Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Barn Swallows at Blaze Farm

     We are now well into our second season of monitoring Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica)  at the above location, hitherto referred to only as "the other farm." It was unclear to us whether the owners wished to have their property identified, but we have now received permission from our gracious hosts, Mike and Beth Voll, to let the world know that it is at The Blaze Farm in Wilmot Township, Region of Waterloo where we do our work.

     The consent of cooperative landowners like Mike and Beth is essential to conducting studies into these endangered aerial insectivores, and I struggle for words to express the depth of our appreciation. These people are conservation heroes of the first order. They deserve our respect, our gratitude and our admiration.
     As we drive into the property a welcoming array of Day Lilies (Hemerocallis fulva) greets us, and the dogs run to the car, tails wagging furiously, to let us know that they are happy to see us.

     We are no less happy to see them.
     On a hot day they languish in the cool of the barn.

     Actually, it saddens me to report that the dog on the right recently passed away, after a long and happy life I might add, but the newest addition to the canine crew is a sheer bundle of cute rambunctiousness. 

     The barn is an imposing ancient structure and seems to have a grandeur all of its own. It has character and charm, totally lacking in modern structures of rectilinear uniformity, with metal sidings and huge doors designed for efficiency, but totally lacking in style. I always feel happy just entering the barn.

     If only these venerable old beams could talk - what stories could they tell?

     One of the pleasures in doing our monitoring at Blaze Farm is the presence of two horses. These splendid animals act at times like house pets needing a little affection and they nudge up to you like a friendly dog. 

     The swallows here are accustomed to humans walking in and out, dogs barking and running around, the constant comings and goings of horses, a radio playing, and consequently display no inclination to immediately fly off when we go into their space.

     It is always a joy to see these tough little birds and there is a good deal of satisfaction in knowing that we are trying to ensure their ongoing presence in the avifauna of the world, despite factors that have led to their precipitous decline in recent years. Knowledge is the key to everything. The more we understand of the life cycle of the birds the more we may be able to help them.
     All of the nests are numbered, and they are monitored three times a week.

     When the nestlings are old enough to band (around 10 days) they are carefully removed from the nest and placed in an egg carton to be carried over to the area where we set up our banding station.

     Each bird then receives its own identifying band with a unique number.

     As soon as each bird is banded it is returned to the nest.
     Soon we will also be attaching radio trackers to ten birds to follow them on their migratory journey to South America.
     A few years ago, as structures were developed to help mitigate the loss of ancestral breeding colonies when old bridges, for example, were replaced with new ones, a wooden nest cup was developed to see whether birds could be encouraged to use it as a nest substrate. The success of the Barn Swallow shelters was minimal and it was not clear whether the nest cups were shunned as a feature of the structure, or whether they were inherently unappealing to the birds. Mike and Beth allowed us to install seven cups in their barn to try to elucidate on this - and one was used.

     As best we can ascertain by comparing last year's data with this year it represents an additional nest, and four healthy young were fledged from this cup. I might add that at SpruceHaven we mounted seventeen cups on the beams there and two were used, and one has a second clutch of eggs which should be hatching shortly.
     We are already drawing some conclusions about these cups, particularly about their placement, and we will relocate some of them before the swallows return next year.
     I need to repeat that none of this work is possible without the consent of the landowners to use their property. Old barns like this one are disappearing from the agricultural landscape and we are very fortunate to have the opportunity to track the progress of the birds in a colony that has no doubt been in existence for as long as the barn itself.
     In closing, once again to Mike and Beth - THANK YOU. We appreciate it, the ornithological community appreciates it, conservation scientists appreciate it - and, best of all, were the swallows able to express their appreciation they would do so also!

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

A Sunday morning Butterfly Chase

08 July 2018

     Although a birder first, foremost and always, there is not a single aspect of the natural world that fails to capture my interest. I have different levels of proficiency (or in some cases a decided lack thereof) of various taxa.
     One of the most colourful additions to the summer landscape, especially when the birds are preoccupied with raising young, is a wide range of butterfly species. In addition there are some interesting diurnal moths and I have even been dabbling in nocturnal moths under the expert tutelage of my good friend, Ross Dickson. If you have ever felt you had sinister tendencies of incipient masochism, sitting out in the dark watching moths crawling over a lighted sheet, in a mind-boggling range of diversity, colour, shape and form, will cause them to be front and centre! And that doesn't even take into account the lack of sleep.
     In any event, it occurred to me a while ago that many people I see with a butterfly net have not the slightest idea how to use it properly. They charge around like Don Quixote tilting at some illusory windmill, smacking the ground, flattening the grass, uttering the unseemly curses of a drunken sailor, and coming up empty-handed - or should that be empty-netted?
     With this in mind I thought it would be a good idea to have a proper training session so that budding lepidopterists would learn how to wield a net correctly, sweep with grace and efficiency to capture their quarry, extract it from the net swiftly and cleanly in a collecting vial, take whatever photographs they need, and release the papillon unharmed.
     Owen Lucas, of the rare Charitable Research Reserve, as fine a net professional as one could wish to find, agreed to come and conduct a tutorial.
     People gathered round with great interest.

     Like a magician on a stage, Owen was in short order explaining technique.

     It did not take everyone long to get the idea and we set off on a walk to capture some butterflies. New skills were on display, strategies were developed, and stealth became a new art; but I must say, with a certain level of vicarious pride, that Miriam was the undisputed champion. Hers was a performance worthy of a prima ballerina in the Bolshoi Ballet. In total we captured about fourteen species, much to everyone's delight.

      As a bonus for the eager adventurers we introduced them to the wonderful world of caterpillars. A couple of people had already raised Monarchs indoors so there was the added excitement of seeing the varied forms and colours of the larvae of other species.
     Here is the colourful child of a Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes).

     And how grand is the caterpillar of a White-marked Tussock Moth (Orgyia leucostigma)?

     Jeff Grant, a local teenager from St. Agatha is keenly interested in butterflies and moths and has been raising Cecropia Moths (Hyalophora cecropia) by placing their eggs on appropriate host plants and protecting them by means of a mesh sleeve. Jeff kindly opened up one of the sleeves to show everyone the grandeur of a Cecropia caterpillar - and even provided a little discourse on the life cycle of this stunning moth.

     The caterpillar of an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucous), in a late instar with its false eye spots is perhaps one of the most appealing of all, and we were lucky to see one such example along with a little brother (perhaps second instar) on the same leaf.

     We were not quite as happy to find many Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar) caterpillars. This species is truly destructive in our eastern hardwood forests and is an invasive species in any event.

     Some had already cocooned.

     The weather was quite beautiful, a perfect day in fact for what we wanted to do. And just in case I had withdrawal pangs from not dealing with birds, Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) displayed their aerial superiority as they hawked for insects and a male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) perched on a nest box where his mate is incubating four eggs. Perhaps he even delivered a juicy caterpillar for lunch.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Nature in the Summer

     For the second year in a row I have been involved in monitoring an artificial mound designed to encourage Sand Martins (Riparia riparia) to nest there. 

     Unfortunately, this structure has been a complete failure both years. There has not been the slightest interest in it; in fact, I have never even seen a Sand Martin in the vicinity of it. I think there are various reasons why it has not been used and I hope that a serious reevaluation will be made by the Land Trust responsible for it. I will be happy to share my ideas and I hope that if anyone reading this account has experience with a structure like this they will offer any critiques or suggestions they may have.
     I know that in Europe walls with pipes filled with sand have been used successfully and perhaps that is the answer here. Whether a wall has even been tried in North America I have no idea, but I have been unable to find evidence of it. Location is certainly a factor too.
     Butterflies abound in mid summer and there were lots of Northern Pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon) flitting around in the meadows. Fortunately the odd one landed on a desirable piece of vegetation, at least long enough to take a picture.

     A male Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) was singing its head off; I am not quite sure why at this late stage in the breeding season, perhaps in defence of territory.

     After such a strenuous performance a little preening was in order.

     Upon leaving the reserve, as I pulled away in my car, I spotted a large Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) basking in the middle of the gravel road. I stopped the car and got out gingerly and walked around the vehicle to the back so that the sun would be behind me for a picture. Careful as I might have been, I had obviously spooked the snake and it was slithering away quickly into the grass. I succeeded in getting only one picture before it disappeared from view. At least it was no longer in danger of being run over.

     After lunch Miriam and I decided to go out and check a few local spots, given the fact that the temperature was a pleasant 24 degrees, in sharp contrast with the hot spell we have been having recently, when air temperatures have been soaring to 35 degrees, and with humidity factored in, into the low forties - not pleasant at all.
     A pair of Western Ospreys (Pandion haliaeetus) have nested on a communications tower for the past few years and two birds were on the nest.

     I suspect that these two birds are the young of the year, now as big as their parents and ready to fledge at any time.
     Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are common and we were surprised to see only one individual.

     In fact birds were very scarce, perhaps resting during the heat of the day. Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) were taking advantage of the thermals and it was rarely that we looked up without seeing a couple soaring overhead.
     It was easier to find butterflies, with Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) being the most common species.

    Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice) was a close second.

     A lone Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), feeding at the edge of a pond which is rapidly drying up, appeared to be benefitting from the lack of competition.

     We spotted several Eastern Commas (Polygonia comma) but it took a bit of patience to wait for one to land. In fact, no sooner had one landed than a second one joined it.

     Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota) is blooming everywhere, and we checked for the caterpillar of the Carrot Seed Moth ((Sitochroa palealis) which uses Queen Anne's Lace as a host plant and we were able to find a few.

     The meadows are a riot of wildflowers at present.

     Lots of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) was in bloom but try as we might we were unable to locate even one caterpillar of a Monarch (Danaus plexippus), and we have seen only two or three of this enigmatic butterfly this year.

     Japanese Beetle (Popilla japonica) is a serious invasive pest and seems to be quite catholic in its taste. I have lost count of the number of native plants on which I have seen it feeding.

     A couple of other butterflies rounded out our walk. If I am not mistaken this is our first Spring Azure (Celastrina lucia) of the year and it is already July!

     A Northern Crescent (Phyciodes cocyta) was partially hidden in the grasses, but Miriam managed to capture this shot.

     We saw several other interesting species of various taxa during our walk, most without photographs and a couple upon which we are awaiting ID confirmation. 
     It was great to be out and about on a fine summer's day. We will do it many times again before the cool winds of fall nip at our cheeks.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Book Review - Birds of Prey of the East, Birds of Prey of the West - Princeton University Press

     I was very excited indeed when I received the review copies of these companion volumes covering all the raptors of North America. 

     Thirteen years in the making, it is an opus of the highest order, with a mass of information and detail, unrivalled by any other work presently available. 
     Brian K. Wheeler is an authority on these birds, recognized the world over as one of the very finest, so my expectations were high. If anything expectations were exceeded. The level of scholarship in these two volumes is staggering, the detail incredible,  the artwork magnificent, the narrative superb.
     There can be little doubt that Wheeler is unsurpassed in his portrayal of birds of prey. All of the images are presented in the same way, with different species in identical poses. While this might seem boring at first blush, it enables the reader to make easy comparison between species and is quickly appreciated for its simplicity.
     I must admit that I found it disarming at first to see the birds presented on coloured backgrounds. I am sure that this comes from years of conditioning when images were painted on a white background. It did not take me long, however, to recognize that the coloured background is superior. Nuances such as white outer fringes to feathers are much more clearly revealed against a coloured background and tend not to get lost as they do on a white background, when white on the plumage merges with white on the page.
     One of the most appealing features for me was the large maps, mostly full page. How many times have you been squinty-eyed looking at tiny little range maps in field guides, wanting to reach for the magnifying glass? How many field guides do you have without range maps at all? This is truly a major advance and reveals just how clearly the author realizes what his readers want and need. Wheeler has the good sense and foresight to include the names of major cities on the maps, an artifice I have never seen before, yet it is so helpful in instantly understanding the range of the bird.

     Take a look at the pages above for Black Vulture. Everything you need is there, starting with a concise descriptive text, a series of illustrations covering all forms from recently fledged juvenile to adult, with accompanying narrative, followed by information on habitat, status, nesting, movements and comparison with other species. There are photographs of the kinds of habitat where this species can be expected, and a glorious full page map.
     That most variable of buteos, the Red-tailed Hawk, a species with such a wide range of plumage variation that birds from different parts of the continent can initially, especially in sub adult plumage, be taken for another species, is examined in incredible detail.

     A full 48 pages is dedicated to this species alone. It sometimes seems to me that Red-tailed Hawk has been permanently under taxonomic review and a comprehensive discussion of the various distinct morphs is provided, with even an analysis of the proposed "Northern" subspecies, a topic much on the minds of raptor biologists of late.
     Extensive coverage of every species follows a rigorous format, providing the reader with all the information one needs about the bird in a highly readable format, free of scientific jargon which can at times be daunting to some.

     Pleasant surprises manifest themselves throughout the books. Consider the pages below at the culmination of the section on Ferruginous Hawk.

     There is a wonderful photograph of typical short grass prairie breeding territory and depiction of two of the principal prey species of this magnificent raptor, Black-tailed Prairie Dog in winter and Richardson's Ground Squirrel in summer. The accompanying full page map shows summer and winter ranges, and by combining all the information a full picture is created. If you find yourself in the winter somewhere between Oklahoma City and Houston, in an area known to have Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, you are in prime Ferruginous Hawk territory. All the dots are connected.
     In recent years, advances in DNA studies (and some physical studies) have revealed that vultures and falcons have been incorrectly classified in relation to other raptorial birds, and traditional affinities were deemed incorrect. Wheeler recognizes both of these orders as raptors and includes them in this work. Vultures are placed in their normal position before other raptors; and falcons, with their specialized killing techniques are accorded full pride of place. These birds are unquestionably raptors but originate from a different ancestral source.
      Books are akin to holy icons to me and I would never advocate disposing of volumes from your library. If, however, in a moment of madness you felt inclined to throw away raptor volumes, you could retain only these two books for North American raptors, and have a complete work at your disposal. The term "Field Guide" is a bit of a misnomer for this encyclopaedic treatise. It really does contain all you need to know.
     I cannot state too strongly how much pleasure and satisfaction I have derived from Wheeler's scholarship and fine artwork. These books will be essential companions for ever more.

Birds of Prey of the East: A Field Guide
Text and illustrations by Brian K. Wheeler
Flexibound/$27.95/9780691117065/304 pages/5 1/4 x 8/162 colour illustrations, 38 maps
Publication date: 19 June 2018

Birds of Prey of the West: A Field Guide
Text and illustrations by Brian K. Wheeler
Flexibound/$27.95/978069117188/360 pages/5 1/4 x 8/175 colour illustrations, 58 maps
Publication date: 19 June 2018