Gobs in the bogs


We have three stations set up for MAPS. Our first visit to the first one was on Wednesday; we made our first visit to the second on Friday, and were out to the third station today. Although they all share some features, be it bird species or landscape, they are all pretty unique from one another. Hemlock Lake is set along the edge of a small lake. The west shore is full of deadfall trees, and, as the site’s name suggests, hemlock is predominant there. Rock Ridge, our third site, is also set on a lake, but while Hemlock Lake is mostly forest, Rock Ridge is mostly pine and rock barrens. Both of these sites are very picturesque, with many postcard photo ops around the site.

If the other two are about the landscape, then Maplewood Bog, our second site, is about the birds. Well, really, all three sites are about the birds, but with Maplewood that’s the feature that makes it stand out from the others. This is in part because there really isn’t the same sort of postcard landscape at the site. Both of the other sites have great vistas looking out over their respective lakes. Maplewood, however, is set into the forest. As per its name, the site’s most prominent feature is a largeish bog set in the middle of the mostly maple and oak forest (we tried out the name Oakwood Bog, but it just didn’t roll off the tongue as well).


Though there is the one large bog in the centre, Maplewood has numerous smaller bogs, vernal pools, swamps, and wet spots. This is somewhat deliberate (the inclusion of these within the station boundaries, not their existence – we can’t take credit for that), as such habitat offers the low, shrubby growth that is crucial for successful mistnetting. In order for a mistnet to catch birds, the birds must be traveling at the level of the net. For them to be moving at net level, there must be suitable low vegetation structure. In a typical mature forest, most of the vegetation is found in the tree canopies. At human level there is mostly just tree trunks, or sometimes sparse young saplings waiting for a big adult to fall and open up a patch of sunlight. These little wet bits are often the best habitat for catching birds in, as it brings the birds down to net level. Unfortunately, they can be a bit wet to walk in. Dan did his best to select the driest bits for the net lanes.


N for Nice? It really is a nice site. What it lacks in vistas it makes up for in easy walking and great bird diversity. This is the only one of our three sites with nesting Cerulean Warblers and Yellow-throated Vireos. Scarlet Tanagers are also common, but we didn’t catch any of these species on our first visit to the site. In the summer they typically favour the tree canopies, rarely coming down low except, perhaps, to drink and bathe. Our best chances for catching them will be later in the summer, once the young birds fledge. Adults will often lead their families to edge habitat and low scrubby areas. I’m not exactly sure what it is that draws them there, but it’s probably to do with food – greater food abundance or foraging opportunities in the increased structural diversity of the scrubby habitat. Late in the summer and into the fall these habitats start hopping with birds as the young-of-the-year disperse out of their natal territories. Gobs in the bogs. Even at this point in the season, of the first days at each of our three sites Maplewood was the busiest, with 26 captures. When we arrived at the site, at 5 am, the woods were just alive with birdsong.


A forest specialty that we did catch was the Wood Thrush above. They are a declining species and so are a target species for our projects. Wood Thrushes are notoriously hard to photograph, or at least to get a good photo of. They have a habit of dropping their head down to their chest, giving them a hump-backed look. This one happens to be a second-year bird – that is, in its second calendar year (meaning last year, 2008, was when it was hatched, its first calendar year). One of the tell-tale features that you can look for in thrushes of all species are these pale streaks up the shafts of some of their wing or head feathers. The feathers of baby thrushes all have these pale streaks, and while the bird will replace most of them in the fall before it migrates, they often hold on to some of them through the spring and summer (but it’s one of those absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence sort of things – if you notice them it’s definitive of age, but if you don’t then the age is ambiguous and needs to be determined by other criteria). In this photo a few of the feathers on the bird’s forehead still bear those pale streaks.


Red-eyed Vireos are one of the most common species of deciduous forests and are present at all of our sites in good numbers. They are well-named birds, as the eyes of the adults really are a vibrant ruby-red when highlighted by the sun (in the shade they’re still a rich matte red). The eyes of young-of-the-year are a mouse-brown, so it’s easy to tell the young from the adults in the fall, at least if you can get a good look at their eyes. Their irises gradually change colour over the course of the winter. This individual looks like it has a speckled throat, but all those little gray dots are actually feather mites. I have no idea how these mites get on the bird in the first place, but once present they settle in on the feathers and feed on the barbs. In most birds you notice them on the wing feathers, so I was surprised to see them on the throat of this guy. I guess it was one of the few places he couldn’t preen them from.


We’re starting to get into deer fly season, and as the sun crests the treetops they all come out of wherever they spent the night, and start their endless circling of your head. After a long few hours of this at Hemlock Lake a couple days before, I bought some of those deer fly sticky traps for use on future outings. I tried them out at Maplewood on Friday. They proved remarkably effective, distracting the flies from my neck and trapping them on the tape where they could do no harm. This was my collection at the end of the morning.


The deer flies were just as irritating to the birds as to me while I was trying to photograph them. This Common Yellowthroat took matters into his own beak when one landed on his back. He held on to it and left with it when I let him go.


The same thing was repeated by this Veery as I was taking photos of it. This gave me an idea for the fate of the flies stuck to the back of my cap, and as birds were released I offered them a deer fly for their troubles. Most of them snapped it up right away and departed with it.


This Field Sparrow has a mosquito in his mouth. We caught him before the deer flies were out, but there were still plenty of mosquitoes in the early morning cool. He actually snapped it out of the air where it hovered near his face as I took a few photos. Even the sparrows, chickadees and finches, which we think of traditionally as seed-eaters due to their presence at our feeders in the winter, are insectivores in the summer. Insects offer substantially more nutrition and protein than seed does, which is important with all the energy the birds expend in raising a family (or two) over the summer months. Birds that stick around for our winters have evolved to be able to switch their diet to seeds for the cold months, when insects are hard to find, and those that are unable to make the dietary change fly south to where insects are around all year.

If you’re interested in reading more about the site and the birds found there, check out Dan’s post on our Maplewood Bog visit, over at the Frontenac Birds blog.


A happy bird is an indoor cat


Continuing the cat theme from yesterday’s post, I wanted to touch on the subject of cats outdoors. Anyone who knows me knows I’m more of a Cat Person than a Dog Person. I grew up with a couple of dogs, till I was in my teens, but there have always been cats in the family. When I had the opportunity to take a cat in university, I did, and I was sad to have to find another home for her when I graduated (one that I thought would be temporary, but my situation ended up not sorting itself out as quickly as I had initially envisioned, so it ended up being a permanent home). Now that I’m (finally!) settled in what will hopefully be something of a more long-term residence, I have two cats again, plus a dog. I’ve missed having pets in my life, and it’s nice to have these three enlivening the house.


The sentiment is shared by millions of other people, too, and pet ownership is at an all-time high, with 63% of US households (some 69 million households!) owning at least one pet as of 2006. Between these 69 million households, there’s some 73 million dogs and 90 million cats. These numbers suggest cats to be more popular than dogs, but cats are undoubtedly more numerous than dogs because they’re easier to keep in apartments or small residences, plus they’re smaller and require less direct care (such as taking for walks), so it’s easier to own more than one per house. Interestingly, a 2002 survey suggests that 40% of US households own a dog, while only 30% own a cat. Of dog owners, about 37% own more than one dog, while the remaining 63% just have a single one (count our house among that faction). Meanwhile, 51% of homes have two or more cats, and 49% have just one. Of the five cat-owning homes I know (my various family members and my best friend), four have multiple cats, and it’s just my friend with a single individual.


That’s just the owned animals. In the US, there is an additional segment of the cat population who are considered feral animals, not owned or cared for by any particular individual. All told, there are well over 100 million cats in the country. Estimates figure that anywhere from 25% to 65% of owned cats are allowed to roam about outdoors. Combined with the feral population, that could mean as many as 70 million cats prowling the alleyways and hedgerows, with a heavier proportion in country settings than urban ones.


Cats are natural-born predators. It’s in a cat’s instincts to chase potential prey, which is why they’re so entertained by chasing a few feathers tied to a string, they just can’t help themselves. It doesn’t matter how well they’re fed, or how recently they’ve eaten, a cat faced with an easy target is likely to try to get it. As with all domesticated animals, they’re still wild animals at heart, and their wild ancestors would have to be opportunistic and take advantage of potential food situations whenever they arose, regardless of whether they were hungry – who knew when the next meal would walk by. Because of this, cats make great mousers for the house (many of them, anyway; I’ve known some who were probably just as afraid of the mouse as the mouse was of them).


They also are excellent hunters of birds. An especially prolific hunter may kill up to 1000 animals in a year, with birds making up 20% of the catch. Typically numbers are smaller for the average cat, with urban cats taking less than rural cats, but virtually all cats will end up killing wildlife. Multiply these numbers out across the continent, and free-ranging cats take more than a billion wild animals every year, including millions of songbirds. In some areas, this heavy predation pressure has had a noticeable and negative impact on bird populations. One of the most infamous examples is that of the Stephens Island Wren, a flightless species endemic to Stephens Island, New Zealand. The species was most probably wiped out by an escaped, pregnant cat and her subsequent offspring, which eventually numbered hundreds of individuals just five years later. They were finally eradicated from the island a couple decades later, but it was too late for the wren by then.


In North America there aren’t any endemic flightless species at risk of being exterminated by cats, but cats are taking a toll on bird species in general. Along with window, tower and vehicle collisions, cats are one of the primary direct causes contributing to the decline in songbird numbers. Indirect causes, such as habitat loss, pesticides, etc, make life even harder for these birds. Really, it’s no great surprise that populations are declining, and in fact it’s rather amazing we still have as many birds as we do, with all the trials they go through. It’s hard for us as individuals to do much about large-scale issues such as habitat loss, but controlling cat predation is an easy one – just keep your cat indoors.


Declawed cats, or cats outfitted with bells, are also not going to have any less of an impact on the bird population. A cat doesn’t use its claws to kill birds, although they can help; it just needs to bat the bird down and stun it or pin it, whereupon it uses its teeth to dispatch it. Also, a cat, when it’s stalking prey, moves so fluidly that it can keep a bell from making hardly any noise at all. When I was younger, before my parents began keeping all their cats indoors, I remember one of them, who bore a bell on his collar, having discovered that he could sneak around behind a flock of birds foraging at the seed on the driveway and startle them so that they’d fly toward the windows on the house. If he was lucky one would smack into the window and he’d have an easy catch. The bell on his collar was useless.


Dogs aren’t off the hook, either. A dog that is allowed to run free in natural environments at best disturbs the local wildlife (who view the wolf-like shape as a predator) and at worst may predate an animal or bird itself. There are some species of dogs who are bred to be hunters or retrievers and who will chase small animals, certainly not to the benefit of the animal itself. Recent research has shown that even just walking a dog in an area will have a negative effect on bird abundance and diversity there, compared to an area where no dogs are present. It’s best to keep your dog on a leash, or take them to designated off-leash areas (or your backyard) for play if you can, particularly during the breeding season.


Dogs are large, energetic animals that just can’t get enough exercise within the household, and so need to be taken outdoors for walks or other exercise. Cats, on the other hand, are relatively sedentary animals that can usually get sufficient exercise just through their normal routine and play indoors. An indoor cat is not necessarily an unhappy cat. Provided with ample play opportunity, and a cozy seat by the window, a cat can be perfectly content. If you really want to be able to let your cat outdoors, train it to go out on a harness and leash, or tether the leash to a stake in the yard where you can keep an eye on it.


Besides all the benefits to wildlife, keeping your cat indoors will benefit them, too. A free-roaming cat has an average lifespan of less than 5 years. My parents, when I was growing up, had a series of several outdoor cats, and most lasted about two years before disappearing altogether, presumably either hit by a car or taken by a coyote, the two largest threats to free-roaming cats. An indoor cat, on the other hand, can live up to 15-20 years; virtually all the indoor cats I’ve known have lived this long. The Guinness record for oldest cat is 31 years. I can guarantee no outdoor cat will live that long. (The record for a dog is 29 years.)


The American Bird Conservancy has an active campaign called Cats Indoors! that promotes the benefits of keeping your cat inside. You can read more on the issue at their website.

My cats will always be indoor cats, for their health, my happiness, and the wild birds’ lives.

Easter birds

Red-winged Blackbird

At my parents’ for Easter dinner yesterday, I popped outside for some around-the-house birding while waiting for the turkey to come out of the oven. I decided not to venture further because there’s still quite a bit of snow on the ground, and with the (slightly) warming temperatures it’s quite soft now. Also, the driveway practically requires galoshes to navigate cleanly, and I haven’t unpacked mine from the winter yet.

There was still a fair bit of activity even just around the house, which is where birds congregate due to the presence of the feeders. I had to wait a little while, but I did finally get to see the Red-winged Blackbirds that my mom had reported arrived the other day. They usually come to the seed spread out on the driveway in front of the house, but yesterday they were sticking to the cast-off litter under the feeders in the backyard, possibly because of the seven cars parked in the driveway turnaround surrounding the seed. One also visited the suet a couple of times, which was where I got the best photos of him.

This is just a youngster, a second-year bird, meaning he was hatched last year (as birds’ ages are labeled by calendar year – he won’t truly be a year old till the summer). You can tell because the black feathers on his back and wings are fringed with orangey-brown, a characteristic of young males.

American Goldfinch and Red-winged Blackbird

Behind the blackbird, a couple of American Goldfinches were coming to the nyger feeder. They’ve been mysteriously absent for the last couple of months, only just starting to return recently. I’m not sure where they all went. Normally they spend the winter mobbing the feeders in fairly substantial numbers. The most I’ve seen at a time since mid-winter has been three.

The males, like this guy, are starting to get their brilliant summer yellow plumage. You can see it all beginning to come in around his face. In the middle of winter you can still tell the males from the females despite their relatively drab plumage because some males will retain slightly brighter yellow faces. Also, their wings and tails are a sharp, crisp black, rather than the duller brownish-black that females sport.

European Starling

The starlings have settled in. There’s at least a couple of pairs present now, with the two males often counter-singing to each other from their respective territorial perches. This particular male seems to have chosen the north peak of the house as his nest site of choice. Here he pauses in his singing to check out the activity (me) below. Two starlings, a Blue Jay and a White-breasted Nuthatch are the birds to have discovered the suet dough, so far. The nuthatch takes respectable small pieces, but the other two species really toss it back when they visit the feeder.

Red-shouldered Hawk

While standing out there watching the feeder birds, I glanced up at a crow crossing the the sky, and happened to spot, up high behind it, this Red-shouldered Hawk moving with purpose to the north. It was right at the reach of my (relatively) short 300mm lens, this is a close crop on the original image. There are a pair of Red-shoulders that live in the neighbourhood every year. I’m not sure where they nest, other than that it’s somewhere to the west of my parents’ place. I regularly hear them calling from that direction in the summer.

I recall some years ago there being some concern over decreasing populations in the province, but I think these declines are more limited to the southwestern portion, west and southwest of Toronto. That said, the recent Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas recorded them in quite a number of areas where they hadn’t been 20 years ago. There is some likelihood that this is due in part to new surveys that were implemented for the species by Bird Studies Canada in 1991, contributing a lot more targeted effort than took place in the first atlas. Still, even taking this into consideration, the results of the atlas are encouraging, and probably suggest increasing forest cover in the south of the province as abandoned fields regenerate. They remain an uncommon species in most of my “home range”, and I’m always pleased to see one.

Also on the raptor front, although I wasn’t able to get a photo, I spotted a Turkey Vulture circling over the escarpment, the first of the season. They migrate south for the winter, so are always a welcome sight in the spring. Come summer you can usually see at least one or two over the escarpment where the topography of the cliffs creates great thermals for soaring. During the peak of migration you can have up to a couple dozen.

Common Redpoll

This Common Redpoll has been hanging around the feeders for a little while, she was there earlier in the week as well. She doesn’t seem to be doing too well, although I’m not sure what she might be ill with. She was feeding periodically, and moving around on the ground, but at other times would just sit on the feeder perch or at the top of the birdhouse in the centre of the garden, looking around but otherwise not doing much.

She’s identifiable primarily because she’s always fluffed up into a near-spherical shape. Fluffing like that is a bird’s way of putting on extra layers – when we would go grab an extra sweater, the birds will fluff up their feathers. The amount of fluffing is similar to the number of layers of clothing, as the air pocket trapped under the feathers, which traps warm air close to the body, will increase as the feathers are further raised. None of the other birds were fluffed this much, it wasn’t that cold out. Birds that are sick will usually fluff their feathers as well, I suspect in a similar reaction to our burying under the covers when we have a fever and are suffering chills.

She was too active for me to consider trying to catch her, and she is continuing to eat, so that’s in her favour. However, she was still sitting at the feeder at dusk, one lone redpoll. I hope she gets well.

Common Redpoll