Fowl-weather restaurant

Hairy Woodpecker

I wouldn’t say that there had necessarily been a lull at the feeders, per se, during the warmer temperatures, but certainly activity was a bit decreased for those few days as birds found it easier to find their own food out in the woods. With the return of the snow yesterday, the feeders were back to normal, bustling with birds looking for easy food. Most of the birds blend in with one another, with no one individual really standing out. The species that we don’t get very many of, however, like the nuthatches, are more likely the same individual visiting frequently (in the case of the Red-breasted Nuthatches, we’re pretty sure there’s only two, and one has the black crown of the male, while the other is a female sporting her grayish crown, which makes it easy to tell them apart).

There are a couple of individuals that we banded a little earlier in the winter and who are continuing to come round to the feeders. One of them is this male Hairy Woodpecker. I haven’t noticed the banded female recently, but this male is a regular. Here he is proudly displaying his jewelry while he checks out the activity at the nyger feeders (he eventually left without trying the seed).

Feisty siskin

Another is this banded siskin, the only banded siskin that I’ve noticed still hanging around (though Dan indicated he thought there might be two). The others have most likely headed north already, given their fat levels when we caught them. Even the couple of banded redpolls I’d observed for the first little while after they were captured have now disappeared, leaving just this lonely individual still hanging out at the feeders. It can’t be that s/he’s having trouble finding enough food to put on the fat, because s/he dominates the feeders. Just as feisty as always, she (or he) reaches up to take a nip at an offending redpoll.

Redpoll party

It’s been hanging-room-only at the feeders the last couple days, as the snow arrived and birds started scrambling for food. They’ve been plowing through the seed, easily going through half a tube’s worth over the course of a frenzied day. I wonder just how much food each bird actually ingests during all this squabbling. Obviously some will get more than others, but it seems like half their time is spent shooing others away, rather than just sitting and eating.

Redpoll group

When not at the feeder, those birds that turn their beaks up at foraging on the ground will wait their turns on the surrounding branches. There’s easily just as many, or more, birds lined up along the twigs as there are on the feeder itself. I love the collection of little red caps and yellow beaks against the browns and grays of the winter landscape.

Keeping an eye out

At one point something went overhead and all the birds at the feeder went stock-still, except for their heads which they rotated sideways to point an eye up at the sky. I’m not sure what it was they spotted – it could have been a hawk, after all we had that Sharpie around a little while ago. It could have been a raven soaring over, looking hawk-like in profile as it cruised overhead; certainly we’ve had plenty of those about during the winter. Possibly a Red-tailed Hawk, moving low overhead. I’ve seen one or two around over the course of the winter, though it would be unlikely they’d come down to the feeders. If we were closer to a flight path I might suggest it could even have been an airplane, but we hardly ever see them through here, and when we do it’s pretty easy to hear the engines as they pass by.

Hoary Redpoll

Our male Hoary that we spotted earlier in the winter has apparently hung about, and was active at the feeders the last couple of days. Either that, or it’s a different individual. Either way, he was a nice addition to the feeder crowd. He stood out from the rest, even though he didn’t look quite as pale as the one from earlier. Redpolls only have a single moult to replace their feathers, in the fall, rather than the two that most songbirds have. They acheive their breeding plumage through the gradual wearing-off of the pale feather tips over the course of the winter, exposing the rosy underneath. This process would also expose the brown on his back, probably an advantage during the breeding season when white isn’t as common a colour in the landscape, and would result in him looking paler earlier in the winter than now.

Hoary Redpoll

His pure-white undertail coverts and thin, sparse flank streaking were give-aways, as was the stubby bill when he turned his head. The other thing that jumped out about this individual was his gorgeous rosy breast on a fluffy white background. When he perched on the branches away from the feeder, it was easy to spot him, he had considerably more pink to his chest than the Commons did.

There are two subspecies of Hoary Redpoll. The one that most people probably think of, the stereotyped pale Hoary, is C.h. hornemanni, which has very reduced pink to the breast. It breeds in the Northwest Territories and winters from Michigan to Maryland. The other subspecies, C.h. exilipes, is a little more common, breding from Alaska to Labrador, and wintering right across the continent from Oregon to Maryland.

This latter subspecies isn’t as pale as the first, and, according to the “bander’s bible” which gives the moult details for every age and sex of every species, in the adult male exilipes “the pink of the underparts [is] deep, usually covering most of the breast.” Interestingly, that contradicts his statement later on in the species account where he says the “breast and rump with a light to moderate pink wash”. I just read this latter statement at first and was thoroughly confused about what appeared to be a heavily-marked Hoary, until I read the subspecies description.

This may be my last redpoll post; they’ll be departing soon, headed back to the shrubby tundra lowlands across northern Canada. We can probably expect to enjoy another couple of weeks of them gobbling nyger seed before they’re gone – at least till next winter.

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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

One amongst the redpolls

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I had the coolest experience today. Just after lunch, I took a break from scraping old caulking off the sides of the bathtub in the washroom my parents are renovating to wander outside with a new close-up lens (really more like a filter, or a magnifying glass) I picked up today for my camera. I was excited about the new lens and wanted to test it out, so I pulled on my toque and mitts and cozy down jacket and stepped out to brave the -8oC weather.

I started out by going around to the back garden, looking for seedheads or other interesting things to photograph. I paused to take a picture of an old vine flower that resembled a daddy-longlegs with too many limbs, then another of a coneflower with a tophat of snow. As I was standing there a handful of Common Redpolls flew into the crabapple tree on the far side of the garden, clearly intending to come down to the feeders once the coast was clear.

redpolls

How many birds can you count?

They looked pretty perched in the bare branches, set against the dark green of the spruce trees behind, so I took the filter off the front of the camera and started taking a few shots. And then, as I stood there, a few more swooped in, and then a few more, and then in a chittering flurry of wings the whole flock swooped down to the nyjer feeders, not six feet away from me.

I stood stock-still. The redpolls were a little jumpy, and every minute or two they’d all take off again with a swoosh to perch in the branches of the crabapple. They’d stay there for about 20 or 30 seconds, and then come back down when they felt sure whatever perceived threat wasn’t actually. They were so close, I actually had to zoom out to get all the birds in the flock into the frame.

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Redpolls are a very pushy bunch. They squabble over perches at the feeders, often chasing each other off when there aren’t enough perches to go around. With this flock there were probably about 60 birds who had to share two 8-perch nyjer feeders. Most of the birds ended up on the ground under the feeders searching the hull litter for seeds, but a lucky few had the luxury of sitting beside a constant supply of unhulled seeds.

Common Redpolls

They’ll even turn upside down on their perches to snap at their neighbour if they feel he’s getting too close.

redpolls4

And they’re not afraid to physically push somebody off if they feel they can get away with it.

Common Redpolls

There were a few birds in the flock that stood out as unusual. A number of adult males, with their gorgeous rosy-pink breasts, were in the flock, but this one in particular caught my eye. A real uber-male, with a deep rosy wash through most of his feathers and even rosy on his rump, where most adult males are simply pale. I think this male might be of the “Greenland” subspecies (they breed on Greenland and a couple of the northern Canadian islands), rather than the usual “mainland” subspecies. The Greenland birds are on the whole larger, browner and stockier. And possibly rosier in adult males, too, from the looks of this bird. There were a few Greenland birds in the flock, but this was the only adult male I noticed.

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Many of the characteristics of the below bird lead me to think it may be a Hoary Redpoll, a very closely related species to the Common. Hoaries tend to breed a little further north, although their range overlaps, and both species are far north relative to here. Hoaries average paler (can be subtle in first-winter birds), with thinner streaking, fewer markings on the undertail coverts and rump, and a shorter, stubbier bill. This one has all the markings except the bill isn’t noticably stubby (a good side-by-side comparison is shown here).

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I stood out there among the redpolls for perhaps 20 minutes, watching them squabble, and come and go, and come again. I was there long enough for my legs and fingers to start to go numb (but my upper body was nice and toasty in the wonderful down jacket I got for Christmas). I was there long enough for the redpolls to start to ignore my casual movements. I could turn to look from one feeder to the other without flushing them, or shift my weight from one foot to the other, shuffle to reorient my body, lift my camera to my eye. In fact, I was buzzed a couple times, and one bird even perched for two or three seconds on the hand holding my camera to my face, before flying over to try for a perch. It was only three or four inches from my eye! I was reluctant to go back in, but in the interest of avoiding frostbite, and because there was still lots of work to be done indoors, I waited for the flock to return to the trees and then slowly turned and headed back inside.

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.

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