15 December 2018
The weather here of late has been unrelentingly grey and gloomy, with fog and rain being all too regular.
We have not been doing much birding given the conditions, but sooner or later the genetic imperative kicks in and one cannot resist any longer!
On a grey day, with compromised visibility, Miriam and I packed up a thermos of coffee and two of her heavenly blueberry muffins and set out to see what we could find on a drive through the hinterland of Waterloo and Wellington Counties. Most of the snow has disappeared and the farmers' fields are brown and soggy.
In truth, there was very little bird life, but what we did encounter was very interesting.
At this time of the year we scan the trees for Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) and Rough-legged Buzzards (Buteo lagopus), the latter an arctic raptor that spends the winter here in large numbers. We found but a couple of Red-tails and no Rough-legs!
However, the scan of a distant bare tree revealed an adult Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), no doubt eyeing the terrain for potential prey. The following picture perhaps gives some idea of the distance.
Miriam's camera has a bigger zoom than mine and her images give a little more detail.
It is always especially pleasing to us to sight a Bald Eagle, thankfully no longer a rare event here. This species, although the national bird of the United States has been subjected to merciless and unceasing persecution by humans, with many states paying bounties on Bald Eagle kills, and it was also severely impacted during the dark days of organochlorine pesticide use, with death and thin-shelled eggs causing severe population declines. (It is hard to imagine that anyone is not familiar with Rachel Carson's classic work Silent Spring but if you have not read it get down to your local library right now!)
Benjamin Franklin's reaction to the adoption of the Bald Eagle on the great seal of America, probably spurred on those bent on its annihilation. Here is what he wrote to his daughter on the subject.
Franklin's Letter to His Daughter (excerpt)
"For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.
"With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country...
"I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America... He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on."
An adult Bald Eagle is a stunning bird, and a view of one never fails to elicit admiration from me, and many others I suspect. Whenever we have visited Vancouver Island where Bald Eagles are common, people with hardly a passing interest in birds in general, go out of their way to point them out to us.
While not passing up the opportunity to scavenge on carrion they are adept at taking live fish from the water in spectacular fashion and are equally proficient at capturing waterfowl in the winter when the lakes and rivers are frozen.
And they are frequently quite approachable. Here is a picture I took a couple of years ago of an individual exploiting the resources of the Conestogo River, not all that far from where the pictures were taken yesterday, especially as an eagle flies!
Several pairs of Bald Eagles have nested successfully in the Grand River watershed in recent years, with one pair nesting in the town of Conestogo, well within sight of human settlement, for three successive years and fledging young each year. The standard Bald Eagle clutch is two eggs and if sufficient food is available both young usually survive to leave the nest.
A dull day was certainly illuminated for us by this encounter, but the illumination was about to get a little brighter.
As we drove along, pulling over onto the shoulder all the time to let faster traffic pass by, we searched the fields for Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus), a bird of great mystery for most, but a common winter visitor here. Just as we were about to conclude that we had been skunked for the day, Miriam told me to stop. Far off in the distance she saw a "bump"on a patch of snow.
Snowy Owls always seek out remnant patches of snow where they are camouflaged, rather than standing out as a stark patch of white on the brown substrate of the field.
It was indeed a Snowy Owl!
These pictures are of course entirely unsatisfactory but it was the best we could do given the distance, our equipment and the appalling light.
Snowy Owls that spend the winter here seem to be especially drawn to certain fields and we can reliably expect to find them in familiar locations. Here are pictures taken last year at same farm, albeit a little closer. A piece of rusting farm machinery was obviously an appealing perch for this female.
And for this one a tree served equally well.
The biggest challenge Snowy Owls seem to face in Southern Ontario comes from over-zealous photographers who stop at nothing for the perfect photograph and trespass on private property and willfully put up the owls in order to obtain flight shots. Owls resting to conserve energy are sorely and unnecessarily stressed by this behaviour.
Here are a few other shots of Snowy Owls taken over the past few years.
Climate change on their arctic nesting grounds is having a deleterious effect on Snowy Owl breeding success and the future does not look bright for this iconic species, perhaps the most recognizable owl in the world. Most birders have this species in the top ten of the birds they wish to see. Let us hope it will still be possible for them to do so for many generations to come.