Thursday, September 29, 2005

By Their Feet You Shall Know Them

Last week I posted some tracks I had found (Intractable Tracks). Although claws showed very clearly in the prints, I determined that they were cat, domestic cat. Then the day before yesterday I found the tracks below.

No claws, and yet dog. In fact, very nice, big coyote front foot print. Notice the shape of the heel pad, and the openness of the foot. The trail left was not particularly coyote-ish, front and back feet printing separately, but typical of a coyote ambling along. Big? The tracks were about 3 inches long. Coyotes around here can be very big--unlike the coyotes represented in most of your basic track field guides. Can I ever be sure that a canid print is not a domestic dog print? No--dogs come in every shape and size. What I like best is to find tracks, follow them along until I find a scat, or a kill site, or something else to add to the evidence. When the scat is composed of apple or mouse hair, I assume coyote. When it is kibble, I assume dog. But it's easy to imagine situations where this will trip me up. Coyote steals kibble or dog with a fondness for apples or mice.

There are also a couple of generalizations I rely on (tentatively). There is a dog that sometimes runs loose where I walk, and I have observed that she will follow my tracks exactly (need snow for this). I have also observed tracks (again in snow) that showed an animal hesitating even to cross a trail left by me.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

I and the Bird #7

The tradition continues: I and the Bird #7 is up at the home of its host, The Bird Treatment and Learning Center, in Alaska. Grab a cup of coffee with Dave and travel through another great collection of bird and birding stories from the United States, Canada, Australia and Korea.

Confusing Fall Warblers

It really is my first year trying to get a real look at these guys--and confusing they are too. In A Breezy, Birdy Morning I confidently assert that I saw a magnolia warbler, and then confess to seeing a couple of warblers with a flock of ruby-crowned kinglets that I couldn't identify. By the time I finished posting about it for the second time (How Do They Do That?), with the photo-shopped image of the unknown warbler, I had begun to doubt my identification of the magnolia!

This morning, a much better day for finding birds--sunny (until the fog rolled in) and relatively still--I started out by trying to identify a large group of warblers in the yard, and the yard next door. They, or some of them, had a fairly harsh chip of a contact call that filled the air. They were gleaning and flycatching in the tops of the trees, and lower in the shrubs and lilacs. I managed to get a fix on three or four of them at various times, though they were all moving around pretty fast, in and out of foliage. What was obvious was that there was more than one species in the group. Though every one I got a look at had some kind of yellow on it somewhere, and no one seemed to be what one might call green, all were more to the brown than the grey, I think. Every one had a white wing bar or two--on one I noted a fairly heavy slash of white. One had a totally clear yellow breast. So what were they? I am inclined to think that they were a mixed flock of yellow-rumped warblers and magnolia warblers, but I could hardly say why.

I think that I was confident about the earlier magnolia because I saw it where I saw magnolias in breeding plumage in the breeding season, i.e., in the context that I knew them in. I think it's like this: I know a chickadee anywhere I see it because I know the chickadee like I know my brothers. But the birds that are newer to me I know like I know the cashier at the grocery store. I recognize her there, but if I see her shopping at the lumber yard I have enormous difficulty placing her.

I left the confusing warblers and walked out towards the cedar bush. I could hear lots of birds, and when I got to the spot where I saw kinglets last week, there were kinglets! This time, no warblers with them, and no chickadees following me. And this time it was a mixed flock of ten or fifteen ruby-crowned and golden-crowned! How do I know? I don't get to see kinglets all that often, but they are unmistakable in size, form, and behaviour, and there are only two kinds around here (or anywhere?). The two are easy to tell apart, even without the golden and ruby crowns. This group included some crowned individuals of each species.

The place is a copse of willows, shadowed by poplars, at the edge of the swamp around the cedar bush. It's always a likely spot for birds, and I guess it's an attractive spot for kinglets to stop for a snack and a break on their journey.

I continued on mine, and with the kinglets in my head, everything else I saw looked huge. I stared at a cedar waxwing in the top of a tree for many minutes before I could identify it--it just looked so big. Just imagine how the 30 boisterous robins looked, or the gang of flickers. Even the song sparrow looked big to me today. I was also surprised to see it--there have been none around for weeks--and even more surprised to hear it sing. Like the American redstart of a month ago, this sparrow, instead of singing a single signature song, as song sparrows on territory seem to do, was singing a whole medley of tunes.

Sumac turning

The weather promises to hold for a while--maybe tomorrow I'll find a group of warblers I can identify.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Circus of the Spineless

This blog carnival is devoted to excellent posts and excellent photos of any of those critters that don’t fit in with the backboned critters of the world. We like insects, "bugs," spiders, snails, clams, worms, crayfish, millipedes, and even squid.
Tony G.
The first edition of Circus of the Spineless, a carnival of posts about invertebrates, will be out at milkriverblog on Friday the 30th! There is still time to submit posts for this carnival--deadline midnight, Wednesday, September 28.

Go to the Web site for more information, or send your invertebrate-celebrating posts to Tony at milkriverblog.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Pileated Woodpecker

The ranges of two pairs of pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) meet in the hamlet of Thomasburg, but the habitat of the hamlet istself is not really to their liking, so we hear and see them often in the spring, as they re-establish the boundaries, but not much the rest of the year.

This photo proves the bird was here. For some really good photos of a pileated woodpecker, check out Woodsong's Pileated Gallery.

This morning one swooped in and landed on the newly dead elm by the driveway, a tree that has been a powerful attractant for the more frequent woodpecker visitors, hairy, downy, yellow-bellied sapsucker, all summer. (Click here for another pileated and images of what this woodpecker can do to a tree.)

Another view.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Owl Report

Barred owl, banking in the air, just off the right side of the front of my car as I drove west on the Belleville Road, through the deepening gloom of nightfall. No contact. Big bird.....Amazing sight.

How Do They Do That?

I fooled around with the mystery warbler photo from Friday's post, to try to bring out the features a little better. In the result, below, you can see a pale stripe on the side of the throat--this is what made me think Cape May warbler of the choices I had. The problem though is that the picture now suggests all kinds of yellow on the breast and elsewhere that I don't remember being there. I just remember yellow on the edges on the breast.

On crime shows on TV they can always "enhance" images to read the label on someone's shirt, or sharpen up those facial features out of a grey mass of pixalated mess. I figure maybe with the right tools I could have enhanced this image into any of a number of warblers--but would it stand up in court?

Friday, September 23, 2005

Breezy, Birdy Morning

For the first time in ages I got out at a decent hour this morning and in spite of the less than optimal conditions saw lots of birds. It's a beautiful morning, but too strong a breeze tossed the sound around, rustled the leaves, caused leaves to fall, all making it difficult to locate birds.

A slow start, but interesting: a pair of ravens over the cedar bush, then flew off to the east. Ravens nest in the conservation area just a few kilometres away every year, but are relatively rare visitors to the hamlet. Crows on the other hand are always in the hamlet, and are generally pretty vigilant about defending against ravens. But lately, maybe because breeding is over, I've seen ravens a number of times.

Robins were everywhere in the fields this morning--a large flock of maybe thirty was dispersed over the area, feeding, fighting, and otherwise carrying on. Yesterday I read a post over at A D.C. Birding Blog about a trip to the National Arboretum that described a flock of robins with a few other thrushes mixed in. I looked as best I could, but no such luck here. I did see a couple of flickers though that were either chasing or being chased by robins.

In the scrape, where the seedy weeds grow, there were a number of sparrows, but no identifications.

A lone catbird was heard but never seen in the far field--and it either followed me, or else there was another on the far side. That was where the flock of chickadees picked up my trail. Not sure how many--very active and very noisy--perhaps 8 or 10. They were flitting in and out of the shrubbery all around me; then I noticed that there were other small birds in there as well. Warblers! The only one I had a good look at was a magnolia warbler, probably a male in fall plumage. I kept going along the western edge of the far field, watching for more. Nothing but the robins, but I did flush a small animal in the grass. This was at the exact spot that I flushed something earlier this week. Once again, I didn't see it, but it dashed through the grass for a couple of metres and then I heard no more in both instances. I walked over in the direction it took but didn't flush it a second time. The first time this happened I assumed that it was a rabbit--things so often are--but now I think that it was probably a groundhog, going to ground.

Carrying on back to the cedar bush, the chickadees following, I came upon a mixed flock of warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets. Or rather, a flock of 5 or 6 kinglets with a couple of warblers tagging along. To my surprise, and delight, they all responded to some "pishing" so I was able to get a very good look.

A kinglet--not keen on posing for a portrait.

The golden-crowned kinglet nests here, but the ruby-crowned is a migrant only--so it was very nice to see them. The warblers were another matter--confusing fall warblers indeed. This is when I leave Sibley and go back to Peterson for help. Could they really be Cape May warblers?

There's a bird there--I swear!

The picture is bad--so I don't think that anyone seeing it will be able to help. The Cape May breeds north of here, overlapping with the breeding range of the ruby-crowned kinglet, so they could have started out together. I've never (knowingly) seen a Cape May before, perhaps still haven't, but that's the closest I could find.

Good crop for such a dry year. Not tasty!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Fall's a' Coming

Tomorrow is the first day of fall. Yesterday there was a common yellowthroat in the snowball bush front of the house. There has also been a flock of chickadees around, also spending a good deal of time in that same bush, gleaning I don't know what, when they are not at the newly filled feeders. The hummingbird families left the neighbourhood a couple of weeks ago, but we are still seeing singles coming through, every second day or so.

The asters of the field.

Speaking of singles, aside from the groups of blue jays and chickadees it was all singles in the field last Saturday. A single yellow-bellied sapsucker, a single flicker, a single wren (scolding, what else?) and others, silhouetted against the sky so I couldn't identify them.

Virginia creeper turns red first.

It isn't until this time of the year that I can see just how much Virginia creeper there is around here. The other foliage in the picture is mostly that of the wild grape--which did spectacularly this year, covering almost everything.

Occasional clumps of purple asters accent the white majority.

The Twenty-third Post Meme

Via Pharyngula, my first blog meme:

1. Go into your archive.
2. Find your 23rd post (or closest to).
3. Find the fifth sentence (or closest to).
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.

From March 27, 2005, Great Gray Tragedy:
My friends the Newmans called us the other day to let us know that their son had brought a road-killed great gray over for them to take a look at.
The great gray owl incursion: what a time that was.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Intractable Tracks

Track in soft, sandy soil that has been sifted and piled
for the taking by the topsoil harvesters.

When the birds have mostly gone I start to long for the snow, and this is why. I found these tracks around the edge and little up the pile of sifted topsoil in the field--a handful of individual tracks, no trail, in the soft spots, surrounded by packed dirt too hard to take an impression from a small animal. When it's not frozen, snow doesn't always deliver a readable track, but at least it delivers a trail, which is enormously helpful in the identification of a track. Under good conditions, a trail in the snow tells a whole story. Last winter I got to see the maker of an excellent trail, and was later able to reconstruct the story of the maker's evening: On the Trail of the Fox.

The rule is marked in centimetres.

I think this is the track of Felis catus But look at the claw marks in the print!?! Yes, but this track is all alone (or in one case paired) in very soft soil, walking horizontally on a vertical incline. I think that the claws show because the animal was slipping a little, or feeling in danger of doing so. This may also explain the size of the track--rather large for a domestic cat. On the other hand, I have noticed an enormous range in the sizes of cat tracks. This may be a big-foot cat, perhaps offspring of the biggest-foot cat who used to lurk around here until he made an error on the road last year. He was also a very big cat altogether, but not all big-foot cats are.

The track is very clearly of the four-toed variety, around here generally signifying a member of the cat or dog family. The roundness and placement of the toes relative to the heel pad suggests cat--nothing about the appearance of the track says "dog" to me, in spite of the claws showing. What about Lynx rufus (bobcat)? Too heavy an animal to have left so few tracks in the medium, I think. An assumption that also eliminates Lynx Canadensis (lynx).

The range map at the link I've provided also suggests that one wouldn't find lynx here, but I believe I did find lynx tracks and other spoor a couple of years ago. I'm not sure though. The "other spoor" was very suggestive of wild cat--a patch in the cedar bush covered in shreds of bark, scratch marks on the surrounding tree trunks, and a liberal splashing of urine--but not necessarily lynx. The tracks were not clearly associated with the marking, and were in very deep, soft snow, a medium with problems of its own. But we're close enough here to the southern edge of the range that it's a possibility. But not for the present tracks.

So, domestic cat, I think. But I long for snow....

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Tiger moth caterpillar?

There are so many bugs--so much variety, and so many still left to name, I am always amazed by an identification of anything beyond the very numerous, showy, and or commonplace. My little clearwing problem was cleared up pretty quickly, but then there are only a very few clearwings to choose from. Much more impressive was the identification (at least probable) of a moth over at Science and Sarcasm, by Tony of milkriverblog. In that case, he made the i.d. comparing troutgrrrl's photo of a very pretty living moth to a photo of a faded, dusty specimen in a collection somewhere. Good eyes, Tony! (See troutgrrrl's follow-up here.)

I took this picture of a caterpillar back in August, I had no idea what it is.

Feeding on viper's bugloss in the far field.

Over at What's that Bug, they seem to identify every fuzzy caterpillar as a wooly bear, as a caterpillar of a tiger moth. I've always reserved the name "wooly bear" for the black/brown and orange caterpillars, the common banded wooly bear, adult Isabella tiger moth (family, Arctiidae), that appear all over the place in the fall. Word is, you can predict the severity of the winter to come by the width of the lighter band--if you know which way it goes, i.e., whether a wider orange band means milder or more severe. Sadly, I don't know this.

A view of the caterpillar's head--note the yellow markings.

I searched around with my tiger moth clue, to no avail, until I remembered to check Bev Wigney's gallery, where I found an image of the caterpillar of a Virginian tiger moth. (The great thing about Bev is not only that her photographs are so good, but she takes most of them not too far east of Thomasburg.) I don't see any yellow on her caterpillar, but otherwise it seems very similar to mine--could it be?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

I and the Bird #6

I and the Bird #6 is up at Birdchick Blog today. Another great collection of bird and birding stories, in an intriguing, even titillating presentation.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Morning Glory

The morning glories have been fabulous this year. I finally got around to photographing them--too bad I waited until this shockingly hot day (high 30C, humid, with a smog advisory thrown in for good measure), when they aren't really opening fully before they're done for. But even a touch of frost will finish them, and frost could come any day now.

Just a sample of the profusion...

All the seeds planted this year were saved from last year's plants--we thought there were no heavenly blues--but this week they started to come. Not for the first time, this variety has been very slow to bloom. Some years frost comes first.

Heavenly--but strangely, under the patio roof.

This is a picture of garden coming and going--the scabiosa are nearly done, the morning glories just passing their prime, the anemones are budding.

Great Canadian Blog Survey

Aaron Braaten, M.A. Candidate, Department of Economics, University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta is conducting a survey of Canadian Bloggers and blog readers. See here for more information about what he's up to. Go here to participate in the survey. Help a student out--help reveal the diversity of among Canadian bloggers and their readers.

Great Canadian Blog Survey

Monday, September 12, 2005

Hemaris thysbe

Clearwing moths have visited the garden a number of times since I posted Welcome Clearwing!. (Buddleia, or butterfly bush,is an excellent draw!) And I am now convinced, based on the subsequent sightings, the comments from tony g and troutgrrrl, and a respondent on the Eastern Ontario Nature List, that my visitors are indeed Hemaris thysbe. For lots of moths, including this one, check out The Moths of Canada. Here is their thysbe picture. See troutgrrrl's thysbe, at Science and Sarcasm, here.

It was a cool morning and I caught this moth at rest on a tiger lily.

Clearly a thysbe, and while a different individual than the one in my earlier post, clearly the same species.

A couple more views:

Then warmed up, or sick of being photographed, the clearwing moved on to feed.

"Buddleia, my favourite..."

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Size Matters

Early last spring, one fine cool morning, I was walking up towards the back property line--a row of trees, some living, many dead, and a profusion of wild grape. I paused to see, not ten metres away, a raptor, sitting in clear view on the branch of a dead tree, probably less than 3 metres above the ground. The bird sat for a good long moment, so I could get a good long look, and I had no idea what it was. After the moment it flew away, giving me another nice clear view, and I went back to the house, determined to identify this bird.

My ability to identify raptors is still in infancy. I know a few, some because of lots of sightings, others because of great field marks. I, for example, can identify a mature bald eagle at great distance. I know this bird both by familiarity--I've spent time on BC's west coast where they are now extremely numerous--and of course field marks. We have a few around here, I see one about once a year (click here for my 2005 sighting). I am also pretty good at picking out a red-tailed hawk, a very common bird around here, year round; the American kestrel is also common during the breeding season, and I can usually identify it--good field marks too; merlin, not bad, there are lots of this bird in Edmonton, where I lived for four years, and a few around here; osprey, good field marks; northern harrier, good field marks and I am pretty familiar with this bird too--then there are all those other ones, accipters, buteos, falcons--I might be able to place a bird in its group, but unless I get an awfully good look, with a field guide in my hand, I'm not up to much more.

So, did I identify that bird last spring? Sadly, yes. It was on the list of raptors that I do know--it was a northern harrier. The problem was that it looked so much smaller than a harrier should look that I'd dismissed that as a possibility. Luckily the northern harrier has such good field marks; white bum, easily seen as it flies away; dihedral flight, facial disks, and this was a male with grey plumage, that through a process of elimination I was able to convince myself that I'd judged the size completely wrongly. Why did it look so small to me? No good frame of reference, an odd shape of land, and who knows why else.

I was thinking about this because this is the time of year that I might see many raptors. Thomasburg is not on a flight path where one might see hundreds, but we are close enough that through the early fall one can expect to see at least one migrant raptor everyday. Yesterday, I walked out of the house to see one sitting on a branch of the elm tree by the driveway that died this summer. A nice clear view of a clear white-breasted bird with a banded tail, well-defined bands. And that's all I got--from the sight of it sitting and it flying away. I had no binoculars, so the bands thing is just the impression at a distance.

Juvenile broad-winged hawk (15") fits pretty well--and this is a bird that is common around here. But it might also have been a Swainson's (19") I guess, though they aren't all that common. Then there's the ferruginous (23"), not common at all, in fact a species at risk...and the red-tailed (19") that I know so well actually comes in a wide variety of morphs, some of which have almost white breasts.

Now 15" seems about right for the bird I saw, i.e., bigger than a blue jay, but not all that big--I doubt this could have been a 23" tall bird (forgive the imperial measures--I'm taking it out of Sibley's, and anyway, I'm old enough that I was raised with imperial measures). But then I think of the harrier, 18" high, and how I was sure I was looking at about a 14" bird!

The Canadian Peregrine Foundation has a page here to help with raptor identification. I'll be checking it out--and maybe this coming year will be my "raptor" year--there are so few compared to the warblers, I should be able to get this thing beat.

But here's another predator puzzle--last winter a northern shrike flew into the snowball bush in front of the house and sent all the feeder birds into a tizzy. It took me moments longer than it took them to see that the bird was a shrike--they knew instantly, I thought it was a blue jay at first. I've wondered ever since how it is that these tiny birds (chickadees, goldfinches, house finches, etc.), with their tiny brains, have the ability to recognize the shrike as a predator, when it provides none of the raptor cues.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


Ever since I read Charlie's post about why he is a birder, on Charlie's Bird Blog, and browsed the "Reasons to Become a Bird Watcher " section in the archives on 10,000 Birds, I've thought about writing my own post about why I love to get out there and watch birds. This isn't really it.

But today I read a very satisfying essay in the New Yorker by Jonathan Franzen, "My Bird Problem," (August 8 & 15, 2005) that someone clipped out for me. The essay is about learning to love, dealing with death, what we do to the environment, the hell that is other people, and a love of birding. It did not go unnoticed among the nature bloggers--Rexroth's Daughter at Dharma Bums writes about it here.

Here is one passage from the essay that particularly struck me, where Franzen describes his "proper introduction" to birding, on a walk in the park with two "serious birders."
We started at Belvedere Castle, and right there, on the mulchy ground behind the weather station, we saw a bird shaped like a robin but light-breasted and feathered in russet tones. A veery, the brother-in-law said.

I'd never even heard of veeries. The only birds I'd noticed on my hundreds of walks in the Park were pigeons and sparrows and, from a distance, beyond a battery of telescopes, the nesting red-tailed hawks that had become such overexposed celebrities. It was weird to see a foreign, unfamous veery hopping around in plain sight, five feet away from a busy footpath, on a day when half of Manhattan was sunning in the park. I felt as if, all my life, I'd been mistaken about something important. [emphasis mine]
It's an eerie feeling, an epistemological miracle, when you see a bird for the first time the day after you learn it's prevalent in your region; it's a startling revelation to find that there are 40 different species observable in a morning in your yard in the spring, where you would have guessed 4 or 5 before making the count. Birding shows you something important about the complexity of the world, watching birds grounds you firmly on the earth, in the moment.

Sunday, September 04, 2005


Family crisis kept my attention off the news for a few days during which an incredibly frightening situation developed in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Difficult to understand why rescue efforts have been an added disaster--suggests to me a dangerously fractured society.

Here is a link to's page Mayday Mississippi Delta, a collection of news stories and others from the last few days.

The American Red Cross

See the links provided by Instapundit for other donation options.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Welcome Clearwing!

Just as I was about to give up the clearwing moth for the season, a day or two ago I finally saw the first one this year. I wish I had paid more attention to the field marks of clearwing visitors to the garden in previous years. This one seems bigger than I remember (almost the size of a hummingbird--could that be right?), and a different colour.

I think that this is a snowberry clearwing (Haemorrhagia axillaris*)--less pigment in the wings than some other hummingbird clearwings. What's that Bug? has a long page devoted to clearwing moths including a number of images of the various hummingbird moths, of which the snowberry is one.

*Added later: "Haemorrhagia" may be some wierd variant spelling of Hemaris--I found a site that explained something about the difference between the pronounciation and spelling of this genus name, then lost it again in cyberspace. Additional research has lead me to think that this may actually be Hemaris diffinis--see comments.

Later still: Hemaris thysbe it was. See the post:Hemaris Thysbe

The Search is Over!!

The Single Banded Foot is that of a rock pigeon, and a racer to boot!

Thanks to tony g, Nuthatch, Terry Sprague, members of the Eastern Ontario Nature Listserv, Chris Grooms, Mark Peck (ornithologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto), and finally Dorothy of the Canadian Racing Pigeon Union (CRPU)!

The origin of the bird will never be known--not without the other leg, as I expected. But it turns out, according to Dorothy at the CRPU, that the black band is informative. It is an electronic timing device, of the kind used on racing pigeons.

I learned a lot during this investigation. First, that I don't know much about birds' feet. I grew up in Toronto surrounded by rock pigeons (known until 2003 as "rock doves")and never looked at their feet. I was completely wrong about the kind of bird this was--the strength of the nails, and their curve suggested raptor to me--but the very first responses I got told me how wrong this was. I should have known better, perhaps, from the Gray Owl foot I had the opportunity to study earlier this year. (See Great Gray Tragedy.)

Also the bands I have now learned are bigger than bands that are put on wild birds--again, suggested by the first commenters, tony g and Nuthatch, based on their experiences banding birds. I am now determined to get out to Prince Edward Point in the County to help with the banding next spring.

But maybe the best thing about this whole chapter in my life as a growing birder was experiencing the generosity of the birding community in their willingness to help with this small, weird identification problem.

Thanks again!