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.

A birding interlude

Pine Warbler

I’ve been very busy this week, it feels like I’ve barely been home. I returned to my parents’ on Monday, and remained there till Wednesday morning, whereupon I headed out for a dentist appointment. Fortunately this was just to have some routine x-rays done and a couple other similarly benign procedures, so it wasn’t a terrible trip. Then yesterday Blackburnian and I headed off to his mom’s place for the afternoon and stayed overnight to do some mothing. We returned home late this morning, and I’ve spent most of the morning photographing and subsequently editing the photos of the moths we got. I’ll have some catching up to do this weekend on various projects, tasks and chores that were put on hold while I’ve been away this week.

I’ve been trying to contribute to I and the Bird on a regular basis, but realized when the deadline came up for this edition that I hadn’t actually posted anything about birds since before the previous edition (which are semi-monthly). This is a little strange considering how birds are my primary interest, but I suspect part of it has just been a lack of good photos or notable observations. I haven’t had a lot of chance to just go out and stalk some birds – either the weather’s been not-so-hot or I’ve been busy trying to complete a survey and couldn’t dawdle with the camera.

However, while at my parents’ this week I decided to take my camera and go out to track down a couple of warblers I’ve heard singing for a while, despite the rather overcast skies that makes getting good photos near impossible. I headed up to the woodsy area behind the barn where the birds have been singing for a couple weeks. I gave a few good pishes and the birds came right in. The first one to give me a good look was the above Pine Warbler, which flew right to the open branches above my head and, after a minute or two of checking me out, began to sing. He’s an annual resident there, the first warbler to arrive in spring, his musical trill a constant from the huge White Pines in the forest behind the house.

Mourning Warbler

The other warbler was this Mourning Warbler, who was much more reluctant to come forward and be seen. This is the first time I can recall a Mourning being at my parents’. They do breed throughout southern Ontario, but I’ve never encountered them there before. Most of my breeding Mourning experiences date back to when I worked for the Toronto Zoo some eight years ago. Mournings are among my favourite warblers, so I was very pleased to discover that the bird I’d heard last week was still hanging about the same spot this week. I’d expected he was likely just a migrant, present for a few days while he fueled up, but he seems to have actually set up shop back there. I wonder if he has a girl.

Common Yellowthroat

After the dentist appointment I was feeling ravenous, and decided to stop by Tim Horton’s on my way home to grab some lunch. The Tim’s store isn’t a very exciting place to eat, though, so I thought I’d find a spot out on one of the backroads in the countryside somewhere where I could pull over and listen to the birds. The spot I chose was a little dead-end road not far off the highway (I could still hear the roar of the highway traffic, though it was muffled by a lot of trees), where they’d run the end of the road through a small, thick swamp. I parked the car and opened the door, and the first bird I heard was this bright male Common Yellowthroat singing virtually right beside the car. I grabbed my camera and snuck over to where he was singing and pished him in. Like the Pine Warbler, as soon as he’d determined that there was nothing to worry about (which didn’t take him long) he returned to singing from within the thicket, his head thrown back and his chest all puffed out, hormones raging, I’m sure.

Baltimore Oriole

Another colourful bird to come in when I pished was this striking Baltimore Oriole. I don’t often get orioles to show much interest in me, so that was interesting. I also don’t tend to associate orioles with swamps, although they are often in riparian areas. They’re fairly common around here, but are more often heard than seen. It’s funny that such a brilliantly-coloured bird can be so difficult to spot. While at my parents’ I don’t see the male all that often, except when he comes to the oriole nectar feeder my mom has out.

American Goldfinch

And finally, a yellow bird. There were a couple of Yellow Warblers in the swamp with the oriole and yellowthroat, but I wasn’t able to get one to come down close enough for a decent shot. I did, however, get this other yellow bird, a sunny American Goldfinch. There seemed to be a small flock of goldfinches in the area, and they’d always respond when I pished at various points along the road. Goldfinches are late breeders, waiting for the thistles and other plants to go to seed and using the fluff to line their nests and the seeds to feed their young. They often won’t start building nests till late June or early July, when many other birds have already raised and fledged broods of young. So this group of birds I encountered were all still just hanging about, not having established territories yet (although two or three pairs may also nest in the same general area, in a loose colony).

It was nice to do a bit of visual birding where I wasn’t making tallies for each species (as I am for the surveys I’m doing). I find when I’m at my parents’ I’m often caught up in other things and tend to bird by ear, identifying what’s around based on what I’m hearing, but not actually going out to look for the singers.