W Week – Warblers

Black-and-white Warbler

I thought this week I would do a W theme. I have several items I want to post about that are all W’s; this first one is Warblers. In the last couple of weeks we’ve had lots of warblers returning and settling in. One of the species that seems to be singing somewhere every time I go out on a walk is this one, the Black-and-white Warbler. They are an abundant species on the rough Canadian Shield, but also found more sparsely throughout much of the rest of Ontario. They nest in deciduous and mixed woodlands, which are extensive in this region. The habitat type is also increasing in Ontario, as abandoned fields slowly return to forest, and they’re one of a number of warblers dependent on such habitat to show a statistically significant increase in the most recent Breeding Bird Atlas. Black-and-white Warblers have a distinctive foraging style, climbing up tree trunks and along branches a bit like a nuthatch; indeed, some earlier names for the species included Creeping Warbler, Pied Creeper, and Black-and-white Creeper. This one’s a male because it is crisp black and white, with a black throat; females lack the dark throat and are more grayish than black.

Nashville Warbler

Here’s another species we’ve seen a fair bit of: Nashville Warbler. Like the Black-and-white, they’re found through much of Ontario. They have a preference for mixed or coniferous forests, and all of the encounters we’ve had with individuals on apparent breeding territory have been in patches of evergreens. They’re flashy little birds, with a gray hood and bright yellow belly. In our region of the province their population seems to be stable, probably because regenerating forest here is mostly deciduous, which doesn’t affect them too much given their habitat preferences.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warblers should be breeding in our forests as well this summer. They’re one of the most abundant migrants in the spring, but most of them carry on past us and head for northern Ontario, and especially northwestern Ontario where they have the highest densities. Like the Nashville, they prefer coniferous and mixed forests, but are less picky than Nashvilles, making do even with small patches. Their population, interestingly, has been on the rise in our region; presumably it’s this generalist nature that allows them to take better advantage of small opportunities. There are two subspecies of Yellow-rumps, one with a yellow throat, and the other with a white throat. Ours has the white throat, and was known as a Myrtle Warbler before the two species got lumped into one. Many birders affectionally refer to them as “Butterbutts” for their namesake plumage feature.

American Redstart

American Redstarts such as this handsome male are fairly common in much of Ontario. They are very much the generalist, nesting in open and semi-open treed habitats, usually successional forests but occasionally more mature forests if they are very open or have large clearings (like along roadsides). Another species that’s on the rise, the mature males are unmistakable in their smart black-and-orange plumage. However, they don’t actually attain these colours until their second summer; their first summer is spend as a drab brownish-gray like the female. Though these young males will occasionally still try to sing and defend a territory where they’re able, not all will attract a female and mate.

There is some debate as to why some species do this, but often it’s associated with maximizing breeding success. In such species, often first-summer males who are inexperienced in holding and defending territories will have very low success compared to more experienced males. Most, if they mate at all, do so through surreptitious forays into the competitor’s territory while he is away for adulterous liaisons with the competitor’s wife. Their dull plumage helps them to fly under the radar, since from a distance they just look like a female, who doesn’t attract the attention that black-and-orange plumage would. The female, for her part, is interested in these sneaky encounters because sperm from many males helps maximize the overall fitness of her clutch; it’s more likely that some of her offspring will succeed through survival of the fittest than if they come from a single parent. She hedges her bets – rather than all or none, she goes with the less risky all or some.

Golden-winged Warbler
Photo by Dan

And finally, a species that is much less common in the region, but which has a stronghold in the Frontenac Axis, one of just a handful such areas in the province, the Golden-winged Warbler. It is a species in decline, one of the most rapidly disappearing in North America, and listed as Threatened in the province. It is being outcompeted by the closely related Blue-winged Warbler, with which it hybridizes in zones of overlap between the two species. Historically in the province, Golden-wings were more northern in range, and Blue-wings more southern; the first Blue-wing wasn’t recorded in the province until the early 1900s, but have continued to expand northward since, pushing the Golden-wing out of the southwestern regions where it was once more plentiful. Hybrids are fertile and usually backcross with one parent species or the other, further diluting the species pools (this does lead to the question of whether they are even separate species at all if their offspring are fertile, or if they’re simply two subspecies with very different plumages). Compounding the problem is loss of habitat on both summer and winter grounds, and nest parasitism by the Brown-headed Cowbird, which favours the same open, scrubby habitat the Golden-winged Warbler likes.

Beyond just these five, we also have Cerulean, Pine, Black-throated Green and Yellow Warblers, as well as Ovenbird and Northern Waterthrush, back on territory around our house. We can probably expect them to be joined by Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Black-throated Blue, Blackburnian, Prairie, Mourning, and Canada Warblers, Common Yellowthroat and Louisiana Waterthrush, all of which are also found in the habitats of Frontenac Provincial Park and surrounding area. Twenty breeding species, what a smorgasbord. Although we won’t encounter all of those during our MAPS surveys, we will probably see most, and I’m really looking forward to those field days.

The long and winding road

Winding road

That’s certainly what our road is – long and winding. It was our first introduction to the area as we drove up to view the house, and all of our visitors comment on it as well. The road seems to go on for much longer than you expect it to before you reach your destination, and it’s the twists and turns in it that really make it feel that way. If you were driving up from town along a straight road it would probably go by pretty quickly.

The combination of the gravel surface and the winding route slows traffic down, though, what little there is that traverses this road. The crunch of gravel under tires can also be heard for quite some distance before the car is actually upon you, so even though the shoulder is fairly minimal, it’s still a great road for walking down. Blackburnian and I had gone out a couple times for short walks down the road, but only a short distance.

Woods

For the most part, the hiking I’ve done along the road only passed by forest. Near our house the landscape is nearly entirely forested, with the exception of a few scrubby areas underneath the power line corridors, or around the scattered houses along the road. The forest seems fairly young, though, with few large, old trees growing in it. Further evidence of its history as agricultural land early last century are the split-rail fences that line the road, tucked into the edge of the forest. These fences are found throughout the area, and I really like them, I think they add a lot more character than newer wooden board fencing does.

Field

Yesterday as a break from work I decided to walk down as far as a large open field that I pass regularly when driving in to town. With some stopping and birding and photography along the way it took me about half an hour, which was a nice easy hike.

Further south toward town you come down off the shield and the land levels out. There’s lots of agriculture and pasture down there, but once you’re up on the shield it’s mostly forest and lakes. There are a few areas where enough land has been cleared (or was already naturally cleared) to create a reasonably-sized pasture. These areas aren’t common, though, particularly in the area around our house. So I’d been eyeballing these meadows thinking what interesting things might be happening there that I’d like to check out.

Poison Ivy

Overlooked when just driving by but more obvious when walking, the fields had no trespassing signs posted that discouraged me from hopping the fence and wandering through the grass. Also rather discouraging were the blankets of poison ivy that lined the road edges. I know that I don’t react to poison ivy, but I also know that you’re not guaranteed of continued immunity forever, and I’d rather not push my luck.

American Goldfinch

So I couldn’t get really close to the American Goldfinches in the fields, but the long lens on the camera meant I could at least get a photo. There were a few pairs of goldfinches moving about among the thistle stands, feeding on the seeds that would be maturing about now. Goldfinches would for the most part be at the height of breeding right now, and this is why – they delay their nesting to coincide with the maturation of thistle heads, which provide fluffy down for nest lining and abundant food for the adults and young.

Common Yellowthroat

Where the fencing ran along the edge of the road there were a few tangles of shrubs and grapevines that provided good cover for birds. The goldfinches would pop in these occasionally, and I encountered a shy American Redstart who wouldn’t stay out long enough for me to get a photo. I also played hide and seek with this young Common Yellowthroat. He’d hop around inside the grapevine tangle and periodically poke his face out where I could see him. He seemed generally unconcerned by my presence, providing I didn’t get too close.

Common Yellowthroat

After some patient waiting, he flew up to the top of one of the fenceposts, where he posed long enough for me to run off a few shots of him. Being right next to the road, I was able to get some nice clear photos that the other birds I encountered weren’t obliging enough to provide for me.

Indigo Bunting

After spending some time watching the goldfinches in the field, I turned around to start heading back, and back to work. Just as I was nearing the corner of the field I happened across a large flock of birds. I couldn’t tell what most of them were, so I started pishing to draw them out. Well. That did not go over well with this guy. I assume there were little Indigo Bunting fledglings somewhere nearby and he was getting upset over my presence, and further aggravated by my pishing. He sat there and chipped and chipped at me for a bit, before retreating to a shrub a bit further back. You can actually see in this photo he’s eating a seed at the same time as telling me how upset he is with me.

Black-capped Chickadee

The chickadees, on the other hand, are more curious than upset. You can almost always get a flock of chickadees to come in to check you out when you pish at them, and they’ll come in remarkably close if you’re standing in vegetation – almost too close for me to focus on with my 300mm lens. Eventually, once they determine that it’s just some crazy kook making weird noises with her mouth, they move away and carry on with whatever they’d been doing at the time.

Chipping Sparrow

The Chipping Sparrows were also curious about what was going on. In fact, the only birds to really be alarmed were the buntings. There were lots of chippers about, they seemed to make up the bulk of the flock. It’s interesting that they’ve been the most abundant sparrow in our area, it surprises me a bit. I would have expected Song or White-throated to be more common in our predominantly forested area, as I think of chippers as shrub birds, but I guess early successional forests have a lot of undergrowth that would suit them well, too. We’re also in the primary hotspot for Eastern Towhees in the province, but have only heard one since we arrived; I expect we’ll see more when they start to migrate.

Black-and-white Warbler

In with the chickadees and chippers was this lone Black-and-white Warbler. She came in and checked me out initially, then, as the chickadees did, decided I was of no real concern. However, instead of moving away again, she sat on her branch and preened for a while. A bird’s feathers are its lifeline; they’re necessary for flight and for insulation (warmth in cool weather, cooling in warm weather), as well as social signals that indicate the bird’s status and health. Because they’re so important, birds will spend hours every day doing nothing but preening their feathers to make sure they’re in good working order.

Fence

August really is the slowest time of the year for birding, so I’m encouraged by the activity I saw there yesterday, of primarily post-breeding dispersals. Once migration starts I’ll be interested to see what else turns up along those hedgerows and in the fields. I’m also looking forward to seeing what breeders we have around when everyone returns to set up shop next spring.

At home with the birds

Dusk

Well, here I am, finally! I didn’t intend to be gone quite this long, but through various mix-ups, miscommunications and snags, we only just got our internet hooked up today. We opted to go for a bundle deal with one of the primary companies around here, and have been rather unimpressed with how things have gone. Our phone was hooked up two days late, and our satellite television still isn’t working quite right (we have a service person out today to have it looked at). Hopefully the last of all this will be sorted out today.

But, we made it, without incident, and we’ve otherwise settled in. We unpacked the last of our boxes yesterday, and there’s just a few last tidying-up details to take care of. It’s certainly feeling like home already. We’re just loving the location. Although it’s a bit further from town than we’d probably originally have considered, it’s still an easy, reasonable drive for once- or twice-a-week trips for supplies. If we were the commuting sort, it would be an average commute in to the “big” city (big being a relative term; compared to Toronto, virtually all of Ontario’s cities, with the possible exception of Ottawa, are moderate in size).

Dawn

The scenery and wildlife make it all worthwhile, however. Right across the lake is a provincial park, and the non-park shore has a pretty low population density itself. It’s not a small lake, at about 3.5 km long, but there’s only a couple dozen buildings along its outer shore. There’s hardly ever anyone out on the lake, at least that we’ve noticed. This weekend was a holiday long weekend for most people, and even then, while there was an increase in boaters, it still wasn’t busy, by any means. During our housing search we checked out a couple of other places that were located on lakes, but they were very busy, and noisy. Not our speed, really.

The birdlife here has been amazing, and we’ve only been here a week. We’ve tallied 63 species so far at our home, on the lake, or within a short walking distance along the road. To put that in perspective, our yard/neighbourhood list back in Toronto was less than 30 after five years of living there. August is perhaps the quietest time of the bird-season (April through October), when all the breeders have stopped singing, but the migrants haven’t really started to arrive yet. And in winter, while the diversity is lower, they’re coming to your feeders and are easy to observe. We anticipate some great birding through the rest of the year. The park has a checklist of 170 species to date, so we still have lots yet to see!

REVI2

Red-eyed Vireos are abundant, in any flock of birds there will be at least two or three of them. For the first few days after we arrived, there were Red-eyed Vireos hanging around in the trees just off our deck. At first we just saw the adults, but shortly a fledgling showed up with them. This photo was taken from the deck, looking down into a little shrub the family was sitting in. Also in the trees around the house has been a regular family of chickadees. Young chickadees are very vocal, loudly begging for food from their parents, so we can always tell when they’re outside.

CERW

A few mornings ago, Blackburnian was on his way down to the dock with his morning coffee when he heard some commotion along the road, a mixed flock of birds moving along the trees of the road edge. He grabbed his binoculars and went out to check them out. Among the flock was a family of Cerulean Warblers, and, knowing that I’d like to see them, he came back in to get me. Ceruleans are an endangered species in Ontario, sparsely distributed through the southern part of the province and only found in certain local patches. However, in these areas they can be locally common. One of the spots recognized as being among the best places to find breeding Ceruleans is not too far east from us, and we’re at the western edge of their eastern Ontario stronghold. It’s a great place for them; around here there is extensive forest cover, because of the low population density and the rocky landscape, which makes farming impractical.

YTVI

Although this isn’t a great photo of it, this was one of the birds I was most pleased to catch a glimpse of. It actually sat rather obligingly for a little while in this open spot on the branch, catching the morning light nicely to illuminate his bright colours. It’s a Yellow-throated Vireo, and it’s a bird that’s been on my jinx-bird list (those birds that seem to elude you no matter how hard you try to find them) for quite a while. I had heard a few singing before, but try as I might I’d never been able to see one. I hadn’t actually expected them to be breeding this far north and east, I tend to think of them as a Carolinian species, but consulting my recently-published copy of the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, I see that they actually occur in a strong band along the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, as well, and their largest pocket of high abundance in the province is actually the Frontenac Axis.

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warblers are also abundant in the area, if not quite so much as the Red-eyed Vireos. I haven’t seen any adult males, with their bold black throats, but I’m not certain whether that means the birds I have seen are females and immatures, or if the adult males have already moulted into their winter plumages. There’s a surprising diversity of warblers in our area. Back in Toronto and area we had a small handful of species that might breed commonly. So far here we’ve tallied 10 species of warblers, all of which would be local breeders, with the potential of another 10 or 11 that we haven’t encountered yet.

RTHU2

The first birds we observed at the house were a pair of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds on our first viewing of the place. One of the first things we did outside once we moved in was to fill up the hummingbird feeder. The previous residents had a feeder in place, but it didn’t look like they’d been keeping it filled. It didn’t take long for the hummers to find it. Since they did they’ve been regular visitors. They decided quickly that we weren’t any serious threat, and will often feed while we’re only half a dozen feet away.

COLO

And finally, the quintessential cottage-country birds, Common Loons. We didn’t notice any when we were viewing the house, but we were only here for an hour or so each time. Once we moved in they became quite apparent – but more by their calls than by spotting them. They call regularly every evening and periodically through the rest of the day. They seem to be done breeding, and move often from our lake to any of the many others in the area. On the same morning that we were out looking at the Cerulean family, a family of five Common Loons flew overhead, calling to each other, as they moved to the lake on the other side of the road.

We also noticed a phoebe had built a nest on the security light above the deck stairs, and occasionally hear one singing in the area. I was worried that we wouldn’t have scrub and meadow birds around here and that I’d miss birds from my parents’ like the Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Kingbird or Indigo Bunting, but they’re all here. There are Osprey and Red-shouldered Hawks frequently seen along the lake edge. We also have some more northern birds that I was hoping to get in the area, such as White-throated Sparrow, Common Raven, or several of the warblers. We’ve heard Red Crossbills on a few mornings, though it’s hard to say if they’re post-breeding dispersals or early “winter” irruptives.

And that’s just a small sampling of things! The rest of the local wildlife is just as varied and abundant… but that’ll be another post.