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

Make a list, check it twice

Making a list

For Christmas, I got a number of books, one of which was Julie Zickefoose‘s new book, Letters From Eden. I read it in just a couple of sittings, and enjoyed every page (some day I wanna be just like Julie!). Another one I got was Good Birders Don’t Wear White. It’s a collection of “essays” by some of the country’s best-known and leading birders and naturalists. There are some good stories and advice in it, but one of them that I thought was a particularly good suggestion was submitted by Julie as well. It’s titled, “Write it down: making a calendar”.

Spring bunny
A bunny in my mom’s garden – photo credit my mom

Many naturalists, and birders especially, are great at keeping track of what they see. Usually, however, it’s in the form of lists. Here I have my backyard list. There is my year list. This one’s my life list. Lists are great because it’s a record of what’s been seen. The more specific the list, the more useful it can be later (for instance, a list for your backyard is more useful than a list for a state or province because it’s more specific to a certain spot; not everything on your state list will be encountered in a given spot in the state). The best lists are those that are accompanied by extra information. Rather than simply being a list of names, more details are attached to each name. For instance, recording the date you first saw a particular species in your backyard, or the location that you saw a certain species in your state.

Green and Leopard frogs

This is the basis to Julie’s suggestion. Keep a calendar of your observations. When you see the first robin of spring, write it down. When the first green frog starts to trill in the swamp, make a note. Record notable observations you have, such as a bluebird feeding babies, or a fox trotting across your backyard. If you do this over the course of a few years you start to get a very precise picture of the timing of nature. You have a great reference to refer to when you want to know when something happens, or where, or even if. There are some great online tools for tracking bird observations, the best perhaps being (or for Canadians).

The Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station, which I currently volunteer for, has essentially created such a calendar through careful records of observations every day for five years. It’s really interesting to compare arrival dates for species to previous earliest (or latest) dates, or to look at frequency (you actually have numbers to back yourself up when you make the statement, “this is the most bluebirds I’ve ever seen in a spring!”)

Red-winged Blackbird

My mom has lamented recently that she wishes she’d kept a journal or record of her observations. My parents have lived at the same home in the southern Ontario countryside for nearly 30 years. By now my mom has a pretty good idea of when the Red-winged Blackbirds arrive, or when the spring peepers start to sing. But it’s still a general idea when, and there’s no record of whether it’s the same as it was 30 years ago. My parents are planning on moving and were thinking to leave some nature notes, including a species list, for the new owners. Such a calendar would have been a great introduction to the home.

Look at that great bill! And those out-of-this-world eyes!

I myself have kept a very casual personal journal on some of my birding observations over recent years, going back to 2004. It’s been helpful to refer to for some things, when I saw a certain bird, or took a particular trip. This week, I looked back through it for the date the American Woodcock arrive here. I had been thinking that they should be showing up soon. I had the notion in my head that they start their dusk display flights at the end of February.

Well, I browsed through all my late-February entries, and saw no mention of it. I tried early March in case I’d written it down late. Still nothing. Finally, it twigged that I was a month early, they won’t return till late March. Sure enough, there were the entries, at the end of March.

How disappointing. But at least it saves me from trudging out through the snow at dusk this week looking for birds that aren’t there yet.

(For those who were curious, that leading photo is from a point count survey I did one spring for the bird research station. I had forgotten my pen and notepad, but handily found a bit of charred wood to make notes with; the list washed away in the next rain. Hopefully you’ll have paper available when making your lists.)