Monday, 30 March 2020

Tim Birkhead, Scientist, Ornithologist and Writer Extraordinaire

      During this period of enforced isolation, I am sure that we all have time to take stock of our surroundings, and take pleasure in our homes, and to examine and re-examine our treasures. And so it is, that I have been poring through my books anew, rediscovering treasured texts, re-informing myself, dallying over especially well-written pieces, and refreshing my knowledge. Forgotten details are studied as though seen for the first time.
     There are so many tremendously good books on my shelves, and they are
without question a great source of joy to me every day, and they are frequently consulted and re-consulted, read and re-read. It is very difficult to rank authors of ornithological and natural history texts in the way that one is able to allocate preference to fiction writers, but I am quite sure that Tim Birkhead, an esteemed favourite son of England, is my first choice.
     I am presenting below, with a brief synopsis of each one, the books by this author that I own. 

Sperm Competition and Sexual Selection

      This is the very first Birkhead book that I purchased, way back in June 1999. It provides a comprehensive overview of the competition between gametes for successful fertilization, which lies at the heart of the evolutionary process. Many different organisms are covered. As you might imagine, the section on avian reproduction has been consulted most frequently!

The Red Canary

    This book won the Consul Cremer prize. It is popular science at its very best - a perfect blend of exactness and superb entertainment - Mark Cocker. For naturalist and non-naturalist alike, a great read.

The Survival Factor

      I know Mike Birkhead only as a producer of wildlife documentaries, mainly for the BBC, and as far as I know he is not related to Tim Birkhead. Based on the Darwinian principles of natural selection, this book examines the strategies and adaptations employed by different creatures to assure their own existence and to perpetuate their species.

The Wisdom of Birds

     If you have never heard of John Ray, this is an essential read. If you have heard of John Ray, this is an essential read! A tremendous discussion of the concepts of avian territoriality, clutch size, mating strategies, and much more, with reference to many of the seminal figures of ornithology.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology

     Comprehensive review of every aspect of the life of birds. Written in easy to understand language, suitable for students at any level, yet unerringly delivering the technical knowledge needed to become proficient in the study of birds.

Ten Thousand Birds - Ornithology Since Darwin

     A first class review not only of the recent history of ornithology but also of the key players involved. No other book of this type comes anywhere near this one in its breadth of coverage and depth of scholarship. Ten Thousand Birds is in a class by itself and an outstanding read.  Ian Newton

The Most Perfect Thing - Inside and Outside a Bird's Egg

     Birkhead has written the perfect book about the perfect thing, where his breadth of knowledge of avian reproduction is exhibited to the fullest, and his enthusiasm is no less on display. For bird lover and general reader alike a compelling volume.

The Magpies 

     A detailed and comprehensive monograph of Black-billed and Yellow-billed Magpies. Essential reading for anyone interesting in the life histories of these frequently misunderstood and often maligned corvids.

     Tim Birkhead is that rare combination of scientist and writer, where both skills are brought together without one dominating the other. He is able to write clearly, concisely, and interestingly, while not watering down one scintilla of the often complex ideas presented, in a manner that everyone can read, and in such a fashion that one simultaneously acquires knowledge and derives great satisfaction from the written word.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Visit to Long Point, ON

25 March 2020

     COVID-19 is presenting many challenges to all of us and the degree to which we are affected is predicated somewhat on our lifestyle. If the most important part of your social life is going to movies and getting together with friends at your local restaurant, it is clear that your routine will be negatively impacted in a major way.
     For birders it is not (at least not yet) quite so dire.
     We are lovers of open spaces, and for us areas little affected by humans are cherished places. It is easy to continue doing what we love best, from our own backyard, on a local trail, or further afield to favourite destinations
     The area around Port Rowan/Long Point in Norfolk County, Ontario is the site of one of Canada's oldest bird observatories, and a major hot spot during spring and fall migration. It is significantly positioned for the passage of birds, situated as it is on the north shore of Lake Erie, constituting a magnet for waterfowl, in addition to having substantial forest cover for returning passerines. Long Point proper is in fact a World Biosphere Reserve.

     Miriam and I checked the weather forecast on Tuesday, and with a favourable augury for the following day, decided that an outing to Long Point was in the cards for us.
     Highway 401, going from Windsor on the international border with Detroit, Michigan to the border of Québec and Ontario, is Canada's busiest highway. Under normal condition there is a steady hum of traffic twenty-four hours a day. We have all been reading of lowered pollution levels around the world during the current crisis, with consequent improved air quality, as fewer vehicles are on the road, and international air traffic is virtually at a halt. Witness Canada's busiest artery during a pandemic.

     There was barely a car on the road! Most of the traffic we did see comprised trucks delivering vital commodities across the province and beyond.
     As is our custom, we first checked the harbour at Port Rowan where the most numerous species by far was Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis).

     A couple of pairs were very considerate and came in fairly close to shore to give us at least a chance for a few decent pictures.
     Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) was the most common gull, as is to be expected at this time of the year, and this individual struck a nice pose for the camera.

    Several smaller Bonaparte's Gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) were also present, some beginning to acquire their nuptial hood, but they darted and flitted like agitated dragonflies and photographs were out of the question.
     That most endearing overlord of the marsh, the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoniceus), was present with males singing in defence of territory, warning off all rivals and preparing for the arrival of females.  As a matter of fact, at our next stop we would see our first female of the season.

     The headquarters of Bird Studies Canada (recently renamed simply Birds Canada) is at Port Rowan and there is a viewing area and several trails, always meriting a stop.

     Under normal circumstances it is also provides a welcome washroom opportunity, but under the draconian Coronavirus régime entry to the building was barred and staff were working from home. Miriam was relieved that the icy winds of winter were not blowing!
     The pond at Birds Canada contained a very pleasing array of ducks, but there is a considerable barrier of reeds between the viewing platform and the water, and it is difficult to take photographs. It is also a little beyond the desirable range for suitable picture-taking.The Gadwall (Mareca strepera) below is the best we could do.

     A pair of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) on the rail presented much better opportunities.

     Just before leaving we spotted this pair again, up on the roof, and they were carrying nesting material. Their pair bond is obviously formed for the season.
     Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is a hardy species (in fact some individuals stay for the winter) but migrants are among the earliest of species to return, and a male singing from atop a high, visible perch is an iconic feature of spring.

     We moved on to Lee Brown Waterfowl Management Area where the concentration of geese and ducks was impressive, including the presence of a Eurasian Wigeon (Mareca penelope). Again conditions were far from ideal for photography without a large lens, and we had to be content with a few images of birds on land, mainly Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) and American Wigeon.

     In the picture below you can see that a Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) has come to join the others on the emerging grass.

     It was time for lunch and we pulled off a little farther down the road.

     Public access is not permitted to this area but there is a small fenced section where a half dozen or so cars could park. No one joined us today!
     We had a clear line of sight on a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nest and through the scope could clearly see a bird sitting on it. The picture is far from satisfactory, but you can see the adult on the nest.

     Ironically it was here that one of the best photographic opportunities presented itself when a Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) perched close by in the open, but by the time Miriam put down her sandwich and reached for her camera, it was gone!
     Driving along the causeway numerous species were in evidence, with Lesser Scaup again predominant. 

     The American Beaver (Castor canadensis) has been justifiably called nature's engineer; it is not intimidated by size!

     Many Redheads (Aythya americana) dotted the water, disappearing from view as they dove for fresh water mussels and other delicacies. In the image below you can see a female Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) off to the left.

     To assign the definition "song" to the doleful call of the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) is perhaps a stretch, but effectively that's what it is. Many seemed to have formed pairs and I have little doubt that early nesting is already underway.

     At Old Cut, home to the bird banding station at the Long Point Bird Observatory, careful attention has to be paid to inattentive wildlife.

     Phragmites (European Common Reed) is an invasive species in Ontario that has been wreaking havoc on native ecosystems for decades. It is unknown how it was  first introduced here, but it has spread exponentially. Phragmites australis is aggressive,  and out-competes native plants for water and nutrients. Toxins from the roots are released into the soil, retarding the growth of and killing native vegetation. It is extremely difficult to eliminate, but at Long Point a very serious attempt is being made to eradicate this alien pest.

     I was pleased to note that the University of Waterloo is one of the agencies involved in the eradication project.
     American Coot (Fulica americana) was quite plentiful in a couple of areas.

     A couple of Bald Eagles were spotted nearby and the presence of the coots was doubtless not unknown to them. The coots had better beware lest one or two of them becomes eagle prey.
     Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) were spotted here and there, but this individual was the closest to shore.

     Before leaving we revisited the pond at Birds Canada, approaching it from the rear, but all the ducks there during our morning visit had departed.  We managed a farewell shot of the headquarters, however.

     As was the case on the way down, the return journey along Highway 401 was eerily devoid of traffic. 

     This may be my most enduring memory of COVID-19!

All species: Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Tundra Swan, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, American Wigeon, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Ruddy Duck, Turkey Vulture, Northern Harrier, Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, American Coot, Sandhill Crane, Killdeer, Bonaparte's Gull, Ring-billed Gull, American Herring Gull, Mourning Dove, American Kestrel, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Horned Lark, Common Starling, American Robin, House Sparrow, House Finch, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Song Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, Northern Cardinal.  Total: 45 species.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Red-winged Blackbird in the manner of Arthur Cleveland Bent

     A while ago I wrote a piece (here) drawing on the very pleasing, whimsical style of Arthur Cleveland Bent, and I thought that I would try it again. It is fun to do!

Red-winged Blackbird

     A male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is a jaunty, handsome fellow, full of confidence and bravado.

     His attire is splendid glossy black, with crimson epaulettes bordered with creamy yellow. A sharply conical bill is diagnostic in this species.
     As soon as he arrives back at the marshes in spring he immediately establishes a territory which he vigorously defends against all comers, both physically and vocally, his robust burble-eee song, resonating across the cattails. He is awaiting the arrival of the females, the objects of his ardour, to which he will become consort to several if the fates are kind.
     She is beautiful in her own way, with bold stripes and hints of suffused colour like delicate blush applied judiciously.

     Oh how anxiously he awaits her arrival!
     He postures and displays, showing his finery, all the while cajoling with his voice, hoping to incite her to a mating frenzy immediately she lights upon the scene.

     She does not remain immune to these entreaties and succumbs readily to his charms.

     Does she realize, however, that he is a charlatan, a veritable Casanova, bent on seducing others also? 

     She throws caution to the wind and accepts his tryst, brief though it is, and whether imbued with ecstasy or not we will never know.

     Males who are especially fit may enjoy intimate association with as many as fifteen other females, most of whom will receive no parental assistance from these ostentatious philanderers, and will be left to their own devices to raise their young. Sadly some of them will be incapable of dealing with single parenthood and will be unsuccessful, sometimes abandoning their nestlings.

     Many females, however, will deem turnabout to be fair play and solicit copulations from other males, especially strong, virile individuals able to furnish superior genes for the next generation. 
     The world of Red-winged Blackbirds is a steamy affair - not unlike human activity for that matter. Do not be confused by the demure demeanour of the female - whether bird or human!

     If all goes well the female will construct a nest, woven into cattail stalks, with little or no assistance from the male, especially if she is a subordinate female, and three or four eggs will be laid.

      The male, all the while engaged in amorous adventures with other females, will defend the territory of his harem against all comers, not fearing to attack intruders such as crows, hawks, or humans who stray too close.
     The female alone incubates the eggs for up to thirteen days following which the young hatch.

     This signals a very busy time for the maternal parent who provisions the young herself and may be constantly observed ferrying food back to the nest. While the food of adult birds consists primarily of seeds, grain and fruit, the young require protein and fat so caterpillars, spiders and arthropods are on the menu.

     Hungry mouths are clamouring to be fed; are these voracious children never  satiated?

          A mother's work is never done!

     Once the breeding season is over Red-winged Blackbirds join together in flocks, roosting at night in cattail marshes. Then numerous flocks join together, especially on their winter quarters following migration, sometimes numbering in the millions, and often including Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula), Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) and Common Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). 
     The Red-winged Blackbird has been studied at length, being the most abundant passerine in North America. For many its arrival on its breeding territory marks the true beginning of spring. For me that is certainly so. To hear the first one is to rejoice in being alive. Long may they grace our wetlands.

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.