Jun 012017
 

It was the Kirtland’s warbler that made our morning. In the red cedar ten metres off the trail, the small grey and yellow bird was all but invisible. Only when it flitted from one branch to another was there any chance of seeing it – and it didn’t flit often. The small group that first spotted the bird had swollen to a hundred birders or more as word of North America’s rarest warbler spread almost instantaneously along the trails. Patience, however, eventually paid off as the bird flew up onto an exposed branch, sat cooperatively in the open and sang its heart out for all to see and hear. There are two spring migrations at Point Pelee National Park: the birds themselves and the people from all over Canada, the U.S. and even Europe who flock to see them.

The Kirtland’s warbler finally agreed to show itself – Greg Piasetzki

Located near Leamington, Point Pelee is a peninsula that extends into the western basin of Lake Erie. It is located at the crossroads of two major migration routes – the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways. Most importantly, it is one of the first points of land that spring migrants reach after crossing Lake Erie at night. Approximately 385 different species of birds have been recorded here, including 42 of the 55 regularly occurring North American warblers.

To see the greatest diversity of warblers and other songbirds such as vireos, flycatchers, grosbeaks, tanagers and thrushes, the first three weeks of May is the time to visit the park. The birds are in their brightest breeding plumage and most species are singing. They are also relatively easy to see, since the trees leaf out later here, due to the cooling effect of Lake Erie. Anyone going to Point Pelee for the first time will be amazed at how easy it is to see spectacular birds like rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, red-headed woodpeckers and scarlet tanagers. Seeing a trio of male tanagers lighting up a trailside tree can be just as pleasurable as getting a fleeting glimpse of a rarity, skulking on the ground in a tangle of vines.The most spectacular birding occurs when weather fronts collide, forcing migrants down out of the sky in what is called a “fallout”. When this happens, you’ll need at least three pairs of eyes. One pair focused on the birds down low on the ground or in the shrubbery, another to check out what’s moving through the treetops and a third to keep track of birds streaming overhead!

Visitors to Point Pelee in May are almost guaranteed to see magnificent scarlet tanagers – Greg Piasetzki

Red-headed woodpeckers were more common than usual this year – Greg Piatsetzki

Once again this year, I made my annual pilgrimage to Point Pelee with friends Jim Cashmore, Mitch Brownstein, Brian Wales, Greg Piasetzki and Clayton Vardy. When we arrived on May 10 after a five and a half hour drive, early migrants like sparrows and kinglets were still much in evidence. A nice surprise, however, was getting close-up views of at least eight black-throated blue warblers. Over the course of the week, new species arrived daily, especially when a flow of air from the south provided a tail wind.

(L to R) Jim Cashmore, Greg Piasetzki, Brian Wales, Mitch Brownstein & Drew Monkman

Carolinian zone

Although we’ve been going to Pelee for years, it’s always exciting to become reacquainted with species we rarely see in the Kawarthas. These include orchard orioles, white-eyed vireos, yellow-breasted chats, Carolina wrens, blue-gray gnatcatchers, prothonotary warblers and rarer birds like summer tanagers. The Carolinian forest, too, is quite different with abundant hackberry trees interspersed with eastern redbud, Chinquapin oak, sassafras, shagbark hickory and American sycamore. Many of the trees support huge vines of wild grape, Virginia creeper and especially poison ivy. The latter are easily identifiable by the numerous hairs that anchor the thick stems to the trunk. The forest floor is covered with wide diversity of flowers like sweet cicely, spring beauty, appendaged waterleaf and invasive garlic mustard.

An eastern redbud in full bloom – Drew Monkman

Pelee offers a wide range of wildflowers in May – Drew Monkman

Sightings board at the Visitors Centre at Point Pelee – Drew Monkman

Festival of Birds

Every May, the Friends of Point Pelee organize the Festival of Birds. This year’s festival featured birding and wildflower hikes, twilight hikes, photography walks and a shorebird celebration at nearby Hillman Marsh Conservation Area. Here, volunteers like Jean Irons explained the basics of sandpiper and plover identification. There were also special presentations on everything from warbler and sparrow ID to learning to bird by ear. A welcoming touch this year was the free admission to the Park as part of the Canada 150 celebration. The Friends also host a very popular birder’s breakfast and lunch.

Birders lined up for lunch, courtesy of the Friends of Point Pelee – Drew Monkman

Birders at Pelee take regular breaks at the visitors centre, where naturalists are on hand to answer questions and give suggestions as to where to go. You can also consult the sightings board to see where species of special interest have been observed that day. Quite often, the birds remain in the same area for hours or even days. You will also find a great bookstore and displays set up by various groups like Quest Nature Tours and the Ontario Field Ornithologists.

Highlights

Each year offers a different mix of highlights. This year, great views of prothonotary warblers was one of them. On the Woodland Trail at Pelee and then again on the Tulip Tree Trail at Rondeau, we watched as they searched for food along the edge of wooded swamps. Their brilliant orange-yellow head and blue-gray wings produced a non-stop chorus of “wow!” from the appreciative birders. At one point, a spectacular male was hopping around at people’s feet. Photographers couldn’t stop clicking.

Point Pelee is a photographer’s delight with spectacular species like prothonotary warblers – Greg Piasetzki

Other memories that made the spring of 2017 special were the hundreds of northbound blue jays streaming overhead; the great views of spectacular male warblers like the northern parula, the blackburnian and the blue-winged; a tired and hungry scarlet tanager foraging in a pile of rocks and oblivious to the crowd only metres away; the chestnut-sided warbler that briefly landed on Mitch’s shoulder;  an American woodcock and its chicks feeding along a muddy trail; observing orioles and grosbeaks building their nests; the tom turkeys displaying to females with tail fanned and body feathers puffed out; a winter wren pouring out its ridiculously long, 132-note song; a black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoo perched side by side in a tree just metres overhead; the abundance of wood thrushes, Swainson’s thrushes and veerys; and getting great views of the subtle differences between similar species like Forster’s terns and common terns and American golden plovers and black-bellied plovers.

A yellow-billed cuckoo perched only metres overhead – Greg Piasetzki

Turkey vulture perched on the cross of the Catholic church at Rondeau – Drew Monkman

Birding’s allure

Despite the thousands of people in the Park and the sometimes-congested trails, birders show an unwavering respect for the birds and for fellow birdwatchers. Rarely do people speak in a loud voice or push their way past others. It’s not unusual to be surrounded by a dozen other birders but to still feel you have the silence of the woods to yourself. It’s also wonderful to be in the company of so many people of similar interests, to chat with visitors from all over North America and the United Kingdom and to be part of the instantaneous “sightings grapevine” in which birders share the location of sought-after species. People also help each other with identification problems and love to share what species are just ahead on the trail.

All eyes were trained on an elusive Kirtlands’s warbler – Drew Monkman

Pelee also reminds me each year of why birding is so appealing. At its essence, bird-watching is an exercise in focused awareness. Yes, at one level, it is a hobby, but it is also a powerful means of developing mindfulness. When you are fully focused on finding, identifying or simply watching a given bird, it is possible to live entirely in the moment as your senses completely take over and any intrusive thoughts are swept away. There is so much information for your senses to take in: the beauty, numbers and diversity of the bird themselves, the rich orchestra of different songs, the smell of the spring air and the warmth of the May sun. By learning to see, listen, smell and feel, birding teaches us to enjoy all that our senses have to offer. There is also great satisfaction in drawing upon your knowledge of habitat, time of year, song, behaviour and field marks to make an identification. Sometimes, however, you just don’t know. This is especially true for look-alike birds like many of the vireos and flycatchers.

Personally, I try to focus my attention on bird song. It provides an almost instantaneous picture of the diversity of species present as well as the number of individual birds. The soundscape at Pelee and Rondeau is dominated by the voices of Baltimore orioles, yellow warblers and red-winged blackbirds. The challenge, however, is to coax your brain to push these more common sounds into the background, so that the voices of less common species can be detected. This year, the flute-like song of the wood thrush stood out all week long and was beautiful to hear.

A wood thrush on the Tulip Tree Trail at Rondeau – Drew Monkman

When we left Point Pelee, we headed east to Rondeau Provincial Park near Blenheim. A stop at the town’s sewage lagoon provided great views of shorebirds, five species of swallows and numerous ruddy ducks. Rondeau offers a quiet counterbalance to Pelee’s frenzy. The birding can be almost as good, but there are far fewer visitors. It is also a botanist’s delight with spectacular tulip trees, diverse wildflowers and intriguing ferns. The visitors centre provides many of the same services as at Pelee but on a smaller scale. It also has a busy array of feeders that provide great photo opportunities. A visit to either – or both – of these parks is no less than a celebration of a southern Ontario spring.

If you plan to go next year, book now. Accommodation can be especially difficult to find in the Point Pelee area. For visitor information, go to festivalofbirds.ca

 

 

 

May 112017
 

One of my greatest pleasures in May is the welcome sight and sound of songbirds returning right on cue from their southern wintering grounds. I was therefore delighted to hear a northern waterthrush belting out its emphatic double-note song at the start of the de Pencier Trail at the Trent Nature Area this week. Having seen these brownish warblers in winter in the mangroves of Costa Rica, the wonder of their annual two-way journey never ceases to amaze me.

The Northern Waterthrush often bobs its tail up and down as it walks. It’s one of many songbirds in the Kawarthas that migrates to and from the tropics each year. (Photo: Robin Williams Blake)

This month sees the biggest push of spring migration with the arrival of nearly all long-distance (neo-tropical) migrants – birds that spent the winter in the Caribbean, Mexico and Central and South America. It is possible to see more species at the height of migration in May than at any other time of year.

An elegant synchronicity of events occurs this month. As the green canopy of leaves develops overhead, countless caterpillars emerge to feast on the verdant bounty laid out before them. And, right on cue, millions of birds pour into central Ontario to regale themselves of this insect banquet. While some species will remain to raise a family here, others pass through quickly as they push forward to northern nesting grounds.

Bird GPS

For thousands of years, bird migration stumped the greatest minds. People used to believe that hummingbirds migrate on the backs of geese and that swallows emerge in spring from the bottom of ponds. Today, scientists have a much better understanding of this fascinating phenomenon, although much still remains unexplained.

Most bird species migrate at night when there is less danger from predators and the air is more stable. The daylight hours are used for feeding and resting. If conditions are favorable, such as with the passage of a northward-advancing warm front, birds will start migrating about one hour after sunset. Songbirds such as the waterthrush usually fly at less than 200 metres and average speeds of about 25 kilometres per hour.

Changing weather conditions during the night can cause “groundings” of these nocturnal voyagers. When a northward moving warm front collides with a cold front, the warm air – and the birds in it – rises over the cold; the air cools, rain develops and the birds are forced to land. This means that rainy May mornings can produce superb birding.

Birds use a variety of navigational cues to find their way, and different species rely on some cues more than others. Indigo buntings, for example, appear to orient themselves in relation to the pattern of stars around the North Star, Polaris. To navigate by stars, birds require a clear view of the sky. However, many birds migrate below cloud level, which begs the question of what “GPS” they are using. Researchers now have conclusive evidence that at least some migratory songbirds are able to get their bearings from the Earth’s magnetic field. The Earth is like a gigantic magnet, with magnetic field lines extending between the magnetic north and south poles. In 1984, it was discovered that the nasal tissues of birds such as bobolinks contain magnetite. This magnetic mineral acts almost like a miniature compass needle. It is thought that birds may actually be able to see the magnetic field as a visual pattern or specific colour. The northern waterthrush may in fact see north and south as a shade of blue, for example, but perceive no colour at all when facing east or west.

When songbirds cannot rely on stars or the magnetic field for direction, they may turn to information from the position of the setting sun on the western horizon. They may also align themselves to the band of polarized light, which extends perpendicular to the setting point of the sun. Invisible to humans, polarized light is created when sunlight scatters as it passes through the atmosphere. Just as the sun’s location changes with latitude and time of year, so does the position of the band of polarized light. These cues can therefore be used by birds to determine direction. Polarized light is visible to birds even when the sky is completely overcast.

Other directional signals may exist as well. They include infrasounds – sounds whose frequency is below the normal limit of human hearing, such as the roar of the ocean surf or the sounds of winds across the mountains. Wind-carried odors like the smell of certain types of vegetation may also provide useful information. Therefore, it may be that the waterthrush I heard this week “remembers” the specific smell of the de Pencier Trail wetland at Trent.

Boardwalk at beginning of de Pencier Trail (Photo: Drew Monkman)

The incredible accuracy of these navigational cues allows birds to return to the same summer and winter territory each year – maybe even the very spot where they hatched as chicks. This is especially true for songbirds like warblers. So, I make a point of saying “Hi! You’re back right on schedule!” to the waterthrushes at Trent each spring (when no one is listening, of course!). They were probably the same birds as last year.

Monitoring

Technology now plays a major role in monitoring nocturnal bird migration. Weather radar, for example, reveals the tell-tale signatures of migrating birds. The radio waves sent out by Doppler radar bounce off birds and return a signal to the receiver. The numbers can be staggering. It was estimated that somewhere in the order of three to four million birds crossed a line between Cornwall and Granby, Quebec on the night of April 15, 1994. A new visualization tool for radar data even reveals birds’ nocturnal journeys as blue streaks that sweep across a map like raindrops on glass.

Many migrants make soft chirps, tweets and buzzes as they fly overhead under cover of darkness. The sounds, which are unique to each species, may serve as a way to maintain in-flight associations and stay on course. On a good night, it is possible to hear hundreds of these faint vocalizations and, with practice, put a species name to some of them. Now, the sounds are being captured by specialized microphones and other acoustic monitoring equipment that can record, analyze and identify the call makers.

Across North America, such monitoring is allowing both research scientists and citizen scientists to discover everything from what species are flying over the backyard on a given night to how migrating birds interact with the landscapes around them. This is important information, since at least 70 percent of birds migrating to and from Canada fly over urban landscapes and many are attracted to blinking communications towers and illuminated skyscrapers. The mortality that results from collisions with these structures can be staggering. Data from acoustic monitoring can therefore be used to identify high-threat and low-threat zones in urban areas, and measures can be taken to help birds migrate successfully.

Why migrate?

Why would a neo-tropical migrant such as a waterthrush have evolved to undertake a dangerous 6000 km journey from Costa Rica all the way to the Kawarthas and back? The short answer is that it allows them to raise more young. Protein-rich insects are abundant during the Canadian spring and summer, there is a much more habitat available and the long days allow birds to feed their young for up to six hours longer than if they had stayed in the tropics. By flying north in the spring, they also free themselves from competition for food from tropical resident birds.

Using data from weather surveillance radar and eBird checklists, it has now been determined that climate change is causing the seasonality of bird migration to shift. Many birds are arriving at their northern breeding grounds earlier in the spring. This seems to be especially true for temperate migrants like robins and tree swallows, which overwinter in the southern U.S.

Get outside

You don’t have to go far afield to see neo-tropical migrants such as warblers, vireos, flycatchers, orioles, tanagers and grosbeaks. As long as there is sufficient cover, even city backyards can have their own coterie of migrants. Habitat edges such as wooded roadsides are especially worth checking. Get out early, however, preferably before 8 a.m. Keep an eye on the weather forecast, too. Winds from the south usually bring in the most migrants. The largest concentrations generally occur when these south winds are met by some change in the weather such as light rain or drizzle. Even a passing line of local thunderstorms can result in a surprising array of species.

By visiting different habitat types, an experienced birder can usually record 80 or more species on a single morning in mid-May, including 10 or more kinds of warblers. Don’t just rely on your eyes. Be sure to track down any songsters you hear uttering a strange vocalization. Be sure to pish, as well, since warblers are quite responsive to these sounds. If you’re not quite sure which migrants are arriving when in the Kawarthas, visit my website at drewmonkman.com and click on the “Seasonal Bird Abundance” tab. Most of the better known species are listed here.

City parks such as Beavermead and Ecology Park can be great spots for finding warblers and other songbirds. I would also recommend the first kilometre or two of the Rotary Greenway Trail, starting at East Bank Drive at Trent University. This is usually a great spot to hear my waterthrush friends, as well! Learn the song at allaboutbirds.org

 

May 122016
 

By any measure, birding has never been more popular. Its allure lies in the satisfaction of using one’s knowledge of season, range, habitat, field marks, song and behavior to identify and appreciate the birds around us. Birding can also become a window on environmental issues. Many environmentalists started out as birdwatchers, perhaps because you quickly recognize just how vulnerable bird popu­lations are to pressures like urban sprawl, habitat destruction and climate change.

The Sibley eBird app is an excellent birding resource.

The Sibley eBird app is an excellent birding resource.

Bird identification is about three things: Paying attention, being patient and knowing what to expect. Paying attention means looking and listening with complete concentration. Being patient can mean standing motion­less in a forest for several minutes until the bird you just heard sing eventually calls again and lets you know where it is lurking. In fact, one can often see more birds by standing in one good spot than by always moving. Finally, knowing what to expect means having a good idea of what species should be present in a given time of year and habitat. Experienced birders have a 95 percent idea of what they will probably see in a given day and place. Birds are found at predictable times and locations.

So, just who is that little brown bird visiting your feeder? When you come across a bird you can’t immediately identify, try following these steps:

  1. Take note of the bird’s general shape. Many birds can be identified by shape alone, often at considerable distances. Is it stocky and short-tailed like a starling or slender and long-tailed like a grackle?
  2. Turn your attention to the bird’s size by comparing it to a common benchmark species. Ask yourself if it is closest in size to a hummingbird, spar­row, robin, crow, or goose.
  3. Examine the plumage and field marks. Take a careful look at the wings, under­parts, rump, tail and head. If you find mnemonics (memory aids) useful, think WURTH. Start with the part of the bird you can see best, but try to look at its entire body before it flies away. Try to see if it has bars on the wing or if its chest, belly and sides have spots, stripes or a special coloration. Is there anything special about the tail or rump? Pay special attention to the head. Many small songbirds such as warblers and sparrows can be identified by characteristics of the head alone. Does the eye have a circle around it? Does the crown or throat have special markings such as stripes or a contrasting color? Take note of the size and shape of the bill.

    The Ruby-crowned Kinglet has a prominent eye ring. (Karl Egressy)

    The Ruby-crowned Kinglet has a prominent eye ring. (Karl Egressy)

  4. Watch what the bird is doing. Is it feeding on the ground, perched at the very top of a tree, moving headfirst down the trunk, standing motionless in shallow water or soaring high overhead? Is it alone or with others of the same species? Some common feeder birds, for example, almost always feed on the ground in small flocks (e.g., white-throated sparrow), while others are nearly always seen on feeders (e.g., black-capped chickadee). If the bird is flying, how would you describe its flight pattern? Some hawks, for example, soar in circles on motionless wings, while others have a “flap, flap and glide” style of flying.
  5. Consult your field guide or app. Don’t forget to look at the range maps, relative abundance of the species, whether it is migratory or resident, its preferred habitat and its typical behavior. The guide will also point out the most important field marks and how the bird compares to any similar species.

Keep in mind…

~ Bird identification is not an exact science and at times it is difficult to be completely certain of what species you have seen. Being “reasonably certain” is sometimes the best you can do.

~ When you are looking at an uniden­tified bird, remember that it could be a female or an immature. Although the male and female are quite similar in most species, there are birds — the red- winged blackbird, for example — where the differences are striking. Ducks, too, show a big differ­ence between the sexes. When identifying eagles, hawks and gulls, remember that you might be looking at a juvenile or immature bird.

~ The bird in your binoculars may not be in its breeding plumage. In a small number of species (fortunately!), the plumage can vary considerably between spring and fall. These birds tend to be colorful in the breeding season but drabber in fall and winter. American goldfinches are an example of this chal­lenging characteristic.

~ Many songbirds respond well to “pishing” and will come in quite close so that you can take a closer look.

Before you begin to pish, place yourself close to some trees or shrubs where the birds you wish to 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 it sounds shrill and strident. You might want to try adding an inflection at the end, as in PshhhhEE. 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 and sparrows will usually approach as well.

~ The habitat in which you see the bird can also help with identification. Some species are almost never seen outside of their preferred habitat, except during migration.

~ Many birds are found along habitat edges such as the edge of a woodlot, a road or a wetland.

~ Learn common bird sounds. Identifi­cation by songs and calls will really boost your birding skills and provide a great deal of satisfaction. With practice, nearly all birds can be identified by song. Start by learning the songs of the common species you see and hear around your house. Listen to recordings of their songs — in the car, for example — and learn the associated mnemonic for the species you’re interested in. Chickadees, for example, sound like they are singing “Hi Cutie”. There are many bird identification apps that include songs and calls.

~ Purchase a pair of good binoculars. Many bird-waters find 8 x 40 or 8 x 42 the best choice. They provide good magnification but also offer a wide field of vision. Look for a pair with a roof prism design.

A wide range of binoculars and field guides are available (Drew Monkman)

A wide range of binoculars and field guides are available (Drew Monkman)

~ Choose a field guide with paintings of the birds rather than photographs, and a range map right beside the illustrations. My favourite is “The Sibley Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America” because of its convenient size and weight and the multiple plumages it shows of each bird. “The Sibley eGuide to Birds” is probably the best app available and includes recordings of all the songs and calls.

~ Check out seasonal abundance charts for your area. These show how the numbers of a given species change over the course of the year. With time, you will start to develop a mental checklist of what birds are most likely, given the time of year. The eBird website (ebird.org) provides these charts in the “Explore Data” section.

~ Keep track of your sightings — and share them with others — by using eBird. Subscribers also receive alerts of rare birds in your area as well as birds you have not yet seen during this year

Bird identification is one of many skills for connecting to nature. Next week, we’ll turn our attention to butterflies, dragonflies and moths. You will find more ways to develop a stronger connection to the natural world in my new “Big Book of Nature Activities: A Year-Round Guide to Outdoor Learning” which I co-wrote with Jacob Rodenburg, executive director of Camp Kawartha. The book will be available in early June.

 

May 052016
 

The time that birders have awaited since the lonely, frigid days of winter is now upon us. With May comes the peak of spring migration as long‑distance migrants pour into the Kawarthas from the neo‑tropics ‑ Mexico, Central America, the West Indies and South America. In Peterborough County alone, a day of birding in mid-May can produce over 100 different species. Not only do their flamboyant colours symbolize the tropical habitats whence they’ve come, but their vigorous singing heralds that high spring is finally here.

An elegant synchronicity of events is happening before our eyes. As the green canopy of leaves develops overhead, countless caterpillars emerge to feast on the verdant bounty laid out before them. And, right on cue, hundreds of millions of birds arrive to regale themselves of this insect banquet. While some species remain to nest in the Kawarthas, others are only passing through on their northward journey and won’t be seen again until their flight south in the fall.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks - Drew Monkman

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks – Drew Monkman

You may wonder why an eight inch, two-ounce bird like a rose-breasted grosbeak would risk a perilous 4000 km journey from Costa Rica all the way to Kawarthas just to nest? Obviously, there must be compelling reasons. The short answer is that they are able to raise more young than had they remained in the tropics. Protein‑rich insects are abundant during the Canadian spring and summer; there is a much larger geographical area over which to spread; and the long days allow birds to feed their young more than four hours longer than had they remained in the south.

Enjoying the show

May’s bounty of birds can be enjoyed right here in Peterborough, especially if you have tree cover on your property and an offering of sunflower seeds and sugar water. Early May sees the arrival of ruby-throated hummingbirds, Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeak, all of which will come to feeders. House wrens, too, are arriving from the tropics and are easy to attract to nest boxes. In the downtown, watch and listen for swallow-like chimney swifts coursing above George Street like chattering “flying cigars”.

Male Indigo Bunting at feeder - Greg Piasetzki

Male Indigo Bunting at feeder – Greg Piasetzki

By mid-month, an indigo bunting may also make a guest appearance at your feeder – an unforgettable sight in its radiant blue plumage. Watch and listen too for up to 16 species of warblers, many of which put in a brief appearance in city backyards. Decked out mostly in yellows, oranges, whites and blacks, warblers are the true gems of spring migration. Bringing up the rear, late May ushers in species such as the red-eyed vireo, which have flown all the way from the Amazon Basin. If you live in a part of the city with mature trees, listen for the vireo’s repetitive, robin-like song as it forages high in the treetops.

Red-eyed Vireo - Karl Egressy

Red-eyed Vireo – Karl Egressy

If you want to take in the entire migration spectacle, however, you will need to be out looking and listening almost every day, especially when the weather is damp and mild. Bird activity is usually most intense in the morning between about 6 and 9 a.m. Song is the key to the birds’ presence, so it’s important to pay attention to the different voices. Warblers, for example, tend to have high-pitched, buzzy songs, while birds like scarlet tanagers, orioles and grosbeaks sing in rich, musical notes. The good news is that many May migrants show up in loose, mixed-species flocks. If you find one variety of warbler, for example, other species are probably nearby as well. Pishing will often bring them in closer for great views.

 

Where to go

Although migrants can turn up anywhere, some habitats and specific locations are consistently better than others. Habitat edges are most productive, including wooded roadsides, the trees along rail-trails, hedgerows, and the shrubby borders of wetlands. Among my favorite places for spring birding are Herkimer Point Road (east of County Road 31 in Hiawatha), Beavermead Park and Ecology Park on Little Lake, Jackson Park,  the Rotary-Greenway Trail (especially the Promise Rock section north of the science complex at Trent University), Lynch’s Rock Road and Sawer Creek Wetland (northeast of Lakefield), Hubble Road (east of County Road 44, north of Havelock), Petroglyphs Provincial Park and Sandy Lake Road (east of County Road 46, just south of Lasswade).

Favorable winds

Flying at an elevation of about 1000 metres, most songbirds migrate at night, which allows them to see the stars for navigation purposes and to avoid predators such as hawks. It is quite common to hear their contact calls as they pass overhead in the inky darkness. Songbirds almost always wait for a tail wind – a wind blowing in the same direction they are headed – before migrating in large numbers. A tail wind allows the birds to expend less energy in flight. In the spring, tail winds are associated with warm fronts advancing from the south or southeast. However, a sustained south winds may cause birds to fly right over your favorite birding destination without stopping. The key to great May birding is to watch the local forecast for some change in the weather such as a forecast of rain and fog. When a northward-moving warm front collides with a cold front, the warm air ‑ and the birds flying in it ‑ rises over the cold. The air cools, rain develops and the birds are forced to land in what is called a “fallout”- sometimes right in your own backyard! This means that rainy mornings in May can produce superb birding, especially when the precipitation is light and starts after midnight. During spring fallouts, I’ve seen trees hopping with dozens of warblers of ten or more species.

 

Song

To the practiced ear, a chorus of bird song is like a symphony in which you recognize each of the individual instruments. As a beginner, though, you should learn to focus on one song at a time and not the entire symphony, which can be quite overwhelming. Focus your attention first on the closest, loudest and most obvious songs. You can then move on to the softer voices. Cupping your ears can be very helpful. American Redstart in full song  - Karl Egressy

There is no doubt that some species sound similar to others. However, when you take into consideration the context of the song ‑ habitat, time of year and the bird’s behaviour ‑ the choice usually comes down to only a handful of species. It is also crucial to learn the memory-aids or “mnemonics” for the songs. To me, a rose-breasted grosbeak sounds like a robin that has taken voice lessons, while a scarlet tanager is reminiscent of a robin with a soar throat! Go to fernbank.edu/Birding/mnemonics.htm for a great list. My favorite bird song app is the Sibley eGuide to Birds. Allaboutbirds.org is another superb resource.

Being able to recognize bird song is one of the most satisfying ways to enjoy nature. To step out the back door or walk down a forest trail on a May morning and hear the expected birds singing in the expected locations provides reassurance that the bird community is healthy, and the seasonal rhythms of the natural world are occurring, as they should.

 

 

 

May 222014
 

 

There are few better places to enjoy the beauty of a southern Ontario spring than the woodland trails of Rondeau Provincial Park. Winding through Carolinian forests blanketed with ferns and spring wildflowers, the trails routinely provide close-up views of some of our most spectacular birds. This year, the honours went to the Prothonotary Warbler. On two different occasions, we watched this rare Ontario species only metres away as it searched for food on the flooded forest floor of the Tulip Tree Trail. Its brilliant orange-yellow head and blue-gray wings produced a non-stop chorus of oohs and awes from the appreciative birders. Photographers had a field day as they clicked off one stunning picture after another.

Prothonotary Warbler - Greg Piasetzki

Prothonotary Warbler – Greg Piasetzki

Last week, Jim Cashmore, Mitch Brownstein, Greg Piasetzki and I made our annual pilgrimage to the southern Ontario birding meccas of Rondeau Provincial Park and Point Pelee National Park. These two wooded peninsulas that jut out into Lake Erie concentrate thousands of migrant birds in the spring. For anyone wanting to see North America’s most spectacular spring migrants – Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, Red-breasted Grosbeaks and more than two dozen species of warbler – a trip, Rondeau and Pelee is a must.

The birding this year was good with an almost constant parade of interesting species to be seen. Cool temperatures and winds from the north meant that many migrants lingered in the parks for several days instead of immediately pursuing their journey northward. The cool weather also meant that the leaves were not yet out, so seeing the birds was easier than it is some years. Thrushes and flycatchers were present in especially good numbers, as were Scarlet Tanagers. There was also an ample selection of warblers, ranging from early migrants like Yellow-rumped and Palm to species that tend to arrive later such as the Canada and Mourning warblers. By week’s end, we had managed to find about 130 different kinds of birds, 25 of which were warblers.

For many birders, spring birding is very much about sound. By focusing your attention on bird song, you get an almost instantaneous picture of the diversity of species around you as well as the number of individual birds. This past week, the dominant voices included Baltimore Orioles, Yellow Warblers, House Wrens and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. Not quite as common, but calling at least every couple of minutes were Least Flycatchers, Eastern Wood‑pewees, Eastern Towhees, Tree Swallows, Wood Thrushes, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Magnolia Warblers. The challenge, however, is to coax your brain to push these more common sounds into the background, so that the voices of less common species can be detected.

Many iconic bird sounds belong to the night. Just after sunset one evening, we drove over to a field across from the Rondeau visitors centre. As we rolled down the car windows, the peenting calls of American Woodcocks stood out clearly against a background chorus of Spring Peepers. Almost immediately, we saw one of several woodcocks launch itself into the air, its wings producing a quivering sound as it gained altitude. Soon, we could see its silhouette against the pale pink light of the darkening sky – an iconic image of spring nights that I never tire of seeing. But that wasn’t all. Moments later, a Common Nighthawk flew by, coursing over the field like a giant moth and making a rasping nasal buzz. Finally, the quintessential species of spring and summer nights added its voice to the mix as we drove down to the South Point Trail. Even with the car windows up, it was impossible to miss the loud, repetitive call of the Whip-poor-will.

Ovenbird - Greg Piasetzki

Ovenbird – Greg Piasetzki

 

Point Pelee

On Wednesday morning, we decided to make the one-hour drive west to Point Pelee. Like Rondeau, Pelee is home to Ontario’s Carolinian forest, a habitat type that has almost disappeared from the province. The Pelee woods are dominated by Hackberry Trees and vines such as Wild Grape, Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy. In May, the forest floor is a carpet of Sweet Cicely, Wild Columbine and Wild Geranium. As you can imagine, the air smells wonderful.

Having four pairs of eyes proved to be very handy this particular morning. Even at the parking lot, a constant parade of thrushes, orioles, warblers and tanagers moved past us, flying quickly from tree to tree and often at eye level. We eventually made our way out to the tip area and joined the throng of birders already there. Standing shoulder to shoulder on the boardwalk, we were immersed in a see of binoculars, scopes and colossal cameras. The somewhat crowded conditions were soon forgotten, however, thanks to the constant bird activity. Over the next couple of hours, we added a variety of new warblers such as the Blackpoll and Cape May, the Philadelphia Vireo and both Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. We also ran into two other Peterborough birders, namely Jerry Ball and Clayton Vardy. Jerry had been at Pelee for two weeks and had seen no less than 208 species, while Clayton was already up to 24 warbler species for the day!

Wood Thrush - Greg Piasetzki

Wood Thrush – Greg Piasetzki

After taking a break at the park visitors centre – there are naturalists on hand to answer questions, a great bookstore and the Friends of Point Pelee provide a delicious hot lunch – we walked the Tilden’s Woods trail and a section of the park where a Kentucky Warbler had been seen. Although we didn’t find the Kentucky, large numbers of other warblers made up for its absence, including one flock with at least four Northern Parulas. We wrapped up the day with a trip north of Point Pelee to Hillman Marsh to see ducks, gulls and shorebirds. The highlights there were a Red-necked Phalarope and a Willet.

Despite the rather crowded conditions on some of the trails at Pelee, respect for the birds and courtesy for fellow birders are always very noticeable. Rarely do people speak in a loud voice or push their way past others. Most birders are ready to help beginners with identification problems, as well, and to share the location of sought-after species. However, it is hard not to notice that there are very few young people. The vast majority of birders we see each year are probably 60 or older. Because birders ‑ and naturalists in general ‑ are usually committed conservationists who represent a strong voice for the protection of species and wild spaces , one cannot help but wonder what the lack of younger people means for the future.

Thursday was cold and wet, so rather than spending the day at Rondeau, we drove north to Mitchell’s Bay on Lake St. Clair. The marsh here is well known for a small colony of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, a species usually not found in Ontario. For a photographer like Greg, this outrageously coloured blackbird made for a delightful subject. The six males we found were anything but shy, as they focused all of their attention on courting the half-hidden females. The raucous wail the males made could only be described as something between a braying donkey and a piercing chainsaw. On our way back to the Park, we stopped at the Blenheim sewage lagoon, where we were greeted by the remarkable sight of thousands of swallows coursing over the lagoons and nearby fields as they snatched up tiny flies called midges. The lagoons also offered up Ruddy Ducks, Bobolinks, Savannah Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks, all of which are hard to find in this part of the province.

Yellow-headed Blackbird - Greg Piasetzki

Yellow-headed Blackbird – Greg Piasetzki

By week’s end, the greater number of female warblers – females migrate later than males – and the arrival of late migrants such as the Eastern Wood-pewee and Mourning Warbler were signs that spring’s passage of northbound birds is drawing to a close. The season of migration is now giving way to the season of nesting. However, the change of season holds the promise of bountiful young birds that will commence their own journey – southward this time – in just a few short months.

 

Mar 202014
 

The spectacle of bird migration that occurs twice each year in Canada has few equals anywhere on Earth. Billions of birds leave Canada every autumn for locations to the south, only to return the following spring and once again announce the change of season. Many of these migrating birds depend on a network of crucial feeding, resting, breeding and overwintering sites scattered throughout the Americas. Collaborative efforts that span international boundaries and focus on full life cycle conservation are therefore essential to ensure the long-term survival of bird populations.

 

Black-bellied Plovers near Point Pelee IBA - Mike Burrell

Black-bellied Plovers near Point Pelee IBA – Mike Burrell

The Important Bird Areas (IBA) network represents one such effort. The IBA Program is a global initiative coordinated by BirdLife International to identify, monitor, and conserve a network of the world’s most important sites providing habitat for birds. The program uses scientific criteria to identify potential IBAs. Sites can qualify based on the regular presence of significant numbers of species at risk, species with restricted ranges, habitat-specific species and species that gather in significant numbers (greater than 1% of their continental or global population). IBAs range in size from tiny patches of habitat to large tracts of land or water. They may encompass private or public land and sometimes overlap legally protected sites. The majority of IBAs, however, have no formal protection.

Because IBAs are identified using criteria that are internationally agreed upon and science-based, they have a conservation currency that transcends international borders. This, in turn, promotes international collaboration for the conservation of the world’s birds. About 90 percent of Canada’s birds migrate within and beyond our borders, so it is essential to protect these species throughout their annual migratory range. By working alongside partners in the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America, the IBA Program does this.

In Canada the IBA Program is managed jointly by Bird Studies Canada and Nature Canada. To date, nearly 600 sites have been designated. Most sites in Canada qualify for IBA designation because they regularly host globally or continentally significant numbers of a given bird species. Most Canadian IBAs are located along our Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic coasts, on the Great Lakes and on the Prairies. Some are extremely remote, while others are actually located within our largest urban centres. These sites are not only critical for birds, but also for many other kinds of plants and animals. They are also a great place for the public to connect with nature. Ontario’s 70 IBAs cover more than 23,000 square kilometers, and are located mostly along the Great Lakes and the coasts of Hudson and James Bays where birds naturally concentrate. To see a short video of huge numbers of migrating Hudsonian Godwits in James Bay, go to bit.ly/1lLZSOa

IBAs near Peterborough

Whimbrel - Mike Burrell

Whimbrel – Mike Burrell

1. Presqu’ile Provincial Park (Brighton) – At least two species are regularly present during spring migration in globally significant numbers. They are Greater Scaup and Whimbrel. In addition, the park supports globally significant breeding populations of Ring-billed Gulls and Caspian Terns.

2. Carden Plain (Kirkfield) – This is one of the few areas in eastern Canada that still supports nesting Loggerhead Shrikes, a nationally endangered species. Several other nationally threatened species nest in the area, too, including Red-shouldered Hawk, Short-eared Owl, Least Bittern and Red-headed Woodpecker.

3. Napanee Limestone Plain (Napanee) – This site is very similar to the Carden Plain and together they provide nesting habitat for most of the remaining Loggerhead Shrikes in eastern Canada.

Carden Plain IBA - Drew Monkman

Carden Plain IBA – Drew Monkman

4. Prince Edward County South Shore (Picton) – The number and diversity of landbirds that concentrate in this small area during spring and fall migration is outstanding. A total of 162 landbird species (excluding raptors) have been recorded at this site including 36 species of wood warblers. The shoals and deep waters off the tip of the peninsula represent a globally significant waterfowl staging and wintering area for Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck and White-winged Scoter.

5. The Leslie Street Spit (Toronto) – Ring-billed Gulls and Common Terns nest on “the spit” in globally significant numbers. There is also one of the largest Black-crowned Night Heron colonies in Canada. Large concentrations of migrating songbirds can be found here in the spring and fall as well as migrant ducks from fall through spring.

Other nearby IBAs within a two- or three-hour drive of Peterborough include the West End of Lake Ontario (Hamilton), Wye Marsh (Midland), Tiny Marsh (Elmvale) and Matchedash Bay (Waubaushene).

 

Tundra Swans at Long Point IPA - Mike Burrell

Tundra Swans at Long Point IPA – Mike Burrell

Website

One of the recent accomplishments of the IBA program in Canada is the development of a comprehensive website (www.ibacanada.org) which provides detailed information on Important Bird Areas across the country. By using the website map viewer or site directory, you can easily access a great deal of information on each IBA, including a site description, a summary of the most significant bird life, a discussion of conservation issues, a printable map of the area and an eBird link to report your own sightings while visiting the IBA. There is also a very useful seasonable abundance chart for all bird species found there.

 

 

Volunteers are needed for the IBA program - Mike Burrell

Volunteers are needed for the IBA program – Mike Burrell

Get involved

Getting involved in the IBA Program can be as simple as visiting an IBA and using eBird Canada (www.ebird.ca) to report the bird species you find there. However, a current focus of the IBA Program is to develop a national Caretaker Network to engage citizens in conservation actions. These volunteers can monitor bird populations, conduct IBA assessments, report on threats, work with partners on stewardship activities, and/or help build community awareness about the importance of IBAs. Caretakers can be clubs, individuals, or groups of individuals that share the common goal. Volunteers are equipped with the tools they require to be effective observers, advocates and citizen scientists. If you or your group would be interested in helping in this regard please contact Mike Burrell, Important Bird Areas Coordinator, Bird Studies Canada at 1-888-448-BIRD(2473) x 167 or by email at mburrell@birdscanada.org

 

 

Spring Peeper (John Urquhart)

Spring Peeper (John Urquhart)

Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas Needs Volunteers 

The familiar voices of frogs and toads will soon fill the day and evening air throughout the Kawarthas. Sadly, though, Ontario’s reptiles and amphibians are becoming increasingly rare. In fact, three quarters (18 of 24) of Ontario’s reptile species are already listed as species at risk. More information is needed, however, to monitor changes in the ranges of these animals as well as fluctuations in their populations. The data also helps to identify and manage important habitat for rare species. Volunteers can play an important role in this effort. Please consider sharing any observations you make of Ontario’s reptiles and amphibians. Observations can be submitted via an online form, an Excel spreadsheet (useful for submitting multiple observations) or a printable data card that can be mailed in. Visit the Atlas website by going to ontarionature.org, clicking on Protect and scrolling down to Species. You can also contact Jon Boxall at (705)743-6668 or by email at jbboxall@hotmail.com Presentations and training workshops for groups that are interested in participating in the Atlas project are also available.