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.