Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mallard x American Wigeon Hybrid

I wanted to post to share the cool duck I saw today, but first a few other recent updates.

I've been birding around Mississauga and Toronto quite a bit, and plenty of new birds are arriving, including Spotted Sandpiper, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, House Wren, Blue-headed Vireo and Black-and-white and Yellow Warbler.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Not a migrant, but I'm very happy with how this House Sparrow turned out.

After checking the normal areas for warblers and other landbirds at Colonel Sam Smith Park in Etobicoke this morning, I was vacillating on whether to bother walking out on the peninsula, as it is rarely very exciting after mid-April. I'm glad I did go though, as I happened upon this guy:

It doesn't match up with any single species of duck, and the reasonably small size (slightly smaller than a mallard) and sleek build suggest a hybrid of wild-type parents (although the actual cross may have been in captivity) rather than a domestic abomination escaped from somebody's backyard pond.

The plumage matches Mallard x American Wigeon hybrids, although it is probably not possible to rule out a Mallard x Eurasian Wigeon hybrid on any basis besides probability. I thought the greyish sides might indicate Eurasian rather than American Wigeon, but this is apparently not the case.

Interestingly, while looking for more information on this cross, I discovered that this individual has probably been alive for a minimum of nearly five years. What was presumably the same bird was seen at Colonel Sam Smith Park in April 2012, March 2011, April 2010 and February 2009 (and here). 

A very similar bird was also photographed in April 2010 near Detroit. It is impossible to prove, but I strongly suspect this is the same bird. This hybrid combination is highly variable, and the Michigan bird seems identical to my bird, something which hasn't been true of any other picture I've been able to find online!

There is always the possibility that this is an escaped bird, as hybridization is more likely to happen in captivity where birds may not be able to find a mate of the right species, but given this birds long survival in the wild and clear migration it seems more likely that it is a wild bird. Although the bird was fairly tame today, it was more wary than the nearby Mallards and Gadwall, and didn't seem to be having any trouble finding food in the wild. 

It isn't often that is possible to trace the history of a bird like this, and it is interesting to see that it returns to the same spot every spring. This sighting certainly made my day!

The speculum sometimes looked green like a Wigeon and sometimes blue like a Mallard.

March 2014 edit: The bird was seen again at Humber Bay Park on March 2, 2014! No link possible as it was posted on Facebook. Also, here's a few more previous sightings of this bird found on eBird:

Colonel Sam Smith December 29, 2012

March 2016 edit: This bird is still hanging out on the Toronto waterfront for at least part of the year. That's over 8 years from the first sighting I know of in February 2009! Here's a couple of recent checklists showing the bird:

Mimico Waterfront Park February 15, 2016
Colonel Sam Smith March 6, 2016

January 2018 edit: The hybrid is still around! Here's a recent checklist: 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Warblers and Wildflowers

I'm now in Mississauga for a little while, and have been finding lots of cool things as spring continues to unfold. Bird species like Yellow-rumped Warbler and White-throated Sparrow have been increasing in numbers, but the first really big influx should happen within the next week or so, possibly very soon with fairly warm temperatures and south winds predicted for the rest of this week.

For many birders, myself included, it seems that the quality of birding for May and the end of April is defined by what warblers are seen. And as a result, the most exciting birds I've seen recently have been warblers. In addition to the Yellow-Rumped, I've found two other species of warblers around:

Although a number of bird species are infamous for being poorly named, the Pine Warbler is absolutely not one of them. During breeding, migration and winter this species is nearly always found in pine trees or the direct vicinity. Although picky about their choice of tree, they have few other requirements and are thus one of the few warblers that can be found breeding in urban parks. I was happy to watch this cooperative Pine Warbler feeding in pines (what else!) at the University of Guelph Arboretum.

In direct contrast to the preceding species, the Palm Warbler is rather poorly named. Although they may use palms to some extent in winter, there are not very many palm trees in the boreal bogs where they breed! I saw my first two Palm Warblers for the year today.

There are of course other interesting birds arriving from the south. Swallows are increasingly obvious and I spent some time watching a group of Northern Rough-winged, Barn, Tree and Cliff Swallows as well as Chimney Swifts catching midges from the dense swarms that made biking so unpleasant at times today. This Northern Rough-winged Swallow landed to preen for the while in the middle of a dense cloud of the flies.

As the warmer temperatures arrive ephemeral forest wildflowers are racing to reproduce before they are plunged into deep shade by the maples and oaks overhead. 

Yellow Trout Lilies carpet the forest floor, but will be gone without a trace not long after the trees leaf out.

White Trillium 


Unfortunately, all these flowers are close to expanding patches of invasive Garlic Mustard, and will likely be gone within five or ten years.

Just so I don't have to end on that unhappy note, here's a nice healthy-looking fox from Guelph.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mid-spring Movement

I've been out every day this week, and each trip is more exciting than the last. The first huge wave of sparrows and warblers could arrive within a week, although ten days is a more reasonable estimate. There's no point worrying about what's to come though, as there's so much to see right now!

A nice diversity of migrant birds arrived on Monday, although not in as large numbers as I'd hoped. New arrivals included Pine Warbler, Savannah Sparrow, Hermit Thrush and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. The sunny weather and warm temperatures also brought out a number of ectothermic ("cold-blooded", although that term is inaccurate and misleading) animals, including my first snake of the year.

Golden-crowned Kinglets were abundant, but very difficult to photograph due to their incredibly frantic movement. This was the best shot I could get, but I have a lot of excellent pictures of empty perches!

This Eastern Garter Snake was very dull coloured all over including its eyes, perhaps it's close to shedding?

I was happy to find this cool little caterpillar, and excited when I discovered that this is the caterpillar of a very familiar species - the Virginia Ctenucha. These are the big dark moths with metallic bodies that are often seen flying in the day in summer.

Tuesday saw a big influx of birds into the area. In two hours in the Guelph Arboretum I saw an estimated 25 Brown Creeper, 60 Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 50 Golden-crowned Kinglet and 50 Dark-eyed Junco, along with a variety of other migrants (Brown Thrasher, Eastern Towhee, Fox Sparrow, Field Sparrow)

It's blurry, but I thought this picture with both a Fox Sparrow and a White-throated Sparrow was kind of cool. Sparrows seem to really like the dogwoods (blurry red branches in the foreground)

Several unexpected birds have been seen recently at a park with some man-made ponds in Guelph (including Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser and Caspian Tern), and I continued the trend today with 4 Greater Yellowlegs and a Wilson's Snipe in the flooded baseball diamonds.

One of the yellowlegs went for a little swim, something I've never seen before.

This large hoverfly was sitting on the boardwalk today. I have tentatitively identified it as Heliophilus fasciatus. Like most hoverflies, this species is a bee/wasp mimic, but the single pair of wings distinguises it as a fly.

Finally, I had my first Midland Painted Turtles of the year basking in the sun today. I'm always amazed at how these guys are found in virtually every urban pond that has suitable habitat.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Birds on the Move

I haven't been out much in the past week due to exams and very poor weather, but I finished up the last of my schoolwork for the year today, it's going up to 17 degrees tomorrow and this is what the weather radar looks like at the moment:

All of that is birds! This is the biggest movement I've seen yet this year, although I haven't checked every night. For more information about bird migration and radar check out this link.

I stepped outside briefly and heard a few flight calls of birds migrating over, probably mainly sparrows given the time of year.

This pair of Caspian Terns sitting on a flooded baseball diamond is one of the weirdest things I've seen recently, but that's the sort of thing that happens in migration. Looking forward to tomorrow!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Swallows and Salamanders

Despite the forecast for freezing rain and snow on Thursday, spring has been gathering pace very quickly in the past few days, with birds pouring in and rapidly setting up territories. Most of the many nest boxes in the University of Guelph Arboretum now have a pair of either Eastern Bluebirds or Tree Swallows defending them, despite both species having only arrived in the past couple days. Tree Swallows can get very tame when nesting near people, and this bird allowed me to get some excellent shots:

Notice the band on its leg - a lot of the birds nesting or wintering in the Arboretum are banded.

A whole slew of other birds have just arrived as well, including Chipping Sparrows, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Eastern Meadowlarks and a variety of other landbirds, as well as a diverse array of ducks. The highlight in the latter category was a Long-tailed Duck (very rare in Guelph) and Red-breasted Merganser (uncommon in Guelph) at some local ponds.

From left to right: Male Red-breasted Merganser, Female Common Merganser, Male Long-tailed Duck

Mammals have also been taking advantage of the warm weather. Groundhogs are now obvious lying on lawns around the university campus, although this guy was in somewhat more natural habitat in the Arboretum.

I've come across several Red Squirrels hanging out in nest boxes. Red Squirrels are very big nest predators, eating both eggs and chicks (and may be the biggest threat to bird nests in many areas), but none of the nest boxes should have eggs yet and these squirrels are presumably looking for a place to build their own nest.

I spent most of this evening with Josh Vandermeulen and some other friends from the University of Guelph Wildlife Club looking for amphibians out and about in the warm temperatures and rain. The rain made photography difficult but we certainly weren't disappointed, finding eleven species of amphibians as well as one reptile.

That one reptile was the most surprising find overall - this very early red-bellied snake curled up under a rock.

This was actually the first herp (reptile or amphibian) we found all night.

As the night grew darker both frogs and salamanders became increasingly common.

The ubiquitous Green Frog was the most frequently seen species. Unlike most of the amphibians seen, Green Frogs are not restricted to breeding in temporary pools in the spring, likely one of the reasons they are so widespread.

Other frog species seen included many Spring Peepers, one Northern Leopard Frog (pictured), an early Grey Tree Frog and several Wood Frogs (with more heard). Chorus frogs were heard calling but not seen.

Salamanders were also on the move. A few Red-spotted Newts were swimming in one of the vernal pools, and a few adults and a single red eft (the juvenile form of this species) were crossing the road. We also found a number of Red-backed Salamanders under rocks and logs. Red-backed Salamanders are fairly sedentary, not even returning to water to lay eggs, and so are not seen crossing roads and paths as much as one would expect from such an exceedingly abundant creature.

The Ambystoma salamanders (Yellow-spotted and Blue-spotted in this case) are very mobile on the other hand. These large species migrate as far as several kilometres each spring to a very specific vernal pool (a pond forming each spring but drying up in the summer) to breed.

We saw at least twenty of each of these species, many quite distant from the nearest pond.

The last salamander species is also the rarest we saw - the tiny Four-toed Salamander. This tiny guy was walking across the path, maybe heading to the boggy area where it will breed. Like the Red-backed Salamanders, this species does not have lungs and must absorb all of its oxygen from its surroundings.

Thanks Josh for inviting us along for a great night of herping! I'm sure he will put up some more pictures on his blog at some point.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Gone Sniping

My wildlife highlight of the past few days has been this Wilson's Snipe in a large rain puddle at a construction site thirty seconds from my front door:

This is the first time I've ever been able to watch a snipe feeding at close range, and I was excited to be able to show a number of friends their first snipe.

The bird stopped feeding and sat still any time I got close enough for decent pictures, but fed happily when I retreated a little further away. I was able to get the following video of it feeding:

The views were much better than it seems from this video, and I was glad to see the characteristic bobbing motion of feeding snipe. A number of birds bob or wag their tail repetitively, and I've often wondered why. Many of these species are characteristically found along rivers and streams (Dippers, Grey Wagtail, Spotted and Common Sandpipers, Louisiana Waterthrush, Phoebes), and my personal theory without any research has long been that the bobbing motion helps them blend in with the rhythmic movement of the water. 

I decided to look it up today, and it seems there is very little information about this behavior. Still, at least three studies (on Eastern Phoebe, Black Phoebe and White Wagtail) have suggested that tail bobbing is either a signal to a predator that the bird is currently aware of the predator, or a general signal to predators that the bird is healthy, vigilant and agile.

This does not seem to explain bobbing in snipe. They are generally invisible in dense cover anyways, mainly only bob while feeding, and would seemingly be better served by simply sitting tight with their excellent camouflage.

While looking for more information I stumbled upon some interesting speculation based on the fact that snipe have eyes almost exactly on the sides of their heads, leaving them with little to no binocular vision. Perhaps the bobbing motion allows the bird to achieve some parallax to better locate food. However, I find this explanation unlikely for two reasons. Snipe mainly detect prey underground with their long sensitive bill, making improved depth perception fairly useless. Also, the bobbing motion seems mostly restricted to the body with the head held relatively still, exactly the opposite of what you would predict from this hypothesis.

I suspect the main explanation is much simpler: the movement causes the bird's prey to move around so it can be detected and caught. Still, I would like to see this investigated more scientifically at some point. 

If anybody has any other insights or information explaining this behaviour please let me know!