Archive for the ‘General’ Category
female Long-tailed Duck, Andrew Haydon Park - photo Josh McCullough
On Friday afternoon, twenty enthusiastic birders gathered at Andrew Haydon Park for OFO’s “Dusk Birding along the Ottawa River”. After a spectacular week of stellar birding, mainly east of the Deschenes Rapids, expectations were high that the river would continue to reveal mega-rarities. We stayed mainly along the shores of the western side of Lac Deschenes. However, a cold west wind and high water levels made viewing conditions bitter and challenging resulting in low diversity. Regardless, everyone had an excellent time, often getting close-up views of uncommon species. Those that stayed to the end were treated to an enchanting show of large flocks arriving for their evening roost, their aerobatic flights draped against a clear vermillion sky. Other highlights included a juvenile Brant, a female Northern Shoveler, 2 juvenile Greater Snow Geese, 11 Red-necked Grebes, all three species of scoter, and several individuals & small flocks of Long-tailed Ducks. For photographers, the tame Brant, the accommodating Long-tailed Duck, and the cooperative Wilson’s Snipe, provided some pleasant diversion.
A Special “Thank You” to contributing photographers: Ron Allen, Joshua McCullough, Jariya Rasaputra and Deanna Wright.
Juvenile Brant, Andrew Haydon Park - photo Deanna Wright
OFO Field Trip - Birding at Andrew Haydon Park - photo Josh McCullough
Wilson's Snipe, Andrew Haydon Park - photo Jariya Rasaputra
American Black Duck
American Tree Sparrow
Great Black-backed Gull
Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron, Andrew Haydon Park - photo Ron Allen
Everyone loves the beach. How can we resist soft sand between our toes, the tranquil sound of rolling waves, beautiful tanned bodies laying on blankets soaking the sun, and cool surf to comfort us from the heat? For us humans, the beach is an extremely popular playground, especially during hot summer days.
But, for the tiny Piping Plover, the beach is a matter of survival. It’s the only place where it can make a nest, raise its young and find food. Without sandy beaches, the Piping Plover can’t exist.
Unfortunately, there are more humans on beaches these days than Piping Plovers. People love the beach so much they use them to walk their dogs, drive their recreational vehicles, play their sports, and have their parties. How can the tiny Piping Plover compete with that?
Fortunately, conservation efforts effectively protect these sweet little birds. Cages are placed over nests to protect them from all types of problems like foxes, gulls, wandering family pets, all-terrain vehicles, dirt-bikes and thoughtless humans while allowing free-passage for the parents to come & go from the nest. A brightly marked barrier of flags and cord is also set up to give the nest further protective space. Although costly, these efforts have proven to be successful. On the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, an extremely busy summer playground lined with perfect beaches, and a stronghold of the Piping Plover, their numbers remain reasonably stable. Breeding pair numbers fluctuate from 35 to 53, with success rates reaching as much as 78%.
The sad news is that funding for these efforts is drying up quickly. Economic struggles continue to place pressure on various funding agents, while our appetite for recreational use of beaches increases. To further aggravate the problem, a significant percentage of the human population couldn’t care less about the future of the tiny little Piping Plover.
Without funding, protection efforts and awareness programs will be significantly minimized.
The future of the beach-loving Piping Plover is becoming increasingly uncertain.
Protected Piping Plover Nest Site
Piping Plover on a nest
adult Piping Plover protecting its young under its wing
Adult Male Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbirds, the most common bird in North America, has only been known to reach 15 years of age.
People often ask me how old do birds live. Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer.
The shocking truth is that only a tiny percent of creatures born in the wild survive beyond their first year.
The percentage figure is different depending on the study, the species, the situation or a number of other factors.
Regardless, it’s consistently small – frequently 20% or less.
Nature is harsh and challenging. A young animal must adapt quickly if it wants to live.
It needs to find food & shelter, deal with pressures from competition, and avoid predators.
Once it builds a little strength, and acquires some experience, it’s better equipped to face the challenges of the wilderness.
So, once it passes the one-year mark, it may be on its way to a ripe old age.
But, what is a ripe-old-age for a bird? This is another question without a simple answer.
Bird-banding records provide some data.
Unfortunately, very few bands are ever recovered. And, in the case of long-lived birds like albatross, the bird can easily outlive their metal leg bands.
Regardless, bird-banding is one of the only reliable methods for recording bird longevity.
Some seabirds are known to live beyond 60 years.
Small songbirds are lucky to reach their teens.
Yet, some birds in captivity can live into their 80s.
Some authorities figure that a few larger species can live as long as humans.
But, until data-recording methods improve, a lot of this is simply guesswork.
Adult Wandering Albatross
The Wandering Albatross, the bird with the world’s longest wingspan, is believed to have a life expectancy similar to humans. But, verifying this is extremely difficult since the birds can out-live the bands that indicate their age.
A back-yard favourite, the record life-span of the Black-capped Chickadee is only 12 years.
first cycle Herring Gull
Most birds, like this Herring Gull, don’t reach the end of their first year. But, if they survive beyond the one-year threshold, they’re likely experienced and healthy enough to live a long life.
adult winter plumage Lesser Black-backed Gull
I’ve been living in my condominium beside the Ottawa River for a year now. I’ve watched the seasons pass, and observed an abundance of life, both human as well as other animals. I’ve tallied more than 100 species of birds, some abundant, others only a single time. One thing for certain, the view is spectacular. But, it also reveals how much has changed over the course of my life as a birder.
Back in the early 80’s, many species that were rare or unusual are now common, in some cases even abundant.
Unfortunately, the success of these species has to be at the expense of others.
Looking down from the 23rd floor over the Britannia Conservation Area and Deschenes Rapids, its blatantly obvious how a few species have flourished. Ring-billed Gull, Canada Goose, Double-crested Cormorant, Turkey Vulture and Common Raven are ever-present during the breeding season. Less obvious, but equally as dramatic are the increase of such rare birds as Lesser Black-backed Gull, Great Egret, Peregrine Falcon, Bald Eagle and Black-crowned Night-Heron. Although seeing these birds is always exciting, I have to reflect which birds are missing. I used to see more diversity on Mud Lake – various ducks, large numbers of swallows and Common Nighthawk. Although these birds are still observed occasionally, their numbers have dropped significantly.
At night, the illuminated colours of the city contrast to the stark black woodlands, the river reflecting the moon, stars and city lights. The occasional bark of a night-heron, or the honk of an agitated goose, mix with the roar of road traffic and sirens. There is a precarious balance between nature and humans.
I can only speculate what changes will come with the increasing pressures of the city on greenspace.
For now, life of various kinds flourishes in proximity to my balcony.
adult Bald Eagle
Ring-billed gulls at dusk
adult Black-browed Albatross riding the wind over the Drake Passage
It’s a three-day journey sailing across the Drake Passage from Tierra del Fuego to the Antarctic Peninsula. These legendary waters have earned the reputation of being the roughest in the world. Southern currents squeezed between two continents cause even the largest of vessels to rock and roll. Crew and passengers reluctantly prepare for the long haul. They “drake-proof” their cabin, securing all loose items to prevent them from being tossed around from the relentless swells.
I on the other hand, see great opportunity – a chance to study graceful seabirds effortlessly riding the wind. The strategy is simple – find a dry place on the bow or the stern and wait. Eventually, they come. At first they appear as small specs on the horizon. Tiny shapes with long slender wings, growing larger as they approach. Closer and closer, like an airliner coming in for a landing. Yet, they twist and turn in the wind, their eyes always level with the horizon, never beating a wing, their tails steering them towards you. The perfect moment comes when they glide overhead, occasionally close enough to touch. As suddenly as they appear, they’re gone. With luck, they return out of the mist for a few more passes. Many of these long-winged birds are large – Giant Petrel, Black-browed Albatross, Grey-headed Albatross, Royal Albatross, and the bird with the world’s longest wingspan (4 metres) – The Wandering Albatross. Perfectly adapted to a life over open ocean, they endlessly search the surface for small invertebrates.
adult Wandering Albatross
Rarely are they alone. I’m equally as excited when their smaller cousins show up. Petrels, shearwaters, prions and skuas can come out of nowhere, occasionally in large numbers. One of my favourites is the Pintado Petrel, an energetic seabird with an odd plumage that looks like a chunky bowl-full of Oreo Cookie ice cream. At first there is only one, low on the water, repeatedly circling the ship. It’s then joined by another, then several more until the flock grows to about forty or more. They follow us for hours, dipping, diving and dancing in an aerial ballet, almost always together as a unified group.
Pintado Petrels (Cape Petrels)
Antarctic Waters can be unforgiving. But, in the bleak emptiness of the endless ocean, seabirds sparkle like gems in the wind.
adult Black-browed Albatross
Fish Islands, Antarctic Peninsula
Blue skies to the north, mirror-like waters reflecting the landscape, numerous glaciers pushing towards shore, and all around us, jagged mountains cloaked with thick cakes of ancient ice.
The Antractic Peninsula – a land of extremes, full of life, and endless photo opportunities.
With a plethora of visual stimulation, and my camera’s meter showing considerably more light than I’ve ever experienced anywhere on this planet, powerful photo compositions were everywhere, and easy to capture. If that isn’t enough, there were plenty more distractions – the occasional Snow Petrel flying over a family of Humback Whales, calving glaciers abruptly crashing into silent waters, a cliffside dotted with Antarctic Shags, small blue floating bergie-bits, some with resting Crabeater Seals, and dancing Wilson’s Storm-Petrels darting around our zodiac.
Yet, many of us were eager for the main attraction – A Gentoo Penguin colony. We saw them even from a distance, the low exposed outcroppings jutting into the bay, krill-pink from layers of Penguin guano, and thousands of dark-&-white birds standing or marching to/from the frigid water.
Getting to land was a process in itself – a well choreographed dance of tiny zodiacs, executed with military precision, from the gangway to a beach full of curious fur seals. Once on land, we usually had options – go for an energetic hike, meander through the colony while trying to avoid disrupting active penguin nests, or just wait for the wildlife to come to you – all difficult choices, each with their advantages.
Zodiac on opposite side of "Bergie Bit" archway
Then there is the luxury of just wandering around the bay, amongst the icebergs, on a zodiac cruise… a scenic drive through an ever-changing exhibition of natural sculptures, lines and patterns, endless and unimaginable beauty in the form of deep blue ice. Occasionally, these “bergie bits” provide refuge to life forms such as Adelie Penguins, Gentoo Penguins, South Polar Skuas, Giant Petrels, immaculate white Snow Petrels or even a Leopard Seal. With luck, the wildlife will even come close. On one occasion, we were graced by an Adelie Penguin jumping onto the pontoon of our zodiac. Imagine the thrill of a Humpback Whale swimming below, its features clearly visible in the crystal clear waters. And, you just never know what lies around the corner. Each moment was a new chapter into an icy blue wilderness.
Ancient Blue Ice
King Penguins pair bonding
Warm amber halos skirt the mountains to our east. Golden beams break through the peaks, cascading down to a dark gravel beach. Deep trails in the emerald moss carry troops of trumpeting King Penguins, waddling their way to the shore. Processions cautiously sidestep feisty Antarctic Fur Seal pups, aggressive and annoying obstacles blocking a clear path to the ocean. In the icy waters, waiting to come ashore, hundreds of penguins splash through the shallows, shiny and colourful as the sun enhances their contrasting orange, black, and silvery-blue plumage. Marauding Brown Skuas persistently circle overhead, quarrelsome and opportunistic, ready to scavenge any innocent casualty. The piercing aroma of ammonia cuts sharply through the morning mist – a stark reminder that you’re walking beside a colony of King Penguins, hundreds of thousands strong.
Such is the dawn on the Salisbury Plains of South Georgia.
This remote location in the Scotia Sea of the South Atlantic, north of the Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula, is relatively untouched. It’s a sanctuary for an abundance of sea life, mainly penguins, albatross, petrels, Southern Elephant Seals and Antarctic Fur Seals. Recent estimates tell of 30 million individual birds breeding here.
For the photographer, it’s a gold mine, revealing dramatic and beautiful images around every corner.
For the birder, the island provides glimpses into the lives of rarely seen creatures, some breeding in enormous rookeries, plus two endemic species to the archipelago.
Most encouraging was to learn of conservation efforts. The South Georgia Heritage Trust is involved in a massive project to eradicate the invasive Brown Rat – stow-aways arriving here on old whaling ships. The rats have since dramatically reduced native bird species by ruthlessly preying on chicks and eggs.
The endemic South Georgia Pipit, a tiny streaked songbird that has vanished from most of it’s limited range, is expected to be one of the first indicators revealing the success of this project.
For more information about South Georgia, and conservation efforts, visit this site: http://www.sght.org/
The abundance of life, the rugged scenery, the unrelenting weather, the tenacity of fearless creatures, the warmth of courting birds, and the effortless grace of gliding albatross – South Georgia is a wilderness spectacle unparalleled in this world.
King Penguin rookery - Salisbury Plains
Antarctic Fur Seals - mother and pup bonding
South Georgia Pipit
Subantarctic (Brown) Skua
male Southern Elephant Seals in territorial dispute
pair Light-mantled Sooty Albatross
male breeding Northern Parula
Gray leafless trees glisten under a clear northern sky. Rising above the southeastern horizon, a big yellow sun transmits an amber glow across delicately textured snow cover. Our trailing footprints circle each shrub, our steps crunching through a thin layer of icy crust – We’re looking and listening for signs of wildlife. From a thick clump of young conifers comes the chatter of angry chickadees. I recognize the sound as one of alarm – the chickadees unleashing their fury upon a potential threat. And, there it is, tucked away inside the cover of dark Jack Pine needles – a Boreal Owl. Casting your eyes on a bird like this can make your day. For some birders, it’s better than winning a lottery. Yes, we’re very lucky here in Eastern Ontario. We’re blessed with a great selection of natural wonders. Some, like the rare Boreal Owl, attract birders here from all around the world.
If a birder glances at a map of North America, Eastern Ontario seems insignificant – a small triangle of land lost in a vast continent, featureless, boring, and ordinary. But, nothing could be further from the truth. Time, geography and the workings of our planet, have created a unique area, full of diverse habitats. We experience four distinct seasons each causing dynamic changes to our rich environment. Primarily flat and productive agricultural land, the St. Lawrence lowlands are covered with ten thousand year old sediment left behind by the ancient Champlain Sea. The region is flanked by the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers, and surrounded by primordial hills and lakes – the Canadian Shield and the Appalachians. Sprinkled throughout are various wetlands, forests, grassland, barrens and urbanized settings. Our waters drain into the Atlantic. However, for many birds traveling between Hudson Bay and the Atlantic, the Ottawa River, and connected lowlands, act like a migratory corridor.
For the birder, this makes for great entertainment, and throughout the entire year. Each season and each habitat comes with a parade of different characters. This blog briefly describes birding trends during Eastern Ontario & West Quebec’s seasons. Look for future blogs describing our best birding hotspots.
WINTER: The Ottawa area can be among the most bitterly cold places in the world. Yet, wildlife is well adapted to our extreme conditions. Several hardy northern birds, at the southern edge of their wintering range, make Eastern Ontario their home for part of the year. Although each winter is different, we consistently find creatures like Iceland Gull, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Bohemian Waxwing, Hoary Redpoll, Pine Grosbeak, and other northern birds. What gives Ottawa an edge is that it provides birders with relatively easy access to view these species.
SPRING: My favourite time of year, this is when our hills, fields and gardens erupt with life. Spring happens gradually, and in two general stages. The first migrants appear around the end of February with the arrival of Horned Larks to our farm fields. Shortly after, typically with warm weather systems, come adult Ring-billed Gulls, various blackbirds and a trickle of waterfowl. By April, we have large numbers migrating through. They pass by quickly, determined to reach their breeding grounds. From late April right through May, we see the next wave of migrants. These include shorebirds, warblers, flycatchers, other insect-eating songbirds and high-Arctic nesters. The last spring migrants are observed during the first week of June. Besides the large flocks of waterfowl, gulls and blackbirds, some of the star attractions include male wood-warblers in breeding plumage, often on territory singing their hearts out. Among them we often see Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Scarlet Tanager and Indigo Bunting. Late spring is very exciting in the Ottawa area. This is the time when birds like Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Blackpoll Warbler, Arctic Tern and Brant pass through. With luck, we sometimes find shorebirds along the river or in lagoons.
SUMMER: The most active season for observing behaviour, summer is when most birds have established territories, and breeding activity peaks. For the determined birder, a full morning starts before dawn, sometimes as early as 3:00 or 4:00am. The dawn chorus, especially in extensive, undisturbed areas, rings with an abundance of vocalizations – symphonic, ethereal, and sometimes frantic. Our many wetlands, forests and barrens often reveal wonderful birds. Some of the highlights include Blackburnian Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Northern Parula, Cerulean Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Grasshopper Sparrow, Clay-coloured Sparrow, Bobolink, Upland Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, and Least Bittern.
FALL: Fall migration is virtually the reverse of spring. The last to arrive in spring are often the first to leave in fall. Unlike spring migration, many fall migrants are less determined to reach their destination. Some linger for days or weeks. Generally, it is less intense. Regardless, fall migration can be very complex, and produce some extremely intense birding. The entire process of southward bird-movement can last from June through to the end of December. The first fall migrants appear on the shores of rivers & lagoons at the end of June. Typically, these are adult shorebirds finished with the breeding process – Least Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover and others. Throughout July, we see shorebirds, warblers, swallows and flycatchers moving through in small numbers. In August, we see young and adults moving together, sometimes in large flocks. Shorebirds and insect-eating songbirds constitute the bulk of these. The peak of fall migration occurs around the end of August through to the beginning of September. This is also the onset of the next wave of migration – waterfowl, raptors, sparrows, kinglets and Myrtle Warblers. By the end of September, almost all of the insect-eating birds will have passed through. In October, the forests transform from green to red, and bird diversity decreases each day. However, staging waterbird numbers increase, and by the end of November, the first of the over-wintering birds trickle in. By December, most lakes and ponds are frozen, and several over-wintering species become prevalent. Although there are always a few birds just passing through, by the end of December, birders can see a clear pattern for the upcoming winter season.
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Male Northern Cardinal © Heather Pickard
It’s a cold, moist winter dawn in Eastern Ontario. A warm pink light rises from the east masking the bitterly cold air. At the edge of a forest clearing, slender bird-feeders dangle from glazed branches while dozens of small finches nibble niger seed from the feeder’s tiny ports. Nearby, a slab of raw suet, secured to a thick birch trunk constitutes a perch for a famished Hairy Woodpecker. Meanwhile, dozens of Blue Jays descend from the canopy like ornate snowflakes, down to a table covered in corn and millet.
In my early years, winter scenes like this helped kindle a fascination with nature, and all things that lived in the wilderness. Observing nature isn’t always easy. So, placing feeders around the yard allowed me to get close to some of them.
Many of us lure birds to our property with free food. Benevolence is important, but not our only objective. We take great pleasure in being surrounded by a diversity of colourful and animated creatures. The fact that we’re pleasing our avian guests with food is a bonus.
But, some argue that if we make it too easy for them, we reduce their ability to adapt, and survive in harsh conditions where food is less plentiful and temporary. Perhaps this is true in some cases.
Another argument is that we sometimes attract undesirable forms of wildlife to these feeding stations. Some people have waged war against squirrels, raccoons and other rodents. Even pigeons and crows often get a bad rap from property owners. In extreme cases, you might attract an omnivore like a bear. You can say goodbye to your bird-feeders then.
A recent activity that troubles me is the incessant feeding of store-bought mice to wild, over-wintering owls. This is a technique used by photographers to get dramatic photos of a predator catching prey. The owl is located, the mouse released, and as the predator flies in for the kill, all cameras blast away. Unlike nomadic and migratory songbirds, there is a danger when large predators become accustomed to humans. Owls in particular are often misunderstood, symbolic in many cultures as the harbingers of ill-will. To make matters worse, after several straight days of being fed live mice by people, I have watched them fly right up to people, and their cars, expecting food. I have even been followed by some of these owls. In one case, more than a kilometer.
Still, there are many good arguments for maintaining a bird-feeding station.
First, keep in mind that 70 to 90 percent of songbirds don’t survive the first year. “Most birds die through inexperience, for they are constantly at risk from predators, disease, accident and food shortage. Newly independent fledglings are at greatest risk and mortality gradually decreases as the birds become more experienced” (A Dictionary of Birds – Buteo Books – 1985). Once a bird makes it beyond its first year, it has gained much needed skills for survival, and it’s likely to live for several more years. The point here is that a high mortality rate is normal, especially for younger, inexperienced birds.
I also believe most birds do NOT depend on our free handouts. They merely modify their behaviour temporarily to take advantage of our generosity. Throughout migration, birds encounter abundant food sources. They stop to nourish themselves, but their instincts push them to continue migration, leaving behind rich food supplies that might have been adequate for their survival. Around Ottawa, White-throated & White-crowned Sparrows are common during migration, but very rare in winter, even though they can survive harsh conditions where food is abundant.
In winter, many birds traveling through their territory include stops at several food source. If they relied on only one source of natural food, the supply would surely exhaust itself before the end of the season, and the birds’ chance of survival would diminish. Black-capped Chickadees, for example, form small flocks and travel through large territories searching for food. If your bird-feeding station is along their route, they will stop for a visit. If you go on vacation, the birds might continue visiting, but move through your property much faster, spending more time in productive areas.
Many finches and other nomadic species move around constantly during the winter. They’re relatively unaffected by harsh conditions like low temperatures, provided they have lots to eat. They move from one area to the next, capitalizing on their discoveries. For example, a flock of Pine Grosbeaks can finish off a berry-rich mountain ash in a couple of days. Once finished, they move on. These species have successfully behaved like this much longer than humans have been on the planet.
Some species have become more common during winter, in part, because of bird feeders. Since it’s easier for them to “battle the elements” on a full gizzard, they have a greater survival rate. Mourning Doves and Northern Cardinals are two species that have expanded their range northward. Although global warming may be a factor, I’m convinced they are slowly adapting to northern suburbia because of our free handouts. However, we can say the same thing about crows and gulls, two species that rarely come to bird feeders. In most areas, their populations are increasing in winter because they have adapted to our refuse and garbage disposal.
Some birds occasionally wander out of their normal range, or fail to move far enough south in fall migration. These birds eventually become desperate for food since they find themselves in unfamiliar territory or in a habitat that doesn’t suit their normal adaptations. In these cases, when they find a rich food supply (like a bird feeder), their survival might depend on it. If the free handouts suddenly stop, winter’s wrath might take its toll on the misguided, and unprepared bird. A few years ago, my parents had a Myrtle Warbler coming to their feeders. It fed exclusively on suet-cake pieces that were conveniently cut into small chunks for the warbler. Chances are this bird would have perished if it wasn’t for my parents’ diligence and generosity.
But, is this any different than caring for a pet, keeping livestock, or cultivating a beautiful garden?
We all consume nature for our own benefit. When it comes to wild birds, with only a few exceptions, I believe we can feed them without guilt or worry.
Be sensitive, and just enjoy the show.
White-throated Sparrow © Nina Stavlund
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A Very Festive Black-capped Chickadee
Gray skies block the warmth of the sun. A parade of large white flakes gently drift to the ground. A soft blanket of fresh snow reveal our steps through the trail. Loud, abrupt calls of curious Northern Ravens interrupt the tranquil silence – their wings whistle as they pass overhead. From the darkness of the forest thickets comes the chatter of resilient & hardy Black-capped Chickadees. A White-tailed Deer snorts a strong breath, alarmed by our approach. We’re cold, tired and all alone. Yet, we can’t imagine a more beautiful place to be – a forest trail in St. Lawrence lowlands of Eastern Ontario. All is well, and life is good. We wish you all Joy, Peace, Love and Happiness in the New Year. Happy Holidays!
Tony & Nina