Thursday, April 30, 2020

Local Walks and the Backyard

     During this extended period of behaviour modification brought about by the Coronavirus, we have tended to revisit familiar locations several times, knowing that they have not been placed out of bounds.

Benjamin Park Trail, Waterloo, ON
20 April 2020

     Conveniently located behind our house this trail is always enjoyable, and has at times produced rarities. We have walked it a quite often in recent weeks and while we have not discovered anything out of the ordinary, the ordinary is very pleasing.
     A Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) always brings great pleasure.

     Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) was common and posed frequently.

     The highlight of this walk was the presence of several Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula). This tiny bird flits around constantly, and not only is it difficult to photograph, it seldom displays the ruby crown for which it is named. Whether the birds were angry with us, or with each other, or were initiating courtship I am not sure, but their crowns were flashing constantly.

     Congratulations to Miriam for these great shots.
     A couple of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) enlivened the walk too.

     And throughout the woodland carpets of Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa fortesii) were a joy to behold.

Three Bridges Road, St. Jacobs, ON
22 April 2020

     This rural road, about 5 kilometres in length, has long been a favourite, and is guaranteed to please. 
     Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) return to Ontario quite early and this individual was hard at work probing for food.

     Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscalus) is an under-appreciated species, but a close look reveals a bird of exquisite beauty.

     The diminutive Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) is our most common woodpecker, and like all woodpeckers is much loved.

     Male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) are handsome birds indeed, and are now in full voice throughout the wetlands of much of North America.

Hawkesville, ON
28 April 2020

     The small town of Hawkesville, situated alongside the Conestogo River has many excellent birding locations and we visit this area frequently.
     American Robin (Turdus migratorius) is one of our most common species and it is hard to go even five minutes without seeing one or more.

     Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) may be found nesting everywhere; in fact a couple of days ago I saw my first pair with goslings. This will be a common sight very soon I have no doubt.

     I have not seen many shorebirds yet this spring, although I have also been unable to visit some of the choice locations, so this Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) in a rocky section of the river was especially delightful to encounter.

     A Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) maintained a vigil in a nearby tree.

Our Backyard, Waterloo, ON
24 April 2020

     Some readers may remember that I posted about leucism recently and this leucistic American Robin spent a few minutes in our backyard.

     A leucistic bird is always very interesting to discover.

Our Backyard, Waterloo, On
29 April 2020

     American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) is by a long shot the most common bird in our backyard, and is a virtual fixture at the feeders. This species remains with us year round and is a drab olive colour in the winter, but in breeding plumage is a dazzling combination of black, white and yellow.

     But the highlight yesterday was the visit of four White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), a great favourite of many, and a beautiful bird by any standards.

     It was a great pleasure to see them. I hope they will come back again today.
     I wonder what other surprises we might discover? Time to go and take a look!

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

A Covid-19 Walk in the Park

     Yesterday it really felt like spring. The sun shone, the wind was light and the temperature flirted with sixteen degrees. What better to do than go for a walk?
     As Miriam and I debated where we would go, RIM Park popped up in the conversation. We were not sure whether the parking area would be open, although we were confident that the park itself would be. It's not far to go to check so that's what we did and were delighted to see that we could park as usual, and that others had already decided it was an equally fine day for fresh air and exercise.

     There were many people out to take in the sunshine, roller bladers, cyclists, families - all manner of people. I think we were the only birders!
     One young boy had a butterfly net and we had seen Cabbage White (Pieris rapae), Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) and Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) and we hoped that he would be successful in snaring something in his net. His enthusiasm was a joy to see.

Eastern Comma

     It was impossible not to ponder whether Covid-19 will have lasting consequences for the behaviour of children. It is the natural inclination of youngsters to get together and play; one kid with a ball is an open invitation for others to join in a game, a rope invites friends to skip, a snack is to be shared, and a butterfly in a net is a prize to be shown to everyone. Now children are admonished to keep their distance and not get together with others. This seems to fly in the face of the very notion of childhood. Will kids ever be able to get together and tussle again, play tag, exchange high fives in the dugout, act together in the school play? I hope so!

     One of the loveliest names for a flower it always seems to me is Spring Beauty (Clatonia caroliniana). 

     It is a member of that group of flowers we refer to as Spring Ephemerals, here but briefly as the snow and cold recede, and every copse and woodland bursts with bloom. The joy it brings is sublime.

     Another sure indicator that spring has arrived is the emergence of Eastern Garter Snakes  (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) from their hiberncula, and we were very happy to see this good-sized individual.

     These gentle snakes do no harm to anyone, yet are still persecuted, unfortunately, by people with an irrational and unfounded fear of them.
     An American Robin (Turdus migratorius) elicits exactly the opposite reaction; it is a bird much loved by all.

     Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) is not native to North America and is a serious competitor to cavity nesting birds vying for holes in trees that are already in short supply.

     There were quite a few Tree Swallows (Tchycineta bicolor) flying around and a couple perched high in a tree permitting a photograph or two, albeit not of sterling quality.

     Two pairs of Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser) sallied to and fro along the Grand River.

       A thoughtless individual with a dog threw a stick into the water for the dog to retrieve, causing the birds to leave in a hurry.

     A couple of White-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis) were busy and seemed to be displaying signs of nesting, although we never did spot the cavity.

     Western Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is pleasingly common in our area and there are many breeding pairs in the Grand River watershed. Miriam first spotted this individual perched on a high vantage point from which to scan the river.

     Shortly after we first saw it, it moved out over the water, hovered for an instant and dived, but came up without a fish. It then flew downstream right in front of us, no more than about two metres above our heads. With the right kind of equipment we could have had some amazing shots!
     On its next attempt, however it was successful and landed in a nearby tree with a fish flopping in its talons.

     It seemed to be quite a chore to subdue its prey.

      Finally, having taken a few bites from the choice area around the head, the bird flew off with the fish. Perhaps it has a mate on a nest to whom it needs to deliver food.
     There is a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) nest in Conestogo, not far from RIM Park and we decided to check it out before heading home. The female was clearly visible on the nest, but getting a clear angle for a photograph is just about impossible.

       For the past four years this pair has raised two young from this nest and we have every expectation that they will be similarly successful this year.
     We returned home well satisfied with our afternoon excursion, and thankful that we are not subject to the draconian regulations in other areas where one is barely permitted beyond the front door. In many areas seriously affected by Covid-19 there seems to be a glimmer of light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, thankfully.
     May the world soon return to something like normal for all of us.


Thursday, April 23, 2020

Chipping Sparrow (Bruant familier)

    Few birds are more common throughout than this gentle and harmless little bunting. It inhabits the towns, villages, orchards, gardens, borders of fields, and prairie grounds. It is almost as abundant as the Domestic Sparrow in Europe, and is nearly as familiar, though otherwise different in its habits.
John James Audubon

     Most non birders, if pressed to describe a sparrow, will call to mind the familiar House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), and will in most cases assume that a sparrow is a sparrow is a sparrow. House Sparrow is not in fact native to North America and is considered by some to be unwelcome. It certainly mounts a disturbing level of competition for many of our native species and is aggressive in its quest to thwart others for nesting sites.

House Sparrow, male

House Sparrow, female
     Depending on the current state of taxonomy there are about 130 or so species of New World Sparrows, found only in the Americas and on some Caribbean islands. It is one of the great challenges for a novice birder to learn to identify many of the similar species, often known as LBJs (little brown jobs).
     I have a great deal of fondness for this family, and they engender feelings of delight each time I see or hear them.
     A few days ago I spotted our first Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) of the spring in our backyard, and each day since there have been two individuals; today they were joined by a third.

     This tiny little sparrow (a mere 12 -14 cm from the tip of its bill to the end of its tail) is an unqualified favourite among our backyard patrons, and we were elated to see it return to spend another season with us.

     I was surprised to see that it appears to have a marked fondness for cracked corn. I have been putting out a dish of this feed each day for the Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and as a means of distracting the squirrels away from the bird feeders. The Chipping Sparrows have returned to feed on it time and again. 

     Chippping Sparrows prefer to nest in conifers from a metre to about 15 metres above the ground, and a pair nested one year in an ornamental cedar at the front of our house. This nest was parasitized by a Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) and the eggs of the host species were ejected from the nest.

     Here you see the eggs of the Brown-headed Cowbird in the Chipping Sparrow nest.

     A word or two about Brown-headed Cowbird, the most common obligate brood parasite in our area. 

Brown-headed Cowbird, male

Brown-headed Cowbird, female
     This species was originally a bird of the western plains, and followed the great herds of American Bison (Bison bison), feeding on the insects kicked up by the hooves of the wandering animals. In fact, the cowbird was colloquially known as Buffalo Bird.
     Upon extermination of the bison (one of the less enlightened actions of white settlers) the bird moved eastwards to where forests were being cleared and domestic cattle introduced to the land, thereby replicating the conditions found on the prairies. Having been part of the western landscape for millennia, bird species parasitized by the Brown-headed Cowbird had evolved various defence strategies to mitigate its impact, and the overall effect on host species populations was negligible in most cases. Eastern species, Chipping Sparrow among them, had no experience with brood parasitism and the cowbird success rate is much higher, causing serious impacts to many local populations, and in the case of Kirtland's Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) threatening the very future of the species.
     Purely as a point of interest, I am showing the egg of a Brown-headed Cowbird laid in the bag used to transport birds caught in a mist net. It is the only time this has happened in my experience.

     When the cowbird is successful in introducing its egg(s) into the host species' nest, its young are raised by surrogate parents, often at the expense of the young of the victimized species. 
     It is natural, I suppose, to have pity for the host species, and no doubt I have shared this emotion from time to time. In fact, perhaps we should be rejoicing in the degree of sophistication and success achieved by the obligate brood parasite who does not exercise choice in this matter, and is simply following its genetic code to reproduce in the way it is "programmed" to do.
     For four years in a row, Chipping Sparrows have fed Brown-headed Cowbird young in our backyard.

     The size disparity is apparent at a glance and the Chipping Sparrow above looks weary of feeding this gargantuan offspring!
     We have also had other species, Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) for instance, with cowbird offspring in our backyard, and they seem to be unable to resit any large youngster gaping and posturing at them, for they will deposit food into the nearest mouth.

     All is not once-sided, however, Chipping Sparrows have also brought their own offspring to visit.

     This bird has captured a large prey item and is posturing at us.

     I wonder whether this choice bundle of protein and fat is destined for young Chipping Sparrows or whether another Brown-headed Cowbird has succeeded in taking over the nest? In either case, we wish them well.
     Nature is eternally fascinating!

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.