Today at Kingsford – Crummy bird photos

Red-shouldered Hawk flyover

My photos are still trapped on my camera, so I turn again to some recent ones I’ve taken the last few weeks. I’ve ordered a card reader off of that incredibly handy site, eBay, but don’t expect it to arrive until after the long weekend, unfortunately. However, the poor weather has been helpful in limiting the number of photos I’ve taken in the meantime. Today’s archive special is crummy bird photos. I certainly have lots of them.

We’ve had lots of birds arriving the last few weeks. My BIGBY list is now up to 50 species, with the most recent addition being a House Sparrow, of all species, showing up at our feeders. It’s pretty unusual to see House Sparrows outside of urban or agricultural habitats, and I’m not sure what it was doing out in the boonies here. Species number 49 was a Northern Cardinal, also a rarity around here, I can count on one hand the number that we’ve seen since we moved in. It was also at the feeders, foraging alongside the House Sparrow.

Most of the species have been ones we’ve been expecting, though. The Red-shouldered Hawks returned a couple of weeks ago, two of them together. Red-shoulders pair up prior to arriving on their breeding territories, and usually hold the same territory from one year to the next, so I think the two that have been hanging out around our house are the same individuals as we saw cruising the area last summer. We think they have a nest in the forest across the road.

Red-shouldered Hawk flyover

They soar directly over our house fairly frequently, but naturally I rarely have my camera at the ready when they do. The one time I happened to have the camera out, with the long lens on it, the bird came upon me too quickly for me to get the lens focused, though I fired off half a dozen shots anyway hoping one might be okay (none were). I was very excited about the hawks’ return, and was hoping to post something on them, but it might have to wait for later in the summer.

Eastern Phoebe

Another instance where I was unprepared. I had my 100mm lens on the camera, and didn’t have the 300mm with me. The 100mm is my macro/portrait lens, and I’d been out looking for bugs. I’d decided to leave the extra weight of the 300mm at home. Of course, that happened to be the day that I came across my spring-first Eastern Phoebe, foraging just close enough to be tempting, and just far enough to be out of reach of the shorter lens. I haven’t had a good photo op of a phoebe since that afternoon. Phoebes are one of my favourite birds, so I’ve been pleased at their return. When we moved in, we noticed an old nest on our security light, and we hoped maybe to see them there again this year since they do sometimes reuse nests, but I think they’ve probably been put off by the dog.

Red-breasted Nuthatch at nest cavity

Finally, a Red-breasted Nuthatch, excavating a nesting cavity. This one I actually had my 300mm for, I just happened to be too far away for a good photo, which was a bit disappointing since how often do you stumble across nuthatches building nests? He was working away up high in a tall dead snag. It looked like it was maybe an inch or two deep, just in the early stages, based on how far he was sticking his head in. This one will be a tougher one to monitor than the Pileated nest, mostly because it’s quite high relative to the size of the bird, but since it’s right along the road I’ll be by it often and can check in now and then.

Red-breasted Nuthatch at nest cavity

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Canada’s nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch female

The unfortunately-timed computer death last week meant that I missed posting on a couple of subject I had planned to. On the upside, the same computer death has also kept me preoccupied such that I don’t have anything new from the last couple of days to blog about. So I’m able to go back and revisit these topics.

The first one was this lovely little Red-breasted Nuthatch. Strangely enough, even though we’ve heard them in the surrounding forests since we moved in, I’d only seen a handful, and we hadn’t ever had one (that we’d observed, anyway) on our property itself. A week and a half ago we finally had one turn up. It visited the platform feeder once or twice, but mostly stuck to foraging on the trees in the vicinity. It then disappeared for a few days, and I’d figured it’d carried on since it hadn’t shown interest in the feeder, but then last Tuesday it showed up again.

The species’ scientific name, Sitta canadensis, refers to the fact that the majority of its range is within Canada, though it’s also found throughout New England and the western mountain ranges where coniferous and mixed forest predominate. It’s the only species of nuthatch with such a strongly Canadian range; in fact, the White-breasted, which prefers deciduous forests, only creeps in along the southern edges of the country, Pygmy just barely makes it in to the Okanagan in BC, and Brown-headed doesn’t come anywhere close.

Red-breasted Nuthatch female

The blue-grey crown that contrasts with the dark greyish eye-stripe identifies it as a female. Nuthatches can be hard to age compared to other birds, but based on how brown the wings look compared to the back in this and the first photo, I’d hazard that this was a youngster, hatched last summer. Very little data exists on how Red-breasted Nuthatches disperse from their natal territories, or how far they go. The species, particularly in the northern part of its range, is mildly migratory, and in lean years can undergo population irruptions southward. A very old description of the species (from 1918) suggests that their annual movements constitute a “centrifugal migration” – that is, many birds leave their breeding grounds and become dispersed through their wintering grounds, settling down there and not returning the following spring. However, there isn’t really any data that confirms or refutes this pattern, or quantifies what percentage may remain versus return.

The short way of saying all that is I don’t know whether this young female is a post-breeding dispersal or an irruptive, or whether she’ll stick around for the summer. (Unrelated, but check out her feet in the photo.)

Red-breasted Nuthatch female

She spent most of her time going up and down the trees, peering into the loose bark and crevices, looking for food items. I tend to think of nuthatches as seed-eaters, but actually seed comprises very little of their diet, perhaps less than a third. Although no quantitative analysis has been done for eastern populations, a study in Oregon showed that even during the winter, anywhere from 56% to 77% of their diet consisted of beetles, depending on their habitat type. Although it seems likely that those numbers would be considerably smaller here, where we go into a deep freeze in the non-breeding months, it is still interesting to note what a strong component of their diets insects make up.

Nuthatches are food cachers, tucking food away in safe places for future retrieval. They mostly store seeds, although they will occasionally store insects and spiders. They use not only natural crevices and gaps in bark, but also old sapsucker holes, and sometimes even the ground in regions where the ground isn’t frozen. They’ll often cover up their cache site with a bit of bark or lichen if a handy piece happens to be within easy reach (a 1995 study reported 44% of caches), which is presumably to conceal their carefully hoarded food items from other birds. Hairy Woodpeckers have been observed to watch nuthatches as they cache their food, and then go in to retrieve the food item once the nuthatch has left. Crafty!

Red-breasted Nuthatch female

The American Ornithologists’ Union, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the Academy of Natural Sciences undertook a huge project back in the 1990s and early 2000s to compile all of the known information about every North American bird species (including Hawaii) into a series of informative accounts. The Birds of North America is now THE destination for information on a species, providing invaluable information and data (such as the diet figures, above). A full set of the 716 printed accounts will cost you a pretty penny (although you can now buy accounts individually from Buteo Books), and the online version requires an annual subscription (much more affordable, though). They have six sample accounts available on the website for free, such as for the Yellow Warber, that give you an idea of what they all contain. You can also probably access all of the accounts for free at your nearest university library. A number of years ago, my mom co-authored a couple of accounts with a friend of hers, and as an author was offered a complete set of the printed accounts for free. Of course she took them. However, with the move to their new house, and because she rarely references them herself and felt I would get more use out of them, she’s offered them to me. I gleefully accepted before she could change her mind.

These accounts are a wealth of information, both the sort you would expect to find, as well as the obscure. Where else are you likely to discover that Red-breasted Nuthatches sing 2-6 notes per courtship “song” with 12-16 songs sung per minute, or that their thyroid averages 0.0163% of their body weight? Or that in 1969 one observer watched a nuthatch foraging on the back of a deer like an oxpecker? That Red-breasteds can reach a maximum speed of 32 km/h, or that before the kids are born the male and female will roost together in their cavity at night? It’s hard to pick through the 20+ pages of an account and select just a few tidbits to share.

Red-breasted Nuthatch female

This seems to be the shot I get most often when photographing birds. Why is that?

I haven’t seen her again since last week, though Dan may have. It’s possible she’s moved on for real this time, headed further down the lake looking for additional food. I wonder if she cached any food around here. If she did, she may be back.

Birding with the baby

Birding

Yesterday morning I went out birding with Dan and Raven (who tags along not because she’s a great birder, but because she needs all the exercise we can give her to try to keep her tired out and snoozing the rest of the day, else we suffer the consequences – chewing on everything, chasing the kittens, requiring constant supervision, it’s enough to drive a parent crazy). Many mornings Dan has been going out and doing a census of the birds along our road, or at least the 1 km south of us, with the goal of building up a database of information that can be compared from one year to the next. Also, it’s a great way to track the changing seasons, the coming and going of the birds in spring and fall, and who’s nesting during the summer months. It will be a rather quiet walk during the winter months, and while I suspect he’ll continue to go out on an infrequent basis, our feeders will probably be the hub of activity during that season.

I’m more of a night owl than he is, and I find myself my most productive in the evening hours, which has the unfortunate consequence that I get involved in things and stay up much later than I really should or need to (you may notice a lot of my posts are timestamped around midnight). It also results in me rising later in the morning. Dan has been going out at an hour after sunrise to do his count. These days it’s a bit later, but he’s still usually gone by the time I get up at 9ish. He went out a tad later yesterday, and I decided to make my tea to go and tag along. If nothing else, I could control the puppy so he could have two hands for his binoculars and notepad, but I did hope to see some birds as well.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

In sharp contrast to my census of a few days ago (I got up early and went out to do it myself, and ended up with a very sparse list for my efforts), yesterday we had a good selection of birds, some 32 species total, a good tally for this time of year (at the height of migration, in a migrant trap such as Point Pelee, one might record up to 60+ species on such a census). The above Red-breasted Nuthatch was among those counted. Red-breasteds have been around virtually every day we’ve done census, but I’m pretty sure this is the first individual I’ve actually laid eyes on since we arrived here, all the others have just been heard calling from the nearby woods. I anticipate when the weather cools down a bit more we’ll start getting them coming to the feeders, but at the moment it’s only the White-breasteds that have discovered the seed.

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadees, along with the Blue Jays, goldfinches and crows, are a staple of every census. Just about every flock you encounter is going to have chickadees in it. Migrants often travel with chickadees while foraging because chickadees make good lookouts, quick to sound the alert if they spot danger, and to descend upon the trouble in a mob to encourage it to leave. There weren’t many migrants with this flock of chickadees, but I was just as happy to watch the chickadees themselves as they foraged.

This one was busy eating the seeds of whatever this plant is. It could be an aster such as a fleabane, I’m not sure. It had seeds that were attached to downy fluffs the way dandelion or milkweed seeds are. The chickadee was leaning forward from its perch to grasp one of the fluffs from a flower head, then pinning the acquired fluff under its foot while it pecked open the seed for the goods inside.

Black-capped Chickadee

It did this numerous times. It was so caught up in the abundant food source that it was mostly oblivious to me quietly sneaking up close to it. Eventually I was only about five feet away, happily snapping shots as the chickadee moved about its perch snagging seeds. The act of pinning the food under a foot reminds me a lot of a parrot or raptor. Goldfinches just use their tongue to manipulate the seed and crack off the hull with the sharp sides of their beak, but chickadees don’t have a beak strong enough, at least in thickness, to pull that off. Chickadees do, however, have very strong beaks lengthwise, which stand up to sturdy pecking, useful for excavating tree cavities, but also for removing the hulls off seeds.

White-crowned Sparrow

In the next bush over was this White-crowned Sparrow, feasting on dogwood berries. I don’t typically think of sparrows as berry-eaters, generally they’re classified as seed-eaters, and when they come to your feeder in the winter that’s what they’re looking for. However, many will also feed on berries when they’re available. There’s definitely lots of berries about; besides the dogwood, the buckthorn and grapevines are both laden, as well. Most of these will probably end up frozen on the plant, and will be eaten by overwintering birds or spring migrants, when other sources of food are hard to find.

White-crowned Sparrow

This is an adult, a bird that was a parent this summer. You can tell because of the colour of the head stripes – in young birds they’ll be brown and tan, not black and white. This is only applicable in the fall, though. By spring the young birds will have replaced all of their crown feathers with the boldly-patterned ones in preparation for breeding the coming summer. There are several subspecies of White-crowned Sparrow, primarily differentiated by the colour of their bill and whether the patch of feathers in front of their eye is black or not. Here in the east the only one we see with any regularity is the Eastern White-crowned Sparrow; all the other subspecies occur west of the plains. Occasionally we’ll get a somewhat lost Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrow come through, regularly enough to make it worth checking flocks of White-crowns for them, but I’ve personally only seen one here in the last half dozen years. In case you want to start checking your flocks, Easterns have a pinkish bill and black in front of the eye, while Gambels have an orangeish bill and grey-brown in front of the eye.

Although it’s not a White-crowned, Dan has a new painting up on his blog (and available for sale), of a White-throated Sparrow. While White-crowns, at least in Ontario, breed in the taiga north of the boreal forest and are mostly just seen on migration, the closely-related White-throats breed pretty nearly throughout the entire province. They’re often associated with “cottage country” (including our area here in the Frontenac Axis), that forests-and-lakes landscape of southern Ontario within a few easy hours’ drive of the big cities, though their highest densities are found in the boreal forest regions of northern Ontario. Check out the painting on Dan’s blog, or at its eBay listing.

Hiking the Rouge

Rouge Valley

Today was Family Day here in Ontario, a newly-created holiday courtesy of our provincial premiere, who believed that the unbroken stretch between New Year’s Day and Easter was just too long for an employee to reasonably have to suffer through. This was the first year the new holiday has been in effect, and there’s still some kinks to be ironed out. Federal employees such as postal workers and some unionized groups were on the job today because the holiday hasn’t been negotiated into their contracts.

Rouge Valley

Blackburnian had the day off today, however, and I’m basically self-employed at the moment and take whatever days I want off, so we decided this afternoon to take advantage of the mild temperatures and head out to the Rouge Valley, out in the east near the Toronto Zoo. Back when I was in university I had a job for a couple summers inventorying the birds of the Rouge Park. It was very informal, I basically spent the summer hiking around as I pleased, trying to cover everywhere but not following any sort of rigorous protocol. It was a fabulous job, and I have a very fond spot for the Rouge because of my time spent there getting to know it and its birds. Despite this, I’ve rarely been back since then, and I’d never been there in winter.

Rouge Valley

The top photo is an image of the valley, taken from the top of a high bluff overlooking the Rouge River. Blackburnian’s standing at the top of the cliff, to give you a sense of scale. This isn’t a little bluff that you’re going to shimmy down to the water. The Rouge Valley contains two primary rivers, the Rouge and the Little Rouge, which joins it. This is the Little Rouge. Doesn’t look so little here, but the Rouge is a bit wider and deeper. Most of the river is upland forest, but there’s the odd patch of wetland here and there.

Civilization in the distance

The Rouge is a gorgeous, mature woodland through most of the Park’s valleys, and it can be easy to lose yourself among the extensive habitat. However, reminders of the city next door are hard to ignore. On the horizon are apartment buildings and rooftops. The trails run 1.6 km along either side of the river, between two roads. Road noise from the city carries the short distance into the park. People come out here to walk their dogs, and many of the dog owners don’t pick up after their pets.

Signs of people

Or themselves.

Rouge Valley

But the scenery is beautiful. The trails cover a number of different habitats, starting in scrubby meadow at the edge of the woods, passing through a powerline corridor, and then entering into mature upland forest. It’s a mixed deciduous-coniferous forest, with the evergreen component mostly hemlock. The trees here are no western Red Cedars, but put in perspective are pretty impressive themselves.

Hermit Thrush

We didn’t see many birds. Of course, winter birding is like that, very hit-or-miss and sparse even when there’s hits. This guy was the indisputable highlight of the outing. A Hermit Thrush, very out of place in the Toronto snow. Seeing a Hermit in the Toronto area isn’t unusual, per se, but it’s certainly very uncommon. This is the first one I’ve seen around here in the winter. Virtually all Hermits leave the province for the winter, though they don’t go far and may winter in the northeastern states.

Hermit Thrush with Black Cherry berry

This guy had found himself a stash of Black Cherry berries. I didn’t even notice the cherries until I saw him pop one. I watched him eat three or four before a movement I made, possibly shifting my weight or adjusting the camera, startled him and he flew off to a nearby hemlock.

Black cherry fruit

Frozen berries such as these are a large component in many overwintering birds’ diets. Two species of northern birds (Pine Grosbeak and Bohemian Waxwing) will feed pretty much exclusively on frozen berries such as crabapple, chokecherry, buckthorn, hawthorn, etc. There seemed to be a fair bit of Black Cherry in the forest, which should give the Hermit Thrush lots to eat.

Flock of robins

The first group of birds we came across were these robins, perhaps 20 of them. Nearly all robins leave the Toronto area in the winter, too, although in recent years increasingly more will stick around through the winter and feed on frozen berries in the woods as well as urban gardens. Another great reason to plant berry-bearing bushes!

Pished off Black-capped Chickadees

We found a few groups of chickadees foraging in cedar stands along the floodplain of the river. Blackburnian pished at all of them, but these were the only group to respond strongly. They were seriously pished off! You can even see the right one yelling, “dee-dee-dee-dee-dee!” Chickadees drop the “chick-a” from their call when they’re responding to perceived threats or dangers. Some research has suggested the number of “dee”s is correlated with the seriousness of the threat, with more meaning a greater danger.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

This Red-breasted Nuthatch pished in with one of the flocks of chickadees. It was the fourth and final species of the outing. I was thinking as we were leaving that it wasn’t a great diversity or abundance of birds, and would’ve made for a very lacklustre Christmas Bird Count. I loved the haziness of the periphery of this image created by peeking through a gap in the foliage.

We walked nearly 4 km on very uneven, slippery trails (not groomed trails, so they were simply packed down by many feet, and every step you were trying not to slide). It’s the furthest I’ve walked since the fall, I’m pretty sure, and the addition of the trail condition means we’ll probably be feeling achey legs tomorrow! Ah, but it was good to get out.

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.

SNOW3