Company’s coming

feeder

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!

Chickadee chicks and moulting mom

Fledgling Black-capped Chickadee

We were back to Maplewood Bog today for MAPS visit #3. We’d got 20-25 captures on each of our first two visits, and were expecting something similar today, perhaps a handful more as some young start to fledge and move around. Imagine our surprise, then, when our day-end total finished up at 45 captures, more than double what we’d had the previous visit!

We had a good number of chickadees caught, including part of one family that I’d noted had been foraging in the trees near the net. On my way to check said net, I’d paused to photograph the adult birds and their youngsters in the tree canopy. Not the best angle, looking up at their bellies, but good enough for the blog. I ran off a couple dozen photos and then moved on to the net, where I found a couple of the fledglings waiting for me. They were returned to the site once they were banded, to be reunited with their family.

Fledgling Black-capped Chickadee with parent

One of the things that drew my attention to the family group was the constant chirring of the young birds. The fledglings will slightly spread and flutter their wings, and chirr at the parents to encourage them to feed them. The noisiest ones are the ones to get fed first, so natural selection has driven them to become quite noisy. I could hear them from 50 meters/yards away, begging at their parents. Since chickadees aren’t very secretive, as birds go, it didn’t take me long to find them.

Fledgling Black-capped Chickadee with parent

I watched for a bit as the parents foraged through the branches, catching food, preparing it for the young (for instance, pulling a caterpillar out of a cocoon, which is what I think the adult was doing here), and then stuffing it in their maw. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to get a photo of either of the youngsters while I was banding them, which is too bad, they’re irresistibly fluffy little birdlets, with thick yellow “lips” at the corners of their beaks (these turn into a bright yellow mouth, when the bird opens its mouth to beg – another evolutionary tactic to stimulate parents to feed them).

Moulting female Black-capped Chickadee

It was interesting to discover that our banding captures weren’t heavily biased toward young birds, as is often the case when numbers spike like that. Two-thirds of the birds we caught were adults, and while some were likely breeders that were nesting in the area, probably about half of those were likely either early orĀ  failed breeders, birds who’d already raised a brood to completion, or whose nests were predated, or who never managed to attract a mate, that were dispersing from their territories to wander around and forage while they moulted. This was one such chickadee, looking scruffy as can be with half of its feathers regrowing in.

Moulting female Black-capped Chickadee

It was a female, which I could tell by parting the feathers on her breast (done with a carefully aimed stream of air that makes the left and right feather tracts separate like the parting of the Red Sea). Females of most songbirds and some other species will lose the feathers on their bellies (either by naturally moulting them, or by plucking them) during the summer breeding season. This exposes a large patch of skin, which then becomes vascularized and cushioned with a thick pad of fluid. They use this to incubate the eggs, as having the eggs up against the skin is much more effective than trying to incubate through feathers. Once the breeding season is done they need to regrow those belly feathers, which is what you can see here.

It’s interesting to note the colours of the feathers. Although a chickadee’s belly is white, when you see it perched on a branch, only the outer half of the feather is actually white. The inner half is dark, and this is actually true of many birds. Darker feathers are structurally more dense because of the pigments contained in the barbs (just like how brunettes usually have thicker hair than blondes), so this offers the bird better insulation close to the body without sacrificing the visible plumage colouration.

Moulting female Black-capped Chickadee

This last photo is of the same bird’s leg. You can see she’s now banded – a little circlet of aluminum that sits about her ankle like a bracelet, and slides or turns as she moves her leg. But what I was really taking a photo of was her thigh. She’s dropped all of the feathers from this thigh, exposing the skin. This is really illuminating in terms of seeing how a bird’s leg works. In our own limbs, our muscles run most of the length of our bones. A short piece of tendon joins the muscle to the bone, close to whichever bone is being moved. Your biceps, for instance, runs most of the length of your upper arm, with just short pieces of tendon near your elbow and shoulder.

A bird’s leg is different. The only muscles that are used for controlling the entire leg and all of the toes are contained up near the body, in the thigh. From there, long, narrow tendons run down the entire length of the bird’s leg to connect to the particular joint they need to move. This is how birds can have such tiny, thin legs, which don’t freeze in the winter. Muscles produce a lot of heat, and if you can minimize how much muscle is contained in limbs away from the body, you can minimize your heat loss. Even better, if you can do away with muscle mass away from the body, there’s virtually no heat to be lost. A minimal amount of blood travels to the legs and feet, cooled through countercurrent circulation (arteries are lined up side-by-side with veins, so that blood that’s going down to the foot transfers its heat to the blood that’s coming back up to the body, leaving little heat still in the blood to be lost to the air when it reaches the foot). Muscle is also weighty, and birds are designed to minimize the amount of weight they carry on their body (for instance, having evolved hollow bones), so by reducing the amount of muscle necessary to operate the foot they can reduce their body weight.

Today at Kingsford – Northern Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

While visiting my new favourite property, I heard the sound of a predator being mobbed. It’s a very distinctive sound, the sound of a dozen chickadees going absolutely crazy. Chickadees are big talkers in general, usually keeping up a running chatter amongst themselves when they’re foraging. But when one stumbles onto a predator, they ramp it up a notch. In this case, the dozen chickadees were joined in by a few nuthatches, who lended a higher-pitched version of their regular nasal eenh to the cacophony.

Almost invariably when you hear that, the little songbirds have discovered themselves an owl. Owls have to roost during the day, since most are primarily nocturnal hunters, and generally try to find a spot that’s sheltered and hidden from view. During the winter, when the deciduous trees have lost most of their leaves, they usually choose conifers. By following the racket I was able to locate this individual, a Northern Saw-whet Owl, sitting in a white pine, doing her best to try to remain unperturbed by the alarm-callers. Indeed, she showed the most concern with the dog, who, oblivious of the spectacle going on above, dashed under the tree. Even that only warranted barely more than a glance. Eventually the chickadees moved out to carry on with their lives, feeling assured that they’d let that owl know its place, and Raven and I moved out to head home, leaving the owl in peace.

So the moral of the story here is, if you hear a flock of chickadees really kicking up a fuss, go check it out, they’ve probably found something good.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Birding with the baby

Birding

Yesterday morning I went out birding with Dan and Raven (who tags along not because she’s a great birder, but because she needs all the exercise we can give her to try to keep her tired out and snoozing the rest of the day, else we suffer the consequences – chewing on everything, chasing the kittens, requiring constant supervision, it’s enough to drive a parent crazy). Many mornings Dan has been going out and doing a census of the birds along our road, or at least the 1 km south of us, with the goal of building up a database of information that can be compared from one year to the next. Also, it’s a great way to track the changing seasons, the coming and going of the birds in spring and fall, and who’s nesting during the summer months. It will be a rather quiet walk during the winter months, and while I suspect he’ll continue to go out on an infrequent basis, our feeders will probably be the hub of activity during that season.

I’m more of a night owl than he is, and I find myself my most productive in the evening hours, which has the unfortunate consequence that I get involved in things and stay up much later than I really should or need to (you may notice a lot of my posts are timestamped around midnight). It also results in me rising later in the morning. Dan has been going out at an hour after sunrise to do his count. These days it’s a bit later, but he’s still usually gone by the time I get up at 9ish. He went out a tad later yesterday, and I decided to make my tea to go and tag along. If nothing else, I could control the puppy so he could have two hands for his binoculars and notepad, but I did hope to see some birds as well.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

In sharp contrast to my census of a few days ago (I got up early and went out to do it myself, and ended up with a very sparse list for my efforts), yesterday we had a good selection of birds, some 32 species total, a good tally for this time of year (at the height of migration, in a migrant trap such as Point Pelee, one might record up to 60+ species on such a census). The above Red-breasted Nuthatch was among those counted. Red-breasteds have been around virtually every day we’ve done census, but I’m pretty sure this is the first individual I’ve actually laid eyes on since we arrived here, all the others have just been heard calling from the nearby woods. I anticipate when the weather cools down a bit more we’ll start getting them coming to the feeders, but at the moment it’s only the White-breasteds that have discovered the seed.

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadees, along with the Blue Jays, goldfinches and crows, are a staple of every census. Just about every flock you encounter is going to have chickadees in it. Migrants often travel with chickadees while foraging because chickadees make good lookouts, quick to sound the alert if they spot danger, and to descend upon the trouble in a mob to encourage it to leave. There weren’t many migrants with this flock of chickadees, but I was just as happy to watch the chickadees themselves as they foraged.

This one was busy eating the seeds of whatever this plant is. It could be an aster such as a fleabane, I’m not sure. It had seeds that were attached to downy fluffs the way dandelion or milkweed seeds are. The chickadee was leaning forward from its perch to grasp one of the fluffs from a flower head, then pinning the acquired fluff under its foot while it pecked open the seed for the goods inside.

Black-capped Chickadee

It did this numerous times. It was so caught up in the abundant food source that it was mostly oblivious to me quietly sneaking up close to it. Eventually I was only about five feet away, happily snapping shots as the chickadee moved about its perch snagging seeds. The act of pinning the food under a foot reminds me a lot of a parrot or raptor. Goldfinches just use their tongue to manipulate the seed and crack off the hull with the sharp sides of their beak, but chickadees don’t have a beak strong enough, at least in thickness, to pull that off. Chickadees do, however, have very strong beaks lengthwise, which stand up to sturdy pecking, useful for excavating tree cavities, but also for removing the hulls off seeds.

White-crowned Sparrow

In the next bush over was this White-crowned Sparrow, feasting on dogwood berries. I don’t typically think of sparrows as berry-eaters, generally they’re classified as seed-eaters, and when they come to your feeder in the winter that’s what they’re looking for. However, many will also feed on berries when they’re available. There’s definitely lots of berries about; besides the dogwood, the buckthorn and grapevines are both laden, as well. Most of these will probably end up frozen on the plant, and will be eaten by overwintering birds or spring migrants, when other sources of food are hard to find.

White-crowned Sparrow

This is an adult, a bird that was a parent this summer. You can tell because of the colour of the head stripes – in young birds they’ll be brown and tan, not black and white. This is only applicable in the fall, though. By spring the young birds will have replaced all of their crown feathers with the boldly-patterned ones in preparation for breeding the coming summer. There are several subspecies of White-crowned Sparrow, primarily differentiated by the colour of their bill and whether the patch of feathers in front of their eye is black or not. Here in the east the only one we see with any regularity is the Eastern White-crowned Sparrow; all the other subspecies occur west of the plains. Occasionally we’ll get a somewhat lost Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrow come through, regularly enough to make it worth checking flocks of White-crowns for them, but I’ve personally only seen one here in the last half dozen years. In case you want to start checking your flocks, Easterns have a pinkish bill and black in front of the eye, while Gambels have an orangeish bill and grey-brown in front of the eye.

Although it’s not a White-crowned, Dan has a new painting up on his blog (and available for sale), of a White-throated Sparrow. While White-crowns, at least in Ontario, breed in the taiga north of the boreal forest and are mostly just seen on migration, the closely-related White-throats breed pretty nearly throughout the entire province. They’re often associated with “cottage country” (including our area here in the Frontenac Axis), that forests-and-lakes landscape of southern Ontario within a few easy hours’ drive of the big cities, though their highest densities are found in the boreal forest regions of northern Ontario. Check out the painting on Dan’s blog, or at its eBay listing.

Today at Kingsford

American Goldfinch and Black-capped Chickadee

I’ve had a busy few days! I was back in Toronto for a couple of them, for a semi-annual post-surgery doctor’s appointment. I’m now five years post-surgery, and they’ve finally graduated me to annual follow-ups. (For those who are curious, the surgery was to correct a potentially life-threatening condition where I had spontaneous tissue growth in my trachea, and required removal of that section of airway. It was a very formative experience in my life, and has put a lot of things in perspective and influenced me in a lot of ways. I’m appreciative of being able to breathe these days, but the follow-up appointments are still a bit of a pain.)

In addition to that, which had me away from home for two days (Toronto’s no longer just around the corner anymore!), Blackburnian’s mom was up to visit, and I’ve also been rather occupied with the new puppy. We’ve been working on housetraining her, and between that and following her around removing things from her mouth, she’s been requiring a lot of my attention (this doesn’t surprise me, but nonetheless does take up a lot of my time). We took her in to the vet today for her first shots and general vet check. She’s in great health, and was a little angel for the vet, had her nails clipped and got her vaccination without even a whimper, nevermind a fuss. We finally decided to name her Raven, after mulling it over for several days (and the only reason we settled on that now was because we needed to give the vet’s office a name). It seemed appropriate on several levels, the most superficial of course being that she’s black, and we have ravens here (whereas we didn’t back in Toronto).

So with all the goings-on I haven’t had time to formulate a full blog post, though I have a few subjects lined up that will hopefully go up over the next couple days. In the meantime, I’ve been watching the birds at our feeders. The above photo is from a few days ago. I set out the feeder a couple weeks ago, and for a while it sat full of seed, but unvisited. After a bit a chickadee found it, and has been visiting it regularly since. I was pretty pleased to have some bird traffic, but not unsurprised to see that the chickadee was the first to arrive. Perhaps a week or so later, I saw this goldfinch join him at the feeder. In fact, there were two goldfinches, apparently both females; I have never been so excited to see a goldfinch. Admittedly, it was just a matter of time till they showed up, but I was still pleased.

American Goldfinch male and fledglings

Today I noticed a male visiting the feeder. He was in heavy moult, and looking a little ratty in the rainy weather. With him were two recently-fledged juveniles, still tagging along after daddy begging for food. It was fairly obvious that they were fledglings, for one because they would sit beside him fluttering their wings like crazy, and for two because they were chirping and chirping away. It was all the noise they were making that first drew my attention to the window. Dad was quiet, so far as I could tell. It’s about the right time for young goldfinches to be leaving the nest, birds whose eggs were laid back at the beginning of August.

American Goldfinch male and fledglings

Dad spent a lot of time ignoring the youngsters, content to pick through the sunflower seeds while they cheeped away nearby. Eventually they figured out that he wasn’t going to offer them any food, and started poking around on their own. The one on the left figured the feeder out pretty quickly, the one on the right was a little slower to pick up on it. That didn’t stop Lefty from begging from Dad as soon as he happened to look his way, however. Isn’t that sort of what human teenagers do?

American Goldfinch male and fledglings

Righty, still hoping for a handout, Lefty munching away happily on a seed. Besides just their behaviour, however, it’s also obvious they’re young birds for another reason. Although Dad’s wings are looking pretty worn down these days, the tips to his feathers are a crisp white. Mom’s wings would also show white edging. Baby’s feathers, however, have a tan or buff edging to them. This is especially clear in the wing-bars. They’ll retain that colour throughout the winter, so you can pick out the adults from the young-of-the-year when watching the goldfinches at your feeders this winter.