Notes From a NW Ontario Backyard – November 2016

Someone Flipped The Winter Switch!

Hello again!  It is most definitely winter up here in NW Ontario.  In the past 3 days, we’ve gone from heavy rain to heavy freezing rain (about a 1/2 inch worth!) and now to blowing snow and about -15C wind chills.  I had to bring all my birds feeders in to thaw the ice off of them and put fresh ones out to get through the rest of the storm.  I guess I can safely say it’s cold outside enough now to put the suet feeder out.

For the first time, I finally managed to catch 4 of my 6 Blue Jays at once on the platform feeder.  You can see that one got hit with a gust of wind that really messed up its ‘do.  They seldom tolerate each other.


4 Blue Jays on the platform feeder in the freezing rain


Handsome Blue Jay standing on the webcam in the freezing rain, awaiting his turn at the trough

The Ruffed Grouse have been coming around, mostly morning and evening.  This one is a female and she tolerates the Blue Jay for a minute or two.  The male Grouse will not tolerate the Jays at ALL and will instantly show aggression with wide open tail feathers and a fully displayed ruff (fluffed out neck feathers).


Female Ruffed Grouse barely tolerating the Blue Jay on the platform feeder


Female Ruffed Grouse preparing to leave the feeder for the night.

A small flock of Purple Finches was hanging around the yard for a few weeks.  The Dark Eyed Juncos have migrated for the season but the Purples are still here, as are a small number of Goldfinches.


2 male Purple Finches with a male Dark Eyed Junco

It’s funny:  my neighbourhood is absolutely polluted with Red Breasted Nuthatches but they seldom come into the yard.  This one was here off and on for a few days, hauling away and hiding small chunks of peanut.  Hopefully, a couple will stay around for the winter.


Red Breasted Nuthatch getting ready to hide a peanut morsel in the bark of my pine tree

Black Capped Chickadees come to the feeders regularly.  I see anywhere from 3 to 6 of them daily.  This little cutie is in my crab apple tree, enjoying a snack.


Black Capped Chickadee working on a seed

I normally have 3 Crows that visit the feeders daily but this week, a glorious Raven showed up.  It visited the feeders for 2 days, about 20 minutes straight on each day.  A very striking bird!


A Raven that was delicately eating peanuts

I was thrilled to see the season’s first Common Redpolls last week!  Three of them showed up and they were about three weeks earlier than normal.  A fourth one has joined them now and I expect many more to showed up in the coming weeks.


Male Common Redpoll


Female Common Redpoll

Evening Grosbeak numbers have picked up in recent weeks.  I can see anywhere from 10 to nearly 40 on the feeders or below at any given time.


Male & female Evening Grosbeaks on the platform feeder


This female Evening Grosbeak had just been nibbling at the pine cone


2 female Evening Grosbeaks on the winter birdbath for a drink of water


This handsome male Evening Grosbeak had also been working over the pine cones

Pine Grosbeak numbers continue to increase as more migrants move in for the winter season.  This handsome male was sitting on a branch in my crab apple tree.  The female was posing beautifully for me in my Pine tree.


Male Pine Grosbeak


Female Pine Grosbeak

An exceptional treat in the yard this week was a visit from a pair of Bohemian Waxwings.  I had seen them visiting my neighbour’s fruit shrubs but got lucky one day and saw them in my ornamental crab apple tree.


Bohemian Waxwings

Aside from birds, I had a couple of other nice sightings this week.  I have been going out walking most days with a friend and we walk to a bridge about a mile from here.  We’ve seen a few ducks there recently including a pair of Common Goldeneye, a lone Bufflehead Duck and an absolutely lovely lone female Long Tailed Duck … a species I’m lucky to see once, maybe twice per year as they pass through.

Up at the other end of our local Manitouwadge Lake, I came upon a brand new, under-construction beaver house with 2 beavers outside of it.  They both appeared quite small so they may be the teenagers of the family.


The first beaver outside of the new house. It quickly dove when I first approached.


This second, and smaller, beaver was more curious and actually swam up to look at me.  It’s body (without the tail) was no more than a foot long.

And to end this month, did everyone get a chance to see the stunning Super Moon last week?  I finally have a camera worthy of taking photos of the moon!


Thanks so much for reading.  You’ll hear from me again just before Christmas.  🙂

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Four Seasons in Four Weeks – Birding Calgary in Fall 2016

th7d3990-v2-fbBirding this past month in the Calgary area has – due to a variety of weather patterns – presented a lot of opportunities to photograph many species under different conditions. A particular favorite of mine is the always striking Wood Duck:th7d3490th7d4288 th7d3645

An increasing number of Wood Ducks have taken up seasonal residence at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary and, being only 15 minutes’ drive from where I live, I have made a number of trips to photograph these beauties…th7d4176 th121709db-crop th121911 th122136-v

On sunny days I try to go either early in the morning, or late in the afternoon when the sun is slow in the sky. On fall mornings the Sanctuary is particularly beautiful:img_1454enh img_1452enh th7d3545As their name suggests, the Wood Ducks spend a lot of time perched on fallen dead trees in the lagoon and they seem just as happy there as in the water:th7d3462-v th122248v-fb

Although there does definitely seem to be some competition for the ‘best’ spots:th7d3439merge th7d4061

A goal of mine this year was to try and capture some in-flight shots of Wood Ducks and I’ve been lucky enough to get a number of opportunities to try my hand at this, and the results have been personally pleasing:th122330crop-mask-v th121994 th121906-v th121888-v th121876 th121835db-mask-fb th121704 th121713-mask2-v-fb2

Some Woodies appear to have paired up…th122924 th7d3800

…while others seem to be chasing each other around:th122950 th122944

Watching them preen and clean can also be an action-packed sight:th122998

And if the Wood Ducks aren’t enough for you, often times you can get a rowdy Belted Kingfisher flying up and down the lagoon making its harsh rattling call. th7d3318 th7d3306

A very skittish bird, I managed to get some of best shots yet of one that decided to perch unexpectedly close for a good minute:th7d3243db-mask-flickr

Some mornings can be quite foggy, which presents its own beauty…img_1451enh img_1449enh

th7d4127 th7d3602-vth122318But fall being fall, the weather can change quite dramatically and snowfall is not unexpected…img_1463enh img_1461enh

Although this didn’t seem to faze the Wood Ducks at all:th122572 th122520

th122910crop th122849cropHowever, some late-staying Great Blue Herons didn’t seem quite so enamored: th122597

th122609ext2-flcikrAs I was leaving on this wintry morning, I caught a shape in the treeline out of the corner of my eye…th122688

Which upon closer inspection turned out to be a juvenile Bald Eagle, but it didn’t stick around long…th122694

…although it was obliging enough to do a nice fly-by past me:th122730 th122715 th122708crop-fb

Some other species present included some American Wigeon: th121918

The ubiquitous Mallard: th123136 th123124crop th123120

And a Northern Flicker: th7d3627v2-flickr

Despite some brief snowfall in early October, it has been relatively warm (into the teens in celsius)  and so I took advantage of the good driving conditions and made a trip out to the foothills west of Calgary where I came across a couple dozen southward-bound majestic Trumpeter Swans in some ponds by the highway:th123081

th123084-fbBut alas I didn’t see too many birds in the foothills themselves save for this American Pipit:th123049

I also made the effort to check out several other ponds used by migrating waterfowl and came across some of the ‘usual suspects’ such as Northern Shoveller:th7d4406

th7d4446-fbAnd last, but not least, some water-walking Common Goldeneye that may decide to over-winter:th7d4486v

For more of my wildlife photography, you can follow me here:


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T.O. Backyard – Giving Back

Hello! And welcome back to the T.O. Backyard here in the Bird Canada Blog.

This month I’d like to share something a little different, stepping entirely away from our backyard. I call this blog “Giving Back” because that is what it is about… giving back to the birds.

My wife and I volunteer where we can with a number of organizations. Toronto Wildlife Centre (TWC), The Owl Foundation (TOF), Ontario Eastern Bluebird Society (OEBS), Canadian Peregrine Foundation (CPF) and also participate in various citizen scientist projects with Bird Studies Canada (BSC).

Depending on the season, we may contribute more to one place than others. Like the winter months we can be driving injured Owls from the greater Toronto area to The Owl Foundation in Vineland. The Owls fly down to our region from the north in search of food and sometimes get into trouble. We participate in “Project Feeder Watch” with BSC through this time as well, counting birds and species visiting our backyard feeders, entering the data for research. The Spring and Summer months have our attention on the OEBS and CPF. While we don’t see many Bluebirds in Toronto, we do help with nest box monitoring of Tree Swallows near our home, always hoping for Bluebirds to show up. We assist in Peregrine Falcon fledge watches through late May and much of June. A whole blog could easily be done on a fledge watch. All I can say is that it is not for the faint of heart.

But year round, we are always ready, willing and able for TWC. A busy centre it is, open 365 days a year. It’s more me than my wife since I drive and we work opposite shifts, but she will help out if there is a need on a weekend. Volunteer driving is what I signed up for just over 2 years ago. I am on a list to help when I am able to, when the actual rescue team cannot. I can be driving injured, sick or orphaned wildlife into the centre or helping get rehabbed animals back into the wild. We also assist with grocery drives, picking up needed items, all of which is reimbursed.

The Autumn season can get pretty busy with migratory birds. FLAP brings TWC a lot of birds in through fall migration. It’s mind blowing how many songbirds collide with windows during this time. The numbers are too much to take in. And sadly I learned that FLAP had a really busy fall migration this year, picking up 33% more birds than average. Picking up does not necessarily mean rescuing either. Too often it’s just recovery of the bird bodies. Not every bird that makes it to Toronto Wildlife survives either. It’s heart breaking.

FLAP display at the Royal Ontario Museum



So when the “shout out” comes for a driver to help get some rehabbed birds back on their migratory path, I am more than happy to give up the time and fuel for the birds.

The birds must go west of Toronto, and be released somewhere along the shores of Lake Ontario at one of the numerous lake parks. This is the direction they take on their journey to their over wintering homes through the southern USA, Mexico, and South America. The birds will cross over Lake Ontario at one of the narrowest points like Point Pelee, and head south.

On average, the drive for me is 45 km. That is from leaving our home, getting up to TWC and then down to a preferred lake park. I can have 1 bird, 3 birds, and once a whopping 21 in total. I never ask how many birds, or the species, I just do it if I am able to.

With so much death in fall migration, being able to help the survivors is amazing. Of course I am not the only one doing these drives.

Most of the birds travel in no wax paper bags, one bird per bag. The tops of the bags are folded over and held with a paper clip. Larger birds travel in boxes. Some birds flutter through the travel, trying to get out of their confines. Some sit quietly. Some actually sing their song lightly (Golden-crowned Kinglets are good for that).

When it’s time to let them go, we open the bag(s) facing trees and shrubs, approximately 10 ft away. In most cases, as soon as the birds see the light of day, away they go. And in most cases they go right for the trees and shrubs. Some land quickly, stopping for a moment to take in their surroundings and gather their bearings. Some fly deeper in, taking cover. Some fly through and beyond, getting away from us as quickly as possible.

It’s great when they do land nearby, giving us the opportunity to watch them, and if I have my camera with me, to take photos.  I won’t chase any of the birds, I just stay where I am and snap away (the birds have been through enough already).  It’s amazing how quickly they shake off all these strange and stressful things they’ve endured, and go right back to business, back to being a wild and free bird.

There are so many people to thank, doing something to help these birds. The people at FLAP, so many volunteers walking the streets of Toronto, picking up the birds. The people who drive the birds who need extended care up to Toronto Wildlife. The staff and volunteers at TWC who do everything they can to help them get back to good health, and back to the wild world.

I would like to share a few images of some of the birds that did make it back “home” again. Let’s hope they all made it to their destinations safe and sound.

Golden-crowned Kinglet


Black-throated Green Warbler


2 male Black-throated Blue Warblers


Dark-eyed Junco


Yellow-bellied Sapsucker


White-throated Sparrow


November 8th was probably my last fall release for 2016 and it ended quite different than any release I’ve done before. This Hermit Thrush decided my hand was a good place to stop and take in his new found freedom. The bird sat there for maybe one minute before flying off to join other Hermit Thrushes nearby. It was great that I had my phone in my jacket pocket to capture this memorable moment.


The birds give us so much day after day. The beauty of their song is a gift to our ears, their colorful plumage a gift to our eyes. Being surrounded by them is good for overall well being since we appreciate them so much. Driving them to rehabilitation centres for help, and those who make it back to freedom, it is the least we can do.

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Vermillion Lakes — Beyond the Iconic Landscape


View towards the third lake


When most people think of Vermillion Lakes near Banff, an image of Mount Rundle (one of Banff’s most recognizable mountains), usually comes to mind.  But there is a hidden side to this magical place–a wild side that can be revealed if you just have the patience to listen and look beyond the beauty of the iconic landscape to the avian world.

This is one of our favourite places to bird because the species seen are very consistent and easy to find if you know where to look.

Canada Geese can be seen everywhere and usually hang out around the first and second lakes.  During mating season they can be particularly loud and the males can be very aggressive.  Interestingly, birds of both sexes tend to choose mates of a similar size in a pattern scientists call “assortative mating.”


Canada Geese


Common Loons, distinguished by their red eyes and haunting calls also frequent the first and second lakes.  The red in the loon’s eye actually helps it see underwater as they are visual predators, locating fish by sight and diving as deep as 200 ft to catch a meal (most of which it consumes underwater).  Many scientist believe Common Loons have been around for twenty million years, making them the oldest living bird today!


Common Loon


Great Blue Herons like to fish here but often go unnoticed without a trained eye and a pair of binoculars as they stand motionless scanning for prey. These majestic birds have an impressive wingspan of 6 feet!  According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology,

“Great Blue Herons have specialized feathers on their chest that continually grow and fray.  The herons comb this “powder down” with a fringed caw on their middle toes, using the down like a washcloth to remove fish, slime and other oils from their fathers as they preen.  Applying the powder to their underparts protects their feathers against the slime and oil of swamps.”


Great Blue Heron


Soras may be the most common rail in North America, but they are extremely secretive birds and are seldom seen.  Vermillion Lakes is one of the BEST places to view them!  Between the second and third lakes is a small patch of cattails and reeds where this little marsh walker lives.  If you are quiet and can sit motionless for about 20 minutes, it will often come out and start to forage (within 10 feet of you)!  If you are really lucky, it will even bring its chicks within view!




Yellow Warblers are often hiding in the willows right next to the road.  Their song is one of the prettier ones, so it is not surprising that a group of yellow warblers is collectively know as a “sweetness” of warblers.


Yellow Warbler – Male


Common Yellowthroats also live in the cattails, but you have a better chance of seeing a male as the females will often run under vegetation for some distance when leaving the nest in attempt to make it difficult to locate.


Common Yellowthroat – Male


Song Sparrows can be heard throughout the area and are one of the most persistent singers throughout spring and summer.

According to Brandeis University, “Studies have shown that male Song Sparrows are more likely to attract females if their songs display a more advanced ability to learn.  Those males that have more learned components of their song, and whose song more resembles their tutors (the adult birds from whom they learned the song) are preferred over other males.”


Song Sparrow


Pine Siskins can often be seen and heard on the tops trees around Vermillion Lakes.

The name Siskin is derived from its sound or chirp; thus, the birds common same is really “pine chirper.” (


Pine Siskin


Least Flycatchers are really a joy to photograph as they often wait on an open perch low or in the middle of a tree and fly out to catch insects in flight (know as hawking).  This individual is usually in the area around the beginning of the third lake.


Least Flycatcher


Red-Winged Blackbirds are probably on of the most abundant birds in the area (especially in the cattails close to the third lake).  Male red-winged Blackbirds like to play the field with some having up to 15 different females nesting in his territory.


Red-winged Blackbird – Male



Red-Winged Blackbird – Female


Buffleheads are extremely beautiful birds that are, like most ducks, extremely difficult to photograph…this individual was no exception. He is almost always on the third lake but you will need to sit patiently in your car (using it as a blind) for a very, very long time!

“Buffleheads nest almost exclusively in holes excavated by Northern Flickers and, on occasion by Pleated Woodpeckers.  Unlike many ducks, they are mostly monogamous, often remaining with the same mate for several years.” Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Bufflehead – Male


These are some of the most common birds found at Vermillion Lakes, but there are many others that can be discovered if you are willing to look beyond the iconic landscape.  We hope you enjoyed the blog–thanks for reading and happy birding!


Marcy & Ray Stader

More stories and photos at



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Birds & Tailings Ponds – a deadly combination

Imagine you’re a bird in flight, high in the sky, heading from your wintering grounds in South America to the Boreal Forest, along with a dozen other birds.

Canada Goose in flight. Photo by and courtesy of Alan D. Wilson. (CC license.)

Canada Goose in flight. Photo by and courtesy of Alan D. Wilson. (CC license.)

You make the journey every year because that forest is your breeding ground. Migration, built into your genes like the colour of your eyes, is physically exhausting and hazardous. Along the way you’re exposed to storms and predators and hunters. You can’t take a bag lunch with you or stop at a restaurant to eat or at a roadside inn for shelter or sleep. You scan the earth below for stopovers where you can rest and be safe, eat, and gear up for the next leg of your journey.

Now you’re flying over the Peace-Athabasca Delta. You’re tired.

Now you’re almost at the southern edge of the Boreal Forest.

The Borea Forest. Photo by and courtesy of Olga Oslina. (CC license.)

The Borea Forest. Photo by and courtesy of Olga Oslina. (CC license.)

You’ve been in the air for many hours since your last stopover and you’re longing to rest, to have some water, some food, to gain strength for the final leg of the journey. In the distance you see a huge pond of water, and you and your fellow birds head down together.

Athabasca River tar sands mining operation. 2011 NASA Earth Observatory (Public domain photo.)

Athabasca River tar sands mining operation. 2011 NASA Earth Observatory (Public domain photo.)

But what you’ve seen is a pond in name only. Soon you are
waterlogged in a toxic chemical soup that clings to your feathers and weighs you down. You can’t fly off. You struggle, tire. Eventually you suffocate and drown.

According to some estimates, as many as 5,000 birds a year die in tar sands tailings ponds in northern Alberta.

A few facts:

Whooping Crane in flight. USDA Public Domain image.

Whooping Crane in flight. USDA Public Domain image.

Even after massive conservation efforts for decades there are estimated to be only about 440 individual Whooping Cranes in the wild now. (

It’s not that there aren’t regulations protecting migratory birds. Under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, the federal government has the power to ensure these birds are protected from death in tar sands tailings ponds. What it needs is the political will to do so.

Big oil companies do make some efforts to keep the birds away from the ‘ponds’. (They are required to do so by law.) They install scarecrows and use noise cannons, for example. But according to Colleen Cassady St. Clair, a biologist at the University of Alberta, these deterrents aren’t working well enough. In 2014 she researched other methods that might be more effective, including using laser technology to create a kind of light show she hoped would work better. It seems that at least one oil company did begin to use laser as a deterrent. Did it work? Decide for yourself:

Andrea Johancsik, conservation specialist at Alberta Wilderness Association, sums up the situation: “Bird-deterrent systems are failing, with unacceptably high bird landings even in good conditions.” Birds get used to our human noises. And who knows what they think of the scarecrows?

The sad reality is that the Canadian government is not taking its responsibility to protect migrating birds seriously. As a bird-lover, I am grateful that Ecojustice, a Canadian law firm specializing in environmental justice, is trying to convince the government to step up to the plate. They have crafted a letter to Julie Gelfand, Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, asking her to investigate why nothing is being done as thousands of birds are killed on tailings ponds every year. I signed the Ecojustice petition and letter – and I hope you will too!

Click here to participate:

Thank you!

To see the growth of the oil sands and tailings ponds around the Athabasca River from 1984 to 2011, click here:

For more information about the issue:


Posted in Bird Canada, Bird Conservation Canada, Boreal Forest Birds, Migration | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Notes From a NW Ontario Backyard – October 2016

Hello again!

I sure hope everyone has been enjoying this wonderful autumn season.  I dearly love autumn …. I just wish it would last a little longer.  Like spring, it seems to be gone in a flash.  Our tree colors are pretty much finished already and at least half of the leaves have now fallen.  We’ve had flurries twice so far but snow is nowhere near staying yet, thankfully.

Since I missed a September posting (my busiest season and time got away from me, sorry!), I’ll go back to my final summer sightings.  The photo below was one of my last Hummingbird sightings of the season.  I saw another little female the day after I took this photo and that was it … they disappeared for the year.  I had a great season for the Monarda (Bee Balm) so the Hummers were VERY happy with my flowerbeds this summer.  In fact, I saw the birds in the flowerbeds way more than I saw them at my two feeders.  It was my best summer ever for Hummingbirds.  At one point, I had 6 at a time in the gardens with me!


Female Ruby Throated Hummingbird at Monarda blossom

I also had quite a few Northern Flickers in my neighbourhood throughout the summer.  An adult male (like the one below) would come and land on the hydro pole just outside of my back gate and from there, he would call and call and call.  Toward the end of the summer, I started hearing a juvenile answering his calls from further down the street.  I never did see the young ones but this fellow came back in September for what seemed like a final farewell.


Male Northern Flicker on a hydro pole outside my back gate.

After the bulk of the summer visitors left, Grackles showed up.  For a while, I had 50+ at a time in the backyard.  They make all kinds of mess and noise but I really don’t mind them.  I like blackbirds of all kinds.

One day, I glanced out of my patio doors and saw ……….. footprints …… on the glass!  No body imprint; in fact: no body!  No other sign of collision, just footprints.  Judging by the size, they are Grackle footprints.  This tickled my funny bone for some reason!


Grackle footprints on my patio door


A portion of the Grackles that were visiting my feeders & birdbaths in September.

My resident family of Crows has been visiting the yard regularly since spring.  At one point in September, I had 7 of them in the yard:  3 on the platform feeder, 2 in the trees behind (where this fellow below is) and 2 more on the ground underneath.  For such big birds, they are jumpier than any other birds in the yard but so entertaining to watch!


Crow taking flight out of my pine tree

After being absent almost all summer long, Blue Jays have returned to my feeders.  Their visits started out with just one or two, now there are at least six.  I remember one day last winter, I had a high count of ten Blue Jays for just one day.  Curious to see if that will happen again.  I’ll be putting peanuts out on the platform feeder soon so we stand a chance.  🙂


Two of the six Blue Jays that have returned to my feeders for the winter

As the typical sign of Autumn, I watched flock after flock of Canada Geese fly over my yard while I was busy out there putting the gardens to bed for the season.  We have a golf course nearby and I can always hear the Geese and Sandhill Cranes take off from there.


Some of the Canada Geese flying over my neighbourhood, heading south

In the photo below is the golf course resident family of Sandhill Cranes.  Every year, they fly across town to the ‘old high school track’ (the school has been torn down but the track is still there).  The center of the track (for track & field) is full of clover and the Cranes apparently love it at the end of summer.  This year, I managed to catch an immature Crane imitating its parent.  The family consisted of two adults and two young.  Sadly, within a week of taking this photo, one of the youngsters flew up into a power line and was electrocuted.  🙁


Immature Sandhill Crane imitating its parent

I was thrilled a few weeks ago when my husband came home from work and told me that he had just seen a Swan on a lake on the edge of town.  He took me out there to see and at first, all I could see was what looked like a piece of styrofoam floating around.  But then two ducks flew by and the ‘foam’ lifted its head up:  the lovely Trumpeter Swan had been having a nap!


One of at least 5 Trumpeter Swans I saw here this year.

American Pipits came through the area this fall.  I only saw a small handful of them in my yard but we saw quite a few along the highways in the region.  I only ever see them during fall migration, never in the spring.  Not sure why that is.



Two American Pipits in my backyard.

With Project FeederWatch just around the corner, I was thrilled last week to find two Ruffed Grouse in the backyard once again.  I get such a kick out of how they leave the yard each year in April and return every October.  The most we’ve ever had is five at once but our average is two.


First Ruffed Grouse of the season to return to the yard. 🙂


Ruffed Grouse with Black Capped Chickadee on the platform feeder.

Another returnee is my favourite:  the Gray Jay.  Two of them showed up in the yard last week, just after the Grouse.  The fellow below was caught in some heavy rain and spent some time in my pine tree preening and drying off.


Gray Jay preening after heavy rain

I have only seen a couple of Warblers so far this fall but a few Sparrow varieties have been around.


Dark Eyed Junco – they nest here.


American Tree Sparrow


Song Sparrow – they nest here


White Throated Sparrow – they nest here.


Female White Crowned Sparrow


Male White Crowned Sparrow

As I mentioned above, Project FeederWatch is beginning soon.  This year, the season runs from November 12’16 to April 7’17.  I am working with Cornell Lab of Ornithology right now to get their webcam in my yard up and running for the season.  I’ll have the link to that for you in my November posting.

Until then, thanks for reading!

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Shorebirds of southern Alberta – Fall 2016

Stilt Sandpipers - Brooks, Alberta

Stilt Sandpipers – Brooks, Alberta

This August I had a very enjoyable week of camping with my family out on the prairie lakes and east of Calgary, during which I was able to photograph a number of migrant shorebirds as they passed southward through southern Alberta. Weather-wise, we were pretty lucky with only the one rainy day, and there was also a good variety of birds to see.

Baird's Sandpiper - Brooks, Alberta

Baird’s Sandpiper – Brooks, Alberta

As we were camped at Kinbrook Island, about 2 hours east of Calgary and just south of the town of Brooks, one morning I decided to go on a bit of a ‘hail mary’ search for Burrowing Owls as these increasingly rare birds can apparently occasionally be seen in this general area. Well, after 2 hours of fruitless searching I turned around and headed home, somewhat dejected, having not taken a single image. However, my spirits were raised when I spied a flock of white shorebirds flying and wheeling low above a roadside slough.

A flocks of 'peeps' wheeling over a roadside slough.

A flocks of ‘peeps’ wheeling over a roadside slough.

Upon closer inspection they turned out to be Red-necked Phalaropes in non-breeding plumage:

Red-necked Phalaropes in formation. Brooks, Alberta

Red-necked Phalaropes in formation. Brooks, Alberta

When I glanced out my car window on the opposite side, there was a much shallower slough with something of beach/mudflat and, lo and behold, a few dozen more shorebirds patrolling the beach. Awesome!

A welcome sight - a mixed bag of shorebirds!

A welcome sight – a mixed bag of shorebirds!

So, grabbing my gear and I headed down to the shoreline and slowly approached the shorebirds. As I got closer to the water the ground beneath my feet became softer and I was soon in the mud, so my decision to wear water-proof gear and bring my rubber boots was a fortuitous one. And along with the mud came the usual somewhat unpleasant odors…but nothing compared to the stink I’ve encountered elsewhere, especially at lakes that are receptacles for treated sewage!

One of the 'hazards' of shorebird photography...flies!

One of the ‘hazards’ of shorebird photography…flies!

Once I was about 20 meters away from the nearest bird I began to crawl slowly and halted once a few of the more skittish birds took off. The great thing about shorebirds is they usually fly a few loops and then settle back down to feed, often in the same spot they left or nearby. This encounter was no exception and soon most of the birds returned and the longer I stayed the less concerned they were and soon the shorebirds were happily feeding ‘up close and personal’.

Baird's Sandpiper -. Brooks, Alberta

Baird’s Sandpiper -. Brooks, Alberta

The main focus of my attention were a flock of Stilt Sandpipers because I have not seen them on many occasions, so I wanted to make the most of the opportunity (and I’m glad I did for when I returned the following morning every one of the Stilts had gone!):

Stilt Sandpipers - Brooks, Alberta

Stilt Sandpipers – Brooks, Alberta

Stilt Sandpiper - early morning stretch - Brooks, Alberta

Stilt Sandpiper – early morning stretch – Brooks, Alberta

Stilt Sandpiper - Brooks, Alberta

Stilt Sandpiper – Brooks, Alberta

Baird’s Sandpipers were the most abundant and they were quite active – feeding, chasing each other of ‘their patch’, flying here and there and occasionally having a rest:

Baird's Sandpiper. Brooks, Alberta

Baird’s Sandpiper. Brooks, Alberta

Baird's Sandpipers in flight. Brooks, Alberta

Baird’s Sandpipers in flight. Brooks, Alberta

Baird's Sandpiper - rapidly flapping its wings to extricate itself from the thick mud. Brooks, Alberta

Baird’s Sandpiper – rapidly flapping its wings to extricate itself from the thick mud. Brooks, Alberta

Baird's Sandpipers. Brooks, Alberta

Baird’s Sandpipers. Brooks, Alberta

Baird's Sandpiper - returning to its original feeding spot after I inadvertently spooked them. Brooks, Alberta

Baird’s Sandpiper – returning to its original feeding spot after I inadvertently spooked them. Brooks, Alberta

Baird's Sandpiper - charging down another sandpiper that came too close. Brooks, Alberta

Baird’s Sandpiper – charging down another sandpiper that came too close. Brooks, Alberta

Baird's Sandpiper - scaring off another that was feeding too close! Brooks, Alberta

Baird’s Sandpiper – scaring off another that was feeding too close! Brooks, Alberta

Baird's Sandpiper having a mid-morning nap. Brooks, Alberta

Baird’s Sandpiper having a mid-morning nap. Brooks, Alberta

A good sprinkling of Semi-palmated Sandpipers also presented themselves:

Semi-palmated Sandpiper - Brooks, Alberta.

Semi-palmated Sandpiper – Brooks, Alberta.

A semi-inflated Semi-palmated Sandpiper :) - Brooks, Alberta.

A semi-inflated Semi-palmated Sandpiper 🙂 – Brooks, Alberta.

And last, and indeed least, were a handful of tiny Least Sandpipers that I was able to pick out by virtue of their relatively small size and yellow legs:

A Least Sandpiper amongst feeding Baird's Sandpipers. Brooks, Alberta.

A Least Sandpiper amongst feeding Baird’s Sandpipers. Brooks, Alberta.

Least Sandpiper - Brooks, Alberta

Least Sandpiper – Brooks, Alberta

Indeed half of the fun of shorebirding is scanning the mixed flocks and ID’ing individual species!

Amongst the other shorebirds present were Willets:

Willet - Brooks, Alberta.

Willet – Brooks, Alberta.

Greater Yellowlegs:

Greater Yellowlegs - Brooks, Alberta.

Greater Yellowlegs – Brooks, Alberta.

and several pairs of the delicate American Avocets, still very photogenic despite having lost their brick-red breeding plumage:

American Avocet - Brooks, Alberta

American Avocet – Brooks, Alberta

American Avocet - on final approach - Brooks, Alberta

American Avocet – on final approach – Brooks, Alberta

These images come from two consecutive morning visits, and represent pretty much all my 2016 shorebirding. I look forward to more in 2017!

Stilt Sandpipers - Brooks, Alberta

Stilt Sandpipers – Brooks, Alberta

You can see more of my wildlife photography here:



Posted in Bird Canada | Comments Off on Shorebirds of southern Alberta – Fall 2016

T.O. Backyard – Autumn… There Go the Birds

Thanksgiving weekend in Canada is just about a thing of the past, and now so is fall migration for 2016.

The last couple weeks the birds have been passing through southern Ontario, heading on their journey south. It’s a treat for us to catch sights of any of these birds because next Spring is a long way off.

Bye bye Ovenird


Au Revoir Pine Warbler


Adios Wood Ducks


Auf Wiedersehen Canada Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Gray-cheeked Thrush




We will miss you too, you Black-throated Blues. Or is that two?

Adult male Black-throated Blue Warbler


Hatch year female Black-throated Blue


The Thanksgiving long weekend has had us treated to last views of Golden-crowned Kinglets and White-throated Sparrows in our backyard; mostly it’s been the sounds of them in the conifers with the odd brief sighting. Suddenly we have a large amount of Red-winged Blackbirds about as well. I suspect northern birds passing through. They are our first true sign of Spring. Come March of every year we are so thrilled to see them once again. No shortage of Common Grackles right now either.

A Golden-crowned Kinglet


A female Downy Woodpecker has taken up residence in our backyard, using a couple of the bird houses. It’s neat to watch her go to bed at dusk and rise at the crack of dawn.  Odd that she can’t settle for one though.


We aren’t blessed with as many Northern Cardinals as some other Autumns but things may change as will the weather. It’s like a changing of the guards here as the Cardinal enjoys his last meal for the day while a young Raccoon is looking for his first meal of the night.


It’s been nice to see a steady number of Monarch Butterflies in the first days of October.


Another treat this Autumn is spotting our resident Great Horned Owl. She’s been pretty elusive this year compared to other years. I’ve never seen her past early October or before April. She must go deeper into the woods, or finding thicker pines to roost in as the weather gets colder. Was this our last sight until next Spring? It’s always a blessing to see an Owl in the wild, so I think anyway.


Northern Saw-whet Owls are passing through southern Ontario right now. It’s been a couple years since I last saw one. I’m hoping for a sighting this season.

A Saw-whet we were fortunate to have spend the winter in a nearby park a couple years ago.


A Red-tailed Hawk aided in some pest control recently, catching a rat from a nearby backyard.


Mammal sightings haven’t changed much other than more regular sightings of a couple Virginia Opossums. Soon the Raccoons and Skunks will go into semi-hibernation but the Opossums do not. I always feel bad for them through the winter months as they can get frost bite on the hairless parts of their bodies… the tail, ears, toes and nose.



There is quite the difference in size with our 2 Opossums, and I’ve encountered both at the same time a couple nights. I wish people would learn about these animals and not just see them as scary looking vermin. Opossums eat mice! And ticks! What’s not to love about an animal that does that?

We love our Skunk sightings too. Still seeing at least two some evenings roaming through the backyards or hiding in a hollowed out log we have down back.


The Autumn season is bitter sweet for many people. Don’t be sad our Summer feathered residents have gone, they will be back. Each season offers us something different but it’s up to us to choose to see it.

Posted in Bird Canada | 3 Comments

Siege at Spruce Meadows!

Acreage life near Spruce Meadows (Calgary, AB, Canada)


When one thinks about the rolling foothills around Spruce Meadows just southwest of Calgary, Alberta, thoughts of tranquility, beautiful horses, aspen forests, and lovely sunsets usually come to mind.

Horses and riding competitions – the quintessential image of Spruce Meadows



A Mule Deer lazes around the quiet acreage


We moved out to an acreage a few minutes from Spruce Meadows in February of this year.  Life at the acreage has been phenomenal: wide open spaces, peace and quiet, clean fresh air, and plenty of awesome birds (to be fair, there are two things we do not like about the acreage: too much grass to mow and slow internet).

We had a nesting pair of Great Horned Owls, hundreds of Redpolls, Chickadees, Red and White Breasted nuthatches, Red Crossbills, nearly the full gamut of raptors, Bluebirds, Blue Jays, Mourning Doves, Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, House Finches, American Goldfinch, Tennessee Warblers, all kinds of Woodpeckers, Sparrows and much more.

We have been particularly blessed with a pair of nesting Blue Jays that reside in some trees very close to the acreage.  We put up a number of bird feeders when we moved to the acreage in the winter and immediately the Blue Jays discovered the feeders.  They have been entertaining us all year and they have been enjoying the peanuts immensely.  We have really come to appreciate how smart these birds are.

Video of Blue Jay at our window feeder!

We started in winter with three Blue Jays.  A definite Blue Jay pair and a third one who doesn’t always stay with the pair, but we do see it quite often.

A Blue Jay surveys the environment from atop a Mugo Pine


Life was good at the acreage and we were enjoying our little piece of paradise.  Until one day it began… the Siege at Spruce Meadows.

“It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… a tiny hawk that appears in a blur of motion—and often disappears in a flurry of feathers.” Source: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Sharp-shinned Hawk hunting in flight… a tough shot to get


One day, this Sharp-shinned Hawk showed up and turned everything upside down!  This raptor is so fast and stealthy we didn’t even know what exactly we saw the first few times.   It swept in low (2-3 ft off the ground) in a disorientating blur of speed.  After many attempts to capture this daring acrobatic flier in flight, we finally did it!

For those that don’t know, Sharp-shinned Hawks are the smallest hawk in North America that eat other birds.  Their job in the ecosystem is to cull weak or sick birds, keeping the rest of the population strong and healthy.


Juveniles have different plumage. “The eyes of sharpshins darken from yellow (in first-year birds) to orange, and then to red in older adults. In comparison to adults, juvenile Hawks have brown upperparts, and cream-colored underparts that often are heavily streaked with reddish brown on the breast and belly.” Source: Hawk Mountain


“Songbirds make up about 90 percent of the Sharp-shinned Hawk’s diet. Birds the size of American Robins or smaller (especially warblers, sparrows, and thrushes) are the most frequent prey; bigger birds are at less risk, though they’re not completely safe. Studies report quail, shorebirds, doves, swifts, woodpeckers, and even falcons as prey. Sharp-shins also eat small rodents, such as mice and voles, and an occasional moth or grasshopper.”  Source: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

This juvenile attacked any birds on our feeders without discrimination, scattering birds in all directions.  At first, the feeders would remain abandoned for hours, but as more time went on, we noticed the song birds would return fairly quickly.  It’s almost as if they were getting a knack for the attack!  Usually this bird would show up for a couple of days and then disappear, but this time it decided to stay for a couple of weeks!



It was hard for us to watch even though it is part of the natural food chain.  We have several Downey and Hairy Woodpeckers that visit our feeders regularly and we’ve grown somewhat attached to them.  Our stomachs would turn when we saw the Sharp-shinned Hawk come near them.  On one occasion, the hawk landed in a Mayday tree where a Downey Woodpecker had been feeding on a feeder directly below.  We are not sure if the hawk saw the Downey because the Downey absolutely froze and it didn’t move a feather until the hawk left 20 minutes later!


One of our favourite male downey woodpeckers.


We are not sure what happened, but as the days wore on the Sharp-shinned Hawk started attacking anything and everything that moved!  Was this juvenile desperately hungry???

It took pot shots at Magpies.  It took pot shots at Crows.

It even terrorized our squirrels, including this one:

This squirrel withstood repeated attacks from the hawk!


However, the hawk didn’t seem genuinely interested in the squirrels and the squirrels somehow knew they were not really on the hawk’s menu.  Perhaps the hawk was just using the squirrels as practice?

The hawk was relentless…



It showed up every morning at 7:00 am is if on schedule and stayed until the late afternoon.  Watching, waiting… and attacking!



The real gut wrenching stuff was when this little hawk started attacking our resident Blue Jays.  Our Blue Jay pair had two offspring and we had been watching them learn to feed and protect themselves all summer long.  Were they experienced enough to survive an attack from the hawk?



The first few attacks on the Blue Jays were almost impossible to watch.  The Blue Jays would fly for cover making the loudest squawking calls.  The hawk would get within inches of the Jay and sometimes they would do acrobatics in the air until the Jay reached cover.  What we learned is that Blue Jays are very, very smart birds and they seem to know their capabilities and limitations.  They would receive an attack and fly for cover.  The hawk would land in a tree, often the same tree, and a few minutes later the Jay would have the confidence to fly to the feeder for another peanut…or two!  And then the cycle would repeat itself.



As time went on, we started to relax a little about the Sharp-shinned Hawk attacks on the Blue Jays.  We would do an “inventory” count of our Jays and as long as we still had five jays, we knew none had been lost.

Not all birds were so lucky, however,  We had two pair of Mourning Doves that frequented the acreage all year but one day we found a heap of feathers.  At first we thought perhaps the hawk caught a Downey or Hairy Woodpecker, but we took a few feathers and identified them as a Mourning Dove on the internet.  We also read that this raptor likes to “pluck” their prey before eating… and the feathers just happened to be piled up under a favourite perch.

This Mourning Dove wasn’t as agile or lucky as the Blue Jays


Then suddenly one morning it all stopped as quickly as it began… the acreage was eerily silent… no high-pitched calls from the hawk, no blue jays or other birds…

Autumn Jay


After looking through binoculars all morning we suddenly noticed a long, lean shadow soaring 8 ft off the ground…  A new predator had come into the neighbourhood–a beautiful female Norther Harrier Hawk!


Female Norther Harrier Hawk perched on our fence


She only stayed for the day, but her presence was like the calvary coming to the rescue and breaking the Siege at Spruce Meadows, restoring calm after the storm!



We hope you enjoyed the Siege of Spruce Meadows, thanks for reading and happy birding!

Ray & Marcy Stader

Posted in Bird Behaviour, Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Nature Photography, Raptors, Songbirds, Woodpeckers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Billions of Birds, Thousands of Islands … & Extinction

Islands and birds. An island full of birds. Birds in flight over a tropical island. Lovely images, right? But there’s more to it than meets the eye.

I count myself incredibly lucky to live on an island, Gabriola Island, in the Salish Sea just off the coast of British Columbia. Gabriola is about the same geographical size as Manhattan but has a population of about 4,000 people. Manhattan’s 2012 population was 1.6 million.

Gabriola Island in the distance

Gabriola Island in the distance

What we lack in people we more than make up for in non-human populations: fifty-some species of birds, countless Black-tailed deer, otters and seals and raccoons, several large flocks of feral turkeys (who might justifiably be termed “wild” after all this time, although I don’t know how the DNA part works) and innumerable bugs and bees and bats and insects of all kinds. Way more of them than us. I like it that way. (Except for the cats that are allowed to roam.)

Sharing a meal

Sharing a meal


I named this Red Squirrel Q. For no good reason.

Our Red Squirrel, named Q


Purple Sea Star at Brickyard Beach

Purple Sea Star at Brickyard Beach


Raccoon lolling in Cedar tree in daytime.

Raccoon lolling in Cedar tree in daytime.

But living on Gabriola has its pros and cons – for humans and birds alike. Some human residents, for example, consider having to take a ferry off the island a hassle. (A few islanders regularly lobby the government to build a bridge. I wonder: why did they move to the island if they don’t want to live on an island?)


Gabriola ferry dock

Our non-human (non-pet) residents do not take the ferry. They stay put. This is their habitat, their home. They don’t have the options their human neighbours have. They don’t go shopping across the strait in Nanaimo. If things don’t work out here, they can’t just pack up, sell everything, and move away. They can’t even move to a different part of the island unless it provides the same type of habitat including the right foods and breeding opportunities. They’re basically here to stay, no matter what. This is what makes some islands – take the famous Galapagos – hotspots of biodiversity, home to rare and unique species that occur nowhere else.

Galapagos Island, rocky hill. Public Domain-image.

Galapagos Island, rocky hill. Public Domain-image.

But if you’re a bird or animal living on an island where the ecology has been disturbed, things can get messy. I first became aware of this issue in 2011 when I read the article by UBC scientists Peter Arcese and Tara Martin about research done on eighteen relatively undeveloped islands in the Salish Sea.  http://(

A Gabriola fawn. Photo by Jean Wyenburg.

A Gabriola fawn. Photo by Jean Wyenberg.

This study showed that on the islands studied, more deer = fewer birds. It turns out that Black-tailed deer (Gabriola has a lot of them) eat the forest understory where ground-nesting birds live and breed, birds like Spotted Towhees, Fox and Song sparrows, Rufous hummingbirds, Bewick’s wren, and Orange-crowned warbler. Black-tailed deer proliferate on many BC islands because we humans got rid of their natural predators a long time ago.

Female Rufous Hummingbird

Female Rufous Hummingbird


Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow


Spotted Towhee

Spotted Towhee

Unfortunately, in any conversation about ways to solve the problem, the C word will eventually come up. (Cull!) Kill Bambi?! No, like most islanders, I don’t want to kill any deer. It’s not their fault they’re reducing bird populations, it’s ours. But there are other, albeit more expensive, options. No one here is looking seriously at any of them. And so, the status quo continues.

Islands & Extinction: a groundbreaking study

Now, five years after that small-scale local study, the results of another study involving islands has been published. (http://Nature Communications, 2016; 7: 12488 DOI: 10.1038/NCOMMS12488 ) This one measures the effects of rats, cats, pigs, mongooses, and weasels on more than 1,200 globally threatened or extinct vertebrate species on more than 1,000 islands around the world. The news is bad: “Eight of every ten species extinctions has occurred on islands … (and) 40 percent of species at risk of global extinction are island inhabitants.” So, it’s not just a deer problem!

Edwards' Dodo, a painting

Edwards’ Dodo, a painting

Edwards’ Dodo is one of the most famous and often-copied paintings of a Dodo specimen, as painted by Roelant Savery in the late 1620s. The bird swallowing a frog in the lower right may be the likewise extinct Red Rail. It has also been suggested that the two parrots are the extinct Lesser Antillean Macaw (left) and Martinique Macaw (right). (Thank you Wikipedia.)

The animals living on these islands have nowhere else to go. When humans want more space they add density, build higher towers and smaller living spaces. But non-humans don’t have this option. Fortunately, scientists are now using the data from this massive study to determine where “conservation interventions will provide the greatest benefits to threatened island biodiversity.” They are asking questions like: “Are rats more likely to cause bird extinctions on smaller, colder, or wetter islands than on other types of islands? Are native reptiles more vulnerable to the impacts of pigs than to those of rats or cats, and on what kinds of islands are these impacts seen most strongly?Erin McCreless, principal researcher on the project, does have some good news: ” … targeted invasive mammal control and eradication could prevent 41 to 75 percent of these predicted future extirpations … ”

That scientists are putting so much energy into studying this issue makes me hopeful. But it will take political will to solve it. The powers that be will have to listen to the scientists, take the problem seriously, put their money where their mouth is. Like Obama did with Midway.

President Obama’s Midway Promise

The famous Midway Atoll sits roughly in between North America and Asia, in the Hawaiian archipelago. A treasure trove of biological diversity, it’s home to millions of birds, hundreds of species of fish and marine invertebrates, green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals. More albatrosses live there than anywhere else in the world.

Laysan albatross, mother and chick. Public domain image.

Juvenile Laysan albatross (l) and Black-footed albatross (r). Public domain image.

To watch a 3 minute video about the plight of the albatross of Midway (due to plastic pollution), click here:, But be warned, it’s heartwrenching.

Wildlife authorities have been working for years to prevent endangered species from disappearing from the atoll. During President Obama’s recent visit, he noted that 7,000 species live in the waters of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument on Midway – one in four of the species found nowhere else in the world – and made a welcome announcement: he is creating the world’s largest stretch of protected waters here and increasing protection for the area four-fold. That’s how you do it. May politicians around the world (including on my little island) take note and follow his lead.

For more on bird extinction and islands check out:

Note: All photographs by Sharon McInnes unless otherwise noted. 


Posted in Bird Canada, Conservation | Tagged , | 6 Comments