Saturday, 29 June 2019

Indigo Bunting (Passerin indigo)

     Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) is a very attractive bird, and I often see a male singing from the top of a snag on my way over to SpruceHaven several times a week. This morning he was not there, his place having been taken by a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), no doubt willing to defend a territory and do battle with all comers, including the Indigo Bunting should it return.
     Each year for the past few years a male Indigo Bunting seems to visit our backyard for about two days in the spring, and then it is gone, and we don't see it again - and more's the pity.

     It is an attractive little bird and there is a bit of added significance when we see it, for it brings to mind Miriam's sister, Grace, who has fond memories of this bird from her childhood.

     Grace has not seen one in many years, but remembers well the burst of colour in the trees around their farmhouse and the leisurely well-spaced notes of the male with its flourishing diminuendo.

     How one could remain immune to the charms of an Indigo Bunting is quite beyond me.

     The young male below has pretty much completed the transition from juvenile to adult, with barely a hint of immature plumage remaining.

     Perhaps we can advocate to have the name of the species changed to Grace's Bunting; after all there is already a Grace's Warbler. I think its scientific name should be Passerina gracia. 
     What do you think? The world would get used to it in a hurry!

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Visit to Grass Lake, Cambridge, ON

22 June 2019

     Miriam arrived back from a week in Iceland on 21 June, and on a beautiful summer's day the following morning we decided on a visit to Grass Lake.

     This area at times produces a great diversity of birds, some of which are species not easily found elsewhere in our area. Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) breeds here, and with a combination of good luck and dedicated searching one can usually find adults with young in June. We were unsuccessful on the day, but images from past successes remind us of what lies ahead for another visit.

     Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) were content to take advantage of any available perch from which to sally forth to pick off passing insects.

     Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) is a classic grassland species and is easily seen at Grass Lake, often perched on top of a fence post, no doubt proclaiming territorial jurisdiction, but often seeming to belt out its song for the sheer hell of it!

     It is an attractive bird, with personality to spare, and a great favourite of mine.
     Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) is a similarly predictable species but is not always as cooperative as Savannah Sparrow and even though it is present may conceal itself in long grass. Today was a good day, however, and several of these handsome and unusual-looking birds, trilled across the meadows and perched to have their picture taken.

     An Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) nest has been occupied for several years and we noticed that the female seemed a little agitated, although we saw no apparent reason for her consternation.

     All that was required was for us to turn around and glance in the other direction to detect the object of her ire. The male had caught a fish, and instead of delivering directly to the nest, as I am sure a dedicated Osprey father should, it was snacking nearby, no doubt feeding on the choicest bits, before surrendering his catch to the family.

     We left the Ospreys to resolve their marital spat without any further voyeurism from us, and what could have been better as we drove slowly away than another Savannah Sparrow to bid us goodbye?

     There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that he was saying, "See you again soon." And so he will!

Thursday, 20 June 2019

American Goldfinch (Chardonneret jaune)

     This morning when I got out of bed and looked out the window, the first thing I saw in the Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) was a couple of male American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) and I was struck by the sheer beauty of this species. It is so familiar, literally in the garden every day, sometimes twenty or thirty at a time when all the feeders are full, and we take it for granted, I suppose.

     As I was looking at the two birds in the tree, no more than two metres away, I began to think about European common species and European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) and Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) sprang immediately to mind. These two familiar species, well known to all and much loved, are featured frequently on blogs, and seem to have universal appeal.
     Perhaps it is time to cast American Goldfinch in similar light.

     The favourite food of American Goldfinches is the seed of thistle plants, but they do not hesitate to feed on the seeds of garden plants either, as is shown by these females in our backyard.

     The species is widespread across the continent and remains with us in Ontario during the winter, surviving cold temperatures and wintry gales.

     It has a cheery, easily recognizable song, often given in flight. Locally it is sometimes referred to as Wild Canary!

     I am sure that you will agree that this is a handsome species, worthy of our appreciation, and I vow to pay more attention to it from now on.

     It shows a great fondness for sunflower seeds. I will have to make sure the feeders are stocked to the brim tomorrow!

Monday, 17 June 2019

Book Review - The Last Butterflies - Princeton University Press

     This is in many respects a remarkable book, laden with scientific inquiry, rigour and discipline, yet interwoven with shades of a mystery quest, with pitfalls and sidetracks along the way.

     Nominally, it covers the fate of six rare butterflies, but goes far beyond that in an examination of the challenges of conservation writ large, and the potentially dire consequences for all organisms faced with warming temperatures, rising sea levels and more frequent and more powerful storms. Whatever fate awaits butterflies is in store for other insects too.

     Haddad chronicles both failures and successes with disarming honesty, and is not afraid to admit when previously held convictions are overturned by facts on the ground.

     There is a recognition that natural events such as fire and flood, while causing death to some populations of the six species covered in the book, are also critical to the ongoing survival of the species as a whole, and that suppression of such forces diminishes the chances for a species' numbers to rebound, or at the very least stabilize.

     Important concepts such as "metapopulation" are discussed, with a thorough and detailed explanation of how this phenomenon works, and how critical it is to providing suitable habitat for a species, with islands of populations contiguous to each other, and within the range of individuals to recolonize areas affected by natural events that have caused isolated population extinctions. The other vital concept is "effective population size" which measures the number of individuals available to pass on genetic diversity to the next generation. If the gene pool is very low sheer numbers do not tell the whole story  and the population is compromised.
     The book ends with a look at the Monarch, surely the most recognized butterfly the world over, and one whose numbers are still counted in the hundreds of millions in the Eastern North American subspecies. Yet a few catastrophic events could easily bring the Monarch to the brink of extinction, so there is no cause for complacency.
     This book is a sobering read, yet as Haddad is quick to point out in the final chapter, there is yet hope to save the world's rarest species, and in the process protect ecosystems for myriad other organisms too. 
     Let us make sure we do not fail.

The Last Butterflies: A Scientist's Quest to Save a Rare and Vanishing Creature
Nick Haddad
Hardcover - $24.95 - 9780691165004 - 280 pages - 16 colour plates and 7 black-and-white illustrations - 5 1/2 x 8 1/2
Publication date: 25 June 2019

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Book Review - Europe's Sea Mammals - Princeton University Press

     This book is published at a very timely moment in the history of sea mammals in European waters, a time when every one of them is threatened to one degree or another.

     Let us earnestly hope that what is presented as a first rate field guide, replete with a wide range of photographs of the rich and varied marine life of the region, is not soon to be a requiem of extinct species.
     The work starts with a standard "How to use this guide" section and answers the fundamental question "What is a sea mammal?"

     It moves on to "Threats to sea mammals in the 21st century" and it is to this section that I will return.

     There is a very helpful discussion about watching Europe's sea mammals, with tips on where, when and how to look, with comments on behavioural characters that assist in identification. This is the "meat and potatoes" section for an avid observer, and is especially helpful when standing on the heaving deck of a small boat trying to clinch the identification of a mammal that appears and disappears with the roiling waves.

     All of these sections are written in readable style with information succinctly presented, and valuable for novice and seasoned marine mammalogist alike.
     There follows a detailed account of each mammal to be found in the area accompanied by a series of pictures depicting morphology, behaviour and habitat. Many of the photographs are remarkable in their clarity, and their depiction of mammals that often give but a fleeting glimpse before diving beneath the surface of the water.

     There then follows important coverage of relevant legislation for the protection of sea mammals.

     Some of these conventions are well known to all of us, and we may perhaps be lulled into a false sense of belief that all is well and that rules are respected and enforced. But such is often not the case, and frequently laws are flouted and enforcement is sporadic, unevenly applied, or ignored completely.
     The greatest threat of all to marine mammals, however, is pollution of our oceans. It is ongoing, pervasive, massive and seemingly out of control. The volume of plastic and PCBs being annually added to an already over-burdened ecosystem is staggering. Glumly, I have to state that there seems to be no end in sight to this problem, and the very survival of many of the wonderful creatures covered in this book is in serious jeopardy.
     I applaud Princeton University Press' decision to publish this important volume at a time when the very life forms it depicts are imperilled. It is a significant reminder that the oceans are full of exquisite creatures, but despite their depth and vastness are no more immune from threats than are terrestrial ecosystems. 
     Buy an extra copy and send it to your Member of Parliament, Congressman or Deputy, to your Prime Minister or to your President. The time for action is now! 

Europe's Sea Mammals Including the Azores, Madeira, the Canary Islands and Cape Verde: A field guide to whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals.
Robert Still, Hugh Harrop, Tim Stenton, and Luis Dias
Paperback - $24.95 - 9780691182162 - 208 pages - 5 7/8 x 8 1/4
Publication date: 25 June 2019

Sunday, 9 June 2019

My Good Friend, Eden

     I would like to introduce all of you to my good friend, Eden.

     Perhaps you are curious, as I was when I first met Eden, about her unusual name. Eden's mother, Rebecca, told me the story. On 1 January 2006, having flown to Florida overnight, a pregnant Rebecca woke up to what she deemed to be an earthly paradise. She told her husband that if the baby was a girl she wanted to call her Eden, because she felt they had started the year in an earthly paradise.
     Eden was born in July of that year. And the world has been a better place ever since.
     It seems that Eden and Nature writ large were destined to be firm companions. She has interacted with creatures as disparate as frogs, toads and newts, to Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) and Monarchs (Danaus plexippus). On a visit to Costa Rica she fed monkeys, sloths, anteaters and porcupines at an animal rescue centre. 
     I met Eden when she came to SpruceHaven to observe our bird banding operation. From that first moment, and on numerous repeat visits, she made it clear that she wanted to be more involved, and craved hands-on activity, not mere observation.
     Just a week ago Eden came out to help me to monitor one of our Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) colonies. And help she did. She followed instructions well, climbed the ladder and slugged it along to the next nest, went up to check the nest with mirror and light in hand, and worked indefatigably. Furthermore, she got the hang of it instantly and showed herself to be a true wildlife custodian.
     But best of all she became my friend. The span of years between us evaporated before our eyes; she is a great companion, a pal to chat with, a supreme helper anxious to pitch in and do her part, a joy to cherish a wildlife moment with, a person who understands the sheer magic of contact with a wild creature, and she recognizes the importance of helping our fellow inhabitants of this Earth we share together. 
     Today she was back for more. But this time do the weekly check of all our bird houses to track the activity going on within.
     The first order of business was to examine the contents of a box we had erected in the driveway in the hope of attracting Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio).

     While we have succeeded in providing a winter roosting place for this diminutive owl, it has not remained to breed in any of our boxes. Often the space is usurped by non-native Common Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and we toss out any attempts at nest construction each week before this invasive species has a chance to get established. Today the box was empty.
     It was onward to inspect the nest boxes of Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), Eastern Bluebird (Sialis sialia) and Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). Eden was thrilled to find a chickadee sitting on eggs at the first box she opened. 
     She wasted no time in checking bird house after bird house, climbing the ladder and unscrewing the entrance panel into the box.

     She was excited to see the nest below, originally begun by an Eastern Bluebird as revealed by the foundation, but taken over by a Tree Swallow, and containing a clutch of Tree Swallow eggs.

     Later she would have the thrilling experience of a Tree Swallow brooding her clutch and allowing Eden to very gently lift her up to count the young. Such encounters do not leave one unmoved and Eden's face was aglow with the sheer magic of it all.
     The woodlot at this time of the year is alive with biting insects and I told Eden that she should wait for me in the open, while I went ahead to face the voracious swarms. They were not quite as bad as I had thought, however, and Eden ventured down to have her first look at the nest of a House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) with eggs.
     We checked another screech owl nest box and tossed out the beginnings of a starling nest.

     Our final round of nest box inspections was on the north side of the property where we found the young of both Tree Swallows and Eastern Bluebirds.

      It is difficult for me to express adequately how pleased I am to see dedication of this magnitude in a young person. As someone who has been involved with wildlife since my earliest memories, it is gratifying to see the torch being passed in this way. 
     Thank you for allowing me to share this experience with you, Eden. And thank you Rebecca for all the sterling qualities you portray and the encouragement and support you give to Eden.
     I am indeed humbled by this friendship and I earnestly hope that I can help Eden along her path to bigger and better challenges - she and all her generation are the future, the only hope we have. May we all help them as best we can.