Thursday, 29 January 2015

Carolina Wren (Troglodyte de Caroline) and Snowy Owl (Harfang des neiges)

Halton County, ON
28 January 2015

     My daughter, Caroline, was visiting us from Ottawa, so we took her down to LaSalle Park to see the Trumpeter Swans Cygnus buccinator and any other gems we could find.
     Here she is with the swans forming a backdrop on the ice of the bay, now completely frozen over.


     Having spent some time with the swans we wandered along the woodland trail and this friendly squirrel seemed to come out to welcome her.


     While checking out a small posse of Dark-eyed Juncos Junco hyemalis and Black-capped Chickadees Poecile atricapillus we noticed flashes of rust in the dense undergrowth. First of all I thought it was probably an American Tree Sparrow Spizella arborea but in short order I caught a glimpse of a Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus. This is not a common bird at all, although in recent years it appears to have extended its range considerably. It is vulnerable, however, in extreme winters and I am sure that many were killed off in last year's record freeze. So, it was a distinct pleasure to see this species.



     It is not the easiest bird to photograph for it is constantly on the move, flitting around from perch to perch in search of food, and always in dense tangles and dark undergrowth.
     You can imagine our delight when we realized that we were actually looking at two birds.


     I am quite sure that we watched these birds for at least twenty minutes and it seemed at times as though they were happy to move along with us.


     While watching the wrens we also saw a Brown Creeper Certhia americana but the two pictures we were able to get were both of poor quality.

     As might be expected, Black-capped Chickadees were omnipresent and they are accustomed to human friends bringing sunflower seeds for them to eat. These confiding little creatures readily feed from the hand and Caroline could not resist!


     A Cooper's Hawk Accipiter cooperii was patrolling the woodland margins and no doubt some unfortunate passerine would fall victim to this predator before the day was out. 


     When viewed close up it is a fearsome looking raptor and no doubt inspires terror in its potential victims.


     Following lunch we headed down to Bronte Harbour. I had told Caroline about the Snowy Owl Nyctea scandiaca I had seen there recently and she wanted to see it, telling us that she had been searching in the Ottawa area for this species, without success. We located the bird as soon as we arrived, feeding on freshly killed prey. As far as we could tell, it looked as though it had killed a Mallard Anas platyrynchos and no doubt was dining well.


     Ice floes have formed in the inner harbour and I am sure that there is at least a passing resemblance to the familiar habitat of parts of its tundra home.


     We took pictures from several vantage points and in the following image you can easily see the kill upon which the owl was feeding


     Snowy Owl is without question one of the most magnificent birds I have ever seen out of the roughly 3,400 species I have seen around the world, and it never ceases to be a grand pleasure of the highest order to encounter one.




     I hope that I see many more before the winter is over.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Snow Bunting (Plectrophane des neiges)

Metz Area
Wellington County, ON
25 January 2015

     Surely one of the most delightful benefits of living in a climate where winter dominates for part of the year is the presence of Snow Buntings Plectrophenax nivalis.


     This morning Miriam and I spent a few hours in a corner of Wellington County where we have had great success in locating this species over a period of several years. Today proved to be no exception.
     One fellow, who we see almost every year, seems to be intent on banding as many Snow Buntings as he possibly can and he was again present plying his métier. 


     As you can see, he had three cages set up, all baited with corn, and the availability of food seems to be an attraction many of the birds simply cannot resist. At all times each of his cages contained several birds and even after emptying them there were other birds entering the trap in short order.


     It seemed to us that he did not empty the pens as often as might be hoped and when he did he placed eight or ten birds in a bag to carry them back to his truck from where he was applying the bands and recording the appropriate details.


     However, we are not privy to the protocols of banding Snow Buntings so perhaps this is accepted practice.

     The day was cold (around minus 13°C) and there was a strong wind, but these tiny birds face the conditions without any problem at all and are expert in exploiting every micro climate in their search for food.




     We were parked off to the side of the road ( a dirt road in this area) and the birds were often observed feeding on grit. They always seemed to park in front of our vehicle, however, never coming to the side to permit decent photographs.
     It was quite marvelous to spend a half hour with these little gems and we hope to repeat the experience a few times before the winter is over.


Monday, 19 January 2015

Snowy Owl (Harfang des neiges)


18 January 2015

     Just as it was last year, 2015 is turning out to be a year when Snowy Owls Bubo scandiacus have moved south in considerable numbers. Apparently when this phenomenon happens in two consecutive years it is called an echo year. I had not previously heard this term but it seems pretty appropriate so I will use it!
     The owl shown in this picture was the third one I have seen so far this winter.


     It was located in Bronte Harbour where I have seen Snowy Owls in the past, so the habitat there is evidently to the liking of snowies spending the winter here. This individual appears to be a large female and seems to have captured prey, although I am unable to discern exactly what it is.This picture was taken from around a hundred metres away from the bird. The prey item appears to be furred, although I suspect the principal source of food for the owl is waterfowl, which are present in abundance.
     The temperature was quite mild, hovering above freezing for most of the day, but it was a benign interval in what has been a fairly cold snap lasting a couple of weeks.
     The following two pictures give an idea of some of the ice formations along the lake.



     These Mallards Anas platyrynchos were congregating on the ice in between bouts of dabbling for food in the shallow edges of the water.


     As mentioned above, a variety of waterfowl was present in abundance and the following pictures represent just some of the species.
Common Goldeneye Buchephala clangula
Redhead Aytha americana
Male Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator
Common Mergansers Merganser merganser

Male Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis




Saturday, 17 January 2015

Holy Crow!

Waterloo, ON
17 January 2015

     I have talked about, in previous posts, the phenomenon of the huge roosts of American Crow Corvus brachyrynchos in downtown Waterloo. It really is one of the great spectacles of nature - and I have seen many around the world.
     This afternoon, as the sun was sinking in the western sky, Miriam and I decided to go and immerse ourselves in the event.

Setting sun from Seagram Drive
     Most of the crows roost in Waterloo Park, but a good initial vantage point to see them start to flood the downtown area is Seagram Drive, essentially a right of way to the University of Waterloo. We parked in a student parking lot and started to watch the sky as the first groups of crows arrived.  



   

     It really is an amazing sight as the numbers swell and the sound of so many crows cawing is an atmospheric experience all of its own. We were quite awestruck as the passage of birds across the sky swelled with every minute.
     A skein of Canada Geese Branta canadensis proved no less inspirational as they winged their way across the waning daylight of a late January afternoon.


     We then moved on to Waterloo Park, mere wing flaps away as a crow flies, where the birds were settling in for the night in earnest. Wave after wave of birds moved and descended onto the trees. Certain trees filled first before any birds occupied other trees, leaving us to wonder whether those trees had advantages perhaps not readily apparent to us.




     The noise of so many birds was at once both ear splitting and captivating. Miriam and I were both enthralled by it, and from time to time the birds would lift from the trees in unison, all cawing at high decibel, only to alight again as though nothing had happened. What cue caused them to act in such a manner remains unknown to us.



     As the sun sank lower and lower towards the horizon, the palette of colours shifted and changed with many an interesting sky showing for only the briefest of moments.


     It was an etheral experience which neither one of us will soon forget and we are determined to repeat it.
     The common name for an assemblage of crows is a murder; in our household, with no apology to the goldfinches, it will henceforth be called a charm.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Pine Siskin (Tarin des pins)

Paletta Park
Burlington, ON
14 January 2015

     Pine Siskin Spinus pinus is a notoriously irruptive species; in some years it appears to be everywhere and in others one cannot find a single bird. It is fundamentally a northern species and moves south in years when the conifer crop fails to provide adequate food for the winter.
     As far as I know, 2015 is not slated to be a bumper year for siskins in the southern part of the province and we were delighted to see this singleton feeding on small cones. 


     When major incursions occur it is a species that readily takes advantage of bird feeders and I can recall in years past when every perch on a finch seed feeder has been occupied by a Pine Siskin. I will be keeping a close eye out the window to look for them this year!




     Red-bellied Woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus is one of those species that seems to have been named by a drunkard who couldn't see straight, or a taxonomist with a perverse sense of humour. To find the red belly referred to requires some fine detective work, and it was pure happenstance that we captured it on the picture below.


     Yes folks, that little smudge of colour on the lower belly is how this handsome bird got its name. I am sure that we could all think of a dozen better descriptive nomenclatures!

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Winter Hazards For Waterfowl

11 January 2015


     While birding along the shore of Lake Ontario we were reminded of the hazards winter sometimes poses for the waterfowl that spend the winter on the inshore waters, alternating with bouts on land.
     This Canada Goose Branta canadensis has somehow or other caused this chunk of ice to get attached to it. 


     It did not seem to be a major impediment while it was walking around but I am not sure how it would fare when swimming and I would imagine that it would present some difficulty when airborne.


     It is a fairly sizeable piece and would no doubt affect flight stability and manoeuvrability.
     I have never witnessed a bird actually imprisoned in ice but this unfortunate circumstance occurs and there is ample evidence in the literature to validate it. In fact, in this day of UTube, videos have been posted of trapped birds being rescued. I have, however, seen birds with ice on their wings and breast, following ice storms or in extremely cold temperatures when water clinging to their plumage after a dive freezes very quickly.
     There was abundant ice in the water but waterfowl handle it with aplomb and there was a large concentration of birds swimming, preening and diving for food. 
     A few Canvasbacks Aytha valisineria were present and it is always a pleasure to see this handsome duck.


     Greater Scaup Aythya marila were noteworthy and winter provides an opportunity to study this species at close range.




      A few hardy American Coots Fulica americana always spend the winter here and this little group seemed quite happy associating with the scaup.


     This Trumpeter Swan Cygnus buccinator seems to have been feeding in an area which caused its head to become stained like ferrous oxide, but since it was the only individual to feature this colouration it's hard to figure what might have caused it.


     The following images give you an idea of the concentration of Trumpeter Swans in the winter; I estimated that about two hundred were present at the time these pictures were taken.