Sunday, 1 May 2016

Just when you thought you knew.....

     I am pretty sure that if you asked anyone interested in birds whether drake Mallards Anas platyrynchos assume any role in raising their young the answer would be "No." 
    This is certainly borne out in the literature, (see Kortright 1943, Madge and Burn 1988, Johnsgard 1992, Ogilvie and Pearson 1994, Kear 2005).
     It is conventional wisdom that once the female commences egg laying the male deserts her and goes off to join the "bachelor club" of other males, all moulting their plumage and becoming flightless for several weeks.
     Thus it was a great surprise yesterday, on Lake Ontario, to witness a family of Mallards, two to three hundred metres offshore, where both drake and hen were chaperoning their ducklings.




     I watched carefully to see whether it just happened that a male was swimming in close proximity to the female with her young, but this was clearly a family. If the ducklings strayed too far from the group the male would actively take part in rounding them up and displayed as much vigilance in every way as the female.
     The only hint about this possibility is found in Kear 2005 wherein it is stated, "Pairbond lasts until early or mid incubation, male playing no part in brood rearing; however, in urban and other artificial situations, increasingly normal to see male accompanying female and brood."
     Whether this area of Lake Ontario, at Paletta Park in Burlington, ON would fit the above definition is a moot point. It is certainly in the midst of an urban environment, but the park is right on the lake and has a wooded area with creeks. Mallards breed there prolifically each year, yet this is the first time I have ever seen a family grouping which included an attentive male.
     I'd be interested to hear whether others have observed this phenomenon. 

Literature consulted:
Kortright, F.H. (1943), The Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America, The American Wildlife Institute, Washington, DC
Madge, S. and H. Burn, (1988), Waterfowl, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, NY
Johnsgard, P.A. (1992), Ducks in the Wild, Key Porter Books, Canada
Ogilvie, M and B. Pearson (1994), Wildfowl, Hamlyn Limited, London
Kear, J. (2005), Ducks, Geese and Swans, Oxford University Press, Oxford
     

Friday, 29 April 2016

Bluebirds and Raptors

     A member of our local naturalists'club, fairly new to birding, had never seen an Eastern Bluebird Sialia sialis so I offered to find one for her. Yesterday, Miriam and I went out looking in some of the places where we have located this species for several years, and were successful, seeing in total four males and one female. None of them were especially positioned for good shots, but photography was not our principal goal, which was to locate the bird for Francine.


     This bird is perched on a tombstone in the cemetery next to a Mennonite meeting house. The rows of grave markers provide attractive perches for these birds and they perch atop them scanning the earth below for insects and beetles. There are a couple of nest boxes nearby and in some years a pair has raised a brood there.
     On the way home we spotted this Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis perched on a pipeline sign and approached the bird very slowly and were able to get a picture or two before it took flight.


     It must have been the day for raptors to perch cooperatively for a little farther on we spotted this Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura also perched.


     I am happy to report that this morning we were able to take Francine and her husband Jim to see Eastern Bluebirds and they were rewarded with several sightings. It was our pleasure to help them find their first sighting of this evocative species.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Pinery Provincial Park, Lambton Shores, ON

      A couple of weeks ago our friends John and Michelle Tomins, fellow members of Waterloo Region Nature, asked us if we would like to join them for a day's outing to Pinery Provincial Park, on the shore of Lake Huron. Happily, we had nothing else on that day and were delighted to go along. 
    Pinery Provincial Park has been a favourite destination for John and Michelle for many years, so we were able to benefit from their intimate knowledge of the area.
     We enjoyed it so much that we returned yesterday with John and Geraldine Sanderson who, you will no doubt recall, were our companions on our recent trip to Cuba.
     This park is surely a gem in the extensive parks network maintained by the Province of Ontario. It features extensive oak savannah, parabolic dunes exhibiting an entire range of beach dune ecology, and Carolinian forest species such as Tuliptree Liriodendron tulipifera and Sassafras Sassafras albidum, trees which reach their northern limit in southern Ontario.


Tulip Tree
     The Ausable River meanders gently through the park and the aptly named Riverside Trail permits a leisurely stroll along its banks where the flora and fauna is both varied and magnificent.









     We were looking out across the river to the opposite bank when two Sandhill Cranes Grus canadensis flew in and landed on the shore. What a delight!




     This Greater Scaup Aythya marila was a bit of a surprise. Generally I associate this species with much larger bodies of water.



     Midland Painted Turtles Chrysemys picta marginata seldom miss an opportunity to bask in the sunshine, an activity so important to a cold-blooded creature in terms of regulating its body temperature.


     Along the trail, right next to the boardwalk, we saw an American Woodcock Scolopax minor feeding and moving around. We were able to observe the bird for several minutes but it was always partly obscured by vegetation and photography was well nigh impossible. The following image is included simply to record its presence. If you look carefully you can see it in the centre of the picture.



     One of the signature species of Pinery Provincial Park is Tufted Titmouse Baeolophus bicolor, a species rarely encountered in southern Ontario, but the park supports a resident breeding population and the bird is easily found.



      John and Michelle were enjoying the stroll around the Riverside Trail; Michelle is intently looking at something.



     Perhaps it is this male Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis.



     In addition to the numerous trails in the park, each one featuring different habitats and ecological characteristics, it runs along the shore of Lake Huron where there is access to a beach (depending on water levels) and the opportunity to see gulls, terns, cormorants etc. out on the lake.



     It was ironic that when we stopped for lunch, on both visits, we saw our first Hermit Thrushes Catharus guttatus, always the first Catharus thrush to return from the its southern winter quarters.




     There are many bird feeders at the visitor centre (well worth a visit) and this Field Sparrow Spizella pusilla enabled us to take a fairly decent photograph. 



     Eastern Towhee Pipilo erythrophthalmus was equally co-operative beneath the feeders.



     This little American Red Squirrel Tamiasciurus hudsonicus was not about to be outdone as he shimmied up a tree on the way to the bird feeders suspended there.



          A little more ingenious was an American Black Squirrel Sciurus carolinensis that had wedged itself right into a small feeder where it could feed undisturbed, its tail forming a kind of parasol above its head in the tight quarters of its larder.



     White-throated Sparrows Zonotrichia albicollis were frequently seen and heard. This is one of John Sanderson's favourite birds and its song, the voice of Canadian wild places for him, thrilled us all - Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada indeed.



     Another wonderful species, a hardy and early spring migrant, is Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe, always the first of the family known as Tyrant Flycatchers, to return to southern Ontario. Often it arrives to face a final blast of snow before winter gives way to spring, but it hangs on and lives to raise a brood of youngsters when the full flush of insect abundance enables it to do so. It is a confiding little bird, often building its nest in close proximity to human dwellings. Here it is shown on a perch over the river, from which it sallies forth to snag passing insect prey.



     Red Pine Pinus resinosa is familiar to most as the pine of plantations where they grow in orderly rows, harvested on rotation, to be used as utility poles. In the Pinery they grow wild and attain great height. Here is the detail of the bark showing how the tree got its English name. 



     Ontario now has a robust population of Bald Eagles Haliaeetus leucocephalus
and we were pleased to discover a breeding pair at the nest. The picture is taken from a distance; imperative in order not to disturb the birds.



     Both adults can be clearly seen, however, and this adult bird was seen flying overhead.



     In addition we also saw first and second year sub adult birds so the recovery of this species continues apace. In a stroke of bitter irony, this species is the national symbol of the United States, yet over most of the continent for decades a bounty was paid for its destruction and it was totally extirpated in most of the lower forty-eight states, its only stronghold being Alaska. I could never figure how you could hunt your national bird to extinction.
     As you might expect, there are many turtles in the park and there was a good deal of carnage each year as they left the security of the water to find suitable areas to lay their eggs. Cautionary signs (you'd think I could photograph a stationary object and get it centred wouldn't you?) alerted motorists, in the hope that they would reduce speed and watch for these slow moving creatures, perhaps even give them a helping hand to cross the road.




     Now a much better solution has been found. Barriers are constructed to prevent the turtles from getting onto the road.



     Implacably, the turtles trundle along until they come to a safe crossing where they can cross to the other side without danger of being crushed.



     Many of their eggs will still be lost to marauding Raccoons Procyon lotor and Striped Skunks Mephitis mephitis but overall their numbers should increase, and when the turtles were needlessly slaughtered on the road, neither turtle nor predator benefitted. It's amazing how, with a little ingenuity, simple solutions can be found to problems affecting wildlife.
     Miriam took a picture of John, Geraldine and me on our final walk along the Carolinian Trail. I think you can tell that we all had enjoyed a fine day.


Geraldine, John, David

     I bought an annual pass to the provincial parks and I am looking forward to getting good use out of it as we make it our mission to visit many others this year. And you can bet that we will return to Pinery often.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Northern Flickers (Pics flamboyants) are back!

18 April 2016
Benjamin Park Trail
Waterloo, ON

     The Benjamin Park Trail is located right behind our house, thus being a convenient spot to go for a walk. 
     Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus is a migratory woodpecker which leaves our area in late fall and returns only in early spring. It seems as though once one is spotted, several others are seen in in quick succession.
     On our walk at the Westmount Golf and Country Club we had heard flickers but had been unable to spot one. On the Benjamin Park Trail there were at least four, with one male already excavating a nest hole.



     A couple of the other birds tried to usurp this industrious individual from his hole, but none were successful.



     In addition to the flickers many Ruby-crowned Kinglets Regulus calendula were moving through. This species flits about constantly and is difficult to photograph; especially when it flashes its ruby crown for the briefest of moments. This is the best I could do.


     There were many other species present, but this Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia seemed particularly ardent and deserving of inclusion.


     It's another fine day out there; perhaps I'll go for a walk after lunch and see what else might be newly arrived.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Gardening for Butterflies

   

     More people than ever before are trying to make their garden friendly to wildlife, and this book is the perfect companion to having it attractive to butterflies.
     Thelma Beaubien has a lifetime of experience in creating habitat for butterflies and her garden is a legendary feature of Waterloo Region. Her expertise is the product of many years of practical application, eliminating unsuccessful techniques and implementing those that work.
     Here you have a detailed examination of the hands-on activities required to attract these winged jewels, and a list of the plants that are most beneficial for them and most essential to their life cycle.Everything is covered from "Starting a Butterfly Garden" right through to raising the larvae, and the book concludes with a list of the plants most likely to ensure success. The text is accompanied by a stunning array of Thelma's photographs.


     For anyone interested in gardening for butterflies this book is an indispensable aid and would take the guesswork out of the process. I heartily recommend it.


Friday, 15 April 2016

Birding at Westmount Golf and Country Club, Kitchener, ON

14 April 2016

     It was with a great deal of pleasure that Miriam and I accepted an offer to go birding with our friends Ron and Thelma Beaubien at the Westmount Golf and Country Club in Kitchener, where they are members of long standing.


     It was a beautiful day, sunny, a little cool to start, but full of promise for an excellent stroll through the areas of intact habitat on the course.



     We pretty much had the place to ourselves and the bird life was plentiful. I am sure that a golf course in a city becomes somewhat of a haven for wildlife and from what I could see this club has done an excellent job of preserving as much native habitat as possible. As a result of recent wind storms and ice storms numerous large trees were felled, but extensive replanting is already underway.
     In this post I will go into a little more detail than I normally would about the various species of birds encountered, because I know that the manager of the club wishes to circulate it via their electronic newsletter, and many of the readers will be unfamiliar with the avifauna found at the club. In fact I think they might be surprised at the variety present - and spring migration has barely started!
     As was to be expected, Black-Capped Chickadees Poecile atricapillus were seen everywhere. Much courtship behaviour is already taking place and potential nest cavities were being examined and disputes over occupancy were frequent.


     This delightful and familiar member of a cosmopolitan family is resident in our area and survives even the harshest winters. In fact its cheery chickadee-dee-dee call brightens a brisk walk in winter as no other sound can.
     It was the sharp eyes and keen spotting of Ron that drew our attention to a pair of Wood Ducks Aix sponsa perched in a tree. The male is surely one of the most handsome birds in a family renowned for stunning plumage.

Male

Female
     This little duck nests in cavities in trees where its eggs can be incubated in relative security. Shortly after the ducklings hatch they leap from their hole onto the ground, surviving falls from great heights, and are led to the safety of the water by their devoted mother. Young birds born like this, fully able to cope with life right out of the egg, are known as precocial. The little birds can thermoregulate and feed themselves right from the getgo.
     As might be expected in spring in Ontario, American Robins Turdus migratorius were probing the ground for worms, beetles and other sources of food, as well as feeding on berries left over from last fall. I doubt that we ever had a moment when several robins were not in view.


     The bird we know as an American Robin is in fact a thrush. When early settlers from Europe first saw this bird its red breast recalled the familiar European Robin, an entirely different species, and so it too was named a robin. The scientific name of this bird actually means "migratory thrush."
     There is a very large family of birds, exclusively found in the Americas, known as tyrant flycatchers. The first species in this aggregation to return to southern Ontario in the spring is always the hardy Eastern Phoebe Sayornis phoebe. Our first two birds of the season were seen yesterday.



      Eastern Phoebes select an advantageous perch and simply wait for aerial insects to pass by. They sally out from their perch and snap up their snack and return to the same spot to eat it.  
      I am sure that the bane of every golf course is the ubiquitous Canada Goose Branta canadensis, familiar to everyone. Their large and prolific droppings are not exactly conducive to a clean game!



      In defence of a species that I admire, I feel compelled to point out that we have engineered our own problem with this species. Their favourite food is grass and where better to find an expanse of carefully tended grass which receives excellent attention to make sure that it grows lush and green, than a golf course? We have laid out a veritable buffet for these birds - and it's available 24/7!
     Wherever you find Canada Geese you are likely to find Mallards Anas platyrynchos. 



     This species is the ancestral strain of all our domestic ducks. It is often overlooked because it is so familiar, but the male (on the right above) is truly a handsome bird. The female needs to be more muted so that she is well camouflaged while sitting on the nest and is vulnerable to predation.
     A Killdeer Charadrius vociferus was searching for breakfast at the edge of the pond.



     This bird is a representative of a family of birds known as Plovers and Lapwings, and is a bird that is not hard to locate. It will nest on a stony or gravel path almost anywhere, even at a suburban home. It derives its name from its onomatopoeic call.
      A Hairy Woodpecker Picoides villosus was incredibly co-operative as it probed a rotting stump for insects, grubs, spider eggs and other tasty morsels. We watched it for several minutes and it seemed totally unconcerned that we were present and very close to it.



     Many people are familiar with the diminutive Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens and the Hairy is a bigger, more robust version with a longer bill. A little practice is all that is needed to differentiate the two. The individual shown above is a male, identified by its red cap which is absent on a female.
     Blue Jays Cyanocitta cristata could be frequently heard and we were very pleased to see several of this very handsome bird.



      Blue Jay is a member of the family of birds known as corvids, which includes crows and ravens, among the most intelligent species in the avian world.
      Many non-birders, upon hearing the doleful sound of a Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura think that they are hearing an owl, but once the sound is recognized as that of a Mourning Dove it is easy to understand how the bird got its name.



     Pigeons and doves are found throughout the world, on all continents except Antarctica, and universally lay two eggs. Both males and females secrete a nutritionally rich substance from their breasts on which the young doves, known as squabs, initially feed. This liquid is colloquially known as pigeon milk, although it is nothing of the kind, of course.
     Anyone with a bird feeder at home will recognize American Goldfinch Spinus tristis. These birds are a drab olive in non-breeding plumage, but they are now acquiring their nuptial finery. The male with his black cap is an especially handsome bird.



     The favourite natural food of this species is thistle seeds and it is quite remarkable to see several of them feeding voraciously on thistle. Collectively, they are known as a charm of goldfinches, very appropriately I am sure you will agree.
     The Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoenicus is the emblematic species of the wetland, and it is an exciting event to watch the males displaying their red epaulettes as they seek to establish territories and secure mates. A healthy, robust male will often have a harem of two or more females in his territory. A strong, melodious song, and vibrant red shoulder flashes, together indicate a very healthy male, and females will selectively strive to mate with them, in order to pass on superior genes to the next generation.



     Little needs to be said about the Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis; it seems to be a favourite of everyone, and a male singing lustily from a high perch is a sure sign of spring.



      Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis is a member of the family of birds known as New World Sparrows. This hardy species is with us from late fall through until early spring when it moves farther north to breed.



     When it flies its white outer tail feathers are highly visible and even a casual observer can quickly learn to recognize this species based on that character.
     Tree Swallows Tachycineta bicolor are the first of the hirundines to arrive back in our area and even though their preferred food is aerial insects they will, if necessary feed on berries. I saw the first two Waterloo Region birds at the golf club.



          Several Song Sparrows Melospiza melodia were singing from the tops of saplings and other elevated perches, establishing territories and seeking partners for the season.



     Many people think of sparrows as only the familiar House Sparrow Passer domesticus which is not native to North America. True New World Sparrows are a diverse and interesting group of birds, requiring a good deal of study and practice to identify.
     We saw a warbler, but it flew almost as soon as we spotted it, and we did not obtain satisfactory views.  Based on what we did see, it was probably a Yellow-rumped Warbler Setophaga coronata, always one of the very first warblers to return in the spring.
     Just before the end of our walk we found the pellet of a Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus. Owls swallow most of their prey whole and form a bolus of the indigestible parts, which are regurgitated in the form of pellets. Someone experienced in rodent anatomy can identify the prey species of the bird based on the skulls and other bones found in the pellet. I broke apart the pellet so that everyone could see the contents.



     Even though it was a fine day, there was still an edge to the wind and we were a little cool at the end of our walk. We were lucky to be with Ron and Thelma for, as members, they were able to take us into the club where we enjoyed a hot cup of coffee.
     It was a privilege and a pleasure to be permitted to make this walk and most of all it was an enormous benefit to share the experience with Ron and Thelma.

All species seen and/or heard: Canada Goose, Wood Duck, Mallard, Turkey Vulture, Killdeer, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Eastern Phoebe, Blue Jay, American Crow, Black-capped Chickadee, Tree Swallow, White-breasted Nuthatch, Common Starling, American Robin, House Sparrow, American Goldfinch, Warbler sp., Red-winged Blackbird, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal.
Total: 25 species.