Friday, December 29, 2006

Prince Edward County does not disappoint

I'm down in Prince Edward County for the rest of the year (except for a brief excursion north tomorrow for the Belleville Christmas Bird Count).

As always this place is excellent for birds. But for me, particularly for the Red-bellied Woodpecker, a bird I saw for the first time last year, and which is hanging around the yard every day since I've been down here this time. Beautiful bird, wonderful call, great flight pattern. So like the woodpeckers I know well, and yet different enough to intrigue.

Here's a record of the bird--not good, taken through a window, but satisfying for me to have a photograph of this great bird.

red-bellied woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker at feeder

And here is a link to the range map at Project WildSpace, showing the bird as stopping on the south side of Lake Ontario. No more!! Soon perhaps I'll see it in my Thomasburg yard--what's 75 kilometres to a bird?

All aboard the Friday Ark--Last call for 2006!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

I and the Bird #39

A beautiful holiday edition of I and the Bird, the carnival of the best of recent bird and birder blogging, is up at NaturalVisions. Straight from Sandy Claws, a great collection of posts from all over the world. Check it out!

I and the Bird
I and the Bird #40 will be hosted by Peregrine's Bird Blog, deadline for submisions January 9. See I and the Bird Central for details.

And if you write about invertebrates, get your submisions in today for the next Circus of the Spineless, being hosted by The force that through. See the call for submissions here.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Presqu'ile CBC

Yesterday was the Presqu'ile Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

I guess I'm a floating counter for sure now. When the Belleville compiler (boss of the count) called me this year, he invited me to take part in two counts, Belleville and Presqu'ile. The Presqu'ile count centres in the park, I'm guessing, and the east side of the circle (this part I know) takes in at least part of Trenton (aka Quinte West), a town on the shores of Lake Ontario immediately to the west of Belleville. (Here's a link to the weekly Presqu'ile birding report.)

So dark and early Sunday morning I headed down to meet (for the first time) my partner Jim, a very experienced birder, to make the rounds of a little piece of Trenton. I'd been watching the weather forecasts all week--half of them called for rain on Sunday, but as it turned out it was partly cloudy and very warm, high +12C.

The great things about a warm weather CBC: it's not too cold; ponds are open and ducks are on them; short-distant migrants might be hanging around out of season....did I say, "it's not too cold"?

The bad things: no birds at feeders, or in large groups at other sources of food or shelter; the living is easy, food is plentiful, and the need to eat isn't as great as it is when it's cold, in other words, birds are loosely flocked, widely dispersed, not sitting around waiting to be counted; oh, yes, and you have to watch out for the golfers if you're birding a golf course--this is not usually a problem on December 17 in southern Ontario. There were 8 parties of golfers on the small course we birded--At one point, after we let the guys behind us play through, we were focused on the edge, a steep, shrubby bank going down to a railway line, looking for birds. When we turned around there were two balls on the course just behind us, driven there by players we hadn't noticed sneaking up. On the other hand we had some very good looks at a Merlin on that golf course.

We saw lots and lots of chickadees, and some other good birds (list below), but it wasn't all birds all the time. Our route took us to the top of a drumlin (great view of the lake and the town). The summit was accessible by stairs, and as we were climbing we noticed that a couple of crows were kicking up a terrible fuss on the other side of the parking lot below, behind some kind of big tank. We watched for a bit, then decided we better go back down and try to see what had them so upset. Just as we started down a red fox trotted out from behind the tank and down the hill into town. The crows quieted immediately. Who knew crows had a thing about foxes? Ummm, I have a feeling that I have heard something about this. Gotta love Google. See Aesop's The Fox and the Crow. Now I understand.

The twenty-seven species Jim and I counted for the Presqu'ile CBC, mostly inland (unofficial):

House Sparrow 24
Double-crested Cormorant 8
Red-breasted Merganser 4
Common Merganser 20
Hooded Merganser 5
Great Blue Heron 1
American Crow 17
Black-capped Chickadee 88
American Goldfinch 21
Ring-billed Gull 10
Great Black-backed Gull 6
European Starling 122
House Finch 18
Blue Jay 15
Sharp-shinned Hawk 1
Ruffed Grouse 1
Downy Woodpecker 3
Mourning Dove 31
Slate-coloured Junco 6
Merlin 1
Northern Cardinal 2
Golden-crowned Kinglet 1
Cedar Waxwing 3
American Robin 8
Mallard Duck 6
American Tree Sparrow 3
Song Sparrow 3

For more about Christmas Bird Counting in Canada, see this page at Bird Studies Canada, or for the rest of North America, this one at Audubon.

And here's a sampling of current CBC blog posts: A DC Birding Blog, 10,000 Birds, Stokes Birding Blog, Search and Serendipity, Bootstrap Analysis, SitkaNature. I wrote about counting for Belleville last year here.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Wild, Wild Turkeys

Wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) reintroduction in Ontario is a huge success story. Not so many years ago the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, working with the Ministry of Natural Resources, started the process of releasing wild turkeys from the US into suitable Ontario habitat. (Here are links to a couple of stories about the program.) The birds took off! Or rather, stayed, and were fruitful multipliers.

In my uncle's yard, Woodview, Ontario (north of Peterborough)

The picture shows just a few of the forty or more birds my uncle was seeing every day. I don't see turkeys in these numbers in Thomasburg, but as I travel back and forth to Prince Edward County every week I almost always see at least one flock somewhere along the way.

Thanks to Don Wood for the photograph.

And now we're off to board the Friday Ark.

I and the Bird at Ben Cruachan Blog!

Duncan at Ben Cruachan Blog of Australia is the host of I and the Bird #38. And a very gracious host he is too. The carnival is a collection of the best of recent bird and birding posts from all over the world. And Ben Cruachan Blog is a wonderful place to read about and see the marvellous birds of Australia, beautifully photographed--not only exotic looking to my North American eyes, but wonderfully named too. So go for the carnival, but hang around, explore the site.

I and the Bird

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


After a brief cold snap we're back to unseasonably warm temperatures. The snow is gone now (except for a forlorn patch or two), but on Saturday there was still snow on much of the ground. Sure I see the occasional rabbit, and even more occasional fox or coyote, but once the snow comes I see that they are all everywhere, all the time. In the yard there are tracks of at least two rabbits (big and small, I call them). And in the field, canids galore besides. Some are certainly foxes, more are coyotes, and maybe a dog or two thrown in.

orange rabbit pee
First orange rabbit pee of the season

Walking on the trail created by the heavy equipment that comes to take topsoil in the scrape (but hasn't been here since the snow fell), I saw a clue that something was amiss.

Blood on snow

Snow not only preserves tracks, it also shows up whatever has gone on. When I saw the blood I first wondered if it was cast-off from a kill. But there was a regular trail, and soon I came upon this:

bloody paw print
Bloody paw

Somebody had cut a toe on his back foot, I could see small spots of blood in a whole line of tracks. Cut on ice?

There certainly was ice. We've had enormous amounts of rain over the last few weeks, then the cold snap, producing scenes like the one below.

Trees in ice

There was a good breeze blowing, making the trees in the ice sway, producing quite an amazing sound of crackling and heaving. A lot of the water had drained away, leaving a gap between its surface and the ice.

And there were birds. Not many--things are pretty quiet this time of year. But there were chickadees, of course. But what was that other sound? I could hear something not quite right. I pished a little, brought in a couple of chickadees and another bird. Yellow-rumped warbler! This warbler is known to hang around well past the time the rest have flown. Fifteen were reported in last week's Prince Edward County and Quinte Area Bird Report, from Prince Edward County. But I've never seen one here this late before. But if you look at this range map, you can see that they are known to winter in New York State, just the other side of Lake Ontario. Maybe the winter range is shifting north, like the ranges of so many species are.

The Cedar Waxwing on the other hand is a common winter bird here. On my way back home I saw a nice flock of 15 or so, bouncing back and forth between two trees.

cedar waxwings
Cedar Waxwings

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Circus of the Spineless #15

The circus is in town, the town called Words and Pictures. A wonderful presentation of invertebrate stories from all over the world, from water bears to banana slugs to harvestmen plus my own encounter with a burying beetle, and much, much more. Check it out!

But first enjoy my most recent photo of a western conifer seed bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis), a perennial favourite among Google searchers (right up there with red rabbit pee, here and here).

western conifer seed bug
Found on the patio, November 29.
Photographed on the woodpile.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Last night we had our first real snow fall of the season.

The air was cold but the snow was soft and thick, clinging to everything.

The flock of House Finches that's been hanging around the feeders surveys the scene from on high.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Catching Up

Thursday morning I left for a very quick trip to the archives at the University of Guelph. Great train connection got me from Belleville at 8:30 a.m. to Guelph at noon. Pouring rain!! Connections back not so good., So Friday afternoon I was to take a bus to Toronto--arrive around 7:00 p.m., then the train back to Belleville, and drive at around midnight 25 clicks up the highway to Thomasburg (so I could spend Saturday at home, watching the Liberal Leadership Convention). Friday morning I was glued to the Weather Network for clues as to how the first winter storm of the season was going to affect the plan. Freezing rain was predicted for north of Belleville--I stared at the line on the map trying to guess how wide that little band north of the lake, out of the freezing rain zone, was. No way to know.

By 5:00 p.m., when I was boarding the bus in Guelph, the rain had stopped. I peered out the window the whole way monitoring precipitation. None, though things were plenty wet! Toronto, windy, but the rain had stopped, and the temp was 6 C. Hung around the station wishing I had bought a first class ticket so that I could have been in the first class lounge watching the leadership candidates give their speeches (some nature buffs are also political junkies). Ten p.m. came, and I boarded my train and started my precipitation watch again...lots of water, nothing falling from the sky! Belleville, no rain, lots of water sitting around, temp still above the freezing mark. Ferocious wind!! So I started out. Did I say "wind"? Highway was bare and dry, but the wind was so strong I could just barely keep the car on the road. I did though, and arrived home safely, feeling like I'd been away for ages. Bev of Burning Silo, northeast of Thomasburg, was not so lucky Friday. She describes the storm in her post, We got lucky this time (clearly luck is a relative concept), and also makes reference to the 1998 ice storm, which she was also in the thick of. We were lucky then too, in fact the edge of that storm was just 20 or 30 kilometres to the east of Thomasburg!

Watched the balloting Saturday. I think the Liberals probably made a good choice electing Stéphane Dion as their new leader. Sunday? Wandered in a fog (of the mind). And today realized that in my brief absence, Carnivals came to town:

I and the BirdI and the Bird #37 is up at Five Wells. I and the Bird is a carnival of bird and birder blogging, and this edition is a thanksgiving treat. Check it out!

Festival of the Trees

They say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush--I don't know about that, I like birds in bushes. Festival of the Trees is a celebration of trees (and bushes), and without trees I wouldn't have most of my favourite neighbourhood birds.

Downy in Maple

The 6th edition of Festival of the Trees is up at Arboreality. It's a fantastic collection of tree-related blog posts. Do not miss it!

Circus of the Spineless is normally up by now too--but November's edition has been delayed--expect it December 7. Today is the last day for submissions--send to Tony of milkriverblog, hurricanetg AT

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Great Granola!

This is a recipe for a rich, tasty granola that sets me up for the whole day. Late lunch? No problem if you got a bellyfull of this stuff, loaded with nuts, seeds and fruit.


1/2 cup olive oil

4 cups quick oats ("quick" refers to the cut of the oats, not instant oats!!)
1 cup walnut pieces or crumbs
1 cup, some combination of all or any of
sunflower seeds
pumpkin seeds
pecan pieces
your favourite nut or seed
1/8 to 1/4 cup half and half ground flax and sesame seeds
toss in some ground hazelnuts if you have them

1 cup raisins
1 cup other dried fruit

Generally I use mostly dried cranberries for the second cup of fruit, with the addition of dried papaya, mango, and apricots, chopped up. But again, chuck in your favourites, or just use two cups of raisins.

Preheat oven to 300 F
Put the oil in a 9x14 glass baking dish and into the oven for 10 minutes. Add oats, stir in until oil is evenly absorbed. Return to the oven for 25 minutes. Then stir in the nuts and seeds and back in the oven for another 15 minutes. Remove and stir in the dried fruit.

Some like the first bowl warm--I usually wait until it's almost cold before eating, it's crisper that way. To keep it crisp, let cool completely before storing.

Serve with milk and maybe a little brown sugar (some say the dried fruit makes it sweet enough). Can also be eaten dry like an oaty trail mix, or with yogurt, or...

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Know thyself!

Came across this at Snail's Tales, a quick test at bookblog to reassure you, or correct your false assumption, about your gender (or sex, "gender" is so often misused that the difference between the two is fading away) based on your writing.

I submitted four posts (Hand spam?, Snowy Owls--Already?, The Chickaree and the Juniper Berries and Midsummer). Based on the best three out of four, turns out I have been labouring under a false assumption--I am not female after all, but the other one. Here are the results for Midsummer, the only post over 500 words I submitted:

Words: 1375
(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)

Female Score: 1210
Male Score: 2204

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

Not sure what to do now....change my name? There is a link to an article in Nature on the test's page about the basis of the algorithm that checks your text, but unfortunately it's only available to subscribers.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Hand spam?

This morning I found 4 comments on a post from June 2006 (Timing: A tale of two trees), apparently designed to entice readers to visit 4 different off-topic websites. Here's one of the comments:
Health is the functional and/or metabolic efficiency of an organism,
at any moment in time, at both the cellular and global levels.
All individual organisms, from the simplest to the most complex,
vary between optimum health and zero health
I've taken them down.

I checked the my site stats to see if I could figure out where they came from and it looks like they probably came from India, and are the work of someone who found the archive page where the post lives through a search for "flower blogosphere." I checked the post to make sure the spam guard was still operational. It was. And the comments were posted a couple of minutes apart. So I can only conclude that this was done by hand. Meantime, I am getting increasing numbers of spam emails on email accounts that have until the last couple of weeks been relatively spam-free, suggesting that techniques for mining email addresses are becoming more sophisticated. A two-front spam attack seems to be going on--sneakier technology on one, more labour-intensive activities on the other. If people are willing to spam blogs by hand, the only way to deal with it will be to moderate comments by hand. Not terribly onerous at my moderate comment rate, but what a drag for higher profile blogs!

Image created with the help of the Warning Sign Generator.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Snowy Owls--Already?

Last December snowy owls were all over the place, everywhere but here, as I wrote in Whither Snowys? Snowy owls came south in near record numbers (see this report from the GBBC). I've never seen one, so I published photos of a nice location for one to visit, but either not good enough, or they don't read blogs.

This fall Dave of Bird TLC was fortunate enough to have a snowy come to live with him (an owl from the rehab centre where he volunteers that cannot be returned to the wild). Today I read that one had been spotted yesterday (check out the wonderful photos) in Prescott-Russell (at Les Oiseaux de Prescott-Russell et d'ailleurs). That's not terribly far away, a couple hundred kilometres to the northeast of Thomasburg. A quick blog search revealed another snowy spotted in the the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, in Massachusetts, last weekend. That's southeast of me. Clearly I've got to move east!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Hear thyself

I came across a link to this quiz at Pharyngula that identifes American accents by region (also picked up by John at A DC Birding blog). So I went and took it.

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Midland

"You have a Midland accent" is just another way of saying "you don't have an accent." You probably are from the Midland (Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, and Missouri) but then for all we know you could be from Florida or Charleston or one of those big southern cities like Atlanta or Dallas. You have a good voice for TV and radio.


The West


The Northeast

The Inland North

North Central

The South

What American accent do you have?
Take More Quizzes

This is not an unreasonable result for a Canadian, many of us do find our way into the United States as broadcasters, though according to commenters at Pharyngula, Canadians ended up with a variety of results. And not surprisingly, the few questions that make up the quiz fail to distinguish all the regional sounds, even in broad strokes. Apparently southern American accents just slip on by.

Most interesting in the comments to this Canadian though was a link to a site about Canadian raising (Canadian raising and other oddities), a phenomenon that explains why Americans hear us saying "aboot" for "about," and we don't know what they're talking aboot. There a number of audio clips of the phenomenon--I'm still not sure what people in other English-speaking communities are hearing, but at least now I know that I don't know, eh. (Narrative use of "eh," also explained on the site, though the example there is a little off.)

I worked in a call centre for a few months a few years ago, ostensibly helping people with their internet connections--actually my job was to get people off the phone as soon as was contractually possible, which is one of the reasons I lasted only a few months. The callers were in the United States, and I was identified as a Canadian by almost one a day. Could it be because I was born and raised in Toronto? According to the website:
Canadian raising is especially rampant among natives of Toronto, who also have a unique way of pronouncing the name of their city.
One of my favourite sounds is the name of my native city pronounced by an American. All those beautiful round syllables.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Who's that on the kitchen floor?

I walked into the kitchen in the middle of the day to find this, more than 2 cm of beetle, in the middle of the floor. Well, you can't stay here, I said. But wait here while I get my camera. It did. So I did, and then lifted the critter up and carried it out to the front porch for a little photo session. Calm on the kitchen floor, it was perhaps feeling a little harassed from being carried, so started to leave immediately upon being set down.

Nicrophorus orbicollis
Heading for cover

I managed a shot anyway, and posted it to

Answers started coming in within hours. Apparently this is a carrion or burying beetle (Family, Silphidae; species, Nicrophorus orbicollis), a nocturnal beast, perhaps also a factor in its run for cover once it got outside. It lives by joining forces with its mate in burying small mammals to serve as food for their larvae. This is an unusual kind of family life for a beetle.

Given how it makes its living though, I got to wonder what else is in the kitchen that I haven't noticed yet.

If it's Friday, it's time to board the Friday Ark

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Noting Birds

I've been trying to watch for the last kinglet--so much more difficult than watching for the first. But maybe today? I was in Vanderwater Conservation Area (just east of the hamlet) for a walk (avoiding the deer hunters--the gun season opened here on Monday), and there they were, a small flock of kinglets, of which I could identify a couple of Golden-crowned, but didn't see them all well enough to be sure that there weren't a few Ruby-crowned among them. I'm learning to tell them apart by call, I think. The calls are very similar to my ear, but the Golden-crowned seems to be stronger, and wider (i.e., not so thready) than the Ruby. I'm so good that usually when I hear one, if I think, oh, that's a Golden, it turns out to be so. But not so good that I can say when hearing a bunch calling together that they are all one or the other or both. But Ruby or not, I'm marking this, November 9, as the current candidate for last kinglets.

But it's time for FeederWatch, so much easier than trying to mark lasts. I'll join John of A DC Birding Blog, and Mike of 10,000 Birds in recommending this bit of citizen science to anyone in North America with a bird feeder. The protocol is simple--the data collected by the feeder watchers is important. Go to FeederWatch at Cornell Ornithological in the US or Bird Studies Canada in Canada to sign up.

But before you do, be sure to visit the wonderful I and the Bird #36, hosted by Roger of Words and Pictures to read about other noteworthy birds and bird events from around the world.

I and the Bird

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Chickaree and the Juniper Berries

I was walking in the far field, and by the big red cedar near the apple tree I heard a red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, écureuil roux, chickaree) scold fiercely, once. I couldn't see it at that moment, and it didn't sound again, so I forgot about it and went back to peering into the now much more open shrubbery looking for kinglets (last seen October 30: ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula, Roitelet à couronne rubis)), watching the robins, and listening to the chickadees. I then noticed an audible munching coming from the other side of the red cedar. I tried to peer through the branches, and could just make out a reddish shape. I'd forgotten about the squirrel, and was wondering if a robin could possibly be making that much noise eating (I think not). I walked carefully around to see this scene.

red squirrel eating red cedar berries
According to this article in the journal Ecology (full article only available through library subscriptions to the journal), the fruit of the common juniper (Juniperus communis) and red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) are important food sources for red squirrels, as well as a number of birds. The article is about seed dispersal: while the birds eat the fruit whole, and "disperse" the seeds later, the squirrels scrape off the fruit and just eat the seed inside--hence the noise of the operation.

I stayed for several minutes watching, and moving up slowly, a squirrel gobbling the seeds like there was no tomorrow. It would tear off a laden branch tip, hold it in its front paws and just demolish it, cast it aside and tear off another. I finally got close enough to shift it: it let loose one scold, and then just moved down into the tree a little and continued to dine.

Grapes were great this year too, and this squirrel was within paw's reach of a great many ripe, sweet (much sweeter now, after a few frosts) wild grapes, but ignored them in favour of the red cedar berries. Takes all kinds.

squirrel surrounded by red cedar berries and wild grapes
Lush grapes in easy reach, ignored

All aboard the Friday Ark!

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Circus of the Spineless

The monthly celebration of invertebrate blogging, Circus of the Spineless #14, is up at The Neurophilosopher's weblog. Complete with a fine selection of invertebrate illustrations from earlier times, a fantastic collection of invertebrate posts from around the world, and a video sideshow, a great time's to be had. Check it out!

One post that jumped out at me was the from The Dax Files of Georgia, USA, I believe: Woolly Worm Winter, a post about a woolly bear caterpillar with no orange at all ... just after I published Woolly Bear Predicts ... What could it mean? Hard winter in Georgia, balmy eastern Ontario?

Woolly Bear Predicts

At the turn of every season, an Environment Canada spokesperson offers up a long-range forecast. Winter this year, for the most part, warmer than normal and dry. Cynics suggest, and sometimes I am one, that the pronouncement signifies its opposite, so expect a long, cold, wet winter. Fortunately there are other ways to find out what's coming.

The caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella) steps up. The proportion of orange to black predicts the coming winter, it's said. Is it reliable? Well, sure. At least as reliable as the human professionals. There are a number of other indicators in the natural world to consult. High cones on the evergreens, lots of snow, for example. The spruces around here have produced substantial cone crops, all very high. So, spruce trees say the weather professionals have the precipitation wrong (oh, I hope the trees are right--last winter was much too dry), while the caterpillars are saying they have the temperature right. White cedar cones, also plentiful, are right to the bottom of the trees, as are the juniper berries. Insignificant? Or disputing the spruce trees' prediction?

woolly bear caterpillar
Warm day yesterday--I found this caterpillar trucking along through the field.

Lots of orange, hardly any black: a mild winter, could Environment Canada be right?!? On reflection, lots of orange, and hardly any black at the back end, normal amount of black at the front. Perhaps a more nuanced prediction than I can read.

woolly bear caterpillar
When you pick one of these up it curls into a tight ball.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

I and the Bird #35

It's here, the 35th edition of I and the Bird, the carnival of bird and birder blogging. Up at, appropriately for the season, Migrations.

Head on over for stories from around the world, of migrants, and of birds at home. Next up at Words and Pictures, Thursday, November 9 (submissions due, Tuesday, November 7). Go to I and the Bird Central for more information.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Two Coyotes

One day last week, as every week, just about, I was headed down to Prince Edward County for the day to work. On the side of the highway just south of the hamlet I saw a road-killed coyote. I didn't stop, but even a passing glance was enough to see that this had been a good looking animal in good condition. Sad, but interesting too, because although I've only seen a handful of road-killed coyotes in my life, this is the second one I've seen in this spot. And I've heard tell of sightings of successful road crossings by coyotes there too.

The spot is adjacent to the edge between a farmer's fields and a bit of woods on both sides of the highway. A good kind of territory for a coyote run. This, i..e., the southeast corner of my hearing range from the front porch, is also the place from which I most often hear the coyotes singing. After a quiet period, I've been hearing them again, almost every night, sometimes one calling, sometimes a whole gang singing. A whole gang? I'd really like to actually see this sometime, to get some idea of how to determine the number of singers from the song.

I carried on down the road thinking that it's been a while since I last saw a coyote, and a traffic victim was no substitute for a real sighting. Got to The County, got to work.

I work in the same place where I often house sit, a place I've written about here many times, where warblers fallout, where deer give birth, where the raccoons will run right over you if you let them. One of the great features of the property is that the land drops sharply away just behind the house, giving an excellent view, getting better as the trees lose their leaves, of a laneway down to the lake, a bit of hardwood forest, and some fields and woods.

I can't believe I don't have a photo of the lane--but this picture of a pileated at work from last winter, taken from the yard above the woods, gives some sense of the way the land drops

In the middle of the afternoon I was out in the yard, taking a (smoke) break, and looking down the lane. There was a brownish lump too far down to make out. Luckily I had my pocket binoculars. (One of the best things about cooler weather is the extra pockets!) A coyote--alive, and mosying about looking through the grass for a snack--just when I had been wanting to see one, and almost exactly in a spot where I'd seen a coyote twice before. (See, for example, Another County Encounter ) I watched for several minutes as it came up the lane slowly, until it seemed to look in my direction; it may have spotted me, or may have caught my scent, causing it to look. In any case, it quite calmly headed off the lane into the brush and out of sight.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Chasing Chickadees

It's not entirely clear to me why I haven't been able to write here much lately. Something to do with being overwhelmed with the responsibilities of publishing, or a concern that the stories I have to tell that fall within the purview of the blog are getting repetitive, or some general fatigue caused by too many wars, and a government that is taking us down a bad, bad road much faster than I thought they would or even could when they were elected last January. (It's been a real civics lesson for me, learning just how much power a minority government can wield!)

But today I remembered what I value about having done this now for almost two years. The record I've been building up: casual and hit-and-miss as it is, it is the beginning of a record of the rhythm of the year. I remembered because I was curious about what was around last October, and realized I could check the blog.

Last October was rainy too, but warmer, following a much warmer September. The juncos were here by this time last year, but last year I'd already seen a Tree Sparrow by now, a winter feeder bird. I haven't seen one yet this year. The last day of October 2005 was warm and sunny, and covered with ladybugs, and a few wasps. It could happen again this year, but it's been ages since I've seen a wasp, or a ladybug.

A few days ago a mess of Golden-crowned Kinglets accompanied by sparrows I never got a good look at visited the front yard. Juncos have been visiting in small flocks, then this morning I looked out the back window and saw a mixed flock of song and white-throated sparrows. Walking, more sparrows in the fields, mostly song, then in the cedar bush, a very noisy flock of chickadees. I walked over to see who might be with them.

Something I've noticed this year more than I have before is how often travelling warblers and kinglets are to be found hanging out with chickadees. And one of the great thing about chickadees, contrary to the title of this post, is that you don't have to chase them at all. Sure, I wandered towards them today, but if I'd just waited they would probably have come to me. I could hear that they'd already noticed that I was nearby. And the Golden-crowned Kinglets with them today would have come along too.

So wait for them, or go over to them, but pay attention to the chickadees this time of the year for themselves, and for the hangers-on.

Conditions in Thomasburg:
Rain, gusting winds, temperature around 5C all day (damp and chilly!!)

Most of the leaves are down. We've had a few frosts, enough that all tender plants have frozen; hardier ones are vibrant green from weeks of rain.

eastern red cedar berries
Like so many others this year, some of the red cedars have fruited spectacularly.
In the upper right you can see a small gall that will "blossom" one day next spring.

Birds in the yard this morning:
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
American Goldfinch (solitary specimen, looking lost)
Black-capped Chickadee
Dark-eyed Junco
American Crow
American Robin
European Starling
Song Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Blue Jay

Birds on the walk this afternoon:
Mourning Dove (so many!! spread out all over the place, apparently in pairs)
sparrows, spp.
Song Sparrow
Blue Jay
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Black-capped Chickadee

Friday, October 13, 2006

Walking Stick Love

Lost in a folder marked "Sept18-flora," these images of northern walking sticks (Diapheromera femorata) I came upon cavorting in a raspberry patch. I was following a butterfly at the time, when the sight of three walking sticks in the canes stopped me. As I approached, gingerly, one of them dropped away, leaving two, busily engaged. I couldn't see for sure what was going on, but I photographed it as best I could, avoiding thorns and not wanting to disturb them if I could avoid it. As it happened, they didn't pay any attention to me.

Mating sticks

Back in August there was a walking stick hanging around on the patio.

Posing on the handle of a butterfly net

I did a little research, and oddly enough a lot of pet sites popped up. Also the comforting information that there is only one walking stick, the northern, likely to be found in my neighbourhood (so unlike the case of the bees and wasps!). In French they are known as bâtonnet ordinaire.

All aboard the Friday Ark!

I and the Bird #34: Hootenanny Edition

Head on over to the Tortoise Trail for the Hootenanny edition of I and the Bird, the blog carnival of birds and birding!

If you blog about birds and birding, consider taking part in the festivities next time, hosted by Dan Rhoads of Migrations. Send submissions to Dan (daniel-dot-rhoads AT gmail-dot-com) or Mike (mike AT 10000birds-dot-com) by Tuesday the 24th of October.

A Red-eyed Vireo passing through early in September

Friday, September 29, 2006

A Hundred Common Yellowthroats

Walking at dusk tonight, down the lane to the lake (Lake Ontario) below the house where I sometimes stay in Prince Edward County, I ran into a flock of calling warblers. There was just enough light and co-operation to get a look at a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and then I knew the calls (which I've heard many times before). A little further on, light fading fast now, I ran into another flock, many more birds, different, louder call. The call of the Common Yellowthroat is one I know pretty well--but I don't know very many warbler calls, so don't know how many there are that are similar. I got a look at one bird, a pretty dim look, and I'm pretty sure Common Yellowthroat. But I've never seen/heard this bird in numbers like this. It was deafening.

Meantime robins were gathering and calling, blue jays were kicking up a fuss, and then three calling Great Blue Herons flew overhead. Finally a catbird joined in. There were at least two other species in the mix: something with a high thin call, and something else.

This place, Prince Edward County, is incredible for birds. I've written about it many times before, for example my stay down here during spring migration that I wrote about here, or my first red-bellied woodpecker, here.

All those birds, and an interesting mushroom too.

Earlier today I watched thirteen Turkey Vultures (at least I stopped counting at thirteen) drift high overhead. Last night I stepped out to hear a Great Horned Owl softly hooting, then a coyote's single howl off in the distance, repeated a couple of times, until it was answered by another quite close by. For the last couple of days the trees around the house have been full of Eastern Phoebes and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Yesterday I saw my first Winter Wren. Tomorrow, who knows?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

I and the Bird #33

Travel the world with Texas journalist, tax expert and birder Kay Bell of Don't Mess with Taxes, host of the 33rd edition of I and the Bird, the carnival of the best of recent bird and birder blogging. Head on over!

I and the Bird #34 will be hosted by Pam at Tortoise Trail, October 12. Click here to learn more about the carnival.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Fall Birding on a Windy Sunday Afternoon

After a rainy Saturday, Sunday came bright and windy. Windy, especially after the leaves start to fall is about the least favourable condition for checking out birds. It's hard to see them among all the other movement, and very hard to hear them, or locate sounds that you do hear.

Nevertheless, since I could feel the migrating birds all around me, I headed out to see what I could see. Across the street from the house there was a flicker, as there has been almost every day lately, at the top of a dead tree. Blue jays were calling, and crows were cawing in the hamlet. Interesting about the crows, once the breeding is over they seem to move off somewhere, then either they return, or another family-or-two-sized murder of crows moves in. Lately they've been scarce, until this past weekend.

Virginia Tiger Moth Caterpillar, I believe.

Once I got out into the scrape I found this caterpillar. I've been seeing lots of these in the past few weeks. This one is on viper's bugloss, just like the one that was the subject of a post from this time last year, Tiger Moth Caterpillar?

The scrape was not scraped for topsoil this year (the activity for which I've named the area), nor was the pile created last year taken, and the crop of various colonizers is fantastic, providing lots of seeds for the taking. The main takers are sparrows and Mourning Doves. Mourning Doves flush so noisily and distinctively there's no problem knowing them. Not so with the sparrows. Over the past few weeks, when I can catch a glimpse, I've seen flocks of Chipping Sparrows, Vesper Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and on this occasion Field Sparrows. But often I can't identify them, as I walk they fly up from the weeds fast and fly quickly to a better spot down into the weeds again. There are a couple of small trees, but even when they take shelter (from me) in them I can't always get a fix on them.

Carrying on, without much hope of finding much more, I entered the far field and wandered up to the old apple tree. Surrounded by a thicket of prickly ash and other shrubbery, this is a good location for warblers, sparrows, and many others. Nobody was there, but I did find a couple of beautiful mushrooms.

After a very dry end to summer, dry enough to curl the leaves of lots of trees and send them into an early fall, we've had a pretty wet few weeks. Everything not set too far back is green again, and there are mushrooms everywhere.

The wind was blowing pretty hard and I remembered all the living poplars I've seen snapped in two by wind (while long-dead elms stay standing) as I walked past stands of them. Once again nothing big came down while I was out there. A single Turkey Vulture flew overhead, going south, more or less. The flyway over Thomasburg in the fall for most flocks usually goes from the northeast to southwest, sometimes almost east to west. More flickers were calling around the edges of the far field. I headed south along the far edge and finally found the kind of commotion I was looking for. More Field Sparrows, some possible others, and an Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). It was the exact spot where I've seen a fall towhee in previous years. It's not where the breeding pair hang out, though not far away. The spot looks like the shrubby edge habitat the runs along the edge of the far field--but if you wanted to see a towhee in September that's where I'd send you. Must be something particularly lovely about it that I just can't see.

Making my way back, taking note of the leopard frog and the lovely giant dragonflies (none of which would settle for me to take a look--I was amazed that they could fly at all in that wind), I crossed the south end of the scrape again, and flushed something out of the weeds growing on a topsoil pile. Sparrow, I assumed, and raised the glasses to see if I could see which one.

Not a sparrow. Not a sparrow at all. I managed to get a few good looks as the bird balanced on a stalk, then flew into a nearby tree. A vireo! What the heck was a vireo doing out here, in the open, in the grasses and weeds? And which one was it? Some yellow underneath, no fancy eye ring. There was a pale eyebrow though, more distinct than the warbling vireo's. After I got back to the house I studied the vireos and decided that this was probably a Philadelphia Vireo ( Vireo philadelphicus).

Another bird, like the Scarlet Tanager of last week, completely out of its normal habitat. These are the strange pleasures of fall migration birding.

"You know when the moon’s blue it's a circus."

Circus of the Spineless, through the night, through the artists (Peter and Craig) and patrons of Spineless Tattoo, at Deep-Sea News. A little taste of the action:
Peter: Why the visit?
Tough Guy: Caterpillar
Peter: Caterpillar?
Tough Guy: Caterpillar tattoo
Peter: I got that much
Tough Guy: I was thinking something intimidating like a Hickory Horned Devil (courtesy of Fragments of Floyd) or Hornworm, maybe a black one (courtesy of Thomasburg Walks)
Peter: Tough Caterpillars?
Tough Guy: Dames like’m.
And this exchange:
Dame to Craig: Is that an earthworm your working on?
Craig: Yep
Dame: Why?
Craig: You can’t underestimate the impact of the earthworm (courtesy of Bootstrap Analysis)
And so much more--the best of recent invertebrate blogging. Check it out!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Night falls fast

This time of year a walk at dusk has to be quick and timely. It takes me a while to get used to the change from the long evenings of summer, so tonight, as often happens, I was late getting out, and after a comparatively brisk walk around the fields (half an hour instead of the usual hour-and-a-half), came home in the dark.

The fields were full of birds I couldn't see, making calls that, for the most part, I couldn't identify. Yes, there were robins, and sparrows of some kind, but were those other "chuckers" cardinals, and what about those other, more mysterious calls? I let it go for the pleasure it is to be out there surrounded by sound in the misty gloom.

I flushed a cottontail as I walked--reminding me of just how little I can see at dusk. It was apparently sitting in the open when it made its dash. I was quite close and could see that white puff of tail bounding away, but if it had sat tight, I would never have seen it. I wouldn't be able to see a coyote in that light either, as I learned a few years ago. A neighbourhood dog whose home backs onto the fields used to be "at large" sometimes, and when it was it felt responsible for the whole area. If the dog was loose and I came out to walk it would follow me the whole time, at a distance, barking. I call the dog Berkeley, after the Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753), whose metaphysics is based on the precept, "esse est percipi," i.e., to be is to be perceived.

Berkeley is a German shepherd (or Alsatian) cross, so has the same basic colouring as the local coyotes. One fall evening Berkeley was out keeping pace with me, barking so that I could be certain of my existence, when he/she disappeared. There was still enough light that I could walk comfortably, and see my destination easily. But I could no longer see one loud brown dog against the earth and dead grasses just 15 metres or so away. Kinda spooky.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Season of the Unexpected

Even more than spring migration, fall migration is a real test of birding skill. I need more of it--skill that is, not fall migration.

Yesterday I stepped outside to see a flock of seven to ten birds (maybe more) flitting about in the lilac and Manitoba maple just off the corner of the house. Yellowish, dark wings, pale beaks, not too small. Orioles? They'd have to be Orchard Orioles, which would be interesting, since we are just beyond the normal range of the Orchard, though they're moving into our area. But not only are the beaks pale, but they're a bit too heavy for an oriole.

I took a few pictures, which didn't show much (got to get a better camera ...). I got the best looks I could, but they were moving fast in and out of the foliage. Gleaning? A little flycatching? I came in and consulted the books (mainly Sibley's). My guesses didn't seem to be quite right. I decided to sleep on it.

This morning I went back to the sometimes-successful method of flipping through the book. Identification is so much easier when you already know generally what kind of bird you are looking at: finch, oriole, vireo, even warbler, narrows the question down nicely. It doesn't always lead to an answer, think flycatcher, sparrow, for example, but it gives you a basis for inquiry. Without that, you're left with the flip method. It sometimes fails--gives one an odd feeling when it does: when one looks at every bird in the guide and doesn't see the bird that just passed through the yard. But it happens a lot.

In spring birds arrive in their breeding plumage, and are often singing territorial songs long before they get to their breeding grounds. It's always tough to identify birds out of context, but the plumage and songs make it much easier. In the fall, most birds are in winter plumage and singing is sporadic and often off key (though I did hear a pretty vireo song this morning).

So, there I was flipping. Considering perusing the finches (though it wasn't any finch I knew), when I stumbled into the tanagers. And there it was: Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea). scarlet tanagerThe male in breeding plumage is unmistakable in his brilliant scarletness. But this is a bird I've only seen a few times (for example, May 2006, Prince Edward County--at right).

The Scarlet Tanager lives in mature deciduous forest, a kind of habitat I visit sometimes, but not one I enjoy every day. In other words, this is not a bird I know the giss of, and certainly not a bird I expect to find feeding in the yard.

A little later on I was back out in the yard. The tanagers were gone, and among the chickadees now feeding in the same Manitoba maple there was a Yellow-rumped Warbler. Now that's a fall migrant I expect to see!

Monday, September 18, 2006

A Hornworm of Another Colour

In August of 2003 I discovered this critter and some friends on garden tomato plants. I grabbed this photo but was unable to find out what this was until this past weekend. I posted the photo on and within the hour I had the answer. It looks so much like a tomato hornworm because it is.

A later blog search turned up a post at Pharyngula from last February that mentions this phenomenon: Evolution of a Polyphenism. Apparently the colour variation is a result of temperature during the early stages of development--not sure if it's during the egg stage or what. Anyway, cooler temperatures result in this black form; warmer, green. I checked the weather records for the summer of 2003 and found that while it was a fairly moderate summer (as compared with, say, 2005), and there were some cool nights in July (10C), nothing jumped out as a protracted chilly spell.

Tomato Hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata), dark morph.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Caterpillar Tale

Late in the spring I noticed that a couple of tomato plants had volunteered in a small waste pile in the yard. The yard is somewhat managed around the house, but not exactly manicured--so sometimes a small pile of straw, for example, rather than getting spread on the garden bed it was intended for ends up staying put for a year or so, and attracting other stuff. This small pile must have attracted last year's potting soil from a planter, one that had been seeded by nearby tomatoes (I think, cherry tomatoes of some variety from hanging baskets, but likely crossed with garden tomatoes). The result, volunteer tomato plants!

Tomato sprawl

Tomatoes are great self-seeders, but in this zone, five, they almost never have enough time to produce fruit. Garden tomatoes are started inside. These particular plants did set some fruit, and early enough for it to ripen on one of them--but they were plagued by ferocious blossom-end rot: worse than I've ever seen on tomatoes we've planted. This is caused by inadequate uptake of calcium by the plant, a result of root damage, drying out too much between waterings, or an excess of one of a number of elements in the soil--any one of which could have been a factor for these unwatered plants growing in the weird mixture of rotting straw, potting soil, and some wood ash that makes up this particular waste pile.

So, these were not precious, well-nurtured plants producing food for the table. Instead, they were an opportunity. A place for tomato hornworms (Manduca quinquemaculata)! I made a plan. All summer I watched the tomatoes in the garden, and finally, on August 21, I found the stripped stems characteristic of the work of this caterpillar. A few moments search and I found the critter, quite small, about three centimetres. I plucked it off the plant (much easier to move than an almost full-size cecropia caterpillar!), and delivered it to the volunteers.

The black horn distinguishes the tomato hornworm from the tobacco hornworm.

The caterpillar settled in right away and resumed eating. I checked on it daily; it was always surprisingly difficult to spot, given its size. It spent a lot of time clinging to the underside of a stem while nibbling, always nibbling the leaves. In a few days it had developed the stripes characteristic of later stages or instars of this caterpillar.

At last sighting, August 29, the caterpillar was eight centimetres long, and nice and fat. I went away for a couple of days and when I returned the caterpillar was gone. If all went well it left the plant and pupated in the leaf litter to wait until spring when it will emerge as a five-spotted hawkmoth.

Last seen

Friday, September 15, 2006

Friday Spider Blogging

A sure sign of fall's approach: the blooming of the asters.

The little speck turned out to be a spider. Too bad I didn't take note of it--might have had a better picture.

The Friday Ark #104: All aboard!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

What's the name?

Looking over the search terms that have brought recent visitors to Thomasburg Walks I noticed that someone had come on a search from Australia for "parts of the teddy bear bee." My post "Teddy-bear Bee" popped up, but I wondered why someone would have chosen to search for the spur-of-the-moment nickname I gave to what I learned was a leaf-cutter bee (Megachile).

Turns out that there are bees commonly called "teddy bear bees," bees of the genus Amegilla. The link will take you to a picture of one. This link will take you to an Australian leaf-cutter bee of the same genus as my bee. Check it out and I'm sure you'll agree that my Megachile is much more like a teddy bear (pinchy mouth parts aside) than either of these Australian bees.

Appropriateness aside, this unintentional misappropriation of a name can serve as a reminder of the ambiguities inherent in the use of common names. There is a trend to standardize the common English names of birds so that they can be used as proper names. This has been done for North American birds by the AOU Checklist. And is now being attempted by the International Ornithological Conference for the English names of birds everywhere. (Read about this and all that it entails at Birds Etcetera.) What a lot of work! Work that is already done by the scientific (Latin) names, and done for English and non-English alike. Why do it all over again?

I and the Bird #32: The Passionate Birder

I and the Bird #32, the blog carnival of the best of recent bird and birder blogging is up at the always lovely Sand Creek Almanac. Deb has put together an excellent collection of posts, reflecting the various forms that birders' passions take. Check it out!

There's been birding in Thomasburg. I've been enjoying, and being frustrated by, the small flocks of migrants passing through. And watching with interest the birds that appear to still be on their breeding grounds. But my bird blogging muse has apparently deserted me again. Too bad, I would have been thrilled to be part of the collection that is I and the Bird #32. Maybe next time. Meantime, is this a Cooper's Hawk?