Families from Maplewood

Adult male American Robin

We’re off to Rock Ridge tomorrow for visit number three, and I thought before I collect more MAPS photos I should post what I had from Maplewood Bog earlier this week. It’s a nice break from packing, too, which is well underway. A few dozen boxes are already filled and stacked against the wall, awaiting the moving truck we’ve rented next week. It’s amazing how you can pack and pack and pack, though, and until you start moving the furniture out into the truck and emptying the space it still doesn’t look like you’ve accomplished very much.

The first half of the summer is predominantly comprised of adults that are either incubating or tending young in the nest. Beginning as you start approaching the end of June, though, you start to find recently fledged young and post-breeding adults moving about (I spoke in a bit more detail about that a couple of posts ago when discussing chickadees). At Maplewood earlier in the week we caught a family of American Robins. Above is dad, with his clean black hood and solid orange breast.

Adult female American Robin

Mom is more subdued, with a dark gray hood, sometimes bordering on brownish, and her orange breast suffused with hoary fringes. This particular individual seems to have a fair amount of white on her throat and face, but I don’t think that’s sex-related.

American Robin fledgling

And finally, the baby, sex unknown. Young robins show the spotted breasts typical of adults in most other thrush species. They also sport the thrushy shaft streaks on the feathers of their back and scapulae. In a month or two the baby, now an adolescent, will go through its puberty plumage change, moulting out a lot of its baby body feathers and replacing them with adult-looking teenage feathers. Although in the fall and winter it can be hard to tell the youngsters apart from their adult, sometimes you’ll see the teenagers have retained a couple of these streaky feathers on their shoulders.

Adult Red-eyed Vireo with brown eye

Speaking of retaining teenage features, this Red-eyed Vireo had a distinctly brownish iris, which is a characteristic of young Red-eyes (compare to the adult in this post). Usually their eyes gradually turn red over the winter and by the time they come back as first-time breeders they’ve got eyes the same colour as the older birds. However, a very small percentage of Red-eyed Vireos may retain their brownish eyes through the spring and occasionally even into their first summer. An even smaller percentage may never get a red eye. Red-eyes can be tricky to age by other features so I wasn’t sure whether this was one of the small percentage or smaller percentage.

Song Sparrow fledgling

We caught a family of Song Sparrows late in the morning, in the same net with the baby chickadees. One adult (dad, if I remember correctly) with three youngsters in tow. This is one of the youngsters. Fledgling Song Sparrows look different from the adults, often with a golden wash that gives them a more diffused pattern. They also lack the central breast spot the adults have. However, they do show some features the adults also have, such as that thick malar stripe (the dark moustache that comes down from the bill).

Swamp Sparrow fledgling

In the net with them was a fifth sparrow, which I initially mistook for another member of the family. However, this one was different – the malar stripe was indistinct, the breast streaks were thinner, it had a smaller bill and the facial structure was slightly different. It was, in fact, a fledgling Swamp Sparrow, now independent and on his own. There are Swamps in the bogs in the site, and I suspect that this youngster came out of a nest hidden down there in the willows and sphagnum moss.

That’s it for Maplewood – tomorrow, Rock Ridge, undoubtedly with plenty of surprises of its own!

Robin on the lawn

Robin on the lawn

Today we had snow. I had really been enjoying the mild weather, but of course it is still early March, and the balmy temperatures can’t last. We have a month of ups and downs ahead of us before we settle into mostly springtime weather (and even then, we still have the possibility of snow right into May). There’s an inch of the white stuff on our lawn now, after it started falling yesterday evening and finally tapered off this morning.

But yesterday, the lawn was bare but for a few randomly-scattered patches of crusty snow. As I was in the kitchen making myself some tea after coming in from our hike with Raven yesterday, I glanced out the window and noticed some movement on the open ground: a robin, scouting for invertebrates groggy and sluggish from the warming sun. And then another, a short distance away. And a third. And finally a fourth, kicking around the detritus on the forest floor.

Robin on the lawn

It’s hard to know for certain if these are migrants, returning with the first signs of spring. Some robins do spend the winter in our frozen north, feeding on icy berries over the cold months, while invertebrates are hard to find. They tend to move about in moderate-sized groups; I noticed a group of about 14 once or twice in our general area over the winter. Others will fly south, some just to the northern states, others might carry on a bit further. Although they’re traditionally thought of as a sign of spring, the bird to watch for, in actuality other migrants such as blackbirds or Killdeer often return before the robins do. I don’t know why robins have come to be associated as a sign of spring – perhaps because by the time they do arrive it’s much more likely that spring is just around the corner? Or perhaps because they are often seen in urban environments, on lawns and in parks, where blackbirds are not.

These were the first ones I’ve seen on our property since the fall. Probably drawn there by the open lawn, since there are no berry bushes on or around our home (if we plan to stay here a while I’ll be sure to plant some, however). Mostly males, with their crisp gray back, jet black head, and rich orange-red belly, although Dan thought he spotted a female amongst the group (which would be more subdued in browner tones). Among migrant robins, males are the first to return in the spring, with females following a week or two later, but both males and females may choose to overwinter in the north. Since these were males, neither possibility can really be ruled out, although it’s still a bit early for migrant females.

Robin on the lawn

I don’t know that the earthworms would be active yet; it was warm, but not that warm, or at least not for long enough to warm the earth up considerably. I noticed most of the robins were checking under the leaves, perhaps for invertebrates that had tucked themselves into crevices in the earth. They would pick the leaves up with their beaks and toss them to one side. They are very proficient at this, able to throw the leaf a good foot or more away. It was slightly overcast by then, and too dark to get a good photo of their leaf-throwing, unfortunately, but you can see to the right of the bird the leaf that he’s just thrown. It was hard to tell just how much they were finding through this effort, but they kept at it.

Robin on the lawn

There was at least one robin who did seem to be hunting for earthworms, or at least wasn’t checking out the leaf litter. Robins on a lawn typically tend to run a number of steps and then pause to cock their head at the ground. While it might look like they’re tipping their ear to listen to what’s going on down there, experiments have shown that robins hunt by sight, not by sound, and the tipping of the head is simply the bird’s way of getting a better view of the ground. Because their eyes are set at the sides of their head, not the front, they don’t have straight-forward vision the way we do, and in order to focus in on a particular object the bird needs to turn its head and look out one eye or the other.

Robin on the lawn

Based on the fresh, crisp wing feathers on this bird, I would guess it to be an adult male (an after-second year in banding terms), meaning that 2009 is at least his third calendar year – he was hatched in 2007 or earlier. Because of the patterns of moult in the different age groups, a second-year bird, hatched last summer, would be showing more wear to its wing feathers, and they would probably also be brownish, slightly faded. In robins the difference can sometimes be quite obvious, particularly as you get closer to summer.

I didn’t notice this till blowing up the photo on the computer, but it looks like when the bird replaced its tail last (which would have been “scheduled” for late last summer, or may have been replaced over the winter if he’d lost some feathers to a close run-in) the waxy sheath that surrounds the feather at its base as it grows wasn’t removed. Most of the time birds will preen these waxy sheaths off, because they start to itch, but it looks like this guy got it halfway off the feather and then forgot about it when it stopped being a problem.

They were gone again today, the robins. There was nowhere for them to forage, the lawn covered up again by the recent snowfall. Off in search of berry bushes, I imagine. But that’s alright, it won’t be too long before they return again – spring is, I’m sure, just around the corner.

Hiking the Rouge

Rouge Valley

Today was Family Day here in Ontario, a newly-created holiday courtesy of our provincial premiere, who believed that the unbroken stretch between New Year’s Day and Easter was just too long for an employee to reasonably have to suffer through. This was the first year the new holiday has been in effect, and there’s still some kinks to be ironed out. Federal employees such as postal workers and some unionized groups were on the job today because the holiday hasn’t been negotiated into their contracts.

Rouge Valley

Blackburnian had the day off today, however, and I’m basically self-employed at the moment and take whatever days I want off, so we decided this afternoon to take advantage of the mild temperatures and head out to the Rouge Valley, out in the east near the Toronto Zoo. Back when I was in university I had a job for a couple summers inventorying the birds of the Rouge Park. It was very informal, I basically spent the summer hiking around as I pleased, trying to cover everywhere but not following any sort of rigorous protocol. It was a fabulous job, and I have a very fond spot for the Rouge because of my time spent there getting to know it and its birds. Despite this, I’ve rarely been back since then, and I’d never been there in winter.

Rouge Valley

The top photo is an image of the valley, taken from the top of a high bluff overlooking the Rouge River. Blackburnian’s standing at the top of the cliff, to give you a sense of scale. This isn’t a little bluff that you’re going to shimmy down to the water. The Rouge Valley contains two primary rivers, the Rouge and the Little Rouge, which joins it. This is the Little Rouge. Doesn’t look so little here, but the Rouge is a bit wider and deeper. Most of the river is upland forest, but there’s the odd patch of wetland here and there.

Civilization in the distance

The Rouge is a gorgeous, mature woodland through most of the Park’s valleys, and it can be easy to lose yourself among the extensive habitat. However, reminders of the city next door are hard to ignore. On the horizon are apartment buildings and rooftops. The trails run 1.6 km along either side of the river, between two roads. Road noise from the city carries the short distance into the park. People come out here to walk their dogs, and many of the dog owners don’t pick up after their pets.

Signs of people

Or themselves.

Rouge Valley

But the scenery is beautiful. The trails cover a number of different habitats, starting in scrubby meadow at the edge of the woods, passing through a powerline corridor, and then entering into mature upland forest. It’s a mixed deciduous-coniferous forest, with the evergreen component mostly hemlock. The trees here are no western Red Cedars, but put in perspective are pretty impressive themselves.

Hermit Thrush

We didn’t see many birds. Of course, winter birding is like that, very hit-or-miss and sparse even when there’s hits. This guy was the indisputable highlight of the outing. A Hermit Thrush, very out of place in the Toronto snow. Seeing a Hermit in the Toronto area isn’t unusual, per se, but it’s certainly very uncommon. This is the first one I’ve seen around here in the winter. Virtually all Hermits leave the province for the winter, though they don’t go far and may winter in the northeastern states.

Hermit Thrush with Black Cherry berry

This guy had found himself a stash of Black Cherry berries. I didn’t even notice the cherries until I saw him pop one. I watched him eat three or four before a movement I made, possibly shifting my weight or adjusting the camera, startled him and he flew off to a nearby hemlock.

Black cherry fruit

Frozen berries such as these are a large component in many overwintering birds’ diets. Two species of northern birds (Pine Grosbeak and Bohemian Waxwing) will feed pretty much exclusively on frozen berries such as crabapple, chokecherry, buckthorn, hawthorn, etc. There seemed to be a fair bit of Black Cherry in the forest, which should give the Hermit Thrush lots to eat.

Flock of robins

The first group of birds we came across were these robins, perhaps 20 of them. Nearly all robins leave the Toronto area in the winter, too, although in recent years increasingly more will stick around through the winter and feed on frozen berries in the woods as well as urban gardens. Another great reason to plant berry-bearing bushes!

Pished off Black-capped Chickadees

We found a few groups of chickadees foraging in cedar stands along the floodplain of the river. Blackburnian pished at all of them, but these were the only group to respond strongly. They were seriously pished off! You can even see the right one yelling, “dee-dee-dee-dee-dee!” Chickadees drop the “chick-a” from their call when they’re responding to perceived threats or dangers. Some research has suggested the number of “dee”s is correlated with the seriousness of the threat, with more meaning a greater danger.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

This Red-breasted Nuthatch pished in with one of the flocks of chickadees. It was the fourth and final species of the outing. I was thinking as we were leaving that it wasn’t a great diversity or abundance of birds, and would’ve made for a very lacklustre Christmas Bird Count. I loved the haziness of the periphery of this image created by peeking through a gap in the foliage.

We walked nearly 4 km on very uneven, slippery trails (not groomed trails, so they were simply packed down by many feet, and every step you were trying not to slide). It’s the furthest I’ve walked since the fall, I’m pretty sure, and the addition of the trail condition means we’ll probably be feeling achey legs tomorrow! Ah, but it was good to get out.