Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Showy Snowies and other interesting birds

It is clear that this winter is shaping up to be another 'invasion year' of Snowy Owls. It wasn't that long ago that they were relatively scarce, and some years it was hard to find any or at least not with any regularity. These last few years, however, there have been up to a couple of dozen just in Chatham-Kent alone. In the Rondeau-Erieau area, up to 10 were noted on one day, and in the former Dover Township, at least 5 are around, and likely more if one did a thorough search.

If you check the species maps of ebird, it is clear that this autumn they have been seen in southern Essex, in various parts of Lambton, in the greater Long Point area and towards the western end of Lake Ontario. Occasional single birds are scattered elsewhere across southern Ontario. Of course some of the ones on ebird are likely duplicates.

Often they are not very close, at least not as close as the average photographer would like them to be, so good light conditions with a long telephoto lens is required.

Last weekend I was at Erieau, scouting around for the Harlequin Duck that had been seen on occasion. It was not visible, but a Snowy Owl was noted perched at the top of a harbour entrance sign. There were people standing right below, and the bird did not seem to be concerned. This is a photo from below. I would have liked to have been able to get a photo from farther away from the base of the tower, but that would have required me to be treading water in the middle of the channel! As it was, if I had taken one step back, I would have been in the water.
The bird was hardly visible from the lake side of the marker, but after a few minutes it hopped/flew the short distance to the left hand side of the marker.
I moved to the park side of the tower and was able to get much more satisfactory photos, with the brilliant blue sky background.

After leaving this spot, I checked the southern part of Rondeau Bay, visible from behind the village's library/fire hall. A Eurasian Wigeon had been reported there from time to time, including earlier on this day. Fortunately when I got there, the large raft of waterbirds comprised mostly of American Coot, American Wigeon and Gadwall, with a few others in the mix, was fairly close and the water was relatively calm.
 Almost immediately I was able to pick out the male Eurasian Wigeon, and managed to get a few acceptable photos.

A day or so later, I wandered through the former Dover Township, looking for Snowy Owls. I found five altogether, widely scattered and not nearly as close to the road as I was hoping.
This next one was perched on the end of a grain auger behind some farm buildings.

There were other raptors around, including several Northern Harriers. This species is usually very wary of vehicles stopping, and I got this one photo before it took flight.
 Red-tailed Hawks are reliably scattered around the area.
Red-tailed Hawk
I also saw a nice looking Rough-legged Hawk, not very common in the area yet this season. It did not cooperate for the camera.

I often check out the north Mitchell's Bay Lakeshore Trail. Last year a little bit earlier in the season, I had a Nelson's Sparrow, but small birds were almost non-existent on this visit. A Great Blue Heron flew by at a bit of distance, but there were very few ducks out in the bay. Being a hunting day probably had something to do with that.

The most notable sighting at this location was a Trumpeter Swan. I saw this one in close proximity to a Mute Swan, an aggressive non-native species.
Mute Swan (l), Trumpeter Swan (r)

There were at least 40 Mutes a bit north of this, at the southern end of Walpole Island, and there were no Tundra Swans nearby. I immediately thought this bird required a closer look, and I was able to get some photos which were helpful.

Many readers of this blog will quickly pick up on the characteristics of this bird that provide evidence for it being a Trumpeter. But for anyone less familiar with the differences, here is my analysis:
-its large size, similar to that of the Mute is indicative, as Tundras are noticeably smaller;
-it has a long, slender neck, typically longer and more slender than that of a Tundra;
-the back of the Trumpeter is more evenly rounded, less humped than a Tundra, although that isn't always apparent;
-the Trumpeter has, by comparison, a very large, almost massive, all black bill, with the upper edge slope being almost straight. Also the black area immediately in front of the eye is wider, with a less 'pinched' look compared to a Tundra. The bill of a Tundra usually has at least some yellow in it, it is smaller, and the upper edge slope is not straight. Also the feathering at the base of the bill is a bit more curved on a Tundra, especially at the bottom area.

Here is a typical Tundra Swan for comparison.

Behaviour is also a good character to consider. Mute Swans are very aggressive towards most native waterfowl, and their large size makes it easy for them to chase other birds such as Tundra Swans and Canada Geese away. This Trumpeter Swan did not seem to be concerned with the presence of the Mute Swan, and on occasion could actually be seen to be aggressive towards the Mute, behaviour one would hardly ever see a Tundra Swan exhibit.

Trumpeter Swans used to be present in low numbers throughout the southwest a century or more ago, but were wiped out. It was only in the past few decades, when a re-introduction effort of them into central Ontario took place, that the species regained a foothold in southern Ontario. Although they are still much more concentrated in central Ontario, they are gradually spreading out. Even a decade ago, a sighting of a Trumpeter in Chatham-Kent was exceedingly rare, but in the last few years there are several sightings annually. Let's hope they become firmly established, as they will potentially out compete the invasive and aggressive Mute Swan!

Friday, 1 December 2017

Winter listing has begun

I'll be honest....I don't spend a lot of effort seeking out birds for my current or all time winter list. But I do keep one. Now technically December 1 isn't officially winter...there is another three weeks until winter officially arrives. But for purposes of an official winter list, as per accepted birding guidelines, the winter listing period goes from December 1 until the end of February. During that period, typically 220 or so species can be found in Ontario each year. One has to do a lot of travelling in order to get close to that number on one's personal list in a season!

Today I headed to the Bate's subdivision just outside the Rondeau Provincial Park gates, as I knew there would be a lot of birders there first thing in order to get the continuing Townsend's Warbler on their winter lists. Townsend's Warbler is an extreme rarity any time of year, although Rondeau has had half a dozen records, all of which were in the spring other than the one that was first found here about three weeks ago. Sure enough, there were at 25-30 keen birders scoping out the best spots where this bird has been seen with some regularity. As much fun as it would be to see this bird again and add it to my winter list, I was interested in seeing just who would show up from afar. As it turned out, there were some from the Hamilton/GTA and even farther away. Several folks were ones which I hadn't seen for probably more than 3 decades! So the combination of the fabulous weather (sunny, calm wind, temperatures a bit above freezing), numerous birders whom I was able to reconnect with, plus seeing the target species and the other species with which it typically hangs out with, it was a great morning.
Townsend's Warbler

This bird is always a challenge to photograph, much to the chagrin of the numerous birders who had big lenses with them. The photo above was taken on a different day, since I didn't see it in an easy to photograph position today.

Gord and Maria, the year-round residents of the cottage where this rarity has been most frequently seen, have been most friendly and cooperative with the probably two hundred or more birders who have been searching for this bird over the past few weeks. Thanks, Gord and Maria! Quite likely after this weekend, the number of birders will thin out considerably, so you will soon have your quiet neighbourhood back.

The crowd did eventually disperse after having seen the Townsend's Warbler and doing some socializing. Some were talking about stopping at other good bird sites on their return home, to add other rarities to their winter lists. I, on the other hand, decided to go into the park and check some of my regular haunts.

The campground can be a good spot with its combination of open oak forest as well as numerous red cedars, some of which still had an abundance of berries.

This has been a great year for acorn production, and many Blue Jays have taken advantage of the abundance. In spite of the BJs relatively large, raucous nature which would lead one to believe they are not afraid of much of anything, they are really quite shy, especially when a camera is pointed their way. They are often seen like this, hunkered down and partially obscured in some low vegetation...
 ....or before you can get their photo, they are on the fly.

There was the usual mix of other birds, including Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and such. A Northern Harrier flew high overhead.
 A Northern Flicker was seen. They haven't been very abundant this fall in my experience.
The campground has been a good spot for seeing, and photographing, Pileated Woodpeckers this fall. I have regularly seen both male and female birds somewhere in the campground. I've heard that other birders have observed one or more of the birds excavating a presumed nest site, but this is unlikely. Nest excavation, according to several authoritative literature references, does not occur until the spring.

Sometimes they are quite furtive and shy, other times they can be pleasantly cooperative. Today was one of those cooperative days. I got dozens of photos, with about 20 of them as keepers. Here are four:

Note the tongue, used for extracting insects

I looked for things like Northern Saw-whet Owls as well as other lingering warblers.....a Blackpoll Warbler had been seen just a few hundred metres north of the campground in similar habitat recently, and a Wilson's Warbler had been seen in the campground a couple of weeks ago, but I didn't find any such creatures today. They could still be around, and with the annual Christmas Bird Count just a little more than two weeks away, hopefully they will be considerate enough to show up for it!

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Crested birds, and some turkeys

Bird feathers, colours and their arrangements are always intriguing. If one has been to the tropics, the variety is even more impressive. But I don't want to sell our local birds short: they are amazing in their own right.

Birds with crests are noteworthy. For some species the crest seems to be an important part of their courtship and display, which is obviously important for the species survival. This includes some species of waterfowl such as male Red-breasted Merganser and Hooded Merganser, where the fully displayed crest is most prevalent during the pair bonding period.
Red-breasted Merganser
Hooded Merganser

For so many other species of birds, the purpose of the crest seems to be less obvious, but undoubtedly has some role. Some of the most likely crested birds to be encountered in southern Ontario include the following.
Belted Kingfisher
 The crests of Cedar Waxwing and Northern Cardinal vary from time to time. Sometimes they are almost flattened, and other times they are quite erect. When a Northern Cardinal wants to be less visible, something that is hard for a bright red bird, its crest is almost invisible.
Cedar Waxwing
Northern Cardinal
 The crest of the Pileated Woodpecker will vary a bit also, but often is quite upright.
Pileated Woodpecker
 It seems that the crest of a Tufted Titmouse is invariably quite noticeable and seldom lowered.
Tufted Titmouse
 The crest of a Blue Jay is often upright, but then this species often seems to be excited and vocal, except around their nests. Anywhere around the nest site, they will be very silent and furtive. I have had a pair nest in a tree in our front yard on occasion, and they went unnoticed for several weeks, which is surprising given how raucous and vocal they usually are.
Blue Jay
This leads me to discuss another fact about bird feathers. There are a couple of ways that colours appear. One is via the actual pigment in the feathers, and the Northern Cardinal is an example. However most birds that are blue, and some that are green, are not the result of either a blue or green pigment. It is the result of the refraction or bending of light rays passing through microscopic structures of the feather's melanin which is unique to the species. This filters out certain wavelengths, allowing certain colours to come through. Hence the colour of a Blue Jay's feathers, as well as other blue birds such as the Indigo Bunting, is the result of this light refractive process, not the pigmentation.

On a completely different 'birdy' note: Here is the bird of the day.

Happy Thanksgiving to any readers from the USA!

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

More Townsend's Warbler plus Ross's Goose

The Townsend's Warbler which was first noticed last Saturday (but quite likely had been around for awhile) continued into Monday. It looked quite content loosely hanging around with a small group of kinglets and chickadees. The crowd of searchers was not as large as on the weekend, but still, at least a dozen folks arrived and successfully saw the bird. Most were retirees, not surprisingly. Getting good photographs, however, was a different story. The bird was active and typically was in the upper half of any tree it was found in, sometimes right at the top. Combined with the bright overcast skies, the light and distance was challenging.

I used the 5D3 with the 1.4X converter on the 500mm lens this time, knowing that under poor light conditions it would perform much better than the crop sensor of the 7D2 which I used for photos taken on Saturday for the previous post. Even at that, I had to use a lot of tweaking of the high resolution RAW images to make the best of them. If I was adept at photoshop, I might have considered replacing the overexposed white sky for a more pleasing sky blue background, but taking the photos as natural as possible has always been my preference.

Up until this day, I had never seen the warbler in any tree but a coniferous one. That wasn't really surprising, since the bird's normal habitat is the coniferous forests of the Rocky Mountains, where it forages and nests in the upper reaches of conifers. So I was a little surprised to see this bird spend a few moments at the very top of this leafless deciduous tree. It certainly gave less obstructive views, but again, the over exposed sky did not help. For camera aficionados, this next photo was intentionally overexposed in the camera by 2 1/3 stops, and then had the contrast, etc adjusted on the computer just to get a bit of detail in the bird. It was a pretty drastic crop as well, going from 5760 pixels on the long side down to 1200 pixels, which resulted in going from a total of 22,118,400 pixels down to 960,000 pixels. That is a 96% crop

One of the other highlights of this rarity arriving here is to re-connect with folks I hadn't seen in years. Some of these included folks from the GTA while another one was a former prof of mine. I took a wildlife biology course from him back in about 1974, and had a few discussions with him at the time about the Rondeau deer herd. I hadn't seen him in more than 40 years, so it was interesting to chat for a bit.

While a few of us were watching and waiting for the Townsend's, we got word that a Ross's Goose was just out in the lake a short distance away. As it turns out, it was actually within the park boundary, associating with several hundred Canada Geese that were resting on the lake in a no hunting area.

When we first saw it, it was clearly a small goose.
Without seeing the head and facial characteristics, it would be difficult to separate this from a Ross's X Snow hybrid, which happens fairly regularly in the wild. After a bit, it did get its head up and looked around briefly.

In the second photo, the rounded head, the straight feather line at the base of the fairly stubby bill,  the lack of the grin patch and the bluish colour at the base of the bill all point towards it being a Ross's Goose, or at least if there are any Snow Goose genes in its make-up they are very minimal.

Ross's Goose has become a bit more regular throughout Ontario over the past couple of decades, and they seem to show up in Chatham-Kent annually now. However I think this is the first time I have seen a Ross's Goose within the park boundary.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

West meets east: Townsend's Warbler

A text message arrived this morning, just as I was getting ready to head out somewhere in southern Chatham-Kent. My initial plan was to get to Erieau, hoping that the ENE winds would have exposed enough algae along the main pier to attract the interest of a migrating Purple Sandpiper or Red Phalarope. But the text message from Jim Burk and Steve Charbonneau changed all that: Jim had found a Townsend's Warbler in the subdivision just outside the Rondeau Prov Park gates. This is very much a western species whose Canadian breeding range is restricted mainly to BC and the Yukon, with a fringe along the Alberta part of the Rocky Mountains.

When I got there, no one was around right away, but Jim came back shortly after and the Townsend's Warbler was re-found in the red cedars. The very brief views did not allow for any photos to be taken. As time went on and more people showed up, the group of kinglets and chickadees which the warbler seemed to have been loosely associated with had gone quiet. After an hour and a half or so, I decided to check the north part of the park by the campground, where red cedars are abundant, thinking that it was possible the Townsend's had moved on. The birds there were quiet as well, and after a little while, I got another text message stating that the Townsend's had re-appeared in its original location. So back I headed, and this time the group of birders had grown to more than a dozen, all looking intently at the bird. It was flitting high up in the red cedars, mostly in bright sunlight but at times in the dark recesses of the cedars. The views through binoculars were excellent, but the contrasty conditions made it challenging for the digital camera. But some of the photos turned out okay.

 Although technically this was not inside the park boundary, it was only about 200 metres outside, and is well within the park's checklist area. This represents about the 5th record for the park. I was fortunate to have found the first one back on May 11, 1984, at the west end of the old Dillon Trail.

Although not conclusive, this bird is likely a fall male adult. This next photo shows a fairly dark throat, not as dark as a breeding plumage male, but certainly fits the fall male. Females typically have a pale throat.

Friday, 10 November 2017

White stuff

The onset of winter-like conditions, even though it is officially more than a month away, drew me out to explore the former Dover Township today, especially in the area between Chatham, St. Clair NWA, Mitchell's Bay and the Bear Creek area. In past winters, this area has been known to harbour a dozen or more Snowy Owls in the winter. I was hoping to find my first Snowy Owl of the season, hence my new header for this blog.

Although most people consider Snowy Owls to be a winter time phenomenon, if the birds are abundant but not able to find adequate food sources farther north, the weather can drive them to this area much earlier. For example there are records at Rondeau Provincial Park as early as October 31.

It was close to record cold and breezy and there was some white stuff, but no Snowy Owl to be seen. However the brisk winds usually cause them to sit on the ground and flatten themselves quite a bit, to escape the worst of the wind. Given all of the corn stubble around, an owl could hunker down and be missed quite easily.

I did see other white things, including snow flakes. But of greater interest was a large number of Tundra Swans, recently arrived in the area.

There were several flocks scattered between Pain Court and St. Clair NWA. I estimated at least 1500, some of which were fairly close to the road. There were birds coming and going almost constantly, so it was hard to get a true estimate.

 There were a few young-of-the-year birds, not surprisingly, looking quite gray by comparison to the white adults.

There were at least three Snow Geese, white phase, although since I saw them from a distance in flight only, I couldn't be absolutely sure that they weren't the much rarer Ross's Geese. I find that Snow Geese more often than not, are associated with flocks of Canada Geese, whereas Ross's Geese can be found with either Canada Geese or Tundra Swans. There were no Canada Geese in the vicinity of the swans. Then again, many birds that are reported as Ross's Geese are often hybrids between Ross's and Snows. I didn't get any photos of them, but it would be worthwhile to keep an eye open for them again.

I covered a lot of back roads. I did see a handful of Snow Buntings on the wing, the first of the season for me, but again not surprising considering the cold, wind and snow flurries.

A Great Blue Heron was hanging out at the edge of a partially frozen canal, out of the wind and in the sun.

A small group of Hooded Mergansers were winding their way carefully along the brushy edge of another canal.
But no Snowy Owls to be seen......maybe next time. In the meantime, it is nice to see such a large group of Tundra Swans back!