Nov 302017
 

Expect a lot of snow and a ‘classic Canadian winter’

In my fall nature almanac, I had the temerity to predict that the sunshine and cool temperatures of early September would lead to extraordinary leaf colour. Well, I sure got that wrong. In fact, this fall’s colour show was one of the worst in recent memory – especially for sugar maples, which are a dominant tree species in the Kawarthas. From all accounts, the reason for the poor display was the intense heat that soon arrived and lasted until the end of October. With average temperatures about three degrees above normal and near-drought conditions, the intense reds, oranges and yellows never materialized. Yellow and brown leaves dominated the landscape and many leaves fell early. As a result of climate change, warmer temperatures are expected to delay the onset of peak colours in future years and shorten the colour season as a whole. When temperatures are as extreme as they were this year, duller colours are likely to be the norm, as well.

Looking ahead to winter, the forecast right now is for more snow than usual – a “classic Canadian winter” in the words of The Weather Network. La Nina conditions in the equatorial Pacific are expected to affect the weather pattern across North America in the coming months. La Niña is a large-scale climate pattern associated with cooler than normal water surface temperatures in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. La Niña often results in greater precipitation in eastern Canada. That being said, the winter is not expected to be unusually cold.

As a reminder of what to watch for in nature in the coming months, I have prepared the following list of highlights.

DECEMBER

·        A large incursion of snowy owls is possible this winter, maybe similar to 2013-14. Several birds have already been seen locally, including one at the Peterborough Airport. Snowy owls are usually observed in fields, where they perch on knolls, fences and hay bales.

·        Last winter, record numbers of American robins overwintered in the Kawarthas, thanks mostly to a huge crop of wild grape. This year’s grape crop is quite small, however, so far fewer robins are likely to remain. Those that do stay might be attracted to the abundant berries on eastern red cedars and winterberry hollies.

·        Keep an eye out for wild turkeys. Their large, dark bodies are easy to spot in winter, as flocks feed in fields. Jenn Baici, a PhD student at Trent University, is studying these birds and would love your help. If you see wild turkeys, please submit your sighting at eBird.org. You can also share a photo of the flock at the Peterborough Wild Turkey Count project on iNaturalist.org. Just be sure to include the location and number of turkeys observed. Using this data, Jenn hopes to estimate the size of Peterborough County’s wild turkey population.

·        Throughout the late fall and winter, gray squirrels are often seen high up in maples feeding on the keys.

·        Ducks lingering on lakes until freeze-up may include common goldeneye, buffleheads and both common and hooded mergansers  A small number of common loons, mostly young-of-the-year birds, remain until the ice comes, as well.

·        The early morning hours of December 13 and 14 are the peak viewing times for the Geminids meteor shower, which is the most consistently good meteor display of the year.

·        Before too much snow falls, take time to walk around the edge of wetlands to look for interesting ice formations such. These include ice crystals imitating stalagmites. Leaves, sticks, and bubbles frozen in the ice can also be intriguing.

·        Welcome to the “dark turn of the year.” Daylight this month averages only about 8 ¾ hours. Compare this to 15 ½ hours in June – a difference of nearly seven hours!

·        Balsam fir makes the perfect Christmas tree. I love its symmetrical shape, long-lasting needles and wonderful fragrance.

·        From December 14 to January 5, Christmas Bird Counts take place across North America. The counts data reflect trends in bird populations. The 66th Peterborough Christmas Bird Count will be held on Sunday, December 17, while the Petroglyphs Count is scheduled for Wednesday, December 27. Birders of all levels of experience are welcome to participate. For more information, contact Martin Parker (mparker19@cogeco.ca) for the Peterborough Count and Colin Jones (cdjonesmclark@gmail.com) for the Petroglyph Count.

·        Thursday, December 21, marks the winter solstice and the first day of winter. The tilting of the Earth away from the sun also produces the longest night of the year. The sun rises and sets at its southernmost points on the eastern and western horizons.

·        Watch for common redpolls and pine siskins at your nyger-seed feeder. There is a good possibility that both species will turn up this winter. Keep an eye on the tops of your spruce trees, too, for flocks of white-winged and red crossbills. They love to eat the seeds hidden in the cones, and this year’s cone crop is huge!

JANUARY

·         Even though the days grow longer after the solstice, they begin to do so very slowly. In fact, in the first week of January, sunrise is later than at any other time of the year. The sun doesn’t peak over the horizon until 7:49 a.m. Compare this to June 20 when the sun rises at 5:29 a.m.

·        Watch for ruffed grouse at dawn and dusk along tree-lined country roads. The birds often appear in silhouette as they feed on buds such as those of trembling aspen.

·        Small numbers of common goldeneyes and common mergansers can be seen all winter long on the Otonabee River, at Young’s Point and at Gannon Narrows.

·        Coyotes are quite vocal during their January to March mating season.

·        If you’re walking in the woods, you’ll notice that some of the smaller trees have retained many of their leaves. These are usually beech, oak, or ironwood.

·        Honeybees are the only insects to maintain an elevated body temperature all winter. They accomplish this by clustering together in a thick ball within the hive, vibrating their wings to provide heat and eating stored honey for the necessary energy.

·        Barred owls sometimes show up in rural and suburban backyards, where they prey on feeder birds or mice and voles that are attracted at night by fallen seeds.

·        In late January, black bears give birth to cubs no larger than chipmunks. Generally, two cubs are born.

FEBRUARY

·        We begin the month with about 9 ¾ hours of daylight and end with 11, a gain of about 75 minutes. The lengthening days are most notable in the afternoon.

·        Groundhog Day, February 2, marks the mid-point of winter. However, our groundhogs won’t see their shadow – or light of day, for that matter – until mid-March at the earliest. In case you were wondering, no animal or plant behaviour can portend upcoming weather beyond a few hours.

·        Although tentative at first, bird song returns in February as pair bonds are established or renewed. Black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, and white-breasted nuthatches are several of the birds that usually start singing this month.

·        Gray squirrels mate in January or February and can often be seen streaming by in treetop chases as a group of males chases a half-terrorized female. Amazing acrobatics are usually part of the show.

·        The Great Backyard Bird Count takes place Friday, February 16, through Monday, February 19. This citizen science event engages bird watchers of all levels of expertise to create a real-time snapshot of the whereabouts and relative abundance of birds in mid-winter. Anyone can participate. Go to www.birdcount.org for details.

·        The male common goldeneye puts on an elaborate courtship display in late winter. He thrusts his head forward and then moves it back towards his rump. With his bill pointing skyward, he utters a squeaky call.

·        On mild, sunny, late winter days, check the snow along the edge of woodland trails for snow fleas. What looks like spilled pepper may begin to jump around right before your eyes!

·        Testosterone-charged male skunks roll out of their dens any time from mid-February to early March and go on nocturnal prowls looking for females. The smell of a skunk on a damp, late winter night is a time-honoured sign of “pre-spring.”

MARCH

·         Duck numbers increase as buffleheads and hooded mergansers start arriving.

·        Chipmunks make their first appearance above ground since late fall. They were somewhat active all winter, however, making repeated trips to their underground storehouses for food.

·        The furry catkins of pussy willows and aspens poke through bud scales and become a time-honoured sign of spring’s imminent arrival.

·        By mid-March, the first northward-bound turkey vultures are usually seen. The first songbirds, too, usually return by mid-month. In the city, the most notable new arrivals are robins and grackles. In rural areas, watch for red-winged blackbirds perched high in wetland trees.

·        For anyone paying attention, the increase in bird song is hard to miss. If you don’t already know the voices of common songsters, this is a great time to start learning them. Go to allaboutbirds.org, enter the name of the species, and click on the Sound tab.

·        Jupiter and Mars are spectacular in the early morning sky this month.

·        The spring equinox occurs on March 20 as the sun shines directly on the equator. Both the moon and sun rise due east and set due west. For the next six months, we can enjoy days that are longer than nights.

 

 

 

Nov 302017
 

I thought you might be interested in loon observations which were recorded on Jack’s Lake during the 2017 season.  The results are based on  four lake-wide surveys as well as numerous other random observations. A total of 37 volunteers participated in the 2017 program.  Jack’s Lake Association volunteers have participated in the Canada Lakes Loon Survey since its inception in 1982. Despite high water levels during the nesting period, we believe that 5-6 loon pairs nested successfully and produced a total of 8 young-of-the-year.  As of a week ago, several large juveniles were still present on the lake. Click here to read the full report.  Steve Kerr

Common loon chick-sept-20-2016-carl-welbourne

Nesting loon on Otonabee River – May 31, 2016 – Jacob Rodenburg

 

Nov 282017
 

I am a PhD student at Trent University studying wild turkey populations in the Peterborough area. More specifically, I study wild turkey social structure and behaviour. Part of my research is to investigate the usefulness of platforms such as eBird and iNaturalist in estimating wild turkey population size.

I am running a pilot project this winter in Peterborough County and am requesting that folks submit wild turkey sightings by either adding observations to eBird or by submitting photos of any flocks seen to the Peterborough Wild Turkey Count project on iNaturalist (you’ll need to join the project first). You can add observations on your computer by following either of the links below, or through the eBird or iNaturalist mobile apps.

eBird: http://ebird.org/

iNaturalist: https://www. inaturalist.org/projects/peterborough-wild-turkey-count

On either platform, the most important information to include is a) where you saw the wild turkey(s), and b) how many wild turkeys you saw. We are especially interested in observations submitted between December 1st, 2017 and March 31st, 2018. Eventually, I hope to expand this project and explore whether citizen science platforms can be applied to estimate wild turkey population size for larger areas, such as province of Ontario – so stay tuned! Thank you in advance for any and all wild turkey observations you’re able to contribute this winter. I am hoping to gather as many observations as possible, so please spread the word!

Happy sighting!

Jenn Baici   jenniferbaici@trentu.ca

Wild Turkeys – Wasyl Bakowsky

Nov 202017
 

Red-throated Loon (Gavia stellata) (1)
– Reported Nov 19, 2017 12:42 by Donald A. Sutherland
– Rice Lake–Pengelly Landing, Peterborough, Ontario
Map:
Checklist:
– Comments: “basic adult, around 400-500 m directly S of landing”

Red-necked Grebe. The grebe in the lower right is in winter plumage.

Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) (3)
– Reported Nov 19, 2017 12:42 by Donald A. Sutherland
– Rice Lake–Pengelly Landing, Peterborough, Ontario
– Map: http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&t=p&z=13&q=44.1289379,-78.3067542&ll=44.1289379,-78.3067542
– Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40598643

Horned Grebe in winter plumage – Wikimedia

Nov 182017
 

The news about the American Chestnut trees that I have been bringing along up near Kinmount for the last 15 years is not good, I’m afraid. First: None of the nuts I planted last Fall sprouted so I had no new seedlings to plant this year. Second: I think because we had such a cold and wet Spring, only one of my three trees produced blossoms. Being dioecious (separate male and female trees), this meant there was virtually no hope of producing viable nuts this Summer, unless there are surviving American Chestnut trees nearby. Third: I hope it was due to a late frost but the new growth of leaves on all three of my trees exhibited noticeable deformation, although the remainder of the trees remained healthy-looking until they dropped their leaves. I’m hopeful that this isn’t a symptom of that devastating blight.
I am happy to report though that we saw bats at our cabin regularly through the Summer. I would say that their numbers are coming back up there. We also saw quite a few Monarch butterflies; more than in the past several Summers. We have never seen so many Moose as this summer: Two siblings (I presume) together on a game camera in the Spring, one big bull Moose in September and another, different bull Moose just a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, only two days after we saw the first bull Moose in our meadow, huge rack and all, my wife had a collision with him on Crystal Lake Road. Miraculously, and thankfully, she was completely unhurt, although the car was extensively damaged. The only other bit of good news coming from that is that the Moose ran off into the woods, apparently unhurt. The Moose we caught on camera a couple of weeks ago was younger, with a smaller rack and he appeared healthy.
We saw a Quail crossing Fire Route 397, and I believe they are considered endangered in Ontario now. For the first time ever we captured a Pine Marten (I believe) on a game camera. We also caught many does, a few bucks, several foxes, turkeys, raccoons, porcupines, rabbits, coyotes/wolves/coywolves . . . and a hunter trespassing on our property, shotgun in hand, who stole one of our game cameras. As always, notifying the police is a waste of time. He better not have shot one of our quail, or anything else for that matter.

Michael Doran, Peterborough

Pine Marten – Gord Belyea

American Chestnut leaves and nuts (Wikimedia)

Nov 162017
 

The Boundary Bay area is one of Vancouver’s premier wildlife destinations

As we walked slowly along log-strewn Blackie Spit, flocks of shorebirds flew low over the waves, their white feathers shimmering in the early morning sun. Ducks and cormorants streamed overhead, while loons and grebes dove in the waters offshore. A group of harbour seals lay hauled up on a nearby sand bar. With the sun still low on the horizon, the side-lighting made for superb viewing conditions. After some careful searching, we were finally able to make out a pair of marbled godwits, hidden among a flock of American wigeon in the tall grass. At the same time, a long-billed curlew popped into view, its prodigious bill dwarfing those of the godwits.

Our guide to the natural wonders of Boundary Bay was Anne Murray, a well-known naturalist, environmental activist and author in the Vancouver area. She has written two books on the natural and human history of the bay, which I would recommend to anyone visiting the Surrey – Delta area. The bay itself, which sits on the border between British Columbia and the state of Washington, has been designated a Hemisphere Reserve by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network and a Canadian Important Bird Area.

With a son and daughter living near Vancouver – and now two grandchildren – I am fortunate to visit the area on a regular basis and enjoy nature almost at your doorstep. Nowhere else in Canada can you find abundant raptors, waterbirds, salmon and intriguing flora right in the heart of an urban area of nearly three million people.

From my daughter’s house in North Delta, I set out almost every day to discover a new park or nature reserve. Everywhere I walked, the sweet, earthy smell of the Pacific Northwest permeated the cool November air. Eastern grey squirrels and Douglas’s squirrels scurried over the thick carpet of fallen leaves, while northwestern crows, glaucous-winged gulls and bald eagles soared overhead. Every so often I’d come across a small flock of chickadees. As is always my habit, I would stop and start pishing to draw them closer. The chickadees would quickly approach – both black-capped and chestnut-backed – and, within a minute or so, a coterie of other species would join them. These usually included spotted towhees, gorgeous Oregon dark-eyed juncos, song sparrows, fox sparrows, golden-crowned sparrows and sometimes even a Bewick’s wren.

Anyone visiting the Vancouver area can’t help but be impressed by the huge, towering conifers. The three most common species are usually coastal Douglas-fir (cones with “rat-tail” projections), western red cedar (shredded, reddish bark) and western hemlock (flat, short needles). The dominant broadleaf trees are bigleaf maple (leaves 15 -60 cm across), red alder (a tree-sized version of our local speckled alder) and black cottonwood (a western form of the balsam poplar). As for small broadleaf trees and shrubs, you can’t go far without seeing vine maple (leaves with 7-9 toothed lobes), tall Oregon grape (spiny, holly-like evergreen leaves), salmonberry (raspberry-like shrub), hardhack (Spirea-like), Pacific rhododendron (large, leathery evergreen leaves), salal (small evergreen leaves) and Himalayan blackberry (thicket-forming; red, prickly stems). The latter is a non-native species that is abundant along roads and open trails.

At the level of the forest floor, fungi, mosses, horsetails and ferns prevail. The most visible of these are the sword ferns, whose robust, leathery fronds can measure more than a metre high. Deer fern, lady fern and licorice fern are also common. The latter tends to grow on the moss-covered limbs of broadleaf trees like bigleaf maple. Although yellow is the dominant fall colour on native trees – the oranges and reds of vine maple being an exception – the bright reds and burgundies of Japanese maples and sourgum trees stand out along suburban streets.

Boundary Bay

The cities of Surrey and Delta, where I spent most of my time, are located in the Boundary Bay watershed. This landscape was created by British Columbia’s mightiest river, the Fraser. The entire area is located on the Pacific Flyway, which is a broad north-south migration corridor extending from Alaska to Argentina. Birds interrupt their northward and southward journeys to rest and feed here. Some species, like grebes and harlequin ducks, arrive from the Rocky Mountains and Alberta to overwinter here.

Every fall, a succession of shorebirds arrives on the mudflats, shores and upland fields. Even in early November, large flocks of dunlin and black-bellied plovers are still present. In fact, many overwinter here. As fall progresses, waterfowl join the shorebirds until up to 200,000 ducks, geese and swans gather on the bay or in the fields of the surrounding area. This includes up to 80,000 snow geese, which descend from Wrangel Island, off the northeast coast of Russia. The majority of the wintering ducks on the bay itself are dabbling ducks like mallards, American wigeon, northern pintail and green-winged teal.

Thanks to the rich soil and strict development restrictions, much of the area is still farmland, where everything from blueberries to cranberries are cultivated in huge quantities. In parts of Delta, there is also old-field habitat where raptors abound. As you drive through this landscape, you can’t go far without seeing red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons and bald eagles perched in trees or on hydro towers. In fact, this area has the highest diversity of winter raptors in Canada. Flocks of snow geese and trumpeter swans are also a common sight.

Hedgerows with grassy margins are a prominent feature in many fields. They represent miniature wildlife sanctuaries in their own right. Dominated by Himalayan blackberry, crabapples, hawthorns and roses, hedgerows provide food, cover and nesting sites for songbirds, raptors and small mammals. They also act as “insectaries”, providing habitat for a host of beneficial insects, including pollinators like bumblebees and native solitary bees. Management of these hedgerows is coordinated through the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust, which promotes the preservation of farmland and wildlife habitat in the Boundary Bay watershed through co-operative land stewardship with local farmers.

A life bird

When I visited Boundary Bay this year, I was determined to see a species that has always eluded me – the barn owl. The Boundary Bay area represents the northern limit of the barn owl’s range and is one of the few regions in Canada where a resident population still exists. After we left Blackie Spit, Anne and I, along with my friend Pat O’Gorman, drove over to the bottom of 72nd Street. Barn owls had been flying over the fields here earlier in the day. Although we found many interesting birds – a short-eared owl and a northern shrike, for example – it was too late for barn owls to be flying. Anne suggested I return at first light the following morning.

When I arrived shortly after 7 am, a group of photographers was already there. Judging by their focused attention, they had clearly found something. Almost immediately, I saw my first-ever barn owl. It was flying gracefully over the field with slow, buoyant wing beats. Every so often, the bird would drop into the grass for a minute or so, presumably having caught a vole. As daylight increased, I was struck by the contrast between the tawny-orange back of the bird and its white breast and belly. I was also impressed by the owl’s size. Its 42-inch wingspan was much larger than I expected. The curious dark eyes and white, heart-shaped face were also a treat to see when the bird flew close to the roadside.

Before long, a short-eared owl joined the hunting parade, as did a pair of northern harriers. At one point, a harrier tangled with one of the short-ears in full flight. This was clearly an attempt to steal food. Red-tailed and rough-legged hawks also flew by on occasion, while bald eagles perched in nearby trees. Before I left, I asked one of the photographers, Susan Tam, to send me some of the superb photos she got that morning.

Next, I decided to drive up to the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary on nearby Westham Island. This is another wonderful birding destination. I stopped at a farm near the entrance to the sanctuary and asked the owner for permission to enter his barn. After a bit of searching, I found a big pile of white droppings and brown, regurgitated pellets on the barn floor. Looking up, two ghost-like barn owls peered down at me from a timber high overhead. Judging by the number of pellets at my feet, the hunting had been good. In fact, the barn owl is a superb “mouser” and has the keenest hearing of any bird ever tested. They can catch mice in total darkness, relying on sound alone. They swallow their prey whole and cough up pellets twice a day.

Other destinations

The Surrey and Delta area offers a large assortment of parks with well-maintained trails through beautiful forests. You often feel far from civilization. Over the course of my stay, I visited Green Timbers (home of the Surrey Nature Centre), Watershed, Bear Creek and Tynehead parks. The latter two are great locations to watch salmon spawning. They also have excellent interpretive signs explaining the life cycle of the salmon. At Tynehead, I saw several large coho, the males of which were a deep red colour. At Bear Creek, chum salmon were easy to observe. The fact that salmon habitat has been protected in such a densely-populated urban area made me wonder why Peterborough can’t make a similar commitment to protect the brook trout population in Harper Creek. And, for that matter, make Harper Park a showcase nature destination with trails, boardwalks, signage and a nature centre!

 

 

 

Nov 142017
 

I sent you a note about this time last year about a small flock of Sandhill Cranes passing over Lakefield. Well, this year they have been joined by some friends. At about 2:30 this afternoon, November 17, about 4 flocks of the size of the group in the picture passed over Lakefield, some calling with the deep rolling kr-r-r-oo as described in an old Peterson guide book. One big flock circled about for awhile south of us – probably up over the Lakefield quarry – until it reformed into two or three smaller flocks and then they followed a couple of groups that passed about 10 minutes earlier and seemed to be heading west to northwest. There were probably over 200 birds in total…. a wonderful sight.  Bill Buddle

Sandhill Cranes – November 17, 2017 – Lakefield – Bill Buddle

 

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) (1)
– Reported Nov 14, 2017 09:58 by Travis Cameron
– Lakefield (General), Peterborough, Ontario
Map:
Checklist:
– Comments: “Flying west over County Road 29 ~250m south of Maples Corners.”

An immature Snowy Owl in flight – probably a female (Karl Egressy)

 

We are witnessing scores of Mourning Doves this fall here near Bailieboro, ON. We’re in the country, so we’re used to these birds, but this is unbelievable. They are in at least two flocks. I counted 30 in one. And they eat berries; just ask my car. L. Harries

Mourning Dove – Karl Egressy

 

Here’s a picture of three Trumpeter Swans (two adults and one juvenile) that I photographed on Upper Buckhorn Lake on Nov. 12, 2017.  Derry Fairweather

Trumpeter Swans – November 12, 2017 – Buckhorn Lake – Derry Fairweather

 

I had a Yellow-rumped Warbler at my feeder yesterday, November 12. Hopefully , the seeds will sustain/attract it until December 1st for the official winter bird list! So far, the resident Red-bellied Woodpecker has ignored the suet and chooses the feeder seeds every time. It is certainly a different behaviour for a woodpecker. Michael Gillespie, Keene

Yellow-rumped Warbler at feeder – Nov. 28, 2014 Franmor Dr. Ptbo – Sue Prentice

 

I found this lovely Witch Hazel blooming in a wild area of Ecology Park today, November 12. It could so easily be overlooked! I read that they bloom at this time of year in order to take advantage of the lack of competition for the few flies and moths that are still active. We did see both that day.   Sue Paradisis

Witch Hazel 2 – Ecology Park – Nov. 13, 2017 – Sue Paradisis

 

 

Witch Hazel – Ecology Park – Nov. 13, 2017 – Sue Paradisis

 

 

 

Nov 122017
 

Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata) (1)
– Reported Nov 11, 2017 10:04 by Donald A. Sutherland
– Lakefield–Sewage Lagoons, Peterborough, Ontario
Map:
Checklist:
– Comments: “male”

American Wigeon (Mareca americana) (1)
– Reported Nov 11, 2017 10:04 by Donald A. Sutherland
– Lakefield–Sewage Lagoons, Peterborough, Ontario
– Comments: “male”

Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata) (1)
– Reported Nov 12, 2017 09:11 by Matthew Garvin
– South Chemong Lake off Arnott Rd., Peterborough, Ontario
Map:
Checklist:
– Comments: “Female/immature type. Diving near shore. Great looks. Large bulky beak, white crescent at base of beak and white spot rear of eye. No white wing patches.”

Male and female Surf Scoter – Omar Runolfsson

Black Scoter (Melanitta americana) (4)
– Reported Nov 05, 2017 15:57 by Iain Rayner
– Pigeon Lake–Sandy Point, Peterborough, Ontario
Map:
Checklist:
– Comments: “Female type. All black with pale cheeks and stubby bills. swimming with GRSC”

Black Scoter – Crossley ID Guide of Eastern Birds – Wikimedia

Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena) (1)
– Reported Nov 05, 2017 14:45 by John Bick
– Sandy Point Bay, Pigeon Lake, Peterborough, Ontario
– Map: http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&t=p&z=13&q=44.4989386,-78.4914737&ll=44.4989386,-78.4914737
– Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40328843
– Comments: “Gray coloured large grebe with long neck and long bill, pale on side of face. Diving in grebe-fashion.”

Red-necked Grebe on Otonabee – Tom Northey

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) (3)
– Reported Nov 06, 2017 07:22 by Donald A. Sutherland
– Peterborough–Trent Rotary Rail Trail, Peterborough, Ontario
Map:
Checklist:

Snow Bunting (photo by Serena Formenti)

Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis) (11)
– Reported Nov 05, 2017 14:45 by John Bick
– Sandy Point Bay, Pigeon Lake, Peterborough, Ontario
Map:
Checklist:
– Comments: “Feeding on seeds on ground near dock at Pigeon Lake Campers’ Resort. Took flight often showing white wing patches. All in winter plumage with rusty brown heads and eye patches, streaked backs.”

Snow Bunting (from Crossley ID Guide)

Nov 122017
 

Date: Sunday, 12 Nov 2017 11:47:24 -0500
From: Ron Tozer  rtozer@vianet.ca
To: ontbirds  birdalert@ontbirds.ca
Subject: [Ontbirds] Algonquin Park Birding Report: early November

Click here to visit up-to-date Ontbirds Archive

As of today, November 12, there is a heavy covering of snow on the ground and a few shallow ponds and small lakes along the Highway 60 Corridor are ice-covered. However, it is still fall even if it felt like winter on a couple of minus 15-degree mornings this week. There were fresh Bear tracks in the snow on the Visitor Centre parking lot yesterday, for example. Recent locations for observations of the boreal specialties are as follows:

Spruce Grouse: Spruce Bog Boardwalk, Mizzy Lake Trail rail bed section

Black-backed Woodpecker: Spruce Bog Boardwalk, Opeongo Road, Mizzy Lake Trail rail bed section

Gray Jay: Opeongo Road, Mizzy Lake Trail rail bed section

Boreal Chickadee: Mizzy Lake Trail rail bed section

The abundant cones on most conifer species in Algonquin appear to have been significantly affected by the sustained and unprecedented period of hot days in the latter half of September. The cones opened and limited inspection suggests that many (most?) of the seeds may have been released. It remains to be seen how this will affect finch numbers this winter.

There have been recent observations of nearly all of the expected finches, but in low numbers.

Pine Grosbeak: sightings of single birds on November 4 and 11.

Purple Finch: regular in low numbers.

Red Crossbill: regular in low numbers; four seen almost daily this week at the Visitor Centre. Recordings of larger-billed Type 1 and smaller-billed Type 3 confirmed by Matt Young (Cornell) recently.

White-winged Crossbill: low numbers present, but reported less frequently than Red Crossbill.

Common Redpoll: observations of one to four birds on October 20 and 21 but no reports since.

Pine Siskin: low numbers but likely the most numerous finch currently; 40 at Visitor Centre on November 8.

American Goldfinch: regular in low numbers; 17 at Visitor Centre on November 10.

Evening Grosbeak: one to three at Visitor Centre this week.

Good birding.

Ron Tozer, Algonquin Park Naturalist (retired), Dwight, ON

DIRECTIONS:

Gray Jay -Tom Northey Algonquin Park – March 2014

Algonquin Provincial Park is 2.5 hours north of Peterborough via Highways 28, 62, 127 and 60. Kilometre markers along Highway 60 in the Park go from the West Gate (km 0) to near the East Gate (km 56). The Visitor Centre exhibits, bookstore and restaurant at km 43 are open on weekends from 9 am to 5 pm in winter. The Visitor Centre is also open on weekdays from 9 am to 4 pm with limited services, including self-serve hot and cold beverages plus snacks available in the restaurant. Get your park permit and Information Guide (with a map of birding locations mentioned here) at the East Gate or the West Gate. Locations are also described here.

Displaying Spruce Grouse – Tom Northey

Pine Grosbeak – Wikimedia

Nov 092017
 

Late fall is a great time to get to know these enigmatic structures

I’ve always loved November. Maybe it’s the change of pace and the sense of nature slowing down. Yet, we do notice changes. As deciduous trees shed their leaves, our eyes are drawn to the conifers like at no other time of year. They stand out in all their green splendor and beautiful shapes. And, if you look closely, you’ll notice something special this year: they are laden with a huge crop of cones.

You’ve probably held them, maybe used them to make a holiday wreath, but how many of us really know what cones are? The short answer is that cones – named after their shape – are the reproductive parts of an ancient branch of plants known as gymnosperms. Conifers form the largest group of living gymnosperms, but gingko trees also belong to this class of plants. About 300 million years ago, the gymnosperms became the dominant trees on the planet. They continued their dominance throughout the Triassic and Jurassic periods – the age of the dinosaurs. Their cones were even a favourite food of species like duckbill dinosaurs. The gymnosperms reigned supreme until the rise of the angiosperms – the flowering plants – during the Cretaceous period.

The arrival of gymnosperms was revolutionary, because it heralded the advent of the seed. This was as profound an evolutionary event as the development of the shelled egg in reptiles. Just as the egg allowed reptiles to become the first truly terrestrial vertebrates – and break nearly all aquatic ties – the evolution of the seed meant that plants no longer had to grow in moist environments like their fern and moss ancestors did. They could therefore colonize upland habitats. The gymnosperms protected their embryos from drying out by encasing them in a tough waterproof seed coat.

A closer look

All conifers produce cones. In fact, this is where the name “conifer” comes from. It is not accurate to call these trees evergreens, because some species, the tamarack for example, actually shed all of their needles in the fall, just like a maple or an oak. And not all cones are pine cones. This term only describes the cones of the pine tree. The cones of the other conifers should be named according to their parent tree.

Gymnosperms are different from angiosperms in that they lack true flowers. There are no petals, stamens, pistils or ovaries. In fact, the word gymnosperm actually means “naked seed”, because the seeds are not enclosed in an ovary. They simply develop from an ovule (egg) located on the inner surface of each of scales. Flowers, on the other hand, are produced by angiosperms, which include everything from oaks and maples to grasses and daisies. Angiosperm seeds develop when a pollen grain adheres to the stigma at the top of the pistil, travels down through the style and fertilizes an ovule located in the ovary. When you eat an apple and spit out the seeds, you are eating the enlarged ovary.

Male vs. female

As is the case with many flowers, cones can be either male or female. Both usually occur on the same tree. Junipers are an exception, having separate male and female trees. Let’s look at the female cone first. These are the typical hard, brown, woody cones. They consist of a central stalk surrounded by stiff, overlapping scales, reminiscent of wooden shingles. The ovules, which when pollinated become seeds, are located at the base on the inner surface of the scale. If you pry open the scales of a mature cone before it falls from the tree, you can often see the seeds inside. In white pine and balsam fir, the female cones are located high up in the tree at the tips of the branches. In most other species, they are found lower down, as well.

The male cones, also known as pollen cones, are much smaller (often only a centimetre or two in size) and far less conspicuous structures. Usually located on the lower branches, they are most often brown or reddish and resemble little spikes or buttons. They have a central axis, which bears pollen-producing structures. You’ve probably brushed up against them, causing a smoke-like cloud of pollen. Soon after the pollen is released, the male cones whither and drop from the tree. You will often see piles of male cones under pine trees in early summer.

Timetable

Each conifer species follows its own reproduction timetable. In the case of the white pine, Ontario’s provincial tree, clusters of male cones first appear in the spring at the base of new twig growth. A few weeks later, the soft, green and purplish female cones emerge. At the time of pollination, they are about two centimetres long. Towards the middle of June, the male cones release their pollen grains. The grains are so well adapted to wind pollination that they actually contain two air bubbles. Only an infinitesimally small amount of pollen ever makes it to the female cones, however. Most of it simply descends from the sky turning cottage decks, shorelines and puddles a lemon yellow.

At the same time as the pollen is released, the female cones become receptive to receiving the airborne sex cells. The tiny cone scales open slightly  and a small amount of fluid is secreted which serves to “trap” the pollen and draw it in towards the two ovules at the base of each scale.

Having secured pollen, the scales begin to thicken and to press tightly together. The cone continues to grow, hardens and turns from green to brown. Strangely enough, the actual fertilization of the ovules by the pollen only occurs 13 months later. It then takes an additional 13 months or so for the seeds to mature. In late summer, the scales dry out, flex backwards and open up one final time. This allows the seeds inside to simply escape to the wind. Each seed has a tiny wing, which helps it to float on the air, travelling up to 200 metres from the parent tree. In all, the process of reproduction will have taken over two years. The cones themselves drop off the tree during the late fall or winter, a few months after seed release. You can find them on the ground right now under almost any white pine.

Cone and seed development in all of the other conifers requires less than one year. In the case of white spruce and eastern hemlock, for example, the cones open and shed their seeds during their first fall or winter. The seeds often litter the snow. Spruce cones drop from the trees during this same period, but the cones of the hemlock remain on the branches until spring. White cedar cones also open in the fall and shed their seeds over several months.

With balsam fir – the best choice for a Christmas tree – the process is quite different. The scales themselves drop off the cone while it is still on the tree, thus liberating the seeds to the wind. All that is left is the bare, stick-like core of the cone. It can remain on the tree for several years. Balsam fir cones grow in dense groups near the top of the tree and stand straight up like candles.

In some conifers like junipers and yews, the scales on the female cone swell up and fuse together after pollination. This leads to the formation of a small, soft, fleshy cone, which superficially looks like a berry. You may have noticed the huge number of blue, berry-like cones on junipers (e.g., eastern red cedar) this year. Each contains one to four brownish seeds. Red cedar “berries” are very popular with birds like waxwings and robins.

Mathematicians

Cones are a testament to the wonder of evolution. The arrangement of the spirals of scales, for example, is anything but random. They follow nature’s numbering system, known as the Fibonacci pattern. It goes like this: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34… (each subsequent number being the sum of the two preceding ones). If you look closely at a pine cone, you’ll see a double set of spirals, each going in a different direction. When these spirals are counted, the two sets are found to be adjacent Fibonacci numbers. For example, you might see eight spiraling counterclockwise and 13 spiraling clockwise. Larger or smaller cones can have different pairs of numbers. No, trees are not mathematicians. This arrangement is simply the best use of space, so it has been favoured by evolution.

Wreath

For a great holiday activity, you might want to try making a cone wreath. Going out to gather the cones themselves is half the fun. Try to find cones from different species. You’ll also need to make a cardboard base. The base can be cut into any shape you like – maybe a snowflake. Paint the cardboard or glue on a piece of felt. Then, using a glue gun, attach the cones to the base. If you spray the cones with water several hours before you begin, the scales will usually close and be easier to work with. Glue on the larger cones first, and then fill in the remaining spaces with the smaller ones. You can also add accents such as acorns and sumac berries. After the cones have fully dried and the scales reopened, spray the wreath with a clear lacquer. Handled with care, it will last for years and be a beautiful holiday reminder of the fascinating biology of cones.

 

Nov 022017
 

Red-shouldered Hawk (lineatus Group) (Buteo lineatus [lineatus Group]) (1)
– Reported Nov 04, 2017 10:32 by Luke Berg
– Luke’s Yard, Peterborough, Ontario
Map:
– Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40302920
– Comments: “Adult at 1453h. ”

Red-shouldered Hawk (Brendan Boyd)

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) (1)
– Reported Nov 02, 2017 09:20 by Iain Rayner
– PTBO – Robinson Place, Peterborough, Ontario
Map:
– Checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40260768

Peregrine Falcon (Wikimedia photo)

Nov 022017
 

Much remains to be explained about these familiar birds    

When a species is as common as the blue jay, we tend to take it for granted. We are often dulled into thinking that there’s little new to be discovered about its behaviour. Well, think again. From their aggressive mobbing behaviour and seed caching, to their enigmatic migrations and mimicking of other species, there is much that remains a mystery. We even have to be wary of our own senses. A jay’s feathers, for instance, aren’t really blue. The colour pigment they contain is actually brown. The blue we see is caused by the scattering of light by special cells in the feather barbs. The feathers appear almost black when backlit.

Food

A big part of the blue jay’s success as a species comes down to being a generalist. They will eat everything from seeds and nuts to insects and carrion. Even the eggs and nestlings of other species are sometimes on the menu. When jays visit feeders, they prefer peanuts, suet and sunflowers offered up on a tray or hopper feeder. Just this week, I watched as one jay gobbled up at lest 20 sunflower seeds, before flying off presumably to cache them.

Jays have a pouch in the throat and upper esophagus in which they transport food – as many as three acorns at a time, for example. They then store the food in caches – often in the ground – to be eaten at a later date when the pickings are scarce. One study showed that a single blue jay can cache up to 5,000 acorns over the course of an autumn. Some of the food, of course, is never eaten, so acorns can end up germinating and producing new trees. It is believed that jays are responsible for the spreading of oaks after the glaciers retreated. However, the extent of caching appears to differ widely among individual jays.

Because this year’s crop of acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts and beaked hazelnuts is quite good, it appears that large numbers of jays will remain in Kawarthas this fall and winter. I am already seeing a lot more than this time last year. But, as we’ll see later, the link between food availability and migration is far from clear. Although much of their winter diet consists of acorns – at least in parts of their range – jays cannot survive on these nuts alone. Some of the literature even states that jays don’t really care for the acorns of red and white oaks, which are the two main species here in the Kawarthas. Go figure.

It was once thought that the eggs and nestlings of other species made up a big part of their diet, too. This habit even attracted the attention of John James Audubon, who wrote, “It robs every nest it can find, sucks the eggs like a crow, or tears to pieces and devours the young birds.” The actual extent of nest predation, however, is unclear. Recent studies show that eggs and nestlings make up a negligible part of a jay’s diet.

In one famous study on the palatability of monarch butterflies,  captive blue jays were fed monarchs. As caterpillars, the monarchs had been raised on milkweed leaves, which is the only plant the larvae will eat. Ingesting the butterflies caused the jays to vomit, and they refused to ever dine on them again. It is now a well-known fact that monarchs are unpalatable to birds.

Migration

We have blue jays in the Kawarthas every fall and winter, but the number varies significantly from one year to the next. Fall migration is most noticeable in mid- to late September, although it does continue until the end of October. Jays return to the Kawarthas in May, when migrants arrive back to join their brethren who never left.

The best place to observe fall migration is along shorelines of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, where thousands can be seen daily. The birds fly in a loose, string-like flocks ranging in size from about six to over a hundred jays. They travel during the day- especially in the morning – and are usually silent. In the autumn of 2007, hawk watchers at Holiday Beach, south of Windsor, counted 50,000 jays streaming past in a single day. That being said, it is believed that no more than 20 percent of the population migrates, even in northern parts of the blue jay’s range.

No one has figured out why an individual jay or jay family migrates when or if they do. Some individuals migrate south one year, stay north in their nesting area the following winter, and then migrate again when the next fall rolls around. Individuals that depart an area in autumn may be replaced by those migrating from farther north. It was once thought that young jays migrate more than adults, but recent analyses of banded jays show no significant age difference between migrant and resident birds. Migration may indeed be related to the availability of wild food, but this is not yet certain.

Vocalizations

“Along the line of smoky hills / The crimson forest stands / And all the day the blue jay calls / Throughout the autumn lands.” These words by the Canadian poet William Wilfred Campbell are as true today as they were in 1889. The loud and brash calls of jays are maybe the most typical bird sound of early fall. Blue jays are well known for their large variety of vocalizations, the most familiar of which is a shrill, descending “jaaay” scream. They also make a whistled “toolili” sound, which is often referred to as the “rusty pump” call, since it resembles the sound a hand-operated water pump. Quiet, clicking rattles are also common. Unlike other songbirds, blue jays don’t sing as such. This may be because they are not territorial and don’t appear to defend a discrete space the way that robins do, for instance.

Jays are also mimics and do an amazing rendition of red-shouldered hawk calls. Why they do so is unclear. It may signal to other jays that a hawk is present, or it may be a feeding strategy. Upon hearing the jay’s uncanny hawk imitation, some birds immediately fly away. The jay then eats the food left behind or raids its nest. Like migration, this is an area where much more research is needed.

Jays also use body language to communicate. Holding the crest down low, for example, indicates a lower aggression level. The opposite is also true. Watch the next time you see a blue jay squawking: the crest is usually erect.

Mobbing

Jays, like crows, blackbirds and chickadees, often take part in mobbing behaviour, which refers to a group of birds fluttering and calling loudly around a perched hawk, owl, cat or other predator. The purpose of this behaviour is still debated, but it seems to be done in an effort to hound the intruder until it decides to move along. In the case of a hawk, it is not clear why the pestered raptor doesn’t simply turn on its tormentors and grab one or two for an easy meal.

Abundance

Blue jay populations have remained constant for years, despite some mortality in recent decades from West Nile Virus. The 2000-2005 Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas shows a small northward extension of range, possibility because of more people feeding birds. Jays are most abundant in the southern shield region, which includes The Land Between. You can also find large numbers of jays in older urban and suburban areas of large cities throughout southern Ontario. Like many generalist species, jays adapt easily to changes in the landscape, and their populations may actually increase with climate change.

Male vs. female

People have often wondered how birds like blue jays and Canada geese recognize the opposite sex. In both species, the male and female appear identical to human eyes. The only apparent difference between individual jays – but not the sexes – is the size and shape of the black bridle or necklace across the nape, face and throat. This may help jays recognize different individuals.

Research now is revealing that birds have much better colour discrimination than humans. They see an entire range of colours that we cannot perceive or even imagine. This includes colour in the ultraviolet range. This means that birds may actually be seeing distinct differences in plumage colour. They may see colours that are unimaginable to us such as a blend of ultraviolet and yellow. Colour, of course, is a construct of the brain.

In one study, a stuffed male and female yellow-breasted chat, a type of warbler, were placed in a cage with a wild, living male chat. Since it was the breeding season, the wild male attacked the stuffed male in an effort to chase it from the cage. However, it displayed mating behaviour in front of the female. There is an important lesson here. As humans, we must learn to be much more modest about how we perceive the world. We have evolved in a limited perception bubble. We have significant sensory shortcomings and are by no means the pinnacle of evolution. In evolution, course, there is no pinnacle – just differences. As Joe Smith wrote recently in Cool, Green Science, “We must accept that as beautiful as birds appear to us, we will never be able to behold their true colors. We are left only to revel in the known unknowns and wonder about the ‘unknown unknowns’ yet to be discovered in the invisible world around us.”