Birds, passing through

Signs of autumn: changing leaves and birds

It can be hard to get out of a habit once you’ve become established in it. Blackburnian, ever the biologist, a couple weeks ago set up a semi-formal survey route along the road from our house to the meadow of this post. He’s not content to just simply bird – he likes to track things, record his data and be able to look back on it to compare. This was quite suitably fulfilled through the daily surveys that are part of the regular operations of a migration monitoring station, which he’s been a part of for many years. Prior to getting into that, though, he maintained a route at his parents’, and now, has established one here.


Even back then, there was this fabulous site called eBird. Today it’s grown and exists in several incarnations, our Canadian version being, the Americans still using Effectively a citizen science project, eBird encourages birders to keep track of what they’re seeing on their outings and submit the observations to the site. With the addition of location and some effort data such as date, timespan, number of observers, area covered, etc, the information can be a valuable snapshot of what’s being seen where, when. When pooled together, the data form a bigger picture of trends at a larger scale. Needless to say, rather than languishing in a notebook on a shelf, all our data is being submitted to eBird. The site also has tools for users that summarize your observations for you so you don’t have to do it by hand on your computer, or by flipping through notebooks, pretty handy.

Brown Thrasher

It’s also good motivation to get up early and go out birding. Yesterday I did “census”, following the prescribed 1 kilometer route for the prescribed 1 hour window. It’s interesting to note what you see, and how it changes from day to day. Blackburnian had done the survey the day before, and even from one day to the next our observations varied considerably. Most notably, he had a Sora, which he flushed from the edge of the little marshy bit when he stepped off the road to avoid a car; I did not. On the other hand, I had a trio of Brown Thrashers, including this one, who sat on the branch for a minute or two preening his breast feathers; he did not. That Sora, and these thrashers, were probably long gone today, continuing on with their long journey. For all I know that same Brown Thrasher could be roosting in a hedgerow in Pennsylvania right now.

Scarlet Tanager male

Another difference between the two days was in the number of Scarlet Tanagers. A breeder in deciduous woodlands, I have no doubt that these birds will be exceedingly common come next spring, but now that everyone’s dispersed, moving around, and even starting to move out, happening upon them can be hit or miss. Blackburnian missed, but I hit. I tallied ten during my walk, most of which were all in the same flock (the same flock that contained the thrashers; that flock was hoppin’). This particular tanager is a male. Young-of-the-year males start off with the same yellow plumage as the females, while older males lose their red in the fall to become yellow. How can I tell it’s a male, then? Males always still have their black wings; females have brownish wings. I saw one male in the flock that was mottled red and yellow, halfway through his fall moult, but the rest of the birds were straight yellow.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak male

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is another species where the males lose their gaudy plumage in the fall, opting for the more cryptic streaky browns of the female. So far this fall I’ve more often heard than seen them. Although they’re no longer singing, the Rose-breasteds, and their cousins the Black-headed Grosbeaks of the west, have very distinctive call notes that always remind me of the squeak of a rubber-soled shoe on a gymnasium floor. Really, you can’t mistake that for anything else, so you don’t necessarily need to see them. I was lucky to see this guy, though. And yes, I know it’s male, despite its brown plumage. Male grosbeaks have pink “underarms”, while those of the female are yellow or, occasionally, salmon. When this one flew off, his were pink.

Black-throated Blue female

This one’s a female Black-throated Blue Warbler. As with the tanagers, the “Blues”, as I call them, are dramatically sexually dimorphic, with the male and female having substantially different plumages. This female has neither a black throat nor is blue, characteristics of the male. When the species was first discovered and described, they were actually thought to belong to two different species because of their total lack of resemblence to one another. However, there is one characteristic they both share, and that’s the little patch of white you see on her wing – no other species of warbler has that. The photo’s not the greatest, as she was some distance away in the shade of the photo, but the white spot is diagnostic.

Black-throated Green poss. female?

Unrelated, though sharing a similar name, the Black-throated Green Warblers, or “Greens”, also unsurprisingly share the same feature of a black throat in males. Females lack this characteristic, and during the breeding season, a Green with a pale throat is undoubtedly a female. However, in the fall it’s possible for either young males or females to have pale throats. The throats of males are usually whiter with a couple of black feathers thrown in, but it’s not foolproof. I think this is a female, but it’s really hard to say for sure. Greens, despite their name, are not really green, certainly not hummingbird-green or parrot-green. Their name reflects the dingy yellow – nearly olive – of their back relative to the bright yellow of their facial markings. This one checks me out. I’ll often crop out extraneous bits of a photo, but this one I left full-frame. I was pishing to draw the birds out of a rather thick juniper bush, and this Green flew right in to about five or six feet away, which allowed me some great photo opportunities. Too bad the sun was behind her!

Yellow-throated Vireo

We’re finding warblers and vireos to be in generally lower abundance than we would find at a site along Lake Ontario, for instance. I did have a passable number of species yesterday (seven warbler species, which is more than we’ve seen most days), but at a lakeshore site you’d probably easily get double that, if not more. I haven’t had too many of these, Yellow-throated Vireos, most days we went out, but yesterday I was lucky and had four or five. Interestingly, this species, though it breeds throughout southern Ontario, is one that I hadn’t seen prior to moving here (though I’d heard them singing before, such as the summer I worked in Ohio). Now, they seem abundant, likely another that will be encountered frequently through our woods in the summer. This one came in with the Green to check out my pishing and posed rather obligingly for the camera.

I’m really enjoying the birding here, so many neat things to turn up, but we are really finding that it’s necessary to head out along the road to find much. We’ve got a nice patch of land, but it’s all mostly treed, and during the fall migration all the breeders have moved out of the woods and into more scrubby areas such as old fields, roadsides and hedgerows. We’ll look forward to the spring, when birds start moving back in and setting up shop. We’ll be excited to find out just what calls our place home, but in the meantime, a walk down the road gives us a taste of what we might expect.


Baillie Birdathon

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Over the last few years, every May I’ve been going out and participating in the Baillie Birdathon in support of the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station here in Toronto. The Baillie is a fundraiser run by Bird Studies Canada in support of bird conservation initiatives in Canada. Participants have the option of directing a portion of their funds raised to a third-party organization of their choice – in my case, TTPBRS. This is the primary source of funds for the programs the station runs, so while I’m not much of a fundraiser at heart, I do try to do my part.

American Redstart

American Redstart

The idea behind the Baillie is that you pick a day, any day, sometime in the month of May, and tally all the species you observe in all or a part of a 24-hour period. You can be anywhere in the world, technically, but most participants tend to stay close to home, or bird a patch associated with their chosen organization. In my case, this would be Tommy Thompson Park, home base of the research station (the station does have programs outside of the park in other parts of Toronto, but this is the primary site).

Eastern White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

I chose to do my birdathon on Tuesday. I cheat a bit when picking my day, since I’m not as limited by other constraints such as a weekday work schedule. So I wait till a day when things are just hopping, and that becomes my day. This was true of Tuesday. I’m not sure what prompted everybody to move in to the site that morning, since the weather wasn’t exceptionally favourable or any different from the previous few days, but there they were.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

During the morning I tallied 23 species of warblers, including a few that were brand-spankin’ newly arrived overnight, “late” migrants that tend to come through in mid- to late May and June, such as Mourning or Blackpoll Warbler. There were also a few straggling “April” migrants, those that come through primarily in April or early May, such as Yellow-rumped or Palm Warbler. The best time for diversity is this mid-spring period, when both ends of the spectrum begin to overlap.

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

Since I’d done so well through the morning, I opted to head out to other areas of the park and see what else I could turn up. On my “hit list” were some rather notable misses that I’d somehow managed not to see during the morning – chickadee, cardinal, Brown Thrasher, all residents at the station. I also had my sights pegged on Scarlet Tanager, a few late-to-leave winter ducks, and some park specialties such as Black-crowned Night-Heron, Great Egret and Canvasback. I did manage to track down all these species with some hunting around.

Black-crowned Night-heron

Black-crowned Night-heron

However, I also missed a few that I’d figured would be pretty easy ticks. Savannah Sparrow, all these acres of meadow and where are you? Eastern Meadowlark, have you chosen not to nest here this year? And those several Orchard Orioles that have been hanging around the last week, disappeared. Rock Pigeon, what kind of birdathon doesn’t have a pigeon?

Turtles and blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird and turtles

I did get to see a couple of interesting things while out. One was the previous Black-crowned Night-heron, dead set on breaking off that branch to take back to the nest. He spent several minutes giving it his best shot, but eventually had to give up and moved off to another tree to try a different one. The second was the above female Red-winged Blackbird which was poking around at the edge of the pond looking for a good soggy old cattail leaf to take back to weave into her nest, while a line of turtles looked on.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

I wrapped up the day with 82 species, which I felt was respectable given that I spent the first seven hours at the station, largely within the lab, and only birded for an additional three hours beyond that, during the afternoon lull period. Aside from the variety of warblers, the indisputable highlight of the day was a female Summer Tanager that very obligingly made its way through an area where I just fortuitously happened to be checking the mistnets. It had been discovered the day before by the station coordinator, and has hung about for a few days now. It’s the first record of the species for the station, and they aren’t recorded very often in Ontario in general during any given year.

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more about "A Few Birds of May on Vimeo", posted with vodpod

The TTPBRS coordinator pieced together a video of many of the species passing through the station currently. I could’ve sworn it included the Summer Tanager, but in re-watching it now I don’t see it, so perhaps he’s left that bit for another video. If you follow this link to the video’s page, you can watch it in HD (for those with HD-capable monitors – mine isn’t).