Holiday bird-hunting

Christmas Bird Count

Dan and I signed up to help with our local Christmas Bird Count this winter. We’ve both done CBCs before, but this was our first in our new home area. We signed up a bit late, so didn’t get our first choice area, the “corner” of the circle that includes the top of our road (unfortunately our house is just outside the circle boundaries). We were assigned a section north of town, an area that we’d only been through once or twice, so it was a new experience for us. This area isn’t chock full of birders (just like the general population, there tend to be more around urban centres) so there weren’t many teams covering the full area, and we had a large expanse of ground to cover. We could easily have spent the whole day out birding the region, but with the big snowstorm that was due to roll in this afternoon, we only got a few hours in in the morning before having to pack things up. What we did do was mostly by car, some 50 km (31 miles) worth of road, though we did hike about 3.5 km (2.2 miles) in small segments here and there where the habitat looked promising.

Christmas Bird Count

Christmas Bird Counts are an annual, volunteer-driven bird monitoring project that occurs continent-wide during the month surrounding Christmas. They have their roots in the old 19th century pasttime of sport hunting. During that period hunters would compete in an annual Christmas tradition to see how many birds they could kill in a day (very few of these were likely ever actually used or eaten, and this sort of competitive and senseless massacre was a large part of what drove the Passenger Pigeon extinct). Watching birds and allowing them to live instead of shooting them for sport or science was just coming into its own at the end of the 1800s. An ornithologist named Frank Chapman proposed that perhaps instead of competing to see how many birds they could kill in a day, they could see how many birds they could count in a day. I don’t know whether Chapman’s motivations were out of sympathy toward the birds or concern over long-term depletion of populations, but either way they’ve inspired something big.

Christmas Bird Count - winterberry and alder

The first counts took place in 1900. There were 25 circles that year, and just 27 participants to count the birds in them. Toronto, Ontario, was one of those first 25, along with one in New Brunswick, the only Canadian representatives. All but 3 of the original counts were in the northeast. Those 27 people found some 18,000 birds of 90 species during the counts. The Christmas Bird Count has grown exponentially since then. Last year almost 60,000 people joined in to participate in 2100 counts across the Americas. They counted nearly 58 million individuals of 2267 species of birds. Competitions these days are less about giant numbers and more about rareties, those birds that are out of place for the time of year and location. The person who pulls up a slowpoke warbler on their snowy count here in southern Ontario gets a clap on the back. Even if a participant wasn’t the one to find the special bird themselves, there’s some thrill in knowing that these birds are hanging around in your area.

Christmas Bird Count

Of course, there is science behind all this fun. The purpose of the counts these days is to act as a monitoring tool for wintering species. Especially in the north the CBC can be a valuable tool to track species that tend not to be easily accessible at other times of year because they breed further north. Even resident species benefit from the monitoring, though, and in combination with Breeding Bird Surveys and Migration Monitoring the CBC adds a valuable component to monitoring efforts.

Wild Turkey

We saw tracks of Wild Turkey, but not the bird that made them.

I’m using that word a lot, “monitoring” – what does it mean? There are two types of scientific data collection that helps birds and other animals. The first is direct research, where people go into the animal’s habitat with the goal of answering a particular question. The question may be as simple as “how many young does this animal have” or “where do they build their nest” or “who does the majority of the parental duties”, or it may be as complex as “what effect do military training exercises have on the breeding success of birds using military bases to nest?” or “how often do extra-marital copulations occur and what percentage of a female’s offspring are fathered by someone other than her mate?” All of these questions come to bear when deciding on management practices or designating natural areas for protection, or for intervening to help save a species in decline.

White-tailed Deer

We also saw lots of deer, perhaps 7 or 8, but they don’t count.

And that’s where monitoring comes in. How do we know a species is in decline without data to show its numbers dropping? The three primary monitoring surveys are complemented by an array of smaller, often local, projects and efforts. Project Feederwatch, the Marsh Monitoring Survey, and local breeding bird atlases are other monitoring projects that provide valuable data to this end. Monitoring projects are ongoing and rarely have the showy results that funding agencies like to see come of their money, so it’s often difficult to get money for these sorts of projects. And yet, they’re every bit as important as the one-off research projects for providing valuable data. While research projects tend to be carried out by academic institutions or employees of bird observatories, most monitoring projects are primarily volunteer-driven. Fortunately, as the CBC shows, there are no shortage of people willing to participate.

Christmas Bird Count

Each count circle is 15 miles (24.1 km) in diameter, which equals about 177 square miles (452 sq km). That’s a lot of ground to cover by foot! I’m not sure why they chose to make the circles so large when the CBC was first established, particularly since they didn’t have many participants back then to scour the area. The segment that Dan and I covered was just a fraction of that, maybe 80 sq km (31 sq mi), but it was still a huge chunk of land for just two people, and hence why we drove most of it in the three and a half hours we had before the snow started falling. We got out of the car a few times, usually dropping one person off at point A and then driving half a kilometer up the road to point B, where the second person would park the car and walk up ahead; person 1 would reach the car and then drive ahead to pick up person 2 from wherever they’d managed to reach. It was bitter cold out, -12 C (5 F) before the windchill, and I think something like -17 C (1.4 F) with it. About ten minutes outside was about all we could manage before we’d have to climb back into the car and thaw out our cheeks and toes. We brought Raven with us, rather than leaving her at home stuck in her too-small crate (I’ve been looking for a larger used one online, since they’re not cheap, but every one I’ve contacted so far has already been sold or hasn’t responded). She’d walk down the road with person 2, on her leash, when we stopped to do a leapfrog. She enjoyed the outing, though she was happy to get in the car again after each walk outside!

Tomorrow: what we counted.


Go fish


Go fish, a card game played mostly by kids, characterised by the action of drawing a card from the pool when your opponent didn’t have what you asked for. You would tell the other person, “go fish.” It wasn’t “draw a card” or “pick up a card” or even simply “nope, sorry.” Perhaps the statement reflected on the fact that, just as with fishing, when you put your hand into the pile you never knew what you were going to come out with.

It’s the thing that really appealed to me about bird banding, or about mothing – setting something up to catch things in your absence, and then returning to see what you’ve got. And you could get anything, within reason. You never knew what would be there on the next check: a common robin, a secretive thrush, a bejeweled warbler, a powerful sharp-shinned hawk. An aberrant plumage, a first of the season, a bird you’ve never seen before.

Strange black spots on the fins. Most Pumpkinseed I’ve seen have perhaps a couple, this one is peppered with them. Sunfish supposedly do sometimes hybridize, so perhaps this individual is a hybrid?

With fishing, the diversity is lower than with birds or moths, but the premise is the same. You put your lure into the water, pull it up when something bites, see what you get. In our lake here we have seven species that we’ve caught ourselves, plus one more that we caught in the neighbouring lake but is also supposed to inhabit ours. This morning a friend of mine who was visiting caught what could potentially be a ninth species for the lake. In neighbouring lakes we also know of three or four additional species that require deeper waters and so don’t venture into our shallow lake.

A dozen is a rather meager number compared to the 150+ species of birds we anticipate tallying over the year, and the potentially 1000 species of moths I might get if we remain here for a while. Still, when you compare it to the total of six mammals we’ve seen here so far, it’s not too bad. Part of the surprise is also the size and colouration, depending on the species. The Bluegill of yesterday’s post are a good example of that.

Largemouth Bass

Most serious anglers (and probably mostly men) target the big species, trying to land something bigger than their friends, competitors, or even simply than their previous best. The above species is a Largemouth Bass, and is considered one of these big target species. The related Smallmouth Bass is also often sought after. The latter we’ve only caught one of, from our neighbour lake, even though it’s supposedly here, too. Largemouth, on the other hand, are fairly common. We have little Largemouth fry hanging about our dock in the weeds, and you’ll often see small ones schooling with sunfish. The big guys, though, you rarely see until they’re on the end of your line. Interestingly, bass are also part of the sunfish family; you can’t see it in this photo, but they have the same sharp spines to their dorsal and anal fins.

Northern Pike

This is the other big fish in our lake that is often a target species for anglers. This is a Northern Pike, and is unique among the fish in our lake in that it has sharp, pointy teeth, so you have to be careful not to let it take a snap at you when you’re handling it. They’re also long and skinny, and powerful, so they can slip out of your grasp quickly if you’re not paying attention. Pike are generally lurkers, hanging out under a log or beside a rock, in the shadows, waiting for an unsuspecting little fish to swim by, where they dart out and snatch it up. You need a bigger lure to even interest these guys, and they’re usually so well hidden that you can’t spot them just looking for them. The other relatively common toothy fish around here is Walleye, so named for its pale irises. We don’t have any Walleye in our lake, but there are supposedly some in the one just the other side of the road.

Black Crappie

There are fisherpeople who target species other than the big ‘uns. Crappie are a favourite alternative; this one is a Black Crappie, but there are also White. They’re characterized by their snouty appearance and humped back (hard to see with a thumb on his jaw). They’re supposedly more active at dusk and dawn, and I’ve caught nearly all of mine at dusk in the centre of the lake. Because of these habits it’s another one of those species that you don’t know you’ve got it till you pull up the line. It seems that the pronunciation of the name is a matter of some debate. Blackburnian and I pronounce it to rhyme with “happy”, but many people (maybe those who feel kindly toward the unfortunately-named fish?) pronounce it to rhyme with “poppy”. The origin of the name is just as uncertain, but one website I found suggested it was a corruption of the French word “Creppe”, a thin French pancake, perhaps referring to the fish’s shape and edibility, and likely dating back a couple centuries. They’re also lumped in with the “panfish” group, but are a little larger in body, and have a much larger mouth that allows you to gently grasp their lower jaw. A colloquial name for the species is “papermouth”, and you can get an idea of why from this photo – it looks a little like a chinese lantern.

Rock Bass

Somewhat similar in appearance but with a brilliant ruby-red eye is the Rock Bass. These aren’t a very abundant fish on our lake, and we’ve caught less than half a dozen, I think. They’re about the same size as the crappie, but while the crappie I’ve caught have been in the middle of the lake, the Rock Bass have all been under or near “structure” – docks, fallen trees and logs. Despite that they tend to be in shallower water, where they’ll often associate with schools of sunfish, I haven’t seen them just by looking into the water the way I have with the sunfish species. It’s amazing how much a fish can blend in when you’re standing out of the water looking down at it. Really it’s remarkable that birds like kingfishers and Osprey have so much success fishing. They are also in the sunfish family and so are related to the Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass, but not as closely as the latter two are to each other.

Yellow Perch

And finally, the last species to be identified from our lake, Yellow Perch. This is a particularly little individual, I’ve actually caught some that were as much as eight or ten inches. However, the smaller mouths and long, narrow shape means the species is tricky to hold on to for a photo – as soon as they give a twitch of that powerful tail, they’re gone. This photo really shows off the yellow well, some fish are more grayish, but all have that bold tiger-striping. They have very distinctive red pelvic and anal fins, the ones that hang from the belly, which unfortunately don’t show very well here. These guys also have spines on their dorsal fin, but the spiny part is distinctly separate from the soft part. Perch are in the same order as sunfish so share some characteristics, but are a different family.

I’ll have to write more about some of these species in another post, particularly the sunfish species that I enjoy watching. This evening as I write this, Blackburnian has gone out in the boat with his rods for some quiet time. I wonder what he’s been catching? That’s the great thing about it, you never know.

Parenting with eight hands

Dock spider on boat

Yesterday afternoon, Blackburnian went down to the dock to check on the tarp over the boat, as it had been raining for a bit and we were concerned that the batteries that power the little electric motor might have been exposed. They weren’t, but when he pulled back the tarp from the front he exposed this spider and her nest.

It’s a dock spider, probably Dolomedes scriptus, a relatively common species. We’d noticed a little dock spider hanging about our dock over the last week. I use the word “little” in the relative sense – full-grown dock spiders are anything but little. Because of their preference for water, they are often found in association with cottages, which generally have a lot of water around. Cottages also have more people around than the average pond or stream in the woods, so the spiders are more likely to be observed. I tend to think of them as northern “cottage country” species as a result, but they are found through much of eastern North America.

Adult dock spider

The group of spiders are also known by a couple of other names: “Fishing spider”, which usually refers to members of the genus Dolomedes, or “Nursery web spider”, for the family Pisauridae. The name dock spider is obvious in its origin. Dolomedes get the name fishing spider because the spiders prey on water organisms, often water striders, but also take small minnows and tadpoles, and anything else unlucky enough to pass their way, from the water. They either lie in wait in a location above the water (such as on the dock), or they’ll stand on the water themselves, using the same mechanism as water striders to avoid being pulled under the surface. When suspended above the water they must rely on their eyesight, but by standing on the water they can use the water’s surface as a very large web and detect the vibrations of potential food sources.

Dock spider and spiderlings

The name nursery web spiders, on the other hand, comes from the parental care the spiders invest in their eggs. The female will carry the egg sac around in her chelicerae (the fang-like things at the front of her mouth) until they’re nearly ready to hatch. Then she’ll affix it somewhere and build thread over the sac. The web provides protection to the young spiderlings, as well as a substrate for them to climb on. The adult will guard the nest until the spiderlings leave about a week later.

Dock spider egg mass

The spiderlings usually hatch within 24 hours of being affixed to a surface. We discovered this firsthand, since we’d taken the boat out the night before, and when Blackburnian returned the following afternoon there was the family of spiders. He called me down to have a look. We have to assume that the spider had crawled into the crumpled tarp while we were out, and then was on the underside when the tarp was spread over the boat again, but she could also have got there on her own volition, since the boat pulls up right next to the dock.

Dock spider building nest

The female seemed, for the most part, unconcerned with my observation. Rather, she was preoccupied with fortifying the web she’d built for the spiderlings. I watched her for a little bit as she did this. She’d walk across the web trailing silk from her spinnerets. It wasn’t a single strand, like I would expect, however, but rather a fan of silk that spread out across a greater area. Much faster!

Dock spider nest threads

When she got to the edge of the nest she would affix the silk to the substrate, in this case the boat hull. I assume the glue is the same thing that makes the webs sticky, but perhaps concentrated, and also purposefully pressed onto the surface. This photo makes it look like there’s only three lines coming into each point, but there was more than that.

Dock spider spiderling

The little spiders are teensy tiny when nthey hatch, only a few millimeters, and are yellowish instead of the dark brown of their parent.. They remain in the webbing for their first week of life, then disperse off on their own. While their mother is usually not far away, the spiderlings also respond to potential danger by huddling up into a mass (based on the premise of safety in numbers).

We took the boat out again today, and weren’t sure what to do about the spiders. Eventually we decided to remove the adult, who could potentially bite if I got too close (I didn’t know, but didn’t want to take chances, either), but leave the spiderlings in their web. They seemed to deal with the experience just fine; the boat doesn’t go very fast, so they were never in wind they couldn’t hang on in. At points I noticed they’d huddle up along the rear edge of the nest, but generally they were about and moving around.

Dock spider and spiderlings

We replaced the tarp when we got back; we’ll have to see if the female returns or if the spiderlings are on their own now. Hopefully they disperse quickly – their nest is right where I like to put my legs when we’re cruising around the lake…

Why am I (still) (bird) blogging?

Baird's Sandpiper
This Baird’s Sandpiper, an uncommon-to-rare migrant in Ontario, has snagged some sort of mud-dwelling invertebrate for lunch.

July 10 marks the (approximate) three-year anniversary of I and the Bird, a blog carnival for all things birdy. Originally started by Mike of 10,000 Birds, he has hosted all three anniversary editions, as well. Each anniversary he’s challenged contributors to write on a theme. The first aniversary theme had bloggers discuss “why they bird, blog, and/or blog about birds,” while the second asked contributors “why their blogs were must-read material.” Many of the contributors who were part of those first couple of years are still writing today, and so it follows that this year’s anniversary question is “Why are you still bird blogging?”

This is an excellent question for people who have been at it for three (or more!) years. Blogging, for most people (at least the blogs I follow), is not a casual thing. Some people do have very easy-to-maintain blogs where they simply post a photo and a few words about it, or links to news stories, or such things like that. I think the majority of the nature bloggers I follow, though, spend considerably more time on their blogs than that. For instance, the average post on my blog takes me about an hour or two, depending on how much research goes into it. Even the “easy” posts, the ones where you know everything or you’re just talking about a trip you took, or that sort of thing, posts where all it takes is some image selection/editing/resizing and a bit of free association, those posts will still usually take at least half an hour start-to-finish. This is a fairly substantial time commitment that one has to make to a blog.

Hermit Thrush itching
Hermit Thrushes are over-the-wing head-scratchers – many other birds reach under the wing to their head.

My blog is young, only half a year old at this point. I think the qualifier “still” in “why am I still bird blogging?” hasn’t come to apply yet. I haven’t reached that stage that I think all bloggers inevitably go through of feeling a little tired of the time requirements involved in making frequent, thoughtful posts. The blog is still new, still fun and interesting. Who knows, perhaps it will always be that way, only time will tell. The qualifier “bird” in the question is also only loosely applied to this blog, since, while I do regularly talk about birds or bird observations, they make up only a small portion of my diverse subject matter.

I did used to update a more personal blog, one that I called my “bird journal”, which wasn’t shared with the general public but was instead mostly intended to share my birding exploits with other people I knew. I started that journal in January 2004. Initially I posted frequently to it, sometimes nearly every day. Over time, the frequency of my updates dwindled, until I was only posting once every week or two. My last post there was November 2007, after which I went into winter hiatus, when I tend to post infrequently because I’m simply not out birding a lot, and then started up this blog in the new year. The journal still exists in the blogosphere, but hasn’t been updated since.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet with bug
Ruby-crowned Kinglets eat gnats, flies, spiders, midges, and many other little bugs.

Something that this blog has that my other one didn’t is a readership. With my old journal, I had perhaps a dozen or so people who followed it regularly, nearly all friends, and I was essentially writing to them. It was a “hey, here’s what I’ve been up to lately” sort of thing, like sending out the annual letter with your Christmas cards only on a more day-to-day basis. Birding trip reports, documentation of interesting sightings, that sort of thing. I wrote to it partially to keep people updated, partially as a record for myself to look back on later. There was no sense of community in that journal. With this one I feel like I’m actually reaching out to a community of like-minded individuals.

Blackburnian and I are moving on from the research station after many good years there, and the volunteers threw us a farewell party. They’re all great people, the volunteers are, and I’m going to miss them. The party’s organizer made an informal speech about each of us, and in mine he called me a teacher; I’m a person who enjoys sharing things with others, seeing their enthusiasm about new things, watching people learn and grow. I’ve come to this realization slowly, but this is true. I love sharing information and teaching people who are likewise keen to learn and interested in the subject. In some ways I could see myself becoming a teacher, except it would need to be in a forum where all my students were there because they were interested and wanted to be, rather than in public school or such where you’ll have some students who are interested, but many more who are there just because they have to be. Perhaps someday, when I know more, I could lead nature walks or something like that.

Brown Creeper
Brown Creepers probe into bark crevices with their long beak and use their tongue to help extract hidden bugs.

The point of saying all that, though, is that that’s the reason I’m blogging. That’s the primary reason I started up this blog in the first place – it just seemed to me that there was so much cool stuff out there that you never know about till someone shares it with you, and I wanted to find it and share it. It helps that I love to write. My best friend and I have an on-going in-joke about the length of our emails (which were very rarely less than a couple thousand words). I’m sure even reading this post you can pick up on that – I could probably have summed it up in a single paragraph or less, but the words just flow out from my fingertips. Plus, I feel that any story can be summed up in a line or two, but there’s always more to the story than that, and it’s way more interesting than a single sentence can do justice to. “This is a Box Elder Bug that was laying eggs on a leaf” does accurately sum up the basic observation of this post – but aren’t the several additional paragraphs about the circumstances of its observation and its life histories and such much more interesting?

So why am I (still) (bird) blogging? To share my enthusiasm for nature and all the cool, wild, interesting, bizarre, beautiful, ugly and serene things in it. And knowing that other people are enthusiastic about and learning from what I’m writing about, too, is reward enough for me.

Another pretty alien

Dame's Rocket

Yesterday I returned for visit number four to the site I’m surveying for the City. Historically the site was a landfill for a nearby brickworks, and took the ash and brick waste from the industry. The brickworks, and therefore the landfill, were shut down in the mid-1980s. The landfill was capped and covered with clean fill, and allowed to naturalize. These days the only remainder of the site’s prior use is an old shed at the far end of the meadow, tucked into the trees at the base of the ravine slope.

Of course, the legacy of the site also lives on in the vegetation found there. Being essentially one very large disturbed site at the time it was capped some 20+ years ago, early successional, fast-growing, and introduced species are all prominent through the central open area. The surrounding slopes are predominantly mature natural forest, but through the meadow the trees consist mostly of sumac, Manitoba Maple, poplars, and young pines. The site has been part of a tree planting program the City runs, and I gather the goal is eventually to reforest the site. Interestingly, I notice a lot of the trees they’ve planted aren’t in fact forest trees, but rather shrubby stuff such as hawthorn.

Dame's Rocket

Along with the highly invasive garlic mustard that just seems to get everywhere, one of the common plants at the site is this lovely pinkish-mauve wildflower. It’s fairly common, I see it a lot in open fields, roadsides, abandoned properties, and re-naturalizing areas such as here. I didn’t really know what it was, but noting its resemblance to the phlox in my mom’s garden, I just labeled it a wild phlox.

In fact, it’s not a phlox, but this is a fairly common mistake. This is Dame’s Rocket, Hesperis matronalis, a native of Eurasia. Like so many of our introduced wildflowers, this species is a member of the mustard family, Brassicaceae. The easiest way to tell it apart from native phlox is by the number of petals: Dame’s Rocket has four (like all of the mustards), while native phlox has five.

Dame's Rocket

The plants are prolific seed-producers, and seeds are quite hardy. The plants spring up earlier in the spring than many native meadow wildflowers, which tend to bloom in the height of summer. As such, it’s not uncommon to see extensive stands of Dame’s Rocket in meadow areas. Seeds of the plant are often included in wildflower seed packages, which aids in its spread. They prefer full sun or partial shade, but can sometimes be found in open woods as well. The flowering stems are likely two-year-old plants; most plants produce only a basal rosette in their first year.

Dame's Rocket

There’s quite a variety of colour in a stand of the flower. It can vary from a deep pinkish-mauve to nearly white, with a full range in between. A few have variegated patterns on the petals. I’m not sure if this is a natural variation, or a result of gradual domestication. The flower was cultivated as a common garden plant in its native Eurasia, and brought over to North America in the 17th century for that purpose. These days it’s found scattered virtually across the continent, with the exception of the deserts and mangroves of the south, and most of the arctic tundra of the north.

Dame's Rocket

Even though it’s introduced, Dame’s Rocket does have good benefits for wildlife. It’s frequently visited by many insects such as bees and butterflies for its nectar. Seed-eating birds will eat its seeds in the fall. Even in North America there are insects whose larvae will feed on the foliage, one of the most common being the Cabbage White butterfly. I’m not sure that placing the bird house in the middle of the stand of flowers really offers the residents any benefits, but it does afford them a nice view.

Dame's Rocket

The genus name for Dame’s Rocket, Hesperis, is Greek for “evening”. The flowers of members of this group have very strong scents, which becomes much more noticeable in the evening. This strong fragrance also provides a couple of the other common names for the species: Night Scented Gilliflower, Summer Lilac, and Mother-of-the-Evening (the latter seems to imply that mothers are especially fragrant). Two other often-used names are Dame’s Violet and Sweet Rocket. I’m rather partial to “Gilliflower” myself, though.

Dame's Rocket

I seem to be featuring a lot of introduced species here. Eventually I’ll find a native one! The more I look, the more I’m amazed at how many introduced species there are. I’d be interested to know what percentage of the wildflowers we see are actually introduced, both as a proportion of species, but also a proportion of biomass. I wonder if you can find that information somewhere…

Dame's Rocket