Birding with the baby


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.