Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Red and Grey Morph Eastern Screech Owl (Petit-duc maculé)

     There are two distinct colour morphs of Eastern Screech Owl Megascops asio, red and grey, with grey being the most common in this area. In fact I have only ever seen one red morph bird in my life, at Point Pelee National Park in 1986. I was discussing this very issue with a friend who is also a long-term birder and he too has only seen one red morph bird, and that quite recently in eastern Ontario.
     Thus it was quite remarkable when another friend, John Chan, sent me this photograph he took recently in Hamilton, ON of a red morph bird and a grey morph bird sharing the same cavity.

     I do not wish to divulge the precise location on my blog, but John has told me where I can perhaps get to see the birds myself, and I will report back with more pictures if I am successful. Unfortunately the weather today does not look too promising for a road trip with predictions of freezing rain for later in the day, but I will certainly try tomorrow if at all possible.
     In the meantime enjoy this picture and join me in sending a warm vote of appreciation to John for sharing it.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Pekin Duck (Canard colvert domestique)

London, ON
1 March 2015

     On a day when the temperature was forecast to get up to around minus 4°C, positively balmy for southern Ontario recently, Miriam and I decided to drive down to Springbank Park in London to see a Harlequin Duck Histrionicus histrionicus which had been seen there the previous day by our good friend Charlotte Moore.
     Alas, the duck was nowhere to be found despite considerable searching, and checking with several local birders and photographers, no one else had seen it either. However there was lots to hold our attention with a wide variety of interesting waterfowl, and male Northern Cardinals Cardinalis cardinalis were in full song, and several Mallards Anas platyrychos were in high mating mode. Common Goldeneyes Bucephala clangula, fueled by surging hormones, were engaged in that very entertaining head toss routine which occurs when spring is in the air.
     Perhaps most interesting of all, however, was a pure Pekin Duck Anas platyrynchos domestica (sometimes known as a Long Island Duck) in a flock of Mallards. 

     This duck has been selectively bred to achieve its pure white form and far from being just a source of protein for the human diet, it has become popular as a household pet. It imprints on people and can be trained not to mess up a house and provides an excellent alarm service if anything untoward or unfamiliar happens at the home. People even take them on car trips and since the bird is imprinted onto its human "parents" it happily walks alongside them without straying.

     This one has obviously somehow become separated from its human family and has readily adapted to life with its wild cousins.
     The Staghorn Sumachs Rhus typhina looked particularly nice with an icing sugar topping of snow.

     On the way home we dropped down to Grass Lake and Bill Read and Ross Dickson were there banding Snow Buntings Plectrophenax nivalis and Horned Larks Eremophila alpestris.
     Bill was happy to show us the defining characteristics of a second year male.

     The birds readily enter the cage which is baited with corn and Bill and Ross are kept very busy.

     We didn't see the Harlequin Duck, but we had an interesting and entertaining day regardless. That, my friends, is the nature of birding.  

Friday, 27 February 2015

Common Redpolls (Sizerins flammés) At My Feeders

Waterloo, ON
27 February 2015

     Yesterday we saw the first Common Redpolls Acanthis flammea of this winter at the bird feeders in our back yard. Always a favourite, we were very happy to see these tiny gems that enliven even the cruelest of winter days.

     Today is my birthday and what finer present could I have than that they would show up again? Right now just two birds are putting in an appearance, but I am sure that more will soon join them. In years past we have had as many as twenty or thirty in the yard at the same time. My investment in Nyger seed is well repaid by the pleasure they give us.

     Thanks for coming to see us!

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Horned Larks (Alouette hausse-col) in the snow, and in other stuff too.

Grass Lake Area
Cambridge, ON
24 February 2015

     Today was not the kind of day one looks forward to when going birding - but I went anyway! It was very cold and the winds were fierce, so the combination of weather and wind chill meant it was not a day for the faint of heart. In the rural areas the snow was being whipped into drifts so the driving was sometimes treacherous also.
     My search was for the classic winter species in our area and I was not disappointed. Initially the area seemed barren of birds, but then I saw what I was pretty sure was a flock of Snow Buntings Plectrophenax nivalis on top of a barn roof. As I drove towards the farm where the barn was situated, more Snow Buntings started to lift off the road and the adjacent fields. In total I estimated there were about three hundred birds.
     None of the pictures in this post are very good, but the conditions were simply appalling and this is the best I could do, shooting in poor light through driving snow. The barn was also seventy-five metres or so from the road.
     As you can see in the images below, some of the Snow Buntings burrow right into the snow.

      After spending about twenty minutes patiently searching through the flocks of Snow Buntings, searching without success for a Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus, I drove a little farther along the perimeter of the farm fence.
      Almost immediately I spotted a couple of Horned Larks Eremophila alpestris
hunkered down in the snow.

     Then my attention was drawn to a good deal of activity taking place on a dung pile which was sheltered somewhat from the snow since it was located on the leeward side of a barn.
      There about thirty Horned Larks were feeding continuously as were Snow Buntings, House Sparrows Passer domesticus and Rock Doves Columba livia.
      These pictures, poor though they may be, give an idea of the concentration of larks on what was obviously a productive food source.

      The following shot shows a Snow Bunting, and behind it a Rock Dove.

      The predominant species, however, was Horned Lark and it was a bit of a mystery to me why the majority of the Snow Buntings were gleaning whatever morsels they could find in the windswept fields and were ignoring what was obviously more readily available food.

     The weather was pretty awful, and the road conditions far from the best, but it perhaps added to the satisfaction of enjoying these winter warriors. It was an hour well spent.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Winter Survivors

Waterloo County, ON
16 February 2015

     Overnight we set a record for the coldest temperature ever recorded in our area. The mercury dipped to minus 34°C -  and that is air temperature without any effect of wind chill.  By the time I went for my walk along the Benjamin Park Trail mid afternoon it was a sunny minus 16, and that's about as high as it got. We are enveloped in a stationary system of frigid arctic air and no amelioration is predicted for a few days yet.
     It is quite incredible that birds survive these conditions, but they do so, and by first light they will start to visit my feeders to replenish the reserves of fat consumed during the hours of darkness just to maintain their core temperature. Many of these species, such as this Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis, are little more than tiny little bundles of feathers.

     And therein lies the secret, of course. Their insulating plumage is such a model of efficiency that they are able to totally trap the warm air from their bodies without having it escape.
     In most years both local species of nuthatch visit my feeders regularly, but this year other than for one visit of a Red-breasted Nuthatch Sitta canadensis only the White-breasted Nuthatch Sitta carolinensis has been a regular.

     This bird is very adept at extracting a peanut in almost no time at all. Sometimes it is eaten right away but most often the bird flies off with it and we follow it to a tree where it can be seen hammering its prize under the bark or  into a suitable cavity.

     Black-capped Chickadees Poecile atricapillus are one of our most abundant species and their cheerful chickadee-dee-dee call on a cold winter's day is a welcome addition to the crisp and snowy landscape. Now I am already hearing their fee-bee mating repertoire as they start to pair off.

      As I walked along the trail a Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus was busily probing the surface of the trees to find whatever source of protein and fat was there.

      American Tree Sparrows Spizella arborea breed much farther north and spend the winter at this latitude.

     Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis  is a relative newcomer to Ontario, having first been recorded in 1910. It has slowly expanded its range northwards and now seems well-equipped to handle whatever winter brings. A friend of mine told me that he heard the first male singing the other day, so we know that spring is not far behind.

     Obviously it is not only passerines that endure the cold winters here and this Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis was perched stoically in a tree, sitting out the frigid conditions.

     Despite its challenges winter brings a charm all of its own and beauty is all around for those who care to get out and look.

     Much as we all might prefer a constant temperature of around 20° life is just not like that. I can tell you that I have experienced 40 below and 45 above and I know which I prefer, if I have to endure either one. No matter how cold, one can always layer up and stay warm. In oppressive heat one simply cannot escape it and there is no recourse but to head indoors. It's going to be cold again today, but I will be outside regardless. Want to join me for a walk in the snow? And by the way, a few birds will be sure to come along with us. They might even sing to you.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

A Snowy Day in Waterloo

14 February 2015

     Not having captured too many decent images of birds recently, or other wildlife for that matter, I am turning to the state of the weather for this post.
     It is a snowy day in Waterloo and I have already shovelled my driveway clean once, and no doubt I will have to repeat the performance before the day is over. Right now it is snowing and the wind is blowing fiercely.
     Here is what my house looks like.

     You can see that the driveway is clear - for now at least. I am sure that by early afternoon it will have two or three more centimetres of snow accumulated on it, and if the wind continues to howl it will cause some drifting.
     The path to the front entrance is passable - for now!

     As you will note, we have had considerable snow recently, and some of the snow piles at the sides of my driveway and at the front of the house attest to the amount of snow clearing I have been doing.

     This is what the sidewalk looks like looking down the street from the bottom of the driveway.

     Each homeowner is responsible for keeping the sidewalk clear and navigable for pedestrians; if you neglect to do it the city sends a bobcat to do it and then your bill follows in the mail!

     These are views looking both ways along the street.

     The most frustrating thing of all is that later in the day, after the main thoroughfares have been cleared, the municipal snow plough will come along the street and its blade will dump a whole wall of snow from the pavement in front of everybody's drive. Then you have to get rid of all of that mess before you can drive out.
     I guess this is the price we pay for living where we do!

Saturday, 7 February 2015

A Sure Sign of Impending Spring

Waterloo, ON
7 February 2015

     We have a small rodent, some kind of Microtus vole I suspect, living in a burrow beneath the snow directly below one of our bird feeders. It emerges for the briefest of forays to snag some of the seed knocked down by the birds, but is back in its hole in a flash. I doubt whether the period of exposure exceeds three seconds and we have not been able to get a photograph that is anything other than a dark blob on the snow. 
     While attempting a shot this morning we turned our attention to the American Goldfinches Spinus tristis which are the most frequent visitors to our feeders, and the following detail was revealed on the photographs.

     Those little black smudges on the head of the bird are an unmistakable sign of a male American Goldfinch starting to moult into breeding plumage - an absolutely guaranteed sign that the spring courtship season is not far behind.
     In recent days we have shovelled about 30 cm of snow from out driveway and sidewalk, and another 20 cm or so is forecast for tomorrow into Monday. So these portents of milder weather to come are welcome indeed.

     Thanks to the rodent for popping up onto the snow, otherwise we probably would not have bothered to shoot this familiar bird of whom we have hundreds of pictures already!