Tag Archives: 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.

Post-Processing – Wildlife Photography Tips #5

In the previous post of this series I explained what happens in a digital camera – how a batch of photons is converted into a digital file. This post will cover how to use that file to create an image which can be displayed electronically or printed. This activity is called post-processing, because the initial processing of the image is done by software within the camera.

For wildlife photography, I believe the aim of post-processing is to produce a final image that replicates what you saw as closely as possible. And by “what you saw” I mean what you saw with your eyes through your binoculars, and not what the camera thinks you saw. Modern cameras are extremely capable, but their abilities are vastly inferior to those of the eye, especially the eye aided by precision optics. Occasionally the camera will manage to capture an image exactly the way you wanted it, but most of the time, especially in wildlife photography, the raw material produced by the camera will need some help.

The above images show the out-of-the-box version (Dusky Antbird 1) and the final version after post-processing (Dusky Antbird 2). Which would you prefer?

Continue reading Post-Processing – Wildlife Photography Tips #5

Top Ten Birding Sites – Hato la Aurora

The next stop on my world tour of great birding sites is Hato la Aurora. I posted about this site a few months ago, so I won’t repeat all the detail – you can read about it here. Suffice it to say that the Llanos region of Colombia and Venezuela is a must-see for world birders. And why take just my word for it? The Colombian newspaper El Espectador recently rated the site as one of their seven top places to see birds in Colombia.

Birding Hato la Aurora
Fork-tailed Flycatcher
Continue reading Top Ten Birding Sites – Hato la Aurora