Southern Ontario’s Waiting Game

For many children, the last few weeks leading up to Christmas are a period when time stands still. Or at the very least, it seems to move a lot slower than usual. Weeks feel like months and days feel like weeks in that all-too slow march up to the big day when the presents are unwrapped and new toys enjoyed.

Time seems to be running in slow motion for the birds too, at least here in southern Ontario.

Last month I wrote about our continuing bird vacuum, and how the up-and-down fall weather seemed to be playing havoc with bird migrations. With November having given way to December and the first snow only beginning to fall today, time indeed seems to be standing still as new arrivals come slowly to the feeder and old friends are still hanging about.

The blue jays continue to come and go, more in a steady trickle than the torrent we’ve seen in the past. You see a few, you see none, you see more again. Different birds, with slight variations in their markings. Yet they all share a singular love for peanuts.

The resident downy woodpeckers have been busy caching peanuts and other snacks.

And the mourning doves continue hanging around, although we’re seeing fewer of them every day. It’s not just the falling temperatures – a telltale pile of feathers that Laura found in the yard made it apparent our resident Cooper’s hawks – who we haven’t seen in a while – are still in the neighbourhood. The other doves didn’t stick around long after that.

Perhaps the surest sign that fall is giving way to winter is in the arrival of growing numbers of finches. We had no goldfinches to speak of a month ago, now there are many. And house finches are also suddenly abundant.

With all that red in the trees, the cardinals have some new competition. It will be interesting to see the first sunny morning with fresh snow, when the cardinals all seem to radiate colour like they glow in the dark.

Perhaps the snow will finally clear out the last of the starlings. There are so many of them we have had to keep safflower seeds in the main feeder, since they gobble down the sunflower chips so fast … they literally empty the feeder in a few hours. A few of them have even become proficient at hanging upside-down and eating the woodpecker picnic cakes. I don’t mean just a brief bites either, there are a few birds that hang inverted for five or six minutes at a go. If nothing else, starlings are adaptable. And smart.

I write this in the late evening, and it’s now snowing like mad. Perhaps a fresh landscape will bring more fresh birds, and an end to the sensation of time standing still. It’s been a great fall, but I’m ready for a change.

Posted in Bird Canada | 5 Comments

My Winter Birding Wish List

One of the things that I love so much about bird-watching is that it is a year-round hobby, and there are different birds to see in every season.  As winter approaches, I am already thinking about the birds I hope to see.

My wish list is as follows:

  • Pine Siskins
  • Redpolls
  • Snow Buntings
  • Bald Eagle
  • Snowy Owl
  • Evening Grosbeak
  • Crossbills

Some, like the Pine Siskins and the Redpolls, are fairly regular winter visitors to our yard, but that makes their appearance each year no less exciting, and a year without their presence would be disappointing indeed.  These are photos taken over the last few years.

Common Redpoll

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskins

Common Redpolls

Common Redpolls

Pine Siskins

Pine Siskins

Snow Buntings are also fairly regular winter visitors, but my sightings are always of the flock from afar, or while driving.  I am hoping for a closer look at these lovely birds this year.

The Bald Eagle has become a regular winter sighting for me, and after a three year streak it would be disappointing not to see it again.

Winter after winter, the Snowy Owl has thus far eluded me (despite road trips purposely in search of it!).  And then just last week, my brother saw one while at work not far from home – maybe this will be the year!

The Evening Grosbeak and the Crossbill are my wild hopes, as I have yet to ever see either beyond the pages of my bird guide, and they have been on my wish list for a long, long time.  But who knows what this year will bring!

What’s on your winter birding wish list?

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Winter Birding in Calgary and the Foothills in Pictures – Part 1

I know it’s another month until winter ‘officially’ begins here in Calgary, but the snow and sub-zero temps have already arrived and the winter birding in Calgary has begun in earnest.

I like the coming of winter, not so much for the temperature, but because it means I can chill out a little: I don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to see birds as it isn’t even properly light out until 9am, plus we get some birds that only visit in the winter.

But before all that begins, there are still a few last gasps of fall weather. Seeking to take advantage of the last remaining patches of open ponds, I headed down to Carburn Park to see if I could relocate a Western Grebe that had been reported. A quick scan of the main pond revealed I was in luck!:

However, I had to wait a good 30 minutes for the Grebe to come even remotely close to the shoreline where I was sitting:

and then I had only a minute or two before the bird retreated to the centre of the pond when some dog walkers came by.

I also managed to get some colourful Buffleheads swim by at long distance…these guys always look particularly photogenic on yellow fall reflections:

And never one to waste a ‘golden’ opportunity, I spent some time shooting a big gaggle of American Wigeons:

A pleasing fall image of a Downy Woodpecker was a nice finale to my visit:

A week after this visit the temperatures nose-dived and when I returned a fortnight later the ponds had all completely frozen over.

Deep in K-Country…

A trip out west a week later to Kananaskis did not yield an awful lot of wildlife, but I did manage to see some characteristic birds of this area including some Spruce Grouse hens on a shady roadside corner:

And the always-attractive Pine Grosbeaks which seemed to be scattered throughout K-Country in good numbers this day:

The following weekend I paid a visit to some local inner city parks to see if I could find some Crossbills, but alas my luck was not in and I had to be content with a constantly-on-the-move Brown Creeper:

My enthusiasm still high, following regular reports of a Northern Pygmy Owl in Fish Creek Park, I decided to pay a visit there and see what I could find.

Fish Creek Park – Winter 2017

A nice surprise, in the form of a Townsend’s Solitaire, was found in amongst a large flock of late-staying American Robins:

As I walked along the frozen creek, I heard the rattling call of a Kingfisher and with a bit of looking I managed to locate the bird, albeit at some distance:Kingfisher Tim Hopwood

I’ve yet to meet a Kingfisher that tolerates people well and this one was no exception, so this was the best I could manage on this occasion:

But my birding luck was not yet done…as I was wandering along a path deep in the park, a Pygmy Owl kindly flew across directly in front of me and perched close by!:

As I maneuvered to get the sun behind me, I managed a quick shot before the owl flew to another perch:

…before being chased off by chickadees to yet another perch where it stayed for a minute and appeared all set to hunt when a Hairy Woodpecker spied the owl and proceeded to land very close and raise a heck of a racket…that in turn attracted what seemed like half the park’s small bird population – chickadees, nuthatches, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, magpies, Blue Jays…even the kingfisher did a fly-by! Well that was enough for the little owl and I last saw it flying off deep into the forest. A great end to an enjoyable weekend of birding!

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Southern Ontario’s Continuing Bird Vacuum

The unusually variable weather pattern that has characterized autumn 2017 in southern Ontario has continued on without too much change. Although the days are growing shorter and the nights are getting long, bird migrations – at least in our area – seem to continue in more of a trickle than a torrent.

Where last year we saw large numbers of blue jays at the feeder, this year we’re continuing to see them in pairs or small family groups – still no flocks of 20 or more birds as we’ve seen before. And while the first dark-eyed junco made its appearance a few days ago, even goldfinches seem to be stopping by only singularly, or at best, in pairs. By this time last year, it was quite normal to see every peg on both thistle feeders fully occupied, with another dozen or more finches waiting their turn in the trees nearby. This year, even if they are there we would have trouble seeing them anyway, them as most of our trees are still thick with leaves. Very strange indeed.

Our new tulip tree is still almost fully leafed.

The lack of migrant birds has let the sparrows get far too comfortable at the feeders.

Mourning doves seem to enjoy the warmer autumn weather.

Even the plants seem confused by the up and down weather.

Most of the grackles cleared out weeks ago. Then this one turned up. We’re not sure if it’s a straggler, or it got fooled by the warm weather and came back!

The first of the winter goldfinches have finally begun to arrive. But we’re still only seeing them in singles or pairs. The big groups still haven’t materialized.

Cardinals seem to be enjoying the warm sun while it lasts.

Forgot to fill the feeder one day. This blue jay was not impressed.

The downy woodpeckers weren’t impressed either.

Fortunately they had lots of peanuts and Woodpecker Picnic to munch on in the interim.

We’re  supposed to see some more seasonal conditions over the next week or so. Although I’ve enjoyed the warm autumn, part of me is actually looking forward to some colder nights and blustery breezes – if only because they will finally bring us some new migrants to admire.

Posted in Bird Canada | 2 Comments

Of Little Kings and Pretty Hermits

I have come to count on seeing the tiny kinglet upon October’s arrival.  For being such busy, flitty little birds, they are remarkably punctual.  I write a monthly bird column in a local newspaper, and chose the Ruby-crowned Kinglet as my subject for October.  The day after the issue with my column came out, the”Little King” itself appeared in my backyard.

I love the kinglet’s tiny size – such a giveaway as to its identity even at a distance, and even though it hides its ruby crown.

This year, I realized that I have another punctual October visitor: the Hermit Thrush.  It passes through quite silent; indeed, it utters not a sound.  Nor does it draw attention to its presence with busy movements and short, flitting flights.  One must simply expect, and wait, and watch for this unobtrusive hermit’s arrival.

But, as with most things that need waiting for, the lovely Hermit Thrush is worth the waiting.  Particularly that moment when it turns and flashes its reddish tail, confirming its identity.

See who’s flying through at the bottom of this photo?

My November sightings are usually more varied and of birds rather less punctual, so I’ll just have to wait and see who drops in – but I’ll be sure to let you know!

‘Til next month,

Happy Birding!



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Notes From a Northwestern Ontario Backyard – October 2017

Hello again and Happy Autumn/Halloween!

I cannot believe what a warm autumn we’ve been having.  It’s been wet, yes, and it’s been windy, yes but it’s been quite amazing to have 20C temperatures the week before Halloween.

Oddly enough, in the middle of these warm temperatures, we also had our first snowfall of the season, on October 15th.  I’m not sure if the birds were impressed with it or not!

Ruffed Grouse on the snowy platform feeder.

Speaking of the above photo, look who has returned to my backyard for another season:  the Ruffed Grouse!

Ruffed Grouse eating berries in my Mountain Ash tree.

It always surprises me how they come into the yard in mid to late October and visit daily all winter long, then disappear in April for the summer.  I’ve only see the one so far.  I’m really hoping it’ll bring relatives.

This is my last butterfly photo of the season.  My last Hummingbird sighting of the summer was quite late, September 24th.

Painted Lady butterfly on a Monarda blossom

Some Blackbirds have moved into my yard.  The Grackles always seem to show up when the sunflowers are almost ripe.  I’ve had some Starling flocks come through as well.  I’m really hoping for an appearance of Rusty Blackbirds this fall.

Grackle on the birdbath

I didn’t see that much for young birds in my yard this season.  Recently though, some White Throated and White Crowned Sparrows have come through with youngsters.

Adult White Throated Sparrow

Immature White Throated Sparrow

Adult White Crowned Sparrow

Immature White Crowned Sparrow

I also have Juncos visiting right now.  They nest in this area but I seldom see juveniles/immatures and I never see Juncos in mid summer.

Dark Eyed Junco

One of my favourite migrants, American Pipits, have already been and gone.  I saw a few flocks of them around my yard and around town in late September.  Yesterday during my morning walk, I was lucky enough to come across a flock of 30+ Horned Larks but I didn’t have a good zoom camera with me.

American Pipit at the edge of my front lawn

My Mountain Ash tree had a fairly good crop of berries this year and many species of birds have been nibbling at them including Warblers, Red Eyed Vireos, Flickers, Purple Finches and Cedar Waxwings.

Hairy Woodpecker grabbing a Mountain Ash berry.

I had a teaser visit from a small flock of 4 Evening Grosbeaks last week.  Last year, they were quite late showing up to the yard and I thought I wasn’t going to see them for the winter.  This year, I won’t panic about that!

Female Evening Grosbeak

Crows are coming to the yard regularly now since I started putting out peanuts again!  At least 6 Crows are here daily.

A Crow with breakfast!

Blue Jays love their peanuts too and it’s a high speed battle for them between the Crows, Blue Jays, Chickadees & Nuthatches!

Blue Jay with success!

This particularly adorable little Chickadee has been coming to my feeders for over a week now.  I have no idea what happened to its tail feathers.  The bird looks nice & healthy so it’s possibly just a moult.  No sign that it tangled with anything.  Its flight is sometimes a little wobbly but otherwise, it appears fine.  So CUTE!!

Little tailless Chickadee

Outside of my yard, I went for a morning walk through the local golf course a couple of weeks ago.  I couldn’t believe the number of Lincoln’s Sparrows I found!  Easily 25+.

Lincoln’s Sparrows

There were also large flocks of Cedar Waxwings.  I couldn’t tell at the time that there were so many juveniles.  In this photo, you see one adult Waxwing & the rest are youngsters.

Cedar Waxwings

Sandhill Cranes nest on the golf course every summer.  This handsome pair posed beautifully for me in the morning sunlight.

Sandhill Cranes

I found them again a little later, near a large flock of Canada Geese.  No one seemed too concerned about me!

Sandhill Cranes preening with Geese in the background.

I was surprised to have a close encounter with a coyote!  As I was walking, I could hear a pack of them calling, yipping, howling from the other end of the golf course.  Suddenly, this fellow answered them from the other side of a stand of trees I was near!  I kept on walking and shortly after I heard him/her, the bushes behind me started to shake and the coyote popped out on the trail about 20 feet from me.  We instantly startled each other and it immediately ran away to catch up with the pack.  This was the only photo I was able to snap.  Such beautiful animals …. and very new to this area as they, like other creatures, expand their range northward.


That’s it for this month.  Enjoy the last of autumn and have fun at Halloween.  See you in November.  🙂

Posted in Bird Canada | 3 Comments

Late Autumn Birding in the Calgary Area – 2017

Black-capped Chickadee

Ahhh, autumn birding…I love it! Those who have followed my posts the past few years will know my love of autumn and the lush, saturated yellows and reds that it brings to Calgary’s parks and gardens. Not only does the city look marvelous, but so do the birds against these colourful backdrops, making for excellent autumn birding.

White-breasted Nuthatch

 When a park looks like this (Carburn Park, in east Calgary. Photo taken with my cellphone):

Calgary’s Carburn Park in full autumnal splendour

All you have to do is find the birds and you should be rewarded shots that are little more appealing than usual:

American Robin

During one visit to Carburn Park I came across a newly-fallen tree (that appeared to have been blown over during one of the very windy days we have had lately) that was something of a magnet for the local wood peckers including this Downy Woodpecker:

And a collection of Northern Flickers:

An unexpected highlight was a lone Palm Warbler mixed in amongst a flock of chickadees. If not for the incessant tail-bobbing I would have dismissed the Palm for a much more common Yellow-rumped Warbler:

I also managed to get some close looks at a Pied-billed Grebe which was constantly submerging and re-surfacing some distance away as it presumably searched underwater for food:

On another weekend excursion, this time west to the foothills of Kananaskis Country, my unsuccessful quest to find rutting bull moose was somewhat rescued by finding several Spruce Grouse hens:

along with a lone male:

 Autumn also means the tail-end of the major southerly migration of summer migrants and as such there are still a good number of gulls, thrushes and waterfowl about (a few will over-winter), such as this Bonaparte’s Gull:

Hermit Thrush:

And this pair of Wood Ducks that were serenading each other:

The results of which appeared to be satisfactory to the hen 🙂 :

Other ducks include Gadwalls:

Northern Shovellers:


and the ever-handsome Hooded Merganser:

On one particular morning I attempted to locate & photograph some 30 migrating Rusty Blackbirds that had been reported earlier in the week. However, by the time the weekend had rolled around and I could head out there were only a handful left, but one is better than none!:

And, finally, as I was looking for more ‘Rusties’, I ran across this fine lady – a female Pileated Woodpecker plucking berries from a bush:

For more of my wildlife photography, please visit my Facebook page:

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Project Feeder Watch Celebrates 30 Years

project feeder watch

White-breasted nuthatch by Ric Hornsby

Project FeederWatch celebrated its 30th anniversary last winter, thanks to dedicated participants who observe birds at their feeders. The information collected through this project over three decades allows scientists to measure important changes in North America’s winter bird populations over time. All are invited to join in this fun and easy activity, and help Project FeederWatch achieve even more!

Since Project FeederWatch began, more than 69,000 participants have counted more than 142 million birds and submitted over 2.5 million checklists. This wealth of information has allowed researchers at Bird Studies Canada and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to track impacts of climate change on bird communities, incidence of disease in wild birds, bird population declines and expansions, and other significant topics. Nearly 30 scientific papers have been published using data from Project FeederWatch.

Project FeederWatch also provides learning opportunities and enjoyment to its community of volunteers. Catherine Swan of Brantford, ON, wrote: “I have been doing FeederWatch since it began and have enjoyed every year. My whole family is now hooked on identifying birds and counting them. Thanks for the fun!” If you have a bird feeder or yard that attracts birds, why not pursue an interest in these fascinating animals while contributing to a valuable North America-wide project?

Through an annual registration of $35, participants fund Project FeederWatch – it’s free for Bird Studies Canada members. Canadian participants receive a subscription to BSC’s magazine BirdWatch Canada, a poster of common feeder birds, a calendar, last season’s results, and access to online data tools. Bird Studies Canada and Cornell Lab of Ornithology also share expert advice to help participants identify, understand, and look after feeder birds.

To join, visit or contact the Canadian coordinator at 1-888-448-2473 or In the United States, call 1-866-989-2473.

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Thanksgiving Birding in Southern Ontario

Early fall in southern Ontario has, so far at least, been what the weather people call “variable.” One day it’s 30 degrees outside, the air conditioner is running and dinner comes from the barbecue. The day after that, it’s cool enough for a sweater, the heat’s on in the house and everyone feels more like hot soup than anything from the grill. Fall in Ontario has always meant some amount of alternating between shorts and a light jacket, but this year the pattern has seemed more up and down than usual. We see the evidence in our own back yard.

Our summer-resident robins, blackbirds, orioles, hummingbirds, grackles and most of the goldfinches cleared out long ago. But with the frequent warm spells, the autumn arrivals haven’t quite arrived, and we seem to be in a bit of a bird vacuum. Thankfully we have our year-round resident cardinals, house finches, chickadees, downy woodpeckers, mourning doves and house sparrows to keep us entertained.

Poofy red cardinal on a cooler morning.

House finches and chickadees enjoying lunch.

One of the little gang of sparrows who terrorize the yard.

Mourning dove sunning itself. Better watch for hawks!

Cheery downy woodpeckers seem to like safflower.

Of course there have been a few migrants passing through, and in the last week or so we’ve seen a few birds that haven’t been around for a while. A visit from a northern flicker was cause for minor celebration. It routed around in the yard for a while, giving us a great view of its beautiful colouration – including that impossibly saturated patch of nuclear red feathers on the back of its head. We see flickers fairly often at our place in PEI, but they’re more occasional visitors to our feeder in southern Ontario.

Beautiful northern flicker.

Amazing red plumage almost glows.

The blue jays have begun to arrive as well. So far the Blue Crew consists of maybe a dozen birds, the huge swarms haven’t yet shown up. But it can’t be long now. A small gang of white-throated sparrows have also begun hanging around the feeder, and have at least temporarily moved into some lilac bushes planted close by. They like to haul seeds into the bush, and of course they drop them all over the place making a heck of a mess. Thankfully the local chipmunks seem to be on the job.

Put out peanuts and look who’s here.

Mmmmm … peanuts!

One of several white-throated sparrows that recently arrived.

Chippie appreciates the handouts from clumsy birds who drop goodies, especially peanuts.

On Thanksgiving weekend we had extra reason to be thankful as we welcomed our first brown thrasher to the yard. Well, the first one that we’ve positively identified. Although they’re apparently year-round residents in our area, one which arrived to check out our shrubs and drainage swale was the first we’ve seen. Very pretty bird, I hope it comes back.

Brown thrasher – our first! What a beautiful bird.

The rest of the fall migrants should begin to arrive once the weather stabilizes into its normal, cooler pattern. I’m looking forward to it, since it’s always fun to record new visitors we haven’t seen before.

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Warbler Watching

Is there anything more exciting than a treeful of warblers?  Maybe just one thing – a treeful of warblers that you’ve positively identified.

After several weeks of being too busy to do any birding, I finally had time off on the perfect fall morning and made myself time.  So, after several days of looking forward to  warbler watching, Saturday morning finally arrived.  The weather was every bit as beautiful as forecasted – cool and clear and not too windy.  I stepped out of the car at Ken Reid Conservation Area just north of Lindsay, On. and pulled my camera out of my bag… and saw that my telephoto lens was not on it.  Right.  Of course not.  I had switched lenses for something last week, and so the telephoto lens I use for birding, that I leave on my camera always, was at home, in a box, on my desk.  Sigh.  Great.

So I put my camera away and got out the binoculars.  I’d just have to bird the old-fashioned way.

It wasn’t long before we came upon a swarm of busy warblers.  At least four different species, flitting rapidly between trees, mostly hidden among the leaves.  A tail would peek out here, a head there, or a wing.  There was no snapping photos to study later, and I got busy committing to memory as many colours and patterns as possible.  One showed itself enough for me to know it for the Black-throated Green Warbler.  Another was probably the Blackburnian.  And there was another that just wouldn’t hold still.  Its underside and tail was about all I could get: yellow breast, white belly and tail with a broad dark band at the end.  As it turns out, that was all I needed.  It was the Magnolia Warbler, whose tail pattern is diagnostic.

I love when I can identify a bird from just a brief glimpse, particularly from behind as they fly away.  Like when I’m driving, and out of the corner of my eye I’ll see a bird fly up from the fence line.  Broad bands of white outer tail feathers.  A meadowlark.

So, here are a few diagnostic warbler tails – do you know who they belong to?

The first two belong to the same species.  The first is an adult male and the second is a first year male (though a female would be the same).  If you guessed American Redstart, you’re correct!  The dark terminal band and yellow or orange base of the tail is diagnostic.

First-year male American Redstart

The third photo shows the diagnostic yellow underparts, undertail coverts and tail of the Yellow Warbler.

Yellow Warbler

The fourth photo shows the Palm Warbler’s diagnostic tail pattern: black base, white end and yellow undertail coverts.

Palm Warbler

Isn’t it thrilling to identify a bird for certain by just the underside of its tail?  I studied sort of the same thing in school with ducks – most ducks can be identified, sexed and aged with just their wings.  It’s knowledge that has come in handy in the field more than once and helped me to ID  a flying duck at a distance.

If you want to find out more, I highly recommend the following:

The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle

Species, Age and Sex Identification of Ducks Using Wing Plumage by Samuel Carney


Until next month, wishing you lots of warblers!


Posted in Bird Identification, Wood Warblers | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment