Thursday, March 30, 2006


Modelled after, it's here: an elegant presentation of a great collection. More new contributors plus many old favourites. It's i & the bird #20: birdicious, at bootstrap analysis: the lastest edition of the carnival of the best in recent bird and birder blog writing.

For more information about the carnival go to the home of I and the Bird. Next I & The Bird to appear on April 13. Send your submissions to mike AT

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Who's Singing Now?

Timing, timing. I'm feeling a desire this year beyond what I've felt in other years to know the schedule. I suspect it's due at least in part to the very weird winter we've had. A little in December, a little in March, with a rather dull break of a couple of months in the middle. Everything feels out of kilter, too early or too late.

Sunday morning the first crocuses bloomed

So I'm trying to pay attention: to the birds as they arrive, as they start to establish their territories; and to the year-round residents, when they start their breeding activities.

Singing Monday morning: American robin, purple finch, song sparrow, cardinal, junco, red-winged blackbird, mourning dove, ruffed grouse (drumming), northern flicker (also first seen). Also heard, not necessarily territorial singing: grackles, blue jays, goldfinches, redpolls, chickadees, starlings, crows, Canada geese, killdeer. Then there was the thrushy sring (not a whole song) I heard at the end of the day on a visit to Vanderwater Conservation Area. Hermit thrush maybe?

Yesterday I saw and heard the first brown-headed cowbird (male, females generally turn up a little later). Do they always sing as soon as they arrive?

I heard the first singing song sparrow just a few of days ago--now there are several apparently on territory through the fields.

This morning a pair of starlings are making the first serious, i.e., protracted, search for a nesting cavity. This activity may continue intermittently for a while before they settle in somewhere--and some may be lost due to bad choices. One year we had one in the basement that came down the furnace chimney. It was lucky to survive that, and that we were able (with some difficulty) to get it outside.

The year-rounders are more difficult to follow--seems wrong that I understand them less well, when I feel I know them so well. At some point in the spring--hard to pinpoint exactly--the chickadees and the blue jays in particular go quiet. I had a pair of blue jays nest in a tree just up by the shed one year, and I noticed nothing until they were feeding young. Chickadees have gotten by me the same way--taken over a nesting box, built a nest, raised young, and I only noticed when the fledglings began to emerge.

It seems possible that juncos will nest in or near the yard this year (this would be a first), since one has been singing from high perches for the last several days all around the yard. The junco has a nice trilling song, one I hadn't heard (or maybe hadn't noticed) before, that they sing in that classic territorial way. The problem with the blue jays and chickadees is that they each have so many vocalizations that they use so often, I can't pick out one that signals an attempt to establish a nesting territory, if there even is one. I used to think that the descending two-note chickadee song was the one--but I have read that this is actually used to establish hierarchy in the flock. Maybe some of the bluejay calls are about something like this as well.

Goldfinches present the same problem with the additional twist that they nest so late that my attention is usually engaged with watching for food-carrying and fledglings when they're just getting started. The goldfinches ae still in flocks, though considerably smaller just now than they were for most of the winter, and they do seem to be singing, as well as chattering among themselves as they do all winter. But at some point, June?, July? they presumably pair off for nesting. I usually only notice when the fledglings emerge.

There are more early migrants to come, meadowlark, tree swallow, bluebird spring to mind. Then the wood warblers and others arrive, and the place goes crazy.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Woodcock Peenting

Last night I thought I saw a woodcock fly past the house. It was pretty dark, but I could make out the stumpy silhouette and hear the whistling wings. So today I went out just before sunset, over to where there is a displaying woodcock every year, determined to stay out until I heard one.

A perusal of the unsystematic records of firsts of the year (notes in the weather journal) revealed that over the last 6 years the first woodcock has been heard as early as March 16 and as late as March 26. Pretty amazing really that the range is so small given how different the years have been weather-wise. This week in other years has been blizzardy, hot, chilly (as it is this year), and of course the weather leading up to it, and the weather on the woodcock's route, has varied widely as well. And yet still they come, in this ten-day period. And the other birds we take note of, the bluebirds, tree swallows, etc., show up with the same regularity.

It's chilly today, as I said. Not that the temperature is so low, but something about the combination of wind and frozen (most places) bare ground is bone chilling. I set out, walking into the setting sun, in its spring location. I couldn't see ahead of me, so until I got to the shade of the cedar bush I watched the ground. Lots of old scat, now completely bleached out. Bird song and calls all around me, mostly starlings, but a few American robins. When I got to the cedar bush I watched a pair of robins in a slow, friendly chase. Moved on to the far field, the sun low enough that I could see ahead, and listened for the sound of fox sparrows scratching in the leaf litter under the shrubs and trees at the edge of the field. No luck. Then I came upon a robin who began screaming as if I'd flushed her off a nest. I know this sound well from when robins have nested around the house, and never got used to me passing to and fro. I don't think there could be a nest yet, but from the song all around me, and this bit of screeching I think the robins are on territory now. Robins nest every half acre or so around here.

Heading back through the scrape (the area of the fields where the topsoil has been taken off), I heard one desultory peent, so I stopped for a while to wait and see if more developed. It was starting to get dark, and from the north, a few fields away I guess, I heard a low howl, and then a cacaphony of what sounded like a mixture of dog and coyote voices. Thinking of the tracks of the pack I'd seen earlier in the year I wondered if I was ready to confront a pack of coyotes. I moved to where I could hear better, but the chorus stopped. A chunky bird flew by me. It was really too dark now to see more than that it was a bird--could've been a robin, or a mourning dove (one had flown into the scrape about the time I got there), could've been a woodcock. I still don't know--but a moment later I could heard a woodcock in full voice very near. I listened, moving up a little and scanning with my binoculars to see if I could locate it. No--but after several calls off it went in its twittering flight. Mission accomplished. The woodcock's return established, I made my way home.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Flying Squirrel Sex Scandal

The Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario (currently in opposition) has singled out a grant for research into factors affecting reproductive success in the northern flying squirrel as an example of government waste. When the federal party of the right (variously named Reform, Alliance, and now Conservative (no "Progressive")) wanted to showcase examples of government "waste," (i.e., when they were in opposition) they invariably included grants for projects involving research into a rodent species.

Their hope apparently is that it will be obvious to anyone that research about squirrels or lemmings or what have you is clearly not a contribution to the public good. "Leave it to the free market," one can almost hear them say. "If the people want to know about population cycles of arctic rodents, or, as is the issue today, northern flying squirrel reproductive success, let them buy tickets!"

These examples give rise to much hilarity. See for example the headline in yesterday's Toronto Star: "Squirrel sex-life research is nuts: Tory"

The article's lead:
It sounds nutty, but it's true: Premier Dalton McGuinty's personal ministry is spending $150,000 to study the sex lives of northern flying squirrels.
The article goes on to give a brief sketch of what sounds like important and interesting research.

But then:
Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory said with the provincial budget being introduced on Thursday, taxpayers should be aware of where their money is going.

"Only these guys are so addicted to spending that they would search high and low to find someone who's studying the sex life of a flying squirrel.

"People have to ask ...: Is the public interest being served by the expenditure of this money?

"Academic freedom is great and people can study whatever they wish, but we don't have to support all of that kind of work with research grants ...when we don't have enough money for nurses or to build highways or fund a lot of other things."
Nurses and highways are important, but if we succeed in destroying the conditions that support human life through continued degradation of the environment, or accelerated global warming, they obviously won't matter a damn. There is so much we don't know about how our world works. Research such as the project being made fun of here supplies the pieces we need to keep putting the puzzle together.

It is frightening that people in positions of power in Canada apparently fail to understand this. And the scariest thing of all is that the guys on the federal level who habitually called the funding of biological and ecological research "waste" are now in government.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Clear Sky Clock

Just one of the many bonuses one might receive when reading the fine posts in any edition of I and the Bird. The current edition, #19 lead me to Five Wells where I came across this very cool thing--a forecast of atmospheric conditions, designed for star gazers, from Clear Sky Clock. I followed the links and discovered that there is a Clear Sky Clock for Vanderwater Conservation Area, just a few kilometres east of Thomasburg.

Click on the thumbnail to see the full-size clock, or scroll down to the bottom of the page.

When I first put the Weather Channel button on the sidebar I really believed that it gave the current temperature for Tweed (the village 10 klicks up the highway). I wondered how they knew--then realized it is actually the temperature at Trenton (where there is a weather station), 30 klicks to the southwest and on the shores of Lake Ontario. Sometimes we share a temp with them, most times not. But as I understand it the Clear Sky Clock uses more detailed information from Environment Canada to produce forecasts for very specific spots all over North America. There are numerous clocks all ready up and running. And Attilla Danko, the author of the site, is ready to produce clocks for new spots, as required. If you're a stargazer, or if you're just a fan of weather like myself, it's well worth taking a look at what he's doing.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The White-tailed Chickadee

A new species? I first noticed this chickadee in a flock of normally tailed birds a couple of days ago. Chickadees are so fast, and so not likely to linger on the feeders it's not easy to get a picture of a particular flock member. But I got a couple that give at least an impression of the tail.

Unexpected white feathers is a common phenomenon among birds apparently. A post at B and B describes A freaky chipping sparrow. And Troutgrrrl at Science and Sarcasm wrote about a white-tailed mourning dove visiting her yard. I myself have seen a house sparrow with patches of white on the wings where none should be.

A slightly different view

Something else to take into account when identifying birds. Mike of 10,000 Birds has a series, Bergin's Laws of Avian Identification that is well worth taking a look at. His law number #4, "Common birds are easier to identify than rare birds," is pertinent here. Know your common birds well, don't take them for granted, and you'll have a better chance of not getting tripped up by one with an odd patch of white or two. (B and B's freaky chipping sparrow was much whiter than that--that was a true feat of identification!)

I read something about this white feather business just in the last week or so, suggesting that there are a number of possible causes. One is diet, and in those cases the phenomenon might well disappear at the next molt. Unfortunately I can't remember where I read it--but if it comes back to me I'll add the reference.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

I and the Bird #19

It's up! It's early! It's bigger and better than ever!

I and the Bird #19 is up over at Science and Politics. Forty examples of the best of recent bird and birder blogging, including regulars and newcomers; big birds and little birds; northern and southern hemispheres; science; natural history; birding; and photography. A great collection! Check it out.

For more information about the carnival go to the home of I and the Bird. The next edition of I and the Bird will be hosted by Nuthatch of Bootstrap Analysis on March 30th, 2006.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Cardinal Sings

What a difference a day makes. After a rainy, warm day yesterday a warmer sunny day today. The night before last a cardinal was singing in the bush beyond the edge of the far field. Last night a single red-winged blackbird sang a couple of phrases across the street; today, early singers galore.

In the cedar bush at least two robins and a purple finch were singing. The tracks of a raccoon couple crossed the swamp. And beyond the edge of the far field two or three cardinals traded phrases. Chickadees checked me out, then went back to their hierarchy battles of song and chase. Blue jays everywhere--making almost every sound in their repertory (I've got to learn more about the language of blue jays!). Crows flew around, kicking up fuss after fuss, about what I don't know.

This is 4 shots pasted together to show part of the edge of the far field. This shrubby, fading into woodsy bit of territory is some of the best birding on my walk. Last year this little stretch was home to magnolia warblers, chestnut-sided warblers, the Brewster's and blue-winged warbler couple, American redstarts, common yellowthroats, catbirds, brown thrashers, kingbirds, vesper sparrows, cardinals and more.

Back at the house, more purple finches singing, and two pairs visited the feeders. I hadn't seen these guys for ages--nice to have them back. The white-breasted nuthatches indulged in a little courtship feeding. Red-winged blackbirds came to feed, and could be heard singing in all directions. (The song of the red-winged blackbird is the sure sign of spring for me.) A couple of grackles joined them at the feeders--first of these I've seen this year. Commn redpolls, juncos, starlings, and goldfinches were also in attendance.

And I found these poking up through the ground in the spring bulb bed on the south side of the house.



Overly optimistic of them I'm pretty sure. But we can dream.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Walking at Dusk

There are signs of spring and signs of spring. Robins have been singing the last few days, not on territory, just warming up. Nuthatches continue to sing. The juncos are still around (unusual for us to have a flock here all winter), and they are starting to sing. But the breeding season is a ways off yet.

What is here though is dusk. I left the house at just before 6 tonight and came home an hour later still able to see my way around. In the winter it is so easy to miss the chance for a walk at the end of the day--a moment's distraction and the sun has dropped out of the sky. It was good to get out and really spend some time in deepening gloom. No birds but a pair of mourning doves, no mammals but the rabbit I startled at the bird feeder when I got back, but soon the evening will be full of sound again: robins, wood thrush, woodcock, and even some warblers.

I also needed to get out in the dusk because I needed to claim back my territory from a very active pack of coyotes. From the middle of January to almost the end of February there was an enormous amount of coyote activity in the fields and in the yard and streets of the hamlet. I saw track evidence in the fields of what appeared to be four animals travelling together. Many mornings I saw tracks in the yards of at least two. I heard coyotes howling off to the east, and then answered from just west of the yard. I saw a coyote come down the road and across the far end of the yard one night after seeing a coyote sitting in a field one the south end of the hamlet in the middle of the morning the day before.

Coyotes! One February night's tracks.

Over the last couple of years, and particularly the last 12 months, I have run into a number of coyotes. Except for one occasion when the coyote didn't notice me the meetings have all gone the same way. The coyote looks then leaves. There has never been a hint of a threat, though the encounters generally leave my heart pounding, not entirely a result of the thrill of encountering the wild.

I've never met four coyotes, and I'm not sure I want to. I'd love to see four all at once--but maybe from a car, or at a great distance, not on the ground, in the field. I don't believe there's any danger from them to an adult human being, but this is probably because coyotes are smart enough to know that I might have a rifle with me, but not perceptive enough to be able to tell that I don't. It isn't because four coyotes would have any trouble taking down a lone human being--something they might not know, but that I'm unlikely to forget.

The intense activity has abated--my speculation is that the hamlet is on the border between the territories of two packs that were getting themselves in order for mating and raising new pups. On this theory, the activity has died down because the border has been established and the coyotes are deeper within their respective areas establishing dens, etc. There were fresh tracks out there tonight, but of one or two animals, not four. And if I'm right, it's unlikely that they'll be all together right around here again this season--too busy.

So the time was right to get out there in the dusk, when coyotes are most likely to be active, to shake out my nerves. And it was lovely.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Birders Look Back from 2036

I and the Bird #18, the current edition of the carnival of the best of birder and bird blogging, is up. Our host, Rob, The Birdchaser, looks back from 2036 through the lens of a diverse, international collection of stories from 2006, to elucidate birding and bird appreciation then and now. A plausible and somewhat frightening view of the future, a great collection of posts. Check it out!

For more information about I and the Bird, click on the logo.

I and the Bird #19 will be up at Science and Politics on March 16 (submissions due by March 14).

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Snow Tunnels

Right after the snow stopped on Saturday, something leapt and snow-dived in a path leading from the young pines to the property line (rocky hedgerow for the most part). Red squirrel is my best guess, as I mentioned in the post Snow! There were some prints showing the body and tail that looked the right size and shape--and I learned in December that red squirrels do tunnel in the snow when I had one tunneling from the roadside to under the bird feeders in the snow we had back then. Found more tracks and dives Sunday--out across the open spaces of the fields and the scrape. I still think that the perpetrator is a red squirrel, the tracks suggested this, though the powdery conditions meant that there wasn't a lot of detail.

I photoshopped this to death to try to bring out some of the features in these tracks.

Squirrel tunnel?

For tunnel comparison, here's a photo of the possible mustelid tunnel (long-tailed weasel, or perhaps mink, or marten) I found in December (first published here).

Same glove as above.

But I find this travel across vast open spaces odd for a red squirrel. I've certainly never seen a squirrel out there, and it is possible to travel from beyond the far field or from the cedar bush all the way to the bird feeders in the yard through the young pines, along the hedgerows, etc., without ever crossing more than a few metres of open space. So if this was indeed a red squirrel, what's it doing out there?