Sunday, 31 January 2021

Book Review - Birds of Argentina and the South-west Atlantic - Princeton Field Guides


      Other than being out in the field, there is nothing quite like a new field guide to get a birder's juices flowing. There is an added dimension of pleasure and excitement when the guide covers a region far from home. Given the fact that many of us are confined to home by COVID-19, and travel even within the borders of our own country, let alone overseas, is well nigh impossible, the excitement is magnified. We have all become armchair birders to some extent, and I have already spent several rewarding hours probing this field guide. 
     It is a wonderful new guide to the birds of Argentina, with due attention also being paid to the avifauna of the southwest Atlantic.
     Mark Pearman is renowned for his knowledge of the birds of the southern part of South America and I can think of no one better to be the lead author of this work. I confess to not being acquainted with Juan Ignacio Areta, but a search of the literature, and the bibliography in the book, reveals that he is a distinguished Argentinian ornithologist and has collaborated with Pearman on several scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals.
     The format follows the standard arrangement for modern field guides. The introductory pages are filled with information and I cannot emphasize enough that birders should always take the time to read this section. In the case of the present guide, for example, the coverage of geography and hydrogeography alone, makes for a more comprehensive understanding of the distribution of birds within the country. The section on bird topography is artfully done, with different species used to highlight the multi-faceted nature of avian form.
     The guide is arranged in conventional format, with illustrations on the right hand page, and text and range maps on the left. The pictures, the work of four different artists, illustrate the birds well, and after close examination I can find nothing to which I would take exception. I would be very happy to have this guide with me in the field.
     I found it quite fascinating that after the species accounts, an illustrated section is devoted to furnariid and icterid nests. How incredibly useful! This is followed by six appendices, viz, 1. Introduced species 2. Keys to prion identification 3. Keys to pipit identification 4. Sonograms 5. List of illustrated flora (hooray for this one!) 6. Taxonomic notes.
     The list of references is comprehensive, pointing the way to further study.
     I cannot help reflect that Princeton University Press has done a masterful job in the coverage of the avifauna of this part of the Americas. When I went to Chile in 2012 Alvaro Jaramillo's Birds of Chile was my constant companion. This was followed in 2018 by Birds of Chile, A Photo Guide by Steve Howell and Fabrice Schmitt. Now with this fabulous new guide, The Birds of Argentina, southern South America is very comprehensively covered. 
     Thank you Princeton University Press!

Birds of Argentina and the South-west Atlantic - Princeton University Press
Mark Pearman & Juan Ignacio Areta
Paperback - US$39.95  - ISBN: 9780691147697
Publish date: 9 February 2021
432 pages - 5.5" x 8.5"

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Random Memories of Australia - Part 3

      The lockdown in Ontario has just been extended so the opportunities to get out birding are significantly restricted. In addition, as I start to compose this post (26 January), we are experiencing our first major snowfall of the winter, and by the time it is all over I expect there will be lots to shovel! The conditions are certainly not conducive to drives through the countryside.
     Being confined to the house has not been entirely disagreeable, and I have been quite happy reliving my Australian experiences and I am eager to share with you, again, some of that continent's superb species.
     In no particular order, and without regard to taxonomic sequence, here are six remarkable Australian birds.

Cape Barren Goose (Cereopsis novaehollandiae)

     You would be hard pressed to find a more handsome goose than Cape Barren Goose, but in many respects it flies in the face of all that we know about geese. It is of ancient origin and has only partially webbed feet; unique among waterfowl, copulation takes place entirely on land and there are no pre-copulatory displays involving water at all. In fact Cape Barren Goose seems to shun water most (if not all) of the time and we never saw a single bird enter the water. 

     Both sexes utter a pig-like grunt and one of the vernacular names for this species is Pig Goose.
     Cape Barren Goose was common on Philip Island, VIC, verging on abundant in some spots. Many adults were chaperoning recently arrived young, and it was charming to encounter them.

     Ducklings and goslings of all species are at the top of the avian cuteness index, but one might be forgiven for concluding that Cape Barren goslings take first prize.

     I owe a great debt of thanks to Stewart for taking us to see these treasures, and sharing with us his intimate knowledge of many great birding spots on Philip Island.

     As I look across from my desk right now I can see a flight feather that I collected at the time. One feather doesn't make a goose, but it will have to suffice for now!
     À la prochaine mes amis!

Channel-billed Cuckoo (Scythrops novaehollandiae)

     This huge monotypic cuckoo is unlike any other cuckoo in Australia.
     We were very fortunate to it see on our first day in Sydney when we visited the Royal Botanical Gardens.

     We were alerted to its presence by the noisy racket of agitated Pied Currawongs (Strepera graculina). This cuckoo, which will lay as many as five eggs in the nest of its host species, favours large songbirds roughly of its own size, currawongs and Australian Magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen) principally, as the host for its eggs and the future care of its young.
     As if in confirmation of this fact, Australian Magpies thronged together with the currawongs to mob the Channel-billed Cuckoo, much in the manner of the cavalry bringing in reinforcements! 

     The combined assault of the currawongs and magpies succeeded in driving off the nest vandal, but it had been a wonderful experience for us to witness.       Drama of this nature plays out daily, but it frequently goes unnoticed. We were happy to have had a front row seat to the performance!

Pied Currawong (Strepera graculina

     Doubtless many of you are now saying, "What the heck does a Pied Currawong look like"? Well, let me show you.

     It is a large bird, about the same size as an American Crow (Corvus brachyrynchos) and is widespread throughout the eastern regions of Australia from the tip of Cape York to the westernmost part of the State of Victoria.

     It is bold, and has habituated to a wide range of habitats, including cities and other zones of human habitation. 
     It flies with a deep, flapping wingbeat, and it did not take us long to recognize a bird in flight. Rarely did a day go by without the company of currawongs.

     This common Australian bird contributed in no small measure to our enjoyment of the marvelous and unique avifauna of Australia. Every sighting was special for us.

New Holland Honeyeater (Phylidonyris novaehollandiae)

     Few birds charmed us more than New Holland Honeyeater. It is impossible to overstate the joy we derived from this enchanting little bird.

     It was the most common honeyeater throughout our stay in Australia and we saw it most days throughout the three states we visited.

     If there was one bird we came to take for granted, in the way that one might become blasé here about American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), New Holland Honeyeater would have been it.

     It's not that we ever failed to appreciate it, and it enlivened our days without exception.

     I think I will set for myself the challenge of going through all our pictures and identifying the different flowers on which it fed. Should be fun!

Nankeen Night Heron (Nycticorax caledonicus)

     Like me, perhaps you find night herons fascinating. Here in Ontario we can see Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) and, very rarely, Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax violaceus), but Nankeen Night Heron looks so different as to take on an air of exoticism. 
     The first one we spotted, at Centennial Park in Sydney, seemed to be hiding coyly.

     But several individuals were present and had no inclination to hide from view.

     This bird was formerly know as Rufous Night Heron, and that name does seem to fit the bird well.
      It is widespread through Australia, only being absent from arid areas, and its range extends to Indonesia, New Guinea, the Philippines and various Pacific islands and archipelagos.
     We could not make up our minds whether this individual was agitated or seeking to impress the female of his choice.

     Miriam and I both agreed that it was a perfectly wonderful encounter and one that leaves us with warm memories; the photographs help to rekindle them. 

Eastern Yellow Robin (Eopsaltria australis)

     Australian Robins (Petroicidae) possess a charm that is hard to beat. 
     Eastern Yellow Robin was the species we saw more than any other, and this individual was spotted as we were standing looking at the Nankeen Night Herons.

     It did not stay for long, but during the time it was there it was very obliging in terms of photography. We saw this species on several other occasions but never as well positioned as this individual.

     As you may see the greyish/blue back transitions to olive green and when the bird flicks its wings the effect is sensational. 
     Its range covers virtually the entire span of eastern Australia, where it may be found in habitats ranging from open forests and woodland to coastal and acacia scrub.
     It was always a special moment for us to spend our time in the company of this uniquely Australian bird.

     I initially turned to this retrospective of Australia as an antidote to the enforced confinement brought about by COVID, but I confess that it is giving me a great deal of pleasure to relive a fabulous journey to this land of discovery. I have no doubt that more episodes will follow.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Book Review - Britain's Habitats - Princeton University Press (WILDGuides)


      I have just reviewed two other guides in the WILDGuide series, one on butterflies and a second one on spiders, and for those organisms, as for all others, habitat is key. Put simply, they have to have a place  that provides food, shelter, cover and the conditions to breed successfully.
     The coverage of Britain's varied and diverse habitats in the current volume is nothing short of spectacular. This second edition, produced in collaboration with rewilding britain, states that it is fully revised and updated - a modest assertion if ever I saw one. 
     The introduction furnishes a succinct summary of Britain's natural habitats, with commentary on climate, topography and geography, and an examination of the numerous factors affecting habitat, including human impact and natural forces at work. There is an important section on the conservation of habitats, arguably one of the most pressing issues of our time. 
     I think that what sets this work apart from other studies of habitat, is the detailed breakdown of conditions which at first glance seem uniform, into a comprehensive examination of climatic and physical features within a given habitat, giving rise to significant differences that together constitute a biome. 
     For example - the vast swatches of heathland, primarily of Scotland and Wales, are broken down into Lowland Dry Heath, Lowland Wet Heath, Upland Dry Heath, and Upland Wet Heath. Full attention is paid to similarities and differences, comparison with like habitats, a discussion of the flora and fauna of each type, and notes on conservation.
     The photographs throughout the book - on every single page - are glorious, featuring not only the landscape, but images of iconic (and not so iconic) organisms found there. The maps are well done and give a visual overview of the extent of the habitat under discussion.
     At the end of each section there is a brief statement, both informative and slightly whimsical. After "Garden", a habitat familiar to most, take pleasure in the following: "Jennifer Owen, a zoologist who studied the wildlife in her modest suburban garden in Leicester over a 30-year period, recorded over 2,600 species of animals and plants including 20 insect species new to Britain). Oh what potential there exists for all of us!
     Enjoy this book, learn from it, get to know the wonderful regions of the British Isles, and above all cherish and protect them. There can be no better challenge ahead of you.

Britain's Habitats - Princeton University Press - WILDGuides
Authors: Sophie Lake, Durwyn Liley, Robert Still and Andy Swash
Paperback - US$32.50 - £25  -  ISBN:9780691203591
Published: 24 November 2020
416 pages - 700 colour photographs and maps - 5.88" x 8.25"

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Random Memories of Australia - Part 2

      I am quite sure that the longer COVID prevents us from travelling, the more my regret grows that I had to cancel my trip to Australia in July of last year, and there is no chance that it is going to to take place this year either. I had grand plans for exciting birding adventures, with many new discoveries to be made, in the company of agreeable, knowledgeable people. Maybe I can do it next year, but I am not getting any younger!
     In the meantime, thank goodness for photographs, trip notes, reports and memories. 

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae)

     I am dedicating the coverage of this charming little gull to Yamini MacLean, fellow larophile, erstwhile resident of New South Wales, and aficionada of the Silver Gulls who enlivened her daily routine and brought joy to her life when she still lived there.

     It was entirely fitting that as we exited the terminal at Sydney International Airport upon arrival in Australia, it was a flock of Silver Gulls that flew in to greet us.

     What a bold statement they make with their bright red legs and bill, with a red orbital ring around the eye.
     They resemble nothing so much as avian buccaneers!

     Silver Gull is widely distributed around the coasts of Australia and is familiar to all. Following breeding it may be found quite far inland, and there is some post- breeding dispersal to Papua New Guinea, but this is essentially an Australian Gull.
     I long to hear it again, wheeling above the Pacific Ocean against the backdrop of an Australian sky.  Then will I know that I have truly returned "down under"!

Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus)

     Australia is at every turn a continent of wonders, and little could be more outstanding than the presence of two species of monotreme (egg-laying mammals). In fact only five species are extant in the world, two of which are found in Australia. In addition to the Short-beaked Echidna the legendary Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is thinly distributed in the eastern part of Australia. The three remaining monotremes are other species of echidna found in Papua, New Guinea.
     Short-beaked Echidna is quite common and I have seen it on both my visits to Australia.

     To say it is an endearing creature is the understatement of the day! It is not especially wary around humans and the first one I ever saw walked within a metre of me in Campbell Park in Canberra.
     They have a curious rolling gait, which is quite comical to watch. They either hibernate or go into torpor during periods of cold weather, and the one we saw at The Nobbies on Philip Island, Victoria in early October had no doubt recently emerged from winter sleep.

     I was overjoyed to see it and it served to remind  me of the special nature of Australia and its unique fauna. I am becoming excited just looking at the pictures again!

Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala)

     If one family of birds could be said to define Australia, one could not be faulted for turning to Honeyeaters (Meliphagidae). This unique assemblage of birds is wedded to the foliage of Australia and the sheer abundance of nectar-bearing plants, matched nowhere on earth.
     Noisy Miner is a large, boisterous species that has benefitted disproportionately from anthropogenic modification of the landscape and in many respects has become a bit of a "problem bird", as it displaces other species.

     But we were not there to investigate the vicissitudes of avian distribution, of impoverishment or expansion, of opportunism or encroachment, it was our mission to see as many birds as we could - all the while embracing the flora and fauna of this unique place, and learning every day.
     Noisy Miners were present in the trees and shrubs along the street at our first AirBnB in Sydney, chattering noisily, and moving along like street kids in a gang.

     In our entire visit to NSW and Victoria there were few days when Noisy Miners did not put in an appearance - and we were always happy to see them.

Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorynchus tenuirostris)

     Turning to another familiar honeyeater, Eastern Spinebill quickly became a favourite. 

     It has an unquestioned air of elegance about it, and was endearingly confiding. It would forage at arm's length without hesitation and brought us many pleasurable moments.

     When we checked into our accommodation at Callala Bay, NSW the above individual was foraging in the garden and it was rarely that we went to or from our apartment that it was not present. 
     It feeds on the nectar of a wide variety of plants and was catholic in its choice based on our observations. Its decurved bill doubtless helps it to exploit certain flowers and is probably used to advantage to secure insect prey also.

     If I were to live five life times I would never look as handsome!

Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus)

     Who has not gone to the seaside in one part of the world or another and thrilled to the sight of a pelican flying overhead, often in the company of others, cruising by with the precision of a crack team at an air show?

     Whenever we were near the coast, or at a large body of water inland, we were treated to Australian Pelicans.
     It is a very large bird, quite unmistakable, and as the only pelican in Australia not to be confused with other species.
     Its massive bill is used to great advantage; the pouch is filled with water containing fish, the water is expelled and the fish swallowed whole.

     It is an opportunistic feeder and will not hesitate to scoop up small mammals or birds such as gulls given the chance. Individuals will feed alone or gather with others to drive shoals of fish into shallow water where they are easily captured.

     Our experience of the inshore ocean and interior wetlands was enhanced by the magnificent Australian Pelican, such as the bird above that was seen at Jell's Park in Wheeler's Hill in suburban Melbourne, on a wetland favoured by many species including a large breeding colony of Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis molucca).
     More about that another time, perhaps!

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Book Review - Britain's Spiders - Princeton University Press (WILDGuides)


     Welcome to the second edition of a spider magnum opus!
     This is an impressive work, coming in at just under 500 pages of highly informative text, with a sensational collection of photographs, unparalleled in any prior work on arachnids. It is called a field guide, and is all of that, but goes much beyond the parameters of a conventional guide aimed only at field ID.
     The first 135 pages provide detailed notes on every salient spider fact - anatomy, life style, habitat, classification, appearance, frequency, conservation, and so on, before a page of species identification appears.
     I remember well, in times past, experiencing frustration at being unable to narrow down the identification of a spider to the species level, feeling somehow inadequate. I was relieved when I learned that I was doing well to get the family correct and extraordinarily well to pinpoint the genus. Many, many species, the majority in fact, may only be identified under a microscope by detailed examination of the genitalia. This point is made abundantly clear right from the outset, in the first page of the introduction.
      All of the preliminary information pertains to spiders the world over. The book is nominally devoted to the arachnids of Britain, but spiders with eight eyes in a row, for example, are anatomically the same whether in Britain, France or the Middle East, and you will benefit from a through study of the text.
     An excellent glossary occupies six pages and is of immense help in explaining technical terms, many of which are probably unfamiliar to any but a skilled entomologist specializing in spiders.
     When the book does get into the individual species section, the wealth of information and the photographs are comprehensive and stunning. A range map is included and notes on distribution/status. By carefully following tips on habitat and a description of the spider, chances for correct identification are measurably improved. 
     Important information is given concerning legislation and conservation, and a complete summary of all British spiders is provided with their status designation. Links to further reading and useful internet sites enable the reader to pursue other sources to expand their spider knowledge.
     The role of the British Arachnology Society is acknowledged; indeed their logo appears on the bottom right corner of the front cover.
     In the realm of texts about invertebrates, this book rises to a whole new level, combining science and field identification in ways made possible by digital photography, sophisticated scientific equipment, and the combined breadth of knowledge of three notable authors.

Britain's Spiders, A field guide - Princeton University Press (WILDGuides)
Authors: Lawrence Bee, Geoff Oxford and Helen Smith
Paperback - US$32.50 - £25 - ISBN 9780691204741
Published: 3 November 2020
496 pages - 700+ colour photographs - 5.88" x 8.25"  

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

A Miscellany of Recent Events

     The Province of Ontario, in response to inadequate leadership at the highest levels, and a lack of willingness by members of our populace to take the pandemic seriously, is back into lockdown.
     What this means precisely no one has been able to quite figure out, but Miriam and I have stayed at home to a great degree. I go out to shop for groceries or other essentials, and when we venture forth together we get into the car in the garage and drive to remote areas where we have little likelihood of bumping into others. 
     Reluctantly, we have given up our Friday walks with Heather and Lily for the time being.
     There is much to entertain a couple of naturalists during this crisis and we enjoy our outings to the fullest.

10 January 2021

     The only time I am accustomed to seeing Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) close together is after courtship bonds have been cemented in the spring, so I was quite surprised to see these two individuals side by side in a tree.

     There seems to be no appreciable size difference so it is difficult to know if they are of different sexes, but there obviously is not a hint of antagonism between them.
     We have had snow on and off over the past couple of weeks, and this Mennonite family was taking advantage of the winter conditions to enjoy some family fun.

     Here is dad coming down the slope. You cannot see it but little ones too small to use a toboggan are tucked behind him.

     The Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus) near Linwood have been fairly consistent in putting in an appearance, much to the delight of local birders, but nearly always in late afternoon or early evening when the light is waning. This, combined with their tendency to perch quite far away, is far from ideal for photography, but we derive great pleasure in seeing them and the pictures are of secondary importance.

16 January 2021

     Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus) are the premier winter attraction for birders and non birders alike, and I hope I do not sound immodest when I say that Miriam and I have developed an aptitude for finding them. They never cease to thrill us and every sighting is a cause for great glee.
     The following pictures, all of females, are of three different owls.

     As you may judge, the last one was especially cooperative and perched close by. Using the car as a blind proved to be the perfect device to enable Miriam to get this amazing shot. 
     I doubt that there is anyone who would fail to be moved by an encounter of this nature. We opened a bottle of self-congratulatory wine when we arrived home and drank a toast to Snowy Owls everywhere!

17 January 2021

     My dear friend, Mary Voisin, had asked that we let her know where she and her husband, Don, could find a Snowy Owl, so I had texted her when Miriam and I happened on the three birds the previous day, but Mary and Don were unable to leave to meet us, so we arranged a rendez-vous for the following day when they could follow us in their car to find an owl.
     You have all heard the expression "salt of the earth" when referring to sterling people.


     The ancestors of Don and Mary were hewn out of the first rock and their descendants cleave from the same fissure. It was great to see them both again after the protracted absence brought about by COVID-19.
     We proceeded directly to the spot where Miriam and I had found two owls, but search as we might we could not find either one. It was not looking good.
     However, all was not lost and we had two other possible locations in mind. We hit the jackpot not more than ten minutes after dipping at our first attempt, and a beautiful adult female was in clear view.

     Mary and Don were elated, and so were we, for any sighting of a Snowy Owl, no matter how many times you have seen it before, is a cause for great joy.
     The pandemic has caused all of us to modify our habits in myriad ways and we came across an interesting way that the local Old Order Mennonites have found to deal with religious observance, now that indoor services are not permitted.
     What better to do than circle the wagons and have an outdoor service?

     The temperature was quite mild, hovering right around zero, but I am not sure whether this option would be feasible if normal January temperatures are ever experienced.

     Sitting in a buggy for a couple of hours at minus fifteen degrees would be another thing entirely. Might be hard on the vocal chords too!

     In the meantime you have to admire Mennonite ingenuity in finding a way to continue to have a Sunday service.
     The horses wait patiently! They doubtless have lots of experience doing this!

     On the way home we passed a farm which has several bird feeders, generally active, with the dominant species being House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). We saw a female Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perched atop a spindly bush and as might be expected all was quiet.

     The hawk was intently focused and paid no heed to us.

     It turned, scanned and listened, its attention rivetted on prey.
     What a great opportunity to study this raptor at close quarters. It was no more that fifteen metres away, if that.

     Within minutes it flew to the top of a nearby coniferous bush, having detected noise or movement, I presume.

     It perched on top for a moment or two.....

     .....and then dropped to the ground.

     In the glimpse of an eye it went into the bush and in mere moments emerged with a House Sparrow in its talons.
     It took a moment or two to subdue its prey and then flew off to enjoy its lunch.

     It was exciting for us to watch this gripping event unfold right before our eyes. We have seen accipiters hunt before but never the entire sequence in this fashion.
     From Don and Mary to Snowy Owl to Cooper's Hawk - what a great morning it had been. 

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.