we headed off to Sioux Lookout Park where we expected to find many Long-tailed Ducks in close to shore, along with a range of other diving ducks, but the lake was devoid of birds other than for small rafts of ducks very far out.

     Our next stop was at Paletta Park where the winds were bitter coming across the lake and the waves were crashing on the shore, even causing a backwash in the creek.

     Undeterred, our group slowly meandered along the path, birding all the while.

     An American Mink Mustela vison was perfectly at ease in the icy water and on the snowy ground and entertained us with its antics.

     Our final stop of the day was at Bronte Harbour in Oakville, where we looked forward to seeing Red-necked Grebes Podiceps grisegena up close. This species breeds every year in the inner harbour, and by now they are already into high courtship behaviour. Unfortunately, most areas were still iced over and we had to be content with distant and hardly satisfactory views.

     A male Red-breasted Merganser came close to the breakwater.

     Our final bird of the day was a fitting conclusion to a cold, windy outing. A female Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus was perched on the wall of the outer barrier, calmly surveying the world around it, and Miriam was able to get a fairly decent shot, especially taking into account the poor light and the fact that she had to keep the camera still in the strong wind.

     Despite the conditions we had an excellent day of birding with a final tally of 40
 species. We enjoyed each other's company and are committed to do it all again next year.

List of species: Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Trumpeter Swan, Wood Duck, Gadwall, American Black Duck, Mallard, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Greater Scaup, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, White-winged Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Great Northern Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Horned Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, Red-tailed Hawk, Ring-billed Gull, Mourning Dove, Snowy Owl, Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Carolina Wren, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, House Sparrow, American Goldfinch, Red-winged Blackbird, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal.