Jul 292018
 

Another fox in city dining on Gray Squirrels

There was a large number of squirrels in our neighbourhood. Then came a large, gray-coloured fox, easily the size of my fifty pound Springer Spaniel. I’d often see it at first light, and thrice seen carrying a black-phase Gray Squirrel. The squirrel population has dropped dramatically. As of July 23, I have not seen the fox for about three weeks. I presume he has moved on to another neighbourhood where the roof rabbit harvest is more promising. When I first saw the fox, I was not sure what I was looking at.  I thought perhaps it was a coyote/fox hybrid, but that probably does not happen.  Larry Love, Norwood Terrace, Peterborough

P.S. By the way, there is lots of Black Bear activity in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park.  Last Thursday while stopping for dinner on Campsite 301 (Wolf Lake) I  saw a handwritten “Bear Warning” note, concerning a juvenile nuisance bear.  The sign was tacked to a tree at the site.   During our two hour stay, there were a number of gawkers who came into the bay to see if there was a bear around.  One kayaker told me about an MNR culvert trap set on a cottager’s property, not far from Site 301.   Two years ago, I put a small bear off of an adjacent island.  He had been gorging on blueberries.  The bears are everywhere in KHPP, but this boldness is new.

Red-headed Woodpecker at Gannons Narrow (July 21)  This is the first year we have ever seen one in the area. He has been around since early June and just in the last week or so has found our black oil sunflower seed feeders. He is a feisty fellow who will scare away the other birds and not give way to blackbirds or jays who try to get him to move. Kingsley Hubbs, Gannons Narrows, Selwyn Township

Red-headed Woodpecker – July 2018 – Kingsley Hubbs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black-billed Cuckoo near Warsaw:  At around 8 pm this evening (July 20), I heard (twice) the call of a Black-billed Cuckoo in our bush near the Indian River. I didn’t see it, but its call was unmistakable. It moved to 2 different locations within the bush. We’ve been here 19 years and haven’t heard a cuckoo every year.   Jane Bremner

Black-billed Cuckoo – Wikimedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) (1) from eBird
– Reported Jul 19, 2018 15:13 by Daniel Williams
– Peterborough–Millennium Park, Peterborough, Ontario
Map:
Checklist:
– Comments: “Flew out from willow tree on island, landing on dead tree near sand bar. Presumably same individual reported here a few weeks back. ”

Black-crowned Night-Heron – Wikimedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eastern Screech-Owl (Megascops asio) (4)  from eBird
– Reported Jul 17, 2018 20:50 by Daniel Williams
– Peterborough–Beavermead Park, Peterborough, Ontario
Map:
Checklist:
– Comments: “1 adult, 2 young, and presumably a 3rd young calling. Adult giving steady hoot calls similar to NSOW, but mixed with clicking and whinnies. In ecology park hopping around. Seen previous night as well but only as silhouettes. ”

Eastern Screech owl – red phase – 9th Line of Selwyn Twsp – March 11, 2017 – Kathy McCue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our neighbor has a family of Mallards visiting regularly. What is remarkable, however, is that all  of the ducklings have, so far at least, survived. They have survived the Great Blue Heron that has totally cleaned out the Eastern Chipmunk population. Sad. Yeah, I know, nature. But, the maddening part, of course, is that the Great Blue is really, really lazy. He has decided to stop fishing, and go chipmunking!  Gord Young, Armour Road  

Mother Mallard and eight ducklings – Dianne Tyler

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have had 3 Pileated Woodpeckers in our yard at the same time this month. However, I couldn’t get all three in the picture below. We know there are a male and a female juvenile, but we’re not sure about how many adults/parents. The Osprey nests around here all seem to only have one baby this year but its really hard to tell. We  watch the nest behind us in the ball diamond, the nest on the Bridgenorth-Selwyn Road, and the one at the corner of Yankee Line and Robinson Road across from the trailer park.  Jennie and Peter Gulliver, Communication Road, Bridgenorth

Two or the three Pileated Woodpeckers in our yard – July 16, 2018 – Jennie Gulliver

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On July 12, we were camping on Secret Lake in Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park and saw a pair of Sandhill Cranes and 2 half-grown chicks foraging along a marshy shore. Secret Lake is located north of Long Lake and Loucks Lake. It is reached by a short portage from Loucks Lake. Gary Moloney

Sandhill Crane with chick – Barb Evett – Buckhorn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It seems that my leaving wide swaths of my orchard uncut to establish zones of biodiversity, which  include apple trees, nesting boxes as well as many milkweeds, has paid off. This morning, July 9, I noticed quite a few Monarchs fluttering about and visiting multiple milkweed plants that are happily blooming – having escaped the blades of my bush hog! Michael Gillespie, Keene

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed  – Drew Monkman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have lived outside of Millbrook for 20 years & have noticed a large decline in birds and bees. I’ve also seen very few fireflies, whereas they were abundant a few years back.  Ludvik Kouril (July 9)

Photinus pyralis – a common firefly – Art Farmer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have a very large patch of Himalayan Balsam in my backyard. I’ve been fighting this invasive species for years, and I was just about to start pulling these plants out when, on July 7, I saw a Monarch laying eggs on them. Wendy Hicks, Peterborough

 N.B. Don Davis, a Monarch expert, told me that this is very unusual. D.M.

Himalayan Balsam, an invasive species in Ontario – Wikimedia

 

 

Jul 162018
 

The average North American child can identify over 300 corporate logos, but only 10 native plants or animals – a telling indictment of our modern disconnection from the natural world. Even though children are born with an innate interest in nature, our society does little to nurture this predisposition. It is largely for this reason that Jacob Rodenburg, Executive Director of Camp Kawartha, and I decided four years ago to sit down and write a book to help address this problem.
Released just last week by New Society Publishers, “The Big Book of Nature Activities: A year-round guide to outdoor learning” sets out to answer the question “What can you do outside in nature?” In response, the book provides nearly 150 activities, including games, crafts, drama, and stories. It will also help young and old alike to become more aware of how the sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes of the natural world change from one season to the next. The book is aimed at parents, grandparents, classroom teachers, outdoor educators and youth leaders of all kinds. Much of the information – and many of the activities – will also be of interest to adults, especially if you need to brush up on your own nature skills. Adults should also be interested in the extensive background information on evolution, citizen science projects, nature journaling, nature photography and how to make the most of digital technology,

The Big Book of Nature Activities

The Big Book of Nature Activities

Introduction

We begin the book by discussing the disconnection from nature that characterizes so much of modern society. In an increasingly urbanized world, our children are much more likely to experience the flickering a computer screen or the sounds of traffic than the rhythmic chorus of bird or insect song. And sadly, they can more easily identify corporate logos or cartoon characters than even a few tree or bird species. We therefore ask the questions: Where will tomorrow’s environmentalists and conservationists come from? Who will advocate for threatened habitats and endangered species? What are the impacts on one’s physical and emotional well-being from a childhood or adulthood spent mostly indoors? We then go on to discuss some of the consequences of what the environmental educator Richard Louv calls “Nature Deficit Disorder”.

The activities, species and events in nature, which are described in the book, cover an area extending from British Columbia and northern California in the west to the Atlantic Provinces and North Carolina in the east. This includes six ecological regions such as the Marine West Coast and the Eastern Temperate Forests. In other words, the book applies to most anywhere in North America where there are four seasons.

The introduction also provides ideas on how to raise a naturalist (hint: take your kids camping!), how to get kids outside, how children of different ages respond to nature, how nature can enhance our lives as adults and the importance of being able to identify and name the most common species. We provide lists of 100 continent-wide key species to learn – everything from birds and invertebrates to trees, shrubs and wildflowers – as well as about 50 key regional species. We also introduce the reader to three cartoon characters, namely Charles Darwin, Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson who will tell stories of the wonder of evolution and the universe throughout the book.

Charles Darwin cartoon character - Kady MacDonald Denton

Our Charles Darwin cartoon character gives examples of the wonder of evolution throughout the book – Kady MacDonald Denton

Basic Skills

Connecting to nature is easier when you have learned some basic skills. In this section, we provide hints for paying attention (be patient and slow down), how to engage all the senses (learn to maximize your sense of smell), how to lead a nature hike (have some “back-pocket” activities ready to go), nature-viewing and traveling games from a car or school bus (do a scavenger hunt), how to increase your chances of seeing wildlife (try sitting in one place), how to bring nature inside (set up a nature table), how to get involved in “citizen science” (start at scistarter.com) and how to connect with nature in the digital age (make the most of your smartphone and social media). The latter section is especially detailed. Although it might seem counter-intuitive, there are actually many ways in which digital technology can inspire people of all ages to explore nature and share their experiences with others.

We also provide information on the basics of birding; insect-watching (butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies and moths), plant identification, mushroom-hunting, getting to know the night sky, nature journaling, nature photography, and nature-based geo-caching. Additional basic skills are covered in the activities in the seasons chapters themselves. These include fish-watching, mammal-watching, amphibian- and reptile-watching and tree identification.

Key Concepts

The third chapter in “The Big Book of Nature Activities” deals with four important concepts, which help us to more fully understand and appreciate nature. We start by explaining why we have seasons, and how the tilt of Earth’s axis makes all the difference. This is followed by a discussion of phenology, which is the science of observing and recording “first events”- such as spring’s first lilac bloom or frog song. Next, we talk about how climate change is affecting different habitats and species, and why a connection with nature is so important in light of this threat. Finally, we discuss the importance of understanding evolution and how it is manifested in even the most common backyard species. Armed with a little knowledge of evolution, we can learn to appreciate the wonder that resides in all species, not just the charismatic ones. We also want children to know that science is just beginning to unravel many of the mysteries of evolution and the incredible stories it has revealed. Our Darwin cartoon character tells many of these stories. The good news for young scientists-to-be is that there’s so much we don’t yet understand

The book explains the basics of evolution and natural selection, without getting into the details of genetics. We then provide a story for young children on how evolution might work within a population of imaginary sand bugs. For older children and adults, we go on a “field trip of the imagination” in which we visit our ancestors, starting with our self, our grandfather, our great-grandfather, etc. and ending up at our 185-million-greats-grandfather who, by the way, would have been a fish! This section concludes with a shortened version of Big History, the evidence-based story that takes us from the Big Bang to the present, in which we humans are “star stuff pondering stars”.

The book contains over 400 illustrations.

Hundreds of drawings

 Seasons’ chapters

The four seasons’ chapters make up the heart of the book. Each begins with a summary of some of the key events in flora, fauna, weather and the sky. This includes events that occur across North America as well as happenings that are specific to each region. Most of the activities in the chapter relate to these events. This is followed by a seasonal poem to enjoy and maybe memorize; suggestions for what to display or collect for the nature table;

ideas about what to photograph or record in your nature journal; a short seasonal story called “What’s Wrong with the Scenario” in which you try to spot the mistakes; the story of Black Cap, the Chickadee, which takes you through a year in an individual chickadee’s life and includes activities; and ideas for what to do at your Magic Spot, a special nature-rich area close to home.

The final and largest section of the seasons’ chapters is called “Exploring the season: Things to do.” It comprises 50 or more activities to activate your five senses, keep track of seasonal change, explore evolution, and have fun discovering fascinating aspects of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, invertebrates, plants, fungi, weather and the night sky. We also offer up suggestions on how to make nature part of seasonal celebrations like Thanksgiving. Some of the activities include making a scent cocktail and touch bag, using a roll of toilet paper to create a history-of-life timeline, meeting the “beast” within you, a non-identification bird walk, a woodpecker drumming game, mammal-watching with a trail camera, observing spawning salmon, a frog song orchestra, exploring seaside beaches and tide pools, a “bee dance” drama game, conducting a pond study, “adopting” a tree to observe over an entire year, dissecting flowers, a fungi scavenger hunt, a classroom “hand-generated” thunderstorm, going on a night hike, making tin can constellations, creating your own moon phases, celebrating the winter and summer solstices, ideas for Earth Day, and more. Scattered throughout the activities are suggestions for getting involved in citizen science projects. The book concludes with an appendix with blackline masters for photocopying and a detailed index.

There are 16 pages of colour photos that link to some of the activities.

Sixteen pages of colour photos that link to some of the activities.

The book also contains several hundred drawings, most of which were done by talented Lakefield artist, Judy Hyland. Others were contributed by Kim Caldwell, Kady MacDonald Denton, Jean-Paul Efford and Heather Sadler (drawings by her late father, Doug Sadler). In the middle of the book, you will find a 16-page block of colour photos by the authors and others.

“The Big Book of Nature Activities” is available at Happenstance Books and Yarns at 44 Queen Street in Lakefield (705-652-7535), at Camp Kawartha (1010 Birchview Road, Douro-Dummer), at Chapters (Landsowne Street west in Peterborough) and online at Chapters.Indigo.ca and Amazon.ca. It would make a great end of school year gift. The cost is $39.95. A book launch hosted by Happenstance will be held on July 24, from 2-4 p.m. at the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre at 2505 Pioneer Road. For more details and regular updates about the book, please go to drewmonkman.com. The authors can be reached by email at dmonkman1@cogeco.ca and jrodenburg@campkawartha.ca

 

 

 

 

Jul 132018
 

Get up close and personal to nature while reducing your carbon footprint

 “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best.” Ernest Hemingway

Riding a bicycle can be a wonderful way to engage with nature and the changing seasons. The feeling of setting off on two wheels is like an adventure, as each outing offers something different. You can enjoy areas that are inaccessible to a car and move along much more quietly. The result is that you see and hear so much more. Even a slow bike ride – the kind I’m referring to – also allows you to wind down, get some exercise and reduce your carbon footprint.

There are even some advantages over walking. You can cover much greater distances and pass quickly through areas of little interest. At the same time, travelling by bicycle is slow and gentle enough to take in all the same sights, sounds and smells as you would on foot. When something of interest grabs your attention, you can simply stop.

Nature-viewing from a bicycle has many advantages – Drew Monkman

Birding    

Birding and biking are made for each other. Just this week a friend told me he heard and/or saw 24 species during a 90-minute ride on the Trans Canada Trail from Jackson Park to Ackison Road and back. Highlights included an osprey near Ackison and two northern harriers at Lily Lake. He also saw numerous birds carrying food to feed young. Birding from a bike is far less confined than from a car. There’s no window frames or roof to block your view and no annoying engine, fan or beeping sounds. Unlike getting out of a car, there’s also no need to quietly close the door. When a bird darts across the road or trail, you can quickly and safely stop, put your feet down and lift your binoculars to your eyes. Just remember to pedal slowly enough to observe the habitat you’re passing through, avoid potholes or other obstacles and pay attention to other trail users. Pedalling slowly also eliminates wind noise.

For people who are new to birding – children, for example – travelling by bike is also more fun, since much of birding involves walking, standing and waiting – over and over again.

Equipment

A hybrid is probably the best bicycle choice, although any bike that is suitable for riding on gravel will do. Remember to dress warmly, especially in the spring and fall. Always wear a helmet and consider bringing a pump and maybe even a spare inner tube. Be sure you have a kickstand and lock, too, since you’ll often want to stop, get off the bike and maybe wander down a pathway. Don’t forget water and maybe a snack.

A pair of binoculars is a must – the lighter the better. Remember to keep them around your neck. A binocular harness can be useful, too, because it will stop your binos from swinging about. Don’t forget your smartphone. It can be used as a camera, sound recorder, notebook and for consulting field guide apps like the Sibley eGuide to Birds.

Engaging the senses

Enjoying nature from a bike is a great way to engage all of your senses. A good rule of thumb is to stop briefly each time you enter a new habitat type such as a wetland, woodlot or stream crossing. What new species can you see and hear? Here are some other pointers to keep in mind.

  1. Vision: Look skyward, to the sides and far ahead. Don’t forget to check the road or trail surface for caterpillars, butterflies, dragonflies, frogs, snakes or maybe even a baby turtle. Check out spots where birds tend to perch such as wires, telephone poles, fence poles and branches of dead trees. In the early morning or evening, scan meadows for deer and maybe even a fox or coyote. Watch the sky, too, for soaring birds like vultures and raptors. Learn to identify the different cloud types and signs of a change in the weather.

Midland Painted Turtle hatchling -WikiMedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Smell: Notice how the smells change as you pass through different habitat types. Each month, too, has its signature smells. May smells of lilac and balsam poplar; in late June and early July the fragrance of common milkweed and freshly-cut hay often fills the air; late summer can smell of rank vegetation, while the spicy perfume of fallen leaves is a time-honoured scent of fall.
  2. Touch: Pay attention to how the air temperature changes as you pass from a warm, sunny area to a shaded section of the road or trail. Feel the warmth or coolness of the wind in your face.
  3. Hearing: Listen for frogs and birds in spring and early summer. The insect chorus begins to take over in mid-July and lasts through early fall. Listen to how each habitat type offers up different voices. Cupping your ears will greatly increase your ability to hear distant sounds.

Seasonal highlights

For each season with the exception of winter, I have provided a very brief list of some common species, nature happenings and sounds to watch and listen for from your bike. How many can you see or hear?

Summer: Red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, cedar waxwings, grackles, great blue herons, American goldfinches, eastern kingbirds, gray squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, painted turtles basking on logs, egg fragments from raided turtle nests, garter snakes, leopard frogs, bumble bees, dragonflies, damselflies, monarchs, sulphur butterflies, Carolina locusts flying up from the ground, fireflies at nightfall, ox-eye daisy, black-eyed Susan, Queen Anne’s lace, tall white clover, common milkweed, Canada goldenrod and poison ivy. Common sounds:  Red-eyed vireo, cedar waxwing, American goldfinch, song sparrow, house wren, green frog, dog-day Cicada, crickets

The song of the Red-eyed Vireo is one of the most common sounds of summer on bike trails. (Drew Monkman)

House Wrens are inveterate singers – Carl Welbourn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fall:  Blue jay, large flocks of blackbirds, migrating turkey vultures, Canada geese, ring-billed gulls, deer in fields, beavers active in wetlands, squirrel nests in trees, baby snapping turtles, woolly bear caterpillars crossing roads, red and yellow meadowhawk dragonflies,  colour change in leaves from  early September (e.g., Virginia Creeper, sumac) to early Nov. (tamaracks, oaks), abundant purple New England aster and various white asters, puffball and shaggy mane mushrooms. Common sounds: Blue jay, American crow, Canada geese, crickets

Spring: American robins, red-winged blackbirds, mallards, tree swallows, song sparrows, yellow warblers, groundhogs, muskrats, baby painted turtles, turtles laying eggs, spawning fish, mourning cloak butterflies, midges, green darner dragonflies, tent caterpillars, bumble bees, pussy willows, coltsfoot, trilliums, trout lily, fiddleheads, blooming trees and shrubs, emergence of leaves. Common sounds: Spring peeper, chorus frog, ruffed grouse, American robin, red-winged blackbird, song sparrow, northern flicker, woodpeckers drumming

A few itineraries

The following roads and trails offer different habitat types and a wide variety of species. The roads are relatively free of traffic. To learn about other quiet routes in the Peterborough area, go to biketoptbo.ca/longer-rides/city-cycling-routes/ Created by Cary Weitzman, this site is a treasure-trove of information. Printed maps are available as well at City Hall and local bike shops.

  1. Hubble Road (east of Stony Lake off Cty Rd 44) Rare birds.
  2. Sandy Lake Road (30 minutes north of Havelock on Cty Rd 46) Rare birds and butterflies.
  3. County Road 24: Start at Cty Rd 18 and follow north to Cty Rd 20, north to 10th Line and east to Cty Rd 25. Return the same way. Great wetland and field habitat.
  4. Fifth Line west from Bridgenorth Trail parking lot to Pinehill Road. Follow Pinehill to Steinkrauss Drive and continue north through residential streets of Bridgenorth to East Communication Road. Follow to Miller Creek Conservation Area on 7th Line. Return to 5th Line by way of Bridgenorth Trail. Great views and varied habitat.
  5. Roads in provincial parks such as Petroglyphs, Presqu’ile and Carden Alvar.
  6. Trans-Canada Trail (gravel) from Jackson Park, through Lily Lake Wetland and on to the trestle bridge past Orange Corners Road. Wetland species, diverse shrubs and flowers
  7. Trans-Canada Trail (gravel) from Lang to Hastings. High butterfly diversity, deer
  8. Rotary Greenway Trail (paved and gravel) from Peterborough at Parkhill East, past Meadowvale Park, past Trent University, north to County Road 33 and east to Lakefield Sewage Lagoons. Back track and continue up to Lakefield and west to D’eyncourt Street to Lakefield Marsh. Warblers, sparrows along trail; ducks at lagoons, along river and at Lakefield Marsh
  9. Little Lake Loop (roads and trail) Little Lake Cemetery north to Millennium Park and across pedestrian bridge to Beavermead Park and Ecology Park. Ducks in spring on Little Lake; songbirds and feeders at Ecology Park
  10. Parkway Corridor (paved) from Jackson Park to Cumberland Street. Retention pond with ducks. Birds in dense vines at Cumberland end.


Rotary Greenway Trail where it traverses the Promise Rock Nature Area -Drew Monkman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fun activities

  1. Do a family scavenger hunt by using the species and sounds above to make a checklist.
  2. Go on a sounds ride – how many different natural sounds can you hear?
  3. Count an individual species – how many monarch butterflies, turkey vultures or other species can you spot?
  4. Choose your own “Magic Spot”. Find a quiet, nature-rich location along the road or trail where you can get off the bike, sit quietly for five or 10 minutes and relax. Note seasonal changes.
  5. If you love birding, do a “Big Day” to see how many bird species you find over the course of a day. Former Peterborough resident, Jody Allair, a staff member at Bird Studies Canada, did his Great Canadian Birdathon by bike this spring and found 132 species. He and his team biked 32 kilometres in the Long Point area on Lake Erie.

I’d like to thank Chris Risley and Marilyn Freeman in the preparation of this article.

Jul 072018
 

Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) (1)
– Reported Jul 05, 2018 11:50 by Sheila Collett
– engleburn ave, Peterborough, Ontario
Map:
Checklist:
– Comments: “Sitting on the edge of one of the islands off our back yard for about 10 minutes and then flew up into a willow tree on the mainland.”

Black-crowned Night-Heron – Wikimedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) (1)
– Reported Jul 06, 2018 11:02 by Chris Risley
– Catchacoma-Missisauga Narrows, Peterborough, Ontario
Map:
Checklist:
– Comments: “Seen on a small island and adjacent mainland on Catchacoma Lake – Mississauga Lake Narrows (north of Buckhorn) at 2:00 pm (near Fire Road 196A); medium sized mostly grey songbird first noticed in flight by large white wing patches and white outer tail feathers. Did not vocalize. Landed in top of white pine tree and then in a maple. Had a grey face, long tail, white wing bars seen when perched. Flew along shoreline then out of sight to south. Flew near several cottages but did not stop. A completely unexpected sighting!”

Northern Mockingbird – Gord Mallory

Jul 062018
 

Flocking provides many benefits but questions remain

“How early in the year it begins to be late” Henry David Thoreau

Nature plays a cruel joke on us in early July. Just as summer is getting started, intimations of autumn can already be seen. One such sign is the formation of flocks in some birds. In the city, large congregations of European starlings will soon be roosting in shade trees and advertising their presence by their clamorous calls and frequent flights from one tree to the next. In local wetlands, red‑winged blackbirds are flocking up and, by mid‑July, swallows will start to congregate on wires, especially around farms.

Swallows on wire in post-breeding flock – Wikimedia

A flock of ring-billed and Bonaparte’s gulls at Hillman Marsh near Point Pelee National Park – Drew Monkman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advantages of flocking

Flocking confers a number of advantages to birds. First, there is safety in numbers. By flocking together, the chance of any one individual being killed by a predator is lower than if the bird was by itself. With so many eyes watching, it is likely that at least some of the flock members will spot an approaching predator while other birds are busy feeding, sleeping or simply looking in the wrong direction. When predators attack a flock, they try to single out a bird on the edge of the group to pursue. However, once in flight, most flocks change shape constantly and both expand and contract in size. This makes it very difficult for the predator to remain focused on one bird. There is also evidence that it may be physically dangerous for a predator ‑ which may not be that much larger than the prey species it’s pursuing ‑ to dive into the middle of a fast flying mass of birds.

Flocking can also provide better access to food. After spending the night together in a communal roost, it is thought that birds gain information about good feeding resources by following older, more experienced individuals when they fly off to feed. This becomes especially important in the fall when food is erratically distributed and cooler weather, along with the demands of the approaching southward migration, mean energy requirements are higher.

Scientists have often wondered why older birds would want to share food information and potentially end up eating less themselves. It appears there is a worthwhile trade-off. In several species, it has been shown that older birds, being more dominant, actually appropriate the safest, most central locations in the roost while the younger, weaker birds are relegated to the edges. This exposes the less dominant birds to a greater danger of predation. The arrangement is advantageous for both groups ‑ older and stronger birds allow their weaker brethren to bear the brunt of predation while younger and weaker birds get to follow the others to good foraging sites.

Flocking also enables birds to expend less energy in flight. When the lead bird flaps its wings, it creates uplift for the birds behind. Each bird (except the leader) is flying in the up wash from the wing of the bird in front. This enables the flock to use less energy and reduces fatigue.

Mobbing and pishing

Although not technically flocks, birds will also congregate together to attack, chase or simply pester a predator. This is usually done to protect offspring. Known as ‘mobbing’, the behaviour includes flying around the intruder, dive bombing and calling or squawking loudly. The loud alarm calls also serve to summon nearby individuals to join the attack and drive the predator away. Mobbing is especially noticeable in crows, which can often be seen and heard pestering a cat, fox, owl or other predator.

A crow harrassing a Red-tailed Hawk in Peterborough – Helen and Larry Keller

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although mobbing may involve some risks, there are obviously benefits. All of the birds in the mob increase their chances of survival and reproduction. An individual on its own, however, would stand little chance against a predator. There is also research showing that crows may even place sentinels in trees to watch for possible predators. This is done so that other nearby crows can safely feed on the ground. When the sentinels start calling loudly, the feeding crows will either fly off or begin to mob the intruder. Don Finigan of Peterborough told me recently about a fox that makes regular visits to his yard to hunt squirrels. Each time, the fox’s arrival is announced by the raucous displeasure of the crows.

The mobbing reflex on the part of some birds explains the effectiveness of a birding technique known as ‘pishing’. It is used to bring birds in closer for better views. The raspy, rough quality of the pish sound birders make is similar to the alarm or scolding calls of small songbirds such as chickadees. Scientists believe that birds interpret the sound as that of another bird that has discovered a predator and is recruiting help. An alternative explanation is that some species of birds are simply curious and have evolved to investigate unknown noises.

To pish, choose a place where there is already some bird activity such as the calls of chickadees. Place yourself close to some trees or shrubs where the birds you attract can land. Pucker your lips and make a loud, forceful “shhhh” sound, while tacking a “p” on at the beginning: “Pshhhh, Pshhhh, Pshhhh”. Make sure the sound is shrill and strident. Do it in a sequence of three, repeating the se­quence two or three times. At first, you’ll probably need to pish fairly loudly, but you can lower the volume once the birds get closer. Continue pishing for at least a couple of minutes after the first birds appear. This will give other species that may be present a chance to make their way towards you. Chickadees and nuthatches are especially receptive to the pishing sound, but other species like warblers, wrens, finches and sparrows will usually approach as well.

Quite often, the birds that are attracted by pishing are actually feeding together in loose flocks. For example, chickadees that glean insects from leaves, bark and punky wood are often found in the company of nuthatches, woodpeckers, kinglets and warblers that are searching for similar – but usually not identical – food items. Having more individuals searching for food increases the likelihood that a rich feeding patch will be located and food-poor areas can be avoided. Individuals probably also learn about new food sources from other species. In one study, titmice were observed visiting a site where a woodpecker was pecking at bark. It quickly began foraging in the same place. Mixed-flocks are most common outside of the breeding season.

Blackbirds

By mid‑July, most Red-winged blackbirds have finished breeding. Males lose their intolerance of one another and form feeding flocks, which roost together at night. Initially, these flocks are small and include only the adults and young of local breeding populations. However, as summer advances, these smaller roosts will begin to break up and much larger flocks form. A mixing of different species occurs, too, with common grackles and European starlings often joining in with the red-wings. The roosts are often cattail marshes, thick stands of alders or even upland woodlots.

A flock of Red-winged Blackbirds over a Kansas field – Bob Webster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starlings and crows

For city dwellers, starlings and crows are usually the most noticeable roosting species during the summer months. Large deciduous shade trees are the preferred roosting sites. Thousands of starlings may occupy a given stand of trees and will sometimes return each night until the leaves drop. As sunset approaches, the birds start arriving in the vicinity of the roost and perch in nearby trees, often making frequent, noisy flights from one tree to another. This activity, known as staging, goes on for about half an hour before they actually settle into the roost trees. For nearby residents, the noise and commotion can be irritating to say the least.

Watching a flock of starlings take flight and then change directions simultaneously is fascinating. How does the group manage to turn and maneuver, almost as a single unit? As it turns out, the behaviour does not depend on the actions of any one “leader” but is rather a property of the group itself. The maneuvering of the flock, known as a murmuration, is determined by the second‑to‑second decisions of individual birds as they respond to what seven – yes, exactly seven – of their flock neighbours are doing. When one bird changes speed or direction, its seven closest neighbours do the same. In this way, the information spreads almost instantaneously across the flock. Google “flight of the starlings” to see a beautiful video of a murmuration filmed in the Netherlands.

A murmuration of European starlings over Minsmere in the United Kingdom – photo by Airwolfhound

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crows, too, often congregate in the hundreds or even thousands to sleep in communal roosts. An hour or two before darkness, they start flying to peripheral congregation sites, located close to the overnight roosting spot. There is usually a lot of noise-making, chasing, and general squabbling that goes on at these sites. Then, right at dark, the crows move on to their nearby final destination.

What to watch for this week

Young frogs are transforming into adults and leaving their natal ponds. Watch for tiny (less than one centimetre in length) wood frogs, spring peepers and American toads on moist areas of the forest floor from July through September. In backyards and parks, listen for the buzzy, electric song of the first dog-day cicadas of the summer.