Saturday, December 31, 2005

New Year's Eve Circus of the Spineless

The fourth edition of Circus of the Spineless is up at Bootstrap Analysis. A blog carnival of the finest in invertebrate stories and images in the blogosphere: what better way to bring in the new year?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Counting Birds

Tuesday I participated in the Belleville CBC (Christmas bird count), organized by the Quinte Field Naturalists. It was my second time out, and what a difference from last year.

Last year the temperature when I left the house was -18C, the high that day was about -10C. There was some wind blowing in our faces for the trail portion of the event (a hike of about 3 hours). And for the first hour or so, almost no birds at all were so foolish as to be up and about in those temperatures. But we did see birds that day, 18 species plus a bonus of a flock 300-400 snow buntings in a field just outside our count area.

This year the temperature was just below 0C when we started, and rose to just a little above. (This has been the temperature around here for the last several days.) It was cloudy, but there was no rain or snow, and the sun broke through in the afternoon.

We started out slow: a few birds at feeders on the drive to the trail we would hike, but then things got better with the spotting of the first northern shrike--sitting high in a tree, at some distance away. Then a second, a little further along, flew into an apple tree, and out again with a piece of apple. After that it stayed with us for several minutes flying to one spot and then another on the sides of the trail, giving us some excellent views. One of the other counters and I got pictures. I think his were probably better. One of mine confirms the sighting (the other was entirely out of focus), but is way overexposed for reasons unknown to me.

Tracks in the snow on the trail included squirrel, rabbit, muskrat, deer, coyote, and one of the larger members of the weasel family, small otter or mink maybe.

After the trail we got into one of the cars headed back to the others for lunch, then headed out for the driving portion of the count in one car. Last year there were just two of us--so only one watcher during the drive. This year with four I think we saw more birds more safely.

We did finally see a red-tailed hawk, just as we were beginning to despair of being able to count at least one of these normally ubiquitous raptors. But we never saw any wild turkeys, although I did have a flock of these guys fly across a road behind me on the drive down to meet the group (and that's one weird sight to see in your rearview mirror!). Towards the end of the afternoon I think it was me who cried "stop" for some robins hanging out by some apple and sumac trees. We saw that they were indeed robins--first time for us that day--first time for me since much earlier in the season--a good bird to count. We got out of the car for a better look when another in the group cried "bluebird!" And indeed there were, five eastern bluebirds, possibly a family group, as there seemed to be only one mature male. They weren't with the robins (who left soon after we arrived), but were presumably attracted to the spot by the same food source. As we watched they flew down, one or two at a time, to eat the fuzzy, red fruit of the sumac. Mourning doves were the most numerous of the birds we saw, and in the bit of coverage remaining we counted many more--then the last bird added to the list, a flock of 50 snow buntings!

Not a good shot either--but you might be able to make out that this is indeed an eastern bluebird

I've learned since Tuesday that the Belleville count area is a circle with a radius of 12 kilometres and its centre at the Belleville city hall (front steps). Nuthatch of Bootstrap Analysis wrote this week of an interesting tool available from Google that can be used to create precise mappings of CBC areas, describing how to go about this--all you need to know is the centre point (well, you also need broadband and a newer operating system than Win98). I think you also probably need a club (like the Quinte Naturalists, not like a baseball bat). I'd like there to be a count that includes Thomasburg some year, but it takes organization to get people out to cover the area on the appointed day. Something to think about though--isn't it Peter? No hermit thrush so far in the count (see species list below), but a sighting might come in as a count period sighting--any species identified in the circle between Dec 24 and Dec 30. These birds aren't counted, but their presence is noted. I won't hear for a little while what the final species list is.

I'd recommend this to any birder--even if you have to travel a little to find a count. It's an excellent time of year to take a whole day off and do some birding.

Preliminary List of Species in the Belleville Count
(species found in my team's area in bold)
Canada Goose
American Black Duck
Common Goldeneye
Wild Turkey
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Eastern Screech Owl
Great Horned Owl
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Common Raven
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Snow Bunting
Northern Cardinal
Pine Grosbeak
House Finch
Common Redpoll
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Monday, December 26, 2005

Pity the Poor Mourning Dove

Last week, in the middle of a sunny afternoon, a sudden wave of birds flew across the yard from the pines at the back, and away--chickadees and mourning doves, for the most part. A feather or two floated in the air. I thought there must be something dramatic going on--but couldn't see anything from the house, and I wasn't dressed to climb the hill in all that soft snow, as it was then.

When I walked up the next morning the evidence was there. Something, and I suspect the red-tailed hawk that's been hanging around for a couple of weeks now, ate (I am guessing) a mourning dove, sitting on the path right near the shed. If I'd walked up when I noticed the exodus I might have seen it. On the other hand, I'd probably have chased the hawk off its meal, and life is tough enough for predators, especially this poor bird that is almost constantly harassed by the neighbourhood crows.

The meal was taken in a snowshoe track--you can just make out a wing print in the edge of it.

The size of the wing print is part of what makes me think that the diner was a red-tailed hawk.

These are just a few of the feathers that littered the ground--but feathers was all that was left.

The quantity and quality of the feathers is what makes me think this was probably a mourning dove. The mourning doves spend a lot of time sitting in the pines at the property line. They spook very easily, but this time the hawk was quicker.

Pity the poor mourning dove. Hooray for the hawk!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Winter Birds

Wonder of wonders--today a flock of 15 to 20 pine grosbeak. This is the first time I've seen this bird in Thomasburg, though early last spring a flock visited friends of mine about 10km northeast of here as the grosbeak flies.

It was very grey today, and the birds insisted on either sitting quite high in a deciduous tree or feeding in a coniferous tree, so it took a while for me to get a good enough look to identify them. But what a treat, and what a pretty bird!

An hour or so after I saw the grosbeaks, the first common redpoll of the season came to the feeder--all alone, which is not the redpoll way, but it looked as if it were travelling with a flock of goldfinches, so perhaps not lonely.

For more winter bird stories, and summer stories from the lands down under take a look at I and the bird #13 at Woodsong. The presentation is beautiful, in keeping with Cindy's beautiful blog, and includes a wide variety of great posts, for example a story about Penguins in Antarctica in dire straits from 75 Degrees South and a stunning varied thrush from Dharma Bums. And much, much more.

The federal election campaign, straddling the holiday season, has been a terrible distraction for me from what I'd much rather be doing: watching stuff, and reading the other nature bloggers. It's good to have so much good nature writing, of the bird variety, in one place, so that I can go back again and again and always find something more to read.

For more information about the carnival go to the home of I and the Bird. The next edition will be hosted by Gwyn at Bird Brained Stories on January 5, 2006. Send submissions to Gwyn or to Mike at I and the Bird central by January 3, 2006.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Snow Spider

A beautiful weekend, not too cold, not too warm--and lots of snow. My weekend visitor and I got out on the snowshoes--and he spotted this critter on an untouched expanse of snow way out in the open, far from tree or shrub.

The spider was moving when we first came up to it--but soon stopped. How did it get there? It appeared before we were close enough to have dropped it out of our clothes (yes, there might always be a spider hitchhiking on someone coming out of this house). I think it was too cold for it to have walked from a hibernation spot. Perhaps dropped there by a bird who had dug it out of a crevice somewhere?

Saturday, December 17, 2005

But which weasel?

Sign like I've never seen before out in the snow of the first field this morning--nice deep fresh snow--25 to 30 cm. It may explain the odd tracks coming out from under the shed--but this kind of snow, damp but not too damp, and deep, doesn't show a lot of detail. A casual glance and an expectation of rabbit suggested rabbit, but later observations and a little thought, not rabbit.

Here is a line of the trail created--you can see the body print--almost like what an otter leaves, but narrower, and with less pronounced and smaller footprints.

Out in the field I found a trail showing a body print that ended with an animal diving under the snow and coming up again a metre or two beyond leaving a perfect round tunnel about 4 inches in diameter. (Sorry, I don't really think in metric when it comes to small linear measures, I just pretend sometimes. I really do think in celsius when I think about temperature, and kilometres when I think of driving distances.)

The glove is just under 4" wide.

This diving under the snow is a weasel trait. The holes this creature left looked too big for weasel to me. So I consulted the books. None of my tracking books talk much about the kind of sign this mode of travel leaves--they talk more about the experience of seeing a weasel bounding across the snow and disappearing, only to reappear several feet on.

There was a suggestion though that a long-tailed weasel (or ermine) might leave this big a hole. On the other hand, the size fits a marten or a mink better. Fishers don't generally snow dive this way--and I think would leave bigger sign than this. Argument for weasel: habitat. One would be more likely to find a weasel in a fence line or under a shed than either of the other two. Mink generally hang around and in water. Martens are more inclined to forest. But any of them might be moving around in winter. I've found otter sign (tracks and slides) in the cedar bush in winters past, and that's pretty far from suitable otter habitat.

The tracks, trails, tunnels, lead from under the shed out into the field and into an old groundhog burrow in an old mound left by a topsoil harvest of several years ago. I fear our latest yard rabbit may have been eaten by this visitor last night (not that I found remains, just that the yard rabbit has in the past hid out under the shed, and there was no rabbit visitor to the bird feeders last night). But even so, there may be enough rabbits and nice places to hole up to keep this creature around for a while--so maybe, just maybe, I'll get to see it. If it's white, it's a weasel. If it's very dark, it's a mink. If it's a little lighter, and cuter, it's a marten. So if I do get to see it, I think I'll be able to identify it. But even if I never do--what a pleasure it is to see strange new spoor out there.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


The cold snap is over -- low last night was a mere -15C (compared to -27C the night before), high today -5C -- so snow is on its way: 10-30 centimetres promised starting tonight and continuing through most of tomorrow. Not so good that last because I have to go to Belleville tomorrow evening to pick up a friend at the train station. But it is good in that it's time to wipe the slate clean out in the fields. The rabbits have worn trails, trenches really, in the snow so thoroughly that I can't see who all might be using them; and there are so many fox tracks criss-crossing everywhere, and pee stains, I can't sort out the signs anymore.

"This place is mine."

I had a bunch of errands to do this week up in Tweed and environs, so, anticipating the snow, I got them done today (and met other citizens of the hamlet and other outliers up there doing the same). On the way out of Tweed, but still in the village, a muskrat crossed the road in front of me, heading in the direction of the lake on whose shores the village sits, but coming from where? A muskrat is a sleek and elegant creature seen from above swimming underwater, but it is a funny looking, humpy creature on land. And from the side its flattened tail looks like a bit of string dragging behind it.

I got home and a few mintues later I finally got to see what's been bugging the crows all day--a beautiful, big red-tailed hawk flew past the house, crow giving chase.

But these aren't the sightings I am here to write about today. Rather I wanted to report the sighting of an eastern cottontail in a backyard in downtown Toronto, reported to me and documented photographically by the friend I'm expecting tomorrow. He suggests that maybe the rabbit had decided to give up life in the ravines, among the foxes and coyotes, for life on the streets. Whatever the case, the streets of Toronto just keep getting wilder and wilder.

Photo by Michael Solomon

Submitted to the Modulator's Friday Ark

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Whither Snowys?

There has been a veritable flurry of blog posts about snowy owl sightings among the nature bloggers lately. Recently in a comment on this blog and in a post on his own, Dave of Bird TLC has talked about an irruption of snowy owls in southern Alaska (see his post here, and follow-up here). Here's a story from Birdchick blog about a snowy at the Minneapolis/St Paul Airport--thanks to Dave for the heads up.) In the recent edition of I and the Bird (at Search and Serendipity) I found this story from Bird Brained stories!: Dreams of boreal species, about, you guessed it, a snowy owl sighting, illustrated with some wonderful photos. Cindy at Woodsong joined in with A Special Place & A Special Owl. Mike of Mike's Birding and Digiscoping Blog has a whole series of snowy posts: Snowy Owls, Even More Snowy Owls, and Snowy Owl Dies from Gunshot Wound. And there may be more--if you know of any, please let me know.

A few days ago I received a report of five snowy owls observed in Casselman--just a couple hundred kilometres to the northeast of Thomasburg, and I've heard of sightings in southwestern Ontario. Ontario sightings seem to be cutting a swath just above Thomasburg, swooping from Ottawa (northeast of me) down to the southwest of the province.

I've never seen a snowy owl. I know they prefer a flat vista, I guess because it reminds them of their breeding grounds on the arctic tundra, and the landscape here rolls a little, but I found a pretty good spot in the fields.

The Perch

I thought maybe if I published a couple of photos here, a snowy might get to hear about it and drop by to try it out.

The View

Hermit Thrush--in December?

Back at the end of October, in the post Hermit Thrush, I reported a sighting of a slightly late migrant hermit thrush in the cedar bush, pictured at the right. Yesterday, in the dusk-like conditions of a snowy day in the middle of December, there it was again, in the cedar bush.

I like a thrush--as I think I've said before--so thrush-like. I was puzzled by this bird yesterday, first thinking it was a robin (they sometimes spend the winter back there), then, given the size, some strange sparrow. But after a moment or two of looking and listening, I realized that it was a hermit thrush. Soft call, dark spots at the top of the breast, and this bird was flicking its tail and dropping its wings in much the same way as my October bird.

It really is winter.

Wondering what it could mean, I checked my thrush sources (Sibley, first of all) and learned that this thrush, unlike most of the others who hang around here in better weather, is not a long-distance migrator. Most Ontario thrushes spend the winter far, far away. Here is the WildSpaces range map showing the wintering area for the hermit thrush; compare that to the winter range of the veery, another woodland thrush that breeds here.

The life history of the hermit thrush describes it as primarily insectivorous, with no second option. This is interesting for a bird that normally winters as far north as the information provided suggests. Its food-gathering techniques are described as gleaning and foraging--even foraging isn't going to provide much in the way of insects in winter in the northern portions of its normal range. This article at Birds by Bent however describes the winter diet of the hermit thrush as being largely fruit. Fruit was good this year around here, so maybe this bird will make it through even if it doesn't move on.

Added later: The "life history" linked above that suggests that the hermit thrush is exclusively insectivorous is at Wildspaces, and concentrates on the diet of the bird when it is in Ontario--i.e., during the spring and summer--probably why they don't mention the fruit it eats in winter. On the other hand, reports from Christmas Bird Counts, which start in the middle of December, are now pouring in from around Ontario, and the hermit thrush is showing up in quite a few of them. Not in huge numbers, but certainly often enough to suggest that, like the robin, this thrush is a winter bird in southern Ontario.

Friday, December 09, 2005

White-winged Crossbill in Picton

In an earlier post (There Could be Crossbills) I confessed both my desire to see a crossbill, and my suspicion that these are mythical birds. A crossed bill? How could it be?

This week the Quinte Bird Report tells of a female white-winged crossbill visiting a feeder in Picton, Ontario. Picton is the largest town in Prince Edward County (often referred to around here as "the County"), a birder's paradise just south of me (here's a list of species recorded there), and a place I visit frequently (see for example, Cormorant Cull?). This map shows the way from Thomasburg to Picton.

So, have the crossbills slipped down the Ottawa River and over into the County? Will they never come here?

As you can see if you look at the map, Prince Edward County is almost an island in Lake Ontario. They are a full gardening zone warmer than we are (6, compared to our 5), and experience extremes of weather, both drought and lake-effect snow (of the sort experienced by Buffalo, NY and others on the south side of the lake). Quite a different place altogether, although so near.

I will be spending a few days down there late December or early January, so maybe I'll get to see one of these so-called crossbills, even if they never come here.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Come to the Carnival

I and the Bird #12: The Canterbirdy Tales is up at Search and Serendipity. Enjoy bird and birding stories from your favourites and from newcomers to I and the Bird too--including a story and some great photos, Birding @ Pashan, from a beginning birder in India, Ami of Frozen in Time. Check it out.

And start thinking about submissions to the next I and the Bird, to be hosted by Cindy of Woodsong. Send your submission to her or to Mike at I and the Bird, by December 20.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Last Chapter

About 10 days ago we had our first real snow cover. Roughly 10 centimetres on the ground--not too powdery. Perfect for tracking.

Since then we've had a thaw and another little sprinkle of snow--we now have just a couple of centimetres, and patchy. Under these conditions there are clues left by animals passing through or getting up to stuff, but no stories written in the snow. But back then, that first real snow, it was all there.

I went out into the field and was immediately rewarded by the sight of a set of fox tracks leading into the stand of young pines. I followed and came to the scene of a snack--ground trampled down and a few feathers, one with a little bit of flesh adhering to the shaft.

The scene

The scene was bloodless, suggesting that the prey had been killed elsewhere, and either stashed somewhere nearby for this occasion or else brought there. Unfortunately I recognized the feathers--the last Guinea chick, or keet, as I now know to call it.

The feathers

The day before the keet had come to the feeder on its own. It didn't seem to like the snow, but it could fly pretty well, and was flying from perch to perch until it got to the maple where the feeders are. There it came down and fed for a while before taking off again to hang around in the trees at the back edge of the yard. The hen never did show up that day, so I feared that she had been taken by something. And I didn't fancy the chances of the keet making it on its own. Cindy of Woodsong commented on an earlier post about the Guinea family in an encounter with a cat that she was surprised they'd survived in the presence of the at-large cats in the hamlet (not many, but there are always a few). The hen was too big (more than halfway between a ruffed grouse and a wild turkey) for any cat I ever knew, though the chicks would probably have been a possibility for them, at least in the early days. I think that the fox (or, based on track evidence around the field, foxes) probably took the hen, and then came back for the keet.

It's a funny thing about the tracks in the snow. I know, for example, that the foxes are around, and that there are rabbits everywhere, etc., etc. But they have much more reality for me in the winter when the sign is not just the occasional scat here and there, but constant tracks, in ideal conditions betraying their every move. A rabbit is coming to the feeders every night for a snack. As one has in the past. But it's the tracks that make it real for me.

So it was a good day for tracking, and a real story in the snow. And normally this is just the kind of story I like--a successful hunt. But I had been so touched by the sight of that little bird on its own the day before, that I felt an unshakeable sadness at this story of its death, the last chapter in the saga of the Guinea fowl family.

Monday, December 05, 2005


Just from picking an image:

Your Hidden Talent

You have the natural talent of rocking the boat, thwarting the system.
And while this may not seem big, it can be.
It's people like you who serve as the catalysts to major cultural changes.
You're just a bit behind the scenes, so no one really notices.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Great Gray Owl Ruined My Life

What a thrill it was to have the great gray owls around last winter. The largest irruption on record--they were everywhere. (See Great Gray Fever and Great Gray Tragedy)

Photo by Bill Newman

They came south in huge numbers because of a shortage of voles in their usual stomping grounds. They came south to eat our voles.

**Warning: unscientific, anecdotal speculation ahead.**

It has been my observation since coming to Thomasburg that some years there are lots of voles, other years lots of deer mice. Voles are bigger than deer mice--more bite-sized for something as big as a great gray. So, I wonder, do voles displace deer mice? Yes, I answer (heed warning above).

How has the great gray ruined my life? It started back in August (the occasion of the post Outside In), when a deer mouse ran across my bed as the cat and I sat on it watching television very early one morning. The deer mouse, unlike other native species of rodents (unlike voles), has a predilection for living in human-made structures. The mouse back in August was a sign of things to come. Now the house is full of mice--I hear them scurrying in the walls (I can hear one now), I hear them chewing up our stuff, last night I even heard them fighting. The cat caught one in a cupboard a week or so ago. I took it from her and evicted it (she wasn't quick to kill, and I didn't want her to lose it again in the house): it was back that night. I've cleaned out drawers, patched holes in the back of cupboards, put out poison (I'm sorry to say), and still I dread bedtime when the cat and I will once again be unable to sleep for the racket. (I think the cat might be enjoying the situation.)

So I blame the owl, for taking the voles, for creating the surge in the mouse population, driving intolerable numbers into the house. I blame the owl, but I could forgive if only the owl would return, and learn to love deer mice.

Submitted to the Modulator's Friday Ark

Circus of the Spineless

Circus of the Spineless #3 is up at Urban Dragon Hunters, for the discerning shopper.

Circus of the Spineless is a carnival of blog posts about invertebrates. For those of us sliding into the dark and cold of winter, a time when the only living invertebrates we see are house spiders (what on earth are they finding to eat?), there is nothing like curling up in front of the computer and perusing the best in stories and pictures of the spineless the blogosphere has to offer. Check it out!

Friday, November 25, 2005

Infesting the Ark

PZ Myers of Pharyngula suggests that Modulator's Friday ark has a deficiency of invertebrates. Here in Thomasburg there are few examples around this time of year (though every time the temperature hits 10C, as it's expected to this Monday, there are little moths flitting about), but there are some that stay indoors with us.

I was working away at the computer one day, noticing a tiny movement on the lampshade beside me. A critter less than an eighth of an inch across was attempting to scramble up the shiny surface.

What big eyes you have!

Submitted to the Modulator's Friday Ark

Off topic: Tony G's Film Challenge

Tony at milkriverblog issued the following challenge:
Post on your site a movie that you consider among the best you've ever seen, but that you think far too few people know about. it's kind of an obscure film meme.
When I lived in Toronto, many years ago now, I saw many, many movies: current, revue, trash, high art....too many from those days to pick from. So I am going to go with a recent Canadian documentary film, one that received quite a lot of notice, and numerous awards, but may not be as widely known still as it should be: The Corporation

This is arguably a political film from a particular point of view. But it is also an exquisitely put together film--the artistry of which I think anyone who enjoys documentary filmmaking would appreciate. It tells the history of the modern corporation, its development into a quasi person, its character. Very interesting, many points of view expressed, and a beautiful piece of work.

Take up the challenge. Name a film, and let Tony know.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

I and the Bird #11--At the House!

I and the Bird #11: Where in the World?, the latest edition of the bird bloggers' carnival, is now up at The House and other Arctic Musings. Travel the world, from the far north to the far south. Birds seen, bird science, bird stories, this edition has it all.

Check it out.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Guinea Fowl in Winter

If you read the post First Count, and you've been following the saga, you may have noticed that there is just one Guinea fowl chick now. But it's gotten quite big, runs very fast, and flies pretty well. At least, well enough to escape to a tree branch if something goes wrong on the ground.

Sunday afternoon something did go wrong. A big black-and-white cat that's been visiting the yard lately apparently made a play for the chick. I heard the hen screaming from inside the house, and when I went out the cat ran off, the hen was nowhere to be seen, and the chick was on a fairly high branch of a Manitoba maple at the edge of the yard. A little later I did see the hen, but she seemed to be heading in the wrong direction for finding the chick. I didn't see a reunion, and didn't see the pair all day Monday, so I worried that the chick was on its own, and still too young to cope. This morning they both showed up--looking none the worse for wear.

Photo from the weekend, just to give a sense of the current size of the chick.

Because these birds visit the yard so often they are seen by most people who visit the house. As a result we've been hearing lots of Guinea-fowl lore.

Guinea fowl are a good addition to the chicken yard because they scream when there's trouble, and because they watch the sky for hawks. Guinea fowl are bad in traffic, tend to get hit by cars. Guinea fowl are prone to go walkabout. One person told of getting a pair of these birds, opening the hen house door, and watching them fly away, never to be seen again.

It's the walkabout trait that interests me. This is a popular bird among hobby farmers. It also enjoyed some vogue as a defence against deer ticks in areas where Lyme's disease is a problem. So there have been lots around in Ontario and the American northeast. And yet, as far as I can tell, there is no wild (feral) population in my region. The BC coast does seem to be home to feral flocks, and there are rumours of flocks in Nova Scotia, but both have milder climates than we do here.

So I don't believe that my friends will succeed in establishing a wild population here. And I don't think the hen will lead the chick back to her original home for the winter. There's been fierce enough weather already that if that seemed like a good idea to her she'd have already done it. Some breeder information I've seen suggests that to raise these birds the best thing to do is take the chicks to be raised by a bird of another species, since the Guinea fowl is a wanderer. I like the idea that this hen is living the kind of life she prefers, however it turns out.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Birding Gear Big Board

Well he's done it again. Mike of 10,000 Birds, creator of I and the Bird, in his ongoing quest to improve the lives of birders everywhere, in collaboration with Charlie of Charlie's Bird Blog, has come up with:
The "Birding Gear Big Board" - an online repository of reviews and opinions on the gear, the guides, the videos and DVDs, the holidays, and the birding gifts that every single one of us plan to use, do use - or will never, ever use again and wouldn't want anyone else we know to use either. Reviews and opinions moreover written by bloggers you've been reading (or should have been) for months! Bloggers you know.

Who are those bloggers? Mike and Charlie of course, and Nuthatch from Bootstrap Analysis, and me, just for starters....

Check it out!

"The Birding Gear Big Board – reviews of birding books, optics, and gear by bloggers you trust!"

Sunday, November 20, 2005

First Count

This past weekend was our first two-day count period for FeederWatch-and what a count it was! In fact, we had the highest number of species we've ever had on a first period count, and unless you exclude the Guinea fowl, the number of species, 17, is matched only by a last count period in early April a few years ago, when the list of species included a number of returning migrants. Excluding the Guinea fowl, as we must, actually, the count is our second highest on record.

I don't know what they'll think of our inclusion of these two in the count.

I was particularly pleased to see the pine siskins.

Pine siskins!

But it was also a treat to finally see the flock of evening grosbeaks on the ground, 9 in total.

Today was the first day the evening grosbeak flock landed to feed.
And they did it on a count day!

And the dark-eyed juncos are still here! We don't usually see them around for long in the numbers we've had over the last few weeks. And didn't one of the resident cardinals make a rare early appearance.

Here, a table of first count results going back to 1999.

The way the count works is that over two days every two weeks counters monitor the feeders and record the highest number of each species seen at one time over the period.

The bluejays concentrate on loading up on food to store.

Chickadees take more away than they eat too.
But at least they just take one seed at a time.

This house sparrow has been hanging around all by himself.
Unusual for this species.

This tree sparrow was also the only one of his kind to come to the feeders this weekend. I saw a flock of 15 or 20 in the far field Sunday morning. Maybe when there's a real snow cover they'll turn up in the yard.

All in all, an auspicious weekend. Sure, evening grosbeaks and pine siskins have dropped by, only to leave again, before. But I'm thinking that this is going to be one excellent year.

Here's another guest who's using the feeder to stock up for the winter.

I and the Bird #11--Deadline Approaching

I and the Bird #11 will be presented by The House & other Arctic Musings on Wednesday, November 23, a day earlier than usual in honour of American Thanksgiving. Send submissions to Clare, at The House, or Mike at I and the Bird, by early in the day Tuesday at the latest, and make this the greatest edition yet!!

For more information about I and the Bird, the bird blogging carnival, go to I and the Bird.

And I'm Walking...

Finally, we're done shooting deer for another year. So this morning I was back out in the fields again. A light frost coated everything, but green is still common. The mud on the scrape froze last night--I was leaving tracks this morning, breaking through the thin crust, and there were fresh deer tracks as well, a survivor of the season, but other tracks were old, blurred and indistinct. Except for these, from the new mini-scrape in the far field.


The tracks going the other way at the top left are rabbit tracks. The main set of tracks are small, and roundish. They weren't clear enough for an accurate count of nail marks, and the whole path didn't print, so the pattern isn't all there, but I hope that these are fisher tracks. The possible pattern is something of a match, and the size is right. I'll keep my eyes open for tracks on a better printing day.

Now I can see them!

The great thing about leaves is that they hide nests. It has been my observation, mentioned on the blog before, that if I can see a nest, that nesting will fail. The exceptions to this are the nestings in the bluebird boxes in the yard, starlings and house sparrows in cavities, and the time a robin nested in the patio. So, generally, while I like to see a nest, I'm just as glad when I can't. But now, there's nowhere to hide!

Bigger than a chickadee nest, but not all that much. I'd guess from the location, the far field, that this was one of the sparrows' nests.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Unidentified Blackbird

I mentioned in my last post that there is a blackbird of some kind hanging out in the yard. It's still here, and I've had some better looks, so am almost ready to hazard a guess. Part of the difficulty is that it is not in good shape--so its behaviour is that of the sickly bird in general. It can't fly very far or fast. It is very nervous, and flies into a big spruce near the feeders whenever it sees or hears me. It also spends a lot of time there, on the ground or in the lower branches. Part (or all) of its problem is that its missing some tail feathers--inappropriate moult due to illness? or perhaps as a result of a run-in with a predator? The missing tail feathers are also part of my problem.

I don't think this is a common grackle, not big enough, wrong tail, but the actual shape of the tail is obscured by the missing feathers. I know that it is not a red-winged blackbird, a brown-headed cowbird, or a European starling, but these, along with the common grackle are all the blackbirds I know. There are two others that might turn up around here: the rusty blackbird and the Brewer's blackbird.

According to Sibley's maps, a Brewer's is a rarity in these parts, and the rusty blackbird is only a migrant here. On the other hand, a rusty blackbird has a very distinctive, non-black non-breeding plumage, and this bird is definitely black.

The bird is black, with an iridescent blue head, and yellow irises. At this time of the year, then, it is likely either a common grackle (and my intuition is off), or the more rare Brewer's blackbird.

This particular bird, I should note, is the only blackbird here now. Although the maps show the common grackle as a year-round resident not far south of here, it certainly hasn't been one in Thomasburg. The red-winged blackbirds were the last to go, just a week or so ago, and are the first to arrive back in the spring. European starlings hang around in urban areas all year, but we don't generally see them here in the winter.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

There Could be Crossbills

Ever since I started hearing about the possible and actual irruptions of birds from the north, one group of birds has been on my mind: the crossbills. These are crazy looking, predominantly seed eating birds that have specially adapted bills that, as the name suggests, cross. I've never seen one, and I have tended to think that they were the stuff of imagination. But they are actually not uncommon birds to the north of me. They are regulars in Algonquin Park, for example, not all that far away.

This weekend, Terry Sprague pointed out that white-winged crossbills have already been seen at some Ottawa area feeders, and may be on their way here!!

Red polls may come late in the in the winter, as they often do. But pine siskins are in the area now. I haven't seen any here, and Terry says these birds are somewhat unreliable, prone to continuing south instead of spending the winter with us, but I remain hopeful.

The evening grosbeaks are still around--only occasionally deigning to accept my offerings, but if they stay that will change once the snow is on the ground. Tree sparrows are in the area, but only rarely coming to the feeders--again, snow will likely bring them in. Meantime the feeders are getting steady business from chickadees, goldfinches, nuthatches (white-breasted and red), downy and hairy woodpeckers, blue jays, a stray unidentified blackbird, and the occasional mourning dove.

And it's a good thing there's so much to see in the yard--I've been stuck home for a week in honour of the gun season for white-tailed deer, and the rest of this week to go. Every morning we are treated to a volley of gunfire between 7 and 8 a.m.--reminding me that discretion is the better part of valour.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Grosbeak Has Landed

This morning. First a single female evening grosbeak calling from near the top of the maple tree by the house, where the feeders are. I thought I heard a reply from down the street. A few minutes later I saw a male feeding on the ground (where'd I'd just thrown some black oil sunflower seeds) under the tree.

If they stick, more, and pictures too I hope, later.

As luck would have it, they timed their visit to coincide with the first day of the FeederWatch season.

From November 9th's News from Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Project FeederWatch Begins This Week!
Project FeederWatch begins November 12! Participants this year will enjoy improvements to the Data Entry web pages, new paper data forms, and an electronic newsletter. The FeederWatch team has also streamlined the summary page, making it easier to see current and past data. All participants are welcome, so sign up today! To sign up in the U.S. click here or call the Lab toll-free at (800) 843-2473. In Canada visit Bird Studies Canada online or call (888) 448-2473.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

I and the Bird #10: What, Who & Where

Welcome to the 10th edition of I and the Bird, the blog carnival of birds and birding. This edition offers a fine selection from the blogosphere, celebrating the diversity of the bird species around the globe, and considering the questions that birders everywhere ask.

What's that Bird?

There are identification problems that seem intractable to beginning birders. Telling one gull species from another ranks right up there for me. But this instructive post on the differences between the Thayer's gull and the herring gull from Mike's Soap Box shows us the way.

Hawk? But what kind? Pascal of Research at a snail's pace writes about the sharp-shinned hawk, and how its appearance changes as it matures in Sharp-Shinned Hawk Age Coloration.

Could it be a Cooper's? Sometimes a nice big beautiful raptor lands right on the windowsill. And some of those times someone has a camera ready. It happened to Signor Ferrari of The Blue Parrot, and he posted the picture in his Friday Critter Blogging.

Knowing Birds
Knowing one bird from another can come like an epiphany. Mike at 10,000 Birds writes about a subject near and dear to my heart, knowing sparrows, in Seeing Birds Better. My own small offering, The Jizz, is about seeing shrikes better.

Who's That Bird?

But there's more to it than just knowing what. Holistic Birding Revisited, a post I came across at the Blurry-eyed Birder, reminds us that a bird is more than a collection of field marks, as these next posts demonstrate. Cindy of Woodsong writes about the talented chickadee in her beautifully illustrated Bird Brains. From Bird TLC, a story about Beauty, an eagle who transcends difficult circumstances and maintains her eagle essence in Good overrides evil. From Birdchick Blog, Subject Line, a look at a book from the 60's about bird feeding, and some strange notions indeed--a reminder of some things birds are not.

Where's that Bird?

Knowing who and what birds are sometimes helps us know where they are--sometimes not. Usually luck is involved too.

First Times
Common or rare, there's a first time for everyone. Gwyn of Bird Brained Stories, praises the birding gods, and the birder network, for her first American Avocet. On an unseasonably warm day TroutGrrrl of Science and Sarcasm spots her first fox sparrow. And Night of the Kingfisher submitted this story, The Luck of the Duck, or Serendipitous Birding, of going out not expecting much, and ending up with three additions to his life list.

Over at Aurora Borealis I found this tale of a bird turning up exactly when it was wanted. Duncan of Ben Cruachan Blog goes out to find a particular bird, never finds it, but ends up having a A Grand Day Out all the same. (Note the new link for Ben Cruachan Blog--technical difficulties forced a move, which may be permanent--watch for developments.) I found this story at The City Birder and included it because it tells a tale a lot of birders can relate to. My Nemesis Bird is about that one bird that always shows up where the birder has been but never where he is.

Urban Birds
The hustle and bustle of city life can blind urbanites to the natural world around them--but there are birds there too, as the next series of posts demonstrates.

A young birder from the Bird Ecology Study Group in Singapore writes about the sunbirds that visit both his grandfathers' gardens. GrrlScientist's Birds in the News sent me to this site, devoted to the marvelous monk parrots of Brooklyn. Birding is not a Crime reports on some excellent birding in a new park, on the site of an old airport. Search and Serendipity also finds great birding in an unlikely spot, and some mammaling too! From A DC Birding Blog comes another kind of urban birding story: Birds at the National Gallery--enjoying an exhibit of the incredible work of Audubon.

Birds on the Move
From Crows Really are Wise, a migration stopover I'd never considered: a drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico turns into a birder's paradise during the spring migration, in Birds and Offshore Oil Platforms. Bill of the Birds, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, sends this report from the Big Sit--a marathon of migration watching that takes place in Ohio. Here's a link to a page on the Bird Watcher's Digest site that describes how the event works. Nuthatch of Bootstrap Analysis reports on the chickadee invasion!, the current irruption of these guys, and about what's it's like to band them--they aren't the sweeties you might think. Tony G sends this migration story, American Kestrels are Back for the Winter Months, from The Nature Writers of Texas.

Homebody Birds
Clare at The House and Other Arctic Musings celebrates Aqiggiq (the ptarmigan), one of the few species that will spend the winter with him in Arctic Bay. And Charlie of Charlie's Bird Blog enjoys a day with the resident birds of Denver and one strange looking fox, in late October.

Bird Losses--Bird Gains
These last two are stories about where birds are back and where they may soon be gone. From Sphere, Tom Andersen on the Long Island Sound writes about the Piping Plover Lovers, concern for the precarious position this bird finds itself in, and an investigation into the controversy over how to pronounce plover. Finally, on a happier note, this post from Sand Creek Almanac, celebrating the Return of the Bald Eagle.

Thanks to Mike for trusting me with his carnival, to TonyG for his help, and to all of the contributors, without whom......

I and the Bird #11, November 24 November 23 (early in honour of American Thanksgiving), will be hosted by The House and Other Arctic Musings. Send
your submissions to Clare or Mike (father of I and the Bird) by early November 22.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Deadline Today!!

Get your submissions in today
IATB 10 on the 10th

Many great posts are already in--but I know that there are more out there crying out to be included in this, the 10th, edition of I and the Bird. Send the link to the bird or birding post you want to submit, along with a brief description, to me, today!

And check back here on Thursday, November 10, for the 10th Edition of I and the Bird.

I Worried for Nothing

This morning the hen and chicks were back, under the maple tree, scratching up stuff, as if nothing had ever happened. Still two chicks, and all three have come through the storms of Sunday and the further rains of last night apparently warm and dry.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Tough Gig

I started writing this post many days ago--somehow it never went quite right, and every time I saved a draft to return to the next day the story changed.

The original title was "Guinea Fowl Family Update," but I thought better of it. Too neutral. A later title, "And then There Were Two," but I'm not sure anymore. Yesterday we had some pretty amazing weather here, thunderstorms, high winds, near twisters described to the east, and this morning, for the first time in about two weeks, no Guinea fowl came to the yard.

So I settled on "Tough Gig," in reference to the first post about the family, Exotic Chicks, wherein I say, "Tough gig, mothering precocial chicks."

The Guinea hen, chicks in tow, has been visiting the yard every day (until today), sometimes three or four times, to feed under the bird feeders, probably on spilled sunflower seeds. I hadn't seen her for a little while, then she showed up about two weeks ago with five chicks in tow; the next day, four; the day after, three. She held at three for about four days, and then there were two. On October 16 (the occasion of this post) I counted ten.

Watchful Mom

I'm getting pretty attached to this mother Guinea fowl. She is very serious, and works hard to keep the chicks together and safe. Every few moments, when they are out from under cover, she turns her head sideways and scans the sky for trouble. Under the tree, she takes a break from eating every few minutes to scan the area. She calls the chicks together when it's time to move, and if one gets separated she will keep on coming back to find it until everyone is together again. I know that she was not meant to raise all the chicks she hatched, but as they get bigger, and I get to know her better, it's sad to see the family reduced.

At the first sign of thunder and lightning yesterday the hen, who had been under the tree as usual, took her chicks into the big lilac where I first met them. The leaves are off the lilac now, so it's not the great cover it used to be. After a few minutes she took them away--I hope to the young pines or spruce up in the first field, which provide very good cover. I haven't seen them since.

Friday, November 04, 2005

I and the Bird #10 -- On November 10

It's coming real Thomasburg Walks!

If you blog about birds and birding--even if you've just written one post about wild birds--consider submitting it to the carnival, today. Send me an e-mail with a brief description of, and link to your post.

I and the Bird #10 will be up on November 10. Submission deadline: Tuesday, November 8. For more details about the carnival, or for links to previous editions, go to I and the Bird.

Return of the Fox

The red fox has a distinctive track, if it will just step into the right medium. According to Olaus J. Murie's A Field Guide to Animal Tracks: "The heel pad has a transverse raised bar protruding from the hair of the foot."

Fox tracks are clearly canid tracks, and differ from coyote tracks very slightly in size, shape, and gait (trail tends to be narrower). Their scat can be quite unlike coyote scat, both in size and shape. So if I find a canid trail, with just the right scat I can identify it as fox. Normally, it's very hard to be sure.

But every now and then I find a track that shows the bar on the heel pad--by every now and then, of course, I mean I've observed this 3 times, or roughly 1 time out of 100 track observations. This morning was one of those times!


I haven't seen any clear fox sign since last winter (See, especially, On the Trail of the Fox)--I've missed them.

Submitted to The Friday Ark

Thursday, November 03, 2005

A Really Big Buteo

Yesterday I was down in Prince Edward County, at a place near Milford, where I've posted from before, and where I go about once a week (small, regular gig). The house is at the road, and the property drops fairly sharply away down to the shore of Lake Ontario (South Bay). You can stand at the edge of the drop-off and look into a small hardwood stand, eye-level at 10 or 15 metres above the forest floor. I was standing there yesterday when an enormous buteo swooped by, avoiding the trees with delicate precision, to land on a branch not 10 metres from me.

Clearly this was no red-tailed hawk--the neatly banded tail and the look of the bird made that plain. But what was it? Again I was face to face with my dismal knowledge of the raptors. Two factors came to the rescue: a clearly banded tail, and a gray squirrel flattened against the trunk of the same tree. The three of us held position for a good few moments. The squirrel watched the hawk, the hawk glanced back and forth between the squirrel and me, and I watched both of them, wondering if the hawk would take the squirrel. Eventually it decided against it--I don't know if it was my disturbing presence or the position of the squirrel that turned the trick--and flew out of sight.

The banded tail narrowed the choices for identification to the broad-winged hawk and the red-shouldered hawk. This is where the squirrel comes in. The bands of the two species are quite different, but immature individuals show banding that muddies this water. The size difference though is significant. The broad-winged hawk is a significantly smaller buteo, the red-shouldered hawk is a big brute of a bird--approaching the size of the red-tailed hawk. This bird not only appeared very large to me (a sense that I find varies according to the last birds I've seen--in this case chickadees), but it was also very large compared to the squirrel. A red-shouldered hawk--first I've identified.

The red-shouldered hawk is a species at risk. (Here's a link to BSC's red-shouldered hawk survey project) It lives in mature mixed forest (hence the amazing ability to fly that big body between branches), habitat that has declined due to harvesting of the forests and development of the land for agriculture. But it is certainly not unknown around here. Here is a link to the Ontario Breeding Atlas map of this bird's breeding status in the province--lots of confirmed breeders in south-eastern Ontario. In fact a breeding pair was identified (unfortunately not by me) in my atlas square, in Vanderwater Conservation Area, just a few kilometres from the hamlet. It's not confirmed as a breeder anywhere in Prince Edward County--but it is recorded as a migrant by the Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory. And there may be more to come--this bird tends to travel late.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Jizz

I was out in the yard this morning to split some kindling before the rain started again and resoaked the wood when I heard a call I didn't know, loud and insistent, reminiscent of the call of a great-crested flycatcher, but that was neither likely nor quite right, and coming from the fields just beyond the fence line. I walked up--fortunately wearing my glasses (I'm just a little near-sighted, don't really need glasses to split kindling), but no binoculars. There was a largish bird (blue-jay size) at the top of a tree, calling, and turning as I walked over so that I couldn't see the back of it. Look as I might, I couldn't make out much of anything against the grey sky. So, sure that this was something interesting, I took the chance it would stay and walked back to the house for the binoculars.

It did stay! When I got back for a better (magnified) look I could soon see that it was a shrike. This was a possibility that had crossed my mind because of its general size and shape, and I was pleased to realize it. But since it's only the first of November, a little unnerved too. There are two shrikes possible here, but unlikely to be here at the same time: the northern shrike and the loggerhead shrike. The loggerhead is a species at risk--a breeding pair was found in my Atlas square, just down the highway a kilometre or so (not by me), so I know that it is possible I might see one. This is a little later than I'd expect to though, but not by all that much, I guess. I see northern shrikes every year, just once or twice, and usually in late winter or early spring. They don't breed here, but might hang out here for the winter. Because of the status of the loggerhead, I feel the identification of a shrike is a weighty matter, hence unnerving. (Here's a link to an Ontario Field Ornithologists' page on this identification.)

Reading the field guides, checking the other resources, it is clear that distinguishing these two birds is no picnic. One's bigger than the other--great, if you've got one in each hand. The black bar through the eyes is a little differently shaped in the two species--oh, with some overlap. In the past I've thought it was a hopeless task to distinguish between these two in the field. And I've never been certain of shrikes I've seen late enough in the spring that it might have been either. But today, looking first at the bird, then at the pictures in Sibley, it was clear as day to me that the bird I saw was a northern shrike. Why? Well, what I would say if pressed is that it was the size and shape of the beak--but really it was the jizz. I could see the whole bird, not just the field marks I tried to focus on, and even though I've probably never seen a loggerhead shrike, certainly not that I knew, I knew that this bird was my old friend the northern.

Now maybe if I see a Loggerhead next year, I'll know it too.

Monday, October 31, 2005

A Sunny Day at the End of October

Yesterday there were ladybugs everywhere--every description, landing on every warm spot, including me, all over the yard and the outside of the house. First time this year I've seen them in any numbers. Were they here in anticipation of the Second Edition of the Circus of the Spineless?

Just a few lazy wasps around. This one doesn't seem to be bothering the ladybug any.

Last edition of Circus of the Spineless I submitted a couple of posts, and Tony G nominated a couple more. So yesterday the Circus was on my mind, although I am only an incidental spineless writer and photographer.

This month's edition is up today at Snail's Tales. It's a veritable feast of the spineless: from a choice of appetizers, including box elder bugs served on passion vine leaves, to a fine selection of desserts, including spider jello flavoured with staghorn sumac. Have a taste of everything--it all sounds delicious!

Friday, October 28, 2005

Hermit Thrush

Very mixed day yesterday--first sun we've seen here in several days with dark clouds rolling through, periodically dumping a little more rain. We had some frost last week, enough to kill off the tenderest of the garden plants (morning glories and dahlias, in particular), and it's rained ever since.

Morning Glories, not so glorious after a touch of frost.

Others survive the night.

Out in the cedar bush I heard a gentle call, and finally located the source. Thrush. I like thrushes because they look so thrush-like. I don't see enough of them often enough that I always know which one I'm seeing, but for thrushes I do have some idea of which fieldmarks will come into play. There are hard cases, but I was pretty sure that this was not one of those, and I thought it was probably one I'd seen before. Turned out it was a hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) is a nice clearly marked little bird. White belly, good strong clear spots on the breast, dark markings under the chin. The bird I saw was not only calling, it was also dropping its wings and flicking its tail. I don't know what that was all about, but I did happen by Ben Cruachan Blog where I found a link to an Icelandic Birding Diary. As luck would have it, there was an illustrated report of a hermit thrush--the photo there (much better than mine) also shows a bird with dropped wings. The bird was seen in Iceland around the middle of October. I wonder where it was going.

The thrush: you might just make it out.

After I'd been in the bush a while, I circled back to leave close to where I'd come in, and where I'd seen the thrush.

Mushrooms under cedar

I saw it again, and this time there was a robin in the same tree, also calling. A while ago I read about a mixed flock of thrushes (robins, and a veery and Swainson's) at A DC Birding Blog, something I've never seen. What I saw yesterday looked like a robin who'd broken away from its flockmates (I could hear them further out in the field) to gently harass this thrush. I don't speak robin fluently, it seemed gentle to me, but whatever was going on was enough to keep the thrush on its toes, and slowly moving away from the robin.

I reported the hermit thrush to Terry Sprague last night--just missing the deadline for this week's bird report (I must remember: 6:00 p.m. Thursday). But, he wrote, the thrush was interesting enough that he would include it in next week's report. Late migrant perhaps? I'm not sure. I know that it's a breeding bird in the area, at least in the northern reaches of Quinte (i.e., Municipality of Tweed). Even though I had to consult a field guide to identify the thrush, I am pretty sure that this is the same species as the thrush I saw one day (fall or spring--I can't remember) sitting on a big rock in the backyard. Atlassing has taught me to keep notes, but has also inclined me to focus on recording breeding evidence. My notes of other kinds of observations are sketchy at best. There is nothing about the earlier thrush in my notebook, and nothing in the weather journal (where some bird sightings are kept--mostly the spring firsts). Oh well, this one has been recorded now.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

I and the Bird #9

It's here, the 9th edition of I and the Bird is up at Living the Scientific Life. In spite of hardships, both virtual and material, GrrlScientist has put together another wonderful collection of blog posts of the birding kind.

This edition is what you might call "bipolar." Included among the posts are stories from Anchorage, Alaska and Arctic Bay, Nunavut, as well as a fantastic emperor penguin post from Antarctica, and everything in between. Check it out!

Next edition, I and the Bird #10, will be hosted here at Thomasburg Walks on November 10. Send your submissions to me or Mike at I and the Bird central by November 8.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Little Brown Birds--Part 3

Will it never end?

This summer I made an attempt to organize my knowledge of sparrows (in my brain)--really learn the ones I knew, and begin to learn the ones I know are common here but am not familiar with. As I endeavoured to do this, I realized that I wasn't entirely sure which sparrows are common in my area, so I set about to learn that too.

(I talk about some of this process in a couple of posts: Little Brown Birds and Little Brown Birds--Part 2.) By the end of the breeding season I was deep in a little-brown-bird muddle.

But it didn't stop there. Mike at 10,000 Birds recently posted an appeal for help in identifying a bird he thought was either a song sparrow or a Lincoln's sparrow. I was game. The picture he had taken didn't quite look like a song sparrow to me, so I investigated the Lincoln's sparrow, a bird I don't know. I took the investigation too far and discovered that the Lincoln's sparrow is recorded as a breeding bird in many squares in my Breeding Bird Atlas region, including two just one square away from my square, 18UQ11 (i.e., 10 km), to the north (here's a link to the Lincoln's sparrow data in my region). Seems possible it was a breeding bird in my square too. But that boat has sailed--the breeding season is over and so is data collection for this particular Atlas.

A few days ago I saw my first tree sparrow of the season (see Feeder Birds). The tree sparrow is an easy sparrow to identify--rusty cap, mark in the centre of the breast, and big, like the northern breeding sparrows tend to be. I've heard that a number have been seen to the south of me, moving south over the last 10 days or so. I haven't seen one again here since that day, so I think that bird was just passing through. Later some are bound to come that will hang around for the winter, as they do every year. I've been keeping an eye out for them ever since I saw that first one.

Then today I glanced out the front door and see a group of juncos feeding on the seeds of some weeds that grew up between the paving stones of the front walk, in the company of a big sparrow. Tree sparrow, I hope. No. So what is it?

The other big sparrows I see in the spring and fall are the white-crowned and the white-throated. I think of both of these as "flashy" sparrows, not just little brown birds. The white-crowned has a quite striking black-and-white-striped head; the white-throated, a white throat, and heavy white eyebrow. This is not what the big sparrow hanging around with the juncos looks like. (I saw it a number of times throughout the day.) It has something of the look of a white-throated sparrow, but no white eyebrow, and not much flash. However according to Sibley's guide, "adults range from drab (tan-striped) to bright (white-striped) regardless of sex and age." And thus the white-throated sparrow enters the ranks of the little brown birds.

My only hope is that this muddle of sparrows will settle itself into some sort of order in my brain over the winter, and by spring I'll actually be able to at least separate the ones I know from the ones I don't.