Friday, March 29, 2013

March: In like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb

Spring has well and truly arrived to Southern Ontario. Over the past few days I've had a number of new bird arrivals for the year, including Northern Flicker, Song Sparrow, Rusty Blackbird, Killdeer and Turkey Vultures in numbers, Eastern Meadowlark and more. The non-bird action is finally heating up as well, with chipmunks now commonly seen (and heard!) and lots of new plants coming up, as well as the first of the butterflies as I'll show at the end of this post.

But first, I had to be in Algonquin Park on Thursday afternoon, and it felt like stepping back in time a month. Although it was reasonably warm (a few degrees above zero), snow and ice still covered the landscape and the only signs of spring were a few crows and four Canada Geese, neither of which winter in the park. Driving along the highway did not turn up any of the hoped-for Great Gray Owls, but a short stop at the Spruce Bog Boardwalk parking lot was very enjoyable with a couple of Algonquin specialties.

Gray Jays are usually very cooperative in winter and this time was no exception, with at least two birds coming right in to investigate as soon as we got out of the car. Like essentially all Gray Jays accessible along the highway through the park, both individuals had a unique set of colour bands allowing their movement and presence to be tracked.

Shortly afterward, I heard the calls of several Boreal Chickadees among the numerous Black-capped. This species has become very tame here this winter, and it wasn't long before we were getting excellent looks. One individual even came down to my dad's hand several times!

Unfortunately, I could not entice one down to my hand. I have never been able to personally hand-feed a Boreal, as they are normally far more timid than the much more common Black-capped.

Back in the lowlands of Southern Ontario, the long winter feels like a distant memory with double-digit temperatures today and forecast again for tomorrow. My most exciting sighting was this pair of Ring-necked Ducks that have been hanging out on a stormwater pond for the last two days:

Normally this would not be a particularly exciting find, but these were on my local patch (i.e. most regular birding spot) in Mississauga. I'll say more about my patch at some other point, but suffice it to say that after 5 or 600 visits I don't add new species to my patch list very often! Thus I was very excited to find these as my 173rd patch bird. This has been my top prediction for the next bird added for quite a while, and they showed up exactly where and when I expected. Ring-necked Duck was probably the last really easy bird to add to my list.

Finally, with the warm weather today I spent some time in the early afternoon looking for butterflies and snakes emerging from hibernation. No dice with the snakes, but I was happy to find a couple of Mourning Cloaks basking in the sun. The two individuals were along a fairly busy trail, and whenever one was flushed by a passerby into the view of the other, they would engage in a long, spirited chase through and above the trees before separating and returning to exactly where they started.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mammals enjoying the sun

The weather is ever so gradually getting warmer, and birds have been moving a little bit in the past week despite the weather. Swarms of male grackles chasing a single female are becoming a common sight, and robins are increasingly prevalent, particularly today when you could barely step outside without seeing or hearing one. I spent a couple hours walking outside both days this weekend, and had a few migrants besides the aforementioned robins and grackles, including one each of Eastern Bluebird, Turkey Vulture and Red-tailed Hawk actively migrating. 11 Bohemian Waxwings on Sunday were also great to see.

The other highlights were a couple of mammal sightings. On Saturday, a White-tailed Deer doe fed in the sunlight with her two yearlings for quite a while, giving excellent looks.

This guy and his sibling looked a bit odd, but it seems this is a pretty normal appearance for deer this old. I suppose I've just never really looked at deer this time of year before.

I see deer quite a lot and I wouldn't spend much time with them if there was anything else around to see. However, the second mammal sighting would get me excited regardless of the time of year. I saw this Striped Skunk out in the open enjoying the sun on Sunday, seemingly unconcerned about my presence. 

I assume he only just became active this weekend after sleeping much of the winter. He decided to move between melted patches in the snow a couple times, and looked very funny bounding across the snow.

I've only seen a few skunks active in the day, and this is only the second I've ever been able to watch and enjoy for an extended time.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Someone hit the pause button on spring and lost the remote.

After my last optimistic post, the area has descended into frustratingly wintry weather. As I write this snow continues to fall outside, and it seems there will be quite a while until we get some nice warm temperatures.

At this point last year I'd seen a wide variety of waterbirds in the area directly around Guelph (in spots that are still several warm days from having much open water this year!), Tree Swallow, Eastern Phoebe, 2 butterfly species and almost every local amphibian.

Given, last year was unseasonably warm, but it's still very abnormal that I have only had a single sighting each of Killdeer and Turkey Vulture this month, and no insects active except for a few midges and a couple of winter stoneflies.

On Sunday evening at dusk I made a brief attempt at looking for displaying woodcocks in the swampy area near my house. This was ridiculously optimistic given the below-zero temperatures, but it wasn't a total loss as I came across a herd of 5 curious White-tailed Deer. As I stood still, the deer stared intently at me, walking a few steps closer every so often. The closest deer got within about 5 metres of me before one snorted loudly and they dashed away with white tails flashing. I don't want to anthropomorphize, but surely this deer looks curious?

Finally, here's some cool biology news. There's been a lot of hoopla recently about bringing back extinct species, mostly in the context of the iconic Passenger Pigeon and Wooly Mammoth. I won't comment on this other than to say that these seem like about the worst possible species to ever actually reintroduce into the wild, but what I haven't seen discussed much is this project. Although they haven't published anything yet, it seems the team has come tantalizingly close to actually bringing back this frog species.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

First Signs of Things to Come

On Sunday (March 10) the dam finally broke and birds poured into Southern Ontario. From now until the end of May there will be new stuff to see all the time: frogs, waterfowl, snakes, butterflies, sparrows, swallows, wildflowers, warblers, dragonflies, flycatchers, I can't wait!

I spent most of the daylight hours outside on Sunday and had some cool sightings to ring in spring.

Tundra Swans - if there's one sound I had to associate with spring this would be it:
Incidentally, my second choice for the sound of spring would the "Conk-a-reee!" of Red-winged Blackbirds, which can be heard several times in this video. This flock passed right over my yard, and is one of two small flocks I had over the day.

Northern Shrike - for only the second time ever I heard one singing, and it did so continuously for the entire 20 minutes I was nearby. The video isn't great due to wind noise, but here it is if you're interested:
This bird was a migrant, as it was in a small area I've checked numerous times over the winter without see it until now.

Blackbirds have arrived in decent numbers, although only a taste of things to come. I had about 120 Red-winged Blackbird and 60 Common Grackle, as well as 1 Brown-headed Cowbird by the end of the day. Most of the blackbirds were in one large flock with starlings just before dusk, presumably getting ready to continue migrating in the mild south winds overnight.

Lots of other stuff was moving overhead during the day.1 Lapland Longspur was the rarest sighting of the day, and Horned Larks, American Crows, American Robins, Ring-billed Gulls, Canada Geese and European Starlings were all apparent.

A sleepy porcupine from last week to close things off:

Saturday, March 9, 2013

White-winged Crossbills Feeding on Alder

I did a quick tour of some of the area around Guelph this morning with Dave Bell and Josh Vandermeulen. The general theme was gorgeous weather and Horned Larks constantly flying north. A few migrant Red-winged Blackbirds were around, but it looks like tomorrow should provide the first push of migrants this spring, with species like blackbirds, robins, Killdeer and so on. From now on, even when the weather turns wintry again, there should be some spring birds around to keep things interesting. For now though, here's one last gasp of winter birding from a few weeks ago.

On February 18 I teamed up with Todd Hagedorn to see what we could find along the waterfront in Etobicoke and Mississauga. There were a number of interesting birds around like Northern Pintails, Pied-billed Grebes and a Glaucous Gull, but the undoubted highlight was a group of four incredibly tame White-winged Crossbills at Humber Bay Park East. The birds were feeding on the cones (technically the female catkins) of alders right next to a busy pathway, and seemed utterly unconcerned about having people only feet away. The pictures are mostly mediocre, but I found the behaviour extremely interesting.

White-winged Crossbills normally feed on conifer cones, particularly spruce and tamarack, but may exploit other food sources when available. These crossbills were certainly exploiting the alders to the best of their ability, clambering all over the branches like parrots, as well as occasionally coming down to the ground for snow.

Although sometimes the cones would be conveniently positioned, the birds also had to break off some cones and manipulate them in their feet to feed.

Crossbills have a very special way of extracting seeds from cones. By pushing the two mandibles sideways, they can pry apart the scales on the cone to expose the seed within. Next, the bird uses it long flexible tongue to remove the seed. I was extremely lucky to catch this shot of one of the crossbills with its tongue extended.  If you zoom in you can see seeds and bit of debris stuck to the tongue.

While looking through the pictures afterwards, I noticed that there were birds with bills crossed in both directions:

The proportion of right-crossing and left-crossing bills is generally even in a population, and this probably evolved because each morph can exploit conifer cones in certain orientations better than the other morph. The consequence of this is that a flock of White-winged Crossbills can more fully utilise one tree before moving on. See this article for more details.

We certainly enjoyed the time we spent watching one of Ontario's coolest birds!

Thursday, March 7, 2013


Welcome to my new blog! I'm a student at the University of Guelph, and am currently almost halfway done an undergraduate ecology degree. I've been interested in birds for as long as I can remember (quite literally, as possibly my earliest memory involves what were probably starlings in my backyard). In the past 3 years or so my horizons have broadly expanded to virtually everything identifiable in the field in Ontario, but especially dragonflies and damselflies (odes).

 A few people have urged me to start a blog, and I finally took the plunge, primarily because I finally bought a camera to document my sightings (but don't expect any particularly spectacular photos!). As the annual explosion of life we call spring is about to begin in earnest, with Canada Geese, Ring-billed Gulls and Robins already becoming widespread around Guelph this week, I thought now was the ideal time to start.

Thanks for visiting, and I hope you enjoy! I'll leave off with a few photos of winter birds I found interesting from the past few weeks.

I accidentally flushed this Long-Eared Owl from some dense cedars while looking at a cottontail rabbit carcass in Mississauga. I'm not sure whether it killed the rabbit as it seems like a rather large prey item. I've dissected about 10 long-eared pellets and only found small rodent parts.

This Gadwall looked very out of place grazing with Canada Geese and Robins at the water treatment plant  north of Arkendo Park in Oakville. It was impossible to get a reasonable photo due to the lighting and the tall barbed wire fence around the plant. At least two Yellow-rumped Warblers successfully wintered here on insects hatched from the sewage plant.

Graceful in the water and in flight, but this Northern Pintail lost most of his charm when he waddled onto the ice at Humber Bay Park in Toronto looking for handouts.