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!