Saturday, August 31, 2019

Green Herons at SpruceHaven

     Each spring at SpruceHaven we are fortunate to have a pair of Green Herons (Butorides virescens) take up residence on the pond in front of the house, and intermittently they have bred.
    This year, within a relatively short time after arriving they started to construct a nest. It was located about two metres above the ground in a bush over the water, and as is typical for this species was quite small, not especially robust, and constructed of thin twigs. I was able to observe it for a while, and could often see a bird sitting on the nest, but as the vegetation filled in it became more and more difficult to see through the dense leaves which provided perfect concealment for the incubating birds. Without knowing the nest was there it would have been nigh on impossible for anyone to find it.
     I had hoped that after the incubation period, and waiting for another few days since the young are born semialtricial, I would be able to view nestlings craning their heads above the nest, waiting for parents to return with food, and exploring the world around them; but that never happened and I concluded that for whatever reason the breeding attempt had failed.
     Recent observations appear to have disproved this theory!
     Early this week I had the distinct pleasure of a visit to SpruceHaven by Eric Crofton and Ted Gough from London, ON, and Eric managed some fine shots of a juvenile Green Heron. 

     The extensive carpet of lily pads provides a great highway across the pond for adventuresome young herons.

        If you stretch your neck, maybe you can look twice as big and perhaps even fearsome.

     Then on 29 August our good friend and bird banding helper Merri-Lee saw an adult and two young birds and managed some great images of her own. The adult is on its favourite perch where we often see it snatching prey from the water.

     One of the young birds seems to have adopted this perch as his/her own. 

     It is a good news story that the Green Herons have had a successful breeding season after all. We will hope for a repeat performance next year.
     Thanks to Eric and Merri-Lee for allowing me to use their fine photographs.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Book Review - Elephant - Princeton University Press

One president said to me: I've never had a voter ask me for more elephants.  
They want hospitals, education.
Kaddu Sebunya

     When I see the name of Errol Fuller as the author of a book, I immediately look forward to reading it and I know that at the end of the book I will be left with a sense of satisfaction.
     Fuller normally deals with avian topics, especially extinctions, so I was particularly curious as to how he would tackle an iconic mammal.

      The coverage is exhaustive, from the prehistory of the modern pachyderm, through its evolution to the form we see today, its association with man (always to the animal's disadvantage), to the precarious state of its current existence in a world dominated by serious human overpopulation and a degraded landscape.  
      Hannibal used elephants as beasts of war; throughout history they have been used in circuses and fairs for human entertainment, often in the most demeaning ways, and have even been publicly executed by attempted hanging and finished off with electrocution for an obviously cultured and appreciative  public who came out to witness the event. In Asia elephants are used as beasts of burden. Seldom have these magnificent and enigmatic creatures been permitted just to be elephants.
      It is a cause for great dismay that humans, who have always had a fascination with elephants, and acknowledge that they share traits such as loyalty and affection with us, have posed and continue to pose the greatest threat to the elephant's survival as a species.
      Contemplate for a moment the images below and try to dismiss the notion that they do not represent emotions akin to our own.

     Who can question the intensity of this large matriarch's loyalty to her family and her willingness to protect it?

     The key to elephant existence is the extended family unit, and the devotion displayed to the young by all, regardless of parentage, is a key character of elephant survival. Indiscriminate killing of adults not only removes many years of experience from the herd, it disrupts the entire social structure of it.
     Aside from the conflicts engendered when elephants come into contact with humans, by raiding crops, for example, or that noble sport of trophy hunting by rich westerners who come only to kill, one of the most magnificent adornments of an elephant has been in large measure the principal agent of its downfall. An elephant has the misfortune to have tusks.
     There has been a fascination with ivory since time immemorial and it has been used to carve items of every description.

        If the ivory was taken only from animals that died from natural causes there would be no problem, but the principal cause of elephant poaching is to supply the relentless demand for ivory, and elephants are killed daily to satisfy this insane trade. Using modern technology poachers are more than ever before able to outwit the authorities and this highly profitable barbarism continues unabated. Mothers are shot before the eyes of their young and their tusks hacked out. Young elephants are left bewildered, traumatized and orphaned.
       And all this for trinkets.

     Many countries now have bans against the trade in ivory, but the laws are often poorly enforced and the illegal trade finds ways to smuggle ivory in any event.
     Add to this the reduction in land for elephants prone to long distance wandering, conflict with farmers when their crops are trampled or eaten, a landscape blighted by drought and over-exploitation, and the future for elephants looks grim.

     Who among us would wish their demise? Surely the time has come, it is long past in fact, for humans to mount a concerted effort to save our elephants, whose numbers have already plummeted. They represent a patrimony for the entire world, not just for the countries they inhabit. Are we really unable to curb our own greed, modify our selfishness, reduce our own numbers? 
     One hopes not, but hope is a faint glimmer on an ever darkening horizon for the elephant. Its extinction may not be too far off. 

Errol Fuller
Hardcover - $29.95 - 9780691191324 - 288 pages - 202 colour illustrations - 8" (20 cm) x 10" (25 cm)
Publication date: 3 September 2019

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Book Review - The Solitary Bees - Princeton University

     Ask the average person about bees and I am quite sure you will get answers about honey bees, hives, industriousness, social organization and the like. I would risk a moderate wager that few, if any, would allude to solitary bees.
    These same respondents might advance thoughts on pollination and the contemporary threats to this activity so critical to life on earth; I doubt that many of them would know that the decline in the numbers and diversity of solitary bees, principally brought on by anthropogenic indifference and excess, magnified by polluted landscapes, pesticides and depauperate flora, is the most serious cause of the absence of pollinator bees.
     Here is the book to set them right.

     This is a magnificent tome authored collaboratively by three leading scientists in the field, and it is done well from the first page to the last. Scholarship is combined with literary competence to furnish a highly readable, eminently elucidating text, accompanied by pictures, charts, and schematic representations of themes and concepts.

     It takes the reader through the phylogeny of solitary bees and an examination of the life history of these organisms, where life is short and timing is everything. Mating is an intense activity for solitary bees and males are constantly evolving new strategies to sire offspring. Many will not succeed.
     There is a detailed examination of the types of nests used by solitary bees, which are as varied as the bees themselves. Many readers will now be familiar with "bee hotels" which can provide suitable habitat in even a small suburban garden, but some species nest in the soil, in sandstone or even at the edge of active volcanoes.

      Once the nest has been established the brood cells have to be provisioned and the three principal sources of food - nectar, pollen and floral oils - and how they are gathered is the subject of two chapters.

     Solitary bees obviously do not exist in isolation and must share the landscape with other insects many of which are brood parasites and predators of solitary bees and their nests. It is not easy being a solitary bee!
      Chapter 12 presents a thorough review of bee-plant evolution and when and how pollen feeding evolved in the first place. 
      In Chapter 13 the economic value of bees is examined and the sheer number of fruits and vegetables that depend on solitary bees for pollination is staggering, including apples, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, watermelons, eggplants, tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, and that most essential crop of all - coffee! We lose solitary bees at our peril.
     Chapter 14 deals with the all too familiar problem of threats to the long term survival of solitary bees. It seems that one can barely discuss any organism today, without examining the threats to its ongoing survival. It is depressing indeed. The threats to solitary bees include the familiar litany of habitat loss, pesticide use, pathogen spillover, loss of genetic diversity, climate change and invasive species. As adaptable as they are to anthropogenic interference in, and modification of, the landscape, there are limits to what can be tolerated, and in many populations that limit has been met and exceeded.
     As well as presenting a clear and comprehensive study of every aspect of the lives of solitary bees, the book sounds the alarm bell that time is short to correct the error of our ways. A world without bees is ultimately a world without humans - not a bad thing at all some might say.

The Solitary Bees: Biology, Evolution, Conservation
Bryan N. Danforth, Robert L. Minckley and John L. Kneff
Hardcover - $45.00 - 9780691168982 - 488 pages - 17 colour and 113 black-and-white illustrations - 7" (17.5 cm) x 10" (25 cm)
Publication date: 27 August 2019


Sunday, August 25, 2019

The First Weekend of Fall Bird Banding at SpruceHaven and a Visit by Wild Birds Unlimited, Kitchener, ON

24 August 2019

     There is always a sense of excitement and anticipation when we start afresh with our bird banding activities and this year was no exception. I met Kevin, dark and early, and we were soon afterwards joined by Ross, and set up five nets.
     It was cool when we started (8° C) and few birds were moving around. At that temperature nor were the mosquitoes fortunately!  
     We retraced our steps from the final net and in the very first one retrieved a juvenile Grey Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis). A Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilocus colubris) had also been ensnared, but since we do not have a permit to band hummingbirds it was released right away.
     This young Grey Catbird was acquiring new feathers as can be clearly seen below.

     A couple more rounds of the nets yielded nothing, but the day was warming and insects were starting to rise out of the grass, and our next circuit was more productive.
     A Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), which undergoes at least partial moult before leaving the breeding grounds, was also showing evidence of moult in the tail feathers.

     It is relatively infrequently that we trap Field Sparrows (Spizella pusilla) so we considered ourselves exceptionally fortunate to capture two juveniles of this species.

     A Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla) is somewhat more predictable, however.

     Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is the most common new world sparrow in our area, so the only surprise was that we caught but one.

     House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) have had a prolific breeding season this year, with several successful nests at SpruceHaven, and this young bird will soon be making its first migratory journey.

All birds banded 24 August: House Wren (1), Grey Catbird (1), Field Sparrow (2), Song Sparrow (1), Nashville Warbler (1), Common Yellowthroat (4)  Total: 10 individuals of 6 species.

25 August 2019

     It was our great pleasure to host a group of people under the aegis of Wild Birds Unlimited ( who were interested in all that goes on at Sprucehaven. It was a small but enthusiastic group, and it was my great pleasure to try to impart some of the magic of SpruceHaven to them. I was especially delighted to see children present.

     I do not have all the names of the people above but I will give the ones I know and I would be happy to add the the others if people would contact me. Along the back row, working from the left, unknown, Sharon Dillon-Martin, Tammy ?, Cathy Hale (Owner, Wild Birds Unlimited). In front are Darwin (great name!) and his sister, Joy. Tammy is their mom and is to be congratulated for bringing out her children to enjoy the wonders of nature.
     Kevin was unable to band with us this morning, but Ross came out to help and Heather was happy to make her first appearance of the season. Judy and Lorraine came out later.
     It was with a good deal of pleasure that we caught our first empidonax flycatcher, the morphology and biometrics of which narrowed it down to Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus).

      It was while processing this bird that a fly in the family Hippoboscidae, an obligate parasite of birds and mammals, dropped out of the feathers. (Picture courtesy of Ross Dickson)

     These flies are commonly referred to as flat flies and can compress their body and easily insert themselves into the feather tract of their avian host, being able to move sideways to sidle through the feathers. At least we did the bird the service of removing this bothersome intruder!
      A Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) is a resident species, and this individual that flew into our mist net was banded along with the migrants.

     The highlight of our banding session was a Mourning Warbler (Geothlypis philadelphia), a species we do not often capture, and in fact a species infrequently encountered in the field.

     A young male Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) let Heather know that he was not at all sanguine about being handled.

     It is not so bad when they seize your whole finger as above, but if they clamp down on the skin between your thumb and forefinger it is painful!
     A Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) was our first capture of the season.

     Chipping Sparrows (Spizella passerina) breed locally so it is quite possible that this juvenile bird may have been born right at SpruceHaven. 

     Our final bird banded was a juvenile male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), a resident species. I expect we will trap a few more goldfinches before the season is done.

     It was a great weekend of banding, aided in no small measure by good weather, and the wonderful fellowship of bird enthusiasts, and a visit from Cathy and friends. 
     Ross will be back at it on Tuesday!

All birds banded 25 August: Least Flycatcher (1), Warbling Vireo (2), Black-capped Chickadee (1), Grey Catbird (1), American Goldfinch (1), Chipping Sparrow (1), Song Sparrow (9), Mourning Warbler (1), Common Yellowthroat (1), Rose-breasted Grosbeak (1). Total: 19 individuals of 10 species.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Book Review - Oceanic Birds of the World, A Photo Guide - Princeton University Press

     The first thing to strike me about this book was its title, "Oceanic Birds of the World," not the more familiar term, seabirds of the world, and indeed the coverage is of those species only that inhabit the vast spaces of the oceans, and excludes those that make a living in inshore coastal waters, often returning to land at night.

     In terms of identification, this is a difficult group of birds, most of which are unfamiliar to the vast majority of birders. Few ever undertake a pelagic journey at all, and for those who do, it involves mostly three or four hour excursions from well known coastal locations. There are not many among us who are fortunate enough to have the resources and the time to take extended sea voyages.
     So it is good advice in the introduction that many species have of necessity to remain unidentified. It is not a mark of inadequacy to admit that one cannot always identify a bird; quite the contrary in fact. It is cogently stated by the authors that you are watching "from a moving platform while watching moving subjects over a moving surface." Add to this, lack of familiarity with the subjects, similarities in plumage of several species, and perhaps a touch of queasiness brought on by not having proper sea legs, and the potential for humility is great! It is better to have witnessed a petrel sp. than never to have seen a petrel at all.
     I was quite amused by the wry comment, "Many people, even including men, would likely look at the instruction manual before using an unfamiliar electric kitchen or workroom tool. Yet the introductions to bird books often seem to go unread, even though they represent instruction manuals that enable you to use your tool more effectively."
     Do not skip the introduction to this book; there is simply too much valuable information in it, and a thorough reading of this section will materially assist you in deriving maximum benefit from the pages that follow.
      The widespread use of various forms of chemical analysis since Peter Harrison's landmark work in 1987 means that the revisions to taxonomy are little short of staggering. The tubenoses, for example, have expanded from 107 to in excess of 175. DNA analysis tells a story no amount of morphological or behavioural observation could ever reveal - and it is likely not over yet.

     The photographs are in many way remarkable. I have taken part in a few pelagic experiences, the most memorable being in the Benguela current off the southern coast of Africa and in the Humboldt Current thirty to forty kilometres off the west coast of Chile. It probably is not difficult to convince you that trying to keep one's balance in a small boat heaving in the ocean swell with birds appearing and disappearing with frustrating regularity, is not the ideal way to take pictures.


     But there is nothing quite like a pelagic and this book has captured much of the excitement of it. Seeing a penguin ashore is a wonderful experience, life-changing almost, but seeing them gliding through the ocean waves with grace and ease, truly in their element, is an encounter that transcends all else.
     This is a thoroughly worthwhile book, well researched and well executed by two seabirds experts of great renown. If only they had been my companions on my pelagics..........

Ocean Birds of the World: A Photo Guide
Steve N. G. Howell and Kirk Zufelt
Paperback - $35.00 - 9780691175010 - 360 pages - 368 colour plates - 114 maps - 5 3/4" x 8 1/4" 
Publication date: 20 August 2019

Land Acknowledgement

We acknowledge that the land on which we are situated are the lands traditionally used by the Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and Neutral People. We also acknowledge the enduring presence and deep traditional knowledge, laws, and philosophies of the Indigenous Peoples with whom we share this land today. We are all treaty people with a responsibility to honour all our relations.