Bird Tales From a Toronto Backyard – From Our Backyard to the Night Owls

February came and went in a flash.  Even with the extra day this year.  I guess having so many days with Spring-like temperatures made it one of the most pleasant February(s) we’ve endured in a few years.

The backyard didn’t present too much activity, or rather nothing out of the ordinary.  We were just going through the motions of the regulars coming and going at their choice.


Our Project Feeder Watch counts averaged 10 species with 90 to 100 individuals, 75% + being Pigeons and House Sparrows. We were blessed with half a dozen Northern Cardinals usually coming in together at dusk.


Hawk activity reduced to very few sightings which the other birds certainly did not mind.


What really made February interesting was all the night Owl activity in our region. Snowy Owls to be exact. There was a time when we would not have believed that such an Owl visited the Toronto area. The irruptions in the last 5 years brought us many sightings. This time around, there was no irruption, and we thought it was going to be a season lacking for Snowy Owl sightings. This turned out to be true in one way as there have not been any regular reliable daytime sightings with the lake parks like many of us have been used to over the last number of winters.  But come nighttime, for myself anyway, they suddenly appear.


The previous winter I was fortunate to have sightings of these Owls, often more than just one any given night on my way home from work. I started documenting all my encounters but when a lull in the sightings occurred for a number of weeks, I stopped logging. I heard that a total of 35 Snowy Owls were trapped and re-located from Pearson Airport in December of 2014. It made for a much quieter January. But as February rolled in, the Snowys started popping up again. I was regularly spotting these Owls after dark right up until my last sighting in mid-April of 2015.


This season I spotted my first Snowy Owl on October 29, 2015. I went a full month before I saw my next bird. From that first Owl sighting until the end of January 2016, I accumulated 10 sightings in total. There have been far less Owls in our region this time around. I’d not heard about any trapping/re-locating at Pearson this season. So interesting that for different reasons, there still has been a lull in that same time frame.

February arrives and so did the Snowy Owl sightings or “encounters” as some call them. Luckily I did not discard my notes this time around. Through the 29 days of February I managed 23 Snowy Owl night encounters in my travels from work in Mississauga to our home in the west end of Toronto. I’m guessing that I’ve been seeing the same approximately half dozen Owls. Some nights I’ve spotted one, some nights two, my record is four. I’ve gone 3 or 4 nights without any Owl sightings and then night after night I am encountering them once again.


They aren’t always so easy to spot. They aren’t always in areas where I can stop the truck and have a safe view of them, so I just keep driving. Night Owl viewing isn’t the best for photographs either. This is something I am learning how to capture record shots with manual camera settings, not using flash photography on the birds. Sometimes it works out well, other times it doesn’t. A lot depends on where the Owls are sitting, if I can make use of street lighting or not.

Here is a perfect perch for a nighttime photograph.


Here is a less than ideal spot. Just for the record is all I’m using such photos.


The night sights have made for some interesting pictures though…




Just as years ago I thought Snowy Owls would never be seen in Toronto, and I was proven incorrect. I never thought I’d experience, and have so much fun, birding at night in the winter. Seeing these Owls after a long evening at work is a blessing.

Last winter Angie woke me up at 3am one Sunday in February, asking me if I wanted to go look for some Snowys. She wanted to experience what I was enjoying. We managed to find 2 within a couple kms of each other not far from our home. I remember not being so enthusiastic in the waking moment but am happy we did go out and spot a couple.  It’s great when a couple share a passion.

Here is my favorite photo from February this time around.


It wasn’t the nicest of nights as you can see in this next shot. The settings are different and so is the angle. A night most people wouldn’t think of stepping out of their homes to go look for Snowy Owls. I know I probably would not have either but since I am out and on my way home from work, I am not going out of my way by any means.


Call me lucky. Call me a little spoiled. I will agree. I don’t tire of the views because I know it’s only for such a short amount of time.

A Snowy Owl at night can provide some memorable moments as they are much more active than any day time view I’ve had of one.  They hunt, often diving into nearby fields.  And seeing them where I have been, along back roads off the highway 401, I don’t need to step out of the truck to enjoy the views (or take a photo).

I encourage people to open their eyes to the wild world around us, even at night.  Just be safe about it and of course always remain courteous to the Owls.

Posted in Bird Canada | 4 Comments

Love is in the Air

On the day before Valentine’s Day, GROWLS (Gabriola Rescue of Wildlife Society) held a wonderful event in celebration of Bald Eagles. Aptly-named Love is in the Air: An Eagle Affair, the day included a tour of eagle nests and a talk by provincial biologist Ian Moul about the Gabriola Eagle Nest Monitoring Program. That part of the day was introduced by Gabriola’s very own Member of Parliament, the Honourable Sheila Malcolmson, long-time crusader for the coastal environment where Bald Eagles live and breed. Sheila urged us all to conduct our lives in a way that is “compatible with the eagles’ lives.”

Bonded pair at Orlebar Point in front of the Surf Lodge. Photo by Tina Kirschner.

Bonded pair at Orlebar Point in front of the Surf Lodge, Gabriola Island. Photo by Tina Kirschner.


On Gabriola, home to about 4000 people, we have 23 recorded nests and 49 known nest trees. GROWLS has been monitoring Bald Eagle nests for over 25 years with the support of the BC Federation of Naturalists’ Wildlife Tree Stewardship (WITS) initiative, whose purpose is to protect nesting habitat. Through their Community Mapping Network we know that there is a Bald Eagle nest every kilometre of coastline. Knowing where nest trees are is the first step in protecting Bald Eagle nesting habitat. Under the BC Wildlife Act, Section 34, these nest trees are protected by law, year-round. Removal or modification of a nest tree without a permit is punishable by a fine of $100,000 or one year in prison or both. If you live in British Columbia and have a concern about a protected tree call the Conservation Officer at 1-877-952-7277.


Nest in tree. Photo by Tawny Capon.

Nest tree with nest. Photo by Tawny Capon.


Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) are not, of course, bald. Even when young their heads are well-covered in brown feathers, their dark brown bodies mottled with white. By about five years of age, adulthood, they have white heads and tails, dark brown bodies and wings, and bright yellow legs and bills. From afar, the head might look bald but it certainly isn’t. The Bald Eagle has, in fact, 7000 feathers! (Thank you for this tidbit, GROWLS!) The adult female weighs about 12 pounds; the male is smaller by 25%.


Eagle up close and personal. Photo by Tina Kirschner.

Bald Eagle up close and personal. Photo by Tina Kirschner.


These majestic birds, national emblem of the USA since 1782 and spiritual symbol of First Nations peoples, live along the coast and inland on lakes, reservoirs, rivers, and marshes. Although once endangered because of hunting and pesticides, they have flourished since being protected by law.


Family of Bald Eagles along Whalebone. Photo by Bill McGann

Family of Bald Eagles along Whalebone. Photo by Bill McGann.


The call of the Bald Eagle is surprising, given the size and strength of the raptor.

Eagles calling 1. Photo by Les ...

Eagles calling. Photo by Les Hulicsko, Wandering Sole Images.


You can listen to these two eagles calling here: Eagles calling  (Thank you to Les of Wandering Sole Images for use of this video. To see more of his amazing nature videos, click here:

That Bald Eagles breed during February probably has nothing to do with Saint Valentine – but one never knows for sure. Their preferred breeding home is a big gnarly Douglas Fir with a view of the ocean, their primary food source. Unfortunately, there are few stands of “old growth” trees left due to logging and development; the ones that do remain are gradually being lost to natural decay or are being removed because of their danger of falling on homes.


Nest. Photo by Tawny Capon.

Eagle Nest in tree. Photo by Tawny Capon.


At certain times of the year Bald Eagles will scavenge, in great numbers, in garbage dumps. But most of the time they eat fish, often preferring to nab a fish from another creature rather than do their own fishing. They’ll also hunt and eat mammals (rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, cats) as well as gulls and waterfowl.


Eagle with catch. Photo by Michael Auger.

Eagle with salmon. Photo by Michael Auger.


Once mated, at four or five years of age, Bald Eagles get down to the business of procreation. Nests are carefully constructed of sticks, grasses, weeds, moss, and sometimes feathers. A wonder to behold, the largest one on record (in Florida) was 2.9 meters in diameter and 6.1 meters tall. They can weigh up to one metric ton.

Nest with parent flying in. Photo by Tawny Capon.

Nest with parent flying in. Photo by Tawny Capon.


Unlike most birds, Bald Eagles lay their eggs two or three days apart. If food is plentiful all is well, but if not, the second egg or weaker ones may be eaten in order to maximize the chances of survival of the healthiest one. Nest success rates can vary between 26% and 75% depending on location.

Nest and baby. Photo by Tawny Capon.

Nest and baby. Photo by Tawny Capon.


Nest with young. Photo by Tina Kirschner.

Nest with young. Photo by Tina Kirschner.


Between first-year mortality rates, habitat loss and destruction, electrocution on power lines, and dwindling salmon populations, the life of a Bald Eagle is no piece of cake. Want to help? Here are a few things you can do:

  • Do not feed the eagles! (It’s not good for them or for the ecological balance of their habitat.)
  • Never disturb nest trees (whether known to be in use or not) from January through August
    • No branch clearing
    • No burn piles
    • Minimal noise (eg loud machinery)
  • Building a house? Make use of the BC Develop with Care Guidelines. Click here:
  • Participate in habitat protection: contact WITS at
  • If you have a potential nest tree on your property, designate it a “Wildlife Tree” by contacting the Ministry of the Environment at 1-866-433-7272
  • Arrange for your power provider to install ‘bird diverters’ on power lines to help stop electrocutions. There are a variety of types of diverters. The one pictured here reflects sunlight in the daytime and glows in the night, acting as a visual deterrent. Several years ago, at the request of GROWLS, BC Hydro installed a series of these diverters along a Gabriola road where several eagles had been electrocuted. Since then, no eagles have been electrocuted along this stretch of road, as far as we know. Research in other places demonstrates their effectiveness. (


Bird Diverter. Photo by Iain Lawrence.

Bird Diverter on Berry Point Road, Gabriola Island. Photo by Iain Lawrence.


A HUGE THANK YOU to all the GROWLS folks for your tireless commitment to and passion for Bald Eagles and all the non-human living things that share the island with us.


Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Nature Photography, Raptors | Tagged , , , , , | 16 Comments

Notes From a NW Ontario Backyard – Feb.’16

Hello again!  Hope everyone had an enjoyable Valentine’s Day.

Believe it or not, it is time for the Gray Jay to nest!  Up here in NW Ontario, I believe the Gray Jay is the earliest species to begin nesting, usually in mid to late February.  The signs have been there lately too.  Twice this week, I’ve seen a pair feeding each other peanut butter from the log I have hanging with my feeders.  Last week, I was able to see this from 5 feet away, as one fed the other from my honeysuckle shrub while I was standing there watching.  I loved it!

Gray Jay

Gray Jay enjoying the rare sunshine

GJays sharing peanut butter

Mating pair of Gray Jays: one is feeding the other peanut butter …. SO sweet to see!

GJay eating peanut butter

Gray Jay on the peanut butter log

3 Gray Jays

3 Gray Jays: 2 are a mating pair, one is a loner

Redpoll numbers have finally picked up nicely in my yard and the bonus is that there are a couple of Hoary Redpolls in the mix.  The season for them started out very slow.  I normally have Redpolls at my feeders by the end of November but this year, although I would see or hear small flocks of them flying around, they didn’t come to my feeders until nearly Christmas and even then, the numbers were very low.  Now, I’m averaging 40 to 60+ at a time …. much better.  🙂

Redpoll at -35C

Male Hoary Redpoll

Male CRedpoll

Male Common Redpoll

Male & Female CRedpolls

Male (top) and female Common Redpolls

Hoary & Common Redpolls

Two Common (top) and one Hoary Redpoll

Female CRedpoll

Female Common Redpoll

Grosbeaks are here pretty steadily.  Evening Grosbeak numbers fluctuate from 5 to 20 per day.  Pine Grosbeak numbers are pretty steady around 15 at a time.

Male & Female EVGB

Male (top) and female Evening Grosbeak

Busy Feeders

Pine Grosbeaks with Common Redpolls

EVGBs on Birdbath

Male (right) and female Evening Grosbeak at my nearly frozen heated birdbath (it was -35C that day!)

Speaking of Grosbeaks, I had a visit from a very interesting one last week.  I thought at first that this was a female Pine Grosbeak with messed up colors but once I asked around to a couple of ornithologist friends, I found that this is actually a MALE Pine Grosbeak with a condition called Xanthochroism:  excessive yellow pigment instead of the normal red.  I’ve seen various forms of this before in the Pine Grosbeaks but never to this extent.  He’s stunning in lovely gold!

Pine with Xanthochroism2

Male Pine Grosbeak with Xanthochroism: excessive yellow pigment

Pine with Xanthochroism1

Male Pine Grosbeak with Xanthochroism: excessive yellow pigment

One or two Ruffed Grouse are still coming around almost daily.  A few days ago, this smaller Grouse spent an entire day in the yard.  She (I think) had breakfast at the feeders, then she made her way over to my spruce tree where she has a favourite perch in the middle of the tree.  She settled in there and spent the whole day resting, napping and looking around, well protected from the elements.  I have a perfect view of that spot from my office window.

Grouse hiding in feeders

One of two Ruffed Grouse that visit daily. This one is the smaller of the two.

Two Crows come in to fight the Blue Jays for peanuts.  It can get very noisy sometimes but the Crows are actually quite shy and jumpy.  I don’t mind having them around one little bit either.


Crow eyeing up the peanuts on the platform feeder

A few Chickadees come around off and on all day long.  This little Black Capped Chickadee finally sat still just long enough for a quick snap.  I’ve been very lucky in the past two weeks to have a couple of quick (VERY quick!) visits from this fellow’s cousin, the Boreal Chickadee.  In almost 12 years, these are the first two visits from a Boreal that I can be sure of.  I’ve heard them nearby before but have never seen them in the yard until this month. No photos of them ….. yet.


Black Capped Chickadee

And that’s about it for this month.  By the time you hear from me again, it will be just as spring is officially arriving!  Doesn’t that make you feel good?

Thanks for reading!

Posted in Bird Canada | 15 Comments

T.O. Backyard – Algonquin Road Trip

Hand feeding a Gray Jay in Algonquin Park, Feb. 2013

Hand feeding a Gray Jay in Algonquin Park. February, 2013

A lot of people don’t like winter, but we enjoy it. Sure, we miss our beautiful Baltimore Orioles, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and the many other birds that visit us during the Spring/Summer months, but Rob and I help ease this by taking a yearly winter road trip to the massive and beautiful Algonquin Provincial Park.

Approximately a 3 hour drive from our home we are given the opportunity to see some bird species that do not come this far south, let alone land in our backyard. It is always a memorable experience to see these birds. Some we see pretty much every time we visit , and some we’ve only seen once. We visit the park at other times of the year, but there is something special about the winter season there. Please enjoy a few pics from a few years worth of trips to this extraordinary park.

Black-backed Woodpecker from our first trip, Nov. 2010.

Black-backed Woodpecker from our first trip. November 2010


It was worth the 3 hour drive the first time we went to see the Gray Jays. November 2010

Male Evening Grosbeak Feb. 2012. Isn't he stunning?

Male Evening Grosbeak, Isn’t he stunning? February 2012

Probably our most magical sighting in the park to date, a Great Grey Owl. Oct. 2012

Probably our most magical sighting in the park to date, a Great Gray Owl. October 2012


A beautiful male Pine Grosbeak. February 2013

Common in the park, a Boreal Chickadee. Nov. 2013

Common in the park, a Boreal Chickadee. November 2013

We've only seen the White-winged Crossbills once. Nov. 2013.

We’ve only seen the White-winged Crossbills once. November 2013.

We saw a leucistic Chickadee two years in a row. February 2013

We saw a leucistic Chickadee two years in a row. February 2013

The Ruffed Grouse are fun to come across. February 2014.

The Ruffed Grouse are fun to come across. February 2014.

Hand feeding the Chickadees is a favorite winter past time. February 2014

Hand feeding the Chickadees is a favorite winter past time. February 2014

Another lovely Gray Jay. February 2014.

Another lovely Gray Jay. February 2014

Not birds, but we were thrilled to see our first fox in the park, and we saw two! February 2016

Not birds, but we were thrilled to see our first fox in the park, and we saw two! February 2016

Posted in Bird Canada, Boreal Forest Birds | Tagged | Comments Off on T.O. Backyard – Algonquin Road Trip

Christmas Bird Count 2015: A Gabriola Photo Shoot

For my first post of 2016 I offer you a photo display of some of the birds seen on the 2015 Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on Gabriola Island. The photos are by five Gabriola photographers – Shannon Gresham, Garry Davey, Zulis Yalte, Eileen Kaarsemaker, Douglas Green – and me.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Photo by Garry Davey.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee. Photo by Garry Davey.

Prolific on the gulf islands, Chestnut-backed Chickadees are chattery, always moving, playful, and open to hand-feeding.


Anna's Female. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Anna’s Female. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Anna’s Hummingbirds live here year round. When temperatures fall below zero (that hasn’t happened much yet) the challenge is to keep the nectar from freezing.


Spotted Towhee. Photo by Douglas Green.

Spotted Towhee. Photo by Douglas Green.

A sparrow with bright red eyes, the Spotted Towhee has a loud squawk and a distinctive backward double-hop as he forages in leaf litter. Six of these sparrows, male and female, call our back garden home.


House Finch, male. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

House Finch, male. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Male House Finches are extraordinary singers thanks to two voice boxes (syringes) they coordinate, essentially harmonizing with themselves. If you’re fascinated by the mechanics and science of birdsong, I recommend The Singing Life of Birds by Donald Kroodsma (2005), which includes a CD of bird songs.


Song Sparrow. Photo by Zulis Yalte.

Song Sparrow. Photo by Zulis Yalte.

I love listening to the twitter of the Song Sparrows in the honeysuckle over the pergola. It sounds like they’re whispering stories to one another.


Red-shafted Northern Flicker. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Red-shafted Northern Flicker. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Northern Flicker woodpeckers eat ants and are famous for drumming on metal roofs, making them quite an effective alarm clock.


California Quails. Photo by Shannon Gresham.

California Quails. Photo by Shannon Gresham.

Families of California Quail hang out on Gabriola roadsides. Along with our turkeys.


Turkeys using the side of the road instead of the middle of the road, for once.

Turkeys using the side of the road instead of the middle of the road, for once.

Since the turkeys are feral, they don’t officially get counted during the CBC. Until a few weeks ago seven of them slept on a telephone wire down the road from us every night. Now there are six. Did one become someone’s Christmas dinner?


Red-breasted Sapsucker,. Photo by Zulis Yalte.

Red-breasted Sapsucker,. Photo by Zulis Yalte.

Red-breasted Sapsuckers tolerate human proximity surprisingly well, which is nice for photographers. One of these gorgeous woodpeckers is spending a lot of time drilling for sap in our maple trees right now, perhaps one of the two counted during the CBC?


Varied Thrush. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Varied Thrush. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

My favourite thing about the lovely Varied Thrush is its spring song, a mournful whistle reminiscent of a sad referee’s whistle.


Common Raven. Photo by Shannon Gresham.

Common Raven. Photo by Shannon Gresham.

Common Ravens are a common sight and sound on Gabriola Island. Their smaller crow cousins are not.


Dark-eyed Junco. Photo by Douglas Green.

Dark-eyed Junco. Photo by Douglas Green.

The Dark-eyed Junco, Oregon subspecies, is a common year round resident. Lately we’ve also seen some Slate-coloured varieties.


Fox Sparrow on a snowy day. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Fox Sparrow on a snowy day. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

The west coast Fox Sparrow is the “Sooty” variety with a chocolate brown back that goes nicely with the yellow lower mandible.


Canada Geese. Photo by Eileen Kaarsmaker.

Canada Geese. Photo by Eileen Kaarsemaker.

Some migratory populations of Canada Geese no longer travel as far south in the winter as before. partly because grain is more available in fall and winter now.


Bald Eagle. Photo by Garry Davey.

Bald Eagle. Photo by Garry Davey.

The majestic Bald Eagle, spiritual symbol for Aboriginal people and national emblem of the USA, is a common coastal BC raptor. The adult Bald Eagle is not, of course, bald; he has a head of white feathers.


Bald Eagle, immature. Photo by Zulis Yalte.

Bald Eagle, immature. Photo by Zulis Yalte.

Up to the age of four years, immature Bald Eagles explore vast territories, sometimes flying hundreds of miles a day.


Steller's Jay. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Steller’s Jay. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

This is one of the seven Steller’s Jays that feed daily in our yard. One is always nearby, acting as a lookout, waiting for me to show up at the door with peanuts. The moment I do he starts calling in the crew. I love watching them fly in from all directions. (Yes, they have me trained.)


Buffleheads. Photo by Shannon Gresham.

Buffleheads. Photo by Shannon Gresham.

The buoyant Bufflehead, North America’s smallest diving duck, nests in holes made by Northern Flicker and Pileated woodpeckers.


Black Oystercatchers. Photo by Shannon Gresham.

Black Oystercatchers. Photo by Shannon Gresham.

Noisy red-billed pink-legged Black Oystercatchers are seen on rocky coasts along the west coast from Alaska to Baja California where they forage for mussels and limpets.


American Wigeons. Photo by Shannon Gresham.

American Wigeons. Photo by Shannon Gresham.

The American Wigeon, a dabbling duck, is becoming more abundant in the northwest.


Pileated Woodpecker on suet ball. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

Pileated Woodpecker on suet ball. Photo by Sharon McInnes.

The loud and very large Pileated Woodpecker  drills distinctive rectangular-shaped holes in rotten wood to get at carpenter ants and other insects. Its holes provide shelter for swifts, owls, ducks, bats, and pine martens. It also likes homemade suet!


Great Blue Heron. Photo by Sharon McInnes - taken at Reifel Bird Sanctuary.

Great Blue Heron. Photo by Sharon McInnes – taken at Reifel Bird Sanctuary.

One of the most stunning wading birds anywhere, the graceful Great Blue Heron can strike like lightning when it sees a fish. The feathers on its chest continually grow and fray and the heron uses them like a washcloth to remove fish slime from its feathers.

I hope you enjoyed the show! A huge and heartfelt THANK YOU to the Gabriola Island photographers who so generously shared their photographs. You are all amazing!


Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Nature Photography, Songbirds, Winter Birding in Canada | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Notes From a NW Ont. Backyard – Jan. 2016

A belated Happy New Year to everyone!  Hope you all had a wonderful holiday season.

Parts of January have been brutally cold but so far, it hasn’t lasted more than a couple of days … highly unusual as normally, most of January looks like this photo!  It never ceases to amaze me how easily the birds seem to handle these conditions.  You know it’s NOT easy though:  I filled the platform feeder with black oil sunflower seed, peanut halves and peanuts in the shell at least 4 times that day.

-35C Backyard

A -35C morning in the backyard

A few late season birds have made appearances in my yard here in town and my in-laws’ yard at camp, an hour into the woods from here.  A single female Red Winged Blackbird showed up on my platform feeder … she only stayed a few minutes and I have not seen her again.

Pines & RWBB

Female Red Winged Blackbird sharing platform feeder with Pine Grosbeaks

Two Common Grackles have been in my yard all winter so far.  It’s not uncommon to see them in December but they are normally gone by January.  One of them now has a severe limp and is greatly favouring its right leg/foot.  They visit my platform feeder daily.

Late Season Grackle

One of two Common Grackles that have spent the winter (so far) in my backyard.

I found this White Throated Sparrow under my mother-in-law’s feeder in Hillsport, ON … where my camp is located …. on New Year’s Day.  Up until at least last week, it was still there.

Late Season WT Sparrow

A White Throated Sparrow I discovered under my in-laws’ feeders on New Year’s Day ’16

I’m happy to report that Redpolls are finally visiting my feeders daily.  They were in the area since at least late November but it wasn’t until nearly Christmas that I finally started seeing them in the yard.  I’ve seen a number of Hoary Redpolls mixed in with the Commons …. always a treat!  I’ve been trying to coax the Redpolls to use a new nyjer feeder I have out there from Perky Pet, the sponsor of this year’s Project FeederWatch webcam season in my yard.  They are finally starting to notice it.

Hoary Redpoll

Male Hoary Redpoll outside of my porch window

Redpoll on Seedhead

Female Common Redpoll nibbling at a seed head from a Maltese Cross plant … this is the reason why I don’t cut down my flowerbeds in the fall.

Common & Hoary Redpolls

For comparison, here is a female Common Redpoll above a male Hoary Redpoll. Notice the lack of streaking and the overall ‘whiteness’ on the Hoary.

Pine and Evening Grosbeaks visit the feeders daily.  Pine Grosbeaks are in the yard almost constantly, all day long.  I see one male that has a variation in color:  he’s more orange than red.   I never get tired of listening to their lovely calls and whistles.

Webcam - PIGB

4 male Pine Grosbeaks with one female (gray).

The Evening Grosbeaks don’t visit as regularly as the Pines do.  I might see a flock of 10 or so Evenings a few times per day but they seem to move around the neighbourhood more than the Pine Grosbeaks do.

Male Evening Grosbeak

Male Evening Grosbeak

EVGB on Platform

Male Evening Grosbeaks on a snowy platform feeder

I’ve had a few other visitors to my yard and feeders.

Webcam - Crow with Peanut4

Apparently, Crows love peanuts too! Crows used to be strictly migratory up here but now, many of them stay the winter.

R. Grouse and G. Jay

Ruffed Grouse on the platform feeder with a Gray Jay on the ground below.

Hairy WP with PIGB

Pine Grosbeaks sharing the feeders with a female Hairy Woodpecker

Gray Jay

One of three Gray Jays that stop in for a snack once in a while.

BJay & EGrosbeak on birdbath

A Blue Jay (one of ten that come around daily) and an Evening Grosbeak stop together for a drink of water from the heated birdbath.

If possible, I hope you are all enjoying winter and its many wonderful sightings.  See you next month!

Posted in Bird Canada | 22 Comments

Finches, Owls and Ptarmigans – birding Alberta in Winter

A male Pine Grosbeak in falling snow...a shot I've been hoping for for a long time!

A male Pine Grosbeak in falling snow…a shot I’ve been hoping for for a long time!

Winter 2015/16 has proven to a bumper ‘winter finch’ season, at least here in the Calgary area, where the redpolls, grosbeaks, siskins, crossbills, etc showing up in good numbers. I just love the colours of all these finches, so made quite a number of outings over my Christmas vacation specifically to photograph these birds while they are around.

A Common Redpoll

A Common Redpoll

Last month I posted some Red Crossbill shots, so this time I’ll share the somewhat more common other crossbill species, the White-winged Crossbill:

White-winged Crossbill

White-winged Crossbill

Male White-winged Crossbill

Male White-winged Crossbill

I think this may be a young male White-winged Crossbill

I think this may a young male White-winged Crossbill

Then we have the ever-photogenic Common Redpolls, with the males particularly resplendent in their lush pink hues:TH1D1394 TH1D2386

Hoary Redpoll? If yes, that would be a lifer.

Hoary Redpoll? If yes, that would be a lifer.


Couldn’t believe my luck when these four redpolls posed for several seconds doing their best impression of a Christmas Tree…the falling snow was a bonus!:

If I ever do a calendar, this will be the December pic :)

If I ever do a calendar, this will be the December pic :)

And not to be outdone, the always attractive Pine Grosbeaks…

Frost will add some interest to any photo you take.

Frost will add some interest to any photo you take.

I have a particular fascination for the male grosbeaks and their crimson plumage and was on something of a mission to get some pleasing shots of them, so please indulge me as I share a number of shots in varying light and weather:TH1D1756d&b-crop2-fb TH1D1718 TH1D1294d&b-crop-v3-fb

Amidst all these finches was a lone American Tree Sparrow, but it seemed to be faring well:TH1D2838

At the local park, some kind soul (or souls) had been putting out lots of black oil sunflower seed for the birds and they were certainly flocking in good numbers to feast on this gift. However, as I waited motionless in the cold for the birds to return, movement out of the corner of my eye alerted me to the fact that the birds weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the seeds on offer…

A very skittish Meado Vole

A very skittish Meado Vole

This little meadow vole would pop out ever so briefly to grab a seed before disappearing…then re-appear again a minute or so later and repeat this action. The vole was certainly a flighty fellow as simply moving my lens, not to mention the sound of my shutter click, was sufficient to send it scurrying back under the snow in the blink of an eye. And when you are the main course for many predators (shrikes, owls, weasels, coyotes, etc) sharing the same park, that kind of makes sense!

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

Along with the winter finches, Short-eared Owls have made a welcome return and are currently been seen locally on the prairies in good numbers. I had the pleasure of seeing no less than six owls working a frozen crop field for voles and doing it quite successfully.

On another vole-hunting run...

On another vole-hunting run…


Short-eared Owl at dusk...the rapidly failing light really testing the limits of my camera gear here.

Short-eared Owl at dusk…the rapidly failing light really testing the limits of my camera gear here.

The owls seem to glide effortlessly on their surprisingly long wings across the fields combing the area for prey, periodically dropping to the earth to pounce on a vole – some of which are devoured on the spot, while others might be taken to a fence pole for consumption.TH1D3088mask-fb

TH1D3031 TH7D0757-fbOther raptors I’ve seen on my forays have included the common-in-winter Rough-legged Hawk:TH7D0558-fb

as well this poor old Great Horned Owl being mobbed by no less than ten magpies…TH7D0574

Finally, my latest encounter was especially enjoyable as it was both a ‘lifer’ and, in my opinion, showed some amazing camouflage…TH1D3298-fb

Yes, the White-tailed Ptarmigan, that turns completely white in winter save for it’s eye and beak. TH1D3420d&b-mask-fb TH1D3416d&b-fb TH1D3353d&b-fb

We only found this particular bird by scanning the willows in likely habitat, then looking for tracks in the fresh snow. Definitely a fun find!TH1D3333d&b-fb


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T.O. BACKYARD – Raptor Mania

December 2015 started off rather interesting in our Toronto backyard.  We were still getting visits from Red-winged Blackbirds!

redw rwbbdec

I can only recall one other December in the near decade where we had such birds still visiting. We always call the Red-winged Blackbirds our first sign of Spring. The weather was so mild in December; were we going to miss Winter?

I guess Mother Nature finally got through to them and the birds were gone sometime in the second week of the month. Good thing because it wasn’t long after that when things got pretty intense for our feathered friends. I named the ordeal “Raptor-Mania”. We were getting steady visits from one Sharp-shinned Hawk, one Cooper’s Hawk and the resident pair of Red-tailed Hawks were also stopping in hunting our yard critters.

I went the rest of the month without having to fill the bird feeders. I even dumped a couple feeders due to the dampness through one week.

Sure the birds were coming in, just very quick pop ins, grab some seed, and then an alarm call would go off from a Blue Jay or a House Sparrow, and everyone jetted off. A lot of the time we never saw the threat(s) when the birds fled but once in a while the raptors did appear. Some attacks were very brazen, coming in after the birds while I was standing outside. Hungry Hawks? Or just very bold?

I have a flock of Pigeons who visit daily. Some come right to my hand for feed. So when a Cooper’s or Red-tail dive bombs these birds circling my feet, that is something beyond description. Of course I rarely have my camera and when I do, the action is so fast and I’m never expecting it. I don’t wish harm on any of my bird buds, I don’t wish any bird of prey to starve to death, I know it’s all a part of the wild world, it’s nature. I do plan on sharing something about my friendly Pigeons but not in this blog. I have 4 who come to hand and all have disappeared since the attacks started. This is not uncommon, they sometimes stay away for two or more weeks after a close call here.

My hand feeding Pigeon pals during a snow storm last winter.


So far I’ve only witnessed one take down. I’ve not seen any feather remains like I have other winters. Usually I spot a Hawk already on it’s kill. Seeing an actual take down like I did on December 21st still haunts me. The Sharp-shin was sitting in a tree along the fence, just watching and waiting. Over 2 hours passed without any birds coming in and the Hawk stayed in it’s position. I just happened to be looking out the kitchen window, seeing what was going on (if anything), the Hawk was still there, and in flew this Downy Woodpecker. The Downy landed on a branch right next to the Hawk. The Hawk obviously took notice to the Downy. The Downy took notice to the Hawk and panicked, fleeing for it’s life. As soon as the Downy left the tree, the Hawk was on it’s tail, and in mere seconds it was on top of the Woodpecker, pinning it to the ground and it was over. Such a short time frame that is burned into my memory. I felt very bad for the Downy but I was not angry at the Hawk. This is how it goes.

poord1 poord2

A Downy Woodpecker from our backyard but not the one who fell to the Hawk.


The “raptor-mania” eased off some in the last days of December.  Sure we were still seeing the Hawks on occasion but nothing like those couple weeks.  The other birds started returning slowly but of course everyone is still on guard.

What surprised me is one day I counted no less than 97 Pigeons drop into the backyard.  Our average is maybe 20 so this was quite the spectacle.  So bizarre to me though is that none of my friends were in this bunch.  And as well, there wasn’t a Hawk to be seen.  Such a mass of Pigeons should have gotten someone’s attention out there.  I reported almost as many as this number a few days later for our Project Feeder Watch count and was asked to provide further proof of the count.  Good thing I brought my camera out!  I couldn’t get the 90+ that day but this shot shows over 40 in flight.


I know Pigeons aren’t big on a lot of peoples lists out there but they come with our territory of being in the city of Toronto. I can admit in the early days I was always rooting for the Cooper’s Hawk. But after watching one flock of Pigeons the last couple years, growing fond of a few, recognizing many and realizing they really are like people in a community. They come in all shapes, sizes, colors and everyone is an individual with their own personality. It’s like watching a soap opera with the birds. They love, they bicker, they pair up and so on. We can love all birds, can’t we?

Here are a few of the visiting birds of prey from December…

Cooper’s Hawk


Sharp-shinned Hawk


I’ve learned to identify these 2 often mixed up species thanks to the visits to our backyard in the winter.

Red-tailed Hawk


On two occasions, wee early in the morning, both of us have heard (pretty certain) the “toot toot” call of a Northern Saw-whet Owl. We really hope for a visual somewhere around the neighbourhood to confirm this. Stay tuned.

A Northern Saw-whet Owl we saw in a nearby park last winter sleeping the day away.


As for mammal activity, Squirrels, a couple Raccoons and this Virginia Opossum have been showing face.


A lone Rat made an appearance under the feeder pole one morning as well. Having bird feeders, you never know what will come around for a meal.


Thanks for stopping in. See you all next month on the 10th!


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What is it About Birds?

Birding is purported to be the fastest-growing “hobby” in North America. Apparently, one in five Canadians consider themselves birders ( and the 2009 US census states: “24 million Americans play basketball, 23 million baseball, and 9 million play American football — at the same time, there are estimated to be nearly 60 million American birdwatchers. And that’s just this continent. Add the birders in the rest of the world and you’ve probably got over a billion people watching, feeding, and admiring birds. My question is this: just what is it that makes birds so compelling?

Sometimes the attraction is entertainment, pure and simple. What could be more fun than watching Rufous Hummingbirds battling over or protecting a feeder?

Rufous hummer on guard

Rufous hummer on guard


Or watching Wood Ducklings jump, one by one, from a nest in a high tree into the water? (Click to see the video:

I made it!

I made it!


Or watching a mother Violet-green Swallow feed her hungry nestlings all day long?

VG Swallows nest outside the bookstore at Folklife Village, 2011. (It was hard to get any work done.)

VG Swallows nest outside the bookstore at Folklife Village, 2011. (It was hard to get any work done.)

Or the Gabriola turkeys taking turns resting on our hammock?

A Gabriola feral turkey, one of over 50 that live here, on our hammock

A Gabriola feral turkey, one of over 50 that live here, on our hammock


Or doing their Christmas shopping at our new “mall”?

Gabriola turkeys check out the new "mall".

Gabriola turkeys check out the new “mall”.

For entertainment value, Breaking Bad doesn’t even come close.

And then there’s the beauty factor.

Western Tanager in breeding plumage. Surely that's beauty!

Western Tanager in breeding plumage. Surely that’s beauty!


A beautiful Great Blue Heron at Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Ladner

A beautiful Great Blue Heron at Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Ladner


Pileated Woodpecker. isn't he stunning?

Pileated Woodpecker. Is he not stunning?


But birding must be about more than entertainment and beauty. Skimming the comments under a Facebook post it’s hard not to be struck by our tendency to project human emotion onto birds. “He’s irritated!” “She’s had enough!” “They’re having a ball!” This innocent anthropomorphosis (of which I willingly partake) is at work when we empathize with birds. What’s more heartbreaking than watching a mother Song Sparrow frantically feed a Brown-headed Cowbird baby over twice her size while Dad looks on in amazement?


Song Soparrow feeding baby Brown-headed Cowbird

Song Sparrow feeding baby Brown-headed Cowbird


And what’s lovelier than listening to a House Finch sings its heart out … as if all’s right with the world?


House Finch singing its heart out

House Finch singing its heart out


So. Part of the allure of the birds is their entertainment value and their beauty and the fact that we identify with them. But maybe there’s more to it than that.

Maybe it’s envy. On holiday in Mexico, as I watched a Magnificent Frigatebird soar overhead, I couldn’t help but be enchanted. Same thing happens here when the ravens wing their way over the house several times a day. I’d sure like to be able to fly without the hassles of airports and having to consume all that fossil fuel.


Magnificent Frigatebird. (CC license.)

Magnificent Frigatebird. (CC license.)


Or maybe it’s a different kind of envy, one closer to longing. Longing for the Buddha-like qualities of equanimity and grace that birds embody. Living in the moment, without ego, without pride, motivated only by the need to survive and carry on the species. No moral judgments, no ethical dilemmas.


Buddha-like Canada Goose doing yoga

Buddha-like Canada Goose doing yoga


Amorality, of course, has its price. Just ask any slightly deformed baby robin tossed unceremoniously from a nest by a mother bent on maximizing the chances of survival of a healthy sibling. Mother birds are very pragmatic. Is some of the fascination of observing wild birds related to these seeming contradictions, ones we share?

Or is there more to it? A week ago a Red-breasted Sapsucker spent several hours digging its perfectly round holes on a tree in our yard. When I went outside to take some photos it stopped and looked at me – for ten seconds or more. I wondered what it was thinking. (Is thinking even the right word?) Was I just a 5’6″ potential predator? Did it just want me to back off? Whatever it was “thinking”, it was certainly watching me closely. In The Spell of the Sensuous David Abrams writes, “… any visible, tangible form that meets my gaze may also be an experiencing subject, sensitive and responsive to the beings around it, and to me.” Well, that sapsucker was certainly responsive to my presence. And its responsiveness affected me: I moved away in order not to disturb its feeding. But while it stared at me, and I at it, I felt the connection between us. We were definitely in some kind of relationship, that bird and I, one characterized largely by mystery.


Red-breasted Sapsucker watching me watch it

Red-breasted Sapsucker watching me watch it


I think that’s what keeps me fascinated, day after day, year after year: the mystery of the connection between them and us, I and Thou. There’s only so much I can know about the birds that peck at our suet and bathe in our birdbaths and squawk for peanuts the moment I show up at the window. I can know their names and where they breed and what they eat; I can recognize their calls and songs and understand some their behaviour. But I can never really know them. And yet I feel connected, as if we’re not that separate after all.


Steller's Jay waiting for his peanuts

Steller’s Jay waiting for his peanuts


Maybe that’s why more and more people are drawn to birding. Now, when our eyes are too often glued to inanimate screens, maybe there’s something inside us that longs to connect with the wild unknowable natural world. Maybe birds are our emissaries, always ready, willing, and available to lead us there – if we pay attention.

Yes, I’m going with that.

Barred Owl. Omnipresent but mysterious.

Barred Owl. Omnipresent but mysterious.


So Happy New Year everyone! As 2016 unfolds may the birds lead you to enchanting new places.








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Birding Calgary and area in late Fall

A Hooded Merganser drake mid-courtship display....but more about him later!

A Hooded Merganser drake mid-courtship display….but more about him later!

Visiting family and friends in Australia for the first time in 3 years is my excuse for not delivering my monthly post in November, but I’ll do my best to make up for that this month!

So to catch up…

Late September and October in southern Alberta is a great time to try and catch some of the elk and moose rut, so I made a number of trips out west into the Rockies and surrounding foothills to see if I capture some of the action with my camera. While I did ok on the elk front, I was pretty much skunked on the moose everywhere I looked. As disappointing as that may have been, I was very quickly cheered up when a ‘moose-friendly’-looking pond I checked out turned up a very handsome Hooded Merganser drake:TH1D8305

who was busy trying his courtship moves out…TH1D8693d&b-cropv2-flickr TH1D8914d&b-fb

Interestingly, the apparent target of his attention was not a merganser hen but this little lady….a Common Goldeneye hen!:TH1D8272d&b

Look into my eyes...

Look into my eyes…

Add odd as that may seem, based on some internet research I did later, these two species have been known to inter-breed.

Another bird I came across in my travels in the foothills forest was this male Spruce Grouse, who was busy pecking away at the gravelled road surface with seemingly little regard for the multiple cars passing him at close range.TH1D7897-fb

Indeed, each time I heard vehicles approaching I would quickly get up and move off the road, but this guy didn’t move an inch. I guess he knew what he was doing…at least I hope so!TH1D7884-fb

TH1D7962The following weekend, again in search of elk and moose, I ventured into the Rockies’ world-famous Banff National Park. Having spent a good deal of time with a large herd of elk, I turned my attention to my feathered friends and was pleased to find an American Dipper dipping away in a spring-fed lake.TH7D4852d&b-fb

TH7D4987mask-fb TH7D5141-crop-fb2Pretty much all the half-dozen or so dippers I’ve encountered since I started birding have been reasonably approachable if you take your time and let them acclimatize to your presence, and thankfully this one was no exception. TH7D5215mask-fb TH7D4894


The dipper…um…dipping.

Although this was the end of October, there still had not been any snowfall which led to some pleasing fall colours and reflections.

Success! A caddis fly larvae is plucked from the pond bottom.

Success! A caddis fly larvae is plucked from the pond bottom.

For my last local outing before heading to Australia on vacation, I stuck close to home and – believe it or not – went birding in a local cemetery! Why? Firstly, winter finch reports had been coming in fairly regularly and a number of them (crossbills, grosbeaks) enjoy eating the seeds of spruce cones and spruce trees are abundant in this cemetery. And secondly, a fellow bird photog (Tony) had gotten some great crossbill images there the day before. The other great thing about cemetery birding is it is generally very quiet with very few people around, well living ones anyway! (sorry, couldn’t help myself :)).TH7D9785d&b TH7D5387mask2-fb

Most of my crossbill encounters comprise fleeting glimpses of chirping specks way up high in conifers, well out of range of even my big lens. Tony kindly gave me a tip that he’d seen the crossbills come down to drink at a small stream, and after waiting patiently they again came down to drink and we were able to get some decent shots of crossbills at eye level and lower:

A juvenile male Red Crossbill

A juvenile male Red Crossbill

A male Red Crossbill

A male Red Crossbill

A female Red Crossbill

A female Red Crossbill

Following 2 largely sun-soaked weeks in Australia, I paid a few visits to one of my favourtite local parks – the Weaselhead in south west Calgary – where I was pleased to be able to photograph another of my favourite winter finches, the Pine Grosbeak:TH1D1110d&b

On one morning, movement out of the corner of my eye alerted me to the fact that I was not alone in showing a keen interest in the grosbeaks which had come to feed on the sunflower seed left out by some kind hearted park-goers…TH7D0027-fb

The Northern Shrike above appeared at the top of a spruce and is pictured staring intently at the blissfully ignorant Pine Grosbeaks feeding below at ground-level. The shrike shot after a grosbeak a few seconds later and when it disappeared from my view it was closing rapidly on the unlucky bird. As the saying  goes, such is the circle of life.TH7D9887

And what would a Calgary winter be without the sights and sounds of thousand-strong flocks of Bohemian Waxwings? In this particular instance I enjoyed being surrounded by hundreds of waxwings feeding on snow, the tricky being trying to single out individuals in the crowd to focus on:TH7D9883-fb

TH7D9929-fbIf you’d like to see some of my other bird and wildlife images (including some from Australia trip), you can now follow me on my dedicated facebook page here.



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