Wikipedia – Lockdown Bird Highlights #3

or How I beat the blues by sharing bird information on Wikipedia.

I made the claim some time ago that I was going to post about some of the good birding things that happened in a bad birding year – 2020. Little did I know when I wrote those words that we what we were experiencing was not the end of the road but a brief lull before another wave and another lockdown. The April to June third wave of 2021 – in Canada at least – was not the worst in terms of mortality rates and overstretched hospital capacity. But for many of us it was the most challenging of all. It was becoming harder to maintain morale – we were languishing.

Now here we are again climbing out of the pit and hoping that we are on an upward trajectory. For the first time in almost a year I stopped by my local for a socially-distanced pint at an outdoor patio. It felt like a bit of a victory.

So to pick up the thread of good things in a lockdown year… I spent a couple of hours this morning on my new working-from-home pastime: adding bird content to Wikipedia.

Wikipedia

I admit to being a major fan of Wikipedia. It’s what we early net enthusiasts thought cyberspace would be: people all over the world sharing information, with no paywalls or ads. Most of the worldwide web went, as they say, in a different direction, but Wikipedia has stayed true to its purpose.

And despite the cries of the Cassandras, it is a very useful tool indeed. It’s a living encyclopedia, replacing the biases of an expert author with the collected wisdom of the world, all carefully annotated so you can check the source documents yourself. Yes, it is true that you can replace a carefully-written page with stories about your cat, but virtually every page has someone watching it who will rapidly correct your vandalism.

The true beauty of the tool, and one that may not have been foreseen by its creators, is that it gave enthusiasts (nerds, if you must) a place to share and refine their enthusiasms. Star Trek is a prime example. Prior to web 2.0 there were lots of Trekker fan newsletters but each one only reached a small audience. Wikipedia gave them a forum to share and contribute on a global scale. So if you want to know anything about any episode from the Star Trek universe there is a page for it – and the same is true for any significant TV series, book, or movie, not to mention highly detailed pages on every aspect of hundreds of other interests.

And that finally leads us to birds.

When I get back from a birding trip I have a workflow for identifying photos and adding the new birds to my list that involves checking field guides, eBird, Avibase and Wikipedia so that I am sure of the identification, ideally down to subspecies level. It’s a somewhat baroque process but I’m not aiming for efficiency – I’m trying to consolidate the new birds in my memory.

When I started seeing birds in the neotropics I ran into an information vacuum. A large number of the South American bird species have only a line or two of text on their Wikipedia pages – information which I later learned was generated by a clever bot that a Wiki contributor had invented.

Editing Wikipedia bird pages
Rusty Flowerpiercer
Editing Wikipedia bird pages
And its basic bot-generated species page.

So with time on my hands I set about learning how to flesh out these entries. The obvious place to begin – for me anyway – was with the endemic birds of Colombia.

It was a bit of an adventure getting started but there is a full set of tutorials under Learn to Edit, and an online forum where you can ask for advice from fellow editors. A bit of browsing around took me to the WikiProject_Birds page , which includes ideas for information on sources, a set of guidelines for editing articles and links to highly-rated bird pages.

Coding for non-coders

The process of editing is relatively straightforward. I won’t try to give a precis of the tutorials – if you want to try your hand that is the place to start. But it’s worth highlighting one key feature: you do not have to learn hypertext markup language (html). Wikipedia uses behind-the-scenes coding to make it easier for the average punter to make their edits without blowing up the system. For example, this phrase from Alice in Wonderland:

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

In html you would need to enter the following code:

<p>”Take some more <a href=”/wiki/Tea” title=”Tea”>tea</a>,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.</p>

Whereas in Wikipedia you simply write:

 “Take some more [[tea]],” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

Wikipedia and research

The challenge is finding sources. Wikipedia wants information referenced to sources that other people can check, so the preference is for books, journal articles and websites that have permanent URLs (permalinks). A certain amount can be gleaned from field guides and websites, but to achieve the goal of a good quality article I needed to sharpen up the research skills I used to get my MA.

After some prospecting and some good tips from Wikiproject Birds I was able to build a list of reliable sources. The best ones are listed at the end of this article… in case you might be interested. 😊

Referencing is straightforward – it looks complicated on the screen but the actual input of data is relatively simple (though it is a bit tedious).

Alas even the best references can’t totally fix the issue that a lot of South American birds are under-studied. Sometimes there is just not enough information available to fill out a species page. If reincarnation is a thing I wish to come back as a field researcher.

And of course if the page lacks photos you can add your own through Wikimedia Commons.

Moustached Brushfinch, added to my current project.

So what’s the point?, you ask…

This was an idea for an activity that would occupy my mind during the lockdown(s), the alternative being endless doomscrolling. And I think this one has stuck – I intend to keep editing pages until all my beloved neotropical birds are properly described. This may require more years than I have left but it’s a worthy pursuit.

If you seek internet fame and fortune this is not the way to go. Even if someone wanted to see what I was working on they would have to know my username, which is purposefully opaque. (It’s not a good idea to use a recognizable name).

But I find it very satisfying to complete a project and increase the bird information available to everyone. So it’s definitely a good birding thing that came out of a bad birding year.

In case you’re interested in what one of my “finished” pages looks like, check out this one: the Gold-ringed Tanager.

Sources

The University of New Mexico’s Searchable Ornithological Research Archive – SORA – applies your search term to a large collection of publications. https://sora.unm.edu/

Google Scholar – often turns up good journal articles, and they are generally available as free downloads. (Search by the scientific name of the species).

Avibase – for general information, but particularly for the Synonyms section, which provides good clues on who first identified and named the species.

The Biodoversity Heritage Library – an online archive of historical journals. If you have a date and the name of the publication you can usually find the original journal here.

The publication archives of the American Ornithological Society. You need to be a member to access these publications, and it’s a bit pricy. But one of the add-ins is a subscription to the Birds of the World website, which contains much of the content of the very expensive Handbook of the Birds of the World (17 volumes at €140 each!!!).

Searches by these methods typically lead to English-language sources, which leaves out a wealth of information in Spanish-language ornithological journals. I started to pay attention to the bibliographical references in the papers and journal articles I unearthed, and these led to good sources like Conservación Colombiana and Caldasia, as well as regional journals. I usually run the key paragraphs through Google Translate, which has become very good, though you still need enough Spanish to work out what is going on when the magic doesn’t work.

The two volumes of the Colombian Libro rojo de aves de Colombia are invaluable, as they provide full information on all species of concern.

And in the course of my research I discovered some rather abstruse books that really deserve a place on anyone’s coffee table, including the Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names, the Eponym Dictionary of Birds, and the trusty IOC World Bird List.

Colombia – 2020 Bird Highlights #2

The second highlight of the mostly dismal 2020 birding year is one that would be at the top of the list for any year: 21 days of epic birding in the natural paradise that is Colombia.

I went on at great length about the trip earlier this year, and you can read about it here:

MITÚ – BIRDING COLOMBIA’S AMAZON BASIN – PART 1

MITÚ – BIRDING COLOMBIA’S AMAZON BASIN – PART 2

BIRDING COLOMBIA’S LLANOS – THE APPROACH MARCH

BIRDING COLOMBIA’S LLANOS – HATO LA AURORA

So rather than repeat myself, I am just going to pick out a few moments that made this a memorable trip.

Welcome to the jungle

Rain forest - Colombia highlights
Rain forest, Colombia.

As a boy I devoured all kinds of books on the natural world. Inter alia I think I read every one of Gerald Durrell’s accounts of his adventures as an animal collector, and wore out the Life Nature Library books that our Uncle Carl gave us. One of the places that loomed large in my imagination was the Amazon jungle. It was vast, largely unexplored, and home to iconic beasts like the Jaguar, Anaconda and Harpy Eagle. I don’t recall where I ran across it, but I was fascinated by a photo of nineteen men holding up a 32 foot Anaconda as big around as a telephone pole.

Strangely, I never formed a plan to visit this region until I was struck by the birding addiction. But there we were last January, flying into Mitú, Colombia to gorge (metaphorically speaking) on antbirds, toucans, parakeets and other exotica.

Of course we are all grown up now and call it the Amazon rain forest, but it was a memorable experience all the same – a week spent wandering through one of the largest bits of unspoiled habitat in the world. We explored the tall, dense canopy forests of the várzea – areas that are seasonally flooded and rich with biodiversity. We tramped among the scrubby bushes of the dry white sand forest that has its own specialist birds and creatures. We gazed upon the broad and sluggish Vaupes river, a tributary of the mighty Amazon. We clambered up rock outcrops and visited the villages of our First Nations guides.

And though we had to wait until later in the trip to see our Anaconda, we did have the extremely cool and slightly creepy experience of following an army ant swarm, peering through the undergrowth at the antbirds that follow the swarm, while trying not to be devoured ourselves by the remarkably fast-moving and aggressive ants.

Terra firme - Colombia highlights
White sand forest, Colombia.

Oh, and there were some birds as well. 😊

Though it was hot and muggy throughout, and though we were feasted on by a wide range of the jungle’s finest biting insects, it was an epic experience. One that I hope to repeat somewhere down the line.

Idleness

Birding trips to foreign lands tend to be action-packed events. The aim is to see as many species as one can in the limited time available, so the daily agenda typically runs from an hour before sunrise until well after sunset with limited breaks. The exceptions are the travel days, involving many butt-numbing hours in the saddle as we transition to a different habitat.

On this year’s trip, though, we took a couple of opportunities to just loaf around and let the birds come to us.

Loitering with intent
Daniel, Miguel and Ken.

On one evening it was a planned event: we needed to be on a certain rock outcrop before dark if we were to see a Blackish Nightjar. So having arrived in a timely fashion there was nothing to do but sit around peacefully gazing over the landscape whilst being serenaded by White-throated Toucans. It was a very pleasant pause, and moments after the sun went down a nightjar plopped out of the bushes and did its pre-flight checklist about ten feet way from us. We then wandered back through the sleeping village of Mitusueño with just moonlight to guide our steps.

Blackish Nightjar at ISO 16000.
Moments before Nightjar Hour.
Just having a wee rest, guvnor!
Loafing - Colombia highlights
Me, Miguel, Ken and Florencio.

The afternoon we chased the Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock was hot and muggy even by the standards of Amazonia, and after a long approach march we had to scramble up an escarpment and down a few long gullies searching for the beast. On the way back we came to the flat top of the escarpment and by mutual unspoken consent decided to have a rest. A very pleasant 45 minutes or so ensued, with the mountains of Brazil for a backdrop and Paradise Tanagers, Lemon-throated Barbets, Red-fan Parrots, Scarlet Macaws and other exotica going about their business.

Magpie Tanager.
Yet more goofing off
Daniel.

The final big loafing opportunity came at the end of our last day on the great plains of Colombia. By this part of the trip accumulated fatigue was becoming an issue, and the long, dusty days bombing around the dry plains were taking their toll. We stopped by a long pond, ostensibly to wait and see if the local jaguar showed up, but really we wanted to stop and just enjoy some peaceful birding. And so we watched Nacunda Nighthawks, Scarlet Ibises, Yellow-billed Terns, Southern Lapwings and all the other standard Llanos birds until the sun went down and it was time to return to the ranch.

The hummingbird observatory

Sword-billed Hummingbird.

At the end of my very first visit to Colombia, a two-day birding excursion tacked onto the end of a rather dull conference, we retreated from the highlands cold and wet, seeking coffee and a respite from the wind. We ended up at Finca La Muchareja and its Observatorio de Colibríes (hummingbird observatory). A large and imposing country house behind a high wall is the home of a lady who is fairly mad about hummingbirds. Her garden is full of hummingbird feeders and they are well-attended by hordes of rather good birds. At some point she realized that she could make a bit of extra income by inviting birders and photographers into her private sanctuary.

So on our last morning in Colombia we again paid Victoria a visit. Over a cup of excellent coffee we goggled at a fine array of birds including Black and Green-tailed Trainbearers, the bizarre Sword-billed Hummingbird, the Glowing Puffleg and the star performer – the scarce Blue-throated Starfrontlet.

Blue-throated Starfrontlet - Colombia highlights.
Blue-throated Starfrontlet.

There was one other visitor that day and he looked familiar so I struck up a conversation. He was indeed Frank Gardner, a former Green Jacket and someone who I admired for his outstanding work as a long-time war correspondent for the BBC. He is also a keen birder and the President of the British Trust for Ornithology. So of course, as I did several years ago, when his duties took him to Colombia he took some time off to see the local birds.

Colombia 2020

So when I looked back at the past year to think about the good moments among the bad, these are the kinds of thing I remember. Not just great birds, but great experiences whilst in pursuit of birds.

January – 2020 Bird Highlights #1

In January I like to put together a post about the birding highlights of the previous year. This time around it has been a bit slow in coming. Somehow it’s hard to get excited about a year spent mostly at home under the spectre of a pandemic.

With trips lined up to Colombia and Argentina, and with a cottage booked for two weeks next to Point Pelee, I had been harbouring wild thoughts that if all went well I might see 1000 species of birds in 2020. And it started out so well…

However, the point of this blog is to focus on the positive, and when I thought about it in those terms I started to see that there had been a few good things amidst the bad. (Spoiler alert – I had to set the bar fairly low. Not everything here would make the cut in a normal year 😊). Here’s the first installment.

January 13th 2020 - Ross's Goose at Bath ON
Ross’s Goose – an unusual winter visitor in our area.

January 77

A new year means a new year list. For birders, that is the incentive that gets us out on the land when the days are short and the weather is less than optimal. If you have been in this game for a while you probably keep lists, and the advantage of a year list is that it starts at zero. So while new birds for my Ontario life list are very hard to come by, starting another year list means that even the humble Starling and House Sparrow become new sightings.

In a normal year I would expect to see about 50 or 60 bird species in January – 50 or so in the local area and another 6-8 from the annual winter pilgrimage to Algonquin Park. However in 2020 a combination of good luck, persistence and a few extended twitches bumped that number upwards.

Road Trips

Early in the month I heard some intriguing reports on the grapevine of a covey of Grey Partridge near Ottawa. I had seen this species a few times in the UK but it would make a nice addition to my Ontario list. So the first twitch of the year was a round trip through Nepean, Carleton Place and Ault Island near Morrisburg. This pleasant drive in the country netted the partridges as well as a Northern Hawk Owl and a Harris’s Sparrow. So far, so good.

January 7th 2020 - Northern Hawk Owl near Carleton Place
Northern Hawk-Owl – always a tricky bird to find.

Twitch #2 followed rapidly, as Erwin and I hunted down a Mountain Bluebird near Pickering and a Purple Sandpiper at Presqu’ile, with an incidental find of Iceland Gull enroute.

January 10th 2020 - Mountain Bluebird (female) near Pickering
Mountain Bluebird (female). Apparently took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

I had agreed to lead a KFN field trip to Algonquin Park in mid-January and that worked out very well. We nabbed all the winter finches including both species of crossbill, plus the obligatory Canada Jays, and by virtue of a slight detour picked up the long-staying Varied Thrush at Bark Lake – a lifer for most of the party.

Varied Thrush – another Western bird going walkabout.

2020 Part 1

So the upshot is that by the time I left for Colombia on the 25th I had already set a personal best for January in Ontario with 77 species. That 1000 species goal was well on its way. Or so it seemed…

Common Redpoll – Bird of the Day #208 – and A Bird of the Day Roundup

Common Redpoll / Acanthis flammea

If you live in Southern Ontario, be on the lookout for today’s bird – the Common Redpoll. They are not usually seen in the south end of the province but this year has produced fair to poor crops of birch seeds in the boreal forest so they are on the move.

Bird of the Day - Common Redpoll
My backyard, Kingston, February 2019

Common Redpolls will visit bird feeders, often in fairly large flocks. We can distinguish them from the finches we normally see (House Finches, Goldfinches) by their red caps and their sharp but stubby yellow bills.

This is a holarctic species that breeds in Northern Canada, Alaska and Russia. In the winter it is found further south in Asia and North America, and also shows up in Ireland, the UK and Scandinavia.

The taxonomic status of redpolls is much-debated. In North America we recognize two species: Common Redpoll and, and Arctic (also known as Hoary) Redpoll. Each of those species has recognizable subspecies. The nominate subspecies of Common Redpoll – Acanthis flammea flammea – is the most-often seen in these parts (it’s the bird in the photo). The subspecies rostrata breeds in Greenland and Baffin Island but occasionally strays farther south. A third subspecies, islandica, is found in Iceland.

A fourth subspecies, A.f. cabaret, is deemed by the British Ornithologists’ Union to be a separate species called Lesser Redpoll.

The great fear among list-oriented birders (such as me) is that the powers-that-be will eventually throw up their hands and decide that there is just one species of Redpoll with six subspecies. This would be a tragic outcome.

And now, to catch up on some previous posts…

Bird of the Day #205 – Band-bellied Owl

Bird of the Day - Band-bellied Owl

Originally posted 31 October 2020

Your scary Halloween bird of the day is the Band-bellied Owl.

It’s a large owl that haunts the tropical forests of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, dealing silent death to any unsuspecting creature that wanders into its AOR.

This one was not amused at being outed. But apparently we were a bit too big to be slain, so he settled for glaring at us.

Sector Cachipay, Santa Mariá, Boyacá District, Colombia, February 2020.

Bird of the Day #206 – Blue Jay

Bird of the Day - Blue Jay

Originally posted 1 November 2020

I have posted lots of exotic multicoloured birds over the past few months, but to my eye the humble dime-a-dozen Blue Jay is about as attractive as a bird can be. Not to mention that jays are Corvids, so they are much more clever than other birds. And feisty as well!

The subspecies we see in Canada is the Northern Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata bromia. Apparently it is the subspecies with the dullest plumage! So I’m looking forward to seeing the Coastal Blue Jay, who isn’t so plain and dull. 😲

Algonquin Provincial Park, January 2018. (and -30C as I recall…)

Bird of the Day #207 – White-rumped Sandpiper

Bird of the Day - White-rumped Sandpiper

Originally posted 2 November 2020

Apologies for the late delivery of today’s bird. I had a mission to perform which took me out of town and I have just now returned to our lair.

On the plus side I was able to stop near Trenton on the way home to (a) add a new sewage lagoon to my collection, and (b) nab some White-rumped Sandpipers, Ontario bird species #233 for 2020.

So obviously, the bird of the day is the White-rumped Sandpiper.

The extended wings on this bird are a clue that it is one of the two long-distance migrant sandpiper species that grace our shores each year. (The other being Baird’s Sandpiper, which will be a BOTD in due course).

The annual migration of this species is a dazzling feat of endurance.  They breed in the Arctic islands and along the northern coast of Canada and Alaska. They then move south at a great rate of knots, arriving within a month at their wintering grounds in Patagonia and as far as the South Shetland Islands. In the spring they repeat the route, only faster, with non-stop jumps of up to 4,200km between refueling stations.

So opportunities to see these birds are fleeting. But the really good news is that, having spotted four of them today, I can delete tomorrow’s planned White-rumped Sandpiper hunt, which involved wading out to Gull Island with freezing Lake Ontario waves caressing my nether regions. So it’s all good.

Presqu’ile Provincial Park, September 2018.

And finally, one from the archives…

Bird of the Day #10 – African Grass Owl

Bird of the Day - African Grass Owl

Originally posted 17 April 2020

Today’s bird is the African Grass Owl, a close relative of the Barn Owls that can be seen in Europe and the US.

It was previously believed that these owls were only present in central and southern Africa with relict populations in Kenya, Uganda and Cameroon. But then along came eBird, a project of Cornell University that is building a worldwide database of birds based on the observations of citizen-scientists. So now we know that there are active populations in Tanzania’s Arusha, Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks. This beastie greeted us as we passed through the main gate of the Serengeti park.

Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, February 2015

Buff-tailed Coronet – Bird of the Day #204

Buff-tailed Coronet / Boissonneaua flavescens

The bird of the day is the Buff-tailed Coronet.

Bird of the Day - Buff-tailed Coronet

This medium-sized hummingbird lives at middle altitudes (1500-2400m) in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela. It inhabits cloud forest and elfin forest, as can also be found in páramo, the unusual vegetation that occurs above the treeline in the Andes.

Páramo
Typical páramo vegetation.

From a photographic standpoint the Buff-tailed Coronet has an admirable habit of holding its wings outstretched for a moment after they land. 🙂

And yes, the underside of their tail is buff.

Bird of the Day - Buff-tailed Coronet

Cerro Montezuma, Risaralda District, Colombia, March 2019.

Bird of the Day #203 – Evening Grosbeak

I failed to post this one yesterday. So sue me! 😊

Bird of the Day - Evening Grosbeak

The 29th of October’s bird was the Evening Grosbeak.

This is a big, bulky and highly colourful finch that inhabits our northern forests. Evening Grosbeaks are situational migrants. They do not have a programmed annual migration. Many of them stay in the boreal forest throughout the year, whereas others move in the winter, travelling just far enough south to find a good food supply.

This year their favourite foods are in short supply, so there has been an unusually large number of Evening Grosbeaks spotted in Southern Ontario. Everyone seems to be seeing them. Everyone but me, at least. 😡

Our friends Rick and Sandra had a nice flock in their yard this week but they (the birds, that is) have now moved on. Sigh.

Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, January 2018.

Recap Bird of the Day – #9 – White-necked Jacobin

Originally posted to Facebook 16 April 2020.

Bird of the Day - White-necked Jacobin

Back to the neotropics for today’s bird. This is a White-necked Jacobin, a large hummingbird that can be found from southern Mexico to Bolivia.

This one was making himself look big to ward off harassment from a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, a small but highly aggressive species that fearlessly bullies hummingbirds of all sizes.

El Paujil Proaves Reserve, Boyacá District, Colombia, December 2017.

Fox Sparrow – Bird of the Day #201

Fox Sparrow / Passerella iliaca

Today’s Bird of the Day is the Fox Sparrow.

Well actually, it was yesterday’s bird. But I was too lazy to post it yesterday. So to get back on track, this will be a multi-bird post! 🙂

Bird of the Day - Fox Sparrow

Another day, another sewage lagoon…

I found two Fox Sparrows at the Tweed Sewage Lagoon, where I had gone to twitch a Red Phalarope.

The phalarope was indeed spotted, but it was in a distant corner of the pond. So it was visible to my spotting scope but not to my camera. I will post a phalarope pic below but prepare to be underwhelmed.

The Fox Sparrow is a large sparrow that breeds in the boreal forest and along the West Coast. There are several distinctly different-looking subspecies. The one we hope to see is the Red Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca iliaca) such as this one. They come through Southern Ontario in small numbers in May and then on the return voyage in late October.

Red Phalarope / Phalaropus fulicarius

This is the Red Phalarope. Trust me. The image was taken using a cropped sensor camera body with a 500mm lens and a 1.7x teleconverter. So roughly equivalent to a 1200mm lens. For comparison purposes, my spotting scope is equivalent to a 2100mm lens. So I was able to ID the bird, but I’m fortunate that other observers also saw it as this photo wouldn’t convince the Rare Bird Committee at all.

BTW Red Phalaropes are known to UK birders as Grey Phalaropes because they only get to see non-breeding plumaged birds like this one.

Like their cousin the Red-necked Phalarope, Red Phalaropes breed in the Arctic and spend the winter bouncing around the waves in the open ocean. Which is pretty butch for a bird slightly smaller than the familiar American Robin.

There are only three species of phalarope and I have now seen them all in a single year. Alexander the Great wept when he learned that there were no more cities to conquer. I weep for more phalaropes.

Tweed Sewage Lagoon, Hastings County, Ontario, 26 October 2020.

Bird of the Day #202 – the Bogotá Rail

A few days ago I mentioned that we went to the Laguna de Siecha in search of the rare and endangered Bogotá Rail. Obviously, after a trailer like that I need to come up with the goods.

So here is your bird of the day: the Bogotá Rail.

Rails are notorious skulkers, and they have an uncanny ability to slip away through a reedbed because they are… skinny as a rail. So this actually counts as a decent rail photo.

There are thought to be between 1-2,000 of these birds left and the prognosis is grim. Their habitat is disappearing as wetlands are drained for farming, and the population has become extremely fragmented.  But perhaps they can cling to life for a while – they have a small foothold in the Sumapaz national park and another small population in a wetland that is part of the international airport of Bogotá.

Laguna de Siecha, Cundinamarca District, Colombia, December 2017.

Bird of the Day #7 – Greater Prairie Chicken

Originally posted to Facebook on 15 April 2020.

Today’s throwback bird is one that most people haven’t seen. Once extremely common on the prairies, the Greater Prairie Chicken now only exists in a few pockets of land in the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska. Two major surveys have confirmed that it has been extirpated from Canada. The usual suspects are to blame – over-hunting, followed by habitat loss through industrial farming.

It’s a highly charismatic bird, especially when the males are displaying at a lek. You can here the weird calls they make at this site.

Switzer Ranch, Nebraska, April 2017.

And yes, there is also a Lesser Prairie Chicken. God willin’ and the crick don’t rise I will have a photo of that bird to share in 2021.

#birdoftheday

#covidgoaway

Band-tailed Seedeater – Bird of the Day #199

Band-tailed Seedeater / Catamenia analis

Today’s Bird of the Day is the aptly-named Band-tailed Seedeater.

Bird of the Day - Band-tailed Seedeater

Seedeaters are small passerines that feed on… wait for it… seeds. They were originally thought to be relatives of sparrows, but further study places them with Tanagers in the Thraupidae family.

Or at least that is true of the seedeaters of Central and South America. There are also seedeater species in Africa, but they are members of the finch family Fringillidae.

Confused yet? Not to worry. You can just appreciate them for their understated elegance and industriousness.

We spotted this one in the Laguna de Siecha, a former gravel pit in the Eastern Andes. (To birders, gravel pits are almost as exciting as sewage lagoons!). The target bird was the rare and endangered Bogotá Rail. Were we successful in our quest? Stay tuned! 🙂

Laguna de Siecha, Cundinamarca District, Colombia, December 2017.

Bird of the Day #6 – House Wren

Originally posted to Facebook on 14 April 2020.

Bird of the Day - House Wren

Spring migration seems to be about a week early this year. Whilst walking home in a socially-distant way last week I spotted one of these wee beasties – a House Wren – hopping around in a shrub. They are common birds in southern Ontario, normally arriving towards the end of April.

One authority claims that they are the most widespread bird species in the Americas. They can be found from the southern tip of South America up to as far as Fort McMurray.

To be precise the bird in this photo is a member of the Northern subspecies of House Wren population. Southern House Wrens live in Central and South America and are non-migratory.

Kingston, Ontario, April 2020.

Southern House Wren, Senda Mitú Cachivera, Vaupes District, Colombia, January 2020

Lark Sparrow – Bird of the Day #198

Lark Sparrow / Chondestes grammacus

The Lark Sparrow is today’s Bird of the Day.

Bird of the Day - Lark Sparrow

And it may well be the bird of the year too! Lark Sparrows are fairly common birds on the Great Plains but they are flat-out Rare Birds in Southern Ontario.

So when the news went out on the Kingston bird hotline that Gerard Philips had found one in the City, the QRF was launched. Fortunately I was on my way back from Prince Edward Point so my optics and camera were at hand.

The bird led us a merry chase. We were just getting onto it when a citizen decided to ride his bike up the dead-end path the bird was foraging on. The bird fled the scene and became very alert and elusive. We had a few tantalizing glimpses which were enough to confirm the ID, but after an hour we concluded that a photograph was not going to happen.

I was packing my car when Irwin and Sandra showed up, so being a good Boy Scout I showed them where to look and described the bird’s behaviour. No sooner had I finished and wished them good luck when up popped the bird, which proceeded to go through its full range of poses. 😊

Lark Sparrows breed from BC to Manitoba and through the Midwest States, and winter in Mexico. This bird is in first winter plumage, meaning it was born this year and is new to this migration gig. It seems he may have taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

Commodore’s Cove, Kingston, Ontario, 24 October 2020.

Bird of the Day #5 – Inca Jay (Green Jay)

Originally posted to Facebook on 13 April 2020.

Bird of the Day - Inca Jay

Here’s a little tropical colour for a grey rainy day. Green Jays are noisy and gregarious jays that can be found in woodlands ranging from the southern tip of Texas down to Bolivia. This individual was seen in the eastern Andes of Colombia.

The International Ornithologists’ Union has split this species into two, with birds from South America now called Inca Jays. But the ever-stodgy American Ornithological Society does not agree.

American Coot – Bird of the Day #197

American Coot / Fulica americana

The American Coot is today’s Bird of the Day.

Bird of the Day - American Coot
I had to lighten up this image so you can see the eye. Coots otherwise look like black blobs with a white bill.

Despite the interminable plague I have been managing to chip away at my Ontario year list. I didn’t see any Coots during the spring migration as they don’t normally visit urban gardens. However yesterday we found about 22 in Elevator Bay so that’s one more tick on the checklist.

Yesterday was dank and grey and didn’t look very promising, but we managed to find quite a few good species including a couple of late warblers and vireos, the scarce Lincoln’s Sparrow, and the even scarcer Vesper Sparrow. I ended up with three new year birds and my companion, who is a recent convert to the cult, reckons he got somewhere close to 20 life birds. So the moral of the story is – when in doubt, just go out!

The American Coot hangs around with ducks and looks vaguely duckish, but along with crakes, gallinules and moorhens it is a member of the rail family Rallidae. The migratory population of Coots breed in ponds and marshes across North America, and migrate to the southern States, Central America and the Caribbean for the winter.

This image shows a bird in Colombia at a nice sewage lagoon where they are year-round residents. Given a choice I might like to live in Colombia as well, though perhaps not in a sewage lagoon.

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern.

Malecón de Cameguadua, Caldas District, Colombia, March 2019.

Bird of the Day #4 – American White Pelican

Originally posted to Facebook on 12 April 2020.

Bird of the Day - American White Pelican

The pelican is a traditional symbol for Jesus Christ because it was believed that the pelican pierced its own breast to feed nestlings with its blood. Dante called Christ “nostro pelicano”.

So this American White Pelican seems like a good Easter choice for the Covid-morale-enhancing Bird of the Day.

In Ontario their stronghold is in the Lake of the Woods/Rainy River district, but there is a small and possibly growing population at the west end of Lake Erie.

Image captured near Kearney Nebraska, April 2017.

Flyby at Point Pelee National Park, May 2018.

Pine Siskin – Bird of the Day #196

Pine Siskin / Spinus pinus

The Pine Siskin is today’s Bird of the Day.

Bird of the Day - Pine Siskin

Yesterday a small flock of these finches showed up in our back garden. It was, as they say, the first record for this site. They were back again today being their usual selves, attempting to bully much larger birds that were resisting being dislodged from the perches on the feeder. Delightful little bundles of energy!

Optional bird nerd stuff: Pine Siskins are a common breeding bird of the boreal forest. They normally live year-round in the North, roaming around in search of food. However this year they are visiting southern regions including Southern Ontario.

The process is known as irruption. When there is a poor crop of food (pine cones in this case) in their habitat a species can irrupt – move outwards in large numbers to find better feeding grounds. This is a different phenomenon from migration because it driven by circumstance and is not an annual event.

Those in the know have been expecting a Siskin invasion this year, because we subscribe to an extremely useful tool known as the Winter Finch Forecast. 🙂

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern.

Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, April 2018.

Bird of the Day #3 – Trumpeter Swan

Originally posted to Facebook on 11 April 2020.

Bird of the Day - Trumpeter Swan

As my small way of adding some beauty to your lives in these challenging times, I will be posting a bird of the day every day until the all clear is sounded.

These are Trumpeter Swans: North America’s heaviest native bird. They were nearly hunted to extinction – by 1933 the known wild population was 70. When a few thousand swans were discovered in a remote corner of Alaska in the 1950’s a reintroduction program was started. It has been a fantastic success, and there are now over 16,000 birds.

They are regular winter visitors to Ontario, often seen in large numbers in the open water around the Rideau Canal locks.

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