Bird Photo Booth Business Challenge in Toronto

Hello Bird Canada readers, from Rob Campbell.

drink, eat breakfast , kiss my Bass

Because this is my first contribution to this cross-Canada blog, I reckon its best to start off by saying hello personally, and lead with a few words about myself. I’m an amateur bird watcher, now in my mid forties and just budding as a Birder. I live in a high rise condo in Toronto, and have binoculars and a lawn chair dedicated to this cause. I started the Toronto Bird Photo Booth Business Challenge because I like the idea of birds taking pictures of themselves. The motion detector-enabled cameras inside the Bird Photo Booth are the latest passive technology that makes compelling stories filled with beautiful and intriguing pictures.

The Toronto Bird Photo Booth Businesses Challenge 2014 is designed to raise awareness of urban birds and bird friendly buildings and businesses; the sponsors make media as they host the challenge, while the images and text are collected at the 2014 Birds of Toronto website.  

The guy seen below is David Suddaby, professional camera man who shoots all manner of rock videos, TV commercials and corporate or industrial productions. He’s a professional videographer who works in the Toronto film industry and is an incurable gadget guy. In the photo below, you can see Dave and I are on the east side of Lamport Stadium in Toronto testing the photo booth rig and that’s him placing the iPhone 5c into the original Bird Photo Booth as sold by Bryson Lovette. The rig we have today is much different than what is pictured here as we have modified it significantly. Dave did most of the testing and modifications and finally selected the HD Camera Motion Detector App for the iPhone 5c as the primary 100% automated, close-up portrait photography solution.

Bird photo booth in Toronto, David Suddaby

birdcamerapro1I also bought a Wingscapes Birdcam Pro which is another category of bird camera altogether, and is employed here as a photo redundancy. It’s a battery operated trail camera and does not have a feeder dish attached. This instrument is made available to provide host business with more photography options. The Wingscapes camera lens is not as nice as Apple; the pictures this machine collects are not as crisp as the ones taken by the iPhone 5C. Yet it’s nice to have a backup and it proved invaluable in Week Two. We found it’s a good idea to set up the bird feeder and then use this rig to point at the dish from a different direction – that way it serves as something of a security camera and potentially photo any thieves who approach and take the iPhone from inside the bird photo booth. Or this unit can be set low to the ground to get the Robins and Thrashers that like to wander across a lawn and scratch at the grass looking for bugs.

Vigorate Digital Solutions loyalty programs software developers built the Birds of Toronto website and photo gallery display which will get more complicated as the program matures and they deploy more sophisticated viewing and voting software. These guys (and gals) are pin code geniuses, and they support this unique birdwatching project despite there being little or no connection between bird photography and their specialty commerce software; they just knew this project was golden, and they wanted to help.

Behold this terrific shot of a Common Grackle! This picture is, in my opinion, the best photograph taken in the competition thus far. It was captured by the iphone camera in the Toronto Bird Photo Booth when both devices were set up and ‘rolling’ in the back parking lot behind Standard IP Telecom on Laird Dr. They were positioned by John Conn, the CEO of the company. You can read about this episode, and what happened to John on Week Three of the Toronto Bird Photo Booth.

common grackle bird photobooth

Grackles are large, lanky blackbirds with long legs and long tails. Males are slightly larger than females. They have a strong bill, enabling them to eat acorns and other tree fruits throughout the winter. Their heads are flat and their bills are longer than in most blackbirds, with the hint of a downward curve; Common Grackles fly south to winter, often alongside other birds like cowbirds, starlings and red wings and other blackbirds.

I’ll be honest, the previous birdwatcher upon whom I relied for accurate bird IDs told me this was an American Crow, and so I wrote that in most of the literature published thus far. It was only after consulting with Pat Bumstead at Bird Canada that she set me straight on this being a Grackle.

Businesses compete using the pictures the booth collects when visiting their property. What this unique challenge needs now is to find more ‘drivers’ – CEOs who are birders and who have host businesses looking for exposure. Host companies must have private backyards, rooftops or bird friendly gardens; each host business gets good media attention and their contributions are preserved on the site photo gallery forevermore. History will remember their participation in the 2014 avian audit of the city of Toronto.

Also, and for the same reason, this project needs sponsors, a bird friendly garden equipment merchandiser, a birdseed maker, a bird house contractor, bird bath engineers.. something.. What are your thoughts, ideas, and opinions of this? What advice can you offer?

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Sparrows, sparrows, everywhere . . .

I remember the first time I saw a Dark-eyed Junco. We’d just moved to Gabriola Island, seven years ago, and were still busy unpacking boxes when I stopped for a break, looked out the window, and noticed several black-hooded feathered creatures rummaging in the winter garden. I thought they must be some rare species of bird – since I’d never seen one before.

Dark-eyed Junco in cedar tree

Dark-eyed Junco in cedar tree

Now, of course, I know that the Dark-eyed Junco (junco hyemalis – sub-species Oregon) that is so prolific on Gabriola is also prolific all over North America. According to Cornell’s Project Feeder Watch, it is often one of the most-reported birds at feeders across the continent.

The junco is just one of at least nine species of sparrow (Family emberizidae) that live on or migrate through Gabriola. These birds are sometimes referred to, disparagingly, as ‘little brown jobs’ or “LBJs”. But once you get to know them, as species if not as individuals, you wonder how anyone could lump juncos in with, say, White-crowned Sparrows.

White-crowned Sparrow. These birds nest in our village shopping centre every spring.

White-crowned Sparrow. These birds nest in our village shopping centre every spring.

Next to juncos, the most common sparrow in our yard is the Spotted Towhee (pipilo maculatus).

Cocky Spotted Towhee on tree stump, posing

Cocky Spotted Towhee on tree stump, posing

With their red eyes and incessant squawk, they’re unmistakable! Right now a family of towhees is rummaging around the garden all day long. The juveniles, of course, look different from the adults. A good bird identification book can come in handy in the spring and summer because of all the baby birds around. I recommend the new Sibley’s Guide to Birds, Second Edition. Fantastic!

The Fox Sparrow (passerella iliaca) and Song Sparrow (melospiza melodia) are both brown streaky birds. The Fox Sparrow that frequents Gabriola is the “Sooty’ variety and has an almost-chocolate brown back and dark crown. Its breast is streaked with chevron-shaped spots that coalesce into one large brown spot in the centre of the chest. Unfortunately – for a new birder trying to distinguish between these two birds – the Song Sparrow also has a central dark spot on its breast. But in these parts the colouring is quite different, and there’s always the fail-safe ID giveaway: the Fox’s yellow mandible, or lower bill.

West coast Fox Sparrow in winter. Note the yellow mandible.

West coast Fox Sparrow in winter. Note the yellow mandible.

The Song Sparrow’s bill is all dark. You can also recognize a Song Sparrow by its flight pattern (it pumps its tail up and down as it flies) and its gorgeous distinctive song: it begins with 2 high notes, two slightly lower notes, then a complex musical trill. Very memorable.

Song Sparrow in the dogwood bush

Song Sparrow in the dogwood bush

The two crowned sparrows, the White-crowned (zonotrichia leucophrys) and Golden-crowned (zonotrichia atricapilla), are also abundant here some years. The White-crowned frequents the west coast in summer and during migration and is easy to identify by the black stripes on its white crown.

White-crowned Sparrow in spring

White-crowned Sparrow in spring

The Golden-crowned sparrow, abundant on the west coast during spring and fall migration, has a yellow stripe on its dark crown, and is quite tame and curious. Early west coast miners called it “Weary Willie” because its song sounded to them like “I’m so weary.” (Maybe they were weary?!) Others refer to the song as the “Oh dear me” song. But whatever you call it, it is made up of 3 descending mournful-sounding notes.

Golden-crowned Sparrow on lawn. Good camouflage, eh?

Golden-crowned Sparrow on lawn. Good camouflage, eh?

Golden-crowned Sparrow, front view

Golden-crowned Sparrow, front view

According to the ID books, Lincoln’s, Chipping, and Savannah sparrows can also be found on Gabriola at various times of the year. The only one of these species I ever see in our yard is the Chipping Sparrow who lives here in the summer, but winters, like many Gabriolans, in Mexico or the warm southern states. Not a bad idea!

Posted in Bird Canada, Bird Identification, Canadian Birds, Nature Photography, Songbirds | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A few photos from the West coast

1. Wood Duck (male)

Wood Duck (male) | Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC | April 13, 2014 | AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II + x1.7 teleconverter

This month, I thought I would let the pictures do most of the talking, so to speak. There isn’t much logic to my choices, aside from the fact that I hope these photos represent a small, but characteristic sample of birds from Canada’s southern Pacific coast in the spring. All of these pictures were taken this April by the author with a Nikon D5200 and the lens specified in the caption.

Sandhill Crane | Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta, BC | April 18, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Sandhill Crane | Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta, BC | April 18, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Orange-crowned Warbler | North Vancouver, BC | April 29, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED VR

Orange-crowned Warbler | North Vancouver, BC | April 29, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED VR

Mourning Dove | Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta, BC | April 18, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Mourning Dove | Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta, BC | April 18, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Marsh Wren | Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta, BC | April 18, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Marsh Wren | Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta, BC | April 18, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Gadwall (male) | Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta, BC | April 18, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

Gadwall (male) | Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, Delta, BC | April 18, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR


Common Goldeneye (female) | Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC | April 13, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II + x1.4 teleconverter

Common Goldeneye (female) | Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC | April 13, 2014 | AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II + x1.7 teleconverter

Posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Waterfowl, Wood Warblers | Leave a comment

Roll on, Spring! – a birding photo essay

Gadwall taking off from a glass-like pond surface...

Gadwall taking off from a glass-like pond surface…

Roll on, spring!  This really is a great season for birding – lots of activity, especially in the courtship arena and all that entails – such as defending territory and chasing away rivals, through to courtship and nesting and, hopefully, the successful delivery and raising of offspring. And all of this makes for great photographic opportunities…A25K1356d&b-fb

I’ve spent a fair chunk of time this past month continuing to check out various ponds and sloughs around Calgary, and I’ve not been disappointed. At one particular pond I was entertained by the frenetic territorial actions of American Coots. An abundant bird locally & somewhat ‘unspectacular’ in terms of plumage and behavior (for the most part), I find most folks pay them little attention. However, with the use of fast, action-freezing shutter-speeds we can open a window on the daily life of these birds and show that they can be quite dramatic when they want to be. If you watch a pond in spring that has more than a couple of coots on it, you will frequently see bursts of actions as individual birds chase away other birds from their territory. To the human eye, you typically see a bit of splashing & scooting across the water that lasts maybe 1-2 seconds…but when you slow this down via fast shutter-speeds (1/3200th of a second or faster) and fast frame rates, you can really see some aggressive & dramatic actions being played out:A25K0976d&b-crop2-fb A25K0975d&b-v3-fb A25K0961-fb2 A25K0951-fb

And when the birds are not chasing each other or trying to court, they can present quite a peaceful scene….indeed, waterfowl on a still pond on wind-less days can present a very tranquil scene, as these Red-necked Grebe images attest to:A25K0669-crop-fb A25K0648-fb A25K0607-fb

Not to be outdone by their cousins, I find Horned Grebes to be quite a striking bird – especially with their vivid, scarlet eyes:A25K1502mask-fb A25K1374-fb A25K1309d-fb

The end result of all this spring ‘action’…in this case, some Mallard ducklings:A25K2675-fb A25K2492d&b-fb

Of course, it would be remiss of me not to check out the spring action taking place away from the water so I headed out towards the foothills and finally got some decent shots of Mountain Bluebirds (birds who are much more brightly coloured on sunny days, which I believe is to do with the structure of their feathers and how it affects light). I watched this pair for about an hour, and my favourite moment was when the female emerged from their nesting box and the male promptly brought her a juicy caterpillar – what a great husband!A25K0009v3-fb A25K9857-fb

Finally, I’d like to end this post with a quite different shot from those above and one that has been popular with viewers – a portrait of a male Merlin in it’s gorgeous blue-grey plumage:A25K9768-fb

(All shots taken with Canon 1Dx DSLR with Canon 600mm f4L IS II lens + Canon 1.4x III teleconverter)



Posted in Bird Canada | 10 Comments

Get Involved Today with Canada’s IBA Program!

caretakerbutnA new video showcases Canada’s Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas Programhighlighting some of Canada’s cherished bird species, the special places they call home, and the dedicated volunteers – or IBA Caretakers – who are working to help safeguard Canada’s Important Bird Areas (IBAs). 
Canada’s IBA Program is a global BirdLife International initiative to identify, monitor, and conserve the world’s most critical sites for birds and biodiversity. There are nearly 600 IBAs in Canada. BirdLife co-partners Bird Studies Canada and Nature Canada jointly manage the country’s national IBA Program, in collaboration with regional partners across the country and with the support of hundreds of volunteers nationwide.    

There are many ways to get involved! To support Canada’s Important Bird Areas Program, join the network of Canadian IBA volunteers, participate in a Citizen Science monitoring program at an IBA, connect with IBA Canada on Facebook, or donate to the national or regional program partners.

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First Captive Born Greater Sage-Grouse

Calgary, AB – One of Canada’s most critically endangered birds is one step closer to being saved from extinction. Eleven greater sage-grouse eggs, collected from the wild, have hatched successfully and are being reared at the Calgary Zoo, marking a conservation first in Canada.

Chick 5_wm

“We are extremely pleased to have developed a process with the Alberta Government of safely finding, moving, and hatching sage grouse eggs that have been collected in the wild,” says Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager, Head of Conservation & Research at the Calgary Zoo. “We are demonstrating immediate action to respond to the species’ imminent risk of extinction in Canada. This is the first step towards founding a captive population that can serve to recover the species in the future.”

The eggs were gathered in southeastern Alberta where it is known that greater sage- grouse nest. A single egg was collected on May 9, 2014 and 12 eggs were collected from a single nest on May 15, 2014. Of the 13 total eggs, unfortunately two chicks did not survive following their hatching.

The chicks will be housed at the Calgary Zoo’s Animal Health Centre where they are receiving exceptional care. Soon they will be transferred to the zoo’s Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre where captive breeding, rearing, and conservation research will be initiated.

The decision to start a captive breeding program at the Calgary Zoo was one of five recommendations from a January 2014 symposium that discussed how to prevent the species’ extinction from Canada. More than 40 national and international experts attended including biologists, wildlife modellers, government representatives, local ranchers and the energy industry.

The Calgary Zoo’s Centre for Conservation & Research has been working with Alberta Environment & Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) since then to coordinate both monitoring and egg retrieval in the wild. Simultaneously, facilities and animal care expertise have been refined at the Calgary Zoo in order to prepare for the hatching and raising of greater sage-grouse chicks.

Populations of the greater sage-grouse have been declining by 98 per cent over the past 25 to 45 years with fewer than 138 birds remaining in Canada split between two isolated populations in 2013 – southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan. Earlier this year the federal government issued an emergency order under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) to prevent the extinction of the species.

Posted in Bird Canada, Conservation, Grasslands Birds | Tagged | 2 Comments

My 2014 Baillie Birdathon

Cross-post from my blog Prairie Birder:

Thursday, May 29th was my “green” Baillie Birdathon which was not only the wettest but also possibly my best Birdathon so far. I decided that I’d do a “green” birdathon because I wanted to focus more on the birds around our area and also I wanted to reduce my carbon footprint even by just a little bit, since I live in an area where vehicles are essential for every day life.

In the very wet rainy morning, at around 7:40 am, I started walking to the slough across from our house where I was able to find many species of waterbirds, including Black Terns, Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbirds, Blue-winged Teals, American Avocets, a Sora, and American Coots. However, the large flocks of shorebirds that I had seen days before were nowhere to be seen. From where I was standing, I could hear Baltimore Orioles, Yellow Warblers, and House Wrens singing in the trees that grow along the slough on the south side. By this point, the rain was coming down quite heavily making it very difficult for me to use my camera and binoculars, so I wasn’t able able to take many photos at the beginning of my day.

I walked over to the woods where I added Tennessee Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Ruffed Grouse, Red-eyed Vireo, Least Flycatcher, Song Sparrow, and White-throated Sparrow, just to name a few. As I was walking further into the woods, I was very excited to find three Magnolia Warblers and two American Redstarts (Alberta firsts for me!) along with a very secretive Common Yellowthroat making its “wichty-witchy” song, Clay-colored Sparrows, a Swainson’s Thrush, Alder Flycatchers, Black-billed Magpies, and European Starlings. When I came out of the woods I set up my scope again to look at the slough, and saw two Ring-necked Ducks feeding in the reeds with a pair of Northern Pintails, Ruddy Ducks, Redheads, and Green-winged Teals. After scanning through all the ducks, I moved my attention to another spot that shorebirds favor — all I could see were American Avocets, and then, as I was about to put the lens cap on my scope, a Black-bellied Plover (first of season) came into view. So far, the first hour of my Birdathon, though very wet, was very productive!

An immature male American Redstart,


After the slough I headed for home — I needed dry clothes and a hot breakfast. I sat in our window seat and tallied Barn Swallow, Bank Swallow, American Goldfinch, Savannah Sparrow, House Sparrow, Sprague’s Pipit, Wilson’s Snipe, Western Meadowlark, and a Common Raven all while eating breakfast.

Indian Lake (west of our house) was the next stop on my list, and there I spotted very co-operative Le Conte’s Sparrows, a dozen Eared Grebes, and two dozen Common Goldeneyes with the males displaying. I also heard another Common Yellowthroat, but this time I was able to see the Common Yellowthroat quite clearly.

One of the Le Conte’s Sparrows,


From the lake I walked to what we call our One Hundred Acre Wood, although it’s actually only 18 acres. The woods were alive with Baltimore Orioles, Least Flycatchers, two White-breasted Nuthatches, Yellow Warblers, House Wrens, Eastern Kingbirds, a single Yellow-rumped Warbler, and mosquitoes. As I was looking at an American Redstart, I heard a bird that sounded different from the others. I was trying to find out where the singing was coming from, and although the bird was singing in the tree above me, I couldn’t see it. My binoculars weren’t helping either — they were fogging up and the lenses were smeared from the rain. I could hear that the bird sounded like a vireo, but it didn’t sound quite right for a Warbling or Red-eyed Vireo. Finally, after trying to locate the bird for 10 minutes, I could see through my binoculars the bold white spectacles and blue-gray head of my lifer, Blue-headed Vireo! After seeing the Blue-headed Vireo I thought my day couldn’t get any better, but shortly afterwards first of season Blackpoll Warbler and Philadelphia Vireo added to my excitement.

My lifer Blue-headed Vireo,


Our woods,


I left the woods and started walking over to our farmyard where I picked up Rock Pigeons, Red-tailed Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and Vesper Sparrows. At our farmyard, I checked on our two-day old chicks and turkeys, and fed the dog and laying hens. After I fed everyone, I continued searching for more birds. I walked past our shelterbelt trees, but didn’t find anything new. I continued on, hoping to find Canvasbacks on our neighbor’s slough and Chipping Sparrows in the spruce trees. As I was nearing the slough, I heard Chipping Sparrows “trilling” in the trees, but then saw two birds gleaning insects from the spruce tree — they were Western Kingbirds. Western Kingbirds are a common sight to see in southern Alberta, but not so much in my area. I watched the kingbirds for a while then scoped out the slough, finding a Red-necked Grebe, Canvasbacks, and a Pied-billed Grebe.

One of the two Western Kingbirds,



A female Brown-headed Cowbird,


The last slough I visited is the one just North of our house, in a neighbor’s pasture. On the slough, I found a male and female Cinnamon Teal and a pair of Horned Grebes.

Horned Grebes,


I finished my Birdathon at home with my last two species, a Cliff Swallow and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird at our feeders. Altogether my Birdathon was terrific and I tallied 82 species.


So far I’ve raised $920 of my $1,000 goal for the Birdathon, with half of the funds earmarked for the Edmonton Nature Club. Thank you to everyone who has supported my Birdathon this year, I greatly appreciate all of the encouragement. If you would like to help me reach the rest of my goal, you can visit my team page. Your support will be greatly appreciated, not just by me but by both of the groups receiving my funds — Bird Studies Canada and theEdmonton Nature Club. Thank you and happy birding.

A list of all the species I saw on my Birdathon:

Pied-billed Grebe, Horned Grebe, Eared Grebe, Red-necked Grebe, Canada Goose, American Widgeon, Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Green-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler Northern Pintail, Gadwall, Canvasback, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Ruddy Duck, Swainson’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Ruffed Grouse, Sora, American Coot, Black-belled Plover, Killdeer, American Avocet, Willet, Short-billed Dowitcher, Franklin’s Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Black Tern, Rock Pigeon, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Alder Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Western Kingbird, Eastern Kingbird, Blue-headed Vireo, Warbling Vireo, Philadelphia Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-billed Magpie, American Crow, Common Raven, Horned Lark, Tree Swallow, Bank Swallow, Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, House Wren, Swainson’s Thrush, American Robin, Sprague’s Pipit, Tennessee Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, Chipping Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Le Conte’s Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Western Meadowlark, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Common Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, Baltimore Oriole, American Goldfinch, and House Sparrow.

* * * * * * * * * *

If you participated in your own Baillie Birdathon this year, please let me know in the comments below and I’ll add a link to your page in this post!

Posted in Bird Canada, Bird Conservation Canada, Birding Trips, Canadian Birds, Citizen Science, Conservation, Corvids, Grasslands Birds, Hummingbirds, Migration, Raptors, Shorebirds, Songbirds, Waterfowl, Wood Warblers | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Guest post from a Saskatchewan birder

Hello, my name is Shannon Gilmour and I live on a small acreage near Swan Plain, Saskatchewan. My family and I moved here seven years ago from small town Alberta, and have affectionately claimed Saskatchewan as home. The winters I do not think we will ever get used to, but that’s a small price to pay when you have a wilderness for your backyard! There is something to see all year round. With the cold stiff air of winter’s chill, a crow is often heard in the distance, with a blue jay in swift reply. However, with the lure of the spring, and the thawing creek just a short walk past my window welcoming geese, and ducks that I never knew existed let alone had a direct flight path through the province.

The Canada goose is a mainstay everywhere, but there is something different about seeing them paired up in a natural habitat wading through icy water instead of watching them waddle their way through the grounds at a park or zoo.


The scaup, although not a frequent flyer to central Saskatchewan, found its way to our creek bed and stayed for two weeks, making friends with a pair of Teal ducks, who would rarely leave the lone duck on his own for very long.



This year, it’s a Mallard pair and it seems that since they have taken up residence on our property, Mallards are what I see everywhere. They seem to like the flooded ditches along the highways, and back roads but as the heat of the summer arrives drying up the ditches, I imagine seeing these birds will be less frequent as they seclude themselves to the many natural marshes and preserved wetland habitats.


Spring seems to have arrived in our neck of the woods, as our property is only a few miles from the forestry, and that enables us to see an eclectic array of birds such as the long-eared owl. The mother owl was kind enough to allow us to get close enough to take a few pictures. I need to add a word of warning, that a mother with newly hatched owlets or fledglings is a very protective and a dangerous bird. Had I known that owls do attack, I would not have approached as close as I did. She clacked her beak at me from above as she perched in the tree. The talons in the picture do not give this lovely lady justice as seeing those claws with my eyes, gave me great respect and our family gave her and her family the space they needed. This family took up residence near the greenhouse and needless to say, the greenhouse was not used that year. We noticed that three owlets were significantly bigger than two and it turns out that if a clutch is lost, the mother will lay another clutch three weeks later. Although this double brooding is rare, it isn’t uncommon.




One thing I found really hard to get used to living out in the country was not the silence, or the undulating croaking of the frogs, or the chirps of the crickets; it was the obsessive cawing of the crow calls. It seemed every where I went, a crow was sure to follow. Any quiet time in the garden was soon carried away by a distant and then not so distant call of a crow. I was convinced that one call was to bring in a whole murder of them! That was one call I could not get used to, the clicking, the warbling and that caw-caw- caw nature in a laugh like tone. It was if they knew they were irking me to no end. It was my mission to beat the crows, to finish my work in the yard before they came ‘a- calling’. That never happened, because even with the window closed when I was nestled in the house, I could still hear them. They would perch themselves on the tallest tree and look in the direction of the living room window and squawk. My obsessive listening to their calls drowned out the squeaky trill of the sap sucker, and the loud playful banter of the blue jay. All my attention was given to the crow, and in retrospect, I think that is what they wanted.

It wasn’t until the day I had the opportunity to care for a fledgling did I begin to look at the crow differently. Seeing this helpless little black bird in a tree, helpless unable to move for some reason, my heart just flew into instinct mode to help. It only took a week and this little creature was back with its parents, as I was extremely careful not to impose myself on him. During that time, I got to know his species a bit better, they call just like any other bird; to mate, to feed, to warn, to calm, to direct. They really have an extensive system of calls but I’m still convinced they are smart enough to know when their calls are bugging you and milk that baby for all its worth. But I found out that if you just treat them as with any other bird, respect and admiration and ignore their silliness, they will fly off to let someone else listen to their voice, as I am also convinced, they caw just to hear themselves talk But I say this affectionately of course.

The crows it turns out, are respectful of other birds, and with that said, I am able to sit in silence while listening to the other bird songs, well in truth, I think after seven years, I just became good at tuning the crows out!

Posted in Bird Canada | 1 Comment

Big babies, little mamas

Last summer I watched an exhausted-looking Chestnut-backed Chickadee valiantly feed a demanding Brown-headed Cowbird chick about four times its size. Here’s the cowbird, waiting (impatiently) while the harrowed chickadee gathers food to bring back to him.

Brown-headed Cowbird waiting (impatiently?) for the chickadee to return (again!) with more food.

Brown-headed Cowbird waiting (impatiently?) for the chickadee to return (again!) with more food.

The year before I’d watched a female Song Sparrow in our back yard feeding a “baby” much bigger than herself.

Brown-headed Cowbird being fed by Song Sparrow.

Brown-headed Cowbird being fed by Song Sparrow.

This behaviour, called ‘brood parasitism’, is practiced by about ten bird species around the world, including the Brown-headed Cowbird and the Cuckoo.

Reed warbler feeding cuckoo, another "brood parasite". (CC license. Image by Harald Olsen.)

Reed warbler feeding cuckoo, another “brood parasite”. (CC license. Image by Harald Olsen.)

Brood parasites lay their eggs in the nests of other birds rather than make their own nests and raise their own young. Typically, a cowbird locates a nest during its construction phase and waits until the host lays an egg or two. Then, when the host bird has left the nest for a while, the cowbird removes (and occasionally eats) one of the eggs – but only if there are two or more. If there’s only one egg in the host nest, the cowbird might not remove it for fear the host bird will abandon the nest. In a retribution scenario that scientists call the ‘Mafia hypothesis’, if the host bird recognizes and removes the cowbird egg, there’s a chance the cowbird will return and kill all the host’s eggs. How’s that for intimidation?

Eastern Phoebe nest with Brown-headed-Cowbird-egg. (CC license. Image by Gala Webdesign.)

Eastern Phoebe nest with Brown-headed-Cowbird-egg. (CC license. Image by Gala Webdesign.)

When circumstances are right, the cowbird usually lays one egg in the host’s nest. When that egg hatches, the nestling is generally much larger and grows much faster than the host’s young. It ends up with more than its fair share of the food because of its loud and persistent calling. The host bird’s young often die from malnourishment.

Shiny Cowbird being fed by Rufous-collared Sparrow. (CC license. Image by Dario Sanches.)

Shiny Cowbird being fed by Rufous-collared Sparrow. (CC license. Image by Dario Sanches.)

The Brown-headed Cowbird is known to have successfully parasitized 144 of 220 bird species. But not all bird species are cooperative hosts. Some reject and destroy cowbird eggs. Others accept the egg but never successfully rear cowbird chicks. As a result, only about 3% of cowbird eggs are successfully hatched and raised. In spite of this, the Brown-headed Cowbird continues to expand its range and population numbers. Curious about that seeming paradox, I went digging.

It turns out that the breeding behavior and physiology of the species is unique. Basically, the Brown-headed Cowbird is almost always fertile and busy engaging in ‘breeding behaviour’. The female has a long reproductive period with a short interval between clutches. In fact, she is the only wild passerine (perching songbird) whose breeding organs don’t change much after laying eggs. Because of the unclear physiological demarcation between clutches, ornithologists sometimes refer to female cowbirds as passerine chickens. Each female’s laying cycle appears adapted to take advantage of a continuous supply of host nests for a two-month period. An average female cowbird lays about 80 eggs, 40 per year for two years, and about 3% of those 80 eggs end up as adults. Such high productivity more than compensates for the excessive loss of eggs and young in the nests of inappropriate hosts. Each pair of cowbirds replaces itself with an average of 1.2 pairs which will double a cowbird population in eight years. It doesn’t hurt that Brown-headed Cowbirds are remarkably flexible when it comes to mating. Let’s just say they’re not fussy who they make babies with.

What’s going on here? Did the maker of all things have a bad day? Is this a glitch in an otherwise remarkable natural system? Probably not. It turns out that a century ago the Brown-headed Cowbird, sometimes called a Buffalo Bird, was confined to the open grasslands of middle North America, where it ate weed seeds and followed herds of buffalo, eating the insects stirred up by their feet. In return, the buffalo allowed the cowbirds to sit and rest on their backs, eating the bugs and insects that were attracted to the buffalo. It was a win-win.

Today, of course, most of the tall grasslands of central North America have been turned into farms, and we are unlikely to see herds of buffalo roaming around. The Brown-headed Cowbird is found all over the continent now, parasitizing more and more birds, and threatening the continuation of certain species in “an evolutionary arms race between parasite and host.” (Wikipedia) But don’t blame the cowbird! It didn’t kill the buffalo or raze the grasslands to make way for agribusiness – human beings did that.

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The Excitement of May

Until I started birding, I always thought of Ontario as a somewhat dull place and couldn’t ever imagine wanting to travel the province. I fled at every opportunity. To think of what I had been missing all these years!

As a birder, there’s nothing more exciting than being in Southern Ontario during the month of May, when the spectacularly colourful migrant songbirds grace the shores of Lake Erie and early days alight with warbling song. I made my first trip out to Point Pelee National Park a few weeks ago and wasn’t disappointed! Right before we got to Pelee, we stopped near the fabled St. Clair Marsh and saw several Yellow-headed blackbirds. How such a stunning bird could have such a cacophonous croak of a song is one of the great avian injustices or perhaps just mysteries. Nevertheless, it was beautiful.

Photo from here.

Photo from here.

At Pelee, the warblers literally hung out at our feet — they must have been so exhausted from their night of travel. I saw Scarlet tanagers strolling along the beech, an Orchard oriole leisurely ambling at the base of a tree. At Pelee I saw close to 20 species of warblers without succumbing to the infamous “warbler neck”! I didn’t even have to look up! Highlights included Bay-breasted, Blackburnian, Black-throated green, and Chestnut-sided warblers and my first look at a Northern waterthrush. Glorious Indigo buntings paraded their brilliant colour for us, and Ovenbirds sang up a storm. From Pelee, we made our way over to the hamlet of Erieau, where we saw a Snowy Owl — an incredible, and somewhat frightening sight in the middle of May — hunkered down in a field, a bit confused as to his own whereabouts.

Next up was Rondeau Provincial park, where we saw most of the same songbirds, but at eye level. Rondeau has a number of beautiful trails through sloughs, which are prime Prothonotary warbler habitat. Though we narrowly missed the Prothonotary, circumstance treated me to fabulous looks at a Canada warbler (which I misidentified as a Hooded, and suddenly I found myself surrounded by a dozen eager Hooded-seekers only to have to announce that I’m a beginner and, alas, a good percentage of what I call out is wrong, to which they smiled; we’ve all been there, the smiles told me). The feeders at the Visitor’s Centre attracted a glorious Red-headed woodpecker, scores of Baltimore orioles, Rose-breasted grosbeaks, and other delightful specimens. The evening ended with an otherworldly American Woodcock aerial courtship display, where the male hurls himself into the ether, spins around wildly in wide circles two or three times, and then plummets to the ground with a yelp and then performs the acrobatic feet all over again. The last thing we heard on our way out of the park were Whip-poor-wills calling.

Oh Southern Ontario…there’s no other place I’d rather be in May!

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