Alison’s Fishing Birds

By Sharon McInnes

When I first read Alison’s Fishing Birds, just published by Caitlin Press, my impulse was to co-opt children from the playground, gather them around, and read them the stories. But I didn’t, hoping instead that you will read these lovely stories to the children in your lives.

Alison’s Fishing Birds by Roderick Haig-Brown


Roderick Haig-Brown 
is believed to have written Alison’s Fishing Birds in 1939 or 1940 but the stories were only discovered after his death in 1976. One of BC’s most influential conservationists, he emigrated to British Columbia from England as a young man, eventually settling near Campbell River and becoming its magistrate for over thirty years (http://www.haig-brown.bc.ca/.) There, on the east coast of Vancouver Island, Haig-Brown was captivated by the natural world and became active in the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the BC Wildlife Federation, and several fly-fishing organizations. Lucky for us, he also wrote twenty-eight books celebrating the natural world including Starbuck Valley, The Whale People, and this gem, Alison’s Fishing Birds.

What I like most about the connected stories that make up Alison’s Fishing Birds, beautifully illustrated by Sheryl McDougald and Jim Rimmer, is their capacity to create deep empathy for the natural world. It’s hard not to identify with Alison’s surprise and delight when the dipper suddenly lands on a rock “not more than half a dozen steps away from her” or when her father leads her to the kingfisher’s nest with eleven eggs “all neatly packed together in a hollow among the roots”.

Kingfisher linocut by Jim Rimmer

And it’s just as hard not to identify with her concern when the eagle snatches the fish from the osprey who’s worked so hard to catch it or when the Belted kingfisher eats so many fish she’s worried he won’t be able to fly. The birds, of course, set her straight, every time. Alison accepts their lessons gratefully and gracefully, keen on knowing “what the birds are really like and what they really do.” Who can fail to admire that?

Haig-Brown’s Alison is a “quick little girl” who learns about the ‘fishing birds’ by the river – dipper, kingfisher, heron, merganser, and osprey – with her father’s thoughtful guidance.

Common Merganser. Illustration by Sheryl McDougald

But mostly she learns through mindful observation, whether from the window of her family’s brown house with the pale blue trim, or hiding in the “secret place she had near the pasture fence”, or walking along the river bank. Alison knows how to pay close attention, resisting the urge, for example, to scratch her nose or pull her dress “down a little on her shoulder, where it was uncomfortable” to avoid scaring off Walk-up-the-Creek, a fine old heron fishing by the river.

Great Blue Heron aka Walk-up-the-Creek

In his title story Haig-Brown assures us that “You couldn’t call Alison a naturalist or bird watcher or anything dull like that. She didn’t sneak and peer and creep around looking for birds, but she liked to go up the river and she was quiet and her eyes were quick …”

Maybe Alison doesn’t “watch” birds, but she does observe them closely and studies their habits and behaviour, and even talks to them – and sometimes they talk back, teaching her important lessons about their particular niche in the natural world. They make her think and wonder and worry and hope and give her stories to tell her dolls at bedtime.

In the foreword environmental writer Andrew Nikiforuk says of Haig-Brown’s (and Alison’s) penchant for watching the natural world: “Any engagement with wildlife – whether listening to the chatter of river otters, hunting grouse or watching a black bear denude an apple tree – restored human meaning and brought us back to the point of things: there is no end to wonder and joy when you care about a place.”

Indeed, these stories offer readers the opportunity to share in the wonder and joy of a few of the ‘fishing birds’ that live here on the far west coast. And McDougald’s detailed illustrations of not just the birds but also elements of their habitat – bumble bee, Pacific tree frog, coastal gum plant, western red-backed salamander, dragonfly, clam shell, and various types of feathers – add immensely to the reality of the sense of place.

Feather. Illustration by Sheryl McDougald

I’m confident that parents, grandparents, teachers, and anyone else with young children in their lives will find this a perfect book to read with them or to them. I must admit, I’ve already read it several times, all by myself, for the sheer pleasure of the stories and illustrations.

One more thing – a word of advice to readers who typically ignore the preface of a book: don’t ignore this one. Valerie Haig-Brown’s story of how Alison’s Fishing Birds came to be published, decades after the death of her father, is a heartwarming tale all on its own.

Thank you to Caitlin Press, who sent me a copy, no strings attached!

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Notes From a North Western Ontario Backyard – March, 2017

Welcome to Spring!!

It is officially the Vernal Equinox as of 6:28 am Eastern time today.  Doesn’t that make you feel better?!

Unfortunately, most of my photos this month still look like mid winter.  March has been an exceptionally cold month with brutally high winds, wind chills sometimes nearing -40 at night and daytime high wind chills near -30C.  Pretty incredible.  I so dearly hope we are finally finished with those temperatures but I fear we’re not.

Throughout winter’s bitter cold, many bird species appreciate a drink of water.  This first series of photos is all about thirsty birds either standing on the rim of the bird bath for a sip or actively drinking.

Female Common Redpoll (left) and female Pine Siskin.

Golden female Pine Grosbeak

Male Common Redpoll

Male Evening Grosbeak

Male Pine Grosbeak

Pine Siskins

I don’t have a high number of different species visiting the feeders right now but between Redpolls and Pine Siskins, the yard is absolutely hopping with finch activity.  I’m feeding 65+ Common Redpolls, 5 to 12 Hoary Redpolls and over 35 Pine Siskins.  I have 2 nyjer feeders out there that get refilled twice per day along with the platform feeder containing peanuts, cracked corn, safflower, suet & black oil sunflower seed.  I am now well into my second 50 lb bag of nyjer seed this season.

Speaking of Redpolls, I was thrilled a few weeks ago to receive a message from Jon Ruddy, a top birder in Ontario, telling me that he had completed the Redpoll Challenge at my feeders, remotely, over the webcam in my yard!  I was shocked when he described seeing all 4 subspecies of Redpoll:  rostrata (Common), Hornemann’s (Hoary), exilipes (Hoary) and flammea (Common).  Here is Jon’s EBird report.

Paul Nicholson, a bird writer at the London Free Press in London, Ontario, did an article this month about the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s webcam program, including the webcam in my yard.  You can read his article here.  Some of the birds seen on ‘my’ webcam include:

Ravens (and Crows)

Red Breasted Nuthatches

Pine Grosbeaks (with incoming Hairy Woodpecker!)

Gray Jays

Hairy Woodpeckers

Downy Woodpeckers

Black Capped Chickadees (with Nuthatch)

Ruffed Grouse (with Blue Jay)

You may also see something a little more interesting like this female Pine Grosbeak (below, far right).  She’s been around my feeders for part of the winter.  She has a very strange tuft of feathers sticking out of her right side, appearing to come from under her right wing.  She can move & fly normally.  This affliction doesn’t slow her down at all.

Far right: female Pine Grosbeak with abnormal feather growth

Another angle showing the size of the odd feather growth

Recently, I picked up some other interesting things over the webcam, not just birds.  One night last week, I happened to put the cam on just to see what I could hear and I caught a coyote conversation!  Then, a couple of nights ago, I did the same thing and discovered this fellow!

Well, that’s it for this month.  I’m hoping to see the return of Purple Finches and various Sparrows any day now.  Maybe I’ll even get to hear the little Northern Saw-Whet Owl over the webcam again like I did last year.  We can only hope.

Oh!  Before I forget:  I am participating, once again, in the Great Canadian Birdathon (previously known as the Baillie Birdathon) one day in May.  I have not picked an exact date yet but it will be around the middle of May.  I am currently looking for donations.  All funds I raise will go to Bird Studies Canada.  If you would be interested in sponsoring me, please go to this link to make an online donation or email me at bthache at yahoo dot ca if you would prefer to send a cheque or email transfer.  Thank you for your consideration.  🙂

Thank you so much for reading …… ‘see’ you in April!

 

Posted in Bird Canada | 4 Comments

Postcard from Vancouver Island: birding around Victoria B.C.

Almost a year has passed since I made my first trip in April 2016 to check out the wildlife around Victoria on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, and I am only just getting around to processing my images from this visit…oh well, better late than never! So here we go…

With a forecast for clear, cloudless skies and bright sunshine, my first stop was a visit to the coast for sunrise in the hopes of catching some of sea-ducks and shorebirds. The weatherman was spot on and the excellent morning light, combined with a high tide that brought the birds close in, made for some mouth-watering coastal birding that was pretty special for a land-locked Albertan like me.

High on my extensive list of ‘target birds’, the sight of 10 or so Harlequin Ducks bobbing and feeding in the surf while resting intermittently on the exposed rocks was a fantastic start to the day:

A lovely hen Harlequin

Shortly after, a fly-by by two dozen Surf Scoters was, was a pretty cool way to add a new ‘lifer’ to my bird photography list:

And if that wasn’t enough, I added my second ‘lifer’ just a few minutes later when a couple dozen Brant geese flew in…

and began feeding nearby:

My hat-trick ‘lifer’ came in the form of a relatively large shorebird in the form of a very distinctive pair of Black Oystercatchers that also flew in and joined the breakfasting at this popular spot:

These oystercatchers really seemed to know their stuff and I quite enjoyed watching them combing the rocks for food: Then, as you might now have guessed, I was able to tally a fourth ‘lifer’ when I noticed movement on the rocks close to the breaking waves and was able to make out a number of well-camouflaged Black Turnstones:

These well-camouflaged birds expertly negotiating the wet, slippery sea-weed coated rocks as they foraged for some salty snacks:

After a very satisfying 90 minutes of photography, I took a short 15 minute drive further down the coastline to Esquimalt Lagoon. No lifers to be had here, but I did get my best-ever views of a Golden-crowned Sparrow:

As well as some of my closest encounters with the very-skittish-in-Alberta Northern Pintail:

With the sun now high in the sky, I thought it time to try my luck inland where it might be a little shadier and headed off to Goldstream Provincial Park. The park is beautiful and has some great hiking trails…which not surprisingly attracted a lot of other people and so the number of birds was a little less than I’d hoped. I heard many Pacific Wrens, but did not succeed in my quest to find the brilliantly-coloured Red-breasted Sapsucker. However, a nice view of a Belted Kingfisher was a nice consolation:

As late afternoon approached, I decided to visit a duck pond in a local park and was pleasantly surprised by the number and variety of ducks, as well as how tame they were…most likely because they had become accustomed to the numerous park visitors:

A resplendent Ring-necked Duck drake

Sunset was by now rapidly approaching, so I decided to make a return trip to the coast to see what birds were about. As it was a gorgeous, warm Friday evening there were a heck of a lot more people out and about than there had been at the same spot at 6:30am when I was there earlier and as such most of the birds were far away in the waves. However, I was able to finish off a super day by racking up yet another lifer when I spied a somewhat unusual shape in the surf: a Rhinoceros Auklet!

With such a promising start to my 3-day visit, and having gone to bed with sunshine again forecast, I woke early the next morning with high hopes of repeating my success. However, my hopes were dashed when I opened my motel room door to be greeted by…a complete fog in! The heavy sea mist did not lift for several hours and the light on the coast even then was murky to say the least. So, I decided to head north up the east coast and try out a few locations all the way up to Qualicum Beach. In almost a compete reversal of the day before, I had very little luck and saw very few birds…in fact, this friendly Harbour Seal was pretty much the highlight:

My luck returned on my final day and with cool, cloudy conditions in the morning I headed off to the suburban Mount Tolmie Park. The birds were once again back in good numbers and variety, including Spotted Towhee:

Pacific Wren:

Two more ‘lifers’, the first being a Bewick’s Wren:

… that foraged and sang in equal measures…

And the second being the Chestnut-backed Chickadee:

Some other highlights included a pair of Bushtits:

… putting the final touches on their lovely hanging nest (note, I normally shy away from taking pictures of nesting birds for fear of them abandoning their nest. However, this particular nest was literally right beside a popular dog-walking trail and the Bushtits seemed to have no apparent concern for the many passers-by):

The final personal highlight was a tiny, but colourful, male Anna’s Hummingbird that, unlike its peers that seemed to favour the tallest trees in the vicinity, kindly decided to perch on a branch that was in range of my lens:

This trip certainly had it’s ups and downs, however this only reinforced what I’ve already learnt about birding and bird photography:

1. Birds and weather are prone to being unpredictable and you should be prepared for surprises, both good and bad.

2. Every birder will likely have a ‘bad’ day of birding at some point, but these only make the ‘good’ days so much sweeter!

 

For more of my wildlife photography, please visit my facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/timjhopwood/

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T.O. Backyard – Winter birds. Spring birds. And Owls… cuz we all love Owls.

Hello, welcome back to our neck of the woods in the west end of Toronto, Ontario…  our backyard!

It’s been confusing for everyone including the birds on just what season it really is out there.  February gave us some record breaking warm temperatures which really brought out the song in our birds…  and brought us some very early migrants to the area.  Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds were being sighted in the 3rd week.

First of year Common Grackle for us.

Then when the weather turned more like winter, we started to have a Northern Mockingbird visiting our backyard once again. The last few years we’ve gotten one every winter. I thought that wasn’t going to happen this time but he finally showed up. The Holly bush is what seems to attract this bird but for whatever reason, this time around, the Mockingbird is also hitting up our peanut feeder (something I’ve never witnessed before).

Other than that, it’s just been nothing out of the ordinary. Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, both White and Red-breasted Nuthatches, couple American Goldfinches and we’re down to one lone Downy Woodpecker. No shortage of House Sparrows most days either. Hawk activity was very low until recently.

I found an Owl pellet on our shed roof late February. A sign that the Screech Owl that was in the box in December is still around.

Last week we had 3 species of Hawk hitting the backyard for a meal. Red-tailed Hawk caught a Pigeon one day, a Squirrel another day. Sharp-shinned Hawk caught a Starling one morning. Then we had a Cooper’s Hawk hang around for 3 days and catch two Pigeons that I had witnessed.

Red-tailed Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

The Cooper’s Hawk made for quite a story, which I blogged about on my own blog. It wasn’t just raptor catches prey, the end.

The Hawk activity has put some of our backyard friends in hiding. They are missed but better to be elsewhere and safe, than here and threatened.

Meet “The Jerseys”. They started coming around last September. They do get a lot of love on social media compared to some of our other unique individuals.

The Spring like days have awoken some of our night creatures. In a few days I had chanced upon all 3 of our usual suspects… Raccoon, Opossum and Skunk. Two mornings in a row there was a pair of Skunks still out scrounging around at first light! We look forward to the warmer evenings, sitting out back, and watching them all pass through.

The Spring like weather brought out many bird songs we’ve been waiting for. It also has made for some amorous moments like this.

Red-tailed Hawks courting.

We love everything that comes through here, furry or feathered.

Now for a little of what has been seen away from the backyard.

Winter brings Owls to the area. They certainly are a highlight for most people.

Last year I totaled 57 Snowy Owl encounters. It started in late October and kept up until early April. I didn’t go out of my way to see this Owl species, they were just around many nights on my way home from work. This time around, I was seeing two Owls over about 5 weeks, and they disappeared mid-February when those Spring like days started occurring.

A couple Northern Saw-whet Owls spent some time with us.

Not always easy to spot.

Sometimes a little more out in the open but still easily missed by most people.

Elusive Long-eared Owls.

How many can you see in this photo?

There’s one! Did you spot the other 2?

Unfortunately there were 2 incidents this past winter where this species was reported to the public by individuals. Both times masses of people came to see the birds. The first time, in a park I frequent all year, any season, with or without Owls. I had spotted the Owls just days before all hell broke loose. I was saddened once I learned their location was shared to the world by someone. In less than 2 weeks it went from 6 Long-eared Owls to chance of seeing just 1 bird.

No begrudging those who went to see this species but to those who went day after day, who spent hours on these birds, robbing these nocturnal creatures of their day time rest. This park was THE place to be for a couple weeks but once the Owls were gone, so were the people. Occasionally I still ran into the odd person searching the same area and coming up empty. One man told me he was there every day for at least a week. He took over 9,000 photographs of these Owls that did nothing unless flushed. Ugh! His reasoning was he felt so lucky and wanted to keep returning to see if he could get even luckier with better angles and lighting. He could not answer me when I asked him what he was going to do with all those photos.

Then weeks later another report of Long-eared Owls popped up at a lake park. Once again here came the people by the dozens. Funny enough many of the same people who rushed the first area. This colony started out with up to 13 Owls but quickly diminished to nothing in days. The stories that came from this one were an ethical birder/photographer’s nightmare. Individuals threw snow balls in the direction of the roosting Owls to wake them up. Individuals shouted at them. Individuals broke branches as well in attempts to get the attention of these Owls. At least one, but possibly two incidents where an Owl was picked off by a larger Hawk. This is not unusual; but I do wonder if the steady harassment, constant flushing of the birds, had something to do with it? So with the rumors floating of these disturbances, then people sharing photos of their finds of dead Owls at the park, it really was too much. The ones found dead most likely starved to death. Not all of it can be blamed on human interference but we all know that did not help.

For as many people that were rumored to be on these Owls, there were just as many who took the high road and decided to stay away and not be a part of this. Not everyone sucks out there.

It is what it is, Owls are the s**t every winter. Unfortunately a lot of negative stories come with reported birds.

Some of us do like the adventure of looking for these birds on our own, away from the hot spots. Some of us do luck out but it’s more effort on our part. When we do find them, it’s a feeling beyond description. And to have a few peaceful minutes alone with them. Insert expletives plus AMAZING.

Long-eared Owls that escaped being publicly posted.

Another chance of spotting more than 1 Owl roosting together. Good luck in seeing the others here!

The last great find to date was a Barred Owl in mid-February. Every winter there’s an area east of us that gets one, and a lot of people go to see it. We’ve not been out that way in 4 years now. Honestly, the Owl seems to care less about the people coming to the park to see it. But it’s the crowds that some of us don’t like, behaved or not, just not everyone’s thing.

Light searching all winter, meaning not going out of the way looking, but always got it in the back of our heads whenever out. Then finally, one mid-February morning that was really slow otherwise, there was this bird…

What bird? Bit of camouflage showing with this cropped photo.

I was not too far from our home but also in the middle of no where. My jaw dropped when I walked right past this bird, maybe 15 ft to my right. I think his presence startled me more than mine to him. He looked at me for maybe 20 seconds and then went back to looking at the ground. The morning sun was melting the icy landscape, and all the crackling sounds had his attention. I lightly but quickly backed up and then had an *expletive insert* amazing time viewing this beauty for a brief spell before heading back to the truck. I am always thankful for these moments, just an Owl and me, and I do give silent thanks afterwards. I wish my wife or a couple good friends were with me but they are happy for me when they hear about it after; just as I’d be happy for them.

A friend reminds me on occasion that for every known Owl location, there are far many more that go on unnoticed or escape the overall general public, facing far less disturbance. We have to take comfort in that. He is right.

My favourite photo from this season. A peaceful moment with a Long-eared Owl. At least I thought it was peaceful. Contrary to what some people think, Owls and most wild life do not like us.

Thanks for stopping in. See you all next month!

Posted in Bird Canada | 2 Comments

The Birds this Tree has Held

I was thrilled a couple weeks ago by my first Red-bellied Woodpecker.  I spotted it back in the woods and, even as I was wishing it would come a little closer, it flew into the yard.  It landed in the sumac, where it had a brief altercation with a starling (which took off), investigated the berries for a moment and then returned the treetops.  Just enough time for me to grab my camera and stick my head out the door to snap a couple quick pictures.  It’s hard to say whether I loved the look of it or its wonderful rolling call more.

Red-bellied Woodpecker and European Starling

As I waited outside later in the day, hoping for its return, I watched the starlings, robins (not spring robins, mind you, but stubborn winter residents), chickadees and goldfinches in the sumac.  The woodpecker didn’t come back to the yard, but I could hardly be too disappointed when all these other birds were posing so nicely for photos.

Black-capped Chickadee

American Goldfinch

American Robin

This tree is the hub of bird activity in our yard.  In this tree hangs the blue birdhouse that the House Wren calls home.  Also, the feeder, frequented by chickadees and goldfinches, and such nomadic winter visitors as the Pine Siskin and Common Redpoll.  The White- and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Downy, Hairy and Pileated Woodpeckers have all explored this tree’s limbs.  Sparrows and juncos and finches, warblers and blackbirds, the cardinal, the Catbird and the Red-eyed Vireo, have all perched in its branches.  And the Indigo Bunting, too, which appeared in a flash of surreal brilliant blue right before my surprised eyes.  All these birds, and that is just some of what I know about.  I can’t help but wonder… what else has stopped by in the sumac when I wasn’t watching?

Posted in Winter Birding in Canada, Woodpeckers | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Notes From a NW Ontario Backyard – February 2017

Hello again!

As usual, I find it hard to believe that we are nearing the end of another month already.  The months just seem to be zipping by.  That’s alright though:  it means that spring ….. and access to my flowerbeds ….. is getting closer!  Right now, I can’t see much but WHITE out there but the Ruffed Grouse don’t seem to mind.  🙂  I’ve had 2 of them visiting my yard in recent weeks.  I actually think I have at least 3 coming around but I’ve only ever seen 2 at a time.  A friend of mine down the street has seen *5* in her yard!

Two Ruffed Grouse taking advantage of my daily offerings: black oil sunflower seed, striped sunflower seed, white millet, peanut hearts, corn & peanuts in the shell. They are partial to corn & peanut crumbs.

Below is my resident female Ruffed Grouse.  In this photo, she is not happy about the Blue Jays floating around the yard.  She is noticeably smaller than the male Grouse (the one on the ground in the photo above).

Female Ruffed Grouse getting her snack just before dark.

The next photo is also of my resident female Grouse.  She has a favourite perch in my spruce tree.  On this day, she was tucked into the tree from 9:30 am until 5:20 pm!  That’s when she wandered out for her evening snack before flying off to roost or bury herself in the snow somewhere for the night.

Ruffed Grouse have incredible camouflage, even when they are right outside your window!

I’ve been having great fun this winter with the Raven in the photo below.  This is the yearling Raven …. you can still see the red mouth interior very clearly.  And he/she still loves the suet!  I think I’m going to be finding all kinds of it on my back lawn come spring.  He/she keeps flying away with these big chunks but ends up dropping them in the snow about 10 feet from the feeder.  Yesterday, the resident pair of Crows worked at this piece in the snow but I think it got buried too deeply for them to reach.  They now have to wait until the snow melts to get at it.

Webcam Snap: Yearling Raven with eyes much bigger than its beak! He/she dropped the chunk of suet into the snow a few feet from the feeder, never to be seen again until spring!

My resident pair of Crows is still visiting daily.  Gimpy, the Crow on the left, is the one with the injured leg/foot.  The bird is managing quite well with its disability.  Its mate is almost always with it.  They sometimes spend hours in my pine tree on the left of this photo.

Webcam Snap: Resident pair of Crows.

The healthy Crow, being curious when it saw me at the patio door 🙂

The 3 Gray Jays are still coming around a few times per day although they are not always together now.  I believe the mated adult pair below have sent the third one packing to get its own territory.  This pair will be leaving any day now to begin this year’s nesting season.  Gray Jays are, I believe, the earliest nesters up here, laying their eggs in late February/early March.  Pretty impressive!

Webcam Snap: Adult mated pair of Gray Jays

Thank you, Lord, for this water we are about to receive ….

Such a handsome bird that will officially become Canada’s National Bird this summer!

Handsome, fluffy Gray Jay … one of my most favourite birds of all time.

Blue Jays are in the yard most any time I look outside.  If I have the webcam on (which I do 90% of the time!), I can hear all manner of calls & noises from them throughout my neighbourhood.  They have quite the repertoire!

Pretty Blue Jay in my pine tree

The winter finches are in pretty low numbers this season.  Pine Grosbeaks are one of the most common species in my yard this winter with numbers near 20 at a time where I would normally see 30 to 40.

Male Pine Grosbeak

Female Pine Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak numbers in this area are really low this winter.  I’m lucky to be able to count 10 at a time where I would normally have well over 50+.  I’m hearing that they are being seen in higher numbers around the Chapleau – Cochrane, Ont. areas.

Male Evening Grosbeak

Male & fluffy female Evening Grosbeaks on a particularly cold day

One day, I actually watched this female Evening Grosbeak pick & eat a pine needle.  I had no idea that they would eat pine needles!

This female Evening Grosbeak clipped off the tip of the pine needles and ate the rest. Interesting!

Webcam Snap: Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks & Redpolls feeding together

Redpoll numbers have finally picked up a little for this season but, like the Grosbeaks, they are significantly lower than normal.  I’ve had a high count so far of only 35 where I would normally have well over 100 by this time.  I’ve heard that many of them stayed in the Arctic this winter instead of migrating down this way.

Webcam Snap: Common Redpolls

I’ve seen 3 Hoary Redpolls so far this season.  I love seeing them in my Crabapple tree like the photo below ….. they look like little fluffy snowballs!

Hoary Redpoll (right) with Common Redpoll.

And that’s it for this month.  Maybe …. just maybe …. I’ll have some Juncos or Purple Finches by the time I do up my March post.  You never know.

Until then, thanks for reading!

Posted in Bird Canada | 10 Comments

T.O. BACKYARD – WINTER BLUES

Brightening up a grey day in January. Photo by Rob Mueller

It’s not very often that Rob and I go on a nature/birding walk with a target bird in mind. But on a grey, dreary Saturday in January we did just that, we went looking for Eastern Bluebirds.

I still remember the first time I saw an Eastern Bluebird. We were driving around back roads of southwestern Ontario many years ago, and there on top of some road side wires we saw our first pair. They took our breath away, even if it wasn’t a picture perfect perch. Since that time Rob and I have become members of the Ontario Eastern Bluebird Society and I have managed their Facebook page for the last few years. It was a way for me to give back to an organization that has helped this species thrive.

Eastern Bluebirds overwintering in southern Ontario is becoming more common. A friend of ours saw a few at a park about a half hour drive from our home on December 18, 2016. His sighting was the reason for our outing in the new year. They are not a bird we will see in our backyard, the suburbs of Toronto isn’t a good habitat for them. Cavity nesting birds, they prefer open fields and meadow type areas if the right bird boxes are supplied.

Rob is currently working with a local college that has an area on their grounds that provide the perfect habitat for Eastern Bluebirds. They nested there years ago, and are still seen there on occasion. The college, with Rob’s assistance, are hoping to have them nest there again. They did have success with Tree Swallows last year.

Overwintering in Burlington, Ontario. Dec. 2016 Photo by Dave iluck

We always have to travel out of our backyard to see Eastern Bluebirds, and we usually see them in May during migration, when like many other birders we are making the most of the opportunity to see many different species.

Two female Eastern Bluebirds. Jan. 2017 Photo by Rob Mueller

This particular Saturday we wanted a hint of the beauty that arrives with Spring, so in search we went. Bronte Provincial Park in Burlington, Ontario hosts monitored nest boxes, and it seems some of the Eastern Bluebirds decided to stay for the winter. We walked for quite a while, and then it happened, that brilliant flash of blue caught our eyes.

Male Eastern Bluebird. Jan. 2017 Photo by Rob Mueller

We saw six Eastern Bluebirds on our outing, three male and three female. Watching them was joyful, and a beautiful reminder of the coming season.

Photo by Dave iluck Dec. 2016, Bronte Provincial Park, Burlington, Ontario  

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Birding in Southeastern Ontario

“Of late years there has been a great awakening of interest in the subject of natural history.  More and more people are beginning to realize the pleasure and profit that can be derived from observation of common natural objects.  In this growing field of nature study, few subjects have attracted so much popular attention as birds and few forms of life appeal so strongly to the aesthetic sense.  They are beautiful; they arouse curiosity; their elusiveness piques the imagination; and by presenting constantly new aspects they never become commonplace.”

P.A. Taverner in Birds of Eastern Canada, 1919

Taverner was the first ornithologist in the government of Canada, and his Birds of Canada stands proudly on my bookshelf.  Taverner really watched the birds he wrote about, and I delight in his writing because that comes through with every word, and because I, too, love to write and birds are one of my favourite subjects.  I have always loved nature, but really fell for birds while completing my three year Fish and Wildlife diploma.  These days, I work at a groundcovers nursery, and much of my spare time is spent bird watching locally and freelance writing.

This is Miller Creek Wildlife Area, and it seems necessary to share it with you as I introduce myself.  Miller Creek, you see, is my favourite place to bird.  It is home to Sandhill Cranes, Virginia Rails and Snipe, the American Bittern, Green and Great Blue Herons.  The Yellow Warblers and Common Yellowthroats flit from every shrub and cedar, the Harrier glides on immobile wings above the marsh, the muskrat snacks noisily beneath the bridge, and the Eastern Kingbird nests beside the beaver pond.  The Veery’s song echoes through the spring foliage, giving way to the Chorus Frogs’ calls where the trees turn to cattails, and the Ruffed Grouse’s tracks mark the snow when winter comes.

Barn, Tree and Bank Swallows

Virginia Rail

Baby Virginia Rail

American Bittern

Green Heron

Common Yellowthroat

My backyard here in Ennismore, Ontario comes in as a close second among my favourite places to bird.  The faithful House Wren always takes up residence in the blue birdhouse, and year to year I never know who else will make our yard home.  We’ve had Chickadees and many Robins, as well as Starlings, White-breasted Nuthatches, Grackles, Mourning Doves, Song Sparrows, Cedar Waxwings, Warbling and Red-eyed Vireos.  And of course there are all the visitors, those who nest nearby and those just passing through, like the Great Blue Heron who discovered our little pond and thought it his own private little paradise.

House Wren

European Starling Nestling

Mourning Dove Nestlings

Red-eyed Vireo in Nest

Great Blue Heron

I can hardly wait to see who will come this spring.  My first bird of 2017 was the American Goldfinch, closely followed by the White-breasted Nuthatch and the hardy, ever-dependable Black-capped Chickadee.  I keep a checklist each year of all the birds I see, and there is something very exciting about a new start in January.  Looking back over 2016, some of my most exciting bird encounters include

Bald Eagles feeding on carp and leaving footprints on the ice of the Otonabee River;

Immature Bald Eagle

Eagle Footprints

my first Brown Creeper (which I watched, utterly enthralled, as it spiraled up each tree trunk before flying down to the base of the next);

Brown Creeper

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs together in a flooded field;

Greater Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

Upland Sandpiper babies (!);

Upland Sandpiper

Baby Upland Sandpiper

and hearing Whip-poor-wills call as the sun set in Frontenac Provincial Park.

I look forward to sharing my bird encounters of 2017 with you – who knows what the year holds!

Rachel

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Notes From a Northwestern Ontario Backyard – Jan. 2017

Hello & a belated Happy New Year to all of you!  Since I missed putting out a December post, I’ll take this moment to say I sure hope everyone had a pleasant Christmas & New Year holiday.

I hope you are all enjoying the winter season thus far.  It’s been a chilly one up here until this week. We, like the rest of Ontario, are enjoying a ‘January Thaw’ & we actually had some light rain showers this afternoon.  I’m really hoping that won’t continue as the deep freeze will likely return next week sometime.

Runoff from a defunct dam, at the New Year, near our camp

It’s turning out to be a fairly quiet winter in my backyard.  I have steady activity from about a dozen different bird species but numbers of individuals are significantly lower than I’ve had in recent winters.  The most notable absentees are Evening Grosbeaks & Common Redpolls.  I have both species at the feeders daily right now but nowhere near the numbers I’m used to.  In a really good year, I’ll see 50+ Evening Grosbeaks and 120+ Redpolls at a time.  In an average year, I’ll see 30+ EVGBs & 50+ COREs.  This year?  I’m lucky to see a dozen EVGBs & 20 COREs.  So, they are here but most of them have gone elsewhere for this season.

Male Evening Grosbeak

Female Evening Grosbeak

Female Common Redpoll

Just this week, I finally spotted the season’s first Hoary Redpoll on my nyjer feeder.  In my best year ever, I had 20 Hoary Redpolls in my yard … it was amazing!  Normally, I’ll see about 5 in a winter.

Season’s first Hoary Redpoll, bottom left on Lighthouse feeder

Numbers of Pine Grosbeaks are also a little below average this year.  I’m seeing about 15 to 20 at a time where I would normally have at least 25 to 30.

Female (left) and male Pine Grosbeak

Male Pine Grosbeak at the very top of my hoar frost-laden pine tree

One little treat this winter has been sightings of a couple of leucistic Pine Grosbeaks.  Leucism is a lack of pigment or color in some feathers.  The beautiful female Pine Grosbeak on the left in the photo below is a prime example.  Notice how she has so much more white in her feathers compared to the other birds.  She was stunning!

Leucistic female Pine Grosbeak (left)

This next photo, I find, is quite interesting.  It shows a leucistic male Pine Grosbeak but also shows how color is variable in the same species.  The middle male is more orange-ish while the one on the right is the standard rosy red.

Leucistic male Pine Grosbeak

Aside from the disappointment of lower-than-average numbers, I’ve been having great fun watching the Crows & Ravens this winter.  It used to be that we would never see Crows in winter … they would all migrate south.  That has changed in the past 10 years, however, and now it is common to see them all year round.

This winter, I have a crippled Crow visiting my yard almost daily.  I noticed  in late November that one Crow had a lame leg (see the Crow on the left).  The right leg was hanging & totally useless to the bird.  As the winter has gone on, the leg is now ‘petrified’:  stiff.  The Crow cannot close the talons or bear weight on the foot at all.  It has managed quite well all winter, coming to the feeders daily & drinking from the bird bath.  The other Crow is near it most times so I’m assuming they are a mated pair.

One Crow has a lame leg but is still managing alright to feed.

Healthy Crow

Ravens have been great fun as well.  I even learned something about them recently:  the Raven below is a ‘yearling’ or ‘hatch-year’ bird, just hatched last spring.  How can I tell?  Someone pointed out to me that the interior of a yearling Raven’s mouth is red!  When this bird is a full adult, its mouth interior will be solid black.  Interesting!  And this bird had great fun trying to fly away with an entire chunk of suet.  It would drop the suet just out of the webcam’s view, then sit on the ground to eat it.

Yearling Raven with red mouth interior to prove it.

Handsome adult Raven

I have a small flock of European Starlings visiting this winter.  It’s always hit or miss with blackbirds in the winter.  Sometimes I’ll have one or two Grackles spend a winter, this year it’s 8 Starlings.  I don’t mind them in lower numbers like this.  They are beautiful to look & very cool to listen to with their large assortment of whistles, clicks, etc.

2 of the 8 European Starlings that stayed around this winter.

Webcam snapshot of Starlings on the platform feeder with Pine & Evening Grosbeaks

Canada’s new (likely!) national bird has been spending some time at my feeders this winter.  Three Gray Jays have been coming around a few times per week.  Two of the them are a mated pair (I saw them feeding each other in my trees 2 days ago!) and the third one is probably their offspring from last season.  It will likely be sent packing shortly (if it hasn’t already), before this year’s nesting season begins.

Gray Jay fluffed against the cold air.

I have 6 to 10 Blue Jays that come around daily for their peanuts.  They have me well trained so that the platform feeder is loaded with peanuts in the shell for them every morning!  Lately,  I’ve been hearing the ‘Blue Jay Rattle’ around the yard again.  I believe this call is only made by the female and it’s something to do with courtship.

Lovely Blue Jay

I believe I have three Ruffed Grouse coming to the yard but I never see them at the same time. This webcam snapshot below is one of the rare times this winter that I’ve seen two together.  One Grouse is noticeably smaller & appears to be the only one that tolerates the Blue Jays.  The larger Grouse (males, I believe) do NOT tolerate the Jays & send them packing immediately!

Two Ruffed Grouse temporarily sharing the platform feeder

Super fluffy Ruffed Grouse on a bitterly cold day.

After an entire year of virtually NO woodpecker sightings (Hairy & Downy, anyway), a few are finally finding my yard.  A little female Downy Woodpecker has been around most of this winter.  The Hairy Woodpecker visits have been much more sporadic …. few & far between.  An exciting thing to note though:  I finally had a PAIR of Hairy Woodpeckers (a male & a female) chasing each other through my yard today!  🙂

Female Hairy Woodpecker

This little female Downy has been alone in the yard most of the time but I did recently see a male Downy in my birch tree.

Female Downy Woodpecker

Okay, I guess I’ve rattled on plenty long enough!  This gives you an idea of how my winter feeding season is going anyway.  Before I go, here is the link to the Project FeederWatch webcam in my yard.  It will run until mid April for the FeederWatch season.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the read & the photos.  Until next time, thanks for taking a look!

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A Winter of Content – Birding Calgary Nov 2016 to Jan 2017

Sunrise at Carburn on a late autumn morning.

The city of Calgary had somewhat extended autumnal weather (i.e. above zero temps, no snow) lasting until late November, which meant that waterfowl migrating south were able to enjoy open ponds for longer than normal. Taking advantage of this, I made a number of visits to Carburn Park on the banks of the Bow River to photograph the ducks as they passed through. First off were half a dozen Ring-necked Ducks, a species which I have only seen very few of in YYC:

Three particular highlights (which I’ve found difficult to separate) of my visits were:

#1: A lone young Tundra Swan…this bird always seemed to be way out in the middle of the main pond…except on one day where it came very close to the shoreline and I was able to get some close-ups. There’s just something about swans that conveys a majestic feeling in my mind:

#2: One completely unexpected surprise…walking back to my car to head home after shooting the ducks, I heard several nuthatches making a real racket and chirping incessantly…so, with bated breath, I went to investigate the source of their annoyance…and was greeted with the two huge eyes of a Northern Saw-whet Owl looking back at me! So, a big thank you to the nuthatches as I can’t really claim credit for ‘finding’ this pint-sized beauty:).
(If you look at the bottom right you might be able to make out the deer mouse the owl appears to have caught and saved for later!):

#3: Finally, on my last visit before the ponds froze over, a last-minute decision late in the day to pop by Carburn and see what was there…to be welcomed by the main pond literally teeming with hundreds of ducks, all in glorious late-afternoon sunshine! As half the pond had iced up already, the ducks were all concentrated in a relatively small area and fairly close to the shore where I was, so I sat down and clicked away…I spent a good chunk of time on a pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes, birds I very rarely see, and it was fantastic to see the drake’s indigo colours in all their splendour thanks to the great light:

Not to be missed as well were the rafts of diminutive Buffleheads coursing through the hundreds of much larger Canada Geese.

Buffleheads are a real treat to see up close, not just because the drakes’ head plumage colours light up spectacularly in good light, but also because I’ve found them such a skittish bird that close-up opportunities are extremely few and far between…but today, with all the other birds around, they seemed relatively comfortable to cruise past me…

  Later in the month, heading in the opposite direction and out west into the foothills, I enjoyed the company of a Great Grey Owl for over an hour as it went about its morning hunt…(please note: I never bait owls…patience and knowledge of their habits are all you really need to get pleasing shots)

December brought with it winter in all its might, with some sizable snow dumps in combination with week-long stretches of sub -20C temperatures. With time off over the festive season I was able to go on a few jaunts in search of a few winter specialties, such as the Snowy Owl (down from the Arctic for a few months), of which I was able to spy no less than 9 individuals in 3 hours:

And it would be remiss of me not to include this beauty…

A lovely Merlin I came across while out looking for Snowy Owls.

I was also fortunate to see the Snowy Owl’s smaller cousin, the Short-eared Owl, which seems to be being seen in good numbers this year:

A different angle on a Shortie….note the freshly-caught vole in the left talon.

Despite the extreme cold giving my exposed trigger fingers a beating, I find watching Shorties sweep and float across the fields to be a relaxing and magical spectacles, especially when the low winter sun shines through their long, translucent wings.

A beautiful prairie sunset…

Closer to home, I continue to be grateful to be only 15 minutes’ drive from yet another great city park – the Weaselhead Nature Area.

Chickadees…always keep you entertained.

All sorts of great wildlife show up here during the year from moose, to bobcats, multiple owls, and even hummingbirds. But in winter, I love to go and see the winter finches that gratefully come to feed on the seed that, year-in year-out, tireless locals put out for them on their own dime. This welcome source of sustenance draws in not only the resident chickadees and House Finches but also the pink and yellow-hued Pine Grosbeaks and the ever-popular Redpolls – their warming shades a comforting spectacle during the depths of a cold, blue winter:

A female Pine Grosbeak

A male Pine Grosbeak in rich scarlet

 

I just love the pink on Common Redpolls

Until next blog, good birding!

You can follow me here: https://www.facebook.com/timjhopwood/

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