Thursday, 28 May 2020

Local Rambles and a Rarity in Waterloo Region

        Miriam and I get out most days, sometimes me alone, but often together. The Coronavirus has not appreciably affected our ability to enjoy nature, although it has imposed some restrictions on where we travel. 
     It has always been our practice to explore locally, but we are now getting to know familiar areas in greater depth, as we probe their secrets more frequently.

19 May 2020
Lakeside Park, Kitchener, ON

     This park continues to deliver sub par results for us, but we persist in our visits - at least for the time being. On this excursion the bird life seemed to be next to non-existent, but there were flowers to capture our attention.
     Forget-me-not (Myosotis laxa) is familiar to anyone who has ever ambled through a woodland glade in spring, and it sometimes carpets the ground in a scintillating show of colour.

     What I do not recall ever having seen before is a white variant of the flower. A little research reveals that there are a couple of white forms, and perhaps the one shown here is M. verna.

     Wooly Blue Violets (Viola sororia) were also widespread - and very attractive too.

     The distinctive song of the aptly named Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is part of the background chorus of springtime in Ontario.

     Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) is quite common in a wild state, but this is a flower that has been widely co-opted as a garden plant too.

     Yellow Rocket (Barbarea vulgaris) thrives even in denuded and impoverished soil. It is a hardy competitor in the struggle to occupy a place in the ecosystem.

20 May 2020
RIM Park, Waterloo, ON

     We spent a wonderful morning at RIM Park, where birds greeted us everywhere, and many people took advantage of fine weather to get outside for a while. I must say that the populace at large has become accustomed to social distancing and appropriate separation was maintained without exception. Everyone seemed to be dealing with the new norm with good humour and with respect for others.
     A Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) was oblivious to such mundane preoccupations, of course.

     People who know little of birds, who pay them barely a moment's heed, seem nevertheless to be excited by Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula). They are appealing birds to see and their glorious colouration seems to match the mood of summer.

     It was a frequent occurrence to have people pass by and upon seeing our binoculars tell us they had seen an oriole.
     American Robin (Turdus migratorius) is a very familiar bird, loved by all, and seemed to be nesting everywhere. We discovered four occupied nests.

     Male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) were ardent and competitive in their pursuit of females.

     It has always been a bit of a mystery to me why Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) has become such a pariah. It is bold, gold and glorious! It grows anywhere and needs no care. Its leaves are tasty additions to a salad. What is there to despise?

     A Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) of a particularly pale morph rode the thermals above our heads.

     It is our practice to give at least a passing glance to holes in trees to see whether an Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) is perchance basking in the sun. There was no owl in this cavity, but the top of the head of a Raccoon (Procyon lotor) was visible as it snoozed away the daylight hours.

     An Eastern Wood Pewee (Contopus virens) played hide-and-seek with us for a while.

     A male American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) was a little more willing to pose in full view.

     Shaded, wet areas with fallen logs are the haunts of thrushes.

     It was here that we found both Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) and Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus), but managed only to photograph the Swainson's Thrush.

     The Grand River snakes alongside RIM Park in majestic splendour, attracting a wide variety of birds that make their living there.

     This Western Osprey (Pandion haliaeetus) no doubt has young to feed and patrolled the river seeking to seize an unwary fish.

     Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) seemed to be everywhere, sallying forth from their perches to grab a passing insect.

     America Yellow Warblers (Setophaga aestiva) were similarly ubiquitous and were truly glorious to see as they zipped around from perch to perch, bathed in bright sunlight.

     Grey Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) on the other hand are far more at home tucked away in the dark recesses of tangles and undergrowth.

22 May 2020
Kissing Bridge Trail, Elmira, ON

     Our good friend Merri-Lee had recommended a couple of birding spots to us and we went to check them out, with a view to further exploration in the fall.
     Most of the spring migration has already passed through, but the area holds great promise with mixed habitat, and we will look forward to discovering its wildlife on subsequent visits.
    In the meantime we were able to get more pictures of Trillium grandiflorum for Marit to enjoy.

24 May 2020
SpruceHaven, St. Agatha, On

     Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) are having a productive year and many of our nest boxes contain eggs or young. 
     Here are two nest boxes each containing a full clutch of eggs.

26 May 2020
Three Bridges Road, St. Jacobs, ON

     The Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) that have bred each year at the Mennonite meeting house appear to be having another successful year, and we have seen adults delivering food into the nest boxes. For us, this is one of the most reliable spots to see this enigmatic little bird.

26 May 2020
River Song Banquet Hall, St. Jacobs, ON

     The nearby wet fields are always a prime spot for Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus).

     The osprey nest close to the bridge over the Conestogo River is very accessible, and surely provides one of the most reliable locations in the region to guarantee good looks at this species.

     It is a happy story that this "fish hawk" has made a spectacular recovery from the grim days of organochlorine chemical pesticides, and is now quite common throughout the region.

26 May 2020
Chalmers-Forrest Road, Wellesley Township, Region of Waterloo, ON

     It is a delight to meander through the countryside which forms the backdrop to the urban areas of Kitchener - Waterloo - Cambridge, and it is something Miriam and I do often. We never tire of it, whatever the season.

     When Miriam accompanies me, the birding is so much easier; two pairs of eyes and two pairs of ears are obviously better than one. When we are driving along country roads and scanning for birds it is especially helpful, for when I am alone, between paying minimal attention to driving and scanning fields and hedgerows, I can only look at one side of the road, and doubtless miss a great deal.
     The advantage of a combined effort was never more apparent than on this day while slowly driving along Chalmers-Forrest Road. 
     Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) is a common breeding species, but not always easy to spot - a brown back against the background of a ploughed field.

     But we are not surprised to see one.
     It would have been easy for Miriam to dismiss a bird she saw flying low over a field (at some distance initially I might add) as a Horned Lark, but she asked me to back up, and said, "I am not sure what I saw, but it is too streaky for a Horned Lark, and it seems to have a rusty patch"
     Kudos to her ! Double kudos to her!
     The bird was a Dickcissel (Spiza americana), a real rarity in this area.

     In fact, we think there may well have been two birds, but we lost one completely, so we cannot be sure. A breeding pair would be wonderful!
     She kept her eyes on the bird, and by giving me instructions to move the car judiciously, she was able to get several shots.

     We were elated, of course, and stayed with the bird until it finally flew out of sight.
     Miriam had made iced coffee for us to take along on a hot, sultry day. It tasted like fine Champagne!
     It is going to be hard to top this sighting for the rest of the year.
     No doubt many birders have their favourite companions for synergistic success. You don't get a prize for guessing who mine is!

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Book Review - Spiders of the World - A Natural History - Princeton University Press

       Time to conquer your arachnophobia and delve  into the wonderful world of spiders. This is a taxon that has interested me for as long as I can remember, intrinsically, as a significant control of insect populations, and as an important source of food for many birds.
     Spiders are found on every continent except Antarctica, and vary incredibly in size, form, colour and lifestyle. Most are benign, but some pack a forceful dose of venom, and the threat posed by female Black Widow Spiders lurking in outhouses, is the stuff of folklore and legend! Much has also been made of the propensity of female spiders to eat their suitors once mating is consummated. Did you know that Australian tarantulas are capable of seizing and consuming Cane Toads?
     Do I have your attention?
     This book is a compendium of everything you could possibly wish to know about spiders, accompanied by a stunning array of high quality colour photographs. It starts with a thorough review of spider anatomy with diagrams and incredible images of details revealed only under a microscope. It is a breathtaking journey through a world hitherto unknown to virtually all of us.
     What then follows is exceptional coverage of over a hundred spider families, presented taxonomically. It is illuminating to contemplate that there are more than 48,000 species of spiders in 4,000 genera and 115 families! These accounts are highlighted by beautiful colour photographs, depicting a range of lifestyle and habitat. The pictorial coverage benefits greatly from the availability of digital cameras and I think it is safe to say that many of the photographs represent activities seldom, if ever, shown before.
     Each family account is accompanied by a range map, and brief notes pinpointing the genus, distribution, habitat, and a summary of characteristics. I find this an incredibly pleasing device, showing very conscientious editing, with a view to making the book as useful to the reader as possible.
     The book concludes with a comprehensive glossary and recommendations for further reading.
     From the first page to the last this book is a tour de force. I recommend it highly.

Spiders of the World - A Natural History
Norman I. Platnick
US$29.95 - 9780691188850 - 240 pages - 6.5 in. x 9.5 in.
Publication date: 09 June 2020     

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Birds, Buns and Butterflies

     We have not been far enough afield to merit a complete post (although that might change when Miriam downloads her pictures from yesterday, albeit from a local morning walk), so once again this segment will be a composite of a few days activity.

16 May 2020
Hillside Park, Waterloo, ON

     This local park, mere minutes from our home, has become a bit of a favourite in recent times, especially during the Coronavirus. Sometimes the bird life is plentiful, at others not, but it is always a pleasant walk regardless.
     On this day it was very active and migrant wood warblers were present in good numbers. Seeing them, enjoying them, revelling in them, is entirely different from taking a picture, however.
     Myrtle Warbler (Setophaga coronota) was the most common species but this is the only picture we could get.

     Myrtle Warbler was formerly combined with Audubon's Warbler (Setophaga auduboni) as a single species (and still is by some taxonomists) as Yellow-rumped Warbler and the picture shows the reason for this name. I have heard it referred to as Yump, or, (with great affection no doubt), Butter-butt. I suspect it would be a sage and diplomatic decision to never refer to your spouse or special other in such a way! Otherwise hot tongue and cold shoulder might be your daily diet for a while to come!
     Grey Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) is a wonderful bird to encounter. Its own song is varied and melodious but it is an accomplished mimic and many is the time I have searched for several species only to realize that a catbird is playing with me!

     The Mallards (Anas platyrynchos) we saw were all males, lazing away their time while the females go about the serious business of incubating their eggs.

     Miriam's close up of the head should cause you to take a critical look at this dandy next time you see one. Did you ever look so good?

     She also had the presence of mind to capture the speculum in glorious detail.

     The speculum is that bright patch of colour seen on the secondary feathers of waterfowl, with a distinct border surrounding the main colour. Interestingly this feature is different for each species, and careful examination enables one to identify the species by the speculum alone. I am sure you will all wish to embark on a study of this character in several species!
     Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) is one of our most common birds and can be heard almost constantly. It is a splendid component of our avifauna and very handsome too.

     Butterflies were not plentiful, except for Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) and this male obligingly lit on a beautiful golden Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).

     A Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) was also very considerate and posed with wings outspread.

17 May 2020
In our house and in our yard

     Miriam and I both like to cook, but she is the only baker of the two of us and has been doing quite a bit of it during our Covid-19 confinement.
     One of the items she has made are buns for sandwiches for lunch. They are large, quite flat (something like baps in Britain), coated with red onion and cheddar cheese, and they take their place on the Elysian Fields of culinary out-of-worldliness. If Michelin were to have a category for home cooking, these petits pains would have the highest rating. (Take note, Rick, in Michigan, you have serious competition!)

     Miriam has declared that next time she makes them she also plans to add sliced olives, so the very best will get even better. 
     I wonder if the House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) on the backyard feeders were looking in and contemplating a change in diet?

     The American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) seemed utterly content with sunflower hearts. 

       Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula) were happy to gorge on oranges sliced and put out for them to enjoy.

17 May 2020
Lakeside Park, Kitchener, ON

     This location seems to have acquired a bit of a reputation as a warbler hot spot during migration; it has never been so for us, however. In fact, for birding in general, it has by and large been a dead zone.

     The highlight of the visit was that we ran into Jim and Francine, also similarly deprived of avian companionship at the park. We kept our social distance, but chatted for a while and got caught up a little. 
     Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and their young were the undisputed stars in the park, and barely a person walked by them without an admiring glance. I think that "ooh" and "aah" were the two most used words that day!

     And there are more to come.

      This Mallard was determined not to be outdone and posed for all the world to see.

18 May 2020
Three Bridges Road, St. Jacobs, ON

     It was a bit of a dreary day, and at times there was quite a bit of rain, but I had a great suite of birds despite the conditions.
     Who can fail to ignore the weather when male and female Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) take the time to say hello?

     And a couple of noisy Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) did their share to enliven the day too.

     A little bird seed, judiciously distributed, is guaranteed to bring in a variety of species.
     This female Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) was chased out of the trees by a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) where perhaps she had intentions of depositing her egg in the grackle's nest.

     A couple of White-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis) navigated the trunk of a tree in their customary head first fashion.

     The little male Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) hopped onto the cable for the briefest of moments but my camera was primed and ready.

     The local Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) were dealing with the rain as best they could.

     And a Red-winged Blackbird seemed resigned to a good drenching too.

     So there you have it - a little glimpse into our lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. I suspect that we will all look back on this event and have stories to tell. The one consistent for us is that life has not radically changed, and the certain benefit of being captivated by nature is that it is always there to enjoy, pandemic be damned!

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.