Company’s coming


I am one of those people who are perpetually running late, no matter how much planning and forethought is put into one’s schedule. Today I’m heading off for a couple of days to visit family back in Halton County and, as is the norm, I am running late. I got up early and everything to make sure I’d have lots of time. I’m pretty sure that I’m surrounded in a bubble of temporal fluctuation where time runs more slowly for me than the rest of the world. This would explain, for instance, how half an hour might fly by while I’m typing out an email that I’m sure should only have taken me ten minutes.

But I digress; I mention this only because I am running behind, and therefore don’t have time to post about the subject I had originally intended to. That’s okay, though – I’ll share some birds with you instead, and get to the other stuff at a later date. Dan and I finally put out our feeders this week, after having noticed some sparrows foraging on the lawn since Thanksgiving in October. Within a day the feeders were inundated with birds. Compared to the last house, at the lake, where it took a while for us to start seeing much activity at our feeders, the birds descended on the seed here as if they’d all been perched in the trees surrounding the house just waiting for it. I wonder if it has something to do with the habitat? Perhaps more people are feeding birds around here so the birds know what a free lunch looks like? I’m not sure. Regardless, we’ve been enjoying near-immediate activity out our windows, as have the cats, who have never seen anything quite so exotically tempting. (Don’t worry, they’re indoor cats – it’s a little like kitty TV.)

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee, working on cracking open a seed. These guys have been hanging about the spruce that surround the house, but surprisingly weren’t the first birds at the feeder.

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch. Considering that I’ve only seen these guys sporadically in the yard, I was surprised that two of them started coming to the feeder within a day or two of it going up. They’re regular visitors now. This one is either a first-year male or an older adult female, but probably the latter – the crown of the cap is blueish, but the nape is black. I’m not sure whether the other bird is male or female. She checks out the goods on offer, looking for something tasty.

White-breasted Nuthatch

This sunflower seed will do. I love the rose blush that sweeps their flanks.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrows seem to usually be one of the last of the non-irruptive feeder birds to arrive south in the fall. I just noticed these guys about this week, while the juncos have been here for at least a month. The juncos don’t have as far to travel, though; they’ll breed in the coniferous woods of the Shield and northern Ontario. the Tree Sparrows, on the other hand, breed on the scrubby tundra along Hudson’s Bay in far northern Ontario. Think about that for a moment when you see one under your feeder this winter. This is the balmy south! It’s interesting to consider how different the landscape must be for them, even more than a temperate forest bird who travels to the tropical forests of Central America.

American Tree Sparrow

They can be identified by the combination of their rusty crown, dark chest spot and bicolored bill.

American Tree Sparrow

Sparrows, and most seed-eaters, are primarily visual hunters. Birds (except a select few, like vultures) don’t have much of a sense of smell so they rely on their sense of sound and sight for finding food. Since the seeds don’t move to make any sounds, or even to offer the visual cue of movement, birds have to use shape recognition, often picking likely-looking things up in their beak and rolling them around to decide definitively. That’s why you often see birds with their heads tipped to the side as they peer at the ground.

Slate-colored Junco

The Dark-eyed Junco has several subspecies, the only one of which that occurs here with any regularity is the Slate-colored Junco, so named because it’s slate-colored (surprise), or the males are, at least. Some males, the oldest ones, can be a dark charcoal gray. Look at the neat scalloped pattern on the back of this one.

Slate-colored Junco

Another male, paler. Check out the tertials, the three overlapping feathers that form a line down the back when the wing is folded (as here). Notice how brownish they look compared to the slate-gray coverts (those short feathers that form a line between the body and the flight feathers). This is probably an indication that this is a hatch-year bird, one that was hatched this summer. Another indication that this is the case is in the tertials, the shortest one is slate gray while the other two are brown. The brown ones are leftover from what the bird grew in the nest, while the gray top one has been replaced this fall, a pattern of moult not shown by adult birds. In an adult bird at your feeder over the winter, all three tertials would be the colour of that top one.

Slate-colored Junco

Here’s another where the colour difference is more subtle, but you can still see that the uppermost tertial is grayer than the slightly brownish two lower ones, again suggesting a young bird.

Slate-colored Junco

It’s hard to see the distinction in female juncos because they’re usually brown all over!


Start of the season


Contrary to the forecast made for yesterday, the weather wasn’t actually all that bad. While there was rain in the city, by the time I drove the ten minutes down to the spit, there was no rain down on the lakeshore, and there was even some patches of blue sky struggling to show through the blanket of grey cloud. It’s a funny thing about the research station, that the weather conditions that affect the city can often be quite different than what’s happening out on the spit. Usually, it’s that it’s raining, sometimes heavily, in the city with little to no precipitation on the lake. Strange.

Today dawned clear, beautiful and sunny, but c-c-cold. Well, for this time of year. It was -5 celcius when we arrived at the crack of dawn, about 6:30am. It took until 9:30 for it to warm up to 0 degrees. Ordinarily we would open the mist nets half an hour before sunrise, and run for 6 hours, but both yesterday and today, due to weather, we opened halfway through the morning and put in just a half day’s worth of effort.

American Tree Sparrow

The first bird banded of the spring season was this impatient American Tree Sparrow (can you see the look he’s giving me? “Are you done there yet, missy?”). After my comments about expecting migrants to be late this year, they all seemed to come in on the warm front Monday night. We had Golden-crowned Kinglets and Eastern Phoebes, in good numbers. Song Sparrows, juncos, a few Brown Creepers. A Winter Wren was around, as was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a Belted Kingfisher, all firsts for the spring.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

We totaled a huge 41 species on the morning, which I think is more than any other opening day in past years. One of the birds present was this little Northern Saw-whet Owl. They’re not often seen in the spring, so it was a real delight to find. Saw-whets are funny migrants, they come through in largeish numbers in the fall, spread out for the winter, and then seem to just disappear come spring. We run a saw-whet owl monitoring program in the fall which is pretty successful (we banded over 300 owls last fall), but don’t run in the spring because there’s no owls around to band!


The trails are still partially covered in snow. This photo was from yesterday, and the rain and wind yesterday helped to melt some of it, but there’s still some left yet to go. It can be a little bleak down there on cloudy days in late fall or early spring, with the grey skies and empty trees. The trees take a while to leaf out, longer than on the shore, because of cooler temperatures due to lake effects. We can just be seeing the start of greening when trees are already well-progressed in town. The dogwoods really help add a pop of colour to the landscape there. I’m going to try to do a once-a-week photo series documenting the greening of the station this spring.

American Woodcock

As I was leaving yesterday, this woodcock wandered across the road in front of my car. Naturally, I had my camera already packed away, and of course it had the short lens on it. So while it was a rare opportunity to see a woodcock out in the open, this was the best shot I could manage. I love these birds, they’re so bizarre-looking! They’ve been doing their beautiful twittery sky-flights in the mornings when we arrive, I wish it was brighter when they do it so that I could capture some of it to film, but they only fly at dusk and dawn.

I’ve been busy lately, wrapped up in an interesting and hopefully promising project that will hopefully be the subject of some future post if it all works out, so haven’t had much time for research – I’ve got a small backlog of such photos that I need to get to. It’s amazing to me how much there’s been to talk about during the winter, the months that I figured would be the hardest to fill… My camera will be overflowing when life really starts stirring in a few weeks!

Song Sparrow

Peering in the pond, part 1: Don’t fall in!

Vernal pond

With the days getting longer, and the turning forward of the clocks a few weeks ago, daylight lingers well into the evenings these days. When I finished the day’s house renovation tasks today there was still ample light to go padding about outside, and I wanted to get out for a bit to enjoy the relatively mild temperatures. It was beautiful and sunny all day today, and with the combination of the two factors the snow was doing its best to melt. Of course, with the giant snowpiles we have it’s hard to notice much of a difference, but there was a steady rivulet of water running down the tire-tracks in the driveway all day, as if there was a spring welling up near the house and feeding it.

I decided to go down and see if the warm sun had awakened anything in the ice-free water of the little vernal ponds in the backyard. There’s two small ponds, connected through small channels, both of which mostly or entirely dry up in the thick heat of summer. One I remember skating on when I was quite young. It’s since grown in with seedlings from the Silver Maples in the front yard, creating a miniature maple swamp. The largest of the young trees are now a good 10 cm (roughly 4 in) in diameter-at-breast-height, and while it’s a pretty, picturesque scene, the leaf fall has mostly choked the waters so that the pond that I recall being too deep to wade in even with our rubber boots is now fairly shallow through most of its length. Very little inhabits this pond anymore, although I regularly return to look.

The other pond is in the middle of the fenced-in field the horses get turned out in, but despite the disturbance it sometimes gets as a result, the horses generally aren’t all that interested in it and life does well there. (There’s actually two much larger swamps close nearby, but they’re harder to access without a pair of hipwaders.) It was to this little pond that I headed this afternoon.


The snow still lies thick over much of the pond. Portions of it have melted to expose the water, which was free of ice in the warm sunshine and mild air, but more than half is still concealed by snow. The crusty layer over the surface of the snow allowed me to gently pick my way across without breaking through to my knees, which was generally appreciated. The snow mounds up around the vegetation, creating little hummocks from which the red dogwood branches poke up, reminding me a bit of anthills.

Black-capped Chickadee

There was a fair bit of bird activity in the area. Behind me, in the larger true swamp, the Red-winged Blackbirds were perched at the top of the small trees calling loudly their familiar “oak-a-lee!” (despite that in most field guides it’s phoneticized as “konk-a-ree”, this is how I learned it growing up). There were a couple of Common Grackles up there with them, doing their best rusty creak.

The dogwood clumps are a favourite foraging spot of both the overwintering sparrows and the local chickadees. I’m not really sure what they’re eating when they’re foraging in or under these bushes, but there’s often a lot of little birds hopping among the branches. There were a few chickadees in the area while I was standing in the middle of the pond, and I watched them for a little bit.

Black-capped Chickadee bathing

This one came down and had a bath while I was standing there. Naturally, I had my short lens on the camera, and by the time I got the long lens switched over he’d finished up and hopped up to a branch in the back of the clump of dogwood to fluff up and dry off. The water through most of the melted area is quite shallow and perfect for bathing. Well, for the birds, anyway. I think I’d find it a little muddy and cold at the moment.

American Tree Sparrow

A couple of American Tree Sparrows were hanging out in the dogwood as well. This one gave me a rather pensive stare before moving into the thicker cover of the bushes. In the areas where the snow has now melted I could imagine there being a fair bit of grass seed and other such food items exposed that had been buried through the winter.

Vernal pond

After watching the birds for a bit I turned my attention back to the water. What I was specifically looking for was fairy shrimp. While growing up, we’d come down to look for these every spring once the snow melted, but I think I’m perhaps a tad early yet. Nonetheless, it’s worth a check.

Close call

I was a little hasty and forgot that I was standing on an ice ledge. As I moved to the water’s edge to peer in, the snow under my feet cracked and I nearly fell in. Whoops! I did manage to catch my balance without falling and back away from the danger zone. And then circled around to approach from the open, muddy area.

I picked my way across the little patches of grass and stone, the few areas that aren’t submerged, till I reached the point where the water began to deepen. I squatted down on my heels, peered into the water and saw……