Tag Archives: birding

Volunteers needed for a “Bird Blitz”

male-bobolinkAre you a birder? Are you good at identifying grassland birds by ear?

Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) needs your help on a one-day breeding bird survey or ‘blitz’ of meadow habitat in CVC’s middle and upper watersheds. During the blitz volunteers will gather information on the location, abundance and nature of the habitat that these birds require for breeding.

CVC is looking for people who might want to participate in this one-day event. The Bird Blitz will take place in June, with a 2 hour training session ahead of time. Volunteers will conduct surveys – in teams – from roadsides via a ‘point-count’ method.

If you’re interested in participating in the Bird Blitz, please complete the CVC’s online questionnaire.  This questionnaire will help them set up the best dates for training and staging the event.

If you have any questions, please call Annabel Krupp at CVC, 905.670-1615 x 446

About the Grassland Bird Recovery Program

Local populations of grassland birds are finding it increasingly difficult to locate suitable habitat for breeding, nesting and resting. Species like the Eastern Meadowlark and Bobolink are declining and are now considered provincially at-risk, according to ecologists at Credit Valley Conservation (CVC). In an effort to better understand the issues affecting these species and take action to begin addressing their decline, CVC has instituted a pilot 3 year Grassland Bird Recovery Program.  The program has received funding from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources’ Species at Risk Habitat Stewardship Fund.

Field Report: Sam Smith Park, November 16th

by Fiona Reid – President
Long-tailed Duck (Fiona Reid_
Long-tailed Duck (Fiona Reid_

Our party of two had a great outing to this urban park. It is closer than Leslie Street Spit, with a lot less walking and some really good wetland and lakeshore habitats. Our first bird of interest was a Gray Catbird near a small pond. On the pond shore we also saw a young Black-crowned Night Heron and some Shoveler and Gadwall. Up ahead a Hooded Merganser caught our eye. On the lake were many ducks and grebes, and we had excellent views of a nice male Harlequin Duck! On our way back we saw many signs of Beaver (we had already seen a Muskrat swimming) and then we saw a Northern Mockingbird that has been residing in the area for some time, according to local birders. I hope we can return with more club members in future.

Our species list for the day is below:

  • Black-crowned Night-Heron
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Blue Jay
  • American Black Duck
  • Bufflehead
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Gadwall
  • Harlequin Duck
  • Hooded Merganser
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Long-tailed Duck
  • Mallard
  • Mute Swan
  • Red-breasted Merganser
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Redhead
  • Horned Grebe
  • Gray Catbird
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Red-necked Grebe
  • Tree Sparrow
  • American Goldfinch
  • American Robin
  • Mourning Dove
  • Northern Shoveler
  • Red-tailed Hawk (on way back)

Bird sightings

photo by Ann Fraser
photo by Ann Fraser

This winter brought Tundra Swans very close to us, just south of Georgetown during April. The agricultural fields southeast of Mountainview and 10th Side Road also hosted Canada Geese, Caspian Tern, and nearby Ring necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, Coot, Mallard, Redhead, and 7 Hooded Mergansers were seen on one visit by Dave Williams. Who needs Lake Ontario when the birds will come to us!

Hairys and Downys

by Don Scallen, Vice-President
Downy Woodpecker - Illustration by Fiona Reid
Downy Woodpecker – Illustration by Fiona Reid

Hairy and Downy woodpeckers frequent backyard feeders at this time of year. Though different sizes – the hairy larger, the downy smaller – their colouration and patterning is well-nigh identical. The bills tell the tale. Hairy woodpeckers brandish large dagger- like beaks; the beaks of Downys are smaller and more chisel-like.

I’ve always assumed that downy and hairy woodpeckers were about as closely related as two species could be – that sometime in the relatively recent past, their lineages diverged from a common ancestor.

This happens when a species of animal or plant becomes geographically isolated through some mechanism, such as an ice age. Each group then proceeds on its own evolutionary trajectory to become a different species.

Interestingly, gene sequencing has proven that this process is not responsible for the similarity between downy and hairy woodpeckers. It turns out that they aren’t closely related at all. They are both, most assuredly, woodpeckers, but they peck on separate branches in the woodpecker evolutionary tree.

One startling theory suggests that mimicry – like the mimicry that explains the similarity between monarch butterflies and viceroy butterflies – is at work. Just as viceroys benefit from their resemblance to toxic monarchs, downy woodpeckers may benefit from looking like hairy woodpeckers.

To explain how, a study in 2012 proposed that the look-alike downys are able to claim space and resources because hairy woodpeckers mistake them for other hairys. The reasoning continues that since hairy woodpeckers know that fighting each other is potentially dangerous – recall the dagger beak — they leave the similar looking downys alone as well.

I don’t think the last words have been written on this topic. For me the idea that downy and hairy woodpeckers developed their striking similarity as a result of mimicry strains credulity, but then the natural world is nothing if not astonishing.

Read more by Don Scallen at his blog, Notes from the Wild

Long-tailed Ducks

Long-tailed Duck (Fiona Reid_
Long-tailed Duck (Fiona Reid_

Personally I prefer their old name, Oldsquaw, but sadly it has been replaced by a more prosaic one. Nonetheless, this bird has always been a favorite of mine, a winter visitor elegantly attired at all times, and as with all the winter ducks, apparently unfazed by cold water and icy winds.

Don Scallen and I had stopped off at the Travelodge Hotel in Burlington to see what the lakeshore had to offer and we enjoyed watching a large group of Long-tailed Ducks diving for food. They swam away from the rocky wall on our approach, but not for long. They returned close to shore to dive under large chunks of rubble and rocks, staying underwater for several minutes at a time. We thought they were probably gleaning mollusks, and in fact this is their main source of food in winter. In summer these ducks also eat aquatic insects, other aquatic invertebrates, and some plant material. They usually feed within 30 feet of the water surface, as they were today, but these ducks can dive more than 200 feet deep at times. Like most ducks they propel themselves with their feet when diving, but they also may swim with their wings partly open. They fly low, with stiff wing-beats, sometimes tilting from side to side. During migration and when flying over land they fly very high in large flocks.

These ducks establish pair bonds in winter or during migration. They nest near water, using a great deal of down that the female supplements as she lays her eggs. Females first breed at two years of age, laying 6 to 11 eggs and incubating for 24- 29 days. The young swim and dive soon after hatching, but are tended by the female who may dislodge food items for them. They start to fly about a month later.

by Fiona Reid
President, Halton/North Peel Naturalist Club

Cackling Geese at Fairy Lake, Acton

On December 23, 2012, Bradley Bloemendal posted the sighting of at least three Cackling Geese at Fairy Lake in Acton was on the ONTBirds hotline. Next day, I went to check out the report. At that time, there was still a fairly large area of open water on the lake. I counted 330 Canada Geese, 32 Mallards, one American Black Duck, 6 Common Mergansers, and 8 Ring-billed Gulls. I could not distinguish any Cackling Geese among the birds there but they could easily have been present among the geese lined up on the ice off to the west side of the lake. Many had their heads tucked in and size differences were impossible to determine under those conditions. On December 26, I went back and found that much of the formerly-open water had frozen. The Canada Goose count was now down to 130 and those were present in the last open water close to the point in Prospect Park. Among them were four Cackling Geese. As can be seen in the accompanying photo, the Cackling Geese are much smaller than the regular Canada Geese and their bills are stubbier. Their presence was therefore confirmed for Count Week for the Halton Hills Christmas Bird Census that took place on December 27, 2012.

The taxonomy of birds that most people would recognize as Canada Geese has been in debate for many years. Splitting into various races was mentioned by Tavener over 90 years ago. Over the years, the number of recognized races or sub-species has stood at ten to twelve different forms. Distinction between these is blurred at best but size is one of the main features. There is much overlap and intergrading between the races as well as hybridization, not to mention size differences caused by diets and food supply, and thus distinction in the field is nearly impossible. It was no surprise though that American Ornithologist’s Union’s Committee on Classification and Nomenclature decided to split Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) into two species: Canada Goose (B. canadensis) and Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii). This became official in 2004 in the 45th supplement to the Check-list of North American Birds. Greater Canada Goose contains six subspecies, namely canadensis [Atlantic], interior [Interior], maxima [Giant], moffitti [Moffit’s], parvipes, fulva [Vancouver], and occidentalis [Dusky]. The smaller Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii) group includes the subspecies hutchinsii [Richardson’s], [Bering], leucopareia [Aleutian], taverneri [Taverner’s], and minima. The asiatica are already extinct.

Cackling Geese
Cackling Geese

The Cackling Goose was first recognized as a separate species when Sir John Richardson collected a specimen in 1822 north of Hudson’s Bay. He named it Branta hutchinsii after a man by the name of Hutchins who was employed by the Hudson Bay Company. For this reason, it is sometimes referred to as Hutchins’s Goose but now it is identified as the Richardson’s subspecies of Cackling Goose. The geese at Fairy Lake appear to be of this subspecies as their breasts are light coloured, unlike the Cackling Cackling Goose (minima) which usually has a much darker breast.

Nomenclature of Canada and Cackling Geese is far from settled and we can expect further changes. There has even been a recent proposal that the group be divided into six species with 200 subspecies. This classification would be quite unworkable for field biologists even though DNA analysis might justifiably distinguish that many true species. It is simply not feasible to recognize that number of subspecies without access to DNA laboratory testing. We are only now just learning to separate out the Cackling Geese. Let’s not go too far in the taxonomic splitting exercise. There is always a possibility that while there may be genuinely different genetic groups, the differences may not be enough to separate the species and in the end, we might still be looking at one large but diverse species of Canada Goose.

by W.D. McIlveen
Halton/North Peel Naturalist Club

LaSalle Park, Burlington

Black-crowned Night Heron (Jim Hughes)
Black-crowned Night Heron (Jim Hughes)

A small group of club members joined me for an outing to La Salle Park back in November. We were fortunate to have very good weather – so often it is extremely cold on the lakeshore! We saw all the more common ducks and swans, and were happy to watch a large group of Ruddy Ducks and with them were some White-winged Scoters, a nice bird to see up close.

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Jim Hughes)
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Jim Hughes)

I spotted two Yellow-rumped Warblers, quite late to be around foraging for insects in the willows. After we all had a look at the warblers we went over to see the Trumpeter Swans up close on the beach. We almost missed a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron perched above our heads!

La Salle always seems to have something good to offer and this day was no exception.

by Fiona Reid
President, Halton/North Peel Naturalist Club

Bobolinks and Forks of the Credit Provincial Park

In mid-July I watched a flock of bobolinks at Forks of the Credit Provincial Park. They were gathering prior to their incredible 10 000 km journey back to the pampas of Argentina.

Male Bobolink
Male Bobolink

The bobolinks of Forks of the Credit Provincial Park are good news for a species in sharp decline in Ontario and beyond.

Breeding Bird Survey data indicate an alarming 52% drop in Ontario’s bobolink population over the last fifteen years. In part this is because of their penchant for nesting in hayfields – hayfields that are often cut in June when bobolink young are still in their nests.

At the Forks bobolinks needn’t worry about whirring blades. But alas, even here, the future of bobolinks may be in jeopardy.

Forks of the Credit Provincial Park is gradually returning to its primeval state – forest. Ash, maple and choke cherry are reclaiming the meadowlands cleared by intrepid farmers long ago. Left alone, trees will prevail and the bobolinks will be gone.

Bobolinks though, are only one patch in the quilt of the glorious grassland ecosystem that exists at the Forks. Many other birds such as meadowlarks and a wealth of sparrow species including savannah, grasshopper and clay-colored will disappear as the trees return. And the extensive milkweed stands will vanish along with their famous patron, the monarch butterfly.

Forks of the Credit in Fall (photo by Fiona A. Reid)
Forks of the Credit in Fall (photo by Fiona A. Reid)

Park officials here (and I’m sure in other jurisdictions in Eastern North America) face difficult choices in the management of former agricultural lands in their care.

Should they honour the natural inclination of the land and allow trees to return along with the birds, animals and wildflowers that depend on them? Or should they intervene and kill the trees to save grassland and the myriad species it supports?

We need to start a conversation about the future of the grasslands at the Forks and elsewhere.

This story appeared originally in Notes from the Wild at inthehills.ca/blogs

by Don Scallen
Vice-President, Halton/North Peel Naturalist Club