Great Egret

Great Egret

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Summer Tanager and little known facts of Washington DC black squirrels, etc.

I'm playing catch-up a bit here. I've been out in the field a few times in the last week, but have also been busy with some project reports with deadlines that are fast approaching. Yes I'm retired, but really only semi-retired since I have my hand in various projects related to landscape ecology, species at risk, etc.
Open grown White Oak
When some people see me out on the trail, or wherever, with my optical equipment around my neck or over my shoulder, they ask me if I am a birder. And the answer is yes, to a certain extent. Mike Bouman and I discussed some of the nuances of this topic just a few days ago. Getting interested in birds many decades ago was fun but, we agreed, the more you get out and explore the world of birds, your eyes get opened to so many more things. I try to be on the lookout for birds every time I am out of the house (and even when I am in the house looking out!), but there are so many aspects to the natural world, not just birds. It is wonderful just to be out looking at whatever there is that comes along, whether it is some specific critter or plant, or the shapes, shades and colours of so many things along the trail, beach, wherever. And I must admit that as one ages and the eyesight and hearing isn't what it used to be, it is even easier to concentrate on things that don't require excellent eyesight or hearing to see or identify!

The image above is one of my favourite old time images. It was taken by former Rondeau Park naturalist R. D. Ussher on Kodak slide film back in the early 1960s. I scanned it a few years ago, hoping to preserve the ambiance of this autumn scene.

This time of year, things in the birding world are slowing down in terms of species diversity. There are still some great things to enjoy.....they don't have to be super rare (okay, I wouldn't mind if a Bullock's Oriole, Pink-footed Goose, Mountain Bluebird, Little Egret, Dovekie or Northern Fulmar showed up around here like they have done in other places farther east......). But we have been fortunate in having a few 'good' birds around (hmmm....poor terminology here....I don't intend for the others to be 'bad' birds....). Locally over the past few weeks we have had things like Townsend's Solitaire (for part of a day), Franklin's Gulls, Sabine's Gull, Say's Phoebe, Ross's Goose, Eared Grebe and Summer Tanager around. What else is out there but not yet noted?

I've already posted images of some of those that I saw on previous blogs. But the local 'star' at the moment is the continuing Summer Tanager. It has been around for more than a couple of weeks, and with some continued mild weather and ample supply of berries, suet, etc., it just might make it to the upcoming Christmas Bird Count. Maybe it will even make it to 2016 when it can be a good start to a new year list.

I have seen this bird on several occasions. The first time was when it appeared on top of a cottage chimney which, fortunately, is covered with Virginia Creeper vines and berries.
It then flew right overhead to a tree that had some other berries.
The sun even came out a bit to provide some good light, affording the opportunity to even catch the sun highlight in the eye.
 It can be quite elusive on occasion. It took me a few tries to catch up with the bird, and there are some folks who have yet to see it.

Snowy Owls are also beginning to build in numbers in various places in Chatham-Kent.
 As many as 5 or more have been seen close to Erieau in recent days, and several have also been seen in the former Dover Twp towards Mitchell's Bay. It is a good start, but I don't expect we will see the record numbers of last year, however.

With all of the mild weather, there is no ice anywhere in the area. Waterbirds are still around in good, but slowly diminishing numbers. Horned Grebes are plentiful but widely scattered along the Lake Erie shoreline. Last weekend just checking in 3 places, I conservatively counted 67 birds, and considering that some spend a fair bit of time underwater in search of food, I likely missed more than a few.
A walk through the forest is pretty quiet these days, so it enables one to look for other things. Raptor nests are more visible. This is likely last year's Cooper's Hawk nest, but since Great Horned Owls occupy nests built by other birds, and start the nesting season earlier than most hawks, it is possible that this nest may be taken over by a Great Horned Owl. I'll let you know.
On the forest floor amidst all the fallen leaves, certain things stand out. It is a great time of year to search for a rare orchid, the Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale). It isn't officially a Species At Risk yet, but is in the process of being evaluated by both federal and provincial committees to see if it warrants that status. And late fall through early spring is the best time to find them. Their greenish/gray leaves, with lighter lines, are fairly conspicuous once you get an eye for them.
 One of the projects I was involved with was searching for Species At Risk at a north Lambton location, and my colleagues and I came across a minimum 238 leaves of this rarity! This population was unknown until a little more than a year ago, when I discovered a few Puttyroot leaves poking up amongst the fallen brown, yellow and golden ones.
Searching for Puttyroot
There are other things. As I was walking the forest trails of Rondeau Provincial Park, I came across a gazillion (yep....actual count :-) of seeds of the Tuliptree on the ground, on logs, on the moss, etc.
Tuliptrees are very prolific seed producers, but a less known fact is that less than one per cent of even the fallen seeds are viable. Many other seeds are still clinging to the branches, and will remain until the spring, but those are not viable.
Most fern species are relatively fragile and disappear late in the fall. Christmas Fern, however, is a more robust species, and its deep green coloured leaves are evident throughout the winter.
Christmas Fern
Squirrels are even busier than normal since it was a good year for many oaks to produce acorns, and the snow-free and mild conditions have enabled squirrels to gather acorns much later than some years.

In this part of the world, one can see both the gray colour phase of the Eastern Grey Squirrel and the black colour phase of the Eastern Grey Squirrel. Black squirrels are a little more obvious, and at Rondeau may even be a little more common.
Black Squirrels are much more common in the northern part of their range. This is reputed to be due in part because their black fur absorbs more sunlight energy so as to keep them warmer in the colder temperatures. Also in northern forests where conifers are more abundant, there are more dark shadows, so they are less obvious to predators.

Black squirrels have been of interest to some communities in the USA, and where they have survived, the community takes great pride in their black squirrel population. For example back in 1904, during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, an influential person (whose name escapes me at the moment) in Washington DC arranged to obtain several black squirrels from Rondeau. Trading wildlife or obtaining and releasing wildlife from other jurisdictions was a much more common practice in that era. I have read some of the correspondence between Issac Gardiner, the first superintendent of Rondeau, and this individual from Washington DC from the Rondeau archives. So next time you are in Washington DC, take note of the population of black squirrels....they are descendants of Rondeau squirrels.

Is this one attempting a hand-stand? Not really, I just happened to catch it as it was leaping from one log to another!


  1. Interesting about those squirrels!
    And yes, there is a lot more out there to look for than just birds, especially rare birds.

  2. Yes fortunately there is a lot of common stuff to see when the rare birds aren't cooperating!