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.


At home with the birds


Well, here I am, finally! I didn’t intend to be gone quite this long, but through various mix-ups, miscommunications and snags, we only just got our internet hooked up today. We opted to go for a bundle deal with one of the primary companies around here, and have been rather unimpressed with how things have gone. Our phone was hooked up two days late, and our satellite television still isn’t working quite right (we have a service person out today to have it looked at). Hopefully the last of all this will be sorted out today.

But, we made it, without incident, and we’ve otherwise settled in. We unpacked the last of our boxes yesterday, and there’s just a few last tidying-up details to take care of. It’s certainly feeling like home already. We’re just loving the location. Although it’s a bit further from town than we’d probably originally have considered, it’s still an easy, reasonable drive for once- or twice-a-week trips for supplies. If we were the commuting sort, it would be an average commute in to the “big” city (big being a relative term; compared to Toronto, virtually all of Ontario’s cities, with the possible exception of Ottawa, are moderate in size).


The scenery and wildlife make it all worthwhile, however. Right across the lake is a provincial park, and the non-park shore has a pretty low population density itself. It’s not a small lake, at about 3.5 km long, but there’s only a couple dozen buildings along its outer shore. There’s hardly ever anyone out on the lake, at least that we’ve noticed. This weekend was a holiday long weekend for most people, and even then, while there was an increase in boaters, it still wasn’t busy, by any means. During our housing search we checked out a couple of other places that were located on lakes, but they were very busy, and noisy. Not our speed, really.

The birdlife here has been amazing, and we’ve only been here a week. We’ve tallied 63 species so far at our home, on the lake, or within a short walking distance along the road. To put that in perspective, our yard/neighbourhood list back in Toronto was less than 30 after five years of living there. August is perhaps the quietest time of the bird-season (April through October), when all the breeders have stopped singing, but the migrants haven’t really started to arrive yet. And in winter, while the diversity is lower, they’re coming to your feeders and are easy to observe. We anticipate some great birding through the rest of the year. The park has a checklist of 170 species to date, so we still have lots yet to see!


Red-eyed Vireos are abundant, in any flock of birds there will be at least two or three of them. For the first few days after we arrived, there were Red-eyed Vireos hanging around in the trees just off our deck. At first we just saw the adults, but shortly a fledgling showed up with them. This photo was taken from the deck, looking down into a little shrub the family was sitting in. Also in the trees around the house has been a regular family of chickadees. Young chickadees are very vocal, loudly begging for food from their parents, so we can always tell when they’re outside.


A few mornings ago, Blackburnian was on his way down to the dock with his morning coffee when he heard some commotion along the road, a mixed flock of birds moving along the trees of the road edge. He grabbed his binoculars and went out to check them out. Among the flock was a family of Cerulean Warblers, and, knowing that I’d like to see them, he came back in to get me. Ceruleans are an endangered species in Ontario, sparsely distributed through the southern part of the province and only found in certain local patches. However, in these areas they can be locally common. One of the spots recognized as being among the best places to find breeding Ceruleans is not too far east from us, and we’re at the western edge of their eastern Ontario stronghold. It’s a great place for them; around here there is extensive forest cover, because of the low population density and the rocky landscape, which makes farming impractical.


Although this isn’t a great photo of it, this was one of the birds I was most pleased to catch a glimpse of. It actually sat rather obligingly for a little while in this open spot on the branch, catching the morning light nicely to illuminate his bright colours. It’s a Yellow-throated Vireo, and it’s a bird that’s been on my jinx-bird list (those birds that seem to elude you no matter how hard you try to find them) for quite a while. I had heard a few singing before, but try as I might I’d never been able to see one. I hadn’t actually expected them to be breeding this far north and east, I tend to think of them as a Carolinian species, but consulting my recently-published copy of the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, I see that they actually occur in a strong band along the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, as well, and their largest pocket of high abundance in the province is actually the Frontenac Axis.

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warblers are also abundant in the area, if not quite so much as the Red-eyed Vireos. I haven’t seen any adult males, with their bold black throats, but I’m not certain whether that means the birds I have seen are females and immatures, or if the adult males have already moulted into their winter plumages. There’s a surprising diversity of warblers in our area. Back in Toronto and area we had a small handful of species that might breed commonly. So far here we’ve tallied 10 species of warblers, all of which would be local breeders, with the potential of another 10 or 11 that we haven’t encountered yet.


The first birds we observed at the house were a pair of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds on our first viewing of the place. One of the first things we did outside once we moved in was to fill up the hummingbird feeder. The previous residents had a feeder in place, but it didn’t look like they’d been keeping it filled. It didn’t take long for the hummers to find it. Since they did they’ve been regular visitors. They decided quickly that we weren’t any serious threat, and will often feed while we’re only half a dozen feet away.


And finally, the quintessential cottage-country birds, Common Loons. We didn’t notice any when we were viewing the house, but we were only here for an hour or so each time. Once we moved in they became quite apparent – but more by their calls than by spotting them. They call regularly every evening and periodically through the rest of the day. They seem to be done breeding, and move often from our lake to any of the many others in the area. On the same morning that we were out looking at the Cerulean family, a family of five Common Loons flew overhead, calling to each other, as they moved to the lake on the other side of the road.

We also noticed a phoebe had built a nest on the security light above the deck stairs, and occasionally hear one singing in the area. I was worried that we wouldn’t have scrub and meadow birds around here and that I’d miss birds from my parents’ like the Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Kingbird or Indigo Bunting, but they’re all here. There are Osprey and Red-shouldered Hawks frequently seen along the lake edge. We also have some more northern birds that I was hoping to get in the area, such as White-throated Sparrow, Common Raven, or several of the warblers. We’ve heard Red Crossbills on a few mornings, though it’s hard to say if they’re post-breeding dispersals or early “winter” irruptives.

And that’s just a small sampling of things! The rest of the local wildlife is just as varied and abundant… but that’ll be another post.