Foam Lake Birding No. 68

No. 68
We have been in Texas for exactly two weeks now and, except for several rainy days the weather has been great. There are a number of different sandpipers from the north down here for the winter. One new one for me was the Stilt Sandpiper. Like most sandpipers, the Stilt is a transient in the Foam Lake area that breeds in the Arctic and winters in South America. Some stragglers do spend the winter down here in southern Texas, but the size of the flock we observed would suggest that these birds were stopped here temporarily to fuel up for the flight to South America.
This article will deal with flycatchers (see article No. 30) which are quite numerous here and much showier than the ones back up north. The southwestern USA has many resident flycatchers three of which exist only in this southern tip of Texas – the Kiskadee, Couches and Tropical kingbirds. I have already written about the Kiskadee (see article No. 38) and I do plan to write about the other two in a future piece.
This week’s featured bird is more widespread than the other ones mentioned above, being resident along the Mexican/American border from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Of all of our North American flycatchers, this sparrow sized bird is definitely the most colourful. It also has the distinction of being the only flycatcher where the males and females are not the same. The male has a flaming vermillion head, breast and belly. The back, wings and tail are nearly black with a like-colour mask running from the beak, through the eye and joining the black back just behind the head. The female looks like a striped sparrow with a pinkish or yellowish belly.
Although it is a small bird it is very eye catching and once seen, easily identified. However, to see it one has to leave town and go to a park or to rural areas. They are quite tame and approachable, but they avoid living in close proximity to man.
I have included two pictures showing both the back and frontal views of a male Vermillion Flycatcher. The back shot was taken in southern Arizona; the frontal view was taken in southern Texas. The Arizona bird was a typical bright red, but the Texas one was quite orange, so I included this picture in order to emphasize the variation in colours of birds of the same species. Since these articles are printed in black and white, use your imagination, or better yet, look at a picture in a bird book, or still better yet,

Foam Lake Birding No. 67

No. 67
Hello from Texas. We had a great trip down with no weather problems of any kind. Never having driven this far south in November, I paid particular attention to the changes in the weather, and of course, the birds. The daytime highs of the low teens (in places) and lows (near freezing) did not vary that much from home until we reached Austin, TX, where temperatures started to rise above that. In Weslaco the temperatures have been in the mid to upper 20sC.
From Foam Lake to Minot, ND, the weather was consistently a few degrees above freezing in the daytime and a few degrees below freezing in the nighttime. With the exception of large bodies of water, all the sloughs and potholes had a thin layer of ice covering them with the resultant lack of water fowl. After crossing the Continental Divide between Minot and Bismarck, the weather seemed to be the same but the small sloughs were not frozen over. Perhaps the nighttime temperatures did not drop as low as they did just a little further north. In any case, geese, ducks and coots were plentiful.
From southern South Dakota to Nebraska, Red Tailed hawks were everywhere. Red Winged Blackbirds, Kestrels and Mourning Doves were still in Nebraska awaiting the colder weather before migrating further south. Once we got to Oklahoma, Turkey Vultures and Crows were common. Incidentally, the state of Oklahoma and adjacent territories are the wintering grounds of the crows that breed on the prairies in the summertime.
Once we got to Texas, we started to see birds that are representative of that part of North America. A few representative species were Caracaras, Chachalacas, Green Jays, Kiskadees and White Tipped Doves to name a few.
This week’s featured bird is very common in thickets around here, but is not found anywhere else in North America. This drab little Mexican bird is the Olive Sparrow, so named because of its overall colour. Although common, it is not easily seen, because it is a ground feeder that is constantly in motion searching for food under brush and deadfalls. Trying to spot one is like trying to spot a mouse. Though not easily seen it gives its position away by its song during the breeding season. Its song is a series of chips that start of slowly and quickly speed up ending in a crescendo much like a dropped ping pong ball coming to a stop.
This week’s picture was taken from a blind near a water feature. Even so its furtive nature resulted in only one good photo out of many taken. Enjoy.

Foam Lake Birding No. 66

No. 66
The last of the summer birds are now completely gone, but with the onset of unseasonably warm weather the winter birds are still up north on their summer grounds. However quite a few summer residents that have spent the breeding season away from towns are now active in our yards and can be attracted to feeders. Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Red Breasted and White Breasted Nuthatches, Black Capped Chickadees and the ever present House Sparrows are regulars at our feeders already. It is interesting to watch them fly from feeder to feeder picking and choosing what appeals to them at the moment. Ravens and Magpies have been in our yard, but appear to have ignored the feeders.
In this article I will go into some detail about the different types of feed that can be used to feed seed eaters. There certainly is a wide variety. Some grains have a lot of appeal to many different birds; some appeal to only a few; others have very little appeal to any birds. The answer is to have several feeders with a variety of feed. Stores usually have a good selection of bird seed some of which is quite expensive – seeds that birds like. Local farmers often grow crops that can be used as bird food and usually the “price is right”.
The most common seed found in stores is usually labeled as mixed wild bird seed. The bags are clear plastic embellished with pretty pictures of Cardinals, Blue Jays and Goldfinches to name a few. The contents are a pale yellow mixture sprinkled with some black oil seed. The main component of the feed stock is millet with lesser amounts of canary seed, cracked wheat and black oil seed and a few others. Although this particular feed is cheap not many birds in our area will touch it, with the exception of House Sparrows. Even so, the sparrows will scatter the millet and canary seed in order to get at the black oil seed and cracked wheat contained within.
Sunflower seeds are a great favourite for birds of all kinds including some insect eaters. The smaller dark version of sunflower seeds, usually referred to as black oil seed, is preferred by most birds, but not all. A few birds prefer the regular seed, so a good strategy is to provide both. Both of these seeds used to be quite cheap, but with increasing numbers of people feeding birds the demand has gone up and so has the price.
Unquestionably, the all time favourite of seed eating birds is black thistle seed generally referred to as niger or nyjer seed. As with sunflower seed it used to be cheap, but has gotten very pricey. Birds will eat many dollars worth in a day so some sort of rationing is necessary. More on this and other related matters in the next week’s article.
The last three varieties are canola, canary and wheat. In my experience no birds are exactly crazy about any of them, but all three are slowly consumed over time. Wheat has to be cracked into smaller bits. Red Polls actually seem to like canola over nyjer. All three can be obtained from local farmers and usually at a very “favourable price”.
This week’s photo is of House Finches feeding on seeds spilled from feeders onto the ground (snow) below. White Crowned, White Throated, Harris’s and Lincoln’s Sparrows will clean up under the feeders in the spring while House Sparrows and Red Polls will do so in the winter. All of these birds prefer to feed on the ground but will use feeders if they have to. Thus, spilled bird seed is not as wasteful as it first seems. Even so, hanging feeders over a flower bed is not advisable as the shells of sunflower and nyjer seeds can be a problem.

Foam Lake Birding No. 65

No. 65
As of this writing, the warm weather continues and the birding scene has been holding steady with only permanent residents at our feeders. Soon the weather is bound to change and with that change some winter birds will be here. It is just a matter of having the feeders ready.
Getting a variety of birds to come to feed in one’s yard can be very simple and inexpensive, or more sophisticated and, therefore, more expensive. Feeders can be very plain or fancy with prices to match. It should be kept in mind that none of these things matter to the birds. All they want and need is some good and readily available food to eat in relative safety from predators. There is nothing wrong with having pretty feeders, but it should be kept in mind that this strictly is for the benefit of us and not the birds.
The easiest and cheapest way to feed birds is to simply sprinkle some seed on the ground or snow since most seed eating birds like to feed near or on the ground anyway. The negative aspects of this method are that seeds have to be replenished (by hand) much more frequently, and feeding birds are much more exposed to predators – particularly cats. To get around this problem one should use a wooden tray, with some sort of roof over it to protect the seed from the elements, and then mount the device on a post.
The cheapest commercial feeders, and the most common, are the clear plastic tubes with top and bottom closed. Several small holes are drilled into the sides with perches fixed just below them. The bird sits on the perch, reaches into the hole and picks out seed. By using tubes of varying diameter with different sized holes, just about any seed, from canola to sunflower, can be offered.
The plain and simple tube described above does have one major drawback – many different birds can utilize it. When expensive seed, such as nyjer, is used cost can become a concern. Birds such as House and Purple Finches are large and can clean out a feeder of nyjer seed in a single day – sooner if the flocks are larger. To reduce consumption, a variation of the common tube type feeder, often called a finch feeder, can be used. This feeder has the perches (pegs) above the seed holes thus forcing the bird to hang upside down to get access to the seed. Only Siskins, Goldfinches and Redpolls (carduelis finches) have the necessary leg strength to do this. (Chickadees and nuthatches also can hang upside down, but do not care for nyjer seed). By eliminating larger birds in this manner, consumption of expensive bird seed can be reduced significantly. The “eliminated” birds will still visit our yards to eat the other seeds – especially sunflower.
Another common feeder that can even be made at home if so desired, is the hopper and tray type feeder that slowly lets seed out the bottom as quickly or as slowly as the birds consume them. This type of feeder is very good for dispensing sunflower seed.
Finally, bird seed is oftentimes stuck together into a cake or bell (much like rice crispy cake). The bell shaped ones have a cord attached to them so the bell can be hung directly to a tree or pole; the cakes usually require a small wire cage to hold them in place. Birds readily feed from both.
All feeders should be hung 5 to 6 feet above the ground and the area below the feeder should be clear and free of any plant material. This eliminates cover for predators. Feeders should be spread around one’s yard in order to reduce squabbling among the birds. These measures provide for better and more enjoyable viewing.
This week’s photos are of a pair (male and female) Pine Grosbeaks, in the winter time, eating at a hopper type feeder full of black oil seed and a flock of Purple Finches, in the spring time, feeding at a tube type feeder - also full of black oil seed.
For the next three weeks or so, we will be away so my articles will come from Texas. When I get back, I will continue with feed and feeders.

Foam Lake Birding No. 64

No. 64
It is that time of year again that I have referred to previously as the “fall doldrums” of bird watching. For the most part the summer residents and transients are gone south and the winter residents have not arrived yet. What is left are the year round residents such as the House Sparrow, Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker and a few others. To date we have one transient, the Junco, and one summer resident, the Siskin, in our yard. By the time this gets into print they will probably be gone.
This is also the time of year when most people who like birds put out feeders of some sort. It definitely is a good time to do it. In the summer food is plentiful, but in the winter it is scarcer and much more effort must be expended in search of it. Feeders help tremendously, especially in a stretch of extremely bad weather.
Farm people usually see more and a greater variety of birds than do town folk simply because farms are far apart and birds are more or less restricted to one farmstead. In town many people put out feeders so the birds can quickly fly from one residence to another in search of what they like best. Even so, there are still plenty of birds to go around for town folk, especially if “desirable” bird food is put out.
For feeding purposes, birds can be divided into five categories: seed eaters, insect eaters, fruit eaters, meat eaters and nectar eaters. It should be kept in mind that there is some cross over in many of the categories. Insect eating birds are the easiest to attract to one’s yard while meat eating birds are the most difficult if not impossible. In the coming weeks I intend to deal extensively with different kinds of feeders, feed/food, plantings and location of each in one’s yard.
This week’s photo, taken on a dreary winter day, is of a bird that is very easily attracted to a backyard feeder – the Downy Woodpecker. The Downy gets it name from the soft white feathers along the sides of its lower back – a feature that is of no use for identification. For a more detailed discussion of the Downy Woodpecker and its larger cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker, refer to article No. 27. Both of the woodpeckers have been in our yard already, so be on the lookout for them to be in yours.

Foam Lake Birding No. 63

No. 63
The one thing that I really enjoy about being in the southern USA in the winter is that I get to see many of the birds that occur in the Foam Lake area during the spring and summer months. At the moment only a few have come down here so far; the rest are still up north or in the early stages of migration. The few that have arrived are: White Crowned Sparrow, Say’s Phoebe, Northern Harrier (Marsh Hawk), Willet and Widgeon.
This week I have chosen to write about our largest member of the pheasant family (sometimes called the chicken family) – the wild Turkey. It is a native of North America that includes several subspecies or races each of which exhibits slightly different colour or size differences. Our familiar farmyard turkey originates from a Mexican subspecies that sports white tipped tail feathers as opposed to the brown tipped tail of our wild Turkey. The white barnyard turkey is the Mexican race with the brown eliminated through selective breeding
Why did this particular bird get named “Turkey’ and not something else? It was a promotional gimmick. When the turkey was brought to Europe several centuries ago it was felt that people would not be inclined to eat this particular fowl if it came from Mexico, so it was promoted as exotic fowl from Turkey or Turkey fowl. Whether this made a difference in its popularity is unknown, but the name stuck.
When Europeans first arrived in the new world the Turkey was common throughout eastern North America from southern Ontario to Central America. Apparently the Turkey of that era was very tame and confiding, and along with its large size, was easy prey for hunters and was nearly wiped out. (Who doesn’t know the story of the Pilgrims)? Bird books of the 1950”s describe the Turkey as being quite rare and found only in the most secluded and out of the way places in the south eastern USA. How times have changed. It seems the stupid ones have been exterminated leaving only the bright ones, and with the help of Turkey hunters it has been restored over all of its former range and beyond.
I saw my first wild Turkeys in the Winnipeg Zoo some thirty years ago. These were not captive birds but wild ones that had come to the zoo to feed on whatever the zoo had to offer. It was quite a sight to see this small flock fly away. To Winnipeggers living along the Red River it has become a nuisance because of the mess it leaves behind as it visits backyards and patios. Since then I have seen them in southern Manitoba and in the Qu’appelle valley near the town of Fort Qu’appelle. This week’s photo was taken in the Cayumaca Park near Julian, CA. I was very fortunate to get these pictures as Turkeys are very wary of humans and upon sighting them they usually flee. Perhaps they knew they were in the park?
They are spectacular birds that require no description as they are very similar to the domestic Turkey. It is probably only a matter of time before they are spotted in the Foam lake area. Who knows? However, observers should keep in mind that for many years Sandhill Cranes were called wild Turkeys. Why? Because during migration ducks and geese could be identified, but flocks of other large birds with a distinct sound could not. Looking around the farmyard, farmers assumed that these other birds must be turkeys. What else could they be? Had the early settlers known that turkeys are not migratory, this error would not have occurred. So, beware of reports of wild Turkeys being common many years ago. They are not native to the prairies.

Foam Lake Birding No. 62

No. 62
One of the birds that I really enjoy watching around here in coastal California is the Brown Pelican. It is a ponderous turkey sized brown bird that occurs along both coasts of North America from Mexico to Canada (southern BC only). World wide there are only eight species of pelicans two of which, the Brown and American White, occur in North America. The Brown is a bird of sea coasts while the White is an inland bird that prefers fresh water. Both will occasionally stray from their usual habitats especially in winter.
There is very little to say about pelicans in the way of description. It really cannot be mistaken for anything else. The defining characteristic of a pelican is its very large bill which it uses to catch fish in water. The Brown Pelican glides gracefully, usually in short lines of several birds, low over the waves and then dives down head first into the water to catch a fish. Its bill has a huge stretchable pouch under the lower mandible that holds the fish and up to a gallon of water (by some accounts). When the pelican comes to the surface, it holds its bill downward and lets the water drain out retaining the fish inside the bill to be swallowed later. It is at this time that gulls often harass the pelican in an attempt to force it to give up its catch. Occasionally, the tactic succeeds.
The young are raised by both parents. The adults catch prey in the ocean and then fly some distance inland to their brood. Like most sea birds, pelicans nest in colonies. In the minds of humans, most young birds and animals are very cute and cuddly. Who can resist cuddling a duckling or a puppy? For reasons right or wrong, it was this human trait that anti sealers used to turn people against the annual seal hunt by showing cute and cuddly seal pups being harvested. In this same vein, young pelicans have got to be the ugliest babies possible. They are large billed, naked and awkward with eyes that appear to be on the top of the head. Overall, they seem to be something out of a Jurassic Park movie. However, I am sure the parents think otherwise.
Not only can Brown Pelicans be easily observed flying over the water and feeding, but they are quite trusting of humans and often sit on posts, buoys, docks and even moored boats providing good views. Getting a picture of one is not hard. Males and females are the same. They are usually silent so, unlike gulls and terns, they do not make any noise letting one know that they are present, but their size and tameness more than make up for it.

Foam Lake Birding No. 61

No. 61
The comic book, movie and television industries have popularized, and also misrepresented, some of our wild birds and animals. Several examples are: Woody Woodpecker (Pileated Woodpecker), Ole Mistah Buzzard (Turkey Vulture), Andy Panda, Bugs Bunny and Wylie Coyote. However, few have caught the imagination of readers and viewers as much as the Greater Road Runner. It definitely caught my attention to the point that I decided to feature it this week.
Greetings from California. This is one place where the largest member of the cuckoo family, the Greater Road Runner, is quite common. From now on, I shall refer to it simply as the Road Runner as its slightly smaller relative, the Lesser Road Runner, is a resident of southern Mexico and South America and never seen in the USA. A mix up is impossible. As portrayed in the cartoons, it is a ground dwelling chicken sized brown striped bird that runs around looking for food. Males and females are the same. As implied in the comics, it is a fast runner, but unlike the depiction in the cartoons, a coyote would have little trouble in chasing it down and catching it. It can fly but only does so to get up or down difficult terrain or to escape danger. I have seen one fly up to the top of a large (8 foot) water fountain, then, proceed to fly to the top of a fairly large house, and then, presumably fly down. I have also seen one fly down a large steep embankment. There is some differing of opinion as to whether or not it is capable of sustained flight.
The physical characteristics of the Road Runner, as depicted in the cartoons, are for the most part quite accurate, but for two. As alluded to earlier, it does not have blazing speed, nor does it make those funny beep beep sounds. Its stretched out form, when running, and its rocking motion with tail raised as it stops, are very accurately shown. Unlike the cartoon character’s beep beep, the real bird has a surprisingly soft coo sound that it very similar to that of the Mourning Dove. The only really noticeable difference is that the Road Runner utters its sound five to seven times before pausing whilst the Mourning Dove only utters two to four.
Even though it is a ground dweller, it builds its nest between one and two metres above the ground in a thorn bush or cactus. (The parents must fly to get to the nest). Both parents take care of the young. The young are fed the usual Road Runner fare of large insects, small mammals, lizards, snakes and other birds – especially the young.
If anybody happens to be traveling the drier regions of the US, not necessarily the desert, the odds of seeing a Road Runner are very good. Like many other birds and animals, it often becomes quite tame and readily comes close to human habitation for sources of water such as water hazards on golf courses and water fountains in yards on the outskirts of towns or on farms. At times, several will come very close to humans and can be viewed without the need of binoculars. However a camera is handy. This week’s photo was taken in the Anza Borrego State Park near Borrego Springs in California by – you guessed it – a source of water. In this particular case, the source was a high desert creek. .

Foam Lake Birding No. 60

No. 60
There probably is no bird that is surrounded by as much myth and superstition as the Turkey Vulture. To many people a perched Turkey Vulture with its ruffled black feathers, stooped shoulders and bare neck and head represents the ultimate in physical reprehensibility. As disgusting as the bird may seem to some, it is (in my opinion) one of nature’s most beautiful designs.
As everybody knows, all living things must die. It is basic to nature. In the world of animals, the two major causes of natural death are disease and starvation. Death by disease usually occurs in the heat of summer; death by starvation usually occurs in the winter. In nature, carcasses of both plants and animals are not wasted but utilized by other living organisms.
Scavengers such as magpies, ravens and coyotes do their bit all year round. In the summer they are joined by insects and migrants. One of these migrants and summer residents is the Turkey Vulture. Along with the other scavengers it is designed to eat diseased and rotting meat without any ill effects whatsoever. As mentioned in Article No. 31 on the Western Gull, scavengers are nature’s garbage collectors and cleaning crews. Unlike most scavengers, Turkey Vultures never kill their food.
The Turkey Vulture is very well suited to do the work it does. Before any eating can take place, a food source must be found. By flying slowly and quite low to the ground, it thoroughly covers a good sized area in a short period of time. In the process, it expends a minimum of energy as it hardly flaps its wings but soars from place to place at a seemingly leisurely pace. With its extraordinary sense of smell it can literally “sniff” its prey out and can tell the difference between a dead and living animal. In this way a vulture can find a carcass even in the most heavily forested areas. Once the food is found the vulture then proceeds to eat. With its powerful bill it can tear the hide of a deer or elk with apparent ease. (To those who think they would like to hold a vulture beware its beak. It can lay on one mean bite). Then it proceeds to eat the internal organs leaving the rest of the meat for other scavengers. Ornithologists believe that the Turkey Vulture’s bare head and neck allow it to reach inside an animal’s body cavity without it getting its head and neck feathers soiled, if it had any.
Why do people have such a low opinion of the Turkey Vulture? The reason is that it does many things that we, as human beings, find repulsive. First, it eats carrion. Second, it is a very unmannerly eater (sticking its head and neck into an animal’s body). Third, when frightened or cornered it projectile vomits a very foul smelling substance to repel its attackers. Fourth, on hot days it defecates (poops) on its legs in order to provide cooling. Fifth, it is large, black and scruffy looking. Sixth, when perched it simply looks ugly. None of the above six characteristics endear it to humans. Even a camera cannot improve its looks.
Although not common overall, the Turkey Vulture is actually much more common around here than people realize. Why so? For one thing, it is almost always seen flying and most people simply think it to be a hawk. For another, it is a bird of forests, woods and cactus – places that make observation more difficult. However, livestock farmers do lose stock from time to time and usually haul out the carcass to some remote section of their farms, and it is here that one is most likely to find a vulture feeding. I have had several reports of rural people seeing them south of Wynyard. In Saskatchewan, the best place to see a vulture is in the Kamsack area near the Duck Mountains (where I saw my first one). Just last week, we saw several vultures drifting over the evergreen forests in the Pinawa area north of Winnipeg – an area that corresponds roughly to the Duck Mountains. Before Europeans came, vultures nested on the ground under deadfalls. One of their favourite nesting places at present is abandoned farmsteads and trapper’s cabins in forested areas.
The Turkey Vulture is so named because it superficially resembles the familiar barnyard turkey. It is not related to turkeys nor, surprisingly, is it related to hawks or Old World vultures. Rather it is a relative of the stork. Its “cowboy” name of buzzard is a misnomer that actually applies to a group of hawks that includes the very familiar Red Tailed hawk. This week I have included two pictures that were taken in Big Bend National Park in Texas. We had just had lunch at a picnic site and were headed to our car when a Turkey Vulture walked out of the bush looking for some leftovers, and shortly after, it was joined by a pair of ravens. The other picture shows a pair of vultures (males and females the same) warming themselves to the sun early in the morning.
As mentioned earlier, vultures are most often seen flying. Watch for a hawk sized large black bird that soars with its wings held in a V (dihedral). It soars in a rocking motion giving it the impression that it has had too much to drink and might be a bit tipsy. One also has to keep in mind that ravens are large black birds that soar also, but do so differently from the vulture. Once one knows what to look for, the vulture is unmistakable.

Foam Lake Birding No. 59

No. 59
The ash, Black Poplar and maple trees are starting to turn yellow and harvest is starting in earnest. The Chokecherry (Wild Black Cherry) trees are loaded with fruit to the point that the trees are bent over because of the weight of the berries. At this time of year it is the just about the only fruit available to fruit eating birds. Judging by comments from local residents, chokecherry production was very good everywhere this fall.
In our back yard the chokecherries have attracted small family units of Cedar Waxwings and one juvenile Robin that still has not joined a flock of other Robins in preparation for migration. In the fall gardens and orchards also attract hordes of insects which in turn attract the smaller insect eaters such as warblers. Because of the chokecherries the Cedar Waxwing winds up being the bird of the week as it were.
The waxwings belong to a family of fruit eating birds that has only three members in it world wide. One of the three is a resident of Japan; of the remaining two, the Bohemian Waxwing is circumpolar; the last one, the Cedar Waxwing, is a native of North America.
Whereas, the Bohemian Waxwing is a winter resident, the Cedar Waxwing is a summer resident that nests locally. In the fall, family units of Cedar Waxwings move into berry groves to feast on the fresh fruit. They are quite tame and readily come to our yards in towns and cities thus making observation very easy for any birder. Even though the Bohemian and Cedar Waxwings are very similar there is little chance of a mix up as the former is here only in the winter and the latter in the summer. There appears to be no overlap in the spring and fall. In the very southern part of our province and in the northern states the two do occur together in the winter and identification can be a bit of a problem.
Although the Cedar Waxwing is one of many small sparrow sized brownish birds, it does stand out and can be readily identified even by a casual observer without the use of binoculars. It has six characteristics that single it out. First, it has an obvious crest; second, it has a black face mask through the eye (like a raccoon); third, it has a bright yellow tail tip; fourth, it has a small bright red spot its wing edges; fifth, it has a “soft” look to it; sixth, it makes a distinctive thin lispy zee sound. Males and females are the same. Somebody once described it as one big field mark.
The small waxy wing tips on the secondaries (shorter wing feathers) give the bird its name. To early ornithologists, these wing markings reminded them of the wax used to seal envelopes (we lick ours today) for mailing. The heavily striped young are quite different without the red, but can still be easily identified by their crest and yellow tail tips. The older juveniles usually sport the black mask, also. This week’s photos show an adult and juvenile in a chokecherry tree. The juvenile is eyeing some berries just to its lower right. It did eat some later on.
At the moment, Cedar Waxwings are all over town and could easily be in any yard at any given time. Because nesting is over and because the adults do not change colour during fall molt, this is the best time of year to observe them. This is an easy one.

Foam Lake Birding No. 58

No. 58
Several more fall birds have arrived. House Wrens, Least Flycatchers, Yellow Warblers and Mourning Warblers have been seen in our backyard this past week. Of the four listed only the Mourning Warbler does not breed locally. It is a nester of the Boreal Forest and can be seen at Greenwater Provincial Park in the summer time. The other three are local nesters of which only the Least Flycatcher requires larger tracts of woods such as those found along many of our creeks and ravines. A good place to find one of these nests (never an easy task) is along Milligan Creek near the visitors’ centre. The other two have nested in our backyard. In the spring and fall they all invade our backyards providing us with more or less effortless viewing.
This week I have chosen to write about a very common summer resident, the Least Flycatcher as my main subject of interest. I have seen one every spring and fall without fail and managed to get some very good pictures one of which included in this week’s article.
As mentioned in Article No. 30, the flycatcher family is quite varied. The small brownish grey ones with white eye rings and two whitish wing bars are called the Empidonax Flycatchers (empids for short). Of all the birds in the world, the empids are the most difficult to identify. Why? There are eleven different species and all look pretty much the same.
So, how does one tell them apart? First, use the range maps provided in bird books as a guide. For example, of the eleven different species only five are found in Saskatchewan and only three around here. Second, nesting habits of the different species are somewhat different. Third, and best, is to separate them by their song in the spring when the males are claiming territory. A birder does have to become familiar with the different songs, though. In the fall, however, the empids are silent and identifying them is almost impossible. Imagine living in southern Ontario and trying to identify fall empids when five species breed locally and in the same areas. In the fall even the experts have to give up and simply refer to them collectively as empids.
Fortunately, the only empid that nests locally is the Least Flycatcher. Any small woodlot of several acres will sustain a nesting pair. This flycatcher can be readily identified by its call even before it is seen. Its loud and emphatic chebeck call is instantly recognizable. Of all the empids it is the only one that has a really bold white eye ring, which, in the fall, is its only easily identifiable characteristic, relatively speaking.
For the experienced birder, this little grey passerine (perching bird) is easily recognizable as a flycatcher. The rest is in the details. For the novice, find an experienced birder to help you out. Have fun with this one.

Foam Lake Birding No. 57

No. 57
Even though fall does not officially arrive until September 22 and in spite of the green trees and the many green crops in the field, the first signs of fall are definitely here. Some crops are ready for harvesting and the first fall birds (Boreal and Arcticnesters) are starting to arrive and can be found in the countryside and in our backyards. In rural areas, I have seen small scattered flocks of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese. All of these appear to be family groups. The Snow Geese were a complete surprise as I have seen only large flocks in the past. Perhaps these were local nesters. If they were, this would be a highly unusual event as Snow Geese are known to nest only in the high Arctic. In our backyard, I have seen Tennessee Warblers, Redstarts, Water Thrushes, Blue Headed Vireos and Rose Breasted Grosbeaks to date. Finally, our colony of Purple Martins has been absent for over a week now, even though there are other colonies still present in town.
Identifying fall birds is an entirely different experience from that of identifying them in the spring. Most spring birds, males especially, are uniquely coloured in their bright and fresh spring plumages. In the fall, many males molt to drab colours like the females making identification more difficult. Added to that are the juveniles from the current year’s hatch, some of which look like entirely different species altogether. For example, the Boreal Forest has large numbers of Grey Jays (Whisky Jacks) that are Robin sized fluffy grayish white birds that look like over blown Chickadees. The juveniles, however, are all black giving the impression that there are two species of Grey Jays. The point is that identification of fall birds is a real challenge and takes quite a bit of effort. It is a bit like putting together a 2000 piece jig saw puzzle – difficult, but worth it.
As this article will go to print over the Labour Day Weekend, which is the unofficial end of summer and the beginning of fall around here, I felt that one more article about a summer resident was in order. The bird I chose is a spectacular wader found in the plains area of south western Saskatchewan. The Long Billed Curlew is a chicken sized wader that nests far from water in partially grazed grasslands, formerly provided by bison, now by cattle. Within hours of being hatched, the young and mom head out for the nearest body of water. The buff coloured adults have no outstanding field marks, so must be identified by more subtle characteristics. The back and wings are a mottled buff and brown; when the bird raises its wings, the linings are cinnamon colour; the bill is up to nine inches in length (it does vary) and down curved. It definitely is an impressive bird.
Because of intensive agriculture and hunting pressure the Long Billed Curlew more or less disappeared from Saskatchewan, but appears to be making a comeback. Bird surveys show a marked increase in numbers. The first one I saw was in 1995 just off the Trans Canada Highway near Maple Creek. Since then, I have seen them elsewhere in Mexico and the USA. This week’s picture was taken on its wintering grounds in the Batiquitos Lagoon near Carlsbad, CA. This is one bird that just might be spotted by people who spend some time in the Saskatchewan grasslands.

Foam Lake Birding No. 56

No. 56
In keeping with the theme of marsh birds during this rainy weather, I decided to cover another very common group of marsh/lake birds, the terns. Terns are related to the gulls and are similar to them in many ways, but also differ in many ways. (I guess that is why they are terns and not gulls). Both are aquatic and can swim; both tend to be white with black and grey trim; both are very noisy; in both groups, males and females are the same. They differ in that: gulls are regular swimmers while terns seldom swim; gulls stray from water and look for food on fields, parks and garbage dumps while terns do not; gulls eat just about anything while terns almost always catch their prey.
Nothing written above is very useful in identifying terns in the field, however, there are field marks that distinguish the two groups. First, most terns are white headed with a black cap; gulls do not sport black caps. Second, a tern’s bill is usually red and is always slender and sharp; a gull’s beak is usually yellow and always blunted at the tip. Third, terns are usually smaller and more delicate than gulls. Fourth, terns have longer tails that are usually forked to some degree. Fifth, terns have longer and more pointed wings. Sixth, terns are much more buoyant and graceful fliers. Overall, a tern looks like a gull that has many of the physical characteristics of a swallow. For non birders, a tern is like a tricked out sports car while a gull is more like a minivan or SUV.
Locally, four species of terns can be expected: two are common; one is uncommon; one is rare. This week’s featured bird, the Black Tern, is probably the most common tern around here with just about every permanent slough supporting at least one pair. While, its overall characteristics are definitely that of a tern, its colour scheme most certainly is not. Rather than white, its body is all black with dark grey wings, back and tail. The bill is black and not red like the other terns. Most terns hang around larger lakes and ocean with clean shore lines, but the Black Tern lives in reedy sloughs. It nests on a floating platform on the water while the other terns nest on sandy and rocky shores and cliffs. If it were not for Black Terns, our prairie sloughs would be devoid of terns, altogether.
Black Terns are very easy to find and identify even by beginning birders. To see these terns a birder should head out to the nearest marshy slough and wait for the birds to fly over head and start scolding. They do not like intruders. To get a really good look at a Black Tern, one needs to find a slough with fence posts that are still standing in the water. Terns love to perch on these, thus permitting an observer to get a really good look.
This week I have provided two pictures of a Black Tern – on flying and one sitting on a raft of reeds (perhaps a nest?). Because there were no standing fence posts, I could not get a nice profile shot. This week’s pictures were taken at the same location and at the same time as the pictures of last week’s bird, the Ruddy Duck.

Foam Lake Birding No. 55

No. 55
With the ripening of the saskatoons, pincherries and chokecherries our backyard has become a hive of activity for fruit loving birds. These include species such as Robins, Cedar Waxwings, House Sparrows, Rose Breasted Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, Catbirds and Flickers. Most of these birds are well known as fruit eaters, but the House Sparrow, Catbird and Flicker were complete surprises to me. Most surprising was that the Catbird came within a metre of me as I was picking pincherries and proceeded to loudly scold me – for picking her fruit, I presume. I could actually see the anger in her eyes, and she certainly gave me the impression that I was not welcome there.
Because of the rainy weather we have had in the last couple of weeks, I felt that another article about a duck was in order. This week’s duck of choice, the Ruddy Duck, is an oddity that is considered to be a remnant of an ancient group of ducks called stiff tails. The only other stiff tail in North America is the Masked Duck – a Mexican species that is a rare visitor to the very southern part of Texas. On the other hand, the Ruddy Duck is very common throughout North America. Being a diving duck it can be found on any slough that does not dry out during the summer.
The male Ruddy Duck is one of the most recognizable ducks on the pond; the female, like most ducks, is typically a drab grey brown. As its name implies, the male is rusty red with a black head and striking white face. The bill is a bright sky blue. If these characteristics are not enough, then its odd habit of cocking its tail more or less vertically in the air as it is swimming giving it a two headed appearance should clinch its identification. Both males and females often swim this way. In the spring the males makes a very distinguishable sound. To me it sounds like a popping rattle that lasts for a second or two speeding up towards the end. When viewed the head bobs up and down more or less in time with the sound. Another interesting feature of this bird, that is of no use whatsoever in identifying it, is that the female Ruddy Duck lays one of the largest eggs in proportion to body size of any bird in the world. Unlike most ducks that lay large clutches of eggs, the female Ruddy lays only one or two. Who could blame her.
For those of you who enjoy watching and identifying ducks, this one is a good choice. This small unique diver is common and easy to identify. This week’s photo was taken just east of Tuffnell across from the Margo Road.

Foam Lake Birding No. 54

No. 54
As I mentioned in article No. 12, there are two white headed gulls that occur regularly in our area. One is the less common California Gull and the other is the very common, and this week’s featured bird, the Ring Billed Gull. Since I had already covered all gulls in general quite extensively in articles 12 and 31, I did not feel that I should devote an entire article to the Ring Billed, however, because it is so common, I eventually decided otherwise. Like the black headed Franklin’s Gulls, both the California and the Ring Billed follow farmers working their fields.
The California and the Ring Billed are very similar in size and appearance. The California is slightly larger, but even in mixed flocks size is not useful in separating the two. That being said, it is still very easy to tell the two apart by the markings on their bills. The California has a bright red spot on the lower mandible (equivalent to “jaw”, in animals) towards the tip followed by a black line just in front of the red spot; the Ring Billed has no red at all, just a black ring that goes completely around the bill as if somebody put a black elastic band around it to keep the bird quiet. (Sometimes one is tempted). When observing white headed gulls in the field, if there is red on the bill the gull is the California; if there is no red, the gull is the Ring Billed. For the very keen observers, if the red spot is not followed by a black line, then the gull is the much scarcer and larger Herring Gull. This gull is found along both coasts and across Canada on very large bodies of water, and the odds of seeing it here are very slim except during migration.
The Ring Billed is only moderately migratory flying only as far south as the nearest open body of water. Even though the Ring Billed can be found as far south as Mexico, it is a year round resident in Canada in extreme southern Ontario and the interior of southern British Columbia. Since it is so common anybody should be able to see and identify one with a minimum of effort and difficulty.

Foam Lake Birding No. 53

No. 53
When most people see a bunch of birds swimming in a slough, they tend to think of them collectively as ducks, or geese if they are larger. However, not everything that swims is a duck or a goose. There are coots, phalaropes, loons, gulls, terns, mergansers, scoters and grebes. At a distance all look somewhat “duckish”, but at close range or with binoculars the distinctions are quite discernible.
This week I shall deal with the family of swimming birds known as grebes. Grebes are not related to any other group of birds, but most closely resemble loons in appearance and habits. Like coots but unlike ducks or loons, a grebe’s foot is lobed but not webbed; like loons but unlike ducks or coots, a grebe’s legs are so far back that the bird cannot walk on land because it is front heavy; like coots, loons and diving ducks but unlike dabbling ducks or geese, a grebe’s nest is a floating platform anchored to a rush or reed; like loons but unlike all other waterfowl, the young must be fed by the parents; like loons, coots and geese but unlike ducks, male and female grebes are the same.
A grebe’s food source is animal in nature and includes items such as fish, tadpoles and aquatic insects. Like all waterfowl a grebe’s young can swim shortly after hatching, but since most of their food items are found underwater the young must be fed by their parents because they do not have the ability to chase and catch their prey by themselves. With one exception, all grebes have sharp pointed beaks with which to catch and hold live prey.
There are four species of grebes in the area, three of which are common. The larger grebes require larger bodies of water and the smaller ones smaller bodies of water. This week’s featured grebe, the Pied Billed, is one of our smallest grebes and least like the other members of its family. While most grebes have sharp pointed beaks, the Pied Billed has a much blunter and higher one giving it a big nosed appearance. It also has the unique ability to gradually sink out of sight without leaving a ripple on the surface of the water. Moreover, it can hold a submerged position with only its head above water. These characteristics have earned the Pied Billed Grebe the nicknames of Water Witch and Hell Diver. Both names are very appropriate.
The young of all grebes have striped heads with light and dark lines running longitudinally from front to back. The young of the Pied Billeds are completely striped from to back and look like little floating zebras. Although they can and do swim they do not seem very enthusiastic about it when they are very young, so they spend a great deal of time riding on their mother’s back. When the mother dives, as she must, the young are left floating, and when the mother comes back up, they quickly scramble onto her back. As the young mature they gradually become more independent until they leave their parents completely and get ready for migration.
As with all water birds in northern zones, Pied Billed Grebes have to migrate, but are only moderately migratory flying only as far as the nearest open water. Some do fly as far south as Mexico. In Canada, they are year round residents only in coastal areas of British Columbia. This week’s photo was taken last year along the Dunlop Road just north of town. Being as common as they are, they should not be difficult to spot.

Foam Lake Birding No. 52

No. 52
First, here is an update on the status of the Collared Dove. After hearing and seeing it for several weeks in and around our yard, it seems to have moved on. It has been several weeks since I last heard it. Because there was only one dove around, it is an even bet that it moved elsewhere in hope of finding a mate. We wish it luck.
One of our more colourful and conspicuous marsh birds is the Yellow Headed Blackbird. Even though it lives in marshes, it is more closely related to its upland relative, the Meadowlark than to its wetland neighbour and distant relative the Red Winged Blackbird.
The Yellow Headed Blackbird is Robin sized and one of the largest perching birds found in marshes. The all black males with their conspicuous white wing patches and bright yellow heads are unmistakable. The females are a much more subdued striped brown colour with faint yellow head markings and faint white wing patches. Even though Yellow Headed Blackbirds are considered songbirds, they certainly have not lived up to their potential. They do sing, but the various renditions are awful to say the least, except to other Yellow Heads.
Unlike the Red Wings, which can be found in any little pond that is capable of sustaining a few rushes, the Yellow Heads require larger bodies of water with a good growth of reeds and cattails. Like the Red Wings the Yellow Heads are territorial and do not nest in dense colonies like, for example, the Purple Martins.
Although the Yellow Headed is common in larger sloughs around here, it is a bit of a rarity in much of the USA. As a result many birders will go to great lengths to observe one. Locally, all we have to do is go to any of our larger sloughs and watch. For example, this week’s photo was taken just off the transcanada highway east of Tuffnell. I particularly like this slough because a narrow country road, with very little traffic, runs through it providing an excellent viewing area. If anybody wants to see a variety of shore, water and marsh birds this location is a must. Not only are there a lot of birds, but one can get quite close to them. The birds seem to sense that humans just have to stay on the road and will not bother them in the water and muck.
Considering the number of country and back roads in the area, I am sure that there are other places that are just as productive. One just has to try.
For the next three or four weeks I will be busy with other matters and will be unable to write any birding articles during that time. To those readers who read the articles, I apologize. “See” you in August.

Foam Lake Birding No. 51

No. 51
In birding circles and conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited the Canadian prairies are known as the “duck factory” of North America and not without reason. About half of all ducks in North America breed here and we, in Foam Lake, are right in the middle of all the action. Places like the Foam Lake Marsh are ideal reproductive grounds, but almost any small slough will often have a family of ducks call it home.
In Canada all wildlife is legally property of the crown and therefore, cannot be owned by any individual or group. The taking or harvesting of wildlife is strictly controlled by the federal government and its designated provincial agencies. The idea of wildlife belonging to the people and not individuals is a relatively new one first developed in North America. For many centuries, in Europe especially, wildlife was the property of the respective landowner and the taking of game was controlled exclusively by him. Since almost all property was owned by the nobility or the church almost all hunting and fishing was restricted to those classes. The poor, who were always short of high grade protein, would often poach on the landlord’s property at great risk to themselves if caught. Sometimes the penalties were death to the offender. At any rate, one of the poacher’s favourite targets was a whitish bodied red headed duck that became known as the Pochard because it was so heavily poached.
The new British settlers in North America were no longer prevented from hunting game in the very abundant new lands, and as a result they provided most of their dietary meat by hunting and fishing. Curiously, we still depend on fish that is caught in the wild. Their favourite duck was a whitish bodied, red headed duck that was very similar in appearance and closely related to the Pochard back home. In fact, in this newly adopted homeland there were two such species – the Canvas Back and Red Headed Ducks. The Canvas Back is so named because the colour of its back resembles the canvas used in sailing ships that were prevalent at that time. The reason for the Red Head’s name is, well, obvious. Both were considered the most desirable game birds of all ducks with preference for the larger Canvas Back. However, the Canvas Back’s flight patterns and general skittishness made it a rather difficult duck to harvest, so the much more easily taken Red Head became the more widely hunted of the two. Over time, both were reduced in number to the point where hunting red headed ducks was severely restricted and, in some jurisdictions, was banned altogether. The latest information is that they have made a significant recovery and limited hunting is now permitted.
Both ducks have the same shade of red head which more accurately could be called rusty, and both have whitish bodies with black tails and breasts. At first glance they look the same – especially to a novice birder. However, there are two field marks that actually are quite noticeable even to the untrained eye. The Canvas Back’s body is almost pure white, while the Red Head’s body is a darkish grey; the profile of the Canvas Back’s head and bill resemble that of a swan or goose, while the Red Head”s profile is more rounded like that of all the rest of the ducks. Both ducks are closely related and live and breed in mixed flocks in the same sort of habitat, which really helps birders out because their differences can be more easily discerned.
This week’s photo was taken just a few kilometres east of town near where the Spotted Sandpiper was photographed. One should keep in mind that these two ducks require larger and deeper bodies of water because they are diving ducks and feed on vegetation at the bottom of deep water. Any particular slough does not have to have a very large surface area as long as it is at least a metre or so deep. Many sloughs around here fit the bill and spotting a Canvas Back should not be a problem.

Foam Lake Birding No. 50

No. 50
When I started this column a little over a year ago, I could not imagine writing my fiftieth article. A little while back when I realized that I was going to reach that milestone, I decided that I would feature the Sharp Tailed Grouse, Saskatchewan’s bird emblem. However, I could not get a picture of one, so the grouse was set aside for a later article. Just as I was beginning to fret over this problem, a “solution” landed on the power line in the lane just behind our backyard.
On June 7th my wife and I were in our solarium having our morning coffee and watching dark clouds trying to provide us with some much needed rain. A Mourning Dove landed on the power line in the back alley, so I decided to pick up my binoculars and, just for the fun of it, to count the spots on its lower back and wings. Somewhat to my surprise there were no spots anywhere, so I nonchalantly looked at its upper body and head. To my very real surprise, I noticed the black collar on the back and sides of its neck. I knew what I had in my view. My “Mourning Dove” was actually the Eurasian Collared Dove, an introduced species that was a newcomer to our area.
However, as I have written previously, I needed more proof that my identification was correct. To that end, I notified several birders in the area to be on the lookout for this newcomer. Nothing happened until the next morning when a bird, that I initially thought was a hawk, landed on the power pole in our back alley. The rain stopped; the sun came out; the picture was taken; identification was confirmed. It definitely was the Eurasian Collared Dove. Furthermore, we heard the dove cooing. The vocalizations were similar yet noticeably different from that of the Mourning Dove, and fit the descriptions in the bird books perfectly. Such is the world of birding.
The history of the Eurasian Collared Dove is an interesting one. As its name implies, it is a native of Europe and Asia where it is simply known as the Collared Dove. When we were in Ukraine two years ago it was very common in villages and cities as long as there were a few trees around. In the mid 1970s, it was introduced into the West Indies where it thrived. In the early 1980s it flew over to Florida where it also thrived, and from where it started to spread explosively across North America. Its expansion has been so rapid that many bird books do not even have the bird listed as being present in North America. The 2007 edition of the Peterson Field guide shows the Collared Dove as having just reached southern Saskatchewan. Just two years later it is in Foam Lake. It is following the same general pattern of colonization that the House sparrow and the Starling did just over a century ago.
In article No. 44, I stated that it was easy to identify a Mourning Dove as it was the only wild pigeon around. With the recent arrival of the Collared Dove casual identification is no longer possible. As implied earlier, at close range or with binoculars, identification is quite easy, but otherwise it is more problematic because both birds are approximately the same size, sandy grey in colour and have the same general profile. There are several subtle differences, but in the real world of birding with the effect of sun, shadows and perspective they are of little value in identification. The amount of white in the tail is about the only field mark that can be relied on by the casual observer. Both birds have white in the tail, but the Collared Dove has much more white that can be seen by the naked eye at quite some distance. Thankfully, both doves are quite vocal as this is the surest means of telling the two apart. The sound quality of both is very similar and one can easily assume that they are produced by the same species, but by paying a little extra attention the differences can be easily noted. The Mourning Dove utters a four part song that goes like this: cu hoo hoo hoo. At a distance, all four notes are heard in the same pitch, evenly spaced and hollow sounding vaguely resembling an owl’s hooting. Close up, the first syllable is a little higher pitched and a little more forceful. The Collared Dove makes a three part song that is higher pitched and more forceful than that of the Mourning Dove. It goes like this: cu-coo cu. The first two notes follow each other quickly with the accent on the second and with a little more space between the second and third notes.
In 1994, I saw my first House Finch, a native but introduced species, in my backyard and since then it has become a common year round resident. Fifteen years later, I now have had the same experience but with the Eurasian Collared Dove. According to the experts this is not a one time occurrence but the permanent invasion of a new species. Time will tell. Unlike the Mourning Dove, which is highly migratory, the Collared Dove is a year round resident. Whether it will be able to withstand our severe winters or be forced to migrate remains to be seen.
I am including two pictures so that readers can compare the two doves. The photo of the Mourning Dove was taken in California last December; the picture of the Collared Dove was taken this June 8th in our back lane in Foam Lake. I hope that the written descriptions and the photos help readers with identification.

Foam Lake Birding No. 49

No. 49
It is that time of year when the transients and winter residents are up north, and most of the summer and permanent residents are nesting. Goldfinches, for example, will not start nesting for another month or so, while some young Robins have already fledged. Considering the cold and late spring, I was surprised to see a nearly full grown young Robin in our yard yesterday, Sat. June 4. I guess, weather notwithstanding, birds will do what birds have to do.
Also, it is time to move away from the backyard birds for awhile and concentrate on birds in the rural areas where most birds and most species do occur. For this summer I plan to start with birds that live in and around water.
This week, I want to cover a small wader that is a common summer resident in our area, but is often overlooked. The Spotted Sandpiper is about midway between a sparrow and a Robin in size, and of all the little brown waders, of which there are several, it is the only one that is actually quite easy to identify. What simplifies matters even more is that males and females are the same.
A Spotted Sandpiper has three distinctive characteristics that, when taken all together, give it a unique appearance. First, it has a whitish breast and belly that is covered with rather evenly spaced black spots, hence its name. Second, while standing it constantly teeters. That is, the part of the body forward of its legs jerks upward, while simultaneously the back part dips downward. A few other sandpipers, also, exhibit this behavior, but not to the extent that the Spotted Sandpiper does. Third, it has a very distinctive flight pattern. It flies on rapidly beating wings that are held out stiffly with most of the motion in the wingtips. Locally, only Eastern Kingbirds and Bobolinks have a similar flight pattern and neither one is a wader. The latter two have declined in numbers in recent years, although, the kingbird is still quite common locally while the Bobolink has always been a bit of a rarity.
Spotted Sandpipers winter in the extreme southern USA and in Mexico where they can be readily found on the shores of the Gulf Coast. One word of caution to winter vacationers is probably in order here. In their winter plumage, Spotted Sandpipers lose their spots and can only be identified by their other characteristics. Like several other birds, the Goldfinch for example, the sandpiper’s name is only appropriate in the summer time. This is also a good thing to remember in the early spring when some of the returning birds have not completed their molt into summer plumage.
Spotted Sandpipers do prefer somewhat larger bodies of water with sandy or gravely shores, but are not overly particular. This week’s photo, for example, was taken on the grassy shore of a slough just off the grid road several kilometres east of town. If, for some reason, one of you happens to be near a slough and there are small wading birds present check for the Spotted Sandpiper. There is a good chance one will be present.

Foam Lake Birding No. 48

No. 48
As I mentioned in last week’s article, our feeders have been swarmed by Pine Siskins. Along with Goldfinches and Redpolls, Pine Siskins belong to a subfamily of birds known as Carduelis Finches (see article 15). Like most seedeaters, their preference seems to be niger (sometimes spelled nyjer) seed; although, they will eat canola and commercially prepared mixed bird seed. Of all the Carduelis Finches, Pine Siskins will most readily hang upside down to feed. It is amusing to watch their acrobatic antics.
Pine Siskins are moderately migratory going as far south as northern Mexico. I have seen them at feeders in southern Arizona and Texas in the winter time. Most spend the winter a little further north than that. They do not seem to be in any rush to head north to their nesting grounds arriving here about the first of May. On the other hand they are in no rush to go south either, and stragglers can be seen in December. Maybe they are just procrastinators that hate flying long distances, so they delay the trip. Only the Siskins know.
Siskins are the size of small sparrows and are coloured much like them. They are rather nondescript brown birds with grey breasts heavily striped with brown. Males and females are quite similar. The difference is that the males have yellow on their wings and tail; the females do not. The yellow markings are most noticeable when the birds are squabbling among themselves at the feeders. During these “avian disagreements” the birds do a lot of fluttering and the yellow is more exposed. At other times Siskins will square off by facing each other, raising their wings, fanning their tails and hissing at one another much like geese do! This is, also, a good time to separate the males from the females.
Their overall behavior and vocalizations are very similar to the Goldfinches. Like the Goldfinches, Siskins nest later in the season, but not as late as the Goldfinches do. Even with feeders present, Siskins still like to feed on thistles, dandelions and milkweed seeds. The thistle down is used in nest making. Unlike Goldfinches, which will nest in a variety of trees, Siskins, as their name implies, nest solely in evergreens.
Until recently, Pine Siskins were only transients that nested in the Boreal Forest. Now they have become summer residents breeding in towns with sufficient plantings of evergreen trees. Foam Lake is a good example. At present there is no explanation for this change in behavior. There were farmsteads and towns with substantial plantings of evergreens in the past, yet Siskins did not stay for the summer. Why now, and not before, is anybody’s guess.
A few years ago, I was working in our front yard under the evergreens when I heard a plaintive twee sound. As I worked, the sound continued – like a broken record. I recognized the sound as that made by a Pine Siskin, but decided to check why it was making it. About three metres high in the spruce was a nest with a female sitting in it. The female Siskin just did not want me to be that close, and to me, it sounded as if she was complaining. I walked away and the “whining” stopped. Who knows? There might be a nest in your yard. If you come close to the nest, the Siskins will let you know.

Foam Lake Birding No. 47

No. 47
Even though I have written about Canada Geese, article No. 16, and the Franklin’s Gull, article No. 12, I was compelled to write about them again because of some unusual events in our area involving these two birds.
On May 13th, the day before the big unseasonable snowfall, we got a call from our neighbour informing us that there were two Canada Geese in our front yard. Sure enough, there they were! I cannot resist saying they were “honkin’” big honkers. They stood around looking very regal, then, proceeded to slowly cross the street onto our neighbour’s lawn. The pair seemed to be surveying the area for a few moments when a boy on a bicycle drove up and scared them away. The one thing that I never expected to see was honkers in our front yard.
I am including two pictures this week. One is of one of the honkers standing in our front yard; the other, is of the pair in our neighbour’s yard. I tried to get a shot of them crossing the street, but I was not able to get my camera focused in time. The pictures that I did get turned out great.
At this time I will bring readers up to date on the division of Canada Geese into two distinct species that I did not mention in article No. 16 – the Canada (same old name) and Cackling. Canada Geese now consist of three subspecies or races distinguished primarily by size. They are: Common/Honker, Dusky and Lesser. The Cackling is divided into four subspecies, also distinguishable only by size. They are: Richardson’s, Taverner’s, Ridgway’s and Aleutian. The differences between the two species are as follows: Canadas have flatter heads, longer beaks and longer necks; Canadas make a “honking” sound, whereas the Cacklings make a “yelping” sound. However, these differences are very subtle. Generally speaking, in a mixed flock of black necked geese with white chin straps, the larger ones are Canada Geese while the smaller ones are Cackling Geese. More specifically, the larger ones are Honkers; the smaller ones are Richardson’s. The good thing is that different subspecies usually do not occur in the same area. To me, they are all still Canada Geese.
The other event is the invasion of our airspace by Franklin’s Gulls. I have not seen this many Franklin’s Gulls since the wet years of the 1950s. They are congregating just east of town near the bio-diesel plant. Gulls are not seed eaters, but they are scavengers and there just might be something worth eating as a result of the activities associated with the bio-diesel plant. Whatever the attraction, they definitely are there! To see all those gulls in the field is a spectacular sight, but the racket they make when they lift off is something else again! Judging by the density of the flock and length of time it takes the flock to fly past a given point, there must be several thousand gulls out there – all in full voice.
As I am writing this piece, the gulls have just lifted off and are flying past my window. Even inside the house the noise is very loud. To the people living on the east side of town, the noise must be getting tiresome. That many birds so close to town can become a real problem. It is not only the nuisance of the constant squawking, but droppings from the flying birds are a concern. Hopefully, once nesting starts, the gulls will go away.

Foam Lake Birding No. 46

No. 46
In the week following my last article, Tree Swallows, Gold Finches, White Throated Sparrows, Clay-coloured Sparrows and Harris’s Sparrows have finally arrived. In checking our past records, we found that most of these birds come here about the last week of April and not the second week of May as has happened this year. Oh well, better late than never.
There is one more transient bird that I want to cover this spring – the Swainson’s Thrush. I feel that it is a good bird to feature, as it comes to our yard every spring without exception, and probably will in yours. Birders can be quite sure that they will be rewarded by the presence of a Swainson’s Thrush in their yards.
In older bird books, the Swainson’s Thrush is called the Olive Backed Thrush, but a few decades, ago ornithologists renamed it after British naturalist William Swainson. Swainson was a self taught amateur biologist from Liverpool who traveled extensively around the world in the early 1800s studying all forms of living things. Being a gifted artist, he added many sketches, drawings and paintings to his many written works. To honour him and his work, ornithologists named three birds after him: the Swainson’s Hawk (common around here), the Swainson’s Warbler (rare in Canada) and the Swainson’s Thrush. The birds were not named after him in one fell swoop, as it were. Audubon named the warbler; Bonaparte (an early nineteenth century ornithologist and not the emperor of France) named the hawk; present day ornithologists renamed the thrush. (Both, Audubon and Bonaparte, have birds named after them.)
The Swainson’s Thrush is closely related to the very familiar Robin. In fact, it has the same profile and behavior patterns as a Robin. Like a Robin, it spends a lot of time in gardens and lawns looking for worms. A freshly tilled garden is especially attractive to them (and to Robins). Perhaps the worms are brought to the top?
A general description for purposes of identification is to look for a very large “sparrow” that behaves like a Robin. Some even describe it as a little brown Robin. A sure way to tell a thrush from a sparrow is to watch its movements when it is feeding on the ground. A sparrow hops as it darts from place to place; a thrush runs. In size, the Swainson’s Thrush is about halfway between a sparrow and Robin. The top of the head, back of the neck, wings and tail are a medium brown in colour; the back is olive brown; the breast and belly are whitish with the upper breast having a buff tinge to it. The upper breast is, also, covered with spotted streaks running more or less vertically. The buff colouring extends to the bird’s cheeks and thin eye rings. However, to see these buff features one almost needs binoculars. Its song has been described as a series of flute-like whistles. To me, it sounds vaguely like a Robin singing very softly and far away in a deep forest.
The only common birds that it can be confused with are the various sparrows, but look for the distinctions described above. However, it does have two close cousins, the Grey Cheeked and Hermit Thrushes, which are very similar to it in all respects. The key distinction is that neither one has any buff colour on it – especially the eye ring. Only the Swainson’s Thrush has a buff eye ring. In other words, a little brown thrush without a buff eye ring is either the Grey Cheeked or Hermit Thrush. If one of the “other” ones has a rusty brown tail that is very noticeable in flight, it is a Hermit Thrush. All three are considered excellent songsters; all three sing with flute-like whistles. The Hermit Thrush’s song is considered the most beautiful of the bunch.
There is one other thrush that is a close relative to the Swainson’s Thrush – the Veery. In our area it is a summer resident and not a transient. Because it needs larger stands of mature trees, it is very seldom seen in town. Of all of the little brown thrushes, the Veery, has very little or no striping on its breast, thus making it very easy to identify. I plan to do a piece on this bird in the future.
Even though the last three are uncommon in town, they do occur. A keen eye might notice, and then identify, some of these species. There is nothing more satisfying to a birder than identifying an uncommon or rare species.

Foam Lake Birding No. 45

No. 45
This very cold, thus late, spring has definitely delayed the arrival of some species. Nevertheless, they are arriving, albeit slowly – bad weather or no bad weather! House sparrows have even started nesting. Some other birds, like the Mourning Dove, are pairing up for the nesting season. Even though one could hardly tell by the weather, spring is definitely here!
Since the last article, a few more species of birds have arrived. White Crowned Sparrows are here and can be heard singing all over town, if one knows what to listen for. The song is a rather pleasing three part affair starting with two (usually) short whistles followed by two sets of trills. It is best to see the bird singing; then memorize the tune. It is not that hard as it is rather catchy.
Close relatives of the Goldfinch, the Pine Siskins, are back in droves and are simply attacking our feeders. One can almost see the seed going down in the feeders. The Lincoln’s, White Throat and this week’s featured bird, the Harris’s sparrow, are not back as of this writing, but should be back by the time this goes to print.
The Harris’s Sparrow, our largest sparrow, is a transient that stops here for a few weeks in the spring and fall as it flies to and from its nesting grounds in the Boreal Forest. It is easily identified by its black throat, face and top of head. From this black facial mask protrudes its pale pink beak. I always get the impression that it was shot, head on, by a black paint ball. Once seen, it cannot be mistaken for anything else. Like all sparrow, males and females are the same. Its song is a rather long drawn out whistle in one pitch, followed by another whistle in the same pitch. Then it will usually whistle again, but this time in a lower pitch. Peterson describes it as an “overall minor effect”. I hear it every spring in town, and even with my limited musical talents, I can recognize the whistles as being minor. Musicians should enjoy listening to, and for it.
As striking as the Harris’s Sparrow is, it is still confused with other birds; sometimes while observed in the outdoors and sometimes from a bird book. One such bird is the House Sparrow. With its black bib, the House Sparrow does superficially resemble the Harris’s Sparrow, but the differences are readily noticeable. Similarly, the Harris’s Sparrow is confused with the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. The Tree and House Sparrows are closely related and very similar in appearance and habits. Even though both are introduced species, the Tree Sparrow has not spread far from the area of its original release near St. Louis in 1870. On the other hand the House sparrow has spread explosively across the Americas.
As with most sparrows, the Harris’s Sparrow likes to scratch in leaf litter to expose food. It is often seen in mixed flocks of White Throated, White Crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrows along with Pine Siskins and Goldfinches. The interesting thing to note is that the Harris’s Sparrow does not hesitate to bully other birds smaller than itself.
Along with other sparrows the handsome Harris’s Sparrow is almost certain to be in your back yard. Listen for it; look for it. You should not be disappointed.