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Monday, 30 November 2020

Catching up.....

     A while ago, I came across a delightful word, one that I had never heard before. The word is gruntled and it indicates the opposite sentiment of the familiar expression, disgruntled. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it? And it has a nice ring to it, so I am gruntled to wander through a few highlights of the past few days, with a glance back at Lily (I can hear the applause) a couple of weeks ago!

Lily, Friday 13 November 2020




   
 I could add a few words to these pictures, but your own reactions will suffice I am sure.
     On 20 November, when we would normally have met Heather and Lily for our regular Friday morning walk, they were away at the family cottage, so we skipped a week.

Friday 27 November 2020

     The Mill Race was our chosen spot and it looked very inviting as we began our walk.


     I cannot even estimate how many times Miriam and I have meandered along the Mill Race, but even Lily has done it a few times now. It is a pity, in a way, that she will not remember any of it, but we will doubtless be bringing her here for years to come.




     Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) is not an unusual bird, but it is not always easy to spot, and most have migrated south by now. A few remain and tough out the winter with us.

     Actually, given the weather of late, with bright sunshine day after day and temperatures well above freezing, we are in danger of forgetting what winter is like!
     Trees denuded of leaves often present quite a stark image and this mass of branches caught our attention.


     Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) can generally be easily found along the Mill Race and this individual was snacking on corn.


     American Beavers (Castor canadensis) seem to have been exceptionally busy this year, and they are nothing if not ambitious!


     They have built up their lodge, and laid in a winter food storage, in the process taking over half the path, and possession is ninth tenths of the law as we well know.



     Lily was totally unimpressed with it all and decided to have a snooze.


     A Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) was puffed out, not to keep warm I might add, for it was several degrees above freezing. Perhaps it was impressed by its own importance!


     Mallards (Anas platyrynchos) swam along beside us most of the time, and we remarked to each other that they are truly handsome ducks.


     A few leaves still clung to their branches, imparting a splash of brightness to a bare and largely colourless woodland.


     European Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) can be found at different points along the trail and this patch seems to attract Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) in great numbers, sometimes as many as a dozen feeding on the berries, taking advantage of easy pickings.


     A female was resting up, digesting the last engorgement, waiting to feast again. Buckthorn berries pass rapidly through the bird's digestive tract, so the wait will not be a long one.


    Lily's eyes followed all the action - a year from now we will perhaps have taught her the names of the birds and she will be calling them out to us.


     She is a biologist in waiting!

Saturday 28 November 2020

     For the first time in many weeks I decided to venture a little farther afield, and made off towards Lake Ontario to areas I knew would present no difficulty in maintaining the social distancing required during the pandemic. The change of scenery felt good.
     Harlequin Duck (Histrionicus histrionicus) is a rare winter visitor to southern Ontario, and I was delighted to see a pair at Lakefront Promenade in Mississauga. I had great looks at the birds through my telescope but they were a little far out for good photographs, at least with my basic equipment.

Harlequin Duck ♂

Harlequin Duck ♀

     Flotillas of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) sailed by, looking quite splendid in diffused November sunlight, which at times cast a subtle glow upon the water.



     A stop at Bronte Harbour in Oakville yielded unusually few birds, but a couple of female Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser) were keeping company with each other.


     Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) is a resident species at Bronte, adding a bit of a regal presence to the harbour, now emptied of boats that have been stored on land for the winter. 



     Given the balmy weather, no doubt many weekend mariners wished their craft were still available for a last excursion on the lake. It is much easier to take advantage of good weather for a final round of golf than to contemplate putting a sailboat back in the water.
     While I was out for the morning, Miriam was visited by a Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) which no doubt caused great consternation among the songbirds. She was unable to get a good picture, but this one memorializes the visit.


     Given the chance, I am sure that the hawk would have breakfasted on Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens).


     And a Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) would have made a substantial lunch.


Sunday 29 November 2020

     Always a regular in our yard, Mourning Doves of late have become particularly abundant, and for the past few days fifteen of them have congregated together. They are scattered throughout with some in trees, a few along the fence and others on the ground, so it is impossible to encompass them all in one shot, but this will give you an idea.



     One individual found a sunny spot to catch the warm rays of the sun and do a little feather maintenance.



     A House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) and an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) were content to feed side-by-side on the feeders. 
     

     Sunflower hearts are always good! 




 

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

A Woodpecker, a Nuthatch and a Couple of Books

     The spread of COVID-19 has been quite rampant of late, and restrictions on gatherings are becoming ever more severe. We have abandoned our Tuesday rambles involving eight participants, when despite our best intentions we failed to maintain proper social distancing, and of late Miriam and I have birded together, or I have gone off on my own if she is busy with other things.
     Once outside it is not at all difficult to respect the protocols established by the Government of Ontario, and in many instances we are in areas where we are the only people.
     The birds, of course, have no such concerns, and this female Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) cared little that I was in danger of breaching the distance guidelines.


     I was amazed that if I moved slowly and paused briefly after a couple of steps, it showed little nervousness.


     I was fortunate to be able to capture this shot of the bird showing its nictitating membrane, that opaque extra eyelid that provides protection when the wood chips are flying as the bird excavates on a tree.


     My coat pocket contained a little bird seed left over from a recent outing where people were keen to feed confiding chickadees and nuthatches, and this White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) was delighted that I was willing to share.


     It is perhaps vaguely oxymoronic to speak of benefits or advantages of COVID confinement, but it has driven me to devote more hours of the week to study, something which is pure recreation for me. I have refreshed my knowledge of certain topics and immersed myself in whole new pathways to learning.
     I freely confess to being addicted to natural history books and I am rarely happier than when I can add new titles to my library. Miriam is fortunately fully sympathetic with this passion, and in fact routinely scours the shelves of thrift stores for bargains on books she knows would appeal to me. From time to time, she has found some real gems.
     Everyone is familiar with that well known store Toys R Us, well perhaps Books R Me is not an inappropriate appellation!
     Here are my two most recent acquisitions. Firstly, Beetles - The Natural History and Diversity of Coleoptera by Stephen A, Marshall, a highly respected Canadian entomologist, recently retired from the University of Guelph.


 
   This is a mammoth tome of 784 pages, beautifully illustrated throughout, packed with facts. 
     Some of you are perhaps wondering why a volume on beetles for a dedicated (obsessive?) bird lover? It is really quite simple. Once one is engaged by one aspect of natural history everything else follows along. Beetles are an enormously difficult taxon and I am quite sure that I will barely scratch the surface in getting to know them. Usually I am delighted if I can narrow down the identification of a beetle to the family, and if I can nail the genus I am ecstatic.
     I suppose that my curiosity was initially piqued by wondering which species constituted prey for birds, and I know that I have always been both fascinated and amazed, bewildered even, by the sheer diversity of Coleoptera.
     You may rest assured that I will derive countless hours of pleasure from mining the information in this book. I will never become an expert but I will expand my knowledge to a great degree.
     My second addition is Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins by Ronald Orenstein, a renowned Canadian zoologist and wildlife conservationist.
     

      This too is a very substantial volume of 448 pages, also crammed with information and coloured photographs of all the species found throughout the world.
     Who among us is not captivated by these ancient creatures, already extant when the dinosaurs ruled the Earth? Their popularity in the pet trade is witness to this, but for the sake of the continued existence of some species in the wild, it would be better if this practice could be stopped immediately.
     Many happy hours lie ahead in the company of these two volumes. And come to think of it, Miriam is at the thrift store right now. Who knows what she might bring home?

Beetles, The Natural History and Diversity of Coleoptera, Stephen A. Marshall, Firefly Books (2018)

Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins, A Natural History, Ronald Orenstein, Firefly Books (2012)
     
      


       


Sunday, 22 November 2020

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatoès à huppe jaune)

      Barely a week goes by without someone asking me to name my favourite bird. This, of course, is an impossible task. It depends on where I am at the time, my mood, even the bird I have just seen. 
     Without hesitation, however, I can tell you of one species of which I am inordinately fond - Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua galerita).


     This is a very handsome bird indeed, measuring from 44 - 51 cm, principally white, with a vivid yellow forward-curving crest, and a hint of pale-yellow on the cheeks. The physical description barely begins to describe this intelligent bird, however. It has panache, a confident swagger, and attitude to spare. It dominates other species wherever it is found, it sets the tone for the gathering.


     I remember my initial encounter with it when driving from the Canberra airport to my B&B on my first visit to Australia in 1998. I stopped at a red light and glanced up into the tree on the sidewalk and saw my first Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. I was instantly enchanted and have remained so ever since.
     It seems to relish the company of humans and may be found in suburban gardens, especially where feeding trays and water are provided. 


     It is not always a benign presence and can cause considerable damage. It's powerful beak is capable of decapitating flowers, removing the weather stripping from doors and windows, and destroying the seal on the windshield of your car.
     My good friend, Sue Goldberg, who lives in Canberra terms them Sulphur-crested Vandals, and more than once has looked out to see all her flowers strewn on the ground. Despite their bad behaviour she loves them dearly and would not wish them ill even for a moment. It seems that humans present a challenge that cockatoos simply cannot resist!
     Established pairs seem extremely affectionate towards each other and often maintain very close contact. 


     Courtship, however, is both simple and brief. The male struts along a branch towards the female, with crest raised. He bobs his head up and down and swishes it from side to side in a figure eight movement, all the while softly chattering to the female. Allopreening and copulation generally follow.
     Large cavities in trees are selected for nest sites and breeding pairs maintain great interest in suitable sites, visiting them throughout the year.


     Australia remains one of my most favourite countries on earth to visit - check that, my absolute most favourite place. There are so many interesting birds in so many unique families, with the excitement of discovery every day. None has captured my heart more than Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, however.


     If ever we get COVID under control and can travel again, I intend to pay them a visit at least one more time. I have a couple of their feathers right in front of me as I compose this post, and that will have to suffice for now. That and my memories!
     À la prochaine mes amis.



Friday, 20 November 2020

Ring-billed Gull (Goéland à bec cerclé)

     It seems to me that gulls in general get a bad rap, and are less appealing to some birders than other species. They also seem to engender feelings of indifference at best, hostility at worst, from the wider public. Small, cute and colourful always seems to outweigh other factors, but that is a pretty shallow judgement when you think about it.
       Is this not a handsome bird?


      Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) is the most common gull in this area for most of the year at most locations. On a slow day of birding one can count on a few gulls to brighten up the day, wheeling overhead or following a farm tractor eagerly feeding on the exposed invertebrate prey, all the while filling the air with their cries.
     To share your day with a gull is a fine thing.
     These juveniles seem content to stay together while learning how to cope with life; discovering in fact what it means to be a gull.



      They have much to learn, and sadly, as is true for most species, many will not make it. Hazards are legion for these young birds from foxes on the ground, to falcons in the air, to witless humans with guns.


     Those that survive the various perils they face will morph into handsome adults.


     I hear the common pejorative terms for gulls more often than I care to, and it is time someone came up with something more creative than shithawk, sometimes drawn out to shitehawk, or aerial rat. 
     And this from the species that has polluted and despoiled the Earth and its oceans beyond recognition.
     There is more than a little irony that we label gulls aerial rats when they are feeding on the very trash that we have dumped in every corner of the planet. 
Yesterday, I parked my car on Beaver Creek Road to check out the birds on Laurel Creek reservoir, and the pull off at the side of the road was littered with fast food containers, both styrofoam and plastic, plastic drink cups, plastic straws and plastic bags. And we call gulls aerial rats? And then, by the way, tossed over the culvert into the water, our source of drinking water, was an area rug (I would estimate 9' x 12') and a scooter. Yup, we really have the right to criticize other species!
     Interestingly, I recently read a study that indicated that while gulls may eat our discarded French fries and doughy white bread, they feed their offspring only nutritious food that the young need to develop correctly. Humans who eat junk food exercise no such discrimination and feed their growing children the same inadequate diet. The rise in obesity in North America is more than alarming, with grossly overweight people seriously lacking in basic nutrition.
     This adult bird in winter plumage looks like it has eaten well.


     And this individual in first winter plumage has a healthy demeanour to it.


     Even on the coldest winter's day, when we are shivering and pulling our toques down over our ears, and wishing we had worn an extra layer of clothing, the gulls are unfazed by it all, and brighten up the chilling bite of an Ontario winter.



     In every phase of its plumage a Ring-billed Gull is a handsome bird.




      In fact to my eye, it is uncommonly beautiful and merits the close attention of everyone. Perhaps if you take the time to understand a little more of its lifestyle you may come to appreciate it - who knows even learn to love it as much as I do. 
     I am listing below the books on my shelves devoted exclusively to gulls (not including books on seabirds, field guides etc) in the hope that something might appeal to you and stimulate a desire to learn more about this wonderful bird we all share. It would be a great way to spend your Covid confinement!

Gulls Simplified, Pete Dunne and Kevin T. Karlson, Princeton University Press (2019)

Gulls, A Guide to Identification, P. J. Grant, Academic Press (1997)

Gulls of the Americas, Steve N. G. Howell, Jon Dunn, Houghton Mifflin Company (2007)

Gulls of the World, Klaus Malling Olsen, Princeton University Press (2018)

Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America, Klaus Malling Olsen and Hans Larssson, Christopher Helm London (2003)