Moving on


I was one of those lucky, though unusual, kids who never had to move growing up. My parents bought their house, five acres out in the scenic countryside of the Niagara Escarpment, a couple years before I was born, and it’s the only home I’ve every really known. I’m now starting to put down roots in the Frontenac region, but making the move from the Toronto area was tough; even during university I never lived far from where I grew up.

My parents have just bought a new house and are now selling their old one. If I think it’s tough for me to move, I imagine it’s ten times harder for my parents. They, too, have always lived in the GTA, and they’ve spent more of their life living at this house than they have elsewhere. Making the decision to move is tough, especially if there isn’t a factor forcing the move, such as a job transfer, and deciding on the timing is tougher. They’ve been talking for a few years about selling the house, since all us girls have grown up and moved out, and things finally culminated with the purchase of this home. Their new place is some 100 km (60 miles) further east than Dan and I, over 400 km (250 miles) east of their old home. If this same move was made in the eastern US, it’d put them in another state. As it is, the Canadian provinces are so big that it doesn’t even take them out of southern Ontario.


My mom asked me to come house-sit for a couple days while she returned to the old house to pick up some more things (such as some plants from her garden while the weather was so balmy) and run a few errands. Also to keep an eye on the cats, who have made the move but are not completely settled in yet. Only one is upstairs keeping me company (currently curled up on my lap), the rest are hiding in the basement. For them, too, the other house was the only one they’d known, and the move has been a little traumatizing, especially for the 10-year-old (although interestingly, the other 10-year-old, and the only female, was the only one to have settled in fairly quickly).

Today was gorgeous weather, especially for November, and I took advantage of it to grab my camera and binoculars and hike out to explore some of the property. The new place has 65 acres, a large jump from the 5 they owned before, and hiking through it all could almost be a day’s undertaking. I only walked a small portion of it; it takes 20 minutes just to walk the kilometer straight to the back property line. Fortunately, a previous owner had cut trails into the woods which makes the going easier. About two-thirds of the property is young successional forest that I estimate to be perhaps 30-40 years old, mostly maple, birch, aspen, and other quick-growing early colonizers. The other third is cleared land. The surrounding region is largely agricultural, and I suspect this property to also have been, several decades ago.


As I stepped out of the house and started making my way back to the edge of the woods, I heard a cacophony of geese coming from the north. Canada Geese aren’t an unusual species by any means, and the sight of small flocks of them flying south is common enough, especially in agricultural areas where they stop over at grain or corn fields and feed on the waste left behind after harvesting. However, this was no small flock. As they gradually came in to view over the tops of the trees to the north, I could see many flocks of varying sizes, easily a dozen or more. Counting them all was tough as they blended in one to another, but counting the individuals was even harder. I figure more than a thousand geese must have passed over while I stood there.


As they started to be lost from sight to the south, I could see a few flocks start circling. I assumed they were coming to roost at a cornfield on the next road over, but they seemed too near for that. Mom had told me about a large pond at the back corner of their property (actually on the neighbouring property, but butting up against theirs). I assumed this was where they’d come to land, so I headed back that way to check it out.

Sure enough, when I reached the pond there were a couple hundred geese on the water. They were quieter than they had been while in the air, but were still making a fair bit of noise. I was impressed with the pond itself. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting, but something a bit more sterile given its history as an old sand pit quarry. It was actually pretty naturalized, with lots of cattails, phragmites, and other emergent vegetation lining the edges. Reeds poked out from shallow areas in the centre. Foraging among the vegetation in one of these spots were five yellowlegs, a very pleasant surprise. No Cackling Geese among the large flock, that I noticed, though it did seem like there were a number of individuals of the smaller Canada subspecies mixed in.


I’d only run off a few shots of the geese before something startled them (perhaps me? Though they hadn’t seemed perturbed when I arrived, and I hadn’t moved) and in a flurry of wings they took off from the water’s surface. One flock circled around, but then joined the rest as they all headed further south. Time to move on; I couldn’t help but think, as I watched them disappear over the horizon, how their travel seemed like a metaphor for my parents’ relocation. They may settle in to a spot to raise their young, but once the nest is empty* they pack the bags and leave, in search of a cozy spot to spend their post-family months.

(*Still metaphorically speaking, of course; young geese may only stay in the nest for the first day after they hatch, after which they trail around after their parents.)



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.