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.

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.

Dogwood

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……

Hiking the Rouge

Rouge Valley

Today was Family Day here in Ontario, a newly-created holiday courtesy of our provincial premiere, who believed that the unbroken stretch between New Year’s Day and Easter was just too long for an employee to reasonably have to suffer through. This was the first year the new holiday has been in effect, and there’s still some kinks to be ironed out. Federal employees such as postal workers and some unionized groups were on the job today because the holiday hasn’t been negotiated into their contracts.

Rouge Valley

Blackburnian had the day off today, however, and I’m basically self-employed at the moment and take whatever days I want off, so we decided this afternoon to take advantage of the mild temperatures and head out to the Rouge Valley, out in the east near the Toronto Zoo. Back when I was in university I had a job for a couple summers inventorying the birds of the Rouge Park. It was very informal, I basically spent the summer hiking around as I pleased, trying to cover everywhere but not following any sort of rigorous protocol. It was a fabulous job, and I have a very fond spot for the Rouge because of my time spent there getting to know it and its birds. Despite this, I’ve rarely been back since then, and I’d never been there in winter.

Rouge Valley

The top photo is an image of the valley, taken from the top of a high bluff overlooking the Rouge River. Blackburnian’s standing at the top of the cliff, to give you a sense of scale. This isn’t a little bluff that you’re going to shimmy down to the water. The Rouge Valley contains two primary rivers, the Rouge and the Little Rouge, which joins it. This is the Little Rouge. Doesn’t look so little here, but the Rouge is a bit wider and deeper. Most of the river is upland forest, but there’s the odd patch of wetland here and there.

Civilization in the distance

The Rouge is a gorgeous, mature woodland through most of the Park’s valleys, and it can be easy to lose yourself among the extensive habitat. However, reminders of the city next door are hard to ignore. On the horizon are apartment buildings and rooftops. The trails run 1.6 km along either side of the river, between two roads. Road noise from the city carries the short distance into the park. People come out here to walk their dogs, and many of the dog owners don’t pick up after their pets.

Signs of people

Or themselves.

Rouge Valley

But the scenery is beautiful. The trails cover a number of different habitats, starting in scrubby meadow at the edge of the woods, passing through a powerline corridor, and then entering into mature upland forest. It’s a mixed deciduous-coniferous forest, with the evergreen component mostly hemlock. The trees here are no western Red Cedars, but put in perspective are pretty impressive themselves.

Hermit Thrush

We didn’t see many birds. Of course, winter birding is like that, very hit-or-miss and sparse even when there’s hits. This guy was the indisputable highlight of the outing. A Hermit Thrush, very out of place in the Toronto snow. Seeing a Hermit in the Toronto area isn’t unusual, per se, but it’s certainly very uncommon. This is the first one I’ve seen around here in the winter. Virtually all Hermits leave the province for the winter, though they don’t go far and may winter in the northeastern states.

Hermit Thrush with Black Cherry berry

This guy had found himself a stash of Black Cherry berries. I didn’t even notice the cherries until I saw him pop one. I watched him eat three or four before a movement I made, possibly shifting my weight or adjusting the camera, startled him and he flew off to a nearby hemlock.

Black cherry fruit

Frozen berries such as these are a large component in many overwintering birds’ diets. Two species of northern birds (Pine Grosbeak and Bohemian Waxwing) will feed pretty much exclusively on frozen berries such as crabapple, chokecherry, buckthorn, hawthorn, etc. There seemed to be a fair bit of Black Cherry in the forest, which should give the Hermit Thrush lots to eat.

Flock of robins

The first group of birds we came across were these robins, perhaps 20 of them. Nearly all robins leave the Toronto area in the winter, too, although in recent years increasingly more will stick around through the winter and feed on frozen berries in the woods as well as urban gardens. Another great reason to plant berry-bearing bushes!

Pished off Black-capped Chickadees

We found a few groups of chickadees foraging in cedar stands along the floodplain of the river. Blackburnian pished at all of them, but these were the only group to respond strongly. They were seriously pished off! You can even see the right one yelling, “dee-dee-dee-dee-dee!” Chickadees drop the “chick-a” from their call when they’re responding to perceived threats or dangers. Some research has suggested the number of “dee”s is correlated with the seriousness of the threat, with more meaning a greater danger.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

This Red-breasted Nuthatch pished in with one of the flocks of chickadees. It was the fourth and final species of the outing. I was thinking as we were leaving that it wasn’t a great diversity or abundance of birds, and would’ve made for a very lacklustre Christmas Bird Count. I loved the haziness of the periphery of this image created by peeking through a gap in the foliage.

We walked nearly 4 km on very uneven, slippery trails (not groomed trails, so they were simply packed down by many feet, and every step you were trying not to slide). It’s the furthest I’ve walked since the fall, I’m pretty sure, and the addition of the trail condition means we’ll probably be feeling achey legs tomorrow! Ah, but it was good to get out.

Colour-coding chickadees

Edit: This post was recently included in the 69th edition of I and the Bird, a blog carnival focusing on, you guessed it, birds. You can check out the full edition at Living the Scientific Life.

Colour-banded Black-capped Chickadee

Yesterday afternoon Blackburnian and I went out birding in a tract of woods near Paris, Ontario. It wasn’t a large patch, but was still perhaps 8 or 10 acres, and we spent some time wandering through it. There was very little activity in most of it, which is typical of woodlands in the winter. Although in spring and early summer the woods can be alive with birdsong, once the migrants depart in the fall there are very few birds left that favour that sort of habitat. Woodpeckers, chickadees in small flocks, perhaps the odd tree sparrow or junco in the scrubby bits if you’re lucky. But pretty quiet.

Northern Cardinal

The best places to see birds in the winter is near a feeder, which is part of the reason I don’t do a lot of birding in the wintertime – when all the birds are coming to you, where you can view them from the comfort of your home, why go out into the cold to wander around an empty woodland? Of course, there’s lots else to see in the woods, but I usually reserve those outings for warmer days with lovely weather. The place we were at yesterday had a section of boardwalk where a few feeders had been set up, and kept regularly stocked. Although they were visited predominantly by Black-capped Chickadees, there were also Dark-eyed Juncos, American Tree Sparrows, Northern Cardinals and both Red- and White-breasted Nuthatches visiting them.

Feeding the chickadees

Like at a lot of parks with bird-feeding trails, the chickadees and nuthatches had learned to come to people’s outstretched hands to pick up seed. This is an absolute delight for small children, and even for adults there’s some magic in a wild creature coming to your hand with enough trust to take a bite of food. Although we hadn’t thought to bring any seed with us, we borrowed a few seeds from one of the feeders and offered them to the chickadees. And the chickadees were quite happy to take them.

Colour-banded Black-capped Chickadee

Just nearby is Wrigley Corners Outdoor Education Centre. As part of their education and research programs, they have been banding the chickadees that come to the feeders here in the park. They use a combination of bands, both silver aluminum and coloured plastic ones, to create a unique colour combination that can be easily visually identified at a distance. This allows you to follow individual birds to learn more about their behaviour patterns and movements. No two birds in a study are ever given the same band combination, unless it’s known the previous owner of a combination is deceased. Band colours are read from top to bottom, with the bird’s left leg first, then the right. So the bird at the top of this post would be Red-Orange:Silver-Green. The above bird would be Silver-Pink:Blue-Blue.

Colour-banded Black-capped Chickadee

Here Silver-Red:Yellow-Yellow surveys the proffered seeds before coming down. The bands circle the bird’s leg much the way you or I would wear a watch, or a bracelet; they aren’t attached to the bird’s body, and they cause it no discomfort or inconvenience. Although it takes the bird a few minutes to get used to this new addition, it quickly moves on with foraging for food, or whatever else is on its daily agenda, and isn’t bothered by it again.

Colour-banded Black-capped Chickadee

And, as you can tell by these birds still coming to peoples’ hands, the process of having the band put on hasn’t caused them any real distress. Most birds are banded and measured, and then safely released within a minute or two. In addition to the coloured bands, the silver band has a 9-digit number that also uniquely identifies the bird in a national database, should it ever decide to wander and someone else encounters it. This number is also useful for identifying birds without colour bands if they’re captured again (it’s too small to read from afar on most birds), and particularly for migrant birds that may turn up somewhere else on the continent.

Colour-banded Black-capped Chickadee

Colour bands are most often used on studies of birds on territory; that is, birds that aren’t moving around a lot. By banding the breeding birds of a particular species in a forest plot, say, you can track how many individuals there are, who owns what territory, what males are mating with what females, how far birds are foraging from their nests, and other interesting and valuable information. The data collected from such projects is used in making decisions about conservation practices to protect the birds and the habitats they live in. Similar studies take place with birds on their wintering grounds. Even though we didn’t spend a lot of time with them yesterday, we were still able to make some observations, such with as the above bird, Red-Orange:Silver-Green. In the above photo, s/he (both sexes look the same) was about 20 metres down the trail from where the first photo of the post was taken. Ordinarily I would probably have thought they were a completely different set of birds, but obviously they were moving around the area – seeing if other peoples’ offerings were any better, I guess!

Winter bird irruptions

Common Redpoll

I have more to add to the winter colours theme of the last couple of posts, but feel like a change of pace today. I haven’t done any posts yet about birds, which is a little surprising given that birds are really my primary interest in nature (first birds, everything else second). So here’s a post on birds.

This winter, southern Ontario, and indeed most of northeastern North America, is enjoying a phenomenon called “irruption”. An irruption is similar to migration in birds, but takes place irregularly, usually every two to four years (depending on the species), rather than every year. Most irruptions are the result of food shortages in the areas where the birds usually spend their winters. Because the birds can’t find sufficient food there, they start to move south in large numbers. In many of these species, small numbers may be seen every winter, but an irruption is marked by a great abundance of the species south of its usual range. This winter seed crops, especially of deciduous trees, did very poorly in much of the north, resulting in low food availability for most seed-eating species.

The above photo is of a Common Redpoll, named for the red cap on its head, a regular irruptive species that usually comes south into southern Ontario and the northeastern states every couple of years. On their wintering grounds, redpolls feed primarily on the catkins of birch and alder trees. In a year of poor catkin production, redpolls will begin to move out of their regular range in search of an area with good food availability. In the south, this is often in the form of bird feeders. Redpolls love nyger seed (thistle seed), and will swarm nyger feeders in large numbers. They’re rarely seen in small numbers or individually, and flocks can reach 40 or 50, to upwards of 100 birds. This year is a bigger year for redpolls.

PISI1

Another frequently seen irruptive species is the Pine Siskin. This year they seem to have carried on through southern Ontario to places further south, but in some years they can be just as, or often more, numerous at the feeders than the redpolls. Siskins depend on evergreen cone seeds, but are also enthusiastic visitors to nyger seed feeders. Although they’re not very flashy, they can be distinguished from some other brown, streaky finches by their sharp, narrow beak (not well seen in this photo), and the yellow tints to their wing feathers.

Pine Grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings have also been reported in large numbers this winter. I haven’t had a chance to go out to look for either, yet, unfortunately. The last time I saw a Pine Grosbeak was some four or five years ago, and the only ones I’ve seen in Ontario were at the University of Guelph, back when I was a student there. They’ve been reported there again this year. That gives you an idea of the frequency of their irruptions this far south. I’ve never had the luck to see a Bohemian Waxwing, although I’ve gone looking for them.

RBNU4

These aren’t the only species that come south in years of low food availability. Red-breasted Nuthatches are seen periodically in larger numbers, and this year they moved out early in the fall, to destinations further south. My parents have one coming to their feeder this winter, however, and they’re usually gone by mid-fall. Black-capped Chickadees are usually year-round residents on their territories, but in years of good breeding success (that is, lots of babies!) coupled with poor winter food supply, large numbers of primarily young birds will move south looking for food. Chickadees moving through in the fall was slightly elevated this year, but 2005 was the biggest movement over the last few years. Blue Jays will also irrupt in larger numbers some years than others. We had a moderate movement this year, but the best year since I’ve been keeping track was probably 2003.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Seed-eaters aren’t the only group of birds that undergo periodic irruptions. The seed shortages that cause birds to move also affect rodent populations in those areas, which depend heavily on seeds as their food source. In years of poor seed crops, rodent populations suffer sharp declines (often called “population crashes”). This year rodent populations had an especially severe crash, as last year’s seed crop had been good, encouraging a good breeding season this summer. That breeding success was followed by this fall’s seed shortage, causing a precipitous decline in numbers.

Birds that prey on rodents, such as owls, tend to follow their population cycles fairly closely. Because rodents were so abundant, owl populations, particularly the Northern Saw-whet Owl (pictured above), had a very successful breeding season. When rodent populations crashed this fall saw-whets began moving south in huge numbers. Saw-whets usually follow a four year cycle, where every fourth year their rodent prey, Red-backed Vole, peaks in number and so does their population. Saw-whets are naturally migratory and will move south every year, but the numbers encountered in the south vary according to the size of the movement. The combination of high saw-whet numbers due to this year’s breeding success and the low prey availability because of poor seed crops resulted in a larger-than-normal movement of saw-whets this fall.

GGOW

Great Gray Owls follow a similar pattern, although they usually only move as far as they need to to find food, which means they don’t often make it as far south as most human communities. A bird of northern Ontario, they often just move to another part of the north when prey shortages occur, since such shortages are often regional in nature, although small numbers are usually seen as far south as cottage country every winter. A few years ago, in the winter of 2004-5, a huge movement of these beautiful northern owls occurred in southern Ontario, and I had the opportunity to get out and see several. They’re the only ones I’ve seen.

Another species of owl that comes south every year, but can move in larger numbers some years, is Snowy Owl. There’s usually one bird that winters at Tommy Thompson Park (home of the research station, and as close to a backyard as I have here in the city) every year, although I haven’t seen reports of it this year. However, in years of larger movements, such as 2005-6, many Snowy Owls can be seen in a relatively small area (of suitable habitat, of course). The photo below was taken on Amherst Island, near Kingston, where we had up to 13 individuals during one day.

SNOW3