Oct 132017
 

11 October 2017 – Project FeederWatch celebrated its 30th anniversary last winter, thanks to dedicated participants who observe birds at their feeders. The information collected through this project over three decades allows scientists to measure important changes in North America’s winter bird populations over time. All are invited to join in this fun and easy activity, and help Project FeederWatch achieve even more!

Since Project FeederWatch began, more than 69,000 participants have counted more than 142 million birds and submitted over 2.5 million checklists. This wealth of information has allowed researchers at Bird Studies Canada and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to track impacts of climate change on bird communities, incidence of disease in wild birds, bird population declines and expansions, and other significant topics. Nearly 30 scientific papers have been published using data from Project FeederWatch.

Project FeederWatch also provides learning opportunities and enjoyment to its community of volunteers. Catherine Swan of Brantford, ON, wrote: “I have been doing FeederWatch since it began and have enjoyed every year. My whole family is now hooked on identifying birds and counting them. Thanks for the fun!” If you have a bird feeder or yard that attracts birds, why not pursue an interest in these fascinating animals while contributing to a valuable North America-wide project?

Through an annual registration of $35, participants fund Project FeederWatch – it’s free for Bird Studies Canada members. Canadian participants receive a subscription to BSC’s magazine BirdWatch Canada, a poster of common feeder birds, a calendar, last season’s results, and access to online data tools. Bird Studies Canada and Cornell Lab of Ornithology also share expert advice to help participants identify, understand, and look after feeder birds.

To join, visit www.birdscanada.org/feederwatch or contact the Canadian coordinator at 1-888-448-2473 or pfw@birdscanada.org. In the United States, call 1-866-989-2473.

Armstrong Bird Food and Wild Birds Unlimited are national sponsors of Project FeederWatch in Canada. The partnerships aim to inspire more Canadians to discover the fun of FeederWatch and the importance of Citizen Science.

Project FeederWatch is a joint research and education project of Bird Studies Canada and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Oct 022017
 

I live in Northumberland County – Baltimore to be exact, 10 km north of Cobourg near the Balls Mills conservation area. We are surrounded by forest. Our own property is 3 acres of forest that backs on to Baltimore creek. Beyond that is a mix of forest, marsh and farm land. Anyway, Since July I have noticed that there are no more Red Squirrels around! There used to always be 3 or 4 hanging around, getting into my feeders and making a racket! It’s so quiet without them that it’s bothering me now. I’ve had one Gray Squirrel (black colour morph) come by a few times, and they are actually rare to see in this forest environment normally. What could account for their sudden disappearance? We’ve lived here 5 years now, and they’ve always been around. I’m assuming a predator of some kind might be present, but I expected the space to be re-populated rather quickly. I have a game camera set up on, and I’ve caught everything you can name – coyote, fox, raccoon, deer, etc. I even caught a blurry image of what I believe to be a Fisher.  In past years they would be busy gathering all the cones from the conifers, but this year the cones are all still there and it’s a bumper crop! Anyway, I was wondering if you might provide some insight or opinion?

Pierre Gilbert, Baltimore, ON

Note: Since Pierre wrote this (August 29), one Red Squirrel is now present. It may be that a predator such as a Barred Owl is responsible for the drop in squirrel numbers. That being said, small mammals like Red Squirrels and Eastern Cottontails go through population cycles in which abundance can vary dramatically. These are poorly understood as to cause.

Pierre also reports (October 1) that the usual forest birds that visit his feeders have completely disappeared. “Where I used to fill up the feeders daily and weekly, they now sit almost full for weeks on end. Usually in abundance, I almost never see chickadees (although I hear them around) or nuthatches. Could it be that there is such a good crop of natural food that they are simply not bothering with the feeders? The only frequent visitors I have are several woodpeckers (both small and large) that visit my suet feeder. Other then that, I’ve had almost no traffic.”

Red Squirrel – Terry Carpenter

 

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.

 

 

 

Oct 092014
 

At the rate I’ve been going through sunflower seed this fall, a second mortgage is looking like a distinct possibility. The dozen or so Purple Finches that have been with us since mid-September have been particularly voracious eaters. However, I’m not complaining. Although these attractive birds show up at our feeders most falls, rarely do they linger this long. Anyone who feeds birds on a regular basis knows that the number of individual birds and the variety of species showing up at feeders varies widely from one year to the next. Last year, for example, things were quiet. In 2012-2013, however, large numbers of winter finches – redpolls, siskins, grosbeaks, etc. – graced us with their presence. Why is it that finch numbers fluctuate so widely? The short answer is food.

Pine Grosbeak - Wikimedia

Male Pine Grosbeak – Wikimedia

Winter finches move southward when there is a shortage of wild food – mostly seeds and berries – in their breeding range in the boreal forest of northern Ontario and Quebec. If seed crops are good in the north, the birds stay put. If food is lacking, however, they will sometimes fly thousands of kilometres to find it. Whether they actually choose to spend the winter here in central Ontario and the Kawarthas depends mainly on the abundance of wild food crops here.
Since the fall of 1999, Ron Pittaway of the Ontario Field Ornithologists has prepared an annual forecast of what winter finch species are most likely to make an appearance in southern and central Ontario during the upcoming fall and winter. The forecast is based on information he collects on the relative abundance of seed crops in the boreal forest. Much of the data comes from Ministry of Natural Resources staff. The key trees affecting finch movements are spruces, birches and mountain-ashes.
So, what is the seed crop situation this year? According to Pittaway, spruce cone crops are excellent in the southern James Bay region and east across north-central Quebec. However, they are mostly poor elsewhere in the province, including the Kawarthas. As for birches, the amount of seed is poor to average. American Mountain-ash trees, on the other hand, have produced a bumper crop of berries across much of the north, with the exception of northeastern Ontario. What all of this means depends on the bird species.

Pine Grosbeak – One of our most beautiful finches, Pine Grosbeaks should make a small flight into the Kawarthas this winter, given the lack of mountain-ash berries in northeastern Ontario. Some may turn up at local feeders looking for sunflower seeds but most often you will see them feeding on European Mountain-ash and ornamental crabapples. This surprisingly tame species can be quite common right in Peterborough.
Evening Grosbeak – Small numbers of Evening Grosbeaks should move south this winter into southern and central Ontario and may show up at feeders. Their numbers, however, are now much reduced from the population peak that occurred from the 1940s through the 1980s. The high population was linked to large outbreaks of spruce budworm, which occurred at this time. Budworms provided an unlimited source of protein for the grosbeaks, allowing them to raise a lot more young than usual. A decline in grosbeak numbers began in the mid-1980s when the size of annual budworm outbreaks decreased. Ontario’s breeding population of Evening Grosbeaks is now believed to stable.
Purple Finch – Due to poor seed crops in central and northeastern Ontario, most Purple Finches are likely to migrate out of the province this fall and south into the U.S. Many are passing through the Kawarthas right now. In the 1960s and 70s, Purple Finches were much more common than they are today. As with Evening Grosbeaks, the principal cause of the decline may be the absence of large outbreaks of spruce budworm.

male Purple Finch - Wikimedia

male Purple Finch – Wikimedia

Crossbills – Red and White-winged crossbill specialize in removing seeds from the cones of conifers. We may see some Red Crossbills this winter in areas of the Kawarthas where Red and/or White pines have produced a heavy cone crop. As for White-winged Crossbills, they will be mostly absent this winter from central Ontario, given the lack of cones on spruce trees. White-winged Crossbills move east and west like a pendulum across North America searching for bumper cone crops.
Common Redpoll – Because the seed crop on birches varies from poor to only average in the boreal forest, a moderate to good flight of redpolls is expected this fall and winter as the birds leave the north in search of food. The question is whether there is sufficient seed on the birches of central Ontario to persuade them to linger here. At feeders, redpolls prefer Nyjer seeds. Watch for Hoary Redpolls, too, mixed in with the flocks of Common Redpolls.
Pine Siskins – Siskins are expected to move east and west this fall searching for areas with abundant spruce cone crops. This means that many will probably spend the winter in north-central Quebec where spruce crops are excellent. However, those birds that fail to find adequate cone crops will probably wander south and some may turn up at local feeders. Like redpolls, siskins are attracted to silo feeders offering Nyjer seeds.
Blue Jays – According to Pittaway, the acorn, beechnut and hazelnut crops were fairly low in northeastern, central and eastern Ontario this summer. We can therefore expect fewer Blue Jays at feeders , since most will migrate out of the province in search of these food items elsewhere. That being said, I’ve certainly noticed good acorn crops on many of the oaks in the Kawarthas, so it will be interesting to see if a number of our local jays decide to stay put.
Red-breasted Nuthatch: This is a species that depends primarily on conifer seeds, so cone crop failures can cause these birds to move elsewhere in search of food. Some Red-breasted Nuthatches began wandering southward in mid-summer this year and more are expected to follow. Movements of Red-breasted Nuthatches into southern and central Ontario is usually a sign that some of the northern finches will also be showing up. At feeders, this species prefers black oil sunflower seeds, chopped peanuts and suet.

Bohemian Waxwing: Most Bohemians should stay in the north this winter, because of the large berry crop on mountain-ash. That being said, we almost always see at least a few flocks of this species in the Kawarthas in winter. This may be partly due to the local abundance of European Buckthorn, a non-native shrub that produces a large berry crop nearly every year. Bohemian Waxwings are also attracted to European Mountain-ash and ornamental crabapples. In recent years, these handsome birds have expanded their breeding range east across northern Quebec.

Bohemian Waxwing (Karl Egressy)

Bohemian Waxwing (Karl Egressy)

Project FeederWatch
If you feed the birds, you can support bird research and conservation at the same time. Join Project FeederWatch and share information about which birds visit your feeders between November and April. This will help scientists at Bird Studies Canada and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology track changes in bird numbers and movements. Participating is easy. Just count the numbers and kinds of birds at your feeders, and enter the information on the Project FeederWatch website (or on printed forms). Last season, more than 3100 Canadians took part in this North America-wide program. More information can be found at http://www.birdscanada.org/volunteer/pfw/ or by calling Bird Studies Canada at 1-888-448-2473.