Start of the season


Contrary to the forecast made for yesterday, the weather wasn’t actually all that bad. While there was rain in the city, by the time I drove the ten minutes down to the spit, there was no rain down on the lakeshore, and there was even some patches of blue sky struggling to show through the blanket of grey cloud. It’s a funny thing about the research station, that the weather conditions that affect the city can often be quite different than what’s happening out on the spit. Usually, it’s that it’s raining, sometimes heavily, in the city with little to no precipitation on the lake. Strange.

Today dawned clear, beautiful and sunny, but c-c-cold. Well, for this time of year. It was -5 celcius when we arrived at the crack of dawn, about 6:30am. It took until 9:30 for it to warm up to 0 degrees. Ordinarily we would open the mist nets half an hour before sunrise, and run for 6 hours, but both yesterday and today, due to weather, we opened halfway through the morning and put in just a half day’s worth of effort.

American Tree Sparrow

The first bird banded of the spring season was this impatient American Tree Sparrow (can you see the look he’s giving me? “Are you done there yet, missy?”). After my comments about expecting migrants to be late this year, they all seemed to come in on the warm front Monday night. We had Golden-crowned Kinglets and Eastern Phoebes, in good numbers. Song Sparrows, juncos, a few Brown Creepers. A Winter Wren was around, as was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a Belted Kingfisher, all firsts for the spring.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

We totaled a huge 41 species on the morning, which I think is more than any other opening day in past years. One of the birds present was this little Northern Saw-whet Owl. They’re not often seen in the spring, so it was a real delight to find. Saw-whets are funny migrants, they come through in largeish numbers in the fall, spread out for the winter, and then seem to just disappear come spring. We run a saw-whet owl monitoring program in the fall which is pretty successful (we banded over 300 owls last fall), but don’t run in the spring because there’s no owls around to band!


The trails are still partially covered in snow. This photo was from yesterday, and the rain and wind yesterday helped to melt some of it, but there’s still some left yet to go. It can be a little bleak down there on cloudy days in late fall or early spring, with the grey skies and empty trees. The trees take a while to leaf out, longer than on the shore, because of cooler temperatures due to lake effects. We can just be seeing the start of greening when trees are already well-progressed in town. The dogwoods really help add a pop of colour to the landscape there. I’m going to try to do a once-a-week photo series documenting the greening of the station this spring.

American Woodcock

As I was leaving yesterday, this woodcock wandered across the road in front of my car. Naturally, I had my camera already packed away, and of course it had the short lens on it. So while it was a rare opportunity to see a woodcock out in the open, this was the best shot I could manage. I love these birds, they’re so bizarre-looking! They’ve been doing their beautiful twittery sky-flights in the mornings when we arrive, I wish it was brighter when they do it so that I could capture some of it to film, but they only fly at dusk and dawn.

I’ve been busy lately, wrapped up in an interesting and hopefully promising project that will hopefully be the subject of some future post if it all works out, so haven’t had much time for research – I’ve got a small backlog of such photos that I need to get to. It’s amazing to me how much there’s been to talk about during the winter, the months that I figured would be the hardest to fill… My camera will be overflowing when life really starts stirring in a few weeks!

Song Sparrow

On your mark… get set…

Western Palm Warbler

The last day of March, and this morning found me down at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station, helping to set up the site for the start of another fabulous spring migration season. The research station’s primary goals are to collect data on local and migratory bird populations to aid with conservation efforts here and afar, to promote awareness of birds and conservation through education programs and demonstrations, and to contribute to research initiatives by helping to collect data or providing a location or means for someone else to do so.

The primary, and initial, project run by the research station, through which these objectives are achieved, is the migration monitoring program. It involves constant-effort bird banding and surveys (that is, we’re out there every single morning for the entire migration period, weather permitting), which provides data on bird population numbers and demographics, including information such as adult:young and male:female ratios in the population, stuff that can’t be easily (or sometimes at all) obtained through non-banding means but that gives you an idea of, for instance, how successful the breeding season was this year. There are some 25 or so similar stations across Canada, each contributing valuable data to fill in their local piece of the puzzle. The birds are banded, measurements collected, and then safely released to return to their regular activities. The Palm Warbler in the top photo popped nearly straight up out of the hand before taking off for the nearby trees.

Yellow-throated Warbler

I’ve been volunteering since 2003. I love being down there, and would happily volunteer all season if I had some other means of making ends meet (who’s seen/read About A Boy? perhaps all I need to do is write a hit holiday song and I’ll be set). I like seeing who’s about every day, watching the migration ebb and flow across the season, the composition of species progressing and changing from week to week. On a daily basis, I like turning the corner to check a net, not knowing what we’ll find this time around. We’ve had some marvelous surprises show up, such as the above Yellow-throated Warbler, the only bird of this species I’ve seen (they’re normally more southerly in range).

Orange-crowned Warbler

I love the opportunity to hold such fragile, but beautiful, life in my hands, to feel the wonder of it. I enjoy seeing the birds up close, at a distance where you can marvel at the intricate feather patterns or subtle plumage details often lost in the field. Who’s seen the orange crown of an Orange-crowned Warbler? I have, but only with the bird in my hand. And who’s paid much attention to a Mourning Dove’s face, the subtle colours of the eye ring, the bright pink at the corner of its mouth, the small patch of iridescence on its neck? But you get a chance to see this when you study the bird up close.

Mourning Dove

Yes, I’m looking forward to returning. Ironically, tomorrow, the first day of banding, has been rained out (we don’t run in conditions that would threaten the welfare of the birds, though surveys are still a go – we’re less concerned about our own comfort). So we’ll be starting on Wednesday instead.

The setup this morning went smoothly, but was quiet for birds. We had a group of a dozen chickadees moving back and forth through the area, and there were some blackbirds and a few grackles that flew overhead throughout the morning, but not much moving in yet. Perhaps this warm spell will encourage some more movement from the south. Hermit Thrush, American Tree Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, perhaps even Eastern Phoebe or Ruby-crowned Kinglet – they should all be around in the first week during a normal season, but the unusually cold weather might delay their arrival this year.

The park and station are open to the public on weekends and holidays, and anybody in the Toronto area who’s interested is invited to swing by Tommy Thompson Park on the Leslie Street Spit, and drop in during a spring or fall morning to check us out, learn about what we’re doing, and get a chance to see a little bird up close and personal.

Golden-crowned Kinglet