Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Book Review - Understanding Bird Behaviour - Princeton University Press


     This is a work that, for me, gets off to a bad start almost from the first page.
     It irks me to no end that a book dealing with a serious scientific topic does not give a single scientific name for any of the birds mentioned, not even a list at the end of the book. It is inexcusable on its face, but becomes even more egregious when one considers that people whose native tongue is not English may wish to use the book as a reference, and may not  know the common name in English (not always the same from book to book, by the way) but would identify the bird in an instant if the scientific name  were given. Why it is not given mystifies me.
     Furthermore, I am at a bit of a loss to understand why the author does not follow the widely accepted practice of capitalizing the common names of birds. Almost universal in its use, it eliminates any possible confusion. Is one talking about a little egret (could be a small Great Egret) or a Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), a great blue heron (maybe an exceptionally-plumaged Little Blue Heron) or a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)? A blue tit perhaps conveys a different meaning from Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)! And how about that lovely cotinga I saw in Costa Rica - or was it a Lovely Cotinga (Cotinga amabilis)?
     Let me point to distinguished ornithologists recently published by Princeton University Press who all subscribe to capitalization: Klaus Malling Olsen, Pete Dunne and Kevin T. Karlson, Brian K. Wheeler, William S. Clark and N. John Schmitt, Tomasz Cofta, Steve N. G. Howell and Kirk Zufelt....and others. And, without exception they provide scientific names too!  The American Ornithological Society uses capitalization, as does the Cornell Lab of Ornithology! Why not you, Wenfei Tong?
     The type size for the descriptive paragraphs accompanying the pictures is really small, and if there is even a little glare on the glossy paper, it is hard to read. 
     I take issue with facts and/or sloppy treatment throughout the book. Permit me to cite a few examples.
     Page 55 - "Black-billed magpie pairs in Europe form evenly spaced territories.....". Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) is exclusively a bird of western North America. The similar-looking European bird is is a different species, Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica). This taxonomic split is of long standing, and to make sure that it has been universally accepted, I checked the following authorities: IOC World Bird Names (Version 11.1), Clements 6th edition (Version 2019), Howard & Moore (4th edition), eBird (2019), HBW and BirdLife Taxonomic Checklist v. 5 (Dec. 2020). In each case the treatment is the same - two distinct species. And to make the cheese a little more binding on page 166 Tong actually uses the term Eurasian magpie!
     Blue Tit is a delightful little bird in the family Parulidae, found throughout Britain, most of Europe, and western Asia. It does not, however, have a crest as stated in the text. I have checked every reference I have (and I have seen hundreds of Blue Tits) and the bird is always credited with having a blue cap or crown. I was unable to find any reference to erectile feathers creating the semblance of a crest during courtship or hostility. If you wish to see a tit with a crest see Crested Tit (Parus cristatus), Rufous-naped Tit (Parus rufonuchalis), Sultan Tit (Melanochlora sultanea) or others. Blue Tit does not have a crest as stated on page 72 dealing with territorial defence. 
     On page 109, when dealing with Northern Flicker, it is stated "A female red-shafted flicker (the western US variant of the northern flicker.....". The bird occupies western North America, including Canada, not just the US, and as if to prove the point the main part of the text says, "Similarly, up to 5 percent of female northern flickers in a population in British Columbia....". Conflicting statements on the same page!
     I was more than a little puzzled to read on page 174 that "Squabbling and siblicide are common among eastern screech owl chicks......". That did not align with my experience with these diminutive owls. I have an entire shelf of reference works on owls, and was unable to find evidence of this behaviour in the literature. In Wilson Bulletin 110 (1), 1998, page 91, it is stated "Finally it is possible that siblicidal behaviour is simply uncommon in Eastern Screech Owls and that starvation and suffocation are the primary causes of mortality among nestlings." Noteworthy, I think, is the fact that this august journal capitalizes the names of birds throughout!  
     The bibliography, interestingly called a "Selective Bibliography" is nothing short of abysmal. For a work that devotes 215 pages to "Understanding Bird Behaviour" only six titles are offered to the reader interested in further study, and three of them are by Nick Davies, a distinguished behavioural ecologist without question, but there are many others. What about his good friend Tim Birkhead, to name just one?  This list could have been, and should have been, considerably extended. Just dealing with crows for example (putting other corvids aside for a moment), they are focus of the text on pages 45-6, 50, 55, 57, 139, 140-1, 143, 182, 187, 195. Yet there is not a single reference to direct the reader to further reading from legendary figures such as Berndt Heinrich, John Marzluff and Tony Angell. 
     Ravens take up pages 50, 52-3 and 74. A link to Derek Ratcliffe's magnificent monograph would seem to be in order. And, the aforementioned Heinrich's work with Common Ravens should be required reading for anyone even mildly interested in these intelligent, resourceful birds.
     I could cite more, trust me, but you get the point. 
     The list of journal articles is impressive, but few readers have access to most of these highly specialized journals, not always available on line, and often requiring paid membership in an organization. How many among us regularly see Animal Behaviour, Journal of Experimental Biology or the Proceedings of the Royal Society?
     The book would have benefitted greatly from a glossary.
     I reviewed Wenfei Tong's previous book, Bird Love, in March 2020 (here) and the issues were the same then. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, unfortunately.
     In Ben Shelton's foreword, he comments on "Wenfei Tong's lively prose." I have yet to find it. Adequate? Certainly. Lively? I think not. In  fact I found some of the sentences a little cumbersome and had to reread them to make sure I understood what she was trying to convey.
     On the positive side, the photographs range from good to very good, and usually illustrate the chapter well. I was not particularly impressed with the paintings, but I realize that may simply reflect personal taste. There is much that a beginner seeking to learn about bird behaviour can learn from the book, but it is a bit of a spare skeleton, perhaps inevitable when only two pages for each topic are allowed including pictures, maps, and illustrations that take up much of the space. A work based on sound reasoning has fallen apart a little, unfortunately. 
     Do I recommend it? Should you buy it? My advice would be to get a nice bottle of wine. You will probably get more satisfaction from it - and it will certainly not irritate you as much as this book has irritated me!

Understanding Bird Behaviour - Princeton University Press
Author: Wenfei Tong - Hardcover - ISBN: 9780691206004
Price: US$27.95
Published: 20 September 2020
224 pages - 150 colour illustrations and photographs - 6.5 x 9 inches (16.25 x 22.5 cm)

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Book Review - Birdpedia - Princeton University Press


     This is a charming book, both witty and informative. When you can have facts delivered with a sense of humour, you are off on the right foot from the get-go.
     The book is organized alphabetically, the first entry being "Abundance" and the last "Zugenruhe" - with everything else in between. Christopher Leahy covers a wonderful range of matters ornithological, from biology and science to whimsical topics such as the use of the generic name Halcyon for kingfishers, and its origins in Greek mythology. As birders we tend to revel in such arcane facts! There can never be too much grist for the ornithological mill it seems.
     Some of the sections are quite detailed, the one on Song for example, with great coverage succinctly done, touching on the various types of birdsong and their purpose. As a quick reference Birdpedia is unrivalled. It is perfect for the novice, but should not be overlooked by veteran birders and serious ornithologists. Its small size makes it very convenient to have in the car for use as a handy reference during a birding trip.
      I laughed out loud a couple of times at Leahy's sense of humour, perhaps aligned with my own twisted wit. One such instance that springs immediately to mind is "Jizz (Not what you're thinking)".
     In addition to the matters one might expect to be discussed, Leahy addresses the contemporary issue of "Birdwatching while Black", and I applaud his courage, and his social conscience, in tackling it. It is perhaps an issue to which few white birders (the vast majority) give little attention, but in the twenty-first century the time has come to ponder why black birders are under-represented and to ask ourselves whether we can assist in redressing this imbalance. Drew Lanham's book, The Homeplace: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature should be essential reading for everyone. Ask Harvard-educated Christian Cooper what happens to a black man who courteously asks a woman in Central Park to leash her dog as required? The outcome is not pleasant, but it is predictable.  There are black birders with good jobs driving a nice car who have been unreasonably stopped for suspicion that it may have been stolen. And don't dare park in a pristine white neighbourhood, and if you wear a sweatshirt to ward off the chill winds of fall, pulling up the hoodie could be dangerous to your health and well-being. The time for changes in both attitude and practice is long overdue. Bravo Christopher Leahy for including this section.
     I would be remiss if I failed to mention the charming black-and-white illustrations of Abby McBride. They are extremely well done and add immeasurably to the book.
     For anyone with even a passing interest in birds, this is a great little book, guaranteed to both inform and please.

Birdpedia - Princeton University Press
Author: Christopher W. Leahy
Illustrated by Abby McBride
US$16.95 - £9.99 - ISBN: 9780691209661
Publishing date: 6 July 2021
272 pages - 4.5 x 7.5 inches - 50 black-and-white illustrations


Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Nature's Riches

      The integrated beauty of nature never escapes our attention, but at this time of the year when most birds are preoccupied with breeding, and are silent and secretive, we find ourselves drawn to other taxa more frequently.

15 June 2021
Laurel Creek Conservation Area, Waterloo, ON

     Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is one species that has done spectacularly well in recent years and can be found quite easily. It is not averse to making itself at home in the suburbs where food spilled from bird feeders is readily available.
     Four were on the road as we drove into Laurel Creek, and they scooted off into the undergrowth.

     According to Butterflies of Ontario, Peter W. Hall, Colin D. Jones, Antonia Guidotti and Brad Hubley, a ROM Science Publication (2014), the period of peak abundance for Northern Crescent (Phyciodes cocyta) is June and July, and based on their sheer numbers at present, I think we could vouch for that!

     A Northern Crescent would provide a tasty snack for an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) but this individual seemed content to rest, perhaps already digesting a large meal.

     At times I have witnessed a kingbird catch an enormous bumblebee and after battering it ferociously against a branch for several minutes, gulp it down.

       Any passing insect is fair game for this efficient flycatcher.
      I confess to not having known the identity of the plant that follows, but a little research reveals it to be Meadow Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius).

     The plant was interesting enough but the achene was especially attractive, I thought.

     Common St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is widely distributed throughout our region.

     As you may see this plant is host to what appears to be a small Carpenter Bee, probably Xylocopa virginica, and St. John's Wort Beetle (Agrilus hyperici), better seen in the picture below.

      The beetle is destructive to the plant which rarely survives an attack such as this.
     Rough-fruited Cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) is native to Eurasia, but has been introduced to North America and is now widespread across the continent.

     Turtles have been busy in recent weeks laying their eggs in suitable soil. Many are detected by raccoons, skunks and other animals and one often comes across evidence of a set of eggs that will not make it to hatching.

     Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis) is a wonderful component of our landscape, dancing in the wind and bringing joy to all who see it.

     Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) has been widely co-opted as a garden plant, and is familiar to many.

     Bedstraw (Genus Galium) is so named because the early settlers dried the plant and used it to stuff mattresses. I am not quite sure of the species in the image below.

     Perhaps G. boreale, I am just not sure. 

15 June 2021
RIM Park, Waterloo, ON

     We were advised that a Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens) had been sighted at RIM Park, well out of its normal range, and never having seen this species in Ontario, decided to try our luck at finding it.
Normally, we don't chase after rarities but when one is so local it seems a pity not to rise to the challenge.
     In fact, we did see the bird, clearly and unimpeded by vegetation, but it remained in position for mere seconds, and Miriam could barely get her camera cocked in time, let alone succeed in taking a picture.
     While searching, however, we noticed Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) going in and out of high tree cavities, an occurrence that is quite rare. Most holes in trees are expropriated by other species, especially aggressive Common Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and Tree Swallows are forced to resort to nest boxes.

     It was great to see a grand Box Elder (Acer negundo), a rugged native species that resists cold and hot spells, having adapted to our climate over millennia. How it will react to ever hotter summers remains to be seen. I hope it handles them better than I do!

     Leafy Spurge (Euphorbia esula) was growing throughout.

     I always find this such an interesting plant with its greenish, yellowish petals and unique structure.

     Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) must surely rank as one of our most attractive birds, and we were delighted to find one sitting on a nest, deep in dense cover and impossible to photograph, however.

     There was a slight breeze, sufficient to ruffle feathers, and I think this individual was doing its best to emulate Lily's old hairstyle!

16 June 2021
RIM Park, Waterloo, ON

     In the relative cool of the early morning we decided to return to RIM Park to see if we could get picture of the Yellow-breasted Chat before it concluded it was in the wrong place and headed for home. Again we saw it, again no picture.
     But a Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus) was perched nicely for us.

     A Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis) surveyed its domain from a convenient rock in the Grand River.

     Two-spotted Grass Bug (Stenotus binotatus) is a beautiful little creature, but I know little of its lifestyle, not was I able to find much in the literature.

     American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) breeds locally and is generally not difficult to find.

     No doubt there are young to feed now and this male dropped down to pounce on a juicy green caterpillar.

     A Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) is always an impressive sight.

     Skippers (Family Hesperidae) are often difficult for the novice, easily confused with a day-flying moth.
European Skipper (Thymelicus lineola), known as Essex Skipper in the UK, can generally be found in grasses, rarely flying higher than a metre or two above them.

20 June 2021

Conservation Meadows Storm Water Management Area, Waterloo, ON

     Dotted here and there around the perimeter of the retention pond are dazzling arrays of Rose (Rosa rubiginosa).

     We are entering the period of odenate abundance, and Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) darted here and there, even deigning to land once in a while.

     My good friend, Richard Pegler, commented that he often finds it more difficult to get a picture of a female than a male, but in this instance, I could only succeed with females.

Killbear Storm Water Management Area, Waterloo, ON

     It is a constant source of amazement, and satisfaction too, that these ignominious little patches of wetland can be so productive, and a little puzzling that I have never encountered another naturalist at them.
     Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) males put on quite a show.

     I have no idea how many were active, but it certainly approached a hundred and possibly more.

     I introduced you to Rose (sometimes referred to as Wild Rose) above and here is an interesting shot with a Two-spotted Bumblebee (Bombus bimaculatus) and a Rose Weevil (Rhynchites bicolor), one benefical to the plant, the other not.

     There were countless other small insects on the flowers, but their identification remains unresolved.

     Seeds of White Water-lily (Nymphaea odorata) have found their way into the pond, with pleasing results.

     Not only does it present a beautiful appearance, the lily pads are critical in moderating the temperature of the water, permitting other organisms to thrive. Small fish could be seen sheltering in the cool regions beneath the leaves, and as you may see in the picture below Northern Leopard Frogs (Lithobates pipiens) were content there too.

     Leopard frogs prefer to move at night, the inevitable result of which is that many are killed on roads and highways.
     Here is a Widow Skimmer.

     A Dot-tailed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia intacta) is an aptly named species.

     This species was not abundant at Killbear, nor was  Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis); a female is shown below.

     Familiar Bluets (Enallagma civile) were actively engaged in ensuring the ongoing existence of the species.

     The dragonfly shown below is an Eastern Forktail (Ischnura verticalis) and I am not quite sure what is going on there. It's not a great picture, but the only one I have of this species.

     Next time I will try to coax Miriam into going with me. Two sets of eyes and two cameras might do a whole lot better!

Monday, June 21, 2021

Book Review - Trees of Life - Princeton University Press


     In recent years a good deal of attention has been paid to the E.O. Wilson concept of biophilia, of restoring an integrated relationship with nature,  particularly as it relates to trees. The spiritual and physical benefits of the ancient Japanese practice of forest bathing are widely advocated in the west. The promotion of the healing bond between humans and trees is being advocated by practitioners such as Julia Plevin and Diana Beresford-Kroeger with a proselytizing fervour that serves to increase devotional adherence and popularity.
     A comparison with religious observance is not unwarranted as ritual and ceremonial practices in the forest are advocated, and actual communion with trees is claimed by the staunchest of believers.
     As a naturalist who has spent his entire lifetime exploring forests and woodlands, I can vouch for the restorative aspects of trees, both physical and spiritual.
     Trees of Life, therefore, is a book for its time. Max Adams selects eighty species to celebrate the ancestral and contemporary connection between trees and humans. And I find it hard to argue with his choices. 
     The book is broken down into chapters, so that trees of different types are covered as a group. Permit me to give just a couple of examples: From Apple to Walnut: the fruit and nut bearers and Sugar and Spice: a cook's bounty.
     The text is succinct and informative, often with historical context, and the illustrations are nothing short of spectacular, from high quality modern photographs to reproductions of ancient lithographs and paintings. The book is at once a source of knowledge, a reflection on the state of the world's tree cover, and a visual delight. 
     It is critical when considering trees that one think not only of their utilitarian value, indeed not principally of their commercial uses, but their role in the maintenance of clean air, the provision of oxygen and as the repository of biodiversity. This is done in the final chapter, entitled Trees for the Planet.
     No one will read this book and come away unmoved. Much news is given to the destruction of ancient forests, especially rainforests both tropical and temperate, and the world needs to be concerned and rise up against this trend. 
     This may be the book that inspires political action to save the planet. I hope so!

Trees of Life - Princeton University Press
Author - Max Adams
Hardcover - US$29.95 - ISBN: 9780691212739
Publishing date: 2 March 2021
272 pages - 200+ colour plates and illustrations
8 x 11 inches (20 x 27.5 cm)

Friday, June 18, 2021

Still staying local.....

09 June 2021
Lakeside Park, Kitchener, ON

     The park has become dense with vegetation and some of the paths are barely visible.

     There is luxuriant growth everywhere you look.

     Dragonflies have been abundant of late and  many Common Whitetails (Plathemis lydia) were present, and one very obliging female stopped for a moment to have her picture taken.

    That two-legged reprobate, Homo ignoramus disgusticus continues to do what it does best, trash the environment, and it appears that this squirrel found tasty remnants left in a plastic container cavalierly tossed away.

      It certainly is not beneficial for the squirrel to acquire a taste for human food and start to seek it out. It is lacking nutritionally and in any future conflict between squirrel and human there is going to be one sure loser - the squirrel.

     In Canada last year, 3.3 millions tonnes of plastic was diligently separated and put out for recycling, of which only 9% was actually recycled. There is simply not the industrial capacity to process more. This abysmal ratio is no doubt true in other countries, and in many even worse. There are poor countries where there is no attempt at all to recycle plastics, electronic waste or other hazardous products. Children pick through mountains of garbage exposing themselves to all manner of hazards to their health.
      In addition to household waste, containers like the one the squirrel is licking never make it to a recycling bin. The land we use for recreation and food is degraded with this stuff, soil and groundwater are polluted - and we just keep tossing it away. 
      People have more excuses than you can imagine for continuing to eat at restaurants that offer only plastic cutlery and styrofoam plates, plastic-lined beverage containers and little plastic containers for dipping sauce, to using disposable items at home to avoid the onerous chore of doing the dishes - and so on. It would be as well to sign a pledge committing to providing a trashed planet for your children and grandchildren, because that is exactly what you are doing.
     I had no intention of getting into this disgrace when I started to write this post, but it is one of the key issues of our time. A friend of mine was horrified to see plastic bottles floating on the ocean in Antarctica, and the islands of debris floating in the seas of the world are well known to all. Microplastics are now being absorbed by fish rendering them unsafe for human consumption. It goes on and on.
     It was a hot day and we left the squirrel to enjoy its treat. 

     I bet it wouldn't take long to find another.

10 June 2021
Our backyard, Waterloo, ON

     A Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) is a handsome bird indeed, and I always think the French name for it, Pic flamboyant, captures it so well.

     Unusual among woodpeckers it is primarily a ground-feeding species, with ants forming the mainstay of its diet.
     Like all backyards ours has its share of ants, and this individual was perfectly willing to help us get them under control!

     At times it seemed as though he was bent on excavating the patio as he drilled into the soil between the bricks!

     It was a great pleasure to share our space with him and we hope he returns often. Ants du jour will doubtless always be available.

11 June 2021
Lily at Breithaupt Park, Kitchener, ON

Will someone help me out of the car, please?

A snack is always welcome.

         Bet you can't put your foot in your mouth - well not literally, anyway.

     That was a good one!

 Do you think I'm cute?

 This is a good book!

 That was a great way to spend a couple of hours.

11 June 2021
SpruceHaven, St. Agatha, ON

      Everywhere is looking quite splendid at this time of the year.

     The Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) colony is thriving and we have around thirty nests with eggs or young.

     The adults are kept busy providing a nonstop feeding shuttle to hungry young, and have earned a brief rest now and then.

     Siberian iris (Iris siberica) is found around the pond. A more gorgeous plant would be hard to imagine.

     Yellow Iris (Iris pseudacorus) also does well there, and is no less appealing.

     This non-native species can be highly invasive, but is often planted at waste water ponds to take advantage of its ability to absorb heavy metals.

     The area we call Teen Hollow in recognition of the work done there by WRN Teens is coming along according to plan, and is well on the way to becoming a fully functional restored wetland.

Back at home, Waterloo, ON

     A glass before dinner, another with dinner. Hmmm!

     How could you resist a wine with a name like that?

14 June 2021
Laurel Creek Conservation Area, Waterloo, ON

     Having now bought an annual pass to all the properties of the Grand River Conservation Authority, we go over to Laurel Creek quite frequently.
     With a sky like this and modest mid-twenties temperature, you will understand the allure.

     We took our thermos of coffee and Miriam's delicious apple cake to David's Dell, and almost as soon as we sat down had the company of a Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos), a fine welcome indeed.

      Soldier Beetles (Catharis livida) are making their presence known and a quick search is sure to turn up a few.

     We are still seeing them in singles, but soon they will be living up to their colloquial name of "boinking beetle" since the entire population seems to be joined together in a glorious orgy of sex!

     What a handsome creature it is!
     And Northern Crescent (Phyciodes cocyta) was also a joy to see.

     It is always rewarding to capture them with wings both spread and closed to display all aspects of their beauty.

     The pattern on the hindwing almost looks like scrollwork.
     Bluets (genera Coenagrion and Enallagma) can be frustratingly difficult to identify without hand examination, but given the likelihood of a given species where we encounter it, I believe this representative is Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile). 

      They were present in their hundreds, but were airborne far more frequently than perched.

     It was interesting to see a Northern Crescent and a bluet so close to each other.

     The most ambitious attempt at identification for the species below that I can make is that it is in the family Coenagrionidae, a narrow-winged damselfly of some type.

     If you have by now concluded that my level of proficiency with odenates is not great, you are right!
     A Little Wood-Satyr (Megisto cymela) posed no identification difficulties at all.

     We are just getting into the period of peak abundance for Northern Pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon) and we were rewarded with a few sightings.

     Monarch (Danaus plexippus) is probably the best known butterfly in the world, due principally to the many TV documentaries viewed by a wide audience.

     Most birds are now well advanced into their breeding season and they are both silent and secretive, but one can always count on an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) to bid a fond farewell.

     I had Miriam to keep me company, coffee, apple cake, butterflies, dragonflies, birds and beetles too.  I can think of no better way to spend a morning in June.

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.