Sunday, June 05, 2005

A Family of Killdeers

It has been wonderful collecting data for the Ontario Bird Breeding Atlas the past few years--I've learned much more than I would have otherwise about breeding habits, bird song, and the species in the neighbourhood. But there has also been a down side. The data collection is cumulative over the five years, and the goal is to find the best breeding evidence possible for as many of the birds breeding in your square as you can over that time, and of course, in this part of the world, the breeding period is short and fast. The birds arrive almost all at once, get down to business, and go. The effect of this on a novice like myself is that it feels like there isn't time or attention to enjoy birds that are already "confirmed breeders" in the square.

In 2001, for example, when I scarcely knew a warbler from a vireo, I was walking back in the cedar bush when suddenly a little black and white bird was at my feet, weaving back and forth, wings spread, hissing. It was a black-and-white warbler (I guessed and later confirmed) displaying to distract me/frighten me away from either a nest or recently fledged young. A display such as this one counts as breeding evidence at the highest level--the black-and-white was now a confirmed breeder in the square, and I could forget about it and move on. So for the next few years that's what I did. I gradually learned more about new birds, but only very slowly and incidentally learned more about the birds that got the status of "confirmed breeder" early on. But then fortunately, or unfortunately, my progress in 2002 and 2003 wasn't all that it should've been, so in 2004 I had lots of help in the square. So now, in 2005, the final year for data collection, things are in good shape in 18UQ11, and I'm just looking to fill in some gaps, and to confirm more of my "probable" and "possible" breeders; but I am also trying to relax and enjoy more birds.

The killdeer is another bird that I confirmed as a breeder in the square some time ago. Killdeers nest in open areas, bare patches, gravelly places, etc. In other words, places just like what I call "the scrape," the area in the fields from which topsoil has been taken.

This is a picture of the scrape in winter, at the beginning of a temporary thaw, that I posted back on February 4, 2005. Just imagine this without the snow, and with sparse vegetation on the flat bits, thicker on the mounds of earth.

I confirmed this bird as a breeder in the square on the basis of a display I was treated to one year in the scrape--a bird led me all over the place. I never saw the nest, or any chicks. But this year, this week, there is a pair out there with three chicks, and I've spent a little time each of the last few days trying to balance my desire to see the chicks against the parents' distress at my being around. I don't go to close, I look for a short time, I walk away.

In spite of their habit of breeding in dry fields and gravel, killdeer are counted among the shore birds. The chicks are precocial, meaning that they come out of the egg just about ready to go. Their parents don't need to feed them, but they do brood them, and guard them for the few weeks that they spend earthbound. The chicks are covered with down when they hatch, but this doesn't last long, and when it's shed, as it has been in the case of the chicks out on the scrape today, they are almost identical to their parents, little round miniatures.

The other adventure of yesterday though was not bird-related at all. A few weeks ago I was listening to "chips" in the woods at the far side of the far field, near the old apple tree, when I heard something that sounded like puppies off in the brambly thickets. I listened for a while, but in the mixture of puppies and catbird calls and other birds, I decided that I wasn't hearing any mammal sounds at all, that it was all birds of one kind or another--just not all birds I knew....not unusual. Then yesterday, a little to the south of the same area, while I was engaged in much the same pursuit, I heard the cries again, this time just one voice, from the level of the ground, closer than before, but not close enough that there was any chance of seeing anything. And much too dense for me to get any closer to the sound without incurring severe damage and making a terrible ruckus, so I just listened. Now I am convinced that it was a mammal, and strongly suspect that it was a bear cub....

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