Saturday, 28 May 2016

They just don't come any better.

Dave Westfall

          Every evening when Miriam and I enjoy a glass of wine together, we raise a toast to someone who has left us smiling that day, or has inspired us, or has achieved success in fields of endeavour important to us, or has improved our community, or in one way or another has made a difference to our day.
          It occurred to me a few evenings ago that we toast Dave Westfall more often than anyone else.
          Let me tell you about Dave.


          Dave has dealt with cerebral palsy all his life. As he remarked to me just yesterday, “You deal with what you are given” – and so he has. I only got to know Dave last year, and it is my loss for not having known him earlier – for few finer men exist. I can truthfully say that I have never encountered Dave in a down moment; he is always supremely cheerful and full of vigour.
          Dave has led a productive life, until fairly recently working full time in the family insurance business in Kitchener. Along the way he has directed a youth camp, travelled in the Far East, designed the beautiful house (and extensive gardens) at SpruceHaven which he shares with sister Sandy, and her husband Jamie, and has contributed in countless ways to the betterment of all who know him, and has been generous philanthropically.
          He considers himself privileged to have served as President of the Insurance Brokers of Waterloo Region and as Congregational Chairman for Kitchener’s Historic St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. He is a recipient of the Kitchener-Waterloo YMCA’s Meritorious Service Award and Canada’s Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.
          Where Dave and I most closely align is as advocates for the environment. He is committed to the preservation and restoration of habitat for wild creatures – fellow travellers on this precious planet that serves as home for all of us. It has been my good fortune that Dave values my lifelong interest in and knowledge of birds and their world, and has entrusted to me the enhancement of their habitat and the initiation of scientific surveys such as bird banding, which even in this day of technological wizardry still contributes volumes of important data to biologists trying to reverse the catastrophic declines in avian populations. The best is yet to come!
          As Dave gets older his mobility and flexibility decline somewhat, as it does indeed for all of us, but his sheer enjoyment when I tell him about species I have discovered on his property, is no less ebullient and sincere than if he could get out and observe them for himself. I cherish my licence to wander SpruceHaven at will, but I cherish no less the pure joy in seeing Dave’s enthusiastic reaction to the news I have for him about recent sightings, or suggestions that I have for new projects. I am not so sure that giving good news to Dave is not the best thing of all.


          In life, if you are lucky, you meet people who make a difference, people who leave their mark on you, people who attach themselves to your psyche, people who tattoo their imprint on your brain. For me, Dave Westfall is such a person. I can state unabashedly that I am filled with admiration and respect (dare I say love?) for this truly decent human being, a person who in the nine months or so that I have known him, has contributed so much to me.
          I salute you Dave. Thanks for the privilege 

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

A few breeding species at SpruceHaven

24 May 2016

     Yesterday, assisted by John Lichty, I did a systematic round of all the nest boxes to check their contents, as well as examining the known nests of other species thought to be breeding at SpruceHaven.
     The following account covers the morning's activity in the sequence in which we carried out our survey.
     We are very fortunate to have discovered the nest of a Brown Thrasher 
Toxostoma rufum, thanks to a tip from Dave Westfall, and a couple of pictures are provided below of the bird sitting tight on its nest. 



     The nest is deep in the centre of a bush and is so well concealed that it takes me a minute or so to relocate it when I check on its progress. I am not exactly sure how many nests of this species I have seen, but this is certainly not more than the third, and possibly only the second ever. I am looking forward to watching this pair of thrashers raise their young.
     We were on our way down to the pond to check on a Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus nest when we saw a half dozen Cedar Waxwings Bombycilla cedrorum in a pine tree - and any time you see a group of Cedar Waxwings you know it's going to be a great day. Two of them were billing and exchanging positions on a branch, possibly establishing a pair bond, but the nest time for this species is still a couple of months away. They are rare among frugivorous species in feeding their young primarily on this diet, so they wait until peak fruiting time to raise their brood.


     Red-winged Blackbirds have ample prime breeding habitat at SpruceHaven and their sheer numbers reflect this fact. This nest has had a very successful outcome.



     A pair of Green Herons Butorides virescens were observed in early May building a nest, but what has happened subsequently is a bit of a mystery. One day I witnessed the herons being harassed mercilessly by three Common Grackles Quiscalus quiscula, to what end I am not quite sure.  Whether the grackles have succeeded in terminating the herons' breeding attempt is an open question. However, I have not seen them subsequently at the nest and rarely do I see the pair together. In this distant shot you can see one of the herons with the stick nest at the lower right of the picture.



     No doubt this Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula nest will soon produce young.



     I had been watching a pair of Black-capped Chickadees Poecile atricapillus going in and out of one of the nest boxes we had installed and I was happy to discover seven eggs when I opened up the box. The incubating bird that flew out scolded me vociferously and I was anxious to close up the box and let it get back to the serious business of taking care of the eggs. The picture is hardly great but I was at the top of a ladder holding the nest box open with one hand and taking the picture with the other.



     Two of the three owl boxes we had erected were occupied by Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris, the third was unused this year. 
      In the first box we examined the young starlings are about ready to fledge.




     The second occupied box contained a contingent of very young birds, no more than a couple of days old.



     It's an impressive gape on this nestling. Perhaps it reacted to my presence by thinking I was delivering food.



     Recently I had observed a House Wren Troglodytes aedon carrying sticks in the vicinity of one of our nest boxes and an examination of the box revealed a typical House Wren nest, a platform of sticks filling most of the box with a soft, lined cup on top.



     Our bluebird boxes were unsuccessful in attracting Eastern Bluebird Sialis sialia this year and in fact four of the six boxes had no tenant at all.
      The first one we checked had a recently hatched family of House Sparrows Passer domesticus although the young were well down into a nest cup, not visible in the photograph.



      House Sparrow was not our most desirable species, but now that they have young we plan to let them raise their brood.
      The second box, pleasingly contained four Tree Swallow Tachycineta bicolor eggs and we look forward to watching this family hatch and fledge. Aerial insectivores of all species are in need of help so we are happy to see this pair using our box.




     Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica have been flying into the barn for a couple of weeks now and we went inside to check the status of the nests. It was too dark to take pictures, but we found three nests containing eggs and another four with soft, lined cups waiting for eggs to be laid.
     In addition we know of the nest of a pair of American Crows Corvus brachyrynchos high in a conifer, and a pair of Mourning Doves Zenaida macroura which had two eggs appears to have abandoned the nest.
     There are doubtless other species breeding; I am sure we have many more discoveries to make.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Grey Catbird (Moqueur chat)

     Grey Catbird Dumatella carolinensis is a common, but interesting species, that arrives in our area in the early part of May. On most of our recent walks we have been observing this species and hearing its pleasing, gurgling song, often interspersed with the voices of other species, sometimes even those of amphibians.



     At the end of its song it issues a mewing call reminiscent of that of a cat. It is from this characteristic that the bird gets its name.




     It inhabits scrubby areas, overgrown farm land and abandoned orchards. It can also be found in well vegetated suburban areas.



     This species is not particularly shy and can be approached quite closely. It often feeds on the ground and has the habit of flicking its long tail upward.
      Recently, while observing a catbird we noticed this American Toad Anzxyrus americanus almost right at our feet. It was a large specimen and was well camouflaged.



     Grey Catbirds and American Toads - pleasant company to spend the morning with if you ask me.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Scarlet Tanager (Tangara éclate)

     Surely one of the most appealing neotropical migrants to visit our area during the breeding season, the Scarlet Tanager Piranga olivacea is by any standards a striking bird. 


     It forages primarily at mid height and only rarely descends to the ground.          Miriam and I were very fortunate to encounter this male along the Benjamin Park Trail a couple of days ago. Not only was the bird feeding on the ground, it seemed to ignore our presence and we were able to get off several pictures.



     I have no doubt that it would have remained there longer, but a cyclist came along and caused it to fly off. To the credit of the fellow riding the bike he apologized to us for scaring away our bird.
     At this time of the year this species is reasonably common, but far from easy to find. Once the trees leaf out it is very difficult to spot as it feeds on insects on the foliage and branches, and it blends in with its surroundings surprisingly well.
     We consider ourselves very fortunate to have been able to observe this bird in such detail.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Spring is here

     Although you would never know it from the weather! Yesterday the high barely got to four degrees and we had early morning snow mixed with ice pellets. That kind of weather is depressing in mid May, but the rest of the week looks far more inviting. Let's hope we have seen the last of this ridiculously cold weather for this time of year.
     During the past week Miriam and I have traversed the back roads a little and we encountered our first Bobolinks Dolichonyx oryzivorus of the year. This bird breeds on native grassland (a seriously endangered habitat) and is often difficult to photograph. The male hovers above the plain singing a delightful, burbling melody and then drops down into the grass out of view, no doubt to join a female there.



      Ospreys Pandion haliaetus have become a bit of a poster bird locally, and it seems that whenever anyone proposes a new artificial nest tower for them, a surge of offers are received to fund the structure. The local hydro electric commission is to be commended for this installation.



     We checked out Bill Read's nest boxes for Eastern Bluebird Sialia sialis and were happy to see that they are occupied. A male had captured a fat, juicy grub....



     ....which he promptly transferred to the female.



     This sparrow did not wish to turn around to face us, but I am reasonably sure it is a Grasshopper Sparrow Ammodramus savannarum.



     There is no doubt at all about this Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina.



     One of the dominant features of our local landscape is the Grand River. Having once been heavily polluted, it is now returning to good health and the substantial populations of Ospreys, Bald Eagles Haliaeetus leucocephalus, herons, kingfishers and swallows bear witness to this fact. It is an aptly named river; it truly is grand.



     In a marshy area we found this nest of Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus. The female was close by and we quickly distanced ourselves from her so that she could resume incubation.






     This male also got a little agitated when we were close to the nest so it is safe to assume that the female is a member of his harem.



     This Grey Catbird Dumatella carolinensis, as is the habit of this species, skulked and betrayed its presence by its mewing call.



     Even though our weather has improved somewhat it is still unseasonably cool for the time of year. Some species may be facing a difficult breeding season with insect prey in short supply. Time will tell.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Waterloo Region Nature Field Trip to Thickson's Woods, Whitby, ON

9 May 2016

Leader: David Gascoigne

Members: Miriam Bauman, John Lichty, Jim Huffman, Francine Gilbert

Guests: Peter McLaren, Carol McLaren

     We had four cancellations the night before the trip, but the people who participated were treated to a fine day of birding, with close encounters with a range of interesting species.
     The drive across Toronto was abysmal and it took us an hour longer than it did last year to make the same trip. Every time I visit Canada's largest city I shake my head at the gridlock. Soon this whole metropolitan area is going to grind to a total halt.
     When we arrived at Thickson's Woods we were all happy to get out of the car and stretch our legs. We were ready to start birding!





     It took us about a half hour just to get to the woodlot, the birding along the road was so terrific, with many warblers to keep us occupied, and several Baltimore Orioles Icterus galbula decorating the trees. 




     Barely had we entered the woods than we saw a flock of about fifteen Cedar Waxwings Bombycilla cedrorum seemingly content to simply watch the world go by.



     Black-throated Green Warblers Setophaga virens were both numerous and co-operative and the sound of cameras clicking was interspersed with bird songs, as many enthusiasts were able to get close-up shots.



     It is always a great pleasure to have Jim Huffman and Francine Gilbert accompany me on my walks. Jim quietly observes and is adept at spotting birds, while Francine is ebullient in her sheer delight at the panoply of nature's beauty spread before her.


     Ovenbird Seirus aurocapilla is a species not always easy to see; it does not show itself willingly. We were lucky indeed to be able to get pictures of this individual.


     Myrtle Warbler Setophaga coronata is one of our commonest wood warblers but it is a beautiful little bird and usually easier to find than most other warblers.


     White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis is a resident species but its presence in the breeding season enhanced the pleasure of our day.


     Surely one of the most stunning birds to enliven the spring woods is a Scarlet Tanager Piranga olivacea and we were all enthralled to see at least three of them. The individual in the picture below has not quite attained full breeding plumage and remnant green patches of non-breeding plumage may be clearly seen.



       It was a happy group enjoying the marvel of spring migration.


     It was quite a surprise to find a Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo in the woods. I have never seen one here before, although this species is proliferating and it really should not seem unusual to find one here in prime habitat.


     We decided to go over to Whitby Harbour to have our picnic lunch and it was on the way to the car that we spotted a singing male Orchard Oriole Icterus spurius, an uncommon species in the area.


     Whitby Harbour is a delightful spot to have lunch but there was a cold breeze coming off Lake Ontario and Peter and Carol decided to eat in the car. The rest of us braved the cold to sit at a picnic table, but when Francine offered to share her hot coffee I was happy to take a cup.
     After lunch we returned to Thickson's Woods.


     We had been seeing Black-and-White Warblers Mniotilta varia all day but never in a position where we could photograph them. Finally this individual enabled us to get a picture.


     The floor of the woods had several stands of ferns, all emerging in their characteristic fiddlehead shape.



     Leaving the southernmost perimeter of the woods proper it is but a short distance to Lake Ontario, where we scanned for ducks, cormorants and gulls.


      Back in the woodlot we were finally able to get a reasonably open Blackburnian Warbler Setophaga fusca for a picture. As was the case with the Black-and-white Warbler we had seen this species several times, but always hidden by leaves and moving about very quickly.



     It was a great day's birding, thoroughly enjoyed by everyone. 
     Thanks are due to those who joined my outing and to Miriam especially who took all the photographs to leave me free to help the others to find and identify their birds. A complete list of all species follows below.

Species en route: Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Rock Dove, American Crow, Common Starling.

Species at Thickson's Woods: Trumpeter Swan, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Wild Turkey, Mourning Dove, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Eastern Phoebe, Great Crested Flycatcher, Blue-headed Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, Tree Swallow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, White-breasted Nuthatch, Swainson's Thrush, American Robin, House Finch, American Goldfinch, Ovenbird, Golden-winged Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler, Nashville Warbler, American Redstart, Blackburnian Warbler, American Yellow Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Myrtle Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Orchard Oriole, Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Common Grackle, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Scarlet Tanager, Northern Cardinal.

Species at Whitby Harbour: Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Double-crested Cormorant, Ring-billed Gull, American Herring Gull, Caspian Tern, House Sparrow.

Total species: 59