Sunday, January 29, 2006

Rare Birds

Looking out the window today, idly watching a small bird work its way up the trunk of a tree at the edge of the yard, I suddenly realized that I didn't know what I was seeing. Luckily binoculars were at hand, and I was able to see that the bird was a brown creeper!

This is only the second time in my life that I've seen one of these birds although they overwinter in this part of the world, as well as breed here. They are just so small, and so well camouflaged, that they are not easy to see. Lately I've noticed on the Ontario birder listserv I subscribe to and on blogs I read (see for example "brown creeper" at Bootstrap Analysis or "A Beautiful Day" at A DC Birding Blog or "Creeping Along" at Woodsong) many reports of the creeper. I've gotten over feeling hard done by that there are so many reports of snowy owls around this year and I've yet to see one. But a brown creeper, when there are so many around all the time, it didn't seem like too much to ask.

I feel much better now.

But it made me think about a post I read at Birding is NOT a crime!!!! recently about a smack down by an experienced birder of a newby, for carefully reporting as if it were a great find the sighting of a common bird. And it made me think of a comment Mike of 10,000 Birds left on a post here about my first sighting of a red-bellied woodpecker.
I just wanted to say how enjoyable it is to hear your excitement over a bird I take for granted. Red-bellies are extremely common here in New York, the product of their long march northward. I often drool over the boreal/arctic birds you and the Canadian clan (Clare and Trix, take a bow) see, so it's nice to see the shoe on the other foot!
Context is everything. In the case of the red-bellied woodpecker the context is region--a new bird to me, a regular further south. The context of my brown creeper, and lack thereof--probably level of experience. As I said, they're hard to see, but as birders learn as they grow, what couldn't be seen before, with more experience turns up all over the place. When you start out--first start to take seeing and identifying birds seriously, everything is new, everything is rare. I remember the amazement I felt when I first identified a black-billed cuckoo--perhaps only matched by that I felt when I learned that the black-billed cuckoo is quite a common bird (though sneaky, and pretty quiet, so somewhat hard to see). I remember and I enjoy seeing/reading about others going through the same learning process.

The example of an oft-reported commonplace given at the end of the post at Birding is NOT a crime!!!! is the sighting of four cardinals in the Illinois backyard. I don't know about Illinois, but really, four??!!! I've never seen four cardinals all at once--and if I did, I'd be sure to tell someone about it.

Wordless Circus of the Spineless

The January edition of Circus of the Spineless is up at Pharyngula: Circus of the Spineless #5: Wordless edition, a picture-perfect catalogue of the best of recent invertebrate stories and pictures from around the blogosphere.

Check it out!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Red Foxes in Yellowknife

Like so many wildlife stories in the mass media, this one raises more questions than it answers.
A 15-year-old boy was playing in his front yard Wednesday night in freezing weather when a fox destroyed his soccer ball and made off with an iced cappuccino.

The animal did not lunge or act aggressively, but the boy's family, who've lived in Yellowknife for years, had never seen a fox so bold. "In Yellowknife, a fox's diet includes cappuccino to go," CBC News, Jan 20, 2006.

Fox? What kind of fox hangs around in Yellowknife, NWT? CBC kindly provided a link to the Hinterland Who's Who page for the red fox. And their range map definitely shows this fox in the Arctic.

Canadian Wildlife Service

So the animal involved was a red fox. But what was really going on? Winter in Yellowknife and a 15-year-old boy is in the front yard, playing. A soccer ball is clearly involved--practicing heading the ball perhaps. The fox comes along, grabs a loose ball? Has trouble getting hold of it. Bites too hard--destroys the ball. Understandable, the fox had probably never played soccer before.

It's the role played by the iced cappuccino that's giving me trouble. I'm guessing it came from a Tim Horton's, they're everywhere, and popular beyond reason. And I can't imagine anyone making one for himself in the middle of winter. So an iced cappuccino in a paper cup.

Is the boy carrying it? Or has he set it down while he practices his soccer moves? Since the fox reportedly "did not lunge or act aggressively," I assume the drink had been set down nearby rather than being in the boy's hand. Freezing temperatures, so iced cap will keep.

A boy playing with a soccer ball, iced cappuccino sitting nearby. A fox comes to join in the game, but it goes wrong. Game called due to soccer ball destruction, the fox delicately picks up the paper cup of icy sweetness (yes, very, very sweet) and leaves.

But how, oh how, can a fox who "destroyed" a soccer ball pick up a paper cup and succeed in making off with it without destroying the cup and losing the treat?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Last Night I Dreamed of Birds

The temperature here yesterday hit a high of more than 8C. We still had some snow in spite of days of above freezing temperatures, but it was going fast yesterday. And the only bird that came to the feeder was a mourning dove that's been hanging around acting strangely. I suspect it isn't well. So I went for a walk to see if anyone was around. A handful of chickadees met me in the cedar bush and followed me across the far field.

A picture from a couple of weeks ago in the cedar bush--even more green growth in the water now.

And there were a couple of blue jays in the bush as well--strangely furtive and behaving in unusual ways. I mistook them both for other things--a thrush seen in the distance traversing the ground, and a flying squirrel scuttling across and swooping through the branches above me. Jays both times. The flying squirrel illusion was particularly unsettling. After I saw the jay I kept on looking for the squirrel I was sure must be occupying the same space--though they say that's a logical impossibility.

So not without its perceptual interest, but that's not many birds. Not a cardinal, a robin, a goldfinch, a junco, a crow, a tree sparrow, or a snowy owl to be seen.

So last night I dreamed of a great horned owl, and even better, four or five birds of a species I didn't recognize. Maybe the size of an evening grosbeak, sturdy birds, with delicate markings, rich browns predominantly. A bird I've seen a picture of somewhere perhaps. But what it put me in mind of was the Asian koel I read about on the Bird Ecology Study Group blog out of Singapore recently. Not that it looked like that exactly--rather it may have been a dream bird inspired by that bird.

This morning it was raining. But then the rain turned to snow!

It was snowing quite hard when I took this. But I was standing on a patch of green grass on the south side of a large spruce.

When the snowfall lightened, but before the sun came out, the birds came back. No juncos or tree sparrows, but goldfinches, chickadees, and woodpeckers swarmed the feeders.

Downy on Suet

The sun did come out, and the temperature hovered around the freezing mark, maintaining most of the 4 or 5 cm of new snow. The birds left again.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Do it for Saemangeum!

International birder Charlie, of Charlie's Bird Blog, is also, along with his brother and others, a co-founder of Birds Korea, an organization to advocate for the protection of important bird habitat in Korea. A couple of days ago Charlie wrote about the threat to Saemangeum, an area of tidal flats and estuary on the coast of the Yellow Sea that is the staging ground for hundreds of thousands of shore birds every year, and is scheduled for "reclamation." In other words, draining, destruction as shorebird habitat.

The greatest threat to biodiversity is habitat destruction. And the effects of the destruction of this particular place will reverberate around the world.

Charlie is appealing to the birding community to "bird for Saemangeum" the weekend of Feburary 3, to raise money to pay for the research necessary to make the case solid that this site must be protected from the proposed development. But he explains it better than I can--read the story on his blog, and if you've never been there before take a look around at the stories and images from birding that most of us can can only dream of. And help if you can. Keep the dream alive.

I and the Bird #15

It's time once again for the blog carnival I and the Bird, a collection of the best of recent bird and birder blogging.

Our host this week is Aydin of Snail's Tales, and the show, Bird on Bird, is breath taking.

Aydin has woven an international selection of submissions into a brief, cryptic, magnificent poem in something of the style of a young Bob Dylan. It's something to see all by itself, but it also evokes each piece in the collection so well you'll find yourself drawn into stories from all across the birding world.

Don't miss it!

The next I and the Bird will be at Dharma Bums on Thursday, February 2.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Wild Turkeys

Prince Edward County is usually good for wild turkey sightings, but this visit I saw nary a one. Then Saturday morning, before the snow started and the cold returned, I discovered that a couple of these lovely birds had come down the laneway at least a little way and crossed into the fields below the house.

The first sign, enormous green bird scat. I don't associate green scat with turkeys, and at first wondered if this was Canada goose spoor, though it didn't look quite right. We had a long enough period of warm weather that a bunch of greenery sprang up on the forest floors; might be adding some variety to everyone's usual winter diet.

Wandering around off the beaten track a little I found another scat, this time associated with some nice clear turkey tracks--fresh, because still relatively crisp in the last little bit of snow remaining after the long period of the melt.

Lovely tracks in soft, wet snow.

My guess is that the turkeys passed just a few hours before, and I could have seen them if I'd just glanced out a window at the right moment.

Troutgrrrl of Science and Sarcasm writes of a turkey roost near her home--the turkeys go to bed at 5:00. It's been my experience too that turkeys are early to bed, and not all that early to rise, so it probably would have been full daylight when they passed.

The Four Woodpecker Yard

As I wrote a couple of days ago, I have now seen my first red-bellied woodpecker. Since then I have seen it several more times. What a lovely bird, and so interesting to see a new bird that is so woodpeckerish, and yet strikingly different from the woodpeckers I know. Different voice, different wingbeats, different posture landing and taking off from the trunk of a tree.

I could see this particularly well because the woodpeckers I know have been coming around too: the downy, the hairy and the pileated. A pair of downys have been frequenting the yard and the feeder, a hairy drops by quite regularly, and finally I got to see the pileated who had been leaving such clear sign in the woods just below the yard.

This is the first sign I saw when I arrived--lots of pileated work here!

These were made the other day--the occasion of my first sighting of the bird this week.

This morning work began on a new hole in the same tree. And you can also see our new snow.

It occurs to me that I also saw a northern flicker the first day I was here, but that's not such a woodpeckerish woodpecker, and anyway, it's a crazy bird to see in winter--this year is the first time I have--and always down here, not up in Thomasburg. Anyway if I counted it, that would make five.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

More Coyotes

This spot in Prince Edward County, where I have been staying for the past week (home again tomorrow) is the spot for seeing coyotes. The last three I've seen have been here, in almost the same spot. Once in the early summer, once a month or so ago, and today. All three times the coyote has been crossing just below the house. Now I know that they also come into the yard right around the house because I've found tracks and scats, and the other night I stepped out and startled a couple of somethings into leaving the yard and making a hasty retreat down an almost vertical slope, a drop of 10 or 15 metres. Could have been deer, but it's so steep, I'd have to see deer manage it at that speed to believe it.

The coyote I saw today was interesting for two reasons. First, it didn't notice me, so I got to watch it for a whole minute or two from above as it worked its way across the bottom of the slope and up through the woods on the other side of the yard. But second it was the first one I've ever seen that showed clear signs of mange.

I've heard a lot about mange in coyotes in this area. I gather that it can become very widespread, and then fades out of the population for a while, to reappear a few years later. Here's a link to a hunters' forum discussion about coyotes and mange. Mange is a disease caused by an infestation of mites. It's said to be very itchy, and the animal I saw today did stop for a good scratch. (The action showed how very thick its coat was where it was not affected.) It probably has sarcoptic mange, very common in canid populations in these parts. The mites cause itchiness, thickening of the skin and hair loss. Today's coyote had a beautiful coat on the front half of its body, patchy in the back half and an almost naked tail. And today the temperature dropped back near January normals--hard to live around here if you lose your coat.

Mange spreads from animal to animal--the mites don't survive long on their own. So obviously the more coyotes there are, the bigger their packs, the closer together they live, the more mange there will be.

I hear coyotes often in Thomasburg, and as I wrote in, my last post, people are shooting them there in a rather dedicated way lately, so there is at least the perception that we have a lot, too many. But I hear them more often (in proportion to listening opportunities) and see them so often down here I think there are probably many more.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A Bird in the Hand

This week I am staying in Prince Edward County--the birder's paradise to the south of thomasburg--the almost island in Lake Ontario. And it hasn't disappointed. The first day I was here I saw a red-bellied woodpecker, a first for me!

The red-bellied woodpecker is another in that gang of birds that are expanding north. Sibley's range map shows them to occur in a very narrow band on the north shore of Lake Ontario--and I'd been hearing a lot about them in the last couple of years, so it was a pleasure to finally see one. The first time I saw it, it was feeding high in the little bit of hardwood forest that borders the yard here. I am staying in a friend's empty house. It was empty for a couple of weeks before I arrived, so the feeders were empty. I filled the seed feeder and put out a suet cake as soon as I arrived (and was almost knocked down by a chickadee as I was hanging the seed feeder back up!) A couple of days later I saw the red-bellied woodpecker again, this time on the suet feeder, of which there is a terrific view from the livingroom. I ran for my camera--batteries too low. Find the knapsack with the other set of batteries, put them in, all the while glancing over to see if the bird was still there. It was! But then it caught the movement of my coming up to the glass doors and fled before I could raise the camera.

Meantime, back in Thomasburg, I hear, there has been a mature bald eagle hanging around for a couple of days in one spot--easily seen by anyone who can get there. But of course I could not--over an hour away, and I heard too late....I've seen bald eagles fly over a couple of times in Thomasburg (have had much better sightings of them down here in the County), but never sitting in a tree. Oh well, traded one good bird for another--not a bad thing.

Later I heard an explanation of why the eagle was hanging out near the hamlet. The rumour is that neighbours were baiting coyotes with meat in order to shoot them, and the eagle was there to share the free meal. As far as I can tell this is a legal, though not traditional, hunting method. And if you have a small game license you can take coyotes anytime of the year in my area (there are some restrictions on the season in Northern Ontario, and there is a ban on the hunting of coyotes around Algonquin Park to protect the very similar Eastern Wolf there). I am frankly ambivalent about this activity. I like to hear coyotes in the night (where I'm staying now I hear them constantly and close by), and I like the occasional sighting too. But I was a little concerned when I saw a couple on the streets of the hamlet last winter (see Signs of the Apocalypse), at about 10:00 one night. Too close, too bold. (Up until last year there was a large and always loose dog in the hamlet--he caused no trouble, and was not one to seek confrontation, but he barked at anything that needed to be barked at, and probably discouraged the coyotes from coming around the houses.) The ideal situation would be that we share the space--protect livestock better and tolerate some losses, and behave sensibly: no feeding, discourage close contact.

But hunting is a quick way to teach a smart animal to keep a respectful distance from human beings. Just before I came down here I was thinking about the apparently predatory attack on and killing of a young man at Wollaston Lake in northern Saskatchewan by wolves. I was reminded by this post at The House and Other Arctic Musings. The Saskatchewan wolves were "habituated" wolves--they had been eating garbage and being fed by human beings around human habitation, and this was the cause of the problem. Clare's story at The House was about arctic wolves around his home, in the course of it he mentioned that the wolves were hunted in his area, and so were shy of human beings.

Learning to live with larger predators such as coyotes, wolves, cougars, bears is crucial to our being able to restore and/or maintain healthy, diverse habitats. Too many deer and other browsers, for example, are a threat to ecosytems all over North America. (Here's just one of many stories: Deer Eliminate Bears, from Bootstrap Analysis) There has already been some recovery of habitat in Yellowstone as a result of the reintroduction of wolves there in/around 1995, because they've been eating up some of the excess elk. But it's been difficult everywhere to overcome human beings' sense of entitlement not to have their property (i.e., sheep, etc.) threatened, and not to have their sense of security impinged in any way by other species.

The Hare Revealed--Addended: Not a Hare

We had a daytime visit from one of the mystery lagomorphs. And I was able to get this picture.

In transition?

I think this is a snowshoe hare (wish the feet were more in evidence), changing slowly to white, I guess. When it took off it moved differently from a cottontail, more like an arctic hare (which, sad to say, I've only seen on TV). I flushed a cottontail in the fields on the day I took this shot, a much darker and smaller rabbit. Also a more nervous animal--it bolted when I was still a fair distance away and it had been under cover. The animal in the photo sat under the tree while I stood barely 3 or 4 metres away, intermittently freezing and then returning to its feeding. It was only when I moved a few feet that it took off.

The red/orange pee phenomenon ended a day or two after I first reported it. So, still something of a mystery. Either it was the product of a particular individual who stopped coming around, or a result of some dietary delicacy that the rabbit or hare was no longer eating. A comment left on the first post by Troutgrrrl informed me that porphyrin (one possible cause of the red colour) could have come from a plant source, as this substance is found in chlorophyll as well as hemoglobin--still don't know though why some times or some individuals and not others.

The second and last English language leaders' debate of the federal election campaign takes place tonight. Things are not going well--must walk more and pay less attention to politics...maybe after the debate.

Thanks to Ontario Wanderer and Terry Sprague I now believe that the animal pictured above is a big, strange looking cottontail. Ontario Wanderer commented on this post that hares seen in January in Algonquin Park are completely white. This white patchiness but not real whiteness of this beast had me worried already. So I checked with Terry Sprague, a local naturalist who gets out there as was bound to know what's around. He kindly got back to me and told me that there are indeed snowshoe hares among the cottontails in the area, for example, in a conservation area south of Thomasburg, and that they are white this time of year. He also thought that the photograph showed the foot of the animal well enough for him to determine that it wasn't a snowshoe foot--another point on which I was unsure. There has also been a discussion of these two species on the Eastern Ontario Nature List. They occur together all over Eastern Ontario, though some report that the snowshoes stick to deep cover while the cottontails come around the house, but this is not universal. There has also been concern that perhaps the lateness and intermittance of the snow cover this year has put the snowshoe hares at a severe disadvantage--sticking out like sore thumbs on the bare ground when they are seen.

What I have learned from all of this--pee, whiteness, tracks, etc? Red pee is not particularly a sign of a snowshoe--it can occur in any rabbit/hare under certain circumstances--those circumstances however are not clearly understood. (Thanks Troutgrrrl for the further references on this topic--see her comment on this post). I have found tracks of snowshoe hares in the yard near the house--and it isn't too surprising, there is habitat less than 50 metres away of the kind they like (good, thick coniferous cover). I have not yet seen a snowshoe hare in winter in Thomasburg. Cottontails can be big, small, dark, blond, patchy, elegant, shy and brave.

I've learned a lot in other words. I've gained a better understanding of questions that have been bothering me winter after winter for all the years I've lived in Thomasburg. (Of course, my favourite part of winter is that there is so much sign around many questions are raised.)

All that's left is to do is actually lay eyes on a Thomasburg snowshoe hare in winter.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The First I and the Bird of 2006

And it's a good one. Gwyn of Bird Brained Stories!, tells a tale of adventure and a final reckoning (I and the Bird #14--Lake Birdbegon Days) that weaves together the best in birder and bird blogging from around the blogosphere and around the world. New participants and old favourites abound, with stories of Christmas Bird Counts (including my Counting Birds), listing, sightings and other adventures. Check it out!

I and the Bird #15 will be hosted by SNAIL'S TALES on January 19, 2006. Get your submissions in to Mike at I and the Bird Central or Aydin at SNAIL'S TALES by January 17.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Rabbits and Hares

Ice fog this morning.

Every winter I am faced with the problem of trying to distinguish between cottontail spoor and snowshoe hare spoor. It should be easy--cottontails have rather narrow back feet, while snowshoes have feet that are, well, like snowshoes. But of course snow conditions are not always ideal, so I end up with a lot of tracks that I can't decipher. Their scats are said to differ slightly in size, but this is a little subtle to rest an identification on.

Also troubling is that I've never seen a white rabbit/hare here--although I've seen many brown, grizzled, reddish, etc. ones, and since I have seen a white one, i.e., a snowshoe hare in winter coat, less than 10 km north of Thomasburg, I have no reason to suppose that this is a region where they don't change colour for the winter. (There are such regions, but if it's true that the change depends on changes in the light, I assume that they are well south of here.) I don't know that all the rabbits/hares, you know, lagomorphs, I've seen have been cottontails. In fact I've seen some I was pretty sure were not, but there aren't good field marks to tell these two species apart, except, of course, the feet. In the summer though, you need to be holding it in your arms to get a good look at those, and that opportunity doesn't present itself very often. The feet would also distinguish snowshoes from European hares and domestic rabbits, both of which might turn up here to add to the identification problems. The European hare is quite a bit bigger than the cottontail and has longer ears than the snowshoe, as well as different feet. The domestic rabbit though takes many forms. In summer I identify rabbits/hares by sight as cottontail or "Gee, I don't think that is a cottontail." Cottontail is by far the most common summer sight of the two.

But we did have excellent conditions for tracks a week ago, and I managed to get this photo of what is clearly a snowshoe track. Notice the spread toes on the hind feet (front of the track).

Then the last couple of mornings there has been a veritable sea of lagomorph tracks in the yard--converging under the bird feeders, some suggestive of snowshoe, some not so much, but nothing so definitive as the track pictured here. But I found another sign this morning that I have read is sign of the snowshoe.

Red pee!

But where did I read it? I looked in two of my track books, my standard,Olaus J. Murie's A Field Guide to Animal Tracks, and Len McDougall's The Complete Tracker. Neither mentioned red pee, although Murie makes the helpful remark that "Ordinarily [cottontail rabbits] are not found in the same places as the snowshoe hare, so their tracks and droppings are not likely to be confused." So I went to my old, falling apart (shedding old, dried out glue) copy of Richard P. Smith's Animal Tracks and Signs of North America. And there it was, without apology or explanation: "Urine from snowhoes often stains the snow orange and is sometimes mistaken for blood." (p. 83)

I've found this dark orange or red pee in winter before, and hoped that it signified snowshoes, but an Internet search today revealed only this bit of information on a website dedicated to the health of domestic rabbits: "Urine may be pigmented dark red to orange which is an incidental finding and may indicate increased ingestion of dietary porphyrins or elevated urobilin." (Nuthatch of Bootstrap Analysis had better luck researching blue pee, a bit of rabbit spoor she came across and describes in a post titled, blue smurf pee, rabbits, and buckthorn.)

Porphyrins are components of hemoglobin. I don't know what is fed to domestic rabbits that contains this, but the only source I can think of for wild rabbits/hares is carrion or bloody snow. This is something that would be available to them occasionally, and one that they will partake of when they can (as many, if not most, herbivores will). But this makes me think that this is not particularly a sign of snowshoe hares. I don't know what "elevated urobilin" means, or whether it is a sign of illness.

I'm guessing that this orange/red urine sign is in one guide and not the other two because it is not a "safe" generalization about snowshoe hares, but rather something that Richard P. Smith himself frequently observed wherever it was that he tracked snowshoes.

I refer to three guides to animal tracks (and scats, etc.) because each author brings something different to his work: A different perspective, experience, emphasis. And each is illustrated differently. Smith's book is illustrated with photographs, the other two with sketches (McDougall also has photographs of representatives of some of the species he covers.). The sketches in Murie's book are from life, in McDougall they are simplified to bring out the main feature he wants you to look for. Each talks about actual experiences he's had with the various animals, and each talks about identifying species by tracks and other spoor in general. With three guides available the chances are better that I'll find something that gives me some clue about whatever I'm trying to identify. I wish I had five.

So, I know that there is at least one snowshoe coming around. I know that there are at least two, and probably more, hares and rabbits visiting the feeders at night this week. And I should mention that right by the big red pee stain there was a smaller pale yellow stain. But I don't know yet whether red (orange) pee is a sign of the snowshoe hare, or a lagomorph with a fancy diet.