Last year I spent a month in south-western Uganda. It has taken me a while I’ll admit but after much organizing of thoughts I have finished telling the story about birding in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. You’ll find it by following this link. Oh and there are gorillas there too.
January 5 2018. Fort Erie, ON. My day’s errands took me close enough to the City of Niagara Falls that I decided to take a drive along Niagara Parkway, as the road that parallels the Niagara River is known. I went to see what ducks, geese and swans were around. The road passes close enough to the falls to allow me to see what all the recent media fuss was about. It is bitterly cold and has been for several days and the press seems to think the falls have frozen over. Maybe so on the American side, although there was too much spray to tell, the Canadian falls certainly had not.
Regular readers (particularly those with a good memory) will recall (and locals will know) that the Niagara River is not so much a river as a mighty sluiceway that connects Lake Erie to Lake Ontario (and featuring a spectacular 100M drop along the way) and that sooner or later pretty much all of the waters of the Great Lakes basin find their way along it; a formidable torrent and a good place for waterfowl. The river never freezes over.
The Niagara Parkway is a pleasant drive at any time, there’s always something to look at. Upstream it ends at Fort Erie with Buffalo opposite on the American side; border towns.
I had no expectations of finding any unusual waterfowl and that’s just the way it went. There were many Common Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, Red-breasted and Common Mergansers, as there should be. I was a little surprised at the number of Tundra Swans, perhaps one or two-hundred. I suppose it was just in my imagination that all Tundra Swans spend the winter along the Atlantic coast and that come March they make their way to our local waters on the first leg of their journey north. Seems I was wrong, some hang around on the Niagara River.
I got much pleasure from of the small flotillas of Redheads and Canvasbacks gathered along the shoreline. I stopped to watch one Canvasback in particular because I thought I could get a good photo of it, and maybe I did, but then I noticed a single American Wigeon muscling in with the others and almost bullying its way around for no apparent reason. Not sure why but I was quite smitten by it perhaps because it was different and quite handsome in its chestnut and grey. See what you think. For no really good reason the wigeon was my Bird of the Day, just different I guess.
January 1 2018. Vinemount ON. As I took in the always novel privilege of seeing a placid Snowy Owl far out in the ice today I got thinking how, except for one major fly in the ointment, there might be quite a tourism business opportunity in Snowy Owl watching; the trouble is it’s almost always so perishing cold when the owls are here. There’s usually at least one or two snowies seen each fall and winter but every now and then we get a bumper crop, this year is shaping up as one of those big ones although it doesn’t yet compare to the winter of 2013 / 2014 when there were dozens maybe hundreds around the lower Great Lakes. Snowy Owls are one of the prizes among birds of the world; it’s just everything about them: owlish inscrutability, owlish mystery, and who, other than Santa Claus, leaves the far far north at year-end to visit us and yet remains virtually unseen.
Today’s owl was one of four special birds of winter; I’m including a Peregrine Falcon and a bunch of Bald Eagles in that description. The peregrine was spotted flying with a freshly-seized Rock Pigeon in its talons, obviously fresh because it was still flapping, almost as energetically as the falcon. The flapping made life difficult for the peregrine that was clearly wishing the pigeon would stay still for a minute. My money was on the peregrine.
The Bald Eagles, seven of them at least, I could see far away out over the harbour ice. One or two of them were adults (white heads and tails) but most looked just massive and black against the spindrift snow. On winter days like this the deep cold and gathering ice is a dire threat to over-wintering ducks, geese and swans and the Bald Eagles are there for the pickings; so much for the noble eagle as national symbol.
Best bird, Bird of the Day, was a spectacular Rough-legged Hawk patrolling the landscaped rim of a deep limestone quarry. The brisk north wind piled up in a cushion of lift over the cliff edge giving the hawk a wave to ride like a surfer. Rough-legged Hawks breed in tundra or taiga in arctic and subarctic North America, they migrate south to spend the winter in the open landscapes of southern Canada and the northern U.S. They exhibit quite variable plumage and today’s was a light-morph (see photos below). It’s dramatic the black belly and wrist patches contrasting against otherwise pale body and wing-undersides. I have included two photos, one taken four years ago because it’s better, but note the individuals (while both light-morph Rough-legged Hawks) are not identical. Today’s bird has less well-defined wrist patches, a faint barely discernable terminal band on the tail and perhaps lighter markings on the throat. I have done quite a bit of reading trying to pin age and /or sex on either of these birds but the texts aren’t a lot of help and frankly I’m happy enough to revel in the beauty of the bird regardless of age or sex.
December 13th 2017 Milgrove, ON. Driving a busy road, on my way to re-find if possible a flock of mystery birds seen two days ago, (possibly Horned Larks, American Pipits or Lapland Longspurs) I noted high overhead a westward drifting, large, black bird. It could only be one of two things, either a Turkey Vulture (too late and too small) or a Golden Eagle.
I was lucky to be able to turn off, leaving the heavy traffic, and follow the bird along a country road that ran almost parallel to the eagle’s line of flight. It was high, almost at the limit of naked-eye sight, but with binoculars I was able to study it quite well and with my camera get several reasonable photos. Here’s one, hardly a show-stopper but as for-the-record shots go it’s conclusively a Golden Eagle.
The amount of white in the under-wing used to be considered an indicator of age in Golden Eagles but is no longer, it is quite variable between individual birds, you’ll note this birds shows a couple of flecks. But the slightly irregular trailing edge of the wing suggests this one is a two year old.
Well, that was quite a reward for a cold winter day’s birding and it would be impossible to outdo a Golden Eagle as Bird of the Day. I could not re-find any evidence of the flock of mystery birds I’d set out for but saw two groups of Turkeys. The birding establishment (everyone else) calls them Wild Turkeys, I don’t, I think calling them ‘Wild’ is demeaning; of course they’re wild. This is a species in need of a new name and I’ve been waging an ineffectual, low-key, one-man campaign to get the bird re-named Woodland Turkey – or something like that. My campaign has gone nowhere probably because of my failure to pursue the matter with any passion. It doesn’t matter, here’s a group of them.
August 31st. 2017. Presqu’ile Provincial Park, Brighton, ON. This is a dip back into my archives to a story written three and a bit moths ago but which was set aside for one reason or another.
It’s a long drive east to Presqu’ile Provincial Park, but the park is a bit legendary among birders, the day was open to ideas and I’d heard that there were some good shorebirds there. Too far to go chasing birds in the normal run of things but the idea just popped into my head, so I went.
Entering the park, paying the admission fee and accepting a handful of park-users’ information I was directed to the birders’ beach. Well, now there’s a nice idea, to think that some beaches could be Frisbee-free. It turned out that the birders’ beach wouldn’t have held much appeal to normal people anyway. The waters of Lake Ontario had inundated it through the spring and early summer and its sands were still soggy, offensively smelly and alive with flies and other invertebrates; conditions more appealing to shorebirds than sun worshipers.
As far as shorebirds go it was rather unexciting, a couple of flocks of Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers skittered at the water’s edge. Every now and then they’d take off as if in panic, head out over the lake but quickly circle back to the beach a hundred meters along from where they’d started. It was a good opportunity to study and compare the two very much alike species but well, hardly worth the long drive.
Things looked up when I noticed a small group of new birds arrive, somehow a bit different, perhaps a bit larger, or maybe it was just the way they flew. I found them again later among shoreline-feeding Semipalmated Sandpipers, very similar but yes, a little larger and subtly different. My mind worked over the options and isolated Baird’s Sandpipers as most likely.
Distinguishing between lookalikes can be very challenging and if done incorrectly can be career-ending. Think of the poor souls who sailed back to Europe with a ship loaded with supposed gold which turned out to be chalcopyrite. (Superficially they look alike but an experienced field geologist told me the geologists’ maxim is, if you think it’s gold – it’s not!) Practice and experience will never go out of style.
Baird’s Sandpipers are a generally more western species and while most adults migrate south down the middle of the continent the young of the year are less disciplined and a few show up around Lake Ontario at this time of year, although they’re still not common.
I left Presqu’ile satisfied that I’d finally seen the place and understood its attraction, happy to have picked out the Baird’s Sandpipers among Semipalmated Sandpipers, Lesser Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Plovers and not much else. Baird’s Sandpiper, here’s one– Bird of the Day.
December 6th. 2017 Sedgewick Forest Park, Oakville, ON. I’ve scarcely touched my binoculars in a month, not since we wrapped up two months of bird population transects that started in with Chimney Swifts and ended with Fox Sparrows. Today with a north-west wind blowing cold and hard a young birder friend reported watching a wind-tossed Golden Eagle circling high overhead. Late fall cold fronts are legendary for Golden Eagles, and while he may nurture some lingering doubts I’m happy to believe that’s what he saw.
Meanwhile on a more mundane birding front, and perhaps inspired by my friend to get out, I visited one of this area’s most celebrated sewage treatment facilities. Such places are not everyone’s cup of tea I know, but birds like them for the nourishing insect life to be found thereabouts. Every late fall and early winter this place holds a few oddities, last year for example I wrote “ American Robins all clucking and squawking … many Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets; an Eastern Phoebe and …Probably the drabbest warbler we ever encounter, an Orange-crowned Warbler and arguably the most beautiful a Northern Parula.“
On arrival today I could hear a Winter Wren purring to itself somewhere low and gloomy, and see and hear small groups of American Robins, House Finches and American Goldfinches. A couple of warmly-dressed birders were prowling around, pointing and staring at a tangle of old grapes and blackberry, but I was under-dressed so stayed just long enough to see two or three Yellow–rumped Warblers, a pair of Northern Cardinals, a bashful Hermit Thrush and, Bird of the Day, a glowing Nashville Warbler. The place wasn’t devoid of colour, after all House Finches show some crimson-red and Yellow Rumped Warblers have butter-yellow rumps (as you might expect). But this little Nashville Warbler with its yellowy-orange throat and breast seemed to radiate light from within the woody tangle.
Here’s a Nashville Warbler, just as engaging, but photographed at another, greener time of year.
October 29th. 2017. LaSalle Park, Burlington, ON. Whenever I keep field notes of birds seen, usually for our transect work, I habitually list the passerines on the left side of the page and non-passerines on the right. (Passerines are often thought of as songbirds, but are officially defined as birds distinguished from other orders of Aves by the arrangement of their toes, three pointing forward and one back, which facilitates perching.) I mention this because almost always, passerine species far outnumber non-passerines; today it was the other way around, literally a sign of the times.
The great autumnal purge of song birds is almost complete and things must be getting hostile to the north of us because large flotillas of migrant ducks are appearing on our lakes and waterways. Along the pathway that defines one of our transect routes I spotted a convoy of ten Common Mergansers, followed later by three Red–breasted Mergansers and much later one Hooded Merganser. There were Northern Shovelers, Gadwall, Mallards, Mute Swans and Green–winged Teal too; only Mallards are year round residents here.
On the way home I made a stop at a couple of parks along the shore of our large harbour and scanned a bobbing raft of Redheads, Gadwall and Lesser Scaup, I looked for Tundra Swans and Canvasbacks but saw neither, late October is when they start to appear.
But the bird that stood out, the bird that met my Bird of the Day test by prompting a wow response in me, was a solitary Great Black–backed Gull. They’re not rare, not common either, but wherever and whenever they occur they have presence; perhaps as the world’s largest gull species they could hardly fail. I think most gulls are omnivorous and opportunistic feeders, anything goes, but Great Black-backed Gulls are rapaciously omnivorous and opportunistic. This photo below was taken three of four years ago in a time of deep cold and the young Great Black-backed Gull, drifting along on a plate of ice, had either preyed upon a seriously weakened duck or scavenged a corpse. That’s the sort of thing they go in for, I’d advise against showing signs of weakness when Great Black-backed Gulls are at hand.
With reference to my comments in my previous post about the difficulty of photographing a Golden-crowned Kinglet, well I came close to success today with this one.
October 27th. 2017. RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. I have been anticipating the appearance of Fox Sparrows for a week or so and today I was rewarded with the sight of two of them. They popped up from somewhere deep in a thicket of Red Osier Dogwoods, surveyed me disapprovingly for half a minute and then left. Just the sight of them, the fulfillment of an expectation, made them Birds of the Day in a day full of interesting stuff.
Fox Sparrows pass through in spring and fall on their way to and from winter spent in the central southern U.S and summer in subarctic Alaska to Labrador. In spring we look for them picking through spilled seed around bird-feeders where they sometimes take a few minutes off to try out their melodious yet somehow secretive song. Spring or fall it’s their sturdy angular build and rich foxy red plumage that makes you stop and stare. This photo was taken on about this date a couple of years ago.
For a short while later I watched a posse of ten Golden–crowned Kinglets working over a patch of Periwinkle searching for the kind of microscopic food that keeps these engaging little mites alive. They were close enough and bold enough, and I optimistic enough, that I invested perhaps too much time trying to get a good photo of one. Goodness knows I’ve tried and tried but they rarely stay in one place for more than a moment and I always seem to get blurry, out of focus, or just-leaving-you-now shots or, if I’m lucky a well focused back-end portrait. I did no better today, here’s a gallery of today’s shots, just as I described.
October 21st . 2017. RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. With two companions I walked the transect route around this lovely valley. It was eight o-clock when we started and unusually warm for this time of year but it became dank and chilly as we headed down to where the cold airs of night had settled. This uncharacteristically warm fall has confused the natural world, daylight length tells you it’s late October but it still feels like mid-September. Trees and herbaceous plants know it’s time to close down for the winter but without frost and other low-temperature cues their leaves are reluctant to let go.
At a time of year when bird sounds are mostly chip notes, chatters and sibilant whispers, very few songs emerge; the likeliest to be heard are American Robins, Carolina Wrens and faint traces of White-throated Sparrows. Today as we followed the edge of the small creek I heard (or did I imagine?) the simple element parts of a vireo, the three-eight of maybe a Red-eyed Vireo. The idea, just the barest possibility floated around the recesses of my mind but was generally disregarded as impossible; until right in front of us a Blue-headed Vireo hopped into view. I ignored everything else and became quite vireo-absorbed in admiration and trying to get a photo lest anyone accuse me of distorting the truth. Here it is, Bird of the Day without equal.
A couple more surprises (to me anyway) came a little later as we made our way around a woodland-edged pond where I can reliably expect some loafing Mallards, Wood Ducks and a Great Blue Heron; they were there alright but so too were three each of Gadwall and Northern Shovelers. These must be newly arrived migrants and may not stay for long. I don’t expect to see shovelers until it’s a lot colder, usually mid-November. They’re all handsome birds: Mallard, Wood Duck, Gadwall and Shoveler and on a small woodland pond made a beautiful mental picture to go home with.
October 14th. 2017. RBG Hendrie Valley, Burlington, ON. I scrapped the first couple of attempts at writing this because I was struggling to frame the idea that some migrant species arrive in waves, or pulses. But that’s it, that’s what I wanted to say. It’s mid October, probably the majority of south-bound species have cleared out by now and birding these days features the arrival and passage of the hardier species passing through as if on a schedule.
What we’re seeing at this rather late date is the passage of migrants most of whom are quite winter-hardy. For them almost anywhere with the right habitat south of the Great Lakes is safe enough through the winter months and we are at the northern limit of that winter range. Some will stay with us especially in sheltered places like valleys with open water or around houses and thick hedges.
For a week or two we have been witness to hordes of White-throated Sparrows working through our woodlands, everywhere you focus your attention there would be a white-throat or two bouncing around. With them came Golden–crowned Kinglets, always on the move, picking, fluttering and searching especially around leaf stalks for insects, they’ve been followed closely by Ruby–crowned Kinglets who I think are now in the majority.
Barely a week ago the first Hermit Thrushes of the fall showed up, now they are almost common; although common may not be the best choice of word because you don’t see many, they’re so secretive. Today I happened upon two, but they are evasive and stay low, I’m certain there are many more around. While other members of the thrush family make their way into Central and South America, the Hermit Thrush manages to get though winter in the southern half of the United States and into Mexico; a few even linger as far north as this part of Ontario but I think they’re really pushing their luck.
In the last couple of days Winter Wrens have shown up, a very few will stay the winter but most will keep going. It’s often just a flicker of dark movement somewhere low and impossibly tangled that gives them away. But if you’re patient they usually re-emerge just a few feet away and jump around, flying low and fast, to get your measure.
Four Winter Wrens were my Birds of the Day but were among many interesting sightings. They were in a transect count that included a late Common Yellowthroat, nearly sixty White-throated Sparrows (it’s reasonable to assume that for every one I counted another ten were not far away.): Two Hermit Thrushes, Two Swamp Sparrows and, heard but not seen, an Eastern Towhee. I’ll be listening and watching for more signs of the Towhee, it just might stay in this sheltered valley.