Saturday, March 27, 2021

Lily and Other Beauties

      I know that many of you look forward to regular updates on our darling Lily, so here are a few shots from our latest walk.

     What a happy face!
     At least until mom tried to put on her sunglasses. However, once they were in place she seemed to forget they were even there.

     How about those teeth? She still has only two, but I suspect there are more to follow soon.

     She was happy to be out in bright sunshine, alert to everything going on around her. Having developed a special affection for dogs she follows each one and chats to them excitedly!
     We always take a picture of Heather and Lily as they are about to leave. Two beautiful young ladies if ever there were!

     It is always cause for elation and excitement to have a new bird visit the yard, so we were delighted to have an Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) pay us a very brief visit. Despite searching frequently since, it has not been seen again.
     Miriam did manage to get one reasonable picture through the bedroom window. It does not show the whole unobstructed bird unfortunately, but it was the best we could do.

     Last Sunday we had our first COVID-19 vaccination and on the way to the clinic we stopped at a storm water management pond where a pair of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) were keeping company.

     It is such a handsome little duck. The hairdo on the female would rival Lily's earlier unruly coiffure!

     At SpruceHaven we saw our first Compton Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis l-album) of the spring. 

     The picture is lacking to say the least, but I don't even have another picture on file, so I present you with our only image of this species. To her credit Miriam followed this insect around for several minutes but it would touch down for only the briefest of moments. She did well to capture what she did.
     Three male Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have returned to SpruceHaven, right on schedule, but in terms of posing for pictures they were barely more acquiescent than the butterfly.

     On the way home we spotted an unusually pale Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Finally a willing accomplice in having a picture taken!

     It was very muddy along the Benjamin Park Trail when we went for a walk, not unexpected of course given the warm temperatures of late and the rapid snowmelt.

     Buds are popping everywhere.

     An Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) fluttered and teased us, but finally landed and we were able to capture an image for posterity.

     Already, so soon after emerging, the right wing looks a little worse for wear.
     Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopia), always one of the earliest butterflies of the spring, were seen several times, but declined to tarry a while, and went on their way.
     The following picture was taken on the same trail in a previous year, so it is authentic and shows this handsome species well.

     Each day holds the potential for recent arrivals at this time of the year. We'll see what the next post brings.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Random Memories of Australia - Part 10

      It has been fun going through the pictures from our 2018 visit to Australia, and since COVID has thwarted two subsequent attempts to return, memories rekindled have been very welcome.
     Here are a few more of Australia's spectacular birds.

Variegated Fairywren (Malurus lamberti)

      These tiny birds, colourful, bright, energetic, feisty and promiscuous in the extreme, are enchanting!

      We did not see Variegated Fairywren frequently, so when we did the event was even more special than it might have been if it had been a daily occurrence.
     It inhabits dense scrubby vegetation and seldom gave us an unimpeded view, and even then by the time Miriam had the camera cocked it had flitted back into cover.

     The male above is unmistakable, but the female is frustratingly similar to a female Superb Fairywren (Malurus cyaneua), especially for visiting birders who are not used to seeing it. 

     I am fairly certain that the individual above is a female Variegated Fairywren, spotted in the same general area where we had sighted the male only moments before. 
     And unlike her male counterpart, she posed in full view. She gets full marks for that!

Grey Butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus)

     Cracticus, the generic name for Grey Butcherbird, means "loud-voiced" and is particularly appropriate for this noisy species.

     The individual above announced its presence long before we saw it, as it engaged in a fierce squabble with a Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae) for occupancy of a potential nest hole in a tree. 
     Butcherbird is a bit of a pejorative term, perhaps, assigned by humans who disliked its habit of preying on small songbirds - even as they ate their lambchops lovingly grilled on the barbecue.

     This male angled its head to view us with appropriate disdain!
     In a functioning ecosystem the balance between predator and prey serves to maintain a healthy and viable population of both, assuring that the carrying capacity is not exceeded. 
     The female of the species is a little more subdued one might conclude, although that hook-tipped bill is a reminder that she too is a formidable hunter.

Dusky Woodswallow (Artamus cyanopterus)

     The soft, fluffy-looking plumage of this species reminds me of the similar first impression of Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) and it is a very appealing bird, the sort that young children would like to cuddle.

     It is predominantly an aerial feeder, very adept at catching insects on the wing. It competently takes bees as prey and for this reason has been declared a pest in the vicinity of apiaries. While one might understand, and possibly sympathize with an individual beekeeper, it is remarkable that we domesticate (if that is even possible with bees) the prey of this species, in effect setting out a feast, and then curse the bird as it takes advantage of the food on hand. 

     My vote is cast in favour of the woodswallow!

Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrike (Coracina novaehollandiae)

     The distinctive black mask of this species, giving the impression of a highway robber of yore, is responsible for its name. Perhaps today compliance with COVID prevention measures might be a more appropriate association!

     Male and female are quite similar in appearance, but the mask of the female is greyer and less pronounced.
     This species has an easy, undulating flight, either over the canopy, or low over grass in breezes.
     We considered ourselves fortunate to discover an occupied nest.

Australian Golden Whistler (Pachycephala pectoralis)

     As its name implies, this species is characterized by its loud whistle, or series of whistles, often ending in a whip-crack sound. 

     No doubt, there is logic behind the song, but to us it seemed that the males sang for the pure joy of doing so - and because they could! We always located this species in forested areas and generally heard it before we saw it. And it was delightful! It seemed to throw its whole body into making the most joyous sound imaginable. 

     I doubt that a female whistler would be able to resist the blandishments of these handsome suitors with their seductive song! May they get together often and produce the next generation of choristers of the forest!
     They put on quite a show for these Canadian visitors!

Eastern Whipbird (Psophodes olivaceus)

     Our first attempt to see this bird was an exercise in frustration; we saw a little movement, a few leaves shaking, a hint of a bird, a loud whip-crack. But not much else.
     Here is what it says in The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (2012), Pizzey and Knight: "Noisy but secretive". Both qualities were true; it was certainly noisy, but it was determined not to show itself.
     Imagine our great surprise, and excitement verging on exultation, when we checked into our accommodation at Calalla Bay, NSW to see this individual in full view on the lawn.

     It pranced, ran, cavorted, tossed leaves aside, probed for insects, without heed to us, and generally did everything it is not supposed to do. It even posed for a picture or two.

     Sometimes you get lucky!


Monday, March 22, 2021

A Potpourri

     This post is a bit of a potpourri, with pictures drawn from those taken over the past week or so. There is no real theme here, but I hope you will enjoy them anyway.

13 March 2021

     A while ago we noticed a little clump of Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) in the backyard - and we didn't plant them, so we can only assume that a squirrel buried bulbs for later consumption and forgot about them.

     They are delightful and we are grateful to the squirrel. I won't even swear at it again when it is swinging from one of my bird feeders!
     I wonder if this Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) shared our enthusiasm?

     Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are daily visitors to our feeders and this male was packing on some calories.


     It's hard work after all when you have to fly all the way to the top of a tree and sing your heart out to a fickle female!
     As the lakes and streams of our area become ice free, Common Mergansers (Mergus merganser) are found throughout the region. On an afternoon drive through the countryside we spotted this handsome male.

     He seemed keen to hook up with the first girl that came his way, and they swam off together, the very model of a happy couple.

14 March 2021

     Miriam needed to visit a fabric store, so we combined that errand with a stop in Cambridge along the Grand River.

     A Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) had found a tasty morsel in the water, and gobbled it down quickly as others made a bee line for it with piracy on their minds.

16 March 2021

     American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are gradually acquiring their nuptial plumage after spending the winter in drab olive attire.

     For a good part of the winter Common Redpolls (Acanthis flammea) have been a fixture in our yard, taking full advantage of the Gascoigne/Bauman food bank. Sometimes as many as twenty-five of these charming visitors would arrive together, always well-mannered, never (well almost never) displaying the truculence of other species. They seem to have departed for their breeding grounds, but one individual remains and can be relied upon to visit several times a day to sample what's on offer.

17 March 2021

     Over several years we have had sporadic visits from a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinensis) but this year a male (we assume it is always the same bird) has found our quarters exactly to his liking and can be relied upon to keep us company.

     What a handsome fellow he is!

20 March 2021

     Miriam went for a stroll around the neighbourhood and saw this American Crow (Corvus brachyrynchus) with a very large bone, trying to winkle out the marrow.

     On the same day I spent the afternoon at SpruceHaven with a crew of volunteers as we installed some new nest boxes, replaced others that had been damaged, and generally prepared for the upcoming breeding season.

Linda, Marg, Peter. Michelle, Bryan, Natalie, Jamie, Jim

     We were as busy as proverbial beavers.

     The tall fellow at the left of the picture is Jim Huffman. How we would do all of this without Jim is something I don't even wish to contemplate! To his right are Jason and Steph who arrive just a little after we had taken the group picture above.

     As you can see Jim is about to ascend the ladder, drill in hand. Brian is holding the ladder and Linda is doing a fine job of gazing aloft. We are a willing and dedicated supporting cast!

     Natalie looks pensive, no doubt enjoying her first visit to Sprucehaven and enjoying the scintillating company of our eclectic cast of characters!
     And Michelle looks the very image of the suaveness of youth, with her sunglasses reflecting my image as I took her picture.

     There will be much work to be done as our season gets underway, and I appreciate the support these volunteers provide so unstintingly. 
     What a pleasure it is to know them all.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Book Review - Flight Identification of European Passerines and Select Landbirds - Princeton University Press/WILDGuides


Identifying small songbirds in flight at a quarter mile is possible if you truly desire to do so.
David Sibley

     This is a book that merits superlatives from the first page onwards. It really is a magnum opus, with heavy emphasis on the magnum.
     Every novice birder knows the frustration of seeking a new species, being in the right habitat, only to see a bird fly by at top speed, and being unable to identify it. The sense of frustration may be magnified when more experienced birders call the bird with confidence. 
     Indeed, there is no greater skill to be learned (in tandem with recognizing birdsong I might add) than that of identifying a bird from its JIZZ. And it can be done. Indeed, it must be done if you going to fully enjoy the art, science and sublime pleasure of birding.
     With practice, discipline, and by paying close attention to fundamentals, you can identify a songbird in flight with the same level of confidence that you recognize a friend at a distance, long before facial features are apparent. This is not to say that it is always easy, but nothing worthwhile in life is achieved without effort.
     Tomasz Cofta is probably not a household name for many, but he is in fact a seasoned ornithologist with a reputation that is hard to beat. Over a span of forty years the author has invested more than 3,000 hours of systematic observation and counting of migratory birds in flight. Around 88,000 birds of 153 species have been examined in the hand. In addition 4,400 sound recordings have been made and interpreted as sonograms. Such is the calibre of your teacher in this book.
     I always urge readers to thoroughly read the introductory sections to field guides, and it is absolutely critical with this volume, in order to fully understand the process, learn the techniques and comprehend the scope of inter-related disciplines. The species accounts are of European passerines and select landbirds as the title says, but the methods used are applicable to birds throughout the world.
     The illustrations rank as superb for the most part, and even the few that are marginally substandard are nevertheless very acceptable. Anyone who has tried to capture a photograph of a swiftly flying songbird knows how difficult it is to achieve satisfying results. 
     Once in a while a book comes along that should occupy a place of honour on the shelf of anyone interested in birds at any level. This is one of those works. But don't let it just sit on the shelf, take it down often, take it in the field, study it and study it again. Every minute you spend with it will make you a better birder.
     And what could be more satisfying than that?

Flight Identification of European Passerines and Select Landbirds - Princeton University Press/WILDGuides of Britain & Europe
Author: Tomasz Cofta
Published: 11 May 2021 (USA)
                17 February 2021 (UK) 
Price: US$45.00, £38.00
ISBN: 9780691177571 - 496 pages - 850 coloured illustrations 
Size: 6.13 x 9.25 in., 16 x 24 cm  

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Book Review - Field Guide to the Birds of Chile - Princeton University Press


      I was delighted to see a new field guide to the birds of Chile, one of my all-time favourite birding destinations, and a country that has been well served by Princeton University Press.
     This one had added appeal since it is authored and illustrated by two Chileans and it is always particularly encouraging to see works by a country's own citizens. This fact alone is generally indicative of a healthy interest in the nature of the country and its taxa, and this guide was in fact available in Spanish before the English language version was produced.
     In addition to all of that it is a very fine guide. The text is succinct, precise and accurate and the illustrations are first class.
     Among many pleasing characteristics, one that caught my attention immediately was a plate dealing with albatross heads, a key distinguishing feature for these birds. Anyone who has taken a pelagic trip knows the difficulty of focussing on a swiftly moving bird while standing in a boat that is constantly rocking. One moment you see the bird and the next moment only the crest of a wave. To catch a glimpse of the head and immediately be able to reference it is a tremendous help. 
     I am always curious how field guides handle controversial issues of taxonomy and was pleased to see Variable Hawk featured also as Puna Hawk, a distinct species, a classification not shared by all, but the authors boldly state, "the evidence still does not seem irrefutable". Who does not admire that kind of chutzpah?
     One sometimes wonders what innovations can be brought to modern field guides, which are generally excellent, but Birds of Chile contains a section with coloured illustrations of the eggs of many species. How incredibly useful!
     Each species is accompanied by a range map where great use is made of space (Chile is after all a long skinny country) without losing clarity.
     When I visited Chile my field guide of choice was the impressive work authored by Alvaro Jaramillo, published by Princeton University Press, and it served me well. Were I to return this new guide by Daniel Martínez and Gonzalo González would be my companion. And I suspect that Alvaro would approve.
     The book is easily portable in the field and fits into a pouch or the deep pockets of a vest or cargo pants.
     I have no hesitation in giving this work my highest recommendation. 

Field Guide to the Birds of Chile - Princeton University Press
Authors: Daniel E. Martínez Piña & Gonzalo E. González Cifuentes
Paperback - ISBN: 9780691221052 - 224 pages - 89 colour plates - 5.25" x 8.5"
Publishing date: 13 April 2021

Sunday, March 14, 2021

A Squirrel, Snow, Swans, Sandhills - and Lily.

      We are still not into full mobility and sociability levels due to COVID restrictions, so this post is an amalgam of odds and ends over the past week or so.

06 March 2021

     During the depths of winter, water left in the bird bath froze, and it was my practice to scatter a little cracked corn on it, so that the birds could get to it but it was out of reach of the rabbits that invade our yard nightly and hoover up everything on the ground.
     During a recent period of thaw, a circle of ice was floating in water and I pushed it off so that the birds could drink. Corn was embedded in the ice, and an enterprising squirrel was quick to discover it.

     Food in its own personal fridge!

     The upright model too.

07 March 2021

     We went for a short drive through the countryside looking for signs of spring, but these Mennonite ladies trudging through snowy fields reminded us that winter is not quite done with us yet.

     Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are paired off now and anticipating the breeding season ahead.

     Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) are also getting ready for nuptial arrangements and the challenging task of raising young.

09 March 2021
A Visit to Long Point, ON

     This was a day marked by excellent birding, with no less than thirteen new species for the year, but photographic opportunities were generally absent. Most of the waterfowl was far out; we had wonderful views through our scope, but the distance to the birds precluded picture-taking.
     On the way down to Long Point, near Walsingham, ON, we came upon a small group of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), freshly returned from the south no doubt, and ready to begin work on the next generation. Several nesting boxes were waiting for them, doubtless cleaned out and ready for occupancy - no deposit required and residency is rent-free!

     Red-tailed Hawk was ubiquitous, as expected, but their familiarity makes them no less desirable.

     When we arrived at Port Rowan, there was open water offshore, but the shoreline was still locked in ice.

     There were so many Redheads (Ayhtya americana) that any attempt at a count ended in mere conjecture, but certainly there were thousands.

     A male House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) announced to others of his kind that he had already claimed this nest box.

     It was nothing short of uplifting to see a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) putting his all into defending a territory and inveigling a female to join him there.

     Bird Studies Canada has been renamed simply Birds Canada, but its headquarters remain a beacon of inspiration for all who care for birds.

     Many Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) were migrating high over our heads, their haunting, spine-tingling call saturating the morning air, but we found only two individuals on the ground, well beyond photographic range unfortunately.

     The same situation was replicated with Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus); hundreds passed over us and landed on the bay, some as far as a kilometre away.

     The inability to take pictures did not detract one iota from the magnificent experience of witnessing  these birds "coming home." The serene beauty of flights of swans and cranes never fails to register awe, no matter how many times one has viewed the spectacle of migration.
     A Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) showed that it is also ready for spring and affairs of the heart!

     Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is a species that seems to return to Ontario earlier each year; in fact a few have even been recorded on Christmas Bird Counts, indicating that small numbers may remain here throughout the winter.
     It is a bird that one sees most frequently in the air, circling in search of carrion, so an individual obligingly perched is a bonus.

     Turkey Vultures roost in trees overnight and are equipped with the conventional anisodactyl foot configuration of perching birds (three toes forward, one back).

     It has been said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I will leave it your judgement whether this bird is beautiful.

     Once airborne it is a study in grace and symmetry; here it flexes its wings in preparation for launch!

     By now, I am quite certain, you have decided that it is indeed beautiful, so I will let a few extra portraits speak for themselves.

     You have Miriam's permission to enlarge and frame any of these images for placement at your dining room table. Be sure to send pictures.
     Just before stopping for lunch a few Tundra Swans were close enough to get at least an acceptable shot.

     Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) have emerged from hibernation and were busily scurrying hither and yon, chattering noisily to all who cared to listen, and even those who didn't.

     American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) have kept us company all winter, and will soon be departing for their breeding grounds amid the dwarf birches and willows of the Arctic tundra.

     On our way along the causeway as we made our way home, we stopped at a couple of vantage points to scan the water, and discovered huge rafts of Canvasbacks (Aythya valisineria).

     Following a tranquil winter, undisturbed by mobs of summer vacationers and day trippers, Long Point is slowly awakening from its winter repose.

     No doubt business owners are hoping that they will be able to open up and make a little money following the pecuniary evisceration brought about by COVID lockdowns.

     We wish them well, but to tell the truth, the lack of crowds has been wonderful. I am quite certain that the birds agree.


     This precious little girl gets livelier, more aware, and without a doubt more beautiful each day. No further words are needed; feel free to make your own captions!

     "See you all again soon," says Lily.

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.