Friday, May 28, 2021

Rhapsody in Blue

      For whatever reason, I was given to pondering the other day about the range of species we see here, where the predominant plumage colour is blue. The shades are as different as the birds themselves, but all are splendid, and I will present a few of them to you, with pictures drawn from our archives.

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)

     This very handsome species is common in these parts, but its ubiquity makes it no less a welcome sight at any time. It is a marvelous bird and merits all the admiration we can muster.

     It is a frequent visitor to our backyard and is nearly always found in suitable woodland habitat too, so rarely a day goes by that we fail to enjoy the company of this captivating beauty.

     It is a resident species and is not shy to come to backyard feeders, especially during the winter months when a little supplementary protein and fat is always welcome.
     Like many birds, it has an initial aversion to close contact with humans, with good reason, but once it develops confidence in you it will come to your hand without hesitation. Studies have proven that other corvids are able to recognize humans as individuals and to know those that are kind and wish them no harm, and I suspect that this is true of Blue Jays also.

     If you have them where you live I hope you will get to know them better.

Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)

     There has been taxonomic discussion over the years as to whether this species is a chat or a thrush, and Peter Clement seems to hedge his bets by omitting it from his tome on thrushes (Thrushes (2000), and placing it in Robins and Chats (2015) as follows: "A stocky, chat-sized thrush of open woodland, orchards.....". 
     In IOC World Bird List Version 11.1 there is no equivocation. Eastern Bluebird is a thrush!
     And a very attractive thrush too!

     As a cavity-nester Eastern Bluebirds went through a period of steep decline as they faced intense competition from introduced House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) and Common Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) for a diminishing number of available nest sites.  Sparrows and starlings are appreciably more aggressive than bluebirds and in most cases the bluebirds were losers in the battles for a home, sometimes even paying with their lives. 

     The stage was set for human intervention and bluebird societies sprang up all across the continent with dedicated (obsessive some might say) volunteers establishing bluebird nest box trails, sometime numbering into the hundreds of boxes. The sites were closely monitored and protected, barriers were installed to deter predation, and if any invader dared to try to usurp a bluebird it was summarily evicted by its human guardian and protector.
     The result has been a huge resurgence in bluebird populations, and it is once again a familiar sight in suitable habitat throughout the continent. A feel-good story by any measure and a great conservation success!
     The female is not quite as attractive as the male one might conclude, but charming and delightful in her own way.

     Once there are young to feed both parents are dedicated providers and may be seen constantly shunting back and forth to stuff insects into the mouths of hungry youngsters.
     If you live locally and are reading this, and have never seen a bluebird, get in touch with me and I'll be happy to show you one.

Indigo Bunting (Passerina cynea)

     This charming species arrives in our area in May, and shortly thereafter males may be seen singing from high perches wherever a suitable tree or snag provides maximum exposure.

     We have a special affection for this species. Miriam's sister, Grace, remembers Indigo Buntings vividly from her childhood, and if one can have a favourite bird, this is it for her. So, whenever we see one, the thought that it is Grace's Bunting springs to mind. Maybe we can petition the taxonomists to change the scientific name to Passerina graceii, but I suspect that we will have little chance of success!

     Each year, for the past few years, a male has visited our backyard for a couple of days, during which time he returns frequently to feed, and to thrill us in the process. For some reason, we have received no such companion this year, even though all the conditions are the same as they have been in years past. Who can figure out what goes on in the minds of birds?

     I hope that an Indigo Bunting will visit you!

Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)

     If you have never seen the flash of steely blue and dazzling white as a Tree Swallow jinks and knifes through the air, you have missed one of life's great treats. I have seen it a thousand times and more, and still there is a sense of awe.

     This cavity-nesting species enjoys great breeding success along our bluebird trail at SpruceHaven where we are happy to see the two species breed side by side. They do not compete for food, since the Tree Swallow is an aerial feeder and the bluebird drops to the ground to capture its prey.

     Here is a pair on a nest box; the female at the left is browner than the male, but they make a stunning pair.

     Tree Swallows still nest in natural cavities where they are available, but the vast majority are now dependent on nesting facilities furnished by humans.
They repay immeasurably the effort we put into providing them with a home, and bring us inexpressible joy. 
     Long may they grace our skies.

Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens)

     As soon as neotropical warblers begin to arrive back in southern Ontario to breed Black-throated Blue Warbler is one of the easier species to find. 
     It is a handsome little bird, as are all the warblers of course, but unfortunately I have only one picture where the bird (the male) actually looks blue!

     I do have several other pictures, but the bird is always in shade and appears grey rather than blue. 
     The conspicuous patch of white you see at the base of the primaries is a diagnostic feature in both sexes, and enables even a novice to clinch the ID of this species without difficulty.
     Generally, this species is transient in our area, seldom breeding here. Its breeding territories are principally found in the southern part of the Canadian Shield. 
     We will have to redouble our efforts to get more pictures. If only the darn bird would stay still for more than a second or two!

Northern Parula (Setophaga americana)

      To see a Northern Parula is to swoon with joy! So many colours combine to achieve a captivating look.

     I suppose it is a bit of a stretch to label this a blue bird, but when I think of it I always envision blue first, so perhaps you will understand.
     I am always drawn to the split eye ring too.

     This is another species that is merely passing through when we see it locally. Its distribution as a breeding bird "extends generally from about Belleville and Barrie north and west to Kapuskasing and Dryden". (Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario 2001-2005 (2007).

     Get out and look for one now! There may be a few still lingering before moving to their breeding territories, but not for long!
     I hope you have enjoyed looking at a few blue birds, and maybe one day you can see them all for yourself -or perhaps you already have!    

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

A Rarity, Some Shorebirds and Other Treats

      We are starting to see the first chink of light in the tunnel of COVID darkness, and a little more freedom is now possible. I hope we are not plunged back into lockdown, having endured three such periods, for I fear the good citizens of the province will go mad!

21 May 2021

Wilmot Township, Waterloo, ON

     I was surprised, when driving along Berlett's Road en route to SpruceHaven to see a lone Wild Turkey (Melagris gollopavo) strutting across a field as only turkeys can, appearing to capture invertebrate prey as it did so.

Our backyard, Waterloo, ON

     The perennials in our garden are putting on quite a show now, and it is quite intoxicating to sit outside and enjoy bloom all around us.
     Snowdrop Anemones (Anemone sylvestris) are both prolific and beautiful.

     It is now warm enough to enjoy our morning coffee on the patio, and anemones make fine companions.

     Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) is no less delightful.

22 May 2021
Lakeside Park, Kitchener, ON

     Cerulean Warbler (Setophaga cerulea) is one of several neotropical warblers in trouble, due principally to habitat loss in its home in South America, and here in North America where it breeds.
     It is seldom seen and ranks very high on the roster of species a birder wishes to add to her life list. A single male, at Lakeside Park, therefore, was cause for great excitement in the birding community, and as news of its presence spread, the pilgrimage of birders and photographers increased by the minute! It was staggering to contemplate the total value of expensive optical equipment and telephoto lenses in that one small clearing in an urban park.
     The bird stayed high in the canopy, at the very top of the trees, and for the most part this is what one saw.

     We do not have sophisticated cameras and $10,000 lenses, and Miriam did really well to capture what she did.

       I did not hear anyone exclaim in joy that they had a good picture, so we were not alone, and the best of equipment is no more able to bore through leaves than the camera on a cell phone.
     Happiness was seeing the bird; the picture was secondary.
     It was quite a bit easier to do somewhat better with a Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus).

     And to be in the park was enchanting.

     Our first Eastern Wood Pewee (Contopus virens) was perhaps as pleased to see us as we were to see it, because it perched and sang for a while.

     It darted from its perch a few times to capture a passing insect, and moved a metre or so, but stayed in the same area, in full view.

     It was a stark contrast to the neck-straining exercise with the Cerulean Warbler, and we viewed it alone, far from the chatter of excited humans.

     It started to rain (badly needed) and we made our way back to our car, happy to have visited the park, with so many treasures on display.

23 May 2021
Columbia Lake, Waterloo, ON

     We are so fortunate that Columbia Lake is very close to home. In less than ten minutes from our front door we can set our feet down on the trail.
     It is not so bad to be greeted by a profusion of Black Hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) mere moments from beginning a walk.

     A Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata) is both common and dramatic.

     Tiger beetle males keep a grip on their mates long after mating to ensure paternity. 
     Soon after watching the beautiful tiger beetles for a while we spotted our first Northern Crescent (Phyciodes cocyta) of the spring.

     The number and variety of butterflies will only keep growing throughout the summer.
     A field of corn stubble is not a place where we expect to find Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularia) but this bird seemed to be exploiting the insect flush, along with American Robins (Turdus migratorius).

     A Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) was perched nearby, quite far from the water, and it made me wonder if it too was benefitting from an insect boom.

     A pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) seemed not to be doing much of anything.

     Columbia Lake provides habitat for a variety of birds.....

     ..... and Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) have taken great advantage of secluded breeding areas. 

     The results are there for all to see.

     As anyone who has ever tried to take a picture of a swallow in flight knows, it is an almost impossible task. It was a stroke of luck, therefore to come across these Northern Rough-winged Swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) resting on the road.

     Often there are several Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias) and today was no exception.

     Our main purpose in choosing Columbia Lake for our walk was to check on shorebirds at the tail end of northward migration.
     The water level was ideal in one corner of the lake.

     A Spotted Sandpiper cut a fine figure perched on stones that form a conduit from one bank to the other.

     Several individuals of this species were present and they put on quite a show for us.

     It is a common bird, but it breeds locally and in consequence may be studied at will.

     Spotted Sandpiper is a polyandrous species where the female is dominant and squabbles between rival females is not uncommon.

     What a pleasure to see Spotted Sandpiper in breeding plumage when it is obvious how it came by its name.

     Killdeer (Chadrius vociferus) is the common breeding plover of the area. It is an uncommonly handsome bird.

          The much smaller Semipalmated Sandpiper (Charadrius semipalmatus) is the epitome of cuteness.

     In the picture below the plover looks quite quizzical, as though asking the Least Sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) what they are doing there.

     Were I into making fuzzy toys I think Semipalmated Plover might be my inspiration!

     Least Sandpiper is the world's smallest sandpiper, and it was a pleasure to see them in breeding plumage.

     This tiny bird weighing as little as a dozen grams will wing its way to its Arctic breeding grounds before returning south again. 

     The journeys made by shorebirds are prodigious!
     Usually we see Dunlin (Calidris alpina) in the fall when they have moulted out of their breeding finery, so it was an exceptional treat to see this species with its distinctive black belly patch.

     There is so much enjoyment to be derived from studying shorebirds that we were mesmerized for an hour or so.

     A group of breeding-plumaged Dunlin was the proverbial icing on the cake!

     I mentioned above that the number of butterflies will increase throughout the summer. As if to reinforce the point, just as we were leaving an Eastern Tailed Blue (Cupido comyntas) flitted in front of us, and alighted for a picture.

     Life is good!

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.