Sunday, January 25, 2009

Common Goldeneye

We can expect to see the Common Goldeneye through the winter, usually in the ice-free fast water above and below the locks connecting lakes along the Trent Severn Waterway. We often see goldeneyes and Common Mergansers together. These birds were diving in the churning back eddies of Burleigh Falls.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Birding goes green

Long ago, bird watchers amplified a mild hobby to quixotic extremes. In 1939, Guy Emerson got things rolling with a total of 497 species seen in North America. The Big Year record didn't last long as a succession of fanatics invested increasing time and resources into raising the bar. According to the Wikipedia entry, from which I've culled these numbers, the current record is 745 set in 1998 by Sandy Komito. It's a great accomplishment under which must lie some other remarkable numbers. I don't know any of the particulars of Komito's travels but it will serve the purpose of this entry to consider the logistics of a former record holder.

In his book Call Collect, Ask for Birdman, author James A. Vardaman chronicles his 1979 record setting tally of 699 species. To achieve this total, he covered a lot of miles - plane (137,145); car (20,305); boat (3,337); bicycle (160); and foot (385).

Thirty years later, one can't help but think of the carbon footprint involved such an intense chase. Many have eased back on the throttle and it is becoming more common for Big Year and local birdathon participants to compete without burning fossil fuels.

No one have given this more thought than Richard Gregson, of Baie d'Urfé, Québec. Richard came up up with the catchy acronym of BIGBY - the BIg Green Big Year - to promote a culture of birding with a very minimal carbon footprint. Participants in the BIGBY initiative sign up and share the results of their efforts to find birds using human propulsion.

In 2008, Andrew Kleinhesselink and Josiah Clarke took the concept to a new planet-friendly extreme. From their base in northern California, the Bike-by Birders, cycled their way to an amazing 295 species.

Closer to home in the annual Carden Challenge, a local fund raising birdathon, the bicycle borne Carden Plain Janes have set a fine example in each of the last two years. In 2008, The Janes raised $907.00 for conservation while tracking down 102 species during the one day event.

In a similar spirit I will track the birds I see in the Stony Lake region, within areas circumscribed by circles with diameters of 80 and 24 km, centred (44.547873, -78.152851) at the government dock on Juniper Island.

The the larger circle includes a good variety of habitats north and south of the margin of the Canadian Shield. Many areas can only be reached by canoe or trail. Others, I drive through regularly as I commute to and from Peterborough.

The smaller circle is the same size as a Christmas Bird Count circle; and overlaps the Petroglyphs CBC circle on its east side. Within this circle are familiar hiking and ski trails as well as the backwaters we like to explore by canoe.
I'll track the results in the right hand column. BIGBY birds - those seen within the green circle, without the use of a car or power boat - will be listed in green.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Pine Siskins

Pine Siskins may show up here in any month although sometimes a year or more may pass between visits. This year, they have irrupted south of their breeding range throughout eastern North America and a half dozen or so showed up at the niger silo this morning, in the company or the more regular American Goldfinches and a Common Redpoll.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Weekend feeder update

There hasn't been a whole lot of change in the feeder gang this week. A lone Evening Grosbeak was here for a day. A pair of male Pine Grosbeaks and 5 or 6 American Goldfinches are daily visitors.

Here's what I've seen today:

Red-bellied Woodpecker -1
Hairy Woodpecker - 3
Downy Woodpecker - 1
Mourning Dove - 1
White-breasted Nuthatch - 2
Red-breasted Nuthatch - 1
Blue Jay - 10 +
Black-capped Chickadee - 10 +
American Tree Sparrow - 2
American Goldfinch - 6
Pine Grosbeak - 2

While the bird activity has been constant this week, deer visits and persistence are on the rise.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Cold turkey

A mass of cold arctic air settled in this week and the bird feeder continues to be busy. In addition to the steady stream of chickadees, nuthatches, Blue Jays and woodpeckers, deer are present through the day. Most are does with swelling mid-sections. They quarrel with each other and scratch the snow for what seems to be the very meager reward of a few fallen sunflower seeds.

Just down the road the servings are more generous. Today I watched the deer assemble in anticipation of their afternoon feeding at the neighbouring resort. Rob, the employee who dispensed feed from a 50 lb bag, pointed out some of the individuals he's come to recognize. One had a healed forelimb fracture, another was missing part of her lower jaw and another had a good sized tumour on its flank. I asked about predators. Rob said that coyotes have keyed in on the area and that there are several kills a week, usually out on the lake ice. I guess it's not easy being a deer.

At dawn it was -36 C - cold enough to freeze the wattles off a rooster I suspect. I wonder how the Wild Turkeys, with their unfeathered heads, cope with the deepest of freezes. The 20 or so birds mingling with the deer seemed to be just fine - they gobbled and squabbled and scratched as they always do. I looked closely at their exposed extremities and saw no signs of frostbite. Tough birds.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Habitat # 1, dammed headwater lake

White Lake, near Gooderham.
This is headwater lake in our watershed. The submerged stump field is typical of most of our lakes, which were dammed more than a century ago. Many of the higher elevation lakes are drawn down by more than a metre each autumn to help reduce the risk of spring flooding downstream.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Fowl reception

As seen near Buckhorn today.

This isn't our antenna although ours is similar. We see pigeons around the feeders, only two or three at a time, maybe several times a year, if at all. One of the first times was also the last for one very unfortunate bird.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker does like to drum on our steel antenna in late April.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Weekend feeder update

The backyard feeder is doing a good business these days. Finch numbers vary from day-to-day. Here's what I noticed this morning:

Red-bellied Woodpecker (female - see photo)
Hairy Woodpecker - 3
Downy Woodpecker - 1
White-breasted Nuthatch - 2
Red-breasted Nuthatch - 1
Blue Jay - 12 +
Black-capped Chickadee - 12 +
American Tree Sparrow - 5
American Goldfinch - 6
Pine Grosbeak - 3

Pine Siskins were here on and off through the week, as were a few Common Redpolls.

A new yard bird for the year was Ruffed Grouse that landed in the cedar outside the bedroom window.

Near Gannon's Narrows today, I came across a flock of 30 Cedar Waxwings and an overflying dark phased Rough-legged Hawk.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Northern Hawk Owl makes the news

click to enlarge
It's kind of nice to live in a part of the world where an owl sighting is front page newsworthy.

Courtesy of the Lakefield Herald.


Other Northern Hawk Owls in the news this week:

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Bohemian Waxwings

I surprised a good sized flock, more than 250 strong, of Bohemian Waxwings along a farm road. Half were on the dirt road, picking up grit and the other half were gleaning fruit from roadside wild grape vines and Eastern Red Cedars. They were very skittish and noisy. The flock picked up and headed east after I'd watched them for a few minutes.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Petroglyphs Christmas Bird Count

Petroglyphs Count Circle (click to enlarge)
For the 23rd year, local naturalists took stock of wild birds during the annual Petroglyphs Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Most of the (22 km diameter) count circle falls on the southern edge of the exposed Canadian Shield. Agriculture and road development are limited and much of the area remains forested. Bird counting, by sight and sound, is concentrated along county and township roads, ski trails and backyard bird feeders.

The day broke clear and crisp at -20 C. As for most of the past counts, open water was limited to a few very small seeps and some fast sections of streams. Water birds would be scarce at best.

Soon after dusk, Tony Bigg of the Peterborough Field Naturalists crunched the numbers tallied by 17 volunteers who had scattered across six sectors within the circle. Seven other people provided observations from their backyard bird feeders. In the following discussion, the number in parentheses is the average count from the last ten years.

A total of 2779 individuals of 38 species were found, close to the averages of 2773 birds of 34 species. The highest species count, 41, was in 1998 following an unseasonably mild autumn that left our lakes unfrozen and hospitable to five species of waterfowl.

As in past years years, three species - Black-capped Chickadee 859 (998), Blue Jay 437 (306) and Red-breasted Nuthatch 239 (179) - accounted for more than half of birds seen. Some others were present in record numbers. Eighty-nine Rock Pigeons and 93 Mourning Doves broke the previous records of 87 and 27, respectively. Prior to 2002, Wild Turkeys were unknown from the count. Last year, a record 29 were seen and this year, 51. Almost certainly the population will continue to increase. I wonder how and when their number will stabilize. Wild Turkeys - three - were found on yesterday's Algonquin Park Christmas Bird Count for the very first time, evidence of the spread of this species well beyond their introduction sites.

The only water bird seen was a hardy Belted Kingfisher (seen only once before, in 1998) beside a tailings runoff pool below the Indusmin Mine at Nephton. New to the count was a Red-bellied Woodpecker (a Carolinian species steadily marching northward) seen at a suet feeder at the east end of Stony Lake. The ecotonal character of the southern shield is reflected by the juxtaposition of this southern species with Black-backed Woodpecker (a spruce-loving bird of the boreal forest) found today in suitable breeding habitat in Petroglyphs Provincial Park and on the Kawartha Nordic Ski Club trails north of Haultain. Three Gray Jays, another northern species at its southern breeding limit, helped themselves to the hiking snacks of the Petroglyphs Park crew.

Birds of prey were present in small numbers. The observation of three Barred Owls, a resident species, marked the 13th consecutive appearance for this nocturnal hunter. Much rarer, recorded only once before on count day, was a single, day-hunting Great Gray Owl, found by Anne Anthony, Marilyn Taylor and Lynn Smith near Jack Lake. This is the third area sighting in recent weeks, leading some to wonder whether these birds represent the vanguard of a more significant flight. A spectacular winter irruption of Great Grays into Peterborough County last happened in 2004-2005.
Great Gray Owl near Jack Lake courtesy of Anne Anthony
A previous record high of two Goshawks was matched but no other accipiters were seen. A lone Red-tailed Hawk was the only buteo. Red-tails are much commoner in more open country south of the count area.

Veteran CBC participants are always mindful of "misses" - the absence on count day of a species they have come to expect. For species with low populations, misses are a statistical inevitability. If a Sharp-shinned Hawk - perhaps one of only handful in the 400 square km. count area - zigs moments before a human observer zags then the bird will be missed. A notable miss of this year was the sometimes numerous Snow Bunting. Only once before, in 1990, did this visitor from the tundra fail to appear on count day.

Nine species have been seen on every one of the 23 Petroglyphs CBCs. One is the numerous and conspicuous Common Raven. Seven are abundant feeder visitors - Black-capped Chickadees, both nuthatches, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Blue Jay and American Tree Sparrow. The ninth species, the Bald Eagle, is much less common (average of 5) and was very nearly a miss - only a single sighting - in this and five other counts. This year's singleton, a white-headed adult, was spotted by Jerry Ball and Bruce Kidd east of Kasshabog Lake.

Other interesting sightings included 11 Bohemian Waxwings and a single Northern Shrike. Winter finch numbers are highly variable as a result of annual fluctuations in natural food availability in the vast boreal forests of the north. The absence of both crossbill species in odd numbered years since 1999 reflects the cyclic scarcity of spruce and pine cones here and elsewhere. This count turned up 80 White-winged and three Red Cossbills. Rounding out the finch assemblage were 23 Pine Grosbeaks, 12 Purple Finches, 206 Common Redpolls, 75 Pine Siskins, 189 American Goldfinches and two Evening Grosbeaks.

Tony Bigg did an outstanding job of organizing the count and compiling the results. Thanks Tony.

I'm especially grateful to the feeder watchers in my sector: Christine Church, Robin and Roman Miszuk, Doug Charles & Elina Laird.

[The map above is derived from a handy utility, the CBC Base Map Generator, developed by Bird Studies Canada, the organization that oversees CBC activities in Canada.]

Saturday, January 3, 2009

White-winged Crossbills

White-winged Crossbills are very common in Central Ontario this season. The pair of males in this picture were in a flock of 10 birds I encountered this afternoon on Long Lake Road, south of Apsley where I was scouting sites in advance of tomorrow's Petroglyphs Christmas Bird Count.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Owls turn heads in the Kawarthas

Northern Hawk Owl near Orillia
Snowy Owl near Fenelon Falls
Northern Hawk Owl near Buckhorn
During a day trip to Orillia, a few hours east of here, we thought we'd try to see both of two fairly reliable Northern Hawk Owls in the region. The more distant one, which has been seen for several weeks northwest of Orillia, wasn't visible on our first drive past, but when I returned an hour later on my way home, I saw it conspicuously perched atop a tall tree, about 300 metres from the road. It flew several times across the open field below, between the high perch and my stopped car. Once it landed in the snow after hovering like a kestrel. A Pine Grosbeak mobbed the owl for about 20 seconds, coming to within about five metres. The owl made no attempt to pursue its tormentor.

At midday, I relocated for the third time a second Northern Hawk Owl near Buckhorn - this one was less active and much closer to the road. Again, it was briefly mobbed by a Common Raven.

Between these two anticipated and much appreciated Northern Hawk Owls, we observed a mature Snowy Owl from some distance in a farm field on County Road 8, west of Fenelon Falls. Like the Yellow-headed Blackbird of yesterday, the sightings of the Orillia Northern Hawk Owl and the Fenelon Falls Snowy Owl are presented here "honourable mentions" as we saw them beyond 20 km. from Stony Lake.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Honourable mention - Yellow-headed Blackbird

This Yellow-headed Blackbird was first seen at a backyard feeder near Bridgenorth, about 25 km southeast of Stony Lake, on December 23. It's a very rare bird in Peterborough County in any season and we were pleased to find it on our second visit to the area. On our first attempt, small bird activity was suppressed by the Cooper's Hawk we saw coursing back and forth over the yard where the bird has most frequently been observed. During today's visit, after we had taken this photograph, we saw dozens of of European Starlings and Mourning Doves scatter when again, the Cooper's Hawk streaked over the yard.

What a nice bird to see early on New Year's day.