Thursday, December 31, 2020

Goodbye 2020 (maybe even Good Riddance)

     The year that will end in just a few hours has not been the kindest we have experienced and I suspect that most people will be glad to close the door on "The Year of COVID".
     For naturalists, however, life has been far more tolerable than for urban dwellers, especially those confined to small apartments, and in truth it has not been terrible for Miriam and me. We have certainly regretted the ability to get together with good friends, and we miss the opportunity to travel. But nature writ large, in all its ever-changing glory, is at our doorstep and we enjoy it to the fullest. We could gripe about the inconveniences that are now a part of our daily routine, or we can rejoice in the immutability of what pleases us most, and that is what we choose to do.
     If you were feeling a little constrained, a tad down in the dumps, what could perk up your spirits more than sharing precious moments with friendly Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus)? 

And sometimes two or three are clamouring to make your day special.

     I feel a warm glow just from the memory.

     And if a Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) should happen along to join the party, more to the good.

     On the day that the above pictures were taken a glorious sunset accompanied us on our way home.

     It's pretty hard to feel down about anything with that kind of goodnight kiss.
     Right up until Christmas Eve we had rain, but overnight the temperature dipped and it changed to snow.
     Hillside Park looked quite glorious.

     A little snow does wonders for a winter landscape.

     A Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) high above us would no doubt have agreed.

     It seemed out of camera range, but Miriam's shots show it well I think.

     A Black Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) has lived through winters past and was determined to guard his post.

     Miriam is a dedicated sewer (I think the term "sewist" is now used more frequently), and she was delighted to see this sign in the park, no doubt placed there with people like her in mind!

     Those sewers can be ornery at times!
     Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) are possessed of an infinite charm, and nothing is quite so appealing as this little bird going about its business, winter be damned.

     As long as we have open water Mallards (Anas platyrynchos) are equally at home in Ontario in December.

     A Barred Owl (Strix varia) has taken up residence in the park, but knowing it is there and seeing it is a different matter entirely. Our luck held out, however, and find it we did, quietly roosting, waiting for the cover of night to begin its hunt.

     Miriam's sister, Karen, was walking in the park too, unknown to us, so we were able to show her the owl.

     I suspect this was her first sighting of a Barred Owl and she was suitably impressed.

     This was our final species of the day and pretty special if you ask me!
     Snow, delightful though it is, and an integral part of the fertile land that is all around us, means that I have to shovel my driveway and the sidewalk.

     It is not a chore I really mind, but I have to confess that sometimes when it snows for days on end, and it needs to be done daily, it can get to be a little much!

     Here is a view looking down the street.

     This is the time of year for special treats and we made chicken empanadas with a yogurt/cilantro sauce - and they were delicious. New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are just the wine to pair with such delights. Okay, with just about anything if you insist!

     The end of a year is a time for reflection, perhaps, and as I cast my mind over many experiences, I am truly grateful for the wonderful opportunities a love of birds has laid before me. My travels to many foreign lands have been a significant part of my enjoyment of life to the fullest, not only in the quest to see new and exciting birds, but to participate in the cultures and food of other nations. I have seen magnificent landscapes, spectacular mountains, wide rivers and tranquil streams, beasts large and small, jungles, forests, woods, and grasslands, and endured every climate this Earth can throw at you. I have met and enjoyed the company of many people from world-renowned ornithologists to the humblest of peasants. Each encounter has enriched me. We are all fellow travellers on this one planet that we share and differences of colour, religion, caste or economic circumstance should never be allowed to divide us. You are all my brothers and sisters.
     For the past eighteen years it has been a joy of immense magnitude to share my life with Miriam. She has been (and continues to be) the finest companion one could envisage and shares my love of nature, music, books and wine! Who could ask for more? 


Monday, December 28, 2020

Familiar Sparrows - Part 3

     The first couple of posts on some of our unique sparrows engendered quite a bit of interest, so I am going to feature six more species, of which I have reasonable pictures. I hope you will enjoy getting to know them, and will look for them where you live.

Sooty Fox Sparrow (Passerella unalaschcensis)

     In the first segment in this series about New World Sparrows I introduced you to Red Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) and I am delighted to present its cousin, Sooty Fox Sparrow. The specific name above gives you a  clue to its northern affinities and the subspecies that I encountered on Vancouver Island is P. unalaschcensis fuliginosa.

     I have to tell you, that I was absolutely thrilled to encounter this darkest of all the forms at Island View Beach Regional Park in Saanichton. It was my first and only experience with this bird, but we were able to enjoy it for an hour or so, and on a trip that featured many spectacular species it was the singular highlight for me. When COVID finally receives a well-deserved kick in the backside and we can resume normal life, it will be high on my priority list to return to Vancouver Island to study this bird some more. 

     As you can see in the pictures above and below, the Sooty Fox Sparrows were keeping company with Golden-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla) -  another species found only in the west, so my happiness was doubled.

     The birds were very cooperative and showed little inclination to scatter, other than when a perceived threat presented itself, but they were quick to return to feed anew.

     This species breeds on Vancouver Island, but not much farther south, barely getting into northern Washington.

     It is a fabulous bird, and I waited a long time to see it. I am not sure that I had expectations, but if I did they were exceeded!

Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis)

     I must confess that I am sneaking in this species since you are not going to find it anywhere in North America, but if you journey to Central or South America it will be your daily companion in the right habitat.

     I first met up with it on CuraƧao about thirty years ago, maybe a little longer, but my most vivid memories of this little charmer are from Ecuador in 2009 when Miriam and I took to calling it "Rufie", an affectionate honorific for a friend, in effect.

     Every day we saw tanagers and hummingbirds, flowerpiercers and trogons, antbirds and owls, but keeping us company all the while was Rufous-collared Sparrow.

     We never failed to be charmed by it.

     This species is widely distributed throughout most of South America and there is an isolated relict population on the Island of Hispaniola, perhaps meriting consideration as a separate species, having probably been isolated there since the last ice age.

     Most of the eco lodges where we have stayed have extensive feeding stations and Rufous-collared Sparrow is always happy to benefit from a well-stocked smorgasbord.

     Surely there will be no lack of consensus that this is a charming, jaunty little character, well deserving of your affection.

Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)

     Another Zonotrichia  with swagger and panache!

     Found strictly in the west, this species breeds as far north as Alaska, south to Vancouver Island, which is where I have seen it more more frequently than in any other location.

     A lifetime of birding has produced a storehouse of memories as you might imagine, and one of my favourites recalls a grey, blustery day on Mount Tolmie in Victoria, BC, when Miriam and I came across a group of Golden-crowned Sparrows feeding, and squabbling amongst themselves, on a rocky outcrop. What they were finding I am not sure, but it was evidently highly prized.

     The prize for us was to watch them go about their business. 

     It is a large sparrow, as are Zonotrichia species in general, but it cannot be confused with any other.

     I am sure that you will have no difficulty agreeing with me that this is a handsome species well worthy of your approbation. Here are three individuals with a Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus), about which you will learn more below.

     If you have a chance to visit beautiful Vancouver Island one day, one of my favourite places on Earth, perhaps you too will be thrilled by a Golden-crowned Sparrow. I hope so!

Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)

     When spring returns to southern Ontario,  Savannah Sparrows return with it.

     For a while, you might be forgiven for thinking that every fencepost is occupied by an ardent male, and it is not unusual to observe (and hear) several of them within the span of a few hundred metres.

     They pour forth their song almost incessantly, in defence of territory, and as an invitation to a female to join in partnership.

     I swear that in early spring, Miriam and I are seized by the same itch to get out and find our first Savannah Sparrow of the season.

     Once the ice has been broken, so to speak, it becomes a question of how many we will see, no longer whether we will find one or not.
     It is a beautiful little sparrow, boldly striped with pinkish legs and prominent yellow supercilium.

     Miriam's hearing is more sensitive than mine and she takes great pleasure in detecting the song, which  generally escapes my attention, especially if it is a windy day.

     It is for both of us a bit of a rite of spring to find the first Savannah Sparrows returning to the meadows and pasturelands of Waterloo Region. The rhythm of the seasons is imprinted upon us!

Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)

     This is a large, long-tailed sparrow - and very handsome too.

     The male, shown above, has a black head, a prominent reddish eye, a white belly and white spots on the wing.

     The female, shown below, looks very similar, except that she is grey to brown where the male is black.

      This is another bird of the western regions of North America, although it does exhibit a tendency to wander, and is found from time to time in southern Ontario.

     In my experience it is easier to find than the closely related Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythropthalmus) and seems more willing to come out into the open. Vancouver Island seems to be a bit of a stronghold for this species and we saw it there frequently.
     When feeding Spotted Towhees use a double kick method, commonly seen among all towhee species.
     It was not a particularly cold day when we saw the individual below at Somenos Marsh near Duncan, BC, so perhaps it is puffed out as a form of display. It certainly looks very striking.

     And so, when you visit Vancouver Island to see Golden-crowned Sparrow, Spotted Towhee will be there to greet you too!

     That should make your day!

Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)

     Eastern Towhee, formerly known as Rufous-sided Towhee,  is the eastern equivalent of the Spotted Towhee of the west.

     It is skulker, and while not uncommon, is often difficult to locate. In my experience, if you live in southern Ontario it may be quite easily found at Hullett Marsh in Huron County, and at Pinery Provincial Park on the shores of Lake Huron. No doubt others have favourite locations to find this colourful species.

     As is readily apparent in the picture above, this species has a white base to the primaries and lacks the spots of its western counterpart. White in the sides and corner of the tail is also prominent.

     Many are those who, thinking always that sparrows are brown and dull, are surprised by the colourful plumage of the two towhees featured here. It should be pointed out that other towhees are nowhere near so vividly plumaged, Abert's Towhee (Pipilo aberti), for example. 
     The female Eastern Towhee is delicate and lovely to my eye.

     As I look out the window at the snows of winter drifting in the backyard, with the wind whipping the branches into constant motion, and a Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) patrolling the trees and shrubs looking for an inattentive songbird for lunch, I am reminded that the towhees who have left us for milder conditions farther south, will return in the spring. And their habit of remaining in dense, interlocking undergrowth, darting out only to feed briefly, will perhaps protect them from the well-honed skills of a predatory hawk, and from the eyes of an inquisitive birder too!
     I will look forward to welcoming them back in the spring.

     It has given me a good deal of pleasure to bring you accounts of these sparrows, in the hope you will become more alert to what is around you. If you have enjoyed even a moment of satisfaction, or have gained one small speck of knowledge, you have made me very happy. Thanks for taking the time to read my blog.

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.