Somethings to sing about

Song Sparrow

I’ve recently been making a big push to finish up the last of the range maps for the upcoming Peterson Field Guide to Moths that I’ve been working on with my friend Dave, with the hope of having the first draft completed by the end of the month, allowing time for review and revision. There were around 975 species being considered for maps, so it has kept me busy! I reached the end of our original species list yesterday, and all that’s left is to go back and do the maps for the few species that got added after I’d already passed their spot on the list. There’s still lots left to do on the book, but finishing the first drafts of the maps represents a big milestone for me.

As a result of my preoccupation, I have hardly made it outside the last week. We’ve had some cool, windy, rainy weather, which also hasn’t helped inspire me to lay aside the keyboard and mouse and head outdoors for a little while. I finally got out today for a little bit. The weather had warmed up a tad, though it was still breezy. We’re due to get a few really nice warm days over the weekend, and I’m very much looking forward to that. I expect we’ll see the first major emergence of moths this weekend, as it’s supposed to be in the low 20s (Celsius; 70s F). Expect several posts from me about it, since I’ll be done the maps and finally allow myself back outside to enjoy it all. I’ve been looking forward to the first truly warm spell since we got our first moth at the beginning of March!

Today on my walk I heard Wood Frogs calling, Spring Peepers peeping, and a few spring migrants singing: bluebirds, robins and the above Song Sparrow. It had staked out a few juniper bushes in the back field that it was singing from, which had me confused at first – it blends in very well! Song Sparrows are one of the earliest to return of our residents. In a couple of months the sparrow’s song will blend into the background and just be part of the soundscape, but right now, while it’s fresh and new and isolated, it stands out and is pleasing to hear. He knows spring is here, and it’s something to sing about.


Families from Maplewood

Adult male American Robin

We’re off to Rock Ridge tomorrow for visit number three, and I thought before I collect more MAPS photos I should post what I had from Maplewood Bog earlier this week. It’s a nice break from packing, too, which is well underway. A few dozen boxes are already filled and stacked against the wall, awaiting the moving truck we’ve rented next week. It’s amazing how you can pack and pack and pack, though, and until you start moving the furniture out into the truck and emptying the space it still doesn’t look like you’ve accomplished very much.

The first half of the summer is predominantly comprised of adults that are either incubating or tending young in the nest. Beginning as you start approaching the end of June, though, you start to find recently fledged young and post-breeding adults moving about (I spoke in a bit more detail about that a couple of posts ago when discussing chickadees). At Maplewood earlier in the week we caught a family of American Robins. Above is dad, with his clean black hood and solid orange breast.

Adult female American Robin

Mom is more subdued, with a dark gray hood, sometimes bordering on brownish, and her orange breast suffused with hoary fringes. This particular individual seems to have a fair amount of white on her throat and face, but I don’t think that’s sex-related.

American Robin fledgling

And finally, the baby, sex unknown. Young robins show the spotted breasts typical of adults in most other thrush species. They also sport the thrushy shaft streaks on the feathers of their back and scapulae. In a month or two the baby, now an adolescent, will go through its puberty plumage change, moulting out a lot of its baby body feathers and replacing them with adult-looking teenage feathers. Although in the fall and winter it can be hard to tell the youngsters apart from their adult, sometimes you’ll see the teenagers have retained a couple of these streaky feathers on their shoulders.

Adult Red-eyed Vireo with brown eye

Speaking of retaining teenage features, this Red-eyed Vireo had a distinctly brownish iris, which is a characteristic of young Red-eyes (compare to the adult in this post). Usually their eyes gradually turn red over the winter and by the time they come back as first-time breeders they’ve got eyes the same colour as the older birds. However, a very small percentage of Red-eyed Vireos may retain their brownish eyes through the spring and occasionally even into their first summer. An even smaller percentage may never get a red eye. Red-eyes can be tricky to age by other features so I wasn’t sure whether this was one of the small percentage or smaller percentage.

Song Sparrow fledgling

We caught a family of Song Sparrows late in the morning, in the same net with the baby chickadees. One adult (dad, if I remember correctly) with three youngsters in tow. This is one of the youngsters. Fledgling Song Sparrows look different from the adults, often with a golden wash that gives them a more diffused pattern. They also lack the central breast spot the adults have. However, they do show some features the adults also have, such as that thick malar stripe (the dark moustache that comes down from the bill).

Swamp Sparrow fledgling

In the net with them was a fifth sparrow, which I initially mistook for another member of the family. However, this one was different – the malar stripe was indistinct, the breast streaks were thinner, it had a smaller bill and the facial structure was slightly different. It was, in fact, a fledgling Swamp Sparrow, now independent and on his own. There are Swamps in the bogs in the site, and I suspect that this youngster came out of a nest hidden down there in the willows and sphagnum moss.

That’s it for Maplewood – tomorrow, Rock Ridge, undoubtedly with plenty of surprises of its own!

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