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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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).

Red-tail fly-by

Red-tailed Hawk

I was down at the station yesterday, one of two days a week I’ve been going down. It was an absolutely lovely day, cool at startup, but not cold, and warm enough to strip down to a single layer by the time we wrapped up at noon. I pulled out my sunglasses and wore a ball cap instead of a toque for the first time this spring. Naturally, on these first, early sunny days of spring I can never seem to remember to pull out the sunscreen, and so I inevitably get lightly sunburned. At least it’s not the painful, peely sort.

Despite a relative dearth of birds yesterday, there was a good diversity of species. One of the birds hanging about the station was this beautiful Red-tailed Hawk. Red-tails are rather uncommon birds at the station. This isn’t necessarily reflected in the log book, where we often record hawks sailing over high. It’s also not really applicable to the park as a whole, where there’s usually one or two hawks hunting the broad, open meadow areas that cover most of the land area of the park. However, down on the station’s peninsula it’s mostly early successional forest, with enough trees and shrubs to make it less than ideal for the usual hunting tactics of a Red-tailed Hawk.

Red-tailed Hawk

This guy (or girl; although hawks are dimorphic, it’s by size and not plumage, and a hawk sitting on a branch fifteen feet away just looks large no matter which way you cut it) flew right up and perched just beside the station building, where I was in the process of doing some training with a new volunteer. We both stopped and ogled the hawk while it sat there, since it’s not often that a wild raptor will oblige you with such flattering views. I did my best to run off a few shots, despite the backlighting. A moment or two later he decided further down the road might be better, and he took off from the branch, soaring by just a few feet above my head, close enough that had I desired to (and had the reflexes to), I could have reached out and snagged a few feathers at his passing.

Banded Red-tailed Hawk and me

I’ve handled a Red-tail before, though – we banded one in 2004, my second fall at the station, when I was there in official capacity as an assistant (now I’m an unofficial, volunteer assistant instead). Boy, do I ever look young in that photo. Normally birds this large don’t stick in the net very long, if they even fall into the net in the first place; just as often they’ll bounce right off the mesh and carry on. If they do fall into the net, they’ll likely take a minute or two to flap their way to the end of the net, where they can find some tension in the mesh to pull against to launch themselves out. This assuming that they don’t bounce out before reaching the end. In the case of the above, one of our volunteers happened to be just approaching the net at the time when the hawk flew in. A flailing hawk in a net is extremely dangerous, so we ask our volunteers to call for myself or the coordinator rather than tackle it themselves, but she was able to get help over very quickly. It’s the only Red-tail banded by the station to date, and one of just three large hawks (the other two being a Cooper’s in 2003, and a Northern Harrier in 2005). However, if this Red-tail continues to hang about low the way he has been the last few days, it’s likely that eventually he’ll blunder into a net. Hopefully we’ll be there to snag him.

Red-tailed Hawk

A bit later we observed him fly from his perch in a tree down to the leaves on the ground in an open patch of trees. He hopped about here, clambering over sticks and tangles, looking for I’m not quite sure what. Insects? Although they prey primarily on rodents, Red-tails are opportunistic hunters, and will eat large bugs like grasshoppers if they’re available. They’ll also take rabbits, which can be very abundant at the park, but I doubt he’d be hunting those on foot. I don’t think he was after grasshoppers this early in the season, either. Snakes are a possibility, I did see a few out in the warm weather, and they’d still be a bit sluggish in the early morning cool. You can see a smear of blood on its upper breast in the first photo, so it was obviously finding something to eat down there.

Red-tailed Hawk

I never actually saw him snag anything while he was on the ground, so it might be he was just looking. On the other hand, he stayed pretty well hidden behind a low ridge and some trees the whole time, so it was difficult for me to see everything he was up to. It may be that this particular individual was less dominant to the ones that frequent the meadow habitat, and was here less by choice than because he was forced out of the other areas. Or perhaps he just desired a change of scenery.

Red-tailed Hawk

A minute or two later, after deciding there wasn’t much worth looking for down on the ground, the hawk turned about and took off – once again straight toward me. Red-tails can travel at up to 20 to 40 mph (30 to 60 km/h) at cruising speed when flying. I doubt that this guy was going that quickly, but he was moving too fast for me to be able to get my focus adjusted well.

Red-tailed Hawk

I managed to snap this shot just as he soared by me; a little further this time than the first, I probably couldn’t have touched him, but it was still closer than I usually find hawks flying by me! I got the impression that while he was wary of humans, and kept an eye on us, he wasn’t terribly concerned. He was down there again today (I wasn’t), flying about the area, and demonstrating a similar coolness toward the people.

Red-tailed Hawk

He swooped up to perch in a tree not far from me, before departing for parts unknown.

Start of the season

Dawn

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!

Trail

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